Tuesday, November 2, 2021

The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence. . .

Sermon for Reformation Day, preached on Sunday, October 31, 2021.

     I really do not like preaching on Reformation Day.  Like many of us, I grew up in the Midwest where Lutherans were a dime a dozen.  I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s when Lutherans were growing bigger by one church every 2-3 days.  This congregation was one of those born in the age when, as TIME magazine put it, it might be that everyone in America might be Lutheran by the year 2000.  But it has not gone that way.  Not just for Lutherans either.  Living with the pandemic in the rear view mirror, the future is even murkier than it ever was.  We are not living in an age of glory but in a time of test, trial, tribulation, and turmoil.  It might seem that the glory days are far behind us and so this day is simply a melancholy recollection of our past.  Some of us fear we as Lutherans may not even survive.

    The alternate Gospel for Reformation begins “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence.”  As true as it was for the prophets who came to a people unwilling to hear the promise of God or suffer the call to repentance, it is no less true for our own age and our own time.  Jesus lamented Jerusalem that stoned and killed the prophets God had sent.  John the Baptist surrendered his head to the wicked King Herod in some mindless game of power.  Jesus faced the temptations of the devil immediately after His baptism in the Jordan and ducked those who would have killed Him before Jesus was ready to offer Himself on the cross.  In the early days of Christianity, the martyrs died regularly as sport in the coliseum or whenever an inept ruler needed a scapegoat.

    In our own time Christians have gone from being the glue that held the fabric of America together to but one of the many diverse voices of truth in the market place of religion.  Even worse, the voice of Scripture has been scolded by the thought police who insist that anything that does not affirm the desire of the human heart is hate speech.  Along with the statues of past leaders, some called for all the religious art to be torn down as an expression of white supremacy.  It has never been a good time to be a Christian.  The violent have tried to take the kingdom of God by force from the beginning.  The ways of the devil are always violent and destructive.  The Church has always seemed weak in comparison.

    The Kingdom of God belongs to those who have no power but faith, to the martyrs whose blood was shed but whose faith endured, to the meek who inherit the earth, to the humble who turn the other cheek, to those who suffer the violence of the world but do not respond in kind.  We are in the world.  We are not of the world – no matter how much we want to be warriors seeking earthly victories.

But God did not come to build an earthly kingdom which had to be defended against every earthly threat.  Our Lord came on a donkey, welcomed by faith, for the glory of the cross.  If we would bear His name, we must seek the same glory.

    When Jesus was reviled against, He did not revile in return.  He suffered all the violence that was put against Him even to death on the cross and responded by offering Himself as victim for all the guilty and then forgiving those whose hammer pounded in the nails.  He accomplished salvation by suffering all the violence done to Him and rising to reclaim from Satan all that the devil had won by his lies, deception, and violence.  But the last enemy to be destroyed is death and He will not reign over all things until the day the Father has appointed for Him to return not as Savior to forgive but as Judge to render verdict.

    “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence.”  The reformers of Christian history were not welcomed with open arms but led to the crosses to die, to fires to be burned, and to prisons to be held captive. Luther had a bounty on his head but his fiercest battle was against the devil who toyed with his soul.  Every age has to be recalled to the Word of God and every era of Christian history needs to be reminded that we are justified not by our works but by THE work of Christ on the cross and by our faith in that saving atonement.  In our day as in every day, the Kingdom of Heaven is threatened by enemies and suffers violence against it and against those who live in it by faith.  We should not expect anything else – not youth being confirmed or the aged near life’s end.

    Jesus is not some reasonable Savior who speaks a logical word.  His wisdom confounds the wisdom of this world.  No one is reasoned into the Kingdom of God.  Jesus was accused of being a prude, a drunk, and a man of loose morals.  He is no less abused today.  Only a fool would think that Jesus would prevail in a battle for ideas but we are foolish enough to believe it and try it.  The Kingdom of God suffers the violence of those who would tell us worship is non-essential, that the morality of Scripture is hate speech, and that the only good faith is a silent one.  Yet still we come thinking we can win the world with truth propositions or impress them with a morality they have already rejected or beguile them with a watered down gospel that says everything but really says nothing at all.

    St. John the Divine tells us the eternal Gospel:  Fear God. Give Him glory. Because the hour of His judgment has come, worship Him who made all things.
This is the ground on which Luther stood and every faithful voice has used as the pulpit to speak God’s truth to every nation, tribe, language, and people.  We cannot afford to look to the past for a glory that never was and we must stop looking at the future with fearful eyes.  We are no worse off than any generation of Christians has been and the Kingdom of Heaven has always suffered violence from its enemies... but the Kingdom of Heaven has and will always prevail.

    In the face of threat, we need to confess the eternal Gospel without fear.  In the face of violence, we need to suffer without complaint because we know our lives are in God’s hands and nothing can separate us from His love and the destiny He has prepared.  In the face of fear, we need to stand upon Christ the rock and we shall not simply endure, we shall prevail against the forces against the Kingdom of Heaven.  Those confirmed in their baptismal faith today are not being sent out into a fairy tale world but are being equipped as soldiers of the cross to defend the faith by their own faithful confession.  Those whose voices join them in worship and prayer today need to pray for these newly confirmed and support them as they stand with us upon the blood of Christ.  Together all of us are given the holy privilege and calling of preaching this eternal gospel and standing on the Word of God no matter what comes against us.

    “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence.”  Against Christ, the violence came and will continue to come.  Against those who stand in Christ, the violence came and will continue to come.  But this violence cannot prevail.  It has already lost.  But the final hours of its life are like the tortured animal caught in a trap but still unwilling to surrender.  The enemies of Christ and His people will do anything and everything they can to steal even one from the Kingdom of Heaven.  But our sword is the Word of God and our power is the cross on which salvation was won and hope lies not in an earthly victory but in the triumph of heaven against sin, death, and the devil.  The only path for us is to listen to the voice of God’s Word, to heed the discipline of the Lord, to confess our sin and rejoice in His forgiveness, to eat and drink the Body and blood of Christ, to pray, and to love our neighbor as Christ has loved us.  It seems like weakness but it is the weakness that will prevail, both for our salvation and for the salvation of those who hear the Word of God from our lips and by our example.  The worst is not behind us but before us.  Violence will surely come.  But the violent cannot prevail.  A mighty fortress is our God; His Kingdom ours remains.  Christ is with us.  Who can be against us?  Amen.

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