Bible Passage: Jeremiah 23:1-6 Pastor: Pastor Berg Sermon Date: October 29, 2017
What does this mean? That’s a familiar question, isn’t it, question that’s near and dear to many of us. We’ve grown up asking that question as we memorize the different parts of Luther’s Small Catechism. But this is not a question that’s reserved for catechism instruction. As we celebrate the Festival of Reformation—and a momentous one at that—the 500th anniversary, people are asking, “What does this mean? What does it mean to be a Lutheran?” Did you know that Martin Luther didn’t like the idea of people being called “Lutherans.” He would have much rather they simply be called “Christians,” for it was Christ and his Word that Luther was teaching. Yet, the name stuck and it’s estimated that today there are more than 80 million people around the world who call themselves Lutherans. But what does this mean? Does that name Lutheran still carry the same meaning? Nadia Bolz-Weber is a famous Lutheran pastor in ELCA. She’s a featured speaker for the upcoming ELCA Youth Gathering. As a Lutheran, she admits to being a universalist, which means everyone is going to be saved. She says nobody believes every line of the Apostles’ Creed. She doesn’t believe that Jesus had to die in our place to save us. She believes hell is imaginary. Is that what it means to be a Lutheran? I think we all would say no because we don’t believe any of those things to be true. So what does it mean to be a Lutheran in the same way that Martin Luther was a Lutheran? What is it that made someone a Lutheran?
The Lutheran Reformation was founded on what we call the Solas. Sola is a latin word which means, “alone.” Four solas summarize what Luther rediscovered and reintroduced to the world. In honor of the 500th anniversary of that blessing, we will be looking at those solas over the next few months. The Lutheran Reformation was a return to the Scriptures as the only source of authority, of faith, of life for the believer. Luther himself said, “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing…the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.” Sola Scriptura, Scripture Alone is our focus today. What does this mean? May the words of the Prophet Jeremiah help us to see that Scripture alone is God’s message to us and that in Scripture alone do we find our Savior Jesus.
There once was a man, a servant of God, who was preaching a message that the spiritual leaders of his day didn’t want to hear. Because of his message, he was often in great danger, even of losing his life. He was punished by the rulers for speaking the truth. So great was the distaste for this man that they even burned his writings. Who is this man? Sounds an awful lot like what Martin Luther went through, doesn’t it? Because of his refusal to recant his teachings he was declared an outlaw and could be killed on sight. He was excommunicated by the church. The church insisted that his writings be burned. And yet, Martin Luther isn’t the only right answer. The same was also true about the prophet Jeremiah. And it is one of those despised messages from the Lord that Jeremiah shares with us today. He writes: “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord.”
David and the kings after him had a special job. God tell us in Psalm 78, “He chose David his servant and took him from the sheep pens; from tending the sheep he brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob, of Israel his inheritance.” Kings were to be spiritual shepherds. But many of the kings who followed David failed miserably in this task. They were guiding their flocks in different directions—and none were for the good of the sheep. The sheep were missing out on their spiritual grassland and streams, instead being made to drink from the murky waters of false teachings and false gods. Jeremiah calls out these leaders, the kings of his time. And God has a chilling promise for them. “Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,” declares the Lord.”
Unfortunately, things were no different in Luther’s day. The saving truths of God’s Word had long been obscured by the spiritual shepherds of that day by a teaching of works, by the sale of indulgences, by relics and rites. Luther lamented how bad it was when the ones who were supposed to be leading the people had no knowledge of the Scriptures. It was like the blind leading the blind, like sheep leading sheep. It wasn’t going to end well.
