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Standing Outside Graceland / Reformation Sunday

Romans 3:21-31

the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,

Dennis idolized the king of rock and roll, Elvis Presley. He still does to this day. his love for Elvis has driven him to bizarre lengths. He even had his face lifted and his hairline contoured by a plastic surgeon to make himself look like Elvis. He once explained his passion to reporters.

He said, Presley has been my idol ever since I was five years old. I have every record he ever made, he said, and pictures in the thousands. I even have a couple of books in Japanese and Chinese and some leaves from his front yard.

Dennis never saw Elvis up close and personal. He did see him on stage four times. He stood up on the wall at Graceland once for twelve hours trying to get a glimpse of him. But he had so many people around he could never get close to him. Poor guy. Standing for hours outside Graceland, but he never saw the King.

Once there was a studious young monk in a convent at Erfurt, Germany who wanted desperately to see God. He didn’t have plastic surgery, but he did everything else he knew to do to be the kind of man he thought God wanted him to be. He was haunted by his sins. And so, he fasted. He prayed. He kept himself from sleeping. He read the Bible constantly. But there was no joy to his faith. He was obsessed by the fear of hell. His sin became a burden heavier than he could bear. He repented as best he knew how, but never believed that he was really pardoned. He was one wretched young man. In a sense he was standing on his own wall outside God’s Graceland hoping to see the King but was prevented from doing so by the weight of his own sense of unworthiness.

And then, in the spring of 1513, this monk’s eyes opened to a truth from scripture he had never noticed before. He discovered it was ok if he never attained righteousness, and that righteousness is given by God when we believe. We’re saved not by works, but by faith. This transformed monk, Martin Luther, wrote, It was as if the gates swung open and I entered into paradise.

I wonder if, in spite of hundreds of years of teaching by faithful pastors about salvation by faith, how many of us are still standing on the wall looking longingly into Graceland. Do we really understand that salvation is by faith and faith alone?

You may know the story about the Sunday School teacher who wanted to teach her class about grace. And so, one day she asked them, If I sold my house and my car and gave all my money to the church, would I get into Heaven? NO! the children all answered. Again, she asked, if I cleaned the church every day, mowed the yard, and kept everything neat and tidy, would I get into Heaven? And again, the answer was NO! Well, she continued, then how can I get to Heaven? In the back of the room, a five-year-old boy shouted out, you gotta be dead! Well, technically he’s right, of course. But I applaud the teacher’s effort to help her class see the bigger picture.

Christian faith isn’t about what we do for God, but what God has done for us. What Luther saw in the spring of 1513 opened the gates of Graceland for him, turned the world of religion on its head. In Luther’s time, the church was basically teaching that God was passive, but humanity had to be active. That is, God was on His throne reigning. And human beings were to be scurrying around trying to win God’s favor.

Luther’s eyes were opened to another reality, that it is God who is active, and we who are passive. Salvation is all about what God has done in Jesus Christ.

Because Christ gave Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, our debt to God is forever paid. As Paul says in our lesson from the Epistle: Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by His 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.

I learned this lesson from one of my professors. I so wanted to do well on the final exam, so I went into my home office and had some uninterrupted study time the night before. When I got to class, everybody was doing their last-minute studying. The professor came in and said he would review with us for just a little bit before the test. We went through the review, most of it right on the study guide, but there were some things the professor was reviewing we had never heard of. When he was questioned about it, he said that this material was in the book and we were responsible for everything in the book. We couldn’t really argue with that.

Finally, it was time to take the test. The prof instructed us to leave the exam booklets face down on the desk until everyone had one and then he would tell us to start.

When we turned the exam booklets over, every answer was already filled in! The bottom of the last page said the following: This is the end of the Final Exam. All the answers on your test are correct. You will receive an ˜A’ on the final exam. The reason you passed the test is because the creator of the test took it for you. All the work you did in preparation for this test did not help you get the A. You have just experienced . . . grace.

The professor then went around the room and asked each of us individually, what is your grade? Do you deserve the grade you are receiving? How much did all your studying for this exam help you achieve your final grade? Now I had to fight back tears when answering those questions and thinking about how the Creator passed the test for me.

Afterward he said, I tried to teach you all semester that you are a recipient of grace. He went on to say he had never done this kind of final before and probably would never do it again, but because of the content of many of our class discussions, he felt like we needed to experience grace. Not just talk about it but experience it.

