Inspired by a sermon By Pastor Jason Cook at Fellowship Bible Church, Roswell, GA 4/18/2021
Baucham, V.T. (2021) Fault Lines: The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism’s Looming Catastrophe. [Kindle] Salem Books.
Those of us who grew up in California understand earthquakes better than most people in the US. We are aware that the State is riddled with fault plane boundaries, commonly called fault lines, where tectonic plates move against others, creating friction that eventually releases energy. That inevitable release comes in the form of seismic waves, shaking the earth, and devastating whatever lies above it. Californians understand the risk of living near fault lines, and take the necessary precautions to avoid damage. There is no stopping an earthquake, but the harm can be mitigated by awareness and preparation.
Dr. Voddie Baucham’s aptly named book uses the metaphor of increasing friction along fault plates to illustrate the impending and inevitable release of worldview tensions and the destruction that will come when (not if) the seismic waves of anger, fear, and frustration reach the surface of the culture. Baucham is clear that he did not write the book to stop the divide between sacred and secular cultures, but rather to “clearly identify the two sides of the fault line and to urge the reader to choose wisely” (p. 6).
Well-researched, with pages of citations following each chapter, Baucham defines the dominant worldviews that make up US culture. As a Black man, he knows the issues well, and from both sides of the argument. His lived experience testifies to his deep understanding of the issues now facing the US, but research informs his conviction that, while advocacy may have a place in the culture, it cannot overcome the divide. For Baucham, Truth, in all its capitalized glory, is necessary for justice, and Truth (or the denial of it) is the source of current cultural seismic waves. In earthquake country, there are often small temblors that precede a major quake; using Baucham’s metaphor, it is fair to say that the US is currently reacting to small cultural temblors that should make people prepare for the big quake that will come.
Baucham sets up a clear binary of secular and sacred. As a reader, I do not always agree with his conclusions; he skips over some of the important nuances of the complex issues, choosing to lay out his argument in purely black and white terms (wordplay intentional.) The strength of this book is in his definitions of a secular religion that puts humans at the center. He uses publications by those who hold to the views of secularism as the sources for the definitions, citing them not only by words, but also by hyperlinks (in the Kindle edition) to the source documents. He also exposes the faulty logic of secularism as he defines the new Gnosticism that prevails in the not-so-new religion (chapter 5.)
The book takes a decidedly sacred position, calling on people of faith to reconnect to the sufficiency of scripture as the source of Truth and as the model of how people ought to treat one another: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength…love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-40) and “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). He calls on the Church to have hard conversations about the issues at hand, conversations that both address the cultural divide and prepare people of faith to speak the truth in love, knowing that the difference between human-centered religion and Jesus-focused faith is the underlying source of conflict, not just now, but throughout all of history.
I was privileged to lead my precious Hope Las Vegas ladies’ Bible gathering this morning, and thought I might share my notes and the questions for the breakout groups here.
We are currently walking through the Gospel of Matthew, one chapter at a time. I did a short recap of the first part of the the Sermon on the Mount and then added thoughts and reflections (and challenges) for the final section. The summaries are my own, so any inaccuracies are also mine.
Final piece of Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)
First block (Matthew 5): How to live by the Law. cf Galatians 3:19-26
The purpose of the Law was to illustrate just how far from holy human effort can make us. It was designed to turn people to the one one who can save: Messiah.
Second block (Matthew 6): How to live like a believer daily. cf Galatians 5:22-26
The Spirit allows us to keep in step with its fruit, becoming people of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. Our very natures are being changed from earth-centered to heaven-bound. That change is HARD because our sin nature keeps pushing through. But as we learned in Matthew 4, God has given us His Word so that we are able to put the enemy in his place even as we are sustained by the Father. It’s a DAILY experience. It may seem like change isn’t happening, but when we look backward, we can see the unmistakable hand of God on our lives.
Third/Final block (Matthew 7): How to live out a spirit-filled life in an increasingly secular world. cf Galatians 6:9-10
This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door,
and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
We may not feel at home in this crazy, violent, turbulent world, but we are stuck here until the Lord calls us home or Jesus returns. The events of recent days just illustrated how broken this world is and how human attempts to fix it just seem to accelerate the downward spiral. The worse it gets, the more dependent we need to be on the Way the Truth and the Life (John 14:6). While the first sections of the Sermon on the Mount addressed activities visible to the outside world, this last section focused on issues of the heart, the things no one else sees.
