Date: December 26, 1937
Supplication at the Year’s Close
God our Father, God our Savior, God our Purifier:
Grant us the blessings of a perpetual Christmas, so that our hearts may steadfastly cling to the joy of salvation and our lives radiate the Christ glory. Strengthen the foundation of our faith, so that the few and fleeting hours of the Savior’s birthday may be more than a short-lived truce of peace with Thee. With Thy Spirit, through Thy Word and Sacraments, help us always to believe confidently in Thee, continually to walk in contrition before Thee. As we begin to review our relations to Thee during the past twelve months and penitently admit our ingratitude, coldness, blindness, covetous grasping, we plead, not for the reward of merit, since we can claim none, but in Jesus’ name we beg the pardon of mercy. By the power of His blood forgive us, blot out the handwriting against us, and in Thy love place the seal of complete forgiveness upon the three hundred and sixty-five pages of this current volume of our lives, torn and stained as it is. We cannot leave Thee except Thou bless us with Thy pardon and comfort us with Thy peace. Hear us in this last prayer of the dying year! Come to us, so that we through the Christ-child may come to Thee and to timeless eternity! Hear us for His sake! Amen.
Behold, this Child is set for the fall and rising again of many. – Luke 2:34
A HUNDRED years ago the British scientist Charles Darwin aboard the Beagle on his voyage around the world, stopped at Patagonia, on the southern end of our western hemisphere. With dismay he recorded that the natives were so utterly depraved that they seemed scarcely above animal level. He tells us that these vicious Indians, when pressed by hunger in the winter, would strangle and devour their older women rather than kill their dogs. “Horrid as such a death by the hands of their friends and relatives was,” Darwin writes, “the fear of the old women, when hunger began to press, is more painful to contemplate.” We are told that they would often run away into the mountains but were pursued by the men and brought back to the slaughterhouse at their own firesides. So brutish were these heartless natives that Darwin left Tierra del Fuego asserting that such savages were beyond the reach of civilization. Thus did science admit its inability to purify their hearts and change their lives; but Christ came to Patagonia, and a startling transformation began. A missionary who had been a foundling on the streets of Bristol, England, began to study the savages and their hoarse, guttural, clicking sounds, which Darwin hesitated to classify as a language, and finally he was able to preach into their sin-choked hearts the message of complete atonement through the Christ of Bethlehem and the Christ of Golgotha. The result? Only thirty-eight years after Darwin had pronounced the doom of science on these natives he confessed that the startling improvements in Patagonia were “phenomenal.” They were more than that. They were divine; for through the preaching of the Word these naked cannibals, so low in the human scale that they had no word even for “God,” became new creatures in Christ. Darwin, although no Christian himself, paid his tribute to the Savior’s uplifting and exalting power by sending a yearly contribution to the Patagonian mission.
If the acceptance of Christ can raise and ennoble men, the rejection of Christ can pull them down close to the line that separates the human from the brute. Our schools ought to emphasize the study of the French Revolution and show what can happen to nations or to individuals when they spurn Christ. Go back to the Reign of Terror, when the blade of the deadly guillotine rose and fell far too slowly for the wholesale slaughter; when rows of prisoners were mowed down in mass murder; when young men and young women were tied together in mock marriage and then hurled to their death in the sea; when ships, crowded with prisoners, were deliberately sunk; when within a month, in the city of Nantes, fifteen thousand men and women whose only fault was that they believed in God and truth and justice were killed; when within the same length of time at Toulon, fourteen thousand perished by guillotines, gunfire, or drowning! Read this account penned by a historian to describe the nightmare of blood and lust in its most shocking horror: “Great flocks of crows feasted on naked corpses twisted together in hideous embraces. No mercy was shown to sex or age. The number of young lads and girls of seventeen who were murdered . . . is to be reckoned by the hundreds. Babies torn from the breasts were tossed from pike to pike. . . . One champion of liberty had his pockets well stuffed with ears. Another swaggered about with the finger of a little child in his hat!” And all the time, while the gutters foamed with French blood, atheism pillaged and plundered, defiled and destroyed. Christianity was swept into the obscure corners of France and on the high altar of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris coarse unbelief enthroned and deified a lewd woman, a harlot, as the Goddess of Reason.—Thus does the hideousness of murder and mad lust reign when Christ has been banished.
Because this is the repeated lesson of history in the lives of individuals or in the destiny of nations and we either eternally rise with Christ or we fall forever without Him, I direct you once more to the Christ-child at Bethlehem and ask you to join me in reasserting this fundamental Christmas truth:
ETERNAL DESTINY IN THE CHRIST-CHILD
This is the assurance of the words from which, with the Spirit’s help, I hope to draw warning and comfort for every one of you—the prediction of Saint Luke’s second chapter, thirty-fourth verse, “Behold, this Child is set for the fall and rising again of many.”
