First a disclaimer: I don’t think (Hurricane/Fire/Earthquake/whatever) is a punishment for the specific sin of (electing Donald Trump/Repealing DACA/Raising the Debt Ceiling/etc.) it is true that in the Old Testament, there were specific punishments for specific national sins. But He sent prophets to identify the specific sins and corresponding punishments. Lacking that, it’s dangerous to guess at the motivations of the Living God. Ok, with that out of the way…
A while back, I commented that our current hymnal seems more fitting for a comfortable middle class church than a church suffering under the cross. (TLH 260, where are you?) You can argue about this or that aspect of the hymnal, but a church that has two prayers for going on vacation and one for persecution is not exactly a “take up your cross daily and follow me” sort of hymnal.
The last month or so has seen some dramatic events in our nation: The Northwest third is covered in smoke and fire, the southeast third is covered in wind and water. The President called for prayer for the nation. In the past, the proper term for such a day was “Day of Humiliation and Prayer”. The new hymnal has “Day of Supplication and Prayer.”
That’s a significant difference. In days past, the church understood that, if some calamity befell the people, it was a time to rend garments, to sit in sackcloth and ashes, and to hear the word of the Lord regarding our sin. It was an opportunity to repent and return to the Lord God. No judgment was made regarding general sins committed by the nation. Individuals have enough specific sins that any one person is worthy of judgment. Times of tragedy are times to consider our own black hearts and turn away from our own sins. Not as self-improvement, but as the proper response of the heart to God’s work in and through the things of this world. In times of plenty, we give thanks and remember how merciful God is. In times of want, we repent of our sin and trust in the mercy of God.
But the new hymnal has “Day of Supplication and Prayer.” No longer do we humiliate ourselves before God. Of course, the meaning of “humiliate” has changed. In the past, to humiliate was to humbly bow before another greater than yourself. Perhaps “Day of Humility and Prayer” would better convey the old meaning. (And Four exegetes just started typing angry responses…)
But the modern tendency to ignore the need for repentance comes through loud and clear in the new title. I haven’t counted words, but posts from national church bodies I respect have been more “pray for mercy” in a generic way than “repent and pray for deliverance.” That’s not a good thing. It’s always a good idea to look at our own conduct in light of God’s Law. Our hearts – even renewed by the spirit – are wayward blackened things. To steal an analogy, it isn’t that the ground of our hearts contains some rocks we must remove to be perfect. It’s that a thin veneer of dirt is on a layer of rock that will grow nothing. Only God can make our hearts able to bear fruit. And the more we look at our conduct honestly in the light of God’s Law, the more and clearer we see our sin.
Prayer does nothing if it is merely a facebook meme. Typing Amen does not equal 1 prayer. Prayer is the earnest and sincere heart laid bare before God. The prayer of the righteous man is effective because God looks favorably on those prayers. But they are effective because of the one we pray to, not because of the prayer itself. I see a lot of people who say they are sending out prayers for those who are suffering. That’s a good thing, assuming the prayers are not offered to idols, and assuming they are actual prayers, not just a click of the “like” button.
But I don’t see anyone suggesting godly repentance. During these trying times, it may be a good idea to consider not only prayer for our neighbors in need, but repentance in our own hearts and lives. Oh, celebrities have foolishly suggested that the Atlantic Ocean is unhappy with the results of last year’s electoral college contest. That’s the sort of shallow worldliness one expects from those who spend their lives chasing fame and glory. But even in their self-delusion, there is a hint of a deeper truth. We could all stand to consider our place in life according to the ten commandments. Repentance of that sort would be a good idea for each of us individually.
Then maybe our churches would not be bashful about a “day of humiliation and prayer” as we humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may lift us up in due time.
If you liked this post, you might like “What Every Christian Must Know: Outlines of Luther’s Large Catechism.” Pastors and lay people have been telling me it really helps them to read the Large Catechism. The Large Catechism is a series of sermons – some of the best ever written. And now, you can read them with deeper understanding.