I’ve been saying in recent weeks that part of the good news that is ours in Jesus Christ is that now that Christ has won his victory, he extends that victory to us; I’ve said that all we need to do is accept that victory, accept his gift to us, and live accordingly. This is critical for us in understanding what it means to live the Christian life, because it points us to the fact that we should not expect Christ to leave us as we are, with the same old behavior patterns and the same old comfort zones. We may well have many of the same struggles—Jesus doesn’t magically make all our temptations go away when we become Christians—and indeed, as we grow closer to him, we tend to find new ones, as his Spirit convicts us of areas of sin that we’d overlooked; but though our struggles don’t disappear, our attitude toward them ought to change, and we ought to see progress in our lives toward the holiness of God. Our lives should not look the same as everyone else’s.
The problem in talking about Christian victory, though, is that we have to be careful to explain what we mean. After all, we have an idea of what victory means that we’ve learned from the world, and so it’s easy and natural to assume that God is talking about the same thing; that’s why we have the “prosperity gospel” types who teach that victorious Christian living means job success, financial comfort, a perfect marriage, kids who turn out exactly how you want them to turn out, and whatever else it might take to give you a perfect sense of self-satisfaction and self-fulfillment on your own terms. It’s basically your dream life on steroids, and if you don’t get it—if your life has disappointments and struggles and failures—well, then, you just must be a bad Christian.
And that isn’t the gospel. That isn’t even related to the gospel. When we talk about gospel victory, we need to remember first and foremost that our exemplar for gospel victory is Jesus—and what did his victory look like? Thorns—nails—public humiliation—and death from heart failure due to blood loss and dehydration. Victory in Jesus is not necessarily going to be a dream come true. In point of fact, where some like to talk about living in victory—your “best life,” whatever that means, now, without all the messy growth process—I think we do better to talk about living into Jesus’ victory, because it’s really not something that comes naturally for us. We have to retrain ourselves and our expectations, and our sense of what that victory actually means for us and our lives.
That begins, I think, with accepting that Jesus’ victory doesn’t mean victory over circumstances so much as it means victory in the midst of circumstances. God doesn’t save us out of the world, but rather into the world, for the sake of the world; he doesn’t insulate us from its problems because that would insulate us from the part he wants us to play in addressing them. As we look at the world around us, as we consider the hard times so many are facing, with layoffs and stock losses and foreclosures, it’s tempting to circle the wagons and focus on what this is doing to us. Certainly in our Session meetings, it’s very easy to think mostly about the effect that the economy is having on our giving and our dividend income and the value of our investments. It’s a lot harder in times like this to sit up and say, “We don’t exist for our own sake, just to take care of ourselves; we exist for the world around us, and we need to keep our focus there.” But you know what? Hard as it may be, that is why we exist, and that is what we need to do; as Mordecai said to Esther, it’s for such a time as this that God placed us here to begin with.
Which then leaves us with the question: what does it mean to live into Jesus’ victory, to experience his victory in our lives, for such a time as this? That’s what I want to focus on for the next few weeks. It’s a large question, so I’m not promising an exhaustive answer by any means, but I want to make a start on answering it, and give us some things from Scripture that we need to keep in mind. Take a look at our passage from 2 Kings. This is just one section out of a larger narrative that takes place during the reign of Jehoram, king of Israel, one of the sons of Ahab. You may remember King Ahab and his wife Jezebel, and how they were always at odds with the prophet Elijah. Ahab and his wife are both dead by this point, and Elijah has been taken up in the whirlwind; Jehoram reigns in Ahab’s place, and Elijah has been succeeded by his protégé, Elisha.
Jehoram’s actually not a bad king by Israel’s standards, as he generally treats Elisha with respect, but at the time of the story, things are going badly. Ben-Hadad, king of Aram—modern-day Syria—has invaded Israel and laid siege to the capital city, Samaria. This was on top of a famine in the land, and so there’s very little food in the city. In fact, things have gotten so bad that people are paying exorbitant prices for donkey heads and bird droppings just to have something to eat. It’s in this context that these four lepers decide that they might as well go see if they can surrender to the enemy; the worst that can happen is for the Arameans to kill them, and even then it’s likely to be a quick death—which is still better than starvation. And so they go down to the enemy camp, and what happens? They find it deserted. God has spooked the enemy, and the army has fled.
This is one of the great ironies of Israel’s history: four lepers, four outcasts, are now in possession of the good news of God’s deliverance. They are the heralds of salvation to a city they aren’t even allowed to enter, under normal circumstances. Indeed, the very fact that they were outcasts is what put them in position to make this discovery. Their first reaction is to keep it for themselves, but it doesn’t take them too long to wise up—and though their decision is partly pragmatic, it’s more than that, too; the desire to avoid getting in trouble plays its part, but the main reason they decide to bring their good news back to the city is that it’s the right thing to do. They had good news to report, and so they had the responsibility to share it with all those who needed it.
