Not Where I Belong (2 Chronicles 7:14)

Everything in my house is out of place. I have contractors repairing the damage from a leaking 2nd floor shower, and we’ve had to move things around throughout the house to accommodate their work. The dining room table is partially blocking the hallway. A line of chairs is stacked right outside the bathroom. China is spread across three different rooms. As I repeatedly (and painfully) bump against the misplaced furniture, it feels like something’s not right.

In the midst of this life, we often get the similar sensation that something’s just not right. In A Severe Mercy, C.S. Lewis says it like this: “You never see a fish that is upset with being aquatic. The water is his natural environment and he never desires to stop being aquatic or suddenly starts hating water. But humans are always upset with their natural environment. Take time for example. Humans are always complaining about time. We have sayings like “time is flying” – “time is slipping away” – as if we know that time shouldn’t be passing so quickly. Take death and illness as other examples. Part of the reason that we are so upset at death and illness is that we innately know that death and illness are not how things should be.” As Christians, we know everything is strangely out-of-place in this world. Time drawing short … cancer … abuse … childhood illnesses … old age … death. Innately, we understand that these horrible things should not exist, and we are driven to our knees in tears and sorrow by them.

But here’s the question: If Christians collectively repented and prayed, would God instantly turn our land into a utopia where everything’s perfect? That’s what many Christians who quote 2 Chronicles 7:14 essentially believe. However, it’s another prime example of ignoring the context of a passage of Scripture.

Here’s the scenario: In 2 Chronicles 6, the Israelites – led by King Solomon – are in the midst of dedicating the newly constructed Temple to the Lord. King Solomon blesses the Lord in front of the people and prays that God would fulfill his promise to David: “You shall not lack a man to sit before me on the throne of Israel, if only your sons pay close attention to their way, to walk in my law as you have walked before me.” How would God respond to Solomon’s prayer? Well, God answers that question in 2 Chronicles 7:12-22:

[12] Then the LORD appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: “I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. [13] When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, [14] if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. [15] Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place. [16] For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time. [17] And as for you, if you will walk before me as David your father walked, doing according to all that I have commanded you and keeping my statutes and my rules, [18] then I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father, saying, ‘You shall not lack a man to rule Israel.’ [19] “But if you turn aside and forsake my statutes and my commandments that I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them, [20] then I will pluck you up from my land that I have given you, and this house that I have consecrated for my name, I will cast out of my sight, and I will make it a proverb and a byword among all peoples. [21] And at this house, which was exalted, everyone passing by will be astonished and say, ‘Why has the LORD done thus to this land and to this house?’ [22] Then they will say, ‘Because they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers who brought them out of the land of Egypt, and laid hold on other gods and worshiped them and served them. Therefore he has brought all this disaster on them.’” (2 Chronicles 7:12-22 ESV)

Problem #1: If we’re going to interpret this passage, we must (at minimum) examine the complete sentence (which is technically a complete thought). In this case, the entire sentence is verses 13-14. There’s a comma at the end of verse 13, meaning that the initial thought of verse 13 continues on to verse 14. Much of the interpretational problem with this verse likely results from the unfortunate verse break. Chapter and verse numbers were arbitrarily added hundreds of years after the text was written, and – in this situation – paying too much attention to the verse numbers actually makes the interpretation worse.

Problem #2: Context, context, context. In the context of this passage, who are the people called by His name? The Israelites. Which land is being referred to in this passage? Israel. How will the people “turn from their wicked ways”? Through the sacrificial system of the Temple. Pretty straightforward. So to recap: God is speaking to the Israelites in reference to the Promised Land and the newly constructed Temple. More immediately, God is responding to King Solomon’s prayer from 2 Chronicles 6:16 by stating that He will continue to honor His promise to King David. God renews the promise that David’s throne will forever be established. But there’s a big ol’ catch: If you worship other gods and abandon God, the deal’s off.