Key verse: “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29).
The crowds were astonished, not by the person speaking, but by the words of the message and the authority by which they were spoken. Why? What set Jesus apart?
- Ancient synagogue services were divided among presenters. While the synagogues had officials, they rotated roles within each service. The chief ruler (Rosh-ha-Keneseth) identified different attendees to read the various parts of the formal service. One person read the prayers, seven people shared reading the law, another person read the prophets, and if someone in the room didn’t know Hebrew, an interpreter was required. Finally, a congregant was chosen to speak a message from the texts. Jesus took on all the roles himself.
- Ancient practices separated men, women, and children. Jesus didn’t.
- Further, the old ways followed a call-and-response format (sort of). The prayers would be read, and the congregants would respond with a scripted, traditional response.
- Jesus interpreted the ancient words in new ways.
- Jesus taught by the Spirit. Matthew Henry wrote:
The scribes pretended as much authority as any teachers whatsoever, and were supported by all the external advantages that could be obtained, but their preaching was mean, and flat, and jejune: they spake as those what were not themselves masters of what they preached: the word did not come from them with any life or force; they delivered it as a school-boy says his lesson; but Christ delivered his discourse, as a judge gives his charge. He did indeed, dominari in conscionibus—deliver his discourses with a tone of authority; his lessons were law; his word a word of command. Christ, upon the mountain, showed more true authority, than the scribes in Moses’s seat. Thus when Christ teaches by his Spirit in the soul, he teaches with authority. He says, Let there be light, and there is light.
So, in this third section of the Sermon on the Mount, what did Jesus say?
Jesus started with the thing that drives everyone nuts–and everyone does it, at least in their heads: Judging. James talks about showing preferences and the problems therein. We can hide our judgmental thoughts, but Jesus makes it clear that we have no space to be judgmental; we have our own issues that the Spirit is dealing with us all the time.
Additionally, we have to be aware of how we use God’s word when we DO correct (lovingly, gently) our brothers and sisters. They may not be in a place to let you work on their specks–even if your logs are completely removed.
Continuing the theme of internal actions, Jesus reminds His listeners that they are LOVED by God. The teachings of the Pharisees/Sadducees and the focus on keeping the Law (legalism in modern parlance) makes God look like a cosmic killjoy whose eyes run to and fro over the earth to see whom He can condemn (2 Chronicles 16:9). That is NOT TRUE!
God loves us (1 John 4:10),but that doesn’t mean we can celebrate our fire insurance and do whatever we want. Back to James: Faith without works is DEAD (James 2:14-26). Working out our faith, especially internally, is challenging because our sin nature keeps tripping us up. We WILL have trouble in this world (John 16:33) and some of that trouble comes by way of false teachers. Don’t listen to them. I won’t name them here (that would take too long), but you recognize them by their fruit. Are they servants or influencers? Do they preach Jesus plus nothing? Is their gospel message unadulterated by the culture of this world? If Jesus isn’t first, RUN.
And if YOU happen to be teaching falsely, or if YOUR works are for your own glory, you may be in for a surprise when you get to glory and your name is not in the Lamb’s book of life. What motivates you to work out your salvation? Fame and followers? Or Fear and trembling? (Philippians 2:1-12)
Can you imagine the people sitting and hearing these words? They’re contrary to anything else they knew. They had been taught that adherence to the words of the Law, the Prophets and the sacrifices were sufficient to be saved, but Jesus told them that the whole purpose of everything they thought they had to do was to show them that they actually couldn’t do it! In fact, the things they tried to do to earn their way into the eternal Kingdom were nothing more than a foundation of shifting sand; anything built on that ground would disappear.
Is it any wonder people were astonished? Dumbstruck, even? Here was a man who spoke the scriptures, interpreted the scriptures, and preached the scriptures without needing to check with another person to make sure He was on the right track. His authority rang out in the way he held “church” (outside in a mixed crowd speaking the words of the Law from memory) and in the way He blended familiar things, like fig trees and construction with the Scriptures in ways no one had heard before. He talked about the impossibility of keeping the whole law while reassuring people of God’s great love for them. He told them they needed to not only act on what He taught them, but they had to take His words to heart and let the Spirit make internal changes that no one could see. And He reminded them that people only see the external things, but God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:17).
