In the name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Old age is upon us. Just as our bodies decline so also the Church in North America is in decline, or at least so goes the story. And so goes the anxiety that comes with that decline.
There are some reasons for this. Some of them are demographics. It would take twice as many families sitting in the pews now to fill the pews as it might have taken a generation ago. The break down of families contributes. The mobility of families and jobs contributes to disconnection from the Church when they move. And then we come to the cares of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth which choke out faith, according to Jesus in the Parable of the Sower. (Mark 4:19; Matt. 13:22) And in reality, people just do not like to get up on a Sunday morning and go to church. After all, who likes to do anything healthy for themselves? Who wants to eat healthily when the doctor says your cholesterol is high? Who wants to workout more or be more active? Who wants to spend less time watching your favourite show or doing your favourite thing in order to clean the house, do the chores, pay the bills, etc.? And the same goes for church even if you believe, even if you feel good when you go, because your sinful nature doesn’t want you there, because there Jesus crucifies your sinful self with its desires (Gal. 5:24) and fills you with His Spirit. So going to a Divine Service of word and sacrament is death to your sinful self and its desires. It’s going to rail against that. It will fight hard.
And it’s not as though we, the Church, are without sin. We should all pray Psalm 139, “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Ps. 139:23-24NIV) And if the Lord tests you with His Law and shows you some offensive way in you repent of it. Seek out those behaviours to change them. Stop it if you can. Ask for forgiveness from your family and friends if you can. Then live in peace.
But be aware. Much is beyond your control and your pastor’s control when it comes to the Church. Churches have declined across the board in North America. Though not as much as you may think. Studies show that regular committed church attendance is still roughly same as it always was—the overall every Sunday attenders are still the same percentage of society as we always were—its really just folks who attended irregularly who attend even less now so that overall attendance is down. But committed Christians are still at the same percentage in society as they were in previous generations.
And remember, the Lord will not lose His own. (John 18:9; 6:37-39) In some sense we’re just losing the hangers on and family size is declining. Those who came because it was socially advantageous to come, aren’t around anymore, because its not socially expected, or socially helpful anymore. Or to be more charitable, think about this way. With anything that is good for you most of us need a second or a third reason to do it. For instance, we don’t tend to get out and walk, or workout, or be fit, unless we have a friend, or spouse to do it with. So people in general need these other reasons to do that which they know is good for them. So when the social advantage of going to church isn’t there, when less of your family is there, or your social group is not there, or your spouse doesn’t go, when you can’t get your social needs, entertainment needs met while getting your spiritual needs met; when the distractions of daily life get in the way, or conflict from a spouse who may believe differently, or just competition from everything else; even though people know they should come; they don’t. For years. It may not mean they don’t believe. But it does mean their faith is at risk. For if I never pay attention to my health, I will get less and less healthy. It will have an impact on me. Just as you see it does spiritually on your friends and family who are not in church.
And moreover, the wondrous wealth of this moment since the Second World War won’t always be here. It will dry up. Just as the high oil prices did. Just as cycles of economy come and go. Wars and rumours of war are on the horizon. And one big 1930s style economic upheaval and just wait to see what happens. The world situation seems so fragile. A massive armed conflict could erupt that at any moment, and people’s security and wealth will dry up like river in drought. And then we’ll turn from ourselves, to spiritual thoughts. Then we will run to Lord and seek Him out. Especially your family and friends who have been baptized whom the Lord pursues, for He has promised to stalk them like a lion stalking it’s prey. That’s what “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” means. (Ps. 23:6) God’s mercy hunts you like a lion, ready to pounce on you.
So in the mean time, we need to make sure this city on a hill, this light which can not be hid, continues to be here. (Matt. 5:14-15) So that when you are gone this beacon of salvation is still shining, guiding people to safe harbour. For this is a natural spot for your kids to go back to. We need to work now for this place to still be here when you are gone. For instance you might consider putting a gift in your will. Maybe a tithe of your estate, so that the Church continues to proclaim Jesus to our world long after you’re gone. After all, your kids don’t need all your money. As I’ve joked before, they don’t even want or need your china set, nor do they need the five more trips to Mexico they might take if you give your whole estate to them. But your kids and family do need Jesus. They need Word and Sacrament. And they know to get it here.
Soooo, dear faithful ones, the temptation as we live in this era, this time of decline in churches in the West (but unparalleled growth for churches in Africa, Asia, even in parts of the Middle East). This decline or fading of Grace from its glorious fullness in the 70s gives us the temptation to grumble. Just like the workers who had been in the vineyard all day. (Matt. 20:12) “We bore the heat of day” “We bore the burden of keeping the church going. Our tithes. Our energies. Our efforts. And some sort of n’er-do-wells might sweep in a get the same benefits as we did who worked our whole lives through?” But don’t do it. Don’t grumble. Don’t complain against the graciousness of your Lord to you and to all who will call on Him (Rom. 10:13) whether early in life or late.
For the Lord was not pleased with those who had been freed from slavery in Egypt. (1 Cor. 10:5-13; Exod. 17:7) Even though they had been baptized into the old Covenant of Moses in the Red Sea, which they’d passed thru, and by the cloud of Christ’s presence which they’d passed under (1 Cor. 10:1-2); even though they drank from the Rock Moses struck (Exod. 17:6); the rock where Christ stood; that Rock which was Christ, the rock of ages cleft for me; the rock which provided them physical water so wouldn’t die and spiritual nourishment as it constantly reminded them of the promise of the Lord to save and preserve them (1 Cor. 10:4); yet they grumbled. They had no gratitude. No trust in the Lord. Though they had seen mighty works God had done to Egypt in plagues and the Exodus. (Ps. 95:9)
Don’t do it. Or rather I might say, because you have done it; because you have grumbled against the Lord; because you have been ingracious, lacked gratitude, have sinned against the Lord and resented His being your God, wished for a different god, repent.
For sea is His for He made it. (Ps. 95:5) He formed the dry land. He set its boundaries and borders. (Ps. 95:4) He owns all because He created all. (Ps. 95:6) He fashioned you in your mother’s womb. (Ps. 139:13-16) He knows all the hairs on your head. (Matt. 10:30) He knows your thoughts before you think them. (Ps. 139:1-4) You are his. You can’t hide from Him. (Ps. 139:7-12) So repent. Agree with His great word that you have sinned. Recognize the truth of His Law and give Him glory. Come let us worship and bow down. (Ps. 95:1) Let us kneel before the Lord our God our maker in confession. (Ps. 95:6) For we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand. (Ps. 95:7) For by His nail scared hand He took your grumbling on Himself. He hid it in His flesh. Made it His. Took its penalty. So that He might lead you and guide you through the wilderness of this life unto the eternal pastures of His kingdom. To His good vineyard-like Garden (Matt. 20:2) where you will eat and drink the sweetest meat and the finest wine. (Isa. 25:6) For we will drink of Him. (1 Cor. 10:5) For He is the Rock of our life. The One who calls us into His kingdom where there is rest. (Ps. 95:7, 9; Heb. 4:9-13) Eternal rest in Him, our rock of ages.
In the name of +Jesus, Amen.