Listen to me very carefully, even if you think you know all about grace. All of us here in this service need to EXPERIENCE grace, not just know about it intellectually. Many of us grew up in homes where love was conditional. We were not conscious of it, but that’s how we experienced life as a child. Our parents’ acceptance was performance-based. If we did well, we would get our parents’ approval. If not, we experienced their disapproval. And so, at a level at which we’re not even aware, all our lives we have been trying to measure up to our parents’ expectations. And the sad thing is that we never can. And so many of us have this deep sense of unworthiness. And you know something interesting, it’s some of the finest people in the church who have this sense of unworthiness. And it’s robbed us of our joy. We’ve tried to do the right thing all our lives and all it has gotten us is that we are standing on the wall looking longingly into Graceland.

All our lives we have been taught about salvation by faith, but we haven’t associated it with that deep unhappiness that many of us feel. Here is the good news I have to share with you: You don’t have to measure up. You don’t have to be at the top of your class. You’re accepted. You are loved. Salvation, wholeness, healing of the inner person by God is not performance-based. In fact, in order to experience God’s grace, you and I have got to somehow forget everything we’ve ever learned about being good. That sounds radical, doesn’t it? But that’s what Luther saw half a millennium ago. We’re saved not by our performance, but by our faith in an omnipotent and all-loving God. This is the first question that we need to ask today: Do we understand that salvation is by faith and faith alone? Here is the second:

Do we really understand that salvation is about freedom?

Jesus said, The truth shall set you free. Would you agree with me that there are far too many uptight Christians? And yet you read the story of Luther and you see a man bathed in glorious freedom.

This doesn’t mean he abandoned his responsibilities. On the contrary. See how he applied himself. He translated the Bible into German. He wrote more than four hundred works, from pamphlets to large books. He wrote 125 hymns including, of course, one of our finest hymns, A Mighty Fortress is Our God. But his work, which had been a burden, was now a joy.

The way to think of it biblically is to realize that, instead of merely doing good works, now he was bearing good fruit. Good works is something you work at, strain at, grit your teeth and accomplish. Bearing good fruit is something that flows naturally from a transformed heart. Luther was set free, and his life overflowed with praise and passion.

I love the way songwriter Ken Medema expresses it. Ken’s a blind singer-songwriter who has a real gift of inner sight. Some years ago, he gave a short concert, and then there was a dance afterward. Now, Ken had never learned to dance. He grew up in a Christian Reformed home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and dancing was one of those “worldly” things that you just didn’t do.

Well, there he was, sitting on the steps, enjoying the music. And suddenly a teenager came up to him and said: It’s ladies’ choice; would you dance with me? Ken didn’t know what to do. He was speechless. Then he protested, but finally she pulled him out onto the floor. That was on Saturday night. The next morning, during Sunday worship, Ken sang this new song:

She asked me to dance and I’d never tried dancing before. I had visions of everyone laughin’ us right off the floor. No! I protested, it just wouldn’t be any good She gently insisted, and finally I told her I would. Unforgettable! She was a fresh breath of Spring on a cold winter’s day! Unforgettable! She taught this singer to sing in a whole new way!

Beautiful, isn’t it? Can’t you just see them, stumbling across the dance floor together, she laughing and coaxing, he finding freedom for his feet and his body? But there’s more. Listen to the words of the next verse:

Well, HE asked me to dance and I’d never tried dancing before. I had visions of SAINTS and ANGELS laughin’ us right off the floor! No! I protested, It just wouldn’t be any good! He gently insisted, and finally I told Him I would. Unforgettable! He was the coming of Spring on a cold winter’s day! Unforgettable! For He taught this singer to sing in a whole new way!

I can see a young monk dancing within the cloistered walls of a convent. Can you picture it in your mind? He had tried for so long to be what God wanted him to be. And suddenly he realized that salvation is a gift. He could never earn it. He could never measure up to God’s standards. All he could do is accept God’s love and forgiveness and mercy and grace. Reformation Day is about faith and glorious freedom. Most of all it’s about God and what God has done in our behalf.

How about you? Are you standing on a wall looking longingly into Graceland? Well, it’s time for you to come down off the wall. The Master is asking you to let Him have the next dance.