MANY FALL THROUGH THE REJECTION OF CHRIST
This remarkable prophecy was spoken by Simeon a few weeks after the first Christmas. He had been assured by the Holy Spirit that his eyes would not close in death before they beheld the promised Messiah; now, in the Temple, as his gaze rests upon the Desire of the nations, the long-expected Prince of Peace, the Christ of prophecy’s aging centuries, his one consuming desire had been granted. Life held nothing more for him now. He would die with the grace of the Christ-child engraved on his soul; for he sings, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word; for mine eyes have seen Thy Salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people.”
What a striking example this reputedly aged seer offers you older friends in my audience! Few pictures are more venerable and respected than the patriarchal figure of an aged disciple of Christ, trusting his Savior, awaiting his deliverance, and in the last hour repeating Simeon’s prayer, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace”; yet nothing is more tragic than the figure of a man or a woman weighted down by the burden of years who are unhappy in life and unprepared for death, restless, cynical, suspicious, because they have not seen the salvation of God in Christ.
Now, it is this unbelief, this unhappiness without Christ, in young and old, of which Simeon prophesies as he points to the infant Jesus and says, “Behold, this Child is set for the fall . . . of many.” He speaks of the same deep sorrow which once brought tears to the eyes of Jesus, the fatal folly that men reject Him and His proffered mercies,—that more than sixty million in this God-blessed nation have never acknowledged Him as their Savior and their King; that many in this audience have proved unfaithful to Him arid have completely despised His grace. It is one of the proofs of deepest perversity that men reject Christ, that because of this unbelief He has been “set for the fall . . . of many.” Why push Christ aside, we ask, when He offers mercy, love, guidance, strength, power, and purity? Why refuse to welcome Him with grateful hearts when He grants forgiveness and mercy, grace and reconciliation; when He pleads with all men to come to the highest happiness that life and death can afford? Why would men still crucify the compassionate Christ when all His thoughts, every one of His words, His entire life, are dedicated to their personal blessing?
One of the popular excuses in our day is the cold and decisive “We can’t believe. It taxes our intellects too much to say that the Babe of Bethlehem is the Lord of heaven, that the son of a Judean maiden is the Son of the almighty God.” So our intelligentsia haughtily rejects the Bible and its radiant, golden account of the Savior’s birth and in this rejection betrays the inconsistency and fanaticism that we associate otherwise only with blind bias and crass ignorance. If modern investigation, with the heaped millions of dollars at its disposal, cannot solve some of the basic problems of the body and its functions, why should men arrogate to themselves the right of discrediting God’s Word when Christ speaks of the soul and its salvation? If whatever is real in telepathy, the communication of one man’s thoughts to another, is still an inexplicable mystery, why should the mortal mind rise in rebellion against the Christmas Gospel, which brings thoughts of love from the heart of God to the soul of man? Some of the geniuses of the ages have eagerly confessed that the promises of God through the Christ-child are truth itself. Think of outstanding leaders in various branches of scientific activity who have been noted for their fearless discipleship: great explorers like the Arctic navigator Sir John Franklin, whose heroic faith exulted, “Christ, who died for the souls of sinners, is the Way, the Truth, and the Life”; great artists like Holman Hunt, who, dedicating his talent to the glorification of Christ, testified, “My desire is strong to use my power to make more tangible Jesus Christ’s teachings”; great composers like Bach, whose genius daily translated the grace of Christ into musical masterpieces; great botanists like Asa Gray, who declared, “My acceptance of the doctrine of the incarnation, itself the crowning miracle, makes attendant miracles no obstacles to belief”; great statesmen like Gladstone; called the “Matterhorn of Men,” who in British Parliament protested against the attacks of unbelief and never raised his voice in an important speech without imploring the grace and the strength of God; great physicians like Sir Alex R. Simpson, dean of the faculty of medicine at the University of Edinburgh, who told the graduates of that school, “I have made friends with the sinless Son of man, . . . who claims to be the First and the Last, the Living One who is dead and lives forevermore and has the keys of death and the unseen. My experience compels me to own that claim”; great philosophers like Professor Peter Tait at the same university, who humbled himself before Jesus to write, “All men should, frankly confessing the absolute unworthiness which they cannot but feel, approach the Redeemer with the simplicity and confidence of little children”; great inventors like Samuel Finley Morse, discoverer of the telegraph, who at an immense reception held in his honor sat down at the telegraph key and ticked the same greetings abroad which the angels sang at Bethlehem, “Glory to God in the highest.” These and many other leaders in science and achievement have testified that, if men are constantly surrounded by a thousand unexplainable mysteries in the realm of nature, why should they insist that with the three pounds of brain in the average cranial cavity they should be able to fathom the divine mysteries of heaven itself? God nowhere demands that you understand Christmas, that you explain the incarnation, that you analyze to your own satisfaction the miracle of the Virgin Birth. He asks you only to believe.
