Church as social corporation

Posted on September 3rd, 2014

A portion of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s assessment of American churches in the 1930’s:

So what stands in place of the Christian message? An ethical and social idealism borne by a faith in progress that— who knows how —claims the right to call itself “Christian.” And in the place of the church as the congregation of believers in Christ there stands the church as a social corporation. Anyone who has seen the weekly program of one of the large New York churches, with their daily, indeed almost hourly events, teas, lectures, concerts, charity events, opportunities for sports, games, bowling, dancing for every age group, anyone who has heard how they try to persuade a new resident to join the church, insisting that you’ll get into society quite differently by doing so, anyone who has become acquainted with the embarrassing nervousness with which the pastor lobbies for membership— that person can well assess the character of such a church. All these things, of course, take place with varying degrees of tactfulness, taste, and seriousness; some churches are basically “charitable” churches; others have primarily a social identity. One cannot avoid the impression, however, that in both cases they have forgotten what the real point is.

Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (p. 107)

Peddling live rattlesnakes

Posted on September 1st, 2014

Rattlesnake

How sad it is, then, to reflect on what the world actually hears from the church in so many instances. We offer to sell them the mystery of the love of God in Jesus; but the way we talk about God and Jesus only makes it sound as if we are trying to peddle a live rattlesnake. People converted by fear-mongering are people converted from evil, not to the truth.

Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Kindle Locations 1524-1526)

Sermo Dei: Trinity 11, 2014

Posted on August 31st, 2014

August 31, 2014

Baptism of Elijah Robert Preus

Luke 18:9-14

 


Labor Day weekend should make us think about the meaning of work. Every work that makes the world beautiful or functional, every work that serves the neighbor, is a good work.

Work itself was intended to be good. The word “work” we now associate with drudgery – something unpleasant yet necessary. But work is honorable and noble. Including—or rather, especially—everyday work.

After the Bible, the Small Catechism is the most important book for Lutherans. Often ignored is the Table of Duties, which is introduced like this: “Certain passages of Scripture for various holy orders and positions, admonishing them about their duties and responsibilities.” What are these “holy orders and positions”? Not just “Bishops, Pastors, and Preachers,” but Citizens, Husbands, Wives, Parents, Workers of All Kinds, Widows – every legitimate station in life is a holy order. I am so grateful for the people who care for our altar. To prepare for communion, and clean the vessels afterwards, is a good work. (And we need more people to help. Contact the church office and volunteer.) But to clean the dishes at home, to prepare a meal for your family, to clean the toilet, to wipe up your child’s vomit, is a good work just as valuable. Work done honestly is good work, and pleasing to God.


In today’s parable, the Pharisee has done good works. And they are, in fact, good. “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess,” he says.

Are these things good? Yes. Fasting—going without food—and tithing—giving an offering of ten percent of your income—these are good things. They don’t come to us naturally. We want to consume, to eat and drink and be merry; and we want more money, not to give it away. With these works, the Pharisee in many ways stands higher than us. He practices self-denial. So should we. He gives his money away. So should we.

The problem comes when we stand before God and say, “I am a good person.” What do you say about yourself? Do you say, “I have lived as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most”? Or do you say, “I have tried to be a good person”? “Sure, I’ve made some mistakes, but I volunteered here, I helped there, I tried to do right by my kids.” This is often accompanied by a complaint: “I deserve to be treated better by my wife/husband/employer/mother/daughter/father/son. Yes, I lost my temper, yelled or sulked or wrote a vitriolic email – but do you understand how they hurt me?”

All this is an attempt to justify yourself, to show yourself to be in the right.

If you are playing a game, if you are monitoring an election, if you are a police officer on patrol, by all means appeal to the law, enforce the rules, penalize every infraction.

But life with our neighbor and with our family can not work that way. And that’s because life before God does not work that way. There is only one thing to say before God, and that is what the tax collector said: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

And he, Jesus says, went home justified. Why? Because he confessed that he could not justify himself, he could not declare himself to be right, righteous, good, holy, just before God. The good things the Pharisee did—and they were good—were not good enough. For the Law demands a much more comprehensive goodness – a goodness of the heart, a heart that loves God and neighbor, not self.

