Day of Supplication and Prayer
St. Peter Lutheran Church
Jeremiah 5:3 [Revelation 1:9-20]
September 14, 2016
“You strike them, but they feel it not.”
[Outline borrowed from Walther’s “Busstagpredigt” in Brosamen]
[The sermon was long—about 28 minutes. But it wasn’t as long as this manuscript; part of it was in outline form and I fleshed it out.]
Dear Christians: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
What is a day of supplication and prayer, or a day of humiliation and prayer? It is a service set apart for public confession and repentance, and for prayer for God to help us in our distress. The prophet Joel called for such a day in the reading we just heard: Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly, gather the people…between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep and say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations.” (Joel 2:15, 17)
Joel called this “solemn assembly” in response to a calamity that was coming on the people of Israel—a plague of locusts which would cause a massive famine. And so many people would say, “This is not something for the Church to be doing in the 21st century. People don’t want to have a public service to mourn their sins and pray for God to spare them. That kind of thing doesn’t help get members—it drives people away.”
The people who say or think that are at least partly right. It’s true that what we’re doing here today definitely doesn’t appeal to many people who are looking for a church. It hasn’t for some time. The day of supplication and prayer or humiliation and prayer is not something new in the Lutheran Church. If you look in the old red hymnal you’ll find it there. Nevertheless, I don’t think I’ve met any Missouri Synod Lutherans who can remember their church having such a service. Even though they had annual services of repentance and prayer in Germany into the 20th century, I don’t know how common they were in America.
However, there was at least one Lutheran Church that had this kind of service each year at least until around 1880—Trinity Lutheran Church in St. Louis Missouri. This was the church pastored by C. F. W. Walther, the first president of the Lutheran Synod of Missouri. And to prepare to preach to you on this day I read a sermon that He preached in his congregation in 1863.
His text for the sermon was Jeremiah 5:3, which says: O Lord, do not your eyes look for truth? You have struck them down, but they felt no anguish; you have consumed them, but they refused to take correction. They have made their faces harder than rock; they have refused to repent.
As I preach to you on the basis of this word of God I will be following the theme and outline of Dr. Walther’s sermon, which he preached at the height of the civil war. Because although we think the world has changed so much since 1863, or 800 B.C., when Joel lived, certain things have not changed very much at all.
The Triune God still rules the earth. And He is not an “idle spectator” of what goes on here. Just as in the Bible, He looks from where He sits enthroned…on all the inhabitants of the earth…and observes all their deeds. (Psalm 33:14-15) And just as in the Scripture, God punishes and chastens nations and groups of people in His wrath—not only in eternity, but also in this life. That is what the verse from Jeremiah is talking about, only the people that God punished in Jeremiah’s day did not feel his punishment, did not repent and turn to God. Walther preached to his congregation in 1863 that the same thing was happening to the people of America, and what was true in Walther’s day is still true in ours.
Theme: Jeremiah’s two-fold lamentation applies to us and to our congregation.
+ The lamentation “You strike them down.”
+The lamentation, “They do not feel it.”
- How we know it’s God that has stuck both our country and our congregation; how we know it’s because of our sins
Walther preached in 1863 that God had struck America down in His wrath. The civil war, which had already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives at that point, was God’s anger being poured out on the United States because of its sin and rebellion.
This is not a kind of sermon I have ever heard preached in my lifetime, except maybe by the Westboro Baptist Church when it holds up signs outside the funerals of soldiers saying, “God hates America.”
We don’t hear these sermons anymore, but they are all over the Bible. Did God stop punishing nations? He didn’t. We still confess that we deserve God’s “temporal” or “present” punishment. Temporal punishment refers to wars, natural disasters, famines, plagues—events that bring death and suffering to nations and communities.
What Walther preached in 1863 is true today. God has punished our country in our lifetime. When the twin towers exploded and fell to the ground, killing thousands—God struck us. When the Supreme Court ruled that abortion was legal in the United States, and in the 45 years since 60 million of our babies were murdered—God struck us. As we watch the American family collapse and children grow up missing a parent or with parents never married, we are watching God’s hand strike our country. Even if these things haven’t happened to you, they affect you.
