Two Small – but Meaningful – Changes Coming to Our Liturgy

If you grew up Lutheran, or if you have been a member for long enough to be pretty familiar with the liturgy, then you know that our repeated words and actions have a cadence and ring to them. And you know that any change to that cadence will be noticed. It might even be awkward because we are so used to things as they are. One can imagine fumbling over words, (“Oh yeah, we are saying it this way now”) and giggles as we say the wrong thing at the wrong time. In the grand scheme of things, these are gnat-sized problems in a land of camels. 

But, words do communicate truths we claim to hold and I think two words in particular are not quite right in the Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW). So I’m going to propose two changes. The first is in the Apostles’ Creed and the second is in the Words of Institution. The Apostles’ Creed, of course, we speak together. The Words of Institution are only spoken by the pastor, but they are no doubt followed closely by the congregation, so a change will be noticed. 

The change to the Apostles’ Creed I’m proposing is actually already mentioned as an option. It has to do with the line, “he descended to hell.” The LBW already includes the option, “to the dead” for “hell.” When I was a kid, I saw the asterisk, and I saw the optional line and I thought, “Oh, they put that option in for those who don’t like to say the word ‘hell’. Well, I’m not afraid to say it!” 

But actually, this particular line is a reference only to two texts and they are both debated. Here is 1 Peter 3:18-20 and Ephesians 4:8-9, both from the ESV. These are descriptions of what Jesus did after his crucifixion but before his bodily resurrection was discovered. Whether Jesus went to these places in his resurrected body or via spiritual existence only is unknown. But let me put the texts here before we go any further:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. (1 Peter 3:18-20)

Therefore it says,“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?) (Ephesians 4:8-9)

So, why did Jesus “descend”? The conventional thinking is that for all who lived and died before Jesus, Jesus went to the place of the dead (“Sheol” in Hebrew and “Hades” in Greek) to preach to them them that they may no longer be ignorant of God’s plan of salvation. And apparently his preaching worked because Ephesians says he “lead a host of captives” out! 

But did he go to “hell”? Well, this is the crux of the issue in the Apostles’ Creed. In general, I believe that heaven and hell are not yet fully realized because Jesus has not come again to judge the living and the dead. But there are places mentioned in the New Testament where I do believe people go upon death, namely Hades and Paradise. Jesus references Hades when he speaks of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man and he speaks of Paradise when he says to the thief on the cross, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Some argue that Paradise and Heaven are the same place, and perhaps they are. But I don’t think so. Heaven and hell, properly speaking, are where we will all go at the time of judgement, when the sheep and the goats are separated.

Now, this journey to the underworld by Jesus will raise questions about how he traveled there. Did he do so as a spirit only or as a body and spirit? If you say he only went spiritually, then you get into the very nature of a person, any human person. Is a person a body and a soul, or can they exist apart from their body? (I think a complete person is a body and soul, but I do believe we can and will exist apart from our bodies upon our death as we await the resurrection.) If we say he went bodily, then that might change the timeline of what we tend to think about the resurrection. We tend to think Jesus was bodily resurrected on the third day, but if he went to the world of the dead in the flesh, then perhaps his resurrection took place earlier and it was only on the third day that his empty tomb was discovered.

I believe Jesus went to the place of the dead spiritually, and not bodily. God rested on the seventh day of creation as an act of blessing and consecrating what He had accomplished. “So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.” (Genesis 2:4, ESV) The death of Jesus ushered in the new creation and I believe that Saturday, his dead body mirrors the sabbath rest of God, consecrating the new creation. There is a symmetry I just can’t ignore, and remember that that Saturday was the only 24-hour period that Jesus was dead.

All of that said, in the Creed, I believe it is more correct to say that Jesus descended “to the dead.” And yes, this does have ramifications for how we understand the afterlife. For example, I do not say at funerals that someone is “in heaven” with Jesus. I will say they are “in Christ,” as Paul does. I believe those saved by Jesus are in Paradise upon their death, and when Jesus judges the world, they will enter the gates of a fully-realized heaven. Those to be damned are not in hell, but in Hades or Sheol. These are the kinds of realities we will better understand if we confess that even Jesus did not enter hell itself, but rather the place of the dead.

The second thing we say that merits consideration is, “He took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it for all to drink, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people.’” The only problem with that is that Jesus did not say that. I did write an article about this when I was considering changing this language so for a more detailed read, go here. The fact of the matter is that those who assembled the LBW seemed to be uncomfortable with language that would suggest that Jesus died for “many” but not “all.” You may recall that one of our classic disagreements with our Calvinist friends is the “extent of the atonement”, i.e. whether Jesus died for all or for the elect. This seems to be building the Lutheran answer to the question into the liturgy.

But wherever one’s tradition comes down on that question, there are just no texts – in any translation I can find – where Jesus says those words. Using the most literal translation available (LEB), this is what the Bible says: 

Matthew 26:27-28
“…Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Mark 14:24-25
And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many. Truly I say to you that I will never drink of the fruit of the vine any longer until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

As I point out in the previous article, previous Lutherans hymnals all say “many” and the Greek word used (pollon) is always used to mean “many” and not “all.” These are the kinds of innovations that should be rejected. And even if the theology is defensible ultimately, it is not what the text says and those Lutherans were wrong to change it.

With all of that said – and I will offer reminders during the announcements – we will say that Jesus descended “to the dead” when we confess the Apostles’ Creed and I will say, quoting Jesus, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sin.” This essay is an explanation as to why and a reminder that it’s okay if we fumble over ourselves a bit as we make this adjustment.

It’s Time for Christians to Ignore the High Road

Evan McClanahan

In general, Christians agree that they should take the high road. It is the kind, civilized, and moral thing to do. We are to be peacemakers who should not look for opportunities to quarrel and just as our Lord went to the cross without complaint, so, too, should we suffer for doing what is right. This suffering is the path forward to personal holiness and, often, social change as well. Yes, when faced with the choices of getting into the muck and fighting dirty and rising above and being the bigger person, Christians almost always believe they should stay out of the mud. While they may lose the fight, they will have honored their Lord. 

I have already hinted at several teachings that would lead Christians to take the high road, but there are plenty more. Jesus tells his followers to turn the other cheek if slapped and to walk an extra mile if forced to walk one. He tells Peter that if he is to live by the sword, he will die by the sword. And he tells his disciples to think little of themselves, seeking not the honored seats but assuming nothing so others can honor you. It is impossible to miss the culture-forming teaching that Jesus offers: his followers are not to draw attention to themselves, but to honor Christ with their lives. 

