Ph.D. (c), Ohio State University
Assistant to the President of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod
A sermon preached at the Chapel of the Holy Trinity, Concordia College, Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Columbus Day, October 12, 1992.
Let’s begin with two basic points. The first comes from God’s Word: the most important thing in the whole world is the rescue mission that our Creator planned and carried out for a sinful world in His Son Jesus Christ, our Lord. That mission continues today. The ascended Christ sends out His Word, accompanied by His Holy Spirit, to accomplish His purpose of salvation in the lives of people. All of creation gets eternal survivability, let alone eternal significance, only in connection with this most important thing of them all.
The second point is not as firm. It comes not from Scripture, but from world history. Still, it’s pretty solid: the significance of Columbus’s voyage 500 years ago does not lie in the voyage itself, but in the follow-up. Columbus was not the great genius who figured that the world was round while everyone else thought it was flat. All the great navigators of his day — to say nothing of the ancient Greeks — knew the earth was round. The Portuguese would not support Columbus was that they knew many things better than he did, such as the circumference of the earth. They knew it was bigger than Columbus thought. When he found land, he was convinced he was in Asia. In many ways, the voyage of Columbus constituted a huge mistake. But it turned out to be a good one because of the follow-up. For after Columbus came, he came back again and again. Others did too.
Here our two basic points connect. When the Europeans came back and kept coming, they brought the message about Jesus to people who had never heard it. They brought most important thing in the world to these shores. Over that, we rejoice. We can rejoice down to this day.
But do we?
This question is worth some attention. Here at the end of the twentieth century, Columbus Day can become something other than the simple observance of a civic holiday or the commemoration of an important historical event. It might actually raise a question of faith for us, as we are tempted not even to want to rejoice over Columbus and his voyage.
We know what happened when people followed him to the Americas. It wasn’t pretty; it was absolutely ugly. Europeans carried diseases to which native Americans had no immunity. Many of them also came with delusions of grandeur and dreams of conquest. Some were cruel. They enslaved and killed people. There’s no question about it.
The world around us sees these things. Often it asks why anyone would celebrate Columbus or anything about him. For us as Christians, this question about rejoicing on Columbus Day rides atop another: do we really believe that the rescue mission of Christ is the most important thing in the world? Do we believe it is more important than any political change? Is it even more important than a hideous manifestation of sin, including one on a continental scale?
In Genesis 8 we find a situation somewhat like that of Columbus. When Noah set foot out of the ark, he was in a sense entering a new world. The most important thing about it was not geographical or climatic change brought about by the great flood. The most important thing was this: God remained in this new world to give His blessings through His Word. His Word was there.
Noah believed that Word. Right away he built an altar and offered sacrifice. For his part, the Lord proclaimed still more promises. But the theme of this first post-flood divine service was not exhausted in rejoicing over God’s new assurance that the cycle of seasons would go forth uninterrupted. The truly remarkable thing was that Noah continued to call on the Name of the Lord Who had just wiped out a whole world populace and its civilization. Noah still trusted in this God and His mercy. In other words, the most important promise to the people in Genesis 8 was the one God had already made to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3: the promise of a Savior. Noah took God at His Word, and took comfort from it. Accordingly, he did not regard God as an Enemy Who had messed up the world and marooned him and his little family.
If there was any messing up to be done Noah’s immediate family would do it, and certainly Noah’s later descendants would. In the very next chapter of Genesis, Noah got drunk. His own son Ham mocked him. Later the people around Babel defiantly built their tower. The fresh start was not looking pretty. We know how that can be.
Of course, none of it took the Lord God by surprise. He said, after the flood as before, that the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth. In other words, even our most rudimentary mental energies — before they can aptly be called desires, let alone actions — are nothing but evil. The eventual desires and actions can be no better. You and I know how that goes, too, from bitter personal experience.
The most important thing in the post-flood world was not that human nature had changed. It had not. The big thing was that God and His gracious Word were still there, even though things were going to get very messy due to the sin that lies so deep in the human heart — yours and mine too.
When the promised Savior came and went to the cross, that also looked very messy. There was a lot of blood and gore. Anyone could see this much. But still more, as far as God was concerned this Crucified One was personally responsible for all human evil. He was Ham the mocker. He was the rebellious populace of Babel. Christ was bearing all the sin of all time, including the sins of Columbus and those who came after him. To God, Jesus was every greedy, cruel, death-dealing white man. He was also every sinful member of the native population. No one has clean hands. The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth. All the dirt and sin of the whole world had been washed onto Christ at His baptism, and at the cross He had to pay God’s justice what you and I owed. He died under the load of all that sin.
But God no longer holds it against Him. Therefore He rose on the third day. So God no longer holds the massive weight of sin against the world. In Christ there is finished forgiveness for all people of all time. It’s forgiveness for you.
The really new “new world” is not Columbus stepping onto the beach of some island. Nor was it Noah stepping out of the ark after the flood. It is Christ stepping forth from the tomb where sin could not condemn Him and death could not hold Him. This new creation comes to us in God’s creative Word. To you He says, “You are not guilty. I say you are righteous, with the righteousness of Christ. You are Jesus the Loving, the Compassionate, the Strong, the Helpful, the Devoted. You are My son because Jesus is your Brother.”
When people look at your life or mine, the sight is not pretty. There’s lots of sinful activity. Lurking behind that are sinful attitudes. Behind those lie the imaginations of our hearts, which are evil from youth. The most important thing in your life or mine is that God in Christ is blessing us through His Word. His Word is here. We are already made clean by the Word He has spoken to us. Because He lives, we live also. He even gives us faith to believe and so receive His Word of love and forgiveness. In Christ there is forgiveness for all, but people only have Christ in and through His Word. The Word continues God’s great rescue mission.
Therefore we can make bold to rejoice. Over five hundred years ago, God in His wisdom saw to it that His Word reached this part of the world. It has been here continuously ever since. At times it has been corrupted, contorted, or downright falsified. Yet wherever people have been able to hear the simple story of Jesus in the holy Gospel, confess the Creed, or pray the Lord’s Prayer, there has been power at work — power to bring about God’s new creation. It is the most important thing in the world. And it is the most important thing about the voyage of Columbus and its aftermath. Many of our contemporaries may not recognize this fact, but it becomes our privilege to point it out to them. For it is our privilege to point Jesus out to them.
Of course, things have not been pretty in the history of our continent. Why should this surprise us anywhere in a world where the imagination of all hearts is evil from youth? But Christ’s own rescue mission, which continues through His Word, gives us something in which to rejoice. By God’s grace, it is the most important thing in the world.