Thursday, July 29, 2010 | By: Zachary Bartels

If...

If a man set up a meeting with me in my study at church....

...and if that man showed up with charts and graphs and powerpoint presentations, offering me access to a program by which I would be guaranteed to quadruple attendance, membership, and involvement at our church, all within six months...

...if he had iron-clad documentation showing that, should my church not grow to 3,000 members within a year of implementing the program, he would cut us a check for $10,000 (because he’s just that sure about his methodology)...

...if the fee to be involved in said program was absolutely zero—free as the air...

...and if a lawyer whom I trusted intrisically was there to verify that everything was above-board and on the level...

...well, I'd be interested. I'd ask what the program entailed.

And if the man explained that his program involved de-emphasizing the cross of Jesus Christ (which is a stumbling block and foolishness to those who are perishing) and instead emphasizing how God can help you live an exciting, “extreme” life of faith; how God can improve your ho-hum sex life; how God can show you the best ways to financial security and the quickest way to professional fulfillment...

...if it meant looking at what the lost people in our area would like to see in a weekly Sunday meeting and hear in a “sermon” and then implementing those things in order to pack the house...

...if it meant moving the Lord’s Supper to a secondary mid-week service so it wouldn’t creep out “seekers...”

...in short, if it meant transitioning to a purpose-driven, seeker-driven, pragmatism-driven, felt-needs model of church and leadership...

...I'd laugh in the guy’s face and tell him, “No thanks, and here’s the door.”

And if he persisted and tried to hard-sell me, I’d say these words:

“Get behind me, Satan. For you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of man.”

Why, you ask? Wouldn’t it be better to at least get a whole bunch of people in the front door?

No. Not like that.

There are some cases in which the difference between perishing and parishing is negligible.
 
Friday, July 9, 2010 | By: Zachary Bartels

Yeah, I've Heard That Story...

Lately, I’ve been making use of the Lutheran Treasury of Daily Prayer for my evening devotional reading. It’s a spectacular volume, each day providing a psalm, an Old Testament reading, a New Testament reading, an excerpt from a hymn, and a devotional writing (often from the church fathers).

I love that it’s the opposite of most modern day “devotionals,” which are generaly concerned with giving you a little nugget of law-lite—some advice to help you get through the day (90% of which could be given just as well even if Jesus Christ had not died on a cross for the sins of the world).

As the TDP maintains the distinction between Law and Gospel, I’ve noticed something else too—it’s rather repetitive. Again and again, we read about what Christ did on the cross, what he accomplished for you and me. Not so much about tackling your day, grabbing your “marked moments,” or any of that other goofy stuff you find in most devotional books. Instead, it’s cross-centered through and through. Again and again. Day after day.

But being repetitive, I recently realized, is our faith’s heritage, even pre-dating the cross by many centuries. The Old Testament readings in the TDP have just wrapped up Joshua and moved into Judges. The people of Israel have settled in the land and are now struggling with the Gentiles living amongst them with their heathen gods and idols. Again and again, the people go after other gods, and each time God chastises them by allowing their enemies to overtake them for a time. Once they’ve repented, God raises up a leader to throw off the oppression of the Moabites or Amalekites or whoever... Last night, it was the story of Ehud, which pretty much reads like a Tarantino screenplay.

These events take place over the course of hundreds of years, but when you see that cycle repeat itself page after page—rebellion, punishment, repentence, deliverance; rebellion, punishment, repentence, deliverance—it’s easy to get annoyed with these people. Hello! What do you think is going to happen if you follow false gods? Maybe the same thing that happened the last eleven times?!

The fact of the matter is that we are forgetful people. We forget what God has done in the past. That’s why the Old Testament is chock-full of re-tellings of the Exodus story. Over and over and again, God reminds His people how they were slaves in Egypt, how he brought the plagues and brought about their release, how he parted the sea, how he was faithful to them in the wilderness and brought them to the Promised Land. They already knew the story, of course. They hadn’t really forgotten, but they hadn’t remembered either. And that was the problem.

It seems the antidote to that frustrating pattern in the book of Judges is to keep remembering the story of our deliverance by God’s merciful hand.

We were slaves too—slaves to sin. We were unable to free ourselves, just like Israel could not even dream of defeating the Egyptian army. Like Israel in Egypt, we were resigned to our slavery, more or less content to live and die slaving away, building someone else’s kingdom, having never tasted freedom. But God sent a great leader to us. Greater than Moses. He sent His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus lived a perfect life, thus fufilling our contract with Egypt. Then he told the Devil, “Let my people go!”

