Sunday, April 05, 2015

Christians Are Not Exempt

If you think it looks easy, try a few lines ...
The prosperity gospel is bunk. This is not a profound revelation.

Anyone who pays attention to the word of God is aware that in the ordinary course of things, we Christians are not exempt from the ills of the world. Believers do not get a free pass on pain and suffering. God’s primary concern for us is not that we “have a good self-image and feel right about ourselves”, notwithstanding Joel Osteen’s latest work of fiction.

Most Christians understand this in principle, but when it’s my life that’s being put through the wringer, I may have a little more trouble than usual believing it.

The Complaint of Baruch

Baruch was the scribe who took dictation from Jeremiah. He’s the reason we have a book of Jeremiah to read today. It’s 52 chapters, some of them lengthy; 1,364 verses in total. Writing it out by hand was surely a tedious process: Baruch didn’t own a copy of Microsoft Word or even a ballpoint pen. If you’ve seen what Hebrew letters look like, you’ll know what I mean: even the cursive is blocky and painstaking to reproduce. Unlike English, there is no script version of the alphabet; letters never flow into one another with any fluidity. He had to rewrite a big chunk of the book too, when the King of Judah had the temerity to burn the original. I doubt Baruch got paid for his labor, and he took considerable personal risk over many years delivering God’s messages to a hostile audience on behalf of a prophet accused by Jewish patriots of being a liar and a traitor.

So he was not a bad guy. He was a faithful Jew in a time when faithful Jews were few and far between.

But he did complain: once, that we know of. It was a short complaint and it may even have been a private one, but this is what Baruch said:
“Woe is me! For the Lord has added sorrow to my pain. I am weary with my groaning, and I find no rest.”
This was undoubtedly true. If this chapter falls in chronological order, Baruch’s complaint came at a time in which the people of Judah were under the judgment of God, variously afflicted with the sword, famine and pestilence. Most of them had been carted off captive to Babylon and those that remained had made a run for what they hoped was safety in Egypt. Jeremiah (and presumably Baruch along with him) had been dragged to Egypt against their wills by a group of rebellious Jews who were determined to reject the command of God and live with the consequences.

So, yeah, sorrow, pain, weariness and groaning were the order of the day. Baruch was not being a wimp, and he was not exaggerating the situation in which he found himself. It was not pretty, and things were getting worse.

God’s Response

God heard Baruch’s complaint and he sent him a personal message through Jeremiah. The message was this:
“Thus says the Lord: Behold, what I have built I am breaking down, and what I have planted I am plucking up — that is, the whole land. And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not, for behold, I am bringing disaster upon all flesh, declares the Lord. But I will give you your life as a prize of war in all places to which you may go.”
In short, Baruch’s reward for faithful service was not to come in his lifetime. There was no prosperity to be had, and none that should be expected. To be allowed to live when others were being slaughtered regularly was a bonus.

Corporate Consequences

We live in a day of individualists, among people who often believe themselves so distinct and autonomous that they tell us everyone has a right to possess unique and personal truth rather than be subject to reality.

This is a concept even more nonsensical and anti-biblical than the prosperity gospel, but its message is pervasive and the assumptions that arise from it are embedded even in the spaces between some Christian ears. We need to be reminded that no one lives and dies to himself. Not only does our conduct and pattern of choices affect the Lord, it has consequences for our wives, children, church and society.

The Lord sees us not just as individuals, but as members of the societies or families in which he has placed us.

The Pattern in Scripture

We see this pattern established in the camp of Israel in the desert. Achan took some of the devoted things, and we read “the Lord’s anger burned against Israel”. More people than Achan were affected: thirty-six soldiers lost their lives because he got greedy.

The pattern continues in the New Testament. In the church in Ephesus, there were still those who “had an ear”, and those who would “conquer”. But the Lord warns the entire church that he would “remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent”. We are not told where these attentive conquerors among the congregation would end up if that happened, but the testimony of a local church was at risk and the Lord could not allow the existing state of affairs to continue indefinitely among those who bear his name.