In general, this can produce a wonderful, peaceful society, and, by and large, it has. It can also make Christians compliant. Maybe even too compliant. Because there is another side to the call to take the high road and that is the refusal to compromise our obedience to our God. For example, we are to “obey God rather than men” and post-New Testament era Christians remained faithful by not offering a pinch of incense of Ceasar, thus not admitting that “Caesar is Lord.” 

So, yes, take the high road. Also, there are limits. You have to know when going along with what those in power say is the right path is actually one you just cannot go down. And that will be hard because you will be guilted, shamed, and cajoled if you do not follow the popular path. Your history of taking the high road will be used against you and if you have not taught yourself to think clearly and critically about the issues of the day, your good intentions regarding the high road will be used against you. You will find yourself a pawn for the other side, and here you were, thinking the whole time, you were just doing what you were supposed to do.

So let’s put some meat on these bones. Let’s take an issue like poverty. Everyone is against poverty, right? But in the name of fighting poverty, governments can do some really dumb things with your tax dollars. Like waste them. So long as poverty exists anywhere, then there will always be Christians who believe that virtually anything and everything should be done to end it. “Hey, you aren’t going to oppose this $5 trillion spending bill that will give money to poor people? What kind of Christian would that make you?” 

But here is where Christians need to ignore this pretend high road. When a nation spends money it doesn’t have, that leads to social instability, inflation, and unease about the future. Christians should oppose debt-spending, even if it means saying something unpopular.

Or how about racism. Surely, no Christian would deny that racism exists in the way we are told it exists, and to what extent? Here again, the easy road to take, this perceived high road, would be above reproach because they would be agreeing with the conventional narrative. But what if agreeing with that actually leads to worse race relations in the long run and plays a role in accusing many of racism? I think that is closer to our reality. 

As we, apparently, face a redefinition of gender, again it will be pushed as the high road. “Surely you don’t want to do damage to people by denying them to identify with any gender?” In the name of doing good, pressure will be brought to bear onto Christians to go along with these changes. And while taking the high road is the usual Christian position, here we must say, “No. The world does not get to determine which road is high or not, because it lacks the standards to do so in the first place.” 

The pressure to conform is how the world will attempt to use Christian charity to get Christians to abandon their principles. It’s peer pressure among adults. It is how a decidedly non-Christian group of would-be rulers will try to get Christians to stand down. With a combination of perceived inevitability and “high road” rhetoric, the pressure will be heavy to get on board with new re-writing society along very different principles. Christians need to learn to say “No.” We won’t let the world determine the way forward, especially as they do so on such obviously un-Christian footing.

Theology Feels Like a Luxury These Days

Evan McClanahan

I know that theology matters. Really, I do. I know that what you believe shapes your actions and how you see the future. There are consequences to beliefs and there are horrible consequences to beliefs that are in opposition to reality. 

For example, since God exists, atheism is a false belief, and while to a person it does not always portent horrible immediate consequences, eventually atheism produces disastrous results for cultures and societies. Or the exalted view of what is now called “Scientism” will produce equally dire results as expert scientists leave their lane and enter into the world of morality, philosophy, or policy. In the words of Philosopher Tom Sorell, “Scientism is a matter of putting too high a value on natural science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture.” 

Scientism really has its roots in Modernism, or the basic belief that scientific knowledge alone can solve the world’s problems and answer our most perplexing questions. The aim of Modernism was to end the world being hostage to superstition and blind faith as it had been for, well, forever. Modernism may have offered some interesting architecture, but it fails as a worldview. Supernaturalism is a part of reality. Naturalism – or the belief that matter is all there is or ever was – has no legitimate defense because science can only answers questions limited to the natural world using a methodological process. 

With scientism and atheism (which often go together, of course) serving as two examples of false beliefs that have far-reaching consequences, I want to re-affirm that what we believe theologically really does matter. And because it matters, theological debates, disagreements, excommunications, and even wars have been the result of theological disagreement. And not even on the “big” issues of God’s existence or the Trinity. No, fellowship is cut off over disagreements about baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the nature of the atonement, and more. 

Heck, even as I wrote those words, I am tempted to defend my understanding of all of those issues for I really do think they are important. But all of those topics really feel like luxuries these days. Perhaps I am letting the world’s events dictate my thinking too heavily, but it feels like we are in the midst of massive paradigm shifts all around: the Afghanistan debacle will have long-time fallout as our enemies will be empowered and our allies must be concerned; Covid and its mutations are not under control and the controversy about how to deal with it is only just beginning; public institutions (the media, public schools, the government) have sunk even lower in our minds, and there already wasn’t much room at the bottom; and the U.S. dollar continues to lose import the world over which could trigger a financial crisis the likes of which we have never seen. And as I said in a sermon recently, that is on top of our ongoing fights against the horrors of abortion, the redefinition of marriage and gender, and a racial reckoning that never seems to end (!). 

In the midst of all of that, what is the role of theology? Should we even worry about these historic ideas from scripture that both define us and divide us? Or do we hit the pause button and fight the fights of today because their emergent nature demands our attention? Is it a dereliction of duty to talk theology in seasons of intense change or to avoid theology in those seasons? 

Well, I will say that if theology matters at all, it should say something to the moment we are in. And that means the Church should speak to the moment we are in as well, only being careful to get beneath the politics (i.e. get to the heart of the true motivations) of any one issue and see the larger issue at hand. So yes, I can imagine the discourse of your average congregation being less abstractly theological or less about our little quarks as Lutherans or Presbyterians or Methodists and being more like, “Hey things are changing fast and this is what the Church has to say about it.” 

Without reaching for obvious hyperbole, imagine being a Lutheran pastor in 1930s Germany. I own – and have read much of this period – Bonhoeffer’s complete works, so it isn’t hard to get a sense of what it was like. It was a time of rapid change and government exertion that did not allow for the usual theological discourse. The Church had to act; it had to say something about what was going on. Meat had to be put on the bones of “love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” At some point, application kicks in and theological debates are shelved or limited for a few decades. 

Then, during times of relative peace and prosperity, you can debate again the nuances of our shared faith. For example, we tend to think of, say, the 1950s and 1990s as relatively peaceful. Look up, for example, what the major headlines of any day in 1994 were. It was, all in all, a pretty mild year. During days such as those, we can argue about egalitarianism or election. Even issues that critical feels, well, almost out of place. 

