Restore Us Again

Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us! Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations? Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? Show us your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us your salvation. Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to folly. Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land (Psalm 85:4-9 ESV).

These days, whenever I see the word, “restore,” in the Scriptures, I take note. Our nation, which began well, has drifted further and further from the God of Israel. The drift has come to the point where many in our society deny the Christian roots of our nation. One political party even removed any reference to God from its platform a few years ago.

We are not the first nation to drift from the Truth. It has been a problem since the day that Joshua led Israel to conquer and settle the land Palestine. On numerous occasions in the book of Judges Israel drifted from the Lord, cried out to Him when their enemies humbled them by oppressing them, and the Lord delivered them. This pattern happened repeatedly throughout the 900 years when ancient Israel lived in the land of Palestine. Finally, after many warnings, God carried off half of the nation (the Northern Kingdom of Israel) by the hand of the Assyrians. Even then, the Southern Kingdom of Judah drifted away just 200 years later.

Yet God never gave up on His people. Just before Judah met its end in the Babylonian Captivity, Jeremiah the Prophet declared, “Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the LORD of hosts is his name: ‘If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the LORD, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever’” (Jeremiah 31:35-36 ESV).

The United States of America cannot claim the promise that God gave to His ancient people, but individuals who are His can be secure in His promises. Yet many of us long for the preservation of our Christian heritage here in America so that our children and grandchildren will have the same opportunities to prosper and know Him. But this will only happen if the Lord restores our land. Political solutions are insufficient.

The psalmist explained in this passage what God’s people need to do if we would see the Lord restore our land — “hear what God the LORD will speak,” and “let them not turn back to folly.” The Lord will not restore our land until and unless His people listen to what He is saying to us through His Word. He will also not restore our land until this nation turns away from its “folly,” those sins that we have condoned despite the clear dictates of the Scripture. This is called “repentance.”

The Pursuit of Truth

O LORD, do not your eyes look for truth? You have struck them down, but they felt no anguish; you have consumed them, but they refused to take correction. They have made their faces harder than rock; they have refused to repent (Jeremiah 5:3, ESV).

These ancient words are profoundly contemporary.

We live in a world where expediency is more desired than truth. Americans (especially) have always had a pragmatic bent to them. We like to use phrases like “like a well-oiled machine,” “We’re clicking on all cylinders,” and “now we’re cooking with gas” to describe the aspects of our lives that are going well and progressing. When things aren’t going so well, we assume that the machinery is somehow wrong.

This mindset is wonderful for overcoming obstacles that are physical in nature — we pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and figure out where the machinery is deficient. But not all problems are physical in nature; sometimes things don’t go well because we have failed to pursue the truth that the Lord is trying to communicate to us. He is — at least according to Christian orthodoxy — continually revealing His will to men.

Such was the case in Jeremiah’s day. God brought judgment because the people resorted to idolatry. They didn’t listen to His Word or His prophets or the Laws that their ancestors adopted. Instead, they chose to worship false gods and were surprised when they were “struck down” and “consumed.” They didn’t need better mechanics — they needed to repent.

Repentance is not preached much from America’s pulpits any more — to our detriment. Repentance is how we get right with the God that created us and how we stay in a right relationship. We usually define repentance as an act of turning from sin to Christ, and this is a proper definition. It implies, though, that this is a one time action. Contrition is a related word, but implies that the repentance is a “state,” an ongoing expression of repentance.

The price of repentance/contrition is often too high for us as Americans. Like the proverbial “average” student in school we assess what is the minimum amount of work to get by and we do that. For many of us it’s enough that we put on a show of repentance even if we have not really done so in the integrity of our hearts. Repentance involves real sorrow for sin; it involves the true admission guilt; it involves a lifestyle change that begins in our thoughts and carries through to our actions. It doesn’t mean perfection; but it does mean honesty. When David repented, he stated, “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being (Psalm 51:6, ESV).

The people of our day are much like the people to whom Jeremiah was preaching in the fifth, sixth and seventh chapters of his prophecy. They are harder than rocks; they refuse to repent (5:3) because they have ignored the truth for expedience.

To Whom Much is Given

Thus says the LORD, “For three transgressions of Judah and for four I will not revoke its punishment, Because they rejected the law of the LORD And have not kept His statutes; Their lies also have led them astray, Those after which their fathers walked (Amos 2:4).

To a man, the Old Testament prophets preached a message of repentance to a people who said they trusted God but in reality followed after idols. Sometimes that message was a message of the tender love of God for his erring people (Hosea); sometimes it was a general call to repentance (Joel); and sometimes it was an in-your-face demand for repentance. That was Amos’ message; he wasn’t subtle at all.

