My 2007 Reformation Sermon (or at least the last written draft. It came out in presentation somewhat different that it is written)
Romans 12:2a Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
2 Corinthians 3:18 we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
One Sunday early in my preaching history I was booked to preach in a church in Grand Rapids. When I got up in the pulpit and looked out over the congregation, I spotted two of my professors.
One of them was an intimidating presence for me.Need I say I was very nervous?
I felt like the seminary student of whom the story is told regarding when he was about to preach his first sermon in a church he knew several Seminary professors attended.Need I say he was very nervous?
Sure enough, in the hall before the service he met a retired well-known Reformed professor of preaching and his wife. He politely greeted them and half-jokingly asked for some quick last-minute advice.The professor took a deep breath and in a booming voice declared:
Young man, in expounding your exegetical cogitations or promulgating your theological derivations, endeavor to achieve a paucity of platitudinous ponderosity.Proclaim the extrapolations derived from your precious pericope while demonstrating clarified conciseness and compact comprehensibleness, with no coalescent conglomerations of vapid garrulity, loquacious languishing, jejune bafflement or asinine affectation.
Let your extemporaneous verbal articulations illuminate with lucidity, intelligibility and veracious vivacity without rodomontade or Thespian bombast.
Sedulously avoid all polysyllabic profundity, pompous propensity, vaniloquent vacuity or ventriloquial verbosity. Shun double-entendres, obnoxious jocosity and pestiferous profanity … and you’ll do fine.
The seminarian stood there stunned, until the professor’s wife leaned forward and said in a whisper “In other words, stick to the point, say what scripture says, and DON’T USE BIG WORDS!”
In many ways that story illustrates one of the original emphases of the Reformation, doesn’t it? — Getting God’s word accessible to the people.
The Reformers knew that when the Spirit-inspired Word of God is put into people’s hands, that same Spirit inspires true faith and understanding in their heads and hearts. Its that profound!
It’s that simple!
Martin Luther, agonizing to fit his understanding, his reading of the Word of God to the practices of the Rome-based church of his day, realized the church had added many unscriptural things to what was required of believers — extra obligations which God’s Word did not call for. Burdens. Burdens the people simply accepted because they did not have access to the Word and lived in a culture that had little room for holding authority accountable.The church of the time of the Reformers had instituted systems of works and deeds by which salvation could be earned or bought.
The Reformers, who had access to God’s Word, found it spoke of being saved by God’s grace alone, by faith in Christ’s saving work alone, nothing more, nothing less.
And so, as various individuals like Luther began to take bold life-on-the-line efforts to reshape the church back to its basics, what it took to be a follower of Christ began to be redefined, and a lot of excess nonsense was rejected.
One of those excesses was the sales of Indulgences – costly certificates of forgiveness sold to those troubled by whether their deceased kin had made it to heaven.
The shape of being church changed radically. It was Re-forming. So centuries of wandering into superstition and tradition and works-righteousness rather than faith began to be undone in that time.
From our distance away in time, we might feel we are far from the danger of those same patterns, but that is a misleading smugness…
The dangers identified in the Reforming of the church then, remain now. That is because the dangers are rooted in human tendencies and weaknesses. The dangers find a hold in the church again and again as we fall into patterns where we — like the young teacher of the law Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan to — fall into justifying ourselves, wanting to do the things that earn salvation for us on our own steam, and when we lose our mooring in scriptural principles and drift off into squabbles about practices.
Over time I’ve come to think of these things as fitting into those two categories. There are the principles of scripture’s gospel that were rediscovered at that time, and there are the practices which the church decided and decides are based on those principles.
Let me illustrate what I mean by principles:We, along with most Christians, affirm the principle that God Created.We profess that God is sovereign. Those are principles.
When we start talking about how God practised creating, how he did it, we get a wide variation in understanding, even among people who firmly support the principle that God Created.
Some who hold to the same princple believe God did it in 6 24-hour days. Some believe God did it by an evoloutionary process. The principle stays, the understanding of the parctice is different.The body of Christ is fractured when the one view cannot believe the other subscribes to the same principle.
That’s what I mean by the difference between principle and practise.Do you follow that?
The same happens with God’s sovereignty.
There are disputes about how God practises his sovereignty, and about how much sovereignty he delegates to mankind, but the princple remains. The fracturing is in how we understand that to be practiced.It also happens with the princple of Sabbath rest.
Christians acknowledge that scripture teaches that principle, but disagree how we are to live it out. Disagree about how our practice of that principle should look.The princple’s foundation comes out of the fact that God rested one day in seven, and was completed when Jesus did the work for us of making a way that we could be right with God. We can rest in what Jesus has done for us.
So some in the past have constructed elaborate sets of behaviours that were forbidden or permitted on Sunday. The irony of that in my view is that we fall into a trap of making living by these rules our own form of works righteousness. I believe Jesus’ own example and the New Testament and the discoveries of the Reformation call believers away from such behaviour toward “resting from works righteousness, resting in what Jesus has done for us.”
Another principle that was clarified in the Reforming process was that God spoke and speaks through two “books.”The Reformers concluded God self-reveals through the book of the Bible, and through the book of nature or creation.Speaking of nature as a book, I want to interupt here and give you three word-pictures out of nature that I plan to incorporate later:– a fish can’t describe the water it is swimming in, just as we think how we experience life is ‘normal’ and can’t easily describe our ‘culture.’
