Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Only One Gave Thanks (Luke 17:11-19) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

It was the day after Thanksgiving.  A woman caught her husband weighing himself on the scale.  He was sucking in his stomach. “That won’t help you, honey,” his wife said.  “You know that won’t help.”  Her husband replied:  “Oh, it helps a lot; it’s the only way I can see the numbers.”

I hope you’re ready for Thanksgiving.  And I’m not speaking only about the food.  Thanksgiving is such an important holiday for us as Americans and for us as Christians.  It’s a time to give thanks to God for our nation and our freedoms, which we enjoy because of the sacrifice of the men and women in our military, and to give thanks that the God we believe in is a God whom we can trust, seek strength from, worship and serve.   It is a time to think about what we have to be thankful for.   It is a day which reminds us that thankfulness and happiness, happiness and being thankful, are inseparable.

Of course, people are thankful for different things.  On Thanksgiving a mom was outside one frigid morning shoveling snow from her driveway.  A neighbor stopped by to say hi and asked her why her husband wasn’t out there helping her shovel snow.  The mom explained that one of them had to stay inside to take care of the children, so they drew straws to see who would go out and shovel.  “Sorry about your bad luck,” the neighbor said.  The mom looked up from her shoveling and said, “Oh, don’t be sorry.  I won.”

Our nation celebrates Thanksgiving Day this coming Thursday.   Thanksgiving, as an unofficial festival, began in 1622, when Governor William Bradford summoned the survivors of the Mayflower to a meal to praise God for their first harvest, the first tangible sign that their pilgrimage had divine approval.

President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, in the midst of a civil war that had torn this nation apart, issued a proclamation.  He wrote: “I invite my fellow citizens in every part of the united States to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father.  And I recommend that they fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty’s hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as may be consistent with the Divine purpose to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and union.”   What inspiring words.

The season of Thanksgiving offers us the opportunity to examine our hearts and minds and to honestly reflect on some important questions:  Do I live a thankful life?  Do I have a thankful heart?  What am I truly thankful for?   Being thankful is not natural to human nature.  It must be taught and caught.  One of the first important lessons parents teach their children is to say please and thank you.  Being thankful is an attitude, a powerful and positive attitude, that if learned, translates into enjoyment, fulfillment and appreciation.

Our Gospel story for this morning is about 10 lepers.  Lepers were the most revolting human beings of Jesus’ day.  They were repulsive to the eyes.  Their mere presence horrified people who feared they would be contaminated with the dreaded disease.  Lepers were socially ostracized, cut off from friends, banned from their homes and from the temple, and banished to live in remote valleys and caves.  They were literally the zombies, the walking dead of their day.

Luke tells us that Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem and as he approaches a village, ten lepers confront him.  One leper would be bad enough, but ten surrounding you would be terrifying. The story says: “Keeping their distance, they cried out in desperation, ‘Jesus Master, have mercy on us.’”   The law required that lepers keep their distance from people.  One authority writes that when the wind was blowing toward the healthy person, the law stated that lepers had to stand at least 50 yards away.  The law specified that if a leper saw someone approaching, they had to yell “unclean” three times to warn people and then cross the road.

These lepers knew that Jesus was no ordinary rabbi.  They call him master and appeal for Him to show mercy.  They fully believed the stories they had heard about Jesus’ power to heal.  And out of compassion and by the divine power within him, Jesus heals them.

Now if Jesus healed me of a dreaded disease, a life-threatening illness I would be overjoyed.  How about you?  I would shout aloud: “Thank you God.”   And yet though ten lepers were healed, only one turned back to give thanks.  “A Samaritan, seeing that he was healed, turned back and with a loud voice glorified God, fell down on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.”

Jesus says: “Were not ten made clean?  Where are the other nine?  Was no one found to return and give God praise except this foreigner?”   You can hear the sadness and disappointment in Jesus’ words.   This story reminds us that all too often human beings are not thankful.  The attitude of gratitude is the exception, rather than the rule.

Why was Jesus disappointed that only one leper had returned to give thanks for his healing?   Were his feelings hurt?  I think so; Jesus was after-all fully human.  But there is something larger going on in this story than hurt feelings.  Jesus was deeply concerned about the human heart: our inner life, our interior life, the condition of our soul.  Jesus knew what a person is like whose heart is thankless.  An ungrateful heart is a cold heart, a callous heart.  Jesus knew it was a form of spiritual death.  Spiritually we might call it heart disease.   Jesus' desire was for people to have a thankful spirit, grounded in their faith in God.  Jesus was saying that gratitude should be at the core of one’s being.  Jesus healed the lepers to change their hearts so they would God the glory and praise.

