My thoughts turn today to a conversation between Peter and Jesus. It is a loaded conversation, and deserves far more than this little space can give it. Maybe I will return to this conversation another time.
The conversation is found in Luke 22. I quote it here from the Revised Standard Version (If the RSV was good enough for St. Neil Lightfoot of Abilene, then it is certainly good enough for me.)
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren. Luke 22:31-32
Have you ever read that passage carefully? Meditatively? Have you ever stopped to consider the time references that Jesus incorporates into that one little sentence? And, of the profound theological implications of what Jesus told Peter?
First, Jesus was telling Peter that there was a great cosmic fight over Peter! Satan and Jesus, fighting it out over some run-of-the-mill fisherman from Galilee. Of what possible use could some salty sea-dog be to Satan? Who knows, but we all know (because we know “the rest of the story” as Paul Harvey would say) how important Peter was to Jesus.
I do not want to make a “one-to-one” comparison here. Not all of us can be a Peter – or a Mary sister of Martha for that matter. That is an hermeneutical shipwreck that destroys a lot of really important passages. We are not all Jeremiah’s in the sense that God does not call each and every one of us from our mother’s womb. We are not all Job’s in the sense that God and Satan duke it out when we have a severe medical crisis. Putting ourselves in the sandals of our biblical heroes is theologically suspect, and psychologically destructive as well. Let us focus on who we are and learn from these characters without trying to duplicate them.
That having been said, I do believe that we can learn something from this passage about our worth, both to God and Jesus and to the great deceiver. Is it possible that Satan wants you, not because that you would be of any particular value to him, but because you could be of so much greater value to Jesus? Just as not everyone has it in themselves to be another Peter of Galilee, very, very few of us have it within us to be another Adolf Hitler. But, Satan does not need us to be another Adolf Hitler. All he needs us to do is to minimize Jesus and his church in our life. His perverted will is thereby accomplished, and to the world around us we can still be “good, moral” people.
Second, Jesus prayed for Peter, but he knew that Peter was going to fail Him, and thus in one sense his prayer was NOT going to be answered. Peter’s faith did fail, at least momentarily, and in a profound way. Not, mind you, to the degree that Judas’ faith failed him. But Peter had three chances to confess Jesus, and despite being specifically warned what was going to happen, Peter denied Jesus anyway.
Now, you may argue that Jesus, knowing Peter would deny him, just prayed that Peter would eventually return. But that is not the way I read that text. Jesus’ prayer was that Peter’s faith would not fail. Pete’s denial could hardly be described as a stellar display of faithfulness. That is why I said, “in one sense” Jesus prayer was not answered. Certainly Peter ultimately returned to Jesus, and so that aspect of Jesus’ prayer was answered. But let us not gloss over the significance of the totality of what Jesus is saying.
Many people have the concept that, “if I pray for it, in full faith, God has to give me what I want.” Did not Jesus tell us the same? Yet, why were some of Jesus’ most fervent prayers not answered? Why did Peter deny him in the courtyard? Why did Pilate not release him? Why did Judas betray him? Why did he have to drink that “bitter cup?” I wish I had the answers to all those questions. But, I would rather live in the reality of the mystery of God than try to create and live in the falseness of a human idol. The fact is that Jesus prayed for his disciples, and they let him down repeatedly. We pray for our children, and they fail us. We pray for our sick parents, and they die. Not every prayer is automatically granted. If we could control God with a few selfish whims He certainly would not be a God worthy of worship.
But, third, Jesus told Peter, “when you have turned again.” Jesus did know the “rest of the story.” More than that, he was instilling within Peter the belief that Peter was ultimately a worthy disciple. I just wonder how much those words would meant to Peter in the first few days following the crucifixion, and in those first few days following Pentecost. They had to be amazing words for Peter to remember and to take comfort in.
I don’t remember much about my football career. Mostly because it was over my freshman year in high school (the Minnesota Vikings never knew what they missed!) But I remember one practice with such crystal clarity that it might as well have happened yesterday.
We were working on a drill we affectionately called “hamburger.” Two players faced each other, then lay down on the ground with about a yard separating their two helmets. On the coach’s whistle the players were to jump to their feet and try to get past the other player in any way they could. Four posts marked a very small “battle zone” so there was no running around a bigger opponent (my preferred method of “winning.”) Well, one day it turned out that I stood against Bubba Baker, who was to be my opponent. Now, Bubba was our first string full-back. The coach placed me as the fourth string full-back simply because we only had four full-backs and he had no other place to put me. So, I mostly stood on the sideline, safe in the knowledge that it was a statistical impossibility for the three guys in front of me to all get hurt in the same game.
So, anyway, back to my story – here we were, our very big and very hard hitting first string full-back was staring at me and then looking at the coach as if to say, “hey coach – I really don’t want to hurt the little guy.” I was staring at Bubba and then looking at the coach as if to say, “hey coach – listen to Bubba!!” The coach, having that sixth sense that most coaches have, looked at both of us and said, “what are you two guys waiting for – get down!” And then he uttered the only four words that I can remember from that entire season - “Smith can do it.”
