Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"Blessed Be Egypt, My People": A Lenten Sermon on Isaiah 19-20

Sermon on Isaiah 19-20 (Isaiah 19:1-3, 11-13, 17-25; 20:1-6); Matthew 5:11-12, 43-45; 28:19-20; Romans 12:12-14, 19-21; Revelation 11:15-17).  Originally scheduled for 15 February 2015, but as the service was canceled due to inclement weather conditions, now rescheduled to be delivered instead on 22 February 2015 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The eleventh installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah; see also sermons on Isaiah 1; Isaiah 2; Isaiah 3-4; Isaiah 5; Isaiah 6; Isaiah 7-8a; Isaiah 8b-9; Isaiah 10-12; Isaiah 13-14, 21; and Isaiah 15-18.

As we geared up for Lent, we've considered what Isaiah had to say against Babylon, the cultural center of the world. We've heard what Isaiah had to say about the half-church like Moab and the halved-church like seduced and divided Israel. And now in these chapters, Isaiah turns his attention to Egypt, that great nation that forever lived in Jewish memory as the original oppressor of God's people, the land that took them in but only to enslave them. Yet in the desert's freedom, the complaining children of Israel famously longed to go back to Egyptian slavery: “If only we'd died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we'd died in the wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? … Wouldn't it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” (Numbers 14:2-3). Rather than turn their hearts to God, “in their hearts they turned back to Egypt” (Acts 7:39). Abusive Egyptian protection was the first reflex for a timid chosen band too fearful for faith in the proven arm of their God.

And now, in Isaiah's day, Egypt returns to Judah's awareness. Judah was still looking for ways to resist Assyrian power – ways that didn't involve trusting God alone. See, God called Judah's trust on him to be so total that, politically, they'd be the Switzerland of the ancient world: no formal alliances, no aggression, no need to get involved except as God himself directed. At one point, Judah was pressured by Syria and Israel to join up with their alliance. Now, Judah is faced with the prospect of teaming up with two other major powers: Egypt and Ethiopia. In those days, the Ethiopian kings had actually conquered Egypt, so the two went together under the Ethiopian-born pharaoh Piye. That's what we glimpsed in Isaiah 18: ambassadors from Ethiopia, Egypt's new rulers, making sweet talk to the Judean court.

Judah finds herself tempted. Egypt was pretty strong in its own right. Sure, the Syro-Ephraimite coalition two decades earlier proved to be a lost cause, but maybe resting on great Egypt now would be the winning ticket? Isaiah warns no. Isaiah 20 tells us that, for three years starting around 711 BC, he went around naked as a slave, making his own body a symbol of the dire fate that would befall those who joined in this new project (Isaiah 20:1-5). And sure enough, although the revolt in the Philistine chief city Ashdod did have backing from several nations, the revolt failed, and the Philistines all fell under Assyria's heavy hand. It's a shame that no one had the wisdom to listen to Isaiah.

The Assyrian chronicles give us the backstory. Assyria had tried to quash threats from Ashdod's petty chief Azuri by removing him from power and replacing him with his more pro-Assyrian younger brother Ahimiti. But in revolt against Assyrian rule, the people of Ashdod had toppled Ahimiti and replaced him with an ethnic Greek chieftain Iamani. A number of Assyria's subject-nations – they list the Philistines, Judah, Edom, Moab, and various island countries – were seduced by this Greek through “countless evil lies” to fight Assyria, and “Pharaoh, king of Egypt” was bribed to be an ally. In these years, Sargon II's histories record, even Egypt sent tribute to Assyria. Yet when Sargon's army came near, Iamani ran away to Egyptian territory, gaining refuge from Piye's brother, Pharaoh Shabaka. The Assyrians conquered Ashdod and other Philistine cities like Gath, and the Assyrian general became king there. Several years later, Pharaoh Shebitku – Piye's son and Shabaka's nephew – came to power and, terrified of Assyrian brutality, turned over the refugee Iamani to be led away in “fetters, shackles, and iron bands” to Assyria. Decades later, Assyria finally invaded Egypt and took many captives, including plenty of young Ethiopian royals. Isaiah's vivid portrait came to pass.

