Reformation Sermon: Matthew 11

Today’s sermon is once again multimedia. Audio first, with print below the jump.

“The kingdom of heaven suffers violence.” John has been thrown into prison for the crime of preaching that Herod’s adultery and incest was a sin. He would soon be killed. Those who speak the truth against the pet sins of the world risk their lives. 501 years ago this week, Martin Luther posted 95 statements about the sale of indulgences. Little pieces of paper that, for a fee, could get a person into heaven. The church claimed it had a treasure chest of merits before God it could give out as it wished. And, to help fund Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome, they were selling some of those merits for a very reasonable fee. After years of struggle, and searching scripture, Luther became convinced that God gives forgiveness freely for Christ’s sake to all who believe in Jesus name. It is not our merit or work, it is God’s work on our behalf. This re-discovery of the Gospel was based on the clear testimony of Holy Scripture.

Luther didn’t intend to cause trouble. He was looking for a debate. He ignited a firestorm. His theses struck at the heart of the corruption and powers of his own day. Death and misery followed in the wake of his statement. Satan raged against such scriptural thoughts. After all, Satan had a good thing going. People were trusting in themselves for salvation. The church taught that you could be saved with a small donation, instead of Jesus work. The very church which Christ founded was leading people away from the truth. Martin Luther spoke the pure and everlasting Gospel, turning people away from their own works to Christ. Satan was not happy. The peasant’s revolt. The thirty years war, just to name two – both caused untold misery. There was other suffering and death as well. People burned at the stake as heretics for saying we are saved by Christ’s merit, not our own. For teaching and preaching that forgiveness of sins should be preached freely, not held in trust by a man in a palace and doled out at his discretion. Nations rose up against nations at such a thought. The world seemed to be tearing itself apart. Islamic armies were knocking on the gates of Vienna. At a time when the church most needed unity, this little monk comes along talking about scripture, and the work of Jesus. How could he do such a terrible thing?

Violence. The violent take it by force. Jesus says that the world is not offended because the church did it the wrong way. The world is offended because the church exists at all. John the Baptist came neither eating nor drinking – he has a demon. Jesus came doing both – a glutton and drunkard. It isn’t that the church is doing it wrong. It’s not that the church should change her name, or needs to change her teaching to appeal more to the world. It’s that the church exists at all. That’s what the world can not stand. Jesus says, “We played the flute and you did not dance. A dirge and you did not mourn.” The church can add drums and guitars. It won’t save the world. The church can add violins and pipe organ. It won’t save the world. The church can be as pleasant or as dour as it wants to be. The world will object that the church is the church. It won’t say it that way. With John the Baptist the world claimed he was too harsh. With Jesus, too accommodating. No matter how the church does it, the world will object. We don’t like church because… and then pick something that seems like it might be true. Maybe, says the church, if we changed this, we would be more popular. But the church – as the place where Christ’s word is spoken purely – is not popular. The world doesn’t want it. And so, the only thing to do is mock, exclude, shut out, and try and shut down the church. Just ignore it, and it will go away. More and more people are ignoring the church these days.

The world makes it harder and harder to be a part of that church. It gets easier and easier to find something else to be doing on a Sunday morning. And those who dare to speak the word of God, who dare to live holy lives according to it, they will be dealt with.

The prophets spoke the Word of God to the people of their own day. The people rejected that word. The prophets suffered much for their faithfulness. John the Baptist in prison, soon to be executed. Jesus will be handed over to the chief priests and they will turn him over to the Gentiles, he will be tried, sentenced to death, crucified. Luther was persecuted for speaking the truth. A death sentence against him for nearly 25 years. That’s the way of the world. Today, the world goes after the wealth or reputation of anyone who does not stand and salute the false gods of our own age. Anyone who does not bow down and worship the culture of death. Church’s that preach the Gospel of life against such lies are dwindling. When the Son of man returns will he find faith on earth? And yet, we are promised that the Word of the Lord will endure forever. On the one hand that’s a great comfort to us. The new man, made alive in Christ and in his Gospel is comforted to know that God’s Word will endure, even when steeples are falling.

But the word of the Lord is a hard word for us to hear in another sense. We don’t like to hear the truth. Our old Adam constantly tries to subvert, change, twist the word of God back on itself, turn you inward to your own works and abilities instead of Jesus Christ and his work. And because the church is filled with sinners, we must always be on guard against the devil who tries to change the word that the church speaks so that it is acceptable to the world. Not a lot. Just a little bit. Did God really say… And so even in the church the struggle for the truth continues. That is why we say the church is always in need of reformation. We can never grow complacent. Because there is always the temptation to acknowledge the precious word of God in passing. Yeah, yeah, sure. Of course we have that. But then to ignore what it really says, what it really requires us to believe, teach, confess, and live. We want it to be easy. It won’t be easy. Jesus says take up your cross daily and follow me.

And yet we have the promise – the gates of hell itself will not prevail against Jesus and his church. It doesn’t look that way. The glory of the church is hidden behind weakness. We have in our heads an idea of what the church should look like. After all, scripture speaks of the church as the bride of Christ. Pure and spotless, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. The Holy Church of Christ is ruled by Christ – he has been given all authority. All power in heaven and on earth. It should be more than it is. The people brighter, happier. The atmosphere more alive. The world more accepting. If the church is really so great, why does it look so ordinary? Why do we have meetings that bring out dissention, and why are we struggling to pay bills, and why are the people not the sort I want to see here. Satan comes up with all sorts of reasons why the church doesn’t look like it should, and therefore it must be false. Just as the glory of the almighty son of the Father was hidden behind a crucifixion victim. It doesn’t look like anything amazing is happening. Even the disciples were shocked at how things turned out with Jesus in Jerusalem that week. They couldn’t believe it. From the pinnacle of popularity to crucified dead and buried in just a few hours. That wasn’t how it was supposed to go. And yet it was exactly what the Father had in mind. That shocking death, that scandal, that weakness and foolishness was the power of God. Death was defeated by a dead man. The power of the grave was broken by a man who put himself under the power of the grave. For resurrection to happen, death had to occur. For forgiveness to be earned, there had to be punishment. And so Jesus suffered, Jesus died. And Jesus rose again. Sin abolished, death broken, the grave opened once for all.

The world laughs, and scorns, and mocks, and triumphs over the weakness of Jesus and of his holy church. And yet the church endures. You’ll never make it if you don’t conform the pattern of this world, we are told. But that is not how the church does things. The church that conforms to the world’s way stops being the church. Because the way of Jesus is the way of weakness and foolishness. The weakness of God and the foolishness of God are stronger and wiser than man. It doesn’t seem that way. We see a poor flock, dwindling and struggling, weak, no one really powerful belongs to it. But the salvation given freely  – without cost – through Jesus suffering and death overcomes the world with all it’s power and glory – worldly power and glory fade away. Nothing more than dust and ashes, blown away by the wind. We have the solid rock, the unchangeable truth of God’s word. The rock that gives forgiveness of sins to sinners, solely in the love and mercy of our heavenly Father, not for anything we have done. That sounds crazy. We don’t do anything? It’s true. Jesus has done it all. He is the world’s redeemer. And he gives forgiveness to all who believe in his name. He gives salvation without cost to all who come to him.

Hold fast to Jesus and his word – even amid the changes and chances of life. Because he is your salvation.

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