Date: April 7, 1935
The priests said not, Where is the Lord? and they that handle the Law knew Me not: the pastors also transgressed against Me, and the prophets prophesied by Baal and walked after things that do not profit. Wherefore I will yet plead with you, saith the Lord, and with your children’s children will I plead. – Jeremiah 2:8-9
A FEW short years ago in St. Louis the moaning whistle of a tornado sounded its alarm. Within a flash great squares of our city lay in terrifying ruins of splintered wreckage, twisted steel, uprooted trees—a hideous picture of death and destruction. But with an indomitable will our city cleared away the wreckage and undertook an extensive program of rebuilding, and today one seeks almost in vain for traces of that harrowing disaster.—In the Civil War, when Sherman pushed his way from Atlanta to the seaboard, his marching columns burned villages, destroyed crops, cut down orchards, and altogether blazed a trail of ruin sixty miles wide, which, it seemed, would leave an ineffaceable scar. But today, as you survey that fair Southland, you see that the hand of time has dealt soothingly and that the wounds of the war-torn areas have been healed by the benediction of peace.—After the Thirty Years’ War the exhausted European nations lay prostrate. In Bohemia, where compatriots of John Huss arose to defend the cause for which he had been burned at the stake, of over 35,000 villages hardly 6,000 remained; and in Germany the toll of that religious butchery was so terrible that in some sections the population was diminished by two-thirds. Yet those nations tied up their wounds, set their faces to the task of reconstruction, and ultimately recovered.
You can see from all this that a city, a state, a nation, or a group of nations can emerge from any catastrophe which destroys only external power; they can convalesce from epidemics; they can rise, Phoenixlike, from ashes; they can regain their stability after earthquakes. But there is one catastrophe which is final and irremedial, and that is the neglect or the choking off of true Christian faith and the rejection of God’s Christ—particularly through the apostasy of the spiritual leaders and the degeneracy of the clergy. Wherever proud churchmen wilfully spurn the grace of the almighty God in Christ; wherever the clergy, self-absorbed and self-sufficient, turns away from the Cross, there history inevitably records the reverberating rumble of God’s dynamite as proud national structures totter into irreparable ruin.
Because we in our country must hearken to this repetitious warning of wide human experience, let me discuss with you this afternoon under the guidance of the Spirit of God
THE FATAL FOLLIES IN MODERN CHURCH-LIFE
This discussion is suggested by the words of our text, recording as they do in summary the cause of Israel’s national decline and tragic end.
GOD’S WARNING AGAINST CLERICAL FOLLIES
Why was it that Israel, blessed as no nation since the beginning of the world, could fall victim to swift destruction and be exiled from its homeland? God answers in the words preceding our text: “I brought you into a plentiful country, to eat the fruit thereof and the goodness thereof; but . . . ye defiled My land.” And if we ask how the land was defiled, the words which I read to you declare: “The priests said not, Where is the Lord? and they that handle the Law knew Me not; the pastors also transgressed against Me, and the prophets prophesied by Baal and walked after things that do not profit.” A misguided and materially minded priesthood was responsible for Israel’s collapse, a clergy that forgot its spiritual duty and drifted over into crass, worldly scheming, that thought more of foreign alliances than of Jehovah’s help, more of political plots than of the sovereign will and mercy of the Almighty.
Today, in this crisis of tremendous proportions, one of the master menaces to American happiness is that growing company of spiritual leaders who, as the priests and prophets and ministers in Jeremiah’s day, ask not, “Where is the Lord?” but, “How about the World Court?” “Where can we find a new monetary program?” “Shall we place colored citizens on the jury lists of our Southern States?” and similar questions, which seem to involve almost all topics except those that pertain to God. We shudder when we picture Nero fiddling while his capital burned to the ground; we shake our heads at the unconcern of Marie Antoinette, who, when confronted by the famished mobs that had stormed out to the Tuileries, suggested that, if the Parisians had no bread, they could eat cake. But all this is a mere gesture of indifference when compared with the unconcern toward the spiritual needs of our nation as demonstrated by uncounted clerics. We have almost 250,000 churches in this country, more than any other nation ever had; yet God alone, whose Spirit drove St. John to write his letters of warning to the seven congregations of Asia Minor, knows how sorely modern American Christianity needs the rebuke of stern disapproval for the seven follies of present-day church-life and the adamant indifference to the fundamental work of the Church, that of saving souls.
