To Let Go What Is Taken From Us

Dear Christian, consider what may be taken from you in your earthly life:

  • Your health
  • Privileges like driving
  • Possessing property of various kinds
  • Gathering with others
  • Your civil freedoms. Some of these are enumerated in the Bill of Rights and overlap with possessing property and gathering
  • Others?

Why are such things taken away from us from time to time? Consider this:

If we would be Christians, therefore, we must surely expect and count on having the devil with all his angels and the world as our enemies [Matthew 25:41; Revelations 12:9]. They will bring every possible misfortune and grief upon us. For where God’s Word is preached, accepted, or believed and produces fruit, there the holy cross cannot be missing [Acts 14:22]. And let no one think that he shall have peace [Matthew 10:34]. He must risk whatever he has upon earth — possessions, honor, house and estate, wife and children, body and life. Now, this hurts our flesh and the old Adam [Ephesians 4:22]. The test is to be steadfast and to suffer with patience [James 5:7-8] in whatever way we are assaulted, and to let go whatever is taken from us [1 Peter 2:20-21]. (LC III 65-66)

Quoted in Has American Christianity Failed? by Bryan Wolfmueller. Concordia Publishing House 2016, p. 204.

Should Christians consider it to be special persecution when we are forbidden from receiving the divine gifts of our Lord? This question deserves some consideration and discussion. To wit, are the preached word or the sacraments things that we should simply “let go” when they are taken from us? Can we expect the authorities who are trying to save earthly lives during a pandemic to share or even understand the Biblical Christian perspective on the divine gifts of our Lord? Must persecution always appear to be malicious?

Would it be naive to think that there are no influential people in the world today who are eager to use exceptional circumstances to harm our Lord’s Church by preventing her from receiving the things that sustain her very existence? Would it be naive to think that such people cannot do so in a way that appears friendly and reasonable to the world around us?

The quote above was written by Dr. Martin Luther. The book where the quote was found is teaching in this section about prayer. At the very least, active and continuous prayer must be part of the Church’s response.

I’m a Religious Extremist.

That means I believe things. I believe that these things should affect what I do. I believe that these things are true not because they are supported by reason, but because they are revealed by God. I believe that these things are more important and necessary than civil obedience. I do not believe that reason (including science) is always correct, so therefore the changing claims of medical and scientific experts are not able to dissuade me from these core beliefs.

A few years ago, the word for such a religious extremist as me was much less radical. The most widely-used word was “Christian.” But now that word has been adopted by people who believe other things. The label I’m left with now is “religious extremist.” It’s similar to the word “zealot.” How immoderate of me.

Let me tell you some of the immoderate things I believe. You might be able to tell their source.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

Because you have disobeyed God, cursed is the ground…, in pain you shall eat of it…, till you return to the ground.

In Abraham all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

In David’s descendant, his throne is established forever.

He is born of a virgin and called “God with us.”

He came to suffer and give his life on our behalf to provide us healing.

In Him, the divine Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. He gave many proofs of this.

Jesus’ suffering and death was for the life of the world.

What was written about him was written so that we may believe and have eternal life.

Jesus is the only way for us to be reconciled to God, to avoid everlasting punishment, to have a truly fulfilled life on earth, and to enter eternal life.

He makes us His own through Baptism. We receive Him by listening to those He sends. He feeds us with His own body and blood, given for our redemption.

Believers often go astray as we seek to practice our faith, but God is merciful and He forgives all who repent and return to Him.

The Christian life is not optional. Christ has made us the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Our responsibility of praying for the world and conducting the service of our Lord together is essential for the Church and also necessary for the world’s good.

God actually brings us into His holy presence and joins Himself to us when we conduct the Divine Service. Through faith we perceive that this is a tiny slice of eternity entering our broken world so that we may be joined to Christ forever. Though perceived through faith alone, this is more real and substantial than measurable and observable parts of Creation.

These beliefs and the desire to live by them makes me a religious extremist, a radical fanatic in the eyes of the world. I may even be considered dangerous.

We seek to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” That is good and proper. I belong to God at all times, but I often have the freedom to render obedience to my earthly authorities. God would have it no other way.

But on Sunday mornings, feast days, during times set aside for devotion, etc. my time belongs entirely to God, who said, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” He requires not only inward worship, but “doing” worship.

I also have a debt of love toward my neighbors. For example, I will wear a mask, or not, as needed to benefit my neighbor. I will prioritize my nearest neighbors first such as family and the household of faith. But all acts of love toward my neighbor become meaningless and empty if I neglect the more important service. The Divine Service of word and sacrament orients all that I do in faith. Without it, the rest is no more than a hypocritical shell.