Pharisee-and-Publican

Now tax collectors, as we know, are powerful and unpopular people. The kind of tax collector Jesus mentions in this parable was doubly hated, both for corruption and for working with the Roman occupiers. Thus a tax collector stood as a perfect example of how God’s mercy works, how justification works. God justifies the ungodly. God justifies the unworthy. God justifies the one who does not, cannot work.

That’s why the baptism of an infant is such a beautiful example of how God’s kingdom works. A child who cannot feed, clothe, or shelter himself is helpless. That’s who God helps. That’s who God justifies. That’s what the tax collector makes himself before God: helpless, utterly dependent on the mercy of God.

And since we are rejoicing today at the baptism of Elijah Robert Preus, we should note he is the great-grandson of the late Dr. Robert David Preus, a great teacher and leader in the church who is known for his profound exposition of the doctrine of justification. In his last published work, Justification and Rome, he said that justification “is the basis of the Christian religion and life, for it is the very essence of the Gospel itself.”

What has the Pharisee made the basis of his religion, the basis of his life? His works. What has the tax collector made the basis of his religion? Standing before the altar, he confesses his sin and asks for God’s mercy. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Striking his breast, the tax collector also uses striking language. Instead of employing the typical term for mercy, eleison, He uses a term that fits the location, in the temple, where a lamb burns twice daily on the altar for sacrifice. As the smoke of the sacrifice rises up, the tax collector prays, “God, provide atonement for me, a sinner.” That’s his meaning: “have mercy, provide atonement, turn Your wrath away from me.”

Baptism 800x474

It’s all very concrete and located. We can imagine people praying anywhere—and God is everywhere—but He has located His mercy in very specific places. For this tax collector, atonement, justifying mercy was located in the temple in Jerusalem; for Elijah Robert Preus, it was located today in the Sacrament of Baptism which Christ instituted. Likewise you receive these gifts when you come to private confession and hear the Word of Jesus spoken specifically to you. Then coming to the altar, we can make the same prayer: “In the body and blood of Your Son Jesus, provide atonement for me, a sinner.”

Our modern Bibles the New King James and the English Standard Version translate the prayer of the tax collector “be merciful” in other places as propitiation, a sacrificial word for appeasing wrath and bringing justice. St. Paul the Pharisee said in Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood” (Romans 3:23–25 NKJV).


Our work is good, but for justification, we need God’s work, His justification, His redemption. That’s why the tax collector, whom everybody would see as a bad man, stands higher than the Pharisee, a good man:

The Pharisee points to his works. The tax collector points to his sins.

The Pharisee points to himself. The tax collector points outside of himself, to the sacrifice.

Before God, we must not point to anything in ourselves. There is no justification for ourselves, except in Jesus who justifies us by His action, His work, His cross, His righteousness, His mercy.


And what might that mean, then, for how you treat others, people who have wronged you? C.S. Lewis said, “We all agreed that forgiveness is a beautiful idea until we have to practice it.” In so many of our relationships, we demand that the person who has hurt us or wronged us justify herself, make atonement for his sins, pay restitution. Stop it. Forgive. For we pray these two prayers together: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”; and, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” 

God grant that we sinners look to Jesus and return to our homes justified and full of forgiveness for His sake. +INJ+

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist

Posted on August 29th, 2014

Matins, Immanuel Lutheran School Teacher Work Week

Friday, August 29, 10:00 a.m.

The Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist

Mk. 6.14-29


Beheading of St. John the Baptist

Preparing to begin a new academic year, we would like an inspiring message, climbing mountaintops, slaying giants, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”! But that’s not what we get. We get John the Baptist, decapitated.

 

The world’s heart has not improved, but love has grown still colder, and our brethren across the globe are facing beheading.

 

In such a world, what are we to do? What is our mission, here in this Alexandrian outpost of the Lord’s Church? First, we learn from St. John to hold fast to the commandments of God. “John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’” (Mark 6:18 ESV) The first thing we do every year is review the Decalog, instructing our students to fear, love, and trust in God above all things, to honor father and mother, to not kill, and to not commit adultery. That was the one that got John in trouble.

 

For us to teach the Word, we first must submit ourselves to it, and that begins with repentance. While John was bold in confessing the truth of God’s Word, his personal confession was this: I am not worthy to loose the sandal strap of Jesus. He must increase, I must decrease. As the world, so it seemed, flocked to hear him speak; as his popularity went viral, he instead proclaimed the virus that is in the human heart, the contagion of concupiscence, and pointed everyone to Jesus. Follow Him!

