Reformation Sunday Sermon| Rev. Rolf Preus| October 28, 2007| St. Matthew 11:12-15
“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears, let him hear!”
Every good Boy Scout knows that you should respect the religious convictions of others. Elijah would have made a poor Boy Scout. He mocked the prophets of Baal. There were 450 of them. Elijah stood alone. He cared nothing for their religious sensibilities. He cared for the truth. When he proposed a contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel they called upon their god to send fire from heaven. Baal did not answer them. Elijah knew he wouldn’t answer because he knew that Baal was nothing but an idol: a fake god. Then Elijah began to make fun of them. He said:
Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is meditating, or he is busy, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened. 1 Kings 18:27
Baal worship was the greatest threat to the Church of Elijah’s day. He had no choice but to oppose it and to do so without mincing words. He was not out to win friends, but to testify to God’s truth. Lies enslave souls and destroy them. Elijah knew the danger of Baal worship. He knew that opposing it was necessary to save lives.
Likewise, John the Baptist spoke clearly and plainly when he proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God. He didn’t shilly-shally around. He was direct and to the point. When the religious elite of his day came to him to be baptized he saw through their hypocrisy and called them to account for it. St. Matthew writes:
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Matthew 3:7-9
Martin Luther was the same sort of man. When he discovered from his reading of the Holy Scriptures that the Church of his day had distorted the gospel he preached the pure gospel without compromise. He knew how trusting in our own good deeds destroys genuine faith in God. He knew how false gospels led captive souls to hell. He knew from him own personal experience how the legalism of the false church attacked true faith. So he preached, taught, published, debated, and would not keep quiet.
At times Elijah felt sorry for himself. So did John the Baptist. So did Martin Luther. That’s human nature. God chooses human beings as His spokesmen. He chooses men who have every weakness known to man. He chooses certain men to stand out. As we see how they stood firm in the face of adversity we gain confidence to stand. God raised up Elijah. He raised up John. He raised up Martin Luther. God will always raise up prophets for his Church.
Elijah on Mount Carmel showed true Christian courage and conviction. Elijah left no book of prophecy as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and others did. But Elijah is better known. Why? He stood up. He showed courage. This is why our Lord Jesus called John the Baptist Elijah. He didn’t mean that he was the reincarnation of Elijah. There’s no such thing as reincarnation. He meant that John acted in the spirit of Elijah. He had the same Christian conviction and courage as Elijah. And for this same reason, this text was chosen by our Lutheran forefathers as the Gospel Lesson for Reformation Day. For this text applies not only to John the Baptist, but also to Martin Luther.
The most famous words John the Baptist ever spoke are kept in the heart and expressed in the voices of every Christian in the world. John pointed to Jesus and declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The Church sings: “O Christ Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.” John the Baptist did not promote himself. He said of Christ, “He must increase; I must decrease.” When asked who he was he called himself a voice. His words always directed sinners to their Savior, Jesus.
Elijah, John the Baptist, and Martin Luther were all heroes. They had this in common: they loved the truth. They loved the truth more than they loved their own lives. Elijah had to run and hide in a cave to save his life. As you may recall, Elijah never died. God took him to heaven in a fiery chariot. John the Baptist did die. He was beheaded by Herod because he preached the truth and Herod did not want to hear the truth. Luther was put under the ban. He became an outlaw and had to hide in the Wartburg Castle.
People need heroes. They also like to remake them. Many have appealed to Martin Luther for their political or religious cause. German nationalists, assorted religious reformers – even Mormons – have appealed to Martin Luther as their heroic inspiration. In the process he is turned into something he never was. On the other hand, Luther has been demonized by people with their own agendas. Some have accused him of sowing the seeds of anti-Jewish bigotry that led to the mass murder of Jews under Adolf Hitler. This is a false charge. Adolf Hitler was a thorough going racist. He persecuted the Jews, the Slavs, and others that he considered to be subhuman. Luther was not a racist. He criticized the false religion of the Jews who rejected Christ. He stood with Elijah and with John the Baptist. He was a servant of Christ. He was a messenger, or angel, sent by God to preach the everlasting gospel.
The kingdom of heaven is the Holy Christian Church. It is the assembly of the saints, washed in the blood of the Lamb. It is the sheep who hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. It is those who are justified through faith alone. They are ruled by the Holy Spirit through the gospel. We know that this kingdom is a kingdom of peace. The angels sang at the birth of the King of this kingdom: “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” And so the Church sings to this day. But the Church is not inert. That is, she doesn’t just sit still and watch the world go by. The peace of the kingdom should not be confused with inactivity. It is a spiritual peace. It is the peace of the forgiveness of sins. It is the peace of the Holy Spirit, who leads us to faith in the Prince of Peace. To be a part of this kingdom sets you at war.
Elijah understood this. So did John. So did Luther. The Church has something to say. It cannot be compromised. The Baal worshippers would have been content to let those who worship the LORD continue to worship the LORD. But it was the intolerance of Elijah that set their teeth on edge. He positively condemned Baal worship. He would not even tolerate it as an option. It was Elijah’s bold arrogance in insisting on possessing the truth that so angered the prophets of Baal and their followers.
The Church has something to say. John would not be quiet. The forgiveness of sins is for those who despair of themselves and desire divine mercy. It is not an excuse to continue in sin. Repent! There is no preaching of forgiveness without a preaching of repentance. And if that means telling the king he’s doing wrong then so be it. It literally cost John his head. But he spoke for the Church. And the Church must speak or cease to be the Church.
Luther understood this as well as anyone. He discovered from his reading of the Bible – which is God’s written word – that those who claimed to speak for the Church were teaching a false gospel. They were teaching that a sinner could become a saint if he did what he was able to do and left the rest up to God. Luther tried to do what he was able to do to please God but he never knew if he had done enough. He could never leave the rest up to God because he could never know if he had sincerely tried hard enough. So he put himself through all sorts of rigorous discipline in his attempt to find a gracious God.
He learned from the Bible that God was gracious to sinners and forgave them freely by his grace alone. It was not after they did what they could do. It was before they did anything good at all. He learned to know God in Christ. He looked at the suffering of Christ and saw more than an example of devotion and love. He looked at the suffering of Christ and saw his substitute. He learned from the Bible – especially from his study of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans – that our good works do not help us become good. God pronounces us to be good by reckoning to us the goodness of Christ. He gives us the credit for Jesus’ obedience even as he lay on Jesus all of our sin. We don’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. It is God’s gift. We have it simply by trusting in the promise of God that it is ours. This is how we can rest confident that we stand righteous before God. God himself has said so. We take God at his word.
We celebrate the Reformation of the Church because it was a wonderful work of God. He used his servant, Martin Luther, to uncover the gospel that had been hidden under so much human tradition. We celebrate the Reformation of the Church because the Church will always need men like Elijah, John, and Luther and God will always provide them.
And you and I are not much different than they. We face the same doubts. We are afraid of the same things. We have the same faith. We trust in the same Jesus and the same forgiveness we all need. We are filled with the same Spirit who comforts us with the same gospel. Don’t be afraid to confess. Don’t be afraid to stand up. The gospel we have learned from the Catechism, that we sing in the great hymns, that is preached to us every Sunday, and that we keep in our hearts by faith, is given to us to confess. You don’t have to be an Elijah, a John the Baptist, or a Martin Luther. You need only be a Christian with an opportunity. The gospel in which we trust is not just an opinion of men. It is the power of God. The same power that brings faith to our doubting hearts and that will raise us up from the dead to eternal life on the last day provides us with courage today. So we confess the faith we believe and God blesses that confession for Jesus’ sake. Amen.