Countering America’s Complacent Apocalyptism, or Resurrection People in an Ecclesiastes World

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John of Patmos watches the descent of New Jerusalem from God in a 14th century tapestry. Image taken by Gribeco.

“He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief. And he went about among the villages teaching.” (Mark 6:1-6)

After running the Palestine circuit performing healing and other miracles, Jesus and His disciples stop in His hometown of Nazareth to do ministry there.

And He gets the door slammed in His face. The people with whom He grew up working alongside and attending the synagogue have no ears to hear His teaching. These people are His family, and in a surprising turn of events, they’re the people with whom His teaching is the least welcome.

One unfortunate feature of American Christianity is that the vague notion of Jesus has become so familiar to us that the substance of what He taught and modeled for us in the Gospels has become dangerously easy to ignore and subtly reject. Churches can become the hometown in which the teachings of Jesus are not welcome. But why?

It could be that the average North American church does not believe in the future. They pray, sing, and lamely preach religious niceties with minimal conviction. For all of the hours they put in, there is beneath it all little hope that it’s  heading anywhere. There’s something in the Christo-American consciousness that tacitly joins the secular culture at large in sluggish disbelief in the reality of a hopeful future. For a variety of reasons, something in us knows the world is ending.

So at our best we carry on in the work of ministry without any real, motivating hope that our work matters. All is vanity. There is no hope. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. The end is near.

It’s a deadening hopelessness that accounts for much of the lethargy that has restrained the American Church and kept it at bay in the face of growing darkness. So we don’t believe in the future. We see ourselves exclusively as exiles. We celebrate that “this world is not my home,” or, on the other hand, resign ourselves to trudge along with the current of  what we could call our culture’s complacent apocalyptism. We detach from emotional involvement regarding the consequences of our political goings-on. Like the world from whom we obtusely pride ourselves in separating, we choose leaders who promise to represent our interests over against those of the ever-threatening other.

We abandon the clear call to counter-cultural holiness as a consequence of the gospel, because from the vantage point of complacent apocalyptism the transforming initiatives given by Jesus in the sermon on the mount are unrealistic at best. We slide into sinful patterns of behavior because they come naturally to us and in the absence of a future to hope in, opting into the counterintuitive lifestyle of hopeful self-denial is simply not a live option. “Don’t you know the world is ending?” One might say, “You might as well get your rocks off.”

Except that nobody would ever say these things. This complacency about the future is tacit, not explicit. Our contemporary detached apocalyptists can still be ambitious. They may still climb the corporate ladder or become president or start a non-profit or drop a bomb on Hiroshima. They may talk a big game about delayed gratification and hard work and old fashioned values because in the absence of hope for the future they’ve at least constructed a hopeful narrative about the past.

The good ol’ days. The golden age. The best generation. The Christian nation. The Garden of Eden. America is built on “Fall” narratives.  There were days when all was well and the world wasn’t ending.

Interestingly enough, the biblical worldview, which sees the entropy of the universe as a product of a primordial Fall, leaves absolutely no room for these small-scale, decentralized Fall narratives we construct. There’s no space for Fall narratives about America (or Europe, or Rome) because Total Depravity has always worked itself out through systems, and we’ve always been a prime example of it.

America was never great, so we’ve got no reference point to get back to. The golden generation still consisted of emotionally bankrupt sinners, mired in debauchery. The Christian Nation was plenty pagan. The good ol’ days were good for a nauseatingly small portion of the populace. Our decentralized Fall narratives don’t work.

And they can’t. Because the point of the doctrine of the Fall is not that all was once as it should be but now we’ve gone and lost it. The point is that the good ol’ days are ahead of us, not behind us. It’s not a coincidence that our book, which opens in a garden, concludes in a metropolis. In the book of Revelation, John writes:

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son … And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed … And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Rev. 21:5-27)

There’s no return to Eden in sight. It’s quite the opposite. John envisions an in-breaking of God’s reality to ours. Rather than obliterating everything that was and taking us someplace far away where nothing was ever wrong, He overlays the sin-spoilt streets of Rome with silver and gold and seas of crystal so forth and makes our little world into His big world, to borrow a phrase from Walter Brueggemann. So history is heading somewhere.

We are not free floating into undetermined waters. The voluminous streams of history will converge one day in a hopeful future that cannot be overthrown. The future is both determined and not. So when the kingdom comes in its fullness, it is a “new Jerusalem” made of redeemed people – those whose whole selves, their interests included, have been redeemed and brought back into relationship with God. The artist will likely remain an artist, and the engineer an engineer. Very possibly, the kingdom is a canvas painted on by the contributions of all of its citizens. A kingdom without definite form, open always to improvement and culture shift because its culture is enriched by the creativity of its inhabitants, through whom the creativity of God is fully expressed, the sovereignty of God fully extended, and the character of God fully embodied. A bringing together of all that can be and could be within the covenant community of God. That the Kingdom is coming is unshakable, but it’s substance is the product of our creative collaboration with the God who brought us into covenant with Himself. The Kingdom is what God wills it and we make it.

