"STRUGGLING FOR THE KINGDOM"
October 28, 2018
Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church
“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”
Matthew 11:12 (ESV)
The verse that I just read comes from a passage in which Jesus is speaking to a crowd of people about the ministry of His forerunner, John the Baptist. This came in response to the disciples of John asking Jesus whether or not He really was the long-awaited Messiah. For this reason you might think that this passage would be more appropriate for the Advent or the Epiphany season than for the festival of the Reformation. However, it was included in the old one-year lectionary for this day because it addresses the subject of the kingdom of God (or “kingdom of heaven,” if you prefer). You see, in Matthew’s Gospel the expression “kingdom of heaven” appears in many places where the other evangelists use the words “kingdom of God.” One possible explanation for this is that since Matthew is a Jew writing specifically for Jews (to convince them that Jesus is the Messiah), he follows Jewish tradition in being somewhat reluctant to use the Lord’s name, for fear of taking it in vain and thus violating the Second Commandment.
The kingdom of God, as you might remember from your catechetical instruction, is actually three kingdoms: the kingdom of power, which the world, where God rules whether people recognize His rule or not; the kingdom of grace, which is the Christian Church; and the kingdom of glory, which is the glorious place that we call heaven, where we will spend eternity through the grace of Christ. Obviously the kingdom of God that we would focus on as we observe the Reformation would be the kingdom of grace--the Christian Church. There has always been struggling within the Church and there always will be. It’s part of life in this fallen world. The Savior’s words before us this morning speak of this struggle in terms of the trials of the kingdom of grace as it advances and the opposing efforts of violent men.
As far as the advancing of the kingdom of God is concerned, there are certainly those who would find such an idea to be laughable. The Church of Jesus Christ is becoming more divided and less popular each day. How could anyone possibly think that it is advancing? To properly understand this we first have to understand that the Church is not a building or an organization or a worldly power. It’s not even “the people,” even though many these days would say that it is. The Church of Jesus Christ, according to the Augsburg Confession, is “the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy Sacraments are administered according to the Gospel” (Augsburg Confession, Article VII). The Church is advancing because the means of grace are in use, and wherever these means are in use, according to the Lord’s promise, sins are being forgiven and sinners are being saved.
This flies in the face of the results-oriented mindset of today, which would tell us that unless we can document that the majority of people who come into contact with Word and Sacrament ministry repent of their sins and confess faith in Christ, there must be something lacking or ineffective about these means. The truth is that even if there are many who reject it, the preaching and the Sacraments of the Church nevertheless remain the testimony of the Gospel--that is, the testimony of the fact that “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). When Martin Luther preached this neglected Gospel in the sixteenth century, he didn’t take a survey to see if the majority of people who heard it believed. Nor did he stop preaching it when it was opposed and then banned by both church and state. We as the people of God--citizens of His kingdom-- have no power or authority to make people believe the Gospel, but we do have the responsibility to do everything in our power to make sure that they hear it.
The Lord also makes mention in our text of “the violent tak[ing the kingdom of God] . . . by force.” This happened at the time of Jesus, it happened at the time of the Reformation, and it still happens today. And, sad to say, it will continue to happen until the Lord returns in glory. The reason why it happens is that “the violent” in their fallen state think that the Gospel is their own personal property rather than the message of forgiveness and salvation in Christ. They think that the Word of God is theirs to alter in any way that they choose. They think that the Lord’s Sacraments are theirs to interpret and practice in any way that they see fit. Luther himself experienced this problem in his own time as some of those who heard his preaching assumed that it was about the casting off of authority or about politics or about material wealth rather than about the restoration of the Gospel of Christ. This has always been the problem for the Church of Jesus Christ: Because it is made up of fallen people living in a fallen world, it will never fully and consistently live out its true character and mission in this world. Even the best and noblest of people fall short. The reformers were no more perfect than the papists were. And neither are we any more perfect than those whose errors we refute. It’s all a part of living under the cross in this world.
The Good News is that through the Gospel of Christ God the Holy Spirit can bring about the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation even when that Gospel is in the hands and on the lips of fallible people like you and me. I have always thought that one of the great strengths of our Lutheran heritage is the fact that the man after whom our church is named had faults that were right there on the surface, making it impossible for us to in any way deify him and forcing us to see him as he is: a sinner like us, redeemed by the blood of Christ and called by the Holy Spirit. The cross of Jesus is not stripped of its effectiveness by the faults of those who proclaim it. The forgiveness of sins won by the slain and risen Savior is not negated because its preachers don’t always practice what they preach. The glorious hope of heaven that is ours because of Jesus’ death and resurrection is not in any way dimmed by the inconsistent witness of those who share that Good News. The Spirit of God works through us, with all of our sins and shortcomings, and, if necessary, He works in spite of us.
And so the struggle for the kingdom of God--the Gospel of Christ--continues. It may take a different appearance than it did in the time of Jesus or in time of Martin Luther, but it continues. The culprit may not always be religious leaders. It could be us. Very often we are at war with ourselves over the Gospel because the struggle for the kingdom, like the Christian life, is a daily battle against the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature. But it is not a fruitless struggle. The Gospel of Jesus overcomes everything and gives us the victory for our own salvation and for those with whom we share the Good News of His redeeming grace.
May the Lord bless your hearing of His Word, using it to accomplish in you those things for which He gave it. May you be enriched and strengthened in faith that you may leave here today to go out into our world armed with the whole armor of God, prepared to be able ambassadors of your Savior Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, and He will do it. Amen.