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F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Sermons -- Audio Version
1st Sunday after Easter - 4/11/10
Is. 43:1-12; Ps. 115; I Jn 5:4-12; Jn 20:19-23
The theme of being a witness for God runs through today's Scripture lessons.
Witnessing for God was not a major theme which the Hebrews understood God to be asking of them. They pretty much went about their business of being Hebrews without paying much attention to their neighbors -- other than to copy them and be evangelized into paganhood. Witnessing and evangelism was not much thought of in Old Testament religion. Indeed the subject hardly is broached until we get to 2nd Isaiah, probably in the mid-to late 500's BC as the time of the return from Exile came upon them. From chapter 40 on, Isaiah is full of praise to God for the coming salvation of the Hebrews from their self-inflicted disaster, the Exile. They were about to return home, some perhaps already gone.
But their 70-year stay in Babylonia had changed Hebrew religion into what we now call Judaism. What had been a temple-oriented religion, with one central place of worship (and many competing local shrines, often dedicated to foreign divinities), of necessity turned into a synagogue-oriented religion, and remained so even after the return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple.
The Hebrews in Exile had no temple in which to worship, and began to form local gatherings for the reading of the Torah and for worship of God. They had been able to bring with them scrolls of their sacred scriptures which became the center of their religious lives. Where the scroll lived, that was the spiritual center. The rabbis were the teachers, and probably took care of the scrolls, and so congregations of students and worshippers formed around them. Probably beginning in house synagogues, and then special buildings built for the purpose.
Other profound changes took place as well in Babylon. They became much more aware of the reality of Satan and demonic influences, both almost unmentioned in earlier Hebrew religion. And, schools of thought developed, as among the Pharisees, Essenes, and Sadducees.
The Pharisees began to change radically some basic interpretations of their earlier religion, adding many more requirements for being a "good Jew", such as hand-washing, preparation of foods, dietary laws, etc. Being a good Jew became much more complicated. Many of those changes were later roundly condemned by Jesus as substituting the laws of men for those of God.
The Sadducees, who developed from the priestly cast, and who were now without a job, having no Temple in which to perform their duties, for some reason rejected a growing interest in the idea of a resurrection from the dead and a Last Judgement Day. They seem to have gotten more and more distant from the spiritual life of the people, and eventually became the forerunners of the secular and cultural Jew.
Jews attracted many thoughtful and faithful worshippers of God from among the pagans, including Roman army officers, as they spread around the Mediterranean basin. But it is not clear that they engaged in active and persistent evangelism as did the Christians later. They seemed not to consider themselves to be witnesses for God in that sense.
Yet, the tradition goes back at least to 2nd Isaiah in the Exile who clearly understands God to be calling His people to witness to Himself amidst the pagan peoples.
The prevailing theology of the time said that any god who could not defend his people against the military might of a neighbor was a failure as a god. It was one of the chief expectations of people that their god could show them how to defeat their enemies. That is why the Hebrews demanded a king instead of a judge such as Samuel. By the rules of the game, the defeated Hebrews should have cast off Yahweh as an inadequate or inept deity, and embraced the deities of the victorious Babylonians.
But they did not. The prophetic voices among them told them that they were in their slavery condition because they had been unfaithful to God, not because God was inadequate to defend them. God had, indeed, even called the Babylonians, or at least deliberately withdrawn His protection, leaving them open to invasion. If they were not willing to serve God, then, God had warned over and over, they were on their own in a world of no-holds-barred and winner-take-all power-struggle. It was a nasty and brutal game, but the Hebrews had consistently voted for trusting one or another powerful nation as their protector -- rather than God.
Just as much earlier, when the Hebrews had demanded a king for their ruler rather than the judges which they had, God told Samuel that the people were not rejecting Samuel, their judge, but God Himself. It was not that a king was necessarily a bad idea, but rather the motives of the people, that they were seduced by the power-struggle successes of various kings, and wanted such a king that would win battles for them. They did not trust that God could show them how to win their battles by trusting Him rather than trusting to chariots and horses (the tanks of those days), or to archers (the artillery).
They had, in effect, become secularized, and
worshipped earthly power rather than the authority and power of God. They were
living in the Fallen closed-circle cosmos with the pagans. Nevermind that their
prophets and psalmists consistently told them not to do that.
We read in Isaiah 43 this morning of a scene where God is inviting the nations of the world to a debate over who is God. ...beginning at verse 8:
Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears!
These are people who have ears and eyes, but do not see the reality of God in front of them, people who worship vain dead idols which cannot speak or hear.
Let all the nations gather together, and let the peoples assemble. Who among them can declare this, and show us the former things? Let them bring their witnesses to justify them, and let them hear and say, It is true.
Who among them can interpret the past, or foretell the future, or diagnose their own spiritual corruption? God calls the pagans to witness to their gods, and then God turns to His own people:
"You are My witnesses," says the Lord, "and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am He. Before Me was no god formed, nor shall here be any after Me. I, I am the Lord, and besides Me there is no savior. I declared and saved and proclaimed, when there was no strange god among you; and you are My witnesses," says the Lord.
The people of God have had a history with God, they have been
a living part of God's own storyline, they were personal witnesses, and God is asking them to tell that story.
A powerful statement of monotheism.
In Psalm 115, we read:
Wherefore shall the heathen say, Where is now their God?
Well, indeed, such a mocking question...! but that is precisely what the heathen have been saying to Christians for over two centuries now with almost no adequate response from the people of God, at least not anywhere in Western Civilization. The Psalmist responds to his own question:
As for our God, He is in heaven, He hath done whatsoever pleased Him.
