Reformation Sunday (Matt. 11:12-19)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Reformation Sunday + October 28, 2018

Text: Matt. 11:12-19

In the 1730’s, there began a movement in the Colonies that was later called The Great Awakening.  It came with convincing preachers, stirred spirits, changed morals, and huge revival meetings.  It transformed the religious and moral landscape of the soon-to-be American colonies.  Some even consider the religious fervor it ignited as one of the causes of the American Revolution.  It had a huge impact, but the effects eventually wore off.  By 1790, there was a Second Great Awakening, filled with a whole new round of hellfire and brimstone sermons, new converts, and more moral reform.  This too, faded away until there was a Third Great Awakening in the 1850s.

This pattern of revival and indifference is nothing new to the church on earth.  There is a tide that ebbs and flows of reform and unfaithfulness that washes through the generations of the fallen sons of men.  So, on this Reformation Sunday, we will consider the wisdom the Lord Himself teaches about the success of His Word in the hearts of mankind.

The very first big reform for the Church happened in the Exodus.  The descendants of Jacob were suffering under the yoke of slavery in Egypt.  God sent them Moses to deliver them with mighty acts of judgment against Pharaoh and Egypt’s idols.  In the very first Passover, all of Israel carefully obeyed the Lord’s instructions, and they were preserved from the final plague of death of the firstborn [Ex. 12:23].  Moses brought them through the Red Sea on dry ground, and the sons of Israel became a people for God’s treasured possession [Ex. 19:5].  The whole assembly took part in God’s rescue, as St. Paul much later wrote, “Our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink”[1]  But that ideal picture of God’s people didn’t last long.  They soon succumbed to grumbling against God, rejecting His called servants [Ex. 16], and even outright pagan worship practices [Ex. 32].

This cycle of faithfulness and apostasy continued, generation after generation.  There were glimpses of a perfect company of God’s people, and then hopes would be dashed.  It even seemed that some final victory had come under the reigns of King David, and his son, Solomon.  But even their reigns came to an end in division among God’s people.[2]

            When John the Baptist finally appeared in the wilderness, a reformation of a different kind erupted.  It wasn’t different because of the participants, because they were just as sinful and stiff-necked.  It was different because of what the Lord Himself was going to do.

12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

The Evangelist Matthew tells us earlier, “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to [John], and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”[3]  Even the Pharisees and Sadducees went out to the big revival at the Jordan.  It appeared that all of Israel was in the process of a final reform.  John really was the Elijah to come, of whom the Prophet Malachi spoke: Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”[4]

            It seemed even more like that was the case once John announced, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”[5]  Great crowds flocked to Jesus and followed Him as He preached and healed, and countless people were forgiven of their sins, healed of their diseases, and cleansed of their leprosy. 

            Yet, even during His ministry, there was the old familiar unbelief.  It may have been that many followed Jesus, but it didn’t continue like that. That happened after the Feeding of the 5,000.  That massive crowd, after listening to Him teach more, said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”[6]  To which Jesus added the still more unpalatable word: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.”  And at that, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.”[7]

            So, what is reformation about, if not numbers and success stories?  If it isn’t about the droves of partially, temporarily cleaned up sinners, then what?  Reformation is about what the Church has always been built on: the pure preaching of God’s Word.  Our Lord says in the Gospel,

“To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,      17 ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”[8]

Yes, there were great crowds who followed Jesus and believed in Him.  But that isn’t reformation in the Lord’s sight.  The kind of reform which God has always been after is those who listen to His Word, not those whose hearts are far from Him.  The real reformations which cause joy before God’s throne take place every time a sinner repents.[9]  That’s when His Word accomplishes the purpose for which He sends it.[10]

            This kind of reformation is based on faith, and continues by the work of the Holy Spirit, when and where it pleases God (John 3:8).  There may be a huge initial response, and the appearance of the whole world being converted, but those things will pass.  What was visible for a time will become invisible.  Yet, the reformation will continue in those who “have ears to hear” (v. 15).

Surely this is disappointing to witness, especially as we sit in naves (sanctuaries) that are far from filled to capacity.  But this doesn’t mean the purpose of the Lord is not and has not been fulfilled.  When I talk to people who haven’t been at church for a while, they ask me, how’s the attendance at church?  Stupid me, I give them numbers.  As if the attendance numbers really said anything about the Church, the creation of Holy Spirit.

The trouble is, we are so susceptible to thinking of the Church in terms of our work.  After all, the devotion is ours, our hands did the work, and we’re the ones who have spent time in and among this congregation.  I mean, I wrote this sermon.  There’s a certain comfortability with measuring the success or failure of the Church in things that can be observed and quantified.  So, if the attendance is down or the finances aren’t what we expect, it’s so easy to think that we’ve failed.  Why won’t people come to our church?  When it gets really bad, we start pointing fingers and assigning blame.  As the Lord’s servant, it’s my duty to tell you that is a losing game.  Losing not just in the sense that it might become a failed venture, but if that’s the aim of our hearts, then we are likely thinking of it as something besides Christ’s Church, a visible gathering of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Think about it this way: On the Last Day, what is the Lord going to say as He welcomes His own into glory?  “Well done, you made the church grow threefold…you got 3/5 of your grandkids to come to church…”  No, He will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” (Matt. 25:21)  He calls each of us to faithfulness as servants.  God grant that our labors be done in service to Him, because He will give the increase as He sees fit.  So, for us servants, we need to stop worrying about attendance numbers and quit fretting over sustainability for individual congregations.  Because it’s His Church and His work, it might go in a direction we don’t expect—even down—and that’s fine, so long as we have been faithful servants.

What truly matters is God the Holy Spirit gathering the faithful around their Lord, and He will do that in spite of all earthly obstacles.  He will do that when and where it pleases God.  All of the praise and the success belongs not to us; it belongs to Him!

            Twelve years ago, on Reformation Sunday, a revival and reformation happened in a man who grew up knowing nothing of God and His Son.  Although several times the Word came to him, he was unmoved.  But in God’s timing, that man came to know the Lord and he confessed his faith before Trinity Lutheran Church in Bellingham, Washington.  Again, by God’s continued grace and the powerful working of His Spirit, that man stands before you as your pastor.

            This Reformation Sunday, we are privileged to witness the Word of the Lord at work in the hearts of Jerimiah and Natasha, as they will soon publicly declare their allegiance to Christ their Lord and in His continued grace, pledge their ongoing faithfulness to Him.  This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

“12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”  The Kingdom of heaven will continue to advance in the hearts of those who receive it.  Whether it is visible for a time, or hidden from our sight, God’s will is done in every generation until our hopes are fulfilled when He comes again and makes all things new. Amen.

[1] 1 Cor. 10:1-4, emphasis added

[2] 1 Kings 1 and 12

[3] Matt. 3:5-6

[4] Mal. 4:5-6

[5] John 1:29

[6] John 6:60

[7] John 6:63, 66

[8] v. 16-19

[9] Luke 15:7

[10] Isaiah 55:10-11