18th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
September 25, 2016
“A Church Loses Its First Love”
There is a reason why so many songs and poems speak about the experience of falling in love. Love is powerful, intoxicating. It almost makes someone new. It changes the expression of a person’s face, gives light to their eyes. It gives people courage and zeal to do things they would never otherwise have tried.
But the ecstasy of falling in love has to be followed up by action. People who fall in love but don’t make a pledge to one another to forsake all other loves, or who don’t follow through on that pledge by continuing to give themselves to the other, find that their love grows cold. Instead of first love growing into a deeper and more mature love, it gradually dies.
In the first letter to the churches in Asia Minor, our Lord Jesus Christ writes to the church in Ephesus that it has lost its first love for Him.
The church in Ephesus was the oldest of the seven churches to which Jesus told John to write. It had been founded by the apostle Paul about 40 years before the writing of the book of Revelation. He wrote the Ephesian church a letter while he was in prison in Rome that we still read today because it is holy Scripture. Later, tradition tells us that the apostle John lived in Ephesus and taught there into his old age.
Being the oldest church in the region, and having had two apostles dwell there and teach them, the church in Ephesus might have been proud of their history, boasted of what God had done for them. That boasting and pride would have been no sin if it was pride in the goodness and love of their Lord, who made them first among the seven churches solely out of His grace.
But something was wrong in Ephesus. Jesus introduces Himself as the One who walks in the midst of the golden lampstands, the churches. “I know your works,” He says. And the works He mentions He is pleased with: the Ephesians have toiled and worked hard as a church to spread the word of God. They have been patient and endured suffering and hostility in the world for their faith and their toil to make Christ known. And they could not tolerate false teachers. They tested those who claimed to be “apostles”—people sent by Christ—and when the supposedly God-sent men didn’t preach what accords with Christ’s doctrine, the Ephesians threw them out as false apostles and refused to hear them.
In addition, Jesus commends them because they hated the works of the Nicolaitans, a group that claimed the Gospel made them free to practice sexual immorality and to eat meat sacrificed to idols. That was like receiving communion from an idol—participating in its worship, and proclaiming fellowship with the idols worshippers.
So the Ephesian church was exemplary for its orthodoxy and its willingness to work and suffer for Christ.
But for all this apparent faithfulness, the Lord finds something lacking, something so important that it invalidates all the good things about the church in Ephesus. “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first—“ or, “You have let go of your first love.”
“You don’t love me like you once did.” When two people are in love, those are among the most painful words one could speak to the other. They signify that love between two people is no longer strong and certain; love is passing away, the way everything beautiful in this world fades, grows old, and dies.
Hearing Jesus say, “You have lost your first love for me” would pierce the heart of anyone who loves Him like a dagger. After He rose from the dead, Jesus appeared to Peter by the Sea of Galilee, where He first called Peter to follow Him. Three times He asked Peter, “Do you love me?” And Peter was full of grief that Jesus had to ask if he still loved Him.
If Jesus asked you, St. Peter, “Do you love me?”, would you grieve? Would you get angry? Do you think, maybe, He does ask us that?
But Jesus doesn’t say the Ephesian church doesn’t love him anymore. He only says they have lost their first love. Their love toward Jesus has cooled.
They still love Jesus in Ephesus. They just don’t love Him as much as they used to. Or rather, they just don’t love as much—Jesus or other people. Yet just this—the cooling of love, the decline of love—is enough to draw this severe threat from the Lord of the Church: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Rev. 2:5) In other words, Jesus will bring the church in Ephesus to an end because they have lost their first love. He will cause this church to cease to exist.
Eventually what Jesus warns of here happened to the church in Ephesus. Ephesus was a major city as well as a major center of the early Christian church. But it was destroyed by an invasion of Germanic tribesman in 263 A. D. After being rebuilt by a Roman emperor, throughout the 700’s it suffered from raids by Muslim armies. Meanwhile, its harbor gradually filled with silt. It lost trade as a result, and its standing as a center of commerce declined. By the time Muslim Turks conquered it about 1000 years after the writing of the book of Revelation, it had become a small village. In another four hundred years it was completely abandoned. Whatever remained of the Church of Ephesus, which had once been first among the churches of Asia, was taken away.
St. Peter Lutheran Church in Joliet has several things in common with the church in Ephesus. We were the first Lutheran Church in Joliet. Most of the other Missouri Synod congregations for miles around were birthed by St. Peter. No apostles ever occupied the pulpit of St. Peter, but God blessed it with at least three gifted pastors in its 159 years. There have been others who have perhaps not had as many gifts, but they were faithful in teaching God’s pure Word and administering His Sacraments.
Yet today we have declined to a shadow of the church’s former strength. Many of us wonder how many years St. Peter has left.
Like the Church in Ephesus, a lot of earthly factors have contributed to our declining attendance. Although the city of Joliet has grown numerically it has declined economically, causing many of the sons and daughters of our congregation to move elsewhere. Then there is the decay of the neighborhood from a prosperous area to a slum with the reputation of being dangerous.
Yet Jesus doesn’t say that the decline of the city of Ephesus will cause the Ephesian church to disappear. He says, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” If the Ephesians in fact did not repent, then it wasn’t the invasions and earthquakes and the filling in of the harbor that caused the church in Ephesus to disappear.
Rather, Jesus caused those calamities in order to remove their lampstand from its place.
And if this is what happened, it was all because they had lost their first love. So as we see our church on the verge of being removed from its place, what should we be asking ourselves except, “Has St. Peter lost its first love?”
If we look back at our history, we can see evidence of St. Peter’s love for Christ, His Word, and those who do not know and believe it.
In 1870, St. Peter called a pastor from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. At that time the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States was only 23 years old. St. Peter was only 13 years old. The young bearded pastor that came fresh from the seminary, the Rev. Carl Rothe, spent 8 years here—and only at the end of his ministry did the congregation make its first steps toward becoming a confessional Lutheran congregation, when it accepted the Unaltered Augsburg Confession of 1530 as a summary confession of the faith held by the congregation. Prior to that, for 25 years, St. Peter had “Lutheran” in the title of their name, but apparently was not clear on what they meant by saying they were Lutheran. By accepting the Augsburg Confession, they publicly confessed the doctrine of the early Lutheran reformers as their own.
Pastor Rothe was followed in office by his brother-in-law, Pastor August Schuessler, who had been pastor in a small town south of here. Some time in the 1880s, St. Peter became a member congregation of the Missouri Synod, after it embraced the entire Book of Concord of 1580 as its confession of faith.
What does this show about St. Peter in those days? It shows that they had a love for Christ and His Word and were willing to be instructed from it. They went from being a congregation that called itself “Lutheran” in a generic way to being a congregation that received the entire doctrine of the Lutheran Church.
St. Peter then was a congregation that loved Christ. As a result, it was willing to test whether its faith was in line with God’s Word. And when they found that it was not, they were willing to repent and receive the full teaching of God’s Word.
