MARCH 1, 2007
An Essay in First Person
Recently, while viewing a traveling collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, I stopped to view a moderate sized painting primarily featuring dark brownish tones. One could tell it portrayed a classical theme, for the figures close to the forefront were of a man forging ahead with two females pushing forward with him. The artist showed every muscle of their bodies strained in flight. Their clothes characterized them as ancient in form. They were on foot through a wilderness setting. Behind them in musty grey tones was another female figure, stone like, facing the opposite direction of the three terrified figures. In the distance beyond this stone-like creature were ancient walls filled with roiling fire and giving evidence of great destruction. The artist, with flaming reds, portrayed the judgment of Sodom.
Gratitude rose up inside me as I viewed this painting and a great sense of praise to God surrounded me. I wanted to thank My God for knowing all about this scene-for having the background to comprehend the artist's work and sense the graphic emotion of the picture. I was acutely aware that the room was occupied by many who were interested in the artist's other works, but most grazed past this and one other Biblical pictorial. In a flash, I felt sorry for them. I felt a deep loss on their behalf, not just because of their seeming Biblical ignorance, but for the loss of understanding about Sodom--its sin and its message. Sodom stands as a huge symbol throughout scripture and literature--how can one be deemed educated and not know this?
Immediately, my thoughts turned to a statement my wife had proffered during a conversation with some friends. Looking back across 36 years of teaching English and her myriad of students, she sadly reported the central difference between her first and final years in the classroom. (Mostly, she taught literature.) "At the first, I could teach with confidence that most students in the classroom had at least been acquainted with Bible persons and themes such as John, the Baptist, Daniel in the lion's den and Moses with the Ten Commandments. Even in those early days, deeper Biblical references found in the works of John Milton (Paradise Lost; Regained) were easily recognized. In the latter days, toward the end of my career, I found no one in the classroom who knew any of these."
The question arises, "How can one live his or her life and be ignorant of the poignant accounts and themes found in the Word of God?" Great artists, writers and orators have employed Biblical reference in millions of their causes and cases. To stand outside their reference and attempt to call oneself educated would be a misnomer of the highest magnitude. But alas, here is the answer to a world which equates the Bible and the Koran as equals. Here lies the failure of culture and people of modern parlance to grasp and possess moral and spiritual turpitude. World leadership, ignorant of the great Bible truth such as Sodom, allows debate about the efficacies of the homosexual lifestyle and become the target of similar judgment. Their lack of education shows up in their comedic existence and more so in their pitiful spouting.
As I stood before that painting, a flood of excitement overwhelmed me. Here is an artist's rendition that was created during a time when pulpits were not silent and hearths had families with fathers. This solitary canvas assaults a universe of faux realists. No paltry crowd attended this opening event; these were those who would have deemed themselves "elite."
In the grateful knowledge of this painting came a realization of the "wealth" I possessed. A repository of truth and wisdom stood before that painting. God had allowed me to see and handle His Word. He had opened up the Old Testament to my eager soul without hesitation. It was Him who created the thirst to know. It was Him who answered my dilemmas and directed my inquiries. Standing before that frame, there welled inside me the lucid truth, "Those who pass glibly by here do not want to know about the lessons of Sodom." They cordon it as quickly as conversation that turns toward Jesus. It is easy to comprehend why the public takes this tack, for by knowing the truths of Sodom, one is required to respond to its message, to live in the understanding of its implications and make decisions based on its reality. (Not only is this true of Sodom, but for all the splendorous pictures, portrayals and teaching found in THE book.)
The result of my knowing about Sodom and the truths of the Word reckons me to react. Now, I must reflect on all of my ways. I must give its words authority in my life. I must make judgments and choices according to "the wealth" within my being. I cannot "glide through" in ignorance. There is a response and a responsibility that comes with this wealth. Not only can I not "just know" these things, "I cannot ignore them." I cannot live in the castle of "half truth" for one moment and expect it not to be overrun with vermin and destroyers. Once I possess any knowledge, it is added to my "wealth factor." From its chambers must come a resounding "NOoooo," when half-truth and error confront me. I am forever changed. The steady stream of diatribe being issued from the media cannot stand the litmus of the "wealth factor" in me. Thank God for the Word. Thank God for the never ending "speaking it does in my inner being." I cannot be ignorant again, once my Biblical exposure level rises.
