Will Elijah Come Back Before the Second Coming?

Not long ago, I was having a conversation with a pastor and a good friend about John the Baptist’s denial that he is Elijah in John 1:21.  It is sheer coincidence that this happened to dovetail with my latest devotional entry.

Although we had similar takes on why John the Baptist said “no,” he also offered that the actual Elijah will actually show up prior to the second coming of Jesus, citing Jesus in Matthew 17:11 saying that Elijah would come to “restore all things” (and John the Baptist did not do this) and Malachi’s prophecy in 4:5 stating that Elijah would come before the final judgment.

By contrast, I offered that the Gospels’ portrayals of John the Baptist and his ministry present him as the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophetic expectation, and there’s no Scriptural indicator that we should be looking for a future appearance of the actual Elijah.

What follows is my explanation to him of why I think the way I do with some minor edits for clarity.  While it is maybe more scholarly than 97% of the emails I send, it’s also not a scholarly paper and is meant to serve as an explanatory overview than a thorough defense of a hypothesis.

1. Malachi

Malachi is a revelation to Israel, and Chapter 1 begins with Israel’s election – preferred by God over her close relatives.  But Israel is accused of not showing the honor a son should show a parent, and this is illustrated mostly by the carelessness of their religious ceremonies.  It should be noted this reveals a heart condition, but it is illustrated in how little the priests and leaders care about how God is worshiped.  They use blemished sacrifices, etc.  In chapter 2, this gets into some very vivid imagery, such as God spreading the dung from the animals in the priests’ faces.

Malachi continues to show how good the covenant was and how God was faithful, but Israel continues to do evil, broadening the picture to include excusing evil behavior, adultery, accusing God of not keeping up His end of the bargain – a faithlessness that has made them a mockery even among pagan nations.

In chapter 3, God says he will send a messenger to prepare the way before Him, and this messenger will bring a refiner’s fire, judgement, etc.  This imagery is largely how John the Baptist depicts the coming Messiah in the synoptics.  The list of Israel’s crimes grows to include sorcery, oppression, and a variety of sins.  God notes that, if Israel will return to Him, He will return to them, but they seem to not know how to do that.  This chapter does note that the faithful few will be spared on this day of judgement.

In chapter 4, God describes this day as a terrible day of fire that will destroy the wicked, but those who are faithful will survive and rejoice and flourish in the aftermath.  God reminds them to remember their covenant, and there says that Elijah will come before this day, turning the hearts of the sons to the fathers so that God will not smite the land with herem – a total destruction.

So, the context throughout the book is Israel.  A day of judgement will come to Israel where the wicked in Israel will be destroyed and the faithful remnant of Israel will survive it.  Before this day comes, Elijah will appear to turn these descendants’ hearts back to their ancestors and vice-versa.  They will remember their covenant, and then God will not utterly destroy the land and everyone in it.

There is no textual indicator that anything in Malachi is talking about the end of history or a final judgement, and this bounding historical context is important.  If I say, “I’m going to drive to my office.  When I get there, I’m going to fire all the slackers,” the context sets the parameters.  No one would think I was going to fire every slacker everywhere, because I established that this was going to happen at my office.

This will be a judgement in history that will come to Israel where the wicked in Israel will be destroyed and the righteous will be liberated, and before that day comes, Elijah will be sent to turn people’s hearts to avoid a total destruction.

2. Jewish Views Before Christ

Perhaps the oldest view we have of the future role of Elijah is Sirach 48, which is an entire chapter on Elijah.  This would have been written around the 2nd century BC.  The key verse that talks about his future role is verse 10:

designated in the prophecies of doom to allay God’s wrath before the fury breaks, to turn the hearts of fathers towards their children, and to restore the tribes of Jacob.

This is very similar to the text in Malachi with the addition that Elijah will “restore the tribes of Jacob.”  In other words, restore Israel.  Indeed, the entirety of Sirach is concerned with the destiny of Israel and the troubles she is suffering because of her treatment of these holy men of God and failure to keep the Law.  The author looks for a time when God will fulfill these prophecies and clear out the wicked from Israel, restoring her to righteousness.  Later rabbinic writings seem to confirm this understanding,

Again, there are no textual indicators about the fate of other nations or the world or this being the end of history.