Nowhere is the Biblical hope some sort of ethereal bliss in a disembodied heavenly realm. Our hope is not in escaping this world and spending eternity in “a better place,” but in God’s act of reconciling this world to Himself, that Heaven and earth might be forever brought together in a marriage of sorts, and that God and His people would dwell together in a kingdom that will not end. It is a kingdom of rest for everybody involved. Those who are tired find their rest here. Those who are bruised and beaten up by the machinery of this world are invited to come and be nursed to health. Some theologians of old imagined it as a place where everyone might find their perfect happiness. They’re probably right. In the fullness of the Kingdom also lives the fullness of Joy.

It is not merely that we won’t need our pets or our loved ones to be happy, but that we will be joined together with the Source of Joy and happiness. We will dwell forever in the substance that cast their shadow. Whatever community we had in this life finds its completion in the fullness of God’s presence and kingdom. Far from abandoning the things that bring us pleasure and enjoyment today, I imagine that in the fullness of the Kingdom we will also find the fullness of fun.

It’s also a place of real freedom. We are a disfigured humanity, and there’s no rescue to be found within ourselves. The world is cruel because we are, oppressive because we are, broken because we are. We’re the villains of this story. But in Christ, God has made good on His promise to rescue us from our own disfiguration, and the disfiguration of the world we created in our image. For the person rescued by Christ, the whole of their experience in this life is restorative; no trial is punishment, no suffering is retributive. Every experience in the life of the Christian is designed to grow them in godliness. Jesus is creating for Himself a people that reflect His own compassion. One day the whole world’ll look like love.

Which brings me back round to complacent apocalyptism. If the golden years are ahead of us rather than behind us, I have good cause not to give up working toward them. We don’t build the kingdom, but we live on its terms together, surrounded by people who are homesick for it. We’re resurrection people in an Ecclesiastes world. But it doesn’t come naturally.

Few motivators are more powerful than the desire to do nothing. For all of my talk about pursuing justice for oppressed people, I am fundamentally inclined toward complacency. I reach the height of my creativity when I am manufacturing reasons to mind my own business and allow great social ills to persist that I have the power to positively affect. The truth is that I don’t have to buy coffee beans picked by children who were kidnapped and forced into slave labor when there are a multitude of products to choose from and I have access to resources that help identify which companies have been busted for unethical overseas labor practices.

I don’t have to be content as a bystander while politicians determine the fate of families who come to America illegally to create a better life for their families in the absence of a naturalization process that is both timely and affordable because as a voter I can gather sizable groups of like-minded voters and demand that my representatives make immigration reform a priority. But actually doing any of these things requires me to betray my chief motivator: complacency. Bringing about any change in the structure of things presses against the currents of human depravity. But God.

So like scripture is the eyes through which we read the past ans present, it’s also the tool by which the risen Jesus turns us into the hands by which He writes the future. We’re placed here as the chief means by which He brings about the reconciling of all things in Himself, because in first century Palestine, a Roman soldier could force a Jewish peasant to carry his heavy pack for up to one mile simply because he was Jewish. So there’s a new Jerusalem coming. Because In North Korea, millions are systemically abused and oppressed by a power hungry government whose cruelty seems to know few bounds. So there’s a new Jerusalem coming. Because in various parts of Africa, rebel group raid villages and kidnap the children to make them into bloodthirsty soldiers or exhausted sex slaves. So there’s a new Jerusalem coming. Because in modern day America, minority men and women have to go about their day to day lives in the knowledge that in every convenience store they walk into, a racially charged confrontation may await, and the justice system may not treat them fairly. So there’s a new Jerusalem coming. Because there is a deeply rooted brokenness in the world that needs not to be transcended but confronted, which we need not to be released from but rather to overcome and to chase into oblivion. So there’s a new Jerusalem coming, specifically, through the work of Jesus, as he ministers to the world through the resurrection people whom his Father called forth from our Ecclesiastes world. There’s a new Jerusalem coming so, by the Spirit, we swing against the grain of our culture’s complacent apocalyptism.

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How To Domesticate a God

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The Adoration of the Golden Calf by Nicolas Poussin.

“Then Jeroboam built Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim and lived there. And he went out from there and built Penuel. And Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the LORD at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.” So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” 

And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan. Then this thing became a sin, for the people went as far as Dan to be before one. He also made temples on high places and appointed priests from among all the people, who were not of the Levites. And Jeroboam appointed a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the feast that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices on the altar. So he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves that he made. And he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places that he had made. 

He went up to the altar that he had made in Bethel on the fifteenth day in the eighth month, in the month that he had devised from his own heart. And he instituted a feast for the people of Israel and went up to the altar to make offerings.” (1 Kings 12:25-33)

The quickest way to domesticate a god is to ‘cast a graven image of their likeness.’

