Close the Church shop? (2)
If the Church of God in the world offers nothing but more advice on how to live right, if it offers nothing more than a call to treat one another right, if it offers little or nothing more than ways to make our groups and congregations bigger and more attractive, if it offers nothing more than seminars on interpersonal relationship skills and how to make our marriages and families better—if that's it, we ought to close up the church shop. We ought to close it up and quit pretending that we're offering something distinctive, something that can't be got anywhere else! We ought to close it up because on those terms we'd only be offering what every other socially useful group is offering [we're using their materials, for pity's sake] while they deny the Gospel of God in and as Jesus Christ!
And what's more, the churches aren't any more successful in producing sustained uprightness than the host of non-church and secular movements and there are people whose lives are every bit as morally fine as the church-going folk. The business of the People of God is not to compete with others in a pursuit of moral excellence—it's business as the Body of the Lord Jesus is to be the bearer of GOD'S Story !
The business of the Church of Jesus Christ is not to help societies and nations to live up to some generalized moral code that we would all be better off if we clung to and that we would be more prosperous and peaceful if we kept to. The master-stories that get all the attention, whether they are "The war in Iraq" or "The war against terrorism" or "Global warming" or "The AIDS epidemic" or "Let's abolish Poverty" or whatever—these are the stories around which nations structure their lives and respond to. And however morally appealing or urgent we think them (or elements in them) to be, they are not the stories on which the Church is built!
When God called Abraham out of one of the centers of world-power, literacy and social success and established a covenant with him he spoke his mind on all "non-church" efforts of making the world better. It is nonsense to think that God chose Israel because everyone else in the world was corrupt! Whatever moral goodness there was in the world the fundamental need of humanity wasn't supplied in or by places like Ur! THE KINGDOMS OF THE WORLD ARE NOT THE KINGDOM OF GOD!
In choosing Israel God was not dumping the rest of humanity as if he didn't care for them (that notion is moral lunacy and it is moral lunacy because it is biblical lunacy!) but he did covenant with Israel as with no other nation. The master-stories of other nations, whether they were based on their gods, their military might, their economic shrewdness and social wisdom and obvious "success" or a combination of all those and more, were not Israel's story! And Israel was not to buy into them and this, in part, explains God's blunt insistence that Israel was not to enter into covenants with the nations around them.
This does not mean that no one outside of Israel loved their families or practiced social righteousness or possessed (God given) wisdom. It does mean that in Israel alone God was making himself known in a peculiar and definitive way not only as the sovereign Lord of all but—if anyone was to be redeemed—the Redeemer of all!
In choosing Abraham and his descendants God was creating a new thing in the world (see Isaiah 40-66 and how often we're told that God "created" and "made" and "formed" Israel). There was decency in Egypt, there was love of family and honesty in business but there was nothing like Israel in Egypt—there was nothing like her in all the world! She was God's people by his creation and covenant choice and he insisted that his creative acts, by which he brought Israel into existence, were to be remembered and proclaimed before the entire world. Israel was not only God's rejection of the world's attempts to reject him and build a counter-world without him (compare the tower of Babel affair in Genesis 11:1-9); Israel was God's offer of hope to the world and it was Israel's business to point the human family to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (who is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Redeemer of the entire human family).
Israel wasn't chosen because it was especially righteous nor was it chosen because God knew that after a while it would become righteous—the contrary was true (see Deuteronomy 5:23-29 and 9:4).
As soon as Israel in their minds wandered from God—either in suffering or in prosperity, and more especially in prosperity (Deuteronomy 32:15-18)—they sidelined their Story and substituted for it all manner of lesser and injurious stories, making covenants with other nations, buying into their agendas, forgetting their business in the world and even becoming more and more religious. And when the prophets came thundering, calling them to repentance, they constantly called Israel back to the Exodus, the Wilderness, the Passover and the God who was their God "since Egypt" (see Hosea 12:9, for example). They called them to moral righteousness, of course, but that was always and unceasingly connected with their relationship to Yahweh, their redeemer, and never as a call to obey some generalised moral code. Everything was relational! The Torah and the commandments issued in it are saturated with truths embedded in God's own action in his redeeming work (see here). The prophets preached the meaning of these events and called Israel to live out the meaning of them as they bore witness to the historical reality of them.
