Tuesday, July 23, 2013

God's Promise to Give Us the Nations Might Not Mean What You Think It Does

Okay, so I had to do another verse out of context post, but this one will be much shorter.  It's also a lot funnier.  It's one that makes me laugh every time I hear it!

So I've heard more than one mission organization use this verse: "Ask of Me, and I will give You the nations for Your inheritance, and the ends of the earth for Your possession" (Psalm 2:8, NKJV).  There's even a song that uses these words in it, "You Said," which says, "You said, 'Ask and I’ll give the nations to you.'  Oh, Lord, that’s the cry of my heart." (The song also says "Pray and I'll hear from heaven and I'll heal your land" which is a verse I dealt with in my last post).  This verse about God giving us the nations sounds cool and we like it.  Unfortunately, once again, it's not saying what a lot of Christians think it's saying.

The first part of Psalm 2 (NASB) is as follows:

"Why are the nations in an uproar
And the peoples devising a vain thing?
The kings of the earth take their stand
And the rulers take counsel together
Against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying,
'Let us tear their fetters apart
And cast away their cords from us!'
He who sits in the heavens laughs,
The Lord scoffs at them.
Then He will speak to them in His anger
And terrify them in His fury, saying,
'But as for Me, I have installed My King
Upon Zion, My holy mountain.'"

So, the nations in the Psalm are in an uproar and they are taking their stand against the Lord and his anointed.  In the immediate context this is David, the anointed king, but it is also a prophecy of Jesus as Messiah, God's anointed Son (Acts 4:25-26).  The nations want to throw off the Anointed's rule.  God laughs at this because he has determined that his king will be installed in Jerusalem.

The Anointed continues the Psalm:

“I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to Me, ‘You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You. 
‘Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance,
And the very ends of the earth as Your possession.'"

The Anointed says that God is his father and he is God's son; in other words, they have a relationship that involves an inheritance.  In this case, God says he will give the nations as the Anointed's inheritance.

So then, what will the Anointed do with those nations?

"You shall break them with a rod of iron,
You shall shatter them like earthenware."

Now you see why I laugh when I hear Psalm 2:8 used out of context.  It definitely isn't saying, "Ask of me and I will give you all these nations and they will be evangelized and saved."  It's God saying to the king, "I'm going to give you the nations rebelling against me and you and you are going to decimate them."  So I always think when I hear this in a song or from a mission organization, "So you want to go out and conquer the nations and chop them up into pieces.  Got it." :-D

The Psalm ends:

"Now therefore, O kings, show discernment;
Take warning, O judges of the earth.
Worship the Lord with reverence
And rejoice with trembling. Do homage to the Son,
that He not become angry, and you perish in the way,
For His wrath may soon be kindled.
How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!"

It's a warning to the leaders of the nations on earth to watch out, because if you go against God and his anointed and don't give him the honor he is due, you are going to perish when his wrath comes on you.  Rather, take refuge in him.  As a prophecy of Jesus, this applies to Jesus' second coming, so it does have an application to current nations, but if mission organizations are going to use it, they need to be emphasizing that rejecting Jesus is going to bring his wrath.

There you go.  Another verse out of context.  Maybe now you'll chuckle the next time you hear it used inappropriately, too!

Monday, July 22, 2013

God's Promise to Fix America?

In Christian circles these days, as conservatives lament the state of our country, it is common to hear a verse quoted to encourage us that our country can be fixed: "If My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land" (2 Chronicles 7:14).  The implication is that if Christians will humble themselves, pray, seek God and stop sinning, then God has promised to heal America.  The problem?  This couldn't be farther from the truth.