The first two chapters of Amos’ prophecy pronounced judgment upon Israel and Judah and the nations surrounding them. The often-repeated phrase “For three transgressions of _____ and for four…” is a Hebrew phrase that communicates the same message as our English phrase, “The straw that broke the camel’s back…” Sin upon sin had piled up against these nations until God had to bring judgment for “the final straw,” which He names in each case.

As the judgments are pronounced for some very violent and egregious sins of the nations, similar judgments are pronounced upon Israel and Judah for much less sins – or so it would seem (see 2:4, 6). Most of us today would think it unfair that the same severity of punishment would be meted out against Judah who merely “rejected the law of God” as it was against those who “ripped open pregnant women” (1:13) simply to enlarge their borders.

To us in the conservative, right-wing movement of America, there is hardly a more vile sinner than the abortionist who employs procedures like “partial birth abortion,” except perhaps the lawyer or politician that legalizes such a procedure (and lives high off the proceeds of their actions). But in God’s eyes, there is no hierarchy of sins. The immediate consequences of the abortionist’s sin may be more apparent, but every vile consequence had its root in the first act of disobedience, the first act of justification.

Perhaps that’s why disobedience to God’s Word is a more significant sin than we in America would like to believe.

Worship and Fasting

 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:1-3 ESV)

Many churches hold up the first century church as the standard to live up to, and they are correct. Some think that if they celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a certain way or frequency, they are following the first century pattern. Some think that if they preach from the Scripture they are following the pattern to the full. Still others imagine that if they experience the signs and wonders that accompanied the apostles’ ministry, they can make the claim to be the “true church.”

Few however in our day follow the pattern set by the Church at Antioch. We don’t know how regularly they met for worship and fasting; this incident in Acts 13 may have been the only time. But personally, I think it was a regular thing.

“Worship” here is mentioned because they were honoring His Person. Worship is not just a rehearsal of all the things God has done for us; it is extolling His virtues, praising His character. It’s the difference between saying to your spouse, “Thanks for the good meal” and “You are a great cook!” Both are appropriate in the right context, but  the praise goes to character. The Scripture speaks of “seek[ing] His face” (Ps 27:8) (who He is) versus seeking His hands (what He does).

“Fasting” is usually associated with an intense need. The incidents of fasting throughout the Scripture are usually connected with a threat to the well being of the nation or the individual. In this case (Acts 13:3) it seems they fasted for the purpose of getting the next step right as the Church was going forward.

As the Church in America becomes more marginalized in the society, many who are earnestly seeking revival are returning to these practices. It is not enough to merely acknowledge His provisions to us; we are being drawn to worship Him, to adopt His values, to wait for His voice. I heard recently a comparison of worship to an orchestra whose Composer and Conductor is the Lord Himself. Sometimes He calls upon our “voices” to play a supportive role; at other times to play the melody; still other times we are to remain silent.

But turning from this metaphor, He has created us in His image so that we can be His partners in the grand cause of world evangelization, “that the whole world may know that He is God.” Just as the Church in Antioch expressed their urgency through fasting, it needs to be revived in the Church again. We need to fall on our faces before Him that all men everywhere would repent and seek Him.

Solemn Assembly

Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly (Joel 2:15).

Economic disaster was imminent when Joel prophesied to the nation of Judah. Locusts had come through and had wiped out the crops. Unlike our day where we have grain stored away for years and we even bid on the FUTURE price of those commodities, when their crops were destroyed they didn’t eat till the next year (at least not that food).

Richard Owen Roberts, a student of revivals throughout history and an author on the subject, identifies the “solemn (or sacred) assembly” as the answer prescribed by God for any kind of imminent appeal to avoid disaster. When the “Ark of the Covenant” was captured by the Philistines, Samuel proclaimed a fast and called the people together to repent before God (I Sam 7). When kings Asa and Jehoshaphat were threatened by nations mightier than they were, they each called upon the people to fast and repent at a solemn assembly (2 Chron 14, 20). When God declared judgment for the sins of his grandfather, Manasseh, King Josiah was moved to repentance himself and called the people to the same in 2 Chron 34:29.

Usually the solemn assembly was accompanied by fasting because throughout the Old Testament, fasting was a sign of self-humiliation, mourning and repentance. It is significant that historically the singular sign of a repentant spirit was the willingness to mourn through fasting. That’s why the annual Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) has historically been known as “the Fast” (see Acts 27:9).

God responds to the Solemn Assembly – not because there is anything magical about an assembly – but because He responds to brokenness and contrition. When Christians mourn and confess and repent of their sin He takes notice because He sees that we understand the seriousness of sin. When Isaiah wrote that Jesus was “crushed” for our iniquities in Isaiah 53:5, that word is the same Hebrew word that is translated “contrite” in Psalm 51:17 – “a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” The power of a single Christian’s repentance is significant, but when a group of Christians – as in a local church – gather to genuinely mourn their sin, His heart is moved to action on their behalf.