When faith in God is lacking, we focus primarily on ourselves: our needs, our fears, our disappointments, our resentments, our desires, our missed opportunities, with no or little appreciation of our blessings or the needs and hurts of those around us.  A cold heart doesn’t have the ability to appreciate beauty and wonder and generosity and surprises of grace.    We become blind to the love from others around us and we become blind to their needs and concerns.

We hear a lot about the attitude of entitlement today.  The greater our sense of entitlement, that we deserve the things we want in life, that we have the right to have the things we want in life, the smaller our sense of gratitude.  Like gratitude and happiness, so gratitude and humility also are inseparable.  Our entitlement mindset has led to a proliferation of lawsuits in our society, when we don't get something we want or believe we deserve, we sue somebody.

Look inside yourself for a moment.  Is your heart thankful?  If the answer is yes, ask yourself why?  Why are you a thankful person?  Since thankfulness is not intrinsic to human nature, what has formed your heart?  I suspect some important and influential role models helped to shape your heart.  How has your faith helped to develop your heart of gratitude?   I suspect a growing and maturing faith, infused by the Holy Spirit, has something to do with it.

Is your heart thankful? If the answer is no, ask yourself why?    If you have an ungrateful heart, repent, tell God you are sorry, seek God’s forgiveness and ask God to change your heart.  And God will.  True faith says thank you God for your grace.   The words of a contemporary praise song capture it well:  “Change my heart oh God Make it ever true, Change my heart oh God, May I be like You. You are the potter I am the clay, Mold me and make me, This is what I pray.  Change my heart oh God, Make it ever true, Change my heart oh God, May I be like You.”   Yes, a growing, dynamic and genuine faith in God has a way of stimulating and producing a grateful heart.  When we have changed hearts, when we are no longer ruled by pride and self-centeredness, we become more like Christ, more Christ-like.

There is always something to be thankful for.     In the darkest of times, there is always some light.  In the saddest of times, there are always lighter moments.   In times of loneliness, there is always someone you can call or someone who will surprise you.  Why?  It is because of God’s grace.

A childhood friend of mine from San Diego, Bill Frost, we called him Frosty, died a few days ago.  He lived in Flagstaff, AZ.  We had gone to Sunday School together and spent a lot of time together up in the elementary years through high school.  He was a Vietnam veteran, serving in the infantry, and the war definitely took its toll on him the rest of his life.  In these later years he developed a disease where the muscles in his legs were getting weaker, he wore braces, but knew one day he would be in a wheel chair.  We had not seen each other for over 30 years, and got reacquainted about 5 years ago.   We regularly communicated through email, texting and even telephone calls.

He often would say:  “Al, I am grateful to God for my life.  I can say this to you because as a minister you understand.  I just talked to a good friend for over an hour whom I haven’t talked to for years.  I am a happy guy.”  He talked about his good fortune to have two brothers and how close they were.  He would say: “You know Al, we are not as young as we used to be.  We don’t know how much time we have left, so we need to make the most of it and spend time with people who bring positive energy.  We need to do things we think God wants us to do.  I have just learned to appreciate the little things, the small things, the surprises in life, like getting reacquainted with old friends after years of being apart.  Yes, I have problems but they could be worse.  I thank God for so many good things in my life.”

Bill embodied the spirit in the letter of I Thessalonians 5:17 which says:  “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

God's Spirit is at work in our hearts and minds through faith, working to bring hope out of hopelessness, strength out of weakness, wisdom out of foolishness, and gratitude out of ingratitude.  I can personally testify to this holy work of God in my own life over the years and yet I know I am still a work in progress.  I deeply believe there is an unbreakable bond between faith and thankfulness.  Faith in God inspires a thankful heart and a thankful heart strengthens and deepens faith.

One of them, when he saw that he was healed, gave thanks to God with a loud voice.”  My friends, let us too live lives of thankfulness.  Amen!

Friday, November 17, 2017

Bringing People to the Lord (John 1:35-42) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In September of this year, Pat Payaso ran for an open seat on Boston's city council.  He felt he needed a gimmick for his campaign. Payaso donned a rainbow wig, a red nose, and clown makeup and decided to run as a clown.  He thought this would get people’s attention so they would listen to his message.

He showed up at a polling place dressed like a clown, talking and glad handing everyone.  He got their attention:  people were frightened, uncomfortable, nervous, they wouldn’t speak to him, they hugged their children close to their side, they turned and walked away.   Someone called the police who came out to check him out.  By the way, he wasn’t elected.

