Fire at Notre Dame

During the holiest week on the Christian calendar, one of the most famous and beautiful churches in the world was badly damaged by an accidental fire. Over the years, many church buildings and houses of worship have been damaged and destroyed by fire: sometimes accidental fire, sometimes fire caused by lightning, sometimes arson, and sometimes acts of war. But yesterday’s fire at Notre Dame of Paris will be remembered more than most church fires because of the history of the building, because of its status as a landmark in Paris, and because of its beauty. Citizens of Paris and of France mourn the loss, as do many people around the world. Roman Catholics and other Christians mourn the loss, but so do many people who are not Christians. Already large amounts of money are being promised to rebuild what was lost and to restore what was damaged.

A few people might say that the money would be better spent meeting the needs of the poor or spreading the news of the gospel to all nations. That feeling has always existed within the Church. When a woman anointed Jesus with perfume, his disciples grumbled about the waste, but Jesus responded, “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mark 13:8-9). Jesus accepts the artwork created to honor him as he accepts all sincere worship from his people. The glory of God and the gift of salvation through Christ is proclaimed by cathedrals with statues and stained glass windows as well as by humble preachers in humble surroundings.

But what of the commandment to make no graven images? What of the sin of the golden calf? Idols are works of religious art, but they have a purpose: they are meant to capture the divine and to make the divine serve human purposes. God does not oppose all religious artwork: the same God who banned graven images and despised the golden calf also told Moses how to make the ark of the covenant, including the mercy seat with its two cherubim. The sin is not in the work of art; the sin is in the intent of the people, whether they wish to honor God, or whether they wish to honor themselves and establish control over God.

God designed a tabernacle to travel with the Israelites in the wilderness so his dwelling would be in their midst. King Solomon built a temple in Jerusalem based on the pattern of the tabernacle so God would dwell in the midst of his people, even though the entire universe cannot contain the Lord. Imagine the heartache and despair of God’s people when Solomon’s temple was destroyed at the end of a long siege by the Babylonians in 586 BC. But God worked in history so his people could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. The second temple was destroyed by Roman forces in 70 AD. Jesus prophesied that the temple would be leveled, with no two stones atop one another, and this was fulfilled when Roman soldiers pried apart the stones of the ruined temple to gather the gold that had melted and flowed between the stones.

Forty years before the destruction of the second temple, Jesus entered that temple and drove out the moneychangers and the merchants of sacrificial animals. When temple authorities asked Jesus who gave him the right to do these things, he responded, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it again” (John 2:19). “But the temple he had spoken of was his body” (John 2:21). For the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14), just as he made his dwelling in the tabernacle and in the temple. The human body of Jesus is the ultimate temple, the dwelling of the Lord, the one point of access that people have to the true God.

What happened to that body, that temple? It was arrested, accused, convicted, and sentenced to death. It was slapped, beaten, spit upon, and handed over to the Romans. It was scourged, mocked, tortured, and killed. It was nailed to a Roman cross outside of Jerusalem and left to die in the darkness of Good Friday. Yet, as Jesus promised, on the third day it was raised, restored, healed, and made alive, never to die again.

The fire at Notre Dame reminds Christians of the suffering of Jesus on Good Friday. I hope and I expect that Christians will gather in or near the ruined cathedral this Good Friday and will hear again the scriptures that describe the destruction of the true Temple, the body of Christ the Lord. I hope and I expect that the same Christians will return to the cathedral Easter morning and will hear and celebrate the scriptures that describe the resurrection of the true Temple. Wherever Christians gather this Friday and this Sunday, they will speak, not of a beautiful building damaged by fire, but of a beautiful Savior crucified and risen. May the fire at Notre Dame be a witness to the world of the Passion of our Lord and of his victory over all evil. J.

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No other gods

God says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”

Salvageable adds: Should Christians fear God? Not just Luther, but the Bible itself calls all people to fear God. But the fear of a Christian for God is not the kind of fear that causes us to want to run away and hide from God. Sinners without faith in Christ will respond to the appearance of Jesus on the Day of the Lord in that way, for they will see a righteous Judge and not a loving Savior.

