Neither Dance Nor Dirge
photo by Teo’s photo on Flickr
Go to any farmer’s market, open-air craft fair, or urban street bazaar, and you can get a reasonable idea of the market Jesus is speaking about in our Gospel. The merchants arrive and set out their wares for the day, and soon the customers come looking for the best deals. And while this is going on, And kids will be kids, whether in ancient Palestine, or 21stcentury America. Playing happily one minute, the next minute the children are looking about for something to do. And then comes one of the most maddening, tedious conversations ever you will hear from child or adult:
“So, what do you want to do?”
“I don’t know.” “What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know.” “What do you want to do?”
“We could do this.”
“Nah, I don’t want to do that.”
“Oh, okay.” “How about this?”
“I really don’t want to do that either.”
“Huh.”“Yeah. I guess there’s nothing to do.”
Suggesting things to do, but the other person not only wants to do none of them, but neither do they offer an idea of what they might want to do. There are times when people are more focused on having a problem, than on finding a solution for the problem. Jesus presents a situation as a metaphor. There were kids that went to the marketplace, the gathering place, looking for something to do. But when some suggested they play wedding games, the other mates weren’t interested in doing that, they weren’t in the mood to dance and be happy; so they counter with the idea of a playing funeral games, but their mates don’t want to do that either, they weren’t in the mood to be mournful. They just weren’t in the mind for a solution.
But Jesus isn’t talking about games around the marketplace. He’s talking about how his hearers regard salvation. They want a Savior; they just don’t want a savior like he is. They don’t want the message he proclaims, in fact, they would like him to change the message to suit them.
We can better understand what Jesus is talking about if we look back a few verses. The few brief verses of Gospel read earlier are part of a larger section in the Gospel of Matthew in which John the Baptist, then sitting in jail, has sent to Christ two of his disciples, with a question, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3) When the messengers had gone back, Christ begins to teach the crowds concerning John. Part of that teaching is before us.
When John the Baptist preached he had a pretty austere lifestyle. Some today, if they were being charitable, might call him a minimalist. He lived in the wilderness eating locust and wild honey. He was the second Elijah pointing to the coming of the Messiah. John didn’t take a drink now and then, you didn’t find him at feasts; he was all about the business of being the messenger appointed by God. And his rugged ‘no frills’ lifestyle accentuated the message to repent, for the kingdom of God was at hand. Many went out to hear him preach, and as a result, many were baptized in the Jordan River. While many believed, many didn’t like what they heard. John’s message declared that man couldn’t find favor with God on his own; that his works count for nothing.
Now while they didn’t like what they heard, they had a hard time disputing what John said, because John’s preaching was in fact Scriptural. They needed another reason to justify why they would turn away from John. If you can’t impeach the message, impeach the messenger. So they took out after John’s lifestyle; any guy who lives out in the wilderness and wears camel’s hair, well he has to be a bit nuts, they even said that John might be demon-possessed. The implication is that surely you don’t want to be getting your spiritual advise from a lunatic, a demon-possessed lunatic, do you?
Then along comes Jesus, just as John had foretold. In fact, one day John outed Jesus from the crowd declaring, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” And although Jesus was the sacrificial lamb on the way to the cross, he did not live the austere lifestyle of John. Jesus travels from town to town, accepting and participating in the hospitality offered by others, eating and drinking what is wholesomely set before him. Christ first recorded miracle is while he is attending a wedding feast with his mother, and turns water into wine for the celebration.
Christ came to bring good news to the poor; to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. (Isaiah 61:1-3). And freely eating and drinking, and participating in the pleasant things of life, were in harmony with the message of Christ.
Both John and Jesus were preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In the terms of the children in the market place there were two games in town from which you could choose. If you didn’t like the ‘funeral dirge’ lifestyle of John, then chances are you would like the happier, freer lifestyle of Jesus. Yet while many did believe Jesus, the same people who rejected John rejected Jesus. The same ones who would say “don’t listen to John because he is so austere he must be demon possessed,” were the ones who said, “don’t listen to Jesus because he eats and drinks wine, so he must be a glutton and a drunk, and he eats with sinners and tax collectors; and we think he’s demon possessed too.”