Burton, E. DW. (1896) The Ancient Synagogue Service. The Biblical World, 8(2). 143-148. The Ancient Synagogue Service
Henry, M. (2021). Matthew Henry’s Bible Commentary. Christianity.com Matthew 7 Bible Commentary – Matthew Henry (complete) Original work written 1708-1710.
Group breakout questions:
Key verses: “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29).
Matthew 7: 1-6
- What is the difference between judgement and accountability?
- How do you handle dealing with differences of opinion when it comes to biblical and/or moral gray areas?
Matthew 7: 7-12
Consider and define the verbs in the section (ask, seek, knock).
- What is significant about these words?
- Why does Jesus compare God to a human parent?
- How do you go about asking, seeking, and knocking for God’s good gifts?
Matthew 7: 13-23
- Why is the road to the kingdom hard and the gate narrow? If God loves everyone, why not make it easy?
- What does Jesus mean that not everyone who says “Lord, look what I did” will enter the Kingdom of God?
- How do you determine the trustworthiness of a speaker who claims to be a spiritual authority or guide?
- Read Galatians 5:22-25. What kind of fruit do you produce?
Matthew 7: 24-27
- What does Jesus mean when he talks about rock and sand as foundations for building? Where might he have gained his expertise in structural security? What did he expect his audience to know about construction?
- Why is it important to base your faith on a reasonable and responsible understanding of the Bible?
Matthew 7: 28-29
- Why were the crowds astonished?
- When you find yourself astonished by a message, how do you respond?
It was just after sunset. The sky was dusky, and the shadows in the alleys grew deeper. The Temple took on hues of pink and gold as the marble reflected the last rays of day, a glorious sight for those who had eyes to see. The women did not see the beauty; they were consumed with making the perfect meal, centered around lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs. The tradition dated back centuries, to the time of the great exodus, and it was surrounded by specific rituals, prayers, and songs. Jerusalem was crowded as people from all over pilgrimaged to the holiest city they knew. Many of those pilgrims had surely been part of the great crowds that sang, “Hosanna” on the first day of the week. While the sacred meal was primarily for families, individuals could also gather as companies, temporary families united by being among the sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
By this time, the noise of the crowds had diminished as the sacrifices were completed and the men returned to their homes to partake in the Passover meal. They led their children for a search of hidden leaven in the house. As guests arrived, servants would wash the dust from the travelers’ feet. Wine was served for both sacred and non-ritual consumption. Throughout the meal, family members would retell the exodus story as they recalled God’s miraculous freeing of the people of Israel from slavery under the Egyptian pharaoh.
This night, a group of men met in the upper room of a home they knew. There were thirteen in all, but when the meal was eaten, one left mysteriously, before the final cups of wine were blessed: “Blessed are you, o Lord our God, King of the universe, who has created the fruit of the vine…[who said,] I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgements.”
By now, the men in the group were concerned. Why had one left their midst before the final prayer? Why did Judas not sing the words, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever?” And then the Master spoke to them, words of a new commandment to love even though some of them would shortly depart, even denying they knew Him. He told them He was the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He reminded the remaining eleven that, even when He left them, they would not be alone, but that He would send a Counselor, a Holy Spirit, to walk with them and through them as they kept His commands.
He spoke plainly to them, that the next moments and days would be the worst they could possibly imagine. And then Jesus spoke these words:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.John 14:27
As the group departed when the meal was complete, Jesus told them more about what was to come. He finished by warning them that they would indeed face tribulation, but they could endure because He conquered the world and the sin that inhabited it (John 16:33).
The world in which we live is indeed troubled. Culture is as evil as in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah, and it seems there is no redemption ahead. What was once thought to be evil is now celebrated as good, and what was once good is now portrayed as offensive to a progressive society. As Jesus followers, it might be easy to be discouraged by the daily manifestations of Satan’s rule in this world. We may fear the consequences of expressing our faith in the open. It’s true, our livelihoods may be threatened by our spoken convictions. We may lose credibility with our secular friends when we speak the truth, even when we say there IS Truth (not my truth or your truth, but REAL Truth). The disciples lost more than credibility; they all lost their lives in their proclamations of Jesus as Lord and Savior. For hundred of years, Jesus followers around the world have faced everything from ridicule to persecution to their very lives. Yet Christianity has endured.