But how do we know God is responsible for these things? Don’t they happen because of people’s sin, or because of natural forces and laws?
The Scripture tells us that God is in control over everything. He doesn’t cause sin, but no sinner can do the evil in his heart unless God permits it. Jesus tells us that a sparrow doesn’t fall from the sky without the Father in heaven. More specifically, we hear from the prophet Amos, “Does evil befall a city unless the Lord has done it?” (Amos 3:6)
Jesus does tell us to be careful about making judgments about a person when something bad happens to them. When a tower fell on some people in Jerusalem and killed them, Jesus said, Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no: but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. (Luke 13:5) Jesus says—that didn’t happen to them because they were worse sinners than everyone else. Nevertheless, it happened because they were sinners. So the Christian response to any tragedy is to recognize God’s hand in it, and to allow it to cause us to repent.
But God has not only struck our country. He has also struck our church. Can anyone say otherwise?
Is it an accident that our church has declined since the seventies? Is it an accident that, during my time here at least, St. Peter has been racked by division? And the closure of the school—do we think God didn’t know how to keep it open, even in a bad neighborhood, even in a time of people falling away from the Church? Is God bound by the rules of sociology? Is He only able to save those who seem likely to us to accept the Gospel? Is it too hard for Him to work in the hearts of people that belong to different ethnic groups, socio-economic groups? He oHe And our recent hugely expensive repairs? Is all this an accident?
No, God has struck us with His rod.
- Why has God struck America and St. Peter?
There are things that God doesn’t reveal to us. His secret judgment on individuals and nations is not something we are given to know—whom He has predestined to salvation. And if we aren’t prophets we can’t say that God has decided to give the United States of America over to destruction for this or that reason. Whether He has or not, He alone knows. He may yet grant America time to repent.
What we can acknowledge, when God strikes us, is the sins that are obvious in us that we know provoke His anger. And if we are not certain, we can search the Scriptures, asking Him to enlighten us. We can examine ourselves in the light of His Word.
When Walther preached in 1863, he pointed out how God had for decades blessed America, seeking to lead it to repentance and the knowledge of Him by His kindness. He opened wells of prosperity, blessed her with civil and religious freedom, and made her a refuge for the downtrodden of the world. But instead of acknowledging God as the giver of these gifts, the country boasted of its own enlightened intelligence, its strength, its wealth, and gave God’s glory to itself. And so, in time, God let his anger fall on the United States, and sent the pale horse of war and its rider, with death and hell following after.
The situation is much the same today. America has enjoyed incredible wealth and prosperity since the Second World War. Even during the two great wars that ravaged the populations of Europe, American casualties were light in comparison. After the collapse of the Soviet Union we became the world’s hegemon. Even today most of the nations of the world dance to the tune played by the United States. But the power, wealth, and prestige God gave to the United States was not paralleled by an increase in godliness and the knowledge of God. Instead, despite a bump in church attendance after World War 2, Americans began to throw off moral restraint. Divorce became common. Fornication became normal. In the name of equality and sexual liberation we justified the murder of the unborn. Then, after the major challenger to our power in the world collapsed, we were shaken awake. Somehow a handful of Islamic fanatics living in caves in Afghanistan succeeded in flying jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, claiming thousands of lives. It became apparent that wealth and immense power was not enough to make the world into a liberal democratic Garden of Eden. There was another power in the world with which we had to reckon.
It was a wake-up call. And for a few months, maybe a few years Americans were shaken. But not enough to turn to God, to listen to His Word, to trust Him above our billions, our stealth bombers, our assurance that “freedom” was the answer to all the problems of the world. Not enough to repent of allowing our children to be dissected in the womb and then tossed into medical waste dumpsters. And in a few years America became worse than it was before. We not only didn’t turn back to God, but went on to embrace an evil that history has never seen before—the attempt to make homosexual relationships equal to the union of a man and woman in one flesh.
