Monday, May 22, 2017

The Center of the Lord’s Controversy

Micah 4

Note: I have never repeated a blog post before but I'm going to today. The bulk of this one originally appeared as the opening post in my series on urban ministry. However, I originally prepared it in the context of a sermon series I did on Micah. That sermon series is the foundation for this blog series, and I think it is important to include it here in context in the Micah blog series as well.

The phrase that best sums up the book of Micah is the Lord's controversy. (Micah 6.2) God's people were deeply disobedient, and thus the Lord hath a controversy with his people. (Micah 6.2) But where was the center of that controversy? Every movement has an organizational and motivational center. Every movement has a heart. The great sin that caused the Lord's controversy with Israel was no different. Where was the center of the rebellion against God? Where was its heart? …in the large cities.

Micah 1:1 The word of the LORD that came to Micah the Morasthite in the days of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem.
Micah 1:5 For the transgression of Jacob is all this, and for the sins of the house of Israel. What is the transgression of Jacob? is it not Samaria? and what are the high places of Judah? are they not Jerusalem?

Large urban cities are the primary influence in setting the direction of a society.

Scripture shows us this. Every Sunday School child has learned the story of the Tower of Babel. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower. (Genesis 11.4) That city and the culture which flowed from it so influenced society in the wrong direction that God had to break it up. God, who originally put man in a garden, had Israel build His Temple in the highest spot of the greatest city in the land. Why? …because influence flows from cities. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. (Matthew 5.14) When Israel was re-founded as a country after the Babylonian Captivity where did they focus? Jerusalem. It was the center of re-settlement, of government, of religion, of security, and of revival.

Observation shows us this. Wars almost always target the enemy's chief population centers for conquest. A hundred years ago the American economy was driven by the family farm. It has long since transitioned to be driven by the manufacturing and consumption in urban areas. In our day the media which so influences our American culture is driven essentially by three major cities – New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington, D. C. The large urban centers of America almost entirely set the tone for our country. We are politically liberal because the cities are. (A quick glance at a map of the United States broken down by county vote shows the entire country is Republican. The cities are Democratic and the cities constantly win.) We are ethnically diverse because the cities are. We are culturally filthy because the cities are. Large cities set the tone for America just like they did in Bible times.

This is why there is a clear and continuous pattern in Scripture emphasizing preaching in cities. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Amos, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, and Zechariah essentially address God's people by addressing their chief cities. God sent Jonah explicitly to a large city. Arise, go to Ninevah, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me. (Jonah 1.2) Have you ever studied the geography of Paul's missionary journeys? All of the places he went were then major cities. Even Paul's epistles, other than Galatians and those to individuals, were all written to churches in major cities: Romans, I and II Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, and I and II Thessalonians. John's letters to specific churches in Revelation? Yep, all to what were then major cities: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.

Failing to understand this, sound Christianity has increasingly abandoned large American cities and consequently is struggling.

I think this jumps out at me especially because my perspective is relatively unique. I grew up in a small Midwestern village of 4,000 people. For nearly seven years I pastored my first church in an even smaller town of 1,200 people. Now for over thirteen years I have labored smack dab in the heart of one America's great cities, Chicago. The difference in worldview, parenting, education, entertainment, crime, leisure, and religion is startling.

This difference, however, was not so startling at the turn of the 19th century. Back then, as fundamentalism was birthed, it was noticeably led almost entirely by strong men who led strong ministries in big cities. R. A. Torrey led the Bible Institute of Los Angeles after years serving at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. James M. Gray pastored Moody Church here in Chicago. A. C. Dixon had pastored in Chicago, Boston, London, and Baltimore. A. T. Pierson pastored Spurgeon's Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. W. B. Riley led Minneapolis' grand First Baptist Church. J. Frank Norris pastored just outside of Dallas. T. T. Shields pastored Toronto's Jarvis Street Baptist Church. T. Dewitt Talmage preached at Brooklyn's Central Presbyterian Church. Lewis Sperry Chafer taught at Dallas Theological Seminary. The foundational meetings around which the American fundamental movement was born were held in places like Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D. C., New York City, Atlanta, Dallas, Indianapolis, Seattle, and Los Angeles.

Now, just over a century later, the largest fundamental meetings take place in country towns in North Carolina, Illinois, or Michigan perhaps, and in mid-size cities such as Lancaster, Lexington, Elgin, and Hammond. There are no more influential fundamentalist Presbyterian churches or leaders, and with a couple exceptions the influential independent Baptist ones are not in major cities. In my city alone – formerly the home of D. L. Moody, R. A. Torrey, James M. Gray, Paul Rader, Harry Ironside, and A. W. Tozer – the largest fundamental church runs maybe 200 in Sunday School. To the best of my knowledge there are no more than five good independent fundamental Baptist churches left in Chicago, one for every 540,000 people, and only two of these churches are growing. No, we are not the only ones preaching the Gospel in this city or in yours, but our doctrinal understanding and practice goes much deeper than the surface religion that represents so much of contemporary American Christianity. We are independent, fundamental Baptists for very good reasons. You can swing a dead cat and hit a dozen such churches in Greenville, South Carolina (population 61,000) but you will search high and low to find them in the inner cities of Houston, New Orleans, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, Detroit, San Francisco, or St. Louis.

