Gold Nugget No. 2: Sermon on the 4th Sunday after Epiphany

by C.F.W. Walther
translated by Aaron Jensen

This sermon was written for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, 1855. It is published here with a disclaimer. Walther interprets Jesus’ getting to a boat and sailing as signifying the Church of Christ travelling to a new place. We cannot approve of such allegorical hermeneutics. When Matthew said that Jesus got into a boat, he meant that Jesus got into a boat. Walther draws things from these passages which they do not contain. Nevertheless they are the pious thoughts of a faithful and gifted theologian and because they offer valuable insight into the history of the continually migrating Church they are a beneficial read. Of special interest may be some of his comments towards the end of the sermon, warning would happen even to his beloved St. Louis if they would not preserve the Gospel faithfully.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, be with you all in truth and in love. Amen.

Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus!

What God’s church on earth is and what qualities it has are not only taught and testified to us in detail in the holy Scriptures with clear words but also portrayed with many kinds of lovely, vivid pictures.

One of the oldest and richest in teaching of the pictures with which the Church is illustrated for us in divine revelation is without doubt Noah’s Ark.

For first of all, just as all those who did not enter Noah’s Ark died in the great flood and only those who sought refuge in Noah’s Ark were saved, so also only in the Church can we find security from the flood of God’s wrath, while outside of it there is no salvation or eternal life. Rather, there is nothing but death and eternal sinking.

And just as God himself once prescribed the way Noah’s Ark was supposed to be built and determined everything about it—its material, dimensions, and design—exactly, so also God is the actual architect and creator of the Church. Therefore we should make our judgments about it not according to our reason but according to the Word of God. And also the servants of the Church, like the construction workers of the divine ark, are not allowed to go by their own reason when they build but must comply exactly with the divine blueprints placed before them in the Word.

And just as Noah’s Ark once faced storms on every side—from above through torrential downpours and through rolling thunder and flashing lightning, from below through surging waves, and from the sides through howling storm-winds, so also the Church fighting on earth is continually facing storms on every side. From below hell rages against it with “deep guile and great might” like foaming waves. From the sides the entire world rises against it with threats and murder like mighty storm-winds. And from above God himself appears to gather his court and come crashing down upon it like dreadful weather.

But just as Noah’s Ark once cut through the floodwaters unharmed without rudder, without sail, without helm, solely by the invisible steering of God, so also the Church sails away upon the boiling ocean of this world without any human help, wisdom, or might, but only by God’s invisible protection and in this way it finally arrives safely in the harbor of heaven. Yes, just as Noah’s Ark was raised higher and higher the higher the rebellious waves beneath it went, so the Church grows and rises upward more brightly the more severe the persecutions are which it must suffer.

And just as the construction of the ark in the middle of dry land was once an object of scorn and laughter, without doubt even by many of those who were paid to build it, so also the Church is despised and scorned by all who want to be wise and smart in the world, and often even secretly in the hearts of those who are within it, yes, even those who, preaching and teaching, are paid to build it.

And just as in Noah’s Ark clean and unclean animals were taken in and even in Noah’s family a hypocrite named Ham was found, so also not only the Jews but even the gentiles, who had been unclean, are taken into the church’s lap and among the true members of the Church also false Christians and hypocrites have always been found.

And just as there was only one entrance into Noah’s Ark, only one door which God the Lord himself had to lock up, so also there is only one door to the true invisible Church, to the congregation of the saints and elect, namely Christ, which one enters through faith, which no one can give us except God through the only doorkeeper, the Holy Spirit.

And just as the raven once flew out of the ark and, lured by the carcasses it found, never returned, so also many, lured by the vain attractions of the world, leave the Church, at least with their hearts, and never return.

And finally just as, to be sure, all men of the first world were called to repentance but only a few, namely, eight souls were kept through the water, so also, to be sure, all men are called into the fellowship of the Church but only a few are elected and saved through the water of holy baptism.

My friends, please see in Noah’s Ark a glorious picture of the true Church of God on earth, of which I have only briefly emphasized a few points of comparison even though there are still many others, which I leave you to visit further in your own devotion.

Also in our Gospel reading for today the Church is portrayed for us in the picture of a ship, and, in fact, a ship which once sailed from one land to another land. This, then, is also the point of comparison upon which we especially wish to consider in this hour.

Text: Matthew 8:23-27

Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. Without warning, a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”

He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.