Biblical ignorance is inexcusable. It is such ignorance, especially of the Old Testament, that robs multitudes of church folk of their decision making faculties. It is ignorance of the "whole" body of Biblical truth that keeps the slaves of religion on course! The intrigues among Old Testament ancients amply supply those who possess this "wealth" with comprehension about the schemes of modern leadership whether secular or religious. Such knowledge is the difference between slavery and freedom! For example, to know Samuel is to know uncompromising dedication to truth, a portent wholly unknown in today's mêlées. Samuel knew what it was to rightly divide the Word in the world of religion and politics---so did Elijah-so did Elisha. Alas, one may know these persons as some novel's characters or as some Catholic artisan's theme, but never embrace them and know the rapture of capturing their life essence. It is one thing to know of Elijah, it is another to drape the mantle of his uncompromising power about oneself and stand before modern prophets of Baal. It is one thing to know of Ezekiel, while it is another to obey the Lord without hesitation even when such action is deemed ridiculous and judged "idiotic" by one's peers. It is one thing to know of Moses but never rise to the call of God and display His mercy AND His anger in one's own life!
Again, before the painting, I thought of the silence of modern pulpits. I thought of the contrast between their silence and the brazenness of Leonard Ravenhill's book, Sodom Had No Bible. I heard, resoundingly, Ravenhill's high pitched voice declare: "When Jesus said, 'It will be better in the Day of Judgment for Sodom and Gomorrah than for you,' Jesus meant two things. First, He meant Sodom did not have the presence and power of the Bible to witness against them or to them-while these did. Second, He made it clear that the judgment which fell on earthly Sodom was by no means the final judgment of either Sodom or them." (I thought how magnificent it was to have heard Leonard teach this in the early 70's. In those years there was a forum of those who cared to hear such-- in spite of the small gatherings, his message was not diminished.)
Just recently, I attended the opening day of a "satellite church." The first meeting was held in the ballroom of a nearby hotel. The church had a catchy name and hailed itself as "interdenominational." The mother-church, established in a community to the South, must have sown some of its flock to the new location as there were several hundred people in attendance. (Efforts to recruit and enlist newcomers are ramping up even as I write.) The hall was filled with media-tech devices. Sound equipment was enhanced by huge screens displaying PowerPoint presentations, the stuff of which church bulletins used to espouse. There was an air of excitement as the "worship leaders" mounted the stage, and I could only note that they were singing the most. Then a youth leader rose up to announce that young folks could retire to another portion of the building, as the senior pastor was about to speak. It was explained that the main pastor would "go live from this stage" and via satellite to a waiting crowd at the mother church, so both could hear the same message. It was further explained, there would be created other satellite facilities in surrounding communities. Seven of them were to be established, all with identical formats. A little more singing, an offering, another song and the main pastor spoke.
His sermonette was taken from the New Testament account of Jesus and Zacchaeus.
Luke19:1 Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. 2 Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. 3 And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way. 5 And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, "Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house." 6 So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. 7 But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, "He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner." 8 Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, "Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold." 9 And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; 10 for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost."The pastor elucidated on what it meant to be a tax collector in those ancient days-how the Romans empowered them, how morally crooked they were and how despised they were by the general public. He compared them to "drug dealers" of today. Then he spoke about the physical aspects of Zacchaeus' short stature and how his intense desire to see Jesus drove him up a tree. Then, he taught how Jesus brought disdain upon Himself by going to the house of the tax-man. Lastly, he scurried past the resolve of Zacchaeus to make restitution in order to comply with time reservations. He extended an invitation to those who wanted to know more about Jesus to make contact with the "door people." He subsequently dismissed the remaining congregants, who were mostly under 30 years of age, to the hotel foyer and parking facilities.
As I walked past the mingling multitude and went to my car, I thought, "Dear Lord, is that all?" "Is this enough to excite this multitude?" "Is that all there is in that passage?" "Is this the 'meat' the crowd was to feed upon all week?" "Is this the new 'avant guard' approach of the future?" The Spirit said, "How would you have preached it?"