It is noteworthy that there are other expectations that crop up over time.  For instance, one popular view is that Elijah would put to rest all disputes about the Torah and explain it clearly to everyone to produce unity (thus turning the hearts of the fathers to their children and so on).  This view shows up in at least three early sources (such as the Mishnah’s Eduyot 8 (redacted in the 3rd century AD but contents are much, much older)) and the Zohar says that Elijah will be like Aaron was to Moses.

There was also a view that Elijah would change the minds of people and lead them to repentance, although this seems to be a later, minority view.  The earliest account of it I can find is a short passage in the Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer which would have been 8th or 9th century AD.

I could only find one reference to Elijah raising the dead, and this is in the Shir haShirim Zuta (10th century A.D.) which says that, in order to prove his identity, Elijah will raise the dead of people known to the people who see him.  Sort of like Jesus’ miracle with Lazarus.

So, when we see Jewish thoughts on Elijah that might have influenced Jesus or been “in the air” at the time, it seems like the understanding is that Elijah will come and turn Israel back to her covenant, thus restoring Israel.

3. Matthew 11:4

and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen

Here, Jesus directly identifies John the Baptist as the Elijah who is to come.  The addition of the “He who has an ear, let him hear” language tells us that this is happening in a non-literal manner.  We have to spiritually discern Jesus’ meaning.  John the Baptist is not the literal Elijah everyone was expecting, but he was the Elijah who was to come all the same.

Also, John the Baptist is still alive when Jesus tells everyone this.

4. Matthew 17:10-13

And the disciples asked him, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.

This passage is fun from a translation standpoint because the “is indeed coming” is erchontai which is translated as “came” the vast majority of the time it appears.  Matthew 25:11 for instance.  It is most commonly translated to mean something happened in the past, but it is sometimes translated as present or future, depending on the context.

Here, it is probably translated in the future because “will restore” (apokatastesei) is in the future, although obviously Elijah can have come and cause a future effect.  “I showed up an hour ago, and I’m about to get some food.”  This verb means to “reconstitute.”  Something was broken up, and he will reform it.  The word for “all things” is panta which just means “all.”

This seems to fit Malachi’s picture and the early Jewish rabbinical understanding of what it meant for Elijah to return.  God is going to send a terrible day of calamity on Israel to remove the wicked, but He will save the faithful.  So, prior to that day, God will send Elijah to turn people’s hearts back to each other and their covenant, and by doing so will restore Israel (as Sirach has it).  This is what John the Baptist did.

Again, there’s no reason to think Jesus is talking about the end of the world or a final judgement of the world.  Malachi isn’t, and no Jewish interpreter is either.  It is certainly possible that Jesus is bringing a new meaning to these ideas.  Wouldn’t be the first time Jesus did that with a traditional Jewish understanding.  But the burden would be to prove that’s what he’s doing.

Perhaps the greatest argument that this is what Malachi and Jesus had in mind is that this is what actually happened in history.  God’s judgement did fall on Israel and destroy their power structure, resulting in the deaths of an immense amount of Jewish people on that terrible day.  And yet, those who repented escaped.  Before this happened, God sent John to turn the hearts of the people so that they might repent and become the new Israel, and it was out of these people – the poor, the blind, the lame, and the sinners – that Israel was restored, while their priests and scribes and politicians and legalists were destroyed.

5. Mark 9:11-13

Then they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He said to them, “Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.”

In Mark’s version, the English translation is very similar to Matthew, but the Greek is a little different.  Get to that in a moment.

It’s also interesting that, here, Jesus anticipates the objection that, if Elijah is coming / has come, then why will the Son of Man suffer?  This is interesting because it shows us that, in Jesus’ mind, the coming of Elijah is before the Son of Man and it will not fix everything.  Elijah comes, and the Son of Man will still be mistreated, and to prove his point, he highlights the fact that Elijah was mistreated “as is written about him.”

So, whatever it means for Elijah to “restore all things,” this act is not comprehensive enough to stop the mistreatment of the Son of Man.

