Discerning Spirits, Standing for God

Scriptures: 2 Chronicles 7:11-20; Jude 1-4, 17-25

Before I get into my message today, I want to explain something to you. It’s not my typical message. I tend to take the Scriptures and then develop, from the Scriptures themselves, what God has put upon my heart.

That’s one of the reasons I like the lectionary – not because I’m lazy, but because it challenges me. Frequently it picks Scriptures that I, frankly, would never have gone to. Or if I have a sermon series, like the Lord’s Prayer, I have something very related to church life and understanding.

But I have been requested, multiple times, by people in both churches, to preach on sort of “the state of the nation,” on cultural things, on current events, making it relevant to today. (Though that kind of bums me – I would hope that all of my messages are relevant to you in some way, even today.)

So on this Labor Day weekend, I decided to approach that topic. We’re going to pull a little bit from Jude but mostly from 2 Chronicles. We’re going to look at some of the roots of how we got to where we are today, and hopefully have a couple of suggestions for what we can do as Christians, afterwards. There will be no politics, I promise.

The passage in 2 Chronicles today is set right after the building of the Temple by Solomon. God declares that He has selected the Temple for His place of Sacrifice, and that His remaining there and showing mercy is conditional. Apparently people have (or will) walk away from God and sin against Him – even unto a nation as a whole.

At that time, they will suffer God’s discipline through drought, pestilence, and disaster (even armies!). After that happens, if the people would humble themselves and pray, repenting of their wrongdoing and rededicating themselves to the God who saves them, then He would hear their prayers and relent.

Many people like to relate this passage to today, and our situation, and I can see the appeal. Our nation has gone astray from its Christian roots, and we have entered into a period of depravity that matches anything I have seen in Scripture. Fortunately, God who is unchanging and faithful will presumably continue to show grace and mercy on His people if they repent and pray.

If we look at how we got here in brief (and trust me, if we wanted to have a full discussion of the Enlightenment, the Social Gospel, and a number of other factors, we would be here until it’s time for my afternoon Bible study, so maybe we should put that in my afternoon Bible study sometime), I think we can safely point to the church as one of the sources of our misdirection, however unwitting or unintentional it might have been. Jude addresses that in his warning note to the church at large. What has happened that has led us to this place?

People point to taking God out of school, and the public square, and the war on and open bigotry against more theologically conservative Christianity; and there is no doubt that plays a role – a large one! – today. However the church has sown the seeds of its own demise, and reap the whirlwind of its own making in many ways.

Labor Day was proposed, originally, to recognize the contributions of blue-collar and lower workers to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of the country. This was well-intentioned as well, but frankly, I believe it was another sign of our impending move away from God, as we began to celebrate the work of people in a secular manner.

The church in America – and the church is made up of its members – failed to live up to the ideal of being an example and an influence, in large part because the people did not distinguish between being a Christian and being an American. There was no real ideal to live up to, of being an example and influence, when the society was supposedly already Christian (other than that you would have as a church member being an example to younger people in the church, which has always been consistent and well-done). So people expected the society to remain moral, because they believed America was a Christian society, and Christians adopted American cultural values and behaviors because it was, after all, a “Christian nation.” By the time the differences became obvious, churches had long been patterned on these social values.

Let me note that there is nothing wrong with being patriotic. I am, and my dad served in the military for 27 years, and I honored that. I tried, and flunked my physical. But there is a difference between being an American and being a Christian.

I also want to note that some churches (for example, fundamentalists – those who proudly call themselves “fundies”) made and still make a big deal of being different from society and pointing out its flaws. But it tended and still tends to be in specific behaviors and not necessarily in some of the more subtle ways that we have absorbed the culture, like our consumerist mentality. They are just as likely to church-hop as any mainline believer. You’ve certainly heard it before. “I’m just not getting what I need from that worship” or “I have a bone to pick with somebody in the congregation or on the staff, so I’m just not going to come,” instead of working to reconcile, and to share the love of God with each other.

As individuals, people in America became associated with their secular work, and that began to take primary importance in their lives. This was and is true even among the “Christian” culture. Their identity came from what they did as individuals to make money and support their family, rather than where they came from (family), their faith, and their right relationships with God and man.

No longer was the church important for the family and individual as a means of improving and strengthening our faith and our future. It was simply part of the greater Christian culture, and might be personally rewarding, but not necessary for a good life.

You can see this because, while the church was still culturally significant in the 40’s and 50’s, we had moved, by then, to a more corporate or secular model. People often went to church to remain culturally respectable, or out of duty – much as they went to work each and every day in order to maintain their position, and earn their paycheck.

Worship was segregated from fellowship and work, shrinking it to an hour or two a week, or sometimes three, if you went on Wednesdays. It was something you scheduled in, right along with everything else, and woe betide the worship leader who disrupted your schedule by going long in any significant amount. And that still happens today.

