IF NOT US, THEN WHO?
Quentin Marrow on the demise of orthodoxy in North America
AS I PERUSED the morning edition of The San Diego Union-Tribune last Monday (February 14, 2000), as I am wont to do on most mornings, I was greeted by an article that caused me no small amount of sadness. On page A-6 was an article with a headline which read: "Episcopalian report is neutral on gay unions."
Please indulge me while I read a small portion of this article.
NEW YORK - In a long-awaited report, an Episcopal Church commission declined to take a position on same-sex unions. If church leaders follow the report's recommendations, they would leave in place an unofficial policy that lets individual dioceses decide whether to bless gay marriages. The report, to be released today, does not back either a liberal or conservative position on gay marriage, which has become increasingly common in the Episcopal Church. "We are not ready, theologically or scientifically, to say a defining word about the life of homosexuals in the church," said the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, whose recommendations will be discussed at the church's national convention in July. "In the context of reverence - and humility - it seems best not to take absolutist positions on a national level."
Of the entire article, our church's declaration that "In the context of reverence - and humility - it seems best not to take absolutist positions on a national level" was perhaps the most troubling to me. Why? Because this report does not boldly proclaim what God has clearly said in His holy Word; namely, that sexual expression is appropriate only between a man and a woman in the confines of a lifelong union called marriage. The church errs that says more than what God has said plainly in His Word. But the church errs further if it says less than what He has said plainly in His Word.
No doubt Liberals in the Episcopal Church will be much encouraged by the release of this say-nothing and do-nothing report, for it essentially sanctions them to continue blessing same-sex unions in violation of canon law. Many traditionalists will likewise be heartened by this report's release, for they can continue to weakly proclaim that our church's "official" teaching on sexuality has not been altered.
My response to this report's release was somewhat different, however. My response was this: "How long halt ye between two opinions? If the LORD be God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him."
In I Kings chapter 18 we are introduced to a colorful event in the history of Israel that I call "The Day of the Dueling Deities," or "Showdown at the Mt. Carmel Corral." In this event, truth confronts error; single-mindedness confronts double-mindedness; and the one, true and living God confronts the false god Baal.
I would like you to see three things in our text this morning. Firstly, notice that God's truth-bearers, when confronting and exposing error, get maligned. Secondly, see that God and His truth can have no rivals. And thirdly, observe that only God and His truth have power to bring genuine transformation.
But first some background.
King Ahab sat on the throne of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Ahab's father, Omri, the Bible says, "Did evil in the sight of the LORD and sinned more than all those before him." It was Omri who reintroduced Baal worship to Israel after the reforms of his predecessor King Asa had removed it. And Ahab, following in the footsteps of his father, continued, along with his wicked queen Jezebel, to worship the false god Baal. In fact, Ahab and Jezebel went further than Omri. In I Kings chapter 16 we find that the evil duo built a temple to Baal in Samaria, and that this provoked the anger of the LORD against them.
The LORD, in His anger, declared through Elijah the prophet that because of Israel's wickedness He would refrain from sending rain on the nation for three years. This divine drought in Israel brought hardship and famine on the people. Yet it caused Ahab and Jezebel, not to repent, but to hunt down and kill God's true prophets.
After three years had passed, God told Elijah to appear before King Ahab and to confront him, so that He would again send rain in Israel. Obediently, Elijah, God's true prophet, went and appeared before Ahab and confronted him, as God had commanded.
Notice, then, firstly, that God's truth-bearers, when confronting and exposing error, get maligned. Verse 17: "Then it happened, when Ahab saw Elijah, that Ahab said to him, 'Is that you, O troubler of Israel?'"
Baal was a Canaanite fertility god. It was believed that Baal sent rain and brought increase to the produce and livestock of the land. In antiquity Baal was referred to as "the one who rides the clouds," and was commonly depicted in statue form with a lightning bolt in his hand. The worship of Baal involved animal sacrifice, as well as both homosexual and heterosexual rituals and rites. Clearly, Ahab thought that Baal was angry because Elijah was still alive and prophesying against Baal worship in Israel. As a result, Ahab thought that the drought had been brought on by Baal, and that Elijah was responsible. Nevertheless, it was Ahab and Jezebel, because of their wickedness and idolatry, who were the real troublers of Israel. In fact, in the next verse (verse 18) Elijah rightly lays the blame for the nation's woes where they belonged: on Ahab.
"And Elijah answered, 'I have not troubled Israel, but you and your father's house have, in that you have forsaken the commandments of the LORD and have followed the Baals'" (I Kings 18:18).
But make no mistake: God's truth-bearers, when confronting and exposing error, will be maligned. Ahab called Elijah the troubler of Israel because his heart was evil and recalcitrant. Ahab refused to repent, and since he did not wish to hear about his evil behavior he maligned God's truth-bearer.