Since that time God does not seem to be striking us anymore, at least not with death and devastation. Perhaps that is because, as Romans 1 suggests, God has given us up and is reserving us for utter and final destruction. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men…Though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them (Romans 1:26-27, 32).
And what about our congregation? Why has God struck us? That last verse from Romans—though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die—doesn’t apply just to sodomy. Paul lists other sins: evil, covetousness, malice…envy…strife, deceit…they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful…disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless…(Romans 1:29-31) Those vices that are common to the corrupt, sinful flesh, have not been absent among us, and they are sufficient to provoke God’s anger and sentence of death. When we tolerate such sins in the Church and allow them to be practiced without rebuke, we should not imagine that God will allow them to go without His discipline.
But we have a much larger problem at St. Peter. For many years, during the long ministry of Erdmann Frenk and his son, God blessed St. Peter with many members. 3 services on Sunday were full. Sunday school filled the entire gym with kids, as I’ve heard. On Palm Sunday forty or fifty kids were confirmed each year for decades.
Then suddenly God took Erdmann to his reward. Five years, to the distress of the congregation, He took Martin too. And then, by all accounts, the congregation began to decline. And during that thirty years of decline from 1975 until about 2005, much of the congregation forgot—if they ever knew—the pure doctrine of God’s Word.
People forgot the ten commandments. They forgot that God commands us to gladly hear and learn His Word. People stopped coming to church at all, or came inconsistently. They forgot about the sixth commandment and remaining chaste until marriage. They forgot about the fourth commandment and the obligation of parents to teach their children God’s Word.
They forgot the Apostles’ Creed, particularly the third article, which teaches that the Holy Spirit alone is able to bring a person to faith in Christ and preserve them in it, and that He does that through the preaching, hearing and reading of His Word. They were offended to hear that much of what is taught by famous preachers and popular Christian books is antithetical to Christ’s teaching, in particular when they say that salvation comes as a result of the decision of a human will. And they forgot that when the Holy Spirit brings a person to faith in Christ, He also brings them to the Holy Christian Church. They forgot that the Church is not just a gathering of people who feel comfortable with each other, tied together by blood or likemindedness, but it is the congregation of those who hear, believe and confess only God’s pure word.
They forgot about the Office of the Keys, that God has given the church the authority to forgive the sins of repentant sinners and to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant, and as a result they forgot to practice church discipline and were offended that I started offering private absolution and exhorting people to make use of it. Finally, they forgot about the Sacrament of the Altar, and that since we receive not only bread and wine but also the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus in our mouths at the altar, we have no authority either to replace the bread and wine with some other element, nor to give Christ’s body and blood to those whose faith we don’t know, or who have confessed another doctrine than Christ’s by becoming a member of a Church that deviates from His teaching.
And when it became clear that many people in the congregation had forgotten the teaching of God’s Word that this congregation had confessed and stood for in the past, did the congregation repent? No. Things went on just as before. Most people did not take the opportunity to learn what they had forgotten. They chose to go on eating donuts in the gym during bible class. Some became irritated when other services were held during the week. Even tonight, when everyone who is here regularly heard me ask for everyone who is worried about the future of St. Peter to join with us tonight in confessing our sins and praying for God’s help for our congregation, ninety percent of the people who attend on Sunday declined.
God blessed St. Peter for many years under the ministry of the Frenks; but those blessings did not result in ongoing fruit in the lives of many of the people who were served by them. Many have forgotten what those men taught and are not zealous to learn it again, nor to do everything in their power to ensure that it continues to be taught and proclaimed here to another generation.
We can’t know for sure if that is the reason why God’s rod has struck us. Yet the fact that we have been knocked down by His blows should move us to recognize these things and ask for grace.
Walther preached to his congregation that the worst part of Jeremiah’s lament is not that God had struck the country; the worst thing is the second part: “they do not feel it” or “they refused to take correction.” Despite the deaths of hundreds of thousands, the crippling of many more, despite all the souls that had been snatched suddenly and cast into hell, and the others whose faith had been snuffed out by the passions elicited by the war, America did not “feel” God’s punishment. They felt the pain of lost business, lost loved ones, lost limbs, lost property. But they did not feel the reality that it was God who had struck them down, who was angry with them. They saw only the enemy government as the cause of the evils they were experiencing.