And yet, even when we are tempted to leave theology behind, we need to remember that theology shapes the future. All beliefs are theological beliefs, because every belief you hold assumes your views about the nature of reality. And if God exists or if you believe in false gods or if you think you are a god, then that will impact what you believe in the future. And what you – and others – believe, will shape the world in which you live. So as hard as it may be, we still need to put the newspaper (or the virtual newspaper) down from time and time and just exegete Biblical passages, review our confessions, and continue to teach our children the basic truths of Christianity. 

To stop teaching theology and Bible would definitely give way to the future that the enemies of Christianity desire. Indeed, it could easily be argued that the reason we are in the situation we are in today is because the Church stopped teaching good theology in those peaceful decades and we stopped forming future leaders in the right way. 

So yes, somedays theology feels like a luxury. But if we want to avoid those days in the future, it is a present necessity.

Four Ways Wokeism is Incompatible with Christianity

Evan McClanahan

The ideas of the French Revolution live on.

Well, I’ll be honest. I really do not want to write this article. I would rather do a light devotion on a biblical passage or talk about an immediate concern at the Church. But, for my own clarity of thought, and so you know exactly where I am coming from, I felt the need to lay out a case as to why a “woke” ideology is incompatible with Christian theology. “Woke” is clearly not a passing fad, but a way of seeing the world that is the default standard for Hollywood, the academy, corporate America, the media, and a healthy minority of regular, everyday Americans. And as I see that way of seeing the world coming into conflict with a Christian way of seeing the world, I wanted to lay out the differences.

I should define some terms. As you know, “woke” is a reference to one becoming aware of all manner of historical justices, and then usually committing oneself to the cause of righting those wrongs. The term seems to reference past racial sins and their continuing effects more than anything else, but “woke” can be a bit of a grab bag in which other concerns can be added. Probably next on the list would be LGBT concerns with the “T” getting the bulk of the attention these days. Phrases like “systemic racism,” “white supremacy,” and movements like “defund the police” have become conventional thinking in light of the woke movement. 

And certainly, every Christian should be both aware of and ashamed of a past which does include Christians using the Bible to justify slavery and segregation. Of course, the Bible can be and has been used to justify almost anything in the wrong hands, and the Bible was also used to justify the abolition of slavery and the end of segregation. So a growing awareness and recognition of historical racism, sexual oppression, and/or police-state evils is not a bad thing. 

The disagreement comes in what we do next. Do we use our Christian theology to address those past sins and maintain a moral framework around other issues in the “woke” grab bag? Or we do throw Christianity off as a legitimate option for help because, actually, Christianity has contributed or even caused all of the past evils to begin with. As strange as it might seem for us to believe that anyone would really believe that, they do. And it is not historically unprecedented. Any number of national movements that were utopian in nature (basically a whole variety of socialist dream states) have had to argue that the bonds of the past must be erased to start fresh and “get it right this time.” 

The French Revolution was nothing short of a proto-marxist movement that sought to erase history and start all over. Gone was the 7-day week and instituted instead was the 10-day week. Guillotines murdered priests and nobility by the thousands. Notre Dame became a Humanist temple. The revolutionaries will always have the advantage of historical wrongs to point to (because what else would you expect from a sinful humanity with all of history as a backdrop?) as they make promises they can’t keep. 

So here are four ways in which “wokeism” – to the extent that phrase applies to each of these ideas – is incompatible with Christianity. These are not ideas that can snuggle up to Christianity and work together for some undefinable common good. Because they will employ different yardsticks for what the common good even is or how to achieve it, a choice will have to be made. And because those under 40 are dramatically influenced by the institutions mentioned above – you know, the ones that have all become woke – Christianity will either become an ardently defended worldview or will be seen as the cause of our problems. 

1. Charges of “white supremacy” and “systemic racism” may be rhetorically brilliant, but they are at odds with biblical understandings of guilt and innocence. To be woke means you have come to accept that America is defined by the sin of slavery above all else, and it is through the prism of slavery that all of American history is to be understood. American whites have benefited from that racism and that is the reason for such disparate inequalities and inequities in our society. 

Certainly, there have been historic wrongs specifically tied to race in America. But is white supremacy the default position of every white person in America, and is denying that reality for oneself actually proof that one is a white supremacist? No. The bottom line is that we are to judge racists and racism the same across all racial lines and we are to assume the best about our neighbor until we see otherwise. Anything less is just un-Christian as it paints with far too broad a brush to avoid bearing false witness. And Christianity offers an historic and biblical path forward even in the wake of ethnic conflict. Constant recrimination about sins that the current generation has not perpetuated will only foster conflict. Christianity has the ability to actually broker peace. 

2. Transgenderism makes a mockery of biology, logic, and faith. It is amazing that the moment someone claims to be the other gender, we all are asked to walk in lockstep and agree. But transgenderism is simply impossible on a Christian worldview and a denial that God made us either male or female. Gender is a part of who we are in our totality and in the details. It is in our genes, our DNA, our bone structure, muscle mass, and of course, ability to procreate. We do not possess the right to determine our gender any more than we can determine our ethnicity, and we do not posses the right to tell God that He is wrong. As “dead-naming” legislation becomes a thing and as parents are losing the right not to transform their children, you will have to choose between the woke transgender revolution or the biblical teaching on gender, no matter the consequences. 

3. De-stabalizing civic protection is not loving your neighbor. The “defund the police” movement seems to have already run its course given its massive unpopularity. And yet it is a window into the woke soul. At the heart of the woke movement is a profoundly un-Christian anthropology. Christians believe we are sinful by nature and need a savior. That not only constrains our behavior, but it makes all the sense in the world to endorse systems that constrain sin (police, a justice system, laws, etc.) But non-Christians often assume we are good by nature and can build a perfect world if left to our own devices. That will lead to more common calls for the destabilization of institutions like the police, and that will only lead to more victimization of the oppressed who rely on police protection. 

4. Two wrongs do not make a right. The subject of reparations for past injustices is obviously controversial, but it is not defensible in a practical or moral sense. Biblically, we are responsible for our own wrongs, not the wrongs of others in our ethnic category in the past. And if you want to see how remaking a country using the lens of equity works out, look at what is happening to South Africa. Rather than moving forward, that country is degenerating into anarchy. Slavery and segregation were wrong. So is punishing those and rewarding those who had nothing to do with those institutions. 

I write this because wokeism really does represent an entirely different way of seeing the world. To evangelize the woke, we first need to understand that it isn’t just the end results (as listed above) that we differ on. We differ on our understanding of nature and realty and God’s existence and our need to be obedient to Him. In the end, wokeism is just another form of rebellion against the way God has ordered and ordained the world. But it is nothing less than that. These are not just political differences. These are differences that have their origin in seeing the world in light or God’s presence or His absence. So beware of adopting this language in the name of Christianity, for what is incompatible at the outset is incompatible later, too.

