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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
From where I am standing I wish that you could see the back side of the bell. Frankly, from where I am standing, I wish that you could see any side of the bell. Of course that line was written before I knew that our new bell had not yet been released from the US Customs at the Port of Charleston. So much for our exotic bronze bell forged in France. There is, however, something just a bit annoying and petty, and that is knowing that you will all have an opportunity to see and touch the bell before I do. So, when you do, I want you to make sure that you look at the back side. On the front, you will see the familiar logo of Lake of the Isles: the image of St. Peter’s boat floating on the waves with the cross of Christ as a mast. And on the backside you will see the simple inscription. Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church, 2015. “Soli Deo Gloria.”
Protestants and Roman Catholics alike are surprised to discover that Lutherans, of all people, those who championed the preaching and teaching in the language of the people, would still have a penchant for Latin phrases. But then again, Lutherans are an odd breed. They don’t always know what they believe. They may think that being Lutheran is about singing all the verses of stodgy German chorales, or perhaps being Lutheran is determined by the foods that you eat. Some truly believe that if there were no Lutherans, there would be no green Jello. For others, it is easier to say what Lutherans are not, then who they are. Therefore, Reformation Sunday is an important occasion to dust off the Small Catechism and reflect on what we truly do believe.
Since Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, nearly 500 years ago, five principles have emerged which summarize the Reformation’s theological convictions. They are five Latin phrases known as the Solas or Slogans of the Reformation. Perhaps, you know a few. Sola Scriptura “by Scripture alone”: Sola Fide by “faith alone”: Sola Gratia “by grace alone”: Solus Christus “by Christ alone”: and the fifth, the one engraved on the backside of the bell, Soli Deo Gloria “to the glory of God alone”.
The first phrases teach us that our faith is based on the words of “scripture alone.” We are saved by faith alone and not by our works or efforts. Salvation is a free gift of God’s grace alone that has been achieved through Christ alone. So then what does it mean to give glory to God alone?
For some, “Soli Deo Gloria” means that only God deserves your praise. No one else, no king, nor prince, no football player, nor rock star is worthy to be lauded, for their gifts ultimately come from God- and not from themselves. For others, “Soli Deo Gloria” means that nothing else in creation deserves your attention. Focus your labor and your honor on God only. Martin Luther himself once wrote in his commentary on Galatians, “It is true that the doctrine of the Gospel removes from mankind all glory, wisdom, righteousness, and so on and gives it solely to the Creator, who made everything out of nothing.” But personally, I think there may be yet another meaning to “Soli Deo Gloria” beside direction and focus. I believe that the phrase is also meant for Christians as a matter of perspective.
The composer J.S. Bach wrote three letters S. D. G. in the closing measures of almost every manuscript he wrote for the church. S.D. G. Soli Deo Gloria. This was not to say that the purpose of the music was only to seek God’s glory without giving any thought to those who might hear and sing the music, but it was clearly a heartfelt reminder to himself that his gifts came from God. He wanted to remember that it wasn’t the accolades of his congregation, or the praise of his superiors, or even the admiration of his contemporaries that drove him to compose his masterpieces, but rather he did so for the honor and glory of God. Perhaps that is how one of the greatest organists could say of his extraordinary skills, “There’s nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.” No for Bach, “Soli Deo Gloria” was a matter of perspective. As he himself wrote, “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”
My friends, that positive perspective is at the heart of the life of the Christian. The Protestant Reformation which Luther began reclaimed the teaching that Jesus as revealed in scripture alone, has offered himself freely for all those who believe in him, and that they may then live every day for others showing the grace of God. With that new perspective you too have been made free to give glory to God alone. Indeed, with “Every word and thought, and also all your endeavors you may honor the name of Jesus and the Father by him.” As the Westminster Shorter Catechism records, “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Yes, enjoy God forever. That is to live a life “Soli Deo Gloria” to the glory of God Alone. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.