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
C. F. W. Walther, Sermon “On the Annual Day of Repentance”, Brosamen p. 270-278.
Condensed translation by Pastor Karl Hess,
St. Peter Lutheran Church, Joliet, IL.
September 13, 2016
Hearers, guilty together with me and yet dearly purchased by Christ!
The most terrifying punishment which God has ever allowed to happen to a land and people is without doubt the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans…
…Outside the city stormed the foe. Inside was the uproar of fanatical parties which, in wild fury, rent each other even in the face of external foes…hunger, pestilence…thousands of unburied corpses inside and outside the city gates filled the air with pestilence…A mother killed her own baby and prepared it as a last meal; the soldiers killed people in the search for gold. 1.5 million died. Land laid waste.
…Fulfilled word of Jesus…”There will be tribulation such as has not been since the beginning of the world…and if these day’s weren’t shortened, no one would be saved.”
…But this was not the worst thing. The worst thing was this: they didn’t recognize that God’s wrath had come upon them, and they didn’t confess their sins and repent. If they had, the wrathful rod of God would have turned into His fatherly rod, and He would have snatched their soul like a brand from the fire.
But the Jews didn’t see God in it; they saw it only as the work of the Romans. (p.272) They didn’t want to see that it was God who worked through the Romans like an avenging angel. In the midst of the punishment they thought they were still God’s elect people and that their cause was righteous…and believed that at last God would give them victory, even without repentance and conversion. No exhortation and no chastening through men helped. Nor did warning-signs, which were visible in the heavens, nor did offers of peace on the part of the Romans. The people were hardened until all mercy with God and men came to an end, and the blinded people were thrown into the open doors of death and hell.
Oh dear brothers, I wish to God I could call out on this day of repentance and say, “Praise God! It’s not like this with our land and people! We recognize God’s punishing hand and repent!” But if I said that I would be a false prophet….
It’s true that not all true Christians have left America like they did Jerusalem for Pella. I don’t doubt that there are still thousands of believing children of God among our people. But, my loves, not only has the state of Jerusalem for the most part repeated itself in our land, but also most of the present virgins still here now appear to have fallen asleep, so that they still don’t see the true condition of our nation and people, as He pictures it in the divine Word. Thus they themselves stand in great danger to their souls.
In order that we may envision that condition, this hour has been consecrated.
Verse: Jeremiah 5:3
(p. 273) Lord, your eyes look for faith. You strike them, but they feel it not; you plague them, but they do not amend. They have a countenance harder than a rock, and will not be converted.
With these words, my loves, the holy prophet Jeremiah describes the state of the Jewish people shortly before the destruction of the first temple before the beginning of the Babylonian captivity. In these words is also described the present condition of our people. And that it is then also that I, to the awakening of true contrition in us all, mean now to show you. Namely:
That the prophet’s twofold complaint, “You strike them, but they feel it not,” also applies to our people:
1. The lament: “You strike them,” and
2. The lament: “But they feel it not.”
That the first part applies to our people no one can deny unless he is an atheist and no longer believes in a God in heaven, and has silenced the loud voice within all men that says “There is one God!”
It’s true that pestilence and famine comes as a consequence of failure of harvest from God, and that it is easier to see that these national disasters are not by means of men. But even if godless people alone were the mediate cause of all wars, the final cause for these [wars] is always God, who uses them as the rod of His discipline and punishment.
God is not only the Creator, but the ruler of the world…He isn’t an idle spectator who lets the world do whatever it wants. Jesus explains that not one sparrow falls from the sky without the will of the Father…and all the hairs on our heads are numbered.
“The Lord looks down from heaven and sees all the children of men…He marks all their deeds.” Psalm 33
God is not the cause of sin, but without His will no sinner can move or control heart, tongue, hand nor foot…. (p. 274) ”Whatever, therefore, the sinner would like to do, he can do nothing except fulfill what God has resolved.”
Therefore the prophet Amos cries (3:6): “Is there also disaster in the city, and the Lord hasn’t done it?” and in the prophet Isaiah the Lord Himself says, “I make the light and create the darkness; I give peace and create evil. I am the Lord, who does all these things.”
