Sermon 4

 Leave It As Is

2 Thessalonians 2:15

November 18, 2007


Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 St. Paul tells the church in Thessalonica to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions” they received from him, and not to change a cotton-pickin’ thing having to do with their faith in Jesus Christ. They instead are to leave it as is – exactly as it had been taught to them by St. Paul and preserved for us in the Holy Scriptures. They are not to be “tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14).


Perpetual Perishing

But these words ring hallow to us because everywhere else it’s desirable to make improvements, changes and go about the project of updating practices and ideas. For everything indeed seems to be changing and we might as well make the best of it. Some have even argued that change in embedded into the nature of things – witnessing there in all of it vast splendor and great variety a veritable “perpetual perishing” [Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, Corrected Edition (1929, 1978) p. 29]! So why not change the Christian faith too – updating it to make it better? Why should Christianity be the one exception to the rule? What’s so wrong with change? Even the U. S. Constitution (1789) has been amended multiple times – and for the better!

We worry about this because we know that turning back the clock is stupid. That’s the failed anti-technology way of the Luddites (1811). Just consider all the advances we enjoy. Think on surgical procedures, for instance. Recall that during the Civil War (1860-1864) wounded soldiers had their legs amputated without any anesthesia or disinfectant! Many suffered terribly and died because of that. Now who in their right mind would want to go back to that old practice? Or take the case of women’s dress. Who would want to say that the convenience and comfort in wearing slacks should be done away with and only dresses and skirts be worn? And the same would go for new and improved snow tires and computer programs and many other technological advances. Or take the case of dentistry. I’m told in not too many years, tooth drilling and novocain shots will be a thing of the past, and quick, painless laser surgery will be in their place. Now when that wonderful day comes, who would yearn, saying, “Oh give me the drills and shots again! I miss those long hours of pain and misery”? Oh no, in all these cases, change and updating are unmistakably wonderful and clearly cherished by everyone.



But not so when it comes to Christian teachings. Here change cannot be graciously extended without bringing with it untold disaster! For Christianity is unlike all of those other cases where change and updating are truly wonderful and helpful. No, when it comes to Christianity we are instead to say: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Hebrews 13:8).

But be that as it may, many Christians still have pushed for change, improvement and the updating of their teachings – and with Roman Catholics, from the time of Pope John XXIII, even call it by the fancy new name of aggiornamento [Langdon Gilkey, Catholicism Confronts Modernity (1975) pp. 41-45]. And they, like all free-thinking Christians, have suspiciously updated Christianity solely to make it easier on us all (contra Matthew 7:14).

We see this in the popular psychologist, Wayne W. Dyer, who says we should rid ourselves of guilt because it’s a bad emotion – doing nobody any good. Wallowing in shame over our failures that we might cry out to God, in Jesus’ name, for mercy and be forgiven, is silly and even psychologically damaging. Feeling guilty stifles us more than it strengthen us. Therefore feeling guilty only breeds “toxic thinking” that renders us “worthless sinners,” for which we should have “no need” [Your Sacred Self (1995) pp. 328, 184, 216]. And he believes this in spite of the call to be contrite (Psalm 51:17) and admit our wretchedness (Romans 7:24)

Or take the case of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. Many are saying that this is antiquated because it violates biological laws. So dumping it is quite popular now (see Gerd Lüdemann, Virgin Birth? 1998 and Jane Schaberg, Illegitimacy of Jesus, 1987, 2006). (We even had a president of our congregation, some forty years ago now, who used to deny the virgin birth of Jesus quite openly and without any shame.) And from this assault – we have painfully learned – a slippery slope sets in – with the purpose of changing the entire Christian creed because of its alleged “brittleness” [John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1998) p. 4].

But this love for change is hardly new – as much as we might suppose. There’s virtually nothing modern in it at all. For this longing isn’t marked by the signs of the times. No, this desire to improve the faith runs much deeper than a current cultural trend. That’s why we hear about it way back in the church at Thessalonica – right there in the Bible itself! So it’s a very old problem – simply because it has to do with individual Christian sin! For it has been Christians, mind you, who have erred in wanting the unchangeable to change, the perfect to improve, and the temporal to last longer. These longings have not been foisted upon us. No, they instead come from within us where we have been “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13). So indeed “there is an infinite number of ungodly within the church who oppress it” [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959), p. 169]!


That Poisonous Infection

Luther had this same problem over 450 years ago in Germany . So this fever for change is hardly anything new. In his Large Catechism (1529), therefore, he writes (BC, p. 361):


Look at these bored, presumptuous saints who will not… study the Catechism daily. They evidently consider themselves much wiser than God himself!... God… knows of nothing better to teach, and he always keeps on teaching this one thing without varying it with anything new…. God is busy teaching it from the beginning of the world to the end, and all prophets and saints have been busy learning it and have always remained pupils, and must continue to do so…. I know… lazy-bellies and presumptuous fellows [who] pretend to know and despise the Catechism, which is a brief… summary of all the Holy Scriptures…. Let all Christians… guard themselves… against this poisonous infection of security and vanity.