I honestly remember very little of what happened next. I remember the whistle, and I kind of remember jumping to my feet, and then I remember hearing the loudest bang and feeling the most incredible pain I have ever experienced shooting down my neck through my shoulder and all the way down to my finger-tips. I never lost consciousness, but I sure felt weird the rest of the day. I can pretty confidently say that I did not win that battle, but those four words were absolutely etched into my psyche. If coach White said that “Smith can do it” I would have run into a brick wall thinking that I could knock it down. To his great credit, Bubba apologized for knocking me into the middle of the next week, but he was doing his job the best he knew how.
So, in a very small way, I kind of know what Peter must have felt when Jesus spoke to him by the sea when he asked him three times, “do you love me?” And then Peter could remember those five words Jesus spoke to him, “when you have turned again…” Then Peter the denier became Peter the preacher, and eventually, Peter the martyr.
What an amazing couple of verses. What an amazing story. What an amazing Lord and Savior we have.
Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) 271 pages of text, with 4 appendices and 29 pages of endnotes.
In terms of statistical studies, this book is beginning to show its age (published in 2005, with research being completed some time earlier), but the information it provides is still valuable, at least as far as I am concerned. This was the second book I read to inform myself of the current state of young people in the teenage-college age bracket (the first was Chap Clark’s Hurt 2.0). This book is far more conventional in the sense that the authors performed a standard survey information gathering process and followed that up with a detailed interview process with a selected number of those who had completed the earlier phone interview.
Without going into serious information overload, here are some basic numbers: the initial phone interview involved 3,290 teenagers and their parents from all 50 states between 2002 and 2003. From that number, 267 teens were selected for an additional in-person interview to follow up on the information that had been gathered from the phone calls. One interesting side note, the teens and parents were both paid for their time for the phone call interview, and the teens were paid for their time in the face-to-face interview. The next time some political party calls me to ask me who I am going to vote for, I am going to ask them to show me the money.
Anyway, back to the book. The results reveal the standard “good news/bad news” that research tends to provide. On the good news side, the research showed that teens are far more religious than some doomsayers are trumpeting. The teens largely follow the faith of their parents (or leading adults in their family). There is very little of the “spiritual but not religious” trend among teenagers that some people are so fond of reporting. And, with one very important caveat, religion is having an impact on the lives of teenagers.
Now for the distressing news: even though teens are religious, they are almost totally incapable of articulating what that means. For example, they may know that premarital sex is not appropriate, but they cannot articulate why. The best reason they might come up with is the dangers of pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. This reveals that, in a broad general sense, religious groups are doing an abysmal job in presenting what they believe to teenagers. Another issue that I saw in the reporting was that, even among the most religious teens, life decisions were very often made in violation of those religious beliefs. So, there appears to be a large degree of compartmentalization among teens. Religion and spirituality is for church, but dating is for sex (not necessarily intercourse) and cheating on tests is almost required to get ahead. What this tells me is that churches may be doing an okay job at aiming for the head, but we are missing the hearts of teenagers by a mile.
This is an involved read. It is a long book, and the reporting of numbers and statistics is complicated. However, each section of analysis is accompanied by a graphic chart, so the material is there in both narrative and chart format. Those who are familiar with statistics and research will undoubtedly have an easier time reading the book than I did (I have absolutely no clue what a “multivariate regression analysis” is!) However, if you are a youth minister, a minister, a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, or simply a person who is deeply concerned about today’s teenager, you will want to buy, read, and even study this book.
I have to add a couple of (even more) personal comments. One reason I bought the book was because of a referral by way of the phrase, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” (chapter 4 of the book) Basically, MTD is the term that the authors used to describe the primary religion of American teens. It is moralistic – teens do have morals, but the morals are tied to what works – therefore the “therapeutic.” And it is connected to a form of Deism – the idea that there is a supreme being, but that being only really exists to help in bad times or to make people feel good about themselves. And the authors point out that there are several different forms of MTD – conservative MTD, liberal MTD, – whatever “brand” of religion the teen leans toward has its form of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This chapter is worth the price of the book in and of itself, but you really need the rest of the book to fully understand what the authors intend by placing the chapter as the fourth in the sequence.
Many of the results of the surveys and interviews confirms what is common knowledge or common sense: girls are more religious than boys. Teens in the south are more religious than teens in the northeast or northwest. Younger teens are more spiritual than older teens (although, not as significantly as may be expected). Teens with both parents at home are more religious, and parents who are more religious raise more religious teens. Conservative parents and groups produce more religious teens, mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics do not score as highly. And, not surprisingly, Mormon families score the highest in producing religious teens, as well as producing teens who are the most articulate in expressing their faith.
The authors use 7 categories to describe religious teens – Conservative Protestant, Mainline Protestant, Black Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and non-religious. Appendix “D” gives the denominational breakdown of how the authors categorized each group, and the results are, shall we say, interesting.