If we want to know the reason for war and bloodshed, we must lift our thoughts up higher, because no people on earth could terrify another with war were it not, as Daniel says, “Concluded in the council of the watchers, and deliberated on in the discussions of the holy ones.” That is, in the council of the Triune God…Thus in Holy Scripture it is said of God that He is a “true man of war”, who “governs the wars in all the world, who breaks the bow, shatters spears, and burns the chariots with fire”… Also that He visits the peoples’ sin and falling away with war and bloodshed…The prophets threatened His covenant people over and over and finally really punished them with bloody wars, for instance through Nebuchadnezzar, God’s chosen instrument…
So it’s clear without a doubt that “You strike them” applies to our people at this time.
For a long line of years God rained streams of love on our land and people. He made it a place of refuge for the poor and oppressed of all nations, and opened thousands of wells of wealth here, gifted us with all the blessings of religious and civil freedom; in short He made this place an earthly paradise, “so that our America stood as a wonder before the eyes of all nations.”
He wanted to lead our people to repentance through the riches of His kindness. But what has happened? Our people, like Nebuchadnezzar, didn’t give God the glory for these benefits…Our people have propagated the idolatry of themselves, their freedom, their might, their wealth. Instead of being led to God, we fell from God more and more and said to gold nuggets, “My consolation!” Open atheism, false oaths, despising of the Word of God and desecration of the Sabbath, disobedience to parents and uproar (p. 275) against authority, murder, unchastity, deceit of all kinds, usury, bribery, false witness, unrighteous judgment—all these have become such everyday horrors that nobody is surprised or appalled by them—horrors which, unpunished by men, now already for long years have cried loudly to heaven for vengeance.
Thus God finally decided no longer to look on with His despised, mocked patience; thus He has finally allowed the fulfillment of John’s vision to go forth, who in his Revelation wrote: “And behold, I saw a pale horse, and he who sat on it, whose name was called death, and hell followed after him.” A terrifying war has broken out, such as has been seldom seen in the world before. Already hundreds of thousands have fallen…and only God knows how many departed in the midst of their sins and were cast into hell. Thousands and thousands have turned into weeping widows and orphans, or lie groaning in camps of pain…or live as cripples throughout the land. Thousands of peaceful homes, yes, whole cities and villages have been transformed into soot and ashes and their formerly blooming…fields into wastes. Thousands upon thousands of formerly peaceful neighbors have been transformed into bitter foes, who mortally hate each other. In whole great swathes of land families which once lived in golden peace surrender themselves in fear to murderous raids in the stillness of the night. And, what is most terrifying of all, thousands upon thousands have lost the little spark of faith and love which had been lit in their hearts in the torrential flood of the passions of war.
In His wrath, God has punished sin with sin. With every further day of wartime, the last sensation of love, morals, discipline, respectability, and domestic happiness dies away in ever more hearts, and the hosts of war, returning home, will deluge the land with still greater hosts of new sins.
O the great, O the fearful wrath of God!
Still, my loves, this is only one side of the picture of the present condition of our people and our land. Still another, disproportionately more terrifying, our text shows us, when it not only says, “You strike them,” but rather also, “But they feel it not”; not only: “you plague them,” but also: “But they do not amend themselves. They have a countenance harder than a rock, and will not be converted.” Let us then direct our gaze now also on this still darker side.
My loves, if our people had allowed this nearly two-year long distress of war to serve for the purpose for which God sent it to us, then we would have to kiss the bloody rod with tears of joy today, the rod wherewith God has struck us and our people, and with which He still is striking us. And we would have to thank Him for it.
But what is actually happening? Can we say, “Lord, you strike them and they feel it?”
Businessman feels the loss of business…propertied class feels the devaluation of property. Taxpayers feel the burden of increased taxes. Soldiers in the field feel the hardness of their service. Father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter and friend feel the pain of fallen loved ones, destruction of their hometowns, fields, the insecurity of their lives. Servants of mammon, greedy and usurers feel how their speculations of ever greater riches have been crossed out, halted, and ended. The poor feel how even their barest needs have increased in price.
But all of this is not the feeling which the Prophet meant when He said, “You strike them, but they don’t feel it.”
