Next weekend - as I write these words - our nation will celebrate Independence Day. Most who work for a living will celebrate an extra day off. Many of us will celebrate having company or family visiting for the weekend - hopefully the long weekend. There will be fireworks in many places, and long speeches in others, and parades in some. We will acknowledge the great blessing of living in a land of liberty, especially the place where we have enjoyed freedom of religion, in our prayers, too. It is what the month of July brings first to mind.
Those liberties, about which we will make such a big deal over the Fourth, are slipping away from us. The free exercise of religion, for example, is being curtailed by law and particularly by Judicial fiat. In just the past week, I heard news stories of a valedictorian having her microphone shut off and being escorted from the stage during her valedictory speech because in her address she mentioned in passing the significance of her faith. Then I heard about a Korean War memorial in California being ordered to remove a large white cross, its centerpiece, which had stood there since 1954 to honor those who paid the ultimate price for freedom in the Korean Conflict. Other examples of this sort of change in our nation could be cited.
The point is not to belabor the loss of liberty. The point is to illustrate the need for people to pay attention or lose what they treasure. Nothing has been done to our liberties that cannot be undone, but only if people pay attention and invest themselves in maintaining them. Too often we take our freedoms for granted, and don't actually pay attention to what is happening to them, or to us. We seem to assume that if the traditional patriotic speeches continue, then the situation is secure, and we can turn our attention to other things, like parties, and family gatherings, and just day-to-day life. But while we aren't paying attention, things are changing on us. If we lose our liberties, we can blame our leaders, castigate the courts, and accuse others of failing us . . . but the truth is that this nation is "of the people, for the people, and by the people." If we wake up from our entertainment and pleasure-centered stupor and find we have lost our freedoms, the ultimate responsibility will always rest squarely on our own shoulders.
These first three paragraphs are intended as a gentle reminder of our blessings, and of the need for vigilance. Those sorts of blessings and that kind of vigilance is very much like what the Christian Church enjoys - and also needs. American Christianity is in sorry shape. Like our nation, Christians enjoy a freedom that no one else in the world can know. July isn't independence month for the Church. Our independence day was Easter - the original one. We celebrate our independence from sin and death and hell every Sunday in worship. Christ has set us free from death and hell by forgiveness. He won that forgiveness on the cross, where He paid the penalty of our sins. He performed our declaration of independence by rising from His grave on Easter. He promulgated our freedom by sending His preachers, starting with the Apostles, to proclaim forgiveness, life and salvation, and the promises of resurrection from our graves in connection with Him and His resurrection.
It is a tremendous treasure and a great liberty! We have the cure for death! We are free from sin and guilt and shame, by grace through faith. If you believe what the Bible says about sin and its consequences, the release from sin by forgiveness, and the sure promise of resurrection and everlasting life in glory with Christ is truly thrilling news. It is worth our time and our attention.
Sadly, many seem to treat this liberty with as little attention as we treat our national liberties. Our attention is often turned away from the reality in which we live - and from the value of our Gospel freedoms - to pleasure and entertainment and to feeling good, whatever that may mean. Very few seem to be paying any attention to those who want to change our freedoms in for a sense of 'getting something done'. We have witnessed the rise again of counting heads as a sign of success in "the religious enterprise". Church is about money for some and power over things for others. And yet, as long as some old geezer gets up front and babbles some 'God-talk' on the occasions that we choose to go to church, people appear to be persuaded that everything is as it should be and there is no cause for alarm.
What is happening, however, is the loss of the truth - of sound doctrine - and a corresponding ability to understand why it makes any difference. People want "happy" churches. They want to walk out feeling good, emotionally, and uplifted. They want peace, in the sense of no obvious conflict, at any cost. They pretend that there are no differences of any significance between entirely different confessions, so that when their offspring decide to join the Assemblies because they have such fun there, or the latest 'mega-church' because they cater to their members and serve cappuccino in the lobby, that they don't have to feel any sense of concern. Besides, they want their children to be able to come home and 'commune' with them at the altar as though its all the same, and "we are all working to get to the same place."
But truth matters. Doctrine, not one's emotional state, determines what we know and what we trust in God for or about. When doctrine is set aside for one's sense of joy or glory or worshipfulness, we quickly come to feeling good about nothing in specific, and to having a faith that is no deeper nor more clearly confessed than in some slogan or on a bumper-sticker.
