October 30th, 2011
“Dirges and Flutes”
A blessed Reformation day to you. Today is that one day in the church year that we Lutherans, especially, highlight our heritage. Beginning in the 1500's, with the German monk Martin Luther, the Western church began to reform. We went back to the Bible as our only source and norm of faith and life. We saw the error of many of our ways. The abuses of Rome were corrected, the false practices that had crept in over the centuries were abolished. And most importantly, the doctrine – the truth – that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone!
This message, the Gospel, we still preach today! It is the good news of Jesus Christ, crucified for sinners like you and me. It is good news, but it's not particularly new. It is a good news, that has long been rejected.
Jesus teaches that the prophets had been preaching the word and God had been working in the world, establishing his kingdom, from the beginning. Even John the Baptist, the most recent prophet to appear – his message was nothing new. Nor was its rejection. It's always been this way. Whether John the Baptist or Jesus, Martin Luther or C.F.W. Walther, modern pastor, Old Testament prophet. Not all have ears to hear. Not all appreciate, receive and believe in this good news.
Well, part of the good news is the bad news. And John preached that well. In fact, he prepared the way for the good news of Jesus with a harsh word of law. “Repent!” John cried, “You brood of vipers!” Today we might call that a “downer”. Politically incorrect. Not the feel-good message that lifts your spirits and puts a spring in your step. John preached a fierce law, unfettered from niceties. He didn't care who he offended when he called out sin, and sinners. And if he were here today, he'd likely do the same. He'd point right out at you in the pews, and me in the pulpit. He'd rub your nose in your sin and make you smell it afresh. Such was John's preaching. And not all had ears to hear. Some rejected.
But as a preacher of the law, John had a greater goal in mind. He preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. You see, John prepared the way. He showed, clearly, exposed and laid bare sin – so that we would rejoice all the more at the coming of the Messiah. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The one who John isn't worthy to stoop down and touch his sandals, the one who we are not worthy to worship or pray to or believe in.
But we do, by his own invitation and through his own Spirit. We who know our sin, know our savior. Jesus, the lamb who once was slain for us. The savior whose shed blood makes us clean. Who gives us gifts at font and altar, concrete grace and rock-solid promise. But not all have ears to hear. Some would hear of Jesus, and reject.
Jesus uses a children's rhyme to illustrate his point.
“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.”
He's not talking about music styles here, how the church worships. He's lamenting that some would hear neither the law nor the gospel.
They won't mourn at the dirge – that is – they won't grieve over their sins. This is central to being a Christian – sorrow for sin. I don't know how many Christians today downplay the seriousness of sin. Some won't even say the word! They may think of it as a mere challenge, or problem, a hurdle to overcome. But sin is death! It's your funeral! It's worse! Sin separates you from God, and from him eternally. What a senseless, shameful, ugly thing is sin. Your sin is worth mourning. And since we sin daily, and sin much, the Christian lives in daily repentance. I pray that you have ears to hear the funeral dirge of the law – it's not someone else's, some other sinner's funeral – it's yours!
But also have ears for the gospel. Dance when that flute is played. Not literally, I mean, we are Lutherans after all. But rejoice in the good news of Jesus Christ – who danced on his own grave so that you will one day dance on yours. He is the author and fulfiller of your faith. He is the priest and the sacrifice for sin. He is the one who walked the walk you couldn't, died the death you should've, and promises you a blessed and glorious future forever. Friend, best friend, of tax collectors, prostitutes, gentiles, lepers, and all kinds of sinners, even sinners like you and me.
We are Lutherans. We sing the dirge, and we play the flute. We cherish both the Law of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We know our need for both.
If we tried to get by on just the law, there would be no hope. We'd either be lost on the endless treadmill of good works, or more honestly despair our inability to do enough, our constant failures. No the law alone will not do. It either leaves us self-righteous or just plain broken.
Nor will the Gospel alone suffice. Forgiveness is meaningless without sins to be forgiven. The Good News isn't that good, unless we clearly see what needs fixing. So the Gospel without the law is meaningless sentiment, an empty smile – or it morphs into another kind of law, the tyranny of love.
We need the righteousness apart from the law. We need the righteousness from outside ourselves, the salvation accomplished for us by Jesus, at the cross. Only this will do.
We are baptized by him. We are fed together at his meal, by him. We gather to hear him, receive him, and respond in faith to him by his spirit. But it is all by his grace, and no merit of our own.
We need to sing the dirge and play the flute – to hear John's call to repent, and Jesus' call to faith. To know our sin well, and also our Savior. To repent daily, and turn to Jesus in faith. To have ears to hear both important words of God.
That's what John the Baptist taught. That's what Luther taught. That's what Walther taught. That's what Jesus taught. And that's what we believe. On this Reformation Day and always, Amen.