Above all, I will be in the presence of my Lord and receive His gifts. I’m a religious extremist.

Idols Can Be Microscopic

What’s worse: a giant threat like global thermonuclear war or a tiny threat like a virus?

To borrow words from a popular movie from 1980, “Size matters not.” Whether your body is destroyed in a huge explosion or slowly by an infection, you still wind up dead. Either is fearsome.

The first commandment says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” This means, “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”

When we fear, love, or trust something or someone else in God’s place, we have made him/her/it into an idol. That’s idolatry. Idolatry literally means “the worship of an idol.” Notice that what a person does in the heart is considered to be worship.

For those who object to this, consider Matthew 5:20-21 and 27-28. Jesus makes it clear: what you do in the heart can be enough to condemn you. It’s no surprise, then, that we may break the first commandment using nothing but our hearts. Cars are made in factories. Idols are made in the human heart.

Can something as good as love can be the instrument of idolatry? Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Probably so in context, but Tennyson wasn’t considering what the object of love may be. If the love in question is a disordered love, demoting God to second place, it becomes idolatry. Then ’tis better not to have loved at all. By idolatrous love, a person will lose everything forever.

“We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” The holy proverb says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Proverbs 9:10, ESV) This “fear” is not terror such as the expectation of some great evil. Instead, it acknowledges that God has absolute power and authority over us, no matter what we may think or do about it. If we fear something or someone else to the point where God’s power and authority are diminished in our eyes, then we have created an idol. This is a serious problem. It’s the most serious problem, together with a disordered love or trust.

Consider trust. We are so reliant upon the traditional five senses that we can hardly imagine anything worse than losing them. We trust what we can see and hear, and we are in terror of threats we don’t see, whether they are real or not. It’s no wonder that in a time when we are threatened by a new infectious disease, the populace puts its trust in medical science. Medicine is supposed to be the apex of human achievement, based on solid observation and some brilliant intuition. Trust isn’t evil, just as love and fear are not evil. But when the heart trusts in something other than God to the degree that it casts in doubt what He has said, then it is a disordered trust. It is idolatry. That’s always the most serious kind of problem, even more serious than sickness, death, or pandemics of sickness and death.

En garde!

The currents in which we swim today are filled with disordered fear, love, and trust. How can a child of God guard against idolatry? The answer is divine wisdom. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!” (Psalm 111:10, ESV) The point here isn’t to fear God in an abstract way. Notice that it says, “Those who practice it.” Godly fear in the heart extends into a practice involving not only the heart, but the mind and the body. We have seen this in action when a Christian bows the head or clasps the hands in prayer. We have seen it in outward ceremony like the sign of the cross, kneeling, bowing, etc. We have also seen it in acts of love between neighbors, the fulfillment of the earthly duties to which God has called us. A godly fear of the Lord must be put into practice. Without practice, our fear of God cannot remain genuine or correctly ordered. It becomes idolatry.

Unless God comes to us in a special, saving way, we are lost to Him. The only worship left to us would be idolatry. We could never rise above it, and we would perish as idol worshippers. It should go without saying that our idols cannot help us forever.

God comes to us by taking a disguise and invading the world of sinners. He could come in open power, but then He wouldn’t make a connection to those who are lost in idolatry. We would be destroyed. So instead, He hides himself under the appearance of other things, so that His Spirit works unseen. The prime example of hiding His power was the life of Jesus Christ from conception to death. Despite the miracles He performed, the prophecies He fulfilled, and the clear authority with which He taught, plenty of people took Him as a mere man. Another example is the word that God sent into the world through the mouth of His prophets and apostles. Plenty of people have taken it as no different than the claims of false religions.

But Jesus is more than a man, and God’s word is more than the thoughts of mortal man. So through the life and death of Jesus, God redeemed all who were fallen away from Him, and through His word He calls us to faith with the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s ultimately through that word and faith that we are protected from idolatry.

Particularity

Here is where we encounter another objection. It started when the individual sinner first heard that God in heaven loves him. “Why would He do that?” We are already overawed by things like the size of the universe in which we live. It seems presumptuous to believe that God cares specifically about me. I could almost believe that He cares about all people, but I am a particular person.

