August 30, 2010

Return to God? Or Ready Excuse?

Last Wednesday night, we studied Luke 14.15-24 as a church. It’s that famous parable where the banquet master (God) is turned down again and again by people who are too pre-occupied to accept his invitation. One man has to check on his real estate, and another his farm equipment. A third is too into his new wife to attend. And so the story goes … with the point being that money and possessions (as in the first man’s field), work and business (as in the second man’s team of oxen), and family and relationships (as in the third man’s marriage) can become deadly idols. I say it again – money and possessions, work and business, and family and relationships can become deadly idols in the life of a Christian!

Are they bad things? By no means. But it is precisely because they are good things that they can so subtly substitute for the best thing – Christ himself! If we seem to be doing well for ourselves, and achieving some measure of success as decent, family-oriented, hard-workers … we are prone to think we have achieved our highest goals; to believe we are just where God wants us … and to miss the call to repentance altogether!

And yet this is precisely what is happening to thousands (dare I say hundreds of thousands, or even millions) of Christians in our country. Good morals, the freedom to be whom and what we want to be, and even family values have become the watchwords for so many church going people. These kinds of topics can gather enormous crowds (witness D.C. last weekend) filled with people who equate having good families, good values, and the freedom to work and earn an honest wage with what it means to be people of ‘faith’; and to ‘return to God’. But it doesn’t take a return to God to want a good family, to want to be a decent person, and to want a job and my freedom … does it?

And, stepping back inside the churches … there is little wonder that pastors who recycle these topics every three months or so should have full churches! I don’t doubt that many of these men have good intentions. They want to see people coming in … just like I do. And they have figured out that if their sermon series run a regular circuit through the topics of friends, family, and finances … people will be more likely to come than if they announced a seven-part series on the attributes of God, or on the book of Zechariah. So they do three weeks on finances, followed by five weeks on marriage, followed by two weeks on how to find fulfillment at work, followed by four weeks on child-rearing, followed by three weeks on true friendship, followed (once more) by three weeks on finances, five weeks on marriage, and so on. And then, every now and again, just to keep themselves honest, they’ll do a one month fly over of a book like John, or a topic like prayer.

And it is little wonder, I say, that people flock to their services! Because these preachers – many of them unwittingly (although inexcusably) – are simply helping them to prop up the idols that all Americans (and all human beings) are most prone to worship. And many conservative politicians and commentators have tuned in along this same wave length. I agree, on a surface level, with a lot of what they say. But for a pastor, politician, or pundit to equate good families, good morals, and the basic freedom to work and live in peace … I say to equate those things with returning to God or being people of faith is to miss the whole point! Everyone wants to have a good family, and good finances, and fulfillment at work! It does not require repentance for sin or faith in Jesus to want that!

Indeed, it is precisely because people pursue these things with such ardor, Jesus says in Luke 14, that many of them never come to Christ! The natural man loves his money and his family and his freedoms more than he loves God! That is just plain and simple fact. And what he needs to be challenged to do is not to prop up his idols and fight for them in the public square, but to lay them aside in favor of repentance toward, and faith in, and love for, and abandon to Christ and His gospel!

So what am I trying to say? That preachers or politicians should never speak about issues like family, or finances, or work, or even good morals? Or that Christians shouldn’t care about these things? Not for a moment! I am simply saying that these things do not equate to the Christian faith! At best, they are some good side effects of it. But, for most Christians in the world, things like freedom and financial stability are never to be seen. And, further, when we equate these various pieces of American Dream with faith … not only is the plain and simple gospel often marginalized or even overlooked entirely (in favor of other, more ‘relevant’ material); but those who preach in this way are only further fixating people’s minds on those things which Jesus says are already their most prominent preoccupations … and, indeed, their most ready excuses for delaying real repentance and faith!

Jesus says, in Luke 14, that it is precisely because we are so concerned for our stuff, and our jobs, and our families that many of us miss heaven! Because, having achieved some measure of success in these areas, we might think that we have achieved our highest goals … and thereby miss eternity! So let’s heed His advice … and never confuse the good with the gospel.

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