Sermon 54 




Rejoice in the Remnant

Isaiah 49:6

January 20, 2008


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

In Isaiah 49:6 God tells us to take care of the “survivors in Israel.” They are the ones among the chosen who actually follow God’s will and way in the world. These survivors or remnant – שארת, or sha-reet, in the Hebrew – are revered in the Bible (Isaiah 46:3; Romans 9:27). They are the ones who prevail in spite of the difficulties and attacks upon them (contra Matthew 13:20-22).


On Big Being Better

We are told to revere this remnant because we don’t. If we did, we wouldn’t be told to do so. Therefore in this admonishing there is condemnation. We are attacked for succumbing to the temptation to favor crowds over God’s dear remnant. And so we’re sinners.

            Now why are we that way? Why do we succumb to this temptation? Why do we favor crowds and belittle the remnant – when God explicitly tells us not to do so? Why do we think big is better – completely disregarding contentment (contra Philippians 4:11)?

1. Human Confirmation. Well, one reason for this is that we fear being hoodwinked – and so the confirmation we get from crowds of people agreeing with us is a kind of proof that we’re right. For it’s not enough that the Bible says our faith is true (John 14:6). We think we need more than that. So one of my brothers-in-law told me how thrilling it was to sing the hymn “Amazing Grace” with 20,000 other Christian men at a Promise Keepers (est. 1990) event some ten years ago in Seattle at the King Dome. I asked him why he believed that. And he said the huge gathering convinced him as nothing else could. But that can’t be true. For Jesus told his little flock to have no fear since their size wouldn’t keep them from gaining the kingdom of God! (Luke 12:32).

And that little word little isn’t a word of endearment – but a literal word of tiny measurement. It’s μικρος [mikros] in the original Greek from which we get such words as microscope, microbe and microwave. No wonder then that Jesus chooses to be with just two or three (Matthew 18:20) – and not with huge crowds. And so Martin Luther (1483-1546) – the progenitor of our little segment of the church catholic – said that size doesn’t make the church (Luther’s Works 2:101). He knew long ago what we have only later come to see, that numbers manipulate and stigmatize [T. M. Porter, Trust in Numbers (Princeton, 1995) p. 77].

So Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who admired Luther, attacked our love for crowds (Kierkegaard’s Writings 22:109):


To win a crowd is not such a great art; all that is needed for that is some talent, a certain dose of untruth, and a little familiarity with human passions. But no truth-witness... dares to become involved with a crowd.... [He wants] to become involved,... but always individually... in order to split up a crowd.... But when “the crowd” is treated as the authority,... the truth-witness shuns the crowd more than the young virtuous girl shuns a low dance hall.


And this is because regarding God, “the crowd is untruth” (KW 22:106, 107, 108, 110). And that’s because God doesn’t want “to save people in general.... No, he sacrificed himself in order to save each one individually” (KW 17:272; 1 Corinthians 9:24)!

            2. Strength in Numbers. Another reason we disregard the faithful remnant is that life in groups looks easier. Having people help us seems to lightens our load. But as Luther pointed out – such team-work is illusory. For just as we must die alone – since “no one can die for another” (LW 51:70) – so we must believe by ourselves, since “nobody else can believe... for me” (LW 45:108; Philippians 2:12). Hoping then for a team of Christian friends to lighten our load is beside the point. For we each have to run the race of faith by ourselves. Noah, remember, opposed everyone and built the ark anyway – even though it looked silly to those who watched (LW 2:56). And Jonah also shows us that “we must all act alone” (LW 19:49). Now these examples are worth following – rather than the “more probable” ways of the crowds (KW 22:106).


Obese Churches

But this defense of the remnant will mostly fall on deaf ears in our American society which delights in supersizing its food (Super Size Me, DVD, 2004). And that’s because there’s actually “another brand of obesity” among us that’s worse than our fast food industry [Bernard Levy, American Vertigo (2006) pp. 240-241]:


A stranger obesity for which the reputed expansion of bodies is perhaps only a metaphor.... A social obesity. An economic, financial, and political obesity. Obesity of cities. Obesity of malls, as in Minneapolis. Obesity of churches, as in Willow Creek. Obesity of parking lots.... Obesity of SUVs. Obesity of airports.... Obesity of election campaign budgets.... Obesity of Hollywood box-office sales.... Obesity of large memorials, like the one for Crazy Horse in Rapid City.... Greed is good.... The bigger it is, the better it is, says America today. Large is beautiful, it repeats over and over in a kind of hysterical reversal of the 1960s slogan..... [America] has lost control of its own situation.... One feels [it] has strayed from, or broken, that secret formula, that code, that prompts a body to stay within its limits and survive.... That immoderation, excessiveness, force of stress and unreason,... leads, inevitably, to death.


And it is precisely in this socially chaotic environment that we are called to conduct our ministry – and quite against the grain at that!

