Responding to the Redeemer
Matthew 2:1-23

After the miraculous events of Christmas were over, Joseph and Mary had their baby boy circumcised on the eighth day and gave him the name Jesus. After this, they took baby Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem and dedicated him to the Lord according to the Jewish custom. While they were in the temple courts, they ran into a man named Simeon, whom God had promised would see the Messiah before he died. An old prophetess named Anna was there too. They were both filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke prophecies about Jesus’ divine destiny as the redeemer of the world.

It may have been these prophetic words that compelled Joseph and Mary to stay in Bethlehem rather than immediately returning north to their hometown of Nazareth. They probably rented a place and Joseph would have secured a temporary job with a local construction company. No one knows exactly how long they stayed in Bethlehem, but it was somewhere between one and two years. During this time, they watched their tiny baby boy grow into a full-fledged toddler: running, jumping, and causing them a lot of parental anxiety.

It is hard to say whether anyone in the region other than Jesus’ parents and a few shepherds even knew that the Messiah had been born or was living in their midst. Simeon and Anna, who had held the infant Jesus in their arms just days after he was born, had likely passed away by this point.

Mary and Joseph were probably content to keep their little secret to themselves, and it would have been kept, except that news was spreading throughout the area that a caravan of mysterious Magi had come to Jerusalem from the east. When word got around that these wise men had seen his seen his star rise in the east and had now arrived to worship the newborn “King of the Jews,” King Herod and everyone around Jerusalem, were troubled.

 

The Magi, a Messiah, and a Massacre

Herod “the Great” (c. 73–4 BC), as he was known, had been given the title “King of the Jews” in 40 BC, and after consolidating his power he ruled over Judea for 33 years. Infamous for his brutality, he would have no rival over his Judean domain—he had already murdered one of his wives and two of his sons. As his power was now threatened by the announcement of the birth of a new king, he gathered all the religious leaders to ask them where the Messiah was to be born. They quoted the prophet Micah and revealed that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, a small farming town a few miles south of Jerusalem.

After discovering this, Herod called a secret meeting with the Magi to extract information about the exact time and place of the new king’s birth. His insecurity and superstition reached a new level when he tried to manipulate the Magi into revealing the location of the child. With guile on his face and sarcasm dripping from his lips, he said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” But we already know that Herod had no intention to worship the child.

In God’s gospel story, we see divine providence intervene many times. We see it again, at least three times, in this passage. First, as the Magi were on their way to Bethlehem, the star that pointed them to Israel reappeared and led them to the child’s exact location. Second, when they arrived in Bethlehem to worship the child, they opened their treasure boxes and presented the child with gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh. Far beyond what they knew or intended, these gifts would likely be used to support this poor family while they sought refuge from Herod’s wrath of in Egypt. And third, having been warned in a dream, the Magi did not go back to Herod, but returned to their country by another route. On the surface, all these things appear to be coincidences or happenstances, but Matthew is dropping hints that God was directing these events behind the scenes.

When Herod realized he had been outwitted by the Magi, he became furious and gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding vicinity who were two years old and under. In his attempt to preserve his own power, he committed one of the most appalling acts of evil in human history. But divine providence intervened again as Joseph was warned in a dream to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt until the threat had passed. This escape to Egypt was not accidental; Hosea had prophesied that the Messiah would come out of Egypt 700 years before it happened. The fulfillment of this prophecy was further proof that Jesus really was the Messiah.

The political and theological ironies in Jesus’ flight to Egypt are remarkable. The infant Son of God became a displaced refugee in a foreign country, but not just any foreign country—Egypt. This was Israel’s sworn and symbolic enemy; the nation that enslaved the Hebrew people for 430 years. This was the place where Pharaoh unleashed his own fury against the firstborn Israelite children back in the Book of Exodus. (Ex. 1:6–22) But just as baby Moses survived Pharaoh’s infanticide, so baby Jesus would be preserved through Herod’s bloodbath.

Herod thought he had taken care of the problem, but little did he know that God had another plan. Herod died two years later, and Joseph returned to Israel and raised God’s Son in the safety and solitude his hometown of Nazareth. Nothing would stop Jesus from becoming who and what he was meant to be: The King of the Jews and Savior of the world. But this wouldn’t be fully accomplished for another thirty years.

 

Three Responses to the Redeemer 

            As we put this story into perspective, we can’t help but notice three vastly different responses to the redeemer—for better or worse, they are some of the ways people still respond to the redeemer today. Let’s take a look!

 1.) Hostility (Herod)

The first and most blatant response to the redeemer in this story is King Herod’s hostility. When he heard that a new king was born who rivaled him, he responded with anger and aggression. When his power was threatened by this baby boy, he wanted to kill him.

            Now I don’t know anyone who wants to kill Jesus today, but there are many people who are hostile toward Jesus Christ and his followers. Have you even wondered why is this? I believe many people hate Jesus because, like Herod, he threatens our power. In our day, we don’t like anyone telling us how we ought to live our lives. We want to be our own authority, especially in matters of money, morality, and ethics. “I will determine what is right and wrong for me…and I don’t need any help from anyone else!” Unfortunately, the “anyone else” usually includes God too.

            People today want to be their own gods and goddesses—they go through life worshipping themselves! Life is all about them and their personal comfort and happiness, and they are willing to dispose of anyone or anything that gets in the way of it. When someone rivals them, they become angry and want get rid of whoever it is. Tragically, this usually means when they are confronted with the truth of Jesus Christ, they become hostile toward him and the one presenting his message!

            Has anyone ever responded to you in a hostile manner because you are a Christian or because you stood up for biblical truth?  If you haven’t experienced this yet, you probably will someday. We live in a society that is increasingly hostile toward Jesus and the claims he makes on our lives!

 

2.) Worship (Magi)

            The second response to the redeemer we see in this story is worship. When the Magi saw the new King’s star rise in the east, they were willing to embark upon a long and treacherous journey to worship him. They traveled over a thousand miles to seek a baby, and when they found him, they bowed down before him and offered him their precious treasures.

            I am happy to report that there are still many people throughout our world who are seeking to worship Jesus Christ. Even though the Christian church continues to lose ground in Europe and North America, people in Asia, Africa, and South America are responding to the gospel of Jesus Christ by the millions. I lament the fact that so many people here in America no longer seek Jesus, let alone worship him or present him with gifts of gratitude. Do you know anyone who used to go to church but doesn’t anymore? I just saw a statistic the other day that only about 25% of Americans even attend a religious service during the Christmas holiday.

            Jesus is God’s Son who came to earth 2000 years ago to redeem the world. He was born in Bethlehem and was worshipped by angels, shepherds, and wise men. He lived a perfect life, died a horrendous death, and was gloriously resurrected on the third day. He still offers us forgiveness for our sins and the hope of eternal life. May we all follow in the Magi’s footsteps. Let us seek for the Savior, and when he finds us, let us worship him and give him our gifts of gratitude!

 

3.) Apathy (The People)

            Herod’s hostility and the Magi’s worship are completely different responses to the redeemer, but there is another response to the redeemer in this story. It is subtler, but it is there. The people of Jerusalem responded to Jesus’ birth with apathy or ambivalence. Verse 3 says that the people were “disturbed.” Really? Disturbed? When these gentile wise men showed up and announced the wonderful news of the Messiah’s birth, they should have been ecstatic. The Jews had been waiting for the Promised One to come for thousands of years, and when he finally arrived, they were “disturbed?” What this means is: Yes, they wanted the Messiah to come and deliver them, but they didn’t want him to actually disrupt their lives.

            Does this sound familiar? Many people respond the same way to Jesus today, don’t they? They want Jesus to answer their personal prayers, but they don’t want to follow his ethical teachings or obey his moral commands! They are cool with Jesus as long as he doesn’t upset the political and social equilibrium of the day or make any demands on their lives! Everybody wants a Savior until that Savior says, “Take up your cross and follow me!” 

            These are the people who want to be close enough to Jesus to receive his benefits, but they stay far enough away from Jesus, so they aren’t ostracized by their family, friends, or co-workers. They are not directly hostile to Jesus; they are merely ambivalent because they don’t want to change. Are you apathetic toward Jesus Christ?  

 

When Matthew was originally writing this story of how the Magi came to worship Jesus, he clearly wanted to highlight these various responses to the redeemer.  And by doing so, he was trying to convince his readers that this baby boy, who was born in Bethlehem and fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies, really is the Messiah, the Savior of the world.

            And therefore, by presenting us with these three responses to the Redeemer, Matthew poses the question to us today:  How have we responded to Jesus Christ?  With hostility like Herod?  With apathy like the people?  Or with worship like the Magi?

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Filled with the Holy Spirit: Charles Fox Parham & the Pentecostal Tradition
Acts 2:1-11

How many of you have ever attended a Pentecostal church before? If you have, you know that they are drastically different from other Protestant traditions. Contrary to the high and tight liturgical forms we find in the Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian traditions, Pentecostal churches are typically described by words like spontaneous, unpredictable, boisterous, free-flowing, music-driven, and emotional. If one is not used to this style, it might even be classified as chaotic.

            In addition to the usual elements of worship such as prayer, Bible reading, singing, and a sermon, Pentecostal worship services often include raised hands, dancing, speaking in tongues, prophetic utterances, faith healing, and a practice called “slain in the Spirit” when person becomes so overwhelmed by the presence of the Holy Spirit that they supposedly pass out and remain unconscious for a short period of time.

            If you have never attended a Pentecostal church before, allow me to recommend giving it a try at least once in your life. Even if it is not your cup of tea, you will gain a glimpse of how many of our brothers and sisters in Christ (over 280 million) worship God all around the world.    

 

Pentecostalism: A Brief History

Pentecostalism is a relatively recent movement within Protestant Christianity that places special emphasis on a direct personal experience of God through the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The term Pentecostal is derived from Pentecost, the Greek name for the Jewish Feast of Weeks. For Christians, this event commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus Christ after his ascension to heaven, as described in Acts 2.

Like other forms of evangelical Protestantism, Pentecostalism adheres to the authority of the Bible and the necessity of accepting Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior. It is distinguished by belief in the baptism in the Holy Spirit that enables a Christian to live a Spirit-filled and empowered life. This empowerment includes the use of spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues and divine healing—two other defining characteristics of Pentecostalism. Because of their commitment to biblical authority, spiritual gifts, and the miraculous, Pentecostals tend to see their movement as reflecting the same kind of spiritual power and teachings that were found in the Apostolic Age of the early church.

Unlike other Protestant traditions, Pentecostalism was not founded by one person or group. Instead, at the dawn of the 20th century, many isolated Christian groups were experiencing charismatic phenomena such as divine healing and speaking in tongues. Charles Fox Parham, an independent holiness evangelist who believed strongly in divine healing, became an important figure to the emergence of Pentecostalism as a distinct Christian movement.

In 1900, Parham started a school near Topeka, Kansas, which he named Bethel Bible School. There he taught that speaking in tongues was the scriptural evidence for the reception of the baptism with the Holy Spirit. On January 1, 1901, after a watch-night service, the students prayed for and received the baptism with the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues. Parham received this same experience sometime later and began preaching it in all his services. Parham believed this was xenoglossia and that missionaries would no longer need to study foreign languages. After 1901, Parham closed his Topeka school and began a four-year revival tour throughout Kansas and Missouri. He taught that the baptism with the Holy Spirit was a third experience, subsequent to conversion and sanctification. Sanctification cleansed the believer, but Spirit baptism empowered for service.

At about the same time that Parham was spreading his doctrine of initial evidence in the Midwestern United States, news of the Welsh Revival of 1904–05 ignited intense speculation of a coming move of the Spirit which would renew the entire Christian Church. This revival saw thousands of conversions and exhibited speaking in tongues.