The book of Proverbs tells us that “Whoever is greedy for unjust gain troubles his own household”. Even without the cautionary tale of Achan in scripture, it’s not difficult to see how that might work out.

A Question of Fairness

We may argue that it is unreasonable for corporate consequences to arise out of individual sins; that God is being unfair to innocent parties. That is certainly what the spirit of the age would have us believe.

We have to remember that when we form our concept of fairness and presume to judge God by our standard, we are doing so in the absence of an awful lot of information. We do not know the facts of the particular cases, though we often presume to. We do not have God’s love for — or even a tiny fraction of his investment in — those whom he judges. Further, we often fail to spend much time contemplating the question of whether we might bear any personal responsibility for the spiritual state of those being judged.

And in the end, we will all be assessed as individuals, so we have nothing to complain about. Nobody will pay in eternity for the sin of another, and no believer will miss his or her reward on account of someone else’s actions. Where final judgment is concerned, “the righteous will not fare as the wicked”.

But in this life the actions of some have consequences for all. That’s on us, folks, not God.

A Little Out of Line

Coming back to Baruch for a moment, we see that his complaint, humble as it may have been, was a little out of line for two reasons:

First, Baruch was a Jew, and after many years of patience and repeated warnings, God was finally judging the nation of Judah. As his servants, Baruch and Jeremiah were rewarded with their lives and Jeremiah received a few additional concessions from the King of Babylon. But to do any more than this for his servants, God would have had to remove his testimony from the nation entirely. Jeremiah and Baruch could, I suppose, have lived happily in some other nation, raised families and enjoyed financial stability while Judah was destroyed and its people taken captive, but God’s word would not have been declared, nobody else in Judah would have had a chance to repent, and there would be no lesson for future generations, including this one.

And it is important to God to ensure he has a testimony, even if it comes at a cost to those who represent him. We ought to be thankful for the opportunity to stand with him and speak on his behalf just as the Lord Jesus did.

After all, would we be right to ask God for a better deal than he gave his own Son?

Second, nobody got a worse deal here than God, something that is often overlooked. He says to Baruch, “Behold, what I have built I am breaking down, and what I have planted I am plucking up”. Baruch had an investment in Judah of a few decades at most. God had invested first in Israel and then in Judah for centuries, to endless frustration as he observed them engaged in willful disobedience of his laws, time after time after seemingly-endless time. To be left with no choice other than to judge Israel publicly caused the Lord a level of grief and sadness that all Baruch’s personal weariness could not touch with a ten foot pole.

Baruch should have understood this. In fact, he wrote down these very words that speak of God’s feelings for the people of Judah:
“I have forsaken my house; I have abandoned my heritage;
I have given the beloved of my soul into the hands of her enemies.
My heritage has become to me like a lion in the forest;
she has lifted up her voice against me …”
Judah was God’s heritage, the beloved of his soul. Nobody got a worse deal here than God did. How appropriate would it be for God’s servants to celebrate and prosper in a time when his people’s wickedness had driven him to such measures?

How Is Your Church Doing?

How are the people of God where you live?

I’m speaking generally, of course. These thoughts arise as I do my weekly internet survey of Christendom and see what the people who carry the name of Jesus Christ today think, how they interpret God’s word and how they are choosing to live.

Maybe your own church is not too bad — I hope it’s terrific — but the overall picture is not pretty, and in some ways it reminds me more than a little of Judah in Jeremiah’s time. This is no surprise to believers who read the later books of the New Testament. It is certainly not a surprise to the Lord.

What should we expect for ourselves in a day when the Lord may well be threatening the lampstands of many churches, and some have already been removed? Should we be “seeking great things” for ourselves in times like these? Would we prefer to be exempt from what is going on around us?

Not if we are conscious of the importance of maintaining the testimony of the Lord, and certainly not if we understand how he feels about doling out judgment.

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