Sunday, 1 November 2015

Den of thieves!

I read Matthew 21:12 last night and asked myself: What lessons can I learn from it? Would Jesus do the same to our churches today? 

You would recall that Jesus entered the Temple and he began to drive out all the people buying and selling animals for sacrifice. It was definitely not a courtesy house-call. Neither a MP-like visit. If there were ever a time that you’d witness Jesus losing his divine coolness, this was it. He was mad; some might even find him stark raving mad. He went completely ballistic. His anger turned physical. He even knocked over the tables of the money-changers and the chairs of those selling doves. 

Then, after the trail of wrecked-ball mess, he calmed down and gave the reason: “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves!” My question is this: Is there a modern-day equivalent for us where our leaders have sneaked in worldly practices/culture into our churches and turned the house of prayer into a den of thieves? 

Here I am reminded of these word by Pastor Charles Swindoll in his book Church Awakening: “The Church is a body of people called out from the world for the distinct and unique purpose of glorifying their Savior and Lord. Nowhere in the book of Acts or the Epistles do we see a church called to provide a subculture for non-believers. The lost don't need to find at church a world that’s like their world outside the church. The church is not competing with the world. Jesus is not a brand.” (Of course, there is no perfect church and should you find one, please pack up and run away from it. Most likely, it’s a cult of some sort). 

I guess Jesus was not called to minister to a perfect church either for he did not come for the well, but for the sick. He was simply looking for a broken church, made up of broken lives seeking restoration, healing and deliverance. In other words, he was looking for repentant worshippers, earnest seekers of the truth. 

With Jesus, things are actually that simple. He is wholly transparent. He does not serve up embellished truth laden with dos-and-don’ts or brimming with too-good-to-be-true promises. On the contrary, he imparts practical and powerful life-transforming lessons written in layman languages. He therefore does not promise a life of roses and balmy smooth sailing, but he promises something far more redeeming and empowering, that is, an overcoming life that grows with every adversity. That is why after he drove the profiteering priests and religious teachers out of the Temple, he immediately call out to the blind, the crippled and the lame and he healed them all.
 He dealt directly and specifically with the issue or the heart of the matter. 

Jesus knew that he was not running a popularity contest or giving a prosperity pitch. He did not tell them that following him would mean that they would become prosperity-magnets. Every one of his disciples knew the cost. And everyone of them paid the highest price for following him. You see, Jesus did not point his disciples to the narrow road just because an easy and rich life awaits them. If anything, prosperity is merely incidental to the main cause and the same is readily dispensable to the faith. I believe that we are no richer if we have God and everything in this world or if we have God alone (a la CS Lewis). 

And Jesus did not tell his disciples that they must carry the Cross everyday just so that they will become famous one day and have a huge following of their own. Unfortunately, we as followers often mistake the tree (human leaders) for the forest (Jesus). A New Testament Professor Ernest Best put it this way, “Jesus points his disciples to God and himself walks the way of God, yet it is not possible to substitute another teacher for him; a pupil may move from one philosopher to another and a disciple from one rabbi to another but Christian cannot go to another leader. The disciple of the rabbi, if all goes well, becomes a rabbi: the pupil of the philosopher may equally become a philosopher and have his own pupils: disciples of Christ, however, never become Christs or have their own disciples.” This is a timely and urgent reminder for the leaders of our churches today. 

I guess when the first three Commandments talk about not making graven images or idols of God, it is also referring to not making idols of fallible human leaders by taking them as more than ambassadors or emissaries of Christ, but the final authority of God. The truth is that we are all disciples of Christ and will always remain his disciples for life. 

This humility posture is sadly often superseded by the pastoral ambitions. There is always a lurking danger when a leader crosses that line, even unknowingly, and entertains the idea that maybe he is somewhat more than just Christ’s disciples. Maybe, just maybe, he is especially (and exclusively) elected for such a time as this. And that his teachings - by reasons of his runaway popularity - are the only way, the only truth and the only guiding light when compared to the teachings of the other churches. 

This gradual personal elevation is a two-way endorsement when his church grows in numbers and his pride starts to dabble in subtle misattribution. This is also where the leader becomes increasingly paranoid, protective, defensive, even manipulative. Alas, the signs are often ignored or denied because the leader keeps telling himself and the church that he is just a humble broken vessel of God when in reality, he can’t help but be seen as (and even believed to be) far more than just a broken vessel. The misattribution is thus mutually reinforcing between the leader and his growing followers. 

Now going back to Jesus and the Temple, I believe that some  leaders are unwittingly becoming universal solvents for their churches. They are engaging in an alchemy-like melting exercise with the aim of syncretizing (or compromising) godly principles with worldly values just so as to cater to the multisensory demands of their members. In other words, they are turning their programs into seeker-sensitive services whereby this hidden mantra takes the effective lead: “There go my people, I must find out where they are going so I can lead them.” The priority is hopelessly muddled. 

In the end, the church runs the risk of becoming a self-therapy, leisure center, and not a place where the virtues, the narrative and the powers of the Cross are preached, imparted and duly applied. As such, personal conveniences ultimately take precedence over the sacrifices expected at Calvary in our walk with our personal Savior. 

I find no better ending here than to allow these words by pastor Steven J. Lawson to take us home: “As the church advances into the twenty-first century, the stress to produce booming ministries has never been greater. Influenced by corporate mergers, towering skyscrapers, and expanding economies, bigger is perceived as better, and nowhere is this “Wall Street” mentality more evident than in the church. 

Sad to say, pressure to produce bottomline results has led many ministries to sacrifice the centrality of biblical preaching on the altar of man-centered pragmatism…Admittedly pastors can learn from growing churches and successful ministries. Yet God’s work must be done God’s way if it is to know God’s blessing. He provides the power and He alone receives the glory only as His divinely prescribed plan for ministry is followed. 

When man-centered schemes are followed, often imitating the world’s schemes, the flesh provides the energy and man receives the glory…In a strange twist, the preaching of the cross is now foolishness, not only to the world but also to the contemporary church.” Cheerz.   

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