The rationale is simple, actually. When you take after a god, you come to value what that god values. So when Monarchic Israel/Judah took after Ba’al and Jeroboam’s graven calf-idols of Yahweh, their passion for the hungry and destitute fell by the wayside. Because Jeroboam’s version of Yahweh values what Jeroboam values, the Canaanite deity Ba’al and Jeroboam’s Yahweh don’t look so different. As a rule, we conjure up gods whose hearts beat in time with ours.

There is something to the popular suggestion that the gods of human history are just projections of the human psyche. To a point, Bultmann was on the mark in saying that theology is really anthropology. Unbeknownst to him, he’d made a biblically sound suggestion. The Old Testament paints a picture that suggests only two options truly exist: the ‘anthropological’ god of Jeroboam on the one hand – the golden calf whose sheer existence sacrilizes whatever nonsense the king dreams up – and the true God, the Facilitator of the Exodus on the other. We can have a projected god – Jeroboam’s God – who is for us because we are for us and he belongs to us, or we can have a God who is for God, and who, because He is for Himself, is ‘for us’ in a better way than the pliable, relentlessly affirming images we’d graven.

The ‘anthropological’ god of Jeroboam, however appealing, always proves himself a cheap trade-in, because although he is ‘for us’  as we are for us, his vote in our favor is a vote of betrayal, because our self-love is traitorous – not only to the true God who facilitated the Exodus, but also to us. Who lies to us more than we do? Who sabotages our endeavors more than we do? We are constantly acting against our best interests, choosing shallow affirmation over love, low-cost gratification over lasting hope. We are the antagonists in our own stories. Jeroboam’s god, who is for us as we are for us, is fickle because we are fickle. He is only as much of an ally to us as we are enemies to ourselves. He is only as trustworthy as we aren’t. Having a god that is for us is a living nightmare, because it has always proven to entail that he is like us.

In this light, taking on the values of a god who is already for us is a non-action. It is not a conversion, because if the god to whom we conform our values is already on our side we have nothing to surrender. Somewhere beneath our ‘collective consciousness,’ our fealty to the divine suzerain whose image we ourselves cast is an insidious form of circular self-devotion. Our service to Jeroboam’s Yahweh is really just service to our own community’s interests. Fealty to the graven image of the god of Israel proves at last to be something akin to “my country, right or wrong.” Soon enough, Jeroboam’s Yahweh has revealed himself to be a projected self-sanctioning of a return to Pharaohism.

He is impersonal. Unlike the self-serving God who facilitated Israel’s escape from Egypt and Pharaoh’s grip, he has no intrinsic personhood. He only has our personhood, and so he always votes in favor of our status quo. Like the gods of Egypt, he is bound to be the monarch’s lapdog, and therefore our worship of the impersonal Neo-Pharaohite god who advocates with faux-authority for our status quo is really just a sacrilization of our own self-destructive communal desires. Anything other than Yahwism is a form of illegitimate apotheosis [noun: elevation to divine status : deification (Merriam-Webster)]

Conversely, Yahwism [noun: the worship of Yahweh by the ancient Hebrews (Merriam-Webster)] is by nature a catalyst for the radical reorientation of communal values because the God at the heart of it is self-interested and is consequently beholden to nobody’s status quo. He is free to demand change from His subjects because His godhood is not contingent upon their circular self-devotion. Their continued existence is contingent upon His sustenance because He is real. He is the relational ground of being. The Yahweh who brought the Israelites out of Egypt, who forbade them from making a graven image of His likeness, is free to be God, because He is. And Jeroboam’s golden calf is not.

 

Why The Bible Belt Is A Mission Field

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The following is a sermon that I am preaching this morning. I spent most of my time this week preparing it, so I thought I’d upload it in the place of a blog post that I would have written if I’d had time:

How is everyone? My name is Ryan Ellington and I am with OBU Day in the Churches. I’m here to share my story with you, and hopefully in the process convince you that all of your support has paid off—and not only paid off, but paid off generously. I would love to stand up here and talk to you all day about why you should send all of your students to OBU, but I’m shooting for about 25-30 minutes tops, so I want to dive right into the message for this morning.

If you have your Bible, we’re gonna be in the book of Haggai. If you’re not sure where that is, it’s right near the end of the old testament, between Zephaniah and Zechariah—sandwiched between the two “Z’s”. I’m gonna keep my message fairly short, even though the text that I’ve selected is pretty long. Our passage will be Haggai 1:1-11, if you would turn there.

Haggai is about the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem after it had been destroyed along with the rest of the city by the invading Babylonian army in 587 B.C., and chronologically it comes right at the end of the section of the Old Testament dealing with their exile in Babylon, which is narrated at the end of Chronicles, and then carries on throughout the books of Esther, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah, and the prophets Obadiah, Joel, Haggai and Malachi. That was a lot of information, but at least now you can’t say I didn’t teach you anything.

