Category: Sunday Morning Sermon
“I PLIGHT THEE MY TROTH”
October 29, 2017
Christ Lutheran Church
Rev. Dr. Steven E. Albertin
When the bride and groom at a wedding exchange rings, they often say something like this: “With all that I am . . . and all that I have . . . I honor you in the name of God.” The old, quaint King James English used to put it like this: “I plight thee my troth and with all my worldly goods I do thee endow.” In other words, everything that the groom has and is now belongs to the bride . . . and everything that the bride has and is now belongs to the groom.
In this giving and receiving of a Promise we see the central message of this Reformation Sunday.
However, at first glance what we commemorate today seems like just another piece of boring church history. On October 31, 1517, All Saints Eve, an Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed The 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, requesting a debate with his colleagues at the University of Wittenberg over the sale of indulgences in the church. The debate never took place but it set off a firestorm of controversy that changed the church and the world.
As a youth, I remember Reformation Sunday as “the Lutheran holiday.” Growing up in southeastern Wisconsin where there was a huge Lutheran population, I remember hundreds of dedicated Lutherans gathering on a Sunday afternoon every October in a local auditorium for a Reformation Service. There was a lot of self-congratulation. We assured ourselves that the Lutherans got it right and every body else got it wrong. Today it seems utterly unreal that crowds would gather on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of the football season for something like that.
What we remember today is no “Lutheran holiday.” What we remember is not an interesting event of our denomination’s family history. What we remember is at the very heart of the Christian faith: the making and keeping of a Promise.
The making and keeping of promises has always been essential to human life. Without them we cannot live together. So much of life is fractured because promises made become promises broken. When promises are broken, marriages end, businesses go bankrupt, families crumble and economies go into recession.
Today’s First Reading from the prophet Jeremiah is also about the making and keeping of a promises. Jeremiah spoke these words in the 6th century B.C. as the city of Jerusalem and the nation of Israel lay in rubble and ruin. Jeremiah had predicted that this would happen, because Israel had not trusted the promise of God. God had delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt and made a promise to Israel at Mt. Sinai. Because God had delivered Israel from Egypt, Israel was to be faithful to God and keep things like the Ten Commandments. Israel was not faithful. It did not keep the commandments. It had been disobedient for generations. Now it was suffering the consequences. The Babylonians had pillaged Jerusalem. The city and its glorious temple lie in ruin.
Had God given up on Israel? Was all now hopeless?
In the midst of the rubble, Jeremiah did something truly odd. As everyone else fled Jerusalem, Jeremiah bought a piece of property. The stockbrokers had recommended “sell” but Jeremiah “buys.” Jeremiah seemed like a fool, but he believed, . . . .in spite of evidence to the contrary, . . . that God will keep His promise. There is still hope for the people of Israel.
To support that hope, Jeremiah utters a series of hope-filled prophecies, one of which is today’s First Reading. It is one of my favorite passages in all of the Old Testament.
Jeremiah declares that God will make a new covenant, a new promise, to His people. Unlike the old promise that God made with them at Sinai, the new promise would be based on forgiveness. It could not be broken. God would not write it on stone but on the human heart. No longer would prophets like Jeremiah need to scold the people, telling them, “Know the Lord!” Instead, the day was coming when God’s people could not help but joyfully know the Lord and willingly live faithful lives.
God would ultimately keep that promise in Jesus Christ. In Christ God would make a New Covenant. In Christ God would forgive our shame and remember our sin no more. In today’s Second Reading St. Paul calls this promise “the righteousness of God.” God is righteous. God is faithful. In Christ God has said to us, like a groom to his bride at the wedding altar, “I plight thee my troth. . . . All that I have is yours.”
The making and the keeping of that promise . . . is the at the heart of the church and at the center of its mission.