I learned a lot from this book. I was encouraged as well as discouraged. I was challenged and I saw a lot of my own faults in the book. The authors certainly stepped on my toes. It is important to know, for example, that teens are looking for something greater than themselves. They desperately want their parents in their lives (even if every word or action seems to say otherwise). They need limits. And they are willing to respond appropriately when given the information they need. If anything, this book puts the responsibility of raising spiritual teens right where it belongs – on the adults who should be providing that guidance in the first place.
In case you have not noticed, I am a religious exclusivist. Beyond that, I am a biblical exclusivist. Furthermore, I am a Christian exclusivist. I understand everything through the lens of what it means to follow Christ. These aspects of my life are as solid to me as the ground upon which I walk.
Because the entire thrust of our “postmodern” culture is to denigrate and exclude exclusivists (I love the irony of that concept), I wanted to post a defense of exclusivism, especially my view of Christian exclusivism.
I believe in biblical, Christian exclusivism because I believe the Bible communicates that particular viewpoint from Genesis to Revelation. In the Bible we see a clear distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, obedience and disobedience, faith and fear. In the opening scenes of paradise, there were two trees in the center of the garden – one of the knowledge of good and evil, and the other the tree of life (and therefore, its opposite would be death). Our first ancestors chose disobedience over obedience, fear over faith, and so the choice of everlasting life was removed and they were given death.
Throughout God’s most explicit law there were constant reminders to separate the clean from the unclean. The Aaronic priesthood, in particular, was to constantly teach the people of the difference between the holy and the secular, the pure from the profane, the good from the evil (Lev. 10:10). The prophet Ezekiel soundly criticized the leaders of Israel for that very failure – they ceased to separate the holy from the profane, and so even God’s holy Name was profaned (Ezekiel 26:23-31). The great prophet Isaiah preached a message condemning the people for reversing God’s order, and for calling “good, evil; and evil, good” (Isaiah 5:20). Getting even more specific, in the New Testament we read that Jesus himself told his followers, “I am the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by me.” (John 14:6). The early disciples obviously learned this lesson well, as Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, told the Sanhedrin, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) If I am wrong in teaching that there is a clear divide between the Holy and the profane, the clean and the unclean, the sacred and the secular, then I believe I am in good company. It is the responsibility of those who believe otherwise to convince me of their belief. Likewise, if there is another path to God other than that of Jesus, it is the responsibility of those who believe that to convince me of their belief. But, to be honest, they have a tall order to overcome the plain teaching of the biblical text.
I offer these defenses of my position of biblical, Christian exclusivism:
1. Our actions betray our underlying beliefs. If I refuse to sail on the ocean because I believe that my ship will fall off into the abyss once I get to the edge of the horizon I am betraying that I believe in bad science. If I believe that “all roads lead to heaven” and that there is no ultimate distinction between the holy and the profane, the sacred and the secular, then I am betraying a flat moralistic view of humanity. In that regard there is no difference between Mother Theresa and Adolf Hitler. Each served his or her nature as he or she saw fit. I utterly reject that concept. There is a vast difference between that which is holy (marriage for example) and that which is profane (pornography, marriage’s ultimate opposite). Those who argue “there is no sacred/secular divide” reveal their humanistic epistemology. They decide truth based on their humanity, not upon God’s divinity.
2. Two people cannot hold epistemologically opposite beliefs (that is, two different truth claims) and be in “fellowship.” I cannot be in fellowship with a follower of Joseph Smith because I simply cannot accept the myth that he spoke to some angel named “Moroni.” I cannot be in fellowship with one who holds unswervingly to the teachings of John Calvin because I cannot accept the basis upon which he interpreted large sections of Scripture. I can agree with him or her that the Scriptures are the ultimate authority, but Calvin was working from a theory of human depravity that I simply reject. If I reject his view of human depravity, then I cannot follow Calvin’s concept of the redemption of that depravity.
This has very specific applications when it comes to relating to various religious, and I might even add, “Christian” groups. For a couple of critical examples, either baptism is or is not the defining moment of salvation (1 Peter 3:21). Note: it is not an experience of magic, but it is a critical event. Therefore, when someone tells me that baptism is optional, that salvation can be obtained through the incantation of a special “prayer” or “opening up one’s heart to Jesus” I have to object. That is not what the New Testament teaches, and if I am to be true to the teachings of the New Testament I have to reject these other human substitutions. Second, either the Lord’s Supper is or is not a central part of our worship experience. Here again, many would argue that it is optional, and that it can be observed on a haphazard schedule, or no schedule at all. Once again, that is not what the New Testament teaches, and if I am to follow what the New Testament teaches, I must take the Lord’s Supper far more seriously than that.