Fellowship as practiced in the New Testament – sharing an actual meal, and maybe communion, and then praying for and with each other in a more intimate setting – went by the wayside. While almost all had cookies and conferences, and they then went their own ways after worship. If you had a meal, it was usually for fundraising! Like any business, every gathering had a more formal purpose, and was more impersonal.

Please note, this is not to dissuade anyone from having fellowship time after church, or luncheons. Any fellowship can be good, and this church has always had good food and enjoyable conversation, and it is wonderful being able to share the love of Christ with each other.

But real fellowship, with caring and sharing, frequently happens either in smaller groups or perhaps in more casual venues, like 1’s and 2’s (which has been struggling for the last year). The talk around the dinner table, after all, is always more intimate than around the dessert bar at a party. (Unless you have teenagers.)

Even work within the church became removed from the worship life of the church and family, as many found outside charities to support and serve, like community food kitchens, or the Salvation Army, etc. Not that there is anything wrong with such efforts!

But originally, the church took care of its own first, and did it in personal ways. It was about the relationships, not the rewards for doing good. The Social Gospel and the Industrial Revolution, following the Enlightenment, pretty much opened the way for the church to remove its focus on the Word of God, and exercise of faith every day in every situation, and instead focus on achievements recorded in terms of numbers, size, and checklists.

The church’s members no longer really knew what Christian doctrine was, why it is important, and what they should believe. That was left to the “professionals,” and as long as they belonged to the “right church” for their status in the community, and maintained membership with it through the same sort of accounting that any lodge or social association would use, everything was fine.

And as was warned in Jude, people came into the church. People with a different agenda, and one that was self-serving. Teachers and preachers who used their intellectual authority to subvert and pervert the Word of God, and moved it aggressively to agreement with the culture. Their goal was to move the church closer and closer to the culture it resided in.

They played on the assumption of a Christian society, even as they led the church away from true Christian culture and understanding. The people in the church forgot that we are sojourners – aliens and dual citizens here on earth, with our primary citizenship in the Kingdom of heaven.

And as the church became more and more like the culture it resided in, it became less and less relevant to the people. Not the actual Word of God, which is unchanging and always relevant; but the church and its teachings and community. It became just one of many pulls and opportunities, instead of a primary one. You didn’t need to go to church every week, and even if you did, it was OK that the kids didn’t. They would know what was right and wrong, just like everybody else, after all.

Church attendance was no longer a family value, critical to our well-being, but rather just a family outing where we could feel good about what we did together. Serving likewise became optional, as we became more consumerist in nature, and focused on ourselves, and what was right in our own eyes (and the ones we wanted approval from). People judge a call to holiness in the church and the Word by the standards of the world, and then decide it’s unrealistic

Is it any wonder that we lost our respect and place in the larger community and culture? And that as that same culture moved away from fundamental understandings of the faith and the morality of and call of God to holiness, it would seek to throw us off?

Instead of finding ways to compromise, or recognize the essential irreconcilable differences publicly, they seek to further discredit and demonize and prevent those who believe what Scripture says from even participating in any discussions?

Why should they give the traditional, “Bible-believing” church authority, and take it seriously, when we, as its members, haven’t, in the last fifty years? Like any other service corporation, so many members of the church began to remain a part of the institution for comfort and just in case of major events in their lives – like births, deaths, weddings, and baptisms.

And if some other church seems to provide more benefits, why then we would be better off going there! Faithfulness and dedication and knowledge and tradition seem to be a thing of the past for many. It is why a 40% of membership in attendance on any given Sunday is considered good these days, really good (some say 25% is good), and why membership classes take four to six weeks instead of a year or more, for adults.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, that in the early church, in the first church, in the Acts church, confirmation took three years, for adults. By the end of those three years, you knew what you believed and you knew why you believed.

It was important because if you became a member of the church, then you were making a sacrifice. Because it was going to set you apart from, and opposed to, in many ways, the Gentile pagan culture that was there. There was a cost to becoming a member, and you needed to know what you needed to know.

People in the church have begun to notice the problem, however. People talk about revival in our land. Some want the glory days back. Some just want the downward spiral to stop. You know – we shouldn’t have to get used to people being prosecuted for openly standing for what they believe. We shouldn’t have to get used to cop-shootings being applauded by some, to lies, scandals, and cheating being the norm in ALL politics, and the only sin is getting caught. We shouldn’t have to get used to the work ethic that was the foundation for this weekend’s celebration being destroyed, and replaced by an entitlement mentality that wants everything handed to them on a silver platter.

