In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent ones seize it by force.” From the days of John the Baptist—that is, from the days of the old testament, from the days of the prophets and the promise of God’s coming Messiah—until now—that is, the days of the new testament, of Jesus, who fulfills the entire promise of God—the kingdom of heaven suffers violence. O Jerusalem! The city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! John himself, who proclaims the kingdom of heaven’s nearness and the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world—he is imprisoned and beheaded for it. And Jesus, at the center of it all, who brings the kingdom of heaven near in His own flesh and blood, is betrayed, arrested, whipped, and crucified. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence.
Until now, the days of the apostles, when Stephen, James, Peter, Paul and others are killed. Until now, the days of the early church, which is persecuted at various times. The kingdom of heaven suffers violence. Until now, the days of Christianity as the official religion of the State, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence because her claims must be subordinated to the claims of empire. Until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence as the sword is used to advance that kingdom and those who claim to be her guardians use violence against her enemies. Until now, the days when so-called heretics are burned at the stake, such as Jan Hus in Germany, Johann Esch and Heinrich Voes in Belgium, Sir Patrick Hamilton in Scotland. Until now, when the princes of Germany would rather lose their heads than lose the Gospel. The kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent ones seize it by force.
Until now, the twentieth century, when the kingdom of heaven suffers violence on the altars of atheistic states and false gods. Until now—today—when the kingdom of heaven suffers the friendly violence of apathy and comfort and very few see that their very lives depend on the life of Jesus given to them regularly; the friendly violence of financial well-being and technological advancement. The kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent ones seize it by force.
Whenever and wherever the Gospel is proclaimed, it is rejected, oppressed, mocked, or ignored. What Jesus said about His own day is true of every generation: there are the children sitting in the marketplace calling out to the bringers of the kingdom that their words and actions don’t match up to expectations. John, they say, has a demon. We played a happy song for you, and you don’t dance. You just bring us this hard message of law and repentance. Jesus, they say, is a drunkard and a glutton. We played a dirge for You and You didn’t beat Your breast in mourning. The responses contradict each other, but they are always in opposition to the true Gospel, proclaimed by John and brought in the flesh by Jesus.
Whenever and wherever the Gospel is proclaimed, the Church, which trusts the coming of the kingdom, lives under the cross of her Lord. If she suffers because she does wrong, that is no reason to boast. But if she suffers because she holds to the garment of her Lord, she rejoices. Because the violence that took Jesus to the cross is the violence that saves the world. Violence in itself is never redemptive, but the violence done to the Son of God is because the violence that overcomes Jesus is itself overcome. After the violence of the cross comes the peaceful rest in the tomb on the Sabbath day, and then comes the victory of the resurrection. The violent ones seize the kingdom of heaven by force, but the gates of hell cannot prevail against the Lord of life.
So violence comes in this world of sin and death. The Church is “by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,” but she doesn’t lose hope. She knows that even as she looks around at a landscape scarred by the violence of death and the devil and our own sinful flesh, her hope is in a word and a promise. The Lord whose body was torn by the violence of crucifixion is the Lord who stands alive in her midst. He is the Lord who promised that He will never leave or forsake His Church. She is not sustained by a false and temporary peace. She is sustained by the Word alone.
This is the only Reformation heritage worth having: that the Jesus who overcame the violence of the cross in the resurrection is the Lord who continues to speak His life-giving Word; He is the Lord who continues to baptize and absolve sinners; He is the Lord who continues to feed His whole Church with His very body and blood. This is a victory that no violence and no violent ones can put down for good. The Church may live under the violence of the cross, but she lives from the victory of the risen Lord. And that is why we sing of our God as a mighty fortress (LSB 656); that is why we pray that God will keep us steadfast in His Word (655); that is why we pray that in these last days of great distress, He would grant us true steadfastness, that we would keep pure till life is spent His holy Word and Sacrament (585:2); this is why we sing with all the saints of every time and place, until that “more glorious day [when] the saints triumphant rise in bright array” (677:7).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/28/17