Part of the reason this whole section of scripture, this whole time-span in history that Haggai fits into is so close to my heart is that I got saved because I accidentally opened a Bible and turned to Nehemiah. That’s something you don’t hear often: “I got saved reading Nehemiah.” Because there’s no gospel presentation in the book. It’s before Jesus came on the scene. The entire book is about the Jews building a wall around Jerusalem. Now, it’s not Donald Trump’s wall. At this point in history, the remaining Israelites didn’t have an immigration problem. Really what they had was the opposite problem. The people who had settled in the land that used to belong to the nation of Israel thought that the Israelites were an immigration problem, so Jerusalem was constantly under attack. And without a wall built around the city of Jerusalem, God’s people could never be safe from those who wanted to destroy them.

But on the day when I sat down in my car and opened my bible to Nehemiah chapter 1, I didn’t know any of that. Because growing up in the Bible Belt I had a pretty similar experience to most of the kids that I knew. There’s a profound danger that comes along with growing up in this particular part of the world. And this is what I mean: Almost all of the world thinks of America as “the Christian country.” Believe it or not, when people in Afghanistan think of America, they think, “Christian.” As pagan as the current culture in America is, we are still, in the eyes of everyone else, the most “Christian” place on the face of the earth. Let that sink in. But more than that, within the US, the particular cluster of states that we live in is statistically 86% Christian. Now, remember, I said statistically. The fact that we live in the Bible Belt means that we live in the most overwhelmingly Christian part of the most overwhelmingly Christian country on entire planet. And yet, let me tell you why the Bible Belt is a mission field: the culture is so overwhelmingly Church-y that it’s easy not to notice that Jesus isn’t there.

Right? You know something’s up when every politician that actually wants to get elected in our part of the country has to at least pretend to be Christian. Because even if they’re not active in a church, even if they’ve never cracked open a Bible, even if they don’t know the first thing about Chrsitianity, people around here just aren’t comfortable electing someone into office who couldn’t check the Christian box on a census form. That’s how saturated our culture is with kind of a surface level Christianity. But that’s the problem. Because our culture is so flooded with surface level Christianity, most people are born, live, and then die claiming the title of Christian but never meeting Jesus—and our culture cultivates and encourages that pattern.

And I was almost a one of its victims. I was raised to believe in God, but I wasn’t sure what that had to do with me. My parents were pretty good, and they tried their best to shepherd me into a real faith, but their voice was just one amongst a sea of voices pulling me and everyone that I knew toward towards fake, cultural Christianity. So despite my parents’ best efforts, I grew up with the sense that being a Christian meant going to church and not having fun. Those were the two parts. There were people who never had any fun but didn’t go to church, and they weren’t Christians, they were just boring. And there were people who went to church but had a little too much fun, and they weren’t Christians either. Because being a Christian meant going to church and not having fun. And I was pretty good at both of those, so I figured I was set.

But then something happened. When I was eight years old, somebody told me that if I “accepted Jesus into my heart,” God wouldn’t light me on fire for all of eternity. I didn’t understand what he was saying, but I didn’t like the idea of getting  lit on fire, so I told my parents I was ready to accept Jesus in my heart and it was settled. We talked to the pastor, who said it was time to get baptized. I didn’t understand what he meant, but I knew water was the opposite of fire so I was all in. After my baptism, everyone told me that I would get to have the Lord’s Supper like all of the adults. I thought, “So this is what salvation is: free snacks!”

My eight year old religious awakening didn’t last long. And by the time I was a freshman in high school I didn’t want much to do with the faith I was brought up in. Like everybody else I knew, I kind of nominally held on to the title outwardly, but on the inside I really wasn’t even sure if God existed. I didn’t really have anything good to say about religion because as far as I could see it was just a tool that hateful people used to justify hating the people that they found icky. Are you tracking with me? I ran with a crowd that was less-than-friendly toward religion and the more I thought about it, the less attached I felt to my parents faith.

Right about that time, the youth pastor asked me to play guitar for the youth band. So, of course, I said no. And, of course, my mom said yes—and before I knew it, I was the guitar player. Leading worship for a religion I didn’t like, for students I didn’t hang out with, about a God I wasn’t sure I believed in. And then things got really weird. The youth pastor quit, followed by almost the entire rest of the band, which left me as the leader. And so there I was, the worship leader in a youth group singing songs to a God I just didn’t quite believe in. And in a way that I really can’t explain, God started working in my heart in a really uncomfortable way so that over time I began to develop the conviction that the words that I was singing each week were true.

Which really jacked with my worldview. Because if the God that I was singing about was really God, then everything in my life had to change—and that was something I was not on board with. But something inside of me was demanding—not asking, but demanding—that I crack open my Bible and see where things went. So I had this Holman Bible that my parents had given to me a few years earlier, which I had opened exactly zero times. Like, there was a thick enough layer of dust on the cover that I could have written a word in the dust with my finger and you could have actually read the word that I had written. So one morning I left for school early so that I could sit in my car and read my dust-covered Bible. I had no idea where to start, so I thought I’d open it up to a nice, middle-ish section, and when I opened it, I was looking at the first chapter of Nehemiah.

