Here I Stand
Reformation Sunday (Observed)
October 26th/27th, 2014
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
“Here I stand.” Three words that changed the course of history forever. Three words that have been associated with the Reformation since they were first uttered by a monk named Luther as he stood on trial before the Roman Emperor in 1521. “Here I stand.” While popular culture and little girls everywhere now associate those three words with Queen Elsa of Arendelle, they were Luther’s words first. “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.” Bold words. Inspiring words. But what do they mean? Where exactly is the “here” where Luther stood, and why was he adamant that he would not move? And maybe more importantly, what happened when he refused to budge?
The answer to the first question is apparent to anyone familiar with Reformation History. A young law student named Martin Luther was travelling back to school after a visit home when he found himself caught in a frightening thunderstorm. He feared for his life, so he prayed to Saint Anne and bargained for his life. If she spared him, he would become a monk. After surviving the storm, Luther made good on his vow and did become a monk. As he studied the teachings of the Roman Church, he did his best to live the life a monk was supposed to live. He prayed when he was supposed to pray, ate when he was supposed to eat, fasted when he was supposed to fast, and did everything else required by the monastic life. But he always knew he was not doing enough. He always knew that God demanded perfection, and he knew that he was far from perfect. He grew to resent and even hate the righteous God for the demands he placed on humanity. Luther’s internal crisis of conscience became public when the pope began to raise funds for a new cathedral in Rome. In order to raise the necessary funds, the Roman Church began selling indulgences which guaranteed entrance to heaven. One story, which is probably more legend than history, relates a time when Luther came across a man from his congregation who had a history of drunkenness and immoral living. The man had been sober for a while and had been turning his life around, but Luther now found him drunk on the side of the road. When Luther asked him why he had given in to the temptation and gone back to the bottle, the man showed him his newly purchased indulgence and said that he was covered. “Don’t worry,” he said. It didn’t matter how he lived, he said, he was going to heaven because he had purchased his ticket. Whether or not Luther ever had such a conversation, he did preach several sermons against the sale of indulgences for this very reason. He believed the practice contradicted the clear teaching of Scripture and led people into sin.
The Roman Church did not like this German monk preaching against action taken by the pope, so as time went on, Luther was put on trial, first with the Roman Church, then with the secular government. When he would not take back his words before the Church, he was excommunicated. When he was asked to take back his words by the secular government, his response was the now famous, “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.” The “here” where Luther stood, the thing he was not willing to give up, was the confession that God is gracious and saves us through the sacrifice of Jesus in our place, a sacrifice which he gives to us as a free gift without any merit or worthiness in us. No indulgence or other holy act would satisfy our debt before God. Our forgiveness is a gift. In the words of Paul, Luther knew that the righteousness of God had been revealed apart from the Law. It was not a righteousness that God demanded from people who could never provide it; it was the righteousness of Jesus that was given to God’s people through faith. In the words of Jesus, Luther knew the truth, and the truth made him free. Luther was free to live in confidence before God as his loving redeemer, not his vengeful judge. He was free to live in the sunshine of a clean conscience on account of Christ instead of under the oppressive weight of his own personal failings. That freedom of conscience gave Luther the courage to stand by his words, for they were not really his. He stood on the words of Scripture. “Here I stand,” he said, “by the grace of God, I can do no other.”
If the credits rolled there, it would make for an inspiring story. If this were a Hollywood script, Emperor Charles would have a change of heart and see the error of his ways. It would make the story of Luther a touching tale of bravery with a happy ending. But this is not Hollywood, this is history, and the story was far from over. In fact, in many ways it is still going on today. In many ways, Luther’s story is your story. You see, when Luther boldly stood in the freedom of the Gospel, when Luther declared before God and Government exactly where he stood, his proclamation may have been pleasing to our Father in heaven, but it was nothing of the sort to the Emperor on earth. Those three little words made Luther an outlaw. Not only was he excommunicated from the church, he was also branded a heretic and a bounty was placed on his head. He became a hunted man whose life was in such danger that his friends had to take him into hiding until the heat died down. It would have been nice if Luther found acceptance before the government of his day, but he didn’t. Yet that did not change the truth of Scripture. “Here I stand,” said Luther, “and here I’ll stay.” Those words become even more poignant when we remember that by uttering them, Luther was effectively signing his own death certificate.
