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Sermon for the Festival of the Reformation
Revelation 14:6-7 + Matthew 11:12-15
We mark the date of October 31st, 1517—500 years ago this Tuesday—to give thanks to God for His work of reforming His catholic Church on earth. His work, not Luther’s work. And reforming His Church, not replacing it. Reforming, not remaking it into something new. Reforming, because in certain ways it had moved away from what it was and needed to be restored to its earlier, orthodox image, to a Church built on the foundations of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone; to a Church that was centered, not around the words of men and the works of men, but around Christ Jesus and His Word and His work, a Church that was truly an “evangelical,” Gospel-teaching church.
God’s instrument for carrying out His work of restoring the pure Gospel to His beloved Church was Martin Luther. We don’t spend too much time preaching about the life of Luther, even from a Lutheran pulpit—especially from a Lutheran pulpit. Because we know it’s never been about Luther. It’s about Jesus. But we can and should thank God for what He accomplished for His Church through Martin Luther, as through a divinely sent messenger or “angel,” like the one we heard about in today’s Epistle from Revelation 14: an angel 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—saying with a loud voice, “Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come; and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water.”
There was another angel, another messenger who came long before Luther—one who was directly commissioned by God to preach the Gospel of Christ at a time when the Church had largely become corrupt. Jesus talks about him in today’s Gospel: from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. What does that mean?
Jesus says, For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. Before the days of John the Baptist, the law and the prophets—the Old Testament Scriptures—foretold the coming of the Christ as a future event. Until He should come, Israel had to live under the Law and experience the Law’s constant burden of accusation. Worse than that, the Church of Israel had become too focused on the Law, on the works of men, and on the teachings of men—of the rabbis. There were the “good” people, the “religious” people who thought they were doing fine with God, who thought they were keeping the Law well enough, who relied on Old Testament saints like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to reserve a place for them at the heavenly banquet. And there were the “bad” people, people who had given up on trying to be good enough to earn a place in heaven and had given themselves over to lawlessness, prostitution, theft, rebellion and every form of wickedness.
Then along came John, preaching the Law as it was meant to be preached. All are sinners. God’s holy law condemns the “good” people along with the bad people, because there is no one righteous, no, not one, according to the Law. The hope that God holds out to mankind has nothing to do with your works. It has everything to do with Christ’s works and with God’s forgiveness of sinners for the sake of Christ alone, who is now standing among you, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! Repent of your sins and believe in Him!
Ever since John came along preaching that Gospel, till the time when Jesus spoke the words of our Gospel today, the kingdom of heaven had been “suffering violence.” What does that mean? There are a couple of ways to translate that phrase, and a couple of ways to understand this verse, but I think the one that makes the most sense in this context is not the kingdom of heaven “suffering violence” as a bad thing, but the kingdom of heaven “marching on triumphantly.” Because that’s what was happening. Multitudes of people, at the preaching of John and of Jesus, were repenting of their sins and looking to Christ for forgiveness, and so they were entering, storming the kingdom of heaven even here on earth. The “violent” were laying hold of the kingdom of heaven—not violent as in harming anyone, but violent or forceful, as a drowning man grasps for a lifesaver.
And if you are willing to receive it, he (John the Baptist) is Elijah who is to come. Not Elijah in the flesh, not a reincarnation of Elijah. But the promised messenger who would come in the spirit and power of Elijah. What was Elijah known for? He did many wonderful miracles. But more than that, Elijah was the persecuted prophet who boldly exposed and condemned the idolatry that had filled the Church of Israel, the prophet who stood up to what seemed to be overwhelming opposition, a lonely voice crying out in the wilderness with the Word of the true God in his mouth.
That was John the Baptist. But, in many ways, that was also Martin Luther.
The Church in his time had reverted to a focus on the Law—on the works of men, whether regular men, or priestly men, or especially “saintly” men or women, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, who could share some of their good works with you and who would intercede for you, if you venerated them and prayed to them for assistance. And the word of men—of Councils and especially of popes—became more important than the Word of God. The Church was filled with such idolatry—the idolatry of works, of saints, and of popes. There were “good” people who thought they were fulfilling all of the Church’s laws and going to be OK with God because of it, and there were plenty of bad people who knew very well they could never satisfy the righteous requirements of God’s holy law, so they gave in to despair and vice.
Along came Luther, who tried to be one of those “good” people, but almost gave in to despair when he realized he wasn’t good enough. After God the Holy Spirit enlightened him with His Gospel, Luther rejoiced in it, and wanted everyone to know the peace of Christ, of His word and works. So he exposed the idolatry of his day. He turned the focus back to Christ and His word and His works, and, like John the Baptist and like the prophet Elijah, he was persecuted for it by the very Church he was hoping to reform. It seemed like it was him against the world, just as it once seemed that way to John the Baptist as he sat in prison, and to Elijah, as he was on the run from wicked queen Jezebel.
But what did God say to Elijah when he felt like he was the only believer left in Israel? I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal. And then God appointed another prophet—Elisha—to take over for Elijah and the faithful preaching he had done.
God has appointed many prophets since the days of Luther. We call them “Lutheran pastors” or “preachers,” but what we mean by that is simply Christian ministers who, like Luther, preach and teach the old, catholic, apostolic doctrine of the Gospel, who focus on Christ and His word and His works, who direct people to look for Christ and to find Christ giving Himself to us for the forgiveness of sins in the waters of Holy Baptism, in preaching, and in the Sacrament of Christ’s own body and blood, handed out together with bread and wine.
This is the gift God has graciously given us, to hear and to believe the Gospel, to have and to hold the pure confession of it in the Lutheran Confessions, to speak and to proclaim the truth of God’s Word to a world that mostly doesn’t want to hear it, but to a world in which there will always be some who do, some who believe, some who will continue to have and to hold, to speak and to proclaim this saving doctrine until the very end of world. On this rock, Jesus said—this truth, this Gospel centered on the words and works of Christ—I will build My Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
The kingdom of heaven continues to “suffer violence,” to march on triumphantly and to be grasped by forceful men, by people who stand on the truth of God’s Word, ready to forfeit all things, even life itself, before they compromise or abandon it. That’s you, isn’t it? That’s who we are, by God’s grace, and that’s something to celebrate on this day. That’s who we are, and that’s who we must continue to be, with the Holy Spirit’s help, a church ever focused on the words and works of Jesus. The Word of the Lord endures forever. Let us pray that it may endure among us, also, for the glory of God, for our eternal salvation, and for a beacon of light to the world around us! In the name of Jesus. Amen.