St. Peter also had a desire to see Christ’s Kingdom extended on earth. They loved their neighbors and were willing to work to see the Gospel spread and bring people to faith in Christ. In the early part of the 20th century, for many years, St. Peter not only maintained a Sunday School for its own children, but operated one on the other side of town. They called it “the mission Sunday School.” One imagines that the “mission Sunday School” ministered to kids whose parents were not willing or able to bring their children up as Christians. St. Peter didn’t simply expect that parents be responsible to bring their children to Sunday School and church—they actively sought out the children who, for whatever reason, were not being taught the Scriptures at the age when it is most critical that children learn them. That was a measure of their faith in Christ’s Word and their love for those who were separated from it.
How do we measure up to the “first love” of our congregation?
The love that St. Peter showed in its early years for the word of God, evidenced by their willingness to grow in it, to learn from it and acknowledge when their knowledge and confession of it had been deficient—is that still present among us? By no means. As your pastor for ten years, I can bear witness that many of St. Peter’s members—most—do not remember the basic teachings of God’s Word found in the Small Catechism. It’s not simply that they no longer remember the words of the catechism—which itself should not be; it should not be that a congregation that says it adheres to the confessions of the Lutheran Church does not remember the simple form of the faith that “the head of the family should teach…to his household.”
But not only do very few remember the words of the catechism; very many also have forgotten the content of the catechism. Forgotten that the church of Christ is not everyone who can be enticed to show up to worship, but “the communion of saints…[that] those who believe in Christ…but only believers, are members of the church.” Forgotten that a person cannot become a believer in Christ by their “own reason or strength”, much less by means of techniques designed by men to appeal to unbelievers, but that the Holy Spirit must call a person by the Gospel, enlighten him with His gifts, sanctify and keep him in the true faith. Forgotten that when a person visits St. Peter with a different confession of faith than the one taught by the Holy Spirit, we are not permitted to share the body and blood of Christ with that person, but invite that person to first be instructed and confess with us God’s Word in its purity.
Yet not only have many people at St. Peter forgotten these teachings that they once learned and confessed, they have often responded to them with anger when they were presented to them again. But even where this is not the case, the majority of members of St. Peter have proven themselves less than eager to re-learn or to grow in the knowledge of God’s Word.
The love St. Peter had at first for God’s Word is not here anymore.
For the last ten years, I have conducted these series in the fall, in which I exhorted those who came to devote themselves anew to the Christian life, to Divine Service, Scripture, Prayer, Giving, Serving, and Witnessing. I pleaded with the congregation over the years to come to Bible Class during these weeks, if at no other time during the year, so that we could come together and examine ourselves as a congregation. To repent where we had been negligent in these things. To hear God’s pardon for our sin through the death of His Son. To encourage one another to grow in these things that are fruits of faith in Christ.
Early on, I sent out mailings and letters trying to gather the congregation together. In more recent years I begged and pleaded with those who were present in the Divine Service to come to Bible Class. And for ten years there has been little to no response. Those who didn’t come at all didn’t come. Those who do attend the Divine Service but not Bible Class, with few exceptions, ignored my pleading.
And even this year, when the church is in critical condition, and everyone knows it, there is no increased sense of urgency—at least no sense of urgency to turn to God and His Word. The love St. Peter once had amongst its own members is not like its first love. If this love still exists, it is not the love that recognizes that our mutual well-being as a church depends first and foremost on our listening to God and, believing His promises, walking in the ways of prayer, giving, serving, and witnessing.
Finally, what about St. Peter’s love for the lost outside the Church? Is there an earnest love that compels us to bring the Gospel outside of the walls of our congregation, like that which once drove St. Peter to start a mission Sunday School?
There is a zeal among some, to be sure, who devote countless hours to Vacation Bible School every summer, and others who have tried in various ways to bring God’s Word to the youth and to the families at Evergreen Terrace. But the congregation as a whole does not work as a body to reach out and to welcome in those who are outside. And that is what we need. How difficult a stumbling block we place in front of our new members when, after undergoing catechesis for several months, they join the church, and find so many members who have so little interest in what they spent the last several months learning, and who seem to have little joy about someone else confessing that faith and doctrine as their own!
What I am saying is very difficult to hear. It may make you angry to hear it. Perhaps you think I’m not presenting the whole story.
Yet I doubt that there are many who will dispute that St. Peter as a congregation has lost its first love. We can see clearly enough by their absence that in many people this love—for Christ, for His Word, His people—has died completely. And certainly in some, if not many of us, it has died or grown very cold.
The loss of their first love meant the removal of the church of Ephesus. And as we see our lampstand being removed, we should hear clearly Jesus’ words to them in our ears: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Rev. 2:5)
Why did Jesus threaten to take away the church in Ephesus because they had lost their first love? Because faith and love are always together. We say correctly that “faith alone saves,” that “a man is justified by faith alone without the deeds of the Law.” (Rom. 3:28) But faith that saves, faith in Christ, is always followed by love. Because faith in Christ is worked by the Holy Spirit, who at the same time renews our heart, so that it is not the selfish, cold heart of the old Adam only. Instead, Jesus dwells in our hearts by faith (Ephesians 3:17)—the same Jesus who loved us and gave Himself for us. Yes, the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rom. 5:5). So where love is on the wane, faith in Christ is dying as well.
If only you would hear Jesus and not cast these words behind you! That you would realize the terrible seriousness of this, that Jesus truly and earnestly threatens to close a church because it abandon[s] the love [it] had at first! (Rev. 2:4) He threatens this to us not out of spite or vengefulness, but because He desires our salvation! When a church loses its first love, there will be members of whom this is not true. Those members Jesus will not abandon. But those who have fallen away or who continue on the path of falling are not simply in danger of seeing their congregation close, but of seeing themselves shut out of the Church of Christ in heaven. Jesus warns us so that this may not happen to us—not only the tragedy of Him removing a congregation like a branch on a vine that bears no fruit—but the tragedy of the members of that congregation individually being removed and cast into the fire and burned (John 15:5-6).
He warns so that there may be a change of heart—a repentance, in individuals, and in the congregation as a whole.
He says “Remember from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.” Then He will not remove your lampstand from its place.
That means that we return to St. Peter’s first love—to an eagerness to hear, learn, and grow in God’s Word; an eagerness to abide in all Christ’s teaching; an eager desire to proclaim and spread this Word. To return to newborn love for Jesus and the souls He died to save, inside and outside the Church.
It is not enough that we repent of our failure to hear God’s Word and spread it simply because we don’t want to see our congregation die. Repentance means to recognize our sin against the Lord who loved us, and to trust in the blood He shed to cancel that sin and purify us of it. And then, out of that faith and trust, to do the works of love the congregation once did—to gladly hear God’s Word and gladly proclaim it to the world.
Those who have not fallen from their first love repent of those inclinations and impulses they see in themselves that would dampen their love for Christ and His Word. Those who are growing cold turn again to Jesus with their dying love with sorrow. And those whose love has died fall at the feet of Jesus who is able to raise the dead.