Point of Order: Just to be really extra specifically clear … Let’s dispatch with any confusion between Israel and the church that might be present in this passage. Wouldn’t God consider the church to now be “my people”? Sure … 1 Peter 2:9-10 (among other passages) states that Christians are now God’s people through the work of Christ. But the church does not have a “land” … unless you’re somehow counting your church grounds. To directly eliminate the more twisted interpretation of this passage, America is not the “land” of the church. Overall, the church is spread across many nations of this world and does not have a promised inheritance of property like the Israelites. (Surprise! … There are Christians living outside of America.) Revelation 7:9 affirms that Christians will ultimately be called out from every nation, tongue, people and language. Even more specifically, 2 Chronicles 7:13-14 talks about healing their land from drought, pestilence and plague. The healing in mind here is physical and not spiritual. Last time I checked, not every Christian was a rutabaga farmer or goat herder, so – therefore – it’s really hard to apply this passage to the church.

In The Message of the Old Testament, Pastor Mark Dever also discusses the lack of correlation of 2 Chronicles 7:14 to America: “You will often find this verse reprinted next to an American flag, evidently flapping in the breeze of destiny. … But God’s promise here is made in the context of his special people. If you read elsewhere in … the Old Testament generally, you find that this was how God referred to the nation of Israel. While America has been privileged with liberty and prosperity, we are not the chosen people of God, Israel, ruled by David’s line, preparing for the Messiah.”

OK … so the passage applies to the historical Israel. Does that mean there is nothing that the Christian can take away from this passage? No … there’s plenty to consider.

First, it’s important to notice how God talks about the Temple and the sacrificial system found in the Old Testament. In the entire speech that God makes to Solomon, notice what God considers pleasing: humility, prayer, seeking God and repentance (v.14). There’s no discussion of goats, sheep, doves, cows, platypuses or any other sacrificial animal (OK … just kidding about the platypus). There’s no discussion of incense or slaughter of animals. Already in the Old Testament, we get an incredible picture that what God truly desires is repentance instead of the physical act of sacrifice or human works/efforts. It’s a theme that God will repeat in Psalm 51:17, Hosea 6:6 and Malachi 1:6-14.

Second, God is boldly predictive of what will happen to Israel. Solomon will marry 700 wives, will have 300 concubines, will wholeheartedly abandon God and will worship numerous other foreign false gods (1 Kings 11). The majority of the kings that follow Solomon also pursue false gods and conduct evil in the sight of the Lord. Eventually, God will bring disaster on the nation of Israel for failing to be faithful to the God that miraculously brought them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Similarly, all who attempt to please God with sacrifices, human efforts and works will fail. A great Messiah is needed to reconcile the people back to God. And that same Messiah will ultimately fulfill God’s promise that a descendant of David will be enthroned as King forevermore.

So based on this background, let’s get to the main point: It is absolutely improper to treat this passage as some sort of magical chemistry formula for transforming America into a “Christian nation.” The context does not support this interpretation in any conceivable way. Period. Too often, Christians inadvertently attempt to convert the simplicity of grace back to the confusing arithmetic of works (Prayer + Repentance + Humility = God’s Restoration). But we cannot manipulate, bribe or convince God to do anything, as if we’re children begging to get an extra cookie from Dad after dinner. It’s the remnants of the rebellious sin nature within us that makes us believe that we can whip out our Harry Potter wands and force God into submission with a simple incantation (“Expecto Patronum!”). As such, Christians tend to be suckers for any easy-to-read book (think: Prayer of Jabez) or system that tells us that we can pin God down and that if we just do X + Y + Z then God will be forced to produce 100% iron-clad results. Be warned: God does not work for you … You aren’t the boss of God (Psalm 46:10). You cannot fully submit to the authority of God unless you willingly chuck all your schemes to extort God into the trash heap. There is no mechanism ever conceived in the mind of man that will ever earn the grace of God … it is a free gift that God offers (Ephesians 2:8-9). Our God loved us while we were still sinners … while we were running as far away from Him as possible (Romans 5:8).

Even more importantly, the hope of the Christian should not settle in any pale imitation of the new heavens, new earth and New Jerusalem vividly pictured in Revelation 20-22. Our hope is not that God would make things a little bit better … All of creation is groaning and crying out for God’s complete and total restoration (Romans 8:18-24). The creation doesn’t need a minor makeover … We need God to fulfill His promise to make all things new. When we say that our goal is that God would turn America into a “Christian nation,” we are essentially settling for far less than the New Jerusalem. Of course, the church needs to continue to pray that God would bring spiritual revival to areas of spiritual impoverishment (including America), but that’s not the finish line that we should have in sight. Our hope is the end of pain, sickness and death. Our hope is to dwell with God forevermore. Our hope is God wiping the tears from our eyes and ending all sources of sorrow. Our hope is for the former things to pass away and for the new to come. And our hope ultimately cannot happen until Christ returns.

