Martin Luther (1483–1546) is in relation to the Reformation much like the opening notes of some great symphony—say Beethoven’s “Fifth”—which states the theme, is then taken up by other instruments, and is finally absorbed into the developing pattern of music. The incredible soul searching and trials of this man—most often solitary, but never alone—affected a renewal, a reformation for the whole orchestration of the Catholic Church of his time (“… and still is ours today.”)
Luther stepped onto the stage of human history on account of an idea. That idea convinced him that the church of his day had misunderstood the Gospel, the good news of God by grace alone, through faith alone, in the person of Christ and his cross alone: the essence of Christianity. It was therefore necessary to recall the church to fidelity, to reform initially its theology and subsequently its practices. This idea is summarized in a singular phrase: “Justification by grace through faith.” In his famous treatise of 1520, The Freedom of the Christian, Luther states: “One thing, and one thing alone is necessary for Christian life, righteousness and liberty. And that one thing is the Word of God—the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
From his own experiences of trying to live a righteous life—pure and holy before God—as an Augustinian monk, Luther realized that trying to “earn” God’s love and salvation was impossible. “For however irreproachable I lived as a monk,” wrote Luther, “I felt myself in the presence of God to be a sinner with a most disturbed conscience.” Luther’s troubles centered in one word, justitia—the “righteousness,” the “justice” of God as Luther found it in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, chapter 1, verse 17: “For in the Gospel, the righteousness/justice of God is revealed.” Initially, Luther understood this as something humanity had to earn, by certain “good works.” If this were true, Luther could see only despair. But then, as he prayed and read further in the book of Romans, particularly Romans 3:21–26, light came: “At last by the mercy of God, I began to understand the justice of God as that by which God makes us just in God’s mercy and through faith in Christ”—a holiness that is outside of ourselves. A gift of grace that is given rather than a work that is earned. Grace is something that we can never get but is only given by God. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the refreshing taste of raspberry ice cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.
The importance of the discovery is not that it was new, but that it was new for Luther. What he saw in the Bible with fresh eyes he was able to teach others so that the doctrine of justification by grace had a new and central importance—serving as a safeguard against an over-reliance on human achievement or rituals. Keeping humanity always humble before the cross. And so it was that Luther “went to the wall”—with everything that was in him and more—in nailing the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door on Oct. 31, 1517. In this revolutionary act, Luther was protesting a human scheme (“the indulgence controversy”) that would tempt people into believing that they could, in any way, “buy God off” (see Romans 3:19–28; 5:8; 7:15–25a). For essentially, this would make the cross of Christ superfluous or unnecessary. It was on this belief, based on Scripture and reason, that Luther faced a papal inquisition and even possible death at the Diet of Worms in 1521, stating his now famous words: “Here I stand, I can not do otherwise. God help me.”
By the end of the 1520s it was plain that the solo instrument was being absorbed in the great symphony. Another Reformed tradition was beginning to emerge in the cities of Switzerland and south Germany, raising up its own leaders in Zwingli and Calvin. The possibility of a vast Protestant front was ended at this time at Marburg in 1529 when Luther and Zwingli could not come to an agreement over the interpretation of the Lord’s Supper. For Luther it meant the real presence of Christ. For Zwingli it was merely a symbol—a memorial. Nonetheless, the Word went forth conquering. There was Luther’s translation of the German Bible, open at last to a growing literate audience of all classes—the “priesthood of all believers.” There was Luther’s own powerful evangelical preaching and writing. There were new forms of Christian instruction, like Luther’s beautiful children’s catechism (The Small Catechism) from which simplicity he said his prayers to the end of his days. His people of Germany, and those who call themselves Lutherans, learned to pray his German liturgy, and to sing his fine hymns, one of which we sing today, the great hymn: “A Mighty Fortress.” It captures Luther’s reforming theme in its verse: “Thy word is our great heritage.” And this reforming Word still continues (semper reformanda).
What do they know of Luther who only Luther know? By 1525 and still more by his death in 1546, Luther was but one element, one note, in the Reformation story. In comparison with the great tides of history, even the giants are but dwarfs. Yet there are moments in world history, sometimes creative, sometimes destructive, or like the Reformation of Luther’s time, a bit of both, when it seems to matter that there are people who speak out in order to keep faith with their conscience, and who in a dangerous hour stand firm because, God helping them, they can not do otherwise.