Christianity has endured. Not because Christians are perfect. People have done horrific and vile things claiming the name of Jesus. The name “Christian” has been misused, misplaced, and maligned for so long that its very meaning has been altered in the eyes of a secular society. But being a Jesus follower is unchanged over the centuries. It is not an easy road to travel. It requires stamina, discipline, and trust in the One who gives us peace.
That Passover meal so long ago was the portal to a world where ordinary people did extraordinary things because Jesus. As complicated and complex and corrupt this world becomes, we can persevere. We can sing, “His love endures forever” no matter what we face. Jesus is our salvation. He is the Cornerstone of all Truth. He gives light in the darkness, hope in distress, and peace in all the trials we face.
Strange, J.F. (2014). Jesus’ Passover. Friends of Asor, 2(4). https://www.asor.org/anetoday/2014/04/jesus-passover/
Wallace, D.B. (2004). Passover in the Time of Jesus. Bible.org , https://bible.org/article/passover-time-jesus This is a transcript of a Seder meal practiced according to first century traditions.
“The kingdom of God will be taken from you.”
Jesus said these words to the priests and Pharisees, the men chosen to intercede for the people to the Holy One. Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy explicitly spell out the requirements for the priesthood, the Law, and the sacrifices both to atone for sin and to offer thanks to the Lord. The priests were set apart for a holy purpose. But over time, that holy purpose went to their heads and instead of teaching the Word as the Lord gave it to them, they created their own rules and regulations, putting themselves higher than the people over whom they had authority. They demanded respect, instead of serving with intention. They prayed loudly in order to be heard by everyone passing by. They drew attention to themselves instead of drawing people to the Holy One.
Jesus gave them every opportunity to have a conversation with him. Instead, they continually tried to entrapment him into scriptural error. He always answered them with scripture and left them silenced again and again. They could not make him sin in word or deed, as hard as they tried. For three years, Jesus patiently endured their verbal assaults, but when the time was right, he took decisive action: He cleared the temple.
The temple was supposed to by a holy place of prayer, repentance, and sacrifice. The religious leaders had installed their own form of commerce by selling the animals and other elements required by the Law for sacrifice and offering. They set up tables for money-changers (who always charged a fee), and turned a blind eye to the ways the people were overcharged as they tried to meet the sacrificial requirements of the Law. When Jesus came in during this Passover week, he had enough. He overturned the tables, sent the animals into chaos, and left the money-changers scrambling to pick up their ill-gotten coins. This is not Jesus, meek and mild. This is Jesus, righteous judge.
Jesus didn’t stop with physically emptying the temple. He restored it to its original intention. The blind and lame came to the temple and Jesus healed them. Children came in singing praise. Because this event followed the triumphal entry, the shouts of the people who had waved palm branches and laid down their coats for the donkey carrying Jesus probably echoed throughout the walls. The chaos turned from greed to gratitude, and the priests were outraged.
The priests accused Jesus of usurping their authority over the holy things, but he just asked them a question they could not answer: Where did John get his authority? At this point, John had been beheaded and he was a revered figure. The priests had to know that John’s authority was God-given, but they couldn’t admit that without explaining why they refused to listen to him. On the other hand, if they said John was a self-made prophet, they knew the people who had followed him would revolt. Instead of answering, they just shrugged, saying they didn’t know.
Jesus told two stories, opportunities for the Pharisees and priests to see themselves for what they were and repent. Knowing their hearts, Jesus made it plain that they were no longer employed in God’s holy service. He said, “Therefore, I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruit.” For a priest, that was condemnation.
The New Testament tells the story of how the kingdom was delivered to other nations, including the much hated gentile nations of Samarian, Syria, and all around the Aegean Sea. North Africa learned the gospel from Philip. The entire Greco-Roman Empire turned to Christianity within the first decades of Jesus’s resurrection. The Jewish leaders lost their authority as representatives of God’s Kingdom.
