August 18, 2013
Three times rising religious fervor and has swept America. Each had 20-30 years of peak intensity and continues to make an impact today. As much as we might like to hang onto those times, they were relatively brief. In our time of waning religious interest, we are called to seize the opportunities for spiritual vitality and introducing people to Jesus.
The Great Awakening swept through the churches of New England in the 1730s and 40s. English preacher George Whitfield became one of the most powerful preachers in the American colonies. Candy and I have visited his grave in the basement of Old South Presbyterian Church in Newburyport, MA, where he died of pneumonia after preaching outdoors through a thunderstorm. While this religious energy influenced the movement toward the Revolutionary War and the founding of the United States, the force of the Great Awakening faded.
The Second Great Awakening swept across the American frontier in the early 1800s. It brought to faith and into churches people who had left religion behind as they moved west across the Appalachians. Led by Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, our Disciples of Christ movement grew out of the Second Great Awakening. While religion influenced the debates over slavery, the force of the Second Great Awakening faded with further westward expansion and the coming of the Civil War.
The third expansion of religious energy and church participation came after World War II, though it was not given a name. Nuclear families fueled suburban growth that churches capitalized on. Billy Graham was preacher to the nation. In the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union, the United States distinguished itself from “godless communism” with symbols such as adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and putting “In God We Trust” on dollar bills. This force faded, too, in the social upheaval of the 1960s with the secularism that rose in the era of the Viet Nam war.
This is the 3rd Sunday in a row that we hear words from Jesus in Luke that make us squirm. In Luke 12:49-56, Jesus turns from his disciples and sympathetic audience to address those who are suspicious or hostile. Luke used a language code that is not always as clear in English as in his Greek. He used “people” for sympathetic followers and “crowd” for those who were more hostile. In his account of Holy Week he used this to be clear that the “people” who welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday, were different than the “crowd” that called for his crucifixion on Good Friday. As I have lived with this text all week, I believe Jesus is calling us to seize the opportunities for spiritual vitality and introducing people to him in the present time of waning religious interest. While teaching he said:
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
54He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
This passage is often understood in terms of identifying signs in the present of Jesus’ coming in the future. Jesus, however, seemed to be very focused on the present for himself and his listeners. In Palestine, when the wind comes from the west across the Mediterranean Sea, it brings rain. When it comes from the south across the deserts, it brings heat. Jesus seemed to suggest that interpreting the present should be as obvious.
The division Jesus spoke about was division over him. Would people accept and follow him or not. From here forward Luke shows rising opposition to Jesus. Would people recognize that God had visited them in Jesus? On Palm Sunday, in Luke 19:44 Jesus wept that they did “not recognize the time of [their] visitation from God.”
Even while Jesus spoke sharply to those who were hostile to him, he was profoundly personal. He acknowledged he was under great stress until his “baptism” was completed. He wished fire on earth was already kindled. The obvious reference to fire speaks of judgment and purification. But other layers are implied as well. With fire as a sign of the presence of God, Jesus suggested that in him God was present in that actual moment. Fire is also a symbol of the spiritual fervor Jesus yearns for in his disciples.
With the literary flourish of “time would fail me to tell …” Hebrews 11 wraps up the examples of faith to encourage us to live in our present moment by faith. Only by faith can we seize the opportunities for spiritual vitality and introducing people in Jesus in the present of waning religious interest.
Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel are unlikely, deeply flawed examples of faith. I believe they are listed before the inventory of the accomplishment of faith to encourage us, that however unworthy or weak we may feel, when we trust God, great things can and do happen.
But faith does not guarantee great accomplishment. Sometimes, faith is what gets God’s people through suffering, hardship, torture and even death. We squirm to read this as we did when Jesus spoke of fire.
Hebrews 12 opens with the image of a race in which those who have already crossed the finish line wait for us with cheers. They are not lazy spectators in the stands. They urge us to keep our eyes on Jesus and to let go of everything that holds us back. The words translated “weight and sin” suggest the image of someone trying to run in a luxurious, flowing robe. The idea is to discard everything that distracts us from Jesus.
I have mentioned before that several studies show that the fastest growing religious identification in the United States, especially among young adults, is “none.” If we wring our hands and cluck, “ain’t it awful” and wish we were back in the 50s, we are not interpreting our present time. This present time of waning religious interest offers unique opportunities for spiritual vitality and introducing people to Jesus. Some of the “mega-churches” have been effective here, but they are not our competition. Not everyone will fit there. Many are looking for authentic communities with which to connect.
First priority is to be a community of faith that nurtures serious Christian discipleship. When following Jesus marks us as different from most of the people around us, we need faith strong enough to stand out. Comfortable, routine church membership won’t cut it.
A close second is to be a community of faith that reaches out to and welcomes people who are searching, lonely, questioning, wounded who may know nothing of Jesus. They need to know they can be honest with their doubts and pains. They also need to observe the faith of serious disciples of Jesus that engages with real life.
For a church to welcome those whose religious identity is “none” can seem bewildering. But our faith can embrace them if we think in terms of becoming a church that our grandchildren would want to be part of. Some of you have adult grandchildren. Some of us have grandchildren still in school. Some of you don’t have grandchildren. But I think grandchildren can be a lens through with we look with faith toward Jesus cheering us on to the finish line.