He means here the feeling that God is the one who strikes, that this striking is the punishment of our sins, that it is God’s wrath which has come over this Sodomitical land, that these are finally God’s judgments wherewith God in His burning wrath, unto the lowest hell, visits our people’s forgetting of God and godlessness.
But where is this feeling? There is still nothing of this feeling to be observed among our people. Much more is the old security in sin still ever present, the old pride, the old idolatry in ourselves and our works.
As the only reason for all this misfortune that has come upon us, our people regards the foe that is fighting against us; himself justified and blessed. Therefore only his opponent is execrated and cursed. But he sees nothing of God’s sword of vengeance [lifted up] over him. If one bears witness frankly and freely to our people that God is punishing our sins with this war, the answer would be like the answer of those inhabitants of Sodom, of whom it says that when they were informed of God’s judgment “It was laughable to them.” Yes, not only will people be blind and deaf to this, but still more will declare you to be a traitor to the nation, a desecrator and slanderer of the majesty of the people. And as against Stephen, who spoke against Jerusalem and the temple, people will pick up stones to throw at you as if against people who are not worthy of having the earth sustain them.
So then, in truth, the prophet Jeremiah has described the condition of our people when he writes: “You strike them, but they feel it not; you plague them, but they do not amend their ways. They have a face harder than a rock, and do not want to be converted.”
But now, my listeners, what is our condition? Must we not also admit to our own shame that even among us the majority have not recognized and felt from the beginning on in this war the punishment of our sins, the wrath and judgment of God over our people? Where are our tears of repentance over our joint guilt in the common misery? Where are our daily prayers, supplications, wrestlings, and struggle with God for contrition and grace for us and our unfortunate people? Haven’t we rather cheered those who in this war saw nothing besides the birth pangs, full of hope, of a new age of perfect freedom and equality? Haven’t we gotten our opinions about this war from the godless, atheistic newspapers instead of taking them from the unerring Word of God? Instead of looking to the Lord of all Lords, whose fierceness against our fallen people has been awakened, and who alone, above all, “carries out such desolations on earth”, have we not looked to men, and thus nurtured hatred of foes and party-anger within ourselves—indeed, even helped to increase this fire from the netherworld into a bright flame in others? Have we not taken part in the universal confidence of our people in its own might and intelligence and in its deification of men? That we have faithfully stood by the authority God has set over us, that was right; but have we not at the same time committed ourselves to the plans of those partisans which puff themselves up hypocritically with their loyalty as long as the government serves their purposes, but which cast away the mask when it appears to want to pursue another course? Those partisans which intend nothing else than to overthrow everything, and to bring about those conditions in which equality, mob rule, and impudence count for freedom?
Oh, how many have fallen into this whirlpool, of whom one frankly expected something completely different! Truly, twenty years ago such things would not have been possible in our congregation.
Twenty years ago (1843), when we were still without our own house of God, we would have considered that fact that we as Christians must follow another way than the world. We wanted at that time not to be condemned with the godless world. But we have gone backward. We have fallen. The spirit of the world has broken in among us and has carried out terrible devastations among us.
Oh my brothers and sisters, it is time; it is already high time that we remember, that we rise up from our fall, that we turn back. If we don’t want to do this, then the spirit of the world, even if he perhaps still leaves the external form of a right-believing church—still, in short he will have eaten through our core like an evil worm, and we will become an empty shell. We will have the name of being alive while we are dead.
Oh, then hear me to day, in order that you hear God again! Don’t turn away indignant from your old cure of souls (Seelsorger) who chastens you, that God Himself may not one day depart from you in the hour of your death! For I don’t speak to you in my own name, but in the name of the Lord, the Most High, to which I have been solemnly called and sworn by you.
Let each one then test his previous conduct and his condition according to God’s Word with heartfelt sighs for the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.
Also, as true spiritual priests, help one another to a right knowledge of himself, and let everyone allow himself to be helped to this end. Confess then to God your deviations from His Holy Word with remorse and a stricken heart, and comfort yourselves against your sins with the sweet promises of divine grace in Christ, given to all repentant sinners. Let no one here wait on another. Begin, each one, with himself, without first consulting with flesh and blood.