This longing for change plays right into the hands of our unrighteous waywardness. So it’s because we’re sinners, you see, that we want to fix up Christianity. And this improvement plan is anything but noble. Rather it’s the worst of pollutions and degradations! For there’s no honor of God in it at all. No, this yearning for change is rather our feeble attempt to make God do what we want – to “pull God’s nose,” as Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) scornfully put it (Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals & Papers, Hong edition, §§4:4856, 3:2624, 2:1446). So Luther is right in saying that all these renovation projects come from the most poisonous of sinful infections.


Telling the Truth

Rather than being done in by doctrinal creativity, innovation and newness, we must “rebuke and exhort” in order to keep ourselves from “wandering into myths” (2 Timothy 4:2-4). We must stand and “contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). We must only build upon the foundation of “the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20). For only in this way will we have a church which is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), rather than some poof of passing fads or fancy.

            1. Fallen & Sinful. The first part of this truth has to do with us – that we are in very bad shape. Every sort of wickedness spews forth from within us: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting,… deceit, licentiousness,… slander, pride, foolishness” (Mark 7:21-22). This is true regardless of how we appear to others (see Matthew 23:27). These wicked ways are so dangerous because they’re not acquired faults but innate ones (Psalm 51:5). This means then that without the power of God drawing us to himself (John 6:44), no one can even long for him, let alone believe in him (Romans 3:11). Consequently everyone of us has “fallen from the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). So it’s a huge “if” in Deuteronomy 4:29 that “you will find God if you search after him with all your heart and soul.” For that can only come about if we’ve first been drawn to God by his almighty power – most clearly on the cross of Jesus Christ (John 12:32). That’s because left to ourselves we are “spiritually dead” – being nothing but spiritual “corpses” (BC, p. 470). For we “love the darkness” rather than the light (John 3:19). Because we love the darkness we cannot long for God or search after him because he is Light (Psalm 27:1; John 8:12). So we don’t need a business partner to help us through some sort of spiritual collaboration. What we instead need is a savior – pure and simple. No wonder then that


Christianity is a religion of salvation. This means that it is not merely a “life improvement” plan…. Salvation presupposes that one is perishing. A drowning man,… does not pray for comfort,… but for salvation. Yet… this… perishing… has been suffocated…. [This is] because we have stopped viewing ourselves as beings… whose life is rushing inexorably towards meaningless collapse, whose life is engulfed by evil,… by the bestial struggle for survival, by the terrible lust for power, by the war of all against all,… and by ignorance…. All of this we have learned not to notice…. Yet… every genuine encounter with Christ first of all discloses to me the darkness, the destruction, the senselessness of my life [Alexander Schmemann, Celebration of Faith, Sermons, vol. 1 (1991) pp. 68-71].


2. God’s Wrath. Secondly Christian truth insists that God doesn’t take kindly to our waywardness. Instead he’s highly offended by it. And so he teems with wrathful fury against us because of our disobedience – for we have provoked him to wrath. “Thus shall my anger spend itself,” says the Lord God Almighty, “and I will vent my fury upon them and satisfy myself; and they shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken in my jealousy, when I spend my fury upon them” (Ezekiel 5:13). And so Christ comes for no other reason than to save us from that divine, wrathful indignation (John 3:36; Romans 5:9; 1 Timothy 2:5-6; 1 John 2:1-2).

But most industrialized, educated Christian don’t believe this for a minute. They think instead that God’s wrath is a joke –made up for affect only (contra LW 28:264). But that is a dangerous swing away from the truth. For the Bible teaches that God hates unrepentant sinners (see Psalm 106:40, Jeremiah 12:8 and my “Beneath God’s Righteous Frown,” The Bride of Christ, Pentecost 2002). As such he is to be feared (Matthew 10:28; BC, p. 344).

The best evidence we have for this is the worldwide Flood inflicted on humanity in Genesis 6-8. However you cut it, this was a ghastly event – with “the waters rushing and raging fearfully in a vast surge” (LW 2:107). The destruction was “intensely dreadful,…. unbelievable and incalculable,” due to the “vastness of the horrible wrath” of God (LW 2:63, 72, 86). There were Noah and his family, in the Ark , with the animals, floating for 150 days,


buffeted by waves and gusts on all sides. In these circumstances no harbor could be hoped for, nor any association with other human beings. As exiles cast out of the world, they are driven hither and thither by the waves and winds. Is it not a miracle that these eight human beings did not die of grief and fear? We are indeed devoid of feeling if we can read this account with dry eyes. What loud cries there are, what grief, and what wailing when, from the shore, we observe a boat overturned and human beings perishing wretchedly! But in this instance not only one skiff but the entire world perished in the water, which was full not only of grown people but also of infants, not only of villainous and ungodly people but also of many respectable matrons and virgins, all of whom perished (LW 2:97).


