Text: 1 Kings 22:1-13, 1 John 2:18-27 X Reformation Festival
Time for a Change
In the name of him who changes not and whose Word is trustworthy and true, dear friends in Christ: The Church was a total mess. That’s the only way to describe it. From top to bottom it was crumbling – literally collapsing into ruin; and that’s only to speak of the physical building itself. Inside, theologically, in terms of the Church’s doctrine and practice, it was rotten to the core. Instead of hearing what the Lord God had to say about anything, worshippers at this Church were more likely to encounter open idolatry, pagan superstitions, sellers of good luck charms and amulets to ward off evil spirits, and prostitution—that’s right: sex for sale, with women, men, children – no perversion was out of bounds – right there in the Church itself; and all of this not only condoned but actively promoted by the priests who supposedly led the people in the worship of the one true God. Yes, it was every bit that bad – and even worse because I’m giving you the sanitized version of it.
And though most of what I just said could easily have described the state of the Christian Church in 1517 when Martin Luther inadvertently touched off the explosion we call the Reformation, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m referring to the way things were in 633 BC when good King Josiah reigned in Judah. Then the Church of God was the Temple in Jerusalem. It had been built during the reign of Josiah’s illustrious ancestor, Solomon, some 330 years earlier. At that time, the nation of Israel was at its peak of wealth and power, and no expense had been spared to make it a building suitable to be the dwelling place of God on earth. But by the time Josiah took the throne, the nation of Israel was long past its glory days. And now the grand old house built by Solomon for the Lord was showing the unmistakable signs of age and neglect – and worse, like I said, the truth of God once proclaimed there and the proper worship of the Lord once practiced there were things long since forgotten.
But as we heard, Josiah wanted to do what was right in the eyes of the Lord. Somehow in his early formation he had managed to learn a little about Lord and the history of his interaction with his chosen people – and in particular with his family, the line of David. I imagine that Josiah must have felt that he owed the Lord something for making him king. And so it was that at the relatively young age of twenty-six he ordered the restoration of the Temple. He first had the priests inventory the Temple treasuries – the gold coins of the Temple Tax that had been accumulating for many decades in musty vaults deep in the bowels of the holy precincts. The money was intended for the Temple’s maintenance and upkeep – but that hadn’t been happening; so it just piled up, and apparently they weren’t even bothering to count it any more. No one really knew how much or what kind of treasure they’d find stored away down there in those dark chambers. (And I expect there’re a lot of church treasurers today who would like to have that problem.)
But anyway, it was while they were rooting around down there and emptying the vaults that one of the priests stumbled upon the Church’s greatest treasure of all. He found the Holy Scriptures. They had been stored away and neglected – unseen by human eyes and unread for at least two generations. The priest handed them over to Hilkiah, the high priest. Realizing the importance of the discovery, Hilkiah sent them at once to the king by the royal secretary, who in turn read it to Josiah. And when Josiah heard for the first time in his life the whole truth of what God had actually done for his people in the past, and what things he had commanded them about the moral law and how to worship and so on – and when he compared those things to what was actually being taught and practiced in the Temple – he tore his kingly robes in abject grief and holy terror. “How furious the Lord must be with us. We’ve been assuming all along that what we’re doing is right because this is what our fathers taught us. These are the traditions they handed down. Who knew that pretty much everything we’re doing is an abomination to God?”
Josiah decided it was time for a change. He ordered that things be done according to God’s Word. And so began a major reformation of the Church. They removed and destroyed the pagan idols that had been placed in the Temple. They tore down the altars to the false gods and goddesses, some of which had been used to sacrifice human infants by burning them alive. They tore down the quarters of the male and female shrine prostitutes and drove their occupants out of the Temple. They got rid of those who told fortunes, and claimed to be able to speak to the dead, and those who cast all kinds of magic spells. They did all that and more; but in short, they cleaned things up in a theological sense and they returned to the way of the Lord. They threw out their misguided traditions and let the Word of God alone inform them and change them for the better.
