Festival of the Reformation - St. Matthew 11:12-15 - October 25, 2015

Hymn # 260 "O Lord, Look Down from Heaven, Behold"
Hymn # 262 "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God"
Hymn # "292 Lord Jesus Christ, With Us Abide"

Readings
2 Chronicles 29:12-19
Revelation 14:6-7
St. Matthew 11:12-15

Collect for the Festival of the Reformation

O Lord God, Heavenly Father, pour out, we beseech Thee, Thy Holy Spirit upon Thy faithful people, keep them steadfast in Thy grace and truth, protect and comfort them in all temptations, defend them against all enemies of Thy Word, and bestow upon Christ's Church Militant Thy saving peace; through the same Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Sermon on the Holy Gospel

1)         From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. As we celebrate the Reformation of Christ’s church through His chosen instrument, Dr. Martin Luther, we may hear in this text something that isn’t there. We hear of the kingdom suffering violence and the violent taking it by force and our minds may go directly to persecutions, trials, and sufferings which have been allowed to come upon the church in our day. The kingdom certainly suffers violence, doesn’t it? In the Middle East Christians are persecuted by the Mohammedans, their homes and businesses marked for destruction while their lives are taken from them at the edge of the sword. Those who refuse to convert to Islam are martyred for their faith in Christ. The kingdom certainly suffers the violence of murder and martyrdom. In North America our persecution is different at this state of history. The war to remove any semblance of Christianity from North American culture, education, and morality is well underway while the secular humanism, evolution, fluid morality, and even Islam itself are rapidly replacing Christianity’s place within the American culture. The government persecutes anyone who stands up to the de-Christianizing agenda with fines and force. North America is quickly becoming what Europe is today, a theological wasteland riddled with sects and false churches as punishment for rejecting the Gospel. Even within the church true Christianity is waning, being replaced each week by the latest fad marketed by wolves in sheep’s clothing, so that the true Gospel of justification by faith on account of God’s grace is nowhere to be seen on the religious landscape. It is most certain that we live in an age of the world where the kingdom of heaven suffers violent and the violent seem to take it by force.
2)         Luther and his fellow reformers could very well have said the same thing in their day. The Mohammedans had taken Constantinople, the capital the Eastern Roman Empire and the Eastern Church in 1453. The Ottoman Turks, which was the last true Muslim kingdom if memory serves me, had made inroads into Europe through its military campaigns. The Turks were knocking at the door of Europe on the eve of the Reformation, threatening life as everyone knew it, threatening to extinguish the Christian Faith. The false church, the papacy at Rome, would do everything within its power to destroy the Gospel of justification by faith in Christ. Banishment too lax a punishment. They burned Heinrich Voes and Johann Esch in Brussels in 1523 while Henry of Zutphen was burned at the stake in December of 1524, all burned for their doctrine that man is only justified, declared righteous before God’s holy throne, by faith in Christ alone and not works, merit, worthiness of their own. Even within the Lutheran camp false brothers would eventually emerge, those who were with Luther in the beginning but later felt he did not go far enough. While Luther wanted reform they wanted revolt. Luther’s day was fraught with persecutions, danger, the sword, martyrdoms, and the assaults of false brethren. In his day, as is true of most days for the true church, the kingdom of heaven suffered violence.
3)         And while all this is most certainly true, it is not what Jesus is speaking about in the appointed Gospel lesson.  The violence of which our Lord speaks isn’t physical violence at all but something altogether different. Hear His Word again. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear! The kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force from the days of John the Baptism until now. Jesus speaks of His own time when the kingdom was suffering violence. Something had changed which brought about this violence. He goes on, all the prophets and the law prophesied until John and if you are willing to receive it, he is the Elijah to come. What changed? The kingdom was no longer be promised as a future event. It was now a present reality. All that Moses had proclaimed in shadows about the Christ and His ministry in the Tabernacle and worship was being fulfilled. Atonement made at the bronze altar pointed to the atonement for all mankind that Christ would procure. All that the prophets foretold about the kingdom of David was coming to fruition. As Isaiah had said, of the increase of His kingdom and peace there will be no end. (Isaiah 9:7) The peace of God which surpasses all human understanding arrived in Christ Jesus. In the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth on the scene, the ruler of the kingdom of heaven came as Zechariah proclaimed, righteous and having salvation (Zechariah 9:9) so that He might bestow that righteousness and salvation upon all who believe freely, by grace, not on account of works.
