Matthew 11:12-19 (Reformation Day—Observed)
“This Can’t Be Right”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
October 27, 2019
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s text is the Gospel reading from Matthew 11:
12But from the days of John the Baptist until now, the reign of heaven is being violently attacked and violent men are trying to snatch it away. 13For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14and if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah, who is going to come. 15Let the one who has ears hear. 16But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces who, as they call out to others, 17say, “We played the flute for you, but you did not dance. We lamented, but you did not mourn.” 18For John came neither eating nor drinking and they say, “He has a demon.” 19The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, the man is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” And so wisdom was declared innocent of her own works.
Have you ever had the experience of working on a project at work or home, trying to figure out a math problem in school, or working on a lab assignment, and you reach a point when you exclaim, “This can’t be right!” It doesn’t look right. It doesn’t fit together right. You don’t get the answer or the result that you are supposed to get. We have one of those moments in today’s Gospel reading.
Jesus said to the crowd, “The reign of heaven is being violently attacked and violent men are trying to snatch it away.” We read this and exclaim, “This can’t be right!” How can anyone attack the reign and rule of the all-powerful God who made heaven and earth? Even if His rule should be attacked violently, God’s power ought to be able to easily overcome such an attack. Why should this even be an issue for God? This just can’t be right!
And yet, there stands Jesus’ words of truth, “The reign of heaven is being violently attacked and violent men are trying to snatch it away.” In some incomprehensible way, God’s reign can be resisted! In truth, evil people can make God’s deeds to be of no effect, at least in some sense. This can’t be right! But we are confronted here with the fact that violent people laid their hands on John the Baptist and threw him in Herod’s prison. The forerunner of the Lord’s promised Anointed Deliverer and Savior, in truth, the very “Elijah who is to come” promised by God in Malachi 3:1 and 4:5, sits in the dungeon and will soon be executed, his severed head given to Herodias on a platter (Matthew 14:11). This certainly does not seem like God is reigning—His servant John languishing in prison and soon to be beheaded. This can’t be right!
But we are confronted with the unfolding story of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus Himself is increasingly met with opposition and unbelief and hostility. At His hometown of Nazareth, his family and hometown neighbors “took offense at him” and Jesus was unable to do any mighty works there because of the unbelief of the people (Matt. 13:57-58). Matthew 12:14, “But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.” Of course, the desires of Israel’s religious leaders to eliminate Jesus would come to culmination, when, in league with the power of Rome, Jesus would die the shameful death of crucifixion.
The Holy Christian Church, the people of God who live by faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, daily face the attacks of evil from the devil, the world, and their own sinful flesh. Christians face the allurements of the marketplace, selfish-ambition, possessions, and personal self-fulfillment. Christians are attacked by the temptations and the lies propagated by Satan that God wants to make all their personal desires come true, to guarantee their personal happiness, and to do for them whatever they want as their personal “lacky god” who gives them the best life now.
As with the people of “this generation” in Jesus’ day, so also today, “the reign of heaven is being violently attacked and violent men are trying to snatch it away.” They rejected the message of John and of Jesus as being either too harsh (in the case of John’s message of repentance) or too celebratory and welcoming of all the wrong kinds of people (in the case of Jesus). Today, many are convinced to turn away from the Word of God because there isn’t enough power and glory. There isn’t enough razzle-dazzle. God’s rule in a hidden, lowly, resistible fashion—with a God who takes upon Himself human flesh, with a Suffering Savior, with a God who dies and asks His disciples to take up their crosses too and follow Him—just can’t be right.
But this is the beauty and majesty (and mystery!) of God. God, in the person of His incarnate Son Jesus, has come to reign in a way that doesn’t look right from our human perspective. We read Jesus’ words in our Gospel and we say, “This can’t be right.” We see Jesus, the Son of God, opposed and humiliated, beaten, spit upon, and nailed to a cross for no crime whatsoever. And we say, “This can’t be right.” “This can’t be the way God acts in our world.” But it really is true.
Is there power in the reign of God in Jesus? Yes—but it is power for those in need, who repent and believe, and not a power to overthrow violent people. You can be sure, evil will be overthrown, but not yet. Is there glory in the reign of God in Jesus? Yes—but it is a glory that will be shown in what appears to be shame and defeat. We read in John 12, “Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. And Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him’” (John 12:20-26).
Jesus tells us that God’s plan for the salvation of the whole world from sin, death, and the power of the devil involves God’s use of the plotting of violent men to arrest and crucify Jesus. Jesus calls the hour of His death on a cross His hour to be glorified! This can’t be right! On the cross Jesus bears the sins of the world. He suffers the God-forsakenness of hell as He bleeds and gasps for air. All the judgement and wrath of God against our sins and failures to be the people God asks that we be in His Word are suffered by Jesus on the cross. There’s no glory in that, is there?
Yes, yes there is! From Revelation 5, “Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’ And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’ And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ and the elders fell down and worshiped” (Rev. 5:11-14). Jesus receives honor and glory because He is the Lamb who was slain! “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Jesus receives honor and glory and power BECAUSE He is now the risen and victorious Lamb of God who won salvation, forgiveness of sins, and everlasting life for all people. By His blood, Jesus ransomed people for God from every tribe, language, people, and nation (Rev. 5:9).
No, the cross wasn’t flashy. It wasn’t beautiful and wonderful and magnificent. It was a horrible death for Jesus, made into hell itself as He claimed our sins as His own. On that tree, Jesus poured out His blood as the once-for-all sacrifice to win forgiveness for the sins of the world. It didn’t seem right. It didn’t look right. But it was so very right, and God proved the rightness of Jesus’ death on the cross by raising Him from the dead. Jesus’ death and triumphant resurrection from the dead guarantees that we are forgiven. By grace alone through faith alone in the person and work of Jesus alone you have forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation in abundance.
In our life together as sisters and brothers in Christ in His Church, we understand by this saving faith through the Word that the royal deeds of God will often be hidden from the eyes of Jesus’ disciples. Consider, the Divine Service begins with simple words of absolution, spoken by a pastor who has been appointed to speak them: “As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I therefore forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” This can’t be right! Nevertheless, “when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they . . . absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us himself” (Small Catechism).
Consider, at the font an infant, sinful from the moment of conception and birth, receives faith in Jesus as her Savior, receives the forgiveness of her sin and eternal life as water is poured upon her head in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. This can’t be right! And yet, “Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s word. It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare” (Small Catechism).
Finally, consider as you come to the Sacrament of the Altar, which “is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.” The words, “’Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,’ shows us that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given to us through these words. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation” (Small Catechism).
That can’t be right! But it is all so right! The reign of heaven comes in things that are hidden, simple, and often just don’t look right from a human perspective. There, in the simple words, water, bread and wine, attached to God’s specific promises, you receive forgiveness and life because of Jesus’ life, suffering, death, and resurrection. There in Word and Sacrament, God is always reigning! For you! With love and blessing, grace and mercy, forgiveness and life! With salvation and the gift of faith in the power and glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
 This sermon reflects the wondrous insights from God’s Word through His servant, Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs, Concordia Commentary: Matthew 11:2-20:34 (St. Louis: Concordia, 2010), 558-581.