Sermon preached by Deacon Joshua Schroeder, written by Pastor M. Hendrickson
It was the year 1521, mid-April, and Martin Luther stood before the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (which, as the saying goes, was neither holy nor Roman by that time). But you didn’t want to tangle with the empire! Luther stood before Charles V and a very impressive array of other princes, dukes, and notable men of church and state. He was in a lot of hot water. Luther, that is, because of his call for reform in the Church, and because of what he’d been publishing in his books, thanks to Herr Gutenberg’s great invention.
Many influential people had become convinced that Luther’s ideas were a danger to the stability of the empire. So they piled a bunch his books on a table and they asked him two questions: “Are these your books?” “Are you prepared to recant what you have written in these books?”
Well, the questions were a trap. And depending on Luther’s answer, he’d either live or die. At least that’s the way it looked at the time. For if he refused to recant, to take back what he’d written, he’d be declared an outlaw, which meant he could be hunted down at will, and killed.
Martin Luther’s answer went down in history: “I cannot and will not recant,” he said. “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
Now, as dramatic moments in history go, it has to be one of the best. You can’t help but be impressed by Luther’s courage. Except…Luther didn’t call it courage. He later admitted that he was quaking in his boots. No, Luther called it freedom.
Martin Luther took his bold stand in the face of the empire’s threats because, as he said, he was free. But it’s essential to notice where his freedom came from. Paradoxically, it came from the fact that he was not free. That he was a captive. “I’m captive to the Word of God,” he said.
Luther learned what Jesus meant when He said, “If you abide in My Word you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Freedom depends on our being captive, being fixed to a particular place: the Word of God.
When the foundations are being shaken…what is God up to? When, as Psalm 46 declares, the mountains come toppling into the depths of the sea, when waters rage and foam, when the mountains tremble…what is God doing? When wars do not cease, when battle bows are not broken, when chariots are not consumed in fire…what on earth is God bringing to pass? When the foundations are being shaken…what can the righteous do?
In Psalm 46 the Lord tells us: “Be still.” “Be still and know that I am God.” The shaking, quaking violence of Psalm 46 is the classroom in which we learn to know that the Lord is God. When the foundations are shaken, we learn what cannot be shaken…what remains solid. We learn that the Lord is God.
So for the Church, the Reformation was all about identifying that which cannot be shaken; identifying the certainty that belongs to those who know that the Lord is God. And where was such certainty to be found? Not by the pious works of our own hands. Not from the pious attitudes, of our own hearts and minds. Not from the contributions, the pious contributions, we make to the common good. Not by anything we do or anything we are.
But to reveal where true certainty is to be found, everything had to be shaken…and in the 16th Century is was shaken rather violently…to reveal what endures, namely Christ, Gospel, Baptism, the Holy Supper. So we must be shaken…sometimes violently…to reveal to us that we are not the masters of our fate, the captains of our soul…we are not God.
When the mountains of our lives collapse into the depths of the sea, when every foundation we have carefully laid with our own hands is shaken—our financial foundations, our foundations of well-being, our plans, our hopes, our dreams—when the foundations we have built are shaken, we learn very quickly and very clearly what cannot be shaken: Christ, Gospel, Baptism, the Holy Supper. “Be still,” He says, “Be still and know that I am God.”
Consequently the Reformation confessed, “It is taught among us that we cannot be justified before God by our own powers, merits or works, but we receive forgiveness of sin, we become righteous before God by grace, through faith, for Christ’s sake.”
Oh, but the earthquakes in the Reformation were not confined to the Cnurch. Having witnessed the shaking of the ecclesiastical foundations, Luther and his contemporaries also witnessed a shaking of the governing authority. Both mountains, the Church and the State, were shaken together.
Human hands are quite adept at laying idolatrous foundations. Religious idols, the piety of our own creating. Secular idols, the image of a savior state capable of solving every problem of every person in every land…if only we elect the right individual.
Martin Luther wrote, “I am convinced that monarchies would have endured much longer if the monarchs had omitted one pronoun, “I,” that is, if they had not been so proud in the confidence placed in their own power and wisdom.” And the pride of the governing “I” in Luther’s day is very much like the governing pride of the political factions in our day. “I will flatter no prince,” Luther wrote, “but far less will I put up with riots and disobedience from the common people…”
Consequently, the mountains of our political greatness are shaken. The waters of the people and by the people and for the people rage and foam. The foundations are shaken so that what is eternal may be clearly seen. And the Reformers declared: “Next to the Gospel…no better jewel, no greater treasure, no costlier gift, no finer foundation, no more precious possession exists on earth than a government that administers and upholds justice.” Whether by the many or by the few, unless government is guided by God it cannot be administered well.
So it happened in Luther’s day. So it is happening in ours. The foundations of Church and State are being shaken. And when the foundations are shaken what can the righteous do? “Be still.” For we too are captive in Christ. “Be still and know that [the Lord] is God.” Martin Luther learned. Have we?
We have been drenched by many storms…are we of any use? We are learning the art of equivocation and pretence, of saying only what people want to hear…are we of any use? Our shaking experience is making us suspicious of others, keeping us from being truthful. Our interminable conflicts are wearing us down and making us cynical. Are we of any use?
The foundations are being shaken and this will reveal what endures and what does not. For when the foundations are being shaken the only person who is of any use, who stands fast, who is, in fact, free, is the person whose conscience is fixed on Christ.
For it is Jesus Christ who was shaken by the world, but triumphed by that shaking. Jesus Christ tumbled into the depths of sin, death and hell, but by that tumbling He has risen in glory. He is by our side when the mountains tumble. He is by our side when the waters rage and foam.
He it is who teaches us to be still and know…know that the Lord is God. With Him, then…we are free, free from fear, from all that shaking, quaking fear. Free in faith, like Luther at Worms, to answer the sometimes-threatening summons of life.
When the foundations are being shaken, what can the righteous do? Captive to Christ and His Word, we can “Be still and know that the Lord is God.” And with Martin Luther, shaken like few others in history, we learn to sing with Luther in the stillness surrounded by all the shaking: “Though devils all the world should fill [devils in the Church, devils in the government], All threatening to devour us, We tremble not…” We are not shaken. For the Lord is God. He is our mighty fortress. And in Him…our conscience captive to Him…we are free indeed!