June 17, 2012

We Do What We Know

Well this morning and next week we are in between series.  We just wrapped up a long, hard look at the stuff we are managing for God, and in a couple of weeks we are going to begin a journey through the book of 1 Peter—one of my favorites in the New Testament.  Next week we are going to celebrate both of our fundamental ordinances and so I’ll spend a few minutes talking about baptism and communion with you.  That leaves us with this morning.  As I was thinking through all of this a few weeks ago it dawned on me that I had a week to talk about anything I wanted to.  Now, yes, I kind of get to talk about whatever I want to every Sunday, but come on, this is at least a little different.  And also it’s Father’s Day so I get an extra special prerogative to talk about anything I want.  So I got to thinking about what we might spend a few minutes dwelling on this morning and then something I came across in my personal journey through the book of Proverbs struck me right in the face.  Near the end of the book I came across two little proverbs that screamed cultural relevance and so I decided that this would be our text for the morning.  Let me see if I can get into it like this…

A few months ago, as we worked our way through some of the hard sayings of Jesus, we came across this little passage from near the end of John’s Gospel: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.  If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”  A little later in the same passage Jesus warned: “They will put you out of the synagogues [which, as we said then, amounted to social ostracism].  Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.  And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me.”  Let’s go back to the beginning of the year.  On Wednesday nights we began a study of the New Testament letter of 1 Corinthians.  Early on in this wonderful little book Paul wrote this: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. . . .But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”  In addition to this, when you read in the book of Revelation it becomes clear that the nearer we draw to the end of this world all of this willful misunderstanding and senseless persecution will increase and intensify.  War will be made on the people of God all the way up to the final moments of human history.

Now, while there are a lot of angles from which to address this information, I’d like to focus on one with you this morning that is becoming increasingly sharp in our modern culture marked as it is by a blend of secular tolerance and paganism.  And the angle is this: we live in a culture in which the beliefs and behaviors of committed followers of Jesus Christ don’t make any sense.  Gone are the days when a basic biblical literacy could be assumed on the part of most people.  Words  like redemption and grace, sin and atonement are at best understood in dramatically different ways than many of you have been taught to think about them; at worst they are completely unintelligible.  Even biblical characters like Noah or Moses, David or Jonah whom many of you assume everyone knows are a mystery to many more than you might think.  While we were on vacation last week we ate lunch one day at a Red Robin.  Our waiter’s name was Jonah.  First, Jonah isn’t a name commonly given to a child by biblically literate parents.  Second, when Bubba made a comment implicitly noting the biblical similarity between his name and Noah and Josiah, his reaction suggested that the allusion was totally lost on him.  I once sat down with a couple to do some counseling and in the process of our conversation made a passing reference to Moses.  They stared at me blankly because they didn’t know who I was talking about.  Although we often hear arguments in the public square about whether or not it’s important to hang onto our nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage, a growing number of the citizens of this nation, particularly those younger than 40, don’t have a frame of reference for even understanding what a Judeo-Christian heritage is.  For them that sounds like some kind of a weird religious cult and so it’s no wonder they aren’t terribly driven to preserve it against the swelling tide of secular liberalism.

In a culture that is increasingly de-churched as ours is, not only do the words and beliefs of followers of Jesus not make any sense, but with ears ringing from the distorted presentations of Christian behavior and our mission as far as the public square goes, which are themselves distorted more often because of pathetic ignorance than intentional deception or even a simple commitment to the truth on the part of the ones doing the twisting, people are more and more frequently looking on these two with skepticism at best and open hostility at worst.   For example, a few years ago in California two Christian doctors politely refused to artificially inseminate a woman who was living a lifestyle with which they did not agree and into which they were not willing to have a hand in introducing a child and summarily were sued for this exercise of conscience.  The court ruled in favor of the plaintiff arguing that the doctors did not have a right to refuse services from their private office for reasons of conscience of this nature.  When the students of a Seattle high school voted to have the song Ave Maria played by the concert band at their graduation, the superintendent overruled them because the religious undertones of a particular version of the song might violate the separation of church and state.  Although the decision was later rescinded because of the uproar it caused, Dartmouth College—an ivy league school and presumably a fan of open intellectual inquiry—once prohibited Campus Crusade from handing out copies of C. S. Lewis’ masterpiece, Mere Christianity, on campus because it might offend non-Christian students.  When Brit Hume, a long-time Fox News anchor remarked after Tiger Woods’ tragic sexual scandals came to light, “He’s said to be a Buddhist.  I don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. . . .My message to Tiger would be, ‘Tiger, turn to the Christian faith, and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.’” [1] he was excoriated by a large body of the press for his judgmental, hate-filled, threatening, and embarrassing display of blatant proselytizing.  More than once we have heard religious extremism in general and committed Christians in particular blamed for nearly every problem of the modern world.