And hearing this, it may be difficult for us to imagine how it could happen that things could get so messed up in the first place. How could people who had God’s Word wander so far from it – so far that they lost the Word altogether and didn’t even realize it was missing? The answer is pretty simple: they lost it a little at a time. Or to be more precise, they started with small steps and little compromises that got bigger over time. Before long they became giant leaps. And it really shouldn’t surprise us. It is the nature of sinful humans to wander from God and his Word. And the farther people wander, the easier it gets to keep going even farther. And if that weren’t enough to cause us to stray, we also have the temptations of Satan and the allure of the world steadily pulling us away from the truth of God’s Word. It’s like we’re swimming in a river with a strong current. If we just want to stay where we are, it takes a lot of work. The moment we stop swimming for all we’re worth upstream, we start losing ground and getting swept away.
And we see this repeatedly in the history of God’s people. The reform under Josiah was not the first – not by a long shot. And it certainly wasn’t the last. In fact, shortly after his death things fell away rather rapidly. Only forty years later, it was like his reformation never happened. The Church in Jerusalem was so corrupt that the Lord decided to destroy it completely and start over again from scratch. The second Temple was dedicated in 516 BC, and it too went through periods of wandering from the truth – and not always because they lost God’s Word outright; but more often because they were misinterpreting it. Just think how things were at the time of Jesus’ ministry. Then, on one side you had the Pharisees who understood God’s Word in a very lockstep and legalistic way. For them it was a book of rules to obey and by which you earned God’s favor. On the other hand you had the Sadducees who had a very liberal and non-literal understanding of the Scriptures. For them the Bible was a collection of mythical stories that served to give cultural identity to their people; but they rejected all the miraculous elements. They didn’t believe in a God who actually intervened in human affairs or who planned one day to raise the dead and judge them – giving eternal glory to some and condemnation to others. They thought the very idea was silly. So, both sides had the Word of God; but neither side understood that everything in it pointed to Jesus Christ, God’s Son, and his mission to save the world by offering himself as the atoning sacrifice for sin. Though they were the religious teachers, though they were the stewards of the Church of God, they rejected Jesus and his Gospel. They put him to death.
Jesus himself reformed the Church and set it back on track according to God’s Word when he rose from the dead. Many came to believe in his Gospel – including many of the priests and religious leaders who had formerly rejected him. The Church of Christ grew and flourished. The saving truth of the Gospel spread all over the known world. But something we often forget is that it took constant work and continuous correction to keep it on track. Apart from the four Gospels that tell us of the life and ministry of Jesus, most of the books of the New Testament are the writings of St. Paul – and most of what he writes are corrections against false doctrines and ungodly practices that were constantly springing up in the Church. In the Epistle lesson, we heard St. John warning that many antichrists are out there actively trying to subvert the Gospel of Jesus Christ and turn the Church away from his saving truth.
It’s not to be unexpected, then, that things were awfully messed up in the Church at the time of Luther. And it’s kind of funny that one of the arguments made by the religious leaders of the established Church in his day was that they couldn’t possibly be wrong. They were the Church, after all; and Christ would never allow his Church to be in error. This argument is still being made by the Roman Church today; but it’s an argument that shows a complete disregard for the biblical record, which is one of God’s people constantly wandering from the truth and having to be reformed on the basis of God’s Word again and again. The argument is almost like saying that God would never allow his perfect creation to fall into sin. Hey: it happened. And now that we are in sin, it keeps happening at an alarming rate. We should expect it and be guarding against it.