As often happens, well-meaning Christians have taken this verse out of context.  If you've read this blog for any time, you know that taking verses out of context bothers me like nothing else.  It bothers me because it turns the truth of God into a falsehood to support my point of view.  I don't think this is done maliciously.  I think most verses taken out of context begin with someone who goes searching for something to prove a point, then they use it, thinking it's scripture so it works, but they don't ask the question, "Does this verse really say what I am saying it says?"  Then the verse gets passed around and because it is a soundbite from the Bible, other Christians run with it without reading its context.  We need to be more like the Bereans, who heard what Paul was saying and then "examin[ed] the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so" (Acts 17:10).  (Just to note, people have caught me using verses out of context at times. It can be hard not to take offense at that, thinking we are right.  But we have to ask ourselves if what has been said to us is true, study the scriptures and change our views if needed.)

Back to 2 Chronicles 7:14.  What is the context of this verse?  This verse comes after Solomon has dedicated the temple.  He has prayed a dedication over it and Israel has had a celebratory feast.  Then 2 Chronicles says that "the Lord appeared to Solomon at night and said to him..."  So God speaks to Solomon, an answer to Solomon's prayer of dedication where Solomon had asked God to forgive Israel when they strayed away then turned back to God praying in or towards the temple.  The verses that come before 7:14 say this:

"I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for Myself as a house of sacrifice.  If I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or if I command the locust to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among My people..."

First off, what is "this place" that is a "house of sacrifice"?  It is the temple that has just been dedicated.  Second, God, in response to Solomon's prayer, notes the various ways Solomon has mentioned that God might punish Israel for sinning and thus breaking their covenant with them, a covenant began at the time of Moses and reaffirmed by them throughout their history.  God could cause a drought or send locusts to eat crops or send a disease that afflicts Israel.  Then comes 2 Chronicles 7:14: "and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land."

Who are "my people"?  Not America, but Israel.  God is saying that if Israel, whom he has a covenant with, will turn back to him in humility and stop sinning, then he will forgive them and heal their land.  Heal their land from what?  From his physical acts of punishment mentioned in the previous verse: from drought or ruined crops or disease.  The context does not allow for the interpretation that God is going to heal the moral problems of the nation.  The verse presupposes that the moral problems are already dealt with.  Israel would have already humbled themselves, thrown off their sin, sought God and prayed to Him.  Therefore, this verse is not addressing a moral or spiritual healing of a land.

The verses that follow 7:14 say this: "Now My eyes will be open and My ears attentive to the prayer offered in this place. For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that My name may be there forever, and My eyes and My heart will be there perpetually. As for you, if you walk before Me as your father David walked, even to do according to all that I have commanded you, and will keep My statutes and My ordinances, then I will establish your royal throne as I covenanted with your father David, saying, ‘You shall not lack a man to be ruler in Israel.’"  God specifically says he will be attentive to prayer in "this place," the temple.  So when Israel is humbly praying to God for release from punishment, they are praying in the temple.  God then turns to Solomon personally and reminds him of his promise to David that if David and his sons kept his commands, then there would always be a ruler from David's line on the throne.

God's answer to Solomon goes on: "But if you turn away and forsake My statutes and My commandments which I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will uproot you from My land which I have given you, and this house which I have consecrated for My name I will cast out of My sight and I will make it a proverb and a byword among all peoples. As for this house, which was exalted, everyone who passes by it will be astonished and say, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land and to this house?’ And they will say, ‘Because they forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers who brought them from the land of Egypt, and they adopted other gods and worshiped them and served them; therefore He has brought all this adversity on them.'"  The "you" in this section is plural in Hebrew.  Thus, God is referring to the Israelites as a whole.  Here God says that he will punish Israel if they run after other gods.  He will remove them from their land and he will deny the temple, apparently destroying it since people passing by the temple will be astonished at it.  The destroyed temple will be a reminder that Israel had worshipped other gods and broken their covenant with Yahweh.  And this did happen.  The temple was destroyed when Babylon took over Judah and this was a direct punishment from God on Israel for following other gods.  What does this mean?  It means that 2 Chronicles 7:14 is not in effect anymore.  God did send drought and locusts and pestilence and Israel either turned back halfheartedly (and their land was healed for a time) or didn't turn back at all.  He sent prophets to warn them and they didn't listen.  And finally, the temple and the land was destroyed as God said it would be.  There was no more praying for healing of the land.  The land was utterly wasted.  (God did still love Israel and had made a promise to send a remnant back to the land and that he did).