Payaso wasn't trying to scare anyone, he just wanted to find an unusual way to spread the word about his ideas for city government and garner some interest from potential voters.  Jesus commands us as His followers to spread the word.  But perhaps there are more effective ways to spread the good news, the gospel, than standing on a corner screaming at people or dressing up like a clown.

On this St. Andrew’s Sunday we recall our vision statement:  PBPC - People bringing people to Christ.  Today is about sharing our faith by word or deed or both.  Why?  Because Jesus’ disciple Andrew was known in Jesus’ day and has been celebrated by the church down through the centuries, as an evangelist.  Andrew was one of the 12 original disciples of Jesus.  He is Scotland’s patron saint and Protestant churches around the world celebrate his life in November of each year.

The soft, delicate, faint, whispering sound of the bagpipes sets the mood.   And we thank Charlie Rosenberger for playing today.  The names of families of Scottish heritage from our congregation are shown on the screens.  You see colorful tartans representing Scottish clans around you this morning.  Though I am not Scottish, I am wearing the official clergy tartan of Scotland, a gift from a member of another church I served.  A word to the wise; you never call someone of Scottish descent, Scotch, he’s scotch.  As a Scot told me, Scotch is something you drink, a Scot or Scottish is who you are.

We know from life experience that politics and religion are two subjects which many people try to avoid, and that is true for people we know well, like family members or close friends, especially if we disagree on these subjects, as well as acquaintances and strangers.   Roughly four-in-ten people today say they seldom or never discuss religion even with members of their immediate family.  So sharing or spreading the word is counter-intuitive.   But here we are.

Who was Andrew?   He was originally a disciple of John the Baptist.  But after he and another disciple met Jesus and spent the day with him, learning Jesus was the Messiah, Andrew became a follower of Jesus.  He was ardent about bringing people to Jesus.  Andrew’s heart burned with the desire for persons to encounter Jesus.

For instance, Andrew found a young boy, who had five loaves and two fish, and brought him to meet Jesus.  Jesus performed a miracle that day and fed 5,000 people.  Andrew invited some gentiles, Greeks, to go with him and he introduced them to Jesus.  But the incident, for which he is most remembered, happened after he and another disciple spent that day with Jesus, a day that changed their lives forever.  Andrew was so euphoric that he immediately set out to find his brother Simon Peter.  “Peter, we have found the Messiah.”  He brought Peter to Jesus, introduced him and the rest is history.

Tradition says that Andrew was crucified upside down, on a cross which looks like an X.  It is actually the Greek letter Chi, the first letter of the word Christ.  Andrew asked to die this way, because he felt unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus.  The cross is called the St. Andrew’s cross.

There are numerous ways to spread the word.  I spoke to a man about a year ago at a meeting at one of our Presbyterian churches here in SD Presbytery.  At the meeting, we were sitting in small groups at separate tables, sharing with each other about how we came to faith.  He said his family were non-believers and that he wasn’t raised in a Christian home.  He had never gone to church.  As an adult he was married, was raising a family and working.  But he said he had nagging questions about faith and God and religion. He had an interest but never pursed it.

Then one day his neighbor invited his family over for a barbeque.  They found that they worked in the same field and immediately hit it off.  They became friends.  One day, the neighbor asked him if he ever thought about spiritual or religious matters.  This man said: “Well, actually I do have some questions.”  Over time, they began to talk about spirituality, God and faith.  Then his neighbor invited him to a Bible study at their church.  He loved it and continued attending.  Eventually the man started coming to worship.   Long story short, this is the man I met who is an active member and leader in this Presbyterian Church.   God used his neighbor’s witness to reach him.  Though we sometimes think people don’t have spiritual questions or interests, you never know who may be interested in discussing spiritual issues and where it might lead to.

God is a seeking God, a reaching God, a loving God, and we know this because God sent Jesus Christ into the world.  God is searching for us before we even think about searching for him.    Know this, God is seeking after you.

Why does Jesus reach out to us?  Because of his deep and abiding love for us.   Because people are sinners and need a savior and forgiveness and power for living a new life.  Because God wants to rescue people who are lost.  Because God values human beings whom He created.  Because God wants people to know Him and enter into a personal relationship with Him.  Because God wants to reach people who are far from him and draw them near, he wants to change hard hearts into receptive hearts.  Because God wants people to worship Him rather than idols and serve His purposes in this world.  Because God desires to bring hope and light and joy and peace to us.  Because as scripture says: The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life.  Witnessing is sharing the story of God’s forgiving love and how His love has affected, even transformed your life.

