by Pastor Jack Hush
A Twitter user recently posed the question, “If you could only have three books of the Bible, which three would you choose?” Among the many responses, one semi-famous evangelical thought leader replied, “Genesis, Revelation, and Hebrews. I want to know where the Story began, where the Story ends, and whom the Story is about.”
I like that.
But I lack the courage to lead the people with whom God has entrusted me by teaching that simple yet profound truth about God’s Word. I lack the faith.
I don’t believe that I’m an island unto myself.
Frankly, I see the same fear in the various ministries led by my fellow pastors. I hear it in their sermons. I read it in their writings. Collectively, we have the fear of Moses, but without his faith. But, in fairness, I should probably only speak for myself. To that end, I must confess that I can’t lead God’s people out of Egypt because I have never left Egypt and I’m not sure that I want to.
If asked, most Christians, I think, would state that Moses fled Egypt because he was afraid of Pharaoh’s wrath. The future leader of the Israelites had killed an Egyptian taskmaster who had been beating an Israelite slave. Having grown up in Pharaoh’s castle, Moses was fully aware of how the king would respond to his action. Fear drove Moses out of Egypt, is the Sunday school answer.
To be fair, in Exodus 2:14, Moses does tell us what he was feeling: “Then Moses was afraid.”
And we should take the man at his word. His word on the matter is also God’s divinely inspired Word, after all.
But Moses isn’t the final word on his motives for fleeing Egypt. Something many Christians are probably unaware of. Offering some behavioral (and theological) nuance, the writer of Hebrews builds on Moses’ self-deprecating humility by adding: “By faith [Moses] left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible (Hebrews 11:27).”
In his Commentary on Hebrews in the Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation series, Dr. Thomas Schreiner explains, “Yes, [Moses] feared dying, but at a deeper level he trusted that God would protect him and that his life would be preserved. He persevered through trial as if he saw the one who can’t be seen (page 364).”
Turning his back on the wealth, ease, and pleasures afforded by a life in Pharaoh’s court, Moses chose faith. In so doing, he chose wilderness. Fear was present, to be sure, but his fear was not the fear of a coward for Moses acted righteously and faithfully. I, on the other hand, cling with all my might to the allures afforded those living in the decadent secular West because I lack the faith to see the one who can’t be seen. I’m a coward because my fear of the people who sit in the pews and listen to my sermons reveals one of the many idols that would propel me into the wilderness if I dared to begin toppling idols not on the American evangelical approved idols that can be toppled list.
Ironically, the very people of whom I am afraid are the very people I am called to lead out of Egypt and into the wilderness. I am afraid none would follow me. And why should they? I am afraid of the wilderness. I am afraid that God is not enough.
My faithless fear does not prevent me from correctly diagnosing my problem, though.
Otherwise known as lack of faith, I do not live eschatologically.
I do not live in a way that reveals a longing for the return of Jesus; instead, I love my life. My priorities are temporal, not eternal. My efforts are largely spent with an eye towards rewards in the here and now, not with an eye towards the eternal abode in the heavenly City. I am in love with my position in Egypt.
Allow me to explain.
Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation” metaphor, or, rather, Justice Hugo Black’s introduction of his interpretation of Jefferson’s metaphor into the judicial lexicon via his majority opinion in the 1947 Everson versus Board of Education decision helped along the competing commodification of state and religion. The pell-mell rush into Charles Taylor’s secular age.
In the Introduction of his vaunted tome, Taylor writes, “Secularity in this sense is a matter of the whole context of understanding in which our moral or religious experience and search takes place (page 3).”
I say that I believe the simple truth that Genesis tells us where God’s Story begins, that Revelation tells us where God’s Story is going, and that Hebrews tells us whom God’s Story is about. But, in reality, in my heart, and un-worded out loud, at least out loud from the pulpit, I know that the most important story to me is my story that begins here, ends here, and is all about me. Immanence and not Christ, is my heart’s prize, to borrow a word from Charles Taylor. My “context of understanding” is Egypt. And my “belief” in God’s Word is mediated by my Egypt.