Scripture and observation tell us that a nation is influenced through its large cities. We
My city, Chicago. Our church is off the left edge of the
picture toward the top.
routinely cry and moan about the condition of America these days but if we actually want to change it we must return in large numbers to the cities. We must motivate, finance, educate, promote, and pray young men into the inner cities to plant churches. We cannot change America in any real way absent this.

Micah was specifically sent with his message to the major cities of his day because that is where the decision for national repentance had to be made. It is the same in our day. We must bring our great message back to the great cities of this country if the country at large is to hear and heed it. If we are going to fix what is wrong it will not be done by tinkering around the edges; we must go to the center and attack there. We must go and cry to the city.

The Lord's voice crieth unto the city. (Micah 6.9)

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Grounds of the Lord’s Controversy

Micah 3

God is having a prolonged, public contention with Israel. They are unjust in forcing Him to do so for He has been nothing but good to them for centuries. In this we see applied two truths. First, our God is a demanding God, and second, it is not fair for us to give Him cause for a controversy with us.

In today's post we are going to examine Micah to see if we can establish the grounds of the Lord's controversy with them. What are His reasons? What support does He give to prove their error? What evidence of guilt on their part does He base this controversy on? Just what exactly had they done so wrong so as to cause this contention between them?

As I read Micah I found four basic causes for the Lord's controversy. First, they sinned with great calculation.

2.1 Woe to them that devise iniquity, and work evil upon their beds! when the morning is light, they practise it, because it is in the power of their hand.

It is one thing to "fall" into sin at a sudden opportunity, though often there is often a long process here as well. Bob Jones, Sr. used to say, "Behind every human tragedy is a long process of wicked thinking." Long before there was a sudden visible fall there was an abandonment of a personal walk with God, and a corresponding and growing internal weakness. But it is an entirely different thing to systematically set about doing as much sin as you are possibly capable of doing. The former is bad; the latter is awful.

In the past six months I have read two lengthy books detailing the history of the Italian mafia and the Irish mob in America. Many of these men began with targets of opportunity but as time progressed they shifted to cold, calculating, pre-meditated crime. They did not evolve – which implies accident – so much as grow their underworld empires. They sinned with great calculation. And when you get to the place that you plan your sin precisely, and plan it in such a way as to maximize it you are in an exceedingly dangerous place.

Second, they sinned with great energy.

2.8 Even of late my people is risen up as an enemy: ye pull off the robe with the garment from them that pass by securely as men averse from war.

7.3 That they may do evil with both hands earnestly, the prince asketh, and the judge asketh for a reward; and the great man, he uttereth his mischievous desire: so they wrap it up.

Some men sin simply because they are lazy. It is easier to sin than it is to do right. They do great harm, personally, to their own character in this manner but comparatively little damage to the rest of society in the great scheme of things. This path of least resistance makes them crooked, yes, but it does not make them criminal masterminds.

There are other men, however, who throw all their passion, ambition, and determination into sin. They dream of sinning bigger and better, and then they diligently labor to build a foundation of actions under the air castles of their sinful dreams. Hugh Hefner began "Playboy Magazine" with $1000 from his mother, mortgaged his furniture to add a few hundred more, and almost single-handedly launched the sexual revolution in America. That, along with growing rich, was his intent, and he gave his life to see it succeed.

This second cause for controversy often follows the first. If you are going to lose sleep studying and planning on how to expand your sin then you are probably going to go at it hammer and tongs when you are awake. Greed, lust, and pride initially are driven by yielding to the sudden urges of our flesh, but given enough time to develop they can harden into truly awful weapons in the devil's arsenal. Show me a world of misery and I will show you behind it men who are driven passionately to pursue their sin.

Third, they sinned with great damage to others.

Last month I finished Martin Meredith's classic work, "The Fate of Africa." It is an 800 page tome detailing the horror of a continent that lies prostrate at the feet of leaders marked deeply by greed and blood. Country after country after country lies in ruins fifty years after achieving independence precisely for the three causes God has laid out thus far in Micah.

2.2 And they covet fields, and take them by violence; and houses, and take them away: so they oppress a man and his house, even a man and his heritage.

2.9 The women of my people have ye cast out from their pleasant houses; from their children have ye taken away my glory for ever.

3.2 Who hate the good, and love the evil; who pluck off their skin from off them, and their flesh from off their bones;
3 Who also eat the flesh of my people, and flay their skin from off them; and they break their bones, and chop them in pieces, as for the pot, and as flesh within the caldron.

