No Horn-Tooting Today
The alternate Gospel reading for Reformation Day which we heard this morning from St. Matthew certainly does not lend itself to a horn-tooting, self congratulatory celebration. And that’s good, because we have this day on the calendar not to pat ourselves on the back. In fact, if nothing else as we look back on the works of Martin Luther and the other reformers we should be reminded that the church exists in a world that neither desires nor tolerates the Gospel.
So St. Matthew records for us that Jesus says, “12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”1 That might seem puzzling to us at first glance. What does it mean to do violence to the kingdom of heaven? How is that even possible? What exactly is being attacked and how? Well, wherever and whenever forces are arrayed against the pure preaching of the Gospel and right administration of the Sacraments then the kingdom of God is under attack. John the Baptist heralded the coming of the Messiah and yet the people did not believe him. The works of Christ did not win authority, the cross would become a scandal for many. Christ is preached to many but acknowledged by few. His own people persecuted Him while strangers received Him. Those who are adopted into His family seek to be part of His heritage, while His own family rejected Him. Old Testament Israel repudiated the Christ, they missed Him, but the Gentiles embraced Him. And so it is that the kingdom of heaven suffers violence.
This is also what Luther fought against, for abuses and false teaching were rampant in the medieval catholic church. The church taught that the pathway to salvation was within the ability of each individual believer, through good works, through the merit of properly performing the works of penance, and even through the acquisition of an indulgence, a piece of paper which offered a pathway to heaven simply because the pope said so. In doing so violence was done to the kingdom of God because consciences were burdened and turned away from the grace and mercy Christ offers through His Word and Sacrament.
Today things are no different. The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, there many challenges to the faith. The world stands opposed to the church. In fact the world desperately wants to change the Church and her message. The attack is focused on the Word of God and specifically on the central message of what he has revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures – “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them”2. You see, if God needed to reconcile the world to himself than there must be something that was wrong. Something that needed to be fixed. That’s where trespasses come in. For in our sinful nature we stand opposed to God, a miserable, alienated state of affairs. We know this is the legacy of our first parents in the garden who transgressed God’s Holy Law and placed all of humankind, indeed all of creation under the burden of brokenness and wrath and despair. Our daily transgressions are the actual embodiment of that corruption, lived out in the flesh. Bu today for many people this message is radioactive. To speak of original sin and its consequence directly contradicts the high priests and priestesses of our culture who tell us that everything is fine, that people are by nature good and moral beings who have nothing but the best intentions. Well, God’s Word says otherwise. The Apostle Paul say in our Epistle from Romans, “19Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.”3
But the pressure to change is enormous. Sometimes that pressure comes from inside the church as well, when people are too easily swayed by competing voices or perhaps are just tired of fighting. So the Church needs to be ever vigilant, to always return to the foundation upon which she stands which is God’s Word. Jesus says, “15He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” 4 No one can claim that Jesus is unapproachable, but instead He draws all people to Himself, in order that they might hear and believe. Our Lord says, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.”5
But to those who either won’t hear or won’t listen Jesus directs these words: “It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, 17 “ ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’”6 Again we see that John’s preaching did not turn the people toward repentance of the their sins and sorrow for their transgressions. They even said he “has a demon”! That generation responded with unbelief. They missed it, they missed John pointing them to the Messiah. They missed Jesus Himself who went before them and performed miracles and acts of power, bringing the kingdom of God in the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. And then the ultimate act of violence was inflicted upon Christ Jesus when He was hung on that cross at Calvary, when the sins of all humanity were put on Him in order that we might be justified. But Christ was risen from the dead in victory over the all the forces of sin, death, and devil, and now He sits at the right hand of God as our mediator. “Wisdom,” Jesus says, “is justified.” Christ Himself is the Wisdom and power of God, true God and true man in one person. The rejection of His word is on those who turn away, not on Christ, for He is justified, He is without blemish or guilt. And the good news of the Gospel brought forth out of the Reformation is that we have that same righteousness given to us through Christ. We are therefore justified by grace through faith.
So yes violence is suffered in the kingdom of God, the Church is under attack and must remain vigilant. But the Church is not overcome by this violence, the kingdom will never be overthrown. Martin Luther bears witness to the providential care of God for his holy church, for even as others around him were subject to persecution and death God protected the life of the Reformer so that the Gospel could once again go forth as the foundation of the Church. God gave Luther the grace to stand firm and to stubbornly fight for the right teaching of the Holy Scriptures above the teaching of popes and councils. In his famous speech before the Diet of Worms he said this: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”
On that day in 1521 the kingdom of God was not overthrown. Luther was spared and the rest is history. But the work of the Reformation continues in the right preaching of the Holy Scriptures, and in the rebuking of those who would bind the conscience of God’s people to anything other than Christ. The temptation is always there to allow Christ to be watered down, to forsake right doctrines for something new and different. But that is allowing violence to be done to the Word of God. So we must always be vigilant, for the Gospel always will fight against this error. John the Baptist knew this. The martyrs of the early church knew this. The heroes of the Reformation knew this. And you and I know this as well.
With His good gifts and Spirit our Lord in on our side. In your Baptism He has counted you among His redeemed, and continues to shine the light of the Gospel into your heart through Word and Sacrament. This is our Reformation Day celebration. “Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,”7 our victory has been won, the Kingdom which cannot fall remains ours forever. Amen.
1 Mt 11:12.
2 2 Co 5:19.
3 Ro 3:19.
4 Mt 11:15.
5 Jn 4:23.
6 Mt 11:16–17.
7 Ps 46:2.