–Dr. John Christopherson
Presented by Larry Anderson for a “Men in Mission” Crossroads Conference Gathering
First Lutheran Church, Sioux Falls, South Dakota – April, 2, 2008
In my latter days of farming, when pulling out of a field of just planted corn, I’d put the tractor in park, slow the engine to an idle. And then I’d pause and talk to God about the fact that thousands of little seeds were now in their dark and wet graves; but what I’d just done was really the easy part. Now it was up to God to call forth those thousands of seeds, much like Jesus had done to Lazarus, and do this unimaginable miracle.
In a few days, I’d return to the field, and with the handles of a pliers spread open, dig down very carefully to see if anything was happening. The little seed had sent out a tiny sprout that was so anemic looking, the color somewhere between yellow and white. It was so fragile and weak that the soil had to be moved very gently while covering it back up.
Again, in just a few days, returning to the field, I’d find a new leaf coming out of the ground. It was so green, green—yes, new life had come forth. But if I dug down to look at the seed that had been planted, the seed had completely changed. In fact, there was nothing left resembling the seed.
For the little seed had completely given up of itself for the new life. This new plant that had the potential of not just producing just one ear of corn with its 300–400 kernels, but frequently two or three ears for a 1,000 or more kernels. The Bible speaks of bringing forth as much as 100-fold, but this little kernel may bring forth 1000-fold.
What a pattern! What an example God is showing us if we would but walk in faith with Him. If we would but seek his glory to be done in our life we too, like the little kernel, would possibly bring forth 10-fold or 20-fold or even—as the scoreboard shows—50-fold in matters of His kingdom.
Remember, God, who is the Creator of all, is always the “Home” team, and that “Visitor” on the scoreboard, and within each one of us, would have us think that it is “I” who have raised this 150-bushel crop of corn, that it is on “My” farm that “I” did all of this and that with “My” expensive line of machinery “I” made it all happen…That this way of thinking would take a sound drubbing with a score of only 5.
Let us pray…
O most bountiful and forgiving God:
During this soon to be here, new planting season, help us to first of all remember that farm accidents are a major cause of death and injury and that we are careful as we handle these large machines.
Then, O God, help us to be mindful that without your love for us that shows no limits…while we till, plant, fertilize, spray and harvest, all the while it is your never ending grace that the germinating, growing, and maturing of a bountiful harvest is truly a miracle right here with us. Come into our life, Lord Jesus, come into our life—making us faithful stewards of your creation.
“There is much that the scientific community can do, and much more that we must propose to do about the care of the environment. But no conceivable enhancement of research methodology, no conceivable addition of public funds, no cries of warning will make any considerable difference unless we are all changed in the spirit of our minds.” (Joseph Sittler; Gravity and Grace, 16)
“The earth is the LORD’S and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.” (Psalm 24:1)
“We are allowed to make no exceptions—every person’s obligation toward creation is summed up in two words from Genesis 2:15: ‘Keep it.’ ” (Wendell Berry; Life Is A Miracle, p.8)
“God made humanity not out of some angelic substance or out of sheer gas or wind, but out of the dust of the earth (cf. Genesis 2:7). Humanity out of humus. This is a symbolic and powerful way of saying that the human race belongs to the biological order. We are part of nature. As John Calvin used to put it, ‘Man’s existence is a subsistence.’ And to forget this fact leads to a mindset of dictatorship over creation rather than a stewardship that works together with creation.” (j.r. christopherson)
“… Yet [God] is not far from each of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’”
“The touch of the eternal reaches
into each one of our lives
And moves through and beyond to thrill the fringes of the sunset and its hills.
For the earth is crammed with heaven
And every common bush
is aflame with God’s presence.
But only those who see take off their shoes;
the rest just pick the berries.”