Our country hasn’t changed. Faced with crippling national debt, moral chaos, polarization between “red” and “blue” America that approaches the animosity between the North and South prior to the civil war, Americans almost unilaterally agree that the instability in our country is caused by bad politics. We continue to be confident that prosperity and happiness would come to our country if it weren’t for the left controlling the media and universities, or bitter gun-toting Bible-thumping hillbillies wanting to oppress people. And any problems not caused by bad politics are just a matter of researching and applying the right technique or the right program. There are very few people who would take seriously any suggestion that the reason the United States seems to be teetering on the brink of economic collapse or social disruption is because God is against us. God has struck the nation, but the nation does not feel it; it refuses to receive correction. It has made its face as hard as rock and refuses to repent.
Dear God! How awful it is to think that same hardness is present in our church! And yet how else can we explain it? Everyone sees the congregation on the brink of death. Yet people continue to tell themselves and each other: “Well, the bad neighborhood we’re in drives people away. Besides, this is happening to all the churches and schools all over the Synod. And what can we do? The young people like the informality of the non-denominational churches—their parking lots are always full. And, you know, there are all these activities on Sunday that there didn’t used to be, and people often have to work then.” And so on. Not that these things aren’t real—clearly they are!
But they are all ways of evading the reality that God has done this. We are on the point of death because God has struck us. God made a dry scrub brush in the middle of the desert burn without going out until Moses came over to see what was going on. Jesus walked on the Sea of Galilee; He commanded a storm to be still. In the reading from Revelation He appeared to John on the isle of Patmos with a voice like a trumpet, like the sound of many waters. His eyes were like fire, and His face like the sun in its full strength, and out of His mouth came a double-edged sword. He was walking among the candlesticks—that is, the Churches. The sound of His voice and the terrifying beauty of His appearance are the reflections of His glory that He put on in His resurrection. All the fullness of God dwells in His body (Colossians 2); He has ascended to sit on the throne of God, from which He reigns over the earth. But He is in the midst of the churches, including ours. The sword of His mouth had the power to cut open the kingdom of the antichrist through the preaching and teaching of one monk in a backwater German university. It had the power to convert this congregation from a heterodox bunch of German immigrants who didn’t know what “Lutheran” meant into a congregation that confessed the Bible as God’s inerrant word and the Book of Concord as a faithful exposition of the Word of God. It has the power to drive out Satan from a person’s heart, to pierce our hearts of stone so that they become hearts of flesh. This Lord Jesus is more than powerful enough to preserve this congregation in the midst of a bad neighborhood and in the midst of rising irreligiosity among young people.
But He has not done this. Instead He has struck us. He has permitted division and contention to weary the congregation; He has sent us huge building repairs we don’t know how to pay; he has allowed children and young families to disappear from the Church. But we don’t feel it. We haven’t taken correction. We see no need to interrupt our routines. I have heard people express the thought that they have heard everything I preach to them a long time ago. “We know this already,” our actions seem to say. It’s the furthest thing from most of our members’ minds that God is striking us with His rod, that He is displeased with us.
But you are here tonight. So maybe I’m talking to the wrong people. But no; how often we tell ourselves that because we are doing better than others we have no further need of repentance and growth! But that is what just about everyone tells themselves. “Well, sure, I don’t give ten percent of my income, and I don’t go to bible class, but I do go to church just about every week.” “Well, sure, I don’t go to church every week, but I go a lot more than most people do; most people I know don’t go to church at all.”
That’s not the standard. You no longer need to repent when you are fully in the image of Christ. But if you have not yet shared in His sufferings completely and become like Him in His death (Philippians 3:9-10), if you have not already obtained this and become perfect (Phil 3:12), you are still in need of repentance and of pressing on to make it [perfection in Christ] your own…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, [pressing] on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3: 12-14). We also have often been negligent in hearing, reading, and growing in the knowledge of Christ’s Word.