4)         All the prophets and the law prophesied until John and if you are willing to receive it, he is the Elijah to come. John was the end of the Old Testament, the last of the great string of prophets because he was the forerunner of the promised Messiah, being the Elijah to come as Malachi prophesied. With the coming of John the Old Testament came to a close and the New Testament began with baptismal water forgiving sins. And how did the people respond to the arrival of the Messiah’s herald? Violently. Not the kind of violence that throws bricks through windows or shoots out tires, but the kind of violence which pushes, shoves, and resiliently forces its way through every obstacle to obtain its goal. How do people respond to John and his proclamation of the forgiveness of sins freely, only for the sake of God’s promise? They rush to hear it. They paw to get into the water. They force themselves through crowds to hear the Gospel that God wants them to repent of their sins so that He might forgive those sins and remove them as far as the east is from the west, and that this forgiveness of sins happens solely by grace alone and it apprehended by faith alone, not one’s works, merits, or personal worthiness. St. John writes that Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins. (Matthew 3:5-6) They pursued John and his baptism because of His message: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! (Matt. 3:2)
5)           This is what Jesus means when He says, From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. You can see why this text was appointed for the Festival of the Reformation, can’t you? The days of the Reformation were very much like the days of John and Christ. Great darkness had covered Christendom, the darkness of the false doctrine of relying upon one’s own works and merits to gain God’s favor. Hearts were overcast because Christ was taught as distant and angry, so that the only way to pray to Him for aid was to instead pray to His mother or the saints as more gentle advocates. The means by which God works justifying faith in the hearts of men, the Gospel and the Sacraments, lie covered over with the filth of human traditions that were taught as if they were the doctrines of men and far much more important than what Christ had actually given His church. Then comes the scrawny Augustinian, emaciated from living under the strict demands of a heartless God, whose heart had been set free by the pure Gospel that sinners are made righteous by grace alone not human striving, that men are justified by faith in Christ’s merits instead of their own unworthy merits, that this is found in the Scripture alone, not buried deep within canon law and ever-evolving tradition. Luther was the angel of Revelation 14 which was read a moment ago. For after revealing the papacy as the antichrist who hinders the gospel, he proclaims the everlasting Gospel to all the earth.
6)         And how did men respond? Violently. Not the violence of killing confessors and ridiculing the reformers. That is the violence of men who don’t want to take the kingdom by force but suppress the kingdom and destroy it by force. No, the masses believed the Gospel. They flocked to Lutheran pulpits to hear that their righteousness was given to them by Christ. The forced their way to Lutheran altars to partake of the Sacrament no longer as a good work to offer to God, but so that there they might receive the forgiveness of their sins and all the blessings Christ earned at the Cross. They boldly published it, in word and in print, despise threats of death and martyrdom. Like the spiritually poor of John’s day who flocked to the Jordan River to confess their sins and receive the free forgiveness of God, coming in the Messiah, so the multitudes rushed violently to Luther’s doctrine, which was Luther’s only because He taught it, but in reality it was Christ’s doctrine. The kingdom came forcefully advancing and forceful men took hold of it by force, firmly believing and not doubting that God favored then because of Christ Jesus, and that faith which violently pushes its way closer to Christ and His Gospel, is what justified them before God.
7)         So be violent. Not physically violent. Take the kingdom of heaven violently as your own through bold faith. Grasp the promises of God and hold them dear in your heart as your most precious treasure in this life. Against all doubt, against everything the world whispers in your ear, and against all the false church teaches you to believe instead of the Gospel, cling tenaciously to the Words of Christ and His means of grace, your baptism, your absolution, and the body and blood of Christ given for you. Do not take God’s gifts in Jesus for granted, for history shows us if we take them for granted and think lightly of them, they will slip from our grasp and dark days will come upon us, even as the land of Luther is now covered again in spiritual darkness and unbelief. The kingdom of heaven is near, St. John says. The kingdom of heaven is near, says Christ the Lord. The kingdom of heaven is near, says Dr. Luther. Repent and believe the Gospel that your sins are forgiven by God alone, through faith alone, as taught in Scripture alone. Amen.

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