And I read about Nehemiah being a cupbearer for the Persian king Artaxerxes, and that he learned that the wall around the city of Jerusalem had been destroyed and that the king trusted Nehemiah and let him go back to Jerusalem to lead the people in rebuilding the wall. And once they get started, a mob of men from the surrounding territories come around and start making threats. The opposition that they face gets so bad that Nehemiah chapter 4 says that they had to begin “working with their weapons in their hands.” Eventually the wall is successfully built and Nehemiah returns to his day job as the king’s cupbearer.

And that was the first thing that I ever read from the Bible, sitting there in my car in my car as a sixteen year old. And I understood none of it. I had a thousand questions. Number one being, “what’s Jerusalem?” Why did it need a wall? What happened to the wall, and why did the the guy who gets paid to test out the king’s beverages care? But somewhere between the first and last chapter of the book that I had just stumbled through, I had stopped not-believing and started believing.

Which then really freaked my friends out. My best friend since Kindergarten is a guy named Scott, and he saw me reading a Bible during some down time in a class we had together and was legitimately upset with me. And I had no idea what to say. I didn’t know anything about evangelism because I had only been a Christian for like six hours at this point. I really didn’t know anything about the Bible. But he kept watching me over the next year or so as I was growing, and really transforming into a completely different person, and by the end of that year he had come to the conclusion that people like me didn’t just change out of nowhere. He started reading the Bible too, and talking through his difficulties with myself and other Christians at the school. And the rest of his story plays out pretty much like mine, and now we’re both headed to seminary.

So in the end we both met Jesus, but we almost didn’t. We were almost victims of the ‘cultural Christianity’ that haunts this part of the world. And what really began to frighten me was that I realized pretty quickly that we were in the minority. Remember what I talked about earlier? Growing up in the middle of the most overwhelmingly Christian region of the most overwhelmingly Christian country, most people my age grow up going to church, making some sort of confession of faith at a young age, and then going off into adulthood to raise more kids to do the same thing but never actually come to anything like real faith in Jesus.

And so the question that we have to raise in response to this is, “how did this happen?” How is it that the culture of the Bible Belt is almost tailor-made to produce false Christians? And once we have answered that, I think the question we absolutely have to address is, “how can we instead create a culture where the gospel flourishes and people meet Jesus?”

So let’s look at our text. I’ll be reading from the English Standard Version. Haggai, chapter 1, verses 1-11 says:

“In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest: “Thus says the LORD of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD, [the temple].” Again, the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while my house lies in ruins? Now, therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes. Thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. Go up to the hills and bring wood. Build my house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD. You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought home what little you found, I blew it away. Why? declares the LORD of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the ground brings forth, on man and beast, and on all their labors.”

So to give a little background here, at the time that Haggai is preaching, Israel has been having pretty good fortunes. As fiery as this word from the Lord out of the mouth of Haggai is, things have been going pretty well for Israel, and that’s the problem. At this point God has worked in the heart of Cyrus, the king of Persia so that, almost out of nowhere, he decided to allow the exiled Israelites to return to their land and live in peace as his subjects. Before Persia had taken over almost the entire inhabited world, the empire of Babylon had been in charge of everything. Remember the story of Daniel and the Lion’s den? That was when Babylon was in charge. Remember Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego? That was Babylon that decided to set them on fire.

Years earlier, after the death of Solomon,  the nation of Israel had split into two different nations that were constantly fighting each other, and eventually they were both conquered by foreign powers and all of the people of Israel became exiles under a cruel and powerful nation—just like they were before God rescued them out of Egypt under Moses. But it’s funny, nations like Babylon that are always conquering weaker nations eventually find themselves on the other side of the gun. Right? You can only conquer so many nations before you get conquered. And sure enough, a day came when Babylon wasn’t baddest kid on the playground anymore, and Persia came along and replaced them. And at this point, the Persian king Cyrus allowed the exiled Jews to move back into the land that they had been driven out of.

Their fortunes continued to get better when a later Persian king, Artaxerxes, gave them permission to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem to protect themselves from their enemies. I talked about that a little bit at the beginning. They built the wall in record time even with all of the opposition that they were facing and then they began to rebuild the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem that Babylon had destroyed when they conquered the nation years earlier.

But unfortunately, throughout all of history, God’s people tend to shoot themselves in the foot, and they continued in that pattern here as well when they just stopped. When everything was going so well, they just stopped rebuilding the temple. We’re not given a reason why, but I think our passage this morning says it all. Look at v. 2-4. The people of Israel, that God had just graciously brought back to the land that He promised them and had enabled to build a wall for their protection, were now building well-crafted houses and planting crops and vineyards throughout the land. You might notice that these are all good things. If they’re gonna survive the next year in Jerusalem, these are pretty non-negotiable things that they have to do. So what’s the problem? The problem is that in the process, they stopped actively carrying out the will of God and only concerned themselves with taking care of their immediate needs. After God had rescued them for a purpose, the Israelites went into what I call survival mode.