When we look at the Greek, the “is indeed coming first” is elthon proton (in contrast to the tense the disciples use in their question – elthein proton).  Elthein is consistently translated as “to come,” whereas elthon is consistently translated as “came” or “having come” – past tense – even more consistently than the erchontai of Matthew.  The “restores” is apokathistanei which is present tense, not future.  Elijah, having come, restores all things (panta is the same).

6. Luke 1:16-17

He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

Luke does not contain a story where Jesus says that John the Baptist was Elijah, but it does contain this prophecy of John’s birth, which has a hint of the Isaiah passage in it, but is obviously a direct reference to the Malachi prophecy.  I think Luke is the bridge that resolves the tension between John the Gospel and the other synoptics.  John is not literally Elijah come back.  But he has Elijah’s spirit and power and fulfills the prophetic expectation of what Elijah was supposed to accomplish.

7. The End (Finally)

Malachi prophecies a day of destruction that is about to come upon Israel where the righteous will be saved.  Prior to that day, Elijah will come to turn people’s hearts so that not everyone will be destroyed.

Sirach (and others) expect that this will be the restoration/reformation of Israel.

Jesus proclaims that Elijah has come and will restore all, but this will not stop the suffering of the Son of Man.  He identifies John the Baptist as the person who is doing this thing.

In history, the day of calamity falls on Israel, destroying many, but the repentant and faithful are saved.

To me, this all wraps up pretty neatly.

When we start with Malachi and move forward in history, this provides us a context for understanding Jesus’ teaching, and when we do this, we see that John the Baptist fits the bill and what God said would happen happened.  There’s no particular reason to expect that a literal Elijah will appear before another calamity.  This could happen, of course; there’s just no particular reason to look for it.  The things that God said would happen did happen.  Not necessarily in the exact way everyone expected, but that’s Jesus for you, and he explains to us that it did happen if we have ears to hear.

In my opinion, the only way to say that John the Baptist didn’t fulfill this role in prophecy is if we begin with a preexisting idea of what Jesus must be talking about – i.e. a final judgement of the whole world at the end of history and a restoration of everything in that world – and then carry that backwards through the texts.  Obviously, that did not happen and John the Baptist didn’t do that, so our only option with that understanding is that it must be happening at some point in the future.

But that direction seems less sound to me.  I don’t want to start with a preexisting idea of what Jesus must be talking about and then project that backwards.  I want to understand Jesus against the background of his context and the continuity of what God was doing at the time.  I don’t see anywhere in that chain of thought or history where a final judgement and restoration of the entire world is in view.

I do believe in a final judgement and restoration of the world from other passages.  Paul especially develops this idea as he begins to realize the ramifications of what Jesus did for the nations, and John himself describes this picture at the end of Revelation.  But I don’t think that’s what’s in view in Malachi and the subsequent passages that build on Malachi.

Luke 19:11-28 – While You’re Waiting

Let me ask you folks a question: what are some things you like to do while you’re waiting?  Do you sit quietly with your thoughts?  Do you strike up conversations with the people around you?  Do you pull out your phone and start texting?  Do you call someone?  Which, incidentally, is kind of the same as talking to the people around you.  People seem to think some invisible sound shield surrounds them when they’re on their phone, but it doesn’t.  Everyone in the room knows all about your cyst or whatever you told your sister.

Most of the time, I read.  It used to be that I had to take a book with me everywhere I went, but thanks to technology, I have the Kindle app on my phone, which is great.  Now, if there’s a book I really want to read in ten-minute increments, I just fire up the app, and presto – five years later, I’ve read that book.

It’s a common part of our lives.  We show up for something, and then we have to wait.  Flights, doctor’s appointments – this is such a common phenomenon that we even have “waiting rooms.”  Isn’t that interesting?  That’s not very optimistic, is it?  We’re so confident that most people are going to have to wait that we built a special room for it.

In the military, we even had a special phrase for this.  Do you know what it is?  “Hurry up and wait.”  The idea is that it’s vitally important for you to arrive and be fully prepared as soon as you possibly can, but the military as a whole does not feel a similar obligation toward you, and you’re probably going to have to wait for the thing you were rushing to get to.  And then you play spades for the next three hours.

Our passage, today, is about something the disciples were sure was about to happen right away, but Jesus knew that they were going to have to wait, and how they spent that time was very important.

Please stand with me as we read the Word of God together:

As they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.