Like his servant Pharaoh, Satan was not about to just give up all of his slaves. The ensuing conflict was not a seven-part tit-for-tat like the story of Moses and Egypt’s king; it was an all-or-nothing final conflict, played out on a hill called The Skull outside of Jerusalem,
and it ended with Christ dead and Satan gloating. He had finally won, and his slaves would be his slaves forever, bound to build his kingdom forever.

He enjoyed the day intensely, watching the Son of God dying, sin piled on his boney shoulders, occasionally crying out in pain. Satan enjoyed creeping up beside him on the cross to mock and jeer. He enjoyed sticking his sword through the heart of Jesus’ mother who was weeping in a heap a few yards from the cross, while Jesus writhed in agony, seemingly helpless to put a stop to it. And he enjoyed stroking the egos of the religious leaders standing at a distance, stirring up an almost sexual glee in their flesh as they watched their enemy finally get what he deserved.

When Christ gave up and died (the first on the hill to cash it in, the demons pointed out with a scoff), the Devil laughed himself hoarse. The sight of the King of Kings, slumped against that pole, his eyes vacant, the birds of prey already swooping closer and closer, was too hilarious for words. The Christ’s hold—or what had remained of it—on this wicked planet had finally been broken. Decisively. It was now the exclusive property of the Devil and his angels. If Satan had any doubt of that, it was put to rest when he learned that the curtain in the temple was split in two (so long, “holy place!”) and a surge of supernatural energy had caused hundreds of people to start seeing ghosts all over the city!

Saturday was a field day for the Devil. He was usually in a foul mood on the Sabbath, but not today; not ever again! He attended a Roman orgy, the stoning of a young child, and several pagan temple services. And between each, he made a stop back at the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, where Jesus’ dead body lay at room temperature. As for Jesus’ soul, it was in hades with all the pitiful slaves who had died before him. How utterly stupid of God himself to become sin and tempt fate on a Roman cross. Didn’t he know that, to the Prince of Darkness, a cross was like a lyre in the hands of a skilled musician?

The Devil spent the evening curled up under the bloated body of Judas Isacriot, hanging dead from a tree. Treachery was a great dessert, and Satan lingered there, dreaming about what he would do to his slaves tomorrow.

Then came Sunday.

Satan first heard the report from a demonic foot soldier who had been skulking around the garden tomb, then from some higher-ups whom he had years earlier assigned to follow the Twelve at a distance. The reports were all vague, but together they painted a unified and horrifying picture: the stone had been moved, the tomb was empty. The women weren’t crying—they were laughing! The peasant fisherman (just two days ago running away from the action and cowering in an upper chamber) were running to the tomb, emboldened. They were all telling and retelling stories about seeing the Christ. Seeing him alive and well!

Satan rushed to the tomb. The damned thing was empty.

He then rushed to the mouth of hades. Christ was gone. And he’d taken many of the other souls with him. All of Satan’s greatest trophies were gone, escaped! He skulked and moped and roamed the earth, hoping to calm himself by once again taking in the scope of his kingdom. But something was different. His slaves were being set free. One by one, their massive iron slave collars were falling away, replaced by a yoke that was easy and light, signifying that they now belonged, not to him, but to the Christ.

In a rage, he ascended to the gates of heaven. He would take his grievance into the courtroom of God, where he went regularly to accuse his slaves and keep them firmly in his grip. As he neared God’s abode, he rehearsed in his mind what he would say, how he would make his case and appeal to justice—after all, he had won at the hill called The Skull, and to the victor goes the spoils!

But the gates were locked. You can’t come in, he was told. Never again. You’ve been locked out. The dragon has been cast to the earth.

“But who will stand between God and man?” Satan protested. “Who will do what I have always done? Who will accuse and bring charges and point out their filth?”

I’m afraid your position has been eliminated, came the reply. Christ himself now stands between God and man, but not to accuse and condemn. He is there as mediator, to make peace.

As he descended back to the earth, Satan felt his stomach tighten. He could see that it was already spreading. The fithly, fleshy creatures were still telling that horrible story and it was oozing into every corner of Satan’s kingdom. The servants of the Christ were telling it to the slaves, whose collars were falling off left and right with a deafening clang. And they were telling it to each other, giving each other strength and comfort.

Satan had to stop this. He would put a stop to it. It was then that he noticed the chains binding him, holding him back from deceiving the nations. He was helpless to stem the spread of the story. It was too powerful. Christ was too powerful. And with every re-telling, even the filthy flesh-bags who worshiped the Christ were ever-more powerful. As he finished his descent and his talons touched down on the earth, Satan made a decision. There was only one thing to do.

He had to distract them from telling the story.