 

But “Herodias had a grudge against him” (Mark 6:19 ESV) Setting aside the reason for a moment, is there anything of Herodias in you? Do you bear grudges against anyone? Do you remember how others have treated you, and keep it in a bitter place? God’s Word should have driven Herodias to repentance, but instead it drove her to greater sin.

 

Meanwhile, King Herod was eager to listen to John, but “When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed” (Mark 6:20 ESV). We will encounter parents and students and a culture that is greatly perplexed by what we teach. St. Irenaeus, in speaking about false teachers, likens them to a person who reassembles a beautiful mosaic that depicts a king so that the tiles now form an image of a fox. Our task in this new year is to put the pieces into place, the passages of Holy Scripture but also the glory and beauty of God inscribed in trees and flowers, the laws of science and the harmony of music, showing how all these tiles, assembled and viewed properly, show us the King of the Universe, who made heaven and earth and proclaimed it good.

 

Not everyone will view that image of the King. Some prefer the fox: the distorted, the corrupt, the perverted, the pornographic. Still others, like Herod, are caught between the Word and the world. For some time, Herod sought to have it both ways. Imprison John, but keep him safe and listen to him. That’s what we would like to do with the Word. Keep it in a safe place, where it cannot do too much damage. It is tempting to hold the Word captive, imprison it so that we can visit it from time to time, let it out of its cage for awhile, but not giving it free course.

 

Like Herod, we are eventually compelled to choose, for no man can serve two masters. Eventually, a pseudo-princess will force our hand: go the easy road that allows us to save face, or travel the hard road that leads to life. St. Mark describes the inner conflict of Herod: “The king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her.” (Mark 6:26 ESV)

 

And so John the Baptist was beheaded. Yet he did not lose his life. He had it already in the One of whom he testified, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

 

This day of John the Baptist’s beheading is thus the perfect day to finish our preparations for the new year. For we are not only preparing our students to make a living, but to make a dying. And in Jesus, “dying, we live.” +INJ+

Sermo Dei: St. Bartholomew 2014

Posted on August 24th, 2014

What is a life worth?

For weeks, the airwaves and internet have been saturated with killing. Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. The decapitation of journalist James Foley by the Islamic State. What should be done? What can be done? What is a life worth?

The world ignores many other lives snuffed out. The Islamic State has been systematically slaughtering Christians in Iraq. These holy martyrs join St. Bartholomew, whose feast day is today, in counting their lives worth losing.

What are their lives worth? What is your life worth? What is your life for?

Because we are selfish, “What is my life for?” is not our usual question. We ask questions like, “Am I getting enough out of life? Am I paid what I am worth? Am I treated like I think I should be? I want my life to be different. How can I get what I want?”


The Word of God says all those questions are the wrong questions. The beginning of today’s Epistle reading (2 Cor. 4:7) calls our bodies “jars of clay.” “We have this treasure in jars of clay.” What treasure? Just before this, St. Pauls tells the Corinthians about the mercy of God; because of God’s mercy, “we do not lose heart.” Why? Because we have the gospel, which means “good news.” What good news? The stuff we said in the Creed: the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

That is good news. And it’s all grounded in creation. In the verse immediately preceding today’s Epistle, Paul says, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Light is not a metaphor, a symbol of happiness or clarity. God said, “Let there be light,” even before He created the sun or the other stars. He made the scientific laws that govern our universe, and He made matter, the carbon, the clay, the dust from which He formed us.

The glory of God, Paul says, you see in the face of Jesus. Meaning what? Jesus the perfect man, crucified, is risen from the dead. In His body. Meaning that where God is, matter, material, life is not snuffed out. Life cannot be taken. Life wins. The death and resurrection of Jesus is God’s answer to the question, “What is a life worth?”

Expressing this idea, St. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a living man.” God makes life. The devil makes nothing. Evil makes nothing. The power of evil only corrupts, distorts, perverts, attempts to destroy. But if Jesus is risen from the dead, then there is no place for despair, no place for sorrow. That’s why Paul and his companions could go from city to city, being beaten, robbed, laughed at, and nearly killed, finally staring martyrdom in the face, and say, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8–9 ESV).

Nothing the world does can reverse the outcome, for Jesus is risen from the dead. We have this treasure, Paul says, in jars of clay. The NKJ says “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” He means our bodies, which God made from the earth.