Oh, if we would do that, then the plan which Satan has in mind, to fight through this war against our salvation, and to cheat us through the same, would be foiled. Because when God strikes, and one feels it; when God plagues, and one amends, then God repents of all the evil that He had thought to do to us; the pain will turn into medicine, the misfortune to good fortune and the bloody war itself to means of, if not temporal, still spiritual and eternal peace.
But because God alone can give the willing and the doing, alone can give grace and peace, temporal and eternal salvation to any individual and to whole peoples, let us, in closing, cast ourselves on our knees, and call upon God together for us and our people, for the whole Christian Church, and the whole redeemed world, as we sing the indicated hymn of prayer, no. 368: Kyrie eleison.
 Luther’s translation.
 Daniel 4:17, Luther’s translation: Solches ist im Rat der Wächter beschlossen und im Gespräch der Heiligen beratschlaget…KJV: This matter is by the decree of the watchers, and the demand by the word of the holy ones: to the intent that the living may know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will, and setteth up over it the basest of men.
 Exodus 15:3 (Luther’s translation: Der Herr ist der rechte Kriegesmann.)
 Psalm 46:10 (Luther’s translation: Der den Kriegen steuert in aller Welt; der Bogen zerbricht, Spiesse zerschlaegt, und Wagen mit Feuer verbrennt.)
 Revelation 6:8 (Luther’s translation: Und siehe, und ich sah ein fahl Pferd, und der daraufsaß, des Name hieß Tod, und die Hölle folgte ihm nach.)
 Psalm 46:9 (Luther’s translation: Kommt her, und schauet die Werke des Herrn, der auf Erden solch Zerstoeren anrichtet…)
 i.e. the Litany.
At the close of our text we read: “And he,” that is, Christ,” taught daily in the temple. But the chief priests and the scribes and the chief of the people sought to destroy him.” V. 47. After they had become blind to that which belonged to their peace, after they had lost all fear of God’s judgment, they fell from this sin into another without considering it sin; the most bitter enmity grew from their contempt of Christ, until finally they plotted to murder him, the Innocent, and did not rest until their bloodthirstiness was appeased by seeing Christ on the cross.
In their example you see the condition of a person who is hardened. He has fallen so far that he no longer knows what belongs to his peace. In vain God’s Word is preached to him; he no longer knows what belongs to his peace. His heart is hard as a rock. Though the Gospel with all its strength and comfort is preached to him, though Christ is presented ever so movingly in his love of sinners, and though he is in an ever so friendly and urgent a manner incited and enticed, it does not move the hardened person. And though the Law is preached to him in all its threatening severity, though God is described in his frightening righteousness and holiness, and though he is ever so earnestly admonished and warned, it does not move the hardened person. Though grace or wrath, life or death, blessing or curse, heaven or hell, salvation or damnation is presented to him, it is all the same to the hardened person…
…as little as God’s Word enlightens, awakens, and moves a hardened person to repent, so little do also the events of his life, which God permits him to experience. If all goes well, he does not let his heart become soft; the more love God shows him, the more secure, proud, and impudent he becomes, the more he believes that he is in no trouble. On the other hand, if things do not go well, he absolutely refuses to let himself be humbled. Then he murmurs against the Ruler of his fate, and insolently reviles the Almighty in heaven.
Finally, he comes to the point where he no longer feels any sin. His conscience is branded; it no longer carries out its duty; it no longer accuses him; it has become silent. He does only what he wishes without fearing God’s punishment; he becomes a declared enemy of Christ, his work, his Christians, and finally even persecutes them. The tears of anxious parents, brothers, sisters, former fellow-believers, and friends are in vain; the hardened laughs at those who sympathize with him and thus he hurries to meet the day of the revelation of God’s righteous judgment, hell and damnation.
C. F. W. Walther, “Sermon on the Gospel for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity”
It can be found in Der Lutheraner volume 3, p. 44. And you can get an English translation of the book here.
Margaretta: I would like to come to the confessional.
Parson: That’s good, why do you want to?
M. So that I confess my sins.
Pn: So, even you have sins?
M: We are all sinners and fall short of the glory we should have before God.
Pn: Do you also know your sins?
M: Some we know and some we don’t.
Pn.: But one must still know those that are known, else, there wouldn’t be known sins, so do you know them?
M.: I’ve never done anything wrong, and no one can say I have.