You may rightly sense the difficulty of this—indeed, its impossibility. How can we restore love for Christ? Even human love is something difficult to keep, and difficult to revive once it has decreased—much less when it has died completely. But the love of God is not within our power to establish in our hearts. It must be poured out into them by the Holy Spirit.
All this is true, and there is no escaping it. Love is from God (1 John 4:7) says John in his first epistle. Just as the faith in Christ that saves us is not from ourselves but is the gift of God, so that no one may boast (Eph. 2:9), God also must work His love in our hearts, or we will remain cold and loveless. Yet God desires to work both faith and love in the hearts of all people, because Jesus has redeemed all people through His suffering and death. And so God appointed means by which He gives the Holy Spirit and gives the gift of faith and the love that follow from it.
Those means are the Word and the Sacraments; if we are to regain our first love and the faith that produced it, God must do it. But He has promised to do it by means of the Word and Sacraments. Which means the salvation of our souls and of our congregation is to be found in the Divine Service and in Scripture.
But we have already had those things, and we still ended up where we are now!
That is true. But if the means God appointed to work faith and love in our hearts haven’t worked, it isn’t because those means are not effective, or that God only works through them sometimes. The fault is with us. Too often we have neglected the preaching of the Word, the Sacraments, and the reading of Scripture. We have received them a couple of times a month, or less. We have not read the Scriptures in our homes or been willing to study them in church. And even when we were present to hear the Word preached and receive the Sacrament of Jesus’ body and blood, we did not really receive.
We didn’t listen. Maybe you didn’t think that preaching is God’s Word—you thought it was just the opinion of whoever occupied the pulpit. Or when you listened to the reading of Scripture you tuned it out because you figured you had heard it before. You came to the divine service, and particularly the Lord’s Supper, without preparation—not examining yourself to see whether you repented of your sins and believed what Jesus said He was giving. You came to church half-asleep because you were doing other things the night before. Or you came without prayer and readiness to hear God speak and work in you because you didn’t realize how badly you needed Him to do so. You came but got annoyed if you didn’t get to sing the right hymns, were irritated if I didn’t conduct the service as you thought it should be done. You had expectations of how the service was supposed to go and were certain of the rightness of your indignation if those expectations weren’t met.
You did not realize that you were closing your heart to the Holy Spirit who desired to work in you. Whether you neglected opportunities to hear or read God’s Word, or whether you physically presented yourselves but did not seriously listen.
Once a month for several years I have been teaching a class on the Book of Concord, the confessions of the Lutheran Church. One of the documents in the Book of Concord is called The Formula of Concord, written about three decades after the death of Martin Luther to settle certain controversies that arose after his death. It has a wonderful section in which it talks about how God always wills to work through His Word, preached, read, or taught, to bring about faith and love in those who by nature are without both.
It says, “We should never regard this call from God, which takes place through the preaching of the Word, as some kind of deception. Instead, we should know that God reveals His will through it, namely, that he wills to work through His Word in those whom he has called, so that they may be enlightened, converted, and saved. For the Word through which we are called is a ministry of the Spirit. It ‘gives the Spirit,’ or through it the Spirit is conferred (2 Cor. 3); it is a ‘power of God’ that saves [Rom. 1]. Because the Holy Spirit wills to be efficacious and to give strength, power, and ability through the Word, it is God’s will that we accept the Word and believe and follow it…
Therefore, if people wish to be saved…they should listen to Christ…He testifies to all people without distinction that God wills all people who are burdened and weighed down with sins to come to him, so that they may be given rest and be saved.
According to Christ’s teaching they should abstain from sin, repent, trust the promise, and rely completely upon Christ. Because we are not capable of doing this by our own powers, the Holy Spirit wills to effect to repentance and faith in us through the Word and the sacraments. And that we may complete this and persist and remain faithful in it, we should call upon God for his grace, which he has promised us in Holy Baptism, and not doubt that in accord with His promise He will convey it to us, as He has promised…
Next, the Holy Spirit dwells in the elect who have believed as He dwells in His temple and is not idle in them but impels the children of God to obey God’s commands. Therefore, believers should in the same way not be idle either, much less resist the impetus of God’s Spirit, but should practice all Christian virtues…and should diligently seek to “confirm their call and election” [2 Peter 1:10], so that the more they recognize the Spirit’s power and strength in themselves, the less they doubt their election…
According to His normal arrangement, the Father draws people by the power of His Holy Spirit through the hearing of His holy, divine Word, as with a net, through which the elect are snatched out of the jaws of the devil. For this reason every poor sinner should act in such a way as to hear the Word diligently and not doubt that the Father is drawing people to Himself. For the Holy Spirit wills to be present with His power in the Word and to work through it. This is the drawing of the Father.
The reason why not all who hear the Word believe it (and thus receive the greater damnation) is not that God has not allowed them to be saved. Instead, it is their own fault, for they heard the Word not so that they might learn from it but only to despise, revile, and ridicule it; and they resisted the Holy Spirit, who wanted to work in them through the Word… (FC SD XI: 29, 70-73, 76-78)
The Holy Spirit will restore all who have fallen and those who have faltered to their first love through His Word and Sacraments. So we should attend to them the way we would attend to medicine that would save our lives on earth, because indeed there is no other medicine to restore faith in Christ and love to our congregation.
Those who do this will rise from their fall to conquer their sinful nature, the world, and the devil. And Jesus holds out a great promise to the ones who conquer by faith in Him—He will give them to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.
You may remember how in his final hours a criminal who was crucified next to Jesus turned to Him and said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
The man, dying on the cross for his own sin, under the judgment of God, nearing the final minutes of a life spent in wickedness, arose and conquered. Jesus promised him the right to eat from the tree of life in the paradise of God.
Why? Because through His Word, Jesus brought this man to faith in Him. With this faith came love; in his final minutes He spoke in defense of Jesus. He loved the man he rebuked and sought to bring him salvation even while both were dying condemned for their sins. He loved Jesus and confessed the truth about Him—that He had done nothing to deserve crucifixion, nothing sinful at all. He loved Jesus because He believed Jesus’ word, that the suffering He endured was to redeem even the criminal from his life of disobedience to God.
We may be at the end of the road as a congregation. It may be that even with repentance and renewal we are not to continue as a congregation, for some reason known only to our Lord Jesus.
Yet the reward of conquering with Jesus is not our congregation’s future on earth. It is the right to eat from the tree of life and dwell in the presence of God in paradise. The fruit of the tree of life, however, begins for those who repent and believe the Gospel today. To eat that fruit, to taste and see that the Lord is good, is to believe in the Son of God, who came that we might have life, who came to bear our offenses. Whoever believes in Jesus “eats His flesh and drinks His blood” (John 6), receiving life from His sacrificial death. As they go on eating from this tree of life, they are transformed by Him; they taste His love, and desire more of it. And the more they receive it, the more they love Him in return, the more they love those that He loves.
