First delivered by Joe Rightmyer before the PJC of Grace Presbytery on January 6, 2015, in a more abbreviated form. This expanded version is dated February, 2015, following requests for the content of his message.
There is much to be commended in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). There are many faithful churches and pastors committed to the Lordship of Christ, the preaching of the gospel, taking a stand against acculturation, feeding and clothing the poor, sharing the Good News with the world. There is a future and a hope both in this world and the next for such faithful servants.
And not everything is sour in the denomination in its higher governing bodies and partnership ministries. Presbyterians lead the way in calls for justice at many levels. The denomination is not afraid to speak truth to power regarding issues in our country and those of foreign entities.
But we have forgotten how disease works. There may be many organs in one’s body that function just fine even while cancer is growing in another area. The body may appear to be healthy, but physicians will be quick to tell patients that if cancer goes undetected and untreated, it becomes fatal. So, the wise look for the warning signs.
Here are three from among many that God is speaking to the PCUSA, both individually and corporately.
1. An early warning sign was spoken by Christ to His disciples when, having fed the multitudes, He warned His followers to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod. All three synoptic gospels record the feedings, but each takes a slightly different course by recording what follows these miracles. I find the Mark version most captivating with his interpretation linked to the healing of the blind man of Bethsaida.
A quick review of the story might be in order. Mark 6 records the feeding of the five thousand, with twelve baskets full of scraps left over. Then, the second feeding, that of the four thousand, is recorded in Mark 8, with seven baskets of scraps at their disposal. This is followed by a visitation on the part of a group of Pharisees “seeking a sign, to test Him.” They had missed the miracle of the feeding of the four thousand. Most likely they were occupied with religious duty that had nothing to do with Christ. Christ rebuked them and went on His way.
On the heels of these mighty miracles and Jesus’ exchange with the Pharisees, Jesus wanted to use the occasion to teach about matters of the heart. He had displayed his power and sufficiency for their every need. Furthermore, He had demonstrated his exasperation with the Pharisees who completely missed the message. So, in light of all this He ordered His disciples into a boat for a trip to the other side of the lake toward Bethsaida. As they started out Christ said to them, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod.”
The disciples respond in typical human fashion. Making an association between bread and leaven, they reasoned that Jesus was concerned about the fact that they had but one loaf of bread for the thirteen of them in the boat. And they began to discuss that very point.
This evoked a series of questions by Christ that read as though He was really exasperated! It was one thing for the Pharisees to miss the message, but quite another for His disciples. So He took them down memory lane, asking, “Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet see or understand? Do you have a hardened heart? Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember, when I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you pick up?” They said to Him, “Twelve.” “And when I broke the seven for the four thousand, how many large baskets full of broken pieces did you pick up?” And they said to Him, “Seven.” And He was saying to them, “Do you not yet understand?”
This is followed by the intriguing story of the healing of the blind man of Bethsaida in two stages. It has been interpreted in many different ways, but the seemingly obvious interpretation is a “visual” lesson with regard to their partial insight into the person and work of the Man they were following. Upon the first touch, the blind man could have rejoiced in his newly found limited sight and become quite a menace as he trips over objects and misinterpreted what he saw, like “men who look like trees, walking around.” That is dangerous when one lives according to half truths.
But to the man’s credit he spoke the truth about his condition, acknowledging his limitations and lack of clarity. So Jesus blessed his honesty with complete healing. Surely Jesus was wanting His disciples to exercise the same humility and to seek completeness, realizing they had only a fuzzy understanding of the Person in whose presence they stood. Jesus’ strong desire was for them to know him with clarity and to trust His promises implicitly. They had a lot to learn, manifested clearly by their previous overriding concern for “bread,” especially in its figurative sense.
So what is the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod that Jesus wanted His disciples to see and understand? Luke 21:1 spells out the former: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” Jesus’ warnings about hypocrisy are abundant in the gospels. He spoke of honoring God with one’s lips while the heart is far from our Lord. He recognized and exposed commitment to the traditions of men over the Word of the Lord. Pompous and wordy prayers got condemned for a lack of humility and honest conversation with God.
And then there’s the Pharisee’s love of money. They practiced their religion as charlatans, feeding their appetites at the expense of those they were called to serve. Surely the universal understanding of “bread” makes the story of the feeding miracles applicable here. And does not the inordinate concern about money which we hear all the time apply when we worry about raising funds, meeting budgets, paying bills, and getting a paycheck? And when we are not careful and understanding we often forget that the One who fed the multitudes is alive and well. Where is our trust in God’s promises? Why do we live in anxiety about “bread” when Christ taught us so differently?
