In some Christian denominations hymns about war and fighting have been removed from their hymnals, or at least verses modified. Hymns like Onward Christian Soldiers, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, or Sons of God Go Forth To War are no longer in favor. No one likes war, and we should all desire and prayer for peace, but we must recognize the real struggle we all face – the battle with the world, with our own sinful flesh, and with the devil. This is a real conflict, a real battle, and is expressed in some of our hymns. Paul counseled the Ephesians Christians to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God,…(6:10-11) This is first a battle within our own hearts to overcome “the sin that so easily entangles us”.(Hebrews 12 :1) It is a battle we cannot fight alone. We stand in the light of Christ who “loved us and gave himself up for us”, and by the strength of God’s Spirit working in our lives. Christ has won the victory at the cross. We live and stand firm daily in the light of that victory.
There was a good comment in a monthly newsletter I received from our local Rescue Mission. The director wrote “You may move 10,000 steps away from God, but if you turn around He is only one step behind.” This is something of a paraphrase of St. John’s words, “If we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness”.(I J1:9) This is no license to live in any way we please and then expect God to forgive and accept us. But it is the assurance that no sin is unforgivable, and if we honestly repent (turn around) He does cleanse and renew our lives. The Rescue Mission has proven this many times over, but it is a truth we each depend upon for the daily renewal of our lives.
In my message yesterday – I’m sorry it was so long, but I had a lot on my heart – I used the term “we” a number of times. We sacrificed…we intentionally rejected…we removed…” It is very true that we as individuals may not have done these specific things, or approved them. But there is something I think we need to sense deeply in our relationship with our Lord, that we are a part of a common humanity He created for good, but we together have gone terribly wrong. We have our salvation. We have our new life in Jesus Christ. Yet we still come before God in humility with the prayer of Daniel, “Lord forgive me for my sins and the sins of my people”.(Cpt. 9) Life is not we and they – we’re the good guys, they are the bad guys. The Lord seeks those who are willing to humble themselves before Him, and cry out for His mercy, cleansing, and grace on all people.
In the movie The Shack made from the very popular book of a few years ago, there is a conversation between the central character and a figure that it representing God, the Father. They were talking about God’s love for people and the central character asks “but what about your wrath?”. The God figure responds, “My what?”, not seeming to know what the questioner is asking about. The author obviously doesn’t like the concept of the wrath of God. Yet one cannot read the Old or the New Testaments without encountering the truth that there must be a separation of the sinfulness of mankind from the holiness of God. God is a God of love, a deeper love than we can imagine, but one cannot look at the cross of Christ without realizing the depth of God’s wrath upon the sin that separates mankind from His love. It is at the cross that both the love of God and the wrath of God meet in the most extreme act of God grace. St. Paul then asks the question, “Should we continue to sin that grace may increase?”.(Romans 6:1) Of course not. Our response to that love is to humble ourselves before the cross in repentance, and seek to live in ways that bring honor to our Lord.
English poet John Donne, writing in the 17th century, famously wrote that “no man is an island,” comparing people to countries, and arguing for the inter connectedness of all people with God. We need to think about this in light of the mass shooting that have occurred in recent weeks. What is displayed in these horrible events is the sin that resides in each human heart. I didn’t do the shooting. I don’t know the shooter or anyone involved. Yet I need to cry out to our Lord for forgiveness and mercy, because of what our fallen nature is capable of. I can’t just be glad that the shooter was killed, or a murderer is sentenced to death. (I’m not opposed to capital punishment, by the way.) But that, or more gun control, or stricter laws, doesn’t change the evil in man’s hearts. I believe we, as Christians, are called to implore the Lord for mercy, and for a heart change in all people. Read again the prayer in Daniel 9:3-19. Is this not what is truly needed?
