The Perils of Complacency
Sermon for October 4, 1998
Texts: Romans 15:15—16, Numbers 25:1—15 and Rev. 3:14--22
The Apostle Paul writes:
I have written you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them, because
of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly
duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering
acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
Elsewhere (1 Cor. 9:16-17) he has said:
Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to
me if I do not preach the gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not
voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me.
Certainly not the thoughts of a man complacent about the call of God to preach! How different is this call to preach from salvation and sanctification. Sanctification and salvation belong to all that name the Name of Jesus, but the call to preach is something that lays hold of the one who, according to the purposes of God, has been purposed to preach. Paul is right to put it as a com-pulsion. The word compulsion suggests a certain urgency about the "priestly duty" and the "trust committed" to him. The other phrases, priestly duty and trust committed, both impute to the call to preach a high and lofty significance.
I want to build on this matter of offering a bold, or a forceful reminder about the perils of spiritual complacency. From Proverbs 1:20-23, 25-26a, and 28-33 NKJ, I would render the following::
Wisdom calls aloud outside; /She raises her voice in the open squares./ She cries
out, from the top of the walls in the major concourses,/ At the opening of the gates in
the city/ She speaks her words: /How long will you naïve ones love, be totally taken
with your cluelessness? /For scorners delight in their scorning, /and fools hate
knowledge. /Turn at my rebuke; /Surely I will pour our my spirit on you; /I will make
my words known to you. /. . . Because you have disdained all my counsel, /And
would have none of my rebuke, /I also will laugh at your calamity; /. . .Then they will
call on me, but I will not answer; /They will seek me diligently but they will not
find me. /Because they hated knowledge /And did not choose fear of the Lord, /They
would have none of my counsel /And despised my every rebuke. /Therefore they shall
eat the fruit of their own way, /And be filled to the full with their own fancies. /For the
waywardness, the rebellion and turning away of the naïve will slay them, /and the
complacency of fools will destroy them; /But whoever listens to me will dwell
safely, /And will be secure and comforted without fear of evil.
Last week I spoke about how, by the power of the indwelling Christ, you, as believers, are full of goodness and complete in knowledge. So the content of that passage from Proverbs is no real challenge to you. Furthermore, I specifically challenged you to walk through this past week with the truth of your spiritual endowment foremost in your conscious mind. I wonder how it went for you. For me, it made quite a difference. I was less given to feelings of inadequacy, knowing my sufficiency in Him. I found myself in some very interesting places, doing some adventurous things. What was that encouraging word but a forceful reminder of who I really am in Christ Jesus? We know it, but we need to be reminded of our goodness, our knowledge, and our competence to instruct each other.
This week I boldly offer you another reminder: avoid complacency like the plague. The gruesome chapter from Numbers 25 is about complacency. It is about self-indulgence and sexual immorality which comes from religious complacency. Was it a matter of feeling too secure in their religiosity? Yes. Perhaps religious complacency traveled under the banner of tolerance. Perhaps, the leaders of those who began to "worship" in the fertility cults of Baal, justified their actions by urging people to get along, sort of a "while in Rome, do as the Romans do." Within certain limits that proverbial counsel is wise, but not when it promotes direct defiance of God’s will and known law. Perhaps, it was a willingness to just go along, or worse to join in because the cost of standing out, or being difference seemed to high. What a terrible failure of confidence in God it is to refuse to hold up a godly standard of morality, truth, reli-gious liberty. If God had wanted us to be indistinguishable from others, He would never have called us out. As it is written (Exodus 19:5):
"Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me, a peculiar people, above all the people, for all the earth is Mine."
And echoed in 1 Peter 2:9:
"But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own
special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness
into His marvelous light."
True worship of God is presented as an escape from the confusion of sexuality and worship which characterized the Canaanite fertility cults like Moabite’s religion—they are not the same and it is dangerous to confound them!