You are about to come eat this fruit of paradise, the very body and blood of Jesus given and shed for your salvation. Let us come with repentance for all the times we have eaten this fruit and not come forth from this altar to conquer with Jesus our natural lovelessness. Let us come with the bitter taste of repentance that we may begin to taste the sweetness of His love toward us while we were still sinners (Rom. 5).
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
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.
St. Peter Lutheran Church
February 10, 2016
“Return To Me With All Your Heart”
“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning, and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Joel 2:12
“Return to Me,” God says at the beginning of Lent.
And possibly, you are thinking, “Return? But I’ve never left you, Lord. I believe in Jesus. I’m not aware of any grave sins in my life, only the normal struggles with sin that none of us can avoid.”
When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden of Eden, they were too busy to stop and consider what had happened, what they had done. First they realized they were naked and set about to cover themselves up with fig leaves. Then they heard the sound of the Lord God and they were busy with trying to hide among the trees of the garden. They were busy trying to deal with their sin themselves, and that occupied their minds so that they did not have time to stop and think about what they had done.
Until God called, “Adam, where are you?”
Then they started to realize where they were. They were separated from the God who made them. They were far away from Him—not physically, but spiritually. They had taken leave of Him in their hearts.
Then He called, and they had to come out and face Him, look into His eyes and see their guilt reflected back at them, face the punishment they had brought upon themselves.
When God says “Return to Me,” He is calling to us just like He did to Adam and Eve. He calls us to stop and consider where we are, something we often don’t do because we are busy—busy, in the end, running from God. You may not have committed any conscious, willful sins against God. You may not be living in any sin you consider great. Or you may be.
Regardless, God calls you to return to Him. All our sins of thought, word, and deed alienate us from the Triune God, the giver of life. And we are always turning from God. Turning from Him to make an idol of our work or our pleasure, drawn away from loving God above all other things. Even when it is as common a thing as neglecting to pray, we are withdrawing from the living God.
God calls us, even commands us in His Law, to be wholly and completely His people. We are not supposed to be partially God’s, but wholly His own—heart, soul, and body. “Our great God and Savior Jesus Christ…gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession…” (Titus 2:13-14) “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength.” We were created to love God and to be wholly His. And after we fell, we were re-created in Baptism in order to be God’s own.
And yet no matter who you are, how holy you are, you have not been wholly the Lord’s. You have not been faithful to your God.
“Return to Me with all your heart.” During the season of Lent we are invited to take to heart just how serious a thing it is to depart from God.
The ashes we put on our heads are not decorations. They remind us of the consequences of departing from God. “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” God told Adam (Genesis 3:17). “The wages of sin is death,” says Paul in the 6th chapter of Romans. By the sin in which we were conceived, the sins we have committed unintentionally and those we have committed willfully, we have brought death on ourselves. Each one of us must one day experience the pain and agony of death because of our sins, and along with it (unless God grants us grace), we will also experience the fear and sorrow of knowing that it is the just punishment for our sin. The things we love and enjoy in this world—friends, children, loved ones, along with food and drink and every other lawful pleasure—we will have to leave to come before God. We will return to Him to be judged when we die, whether or not we willingly return to Him in this life.
The ashes also symbolize something worse than death. They symbolize the wrath of God. Just as Sodom and Gomorrah was burnt to ashes by fire that fell from heaven because of God’s wrath and indignation, so we deserve to be burnt in the eternal fire of hell for departing from the Lord.
Even more, during Lent we see our sins reflected in the suffering of Jesus. See how Jesus sweat blood in Gethsemane for fear of God’s wrath. How he was condemned and suffered the physical agony and shame of the flogging, the mockery, and the crucifixion. See above all how He cried out on the cross that He was forsaken by God.
Jesus never departed from the Lord. He always obeyed, always loved God, never turned away from God to give the love, faith, and worship of His heart to something or someone else. And if this innocent Son of God suffered so bitterly for sins that were not His own, what kind of torment will come to people who do not return to the Lord in repentance?
So what does it mean to return to the Lord with all your heart? How is it done?
It is not something we can do by our own free will. When we return to the Lord, it is because the Spirit of God turns us. Through His Word He makes us see where we are, how we have left behind the God of life and tried to find life elsewhere. And through His Word He reveals what restores us to Him—the suffering of Jesus.
To return to the Lord is first of all to listen to the Word of God, His voice calling to us “Where are you?” Like Adam, we hear God’s voice while we are hiding. To return to the Lord means to listen to that voice as it exposes our sins. We stop running and examine ourselves in the light of the ten commandments. By that light we see how we have departed from God. We learn to know ourselves; we recognize that we are not able to return to God by keeping His Law, because our sinful nature prevents us from fulfilling it.
Second, to return to the Lord means to confess our helplessness to God and seek His grace.
Third, and most importantly, we believe the Gospel that God proclaims to us. In the face of our sins, we cling to the good news that God does not count our sins to us. He has given them to His Son, who made atonement for them with His blood. By Jesus’ suffering and death God receives us as if we had never departed from Him. He has made peace with God for us so that our sins are not counted to us. Believing in Him, we return to God.
Finally, having returned to God through faith in Christ live in Christ. We devote ourselves to His Word and draw near to Him daily in prayer, asking for His help to put away our old nature and to put on the image of Christ. We devote ourselves to good works, not merely turning away from sin but practicing the good works God would have us do. We give ourselves to neighbors by serving them in the positions to which God has called us; we forgive those who sin against us; we show mercy to the poor and to those who have not heard the Gospel. We pray for and mourn over our neighbors, seeking their salvation.
But you will notice that the reading from Joel does mentions other things besides repentance and faith. “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning, and rend your hearts and not your garments.” (Joel 2:12-13) “With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” What does fasting, weeping, and mourning have to do with returning to the Lord?
“Fasting, weeping, and mourning” are outward signs of the sorrow we should feel because of sin. But fasting also has another purpose. It helps to discipline the flesh, to put it to death so that we are able to give our attention to the Word of God and prayer. It is also a way of humbling the flesh. Fasting helps us to hear and to pray by disciplining our bodies so that we can give our attention to His Word and prayer.
Fasting need not be difficult. It is simply a matter of limiting or abstaining from food for a certain period of time, and then using that time to engage in self-examination, confession, meditation on the Word and prayer. A simple way to fast would be to skip one meal on Wednesdays during Lent, and then to attend Matins or Vespers to hear the Word and pray. A more difficult fast would be to abstain from food until after sundown one or two days a week
Finally, in the reading from Joel God gives promises and encouragements to those who would return to Him with all their hearts.
“Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?” (Joel 2:13-14)
Again, God says through Joel: “Then the Lord became jealous for his land and had pity on his people. The Lord answered and said to his people, ‘Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations.” (Joel 2:18-19)
Today it is largely forgotten that God not only punishes sin eternally in hell for those who do not return to Him; He also sends earthly chastisements and punishments for sins to bring us to repentance.