The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”

The ship about which we are told in the Gospel we read, my friends, has been previously examined as a picture of the Christian Church, so that it is customary to call the inside of any church building the nave of the church. Just as the crew of that ship was made up of Christ’s true disciples with Christ himself at the lead, so also the Church is nothing other than the congregation of the Christ’s true disciples, whose Lord and head is Jesus Christ himself. And just as that ship was assaulted by a dreadful sea-storm when Christ slept inside but when Christ, having been woken up by the nervous cries of his weak-faithed disciples, suddenly stilled the wind and wave miraculously by his mighty word and brought the boat safely to the shore, so also the Church in this world suffers need, yes, it often seems that Christ is sleeping in it, but having been woken by his believers’ cries for help, he always almightily rips his Church away from all its need and finally brings it safely to the shore of eternal life. However, we have already at another time let this consideration delight our hearts and strengthen our faith. But there is still one fact left remaining for our consideration, and that is this: that that ship sailed from one place to another. This is a fact which is important enough for us to especially consider and think over.

Let me then now portray to you:

The Church, a ship sailing from place to place.

We here consider

  1. How this comparison is true, and
  2. How this comparison admonishes and warns us.

Lord Jesus Christ, you have entered among us with your pure Word and unadulterated Sacrament. Yes, you have raised us like Shiloh, where the refuge of your religion was, like Jerusalem, where your holy Temple was. But you have not promised us that you will remain among us eternally. If we would become unthankful you will let us become deserted like Shiloh and destroy us like Jerusalem. So we fervently pray you: in addition to your pure Word which you have given to us give us also faith which holds it fast, in addition to the unadulterated Sacraments which you have given to us give us also the proper use which preserves them, and in addition to all your exuberant showings of grace give us the faithfulness which brings you your fruit. O Lord Jesus, do the best, for see, we are weak. We fall oh so easily. Our hearts within us are corrupt, the world which surrounds us is tempting, and Satan who fights against us is deceptive and mighty. Bless our congregation. Bless our city. Bless the Church of this land. Bless
your entire Church in all ends and places in this last troubled time. Hear us, Savior of sinners! Amen!

I.

It is very convincing to everyone that the Christian Church can be compared with a castle which is built on a high, unshakeable cliff, and so it seems that there is hardly a comparison more inappropriate for the Church than a ship. Indeed, a ship stands, unlike other structures, on constantly wavering ground. A game of the wind and the wave, every moment it is in danger of being wrecked and swallowed by the abyss of the ocean! But, my friends, not only does the Church stand in spite of every assault of the world and hell because it is held by God’s hand, even though before man’s eyes it is like a weak, breakable vessel, seemingly helpless and destined for certain sinking, but above all the Church is also actually like a ship in that like a ship it never stands still, but continually sails until the Last Day from place to place, now here, now there. It rests, at least in its purity and integrity and with all its treasures, at most only a short time. As every individual believing Christian confesses, so also must the Church, the congregation of believers, confess, “For here we do not have an enduring city,” and with David, “For I dwell with you as an alien, a stranger, as all my fathers were.” A perfect picture of this is the ship in our Gospel reading, in which Christ with his disciples left the land on the western shore of the Sea of Geneseret and sailed over to the eastern shore into the land lying opposite the Gergesenes.

Let us take just brief view into the history of the Church so we will soon know how true this picture of the Church is.

My friends, the Christian church has already been in almost every corner of the earth and the name of Jesus has already been preached in every language spoken by people. 57 years after Christ’s birth Saint Paul could already not only write “From Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum,” (which now belongs to Austria) “I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ,” but he could also already in that same letter, ten years before his death, exclaim, “Did they not hear?” the Word of God, that is. “Of course they did: ‘Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.’” Now when the Apostle closed his eyes, almost every people of the three continents inhabited at that time had already received word of the cross, the message of the redemption which had taken place, and through this proclamation Christian congregations had already been assembled everywhere. Paul, the great herald of the Crucified One, had through his preaching already gathered countless Christian congregations for the banner of the cross from Arabia on, throughout Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, Macedonia, and Italy, up unto Spain. By the evangelist Mark and the apostles Simon and Matthias the Gospel had already been carried to Africa, to Alexandria in Egypt especially by the first two, to Ethiopia, or Abyssinia, by the last one, to Persia by Peter and to Mesopotamia by Judas Thaddeus. Thomas and Bartholomew had already forged ahead with their proclamation of Christ into East India, indeed, according to untrustworthy reports into the furthest East of Asia, into China. According to certain historical documents it is more than likely that Britain, or England, the furthest Northwest of the kingdom at the time, heard the Gospel from apostolic mouths. If we add the many foreigners from the most distant and most different lands of the earth who according to the book of Acts were present at the miraculous outpouring of the Holy Spirit at the first Christian Pentecost and believed and then returned to their distant homes with faith in their hearts so that everywhere there was a living seed for a Christian congregations. So we find ourselves convinced by the facts of the truth of the apostolic exclamation, “Did they not hear? Of course they did: ‘Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.’” There is no doubt that already at the close of the apostolic time the little mustard seed of that small band of disciples in the Jewish lands had grown up with miraculous speed into a great, mighty, heavenly tree, which had roots in the entire inhabited earth and whose branches gave shade to all nations of the globe. Still frequently in very recent times remnants of Christian fellowships are found where no one would ever have suspected, in the middle of heathen and Islamic peoples. Their origins, according to all signs, are in the most ancient Christian time. Even among the Native American tribes of North and South America unclear clues have come to light that Christ, the Son of God and Savior of the world, was once preached among them and they believed in him.

