Below is the text of a sermon I preached on April 11, 2010. I posted the charge here that week, but I never put the whole thing up. Since it touches on some of the ecclesiological concerns I’ve been talking about here recently, I thought I’d revisit it. The sermon was delivered in a formal liturgical setting, so you’ll see a note where we stopped to observe communion, followed by the closing charge.
Pr. 1:8-9, 19:26-27, 20:20, 23:22-26, 30:11-17
I got an email a few weeks ago which informed me in panicky tones that Janet Reno was going to use the FCC to shut down all religious broadcasting. This seemed suspicious to me for a number of reasons, not least that Janet Reno doesn’t seem to be in a position to use the FCC to do anything. With a few minutes of research, I found that this particular rumor has been circulating in one form or another since the seventies. There is actually a kernel of truth to it: in 1974 someone did actually petition the FCC to prevent religious organizations from gaining licenses to broadcast on channels reserved for education. Despite the fact that the petition would never have affected commercial radio stations, and that the petition was denied in 1975 in any case, the rumor has persisted for three and a half decades, and an alarming number of Christians, hearing it for the first time, believe it. It continues to circulate through email to this day.
Now, there are a number of points I could make here, having to do with gossip, lack of discernment, loving your neighbor enough to check your facts before passing on the story, and so forth, and I did send an email making those very points to the credulous Christian brother who had originally sent me this panicky message. But you’re all good Christians, and since I’ve said this much, you know what I’m going to say about those things, and hopefully you’ll take them to heart. Today, though, I’d like to make a much more interesting, and hopefully much more helpful, point.
I got another email around the same time as the Janet Reno rumor, this one promising me a free laptop if I answered a brief online survey. This message was not forwarded to me by a credulous Christian brother, and you all know why: very few of us believe that message; we just assume it’s a scam and delete it.
Which raises a question: why are we so ready to believe the one message and not the other?
We believe that our faith is under siege, and many of our fellow conservatives also believe that the Democrats are the party of all evil. So a tale of a prominent Democrat trying to suppress our faith fits in with that story very nicely…maybe even a little too nicely. On the other hand, we do not believe that people just go around giving away valuable goods in exchange for a few minutes of unskilled labor, and so we just ignore the offer of a free laptop. In other words, we believe one message and not the other because one message fits with the way we think the world works, and the other one flies in the face of our picture of the world.
Last week we went over two competing stories of Western history. In one, Christianity is a force for good, and it continues to shape the world. Christianity conquered Rome, Europe was Christian for a thousand years, and became the missionary base from which God launched the presently ongoing conversions of South America, China, and Africa. In the other story, Christianity was a corrosive influence. The glories of classical Rome fell into the Dark Ages when the Christians took over, Europe only began to recover in the Renaissance (literally, “Rebirth”), when artists, philosophers and architects looked again to pagan Greece and Rome for inspiration, and recovery only really took hold in the “Enlightenment,” when the intelligentsia threw off Christianity entirely.
The question is, why did we, as Bible-believing Protestants, believe the second story automatically, without ever thinking that something might be wrong with it? Why didn’t it sound like “Free laptop if you just answer this online survey”? The gospels and Acts certainly didn’t set us up to believe it—so what did? I would suggest two reasons.
The first is pessimistic eschatology, the idea that the world will get irretrievably worse and worse until Jesus finally shows up and rescues us from the madness. I don’t have time to go into all this today, but that’s a highly suspect reading of Scripture. Let me touch one passage: 2 Timothy 3. Notice that Paul instructs Timothy in what to do with these people in the last days. That’s because from the NT writers’ perspective, the Last Days were the days after Christ’s resurrection. The Resurrection of the dead happens in the last days, Christ is the firstfruits – the harvest has begun to come in. It’s the last days. So our reading of 2 Timothy 3 as a justification of unmitigated pessimism is just not exegetically responsible.
Nor is it historically sensible. The things Paul talked about were, in some ways, more true of the Roman world than they are of our world today. For example, Tiberias Caesar used to have prisoners tortured for his amusement while he ate dinner. This was not an aberration in his society — the Coliseum provided similar spectacles for the masses to enjoy. Compare this to the recent controversy over waterboarding. Yes, the practice had its advocates, and there were some stupid, wicked things said and done in defense of what was clearly a method of torture — but even in defending it, no one said “We do it because it’s fun,” and nobody suggested that Saturday Night Live do a Waterboarding Marathon for everyone’s entertainment. You know why? Because as a society, we wouldn’t have found it entertaining, that’s why. Which is to say that the gospel has changed our culture for the better since the days of Tiberias, and we are characterized by 2 Timothy 3 a little less than they were.