Today, we live in an increasingly diverse and divided culture.  People still search for the answers to age old questions – who am I, why am I here, what is my purpose, what happens after I die?   God, Christ, the Christian faith, is one of a number of answers to these questions.  As a Christian, I personally believe it is ultimately the best answer and the only answer.  Certainly many would disagree.

The gospel is God’s word of truth and power in the story of the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the Son of God.  This gospel brings freedom, forgiveness, healing and hope and the power of the Holy Spirit to all who receive it in faith.  1 Peter 3:15 says:  “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”  This is our content.  “But do so with gentleness and respect.”  This is our style.

Your style of witnessing must be natural to you, for we are different and have different personalities.  Our style is as important as the content of our witness.   Jesus commands us to spread the word out of love, but he doesn’t tell us how.  It can range from talking to someone face to face, to writing a letter, or email, from inviting someone to church or Bible study, to inviting them to tea or a barbeque.

Lord, here I am, use me as your messenger.”  God wants to use you.  You never know how God will use your style of witnessing.   Rev. Rick Warren writes: “God has given you a life message to share.  When you became a believer, you also became God’s messenger.  God wants to speak to the world through you.  You may feel you don’t have anything to share, but that’s the Devil trying to keep you silent.  You have a storehouse of experiences that God wants to use to bring others into His family.”

Is God calling you to witness to someone?  Pray daily for that person.  Ask God to guide you as to the how. Pray for courage.  God is thrilled when by our witness the Holy Spirit brings someone into God's family, into God's Kingdom, into eternal life.

Jesus says witness with courage and joy, with gentleness and respect, with perseverance and faith.  May the power of Jesus Christ, the witness of St. Andrew and the melodious sound of the bagpipes inspire you.  Amen!

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Inescapable God (Psalm 139) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Since it's opening in 1874, the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England, has been the place where many extraordinary discoveries in physics have taken place.  They discovered the first electron, they laid the foundations for the discovery of quantum mechanics in the 1920s, and laid the groundwork for the discovery of the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule in the 1950's.  What surprised me is that at the entrance to the old lab is a quote from the Bible, Psalm 111:2 “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.”  What further surprised me is that the scientists again voted to inscribe the same quote, from Psalm 111, over the entrance to the new lab that opened in 1973.  Despite the skepticism in our society, there are scientists who delight in, who recognize God’s mind and hand, as they study the world and human beings.  The works of the Lord.

As the book of Genesis in the Bible testifies, God created human beings in His own image.  This means many things, but one thing it doesn’t mean is that God made people all alike, that God used a divine cookie cutter.  No assembly line production here.  Quite the contrary; God has created us very differently.  Just sit at a park and do some people watching and you will be quickly reminded.   Here are three biblical truths about us based upon Psalm.

First, being created in God’s image means we are unique.   The psalmist in 139 says: “For it was you Lord who formed my inward parts.”  Christians believe there is one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  After God created the world and human beings God threw the mold away.

I am unique!  You are unique!  You are one of a kind, without parallel.  For instance, look at identical twins.  They have the same genetic makeup, but they also have slightly different physical traits, distinctive personalities, and different fingerprints and footprints and eyeprints.  There’s not anybody in the world like you.  There never has been.  There isn’t now.  There never will be.

I know we have Doppelgängers, a double, a counterpart in this life.  Have you ever met your doppelganger?  I have seen doubles of other people and I recall someone who said he saw my double.  Now that’s kind of an eerie thought.  But they are still not the same as we are.  God does not create carbon copies.  God only creates originals.

If you were to search the whole world, you wouldn’t find two people who have the same footprint or fingerprint or voiceprint or eyeprint.   Our genetic blue-print is unlike anyone else in the world.  That is how special you and I are in God’s eyes.  That is how much we matter to God.  So don’t compare yourself to others, it will either make you feel superior or inferior.  Your creation, by a personal God, gives you your worth, your value, your esteem, your dignity, your humanity.

Second, being made in God’s image means that you and I are incredibly complex!  The psalmist says in psalm 139: “I praise you God for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.  Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.”   God didn’t make us simple.  God created us as complex persons.