Most of us have many crosses and difficulties in our personal lives. Besides this our congregation experiences many difficulties with declining attendance and an increasing budget deficit. On top of this there are the troubles we see afflicting our synod, our nation, and the Church throughout the world.
We don’t always know the reason that God allows these difficulties to come to us. But we know that He does send “temporal punishments” and chastisements for sin, and we know that we have plenty of sins for which He could rightly punish us. But in this reading from Joel God says that He is gracious and merciful and often “relents from disaster,” turning away the temporal punishments we have brought on ourselves when we return to Him with all our heart. How many of the difficulties experienced in our homes, our church, and our nation might be averted if we returned to the Lord with “fasting, mourning, and weeping”?
God encourages us about this, but does not promise that He will turn away all suffering. But though we are not promised that all our earthly suffering will be averted by returning to Him with all our hearts, we are promised that He will receive all who repent and turn to Him in grace. He will graciously forgive them their sins, turn His face toward them, and give them eternal life.
When Adam heard God call, “Where are you?” and Adam returned to God, He must have been full of grief and terror. He must have feared the punishment He deserved and grieved over the way He had squandered the honor God had given Him.
But when He returned to the Lord He did not find destruction or shame. Instead the Lord promised that He would send a man who would destroy the power of the serpent who had deceived him. Adam was promised that in the future a man would destroy the power of death. And though Adam deserved shame and had to live under a curse, God promised him that he would be relieved of his disgrace. An offspring of the woman would bear Adam’s shame, suffering death and condemnation for his sin. He would silence the devil’s accusations against Adam and his offspring by bearing their offenses.
In the same way when we return to the Lord, facing the bitterness of our sins, He shows us grace instead of punishing us. We return to the Lord in sorrow for our sins and hold fast to His promise that Christ bore them. And in Christ’s wounds God’s wrath passes over us. He receives as though we had never departed from Him. He replaces our shame with honor.
May the Lord aid us this Lent to return to Him with our whole hearts, that we may learn to know His grace, mercy, patience, and steadfast love.
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Soli Deo Gloria
3rd Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 15:1-10
June 21, 2015
“Love For the Lost Sheep”
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Him. Luke 15:1
This is a marvelous sentence. The tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to hear Jesus. It wasn’t just your everyday, run-of-the-mill sinners who were coming to listen to Jesus. It was the blatant sinners, people who were marked and avoided as being godless, excommunicated sinners. They were coming to listen to Jesus preach, and Jesus was receiving them, not driving them off.
For some of us today this may be a difficult thing to relate with. These were people living in public, open, unrepentant sin. Maybe you are not. Of course, we all know plenty of other people who are openly unrepentant. For instance, those who despise God’s Word by seldom or never coming to hear it preached. Those who openly live in sexual sin—premarital sex, adultery, homosexuality, pornography. Those who slander and backbite and continue to do so even though they are rebuked. The list goes on. Paul gives us a longer list in Galatians chapter 5. “Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21). When a person falls into such sins and does not repent, it means that they have fallen from the grace of God. They are on their way to hell.
Now most of us here today, or at least many of us, are not living in such sins. So it may be hard for us to relate to the joy this passage holds for sinners and tax collectors, for those who have fallen into grievous sin. For those who have fallen this passage holds out news of hope and unspeakable joy. It tells us that God is not idly or happily watching sinners perish. He is eagerly seeking the fallen, desiring their salvation. And when He finds them and brings them home, He rejoices over them along with all the angels in heaven.
That’s truly good news if you are a tax collector or a sinner, if you are sorry and afraid of your sins and long for salvation. God is seeking you out to give you forgiveness and restore you. But what if your sins are not so great and you are not so heavily burdened by them? What if you have not fallen into public, unrepentant sin?
First of all, you should give thanks to God for preserving you from great shame and vice, because without His grace you too would surely have fallen. But secondly this Scripture also shows how severely even those who have lived an upright life before the world have sinned. It draws a picture of what kind of love God has for the ungodly, and what kind of love He requires in the Law that we have.
You have heard the summary of the ten commandments before. The summary of the first table is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul and all your strength.” And the second table is summarized with “Love your neighbor as yourself.” What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? Jesus says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That’s simple. It’s the golden rule we teach to children. If your neighbor is hungry or thirsty, you feed him and give him something to drink, because that’s what you would have him do to you. If your neighbor is being slandered, you defend his reputation. If he has property, you help him to keep it and improve it, you don’t try to get it away from him. That’s love in external, bodily things, and that’s what God requires of us in the ten commandments.
But it is a much greater thing to love your neighbor in spiritual things. That means when you see your neighbor on the road to hell, you don’t shrug it off and say, “That’s his problem.” You deal with your neighbor as if his sin was your sin. What would you want your neighbor to do for you if you were caught in a sin and bound for hell? Would you want him never to say anything about it and mind his own business? Or would you want him to take you aside and preach the law of God to you so that you turn from your evil way and seek God’s grace? For myself, I would want my neighbor not to talk about me, nor cast me off as a lost cause, but to take me aside and warn me frankly to repent of my sin. I would want him to love me enough to seek my eternal welfare.
And that’s how much God commands and requires that we love our neighbor. He requires that we love him enough to seek his eternal well-being as if it were our own. That doesn’t just mean telling him that Jesus loves him and hoping he gets it. It means warning him with the law when he is unrepentant. But God doesn’t just require talk from us to our neighbor. Our hearts are to be full of love toward our neighbors, so that we can’t rest while they are perishing. That’s the way that God loves the lost, and it was this love that made the sinners and tax collectors come to Jesus. They heard stern rebukes and warnings from Jesus. Jesus preached, “Repent.” But they didn’t run away from Jesus as a harsh judge. It was clear that everything Jesus did and said proceeded from deep, passionate love for lost sinners. He was searching for them, longing for them, seeking them out the way a widow looks for her lost coin or a shepherd searches for his lost sheep.
In the past few weeks you’ve heard me try to speak clearly and call sin sin with regard to some of the things our society is trying to whitewash and legitimize. But in the scheme of things it’s relatively easy to stand behind this pulpit and say trying to change your sex is sinful, or having relations with someone of the same sex is sinful. But all of that is a dead work if there isn’t also love for sinners behind it. The Pharisees and scribes were able to call sin sin too. But they fell short of the righteousness of God because they didn’t also have heartfelt love for lost sinners that seeks them out and makes their sin its own. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels but have not love, I am a clanging gong or a crashing cymbal.”
And that’s just how we are in our sinful flesh—a lot of noise with no substance. A tongue ready to declare the law with a heart devoid of love for those who are condemned by the law. Our love for sinners is lacking. More often than not we don’t rebuke our sinning neighbors. We claim that we refrain out of love, when really it’s that we’re more afraid of our loved ones, friends, or acquaintances getting angry with us. We so quickly grow tired of calling people to repentance, especially when we feel their hostility. And when we do rebuke, we often do so not out of heartfelt love for the lost but out of our own anger or disgust. And people can sense this. They sense that we lack the love that seeks the good of our sinning neighbor as if it were our own good. And the tax collectors and sinners do not draw near to us, because they rightly sense that we are not going to rejoice over their being found.