In 1905, Parham moved to Houston, Texas, where he started another Bible training school. One of his students was William J. Seymour, a one-eyed black preacher. Seymour traveled to Los Angeles where his preaching sparked the three-year-long Azusa Street Revival in 1906. The revival first broke out on Monday April 9, at 214 Bonnie Brae Street and then moved to 312 Azusa Street on Friday, April 14. Worship at the racially integrated Azusa Mission featured an absence of any order of service. People preached and testified as moved by the Spirit, spoke and sung in tongues, and fell in the Spirit. The revival attracted both religious and secular media attention, and thousands of visitors flocked to the mission, carrying the “fire” back to their home churches. Despite the work of various Wesleyan groups such as Parham’s and D. L. Moody’s revivals in the late 1800’s, the beginning of the Pentecostal movement in the US is generally considered to have begun with Seymour’s Azusa Street Revival in 1906.

Over the past century, Pentecostalism has spread wider and faster than any other Protestant denomination. It is still rapidly expanding today, especially in South America, Africa, and Asia.

            Like all the other Protestant traditions we have studied, it is not only important to understand their history and practice, but we must also look at their biblical foundations. Pentecostals point to many New Testament passages to substantiate their beliefs, but unfortunately, I don’t have enough time to treat them all in one sermon. Therefore, let us look at the primary passage of Pentecostalism: Acts 2:1-11, where the Holy Spirit comes on the Day of Pentecost.

 

Filled with the Spirit: A Brief Pentecostal Theology (Acts 2:1-11)

In Acts 1, we find the resurrected Christ gathered with his disciples in the upper room of a house in Jerusalem. He commanded his Apostles to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the promise of the Father, which is the baptism of the Holy Spirit. From there, he led them to the Mount of Olives and commission them to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. Then they watched his glorious ascension into heaven. After this, they returned to the upper room, chose Matthias to replace Judas as one of the Twelve, and waited for the promise of the Holy Spirit.

Acts 2 opens with the Apostles praying on the day of Pentecost, the first day of the Jewish harvest festival. This term comes from the fact that the festival is celebrated on the fiftieth day after the Passover, which marked the end of the wheat harvest and the beginning of the barley harvest. It was one of the three Jewish pilgrimage festivals, when pilgrims would journey to Jerusalem to present their gifts and offerings to the Lord at his Holy Temple.

During Pentecost, Jerusalem was filled with Jews from all over the world. Ironically, the coming of the Holy Spirit was about to propel the gospel to the ends of the earth by bringing people from the ends of the earth to Jerusalem. During the great harvest festival of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was about to inaugurate a great harvest of souls by endowing the Apostles with supernatural power to be Jesus’ witnesses.

In verse 2, the Holy Spirit bursts on the scene with audio and visual effects choreographed by God. First, there was a loud noise reminiscent of a violent wind. I have never been in a tornado, but I have heard that it sounds like a train is coming right toward you. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for “wind” can also mean “spirit”. Wind was an Old Testament symbol for God’s presence.

Second, something that seemed like tongues of fire came and rested upon each Apostle’s head. Fire is another Old Testament symbol for God’s presence, as the fire at the burning bush before Moses. These physical manifestations were proof that the Holy Spirit had come to empower Jesus’ followers to fulfill his mission to be witnesses to the ends of the earth.

As the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit, they all began to speak in other tongues. These were real languages, not some kind of unintelligible gibberish. The Holy Spirit miraculously empowered these disciples to preach in languages that they did not know. Why did the Spirit do this? Because there were Jews there from all over the world who needed to hear about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When these people heard a bunch of uneducated men from Galilee preaching in their own native languages, they were utterly amazed. Luke mentions at least fifteen different languages that were represented.

These disciples spoke about “the wonders of God”, which refers to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If it would not have been for the Holy Spirit, they would not have been able to proclaim the gospel in such a way. Everyone present there experienced a genuine miracle.  They all experienced the power of the Holy Spirit on that day!

            Now the big question for us is this: Is what the Apostles experienced on the Day of Pentecost normative for Christians today? Most Pentecostals would respond with a resounding “Absolutely!” Others would say, “Absolutely not!” And then there are still other Christians like myself who would say, “Well, sort of.” Let me explain.          

            First, the miracle of Pentecost is a unique event in the history of the church. I have known some Christians who try to reproduce Pentecost today.  They say things like, “If we just pray hard enough, or pray the right way, then God will give us an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  Or if we could just speak in tongues, then we would have the power to reach the world for Christ.” 

            The reality is that we cannot manufacture revival. Sure, there have been periods of great outpouring in history.  I think about the Great Awakening that took place here in New England 250 years ago, but I believe we would be misapplying this text if we tried to recreate what happened here at Pentecost.  This filling of the Holy Spirit wasn’t meant to give the Apostles divine power to witness for one day, it was meant to empower them to witness for the rest of their lives.

            Most of us will never hear a sound like a rushing wind or have tongues of fire dance on our heads. Most of us will never speak in tongues, but the Holy Spirit empowers us to be his witnesses every day. Anytime we share “the wonders of God” and someone makes a commitment to Jesus Christ, a great miracle has happened. We would never be effective if the Holy Spirit didn’t empower us. Every true Christian has this power, but many don’t even know that they have it!

            That brings me to my second point: Even though the miraculous events of Pentecost are not normative for all Christians in all ages, I don’t think the Holy Spirit ceased all miraculous functions at the end of the first century. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity and has the power to operate in the same ways as in the Apostolic age. Therefore, I do believe that the Holy Spirit sometimes empowers people to miraculously heal, utter words of prophecy, and speak in tongues. I just don’t think that it happens as often or regularly as some Pentecostals claim.

            I have been in some contexts, Pentecostal and otherwise, where I have experienced genuine displays of the Holy Spirit’s power, and it is amazing. But unfortunately, I have been in other Pentecostal contexts where I believe the so-called miracles were manufactured by human manipulation. The difficulty is knowing the difference, but that will have to be another sermon for another day.

 

            Until then, let me just conclude with this: I am not a Pentecostal, but I deeply appreciate the Pentecostal church’s emphasis on the person and power of the Holy Spirit. May we learn from its strengths, beware of its excesses, and labor together for the gospel of Jesus Christ!

 

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Puritans and Pilgrims: Robert Browne & the Congregationalist Tradition
Revelation 2:14-22

While walking down the street one day, a senator was tragically hit by a truck and killed. St. Peter met him at the pearly gates, and said, “Welcome to Heaven! But before you settle in, it seems there’s a problem. We seldom see politicians around these parts, so we’re not sure what to do with you. Therefore, we’ve decided that you should spend one day in Hell and one in Heaven. Then you can choose where to spend eternity.”
And with that, St. Peter escorted him to the elevator and sent him down to Hell. When the doors opened, the Senator found himself on the clubhouse veranda of a beautiful green golf course. He immediately noticed all his friends and a host of other politicians. They all ran to greet him and reminisce about the good times they had while getting rich at the expense of the people. Then they played a pleasant game of golf and dined on lobster, caviar, and fine scotch.

            The Devil was also present there. He was the life of the party, dancing and telling jokes. They were all having such a good time that, before the senator realized it, it was time to go. Everyone gave him a big hug and raised a toast in his honor, then the elevator returned him to heaven.

            When the door opened, St. Peter said: “Now it’s time to visit Heaven”. So, 24 hours passed, with the senator joining a group of contented souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing their harps and singing. They had a good time and, before he realized it, the time was up.
“Well, you’ve spent a day in Hell and another in Heaven. Now, you must choose where you want to spend eternity.” The senator reflected for a minute, then answered: “Well, I would never have thought I would say this: I mean Heaven is delightful, but I think I would be better satisfied in Hell.”
So, St. Peter escorted him to the elevator, and down he went to Hell. The doors open, and the senator is in a barren wasteland covered with garbage and debris. He sees all his friends, dressed in rags and picking up trash. It is sweltering hot and the odor is just horrible.

            The Devil comes over to him and lays his arm around the senator’s shoulder. “I-I-I don’t understand,” stammers the senator. “The day before yesterday I was here, and there was a beautiful golf course, and we ate lobster and caviar, and danced and had a great time. Now all there is a wasteland full of garbage, and my friends look miserable.”

            The Devil looked at the senator, smiled, and said, “Yesterday we were campaigning. Today you voted for us!”

The relationship between religion and politics has always been unpredictable! Church and state relations have endured many twists and turns through the ages. During the first few centuries after Jesus’ ascension, church and state were completely separate. Then, with the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in AD 312, church and state were wed in an unholy union of political power. This relationship became even more complicated during the days of the Protestant Reformation. Some branches of Protestantism, like the Lutherans, Anglicans, and Presbyterians, stayed closely aligned with the state, but the Anabaptists and especially the Congregationalists believed the state had a corrupting influence on the church; they wanted to make a clean break from political and ecclesiastical authority and worship God according to their own consciences.  

The Congregationalist Tradition: A Brief History

            The Congregationalist tradition grew out of church and state tensions in 16th century England. We have already learned the history of the Anglican Church, the church that King Henry VIII established after he broke away from the Roman Catholic Church because the pope refused to grant him an annulment from his first wife Catherine of Aragon. Since the Church of England was conceived in partisan discord and was birthed in overt political rebellion, it is no surprise that the Anglican Church never grew into its fullest spiritual potential. As England bounced back and forth between Anglican and Catholic partialities under Henry’s children Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth, a movement arose to decontaminate the church. These people became known as “Puritans” because they wanted to “purify” the church from political bondage.

There were two types of Puritans: those who wanted to reform the church from the inside and those who wanted to break away from the Church of England altogether. The later group took on the name “separatists” because they separated from the mother church and formed what they called a “Privyes” or private churches, ones that would not answer to English bishops, Rome, or any other religious authority. In short, they would be governed by their own pastors and members.

Although the separatist movement was already well under way, Robert Browne is regarded as the founder of Congregationalism. He was educated at Cambridge University and was influenced by the Puritan theological Thomas Cartwright. Browne became Lecturer at St Mary’s Church, where his dissident preaching against the doctrines and disciplines of the Church of England began to attract attention. He believed that every local church should be independent and autonomous. He advocated for a form of church government where local churches would dictate its own decisions, appoint clergy of their own choice, and be directly accountable to Jesus Christ. According to his democratic ideals, he believed that neither the Queen, bishops, nor other religious authorities should have power over local congregations.

Browne was the first to establish a church of his own on Congregational principles. Throughout his life, he was incarcerated 32 times for his separatist beliefs and died in jail at Northampton, after he was imprisoned for hitting a constable. Despite the ironic fact that he abandoned the Congregational movement he founded and returned to the Anglican Church late in life, he is still considered the founder of “The Congregational Way” and “The Father of the Pilgrims” due to his followers crossing the Atlantic on the Mayflower in 1620.

It was pastor John Robinson and elder William Brewster, who led the congregational congregation in the village of Scrooby, England, that established the first Congregational church in America at the Plymouth Colony. This was the context for the story of the First Thanksgiving told by Governor William Bradford in his landmark work “Of Plimoth Plantation,” where the pilgrims gathered their first fall harvest and celebrated a meal with their Indian friends.

As more English Congregationalists fled religious persecution and showed up on the American shore, the church began to flourish. In subsequent decades, Congregational churches sprang up all over the New England landscape. Harvard College was founded in 1636 for the training of Congregational ministers. And “The Cambridge Platform” (New England) and “Savoy Declaration” (England), the two defining documents of Congregationalism were composed in 1646 and 1658 respectively. Their theology was almost identical to their Presbyterian counterparts, but their tenants of church government insisted on the ideals of independence and autonomy.

