The Forgotten Strength
Midweek Advent 2
Wednesday, December 10, 2014
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
The Word of God provides us with many images for the Church. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is described as the Good Shepherd, we his sheep. In our sinfulness we are like sheep without a shepherd, lost and wandering and in danger at every turn. Yet our Lord seeks us out and finds us, rescues and delivers us. John likens the Church to a vineyard: Jesus is the vine, we are the branches. Everything that our Lord does is to promote good growth from his vineyard, even if that means pruning back the vines so that they will produce more fruit in the future. Any branch that becomes disconnected from the vine will wither and die; so also any Christian who becomes disconnected from our Lord will not survive. In the reading from Ephesians we heard a few moments ago the Church is compared to a building, a spiritual temple built on the foundation of the Prophets and Apostles, of which Christ is the cornerstone. We are the Temple of God today, the place where he chooses to dwell on earth so that the good news of forgiveness can be proclaimed into all nations. The book of Revelation pictures the Church as the bride of Christ, dressed up to meet him for the wedding. Jesus is the good and faithful husband who clothes us in his own righteousness so that our beauty outshines the stars. And in several places the Apostle Paul describes the Church as the body of Christ, who is our head, which highlights the wonderful unity between Jesus and his people, a unity of diverse gifts and callings that each remain under his headship and serve to glorify his purposes. In short, the Scriptures describe our Lord’s Church as a tremendous gift and source of consolation and protection for us his people.
Our confessions rejoice in this simple nature of the Church. Luther praised God that even a seven year old child knows what the church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their shepherd. The holiness of the Church does not depend on the things pastors wear or on the way the building is constructed or on the ceremonies that take place within its walls. The holiness depends on the Word of God. For the holy Word of God is preached to people to make us holy. This is the gift we have as the Church. It is a gift we can get nowhere else, for holiness only comes to us through God’s holy word preached to our ears, through God’s holy water poured on our heads, and God’s holy supper fed to our hungry souls. What we have in our Lord’s Church is a gift beyond compare, something we can’t get anywhere else.
Yet Satan would keep us blind to this reality. When we look at our Lord’s Church Satan would have us see only budget meetings and heating costs. He would have us become distracted by membership size and keeping up with the Joneses. He hisses in our ears of other congregations who seem to have it better off, who seem to have better facilities, or who seem to have better attendance, or who seem to have better this or better that. He would have those of us in the Church despise this precious gift and treat it with contempt. He would have us consider the Church of God to be to earthly, too normal, too mundane. He would send us on a quest for something more spiritual, a quest which ultimately sends us away from our Lord’s gifts of forgiveness. He would have us leave our Lord’s Church.
He would keep those outside the Church from ever darkening the door of our Lord’s house by beating the drum of hypocrisy. “The church is full of hypocrites,” he says, “for you Christians preach all about God’s Law and claim to know what’s right and what’s wrong, but you’re just as bad as the rest of us.” And the world takes the bait hook, line, and sinker. Unfortunately, we too find ourselves nibbling at Satan’s crafty lure. We find ourselves wondering why such-and-such a person is here. We find ourselves wondering why there is tension or outright conflict in God’s house. We wonder why we should be here if there is just as much sin in the Church as there is outside of it.
But such criticism, while common, is misguided, for it relies on a false assumption, an assumption that we ourselves are tempted to believe all too often. The assumption is that the primary purpose of the church is to make us better people by making us more moral. The world sees the Church as a place where self-righteous people come to hear about God’s rules and then talk about how everyone else is breaking them. But that is not the Church as our Lord created it to be. That is not the flock under the protection of the Good shepherd; that is not the vineyard of those who have been grafted into Christ the vine. For the Church is not a place to come learn how to be moral, it is more like a hospital for those sick with sin. It is an infirmary for those who are beaten down by the sin and death which are so common in the world around us. It is a sanctuary for those fleeing from the oppressive guilt and shame of a sinful life. It is a rallying place for those who would seek to fight the evil and injustice in the world with the only weapons that can leave a mark: the Word of God and prayer.
We are meditating this Advent on the Forgotten War, on the spiritual battle that we are engaged in on a daily basis as the people of God. Let us not forget that this battle, like any, will take its toll. The attacks of Satan against your conscience will wear you down eventually if you are not regularly treated with the healing medicine of the Gospel. The wickedness and injustice in the world will rob you of your hope if you are not regularly hearing the things written in the pages of Scripture, for they were written to renew your hope. The Armor of God can only take so many strikes without being repaired. The Church is the armory where you come to have your breastplate of righteousness recoated with the righteousness of Christ given to you in the words of absolution. The Church is the place where you come to have the belt of truth strengthened by hearing the truth of sin and salvation proclaimed to you time and time again. The Church is where you come to have the shield of faith repaired as the Holy Spirit comes to you through Word and Sacrament to strengthen you in faith toward God and in fervent love toward those around you. As this Forgotten War continues to take its toll on you, don’t forget the healing that comes from our Lord Jesus Christ through his Church. Don’t forget the healing you have as the children of God.
Don’t forget that when you leave this place and return to the battle of daily life, you do not return alone. We may not have the traditional blue tunics of the Musketeers, yet their motto holds true for us: All for one and one for all. Or, if you prefer the words of the Apostle Paul, “God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” When God created the world he said that it was not good for man to be alone. You were not created to live in isolation. That is why it takes two people to bring about a new life – no one creates himself. You were not created to live in isolation, and neither were you redeemed to live in isolation. You have been called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified with the whole Christian Church on earth. There is no such thing as an isolated Christian, for we are all members of the body of Christ.
As you face the daily battles in this Forgotten War, do not try to fight them alone. Rely first on the work of the Holy Spirit in your heart, he who comes to you through the Word of God. Spend time each day in devotion and prayer so that you may be strengthened to meet the challenges that lie ahead. But also draw strength from the body of believers that surround you in this place. Don’t cut yourself off from the body of Christ, draw strength from the people of God. Find encouragement from those who have gone before us by reading the history of God’s people and the struggles they have faithfully overcome in the past. Draw strength from those around you right now by building friendships and relationships with others in this place who will support you in difficult times. But also be willing to be the help, support and encouragement for someone else in this place who needs it. Live in the joy of community.
Remember what the Church is. It is not simply a gathering of like-minded people who come together to whine about how bad the world is getting. It is not a club where we come to congratulate each other that we are not like those people out there. It is not a sanctified grocery store where you simply swing by on a Sunday morning to get your God-fix before returning to a life separated from his the rest of the week. It is not simply a building where individuals on a quest for something spiritual can sit safely in the back and never interact with anyone else. The church is a community – a community of believers gathered by the Word of God around the Word of God. We are a people who gather together to encourage one another, and all the more as the day draws near. We are a group of people who gather together to battle the evils in the world around us, pooling our resources to fight the evils of hunger and poverty and injustice. We are a group of people who gather together to combat the message of the world with the truth of God’s Word. We are a group of people who gather together to battle the evils in our conscience as the devil seeks to drive us to despair. We may be a gathering of sinful people. And yes, where there are sinful people you can expect to find sin. So you can expect that the people here will disappoint you from time to time. You can even expect that the pastors here will disappoint you from time to time. But Jesus will never let you down, and this is his Church. He is the one who gives us strength to live in our daily lives. He is standing amid the seven lampstands of his Church, here with us today to feed us and nourish us with his healing Gospel. He is your strength as you fight this spiritual war, and he’s here in his Church for you.