Lutherans are not unique in teaching that these words from Psalm 33 apply to an invisible ‘spiritual nation’ of true believers, to the Holy Nation – the people who have been made holy by God. There is great comfort in this fact, for individual believers, who know that there is no earthly nation which is holy before God, but who, through the Holy Spirit's gift of faith, have themselves been forgiven and stand before God in the righteousness of Christ. They, along with all true believers, and they alone, stand holy and righteous before God on the basis Christ’s full blood and merit, they alone stand in the company of the holy, and thus they alone can derive comfort from this text.
The following sermon, preached by Dr. Martin Luther in 1525, however, teaches not only the spiritual, but the temporal calamity brought upon a real people, a real nation, to whom has been brought the Gospel, but who reject it. God had visited the Jews with the Gospel, to their eternal and spiritual benefit. Their collective rejection of the Gospel, however, brought upon them a calamity which was not only spiritual, but which was also directed at them, collectively, in their physical earthly lives.
The text Luther preaches from is Luke 19:41-48, and the subject is Christ’s prophecy of Jerusalem’s physical destruction. God had visited them with the Gospel – Jesus Christ, the Living Word Himself! – that through it He would make them an Holy Nation (1 Pet. 2:9); but they, “knowing not the time of their visitation,” rejected Him. The consequence was His curse of national calamity, the destruction of Jerusalem, which occurred in A.D. 70 and was followed by their dispersal throughout Europe and persecution for the following two millenia.
But Luther does not limit the application of this text to the Jewish nation. In his own time, Germany had been visited with the Gospel, but, he feared, had rejected it. Luther applies Christ’s prophecy of national calamity to the Germany of his own day in a most remarkable way, indeed, to any people of whom it can be collectively said: “They have rejected the Gospel. God had given them the Gospel, but they no longer believe it” – as, it seems, can be said of Western Civilization, and specifically, America, today. Indeed, many of the political, social and religious circumstances he recounts should sound very familiar to us in our own time.
So, today, as we remember the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York, thirteen years ago, by the arch-enemies of Christianity and of the West, let us consider Luther’s understanding of Christ’s prophecy: is there a genuine connection between the rapid decline of the Church in the West and the correlating escalation of strife that we face today? Is God warning us? Are these a harbinger, or “a foretaste of things to come,” as Luther puts it? If so, is there any avoiding it? How?
The Gospel Lesson for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity
Luke 19:41-48: And when He was come near, He beheld the city, and wept over it, saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! But now they are hid from thine eyes. For the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and keep thee in on every side, and shall lay thee even with the ground, and thy children within thee; and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another; because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation. And He went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold therein, and them that bought; saying unto them, It is written, My house is the house of prayer: but ye have made it a den of thieves. And He taught daily in the temple. But the chief priests and the scribes and the chief of the people sought to destroy Him, and could not find what they might do: for all the people were very attentive to hear Him.
THE PROPHECY OF THE DESTRUCTION OF JERUSALEM.
Now you have often heard what the Word of God is, what it brings us, and what kind of scholars it has. Of all this nothing is said here. Only the punishment and distress which shall come upon the Jews because they would not recognize the time of their visitation, are here described. And let us well consider this, because the time of their visitation also deeply concerns us. If they who do not know the time of their visitation are punished, what will be done to those who maliciously persecute, blaspheme and disgrace the Gospel and the Word of God? However, here Jesus only speaks of those who do not know it.
There are two methods of preaching against the despisers of God’s Word. The first is by threats, as Christ threatens them in Matthew 11:21-24: “Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee Bethsaida! for if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon which were done in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And thou, Capernaum (which was His own city, where He performed most of His mighty works), shalt thou be exalted unto heaven? thou shalt go down unto hell; for if the mighty works had been done in Sodom which were done in thee, it would have remained until this day. But I say unto you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.” With such threatening words He would frighten them to their senses, not to cast to the wind the Word which God sends them.
The other method the Lord gives here when He weeps, and shows His sympathy for the poor blinded people, rebuking and threatening them, not as He does the hardened and stubbornly blind, but melting in love and compassion over His enemies, and with great heart-rending cries of pity, telling them what shall befall them, which He would gladly prevent – but knowing it is all in vain. In the passage just quoted, where He rebukes those who despise God’s Word, He does not treat them in love, but with severity. However here, in our Gospel text, it is all sincere love and mercy. This is worthy of our consideration.