In the Bible we're watching prophets and people make war against the establishment and we're seeing a refusal to accommodate to the stories of Assyria, Egypt or Babylon or Persia or Greece. In calling Israel to faithfulness to Yahweh the prophets ceaselessly call Israel back to its origins. This wasn't only a word of assurance (which it was!) that God could overcome present enemies as surely as he had overcome past enemies; it was a reminder of Israel's origin and destiny, of God's commitment to her and her commitment to him as against all gods and stories of gods. It was God through the prophets telling Israel he would not allow her to bury herself in the nations (see Ezekiel 20:33-36) because it was vitally important for the salvation of the nations that Israel remain separate from even while living among the nations.
They were not to forget, much less deny the Exodus! They were not to ignore the Passover or forget the Wilderness for to forget all that was to forget who and what they were. And that is why they were to rehearse their national faith, that was why their ordinances were of critical importance and that was why they sang and prayed and studied and taught their Story.
The life of righteousness they were to pursue was not an attempt to live up to a moral code shared equally by the entire human family—it was life in the image of God, life bearing witness to God. Their business was not to claim moral superiority over all the non-elect—God expressly denied that they were superior! Their business was not to claim that the non-elect were utterly destitute of truth or moral uprightness; God was at work in other nations also (compare Romans 2:12-15). Israel's message, that was to be embodied in their corporate and individual life by ordinances, liturgy and daily living, was not first about them, but about God; the God who in holy grace created them to be his witnesses (see Isaiah 43:9-13)!
Christians are not to deny their Exodus in Jesus. They are not to forget their baptism. They are to eat the Supper as Israel ate their Passover. It doesn't matter that the world jeers and that they have no political clout. They are God's chosen people who live out in Jesus-imitating righteousness their witness to the living Christ and refusing to be swallowed up in a sea of "niceness"!
The NT Church is the creation of God and in and through it (for all its many flaws) the witness of the Spirit of his Son (Galatians 4:6) is held before the face of all nations. They are not to accommodate and sink themselves so that they become another nice moral group, inviting people, "Come join us and your marriage will be better, your family will be more secure, you will find prosperity in life and happiness in our assemblies!" Even if all that was experienced on coming to Jesus in the new covenant Community—that isn't the Message that has been entrusted to the NT elect!
It is too easy for the People of God to drift into a generalised message: "Let's all be happy by being kind and good." It's too easy for the Church of God to listen to the world's felt needs (real needs!) and try to supply them by getting them to become members of our group. Read up on all the books about social and group dynamics, scour the materials about interpersonal relationship skills, dive into psychology and sociology and come up with new ways to "draw them in". Who can fault our attempts to understand and make use of truths that God has blessed the human family with? No one—unless. unless. unless in the process we're swallowed up in becoming curers of the world's ills with the world's wisdom while the creative work of God in and through the saving work of Jesus is sidelined.
The gatherings of the Church must not become exercises in social dynamics! Any joy and happiness and hope that is distinctively Christian rests on the Gospel of God and the NT Church like the OT Church (Israel) is in dire peril when that is forgotten. And not only will the Church suffer the loss of identity and purpose—the world will suffer loss because of it.
The Church of Jesus is a new creation that rests on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It didn't only originate in that way, it continues to be sustained in the same way. Its ordinances, liturgy, prayers, scriptures, faith and living (a Christ-imitating righteousness) are to centre in nothing and no one other than God and his faithfulness to his eternal creative purposes. [This is one reason why it is pitiable nonsense to belittle baptism or dispense with it altogether. Along with the Lord's Supper, baptism proclaims the new creation work of God, its meaning and historical reality.]
Bible study for Christians is not about getting more information or merely understanding what an ancient writer said; it's about being shaped and sustained in our identity as "the body of Jesus Christ". It is to strengthen us so that we won't be swallowed up by the drifts and cultures of the world. It is to teach us to speak in the presence of the entire human family God's gospel of judgment and salvation. (underlining from Gary)