For example, there are 11 major organ systems in the human body, such as the respiratory, immune, and digestive systems.  The mysterious thing we call a brain weighs about 3.3 pounds.  It can perform what 500 tons of electrical and electronic equipment cannot do.  It contains 10 to 15 billion neurons, each a living unit in itself; it performs feats that absolutely boggle the mind.   How about the amazing red blood cell which is created in the bone marrow?  It immediately gives up its nucleus when it reaches the bloodstream.  For any other cell, this would mean death.   A red blood cell is formed with a thin membrane, without a nucleus it is able to carry more oxygen for the body.  Or think of the complexity of the human eye and all the myriad of functions it performs.  The eye can differentiate between some 10 million colors.

We are emotionally complex.   Think of a good friend of yours who continues to surprise or sometimes shock you; just when you think they were predictable.  How many of you married somebody who is wonderfully complex?  Have you ever thought, “Ah, there’s a side I haven’t seen before!”   How many of you have a brother or sister or son or daughter who is wonderfully complex?  Just when you thought you had them all figured out - they surprise you.

Of all God’s creatures, we alone are made for a spiritual relationship, for divine fellowship, for communion with God during our earthly journey.  The 5th century church father St. Augustine wrote: “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in thee.”

Sometimes we are a mystery to ourselves.   Have you ever acted in a strange way or said something which startled you, not to mention someone else?  And a little while later you thought - “What is wrong with me?” Why did I do that?”  “Why in the world did I say that?”  There’s nothing wrong with you or we hope not.  We don’t even know ourselves fully.  God knows you far better than you know yourself. God has made you marvelously complex.

Finally, being made in God’s image means you and I are known by God.   Hear again the words of the psalmist: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.  You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.  You are acquainted with all my ways.  Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.  Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high I cannot attain it.  Where ever I go there you are.  Your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me fast.”     God knows you better than your best friend, better than your wife or husband, better than brothers or sisters, better than you know yourself and God is with you wherever you are.  God is inescapable.

God, your creator and mine, desires for you and me to live with a single focus: “To live out our uniqueness, our complexity, God’s knowledge of us for God’s glory.”  I close with a quote from the late author Og Mandino, a Christian motivational writer, in his book, The Greatest Salesman in the World:

I am nature’s greatest miracle.  Since the beginning of time never has there been another with my mind, my heart, my eyes, my ears, my hands, my hair, my mouth.  None that came before, none that live today, and none that come tomorrow can walk and talk and move and think exactly like me.  All men are my brothers and I am different from each.  I am a unique creature. None can duplicate my brush stokes, none can make my chisel marks, none can duplicate my handwriting, none can produce my child, and in truth, none have the abilities to sell exactly as I.  I am rare, and there is value in all rarity; therefore, I am valuable.  I am not on this earth by chance.  I am here for a purpose and that purpose is to grow into a mountain, not to shrink to a grain of sand.  No beast, no plant, no wind, no rain, no rock, no lake had the same beginning as I, for I was conceived in love and brought forth with a purpose.  Let us use our uniqueness to glorify God.  Amen!

Friday, November 3, 2017

Martin Luther (Ephesians 2:8-10) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Today we commemorate the launching of the 16th Century Protestant Reformation.  The message of the reformation is just as relevant today as it was then.  On October 31, 1517, 500 years ago, a Roman Catholic monk named Martin Luther, nailed 95 theses on the Castle Door, in Wittenberg Germany.  The 95 theses were protests or criticisms of the theology and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.  I know you are very interested in what all of these theses protested, so let’s get started, number 1.

Luther didn’t set out to break with the church, but to simply reform it.  He was surprised by the widespread reaction to his public protest.  He had touched a nerve in the lives of the people and his reputation spread quickly throughout Germany and Europe.  Opposition from the Pope and the church in Rome followed.  They said: “There is a wild boar ravaging in the vineyard of the Lord.”  The Roman Church demanded that Luther recant his errors, and when Martin refused, a tear in the Church, a schism in Christianity occurred, which has lasted 500 years.  The Protestant church was born.

In Luther’s day God was pictured as being angry and vengeful because of human sin.  God is good and humanity is sinful.  People were afraid of God.   Scripture says the wages of sin is death.  Human sin, the sins of idolatry and disobedience, had dishonored, had disrespected, had blasphemed God the creator.  Even Jesus seemed to be a harsh judge to Luther who sent the saved to heaven and the damned to hell.   Luther was afraid for his soul and tried to appease God, to become acceptable to God.  He tried to earn God’s favor and forgiveness.  He fasted until his cheeks caved in, he performed good works for the poor, he crawled on his knees up the church steps until his knees bled, he confessed his sins for six hours at a stretch, but in the end Luther felt hopeless, helpless, and afraid that God would not accept him and forgive him, and welcome Luther into heaven.

