Thursday, August 7, 2008

My Suffering as an Enthusiast Ended Through the Sign of the Prophet Jonah

I did all of that seeker stuff. I grew up in the Rick Warren movement. I was a Charismatic. I was a Southern Baptist. I spent years being mentored by former Pentecostals and seeking the ever elusive Holy Spirit Baptism. My father was a Promise Keeper. I’ve read the Purpose Driven Life. I was a praise and worship musician for the better part of a decade starting at the age of thirteen. We played 2-4 services a week and we went on tour to perform at other churches. As a young boy, I helped the liberal elements revamp our congregation with modern worship forms and enthusiast theology. When we joined the church, it had an organ and a few score in membership. When I left, we sat 300+ every Sunday, had a drum kit on the stage, and we hosted Christian punk rock band tours whenever they came to town.

I was also a songwriter. I wrote and performed my compositions before my church whenever the format permitted. The music of the enthusiast is an important window into what makes them tick. It is important to look at what they are singing and connect with them on a deep level.

Why? Because most enthusiasts are secretly hurting inside. Their hope is in the Law and they battle discouragement and disappointment daily. Imagine a life where Christ is most present in the worship that you create and that your connection to God is primarily evidenced by your feelings. Imagine serving a God who comes abundantly in some cases and trickles down in others. Imagine a Holy Spirit who only moves when we do the right things to invoke Him. Imagine a life devoid of the solid foundation that ancient Christianity was built on. Try to live a Christian life that only pays lip service to faith while seeking ever more elaborate ways to reassure itself through signs and miracles.

I submit a song that I wrote as an enthusiast. I performed this song for my congregation. It made people raise their hands, pray, and worship God. After the debut of this song, people came up to me and praised me for my insight and honesty. They thought I really had figured stuff out and that I had written a song that really spoke to the truth of living the life of a Christian. I know people who still love this song. How? It is hopeless! Looking back, my heart grieves to know that this song speaks for many of my brothers and sisters.

Fire by Night
By Mike Baker (when he was living in error as an enthusiast)

How long must I live in this harshest desert?
How long must I thirst as I wander though the heat?
I had a better time as a slave in Egypt,
I don’t know if You’ll provide for me now today.

But You, O God, know my inner questions
The answers You leave are there for me to see
The signs that You’re givin’ me
Lead me through the desert
Through Fire by Night and Cloud by Day

How high must I climb to feel you in abundance?
How far can I fall and still feel your grace?
How long can I live without your gentle healing?
Must there be less of me so I can hear your voice?

‘Cause You, O God, don’t talk the way you used to
The answers You leave are ones I do not see
The signs You are giving me are not out in the open
Like Fire by Night and Cloud by Day.

Maybe just once if you wrote a message in the stars
If I listened for a change… I would know Your heart.

But You, O God, are talking in a whisper
The answers You give are there for those who see
The signs You are giving me are there if I would listen
To the still small voice inside of me

If I listen for a change… can I know Your heart?

I weep for people who feel as I did when I wrote this song. I am horrified that people believe as I once did: that “Jesus being in my heart” means that I should rely solely on some inner voice or subjective experience to lead me in the faith.

This song leads you to false hope. When I wrote it, I was blind. I was searching for God, but I was so spiritually and theologically starved that He seemed elusive, hidden, and distant. I couldn’t know God’s heart because I was listening to the wrong things. Consequently, I felt that God the Father had largely abandoned His people… especially me.

The Enthusiast always wonders why things changed between the Bible and now. Why did God make things so easy for His people in the Old Testament and so hard for us today. Why did God speak verbally to Elijah but not to the church today? Why did God guide His people through visible miracles in the past and not in the present? Why did God speak in a loud voice before and not now? Why did God sit and eat with Abraham then, but not with the church today? They do not understand this mystery and they envy that kind of intimate relationship with God. They search for this relationship in worship and controversial signs, but never find it. They become so desperate that they start to see miracles, angels, and demons everywhere. They will believe anything that looks like a miracle. They will doubt anything that does not feel right. The world becomes bewildering and chaotic.

