Dear people taking the kingdom of heaven,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
This coming weekend we are asked to change our clocks, and turn them back one hour. Please do so that you will not be late for our first service at our new location. The times of our congregation are changing as well as the address and GPS coordinates are adjusted. People either embrace change or resist it, or vacillate between the two reactions.
At various points in history there have been big philosophical changes in society and we may be on the verge of another. Many people point to the time of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation as one such time. If we had to nail it down to a specific date, we might choose October 31 of 1517. That is the day that Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, calling for debate on the medieval Roman Catholic teaching and practice of granting Indulgences. Many people regard that event as either the beginning of a violent revolt against the institutional church or as a brave stand against the violence imposed by an oppressive church institution.
Jesus declared that there was a change of the times in today’s Gospel reading. “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John...” (Matthew 11:12-13).
The kingdom of heaven has always been violently attacked by its opponents, and no one experienced it more than Jesus Himself. They killed Him in the most violent way. John the Baptist, too, was murdered in a violent, gruesome act. Christians around the world continue to suffer so. Yet, Jesus’ death was not orchestrated by those who wanted nothing to do with God, but by those who so wanted to have the kingdom that they thought they were holding onto it by killing Jesus.
It is by the force of God’s holy Law that people have tried to seize the kingdom of heaven for themselves. The Pharisees demanded strict observance to the Law of God and they condemned Jesus when He didn’t seem to go along with their interpretations of the Law. It was by the holy Law of God that people would declare that tax collectors and prostitutes had no chance at the kingdom. It was by this same holy Law that people would justify their every action and offer proof that they were within the kingdom of God. These were vain attempts to take the kingdom by force, forcing God to accept them and to condemn others.
This is the way that mankind continually tries to seize mastery over God Himself, and dictate or force God to open or close His kingdom at their will. By claims of entitlement or privilege some would put themselves in the kingdom and keep others out. By selecting which parts of God’s holy Law matter and which ones don’t, people would seize control of the kingdom for their own benefit, for their self-assurance, for the good of their own.
And isn’t this what happens in our day. Some things do not change. We continue to force the kingdom of heaven in our own direction and to violently control it. We have decided in our own lives and in our own way of thinking, which of God’s holy Laws matter and which ones don’t. Perhaps we will hold people to “You shall not steal” but let “You shall not commit adultery” slide by. Perhaps it is the other way around. Or maybe it will be okay to steal from the government but not from citizens, or okay for some people to adulterate marriage because of their particular circumstances or their connection to our family. We might choose when and how to honour father and mother and what lives are worth so little that they are permissible to kill, and which things are okay for us to covet because our situation demands better.
The whole issue of indulgences in the time of Martin Luther reflected this violent attempt to seize the kingdom, or to buy it off. It was the same manipulation of God’s holy Law that we all practice in order to justify ourselves, to excuse our actions, to make a demand that the kingdom of heaven is ours and God must operate it according to our fancy.
Jesus compared this generation (His or ours?) to children crying on the playground: “We played the flute for you and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn” (Matthew 11:17). John came preaching repentance and the religious leaders cried out because he wouldn’t dance to their tune that everything was okay because they were following the Law as they saw fit. Jesus came rejoicing when lost sinners were found and people were upset that He wasn’t pronouncing His woes over the clear evidence of their wickedness. They demanded that the kingdom of heaven operate on their terms and threw tantrums when it didn’t. And that is exactly what we do.
We reject John and the Prophets when they call us to repent of our sins. We don’t want to hear that kind of stuff in church. We want it all to be happy and joyful. We reject Jesus and His message of grace when it pronounces forgiveness upon those who have sinned against us, when it puts them on an equal plane with us in the kingdom of heaven. We want to see some punishment… for them. We are still trying to take the kingdom by force, still waving our certificates of Indulgence and demanding that others pay the price for theirs.
“He who has ears to hear, let him hear” that it is time for all of that to fall behind. We need to wake up and realize that the time changed with the coming of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to fulfill all that the Law and Prophets proclaimed. We must embrace a philosophical change from our fallen wisdom to God’s wisdom. What the Law and Prophets were pointing at has come to fulfillment. Christ has come to put an end to the tyranny of the Law, to redeem those under the Law, and thereby to redeem the Law itself from our forceful, violent hands which have tried to seize control of it. We must change philosophically because there has been a change in reality with the coming of Jesus to die for our transgressions of the Law and to rise again to give us a new life of freedom from the tyrannical use of the Law.
In the Epistle Reading for Reformation, St. Paul declares: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22).
The kingdom of heaven, the righteousness of God, is given by faith, not by the Law. You cannot enter the kingdom of heaven by the Law. You will fail, always and ever. “For by the works of the Law no human being will be justified in His sight” (Romans 3:20). Our forceful, violent seizing of the kingdom does not work. It always remains God’s kingdom. We are just throwing temper tantrums trying to force our way. It doesn’t work with God. The Law does not bend to our manipulations. We still stand condemned under it. It does not give way to our reinterpretations. It always condemns us.
But the kingdom of heaven, into which only the righteous may enter, has an opening in the loving grace of God which freely gives to us the righteousness of His own dear Son. The Law rightly condemns us all, but God offers to us the righteousness of Jesus, which the Law cannot condemn. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:23-24). In the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and His holy, unblemished sacrifice of Himself for our sins, the kingdom of God is not seized by us, but opened to us. It is not taken by force, but given as a gift. In the violent suffering and death of Jesus, our redemption is paid and we have peace with God. This righteousness of faith.
The kingdom of heaven cannot be taken by violence although it was secured for you through violence. Those who would violently seize the kingdom for themselves, put Christ to a most violent death. That means that your every attempt to force your way into the kingdom by twisting and bending God’s holy Law to excuse your sins or to make you seem righteous enough in your own words and actions, is what has caused the violent death of the Son of God. This is why the Christ was seized and bound and beaten. This is why they flogged him, ripping out chunks of His flesh and why they punctured His brow with a thorny crown. This is why they drove nails through His hands and feet and thrust a spear into His side. This is the violence of you taking the kingdom of heaven by force.
But Jesus has come, not to penalize you with an equally violent execution, but to be your friend. The Son of Man came as “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19), a friend to sinners like you. And it is to you that the kingdom of heaven has been opened through Jesus Christ, the Son of God, your friend. He has put forth His violent suffering and death as the payment for your every sin, and He freely gives to you His perfect righteousness. He pays the entire debt for His sinful tax collecting friends. He covers completely the wicked iniquities of sinners, so that where we expect to hear Him shouting woes of destruction and damnation upon us and others, we find Him eating and drinking in eternal celebration with those who are covered with His righteousness.
Time will tell. Jesus said, “Wisdom is justified by her deeds” (Matthew 11:19). The wisdom of God in sending His Son to save sinners will be proven to be the just course of action, by which all sin receives its due punishment and only the righteous are saved. All of your sin has been paid by Jesus and He has placed His righteousness upon you so that the kingdom of heaven is yours as a gift. Only in this unfathomable grace of God is He found to be just in His justification of the ungodly. Only in this eternal Gospel is the kingdom of heaven accessible and there be no need to take it by force. May this good news of salvation always be preached among us everywhere, through every change in the times, changing our worldly wisdom to embrace His grace rather than force His hand.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.