To Hell with retreat!

May 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

As a result of a recent conversation among Facebook friends about bold, pro-life preaching, I privately distributed a copy of the sermon I preached from Psalm 11 this past January on Sanctity of Human Life Sunday at McIlwain Presbyterian Church.  It seemed, especially in light of the just-announced Kermit Gosnell verdict, to post the entirety of that sermon here.  I know it it is long for a blog post—but I trust it is helpful in our advance together as the people of Christ.

Here we are again, marking another year past since Roe v. Wade.  It is 40 years now—40 years!—that the defenseless unborn have been offered upon the altar of “choice.”  Will the horrible tide of blood ever be stemmed apart from Jesus’ triumphant return in which all of his enemies will be destroyed?  I don’t know.

I do know that for years now the Christian community has been warning about the increasing coarseness of American culture—the rapid demise of virtues such as honor and respect, not simply for those in authority but for people in general—as the result of he decreasing sense of value of human life in general.

There is no reason really to go through the lists of how video games have become more violent; that “family” movies are more sexually explicit and crude.  And long gone are the days when we will let our children play in our front yard by themselves.

It is enough to make you want to give up trying to make a difference—and to want to hide from the world altogether.  But we have been called to precisely the opposite—to resist the temptation to flee and instead to advance, or at the very least, to stand.

We are in the same place that David once stood, facing what seemed to be certain defeat.

         In the LORD I take refuge;

            how can you say to my soul,

                        “Flee like a bird to your mountain,

            for behold, the wicked bend the bow;

                        they have fitted their arrow to the string

                        to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart;

            if the foundations are destroyed,

                        what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:1-3)

What is clear is that David was being advised to flee—to run from the pressing danger of the wicked.  We do not know what historical situation this Psalm references, but we know that several times David was literally on the run.  The first occurred early in his life when he was unjustly hunted by King Saul even though he had faithfully served the King and defended Israel.  It happened again after David became King when his own son, Absalom, led a temporarily successful conspiracy to take David’s throne.

In both cases David did indeed flee; in fact, in the latter case of Absalom’s rebellion 2 Samuel tells us

…a messenger came to David, saying, “The hearts of the men of Israel have gone after Absalom.” Then David said to all his servants who were with him at Jerusalem, “Arise, and let us flee, or else there will be no escape for us from Absalom. Go quickly, lest he overtake us quickly and bring down ruin on us and strike the city with the edge of the sword.” (2 Samuel 15:13-14; emphasis added)

But in neither case, either this flight from Absalom nor his early flight from Saul, was David ultimately “running away”; he was not giving up the fight but rather seeking to locate a better position ultimately to engage in the cause to which God had called him.  David was not conceding defeat and exiling himself; his was a tactical flight that assumed that was necessary was a relief from the immediate attack to take refuge so that he could restrengthen, realign and rejoin the battle.

However, rejoining the battle is not what David’s advisors in Psalm 11 had in mind; David’s words in verse 1 are a rebuke and clearly indicate that he was being advised to “give it up” and flee, not to live and fight another day but just to live.

The question is whether or not verses 2 and 3 are the continuation of his advisors’ reasons for urging him to flee or, in fact, David’s continued rebuke to them as precisely why he should not flee.  In the one case David’s advisers are reporting that his enemies have become so vicious and powerful that the very foundations of Israel are crumbling, leaving him no choice but to give up; in the other case David is the one speaking, rebuking his faithless and fearful confidants for their advise precisely because the enemy is great and the foundations are being attacked.

Whichever way we are to understand this quotation, either as David’s to his men or David’s men to him, David’s stance here is clear:  “Flee?  How can we give up when the situation is so dire and our cause is from God?”

Advice from the pit

The very thought of running away and giving up was, for David, unthinkable—and even taking a play from the enemies’ strategy book.  Jesus was once faced with similar advice—and he said that this was precisely the case:

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”  (Matthew 16:21-23)

Going to the cross was Jesus’ mission, but to Peter it meant defeat.  His advice to Jesus was, essentially, to turn aside from that course—to flee.  Jesus’ shocking response was to address Satan directly through Peter, a fact that soberingly demonstrated that Peter had set his mind on expedient earthly goals (“the things of man”), which in fact advanced the hellish plans of Satan instead of God.  Whereas Peter called for retreat, Jesus’ replied, in essence, “To Hell with retreat–because that is precisely where that notion comes from.”

