The violent faith behind the Reformation

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Sermon for Reformation Sunday 2015

Revelation 14:6-7  +  Matthew 11:12-15

On this Festival of the Reformation, Matthew’s Gospel turns our thoughts to violence, of all things. In the words of Jesus, from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. What kind of violence is He referring to?

There has always been a bad kind of violence in the world, since the days of Cain and Abel when Cain, out of jealousy and hatred, violently laid hands on his brother and killed him. That was the first act of violence this world saw. From there the violence spread, until the days of Noah, when we read that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually, when the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.

Things didn’t improve after the Flood. The rest of the Old Testament tells the story of one war after another, one kingdom invading another, the powerful taking advantage of the weak, the wicked bringing harm against the innocent.

The violence ramped up at the time of John the Baptist as the devil and the world raged against the light of Christ. It turned toward John, until he was thrown into prison and finally beheaded. It turned toward Jesus, until He was crucified and laid in the tomb. It turned toward His apostles and His Christians under the Roman Empire. It turned toward Christian Europe at the hands of Muslim invaders. It turned toward Martin Luther and the Catholics—also known as Lutherans—who followed him out of the Antichristian Church of Rome, with its Antichrist Pope.

And as you well know, all this violence still goes on to this day and will continue until the end of the world. It’s the terrible result of sin. It comes from a hatred of the one true God and a loathing of one’s fellow man, especially when that fellow man is a Christian, a believer in the one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Violence is a symptom of the sin that dwells in all people—in all of us by birth.

But something changed at the time of Jesus, at the time when John the Baptist began his ministry, his ministry of pointing people to Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. From that time on, to this very day, a different kind of violence began to emerge—Jesus likes to do that, take an earthly concept, turn it around and give it a heavenly meaning—a good kind of violence, not physical, but spiritual, not the violence of harming another person, but the forceful entry into the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of Christ. This violence overcomes all obstacles—the devil, the world, our sinful flesh. It even overcomes the just judgment of God’s Law. It fights against it and defeats it, by God’s own gracious plan and purpose. It is the “violence” of faith. And it was that violent faith that characterized the beginning of the Christian Church, that fueled the Reformation of the Church at the time of Martin Luther, and that still lays hold of the kingdom of heaven today.

Since the days of John the Baptist, the power of the Gospel has been saving sinners and rescuing them out of Satan’s kingdom and away from the condemnation of God’s Law. Sinners who have earned a place for themselves in the devil’s kingdom have dared to believe the unbelievable—that God loves sinners and sent His Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. People all over Judea and Galilee, all over Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas, have found in Christ a good and merciful Savior, so that they have dared to stand against the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, against kings and emperors and popes, because they have found in Christ Jesus—in His obedience, in His wounds, in His death—all that God requires for sinners to be justified in His sight. These “violent” Christians have stood, in some cases, against family and friends, against their society and culture, even against their own doubts and fears and guilt, in order to know Christ, to follow Christ, to die with Christ, and then to rise again victorious. They have been streaming into the kingdom of heaven as they follow behind Jesus, taking hold of eternal life in Christ and refusing to let go, clinging only to the Word of God that promises forgiveness of sins, life and salvation to all who believe in Christ crucified. This is the violence of faith.

How else could prostitutes and thieving tax collectors dare to be baptized and enter the kingdom of heaven at the preaching of John the Baptist? Only with the violence of faith. How else could Saul, the persecutor and murderer of Christians, dare to imagine that God would forgive him? Only with the violence of faith. How else could a lowly priest like Martin Luther dare to contradict the pope and all his high ranking cardinals and bishops and theologians in the Roman Church? Only with the violence of faith. How else could you, who are poor, miserable sinners, dare to come here today, in the presence of God, expecting Him to forgive you your sins, hoping for the care and compassion of a loving Father in heaven? Only with the violence and determination of faith—the Lutheran faith, which is nothing else than the Christian or catholic faith, faith that takes God at His Word, that He wishes to be merciful to you, not because of anything you’ve done, but only for the sake of Christ.

So, here we are again this year, by the grace of God, standing on the truth of the Gospel revealed in God’s Word. It isn’t easy, because to stand for the kingdom of Christ is to stand against the kingdom of Satan, who is a ruthless enemy. To stand for Christ is to stand against Islam, against Judaism, against the doctrine of evolution and the religion of tolerance, against all the godlessness of our society, and against the pope and all false teachers who use the name of Christ to deceive people and to corrupt the truth of the Gospel. We stand against all these things, wielding not a single weapon, except for the sword of the Spirit, the living and enduring Word of God.

And with this kind of violence, this mighty forcefulness that presses through all obstacles into the kingdom of God, we cannot fail, because everything, including this Gospel and this faith, is God’s doing, God’s work, God’s gift to you. Christ has promised to build His Church, and that the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. He has promised to keep sending His Holy Spirit through the Means of Grace, to call people to repentance and to build us up in love. This is the “good fight of the faith,” the violence of faith, and the victory that overcomes the world. Let us not be ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to all who believe. Amen.

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