Heavenly Histories

St Barnabas and St Michael, 13th October 2012

Reading – Romans 1:8-17

How many people here have ever seen the Horrible Histories TV programmes?  Although they were planned with children in mind, people of all ages have been drawn to a show which makes history seem fun and exciting, and not just a boring series of dates. From the Savage Stone Age through to the Vicious Vikings we have been entertained in song and drama with some of the most memorable and the strangest events which have ever taken place.

Now today I am not going to pretend I can compete in any way with Horrible Histories. But I hope to show through some Heavenly History how our reading from Romans changed the lives of two extraordinary men, and how as a result these two men turned their world upside down for Christ.

So let’s look at our first extraordinary character from history. Do you know who this is?

If you want a clue, add King to his name and you’ll get an American Civil Rights leader from the 1960s. That’s right – it’s Martin Luther.

And what is he best known for? He started something called the Reformation, which aimed to reform the Catholic Church but ended up with the Protestant church splitting away from the Catholics.

Two little-known facts about Martin Luther: He was thrown out of the Roman Catholic Church at the Diet of Worms in 1521. To us that sounds rather disgusting, as if he was made to live off earthworms as a kind of punishment. Actually, the truth is lot more boring than that. Worms is actually a place in Germany, and a diet is a kind of church assembly. Unfortunately when translated in English it sounds like he ate something nasty, which is not what it means at all.

Secondly Martin Luther never set out to become a theologian. As a young man he planned to become a lawyer. But one day he was caught in a particularly nasty thunderstorm, and in his terror cried out, “Help me God, and I will become a monk”. As God helped him, Martin Luther decided he better keep his part of the bargain, and for a while he became a monk, although later on in life he did get married.

There is no doubt that Martin Luther had a brilliant mind. By 1512 he had completed all the education needed to become a Doctor of Theology, which meant he had taken no less than three degree courses. But as his brilliant mind began to engage with the Scriptures, the more he found that the Bible absolutely terrified him. Maybe there’s someone like that here today. It’s not unknown for someone to find the Bible not a source of comfort, but the grounds for anxiety and worry and stress. If that’s the case for you, then maybe Martin Luther’s story can help you.

Martin Luther’s problem was very simple. In his Bible which was written in Latin verse 17 of our reading talked about the “justice of God being revealed”. The more Luther thought about this, the more terrified he became. Because if God was revealing His justice, what could he do which would please God? He did all that a good monk could do to please God. He prayed, he fasted, he kept vigils, he tried as hard as he possibly could to do good, but it never, ever seemed to be enough.

Then there was the whole question of God’s forgiveness. According to the teaching of the time, God could only forgive your sins if you confessed them. So Luther spent hours in confession, trying to think of some way he might have offended God. At one point his confessor got so exasperated he told him to do something which really was worth confessing, like killing his mother or father, or committing adultery. Fortunately Luther didn’t act on his advice!

Luther was in a spiritual mess because he realised he could do nothing to please God. And then over the years the penny gradually dropped. Not only couldn’t he do anything to please God, but he needed to stop trying anyway. Because the only way anyone could be saved was by faith alone. All you could bring God was a simple, willing trust, and a willingness to receive the gift of God.

Sounds simple enough? In fact that was an earth-shattering truth which revolutionised the church. It is thanks to Luther that Christians began to rediscover the simple gospel truth that we are saved not by our goodness, or how clever we are, but by the gift of God, who makes us right with Him through the death of Jesus Christ in our place for our sins. As Luther wrote:

You, Lord Jesus, are my righteousness, and I am your sin; You have taken on yourself what you were not, and given to me what I am not.

The trouble is, we forget again and again that we are saved by faith in Christ alone. We like to think there is something we must do to earn God’s favour, that we have to be a particular type of person, or have a particular background, or able to perform some special good work. But, no, as Luther discovered, all God demands of us is that we strop struggling and believe, believe in Jesus and all that He has done for us.

Let’s jump forward about 200 years, and meet our next hero from our Heavenly History. Do you know who this is?

If you need a clue, think of the Methodist Churc h… that’s right, it’s John Wesley.

Now John Wesley grew up in the Church of England. His father was rector of a small village in Lincolnshire and was at one time imprisoned for debt. At the beginning of the 18th century the church was in a pretty sorry state, church attendance was low, and many vicars did not themselves really know the Lord.

