February 23, 2014
“God’s Will and God’s Word”
Seek the Lord while He may be found,
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
“For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven,
The church has been shrinking throughout America for a few decades now and demographic trends suggest that it is going to get worse. The so called millennials – people who became adults about at the turn of the millennium – go to church less than the so called generation X-ers who go to church less than the so called baby boomers. It looks bad. And it’s getting worse. The church is getting older and smaller.
As more and more people – especially among the younger generation – decided that they didn’t want what the church had to offer, the church responded by coming up with ways to make its message more attractive. Traditional hymns and liturgies were replaced by contemporary worship forms, marketing strategies were adopted, and the focus moved away from the preaching of the preacher to the spiritual gifts of the laity. The result was usually a brief increase in church attendance followed by decline after the novelty wears off.
Why this decline? It is that the churches have abandoned God’s word? Many have, but even Bible-believing, Catechism confessing Lutheran churches that teach the pure doctrine of God’s word have suffered loss. The sad fact is that God’s word is unpalatable to many people. They don’t like it. It makes them angry. It turns them off. God says things that folks just don’t want to hear. Why is that?
It is foolish for churchmen to package the gospel in such a way as to make it attractive to those whose thoughts and ways are as far removed from God’s thoughts and ways as earth is removed from the stars in the sky. God and sinful humanity don’t think alike. This is one reason why people don’t want to go to church. They don’t want to listen to what God has to say!
God teaches repentance and the forgiveness of sins. After Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead, he said to his disciples, as recorded by St. Luke, chapter 24:
Why aren’t folks running to church? Perhaps it is because they don’t want forgiveness. The suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus mean nothing to those whose consciences are not burdened with their sins.
While sin damages us in every respect, it is rarely recognized for what it is. People who are not burdened with the knowledge of their sins nevertheless bear the burden of their sins. But they do so in ignorance. They don’t know what sin is. The prophet says, “Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts.” Sin is not just violating a list of do’s and don’ts. It is a way of being, living, and thinking.
People are enamored with themselves. They think they know better than God. They consider human strength and accomplishments better than God’s strength and accomplishments. This is why they are bored with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is all about God’s power and our weakness. God confronts sin and death and the devil and defeats them all by the blood shed on the cross. That’s power. That’s an accomplishment. That is impressive. But if you value your own notions more than God’s you won’t be very impressed with the crucifixion of Jesus. You can explain away sin and the devil. That’s easy to do if you try. And death? Well, let’s not think about that.
The ways and thoughts of people who do not know God are nevertheless profoundly religious. Americans are very religious people. There is a word that sums up American religion. It is syncretism. Syncretism treats all gods and all religious claims as having equal validity. Nobody can say he is right and someone else is wrong. This is because it is wrong to show disrespect to the religious sensibilities of others. It is not wrong to offend against the majesty of God. The prophet Isaiah preached against the syncretism of his day. Judah in the 8th century B.C. is much like America in the 21st century A.D. Syncretism is the guiding principle of religion. Call it pot luck religion or smorgasbord theology. You choose the features of whatever religion pleases you. Mix a little of this with a little of that until you have the spiritual diet that’s just right for you. This is syncretism and it is the source of error and confusion.
People think that binding doctrine is bad because it divides. Besides, can you really know what is true? A studied agnosticism prevails – people know they don’t know – and they consider religious conviction to be the source of all evil. They are enamored with their own thoughts. They deny that there is any knowable transcendent truth. Who can know? The religious impulse is what matters; not divinely revealed truth. So don’t impose your religion on me! I’ll find God in my own way.
But you won’t. That’s the point. This is what the prophet would have you consider. God’s ways and your ways aren’t the same. Your ways center on you and are sinful. His ways are the way of life. You will not find God on your own. He must reveal himself to you before you will find him. His ways are not your ways. His ways center on Christ. He is the eternal Word who reveals God’s wisdom. That wisdom is where he suffered and died.
Listen to the inspired words of St. Paul explain what divine wisdom is all about. He writes in 1 Corinthians, chapter 1:
This runs counter to everything we think and feel. But this word from God does its work. It does its work even as the rain and the snow do their work. But where there is no Word of God ignorance and confusion will prevail.
Christians think they can learn the faith, get it right, file it away in the back of their minds somewhere, and it will remain within them even if they neglect going to church to hear it. But they don’t understand that they are their own worst enemy. What will prevail when they neglect God’s Word: their thoughts or God’s thoughts? Their ways or God’s ways? And when they ignore God’s Word they will lose the Christian understanding of sin, repentance, forgiveness, and faith. People seek God where he cannot be found. They look within themselves and whatever they feel they assume is what God feels, as if God is as fickle as they. Listen again to the prophet:
Seek him in his Word. That is where and when he may be found. It is where he comes to us in his gospel and sacraments. That’s where he is located and that’s where we must seek him.
The church does not look like much. Neither did Jesus. As Isaiah wrote of him,
Neither the church nor her Lord Jesus will ever have the status this world bestows upon respectable religions. That’s because neither the church nor her Lord will avoid the scandal of the cross. It is where Jesus was despised that God laid on him the iniquity of us all and took away all our sin. It is in what the world sees as foolishness that we were delivered, not only from the guilt we bear because we have broken God’s commandments, but also from the folly within that would have us preferring our wisdom to God’s.
Just because it feels good doesn’t make it good. Just because it feels right doesn’t make it right. We have words from God that bring us pardon and mercy. These words will produce fruit: faith, good deeds, a new heart and a new life – eternal life. We hold to the almighty Word of God and rely on its power. Then we are safe in the hands of the true God who has mercy on us and pardons us all our sins.
Rolf D. Preus