Date: May 21, 1931
Ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. – Jeremiah 6:16
NEXT Sunday the oldest, the greatest, the happiest organization in the world celebrates its birthday, when Christians in all corners of the globe come together to commemorate Pentecost. On that day, nineteen centuries ago, the Church of Jesus Christ began its blessed work, when the Holy Spirit, in tongues of living fire, descended upon the first disciples, and when they, endued with that power, preached the message of sin and grace into the hearts of three thousand converts.
For nineteen hundred years the Church has had the same sacred commission of bringing Christ to men and men to Christ; for nineteen hundred years the Church has been directed to push through to the very ends of the earth and bring its message to all colors, creeds, and classes; for nineteen hundred years the Church has been challenged to sound forth in clear, clarion tones the one message that can save and transform the souls of men by its priceless, peerless, timeless, endless pledge, “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
While it would seem that these nineteen centuries have been long enough, and the work of the Church during this period impressive enough, to ingrain into the living consciousness of all who are called Christians this truth, that the saving of souls by the preaching of the shed blood of Jesus Christ should be the plan and program of the Church today, there are unfortunately wide-spread and farreaching influences at work in this novelty-seeking, innovation-craving age that would revolutionize the work of the Church, introduce what people like to call “modern messages” and “twentieth-century methods,” and desert the time-honored roads along which the saints of God have plodded on their path to glory.
IT IS STILL THE OLD PATH.
But tonight, as we approach the anniversary of the founding of the Church, the Word of God calls out to us, “Ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein.” And I think it would be difficult to find a message that is more sorely needed in the churches of America today than this command of God for a revival of the old, but ever new principles upon which the Church is built. People today have forgotten the most fundamental facts relative to the Church and its work. They have forgotten that the very word church comes from a Greek expression which means “the house of the Lord.” They have forgotten the real significance of Pentecost and its message to the Church today. And the result? Oh, if St. John in the Apocalypse was driven to write his seven letters of warning and encouragement to the churches of Asia Minor, how much more sorely do we today need the inspired message from God to remind us of the follies that have helped to deform the modern American Church!
Among the 232,000 church-buildings in the United States there are uncounted hundreds that are anything but houses of the Lord. They have degenerated into mere houses of men, where human theories, with all the inconsistencies of their ever-changing philosophies, rule out the Word of God as too antiquated for our 1931 brand of enlightenment. With preachers in American pulpits who are not sure of the existence of God, but who are sure that the Bible is not the inerrant and divine revelation; with teachers in American divinity schools who with genial condescension ridicule the fundamental doctrines of Christian faith; and with the lavishly financed away-from-God movement to support all this, unnumbered churches in our own country have given up the old paths and sought new ways; sacrificed their spiritual integrity, forfeited their right to existence, and loaded upon themselves the iniquity of stifling men’s souls into hopelessness. In this hour of apostasy we must utterly condemn this high treason against God Almighty on the part of those who claim to be His ambassadors and tell them, “You have made His Church, the house of the Lord, a habitation of darkness and death.”
But within the ranks of those who still claim faithful adherence to the Bible there are many churches in which the virile ideals of Biblical Christianity have surrendered to the spirit of modern sensationalism, churches which, forsaking the old paths, have degenerated into social centers, where bizarre novelties and sensational attractions have invaded the sanctuary in order to attract large and curious congregations. Thus we have preachers with more zeal than knowledge who have sought to denounce evolution by pulling a mangy, wriggling monkey into their pulpits; others who have taken the time which God has given them to work on men’s souls and used it to smash whisky bottles or denounce liquor laws in what they call the house of the Lord. Or, far worse, there is the prostitution of the bride of Christ, by which churches compete with theaters, featuring drama services, vaudeville programs, and motion pictures instead of the Word. Glance over your newspaper on Monday morning, and you will find accounts of barefooted girls dancing in pagan tableaux in the house of the Lord; professional pugilists boxing in the house of the Lord, seven- or eight-year-old child preachers, girl ministers, and other similar flagrancies in the house of the Lord. You will find that too frequently the preaching of the Gospel to the sin-sick world is so completely overlooked that there is as little room for Christ in these churches as there is in a Mohammedan mosque or in a Hindu shrine. And against all who thus in any way contribute to tear the Church from its spiritual basis and make the sacred edifices, once dedicated to the worship of the Almighty, mere centers of social functions, the Savior, were He with us in the flesh, would utter this indictment, “Ye have made My house, the house of the Lord, a worldly house of worldly men.”
Or there is the new path taken by the commercial Church, the Church which tries to sell salvation in an endless chain of money-making enterprises, which ruthlessly disregards the law of the land by instituting crude forms of gambling; the Church which the Savior condemns in His warning of old, “Ye have made My house a house of thieves.” There is the police Church, which thinks it has been called into existence to make this country a Christian nation by force, to promote political lobbies in the effort to carry through a political program, or to employ here, as it has employed in other countries in ages past, rack, fire, and sword. Let such churches ponder over the Savior’s warning, “They that take the sword shall perish with the sword,” as He says, in effect, “Ye have made My house, the house of the Lord, a police court of inquisition.” There is, among the new types of churches, one that is more dangerous than all of these, the cold, self-satisfied, fashionable, and elite Church with its aristocratic aloofness, the Church that takes its talent, the golden opportunities that God has placed before it, wraps it up in the napkin of exclusiveness, and buries it in the cemetery of self-conceit. To such churches the Savior, of whose devotion to the Church the Scriptures prophesy, “The zeal of Thine house hath eaten Me up,” would say, “Ye have made My house, ‘a house of prayer for all people,’ a cold and closed assembly of a chosen few.”