You, too, will be maligned if you take a stand for God's Word. Jesus said that men love darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. Wicked people - whether they be in the White House, the boardroom, or the offices of the headquarters of the Episcopal Church - hate being confronted with God's truth. Consequently, they malign the messenger.
This is probably not news to anyone here, but I am not the most popular rector in this diocese. And do you know why? Because my loyalty is to Holy Scripture first, and to the denomination second; and because I will not be forced by peer pressure to go along with every new doctrinal and ethical wind blowing through the Episcopal Church. As a result, I am considered by many priests in this diocese to be a lockstep, pointy-headed Fundamentalist. But so be it. I did not get ordained to bring comfort to my colleagues, but rather to preach the Gospel - both the comforting words of God's love and forgiveness, and the difficult words about sin, repentance and judgment.
Jesus told His disciples not to be surprised when opposition came on account of their preaching. "The world hated me first," Jesus said, "so it only follows logically, therefore, that it should hate you too."
I am aware that being a so-called "moderate" is much in fashion these days. But no moderate ever won a war. No moderate ever won the Nobel Prize. No moderate ever won the hearts of a nation. No moderate ever became a saint. No moderate ever became a hero. No moderate was ever persecuted.
It is all or nothing with God and His truth. By your life and your words, be a truth-bearer. But be prepared for opposition, because God's truth-bearers, when confronting and exposing error, get maligned.
Secondly, see that God and His truth can have no rivals.
Israel's monarchs and Israel's people wanted the best of both worlds. They wanted a little of the faith of the fathers (the worship of the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob) and the immorality and debauchery of Baal worship. In other words, Ahab and Jezebel, and the people of Israel, were hedging their bets. In the language of our culture, these folks were multiculturalists and inclusive. They liked syncretism in their religion: a little of Baal, a little of Yahweh; a little pinch of incense here, a little sexual immorality in the high places there.
But to confront this malevolent mix stands the prophet Elijah. He points his bony finger at these double-minded worshipers and says, "How long halt ye between two opinions? If the LORD be God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him." The original Hebrew is quite descriptive. Literally, in Hebrew, Elijah says, "How long will you continue to go on hopping from one foot to the other?"
"Make up your minds!" the prophet bellows. You see, the people of Israel were trying to reconcile two opposite and irreconcilable positions. Either the LORD was God, or Baal was God. But not both. In fact, the name "Baal" meant "lord" or "master." So it was Baal or Yahweh; both could not be God. And it was time for the silliness and double-mindedness to end and for the people of Israel to make up their minds as to which one they would serve.
Sadly, double-mindedness is an appealing temptation, isn't it? It wasn't just ancient Israel that was infected with that malady. We are all susceptible.
You see, we often want the security of eternal life that religion brings, but also the pleasure of sin for a season. We want a little of church for comfort, but the delights of the world as well. We want to hold on to Christ with one hand and the best that the world has to offer with the other.
But the Scriptures say categorically that a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways. Jesus said that no man could serve two masters. For, either he would love the one and hate the other; or he would cling to the one and despise the other.
In a sermon on our text preached in London on May 31, 1857, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great English Baptist, thundered:
"If God be God, serve him, and do it thoroughly; but if this world be God, serve it, and make no profession of religion. If you are a worldling, and think the things of the world the best, serve them; devote yourself to them, do not be kept back by conscience; spite your conscience, and run into sin. But remember, if the Lord be your God, you can not love Baal too; you must have one thing or else the other."
The Episcopal Church report on sexuality, the newspaper says, "does not back either a liberal or conservative position on gay marriage." But this will not do, dear friends. No. This will not do.
This report deludes people into the false conclusion that God has had absolutely nothing to say for the last five thousand years about sex, about marriage, about the most suitable environment to raise children, or about sin. But He has!
To our beloved church I say, "If Holy Scripture be our authority, then follow it; but if the agenda of sexual liberation be our authority, then follow it." Stop, however, halting between two opinions - two opinions about sex, about the Virgin Birth, about the authority of Holy Scripture, about the atonement, about the deity of Christ, about the resurrection, about abortion and about euthanasia. Cease faltering between two opinions. If the LORD be God, then follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him!
God and His truth can have no rivals!
Thirdly, as I close, observe that only God and His truth have the power to bring genuine transformation.
Elijah challenges the false prophets of Baal to a duel in verses 21-24 of I Kings 18. He says: We will both build a simple altar here on Mt. Carmel; then, both parties will select a bull, cut it up into pieces and place it on the altar. After that, you call upon the name of your gods and I will call upon the name of the LORD. The God who answers by fire wins the contest. Simple.
