Spring is slowly creeping into Missouri. The winter has been long and cold, for Missouri, and the welcome warmth of Spring is finally being felt more often. The changing season put me in mind of the old rhyme, “April showers bring May flowers”. I don’t know that I have ever lived anywhere where it worked just like that, but Missouri comes closest. Between the weather and the changes spreading across our society, the poem caused me to think of Luther’s comments about the Gospel being like a shower, moving from place to place. To save my describing it more fully, I have included a section (edited slightly for length) from Volume 23 of Luther’s Works, starting on page 261.
“[T]he Gospel will tarry in your midst but a short time, especially after we who are now proclaiming it have closed our eyes in death. It will not remain after our departure.” The Gospel has its day and takes its course from one city to another. Today it is here; tomorrow, there. It is like a heavy shower which passes from place to place, soaking and enriching the soil. Christ says (Matt. 10:23): “If they drive you from one city, go to another. When all the cities have been visited, then I shall come with the Day of Judgment.” Even if a certain place accepts the Gospel today, it will not stay there long. People hate it; they view it with envy; they curse it; yes, they starve it out. Therefore Christ declares: “I will not remain with you long. You need not persecute and condemn the Gospel so. I shall soon quit the field and make room for you. As it is, a darkness will soon descend upon you, leaving you in utter ignorance.” What will happen then?
You will seek Me, and you will not find Me.
These are horrible words. . . . When the Gospel vanishes, then the light, the proper understanding and knowledge of faith in Christ, also disappears. Then you will find one undertaking this, another that. Then they will all go in search of Christ, of forgiveness of sins, and of grace; but their search will be in vain. . . . One will pray and fast, wear cowl and tonsure; another will do something else. Then men will search for Christ. Thus it happened in the papacy. Christ was lost, and people went hither and yon. They sought Christ, but they did not find Him.
Christ remained with the Jews in person for three years, preaching to them. Later they were deprived of Him. After His departure He had the apostles preach to them for forty years. But the Gospel did not remain with them for a longer time. They lost Christ, and now they have been looking for Him in vain for over 1,400 years. They torture themselves severely; they lead an austere life. There is no more miserable and wretched nation under the sun than they. They claim that all their misfortune stems from the fact that the Messiah has not yet come to visit them. But that is an empty thought. Oh, it is a terrible word that Christ pronounces here: “You will seek Me, and you will not find Me.” Christ means to say: “You will fret and spend yourselves, devote yourselves to a spiritual life, carry on services, plague yourselves to death, castigate yourselves, pray and fast much, but all in vain; for you will not find Me.”
This also happened in the papacy. There the whole world was full of monks and nuns. Yes, many thousands of sects and factions arose. How many orders the barefoot friars had, each one boasting that he was better than others! There was not a Christian who did not embark on something special with which to serve God. The world was full of searching. People expended earthly goods and suffered endless physical hardships in the search; but they did not find Christ. All was vain and useless.
Therefore Paul, quoting from the prophet Isaiah (55:6: “Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near”), says very correctly in 2 Cor. 6:1–2: “We entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says: ‘At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation.’ Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” As though he were to say: “Believe, respect the Word, and live in accordance with the Word while you have it. See to it that you do not neglect it; do not sleep your opportunity away. For it will not remain forever; it will not tarry long.” Therefore this advice is best of all: We should not suppose that the Gospel, which we now have, will stay with us forever. Wait, and see what the situation will be in twenty years. Then tell me about it again. After the death of the present pious and sincere pastors, others will appear who will preach and act according to the pleasure of the devil. Alas, just behold how many . . . have already forfeited the Gospel. . . . And that will happen everywhere.
The people become weary of the Word and suppose that it will endure forever. When a good beer is available at a certain place, everybody runs there without delay, knowing that the supply will not last long. This commodity is not to be had every day; therefore people get it while it is to be had. If it could be obtained for a long period of time, our appetite would become surfeited, and the beer would not be prized. But here we assume that the Word will remain with us always, although, in fact, it stays and endures but a short time before it is gone. If you do not accept it gratefully and reverently, you will soon be without it. And once the Word is gone, the time will come when you would fain be pious and be saved; you will want to obtain God’s grace, forgiveness of sin, and heaven. But all will prove futile. You will not find grace, forgiveness of sin, life, and righteousness. All will be under condemnation, even your best works.
The nobility, the imperial cities, the Sacramentarians, and other fanatics have already lost it. And now they prescribe rules by which everybody can become pious. At the same time they are not aware that this is all for nothing. They will wear themselves out, run around like mad dogs, and lose life and limb over it; and yet they will not find true help, for now they reject it. Well, we have been warned sufficiently. Our great ingratitude makes it impossible for the Word to tarry with us long. Our contempt of the Word and our satiety, which God cannot long overlook, drive it away.
Christ says: “I shall be with you a little longer. You will seek Me, and you will not find Me. Where I am you cannot come.” This involves two points: “It means, in the first place, that you will burden yourselves with many wearying tasks. For when faith is gone, people will undertake great spiritual endeavors; but these do not achieve forgiveness of sin. Secondly, heaven will be closed to you and your zeal and your holy works and activity.”