            But lamentably that counter-cultural maneuver seldom occurs. More often than not, the church instead longs to super-size itself – maybe because fully half of the 325,000 Protestant congregations in America have less than 75 in worship on a Sunday, and the average is between 18-40 [Lyle E. Schaller, Small Congregation, Big Potential (2003) p. 14]! It’s no wonder then that Kierkegaard regarded this longing for numerical greatness to be the devil’s ploy:


Little by little he deluded the Christian Church into thinking that now it had been victorious, now it should have a good rest after the battle and enjoy the victory. And it certainly looked seductive, because during the time the Church was militant, a man of course thought twice before joining it; thus its growth was not very great. But after it has been victorious – well, then it won followers by the millions. What more does one want, for if there should be any misgiving connected with a victorious Church, it would have to be that it would gradually decline, decrease in numbers. But the very opposite was the case. Indeed, the Church did not decline, decrease in number; no, it increased, it is true, as a person with dropsy increases; it swelled up in unhealthy fat, almost nauseatingly expanded in carnal obesity, scarcely recognizable (KW 20:229-230).


Kierkegaard is right about this – that the fear of shrinking is what propels the church into becoming an over-eater. It therefore loses its essence – which Luther knew meant being an ecclesiola or “small church” (LW 2:37). Even though small – and not much for marketing analysts to admire – these churches were still “palaces of ivory” in God’s sight (LW 12:255)! Even though they might shrink to just 8 people – as was the case on Noah’s ark (LW 1:311, 2:101) – they still would be palaces of ivory, provided they upheld the word – in all its purity. For where “the Word of God is present in its purity and is active, the church is there” (LW 28:302).

And it’s just that diminutive essence which makes the church militant and lean – and thereby ready to fight the good fight of faith against the world (1 Timothy 6:12; James 4:4; Matthew 10:16, 25, 28, 37; Luke 16:15; John 15:19; Acts 14:22; Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 10:5; Galatians 5:17; Ephesians 4:14; Philippians 3:8; Colossians 3:2; 1 Thessalonians 2:4; Hebrews 12:4; 1 Peter 2:11, 5:9; 2 Peter 3:17; 1 John 2:15) – or as Kierkegaard put it, ready to take up its “polemical stance against the great human society” (Journals, Hong ed. 4:4147 and the “showdown” in 1:516).


A Ghost Town

The essence of the church, then, is to be a cultural minority or remnant. That’s because getting big is dangerous. In our day we have the notorious example of the granddaddy of the mega-churches, Willow Creek Community Church, founded in 1975 by Pastor Bill Hybels, which now has over 20,000 at worship each week. But when they recently undertook an exhaustive, multi-year, self-study to see how many were taking Matthew 22:37-39 to heart – about loving God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself – they were sorely disappointed by the meager results [Hawkins & Parkinson, Reveal: Where Are You? (2007) p. 29].

So we’re finding out that the one thing needful, that little pearl of great price (Luke 10:42; Matthew 13:44), gets lost in big churches. And that’s because in these religious enterprises, Christian discipleship wanes [Daniel V. Biles, Pursuing Excellence in Ministry (1988) pp. 5-10]. Eugene Peterson, then, is right to issue his biting warning [Under the Unpredictable Plant (1988) p. 14]:


Is [the] suddenly prominent preacher with a large and admiring following a spiritual descendant of Peter [Acts 2:37] with five thousand repentant converts or of Aaron [Exodus 32:4-6] indulging his tens of thousands with religious song and dance around the golden calf?


While being small is no guarantee of faithfulness [Dennis Bickers, The Healthy Small Church (2005) p. 37], smaller churches do provide greater opportunity for the pursuit of discipleship [K. L. Callahan, Small, Strong Congregations (2000) p. 196].

            Luther, therefore, said that the best churches will look like ghost towns. He doesn’t mean by this that churches should wither away on a lonely, dusty road. No, what he means is that


according to the appearance of the flesh,.... the Christian church is like a devastated and ruined city; as the saying goes, Christians are sparsely sown, so the church is like a ghost town. This city is inhabited by few citizens and is deserted, so that one citizen lives where 300 ought to be.... On the contrary, the whole world is fertile, abounding, rich, copious, and cram-med full everywhere. [But the true] church is indeed a forsaken widow (LW 17:186).


Even though this isn’t as it should be, “the Christian church remains forever a widow” (LW 52:119; 13:285). And so the perennial lament of all faithful pastors throughout the generations has been – that there are “so few disciples” (LW 17:173).


Our Repulsive Message

Now why is it that there is only one disciple where 300 ought to be? It can’t be because we’re providing less entertainment and recreation than secular enterprises do – especially since more congregations are now providing such things as nurses (G. E. Westberg, The Parish Nurse, 1990) and aerobics classes [DeHaven, et al, “Health Programs in Faith Based Organizations,” American Journal of Public Health 94 (June 2004) 1030-1036]. No, the problem is that our message is “repulsive” – as Lutherans righty teach [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 139]. This is because it’s too “difficult and dangerous” (LW 12:217) on the one hand, and too thin on the other (LW 23:11, 26:134).