7.2 The good man is perished out of the earth: and there is none upright among men: they all lie in wait for blood; they hunt every man his brother with a net.

Such sinners as I have described are often in a great hurry to accomplish their sinful goals. In the process their ruthless attitude and energetic commission of sin runs people over like a steamroller. They do not care who they hurt. They have no conscience. Though they often have great affection for their own families they never transfer that to any of their victims. To them, society is simply a collection of marks, a herd of prey.

Such men cannot be reasoned with. Such men cannot be shamed. Such men cannot be charmed. They do not care about anything other than their own single-minded pursuit of their carefully crafted and energetically pursued sinful ambition.

Of course, in so doing, they unleash an attitude that devours the only thing left of any value and affection in their own life – their family.

7.5 Trust ye not in a friend, put ye not confidence in a guide: keep the doors of thy mouth from her that lieth in thy bosom.
6 For the son dishonoureth the father, the daughter riseth up against her mother, the daughter in law against her mother in law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own house.

Josef Stalin's daughter, Svetlana, was his pride and joy. Amid the horror of blood and misery he unleashed on Russia and Europe she trundled along by his side, an innocent child. But when death took her as an old woman in 2011 it found her in Wisconsin, living a quiet life as far away from her father's memory as she could possibly get. She had run run as far and as fast as she could.

Other men find not only that their families abandon them but that their families turn on them. Herod the Great ended his life in bizarre paranoia, competing with his own sons to see who would manage to snuff out the life of the other first. Herod the Great "won", and so viciously murdered his children that Caesar Augustus said he would rather be Herod's pig than his son for he treated his pigs so much better.

People often seek to justify their sin by saying, "I'm not hurting anybody but myself." Of course, that is not true, by a long shot, for everyone has some influence over others around them. But even if it were true it would not stay true long. Sin is a highly contagious disease that refuses to stay quarantined. Your own sinful pleasure is not enough. Now you must take what someone has or involve others in order to maintain the same level of enjoyment in sin. Sin breaks down your own internal rules, and eventually brings you to the twisted place of enjoying the pain you cause others. It is no coincidence that the evil that is ISIS actively recruits new soldiers from among inner-city Europe's rappers and gang members. Given an opportunity to wreak havoc on a wide scale appeals to many such lost souls.

Fourth, they sinned right through the preaching. I do not mean they sinned during the preaching. I mean they sinned through it as a weapon cuts through a shield put up to stop it.

It is one thing for a remote tribal culture to be steeped in sin that has never seen a Christian missionary. It is quite a different thing for a people who have long had the light of the glorious gospel of Christ to turn from Him to the idols of humanism, paganism, and hedonism. It speaks of a people who have become completely callous to the awfulness of sin.

There are two steps to developing the hardened attitude of this fourth cause. First, the people scorned preaching.

2.6 Prophesy ye not, say they to them that prophesy: they shall not prophesy to them, that they shall not take shame.

They sought to quieten the God-called preacher, to get him to pipe down, to stop naming sin, to stop preaching righteousness. But they did not stop there. They co-opted the preacher, pulling him into their orbit, getting him to proclaim as good all that was previously preached against as bad.

2.11 If a man walking in the spirit and falsehood do lie, saying, I will prophesy unto thee of wine and of strong drink; he shall even be the prophet of this people.

"Drink up! Enjoy yourself and your life to the fullest. I am not here to judge but to love, not to hinder but to condone. Especially when in so doing I stand to profit financially."

3.11 The heads thereof judge for reward, and the priests thereof teach for hire, and the prophets thereof divine for money: yet will they lean upon the LORD, and say, Is not the LORD among us? none evil can come upon us.

We can thus see that we are dealing with a people who are calculated in planning their sin, they are energetic in the commission of that sin, they are heedless of the damage they cause in pursuit of their sin, and they are blowing right through the stop sign of preaching that God has put up to slow them down. Truly, God had great grounds for a great controversy with such great sinners.

What is the application for us today? History shows us that great sin brings one of two things: great grace or great judgment. John Newton, the ex-slaver gloriously transformed into a preacher of the Gospel said on his death-bed, "Although my memory is fading I remember two things very clearly. I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great Saviour." Such a man it was who gave us the immortal strains of "Amazing Grace."

To the contrary, I bid you notice the book of Revelation. It is filled with judgment and the wrath of God. There is no more room for grace. It has been refused too long, men are too confirmed in their sin, hardened in it. They will not repent so God cannot longer stay His hand.

As I write this my mind and my heart are screaming, "America." Corporately, as a culture, and willingly, as a people, we have furnished God each of these four grounds for controversy just as long ago Israel did. We give ourselves diligently to become better and better at more and more sin. Along the way the misery of violence and suicide and assault and depravity and corruption rise like flood waters. Preaching? Who pays it heed anymore except for those preachers who sell us a lie while the ones who speak the truth are increasingly attacked.

His hand of mercy and grace is yet held out still. But for how much longer?