I’ve lost it now, but I had an incredible picture that I took from the upstairs back window at 2010 Christian St., where I lived in the summer of 1994 while serving as vicar here at St. Thomas. It remains etched in my memory because it captured the ruined state of the neighborhood, with overgrown weeds, and boarded-up windows. Rising up out of the chaos was the beautiful spire of St. Thomas, where a pastor and people remained to preach the good news of Jesus when most people run for the suburbs.
And out of that experience, Pastor Wildner and St. Thomas became my conscience. Here is a pastor and people who love the church, love this neighborhood, and continue on when most anyone else would give up.
So the theme and hymn chosen for your anniversary is perfect: Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus. It’s a hymn for battle. And the battle can be terrifying. “Stand forth in mighty conflict … Against unnumbered foes; Let courage rise with danger And strength to strength oppose.”
I don’t always feel like I have much strength left. The world is a brutal place. Some of that brutality I experienced here. My first funeral as an officiant was just down the road, a sixteen-year old boy shot on the streets. While Pastor Wildner was away, I would come over and feed his dog Oliver. One day, I realized there was an intruder in the house; I cowered in fear, then ran out to call the police from a corner bar. I sometimes regretted my first instinct, which was to turn around and drive back to Minnesota the moment I arrived here.
That’s where our sins leave us, too. Cowering in fear, wanting to run, wanting to turn back. And it gets worse, for soon we discover that also in the church, people are sinners, and deeply flawed. Pastors let their people down, people let their pastors down. And death keeps creeping closer. Stand up for Jesus? Sometimes we feel much more like moaning Psalm 69: “I sink in deep mire, Where there is no standing; I have come into deep waters, Where the floods overflow me.” (Psa 69:2 NKJV)
And then, when things go well, we begin to think, “I made it; I did it.” You could think that about this church. “We made it to 125 years.”
The truth is, God doesn’t need our efforts. He uses our gifts, our strengths, even our weaknesses and mistakes, for His glory and for the good of the church. But He who made heaven and earth from nothing, by the power of His Word, doesn’t need us. If we don’t praise Him, He will raise up disciples from the stones.
I often think about my own congregation that God surely loves her, God surely wants His Church there, because by objective measures it should have failed. Financial problems, facility problems, school problems, pastor problems, people problems – the rational response to it would be, “Close up shop and quit. We’re doomed.”
Have you ever felt that way about St. Thomas? I bet you have. Who knows whether this congregation has another 125 years, or 125 hours? But it is not in your hands. It’s the Lord’s Church, and He is the One who has led and guided His Church through good and bad, prosperity and adversity. If it were up to you, everything would have gone to ruin long ago. But Christ’s Church stands by His will and command.
What’s interesting about this hymn, Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus is the lack of motion on our part. Jesus leads, He moves, but we stand. So there is no marching, walking, or running in the hymn. Just stand.
And even that, just standing, we cannot do on our own. “Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord,” begins Psalm 130; “Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive To the voice of my supplications. If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” No one stands before the Lord, if He keeps track of our sins. Who could stand? No one. “But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, And in His word I do hope.” (Psa 130:1–5 NKJV)
So when we stand up for Jesus, we are standing up because of Jesus. Without Him, you cannot stand. Without Him, Pastor Wildner cannot stand. Without Him, St. Thomas Lutheran Church cannot stand. Without Him, the world cannot stand, and the gates of hell would surely prevail.
But with Him, we have forgiveness and help in the day of trouble. With Him, we do not crawl, we do not walk, we do not run, we do not fight, but we stand, and the LORD fights for us.
When the Israelites departed from Egypt, everything appeared lost. The waters of the Red Sea blocked the way before them, and the armies of Pharaoh were closing in behind them. Who can stand against such power? But “Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which He will accomplish for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall see again no more forever.’” (Ex 14:13 NKJV)
Stand still. Stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD. He will do it.
A man once suffered great ruin. Raiders came and slaughtered his children, stole his cattle, and he lost all his property. He got sick, and his wife got mean. He was depressed, and sat on a pile of manure, scratching his skin with a broken pot. Bleeding, and tear-filled, his life seemed no longer worth living. He wanted to die.
But the Holy Spirit gave this man a vision of the future, and this man, whose body was ruined, saw the body of another Man, God in the flesh. And so this sick and sorrowful man sang a song that still inspires our music today, thousands of years later: “I know that my Redeemer lives, And He shall stand at last on the earth; And after my skin is destroyed, this I know, That in my flesh I shall see God.” (Job 19:25–26 NKJV)
When I can no longer stand, Job says, He shall stand, my Redeemer, and He will make me stand. We stand up for Jesus, we stand up with Jesus, we stand up because Jesus is the One who stands.
So that’s where we stay. St. Thomas church survives, and continues to care for those who most need it, by the strength of Jesus, “through whom also,” St. Paul says, “we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” (Rom 5:2 NKJV);
We stand by grace, we stand in grace, and you stand to keep on telling Baltimore His grace. When St. Peter was lying chained in prison, an angel set him free, and said, “Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life.” (Acts 5:20 NKJV) These words are also for you: Go, stand, speak to the people all the words of this life. Not your life, your works, your community, but this life, the life that is found only in Jesus.
This Jesus gives you everything you need to stand in the Word and Sacraments dished out for you here at St. Thomas. That’s where you are fitted with the armor you need. “Put on the whole armor of God,” the Apostle says, “that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” (Eph 6:11, 13 NKJV). “That you may be able to stand,” “to withstand in the evil day,” and “having done all, to stand.” Why? How? Because the Lord fights for you. You stay close to the Word and Sacraments, and everything is done for you to stand.
And then, when we come to the end of all things, and nothing in this world remains standing, we will see what St. John already saw, recorded in the closing chapters of Holy Scripture:
“And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books.” (Rev 20:12 NKJV)
There is a day of Judgment coming. If what is recorded in the books were counted against us, who could stand? But with the Lord there is forgiveness. Place all your trust, dear people of God, in the Jesus who writes your name in the Book of Life. He stands, risen from the dead. He stands with you, through every trouble. By Him, in Him, because of Him, you stand. +INJ+