Somewhat parallel to this rise in both rhetoric and actions against Christians who would seek to act out the implications of their convictions in Western culture has been a rise in a whole manner of widely recognized social ills.  You could be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that there might be a connection between these dual upwards tends.  You could be offered a bit of understanding for postulating a direct dependence on the downward popularity of Christian virtues and values and the upward trend of exploitation, of injustice, of the worsening of the nation’s culture of poverty, and of any manner of other patterns which are, frankly, more often descriptive of cultures not shaped by the Christian worldview.  You could be given some grace for wondering why our nation doesn’t seem to care very much about doing the things of God anymore.  Why is this?  Why doesn’t our culture seem very concerned with doing the things of God and is there anything we can do about it?

Come with me to the book of Proverbs and we’ll get at least the hint of an answer.  The book of Proverbs, of course, was largely written by King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived.  While it covers a lot of different topics over the course of its 31 chapters.  Some of them don’t seem too relevant to us, but some speak right to the heart of modern issues.   Now, I generally try to stay pretty well informed as far as the current political scene and the state of our culture goes.  Well, with all of this in mind, as I was reading one morning in Proverbs 28, verses 4-5 jumped off the page at me.  Listen to these two proverbs from the Message translation: “If you desert God’s law you’re free to embrace depravity; if you love God’s law, you fight for it tooth and nail.  Justice makes no sense to the evilminded; those who seek God know it inside and out.”

Let me tell you what this means and then we’ll take a few minutes to unpack it and think through some of the implications.  What Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, is saying here is that if we want to do the things of God, we have to know the person of God.  When we jump ship on God and the way of life He has commended (commanded, really) to His followers, we are free to live however we want.  The history of the 20th century alone is a gleaming reflection of the truth of this proposition. When we give up on God’s law thus allowing our minds to be shaped by the evil world contra Paul’s advice in Romans 12:1-2, godly virtues like justice don’t make any sense anymore.  Indeed, if we want to do the things of God, we have to know the person of God.  We do the things of God when we know the person of God.

So what’s this mean for us?  Why should we give this idea any more than the cursory amount of attention that, if we’re honest, we usually give the sermon?  Because if we take the time to wrap our minds around this truth the results have the potential to be literally world-changing.  Now, we could probably spend several weeks unpacking everything these two verses mean for us, but let me run us through some of the highlights and then we’ll pick of few of them back up when we work through 1 Peter in coming weeks.  The real punch here, though, is that we only do the things of God when we know the person of God.

Let’s start with the first part of each proverb and go from there.  Solomon argues that if you desert God’s law you’re free to embrace depravity and that justice makes no sense to the evilminded.  Now, that’s kind of a negative way to frame the proposition, but given much thought it is powerfully true.  One of the messages our young people are taught over and over again these days is that they are the best and truest sources to determine what they want and what they need.  This teaching is paired with a strong assertion that we should get what we want.  “After all,” the argument goes, “desires are a natural thing and why would we have them if we shouldn’t fulfill them?  And yes, there are some constraints society will put on the freest exercise of our desires possible in order to stave off anarchy, but these come down from the collective wisdom of the people—we are a democracy after all—and are therefore acceptable because when the will of the people changes [or, perhaps we should add, when the will of the powerbrokers of the people change] so can these constraints.”

