It was a dark, cold night, on the evening of January first, when two weary travelers trudged through a dimly lit neighborhood in the bitter chill towards a light at the top of the hill. The couple was going through the roughest season of their life, and hanging on to their mental sanity by the thinnest of threads. They had come in search of some re-kindling of hope, to refresh their cheerless souls. Neither were they very happy with each other nor optimistic concerning their destination. Yet something within nonetheless compelled them to complete their sojourn across the freezing concrete jungle, to seek refuge and solace in this place. Not many such places were open that day, and such scarcity required a bit travel to avail oneself of their services. It was no small sacrifice on their part to make it through those doors that evening, and their inner cynic was promising them regret.
Six months earlier they had just learned that their second child to be born had a congenital heart disease, one that would require surgery at a very early age. Their pace of their life quickly accelerated as multiple weekly doctors visits began to monopolize their schedule, in addition to all that comes with welcoming a second child into the home. He was born healthy, just before the father was hit with the busiest season in his profession, which normally puts considerable strain on healthy family life. The surgery was scheduled as needed, right after the end of this frantic season. The family did not have to travel a great distance for the operation, but they were staying away from home for almost two weeks. The surgery went well and their son went into the ICU to recover. Despite this relief, the overwhelming stress of the cumulative events had taken its toll on the parents, who were beyond drained, physically, mentally, and emotionally. It remained to be seen how the recovery would go.
Two days later they had struck out in search of a certain comfort. Despite unforeseen delays in public transportation, they managed to stumble through the doors as the procession began. Well uniformed ushers motioned them to wait, and then escorted them towards a seat near the front, where the low attended service was gathered. Because everyone was seated in close proximity, rather than filling up the space, the visitors were able to hear the congregation well as they sang, “The infant priest was lowly born…” The small assembled congregation was incredibly diverse in age, worshiping together like a large family, as the pastor, musicians, and assistants led them through a very traditional liturgy. Even the amply represented youth of the congregation were highly participatory in the progression of liturgical events. Every stanza of every hymn was sung, with a disproportionately strong level of vocalizing emanating from a group of that size.
The couple settled into their pews and followed along as best as their exhausted minds would let them. They felt the congregation carrying them along with their singing, and their confident leadership made it easier to join in. There were a number of other endearing peculiarities about that congregation which kept things interesting to these experienced ecclesial connoisseurs: The organ was accompanied by a drum set, played softly, tastefully, and appropriately for the feel of each song. The congregation responded audibly to points made in the sermon. The pastor used a doll representing the Christ child as a prop for his sermon. Nearly every part of the service that could be chanted was. There were intentional moments of silence scattered throughout the service, including communion distribution, where there was no singing. These intriguing characteristics helped maintain the interest and focus of the couple, whom otherwise would have been mentally shutting down.
The pastor began his sermon, preaching on the theme of the day, which was the circumcision and name of Jesus. The whole sermon was about Jesus, about who he was, and about what he was doing, even as an infant, to redeem and save a lost and broken world. The homiletical style was pleasantly engaging and catechetical. He went to great lengths to explain the significance of Christ being circumcised on the eighth day, making the assembly count the sides of the baptismal font, and tying it to the number of passengers on the ark. At one point, when discussing what it meant to be “under the law,” he stopped preaching to have the entire congregation recite the decalogue from memory.
All this stimulation nearly took the new parent’s minds off their situation, until the pastor said one word: “Surgery.” Circumcision, apparently, is a medical procedure. One that, for observant Jews at the time, was certainly not elective. Except for one: Jesus did not need circumcision. As the very son of God, incarnate by the Holy Spirit, he did not need an external, identifying mark. He did it to submit to being under the law. This “surgery” was a physical pain the infant Savior gladly embraced to identify himself with us and as part of living a life of lawful obedience on our behalf. The little bleeding he may have incurred were the first drops of divine blood that would ultimately be poured out entirely for our forgiveness.
And at this point the preacher looked the visiting parents in the eye and literally said, “Jesus voluntarily submitted himself to a surgery he did not need, as an infant, in order that he could be the ultimate healing for all infants that have to undergo surgery.”
It was all they could do to hold back their tears for the rest of the service. When the entire assembly gathered around the altar to receive the Lord’s supper and sang the Agnus Dei from memory, the couple knew that they had found a little piece of home. This was their spiritual family.
My wife and I left that service feeling a hundred pounds lighter. We had come there burdened with the struggles of our lives, seeking hope and comfort in the Gospel to sustain us. We were lavished with a feast of grace beyond what we were expecting. Through every word, symbol, and motion of the service, all attention was being lifted from the troubles of this world that we all face, and our gaze directed to the source of our hope amidst trials: The person of Jesus, who He was, and what He has done, for us men and our salvation: joining us in our misery, suffering, bleeding, and dying to bring us life. Every action of the service, every line of every hymn, was directed here for the bottom line; that Christ might be our comfort and our strength, as we encountered Him in the means of grace.
Unfortunately, this is not the experience of far too many travelers or inquirers who visit congregations of the LCMS. We visited two other worship services around that time where we were told that Jesus was the light sent to help us find our way back to God, and that His being found in the temple was an example to us of how we should study the Scriptures. It was nothing more than moral pontification which offered the weary no hope. Churches of the LCMS: Give your people something worth getting out of bed in the morning for.
Burdened souls are coming into your congregation, every week, seeking spiritual sustenance. The last thing they need is mere marching orders disguised as a pep talk. We have a responsibility as Christ’s church to shower the world with His grace whenever our doors are open. Enough with the theology of glory and its pretense of relevance, helpfulness, and winsomeness. As the late Michael Spencer said, “If Christianity is not a dying word to dying men, it is not the message of the Bible that gives hope now.”
We don’t have time for gimmicks and the emphasis on the Christian and his works. We have nothing to give, and come to Jesus as beggars, needing him to be everything for us. Please, please, please, feed your people Jesus above all else. There is no other reason for you to open your doors.
We all have a cancer. It’s called sin. It will be the death of us all. Do you have something that will really help, or not?