It is not hard to track down the Church; just follow the trail of blood. It begins in the wet soil beneath the body of Abel, murdered not by a stranger but a brother, slain by one who hated the believer because he hated the believer’s God. And onward it winds, this haunting crimson road. The blood flows from the veins of the very old to the very young, from the infant boys in Egypt and Bethlehem to the gray-haired men and women whose tongues would not be tied by a tyrant’s decree. For in this world the Church never has peace – peace as the world understands it. Yes, wherever she goes, the Church leaves – or, rather, is forced to leave – the tell-tale sign of her passage through that place. Just follow the trail of blood, and there you will behold the lineage of the Church.
See to it that no one leads you astray from such a path, painful though it be. For many come to tell your itching ears what they crave to hear: “It doesn’t have to go on like this. We can have peace. No more blood need be shed. Wink at the golden calves and mind your own business rather than throw down the law and insist on only one saving truth. Much favor will be won if we learn how to compromise, to play our political cards right, to sweeten our speech with opinions rather than confessions, to crawl about like a theological chameleon in today’s multi-colored religious landscape.” For then the world will smile and sheathe its sword, the demons will retract their claws, and the haunting crimson road will come to an end…but then, so will the Church.
Deep guile is the weapon of the one who masquerades as an angel of light, but is truly the prince of darkness. It is he who opened Eve’s eyes to “a better way”, unencumbered by a Word from God that deprived her of what could only make her life better and more fulfilled—so she thought. It is he who persuaded Solomon that it was more prudent to build temples for the gods of his many wives than risk losing family tranquility and political capital by insistence on the only true way of divine worship. It is he who shows you that it’s fine to applaud our spiritual forefathers for their bold stance in their own historical context but to chuckle and poke fun at any serious attempt to follow that teaching and practice in our own.
O such is the crumbling fortress of the god of this world, but how it entices our flesh! For it looks like a house of candy to the Hansels and Gretels who wander through this world. And we all have tasted its seeming sweetness. For it is always easier to rest inside the devil’s crumbling fortress than to trudge on alone in a dark and friendless world. It is always easier to hold hands with unbelievers inside those walls than risk public defamation by declaring the Gospel from without. It is always easier to file away the 95 Theses until a more politically expedient time; to bite your tongue so long as no one else speaks up; when standing before governors and kings to say, “Here I stand…and there and there and there and wherever else you wish, whatever keeps my neck out of the noose.”
Yes, such is the fortress built by the devil’s deep guile. And woe to the believer, woe to the church that passes through its gates for so deceptive and seductive are its inner charms that few are those who escape. For it is not really a fortress; it is a dungeon—dark and dank and reeking of death.
See to it that no one leads you astray from the narrow way, the straight way, the only saving path, for it alone leads to the Jerusalem above. For broad and easy though the road may seem that frees you from suffering for the truth, it is a road that leads only to greater and unending suffering. For though the narrow path be bloody, and though the way be steep, and though the trail of truth seem impossible to follow at times, only in it does our Father feed you and clothe you and fill you and flood you with true and lasting peace.
For we travel not alone—far from it. For at our head is the Son of David, the severed head of hell’s Goliath dangling from his hand, blazing the trail that leads to the heavenly Jerusalem. Yes, for us fights the Valiant One, whom God Himself elected. For though weak and frail and frightened you be, it matters not, for it is not you who fight but God who fights for you. He parts the waters so you may pass through, while engulfing your foes behind you. He topples the walls of Jericho; He turns the swords of your enemies against each other; He fights and He wins and He places the crown on victory upon your heads while you merely stand by and see the salvation of your God.
O little flock, fear not the Foe, for at your head is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for you. For all your compromises, He made the good confession before Pilate. For all your shirking of the cross, He bore His own for you. For your silence in an effort to save face, He turned His face not away from the spit and the fists and the blood and the gore. And willingly He did it, all for you, that you might be His own, bought at a price.
Just follow His trail of blood, the blood of the Crucified One, and there you will behold the life of the Church, your life. For the Church’s life is in nothing else. Not in glory nor in fame; not in numbers or power; but in His holy, saving blood, in the blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. “For Abel’s blood for vengeance pleaded to the skies, but the blood of Jesus, for our pardon cries.” The wounds of His hands and feet and side open like lips to proclaim, “Come to Me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden by the heat of this desert world—drink deeply from My cloven side! Come to Me, sit at My feet, all ye who have gone astray, and I will show you My heel, with which I have crushed the head of the Serpent of old! Come to Me, all ye Adams and all ye Eves, who have with guilty hands have tried to cover your shame—come and taste the fruit of My Body that your eyes may be truly be opened and you may see that I have clothed you with My own flesh.”
Dear Christians, one and all rejoice, because for you there is a strong city which has lasting foundations, whose builder and architect is God. Salvation unto you has come—salvation from sin, from falsehood, from false hopes, from false and crumbling fortresses. A mighty fortress is our God, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging, though devils all the world should fill all eager to devour us—we will not fear. The kingdom our remaineth. The forgiveness of sins is ours. We are washed in the blood of the Lamb. Fed with manna from on high. Compassed about by legions of angels. Christ before us and behind us. Christ on our right and Christ on our left. Christ above us and Christ below us. We all believe in one true God who will ever remain true to us. So be still and know that He is God, and you are His children, nothing will separate you from Him who shares your flesh and blood. He will grant you endurance to the end.
(This sermon was originally published in my book, Christ Crucified: Lutheran Sermons). I am currently working on a revision of the book, with additional material, to be published in the near future.)