But for Isaiah, this isn't just some little skirmish: it sheds light on God's point of view. Why trust in Egypt? What does Egypt have to offer? Big armies? So what? Deep wisdom? Hardly. What about the might and the wisdom of the God who sits enthroned over all nations, Egypt and Assyria alike? In this embarrassment for Egypt, Isaiah catches a glimpse of the dread and the hope that God holds out to Egypt in one and the same hand. Isaiah knows that God isn't the God over the Jews alone; he's the God of the nations and invites them to be saved through trusting him (Romans 3:28-30).

But in its pagan folly, Egypt needs first to be humbled by a visit from the LORD “riding on a swift cloud” (Isaiah 19:1) – just as the Word of the LORD, living as the Son of Man, was to “come with the clouds of heaven with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26; cf. Daniel 7:13) and “on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail” (Revelation 1:7). So God visits judgment on Egypt to topple and crumble her idols and everything they stand for, and to dissolve the unjust structures of Egypt's society (Isaiah 19:1-10), and to show that Egypt's so-called worldly 'wisdom' is a lie that can't cope with his glory (Isaiah 19:11-14).

But God's judgment is never, on this side of eternity, without a hopeful goal. Isaiah sees hope, not just for a faithful Judah, but for an Egypt with a newfound faith. Paul described some believers as having “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9), and that's what Isaiah holds out for the Egyptians. Even in their great centers of once-pagan worship, they'd “swear allegiance to the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 19:18). Egyptian false worship would give way to “worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24), with a holy altar and a holy pillar committing God's presence to memory and to life (Isaiah 19:19).

Through a change in Egypt's once-hard heart, now melted soft as their liquidated idols, Egypt would therefore be made a people with promises like Israel's promises. The story of the exodus started when “the Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out; out of slavery, their cry for help rose to God” (Exodus 2:23), because the Egyptians were their oppressors from whom they needed a savior to deliver them. Throughout the Old Testament, the nation and individuals cry out to the LORD in times of deep distress (1 Samuel 7:8; Psalm 18:6; Joel 1:14). From the first, the Egyptians were the reason why Israel had to cry out to the LORD for help; but now, in a new state of salvation, the Egyptians themselves can cry out to this very same God, who would deliver them too (Isaiah 19:20).

Because of that, Isaiah describes the Egyptians as bringing thank-offerings to God, just as Israel did, because now they'll “know the LORD on that day” (Isaiah 19:21), pointing to the time of promise when “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9; cf. Habakkuk 2:14). Not only will the Egyptians forsake their idols, but they will actually have a living relationship with God, just like Israel does. And Israel was told that, as children of the living God, they'd be subject to his discipline when they went astray – not to destroy them, but to help them: “As a parent disciplines a child, so the LORD your God disciplines you” (Deuteronomy 8:5). Just so, here Egypt shares in that same hope of being subject to God's discipline (Isaiah 19:22), not as vessels of wrath as the Pharaoh of the Exodus had been (Romans 9:14-24), but as children molded by discipline and crafted by the hand of divine mercy (Hebrews 12:5-8).

But again, this isn't some private thing to be kept in their hearts and sectioned off from everyday life, like our Babylonian culture tells us a good pet religion ought to be. Far from it! Egypt's turning to God is matched by Assyria's turning to God. And because they turn to the same God, the God who sends his Son as the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), so the warfare between Egypt and Assyria is overcome by fellowship in worship (Isaiah 19:23). The blessing God gives here shows that Egypt and Assyria are both fully included (Isaiah 19:24-25). They aren't second-rate nations on the fringes of God's plan. No, God blesses them with the same words that Israel always knew as her own. God sent Moses on a mission, saying, “I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10) – but now, 'my people' refers to converted Egypt itself (Isaiah 19:25)! And throughout Isaiah, it's the offspring of Jacob whom God calls “the work of my hands” (Isaiah 29:23; 45:11; 60:21) – except here, it isn't Israel, it's big, bad Assyria, now humbled and serving the LORD (Isaiah 19:25). Israel isn't out in front; Israel is “the third” (Isaiah 19:24).

