Text: 5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” (Malachi 4:5-6 ESV)
“This past week was the anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther. [The timing couldn’t be any more perfect because, a] little more than four years after Martin Luther’s death on February 18, 1546, a group of his followers fixed their signatures to one of the more significant, yet lesser-known, documents in the Lutheran tradition. “The Magdeburg Confession” (April 13, 1550) identified Luther as God’s own “prophet,” the third Elijah, who had recovered the scriptural confession of Christ crucified and risen again.”
What makes that timing so perfect is that we are now at the time of the church year when Elijah is particularly prominent. Our focus turns to our Lord’s return. To do that, we also turn our attention to His first coming, Jesus’ birth. The next six weeks or so are all about preparing. We prepare our hearts and minds to celebrate His birth and, in the process, we prepare ourselves for His return. Today, that preparation is summed up in one sentence:
Elijah has come and his message is: “Repent!”
“There are good reasons people made the connection between Elijah and Luther. In the biblical narrative (1 Kings 17–21; 2 Kings 1–2), Elijah appeared from nowhere to challenge the religious status quo. Martin Luther did the same. Elijah was outspoken and confronted the religious and political leaders with their departure from God’s will. He bluntly told King Ahab that he had broken the laws of Moses in confiscating his subjects’ inherited property. He challenged the false prophets of Baal. He spoke directly with courage and conviction to those who were persecuting the faithful and proposing all sorts of false religious beliefs and practice.
“Martin Luther did the same. At Worms, Luther stood before the Holy Roman emperor himself and refused to deny what he had learned from the Scriptures. “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, I am bound by the Scriptures. . . . I cannot and I will not retract anything. . . . I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me.”
“Further, Luther also reminded people of the second Elijah, John the Baptist. John’s message was simple and straightforward: repent and believe the Gospel. When Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on October 31, 1517, the first one read: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite (“do penance”), willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”
“Luther—better yet, God through Martin Luther—began the Reformation by reminding people that the life of the Christian should be one of continual repentance and faith. And both John and Luther pointed only to Christ as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The Lutheran Reformation was about Jesus Christ. It’s still all about Jesus!”
One of the strong themes of Elijah’s preaching was “Repent!” When the second Elijah, John the Baptizer, came, his message was “Repent! Because Christ is here!” When Luther spoke out, part of his message was that the entire life of believers should be one of repentance.
Today, the message is, still, very similar: “Repent! Because Christ is coming.” Do we need to hear that message? Absolutely! Especially during this time of year, we’re reminded that the ongoing refrain of the church is that simple prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
A few weeks ago now, one of the guests on the radio program Issues, Etc., was Dr. Ken Schurb. He spoke about being mindful of Christ’s return, of praying that prayer. He spoke of the difference it makes as we took up the task of voting recently. I love the way he expressed the hope, the difference that it makes for us as Christians.
He was talking about our vocation as Christian citizens—what God’s word requires of us as we take part in elections like we just had. He spoke about our duty to take part, to be informed about the candidates, etc. And he also spoke of the challenge. He said that, “We need to enter the voting booth with prayer, including a prayer confessing our own limitation, our own sin. Here, just like in every aspect of life in a sinful world, all of our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. [Even as we cast our vote, we realize that we sin because we do not know the candidates and the issues as we should. No matter how hard we try, we still come to vote in some measure of ignorance. As we vote, we sin because we inevitably choose based on our own selfish interests rather than selecting based on the well being of others. We choose a candidate knowing that, in the process, we end up being party to unforeseen evil that he or she will carry out. Or we sin by not taking part, by not seeking the well being of our neighbors.] But the good news is, as we repent—even in the very act of casting our ballot or not casting it!—that the scripture imprisoned everything under sin so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to all who believe. In other words, just when I see that I don’t really have a good option, that everything I’m going to do is going to be tainted, somehow or other, with sin and, ‘O wretched man that I am, who is going to deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God who gave me the victory and rose me to life again.’”
“ Dr. Schurb has written, ‘The arena of government provides for Christians who are citizens opportunities to serve the Lord who bought us and to serve our neighbor and, as we serve, we continue to pray fervently, ‘Come, Lord Jesus.’”
He said, “‘[…What] a tremendous advantage to Christians—and not just an advantage to be exploited for ourselves—but one that we can, again, use to serve our neighbors because we do know that we don’t have to be the ultimate arbiters of everything and so, therefore, we don’t have to put ourselves under the gun or be in the position to have to figure everything out. We can also say, as the rough and tumble of the political process—and in a very rough political year this year makes us aware—that we need Jesus to come and end all of this, take us out of this vale of tears to Himself in heaven. And the more we pray that, the more we pray that with real conviction and fervency, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ the more we are freed to love God and serve our neighbor in the way we conduct ourselves as citizens.”
That’s true of any area of our lives. Elijah still cries out to us, “Repent!” Repent because in every aspect of life in a sinful world, all of our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. Repent because the scriptures have imprisoned everything under sin so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to all who believe. Repent, not only because judgment is coming soon but also because it frees us to love God and serve our neighbor.
“For many years, the old German periodical of the Missouri Synod, called Der Lutheraner, had as its theme the German words “Gottes Wort und Luthers Lehr vergehet nun und nimmermehr.” In English we might render this: “God’s Word and Luther’s doctrine shall endure now and forever.” That’s a big claim. But, again, it is not because Luther said any of this that we are remembering today. It is because what Luther taught was drawn from the pure font of God’s Word. Luther’s role was to recover what had been confused and to uncover what had been obscured. And that was simply the Gospel of full and free salvation won by Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection.”
Today we remember three Elijahs: Elijah, John the Baptizer, and Martin Luther. And we hear their one message: ‘Repent!’ It is a powerful message. It frees us because, even as we do everything we can for the well being of those around us—especially the hurting, those in need, the powerless—we work with the confidence that we aren’t relying upon a political party or a candidate to fix things. We work with the comfort that our enemy isn’t the other party or their candidate—the enemy is sin and its effects in this world. We work with the joy of knowing that the answer for that real enemy is the cross and that the one who bled and died, for you on that cross is coming soon to bring the ultimate victory and His reign of peace that will have no end.
In that confidence, in that comfort, in that joy, may our entire lives always be lives of repentance.