Jesus is teaching the people. The Kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. John was in prison because he told Herod “You sinned by taking your brother’s wife as your own.” The ruler of the people violently opposed the truth. Seizing both his brother’s wife, and then John, who spoke against it. John will eventually be beheaded. Truth – God’s Word – has a cost. When Jesus says, “Those who confess me before men, I will confess before my Father in heaven” he knows that it means bearing a burden in this world. If it were easy, who wouldn’t confess and live according to the Holy Scriptures? If it were the path of least resistance, of course everyone would come to church. Faithfulness is shown when – despite it being the difficult thing to do, you do it anyway. Faithfulness is shown when it isn’t easy, when it isn’t popular, when it takes sacrifice.
John faithfully spoke the word of God – What God has joined together, let man not put asunder – and he was imprisoned and eventually killed for it. The violent man seized John, and attacked him. Just as the people had treated the prophets who went before him. They were mistreated and often killed for calling out the idolatry in the land – the worship of false gods, the casual attitude toward worship of the true God. Those prophets pointed to John as the one who would prepare the way of the Lord, who would tear up the ground, knock down the hills, fill in the valleys, to make ready the people for the Messiah – the promised Savior.
John comes in the spirit of Elijah – the prophet of old who spoke the word of judgment and rain did not fall for three years on the land because their idolatry, who slew 450 prophets of Baal in a single day, cleansing the land of their worship of demons. And yet he was on the run soon after, the wicked King Ahab and Queen Jezebel wanted him deed because he spoke the truth.
Nowadays, we don’t have prophets to the king. We aren’t called to identify their sins and point them out to warn people away. We don’t have a call to that. Paul explains our Christian duty “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” We are called to pray for kings, and to try to live peacefully according to God’s Word. It sounds so simple. But the world will not let that happen. The world hates the Word and promise of God. Even speaking the truth of God’s word is seen as dangerous, subversive, in need of rebuke and re-education. Trying to live according to that word in what we say and do is not fit for public life. The world will no more accept the truth of God’s Word now than it would in the time of Elijah, or Saint John, or the blessed reformer Martin Luther.
Today is Reformation day. We give thanks to God for the Blessed Reformer, who rediscovered the Gospel and taught the Word in its truth and purity so that we might have the promise of salvation through Jesus Christ because of his work for us on the cross, not because of our works and merits. Luther made public his objection because a man named Tetzel was literally selling forgiveness – saying that it was coin you paid that brought salvation to you, or even a loved one. And when Luther said the Word of God promises forgiveness freely for Jesus sake to all those who believe, even if they don’t pay a fee, well, that interfered with business. Luther was excommunicated from Rome, declared an outlaw by the emperor, and lived the rest of his life effectively under the sentence of death for teaching the truth of God’s Word.
Reformation Day is always an exciting day in the church – we get to celebrate the great work of the Blessed Reformer we get to celebrate the pure and everlasting Gospel and the promise of salvation given by God’s free grace and favor – good works could not avert our doom they help and save us never. Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone who did for all the world atone he is our true redeemer. Amen and Amen. Thanks be to God for the blessed Gospel that is proclaimed again in the church, for the truth and purity of God’s Word that freely rings out to all who labor and are heavy laden and in need of rest. Today is a day of celebration and comfort.
And yet, the word of Christ this day haunts our ears and minds. The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.
Here’s the reality check to Reformation Day: The Lutherans lost. A year after Luther’s death, the Lutheran princes lost in battle, the emperor stood over Luther’s grave and imposed the hated Augsburg interim – the false teaching that Luther rejected now had to be taught again. It was only later, when the Lutheran princes won that the Reformation got a victory – you know what it was – they would be left alone… in the lands with Lutheran princes. That was it. That was as far as it ever got. There was no great cleansing of the church. The Lutheran lands were basically about half of Germany and a few countries above the arctic circle. France, Spain, England, The East, Southern Germany – they did not sign on to the Gospel proclaimed in the Reformation. Oh it is true that the worst of the abuses were curbed. Tetzel was recalled, and Rome no longer allowed him to say “money buys forgiveness”. But then they turned around and condemned anyone who said “Forgiveness is a gift given freely by the grace of God for Jesus sake in those who believe, entirely apart from works because Jesus did the work for us.” By the time of the 300th anniversary of the Reformation, there were only a few scattered folks left in Germany that even believed the Gospel promise. Some of them came over here. 12 congregations formed our synod in the beginning. Now over 6000 across the US. But that’s a drop in the bucket compared to other churches. We are really quite small. The Reformation didn’t really reform all that much, it didn’t reach all that far. Oh, many talk about how the principles of the Reformation changed the world. But the Reformation wasn’t some principle of freedom or liberty. The Reformation wasn’t the start of the modern world. The reformation was some sad little monk who claimed that Jesus did the work, that we don’t do the work, and that salvation is given by God in the places where he has promised to give it – the water, the word, the body and blood. Even today, it’s a small group that believes such things. The kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force.
And even among our own beloved Missouri Synod it isn’t like the reformation is honored as it should be. Not that we need more days or a bigger celebration – but the actual truth of God’s Word is too often optional even among us. In the Small Catechism we say “by daily contrition and repentance.” We need to daily return to the Word of God, daily turn away from our sin, daily be restored in Christ, and daily recognize that the truth of the Gospel is a precious gift – we are not owed it because we are so good. It is a gift given in God’s mercy and love. And it can be easily despised and easily lost. The list of abuses against God and His word is long – even in our synod. And not just in those churches out there. But even among faithful life-long members of our own congregations. We struggle with the word and promise of God. We fight against that word, that promise, we don’t want it to mean what it says about marriage, about love of neighbor, about respect and honor for parents, about gladly hearing and learning the Word on the Lord’s Day, about keeping all other idols away and worshipping only the true God. Pick a commandment, and it is dishonored in some way by each of us. Pick a doctrine or teaching, and it is disbelieved, it is mocked, it is despised. We don’t want to be faithful, because faithful is hard. The kingdom of heaven suffers violence. Even in our own hearts.
In his grace and his mercy, God endures our sin, he forgives it daily. He is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The psalmist proclaims “He will not always chide, nor does he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who hear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”
Our heavenly Father is gracious and merciful. He loves us and sent his son to pay the penalty for our sins, and now gives forgiveness freely for Jesus sake to all those who believe on his name. And his Word will not be overcome, and his grace and mercy will be received by those whom he has called as his own, those who are his children, and now, he is our true beloved father.
The Reformation wasn’t about speaking truth to power, or any sort of governmental rebellion, or really anything about our place in this world. It was about the truth that Jesus came into the world to save sinners, that the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is forgiveness through Jesus Christ our Lord.