My response was immediate. I would have made much about the factor that Jesus wasn't just on that road by happenstance; He was moved by the Spirit, so a man in need could be encountered. I would have made much of how no one is lost in the general shuffle of a crowd where Jesus was, not a woman reaching for his garment or a little man in a tree. I would have made much about how, by the Spirit, Jesus knew Zacchaeus' name. I would have shown how Jesus took the initiative and followed the prompting of the Spirit to go home with him. I would have made much about repentance and showing, "meat for repentance." I would have revealed how Zacchaeus was following the formula of the written word on which he based his restitution. I would have made much about verse nine and how Jesus' name meant "salvation" and how that it is one thing to know about Him and another to actually "know Him." Then I would have called for repentance, called those who had ever wronged another to repent and "make it right." I would have taught how "meat for repentance" must be an outward act of restitution and how the humble of heart will abandon all that formerly was called, "precious." I would have shown how a true repentant would cling to the new meaning of what is "precious."
I verbally said, "Now that's how I would have preached it." The Spirit said, "That's how I would have preached it too!"
Listen, out of "the wealth" comes that vast difference between sermons. Listen, out of the Spirit comes that difference. Maybe the "main pastor" was doing his best, but it lacked the fire of anointing and gave the people a false understanding of what preaching is and what it is to "rightly divide the word of truth." It left an unrepentant crowd an excuse to continue! It caused the heart of the learned to tremble at the judgment of such a weak display of Biblical skill and the absence of the power of God. It took the Word and allowed men to peek into a set of verses, with no clue to the verses that followed when the scripture said, "Luke 19:11 Now as they heard these things, He spoke another parable, because He was near Jerusalem" It left them with no reason to search the scripture or even to question the pulchritudinous affront they had just heard.
When I received an envelope the following week, with a self-addressed stamped card asking, what I thought I wanted from the church and would I respond with my desires and wants, I was aghast. I could not fill it out---there wasn't enough space---sorry. After another week, I received an email invitation asking me to attend a men's breakfast and ultimately go from there to canvass the area. In my mind I reasoned, "Why? Why should I work to bring into that congregation more sheep having no shepherd?"
Standing there, in front of the painting, I looked at the profound difference between the young daughters and the rock salt mother. They were obeying the Lord's mandate not to look back, the mother had not. In this one picture is captured a panorama of the essence of man's dilemma and the great mercy of God in sparing those three souls. Yes, and in that one service is captured a panorama of the church's great dilemma.
Every Bible verse memorized as a youth has been preserved in my "wealth deposit" and grown with interest. Every hour spent in the Word adds to the reservoir of drink that satisfies my thirsty soul. My Bible is marked so much, that when it is opened in a service, those around take astonishing notice. Why? Perhaps it is because theirs is not and within them is no reservoir of verses. Laodicea became what it was exactly the same way!
There I was, still standing before the painting, with all these swelling thoughts inside me as the Spirit said, "Look, the artist has captured the pathos of the moment and in it packed all that had gone before." The artist assumed his audience knew of the angel visits, the search for righteous men and the promise of God not to burn the bloodline of Abraham. Then the Spirit took me to a place outside Jerusalem where the Bible, in a moment, does the same thing. The picture is a solitary Jesus overlooking a dynamic city of Jerusalem. He is shown with the pathos of compassion, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how oft would I have gathered you like a hen doth her brood." Unspoken were the factors leading up to a Jerusalem under judgment. The reader is expected to know all that surrounded that moment in time. He is expected to know about the prophets silenced by Jewish leadership, the rejection of the Messiah, the continued service in a Temple rife with error and sin, the whole of His ministry questioned by a tribunal of the terrible---all of it unsaid, but all of it pressing down on the moment.
Jesus is pictured full of compassion, the scripture says. Being full of compassion for sheep having no shepherd gave vent to His outcry. (Such outcry is not heard over our cities. Such compassion is never displayed in our pulpits and pews.) It is for this that the painting on the wall of the museum and the picture in the scripture blends. The culmination of both ends in judgment and marked despair on the citizenry.
If there is to be "wealth" distribution, then let it begin with real wealth. Let the modern dismal excuse of a church not view the recipients of magnificent offerings, but let them see just once, "the wealth" brought by the Word! Now that will be a picture for the world to gaze upon!
Until Next Month,
Dr. Cosby R. Oliver, PhD.
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