But that’s the thing about God’s Word. It creates in us the gift of faith and a new life in Christ, a life free from the burdens of the Law. It creates in us a sure and certain hope that because God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble, we can trust in his deliverance. But we would do well to remember that God’s Word does not guarantee the worldly governments will believe. Luther’s government didn’t, so while his confession of the truth made him free before God, it bound him before men. The same happened to Peter and Paul and the other Apostles. We know all too well Peter’s famous and oft quoted words from Acts 5. When Peter and the other apostles were arrested and
told to stop preaching the good news of Jesus, Peter boldly replied, “We must obey God rather than men.” But the story doesn’t stop there. The Apostles were beaten within an inch of their lives for those words, and while it is good, right, and salutary they obeyed God rather than men, they suffered for it at the hands of those sinful men. Stephen’s preaching led to his execution. Paul was regularly imprisoned and put on trial for his words. But these men knew the truth, and the truth set them free to speak God’s Word faithfully even though they knew such speech meant their imprisonment, torture, or even execution at the hands of sinful men.
That, dear friends in Christ, is the part of the story that continues to this day. Satan hates the proclamation of the Gospel, and he will do whatever he can to silence it. For our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces at work in this present darkness. Our old Satanic Foe will use violence today just as he did in the days of the Apostles, or in the days of Luther. Anyone with a TV or a smartphone knows full well that there are places in the world where boldly proclaiming “Here I stand” will result in loss of your head. But Satan uses more than violence in his attempts to silence the Gospel. You know that there are places in this country where proclaiming “Here I stand” will be met with mockery, ridicule, and contempt from the people around you. You will be accused of bigotry and hatred for standing on our Lord’s Word against the assaults of the homosexual agenda. You will be accused of hypocrisy and arrogance for standing on our Lord’s Word and speaking out against the greed and selfishness that are not only embraced, but esteemed in our world. You will be accused of brain-washing your kids, accused of perpetrating a particularly cruel form of child abuse, because you are faithful in bringing your children to church and raising them in the Word of our Lord.
But the words of Jesus stand. If you continue in his Word, if you cling to his Word, if you abide in his Word, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. It is not freedom as the world understands it, it is the true freedom that comes from knowing you’re right. Customer relations may be a thankless job, but there is a certain amount of relief to be found at the bottom of the corporate ladder. You can always pass the buck. You can always pass the complaint on to your supervisor. You can invoke those magic words: “Why don’t you talk to my manager about this.” The freedom of the Gospel works in a similar manner. We know the truth of our Savior and our forgiveness, and it is a truth that nothing and no one in this world can change no matter how vehemently they rant and rave. It is a truth that is above our pay grade. If someone has a problem with it, their problem is not with us, it is with God himself; we are simply the messengers. I don’t know what the future of Christianity looks like in this country. I don’t know if things will get better or worse with our government. I don’t know if more pastors will be threatened with jail time or severe fines for refusing to perform homosexual wedding ceremonies. I don’t know if the State of Michigan or the City of Fraser will ever subpoena my sermons or try to silence the preaching of God’s Word in some other way. But I do know that whatever chains this world may shackle me with, I am free before God. You are free too, for the blood of Jesus covers our sin.
“Here I stand,” said Luther. We know where Luther stood, and we know what that got him. We know where the Apostles stood, and we know what that got them. The question today could be: Where will you stand? And hopefully the answer would be a confession that the Church’s only true foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. But I think a better question is: What do you think will happen for standing there? Do you think Satan will stand idly by and watch as the truth of God sets people free from his clutches? Do you think Satan will simply do nothing while we stand on God’s Word and invite others to do the same? Do you not think he will attack the confession of the truth in every way possible? And yet, for all his ranting and raving, the truth has set you free. Just a few moments ago we all sang these words together: “A mighty fortress is our God, a trusty shield and weapon. Though devils all the world may fill, all eager to devour us, we tremble not, we fear no ill, for they cannot overpower us. Though the world may take our life, goods, fame, child, and wife, and everything else we may have, though these all be gone, our victory has been won; the kingdom ours remaineth.”
May such confidence in the faithfulness of God fill you today and every day. While we are free in the Gospel, we might not be free on this earth. But regardless of who our next president is, the kingdom ours remaineth. Regardless of what laws are passed next, the kingdom ours remaineth. Regardless of what names society calls us or what lies are spread about us, the kingdom ours remaineth. Our Lord is the only true God. He is the creator and sustainer of all things. In him we live and move and have our being. He is in control. If things get worse for us before they get better, if we do end up facing persecution and the threat of death even in this country, so be it. The kingdom ours remaineth. The devil would have you fear. The world would have you despair. Your sinful flesh would have you lose hope. But because you abide in the Word made flesh, you know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Here we stand, by the grace of God. We can do no other.