They are looking in the wrong place. God is not subjective and internal. He is objective and external. He does not change. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He does not treat you any differently than Israel. In fact, He treats you exactly the same because you are Israel. Paul tells us that Christians are children of Abraham by adoption. If you are looking for a personal relationship with God, look in the same places where the people of the Old Testament looked: In those places where God promises to be.

In the Old Testament, you see many signs and objects that contain the very presence of God. God cleansed the earth with a flood and delivered Noah in an ordinary boat. The rainbow is a sign of God’s covenant with Noah. Circumcision is a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham. God speaks to Moses in a burning bush. God turns a staff into a snake. God saves the people from death through ordinary blood on an ordinary door. God resides on the Mercy Seat in the Holy of Holies. God feeds His people with mana. God saves His people from snakes through a snake on a pole. God wins a battle through the act of Moses outstretching his arms. God saved Rahab through a red chord in her window. God shows Gideon the way through a fleece. The secret of Samuel’s strength was his hair. Naaman’s leprosy was cleansed by bathing in the river Jordan. The list goes on and on and on.

Why do we not have these things today? Why doesn’t God come to the church and shout in a loud booming voice and end all of the debates and doubt? If we are wrong, why doesn't God prove His will through an unequivocal sign?

The Pharisees were enthusiasts, too. They wondered the same thing.

Matthew 12:38-41 [ESV]: Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, "Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you." But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.”

Here's your sign! The sign of the prophet Jonah is your miracle, brothers and sisters. The church is guided by this one miracle. Man wants many miracles and asks for a great deal to prove God’s existence, but the salvation of mankind is given to all by just one sign: the sign of the prophet Jonah.

Christ’s death and resurrection is your objective proof of your salvation. If you doubt that God loves you, look to Christ. If you fear what will happen in the future, look to your greatest of signs: Christ. If you do not know what you are supposed to be doing or where you are supposed to go, look to the visible sign as the Israelites in the desert looked to the Fire and Cloud. Look to Christ’s death and resurrection. Gather strength through faith in this awesome miracle; this perfect and complete work.

So perfect is Christ's death and resurrection that all other signs point to, prefigure, and emulate this one. God providing the lamb instead of Abraham's son points to Christ. God saving His people through blood to ward off death points to Christ. God preserving His people through the Passover meal points to Christ. God curing people with a snake lifted up on a pole points to Christ. God laying Jonah in the depths for three days and then raising Him out of the depths points to Christ.

It is all about Christ. There is your proof! That’s it. That’s all you need. There is no other sign because no further symbol of God’s providence or love could add anything to Christ’s saving work. To know Christ is to know the Father. You know that God is just because of Christ. You know that God is holy because of Christ. You know that God is merciful because of Christ. You know that God loves you because of Christ. You know that God will eternally save you because of Christ.

Christ said about himself, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."

At that point, Philip had an enthusiast moment and said, "Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us." How many songs are written by Christians today that ask Philip's question over and over again? We cry out, "Show us the Father! Show us His glory!" We sing, "Rain down Your presence on us! Fill this place with Your glory!" We ask, "Show us Your face O God! Reveal Yourself to us in this place!"

How did Christ reply to Philip? He said, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works."

How can we ask for the Father as if we do not already see Him in the Son? There is not a mote of heavenly glory that was kept from Christ. The Father did not withhold an ounce of mercy, power, glory, might, honor, magesity, grace, wisdom, knowledge, omnicience, or love, but He gave it to His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ. You want to see the Father? Don't look in your worship. Don't look in your heart. Don't seek after it as though it was some elusive treasure. Look to the free gift of Christ.

Christ did all the work and He is all of proof of God's love that you will ever need. Remember? “IT IS FINISHED!” The sign of the prophet Jonah.

Why look anywhere else for hope or guidance? Why turn to someone as unreliable as yourself for proof of God's favor when Christ is the end of all doubt and rejection? Why flock to places that promise nothing more than miracles, emotional experiences, and wonderous signs? Why settle for something so cheap and temporary?

Christ is the door through which you obtain the holy relationship that Adam lost in the garden. Christ’s blood washes you clean and establishes that intimate relationship with the Father. If you want an intimate relationship that never waivers, look to Christ. You want real hope and security? Place your faith in Christ.

