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Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Jeremiah Generation, Part 1 Zeal

"To whom can I speak and give warning?  Who will listen to me?  Their ears are closed so they cannot hear. The word of the Lord is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it.  But I am full of the wrath of the Lord, and I cannot hold it in." --Jeremiah 6: 10-11a NIV

Throughout the visible church's history, there have been times when ministers and leaders have preached with boldness, condemning sin without reservation or fear of the consequences that might come to them for opposing what was evil in their societies.  At other times in history, the visible church has retreated from the advance of rebellion, sometimes even embracing it and melding it with their message.  If the record in the Bible is any proof, these changes in behavior follow a cyclical pattern.  People seek God when trouble comes and they're not afraid of "rocking the boat," but when all seems to be well, many lose their zeal for Him.

Lately I've been missing the zeal I used to find in Christian circles, and I'm seeing that Americans are in that stage of spiritual decline that tends to sweep through a population every generation or two, as it did in the days of Jeremiah.  Many Christian groups today are afraid of sharing the truth with people, for fear it will make someone uncomfortable or cause trouble for them in their own lives.  They hide as if they had only their own strength to stand against the whole world.  We don't do memory verses any more, and I take it that's why I rarely hear anyone reciting 1 John 4: 4, "Greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world," which I learned in Sunday school.

Are we now afraid to believe that God is the only way to Heaven?  Can we tell people they are wrong any more?  What troubles me the most is that I'm hearing teachers speak as if we're at a high point of "spiritual sophistication" in the Christian faith, in part because we are "enriching" our faith by joining with other faiths.  When I look at this situation, all I see is people running away in fear.  When this present "comfortable" faith no longer serves us, will we return to the zealous faith of previous generations?

About the faith of those previous generations...

I grew up in a part of the U.S. that went through some hard times during the Great Depression, and I've heard those stories all my life.  This area wasn't just touched by poverty and natural disasters, though.  There were also widespread revivals and miracles.  If  it hadn't been for a few bold traveling evangelists who were willing to proclaim their faith to a hostile audience, I seriously doubt I would now be writing a blog about taking a stand for God.  You see, both sides of my family were changed by those revivals, and they passed on their faith to later generations.

 When I say I miss the zeal that older generation had, I don't mean that I want to go back to the 1920s and 30s and relive that era.  We can't go back.  In reality, each generation has their own troubles, but all generations have the same need for a God who can restore order to chaos and bring people back from the brink of disaster.  In the early days of the 20th century, people realized they needed God because they were unable to save themselves.  Today, we need God for the same reason--we can try with all our might and all our resources, but in the end we need supernatural help to pull our lives out of the ditch.  The good news is that God does not change, and His power in our lives is not diminished with the passing years.  What we need is not the culture, but the faith of past generations.

A year ago, I read through the book of Jeremiah, and often found myself weeping and praying for my generation.  I would be lying if I said it didn't scare me.  It seems the whole book just mirrors what is happening in society today, and of course that may be a prediction of trouble and grief for our futures.  It doesn't have to be.

The Israelites of Jeremiah's time were open-minded dabblers in culture and religions, considering themselves to be more advanced than their forefathers and economically "connected" with all the peoples around them.  They were abundantly prosperous, untroubled by war at home, well-fed, and content.  But zealous for God they were not.

Does that describe us?   I believe so.

I'm concerned about how little enthusiasm my fellow Christians have in their faith.  When we're among friends, we proudly proclaim we believe in a powerful God who protects us and blesses us, but when we're among less familiar crowds, we clam up as if we don't believe it.  Where is our zeal?

My dad once told me a true story about a farmer (either in my family or a close family friend, I can't remember) during the Great Depression who knelt beside his wheat field and prayed for God to protect it from an approaching hailstorm.  The next morning he walked out to the field, fearing the worst but hoping for the best, and discovered that hail had pounded the weeds flat just outside the gate to the field.  He praised God, however, because as he stepped through the gate he discovered there was no sign of damage on the other side.  It looked as if the hail had been kept back by a supernatural barrier, because the hail damage picked back up where it left off on the other side of the field.

I think that story reveals a clue about where true zealous feelings for God come from.  They aren't learned from reading books or worked up with calisthenics, and they aren't those strong emotions that can come over us in a crowd of cheering people.  Strong, zealous faith is not born out of situations where we have nothing at stake and nothing to lose.  It comes from sticking our necks out, humbly admitting our need, and trusting that God wasn't lying when He said He hears our prayers and wants to help us (Matthew 7: 7-11). In that situation, when we truly have everything to lose, we find that God is real, and nobody controls Him.  We can go away rejoicing and telling others about what we have found, because our faith has been proven through experience.

That zeal that I long to see in this generation is a faith born of experience, not tied down and held back by fear or apostasy.  Jeremiah (and that farmer during the Great Depression) had listeners who scoffed at his words and thought he was a kook, yet he was still filled with zeal and preached boldly.  Why?  Because he knew he was telling the truth.  He'd seen it with his own eyes (John 20: 19-20).

God is real, not some heroic character from a comic book or a trendy line that everyone is preaching.  He is not going to laugh at us when we ask Him to fulfill His promises.  When we realize this, we don't have to be afraid.

I know this is an awkward place to end my post for today, but I'm going to leave you with a verse and a question to ponder:

"This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles.  The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them.  Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him. Fear the Lord, you his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing."--Psalm 34: 6-9 NIV

Have you ever stuck your neck out for God?  What happened? How did that change your faith?  I look forward to reading your comments!