Indeed, this prophecy of hope climaxes with Egypt and Assyria both sharing the special status that used to be Israel's alone: being God's elect, being the chosen people – “Those who were not my people, I will call 'my people'; and she who was not beloved, I will call 'beloved'” (Romans 9:25; cf. Hosea 2:23). The persecutor becomes the elect. It plays out on the national stage the story of Paul: a zealous opponent of God's people, boasting in his own wisdom, but humbled by a glimpse of the truth and God's judgment, and through that judgment being changed from a persecutor into God's worshipful witness in the earth. And just so, Egypt and Assyria join Israel in being “a blessing in the midst of the earth” (Isaiah 19:24).

And there really was a time when Egypt was a Christian land. In the first decades, the church gained a presence there; tradition has it that Mark gets the credit, founding the church of Alexandria. Throughout the next centuries, Alexandria became a beacon of the gospel. After the Roman Empire ended persecution of Christians, many Copts – native Egyptians – converted. Plenty of the great saints of Christian history lived in Egypt: St. Antony, the desert hermit; St. Athanasius, the courageous bishop who defied the world; St. Moses the Black, a murderous bandit-chief God's grace made into a monk of peace. And there was a time when Assyria was a Christian land. Early in the second century, the Assyrian people – by now a borderland between Rome and Parthia – had started to turn to Jesus. We know plenty of early Assyrian believers, like the theologian Tatian and the sublime hymn-writer Ephrem. For a time, two major divisions in the Christian world were the Coptic Church and the Assyrian Church.

Both still exist today, but neither Egypt nor Assyria can be called a Christian land. In days of severe infighting among supposedly Christian peoples, in the seventh century, armies from Arabia swept across a large portion of the known world, driven by a new religion called Islam. In the year 642, just a decade after the death of Muhammad, his close friend and second successor Umar had brought Egypt under his control, and the year after that, he took the whole Persian Empire. Umar died the next year, and over the centuries, people surrendered in their spirits to the political power that their Muslim overlords wielded. Though the church has continued to press forward and thrive in the cracks, never since has there been a Christian society in Egypt or Assyria.

More Jesus-followers are martyred today than were martyred in the days of pagan Rome. More believers suffer insult, mockery, and outright violence than even the darkest days of those ancient persecutions. The Middle East is especially rife with states and groups that persecute believers simply on account of the gospel they cherish, and these groups rule with violence and terror. Over the past couple years, Egypt has been thrown into a great upheaval as the military, secular groups, and the Muslim Brotherhood have all jockeyed for control.

Just a couple weeks ago, America's president submitted papers for a formal authorization of war against the so-called Islamic State – ISIS, a group whose hyper-radical version of Islam is too lawless even for al-Qaeda's tastes, let alone for nations like Iran, Egypt, and Jordan. Last year, ISIS launched a massive campaign of violence against Assyrian Christians, driving them out of the Iraqi city of Mosul – which the Assyrians still call 'Nineveh' – for the first time in 1600 years; and over the past two months, a few thousand Assyrian Christias formed a militia called the Nineveh Plain Protection Units to fight back. Recently, ISIS also beheaded twenty-one Coptic Christians on a Libyan beach; and now they belong to the ranks of the martyrs beneath God's heavenly altar (Revelation 6:9-10), those who have "conquered [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they didn't cling to life even in the face of death" (Revelation 12:11). In the spectrum of modern Islamic practice, from the peaceful to the militant, ISIS is the extreme of the extreme; and, as one Muslim-turned-Christian-theologian reminds us, ISIS-style terrorism terrorizes and kills other Muslims more than any other group, sending countless souls to the grave in the heartbreaking absence of the gospel. Last September, ISIS left no question about its aspirations: “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women, by the permission of Allah the Exalted”, they trumpeted. But we know that their wisdom will fail and their swords will crumble in the light of God's glory.

Jesus told us that we'd be persecuted in one form or another: maybe insult, maybe mockery, maybe social pressure and exclusion, but maybe prison sentences and terror attacks and torture unto death. In the light of all this, how did Jesus call his people to respond to persecution? Jesus tells us not to feel crushed by it all. When we are mocked, slandered, or attacked for no other reason than living like Jesus and teaching what he taught us, that isn't a curse; he tells us to think of it as a blessing (Matthew 5:11-12). Jesus calls us to show love, not just to our friends, not just to our acquaintances, but even to people who hate us with a deadly hate. Jesus calls us to pray God's converting and healing blessings on those who persecute us. Because Jesus calls us to have God's heart, and God sends the sun and the rain even on the wicked (Matthew 5:43-45).