“What can the righteous do?”

Every individual Christian and all true churches of Christ in every age in which God has providentially placed them ultimately stands at this juncture, faced with the same question.  All around it seems as if the very foundations of righteousness, goodness and justice are crumbling.  What can be done? “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”

We who name Christ’s righteousness as our own have received it by God’s grace alone and by nothing of our own doing stand at that precise place today. What are we do?  The Satanic of doctrine of hell always advises us to give up the fight and run away—to retreat from the fight by not voting or participating in the political process because it is corrupt; to secede from the culture, as it were, and establish outposts of Christian community in remote places in places like Montana and Idaho—“hunkering and bunkering” I call it.

I don’t deny such temptation is strong—and for many it carries with it what seems to be a bit of romantic historicism, because they think of themselves as modern pilgrims.  But I believe we must recognize the opportunity God has given us as believers right here and right now in our culture.  Like Jesus with Peter and like David with his advisers, we must recognize that the call to retreat is a call that is straight from hell—and we never give up standing and, God willing, advancing what God has called us as the church to do:  find our refuge in God and no one or nothing else.

After all, as Jesus himself said, our cause is God’s—and he is the one who is advancing it:  “…I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).  We must refuse to embrace the call to retreat from the spiritual battle in which our culture is engaged; we must, send that call back to the hell from which it comes—and stand the Lord’s ground.

The Lord is our refuge—our strength is in him

This is David’s answer to the claim that the foundations are destroyed (11:3).  Though culturally Israel was in crisis and treachery and wickedness could not be denied, David unequivocally pronounced that his foundation was in God—not a military stronghold, not Jerusalem, not Israel and her faithfulness.  God alone was—and remains–the foundation of his people.

This is why, of course, the Scriptures are filled with the proclamations that God is our fortress and, as here, refuge.  He is our place of safety even in the midst of what may appear to be all hell breaking loose:

            God is our refuge and strength,

                        a very present help in trouble.

            Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,

                        though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,

            though its waters roar and foam,

                        though the mountains tremble at its swelling. (Psalm 46:1-3)

Because the LORD is our refuge, we must find our strength in him, in who he is and what he does in keeping with his purposes for history, for his people—for his glory.  The foundation of God’s character and action can never be destroyed, and so that is where we must find refuge, and so strength.

We must find strength in the knowledge that God is sovereign

David drew strength and encouragement from the sovereignty of God:  “The LORD is in his holy temple; the LORD’s throne is in heaven…” (11:4).  David was strengthened by the knowledge that God is on his throne, reigning as the holy King of the universe.  He drew strength from the simple but foundational truth that God is in charge.

Practically, the truth that God is sovereign means that God sees what we see.  God’s people in every age have faced the faith crisis that, in the face of great injustice and widespread wickedness, causes them to wonder, Is God ever going to do anything?  Is he blind?  Does he not see the same thing that I see?  David calls his faithless advisers to find strength in the fact that God is not blind to the distress that has surrounded them:

            The LORD is in his holy temple;

                        the LORD’s throne is in heaven;

                        his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man.  (Psalm 11:4)

God is not blind to the injustice of the wicked, David insists.  Not only does he see what we see, he is noting it carefully.  The phrase “his eyelids test the children of man” carries the idea of scrutiny and examination; the reference to “eyelids” my seem strange because, after all, eyelids can’t see.  But the image is in fact something we are very used to.  When we carefully examine something we sometimes squint our eyes to gain greater focus and clarity; when we do our eyelids tighten and often nearly close.  That is the image David is communicating here, that God not only sees what we see is carefully examining and weighing everything he sees.

What is more, David draws strength from the fact that he knows that God is not cold and aloof; God indeed sees—and God hates what he sees.  Verse 5:  “…his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.”  God sees the wicked; he sees that they love violence; he says that, as verse 2 says,

          …the wicked bend the bow;

                                    they have fitted their arrow to the string

                        to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart… (Psalm 11:2).