While he was at Oxford, John Wesley determined that he would live a good, decent and God-fearing life. He produced a method for making sure as far as possible he could live in a way that pleased God. Over the years his method became more and more extreme. He fasted twice a week. He got up regularly at 4am in the morning. He threw himself into doing good works, and he drew up 15 questions for him and his friends to examine themselves.

When the chance came for John Wesley to go out to the newly founded American colonies, he saw it as an opportunity to live a more humble lifestyle and to devote himself more fully to God’s work. But in a few years he was back. The colonists rejected his harsh message encouraging ever greater discipline. John Wesley found that the Indians weren’t the simple, naïve people he thought them to be, ready for conversion. It looked as if his attempts to live a perfect life had simply failed.

If John Wesley’s life had ended there, we would have said it had been a bit of a failure. But when he got home, he was invited to hear someone reading a book written by… guess who? Martin Luther, on justification by faith. It doesn’t sound like the most exciting of invitations, does it? But the effect of that evening was dramatic. Wesley himself later recalled:

About a quarter to nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Jesus Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and assurance was given me that He took away my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death.

Wesley no longer saw the words of the Bible as just black marks on a page, or as things to be thought about. He saw them as good news to be personally experienced, to be taken to heart, to be believed and trusted. What counted before God was not a religion of good works, but a personal relationship with Jesus.

So let’s now turn back to our reading from Romans this morning, and more specifically at verse 16 which is our memory verse this morning:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes …

Let’s all of us spend a moment learning it and taking it to heart. Because, you see, the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is not just a good idea, or the words the preacher uses or some lines printed in a book. The gospel is the power of God to change lives.

The first song we sang this morning was “Our God is a great big God” and we choose it to remind ourselves just what an awesome and mighty God we worship. He is the God who by His power creates universes and star systems. He is the God who by His power raises up mountains and makes the waves of the sea to roar. He is the God who by His power gives life and takes it away again. As Paul has already told us  – in the passage we studied last week – He has shown His power through raising His Son Jesus from the dead (Romans 1:4). And He wants to reveal that same power in your life by raising you up from death to life.

To put it another way, God wants to change your life for good. It may be you have never experienced this power of God before. It may be you have some understanding of the Christian faith but you have never really experienced Jesus at work within your heart. It may that you have known God’s power in the past but your faith has become dull and weak beneath the cares and pressures of each day. The message Paul gives you is that today God wants to do a new work in your life, so that you experience the fullness of a relationship with Him.

And let’s be clear – the power of God isn’t limited to great people of history like Luther or Wesley. It isn’t limited by age to grown-ups or by how clever we are or what kind of background. The gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. As I keep on saying, because I think we all find it so hard to believe, that includes you and you and you. And what do you have to do? Try and do lots of good works like John Wesley? Try your very hardest to earn God’s favour like Martin Luther? No, as they and countless others have discovered over the ages, all you have to do is believe, to come just you are, with empty hands and a willing heart, to receive and to be filled by His love.

So what do you have to believe? Paul goes on to give the answer in verse 17: For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” In other words, you have to believe that by dying for us Jesus has revealed the way for us to get right with God, that on the cross He paid the price for our sins.

To go back to our quote from Martin Luther which we read earlier:

You, Lord Jesus, are my righteousness, and I am your sin; You have taken on yourself what you were not, and given to me what I am not.

That is the great truth Martin Luther and John Wesley learnt. That Jesus who was perfect in every way took on His shoulders my sin so that I, poor sinner that I am, could receive His perfection and be made fit to stand before my God. Why Jesus should choose to do this for me, I will never fully know this side of heaven. All I can do is respond with thanksgiving and faith, and allow God to come into power into my life, to be enthroned in my heart as Lord and King and Saviour.

And what about you? In a little while we shall share Holy Communion. I know some people think that what we do on a Sunday is just empty religion or a meaningless ritual. But that is to fail to understand what really goes on here. For as we share bread and wine around the Lord’s table, we are declaring our faith in the one who gave His body and poured out His blood for us, and we are demonstrating our willingness to obey His commands. So today as you come forward to receive, do so as a sign that you are willing to make a fresh commitment to the Lord, and I will pray for you by name for Jesus to fill with His power and His presence. And let’s all of us leave this place changed and transformed by the Holy Spirit, to spread the simple and wonderful good news that we are indeed saved by faith alone. For the glory and praise of Jesus’ name. Amen.

Rev Tim


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