Through his messenger Paul, Jesus calls us to be patient in the face of suffering, not lashing out because of anger (Romans 12:12). We aren't supposed to curse those who persecute us. Nor are we just supposed to ignore them. We're supposed to actively seek to bless them (Romans 12:14). It broke my heart the other week when a senator said, about detainees at Guantánamo Bay, that as far as he's concerned, “every last one them can rot in hell”. That sounds a lot like cursing one's persecutors. But on the other hand, four years ago, on a day of violent clashes between protestors and the Egyptian government, a crowd of Coptic Christians formed a human chain around Muslims doing their prayers in Tahrir Square in Cairo. That sounds a lot like loving one's neighbor. A wish of hellfire or a risky act of protection – who here looks most like a follower of Christ?

Jesus warns us through Paul not to descend to the same evil paths that the persecutors walk, not to try to outdo them with evil (Romans 12:17). Instead, we should be working toward peace. Not all of it depends on us – they may attack us anyway, they may hate us anyway – but our goal should be to live as people of peace (Romans 12:18). Vengeance doesn't belong in our hands; it's best left in God's hands, to either mete out in his own timing or to resolve at the foot of Christ's cross (Romans 12:19). We're meant to actively bless our persecutors, being generous in a way that, by its very defiance of their hate, invites them to replace their hate with God's love (Romans 12:20). Cursing our persecutors is easy and comes natural to sin-stricken hearts; blessing our persecutors is a work of the Spirit of God's love. And so the godly way to handle persecution is to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).

Our ultimate hope is for the day when “the kingdom of this world … becomes the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15). That's what we want to see happen. We want every nation, every group, to get the Isaiah 19 treatment. Can you dream of it? Can you imagine: “Blessed be ISIS my people, and Iran the work of my hands”? Can you imagine: “There will be an altar to the LORD in the center of the land of Iraq”? Can you imagine: “The LORD will make himself known to the Palestinians and the Israelis, and the Israelis will worship Christ with the Palestinians”?

Our hope and our prayer is for every idol to fall by the wayside. Our desire and our prayer is for a clear pathway for every persecutor of the church – every persecuting person, every persecuting group, every skeptic, every scoffer – to be raised up like a Paul. Our commitment is to bless them, not by supporting or enabling their evil deeds or sinful attitudes, but by leading people made in God's image onward to the healthy wholeness that God's Spirit gives. As Christians, our struggle isn't really against flesh and blood, after all (Ephesians 6:12). Discipleship is the major mode of God's war on the powers of darkness, because that is the only kind of war that uses the sword of the Spirit alone (Ephesians 6:17). We are called to disciple every demographic – not just individuals, making “disciples from all nations”, but we are called to “disciple all nations”, all peoples (Matthew 28:19). We are called to disciple Iraq, to disciple Iran, to disciple Syria, to disciple Boko Haram, to disciple al-Qaeda, to disciple ISIS. Actively bless them. That's a daring calling! But is it any more daring now than when those words passed the lips of the risen Christ into the ears of Matthew and John and Thomas and Peter?

Ash Wednesday has come and gone now. Lent is here, a time of self-denial and self-scrutiny in light of the gospel. Lent is a time for the Spirit's circumcision of our hearts to be renewed afresh (Deuteronomy 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; Romans 2:29). Lent is a time for recommitting ourselves to the cause of Jesus Christ – not the domesticated Jesus we want, but the radically challenging Jesus who died and rose and lives and reigns! This is the Jesus who says, “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). And in our sinful flesh, we find that so hard, so undesirable. But that's what Lent is for: to help us shape up where we shrink back from the call of Jesus.

So I have a Lenten challenge for us. This is what I feel God placing upon my heart for us. Every remaining day of Lent, let's devote ourselves to praying for ISIS. Pray for al-Qaeda, pray for Boko Haram, for Hezbollah, for Hamas, for the Muslim Brotherhood. Pray that God would prevail in their lives to bring Christ to them and turn them to the Prince of Peace. Pray also for the many nonviolent non-Christian organizations in our own backyard, and share Jesus with them; and pray for those who personally offend you. But pray for converting and healing blessings to fall from God's hands upon the persecutors who terrorize the world, and pray strength and peace upon the people who live in terror, especially our persecuted brothers and sisters in the faith - Copts, Assyrians, and all others. Pray for them all! Can you imagine the work that God might do if we would all actually pray together? “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). So “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45).

