Church Write-Up: “Idols,” the Right Fire Hydrant, and the Hebrew Bible Pointing to Christ

Last Sunday, I attended two church services.  The first service was at what I have called, correctly or incorrectly, the “Word of Faith” church; some weeks the label fits because it has prosperity teaching, and some weeks the label does not fit because it delivers the opposite of prosperity teaching.  The second service was at a Missouri Synod Lutheran church.

I will discuss both services.  Then, I will offer some responses.

A.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church has been going through the Elijah story.  His message last Sunday was that we should be most passionate about God—-not celebrity (i.e., being celebrated by others), social and economic status, being countercultural and independent (this church is close to Portland), sports, or TV.  None of these things are wrong, he said, but we should be most passionate about God, rather than letting these other things consume us.  These are false gods when we make an idol of them, and they will not answer us in time of trouble; God, however, will answer those who are sold out to God.  But how do we identify the true God?  For one, the pastor said, the true God will put us in situations in which we desperately need God.  Second, in the same way that the fire from heaven in the Elijah story struck the altar and not the sinful Israelites, so did the true God punish Jesus for our sins.

Overall, it was a Tim Keller-esque sort of message.  In fact, the pastor showed us a brief clip of Tim Keller.  Tim Keller said in the clip that, if we make success the source of our identity, worth, and happiness, then we will work a lot.  In the process, we may neglect relationships with family and friends and, thus, opportunities to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit.  We may even find ourselves compromising moral principles in our pursuit of success—-by lying, for example.

The pastor also referred to something that his son-in-law said that resonated with him.  The son-in-law likened Christians having the Holy Spirit to being connected to a fire hydrant.  The righteous sentiments are there in Christians because they are connected to Christ, but they do not always flow out of the Christians, providing the motivations for the Christians’ actions.  The pastor (at the “Word of Faith” church, not Tim Keller) mentioned the current controversy about the football players not standing for the national anthem.  The pastor acknowledged that this country has its share of abuses, but he speculated that the football player who refused to stand did so because he desired attention and celebrity.  Many who stand for the anthem, however, may themselves have an improper motivation, the pastor said: they honor America because it has been the source of their financial prosperity.  The pastor shared that, as one who tries to be connected to the right fire hydrant (Jesus), he has another motivation for standing for the national anthem: because God in Romans 13 commands Christians to respect and honor the governing authorities.

B.  At the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, the service was about the Scriptures being about Jesus.  The youth pastor was talking about how many characters in the Old Testament, who were righteous and talked with God, nevertheless sinned.  The point of the Old Testament was to show that we are sinners who need Jesus.  The pastor in the sermon made similar points.  He asked what the points of the Samson and Jephthah stories are: why were they included in the Bible?  He also talked about how the Pharisees saw the Bible primarily as a rule book: do these rules, and you will gain eternal life.  Jesus, by contrast, was trying to show them that the Scriptures pointed to him: they promised a Messiah, and they showed that people were sinners in need of a savior.

The worship service was especially powerful.  I was particularly moved by the song “Death Was Arrested,” by North Point InsideOut.  “Oh, your grace SO FREE, washes OVER ME…”  When the song was over, there was a brief time of solemn silence.  I haven’t had this powerful a worship experience since I was in college.

This was also the first time at this church that I went forward for communion.  This is a Missouri Synod Lutheran church, which means that communion is closed.  I do not know what I need to do to receive communion at this church, so, most weeks, I stayed in my pew when people went up for communion.  The bulletin said that those who choose not to partake of communion can go up, cross their arms over their chest, and receive a blessing, and that is what I did.  The pastor gave people bread, then he made the sign of the cross over my forehead, then he distributed bread to the next person.  No major awkwardness there!

C.  I used to be inspired by the Tim Keller sorts of sermons.  Nowadays, I am not as much, though, don’t get me wrong, I do prefer them to legalistic messages, or “You need to go and reach out to other people” messages.  Tim Keller-esque messages are like comforting “God loves you” sermons, in their own way.

Where I think they are useful is that they do highlight the potential dangers of being obsessed with certain things, like fame or financial success.  I had some difficulty with what Tim Keller said about an intense desire for success compromising friendships.  I do not have a good track record with friendships, so my instinct, of course, is to pursue success over being with other people, who may not even like me (and vice versa) down the road.  But I would not want to find myself lying or being a bad person on my attempted road to success.

I have problems rooting my sense of identity and worth in God.  The reason is that, in my opinion, Scripture seems to present God as conditionally loving.  The biblical passages that continually loom in my mind are the ones that say that God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others.  I have difficulty loving a God who has that as a policy.

In terms of my passions, I would say that I have a balance in my life.  I have a devotional life.  I read the Bible and other religious literature, ancient and modern.  I pray.  But I also work on my dissertation.  I watch shows that I enjoy.  I do not want to agonize over whether I love God more or less than these things.  God is there in my life, and I enjoy those things.  Those things may even be a part of my devotion to God, yet that does not mean that I conform my scholarship to a Christian agenda, or try to interpret the shows that I watch through a rigid Christian grid.  The shows teach lessons about life, love, and the attempts of flawed human beings to make their way through a flawed world.  That overlaps with what Christianity talks about, and I acknowledge that, but I do not try to be heavy-handed when I look at shows in reference to Christianity.

On the Missouri Synod Lutheran service, seeing the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible as a precursor to Jesus Christ, of course, runs contrary to the historical-critical approach to the Hebrew Bible that I have learned.  The pastors’ statement that the Old Testament saints were sinners is tempting to believe, and I do not necessarily dismiss it, but I am interested in how historical-critics would address such a motif: why would the biblical writers portray people as making mistakes?  And how does that compare with other ancient literature?  A passage that comes to my mind is Genesis 20:13, in which Abraham tells Abimelech that his custom is to claim that his wife Sarah is his sister.  Many evangelicals maintain that Abraham claiming that Sarah was his sister was a good example of the flaws of Old Testament saints: Abraham was lying, after all, and lying is a sin.  What Genesis 20:13 seems to show, though, is that it never dawned on Abraham that such a practice was even wrong.  It was his custom to do this.  That makes me wonder: were the biblical authors writing the wife-sister narratives to show that Abraham was a sinner, in need of a Savior?  Or was there another reason?

I think, however, of the John MacArthur sermon that I heard a few Sundays ago, in which MacArthur said that God’s moral will may have been ambiguous prior to the Torah.  That may be a stretch: God punished the earth with the Flood, and Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone from heaven, due to their sins.  God had some moral law prior to the Torah.  But there may be something to MacArthur’s speculation: maybe Abraham did not fully know that lying was wrong.

I’ll stop here.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Church. Bookmark the permalink.