Even more, we are also immature in Christ, and lack the love that would drive us on to ensure that we not only learn His Word, but teach it to others. To proclaim the Gospel to people who don’t believe, to seek out the people who learned the Word of God but fell away, to struggle to ensure that God’s Word is kept pure in the congregation—all of this results in opposition and hostility, both from people and from the devil. So we often keep quiet. Or we start to proclaim the Gospel to others and then fall back when it becomes difficult. This, too, is sin that provokes God’s anger. And when we become comfortable with failing to confess, teach, and witness to God’s Word, the sloth and lethargy can kill our spiritual life just as well as outright rebellion against God’s Word.
- Results of not repenting.
Walther told his congregation that their sin was that the spirit of the world had made inroads into the congregation. Instead of praying and wrestling for the salvation of their neighbors during the war, many of the congregation had adopted the thinking of the world. Instead of seeing the civil war as God’s judgment on the country, many of these German immigrants, who opposed slavery, had allowed their thinking to be directed by the atheistic philosophy fed to them in the newspapers. They saw the war as birthpangs of a utopia that would arise when “equality” reigned in the land.
This should sound familiar to us. How little America has changed in 150 years, despite appearances! The media was advancing a philosophy that was—unbeknownst to many American citizens—essentially opposed to the teaching of Scripture. The religious hope it preached was “equality”—the same hope that in recent years has brought us homosexual “marriage”, transgender bathrooms, the execution of police officers.
“Equality” doesn’t sound like an evil philosophy. It sounds right and good—who would be opposed to people being treated equally? Doesn’t God want that?
But that’s just the point. When our minds are directed by the spirit of the world and by our own reasoning, moral or otherwise, we are easily led away from God. Walther told his congregation that by not being directed by God’s inerrant word, they had been led away from Christ. Instead of praying for their neighbors, seeking their salvation, telling them the truth, they confirmed their neighbors in their error and were caught in it themselves. God, of course, made all human beings from one man. We are all equally God’s creation, all equally subject to God’s Law and judgment, all equal participants in the sin of the first man. And we have all been equally redeemed by the death of God’s Son in order that we may all have a share in eternal life.
Yet God also created people unequal. Some are smarter than others; some are born with more wealth. Some are born into Christian homes. Men have been appointed by God the head of their wives and their families; He has also given them leadership in the Church, while to women He has given the ability to bear, birth, and nurse children, and to influence children, husbands and other men not by authority but by nurture, gentleness, and submission. God gave rulers and judges the authority to bear the sword in His name and the authority to rule and punish, and He commands those under their authority to be subject to them. In the church, God has given the authority to preach His Word and administer the sacraments only to those He has called. So “equality” sounds like a noble, moral cause. Yet when in the name of “equality” or any other noble idea people oppose God’s Word and His order, they are not being led by Christ’s Spirit but by the spirit of the world.
So Walther concluded by telling his congregation that this worldliness was like a worm gnawing through the core of the congregation. If the congregation did not repent and return to the unerring Word of God, he said, it might retain the external form of a right-believing congregation, but it would be a hollow shell. They would have the name of being alive and yet be dead.
The same words apply to us. Our congregation has learned to think of “church” in a very worldly way. It has forgotten that the life of the church is God’s Word; it has come to believe that a bare minimum of Christian doctrine is enough of God’s Word because, while it may be necessary for us to keep the name doctrine, God’s Word is not the power that keeps the Church alive. It has forgotten that a limited Word of God is not God’s Word at all. If it is God’s Word, then He will not allow it to be edited, limited, shortened, boiled down to what we think is essential. We have forgotten that a church that has to submit to cultural expectations of what it ought to be in order to attract people is not Christ’s Church. Christ doesn’t lead His church to a tasteful modern building in the suburbs with a full parking lot unless it is on the way to Golgotha. We have forgotten that a personal piety that is merely formal and traditional is dead. A piety that says, “I will go to church on Sunday morning for an hour. But no one can demand anything more than that of me” is not a living Christianity. A Christian believes in Christ and follows Christ. If tradition says, “You only have to learn the catechism when you’re fourteen and then you’re done,” and Christ says, “No, I want you to learn more,” a Christian gladly receives what His Lord is giving. If tradition says, “Lutherans don’t do private confession,” and it turns out tradition is wrong—and moreover, that there is a gift to be received there from Jesus, namely the forgiveness of sins—a Christian forsakes tradition and goes to receive from Jesus.
