"To soothe, or to serve"

16 May 1999

Text: Acts 4:18-20

We continue our search for purpose as a church with a passage that compels us to search more deeply our motivations as a community of the redeemed. Let me pose the question directly by quoting from the introduction to Larry Crabb’s book, Inside Out:

"Modern Christianity, in a dramatic reversal of its biblical form, promises to relieve the pain of living in a fallen world. . . .The promise of bliss is for NOW! Complete satisfaction can be ours this side of heaven.

Some speak of the joys of fellowship and obedience, others of a rich awareness of their value and worth. The language may be reassuringly biblical or it may reflect the influence of current psychological thought. Either way, the point of living the Christian life has shifted from knowing and serving Christ till He returns to soothing, or at least learning to ignore, the ache in our soul. . . .

The effect of such teaching is to blunt the painful reality of what it’s really like to live as part of an imperfect, and sometimes evil, community. We learn to pretend that we feel now what we cannot feel until Heaven. . . .

Beneath the surface of everyone’s life, especially the more mature, is an ache that will not go away. It can be ignored, disguised, mislabeled, or submerged in a torrent of activity, but it will not disappear. And for good reason. We were designed to enjoy a better world than this. And until that better world comes along, we will groan for what we do not have. An aching soul is evidence not of neurosis or spiritual immaturity, but of realism. pp.13-14

It is not my plan to review Dr. Crabb’s book. However, we need to hear his indictment of modern Christianity. Now, as those who know me will tell you, whenever I hear such a devastating critique of the church, my tendency is to respond, "It’s not so bad as all that." But I am afraid that it is. I am grieved to relate that there has been a dismaying, and, I believe, largely unconscious departure from biblical proclamation in many churches due to a sincere effort to be relevant, and to meet peoples’ needs. This is terrible. Put bluntly, the church exists to serve the purposes of God and not to soothe our heart ache, or to meet our needs. We need to hear that serving the purposes of God, that obedience to His purposes for the church, will meet our core, and our most pressing needs. We need to be reminded that spiritual health comes from faithfulness to the truth rather than from addressing this, or that emotional, or psychological need.

We also need to hear his indictment of the church’s dishonesty: the promise of bliss now, our efforts to veil the painful reality of living authentically in a fallen world. Until we are truthfully open about the ache of our hearts and radically confront the evil of this world, we shall lose our hearing among the lost. It is tragic that Marxists, socialists, humanists, feminists—indeed, the whole array of the intellectual and political left—are winning the hearts of people because they dare to care about justice. Though misguided, they are more honest! So, they express outrage and anger. They offers us revolution, and an exchange of tyrannies. But they do not, they cannot offer us real compassion. They cannot be truly compassionate because they’ve never known true compassion. They cannot offer us truth because they are alienated from, and strangers to, the God of truth—even our Lord Jesus Christ. We need to encourage each other: the truth trumps honesty, blindness and every human scheme to better ourselves based on our own resources. Do you know the truth? And if you do know the truth, do you know how to communicate it boldly to others? If not, why not?

We are called to radically confront the ignorance, the prevailing untruth of this present world order. Our message, if it is to be compelling, must uplift that which is noble, honest, courageous, prepared, dutiful and truthful. It is to be bold, yes, fearless and compassionate. We are to demonstrate man fully alive, man in full possession of his spiritual faculties. . .morally disciplined and grounded in truth and love.

That, friends, is what stood before the Sanhedrin. Those rulers, whose job it was to enforce the law of God, saw before them the indomitable evidence of spiritually transformed persons. Such a work is plainly a miracle of God. Peter and John had moved from being men as the world sees men—as craven, self-protective, lustful, fear-driven and manipulable—to being "children of God," children born of faith and the spirit, and not of the flesh. And, more, they have become like "sons" who exist to please Father God, and not themselves. They stood there as spirit-filled witnesses, and as children determined to reveal God’s will no matter what.