– Hermit crabs – need to find shells to protect themselves, but need to find bigger ones as they grow
– Exoskeletal creatures actually break out of their skeleton as they grow biggerBack to the two books of God’s self-revelation.In deciding on those two, the Reformers were decidedly rejecting the book of tradition.
They concluded Scripture should weigh more in hearing God than Tradition.But here again, there is something about human nature that we have learned since then, something that has us all reading scripture through the eyes of tradition.
That’s because we are like fish, and we have a hard time seeing our culture, our tradition. So what we are used to ‘hearing’ from scripture tends to become a ‘fixed’ truth. It is hard work to break out of that!
Most of these traditions are patterns established in a particular culture, a period of history.The danger is that we by our natures, are prone to making an etternal pattern out of outdated proper practices based on scriptural principles.I recently heard again the story of the Salvation Army. When we think of SA music, what do we think of?Right, brass and drums.
Did you know that these were the popular music of the time the SA was formed, and my SA army friend in Ontario had a hard time getting guitars, keyboards and drums into a SA army church!
(same with gettring rid of Altar rails in the Anglican church – they were put in as fences to keep dogs from peeing on the altar. Now there are no dogs in the church, but you can’t get rid of the rail!)Now a little closer to home. Did you know that the organ – powerful instrument of worship that it is – is a good example. You can imagine my surprise when reading some church history at seminary, when I read about the battles that took place in the churches to get the organ admitted as an instrument to lead worship! You see, it was considered a secular instrument. It was argued the house of God would be defiled by bringing in a worldly machine such at that. Now, when we want to move to more contemporary instruments, in some places, we can’t get rid of the organ. But the day is coming when we will have the same problem with guitars and drums. A day when we should be moving on from them, but my generation will cling to them out of tradition.
Contemporary practices of a particular time are accepted and fit in, and become so much the norm, the way of doing, that they start to be considered as sacred. And the church stops Reforming, calls itself Reformed with a period behind it and growth stops.
Here’s another way that works: You’ve all heard the story about the woman who was preparing a large roast for a family reunion dinner. Her daughter was helping her. Before she put the roast in the huge roasting pan, she took some care to cut the end off. Her daughter asked her why? She said, “I don’t really know, I just remember my mother doing that” Let’s go ask her why she did it. They asked, the Grandmother said, “I remember my mother doing that but I don’t know why. So they asked everyone to be quiet, and stood directly in front of Great Grandma and asked. GG said, well dear, it was the only way to fit it into the pan.
There are habits which are carried over from the past whose valid time is done.
Well, we could go through all the principles that way: Mankind is saved by God’s grace, not by their own actions, but by faith in what God has done through Jesus is a key principle of the Reformation as well.
So we profess “Grace alone” – yet we devise measures of behaviour that supposedly earn graceWe profess “Faith alone” – but we have put an extreme amount of emphais on having the knowledge right first before we can be considere faithful.
We profess “Christ alone” but we secretly or not so secretly measure church attendance, or giving or other measures.
We profess that there is a Priesthood of all believers but we hold the pastor on a pedestal that leaves little room for pastors to be human. And we, in keeping the pastor up on a pedestal of expectations, don’t step up and exercise our own priesthood to the world.
You get the picture by now, I’m sure. And we are called, in remembering the Reformation, to clearly refocus on and celebrate the princples and reshape our practises.
Each successive generation will have it’s favourite habits which add meaning for them. But the danger is letting those practices, those doings be the definition of being. Being Christian, and being Reformed. It is in fact the priciples that define us.
Our texts for today call us to one other thing. It is related to what I’ve been describing but slightly different.
Paul, in Romans 12:1,2 calls us to onging change. Ongoing metamorphasis. Change from within, rather than being shaped by from outside by the world (or the church’s traditional patterns).
Paul is writing here about how God’s grace can and should shape the life of the believer. Grace makes a difference. It brings with it a power to reshape and restructure life in a way that suits God’s lordship.
That reshaping power, once released in the self, has an effect that ripples out into the community, into society and eventually affects the state. This is what he is beginning to describe here. Paul makes clear this transforming effect starts within the individual.
He says offer your whole entire self to God’s service and you will be changed.
Like with the hokey-pokey dance, You throw your whole self in, but you never take it out.
You allow the grace of God to fill you, you live by the power and leading of the Spirit, and you let those loving forces transform you. That is worship! “Fitting” worship. All day, everyday, worship.
Paul also talks about transformation, metamorphasis, in our other text. When we have the Spirit revealed to us and have the fog cleared away, God’s shekaina glory gets revealed in and through us! And we change. Like the hermit crab we grow, and we find a different shell to pull around us. Like an exoskeletal creature we break out of the old patterns that have been restraining God’s glory from being revealed, and we break out into something new, vulnerable yes, but fresh and new in our reflection of God.
We ReMorph. A new Reformation happens. We change when we grow in God.
Congregation of God’s people, can you feel the ache in your heart and in our collective souls to break out into something new, something fresh, something freer, that for a time will enable us to be Reforming again into the body of Christ?
And God’s people who feel the yearning said: AMEN