He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Engage in business until I come.’ But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’ When he returned, having received the kingdom, he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by doing business. The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’  And the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’ And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’ Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit and reap what you did not sow.’ He said to him, ‘I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has the ten minas.’ And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten minas!’ ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.’ ”

And when he had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

Whenever Jesus talks in parables, he’s talking in a secret code.  Back in Luke chapter 8, when his disciples asked him why he didn’t speak more plainly, Jesus told them he taught the secrets of the kingdom in parables so that only the faithful would understand him and everyone else wouldn’t.

This is a very smart policy when you’re surrounded by the Roman Empire.  You can’t just walk around with a large group of people talking about a new kingdom overthrowing earthly kingdoms with yourself as the king.  Certain people will have feelings about that.  But if you’re walking around telling stories about seeds and sons and banquets and vineyards – nobody’s going to get into trouble for that.

But it’s a code.  It’s like those coded radio transmissions during World War II.  “The black cat sings by moonlight.  The turkey is on fire,” or whatever.  To the outside listener, that’s just someone saying random things about cats and turkeys.  To the people for whom the message is intended, however, secret and vital information is getting to them.

In fact, if you heard a spy say, “The black cat sings by moonlight,” and you went around looking for an actual cat, you would have missed the point, completely.  The message is not about cat noises.

In this parable, Jesus tells a story about a royal figure who is going away to receive a kingdom, but his own people don’t want him.  While he is away, he has servants invest some of his money.  When he comes back, he evaluates each of them on how well they did, and then destroys his enemies.

But this story is not about money management or the importance of investing or good ways to deal with your political opponents, and if we try to make this story about those literal things, then we’ve missed the point, just like the spy looking for a black cat.

So, I want to talk to you about the message that Jesus wanted his followers to hear, and then I want to talk about how that message might be useful for us, today.

First, what did Jesus want his followers to hear?

Luke tells us that Jesus has been traveling toward Jerusalem.  He’s just been through Jericho where the event happens with Zacchaeus.  A big crowd is around Jesus, Zacchaeus repents of how he’s cheated his fellow Israelites – and the repentance is not just him being sorry, but he works to repair the damage, which is important for understanding biblical repentance – and Jesus announces that he will be saved.

As he continues toward Jerusalem, the people around Jesus begin to think that the kingdom of God is about to fully happen right then and there.  All the ingredients are here.  The true descendant of David is here, the city of the king is here – time for the true king to overthrow the impostors and take the throne and usher in a new era.  If you’re a Tolkien nerd like I am, you might think of Aragorn coming to Gondor in The Return of the King.  It’s time for Isildur’s true descendant to reign in the city of the king.  Tolkien was a Christian, and it’s no accident that many parts of his stories sound very much like Bible stories.

Jesus wants to correct this idea, but he can’t just come out in front of everyone and spell out his plans for the kingdom.  This would be crazy dangerous and… well… just crazy in general, really.  Nobody stands in front of the gates of the enemy and announces their strategy and timetable to everyone who happens to be standing around at the time.  So, instead, Jesus tells a story in secret code.  But as we interpret the code, we have to keep in mind the context: the issue that Jesus is talking about is the expectation that he is going to bring the kingdom of God right then and there.

In this story, the nobleman does not receive his kingdom right away – he has to travel far away, leaving his servants to manage things in his absence.  He receives his kingdom after his journey.

This is the first thing Jesus wants his true followers to know: the kingdom isn’t going to appear right this second.  It will come, and Jesus will receive it, but it will not be at that moment while he is with his disciples.  He will have to go away to receive it.

The disciples, by the way, never really do get keen on the idea that Jesus has to leave them in order for this kingdom plan to work.  They keep expecting and insisting that Jesus will stay with them, be victorious right then, and set them on thrones and so on.  This is an ongoing obstacle with Jesus’ disciples until after his resurrection and ascension.  At one point, Peter even rebukes Jesus for saying things like this, which is pretty gutsy, if you ask me.

The next thing the nobleman does in the story is give his servants some money and command them to conduct business for him while he’s away.

