Today’s message features Batman, Jesus, Martin Luther and a rap video, all seen through the lens of the Protestant Reformation. If you’re listening to the message just pause at the 3 minute mark, scroll down to the video below, and then fire up the audio file to hear the rest. For those that prefer to read it’s all laid out in order. Enjoy!
“Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?”
This quote may sound familiar; it’s from the 1989 Batman movie, the first Batman film of the modern era. In it, the Joker, played by Jack Nicolson, asks Batman this question, right before shooting him, and leaving Batman for dead. It’s a dark scene from a dark movie about the dark knight. That’s knight with a K.
I had to look up the word pale to get a better sense of what this phrase means. It turns out that a pale moonlight is dull, not bright at all. For me this conjures up an image of dancing with your own personal demons, in the darkness of night, with only a dull, pale light from above. It sounds kind of hopeless.
Batman was a critical and financial success, earning over $400 million in box office totals. It was the fifth-highest grossing film in history at the time of its release. Our society it seems, is fascinated with darkness. Perhaps we’re fascinated with hopeless situations too.
Today we celebrate Reformation Sunday, it’s why many of you are wearing red, looking good! On this day we also celebrate the man who started the Protestant Reformation almost 500 years ago, Martin Luther, a law student turned monk, then turned priest.
Luther knew about dancing with the devil too; as a young adult he spent years fighting his own demons. Living in a monastery at the time, Luther worried a lot about sin, and that he may have committed it. When he thought he had sinned he would apologize to God, through confession, whenever he failed. He did A LOT of confessing. While Luther was living in a monastery he would often wake up the head monk in the middle of the night to confess. I can almost picture him looking up to the heavens, seeing only a dim, pale moon as he journeyed to confess. At times Luther was so obsessed with sin he would literally whip himself, again, and again and again, as punishment. Painful stuff.
So why all this extreme behavior? Because Luther believed that if he died without confessing all his sins that he was destined for hell. It’s no wonder he feared this dance with the devil in the pale moon light. But fortunately for Luther, and for all of us, it gets better. I’d like to show you a short video, it’s a rap song, about Luther’s life, that describes his role in reforming the church.
Isn’t that fun? It’s a great summary of Luther’s major complaint with the church of the time. A few scenes from the video are from a movie aptly called “Luther” that came out in 2003. The movie is available on DVD, maybe it can be streamed too, it’s highly recommended if you’d like to know more about the man.
Luther and Romans
The turning point for Martin Luther happened after deeply studying the Bible, particularly Paul’s letter to the Romans.
One of the scripture verses Luther ran across helped him to understand salvation in a new way. Those verses are in Romans 3, verses 22-24:
22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
There’s some big words in there, let’s break this this down a little. Another way of saying righteousness is morally good. That could be shortened even more just to be “goodness.” So we’re talking about the goodness of God. A second word that trips me up in here is justified, that word comes up all the time in seminary. Another way of saying justified is to be worthy of salvation, or to be “made right.” When you swap out those two words the text gets a little easier to read, at least to me, and goes like this.
22 the goodness of God through faith in Jesus Christ is for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now made right by his grace as a gift, through the redemption in Christ Jesus.
So the goodness of God is for all who believe. That sounds like pretty good news. And how do we get that goodness? Through faith in Jesus Christ. Ok, so through faith. All have sinned it says. We’re all in the same boat, every single one of us. We’ve fallen short of God’s glory because of sin. We just can’t help it. It’s in our DNA. But more good news is in this text, Paul reminds us. We are made right, by the grace of Jesus, given to us as gift.
This notion, that there is nothing for us to do to receive the goodness of God beyond belief in Jesus, was radical at the time. When Martin Luther discovered this he was freed from his dance with the devil in the pale moon light. I’m guessing he slept a lot better at night after truly grasping Paul’s letter to the Romans.
