One of the themes of the book of Daniel is faithfulness to God despite living in a foreign land. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were exiles because of the sins of their fathers, men who couldn’t manage to keep covenant with God even though they were living in the promised land. The sons, though, were put to a sterner test than their fathers. They were expected to serve faithfully despite the bad example of their ancestors, the destruction of the temple, and their removal to Babylon. They were called to remember God even when their very names were changed from names that glorified Him to names that glorified idols (Bel, Aku, Aku, and Nergal, respectively).
Astonishingly, they succeed. All four men draw a line in the sand in Daniel 1. They determine that they would rather live on vegetables and water than run the risk of defiling themselves with rich food and wine from the king’s table. In Daniel 3, Daniel’s three friends prefer to face incineration rather than worshiping the king’s image. Similarly, in Daniel 6, Daniel himself defies the king’s edict and continues to pray toward Jerusalem according to the terms of 2 Chronicles 6:36-39.
In all of these things, God blesses them. Despite their austere diet, they become fatter than their peers who gorged themselves on royal delicacies (In my book, this is evidence that eating salads doesn’t help you lose weight!). An angel rescues Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace. God closes the mouths of the lions who were supposed to devour Daniel for his illegal prayers. Though an outside observer might conclude from the destruction of Israel and Judah that God is powerless, His care for the exiles shows that He is anything but.
Today, Christians in the United States increasingly feel that they are living in exile. America has never been “a Christian nation”, at least not in a Biblical sense, but increasingly, the morality of those around us is diverging from the morality of the Bible. Millions are turning to a bizarre moral code of their own invention. The same people who sneer at us for believing in an imaginary God simultaneously believe (and insist) that somebody who has two X chromosomes can be a man. Never mind the biology; saying makes it so!
In such an environment, staying faithful to our Creator is becoming increasingly difficult. Like the exiled Jews, we face all kinds of pressure to conform. Maybe nobody is changing our names on us, but it’s certainly true that Christians who are loud in their defense of Biblical morality will get in all kinds of trouble in secular schools and workplaces.
Nonetheless, our only recourse is to continue trusting in God too. He does not promise us that serving Him will be easy or painless, but He does promise that He will not forsake us. If we remain true to Him despite provocation from the citizens of this world, He will surely bless us.
It is a warm November day in Palestine, sometime around 28 AD. The field on the upper hillside has been plowed, and a man with a basket is scattering seed. As he flings handfuls of grain across the field, some of the seeds bounce and come to rest around the margins of the field. This has been happening the same way in the same location for more than a thousand years.
On the lower hillside, stretching down toward the sea, a crowd has gathered. Many of them have come from a village around the next headland. A short way away from the shore, a small boat rocks in the water, and a man is standing in it. The crowd is watching him, and even the farmer on the hill above glances down occasionally.
The man says, “Listen! A farmer went out to plant some seed. . .”
The Bible is for all people in all times, but we should never underestimate the extent to which its language is bound up in a particular time. For us, the language of the parables is almost a kind of sacred code. When we talk about “sowing seed,” we are certainly not talking about planting a field by hand, which few (if any) of us have ever done. We’re talking about telling others about Jesus.
2000 years ago, though, this language wasn’t rich with symbolic significance. It was flatly descriptive of everyday life in Galilee. Indeed, my suspicion is that in many of the parables, Jesus isn’t merely describing a scene with which all of His audience is familiar. He is describing something that is happening right in front of them. The lilies of the field and the ravens aren’t hypothetical constructs. They are the weeds blooming at Jesus’ feet and the birds flying over His head, right as He is talking. The parables show that long before the invention of PowerPoint, Jesus was in the speech-with-visual-aid business.
This is important for us to recognize for two reasons. First, it shows us how difficult to follow Jesus’ teaching sometimes would have been. In our church-building auditoriums 2000 years later, it’s obvious that Jesus isn’t talking about a real farmer or real seed. 2000 years ago, when Jesus may well have been literally pointing to a real farmer with real seed, it would not have been at all obvious that He was doing anything more than offering an agriculture report. We often criticize the disciples for not understanding His teaching fully, but we ought to give them credit for recognizing when there was something more to understand.
Second, making the effort to visualize Jesus’ teaching in its original location can help us to understand why it got the reaction that it did. This is perhaps most important with the parable of the vineyard in Mark 12:1-12. We know from Mark 11:27 that Jesus is teaching on the grounds of the temple. As a result, we ought to read the parable in this way: “A man planted a vineyard [Jesus gestures to the temple precincts] and put a fence around it [Jesus gestures to the temple walls] and dug a pit for the winepress [Jesus gestures to the stairways down] and built a tower [Jesus gestures to the temple itself].”
There’s a reason why the chief priests, scribes, and elders had no trouble perceiving that Jesus had told the parable against them. The setting made it obvious. Jesus’ prediction that the temple elite would be destroyed was a threat too dangerous to ignore. The parable made it clear to them that He had to go.