We must never forget that we are currently foreigners, exiles and aliens here on earth (Hebrews 11:13; 1 Peter 2:11). When the Israelites experienced their exile in Babylon, they were forcefully and unwillingly taken to a distant land where idolators ruled, false worship was rampant, their faith was persecuted and everything seemed strangely out of place. The people cried out and longed for the place where they truly belonged and where they could honestly worship God. Similarly, Christians find themselves in exile in a world where our faith is marginalized and our Savior is openly mocked. Our citizenship is ultimately in Heaven, and we openly long to be with our Savior (Philippians 3:20). Our citizenship in America, Zimbabwe, Luxembourg, Iran or China will pass away as every tribe, nation and tongue throughout the history of creation falls down at the feet of Christ to worship Him. Our Promised Land is the New Jerusalem … And one day we will cross the banks of the Jordan to fall on our knees in worship of the One who brought us out of bondage.

While we are still in America, we are not home yet.

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The Aftermath (Joshua 24:15)

It’s over. The chocolate bunnies and peeps reside inside children’s bellies. The brand new suits and floral dresses are in the clothes hamper to be washed. The remains of a spiral ham are looming large in the refrigerator. The Easter basket has been shoved up in the top shelf of the closet. Easter’s over … Monday’s here. Cue the coffee.

We’re also soaking up the aftermath of Easter worship services. On Sunday, many people have made recommitments to attending church and worshipping God … many after a long duration away from the church. Many have stuck their flags in the sand and declared: “My family will now serve God!” In essence, many have made a commitment to “try harder” to be a Christian. It’s a promise sure to be ripe with disappointment. It reminds me of an oft misapplied Bible verse: Joshua 24:15. Part b of that verse to be exact: “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Joshua 24:15b is an interesting verse for Christians to quote, because most ignore the irony of the verse’s context. Here’s the scenario in Joshua 24: The Israelites are gathered at Shechem, getting ready to finally take ahold of their inheritance in the promised land. Joshua gathers the people so that God can present the mother of all warnings. God reminds the people of their national history, starting with His promise to Abraham … continuing to the exodus under Moses … continuing to Balaam’s repentance … and ending with the crossing of the Jordan and the major military victories God has recently given (i.e. Jericho). The theme is that God has always been faithful to His people. Joshua then tells the people that they must make a clear-cut decision:

Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:14-15 ESV)

God has always been faithful … But will the people be faithful to God?!? Essentially, Joshua tells them they have two options: (A) continue your idolatry; or (B) stop your idolatry and enter the promised land. The Israelites essentially say “well … we didn’t come all this way for nothin’ ” and pick option B. With this important crossroads decision, Joshua wants the people to take a “gut check” about the seriousness of their decision:

But Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good.” And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the LORD.” Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the LORD, the God of Israel.” And the people said to Joshua, “The LORD our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.” (Joshua 24:19-24 ESV)

At this moment, Joshua isn’t trying to point out that serving God is an impossibility. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have given the Israelites the choice about whether they wish to serve God in the first place. Joshua is merely stating that serving a holy and jealous God is an extremely serious matter. It’s like the prescription drug commercials on TV where the pharmaceutical company encourages you to buy their particular medication because it will improve your life … but then warn you that the potential side effect for incorrect use is death. God wants them to partake of the promised land, but warns them of potential hazardous side effects for misuse. If the people commit to serving God and then turn back to idolatrous worship, God is gonna kick some tail and take some names. As Bruce Banner once said: “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”

And here’s the irony: What happens immediately after the Israelites really, really pinky promise to swear allegiance to God and to get rid of all foreign idols? Flip over to the next page in your Bible to Judges 1-2 and see. Contrary to God’s commands and the people’s promises, the 12 tribes fail to completely drive out the idolatrous people from the promised land and allow these idolatrous people to live amongst them (Judges 1:19-36). God reminds the Israelites of His previous warning: Foreign gods will become traps and snares to them (Judges 2:3). The Godly leadership of the Israelites dies with Joshua (Judges 2:6-9). The next generation of Israelites did not know God (Judges 2:10), and worshipped foreign gods and did evil in God’s sight (Judges 2:11-13). The Israelites fail.  Within one generation of the people that promised to serve God, it’s all over. And if you’ve read Genesis through Joshua (particularly that bit about the Israelites wandering in the wilderness), this scenario really isn’t much of a shock. So much for “we will serve the Lord.”

