Date: November 29, 1936
“Behold, our King cometh.” With this cry of trusting faith we would welcome and acclaim Thy Son, whom in the fulness of time Thou didst send from heaven to earth as our Redeemer. May He who has long stood outside the portals of many cold and closed hearts, patiently knocking for admission, gain a blessed entrance during these Advent weeks! Help us by Thy Spirit to receive Him worthily; for His sake and by His love remove all the sins that would close our souls to Him. Do Thou, with whom there is plenteous forgiveness, patience, and pardon, teach us the momentous lesson by which we realize in a very personal and contrite way that we ourselves are nothing, but that our Christ in His love is everything, for time and eternity. Help us to crown Him King of our faith and life and prayerfully to devote our means, our talents, our labors, to the extension of His kingdom in the hearts of humanity’s perishing millions. Attune our souls to a courageous faith, so that throughout the land in these days of preparation for His birth millions of hearts may sing: “Hosanna! Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord,” and with sincerity translate the praise of their lips into the loyalty of their lives. Grant us these rich blessings for Jesus’ sake! Amen.
Thou art stronger than I and hast prevailed. – Jeremiah 20:7
THE hand of God is writing heavy history in Russia. Not long ago Stalin, the Soviet man of steel, submitted a new constitution, theoretically reversing some of the atheistic principles which have kept that country in chaos since 1918; and in a remarkable right-aboutface the letter of this new constitution guarantees freedom of religion. If this startling recoil from the hellborn principles of Karl Marx means what it says, the satanic attack on the Church of Jesus Christ in Russia will be checked, and the official Soviet hatred that reveled in the blood of Christian martyrs will be over. Gone those depraved caricatures of our blessed Savior that made Russian atheism a reproach among all high-minded people; gone those flamboyant signs over Communist headquarters, repeating in huge, defiant letters the overworked claim that religion drugs the masses!
This may be a new chapter in Russia’s history; but it is just another leaf in the remarkable record of God’s victories over the swollen pride, the bloated taunts, of hatefilled men. In Jerusalem they stoned the first ambassadors of Christ and made it a crime to preach the message of the Cross. But God conquered. In Rome, for almost three centuries, imperial fiends murdered Christians, including helpless women and children, with the most excruciating torture that men have ever employed against their fellowmen; again God triumphed, while paganism rotted away. Wherever you behold missionaries bringing the light of the saving Gospel into the darkness of heathen vice, your eyes will fill as you read how these intrepid ambassadors of Christ were burned at the stake, pierced by poisoned arrows, strangled, crushed by hideous war clubs, beheaded, or eaten by cannibal bestiality; yet as you turn page after page of these tragedies written in blood, you always come to the happy conclusion that God finally prevailed.
Because in this day of the machine and this age of applauded human achievement men are often unmindful of God’s might and nations forget the all-pervading power of God, I want to show you both the warning and the comfort of this assurance that
I base my message on the words of the prophet Jeremiah (chapter twenty, verse seven), “Thou art stronger than I and hast prevailed.”
THE PREVAILING POWER OF GOD
This confession, so modem and meaningful in its application, is 2,500 years old, an admission wrung from the lips of Jeremiah after a bitter conflict with God. Because the prophet’s service to His Lord had brought opposition and locked him in the public stocks, he would free himself from God, lead his own life, and defy Heaven. Yet almost in the same breath he is overcome by the conviction of his defeat; and unable to quench the “burning fire” of God’s Word within him, he exclaims: “Thou art stronger than I and hast prevailed.”
The attempt to exalt puny man over almighty God is the common weakness of all ages. The Savior of mankind is nailed to the cross, and His enemies exult in triumph. His disciples preach the message of His resurrection, but a Roman persecutor chisels his hatred into stone: “The name of Christ has been destroyed.” Luther bravely reasserts the central doctrine of Christianity, the glorious truth, “By grace are ye saved, through faith,” but proud churchmen sneer sarcastically and predict the quick failure of the lone monk who dares to defy every human power. The cause of Christ spreads over the earth, but a French skeptic boldly asserts that within a century after his death the Bible will be forgotten; a British philosopher prophesies that the nineteenth century will witness the fadeout of Christianity; German Bible critics confidently write epitaphs to mark the burial of our faith; in our own country professors at colleges founded to guard the faith of America’s youth join scoffers in promoting new anti-God propaganda and mobilizing militant atheists for war against Christ and the Bible.
In all this unblushing pride men resemble nothing as much as a worm that crawls on the highway and arrogantly defies a steamroller; a fly that would alight on a giant turbine and brazenly stop the whirl of its wheel; a twig cast into the rapids of the Niagara River that would dam the flow and the fall of those seething, pounding rapids. For have you ever stopped to realize how small and insignificant we boasting humans are? Go to the fields of an American farm, mark a space 3,000 feet square, dig down to the same depth, and you have a hole in which you can place the remains of every man, woman, and child upon the face of the earth. What a narrow, shallow grave for the world population! Since I spoke to you last Sunday, half a million of our fellow-men, enough to populate the city of Milwaukee, have passed into eternity; more than twenty million people die every year; but the world moves on, deaf to all the groans and the tears for the dying and the dead.