Instead of saying, “We cannot believe,” the honest confession would admit, “We do not want to believe.” There is a deep-rooted sense of opposition in natural man to the Christmas mercy and the truth which Christ’s Word repeatedly expresses concerning sin and grace. Jesus teaches that we are all sinners; that, though we look different, speak differently, act differently, that, though no two of us are exactly alike and even the network of whorls, loops, ridges, deltas, that mark the skin of our fingers is not identical in any two human beings, yet all men, however widely they may be separated otherwise, are equal and alike in this, that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Because that verdict demolishes the haughtiness and the pride of men and rejects all their petty scramblings after position and preferment, the world grimly sets its face against God and His Bible, against Christ and His Church.
Again, Jesus teaches that sin destroys; that it leaves in its wake shattered hopes and shattered homes; that it plants misery where happiness should flower; that it brings babies into the world, crippled, disfigured, and underprivileged; that it leads fathers and mothers, prematurely gray, to an early grave of anguish; that it oppresses, stifles, and chokes the joy of life, as in our own country, a land blessed with plenty for a population several times larger than the present census total, sin leaves forty millions of our fellow-men ill clad, ill fed, ill housed, ill provided; that beyond all the terrifying consequences of rape, robbery, violence, murder, there is that unmistakable punishment for unforgiven sin in the next world before which even now men should tremble in dread fear.
Yet when the Word of God speaks of death and damnation for the proud and scoffing sinner, too often it is answered with a shrug of the shoulders that seems to say: “Why bring that up?” The perverted strain in our race, instead of making people hate sin, leads them to crave it, to coddle and nurture their favorite vices, to send covetous glances toward their neighbor’s wife and property, to think themselves big and bold when they can speak in profane and sacrilegious language, to inflame their carnal lusts through heavy holiday drinking, to be merry in the mad riot of iniquity. Because our Lord demands that we reject sin instead of embracing it, men pronounce their own doom as they say: “We will have none of this Christ and His forbidding creed.”
Jesus also teaches us that no man can buy the forgiveness of his sin or by himself discover any deliverance from its consequences. We are all, according to the plain verdict of the Scriptures, just as little able to do good in the sight of God as a corpse can raise its arm. It is quite as impossible for us to gain: heaven by paying any entrance fee as it would be for a dirty, ragged, unkempt beggar to claim a seat beside the king at his coronation. Because Christ again ruthlessly rejects the idea that you can compensate for sin by a check to charity, that we ourselves can undo the evil that we have done and cleanse ourselves from the blemishes of life; because Jesus insists that there is no other way to heaven than humble, contrite, self-effacing faith in Him, multitudes have, in effect, repeated, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” Even churchmen—and does that disloyalty not cut most deeply?—have devitalized and denied the Christ of Christmas as the Son of God and the Savior of the world. Thus has this Child been “set for the fall . . . of many.”
How terrifying the price that men pay for their unbelief as they become calloused when they should be considerate; deceitful when they ought to be true; foul when God wants them to be pure; destitute of hope for this life and the next when in Christ they can be rich for time and for eternity! You know what it means to fall from Christ, and many of you have experienced it. You write me that in your younger years you had joy, buoyancy and happiness in life, but that now you are disillusioned; and I answer to say that you are crowding Christ from your hearts. Don’t try to debate this question and object that sometimes sin pays, that the reward of impurity is often diamonds, furs, and limousines, the dividends of dishonesty frequently larger, bulging bank accounts and better business. These are only momentary flashes that will serve to emphasize the inevitable darkness; for stamped on the life story of every one who rejects God, engraved on the walls of any nation that forgets the Almighty and tramples on His holy will, is the verdict written by the eternal hand, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked.” Just as the most imminent peril for our nation is not Fascism or Communism, as near or far as these may be, but the practical atheism in the lives of American millions that is boring from within and undermining the foundations of morality, so in the life of an individual the most deadly danger, incomparably more tragic than any social insecurity, is the dire fulfilment of our text, “This Child is set for the fall . . . of many.”
