Sermon audio here.
There are two possible answers to the question, “What do you hold most dear in life?” There’s the right answer, and then there’s the truth. Jesus, is, of course, the right answer, but the way you live betrays the truth. You do not fear, love and trust in God above all things. If you did, you’d never sin and always be perfectly content, no matter what happened.
But if push came to shove, at least we know what the right answer to the question is. You don’t hold Jesus most dear in life, but, by the grace of God, you want to. We sing hymns like “Jesus, Priceless Treasure” and “One Thing’s Needful” because, as Christians, we know there should be nothing more dear to us than our Lord.
The same was true of the disciples. When push came to shove, they ended up forsaking Christ, but they didn’t want to. Peter meant it when he said he was ready to go with Christ both to prison and death. Like us, he had the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.
The disciples wanted desperately to be with Jesus, which made our Lord’s words to them in today’s Holy Gospel all the more sobering. For a little while, He said, you will see Me no longer. Jesus didn’t tell them He wouldn’t be with them, He told them they wouldn’t see Him for a little while. Jesus would remain present with His disciples, but it wasn’t going to be in the way they wanted.
Here our Lord was speaking of what would happen in the next few hours: “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again, a little while, and you will see Me.” He was telling them that He was going to be removed from their sight—that is, be crucified, die, and be buried—but a little while, and they would see Him again—on the Third Day, to be precise.
And even though they would see Him again after His resurrection, 40 days later He would ascend into heaven to sit at the Right Hand of the Father. Jesus would remain present with them in the same way He remains present with us today: not by sight, but only in Word and Sacrament.
The disciples wept because they wanted Jesus on their own terms, not Jesus as He actually is. The notion of Him dying, rising, and ascending they simply couldn’t comprehend. They were too worldly-minded. For all the disciples knew, Jesus was talking about going off to some private, secret place, or maybe to another town, but surely He would come back again.[i]
It’s no easier for us than it was for the disciples, and our Lord’s words ring just as true today as they ever have. Today Christ comes to us at the place He has promised to meet us, in His Church, in Word and Sacrament. And He has promised that nothing can overcome His Church, not even the gates of hell. But He has made no promises that any particular congregation will live forever, and in fact, the opposite is true.
The Church on earth must go the way of the cross, just like Her Lord. This means the day will come when Immanuel, like every other congregation on earth, will close. I don’t know when, but I do know for a fact that it will happen. This will most likely take place in one of two ways: if, by the grace of God, we remain until the Lord’s return, or if the day comes we can no longer provide for the preaching of the Gospel here in Hodgkins.
We’re stable enough at the moment, but that may not always be the case. Before I came here there was talk of closing. It’s not easy to find pastors who can serve a congregation part-time. Not all congregations are willing to share, and not all pastors are up to the task.
Now as much as I like to think I’m immortal or that I’d never take a call anywhere else, the fact is, unless Christ returns during my lifetime, Immanuel will eventually need another pastor, and getting pastors to come to struggling congregations isn’t easy.
It wasn’t an easy road for you to get another pastor after Pastor Dietrich retired, and before I took the call to Zion, someone at the district said there was no way anyone would ever take a call there because they’ve been in decline for decades. So it can happen, but it’s not easy or guaranteed. It’s easier to call pastors to thriving congregations, and where congregations thrive, everyone benefits. What we can do with part-time ministry is limited.
By the grace of God, Zion was willing to share and I love serving both congregations, but Zion isn’t stable. They’ve been shrinking for decades and their expenses are higher than their income. The reason they’ve been able to manage is because they have an endowment, but that won’t last forever. Barring a miraculous change in their downward trend, they are in for some significant changes not too far down the road, and that will affect us here.
Zion’s not alone in their struggles. In recent history, 8 of our congregations within a 20 mile radius have closed—Nazareth being the most recent example. In 2015, 15 congregations in the Northern Illinois District closed.
At our last pastors’ conference our district president said not to be surprised if we’re experiencing decline and congregations around us are closing. If I recall correctly, he said the district predicts that something like 2/3 of the congregations in Northern Illinois would be closed by 2030 if the current trends hold.
His advice? Don’t beat yourself up. Be faithful and keep sowing God’s Word. Where possible, consider starting something new. The rest is in God’s hands.So we pray and we remain faithful. But there may be a way for us to preserve Word & Sacrament ministry among our congregation for years to come, and at the same time help Zion in the process, if we were to consolidate with them.
Now merging is never easy and it may never happen, but if we pulled it off and were committed to it, this could immediately double our income and attendance. That’s what happened the two weeks we held partnership Sundays. And if we didn’t have two separate facilities to maintain, this would reduce our overhead substantially. I don’t know what a merger of Immanuel and Zion would look like or if it’s even possible, but it’s certainly worth considering.
It’s a well-established biblical principle, not to mention common sense, that we’re stronger when we stand together. Solomon says, “And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him–a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”
Now that all sounds great until you start getting practical. And usually the first and biggest obstacle to congregations facing these decisions is brick and mortar idolatry. Where would the new congregation be? Do they come here? Do we go there? Or do we find somewhere else to meet?
Like the disciples, we want Christ, but only in a certain way. We know it’s the people and not the building that makes the congregation, but sometimes we act like it’s building that really matters.
Sometimes families have to move. That’s never easy, but the main thing is being together. And if we could make this work, it would make our family stronger.
The other big objection you always hear when congregations talk about merging is the travel issue. But before anyone becomes defiant about the possibility of having to drive a few extra miles once per week, consider just how far Christ went for you.
He travelled all the way to the cross to suffer and die for sins you committed. And the fact is, if we ever ended up having to close, you’d have to travel somewhere else anyway.
These aren’t easy things to consider, but if we refuse to face reality and make decisions, eventually those decisions will be made for us. Our Lord said we would have trouble in this world, so we shouldn’t be surprised when we have it, nor should we ignore it when it comes.
But by the grace of God, these troubles will only last a little while. Whether we close, merge, continue to hobble along, experience miraculous growth right here in Hodgkins, or our Lord returns before any of that happens, the days are coming when the church on earth will be no more.
And this is to your advantage, Christ says. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed—even if Immanuel, Hodgkins is destroyed—we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
So we do not lose heart. This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
So come what may, we do not lose heart. Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried, but on the Third Day He rose again.
In other words, no matter what happens, it’s not the end of the world. And when that day finally comes, it won’t be a bad day for any of us.[ii]
Soli Deo Gloria
[i] Luther, sermon for Jubilate (2531).
[ii] This is something my dear seminary professor Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs (Concordia Seminary, St. Louis) was fond of saying in class.