Sermon for the Festival of the Reformation
2 Chronicles 29:12-19 + Revelation 14:6-7 + Matthew 11:12-15
497 years ago, on October 31st, a Roman Catholic priest named Martin Luther posted a notice on the door of All Saints’ Church (aka Castle Church) in Wittenberg, Germany. The notice that he posted contained 95 Theses for debate among the local clergy and theologians—95 Theses on the sale of indulgences.
Indulgences were letters of pardon, signed by the pope himself, and were a shameless money-grab by Rome. The pope and the salesmen of indulgences were making it very easy for people to be saved: buy a letter of pardon from the pope, purchase an indulgence and you will be saved, and so will your dead loved one for whom you purchase an indulgence. Purchase a letter of forgiveness from the pope and he will give you entrance into heaven. You can finally rest in peace, knowing that this letter in your hand guarantees you eternal life and a reprieve from hell and purgatory. See how easy it is? Just do this one work of buying an indulgence, and you will be saved. It sounds just like the devil when he was temping Jesus, “Just bow down and worship me, and all the treasures of the earth will be yours.”
Luther’s response in the 95 Theses can be boiled down to this: True repentance is required—and is all that is required—in order for someone to have his sins forgiven. God forgives sins through all of his priests (pastors) on earth, because they all hold the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, letters of pardon or “indulgences” signed by the pope and purchased for money are worthless when it comes to salvation. The last two theses put a fitting exclamation point on the whole document: 94. Christians are to be exhorted that they be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell; 95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace.
“Following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell.” “Entering into heaven through many tribulations.” Luther makes it sound like Christianity is not for wimps, like Christianity involves a fight, a struggle, a contest that is both much easier to win than the pope was claiming, and also much harder. Easier, because our victory over sin, death, the devil, and hell does not depend on our works, but on Christ crucified alone. Harder, because peace cannot be purchased with a coin, and the true path to heaven is marked by a daily struggle to live in contrition and repentance and to bear the dear cross as we follow Christ, our Head, through shame, through persecution, and through temptation.
That brings us to the Gospel appointed for the Festival of the Reformation from Matthew 11, where Jesus, too, paints the picture of Christians, not as wimps, not as passive participants, but as a violent mob breaking into the kingdom of heaven.
And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. Now, what is Jesus referring to? How does the kingdom of heaven suffer violence? How do the violent take it by force? It sounds like a terrible thing. Poor kingdom of heaven! Suffering violence at the hands of men! Ah, but this is a good kind of violence—not physical, but spiritual. And the kingdom of heaven isn’t harmed in the process; it’s expanded.
“From the days of John the Baptist until now” — until the time when Jesus spoke those words, what had been happening? First John and then Jesus had been proclaiming this “new” doctrine called the Gospel. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” “Repent and believe the Gospel!” John preached “a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins,” and he pointed people to Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
What a difference that was from the Old Testament, the Law and the Prophets. Jesus says that “all the prophets and the law prophesied until John.” The prophets and the law announced the future coming of the kingdom of heaven in the person of Christ. Until He came, the Jews were all under the Law of Moses, burdened and heavy laden with the Law’s accusing voice: “You shall, you shall not, and the soul that sins shall surely die.” As for the Gentiles, they were basically excluded from the people of God under the law and the prophets. But when John came, followed by Jesus, all that changed, and the kingdom of heaven began forcefully advancing into Judea, and Samaria, and Galilee, and beyond. People flocked to John in droves, just as they later flocked to Jesus, and they began pressing into the kingdom of heaven like never before, because of this simple message: Repent and believe the Gospel! Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins! Here is Christ, and where Christ is, there God is offering free forgiveness and eternal life.
