A dear friend and colleague of mine, the Reverend Gary Gehlbach, has preached his final sermon as the pastor of a congregation that he has served faithfully and well for the past seventeen years. He has had to relinquish his pulpit and altar and office in that place, not for any unfaithfulness in teaching or practice, nor for any impiety or impropriety in his Christian faith and life, but for a lack of money. The Lord has instructed His Church not to muzzle the ox while it is treading the grain, but this faithful servant of the Word has now been muzzled twice over. He has not been granted to live by the Gospel that he preached; and now he is no longer granted to preach, leastwise not in that place where he was called by the Lord to serve.
I have not had the privilege of hearing Pastor Gehblach preach to me from his pulpit. But he has preached the Gospel to me, nonetheless, in various things that he has written here and there, and in fraternal conversations over the years, for which I am profoundly grateful. His confession of the Word of God has, so far as I have ever seen or heard it, been clear and consistent and resoundingly evangelical. What is more, the witness and testimony of his life and demeanor have been a powerful example and encouragement to me in my own Christian vocations. For he is a gentleman in every sense of that word, a pious and faithful man, a kind and gracious man, a good husband to his wife, a good father to his family, and a good friend to his neighbors and colleagues. His patience in the midst of hardship, his integrity in the face of every challenge and difficulty, his perseverance under the Cross, have on more than one occasion humbled me and called me to repentance for my prideful impatience, my fearful despair, and my whining complaints.
I know Pastor Gehlbach's character and commitments. I know the orthodoxy of his doctrine, the clarity of his confession, the diligence of his labors in the Lord. I know his conscientiousness with respect to the Office of the Ministry, and his steadfastness in remaining at his post long after other men would have turned tail and run away. I know his loving care for his family, for I have witnessed it first hand, and his generosity toward others even in the midst of his own wants and needs. He has seemed to me an especially good example of St. Paul's contentment with that which the Lord has provided, even though it has been far less than the wealth and riches of most others. If I have ever heard him complain, it has been for the sake of his family, and for the needs of his congregation, that he should somehow be able to serve and provide for them more. Yet, I know that, notwithstanding his frailities and weaknesses as a sinful and mortal man, he has served them all faithfully and well with the gifts entrusted to his stewardship on their behalf. The faith and love and piety of his dear wife and children are further evidence of that very thing.
So here is a pointed example of the theology of the Cross, which pertains also to the life of the Church on earth and to the ministers of the Gospel. Here is a man who has preached and taught and catechized, who has visited and cared for his people, who has administered the means of grace in accordance with the Word of Christ, and who has diligently fulfilled his office. He has done what he was called and sent to do. And for all of that, what he and his family now see and feel and experience is nothing but empty pockets, a quiet ending and sad goodbyes. This breaks my heart, but I am ashamed even to say so; for how shall I associate my sadness with that of my dear friend and colleague, who has actually suffered and sacrificed in these ways that I have not.
The mysteries of the Cross are God's ways, and they are contrary to the way we think as men. It is not only for our sins that we suffer, but sometimes for our faithfulness and righteousness in Christ. That Cross appears foolish and futile, as the Lord's own Crucifixion appeared an utter shame, a crushing defeat, a sad ending to a promising but ultimately failed life. There is no sense that we can make of it. It remains the Lord's good work, not ours, even when He works the Cross in us and in our lives. The old Adam in us is crucified, dead and buried; and still the New Man who is raised in us does not yet live by sight — for we are lifted up by the Cross of Christ to see by faith His Glory hidden and His power made perfect in weakness.
We cannot measure faithfulness by what our eyes perceive to be the "end results." A pastor and a congregation may do everything exactly right, just as they are given to do, and yet the number of people and the amount of money may dwindle and disappear. Elsewhere, all caution may be thrown to the wind, another "gospel" may be preached and practiced than that of Christ and His Apostles, and so many people may flock to it that bigger barns must be built while careless souls are being put at ease (to their own final destruction). Or, all of this may be turned entirely around, for the Lord remains the true and only God of heaven and earth, who establishes the limits and the boundaries of the land and sea and sky and man. Faithfulness is measured in the midst of it all, not by the outward "results," but by the Gospel of the Cross, by the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in the Name of the Crucified Christ Jesus. However few or many seats may be filled, the souls that are won for the Kingdom of heaven are converted from death to life by that preaching of Christ Crucified, and by no other ways or means than Him.
Pastor Gehlbach, as your brother in Christ, as your colleague in the Office of the Holy Ministry, and as your friend, I thank you for your faithfulness. Thank you for staying the course and fulfilling your duties all these many years. Thank you for your good example, and, better yet, for your eloquent speaking of the Gospel to me on any number of occasions. You have not known all the good that you have done; or, rather, the good that Christ has done through you for others. You have simply done what you have been called and given to do; for that, above all, I thank you and commend you most sincerely. There is nothing more nor less to be said or done than that. For the One who has called you is faithful, and your labors in Him are never in vain. They have not been, nor shall they be, even now. In this, I do not presume to answer the questions of your heart and mind, nor by any means to dismiss your hurts and fears and sorrows, but I do proclaim to you the One who loves you dearly, who has given Himself for you, who has forgiven all your sins, and who even now delights in you as His very own. You are of more value to Him than many sparrows, more precious than the young ravens which do cry, and lovelier in His sight than all the lilies of the field. He has never yet forgotten you; neither will He ever leave you nor forsake you. This is most certainly true.