Festival of the Reformation + Matthew 11:12-15
Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.” Jesus isn’t speaking of persecution or hostility toward the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven isn’t something that violent men can take by force as if it were an earthly kingdom or institution. The violence the kingdom suffered during the days of John and Jesus was the violence of faith. Faith hears the words of John and Jesus that sinners enter the kingdom of heaven by God’s grace through faith in Christ, and it rushes into the kingdom. The violent who took the kingdom of heaven by force are those who, hearing the gospel of the free forgiveness of sins, stormed the doors of the kingdom which they had previously thought were closed to all except those who fulfilled the Law. “For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” Until John came preaching in the wilderness the Law accused and condemned everyone. The Law was a heavy burden, a yoke which no one was able to bear. The Pharisees and Scribes, who sat in Moses’ seat, ruling the Old Testament Church, taught the people that in addition to faith in the true God one must add the works of the Law for salvation. By doing the works of the Law, and only by doing them, would sinners earn God’s favor and obtain everlasting life. The lawyer’s question in Luke 10:25 was everyone’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The prophets continued to prophesy up to John’s day as well, though in the pages of Scripture. Thy prophesied about the Christ who would come to bear the griefs of the guilty and carry the sorrows which sinners inflicted upon themselves. The prophets continued to prophesy the Christ who would be wounded for the transgressions of the people and whose chastisement would bring them peace with God. But this good news that God forgave sinners freely through faith in the promised Messiah had been overlooked and obscured by the Pharisaical teaching that righteousness could be earned by what one did. The Pharisees and Scribes became hardened in their works-righteousness, while the others had given up trying to fulfill the Law, acknowledging that it was a burden far too heavy to bear. This is why John’s preaching inspired so many to enthusiastically enter the kingdom of heaven. He preached repentance of sins, that they should be turned from and mourned. He preached Christ, not the Christ to come by the Christ present in his line of sight, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). With John’s preaching, the Law and the prophets cease so that all may see the Christ and enter the kingdom of heaven forcibly through faith in Him without any merit, work, or worthiness in them.
Can you see why the Lutheran Churches chose this reading as the Gospel reading for commemorating the Reformation? Luther’s day was similar to the days before John and Jesus. It was believe that the Law was the way to enter the kingdom of God. The Roman Church taught, as it does today, that faith is just knowledge of the events of the Creed so works of the Law must be added to that “faith” in order to save anyone. Rome didn’t teach Mosaic Laws as the required works but its own works. It was required to confess your sins to the priest once a year. It was required to attend the Mass on days of obligation. It was required to fast from certain foods on certain days. It was required that sinners doubt their salvation so that that they continually strive for more and better works. If you wanted a more excellent way to gain God’s favor and the possibility of everlasting life then you forsook the world, your family, and your livelihood and joined the monastery or convent, so that you could live in self-denial and prayer each day, meriting God’s favor all the more. Faith in Christ was not enough. You had to add your efforts in order to inherit eternal life, which you would achieve after Purgatory to pay the remainder of your debt.
Like the days before John and Christ, the gospel of the free forgiveness of sins was buried under false teachings and dead works. Just as God sent John to preach repentance and faith in the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, so He raised up Dr. Luther, as an “angel flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth” (Rev. 14:6). By God’s grace, Luther rediscovered what the Church had neglected and obscured, the Gospel that “man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16), works of Moses or works of Rome. Men “obtain remission of sins not because of their own merits, but freely for Christ's sake, through faith in Christ” (Ap IV.1). This faith isn’t just knowledge of the events of the Creed as Rome taught, but that faith is assent to the promise of God which trusts that everything Christ did He did for me to earn the forgiveness of sins. Faith is heartfelt trust, confidence, that “God makes a present and gift to us, and not we to Him, that He sheds upon us every treasure of grace in Christ” (Ap IV.48).
This is the chief article of the Christian Faith, that man is justified not by works of the Law but by faith in Christ’s atoning death for the sins of the world. It is also the article by which Luther reformed the Church’s doctrine and ceremonies. He reformed the Mass, the historic worship of the church, by removing those parts which turned the Lord’s Supper into a sacrifice offered to God for the living and the dead. He restored the chalice to God’s people, which Rome had withheld in the Lord’s Supper, according to Christ’s words of institution, “Take and eat. Take a drink.” He removed much but He kept just as much. Private Confession and Absolution was retained because it brings the consolation of the gospel to conscience-stricken sinners. Liturgical Vestments were retained to cover up the man and teach us that the man up front represents Christ to us, preaching, praying, and giving us Christ’s gifts. Luther retained everything that preached and taught the Gospel. But anything that took away from the Gospel or taught contrary to the chief article as abandoned on the garbage heap. Thus He reformed the church so that in all things, the chief article of justification by grace alone through faith alone is always taught.
And once again the kingdom of heaven suffered violence and violent men took it by force. Men and women across Europe heard that the kingdom of heaven is entered into by faith, not works of the Law. The Lutheran Reformation preached Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, so that all who believe in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. And it still does. The Reformation continues five hundred years later, preaching that sinners “are freely justified for Christ's sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ's sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins” (AC IV). That’s the gospel John, Christ, and His Apostles taught. Those with ears to hear believed and were saved. May this ever be so among us, so that we might continually take the kingdom of heaven by force, rushing headlong into it each day, not trusting our own worthiness, merits, and goodness, but only the merits of Christ that He still offers us today. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all human understanding guard your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.