This is the first of what I believe are three parallels between Israel during the time of Haggai and the modern Church in America. In the midst of taking care of the necessities of everyday life, they had lost touch with the mission that God had rescued them for. Just a few years earlier, they were struggling to survive under the harsh rule of the Babylonian empire and God had rescued them. And we’re in the same position. If you’re in this room this morning and you’re a believer in Christ, then there was a time when you weren’t. Even if you can’t remember that time because it was so long ago. Even if you were 5 years old and the Holy Spirit worked in your heart to produce repentance and faith, that means there were five years when you did not know the Lord and even as a little kid, no matter how cute you were, you were on a path that led to destruction. God rescued you from the pit of your own sinfulness and made you His ambassador. God has made you His priest.

That’s why we don’t have priests, because God didn’t rescue us from the darkness that we were walking in to make us into people who mindlessly sit each week and soak up sermons. He rescued us to make us into priests for the world. That doesn’t mean that you need to go get a priest’s robe and start chanting words in Latin from a pulpit. That means that if you are a believer in Christ in this room, you are the one that God has chosen to introduce the town of Wyandotte, Oklahoma to Jesus. I am not an ordained minister yet. I am going to be ordained at my home church in Texas in the near future, but that’s not going to make me into a minister of the gospel. I became a minister of the gospel when I became a believer in Christ because of the Holy Spirit’s work in my heart.

Do you want to know one reason why the culture of the Bible Belt is almost tailor-made to produce cultural Christians? Because we have lost touch with the mission that God has rescued us for. One of my friends from school graduated last year and is now assisting in the Episcopal Service Core. He also works with the youth pastors at his local Episcopalian church and the last time he visited Shawnee where I live, he said (paraphrased):

“A lot of the kids in the youth group that I serve at wouldn’t be able to locate the four Gospels in a Bible. And that’s kind of why the Episcopal church is dying. They raise their kids to be ‘religious’ but they don’t really teach them what it means to be distinctly Christian. So what happens is that students will grow up going to church but drop out of the church scene after a little while in college because there was never any real root to their faith. When they get older, some of them come back because they want their kids raised religiously like they were. But only some of them come back, and so every generation the Episcopal church gets smaller and smaller. I don’t think my denomination will be around that much longer.”

Now, I told that story because I wanted to evoke a certain response. If I had heard that several years ago, I would have thought, “well, that’s just the Episcopal church’s problem.” But that’s not true. Because every semester, I meet new students OBU students,  freshmen—18 year-old Baptists who can’t explain to me why Jesus had to die on the cross. Victims of the ‘cultural Christianity’ that haunts our part of the world. And one reason that our culture is producing false Christians is that the prosperity of the Church in the Bible Belt has made it incredibly easy to ignore the mission that God rescued us for and still feel like obedient Christians.

And that is a really dark thought, but there’s good news. If you would, look at v. 5-6. The Lord says, “Now, therefore, consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes.” Israel has lost touch with their mission, and God’s response is to wreck everything that has replaced it. Now look with me at v. 9-11. The Lord says, “You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? declares the LORD of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the ground brings forth, on man and beast, and on all their labors.”

God may not have brought a famine to the land, but the Church is rapidly losing cultural influence in America. Now, the question is, “how could that possibly be a good thing?” How could it possibly be a good thing that the Church is rapidly losing cultural influence in America? This is a dumb analogy, but I think it works: It’s generally a bad thing to take food from hungry people. But if they’re eating themselves to death, it’s the most loving thing you can do. And God loves His Church. Since the founding of our nation we have enjoyed a near unprecedented place of safety and privilege in society which for a very long time served to help the Church propel the gospel to every corner of the earth. That is wonderful. That is glorious. But in recent decades, we have allowed the safety and the privilege that we have enjoyed in America to turn us away from the mission of God to the nations and we have instead become drunk on comfort and on cultural influence.

So God is taking away the thing that has captured our affections in His place. If the comfort that America has provided us is sabotaging our missionary mind, He will take it away from us—not because He wants to hurt us, but because He wants to save others. If the privilege that the Church has enjoyed in American society for the last two and a half centuries is causing us to lost touch with the great commission, God will take away the thing that has kidnapped us. And it’s going to be a painful process, but it’s also going to be a fruitful process.

