The liturgical occasion is Reformation Day. The task at hand is to preach Christ to your congregation. This is so the message of Christ crucified would pass through your lips and their ears into their hearts and lives and out into the world, in order that the Spirit would continue to create faith in Jesus in all who hear, for the life of the world, and to the glory of God the Father.
It is no small task. I am insufficient to the task, and so are you. It is likely not on the forefront of many of your hearers’ hearts and minds as they arrive at church. You have probably felt the burden before. You have perhaps even come to this website to try and DO something about it.
We suppose, “If I exegete deeply enough... If I translate accurately enough... If I craft the right words in the right way... If I develop a compelling enough image or a powerful enough story... If I find the right insight or hook...” Though we would never actually say it, there are times we wish we could force the Word into actually “working,” or force our hearers to actually hear.
Matthew 11:12-19 touches on the theme of force, as well as the interplay between proclaimers and hearers. Turns out, it is kind of messy.
God’s messengers have faced all kinds of difficulties. Both Elijah and John the Baptist encountered persecution and pain as a result of their proclamation to an extent that we can only imagine. They suffered, in all the ways, even physical violence and force.
Some preachers around the world do face the threat of violence and physical force. In other contexts, they face threats of decreased offerings and tithes, or less frequent attendance, or the anxiety-ridden prospect of opening an email with a foreboding subject line from a grumbling parishioner.
We can feel alone and dejected, like Elijah on the run from Jezebel. Even after God’s miraculous provision, we are tempted to just lay back down and wait it out. We can feel like John in prison, sending messengers to Jesus and asking, “So, ARE you ACTUALLY the one?” as we ask ourselves, “Is this REALLY worth it?”
We can bury ourselves with the burden of “doing enough” with the Word so it might “work.” Or we can blame the hearers: “They say they want this... They say they want that... They don’t know what they want, and they don’t know what God wants for them. If only they knew my calling (it is from God, after all). If only they hungered and thirsted for righteousness like they should. If only my hearers were more faithful hearers.”
Then, in a clearer moment, we might remember that faith is not a prerequisite for hearing God’s Word, but the outcome of God’s faithful working through the Word by His Spirit. We might remember the Israelites of old who turned on their prophets en masse, or the crowds of Jesus’ day who heard the Lord of Life speaking in the flesh and still chose to walk away. Or maybe we recall the lack of understanding and faith from the very Apostles themselves, even after spending literal years of face-to-face time with Jesus!
I pray you might also remember the phrase which echoes through the Gospels: “And He taught.” “Again, He taught.” Jesus kept teaching. He kept preaching. He was patient and persistent. He was bold and humble... and He taught. As was His custom, He taught. He brought the Word.
Jesus kept teaching. He kept preaching. He was patient and persistent. He was bold and humble... and He taught
Now, this was no lazy ex opere operato preaching. Jesus did not say, “Well, the Word will do its thing, I just have to say the right words and I have done my job.” No! He was imaginative. He told stories. He explained and made comparisons and analogies. He spoke to specific people in specific contexts with a word tailored for them. He spoke passionately and personally. Preaching is not just “saying the right words,” but proclaiming the Living Word in a living way, in such a way that it would bring life. This is the kind of word Jesus kept teaching.
And it worked! People came to faith! And also, they killed Him... as they did the faithful prophets before Him. His preaching was received in faith, but also rejected in sin. “Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”
Jesus is the Wisdom of God. He is justified and proven by His deeds. He walked humbly before God. He generously loved all people. He could name others as hypocrites in light of the fact that His life was absolutely consistent with His message. But more than Jesus being justified by His deeds, Jesus justified by His deeds. The deeds and work of His life actually justify and convey righteousness.
The “deeds” of Jesus are bigger than the miracles recorded in Scripture or the accounts of His everyday comings and goings recounted by the evangelists. His Word is living and active. His Word works. It works the works of God.
Though God’s messengers have suffered force and Christ’s Church may be the victim of outside forces, God’s Word has a force of its own. Indeed, it is sharper than a double-edged sword and more powerful than the hammer which crushes. Against the Church entrusted with this Word, even the gates of Hell shall not prevail! It is a Word that wounds and mends. It is a Word which kills and makes alive. It is a Word that still speaks today.
It is the Word of Christ which God has called you to speak in, to, and on behalf of your congregation. It is the Word set to music in our singing. It is the very Word every Christian has received in their Bible. It is the same Word God has placed in the hearts and on the lips of the laity as He sends them as fully empowered ambassadors in His Name into their callings. It is the Word half-remembered, shared between simple saints in contexts far removed from the credentials and accoutrements of a gloriously designed sanctuary.
It is the same Word through which God worked through another sinful messenger, in another sinful generation, for the life of other sinful hearers, some 500 years ago:
“What is Luther? The teaching is not mine. Nor was I crucified for anyone... How did I, poor stinking bag of maggots that I am, come to the point where people call the children of Christ by my evil name?... I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word; otherwise, I did nothing. And while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing. The Word did everything.”
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 11:12-19.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 11:12-19
Lectionary Kick-Start-Check out this fantastic podcast from Craft of Preaching authors Peter Nafzger and David Schmitt as they dig into the texts for this Sunday!
 “Ex opere operato” is a Latin phrase meaning “from the work performed.” Here, it is being used in a negative sense in terms of preaching and a preacher accepting no agency or responsibility for what he preaches. In Lutheran circles, it is more often used in a positive sense in terms of the Sacraments, and signifies how they derive their efficacy, not from the minister or recipient (which would mean they obtain it “ex opere operantis,” meaning “from the agent’s activity”), but from the Sacrament itself, considered independently of the merits of the minister or the recipient.