nota bene: This sermon was preached on October 28 for the High Plains circuit Reformation festival, at King of Glory Lutheran Church in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The sermon is based upon the gospel reading from St. Matthew, chapter 11.
Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 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. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And behold, it was very good. God created man in His own image, and behold, he was very good. Yet man in his lust for power and forbidden knowledge could not maintain that perfection even a single human generation, and all creation was plunged into an ongoing struggle for superiority and power. Satan’s act of deception did not end in Genesis 3; he has been the father of lies from that time until the present. Abel suffered violence for his pleasing sacrifice; his blood cried out to the Lord. The people of God, in various ways and at various times, have suffered violence at the hands of the Lord’s enemies.
In time, God raised up a mighty prophet. Elijah was no man of pleasant company. No one ever said of Elijah that he was nice. Elijah was relentless in his defense of God’s Word. Sacrifices are to be made in Jerusalem, he warned. The relativists of the day saw no problem with worshiping close to home for the sake of convenience. When the pluralists of his time sought to bring other gods into the worship of the palace, Elijah did not give his approval. He did not permit it under the guise of tolerance, acceptance, or fear of being called a bully. The prophets of Baal would have been happy with a tolerant arrangement – worship whatever god you wish. Elijah’s utter intolerance toward idolatry is what set them against him in such vile hatred. Elijah warns wicked King Ahab of a drought so severe that neither dew nor rain would fall. After many days, in the third year, Elijah confronts Ahab: And he answered, “I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father’s house, because you have abandoned the commandments of the LORD and followed the Baals.” These words were spoken to a king who would later attempt to take possession of the vineyard of the murdered prophet Naboth. Again, Elijah, at the Lord’s command, confronts Ahab: “you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the LORD.” It takes no small amount of courage to say those words to a king who shows such indifference to a murdered prophet.
In time, God raised up a mighty prophet. This time, John was sent to prepare the way for the Lord. Like Elijah, he found himself crossways with rulers. Like Elijah, no one ever called John nice, or tolerant, or polite. Like Elijah, he didn’t care. You could tell a John sermon by the word repent. He spoke it to those who came to be baptized in the Jordan. He spoke it to the Pharisees. He spoke it to Herod. He told Herod the tetrarch exactly what God thought of taking his brother’s wife. Unlike Ahab, Herod did not repent at the prophet’s rebuke. John was beheaded in prison. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.
Between John the Baptist and Luther, the Church endured martyrdom under Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian, among others. Rome crumbled, fell into decay, and became yet another chapter in Western history. The Church endured, thanks to a God who protected her and preserved her even under the threat of murderous Caesars. The Church endured Saracens and Turks. Inside the Church, however, lay a threat which jeopardized the very Gospel.
Forgiveness of sins was for sale, and it didn’t come cheaply. While buying time off of purgatory was a successful fundraiser, common people had no assurance of salvation. Life was a constant stream of doubt and fear about their soul and the souls of loved ones. No sacrifice was too great to help the departed out of paying the consequence of sin, they thought. In Church Fathers like Augustine, in faithful father/confessors like Johannes von Staupitz, and in Biblically literate and inquisitive monks, God maintained the true Gospel, even as the wider church was violent toward it. Again, God raised up a prophet. Daring to question these practices earned Luther and his followers a permanent expulsion from Holy Mother Rome. Excommunication meant further fracturing of the church, which would lead to uncountable further fragments. But in being fractured from the Roman Magisterium, the fledgling Lutherans were free to preach the free forgiveness of sins. God’s grace has no price above the blood of His only-begotten Son. Calvary was the exact and full price of the redemption of man. Not a single penny more had ever been required above the suffering and death of the Son of Man. In His death, He procured life for all. In his innocent suffering, He spared the guilty. And once again, God saw fit for His Gospel to have free course in His church, unencumbered by the rules of man. The kingdom was again recovered from the violent by our Lord Christ, the Prince of Peace.
Today is the Festival of the Reformation. Today you have opportunity to reflect on what God has done for you by preserving the pure Gospel for your longing ears, that He would create and sustain faith within you. Today you gather with other Lutherans and sing the great Lutheran hymns with gusto. “The Kingdom ours remaineth.” “Curb pope and Turk – these are the original words – who by the sword would wrest the Kingdom from Thy Son, and bring to naught all He has done.” We sing of how Truth triumphed over error. We rejoice that we are freed from the demands of the Bishop of Rome. And all this makes no one happier than Satan and our Old Adam.