Do you know when the single greatest periods of growth in the Church have always been? Times of great persecution. God has always used persecution against the Church to multiply the Church. Are you tracking with me? The first three centuries after the resurrection of Jesus, the church was like a gigantic rabbit. It just kept multiplying. Every day, there were new Christians, and sometimes new Christians were former persecutors. There are stories in old Roman documents that we’ve found that basically tell the same story. And that story is this: some Roman spy visits a small church community hoping to get some dirt on the members of this new religion that the government could use to justify persecuting Christians. The spy hears the gospel clearly proclaimed by this persecuted people group, gets saved, and has to go into hiding because if his boss finds out he’ll become the next Christian martyr.

We are part of a faith that began as a persecuted people group and currently throughout most of the world is still a persecuted people group, and may one day return to being a persecuted people group in America. And my message for anyone who is concerned about that is  “do not be afraid.” Since we worship a God that is sovereign, we can rest knowing that everything that happens, happens so that the gospel will further multiply to every corner of the earth. God removed every obstacle that kept Israel from obeying the mission that He saved them for, and he’s doing the same thing here. So that’s the second way that Israel in the time of Haggai parallels the modern Church.

And we’re almost done. The third parallel is that they were given a clear call from God. “Rebuild my house.” V. 7-8 says, “Thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD.” In 2016, God doesn’t live in a temple in Jerusalem. We’re not called to buy a plane ticket to the Holy Land and start construction on the third temple. But we are called to make disciples. And it so happens that that’s the answer to the question I posed earlier: “how can we create a culture where the gospel flourishes and people meet Jesus?” And the answer is often repeated but rarely lived out.

As a Greek student, I can’t come here and preach a sermon without throwing in just a little Greek trivia. A very literal way to translate the great commission would be, “As you are going, make disciples of all the nations.” Most English translations are misleading because they translate it as something along the lines of “Go ye therefore and make disciples…” And you should go. Right? Leave. Get out of here. Go somewhere that doesn’t have the gospel and share it with them. Mission trips are awesome. Organize as many as you can. Support as many missionaries as you can. All of that is good, and right, and perfect. But the Great Commission is as you are going, and we are all currently ‘going’. We are never not ‘going’. After this service, the deacons are very kindly taking my dad and I out to lunch, and in the process we will be going. If you have neighbors, I hope you are going. The guys who live in the apartment next to mine are not my pastor’s responsibility. They’re mine. Because God pulled me out of the pit of my own sinfulness to make me a priest to them. And the only reason that isn’t immediately obvious to me, is that the American Church, and especially the Church in the Bible Belt, has grown so comfortable because of the safety and privilege we have enjoyed here that we’ve lost touch with the mission that God rescued us for.

But God is giving us a wake-up call. He’s removing our place of privilege and our safety to transform us into a disciple-making people again. I don’t suspect that 50 years from now, Pastors will be able to support themselves without a day job on the side. I don’t suspect that 20 years from now Churches will have tax exemptions. I don’t suspect that 10 years from now Christianity will be the majority religion in the United States anymore. But I do suspect that we’ll be a more obedient and effective people. I do suspect that the gospel will spread throughout our nation more rapidly. And I suspect that, when all is said and done, God will have shaped us into a people with whom He is well pleased, and that through us, He will create a culture in which the gospel flourishes and people meet Jesus.

 

Servantlike Images of a Self-Exalting God

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Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles by Meister des Hausbuches, 1475 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin)

“And they came to Capernaum. And when they were in the house, Jesus said, “What were you talking about on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. And He sat down and called the twelve. And He said to them, “Anyone who would be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And He took took a child and put Him in the midst of them. And taking him in His arms, He said, “Whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me, and whoever receives Me receives not Me but Him who sent Me.” (Mark 9:33-37)

“If anyone would be first, he must be servant of all.” The question we have to ask ourselves when we want to be godly bosses, godly parents, godly pastors and godly professors is, “How can I be a servant to those over whom I have ‘authority’?” Jesus came as a servant, and He never met a person He didn’t serve. Even the religious leaders who met harsh reprimand from Him were served in the process. No one else was willing to call them to repentance, save for the recklessly self-marginalizing Essene cult, whose reprimand resonated only with fringe wilderness dwellers. There is nothing inherently unloving about issuing rebuke. It is only selfish rebuke, served out of unholy fire, with little concern for the propriety of the context in which it is issued, that is unservantlike.

Even if we are not leaders in any capacity, if we are faces in a crowd, we are called to the joy of being everyone’s servant. We aren’t called to be doormats. Jesus was everyone’s servant and nobody’s doormat. There’s a difference. A servant is constantly posing the question: “What is the most loving thing that I can do for this person in this situation, given these circumstances?” Becoming someone’s doormat is never loving because in doing so you are only helping them to become more of a monster. Being a servant in the way that Jesus was a servant means being bold and assertive, although never overbearing or coercive. It means loving yourself so you have a reference point on how to love your neighbor as yourself. It means respecting yourself so that you have a frame of reference from which you can understand what kind of respect to give other people.