They are filled with treachery and viciousness.  He indeed sees them—and he hates, with perfect righteous anger, what he sees them doing.

We must never forget that God’s sense of justice is higher than ours; we must never forget that he is far more deeply wounded and offended by the violence that destroys life and the wickedness that perverts justice than we will ever be.  To that end we must remember that God will judge what he sees.

He will indeed bring the wicked and violent to judgment, as verse 6 plainly states:

          Let him rain coals on the wicked; fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.

Not only is it sometimes easy for us to believe that God is blind to what we see, we also find ourselves coming next to the conclusion that the wicked will go unpunished and the violent will get away with, literally, murder.  But it will not be the case.  The certainty and finality of God’s judgment is pictured by the “scorching wind,” a reality still today in the Mideast as Spring turns to summer; as the weather can turn overnight and dry, hot wind blasts from the south from the deadness of the desert—and in the matter of hours that which was green and lush is scorched and brown.

Another Psalmist felt the same struggle—and he drew strength from the fact that God would indeed bring justice:

            The wicked plots against the righteous

                        and gnashes his teeth at him,

            but the Lord laughs at the wicked,

                        for he sees that his day is coming.

            The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows

                        to bring down the poor and needy,

                        to slay those whose way is upright;

            their sword shall enter their own heart,

                        and their bows shall be broken. (Psalm 37:12-15)

God is not blind.  And he is not ignoring the injustice that he sees. We must trust that he knows what he is doing and will bring about his justice in his time.

Believing and embracing this truth is foundational to our living faithfully as God’s people, just as it was for David in Psalm 11.  It serves as the backdrop to all things because it reminds us that God knows what he is doing and that what he is doing, though perhaps not on our time-table, is wise, perfect and just.  And so we must never lose heart but stand firm; we must never flee from the situations that face us as hopeless or beyond repair—because God is sovereign and has not given up his throne.

We must find strength in the knowledge that God puts his people to the test.

It is precisely at this point that David proclaims that God does not only see the wicked, he sees us, “the upright in heart.” Look again at verses 4 and 5:

            The LORD is in his holy temple;

                        the LORD’s throne is in heaven;

                        his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man.

            The LORD tests the righteous…(Psalm 11:4-5).

God sees what we see, David says, further implying that he has placed his people at this very moment in time to test them.  As in Greek, the Hebrew word translated “test” (יִ֫בְחָ֥ן) refers to the work of the metal smith and his work in purifying and refining metals by fire.  So while the LORD’s testing of the wicked finds them wanting and deserving of judgment, his testing of the righteous is altogether different—and we must find strength in the knowledge that God puts his people to the test.

Obvious question:  “How is that a strength and encouragement to us?”  Because he gives us the answers that we need to pass the test!

For the LORD is righteous; he loves righteous deeds…(Psalm 11:7)

David is saying, “Not only is the Lord very aware of what is happening, he has put you in this very place to test you—and he is waiting for you to do something.  And that something is not to run away—but to do what the LORD loves:  “righteous deeds.” This is not at all talking about works righteousness, that is, doing righteous deeds to gain God’s righteousness and be saved, but the exact opposite:  Because by God’s grace we have been declared righteous, we must therefore act in righteousness as the people who stand in God as their foundation.

It is the same as what we are told in Ephesians 2:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.  (Ephesians 2:8-10)

 The good news of grace is that God saves us by his work alone, and then by that same grace he puts us to the test by giving us the very good deeds we need to pass the test!

When I was in seminary I had a professor whose classes were rough sledding.  Taking notes for the class was constant, he gave us huge amounts of reading out of class and he had incredibly high standards on the papers he assigned.  But when we got to exams, he dedicated a whole class beforehand to going through his class lectures and told us everything that was going to be on the test.  His view was that these were the things we most needed to remember to prepare us for the work of ministry—so he told us in advance what was necessary for us know for the test.

What we need—he has shown us!

That is exactly what God has done for us; he has revealed who he is and what he loves—and he has given us all we need to pass the test, as it were, to be refined and purified as a people who will know how to respond precisely because, as both David and his advisers assert in verses 2 and 3, wickedness and injustice are on the attack.

