What does this bracing word say to us yet today in the midst of our contentious campaigns for the future of the nation?
The following is from Dr. James C. Goodloe IV, executive director of the Foundation for Reformed Theology.
Dr. O. Benjamin Sparks (former Foundation seminar member) has been kind to call to my attention a sermon in a book edited by Dr. Charles E. Raynal III (former seminar member and current member of the Foundation board of directors), the collected shorter writings of Dr. John H. Leith (founder of the Foundation), Pilgrimage of a Presbyterian.
Here are some excerpts from “Life in the Shadow of Death,” preached in December of 1942, when Dr. Leith was not yet a doctor but a twenty-three year old senior at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, and when the United States of America was deep into World War II. What does this bracing word say to us yet today in the midst of our contentious campaigns for the future of the nation?
“Life in the Shadow of Death”
“The peculiar function of the Christian community through the ages has been to bear a double witness: a witness to death and a witness to life. The varying fortune of the world–her periods of depression and her times of prosperity, of war and of peace–have not changed this basic witness of those who have been loyal to the Master. And now as the shadows of death and destruction cast a mantle of gloom across the world, the followers of the Nazarene still find and bear witness to life in the shadow of death.
“The unbearable atrocities of an unscrupulous war, the tottering of economic systems, the drastic changes in ways of life, and the uncertainty of the future have not caused the true church of Jesus Christ to despair. The death of the things of this world has not dismayed her, for she has never believed them to be ultimately real and permanent.
“Amid the confusion and mad hurly-burly of this world, her faith has been staked in another world, in the world of the spirit, in the kingdom of God. With certainty of conviction, she has sought first this other-worldly Kingdom that she believes will stand when flesh and blood are long since gone, when the Earth has disintegrated into space and the Sun is as cold as the Moon.
“This is simply the message of the church to our troubled world. Houses and moneys, flesh and blood, stocks and bonds are not the really important things of life. Over these the sentence of death has been irrevocably passed and to them God promises no resurrection. The really important things of life are beyond the power of the grave and the devil to destroy, and these belong to those who seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness. . . .
“We are living in a world of death. Our modern culture has believed that the material things of life–that which we can see, smell, and touch–were permanently and eternally real; and now this pagan, worldly civilization is dying its predetermined death. . . .
“Now–let us not deceive ourselves-we live in a pagan, sensual culture. that which is nonmaterial–that which we cannot daily experience, see, hear, taste, touch, or smell-we have proclaimed to be unreal, nonexistent, and of no value.
“Money is the supreme good of our day, and moneymakers are our aristocracy. We turn everything into money–everything from quintuplets to religious revivals. . . .
“From a historical standpoint, every nation of any consequence today is now or has been within the past few generations imperialistic and gluttonous for the resources of mankind. The most elemental rights of man have been utterly disregarded in our mad rush of greed and covetousness.
“And now this secular culture is turning to rend itself and to crush mankind in its death throes. Our present crisis is not a matter of good fellows Churchill and Roosevelt against wicked men Hitler and Mussolini. It is a godless and godforsaken civilization reaping that which it has sowed: death. . . .
“Jesus, too, lived in the shadow of death, yet in its very shadows he found life to the full. History and sociology tell us that then as now civilization was secular and greedy. Paganism was rampant through the known world and flourished in many forms. But Jesus was strangely unaware of the form and systems of heathen thought. He dealt then as now not with the outward form but with the essence. Paganism, he said, is preoccupation with things: food, clothing, and drink. These must be secondary to something more important. This paganism, Jesus warned his disciples, is the deadly and everlasting enemy of his gospel. Jesus never forgot that the things of this world must pass away with this world. His life was lived for another world that he called the kingdom of God. . . .
“The church must seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness first of all. In the past she has been too willing to come to terms with and even to flatter an essentially godless culture. Her task in the world today is to do more than merely lend a tone of respectability to a culture that is secularistic, man-centered, and man-devised. With utter abandon and disregard of worldly gain she must proclaim Christ and his kingdom. . . .
“Yes, the church that shall survive this day of death will be the church that speaks not the language of this world but of the kingdom of God. It will be a church ready to die for her witness and that the world counts worthy of crucifixion. It is not enough to save a soul here and there, as important as that may be. The church that is to live must set herself over against a world whose foundations are pride, ambition, desire to dominate, and lust for worldly goods, for in these things are the seeds of death. To bear such a witness will be to go against the grain of the world, to come in conflict with the paganism of racial prejudice, of national pride, of greed and militarism. It may be that the world will crucify her, but in the language of another world her master said, ‘He that shall lose his life for my sake shall find it.’ . . .
“Though the gates of hell be loosed against it, the kingdom of God shall not be destroyed by the kingdoms of this world: the kingdoms of totalitarianism, of greed, of imperialism. God is still God, and he will be God tomorrow and next month and next year, yea, when the present struggle is remembered only in the dusty archives of history. Some day he will get tired of Hitler, as he did of Napoleon, and Hitler will be no more. Ah! Some day he will tire of pagan Americans and they shall be no more. The prophets were never so supremely great as when they counseled Israel that to forsake the Lord was to invite destruction but to seek him was to live. For this reason a modern prophet of God’s word, Karl Barth, could write to the Christians of Britain, ‘Our citizenship is today and always in heaven. For this very reason, we can and we shall today and always be of good cheer.'”