First, as He approached the city, the people went before Him, and also followed Him, with songs of great joy, saying: “Hosanna to the Son of David,” spreading their garments and cutting branches from the trees to strew them in the way; the whole scene was most glorious. But in the midst of all this joy He begins to weep. He permits all the world to be joyful, while He Himself was bowed with grief, when He beheld the city and said:
- “If thou hadst known in this day, even thou, the things that belong unto peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes.”
- “For the days shall come upon thee, when thy enemies shall cast up a bank about thee, and compass thee round, and keep thee in on every side and shall dash thee to the ground, and thy children within thee; and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another; because thou knowest not the time of thy visitation.”
The Lord, however, saw deeper into the future than they when He said: O, Jerusalem! if thou hadst known what I know, thou wouldst seek thy peace. “Peace” in the Scriptures means, when all things go well with us. You now think you have pleasant days, but if you knew how your enemies will encamp round about you, compass you about and hedge you in on every side, crush you to the ground and demolish all your beautiful buildings, and leave not one stone upon another; you would eagerly accept the Word, which brings to you solid peace and every blessing.
God caused His threats to be executed even thus, that the city was besieged at the time of the Easter festival, when the Jews were assembled within the walls of Jerusalem from every land, and as the historian Josephus writes, there were together at that time about three million people. This was an enormous multitude. Only one hundred thousand people would have been enough to crowd the city. But all this great multitude God in His wrath intended to bake, melt and weld together into one mass of ruin. Yet, the Apostles and Christians were all out of the city, they had withdrawn into the land of Herod, Samaria, Galilee, and were scattered among the heathen. Thus God separated and saved the good grain and poured the chaff into one place. There was such an immense multitude of Jews present, that they were sufficient to devour a whole kingdom, to say nothing of only one city. They also fell into such distress and famine, that they devoured everything and had nothing left, until they were at last compelled to eat their leather bow-strings, shoe latchets and shoe leather; and finally mothers moved by their distress butchered their own children, which the soldiers snatched from them, for they smelt the odor of the boiling meat through the squares of the city. They used dove’s dung for salt, which commanded a high price. In short, there was distress and bloodshed enough to melt a rock to tears; so that no one could have believed that God’s wrath could be so horrible and that He would so unmercifully martyr a people. The buildings and the streets were piled full of the dead, who perished from starvation, and yet the Jews were so raging that they defied God and refused to yield, until the emperor was compelled to use force and capture the city, when they could no longer maintain their ground (Josephus, History of the Destruction of Jerusalem, Books 5 & 6, A.D. 75).
And as some Jews were such rogues as to swallow their money so that it could not be taken from them, the soldiers thought that they all had swallowed their money; therefore they cut them open by the thousands, hunting for it. The slaughter and destruction were so great, that even the heathen were moved to compassion, and the emperor was forced to give orders no longer to destroy them, but to take them prisoners and sell them as slaves. The Jews then became so cheap, that thirty were sold for a penny; and thus they were scattered throughout the whole world, and were everywhere despised as the vilest people on earth, and thus they are everywhere regarded at the present day, everywhere dispersed, without a city or a country of their own, and they can never meet again as they vainly believe to establish their priesthood and kingdom. Thus God avenged the death of Christ and all his prophets, and paid them back because they knew not the day of their visitation.
[And, remarkably to the United States of America, and the West itself, in this, our own time of the early 21st Century]
But we will act just like the Jews, and care nothing for it, until all help and counsel are lost forever. Now we might check it, for now it is high time for us to know what is best for us, and accept the Gospel in peace, while grace is brought, and peace is offered unto us. But we permit one day after another, one year after another to pass, and do even less than formerly. No one prays now, no one is in earnest. When the time is past, prayers will be of no avail. We do not lay it to heart, and think we are safe, and do not see the awful calamity which has already begun, and are not aware that God so dreadfully punishes us with false prophets and sects, which He sends to us everywhere, and who preach so securely as though they had swallowed the Holy Spirit, feathers and all. Those whom we had thought were the very best among us, go to work and lead the people astray, until they scarcely know what to do or leave undone.