Here is another picture of man’s insignificance. When a British aviator climbed nine and a half miles, the record height for an airplane, he could look down on the North Sea and survey the entire British coast from East to West. In one glance he beheld the southern end of the nation that has influenced much of modern history and today controls half the civilized world. When a Belgian scientist ascended to the stratosphere, he reported that from the altitude of more than ten miles, majestic Alpine peaks, tremendous, impassable monuments of stone and ice, as they loom before us, appeared to him in tiniest miniature. And when the highest of all heights ever attained by men was reached by two American army officers, fourteen miles over our Western prairies, these air explorers could see no sign of life below them. All evidence of human striving and achieving, all signs of a creature called man wiped out at the height of fourteen short miles! How microscopic the human race must seem to God when He beholds our earth!
Add to this gray canvas the somber lines of our human frailty and brittleness. Minute creatures, visible only under powerful lenses (so small that you can crowd almost 10,000, each harboring infinitely small parasites, on a one-inch line, bacteria so minute that a new unit of measurement had to be invented to describe them), can destroy life through scourges like smallpox, hydrophobia, or yellow fever or hold a nation at bay through epidemics of infantile paralysis, influenza, or tuberculosis. How frail our human frame! How weak man’s constitution when these tiny creatures annually kill millions of our fellow-men!
Complete this disquieting picture of man’s pitiable weakness by recalling his inability to solve the commonplace problems of life. Take, for example, the matter of labor and employment. I submit to you that our nation, with the world’s greatest natural wealth and one of the smallest populations for every square mile, should offer all American workers constructive and profitable labor. Though hundreds of plans have solved this problem with words, with blue-prints, with statistics, a high official in Washington confesses that far into the future at least seven million of our able-bodied men will be deprived of an opportunity to work in American industry and enterprise. We see our tragic failure in promoting peace as this generation pays the billions incurred by the “war to end all wars” and prepares for its more bloody successor. We behold our moral weakness, with the ideals of decency and honesty often cast prostrate, with class arrayed against class, with our best efforts unable to stimulate virtue and curb crime; and the completed portrait in telltale lines pictures the sorry frailty and the shabby weakness of these vanishing, shadowlike creatures called men.
In spite of the warnings that leap from every page of history crying, “Be not deceived, God is not mocked,” men today are reluctant to acknowledge the sovereignty of God and correspondingly eager to vaunt themselves as the masters of their own destinies. It is admirable when a nation plans the greatest system of social security in human experience; but let us not take away the spiritual foundation on which every effective help for men rests, by ignoring God. It is a remarkable preeminence of our nation that we have large and well-equipped schools; but let us beware of bringing up a generation that knows not God nor the great things He has done for us. We rejoice over the fact that there are in our country more church-buildings than in any other nation. Yet if the number of false prophets increases who picture God much as the sleeping Buddha, the huge gilded idol of China that lies on its side with its drowsy eyes closed; if they keep on preaching that God is unconcerned about human affairs, that the earth revolves without Him, that the pages of history turn themselves, they are inviting disaster.
God always prevails. We may not recognize His triumph when we see heartless vultures exploiting the poor; crooked schemers defrauding workingmen, growing wealthy while the underpaid victims of their greed eke out a stunted existence; human scavengers planting the seeds of vice and lust in the hearts of our young people; fomenters of war inciting nation against nation and profiteering on the blood of the world’s youth; yet all these must finally realize that they are living under the shadow of God’s terrifying judgment and that their sins are crying to the God of all power for vengeance. It does not matter how great or popular or wealthy or secure a man may be; if he acts as though he knew more than God, if he boasts that he can get along without Him, in Heaven’s own time he will be rudely shaken from his delusion to confess reluctantly: “Thou art stronger than I and hast prevailed.”
Do not tell me, as you modernize the ancient complaint, that the godless prosper and that, the more ruthless a man is, the higher he mounts on the ladder of human success. Look about you, and you will exclaim, “How are the mighty fallen!” As you see fortunes crashed, reputations lost, princes become paupers, prisons overfilled, suicide lists lengthening, doubt written on human faces, and despair graven on their lives, remember—God has prevailed! Even if He delays; even if His unsearchable wisdom does not shatter human pretenses here on earth, the inevitable reckoning always waits beyond the grave. Oh, that men would measure that final consequence and last catastrophe of their rebellion against God! Say what they will in contradiction or question, God has told us there is a judgment to come; there is a hell; there is an eternal death!