3. This leads me to my third point: even if someone tells me that they have a very high view of Scripture, if they take certain central teachings of the Bible and modify them to meet their cultural or historical practices, then I simply cannot trust that they do, in fact, have that high view of Scripture. A high view of Scripture means that we modify our beliefs and practices to match God’s word, not the other way around. I do not in any way question a Roman Catholic who believes in the inspiration and authority of the Bible, but I do have to question their application of that belief when they teach that Mary was conceived miraculously (devoid of any human lust) and that she has special mediator powers with Jesus and God. Likewise, I have to question the doctrine that a person can be saved “by grace alone through faith alone” when the apostle Paul never said anything remotely close to that. Paul did say we are saved by grace through faith, but he clearly taught a saving faith is expressed through baptism and, following that, a life of continual sanctification.
4. This leads me then to suggest that such a person cannot truly trust me when I hold epistemological beliefs in direct contrast with theirs. I often wonder how someone can consider me to be in perfect fellowship with them when I disagree with that person on virtually every doctrine they hold. “Oh,” they say, “we only differ on matters of opinion, but we are unified by our faith in Jesus.” Maybe we are. Maybe I am wrong. But when we disagree about what it takes to enter the body and blood of Jesus, when we disagree about the central commemorative event around which our worship is built, and when we disagree about the very process of that worship, then I have to ask, just how unified are we?
5. Which then leads me to my last point: Am I condemning the person with whom I disagree in the sense that I am speaking for God? NO! Absolutely not. Remember my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection #1. Such a person may be wholly obedient to God and God may in His wisdom and grace accept those with whom I disagree, just as I hope He forgives me of my theological errors and accepts my human failings. But, in my limited human understanding, I cannot be in fellowship with someone whose foundational beliefs differ from my epistemological beliefs so radically. I cannot say, “I believe ‘X’ is true, but if you believe ‘Y’ is true then that makes ‘Y’ true.” In matters where God has spoken, either ‘X’ is true or ‘Y’ is true, but they cannot both be true.
The advantage to being an exclusivist is that, if I am proven wrong, I can change my mind and hold to a greater understanding of truth. If I have said something here that is clearly false, I ask you to correct me. I can only learn from someone who disagrees with me, or who knows more about a subject than I do. A moral or theological relativist has nothing to offer me. (This is why, with some notable exceptions, I find very few theologians born in the late 20th century that are worth reading. No one believes anything anymore. No one holds any convictions. The theological landscape is just so pathetically vanilla now.)
Evil is not good. Wrong is not right. Dark is not light. Secular is not sacred. Profane is not holy. Truth is not what we decide it to be. Jesus did not die to free us to follow our own hearts. “I believe that Jesus is the Son of God” is not a morally, nor is it a religiously, relativistic statement.
Some beliefs just naturally exclude others, and that is where I am right now. As Martin Luther is so famously quoted as saying, “I can do no other.”
Then a blind and dumb demoniac was brought to him, and he healed him, so t hat the dumb man spoke and saw. And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard it they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand; and if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand?” (Matthew 12:22-26, RSV)
I’m feeling rather rantish this morning, so if this post seems a bit prickly I apologize. Or, maybe I don’t. Maybe I intend to be prickly.
A person cannot follow any kind of Christian literature today, either print or online, without being assaulted by two deafening drum beats: one, that the church is declining, and two, that the solution to the decline of the church is to become more like the world so that the world will quit hating us so much and then they will come and be a part of us because we are so much like a part of them. I’ve heard of circular reasoning before, but that has to take the cake.
The manner in which this doctrine is presented is actually quite multifaceted. On one extreme you have the “we have to start all over from scratch” crowd that looks upon the current church situation with disgust and unfeigned superiority. All mostly under 30 years of age, these folks have all the answers to all the questions (even as they suggest there are no definitive answers to the questions), and they view anyone over the age of 40, especially those of us who still love and cherish the church, with utter disdain. If anyone even tries to identify the group they meet with as a “church” they are dismissed. Heaven forbid the group try to own the facility in which they meet, or have any type of creedal or doctrinal statement. Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed – no difference. All roads lead to heaven, God is love, anyone who thinks different needs to get over it.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who say they want to maintain a doctrinal or creedal form of the church, but they just want to do so in culturally relevant ways. Now, these folks are up against it, because it is pretty much impossible to be doctrinal in a doctrinally adverse culture. So, the church assembly is still important, but the preacher, or preacherette, needs to “preach” in ripped blue jeans and a ratty “Grateful Dead” t-shirt. While this “preacher” is “preaching,” there needs to be a YouTube video or a carefully selected clip of an “R” rated movie shown on three (count ‘em, three) larger than life video screens. If someone gets too bored with the “sermon” (and we all know that boredom is the chief killer of the post-modern Christian faith) the “congregant” (by the way, you don’t have to profess any kind of allegiance to be a member of this church) can go down the hall to a “prayer labyrinth” where they can indulge in any one of a number of Eastern religious practices, all under the guise of deepening their “Christian” faith. Buddha and Mohammed still will get you to heaven, but these folks will argue that their pagan roads will eventually at some point intersect with the Jesus highway. There are quite a number of goatee-growing (except for the “preacherettes”) ripped-jean wearing advocates, although I’m not sure they would feel comfortable being in the same room with each other. Sometimes even the brand of ripped jeans does matter.
