Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 06/04/00
Mirrors are as fascinating as they are useful. How a flat and opaque surface behind a flat and clear one can create a reflection that constitutes seemingly a whole parallel world behind the glass used to be a great mystery to me as a child. But they became practical as well as intriguing when I began to shave. The prophets can be a mirror too: this passage from Isaiah lets us see a disturbingly clear reflection of our own times, characterized by a similar famine of the Word of God in the Church and consequent accomodation of the Church to the world around it.
The crisis is a growing and appalling biblical illiteracy in the Church. A recent poll revealed that less than 50% of people who identify themselves as Evangelicals could name five of the Ten Commandments or list all four Gospels. Where does this come from? Not from a lack of biblical preaching (though there could certainly be more sound exposition being done!). By rado, tv, books, tapes, internet, etc. one can hear Charles Stanley, J. Vernon McGee, Gordon MacDonald, John MacArthur, Chuck Swindoll, Oliver Green, Paul Van Gorder, or even Donald Williams (just to list a few of the sounder ones). I have six different English translations of the Bible, and most people have more than one. The problem is not availability of the Word. What is it, then?
As in Isaiah's day, the real problem is rebellious, hard hearts and deaf ears (v. 9). We do not want to hear what the Bible really has to say. That is why we fill up most of the space in our so-called Christian bookstores with tacky knick-knacks and fill most of the space devoted to books with basically secular self-help and pop psychology or sappy romances sprinkled with a little pious language. Because what the World says blatantly and explicitly, the Church has accepted passively, subtly, and implicitly. And what is the World saying?
"Don't tell me that:
The climate produced by the rebellion of v. 9 produces in v. 10 an insidious temptation even among the faithful to water down the biblical message. After all, we don't want to sound harsh and unyielding and offensive. But by blunting the edges of the Gospel, we make it more acceptable by ultimately making it irrelelvant, and may eventually lose it altogether. James Davidson Hunter has documented, in Evangelicalism, The Coming Generation, the loss of commitment to the uniqueness of Christ as the only way among Evangelical young people. And the sexual ethic they practice is only marginally better than the World's. If one listens to popular preachers who ought to know better, one can hear a new gospel which is no Gospel at all: for Christ now saves us not from sin but from feelings of inadequacy and offers Himself as a Savior whose Lordship is optional. We know what the Apostle Paul would have said about such dilutions of the biblical message: Let them be accursed!
A Church built on a diluted Gospel is a Church built with its walls out of plumb. What happens to a masonry wall that is not plumbed up properly? Eventually it falls down. And the only way to fix it is to tear it down and start over. If Isaiah has accrately described the syndrome which afflicted Judah, and if I have rightly seen the same phenomenon going on in 20th-century Evangelicalism, then our danger is very great. For the fall of that wall is unpredictable, but will be sudden, and is inevitable. Great damage will be done to institutions, families, and individuals unless we find the stomach to proclaim the Gospel without compromise once again.
The solution is to tear down what is out of plumb and start over. In other words, it is Repentance and Faith ("rest"). Repentance is a 180 degree about face. It literally is to change one's mind. In contrast to the voice of the World being shouted outside the Church's walls and echoed softly and subtly within, we would hear a new set of affirmations:
What do we do in such a perverse, self-destructive generation? The answer to that question is in v. 8. We keep on keeping on, whether it listens or not. We do not back down, we do not water down the message, we do not lie down. Only God can bring repentance, but we must confront the World with the Gospel. And that means that, first, we must be willing to hear it ourselves.
Here endeth the lesson.