Here we have, first of all, the political Church, which asks not, “Where is the Lord?” but, “Where is power?” which attempts to constitute itself a bloc in American governmental affairs; which rides ruthlessly over the Savior’s pronouncement “My kingdom is not of this world”; which surrenders the Scriptural constitutional principle of the separation of Church and State; which tries to mold the influences of American legislators by professional lobbyism; which foists upon the free and sovereign people of our nation a program of selfish and sectarian ambitions; which not only pleads for a platform of purely secular issues, but also systematically organizes a bloc of millions of American votes in the name of religion and rewards financial support with religious medals. To all of those who today would perpetuate on the shores of this tolerant nation the spirit of the Inquisition, the brutality of St. Bartholomew’s Night, the ruthless rule and rote of Puritanism, the conception of a Christian nation established by legislative and judicial force,—to all these the Savior declares: “Put up again thy sword into his place; for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.”
Then there is the social Church and the preacher who in effect maintains that the Church’s field of first duty is not to bring men into the presence of a merciful God, hut to solve race relations, to fight against industrialism and capitalism, to investigate coal-mines, to picket steel strikes, and in general to present a panacea for the evils of the day by social reform in its varied ramifications, by working for the body instead of for the soul, for the here rather than the hereafter; preachers who have the glitter, but lack the gold, who are more concerned about minimum wages than about the wages of sin, more interested in industrial codes than in the Christian’s code. To all such the Savior, who first forgives sins and then removes the consequences of sin, who first purifies the heart and then the life, raises His voice in reproach and says: “Cleanse first that which is within the cup.”
Again, we have the Church with a financial complex, whose clerics make the end justify the means, who institute raffles and roulette wheels and resort even to the most patent violations of the law of the land. They are the real money-changers in the temples of today, these prophets who have “walked after things that do not profit,” who wheedle unwilling contributions from unbelievers and coerce the indifferent into giving grudging support to the cause of Christ. To them the Savior, who made a scourge of small ropes and lashed the Temple merchants of His day, repeats those words of holy indignation: “Make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise.”
Then there is the sensational Church, which uses the spring-board of lurid publicity and theatrical drivel to hurl itself into public attention; pastors who “transgressed against Me,” the Lord says,—who feature atheists in their services, children in the pulpits, and dogs in the pew; who seek to lure the unwary into their churches by beauty contests, dramatic productions, the baptism of dolls, an endless list of catchy phrases, and an inexhaustible catalog of bizarre attractions. To all those who thus play while people perish, who, instead of going out on the highways and byways, compelling men to come in, invite notorious celebrities to hear soft sermons, the Lord of Truth declares in rebuke: “My house shall be called the house of prayer.”
The fifth folly is found in two extremes of modern worship. On the one hand, we have the epileptic Church, which, disregarding the Scriptural admonition that everything be done “decently and in order,” works in convulsive jerks and fitful gyrations, with ministers who win endurance prizes for preaching the longest sermon in history, acrobatic pulpiteers who froth and kick and scream, pulpit clowns who make their churches ring with boisterous applause or rock with hilarious laughter, while the Prince of Peace looks on in wounded wonder at these prophets, who also walk “after things that do not profit.” And, on the other hand, there is the opposite extreme, which freezes the warmth of vibrant faith under the chill of emphasized ritualism, sweeps aside the sterling simplicity of the Savior’s worship, and lays inordinate stress on the cut and color of clerical robes, the technique and formalism of worship, the ceremonialism that often leaves worshipers groping for an answer to the fundamental question, “Where is the Lord?”
But equally calamitous is the inactive Church, the smugly self-sufficient, socially secure Church, which takes its talents, the time and the money and the prayer that should be employed in rescuing perishing souls for eternity, wraps them in the napkin of indifference, and buries them in the cemetery of neglect. To those who live on without raising their gaze from the four walls of their narrow environment to look out compassionately into a world crying for its deliverance, who remain impervious to their responsibilities toward a perishing world and indifferent to their duties as Good Samaritans in a world of poverty and hunger and suffering, who do not realize that the Church today must offer its best and widest energies even as the Savior gave His all, the Lord says: “Ye are unprofitable servants.”