How could they reject both John and Jesus for the opposite ways of life? If you are pleased with poverty, why did John displease you? If wealth pleases you, why did the Jesus displease you? They could reject both, because both preached the same message. Both preached repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Both proclaimed that man couldn’t save himself by his own works. Both proclaimed that Jesus was the Lamb of God, the Savior, foretold by prophets, who would sacrifice himself for the sins of the world. That is a message that the enemies of the Gospel cannot take, because is it is a message that requires them to deny themselves, confess their sins, and trust in Christ.
So the strategy is clear, if you can’t impeach the message, impeach the messenger. Jesus came as the savior of all, and those who opposed him attacked his character by branding him a glutton and a drunk. And then they went on to say that, just as John had a demon, so too Jesus has a demon. In Mark 3 we hear how the Jewish scribes, declared that Jesus “ ‘is possessed by Beelzebub’ and ‘by the prince of demons he casts out demons’ “ (Mark 3:22). And later in this Gospel, Matthew records how the Pharisees announced that “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that he casts out demons” (Matthew 12:24).
But that wasn’t enough. The sinful nature cannot stand the Gospel, because it knows that Gospel is the death of sin and death. And it is not enough to just turn from the Gospel, or even to bad-mouth it. Don’t underestimate sin’s hatred of grace. But because sin and sinners are so offended by it, those who reject it must get rid of the Gospel. What happened to John? His preaching against Herod’s open sin of adultery got him beheaded. And what of Jesus? You know. The chief priest and the Pharisees gathered false witnesses, staged a trial, and convinced Pilate to authorize his crucifixion. Sin would rather take life, even yours, rather than have you hear the Gospel. But sin did not shutter the Gospel, not by John’s death, not even by Jesus’ death.
The text takes us back to the greatest days this world has ever seen, when the Kingdom of Heaven came into this world in the person of Jesus Christ, when in John the Baptist the Old Testament reached its most radiant climax and the New Testament dawned.
In his commentary on Matthew, Dr. Jeffery Gibbs reminds us that our God is a God of history; that is he is “always engaged in his creation by coming into it with deeds—deeds of judgment and deeds of salvation.” Overall, there is a movement toward salvation, and moments come when God does something new. In his teaching about John, Jesus is laying it out plainly that in the ministry of John, God was doing a new thing. And if Jesus’ hearers failed to recognize what God was doing through John, then they would miss what God was doing through Jesus.
Let’s get back to our Lord’s teaching about the children. Those children who are sitting in the marketplace are the ones of whom the prophet Isaiah speaks: “Behold, I and the children whom the LORD has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the LORD of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion.” (Isaiah 8:18). And also the psalm: “the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7). And elsewhere: “Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger” (Psalm 8:2).
So those children who are signs to Israel sat in the marketplace, and because the Jews did not want to listen, the children not only spoke but shouted to them, at the top of their voices: “we played the flute for you, but you did not dance.” That is, we challenged you to do good deeds at the sound of our song and to dance to our flute, just as David danced before the ark of the Lord, and you did not want to. The children go on to say, “We sang a lament, but you did not mourn.” that is we challenged you to seek repentance, and the Jews did not want to do even this.
The children’s two invitations, that is the Lord’s dual path to salvation was equally rejected since the Jewish leadership scorned both poverty and wealth alike. One was called a man with a demon, the other a glutton and a drunkard. Therefore, because you did not want to accept either teaching, then the teaching of God is that“ wisdom is justified from her own deeds.” Jesus certainly said about himself. For Jesus is Wisdom itself. According to St. Jerome, Jesus, who is the glory of God and the wisdom of God, has been acknowledged to have acted justly by his sons, those who preach and teach rightly about the kingdom of God, those to whom the Father unveiled what he had hidden from wise, experienced people (adapted from Jerome’s Commentary on Matthew 2.11.16).