2 Chronicles 7:14 has nothing to do with America.  It is not a promise that if Christians get humble, stop sinning and pray a bunch, God will heal our moral problems.  So many Christians read this verse out of context and look at it as God's promise to heal America's moral problems.  God has never promised to heal America's moral problems.  He's never even promised to heal America's economy or social issues or government.  He hasn't even promised to heal America of drought or locusts or disease.  This verse has nothing to do with America's healing.

I recently read a book called Smoke on the Mountain, by Joy Davidman (an American), wife of C. S. Lewis.  She said something in it that struck me: "What, then, must we pray for? Nothing that we have not been told over and over again; nothing but 'Thy will be done,' even if his will is that we lose all that the last two hundred years have given us."  God's will very may well be the losing of America.  It may be that we aren't supposed to have an amazing economy or social prowess or stellar government.  It might be in God's plan to break America.  Joy says next: "We must pray to face our fear honestly."  It's easier for Christians to think that by doing certain things God will be obligated to "heal our land."  What we really need to do is face our fear honestly.  We don't want to lose our country, either physically or morally.  We don't want to lose what it gives us.  I don't want to lose it either.  But if it is God's will that we do lose it, will I accept that?  Or will I cower in a corner in fear of God's plan?  If it is God's will that America falls, I am not pretending it will be easy.  And I am not saying that we shouldn't pray for our government.  Paul urges Timothy to pray for leaders in authority in 1 Timothy 2:1-2.  But Paul does not say that God has guaranteed that praying for them will make them be what we want.  He does, however, say that God wants all men to be saved (2:4) so we are right to pray for the salvation of our leaders.

What should we do then as American Christians?  What God has always asked of us--to tell all men the truth about Christ and how confession of sin and trusting Christ leads to true freedom.  We pray for the salvation of people, in our country and outside our country.  Nothing changes until hearts change.  Hearts don't change until people submit themselves to God.  It isn't about Christians humbling and not sinning and praying in a temple.  It's about Christians speaking the truth in love to their neighbors.  Should Christians be humble and free from sin?  Yes.  This kind of authentic witness will reach our neighbor.  But being humble and free from sin is no guarantee that our nation will be healed.  We can, however, guarantee that God wants all men to be saved and that he desires us to love our neighbor and tell him the good news of Christ.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Sabbath Joy?

I have recently been reading a book by Joy Davidman, wife of C.S. Lewis later in his life.  The book, Smoke on the Mountain, is a look at the Ten Commandments from a modern perspective, evaluating how the commandments are expressed in our lives now.  It is a thought provoking book and the chapter I read today on the 4th Commandment, "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy," resonated so much with how I feel about the church on Sundays in this day and time.  Here are the relevant sections that made an impact on me:

"One cannot escape the conviction that certain elements in the churches have themselves unintentionally done much to make the Sabbath unholy. It took the strict Puritans of England only ten years-from 1650 to 1660-so to disgust the people with legislated piety that they reacted into a licence undreamed of before. Perhaps the wilful licence of our own Sundays originated partly in a kind of bravado, a resentment of legislated controls and negative virtues. When bigots interpreted the Fourth Commandment to mean Thou shalt not enjoy life on Sunday, did not all Pandemonium raise a howl of triumph? The Puritan tradition has given the world great things-education and freedom and a concept of ethics in government; yet alas, for many people today the name 'Puritan' has become a scoffing and a byword, synonymous with kill-joy. Not that the Puritans were really foes to all joy. But they did think a purely intellectual and spiritual concentration on God was the only religious experience worth seeking. They did smash stained-glass windows in Old England, and frown on children at play in New England -see their school advertisements. And, like all who lack charity, they preferred negative methods; they believed you could make people enjoy God by forbidding them to enjoy anything else.