But if we follow the entire eighteen century course of the history of the Christian Church, there remains no doubt that there is any land and people of the earth in whose cities the ship of the Church has not dropped anchor and landed its evangelists at least once.

But what has happened, my friends? Did the candle of the Gospel stop burning brightly in all the places in which God had once placed it through his Apostles, evangelists, and other faithful messengers of his Gospel? Did the tree of the kingdom of heaven on earth stop greening and blooming and bearing rich, sweet fruit where people once live under its branches’ shade? Oh no! Look at Asia, Africa, and Southeast Europe. Where are those blooming Christian congregations now which were once founded by the Apostles themselves and were watered with their blood and tears? Where are those Christian congregations in Jerusalem, in Antioch, in Ephesus, in Philippi, in Colossi, in Thessalonica, in Smyrna, in Thyatira, in Sardis, and in Philadelphia, whose faith and zeal is praised so highly in God’s Word? Where are all those congregations in Judea, in Syria, in Pontus, in Asia Minor, in Mesopotamia, in Arabia, in Persia, in India, in Egypt, in Libya, in Cyrene, in Macedonia, all of which once stood there as spiritual lighthouses for the entire world? All these congregations have disappeared from the face of the earth. Instead of the Cross of Christ which once was raised there, now stands there either the Islamic crescent or images of heathen idols. Instead of Christian churches now Turkish mosques or temples of heathen idols and pagodas there tower up to heaven. Instead of the Gospel of Christ now either Mohammed’s revelation of lies or heathen insanity is proclaimed.

The Christian Church has almost entirely abandoned the land of its birth, Asia, where the Lord himself was born and crucified, and the land of its youth, Africa, where Athanasius and Augustine once shone for all of Christianity as lights of the world, and has moved westward to Europe and America. But what has happened here too? Where are those old glorious congregations of Greece now? Where is the glorious congregation in Corinth, to which God himself called Paul especially because it had a great people in it? Where are the glorious congregations of Italy? Where is the most glorious of them all, the church of Rome, whose faithful faith was told about in the entire world at the time of the Apostles? They may still stand, but as ruins in which the birds of the night wreak havoc. The old purity is gone. Out of all these once orthodox churches the most impure sects have come. Faith in Christ is now almost entirely silenced within. Instead of faith the most wretched service of work and ceremony now reigns there, instead of the worship of Christ the idolatrous veneration of the saints, instead of the Gospel the tyrannical laws of the priesthood, yes, instead of Christ the Antichrist!

While millions whose ancestors once walked in the light of the Gospel now sit in heathen darkness and in the shadow of death again and therefore live and die without God and without hope in this world, other millions, instead of the pure Gospel from which their fathers once drank as from a full pure well of life and salvation, have the leaky well of the comfortless teaching of man, and here and there only some little drops of Gospel comfort are found for those few among them who still hunger for it.

See here the confirmation of the truth that the Church is a ship sailing from place to place. For we have seen that no storm of the world and hell has been mighty enough to wreck the ship of the Church or sink it into the depths of the ocean of this world and wipe it from the face of the earth. But also there has not been one land, one people, or one city of the earth where the Church has had an enduring dwelling place, or at least not where it remained in its original purity! Christ’s travel with his own disciples upon the Galilean Sea is a picture of the continuous travel of his Church from land to land, from people to people, from city to city.

II.

Of course, my friends, this picture is quite true. It is also quite an admonishment and a warning. And therefore that is also the other thing which now occupies our devotion further.

Why, my friends, did Christ once leave Capernaum with his disciples and cross over with them to the land of Gergesenes lying on the opposite shore? No doubt Christ had here chiefly a two-fold reason. First, the Pharisees and teachers of the law had stalked him from Jerusalem to Galilee and had allied themselves and conspired with the Herodians to seek an accusation against Christ worthy of death and then hand him over to death. And furthermore the Galilean people had showed all too clearly that they had been following Christ not so much out of a desire for salvation as for the sake of temporal need and earthly hopes and ideas which they had about the Messiah. So bloodthirsty persecutions on the side of the public enemies and earthly thinking on the side of the supposed friends were the reasons why Christ once went out from Galilee with his own disciples.

But herein lay a prophecy about what would happen also in later times in view of the Christian Church. For if we research what customarily precedes the disappearance of the Church in a land, among a people, or in a city, then we find that almost always the preceding cause has been bloody persecution of public enemies on one side and the unfaithfulness of the members of the Church on the other side.

