Monday, March 21, 2011

Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Holiness

John 3:1-17

A Dallas TX therapist once wrote, "If religion is not used as a magic pill but as a source of spiritual and moral strength and guidance, then it can be a major contributing factor to preserving marriage ... [HOWEVER, bumper sticker slogans like] 'Put God first in your marriage', whatever that means to them, 'be faithful in church, be a good Christian, pray a lot, attend church, and God will work everything out for you' [can be significant, contributing factors to the failures of many Christian marriages]. - Dr. Roy Austin, therapist and Southwestern Seminary graduate

Before I go further, let me say that what I want to share and hope to convey is not exclusively about marriage or divorce; but an article I stumbled on recently brought to light certain realities about the Christian faith and the correlation between spiritual realities and spiritual expectations; all of which are related not only in marriage but in daily faithful living. The numbers themselves did not really surprise me, but the corresponding comments explaining some of the numbers, such as the comment I shared, did catch me a little off guard.

For instance, would you have guessed that the rate of divorce among the so-called evangelical, fundamentalist, typically very conservative, 'born again' Christians was significantly higher than the divorce rate among atheists and agnostics? Of course every poll can be slanted to manipulate a certain conclusion even though statisticians claim to be as fair and impartial as humanly possible. And maybe they are.

Some Christian groups have tried to claim that such numbers are a deliberate, manipulative, and concentrated effort to undermine Christianity in general. But when a pollster concludes that there is very little discernable difference between Christians and non-Christians in public life regardless of circumstances or categories - and the numbers seem to bear out these conclusions - now that is saying something. And the Church must sit up and take notice not exclusively because of public perceptions but primarily because of the notion - I might suggest "superstition" - of religious faith as that "magic pill" that will cure what ails us with little or no input or effort on our part; in other words, a "magical" transformation that does not take into account the Arminian doctrine of free will. It is not a "PR" nightmare the Church faces; rather it is a theological crisis of identity that goes far beyond marriage and divorce.

In my humble opinion and estimation, the term "born-again Christian" is very much misunderstood, often over-used, and profoundly misappropriated. John's text must be read very carefully in order to understand what Jesus is talking about. Notice vs. 10 when Jesus admonishes the "teacher of Israel" Nicodemus for not understanding what is being referred to. What seems directly implied is that there is existing Scripture sufficient to speak to Nicodemus and those he may be representing in what should already be known.

The concept of being "born again", then, is not exactly a "new" thing Jesus is initiating. Spiritual rebirth should have been widely known AND taught among the faithful of Israel, but it seems clear that this spiritual reality has been completely forgotten or, at the very least, misunderstood. I would suggest the misunderstanding might be more appropriate to what is being witnessed today by these pollsters and the general public.

It is written in Ezekiel 36:25-27, 29 (NRSV): "I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you, and make you follow My statutes and be careful to observe My ordinances ... I will save you from all your uncleanness."

In case you are wondering, Ezekiel is Old Testament; and "old" does not seem appropriate to the text especially in the context in which Jesus is speaking. It must also be noted that Nicodemus is being admonished not only for being apparently unfamiliar with Scripture but also for failing to fulfill his role as a "teacher of Israel". The Sanhedrin, the Jewish council that may have served more of an 'enforcement' role rather than a teaching role in the life of Israel, is being admonished as a whole by Jesus not because they cannot grasp something "new". Rather, Nicodemus and those he may represent are being admonished for not knowing what already is a certain spiritual reality.

Remembering that contextual reading is everything in studying Scripture, we must remember that Ezekiel is speaking to Israel to and through the Exile. The Exile came when Israel and Judah both seemed determined to live by the "flesh". They were hopelessly spiritually and politically corrupt and profoundly idolatrous. Even though these were the "Lord's chosen" who had a clear Law and an equally clear sense of identity, the people of the Lord had betrayed them both by their idolatry - their love of self and their utter disregard for the Spirit and the Law of the Lord.

They had fallen back to the time of the Judges when everyone in Israel did "what was right in his own eyes"; every person for himself or herself, disregard for the Lord and His way, disregard for justice, and disregard for the "widow and the orphan". They had, by the works of their own hands and their "hearts of stone", become like every other kingdom and by their idolatrous acts, the lives they chose to lead, they had ignored the Lord. And because they were so headstrong, "stiff-necked", stubborn, and selfish like all their pagan neighbors, they were soon overwhelmed by their pagan neighbors, the Assyrians, in the Exile; they were run off their land. The people of the Lord devoted their lives to the chasing of their own tails rather than to the pursuit of holiness. And because holiness - spiritual cleanness - was obviously so unimportant to them, holiness was taken from them and they were handed over to their enemies because it was "happiness" they sought; not holiness.

In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with being happy. I surely do not believe the Lord calls us to a life of misery and pain, but the "pursuit of happiness" is much more vague, much more difficult to define than is the spiritual reality of simply being content, satisfied with where we are and with what we have; grateful to receive more as it comes, but not wholly devoted to that pursuit because those who are content with what is can devote time to those "means of grace" we employ to grow in faith. Being solely devoted to the "pursuit of happiness", personal pleasure, and personal accumulation of wealth means something must necessarily be pushed aside.

Jesus teaches as much when He tells us it simply is not possible to serve two masters because we will love one and hate the other. One will get in the way of the other so that in order to pursue one, the other must be rejected. Such as this may be at the heart of the conservation Jesus is having with Nicodemus, especially when Jesus clearly distinguishes "earthly things" from "heavenly things". Like Nicodemus, we are much more likely to put stock in what we can see, smell, taste, and touch than we are to pursue that which cannot be seen and may actually run contrary to what we please.

In the end, however, Jesus offers the heart of what He is sharing with Nicodemus. The Lord did not come to "condemn"; He came to "save" - EVERYONE who believes in Him. And as the Bible teaches, those who reject Him stand condemned already. Those who have chosen one "master" over another can be relatively and spiritually certain at just about any given time where they stand with the Lord because devotion to Him is not an "event" nor is there a "magic pill" that will simply make it all happen - it is the choice of Life in the pursuit of holiness. Period. The alternative is death.

As ironic as it may sound, the Lord loves enough that we are indeed at liberty to choose which it will be. Amen.

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