Look, We Finally Got Jesus Right! Or Did We?

Which one is the real Jesus? Or are both lists over-simplified caricatures that justifies one worldview at the expense of the other?

Evan McClanahan

Every now and then, a meme comes to light that helps clarify the ongoing debate about the person and work of Jesus. Though generally too simplistic, such memes are helpful foils as they force our hand to reveal our own biases. One such meme came to my attention and, as luck would have it, I was in need of some newsletter material! So, as this perfectly ties in with so many of the social and political issues of our day, it would be worthwhile to consider both of these caricatures of Jesus and ask fundamental questions about their accuracy and even the project of forcing any square Jesus into an inevitable round ideology, including the Jesus that I prefer.

But first, we should avoid making lists about Jesus, anyway. They cannot possibly do Him justice because of our own limited worldviews. For the sake of our sanity, we cannot help but to form worldviews that are far more limited in scope than Jesus’ comprehensive understanding of all things. We all must decide (usually in our 20s and 30s) what our limits are on a range of topics and ideas, and we generally live and read and argue in that safe range. Call it a “worldview” or your politics or your religion, but this narrow frame of reference helps us to quickly understand our world. It may even help you to make friends, find a spouse, or choose a career.

But trying to place the Lord of Glory within our own limited (and inherently sinful) worldview is foolish. Jesus will always be more to the “left” than any of us and more to the “right” than any of us. Sure, Jesus believes things are absolutely right and absolutely wrong, but he also demonstrated that he is willing and able to call all to account, from the demonic to the hyper-religious and everyone in between. For example, while we love to limit our worldview to being either in the “rule-following” (the right) or the “compassionate” (the left) camp, we see that Jesus was a defender of both the Law and compassion. So every follower of Jesus should constantly be pushed and pulled by his example that doesn’t neatly fit into any box.

So, let’s dig in! I begin by pointing out that many of these side-by-side “contradictions” are not contradictions at all. In fact, they are often both true. For example, to call Jesus both “Christian” and “Jewish” is simply anachronistic. Yes, I know they are trying to point out that Christians “champion” Jesus to their cause while we should see him as a Jewish outsider. But while Jesus clearly identifies himself as a Jew, he also – as God’s Son and as God Himself – does institute a “new covenant” which brings to an end certain Jewish identifiers, like Temple Sacrifice and kosher food requirements…not to mention doctrines like the Trinity. Since Christians are identified by those distinctions, it is right to say that Jesus is truly a Jew and that he ushered in Christianity.

Or consider “king” vs. “homeless man and child refugee.” Never mind that “refugee” is a politically-loaded word foreign to the Bible; the fact is that Jesus is proclaimed to be both the King of Kings in scripture and he was an itinerant preacher for three years who had “nowhere to lay his head.” These two realities do not contradict one another. One speaks to Jesus’ eternal authority and office as king, and one speaks to the humility he endured as a human being.

Or what about the contradiction between the Jesus who “sends sinners to hell” vs. the Jesus who is a “friend of sinners and outcasts?” Again, both are true, albeit the language here is rather inartful. Jesus clearly teaches that there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” for those excluded from the kingdom, for those whom Jesus “never knew.” Also, Jesus fellowshipped with sinners and called them to repentance during his earthly ministry. There is no problem believing both of those things about Jesus, but it could be a problem if one is emphasized over the other. For example, if Jesus is only ever a judge who condemns and not a savior who frees, that would be a problem. Or if Jesus is only ever a friend of sinners, then his grace has been tragically cheapened.

Jesus also both upholds marriage and the family as a great institution of God (Matthew 19) and he, because he was miraculously conceived, only ever had half-siblings. Who would even conceive of that as a contradiction? Moving on, it is true that Jesus both “died for your sins” and that he was “killed by [Temple] and State.” The perpetrators of Jesus’ execution and the effect of the God-man’s death” are categorically unrelated. It would be like forcing one to choose between the following statements: “The Astros traded George Springer.” “George Springer hit the game-winning home run for the Blue Jays.”

Finally, for the “they are both true and so what?” category, Jesus both condemns sinners and critiques religious people. They are often the same people! Of course, the makers of this meme want us to believe that the “historical” Jesus was only critical of religious people while the “white” Jesus is an unjust judge of everyone. The truth is that Jesus hated every kind of injustice and sin, from the mockery of marriage to the exploitation of power to adultery to pride. Jesus’ attacks on Pharisees does not translate to a universal judgement against all religion today and it does not mean Jesus would not judge sinners of all types today. Including all of us. (But remember, we are saved by his grace!)

But the more controversial aspects of this meme deal with the way Jesus is portrayed as a white judge rather than a brown liberator. First, every culture depicts Jesus in their ethnic likeness. While it is silly to portray Jesus as a white guy with blonde hair and blue eyes, I am not critical when Africans portray him black skin or Asians portray him with Asian features, etc. It is a way we come to appreciate that Jesus died for us, that he is one of us, that he is truly our brother and friend. It is, on the order of things, not a moral wrong, even if it is historically inaccurate.

But is the “white” Jesus really silent in the face of oppression? What oppression? Whose oppression? Jesus actually did not encourage political liberation in any way, but, rather, obedience in most occasions. It may be true that the Church is often weak in the face of evil; but that doesn’t mean Jesus is in favor of a higher minimum wage or police reform. The truth is that Jesus’ liberation is primarily spiritual and secondarily political. I am in favor of both, but Jesus was simply not a leader of a political revolution.

I do agree that Jesus is often wrongly a champion of America and that understanding one’s Christian residence in heaven while ruled by tyrants here on earth is a proper way to understand one’s relationship to the state. America is defensible as a “Christian nation” by laying principled groundwork and then a consistent flow of ideas that follow. For example, human beings have dignity, therefore they have innate human/civil rights, therefore government should be representative and limited, etc.

I would be curious to know, though, in what way Christ “subverts empire,” or what it even means to “endorse church and state.” Does the colonizer Jesus endorse the separation of church and state as distinct institutions or does he endorse a merging of such institutions? The meme is unclear on that. Jesus’ teachings, I agree, do subvert all empires, including socialistic empires that, in theory, bring about “justice through restoration” and “liberate the oppressed” poor. History tells us that socialistic empires have always been the most hostile to the followers of Jesus. And yet, Christians always are the leaven in whatever society they exist, subverting a whole range of principalities and powers by not being defined by power and hate, but by love and service. That is exactly why Christians can advocate for a separation of church and state in the sense that states cannot mandate faith and also believe that the state’s laws should reflect God’s eternal Law.