The gospels are not a collection of myths. They are history, and history has a setting. The more we work at incorporating the setting, the better we will understand the message.
A few days ago, I got an email from a friend of mine who recently started preaching. He had been thinking about the Botham Shem Jean shooting and wondered if it should affect his message. Is it the place of a gospel preacher to condemn social injustice and cry out for change? He felt uncomfortable with the idea but wondered if his discomfort was due to his insulated status as a white man. Here’s what I told him:
Interesting question, brother! I brought Shawn in, we talked about it, and our conclusion is that your instincts are correct. Taking a side on the political controversies of the day is dangerous for a preacher and weakens his message.
Shawn and I see several main problems with taking a stand on some politically charged current event. First, the facts are generally unclear or even disputed. It's certainly tragic that an innocent black brother in Christ was shot in his own apartment, but it's not clear to me that he was shot because he was black. Similarly, I don't think any of us will ever know what really happened in the Trayvon Martin case. If you're taking a position on any events like this, you're taking a stand on uncertain ground.
Second, preaching on such events is likely to polarize the congregation. Because they are politically charged, members are likely to have strong pre-existing opinions about them, and if you express an opposite opinion, you're likely to alienate those members. I know that there are members at many congregations who would really struggle to wrap their heads around the notion that kneeling for the national anthem is an acceptable form of protest. Similarly, there are members at many congregations who think it's a valid way to call attention to racial injustice and would have trouble seeing the other position. No matter which side you pick, you're going to lose.
Third, calling for social change is simply not a part of the gospel. Above all, Christ is concerned with the heart of the individual. He calls the sinner to repentance. You want to preach on racism and the responsibility of the Christian to treat everyone with love, great! You should preach lessons like that. Unity in Christ is one of the great themes of Scripture. In fact, I'm preaching a lesson on the subject on Sunday. My experience is that when I condemn racism from the pulpit, it finds favor with the whole congregation, black and white alike.
However, I question the usefulness of any sermon that is aimed at people who aren't part of the congregation. Do we live in a perfectly just society? Of course not! However, reforming society is not the work of the preacher nor the work of the church. We are supposed to change the world one soul at a time, and if racism is ever going to be defeated in this country, it is going to be defeated in the hearts of individuals. We're already working on that. Why exchange the God-endorsed strategy for one that He hasn't endorsed?
Them's our thoughts, brother! Any questions?
In 2 Kings 22, we think we know the script. A good king, Josiah, succeeds a basically wicked king, Amon. Josiah orders a renovation of the temple, and during the renovation, the priest Hilkiah rediscovers the book of the Law. Josiah compares what he is doing to what he ought to be doing, tears his clothes, and repents.
Immediately, a delegation of Judahite higher-ups goes in search of Huldah the prophetess to figure out what happens next. This is where God says, “Now that you’ve repented, everything’s going to be OK.” Right?
Wrong. Instead, Huldah’s oracle is dire indeed. Despite Josiah’s reforms, Judah is still going to be destroyed. God’s people passed the point of no return during the reign of Manasseh. They have become so wicked that He can no longer tolerate them, and their defeat and exile are now inevitable. Josiah’s godliness has merely postponed the disaster until after his death.
This is important. Too much of the time, God’s people harbor a bad case of tomorrow-itis. Tomorrow is when they’re going to get their spiritual houses in order. Tomorrow is when they’re going to start reading their Bibles regularly. Tomorrow is when they’re going to lead their children to put God first in everything. Tomorrow is when they’re going to become plus members of the congregation. Tomorrow is when they’re going to talk to their neighbors about the Lord.
In response to this, gospel preachers like to point out two things. First, none of us are guaranteed tomorrow. Second, for a lot of brethren, “tomorrow” never becomes today. They spend their earthly lives with a head full of good intentions that they never put into practice.
I’ve said both of those things and agree with them. However, as we see from the story of Josiah, there’s a third problem. Tomorrow may come too late. Josiah was the most righteous king that Judah ever had, but even he couldn’t reverse his nation’s spiritual decline. If he had lived 50 or 100 years earlier, he might have been able to change its course, but as Manasseh’s son, there was nothing he could do to make a long-term difference.
So too for us. Even during our lives, there will come a point where we will no longer be able to repair the ravages of spiritual neglect. That point might not be obvious. Our sixteen-year-old son may still be coming to church (because we make him), but he may already have resolved that once he leaves home, he’s never going to darken that doorway again. Two years ago, we might have changed his mind, but not now. Now, we’re just playing out the string. The same can also be true of being a plus member or leading a lost friend to Christ. Those windows can close too.
I don’t know how open the windows are, in my life or anybody else’s. I do know, though, that now is the earliest we can act. We can’t change our yesterdays, but we can change today. Today, we can start doing what we know we always should have done. The sooner we start, the less likely we are to be too late.
These are the results of the survey we distributed at the 2018 Maury County Fair. You can find the survey questions here.