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Half-Church and the Halved Church: A Sermon on Isaiah 15-18

Sermon on Isaiah 15-18 (15:1-2; 16:4-6, 11-13; 17:1-4, 7-8; 10a; 18:3, 7); John 17 (17:1-3, 17-18, 22-23); and Ephesians 4:3-6.  Delivered 1 February 2015 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The tenth installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah; see also sermons on Isaiah 1, Isaiah 2, Isaiah 3-4, Isaiah 5, Isaiah 6, Isaiah 7-8a, Isaiah 8b-9, Isaiah 10-12, and Isaiah 13-14, 21

Two weeks ago, we heard how Isaiah started his oracles against the nations by warning Babylon, the cultural center of the world. Now in these chapters, Isaiah targets the sorts of nations who often drew together in alliances against the bigger empires – the kinds of nations who might try to draw Judah into their schemes. Isaiah 15-16 address Moab. The Moabites descended from Abraham's nephew Lot through sinful dysfunction (Genesis 19:30-37). They came to live across the Dead Sea from Judah, in the land where Sodom and Gomorrah once stood. The Moabites spoke almost the same language, they wrote much the same way, and they sometimes had friendly relations with Abraham's offspring. They might not be Israel's brethren, but they sure are close cousins. Indeed, as a great-grandson of Boaz and Ruth, King David was one-eighth Moabite! So when Isaiah pronounces judgment on Moab, he feels torn with compassion: “My heart cries out for Moab”, he says (Isaiah 15:5).

And yet Isaiah does have to warn of God's judgment, that Moab's pride will bring its fall, and “those who survive will be very few and feeble” (Isaiah 16:14). Moab was seldom a friendly nation. It was the Moabite king Balak who hired Balaam to curse God's people (Numbers 22-24; Joshua 24:9), and when that trick failed, it was Moabite women who sought to seduce the Israelites away from God (Numbers 25:1-3; Revelation 2:14). In the days of the judges, yet again the Israelites strayed after “the gods of Moab” (Judges 10:6); and after the days of the judges, Solomon's marriages to Moabite wives led him to build a shrine for the Moabite god Chemosh (1 Kings 11:7). Moab was not God's people. For all their similarities, they were the very opposite; they were the counterfeit, the seducer, turning God's people into a half-church.

There are plenty of visible heresies, serious distortions of the gospel – we think of groups like Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and so on. These are religious movements springing out of a Christian heritage but denying fundamental parts of the faith. For all their imitation of the faith, “when Moab presents himself, when he wearies himself upon the high place, when he comes to his sanctuary to pray, he will not prevail” (Isaiah 16:12). But we can't pretend that heresy is something that only happens “out there”, in some external group we can point to and say, “That's where the heresy is.”  The oracles against the nations call us to examine ourselves: Have we run astray after the Moabites? Have we been seduced by the half-gospel of a half-church?

One popular false doctrine today is denying the resurrection – not the resurrection of Jesus, mind you, but the physical, bodily resurrection of every believer. The basic creed of our faith says that we “believe … in the resurrection of the body” – it's right up there alongside believing in “the forgiveness of sins”. And yet, if you ask so many Christians what the future holds, it's bidding the body goodbye for good and going to heaven. But the Bible says so little about “going to heaven”, and so much more about a new creation where heaven and earth will be one. Denying the resurrection of the body was one of the heresies of Corinth: “How can some of you say there is no resurrection from the dead? If there's no resurrection from the dead, then Christ hasn't been raised; and if Christ hasn't been raised, then our preaching has been in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:12-14), Paul says, but the risen Christ is “the firstfruits of those who have died” (1 Corinthians 15:20). We have this certain hope: these bodies sown in the earth will rise again, “the dead will be raised imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:52), powered not just by the human soul but by the Spirit of God who gives them glory (1 Corinthians 15:42-44), and so our humble bodies will be like Christ's glorious body (Philippians 3:21). Believe in the resurrection of the body; don't be a Moabite.