The final folly is the worst. The seventh sin of contemporaneous churches is the craving for an up-to-theminute creed, the passion for creating a new Christianity. This is the subtle and sinister poison that is paralyzing the spiritual hopes of the nation, the brazen pretense creeping over churches built and paid for by believing fathers and mothers, only to be desecrated by the leaders of their children, who do not ask, “Where is the Lord?” who, although they handle the divine Word, do not know God; who deliberately transgress against the Most High; who claim that the essence of religion is not God’s great and free gift to man in Christ, but man’s intelligent and repeated gifts to God; not divine atonement, but human attainment. There, in this infidelity of modern pulpiteers, in the cutthroat preaching of these surpliced buccaneers who have boarded the ship of the Church, thrown overboard every one of its sacred doctrines, and are now (and not altogether unsuccessfully) trying to seize its helm and make those who refuse to join with them walk the plank of church politics into the depths of discard,—there you have the great issue and challenge confronting all Christians who by the grace of God have refused to bow their knees before the Baal of modern unbelief. When preachers can publicly and brazenly reject the inspiration of Scriptures, the deity of our blessed Lord Jesus Christ, the reality of sin, the blessed redemption, the resurrection of our Lord, and His second coming; when church alliances and church federations can legislate against the Scriptural teachings on the most intimate and sacred aspects of family life; when American churches have finally attained to the unbelief which flooded Europe a generation or two ago, we do not need to seek far afield for an explanation of the sorrows that have flooded our country.
GOD’S PLEA FOR THE REJECTION OF THESE FOLLIES
Now, as God, in the face of the tragedy which followed the misguided prophets and preachers of that day, promised: “I will yet plead with you” and “with your children’s children will I plead,” so He rises up on the ramparts of our nation to plead with His Church, beseeching this generation, as He will continue to entreat the next, to disavow each and every approach to worldly-mindedness in the Church. Because there is no other foundation on which the Church may be permanently established than that foundation which “is laid, which is Jesus Christ”; because, as the indisputable evidence of experience shows, all human foibles substituted for the uncompromising preaching of the Christ-centered hope ultimately must collapse, God’s Word pleads for loyalty to the faith once given and for a deepening spirituality in our hearts and lives.
Now, if this appeal of God is to be heard; if churches are to be aroused from the lethargy into which they have dropped; if they are to be the salt in our American life and the leaven in our national existence; if our churches are to be what Christ wants them to be, His holy, precious, spotless bride, then they must come back to the old paths, back to the Bible, back to the plain preaching of sin and grace, back to those two decisive doctrines: the divine and inspired authority of the Bible and the full and free grace of Jesus Christ as the never-failing antidote for our personal and collective sins. The Church must offer, not education and culture, not legislation and force, not medicine and surgery, not changed environments and changed diets, not a program of salvation by character and accomplishment, but, thank God, the highest happiness, the truest truth of all ages, the most precious promise that human ears have ever heard, the foundation and cornerstone of all Christian faith and hope, this “faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” There, in the miracle of divine love that Luther has immortalized in his explanation of the Second Article of the Christian Creed: “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true,”—there, in this changeless Christ for a changing world, the Church finds its hope, its usefulness, its glory, its promise.
Emphasizing the power and the glory of that promise, I appeal especially to you prophets and priests of the truth who this morning again have proclaimed the message of the Crucified to your congregations: “Hold that fast which thou hast that no man take thy crown.” You are not earning public plaudits by your loyalty to your Savior; but this loyalty spells blessing for you and your nation. You will not be rewarded with Congressional medals for the spiritual battles which you may fight, but those conflicts mean more to the nation than victories on the bloodiest fields of conflict. You will not find selfish profit and private advantage by being determined “not to know anything save Jesus Christ and Him Crucified”; but one day, by God’s grace, you will hear this benediction: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
And you who are enrolled in the great army of Christ’s militant Church, will you not look upward to the Captain of our salvation, take heart in His promises, and march on, under His leadership; for the advancement of the highest objective to which any human effort may be dedicated, the coming of the kingdom of Jesus Christ, the everlasting Son of the everlasting Father and the Savior of your souls? Will you not, shaking off the fetters that would chain you down to the low levels of doubt and inactivity, climb the heights and, kneeling down before the cross, pledge this promise of loyalty: “Whether I live or whether I die, I am the Lord’s”? Amen.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.