Perhaps it may turn out a sang,
Perhaps turn out a sermon.

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Monday, August 29, 2011

Plate Spinners

As for you, son of man, your people who talk together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, say to one another, each to his brother, ‘Come, and hear what the word is that comes from the Lord.’ And they come to you as people come, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear what you say but they will not do it; for with lustful talk in their mouths they act; their heart is set on their gain. And behold, you are to them like one who sings lustful songs with a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument, for they hear what you say, but they will not do it. When this comes-and come it will!-then they will know that a prophet has been among them.” — Ezekiel 33:30-33

Again we are considering how people respond to the word of God. Now, obviously, Ezekiel was a true prophet, called and empowered by the Spirit to speak the truth and bear witness with regard to the plan and purpose of God. A part — possibly the main part — of a prophet's job is to convey the meaning and significance of events. Ezekiel was telling his people that the capture of Jerusalem and the deportation of its inhabitants was more than merely a demonstration of Nebuchadnezzar's military prowess. God had sent Babylon against His own people as a chastisement, a means of confronting with their failures and of correcting them.

Paul reflects upon the purpose of Scripture in 2 Timothy 3:16, saying, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness ...". The Bible is great literature, though the beauty of its truth far surpasses the beauty of its words. It contains some history, but, more importantly, it contains historical insight. It gives a truthful and reasonable revelation of the creation of man (though not a scientific explanation), but it also shows the end and destiny of man, which is far more vital.

Those who are preaching the truth are generally compelling, though not necessarily dynamic speakers. We are all familiar with Jonathan Edwards' sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" as a seminal work of American literature. As a Baptist kid I would have imagined Edwards declaiming with characteristic preacher "ah-oooom" sing-song style. I was a little amused when I later learned that Edwards would never have done anything so crass. He read his sermons directly off the page, rarely even looking up at the congregation. There was no drama in his delivery. He would have considered such a thing ungodly. Edwards simply used the power inherent in Scripture to bring his congregation to its knees. The story goes that many hearers were stricken with conviction and/or terror to the point that they clung to the columns in the church, so vivid was their fear of falling into hell.

But even the preaching of "hellfire and brimstone" can become more entertainment than enlightenment. This was the case with those who heard Ezekiel. He was not preaching easy, smooth, or pleasant things, yet people who listened to him were not being transformed nor were they being prompted to obedience by the unalloyed truth. Ezekiel was merely an entertaining novelty act, a plate-spinner. How many can he keep in the air at once? How many will fall and break? Though mesmerized by his "act", they put no more value his message than they would have on a clever song. Some people seem to think that having a pastor or teacher who talks really tough and is uncompromising a kind of evangelical status symbol. Others may flock to churches where holiness is emphasized in order to inoculate themselves against either hell or conviction.

No matter how hard a person preaches or how much the sermons center on our sinfulness, our need for redemption, the power of the Cross, or any other biblical truth, the word will have an impact on us only if we take it personally and seriously. I have some family members who are following a very questionable and detrimental path of conduct. They are, nonetheless, prominent members of a local church. One of the neighbors who attends the same church remarked that the pastor "preaches right at them", but it elicits no apparent conviction or response. This brings to mind a couple of points. The first is that it would be much more effective for the church to ask them to step down from positions of leadership and influence until their behavior is consistent with their testimony. That's not going to happen since they currently control the deacon board.

(As an aside, I hate deacon boards in the typical Baptist/Assembly of God church since they are really "boards of directors". Biblically, deacons are servants under leadership — not decision-makers.)

The second thing that bothers me about the neighbor's statement is that she needs to receive the word on her own. I am not saying that this person is not living in obedience. Rather, it is always a distraction and a temptation to judge others when we start to think that someone else needs to hear what is being said or read. If God is speaking to me from Scripture or through someone else, my first thought should be to figure out how the word applies to me. I will not say that I have never received a "word" for another person — but usually it will be a word of encouragement rather correction or reproof.

If I find out a friend is involved in some flagrant misbehavior such as cheating on a spouse, I need to tell that person that he or she is wrong. That is pretty obvious. Paul tells us that if someone is caught in any transgression, the spiritual should "restore him in a spirit of gentleness". He tells us to be careful for such actions are dangerous for the one doing the restoration, "Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted."

