Whenever Special Agents Tony DiNozzo and Tim McGee arrogantly think they’ve got it all together, but are heading down a wrong path, Leroy Jethro Gibbs, the patriarchal leader of the NCIS team gives them a gentle swat on the back of the neck to get their attention and then points them in the right direction for solving the case. This might be just a cute antic adopted by the screen writers for the hit TV series, but it’s not far from what God often does to get His people’s attention and back on track. And in this first few weeks of the Lenten/Easter season, I’ve gotten a few red marks on my own neck. And this weekend is a perfect example.
It began Saturday morning as I attended our weekly men’s prayer meeting. Pastor D, who had a medical procedure earlier in the week, had asked one of our group, a Messianic Jew to teach a lesson on some of the Hebrew traditions, festivals and prophesies associated with Jesus’ crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection. As I listened and read through the multiple scriptures referenced, I couldn’t help but marvel at how God’s original “chosen” people could be so blind to all the signs God left them – even in their annual Passover Seder celebrations. Yet, these events and scriptural readings had become mere rituals to them, and they failed to see what so “obviously” pointed to their Messiah. How could they miss it? As I drove home that morning the Lord figuratively swatted the back of my neck, pointing out my arrogance and pride. He first highlighted that these rituals were all God-inspired, intended to serve as signs and shadows of what was to come. Then He showed me that without the Holy Spirit, I too would have missed it.
You’d think I would have learned my lesson; but like DiNozzo and McGee, my need for further chastisement was on the horizon. Later that afternoon I decided to check out FaceBook, which I hadn’t been on in a couple days. Several of my friends are still faithful members of the denominational church that I was raised in. There were a number of FB postings about their participation in various rituals, such as attending special weekday services, fasting and abstaining from eating meat on certain days. I found myself thanking God that I had been “set free” from all these “traditions of men” to operate within His grace. Then I felt the Lord’s swat on the back of my neck again. The Lord began to point out that what I called “traditions of men” were originally inspired by Himself – to get men to focus on Him this time of year. He reminded me that John the Baptist fasted in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry and Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days before He set out on His three years of ministry. Just because men had turned these into rituals and had drifted away from their original sacred purpose, didn’t make them any less important in His eyes. That still small voice asked me, “What are you doing this season to acknowledge the sacrifice I made for you?” And my honest answer had to be, “Not much.”
Then I had a third wake-up slap Sunday morning. A few days earlier I had been reading chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Revelation. Although Jesus had pointed out both the good traits and the faults of the seven churches of the Roman province of Asia, in my personal study, I had focused only on their weaknesses. Some had left their first love (Jesus) and disconnected even from the love of other people. Others were tolerating erroneous teaching, listening to false prophets, and refusing to condemn immorality in their midst, thereby encouraging it to continue and spread. And one church which Jesus called “lukewarm” in their relationship with God, He even warned that if they didn’t change He would vomit them out of His mouth.
As I had read these chapters, I remember thanking God that my local church didn’t fall into any of these terrible categories. However, as I look back on it now, I probably was not much different than the Pharisee described in Luke 18 that Jesus criticized for praying: “God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” It was like the Lord was preparing me for the Pastor’s message– another of the Lord’s slaps on the back of my neck.
Interestingly, Pastor J began his teaching by describing a painting of Jesus that nearly every Christian is familiar with, called Christ at Heart’s Door, painted by Warner Sallman sixty years ago. The painting was influenced by Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.” [See http://www.warnersallman.com/collection/images/christ-at-hearts-door for more information.]
To be honest, I had never previously connected the Revelation 3:20 verse with the warnings given to the seven churches, and thought of it as applicable to the unsaved – and the apostate churches of the world. It’s amazing, when someone points out truth, how “obvious” it becomes, and you wonder “How did I ever miss that before?” And that’s the case with this past Sunday’s message. Jesus’ assessments of Christian’s attitudes and behaviors and His warnings were directed not only to the leaders and members of the seven Asian churches of the apostle John’s time, Ephesus, Smyrne, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea, but maybe even more so to the churches of the current Western world, and America in particular.
The American Christian Church needs to hear and take these five godly directions to heart, both corporately and as individuals:
First, set aside all pride and arrogance – for we will only go as far in spiritual knowledge and grace as we allow the Holy Spirit to take us.
Second, always be on our toes doctrinally – the enemy is a deceiver and will do everything he can to blind us and distract us and get us chasing after man-made rituals, and away from God.
Third, recognize that the Holy Scripture, not culture defines morality – God is always a majority of One – we don’t need to take a vote (either of the populace or of the judiciary) to know what’s right and what’s wrong.
Fourth, watch for slippage – a man didn’t become a bank robber over-night – he likely started stealing change out of his mom’s purse, or taking his employer’s paper and pens home with him. Neither does a Church or an individual Christian turn away from the total Word of God in a single day – but one verse of scripture that they find uncomfortable at a time.
Fifth, Church – wake up, and let Jesus back in!!