So, the second thing Jesus wants them to know is that, while he is gone, they will have to manage without him, and he expects they will take what he has given them and multiply it.  At the time, they don’t know what this will look like, but on this side of the book of Acts, we do.  The sharing of the gospel, the performing of Jesus’ miracles, the establishment of believing communities taking care of one another – these are things Jesus’ followers do in the days after he leaves them.

Then, in the story, our nobleman runs into a snag.  Some of his own people begin to subvert him.  They start telling these new kingdom people that they don’t want this man to be their king.

Jesus is telling his followers that this will happen to him as well.  Some of the very people who should be rejoicing that their king has come will be the same people who work to stop it, namely the political and religious leaders of Israel at that time, and they will seek to turn the people who would enter the kingdom against their prospective king.

We might expect, then, that this nobleman in the story is in a bad spot.  He’s away from his servants and some of his own people are working to turn everyone against him.  But that’s not at all what happens.  The nobleman receives his kingdom and comes back!  Safe and sound!  No trouble at all.  He’s got the kingdom, and he’s back with his servants.

Jesus wants his followers to know that even though he has to go away, and even though there will be opposition, that this cannot stop his plans.  It doesn’t hold them up at all, and these efforts to stop them amount to something like a bug trying to stop a van.  Jesus wants his followers to have hope and be comforted during that time.  He will receive his kingdom, and he will come back to them.

Then the nobleman asks how each of them did with his money, and the first couple of servants report successes.  Note that, in the story, he rewards them with authority over cities.  He has a kingdom, now, and can do these sorts of things.  The little of his money that they were entrusted with shows him that they can be trusted with much greater power and authority.  Because they were faithful with what they had been given, their lord can trust them with much, much more.

Jesus wants his followers to know that, when he returns, their faithfulness in his absence will show that they are worthy of receiving authority in his kingdom.  He expects that they will obey him while he is gone and do the things that he did in the world, and this will result in more and more people turning their hearts to him.  Because they are faithful with a little, great will be their reward.  Their stewardship of the gifts of the gospel and their spiritual gifts and the people under their care and leadership will result in them ruling the kingdom with Jesus.

And then we get to the next servant, and, I’m not going to lie, things get a little awkward.

This servant has done absolutely nothing with his lord’s investment.  He’s hidden it.  And why?  Because he was afraid.  He knew his master was a savvy investor, a hard-driving businessman, and a strict evaluator.  He was afraid that, if he did something with his master’s money, he would lose what he had and the master would be angry with him.

Makes some sense, right?  We’ve probably all had bosses like this.  Maybe you are a boss like this; I don’t know.

And if the lord’s instruction had been, “Make sure I don’t lose any money,” this line of reasoning might have worked out.  If he had said, “Please do what you can to hold on to what I gave you,” this plan might have been all right.  Unfortunately, the lord had asked his servants to risk the money – to put it out there like he did and see what happened.  This is the irony of this servant: by trying to protect his lord’s interests, he ended up completely disobeying him.

Let that sink in for a minute.  He tried to protect his lord’s interests, and he ended up not doing what the lord said he wanted.

The nobleman in the story does not take this well.  He tells the servant that, if he knew all those things about him, then he should have been motivated to multiply the money.  If he was so worried about losing the money, he could have at least put it in the bank to gather interest.  That at least would have been something!  That at least would have been obedient, even if it was in a cautious, small way.  His return may have been small, and perhaps his reward would not have been as great as the others, but he would have done what his master said to do.  Just putting out the barest amount of thought and effort on his part to do something – anything – that would have increased what the master entrusted to him.

This is an important truth for Jesus’ disciples.  The days are coming when they will have to risk what they’ve got, perhaps even their own lives.  The command is not to hide.  The command is not to keep safe until Jesus returns with the kingdom.  The command is to risk and grow what they have been given; even the smallest effort will be worth something.

In the story, what has been given to the servant is taken away and given to the one who had made a lot of money.  Not all the servants were ok with this, but the master reminded them of the principle: the one who is faithful with what they have been given will be rewarded accordingly.  If someone is unfaithful, even what they have been given will be taken away and, in this case, given to the servant who showed they could do something profitable with it.