As we look realistically at the situation here in America today, it can seem most overwhelming and terrifying. We ask ourselves, how do we do this? Where do we begin? Let me suggest it begins right here at home. With ourselves, and our families – the smallest and most important unit of community we have.

We begin as we experience revival in our own lives. Please note, those who don’t believe can’t experience revival. They might experience conversion, but only somebody who is called by God already, and believes and knows Jesus Christ, can experience revival of the spirit and the love of God in their lives.

We begin to experience revival as we repent of our own selfishness, laziness, and lack of discipline in attending to our own relationship with God. We begin to experience revival as we pray for God to help us change our ways, and our habits, and our priorities.

We begin to experience revival as we begin to take seriously learning God’s Word, seeking out opportunities for Sunday School , Bible Study, small group, and worship. As we read the Word, and listen to others, and test our spirits by the Word to make certain that we are following God’s path, not our own desires.

We experience revival as we set an example, as individuals, that is like that which Peter mentioned in his first letter, saying in 1 Peter 2, “Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may, because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.” And the good deeds doesn’t mean random acts of kindness. It meant doing what God commanded you to do, in any given situation – being moral.

Then as we begin to take seriously the nature of family faith, and make worship and service within the church priorities for us to do together as we praise God for the love we share and witness to the world what it means to be a family of God – both as related/extended families, and as a church family.

We change ourselves – with God’s help! – and then help those around us to change as we provide an example, and share the Gospel and the word of God. We fearlessly speak out in the public square, holding fast the Biblical values, and take opportunities to teach what is right, whenever we can.

As a church, we willingly stand firm for the authority of Scripture, the need for repentance by all people, the necessity of salvation by Jesus Christ, and the call to holiness. To be vigorous and joyful in our worship and our proclamation together, to encourage one another in doing good, as Scripture says, for God’s glory, not our own.

Then, together as a church, we reach out and change this community. It is a small community, it is true – but the whole world was changed by about 120 people on Pentecost, and the leadership of twelve men who believed in the reality of Jesus Christ as living Lord and Savior, and the need of everyone to repent and believe.

Let me ask you, what would happen, for instance, if we took the encroachment of school and club sport activities on Sunday morning as the battle that it is, and stood against it?

Not trying to legislate some new version of the Blue Laws – those of you who are older know what I’m talking about – but by linking together with other parents and grandparents, and then simple not showing up. Or refusing to support it, by creating such a hole they can’t function. And then at the next election, voting in a school board who will negotiate Sunday morning exceptions.

That will never happen, you say. You’re right, it certainly won’t, as long as everyone fees that way and no one does anything.

We need to reach out to others who believe, and seek ways to glorify God – not ourselves or our churches, particularly, and work together to provide a unified witness to God’s grace, God’s goodness, and God’s call to a life that honors Him. It’s hard work, but we can do it if we stay focused on the awesomeness of our God, and our own local scale.

One of the biggest problems we have, and I’ve read this I can’t tell you how many times, in these “how to be a successful church” things, is we think our God too small. We say that He’s King of the universe, a sovereign God, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. But then we put Him in some little cubbyhole, and don’t trust Him.

The early churches cared for one another, and kept in touch. But the church in Corinth, for instance, did not worry about the town of Jerusalem. They dealt with their own city, and then sent representatives, either missionaries to new areas or emissaries to help equip churches, to share the Gospel and what they had been doing with God’s help, encouraging one another, and standing firm for the faith.

For those that like to be a part of something larger, we have an opportunity this week. We have the Scriptures being read in a single marathon sitting in the county courthouse lawn in Wapello. They need people willing to read for thirty minutes or more, volunteers who are witnessing to their faith as they stand up and read Scriptures aloud for the public just as King Josiah did in chapters 22 and 23 of 2 Chronicles.

And who knows? Maybe some folks who hear will be convicted as the people were in Josiah’s day, and renew their covenant as they begin to seek God and to obey His Word and follow His way. There is an announcement about that in your bulletin, by the way. You can see the facebook site. You can go there to sign up, or you can call certain individuals.

If you want to be a part of something larger, and public reading isn’t your thing, there are a number of groups that pray on a given day for our communities and our nation. One that I’ve heard of a lot on the internet recently is at 8 p.m. on Mondays. You pray from the comfort of your own home (and before the football game starts), and you can join with thousands of others in praying for our nation.

But I would ask you to note something as you do so, praying for our nation: in 2 Chronicles, the change of the nation – the prayers of the people, and the humbling that brings about reconciliation – begin with themselves.

Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you, and you shall be blessed. As Solomon was before he went astray. As the disciples were, and as the church once was. Nothing easy, nothing care-free; but full of joy and love and peace… and most of all, hope. And may you give God the glory for the great things He has done, here in Wapello, in the nation at large and most of all, in your own life.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen

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