Over the past few centuries, Congregationalism has spread across America and to almost every country around the world.  Modern Congregationalism in the United States is expressed primarily through three denominations: The United Church of Christ, The National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, and The Conservative Congregational Christian Conference, of which our church is a member.

 

The Congregationalist Tradition: A Brief Theology (Revelation 2-3)

Well, now that we have a better understanding of the Congregational tradition, we have to ask the all-important question: Is it biblical? The early Congregationalists pointed to many biblical passages passages to support their views, but I think the most compelling case is found in Revelation 2-3, where our Lord Jesus himself sends letters of spiritual accountability to seven independent and autonomous churches across Asia Minor. Notice how Jesus addresses each letter “To the angel of the church in” Ephesus…Smyrna…Pergamum…Thyatira…Sardis… Philadelphia…and Laodicea. There is a debate about whether these angels were actual supernatural beings assigned to watch over their respective churches or simply human messengers who were commissioned to deliver Jesus’ specific message to each specific church. Either way, we see Jesus directly holding each local church accountable for its faith and practice.

Reflect on this for a moment! We already know that Jesus holds us accountable as individuals; one day we will all stand before his judgment seat! But he also holds each local church corporately accountable for what it believes and how it lives out the gospel together. If Jesus addressed a letter specifically to the East Franklin Union Church or the Franklin United Church, I wonder what he would say? I wonder how he would praise us? I wonder how he would rebuke us?

 

Lukewarm in Laodicea (Romans 3:14-22)

Allow me to address our church today by looking at Jesus’ message to the lukewarm church in Laodicea. Jesus begins his letters to the other six churches in the Book of Revelation by commending them for what they were doing well, but he starts this letter with a sharp rebuke of their spiritual complacency. The Laodicean church was so pathetic that he couldn’t find anything to commend.

The source of the Laodiceans complacency was their self-sufficiency—relying on their own strength and resources rather than the power of God. The city of Laodicea was extremely wealthy; it was a booming banking center and had a woolen mill that was famous for producing beautiful black wool that they wove into carpets and clothing. This attitude of self-sufficiency pervaded the church as well. Most of the members of the church were wealthy and affluent, and this gave them a sense of security. Their economic prosperity made them arrogant and spiritually complacent; Jesus accuses them of being wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. He is telling the church to forsake its false sense of security in material wealth, and find true peace in him.

            The Laodicean attitude is alive and well in American today! Our money says, “In God We Trust” but if we are honest, our souls often say, “In Mammon We Trust.” But no amount of money in the world can buy back time. Currency cannot buy comfort when you are on your death bed!

            But remember, Jesus is primarily speaking to Christians in this passage. Christians ought to know better, but how many of us have ever been deceived by the false securities of wealth? Are we apt to trust in our own self-sufficiency? The only one who can offer us true and eternal security is Jesus Christ!

Jesus wants a renewed relationship with his church, which is why he portrays himself as knocking on their door, desiring to enter their homes, and eating with them. Jesus is saying, “By your arrogance and self-sufficiency you have shut me out of your life, but here I am knocking. Let me back into your life!”

            So, who will enjoy this restoration meal with Jesus? Who will sit down with him on his throne? Those who open the door and let him back in! Those who are earnest and repent from their sins! Those who take Jesus’ rebuke seriously and change their ways. If you have locked Jesus out of your life, let him back in!

            Instead of us knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door, Jesus is knock, knock, knocking on the door of our hearts today. If you want to join him for the Great Thanksgiving Feast in heaven, you have to RSVP now, before it is too late.

 

Yes, as an independent autonomous Congregational church, we don’t answer to the pope, a bishop, or even a denominational superintendent! We do not answer to a king, a duke, or even the President! But we do answer to Jesus Christ!

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Christian Perfection: John Wesley & the Methodist Tradition
Matthew 5:38-48

In late 1735, a ship made its way from England to the New World. On board was a young Anglican minister, John Wesley, who had been invited to serve as a pastor to British colonists in Savannah, Georgia. When the weather went sour, the ship found itself in serious trouble. Wesley, also chaplain of the vessel, feared for his life.

But he noticed that the group of German Moravians, who were on their way to preach to the American Indians, were not afraid at all. In fact, throughout the storm, they sang calmly. When the trip ended, he asked the Moravian leader about his peacefulness, and the Moravian responded with a question: Did he, Wesley, have faith in Christ? Wesley said he did, but later reflected, “I fear they were vain words.”

Wesley was an ordained minister of the gospel, but he had not yet been converted! This lead to a period of soul searching that eventually culminated in one of the most famous conversions in church history.

 

Religious Upbringing

Wesley was born into a strong Anglican home: his father, Samuel, was a minister, and his mother, Susanna, taught religion and morals faithfully to her 19 children. As in many families at the time, Wesley’s parents gave their children their early education. Each child, including the girls, was taught to read as soon as they could walk and talk. They were expected to become proficient in Latin and Greek and to have learned major portions of the New Testament by heart. Susanna Wesley examined each child before the midday meal and before evening prayers. Children were not allowed to eat between meals and were interviewed by their mother one evening each week for intensive spiritual instruction. In 1714, at age 11, John Wesley was sent to the Charterhouse School in London, where he lived the studious, methodical and, for a while, religious life in which he had been trained at home.

Apart from his disciplined upbringing, a rectory fire which occurred on February 9, 1709, when Wesley was five years old, left an permanent impression. Sometime after 11:00p.m., the rectory roof caught on fire. Sparks falling on the children’s beds and cries of “fire” from the street roused the Wesley’s who managed to shepherd all their children out of the house except for John who was left stranded on an upper floor. With stairs aflame and the roof about to collapse, young John was lifted out of a window by a parishioner standing on another man’s shoulders. Wesley later utilized the phrase, “a brand plucked out of the fire”, quoting Zechariah 3:2, to describe the incident. This childhood deliverance became part of the Wesley legend, attesting to his special destiny and extraordinary work.

Wesley attended Oxford, proved to be a fine scholar, and was soon ordained into the Anglican ministry. At Oxford, he joined a society (founded by his brother Charles) whose members took vows to lead holy lives, take Communion once a week, pray daily, and visit prisons regularly. In addition, they spent three hours every afternoon studying the Bible and other devotional material.

From this “holy club” (as fellow students mockingly called it), Wesley sailed to Georgia to pastor. His experience proved to be a failure. A woman he courted in Savannah married another man. When he tried to enforce the disciplines of the “holy club” on his church, the congregation rebelled. A bitter Wesley returned to England.

 

A Heart Strangely Warmed

After speaking with another Moravian, Peter Boehler, Wesley concluded that he lacked saving faith. Though he continued to try to be good, he remained frustrated. But on May 24, 1738, he had an experience that changed everything. He described the event in his journal:

In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Martin Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

 

Meanwhile, another former member of the “holy club,” George Whitefield, was having remarkable success as a preacher, especially in the city of Bristol. Hundreds of working-class poor, oppressed by industrializing England and neglected by the church, were experiencing emotional conversions under his fiery preaching. So many were responding that Whitefield desperately needed help.

Wesley accepted Whitefield’s plea hesitantly. He distrusted Whitefield’s dramatic style; he questioned the propriety of Whitefield’s outdoor preaching (a radical innovation for the day); he felt uncomfortable with the emotional reactions even his own preaching elicited. But the orderly Wesley soon warmed to the new method of ministry.

With his organizational skills, Wesley quickly became the new leader of the movement. But Whitefield was a firm Calvinist, whereas Wesley couldn’t swallow the doctrine of predestination. Furthermore, Wesley argued (against Reformed doctrine) that Christians could enjoy entire sanctification in this life: loving God and their neighbors, meekness and lowliness of heart, abstaining from all appearance of evil, and doing all for the glory of God. In the end, the two preachers parted ways.

 

From “Methodists” to Methodism

Wesley never intended to establish a new denomination, but historical circumstances and his organizational genius conspired against his desire to remain in the Church of England. His followers first met in private home or “societies,” as they called them. When these societies became too large for members to care for one another, Wesley organized “classes,” each with 11 members and a leader. Classes met weekly to pray, read the Bible, discuss their spiritual lives, and to collect money for charity. Men and women met separately, but anyone could become a class leader.

The moral and spiritual fervor of the meetings is expressed in one of Wesley’s most famous aphorisms: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” The movement grew rapidly, as did its critics, who called Wesley and his followers “Methodists,” a label they wore proudly. It got worse than name calling at times: Methodists were frequently met with violence as paid ruffians broke up meetings and threatened Wesley’s life.

Although Wesley scheduled his itinerant preaching so that it wouldn’t disrupt local Anglican services, the bishop of Bristol still objected. Wesley responded, “The world is my parish”—a phrase that later became a slogan of Methodist missionaries. Wesley, in fact, never slowed down, and during his ministry he traveled over 4,000 miles annually, preaching some 40,000 sermons in his lifetime.

A few Anglican priests, such as his hymn-writing brother Charles, joined these Methodists, but the bulk of the preaching burden rested on John. He was eventually forced to employ lay preachers, who were not allowed to serve Communion but merely served to complement the ordained ministry of the Church of England.

Wesley then organized his followers into a “connection,” and several societies into a “circuit” under the leadership of a “superintendent.” Periodic meetings of Methodist clergy and lay preachers eventually evolved into the “annual conference,” where those who were to serve each circuit were appointed, usually for three-year terms.

In 1787, Wesley was required to register his lay preachers as non-Anglicans. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the American Revolution isolated Yankee Methodists from their Anglican connections. To support the American movement, Wesley independently ordained two lay preachers and appointed Thomas Coke as superintendent. With these and other actions, Methodism gradually moved out of the Church of England—though Wesley himself remained an Anglican until his death.

Wesley’s health declined sharply towards the end of his life and he ceased preaching. On 28 June 1790, less than a year before his death, he wrote:

This day I enter into my eighty-eighth year. For above eighty-six years, I found none of the infirmities of old age: my eyes did not wax dim, neither was my natural strength abated. But last August, I found almost a sudden change. My eyes were so dim that no glasses would help me. My strength likewise now quite forsook me and probably will not return in this world.

 

Wesley died on 2 March 1791, at the age of 87. As he lay dying, his friends gathered around him, Wesley grasped their hands and said repeatedly, “Farewell, farewell.” At the end, he said, “The best of all is, God is with us”, lifted his arms and raised his feeble voice again, repeating the words, “The best of all is, God is with us.” He was entombed at his chapel on City Road in London.

An indication of his organizational genius, we know exactly how many followers Wesley had when he died: 294 preachers, 71,668 British members, 19 missionaries (5 in mission stations), and 43,265 American members with 198 preachers. Today Methodists number about 30 million worldwide.

(adapted from http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/denominationalfounders/john-wesley.html)

 

Christian Perfection (Matthew 5:38-48)

John Wesley and the Methodist tradition’s most important contribution to the Christian church is its emphasis on pietism and holy living. After all, the term “Methodist” refers to the methodical approach to the Christian life. Wesley himself, embodied this belief that Christians are called to live a life of spiritual fervor and impeccable morality. He even developed the controversial doctrine dubbed “Christian Perfection,” which insists that that it is not only possible but should also be the goal for all Christians to live a perfect life. He based this doctrine on Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:48—“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.”