But at the time, 500 years ago, that’s not how the church looked at how you get the goodness of God. The church at the time used indulgences to forgive sins. Indulgences is another funky word. The way indulgences worked is that people would give money to the church, and the church would then forgive your sins. Or even forgive the sins of your ancestors. We could summarize the concept of indulgences like this:
(1) Sin. (2) Pay church. (3) Avoid hell. It’s a simple formula. Fear sells. One place you’ll find that sells fear in our culture is in TV commercials. Marketers use fear to sell their products all the time. Unfortunately some churches still use fear to motivate people. Pastor Frank, I hope this doesn’t screw up any sermons you’re planning for the next giving campaign. Probably not. Just kidding.
Martin Luther, after a careful reading of Romans, came to a different conclusion. The formula he saw through scripture looks a little more like this: (1) Sin. (2) Have Faith in Jesus. (3) Experience God’s goodness.
The rap video we saw earlier has a great way of saying this poetically. I’ll try to repeat that, though probably not as well.
People dropping Benjamins, to be forgiven of their sins
Buying up indulgences, man is this what salvation is?
Been spending most my life, trying to find my way to Jesus Christ,
Been spending most my life, trying to buy my way to paradise.
The church demanded money, money to atone,
Says the only way to heaven is indulgences alone,
Sorry Mr. Pope if this disturbs you on your throne,
The Bible that I’m reading says by faith and faith alone.
Before Luther’s epiphany he lived in fear. He feared an angry God that would send him to hell for his sins. He now knew those sins were covered by the death and resurrection of Jesus. There were no works, no behaviors needed on his part. It has all be done, already, on the cross.
Theologian Gerhard Forde summarizes Luther’s insight like this, saying:
“What shall I do to be saved? The answer is shocking. Nothing! Just be still, stop talking, and listen for once in your life…Listen to what God the Almighty, creator and redeemer is saying to the world, and to you, in the death and resurrection of his Son! Listen and believe!”
And with this new understanding of grace and salvation the personal reformation of Martin Luther had begun. Luther, now aware of this grace, stopped dancing with the devil. The pale moonlight that clouded his soul gave way to the Son, the risen Christ.
Luther, now set free, went about sharing this message with others. He wrote up 95 complaints, known as the 95 theses, and nailed them on the door of the Wittenberg cathedral in 1517. I brought in a poster with the 95 theses, feel free to check it out after service, there’s some interesting stuff in here. There is also a depiction of this in the video we saw earlier. The video shows a determined man marching up the church steps, loudly nailing his freshly written document to the door. His actions that day paved the way for a host of reforms in Christians and the churches they attend. These reforms have molded and changed us and our faith communities ever since.
This scene in the video of Luther marching up those church steps reminds me of something else: an annual pilgrimage a few friends of mine took each year in college. While I wasn’t raised Lutheran, by chance I went to a Lutheran college in Northwest Indiana. Each year a few friends from my college fraternity would take the 45 minute drive to Notre Dame University. Notre Dame is Catholic, they even have the famous touchdown Jesus at their football stadium. The pilgrimage my friends took annually was right about this time of year, the end of October. Their goal? To nail Martin Luther’s 95 theses to the door of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. It’s a silly thing to do, for sure, but I took away another message: reform is still happening in our world today.
For Luther, as is for us, we are free through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We need not fear dancing with the devil. The dark knight of our soul, and the pale moonlight we sometimes find ourselves in, has been washed in the vibrant light of grace. Salvation is ours, just believe, nothing else.
So whatever happened to Batman, after dancing with the devil, being shot and left for dead? Of course the story doesn’t end there. Batman had been wearing a silver serving tray when he was shot, well protected from any bullets heading his way. Batman goes on to discover the Joker’s plot, and then foil it, saving the entire city of Gotham from certain death. While our society may be fascinated by stories of darkness, we’re even more fascinated by salvation from it. And those stories, my friends, go back more than 2,000 years, all the way to the cross.