What does all this have to do with Matthew 12:22-26? Just this: I’m not sure that Satan has to fight very much anymore. I truly believe he has already captured a large section of the “church” and he is perfectly content to let his minions do their thing. Satan is certainly not going to fight against Satan, so if the disciples of Christ are not going to fight him, why does he need to be militant at all? All Satan needs to do to maintain his kingdom today is lay back in a hammock and sip lemonade.
During this summer break I have been trying to zero in on the culture that I am attempting to address. So I chose two books to help me, Chap Clark’s Hurt 2.0, and Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s Soul Searching. Talk about your depressing summer reading. It’s not that the books are poorly written. They are both excellent books – I highly recommend both of them. But the results of both books are terrifying. The generation of young Christians now in high school and college are profoundly ignorant of the basic Christian truths. Many young people do not think that Christianity does have exclusive claims, and even if they are vaguely aware of those exclusive Christian claims, they are totally incapable of verbalizing or embodying those claims. I grew up hearing the phrase, “It only takes one generation for the church to go into apostasy.” Folks, it is here.
I write as a member of and minister to the Churches of Christ. In less than a generation (slightly more than half of my life) the changes that I have seen in congregations of the Church of Christ are staggering. I realize we are not alone – in the late 1950′s C.S. Lewis was writing that the Anglican Church (American Episcopal Church) would never even allow female priests. They now have openly practicing homosexual bishops! So much for Anglican doctrine. The practices that I hear preachers openly advocate today would not even be whispered 30-40 years ago. Progress you say? Maybe for the kingdom of darkness. We have effectively let Satan go on vacation. Why does he need to work if the disciples of Christ are so effectively accomplishing his goals?
I know I am a dinosaur. One day those who agree with me may become extinct. If it is the will of God, so be it. But for the time being I long for the day in which a preacher will actually stand for Christ and against pagan culture. I want to hear preachers preach for holiness and against making peace with the world. I want to hear the distinctive nature of the church praised instead of condemned. I want to hear Christ lifted up and exalted instead of lowered to the ranks of Buddha and Mohammed. In other words, I want to be encouraged to “march into hell for a heavenly cause” and take the fight to Satan on his turf, instead of having to defend myself from my fellow disciples simply because I believe the Bible teaches inviable, Incarnate Truth with a capital “T.”
Really, people. If the human race is so depraved that we cannot listen to a 30 minute sermon and grasp the truth of the gospel without being assaulted by an “R” rated movie clip, then let’s turn out the lights and all go home.
I’m tired of hearing the church fight Satan’s battles for him. Can we please stand up and fight for Jesus?
Yesterday I closed my post with the words of Jesus in Mark 4:40, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” (RSV) This morning, through no other intention other than following my daily Bible reading schedule, I read Daniel chapter 3. The chapter focuses on Daniel’s three friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, and the golden statue that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. Anyone not bowing down to the statue would be thrown into a fiery furnace. Anyone who has attended a Vacation Bible School in their life knows that the three faithful Israelites refuse to obey, and they are called before Nebuchadnezzar to hear their sentence.
Regardless of how many times I have previously read this story, today I was struck by the forcefulness of their response. I repeat it here in its entirety:
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, “Nebuchadnezzar, we don’t need to give you an answer to this question. If the God we serve exists, then He can rescue us from the furnace of blazing fire, and He can rescue us from the power of you, the king. But even if he does not rescue us, we want you as king to know that we will not serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up. (Daniel 3:16-18, HCSB)
Because there are three verses, it seems only poetic to make three observations about this text.
One, the three men don’t need to give a response to the king. Their lives have already told the king the answer to his question (read from the beginning of the chapter to get Nebuchadnezzar’s question). In today’s world we are all terrified that we will not have the right answer if someone asks us a tough question. This text lets me know that if it depends on my answer I have already lost the debate. If a non-Christian cannot see my faith, no amount of verbalizing my faith will accomplish anything. What an amazing thought. “Why are you afraid, have you no faith?”
Two, the three men begin with what might be considered an ominous statement, “If God exists…” But it is clear from the context that the if is merely rhetorical. They are proclaiming God’s existence by their lives and in their words. They know God exists, and that means two other iron clad truths – God can rescue them from the furnace and from the power of the earthly king. Do not be fooled here. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are not quibbling about the existence of God. For them God was as real as was Nebuchadnezzar. It is just that they knew who the real King was, and who was the impostor. “Why are you afraid, have you no faith?”
Three, and the most amazing statement, “But even if he does not rescue us…” I love the way the Holman Christian Standard Bible phrases this response. Few, if any, other translations put the word, even, in the sentence, but I think it needs to be there. The statement is emphatic. The three men are fully trusting in God’s power to deliver, but even if he does not they will still refuse to offer worship to a false god. “Why are you afraid, have you no faith?”