Wesley concluded that since Jesus gave the command to be perfect, that perfection in this life must be possible. Unfortunately, he did not notice that the verb “to be” is in the future indicative rather than a present imperative tense. If the verb was present imperative, it would have the force of “keep being perfect” or “be continually perfect” which would place an impossible moral demand on Jesus’ disciples. Instead, the future tense holds out the emphatic goal that is to shape the disciple’s entire life—they are to set nothing less than the perfection of God as the ultimate standard of their behavior, thoughts, and will. (Wilkins p. 254) This goal is set amid the broader biblical context that all humans, even after they are born again, retain their sinful nature and continue to struggle with sin until the day we die.

Although I believe Wesley’s interpretation of this verse went too far toward actually achieving Christian perfection in this life, his emphasis on personal holiness became a hallmark of the Methodist movement. The Methodists became champions of moral courage, ethical excellence, and spiritual passion. Their leaders preached on the importance of living out Jesus’ teachings, especially the difficult issues outlined in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount found here in Matthew 5—issues like overcoming anger (22), reconciling rifted relationships (23-26), avoiding lustful looks and thoughts (27-30), dodging divorce (31-32), keeping our promises (33-37), refusing to retaliate against those who hurt us (38-42), and genuinely loving our enemies (43-47), which I think is the most difficult one of all.

 

            I am not a Methodist, but I am deeply grateful for John Wesley’s ministry and we all have much to learn from the Methodist tradition.  Here is the key idea I would like for us to take away from this sermon: Although we will never be perfect in this life, it shouldn’t stop us from trying!

            When we think about Christ suffering on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins and opening heaven’s doors to those who would follow him, what can we offer as a gift of gratitude? How about a life of holiness?

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The Baptism Labyrinth: The Radical Reformation & the Anabaptist Tradition
Romans 6:1-11

            A man, a woman, and a redneck were scheduled to be baptized.  The man was baptized first. When he came out of the water, he shouted, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want!” Then the woman was baptized. She came out of the water and exclaimed, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!” Then it was the redneck’s turn.  He didn’t know any verses from the Bible, so when he came out of the water he yelled, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

            Indeed, there is a lot of confusion about baptism! Should churches baptize babies right after they’re born, or should they wait until they grow up and are able to make a personal decision to follow Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior? Baptism is a complicated issue that has separated Christians throughout church history and it still a critical dividing line among Christian denominations today.

            For instance, Roman Catholics baptize infants to remove original sin inherent in the human soul. Lutherans baptize infants as a sacrament of grace by which eventually God grants faith and forgiveness of sins. Presbyterians baptize infants as a sign and seal of the covenant of grace and as a means of adoption into the covenant community of God. Methodists practice infant baptism as an initiation into a spiritual journey that hopefully leads to salvation.

On the other hand, Baptists, Brethren, Pentecostals, Mennonites, Churches of Christ, and most Free churches and Non-denominational churches only practice Believers Baptism. Sometimes this occurs in a baptistry in the front of the church or in an outside body of water. And then there are congregational churches, who acknowledge both practices, but leave it up to the individual local churches to decide.

            So, you may be wondering: How did we get into this baptism labyrinth? And how do we get out of it? Here is a brief history of baptism!

 

A Brief History of Baptism

            During New Testament times and for the first 250 years of the church, Christians practiced “believer’s baptism” where adults and/or adolescents would be fully immersed in a river, lake, or pool of water upon personal profession of faith in Jesus Christ.

Then, during the third century, a plague swept through the Mediterranean world. Infants and young children were dying by droves and their parents were afraid that their souls might go to hell because of original sin. The plague put a lot of pastoral pressure on the priests, and some of them began baptizing these sick babies, to offer comfort to traumatized parents. This practice spread quickly, and it dramatically changed the church’s understanding and approach to baptism. Within a hundred years or so, Infant Baptism became the universal practice in the Christian church and the modes of affusion (pouring) or asperation (sprinkling) replaced immersion. The sacrament of Infant Baptism dominated the Christian church for the next 1200 years, until the dawn of the Protestant Reformation and the rise of the Radical Reformation and the Anabaptist tradition.

 

The Radical Reformation and the Anabaptists

The Anabaptist movement began in Zurich, Switzerland in 1525. It was the result of the Scriptural studies of three men: Ulrich Zwingli, Felix Manz, and Conrad Grebel. The German Reformation was in full swing by this time; Martin Luther had nailed his 95 theses to the castle church door in 1517, eight years earlier.

Zurich appeared poised to follow in the footsteps of the Germans. The city council supported the men, and they seemed quite willing to pull out of the Roman Catholic Church and begin their own Reformation in Switzerland. Then Manz and Grebel had a falling out with Zwingli. The issue was infant baptism. Manz and Grebel, became convinced the practice was unbiblical and they accused Zwingli of compromising to avoid getting in trouble with the city council.

Zwingli did not give in to his cohorts. Eventually, a public debate was arranged, and the city council sided with Ulrich Zwingli and commanded Grebel and Manz to repent under threat of arrest. They could not do it. Shortly after the debate, which occurred on January 17, 1525, several believers gathered in the home of Felix Manz to discuss what to do. Among them was a fiery young Catholic priest named Georg Blaurock, who was ready to make a sharp break with the Roman Church and its practices. After some discussion that cold night, Blaurock asked Grebel to baptize him with a true Christian baptism upon his profession of faith. Conrad Grebel did so, and Georg Blaurock then baptized the remainder who were present.

So was established the first church of the Anabaptists, or “rebaptizers,” as they came to be known. This was because they rejected the infant baptism of the state churches and rebaptized all those who came to them to follow Christ. Because this was such a radical break from the Roman Catholic practice, the Anabaptist tradition got dubbed “the Radical Reformation.”

Anabaptism spread rapidly despite Ulrich Zwingli’s attempts to shut them down. By order of the city council, he had Felix Manz put to death by drowning in January of 1527. He also drove Georg Blaurock out of the area. The persecution would disperse and shut down that first Anabaptist church in Zollikon, outside Zurich. It would not, however, stop its spread.

Blaurock continued to preach wherever he went. The fire spread, and others took up the cause. By February of 1527, Michael Sattler, a former Catholic abbot, gathered representatives of numerous Anabaptist churches in the town of Schleitheim to discuss their future and the direction they wished to go. The result of that gathering was the Schleitheim Confession, to this day the most commonly cited confession among modern Anabaptist churches.

The Anabaptists were persecuted and hated by Catholics and Protestants alike. All three major branches of the Protestant Reformation persecuted them. On March 7, 1526, the Zürich city council had passed an edict that made adult re-baptism punishable by drowning. On January 5, 1527, Felix Manz became the first casualty of the edict, and the first Swiss Anabaptist to be martyred at the hands of other Protestants. While Manz stated that he wished “to bring together those who were willing to accept Christ, obey the Word, and follow in His footsteps, to unite with these by baptism, and to purchase the rest in their present conviction”, Zwingli and the council accused him of obstinately refusing “to recede from his error and caprice.”

At 3:00 p.m., as he was led from the Wellenburg to a boat, he praised God and preached to the people. A Reformed minister went along, seeking to silence him, and hoping to give him an opportunity to recant. Manz’s brother and mother encouraged him to stand firm and suffer for Jesus’ sake. He was taken by boat onto the River Limmat. His hands were bound and pulled behind his knees and a pole was placed between them. He was executed by drowning in Lake Zürich on the Limmat. His alleged last words were, “Into thy hands, O God, I commend my spirit.” His property was confiscated by government of Zürich, and he was buried in the St. Jakobs cemetery. It is as ironic as it is tragic, but many of the early Anabaptists, like Felix Manz, were executed by drowning.

Despite the persecution, the Anabaptist movement flourished. In less than a century, however, the zeal of the Anabaptists grew into legalism and doctrinal disputes, and they began to splinter rapidly. A major influence in this division was Menno Simons, one of the more famous of the 16th century Anabaptists. From his name comes the term Mennonite, whose churches continue to exist even to this day.

Menno Simons and others began to freely excommunicate other believers and other churches. That sort of division never really stopped, and to this day Mennonites divide over issues as silly as the length of the strings on the bonnets that they wear to church meetings on Sunday.

The Mennonites are not the only products of the Anabaptists, however. Alexander Mack began a movement that produced the modern Brethren Church and its various offshoots. Also, Jacob Amman began a movement that produced the Amish.

Most of our modern Baptist denominations did not directly descend from the Anabaptist tradition, but they were indirectly influenced by their embracing the doctrine of believer’s baptism and reject the practice of infant baptism. The Anabaptists, in the early 1500’s, were the first ones to return to the early church’s practice of believer’s baptism and continue to exert a vast influence on the Christian Church in the 21st century.

 

Believer’s Baptism (Romans 6:1-11)

The Anabaptists and their various descendants have traditionally defined Christian baptism as an outward symbol of an inward reality, or to say it another way, it is an external testimony of what has occurred inwardly in a believer’s life. Baptism illustrates a believer’s identification with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. In Christian baptism, the action going under the water symbolizes dying and being buried with Christ. The action of coming out of the water pictures Christ’s resurrection.
In addition to there not even being one example of infant baptism in the Bible, the Baptist tradition, among other places in the New Testament, looks to the Apostle Paul, in Romans 6:3-4, where he paints a beautiful picture of baptism as a symbolic act of identifying with Jesus Christ. It is obviously not meant to be understood literally because we are not actually crucified or resurrected when we put our faith in Christ. Standing upright in the water is a symbol of being “crucified” with Christ, being immersed in the water is a symbol of being buried with Christ, and being raise out of the water is a symbol of being resurrected with Christ. It pictures and proclaims the death of our old life to sin, and our resurrection to walk in newness of life. As Christ was raised up from the dead, by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

In this whole passage, Paul is answering the question: If God is always going to forgive us for our sins, why should we stop sinning? The answer is clear—why would we want to return to the very acts that brought about spiritual death in the first place. No! Since Jesus was crucified for our sins and overcame death through his resurrection, we proclaim our faith in baptism, which is a visual and symbolic gesture of dying with Christ and being raised to new life with him. Therefore, we live our lives for God out of gratitude for what Jesus has done for us.

 

            As I conclude this sermon today, I must confess my personal appreciation for the Baptist tradition. Although I am an ordained and committed Congregationalist, I believe the Baptist tradition best represents the biblical teaching on baptism. Allow me to summarize the reasons:

  1. You can read the Bible from cover to cover and there is not a single example of infant baptism. On the other hand, there are numerous examples of adults putting their faith in Jesus Christ and immediately proclaiming that faith by being immersed in the waters of baptism.
  2. The historical evidence shows us that the practice of infant baptism didn’t develop until 250 years after the Christian Church was formed and it developed from a superstitious belief that baptism erases original sin. The Bible simply does not teach this!
  3. The practice of believer’s baptism through full body immersion is the most consistent practice of baptism in the Bible and it best symbolizes being crucified, buried, and resurrected with Christ.

 

Throughout history, the doctrine and practice of baptism has indeed been a labyrinth that every church and every believer has had to cross, and good Christians have come out on various sides. I don’t think baptism is an issue we should fight about or persecute each other over, but it is an issue that we all must make some decisions. I hope this exploration of the Anabaptist tradition has helped you navigate the baptism labyrinth!

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The Righteous Shall Live by Faith: Martin Luther & the Lutheran Tradition
Romans 1:8-17

Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483 in the small town of Eisleben, Germany (about 120 miles southwest of Berlin). His parents, Margaret and Hans Luder, gave him the name Martin for the simple reason that he was born on St. Martin’s Day, the day the Roman Catholic calendar reserved for celebrating the feast of St. Martin of Tours. It is said that his father prayed aloud at the bedside of his newborn son, asking God to grant him grace, that he might become known for learning and piety.

Shortly after Martin was born, his family moved to nearby Mansfeld, where his father owned a small business in the copper mining industry. Hans Luder determined to give his son a good education and he sent young Martin to Latin school, where he excelled in academics despite his harsh educators, who believed that beating boys was the best way to make them to learn. Poor Martin once received fifteen whippings in a single day at school.