The worm has eaten deeply into the core of our congregation. We do retain the form of a confessional Lutheran congregation; we require our pastors to swear that they believe and will teach according to those confessions. Our congregation’s constitution says that the doctrine of the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions is an unalterable article; if we want to change our confession of faith, we will have to disband as a congregation first. Yet few remember what those confessions even are; few remember what they say, and few are willing to be taught.
We are already, largely, a shell. Whether the spiritual life that remains among us will endure at all depends on God alone, as it always has. And whether God will expel the worms and cause what remains to thrive in this place—that too depends only on God.
But to think that He will preserve our congregation without repentance is a false hope.
- How we should repent.
Ninety percent of those who attend each week are not here tonight. You cannot cause them to repent. You can pray for them and speak God’s Word to them when the opportunity presents itself. But everyone else’s repentance is finally in the hands of God.
Repentance in the congregation can only happen if individuals repent. Each one of us needs to examine our lives in the light of God’s Word, asking the Holy Spirit to enlighten us where we ourselves have failed to hear the Word and to bear the fruit of repentance. How have I been part of the reason for God striking St. Peter?
Then we can begin to help one another see our faults, and be willing to accept this exhortation and rebuke from one another. It is unpleasant to think about this if you have experienced criticism from people in the Church, particularly if it was harsh or unloving, but it is possible that many times that criticism was actually the voice of God rebuking you, calling you to repentance.
And if in the course of this self-examination you are overcome by grief or a sense of the greatness of your sin and guilt, an awareness that you contributed to the suffering and decline of this congregation, take to yourself God’s certain promise of grace and forgiveness that He gives to repentant sinners. He never says that He will cast off the person with a broken heart, a contrite spirit, who is broken over his sins. Rather, God says, “If we walk in the light…the blood of Jesus cleanses us of all sin…If anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteus. He is the propitiation for our sins.” ( 1 John 1-2) Take your grief to God in confession and comfort yourself with His promise of absolution. Or still better, confess your sin privately to me and the Lord will speak His absolution to you through me. And if that is too difficult, confess to someone else who will declare God’s pardon to you.
- Result of repentance.
Repentance is never pleasant at the time, but God always follows it with great comfort and great blessings.
Repentance will undo the devil’s work at St. Peter, and turn God’s judgment and punishment into healing. The pain will be turned into joy.
It may not result in everything we desire. It may not result in St. Peter being renewed and flourishing again, or even remaining here another generation.
But it will be a work of God in us that will endure. The fruit of repentance may be refreshment for other sinners in need of repentance who are being stricken by God and do not feel it. It may be something else. But it will certainly be this—a greater love for the treasure of Christ’s word, an ear more open to the voice of Jesus, followed by a heart more open to Him and others and more full. Finally, its fruit will be eternal life, when we who have been gathered together in Him here will be gathered together again in Him with the great congregation at the wedding feast, the feast of victory, the feast of joy, when there will be no more need for repentance and when the Lord Himself will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
- Acknowledging God as the giver of repentance.
But this gift of repentance and the consolation and exceedingly great joy that follows from it is a gift that can only be given by God. Therefore we bow our knees before Him tonight to confess our sins, to receive His absolution that unchains us from all our sins, and to call on Him to grant His mighty power to work repentance in our congregation and in its members who have fallen away, as well as to many others who have never known our Lord who was stricken by God for our offenses and felt the anguish of those stripes to deliver us from the bonds of our sins.
The peace of God which passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria