Sunday, July 19, 2015

Whether We Sleep or Wake: A Sermon in Memory of Rev. Melvin Stehr

From Genesis 3 through Revelation 20, this world is a tragic world. And because our lives, our psyches, were made to be responsive to the world around us, created to filter and reflect our circumstances, our lives are tragic lives in this fallen world. We know what it means to hunger and not be filled, what it means to thirst and not be quenched, what it means to yearn and not be satisfied. We experience the dreadful gap between how things ought to be and how they are, the chasm between God's design and the wispiness of our fragile life: “For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away” (James 4:14). And so, seeing the chasm in our woundedness, our sickness, and the inevitability of death stalking our every step, we respond to tragedy with grief.

Sometimes, when we're grieving, or when we see someone in the pains and passions of grief, we want to take a shortcut out of the grieving process. We want the quickest route back to sunny skies and the balmy summertime of the soul, away from the cold, cloud-choked doldrums and their dreadful drizzles of despair. We want to pave over the potholes in the road of life, pretend that smooth sailing on stormy seas is the norm. And so we invoke our array of platitudes, trying to prematurely leap from those choppy waters to terra firma.

Or sometimes, we're just so caught up in what the Bible says about the “joy of the Lord” that we can't see how the Christian life leaves any room for grief, no matter the circumstances. Just look at our hymns! “At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light / and the burden of my heart rolled away, / it was there by faith I received my sight, / and now I am happy all the day” – happy, happy, happy, is it any wonder we have so little room for grief and silence? So many classic hymns have a sequence that tells the story of a believer up through a confrontation with his or her own mortality, but we excise those final stanzas when we print our hymnals. When we sing “Amazing Grace,” who even knows the lost fifth verse about “when this flesh and heart shall fail, / and mortal life shall cease”? When we sing “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” what about the verse: “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, / soon bears us all away; / we fly forgotten, as a dream / dies at the opening day”? And though it's in our hymnal, how often do we meditate on some of the closing lines of “Rock of Ages, Cleft For Me” that deal with the time “while I draw this fleeting breath, / while my eye-strings break in death”? For most of us, not so often.

Why? Because in this country, we don't do the cross well. We're drawn to dazzling light, to messages of fantastic prosperity and instant healing. American churches are full of the truncated gospel of the quick fix. We have so little space for lament and outcry; we have no time for stillness in God's presence; if it doesn't resolve, our disquiet speaks volumes. Who preaches the grittiness of Leviticus, the mournful plaints of Lamentations, the dreary outlook of Ecclesiastes, or the psalms of woe? Who would stay to listen? We want a sanitized world of emotional highs and easy plots. Underlying many American churches is the unspoken conviction that the godly life is a life that either escapes tribulation altogether or else bears it undisturbed.

That is not Christianity. That is warmed-over Stoicism in pious coating – but Seneca didn't die on the cross for you. Jesus did, and he models the godly life. And in the Gospel of John, we read how the eyes of the Word-made-flesh dripped and gushed with hot tears in pained anguish over the graveside of his best friend Lazarus, whom he loved dearly (John 11:5). Witnessing the sorrows of his sister, the wailing of her companions, Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (John 11:33), and he himself “began to weep” (John 11:35). If Jesus, who knew that Lazarus' death wouldn't last even a few more hours, grieved in the face of that most poignant instance of tragedy, the marring of God's creation by death's invasion, who can deny that godliness and grief are compatible after all? “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning” (Ecclesiastes 7:4). Just so, the Apostle Paul “served the Lord with all humility and with tears” (Acts 20:19).

And so away with our platitudes, away with our shortcuts, away with our secret allegiance to prosperity preaching and our addiction to joyful noises. There is such a thing as holy lament, such a thing as sanctified suffering, such a thing as godly grief. But what is it that makes grief godly, if it can also be ungodly? The answer is hope – hope makes grief godly or ungodly, healthy or unhealthy, by its presence or absence. Paul writes to the Thessalonian believers in a time of distress to reassure them so that they “may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13) – not that they won't grieve, but that they won't grieve hopelessly. Hopeful grief is not in vain: “Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?” (Psalm 56:8).

Hope makes all the difference. And this hope is not wishful thinking, not an optimistic outlook, not a wistful expression of desire, like when we say, “I hope it doesn't rain today,” or, “I hope it doesn't get too hot out” – the latter hope being, alas, sorely dashed today. This hope is something else, something greater and more tangible. This hope is a faithful disposition that prioritizes God's promises over current transitory circumstances. That's what hope is. “It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the LORD” (Lamentations 3:26). Consider Abraham, Paul's hero of hope. Confronted with the physical reality of advanced age, God asked him to believe the impossible, the absurd, that he would yet father a son who might look upon him with his own eyes, maybe bear his mother's nose and charming smile. As far as the fertility of his own body, Abraham was “as good as dead” (Romans 4:19; Hebrews 11:11-12). Staring death in the face, both then and atop Mount Moriah when asked to make a stunning sacrifice, Abraham chose to look past what his eyes saw and choose faith in “the God who gives life to the dead” (Romans 4:17). Abraham chose the hopeful faith of resurrection. An irrational faith, a faith against reason? No, say the scriptures: “Abraham reasoned that God is able even to raise someone from the dead” (Hebrews 11:19). With reason daring to build on faith's foundation, Abraham saw hope lead him through the valley of the shadow of death and beyond.

Paul says that it's suffering that brings endurance, and endurance that builds character, and character that makes way for hope (Romans 5:3-4). Hope in God's promises emerges out of the endurance of suffering, not out of escape from suffering. Hope is not the opposite of grief, but actually is birthed through the wails of sorrow and distress, when grief is made fertile by faith. Hope is born from the psalmist's words, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping” (Psalm 6:6), ultimately issuing in the psalmist's relief that “the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping; the LORD has heard my supplication; the LORD accepts my prayer” (Psalm 6:8-9). But that's just it: there are two ways to grieve – fertile and infertile.

Many in this world grieve with no hope. They don't recognize that God has acted decisively in Jesus Christ, who “died and rose again” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). And in denying outright or giving no space in practice to this world-changing confession, they have to make do with hope-substitutes. Some might try to employ a universal optimism, an unfounded wistfulness that just anyone who dies must surely be in “a better place”. These are just the pirated trappings of real Christian piety, a boiled-down residue that treats heavenly life as a matter of due course and not as an astounding penultimate stage in the radical saga of God's grace bursting into the world in his Son and his Spirit. Those whose lives are hid with Christ in God really are in a better place – not because they were so good, but because Jesus was so good to them and in them (Colossians 3:3).

Or some who grieve with no hope, grieve in godless resignation. They might admit that death is the end, as it appears to the natural eye to be. They might confess that a person's story is, in a cosmic perspective, insignificant. They might concede that this proverbial “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” finally comes to a close when the heart stops beating; that its epilogue trails off as the casket and its vault are lowered into the earth; that there will be no sequel and no re-make; that “neither have they any more portion forever in anything that is done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:6). And they might try to evade the inevitable ticking clock of their own mortality through distraction. All that's left to do in the meantime is chase after the wind (Ecclesiastes 2:11). But this hopeless grief is too fearsome and vain and pointless a thing to stare in the face.

Yet one need not grieve a hopeless grief. One can grieve, but grieve not “as others do who have no hope.” Our grief can recognize that the Last Enemy has lost its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55). Our grief can recognize that the Last Enemy will be defeated and destroyed forever (1 Corinthians 15:26). Our grief can look forward in anticipation to the final victory given to us by God in Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57), the victory that swallows that Last Enemy up and puts it out of sight and out of mind for all eternity (1 Corinthians 15:54). Even our grief, our lament, our sorrow, our flood of tears, can drown the shattered jaw of our Last Enemy.

But what does it look like to overcome? What does it look like to conquer death? In light of the end of the story, the Apostle John calls for “the patience of the saints,” expressed in active obedience: “They keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus” (Revelation 14:12). We need this obedient, faithful patience – a patience expressly rooted and anchored in a God made known to us in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ; a God who knows what it's like to mourn, even what it's like to be buried in the tomb; a God who offers himself as the “Joy of the Desolate.” Only with such obedient, faithful patience can we have this certain conviction. Only then do “we have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Hebrews 6:19), a “hope in the glory of God” (Romans 5:2).

Through such hope, we know the last word on human existence is not, “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19). Not even close. Hear these words instead, recorded in the Revelation given to John: “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth.” Death is a curse, death is an enemy, make no mistake; but God holds its leash and uses it to precious ends, even now. Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord, having shown the patience of the saints, having kept the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus. And the Spirit answers, “They may rest from their labors, and their works do follow them” (Revelation 14:13).

Followed by their works they go
    Where their Head had gone before,
Reconciled by grace below;
    Grace had opened mercy's door:
Justified through faith alone,
    Here they knew their sins forgiven,
Here they laid their burden down,
    Hallowed, and made fit for heaven.   (Charles Wesley, Poetical Works 2:189-190)

Just twenty-four hours ago, beneath the heat of the day amidst the greenness of God's persevering earth, the Rev. Dr. Gordon R. Lewis recited the words of Revelation 14:13 in the small village of Pitman, standing at the graveside of the Rev. Melvin H. Stehr – a patient, obedient, and faithful servant of the Lord if ever I've known one. Not too many yards away, in that same hallowed ground, stands a fractured marker above the mortal remains of Melvin's great-grandmother Elizabeth Kehler, whose sixty-six years on this earth didn't last so long as Melvin's ample ninety-two. And on that slim stone slab, barely above the blades of grass, is etched a reference to that very verse. So, like his believing fathers and faithful mothers before him, we know that Melvin is blessed with rest from his labors. It may fairly be said – nor could be gainsaid – that all the way, his Savior led him. He lives on now as a blessed “upper saint / who can praise and never faint, / gazing on [God] evermore / and with flaming heart adore.” The earth has spun on its axis a mere five times since he departed to be with Christ and so gained even in the tragedy of death (Philippians 1:21-23). And while no earthly riches or titles could go where he's gone, the works God worked through him do follow him – and oh, what works! Over a century ago, the great Evangelical preacher William Yost closed his Reminiscences with these reflections:

Had I wrought upon marble, it would perish; had I worked upon brass, time would efface it; had I reared magnificent temples and splendid palaces, they would crumble into dust; but having wrought upon immortal minds and imbued them with sacred principles, with the fear of God, I have engraven upon their tablets something which time can not efface, but which will brighten to all eternity.

As an ardent preacher of the word of God and a minister of his grace, Melvin, too, engraved upon immortal minds the sacred principles that will brighten to all eternity in the lives of each man, woman, and child here today, and so many others who are not – as we should all aspire to do, all being servants of the grace of God and doers of his word. And so the epitaph that Charles Wesley wrote for Thomas Forfitt could be affixed to Melvin just as perfectly, and may we live worthily of it likewise:

Of gracious riches full and happy days,
    A Christian here concludes his glorious race;
Disciple of a meek and lowly Lord,
    He labored on and longed for his reward,
'Til, ripe for bliss, he laid his body down,
    And faithful unto death, received the crown.   (Charles Wesley, Poetical Works 8:434)

What's more, those who rest from their labors now will one day return with Christ, being the first to rise: “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. … For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:14-16), being “revealed with him in glory” (Colossians 3:4). The credits have not rolled on the life of Melvin Stehr, nor Elizabeth Kehler, nor William Yost, nor any of our blessed and beloved who've died in the Lord and gone to join the church triumphant. The credits have not rolled. Only the pause button has been pressed, giving rest to them before the face of God and calling us to live, even through grief, in the suspenseful silence of the still screen. But that silence, however truly long and pained and mournful for us to whom a thousands years are a thousand years and not a day (cf. 2 Peter 3:8), lasts only until Jesus descends with the exuberant exclamation, “The pause is over; press play!” And oh, the harmony that awaits when all those stories resume and when we who remain catch up with them!

In light of God's promises, we have a sure and certain hope that shapes the patterns of our grieving. Because we have faith that “Christ died for us” and hope that “whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him” (1 Thessalonians 5:10), we live out this hope socially in the church. We comfort one another, we build each other up, bearing one another's burdens (Galatians 6:2), sharing our griefs and encouraging one another in bearing them: “Comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). Ah, “even as also ye do” – because at Pequea as in Thessaloniki, we see many examplars of hopeful grief in the face of tragedy. Look around, and you'll see people who know how to put hope into practice.

In supporting each other, our grief does not vanish. It does not disappear in a flash of light. It does not immediately subside and restore us to the freshness of spring. But it becomes something else, something greater than itself, something holy. It becomes part of the life of Christ's body on earth, belonging to that “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). And by being made Christ's grief and one another's grief, even our grief becomes a living witness to the hope that will never, ever, ever disappoint (Romans 5:5). That hope will prove true in its time, through the patience of the saints bearing burdens together in obedience to Jesus, our faithful Lord, a Lord who “doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:33), a Lord who sends his Spirit of Consolation to guide the patient through times of grief and trial. And when the time has come, “may those who sow in tears, reap with shouts of joy” (Psalm 126:5) in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Bread for the Journey: A Communion Message

Has anyone here ever read any of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings novels, or seen the movie adaptations? If you have, then you might remember how they tell the story of the Fellowship of the Ring – that's the title of the first book – and the journey that this diverse band of volunteers takes on a quest to protect Middle-Earth from the threat posed by the One Ring. And you might even remember that, late in the first part of the trilogy, the members of the Fellowship receive a rare gift from the Elves of food for the journey. Not just any food, but a thin wafer called lembas, “waybread,” “journey-bread,” a single cake of which “will keep a traveler on his feet for a day of long labor,” a “long day's march” through the hostile wilderness. No need for hunting, no need for foraging, this is the daily bread intended to get the Fellowship through their task. Because Tolkien, as a committed Christian, knew a biblical truth: you need bread for the journey.

The Israelites learned that lesson the hard way. As the children of Israel came through the wilderness, they fell into the habit of that most common human pastime: complaining. In Egyptian slavery, they remembered, they were fed. In Egyptian slavery, they “sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread” (Exodus 16:3). Scratch out the hardships of labor and the constant abuse, and slavery looks like a nice and easy deal. It promises security and sufficiency: as kept people, you get your rations of food and water, you get taken care of, you don't have to worry about it, because all the thinking's been done for you. That's what the Israelites want. Freedom is a hard thing, because it requires faith to receive food from above.

But that's exactly what God offers the whining Israelites: “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day,” or two days' worth, if it's before the Sabbath (Exodus 16:4-5). And just so, every morning “there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance,” the “grain of heaven” and “bread of angels” that the LORD gave them to eat (Exodus 16:14-15; Psalm 78:24-25). And a jar of manna was saved to be stored in the Ark of the Covenant, reminding Israel forever about how God had given them bread for the journey (Exodus 16:32-34). They ate it until they reached the border of the promised land; for forty years of nomadic life, this was what got them through each day (Exodus 16:35).

The Israelites really did get a daily supply of bread for the journey. Six mornings a week, it appeared, and they just had to pick it up. Between that and a regular diet of quail, they were set! This was real freedom: active trust in God, going forth to gather on the days he said it'd be there, and staying home to rest on the seventh day. Yet the story of Israel in the wilderness stands as a warning. As a generation, they did not have enough faith to make it to the promised land after all: “I was angry with that generation,” God says, and in that anger, he swore that the unfaithful of even this elect nation wouldn't enter his rest (Hebrews 3:10-11). They heard the good news, they got the gospel of their day, but they “failed to enter because of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:6). “They had no faith in God, and did not trust his saving power” (Psalm 78:22). He fed them for the desert, but there they would stay, their journey unfinished.

But we too are on a journey. In this life, all our days are a wandering in the wilderness, roaming through the desert of a world that's not our home. Like the patriarchs, we're “strangers and foreigners on the earth,” desiring “a better country” (Hebrews 11:13, 16). The promise that was set before Israel then “is still open” for us (Hebrews 4:1). Only those who live by faith can enter God's holy rest, the true and greater promised land that fills the whole world in the age to come (Hebrews 4:3). “Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs” (Hebrews 4:11). But as we journey as strangers through this strange land, pressing onward for a hope of something greater, we need bread for the journey.

Two thousand years ago, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, a crowd tried following Jesus for all the wrong reasons. Hungry in body and denying the hunger of their souls, they'd stick with anyone who would put bread in their stomachs. So after Jesus fed five thousand men, not even counting the women and children, they were ready to join his retinue. Like the Israelites longing for Egypt, their allegiance was for sale. The price would just be a free lunch.

Jesus challenged their self-serving quest to be satisfied with a free lunch: “Don't work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:27). They protest: they want manna, the same thing Moses gave them in the desert (John 6:31). Jesus corrects them: in their devotion to Moses, they've forgotten that it came from the God whom Jesus calls “Father,” a God who gives “true bread from heaven” to “give life to the world” (John 6:32-33). They say they want it, not getting what he means.

Jesus explains: he himself is the Bread of Heaven, the True Manna, the Life-Giver. Jesus is the Bread who satisfies every hunger: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry” (John 6:35). But the trouble with this crowd of fairweather followers is that, even having seen Jesus and the sign he already worked, they aren't ready to trust him unless bare physical nourishment without work is a daily occurrence (John 6:36). They care nothing for the Signified, only for the sign. They won't believe him unless he keeps things simple, as simple as food on a plate they can touch and taste with their tongues. They dismiss his claim to be from heaven, not realizing who he really is. In their shallow presumption, they think they know Jesus (John 6:42). They couldn't be more wrong.

I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, and they died” (John 6:48-49). The Israelites in the wilderness lacked faith, so even though they ate the manna daily, it didn't get them to the end of their quest. Their journey fell short, even with daily bread. Daily bread isn't enough apart from faith. But with faith, the real manna lasts: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. … Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:51, 53). To feed faithfully on Jesus is to abide in him, and have his life abide in you, “so whoever eats me will live because of me” (John 6:56-57).

Jesus is the solution. As we journey through the wilderness, we know what it means to hunger. We know what it means to come up short. We have so many cravings. God made us with a God-shaped hole that only he can fill. No fleeting pleasures can fill that gap. Not even angel's food cake shipped down from the clouds will do the trick. Jesus is the only one who satisfies. You can't be satisfied, not in the depths of your soul, without the meal that he gives, where the Lord is at once Host and Feast, offering himself to keep our world in motion as we trek daily onward toward the true land of promise, the new creation. And he invites us to his table, not for any ordinary food, but for overcomers to taste their share of “the hidden manna,” the real deal (Revelation 2:17). We don't seek him for what he can do for us. We seek him because he's Jesus. He isn't the means to an end; he is the end, he is the goal, he is the fullness, he is pure satisfaction and perfect joy. And this perfect joy sanctifies the stuff of daily life – a loaf of bread, a cup of the fruit of the vine – and makes it grace, a gift from Jesus of Jesus.

Every time we celebrate the Lord's Supper, we dine with him, and we dine on him, as he gives himself in the eucharist as the viaticum, the “way-bread,” the lembas to sustain our fellowship all this life's journey through and to strengthen us for a Christ-sized task. If you're feeling drained and depleted, seeing the long and hard road ahead, come to this table. If you're feeling distracted and dismayed, unsure of your purpose, wavering in your resolve, come to this table. If you're feeling sorrowed and in doubt, wondering why the road is so dangerous, come to this table. If you're feeling strong, so strong you could almost delude yourself into thinking that you can gain all the sustenance you need by sucking your own soul like a baby sucks his thumb, come to this table. “For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink,” he says, and those who eat and drink at this table, by grace and through faith receiving it as a sacred sharing in Jesus Christ himself, “have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:54-55). Eat this food in faith, and this fellowship, this Communion of the Saints, will endure beyond death, and in the true undying lands, we'll feast again with all our fellows whose journey has closed – and with our Host himself, knowing as we're known, seeing face-to-face at last. So come in faith, come to life, come to this table.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Cyrus for President: An Independence Day Sermon

On the occasion of the Fourth of July, when Americans everywhere celebrate the foundation of our nation, it's important for we as Christians to reflect on what a nation is, what a nation can be, what roles a nation can play in the plans of Almighty God. As Peter Leithart writes, “Empires may be towers and cities raised in rebellion against God, rods that crush, or sanctuaries and saviors for the faithful.” I'd like to suggest that, between the Bible and Christian history, we're given six general models – not even counting Israel – for what a nation or empire can be like. Now, throughout the writings of the biblical prophets, the great Gentile empires are always compared to wild animals, sometimes monsters. For instance, Daniel prophetically sees Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome as “four great beasts” who rose up “out of the sea,” the Gentile world (Daniel 7:3). But in his vision, all of them are finally trumped by “one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven” to receive an everlasting rule from the hands of God the Father so that “all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:13-14). This human figure represents Jesus as the Messiah, standing for all of faithful Israel, the real humanity following Adam's vocation to exercise righteous dominion over the beasts of the earth – including the nations. And kings and nations are judged by how they treat the true humanity, the offspring of faithful Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).

So the first model, at one extreme, is that of a vicious beast. That's the sort of portrayal we get in Revelation: a beast “allowed to make war against the saints and conquer them” (Revelation 13:7). A nation who's a vicious beast is an active persecutor of God's people, using violence and bloodshed against them. In at least that respect, and probably more, a Beast-Nation does not respect human rights or liberties. If God's people live within the borders of a Beast-Nation, we will personally know martyrs who died for the faith we share. Look at Christian villagers in the regions ISIS has captured. And it was Babylon being beastly that “burned the house of God, broke down the wall of Jerusalem, burned all its palaces with fire, and destroyed all its precious vessels” (2 Chronicles 36:19), killing even in the sanctuary with “no compassion” (2 Chronicles 36:17). But never lose hope: the Last Adam is a beast-tamer extraordinaire.

I think a second model can be found in Genesis 10-11, the story of Nimrod's city-building leading up to the Tower of Babel. In that story, all the people of the land were united in one common project, a city and a tower, having one common confession of faith or unfaith – and it was not faith in God's promises. A Babel-Nation may not use violence against God's people, but even if it doesn't, it suppresses any dissent from the core ideas by which it operates. Many Muslim-majority nations would be Babel-Nations – God's people are on the social fringes, and if there isn't outright physical violence against us, still we're marginalized from having much of a public Christian presence because it doesn't fit with the totalizing consensus of society that brooks no rivals.

A third model is shown in Babylon under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar, or Persia under the rule of Xerxes. These nations are very conflicted as to how they want to treat God's people. Sometimes, truly vocal believers – people who are genuine disciples, committed to being disciples in every area of their lives, including public life – can rise to high positions and wield some influence. Think of Daniel as one of Nebuchadnezzar's lead advisors (Daniel 2:48-49). Think of Esther as the unwitting queen of Xerxes “for just such a time as this” (Esther 4:14), and Mordecai later raised to second-in-command (Esther 10:3). But serious believers are still the exception among the elite power-brokers and culture-makers, and even the lives of a Daniel or an Esther are fraught with danger. Because that kind of rule can take an abrupt turn toward Babel or even beastly traits. Nebuchadnezzar went from honoring Daniel and his three friends to ordering Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to be thrown into a furnace for not worshipping his idol (Daniel 3:8-23). Xerxes was all too ready to listen to Haman's Hitler-esque schemes (Esther 3:6-11).

A fourth model, I think, is suggested by Persia under the rule of Xerxes' grandfather Cyrus the Great. Now this is finally a different sort of kingdom! As Cyrus was committed to practicing it, the Persian style of rule was based on a healthy kind of pluralism. When he conquered Babylon, even the Babylonians celebrated him as a liberator. Cyrus intentionally showed respect to every kind of people who lived under his rule, restoring temples and sanctuaries all through his domain; and even though Isaiah made clear in advance that Cyrus was a pagan rather than a believer, still he's presented as a “messiah,” chosen by God to be a protector of his people (Isaiah 45:1-5), allowing them to return to their land and supporting them in their good endeavors (Ezra 1:3-5). A Daniel can survive a Nebuchadnezzar, but Daniel “prospered during … the reign of Cyrus” (Daniel 6:28). The American pastor John Murray, in a sermon given in November 1779, observed:

Sometimes the great Deliverer chooses a pebble from their own brook to prostrate their most gigantic oppressors, and sometimes he moves the heart of an alien to restore them the liberty which their own kings overthrew. Thus Cyrus a pagan prince, unconnected by nation, and by religion an enemy, monarch of the empire that had persecuted their fathers, that had razed their cities, abolished their ordinances and levelled their temple to the ground. – Cyrus, stirred up by the Lord alone, unsolicited by men, and incapable of detriment from any plot of his prisoners, proclaims the remains of oppressed Israel, free and independent in their greatest privileges, those of the religion of the God of their fathers, he rouses every dormant principle of patriotism among them to exert itself on the occasion for the re-establishment of their invaluable liberties, and freely furnishes the undertakers of the work with treasures and all things necessary for the full accomplishment of the purpose.

For the last two models, we have to jump out of the Bible and into the first centuries of the church. After living through some rather beastly emperors, the church was thrilled and relieved when Constantine came to power and became the first Roman ruler to bow the knee to Jesus. Constantine was far, far from perfect, but he made it legal to be a Christian, and because he was personally also a believer, he showered the church with newfound privileges, and some Christian values did impact the laws he made. He didn't initially ban or outright persecute those who weren't part of the church, though he valued religious unity, so he meddled at times in the church's affairs to make sure of it. And by the end of his rule, he was giving orders to tear down pagan temples. Think of him as veering toward a role-reversed Babel style, where it's professing Christians who seek to exclude and marginalize others from acting according to their convictions.

And finally, several decades after Constantine ruled, the emperor Theodosius came to power. Where Constantine just made the church tolerated and then privileged, Theodosius made orthodox Christianity the only legal religion. Visiting the surviving pagan temples became a criminal offense, so did pagan sacrifices, pagan holidays became mandatory workdays, and he refused to give legal protection to pagans or their shrines from mob attacks. If Constantine was working toward a role-reversed Babel, Theodosius waded toward the waters of a role-reversed Beast.

So what was America founded to be? The colonists often took the imagery of Israel and applied it to themselves. They were the new Hebrews, fleeing a new Pharaoh. They were a nation of Davids, pitted against the Goliath of the British Empire. And there are some legitimate parallels there, but also problems. America is not a new Israel, founded by God on God's law and chosen among all peoples of the earth to be the light of the nations. The reason is, there's already a New Israel in town. You've probably heard of it: It's called the church. And from Puritan New England to today, sometimes we've let America get away with pretending to be what only the church is, putting a star-spangled banner where only Christ crucified belongs.

Was America founded to be a “Christian nation,” in the style of Constantine or Theodosius? No, not in that way. The founding fathers of the United States were dead-set against that idea. Their ancestors had run away from exactly that background. For hundreds and hundreds of years, European civilization had been rooted in variations of the Theodosian idea. And when the apparent unity of a Christian Europe was shattered in the Reformation, it was this Theodosian approach that led to massive religious wars – as James Madison called them, “vain attempts of the secular arm to extinguish religious discord by proscribing all difference in religious opinion.” Fleeing from Theodosian nations, plenty of religious refugees made their way to the New World, setting up colonies that kept the Theodosianism to a smaller scale.

By the time of the Revolution, it was clear that no national Theodosianism would work, and many people were just sick and tired of it. So the First Amendment was passed, prohibiting any federal law either creating or removing any establishment of an official church; and in time, our distaste for the Theodosian experiment did away with what few state churches there still were. Many of the Founding Fathers weren't orthodox Christians themselves, though plenty others certainly were. And they had plenty of differences about the proper role of religion in governing America. But these deists, Unitarians, mainliners, and evangelicals all did finally agree on a form of pluralism that would shelter liberty, allow people to practice their religion in public and private as they saw fit, and recognize that this new social project was built on the bedrock of recognizing God as a Creator who gives “unalienable rights” that no government has a right to alter or abolish, knowing that “the Most High rules in the kingdom of men” (Daniel 4:25).

If by “Christian nation,” we mean a Theodosian or even a really Constantinian nation, then we neither are one nor were meant to be one – nor were we meant to be a secularist Babel, either. The nation's first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, while he wrote that “it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest, of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers” – and by 'Christian nation', he just meant the desirable social fact that most Americans claimed to be Christians – he also stressed in the same letter that “real Christians will abstain from violating the rights of others.” And James Madison famously denounced the idea that “the civil magistrate is a competent judge of religious truth, or that he may employ religion as an engine of civil policy.” Madison declared that “the religion, then, of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate,” since our responsibilities before God are older and more important than our duties to any civil society. “As servants of God, live as free people, yet don't use your freedom as a pretext for evil” (1 Peter 2:16), including forcing the gospel on those who can yet be won with winsome and gentle witness to Jesus Christ.

So what is the United States supposed to be? What are our ideals? Over thirty years ago, Richard John Neuhaus, wrote his book The Naked Public Square, challenging both Christians who wanted a Theodosius-like dominance over the state and secularists who wanted a Babel-style removal of religious voices from public life. He offered these as “characteristics of the project we would call America”:

...a devotion to liberal democracy, a near obsession with civil liberties, a relatively open market economy, the aspiration toward equality of opportunity, a commitment to an institutionalized balancing of powers and countervailing forces, and a readiness to defend this kind of social experiment, if necessary, by military force.

To me, that doesn't sound like Theodosius or even Constantine, and it doesn't sound like a Beast or even a Babel. But it might make Cyrus nod in approval. It's no surprise: many of the Founding Fathers, especially Jefferson, considered Cyrus to be a personal hero. And from my reading of what the Bible says about governments, that's a good thing. The sweet spot is somewhere between Constantine and Cyrus, and probably closer to the latter – especially a Cyrus who's heard and believed the gospel of God's kingdom. But I think the Christian voter would better to mark a ballot next to even a pagan Cyrus than next to either a theocratic Theodosius or a secularist Nimrod – and heaven knows we've elected our fair share of them in recent decades, haven't we?

Knowing that the Old Testament carefully balanced the governing institutions of Israel – making sure that the monarchy, the judges, the priesthood, and the prophets could in principle keep one another in balance under the rule of law – so the Founding Fathers recognized the need to keep federal, state, local governments, executive, legislative, and judicial branches, all in balance. Imbalanced power of any of them was one of their greatest concerns. And above all, they recognized from the start that natural rights are “endowed” by God and only “secured” by government, which has no rightful authority either to grant them or abridge them – so said the Continental Congress 239 years ago.

As we all have seen, the United States of today is not really a Cyrus-Nation, neither the sort it was founded to be nor an improved version. No surprise – good leadership needs constant upkeep, and even Cyrus's own son Cambyses was somewhat of a tyrant. No, America is probably now more of a Nebuchadnezzar-Nation, and the past several years have seen more and more of a tilt toward Babel. On some select issues, America has improved over the last half-century, but in its relationship to religious liberty and to a healthy moral culture, not so much. In the face of a very post-Christian state of affairs, it's easy for us to complain. It's easy to condemn. But on the twenty-third anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence, a pastor named Cyprian Strong preached:

As long as the people of the United States are well-informed and virtuous, so long they will be free, and their government uncorrupted. It is in their power, to remedy the evils, arising from having wicked and designing men at the head of government – they can lift up and pull down at pleasure. If government be not wisely administered, the fault must be in the people; for the frequent election of every branch of the national legislature, if wisely executed, is a sufficient remedy to all the mischiefs arising from a corrupt administration. … Our rulers, or those who stand at the head of our national government, will be just such men as we are pleased to elect. … Our danger arises from sloth and inattention on one hand, and from prejudices and lusts on the other. It is in the power of the people, to have just such men and just such an administration as they please. If electors are without information, and will give in their suffrages at random – if they will suffer themselves to be wheedled by designing men and artful demagogues, they may forge their own chains and rivet them.

It's almost hard to believe that Rev. Strong said that in 1799 and not 2014, isn't it? But who do we have to blame, if not a divided visible church that can't even agree on the authority of Scripture? Who do we have to blame, if not a church that's bought into the idea that religion is private, or a church that oversteps its bounds by endorsing countless policy recommendations on issues where Christians can fairly differ? Who do we have to blame, if not a church that cares more for the party affiliation of a politician and less for Christian virtues of love, kindness, and Christ-like truth-telling to dominate the style of political discourse itself? And yet still we, even as Christians, so often choose to reflect the same partisan hostilities of a perpetually outraged world.

America was a Cyrus-Nation – at least in theory, not always in practice. But one function of the Fourth of July is to call us back, not to America-the-Nation, but America-the-Notion – to judge the law and culture in light of the idea (for they've always fallen short), and the idea in light of the gospel (for America-the-Notion, too, falls short of God's kingdom). America is now a Nebuchadnezzar-Nation at best. What is the church's job in a Nebuchadnezzar-Nation? Exactly what God told the exiles through Jeremiah: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the peace of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its peace you will find your peace” (Jeremiah 29:5-7).

We live out our lives as witnesses to another way of living, a way Babylon has forgotten. We stay strong, we remain committed, we do not assimilate, we do not consign ourselves to shrinking away to oblivion. We “obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29), but still we “honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17). We work for peace and for the benefit of everyone, and we pray without ceasing. Don't you think Daniel prayed for Nebuchadnezzar? Don't you think Zerubbabel prayed for Cyrus? Don't you think Paul prayed for Nero? When the opportunity comes to have a hand in how the nation is governed, we work to make it more beneficial for all – not defending our own individual rights (though Paul wasn't shy about asserting his, if he thought it would be useful to his ministry [Acts 16:35-39; 22:25-30]), but standing up for our brothers and sisters and neighbors for the sake of all, knowing that a nation is blessed in blessing Abraham's children (Genesis 12:3) – and Abraham is the father of those whose faith is anchored in Jesus Christ, who died and rose again and has an eternal kingship (Romans 4:16-17; Daniel 7:14).

So with allegiance to Christ and love for America under God, we act by votes, prayer, and Christian witness to put Cyrus in the White House, Cyrus in the governor's mansion, Cyrus in the legislature, Cyrus in the courts – not just for our sake, but to “seek the peace of the city” on behalf of all races, all generations, all creeds, and to support a framework where the gospel can fairly meet and fairly woo in the public square. But our labors in America can never be allowed to obscure our loyalty to God's kingdom above all else. And if time should come that we have little clout in American law and culture, then may our faith remain in the God who raised up Cyrus at just the right time, the God seen with hands and feet nailed to government-issue wood to appease the bloodlust of a mob, the God who promises to make his power abundantly clear precisely in our weakness. In our strength or in our weakness, from the mainstream or from the margins, may God use us to bless America – and all the world – by preaching in word, in deed, and in attitude the gospel of a crucified and risen Savior. For, in the words of Revolutionary-era minister Levi Hart:

What is English liberty, what is American freedom, when compared with the glorious liberty of the sons of God? And what is slavery under the galling yoke of oppression, to the hard bondage of sin and Satan? Let the hitherto willing slaves of sin and Satan then rouse up – there is now an opportunity to escape from bondage; there is one come to preach deliverance to the captives, and the opening the prison to them who are bound. Jesus Christ, the mighty King and Savior, the scourge of tyrants, and destroyer of sin and Satan, the assertor, the giver and supporter of original, perfect freedom: he sets open your prison doors, knocks off your chains, and calls you to come forth.

Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for “the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free. … You have been called to liberty,” writes Paul, “Only, don't use your liberty as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but by love serve one another, for the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:1, 13-14).

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Defying Amaziah: A Sunday-School Lesson on Amos 7-9 for Our Time

As we've been working our way through the Book of the Prophet Amos this month, we've finally come to the end. And while our lesson manual only calls for the bulk of Amos 8, I think current events require us to zoom out a bit and include the context, looking at Amos 7-9. In these chapters, Amos gets a sequence of vision-messages: God sort of brainstorms with Amos through riddles and pictures. In chapter seven, there are three of them. In the wake of threatening that he was “raising up against you a nation, O House of Israel” (Amos 6:14), God shows Amos a massive swarm of locusts who would consume all the vegetation of the whole land (Amos 7:1-2). But Amos objects that the judgment is too harsh. It's overkill, he says, so God moves on to option two: a shower of fire that would burn the land to a crisp (Amos 7:4). Again, Amos objects: “O Lord God, cease, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!” (Amos 7:5), and for a second time, God relents and cancels the proposal (Amos 7:6).

Finally, there's a third vision, and God asks Amos to describe it. Amos sees it for what it is: a plumb line. God is standing next to a wall built using a plumb line, and there he is, holding the plumb line (Amos 7:7). The wall is being compared to the original standard. And that's exactly what's happening: This plumb line is God's red line, the final line, the one Israel does not get to cross and survive. He says that he's “setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by,” never again spare them or look the other way, never again back down. The plumb line is the last straw (Amos 7:8).

Through Amos, God delivers a final pronouncement that “the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with a sword” (Amos 7:9). In short, the climax of these three oracles is a judgment against Israel's government and against the form of religious worship officially endorsed by the state. All the organs of official state ideology are subject to God's judgment because of the way they've collaborated with the sinful desires of the Israelite leisure class, who feel that they can bend God's laws to their whims.

Naturally, this threatens the gatekeepers of public opinion, the propagandists of the party line. That's really what Amaziah is. Amaziah is introduced to the action here: his title is “priest of Bethel,” which is the headquarters of Israel's state-sponsored pagan cult, the established state religion – or, perhaps, irreligion. As soon as he hears that Amos has declared a challenge to the state's idols, he springs into action. Amaziah sends a letter to Jeroboam II, Israel's king at the time, and lodges an official complaint, accusing Amos of treason and of upsetting the status quo. In the very halls of power, Amos has dared to speak against the state. And as in any tyranny, that can't go indefinitely unpunished, because “the land is not able to bear all his words” (Amos 7:10). Amos is officially a rabble-rouser, a dissident. He's the exception to tolerance, he's a threat to civil order, he must be stopped.

So with a complaint lodged with the king, Amaziah takes it upon himself to confront Amos. Amaziah tells him to take his trade and pack up his bags and go home to Judah, because no one in Israel wants what he's selling (Amos 7:12). Amaziah wants to have Amos kicked out of Israel, excommunicated from society as a whole, because his challenge to state ideology is just intolerable. Amaziah is very clear: he does not want Amos prophesying at Bethel, “for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom” (Amos 7:13). There's no place for Amos' kind in the public square, Amaziah makes clear. If Amos wants to worship God in private, he's welcome – for now – but the moment he tries to live his public life in society on that basis, he's crossed the line where Amaziah takes his stand. The solution is censorship of speech and of action: “Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac” (Amos 7:16). It's the same as when the Sanhedrin freed Peter and John but “ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). Amos can talk about whatever else he wants, but he'd best not dare touch the sacred cows in the state herd. He can preach personal conversion to his heart's content, thanks to the state's oh-so-generous permission, but now he's preaching politics, and that breaks all the rules.

It's a remarkably familiar story, when put in those terms.  One of my favorite authors, G. K. Chesterton, once famously said, “Once abolish the God, and the Government becomes the God.” Just two days ago, our own government – in terms of the judicial branch of the federal government – took a decisive stand saying that marriage is officially something other than what God made it, and that every state government absolutely must play make-believe with the same legal fiction. Paul said in Romans 1 that a confusion of the distinctions between created things is the closest sin, as an idea, to idolatry itself, the confusion of the distinction between creature and Creator. The de facto law of our land now enshrines confusion as a god – a culturally popular one, to boot – in our fractured national pantheon and demands us to bow the knee to Baal. You can worship whoever you want in private, but your public actions – business decisions, political or charitable donations, acts of speech – will in time be judged for compliance with the law of this “temple of the kingdom.” As in Jeroboam's Israel, so in five justices' America.

How does Amos respond to Amaziah's ruling of exclusion from Israelite society? Amaziah had made a claim, an accusation against Amos, that Amos is just out to “earn [his] bread” in high-profile places through his prophetic ministry. Amaziah accuses Amos of being motivated by the quest for personal benefit. Amaziah has become so compromised that he can't imagine being motivated by a conviction about truth. Motives that pure are actually incomprehensible to Amaziah. He doesn't think in terms of truth; he thinks in terms of interests. About thirty years ago, the late Richard John Neuhaus – one of the leading thinkers on issues of church and state in America – wrote:

Without a transcendent or religious point of reference, conflicts of values cannot be resolved; there can only be procedures for their temporary accommodation. Conflicts over values are viewed not as conflicts between contending truths but as conflicts between contending interests. … In a thoroughly secular society, notions of what is morally excellent or morally base are not publicly admissible. That is, they are not admissible as moral judgment: they have public status only as they reflect the “interests” of those who hold them. … In that approach, as we have seen, all values and all truth claims are reduced to the status of individualistic “interests.”