Our fear is different. First, it is respect for God, wanting to do what he commands because he is always right. Second, it is awe for God, realizing that he is far greater than even we have comprehended. Third, it is placing God first in our lives. When we fear God more than anything else, no threat or danger will push us into sin. Because we fear God more, we stand up to those enemies that would separate us from God, and we overcome because of Christ’s victory.

Obviously we should also love God above all things. In the Large Catechism, Luther points out that if we loved God sincerely and continuously, we would not break any of the rest of his commandments either. Whenever we sin, we love something else more than we love God. In that case, something else becomes our god—whether it is a husband or wife, parent or child, job or hobby, political cause or moral crusade, money or property, sports team or entertainer, or any other idol. Most of all, we sin because we love ourselves more than we love God.

Christians say that they trust God, but sometimes we trust something else more than we trust God. Moralists trust their own good deeds and their obedience to the commandments. They fail to trust Jesus to be their Savior. Rationalists trust their own thinking more than the Word of God. Emotionalists trust their own feelings more than the Word of God. Egoists of both kinds ignore the parts of the Bible they do not like or somehow change them to match their own thoughts and feelings.

Every day we catch ourselves fearing something more than we fear God, or loving something more than we love God, or trusting something more than we trust God. Whenever this happens, we repent—admitting to God that we have done wrong and asking for his forgiveness. We ask, knowing that his forgiveness is given to us because of the perfect life of Christ and because of his sacrifice on the cross. Relying on his righteousness and his redemption, we find power to fear and trust and love God even more. J.

Memorial Day

Rethink recently published a post called “7 Sins the Church Doesn’t Acknowledge.” (You can read the entire post here.) One of the seven sins mentioned is Nationalism. Rethink says, “It’s a sin to put anything before God. That includes America. Our ultimate allegiance is to God not this country. Too many in the church place their American freedoms above God’s kingdom. This means that sometimes what is best for this country is not always what is Biblically correct.”

During this Memorial Day weekend, it is fitting to stop and consider the point at which nationalism becomes a sin. All patriotism is not sinful. The Pledge of Allegiance places the loyalty of the pledger to “one nation, under God.” Atheists and polytheists are free to skip those words if they choose, but believers can only pledge loyalty to the nation when they acknowledge that the nation is under God.

The line between godly patriotism and sinful nationalism can be discovered with one question: Who is serving whom? Are we demanding that God govern the world for the good of the United States of America, or are we calling the USA to be faithful to God? In the fall of 2001, as many Americans were repeating the phrase, “God bless America,” some Christians responded with the phrase, “America, bless God!” Certainly if “God bless America” is meant as a command, the words are flagrantly disrespectful to the Lord. If those words are meant as a humble prayer, they are not sinful.

National holidays and national symbols can be troubling within the church. European visitors are astonished to see American flags in houses of worship, sometimes near or behind the altar. Some preachers are careful to observe every American holiday—Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day—in place of the normal Sunday observances established by tradition. I am not sure how many preachers are able to ignore these days entirely. If they do, I suspect they hear complaints.

The best approach is to use the national holiday as a bridge to God’s message. A preacher can mention mothers in the prayers and in the sermon without setting aside God’s Word to honor mothers. In fact, a creative preacher might even turn Mothers’ Day into a salute to the Bride of Christ, our Mother, the Holy Christian Church. (This is especially fitting when Mothers’ Day lands on Pentecost Sunday.) On Fathers’ Day, a preacher might acknowledge earthly fathers and then talk about the eternal relationship of God the Father and God the Son.

What of Memorial Day? We do not worship soldiers as saints and heroes who gave their life for their country, but we can remember those who died in battle without worshiping them. Moreover, we can use their example to point to the perfect Sacrifice, Jesus Christ, who gave his life in battle against sin and evil and death so we can be free from those enemies. We are at peace with God and are promised a truly prosperous Kingdom because of the sacrifice of Jesus. This message is as fitting on Memorial Day as it is any other day of the year. J.