A Sermon for Reformation Sunday in Times of Uncertainty
St. Philip Lutheran Church
25 October 2020 + Reformation Sunday
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
Reformation Sunday strikes me a bit differently this year. Every year, we get the same texts for this day, and every year, I’m drawn to this beautiful passage from Jeremiah - a new covenant, a God who lovingly takes God’s people by the hand, total and complete forgiveness.
But this beautiful passage doesn’t come out of nowhere. It comes at a time of total devastation and ruin, uncertainty and questioning God’s presence.
During the time when Jeremiah prophesied to God’s people, things were chaotic. The people had been conquered by a foreign empire, and their two most precious national institutions - the temple in Jerusalem and the monarchy in the line of King David - had been destroyed. The places where they had come to expect God’s promise and presence were gone. They thought they had it all figured out...until they didn’t. It was a time of loss and grief and uncertainty.
Our namesake reformer, Martin Luther, knew something about uncertainty as well. As Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton writes in a recent article:
“[Luther] had been excommunicated by the church and declared an outlaw by the emperor. The bubonic plague had returned to Wittenberg, Germany. His 7-month-old daughter, Elisabeth, had died. Western Europe was under attack by the Ottoman Empire. Civil unrest resulted in the Peasants War, which was brutally crushed by the nobility. Luther lived in uncertain times.”
On top of all of that, Luther had no idea how his theological movement would turn out. In-fighting and even violence among his fellow reformers were pervasive, and even Luther himself struggled with lifelong doubts about his faithfulness to the Word that he so vigorously defended.
Uncertainty, worldwide plague, and divisive in-fighting and violence...that’s our world today as much as Luther’s over 500 years ago. The virus is different, and the rival factions fight over different things...but the deep uncertainty and fear is the same.
In the midst of such uncertainty, Jeremiah prophesies to God’s people...a new covenant, a new promise, a new hope for the future. If God ever shows up with a word of hope where we least expect it, it’s here. In the midst of destruction and hopelessness, we find these verses - part of Jeremiah’s aptly-titled “Book of Consolation.” A reminder of God’s faithfulness, yearning to forgive, and enduring presence - still showing up, even and especially in the least-expected places.
On his better days, Luther still knew that truth, as well. “A mighty fortress is our God…” resounds from the computer speakers of Lutheran homes everywhere this morning, echoing the psalmist’s refrain: “God is our refuge and strength… the God of Jacob is our refuge.” The hope of the psalmist is the same hope of Jeremiah and the same hope Luther clung to, when all seemed so uncertain. “The God of Jacob is our refuge…”
It is interesting to me the psalmist chose that particular title for God. The God of Jacob. Not the God of Israel. It’s the same person, but before God changes his name. Jacob, who stole his brother Esau’s birthright. Jacob, who physically wrestled with God. Jacob, who by no means was perfect. So the God of Jacob is the God of a cheater and a doubter, the God of an imperfect but no less faithful follower.
The God of Jacob is our refuge. The God of the imperfect, the God of the devastated, the God of the grieving, the God of the angry, the God of the uncertain. The God of Jacob is our refuge.
In the midst of living through uncertainty, through eyes clouded with tears of grief, it can be difficult to perceive where God is, let alone where the Spirit is calling us next.
When will we be able to worship in-person again in this space? When will we go back to some semblance of “normalcy,” to the way things were before? Honestly, I don’t know. No one does. And that makes me as sad and anxious as any of you.
Reformation hits differently this year because, in many ways, we are witnessing it happening. We are in the midst of re-formation right now. Over the past months, we have re-formed our worship together, our meetings and faith formation opportunities, our service and our witness, our very identity of what it means to be a church for the sake of the world.
Even as we are re-forming our life together, we trust that we too are being re-formed by God’s Spirit. As the hymn we’ll sing in a few moments reminds us:
Trust the goodness of creation;
Trust the Spirit strong within.
Dare to dream the vision promised,
Sprung from seed of what has been…
Sing a new church into being!
How is the Spirit calling us, shaping us, re-forming us to be a church for these new times? People of God, we are the church of the Reformation, and the church of the Reformation is always being called forward, always being summoned by the God who made us and is our refuge.
That is a truth worth proclaiming this Reformation Sunday - a truth that sets us free. Because of the undeniable truth that the God of Jacob, the God of Jeremiah, the God of Luther and all the reformers, the God of all who live with uncertainty, is our refuge, we are set free to keep on being the church.
To keep loving and serving God’s people the best way we can. To care for ourselves when we need to. To come together as the people of God in new and creative ways. Indeed, to sing a new church into being.