We have to be careful at all times to maintain an attitude of humility, to never think we are better than the ones who are failing and faltering. Nor are we to think that we are immune to such transgressions. As the old song goes, “it is me, Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” Jesus did not say not to help our brother get the mote out of his eye. He simply warned us to, first, remove the log from our own that we might see clearly to help. If I realize that I am blinded by the massiveness of my own problems, I may be less likely to criticize others for their minor irritations. If I cannot see, I have to hear.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Spin the Prophet

Then all the commanders of the forces, and Johanan the son of Kareah and Jezaniah the son of Hoshaiah, and all the people from the least to the greatest, came near and said to Jeremiah the prophet, “Let our plea for mercy come before you, and pray to the Lord your God for us, for all this remnant—because we are left with but a few, as your eyes see us— that the Lord your God may show us the way we should go, and the thing that we should do.” Jeremiah the prophet said to them, “I have heard you. Behold, I will pray to the Lord your God according to your request, and whatever the Lord answers you I will tell you. I will keep nothing back from you.” Then they said to Jeremiah, “May the Lord be a true and faithful witness against us if we do not act according to all the word with which the Lord your God sends you to us. Whether it is good or bad, we will obey the voice of the Lord our God to whom we are sending you, that it may be well with us when we obey the voice of the Lord our God.” -- Jeremiah 42:1-6

These folks sound like the right kind of people with the right response to God’s word. They are seeking to know God’s will, and they assure the prophet that whatever he comes back with, they will do. Jeremiah’s credentials as a prophet were already well established. Nebuchadnezzar had taken Jerusalem just as Jeremiah had said he would. Many of the Jews had gone into Babylonian captivity, but a few had been left behind. They were uncertain of their future, fearful of what might happen next. They wondered if they should abandon the land of their ancestors and flee – perhaps back to Egypt, as that seemed the only nation strong enough to oppose the might of Babylon’s military machine.

Despite their claim of willing submission to God’s will, the people are already hinting that they do not quite trust God since what He says might be “good or bad”. I cannot say as I blame them. When tragedy strikes, it tends to unbalance our perspective. A good friend of mine lost her husband to heart failure a few days ago. They were just getting to the point of thinking about retirement, travel and enjoying life a little. Only a few months ago, they welcomed their first grandchild. I am sure my friend finds herself questioning the goodness of God. She no doubt still believes in Him, but it would be a rare person indeed who did not feel, to one degree or another, betrayed were they in her circumstances. Life owes us nothing, yet we have come to believe that karma is instant after all.

I will not quote the entirety of Jeremiah 42, but it is worth reading. After ten days, Jeremiah meets again with the remnant and tells them empathically that they must stay in Jerusalem and under no circumstances are they to go down to Egypt. It is a clear, unequivocal message. To flee to Egypt is certain disaster and death. Beginning in the 43rd chapter, we have the people’s response:

When Jeremiah finished speaking to all the people all these words of the Lord their God, with which the Lord their God had sent him to them, Azariah the son of Hoshaiah and Johanan the son of Kareah and all the insolent men said to Jeremiah, “You are telling a lie. The Lord our God did not send you to say, ‘Do not go to Egypt to live there,’ but Baruch the son of Neriah has set you against us, to deliver us into the hand of the Chaldeans, that they may kill us or take us into exile in Babylon.” So Johanan the son of Kareah and all the commanders of the forces and all the people did not obey the voice of the Lord, to remain in the land of Judah (Jeremiah 43:1-4)

The entire remnant was forced to relocate to Tahpanhes in Egypt. They even dragged a very reluctant Jeremiah along with them. What the Jews did was place themselves directly in the line of Babylon’s next conquest. Instead of fleeing to safety, they ran into the path of destruction.

