The Powerful Gospel Opens Ears to Hear.
The Festival of the Reformation – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 11:12-15
In Christ Jesus, who is “with us in the fight with His good gifts and Spirit” (ELH 251, v. 4), dear fellow redeemed:
Can you answer this riddle: When is a million dollars equal to a penny, and when is garbage more valuable than gold? These things are true where there is no food. Money cannot buy what is unavailable, and the garbage heap may produce something more edible than gold. We need food; we cannot live without it. But there is something still more important than food for our bodies. That is food for our souls.
Food for our souls is consumed not with our mouths, but with our eyes and especially with our ears. It is almost always the case that when sinners are converted, they are converted because someone spoke the Gospel to them. Someone told them about Jesus’ saving work, and they listened. The power to open their ears to hear did not come from the person who told them, but from the Holy Spirit who brings sinners to faith through the Word. This is what Romans 10:17 says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
The spiritual food of the Gospel is necessary for faith to survive and grow. When a Christian stops hearing the Gospel, his faith weakens, and his love for others grows cold. This was true when John the Baptizer came on the scene. God’s people, the Israelites, had bad teachers at the time. These teachers taught them plenty about obedience to the law but hardly at all about repentance and faith. John urged them to “[b]ear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Mat. 3:8), and he baptized them “for the forgiveness of sins” (Luk. 3:3).
He also made it clear to them that the long-promised Savior was coming. In fact the Savior was among them already. This was a major time of transition. The Church of believers which to this point had lived by the inspired words of the prophets now could hear from God in the flesh. The promise made was now the promise fulfilled.
About this change Jesus said, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” What did that mean? In the short period of time since John was imprisoned and Jesus was traveling and preaching more extensively, many heard Him gladly. But others despised Him. Some were willing to follow Him to death. Others were content—even eager—to see Him die.
There is no middle ground with Jesus. A person either believes in Him as Savior, or he does not. Many today say they believe in Jesus, but they do not actually hold the saving faith. They look up to Jesus only as an example for how to live, as an activist for social justice, or as a self-esteem coach. But they look away from His horrible suffering and death. And they pay no attention to His resurrection. They do not want to reckon with Jesus as Savior because then they would have to reckon with themselves as sinners.
Others pay lip service to Jesus’ death and resurrection, but then they say with a straight face: “It wasn’t enough. The work isn’t done. Now we have to do our part.” That isn’t what the Bible teaches. The Bible says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified—declared right with Him—by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:23-24). The Bible says that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).
Jesus does not need our help to save us. He won our salvation through His work alone—His perfect life, His death for our sins, His resurrection from the dead. He did it all. This clear understanding and proclamation of the Gospel is the legacy of Martin Luther and the Reformation.
Into his 30s, Luther thought that salvation required our good works. He understood “the righteousness of God” as the holiness God demands of us in His law. But through Luther’s study of the Word, the Holy Spirit led him to understand and believe that “the righteousness of God” is what is bestowed on sinners through faith in Jesus. Romans 1 says that “in the [Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (v. 17). We are saved—we live—by faith alone in Jesus.
When Luther understood this, he said it was as though he could see the gates of heaven open before him. He now set out to let others know about God’s grace and forgiveness. He preached and wrote tirelessly about what the Gospel means for sinners. He wrote so much, that not even half of his writings have been translated into English—and we already have about 100 volumes that have been translated!
Luther pointed people to the food their souls needed. It is the food that souls still need. But how hungry are you to hear the good news of God’s grace? If you lived in a time of famine, and food was scarce, imagine how far you would go to find something to eat for yourself and your family. But would you go that far for the pure Gospel? Or would you be content to nibble on the spiritual food that doesn’t taste quite right but doesn’t really seem to be fatal?
A tainted gospel is what is served at many Christian churches around us. The Gospel of what Jesus has done might be mentioned, but the main message conveyed there is what we have to do for God (or for the church). Or the Gospel is mentioned, but nobody hungers for it, since the law is not preached to convict them of their sins. How far would you go to hear the pure preaching of the Gospel and to have the Sacraments rightly administered?
The devil, our flesh, and the sinful world are so effective at their work, that they convince us there are more important things in life than hearing and learning God’s Word. There is money to make, hobbies to pursue, sporting events to watch, parties to attend. We wouldn’t miss the television show we love or maybe the evening news, but we might miss church. We religiously check our social media accounts or news feed each day, but we haven’t got time for Bible study and prayer.
Martin Luther fought some hard battles to guard the truth of the Gospel from those who wanted to pollute it or do away with it. That battle has not ended. Every generation must fight for the truth of God’s Word, or they will lose it. We cannot be indifferent about the Word. We cannot be complacent. Those who oppose the Word are not complacent. You know how fiercely they fight to get us to change our beliefs to match the thinking of the world. If we do not bow down with them at the altar of human passions and perversions, they seek to destroy us.
The question we have to ask ourselves, and the question that really determines whether or not we are Lutheran Christians is this: Is the Bible God’s Word? If we answer “yes,” there are other questions that follow, such as: Is the Bible clear and sufficient? Are we free to reinterpret the Bible to fit the times? Are we free to pick and choose what to believe from the Bible? Can we actually be Christians if we deny what the Bible says?
Jesus tells us that opposition to God’s Word will not diminish. With the devil’s encouragement, there are many who want to violently snatch it away from us. So Jesus urges us to actively defend the truth. We must struggle and fight for it, not using physical force, but by knowing how to use “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Eph. 6:17).
If we are willing to compromise the truth of God’s Word, nothing in the Word is safe. If we compromise what it says about moral issues, it won’t be long before the Remedy for sin is done away with too. If there is no longer objective right and wrong, then there is no longer a need for a Savior, who came to right all wrongs.
This is why we cling to the Word so tightly and defend it so fiercely. We do not want to lose the Gospel. We cannot forfeit the forgiveness and salvation that Jesus won for all people. He came to deliver us a good conscience through His perfect life in our place and His death on the cross. There is no question that our sins are many—choosing the empty promises of the world over His Word, choosing our plans over God’s will, ignoring the spiritual feast He continuously supplies. These are serious sins, as all sins are.
But Jesus died for all these sins. They were counted against Him, so they are no longer counted against you. By faith in Jesus, all the spiritual blessings He won are yours. There is nothing you must do to gain them. You don’t have to prove your worth somehow. You and I do not deserve to be saved, but God considered us worth the life of His only Son. Jesus willingly went to the cross for you. He died so that you could join Him in His everlasting kingdom.
This is what we celebrate today, that God used Martin Luther to proclaim the Gospel so clearly, and that the Gospel is still clearly heard today. What Jesus promised is still true, that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against [His church]” (Mat. 16:18). The forces of evil will not overcome our Lord and His Word. The Powerful Gospel which Opens Ears to Hear will prevail. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(1877 painting, “Martin Luther at Worms” by Anton von Werner)