Luther felt like the nominal Christian who lived with the philosophy that his good works would be more than enough to get him into heaven. One night he dreamed of the last judgment, when all humanity stood before God.  He was standing directly behind Mother Teresa.  He overheard God say, “Teresa, I was really expecting a lot more out of you.”

So Luther turned to the Scriptures.  Luther studied the book of Romans.  He read verses such as the following: “The gospel is the power of God for salvation to all who have faith; The righteous shall live by faith; Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,  God proves his love for us in that while were still sinners Christ died for us, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus;  If God is for us, who can be against us; I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord; God sent Jesus Christ, that through his sacrifice, he took the punishment for our sins.”  In the letter of Ephesians Luther read: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”   We are saved not by works, but by God’s grace through faith.

What is grace?  It is like when I was serving a church in Colorado.  I had just finished moderating a long session meeting and I was eager to get home.  You elders know what I’m talking about.  It was about 10:00 pm and I was driving along a narrow frontage road on my way home.   No one was on the road.   Suddenly I saw flashing lights in my rear view mirror.   The police officer pulled me over and asked:  “Do you know why I stopped you?”  I said: “Yes, I was speeding.  I just was on my way home after moderating a session meeting at my church.”  He didn’t say anything.  He finished writing the ticket. I signed it and as he was tearing it out of the book, he ripped the ticket in half.  I don’t know if it was on purpose or was an accident.  He looked at me and said:  “This must be your night, be safe.”  He walked away without giving me a ticket.  That is grace.

Luther heard that word of grace and knew that God had spoken to him through the scriptures.  He was transformed by his understanding that the gospel was good news, joyful news of what God has already done in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to make us right with God, not what we have to do in order to get right with God.  All we need do is respond, that is, repent of our sins and believe the good news of the gospel.  God has saved us in Jesus.  All we need do is accept God’s salvation in Jesus Christ through faith.   After that God will begin His work of sanctification, of transforming our hearts, souls, minds and behavior, to make us more and more like Christ.

This revolutionary understanding of the gospel caused Luther to begin looking into the practices of the church which had long troubled him, and the unity of the church of the Middle Ages was broken.  Luther translated the Latin Bible into German, the language of the people, because he wanted Germans to read God’s word in their own language.  He wrote hymns like A Mighty Fortress is our God and carols like Away in a Manger.  He denied that there was such a place as purgatory or such a requirement as penance, because he could not find biblical grounds for these doctrines.  He said the Bible is our authority, not the pope.  Popes are fallible.  The church should pattern its life and its theology on the Bible, on scripture.  And if any church doctrines or practices are not supported by scripture they should be stopped.

The Reformation began with a simple act, nailing 95 theses or protests against the Roman church.  About half of them were protests against the church’s practice of selling indulgences.   What is an indulgence?  An indulgence is: "A way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for one’s sins."  The Catholic Church declared that God forgives sins when you confess your sins to a priest.  But even though you are forgiven, you still had to be punished for those sins. You had to do penance.   Indulgences were a means of taking care of the penalties for your sins.  They would reduce or eliminate the punishment you had to undergo after your sins were forgiven.   It is called the doctrine of penance.

Gradually, the practice of indulgences became corrupt.  Indulgences were sold.  They began as the priest telling you to say certain prayers like Hail Mary Mother of God a certain number of times to pay the penalty for your sins, to doing good works to pay for your sins, to buying indulgences in exchange for your punishment.   The Roman church said indulgences could reduce the time spent in purgatory for family, relatives and friends who had died and were being purged for their sins, or reduce or eliminate the time you would spend in purgatory after you died, or to move family members who had died from purgatory to heaven.   Indulgences were sold to purchase salvation from damnation.  Indulgences were used to raise money for the church, to buy land, to build cathedrals, like St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, or to fund the Crusades.  Churches were accumulating more wealth at the expense of the people.

Luther saw these abuses and decided to take action.  Here are just three of Luther’s protests out of the 95. He writes: “Why does not the Pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?” “They are the enemies of Christ and the pope who forbid altogether the preaching of the Word of God in some churches in order that indulgences may be preached in others.”  “Injury is done to the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or larger amount of time is devoted to indulgences than to the Word.

The Message of Luther, the message of the gospel, the message of the Bible is repent and believe the good news of the free gift of God’s forgiving and transforming love in Jesus Christ.  God is gracious.  His salvation is the greatest gift we can ever receive.  In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen!