[We] are now justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.Romans 3:24
One of my favorite poems by Wendell Berry is “The Peace of Wild Things”. Here it is:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Wendell Berry’s poem evokes so powerfully what it means to be in God’s creation, and to come into the peace of wild things. Where for a time, Wendell Berry writes, we can rest in the grace of the world, and be free. The world that God created can offer us many things. It can give us hints of that peace which Wendell Berry writes of. And when we are enjoying God’s creation, we can, at least for a time, rest in the grace of the world. And, in that moment, we are free.
I believe all of that. But I also believe that the world can let us down. It can disappoint us. Whether through storms and natural disasters, or through cancer and other diseases, including this coronavirus, the world is not always a place to find grace. God’s creation can offer glimpses of grace, hints of what God intends for us, but only that. God intends for us much more than what this world can offer us.
And I am not even just talking about eternal life. Even in this life, there is a peace that is far greater than the peace of wild things. And there is a grace, even in this lifetime, that God wants to give to us that much more than the grace of this world. It is why I am a Christian. And it is why I am a Lutheran. Because of this peace, and this grace, that I have mentioned the last two Sundays, and want to give thanks for once more today, on this very special day in which we celebrate Reformation Sunday.
Today, Reformation Sunday in the Lutheran Church, is a day that is all about grace. The grace, not of the world, but of God. And when the world disappoints us, or when we disappoint ourselves, we are invited to rest in this grace – not in the grace of this world – but in the grace of our loving God, who created this world. And to find true freedom there, the freedom of the gospel. Because it is only through God’s grace, that we will discover true freedom, true life.
All of today’s readings share this good news with us, each in their own way. So, I want to look at a verse or two from each of today’s readings, to get three different glimpses of this grace and freedom.
First, there is this wonderful promise from our first reading, from Jeremiah 31:33:
This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.Jeremiah 31:33
What an incredible expression of the gospel, written long before the time of Christ. God wants simply to be our God, and for us to be God’s people. The creator of the universe, who existed before there ever was a universe, who created every star in the sky, and every creature on this earth, wants to be in a special and unique relationship with you and me, who were created in God’s very image.
A new covenant, God calls it in Jeremiah, when all shall know God, from the least to the greatest, and when we will be forgiven all our sin. It is a covenant that came at a price – the life of God’s own son – but a price willingly paid, because God’s love for us knows no bounds.
This new covenant, God tells us, will not be written on tablets of stone. It will be written on our hearts. Martin Luther’s best friend and fellow reformer, Philip Melanchthon, quotes this passage from Jeremiah in his Apology of the Augsburg Confession, reminding us that “faith truly brings the Holy Spirit and produces a new life in our hearts.” Because of this, Melanchthon goes on to say:
“After we have been justified and reborn by faith, we begin to fear and love God, to pray for and expect help from him, to thank and praise him, and to obey him in our afflictions.”
In other words, the new covenant written on our hearts, cleanses our hearts, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, and produces an entirely new life in our hearts, a life filled with the joy of our salvation.
In today’s second reading, Paul reminds us of the cost of this amazing gift, when he writes:
[We] “are now justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.”Romans 3:24-25
We can never forget the cost of this gift. Because without the cross, there is no new covenant. Without Jesus’ death, there is no forgiveness. Without his resurrection and ascension, there is no gift of the Holy Spirit. And without his promised return, the kingdom cannot come in its fullness.
We are justified by God’s grace as a gift, a free gift, which we receive through our faith, but it was not a free gift to God. It could not have come at a higher price. It is so important to remember this, for many reasons. Among them is the simple reason that when we do remember this, we do not run the risk of taking this gift, this amazing gift, for granted. But also, when the world shows us no mercy, reminding ourselves of the love shown on the cross can give us a hope and a peace and a freedom that we can find nowhere else in this world.
It can be an amazing blessing to simply remind yourself that you are so valuable to God that God’s son willingly died for you. Grace is at the root of it all, and coming back to the grace that God gives us helps us to truly be free. Free of fear, and of despair, and of worry, and even of our captivity to sin.
Freedom is the gift that Jesus himself describes in today’s gospel reading:
Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin … If the son makes you free, you will be free indeed.John 8:34-36
The freedom of the gospel, the freedom of the Christian, is what Jesus describes. It is, first and foremost, the freedom from the power and captivity of sin. We are not freed from sin entirely. It still nips at our heels. We confess this every Sunday. But it has lost its true grip on us. Knowing that we are justified by grace, we no longer fear losing our salvation, or disappointing God beyond all repair. We no longer fear the sin and the brokenness of this world. We no longer fear death.
We are blessedly free from these fears. Free to love and serve the Lord without hesitation, without expectation, and without the pressure of trying to be more than we are. We are blessedly free from these fears. Free to love and serve the Lord without hesitation, without expectation, and without the pressure of trying to be more than we are. Free, then, to share the gospel without hesitation. To live out our faith with courage and conviction.
We are God’s beloved children. Whose son died for us. We have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. New life, new hearts, new hope, endless grace, undying love. We can now find a holy and true rest for our restless hearts. We no longer need to survive on snatches of rest in the occasional grace of this world. We now have a holy rest in the eternal grace of our loving God.
Returning to that wonderful poem of Wendell Berry’s which I began with, I want to offer a response to it, not to make it better, but you might say to make it a little more Lutheran.
I’ll call it “The Peace Beyond Wild Things.” Here it is:
“When despair for the world grows in me,”
I, too, go, sometimes to “where the wood drake rests.”
But when even the wood drake is restless, I go
to my God in prayer. And when I do,
I come into the peace, not just of wild things,
but of the Creator of all things, the peace
that passes all understanding.
I, too, find “rest in the grace of the world,” for a time.
But when the grace of the world dies away, as it must,
I turn to the grace of the God I so love,
where my soul finds rest, where I am now and forever free.
Today, we celebrate Reformation Sunday, a day to simply remember and give thanks: for the astonishing fact that we are God’s people, loved now and forever; that we have been justified by God’s grace as a gift; and that God’s own son has given us true freedom. Given this freedom, we can now live our lives in Christ, with courage and with hope, with love and without reservation, because we are living in the freedom of the gospel, now and forever.
Thanks be to God. Amen