Amaziah is alive in America today! Just like Amaziah, many of the architects of the modern American state pretend that truth is irrelevant, that all that matters is balancing the interests of one group with the interests of another. And many of those crowing in triumph in the wake of the Obergefell v. Hodges verdict accuse disappointed Christians of just being upset that we didn't get our own way, of being sore losers. Just like Amaziah, they can't see any issues of substance at stake, only the will to power of one group pitted against the will to power of another. If anything, through sleight-of-hand they'll proclaim that “love wins,” that that's what this case was ultimately about. But “love … does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). Who here better stands for the real victory of love: Amaziah or Amos?

Amos rejects the not-so-subtle insinuation that his public stand is a mercenary one, for sale to the highest bidder and peddled like vacuum cleaners at people's doorsteps. Amos disavows any professional status: “I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son, but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel'” (Amos 7:14-15). He isn't in it for the money. He isn't in it out of choice. This wasn't a life that Amos chose for himself, and it doesn't serve his interests. He didn't pick it; God did. God wrenched him from his peaceful, quiet life and tossed him into the thick of conflict with a controversial message to bring, stoking the fires of public passion and getting him nothing but ill-treatment and mockery. That's often where God sends his unlikely messengers.

Amos refuses to leave things at a secular plane, as though they could be fully accounted for just by counting up the contents of the prophet's wallet or seeing if he gets his kicks out of controlling others. Amos instead jarringly reintroduces what Neuhaus called “a transcendent point of reference,” saying that it was a divine call that broke his life and gave him a mandatory message. Amos refuses to assent to Amaziah's reduction of truth to interests. Amos insists that self-interest takes a backseat to truth. The value of his message isn't whether it helps Amos get ahead in life, the value of his message isn't whether it wins him popularity contests, the value of his message isn't whether it makes him feel good to think about it. The value of his message is that it's true, and the truth has practical consequences. And because Amaziah threw his hat in with the authorities under judgment, the authorities insistent on censoring Amos, he'd join their fate; Amos said that Amaziah would personally “die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land” (Amos 7:17).

On the other side of that face-to-face confrontation, Amos gets one last vision from God: a bowl of fruit (Amos 8:1). It sounds like a cheap painting you'd pick up at a yard sale! But there's a point being made here. This is no plastic fruit; it will spoil and rot. And Israel's shelf-life isn't looking so great. God actually gets a bit punny here with Amos. He sees a basket of qayits, summer fruit, and it shows the imminent qets, the end, the doom of Israel. God repeats exactly what he said before: “I will never again pass them by” (Amos 8:2). No more second chances. When the fruit spoils, it's gone. When the doom comes, the door's shut.

The list of problems is familiar by now. They're the same ones that Amos has been hammering at for the whole book: the corruption of the judges, ensuring that the system can be manipulated to keep the poor downtrodden. The elite class of Israelite society “trample on the needy and bring ruin to the poor of the land” (Amos 8:4). Some of them pretend to be pious, devoted to the LORD. But Amos has exposed that pretense. Even when they have to observe the sabbath for outward appearances, Amos sees through the display. Instead of finding joy in the rhythms that God established for our benefit, they're eager and chomping at the bit to get back to their real passion: commerce and deceit (Amos 8:5-6). They check their watches when the sermon goes over, worried they'll miss the first minutes of the big game. They find God's laws constricting and unfair, and if they follow the big ones at all, it's only a hypocritical show for the sake of social respectability, and not because of any serious commitment to discipleship and transformation.

To emphasize his seriousness, God swears an oath not to let Israel off the hook; and he swears, not by himself, but by “the pride of Jacob” (Amos 8:7), the very thing that he hates the most (Amos 6:8). To get out from under this divine commitment, they'd have to repent! God swears that he will never forget what they've done, never forget that they've decisively rejected him. And he promises judgment that would shake the land like the rising and falling of the Nile River (Amos 8:8; 9:5). Around the time Amos was preaching, a massive earthquake struck Israel around 760 BC – stronger than anything the continental United States have ever seen.

With that on everyone's mind, God warns that he can make the land tremble indeed. And, he poetically adds, “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight” (Amos 8:9). In books of prophecy, it's common to use the sun, moon, and stars as a symbol for nations and rulers. Think of the way Joseph dreamed about his family government – the sun, moon, and stars – bowing down to him. Think of the way Revelation talks about Jesus holding seven stars in the palm of his hand. The imminent downfall of Jeroboam's dynasty, and the disaster it will spell for the nation within a generation, is serious enough to use the same language. And Amos was right in prophesying a sword against Jeroboam's house: his own son Zechariah wouldn't last six months before being assassinated by Captain Shallum, who reigned a month before being assassinated himself. God will indeed turn their feasts into mourning, their songs into laments – because the fruit of sin is bitter, and God won't restrain them from tasting it as it is. Over the last couple of days, we've seen a great deal of celebration by the worldly – including some who profess to belong to God's people – over the bad law, bad philosophy, and bad culture-making in which a narrow Supreme Court majority has been engaged. The official state ideology collaborates with the desires of the elite American leisure class. Let's pray that, unlike Israel in the days of Amos, the plumb line hasn't been dropped just yet. Let's intercede on their behalf more urgently even still.

We'd like to think, as Americans, that we're special. So did Jeroboam's nation. But they aren't as special as they assume. Sure, God saved them in the past, leading them in an exodus – but God's had his hand in plenty of national pies before and since: “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? Didn't I bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir?” (Amos 9:7). If even Israel wasn't chosen in a way they could honestly brag about in front of even their worst enemies, can we seriously think that America is? Aren't we like Ethiopians or Philistines or Arameans before the LORD?

Amos warns that the final curse is “a famine on the land – not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD” (Amos 8:11). This is the last straw. Having shown Amos the door, the people of Israel are going to find that this amateur prophet was their final lifeline. When all grows dark, when the time of luxury unravels, when Jeroboam's twisted parody of Solomon's glory loses all its lustre, the people will wish they had a word from God to get through it. They'll want that comfort, that hope, that glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel. And with Amos gone, they'll come up dry. God has said all he has to say to them.

That sounds cruel, almost – but it isn't. The people will “run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD,” they'll “wander from sea to sea,” they'll go questing in the north and searching in the east – but there's one direction they won't go: south (Amos 8:12). South to Judah, where they sent Amos packing, where the LORD still sends prophets to his people. This famine is largely of their own making. That old “pride of Jacob” will keep them stuck in their sin. They're desperate, they'll go anywhere, they'll do anything – except the right thing. They'll ask anybody – except God.

See, Amos does end his book with a prophecy of hope and restoration (Amos 9:11-15). But Israel chose not to even hear him out to the end of his case. They chose to stop up their ears, they chose to avert their eyes, they chose ignorance of the truth. They don't want to hear it. Their minds are made up: Amos is nothing but a bigot and a hater, he's on the wrong side of history, he has no place in the national conversation, his voice is a danger, he must be silenced. So they don't know that the bad news always gives way to good news! They don't know that there's always a gospel after the earthquake! They don't know that comforting word of peace and security, through the falling and rising of David's booth in Jesus Christ (Amos 9:11). Unless they know to store their life in what will rise even though it falls, they're doomed to “fall and never rise again” (Amos 8:14), the fate of everyone whose ultimate allegiance is to the official ideology of any earthly power, including our own impulse to play at being kings for a day.

Amaziah can evict, Jeroboam can frighten, the elites can bribe and feast and lie – and, to be sure, many well-meaning people will be swept up in the currents of culture that Amaziah's kin are stirring. It's no surprise that “distressing times will come” (2 Timothy 3:1). But Amaziah does not last. Amaziah does not have the last word. The LORD does, even when he chooses to bring it through unlikely figures like Amos and you and me. The recent Orthodox saint Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain once remarked, “What I see around me would drive me insane if I did not know that, no matter what happens, God will have the last word.” And God will have the last word. Amos had no reason to be afraid of Amaziah. Amaziah can do his worst, but God's call is God's call, and while Amaziah is dead and gone, our God is alive! So even today, Amaziah's followers can mock us, they can belittle and misrepresent us, they can accuse us of acting in bad faith, they can try to shut us out of the public square, they can try to exile us into insignificance, they can even go so far as to challenge our livelihoods. But God's people have seen plenty worse.