When Martin was 18 years old, he enrolled the University of Erfurt, one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Germany, to study law. His father worked hard to pay for his education and he wanted him to become a wealthy and famous lawyer. Martin soon became one of the best students at the university and he proved so adept at public debates that he earned the nickname “The Philosopher.”

 

The Monastic Life

Then in 1505, two events took place that caused Martin’s life to take a dramatic turn. The first one was the sudden death of a friend that he loved very much. When he heard about it, he asked himself, “What would become of me if I were to die suddenly.”

The unexpected death of a loved one, especially a young person, should always make us consider our mortality and make us think about the condition of your own souls.

Later that summer, while returning from Erfurt after visiting his parents, he was overtaken by a violent thunderstorm. Suddenly, a lightning bolt fell almost at his feet. Confounded with fear, he dropped to his knees and prayed to St. Anne to save him. When he arose unhurt, he believed the saint had saved him.

In response to these two events, he made a vow to become a monk. Even though his father was disillusioned by his decision, Martin believed the monastic life would draw him closer to God and earn him the assurance of salvation that he so desperately desired.

Martin was an exceptional monk. He plunged into prayer, fasting, and ascetic practices—going without sleep, enduring bone-chilling cold without a blanket, and whipping himself. He tried to think of every sin he had ever committed and did penance for them all, but none of these religious practices made him feel any better. He was increasingly terrified of the wrath of God.     Along with other Roman Catholics, Martin had been taught that God was so holy that he could only be approached through the saints. His trust was not in the Savior, but in saints and angels, good works, doing penance, and trying to pay for his own sins. As he later commented, “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was I.” He wrestled with this restlessness in his soul for the seven years until a breakthrough finally came.

 

Transformed by the Biblical Text (Romans 1:17)

Luther eventually earned his doctorate in Bible and become a professor at Wittenberg University. During a study of the Book of Romans, he began to see a way through his dark dilemma. As he read what would become the famous “Reformation text”—Romans 1:17—his eyes were drawn to the word “righteous.” Who, after all, could “live by faith” but those who were already righteous? The text was clear on the matter: “the righteous shall live by faith.” Luther hated the phrase, ‘the righteousness of God,’ because he had been taught God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner. He could not live by faith because he was not righteous—and he knew it.

But he eventually saw that the Apostle Paul was teaching that there is a transfer of righteousness in the gospel—that his salvation depended on God’s righteousness, not his. When a sinner puts their faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Jesus atones for the sinner’s sin and transfers his righteousness to the sinner’s soul, thus satisfying the wrath of God. Luther describes his spiritual transformation in his own words:

At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I …began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith… Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.

On the heels of this new understanding came others. To Luther, the church was no longer the institution defined by apostolic succession; instead it was the community of those who had been given faith. Salvation came not by practicing the sacraments but by grace alone through faith alone. The idea that human beings had enough goodness to seek out God was contrary to biblical teaching. Humility and doing good deeds were not a means of earning God’s grace but were a necessary response to the gift of grace. Faith no longer consisted of assenting to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, but of trusting in the merits of Christ. Luther’s life was transformed by the biblical text, especially Romans 1:17!

 

The 95-theses

It wasn’t long before the revolution in Luther’s heart and mind played itself out in all of Europe. It started on All Saints’ Eve, October 31, 1517, when Luther publicly objected to the way Catholic preacher Johann Tetzel was selling indulgences. These were documents prepared by the church and bought by individuals either for themselves or on behalf of the dead that would release them from punishment due to their sins. As Tetzel preached, “Once the coin into the coffer clings, a soul from purgatory heavenward springs!”

Luther questioned the church’s trafficking of indulgences and called for a public debate by nailing his 95 theses to the door of the castle church. Instead, his 95 Theses spread across Germany as a call to reform, and the issue quickly became not indulgences but the authority of the church: Did the pope have the right to issue these indulgences?

Events quickly accelerated. At a public debate in Leipzig in 1519, when Luther declared that “a simple layman armed with the Scriptures” was superior to both pope and councils without them, he was threatened with excommunication.

In 1521 he was called to an assembly at Worms, Germany, to appear before Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Luther arrived prepared for another debate; he quickly discovered it was a trial at which he was asked to recant his views. Luther famously replied, “Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear, and distinct grounds of reasoning … then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience.” Then he added, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me! Amen.”

 

The Dawn of the Reformation

By the time an imperial edict calling Luther “a convicted heretic” was issued, he had escaped to Wartburg Castle, where he hid for ten months and translated the New Testament into the common German language and wrote pamphlets attacking Roman Catholic practices.

In early spring of 1522, he returned to Wittenberg to lead, with the help of men like Philip Melanchthon, the fledgling reform movement. He married a runaway nun, Katharina von Bora, which scandalized many. (For Luther, the shock was waking up in the morning with “pigtails on the pillow next to me.”)

His lasting accomplishments also mounted: the translation of the Bible into German; the writing of the hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”; and publishing his Larger and Smaller Catechism, which have guided not just Lutherans but many others since.

His later years were spent often in both illness and furious activity. In 1531 alone, though he was sick for six months and suffered from exhaustion, he preached 180 sermons, wrote 15 tracts, worked on his Old Testament translation. But by 1546, he finally wore out.

Luther’s legacy is immense and cannot be adequately summarized. Every Protestant Reformer—like John Calvin, John Knox, and Thomas Cranmer—and every Protestant stream—Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, Congregational, Methodist, and Baptist—were inspired by Luther in one way or another. On a larger canvas, his Reformation unleashed forces that ended the Middle Ages and ushered in the modern era.

It has been said that in most libraries, books by and about Martin Luther occupy more shelves than those concerned with any other figure in history except Jesus of Nazareth.

 

There is no doubt that God used this modest monk named Martin Luther to change the world forever! Among all of Luther’s accomplishments, his greatest was rescuing the true gospel of Jesus Christ! For a thousand years, the church had taught that people could earn salvation from their sins by living decent lives and doing good deeds. But with Luther’s study of Romans 1 and other biblical passages, he reestablished the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone from the authority of Scripture alone. His simple protest for church reform morphed into an all-out Protestant Reformation movement that still continues to this day.

            As we remember the life and work of Martin Luther on this 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, allow me to briefly apply the three most important aspects of Luther’s teaching to our modern context.

 

1.) Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura)

            The Bible alone is the church’s final authority in all matters of faith and life! Although God uses popes, cardinals, bishops, denominational superintendents, church councils, elder boards, and even pastors to provide leadership for his church, the Bible is its supreme rule. Human beings are fallible but the Word of God is infallible. Therefore, it is every Christian’s responsibility to read and study the Scriptures and make sure what the preacher is saying is what God is saying. Throughout history, many people have fallen prey to cults, been led astray by false teachers, or been held captive by church law because they did not investigate the Scriptures for themselves.

            Whatever you do, don’t just take someone’s word for it, read the Bible for yourself! Whether it be at this church or some other church, make sure the preacher’s words mirror God’s Word! Unfortunately, like the Roman Catholic Church during the middle ages, many Protestant churches have abandoned the Bible and are guided by some other authority. Let us we learn from Martin Luther—may our church and each of us as individuals always submit to the authority of God’s Word!

 

2.) Grace Alone (Sola Gratia)

            Second, may we always be perfectly clear that a sinner’s soul is saved by grace alone! How many of you have heard the axiom: “Good people go to heaven; bad people go to hell.” Although this is a common belief, it is dead wrong! It’s completely contrary to biblical teaching! The Bible teaches that none of us are “good” enough to go to heaven. That is why Jesus died for us on the cross—so that his blood atones for our sins and his righteousness makes us righteous in God’s sight. Therefore, we cannot earn, produce, buy, or barter for our salvation! We can only accept God’s free gift. Our good deeds show our gratitude for God’s grace, but they don’t earn it!

 

3.) Faith Alone (Sola Fide)

            Third and finally, the only way we can access God’s grace is through faith alone! Romans 1:16 declares that the gospel provides salvation “to everyone who believes.” Verse 17 refers to “a righteousness that is from faith for faith.” The word “faith” does not refer to a mere intellectual acceptance—“Sure, I believe that Jesus existed”—but a faith of commitment—“I believe that Jesus died for my sins on the cross and rose again from the dead so much that I am willing to follow him all of my days!” It’s a faith that expresses true remorse for sin and genuine repentance. It’s a faith that produces perseverance through the difficulties of life. It’s a faith that fully submits to God’s will! Have you received God’s grace by making a genuine faith commitment to Jesus Christ?

 

            Scripture alone! Grace alone! Faith alone! Praise God for the life, teaching, and on-going legacy of Martin Luther!     

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Predestined for a Purpose: John Calvin & The Presbyterian/Reformed Tradition
Ephesians 1:1-14

The story is told of a group of theologians who were discussing the tension between predestination and free-will. The conversation became so heated that the group broke up into two opposing factions.

            But one man, not knowing which to join, stood for a moment trying to decide. At last he joined the predestination group. “Who sent you here?” they asked. “No one sent me,” he replied. “I came of my own free will.” “Free will!” they exclaimed. “You can’t join us! You belong with the other group!”

            So, he followed their orders and went to the other clique. There someone asked, “When did you decide to join us?” The young man replied, “Well, I didn’t really decide–I was sent here.” “Sent here!” they shouted. “You can’t join us unless you’ve decided by your own free will!” 

This humorous anecdote raises some perplexing theological questions: Do we choose God or does God choose us to receive eternal salvation for our souls? Does God determine everything that happens in the universe or do we make real decisions? What is the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human free-will?

            These questions have confounded theologians throughout history and they continue to draw dividing lines between Christian denominations today. For instance, Presbyterian, Reformed, and Congregational churches have historically highlighted God’s sovereignty while Methodists and Pentecostals have emphasized human free-will. Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans are undecided and Baptists are split on the issue.

            Over the centuries, no one has shed more light on this tension than John Calvin, who broke away from his Roman Catholic roots and became the father of the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition. Listen to his story!

 

John Calvin and the Presbyterian/Reformed Tradition

With his brother and sister and two friends, John Calvin fled Catholic France and headed to the free city of Strasbourg. It was the summer of 1536; Calvin had recently converted to the Protestant faith and had just published The Institutes of the Christian Religion, which articulated his Protestant views. He was a wanted man.

The party stayed at an inn in Geneva, Switzerland, and word quickly passed to local church leader William Farel that the author of The Institutes was in town. Farel was ecstatic. He was desperate for help as he tried to organize a newly formed Protestant church in town. He rushed to the inn and pleaded with Calvin, arguing it was God’s will he remain in the city.

Calvin said he was staying only one night. Besides, he was a scholar not a pastor. Farel, baffled and frustrated, swore a great oath that God would curse all Calvin’s studies unless he stayed in Geneva. Always a man of tender conscience, he later reflected on this moment: “I felt as if God from heaven had laid his mighty hand upon me to stop me in my course—and I was so terror stricken that I did not continue my journey.” To this day, Calvin’s name is associated, for good and for ill, with the city of Geneva. And Calvin’s belief in predestination is his theological legacy to the church.

Calvin was born in 1509 in Noyon, France. His father, a lawyer, planned a career in the church for his son, and by the mid-1520s, Calvin had become a fine scholar. He spoke proficient Latin, excelled at philosophy, and qualified to take up the intensive study of theology in Paris.

Suddenly, though, his father changed his mind and decided John should achieve greatness in law. John acquiesced, and the next five or six years saw him at the University of Orleans, attaining distinction in a subject he did not love. During these years, he dipped into Renaissance humanism. He learned Greek, read widely in the classics, and added Plato to the Aristotle he already knew. Then Martin Luther’s teachings reached France, and his life made an abrupt turn.