Jesus said, "If you continue in My Word, then you are truly disciples of Mine, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." It is not our faith that saves us, or our religion. It is Jesus, His death on our behalf and in our place, and His resurrection as the Father's proclamation that it was enough and it was accepted and we are forgiven. It is true that we receive these treasure through faith, but we don't cause it, and our ephemeral and momentary sense of giddy joy or profound awe in worship don't make it better, or stronger, or more certain. They just make the religious experience more fun. And Jesus had nothing to say about being set free or redeemed by fun.
Well, actually, that's not entirely true. He did have some things to say about the topic. He talked about taking up our cross and following Him. He mentioned something about a narrow gate: "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it." He spoke about the world hating us, and persecution, and the certainty of suffering for following Him, but I am unaware of the passages in which He promises good feelings and fun as the lot of those who take up the mantle of being a Christian.
We have been hearing the cry that worship needs to be "relevant" to our lives for my entire life. Whatever is meant by "relevant", it must not mean that it connects in a real way to our sinfulness, or our need for a Savior from sin and death and hell. It cannot address the crushing need for some real comfort in the face of illness, old age, and the death of those we love - or our own impending passing. 'Relevant' apparently is not applicable to facing the troubles and uncertainties of life that swarm around us like gnats at a picnic. I say that it must not apply, because the attempts to be 'relevant' are window dressing to our religion.
The changes people fight for in order to make the Christian faith more relevant to those in this world are downright silly. Singing a song with seven or eight words repeated a dozen times doesn't make the future less intimidating. Dashing the historic liturgy to the ground and replacing it with light-hearted and "visitor-friendly" but content-poor responsive readings doesn't give me anything to answer the emptiness and sorrow inside that the swiftly changing course of this world inspires in me.
The only thing that does any good for that is hearing about the love of God, and learning what God can do, and what He promises to do - and seeing in the Scriptures how He has kept His world and fulfilled His promises for others, just like me, who counted on Him. I need an answer to the questions of life, not a distraction to keep me from thinking about them. Knowing who God is, and what He has done, and hearing His promises is refreshing in the face of the threats of life and the assaults of the world on my peace of mind. And that is doctrine.
And that doctrine is taught each week by the liturgy we rehearse and the hymns we sing, and the Scriptures we read, and the creeds we confess. Each week we bring our concerns to God in prayer, and hear again the promised that God will hear and answer every one. Plus, God feeds us with His holy body and gives us to drink of His blood and fills us and forgives us and blesses us in the Holy Supper. He gives us strength and equips us to be His people and worship Him all week long by holy lives in the midst of this perverse society and the confused and bewildered people around us.
Again, just knowing the truth while not believing it does not help us at all - but you gotta know it before you can believe it! But we have evidence all around us that someone is trying to steal away our treasures. Doctrine is downplayed and depreciated. Confessing the truth is marginalized and punished. Sin is presented as okay now, and holy and decent behavior is ridiculed. It is like the Bible described, today there are those who call good evil and evil good.
Of course, we need to remember what Isaiah said, "Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!" Many of the modernizations of our churches appear to be doing just what Isaiah addressed.
And as it is in our national struggles, it is true also in our faith's battles as well; if we lose the truth and forfeit our liberty - the freedom of the Gospel and of the truth - we might want to blame someone else, but the responsibility rests on our own shoulders. Statistics tell us that only about 35% of those who claim membership in churches actually attend on any particular week. If we treat our church as an occasional entertainment, we should not be surprised that someone is trying to find a way to appeal to the market more effectively.
But what does it say that Christians can absent themselves from worship so freely? Does it mean that their lives are so pleasant that they have no sense of their need? Or does it mean that while they may like the entertainment it offers, they don't really believe all that 'God' and 'sin' stuff? Clearly, there is a deficiency in the sense of urgency about forgiveness and prayer and fellowship among the saints of God. And while we are distracted by and happy with our lives, the foundation of our security is being eroded. The doctrines which inform our faith are being silenced for greater appeal to a larger market.
Most denominations use no creed in this day and age. Many Lutheran churches have stepped away from it, and we are not supposed to notice or address the abandonment of confession of the faith. It is, we are told, none of our business. The liturgy is increasingly discarded for something more entertaining. We are instructed that this is "diversity" and we dare not judge. Confession of sins is considered un-visitor friendly, and avoided. The hymns of the faith are being forgotten while 7/11 praise songs (seven words repeated eleven times) are multiplying in our churches. That is, we are told, a matter of style - not substance. It doesn't matter that these hymn have been sung by The Church for centuries. Today many seem to be ready to abandon The Church and strike out on their own.
Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith. . . . And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you. The situation is not hopeless - and we are not helpless. But we need to be alert. And we need to measure the value of our treasure again, and take our stand on the unchanging truth. Vigilance is the watchword of Independence Day.
Yours in the Lord,
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