"And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force. For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you care to accept it, he himself is Elijah, who was to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear."
Sermon for the Reformation Day 10/31/21
Taking the Kingdom by Force
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Commentators say that there are two ways to understand the verses before us this morning. One is that men have seized the kingdom of heaven by force. The other is that the kingdom of heaven has come upon us in a mighty way — with great power.
Both interpretations are fitting on Reformation Day. On October 31, 1517 something ordinarily insignificant happened. Luther nailed an invitation for a cordial, academic debate on certain esoteric theological points to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg in the form of 95 theses. Yet, in the next 13 years God did something marvelous and great. We celebrate that great thing, the rediscovery of the Gospel and the freeing of the church of God, on the anniversary of that "little thing."
At the time of Luther, men had seized the kingdom of heaven by force. The church had become rich and politically powerful. It had also become thoroughly corrupt. Many priests were entirely ignorant of the Bible and of Christian doctrine. Offices in the church were commonly sold to the highest bidder. From local parishes, to bishoprics, to the cardinal's cap itself, and even the Papacy could be bought for a price. Greed ruled and indulgences – supposed to be special grants of forgiveness of sins – were sold.
But worst of all was the false doctrine. No one heard or knew of salvation or forgiveness. Oh, they heard the words, but the truths of Scripture behind those words were unknown and untaught. Works were exalted. Men were taught that they still had to pay for their own sins. The monastic orders, often little more than slavery for the church and frequently houses of debauchery, were declared holier than the keeping of the whole Law of God.
God was pictured as utterly holy, distant from man, essentially unknowable, angry, and judging. Men were taught that they could not pray to God. They were told instead to rely on the intercession of the saints. Mary took her place at the throne of heaven as Queen, in command even over the Son of God Himself, and the Sacrament of the Altar became a twisted thing which was believed to sacrifice the Lord Jesus for the sins of the people again, each time they celebrated it.
The faith of many fell somewhere between a desperate, urgent desire to earn righteousness and appease the ever-angry Judge, and those who winked at the silly superstition of religion gone mad and simply used the system of their society for their own ends.
Satan ruled. He had shut up the hopes of men, chained men to idolatry and pagan sacrifice again, and the kingdom of heaven – at least as it was visible on earth and open to mankind — had been seized by force, taken captive, and doors to the kingdom of heaven were closed to man.
Then came the Reformation. Luther unlocked the kingdom of heaven with the keys of the Reformation doctrine — the great "Solas" of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura - by Scripture alone, Sola Fide -through faith alone, Sola Gratia- by grace alone, and Solo Christo -in Jesus Christ alone.
Luther answered the darkness and ignorance of his age with the revealed truth of the Word of God. No longer did anyone need to wonder, the Scriptures answered! The darkness of human values, opinions, superstitions, and attitudes were swept aside by the light of the authority of Scripture.
God had spoken to man. He had revealed Himself, His will, His justice, His love, and His grace. Suddenly, one man standing with Scripture could stand alone against the whole world. Scripture was right. Let every man be proven to be a liar, God's Word is still true!
And it is clear! No man needs to wait upon the wisdom of another. God's Word is clear for the child — and still deep and challenging enough for the greatest scholar. Every man could read and see for himself what is the gracious will of God.
And what is the will of God for us? [our salvation]
God's will is that all men should come to faith and know the goodness and love of the Lord. God has taken the Law out of the way. Faith, not obedience to rules – but faith, is now known to be how God has appointed for us to receive His love and grace. Faith is now revealed to be that obedience which God seeks. Faith — which trusts the promises of God, which takes God at His Word when He tells us that He loves us, that He wants only good for us, that He will never fail us or abandon us, that He will never allow us to be destroyed - that faith lays hold of the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. Works of holiness, sacrifices, intercessory prayer, and penances of great price are of no value to salvation. That is not to say that they are all bad things to do, or without their uses, but they have no power or worth before God to earn or to grasp salvation.
But faith, which looks only to the promise of God for Christ's sake, is the channel through which God has chosen to pour forgiveness, salvation, resurrection. Such faith trusts God, often in spite of what the believer sees, hears, and feels, simply because it is God who has promised. It is the trust of the heart that forms and shapes every attitude and deed in the light of its confident expectation of God's goodness, love, providing, and protection at every moment.
This faith can receive the blessings of salvation because Jesus has earned them for us already and because God has chosen to give eternal life to all who believe. His choice in this matter is called "Grace." Grace is the third key of the Reformation. It sets man utterly free from the slavery of the Law. Man is saved by Grace Alone.