He became marked out as a “Lutheran,” and, when persecution arose in Paris (where he had returned to teach), he sought refuge in Basel. There he penned the first edition of a book that was to affect Western history as much as any other. The Institutes of the Christian Religion was intended as an elementary manual for those who wanted to know something about the Protestant faith. Calvin later wrote, “I labored at the task especially for our own Frenchmen, for I saw that many were hungering and thirsting after Christ and yet that only a very few had any real knowledge of him.”

In The Institutes, Calvin outlined his views on the church, the sacraments, justification, Christian liberty, and political government. His unique and overarching theme was God’s sovereignty. He taught that original sin eradicated free-will in people. Only by God’s initiative can anyone begin to have faith and thus experience assurance of salvation.

In this and later editions, Calvin developed the doctrines of predestination, or election. More importantly, he argued for the indefectibility of grace—that is, grace will never be withdrawn from the elect. This was Calvin’s pastoral attempt to comfort new believers. In medieval Catholicism, believers remained anxious about their spiritual destinies and were required to perform more and more good works to guarantee their salvation. Calvin taught that once a believer understands he is chosen by Christ to eternal life, he will never have to suffer doubt again about salvation: “He will obtain an unwavering hope of final perseverance (as it is called), if he reckons himself a member of him who is beyond hazard of falling away.”

After fleeing France to escape persecution, Calvin settled in Geneva at Farel’s bidding. But after a mere 18 months, he and Farel were banished from the city for disagreeing with the city council. Calvin headed for Strasbourg, where he pastored for three years and married Idellete de Bure, a widow who brought with her two children.

By 1541 Calvin’s reputation had spread: he wrote three other books and revised his Institutes. He had become close friends with leading Reformers like Martin Bucer and Philip Melanchthon. He was asked to return to Geneva by new city authorities, and he spent the rest of his life trying to help establish a theocratic society.

Calvin believed the church should faithfully mirror the principles laid down in Holy Scripture. In his, Ecclesiastical Ordinances, he argued that the New Testament taught four orders of ministry: pastors, doctors, elders, and deacons. Around these, the city was organized.

Pastors conducted the worship services, preached, administered the Sacraments, and cared for the spiritual welfare of parishioners. Elders kept an eye on spiritual affairs. If they saw that so-and-so was frequently getting drunk, or that a man beat his wife, they admonished them in a brotherly manner. If the behavior didn’t cease, they reported the matter to the Consistory, the church’s governing body, which would summon the offender. Excommunication was a last resort and would remain in force until the offender repented.

Social welfare was the charge of the deacons. They were the hospital management board, social security executives, and poor-house supervisors. The deacons were so effective in their ministry that Geneva had no beggars.

Calvin was in no way the ruler or dictator of Geneva. He was appointed by the city council and paid by them. He could at any time have been dismissed (as he had been in 1538). He was a foreigner in Geneva, not even a naturalized citizen, until near the end of his life. His was a moral authority, stemming from his belief that, because he proclaimed the message of the Bible, he was God’s ambassador, with divine authority behind him. As such, he was involved in much that went on in Geneva, from the city constitution to drains and heating appliances.

His role in the infamous execution of Michael Servetus in 1553, then, was not an official one. Servetus fled to Geneva to escape Catholic authorities: he had denied the Trinity, a blasphemy that merited death in the 1500s all over Europe. Geneva authorities didn’t have any more patience with heresy than did Catholics, and with the full approval of Calvin, they put Servetus to the stake.

Calvin worked himself beyond his body’s limits. When he could not walk the couple of hundred yards to church, he was carried in a chair to preach. When the doctor forbade him to go out in the winter air to the lecture room, he invited the audience into his bedroom and gave lectures there. To those who would urge him to rest, he asked, “What? Would you have the Lord find me idle when he comes?”

His afflictions were intensified by opposition he sometimes faced. People tried to drown his voice by loud coughing while he preached; others fired guns outside the church. Men set their dogs on him. There were even anonymous threats against his life.

Calvin finally wore out in 1564, but his influence has not. He carried the Protestant Reformation even further than Martin Luther. Outside the church, his ideas have been blamed for and credited with (depending on your view) the rise of capitalism, individualism, and democracy. Church bodies with the names “Presbyterian” or “Reformed” carry forward his legacy in local parishes all over the world. Presbyterian churches derive their name from the presbyterian form of church government, which is governed by representative assemblies of elders. (http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/theologians/john-calvin.html)

 

Predestined for a Purpose (Ephesians 1:1-14)

            There are many aspects of John Calvin and the Presbyterian Tradition that I could have focused on for today’s sermon, but I have chosen the doctrine of predestination because it is the Calvin’s most unique and controversial contribution to the Protestant Reformation. The apostle Paul specifically mentions predestination in two places in the New Testament: Romans 8 and Ephesians 1. Let’s zero in on the Ephesians passage!

After Paul begins his letter with the customary greeting, he immediately launches into a litany of praise to God for his glorious salvation through Jesus Christ. Then, starting in verse 4, he unpacks how this salvation came to be: election and predestination. He makes it perfectly clear that before God even created the world he chose them to be the recipients of his grace and that they would stand before God as holy and blameless because of what Jesus did for them on the cross. Because of God’s love, he predestined them to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance to his pleasure and will. This grace is a free gift which bestows redemption and forgiveness of sins through the blood of Jesus Christ. This grace, although it is given and received in the present, will be culminated when time has reached its fulfillment when Jesus returns to earth.

Paul reiterates and broadens this doctrine of election and predestination in verse 11. Not only does God choose and predestine some people to receive the gift of his grace, but he “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” This is an ultimate declaration of God’s sovereignty over salvation and everything else that takes place in history. It was God’s predestined will that these Ephesians were included in Christ, when they heard the word of truth, the gospel of their salvation, and were marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit, which guarantees their inheritance in heaven.

Now some of you may be thinking, “Wait a minute, are you saying that God chooses some people to be saved and not others?” Yes, that is exactly what I am saying because that is exactly what the Bible is saying! But then you may be thinking, “Well, that doesn’t seem fair!” Yes, you are exactly right! It isn’t fair! Fairness is an American value; it is not one of God’s attributes. If you think about it for a moment, we don’t really want a God who is fair; we want a God who is gracious. If God was fair, in the truest sense of the word, he would condemn all of us to eternal destruction in hell because of our sins. But because of his love and through his grace, he predestined some to receive his free gift of salvation!

            Now some of you may be wondering—Has God chosen me? Has he predestined me for salvation? How do I know? Well, if you have received God’s gracious gift of salvation by putting your faith in the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ, then you can be assured that God has chosen you! If you have been sitting on the fence of faith, then you must still be wondering!

           

            Like John Calvin and others in the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition, I believe that God is completely sovereign over salvation and everything else in life and history, but I also believe that we are held responsible for every decision we make. So, if you haven’t already, will you put your faith in Jesus Christ today? Will you share the good news of God’s grace with those who do not yet know!

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Control Freaks: Henry VIII & The Anglican/Episcopal Tradition
Proverbs 16:1-9

He had failed to see what was coming,
He wondered where he had gone wrong.
He thought that he’d been very careful,
He made sure he was right all along.

They knew he had been far too rigid,
They knew he was always this way.
They knew it was his fault it happened,
They knew they could not have ‘their’ say.

His family had suffered in silence,
His family just did what ‘he’ said.
His family were drowning in sorrow,
His family all wished he were dead.

They knew that his ways wouldn’t alter,
They knew that things must be ‘his’ way.
They knew if they stayed any longer,
They knew that forever they’d pay.

His family they all upped and left him,
His family they went far away.
His family they now had their freedom,
His family could now live ‘their’ way.

He sat all alone and he pondered,
He had given them all of his life.
He couldn’t accept he had lost them,
He still loved his children and wife.

He still could not see why they left him,
He thought they had treated him bad.
He needed to look a bit further,
He blamed them for making him sad.

I know that if he had looked inward,
His family would never have gone.
He could have left them some ‘decisions’,
He’s now only making for one!

This elegy was written by the poet Ivor G. Davies and it is aptly titled “Control Freak.” A control freak is a person who attempts to dictate how everything around them is done. They are often perfectionists protecting themselves against their own insecurities in the belief that if they are not in total control they risk exposing themselves once more to childhood angst. Such persons manipulate others to change so as to avoid having to change themselves, and often use power over others to escape an inner emptiness.

            Do you know any control freaks? Do you work with one or for one? Are you related to one? Are you married to one? Are you a control freak? Control freaks are hard to be around! They can be utterly difficult to deal with! I should know, my wife…my wife tells me that I am one. And I know it’s true. I am a self-identified 8.5 out of 10 on the control-freakism scale. Do you see the irony? I just placed myself on a scale that I invented!

            If you are a control freak or you are close to a control freak, you will certainly identify with King Henry VIII, who founded the Anglican/Episcopal branch of the Protestant Church. Henry is one of the most notorious control freaks in history. Listen to his story!

 

King Henry VIII and the Formation of the Anglican Church

Henry VIII was born in 1491, the second son of Henry VII. He was intelligent, handsome, physically strong, talented in music, and an avid hunter and sportsman. He became the King of England and the richest man in the world at 18 years of age.

Some consider Henry to have been a negligent king, letting his ministers run the country while he hunted stag. In truth, he was actively involved in the details of anything that he deemed important. He demanded the facts be boiled down to their essence. Then he would listen to the issues and make a quick decision, often in the time it took him to dismount from his horse.

The most important decision of his reign, however, he struggled with for years. But once he determined his course, he followed it with a flurry of decisions that forever changed England and the Christian church.

To cement England’s alliance with Spain, Henry married the Spanish king’s aunt, Catherine of Aragon (who was also his brother’s widow). When Henry defeated France and Scotland in successive battles, his popularity soared. Over the next decade, Henry made and broke peace treaties and engaged in the power politics of Europe.

Henry had always been a religious man and a faithful Roman Catholic. He attended mass five times a day unless he was hunting; then he could only attend three. (Let this be an important lesson to the hunters in our congregation!) He was also interested in theological disputes. In 1521, with Lutheranism infiltrating the English universities, Henry wrote “Defense of the Seven Sacraments against Luther.” Pope Leo X rewarded him with the title “Defender of the Faith.”

By 1526, Henry wanted to end his marriage with Catherine. The alliance with Spain was restricting his international intrigues and he had fallen in love with 19-year-old Anne Boleyn. But most importantly, Catherine had failed to give him a male heir (she did give birth to a daughter, Mary). England had recently survived a bloody and costly civil war; Henry needed a male heir to insure a peaceful succession upon his death.

Getting an annulment was fairly easy in the sixteenth century—if both parties wanted one. But Catherine was unwilling and sought the support of her nephew, Emperor Charles V. The emperor didn’t want to see his aunt disgraced and routed the pope’s troops. Pope Clement, seeing the score, had no choice but to refuse Henry the annulment.

When Anne became pregnant in 1532, Henry moved on his own. He had already forced the clergy to submit to him in all church matters. Now he married Anne in secret, had his new archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, declare his marriage to Catherine invalid, and crowned Anne queen in 1533. Henry and the church teetered on the brink of schism.

When the pope threatened excommunication, Henry plunged ahead. He passed one act forcing all to recognize the children of his new marriage as heirs to the throne. Then he passed “The Act of Supremacy” making him the “supreme head” of the church in England. He dissolved monasteries, redistributing their property to his nobles to reinforce their loyalty. Monks who resisted him were executed, and the money from their treasuries went into his coffers.