MANY RISE THROUGH FAITH IN CHRIST
Simeon was blessed with a prevision of a glorious promise; for, pointing to the Babe in Mary’s arms, he also said, “This Child is set for the . . . rising again of many.” What a blessed pledge that through our faith in the Christchild and His sin-erasing love we can break off the shackles of the human helplessness that keep us riveted to the low places of darkness and then rise to the highest heights, the pinnacle of pardon, from which we can look beyond the depths of this present time into the towering glories and eminences of the heavenly homeland!
We have come to the last Sunday in the year. As you begin to review the past twelve months, from the East to the West imposing multitudes could testify before God and man that what I say is the truth of God when I now assert that in Christ you can rise again after every sin, find peace after every inner care, climb the sun-bathed heights of assurance after you have groped in the valley of the shadow. My prayer, as this year dwindles away, pleads that all of you will let Christ raise you to these heights, if needs be, lead you up from the gutters, up from the swamps, up from the lowlands of lust, up from the deep ravine of your own righteousness, to the heavenly heights of His forgiving mercy. You can never live abundantly until you know with ingrained assurance that you are living in Christ, through Christ, and for Christ.
The promise of the elevating, uplifting power through Christ proves itself in many and unmistakable ways. Do the boys and girls haled before our juvenile courts come from Christian families, from devoted fathers and mothers? I can cite the unanimous opinion of judges and jurists who have publicly declared that the child who learns Bible truths in church and at home in only rare and exceptional cases is found guilty of youthful misdemeanor and crime. Are the men and women who fill our penitentiaries noted for their Christian zeal and ardor? I can present impressive statistics to prove the contrary. Do the homes that are blessed by Jesus Christ harbor the unhappy families that give our domestic courts the reason for their existence? I can send you divorce data which show that the disrupted home, in the vast majority of cases, is the Christless home. Today, as in all ages, faith in Jesus not only raises the souls of men, it uplifts their lives.
Through our constant adoration of the Christ-child we also rise from the deadening worries that crowd into this fear-freighted age. Christ may never raise some of us above our restricted income and financial problems. The difficulties of earning our daily bread and retaining our honor and self-respect may increase as the perplexing era marches on; but through Christ we can tower above all fear. When the snowflakes fall during these December days, remember God’s question to Job, “Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow?” Take one snowflake and examine it under the penetrating lenses of a high-powered microscope. Only a moment will this delicate hexagon linger beneath the human gaze; but what a moment of white majesty and virgin beauty and crystalline symmetry! If you are ever inclined to doubt the providence of God in Christ, if you ever begin to wonder whether life is only a series of haphazard chances, then ask yourself, “Have I ‘entered into the treasures of the snow’?” “Can I explain the mysteries of these icy stars that fall from winter’s sky, no two patterns alike?” “Must I not, looking to my blessed Savior and to the radiance of His redemptive love, gain the assurance that my heavenly Father’s wisdom, shaping these millions of myriads of frosty patterns, will fashion my life by the cold afflictions into the sacred artistry of holy beauty?”
You can rise with Christ, particularly when your hopes are lowest and when you understand that His ways, though not your ways, are always the best. Sir Henry M. Stanley, searching for Livingstone in the heart of Africa, had to be led through a siege of tropical fevers that kept his temperature constantly at 105 degrees before his hardened attitude toward life turned to the joy of his salvation. His sickbed became his school for Christ, and having read the warnings and promises of Scripture, he wrote: “I flung myself on my knees and poured out my soul utterly in secret prayer to Him from whom I had been so long estranged, to Him who had led me here mysteriously into Africa, there to reveal Himself and His will.” Perhaps God has been leading some of you through the jungles of life, through the wastes of illness and loneliness, to have you find Christ and with Him this uplifting grace which Simeon proclaimed as His voice rang through the Temple, “This Child is set for the . . . rising again of many.”
Is Christ lifting you from your sins and sorrows, your worries and afflictions? What more appropriate question could I leave with you as this year tapers into eternity? With the seasons about to close another year, we must pause to impress ourselves with the fact that we are a year closer to death; that this may be the last complete twelvemonth which many of us will live. As you take inventory of your soul, let me ask, Have you made peace with God? Have you said to Christ, “You are mine, O blessed Savior, now and forevermore”? Or are you at war with God and have you told Jesus, if not in words, then in telltale action, “I disclaim You”? Remember, this is an absolute alternative: you either fall when you reject Christ, or you rise through accepting Christ. May the Spirit of God help you to close this current annual volume of your life and to start the first pages of the new book with the same dedication of fervent faith, “For me to live is Christ”! Amen.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.