At the beginning of March there were probably many things on our calendars for the upcoming months that ended up not happening, or least didn’t happen like we thought they would. At church, we didn’t have regular services on Sundays or for Holy Week and Easter. Meetings, confirmation classes, and Bible studies didn’t happen. I was supposed to have doctor and dentist appointments in late March that got postponed. And it appears that most public Fourth of July celebrations in our area are cancelled. What a lot of disruption from a tiny virus. As the old saying goes, “Man proposes; God disposes.”
We can make all the plans we want, and there’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but recent events are a good reminder that ultimately, we are not in control. We are NOT the “masters of our fate” or the “captains of our souls,” as some poets might say. As the book of James says: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’ – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” (4:13-15) Everything depends on the will of our Lord. We only have the moment we’re in. We can’t go back in the past and we don’t know what will happen tomorrow. So, as we make plans, we should always keep in mind that they will only happen “if the Lord wills.”
And what does the Lord will for us? He wills that we be saved, and He works everything to that end for us. We know He loves us. The fact that He sent His Son to die on the cross for our sins leaves His love for us beyond all doubt. And all of His promises – to forgive our sins, to raise us from the dead, to give us eternal life forever with Him – these will all be fulfilled. Therefore, as we go into the unknown future, we need not fear, because whatever happens we know that He is working all things for our good. This is why we can live our lives confident that we are always in the loving, caring hands of our Lord.
Even when things like violence, tragedy, disease, and finally death befall us, we are still firmly in His care. We know these things must happen because as the Bible tells us, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) and since all sin, all must die. Despite the obsession lately with “staying safe,” Christians know, at least from an earthly perspective, there is never a time when we are safe. And there never has been ever since Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. As one hymn puts it, “I walk in danger all the way…”
We will all die of something at some point. It cannot be avoided. In fact, in one sense we have already died when we were baptized into Christ. As Paul says in Colossians, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (3:3-4) Our true safety doesn’t depend on us being paranoid and afraid of everything that could kill us in this life, it depends on Christ. Only as those who believe and are baptized into Christ are we truly safe. The worst things we have to fear – sin, death, and the devil – have already been conquered by Christ through His death and resurrection on our behalf. We are baptized into Christ and therefore, as Romans 6 tells us, we are also baptized into His death and His resurrection. We are safe in Christ, not just for this life, but for eternal life.
While Christians should use the reason and senses that God gave them and not purposefully live reckless lives, we can live fearlessly. We can live without fear of the future. We can live without fear today. We can live without fear because we have been granted the gift of faith in Christ and Christ is so much greater than our fears. Christ was with us yesterday, He is with us today, and He will be with us tomorrow. And when our last hour comes, whenever that may be, in His good time, He will take us to be forever with Him. Our future is forever, and that you can plan on. “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:57)
Why Bother Going to Church?
Since it is easy to get out of the habit of attending church for various reasons, from time to time we need to be reminded just how important it is for Christians to attend the services of the church. First of all, who is the church? The church is the congregation of saints, the people of God, among whom the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments (such as Baptism, Absolution and the Lord's Supper) are rightly administered. The Gospel and the Sacraments are the “lifeblood” of a Christian (and of the whole church of believers), because it is through these very means, as through instruments, that our Lord comes to the sinner to bring him to repentance and to bestow on him forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Those who have been baptized continue in their Christian life by gathering with their fellow believers to hear the Word and receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Gathering for services of the Word and the Sacraments (where God serves you with these good gifts so that you may continue in the faith and be saved) is not optional or an occasional “extra” for the Christian life, but rather is the very center of our life in Christ.
Just being baptized or being on the “membership list” of a congregation does not make one a Christian if one has no desire to continue to hear the Word and to continue to abide in Christ. As Jesus says, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” (John 15:4) Christians “abide” in Christ. Many are under the false perception that if they “believe in Jesus” (or at least think they do), they don't need to go to church, when in reality it is people who believe in Jesus who indeed do go to church, that they may continue to “abide” in Christ. Again, it is in the preaching of the Word and in the Sacraments where Christ has promised to be for us for the salvation of our souls.
Christians don’t just say they believe in Christ, but then never bother to hear His Word or gather at His Supper table. As Jesus says when speaking of the day of judgment, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.' (Mat 7:21-23) How horrible it will be on that day for those who must hear these dreaded words from the mouth of the Lord, “I never knew you, depart from me...” But how could He have ever known them, if they have refused His coming to them though His Word and in His Sacraments? Saying that we believe in Jesus, but then rarely hearing His Word or receiving His very body and blood is like telling our spouse that we love him or her, but never spending any time at all talking to the person or seeing the person. That is no love at all, but a lie.
