This is the time of the year when everyone is looking back and trying to get a grip on the past year and what they want to do for the year ahead. President Harrison wrote this a few weeks ago in the aftermath of Newtown Connecticut. His cmments are sobering but Hermann Sasse’s sermon is frightening. I have included just a portion here. President Harrison blogged it all. You can find it at the Mercy Journeys blog site.
Been stunned and melancholy as I sort through the events in Newtown last week. I have the deep sense that America’s gun culture, violent video games and mental illness are only contributing factors at best. Our culture has become unhinged, and I think Sasse’s comments about Germany in 1938 and the rejection of the belief in a final judgment, just may well be somewhere near the heart of the deadly chaos which abounds in our days, these last days.
THE MYSTERY OF THE LAST THINGS
Last Sunday in the church year, November 20, 1938
Matthew 25:l-13 (Parable of the Ten Maidens)
…….. the greatest revolution in the spiritual life of the Christian west has not been in our understanding of heaven and earth – there have often been such revolutions. The great revolution is that we have set aside the Lord Christ as judge and done away with the idea of a world judgment. Until the l8th century Christian Europe and also our German nation was dominated by the idea that there is a divine judgment to which every person and every nation and all families of the earth have to give account. It’s a judgment in which everything will be laid bare including secret sin. It is a judgment in which all guilt is punished – every act of violence, every transgression, every lie and every heartless act.
This belief was not only a given for the history of the church in the west, but for the whole history of European peoples. Anybody who lays any claim to understanding anything at all of the middle ages has to hear the mighty Dies Irae resound through the centuries. (note: These are the opening words of a hymn by Thomas Von Celano ca 1190-1255 – Day of wrath, day of tears). Anybody who wants to understand anything at all of the political history of the Reformation, has to know how deeply the quest for a gracious God and for the justification of the sinner stirred whole nations. That changed with the 18th and 19th centuries. There came the time of which Claus Harms [1778-1855] spoke in his essay at the jubilee of the Reformation in l8l7: “The forgiveness of sins cost a lot of money in the 16th century. In the 19th century it is quite different. The previous age was loftier than ours – because it was closer to God.” It was the time in which the great Goethe said: “How can a person survive unless he and others daily give themselves absolution.” It’s the forgiveness, which a person gives himself. But whoever gives himself forgiveness has become his own God. So modern people no longer know the difference between God and man.
In the bible and in the confessions of the church God is on the judgment seat and man is in the dock. Modern man places himself on the judgment seat and God in the dock. For Luther the theme of theology was the justification of the sinner. Since Leibniz wrote his “Death of God” the justification of God or the defense of God has become a major theme of theology. If God is the creator, why is there so much suffering and injustice? Can we still believe in God? If God is love, how can one speak of the wrath of God? If we humans forgive each other, how come God can’t do so until there has been a bloody sacrifice? If God wished to choose a special people, why Israel? Why not a different race? With all these questions and criticisms the people of our modem age place the living God before the tribunal of reason.
That is the most outstanding revolution of the former centuries of Christendom. At root it is the biggest revolt. How can people do away with him to whom all power in heaven and on earth is given? How can people do away with the world judgment to which all of history and the lives of every person and nation are heading? “It is appointed to men once to die, and after that the judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27) Death remains even when the philosophers try to say there is no death. Just as the earth remains what it is – an enormous mass grave in which all peoples and nations, all kingdoms and civilizations eventually end – so the judgment of God remains the end of all human life and history. There remains the One who is holy and true – the one who shuts and nobody can open. They are truths, which the world, i.e. the Christian world of the last centuries, has forgotten. The gospel of the last Sunday of the church year addresses a serious question to us: Is not the church of the 20th century similar to those foolish maidens? With our lips we confess our faith in him who will come to judge the living and the dead. But do we take this faith seriously? Isn’t the folly of the foolish maidens our folly? Haven’t we in a tired and sleepy Christendom let the light of faith and the burning wick of hope die out – the faith and hope with which we greet the returning Christ? Don’t we need to hear the powerful wake up of this parable? Shouldn’t we wake up before its too late? Before we hear the word of the judge: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” We need to hear the deep comfort of the parable, the incomparable joy promised to those who believe in him and do not tire as they await his return.
There is great comfort in this gospel. The one who shuts and nobody opens is the same as he who opens and nobody shuts- that is his special role. The one who comes to judge the living and the dead is the one who says: “Whoever believes in me will live, even though he die.” (John 11:25) He is the one who prayed for all who believe in him. “Father, I will that those who believe in me and whom you have given me may be with me where I am that the may see my glory.” (John 17:24). The judge of the world is the redeemer of the world who has promised us in his holy unbreakable word that none who believe in him would be lost. That is his special office: the one who opens and nobody can close.
What great comfort and height of blessedness is in this truth the church of Christ has always experienced – perhaps, never more so than in the 16th and 17th centuries when the Reformation rediscovered the full depth of the gospel. The great hymns about eternity, which we sung today, bear witness to it. Phillip Nicolai’s great “Wake Awake” and the hymn of faith “Jerusalem
City Fair and High,” which Johann Meyfart composed in the days of the Thirty Year’s war. While we spoke earlier of a nation which knows nothing of a judgment and a world judge, now we have to say: How poor a nation must be in its inner being in which for many centuries there was the Christian faith in the resurrection and eternal life, only to find that the nation has now lost that faith!
Our nation is already well on the way to such poverty. It is on the way to losing heaven. How the important clear heaven of the biblical texts shone across Germany in the l7th century! And how enriched was our nation by it! They were not just poetic fantasies. The sun of Christ shone over it. Then the sun set. Still the stars shone – God, freedom, immortality. But now it is dark. Now there are only the earthly lights. It is night. It also means homelessness. You see, whoever no longer has heaven as his homeland, loves the earth so much more. But it becomes a homelessness. We still speak of eternity, of resurrection, of immortality – but it’s no real substitute.
In this time of dire need there is one who speaks to us. If you think of the dead today, if you walk through a cemetery and visit a grave, or, in spirit visit far off graves, hear the voice of him who says: “Whoever believes in me will live, even though he die.” (John 11:25). Hear the text: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” (Revelation 2l:l) “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” (Revelation l:8) – the holy and true who closes and nobody can open – the one who opens and nobody can close. Amen.