Let us apply all this to ourselves, and let me ask you frankly: “Are you living in revolt against God? If you are, you are doomed—without any possibility of escape—to be crushed by His almighty power; for God must prevail! Are you nurturing some secret sin alone or perhaps with some partner in wrong? Break it off if you are, for ‘it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’ Are you hurting your fellow-men through your greed and selfishness? Are you crowding the happiness from other lives just to gratify your personal, selfish whims? Has the reign of lust captivated your heart so that you glory in the fracture of God’s commandments? Are you making money in the wrong way, building your bank account, but losing your soul?” For the sake of your soul, for the quieting of your conscience, for the pledge of a better, happier life, and for your eternal blessings in God’s high heavens, remember that “your sin will find you out.” And if God in His mercy sends sorrows to rouse you out of this slumber, then open your eyes to the sinfulness of everything human and ask God to fill your heart with this new understanding that speaks in contrite confession, “Thou art stronger than I and hast prevailed.”
THE PREVAILING LOVE OF GOD
For the heart that trusts in Christ this confession, “Thou art stronger than I,” becomes the battle-cry of faith. Beholding that Savior’s love, we realize that God’s compassion is greater even than His power, His mercy stronger than His justice; we know—and what a priceless confidence this is!—that “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.”
To remind us once more of His measureless grace, the message of Advent asks for hearts prepared to welcome the Christ-child as the gift of God’s prevailing love. This is the great Gospel, the first chapter of which was written at Bethlehem. No simple word of pardon would suffice to return men to God. There had to be an overpowering, eternal proof of our Father’s compassion. No man, not even the most exalted; no angel in his holiness and majesty, could meet the demands of God’s justice; God gave His “only-begotten Son” and sent Him from the riches of heaven to the poverty of earth. No blinding flashes of Christ’s divine power would save the race; God had to become incarnate as man, and the virgin-born Son of the Highest had to lie cradled in a Judean manger. No mere teaching, no mere example, would restore man to grace. There had to be a payment, an atoning Substitute for humanity perishing in its own vices. Human treasures, towering mountains of earth’s precious metal and glowing jewels, could not begin to pay the price of that atonement; but in the supreme proof of God’s love for you and for me that Christ-child was destined to give Himself and by His blood and death on the cross of shame to remove our sins and cancel our iniquities. No pardon that could leave any doubt or uncertainty in our hearts would suffice; no ransom that left anything to man, that had to be earned or completed by human effort, could answer the pleading heart of a sin-cursed world; so in His never-to-be-fathomed mercy and in that endless love that goes out for every wayward, stubborn, selfish child of man Christ did everything.
If you prepare for the pilgrimage to Bethlehem in this spirit, you can understand why the greatest men have always been the humblest, why St. Paul confesses himself to be the chief of sinners, why William Carey, who for more than sixty years labored heroically for Christ and for India’s perishing millions, had this description of himself carved on the plain tablet over his grave: “A wretched, poor, and helpless worm, on Thy kind arms I fall.” You will turn away from yourself, from your own resources, from the “arm of flesh” and confess, “Heavenly Father, hold me in Thy grace and mercy; ‘Thou art stronger than I.’”
After Robert Louis Stevenson, the great English novelist, was brought to Christ, he confessed: “No man can achieve success . . . until he writes in the journal of his life the words ‘Enter God.’” Will you not, looking forward to the joy of the Savior’s coming, prepare to kneel before the manger and pray, “Cast out our sin and enter in, Be born in us today”?
Do not let the fears and sorrows of life keep Christ out, as though God, who can “neither slumber nor sleep,” had His eyes closed to your problems and anxieties, as though He, the Ever-living, were dead and you had to fight your own battles! When you survey the love that brought Christ into the world, the miracle of His birth, and the salvation and life through His atonement and death, then rejoice, “Heavenly Father, ‘I know that Thou canst do everything.’ With Thee ‘nothing shall be impossible.’ ‘Thou art stronger than I’ am, with all the weakness of my sin. Help me to carry my burdens, support me on the steep, up-hill roads of life”; and that blessed Savior whose love is strongest when we are weakest will walk by our side with His sustaining, uplifting strength. Come before God and say, “Heavenly Father, ‘Thou art stronger than I’ with my frail and faulty intellect. Help me to find my way through life! Show me Thy brightness in the gloom that surrounds me! Give me Thy truth against the multiplied falsehoods of men!” And He who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” will be at your right hand and will whisper assuringly, “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.” Come before God and say, “Heavenly Father, ‘Thou art stronger than I’ with my unclean heart and sinful mind. Give me Thy strength, so that I may wrestle successfully with sin and choke off sordid desires.” And He who as a helpless Babe came to bring His people “the remission of their sins” will come into your life with “the victory that overcometh the world.”
When we thus lose the proud sense of our own importance as Jesus gains the ascendency in our lives; when we behold Him and confess with the great prophet who announced His coming, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” then these words, “Thou art stronger than I and hast prevailed,” become the song of triumph which, pray God, you and I and all others in this assembly may sing at the Savior’s second coming. May we who worship together in these Sunday broadcasts without ever having seen one another—and who knows whether you and I will ever clasp hands here on earth—be united there before the throne through the Christ, who is stronger than we are and whose love has prevailed for our salvation! God grant it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.