Our Lord has given us the command to hear His Word in the Ten Commandments. As we learn in the Catechism: “What is the Third Commandment? Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” We despise God's Word when we refuse or deliberately neglect opportunities to hear it, for hearing the word is something we should do “gladly.” If we are not glad to hear the Word, then how can we consider ourselves to be believers? Why does God give us this commandment? Is it because He wants to burden us with “having” to go to the Divine Service? No. He gives us this commandment for our own good, so that we may not neglect His Gospel gifts and so that ultimately we can be with Him in His eternal kingdom. He knows how the world, the devil, and our own sinful flesh easily become weak and cause us to drift from the faith that saves, so He has provided His services of Gospel and Sacrament, so that we may be strengthened and nourished and kept in the one true faith as we wander in the wilderness of this life. The services of the Gospel and Sacraments are given to us out of love for us, for our own eternal good, so we should be devoted to them.
In Acts, chapter 2, after many of the people became Christians through the preaching of the Word and Baptism on the day of Pentecost, we are told what the believers did after converting to faith in Christ. We are told that “...they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42) Christians are “devoted to”: 1) the apostles' teaching, which is the preaching of the Word; 2) the fellowship, which is the gathering together of Christians to be in communion with one another; 3) the breaking of the bread, which is the Lord's Supper; and 4) the prayers, which is the church making petitions to God and praising Him. This is exactly what Christians do when they gather for the Divine Services of the church (as Christians have historically done). In fact, they are devoted to this, because this is the very center of the Christian life and Christ is at the center of these things for us and for our salvation. This passage from Acts describes what the Christian is devoted to after his or her Baptism into Christ. And parents who have their children baptized, if they care about the eternal salvation of their children, will bring their children up in this faith and practice. In Acts 2, Peter says the promise is for the people and their children. We need to take seriously what Moses said to the Israelites: "You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates...” (Deu 11:18-20) This is how much our lives should be saturated with the Word of God, not only for our own benefit, but for the benefit of our children as well.
The apathy and indifference of Christians toward the services, Sunday school and Bible studies of the church is astounding. We still live in a country where we are free to attend services and believe in the one true God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In some countries, people literally die to go to church! And yet we sit here with all our comforts and could often care less.
Let us hear encouragement from the book of Hebrews. The author is addressing the very same problem we face here: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” (Heb. 10:23-27) Either Christ will come again in glory or we will die before that. Either way, we need to be prepared, or we will be caught unaware and be damned forever, which would be completely senseless, because God has graciously given us His means all along so that we may escape the day of wrath and be saved. This is no joke. It is deadly serious and has eternal consequences. As the church here in this place, we must pray that we may be led to repentance for thinking little of God's Word and Sacraments and pray that all who have fallen away may be returned to the fold, so that we may all at last gather around the Lamb who was slain, so that we may sing His praises eternally in the peace and joy of His presence.
When you come to the Divine Service, you are partaking of heavenly worship itself. In the book of Revelation, the apostle John gets to see the veil between heaven and earth pulled aside, while he is worshiping “in the Spirit,” “on the Lord's Day.” He sees the heavenly worship and describes it in Revelation 4, 5, 7, and other places. While we cannot see behind the veil between heaven and earth, we can be certain that the services where Christ Himself is present are no small thing and that there is much more going on than we can ever see now. No matter how plain the services may appear to us, or how ordinary or insignificant, God tells us that much more is going on than we can now see. Our sins are being forgiven and we are being raised from death to life. There’s nothing more glorious or more important to attend to in this life.
Turning the World Upside Down
We live in one messed up world. And if I have to explain that to you, you haven’t been paying attention. The world needs to be turned upside down to be set right. In the book of Acts (Chapter 17), this is the very thing the Apostle Paul was accused of doing by his preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A mob forms and accuses Paul and some others, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also…” They’re proclaiming this King, Jesus! “And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things.” Turning the world upside down! Disturbing people! And from a worldly point of view, this is true. The Gospel does turn the world upside down. It sets all worldly thinking on its head: In Christ, we die to live. The foolishness of God is wiser than men. We can do nothing to save ourselves. There is only one way to the Father, to eternal life, and that is Christ alone. These are things the world of unbelief doesn’t like to hear. And while the Gospel may seem like it turns the world upside down, it’s the one and only thing that puts things right side up, the way they were meant to be before sin turned the world upside down.
If it doesn’t look like we’re turning the world upside down, and we’re not disturbing people, maybe we have accommodated too much to the world. Often people think this is the answer when they see congregations declining in numbers: We need to accommodate to the world, try the latest and greatest fad or gimmick to get people in the door, turn the church into a house of entertainment. None of that is real evangelism, none of it is real mission. Real evangelism, real mission, is to turn the world upside down by proclaiming the full 200 proof, undiluted Gospel of Jesus Christ. It means to disturb people, to infringe on their comfortable unbelief. And you don’t have to go very far to do this. Just be ready to give an answer to anyone who God throws in your way – family, friends, neighbors, strangers – as you go about your daily life. God grant that we disturb people for the sake of Christ. That we turn the world upside down with the message that God has put everything right side up in Jesus Christ, by whom alone we are saved and justified by grace. In His name, Amen.
Rev. Shane R. Cota
Pastor Cota serves Trinity Lutheran Church - Town of Wilson and St. Thomas Lutheran Church, Waldo.