In our day the Church has decided that His blessing must rest upon the mega-church because everyone strives for “bigness.” Pastors flock to the seminars or books of the most recent “success” story to learn their “secret,” which they are glad to share – for a price. (I even have a book in my library on how to use fasting to grow your church – apparently the author sees fasting as one of the tools in a pastor’s ecclesiastical toolbox!) But Isaiah tells us that if God wanted to build a BIG ministry, He wouldn’t need us. What He is looking for are those who are “humble…contrite…and who tremble at His Word” (Is. 66:2).

Forgetfulness

When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me (Hos 13:6).

Even though God was referring to Israel when He spoke to Hosea, He may have used the exact same words to describe the current generation in America. Ancient Israel’s history was sprinkled liberally with special provisions of God for this people: the parting of the Red Sea, manna in the wilderness, water from the rock, the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, Gideon’s miraculous victory over the Midianites, to name just a few.

So with our American history. In their excellent book, The Light and the Glory, David Manuel and Peter Marshall chronicle many of the clear provisions of God in the establishment of our country, provisions that only the hardest of heart could deny being an intervention of God Himself.

For a number of years both of these nations – Israel and America – enjoyed the clear blessing of God. Neither was perfect in its worship and practices, but as a whole, the people (often responding to the national leadership) embraced the God of Israel as their Creator and Redeemer.

But there came a time when Israel forgot Him and His deliverances. As Hosea said, “they were satisfied,” and the satisfaction begat pride – they thought they deserved His blessings. When He began to remove a few of the blessings to make the people remember that they had no real claim to them – they were all gifts – the people got angry with Him (He was acting like any good parent would). So He sent His prophets to warn them. Some repented, but it just made others angrier. After repeated warnings, He finally sent judgment – for Hosea’s Northern Kingdom of Israel, it was from the Assyrian Empire. About 150 years later, the Southern Kingdom of Judah ignored the warnings and was carried to Babylon.

We have entered that era of forgetfulness in America. Among others, God has sent us DL Moody (with his musical partner, Ira Sankey) and when they passed, Billy Sunday and Homer Rodeheaver tried to stir this country to repentance. In recent years the baton has been passed to Billy Graham and Cliff Barrows. But with each succeeding generation, the number of people willing to listen to their calls for repentance decreases.

Israel’s history from inception to captivity lasted about 600-700 years, but we should expect God to be more patient with Israel. After all, He specifically called them His “chosen people.” The United States of America has never been called that (at least not by God).

How long do we have before judgment comes? That’s up to us. How long will we wait before we choose to repent?  Some people think (to their shame), “Perhaps we won’t have to repent if the right person gets elected in the next election.” But our hope is not a political one; it wasn’t for Israel and it won’t be for us. How quickly we forget!

The Gauntlet Has Been Laid Down

“Who of all the gods of these countries has been able to save his land from me? How then can the LORD deliver Jerusalem from my hand?” (Is 36:20).

             There is a fascinating story of deliverance recorded in the middle of Isaiah’s prophecy. The powerful Assyrian king, Sennacherib, had swept through most of the region we know as the Middle East on his way to world domination. He had cruelly carried the Northern kingdom of Israel into captivity and was poised (at the time of Isaiah’s writing) to destroy the Southern kingdom of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem.

             It was at this point that the Assyrians made a tactical blunder – or perhaps it would be better to say they revealed a false religious assumption. Sennacherib’s representative stood outside Jerusalem and challenged the God that Judah trusted in – the Assyrian army vs. the God of Judah. Of course, we have read the outcome (it’s recorded three times in the Old Testament!) and know that the angel of the LORD came and wiped out 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in a single night, and Sennacherib limped home with what remained of his devastated army. Not long afterward, he was killed by two of his own sons while worshiping his false god (see Is 37:36-38).

             Our world seems destined for a repeat of this story. While we in America try to “tolerate” our Muslim neighbors, our leaders seem less and less willing to stand up to terrorist threats. We are supposed to allow a victory monument in the form of a mosque near the site of the 911 attacks because to deny it would be to anger the radical wing of the Muslim religion. If anyone else were to suggest this, our legal experts would call it “blackmail.”

            The constant cry of “peace in our time” that comes from every U.S. political administration concerning the continual Middle East crisis will ultimately end in the withdrawal of American support of Israel. Whatever happened to the principle of “to the victor belong the spoils”? Israel has been provoked, fought back and won each time, yet they are considered the aggressors and the watching world expects them to give in to the demands that they return the lands they captured. Ultimately the idea is to isolate them in the world and to bring about the same showdown outside the gates of Jerusalem that Isaiah recorded. Only this time it will take place a little bit north of Jerusalem at a place called “Armageddon.” But make no mistake, the rationale will be identical, “Whose God is really the true one?”