Being a servant like Jesus means resisting the temptation toward laziness or idleness because there is always someone to serve.  As a husband it means taking every opportunity to give your wife a chance to rest from the rush of the day. It means doing the dishes so that she can watch television, or take a nap, or read a book (or whatever). As a father it means playing with your kids when you’re exhausted from the day, and trying to create opportunities for them to build a good life for themselves in the future. It means doing what you need to do to prevent burnout. If that means waking up early to spend time alone to recharge, do that. If it’s something else, do that. It means stirring your affections for your wife by reflecting on her best qualities and choosing to dwell on them.

If you’re aggressively introverted–like myself–it means sacrificing solitude to be with your friends and family. It also means protecting your time alone so that you’re in a position to treat people well and engage in friendship with them.

We are citizens of a kingdom where everyone serves everyone. At one level, our lifestyle of servanthood is a walking apologetic for the truth of Christ to a world ruled by self-interest. We are called to this life style in order to display the selfless love of the self-exalting God. How does that work? The gospel begins with a Trinitarian God, fully satisfied in the bounds of His own intrinsically communal existence, creating a world of creatures to be servants, lovers, friends–communitarians. He created a people with the end in mind of shaping them to become like Him. That doesn’t mean that we are meant to become gods, but that we are meant to become a community of mutual servanthood.

That God is passionate about being glorified is a given because He is intrinsically glorious, and the intrinsic glory that He embodies demands redamancy from all creatures who encounter it. But with that reality in mind, it is necessary to situate our theology in the simultaneous reality that the intrinsically glorious God whose glory demands worship is also intrinsically satisfied. He has no needs that are unmet within Himself. It is not simply because He “owns the cattle on 1000 hills”, but that any and all conceivable needs that a person might have are satisfied fully by the perfect community that He experiences between the persons of Himself.

That means that when He created people, animals, greenery–everything–He did so with no designs of seeing a personal emotional deficit filled. He did not create us to be loved but to give love. He did not create us so that we might satisfy His emotional needs, but in order to multiply His own satisfaction to a whole world of creatures. The self-exalting God is selfless because His glory is self-authenticating. He can put real weight behind His claims to love people because He has nothing to gain from dying for them. He is self-exalting because He bloody well ought to be.

Jesus modeled this servant lifestyle to us and called us to do likewise because we have been newly created by the gospel to be servants after God’s own heart and Jesus’s own example. The servant lifestyle to which we are called is not only an apologetic to a lost world; it is written into the DNA of our identity in Christ.

There Are No Magic Jesus Powers

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“And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. And he asked them, ‘What are you arguing about with them?’ And someone from the crowd answered him, ‘Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.’ … And Jesus asked his father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’ And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.’ And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’ But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ And he said to them, ‘This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.'” (Mark 9:14-29)

“This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” means that there are no magic Jesus powers. His healing ministry was not from His own power. He was not a magician. Contrary to popular misconceptions that assume that Jesus came to earth as some sort of Superhuman, Mark finds it very important to show us that Jesus’s miraculous exploits were the product of His being in step with the Holy Spirit through prayer. It is essential to historic Christian theology that when God the Son came to earth, He did so without any special advantages. He was a regular Jew with a 9 to 5 and a mom. All of the miraculous feats He performed, all of the counter-cultural teaching that He espoused, His supernatural compassion and concern for the outcast, His boldness, were all the product of His submission to and communion with God the Spirit, who indwelt Him.

This is important to grasp, in no small part because it clears the confusion that Jesus stirs up when He says to the original gathered Church, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12) He really meant that we would do more than He did, not because we would be more powerful, but because as the Church multiplies and lost sinners are transformed into Spirit-filled believers, the ministry of Jesus itself multiplies and expands. Before His crucifixion, there was one Jesus who made disciples and incarnated the kingdom of God in the midst of a  broken world. Today, 2000 years after His resurrection, it is as though there are approximately 2.2 billion Jesuses walking the earth.

“This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” also means that our ability to do anything spiritual, be it cast out demons (yeah, that actually happens), win souls for Christ, or overcome the darkness in us, comes from helpless dependence on God. We are not prayer warriors; the Holy Spirit is a prayer warrior. When we pray for ourselves, whether it’s for a greater love for the Father, a greater freedom from sin, a more obedient heart, etc., we are echoing the Holy Spirit’s earnest prayers on our behalf (Rom. 8:23, 26-27). Jesus walked in utter dependence on the Holy Spirit’s guidance as an incarnated human. We are no less dependent now that He indwells us. Every Christian believes in the Holy Spirit, but ‘believing’ in Him in any meaningful sense means living in a ‘dethroning’ submission to His lead. The person who believes in the Holy Spirit is always in prayer to seek His guidance. She is always communing with Him in prayer to know the Father more intimately. She is always laying down what remains of her stubborn will in prayer to let Him mold her into the image of Christ.

“This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” because we can only “do greater things than these” as people who are pathetic, weak, and like Jesus, are desperately dependent on the Spirit of God to enable us to find and carry out the will of God.