Finally, the bit about endorsing “holy war”…yeah, that phrase is just not in the Bible. I will agree that there have been occasions when Christians have launched devastating wars in the name of Jesus in contradiction to his teaching, but to glibly teach that Christians are to be “non-violent” in every circumstance is short-sighted. Faithful Christians have found themselves in situations of such profound evil that violence was preferred than the increased victimization of innocents. God Himself vanquishes evil through violence, and it may be the case that an “empire” is to be “subverted” precisely through the use of violence.

So, who is the real Jesus? The truth is that our limited worldviews mean we will almost always create Jesus in our own image. If we can at least be aware of that reality, we can step out of our traditions draw closer to the real Jesus. The best we can do is read the scripture with an open mind and try to embrace the radical vision that Jesus really does offer, and hold it all together. But at the very least, don’t use memes like this to limit Jesus. That’s just mean.

What Have I in Common with the Ungodly Man?

The unrepentant Pharisee and the publican praying at the Temple (Luke 18:9-14).

Evan McClanahan

As cancel culture comes to a mind near you, basic differences between Americans becomes more and more stark. We used to describe such differences as being between “conservative” and “liberal” persons. Those words, apart from being separated from their true, etymological meaning, do not do justice to this divide anymore. The divide must be seen as more fundamental than that. The gap is between the godless and the God-fearing.

By “godless,” I mean man seeing himself not as a product of a higher mind and a greater good, but as an autonomous agent, free to pursue life by following his nose and creating his own moral landscape. By “God-fearing,” I mean that man sees himself as having limited freedoms and being bound to God’s rule and Law. Independence is used in service of others, not to pursue vanity projects or to determine what is true apart from revelation.

Certainly the “God fearer” needs a savior, too, and can run the dangerous risk of arrogance. And yet, I will not pretend that there is an equivocation between the imperfect man who seeks after God and the imperfect man who does not. Both men are in need of a savior, but it makes all the difference in the world that one recognizes that while the other does not.

Another caveat: in a sense, no one is truly “godless.” We are all made in God’s image and His Law is “written on our hearts”. In the same way, I do not believe there are real atheists, only professing atheists. I believe that all men know that God exists, but there are simply different degrees by which man “suppresses the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1). So, when I refer to the “godless”, I am thinking of those who, without regret, live in open rebellion to God’s rule. I believe they truly know better, but like our primordial parents in Eden, they still believe they are better off charting their own course and following their own counsel.

I am less concerned with labels and more concerned with one’s general disposition towards authority, either in reality or even in concept. When I see transgenderism pushed, abortion defended, and “whiteness” described as a sin, I am no longer content to let these be seen as merely political or moral issues, as though they can be debated using a shared framework and language. These are issues on which there is a “godless” take and a “God-fearing” take. And it is time to point out the depth of the disagreement, for honesty’s sake if nothing else.

Of course I know that conservatives are not always God-fearing and liberals are not always godless, though there is a statistical connection to religious participation and worldview. Political conservatives tend to be more religious in practice and have fewer doubts about God’s existence. And yes, I know there are those who profess to be progressive or liberal Christians and there are many “limited government” types that do not believe in God. Shades of gray and all of that. But where, really, are the points of contact? Where do and how have these divergent worldviews split in so quick a fashion?

I was first comfortable making this observation in my former church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Even before leaving, as the ELCA embraced every conceivable progressive dream, it dawned on me that we did not worship the same God, have the same reverence for His revelation, or measure ourselves against the same standard. When they justified LGBT practices, abortion, or the equality of all religious views, it was clear that they were godless people, in the sense that they refused to acknowledge God’s sovereign authority.

Again, by “godless” I do not mean that they had lost the image of God in which they were made. And I certainly do not mean that they did not have a trove of idols. I mean that they had ceased to place themselves under the one, unquestionable authority in this universe. Like a professing atheist, they came against the unmovable object and instead of worshiping Him for His power and beauty and might, and instead of accepting His Law and His Gospel that is needed in the wake of our disobedience, they just said, “No thanks.” They preferred, instead, to define for themselves what sex was, when life began, and whether God had the right to demand our exclusive worship.

Now, of course, they did all of this quite cleverly, still cloaked in Christian liturgies, even still while saying the historic creeds of the Church. And conservatives, or traditionalists, would seek to argue with them about all of the presenting issues, even trying to appeal to “shared” scriptures. But the godless would hear none of it. For the division was already much deeper than an interpretation of some scriptural passages. One group was committed to the proposition that if God existed, He is sovereign in all of our affairs and His Word is authoritative. The other had already set themselves up as the arbiters of all things, and those who possessed the right to even teach God a thing or two. It is still not uncommon for me to hear phrases like, “I would never worship the God of the Old Testament.” Well, then you would not worship the God of the universe, either.

I am not saying that the “godless” are pursuing the worst lives they possibly could, that they are all, for example, depraved vagabonds committed to carnality and drunkenness. I am only saying that the point of contact has been lost between those who stand under God’s Law and those who believe they can rewrite it. And that is in the visible church! How much more divided is our society in general?

Certainly, if we can pare down our differences in such a simple manner, it will help clarify our national situation. And when we speak with those with whom we disagree, we can really avoid debating the merits of BLM, whether someone of one gender can really be “trapped” in the body of another, or when the science says a human life begins. If there is not agreement that God exists and our existence is dependent on Him and He has the unequivocal right to tell us how to live, I see very little basis for a productive exchange. And no, I do not see Natural Law as sufficient. For the Christian, we must demand a revelation or nothing approach.)

It was recently reported by Gallup that fewer than half of Americans are members of a church. The precipitous 20 percentage point fall since the 1990s is only one data point, but it is still disturbing. As more Americans cast off religion, it will become easier for others to follow suit. Short of an authentic revival, the non-religious voice will become the majority voice. And that voice will not listen to reason, at least as we define reason in God’s world.

So I am reminded of the message with which Jesus commissioned his disciples: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:46, ESV) Repentance comes first. If you want to know why your views are so utterly different from your neighbors, it is probably due to an imbalance of repentance.

Does this mean that the God-fearing do not still need to repent? Of course not! We pray, as did the publican, that God would have mercy on me, a sinner. But we do acknowledge that we are sinners. Until the Church reclaims the word “repentance” and, really, this idea, we will continue to kick at the goads, hoping the godless will set aside their rebellion long enough to reason with us. What we don’t understand is that without a fear of God, there will be no reasoning at all. It has been cut off at the knees.

