(Credit where credit is due, I was quite inspired by the work of Michael Horton and his book Christless Christianity. If you are looking to feel convicted as a preacher, read it. Thanks to him for a couple of quotes)
We seem to have lost our fear, somewhere along the way. It vanished under the tide of self-actualization and the relativism of modern society. Somewhere along the way we stopped being afraid of doing the wrong thing, lets use the actual word, of sinning because it was displeasing to the Lord and that was something to be avoided.
When you did something you recognized as sin, you felt bad about it, the word we use in churches is convicted and you sought the Lord’s forgiveness where it could be found, in the words of scripture, in the worship of the Lord in the Lord’s house. As late as the middle of the 1960’s there was still a sense of an absolute, a right way and a wrong way and that there was an arbiter of right and wrong that was above us, not in altitude, but in holiness.
Then something happened. It was subtle, and it was slow but it made its way into the consciousness of the average American like the slow spreading warmth of a hot toddy on a bitterly cold day. It happened all over the world to be sure, as man progressed and became ever more convinced of his own magnificence but it happened here more quickly and more completely than in other places because this is a nation of self-made men and women, so we have been taught to believe and we have had some excellent teachers.
In America, anyone can grow up to be president. I heard it, you heard it; it was common wisdom in the world of the elementary school. All it takes is hard work and determination.
I’m not sure that they even teach that anymore. I mean even an eight year-old nowadays ought to know that it takes a little more than just hard work and determination. A couple of billionaire friends helps, choosing the right campaign staff and all the rest.
But we are a post-enlightenment nation, nurtured on the image of the supreme man, capable of making all of the woes of the world his personal project and solving them one by one. Nothing is too hard, nothing is too dangerous, the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.
Except the “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” Psalm 110 and Proverbs 9 tell us so and when the bible goes far enough to tell us something twice, it bears remembering.
But in a world where we can do it all ourselves, that statement seems like the height of foolishness. We’ve substituted the fear of failure as the highest form of wisdom in our world these days and have tried to convince ourselves again and again that we are well on our way to a world without pain, a world without want a world without disease, the whole schmear.
And we have made some great progress. We’ve managed to cure some terrible diseases, and managed to make others that were once fatal into something more chronic and manageable but it never seems that all that we do ever comes at no price to someone along the line. We’ve convinced ourselves that our solutions must be the best and so we soldier on, but we’ve only managed to hide somewhat the costs of our accomplishments.
We know for a fact that over 100,000 people will die of cholera this year but we spend shockingly little on addressing that problem. It’s not that the problem is complicated or difficult to fix. We’ve been able to treat and cure cholera for decades now. The problem is that we have no incentive to cure people half a world away. It doesn’t pay off; there is no profit in it. If there were a cholera outbreak in Tennessee? We’d have it whipped in twenty minutes. How does that comport with Deuteronomy 10 which says “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the LORD your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear?”
No, we’ve made of God something else, something, somehow less, than the Lord we admit is our Lord, the Lord whom we worship and fear.
Rick Warren said once that Jesus came to give us all a “do-over” like this whole thing was a golf game and we got a Mulligan from the Lord so we could take another try at it. The same message is to be found in the Veggie Tales DVD’s we plunk our kids in front of instead of teaching them ourselves.
Its like the whole of our culture has bought “I’m okay, you’re okay, the Bible edition” and we’re following it page by page. We learn to see Jesus as a life coach, who guides us in our own project of self-actualization and self-realization and a bunch of other things that begin with self. Somewhere along the lines we’ve lost the notion that Jesus came TO DIE FOR OUR SINS because only a death of suffering and anguish could lift the sting of those sins from us and set us free.
We’ve swapped Sin and wrong for Bad feelings and shame. Anything that lets us feel better about ourselves (there’s that reference to self again) is a good thing because the goal of religion is to make us feel better about ourselves, right?
The problem isn’t that we’re covetous; it’s that we feel bad about wanting the things that other people have, so we should get over it; Jesus says its okay, that I’m okay because He’s okay.