During Easter time, you see an interesting juxtaposition of people at worship services. You see the people that the Holy Spirit is genuinely moving, humbling and changing. But you also see people that haven’t darkened the door of the church in years tell you: “We know we need to get back into church … We just need to make a better effort … We really need to try harder.” Many people wind up making the declaration of Joshua 24:15b with similar disastrous results.

But it’s not about effort at all. You can continually tell God: “I’m going to do better … I’m going to try harder … I’m going to quit doing awful things … I’m going to really, really be a better person this time.” You can make the declaration that “I will serve the Lord” before a huge crowd of witnesses. And then you will inevitably fail no matter how hard you try. And if you sincerely look into your heart, it wouldn’t be much of a shock either … Just consider how many people are still committed to New Year’s resolutions at this point in the year. If we can’t even keep up with a minor commitment to diet and exercise properly, how are we supposed to keep up with a major commitment to serve God? As it says in Romans 3:10-12: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.

The essence of Christianity is not about trying … it’s about surrendering. It’s about acknowledging that we are a bunch of rebels that never really desire to seek after God or His ways. It’s about saying that we can never really please God through our own efforts or works. It’s about trusting that Jesus has paid the penalty for our misdeeds on the cross. It’s about submitting to Jesus as our Master and Lord and receiving the free and gracious gift of God of eternal life. It’s by God’s grace that we have been saved … Not by our own efforts (Ephesians 2:8-9). The great preacher Charles Spurgeon said it like this: “Because God is gracious, therefore sinful men are forgiven, converted, purified and saved. It is not because of anything in them, or that ever can be in them, that they are saved; but because of the boundless love, goodness, pity, compassion, mercy and grace of God.” It’s not about our effort … It’s about Christ’s completed work on the cross.

Pastor/teacher H.A. Ironside tells the account of a new convert that was giving his testimony during a worship service. The joyfully smiling man was telling the congregation about how Jesus Christ deserved all of the credit for saving him because Jesus had done everything. A legalistic man in the congregation boldly objected to the “saved by grace alone” aspect of his testimony: “You seem to indicate that God did everything when He saved you. Didn’t you do your part before God did His?” The new convert quickly jumped to his feet to respond: “Oh yes, I did. For more than 30 years I ran away from God as fast as my sins could carry me. That was my part. But God took out after me and ran me down. That was His part.”

If you’re one of those people that made a renewed commitment to God and His church last weekend, my advice to you is this: Stop trying to please God through your own efforts … just surrender completely to Him. The cross frees us from the power of sin and death and the Holy Spirit empowers us to imitate Christ. Only then will you be able to authentically declare: “I serve the Lord.”

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Open Letter From A Pastor

Easter is coming. The day now primarily known for faux-grass filled baskets of rabbit and egg shaped chocolates … fresh-off-the-rack kids suits and pastel-colored dresses that lead to awkward family photos … and Discovery Channel documentary marathons debunking the Bible. It’s also the day that many people get up the courage to make an obligatory annual appearance at church. Many of you reading this post might be preparing your family for the annual church visit … maybe even my church. And I know that many of you are nervous. Some of you are concerned that you’ll be so bored that you’ll count the ceiling tiles. Some of you might be worried that some holier-than-thou SuperChristian might poke you in the chest and tell you that you’re a rotten sinner. You might just be frightened about “fitting in” at church (like making sure you’re not standing when you’re supposed to be sitting down or being the only person wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt). Some of you are dreading the whole experience because you think that Christianity is as dead as a dinosaur.

Before you come to church on Easter Sunday, I’d like to share with you a couple things you might want to know.