Should the Church Be About Civilization Building? You Bet.

Evan McClanahan

Like all who are even a little industrious, I wake up and think about what needs to get done that day. People need to be checked on, sermons need writing, property repairs need tending, and bulletins need printing. Being a small church pastor includes the joy of two days never totally being alike and having my fingers in a lot of pies.

But what, really, do I do? I mean, what grand role am I fulfilling? Well, we believe, as Lutherans, that God works through the “Means of Grace”, Word and Sacrament. So, the items on the to-do list are what support the work of the preaching of the Word and the administration of Sacraments. I mean, if that is how God comes to us, reveals Himself to us, offers us comfort and hope, who am I to question that? So maintaining our worship facility, putting time into writing sermons, offering forgiveness on behalf of Christ, helping couples and individuals in their lives of faith…that is what I do.

Yes, but is that all? I mean, what is behind even that? Well, certainly, our eternal lives are behind that. I mean, the purpose of worship and being reconciled to God is, in the end, our eternal destinies.

But while I believe that our work as a Church is primarily the administration of the Means of Grace so we will be reconciled to our Heavenly Father, we have another important task. As Christians, we are to build up the world in which we find ourselves. It should be better with us in it than not.

Christians are in the civilization building business. Yes, in addition to assuring sinners of forgiveness and souls of salvation, we can easily justify a mandate to build a high and even proudly Christian civilization right here and now. That is to say, we can be completely unapologetic in proposing the Christian worldview anywhere and everywhere we can. For when I say “civilization”, I mean a civilization that assumes the truth of Christianity and seeks to implement God’s Law wherever and whenever possible.

“Civilization”, of course, is a valueless word. All of human history is the history of civilizations, each with their own technological, social, and moral hallmarks. If Western Civilization continues it’s course towards a technologically-dependent, Christian-less, pornographic civilization, even that sad result will be called and studied as a “civilization.” No, I am hoping – and working – for something far better.

The Bible supports this because we believe that Jesus Christ is the way, truth, and life. Those are absolute and exclusive claims. Christ is the only way to reconciliation with God and, therefore, with each other. The truth claims of Christianity and the moral callings of Christianity are non-negotiable. Yes, Christians often find themselves in un-Christian nations surrounded by un-Christian laws. But wherever we can, even if only around the dinner table, we are to aim for the best world we can hope for. And that is a world that seeks obedience to God in our worship, behavior, and even aesthetics. (I.e. turn off the music with potty talk.)

Were I to be king for a day to put some meat these bones, the first thing on my list – for this would apply equally to unbelievers and believers alike – would be using God’s Law as the basis for our own. Crazy, I know, and I certainly understand that much of the Old Testament law has been fulfilled and no longer applies, like the prohibition to eating shellfish. But I am not ashamed of God’s Law and no Christian should be. Far from being a zealot for the “separation of Church and State”, that whole Ten Commandments in or on a courthouse building is sounding pretty good to me these days.

A few other practical applications that I would love to see as law:

  • Reinstating the death penalty would reflect God’s revelation that some crimes do, in fact, merit it.
  • Kidnapping and rape are crimes that are death penalty offenses in the Bible. Perhaps they should be in our own time and place.
  • Harsher sentences for drug crimes. Rather than legalizing drugs, we should be treating them as the scourge on society that they are.
  • Making gambling illegal everywhere.
  • Making pornography illegal. I do not regard indecency as free speech.

I know, I know, you all think I have become the villain in The Handsmaid’s Tale. I have not seen it or read the book, so maybe you are right. But I do find it disturbing that our trajectory is lurching towards those immoral pursuits rather than than away from them.

Second, as Christians, we should hope that our understanding of morality remains the norm, or becomes the norm again. Certainly the major areas of concern these days are abortion, the redefinition of marriage, and gender confusion. Beyond the legal perils of all three of these issues and the legal jeopardy Christians may soon be in because of our opposition to these deviancies, our hearts and souls should be so influenced by the revelation of God that these would be unthinkable in our land.

It is not “civilized”, in the sense of having aspirational wishes for our culture, to tolerate these derivations of Christian teaching. We should absolutely oppose any normalization of gender fluidity and the transformation of children (and adults) into the opposite gender. We should oppose all human abortion…if we intend to be consistent in our understanding of human value, anyway.

Third, civilizations are built from the bottom up, so we heed Paul’s lovely teaching in Philippians 4:8 (LEB): “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

This is the stuff the West should be built on. To what degree it was before, I could not say. If I idealize our past, I will be reminded of slavery. If I bash it, I will be reminded of the tremendous good the West has done.

But when I think about teaching Sunday School, doing outreach to college students, or raising my own children, when I discourage them from listening to most pop music and encourage them to study their Bible, when I tell them everything that is wrong with Critical Theory and everything that is beautiful in God’s Law, I tell myself that I am playing a small role in building a Christian civilization. I hope I am right.

Is there something Un-Christian About “America First”?

Evan McClanahan

It seems to me that the political landscape has changed. President Trump’s populist rhetoric and policies undoubtedly had a lot to do with it. The dividing lines seem to be over whether it is proper to put America First, or whether America actually has so much to apologize for, we should seek the middle of the pack. I thought the debate was about how we keep America first. But now the very phrase is said to be KKK-inspired fascism. Is that the case? Can Christians want their own nation to succeed? Or is all “Christian Nationalism” equally bad?

The idea of putting America first or some vague concept of Christian Nationalism is often blamed for the events of January 6, and many pastors have officially renounced that entire episode as if it were solely inspired by Christian nationalism. But connecting some Christians who did participate in the events of that day with all patriotic Christians is just wrong. There is a place between storming the capital to “save your country” and believing that “America First” is akin to white supremacy. That’s where I’d like to land, and I don’t think it is un-Christian to end up there.

So, to answer the question, we must first ask, “Well, which nation, and which Christian, and what do you even mean by ‘first’ and ‘nationalism’?” Depending on how you answer those questions, Christian nationalism may be the most evil thing ever or a perfectly harmonious way to be both a citizen and a Christian.

Let’s start with some distinctions. I would agree that it is definitely possible, as a Christian, to be “too” patriotic. As Christians, we must remember that we are citizens in God’s Kingdom first and foremost. We want God’s Kingdom to be present among us. What we want from our nation is basically the opportunity for God’s Kingdom to flourish and for the execution of justice. I would like to think that all Christians – given the opportunity – would trade any nation for God’s Kingdom. But until Jesus comes again, I do not believe that choice is before us.