(Elizabeth Barrett Browning; Aurora Leigh)
“There is no better metaphor for the expression of faith than that of sowing seed, for it requires investing ourselves in a task for which we cannot control the outcome.” (Ray S. Anderson; Unspoken Wisdom, 53)
“God is present in all things, even in the smallest kernel of grain…. Nothing is so small but God is still smaller … nothing is so short but God is still shorter … nothing so narrow but God is still narrower…. This all-comprehending, all-penetrating God is the fountain and spring of all good. He is closer to every one of us than we are to ourselves.” (Martin Luther; WA 26:339 and 19:492)
“Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow,
For rose-moles in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnuts-falls, finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough; And all trades, their gear and tackle trim.” (Gerard Manley Hopkins; “Pied Beauty” St. 5)
“A parable is a little story with a big point” (Fred Buechner). So what is the big point in Jesus’ famous “Parable of the Sower” in our Gospel Lesson? It’s this: God’s primary work in history (as the Sower) is to broadcast his saving Word (in the Seed of his beloved son, Jesus) upon every type of earthen ear and people (that’s us, Soil ’R’ Us). Everything else is secondary (cf. K. Barth; Church Dogmatics I/1 p.47–87). So, will we simply listen? Or will we, deeper down, behold/attend (idou)? … Will we be hearers of this Word that is sown into our hearts as good soil … bearing an attitude of gratitude that is a thirty-fold and sixty-fold and one hundred-fold?
I. “The Soil of Hardened Hearts” (Mark 4:4)
There are many in our time (cf. Sallie McFague’s Metaphorical Theology, p.8) who argue that biblical language or biblical word just isn’t relevant any more. Are your ears, your heart going to be hardened to this well-traveled path as well? Consider the biblical concerns for guilt and forgiveness, human greed and injustice, death and salvation… Do such issues no longer matter or speak to us?! (cf. Paul Tillich’s Theology of Culture, p.201f). The biblical stories you see, seem so minor or irrelevant next to the New York Times or Argus Leader. They’re so fresh, you know … er, at least until tomorrow. Growing-up with grandfathers who were fishermen, I learned long ago that newspapers are tomorrow’s fish wrappers. (Read Isaiah 40:7; I Peter 1:24.)
II. “The Soil of Shallow Hearts” (Mark 4:5–6)
Jesus warns against quick-response religion that’s mainly emotion but without deeper grounding in the soul. Quick fix religion, with its “theology of glory” and its St. Adrenaline churches popping up all over in our time—is especially “shallow” in times of trial and suffering. The testing ground here is “opposition.” When it doesn’t appear that “everything works for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28), remember this part of the parable. It’s not everything that works for good. It’s God who works for good in all things—including hardness of heart and shallowness in all seasons. There are seasons of faith, much like in nature, where we experience times of great harvest but also severe drought. Where faith is planted in the field of feelings that’s constantly changing—rather than trusting in God’s Word (cf. Isa. 55:10–11)—watch out for shallow-soil religion that wilts in the face of tough opposition.
III. “The Soil of Weed Infested Hearts” (Mark 4:7)
Here, Jesus is describing what we might call a “choked listening” to God’s Word; that is, a listening that’s distracted by all kinds of other interests and concerns. Often they’re very legitimate interests and concerns; however, they begin to grow and grow until the little seed of God’s Word is choked, no longer sufficiently nurtured, and with little room left to grow in our hearts (cf. Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death). In our time, issue-centered Christianity has become the demise of modern Mainline Protestantism: the center of “Word and Sacrament” ministry is being choked and slowly dying (cf. Richard John Neuhaus’ The Naked Public Square). With the fall of Idealism after WWI, the Irish poet, Wm. Butler Yeats was already onto this in his poem, “The Second Coming.”
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon can no longer hear the falconer; things fall apart; the centre cannot hold … The best lack conviction, while the worst are full of compassionate intensity.” (1919)
IV. “The Soil Jesus Intends Our Hearts To Be” (Mark 4:8-9)
The heart Jesus portrays as “good soil” in this parable, is one that is open to God, receptive to his coming to us, and responsive to his call. The Spirit of God’s Word asks nothing more or less than this. To be good soil does not mean to accomplish this set of objectives or to have mastery over that list of virtues. It simply calls for us to wait upon God, to know the depth of our great need for God to sow the seed of Christ in our hearts. Therefore, we need to stay close to this Word of God in Christ (II Corinthians 5:19)—one that is nurtured and grows in Worship, Bible Study, Prayer, Christian Fellowship, Mission—lest it become packed-down, shallowed by all the winds of change, and riddled with weeds of distraction. Jesus took that cause to the Cross where he tilled away the power of sin and death, once and for all—to a resurrecting new life: “Unless a grain of wheat goes into the ground and dies, it remains alone,” says Jesus. “But if it dies, it will bear much fruit” (John 12:24).
How does Jesus’ “Parable of the Sower” speak to your life today? May God the Sower continue to sow the Seeds of Christ’s saving love into the Soil of your heart. AMEN.