When the Christians in the Fourth Century received wide-spread rest from their enemies through the Emperor Constantine and his successors, the Christians in times of peace should have been that much more faithful and zealous in doctrine and life, but instead arrogance and all kinds of worldly thinking forced its way into the Christian congregations like the great flood, and with them came spiritual complacency and disgust towards the pure teaching of the Gospel. Heretics of all kinds rose up and found great followings. See, God let it happen that finally in the Seventh Century Mohammed, the prophet of lies, rose up, and his wild and murderous hordes, breaking forth from Arabia over Christianity as a thunderstorm, in less than two centuries destroyed almost the entire church of Asia, next Persia, Syria, and Palestine, and also all of North Africa, even almost all of Spain with fire and sword. A similar fate met the Greek Christians four hundred years ago too. And it is terrifying to read about how in 1453 Constantinople was conquered by the Turks and an entire great Christian kingdom was destroyed by bloody atrocities in a few months and was transformed into a heathen kingdom. But at the same time we also read that the sins of the Christians in Constantinople had previously been so great and so overpowering that such a dreadful judgment had to come upon them.

We also find these same causes where the Christian Church is not completely exterminated, where instead of the pure Gospel all kinds of false doctrine and idolatry was inhaled and the orthodox church was transformed into a wretched sect. There was a time when Rome and all Italy was a spiritually blooming garden of God, when pure teaching shone forth into all lands of the earth as a sun. There was a time when you could call the kingdom of Bohemia a Lutheran land. There was a time when Spain was teeming with witnesses of the pure evangelical truth. Now if we take a look into these lands, we see in them nothing but thick papal darkness. And what are the reasons here? Bloody persecutions combined with the unfaithfulness of those who profess the Gospel themselves have robbed these lands also of the jewel of pure teaching.

See from this, my friends, that it is true that the Church is like a ship sailing from place to place and that this comparison admonishes and warns us. Oh, that we all took this admonishment and warning to heart!

It is true. We are blessed to be able to boast that we live here in a land where Christ’s name, as the Savior of the world, is proclaimed purely in every city and where the Church has a refuge. But the truth that the Church is a ship sailing from place to place calls to us with admonishment and warning. If America continues on the way of contempt for the Gospel it has begun then the ship of the Christian Church can also easily raise its anchor for departure and again sail away and all raving hordes can enter here. And in particular it can go for our godless St. Louis as it once did for Jerusalem and Constantinople if the Last Day does not come first and make also here a swift and sudden end to the entire terrible spectacle of the almost universal apostasy in the world, in all lands.

It is furthermore true that our congregation in particular is blessed to be able to boast, for it not only has a general message of Christ and of the chief truths of Christianity, but it also has been made rich by God in all pieces. It is an election among many thousands. But the truth that the pure orthodox Church is also a ship sailing from place to place calls to us with admonishment and warning: Keep watch! Keep watch! Wherever the people sleep, there the enemy comes and quickly sows weeds among the wheat of pure teaching. And whenever a great act of the free grace of God is not also recognized and received with great thanks and not cared for and preserved with great faithfulness and zeal, then God calls the ship of the orthodox Church to again leave the harbor of a congregation and to seek for itself a more faithful congregation. Therefore if we should become lazy and self-confident, then God would say of our congregation as he once said of Jehoiachin, “Even if you, Jehoiachin, son of Jehoiakim king of Judah, were a signet ring on my right hand, I would still pull you off.”

Oh, my friends, let us not be lazy or self-confident, then! Let us through our words and work make solid faith, burning love, earnest prayer, zealous confession of Christ and his truth to be the cables which hold fast the ship of the orthodox Church within us, so that our children and our children’s children may still shine here as a light among this murderous, fallen race. For, although the orthodox Church in particular almost always lasts only a short time in a city or in a land, it wants to be held, so we will just hold it fast.

Already Luther once admonished and warned his German Lutherans in this way, “God stands at the door. It is good for us to let him in. He greets us. Blessed is he who answers him. Dear Germans, buy, because the market is at the door. Gather, because the sun is shining and the weather is good. Use God’s grace and Word because there it is. For you should know that God’s Word and grace is a traveling rainshower which does not come back to where it has once been. It has been with the Jews, but gone is gone. Now they have nothing. Paul brought it into Greece. Gone is gone. Now they have the Turks. Rome and the Latin land also had it. Gone is gone. Now they have the pope. And you Germans cannot be allowed to think that you will have it forever. For your thanklessness and scorn will not let it remain. Therefore grab it and hold onto it, whoever can grab and hold. Lazy hands must have a bad year.” Well, we too are Germans. Let us listen to the warning of our German prophet that we may keep what we have and that no one may take from us our crown. May God help us and our children! Amen.