So, we accept the development of nations, and can even see the good in some of what they offer: borders, the rule of law, and provision for the general welfare of citizens, for example. If and when we equate any nation with the Kingdom of God itself, we have certainly gone too far. Yes, God blesses and curses nations as a whole in the Bible and there is no reason to think He has stopped doing so.

But what even is a nation? Is it the group of people presently numbered as its citizens in the present day? Is it the founding ideals and documents that gave rise to the nation in the first place? Is it the historical events that are definitional to that nation, both good and bad, noble and ignoble? Is it current day practices of generosity or genocide? Surely within the borders of any nation, you will find combinations of cruelty and charity, historical horror and present pleasantries.

In my own nation I am just as likely to see an incredibly compassionate act by a dear soul as I am a random act of violence against an innocent elder. I am as likely to meet a tireless advocate for the unborn as I am a tireless defender of abortion. I am as likely to meet an apathetic atheist as I am a born-again Christian. There are pacifists and war mongers, socialists and libertarians, prudes and libertines. Who among these people and which of these acts define the nation in which I live? Will the true Americans please stand up?

And what do we mean by “first?” Surely this is a comparison between us and other nations. It seems a general spirit of Christian humility and shame of our past has led some to apologize for our empirical tendencies. Well, I’m not sure how good of an idea that is. Should we trust that other nations, having surpassed us in power, will treat us fairly when it comes to threats of war, currency manipulation, or imposing UN resolutions against us? If our economic prowess falters and we are in need after a natural disaster, can we trust that the countries that are now “first” will come to our aid, as America often did for them?

Perhaps the most important question is, do Christians even have a dog in a fight such as this, or are we merely Kingdom-minded neutral observers, a community of Switzerlands in any nation? “Hey, first or last, we just want to worship, Jesus, okay? Christians will just have to deal with whatever hand we’re dealt.”

Well, with all the caveats above, I’ll offer my own thoughts. Any nation is a complicated mess of vice and virtue, so being proud of your nation as it exists now or has historically existed is almost certainly a rose-colored glasses kind of foolishness. Just as we judge a religion on its founding principles and not by the adherents of that religion, we do the same with our nation.

So, if I were to say I want America to be first, that is not me saying I am proud of everything or everyone that emanates from America. It is me saying that my government should consider our nation’s interests first, because there is good reason to believe that other nations will put our interests first and suffering could very likely be the result. While the poor may be blessed, poverty is not a virtue in and of itself. Peace, prosperity, liberty, and extended lifespans are all good things. They are not ultimate things, but they should be welcomed and worked for because, you know, we are to love our neighbor and care for them.

Because I believe America’s founding values to be objectively good, I find there to be no conflict in being a Christian and promoting them. You know, things like the rule of law, the dignity of man, the right to self-defense, and freedom of religion are wonderful things and I would hate to lose them. My faith is not at stake when I endorse those things. Nor is our faith at stake were we to lose them.

But, in other contexts, putting your nation first could indeed be a dreadful thing. The vast majority of Christians who adopted the moniker “German Christians” in 1930s Germany were absolute sell-outs. That kind of “Christian nationalism” is obviously a problem. Also, American Christians who are patriotic are not Nazis.

So is it un-Christian to have an “American First” outlook? Well, it depends, doesn’t it? Are they elevating their nation above God’s Kingdom? Then, yes. If their nation is ruled by wanton, tyrannical despots, then also yes. But if their nation offers a better chance for people’s lives to improve and their dignity to be observed, then no.

To decry all forms of “Christian nationalism” as reincarnations of swastikas on altars is absurd. It just may be that some nations – imperfectly to be sure – still provide a better hope for Christian values to flourish. So before you answer “yes” to the headline, at least ask, “Which Christian? Which nation? And first in what way?”

You Are a Body and a Soul. And Why That Matters.

Evan McClanahan

Theology on Air recently held a debate on the nature of the soul, which itself was really a debate on the nature of the human person. It may come as a surprise that Christian philosophers – who agree on so much of significance – cannot agree on the nature of the soul. After all, isn’t it just common knowledge that human beings are bodies and souls? Well, yes, but the extent to which these two substances become one being, or whether they are inseparable, are points of division. 

The basic dividing lines are these: are human beings a body and a soul? Do souls exist before (either in time or as an ontological reality) before the body comes into being? Are body and soul separated at death, so the soul goes off to Heaven (or Paradise or Hades or Hell) while the body waits for resurrection, decaying in the ground or existing as ashes in an urn? Or does the soul go into “soul sleep” at death because it cannot exist without a body? Are the accounts of near death experiences, where souls float above their own body and “see” and “hear” things possible, or are those absurd visions of a dying brain? 

The practical ramifications of this could be significant. At the popular level, there is now a growing belief that, for example, my body is just physical goo, occasionally with the “wrong” gender attached to the real me. In other words, my soul is who I really am, and what I think and feel then has a precedence over the realities of my body. Therefore, mutilating the flesh is acceptable and perhaps should even be a taxpayer-funded surgery…for my mental well-being, of course. Or, does abortion become less conceivable if a small human body already possesses a soul? Or maybe this might influence Christians towards one belief or another in terms of cremation vs. burial. 

To find concrete answers, where would one go? Well, there really is not much Biblical content to answer, so this is mostly a philosophical debate. Though both sides in this debate warned that the other side’s view could lead to serious problems, I mostly heard tinkering on the edges that didn’t seem especially dangerous either way. After all, whatever the answer is, there is nothing we can do to change it, we can’t know the answer with certainty now, and it won’t change my trust in a merciful God! 

But there are points of agreement that are important to note and have a lot of bearing on practical issues, some more controversial than others. First, any and all Christians must reject any kind of bare materialism. Whatever human beings are, they are not “just” flesh. We have or are souls, and are thus supernatural beings. When our hearts stop beating and our brains stop working, our souls will live on. 

At worst, they will exist in repose, waking up once Jesus comes again and glorious bodies are risen from the dead and reunited with a slumbering soul. At best, the soul will exist without a body in the afterlife, either Hades or Paradise, assuming that the gates of Heaven and Hell will not be opened until Jesus comes again. But, we are not mere stardust that happens to have evolved to possess reason and self-awareness. We are more than flesh. 