Does that mean that God is done serving His people through means? Of course not. God is working today as He was working before: He hides in ordinary, tangible things. He adopts you into His eternal family through ordinary water by the power of Baptism. He strengthens you in the faith through ordinary wine and ordinary bread in Christ’s Most Holy Supper. He forgives you through words of absolution that are spoken by ordinary men. He guides you through an ordinary book: Holy Scripture. What gives these mundane things such power and significance? The same thing that gave power and significance to the burning bush and the Holy of Holies: the real presence of God.

These means of grace deliver what was promised by the sign of the prophet Jonah. John tells us in his gospel that the "Word became flesh and dwelt among us." Later in that same book Christ says, "For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink." All of this is Christ presented before your eyes, spoken into your ears, and placed upon your lips.

Read what God has said. He does not lie and He does not construct elaborate tricks to confuse you or leave you in doubt.

Matthew 26:26-29 [ESV]: Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom."

1 Corinthians 10:15-17 [ESV]: I [Paul] speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

1 Peter 3:18-22 [ESV]: For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.”

John 20:21-23 [ESV]: Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld."

God uses tangible means to accomplish extraordinary miracles. Those means exist today and they are there for you to touch and hold. They are not there as some additional ceremonial rite or mnemonic device. God does not institute these things as observances that depend on you to reflect upon their symbolism and thus grow closer to Him by way of your mental capacity and personal wisdom. Why would God make coming to Him so difficult?

There is no abandonment. You ask for proof and God gives you Christ. Not only that, Christ is given to you in such a way that you can actually point to tangable objects and say, "Christ is right there. I don't know how it works, but I know that this miracle allows me to participate in Christ's death and resurrection. I don't need to doubt or fear because God keeps His promises regardless of what emotional state I am in."

These things exist to bless you and preserve you in the faith. Learn to embrace them as such. You already know that you cannot always count on that small voice inside of you. Sometimes it is wrong. Sometimes it leads you into sin. Sometimes it only tells you what you want to hear. You know that many times that voice is surely not coming from God. You know that sometimes you feel like your prayers don't go anywhere. You know that you need something solid to ease your doubts and comfort you.

Dead, old religion’s answer to this suffering is empty and false. Dead, old religion makes you do all the work and come up with the answers on your own. Dead, old religion tells you to pray, fast, and do this list of works until your heart tells you that you are going the right way. Dead, old religion tells you to suffer through the tough times alone. Dead, old religion makes you look to human teachers or within yourself for guidance. Dead, old religion hides behind alot of show, glitter, and flash. Dead, old religion distracts you and points your attention to itself instead of Jesus.

Living, real faith – that intimate relationship that you are seeking – is deeper and much more mystical than that. There is a real church that still has miracles and still follows God through the ways that He has established by Christ's specific, spoken promises. There is a real church that has no need for the petty miracles and signs that the Pharisees wanted. There is a real church that does not wickedly ask God to reveal His glory and power for the sake of a wondrous experience.

There is a real church that gathers together and does nothing but participate in the sign of the prophet Jonah: Christ’s death and resurrection. There is a real church who heeds God's Word and repents daily. There is a real church that is constantly transformed, refreshed, and vivified through repentance and faith in Christ Jesus.

It’s not about you. It's not about what you tell yourself is true. The proof is not found in what you do or don't experience when you feel God’s presence or when you don’t feel the presence. Even Pagans and Atheists are confirmed in their false beliefs through that fickle method. You don’t think that practitioners of other religions feel their god’s presence? You don’t think that their worship confirms their beliefs? What makes you different from them? How can you be sure that you are thinking, feeling, and believing correctly? The cold truth is that you can't know God by your feelings any more than you can know a person through how you feel about them. It is time to stop guessing about God. Start knowing God.

It is all about Christ. That is the difference. It is not about what you do or why. It is about what has been done for you. The firm foundation of Christ is objective and incarnate. Christ's death and resurrection is an objective fact that you can cling to. You know God loves you because of Christ.


Thursday's Child said...

Wow! I think that's a post I'll be coming back to read again and again.
Thank you!

Mike Baker said...

Thank the Holy Spirit for revealing it to me over the past several years.

It is amazing how much God teaches you when you stop considering yourself a good Christian and start to see yourself as a worthless sinner.