             I won’t pretend to know the day or even the year that these things will take place. America’s support of Israel seems to hinge on the strength of American Evangelicals who still believe in the God of Abraham, Moses, David and Isaiah, but that is waning. Perhaps there will be enough true repentance for God to stay these events for a generation or two. But there is no doubt that it will happen. The gauntlet has been laid down and God will not retreat from it. It is the final conflict of the ages.

The Gospel Yeast

Again he asked, “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”  Luke 13:20-21

                 This is one of the few times in Scripture where yeast is not compared to sin. Most often it is used to speak of the way sin changes the state of a person’s heart. But in this case, that change is a positive one. The Gospel (the kingdom of God) actually alters the very nature of human development.

                 I came to know Christ in college. To many around me, the changes that took place in my life were probably considered changes that came with maturity and human development, but I knew different. There was a significant difference between the “BC” person and who I became.

                 Though my life as sheltered and stable, I grew up with no real sense of personal value. Before I came to Christ, I had no understanding of why I existed. I was scared to try new things because I feared ridicule or that I would fail and people would think poorly of me. I’m sure it was not intentionally communicated, but I believed my personal worth was a function of some unique contribution that I knew was not in me. Had I embraced an Eastern mystical religion in those days, it would have fit my don’t-rock-the-boat demeanor. I wasn’t passionate about anything so that I would avoid being criticized.

                 But Christ changed that. His presence in my life began to permeate everything I was and did. That “small” decision to trust Him with my life suddenly impacted the whole of my life, just like the yeast did to the dough in Jesus’ illustration. I recognized the Bible as the source of Truth; I saw Jesus as the Ruler over the universe; I may not have had clear vocational direction, but I knew it was somehow connected to my relationship with Him. All the pieces of my life that had previously seemed so fragmented, now were brought into order by His presence, like a magnet does to iron filings.

                 But it makes me wonder about some of the people near me. Has their internal orientation changed because of their decision to trust Christ? (Has the Gospel yeast permeated their lives?) Rather, have they viewed Christianity as “fire insurance,” simply to keep them from hell? When small children (even my own) trust Christ, does the Gospel yeast so alter their lives that they will be true to it in the turbulent adolescent years and beyond? Certainly, I can never peer into the hearts of these near me, but He does expect me to inspect the “fruit” or see if “the dough has risen.”

Weeping Prophets

Although they say, ‘As surely as the LORD lives,’ still they are swearing falsely.” O LORD, do not your eyes look for truth? You struck them, but they felt no pain; you crushed them, but they refused correction. They made their faces harder than stone and refused to repent (Jer 5:2-3).

             The indictment that Jeremiah levels against the people of his day could equally be applied to America today. Many in our society use language that suggests they believe in the Lord, but there is little evidence apart from their speech. When God corrected ancient Judah – perhaps through economic struggles or natural disasters – they did not repent. When He disciplined them, they acted like they felt no pain. At the very least, they weren’t changed by the painful trouble.

             This wasn’t merely a phenomenon among one socio-economic class either. The verses that follow the ones above indicate that Jeremiah discovered that it didn’t matter what the individual’s financial status was. Rich and poor alike hardened their hearts and refused to repent.

             But the real tragedy was that he discovered that even the political and religious leadership possessed the same unrepentant spirit.

             A cursory scan of the American Church will reveal a similar heart among our people. Churches are more concerned with full seats than they are with full hearts. Few churches will take a stand against sin for fear of offending the network of family and friends of the sinner in the process.

             It doesn’t seem to phase us that there are more and more natural disasters plaguing our country. We don’t seem to care that our politicians wink at the most sordid immorality. We are willing to justify anything in the name of “tolerance,” lest we offend someone. God, by definition, must love us and therefore put up with any sin we choose to embrace, so we’re not concerned about offending Him. Yet these things and the problems they create should cause us to fall on our knees to wail over the offense we have brought to the true and living God.

             The unrepentant spirit of his people created in Jeremiah a mournful spirit that led subsequent generations to call him “The Weeping Prophet.” That same spirit appears to be returning to those who grieve the aforementioned sins. It’s not a spirit of depression so much as it is a spirit of mourning over the low spiritual fervor of the American Church. We see how few people consult God through the Scriptures; people who pray appear to be the exception rather than the rule in the Church; few denominations are growing statistically, and those that are have only marginal increases. One of the few positive signs is that those that are earnest in spirit are beginning to revive the ancient spiritual discipline of fasting as a way of appealing to the God of Israel.

             The answer to America’s problems will not be found in an election – even if it is wildly successful to conservative causes. The answer – just as in Jeremiah’s day – will only be found in a people willing to fall before the Lord without any hint of self- righteousness, who will grieve and repent of the sins of this land.