I wonder whether God is removing the Western Church from its role as primary evangelist/seat of God’s kingdom and putting that authority in the places where people are producing gospel transformations. Certainly the Western Church has lost both credibility and influence in the last 30 years or so. Wrong theologies (prosperity doctrines and liberation theologies) may draw people in, but they are not transforming lives with the gospel of Jesus. Larger than life personalities draw attention from Jesus, sometimes with devastating consequences. The culture, with its current fascination with Critical Theory, has infiltrated the Church, creating a human-centered, works-based version of the gospel that is from the devil himself. There’s just enough truth in it to make it sound good, and just enough reward in it to make people feel good, but it is a deadly trap.
Growth in the Church has slowed to a crawl in most of the West and in countries with Westernized ideals. In the US, Evangelical Christianity is growing by .08% annually; the population is growing by just over 1%. On the other hand, people in Iran, Afghanistan, and throughout the continents of Africa and Asia are producing the fruit of the gospel (Operation World). In some of the poorest countries with the most corrupt authoritarian leadership, Jesus is being proclaimed. Not only proclaimed, but it seems to be the young adults who are responding to God’s call, in spite of the laws against proselytizing in many countries with Islam as the State religion (Missions Box). These churches, often held in secret, take advantage of social media and internet streaming services to build their knowledge of Scripture. The youth in many countries are suffering under harsh regimes, and the gospel offers hope, something no other religion can do. The punishment for learning about Jesus can be severe, even to banishment or death, but for those who choose the gospel, hope is greater than fear (New York Times, Religious News Service). These believers form communities where the gospel is lived out daily.
Jesus said that the two greatest commandments were to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37). While there are many churches in the US that practice these two foundational commands, there are many that do not. Increasingly, the most recognizable figures of the evangelical church are turning our to be mere mortals who have built a ministry on personality and intellect instead of Jesus. Unless believers insist on the Bible as the core of church teaching and as Jesus as central to the Bible, it is likely that the US will follow Europe into secularism and worshipping the god of good works. That path leads to destruction: “Whoever falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will shatter him” (Matthew 21:44).
Let us choose to be broken before the Lord in repentance rather than shattered when we stand before the righteous and holy Judge in the end.
As promised: This world is not my home by various artists in a multitude of styles. The origin of the lyrics is muddy, with at least three people given attribution as author.
This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue;
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
O Lord, you know I have no friend like you,
If heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do?
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
They’re all expecting me, and that’s one thing I know,
My Savior pardoned me and now I onward go;
I know He’ll take me thro’ tho’ I am weak and poor,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore. [Chorus]
I have a loving Savior up in glory-land,
I don’t expect to stop until I with Him stand,
He’s waiting now for me in heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore. [Chorus]
Just up in glory-land we’ll live eternally,
The saints on every hand are shouting victory,
Their songs of sweetest praise drift back from heaven’s shore,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore. [Chorus]
This World Is Not My Home
This world is not my home I’m just-a-passing through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
Angels beckon me to heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
Oh Lord you know I have no friend like you
If heaven’s not my home oh Lord what will I do
Angels beckon me to heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
They’re all expecting me that’s one thing I know
I fixed it up with Jesus a long time ago
He will take me through though I am weak and poor
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
Over in glory land there’ll be no dying there
The saints all shouting victory and singing everywhere
I hear the voice of them that’s gone on before
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
|Title:||[This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin thru]|
|Composer or Arranger:||Albert E. Brumley October 29, 1905, near Spiro, Oklahoma. Died: November 15, 1977, Springfield, Missouri. Buried: Fox Cemetery, Powell, Missouri. Brumley attended the Hartford Musical Institute in Hartford, Arkansas, and sang with the Hartford Quartet. He went on to teach at singing schools in the Ozarks, and lived most of his life in Powell, Missouri. He worked for 34 years a staff writer for the Hartford and Stamps/Baxter publishing companies, then founded the Albert E. Brumley & Sons Music Company and Country Gentlemen Music, and bought the Hartford Music Company. He wrote over 800 Gospel and other songs during his life; the Country Song Writers Hall of Fame inducted him in 1970.|
|Composer:||Jessie May Hill I can’t find biographical information, but she seems to have been in great demand as a singer and pianist in the late 1920s.|
“Jesus paid it all.