Don’t believe me? What better time to distract your heart from Christ and His cross than today? Just as much as you rejoice today, you are also tempted. Tempted to put your feet up and gloat over a job well done. Tempted to stick your tongue out at Rome as though we had only won a kickball game. Tempted to believe that our work of confessing the truth has been accomplished. Tempted to think that since Luther did, you don’t have to.
Repent. You are not here for a history lesson. The work of Reformation did not end in 1517. For that matter, it did not end in 1530, 1577, 1580, 1847, 1974, or 2010. The kingdom of heaven still suffers violence, and God is still raising up faithful men to speak. He calls you to speak in your various stations in life, too. We Americans were spoiled by a couple centuries of relatively easy living. But the Constantinian Accommodation is over. Christianity less and less enjoys the place it once held in American thought and society. Today’s pluralism invites Baal and Moloch alongside Yahweh. Most Americans would deny that they worship Baal, but prevailing attitudes about how men and women are to relate to one another only within marriage suggest otherwise. Likewise, the false god Moloch commanded that children be sacrificed in order to secure wealth and happiness. The Cult of Moloch which rules our society would mandate that the Church be complicit in the murder of children for the sake of convenience. The violent don’t need to use swords and guns; they often use the violence of government compulsion and veiled cultural threats. The Church possesses God’s Word, and she is called to speak this truth whether it is well-received or not. The Church needs Christians of boldness and conviction to speak God’s truth fearlessly. Consider this your call to action.
Lutheranism has nothing whatsoever to do with beer, polka music, lederhosen, Sven and Ole jokes, or sausage. Around the world, Lutherans are proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ – free forgiveness only because the Son of Man was crucified for them. African Lutherans do not get misty-eyed at the story of the Saxon migration, but they are yearning to hear that they are reconciled to their Almighty Creator in Christ. After all, today is not about Luther, or Walther. It’s not even about Elijah or John. Today, as every day, it’s about Jesus. He has called you to do much good in the world, and you have chosen to serve yourself. You have chosen to remain silent where you ought to have spoken. And He forgives you. His blood covers your cowardice, your silence, and your inaction. He did not shrink from the violence done to Him. He gave His life for you and for all on Calvary’s cross. By that dreadful violence you are saved! Where you have failed to confess Him, He never fails to confess you before His Father, pleading for you at the Father’s right hand.
Look through the history of salvation; God has preserved His people through extraordinary opposition and hatred. The whole time, God continued to raise up prophets to speak to change the hearts of men. How much more will He preserve us? Today, the Church faces challenges no one dreamed of 20 years ago. Today, He continues to give His Church the courage to speak to a hateful world. The violent seek to take the kingdom by force. Christians suffer. But no one snatches us out of the hand of our loving God. He has called you together – sheep who hear the voice of the Shepherd. Wherever the Gospel is preached there will be trouble. If the trouble ever ceases, we know that the Gospel is not being preached and the church has become a quaint relic of the past. But we are not! The Gospel is preached, there is trouble. Maybe some of you will face persecution. Perhaps some already have. But God is on your side. Your salvation is secure, and God will not let you fall.
You who bear the Name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in your Baptism are called to witness to the world. You have eternal life already; there is no need to cling to this one. God provided Elijah to the world. He also provided John the Baptist and Martin Luther, to speak the Truth to a perishing world. Men of violence will never overcome the Church. Maybe Christians will again have to resort to worshiping in secret, as we did before the Fourth Century. Maybe the church will be forced to pay outrageous penalties or taxes for not genuflecting at the altar of abortion. Maybe none of it will happen. Maybe some new persecution will come that we never dreamed of.
It doesn’t matter; the same Jesus who has raised up strong voices in every generation will continue to provide voices of humility and strength in the face of any trouble. The Church has outlasted the Roman Empire by almost 1600 years. He will preserve her to the end of time, when He calls all the dead from their graves to a glorious Resurrection.
In the meantime, where are the true heirs of the Reformation? Where are those who, forgiven in Christ and lavished with grace, speak boldly and unwaveringly to a hostile world? Here. In this very room. In the chair beside you, in the chair in front of you, and in the chair beneath you. You know yourself to be frail and flawed; so did Elijah, John, and Luther. But God sees in you only Christ, and He delights in using people just like you to accomplish His purposes in the world. Be bold. Be fearless. Your victory has been won. The kingdom yours remaineth. Amen.