Friday, February 6, 2015

Which Ugly Truth Do You WANT to Hear?

Which ugly truth do you want to hear: that our sin really is that bad? or that Satan has entered God's churches and told us that our sin is not all that bad?  There is a truth that brings real comfort, but we have to tell it all. 

FIGHT BACK AGAINST CHURCH DECAY

Jesus and Paul both warned us against an end-time event called the tribulation, a time when the devil will furiously assault the Church before the final return of Jesus. Based on what the New testament says, we might well be living in the beginning of it right now. Of course we have seen such times before. This may be one of the many dress rehearsals, rather than the show itself, but we live now, and whether it's a dress rehearsal or the event, we must face God's enemies in mortal combat. There are many spiritual enemies. The one I want to warn you about right now is what the Germans call the Zeitgeist, or "spirit of the age." We meet this cynical spirit everywhere. He calls deterioration "progress," he calls the growing shadows "enlightenment," and the true faith "narrow-minded" and "superstitious." Our text tells us about an Old Testament king who lived in a similar age, a dress rehearsal for the Exile. We look at the 8th century BC, to King Hezekiah.

Hezekiah's father, Ahaz, was one of the wickedest men ever denounced by the Prophets. He didn't want to be narrow-minded, so he brought in pagan idolatry and magic-mongering on those semi-sacred precincts, the high places. When Israel and Syria formed an alliance against him, the Lord offered him divine help, but he preferred to trust in princes. He called on the Assyrians to help him. Hezekiah was quite a contrast. He listened to Isaiah, a saintly man of God who told the future by inspiration. Notice, if you are a young person whose parents did not raise you in a Christian way, God loves you. He knows you are not your parents. Even if there is no Bible in your house, even if you fall asleep every night to the sound of swearing and quarreling, you don't have to be like that. Hezekiah's friends approved of what his father did. It took courage for him to listen to Isaiah instead. But he knew the time had come to fight back against church decay. So must we. We must reclaim for God every building that claims to be His temple. God blessed Hezekiah as he attempted to undo all that his father had done. We have a job like that ahead of us, for the state of religion in our country today is pitiful at best.

First, the most obvious fault, not the worst but the most obvious, is the commercialism. It's bad enough that television bombards us with the pagan side of Christmas and Easter, that everyone celebrates the worst aspects of Halloween, we don't need the same thing in Lutheran schools and Lutheran magazines. Evangelists on television are constantly hawking their books, or offering you angel lapel pins showing that you made a donation. Well-established denominations have more investment counselors than missionaries. Oh, watch out! Let's not blame the affluent. Think of how many people who visit churches only to play bingo. Commercialism is very democratic. Today we have a philosophy that the Church is primarily a business, that needs to attract customers. So don't make people feel strange, don't talk about repentance because that doesn't affirm people. Definitely don't mention the cross or the blood of Jesus, for they consider such ideas barbaric. Ply them with pop culture, but never mention sin, or the price of forgiveness, or growing in grace. See how diabolical that philosophy is! The Gospel is what ought to bring people to church, and keep them coming for more.

Second, popularity is generally not a good sign. I did not say "never." There have been times, such as Luther's day, which were exceptions, but seldom have the masses been hungry for the truth. Most of the pages of Church History are spotted with the blood of martyrs who told the truth when it was not so popular. Remember, Luther told the people what they wanted to hear because it was the truth, not because they wanted to hear it. We are all stewards of the truth. Occasionally we are blessed with a patron like Frederick the Wise, but more often than not the Church does better when it is illegal.

The third sign of church decay is spiritual sleepiness. The church may have energy to burn, but it is directed at rallies and fundraisers, numbers and money. We might rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep, we might show up for the installation of new or used pastors, but where are all the funeral guests when the second grade needs a room mother? Why is it that people who can spend a hundred hours a year bowling, can't find an hour a week for Bible class?

Next, we must not neglect the Word of God. The Church must never turn her eyes from the cross. Is that uncomfortable? God has comfort for His people, comfort that takes sin seriously and cleanses it with the blood of Jesus. That's why the old hymns are such great witnesses. Even such a book as Lutheran Worship, which on balance is a good resource, has changed some hymns so that they do not refer to Jesus' blood. That is church decay! We are sinners in need of God's grace. We need the grace of forgiveness to reconcile us to God, and the grace of the Holy Spirit to make His love real in our lives. God's Word gives us His grace to say what He says. A church that does not talk about sin is no church at all. By grace the genuine Church acknowledges its sins to have God's forgiveness, which comes from the atonement Jesus made. The compass point on which we focus is the cross on which He died, and the empty tomb from which He rose. God's whole revelation revolves around that. Our worship does the same, for we are responding to the Word.

Hezekiah cleansed the church by consecrating the altar with blood. We don't have to do that because the cross of Jesus has consecrated us and our worship. Hezekiah had some very negative things to do - stopping the idolatry and the magic practice, silencing the false prophets, undoing his father's damage. He was a king - that was his calling. He was a king. We aren't. Our responsibility is less public. Our struggle is to deal with the idolatry in our hearts, and any that has infected our communal life. There's enough of it there to make for a life-long reformation. Churches, like individuals, cannot serve God and Mammon. Members can work together to overcome Mammon.

Finally, let's remember how God delivered Hezekiah. The evil forces his father had set in motion came to collect. The Assyrians were at the gate. The Lord kept His promise, stood by His people, and killed 185,000 Assyrians as they slept. What remained of their proud army beat a hasty retreat to Nineveh, disgraced by its failure. The people of Judah rejoiced. The example isn't perfect because the people Hezekiah served was a political entity. We are not in that position. Hezekiah was an intermediate Messiah. For us the final Messiah has come. The only Israel that counts today is the Messiah's Israel. It is for us to hold to the Word of God, partake of the Sacraments of Absolution and the Eucharist, drink from the Fountain of Life, so the atoning blood of Jesus delivers us from our sinful selves, and the Holy Spirit prepares us for the life of love. AMEN.

~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

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