Do Not Read Your Apathy into the Text

When famous authors give public readings of their own work, they often draw quite a crowd, because people are interested in hearing a book or a poem read the way that it was intended by the original author.

Do you ever wish that we could experience a public reading of scripture by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, or Peter? Or better yet, by Jesus Himself? What if Jesus came to our congregation and delivered His Sermon on the Mount for us in person?

I wonder if we sometimes fail to understand the true power of a text not by reading into it an incorrect meaning, but an incorrect tone; specifically, an apathetic or overly academic tone. We know we must be on guard against “twisting” or “distorting” the scriptures to convey an idea that they do not intend, as Peter warns in the third chapter of his first letter. But is it also possible to do injustice to a passage not by twisting it into a false doctrine, but simply by dictating a true doctrine in an empty and lifeless way?

We do not know exactly what Jesus sounded like when He preached about repentance and the Kingdom that was at hand. And we do not know exactly how Peter or Paul might have delivered a sermon or publicly read one of their letters. But we do have a few clues in scripture.

Jesus taught with authority, unlike the scribes: “When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes (Matthew 7:28-29).”

Peter encourages speakers to convey authority in their own speech also, because they are declaring the very words of God: “Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God. (1 Peter 4:11).”

The early Christians prayed that they would be able to speak the word with confidence and boldness: “‘And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence’… And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:21-23).”

Paul described his own preaching style as one of fear and trembling: “And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).”

Have you ever heard a preacher who spoke with great authority, not because of his own wisdom but because of the power of the word of God? Have you heard preaching filled with great confidence and even boldness? How about with fear, or literally with trembling? We are certainly blessed when we can hear preaching from men whose great faith fills their preaching with these qualities.

Such were the men who wrote scripture, and most of all the great man Jesus Christ of whom they wrote.

May we remember when we read scripture that it contains not only truth, but also power, and may we not only avoid reading false doctrines into the text, but also a false apathy, laziness, or boredom that is not original to the text.

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Jesus can Help You Escape the Malaise

On July 15, 1979, President Jimmy Carter delivered an address live from the oval office that would soon become known as “The Malaise Speech.” Here is an excerpt from that address:

“It’s clear that the true problems of our Nation are much deeper—deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession… In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

Carter is certainly not alone in his observation that “The American Dream” of nice big houses and cars has been unable to fill the holes in our hearts. Addiction specialist Johann Hari puts it this way: “We’ve traded floorspace for friends, we’ve traded stuff for connections, and the result is we are one of the loneliest societies that has ever been.”

So what are we supposed to do, when nothing that we try works? What if I buy new gadgets, and I still feel… bored? What if I binge-watch Netflix, but my own life still feels empty? What if I go to work day after day, but I can’t help but wander if what I do really matters to anyone, anyways?

A new year is beginning. Do you find yourself hopeful that this year, things will be different? Maybe that feeling of emptiness that so many of us feel is telling us that we are missing out on something vastly important.

I cannot tell you how many times I have resolved to make changes in my life. “From now on, I am going to do the dishes every day. I am going to eat healthy. I am going to pray for an hour each morning. I am going to live a life with purpose, making the most of every moment.”

But then that “malaise” that Jimmy Carter warned about comes creeping back in. I find myself turning to “stuff” instead of to meaningful human connection, against the advice of Johann Hari.

But as cheesy at it may sound in a society so traditionally steeped in religious tradition, Jesus has answers.

He told us that He came to give us a new kind of water that would not simply leave us thirsty again. He told us that He came to teach us how to live abundantly. He modeled a life of intentionality and passion.

In Ephesians 5:26-27, we are told that Jesus died for the church “so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory.”

To be sanctified is to be set apart as something that is special and different. Do you want to get out of the rat race and start living a different kind of life, one with true meaning? To be washed in holy water is to have a fresh start in life, day after day, as His blood continually cleanses us. Do you think you could use a new start now and then? To be presented to God “in all of your glory” is to unlock that potential that always seems to get snuffed out by “the malaise.” Do you want God’s help to live abundantly?

Jesus says those things happen in the church. Yes, as cheesy as it sounds in a nation as traditionally religious as ours. Yes, even though the church is made up of human beings who, by their very nature as human beings, often seem pretty insensitive and dimwitted. Yes. Jesus says those things happen in the church. Will you join us?

Living with Passion

A few years ago I read “Miracle in the Andes,” written by Nando Parrado, one of the 16 passengers who would ultimately survive a plane crash and 72 days of isolation in the Andes Mountains at high altitude. After two months stranded, Parrado and another man named Roberto Canessa trekked ten days through the mountains to ultimately find help.

The most moving part of Parrado’s account, which I will never forget, is the feeling he had very early into that ten day trek, when he finally got to the top of a high ridge, expecting to find Chile, and salvation, on the other side. Instead, there was nothing but more mountains as far as the eye could see.

All of the anxiety, the anticipation, the crushing weight of responsibility for the other passengers, and the desperate hope for the preservation of his life, was lifted from Parrado’s shoulders, and he describes an immense feeling of joy and relief. Parrado says that in that moment, he became certain that he would die in the Andes, and in that certainty he found a peace and a freedom.

Of course, Parrado was wrong. He went on to find help. But that feeling of peace never left him. He describes living each day to the fullest, with complete gratitude for the time that he has. In Parrado’s case, the old adage is true, life can only be truly and fully lived in view of death.

Another account of a terrible situation that has affected me deeply is a talk online by Journalist Sebastian Junger that seeks to understand “Why Veterans Miss War.” Junger personally spent time in heavy combat, and describes the paradoxical, but common scenario in which a soldier comes home from war, only to find him or her self longing to go back. His conclusion is that the connection of brotherhood felt by men in combat is a force of incredible power, and is so unequaled by the petty connections that dominate modern society.

Both of these accounts, and so many others like them that are based on true events, emphasize to us the reality that sometimes the most dramatic circumstances draw out from us something very deep and powerful. Deep within ourselves, men and women long to be a part of a cause that matters, to have an important reason to get up in the morning, and to feel the full depth and weight of a life lived to the fullest.

Contrast that with much of what goes on in the Lord’s church today.

Friends, the Bible tells us that we are at war (Ephesians 6:10-17). The Bible tells us that we have an adversary who stalks around like a lion eating people (1 Peter 5:8). The Bible tells us that we have the opportunity to save souls from death (James 5:20). The Bible tells us that we will suffer and be reviled (1 Peter 4:12-14), and hated my all (Mark 13:13), as we strive for a prize that far outweighs our afflictions (2 Corinthians 4:17).

Do the problems of social or economic or political injustice that fill so many with passion not have their root in the necessity for the hearts of the world to find and savor Jesus Christ? Do the family problems that tear lives apart and leave so many so deeply and tragically wounded not fall under the authority of the Divine Author of the family itself?

Is there not a war raging in your heart over whether life is even worth living, and if so, what it is worth living for? Is the world not full of suffering that God calls us to address? Do you actually believe even a fraction of what you say about how much of the world is lost and truly hell bound?

Jesus came that we might live life and live it to the fullest (John 10:10).

If God in Christ is not drawing out from deep within us the strivings of hearts that are truly living and fighting with passion, it is not because He has not issued a call to arms. It is only because of our pathetic, hypocritical apathy.