There have been many bad times in history with wars, plagues, famines, and natural disasters. Certainly we have seen a number of these in recent months. Today brings the news of a mass shooting in Las Vegas where 50 people were killed and many injured. That is not a natural disaster, but a serious problem in the heart of a man. And, as we have see with these events in many other places around the world, an infection in the hearts of mankind. We certainly pray God’s help, comfort, and strength for the victims, but our prayers must be more than this. We need to cry out for God’s mercy on us all. He alone… He alone is the One who can change the hearts of mankind. It is time to stop blaming this condition or that, and looking for stricter laws, and more security. Our security is only in humbling ourselves before the God who created us, and come in repentance, pleading for His mercy and healing for hearts that we have allowed to become corrupt in so many ways. We are never without hope in our God who loves us, but we must turn to Him in humble repentance seeking His mercy.
Some people will say they don’t feel the need for repentance, that they try to live right, and help others whenever they can. I’m afraid I can’t share that sentiment. I try to live right and help others whenever I can also, but I’m very aware of my own frailty. Through Scripture and all that is around me in the wonder of the created world I see the greatness and absolute holiness of Almighty God. This also makes me aware of how often I fall short of that holiness. Repentance causes me to turn and again cling to the foot of the cross where I find my only hope of being in God’s presence. So repentance is an ongoing part of life, holding to the cross from which I am again given the gift of righteousness, and enabled to stand with Jesus in the holy presence of our God. Far from not needing it, true repentance at the cross of Christ is the only source of life and hope.
Almost 30 years ago Dr. Karl Menniger wrote the book Whatever Happened To Sin? In his practice of psychiatry he noted that the word “sin” has almost disappeared from our vocabulary, but the sense of guilt remained in our hearts and minds. If the disappearance of sin was true 30 years ago it is many times more so today. And as far as guilt is concerned we have applied ample measures of tolerance and self-justification. But somehow we cannot get away from the truth that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.(Romans 3:23) God’s glory is still the standard against which all life must be measured. By that measure all of us fall short and are unable to stand in the presence of our absolutely holy God. Today is Ash Wednesday, beginning the season of Lent and bringing the message that God, Himself, provided the only solution to our deepest need – our sin that separates from Him. That solution is in the atoning sacrifice of His Son, Jesus, the Christ. In humble repentance and hearing the words of God’s forgiving grace is our sin forgiven and our burden of guilt removed. “In Jesus is life, and that life is the light of all people.”(John 1:4)
The central tenant of our Christian faith is the cross. Oh not just wearing pretty crosses as jewelry, but what the cross stands for in one’s life. The cross means the atoning sacrifice for the sins of all mankind. Mankind, that means all humans have a sinful nature and are separated from God. It is only the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross that makes us able to stand in the presence of a holy and righteous God. Jesus calls all to “repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand”. If there is no sin, then the cross is not necessary, and Jesus, himself, is no more than another moral teacher. Further, there is no meaningful Christian faith. I have a problem with one of our presidential candidates in this regard. He has said on numerous occasions that he has no need for repentance, or repents only occasionally when he has done something wrong, which isn’t often. There is no understanding here of the nature of man, the nature of a Holy God, or what it means to be a Christian. Yes, I am making a judgment, a judgment within the context of our faith, and based on the words that are spoken. These are judgments we must make. Otherwise we diminish the saving work of our Lord Jesus, and He becomes meaningless.
The tragic shooting in Orlando is again eliciting calls for more gun control, more laws, tighter security. A former congressman made the statement that “thoughts and prayers are not nearly enough”. But that is the only thing that will be enough. This is not a physical battle with some deranged people or a larger terrorist network. It is a spiritual battle with the prince of darkness. Prayer alone is our only right action. The only change that ever came about for the people of Israel was when they humbled themselves before God, confessing their sins, and crying out for mercy. Yes, this Old Testament image has a direct application to today’s situations. What is needed is change in the heart of men, and only God can bring that about. It is true that it s not enough just to pray for comfort for the families who have lost loved ones. We are called – we, as many in our nations that have some belief that there is a God who has control of life – we are called to humble ourselves before Him, confessing our sins, and crying out for His mercy and intervention. No change in our laws or in our political leadership will bring about the change we need. Only a willingness to humble ourselves before God and seek His mercy. Do we believe this?