Still, he appeared to want a Catholic church—just one that was always loyal to him. “I do not choose anyone to have it in his power to command me, nor will I ever suffer it,” he once said. So, while he broke from Rome, he continued to uphold many Catholic doctrines.

Meanwhile, Henry tired of Anne because she had only produced a girl—Elizabeth. He trumped up charges of infidelity against her, had her locked in the Tower of London and eventually beheaded on the Tower Green. One day after Anne’s execution, Henry was engaged to Jane Seymour and the two were married ten days later. She died the following while giving birth to a son (Edward).

Henry infamously married three more times before he died: the unattractive Anne of Cleves, the promiscuous Catherine Howard, and finally, the elegant Catherine Parr, who outlived him by a year. Here is a little rhyme to help you remember the fate of Henry’s six wives:

Annulled, Beheaded, Died,

Annulled, Beheaded, Survived.

 

Henry’s break from Rome was fundamentally over control of the English church. Though he instituted some Protestant measures during his reign (like putting English Bibles in all the churches), and though he always supported his Protestant-leaning archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, Henry sided with Rome on key issues of doctrine and practice.

But the events Henry set in motion would not permit England or its church to return to the past. During the reign of his son, Edward VI (1547–53), England turned staunchly Protestant. After a brief return to Catholicism under “Bloody” Mary I (1553–1558), his daughter Elizabeth I set England on a permanently Protestant course.

Thus, King Henry VIII, out of his desire to control everything in his realm, broke with the Roman Catholic Church and founded the Anglican Church which literally means “Church of England.” Today the Anglican/Episcopal church is scattered all over the world. As in its early days, it is still a hybrid between Catholic and Protestant belief which is explained in the Thirty-Nine Articles and practice which is outlined in The Book of Common Prayer. It is amazing to consider how a whole branch of the Christian church grew out of one man’s desire to determine his own destiny.

 

Determining Our Destiny (Proverbs 16:1-9)

            Most of the control freaks sitting in our congregation today will not establish their own Christian denomination, but unfortunately, many people, like Henry VIII, feel a deep need to control their circumstances and suffer from a desire to determine their own destiny. To some degree, every Christian experiences the tension between doing what we want to do and what God wants us to do. This tension is defined and addressed in Proverbs 16:1-9.

Proverbs 16:1 makes the point that although humans can legitimately make plans, God’s will is definitive as to what will actually happen. One can strategize about the future, but this wise observation would lead one to acknowledge that the future can only be determined by God. Such recognition would stimulate a proper humility and open one up to changes. The purpose of this proverb is not to discourage human planning, but rather to keep people aware that their plans will come to nothing without God’s concurrence.

Likewise, verse 2 speaks to our ability to deceive ourselves concerning or righteousness. It is easy for humans to think that their plans or way of doing things is right or the best, but God is the ultimate arbiter of motives. This mindset leads Solomon to offer sound advice in verse 3—“Commit to the Lord all you do, and he will establish your plans.” The thought here is not that we simply pray for God to honor our plans and to establish them. Rather, it is the idea that we submit our entire life’s action to God, so that even if our human plans are thwarted, we can recognize an even deeper plan at work in our lives.

Verse 4 highlights the level of God’s sovereignty over our lives. God is in control of the wicked acts of human beings and uses their evil for good. (This is clearly seen in the story of the Anglican Church. Even though Henry VIII established it for his own sinful and selfish purposes, God used it to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ even further into the world.)

Even though God uses evil to bring about a greater good, verse 5 reminds us that he still detests the heart of the proud and will be justly punished. (This was certainly the case with King Henry. His pride and arrogance severely diminished his kingdom and he became morbidly obese and died a painful death. Despite his accomplishments, he is still the laughing stock of English history.)

For the sake of time, let me skip down to verse 9, which forms an inclusio, which is a biblical figure of speech where an author concludes a section in the same place he began. In this verse, Solomon makes the same point as in verse 1 that humans may plan their lives, but God is the one who ultimately determines the course of a person’s life. (Longman 227-331)

            This section of Proverbs could have saved the control freak Henry VIII a lot of grief. If he had focused on following God’s will rather than asserting his own will, he would have been much better off. He may have been remembered as one of the greatest kings in English history instead of a blundering buffoon. But we must see how God, in his sovereignty, even used Henry’s flaws and failures to accomplish his redemptive purposes through the Anglican church.

            This passage is especially convicting for control freaks like me, but it is a helpful reminder for all of us that we are not in control of our lives. Even though we make plans and try to carve out our futures, God determines our destinies.

            Therefore, allow me to make a recommendation! Let us stop trying to control everything around us! Let us give up trying to change our circumstances. May we cease from manipulating other people! May we sincerely pray, “Not my will, but thy will be done!” Let us do our part to conform our will to God’s will. And may the Lord establish our steps!

 

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The Goose is Cooked: Jan Hus & the Hussite Tradition
Ephesians 2:1-10

            How can we live a life that is pleasing to God? How can we attain forgiveness for the sins we have committed throughout our lives? What do we have to do to get into heaven?  These are some of the most important questions that we can ever ask ourselves. I am sure most of you have thought about these issues at some point in your life!

            The Bible offers crystal clear answers to each one of these questions, but unfortunately, throughout the centuries, the church has muddied the waters. The apostles preached the pure gospel of Jesus Christ, but some of the early church fathers departed from the Apostle’s teaching and developed doctrines that were detrimental to the Christian faith. After the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine, the church and state were wed in an unholy union of political power that diverted church even further from its original purpose. And throughout the Middle Ages, very few people read the Bible and the church drifted so far from biblical truth that it would have been completely unrecognizable to Jesus’ apostles.

Here is a short list of the unbiblical doctrines that were established during this time:

  • Baptism- The church began to baptize infants to wash away original sin and made this sacrament a requirement for salvation.
  • Veneration of Relics- The idea that there are certain benefits given to people who pay to see inanimate objects (bones, hair, clothing, etc.) that belonged to a Saint or martyr.
  • Penance- Where a person confesses his or her sins privately to a priest and then carries out some act to receive forgiveness.
  • Indulgences- The act of paying the church to reduce a person’s punishment for sin or to reduce time in purgatory.

None of these practices are found in the Bible, but they became standard procedure in the Roman Catholic church.

But as people like Peter Waldo and John Wycliffe began translating the Bible into French, English, and other vernacular languages, common folks started reading the Scriptures for themselves and realized that the Bible and the church were not proclaiming the same gospel. These people began speaking out against the abuses and demanding reform. And one of the most outspoken critics of the Roman Catholic Church was a brilliant Bohemian professor by the name of Jan Hus, who became a champion of the doctrine of justification by grace alone. As we shall see, Hus was willing to pay the ultimate price to rescue the gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

Jan Hus and the Hussites

Jan Hus was born in 1369 in the little town of Husinetz, in southern Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic.) His father died when he was a little boy. Although his mother was poor, she was determined to send him to school. Through God’s providence, a nobleman kindly paid for Hus’ education and he eventually graduated with a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Prague. When he was 26 years old, he became a priest and professor of divinity at the university.

At the time, Hus was still a Roman Catholic and dedicated to the teachings of the church. Some Czech students returned from Oxford University in England and gave some of John Wycliffe’s writings to Master Hus. Wycliffe’s claims compelled Hus to read the Bible for himself, and he soon discovered that Wycliffe was right about many of the church’s teachings being contrary to the Bible. As he read the Bible, the Holy Spirit opened his eyes to see the Savior, who is the only remedy to sin. By faith, he trusted in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of his sins.

In 1402, Hus was asked to preach at the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, which became the center of the Czech reform movement. He preached directly from the Bible and delivered the message in a clear and powerful style. The people understood every word of his sermons because he preached to them in the Czech language, not Latin. He often preached twice a day to an ever-widening audience of listeners who were leaving the Catholic Church for the Bethlehem Chapel.

The Roman Catholic bishops tried to stop Hus from preaching, but the Queen of Bohemia was his friend and attended his church. She and her husband protected Hus. (Despite what Garth Brooks says, it pays to have friends in “high” places!) So, the bishops wrote to the Pope, accusing Hus of being a heretic. The Pope banned Hus from preaching and ordered that all of his and Wycliffe’s books to be destroyed.

Hus became even more outspoken when Pope John XXIII launched a crusade and offered soldiers full absolution for their sins if they joined his fight. Hus was outraged by the pope’s using spiritual blessings in exchange for political gain. He publicly criticized the pope for his shameful sale of indulgences, the pope responded by ordering all public worship services to stop as long as Hus remained in the city. Hus left Prague in 1412 and he preached in towns and villages, in fields and forests, so that the gospel was spread even further, reaching the ears of people who did not normally attend church.

When the pope heard that Hus’ teachings were spreading rapidly, he attempted to stop him in another way. He wrote to the emperor of Germany and told him to call a council of bishops and educated men to meet in the city of Constance. The emperor ordered Hus to appear before this council. Hus’ friends urged him not to go until the emperor granted him an order of “safe conduct” which was a promise that his life would be protected regardless of the outcome of the council.

When Hus arrived in Constance, he was immediately cast into a filthy dungeon in a Dominican monastery by the Rhine River. During the day he was kept in chains in his cell, and at night he was fastened to the wall. For weeks, his enemies starved him as they tried to force him to recant his teachings. But Hus’ answer was, “God will not permit me to deny his truth.”        On July 6, 1415, Hus was finally called before the council and charged with heresy. The council leaders mocked him, placing on his head a paper crown, about two feet high, on which were painted three devils, as well as the word “Arch-heretic.” During the trial he said that he would be happy to recant if he could be shown that his views were contrary to Scripture. The council was not interested in a theological debate and they condemned him to death by fire.

Despite the “safe conduct” promise, Hus was led to his place of execution in a meadow outside the city. The guards then bound him with wet ropes to a large wooden stake and fasted a rusty chain around his neck. Then they heaped straw and wood and lit the pile on fire. As the flames wrapped around Hus’ body, instead of screams of agony, the people heard singing. In the midst of his pain, Jan Hus was singing praises to God as he entered into eternal glory.

The name “Hus” is the word for “goose” in the Czech language. A priest who watched the execution reported that before Hus died, he said, “You can cook this goose but within a century a swan shall arise who will prevail. A century later, Martin Luther saw himself as the fulfillment of Hus’ prophecy when he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church and launched the Protestant Reformation.

After Hus’ death, his enemies gathered up his ashes and threw them into the Rhine River to show their hatred toward him. Many of Hus’ followers, who became known as the Hussites, went to war to war with them. The Hussite wars over the next fifteen years led to a period of Bohemian independence from the Roman Catholic Church. The Hussites established their own churches and eventually joined with the Protestant Reformers in the centuries to come. (Kleyn, 19-25 and Lutzer, 12-21)

 

Sola Gratia (By Grace Alone)

Jan Hus fell to the flames in a desperate attempt to rescue the gospel of Jesus Christ. Whereas Waldo and Wycliffe focused on the doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone), Hus reclaimed the biblical doctrine of Sola Gratia (By Grace Alone). He brought people back to the Apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:1-10, where the Apostle explains that sinners can only be saved by God’s grace alone, not by any deeds of their own. Let’s take a closer look at this passage. We find the bad news in verses 1-3 and the good news in verses 4-10.

 

The Bad News: The Problem of Sin (1-3)

Paul begins this section with a sentence that is almost as long as the Nile River. It is a dramatic declaration that all people are spiritually dead because of their sins. He reminds the Ephesians that “trespasses and sins” are both the cause and evidence of spiritual death. Then he goes on to describe their former life without Christ. They followed in the course of the sinful world which is ruled by Satan (the prince of the power of the air), who tries to deceive people into disobeying God. In verse 3, Paul makes it clear that everyone falls into this category of sin, where people live for the purpose of satisfying their own selfish desires, whether they be of the body or the mind. It is because of universal sin that mankind is the object of God’s wrath.