This story is just so terrifying for Christians today. We have become so used to bending over, to capitulating, to kissing the feet of false gods, to compromising with the enemy, that when we are confronted with genuine acts of faith we want to turn and run. We want to excuse ourselves. We want to minimize the story that is convicting us. We trivialize it. We turn it into a warm and fuzzy vacation Bible school story that we can quickly tell so that we can get to the punch and cookies.
Those who are opposed to God demand that we redefine the word “family” to mean any group of people that live under one roof, whether or not they are related by blood or marriage. Those who are opposed to God demand that we accept any form of sexual release whether it is heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, bi-gender sexuality or poly-amorous sexuality. Those who are opposed to God demand that we create and pledge allegiance to humanistic doctrines, whether they be political or religious, and if we do not bow the knee to them we are accused of both treason and atheism. Those who are opposed to God demand we put our faith and trust in guns and our military. Those who are opposed to God demand that we strip any mention of God out of our schools, marketplaces, and halls of justice. Those who are opposed to the one true God demand that we acknowledge every godless religion as being equal to all others, and especially equal to faith in that one true God.
And, like the pitiful, spineless little amoebas that we are, we follow along, weakly hoping that those big, mean, nasty bullies won’t dislike us, or if they do, they will not beat us up too bad.
To be perfectly blunt, and profoundly non politically correct, let me set the record straight:
“Family” means one daddy and one mommy living in a committed marriage and, if blessed to have children, raising them to understand right from wrong and male from female. The act of sexual intercourse is reserved for one male and one female who have committed themselves to each other in the sacred rite of marriage. There is one God to whom we pledge allegiance, and His constitution has no amendments and no flags. The kingdom of our God has no guns and no military. We are called to defeat spiritual enemies with spiritual truths. Those who follow God are not embarrassed to mention His name, regardless of the consequences. And, finally, the Godless religions of Confucius, Buddha, Mohammed, and dozens of others are mere phantoms – they are powerless and are meaningless.
I know any of those statements could get me in a lot of trouble in today’s world. Maybe not a fiery furnace, but certainly into the metaphorical “hot water.” But, I need to learn how to repeat the words of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (why do we not use their Hebrew, and thus people of faith, names?).
My God can and will take care of me if and when the time comes for me to confront my enemies.
But, even if he does not, I will not bow the knee to a false god.
“Why are you afraid,” Jesus asked. “Have you no faith?”
(P.S. – I chose the picture of my toothy little friend above because, one day if the Good Lord allows me to, I really want to get face to face with one of these fellas. Just one way in which I can “jump the shark” in a literal way.)
I read just this morning, via an Associated Press story, that both the United States Senate Armed Services Committee and the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee have passed legislation that bars the military leadership in the Pentagon from closing any more military bases/installations (at least in the United States, I am not sure if that includes foreign bases or not.)
Sometimes I, ever the most loquacious one, am struck utterly and profoundly speechless.
Here we have the grand poobahs of boom-boom and bang-bang saying they don’t need all the guns, tanks, planes, ships and runways that we currently are paying to keep shooting and flying and swishing around in the oceans. So, the military brass says, “Hey congress, you guys are short on money, here is a win-win situation – you get to keep more money and we get to off-load some extraneous stuff we no longer need.”
And the Senate and House of Representative knuckle-heads join together in one unified chorus and yell back, “Put your proposal in the garbage disposal.”
All across America countless heads are bowing in thanks and countless “amens” are heard as people realize that their precious army, navy or marine base will stay open, at least for the next few years. And the reason why – well, its the economy, stupid.
You see, even though the country is experiencing billion dollar annual deficits and we are buried in trillions of dollars in debt, we cannot afford to give up our military. We need to create, maintain, and endlessly practice using the implements of death in order to live.
Sometimes hypocrisy is so blatant even the most hardened cynics cannot see it. Thankfully, since apparently cynicism is one of my specialties, I am immune to this particular form of blindness.
Just stop and think about it for a minute. Every Sunday, if not every single day, thousands, if not millions, of prayers are offered up in the name of the Prince of Peace begging the God of all reconciliation to please end all wars and “bring the boys home safely.” We pray for our leaders to make wise decisions about the use of our tax dollars. We pray for love and charity to overwhelm the powers of hate and evil.
And we scream like a bunch of scalded dogs when the military suggests that we no longer need the base down the street. (I was going to use more colorful language, but decided against it.)
Christian brothers and sisters – can we not stop and think about this for a moment? Of what earthly or heavenly good does it do to pray for peace, of what earthly or heavenly good does it do for us to pray that God end all wars if we proudly and stubbornly refuse to turn our swords into plows? And why, among all peoples, are disciples of Christ among the most vociferous defenders of our killing machines?
Can we not, just for a moment, stop and think about the mixed message we are sending?