The foundation is not threatened—it stands.

Perhaps there is no more classic text regarding what God has told us is his expectation—and therefore our accountability, than Micah 6:8:

He has told you, O man, what is good;

and what does the LORD require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

To do justiceIn our time and in this case, to deliver innocent lives and to work within the legal means God has given us as a justice-loving people (Proverbs 24); to be involved in the political process and not run away from the hard challenges before us simply because they are hard; to model what the pursuit and defense of justice looks like by grace-empowered, God-honoring doggedness—that is, by refusing to cede the day to injustice.

To love kindness (or, as in some translations, mercy):  To reach out with the compassion of grace to those who have been assaulted by the horror and tragedy of abortion, especially in the case of mothers who realize their actions too late.  It is here that our modeling of the Gospel’s power is so crucial, leaving condemnation behind and extending the same grace that we have received so that Christ is portrayed in his beauty and comfort.  As we have heard this morning, we can be directly involved with precisely this kind of ministry through crisis pregnancy centers like Safe Harbor.

To walk humbly with your God:  Perhaps this is the most important because it provides the balance that keeps us from seeking vengeance under the guise of doing justly and from seeking to avoid offense under the guise of loving mercy.  We must humble ourselves in obedience to our calling and not take matters into our own hands on either side.  God is God and he knows how to address people’s hearts—and so we must never either rush ahead or lag behind; we must never give up or accommodate.  We must humbly stay the course and trust him to work in his time, not ours.

How much are we willing to pay?

In 1982 the late Francis A. Schaeffer gave an address at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church from amanuscript that was to become his book A Christian Manifesto.  Dr. Schaeffer asks, “How much are we willing to pay?”  What are we willing to give up or sacrifice in our commitment to do justly, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God?

We have forgotten our heritage. A lot of the evangelical complex like to talk about the old revivals and they tell us we ought to have another revival. We nee another revival — you and I need revival. We need another revival in our hearts. But they have forgotten something. Most of the Christians have forgotten and most of the pastors have forgotten something. That is the factor that every single revival that has ever been a real revival, whether it was the great awakening before the American Revolution; whether it was the great revivals of Scandinavia; whether it was Wesley and Whitefield; wherever you have found a great revival, it’s always had three parts. First, it has called for the individual to accept Christ as Savior, and thankfully, in all of these that I have named, thousands have been saved. Then, it has called upon the Christians to bow their hearts to God and really let the Holy Spirit have His place in fullness in their life. But there has always been, in every revival, a third element: It has always brought social change….

I think the Church has failed to meet its obligation in these last 40 years for two specific reasons. The first is this false, truncated view of spirituality that doesn’t see true spirituality touching all of life. The other thing is that too many Christians, whether they are doctors, lawyers, pastors, evangelists — whatever they are — too many of them are afraid to really speak out because they do not want to rock the boat for their own project. I am convinced that these two reasons, both of which are a tragedy and really horrible for the Christian, are an explanation of why we have walked the road we have walked in the last 40 years.

We must understand, it’s going to cost you to take a stand on these things. There are doctors who are going to get kicked out of hospitals because they refuse to perform abortions; there are nurses that see a little sign on a crib that says, “Do not feed,” and they feed and they are fired. There’s a cost, but I’d ask you, what is loyalty to Christ worth to you? How much do you believe this is true? Why are you a Christian? Are you a Christian for some lesser reason, or are you a Christian because you know that this is the truth of reality? And then, how much do you love the Lord Jesus Christ? How much are you willing to pay the price for loyalty to the Lord Jesus?

An awakening is needed—an awakening of the heart of God’s people in the pulpits and congregations.  In that awakening we must rise to the occasion and meet the task, not run from it—never retreating!  The wicked attack the upright in heart (“they bend the bow”) and their attack is cowardly and vicious because they make it “in the dark” (11:2) so they upright do not see it coming and are unprepared.

That must change—we must pray for that change.  And then we must act upon that change.  How can we flee?  Retreat? To hell with retreat—advance! In the name and power of our God, his grace and his Gospel!

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