Jesus wanted his followers to know that some who would call him Lord, today, would do absolutely zero about it.  They would blend into a pagan Roman Empire and live safe lives.  When people asked about following Jesus, they would say, “Well, yes, Jesus was pretty great, but the Emperor is pretty great, too.  Thank goodness he’s still in charge.  I’m voting for him next time, too.”  When sick people came to them, they would say, “You know, I’m not sure God still works in that way.  I hope you feel better!”  When poor people came to them, they wouldn’t give of their food or clothing, but they would say, “I hope God clothes you and feeds you!” and send them on their way.

In other words, they would hide their advance share of the kingdom, and when Jesus returned, he would take it from them and give it to those who were, frankly, more like him.

Now, some of you may wonder if I’m aware this is a Protestant church.  We believe in justification by faith alone, and not faith plus works.  That’s certainly true.  And it may be noteworthy in the story that the unfaithful servant does not suffer the same fate that the lord’s enemies do.

But let’s not theologize the teeth out of Jesus’ story, here.  The servant doesn’t get cities because he believed the right things about his lord (which he clearly did), and he doesn’t get cities for the intent of his heart being in the right place.  He doesn’t get cities because he didn’t do what the lord asked him to do with what he had been given.

And then we have the end of the parable: the nobleman’s enemies are brought before him to be executed.

And now we see why Jesus might be telling a parable, here, instead of speaking plainly.  He wants his disciples to know that everyone who subverts him, now, will get their comeuppance when he returns.  I admit, this is a side of Jesus that makes us uncomfortable, but it’s part of his story.  When the disciples don’t see the kingdom occurring right in front of them the way they want it to, Jesus wants them to know that it will not be put off forever.  They will have to wait, and there are expectations of what they do while they’re waiting, but their waiting will have an end.

And when that day comes, the opponents of king Jesus will receive a judgement from him, and on that day, the judgement will be their destruction.

We know from history, church, that this story is what played out.

Jesus entered Jerusalem, and the kingdom did not appear.  He was killed.  Then, God raised him from the dead and exalted him to His right hand.  The faithful followers of Jesus were given his Spirit, and they said the things he said and did the things he did, and the fire spread throughout the ancient world.

And those who subverted Jesus?  Herod?  The power structure of the Temple?  The high priest?  The Sanhedrin?  In 70 AD, they were destroyed by the Roman Empire while the followers of Jesus had left the city.  And the Roman Empire?  The gospel spread and spread until Christians brought the pagan powers of Rome to a close, put a stop to persecution, and declared that Jesus Christ was the Lord over the Empire.

This is not the end of the story, of course.  And that brings me to my closing point: what message does Jesus’ story have for us?

Well, at the personal level, this may have challenged you to think about what you’ve been given and what you’re doing with it.  What spiritual gifts do you have?  What resources have you been given?  What are you doing with your house or your car in Jesus’ name?  Your money?  Your time?  Your skills?

If you’re thinking about these things, don’t shut that down.  That’s likely the Spirit.  And the Spirit is not a spirit of shame.

But like a loving Father, we want to hear God’s encouragement to move from strength to strength, and maybe this is an area the Spirit is urging you to grow in.  Don’t shut that off!

And I will tell you this is a huge area for me.  When it comes to spending my time and money and skills on dumb stuff to make myself feel better, I’m not just in the boat with you, I’m the captain of that boat.  I am the captain of the S.S. Waste o’ Resources.

Along with however the Spirit is speaking to you personally, I also want us to give attention to how we might hear this story as the people of God in the world, collectively.  As a group.  That’s how the Bible was written, after all.

Christianity in the West is at a point it hasn’t been for a very long time.  For literally centuries, we have been used to being on top.  Political aspirants needed our approval.  Cultures and even laws were dictated by our practices and values.  Did you know you can’t buy alcohol in Kansas before noon?  Let’s not talk about how I know that.

We have had a very long run of dictating the pace of politics, education, laws, media, culture, public morality.  Not everyone has let this go unchallenged, and I’m not saying everything has always pandered to Christians, because that’s not true.  But our culturally dominant place in Western society is something that has just gone without saying for a long time.

But today is somewhat different, isn’t it?

We feel like we are losing our grasp everywhere and at an alarming pace.  For lack of a better word, secularism is on the rise in virtually every social institution you can imagine, and Christianity is seen as irrelevant at best and actively harmful to society at worst.  It’s a fairy tale.  It’s something that has no place in a world that should be run by empiricism and rationality.