In the name of everything that is high and holy – can we not see the blatant hypocrisy here? Christians should be the ones begging for guns and tanks and planes and ships to be mothballed. Turn them into museum pieces. Tell our children what it used to be like when men and women had to go to war and actually kill each other. Instead of this ridiculous love affair we have with our modern day “horse and chariot,” should we not be learning to lean upon the outstretched arm and mighty hand of God? (Consider the book of Isaiah if you need Biblical evidence.)
We just observed the 69th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of the beaches of Normandy. I do not think the men who died on those beaches, nor the men who survived, were fighting so that their children, their grand-children, and their great-grandchildren would be caught up in an endless cycle of war-truce-war. I believe they fought so that their descendants would never have to fight again. In my most benevolent spirit I believe every war veteran comes home saying the same thing, “May God grant us the wisdom to never go to war again.” Maybe I am wrong. Maybe scarred war veterans actually want their sons and daughters to experience the hell of seeing their buddies die in unfathomable ways.
But, dear Christian brothers and sisters, as long as disciples of Christ are the ones who are most loudly beating the war drums and demanding that the military spend money it does not have on products it no longer needs, there will be no peace. And at some point another generation of young men, and now women, will be sacrificed to the god Mars.
Are we not a smarter people than that? If not smarter, are we not more faithful?
“Why are you afraid?” Jesus asked. “Have you no faith?” (Mark 4:40)
In my last post I talked about the necessity of a pilot keeping a scan going of all of his/her instruments during flight in instrument meteorological conditions – otherwise known as weather that ducks refuse to fly in. That got me to thinking about another aspect of flying that I think can have a profound theological application.
Except, I just can’t think of one. Or, maybe I can, but not in the precise way I want to express it. So, here is my brilliant analogy, I will leave it to you to come up with an equally brilliant application.
Many people think that flying in a single engine airplane, especially a little airplane with a propeller in front, is the most dangerous thing a person can do, short of jumping out of that airplane with a parachute on. For them the sight of a single engine with a single propeller is just too much, or too little rather, and they refuse to climb in the plane. If they see a plane with two engines, even two reciprocating propeller engines, they figure, “well, if one of those propeller thingies quits turning, at least the other one will get me where I am going.” Well, yes, and no.
If you as speaking of jet engines on large, commercial aircraft, then yes. Rest assured, the FAA mandates that an airplane with two engines be capable of all phases of flight with just one engine operating. (Few jets are manufactured with three or more engines today). That means that even in the event of an engine failure during the take-off roll the plane can still take off, circle around and land with just one engine. Now, if one engine were to fail before a certain point the pilots would certainly abort the take-off. But, still, the plane is designed to fly on one engine.
But with reciprocating (gas-powered) engines the story is quite different. With a reciprocating engine the FAA only mandates that the multi-engine airplane be capable of flying in a “cruise” configuration in the event of an engine failure, and even then very few planes can maintain altitude unless they are very, very lightly loaded. There is a powerful and very little understood reason for this.
(BTW – I never was trained to fly turbo-prop aircraft – airplanes that have jet engines that turn propellers. I am not sure of the dynamics of those aircraft, except to know that they have certain safety features that make them easier to control in the event of an engine failure, but certainly not without the risks of having that inactive propeller out there.)
In a small gas-powered twin-engine aircraft, when both engines are operating at peak efficiency you might say the plane has 100% of its power and lift. Twin engine airplanes can, with few exceptions, fly higher and faster than single engine airplanes. They have the capacity to fly in more inclement weather. There are many advantages to having that second engine and propeller. But when an engine fails the plane loses far more than just 50% of its power. That is what most people think: 2 – 1 = 1, so therefore the plane should still be able to fly just fine, albeit maybe a little slower. Not so!
It is kind of complicated to explain here, but when a small twin-engine plane loses an engine the plane actually loses 80% of its capacity to fly. It loses 50% with the loss of the power of the engine. But it loses another 30% or more with the resulting changes that occur when that engine fails. If the plane is light, and other conditions are favorable, the plane can maintain altitude just fine. Load it up, fly it high, throw in some other nasty variables and the plane will come down – slowly perhaps, but it will not be able to stay in the air.
There is a saying among freight dogs (small twin-engine airplane pilots whose job it is to ferry freight all over the country) that the purpose of the good engine is to fly you to the scene of the crash. Freight dogs are good with gallows humor.
I flew some of the best maintained, most wonderfully designed and built twin-engine airplanes ever to grace an airport. I would strap one of those planes on any day and fly it in just about any weather that the southwest could dish out (I hated ice, but my trusty steed could still handle an amazing amount of the stuff). If a human could have a love affair with a piece of machinery, then I was in love with those planes. But I still was aware that if I loaded it to its capacity, in the event of an engine failure I was going to end up on the short end of the stick. It was a dangerous love affair, to be sure.
So, I know there is a theological application out there somewhere. maybe there are several applications out there. This is a wonderful parable. I just wish I could come up with a good theological punch line.
To all my twin-engine pilot friends out there – keep the shiny side up and both feet on the pedals. Practice those engine out procedures and single engine approaches. May the number of your successful landings always equal the number of your take-offs.
