No one would dispute the fact the life of the ordinary folk of Luther's day was harder, more dangerous, and decidedly less happy. But that is not to say that people were without hope or joy. They had a clear focus on the need for God's redemptive love to rescue them from the burdens of this mortal life but they also knew this joy within the moments captive to the struggles of each day. The Gospel was immensely practical to a people who knew the harsher side of life and they genuinely needed its comfortable words of hope for a life not of ease but of joy, contentment, and peace.
In contrast to this, we tend to think of this life less in the context of trouble and trial and more in the framework of joy, happiness, and fulfillment. We expect different things. We are not content with a heavenly future; we want some (perhaps much) of that heaven right now. The folks in Luther's day might think of this mortal life as a dark sky with occasional openings of sunshine. We probably would frame it as a sunshiny day in which a few clouds occasionally pass our way.
Not a few in the Church have noticed this shift and have therefore shifted the message of the Church from the hope and promise of the life to come to getting the most out of this life right now. Don't get me wrong. I am not at all saying that we should walk through this life in depression and despair. I am not saying that we should disdain every earthly joy for a modern kind of Puritanism of frown and suspicion. But I don't think that the message of a better life now sells all that well (never mind being a betrayal of the Biblical Gospel of Jesus Christ).
If I were consumed with happiness, peace, and joy, Church is not the first place I would stop to satisfy my craving. In fact, it would not even make it in the top 100 places. Religious entertainment, no matter how good, cannot compare with what is available on the average TV, laptop, tablet computer, or smart phone -- much less keep up with the ever changing offerings of technology, the media, and fun pursuits. So why do we seem intent upon offering people a spiritualized source of entertainment, distraction, and self-satisfaction? When we cater to the whims of a modern world infatuated with happiness and pleasure, we imprison ourselves to the impossible goal of meeting every need and satisfying every expectation of folks who have barely begun to taste the world's wares.
The Gospel is not the promise of something to make our lives even a little better. The Gospel is the honest truth about the fragile underpinnings of this mortal life -- no less now than in Luther's day -- and the revelation of that which is truly strong enough to hold us up amid the driving stream of change and to hold up for us the promise of a future prepared for us by the Lord who has gone on ahead. The integrity of the Gospel is in question when we mask this honest but brutal truth about the things that have only the appearance of enduring value and the barest ability to bestow upon us the pleasures we seek.
"Jesus has come and brings pleasure eternal," says the hymnwriter. He is not the familiar figure dressed in red who comes toting a bag of toys but the crucified and risen Lord who has met our enemy and vanquished him for us. He delivers to us the foretaste of the feast to come -- not that we may be satisfied with the promise but that our appetite for His gift of tomorrow may keep us hungry for what is to come. Instead of this, too many churches have decided to give to us what is unsustainable -- happiness uncompromised by sadness, abundance without sacrifice, and desire unchecked by any sense of right or wrong, virtue or evil. I think Luther's day has it over our present moment in honesty about the world and in faithfulness to the pledge and promise of what is to come, the not yet which is already ours.
- Jesus has come and brings pleasure eternal,
Alpha, Omega, Beginning and End;
Godhead, humanity, union supernal;
O great Redeemer, You come as our friend!
Heaven and earth, now proclaim this great wonder:
Jesus has come and brings pleasure eternal!
- Jesus has come! Now see bonds rent asunder!
Fetters of death now dissolve, disappear.
See Him burst through with a voice as of thunder!
He sets us free from our guilt and our fear,
Lifts us from shame to the place of His honor.
Jesus has come! Hear the roll of God’s thunder!
- Jesus has come as the mighty Redeemer.
See now the threatening strong one disarmed!
Jesus breaks down all the walls of death’s fortress,
Brings for the pris’ners triumphant, unharmed.
Satan, you wicked one, own now your master!
Jesus has come! He, the mighty Redeemer.
- Jesus has come as the King of all glory!
Heaven and earth, O declare His great pow’r.
Capturing hearts with the heavenly story;
Welcome Him now in this fastfleeting hour!
Ponder His love! Take the crown He has for you!
Jesus has come! He, the King of all glory!