A little before I was born a practice that had been common in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod passed into oblivion. It was called “announcement for communion.” People used to go talk to the pastor before they went to the Lord’s Supper. I’ve never really been too sure what went on in these talks. From asking older people in the church I’ve gathered that over time it became little more than a ritual of going to church and signing your name in a book as intending to commune. Later people began to phone in their announcements.
But it always struck me as interesting that there was this practice in the Lutheran Church that bore some resemblance to confession prior to communion and that it only recently died out. Yet you never hear anyone talk about it or suggest resurrecting it. I’ve written another post touching on the subject (here), but that was two years ago and I can’t remember what I said.
I’ve been flipping around in a fantastic book I bought recently–a translation of C. F. W. Walther’s early volumes of Der Lutheraner, the newspaper he started before the Missouri Synod was even founded. (Thanks to Pr. Joel Baseley for his work in translating it; you can find the book here.) I stumbled upon a sample dialogue between a pastor and would-be communicants at announcement for communion, authored by no less than Wilhelm Loehe. I reprint part of it here for your edification and perhaps to entice you to buy a copy of the book.
A note: the confession referred to in what follows seems to have been a corporate service of confession and absolution rather than private confession and absolution. Although in the first century and a half or so after the reformation it was normal for Lutherans to go to private confession before communion, by the time this was published (December 1846) private confession and absolution was seldom used.
Announcement for Confession
A sketch as to its nature. by W. Loehe
Balthisar: Good day, Parson.
Parson: Good day, Balthisar, what do you want?
B. I want to announce for Confession this Saturday and the Lord’s Supper Sunday.
Pn. So why do you want the Lord’s Supper now?
B. Why? I think it is now the time to have the Lord’s Supper again.
Pn. Why now? Is it because you do that every year at Advent?
B. Yes, in my family we’ve always thought we should observe that, so if it’s Pentecost or Christmas day or in Advent we go to the Lord’s Supper. So I do that, too.
Pn. So you are going because of that custom?
B. Sure, why not? I don’t agree with the tradition many hold, who go but once a year.
This is a passage to read, read, and read again. I am grateful for the education I got at seminary. But some of the pastoral wisdom Walther displays here would have been very helpful. And the assertions he makes about hermeneutics at the end…some of my professors would have argued with them. But I think Walther is right. Ambiguity and failure to distinguish law and gospel clearly is responsible for so many failures in caring for souls.
Twentieth Evening Lecture
(February 27, 1885.)
When a place has been assigned to a Lutheran candidate of theology where he is to discharge the office of a Lutheran minister, that place ought to be to him the dearest, most beautiful, and most precious spot on earth… Do not the blessed angels descend from heaven with great joy whenever the Father in heaven sends them to minister to those who are to be heirs of salvation? Why, then, should we poor sinners be unwilling to hurry after them with great joy to any place where we can lead other men, our fellow-sinners, to salvation?
However, though great be the joy of a young, newly called pastor on entering his parish, there should be in him an equally great earnestness and determination to do all he can to save every soul entrusted to him. Frequently it may seem to him that the majority, if not all members, of his congregation are still blind, dead, unconverted people. That observation must not make him morose or discourage him, but rather fill him with an ardent desire to rouse them out of spiritual death through the divine means of grace and make them living Christians. Spite of the devil he should take up his work in the power of faith. If he observes that some members of his new charge are even living in manifest shame and vice, he must not despair, but bear in mind that he has a powerful Word by which he can make an effort to liberate these slaves of sin. If he observes that his congregation is on a low level as regards the knowledge of salvation, that his people are still sadly ignorant of what the Gospel really is, he must cheerfully resolve to take up the task of instructing the poor, ignorant people with patience and zeal, until they will see the light. Or he may notice that there are people in his congregation who are sincere, but disposed by their Pietistic schooling to be legalistic, who, therefore, regard some things as sinful that are not sinful. In that case he must resolve to forego exercising his Christian liberty lest he offend souls that regard as sin something that he feels free to do. On the other hand, he may discover in his congregation members of an Antinomian tendency, who are inclined to go too far in the exercise of their Christian liberty, because they are not accustomed to have the Law preached to them in its severity. In such a case he must not decide forthwith to oppose them with all his force and preach nothing but the sternest Law to them for a whole year. No, he must go after them gently and gradually make them see the stern demands of the Law. For the Apostle Paul says concerning himself: “I am made all things to all men that I might by all means save some.” 1 Cor. 9, 22. This statement he wants every servant of Christ to take to heart. Its import is that a minister must not be satisfied merely with proclaiming the truth; he must proclaim the truth so as to meet the needs of his people. He may have to defer saying many things until his people have gained confidence in him and his teaching and he knows that he may frankly tell them anything without fear of repelling them. Briefly, he must resolve to turn his congregation from a dreary desert into a flourishing garden of God.
