Sunday, October 30, 2011

Always Being Reformed According to the Word of God

Texts:    Nehemiah 7:73b-12; Matthew 23:1-12

TODAY WE OBSERVE Reformation Day.  It was October 31, 1517, when the issues that'd been fermenting for decades  in the Church of Jesus Christ came to a head and nothing would ever be the same.  Reformation Day marks the official beginning of the Protestant Church, for when Martin Luther hammered his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, he was protesting against the evils and degeneracies that were rife in the church he loved.

    Luther was followed by Calvin, and Melanchthon, and Knox, and all the other great Protestant Reformers who lived and died by this confession: That we are saved not by our works, but by Christ alone by God's grace alone through faith alone to God's glory alone, this truth being revealed to us in Scripture alone.  In the life of the people of God, reformation is not a one-time thing; it's required again and again, as often as we go astray from the truth of the grace of God and as often as He sends His Spirit to bring us back to Him again.

    In our Scripture passages this morning we read of two occasions in Israel's history when God's people were in desperate need of reformation.  In Nehemiah, the reformation is underway.  In Matthew, it appears to be too late.

    The assembly in Nehemiah 8 takes place about a hundred years after the Jews were first given permission to return to the land of Israel after the exile to Babylon.  The exile shook to the foundations everything the Jews understood about their covenant with God.  But as they studied the Law and the Prophets, they came to realize that even in this terrible situation the Lord was still with them and still had a purpose for them.  They saw that it was their sins that had caused the Lord to drive them out of the land, and they returned to Judea with a heart of repentance and reformation.

    But as we read in the twin books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and in the book of the prophet Haggai, after awhile the returned exiles became complacent and lazy towards God.  They erected their own houses and didn't restore the Temple.  They feared the opposition of their non-Jewish neighbors and didn't trust God to protect them.  So they didn't rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.  Worse, they began to fall back into the same sins that had gotten them thrown out of the Promised Land in the first place: Marrying foreign wives and adopting their religious practices.  Desecrating the Sabbath.  Oppressing the poor, not supporting the worship of the Temple as prescribed by the Law of Moses, and so on.  Spurred on by Ezra and Nehemiah, they put in the effort and the Temple and walls were rebuilt.  But spiritually, they needed reformation.  How was it to come about?  Would it be enough if all the heads of households simply pledged to keep God's covenant?  They did do that.  But how were they to know what God's covenant will was?

    Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest and scribe knew:  True reform would come to the people only if they were brought back to the written Word of God, delivered to Moses in the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  So in Nehemiah 8 we see the people, men, women, and all children who were old enough to understand, standing in the square beside the Jerusalem Water Gate, listening to Ezra read the Word of God to them. 

    How could they know God's will unless they knew God's Word?  God's people could be remade and remolded only according to the original plan and pattern He set for them.  The people listened to the Word of God read to them in Hebrew.  Most of them no longer understood their ancestral language, so the Levites went through the crowd and translated the Word into Aramaic for them, so, as it says in verse 8, the meaning would be clear.

    And the message of the Word became clear, painfully clear.  These spiritual ancestors of ours were devastated.  They were cut to the quick by the enormity of their sin.  They mourned and wept, as we read in verse 9. 

    Any true reformation born of God's Word and Spirit first convicts us of our sin.  The Scripture confronts us with how far short we fall of God's will for us.  It exposes how we have gone wrong, and God's Spirit moves us to grieve at how we have offended against the Lord who saved us once and loves us still.

    But after grief, the Word brings hope.  Its message of salvation does not leave us in our distress.  It doesn't stomp us into the ground and tell us how worthless and meaningless we are.  No, God's Word calls us to lift up our heads and rejoice in the Lord, for He has saved and forgiven us.  Through His power we can amend our lives and our practices and be the church He intends for us to be.  This is cause to celebrate!  As Nehemiah says to the people in verse 10, "Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."

    "The joy of the Lord is your strength"!  True reformation according to the Word of God brings joy!  Joy in the Lord who is our salvation, and strength, because God Himself is joyful when His people return to Him in faith and humility.

    God's people the Jews needed to be reformed by the Word of God.  And again and again up to the coming of Jesus Christ, their Lord and Messiah, they needed reformation. 