By this standard, God’s standard, we all stand in great need of repentance. By human standards such a lack of love is no big deal. But in the sight of God it is an inexcusable hard-heartedness.
The tax collectors and sinners were burdened by the weight of their sins and the judgment of God. That’s why they found joy when they drew near to Jesus and heard that their sins were forgiven. If we cannot feel the burden of our sin of lovelessness, we should at least believe God that such a lack of concern for the eternal welfare of our neighbor is a great sin in His sight. We may not feel the full weight of our sins, but we should believe God and draw near with the tax collectors and sinners to listen to Jesus.
Then Jesus’ parable comes as good news to us, too. It comes as joyful news whether we are public sinners or those whose lack of love condemns us before God. Jesus tells us that God is in no way passive as He sees sinners on the way to destruction. God is actively seeking us while we are lost, before we start looking for Him. He is looking for us while we are lost because we are of great value to Him, the way a lost sheep is valuable to its shepherd, the way a lost coin is valuable to a poor widow. Whenever we become aware of the heaviness of our sins, we begin to tremble before God. The law and our conscience tell us that He must be furiously angry with us. Indeed, according to the law He cannot be anything less than angry with us as sinners. But Jesus tells us here that God is not hunting us like an avenger when we are lost in our sins. He is looking for us, eager to bring us back home on His shoulders, and to call His friends, the angels and the saints, together, that they might rejoice with Him over us. He hunts for us the way a widow hunts for a lost coin and the way a shepherd hunts for a lost sheep.
He was hunting for you long before you were hunting for Him. Before the foundation of the world, Scripture tells us, He planned for your redemption. He foresaw our fall into sin and He planned to give His Son to redeem us. Jesus came and sought out lost sinners by taking up human nature, so that there is nothing about us that is foreign to God. He has taken up everything that we are. And though He committed no sin, He made Himself one with us in our guilt before God. He picked us up like a lost sheep and put us on His shoulders. We were lost in our sins and could not find our way back to God, innocence, and life. He found us. He met us and found us at the cross of Calvary, where He bore all the wrath of the righteous God at our sins.
He eagerly sought out the lost sinner, you, all the way to the death of the cross. Now He seeks us out in the preaching of His Word. With the preaching of His law He finds us lost in our sins. He sweeps the house and uncovers us in the dust when He preaches the ten commandments to us. Then He proclaims the good news of the forgiveness of our sins through His cross. He puts us on His shoulders and carries us. He exalts us and lifts us up to sit on His shoulders. His righteousness is our righteousness. His holiness is our holiness. Now wolf can get to us when we lie on the shoulders of our shepherd Jesus. To destroy His lamb the devil, death, hell, and sin must first destroy Jesus. And that is impossible because He is risen from the dead, the conqueror of sin, death, and the devil. He puts us on His shoulders when He baptizes us, preaches the Gospel to us, absolves us, and feeds us His body and blood.
What is mine is yours, He tells us in the Gospel. In His love, which is a consuming fire, He has made everything that is His serve us. His life is our life, His righteousness our righteousness.
This is how we have to learn to console our consciences when our sins afflict us and death confronts us. At such times God’s law thunders in our ears that we have transgressed and earned His wrath. The threats of the law terrify us and we feel we are going to perish in God’s anger. That’s all our reason and our flesh know—God’s law and the righteousness it proclaims, that the one who does it is righteous. That’s the reason the scribes and Pharisees sneer and grumble at Jesus. “The law says sinners are cursed and cast out from God’s presence. How can Jesus receive them?” They don’t know the righteousness of God that the Gospel proclaims, and our flesh doesn’t understand it either. “hOw can God, who hates sin, love and eagerly desire sinners?” This is the mystery of the Gospel and it is what Jesus came to teach. Jesus didn’t come to preach a new law or set of laws. Moses had given the law already. Jesus came to preach the good news that God is seeking the lost sinners and that when they are found he rejoices over them.
How are lost sinners found? When they are brought to repentance. That is, when they hate their sins but believe that God has forgiven them through Jesus. This is the picture we need to put before our eyes when our sins accuse us and we are afraid of God’s wrath. We need then to hold on to this Gospel that tells us that God is eagerly seeking the lost sinners and rejoices over their salvation as if He had found a great treasure.
When we aren’t troubled about our sins and we are living our life on earth, it is a good thing for us to have the law before our eyes. Then we can have Jesus before us as an example. He didn’t seek His own welfare and wealth but ours. He saw us helpless in our sin and gave Himself to bear it and to preach to us that we might not remain lost but might be brought to God. The love that made Him do this should be our example when we are dealing with our neighbor. We should be willing to suffer everything and give up everything if only our neighbor might be saved. Jesus’ example should move us to pray to God to give us more fervent love for our neighbor, so that we are willing to rebuke him and bear with him and love him until his soul is saved. Jesus’ example should stand before us, together with the ten commandments, as a sermon that puts to death our self-love and our self-seeking so that we seek our neighbor’s welfare in body and soul. The example and love of Jesus is what propels us to take risks in seeking our neighbor’s salvation.
But whenever we are frightened of our sins and God’s wrath, whenever our failure to love accuses us, then we must have Jesus before us not as our example but as our redeemer. For He has sought us out and put us on His shoulders. He bore the cross and our sins, and He placed us into His body crucified and risen in our Baptism. We cling to Him and hang around His neck. He is ours and we are His. Our sin is His sin. His righteousness and life is our righteousness and life.
This is what gives us confidence to witness, to proclaim Christ, to seek our neighbor’s salvation. If we were being judged by God’s law no one would ever dare to open their mouth in Christ’s name. After all, who knows? You might say something wrong. You might not rightly divide law from Gospel. You might sin and make the Gospel look bad. You might offend someone so that they never want to hear the word of God again.
But we are not being judged by God’s law. We are righteous by faith alone in Jesus. Our righteousness is complete and certain because it is the righteousness of Jesus. So when we seek our neighbor’s salvation, we do it not to justify ourselves or contribute something toward our salvation. That is already accomplishes. We do it out of love—out of love for Jesus who has redeemed us, and out of love for our neighbor whom we begin to love in Christ and whom our Lord Jesus has already loved when He was crucified.
May God fix before our eyes the love of Christ toward us and fill us with love toward our neighbor. As we partake of Christ’s passionate love toward us in His body and blood, may He also fill us with ardent love toward lost sinners, whether they are in our church, our families, or our neighborhoods.
Soli Deo Gloria
”To Crucify Desires that Still Entice Me”
In the Name of Jesus.
Desire drives you. Why are you here tonight? Because you desire something.
It might be that you desire to hear Jesus. Or it might be something else. Maybe you like getting ashes smeared on your forehead. Maybe you desire to be and be known as a pillar of the congregation, so you can be praised by men. Whatever it is, you desire something that you thought you would get by coming here.
