Publication: Pastoral Letter, June 2004
Dear Friend in Christ:
I pray that this letter finds you and yours doing well. The times in which we live are among the most tumultuous in history; understanding these times, and the days which are yet ahead, could be a matter of life and death.
Do you believe that the United States government was properly focused prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941? Do you believe that it was properly focused prior to the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001? Are there consequences to a wrong focus in the face of danger?
I listened to the 9/11 hearings several weeks ago. While much of the focus was “blame oriented” and political, it exposed the fact that since the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we have not had an adequate focus on terrorism. Not only has the government lacked the focus, but the general population has as well. Perhaps we all share blame. But focusing on the blame and whose fault it was may only further divide us to the delight of our enemies. “A house divided against itself….”
A SPIRITUAL COMMISSION?
As I watched the 9/11 commission grill the witnesses, I wondered, “What if there was a commission set up to examine the Church’s focus in recent years?” Did the church’s focus play a role in 9/11 or might it play a role in some future tragedy? Do we really know what is going on and are we ready for it? Are we focused enough to act in concert and use our vast resources together?
I doubt that such a commission would ever be formed this side of Judgement Day. But must we wait until that awful day to give an account? Could we now examine our personal and corporate focus and become vigilant? This is a vital question.
I am writing to you about just such an issue during Jesus’ time on earth, when He warned religious leaders that their focus was wrong, and the coming consequences would be even more horrible than 9/11. And, I’ll raise this question, “Are His warnings relevant to us today?”
In Luke 14, we read the story of one Sabbath day when Jesus is eating with some Pharisees and Jewish rulers_a rare occasion. Time is running out for these leaders, and their followers, but they do not realize it. They are living as though nothing will ever change. I might add that these are proud people_well-educated and men of high rank.
Pride is dangerous; it precedes destruction (see Proverbs 16:18). The apostle Paul would later warn that anyone who thinks that he stands should take heed lest he fall (see First Corinthians 10:12). Pride has a way of blinding us to reality. Pride and presumption are the parents of destruction.
Jesus used this dinner as an opportunity to address the problem of wrong priorities and “majoring on minors.” There was a man present who had a condition that the Scriptures called “dropsy.” Jesus asked the leaders this question, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” They kept silent. After waiting for them to answer, He turned to the infirmed man and healed him. He then pointed out that they would have more compassion on their animals than on those who were need.
Then Jesus went further: He told three stories that related to feasts or dinners. The first was about their concern over who would sit where at the feast and their concern for personal honor_who would get the best seat. Then He added, “He that exalts himself will be humbled, and he that humbles himself will be exalted.” (Had Jesus noticed something at dinner?)
Then He gave another exhortation, “When you give a dinner, don’t invite those who can reciprocate; invite the poor and needy who cannot repay you. Then you will be repaid at the resurrection of the Just.”
The third story was about a man who gave a great feast and invited his friends, but they all made excuses. The host was angry. So, he sent his servant saying, “Go quickly into the streets and lanes of the city and bring in the poor, maimed, and blind. After doing so, there was still room at the feast; the host said, “Go out to the highways and hedges (countryside) and compel them to come.”
THE RIGHT FOCUS
I recently listened to a young Chinese underground house church leader who is involved with a large movement numbering in the millions. Afterward, we ate together. “The reason that the Chinese Christian movement is growing so rapidly is that they are hungry,” he said.
China has had its persecutions and horrible massacres; 20,000 were killed on one day! That has affected their focus. Most of them know that atheistic materialism is not their answer.
Continuing in Luke 14, we look in verses 21-24 to discover what was Jesus saying to the Pharisees and rulers of the Jews. He says, “You are worried about what people think of you, about your own honor and about your club. You need to be worried about those outside of your group_those that you think are beneath you, the people in the street and other nations. But to see these people you must humble yourselves.”
Jesus is our model in all things. His focus was always outward. He was not into self-preservation and self-promotion. His focus was on the needy, the hungry, and giving mercy where needed. His work was in the street; the Samaritan woman, the woman taken in adultery, the blind man, and the lepers were all such examples. The disciples themselves were called from the seashore and the street. God’s priority has always been and still is outward.
Isaiah 55 begins, “Everyone that thirsts”…the table was free to the hungry and thirsty. Jesus began His ministry by saying, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be filled.” God’s focus is on the hungry. Those who have no apparent need, as mentioned in Revelation chapter 2, are often actually blind and naked. The humble and hungry are called blessed.
Note Jesus’ comparison of the Pharisee’s prayer versus the publican’s prayer. The Pharisee justified himself. The publican said, “O God have mercy on me, a sinner.” The publican went away justified because he humbled himself; He was hungry for God.
ISSUES WE FACE
The United States may be the most blessed nation in history. Do we see ourselves as better than others or can we humble ourselves? As Christians, our temptation to pride may exceed the temptation of other Americans. Are we really hungry?
Can we believe that God in His mercy has saved us, while we were yet sinners, and that same mercy can be given to those who are yet in sin?
Can we get over titles and self-promotion? I believe in all the offices and gifts taught in the New Testament, but we have often turned function into titles. In the face of danger, titles mean little. A poisonous snake cares nothing of one’s rank. Knowing how to function means everything.
Can we not care if people reciprocate? If we only give to those who can return the favor, are we better than the Pharisees? Whose blessing do we seek? Is our blessing as free as our Lord’s is? Mutual “back scratching” costs us the blessing of God.
Can we demand less of our leaders’ attention and give more of our own attention to those beyond the walls? Our leaders have to do more than put out church fires created by religious arsonists.
Isaiah 55:5 says, “You shall call a nation you do not know, and nations that you do not know shall run to you.” Can we go to people that we do not know?
There is one more issue that I would like to address: Can we overcome the national and Church culture of criticism? Jesus addresses this in the Pharisees, and in the general population (see Matthew 7:1-5). They elevated criticism to the level of actually achieving something.
I listened to the 9/11 Commission and a recent Presidential press conference with great pain. The nature of our national political dialogue is poisonous. The verbal bloodletting is beneficial only to our enemies. Why would one want to serve this nation with blood, sweat, and tears knowing the fierce criticism that awaits any mistake? The entrepreneurial leader must face the analyst who perhaps never accomplished anything, but is revered by a bloodthirsty culture. And spiritual leadership often faces the same. We must humble ourselves and discover the mercy of God.
LEARNING TO LISTEN
The Pharisees could not hear. I have been there too; the result is painful. The Son of God was speaking and He saw the future_Titus and Rome were coming. Jesus wept over Jerusalem.
Yes, Jesus was often blunt and sometimes scathing. He wanted a change of direction, but they killed the messenger. Later, the bloodthirsty Titus came and crucified Jews until there were no trees to hang them on. I would guess that the Pharisees were among the first to die. Did God want this? Likewise, did God cause 9/11? I do not believe that. I believe God calls, warns, and yes, even weeps. What more can He say?
Our enemies are no less brutal than Titus. We can run the risks of harvest by sowing in hostile regions, or run the risks of horror by turning inward, clothed only in presumption. You and I may not change a nation, but we can help change one person by the grace of God_if we change our focus and take the Gospel “to the street.”