Guess what the worst thing that can be introduced into this kind of a belief framework is.  Objective moral commands handed down from on high by a sovereign God who didn’t bother to give the people a vote.  In this sense the law of God is viewed culturally as an unnecessary or even harmful caging of our ability to be fully ourselves.  But what our culture calls being ourselves, the Bible tends to call depravity.  In this sense, Solomon is absolutely right.  When we get rid of the law of God, anything goes.  In spite of many arguments to the contrary, there is no other objective, rational foundation in which we can ground right and wrong.  As our culture, then, marches quickly down the road of secularism and continues to marginalize Christian belief and behavior, we should not be surprised at the rapid increase of behaviors which used to fall under the heading of depravity.  For God’s law—properly understood by us as a reference to the whole of Scripture—reveals His character.  Through His law He reveals Himself to us.  To reject His words to us, then, is to reject Him, and if we reject Him we can’t possibly know Him for, as His word reveals, to know Him is to accept Him.  And, if we don’t know the person of God we can’t do the things of God.

Let’s push this just a bit further, though.  Solomon avers that justice doesn’t even make sense to the evilmindned, that is, to those who reject God’s law.  Now, his focus is specifically on justice here, and in this sense, on the inability to distinguish right from wrong in a meaningful sense, but I think we can broaden this out for our purposes this morning to speak generally of Christian virtue and the ability to act on this knowledge.  For folks who have no concept of the word of God or even of a generally Judeo-Christian value framework, traits and behaviors which have traditionally been identified as Christian virtues—prudence, justice, self-control, courage (the four cardinal virtues), purity, self-control, generosity, perseverance, patience, kindness, and humility (the seven heavenly virtues)—don’t make any sense.  If I’m the measure of all things then the right choice is always the one that benefits me so prudence isn’t necessary.  When self-interest dominates our moral framework real justice cannot be exercised.  Children today are taught that everyone can win and that if things get tough you should find someone to level the playing field for you thus negating the importance of courage.  Purity keeps me from fulfilling desires which were designed to be fulfilled.  Self-control may have some place in broader society, but not if it gets in the way of having a good time.  The idea that “what’s mine is mine and if you want some of it, get a job,” rules out generosity.  Perseverance and patience are easily overtaken by the immediate.  Kindness is pretty good, but only if I get something out of it.  And humility has no place at the table given that there’s no one else to promote me if I don’t do it.  Are you seeing the problems here?  I don’t say any of this to depress you, but merely by way of observation.  If you’ve ever wondered why any of those virtue defeated statements seem so common in our culture, this is why.  We can’t do the things of God if we don’t know the person of God and our culture more and more doesn’t know the person of God.  Instead, we do the things of God when we know the person of God.  So what’s the alternative?  What’s the other side of this?  Is there any hope in any of this for followers of Christ in Western culture?

Of course there is.  Look with me at the second half of these two proverbs. What did Solomon say?  If you love God’s law you fight for it tooth and nail and those who seek it know [virtue] inside and out.  Check this out.  Not only are we able to do the things of God when know the person of God, we desire to do the things of God when we know the person of God.  We strive for it against all odds and in the face of any persecutions.  One of the arguments against Christians practicing our values out in the public square that is perhaps most commonly launched at us these days is that believers are free to worship however they want in private.  “In fact, it is a great thing for people to pursue whatever religion they want.  If you want to be Christian or Buddhist or Jewish or Muslim or Wiccan or Animist or Pantheist or anything, you are welcomed to such pursuits.  The more the merrier.  Freedom of worship is a cherished right in this country.  You can worship however you please in your home.  Once things move to the public square, however, you’ll need to check your religion at the door because your personal values ought not to have any bearing on public policy.  And to try and convince someone else to change their mind in order to embrace your religious position is hateful intolerance because such an attempt assumes they are wrong and who are you to make such a judgment as that?”  This is a very powerful argument and a lot of people—including a growing number of professed followers of Christ—buy into it.  “My faith is a private affair,” someone will think.  “I’d hate to infringe on the rights of another person—that doesn’t seem like a very loving thing to do and Jesus was all about love.  This is a free country, after all, and free people have the right to do what they want within a certain broad set of limits.  I guess I’ll just keep this all to myself.”