And you can see every aspect of the culture throwing off the longstanding yoke of Christianity.  Heck, you can even see Christianity throwing off the longstanding yoke of Christianity, sometimes.

And, you know, not all of this is necessarily bad.  Love rules the world, and where Christians impede it, we should move out of the way.  We’re not growing as the people of God, or even being the people of God in new contexts, if we look exactly the same as we did in the first or fifth or fifteenth century.

When we see this happening around us, it’s a natural instinct to panic.  And panic we have.  There is a full court press in America to try to reclaim the social influence and power we used to have, and we’ve been very indiscriminate about whom we ally with to get it.

But maybe instead of asking ourselves what we can do to get back on top, maybe we should ask ourselves: what did we do when we were on top?  Were we a model of compassion, justice, and mercy for the rest of the world?  Were we a blessing to the nations?

Maybe, just maybe, the reason we’ve lost our status in the world is because we proved irresponsible with it.  Maybe we used our power for our own benefit.  Maybe we used it to get our way.  Maybe we didn’t think about anyone’s welfare but our own.

Were we Jesus in the world?  Did people in all nations marvel at how sacrificially Christians loved?  Or did we look like something very different?

You know, the whole reason Israel was under Roman rule in the first place was that, instead of being a model for the rest of the nations – instead of doing justice, being merciful, spreading compassion, dispensing wisdom, promoting peace and healing and forgiveness and restoration – instead of doing those things, her leaders oppressed the poor and the outsider, they forgot the widow and the orphan and the prisoner, they chased money and allied themselves with the political powers of their day.

And God through His prophets warned them.  He told them that their religious obedience was offensive to Him, because they had neglected the weightier matters of the Law.  He wanted them to be merciful, not their sacrifices.  Eventually, what they had was taken away from them.

It is because of Scripture that I can tell you that Sundays being sacred and singing worship songs and fighting for our moral values is all offensive to God if we are not being Jesus to each other and to the world.

If someone in a congregation is having trouble buying enough food and someone else is trying to decide what wood their new entertainment center should be made of.  If we cover up sexual abuse to avoid looking bad.  If people of color try to tell us their experiences and we tell them they are wrong and their feelings don’t matter.  We cannot expect to be prominent in the world if this is what we have to offer the world.  If we are not leading with love, justice, compassion, wisdom, and peace – incarnating those precious fruits of the Spirit – then what we have will be taken away from us.

God does not care about our numbers, our buildings, or our programs if we are not going to be what His people are supposed to be.  He does not care what legislation we defeat or what politicians we get elected if we are just another group looking for power in the world like every other group.  We are supposed to be a light.  We are supposed to be a new heavens and a new earth right now.  We are supposed to be a vision of Spirit-filled community that is so full of love and restoration and hope that people should be beating our doors down to get in.

Have we been that?  What did we do with power and influence when we had it?  What did we do with the resources the master gave us?  Did we do what he would have done?  What he asked us to do?

Well, none of us want to see the Church lose influence or credibility, but maybe there is a blessing to be found, here.  Maybe when we have lost our influence, we won’t invest so much in trying to secure it at all costs.  Maybe this period will turn our eyes back to who our Lord is and what he asked us to do in his name.  Maybe this is our chance to wait well and not waste this time.

This is how we begin to turn the ship around.  Get into healing hurts, both physical and emotional.  Get into bringing forgiveness to those tormented by their sins.  Get into bringing safety and care to people who live lives at risk.  Seek ways to increase the well-being of this city.  Bring family to people who don’t know what true family is like.  Know each other fully and love each other sacrificially.

And who knows?  With efforts like this that grow over time, who knows what the returns on that investment will be?  Who knows how the Church will be seen by the world ten, fifty, a hundred, or five hundred years from now?  Who knows what God will entrust to our care if we dedicate ourselves to being good stewards of the gospel and the Spirit?

I can tell you, from how God has dealt with His people in the past, that the road to victory is faithful obedience – being who we’re supposed to be no matter what our circumstances are.  Someday, this road will come to an end, and what wonders will wait for us in God’s hands when we turn over to Him what we have done with His gifts?