Creation-of-man

Our bodies are powerful and resilient, yet fragile. Bones break. Cancer corrupts. Teeth rot. Bowels convulse. Eyesight blurs. Hearing fades. “What at last does this world leave us, but a hand filled with sand, or some loss to grieve us?”

“We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” Jars of clay are easily smashed. Who will pick up the pieces? The pot cannot reassemble itself. But the Potter became the pot, the Creator entered His creation.

Psalm 139 is often referenced with regards to abortion. And rightly so, but there’s even more going on there.

Psa. 139:13   For you formed my inward parts;

you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Wonderful are your works;

my soul knows it very well.

15 My frame was not hidden from you,

when I was being made in secret,

intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance;

in your book were written, every one of them,

the days that were formed for me,

when as yet there was none of them.

God formed our inward parts, He fashioned us in the wombs of our mothers, and so abortion is an unequivocal evil, because it is smashing a jar of clay that God has made. But then David says, “I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” Who is the speaker here? It cannot be you or me, or even David. We were all formed in our mother’s womb. Only Adam was “intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” Adam is the speaker, the first-formed man.

Icon-Adam-and-Eves-creation1

From Adam came his wife, and from them came all of us. When God was forming Adam, He already saw all of us in that first man. When God sees us, He doesn’t see black or white, He sees children of Adam: humans. He sees jars of clay that He fashioned, beginning with that first earthen vessel, our first father.

What else does He see? He sees hideous deformities. Not just misshapen noses, but misshapen minds: souls that desire all the wrong things, hearts that lust after what is not good, mouths that mutter grievances and complaints and twist every story.

And as we see everything falling apart, from Ferguson to Washington, from Iraq to Israel to our own little plans for our own little lives, it is easy to despair, to say, “What is my life for? I am just another broken pot, a jar of clay ugly and misshapen, and soon the garbage truck will come and haul my broken vessel to the landfill, where I take my place with billions of shattered hopes and dreams. What good is any of it?”

And God says to you, “O little jar of clay, who are you to lose heart about what I have made? I made you, and I have a purpose for you. And what is more, I have a plan.”

That’s how Bartholomew could go to his martyrdom. His symbol is a knife, for he was flayed alive in Armenia. He lived out the conclusion to our Epistle, “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” (2 Corinthians 4:10 ESV)

40p-Bartholomew

Have you ever smelled the stench of death? Trembled over an incessantly crying baby? Had yet another argument with your spouse? Laid aside an unopened bill you knew you could not pay? Stared into another lonely evening? And said, “This is not how I thought things would be”?

I wonder if Bartholomew—or the many modern martyrs in Iraq and Syria—had similar thoughts. That’s the story of humanity, of a fallen world: none of this is how it was supposed to be.

But you have been put into your place to reflect the light that God made. You are not the light, but you reflect the light, the treasure in jars of clay. The glory of God shines whenever you change another diaper, make another meal. When you love your wife, when you submit to your husband, when you care for your child, when you honor your parents, when you help your neighbor, when you do honest work, when you smile, and especially—especially!—when you forgive sins. Then you are doing the best work, for it is the work God has made for you to do right where you are.

We probably won’t be martyrs like Bartholomew. But we bear witness, martyria, to Jesus by forgiveness and faithful work.

Your body is breaking. You are a jar of clay. But you are a jar of clay made by the master Potter. He will reassemble your earthen vessel more glorious than you can imagine. That good news is the treasure you carry around in you even now. +INJ+

Living documents

Posted on August 16th, 2014

The Lutheran Confessions, John Pless writes, are “not relics of church history confined to their historical context, but living documents which call for either confession or denial.”

