Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen!
I remember a few years ago I was in a garden centre in the spring of the year. It was one of those greenhouse type places with a zillion plants and all that wonderful clean, oxygen-rich air and humidity. As I was walking around looking at plants I heard a flutter. I tracked the sound and looked around and behold! A little bird had gotten into the greenhouse some how. But it wasn’t your average run of the mill house sparrow either. It was a more impressive bird, like a gold finch or a yellow canary, you know the kind. He was doing his best to try and get out of the greenhouse with all his might. Relentlessly he kept trying to fly through the clear glass panels in the greenhouse roof. But no matter how hard he tried or how fast he flew, as expected, the glass wouldn’t give way. As I watched, the little bird finally smacked the window hard and fell to the greenhouse floor. “Poor little dunce!” I thought to myself. I walked over and gave him a flick to see if he was still alive. Thankfully he was! I picked him up and carried him outside of the greenhouse door. I put him down on a planter that was out in the open. I watched him for a couple of minutes to make sure he didn’t get eaten by a cat or some other terrible peril. He perked up and came around and flew away.
What a nice little story, right?! Warm fuzzies and a Hollywood ending. What more would you want?! But this little story of the bird in the glass prison is none other than a parable of the Reformation! The Roman Catholic Church was putting people into a captivity that they couldn’t escape from no matter how hard they tried. No matter how hard or fast they flew into the glass, they could not break free. It becomes a lesson for what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther was up against before discovering the freedom of the Gospel message in the Scriptures.
Luther once said “I was myself more than once driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God?! I hated Him!” He hated God because Luther had this totally wrong view of Who God was. He believed that God had trapped him in the greenhouse, watching him struggle for freedom all of his days, then damning him to Hell when he failed. It truly was as hopeless as that little bird. But as we know so well now, our Lord Jesus says “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (JN 8:36).
The problem with human nature though is that it is fallen. It is broken. It is corrupt. It actually can’t stand freedom. People almost always want to return to captivity. We want to shackle ourselves to our sins and transgressions, despite being baptized. We want to try and earn our salvation by what we do or through our money and possessions or how we feel. Or, we try to run and hide from God just like Adam and Eve did in the garden of Eden. Or like the little bird in the greenhouse - all I wanted to do was help the little guy, but all he could see was some big bald guy coming to catch him! He couldn’t tell that I wanted to set him free and make sure he lived. This is the same thing that Jesus wants to do for us and this whole world. He wants us to be free in the victory and life of the eternal gospel, proclaimed freely that all may hear and believe by faith alone.
But again, our sinful nature doesn’t like this idea of freedom. We want to do it our own way and make it on our own despite smashing into the glass over and over again. The Roman Catholic Church in Luther’s day was capitalizing, quite literally, on this truth. They were trying to raise money to pay for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. They worked all the avenues of raising the funds. Long before social media, they had their own awareness campaign. A dude by the name of Johann Tetzel. He was making his way around the churches, collecting money for the promise of God’s forgiveness. The indulgence, as it was called, was the chief money maker. It was better than a modern day casino! The people gave their money to the church and received nothing in return. They even had the marketing jingle all worked out: “Once a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!”
What a pitch! What a slogan! You can buy your way out of the greenhouse. And, if you call now, right now, because we can’t do this all day, you can buy grandma out of the glass house too, on a two-for-one special! Keep on sinning all you want, as long as you pay the cash! That heinous life of sin and immorality can be simply warshed-away if you contribute to the building program. God’s forgiveness comes your way and the fake-news jail of purgatory goes away, once you open your wallet. What a deal!
But hang on a minute. Doesn’t the Bible say something to the effect of “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Well, as a matter of fact it does say exactly that. The Bible tells us clearly that God’s love and forgiveness cannot be bought by envelopes stuffed with cash. In fact, they need not be because they are FREE through the very costly sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. This message, this awesome eternal gospel was so brutally skewed that nobody heard it in the church. Sunday morning wasn’t filled with Good News that Jesus our Lord had triumphed over sin, death and the devil by His own sacrificial death and resurrection. There was no talk of Him shattering the glass walls of the greenhouse for us and salvation. There was no proclamation of the Son setting us free by His grace. Nope! It was all doom and gloom. Try your best and God might sort out the rest. Buy this indulgence! Give the Bishop all your money. Earn your way to heaven by your works.
It was such a dumpster-fire! This is what provoked Martin Luther. He started reading the Bible in the original languages and there he discovered a message not of personal merit but rather the freedom Jesus gives to all those who believe His promise. There in the ancient pages he encountered grace. G-R-A-C-E - God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. It wasn’t sold. It was freely given. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
That’s a sweet, sweet message dear friends. It’s a message heard nowhere else in the world. All the worlds religions teach that we are the little bird who must try with all our might to get out the glass prison on our own. But the message of Christ our Lord is that He has smashed the glass house down for us. He has forgiven our sins. Death is defeated. The devil is crushed. It’s not about earning brownie points with God. It’s not about shelling out cash to buy our way into God’s good books. It’s all about the freedom that the Son of God gives to this imprisoned world by grace through faith.
This is the funny thing about the word gospel or the Good News as it is commonly called. We tend to think of it in terms of sunshine and lollipops, the opposite of bad news. But the word gospel technically means “news of victory.” It’s a military word. It was from back in the day when an emperor or mighty general kicked a bunch of butt in battle. He comes back to his city and there is a huge celebration in the streets. His face shines, his weapons gleam in the sun, his head is decked with a glorious crown! The people cheer and sing for their conquering hero is victorious over his foes. Sacrificial feasts are held! The Good News is heralded as the trumpets blast from the walls and roof tops.
It’s no mere coincidence our Lord uses the term Gospel to refer to what He is doing. It’s no accident we sing The Feast of Victory in our Liturgy. The joy and rejoicing that comes from this message exceeds all hopes! The glass prison is shattered. Freedom rings because of our valiant and conquering Messiah. The Sacrificial Meal of Holy Communion fills us up with the very fruits of freedom, the body and blood of our conquering Lord. For the Son has set us free, and in His death and resurrection we are free.
This eternal gospel that is proclaimed is the central message of the Reformation. It was what Martin Luther devoted his life to preaching and teaching. It is the same message the Church of our Lord Jesus still boldly proclaims some 503 years later after the Reformation. The grace and mercy of God for poor sinners like us has come. He breaks our bonds and gives us freedom. The eternal victory of the eternal gospel is proclaimed to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. Now and forever more, Amen!