Beginning his teaching with the term “this generation,” Jesus is certainly speaking directly of his contemporaries in Palestine. And yet, as long as there remain those who war-against the kingdom of God, there remains a theological significance to the Lord’s words for all generations. Many today do not want to be called sinners, do not want to be called out as being in need of repentance. Many today want to party on their own terms rather than to rejoice on the terms of grace set out by Jesus. Christ’s unconditional grace strips us of all our own supposed righteousness, all our claims, and declares us instead to be needy beggars who have nothing to offer but can only receive.
Apart from the Holy Spirit, by human wisdom alone, this gift of grace is a gift that we too would despise. If we find ourselves regularly acknowledging our sin, living lives of repentance, and rejoicing in the gracious Messiahs’ love and forgiveness—to God be the glory, for these are the only gifts offered by God to save his people from their sin through his Son, Jesus Christ.
Today we are gathered to celebrate the Festival Reformation. Normally our festival days celebrate events that happen in the Bible. But today we celebrate a series of events that happened nearly fifteen centuries after the Ascension of Jesus. The first commemorations of the Reformation were annual thanksgiving services for the translation of the Bible into the German language or to commemorate the introduction of the Reformation. Luther’s Pastor, Johnnes Bugenhagen already provided for such a celebration as early as 1528. In 1543—still three years before the Reformer’s death, as part of the church orders for the churches in Brunswich (1543), Bugenhagen set the date for the annual thanksgiving as St. Martin’s Day, in memory of Luther’s birth on St. Martin’s Eve. Later, some church orders appointed the service to be held on the Sunday after the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (June 24), since the Augsburg Confession was presented on June 25. After the Thirty Years’ War (1618—1648) the Elector of Saxony appointed October 31 as the day of thanksgiving.
But it is still an important day. So much so, that some have stated that Martin Luther was as essential to the Church in his time as John the Baptist was to the church in the opening days of the New Testament. So now you understand why this Gospel from Matthew 11 is appointed for Reformation.
Another tradition that ties the readings for this Festival Day to our reformer is the suggestion that the angel in our First Reading from Revelation 14 (:7), is none other than Martin Luther, messenger of God in what is certainly the Last Days of the Church. 18th century Lutheran theologian Christoph Starke comments on Revelation 14: 6-7:This shows that the teacher would emerge in the Church, go forth, and be seen and heard by everyone in the Church. This sermon has true repentance as its goal. It indicates the words of the eternal Gospel clear enough. This eternal Gospel is also the central point of all divine wisdom and doctrine, as the angel few in the midst of heaven. . . Those who see this as being fulfilled explain it thus: It applies to a specific teacher that is supposed to reform and purify the Church under the Antichrist. Thus it refers to Luther with his helpers who began the Reformation.
C.F.W Walther himself, and others in the LCMS, understand this verse as foretelling typologically Luther’s work as the reformer. That is why Walther picked Revelation 14:7 as the verse for the fledgling Synods theological and news publication: Der Lutheraner, and why the angel of Revelation 14:7 flew on its masthead.
Whether St. John saw and recorded a revelation or prophecy of Luther we cannot say for sure. But we dare not downplay that the Lord used Luther, according to his will, to preach the Gospel to all nations. The Gospel had been all but lost by 1500’s. The Church had slowly replaced the teaching of God’s mercy and grace for the forgiveness of sins, with the teaching that the only way to salvation was to do good works and meritorious living in quantitates sufficient to out-weigh the sin in one’s life.
