Four Great Awakenings
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
There are at least three eras in American history that have been labeled a "Great Awakening" of religious practice, when supposedly lethargic Christians awakened to new religious zeal. It is important for us to understand the history of these great awakenings, since they account for a lot of the peculiar practices among American denominations. By critiquing these so-called great awakenings, we can see how they have led churches down the wrong path, and we can see how the only sort of great awakening Christians need today is the one gained by Jacob in our Old Testament reading.
The first great awakening started in the American colonies in the 1730s-1740s among the mostly Calvinist churches; you probably have heard of Jonathan Edwards and his famous "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" sermon, which is a perfect representation of the nature of the first great awakening. The second great awakening ran from the late 1700s through the mid-1800s; it crossed the country through the work of mostly Baptist and Methodist revivalist preachers who held camp meetings to stir up religious fervor. And the third great awakening ran from the late 1850s through the early 1900s and produced a flurry of new denominations, such as the Pentecostals and Nazarenes.
One of the common threads running through all of these great awakenings is that preachers more and more appealed to the emotions of their audiences and tried to get them stirred up to action by manipulation rather than by simply letting God's Word do its work. Generally speaking, before the great awakenings, Christians sermons had always been focused on teaching God's Word faithfully and calling people to repentance, with the recognition that people do have the ability to reject the call and go their own way. The preachers of the great awakenings weren't satisfied with this sort of preaching since they thought it was too focused on appealing to the mind, the human intellect. Instead, they thought that preaching should appeal to human emotions, to feelings, to try to get people to make a decision to change their lives so that they would be more committed to God, or more morally responsible, or more active in addressing social problems, or even committed to totally avoiding things like drinking, dancing, and card-playing.
During the first great awakening, the preaching emphasized the horrors of hell and tried to scare people straight, but the sermons weren't presented in what we might call a hellfire-and-brimstone style. Instead, people like Jonathan Edwards preached in a manner much like my own, with relatively little gesturing and voice fluctuation. But even without theatrics, his sermon was interrupted repeatedly by people moaning and crying out, "What must I do to be saved?", so it clearly had been designed to get people to feel really scared and desperate.
But after the first great awakening, the preachers combined a hellfire-and-brimstone message with a hellfire-and-brimstone style: they got more and more theatrical, more and more rowdy, more and more willing to shout and work their crowds up into a frenzy. They rejected the use of the historic liturgy because they said it was too formal and unemotional. They shied away from using traditional hymns that were sung in a reverent manner and exchanged them for emotional revival songs that brought tears to people's eyes and softened them up so that they could make their decision for Jesus and rededicate their lives to the Lord. The revivalists wanted people to have a personal experience of God's presence with them and in them.
It is important to understand this history of religion in our country because it shows why faithful Lutherans have never felt quite at home in this land of diverse and strange religions. Throughout American history, conservative, confessional Lutherans have always been skeptical of and critical of great awakenings and revivalism because we believe that God's Word accomplishes its purposes in our lives without preachers manipulating our emotions or playing music that makes us feel like God is present in our hearts.
It is a shame that many so-called Lutheran churches today are embracing a lot of the revivalist techniques in their preaching and worship, since none of the great awakenings that happened in our country were truly biblical awakenings. Thanks be to God that He has preserved our own congregation from the errors and excesses of revivalism. Perhaps some of us in our sinful weakness long for the apparent success of churches that embrace contemporary worship and other practices of the great awakenings. Yet the greatest temptation for us in a congregation that does have God's Word and Sacraments administered purely, and that does worship the Lord rightly, is that we become complacent and so familiar with what we have that we don't appreciate how amazing God's gifts in the Divine Service are.
For these things we must repent, and so that we may awaken to what our Lord would have us believe, and how He would have us worship, we need to have a fourth and better great awakening, like Jacob had in our Old Testament reading: that is, the revelation that we don't seek God, but that He seeks us out, reveals Himself to us by Him coming and speaking to us, and when He speaks, the words that He really wants us to hear are His Gospel promises, promises that are true and faithful no matter whether they are whispered or shouted or read.
In the verses leading up to our reading, Jacob had just finished stealing Isaac's birthright from Esau, and he was on his way out of Canaan back to his mother's land in order to find a wife among his kinfolk, not among the pagan Canaanites. It was a long journey, and the last person he expected to meet was the LORD. As sundown drew near, he knew he had to find a place to spend the night, since travel in the dark was impossible. So in an unnamed place, he laid down to sleep and started to dream.
Clearly this dream was a special revelation from the LORD to Jacob; it does not set up a pattern that we should look for the LORD to come to us in dreams, since this was a unique event God performed for one of the patriarchs. In his dream, Jacob saw a ladder—or the Hebrew could also be translated as "stairway"—going from earth up to heaven. God's angels were ascending and descending on the steps. Then the LORD appeared to Jacob, and the Hebrew could be translated either that he was at the top of the stairway or right beside Jacob. I think it makes more sense and is more comforting to read that the LORD had come down the stairs and was right next to Jacob, since after the fact, Jacob says that the LORD was in that very place on earth.
