Sermon from October 8: We Live by Faith

We Live by Faith

Pentecost XVIII (O. T. 27); October 8, 2017

Habakkuk 2:1-4

In the city of Worms, Germany there was a meeting that set the course of European politics for centuries. Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, summoned Martin Luther to stand before the Assembly and declare whether he would or would not recant what he had written. The Pope had issued a declaration that if Luther did not recant, he would be excommunicated. Now it was up to the Emperor and the Assembly to decide Martin's fate.

Well, actually, it was up to Martin Luther to decide his own fate. Would he recant or not? To recant means, essentially, to say that I've changed my mind. Martin Luther had published theses and sermons and other writings that challenged many of the practices of the Church of his day. On April 17, 1521 he stood in front of the imperial assembly, his published works in front of him, and he was asked one question: "Do you recant?" In theory, he was there to negotiate with the Assembly, but in reality he was told to deny what he had written or be in big trouble.

What kind of trouble? About a century earlier Jan Hus was in a similar situation: he was teaching that some of the practices of the Church were wrong. He was branded a heretic and he was burned at the stake. Luther knew that; he had already been branded a heretic. He knew that refusing to recant put his life at risk: he too could end up burned at the stake. So what to do? Should he say that he recanted and save his life, perhaps to be able to continue his work of reforming the Church? Or should he stand fast and put his life at risk?

He asked for a day to think about it. So the next day he stood before the Emperor, his publications before him. He talked about them and what he was trying to accomplish for the sake of the Church and the Christian people of the world. And then he said, "I am convinced by the scriptures I have presented, and my conscience is bound to the word of God. Therefore I neither can nor want to retract anything, because to act against one's conscience is difficult, harmful, and dangerous. God help me, amen."[1]Later, when his friend Philipp Melanchthon wrote about this meeting, he summarized it as, "Here I stand; I can do no other."

I cannot retract; I am convinced these words are the truth. God help me, amen. Though you threaten me with excommunication, though I know my life now may be forfeit, here I stand; I can do no other. God help me, amen.

"The righteous live by their faith," said the Prophet Habakkuk. He too lived in conflicted times; he too had words to say that were upsetting to the powers of his day and to him, as well. Habakkuk took no joy in telling the authorities in Judah the painful things he had to say. Martin Luther did not set out to overturn the Church that had educated him and made him a priest nor, by the way, to set in motion events that would result in decades of warfare in Europe. But when the word of God convinces you that what you have said is the truth, then you stand by it and say, "God help me, amen."

Sometimes to say, "The righteous live by their faith" means "I'm facing a hard time, but God will get me through it." And God will. Plenty of you have seen plenty of hard times and you've come through them. And sometimes to live by your faith means to do or say the hard thing, knowing you may face consequences, but: God help me, amen. God did help Martin Luther, who learned that he had friends in high places and so he was not burned at the stake. But when he stood before the Imperial Assembly in April 1521 he did not know that. He knew only that he was facing a terrible choice: save his life or be faithful. God help me, amen.

How do you and I live by faith and cope with the large realities that confront us? On Wednesday at Seekers, when we were talking about Martin Luther's crisis of faith over God's judgment, at least one of you wanted to talk about Las Vegas. Okay, we should. While we're at it, we should also talk about the mass shooting the same day in Lawrence, Kansas. It didn't get as much attention because not as many people were killed. Now, it would be wrong for me to tell you, "This is how you must think about it" or "This is what it means." There are plenty of preachers and pundits who take it upon themselves to tell us what we ought to think or tell us how something like this is the judgment of God. If only they had a solid footing on the Word of God, I might not get so angry with them.

I will affirm this: the righteous live by their faith, and that means, for one thing, that our faith sets our priorities. What is most important to us? When we decide how to respond, what will we do? What is most important to followers of Jesus? Can we even remember that we are followers of Jesus? When a powerful advocacy group tells us what we have to do – or rather, tells our government what it has to do if they want to continue getting their campaign contributions – can people of Jesus remember our priorities?

The massacre in Las Vegas is a big, complex thing: it involves sin, fear, safety, freedom, and public policy. The only question that is easy to answer is the one, "When will this sort of thing end?" Christians know the answer: it will not end as long as there are human beings in the world. We are sinners and human beings will do sinful things. Living by our faith we can do a lot about our own fear, about public safety, and about freedom and public policy. But only God can deal with sin and you know how God deals with it: God submitted himself to death for it. God allowed sinners to have our way with him.

Perhaps too you know about the controversy in the Millard Public Schools this week related to our guest speaker of the day. She was invited to speak to two high school classes, but since she is a Palestinian Christian and some parents were nervous about what she might say, what their children might hear, and what other children were, apparently, saying to them, she was uninvited. There is a lot of that in our society today: a speaker is scheduled, someone is unhappy, the speaker is uninvited.

How do people of faith think about this? If we truly live by our faith, then we are not afraid to hear something that might make us uncomfortable. We don't have to agree, we don't have to accept everything we hear, but we are willing to listen. And we are particularly willing to listen to a fellow follower of Jesus. Some of you may remember when we of the United States were in a conflict in Nicaragua and we were supporting those trying to overthrow the elected government. A Christian pastor from Nicaragua came to visit in my community in Arizona and many of the Christians refused to believe what he was saying. He wasn't from the United States, and so he should not be believed. That he was a Christian was irrelevant, they told me. They didn't say, but they implied, that our national loyalty is more important than our faith. That someone is a fellow citizen is a higher priority than that someone is a fellow follower of Jesus. And that is how we choose who we listen to.

No, it isn't. Whether the speaker is from the United States or from Nicaragua or from Israel or from Palestine, we pay deference to those who share our commitment of faith, our devotion to the Lord Jesus. We live by our faith. I had a church member in Cincinnati who was raised in Palestine; he fled for the United States when the Israelis burned his village and took their land. People often did not want to hear what Nabeeh had to say, but he knew: he was there and he lived through it. If we live by our faith, we listen to what our sisters and brothers have to say, even if we are uncomfortable about it.

Well, I have more in mind to say to you about this, but that is enough for one sermon. I trust you can think of other implications of the assertion that the righteous live by our faith. Martin Luther was willing to listen to the Christian authorities, but to prove him wrong they needed to appeal to Scripture and to reason, not simply to their own authority. Otherwise, he would not recant. God help me, amen.

If I'm going to trust God's Word – and I do – then I need to remember the assurance that the Prophet Habakkuk gives us:

     There is still a vision for the appointed time;

        It speaks of the end, and does not lie.

     If it seems to tarry, wait for it;

        It will surely come, it will not delay.

To "wait for it" does not mean simply to sit back and pray, hoping that things someday will change. It means to write, to speak, to vote, to agitate. And to do so with the confidence that you are being faithful to the Word of God and to reason. Whether you and I live to see things take a turn for the better we cannot know. This we know: God is faithful; we struggle to be faithful to God because God has been faithful to us. Sometimes quickly, but more often with the unfolding of time, the promises of the prophets are fulfilled.

     For there is still a vision for the appointed time;

        It speaks of the end, and does not lie.

     If it seems to tarry, wait for it;

        It will surely come, it will not delay.

     Look at the proud!

        Their spirit is not right in them,

     But the righteous live by their faith.

Robert A. Keefer

Presbyterian Church of the Master

Omaha, Nebraska


[1] Volkmar Joestel, Martin Luther: Rebel and Reformer (English edition): Drei Kastanien Verlag, 2003; p. 30.


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