Let me tell you, that just as the Sanhedrin feared Peter and John, so do the Marxists fear Christians who are on fire to serve their Master. They freely acknowledge that what Christians who are spiritually alive and obedient have to offer greatly surpasses anything their "revolution" could ever provide. But they do not fear a church which exists to soothe, to placate, to pursue psychological peace at any price! They do not fear a church which lacks standards and is dishonest! They do not fear a church which has lost its focus as a world changing force and has exchanged its birthright of eternal life for the pottage of happiness and present prosperity! Oh, that the church would be gospel driven. For it is the gospel of Jesus Christ that addresses the real problems of this fallen world rather than the gospel of "I’m okay, you’re okay!" George Barna has demonstrated that the belief structure of the vast majority of nominal Christians is indistinguishable from the belief system of unbelievers. Less that ten percent of the church-going Christians are sold out to Jesus—most are sold out to self, success and comfortable spirituality. We were made for something great and glorious, not for something as mundane as being well-adjusted and politely moral. Quoting Dr. Crabb again:

The present power of the gospel lies not in its ability to generate an internal warmth that overcomes every experience of disappointment and struggle. If that’s its claim, then I am ashamed of the gospel. But if its claim is that dead people can live, that people who haven’t the slightest hope of eternal happiness can live in Paradise forever, that a way has been made for sinners who deserve to suffer at the hands of a wrathful God to be declared righteous and therefore fit for relationship with God, then, with Paul, I am not ashamed. Any effort to lay out a path to a changed life now must be viewed in the context of these larger issues. Otherwise, we will ask too much and might fail to see that our core problem is an expectation for what cannot be that turns into a demand for relief from necessary pain.

The gospel’s power today lies in its resources to help us overcome a demanding spirit and to replace with trust as we await the full revelation of its power, the day when sinful people will enter Heaven as loving worshippers of God, when further sin will be unthinkable and pain will be unknown. p. 192

The power of the gospel exists to break the chains in my life, my bondage to prideful independence, my fear which expresses itself in self-protectiveness and my ignorance which stems from a lack of intimacy with Jesus Christ, my Lord and my God. But not just for my sake, no, rather, that God might receive the glory, honor and praise for a deliverance which expresses His best hopes and intentions for our race.

Peter and John, liberated from the chains which bind us all, stood up and refused unlawful obedience! Like Socrates who said, "I must obey God rather than you." to the polytheistic Athenians, or like Martin Luther who said, "It is neither safe nor right to do anything against the conscience. Here I stand; I can do nothing else. God help me! Amen.", they stood up to the authorities and declared that their commands were directly opposite to the command of God. Jesus had said, "Speak." And the Jewish leadership said, "Be silent." The disciples had the distinct precept of the Lord to go on, the Sanhedrin had much more ambiguous grounds. Whereas a just judge will either punish, or acquit, they decided to waffle. . . they followed the "polls" of public opinion even in that day! Alexander Maclaren warns us, if I might paraphrase him slightly, "When approval seekers set on the judicial bench, that society is rotten and very near dissolution."

It was enough to have the Lord’s direction, of course, but they also had the fire in their hearts and pity for those who do not know Jesus as Lord and Savior. Pity, or fellow feeling is essential to the progress of the gospel. That and fire in the belly. Earnestness, passion and fire, yes, and concern for the salvation of others’ souls. Tolerance is nice, but it saves no one from Hell or Judgment. We say it’s not okay for friends to let friends drive drunk. . . is it okay to let someone go into everlasting perdition because Christian opinion is currently mocked, ridiculed and lampooned? No, how we need a holy boldness!

We also need more prayer. After the Sanhedrin threatened the apostles, they "went to their own" and prayed. To answer threats with prayer is one sign of a healthy spiritual life. If we are where we need to be we will meet opposition without the flush of anger, or the blanching of fear. Do they pray for protection? No. They pray for boldness, boldness to speak, boldness for more exposure and vulnerability. Do they pray for retribution, that their enemies be punished? No. They simply pray that they may be empowered to do their duty. Did they know something that we don’t know? Perhaps. Perhaps what they knew is that God’s hand moves all things, and knowing this there really was no terror for them anymore. And that fearlessness is what terrified the Sanhedrin. What sold-out, on-fire Christians need to know today is underscored by the text (v. 31): "After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly." Dear friends, those who ask for courage to do God’s will and to speak Christ’s name boldly will never wait long for a response. The place where they are will be shaken, whether it be the home, school, the work place, or even prison. They will find the wisdom also to know when to boldly defy unlawful commands. They will find the path of true obedience and they will change the whole world. When they finish speaking the truth, the name of Jesus, nothing will ever be the same again. . . not them, not others, nothing. So may it be.

Amen.