Sunday, May 10, 2009

Contra Babylon, cont.

What does it mean to choose the City of God over the City of Man? Volumes have been, and could continue to be, written about this. There is no short, simple answer.

One facet of the total answer does not appear to get respectful attention in the broad discussions of contemporary Christianity: Separation from the world— what Niebuhr called “Christ against culture” — seems to be disdained as some reactionary fundamentalism.

My early discipleship was formed by a faith community that seriously understood “worldliness” as sinful. Continuing to think about the implications of Revelation 18 and the reality of “Babylon,” I am reflecting on the implications of what the Spirit of Jesus gives John as a message to the Church: Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues (18:4).

I know this has been used to justify all kinds of self-righteous actions and schism in the Church. There is tension between unity and purity. We do not need proscriptions that tell people exactly what they can and cannot do, but to go from that stance to saying nothing is tragic. When people in the Church go after the same kinds of things that our pagan neighbors are going after, with the same intensity, something is wrong. It doesn't matter what the particular "thing" might be.

There is a hard truth here. Throughout the Scriptures, in this adversarial relationship between the City of Man and the City of God, there is an issue of “separation.” We can see it in the call of Abraham. God said, "Abram, I want to do a great thing through you, but if it's going to happen, you have to get away. If you stay in your hometown with the relatives and their pagan ways, I will not be able to do through you what I need to do. I will take you to a land that you know nothing of — where you don't know the customs and where the people do not know you, and where your dependence will be on me." It is out of that kind of attitude and relationship with God that we learn what separation is — that our dependence is on God.

One reason God put Israel into Egypt and then brought them out of Egypt all over again was to give His people a unique identity. From that point there is a concern for Israel to be separate. When they moved back to the land after the Exodus, God told them: "You are to be my people. I am going to move you among people whose ways are not my ways. You are not to inter-marry with them. You are to be my chosen people — my separate people." The truth of the theme has not changed. Isaiah continues the theme: Depart, depart, go out from there! Touch no unclean thing! Come out from it and be pure, you who carry the vessels of the Lord (52:11). The same concern follows in Jeremiah: Come out of her, my people! Run for your lives! Run from the fierce anger of the Lord (51:45). He is talking about Babylon, so there is a direct analogy here.

The same concern is in the Epistles: Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with a unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and an idol? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people."

Therefore come out from them and be separate,"
says the Lord.
"Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you."
"I will be a Father to you,
and you will be my sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty
" (2Cor. 6:14,15).

I know there are periods in church history where there have been excesses and abuses with this theme. An obsession with it leads to legalism and abuse. On the other hand, there is today both ignorance and dismissal of an important issue. Many Christians invite the "unclean thing" into their homes through television and computer connections. We need to know there is a principle of separation to which God calls His people. We are called to be different and distinctive, not because we're “Pharisees” — legalists — but because we are sensitive to the truth that Jesus really does live in His people and calls them to be holy.

In Jesus' prayer (John 17) He says, Father I do not pray that you would take them out of the world. So when I say "separation" I don't mean withdrawing from all contact with the "world." Some Christian communities try that, either overtly (like the Amish) or in attitude (like radical fundamentalists). Jesus is saying that in the way we interact with the world, we are not to be like the world. But Jesus does, in fact, say, I leave them in the world. Why? So we can be salt and light. How can we be salt and light if we are not distinctive?

John Bunyan wrote a book that almost everyone just a few generations ago would have read as part of standard education. I think it would be a good thing for present-day believers to read The Pilgrim's Progress. In one part of his journey, Pilgrim comes to a place called "Vanity Fair" (which is the City of Man). We live in Vanity Fair.

God's people are either being persecuted or seduced. When the Church is really faithful, it is persecuted. Seduction is a call for the Church to compromise with worldliness to ease the tension of living in a hostile environment: "Lord, what's the least I can do and still be okay? I don't want to be too weird." But the message of Jesus is that separation is the order of the day. Sometimes it will be physical separation; we will do some physical things that mark us off from the world. But it will always be ideological — we will always think differently than the world thinks. Paul told the Romans, Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its mold (12:2, J. B. Phillips).

It can seem to us that everyone else is going with the flow and enjoying it. It is like a cartoon I once saw in The New Yorker. It shows two guys standing in hell with the flames leaping up. One man is talking to the other one, and he says, "You know, I always thought ‘Go with the flow,' but I never thought the flow would end up here."

It's easy to go with the flow when things are comfortable, and especially when things are luxuriant. The Rome of John's time was notorious for excessive luxury, but Rome doesn't have everything on us. I get catalogs that can only be described as ridiculous. They often have the "harlot" right on the cover. One boldly invites, "Take control of your leisure time." Inside is a blurb for a chair you can order: "Explore the outer limits of your personal serenity zone with this get-away chair." Pictured is a nice leather chair for $2,500.00. It has a vibrator in it, and a built in stereo. You can shake, rattle and roll right there in one chair. Some outdoor catalogs advertise fishing rods from $500.00 to $1000.00. And of course with a rod like that a person cannot go to K-Mart to buy a tackle box. What you want is "the world's finest tackle bag — hand crafted and appointed in latigo leather," at a price of $495.00.

Rich people who lie in leather chairs, fish and shoot, play golf and tennis (or polo, or whatever) are presented to our society as some ultimate leisure lifestyle. That is the goal of our culture today, and there is a price range for every person who will be seduced. A man can sell his soul at Walmart. The issue is pride and indulgence. Our tendency, if we are going to err on one side or the other, is always to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. That spirit is part of a system that is sitting under the judgment of God. That is John’s warning to the Church.

As this scene in Revelation concludes, the kings, the merchants and the shipmen begin to weep and wail and mourn (vs9,11,15,19). They look at what is going on, and their hearts are broken. It is good for to me to ask myself the question, and to ask you, "What makes us weep?" If we answer honestly, we may have a good clue to our values.

As I said last time, people committed to the City of Man selfishly weep over their own losses. In Jesus, we see the heart of the Son of God broken for people who are perishing. In order to save us, He Himself went up on a hill outside of the city that rejected him and gave His life. I know of no greater contrast in the world. You can get the cover of Cosmopolitan, the cover of Better Homes and Gardens, and the cover of all the catalogs that junk our mailboxes, and put them all on one side of a wall. On the other side of the wall, place a crucifix — Jesus hanging on the cross. That is our choice.

Someday, everything this world offers us will come to an end. The one thing that will remain is that which we cannot see right now with our natural eyes. Let's be people who fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2Cor. 4:18).

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