Christianity 201

August 10, 2017

Jeremiah and the Popularity Contest

by Clarke Dixon

“Your popularity has gone down 25%!” Such was a new expression one of my boys brought home from school as a way of expressing annoyance. I suppose I should have been happy that my son was learning percentages, or that my popularity was not dropping near as fast as my other sons. What I was not so happy about was the lifting up of popularity as something of great importance.

As prophets go, Jeremiah was not popular, indeed he went beyond being unpopular to being hated. And little wonder, Jeremiah 1:10 gives a nice summary of what Jeremiah was expected to do:

See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”
(Jeremiah 1:10 NRSV)

You may have noticed that the description of Jeremiah’s call has twice the amount of negative sounding items as positive. Read the entire book of Jeremiah and you will notice that Jeremiah spends most of his time prophesying destruction and hard times. Such messages would not help his popularity rating! Jeremiah’s contemporaries preferred a kinder, gentler, and of course, more popular message, but Jeremiah remained faithful. Had he cared more for his own popularity than God’s truth, he would have faded into obscurity as a prophet not worth remembering. Like most of his contemporaries he would have become irrelevant.

There is a great effort in the Church today to try to be relevant, to regain some of the popularity we perceive ourselves to have lost. There are those who think the Church can be relevant if it pays attention to the shifts in society in world-view and ethics and make similar shifts, “keeping up with the times” as it were. However, the opposite is true. It is by maintaining the distinctive teaching from God’s Word that we become relevant. It is when we play the popularity game that we become irrelevant.

Jeremiah lived in a time and place where his message was necessarily negative. The time had come for judgement, for which there was no sugar coating, and about which Jeremiah could do nothing. As Christians we live in a time and place where our message will necessarily be unpopular.

Let’s consider one of the most unpopular teachings of the Church in our day. Consider our message regarding sexuality. The message of the Church that sex belongs within marriage sounds antiquated to many, judgemental and negative. Should we play the popularity game and change our views? While viewed negatively by society, there is much to commend a Biblical view of sexuality. Sexually transmitted diseases are not transmitted by God fearing people. Marriages are not ripped apart by adultery among God fearing people. The Canadian definition of marriage today may as well be “the relationship among the many we have had that we hope lasts the longest.” Among God fearing people marriage is a fundamentally different relationship from any other relationship ever had, not just the longest lasting among many. “Being faithful so long as we both shall live” rings deep and true when a person can speak of “being faithful so long as I have already lived.” Faithfulness to one’s spouse can and should begin long before the wedding day. But even if there was nothing practical to commend our message, faithfulness to it would still demonstrate our faithfulness to God, and that ought to matter. The message of the Church with regards to sexuality is not popular today. But that should matter to us about as much as the popularity of the message of judgement mattered to Jeremiah. What matters is faithfulness to God, and it is by remaining faithful to Him we remain relevant to our society.

There are many other examples of Christian teaching that will be unpopular; belief in the supernatural, belief that abortion is wrong, belief in the importance of sobriety, belief that Jesus is the only Saviour, belief that other world-views are wrong. We can not expect the Church to win a popularity contest while it holds to these teachings. But neither do we need to enter a popularity contest. God calls us, like he called Jeremiah, not to popularity, but to faithfulness to Him, and to true and lasting relevance.


Read more at Clarke’s sermon blog: clarkedixon.wordpress.com

November 6, 2015

Participating in the Worship Practices of Other Faiths

Contradict

My wife and I enjoy touring the worship facilities of other religions. We’ve been in a variety of these, including two Muslim mosques, a Hindu mandir and a Hare Krishna temple. At the temple we were served some deep fried cauliflower. Did “breaking bread” in that sense possibly mean something to them that we missed? Did we inadvertently partake of cauliflower communion?

Okay, scratch the last sentence; but sometimes — even in the cases above where we were simply visiting the facilities on non-holy days — you could find yourself in an unexpected situation.

Many of you know the story from 2 Kings 5 about Naaman being healed of his leprosy. Naaman was an army general, but was also a man under authority, serving the king. Here’s a link to the story from The Message Bible.

Because he’s healed, Naaman wants to give Elisha a gift, but of course, the prophet will have none of that. Naaman pledges himself to worship [the] God [of Israel], but before he leaves, he asks Elisha if he can be forgiven for one transgression; something from the past, that he expects to also arise in the future.