    The Pharisees began as a reform movement.  They started out well, in the days of the Maccabean kings, about two hundred years before Jesus was born.  They worked hard to call their Jewish brethren back to the Law of God and away from Greek and secular innovations.  But so zealous were they, that over the years they began to see themselves as the only true interpreters of the Word.  They were so anxious that everyone should keep all the laws of worship and ritual just-exactly, that they came up with all sorts of additional guidelines and rules setting out their ideas of what God in His Word had really meant.  This oral law took on the same force as the original Law that the Lord delivered to Moses, whether it was faithful to the original meaning or not.

    By Jesus' day, things had gotten very bad with the Pharisees, but they didn't realize it.  They didn't see they'd missed the whole reason that God had given the Law to Moses in the first place-- to prepare a holy people through whom the Savior of the world should come.  They were like a bride who's so concerned with getting the pearl decorations on her headdress just right that she forgets to show up at the altar to meet her groom.  The Word of God no longer had power to bring repentance and joy in their lives.  Or, should I say, the Lord had withdrawn His Spirit from them so that they could not and would not hear the truth of the Word, and repent and be saved.

    In chapter 23 of the gospel according to St. Matthew Jesus pronounces woe and condemnation on the Pharisees.  They were beyond being reformed and they sought to keep others from being reformed, too.

    Yes (as He says in verse 2), "The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat."  They were like college professors with multiple doctorates.  By training they were qualified to teach what God had given through Moses.  They were the only sect in 1st century Judaism who made any effort to instruct the common people in the word of God.  So, as they taught according to the Torah, the people should obey them and do as they say.  But do not do as they do, Jesus warns us.  Do not follow the way they show off their outward obedience and inwardly are full of impurity, meanness, and unbelief.  Do not follow the way they claim to love God, but reject His Messiah, Jesus Himself.  Do not make the teaching of the Word of God all about ourselves and our greatness, instead of us being all about what God has done.  Do not be like them and make the voice of Scripture a burden and a trial to one another, instead of a light bringing repentance and the joy of the Lord.

    The Pharisees thought they didn't need to be reformed.  They thought the way they were doing things was a reformation in itself. In Matthew 23 Jesus tells His disciples and the crowds that God was finished with the Pharisees and their pretensions.  So do not aspire to be called "Rabbi," which literally means, "My great one."  Do not look to any human being as your spiritual master or teacher, for Christ alone is your supreme teacher.  In the life of the spirit, do not adorn any man with the title "father," for God in heaven alone is the Father of all the faithful.  No, for "whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted."

    As Presbyterians, we celebrate the Protestant Reformation.  We proudly stand in the tradition of Luther and Calvin.  So is it enough for us to look back five hundred years to a reformation that is finished, accomplished, complete?  Or are we, in our own time and place, in need of reformation so we will be a church pleasing to our Lord Jesus Christ, the Head and Cornerstone of the church?

    Considering what's been going on in our denomination lately, I think most of us would give that question a resounding "YES!!"  As a church body, we do need reformation in our time.  But let's not deceive ourselves.  Yes, it's harmful for us to celebrate open transgression.  It's distressing when we who call ourselves "Reformed" don't extend the redeeming grace of Jesus to those who tragically identify with their besetting sin.  But it's worse when we fall away from the faith of Jesus Christ in ways that seem innocent, even helpful, and don't even notice how faithless we've become and don't realize how much in need of reformation we really are.

    How many of us would agree to the following tenets:
1) "A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth."
2) "God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions."
3) "The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself."
4). "God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when He is needed to resolve a problem."
5) "Good people go to heaven when they die."

    Does this sound like Christianity to you, let alone Reformed Christianity?  It is not.  It's a counterfeit, false religion called moralistic therapeutic deism.  There is no room here for the sovereign Lord of the Bible.  It says nothing about our sin and our desperate need for a Savior.  It has no real need of the Son of God who hung on a cross to purchase forgiveness for us.  It does not acknowledge that our sovereign God has a claim on every part of our lives, nor does it bow the knee in awe and thanksgiving at His grace that alone will allow us into His presence when we die.

    But this is the creed many of us live by, a false creed we must reject.  The watchword of the Reformed churches is that we are "Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei"-- "The Church Reformed, always to be reformed according to the word of God."  Without close knowledge of God's Holy Scriptures, without the Holy Spirit confirming their truth to our hearts and conforming us to the image of Jesus Christ the living Word, our attempts at self-reformation will be worse than useless. 

    God's good news to us is that we are saved by Christ alone by God's grace alone through faith alone to God's glory alone.  This truth is revealed to us in Scripture alone, the Word of God that is as close as the Bible on our shelf.  Take up, read; repent, rejoice, and be reformed, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.

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