In Herman Sasse,  Letters to Lutheran Pastors – Volume 1 (Kindle Locations 576-577)

Adapting the local lifestyle

Posted on August 14th, 2014

In a recent interview on Issues, Etc., LCMS President Matthew Harrison encouraged pastors to get to know their people, spend time in their homes, hospital rooms, lives. Only through this will the preacher be able to truly preach to his people. It reminded me of this quotation from Eric Metaxas’s biography of Bonhoeffer about his time spent in Barcelona:

The intellectual dullness and the overwhelmingly languorous atmosphere of Barcelona pushed hard against Bonhoeffer’s hyperactive mind and personality. He was amazed at how people of all ages seemed to while away the hours sitting at cafés in the middle of the day, chattering about little of any real substance. He observed that besides coffee, vermouth-and-sodas were particularly popular, usually served with half a dozen oysters. Though Bonhoeffer was taken aback at what he now experienced, he may be given credit for not merely kicking against the goads: he adapted to the local lifestyle. He might have complained privately to those nearest and dearest to him, but he didn’t let himself become gloomy or stymied by any of it. He wanted to be effective in his role as pastor, and he knew he must enter the lives and, to some extent, the lifestyles of the people he was charged with serving.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (p. 73)

A pastor is often put among people he doesn’t understand, and whose lifestyles (not in terms of morality, but interests and temperament) he may not like. One of the many mistakes I made the first few years out of the seminary was not doing what Bonhoeffer did: “enter the lives and … lifestyles of the people he was charged with serving.”

Meditation on Psalm 85

Posted on August 13th, 2014

As we cast our eyes forward, to both death and resurrection, the Scriptures—and especially the Psalms—summon us to look back, to the mighty acts and deeds of God already accomplished. The accomplished things, the finished works, are the ground and basis for our future hope.

 

Thus tonight’s Psalm, 85, has an appeal: “Show us your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us your salvation.” But that appeal is based on the completed works, what God has already accomplished: “Lord, you were favorable to your land, you restored the fortunes of Jacob.”

 

Liberal Christians and our friends in the modern Eastern churches reject the biblical teaching that there is any wrath or anger to God. But that is the concern of the Psalmist: “Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?”

 

That is our experience of this life. The body dies. People suffer. Children are abandoned, while rulers entertain themselves and heal the affliction of the people slightly.

 

But in this Psalm is the mystery of our true healing: the union of what is above with that which is below. “Faithfulness springs up from the ground, and righteousness looks down from the sky.” From below, from the earth, is the Child born to Mary; from above, from the heavens, is the eternal Logos come down to dwell with us. “Faithfulness springs up from the ground, and righteousness looks down from the sky.” Faithfulness from below—the human nature of Christ, the only faithful man—is joined to righteousness from above—in the divine nature of Christ, who alone is righteous. These two natures, God and man, are joined together in the one person of our Lord Jesus. In Him, “righteousness and peace kiss each other,” “steadfast love and faithfulness meet.”

 

Facing the destruction of our bodies, our lives, our loved ones, everything we hold dear, the temptation is to sound the mournful cry of dereliction: “Will you be angry with us forever?” But in the God-man Jesus, we confidently close our eyes in the night, saying, “Yes, the LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase,” as the earth brings forth resurrected bodies at the end of days. +INJ+

Meditation on Psalm 84

Posted on August 12th, 2014

The nighttime prayers of the church persistently pray for rest. A long day, a long year, a long life leads to weariness. Adam is put to sleep by God when the man’s side is opened for the fashioning of the woman. This leads to the speculation that Adam did not sleep before the fall. Man in the state of righteousness had no need of sleep; he rested in God, but did not need to take rest, for weariness was unknown to him.

 

We, his sons and daughters, have known weariness, and will know it more before this brief life is concluded. “There is no rest for the wicked,” says the proverb; our whole fallen race seeks rest, but like the demons going through dry and waterless places, we find none, nothing solid, lasting, and reliable. Morning comes too soon, and just when you are finding some solace your vacation is over.

 

In tonight’s Psalm (Ps. 84), the psalmist expresses his longing to be in the temple, which had also become a nesting place for sparrows and swallows. Many birds migrate, and we also are migrants, immigrants, vagabonds and wanderers on this earth. If we take up residence and trust in our own palaces, we have forgotten the truth that this night, this hour, may be your last. The entire message of the Scriptures is that we have been exiled from our true home, and we will not be home again until Christ ushers us into the New Jerusalem.

 

The Temple, the House of God, was a depiction of the eternal house, the dwelling place of God. As such, it was a place of rest, not in the sense of a hotel or resort, but the place where the things that make us weary—the strife and chaos and work of the world—are not important. Here in God’s house, the Lord does His work, feeding and blessing His people, giving them His peace.

 

So St. Jerome could rejoice in the temple being depicted as a nesting place for birds in this way:  “I long, O Lord, for your eternal dwelling places; my soul yearns and pines for the courts of the Lord; I long for some place to dwell, a nest for my soul and my body.”