I used to practice a form of bibliomancy, but I never took it too seriously since I would routinely reject passages until I hit one that I liked. Those who inquired of Jeremiah were not much ahead of me. They were really playing “spin the prophet”. They knew all along what they intended to do, but they were seeking a pretext to support their decision. Assuming that God wanted them out of Jerusalem, they expected Jeremiah to tell them to run away. Instead he assured them that God had not forsaken and was not going to forsake them. He would protect and provide for them if they were willing to remain in their place and be obedient.

We want to think that when God calls us to something He is calling us to an inevitable success. This is practically part of the gospel preached in churches across America. Yet we often see in the lives of saints, missionaries, and martyrs far less of what the world would define as success than we might expect. Was Eric Liddell a success as he died of an inoperable brain tumor in a World War II prison camp? Was Oswald Chambers a success dying of a ruptured appendix as a chaplain in World War I Egypt? Are Christians being persecuted and imprisoned in China or being sold into slavery in Africa or being murdered in Pakistan successful? Yes, they are. It is reported that Eric Liddell’s last words were, “It is complete surrender.” The issue is not what we are able to achieve in terms of fame or fortune, safety or security or status, but rather whether we are willing to allow God to live through us in power.

I used to think that “power” had something to do with visible and exciting gifts like words of knowledge, wisdom, and prophecy, or gifts of healing and miracles, or transformative preaching and teaching, or even talents like music and art. Those are, I believe, all part of the reality of the kingdom, but the power I need most is the power to make the right choice on the decision that is in my hand at the moment. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred I do not require a Voice From On High to advise me to do the right thing (or else), and if I make the right choice on 99 little things the 100th big thing will be a snap.

Jeremiah’s listeners, though, were hampered – as I am too often – by past failures. I have made the wrong choice too many times, and, when I hear the word or the still, small voice, I am worried. Perhaps after all those bad choices, I will be punished if I step out in obedience on this one. Thoughts like that haunt me all the time. Maybe I’m the only one. Maybe I’m wrong in thinking others might feel the same way. But it is Jeremiah himself who gives us the answer out of the midst of his weeping and lamentation: But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (Lamentations 3:21-23).

We can decide to make the right choice this time, to make the decision on what is before us in obedience to the Lord. At that point everything changes. We are on the right road – whether that road is one of prosperity or poverty. The road of obedience is the road of peace.

I have some friends, a family that is in the ministry – a husband, wife and some young children. I have known the wife since she was a little girl. I was at their wedding. They are almost like my own family. Right now they are preparing to go to a country that I cannot name for fear that I would further endanger them. They have learned a new language and the subtleties of a new culture. The husband will be working in a business. If their true purpose is exposed they will, at best, be deported. There is a chance someone could be imprisoned and charged with a crime. In my opinion, they are going into one of the most volatile and dangerous regions on earth at a time of great upheaval and potential disaster. A part of me says they are foolish to go and even more foolish to drag their children into such a hazardous situation. Yet, at the same time, I believe they are being obedient. I do not know if they will succeed in their endeavor, in one sense -- while the very act of going is already a success in a far more significant way. If they are imprisoned, if they are tortured, if they are subjected to atrocities, if they die, in the end, it will not matter if they are transformed by their “complete surrender”.

Perhaps you say, “I could never do that.” I say the same thing. But it is not my calling or likely yours. Nevertheless, our conformity to God’s will in whatever small matter is at hand is just as much a sacrifice in His sight as what seems to us the far greater trials my friends could face. All that matters is “complete surrender”.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Getting Back in the Groove

Now to clarify: hippie-dippie land is Austin, TX. I don't know what it is about the conjunction of government and academia, but it makes an otherwise prosperous and sensible place completely insane. Austin might be better than Madison, Wisconsin because the Texas legislature holds sessions only once every two years for, I think, four months. Most of the time the bow is unstrung.

The city has its positive aspects. It is not hard to get around. They have a Chuy's up on the north side so I don't have to go all the way downtown for my dose of "velvet Elvis". A lot of tech companies are there. The economy and the real estate market have remained solid. I remarked about one of my co-workers having a band, and someone said, "In Austin, everybody has a band." Live music is big. I didn't have time or opportunity to check any venues this time. On prior trips, there were still numerous SRV imitators roaming the Sixth Street scene. My colleague is a guitarist, but he sounds more like Santana than Stevie Ray.