But this is only a beginning, although it is frightful and terrible enough. For there is no greater distress and calamity than when God sends us sects and false spirits, because they are so impudent and daringly bold, that they are really to be pitied. On the other hand the Word of God is such a great treasure, that no one can sufficiently comprehend its worth. For God Himself considers His treasure immensely great, and when He visits us with His grace, He earnestly desires that we should gladly and freely accept it, and does not compel us as He is able to do, but it is His will that we should gladly obey it from choice and love. For He does not wait until we come to Him, but He comes first to us. He comes into the world, becomes man, serves us, dies for us, rises again from the dead, sends us His Holy Spirit, gives us His Word, and opens heaven so wide that all men can enter; besides He gives us rich promises and assurances that He will care for us in time and in eternity, here and there, and pours out into our bosoms all the fullness of His grace. Therefore the acceptable time of grace is now at hand. Yet, we neglect it, and cast it to the winds, so that He will not and cannot give it to us.
For when we fall and sin in other ways, He can better spare us and be lenient, He of course will spare us and forgive; but when we despise His Word, it calls for punishment, and He will also punish us, even if He delays a hundred years. But He will not wait that long. And the clearer the Word is preached the greater the punishment will be. I fear it will be the entire destruction of our nation. Would to God I were a false prophet in this matter. Yet it will most certainly take place. God cannot permit this shameful disregard of His Word to go unpunished, nor will He wait long, for the Gospel is so abundantly proclaimed that it has never been as plainly and clearly taught since the days of the Apostles, as it is at present. God be praised! Hence it applies to Germany, as I fear it will be destroyed, unless we act differently.
We, who have heard the Gospel for a long time, ought earnestly to pray God that He continue to grant us peace. The princes and officers want to settle everything with the sword, and too impudently interfere with God’s office, until God Himself shall smite them down. So it is high time faithfully to beseech God to permit His Gospel to be further spread through Germany, to those who have not yet heard it. For if the punishment came suddenly upon us, all will be lost, and many souls will be taken before the Gospel comes to them. Therefore I wish that we would not so terribly despise the Gospel, the costly treasure, not only for our own sakes, but also for the sake of those who have not yet heard it. It has, presently, become more quiet; God grant that it may so continue, and that both the princes and the citizens may become more sane; for if it should begin afresh, I fear it would have no end.
But we act just like the Jews did, who cared more for the belly than for God. They were more concerned how to fill their stomachs than how to be saved. For this reason they have lost both. They immediately put forth the excuse, just as our own people do today: We would of course gladly accept the Gospel, if it would not place our bodies and property in jeopardy, and if thereby we would not hazard the loss of our wives and children. For the Jews said, if we believe in him, the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation (Jn. 11:48). Yet, nothing will happen sooner than what the wicked fear, as Solomon says: “The fear of the wicked, it shall come upon him” (Pr. 10:24).
This prevented the Jews from believing God, so they did not consider the great and rich promises God bestowed upon them. And so we also pass them by, and are not aware of the all powerful and comfortable promises Christ gives when He says: Ye shall receive an hundredfold here, and there ye shall inherit eternal life. Let wife and child go, I will care for them, and restore them again to you. Only courageously trust in Me. [Do you not think that I can build you another house? Do you regard Me as being a hard man: Yet I will give you heaven; will you not risk it on My Word?] If you are robbed of your treasures, blessed are ye, heaven and earth are mine, I will reward you an hundredfold (Mt. 19:29).
We pass over these and many like passages, and despise them besides, and depend only on what we have in our banks and how we may keep our purses filled, not considering that God has also given us what we have, and will still give us more; nor do we consider that when we lose God, the stomach will also be lost. Therefore we are served just right in losing both the Creator and the creature besides.
But believers in God risk all in Him and transfer all things into His care, for Him to do according to His pleasure, and think thus: God has given you your home and wife, you have not produced them yourself; now because they are God’s, I will entrust them all to His care, He will keep them from all harm. I must otherwise leave all at any rate, therefore I will bravely trust Him with them, and for His sake give up all I have. If God wants me here, He will give me other treasures, for He has promised to give enough for this life and for the life to come. If He does not want me here, I owe Him a death, which will bring me into eternal life; when He calls me, I will go trusting in His Word.