 

There are many places in this world that offer us joy, happiness, satisfaction and rest. Some of them are evil, some of them are not. Sporting stadia, amusement parks, shopping malls, and vacation places offer us the hope of rest for our bodies and minds, a place to forget the troubles. But for the Psalmist, where he wants to be is the Temple: “A day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.” The places of wickedness offer power and pleasure not found in the church. But it is better to be an usher in church than a star on stage. For the lights illuminating that stage will fade, but the Light of the world will give everlasting joy: “For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor.” Here in the church we find sabbath rest in God’s forgiveness; and at the last, He will give to us the rest nowhere to be found in this busy world, so full of sound and fury signifying nothing. For “No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.”

Meditation on Psalm 83

Posted on August 11th, 2014

In our occasional series on the Psalms, tonight we continue with Psalm 83. It is a decidedly difficult Psalm. How can we pray about our enemies, “O my God, make them like whirling dust, like chaff before the wind”? Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, but this Psalm puts into our mouths a prayer for fire, tempest, and hurricane to pursue and terrify our enemies. “Let them perish in disgrace”!

How are we to reconcile these things? There is constant exhortation in Holy Scripture to seek peace, and then there are these prayers for the destruction of enemies. We don’t have firsthand experience with war, the devastation of our homes and the slaughter of peoples.

What we see first of all in this Psalm is a confederacy of nations aligned against Israel. Such a confederacy of all these nations never came about at one time; it is, rather, a lament that Israel faces constant hostility, with nations perpetually rising against them. Facing destruction, the Jews cry out to God to protect them, to strike down their enemies bent on their destruction.

It is tempting to apply this to our own situation. There is a long history of religio-political rhetoric that sees America as God’s chosen nation, and applies the words and promises to Israel to the United States. But this is a great error. The Church transcends all national boundaries, and the fundamental call of discipleship is to all nations.

So while we pray for our president and governor, and always strive to be obedient citizens, we dare not equate the United States with Old Testament Israel.

How then can we sing this Psalm as part of our own prayers, and not just as a relic of history? We do so by recognizing that while the people of God no longer have a border around a geographic property, with a capital and Temple in Jerusalem, the words of Jesus have begun to be enacted: the disciples of Jesus come from all nations: from every tribe and people and tongue are those who are baptized into Christ Jesus.

And this holy people, like our ancient fathers in the faith, are under constant threat of extinction. Whether it is American citizen Saeed Abedini, suffering in an Iranian prison, or the Christians in Iraq fleeing their ancient land, and likewise in Syria and Egypt and other places where Christians have had homes for millennia, the church is under constant threat.

The church in America is not yet suffering the kinds of persecution our brethren suffer in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, but there is an ideological persecution that is devastating the church. Immanuel is something of an outlier. Churches are swiftly compromising the most basic teachings of the faith in a desperate attempt to attract or retain people. A conference I attended earlier this week sounded something of a note of panic; reading between the lines, our leaders anticipate in the coming decade or two widespread closing of churches, with far fewer full-time pastors, and an increasing number of church leaders with very little education. Already in the last few years the cultural shift against Christianity has moved more rapidly than many would have thought possible. “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?”

What then are to do? Pray. Pray against this onslaught from our enemies. Such a prayer must recognize that the source of this hostility is not found in the tents of Edom and the Ishaelites, nor in the White House or the department of Health and Human Services. Our enemy is the one who would destroy the Church, which is to say, the devil himself. All the others are just pawns. But they are pawns that we hope will join us. That is the ultimate hope of Psalm 83: “Fill their faces with shame, that they may seek your name, O LORD…. Let them be put to shame … that they may know that you alone, whose name is the LORD, are the Most High over all the earth.” That is our desire. Not to win a political victory or a military victory. The victory already has been won. Or have you forgotten Easter already? Jesus Lives, the Victory’s Won. Our task is to call our neighbors and the nations to gather around the victor.

When I look at the state of the world, and the state of the church, I am terrified for the future. But the student of history recognizes that it has ever been so. And such terror is ultimately an act of unbelief. Psalm 83 reminds us that, even when we are surrounded by enemies, the LORD is still the LORD, Most High over all the earth. We simply pray, and wait for Him to act. He will, and it will be at the best and right time.