The second reason we bought the “Christianity as a corrosive influence” story is that we want to tell a similar story. In this version, real Christianity was wonderful, but everything went to pot after the death of the apostles, darkness descended, and the Roman church reigned until the Reformers recovered the gospel. At long last, after a millennium and a half of night, we again believe in the simple gospel and worship in spirit and in truth. We locate the ‘good times’ in the first-century church instead of the glories of Greece and Rome, and instead of the Renaissance and Enlightenment being the new good times, it’s the Reformation and the modern evangelical church. Or in other circles, the new good times don’t start until the Anabaptists. Or Amy Semple MacPherson. Or Chuck Smith. Or…pick your poison.
This second issue is the one I want to go after today. It is the manifestation of an ugly, wicked turn of mind that is at once as old as Lucifer and peculiarly modern. For lack of better terms, I will call it the Revolutionary Mind.
The Revolutionary Mind wants to take a vision of how things could be and make that vision come true, right here, right now. “Behold, I make all things new” is the motto of the revolutionary. Because history and habit get in the way, the Revolutionary Mind despises history and habit—what Proverbs would call “The instruction of your father” and “the law of your mother.” In America, the soul of the Revolutionary Mind is political, but it manifests itself in the church in liturgical ways.
To put this in more concrete terms, let me offer an example. I read some time ago about a Baptist pastor who began his ministry in Arkansas in the early 1900s. Being a practical man—a thing then fashionable—he set about to abolish all needless ceremonies and reduce the church service to the essentials only. For example, the church had previously stood to hear the reading of Scripture; he abolished this practice on the grounds that the Bible never commanded it.
He gave no consideration to why the practice existed or whether it accorded with the whole picture of biblical worship; it was enough for him that the Bible never commanded it. It was therefore impractical and unnecessary, and it had to go. Of course, if he were consistent, he would have thrown out the church pews on the same grounds: the Bible never commands us to sit to hear teaching, either, and certainly not in pews. But he didn’t, and this is because he was a creature of his age, and in his age, pews were considered practical. This man was, in his time, a revolutionary, and a revolutionary of the sort that was fashionable in his time.
His revolution was displaced by another revolution in the seventies and early eighties, when Calvary Chapel-style music and informal worship practices began to crowd out the so-called ‘traditional’ worship (which was really nothing of the kind). That revolution is now being replaced in turn by yet another, in which ritual is returning to the worship service because it’s retro. I am not in favor of any of these revolutions, and I maintain that as Christians we are required to be at war with the revolutionary turn of mind that drove all of them. We are called rather to a slow and steady obedience founded on Scripture, which turns out to be quite a different thing, even when it looks similar from outside, which it occasionally does.
As over against those examples, I would submit that we have done something different. We have not forsaken our recent brothers and fathers – we look to Sons of Korah as well as to Martin Luther. But we look further back as well. We have not made all things new; we are in glorious communion with those who have gone before us.
In America, we manifest the same revolutionary mind in a number of ways. Our immigration philosophy, for example: If any man be in America, he is a new creation; old things are passed away, behold, all things are become new. Because this is the case, in America we worship the state as the source of real, concrete salvation, and identification with America becomes our primary cultural identification, rather than identification with Christ.
American Christians also tend to think of the State as the source of salvation, and therefore work very hard to try to get control of it. As a result, we keep making compromises because we are trying to get, and keep, the reins of political power. This has been a problem for a very long time. Speaking of American political conservatives, R. L. Dabney wrote:
This is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt hath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be seasoned? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth, and has no idea of being guilty of the folly of martyrdom. It always, when about to enter a protest, very blandly informs the wild beast whose path it essays to stop, that its “bark is worse than its bite,” and that it only means to save its manners by enacting its decent role of resistance. The only practical purpose which it now subserves in American politics is to give enough exercise to Radicalism to keep it “in wind,” and to prevent its becoming pursy [fat] and lazy from having nothing to whip.
That was in the mid-1800s, and how much has changed since then?
At the turn of the century, American liberalism was revolutionary; American fundamentalism recoiled into sola-doctrinal-correctness and moralizing. Evangelicalism woke up from that sarcophagus and got politically involved—on the same principles as the liberals of 70 years earlier. The political action of the Christian Right today is on these principles, and it will fail because the weapons of its warfare are carnal, the very same weapons used by Big Tobacco, Greenpeace and the NRA. These are weapons that its enemies can also wield, and against which there are many defenses.
A Christian king should govern as God commands him; a Christian congressman should do the same; a Christian voter likewise. But if we think getting out the vote will be enough to win the culture, we are sadly mistaken. The history of Israel shows us repeatedly that you can’t reform the culture from the top down; several kings tried and failed.
But we have another weapon which is not carnal. Worship is warfare; it is the weapon against which our enemies have no defense. All they can do is get us to stop doing it, and in the American church, they have enjoyed remarkable success doing just that. In order to win a culture war, it is necessary to first have a culture. At the very center of a culture is a cultus: the sanctuary is the center of the world, and the culture is the overflow and externalization of the worship. We begin by reforming our worship because that is the root of the matter.
In Eden, the river that flows from the sanctuary waters the world.
In the New Jerusalem, the river flows from under the throne of God, and the leaves of the trees beside it are for the healing of the nations.