First, we desperately want you to be there. We want every one of you to experience the joy that comes from having a true relationship with Christ. In Jesus Christ, we experience what it means to be truly loved and accepted. Our faults, failures and sins have been fully forgiven once for all through Jesus’ death on the cross. We’re adopted into a close knit family of believers who support one another and carry one another’s burdens. We serve alongside one another … rejoice with one another … weep and mourn with one another. We want you to experience the same grace, love, forgiveness and family that we’ve experienced. We’re disappointed and discouraged when you reject that opportunity, because we know that the joy and hope found in Christ will improve your life not only now … but for all of eternity. We don’t hate you for sleeping in on Sunday mornings or watching football and NASCAR instead. But we do believe that it’s your incredible loss.

Second, we’re not perfect. In fact, our church is a bunch of sinners. Literally. Our church is hospital where Christ is healing the wounded … our church not a wax museum for saints. The only perfect person that ever lived was Jesus Christ … and we’re not Him. Unfortunately, you might catch us accidentally cussing in public, getting angry with others, failing to forgive or committing any number of other sins. At times, we may fail to display the gospel by failing to feed the poor, withholding goods from the needy or being unwilling to share the gospel message of grace. We’re sorry for these things and ask your forgiveness. Don’t walk in the door of the church building believing that anyone in the room is perfect … including the pastor or church leadership. We’re called to imitate Christ, disciple others and walk with the Holy Spirit. We love Jesus and we’re following the example of our Savior. But this side of Heaven, no one in our church will ever be perfect. Please don’t put unrealistic expectations on any of us.

Third, our goal is to worship Jesus and proclaim the gospel. We believe that all people are sinful and fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). Based on our rebellion against God, we believe that every single person on earth deserves the punishment of death and the wrath of God (Romans 6:23). While we were still rebellious sinners, God demonstrated His love for us by sending Jesus to bear the punishment for our sins (instead of us) (Romans 5:8). If anyone turns away from their sins and believes that Jesus is Lord, they will receive the gracious gift of eternal life from God (Romans 10:13). Because of this grace, you will see us unabashedly worshipping Jesus Christ, who defeated death forevermore and rose from the grave. If our worship (i.e. singing; raising hands; hooping and hollering) seems goofy and foolish to you, I will warn you … we can and will get even more undignified. If the core message of the gospel offends or challenges you, we will offer no apologies … we believe that Jesus has shown us the truth, which has set us free. We’re not ashamed of the gospel – the message of our salvation – and Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, who offers that message of hope to all … including you.

Most importantly, we want you to live like Christ has been risen from the grave. If Jesus really did rise from the grave and conquer death itself, then everything in your life must change.  If Christ is risen from the grave, we can no longer eat, drink and be merry with a carpe diem attitude … thinking that the only thing that awaits us at the end of this life is a giant dirt nap. We must live for the eternity that God promises to us instead of petty idols that used to consume us. We must lay our sins, pride, faults and failures at the foot of the cross. The grandeur of His desires, His needs and His wants will quickly surpass every little thing troubling us. If Christ is risen from the grave, then believers have the blessed assurance that He will rise us from the grave as well. We no longer fear death. We long for the day that we’ll lay our crowns at the feet of Christ and worship Him crying out: “Holy! Holy! Holy! Is the Lord God almighty!”

But here’s one more item: If Christ is risen from the grave, then we cannot simply give Him lip service one day a year and ignore Him the rest of the year.

Imagine you’re walking across a crosswalk with your spouse (or boyfriend/girlfriend/significant other). A fully-loaded 16-wheeler comes barreling through the intersection … ignoring all stop signs. While you don’t fully catch sight of the runaway vehicle, your spouse boldly pushes you out of the way and gets crushed by the vehicle … instantaneously dying. Out of love, your spouse saved you from a horrible fate and paid for it with her life. How would you honor your spouse? Would you commemorate that sacrifice one day per year and ignore that gift the remaining 364 days of the year? Or would you spend every moment thanking that person for the gracious gift of life that they have given to you?

How do you honor Jesus Christ … the one who has saved you from sin, wrath and death? Do you honor him with one day? Or every day? I choose to spend the rest of my life loving, honoring and serving my Jesus, who demonstrated how much he loved me by being brutally executed on a Roman cross 2,000 years ago. I hope you will too. As the great Isaac Watts hymn proclaims: “Love so amazing … so divine … demands my soul, my life, my all!”

Live like Christ has been risen from the grave. Not just one day … but every day.

See you Sunday …

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