Many congregations will celebrate the Reformation this weekend. They’ll sing “A Mighty Fortress,” read Psalm 46, and remember Martin Luther and his 95 Theses. That’s fitting, for the Reformation was a big deal. But it also makes for a perennial temptation. It’s easy on Reformation Sunday to talk only about the Gospel—to stay in the past, to venerate those who have gone before, to imagine the good news only as doctrine and the sermon only as explanation. In all this talk about the Gospel, the present-tense promise of Christ may easily be obscured.
One way to avoid this is to preach from a text that was not central to the Reformation. The appointed Gospel reading for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost is a ready option. Luke 18:9-17, to which the Lutheran Confessions never refer, comes in two parts. It begins with a parable. It continues with Jesus teaching about children and the reign of God. The two fit together well. They offer the preacher a natural way to proclaim the Gospel promise in all its reforming power.
At the heart of both sections in this reading is a contrast. The parable sets before us the contrast between a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee, like the people to whom Jesus spoke this parable, trusted in himself and treated others with contempt (verse 9). His thanksgiving to God was artificial. His pious prayer was a façade for pride. The tax collector, in contrast, stood far off. Refusing even to look toward heaven, he knew his place. He was a beggar with nothing to offer. No merit of his own to claim.
After the parable, Jesus demonstrated what this looks like in real life. They brought to him the humblest of humans. Infants (τὰ βρέφη) are even smaller and more helpless than little children (τὰ παιδία). The disciples tried to keep them from Jesus, but he would have none of it. The reign of God (ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ) belongs precisely to these, Jesus said. It is for the littlest, the least significant, those with the least to offer. Those with nothing to offer. The reign of God belongs to them. Jesus’ last word in the text ties the two parts together: those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and the humble will be exalted.
Reading this text on Reformation Sunday invites a few questions. Who is ready to celebrate the Reformation? Who is prepared to commemorate this festival rightly? I’m not talking about denominations or traditions. I’m talking about what the type of person. I’m talking about what type of posture. What kind of person is ready to celebrate the Reformation well?
The Pharisee helps us see who is NOT ready. Anyone who displays even a hint of pride or triumphalism. “God, I thank you that I understand the Gospel so clearly.” “God, I thank you that our congregation has remained steadfast to your Word.” “God, I thank you that our tradition confesses the good news more purely than the rest.” Such prayers are as inappropriate as the Pharisee’s. In a sermon on this text in 1532, Luther said: “God forgives all sins, except for presumptuous pride; he will not and cannot forgive it. When arrogance is present, forgiveness of sins cannot be, for then the worst sort of corruption parades under the appearance of piety.”
Faithful celebration of the Reformation is possible only for those who understand they have nothing. Whose incapability and insufficiency are obvious and owned. Who recognize their dependence on God for all things. In other words, Reformation is for children.
Halloween is a ready point of contact. Kids already love this holiday. (As do many adults—just look at how many houses are decked out with Halloween paraphernalia.) The idea that Reformation is for children is not about all of that, of course. And it’s not about a Pollyannaish “childlike faith,” either. The Reformation is about people who recognize their own personal need to be re-formed. People who, after decades of faithful service in the church, continue to acknowledge and abhor the old Adam who won’t let them be. It’s for people like you and me, who need reminding (regularly) that God humbles those who exalt themselves. Your sermon can help along these lines. It can expose the ways in which we exalt ourselves, subtly but surely.
Your sermon could do this by employing the logic of contrast—the Pharisee with tax collector, the disciples with the children, prideful Christianity with genuine humility. The promise is that God will, indeed, exalt those who have been humbled. Jesus is the first fruit of that promise. He humbled himself to the point of death and was exalted on the third day. All who are found in him will follow him. This means the exaltation is still coming. Until then, the humbling continues. Like the parents who can’t stop dressing up for Halloween each year, we remain children. Even (and especially) in our celebration of the Reformation.
Concordia Theology- Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 18:9-17.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 18:9-14.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. John Nordling of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Luke 18:9-17.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach John 8:31-38.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Peter Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 11:12-19.