Desire drives you. It drives the whole world.
God has longing and desire too, even though He has everything.
I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. Luke 22:15
Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, may be with me where I am, to see My glory…John 17:24
God’s desire is life for us. But God’s desire is not what drives most people. What drives most people is what the Epistle called “sinful desire,” also known as “lust.” Sinful desire, lust, is what drives human nature. Sinful desire controls human nature. It controls you as long as you are controlled by your old nature, your flesh.
The works that come from sinful desire are obvious, St. Paul says in Galatians chapter 5: “Sexual immorality…idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalry, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness…and things like these (v. 19-21).” We can see this evil fruit. You can see it in your workplace, you can see it growing up in your home. Sadly, you can see this fruit of sinful desire in the church. And you can see it in yourself—the jealousy and the anger and the lust that flares up in your heart but is put out before it can bear fruit in words or actions.
Other times you can’t see it until it has already been bearing fruit for a long time and polluting other people. The fruit of arrogant, selfish behavior that treats other people with contempt and provokes them. The fruit of stubborn refusal to listen to rebuke, even when it comes from God. The fruit of bitter words, accusations, condemnation, slander. The bitter fruit of sinful desire that is happy when another person falls, when he is laid low.
After listing these works of sinful desire, these obvious, manifest works that we see around us and even in us, Paul adds this terrifying sentence: I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. Galatians 5:21
But we don’t always recognize what sinful desire is until after it has borne fruit. Sometimes we get sinful desire, which comes from the flesh, confused with the desire for God, which never comes from our flesh. Your flesh never desires God, only an idol it calls God.
How easily sinful desire can cause us to fall even when we think we are serving Christ!
Who knew this better than Peter? Let the person who is willing to be instructed by God listen to the apostle Peter, who says in the Epistle today, “If you practice these qualities, you will never fall, 11 For in this way there will be richly provided for you (S)an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Do you think Peter ever put those two words together lightly—“never” and “fall”? Without remembering the night of Jesus’ betrayal, in the upper room?
You will all fall away from me this night, said Jesus after giving them His supper. For it is written, I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.
And Peter had said, Though they all fall away on account of you,
away. (St. Matthew 26:31, 33)
But Peter did fall away. So hear him now when he tells you, “If you practice these qualities you will never fall,” but instead will have an entrance in the eternal kingdom of Christ richly provided.
He did fall. It’s no idle admonition Peter makes: For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith (I)with virtue,[e] and virtue (J)with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control (K)with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7 and godliness (L)with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection (M)with love.
Before Peter fell, it wasn’t obvious that sinful desire was at work to make him fall. Not obvious to us, although it was obvious to Jesus.
When Jesus “began to show that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (Matthew 16:21),” Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked Him. That seems godly, doesn’t it? Of course it was wrong of Peter. But his heart was in the right place, right?
It looks like that to me. And right when Peter has just finished saying something that was revealed to him by God and now tries to follow it up with another home run, Jesus says, “Get behind Me, Satan.”
It seemed like Peter was trying to honor Jesus, but in reality Satan was there using him. Right after he confessed Jesus as the Son of God, right after Jesus had given him the keys to open heaven and lock it up, right then Satan speaks. And nobody would have ever realized it except Jesus.
It turned out Peter wasn’t really trying to honor Jesus. His sinful desire was trying to do what it always does—gain the whole world, save itself without receiving it from God. That’s why Jesus said, If anyone wants to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me…For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Matthew 16:24-26
Deny himself and take up his cross, because your old self desires nothing good. Even when it seems good it’s not good. It pretends it wants to serve God, but your old self is lying. It just wants to see Christ glorified and the Church strengthened and people saved and society improved, it claims. But what it really wants is to gain the whole world, to slither into a hole so secure that God can’t find it and kill it.
Sinful desire wants to store up treasure on earth in the vain belief that wealth or honor or enjoyment can prevent the day from coming when we stand naked before the eyes of God who sees what is in secret. God sees now what is in secret. He sees what is hidden from men.
That is the reason for the ashes today. They really can’t do anything for you except preach what is in front of your eyes and in your nose every day.
That sinful desire has brought corruption into the world. Not just moral corruption, but literal corruption. You are going to die. Your body is going to get cold and stiff, and if it weren’t for concrete vaults and formaldehyde, it would rot and it would stink before it was eaten by worms.
Sinful desire brought this about, this corruption. Eve saw that the fruit God forbade was “desirable to make one wise.”
God’s wrath fell in sulfur and fire on Sodom and burnt it to ashes. The fire of God’s Law reduces us to ashes now, or the unquenchable fire of hell burns us forever.
Yet there is escape from the eternal fire, and deliverance from the corruption that is in the world through lust.
First comes the terror of God’s punishment and the hatred of the sinful nature and its desires.
I will renounce whate’er doth vex or grieve Thee
And quench with thoughts of Thee and prayers most lowly
All fires unholy.
Then comes deliverance and escape from the corruption sinful desire causes.
Peter says…he has given us his great and precious promises. Which ones?
Promise of justification and the forgiveness of sins through Christ’s blood.
The promise that you have died with Him and been set free from the sinful lust through your Baptism.
The promise of the Holy Spirit, who keeps us in faith in Christ, and who also renews us and puts to death our old nature
The promise of prayer, where Jesus says “The Father will give whatever you ask in my name.”
Through His promises we participate in the divine nature. We are justified by His blood and forgiven. And we are given His promises to bury the old nature controlled by sinful desire and to bring forth the new man in Christ who abounds in the qualities Peter listed.
We ask Him for His Spirit and to bring these virtues to pass in us, and we strive to fulfill His calling, and HE makes us participants in the divine nature.
Just think of this. What is God’s desire?
Your salvation. So much so that He gave His Son. To sweat blood, to suffer.
Yes, Father, Yes, most willingly, I’ll bear what you command me.
My will conforms to your decree: I’ll do what you have asked me.
O Wondrous love, what have you done? The Father offers up His Son
DESIRING our salvation! (LSB 438 stanza 3)
That you participate in His nature.
That you become rich in heavenly treasure.
But whoever does not have these qualities is nearsighted and blind and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.
We are so sluggish. God eagerly desires to make us participants in His nature so that we store up treasures in heaven.
His desire is for us to be rich. So passionately He desires this that He gave His Son.
We were not set free from sin so that we could live in it; not forgiven so that we could stay in bondage to death
So we spend Lent rightly when we meditate on Christ’s passion
There we see what sinful desire has done, what it does
If God poured such punishment on His innocent, beloved Son, what will happen to those who do not repent and do not escape the corruption in the world because of sinful desire?
O wondrous love, whose depth no heart hath sounded
That brought thee here by foes and thieves surrounded
All worldly pleasures, heedless, I was trying
While thou wert dying.
There we see how God has desired us so as to give His Son for our forgiveness.