In this way, instead of fighting tooth and nail for God’s law to be recognized as chief in a vast marketplace of ideas, people who profess to love it have surrendered to the folks who don’t.  Now, there are all kinds of things wrong with the “religion should be kept private” argument.  Let me point out three.  First, in this country we have freedom of religion not merely freedom of worship.  There is technically freedom to worship however you please within the confines of your home in Iran as long as you bend to the culture’s controlling narrative in the public square.  The loud calls for the protection of the freedom to worship we sometimes hear today are really a cover for folks who desire to see a certain viewpoint—most often a pan-religious or even anti-religious one—recognized as most correct in the public square at the expense of their ideological opponents.  This leads to the second problem.  The argument that evangelistic efforts on the part of believers amount to aggressive attacks on those who disagree with them and for this reason should be stopped is itself an aggressive attack on an opposing viewpoint in an attempt to change the mind of the person holding.  When secularists make complex arguments against Christians’ attempts to expand the fold, they are in fact attempting to expand the fold of secularism.  When we give up ground like this, when we stop fighting tooth and nail on the part of God’s law, we are implicitly agreeing that we don’t really have anything worth fighting for.

Now the third problem: there is a place where this ideal of private worship for all people was achieved in the past: the Roman Empire.  In the Roman Empire people were free to pursue whatever religion they desired…as long as they didn’t get any crazy thoughts that their religion was right over and against all the others and as long as they gave deference to the religion of the state.  You know who that didn’t go so well for?  Christians.  At least, that was the case at first.  Early on in our history Christians were brutally persecuted by Rome for daring to make the claim that their God was the only true God and was sovereign over all of this world, including Caesar himself.  Christians were so dedicated to fighting tooth and nail for God’s law—not to force anybody else to pursue it, mind you, but simply for the right to pursue it for themselves—that eventually they began to win over their critics.  Historians have ancient letters from one Roman official to another complaining that the Christians love for everybody was making the paganism of the Empire look bad.  They refused to compromise their values regardless of the persecutions they faced and their values eventually became the controlling narrative for the entire Empire.  They did this by pursuing a deep knowledge of God and were therefore able to do the things of God.  We do the things of God when we know the person of God.  And when the things of God are done, people respond.  People come into the kingdom.   The values and virtues of the kingdom become the controlling narrative of the culture because they are objectively better than anything else.

Let’s speak the truth in love.  The religion of our state is secularism, which is simply an elevation of people to the position of ultimate authority.  It’s not official and a lot of folks would go to the mat protesting my saying that, but look at our culture and the position the state regularly takes on matters of religion.  As long as people give public deference to the surpassing wisdom and authority of secularism, they are free to pursue whatever kind of worship they want.   People who understand God’s law rightly, however, fight for it tooth and nail.  When we really understand the word of God, we recognize quickly the vapidity of this foolish assertion that religion should be kept a private affair.  Given that religion is our set of answers to the big questions of life, religion has never nor will ever be a private affair.  A purely private religion isn’t worth following because it’s not doing anything for you.  Again, when we are maligned for forcing our personal beliefs on someone else, the person doing the maligning is in all likelihood trying to force their personal beliefs on us at the very least in that setting.  When we who understand God’s law see this for what it is we will recognize how important it is to take a strong, humble, loving stand for our viewpoint so that it is recognized culture wide as the most true, most worthy of accepting, and even the most proper lens through which to view matters of social policy.  Now, will this settle all policy debates?  Certainly not, but by reframing the question and the underlying assumptions, it will change them in powerful ways.  In the end, then, as we stand for what believe based on deeply held beliefs that are not mere opinions, but rock solid convictions based on 4,000 years of debate, practice, refinement, and clarification, the values and virtues we stand for—all rooted in a deeply personal knowledge of God—will become the controlling narrative for our society once again.  Our culture will once again do the things of God because it will know the person of God.  Indeed, we do the things of God when we know the person of God.  But this all begins with a people committed to standing and fighting courageously in the war of ideas on behalf of God’s law.  We do what we know.  So what are you doing and who do you know?

[1]Quoted in D. A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 43.