All to Him I owe.
Sin had left a crimson stain;
He washed it white as snow.”Elvina M. Hall (1865)
This hymn, written by Elvina M. Hall in 1865 kept repeating in my mind as I read Matthew 12 and Leviticus 22 this morning. Leviticus is the book of Law, the law that, if followed perfectly, will restore our broken relationship with the Father. What the Law really does is demonstrate how utterly impossible it is to keep. Even keeping the Law is not enough; it is God who sanctifies us. YHWH Mekkodishkem (M’Kaddesh), the LORD who sanctifies is the only path to holiness, or being set apart for a purpose.
When Jesus confronted the Pharisees about their letter-of-the-Law mentality in Matthew 12, He showed them that God put the Law in place to direct His people to Himself. It’s so much easier to play the comparison game of “your sin is worse than my sin” than it is to recognize our own guilt before God and repent of it, falling on His mercy in Jesus.
The Law was also expensive to keep. Only the best animals were worthy of sacrifice. Only the first of the harvest could be offered. But humanity’s best is insufficient. Our redemption cost Jesus ALL. He stepped out of glory. He lived as one of us (fully fulfilling the Law). Yet He had to die on our behalf in order to complete the transaction of our salvation, and He returned to life to begin our sanctification. We do not save ourselves; we cannot. Restored relationship with God is a gift, not a work of the Law. It cost Jesus everything and is free to those who reach toward Him who sanctifies us.
A year ago the novel coronavirus was a story of interest, but not headline news in most of the world. It had been identified in China and had just been confirmed in the Mediterranean region (World Health Organization interactive timeline). Daily briefings from WHO didn’t begin until February 5 and it wasn’t until February 24 that WHO issued a warning about the potential for rapid spread.
The epicenter moved to Europe in early March, and interest in the US began to rise, but still, other news, mostly political, ruled the headlines. But by the middle of March, following the official declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic, people in the US started paying attention. On March 11, the day WHO declared the virus as “the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus” (npr.org), it had spread to eight countries and killed 4,000 people.
As of this writing, COVID19 has taken 2.16 million lives across every continent on the planet. It’s far more devastating than anyone could have imagined a year ago.
Through this year of loss, God has not forgotten His children. We may feel like our prayers are unheard, but He hears. We may momentarily wonder where to find respite, but He is with us in the middle of our pain.
How long will this endure? There’s no telling. But God has not abandoned us. He is eternal and waiting for us to focus less on loss and to take refuge in His everlasting arms.
When this pandemic is over (and it will eventually end) we will look back and see how God revealed Himself in the middle. He will be glorified by the testimony we share because He brought us through it all. When we abide in Him, we are safe in His arms, no matter what happens in the chaos of the world around us.
There’s an old song that keeps playing in my head today. The words I recall are these:
This world is not my home; I'm just a-passin' through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue. The angels beckon me from heaven's open door. And I can't feel at home in this world anymore.
The events of the last several weeks that culminated in the events of January 6, 2021 just confirm to me that I don’t belong to this world. I knew there would be a time when many people calling themselves “Christians” would turn away from the gospel of Jesus and the love of God; evidently that time is now. I am horrified by the events at the US Capitol on Wednesday. Ironically, Wednesday was also Epiphany, a day set aside by liturgical traditions to remember the Magi and to ponder the baptism of Jesus by John. It was at the baptism that John introduced Jesus as the Son of God (John 1:19-34). Epiphany, a sudden illumination of something. Epiphany, the recognition of Jesus as fully God and fully man. The wonder of the Incarnation, now a man beginning his public ministry. How far the Church has fallen from the wonder of God’s mercy and grace for us. How devastating is that fall!
The Church in the US and much of the West is broken. It has been broken by teachers and pastors who sought recognition and fame. It has been broken by church attendees who stay for the music, but leave as soon as the teaching gets serious. Cultural Christianity (churchianity) focuses on blessings instead of trials and boasting instead of truth. The Church in the US, for the most part, has moved away from worshipping the righteous and holy God who created all things and holds all things together, replacing the Father with a national identity and the human leaders they elect.