(j.r. christopherson, Senior Pastor)
“Lord, let my heart be good soil/ Open to the seed of your Word.
Lord, let my heart be good soil/ Where love can grow and peace is understood.
When my heart is hard, break the stone away / When my heart is cold, warm it with the day.
When my heart is lost, lead me on your way.
Lord, let my heart / Lord let my heart / Lord, let my heart be good soil.” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship #512)
All of Scripture witnesses to the fact that God uses the means of the humble and ordinary to work His extraordinary end of salvation. “But where,” we ask, “can we experience such extraordinary acts of God today: miracles in the very ordinary, ‘ertly stuff of life that can create grateful expressions of generosity?” There is such a place, one that surrounds, sustains, and offers God’s saving presence for us each and every day, a place that too often goes unnoticed or unappreciated. We might call such a place: “Tables of the Lord.” And if tables could talk, they could tell us much.
The Table That Surrounds Us: In God’s Creation
Look at this marvelous scene painted by Van Gogh, the miracle of seed and sower—a tableau that speaks of God’s providing “daily bread.” Our eyes are then lifted into the bright blue sky, whence comes the rain of God’s grace, and not of our own making (Job 38:1–7). Or as the Psalmist bears witness: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (24:1; cf. 19:1). And so God has created us to be faithful stewards of this marvelous gift of Creation … Every 24 hours there is a new dawn; every 12 months a harvest. The billions of planets, suns and galaxies spinning at incredible speed in precise order often escaping our notice. The thousands of plants and flowers, the myriad of fish and fowl—all living together in a relationship of breathtaking balance—we take for granted and rarely if ever behold the miracle of it all. The British poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning sets creation’s table before us in the following verse: “Earth is crammed with heaven. And every common bush afire with God’s presence. But only those who see, take off their shoes. The rest sit around and pick blackberries” (Aurora Leigh). Let us pray that God would grant us eyes to see anew, the wonder and abundance of creation’s table that daily surrounds us, stirring up an attitude of gratitude.
The Table That Sustains Us: In the Kitchen
When visiting my grandparents during the holidays, I was introduced to another Table of the Lord, where the comfort-food aromas came wafting together with a classic Norwegian expression: “Vaar saa go!” In any language, these words translate into: “Come to the table everyone, for all is ready.” There were the mash potatoes ’n’ gravy, pork chops ’n’ apple sauce, canned sweet corn, and of course, lefse! Times around the table, with good food and fellowship … a “table talk” that sustained the body as well as the soul. What great memories! But, before anything was passed, or anyone passed-out from laughing at the latest “Ole and Lena stories” (who lived just next door, really!), there was a bowing of heads and a table prayer: “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed … as you call us also to be a blessing for others. Amen.” What are these words of humbled heart, but expressions of an attitude of gratitude—pointing to the author and sustainer “from whom all blessings flow” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship #884).
The Table That Saves Us: In Worship
Welcome now to a table that saves, for it is here—through the means of bread and wine—that our Host gives us his very self. “This is my body, this is my blood … for the forgiveness of sin ... Do this in remembrance.” This is a table for ALL people. For we are ALL sinners—running on empty, who cannot save ourselves (Romans 3:23; 5:8). Jesus gave high priority to the table during his life on earth. For him, it was a place of community. At table there was joy. Just ask Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10). At table with Jesus there was forgiveness and hope. Just ask the woman who washed his feet with tears (Luke 7:36–50). Most importantly, it was at this table we call “Holy Communion” or “The Lord’s Supper” that Jesus gave us a heaven-come-down foretaste (Matthew 26:26–29) … of the great heavenly feast that is to come.
Family of First Lutheran Church: Let our tables, whether under the canopy of our big Dakota sky, in our homes, or at the altar’s communion rail, be places of thanksgiving—where we confess our absolute dependence on God for all that is good, all that we are, and all that we have (James 1:17). Let these tables of the Lord be places of community, places where we take time to know one another and affirm each other. Let them be places of respite and calm in the storm (Psalm 23:5a): a place of love and worship, of laughter and joy, of caring and sharing, reminders of the One who calls us to “the warm hot oven of his sustaining grace” (Martin Luther). Yes, let them be places where our hearts are open, open for God to create in us an attitude of gratitude.
j.r. christopherson, Senior Pastor