What is really shocking about Phinehas running two persons (who probably claimed to be "in love" so as to justify their religious defiance, lust and sexual rebellion) through with a spear is not the bloody deed itself. What is shocking is that Phinehas stood so alone in his opposition to this flagrant defilement of the Tent of Meeting. That the defiant, in-your-face rebellious behavior of this immoral Israelite and his woman was tolerated by so many. You see, it is not simply unnatural relations that offend our holy God! How did the people of God under Moses even (!) get to the place where an ungodly and immoral union was allowed, countenanced, tolerated. . .again, remember that this reprobate couple walked past Moses, "right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly while they were weeping at the entrance to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting." (v.6) And why were they weeping? 24,000 people had died in the plague of God’s displeasure. The leaders of these people who had been worshipping Baal of Peor had been executed and displayed in broad daylight . . . to expose the dire consequences of sin for all to see. There was plenty of reason to weep and wail. And here come these two in the oblivion of infatuation, perhaps, but offensively none the less. It wasn’t enough for them to wander off into the Moabite camp, and to attend their obscene acts of worship, they wanted to bring that immorality into the house of God. Perhaps, they even expected to be accepted just as they were! Perhaps their appearance at the Tent of Meeting was a brazen attempt to force the Israelites to modify their sexual norms.
The motivations for Phinehas’s actions are stated: he was "as zealous as I am for my honor among the Israelites." (v.11) Phinehas acted for the honor of his God (v. 13) and so made atonement for the Israelites, bringing an end to a horrendous plague by which 24,000 died.
Now, what are we to make of this? Zeal for the Lord is a good thing but I am certainly not suggesting that we begin to run people through with spears. Even though this was not a sin of ignorance (the Israelite man knew better—he simply was unwilling to exercise godly self-control in his sex life and godly leadership in his religious life and there are thousands just like him in our culture today!), the lesson we should draw from it runs deeper than sexual offense and religious defilement (although these are deep enough!) to the matter of complacency. Carelessness with regard to the honor of God! It is actually a new thought to some people that God could even be dishonored by our sexual choices, and religious infidelities.
Religious infidelities? Yes. The bowing of the knee to the gods of our age: humanism, money, professional ambition, sex, power—all the demi-gods of self-realization! We have complacently withdrawn from whole arenas of cultural life: politics, the entertainment industry and higher education, to name some of the more serious defaults of cultural participation.
The cultural elite may press for the privatization of religious expression, the exclusion of faith from the political and judicial processes, the secularization of schooling, materialism, naturalism, the mantras of self-help pop psychology; but there are far more of us, than their are of them. Let’s put their obnoxiousness back in bounds. It can be done. However what we actually have is this: Christians everywhere are seen holding hands with man-made philosophies that were formulated by those who despise both us, the truth of our religion and our Christ. What could possibly explain such prevalent, blatant self-abusive behavior? The fear of appearing harsh, judgmental or cruel. But I submit to you that the world without Christ is in fact so harsh, cruel and judgmental as to make it rank hypocrisy for the worldly to charge Christians whose Lord is the Lord of love, with such attributes.
A far more telling cause of our plight is complacency. A lack of courage, perhaps, and shying away from the hard work of ascertaining the truth . . . a timidity in matters of the mind. We’ve allowed ourselves to be cowed by the roaring indecency of the entertainment industry—we accept abortion as a woman’s right but choke on insisting instead that men and women take full responsibility for their sexual expression, a responsibility that precludes the option of abortion. Abortion is too high a price to pay for sexual liberty. And faith in a sovereign God and the sacredness of human life should overrule the abortion defense argument based on rape— as abhorrent as rape is to God, that horror is in no way diminished by adding yet another horror: abortion. To support abortion is a plain denial that God knows what is best for us and a sinful inclination to take willfully matters of life and death into our own bloody hands. But where are the Phinehas’ willing to spear the false arguments and deceptions which parade as conventional wisdom and acceptable practice to day? Who will choose, for the honor of our God, to oppose the lies and untruth of social opinions seeking acceptance in the house of the Lord?
Complacency. Complacency is the charge laid against the ancient church at Laodicea:
"I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot . . . so, because you are lukewarm—
neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.
Their deeds, expressing spiritual lukewarmness, have made the Lord nauseated. We, who are full of goodness and all knowledge and able to instruct each other in the way of righteousness, can nauseate our Lord if our deeds fail to measure up to our faith. This is a strong statement, some may not be able to stand it. However, all our thoughts and all our actions are under the surveillance of heaven—God hears and sees all, both now and forever. We tend to fall from this level of awareness on a regular basis, many times in a single day.
