November 2, 2014

From Gift to Gift - Nov 2, 2014

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In 1524, the Elector of Saxony gave an abandoned monastery to Martin Luther, for him and his family to live in. Luther lived in that “house” for 22 years until his death in 1546.

The monastery had been called the “Black Cloister” because of the black robes the monks had worn when they lived there. But when Luther and his family lived there, the Black Cloister was anything but sinister to those who passed by its doors. For Luther was a generous man. Generous to a fault, his wife would say.

When students from the nearby Wittenberg University were in need of food, or a place to stay, the Black Cloister was always open. Many a traveling pastor found shelter there as well. It seems that the only people that Luther ever turned out of his house were open thieves. And even those he turned out with pity. He would have gladly given them what they sought to steal.

When Martin had no money to give, he gave his possessions to be pawned or sold. A wedding gift here, a warm coat there, and always food. Luther’s hands were so quick to give, that his wife Katherine took to hiding things away that she didn’t want to lose.

It wasn’t that the Luther family was rich, far from it. For Luther was wary of accepting monetary gifts from the rich and important. He was afraid that people would think he was peddling God’s Word for a profit.

Katy Luther pleaded with her husband to just accept some money from the printers who were distributing his writings. But Luther would only reply, “No. God will provide.”

And it wasn’t just his home, his money, and his possessions that Luther gave freely—he also volunteered his time and energy. When the plague struck Wittenberg, Martin and his wife filled the rooms of the Black Cloister with the sick and dying. Night and day they tended to the plague ridden people whom they had welcomed into their home. When a local doctor and his wife collapsed on Luther’s front step, Katy and Martin gave up their own beds for their ailing guests.

What was it that made Martin Luther so generous? That is the question we will ponder today, and answer.
Luther had come from a poor family. And his childhood had been a harsh one. But Luther’s parents had seen promise in their young Martin. He had a good memory, and was a hard worker. And so when they had the means to do it, they sent Martin off to school to become a lawyer.

And that was where it all started. At school Martin studied hard, and became a model student. But his heart was full of fear. At church Martin had learned to see God as a fearful judge. A righteous judge who condemned sinners like Martin to hell. The church of Martin’s day had little to say about God’s love for sinners. And they had nothing to say about the gift of forgiveness that comes to sinners through faith in God’s Son.

When a close friend of Luther’s unexpectedly died, his fears became heightened. One day, on the way back to school from visiting his parents, Luther found himself in a violent thunderstorm. As the lightning stabbed at the ground close around him, Luther was overwhelmed with the sense that God was coming to judge him for his many sins. And so Martin did what he had been taught to do—he prayed. He prayed to Saint Anna to save him. And he promised that if she did, he would leave his life at the university, and become a monk for the rest of his days.

Luther didn’t die in that thunderstorm. And he was true to his promise. He gave away his possessions and took the vows of the Augustinian order of monks.

If Luther was looking for peace in his soul, he didn’t find it in the monastery. Even when he studied the Scriptures he didn’t find peace for his soul. Over and over he saw that the Bible talked about the “righteousness of God.”

He had been taught that phrase, the “righteousness of God” meant that God was perfectly sinless, and that the holy God would condemn sinners like himself.

Our sermon reading for today is a short one. It is one of the many passages of the Bible which speaks about the righteousness of God.

Romans 1:16-17 (NASB)

16       For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
17       For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.”
Like I said, Luther had been taught to see the righteousness of God as the wrath of God toward sinners. And as Luther pondered over passages like this one, Luther began to wish that God had never revealed the “Gospel” as he understood it, for who could love a God who was angry, and who only judged and condemned people? But Luther didn’t really understand what the Gospel was as of yet.

But that phrase stuck in Luther’s heart and mind, “The righteous shall live by faith.” And in time, the Holy Spirit led Martin to understand its true meaning. Martin came to understand that if the sinner was to have life and forgiveness, that life must come from faith.

It was the realization that spiritual life comes from faith, and not from ones own deeds, that opened the whole Bible to Martin Luther. Concerning this realization, Martin later wrote, “Then the entire Holy Scripture became clear to me, and heaven itself was opened to me. Now we see this brilliant light very clearly, and we are privileged to enjoy it abundantly.”

Isn’t it strange to think that people didn’t understand this in Martin’s day? I mean, listen to the passage again.

Romans 1:16-17 (NASB)

16       For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
17       For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.”

We can’t even read this passage without seeing that forgiveness and salvation is a gift from God, through faith in Christ. And it’s not like this is the only place in God’s Word that says so.

Galatians 3:11 (NASB)

11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”

And yet, Luther had always been taught that in order to be righteous before God one had to do all sorts of good works to earn that righteousness. And indeed that was what troubled him so severely, for he knew what was in his own heart. He knew that he could spend a million years pent up in a monastery and still have a dirty, dark, sinful heart.

What happened to Luther was this: He found that God is just, and God does hate sin. And God does demand that we be perfect. But God also knows this is impossible. And so God gave his Son to suffer and die for our sins.

Through the sinless sacrifice of God’s own Son, God’s righteousness becomes ours. Through simple faith that this is true, Christ’s righteousness is laid over our whole ugly record of sins. And in the judgment, when we stand before God, those who trust in what Jesus has done shall not be condemned to eternal death. Because of Christ, we shall be declared innocent, and given eternal life.

It was this revelation that changed Martin Luther forever. No longer was he afraid of the God of the Bible, for through God’s own Word Martin now knew that God loves the sinner, and desires his salvation more than anything.
This is why Martin was not afraid when the Pope declared him a heretic. This is why Martin was not afraid when the Emperor declared him an outlaw, whom anyone could kill. Martin knew that God was the real power in charge, and God had redeemed him from his sins, forever.

And this is why Martin was generous to a fault. God had given him peace. No matter what happened in life, Martin knew that in Christ his soul was safe and sound. He was righteous in the eyes of the eternal Creator, because of what Jesus had done for him. And the God who had given Martin this gift, would surely provide anything else that he truly had need of.

So sure, you can stay here. You need food? We’ve got food. You need warm clothes? Well, lets see what we can find. You’re sick? Let us care for you. And here, here’s some money to tide you over until things turn around. It’s okay, we’ll get along fine. Our Lord will provide.
Many see the Lutheran Reformation as a time when the little man finally stood up to the powers that be. They see Luther as that peasant who stood up to princes, emperors, and Popes. As if the Reformation was about a rebellion. The Reformation was not about a rebellion. The Reformation was about a gift. God’s gift of forgiveness by faith in Christ’s cross. In the Reformation this glorious truth, the most important truth ever known by man, was unearthed from under centuries of hypocrisy and false doctrine, and restored to it’s rightful place. It was restored to the hearts of sinners like Martin, and today, us.

Is it such a strange thing that this grand gift would beget other smaller gifts in the lives of those it touched? No, it’s not strange at all. For the gospel is the power of God. It brings salvation to everyone who believes. It brings righteousness before God, and spiritual life to the sinner. 

May the Holy Spirit give us the same peace that Luther had, today, and every day that we think on what God has done for us through Christ. May the Holy Spirit help us to see everything in life in the light of this grand gift. And may God’s gift to us fill us with a generosity that matches the power of our God, and the grace we have received.


The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard  your hearts and your minds, in Christ Jesus.

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