Heaven is the place of authority and control. God resides in heaven and supports the world with His Hand, and directs the world with His Voice. But...
...Their idols are silver and gold, even the work of men's hands. They have mouths, and speak not, eyes have they and see not. ..... They have hands, and handle not; feet have they, and walk not; neither speak they through their throat. They that make them are like unto them, and so are all such as put their trust in them.
So what can witnesses for such gods have to say? What can they testify about their gods and goddesses? Where are the witnesses for these gods, and what is their testimony?
The truth is that the witnesses for the world, the flesh, and the devil have been quite active and loud for over two centuries in our midst -- in their condemnation of the God of the Bible. Hey, Christians, where is your God now? What testimony have you to give now? Where is your evidence? Christian! Is your God sleeping? Holler louder! Maybe you will wake Him up!
Christians! Don't you understand that you have lost the battle? Don't you understand that science has disproven all your claims???
Wherefore shall the heathen say, Where is now their God?
The gauntlet has been thrown down many times, and the challenge has gone largely unanswered. The honor of God is mocked because we remain silent. We are a culture which does not take honor very seriously. We have been silenced by the errors, lies, and deceits of workers of darkness. We must learn how to identify those falsehoods, and how to expose them.
It is people like us who are called to pick up the gauntlet and send it back. It is people like us who are called to create an offensive which will carry the battle back into their own imagined territory. We must learn to speak the Godly truth in public at every occasion we might have.
We begin with ourselves, in our own midst, learning how to become spiritually and morally accountable to each other in our own community. We must learn how to share our faith openly with one another before we can do that with strangers in public. We must learn how to have difficult conversations among ourselves with family and friends before we can do it "out there..." Family and Church are the smithies where souls are forged, but that can happen only where we are living in the light with one another, where we are willing to risk our comfort and reputation and resources with each other. Our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor are formed in our homes and churches.
We need to do a much better job than we have been. We Christians are losing about 85% of our children to secularism or paganism. We do not know how to pass on our faith to our children. That is appalling. By the time they leave home for marriage or job, they have left the Christian faith, most never to return. That is due largely to the influence of our government education controlled by persons actively hostile to the Christian faith, and the failure of we Christians to educate our own children in the testimony of God.
Most of those who accept Christ have done so by their late teens -- 15%. It can happen later, but it is not common. Just 15%.
Wherefore shall the heathen say, Where is now their God?
They say it, of course, because we have so little believable public testimony. We deserve what we are getting. But God does not. And we Christians are not upholding the honor of God in the public arena. Need I say more?
In the Epistle, 1 John, we read:
Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?
When I read something like that, I ask: "What is the matter with us??? ...with we Christians??? Why are we sophisticated Westerners so incapable of telling people about God and what He has done for us? Why are we not overcoming the world?"
My conclusion is that we Christians have been secularized. If you have been raised in the West, you have almost for sure, soaked up, even without knowing it, many secular assumptions about the world and about life. So we do not really, at a deep level, trust either the Hand of God or the Word of God. Something in us sticks, and rejects a full commitment.
It was not until I was about 60 years old that I first realized that America had been founded as a Christian nation, and that my Christian faith was perfectly compatible with being an American. Not only compatible, but Biblical faith was, and is still, the foundation of America. We must be witnesses of that fact.
But then St. John reverses everything. God is giving His testimony.
If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater: for this is the witness of God which He hath testified of His Son. He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself....
The testimony of God is, of course, His self-revelation. God reveals Himself in both word and action.
Well, God promises to meet us on a level playing field. He invites us to reason together with Him. That, of course, requires that God, after our whining and complaining, and, yes, after our repentance and confession, speaks His side of the story. He tells us the truth about Himself. About His relationship to us, about His judgement on our part in that relationship.
And we can either accept or reject what He says. But, if He is really God, if He is telling the truth, if God is reaching out to save us from ourselves, then rejecting what He says has horrendous consequences, not because God beats up on us, but rather because the world, the flesh, and the devil will have the last word with us. We cast ourselves back onto dependency and obedience to the world, the flesh, and the devil. If we reject God, that is all we have left. If we reject the testimony of God, then we get their testimony and judgement upon us. And that is not a pretty picture.
That same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. And when He had so said, He showed unto them His hands and His side.
Jesus, showing His wounds, gives His testimony about Himself -- This is I, this is He who Is.
Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent Me, even so send I you. And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost....
That was looking forward to the Ascension and Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit.
He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself....
Is not that the deep testimony of Jesus about Jesus -- that the purpose of His coming was to rescue us from ourselves so that we might go out, be sent out, to do the same for others? ..that our testimony to the world is His testimony to us about Himself, confirmed in word and deed. Is not that the deep testimony about God, that He makes His way to earth to rescue us from ourselves, and uses us to do that for each other.
And is that not the meaning of the Body of Christ here on earth? that as Jesus has given us His testimony of Himself, we are to carry that testimony, to make His testimony our testimony, not with just words, but with spiritual power, with miracle power, with life-changing power into the very mess which so threatens our welfare every day?
All this is looking forward to the Ascension of Jesus back to the Father, back to outside the open circle of the created order. We have some 30 more days to go of the resurrected Jesus being bodily with us -- teaching the meaning of what had just happened, pouring through the Scriptures of the Old Testament.
Let us walk with Jesus through these 30 days, reading Scripture with the disciples and listening to Jesus. Let us ask our questions, that we too can become Spirit-filled disciples who will take the Spiritual warfare onto enemy-held ground. Let us pick up the gauntlet they have flung down, and deliver it back to them -- with all the truth, grace, and love of the Children of God. "You are My witnesses." We are His witnesses that the world might believe and be saved.
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