If we're thinking with the mind of Christ, this should scarcely faze us. It's sad, it's bad for people both within the church and outside of it, but we will get the message out. Like Amos, we persist in proclaiming a message “by which all existing establishments and revolutionary would-be establishments are brought under divine promise and judgment,” to quote Neuhaus again. We dare to contradict the new gods of identity politics, just as we contradicted the gods of Greece and Rome. They called it blasphemy then, they may do the same now. If we have to proclaim it from the margins of society instead of the halls of power, so be it. If we have to proclaim it from poverty or prison or exile, so be it. The people of the truth cannot be silenced. With gentleness, with respect, with winsome words backed up by actions of evident love, we will not stop living according to the word of God – not just teaching our faith, but exercising it also. “I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal,” says the LORD (1 Kings 19:18; Romans 11:4). Whatever happens to to our bodies or our possessions, no disciple of Amaziah can destroy a believer's soul (cf. Matthew 10:28). Whether in this age or the age of resurrection to come, you and I will see the end of this Court term. You and I will see the end of the next election cycle, and the next, and the next. You and I will see the rise and fall of nations. When proclaiming the good news, the church has the mandate of urgency; but when weathering the changing winds of culture and law, the church has the luxury of God's own patience: With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day (2 Peter 3:8). This will pass. “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8).

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Earthly Talk, Heavenly Wisdom


  
How does the world work? For all the complexity of his thought, Paul is pretty clear on this point: The customary 'logic' of the world, as we see it working all around us, isn't really a good logic at all. That's because the real logic, the Logos, is the one who was “in the beginning with God” (John 1:1-2). The real Logic of the real world is none other than God's Logic, who stepped visibly into our world and introduced himself as Jesus Christ. But the so-called logic by which the world around us works, its common-sense instincts, its proverbs and principles – without Jesus, these are all bad masters. Paul says, make sure that none of them slap the cuffs on you! Keep clear of their chains! See to it that you don't get enslaved by the world's 'logic', because you belong to a better Logic, a philosophy according to Christ (Colossians 2:8). The principles that underlie the world, the powers behind it – Jesus unmasked them as idols and frauds and “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public spectacle of them” in his cross and resurrection (Colossians 2:15). Instead of being “conformed to the world,” we have the chance to give God the opposite of world-conformity. Paul calls it “logical worship,” meaning a living sacrifice, the offering up of a life “transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” to replace the outline of worldliness with the likeness of Christ (Romans 12:1-2).

So why, Paul asks, do Christians keep insisting on following the frauds when Jesus took their masks away? Why do Christians offer their wrists to be shackled by the flurry of maddened conventions that pass themselves off as wise? Why do Christians think a prison jumpsuit befits a priceless soul better than robes washed white in the blood of the Lamb? After Jesus died to buy us from the world's slavery and manumit us, ushering us into the freedom of his light, “why do you live as if you still belonged to the world” (Colossians 3:20)? The problem with the church at Colossae was that their focus, their attention, was at the wrong place. Real liberty was right overhead, at the right hand of the Father, because their lives were hidden with God by being stored safely in the risen life of Jesus himself (Colossians 3:3). Our lives are stored above, so we “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:1-2).

Now, this doesn't mean that our goal is an ethereal heaven, or a rejection of the body's goodness in present or future. Our bodies are made by God, they're made to live on earth, and God has no intention to forsake his plan. This doesn't mean that the earth is expendable or a second-rate part of God's creation. God calls us to treat the earth as a garden and to sanctify it for the sake of his name and to do his will here and serve his kingdom here. This doesn't mean that knowledge of the earth and its created realities is unworthy of God's people who bear the mind of Christ. Christ himself wanted to speak to Nicodemus about both heavenly things and earthly things (John 3:12).

But it does mean that the center of our faith is Jesus Christ, whose life flows from heaven into us through the Spirit sent down from heaven. It does mean that we're to live our lives, even on earth, in ways guided by the heavenly wisdom that comes from God's will. It does mean that our orientation is heavenward, in the sense of being toward God and toward edification, which 'builds up'. There's a reason that, in nearly every culture's spatial metaphors, 'up' has superiority – which itself a spatial metaphor, 'super' meaning 'on top' or 'above'. By definition, wisdom 'from above' is better than wisdom 'from below'.

'Earthly' is the easy thing, because gravity is a moral phenomenon as much as a physical one. Our sin is a heavy burden, we remember, that pulls us down into the mud and inhibits our real freedom. Ever been stuck to the ground, pinned down? Thirteen years ago – July 23, 2002 – I was in a horse-drawn cart accident in Ireland. A wooden shaft snapped, the horse bolted, the cart flipped, and I got thrown to the ground and pinned underneath the overturned cart. I could scarcely move; I was trapped and confined. I couldn't stand, I couldn't do anything but roll slowly through the dirt and gravel, peering with dim eyes through the cart's shade at only the slightest glimmers of light beneath the edges. Strength drained from the impact, bones broken and body battered and bleeding, I couldn't raise myself up out of the dirt, couldn't toss the cart aside by my own broken works.

That's what it's like to live in an 'earthly' way. The 'earthly' people think they're free, but sin isn't freedom, sin isn't liberty. Sin means weakness. Sin means slavery. Sin means the path of least resistance. Sin means wriggling in the dirt and the rough stones, instead of standing tall the way we were meant to live. 'Earthly' speech, 'earthly' actions, 'earthly' attitudes, 'earthly' thinking – they trap us, they limit us to the most impure, most compromised forms of human expression. That's not what we were made for. We originate on earth, we're meant to live on the earth, but we weren't meant to be 'earthly', not in that way. Sin binds us to an 'earthly' life, a less-than-human life. We oppose sin, not just because we're reflexively against modern culture, not just because we're cantakerous contrarians, but because sin gets in the way of a more-than-earthly life.

That day in Ireland, a passerby – or perhaps it was the cart's driver – came and knelt in the stony ground, gripping the cart and lifting it and tossing it aside; I don't remember his face, but his silhouette sketched against the freshness of the noonday sun was the sign of my freedom. I stood up from the dirt, surveyed the injuries of the others, and set myself to the work of prayer. More importantly, I can testify that Jesus came and knelt in this stony ground alongside us. Coming to the lowliness of our position, the earth stained by human sin, he gripped the tomb of our demise, lifted it onto his shoulders, and was buried in death – taking our burden away, and lifting us up from the muck and mire through his risen life. And the glimpse of Jesus, radiant with the brightness of God, is the victory banner of our freedom. Physically, gravity doesn't just hold us to the earth; it tethers our world to the sun. Spiritually, gravity wasn't meant to chain us to the lowest lows. The Christian life is about being propelled by the Spirit into Christ's orbit, falling further and further upward into the heavenly 'heaviness' of his glory.

Yet even Christians have to be told to break ties with earthly talk, earthly deeds, and earthly wisdom, and to replace them with heavenly talk, heavenly deeds, and heavenly wisdom. What's wisdom? Wisdom is skill for living in the creation, especially the moral order that God decrees. There's a true wisdom, but there's also a phony kind of wisdom, earthly wisdom, a pattern of living that looks skillful but isn't, because it misidentifies in practice what the real moral order is. “False wisdom is the attitudes, aims, and values of the dominant society,” as opposed to the kingdom of God (Richard Bauckham, James, p. 153). We see that all around us; sometimes we see it in us and among us: ways that look like they're bound to “get ahead,” assuming that “getting ahead” is the ultimate good of human life. That's what James means when he denounces certain ways of living as wisdom that “doesn't come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, and devilish” (James 3:15). These ideas, these practices, these attitudes – they aren't from God, they don't resemble his character, they aren't what the Spirit is up to. Instead, we're supposed to live by “wisdom from above” (James 3:17), because Jesus himself is the Wisdom of God who came from above 'for us and for our salvation'. Paul says that these other options, these fake skills, these false paths, only really have “an appearance of wisdom” but are ultimately “of no value in checking self-indulgence” (Colossians 2:23).

