Preaching in the “Gate of Fire”

[1] Kofi Annan, the General Secretary of the United Nations, recently received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the U.N. In his speech at the award ceremonies Dr. Annan observed that humankind is entering the 21st Century through “a gate of fire.” He was referring, of course, to the calamitous events of September 11, 2001. Calamitous indeed!

[2] The Thanksgiving edition of Time magazine painted a dark picture of our country two months after 9/11. The magazine described us all as pilgrims stripped down to our bare essentials. They noted many reports of family dysfunction. Uncertainty about the future plagues many, they wrote. Everyone is looking for comfort. People feel vulnerable in a new and vivid way. There has been a spike in patriotism, a “great awakening” of religious expression and a new concern for the meaning of evil. Time quoted a clinical psychologist as saying: “The true antidote to terror is love. Love is all we have in the face of death.”

Preaching the Law

[3] How does one preach in such times? From a Lutheran perspective, we keep on preaching law and gospel. For this author, however, our preaching of the law has taken on a new urgency. In Luther’s footsteps I have always urged pastors to faithfully preach the second use of the law. The second use of the law, according to Luther, accuses people of their sins and drives them to see a need for a savior. For Lutherans this is the “proper” use of the law. In relation to the first use of the law, however, my counsel has normally been to deal with the realities of the political or civil use of the law in contexts where there is dialogue rather than in the monologue of preaching. The civil use of the law is the law written on every heart [Romans 2.15], which enables people of reason to think together for the better good of humanity as we build our human societies. Preachers have no better insights into the form our society might take than any intelligent layperson might propose. Hence the call for dialogue.

[4] Something has changed within me due to the “gate of fire.” The responses of individuals and government to the “fiery gate” are so stark at points that good biblical counsel on civil matters may need to be heard from the pulpit. It may well be time to put on a prophetic mantle on occasion. On the one hand, the words of the prophets generally speak no wisdom that human minds could not devise. On the other hand, the words of the prophets are the words of the prophets and may speak to people today in fresh and authoritative ways.

[5] The prophets can be helpful guides to preaching the civil use of law in our time. Just one caution. I always remind students that “prophets do not get tenure.” When we step into a prophetic role we move out of our normal priestly duties in which we primarily exercise pastoral care. Prophetic preaching always has the potential for creating a negative response. We ought not be naive about this reality.

“You shall have no other gods . . .”

[6] Let us first consider the response of our government to the September tragedy. Our government, of course, has declared war on terrorism. The world, we are told, is either for us or against us in this cause. We have seen the seemingly successful results this has had in Afghanistan. As I write this I do not know what is to come next in this “war.” Are we so convinced as a nation of our good in this cause and the evil of our enemy that we can strike at evil with impunity around the globe? Is it true that all good and right are on our side and all bad and evil reside elsewhere? Are we on the road to becoming the moral giant in this world of ours stamping out evil in the name of God and state wherever we find it?

[7] It is true that nations can be the instruments of God’s work in the world. One of the most stunning examples of this is found in Isaiah 45. There we read that God has grasped the right hand of Cyrus of Persia in order to subdue nations, including the promised nation: Israel. This is all part of a greater plan, however. Through the work of Cyrus, God will be shown to be God in the world. “I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God . . . I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe, I am the Lord, who do all these things.” Isaiah 45.5, 7.

[8] According to Isaiah, nations, even seemingly evil nations, can serve God’s larger purposes in the world. Such may be the case for the United States in this time. But the cause we serve is not our own. God has plans greater than the plans of the U. S. Government. We dare not idolize ourselves! We dare not usurp the place of God in the world. We dare not break the First Commandment.

[9] I have never seen the kind of nation-idolizing realities that I have seen and heard of in these recent months. A church council confronted their pastor and asked that the American flag replace the Christ candle at the center of their worship space! In another church the American flag was used as the altar cloth covering the altar. At still another church the Pledge of Allegiance replaced the Apostle’s Creed in a Sunday service. And how many Christmas scenes at homes in our land wound up featuring the American flag?! The White House Christmas tree was decked out in red, white and blue lights.

[10] The examples could continue. We are in dangerous territory here. We are on the verge of making our nation an idol. We idolize our nation when the nation becomes our ultimate authority. We idolize our nation when we break the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” Remember Jesus’ words: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” [Matthew 22.15-22] We become idolatrous, therefore, whenever and wherever we render unto Caesar the things that are God’s! When Christian leaders see these movements toward idolatry happening around us it is time for us to be prophetic in our preaching. Idolatry is a particular target of the prophets. See Isaiah 44.6-22, for example. God is first and last. There is no God besides God! “All who make idols are nothing. . . .” Our congregations may need to be reminded of these realities today.

“Let justice roll downlike waters . . .”

