Today is Reformation Sunday. I am not an expert in the study of the Reformation period, and I cannot impress you with details and stories from that historical period. But it remains a pivotal part of the church’s year, and it is good that we remember the Reformation today.
You know of course that the day is chosen as being the Sunday closest to the day on which Martin Luther made public his 95 Theses (which Wikipedia tells me is called more precisely, “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”). As the longer title suggests, Luther objected especially to the practice of collecting “indulgences”—payments made to the church that were supposed to ensure salvation. The popular saying was: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory [also attested as ‘into heaven’] springs.” Luther insisted that only God can forgive, and we turn to God alone for salvation.
I wonder, do you think that indulgences could take root in our society today? Surely not! Indulgences were a way to achieve several goals. They helped make one certain of salvation in a most uncertain world. They allowed one to go around the hard demands of the gospel and take a shortcut to eternal security. One need not make embarrassing (and potentially damaging) confessions. One need not make difficult (and potentially costly) changes to one’s lifestyle. Pay some money to the priest, and all is cared for. We would never consider doing such things, would we?
We are human, of course. We belong to a society that loves shortcuts. Pick up any magazine at the checkout counter and you will find articles such as these: “Ten (or five, or three, one!) easy steps to losing weight.” “Three exciting ways to improve your sex life.” “Tired of cooking? Use this sure fire method to prepare a 15-minute meal.” One headline after another tries to set us free from the hard work of building relationships and doing our duty. We are a people deeply in love with indulgences.
Here is one theme of modern life that functions as indulgences in our lives today. Lois and I have reached the age that we can begin to draw on what Canadians call “Old Age Security” (OAS). Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and Social Security (the American version) are also in the picture. Do they have something of the nature of indulgences? Perhaps.
I am reading a book on the East African Revival (A Gentle Wind of God, by Macmater and Jacobs), a moving of God that began in Uganda and Rwanda in the 1930s and spread also to England and North America. In 1960 a man named William Nagenda visited the American brothers and sisters who had also experienced some of the revival. One American named Don Widmark recalls a conversation with Nagenda that he found life-changing:
We were driving north from Los Angeles to Fresno. The sun was just coming up and casting long shadows from the hills over Bakersfield and the valley below. William had awakened from a snooze and was looking around, when he said, “Don, do you have any weak brethren who know that they are weak?” I asked what he meant. William went on to say, “You Americans are wonderful people. You are so strong. You just know how to do things, get things done, organized, so efficiently.” I was beginning to be really confused. “You know how to do things so well you really don’t need Jesus too much. Don, do you really have one person who is weak, who knows it, and so in all things he can trust him who alone is strength to do for him all in all? (MacMaster and Jacobs, 199)
Our self-sufficiency (as represented by the way we take care of ourselves at retirement) is one of our greatest indulgences. It protects us from having to reveal ourselves, our faults, our problems—the reality of just what is inside us. We use it to drop “a coin in the coffer” and set ourselves free, but of course our efforts fail. In the end our self-sufficiency fails and we face eternity with or without God.
Note: We sang “A Mighty Fortress” for reformation Sunday. Perhaps we need to grasp Luther’s thoughts more clearly: “For still our ancient foe/ Doth seek to work us woe./ His craft and power are great,/ and armed with cruel hate/ On earth is not his equal.” Luther combines a lively awareness of Satan’s activity in our world combined with absolute trust in God.
With these thoughts in mind, consider the texts we have heard this morning.
In Job 42:1-6 and 10-17 Job truly sees God, “repents”, and is rewarded. Without going into detail about Job and his gains and losses, we observe that Job sought God’s face through his pain and received God’s blessings.
I have wondered sometimes if Job’s wealth and security in the beginning of the book could have become a snare for him. The text states that he is a righteous man; his wealth is his blessing and he gives thanks and honour to God. But in the end wealth tends to turn our hearts away from God. That is why Jesus said, “It is harder for a rich man to enter into heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.”
When Job sees God, he repents. If he is truly righteous, what does he repent of? Not of open sin—there was none in his life. Perhaps he repented most fully of the sense that many of us have that we can be what God wants. When one sees God, one becomes aware of how unworthy we are to be in God’s presence. “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord high and lifted up, and his glory filled the temple.” So spoke Isaiah. What was his response when he saw the glory of God? “Woe is me!” he cried. “I am ruined! I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 6)
We don’t use this kind of language, but if we truly see God we discover that we are broken people, too weak to stand in God’s presence. Then God can fill us with his Spirit to do his work.
Hebrews 7:23-28 is part of a long argument to demonstrate that Jesus does what no earthly priest (or minister) can do—Jesus can “save us completely”; Jesus “truly meets our needs”. It is true that we take care of each other, but in a fuller sense only Jesus can truly meet our needs. Only Jesus can “save completely”, because Jesus is the “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” (1:3) The readers of Hebrews were considering returning to Judaism (cf Hebrews 6), partly because it provided a kind of security that parallels the use of indulgences. It had become a way of going around God to ensure one’s own security. The writer reminds them that only Jesus can give the kind of help that they seek.
Mark 10:46-52 tells us the story of Bartimaeus, who appeals to Jesus for healing. Who knows how long he had sat by the road in that spot. He heard people talking about Jesus and his miracles of healing. Perhaps he talked with friends about what he would do if he could meet Jesus. Then he hears a group of people going by and hears that Jesus is there. He appeals loudly, insistently, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus healed him.
You notice that Jesus asked the blind man what he wanted. “I want to see!” (I wonder if he muttered under his breath, “What did you think I want?”) You notice also what he does when Jesus heals him. He follows Jesus. The time he had spent in darkness prepared him well, and when he met Jesus, he followed Jesus. There was no thought of self-sufficiency in his heart. There was no thought of using any kind of indulgence to get around the demands of discipleship. He got up and followed Jesus. He already knew that he could not deal with reality alone.
You see the point of thee passages, read in light of indulgences. We need to be broken, aware of our weakness, and then we can learn to lean on Jesus alone. I mentioned William Nagenda and the East Africa Revival. This theme of brokenness was basic to their experience. One brother met another and confessed his ongoing struggle to be holy. The other replied, “Stop trying! Confess each day that you cannot be holy and ask Jesus to carry you. God has done all that can be done.”
It may take the struggles of Job or of Bartimaeus in our lives before we get rid of our indulgences. The only true reformation is to give up trying to fix ourselves, and confess our failures to God, and trust in Jesus to re-form us, re-make us, re-create us as the people God wants us to be.
Preached at Grace Bible Church, Winnipeg
25 October 2015
Texts: Job 42:1-6, 10-17