1. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Heavenly Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The message from God’s Word on this 1st Sunday in Lent is taken from Mark 1:9-15 and also from Matthew 5:48, which says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It’s entitled, “Beggars of God’s Grace,” dear brothers and sisters in Christ.
2. 475 years ago, on February 18th, 1546, Martin Luther died. He knew that it had been coming. He’d been expecting it for some time. But when it came, it was distressing for his friends and his two sons who were with him, as well as his family who heard the news back in Wittenberg. He had lived under a death sentence for some 25 years. So, when in “A Mighty Fortress” we sing “And take they our life,” Luther meant it. It was a real possibility. But God spared him for some years, and his work continued. He died in Eisleben, Germany the town of his birth.
3. Near the end of his life, Martin Luther had to make a pastoral trip from Wittenberg to Eisleben. It was difficult. There were floods, it was cold, and he was distressed by how his heart was weakening, and he knew it. He was also going into a situation that broke his heart: two counts of Mansfeld, an area where he had lived when he was a boy, had been in controversy. “Luther,” they said, “you are the only one who can solve this! You must come.” He said, “I’m an old man. I must stay home.” But into the carriage he went, and so to Eisleben he made his way. There, it was clear to him that his life was nearing its end. “I fear that I will remain in Eisleben, where I was born,” he said. So, on the evening of February 17, 1546, it was clear that the end was approaching. Luther knew. He did what he could to ease the pain and hoped it wouldn’t be the last night, but in the end, it was.
4. As things grew worse, his pastors and friends came to him and said, “Dr. Luther, are you prepared to die in the faith that you have confessed?” He gave a strong and hearty “Ja,” “Yes, I am,” and a little later, early morning on February 18, he breathed his last. After he died, his colleagues found a little note, written in German and Latin, which said, “Wir sind bettler, hoc est verum,” “We are beggars, this is true.” Those were the last words Luther wrote. That fits so well with our texts this morning, as we recognize Luther’s death and also enter the season of Lent.
5. We hear from our Lord Jesus in Matthew 5, that we must be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect. And you know, that was the very point of Satan’s temptations in the Gospel for the First Sunday in Lent from Mark 1. If Jesus was in the tiniest point imperfect, then we could only be saved if in every commandment we were perfect. Now in our circles, we like to talk about perfection being the enemy of the good. Have you heard this saying? It typically means that you’ve had enough committee meetings and argued enough about a perfect solution, so finally you say, “We have to do something. It won’t be perfect, but it will do.”
6. This is where the words of our Lord Jesus confront us in Matthew 5:48 where Jesus says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” “You have heard,” the Lord also says in this text, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’” (Matt. 5:38). There’s a kind of wisdom in that sort of statement, the retribution being limited to evening things out in a methodical kind of way. If someone punches me in the mouth and knocks out a tooth, I can guarantee you, I’m looking not only for a tooth from that guy, I’m looking also for an arm. I’m looking for a head on a platter. The wisdom that we have from this text seems to say, “Do it evenly. Respond evenly.” But then it goes on to say, “And more.” Perfection means something more than just evening things out. Because if you consider your life in light of what Jesus says here, it’s not good enough, certainly not perfect. No, it’s not good enough. “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you” (Matthew 5:39–42).
7. Almost 50 years ago, there was an extensive survey done by the old Aid Association for Lutherans and Lutheran Brotherhood, today’s Thrivent Financial, in which they interviewed hundreds, thousands, of Lutherans about how they viewed their relationship with God. It was called A Study of Generations. Maybe you’re familiar with the big book and their demographic findings of Lutherans during that time. The most striking result of the survey was that most Lutherans didn’t believe in salvation by grace through faith because of Christ. Do you know what they believed in? 60% plus of Lutherans believed that if they were good enough, God would forgive the rest. Good enough.
8. Is it? This, of course, is the heart of the Lutheran Reformation. We’re talking about the righteousness of God. And Luther as he read the New Testament, particularly read Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, was confronted by this question of righteousness: What does it mean to be right in God’s eyes? And the Scriptures were clear to him: keep God’s Law perfectly. Luther knew he didn’t keep God’s Law perfectly. He knew that he didn’t keep God’s Law sufficiently. He knew he wasn’t good enough. Oh, he tried. To the confessor he went repeatedly, into the booth, dredging up every thought, word, and deed from a lifetime of sin, confessing it, being conditionally forgiven, and then sent forth to do good works. But even as he went forth to do the satisfaction, he remembered other sins. His mind recalled other things that he had done, and he realized that his confession wasn’t good enough. Even as he did the works of satisfaction, they weren’t good enough, because as he did them, he hated God. “You make demands of me that I can’t fulfill.” Finally, Luther’s confessor said that much to him, frankly: “Luther, it is not that God hates you; it is that you hate God.”
9. This then led to God’s gracious unfolding of the Gospel to Luther. The righteousness of God isn’t about us being good enough. The righteousness of God is about Christ, who is perfect. Christ, the God-man, who has completed salvation for you and for me, perfectly, once and for all. He was perfect in resisting the devil’s temptations, as Mark records for us today. So, when you or I take a look at Matthew 5:38 and following, we see this in terms of our own failures. But in fact, what we see working here is Christ describing his own work for us. “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (v 39). Jesus did that for you. “And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well” (v 40). Jesus did that for you. “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (v 41). Jesus went all the way to the cross for you. He went to the tomb, and he left the tomb empty, for you. Jesus actively fulfilled God’s Law in each point perfectly for you. That’s the message of the First Sunday in Lent. Then Jesus paid the ransom price, made the sacrifice, perfectly for us. So, when he spoke from the cross, “It is finished,” it was perfectly finished once and for all.
10. Our gracious Lord now applies that perfection to us freely. There’s a great exchange that goes on. The tunic that was once ours—of sinfulness and rebelliousness toward God—Jesus took upon himself, carried it to the cross, and crucified it once and for all. In his perfect righteousness, he clothes us through the waters of Holy Baptism. So that where before there was “sinner,” God now sees “perfect”; where before there was “not even close,” there is now “completely a child of God.” This is God’s work for us, finished freely and completely because of Christ.
11. Was it good enough? Far more so! Perfect! “Wir sind bettler, hoc est verum.” Yes, We Are Beggars, This Is True . . .but Now Perfect Beggars. We beg for God’s mercy and forgiveness, and he does not refuse us. He gives it freely, in Christ. He promises to stay with us always, sustaining us through his Word and Sacrament, so that we come to his presence, again, all by grace, clothed in the perfect righteousness of Jesus, crucified and risen again. Luther recovered this teaching, but he didn’t make it up. It was in the Scriptures; it was always there. We remember him because he did a good thing in drawing this back to our attention, but in the end, Luther said, “Don’t look at Luther, look only at Christ, for he is your perfection.” Good enough? Yes, and more so: perfect in Christ. Amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, until life everlasting. Amen.