That’s where we find ourselves in these difficult times: we are those lepers. That can be hard for us to see, for a couple reasons, but it’s true. It’s hard to see, first off, because centuries of Christendom have covered our eyes to it—we aren’t used to seeing ourselves as marginal figures; we’re used to thinking of this as a Christian nation, and of ourselves as the majority and the mainstream. Demographically, that’s still true, but culturally, it really isn’t anymore, and practically speaking, it’s unhelpful; we need to realize that while the institutions of the church may still be prominent in this country, the message of the gospel—which is what the church is supposed to be about—is increasingly marginal, even among churchgoers. For the majority of people in this country, and in many congregations, “Christian” is defined roughly as being nice, being a pretty good person—or, to some people, being a royal hypocrite to pretend you’re better than everyone else when you’re not—going to church once in a while, and voting Republican. Oh, yeah, and liking Jesus. There’s not much more content to the cultural perception than that. If you start talking about the gospel, you might as well do it in the original Greek.
Now, this is less true here in Winona Lake than most places—this community is, for various reasons, on the lagging end of this social shift—but even here, this is the way things are going, and so it will become increasingly true as time goes on. Like the lepers, we have been given good news to share with hungry people, and like them, if we tell people about it, we aren’t going to meet with automatic belief and acceptance. People want to hear “Follow us and all of your financial problems will be solved”—that’s the good news they’re hoping for—and unlike the lepers, we don’t have that message; we can’t promise people a return to what they’ve come to think of as the good life. Instead, what we have to offer is the faith of Jehoshaphat: that when calamity and disaster come, if we will cry out to the Lord, he will hear us and save us. He doesn’t promise us prosperity in the midst of the meltdown, merely that he won’t let us be defeated by it. Which is not nothing, but isn’t necessarily what people are looking for, either. The good news we have to offer is much bigger and deeper than just financial prosperity; our responsibility is to help them see, by what we say and how we live, just what good news it is.
As to how we do that, I have a couple thoughts. First, we need to act according to what we believe; it’s not enough just to say we trust God and that we’ve put our faith in Christ, we need to follow through with action. We need to put our money where our mouth is. I’ve been convicted recently by these words from the Anchoress:
In hard times, give more. . . . I have found this to be true in my life—that God is never outdone in generosity. I believe it and I also trust in it, and therefore freely cast bread upon the waters. This is part of having “childlike faith,” which Christ tells us we must have. It is part of trusting. It is part of considering the lilies of the field. . . .
I know this will strike some as . . . a strange thing to hear someone say, “yes, times are scary, so go make a donation somewhere.” But despair is not the way of faith. Trust is. And trust does foolish things like donating to charities while worrying about one’s own job. When you are feeling afraid, an action denoting trust always makes you feel less fearful and more powerful.
This is some of what Paul’s getting at in 2 Corinthians 9. He’s appealing to them to be generous in their giving for the poor in the church in Jerusalem; a little earlier in the letter, he’s used the example of the believers in Macedonia, who were desperately poor and under persecution besides, and yet had given quite generously. Now, he essentially tells them, “Be generous, for God is never outdone in generosity.” This isn’t to say, as the TV preachers like to promise, that if you give money, God will give you more money back; Paul’s promise here is broader, that “you will be made rich in every way,” as “God is able to make all grace abound to you.” This is a promise of rich blessing, but not necessarily material wealth. But there is this assurance: if we will give generously, God will see to it that at all things and at all times, we may not have everything we want, but we will always have everything we need, so that we may abound in every good work. And in the meantime, even if our bank accounts aren’t richer, our lives will be.
Second, a practical suggestion for sharing the good news we’ve been given: start with the children of this community, and then with their parents. Kids, if you catch them young enough, don’t know if you’re cool or hip or if you’re square, and they don’t know if you’re the latest thing or yesterday’s news; mostly, they care about the important stuff—do you love them; do you pay attention to them; do you have good stories to tell; do you give them good candy—that sort of thing. As for their parents, they might not be all that interested in church for themselves, but if they need help raising their kids—which everybody does—and you can give them that help, and that support, and a listening ear, and a little guidance and a little godly wisdom, that will often get their attention. Sara and I have several high school classmates who are now devout Christians and very active in the church because God worked through their children to bring them to the faith. It happens; it happens all the time. We need to make a concerted effort to help it happen, because these are really the main windows for reaching people with the gospel: childhood first and foremost, and after that, parenthood. People do come to Christ at other times of life, but not often.
Which means that we need to do more than just honor mothers by giving out carnations once a year, though certainly honoring and thanking our mothers and the mothers among us is a good and important thing to do; we need to support mothers—and fathers—and help them to be better with their kids, and to get through the hard times of parenting with their own sanity and self-respect and faith intact. We have good news, and we know children who need to hear it, because their parents aren’t teaching them; and we know parents who need to hear it, and they’re open, because they’re trying to figure out what it is that their kids still need from them and how on earth they can possibly give it. They’re looking for people to love their kids, and to help them love their kids. We have a lot to offer them, beginning with the gospel of grace—and in the ordinary run of life, the only people I know who know they need grace more than kids are the parents who just lost it with those kids yesterday over the incident with the beach ball, the chocolate-chip cookies and the living-room furniture. They need grace, and they know it. We have grace to offer; we need to be about it.