3. Believing by Hearing. Finally Christianity teaches that faith comes through hearing (Romans 10:17) and not by our rational calculations or free choice (Romans 9:16-18; John 15:16). Some bemoan this loss of control over their future. But others know the more profound truth that nobody would ever believe if it were not for God’s heavy hand in the matter. For indeed, there is “a battle between the Spirit and the flesh, so fierce that [we] cannot do what [we] would” (LW 33:288). That only happens “if God works in us,” for then our “will is changed,” so that we might go about “delighting in and loving the good” (LW 33:65). For who, on their own, after all, could really believe in a God who allowed the Flood to kill “everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life” (Genesis 7:22)? Or who only chooses a few of the many he has called (Matthew 22:14; LW 33:62)? Or who expects us to die to ourselves and hate ourselves (Romans 6:6; Luke 14:26, 33)? Or who, as Kierkegaard said, makes us with an “enormous lust for life,” and then tells us that “the meaning of life, the task of life – is to die, to die to the world!” (Journals, 3:3097)? Precisely because of this strident stringency, we cannot believe in God by our own “reason or strength” (BC, p. 345), for who would “war against his own flesh?” (LW 33:58). This makes us unable to believe in God on our own. Against God we must defend ourselves – preserving what we enjoy – “the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25). So it’s an indisputable fact that “to unwill sin and to will death, belongs to divine power alone” (LW 33:107)

We therefore come to faith, kicking and screaming, as it were (Luke 16:16; Philippians 2:12), and “through many tribulations” (Acts 14:22). We like St. Paul , on the road to Damascus , are knocked flat and blinded before we believe (Acts 9:1-19). This makes faith much like being kidnapped – someone no one can do for or to themselves. Logically, one must be kidnapped by another.


Another Steadfastness

But how shall fickle ol’ sinners become steadfast believers? Try though we may to stabilize ourselves, all our efforts fail miserably – for sin makes us a slave to sin (John 8:34; Romans 6:16).

            In the face of this mess, the very passage that calls us to steadfastness, prays that God would direct our hearts “to the love of God and the steadfastness of Christ” (2 Thessalonians 3:5). Think on that, if you will!? We who would be steadfast are now directed to another! No longer is it a matter of us being steadfast. In substitution comes the steadfastness of a savior – Christ Jesus our Lord! This is a seismic, spiritual shift, and it happens in our hearing. In that moment, a miracle occurs: Christ does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. In that miracle, we who were poor become rich because he who was rich, Christ Jesus our Lord, has become poor for us (2 Corinthians 8:9). He did this by taking on our “sinful human flesh,” dying in our place, being punished instead of us, that we might be freed from the consequences of our rebellion and disobedience against God (Romans 8:3). Now where before only punishment loomed, we find through faith in Christ nothing but the bliss of paradise, the joys of heaven and the peace of eternity.

            Jesus’ death on the cross is that powerful. It’s not a weak, depleted death. It’s rather a death based on power and full of power. In his dying he is strong – “he humbled himself and was obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). When tempted to abort the crucifixion and escape his execution, he toughed it out – “enduring the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2). And so he delivered on his promise to save us. “The bond that stood against us with it legal demands” was cancelled, being nailed to the cross in Jesus’ body (Colossians 2:14; 1 Peter 2:24). This is a mighty death – which, like no other death, destroys death (Hebrews 2:14). So St. John of Damascus (675-749) taught long ago in his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (§84), nothing “bestowed the resurrection,… save the Cross of… Jesus Christ.”

Therefore the Church erupts into song, praising the Savior Jesus Christ [Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) Hymn 95]:


Glory be to Jesus, who in bitter pains,

Poured for me the life-blood from his sacred veins….

Blest through endless ages be that precious stream

Which from endless torment did the world redeem.


Join in that hymn and come and receive Jesus today in the Lord’s Supper. Eat of the bread and drink of the cup for in his very body and blood are life (John 6:53). Do not deprive yourself of this gift – thinking you’re not good enough or holy enough for it. Remember that Christ came for the sick (Mark 2:17). And that includes us all. So those truly worthy to receive the Lord’s Supper are


those timid, perturbed Christians, weak in faith, who are heartily terrified because of their many and great sins,… deplore it, and heartily wish… to serve God… with… a purer obedience (BC, p. 582).


Luther therefore rightly imagined that when we come to the altar to receive the Blessed Sacrament, it’s as if we were being carried up by Christ on “a stretcher” (LW 35:66). So do not depend on yourselves. Trust in Christ and receive him this day. Know that he is your righteousness and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30).


Praising God Alone

And then leave this place refreshed, exalting God’s name alone (Psalm 148:13). Tell others about this. Invite them to come. Glorify God alone – knowing that only he has “the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Amen.


(printed as preached but with some changes)