Either way, the most important things is that the LORD comes down to speak to Jacob, saying: "I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."
These are beautiful and wonderful promises. Six times the LORD says that He will perform blessings on Jacob, and not once does the LORD command Jacob to do anything. To put it another way, the LORD comes to preach all Gospel and no Law to Jacob. Then after the dream Jacob awoke from sleep and had a great awakening; he said, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it." That is, Jacob didn't know that the LORD was there until He came in the dream and started speaking promises to him. At this point, Jacob was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."
This is a great awakening that Jacob and we Lutherans share: while God is indeed everywhere, the only place we have access to Him is when He seeks us out and comes to us. While God is truly omnipresent, He doesn't want us to find Him in our emotions or inside ourselves or in any sort of personal experience, but He wants us to find Him in His Word, where He speaks to us about how He feels about us and where we can find Him and have access to His grace, mercy, and peace.
The LORD came down the stairs there to be with Jacob and share with him the same promise that He had made to Abraham and Isaac before: that their Offspring, their Seed, the Messiah or Christ, would be a blessing to all people of the earth, and that in the meantime the LORD would give His people the Promised Land as a place where He would dwell with them and continue to speak. In the verses after our Old Testament reading, Jacob renames the place of his dream "Bethel," which means "House of God." (No surprise that many churches have named themselves "Bethel Lutheran Church," is it?). There at Bethel, the House of God, the gate of heaven, Jacob promises to build an altar to the LORD. This event points forward to the LORD coming to Israel to dwell above the altar in His houses in Israel, first in the tabernacle and later at the Jerusalem Temple, and then eventually in the flesh of Christ, which is the New Testament Tabernacle and Temple of God.
And Christ Himself is not only the House of God on earth, but He is also the ladder or stairway to heaven that Jacob saw in his dream. In John 1, Jesus tells His disciples, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man." This is a great awakening given to us by Jesus, telling us that the LORD who came down the ladder to visit Jacob has now come in the flesh to save His people. He is the One in charge of the angels who watch over God's people. He is the One who sends them to watch over you. And He is the gateway to heaven, for on the cross in His flesh He paid for all of your sins and then rose on Easter Sunday to open the Kingdom of Heaven for all believers.
And this Risen LORD Jesus still steps down from heaven today in His Word and Sacraments, as He had done for Jacob, for He comes to dwell with us in His Church and speak His Gospel promises to us. In Holy Baptism, God brings us into His household, making us part of Christ's Body, the Holy Christian Church, where week in and week out He speaks His saving Word through His called and ordained preacher. When we have sinned and gone astray from our Lord, we return here to confess our sins and receive Holy Absolution, which forgives our sins and opens again the gate to heaven. And Jesus comes down to us in His very body and blood in the Lord's Supper, where He feeds us with the same sacrificial offering that He made to the Father once and all for the forgiveness of all of your sins.
Yet it takes a great awakening to realize all these wonderful things happening in the Church. If we look at the Church only with our eyes, we see a sinful man preaching seemingly ineffective words, we see a little bit of water, we see bread and wine. If we look at the Church only with our emotions, we find that we don't have a mystical experience of God's presence with us; we can't feel Him here in speech or in music. But if we take our Lord at His Word and recognize that He is truly present with us as our Savior in His Word and Sacraments, where He has promised to be and where He wants us to find Him, then we, like Jacob can shout out in amazement, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it…How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."
In all the so-called great awakenings that have happened in our country, the emphasis of the preaching has been on the Law, on what we need to do for God. The great awakening we gain in Jacob's experience is that the LORD and His promises are the things that not only save us but also change our lives. For after Jacob's dream, we know that the LORD would work out His great plans for Jacob, who later was renamed Israel and made the father of God's chosen people. And likewise, after the LORD has come and made you His own, He will work out His good purposes in your life by the power of His Word and Holy Spirit. Also like Jacob, the road of our lives will be filled with many twists and turns, with many trials and tribulations, but we know that the LORD of hosts is always with us, the God of Jacob is our fortress.
And so, Jesus says to you, "Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and everything else will be given to you." Seek out His presence and promises, for they are the greatest gifts we could receive this side of heaven, and they give us a taste of the good things yet to come. And so we too may pray with the Psalmist about our little church here in Elgin and the Word and the Sacraments that we receive here, "How lovely is Your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God…Blessed are those who dwell in Your house, ever singing Your praise!...For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness" (Psalm 84, passim).
The LORD has done much better for you, since you aren't merely a doorkeeper in His house, but you are His beloved child, redeemed by Christ and adopted in Holy Baptism. So don't run away from home, but gladly dwell here and continue to receive your LORD's gracious presence and promises, and rest assured that one day very soon you will enjoy the Greatest Awakening, rising to eternal resurrected life with the LORD in heaven. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.