CEB 2 Kings 5:17b  Your servant will never again offer entirely burned offerings or sacrifices to any other gods except the Lord. But may the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master comes into Rimmon’s temple to bow down there and is leaning on my arm, I must also bow down in Rimmon’s temple. When I bow down in Rimmon’s temple, may the Lord forgive your servant for doing that.”

The NIV (see further below) says the king is “leaning on his arm” while The Message version seems to make Naaman a little more complicit than the NIV indicates:

“…When my master, leaning on my arm, enters the shrine of Rimmon and worships there, and I’m with him there, worshiping Rimmon, may you see to it that God forgive me for this.”

Elisha tells Naaman to “Go in peace.”

The God he is concerned about having worshiped is  “‘Rimmon’ (lit. ‘pomegranate’) is a parody of the name Ramanu, the Syrian storm god corresponding to Baal. This chief deity of Syria was also known by the name Hadad (Zech. 12:11)” [Reformation Study Bible]

I was unfamiliar with this aspect of the store Naaman’s healing until I was listening to a discussion two weeks ago on a Christian talk show* where the guest was Dr. Paul Metzger, a professor at Multnomah Bible Seminary. Not having been able to record the reference, I wrote to him for clarification.

…In the interview, I referenced Naaman, who was a military commander of the king of Aram’s army. Naaman was also a leper. He came to Elisha for healing, and God healed him of his leprosy. Naaman devoted his life to the God of Israel as a result. I alluded to the account in 2 Kings 5, as it pertains to how Christians might engage others in multi-faith settings today. Naaman asked Elisha if he would be pardoned for going with his Master, the king, into the pagan temple and bow when the king leaned on him. Elisha gave him his blessing. Here is the text in 2 Kings 5:

17 “If you will not,” said Naaman, “please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the Lord. 18 But may the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I have to bow there also—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this.” 19 “Go in peace,” Elisha said. (2 Kings 5:17-19; NIV).

I made use of this text in response to [program host] Drew [Marshall] concerning the matter of what one should do in a worship service in a diverse or pluralistic context. I said it is a case by case matter of intent. Naaman’s heart intent was to honor the God of Israel, not the pagan deity.  Thus, Elisha gave him his blessing. It is not the bowing as such that is the issue, or the praying, but to whom is one praying in one’s heart. Again, I don’t think it is a matter of bowing or not bowing, praying or not praying, but the object or intent of the bow or prayer.

 

There is the danger of taking too much liberty from this passage however. Again we turn to Matthew Henry who takes a more hard-line approach:

He owns he ought not to do it, but that he cannot otherwise not do it, but that he cannot otherwise keep his place,—protests that his bowing is not, nor ever shall be, as it had been, in honour to the idol, but only in honour to the king,—and therefore he hopes God will forgive him. Perhaps, all things considered, this might admit of some apology, though it was not justifiable. But, as to us, I am sure,

(1.) If, in covenanting with God, we make a reservation for any known sin, which we will continue to indulge ourselves in, that reservation is a defeasance of his covenant. We must cast away all our transgressions and not except any house of Rimmon.

(2.) Though we are encouraged to pray for the remission of the sins we have committed, yet, if we ask for a dispensation to go on in any sin for the future, we mock God, and deceive ourselves.

(3.) Those that know not how to quit a place at court when they cannot keep it without sinning against God, and wronging their consciences, do not rightly value the divine favour.

(4.) Those that truly hate evil will make conscience of abstaining from all appearances of evil. Though Naaman’s dissembling his religion cannot be approved, yet because his promise to offer no sacrifice to any god but the God of Israel only was a great point gained with a Syrian, and because, by asking pardon in this matter, he showed such a degree of conviction and ingenuousness as gave hopes of improvement, the prophet took fair leave of him, and bade him Go in peace, 2 Kings. 5:19. Young converts must be tenderly dealt with.

I have four takeaways from this.

  1. The Bible is wholly adequate to speak to issues which arise in a 21st century context, especially with increasing religious pluralism.
  2. You may indeed find yourself doing more than “touring the facilities” but actually being asked (because of work or family commitments) to attend a service of worship of another faith.
  3. As Dr. Metzger points out, is the attitude of the heart that matters most.
  4. As Matthew Henry indicates, this situation ought to be the exception and not the rule, and we’re not granted permanent indulgences to participate in such worship events, but need to trust God that he will provide alternative arrangements so that we’re not doing this on a regular basis.

The graphic is a response to the popular Coexist graphic found in a 2012 blog post at the apologetics website Stand To Reason. Click the image to read more.

*Scroll down to October 24th, the “Pub Crawl” segment at this link.