Commandment number 1 – “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3, RSV)
Really, how simple can it get? There is one God. Worship Him. Burn, throw away, discard, dismember all the rest.
For the sake of the series, I shall separate the idea of having a false god with that of having a physical image of a false god (idolatry) which is the topic of the next command.
The command here is to have no other gods before the one, true God.
Nothing, either physical nor metaphysical, can be in the place of God. None, nada, zip, zero. No other gods means no other gods.
We worship a pantheon of gods today – each one a testament to the myriad ways in which we violate this command.
We worship power, sex, self-esteem, education, freedom, love, health and safety, entertainment, glory, and honor – and many others. Each has its own little menagerie of idols (graven images) but each is truly a false god.
We fear losing each of these things, but the reality is that it is only when we lose those things that we can receive the one true God. Blessed are those who have absolutely nothing, because they are the only ones who can see that they need God.
How many gods are in my life. Not idols – we will deal with those in due time. But how many gods are in my life. What do I worship? What do I fear losing? What demands my attention? What receives my money? Track those things back and you will find your god.
We violate any and all of the other commands because we don’t get this one right. If we truly understood and obeyed this one, the others would be unnecessary.
God, forgive us of the worship of our false gods. Help us identify them, give us the courage to destroy them. Teach us how to have one, true God.
I’m not exactly sure why, but I was inspired this morning with the thought that I have not really worked through the 10 Commandments in any kind of meditative or contemplative manner. I think that I have taught and /or preached through them, but I wanted to take another look at these great words. I hope my thoughts will be beneficial, but as with everything else in this blog, I am speaking primarily to me.
A word about my outline. I plan on taking one “command” per post, and then at the very end I plan on adding an essay about why I believe the 10 Commandments have been neglected in many circles of Christianity (especially so in the Churches of Christ) and what can be done to overcome that omission.
So, here is installment one.
And God spoke these words, saying, I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. (Exodus 20:1-2 RSV)
Most people think that the ten commandments begin with Exodus 20:3. That is our first mistake.
The ten commandments begin with Exodus 20:1. God is speaking to His people. He identifies Himself. But he does not identify Himself with any esoteric, profound ontological or theological definitions. God identifies Himself simply and profoundly by reference to His action. “I am your God. You know me because I am the One who just delivered you out of your miserable slavery. I am the LORD. I am the I AM. You’ve seen my mighty arm, now listen to what is in my heart.”
When we begin our study of this text in Exodus 20:3 we miss this monumental opening. We miss the main point. It would be like showing up at a wedding after the couple has departed for their honeymoon. Sure, there may be some cake left, and maybe a mint or two – but is that the point of going to a wedding?
We must see that the “10 Commandments” are built exclusively and entirely upon grace. “I am the LORD.” It is the greatest statement of grace in the Bible, repeated hundreds of times. Perhaps we are more comfortable with the “I am the good shepherd” of John’s gospel, but the meaning is the same. God is saying, “Don’t worry. I have your back. In fact, I have your front too. Just look at what I just did for you. Which would you prefer – slavery or freedom?” And that is the entire meaning of v. 2. God double identifies the place where the Israelites just were. “Out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
Remember Egypt – the cruel taskmasters, the hours and hours of back breaking labor only to be beaten and humiliated? Bone crushing servitude with nothing to show for it? Do you remember that? Look at your hands, look at your feet, look at the backs of your neighbors – remember Egypt.
The ten commandments are all about grace. And if we miss that point we might as well not even try to study the actual commands. If we miss the grace concerning the deliverance from slavery all we do is return to the land of Egypt. Exodus 20:3-17 simply becomes another house of bondage if we miss v. 1-2. We become slaves to a legal code, a merciless task master that seeks only to impose it’s power over us. It beats us, brutalizes us, dehumanizes us. Built on the foundation of v. 1-2, however, and the commands become avenues of God’s grace.
It is interesting that in the original Hebrew text, the description for what follows are the “10 Words.” Not commandments, even though they may take the imperative form. No, this section of the inspired text is referred to as the “10 Words.” I believe that in the overall theology of the Bible this point is profound. In the beginning God spoke simple words and the world was created. In the book of Isaiah we read that “my words will not return to me empty.” In the prologue of the gospel of John we read that, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
And the decalogue, the great charter of the Israelite nation, is referred to by these Israelites as the “10 Words.”
I like that. The 10 Words of Grace. That just sound so much more inviting, so much more welcome, so much more, well, God-like than the “10 Commandments.”
Mind you – these are still commands, they remain strictures about how a child of God is to think, act and believe. But they are primarily words of grace. And that makes them foundational for any understanding of the work of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God and the very personification of Grace.
May we hear these words always new, always fresh. Amen.
For preachers – no one ever conquered without rising to a challenge. Challenge your listeners, man, challenge!
For congregations – if your minister is telling you exactly what you want to hear and exactly what you have always heard, it is time to find another preacher. If you are not being challenged, you are not hearing the Word of God!