            So first Christianity is too dangerous and difficult. That’s because we must renounce everything and seek first the kingdom of God (Luke 14:33; Matthew 6:33). This includes exposing wickedness (Ephesians 5:11) and forgoing the gratifications of the flesh (Romans 13:14). This is a narrow way that only a few go down (Matthew 7:14) and which unsurprisingly offends the worldly (John 15:19). And so Luther says of it that it’s like walking on razors (LW 21: 245)! “No life or existence on earth,” then is “more wretched than that of a Christian” (LW 28:106). How could we not then think of Christianity as being repulsive – since it so clearly and relentlessly goes against our nature (Romans 11:24)?

And secondly it offends us by being too thin. Christianity gives eternal life (John 3:36) – but what we want is an easy, fulfilling life now, before we die (Matthew 26:39; Luke 12:19; 1 Corinthians 15:32; 2 Corinthians 12:8). So even though eternal life is promised to be better than this temporal life, that’s still the one we want to enjoy all the more right now. We want resilient health; loads of money; uninterrupted joy; and endless amusement – right now, and forever. We want to float through this life “on velvet cushions and on roads paved with silk” (LW 22:108)! But then, as Luther points out, we’d be “slithering along,... just like a serpent,... softly and peacefully” (LW 23:291). Because of this hazard, the boom days for the churches in the 1950s – “artificial” though they were – still left us “ill-prepared to live in a world which contradicts [our] most cherished assumptions” [Richard E. Koenig, A Creative Minority: The Church in a New Age (1971) p. 29]!


One By One

But God can deliver us from this – however he does so only one at a time. For Christianity is not a mass movement – even though we live all over this terrestrial ball. That’s because faith never comes to us en masse – like those huge group weddings the Moonies perform [F. Sontag, Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church (1977) pp. 108, 83, 165-167]. No, Christians aren’t carried in by the tide like a load of driftwood. We instead must be born again, each according to his or her own individual time (John 3:3-5).

            This salvation comes by way of faith in the one who died for us – Christ our Lord. He shed his blood on the cross for each of us – individually (1 John 2:2, 4:10). And when we believe this – our hearts our cheered by being turned “from God the Judge to God the Father” (LW 19:79). Through this faith in Christ’s crucifixion we “re-enter the good graces of God,” and are thereby “restored... to the Father’s favor” (BC, pp. 561, 414). Without his sacrifice and our faith in it, none of this can happen. All we would have then would be the wrath of God upon us (John 3:36; Romans 5:9).

            This message of salvation is addressed to each one of us individually – and demands from each one of us an individual response. This is how it went with Zacchaeus. “Come down!” Christ demands of him – perched up in that sycamore tree (Luke 19:5). Little did Zacchaeus know that when he was seeking [ζητεω] after Christ (Luke 19:3, 10), he already was “being sought [ζητεω] after and saved” [L. T. Johnson, The Gospel of Luke (1991) p. 285]. And so it is with us as we fight to believe (Philippians 2:12-13).


Burdens & Joys

Now even though we’re saved by grace through faith – we’re also saved for good works (Ephesians 2:10). So we’re expected to do them after we believe – and these good works come in two basic types. There are the obvious good works which are devoted to caring for others – like feeding, clothing and sheltering the needy. The second type regards personal decency – like keeping oneself “unstained from the world” (James 1:27; Ephesians 4:17-18).

            Today when we rejoice in that small faithful remnant that believes and follows Christ – our good work should be to care for our fellow Christians. In 1 Corinthians 12:26 we read that


if one member suffers, all suffer together;... if one member is honored, all rejoice together.


This verse is about sharing our lives in church. And we are to do that by bearing one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2) and rejoicing in each other’s accomplishments (Philippians 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 2:17-20). But that can’t be done if we don’t beat back jealousy (1 Corinthians 13:4; James 3:16) and self-absorption (Romans 12:16; Philippians 2:3). For jealousy keeps us from rejoicing in each other’s accomplishments, and self-absorption keeps us from bearing each other’s burdens. And against these two sinful inclinations we simply have to take our stand, as Luther warned:


The German poets prefer the Germans, the French the French. And these... they regard of the highest worth, almost unmindful of the fact that we are Christians.... We are all strongly inclined to this fault with a strange propensity, and most rare is the man who does not possess it. So we yield to the advice of no one, even though we are convinced by the reasoning (LW 25:464).


This self-absorption and disdain for others keeps us from sharing our lives with each other – and tears apart the church, which is the very body of Christ (Ephesians 1:23; Colossians 1:18). So let us have nothing to do with such recklessness and instead “outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10). Call on God to help you with this for without him you can do nothing (John 15:5). And he will hear your prayer and bless you since he wants you to share your lives with each other – just as he has done for you in bearing your burdens (Matthew 11:28) and in rejoicing with you (Luke 15:7). So pray that you might become as generous as he has been (Ephesians 4:32). And he will surely bless you because then you will also be able to do as he has commanded you this day – which is, as we have learned, to rejoice in the remnant. Amen.


 (printed as preached but with some changes)