Who are these “violent” people who take the kingdom of heaven by force? They are, as Jesus points out a few verses earlier, “the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead, the poor.” Physically weak, and sinners, all of them, but being made spiritually strong by the Gospel (even as they were also being made physically strong by Jesus’ healing power) so that nothing could separate them from Christ. The “violent” who were taking hold of the kingdom of heaven by force were the tax collectors and prostitutes and public sinners as they heard the preaching of John and Jesus and repented and believed. Foolish people, all of them, insignificant people, rejected people according to earthly standards, but according to God’s purpose, they were chosen people, blessed people, even violent in this sense: they were not sluggish or lazy when the Gospel came to them, not timid, not yielding to the threats and terrors of the devil or the world, but contending and doing battle against the devil, and breaking into the kingdom of heaven by faith in Christ, where they were safe and protected and forgiven.
All without purchasing a single indulgence.
The Reformation of the Church that took place as a result of Luther’s 95 Theses was a violent assault on the Church—in a good sense, in the same sense that Jesus talked about in today’s Gospel. Over the centuries, the devil had injected enough false teachings into the preaching of the Catholic Church that the souls of men were again burdened and heavy laden with guilt as the sweet Gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins was muffled and drowned out by the preaching of works-righteousness, by the preaching of a false hope and a false peace—peace that was connected, not to Christ and His holy, precious blood, but to empty promises of popes and to invented good deeds, like becoming a monk, becoming a nun, lighting candles, praying to saints, and doing works of penance.
But from the days of Luther until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. Christians have been turned back to the Word of God, and there we have found the truth: the Law of God proclaimed as it truly is, as the holy requirement of a holy God that those who would be His people must be holy like Him. The Law does not say, “Try hard!”, or “Do the best you can and everything will be all right!” No, the Law says, “You shall, you shall not,” and “be holy or die.” When the Law is preached like that, then all people are revealed as sinners who fall short of the glory of God, so that those who rely on the law remain under the curse. But from the days of Luther until now, Christians have also heard the Gospel of God proclaimed as it truly is, the message of God’s grace to sinners in sending His Son to keep the Law for us, to die for us, and to forgive sins to all who believe in Him—justified by faith alone in Christ alone.
From the days of Luther until now, Christians have again understood that doctrine matters, because our only connection to Christ is through the teaching, the doctrine of Christ, as He said to those who believed in Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
From the days of Luther until now, Christians have been turned away from the useless works invented by men and have been instructed again in what truly good works are, works that are done according to God’s Word, that are done in faith, and that are done to serve our neighbor in love, for his good.
From the days of Luther until now, Christians have returned to the patient bearing of the dear cross, understanding that there is no comfortable, easy way to heaven, but only the way of the cross as we follow behind Christ crucified. Christians have again understood that the Church is not supposed to look glorious on this earth, and Christians are not supposed to look successful or prosperous, but must follow Christ, our Head, through penalties, deaths and hell, knowing that He will also eventually lead us through this valley of the shadow of death into the glory of the resurrection. We understand that the earthly glory and grandeur of Rome is not the mark of God’s favor, but a sign of its own doctrinal decadence. On the contrary, the preaching of the pure Word and the administration of the Sacraments of Christ—that is the mark of God’s favor, whether the church is big or small, wealthy or poor, growing in number or shrinking.
From the days of Luther until now, there has been an angel—a messenger flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people. You have heard it in this nation. You have confessed it. You have believed it. And now is the time for us, as Christians, as Lutherans, not to shrink back in fear or despair, not to fall into apathy or indifference, but to cling to the Word of Christ ever more firmly, to hold out the Word of Christ ever more boldly, to take the kingdom of heaven by force, at God’s own bidding, and to press into it ever more urgently, until the devil, death, and the gates of Hades are defeated forever at the coming of Christ.
Christianity is for sinners. Christianity is for the meek, the poor and the lowly. But Christianity is not for wimps, for the lazy, for those who want earthly ease and comfort and pleasures. Christ and His truth are worth fighting for. Christ and His truth are worth dying for. More than that, Christ and His truth are worth living for, each and every day. Let us hold onto His Gospel faithfully, forcefully, to the praise of God the Father, for the honor of God the Son, and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.