There we begin to desire Christ, and God fulfills our desire.
Yet unrequited, Lord I would not leave Thee
I will renounce whate’er doth vex or grieve Thee
And quench with thoughts of Thee and prayers most lowly
All fires unholy.
But since my strength will nevermore suffice me
To crucify desires that still entice me
To all good deeds O let Thy Spirit win me
And reign within me! (LSB 439 stanzas 7, 10, 11)
The peace of God, which passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria
St. Peter Lutheran Church (Chapel)
Joel 2:13 (2:12-19)
September 11, 2013
The Lord our God Repenteth of the Evil
And rend your hearts and not your garments, and turn to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth Him of the evil. Joel 2:13
Luther looked on the Turk—that is, the invading Muslim armies—as the scourge of God, the punishment of God on a godless Christendom. Should we not recognize those attacks that came to us over a decade ago as the stroke of God? It doesn’t mean that God is for jihad, but it is a call for us to repent. God raises up nations and casts them down for His own purposes. But when His Church suffers in His rebuke of the nations, He has a different purpose for her.
God chastens or punishes his church to bring her to repentance, humble her, strengthen her faith in her Lord Jesus Christ.
But He also punishes in His wrath, where He gives people over to destruction.
It seems that He is giving the United States over to His wrath. The Word of God departs from our people, even if it was mostly only learned and embraced in an outward way in prior generations; it is no small thing that young Americans can no longer tell you who Moses is. It is no small thing that more and more infants are unbaptized. Along with these signs of His wrath in spiritual things we see our nation’s decline in moral vigor and consequently in strength and influence.
It seems that He is handing the United States over to His wrath, and that He is bringing severe discipline on the church. Should we see nothing of God’s chastening in the decline of Christian churches in the United States? No. God’s action in the world preaches to us. It preaches His law, His coming judgment and His righteous wrath against sinners.
We don’t know always how to interpret what God is doing in the short term. We know that in the long term wars and rumors of wars are signs of the final judgment. Then the United States will not have to worry about fighting terrorists or China but will be destroyed along with all the enemies of God in His wrath.
God spares sinners who humble themselves before Him. He did it with Nineveh at Jonah’s preaching. He spared Hezekiah’s life when Hezekiah prayed. When Jerusalem was besieged by the King of Assyria, Sennacherib, an angel of the Lord slew one hundred thousand men in one night. Even Balaam was spared being slain by the angel of the Lord–not because he repented, but because his donkey “repented” on his behalf.
The Lord repenteth of the evil. Who knows if He will return and repent and leave a blessing behind him: even a meat offering and a drink offering unto the Lord thy God?
Joel says, “You never know. Doom is proclaimed for you. But the Lord is gracious. He may turn around and not only not strike us down but even leave us a blessing.”
But the Lord is not pleased simply with the outward tearing of garments and fasting—outward acts of humility and sorrow and contrition. But rather the kind of repentance He desires is the tearing of the heart.
It should not be so hard when you consider that
We individually have many sins of our own—thanklessness, ingratitude, unbelief—from our youth up.
Our congregation also has many sins; one of the chief ones being despising the Word and great self-sufficiency. Very few in the congregation fear God’s wrath. It has become the climate of St. Peter to despise God’s Word and when others become members they learn from the congregation to do the same.
Then there are the many members of the congregation who have gone far away from the Lord, but we have not sought them but worried about ourselves and our own comfort more than their souls.
And then our nation. Like many in our congregation, they are not even able to pray for themselves or see the hand of God lifted up over them. We are not guilty of their sins. But we are responsible to love them, preach the Word to them, instruct them in the right way. And pray for them. And weep over the evil that comes to them.
But our hearts are very cold. We barely can bring ourselves to take seriously God’s threats concerning our own sins, let alone weep for the members of our church who don’t weep for themselves, or the citizens of our country.
Yet what awaits them is not only damnation in the life to come, but also quite likely grave punishments and suffering here. Really we should hope that our nation gets that. Because after having freedom to hear the Word of God and being given all manner of earthly blessings, the United States has not become better but worse. Punishment would be better for us than to continue in our complacency; that would mean that God had really given us over.
What is it to rend your hearts?
Not simply to fear God’s wrath and be sorry and want to sin no longer. Not to have anything like perfect fear or sorrow. But it is to fear God’s wrath and confess to Him:
There is no reason why you should not punish me. There is no reason why you should not condemn us. No reason in us or in me.
That is the truth. There is no reason in us whatsoever that we should not receive God’s wrath. “I justly deserve your temporal and eternal punishment;” we say it but seldom consider the weight of it.
Yet also to say, “You are the Lord our God who is gracious and merciful, and even though there is no reason why You should not destroy us in ourselves, yet you will because of who You are. You are the Lord our God; You swore to be our God and placed your name on us. If we deny you you will deny us, but if we are faithless you remain faithful, for you cannot deny yourself.
And you have promised to forgive our sins and be our God in Baptism.
And you have promised not to cast away anyone who comes to you, but raise them up on the last day.
And you have promised not to reject our prayers but to hear us for Jesus’ sake.
These things you will do because You have promised and because it is who You are, even though everything we are and remain even today deserves punishment.
Jesus, whose heart was torn open by the spear of the Roman soldier, is the only one able to rend our cold hearts of stone. He pierces them not only with the knowledge of our sins (imperfect though it is), but also with His Word which carries into our hearts His promise–the full forgiveness of our sins at the price of His death. Yes, even the ongoing coldness and hardness of your heart and mine is not counted to you because of the unspeakable goodness and mercy of this Lord who is liable to turn around and bless those whom He threatens with His wrath. He releases you from the guilt of your hard heart too and bears it Himself. And where there is the tiniest tear that opens to the hope and the longing that this is really true–ah, our Savior whose heart was pierced tears our hearts, showing us our sin but greater still His love which tears Him open and pours out the flood of the treasures of His grace.
Then whether He gives temporal punishments or spares us, having prayed this we have His promise that He has heard our prayers and will turn all these things to our good.
Fasting and prayer…not for show, but entreating the Lord to show mercy on us, but not only us, also the sinners who unlike us are not able to seek His mercy; priesthood.
You are able to seek His mercy. Therefore we seek it for ourselves, but also our congregation and the lapsed members who don’t care, and for our country.
But of course it is God who really desires mercy for them more than we do.
The peace of God, which passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
- Prosperity gods v. the Crucified God. Trinity 15 2013 Sermon. Matthew 6:24-34 (deprofundisclamaviadtedomine.wordpress.com)
- Jesus Walked Your Road to the End. Trinity 13 Sermon, Luke 10.25-37 (deprofundisclamaviadtedomine.wordpress.com)
- We Beg You on Behalf of Christ. Trinity 10 2013 (deprofundisclamaviadtedomine.wordpress.com)
- While You’re Still Falling Into the Swamp. Trinity 14 Sermon. Galatians 5:16-24 (deprofundisclamaviadtedomine.wordpress.com)