Another Reformation Sermon
November 4, 2017
This sermon is by Rev. Peter Mills, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Akron, Ohio. You need to read it slowly, but I think you'll find it penetrating.
REFORMATION (S)(2017) Rev. 14:6-7; Rom. 3:19-28; Mt. 11:12-19
Violence, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (v. 12).
This is an enigmatic saying. Jesus invites us to comprehend his words in light of John the Baptist (JB hereafter), his witness. Foundational to heaven’s “eternal gospel” is this from Hebrews, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22b). Violent blood letting is part and parcel of man’s salvation in Christ.
Observe well, that in all of Christendom only Lutherans commemorate the 16th century German Reformation for recapture of heaven’s “eternal gospel”. St. Paul frames the “eternal gospel” in terms of “blood” and “faith”. In our Epistle he says, “Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood to be received by faith… apart from the works of the law” (Rom. 3:25b & 28b).
So there it is, the offense: “solus Christus”, the only innocent man slaughtered by the will of God from the foundation of the world. Man’s offense vies against God’s judgment. Even JB experienced anxiety against God’s will, inquiring of Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Mt. 11:3b).
In prison JB was no longer kingdom preacher. Jesus was baptized in the fullness of the HS. Like Elisha, Jesus coming after JB received “a double portion of Elijah’s (JB’s) Spirit” (2 Kings 2:9). Jesus succeeded to the angelic office to proclaim heaven’s “eternal gospel” in his own blood for gifting the HS.
JB was now in prison, looking out. He was effectively like all whom Jesus was releasing from Satan’s thrall; JB was blind and deaf beyond his cell, unable to freely walk about and so lame. He was about to die. JB was a prophet, but no longer a preacher of God’s word. Now he was a member of Jesus’ congregation and a witness to his faith in Christ.
In response to JB’s doubting question, Jesus conveyed a blessing to his cousin, that he should not be offended at God’s work in Jesus’ reign. Jesus was suffering increased violence and rejection from Israel. By Jesus’ blessing JB was not to be offended at the kingdom of heaven’s trajectory toward conflict with old Israel and the cross.
JB would soon testify to the violence against Jesus’ kingdom. On Herod Antipas’ order JB’s head was severed from body. In giving his life JB made his final prophesy, directing all eyes to Israel’s rejection of Christ on the cross. By his death, JB literally “decreased”, that Jesus might “increase” to be God’s sacrificial Lamb (Jn. 3:30).
Man’s offense at God’s salvation is viscerally noxious, our sin’s ingrained reaction to the ways of God. Like JB we constantly require blessing so not to be offended by God’s bloody “eternal gospel” by faith.
The “eternal gospel” comes against Jesus in bloody violence. It is received by our stand-alone faith apart from the works of the law; a faith that singularly grasps hold of Jesus’ wounds. This hold on Jesus is the core message and the offense of the Lutheran Reformation’s gospel.
The truth of the cross horrifies, not only at sinful man’s violent nature; but more at God’s willingness to violence. Beginning with Cain and Abel man in pursuit of his will, manifests his violent nature. From then on the cycle of violence was repetitive. We are not shocked at ourselves; after all Satan is our father, a murderer from the beginning and the father of lies (Jn. 8:44).
Still a survey of violence at the hand of God is just as consistent, beginning with his promise to crush the serpent’s head and then a deluge destroying all mankind but Noah’s family.
Critics of God denounce: he is a terrorist, perversely demanding the life of Abraham’s only son, then at the last second withdrawing the command. The OT holiness system through animal sacrifices are deemed barbaric; so also God’s command for Israel to eradicate pagan populations on entry into the Promised Land.
These critics assume moral equivalency between man and Creator; judging and taking offense. But Jesus bestowed a blessing on JB to know God rightly, and on you and I, not to be offended at the “eternal gospel” framed by blood and faith.
By God’s blessing we know, men kill in pursuit of death, but God’s nature kills to make alive (Dt. 32:39, 1 Sam. 2:6). The Church’s continuing return to the blood of and faith in “solus Christus” is the crux of the German Reformation.
It hardly seems worthwhile to catalogue the myriad denominational permutations of church bodies: Eastern, Roman, or the 1,001 sectarian expressions of Protestants. After all God does not save Church bodies, but individuals in calling men to repentant faith.
Yet Church bodies are problematic. Reformation is institutional repentance; return to true doctrine coordinate in the church’s one holy catholic and apostolic faith, and worship. If church bodies employ differing worship forms, then God is given glory in the variegated expressions.
But when the reality of the Church’s historical and sacramental blood in Christ is offence to them, then church bodies convey offense to individuals. To these bodies, the 16th century Lutheran Reformation witnesses to Christendom’s violent salvation.
Today’s Gospel Reading has Jesus on his way to the cross. He teaches, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” Again, how are we to understand these words? We turn to Scripture, knowing that Scripture is its own interpreter.
The OT patriarch Jacob was a grasping man. He grasped after, swindled, and tricked his brother Esau, obtaining the elder’s inheritance and stole their father’s blessing. For fear of Esau, Jacob exiled himself from country and immediate family.
Years later Jacob returned. News came that Esau was headed his way with 400 men. To stave off a perceived attack, Jacob sent peace offerings from his vast herds in successive droves to appease his wronged brother.
Jacob sent his family and retainers out of harm’s way. Jacob alone remained at Penuel, east of the Jordan. That night a Man engaged Jacob in a conflict and contest of wills. The Man wrestled Jacob throughout the night. Jacob discerned the Man to be God. We know the divine Man as the pre-incarnate Christ.
True to his name, Jacob grasped the divine Man. He would not let loose, even at the Man’s command. The Man intensified his attack, dislocating Jacob’s hip joint. Still Jacob refused to let go until this divine Man bestowed a blessing. The Man relented granting Jacob a new name, “Israel”.
In context Jacob’s new name identified him as one who sees God face-to-face, cheek to jowl. Jacob, now “Israel”, limped across the Jordan River into the Promised Land, with wives, children, and retainers.
Jesus, baptized in the Jordan entered his ministry as “Israel” in the place and on behalf of the 12 OT tribes. Jesus, only Son of the Father, alone knows God face to face. The Father from the foundation of the world destined his only Son to suffer bloody violence as the divine Man for the sin of the world.
Like the divine Man who attacked Jacob, naming him “Israel”, God In the Jordan named Jesus, “Beloved Son and Lamb of God”, to be rejected, and suffer violence from sinful men. Jesus thus prophesied, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence…” As for the divinely permitted violence of men, we may paraphrase the patriarch Joseph of his brothers, “they intended it for evil, but God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20).
Apart from the violence that God permitted against his Christ, there is another “Violent One”. Jesus adds, “and the violent take [the kingdom of heaven] by force.” By our Baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ, the church on Pentecost has received the fullness of the HS delivered over from the cross (Jn. 19:30).
Like Jacob, church bears her Lord’s name, we are “new Israel”. As Israel we wrestle, grasp hold, and refuse to let go of our Lord’s body. We demand according to his promise, a blessing. His blessing is this: like Jacob, he is “Israel”, who will never let us go, except for the one cause of unbelief (Mt. 19:9). We are one in Christ and so by gift of the Spirit our faith confesses his blood, water, and Spirit (1 Jn. 5:7, 8).
Lutherans hope for essential unity in the church; and so commemorate the German Reformation to restoration of the Church’s character in the shed blood of Jesus, our “solus Christus” by faith apart from the works of law.
Such hope is the raison d’etre of the Church’s Reformation commemoration calling individuals and bodies, having ears to hear: to return to true doctrine and God pleasing worship. Amen.