Whoever is not thus disposed, denies God, and must at the same time lose both the present and the eternal life. The belly with its foul odors is our god, and prevents us from clinging to God’s Word. First, I will be certain how I shall feed, and where my supplies are. The Gospel says: Trust in God; and your stomach shall most certainly be provided for, and have enough (without believing or trusting in it). But if I have only five dollars, it gives me so much courage that I think I have enough food for ten days, so that I trust in such limited provisions and do not trust God who has fed me hitherto, and that He will care for me tomorrow.
Is it not a shameful vexation or calamity that I trust in a penny to provide something to eat tomorrow? How contemptible this carcass of mine! Shall a penny have more weight in my heart and give me more courage than God Himself, who holds heaven and earth in His power, who gives us the air we breathe and the water we drink, who makes our corn to grow and gives us all things? It is so scandalous that it cannot be uttered, that God should not amount to as much with us as an hundred guilders. Why not think that God, who has created me, will surely feed me, if He wants me to live? If He does not want this, very well, I shall be satisfied.
Yes, says the stomach, I find no God in my chest! You silly ass, who assures you that you will live tomorrow? You are not certain whether you will have a belly to-morrow, and you want to know where to find the bread and the food! Yes, you have a fine assurance! When our hearts are thus prompted, we see what a government of hell there would be on earth; yes, it would be the devil himself. Is it not a thing most abominable, that God who feeds such ninny mouths, should be held in such low esteem by me, that I will not trust Him to feed me? Yea, that a guilder, thirty-eight cents, should be valued more highly than God, who pours out His treasures everywhere in rich profusion? For the world is full of God and His works, He is everywhere present with His gifts, and yet we will not trust in Him, nor accept His visitation! Shame on thee, thou accursed world! What kind of a child is that, who cannot trust in God for a single day, but trusts in a guilder?
Now, I think, we see what the world is, how on account of the belly the world despises God, and yet must lose the belly together with body and soul. Oh, what godless people we are. If one would consider that he is such a godless wretch, that he cannot trust in God, then he would not wish to live, but only choke away. The world is hell in prospect, yea, the real kingdom of Satan, a courtyard in hell, except that the body is still here, otherwise it is true hell.
For this reason Christ admonishes us with tears to know our salvation and accept His visitation, that the calamity may not follow, which will surely come upon those who do not accept it, who are secure, until swift and sudden destruction comes upon them. May God give us grace, that we may know ourselves!
The Gospel further reads:
- “And He entered into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold, saying unto them: It is written, ‘And my house shall be a house of prayer’; but ye have made it a den of robbers.”
THE CLEANSING OF THE TEMPLE.
But we must rightly understand this expression, that the city of Jerusalem, the temple and the people, should remain until the time of Christ. With this agree all the prophets, who have given all things into the hands of Christ; as He would then dispose of it, so it should be and remain. Hence the passage in Isaiah goes no further than unto the times of Christ, as also all the prophets say, that after that there shall come a kingdom extending over the whole world: “For from the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same My name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto My name, and a pure offering; for My name shall be great among the Gentiles, saith Jehovah of hosts” (Mt. 1:10-11). Here the prophet speaks of the spiritual kingdom of Christ, who shall build Himself a house of prayer as extensive as the whole world.
It is true that God Himself has established the temple at Jerusalem, not because it consisted of beautiful stones and costly buildings, or because it was consecrated by bishops, as at present men employ such foolery and juggling tricks; but God Himself had consecrated and sanctified it with his Word, when He said: This house is My house: for His Word was preached in it. Now, wherever God’s Word is preached, there is God’s own true house, there God most certainly dwells with His grace. Wherever His Gospel is, there is a house of prayer, there men shall and may truly pray, and God will also hear their prayer, as Christ says: “If ye shall ask anything of the Father, He will give it you in My name. Hitherto have ye asked nothing in My name; ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be made full” (Jn. 16:23-24). Here again, where the Word is not found, there the devil has full sway.
