Wednesday, December 07, 2011

More for week II in Advent

The things which are revealed
"The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law (Deut. 29:29)."

More thoughts came to mind on Sunday morning, so that what I said from the pulpit is not the sermon I posted here on Saturday. In addition to the appointed readings for Holy Communion that are in the Prayer Book (Romans 15:4-13 * Luke 21:25-33), the assigned readings for Morning Prayer included as a first lesson the entire 55th chapter of the book of Isaiah. I want us to zero in on vs. 6-11:

“Seek ye the LORD while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.”

Often this passage is quoted as an excuse for ignorance. The implication is, we simply cannot know God’s ways, so let’s not form strong convictions about anything; let’s not be dogmatic. It is true that God is beyond our highest thoughts and that he transcends all we can know, "Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be honour and power everlasting (I Tim.6:16)." But, that is not what this passage in the Book of Isaiah is saying. It is teaching, instead that wicked and unrighteous ways and thoughts must be replaced by God’s ways and thoughts through serious repentance. The ways and thoughts of God, in this context, are made known to us, because like the rain and snow, they come down from heaven. His Word goes forth from His mouth. The key words are “ways and thoughts.” 

"Let the wicked man forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts…for My ways are not your ways, neither my thoughts your thoughts…” Like the earth drinking up the rain and snow, we must drink up His word that comes down from heaven and that goes forth from His mouth. Our wicked ways and unrighteous thoughts must be replaced by God’s very own revealed ways and thoughts.

Trying to know the secret things
Taking our cue from the words of Moses, quoted above, this passage from Isaiah is not about "the secret things," but about "those things which are revealed." Concerning the readings we were given for this past Sunday, the difference between secret things and revealed things is highly significant. For, the Gospel reading deals directly with eschatology, the study of the end. And, about that subject much has been written and sold to eager readers, as well as much taught and preached, all to satisfy the curiosity of people who are "ever learning, never able to come to the knowledge of the truth (II Ti. 3:7)." 

Twice this past year one very unfortunate preacher has predicted...well, we're not quite sure what. Some have called it "the end of the world," and others have called it "the second coming," and still others have used that phrase that never relates to the truth, "the Rapture." Interestingly enough, both times he managed to save some of the money sent in as contributions to get the message out. We need not address the obvious ethical issue that raises. 

Let's look at each of those phrases. "The end of the world" is used in English translations of the Bible, but the term means the end of this age. It does not mean the destruction of the planet Earth, because this whole earth will be filled with the glory of God, and become a suitable temple and place of His holy presence among his resurrected saints. Christ cleansed the temple, as we read a week before, and that foreshadows the Day when He will cleanse the earth and make all of it a fit habitation for the holiness of God. 

The Second Coming is literally true. Christ will come on the Last Day, the dead will be raised, and He will reign as king forever. There will no more death, no more sorrow, no more war, or any evil thing. Any honest reading of Scripture makes these things clear.

What is not true is what is meant by that unfortunate label, "the Rapture." No more hideous and foolish a doctrine has ever been devised, one that begins to deny the Incarnation by denying the extension of the Incarnation through Christ's Body, the Church, as His chosen instrument among fallen mankind. (I have written about this before.) Christ is not coming in a star ship to beam His people aboard and sneak off to a planet called "heaven." When he comes every eye shall see Him (Rev. 1:7).  But, the "Rapture" doctrine is based on a ridiculous and careless interpretation that takes every passage out of context, and that applies the word "tribulation" to unbelievers, which takes away its true definition. 

And, by teaching that God's Church will be spared tribulation, it makes a mockery of the persecution that the Church has endured throughout its history, including this present age of martyrdom and suffering by Christians who are not afforded the ease and safety of the modern west. The entire "Rapture" idea requires either irresponsible ignorance or callous disregard of the suffering of others, or the crazy idea that maybe all those persecuted Christians, who live with danger because they remain faithful, aren't real Christians. 

But, correct phrases include the Second Coming, or the Last Day (from the 6th chapter of John's Gospel). 

The things God has revealed are not written merely to satisfy our curiosity. This is especially relevant to the problem of the "End times" industry. I recall that in 1988 some silly book was selling well among curious people, called Eighty-Eight Reasons Why. The book predicted that Christ would come by the end of 1988, because, as was foolishly reasoned, that was a generation after the establishment of the State of Israel. The entire basis for that is silly anyway, for it involves misunderstanding the Gospel reading we had this past Sunday. The part they get wrong is this: "Behold the fig tree, and all the trees; when they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand. So like wise ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled."

They have decided that the fig tree is the modern, secular state of Israel, and just as absurdly, that a generation is forty years. Neither idea even makes sense. But, they are dogmatic nonetheless. What the passage actually means is far more significant, and something we should understand. 

First, we must know what the generation is of which the Lord spoke. It is the Church itself: "A seed shall serve him: It shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation (Psalm 22:30 - or v.31 in the BCP)." We are correctly reminded by the Evangelicals that God has no grandchildren. Every person born from above in the waters of Baptism is a child of God, and so the Church, even after two thousand years, is yet in its first generation. There is but one Father of us all, and so the Church is always but one generation. And, this one generation of the Church has a mission to preach the Gospel among all nations. Only once that is accomplished will the Lord Jesus Christ come back in His glory to judge the quick and the dead (Matt. 24:14).

People who open the Bible to satisfy curiosity need to repent, and open it to learn what to believe and how to live, and to keep their priorities focused on the Mission we all share. Jesus dealt with the pointless and distracting problem of curiosity rather bluntly. We see that in the first chapter of the book of Acts.

"When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power. But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth (Acts 1:6-8)."

The challenge in reading the Bible is make our own lives relevant to the will of God. It is not to satisfy curiosity about the secret things, such as that day and hour, that are strictly in God's hands. 

1 comment:

N Hitchcock said...

Thanks for these sound thoughts. Your word about "making our lives relevant to God," taken as a general maxim, prevents so many disasters in interpretation!

A question, though: Can curiosity ever be a redemptive quality when doing eschatology?