Another popular false doctrine today is what one Old Testament scholar calls “an evangelical version of an ancient fertility religion” (Daniel I. Block, For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship, 270), and that's the Word-of-Faith message spread by most televangelists – people who teach that if you just have enough faith, by which they mean enough money to give them, then God wants you to be happy and free from suffering and rich. But when the Bible speaks of earthly 'prosperity', it's talking to people for whom prosperity means having enough to eat and enough to provide for your families, not people who dream of driving a Ferrari and living on hundred-acre estates. Jesus invites us to pray for our daily bread (Matthew 6:11; Luke 11:3), not our daily filet mignon! God invites us to define the good life as the holy life. Paul said that “we boast in our sufferings” (Romans 5:3), and he had harsh words for the televangelists of his day – flashy, successful preachers he sarcastically called “super-apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:5; 12:11). The credentials of his ministry, he said, were his afflictions for the sake of serving Jesus, not the multiple homes and private jet and millions of dollars that some televangelists have. A study was done of the devotional messages and sermons of one popular televangelist who promises “your best life now”, and he almost never even mentions Jesus Christ. But every Christian preacher in the New Testament shouts aloud the praises of Jesus Christ – thanks be to God! Follow the prophets and the apostles; don't be a Moabite.

A third popular false doctrine today comes in two versions, the 'left' and the 'right'. And that's thinking that the Bible is just plain irrelevant to some major area of our lives, when really it calls us to holiness in our whole lives. On the 'left' side, we might imagine that the Bible has nothing to say for how we think about human sexuality and marriage in today's world. We might not want to hear what the Bible has to say about the meaning of marriage, or about focusing sexual expression only in that holy union. We might not want to hear what Jesus and Paul actually said about marriage and divorce. We might lightly dismiss them if we don't want to hear the will of a God we can't tame. But God didn't send his Son into the world to tickle our ears with unsound teaching (cf. 2 Timothy 4:3); he sent his Son into the world to heal its brokenness and make unholy people holy (John 3:16-17). The Bible shows us that God made us for lasting faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman, who signify Christ and his Church (Ephesians 5:32), or else a celibate single life for the sake of gospel service (Matthew 19:12).

But on the 'right' side, we might imagine that the Bible has nothing to say for how we think about economics and ecology, about money and nature. We might want to condemn the poor as lazy and keep our money for our own use – but the Bible stands in our way. We don't subsidize those who refuse to contribute to society (2 Thessalonians 3:10), but we're called to always be ready to err on the side of generosity, since although Jesus Christ had heaven's riches, “yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” in everlasting life (2 Corinthians 8:9). Should we earn what we can? Sure, if we're committed to the entirety of John Wesley's advice: “Having first gained all you can, and secondly saved all you can, then give all you can” (Sermons 50.3.1) – and Wesley said that if you've got enough food to eat and clothing to wear and a place to lay your head, and then anything more that isn't strictly necessary, that's riches (Sermons 87.1.1). That might not be as far off as we'd like. And God called us from the very start to tend the world as his holy garden (Genesis 2:15). He gave us charge of it, and we have a charge to keep. If we mistreat the poor, if we're stingy, if we destroy the earth around us – that's the morality of Moab, not the love of Christ.

Finally, a fourth popular false doctrine is the neatly packaged way we sometimes understand the gospel itself. In America, we're all about individualism; we constantly think in individual terms, and we insist that religion is some 'private' thing. I remember when I became a believer. In the late 1990s, as a boy, I was at an evangelistic drama called Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames. It terrified me into the arms of Jesus. The entire thing was rooted in fear. I saw it again a few years ago, and it just made me sad. For them, the gospel was all about a last-minute escape from hellfire. In their skits, no non-believer ever had any serious objections or questions, and no believer struggled with anything. The whole thing was about securing a place in heaven to escape hell, if only you'd just once pray a little prayer and be enrolled in the Book of Life (cf. Revelation 20:15). The Christians in the skits weren't disciples; they're just marks in a heavenly ledger, waiting in an earthly lay-away until death makes the delivery.