            Now before I go on, some of you may be thinking, “Come on, man, is the world really that bad?” Let me just remind you of what we see around us every day: political exploitation, racial prejudice, economic inequality, social injustice, and religious intolerance. How about the barrage of bullying in our schools, rape rampant on our college campuses, pornography peddled all over the internet, drug deals in our alleyways, and violence in our streets like what we saw in Las Vegas earlier this week?

            OK, maybe you’re still thinking, “Well, I’m not that bad! I haven’t killed anyone. I haven’t done anything bad enough to warrant the wrath of God! Let me just ask you: In the past year, how many lies have you? I don’t mean the big boldface kind—I mean the little white kind that exaggerates the truth? How many gossipy conversations have you engaged in? How many unkind words have slipped out of your mouth? How many times have you lost your temper? How many grudges are you still holding? How many illicit or immoral thoughts have you allowed to dance around in your mind? Remember now, I’m just asking about this past year, not previous years!

            Do you see what I mean? If I was actually able to add up all the sins I’ve committed throughout my life, I know that I deserve God’s wrath and an eternity in hell. And so do you! This is really bad news!

 

The Good News: The Grace of God (4-10)

If this passage ended in verse 3, we would have no hope. But look at the first two words of verse 4—“but God…” Because of God’s rich mercy and great love, even when we were dead in our trespasses, God made us alive together with Christ. It is by grace we have been saved. Grace is unmerited favor from God. He treats us graciously even though we don’t deserve it!

Do you see how this works? God must pour out his wrath on sin to maintain his attribute of justice, but in his grace, he sent his Son Jesus to die for us on the cross, bearing the punishment that we deserve. But he will raise us up to heaven with Christ because of Christ! Verse 8 is really the key verse in this whole passage. We are saved by God’s grace, not by our doing or works. It is God’s free gift that can only be received by faith in Jesus!

Friends, this is good news—really good news—the best news ever. Even though we are sinners who deserve the wrath of God, we can enjoy the eternal benefits of heaven because of God’s grace revealed through his Son Jesus Christ. None of us are good enough to get to heaven! Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone!

Have you experienced God’s grace in your life? Have you made a faith commitment to Jesus Christ yet?

 

            This is the gospel of Jesus Christ! It was the gospel that got misplaced by the Roman Catholic Church throughout the Middle Ages! It is the gospel the Jan Hus and the other Protestant Reformers rediscovered in the Bible! It is the gospel for which Jan Hus faced the flames!

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The Morning Star of the Reformation: John Wycliffe & the Lollard Tradition
2 Peter 1:16-21

Before the sun rises in the morning to drive away the darkness of the night, a bright star often shines beautifully in the eastern sky. We call it the morning star. It tells us that the sun will soon appear above the horizon. The Protestant Reformation was like the sun rising on the church after a long bleak night. John Wycliffe was born during a time of great spiritual darkness. He has been called “the Morning Star of the Reformation” because God used him to shine rays of light into the spiritual darkness of England and much of Europe. He was not actually one of the Reformers, but he, like Peter Waldo, helped prepare the way for the Reformation.

Just out of curiosity, how many of you have ever heard of John Wycliffe? You may not know it, but we are all deeply indebted to Wycliffe—in addition to confronting some of the false teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, he was responsible for the first translation of the Bible into the English language! He paved the way for each of us to be able to read God’s Word in our own language and to see the gospel of Jesus Christ for what is really is! Let me tell you his story!

 

John Wycliffe and the Lollards

John Wycliffe was born in the hinterlands of England, on a sheep farm some 200 miles from London in A.D. 1324. Intellectually gifted, left the family farm and began his studies at Merton College, Oxford University in 1346, eventually becoming a doctor of theology. While a student at Oxford, he came under the tutelage of a godly professor who taught that God alone can save people from their sins. This professor also encouraged him to read the Scriptures for himself. Wycliffe fell in love with the Scriptures and studied them gladly.

In 1349, when he was about 25 years old, the plague reached England. This dreadful plague started in Asia and swept westward across Europe. Because of the black splotches on sick person’s skin, it was called “the black death.” The pandemic was responsible for the death of about one-third of Europe’s population. It left a deep impression on young Wycliffe. He studied the Scripture even more fervently, seeking refuge from the judgment to come. He spent hours in prayer, asking God to show him what to do with his life. God called him into the ministry.

After entering the ministry, he moved three times. His last move was to the little town of Lutterworth where he earned a reputation as a great gospel preacher. He preached with a clarity and power that was rare in those days. Even King Edward III came to hear him.

Over time, the more Wycliffe read the Bible, the more errors he saw in the doctrine and practice of his beloved Roman Catholic church. Many of the clergy had taken vows of poverty, but they dressed up like beggars and traveled all over the country, forcing their way into the houses of the rich and poor, living without paying for things, and taking all the money they could get. They spent so much of their time begging that many of them became wealthy. Like the Pharisees in the Bible, they pretended to be holier than others, although their lives were full of sin and evil.

Wycliffe also realized that many of the Roman Catholic beliefs he had been taught were simply not biblical. He began to write about his conflicts with official church teaching:

  • He wrote against the doctrine of transubstantiation, which teaches that the bread and wine actually becomes the physical body and blood of Christ during communion.
  • He challenged the idea of indulgences, which teaches that you can purchase the souls of loved ones from purgatory.
  • He repudiated the confessional, which teaches that people must confess their sins to a priest if they were to receive forgiveness.
  • He reiterated the biblical teaching on faith: “Trust wholly in Christ; rely altogether on his sufferings; beware of seeking to be justified in any other way than by his righteousness.”
  • Believing that every Christian should have access to Scripture (only Latin translations were available at the time), he began translating the Bible into English, with the help of his good friend John Purvey.

 

The Roman Catholic church bitterly opposed Wycliffe’s teachings. The priests even said of his English Bible, “By this translation, the Scriptures have become vulgar, and they are more available to lay, and even to women who can read, than they were to learned scholars, who have a high intelligence. So the pearl of the gospel is scattered and trodden underfoot by swine.” To that remark, Wycliffe replied, “Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English. Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue; so did Christ’s apostles.”

The church called Wycliffe to appear before a council to answer for his teachings. It became known as the Earthquake Council, because an earthquake occurred while the meeting was taking place. Wycliffe’s friends believed God was showing his anger toward his enemies and hoped it would thwart them. Despite appearing before multiple church councils and suffering all sorts of persecutions and tribulations, including being fired from his teaching post at Oxford, Wycliffe was never excommunicated or executed for his views.

Wycliffe died a peaceful death on December 31, 1384 at the age of sixty and was buried in the church graveyard at Lutterworth. Forty years after his death, his enemies dug up his bones, burned them to ashes, and threw the ashes into the Swift River. Afterward, someone said that just as Wycliffe’s ashes were thrown into the river that eventually flows into the ocean, so the Word of God that he preached and translated will make its way all over the world.

Before his death, he trained a large group of men to help him carry on his call for reform. These men went all over the country, preaching the gospel in churchyards, fairs, marketplaces, in the streets, and wherever they could get people to come and hear them. These men became known as Lollards. “Lollard” was a popular derogatory nickname given to people without an academic background, educated only in English. This name became associated with Wycliffe’s followers.

Over the next few centuries, the Roman Catholic Church condemned many Lollards as heretics and burned them at the stake. But they carried on Wycliffe’s message and influenced Jan Hus, Martin Luther, and many other eventual leaders of the Protestant Reformation. This is why he is called the “Morning Star of the Reformation.”

Wycliffe’s greatest contribution to the church was a renewed emphasis on biblical authority. He spent his whole life teaching people that God’s Word was the final authority for Christian faith and practice, not creeds, councils, or the Pope. These man-made institutions are fallible, but only God’s Word is infallible. (Diane Kleeyn, Refomation Heroes, 7-15)

 

Back to the Bible (2 Peter 1:16-21)

At its core, the Protestant Reformation was what we might call a “Back to the Bible” movement. God’s Word is the only reliable source of guidance for the church and our lives. History has proven that God’s people always get themselves into trouble when they depart from his Word.

The apostle Peter warned the church about this very issue in his second epistle. In chapter 1:16-21, he reminds the church that he and the other apostles did not rely on cleverly devised stories about Jesus’ power, but they were actual eyewitnesses of his majesty. They traveled with Jesus for more than three years and observed his teachings and miracles firsthand. In verses 17-18, he highlights the incredible episode of Jesus transfiguration. Peter, along with James and John, were with Jesus on the holy mountain and they heard the Father’s voice with their own ears. It must have been an awe-inspiring experience to see Jesus shine in radiance and to hear the Father exclaim, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

            Now wouldn’t it be great if God always used his direct audible voice to reveal his divine will to us? Can you image what it would be like to hear God verbalize things like: “Break up with that deadbeat…marry her, she’s a keeper…go to this college, not that one…take this job…don’t buy that house, it’s a money pit…move your retirement account now before the stock market crashes next year…or play these Powerball numbers on Friday!” Just kidding, God never wants us to play the lottery!

Many of us would love to have this type of direct revelation from God, wouldn’t we? But it very rarely works that way. This type of relationship with God wouldn’t require any faith. Instead, God has given us his written Word.

Peter declares, in verse 19, that the prophetic written Word is an even more reliable revelation than a miraculous occurrence of the audible voice of God. But why? Because the prophetic Word (in this case, the Old Testament) can be corroborated by countless people throughout centuries of time. An audible voice can only be verified by the few people who hear it in the moment. This is why Peter tells the church that they should pay close attention to the written Word. The Word of God has the power to penetrate the spiritual darkness and shine Jesus’ light of salvation into human hearts. After all, the Scripture’s origin is divine, not human. It is God’s Word, not mans. The prophets and other human authors of the Bible spoke from God and were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, the Word of God is completely reliable! The Bible—not the pope, not the creeds, not the councils, not the by-laws of our church, and definitely not some claim of God’s voice speaking directly to us—is the church’s final authority in all matters of faith and practice. The Bible is the only dependable source of divine revelation for God’s will in our lives. So, ladies, if some slick talking Romeo ever walks up to you and says, “God told me that I am supposed to marry you…” I want you to look him in the eye and say, “Well, that’s interesting! God told me that whenever I see you I should run like hell!” Tragically, I know some men who have done this—and I know a few women who have fallen for it!

Unfortunately, like John Wycliffe, we live in a time when many people don’t read the Bible or take it seriously. Even though we have the Bible translated into many clear and readable versions of the English language, so few take full advantage of the gift God has given us! Today we are more apt to look to what the broader culture, science, or our own experience as our life authority. Even some churches and whole denominations have abandoned the Bible. They make up their own doctrines and practices in an attempt to accommodate the politically correct culture around them. It is no wonder that the Christian church, as a whole, has drifted so far from God. It is exactly what happened to the Roman Catholic church in the middle-ages!

How about you? Do you take the Bible seriously? Do you read it? Do you study it? Is it your authority? Do you allow God’s Word to dictate your positions and opinions or do you try to conform God’s Word to your positions and opinions? The Bible is our only reliable guide for everything in our lives!

 

John Wycliffe knew that the church was in desperate need of reform. He was the morning star of the Reformation because did his very best to get the Bible in the hands of the people and get it back at the center of the church. Now here we are, many centuries later, and the church is still in need of reform. And so, may the morning star of God’s Word rise in our hearts and shine its light in dark places!

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