“Not so fast,” it would be argued by those who listen to my sermons.
“You faithfully exegete scriptures. You affirm life and God’s sexual ethics. You have cast yourself on right side of the dividing line, that Wall, from the secularists. You stand for truth,” they would insist.
Truth? What truth? Or, whose truth?
I am beyond comfortable. Wealthy is the descriptor the vast majority of humans that have walked this earth would attach to my comfort. And I love my wealthy comfort. The pleasures of Pharaoh’s palace. Truth be told, I do not know what it’s like to take up my cross, to face persecution, to be reviled for Christ’s sake. My day-to-day life is fundamentally no different than anyone else in my socio-economic bracket in this country.
I have position. I am respected and admired. To be sure, I have my detractors. But they’re on the other side of that Wall. They exist in service to the competing commodity. They don’t count. At least, they don’t count as far as their ability to touch my idols. I sit among the seats of influence and power in Pharaoh’s castle. And, make no mistake, Pharaoh has castles on both sides of the Wall.
My “context of understanding,” my position and power, is a kingdom among kingdoms that all exist here and now and only here and now.
How do I know that?
Well, of late, and by way of illustration, it’s become popular to bag on moral therapeutic deism. That’s an easy target. A safe target. Preaching exegetically reveals the gospel. And the gospel is antithetical to moral therapeutic deism. Our obedience doesn’t earn God’s favor; our obedience is our way of expressing gratitude. The Ten Commandments were given after the Exodus, after all. I am lauded for preaching that truth. I am high fived for exposing the legalistic overtures of our parents. I am admired for freeing people from the need to make their life better by pleasing God. Grace is my buzzword. I have redeemed the sermon.
However, I am aware of what would happen if I holistically and uncompromisingly preached the ethics of Jesus. Exegeting from the pulpit what thankful obedience really looks like would cut the hands, feet, and head off the idols of those sitting in the pews. Off my idols. My comfort. My here and now.
There is no promise of temporal comforts in the wilderness. It’s a wilderness, after all.
Under Charles Taylor’s definition, my church is, by and large, a secular institution that exists to preserve influence over the public square and, hence, our comforts and power. Religious wars continue. The religion of Church versus the religion of State. Whose side of the Wall encompasses the most space?
My side wants to preserve our autonomy; no matter if we are using our autonomy to serve self. That’s one idol. Another idol is security. We want to be assured that our preferred way of life is protected.
Nuts and bolts?
I can’t preach the Biblical ethics as they relate to poverty. Or racism. Or healthcare. Or immigration. I am allowed to preach the Biblical ethics that relate to sex, gender, private property, and abortion, with a smattering of exhortations about personal holiness along the way (but not too much). I am not allowed to express dismay at the narcistic, bullying tactics of an immoral, explicitly unrepentant President that traffics in deceit and corruption. I am encouraged to promote pragmatism over and above the Bible’s ethics in the service of our “context of understanding’s” version of the American Dream. I am not allowed to urge my congregation to lay aside their liberty in the service of others. Liberty, after all, is our ultimate idol. Another name for it is autonomy. As the serpent convinced our first parents, we believe that we can be like God. And why not? Our society was planted with ideologies that produce the fruit of liberty, of autonomy; the antithesis to Paul’s boast that he is, “a bondservant of Jesus Christ (Romans 1:1).”
Ending where I began, I must confess that while I wish I had the courage to boldly preach in ways that leads God’s people into the wilderness while pointing them to the heavenly City that awaits us, I am too much in love with Egypt. While fearful, my lack of faith is mainly propped up by my desire to enjoy the fruits of my “context of understanding.” Do I believe that there is a better country than the one that affords me the comforts and influence I enjoy? If Jesus came back today, would I even want to enter the heavenly City? My life of immanence and my failure to preach God’s Kingdom boldly declare that I do not.
(Jack Hush pastors Grace Church of Main Street, a non-denominational community of believers seeking to be a light in a dark world.)