Whether or not people believe that the 2016 or 2020 elections resulted in fraudulent officials is irrelevant. The kind of violence exhibited on January 6 was illegal, seditious, and wrong on every level. Those who hung up the name of Jesus in the process defiled his holy name. Amos wrote that God’s people must seek good, and not evil, especially when they live in a country that thrives on the titillation of wickedness. “Hate evil and love good,” he wrote. “Establish justice in the gate.” Amos goes on to describe how the Lord looks upon self-indulgent and proud people who claim they have “rights” because of their affiliation with God. The Lord abhors that pride. Amos spoke for the Lord saying, “I hate, I despise your festivals and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen.” Displays of nationalism and religiosity do not honor the Lord. He is not the God of the United States of America. He is the Lord of ALL creation. To honor the Lord means His followers pursue justice rolling down like the waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. God’s righteousness, not self-righteousness. The actions of people on January 6 revealed the utter wickedness that dwells within all people. They pursued a path that would vindicate their self-righteousness and the false gospel of nationalism. They put a political figure in the place of the Lord.
Nations rise and nations fall. Institutions are built up and torn down. There will come a day when the US will fall, just as every empire has fallen. But the people of God are not to be part of that destruction. We are to seek peace. We are to pray for the welfare of where we live (Jeremiah 29:4-14), not listening to those who seek to deceive. God is abundantly clear about what is good: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with the Lord. None of the humility, kindness, nor justice were on display by the people who called themselves Christians while they broke into the Capitol, wreaking havoc in their violence. Make no mistake, these people were not acting in the will of God and God was not glorified. In fact, Malachi wrote that people like those who use the name of Jesus and the idea of Christian the way they did on January 6 weary the Lord with their words. They say that doing evil is doing good and that God is too slow in enacting justice. These claims illustrate just how self-serving these people are. They worship a nation, a Constitution, and institution, not the Living Lord.
The Lord will refine His Church. The pandemic has revealed those who used church as a social gathering place by closing the physical doors. The ugliness of the campaigns of 2020 revealed just how deep the corruption of ethical behavior has become. The riots of summer 2020 demonstrated the inadequacy of church teaching, especially with the notion of the prosperity gospel or the social gospel that infiltrated many churches. The refining has begun. The heat has been turned up, and unless there is general repentance and lamentation of the Church’s failure to teach the Word to the people, things will continue to get more difficult. All the dross must be burned away in order for those of us who seek Jesus first to fully reflect Him in all that we do and say.
In the end, however, this world, this country, this national institution is just a place of passing as we journey to our eternal home. For those who fear the Lord, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing. We will look to the Lord, waiting for the God of our salvation. He hears us. He is our light. His love is steadfast.
And that song? It has an interesting story that I’ll share another day. For now, enjoy one of the first recordings of it by the composer, Jessie May Hill:
Philippians 3: 17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
Wait. Not exactly the word I expected for 2021, but that’s the one that stuck. Some people might say it was a word from the Lord, but I won’t be so bold as to claim to hear God in such specific terms. Still, this is the word that came to mind over and over as I pondered my focus for 2021. Two passages of scripture also circled in my head: sections from Habakkuk 2 and Jeremiah 33.
I read Habakkuk back in January, well before 2020 turned the world upside down. At that point, I considered his cry of “How long” from a theoretical perspective on the evil and injustice of humans. I could not have foreseen that “how long” would be the cry of so many people across the globe. Habakkuk prophesied in an evil age, one in which violence, poverty, devastation, and strife ruled, while the Law was ignored and justice never upheld. The Lord told him, ” Watch! Be horrified! Be frightened speechless! For I am accomplishing a work in your days — you would not believe it even if you were told!” (Habakkuk 1:5). Jeremiah heard the same word: “Call to me and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3). Those unbelievable “great and mighty things” included the total destruction of Judah at the hands of the Chaldeans because the sins of God’s people had reached a point of utter wickedness. Zephaniah also preached against the rebellious and defiled people who refused to obey the Lord and did “violence to the Law” (Zephaniah 3). Even before 2020, there were people crying out to God, “how long?” How long will bitterness and injustice rule even in our churches? How long will people flout God’s command to love God with all heart, soul, mind, and strength while loving each other? (Matthew 22:35-40). I wrote in my journal on January 17, 2020:
How long? The question of the ages, it would seem. Evil still runs rampant in the world. War, slavery, and violence are as much a part of this time as in any other…the law is paralyzed and justice never goes forth. Pay attention. To say God works in mysterious ways is an understatement. However, He know what is happening, and He will judge the wicked even if we don’t. However, because His ways are not ours (Isaiah 55:8-9), how He works may not make sense to our limited minds. Here [Habakkuk 1], God uses the Chaldeans, who were know for witchcraft, astrology, and worship of Marduk to punish the wicked in Israel and Judah…How long? Until the people repent and a leader comes forth to honor God.