Paul and James both identify kinds of actions, speech, and attitudes that are 'earthly', in the sense of being unmoored from God's orbit, weighed down by sinfulness, unedifying, and dominated by phony wisdom. Paul talks about “fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed” (Colossians 3:5), and he adds “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language,” as well as lying (Colossians 3:8-9). James mentions “bitter envy and selfish ambition,” as well as anything “boastful and false to the truth” (James 3:14). And who can forget James' stirring passage about the wayward nature of the earthly tongue, which is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison,” able somehow to not just bless God (as it was created to do) but yet to “curse those who are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:8-9)?

Have we spurned earthly talk? Have we really put aside evil desire and greed and envy? Have we denied earthly wisdom? Well, what wisdom sits at the wheel of our car: earthly, or heavenly? (Some of us might be in trouble on that one!) What wisdom guides our attitudes toward our church family: earthly wisdom, or heavenly? You know that some have, over the years, withdrawn their involvement here because of needless personal offenses. That's different than finding the whole church corrupted in doctrine or dominated by a Diotrephes like Gaius had to deal with in 3 John – some of you have seen that first-hand. But do we insist on lamenting the color of the carpet? Do we pick on one another's clothes? Do we look down on one another for our musical tastes? Or do we set our personal preferences aside and focus on living out proactive forgiveness?

What wisdom chooses our words? Are they earthly words – compromising, one-sided, unkind, bitter, careless – or heavenly words – truthful, fair, gentle, peaceable, careful? Jesus said, “On the day of judgment, you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37). Jesus, you mean I'll be held to account for every unsavory suggestion, every off-color joke, every explosive expletive? “Every careless word...” Jesus, you mean I'll be held to account for every comment about immigrants and foreigners and the people I see at Walmart? “Every careless word...” Jesus, even what I say about Democrats and Republicans, MSNBC and Fox News, Obama and O'Reilly? “Every careless word...” Okay, but what about the people who personally cheat me and rob me and belittle me? “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you … If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? … But love your enemies, do good, and lend without expecting anything in return” (Luke 6:27-35).

Even in the church? “Don't speak evil against each other, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you aren't a doer of the law but a judge” (James 4:11). We have to be careful here, because in today's culture, we automatically assume that making any evaluation of right or wrong is 'judging'. But from first to last, James is telling us kinds of behavior and attitudes that are right and kinds that are wrong, and he doesn't mince words about it. What he's talking about is substituting our own agendas and preferences for God's wisdom, and about rushing to condemn others within the church as being unsalvagable by Christ. When we do that, then we're setting ourselves up as judges who can revise or adjust God's law, rather than as people called to submit to it as it finds its perfection in the Spirit.

And we believers do sometimes set ourselves up as judges of the law – and not just in the 'liberal' direction. It's obvious how readily we do that today, but what James probably had in mind were those who made their own personal biases the real standard – especially the rich pretending to be better than the poor (James 2:1-7; 5:1-6), or some Christians pretending to be above others on the grounds of a more socially acceptable list of pet sins (James 2:8-13). James aims to undercut our presumptions, not just the presumption of being “able to save and to destroy” as God can (James 4:12), but even about being confident in our plans when so much in life is beyond our control (James 4:13-16). And even if we find that someone stands afoul of God's law, the course of church discipline reaches its pinnacle in letting the offender “be to you as a Gentile and tax-collector” (Matthew 18:17). And how did Jesus and his apostles treat Gentiles and tax-collectors? He drew them near to salvation with his unyielding love and compassionate mercy, for “whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save his soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” through “constant love” (James 5:20; cf. 1 Peter 4:8).

Anger, wrath, malice, slander, foul language, derogatory and bitter remarks and complaints – that's what earthly wisdom recommends. But what does earthly wisdom get us, in the end? “On account of these, the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient” (Colossians 3:6). Yet wrath isn't God's plan for us, it isn't what God wants for us. God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). God's desire is not for us to live by earthly wisdom. Instead, God wants us to live by heavenly wisdom that produces heavenly thinking, heavenly doing, and heavenly talking. This kind of wisdom is “the God-given ability of the transformed heart to discern and to practice God's will” (Richard Bauckham, James, p. 152).

James says that “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (James 3:17). First of all, before anything else, heavenly wisdom is pure. It's a pure heart that produces the best love (1 Timothy 1:5), and Paul asks us to “not participate in the sins of others; keep yourselves pure” (1 Timothy 5:22), and yet without being exclusionary or self-righteous. Pure wisdom also has to yield pure religion, pure piety, and that means “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).

Can we say we do both those things, or have we learned to specialize in one to the neglect of the other? And if we do both already, then we can move along and add to it being peaceable, which is the only way to get “a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18). We're called to “contend for the faith” (Jude 3), but not to be contentious and divisive people. We stand where God has called us to stand, but we reach across the gap with outstretched hand, seeking to “agree with one another, live in peace” (2 Corinthians 3:11), and to “live peaceably with all” so far as they'll let us (Romans 12:18). And to that, we'll add gentleness, one of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23). If someone is discovered in sin, Paul tells us to “restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness” while avoiding the temptation ourselves (Galatians 6:1). Gentleness is how we redirect sinners, gentleness is how we correct those who disagree with the faith we hold (2 Timothy 2:25), and the gentleness of heavenly wisdom should be shown in all the works of our lives (James 3:13).

Paul talks about this heavenly wisdom as a new outfit, an outward enactment of an inward change, because in baptism, we become “raised with [Christ] through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12). You “have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:10). Old self off, new self on. Off with the First Adam, on with the Last Adam. What does that mean? It means, “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). That's the character of a holy people who experience the love of God. What would it look like if the world couldn't help but admit that the church is where to go when you want to experience compassion and kindness and patience?

Paul reminds us to “bear with one another: if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13). Does that mean that we never mention behavior that bothers us, that we bottle it up inside? No, it means the opposite of bottling it up inside; it means letting it go, which often means gently broaching the issue as needed but not harping on it. And if it's a matter of out-and-out sin against us, we try to work things out, we bring it to the church body for mediation if needed, and we give it into God's hands and out of our hearts. It means that we're always looking for the good, always seeking reconciliation, always stretching ourselves and finding ways to stop personal conflicts from growing before they get in the way of our common mission, like when Paul and Barnabas split up for a while because Paul wouldn't forgive Barnabas's cousin Mark (Acts 15:37-39). Yet by Colossians, Paul can commend Mark: “If he comes to you, welcome him” (Colossians 4:10).

What does that mean for heavenly wisdom in dealing with those outside the church, those who aren't just sinning but are dead in their sins, but whom God invites to life in Jesus Christ? What does heavenly wisdom ask us to do with pre-Christians, even pre-Christians dead-set against the witness of Christ's body? How do we conduct ourselves toward outsiders? “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders” (Colossians 4:5). Again, we can't escape the necessity of heavenly wisdom. To conduct ourselves wisely at all, we need to be formed and shaped by the revealed Word of God and tutored through experience by the Spirit of God. That experience isn't just our own private experience; it's the experience of the whole church, the whole Christian community, both here and far away, both now and long ago. How do we get wisdom? “Ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly” (James 1:5), and God will lead us through whatever experiences we need to develop endurance and maturity, if we navigate according to what we find in his gospel (James 1:3-4).

Conducting ourselves wisely toward outsiders means “making the most of the time,” or “making the most of the opportunity” (Colossians 4:5). Our opportunities aren't unlimited. “The time is short” (1 Corinthians 7:29), and “night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:4), for “yet in a very little while, the one who is coming will come and will not delay” (Hebrews 10:37). We conduct ourselves wisely when we “let [our] speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt,” so that we practice the skill of being able to give the right kind of answer in the face of each kind of questioning or accusation (Colossians 4:6). And so we explain the gospel, first with our lives and then also with words chosen by heavenly wisdom for the situation at hand (cf. 1 Peter 3:15-16). But we can't do this unless we first ditch our earthly wisdom, with all its earthly deeds and earthly talk, and replace our own pretended self-sufficiency with “the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD” (Isaiah 11:2), the same Spirit who rests on and comes from the Son who ascended to the Father, who with the Son and the Spirit is “the only wise God … to whom be glory forever” (Romans 16:27)!