All Christians must also agree we are not “only” souls. Even if we are “mostly” souls, Paul clearly teaches that our bodies are “temples to the Lord” and the way we treat them matters. And while we may exist for a time without a body in the intermediate state between our bodily death and resurrection, that is not the “normal” or even ideal way for us to exist. Human beings are distinct from other created beings like angels in that we have bodies. The very earthy stories of Adam being made from dust and Eve being made from his side have always situated man in a materialistic light. If God wanted us to be bodiless, we could have just been angels. But he did not. We are bodies and souls. 

Christians are now confronted with multiple issues that an understanding of the soul can speak to in important ways, transgenderism probably being the most significant. After all, the argument is that the body is a mistake and, in some cases, needs very invasive surgery or hormone treatments to correct it’s misalignment with the true person, the soul. So the belief that someone is a particular gender trumps the obvious facts of the body. 

Christians argue against transgenderism as a concept because God made them male and female, and because part of our identity is the body that we have and are. It is just as wrong to say that God gave me the wrong body as it is to say he gave me the wrong soul. A defense of transgenderism always privileges the soul over the body, and we reject that because we are both souls and bodies. 

This defense actually undercuts one of the common rhetorical arguments for homosexual acts. It is often said that “God did not make junk,” which means, I (the homosexual) am “good” (in the Genesis 1 sense) just the way I am. I do not need to change because God made the creation, declared it good, and I am part of that creation. Therefore, my natural urges are good. Here, the body’s urges take precedence. The possession of the urge justifies it, even if there are natural realities (reproduction) and revelation (the Bible) that speak against those urges. 

On the abortion front, if we really are “just” flesh without a soul – at least for a time – then I suppose abortion is justifiable. But for that matter, since materialists only believe that human beings are matter no matter their age, then what makes the murder of other adults wrong? The problem with the existence – even for a short while – of a human body without a soul is that the addition of the soul at some point along the way is arbitrary. Sure, maybe at “quickening” we receive a soul, but what really is so special about the detection of a baby’s movements? 

Maybe it is the child’s first breath. But a difference in the way a child receives oxygen is not a significant change. If being able to breathe on one’s own makes one human, we should kill all those who are presently on ventilators. But no one would agree with that, right? 

Finally, as Christians age, they should think about making funeral arrangements. They should consider whether they want to be cremated or buried when they die. What does this conversation have to say about that? Well, Christians historically and generally have taught against cremation precisely because respect for the body as part of who we are has made it less than ideal. Even in death, destruction of the body is something Christians should avoid. 

The extent to which we are divided bodies and souls will never be fully agreed upon. But the fact that we are bodies and souls will lead to difficult social and political realities for Christians. For the tyranny of materialism never sleeps as it chases an endless hope of fulfillment apart from God. Meanwhile, beings with souls will never relinquish their transcendence for the false promises of material utopia. So the conflict continues. Maybe now, we understand the “why” a bit more.

“It Came upon the Midnight Clear”: A Surprisingly Wonderful Hymn

Evan McClanahan

I will admit to having a half-written article in the hopper for this now-late newsletter. It was on something especially relevant and timely I’m sure. But on Sunday, we sang It Came upon the Midnight Clear, and I admit to really paying attention to the words for the first time. Having judged this hymn as “merely” a popular hymn about the birth narrative, I must have never really listened to the rest of this carol. Like all great hymns, it offers beautiful commentary on a local text, but looks to our immediate circumstance and finally our eternal reality as well.

First, a caveat. Having watched Lutheran Satire’s takedown of somewhat superficial Victorian English Christmas Carols (as opposed to deeply incarnation Lutheran carols), there are elements to this hymn that strikes me as unnecessarily sentimental. For example, we do not know if the night was a clear one, and I’m pretty sure the angels did not play harps. But I get the idea. One should, in general, in that first verse, get the sense that the heavens open up to us in a way that is rare in the Bible, but definitely reminiscent of the Old Testament when Elijah rode to heaven in a chariot of fire and when Isaiah caught a glimpse of heaven in Isaiah 6.

It is admittedly hard to describe such a moment of heavenly glory. But the text by Edmund H. Sears – a fervent abolitionist who did not intend this to be a Christmas carol, but a melancholic commentary on a difficult period in his life – is a noble attempt to do just that. Especially powerful is the last line which sings, “The world in solemn stillness lay To hear the angels sing.”

The second verse, though, is a reminder that the angels continue to oversee events in the world and bring their song to us. “Still their heav’nly music floats O’er all the weary world.” Do they do this work through the same breaking in of the heavens? Well, I don’t know of many modern accounts if they do. But angels do exist and we do believe they are working on behalf of God and God’s people. I particularly like the specific Old Testament reference in the last line when Sears writes, “And ever o’er its babel sounds The blessed angels sing.”

The third verse is more specifically a reference to our daily lives and struggles. It makes it more clear that Sears was writing in the midst of personal difficulty and not only filled with the hope that a Christmas carol possesses. The third verse addresses the singer in it’s first words: “And you, beneath life’s crushing load, Whose forms are bending low, Who toil along the climbing way With painful steps and slow:” Three times now the author has referenced bending. The angels bend near the earth in verses one and two. Now, it is us whose forms are bending low due to the crushing weight of the world’s troubles and labor. And indeed, isn’t it the case that we often feel that our daily work is too much for us, that we, like the woman bent over for 18 years that Jesus heals in Luke 13, have had all that we can take?

When we are in that place, we are called to look forward to the time when our burdens will be light and we will be lifted up. We look forward to the promised Sabbath rest that we will find in the new heavens and the new earth. The last line of verse three is this: “Oh, rest beside the weary road And hear the angels sing!”

But a great Christian hymn looks forward to our eternal reality and this hymn does that beautifully in verse four. We are reminded that, while we do not become angels when we die, we will be in their company and we will join their song.

“For lo! The days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And all the world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.”

I especially love the image that we now are recipients of the angel’s songs, but the day will come when we will desire to return the song. No, I don’t believe that the only thing we will do in heaven is sing. For that matter, it never actually says in Luke 2 that the angels do sing. But when the whole heavenly chorus joins them and they say “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” That is kind of the impression you get.

There is so much that could be said about why we continue to sing hymns in lieu of newer praise songs. But I’ll only say that I was reminded of what a treasure we have in our hymnal. We are pressed to express and we seek to understand ideas and visions that are truly just beyond our grasp. But with beautiful text and lovely music, we get about as close as we can to our eternal home. My encouragement to you is to pay attention to the text even if you don’t especially enjoy singing. A good hymn offers commentary on the biblical passage, our situation, and it looks forward to eternity. I am glad I noticed that “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” did that well.