That we have imitated the Jews and built so many churches, would be well enough, if we had done it in order that the Word of God might be preached there; for where the Word goes there God is present, and looks down from heaven and pours out His grace. Therefore He says to the Jews here: It is not My will that you should make out of My house a den of robbers. For there were money changers in it who sold sheep and oxen, that strangers might buy them for their offerings in divine service. Why then does He call it a den of robbers? Surely, He gives it a scandalous name. He does it however because they no longer appreciate the house as the house of God, but as a market house; that is, the priests did not inquire how the Word of God was preached in it, although they sang, they babbled and read the prophets and Moses; but God cares nothing for such a murmuring of Psalms; for such belongs to children.
They did just as our priests and monks do now, who have also made of our churches and cloisters dens of robbers, and have preached poison, and held Masses only that the people might give them money and presents for holding them, that they might thus fill their stomachs. They made the church a market house, in which they carried on their idle talk, corrupted and destroyed the sheep of God’s pastures by their scandalous false doctrine, that it may well be called a robber’s den for the soul. This title we should write on all churches in which the Gospel is not preached, for there they mock God, destroy souls, banish the pure Word and establish dens of murder; for he who listens to their words must die. Oh, how shamefully we have been deceived! Now, however, we should praise God, that this Word again brings us life, drives out the murderers of souls, and teaches us how to pray aright; for an honest heart must pray, not with the mouth, but with the heart.
I have often requested that you to pray God to turn His wrath and restrain the devil now in the world. For you have undoubtedly heard of the great calamity, how many have been slain in the insurrection (the Peasants War). We fear they have all been lost, for God requires obedience, and has Himself pronounced the sentence: “For all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Mt. 26:52). The devil has taken possession of the world, so who knows when our turn will come? Therefore let us pray that God’s kingdom may come and Christians may be multiplied, that He would send wise and intelligent ministers to care for the people and listen to their wants and needs. He who knows the gift of God prays for others who have not yet heard the Word; it is high time to do so.
Well, wherever this calamity begins and prevails, that the people maliciously despise the day God visits us with His Word and grace, for the sake of the belly and a little temporal benefit and advantage; there must follow as a consequence of such treatment the final punishment and wrath of God, who will utterly destroy them, remove the foundation of their trust, and overthrow the country and the people, so that both temporal and eternal interests go down together. For how shall He otherwise treat us, because of our scandalous ingratitude for His great love and mercy which He publicly declared unto us by His gracious visitation? How shall or can He do more for us, while we with wantonness and defiance spurn His help, and ever struggle and strive after wrath and destruction? For if they are not free of punishment who transgress the law and sin against the Ten Commandments, how much less will He permit those to go unpunished who blaspheme and despise the Gospel of His grace, seeing as the Law by far does not bring as many good things as the Gospel?
If we will not wish to enjoy this happy day which He gives us unto grace and our salvation, He can instead permit us to see and experience nothing but the dark and terrible night of all affliction and misfortune. And since we will not hear this precious Word and the proclamation of peace, we will be forced to hear the devil’s cry of murder ring in our ears from every direction. Now is the time for us to know the day, and well employ the rich and golden year, while the annual fair is before our very doors, and acknowledge that He has severely punished us. If we neglect it and allow it to pass, we can never hope for a better day or expect any peace; for the Lord, who is the Lord of peace, will be with us no longer.
But if Christ be no longer with us, our hope will vanish; and wherever this beloved Guest is rejected, and His Christians no longer tolerated, government, peace and everything shall perish, for He too desires to eat with us, to rule and to provide bountifully. However, He desires also to be known as such a Lord, in order that we may be thankful to Him, and also permit this Guest and His Christians to eat with us, and give Him His due tribute; if not, we will then be forced to give it to another, who will so thank and reward us for it, that we shall not be able to retain a bite of bread or a penny in peace. But the world will not believe this, just as the Jews also would not believe it, until they experienced it, and faith came to their assistance. For God has ordained that this Christ shall be Lord and King upon the earth, under whose feet He has put all things, and whoever would have peace and good days, must be kind and obedient to Him, or he will be dashed to pieces like a potter’s vessel (Ps. 2:9). Amen.
Preached by Dr. Martin Luther, ~1525
From the English translation of his Church Postils by J.N. Lenker (Lenker Edition, 1909).