No guidance was offered on how to find a healthy church, no mention was made of baptism, no mention was made of growing in the faith, no mention was made of being held accountable by a group of believers. That's barely even evangelism, let alone discipleship – the drama never even suggested that there was anything worth doing between “getting saved” and dying. Zero discipleship. But it reflects the way a lot of Christians think of the faith. We get sucked into the rhetoric of Jesus as our “personal Savior” – something that involves just me and Jesus in our own private world. Jesus redeemed a community, not a mere collection. To tell the gospel, we have to tell the whole story – the story of creation on a good course, humans given a mission, the mission abandoned, creation broken, and our own complicity in sin, and then Jesus as the climax of God's saving work to restore us to our mission here and now and to heal creation itself one day. God can use our half-gospels – I'm living proof of that... but he calls us to “fully proclaim the gospel of Christ” (cf. Romans 15:19).

So we have to reject heresy, we have to reject false teaching, we have to turn away from the “pride of Moab”, for “his boasts are false” (Isaiah 16:6). But there's hope for the half-church. In the days of Moses, the word of God demanded that no Moabite could be admitted to the Lord's assembly because of how they tried to curse and seduce Israel (Deuteronomy 23:3; Nehemiah 13:1-2). But Isaiah offers hope for the outcasts of Moab. And that hope is the same as Judah's hope: that “a throne shall be established in steadfast love in the tent of David, and on it shall sit in faithfulness a ruler who seeks justice and is swift to do what is right” (Isaiah 16:5). Who is that ruler? Jesus Christ – not Christ as reimagined by this group or that group, but the Christ who is the Truth unaltered. We need to examine our teachings: Are we believing and living as half-Christians or whole-Christians, as a half-church or a whole-church?

A half-church is tragic, but so is a halved church. Isaiah 17 looks like it's supposed to be about Damascus (Isaiah 17:1-2), but in just a couple verses, Isaiah shifts gears and spends all his time talking about Israel, the Northern Kingdom, which he likes to call “Ephraim”. The day will come, Isaiah says, when Israel – the Israel that pitted itself against Judah – will lose its fortresses and have its glory brought low (Isaiah 17:3-4). In their idolatry and in fighting Judah, they have “forgotten the God of their salvation and have not remembered the Rock of your Refuge” (Isaiah 17:10). The Northern Kingdom was a living symbol of what it means for God's people to be broken in two, to be divided, to exist in a state of schism. When they weren't being the half-church, they still show us a halved church.

A central point of biblical faith is that there is one God – period. And Jewish writers saw this as a very practical truth, more than just some nice theory. If there is only one God, then his law, his temple, his people, his salvation – all of those should stay singular and united, just as God is. The book of 2 Baruch argued that if there's only one God, then there can only be one Law, and one people defined by obedience to that Law (2 Baruch 48:24; 85:14). The Jewish historian Josephus and the Jewish philosopher Philo both argued that if there's only one God, then there should be “only one temple for one God”, and that all worship should center there because God is “the common God of all men” (Josephus, Contra Apionem 2.193; cf. Philo, Special Laws 1.67).

In Romans 3, Paul argues that if there's only one God, then God must be the God of the Jews and the God of the Gentiles; and if God is the God of both, then both Jews and Gentiles need the same salvation and have to get it in the same way, through faith (Romans 3:28-30). In short, one God means one way to be saved – which is the opposite of a lot of trendy religious thought then and now. The only way to be saved is on the basis of faith through Jesus the Faithful One. In John 17, this is the same approach Jesus takes. If there's one God, then there should be only one people; his people should be defined by their unity. But here, the oneness of God is defined as the Father and the Son being one God. The inner life of God is eternally bound together in intimate love, and so Jesus calls us to be one community in love. The Trinity isn't some abstract and irrelevant doctrine; it underscores the whole Christian life as a life of holy union with each other. In Ephesians 4:4-6, Paul waxes eloquent in showing the same thing. If there's only one “God and Father of all”, and if there's only “one Lord” over us, and if there's only “one Spirit” who animates us, then we need to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3), living as “one body” defined by “one baptism” into “one faith” and “one hope of your calling”. To claim Christianity but not be united in these, is to bear an impossibly contradictory witness.