In between, Jesus says “He who believes in Me, as the Scriptures have said, out of his belly will flow rivers of living water.”
Loyalty needs to flow appropriately, and that means, among other things, that loyalty to Christ and His people supersedes loyalty to America and her people. This is not exactly a new idea: “Do good to all, but especially to those of the household of faith.” As Christian Americans, we owe more to an Iraqi or Japanese or Palestinian Christian than we do to an American unbeliever, and this ought to be expressed in our attitudes about foreign policy.
For example, at 11:02 in the morning, August 9, 1945, the US dropped a bomb on Nagasaki. It was aimed at the business and industrial district, but the wind blew it off course, and it actually exploded above the Urakami Catholic district of Nagasaki, where 12,000 Christians lived—the largest single population of Christians in the Orient. The blast destroyed the largest Christian church in East Asia, killing the 32 people who were inside it at the time. In all, 9600 Christians — well over three quarters of the city’s Christian population — were killed by the bomb.
For right now, let’s sidestep the whole debate over whether the bombing was morally justified, and just ask this question: how many of you even knew this part of the story? And if not, why not? These are Our People; how could we just not know? Do we believe in the unity of Christ’s body, or don’t we?
No, the story we tell is how many American lives were saved by dropping those two bombs. Many of those American lives would also have been Christians, it’s true. But let’s be honest: we’re not thinking about how many brother Christians we saved; we’re thinking about how many Americans we saved. Telling, isn’t it?
Of course, where would we have heard this part of the story? Who would have told us? We can’t expect government-funded American schools to tell the story of Our People honestly. But what about the churches?
When the events of 1945 are discussed in the town square of the New Jerusalem, do you really think they’ll still tell the story the way we do? Which will be more important: that America won the war with that bomb and saved countless American lives, or that America killed almost 10,000 Christians, blew up the biggest church in East Asia, and utterly destroyed the largest Christian community in the whole Orient?
MacArthur’s call for Christian missionaries after the war certainly takes on a peculiar irony, doesn’t it?
While the Nagasaki example is difficult for us to hear, there isn’t really anything we can do about it. So let’s also look at another, more current, example. However you might feel about the war in Iraq, one of the unintended consequences of the disorder has been a wave of violence against Iraqi Christians. American officials have been largely unwilling to do anything about this, for fear of alienating the Muslim majority—one of the rare continuities in policy between the Bush and Obama administrations — and both these men consider themselves Christians.
Again, this is the sort of thing we ought to know about—and we don’t. Why not?
If your instinctive response to this news is to think that you should call your congressman: isn’t there something else you want to do first? Isn’t there another, more powerful Ruler to whom you should address your first appeal? Let’s do that now:
Lord God, we pray every week for our persecuted brothers around the world, but right now we would like to specifically lift up our Iraqi brothers and sisters before you. They are suffering from persecution by Arabs and Kurds, Shi’ites and Sunnis alike. They are suffering from neglect by America. Many of them are actually worse off now than they were under Saddam Hussein. We ask you to intervene on their behalf. Give them shelter from their enemies; give them the hearts of their neighbors; give them wise government so that they might live a quiet and peaceable life; and above all, give them Iraq as a discipled Christian nation. Finally Lord, we ask that for as long as America remains a presence in their country, our actions would work for these things rather than against them.
As we go into communion, remember that this is a celebration of our union with Christ and with all His people. Those who eat and drink Christ at His table are Our People—wherever they may be in the world.
We worship in heaven, and we are unified with those who join us there in worship—including those believers in other nations, and those who died long before us. This unity surpasses any earthly tie, including ties of where you were born—or when.
The saints of every age and place are Our People, and we should hear the voices of those who have gone before us. They are sinners, and they can be wrong. But so can we, and so we listen to their wise counsel, and—as always—measure everything by Scripture. We cannot be revolutionaries, because we belong to a long line of people from whom we cannot separate, even though we may want to. “Behold, I make all things new” is not something that we are allowed to say—and it doesn’t work anyhow.
If we cannot remake our church, or our society, or our world at a stroke, through revolution, then what are we to do?
In Eden, the river that flows from the sanctuary waters the world. In the New Jerusalem, the river flows from under the throne of God, and the leaves of the trees beside it are for the healing of the nations. In between, Jesus says “He who believes in Me, as the Scriptures have said, out of his belly will flow rivers of living water.”
The life of the world flows from God through the sanctuary, through our worship; this is our first and most powerful agent of cultural change. Worship is a weapon by which we may battle God’s enemies and serve the people of the World at the same time. When we resort to carnal weapons, there is always collateral damage, but worship harms no one except those who insist on remaining enemies of God.
The charge therefore is this: Every change in your life, every difficulty, every new situation, should come first into your worship. Praise God, thank Him, ask for what you need. Situate your life in God-honoring heavenly worship before the throne of Grace. Then, having done that, pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven—and watch as God answers your prayers.