The word "cold" here means more than positively cold; it means absolutely cold. It suggests a sense of having not yet even been warmed! It is the very antithesis of "boiling," or of the kind of fervency commended in the New Testament of Apollos—who needed further instruction from Priscilla and Aquila (acts 18:25) because he had only a familiarity with the baptism of John. Or in Romans 12:11 "Never lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord." Perhaps as a way station to fervency, lukewarmness would be a good thing . . . just as a little true religion is far better than none at all! But lukewarmness is fatal if it leads to the kind of spiritual complacency which afflicted the Laodiceans. That fatality emerges out of double-mindedness, mixed motives and a disregard of principle and results in rejection by Christ. Like the Israelites gathered at Mt. Carmel by Elijah, people need to put an end to being "halters between two opinions. If God is God, follow Him. . . if Baal is your god, follow him. (1 Kings 18.21) Or as Jesus remarked (Matthew 6:24):
No man can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other
or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God
and Money (Mammon).
We are challenged by the word to the Laodiceans to become hot and fervent Christians because of who Christ is, and because of what He has done for us!
Complacency lulls the Christian conscience into a sense of false security. It can never lead us into a fuller, better salvation. In fact it can result in betrayal and abandonment like that of Demas in 2 Timothy 4, who "because he loved this world" fell away.
Now the Glorified Lord addresses the angel of the church in Laodicea because He views the angel, the governing spiritual authority over that region, as the chief minister there. The Lord is chastising that angel for not sufficiently warning the church of the dangers inherent in wealth, prosperity and self-sufficiency! There is a risk of self-praise for self-acquired goods in times of economic prosperity, a base ingratitude that fails to acknowledge God as the only source of genuine wealth. We need to take care less we assume credit for what is none of our doing, and is instead sheer kindness for a season. Hosea 12 comes to mind. So does America in 1998 where the economy rules the day.
"I am very rich; I have become wealthy.
With all my wealth they will not find in me any iniquity or sin." v. 8
There is here a confounding of material prosperity with spiritual wealth— which leads to a very dangerous presumption. The Laodiceans have lost sight of God’s view of them in the process; they are deluded about themselves and their true condition, without Christ, before God. In brief, they are: wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. They are totally dependent creatures, full of vain boasting and illusory independence. Furthermore, they have forgotten that if they will depend upon Christ and buy gold of Christ, or from Christ, procure by faith white rainments of His imputed righteousness, and salve for their short-sighted eyes from Him, all their neediness will be supplied out of His generous love and mercy.
The currency we must use to purchase these things of the Lord is our self-sufficiency—that is, we give up our self-sufficiency for His bread, milk and honey. This is the very point of Isaiah’s "buy without money, or price." (Isaiah 55:1) The poverty we need supplied is a poverty of Him—for who has every had enough of Him?! Laodicea may have been a mercantile and commercial center of its day, but it would have been better to be a center of Christian worship and praise. Christ, who wants to cover those shamefully exposed by sin, stands nearby, at the door, ready to answer their plea . . . but the complacent will never answer the knock on the door, they will never ask for they sense no need in their self-satisfaction. For what was true then is true now, when we consider our genuine wretchedness apart from the things of Christ, His preciousness is ever more evident to us.
The peril of complacency is that we will forget Him and all the gospel benefits and therefore we live in an ignorant and perverse culture. Complacency comes as a thief, stealthily, gradually and imperceptibly and, by replacing the genuine article with carefully crafted counterfeits, we end up poorer than we ever were and not even know it. Those who are full of goodness as you are, and who are also full of all knowledge, and who are full able to instruct one another are not likely to fall into the trap of complacency. However, if we are determined and alert, zealous to honor the name of our Redeemer and God, there is much that we can do to correct this.
Do we really believe that the aggressive amorality of the entertainment world is acceptable? What about Christian morality? Shall we simply yield the field to the loud, brash and obscene? We only have to put up with what we’re willing to either tolerate, or, more pointedly, refuse to do anything about: such as boycott, or choosing to spend our money on worthy entertainment. Why not underwrite less nudity, nonviolence and virtue? Do we not know that going along, renting video garbage simply encourages production of more of the same? Do we have to see the latest perversion in order to keep our friends? our reputation as "with it," or informed? Actors perform debauchery because we pay them to do so! When is the last time you made it costly for someone to offend you? Recall Psalm 119:13: "Turn away my eyes from looking at worthless things." Demand aisles without candy and soft porn magazines at the grocery store.
You know all this, I’m sure, but I feel justified in boldly reminding you lest you fall away from your humility and fervor! You likewise be bold and take a stand so that the honor of our God may not suffer dishonor.