However, in the 16th century at the time of Martin Luther the church had a problem. It was failing to be the church and carry out its mission by qualifying the unconditional promise of God with all sorts of conditions. IF you did such and such good deeds, IF you said so many prayers, IF you obeyed church authority, IF you went to confession so many times, IF you bought indulgences, THEN you could be sure of God’s favor, THEN you could be confident of your eternal destiny, THEN you could get grandma out of purgatory.
It was the sale of these conditions, called “indulgences,” that triggered Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on October 31, 1517. Luther complained not only about the sale of indulgences but about a church that was continually making God’s unconditional promise . . . conditional on human performance. The church’s mission actually undermined the work of Christ and the good news of the Gospel. It turned our relationship with God into “Let’s make a deal.”
It flunked what I like to call “the double dipstick test.”
I still remember the days when you could test for the level of oil in your car’s engine by inserting a “dipstick” into the crankcase. It would tell you if needed to “add” oil or not. Instead of a single dipstick to test for oil, this is a “double dipstick test” to test for the Gospel.
Test #1: Does the message you hear in the church magnify Christ and his work? Did Christ do it all for you or do you still HAVE TO do something?
Test #2: Is this message comforting? When we hear the good news that Christ did it all for you, that cannot but be comforting good news!
Like a groom uttering a promise to his bride, God in Christ proclaims “I plight thee my troth! . . . Everything I have also belongs to you!” Swept off our feet by that glorious promise, we GET TO believe and receive what has been promised. It changes our lives.
Luther and his fellow reformers, swiping the terminology from St. Paul, called this process “justification by faith.” “Justification by faith” is a radical answer to a simple question. The simple question is this: “What do I have to do to be saved?” Radical answer: “Nothing!” We “GET TO” believe that good news and live life differently. We are free FROM always having to prove ourselves. Instead, we are free FOR others giving our lives away to them in service.
The problem, of course, is sin. We want to stay in control. We can’t let go and let God keep His promise. We don’t trust God. We must “do it our way!” We turn the unconditional promise into a conditional promise and concoct all sorts of schemes to take control of our relationship with God. We invent conditions to be met and duties to be performed: Say so many prayers. Do so many good deeds. Give so much money to the church. Belong to the right social group. Wear the right clothes. Live in the right neighborhoods.
There is a problem, however! We never know when we have done enough. We never find the comfort we crave. Christ gets wasted. There is no Gospel!
The church often makes the problem worse. We can be our own worst enemy. We lose confidence in the promise of the Gospel and start adding all sorts of conditions to what God intended to be unconditional. In Luther’s day, it was the church’s demand that faith in Christ was not enough. Faith must be formed with deeds of love in order truly save someone. This is what I call “Christ plus:” Christ + good deeds, Christ + trying to be a good person, Christ + the correct stand on a social justice issue, Christ + being truly committed. Unsure of Christ we say, “Sure, Jesus saves, . . . BUT you have got to do such and such to show that you are TRULY a disciple.” Watch out for the adverbs like “really,” “truly,” “actually,” “totally,” “completely” and “fully.” They always imply that Christ is not enough. We still HAVE TO do something to be “truly,” “really” and “completely” sure that we are OK with God.
Many people today are smart enough to detect the dishonesty of this game. They know how phony it is to offer unconditional promises on the one hand and then add conditions with the other. No wonder they say that the church is full of hypocrites and stay away. They will look elsewhere for promises worth believing. The problem is that short of the grave their search will never end. Every promise made always becomes another promise broken.
On this Reformation Sunday we declare that the church need not be that way. Despite our unfaithfulness and hypocrisy, God will never revoke His “troth” or terminate His promise. As long as water is poured at the font, as long as bread and wine are offered at the table, as long as sins for forgiven in this assembly and as long as the work of Christ is proclaimed, . . . God “plights His troth,” keeps His promise, comforts our hearts, saves our lives . . . and preserves the church!
That is exactly what Jeremiah promised. That is what Luther defended. That is what we celebrate today!