The objection goes on. We read that God told the children of Israel how to worship Him using a Tabernacle with particular furnishings, rites, and ceremonies. We wonder, “Why would God care so much about all those little details?” And then we encounter the practices of the Church after Christ with the rites and ceremonies of Baptism and the Holy Supper. The question arises again, and becomes even more subtle: “God already knows if I believe, so why does He care whether I partake of these things?” Maybe we could believe that God cares about what’s in our hearts, but not so much about what happens to our bodies. Our bodies are very personal, and our sensations particular to ourselves.

All of this means we didn’t really believe or fully understand God when He said, “I, the LORD your God am a jealous God.” He wants you for himself to such a degree that He gave his life for you. He does not do things by half. He did it all. It should be no wonder that He also wants all of you to be involved with your connection to Him.

We may feel unworthy. It’s because we are. But he doesn’t measure your worth the same way. You are redeemed by the blood of Christ, and He did not hesitate to turn that blood into food for both your body and your soul. In this way He makes you worthy of His great gifts by connecting you to the sacrifice that He paid to redeem you.

This also explains why God considered all those details in the Old Testament to be important. They all are about Jesus. They teach the same faith that He taught. The Tabernacle with its sacrifices and holy food taught about the sacrifice of Jesus and the food He provides for us today. God connected the children of Israel to himself through the outward ceremonies and ritual that they performed, choosing those things because they were the connection to Jesus. Now we have a connection to Jesus, which is established and maintained in particular ways.

There has always been a desire to spiritualize the faith, to assume the only things that matter are within my heart. This is wrong. We can easily suppose that this assumption was behind the presumptuous actions of Nadab and Abihu. (See Leviticus 10:1-2.) Their creativity in the outward ceremonies of worship ended when God killed them. He explained very briefly, “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.” (Leviticus 10:3, ESV) Nadab and Abihu failed to sanctify God in their presumption. To sanctify Him is to sanctify His word and so to keep the first commandment. If God says, “This is how I want you to draw near to me,” then we have to conclude that it matters. It matters even when He has chosen particular outward ceremonies.

What about people these days who presume to draw near to God without paying attention to what He says they should do? We don’t hear about people being killed like Nadab and Abihu. But that was a special case because the Tabernacle was the one place on the face of the Earth where God revealed His glory. It has been fulfilled in Jesus, who came into the world in human flesh and hid His glory so that sinners might repent and be saved rather than be destroyed in His presence. These days, we do well to remember that outside of the worship God has prescribed, there can be no certainty that He receives us, hears our prayers, or works among us. Our certainty is only in Christ and His particular outward gifts of grace.

What of those who spiritualize the faith to such a degree that they are content to disregard all outward forms of worship? Here belong those who think of themselves as Christians, but hardly ever darken the threshhold of a Christian congregation. There is no certainty that they are Christians. In fact, the evidence points the other way, and Christians should not expect them to understand or appreciate the importance of what God says. Their own concerns and sensibilities have already been judged to be more important in their lives. They have received their reward. May God be merciful and bring them to repentance.

God’s ways are particular, objective, outward, and certain. All other ways lead to destruction.

Pandemic Considerations

The heathen world is concerned about death and suffering. From a perspective that lacks Jesus, there is nothing more important. That’s why the world considers draconian, even tyrannical measures to be justified if the threat is urgent enough. “People will die!” is considered a strong argument against any opposition.

But a Christian realizes that people are already dying and nothing will stop that. Moreover, there’s something worse than death: the eternal judgment of God against sin. This is a hazard for us all, especially for those without Jesus. Yet Christians need to remember that their connection to Jesus depends on Him coming to us. That happens in the ways that He has provided and in no other way.

His Word is written in millions of printed Bibles and in other publications. It’s recorded across the world in both audio and video. It has efficacy wherever it is found. But it is God’s will that we receive it in particular ways. Should we presume to spiritualize what God has provided and say that the Church will be just fine if she voluntarily relinquishes the gifts that God has provided for her sustenance?

Ask a grade school teacher about the differences between learning in the classroom versus remote learning at home. Experts are now trying to figure out what the damage will be to the overall education of students who have difficulty connecting online. But schooling and worship are different activities: different aims, different results, and different mandates. Remote schooling is possible to a degree. But remote worship is questionable. And while students will still remain students even when there are impediments to learning, the Church can cease being the Church when deprived of her Lord and his gifts.

For most of society, social distancing is a nuisance. It’s harmful to the economy. But if it becomes something that prevents Christians from receiving the blessings of Jesus’ real (not virtual) presence, social distancing is an existential threat to Christians per se and to Christian congregations. That would make the cure far worse than the disease.