Now, Israel didn't keep their God-given unity, but instead fractured into two nations through the secession of the northern tribes, leading to centuries of occasional civil war. Just the same, in many ways the church today sins against its God-given unity. With the church splintered into many denominations, there are some who refuse to hold spiritual communion with one another, refusing to welcome each other to the Lord's table – as if it were their table to forbid whom they wished! The Roman Catholic Church won't welcome outsiders to the table. The Eastern Orthodox won't welcome Roman Catholics or Protestants to the table. Some Protestant churches won't admit Catholics, Orthodox, or even other Protestants to the table. And beyond just the table, do we actually treat each other as brothers and sisters in the family of God made by Jesus Christ?

And how easily we break unity! Over two centuries ago, Jacob Albright converted and joined a Methodist class-meeting. As he matured in the faith, he felt God passionately calling him to serve the Lord as a traveling preacher, just like the circuit-riding itinerants of the Methodists. But he had his own mission field: the Pennsylvania Dutch, those who literally couldn't receive the gospel of holiness from an English-speaking Methodist. But the Methodist Episcopal Church refused to commission him; they had no use for reaching Germans. A few decades later, our own John Dreisbach asked the legendary Methodist bishop Francis Asbury to consider a merger, to pool resources. Asbury refused. German was a dying language in America, he said, and not worth the time. So unity didn't come – even after, with just a few more decades, even the Methodists established a German conference of their own. Time passed, and powerful bishops arose in the Evangelical Association. They made unity contingent on obeying their unlawful whims rather than keeping the solemn promises embodied in our Discipline. So twice the majority forced the minority to choose: obey certain bishops and follow them anywhere, or obey the Discipline and lose their property. Twice they chose the second, becoming the Evangelical Congregational Church. We didn't want a worldly unity under a tyrant; we wanted the perfect unity that comes from love (Colossians 3:14).

But still, there's a lot of unity lacking. Sunday mornings are still probably the most segregated time in America. Most churches do not represent the diversity of the communities they claim to serve. At my former church, there were quite a number of people who broke fellowship with the congregation over musical style in worship. Not that it changed entirely: they just slightly shifted the ratio of hymns and contemporary music. Some of the older members left the church because there weren't enough hymns any more; others left the church because there were still too many hymns for their taste. In both cases, our focus is no longer on God's glory. We have to ask ourselves: If our music style became an idol, would we serve it or dethrone it? If our service time or sermon length became an idol, would we serve it or dethrone it?

I know that there are people who have dropped out of even this loving church simply because they were offended by this or that decision that was made. Rather than try to talk to anyone, rather than wait until better days, they simply broke away and left and have no desire to return. I know that there have been other people who have been concerned by weaknesses of the church – but after all, no church is perfect, none is fully matured in every area of discipleship. But rather than stay and help the church to grow and become even more Christ-like, they broke away and left and have no desire to return. Some have found new congregations, and we wish them well and hope they can grow there just as we grow here. But I know plenty of other believers who, hurt or offended in a church, dropped out entirely and insist they don't need to fellowship with other believers – there's that individualist half-gospel again. Now, there are times to leave an abusive local church that dishonors the gospel, as some of you sadly know from experience. But to leave a church that isn't resolutely closed to the Spirit's leading? How does that live out “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3)? How does that witness that the Father and the Son are one? In our hearts, are we a whole church, or a halved church?

Yet there is hope for the halved church. They will “regard their Maker, and their eyes will look to the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 17:7), and then they won't be focused on divided agendas of their own making, the “work of their hands, and they will not look to what their own fingers have made” (Isaiah 17:8). The halved church can be made whole. We need to adopt this motto: “Not our will, but God's will be done” (cf. Luke 22:42). And what is God's will for us? That we may be “completely one” (John 17:23), and may be united – for what? To be “sent into the world” on a mission (John 17:18). As Lent nears, may we resolve to be a whole church with the whole gospel for the whole world (cf. Lausanne Covenant 6). So “go, you swift messengers” (Isaiah 18:2), in the unity of God's church! Go even “to a people feared near and far”, and to “all inhabitants of the world” (Isaiah 18:2-3), so that from all nations, offerings will be brought to “the place of the name of the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 18:7). Go and “disciple all nations” with the whole teaching of the whole gospel (Matthew 28:19-20), and live as one holy church built on Jesus, the church's one foundation (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:11).