Not One Square Inch!

 

Editor’s Note: The sermon below is by Dr. R. J. Gore, Professor of Systematic Theology, ETS. The sermon is posted here. Enjoy! This is well written. Indeed, this is an enjoyable read.

Born in 1955, I am a mid-generation Baby-Boomer (Boomers span the years 1946-1964). I remember growing up with some sense that all was not well in America. At some point, the phrase “Generation Gap” came into vogue and was used to describe the significant differences that divided the Builder Generation (pre-1946), which lived through the Great Depression and World War II, and the Boomers. And there were significant differences! The Builders were the “we” generation that saved their pennies and then paid with cash, that sacrificed and suffered through difficult times—across the board. The Boomers were (are!) the “me” generation that discovered down payments, credit cards, and student deferments for the draft. In the late 60s, anti-war protests with clashes between “hippies” and “hardhats” (middle-class, construction workers) provided the iconic images that epitomized the gap in generational values.

These generational differences, described in great detail in books by George Barna, William Strauss, and Neil Howe, became even greater as American society convulsed in the mid-60s over the Kennedy assassinations, the MLK assassination, the struggle for civil rights and racial equality, the impact of LBJ’s Great Society programs, and the unfolding disaster that was Vietnam. These problems were exacerbated in the 70s with the twin economic threats of runaway inflation and oil embargoes, and the political unraveling that was the Watergate scandal—and the first and only resignation of an American president.

It was in the late 60s that I had become a believer and throughout the early 70s I was part of a church that, in retrospect, reinforced the sense of impending doom and inevitable disaster that pervaded American life. The movie, “Thief in the Night,” was all the rage in our youth group. Its theme song, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” reinforced the fear and insecurity that we, awkward teenagers all, experienced already. Every year the Gospel quartet, The Inspirations, came to our church and sang “Jesus is Coming Soon.” I still remember the opening lines, “Troublesome times are here, filling men’s hearts with fear; Freedom we all hold dear, now is at stake . . . .”

These were the days of Jack Van Impe’s city-wide crusades and Salem Kirban’s prophecy conferences. We all knew that somehow the Pope and a revived Roman empire (to be revealed soon!) were busy at work, plotting the imminent unveiling of the Antichrist. The Soviets (Meschech=Moscow, Ezek. 38:2,3) were preparing their attack from the North and the communist Chinese were planning an invasion from the East, crossing the Euphrates River by the millions. When my home church went into massive debt to build a new sanctuary, the rationale was clear: if Jesus tarries, we will grow larger and be able to pay off the debt. If the “Rapture” occurs, however, the debt will not be our problem anymore!

Well, to make a long story short, the “Rapture” did not occur (I hope!), the Chinese and the Russians (Soviets no more) have not invaded Israel. Of course, Iran may be picking up their slack, but that is another issue. Jack Van Impe is now a fixture (an almost unavoidable fixture at that) on cable TV, interpreting the latest headlines in light of Bible prophecy; Salem Kirban passed away last spring; and I have moved on in my understanding of the Bible, theology, and church and culture. Somehow the United States has managed to survive, though not necessarily because of the wisdom of our elected officials.

If I had to sum up my church’s approach to culture (the church of my youth), it would be this: the “world” is under the dominion of the Devil, is headed straight for hell, and the sooner it gets there, the sooner the Lord will act and rapture his Bride (the church) out of this mess—so he can get on with the Tribulation Period and the Millennium. It was rather odd watching otherwise patriotic Americans, many of whom had relatives serving in Vietnam, relishing our downward cultural spiral. In their expectation, the impending triumph of evil would portend the Lord’s return—so bring it on! Repeatedly we were reminded, you will “know that it is near, even at the doors” (Matt. 24:33, KJV), so the worse things got, the closer we must be to deliverance. Consistent with this model, many Christians retreated into a “Christ against culture,” separatist stance. The spirit of this approach was aptly expressed by one famous radio Bible teacher who frequently reminded us: “you don’t polish the brass on a sinking ship.”

Even at the time, I had a sneaking suspicion that there was a better approach. Somehow the fact that God created the world, and declared it to be “very good,” left me a bit uncomfortable with the abandonment of that creation. I could not escape the thought that maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea to break out the Brasso and give the nearest tarnish a good lick or two. I was on the right track, though I would not have explained why at the time. As it is, my youthful preoccupation with prophecy has long sense evaporated. In my more mature years, I have become more interested in the question (and I will borrow these words from Francis Schaeffer), “How should we then live?”

I suspect that there are at least two primary reasons why my thinking has changed. First, in the mid-80s I became an Army chaplain. As I trained and served with other soldiers, officers, and NCOs who were committed to the defense of our country, I learned a new appreciation for the blessings of living in this great land. Someone once said that “a soldier is someone who, at one point in his/her life, wrote a blank check made payable to ‘The United States of America,’ for an amount of ‘up to and including my life.’” As a soldier, I had written that blank check as well, and that very fact had a tremendous impact on my awareness of my responsibilities as a citizen. If I am willing to die for my country, should I not be willing to live for it as well? For some, being willing to live for your country might mean a calling to public service. But it could be as simple as obeying speed limits, not littering, or recycling your newspapers. Clearly it means this for us all: being the best citizens we can be!

Second, and more importantly, I became a Calvinist. As a Calvinist, I became convinced that God is at work, redeeming all that is fallen, and not just saving souls (though saving souls IS very important). One day we will dwell in a new heaven and new earth, not float around on clouds in the sky. The biblical pattern of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation provides an optimism that the “prophecy pessimism” of my youth could not fund. And somewhere along my journey I came across this wonderful statement from Abraham Kuyper: journalist, theologian, church leader, and Prime Minister of the Netherlands. At the opening of the Free University, which he founded, Kuyper proclaimed: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” This says it all, doesn’t it? For the Christian, then, all ground is holy ground and every bush is a burning bush!

Now, it is possible to fall off the horse on two sides. At times the church has become so involved with the culture, so intertwined with it, that it has become captive to the culture, virtually identified with it. This is no better than the model I learned in my youth, in which the church abandons the culture to its own evil tendencies. Instead, the biblical model is that of Christ transforming the culture. As the people of God render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, while at the same time rendering to God the things that are God’s, the church can have a leavening effect on the culture around us. If shalom, or wholeness, is God’s plan for his people, we cannot expect to experience that wholeness by retreating behind the walls of our churches. It is true that we will never experience the fullness of God’s shalom until Christ returns and his kingdom comes in fullness. But we can begin now to experience, in part, that wholeness as we become engaged in transforming the world around us.

In his book, Deep Culture, James Belcher explains Kuyper’s concern. He writes: “Christians are called to create public educational institutions, build businesses, organize neighborhood groups, create charities, be artists and musicians and writers, and start political action groups. We are to make culture” (p. 192). He follows with this Scripture, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7). If God would so speak to Jews exiled and living in Babylon, the great city that is the epitome of opposition to God, what would he say to us in this wicked/godly, strange/wonderful land that is ours? “How should we then live?”

I am not sure about you, but I believe it is time for me to grab a can of Brasso; I think I see a square inch or two that could use a good polishing!

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