Sadly, my schedule was too restricted to do anything other than wave in the general direction of Temple.

The weather was interesting. They are in the midst of a long drought and are on track to break the record for 100-plus degree days. The old record was 69 days. I think they will hit 70 days tomorrow. It was hot. Dry heat, right? When it's 105, it's hot. While they were making a big deal about the string of days over 100, the fact is that the average high in Austin in late July and early August is 98 degrees, so it doesn't take much variance to be into triple digits.

It is sad to see all the dry weather damage in parts of Oklahoma and north-central and central Texas. The Texas live oaks seem to be holding up pretty well and I don't think you can kill mesquite with Agent Orange, but many of the trees on the ridges in parts of eastern Oklahoma are already dried up and brown.

My nephew was kind enough to board our dog for a week. The cats still had plenty of food when I got back, and, though they seemed annoyed at being left on their own, we soon made up and everybody was happy. It was no vacation, but it was good to see some of my friends in person again. Nevertheless, it is always better to be home.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Sit Down, Shut Up, Hang On

For they are a rebellious people, lying children, children unwilling to hear the instruction of the Lord; who say to the seers, “Do not see,” and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions, leave the way, turn aside from the path, let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.” -- Isaiah 30:9-11

Here we have another, more pernicious response to the word of God and the truth. At the foot of Mount Sinai, the terrified Israelites in Exodus 20 cried out for a mediator, a prophet who would convey the Word of the Lord to them. They did not reject the truth. You need electricity, but the electrical circuits in your house cannot be hooked directly to the main power line without a disastrous result; you also need a transformer to step the power down so that it is usable and not destructive. Moses and the prophets who followed were transformers, men and women specially equipped to bring the Word down to a people whom God loved but who had little time to devote to Him.

In the times of Isaiah the prophet, however, the attitude was different. Those living in the kingdoms of Judah and Israel were no longer runaway slaves in the wilderness. They were a settled and fairly prosperous people who felt they knew how to run their own lives and make their own way. They had agendas to pursue, pleasures to seek out and enjoy. They were wise in their own sight and righteous by their own standards. They saw the prophets as old-fashioned, out-of-style relics of history who did not understand the ways and days in which they were living.

Isaiah was not a fundamentalist any more than was Job -- though I cannot say the same about Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, or Mushroom for that matter. For myself, the easy answers still come easily, and I can be placated by platitudes too much of the time. Those to whom Isaiah spoke preferred “smooth things” and “illusions” to the sometimes harsh, sometimes paradoxical, always challenging truth brought by God’s prophets. We know to stay away from the Gospel According To Oprah and related spiritual Twinkies, but we also must be wary of trying to make God fit into a Procrustean theology of health and happiness. Sometimes, the best response we can give is to admit in wonder that we have no idea what God is doing.

One reason I do not enjoy debating atheists is that in the course of argument I might slander God. I would not do it intentionally, yet in rushing to defend the Divine, I may fall into an entrenched fundamentalist position. As a fundamentalist, I am not wrong; I am just not fully right. I find myself reading through the arguments of Job’s friends and agreeing with them. The tendency is to say that God does this, and He would never do that; nevertheless, sometimes He must do exactly that, and, since He does, and since we cannot say that He is not Good, we have to say there are limits to His power or resort to verbal contortionists to explain how evil is really good. It is better to tell the truth even if it seems to cast a bad light on the Almighty.

Prophets are never going to be overly popular people. In fact, it is not unwise to assume, if an alleged prophet is universally well-received and highly spoken of, he or she is most likely a false prophet. Jesus concurs . Popular teachers and preachers and speakers of various kinds generally tell people what they want to hear. That is not always the truth – and very rarely the whole truth.

To take a current example, the economic woes of America are the result of years of political prophets telling us we could have something for nothing. “Don’t Tread On Me” is a good American motto, but we must be even more devoted to the standard from Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress that bore the letters TANSTAAFL -- There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. We have bought into the idea that money grows on trees or can be created out of thin air, that wealth means consumption rather than production, and that government spending can solve our problems. We heard the lies, and we believed them, not because they were true, but because they sounded good to us, they tickled our ears and our fancy. When those who told the truth spoke, we ignored them, mocked them, and pushed them off the stage. When they said we would have to pay in the long run, we laughed and replied that in the long run we would all be dead. We were all Epicureans, all Existentialists – if not in belief then in action.