[11] Furthermore, our government has taken inordinate power unto itself in seeking to stamp out terrorism at home. The Justice Department has detained 1,200 persons in its investigations of the September 11 attacks. In spite of increasing pressure from civil rights groups and Congress the Attorney General’s office has refused to divulge who many of these detainees are, what charges they face and whether or not they have been permitted legal counsel. Furthermore, the Department of Justice has authorized the FBI to monitor the conversations between inmates and their lawyers if the Attorney General believes such conversations might lead to acts of terrorism. In both of these cases the normal civil rights of people living in this land have been violated. The President’s proposal to use military tribunals to try some of the suspects in the war against terrorism has also raised an outcry from civil libertarians. Arab Americans live in fear these days. We ought to remember that we as a nation have only recently recanted our internment of Asian Americans during World War II. We even paid a minimal reparation for our mistake.

[12] It will not do for our Department of Justice to make the same mistake again. It will not do for this Department to act unjustly in the pursuit of its ends. Not many people have protested the detention of people of mostly Arab backgrounds. We are all frightened after all. But one injustice can easily lead to another. I am reminded of the famous remark of the Lutheran clergyman Martin Niemoller in Hitler’s Germany. When he was arrested he noted that he did not speak up when Hitler’s minions came to arrest the Jews or the homosexuals or others. So when they came to arrest him there was no one left to speak for him. We need to speak up for Arab Americans when they become the victims of injustice. Who is next on the list of suspects?

[13] Justice, of course, is a strong theme of the prophets. Amos calls for, “Justice to run down like waters and righteousness as an ever flowing stream.” Amos 5.24. Micah echoes the call of Amos: “God has showed you, O human ones, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Justice is a biblical mandate. It is an American value as well. The time may be at hand to remind our congregations of the demands of justice in our time. We may need to call our people and our nation to walk justly even in this time of war.

The Golden Calf

[14] The events of September 11 decimated parts of our American economy. We were already in recession. Recession has gotten worse in the last days of 2001. Our president has played a leading role in reminding us that terrorism must not slow down our consumer reality. We need to spend. We need to fly in airplanes. We need to go to Disneyland. We need to keep our economy strong.

[15] We need to be careful here as well. Consumerism in the best of times comes close to being an American idol. As we encourage people to go forward with their lives in these very troubled times our first word of advice to them dare not be: “Spend money.” The substance of our encouraging words to our people today would be best anchored in Luther’s doctrine of vocation. Ministry in daily life is always the highest calling of any Christian. Our hopeful word to our people, therefore, is not, “Spend money.” It is, rather, “spend your lives for your families. Spend your lives in meaningful work. Spend your lives for your communities. Spend your lives for our nation and our world.” Such is the life of the baptized in treacherous times.

“I will not forsake you”

[16] Our preaching in these days must also, as always, be steeped in gospel reality. I will never forget the morning of September 11. I was teaching in a Doctor of Ministry program and the teachers and twenty program participants sat together in utter silence as we watched the events unfold on television. By the time we started watching both trade centers had been hit, as had the Pentagon. World Trade Center, Building 1 had crumbled to the ground. And then, before our eyes, live, Building 2 came tumbling down as well. I’ve never seen anything so horrifying in my whole life. No one in the room moved. We were transfixed. I thought it was like looking directly into the face of the abyss. “God, have you forsaken us?” These words forced their way to my consciousness. And then my mind raced through the Bible searching for a picture big enough to stand alongside the evil I was observing. I desperately needed perspective. I needed a picture of God that was larger than the evil abyss. I could only think of one such picture. It was the cross of Jesus Christ.

[17] The question of evil has numbed people with its power today. September 11, however, was not evil’s biggest day. Evil had its biggest day on the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus cried out in the evil of that hour. In the cross and in Jesus’ cry of forsakenness we see the very heart of our crucified God. The crucified God speaks: “When you suffer, I suffer with you. In the death of my son I have entered the abyss. In the death of my son I have entered hell. I met evil face to face that day. The abyss, hell, evil does not have the last word. Easter is the last word. In Jesus’ resurrection I triumphed over hell. I triumphed over the abyss. I triumphed over evil. I did not forsake my son that day. I will not forsake you this day!”

[18] The image of Jesus’ death on the cross has the power to stand beside the image of Ground Zero. God has a good word for us in this time of crisis. “I did not forsake my son. I will not forsake you.” This is the gospel word in the face of evil. It is a word that promises us life out of fire. It is a word that can call us to hopeful living even now . . . especially now!

[19] I think the clinical psychologist quoted in Time magazine had it right: “The true antidote to terror is love. It’s all we have in the face of death.” As Christians we can be more specific. As preachers we declare that love came down at Christmas. It was love that stared evil in the face on the cross and won the day. Preaching, as always, has good news. We can go on with life. Evil did not win. Hell did not win. The abyss is not the last word. Jesus Christ, God’s love in the flesh, is the last word. It is this unfathomable love that enables us to walk through the “fiery gate” and out into a world made and remade by the grace of God. That’s what we have, that’s all we need, in the face of death.