Question a dozen modern infidels about their childhood, and half of them will trace their atheism to endless dull, bleak Sundays in a negatively 'Christian' household which made a child's life seem hardly worth living. The football matches, the dances, the speeding cars, the crowded beaches of today's Sabbath-they are fugitive and inadequate pleasures, no doubt. Yet for many they may be an attempt, however fumbling, to restore to the Sabbath some of that holy gladness which it had before over-zealous reformers turned the Fourth Commandment's 'thou shalt' into a 'thou shalt not.'

Cast back into history, and the true meaning of the Sabbath is easy enough to find. 'Thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates.' On this one day, man returned to Eden. The curse of Adam was lifted, the primal Fall undone somewhat, and all creatures caught a glimmering of the paradisal state in which everything God had made was very good. On this one day a man was commanded to enjoy himself."

"The words shattered, for a time, the whole iron prison of prohibitions which had turned a day of joy and love into a day of sullenness and fear. The Christian Sabbath was a feast indeed -the love feast, the communal meal or worship. No one thought of it as renunciation of pleasure; it was every man's pleasure and supreme delight. The ancient Romans, their own religion long since dwindled to spiritless and sceptical routine, suspected the Christians of perpetrating obscene orgies on their Sabbath-on the ground that Christians obviously enjoyed the Sabbath so much!"

"Every church, always, must wrestle with the temptation of forcing people to come to God. Force is such an easy and obvious means! As long as one can use force, one need not interest men, need not inspire them, need not humble oneself to be amiable and cajoling-the poor wretches have no escape. They are in the truest sense a 'captive audience.' The trouble is that a captive audience is a very different thing from a church.

In other words, churches that use force destroy themselves and their goal. During our early history non-attendance at church was punishable by law. When the public conscience revolted at this, some churchmen resorted to indirect force; they no longer insisted that men attend-but they saw to it that all other places a man could go were closed. If this seems a justifiable expedient, let us remember that in the early days of industrialism working people had hardly any free time except on Sunday; when nineteenth-century Sabbatarians denied men recreation on the Lord's Day, they came close to denying it altogether.

No doubt their intentions were good. Yet what has the end been? A materialist generation and a secularized Sabbath. Whenever churchmen ruled out one of mankind's earthly joys as unholy, they narrowed the scope of holiness. It was inevitable that ultimately everything worth doing should be regarded as purely secular; and that God himself, by fugitives from negative religion, should be conceived, not as the Source of joy, but as a foe of all joy."

"Similarly, there is not much value in drawing up a point-to-point programme for spending the Sabbath devoutly. A formal service in the morning, informal prayer meetings or question-answering sessions or church outings later, would no doubt make a good day. But we have all these things already, often very well organized, and yet they don't seem to draw the crowd. It might help if we thought less of the dignity of divine worship, and more of the sheer fun of it; if we took over all God's pleasures of body and mind and showed how, rightly used, they are faint foreshadowings of the supreme pleasure. Perhaps what we need, in this connection, is to revive the ancient concepts of sacred dances and sacred games. A well-organized church festival of sport and music and theatricals would certainly be more attractive to many people than the disorganized and murderous traffic of our Sunday highways."

How wonderful, how uplifting, how freeing would it be if our Sundays were not simply days to be preached at or to, days not just to sit in classes, days not just to sing the same songs, but days of feasting and fellowship and dancing and games!  In America, we have lost the joy of the Sabbath.  This is not to say that we are never inspired by the sermon or enjoy talking to our friends at church and over lunch or that we dislike the music.  But I suspect much of church is stuck in a pattern that cannot change for fear of being seen as paganly hedonistic.  We go to church and it is the same every time: sing, announcements, offering, sermon, go home.  It is not that it is bad, but it is at times boring and has produced much apathy, Christians showing up in duty but leaving with an empty soul.  I admit feeling this many a time.  Indeed, most of the time, I have to work, to force myself to enjoy.  To say over and over, "You may feel nothing, but you are not here for you.  You are here for God.  Sing even if you have heard this a million times because it is sung to God.  Listen and agree with the sermon because it has been given to the preacher by God."  But wait!  What did Jesus say?  "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath."  The Sabbath was made for man?  Not God?  God is in it, yes, but could it be the Sabbath is meant for man to enjoy God?