Is it much different today? Where are the shepherds of the world pointing us? To the thought that this life is all that there is, so we better enjoy it while we can? Pointing to ourselves and our own efforts, that if we just think positively and try harder, then things will work out? It’s true, there are bad shepherds out there, but, we can’t simply put all the blame on the shepherds of the day. We know that we like sheep like to wander, despite the warnings of our shepherds. Often times we ignore the green pastures and the clean, quiet waters that are right there for us and instead find ourselves in murky waters. Where is your spiritual murky water? Are you like Noah, who in a moment of weakness found his strength in alcohol rather than with the Almighty One? Are you like Abraham and Isaac and Jacob who practiced deceit and trusted in their own cunning rather than in the Lord’s will? Perhaps you’re like David and Solomon who allowed the lust in their hearts to manifest itself in adultery, just like the lust and adultery that runs rampant through your heart and mind.
No the shepherds of Jeremiah’s time and Luther’s time and today are not blameless. In many cases they fit Jeremiah’s description to a T. But we are not blameless either. We need shepherds. We need good shepherds to keep us from wandering, to keep us on the straight and narrow; on the path that leads to eternal life. And so listen to what God did. “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. 4 I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the Lord.” God gave you shepherds in your life to guide you. He gave you your parents, your extended family who first taught you the truth of the Scriptures. He gave you Christian friends and acquaintances. He’s given you a school filled with God-fearing men and women who have been trained to instruct and correct and encourage. And, whether you’ve been a lifelong member of this congregation or not, week in and week out, you have come here, to this place, and heard God’s guidance given in the public proclamation of his Word. For the message that we preach is not human philosophy or the latest ideas of the day. No the message we preach is Christ crucified and risen—that the forgiveness of sins and eternal life is yours through faith. That’s the message that flows from the pages of Scripture. It was so for Jeremiah, for Luther, and it’s true for us!
And while an earthly shepherd can guide you and protect you, an earthly shepherd cannot save you. The solution to the problem of wandering sheep and lacking shepherds is not and cannot be “try harder next time” or “be a better person.” It is not and cannot because that’s impossible. I’m imperfect. You’re imperfect. I am not righteous. You are not righteous. And so again, God stepped in. “The days are coming,” declares the Lord,“when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteousness.”
Did you catch it? It was quick. It was seemingly so small, but in reality it is the biggest thing that’s ever happened in our lives. Just three little letters describe how God solved the problem of our imperfection and our lack of righteousness. O and U and R.
You do not need a better guide or better rulebook in order to get into heaven. You needed righteousness, so God gave you righteousness. Jeremiah says here that the gift God gave is named, “The LORD Our Righteousness,” but for all your years, you have probably called him by a different name: Jesus. God sent Jesus to be you, in place of you. He sent Jesus to take on human flesh. He sent Jesus to subject himself to those commandments carved in stone. He sent Jesus to undergo the temptations of the Devil and the sinful world in which we live. He sent Jesus to endure all of the same frustrations and pain and sufferings that you undergo. Only, he sent Jesus to keep those commands, to withstand those temptations, and to overcome the trials and tribulations of this world. And Jesus did just that.
Jesus lived a perfect life. Jesus alone, earned righteousness before God. And then the gave it as a gift to each and every one of you when he sacrificed that life on the cross.
And how can that gift possibly be applied to you? Paul says to the Romans, “I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” It is Scripture alone that tells us what Jesus has done. It is Scripture alone through which the Holy Spirit works to create faith, to cause us to believe in what Jesus has done. It is Scripture alone that led Luther to discover that the righteousness that God demanded was not from himself, but from the LORD Our Righteousness, from Christ.
Jesus IS our righteousness. This is what it means to be a Lutheran. This is what Luther taught and this is what we teach. This is what we believe. This is what empowers us to live our lives of thanksgiving. It is through Scripture alone that God grows his church. It is Scripture alone which has the power to change hearts of stone into hearts of faith. It is Scripture alone that moves us to serve. It is Scripture alone that is the authority for our lives. Therefore, it is Scripture alone that we will proclaim.
What does it mean to be a Lutheran? Unfortunately, the answers we would hear today would be wide and varied. But for Luther, being Lutheran meant being Christian. Christ was his sole focus. Scripture alone was his authority. He was willing to stake his life on that. May we be so bold and so focused that nothing ever shake us or move us off of Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone. AMEN