Today we celebrate the sixteenth century Reformation of the Church. We thank God for the rediscovery of his Word and its central truth that we are saved from sin by grace alone through faith alone in the atoning suffering and death of Christ our Lord. We thank the Lord that his Word was raised again to its proper place of authority over all religious leaders, traditions, and human institutions. We thank him for revealing again to us that his Word alone must be what changes us for the better, because everything else out there – our fallen natures, the world, and Satan himself – are trying to change us for the worse. And realizing this, we commit ourselves anew to staying in his Word, to carefully and consistently reading, studying, talking about, and applying his Word to our lives so that we keep it alive in ourselves, and so that are able to pass it on to our children and their children in all its truth and purity. We do this because we recognize that if we don’t, it can and it will be lost again. If history proves nothing else, it’s that change is inevitable. The question is: what kind of change is it going to be?
You may not be aware of it, but our own Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has its origin in a reform movement within the Evangelical Church in Germany in the mid 1800s. To make a long story short the rediscovered truths of the Reformation had been slipping away bit by bit until at last the King of Prussia issued a decree that made it impossible to be a faithful Lutheran in the land of Luther. Those who wanted to adhere to a proper understanding of Christ’s Word and Sacraments were forced to flee to this country.
And even here we’ve had our problems. Just a few months ago, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which has a more liberal background and history than we have, met in convention. There they decided by an overwhelming majority to approve same sex marriages and also to allow openly practicing homosexuals to serve as pastors in their congregations; this, despite clear prohibitions against both in God’s Word. But then, who needs God’s Word? Their leaders are saying that the Spirit has revealed something new to them quite apart from the Word. And I agree that they’re listening to a spirit; but it’s not the one they think they are. No, they’re listening to the spirit of the age, the corrupt spirits of their own sinful natures, and the lying spirit of Satan himself. They are definitely not listening to the Spirit of God who speaks through the Word alone.
And we’ve had our own problems too. In the sixties and seventies we had the “Battle for the Bible”, for example. Then the question was should we adopt a more liberal understanding of God’s Word – similar to the one held by the church body I just mentioned that allows the Word to be ignored or twisted and bent to say whatever we want it to, or should we confess the truthfulness and authority of God’s Word and let it be what shapes and changes us? By God’s grace alone, as a church body anyway, we won that battle – though there were many individuals and congregations that went the other way. But if you walk away with nothing else this morning understand this: the battle isn’t over. We are always changing either for the better or the worse. We are either changing by God’s Word or against it.
And that leads me to a present battle in our church body. There are many people including most of our present higher level leaders who say it’s time for a change. They say that the way we’ve been operating – teaching God’s Word and striving to be faithful in the administration of the Sacraments – well, that’s old school. It’s the old way of “doing Church”. Sure, in worked in Grandpa’s day, and for a few stubborn hold outs it still works; but not nearly well enough. It isn’t “successful” enough; by which they mean it’s not attracting an optimal number of new converts to the Church. It’s funny: angels in heaven rejoice over even one sinner who repents and comes to saving faith in Christ; but that’s not good enough to make these folks happy. And so they’re out to “revitalize congregations” with a program they call the Transforming Churches Network – or TCN for short. Right now they’re trying to get two thousand congregations to sign up. The basic plan is to adopt the methods of the big non-denominational mega churches that keep sprouting like mushrooms in the suburbs of major cities. They use business and marketing models to find out what people want and then change the church to meet their felt needs and expectations. And, of course, in general people don’t want to be lectured about God’s Law and told that they are sinners in need of a Savior. They don’t want to hear about Christ and his death on a cross. What they want is to hear uplifting things that will make them feel good about themselves. They want to hear inspiring stories that make them laugh and cry. They want songs short on substance but long on feeling – and so that’s what “transformed churches” are taught to give them: what they want, not what they need. And churches so transformed become “successful”; that is, they attract more people to come. The result is changed churches that are wide with respect to numbers of people, but whose understanding of God’s Word and the Christian faith is about this [half an inch] deep. God save this church from change like that.
Instead, let the change that happens here among us be by God’s Word alone, because only that can be change for the better. And let us all recommit ourselves to abiding in the Word of Christ, to hearing, reading, studying, and discussing his Word with one another, that we may truly be his disciples and know, and never lose, the truth that set us free. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!