Christ told the Jews this, but to no avail. That will be the lot of all the work-righteous after faith has vanished. The fate of the Jews will overtake us also. The world cannot be helped; it will not believe this. I am weary of trying, but I must continue to preach for the sake of myself and a few godly people. Apart from this, it is useless. People will not believe; they persist in finding out for themselves. That is the story of the Jews. Christ Himself, God’s Son, came, and then the apostles appeared to warn them; but they would not believe. Thus [our land], too, must go its way and bear the consequences. The same fate will befall us. It is inevitable. We are insisting on it.”
So far, Luther.
A long quote, I know. But Luther says it so well. We are witnessing the moving of the shower in our day and age. This shower, however, does not produce flowers once it is gone. More and more congregations are shrinking dramatically. Many that seem to be holding their own are doing so by allowing names to sit on their rolls of men and women who have stopped worshipping and no longer participate regularly in the fellowship of the saints. When these are challenged about that absence, they talk of rights and how they have not really changed even if their attendance has.
Christians do not talk of rights, at least not in religion. Politics perhaps, but before the Lord we are not free men and women with rights. That is a political condition – one which is also swiftly changing in our day. In matters of faith and religion, we Christians are slaves of Christ and the recipients of great gifts of grace. On the other hand, the missing brethren may be correct when they say that nothing has really changed with them. They may never have believed, never have trusted the grace of God, never have felt that they stood in need of the work of the Holy Spirit in them. Now their absence simply correctly reflects how they have always stood in their own minds before the goodness and grace of God.
We who remain need to recognize what is happening around us and live in the bright light of reality. We are the truly blessed. God has poured out on us His grace and love and taught us to know Him and to believe His will for us is salvation. He has bestowed on us the clear understanding of His Word, and provided us with that light of which Psalm 119 verse 105 spoke, Thy word is a lamp to my feet, And a light to my path.
Of course, a light is of absolutely no use if you do not use it. That was Luther’s concern. The pressure of the world and the tendencies of our own flesh is to take the Word for granted and dismiss any need to attend to it. We don’t feel the need of Bible Study. Life is pressing on us too heavily to take that time. Midweek services are not all that important, as is reflected by the diminishing attendance at them. It is too late, and too inconvenient, to attend. Besides, we have Sunday services, most of the time. Anyhow, we know what the pastor is going to say, more or less. We can make up for our absences by reading the sermons on line and doing our daily devotions, right?
The problem is that while we might be able to do those things, most people do not. It is like the man who moved to the lake for fishing. Once he was there, everything else consumed his time. He could always go fishing, so he always put it off until tomorrow in favor of something that seemed more immediate at the moment. One day he discovered that he had not put his boat into the water for years. Fishing is of no ultimate importance, of course, but the behavior of the fisherman is an ordinary human behavior. It works that way with more important things too, like church and the Word of God.
Just because we believe today does not mean we can take God and His Word for granted. Luke 11:28 says, “Blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it.” Jesus also said, “If you abide 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 wisdom, strength, or choosing that makes us Christian. It is God at work in us that accomplishes that, and He works in us through His Word, heard and received in the Sacrament, the absolution, and the fellowship of the Saints – which only occurs around Word and Sacrament in what we call “worship”. If we take it, and ourselves, for granted, we can fall away. Jesus said that no one could snatch you out of His hand, but He did not say that you could not jump out on your own. Many have.
The point of all of this is that we are presently still enjoying that “shower” of the Gospel, but you may have noticed that it is getting lighter. The Gospel is harder to find. That shower seems to be moving on. It will prove to be a great blessing for those upon whom it next begins to pour, but it will be a great loss for those left behind when it moves. After all, what happens when it stops raining? Things dry out pretty quickly. If it stays dry, we have a drought – as we have experienced in Missouri the past few years. When there is a drought, things don’t grow and food can become scarce.
The prophets warn of a famine of the Word of God. That famine was what Luther was describing. He predicted it would come to Germany, and his homeland later was formerly part of East Germany, an atheistic communist state. All of Europe is only nominally Christian today, with serious Christian congregations few and far between, and usually very small. That is the famine that Luther foresaw.
Our nation is drying out, in terms of the Gospel. There are lots of churches that teach works and decisions coupled with personal piety. There are some that teach some bizarre form of personal self-approval, but very few who teach the forgiveness of sins by grace alone, through faith alone, even among what calls itself “Lutheran” these days. We need to fight for the Gospel and cling to it earnestly before it vanishes. We need it for ourselves. We need it for our children and grandchildren. We need it for our friends and neighbors who obviously have very little awareness of their own need. Each and every one of those we know needs the Gospel, and faith in it.
When the Gospel fades away, there may be small outposts of it here and there in America, but I would not want to depend on being able to locate one nearby. Even today, I hear reports of people driving an hour or more one way to go to a church where they hear the Word of God clearly and honestly proclaimed. Denominational labels mean very little in this circumstance, except that it is most probable that you will find the Gospel clearly proclaimed only in a church that boldly identifies itself as Lutheran, but even the name “Lutheran” is no longer a guarantee. The congregation and her pastor actually needs to be truly Lutheran.
As Luther pointed out, you don’t find forgiveness in those places that teach that it is by your own works or piety or decisions that you will be saved. They must preach Christ and Him crucified. Only there is that shower still pouring down.
Yours in the Lord,