What you need to know is that Elijah established this contest of the dueling deities with absolutely everything favoring Baal. For a start, Baal had 450 prophets representing him, and only Elijah stood for the LORD. Secondly, mountains and hills were locations Baal was thought to inhabit, so the location of the showdown favored Baal. Thirdly, Elijah allowed the false prophets to choose their bull first, and to go first in the contest. Lastly, Baal, being the supposed deity who carried lightning in his hands, should have had no trouble bringing down fire from heaven. The contest was one Baal should have been able to win.
Nevertheless, Elijah had nothing to fear. Why? Because Baal was a false god who did not exist. Despite the advantages given to the false prophets of Baal, the contest was over before it began. Only the LORD was God; only He had existence. Baal, a nonexistent deity, could not do anything. Only God has the power to act.
The same is true today.
I look with a wry smile at the bishops and officials of the Episcopal Church who continue to wring their hands over falling membership and dwindling income. I smile because any person of even average intelligence could tell these misguided representatives of "officialdom" that no one will get up every Sunday morning to attend, or give ten percent of their income to support, a church that preaches the exact same "gospel" as the world; at least not for very long. Quite simply, Liberalism doesn't "preach."
Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr once defined theological liberalism like this: Liberalism proclaims a God without wrath who brings men without sin into His kingdom without judgment by means of a Christ without a Cross.
That so-called "good news" is no good news at all! St. Paul says that the Gospel has power--power to bring you forgiveness of your sins, reconciliation with your Creator and eternal life. "For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ," Romans 1:16 says, "for it is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes."
What kind of power does Liberalism have? What kind of hope does it provide for the sin-weary soul? Who has ever been saved by Liberalism's "Gospel"?
What martyr has ever died for it? The answer? None. And no one.
The Episcopal Bishop of the Newark, New Jersey, has repeatedly and publicly (both by word and in print) denied the authority of Holy Scripture, the Virgin birth, the blood atonement of Christ and the resurrection. And it has been reported that during his episcopacy the diocese of Newark has closed 24 churches and lost forty percent of its membership. Why? Because Liberalism is moribund. It is death, and it brings death to everyone who embraces it. No one will support with their time and their money a good news which is no good news at all.
Conversely, attend a church where the simple Gospel message of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ is proclaimed, and where the Scriptures are regularly opened and faithfully taught, and you will find a growing, loving and Spirit-filled church. People are hungry for God, and they will go anywhere the Word of God is being ministered. They do not want dry bread crusts. They want the meat and the milk and the honey of God's holy Word!
Baal could do nothing, for he did not exist. Liberalism can do nothing, for it is a lie. Only God and His truth have the power to transform lives, transform homes, transform marriages, transform hearts and transform eternal destinies.
God won the shoot-out at the Mt. Carmel Corral. The LORD won that day of the dueling deities. He always will.
In these confusing times God is calling us not to more and more ambiguity and equivocation, but to more and more certainty and conviction about what He has said in His Word, and more and more boldness and courage. These dark days - morally, ethically and theologically - call not for moderation but boldness. You - we as a local church - need to be convinced of what God has said plainly in His Word, then resolve to obey it, and finally to take our stand upon it. Like the German Reformer Martin Luther, when standing almost alone against the Roman Catholic Church at the Diet of Worms in 1519, we too must declare: "Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God. Amen."
The Rev'd Richard Cornish Martin, the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church,
K St., Washington, DC, recently wrote,
The fact is that the Episcopal Church contains two religions. One is based upon Revelation, the belief that Christianity is a revealed religion, and on the authority of Scripture as the revealed Word of God. The other looks to human experience and is revisionist in dealing with Scripture and tradition. These perspectives are at the moment irreconcilable (The Anglican Digest, Lent 2000).
I know of no more accurate diagnosis of the ills currently plaguing our church. "How long halt ye between two opinions?"
Let us then, dear friends, be Elijahs. Let us have a prophetic vocation in our apostate denomination. Let us hear the voice of the LORD God Almighty, be convinced of it, obey it and proclaim it - come hell or high water.
"Choose this day whom you will serve!" Joshua demanded of the people of Israel. "As for me and my house," he said, "we will serve the LORD."
Let us be a people of the Word, living by it and standing upon its precepts. Let us not waver or compromise, but boldly, in unity of mind and purpose, and in the bonds of affection, say, "Thus saith the LORD!" Our church desperately needs us as prophets. Our nation desperately needs us as prophets. And if not us, then who? Let us have as our motto: "No compromise of God's truth. No limitation of God's love."
"And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, 'How long halt ye between two opinions? If the LORD be God, follow Him: but if Baal, then follow him.' And the people answered him not a word." Amen.
Quintin Marrow is Rector of Saint Anne's Episcopal Church, Oceanside, CA., USA. This sermon ["How long halt ye between two opinions?"] was delivered there on Sunday, February 20, 2000. ( Text: I Kings 18:17-24)
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