Against the encroachment of these and a dozen other innovations that sap the vigor of the Church and chill its ardor, twentieth-century Christianity must hark back to the old paths, to the spirit of the first Pentecost. Today we do not need new architectural features and new cathedral-like edifices; we do not need new liturgies and the pomp and pageantry of new orders of service; we do not need the new Bibles which a score of publishers are endeavoring to foist upon the Church in the form of modern translations and special edition; we do not need new systems and modernized methods; we do not need new ideas in the pulpit and new opinions in the pew. We do not need anything new.
But what we do need is the old path, the path that leads backward past all the failures and fancies of modern and deluded minds, through all the tinseled attractions and tarnished novelties of this vauntingly modern present day, back to the first Pentecost. As the Holy Spirit descended upon those disciples, so, after nineteen centuries, the Church must realize that its strength still comes from above, a gift of the Holy Spirit. As Peter and the first preachers of the Church were filled with that Spirit, so today the minister of the Gospel must be filled, not with Shaw and Dostoievsky, not with sociology and psychology, but with the Holy Spirit and the intimacy of His illuminating and renewing presence. As the message of that powerful Pentecost sermon in the second chapter of Acts was based on the full Word of God, so today pulpits that have been transformed into agencies for militaristic or pacifist propaganda, churches that have sold their birthright for a pottage of unholy publicity, preachers who have produced a ministry of dry bones, feeding their followers stones of sensationalism instead of the living bread,—all these must cast off this masquerade Christianity and consider prayerfully the thought-provoking admonition of St. Paul, “Preach the Word.” As Peter preached the Law in all its blighting severity, telling his hearers that their wicked hands had nailed Jesus to the cross, so today sin, hideously rampant in this godless age, yet strangely unknown in many man-pleasing pulpits, must be denounced by fearless men of God, who call out to this forgetful, selfindulgent generation, as Peter called out, “Repent!” But as that first Pentecost sermon preached the pure promise of that boundless grace to sixteen national groups assembled in Jerusalem, and as all could hear and understand that Jesus died for their sins and that this full and free salvation was sealed by His victorious resurrection, so today, by following this old path, wherein is the good way, through the debris of disintegrating society to Golgotha’s brow, men must be told that they are saved for time and eternity, not by their character, not by their money, not by their brains, not by the best that they have and the best that they are, but, thank God! by the profoundest sacrifice of which history knows, by the love of Christ, who “humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross”; by that love of which the Scriptures testify to every one of us tonight when they tell us, “Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor that ye through His poverty might be rich.”
The glory-crowned heights to which the old paths lead were shown on that first Pentecost Day when three thousand acknowledged Jesus as their Savior and were baptized. Three thousand men and women won for Christ without any pulpit gymnastics, without any sensational sermon topics, without any high-powered publicity, without theological or philosophical doctors in the pulpit, but simply by the plain, direct testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ! Therein lies the Church’s power today; therein lies an appeal to that part of the American ministry that has left the main issues of the King’s business and dedicated its energies to the passing fancies of a fleeting hour. The only successful churches today are those which are soundly confessional, conscientiously loyal.
IT IS THE PATH TO SOUL REST.
For, according to our text, by taking the old path, we have the promise, “Ye shall find rest for your souls.” And when you husbands who have your religion in your wife’s name, you young folks who think that you are getting along quite well without Christ and without the Church, you fathers and mothers who keep on postponing the day when you are going to come to church with your children and to give your stifled souls a chance to come out of the cramp into which you have pressed them, when you ask, “Why should I join the Church?” “What can the Church do for me?” let me tell you tonight, as I ask you who have never acknowledged Christ to join with us, and plead with you who have left the Church to return and stand shoulder to shoulder with us, that the Church will bring you the biggest and best blessing that can ever come into your life. It will give you rest because it will lead you to the rest-giving Savior, who tonight calls out to you in the tenderness of that beautiful invitation, “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
I ask you: Do you need rest from an accusing conscience that heaps up before you the mountain of sinful impulses and emotions that abound in every life? Do you crave for rest from the overpowering forces of the unsympathetic and relentless world in which you are fighting a losing battle to maintain your self-respect and self-preservation? Are you desperately in need of rest from pain and sorrow, from weakness and disappointment, from bruises of the body and bruises of the soul? Remember, human agencies are but broken reeds and human remedies but false consolations. Men have given their most priceless possessions in the search for soul rest; they have offered up their own flesh and blood; they have made their life a long and painful series of penances; they have tried to purchase rest. But humanity alone has never found rest. Here, however, in the Church of Jesus Christ, in its prayers, its hymns, its reading and exposition of the Scriptures, its Sacraments, its messages of comfort in bereavement, of happiness in sorrow, you have the fulfilment of this sacred promise, “Ye shall find rest for your souls.” You have the soul rest in the same promise which Jesus repeats six hundred years after Jeremiah’s time, “Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls.”
If some of you within the range of these words tonight live in an area in which the Church of Jesus Christ is not represented; if some of you have access only to churches that do not dispense this rest and peace and comfort; and if you want to have the blessings of the Gospel and be identified with the Church,—the great body of Lutheran Christians maintaining this radio ministry will consider it a privilege to bring this message of rest to you if you will but send us particulars. In thus offering you the divine source of all rest and happiness on earth this message will prepare you for the one rest that yet remaineth for the saints of God, the serenity and restful beauty of Christ’s glorious heaven. Amen.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.