No one enjoys reading about the vine being pruned back so that it might bear better and more fruit. No one is comforted by the idea that some will fall away. No one is consoled by the prospect of judgment beginning with the household of faith. No one hopes for a purification by fire -- the way impurities in gold are literally burned off. No one likes the idea that the Lord is chastening and disciplining those whom He loves. Indeed, when any of these are read on Sunday morning the statement The Word of the Lord almost ends up being a question -- especially when it is the Gospel for the day. How can this be good news?
In comparison to decades ago when it literally seemed that all you had to do was ring the bell and people showed up or put out the call and seminaries were full, the Church seems to be going through a time of great pruning and purification.
When you stand before the great but empty churches of Europe, it is not hard to come to the conclusion that the rain clouds have dried up and moved elsewhere. Indeed, the once luxuriant vine of Western Christianity seems dry and withered in comparison to 50 or 100 years ago. We live today with the reality of paper membership that never shows up in worship or comes only very occasionally. We live today with the struggle to raise up church workers, particularly pastors, at the same time we see congregations shrinking and seemingly unable to afford full-time clergy. Churches all across America are closing their doors and in Europe the buildings are maintained largely by government money and taxes. At best, we face a time of indifference to the Christian faith and at worst we find outright opposition to the most basic tenets of the faith. We have people who are Christian in name only and whose Christianity fails every creedal test of orthodoxy except the modern mantra of spiritual but not religious.
So should we despair? Should we give up? Should we surrender to the tide of secular Christianity and social movements that substitute for the Gospel? Some are gravely tempted but along with the promise of purification, pruning, and punishment, the Lord has made His promise. The gates of hell shall not prevail. This is not the end or even the beginning of the end -- unless we surrender to our enemies because we fear the power of God is not enough. The problem is that we have assumed that our goals are God's goals or that our hopes of a powerful majority to reform culture is what the Gospel was given to do. We have presumed that our idea of kingdom building is His as well. And this is part of our weakness and weariness. Jesus said it but we seem not to have heard it. His kingdom is not of this world. He will not rule by might but in mercy and His sword is His Word. That is what some of us have forgotten.
In Hebrews we are encouraged by the fact that God loves us enough to discipline us, to rid us of our false ideas, and to purify us of our sin-tainted desires. Are we paying attention? His love is big enough even to discipline us and His mercy is large enough to keep us from being doomed by the power of our sinful desires. Yet this comes to us at some cost and part of that cost is giving up the idea that God needs us to do for Him what He cannot do. With that is the cost of admitting that we are more fearful of the world's rejection than the Lord's. We want both so bad that we will offer the world a Christianity lite before we, knowing they will reject it, say to them what God has said. In this we have lost confidence in the Word of the Lord and the promises of God to do what He has said through the means He has chosen.
Yet for those who remain in the faith and who come to the Divine Services of God's House, there is still hope. Ours is not a waning hope or an impotent Word and no where is this made more clear than when the tides of popularity run against us. In time of doubt and
persecution, the Church is forced to be more clear about what we believe and confess and so are we as individual Christians. Iron sharpens iron. Even in this time when we struggle, we have all around us a great vision of how God has blossomed the faith in places we thought would always be our poor step children. We have heard the new voices of men and women who rise up to confess the faith without apology, to come to the worship services of God's House confident the Lord will be there and bestow what He has promised, and who raise up their children in this same faith and fear. The soft belly of our weak Christianity is exposed but the result is the strengthening of the faith. We may have to shed some of the visions of grandeur we once harbored but in the process we will see the faith more fervently believed and confessed by those who refuse to cower or soften the Word of the Lord. In this we see that from time to time a pruning and purification is necessary in the Church that the faith may survive. In this the whole history if Israel, its apostasy, exiles, occupations, and restorations remain most instructive. Ecclesia semper reformanda (the Church always needs reforming) was not a motto for the 16th century but is the byword for the Church of every time and place.
Am I discouraged? Some days I am because I know what I want God to do and it is easier to think I can win God over to my point of view than to trust Him who knows all and who wills for His Church to testify to His Gospel and welcome sinners to forgiveness and life in Christ. It has been stolen by some as a motto but the Lord actually means it -- greater is He who is in YOU than he who is in the world. This is what I wrestle with and pray about day in and day out. I expect you fight the same battles. But do not give up or give in. The Lord of hosts is with us. The God of Jacob is our stronghold. Though the mountains crash into the sea and waves roll up on the land, God is still here and forever committed to the fulfillment of His saving will and purpose, today and forever.