But the problem isn’t that we feel bad about it. That’s the conviction, the knowledge of the truth (and that is Truth with a capital T, without nuance or relativism) that we are guilty of a great number of offenses before God, too numerous to enumerate, and that we deserve to be punished, condemned because we have failed, are indeed doomed to fail because we do not have the capacity to fix it all ourselves.
The problem is that we are covetous, and licentious and greedy and lusty and all the rest. The problem is that we are in Bondage to Sin and cannot free ourselves. The problem is that we do not want to face the problem any more; the problem is that the church has not been very helpful lately in helping us find and learn to seek God in the Truth.
I’m going to be coy about this, but a famous, extremely famous leader of a worldwide television ministry was once asked how he would interpret 2 Timothy 3:1-5 which says “You must understand this, that in the last days distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid them!” His response was “I hope you don’t preach that. It will hurt a lot of beautiful people.”
As if Jesus came just to make us all feel good all the time, to offer encouragement. The George Carlin character in the movie Dogma, who is a cardinal trying to “renew” the church, opines “Jesus didn’t come to give us the willies; he came to help us out. He was a booster!” and that is so much of the message we hear from all around us, all around in the world.
We need to find a way through the societal narcissism that tries to convince us that it is all up to us, that self-esteem is the highest good, that I’m okay and you’re okay and it’s all relative. Jesus didn’t come to soothe our ego; he came to crucify our ego, to put it to death along with all of the filth and guilt of this world and to raise us up again as new creatures.
In the Gospel this morning Jesus pulls no punches. He lays it all out. This is not a joyride, but it leads to joy beyond your understanding. This is not a pleasure cruise, but the rewards are greater than you know, greater by far than anything the hand of man could build. This is not going to be easy; it is going to bring conflict.
Because to the world of easy solutions and self-made men the cross is a scandal. I don’t mean a scandal like Anthony Weiner and his obsession with being the center of attention. I mean a scandalon σκάνδαλον in Greek, something that rocks the foundations of the self, calling into question everything that we think is true; a trap, a grave offense. Unless we can speak that scandal into the world, unless the sin is made real, then the forgiveness means nothing because the therapeutic model tells us there is nothing to forgive, only things to “get past” and Jesus will be there to help us.
The thing is, people do feel the conviction. They do feel the need to seek out absolution but without some kind of framework of salvation to hang that on, it becomes some kind of therapeutic catharsis instead of any kind of meaningful forgiveness. Case in point is the extremely popular “online confessional” whose title page reads “The online confessional is a place for you to unburden your soul of the sins and crimes you’ve committed. It’s a place for you to confess what you’ve done without fear of censure or ridicule. It is a place where it is safe for you to release your inner demons without being identified. The words you post here are forever detached from any identity you wish to create. What is here remains here, and your words in this place will never return to you.”
In other words, it’s a place for you to feel better about yourself without actually having to ask for forgiveness, to face the sin and understand the wrong.
The problem is that without a sense of the wrong, how can we ever hope to live lives that are truly changed? With just some kind of psychic release of pent-up “bad feelings” with no actual conviction, then there is no forgiveness, there is no healing, there is no new life.
I know that it is easier to build up a large following with a sunnier message, with little groups meant to appeal to every constituency, no matter how small so that everybody feels welcome and nobody feels judged. But that’s not honest. It’s not Biblical, it’s not real and it sure isn’t salvation. It doesn’t matter how big a fellowship you have if you are preaching that which is not Christ and Him crucified. Ten thousand disciples of Buddy Christ are still not the Body of Christ we are called to be and to gather and while it may make the whole thing a lot more profitable, I question whether or not it is truly church.
Because the God we worship is not a God far off, but a God nearby, ever present and ever holy and the very best we can offer is our humble emptiness, our open hands as we approach the throne of Grace and trust that what we receive there is not a pat on the back, but a whole new life in Christ. Then, and only then we can live a life free from Fear.