This was the church and the teaching that Luther grew up in. He grew to hate God, for as he was taught, he believed that God required him to keep a law he couldn’t keep in order to be saved. Thanks be to God that this despair did not drive Luther from the Church. Instead, what Luther rediscovered in the Scriptures rocked his world—and the whole world, as a result. While certainly Luther deserved God’s judgment and condemnation for not keeping God’s law, it was also true that Jesus Christ had died as the perfect sacrifice upon the cross for his sin. And the forgiveness that Christ secured on the cross was given as a free gift to all, along with the faith to believe it. The Reformation that was thus begun was the result of Luther, working within his calling as a pastor and doctor of the church, notifying the church of the truth, and calling for the church to abandon its teaching of salvation by works and returning the Bible’s teaching that by Christ’s death, salvation had been won for the sins of the world. Luther preached repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
What was the Church’s response? They refuted his teachings. Those in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church called him a glutton and a drunk, a wild boar, and servant of Satan. But that wasn’t enough. It is not enough to just turn from the Gospel, or even to bad-mouth it. Again, don’t underestimate sin’s hatred of grace, and those who reject it must get rid of the Gospel. Luther was declared a heretic, and in that day, a heretic was also an enemy of the state—it was a capital crime; they declared open season on Luther making it legal to kill him, if they could catch him. They wanted him gone because Luther’s teaching that salvation was free for sake of Jesus is the death of any teaching of salvation earned by good works. But the Lord preserved Luther’s life for many more years so he could further the work of the Reformation
Since the days of John the Baptist until even now, the church has suffered violence, and the violent seek to take it by force. But Wisdom is justified by her deeds. The Wisdom of God is that the Gospel will be preached until he returns in glory—the ultimate Day of Judgment revealed to John and recorded for us in the last book of the Bible. You and I don’t live in times, or locations, where violence is directed at us for speaking the Gospel. But there are plenty of Christians around the world who suffer violence, even death, for speaking the truth of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ to others. It is good for us to pray for those who are persecuted for the faith around the world. And it is good for us to give thanks for the rare and historic privilege of gathering together in worship in peace, without persecution or violent mobs surrounding us. All in all, here in this country, we have it pretty easy for the moment
However, we must remain vigilant, for it is exactly at the times of peace or prosperity that we are most in danger of loosing the Gospel. It makes sense. When death is a daily threat, you want to cling to the eternal life that Christ has won. In times of peace and prosperity, salvation seems less important, and Christians tend to get distracted. The proclamation is not as sweet when death shadow and God’s wrath don’t feel so close at hand. And that is when the church starts to stray to make the faith about improving and enjoying life here, or to compromise and call sin and false teaching okay. The devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh are happy to nudge us along this path because they hate the Gospel and like nothing better than to see it overthrown, in big ways certainly, but no more so than on individual basis. It is only when we truly understand the consequences of our sin and the reality of death, that we are thirsty for the Gospel.
So remember Jesus’ words that He spoke about himself: “Wisdom is justified by her works.“ Only Christ, and Him crucified, is the Wisdom of God. And only Christ our crucified and risen Lord has grace and forgiveness for you. Don’t judge this Wisdom by it’s reputation in the world. The world will always declare the Church, at best, useless, or the source of all evil, as long as it proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ. Don’t measure the Wisdom of God by the preacher. Preachers come and preachers go. Some might eat locust, some might spend time eating with sinners; but the measure of the messenger is the message. The measure of the preacher is whether he preaches the Word of God. Don’t measure the Wisdom of God by the congregation. Congregations will vary in size, appearance, and energy levels. But the measure of a congregation is it’s confession of faith—what it believes; what it declares. If it declares the Wisdom of God: that you are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ’s righteousness alone, that is the place to be. That wisdom is justified by its works because it works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all those who believe.
You have been rescued from a generation that did not want to confess Jesus is Lord. Several generations, in fact. In truth, every generation. Wherever the sinful flesh exists, there you will find enemies of the Gospel. It is easy on such a day as this, to point to the Reformation or to the Saxon immigration even the founding of our own Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod as the days of deliverance of the Church. But then we would overlook the faithful work of congregations in every age that have faithfully proclaimed the Gospel, even yours now in this age. And by the grace of God, in those congregations you hear the Gospel and believe what it says. You hear that Christ has died for your sins, that he has made you his own in your baptism and that he gives you everything that you need for your body and life, including feeding you with his body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.
In a world darkened by sin, the Lord has made you wise unto salvation, counts you among his redeemed and beloved children. From countless altars in faithful congregations, the Lord shines the light of His salvation through the Means of Grace to you. “The Word forever shall remain, No thanks to foes, who fear it; He’s by our side, upon the plain, With weapons of the Spirit,” namely, His means of Grace, so that for the sake of Jesus you are forgiven all your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Thanks for ideas and content to Pastor Timothy Pauls, Jerome, Christoph Starke, Hilary, Herbert Lindemann, Oskar Pank, Pastor Chad Kendall, and Dr. Jeffery Gibbs.