The answer to the "why?" of salvation rests not with the social status of the individual, nor with the piety and the good works of the individual, or the attitudes of the individual, but with the goodness of God. It is God's good pleasure to forgive us for Jesus' sake. It is God's kindness and grace that causes Him to choose from among all men to save and rescue us.
Before Luther, the answer to why some are saved and others are not was thought to rest in the efforts and attitudes of man. But Luther taught that anyone who is saved is saved from himself and in spite of his works and value, rather than because of those factors. We are saved by God's free, gracious choice. Every man, woman, and, yes, even child has earned death and hell, and it is grace alone which accounted for salvation.
The Reformation principles — the "solas" — changed the world. Human effort did not save: it could only serve the Savior. Man could not sell what God alone could give. Faith replaced works. Scripture replaced the authority of the church and her various leaders. Grace made each person important and every station in life holy. And it was all in connection with Jesus Christ — and Him alone!
The Reformation fostered the political idea of individual personal worth — or personality. The Reformation encouraged the idea of personal, human rights. The Reformation was the driving force behind the development of public education, for every man needed to be able to read God's Word for himself. The Reformation taught mankind the concept of vocation — a calling from God — that every man in every type of employment was called by God — placed in his work and family to do holy service to God by serving those closest to him. The ordinary work-a-day duties and tasks of life were properly identified at last as truly God-pleasing good works. Luther himself championed the freedom of religion, the concept of self-determination, and that God meant life to be enjoyed, not merely endured, all to His glory.
Without the Reformation, the American Revolution — and even the principles upon which our nation was founded — might never have happened. Look at the French revolution, with its excesses and instability for so many years. They tried to do it without God and in defiance of God and His existence and failed. By grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone, as taught in Scripture alone, are the keys of the Reformation which set the kingdom of heaven among men again, and opened her gates to all who believe.
But today the kingdom of heaven is being taken by force again.
Men deny Scripture again. Men in the church! They deny the divine Author, and therefore the divine authority. They teach that it is just the word of men, and would make us dependent again upon professional scholars and exegetes to tell us what the "word of God" really means.
Men deny the power and value of faith once again. They lay before us social agendas – and works – and attitudes to which, they say, we must conform to be saved. They sell salvation on television with ‘magic cloths', anointing oils, and all manner of deception. They say you have to experience a certain experience or feel a certain feeling in order to have any assurance of heaven.
The Church is being used again for political power - look at politicians who use the pulpits of churches from which to campaign. Just as the Humanists said in their manifestoes should happen, the service of earthly human need and the glory of human endeavor have become the primary mission of many church bodies. But the worst thing is that false doctrine is rising again, even within our own Synod.
Church Growth Principles replace the power of the Word of God for many. Novelty and variety - which is to say "entertainment' — have replaced faithfulness and confession in the hearts of many. Many focus on feelings, and the emphasis on the "experience of faith" has taken the focus away from the content of the faith, the very Word of God which is to be believed. The living of the Christian life — often referred to as the "Christian Walk"— has replaced trust in the grace of God, and made faith a human work, rather than the work of God within us in many hearts. The prayer, the decision, the obedience, and the pragmatic reign. Nowadays God is not only the angry Judge, but His "opinion" hardly matters as homosexuality and LGBTQ2+ commands increasing acceptance in the church, and so-called Christian leaders rush to dialog with — and pray with – Jews and Moslems, and the rush to approve such things divides churches.
We need to turn once again to the keys of Luther's Reformation. We need to reclaim the centrality of the doctrine of Justification of the sinner by the marvelous grace of God, through faith in Jesus Christ. We Lutherans need to celebrate God's gifts to us and give thanks. Romans one, verse twenty-one, begins a catalog of sin and the first sin in the catalog is, "For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened."
We want to rejoice and give thanks for the treasures He has poured out on us.
In Luther's day, the kingdom of heaven came among men with great power by the preaching of God's Word by Luther and those Lutherans. It seized men, making powerful disciples of the truth of men such as Philip Melancthon, Martin Chemnitz, John Gerhardt, and later C.F.W. Walther. The whole world needs to hear that same word of God's loving and gracious gift of forgiveness and salvation purchased and won by Jesus Christ by his death on the cross in our place, and His resurrection, which boldly proclaims our forgiveness. We need to apply Holy Scripture to our faith and our lives, and let God guide our hearts, our minds, and our deeds. We need to rest in that firm confidence of God's promises of forgiveness, of resurrection to life eternal, of salvation as His sure gift of grace through faith. We can do that only by the power of God's Holy Spirit working in us through the hearing of the Word of God. Then the kingdom of heaven will come powerfully among us, seizing us with power and making of this generation mighty witnesses to His eternal truth and glory.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)