…Blessed is the minister who starts his official work on the very first day with the determination to do everything that the grace of God will enable him to do in order that not a soul in his congregation shall be lost by his fault. Such a one resolves that by the grace of God he will do all he can, so that, when the day comes for him to put down his shepherd’s staff, he may be able to say, as Christ said to His Father: Here I am and those that Thou gavest me, and none of them is lost. Even the blood of those who shall stand on the left side of the judgment-seat, he resolves, shall not be on his hands.
But now the question arises: What is the matter of chief concern to a minister who wants to attain this glorious object? He must approach the Lord with heartfelt prayer and earnest entreaties in behalf of his congregation and, when preaching the Word of God with great zeal publicly and privately, jointly or severally, rightly divide the Word of Truth. For that is what Paul demands 2 Tim. 2, 15, saying: “Study to show thyself approved unto God a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth.”
During your present year at the Seminary this very thing, you know, is the subject of our study—the proper division of the Word of God, of Law and the Gospel. These two are the cardinal doctrines of all the Holy Scriptures, which are made up of these two. Any passage of Scripture, yea, any historical fact recorded in Scripture can be classified as belonging either to the Law or to the Gospel. No one should be permitted to graduate from a school of theology who is unable to determine whether a given passage of Scripture is Law or Gospel, or whether in any compound clause of Scripture the protasis is Law and the apodosis Gospel, or vice versa. It is your duty to become perfectly clear on this subject.
C.F.W Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, pp. 207-210.
- The Distinction Between Law and Gospel and Morality (johnstob.wordpress.com)
- The Law/Gospel Distinction in Scotland (reformedreader.wordpress.com)
- The Glory of the Office Of the Preaching of the Gospel – Trinity 12 (Walther) (deprofundisclamaviadtedomine.wordpress.com)
- Law and Gospel: The Power of the Gospel In Two Words (blackchristiannews.com)
- Need for Law & Gospel (withlovefromlatinamerica.wordpress.com)
- Preaching the Gospel as Gospel: The Good News of the Resurrection (afkimel.wordpress.com)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
2 Corinthians 3:4-11
August 18, 2013 (Rally Day, Installation of Teachers)
“The Glory of the Office of the Preaching of the Gospel”
(abridged and adapted from C. F. W. Walther, “Sermon on the 12th Sunday after the Festival of the Holy Trinity”, Brosamen, Concordia: St. Louis, 1876. Pp. 172-183)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
This morning we consider the Epistle taken from 2nd Corinthians. In it Paul praises his office, the office of the preaching of the Gospel. Oftentimes when a pastor has someone else preach for him, he will ask the guest preacher to preach on a topic that his congregation needs to hear about but will be better able to hear from someone else. Because of this I decided to borrow from a sermon preached on this text by Carl Friedrich Walther, the founding father of our synod. Today he will be our guest preacher.
Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus! he begins.
In the Epistle, the Apostle Paul praises his office as one of overflowing glory. He does this because false teachers had come into the midst of the Corinthians, who tried to belittle Paul’s office. They intended to hinder the blessing that comes through the office of preaching the Gospel by doing this.
Now in our day too, especially here in America, the office of the preaching of the Gospel is nearly everywhere an object of scorn. Because of this the blessing of the Word of God both inside and outside the Church is hindered more than one can imagine. Permit me today to follow in the footsteps of the apostle and praise my office before you. I speak to you today
Concerning the exaltation and glory of the office of the preaching of the Gospel,
- 1. Of its exalted purpose and goal, and
- 2. Of the glorious means which have been given to it in order to accomplish this goal.