And here we are, nearly a year later. The world has suffered a deadly pandemic, drought, horrific natural disasters in the forms of fire, earthquake, and flood, economic catastrophes, and human suffering on a massive scale. The US has endured riots, protests, division, hatred, contentiousness, and violence, not to mention an election that pleased nobody. The economy suffered as businesses either shuttered or pivoted to “contactless” commerce. People argued over wearing masks of all things: protection or liberty. Physical distancing drove families. Work and school and church moved to online platforms. (Oh, to have bought stock in Zoom back in February.) Hugs and handshakes became elbow bumps. The virus that upended everything created chaos by its sheer inconsistency: most people recovered quickly, but some endured long term effects, and many died. Will a vaccine help? Maybe. Hopefully. But the damage to the psyche of the world is done.
And yet, after all these things, we still wait for the return of the good times. Back to “normal.” When we can attend church services and have school in classrooms and travel freely. But if we just return to the way things were, what have we learned? Have we made changes in justice? Are we better, kinder people? Do the good guys in white hats come out ahead? I submit, we have not made changes and we are not better people. The white hats are more than fifty shades of gray. And, with Habakkuk we might ask, why do the wicked seem to prevail, even after all the events of 2020? Evidently, there’s still a lesson to be learned.
I spent a fair amount of time in 2020 studying the minor prophets and considering the “day of the Lord.” Joel wrote that “the day of the Lord is indeed great and very awesome, and who can endure it?” (Joel 2). Paul wrote to the Thessalonians that the day would come like a “thief in the night” but before that time, people would be talking about world peace and security (1 Thessalonians 5). After 2020, not much is certain, but no one is claiming this as a time of peace and security. I think the Lord does have a word for us, the same word he gave to Habakkuk: “Write down the vision…so that one who reads it may run. For the vision is yet for the appointed time; It hurries toward the goal and it will not fail. Though it delays, wait for it; For it will certainly come, it will not delay long” (Habakkuk 2:2-3). This year has been a foreshadowing of what is to come. Jesus called times like these the “beginnings of the birth pains” (Matthew 24). Habakkuk saw that things were going to get far worse before they got better; we must understand the same thing.
Why? Why the suffering? Why the certainty of eventual destruction? Because humans are desperately wicked by nature. Because, until people see themselves as they truly are, they will not see their desperate need for a Savior. We are stubborn, we humans. We want to be the masters of our souls, but we cannot be holy. And the Lord will do whatever it takes to make us see that, without Jesus, our souls are doomed. C.S. Lewis put it well when he said that God shouts to us in our pain (Lewis 1940, 2001). Joel foresaw a time when God will light up the sky with fire while turning the moon into blood. At the same time, young people will have visions and the old will dream of God’s wrath, judgement, and salvation (Joel 2). There will come a time when everyone will choose for themselves: worship the self or call on the Lord. Moderation, fence-sitting, cultural “churchianity”- these will be abolished and the lines of demarcation will be clearly drawn.
God has not destined us for that wrath. He sent Jesus, the Incarnation of Himself, for our salvation. When we call on His name, we are eternally His, no matter what happens on this earth (1 Thessalonians 5; Romans 5). The question we must address today is the same one Habakkuk faced: how do we respond to the certainty of hard times ahead?
With joy. We choose joy in the God of our salvation. We choose joy because He made a way of escape; these light and momentary struggles are nothing compared to the glory that will be revealed to us on that day (Romans 8). And for now, we wait in anticipation.
Lewis, C.S. (2001) The problem of pain. Harper. Original publication 1940.