The Commemoration of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation
October 29, 2017
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, X and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” This is the first thesis of the 95 that Martin Luther nailed to the door of the church in Wittenberg October 31st, 1517. This document that many say started the Reformation starts with and occupies itself with the theme of repentance. Repentance is the central character of the Christian life. It is an acknowledgment that God is right, that we are sinners, that we deserve nothing but punishment in this world and eternal death in the next. But at the heart of repentance is also the acknowledgement that God is truthful and does not want the death of a sinner, but rather to forgive and save. That is repentance. It is sorrow over sin and faith that God is good and gracious and wants to forgive. Luther himself admits that this was something that he came to understand slowly and over time in the reading of the Psalms and of Romans and Galatians. He wrestled with the idea that the righteous God was not ruthless in His judgments, but merciful on account of the death and sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ, bestowing Christ’s righteousness to us by grace—Thus the Reformation as we know it was started by Martin Luther, who was attempting to reform the Catholic Church back to what the Apostles and early church Fathers understood and taught from Holy Scripture.
“But as Lutherans committed to the truth of God’s saving word, we aren’t in the business of hero worship. We don’t believe what we believe because Luther or any other fallible human being said so. We believe what we believe because God said so [in His Holy Word]. And while the social and political events of the 16th century are fascinating for those of us interested in history, the Reformation is not for us primarily a history lesson…. The reason we celebrate this event [nearly] five hundred years after it happened is because the truth revealed in 16th century Germany is as vital and important for us now as it was for them then.” (Rolf Preus Sermon on Reformation 2013).
That truth is that God is merciful and has saved us by grace, not by works. It’s vital to us today, because the Church is always under attack. It is always on the battlefield. It is the Church Militant, the fighting Church. As Pastor Petersen rightly said last week in relation to the paralytic, the forgiveness of sins makes for us powerful enemies in this world. The devil, the world, and our sinful flesh are mortal enemies of the Gospel of Christ. As Jesus said to the paralytic, so we should apply to ourselves—take heart, be brave, have courage. You will spend your time on earth fighting all manner of temptations and sinful urges. This is the life of repentance. No one gets out of this war alive. It is a fight to the death, and there is no choice but to fight. It is a daily drowning of the old man with his sinful desires and a daily emerging and arising of the new.
But the outcome for those forgiven by Christ is secure. Though we will here die, yet shall we live there with Him. Here the kingdom of heaven will suffer violence, but the violent will take it (the battle, and ultimately the kingdom) by force. “The old evil foe now means deadly woe.” “But for us fights the valiant One, Whom God Himself elected.” “This world’s prince may still scowl fierce as he will, He can harm us none. He’s judged; the deed is done.” “And take they our life, Goods, fame, child, and wife, Though these all be gone, Our vict’ry has been won; The Kingdom ours remaineth.” (Could use Psalm 56).
Our text today gives us hope in the midst of this struggle. In the context of Matthew 11, John the Baptist has sent disciples to Jesus to ask if He is the Messiah or if they should look for another (v. 3). Jesus answers with the signs prophesied of the Messiah in Isaiah (61). It is a resounding “Yes.” Jesus sends John’s disciples back to him in prison to comfort him with His word, that “Yes, I am the Messiah. Don’t worry. I’m the valiant one. Though you suffer in prison now and will be beheaded by an evil king, I am the one who will save you and the world from eternal death. I hold the field forever.” John needs the comfort of the Word from Jesus to remain steadfast in the midst of his suffering. And Jesus gives it. John is fighting against Satan’s lies and his own doubts. But it is the Word of Christ relayed by his disciples that sustains him. The kingdom of heaven is suffering violence from the devil and the world, but the violent, those who trust in God’s promise and refuse to let go despite the pain and doubts, take it by force. They continue to fight and wrestle against the devil and temptation despite their dire circumstances.
The violent are those Christians who have been forgiven by God, who now live a life of repentance, but suffer in the flesh against temptation, hopelessness, and despair. St. Paul says, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” (Romans 8:13-14). Putting to death the deeds of the body is a violent act of repentance. It goes against the flesh and confesses that we are truly sinful and deserving of punishment. St. Paul in another place says, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” (Colossians 3:5). Impurities and evil desires do not die without the violence of repentance. They only go kicking and screaming when the Christian confesses against the world that lusts and covetousness are wrong. When the Christian is faced with sickness and death, doubts and fears can only be overcome with the violence of prayer and a relentless clinging to the Words and Promises of God.
The Reformation began with Luther fighting against his own doubts and wrestling with how God could be at the same time righteous and gracious. Yet he is not the only witness to this violent struggle of the faithful. The Holy Spirit has caused witnesses to be recorded for our comfort and encouragement. The great men and women of the Bible from Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Joseph, Job, Isaiah, Esther, John the Baptist, the disciples of Christ, St. Paul—these are our witnesses to God’s undying patience and boundless mercy. As the writer of the Hebrews puts it, they are a great cloud of witnesses for us of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
They are witnesses to the true faith in Jesus because they endured through their struggle in this world against all enemies of body and soul. They suffered by the hands of family, fellow countrymen, famine, sickness, and disease. Yet they did not give up hope in the promise that God was going to save His people and bring them into eternal life. And their hope was not in vain. Wisdom is justified by her deeds. The Lord remembered (Cantate). He sent the Messiah. Jesus suffered and died for the sins of the whole world. He rose again for their justification. He ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God to prepare a place for all who repent and believe.
On this Reformation day, we do not merely look back to long-gone years of the Lutheran Church. Luther’s teaching of faith from the Scriptures is not a history lesson. It is a contemporary issue. It is your life today in Jesus. Your life is a reformation, a re-forming of your heart, mind, and body in the image of God. It is a process marked with pain, sweat, tears, and blood. This is the life of repentance and hope. So count yourselves blessed even in the midst of earthly trials. You stand in a long line of saints, those saved by grace through faith beginning from Adam. The kingdom of heaven suffers violence but your struggles in this world are not hopeless or in vain. They have been fulfilled and completed in Jesus. “Our vict’ry has been won; The Kingdom ours remaineth.”
In Jesus’ Name. Amen.