When Isaiah spoke the harsh, unrelenting truth about the sins of God’s people and their need for repentance and returning, they replied, “Shut up!” They despised the words of the prophet; therefore he said:
Because you despise this word and trust in oppression and perverseness and rely on them, therefore this iniquity shall be to you like a breach in a high wall, bulging out, and about to collapse, whose breaking comes suddenly, in an instant; … smashed … ruthlessly …(Isaiah 30:12-14)
This is a message not only to the unbeliever who rejects Christ and prefers to hear words that do not cut and chasten, it is a message as well to the believer who must be pruned and purged in order to be fruitful. We must not just hear the word of God but allow those words to abide in us, just as Jesus said. The abiding truth will do its work of cleansing and purifying, of bringing us rest and restoration.

For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Mediator is the Message

Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” – Exodus 20:18-19

This is the “Jesus willies” on steroids. Not only is the presence and reality of God undeniable in this situation, it is frightening. I am sympathetic to these people because they were seeing their reality invaded; their very conception of what was real was called into question. It is hard to imagine that such an experience would not leave a person shaken, even terrified.

We are going to talk about responses to hearing the word of God – in a series, if I don’t get distracted by something shiny, and Exodus seems a good place to start. When I was younger and talked about it, I almost mocked these Israelites. How could they not want to experience God in such a powerful way? I have learned better. To request a mediator is actually a good and reasonable response. God “raw” and direct is too much. It shatters the necessary separation with such psychic and spiritual violence that the container of material existence is ripped apart. We might liken it to trying to catch Niagara Falls in a paper bag. We need a go-between, someone or something that can mitigate the violence of the ultimately Real, that will allow us to draw the truth through a straw rather than the proverbial fire hose.

Moses was transformed by his nearness to God such that, “… the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him” (Exodus 34:30). But even Moses, in his communion with God could not endure the direct light of Divine glory but only what we might call the after-glow (Exodus 33:17-23). We may not be certain what that means, exactly, but we know how it is described by Paul when he speaks of the Old Covenant being “put in place through angels by an intermediary” (Galatians 3:19). In other words Moses dealt primarily with the Angel of the Lord, a Theophany, or some kind of angelic manifestation which modulated the Divine Presence enough for a man to survive the encounter.

This brings us to Christ who is the one Mediator between God and man -- the Logos. What is unique about Jesus is not only is He the Mediator, He is the Message. According to Hebrews, the Father has “spoken to us by His Son” in a new kind of apocalypse, where the veil is removed and we can see what Moses longed to look upon, “the radiance of the glory of God” and, in the Man, “the exact imprint of His nature”.

It is not surprising then that as the Holy Spirit begins to reveal Christ to us, we get a little shaken up. We can understand Isaiah when he says: Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome things that we did not look for, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. (Emphasis mine)

Whoa!

Perhaps it is just me, but I find in myself a sort of ambivalence. I am all ready for God to “rend the heavens and come down” as long as He doesn’t actually, you know, come down. I will light the fire, but I don’t really expect the pot to boil. Yet that is what is going to happen at some point. If we continue to allow His Spirit to work on us and draw us, a time will come when Christ will become real to us and the solid earth will be bubbling beneath our feet. After that, I do not believe there is any turning back. We cannot return to Egypt, though it is possible to die in the wilderness, and it is just that irrevocability, I think, that causes us to be hesitant, to draw back from full contact, to cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus”, and to mumble “just not today.”

The answer is not to back away but to seek the human face of Jesus, the Son of Man -- His own preferred title. Not that the Son of Man will not still shake up our worldview, but we know that He is one of us despite being fully God, that He understands us, is touched with the feeling of our infirmities. Jesus knows what it means to live in a body formed from clay and filled with the animal cravings and weaknesses inherent in the meat nature. We need a mediator, and He is the best.