I suspect most of modern American churches have made man for the Sabbath.  We conform our Sundays to the schedule.  We sing not what is in our souls, but what has been planned for us.  We ask no questions of the preacher, we have no discussion about his words, because it has been planned for us to simply listen.  We interact but a brief amount in service because we don't have time to spend in much chatting with one another because the service has been planned for us and is timed.  Oh my soul!  No wonder you feel empty as the church door closes behind you, for you have little part in the Sabbath at all!

As a teacher, I will tell you that the best classes are those that are interactive, active and creative.  But this has been washed out of Sabbath.  Do you know what really happens?  We put all the joy into children's and youth Sunday school and remove it when they leave.  We forget that adults have souls that need joy, too.  We forget that Sunday does not have to be about the difficult and the solemn.  There is a time for it, a need for it, but it does not have to be always.  Isn't it interesting that adults work five days, play on Saturday (the secular separated from God as Joy said above) and then go to church and get told how to work at God?

How could we change?  How would church be interactive?  Imagine you come into church and a large banner is laid out on the floor.  You are invited to take up a paint brush.  You are given the opportunity to write or draw what God has been speaking to you.  You are encouraged to discuss this with your neighbors as you create.  If you do not want to draw, you are welcomed to pray, sit, talk or share.  After a time, the worship leader rises and asks what song is stirring in the hearts of God's people.  Church goers call out songs that mean something to them, maybe share why and we sing because the song is an expression of how God has acted in a person's life right now and because we take joy that the song means something to our sister.  After a time, the preacher stands and shares a scripture, tells us what it means, then he asks us to gather with members to to share its impact on us and to pray that the scripture be made evident in our lives.  When time has elapsed and noon is near, everyone brings out the food they have prepared and we feast together.  No worries of time, we relax and chat and laugh and enjoy as an entire body of Christ.  And we leave when we go, with no ending point forced on us.  Ah...a day to look forward to every week.

I believe the largest enemy of Sabbath is tradition and time.  "Church can't be like that!" you say, "It's not the way it's done.  We would lose theology.  People would think less seriously of God.  No, this cannot be."  Or perhaps, "But I have too many plans on Sunday.  I have budgeted two hours and then I must be off.  There is too much I need to do.  What you suggest could take all day!"  What we have lost is the idea of rest.  Sabbath is not about rest; it is about rigid do.

I'll end with a personal anecdote.  Our church's VBS this year was a time of singing, dancing, playing games, learning and sharing.  Children met God in the midst.  I loved the music.  It was plain fun--full of truth and a joy to sing.  Fast forward to adult services.  I actually thought during the music, sighing wistfully, "Why is all adult music somber and serious?  Why have we banished fun from our music?"  Reflecting, I think we think that our songs must be slow and serious or somehow we are taking God less seriously.  How far from the truth!  When I think of David dancing before the ark with all his might, I see that joy in worship is not taking God less seriously--it is being utterly joyful with abandon because we cannot contain our feelings for Him.

I cannot tell you how much I long for recapturing true joy in church.  So much my heart aches for it.  So much that my soul is stirred with what it could be but is not.  Where do I go from here?  I am not sure because I do not think my voice on this would travel far.  People mired in "the way things are done" would revolt against it and unfortunately, I do not wish to stir the waters.  But when I look back on times in my old country church where pot lucks lasted forever, the church didn't close until the last person left, the blue grass band played the songs asked for, people stopped and prayed or discussed in the middle of the service, I will always long for the fullness of soul I experienced then.  The church a true fellowship amidst laughter and dancing and singing and fun.

(Extra Food for Thought:  Why are so many young people leaving the church?  Perhaps because we show them that God is fun when you are young, but when you become an adult, it is time to put childish joy behind and take God seriously.  "You, young man, must sit in this service, do not talk, it disturbs your neighbor, listen and shut up."  What do we have to offer to the young?  God, the foe of fun, as Joy calls him.)