We need to learn the message behind the conjunctions used by the Apostle Paul. In several of his letters he outlines the glory, majesty, and presence of Christ for us. This is often the language we too use in the church. However, we typically follow these grand statements with the conjunction, “but.” We are prone to say, “This is what we believe about Jesus, but in the real world . . .” And we successfully expose not our faith, but our disbelief. However this is not the conjunction used frequently by Paul. He uses the word “therefore.” He would say, “We believe this about Jesus, “therefore we can be confident that in the Kingdom of God that has come to earth . . . .” Such confidence leads to believing in the real realm of the Spirit in which “God will supply all of your needs according to His riches in glory.” We are quick to hastily attack our problems with earthly solutions instead of waiting upon the Lord to manifest His power and presence according to His promises.
We need the Kingdom of God to come upon us afresh in our generation in our personal lives, our church communities, and throughout the denomination.
The leaven of Herod is similar, and in context is very deadly if one is a prophet such as John the Baptist. Herod’s sin is a fear of man rather than a fear of God. It exchanges the true nature of discipleship into people pleasing. It relegates the need of speaking the truth into the darkness for fear of losing one’s friends if obedient to the gospel. It makes politicians out of prophets, puppets out of preachers.
The “leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod” is killing the church as our decisions are driven by finances or the preservation of improper friendships. “Do you not see? Do you not hear? Do you not yet understand,” asks our Lord?
2. The second warning sign is the sin of Balaam. Many remember his name in association with a “talking donkey” and quickly dismiss the story as a fable, but the error of Balaam is so grave that it is mentioned in II Peter 2:15, Jude 11, and Revelation 2:14.
Scripture is explicit in explaining the nature of the certain aspects of the sin of Balaam, while being implicit in yet another grievous manifestation. The explicit nature of the sin of Balaam is associated with the condemnation of Sodom and Gomorrah for indulging the flesh in its corrupt desires and despising authority. It is adulterous, greedy behavior that should have no place in the body of Christ. It happens when what is explicitly condemned in Scripture becomes acceptable. And it is anathema when what the Scriptures declare abominable is reinterpreted as a “gift of God.” How blind can we be?
The warning in the Book of Revelation is in the context of Christian churches tolerating what God does not. And if the church continues to ignore Christ’s warning, the lampstand will be removed.
The implicit aspect of the sin of Balaam is equally damning. God did not permit Balaam to curse the Hebrew people from the mountain top as he was hired to do. The right things were spoken from on high. But the purposes of Satan were fulfilled when Balaam left the mountain top and introduced seductive heresies and sensual practices to the covenant people.
Time after time it has been argued that the Book of Confessions has not been changed; that the doctrinal position of the Church as spoken “from on high” is still the theology of the PCUSA. That is true on paper. But the denomination has been steadily corrupted by influences within its ranks who practice the very adultery, greed, and sensuality about which we have been warned. Is it any wonder that two thousand years of the Judeo-Christian ethic and definition of marriage is being trashed?
I Peter 4:17 states, “For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?”
Penetrating question. Strong warning.
3. The third warning is the toleration of Jezebel. This sin described in Revelation 2:20 and following is accompanied by some of the strongest language in the New Testament and reads, “But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bondservants astray, so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. And I gave her time to repent and she does not want to repent of her immorality. Behold, I will cast her upon a bed of sickness, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her deeds. And I will kill her children with pestilence; and all the churches will know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts; and I will give to each one of you according to your deeds.”
Wow! And this is a New Testament Church! This is not a body of believers who have not known Christ and tasted of His Spirit. They were commended for their deeds and for their love and faith and service and perseverance. They were once a mighty church, but they came under the influence of a woman whose motives were self- serving, whose private life was filled with sensuality, and whose heart was idolatrous. The warning for the church was to wake up! Open your eyes to the obvious. And do not tolerate such a person or such teaching, especially with regard to sexual immorality and the abuse of power.
We know the story of the Old Testament Jezebel well. She was so despicable that her name now is instantly associated with corruption; hence, the use of her name in the church at Thyatira. Use the name Jezebel and the instant thought is sensuality in the worst form. As the wife of King Ahab, she flooded Israel with prophets of Baal. Children became expendable (thus the heavy retribution by God on her children), thinking that taking life rather than protecting life somehow honors God! Do we really believe that God will ignore our denomination’s widespread belief that a woman’s right with respect to her body is justification to kill the life in her womb? Have we forgotten that the role of the Church is to teach that our bodies are designed by God as temples of the Holy Spirit and to be yielded to His purposes? Jezebel is so alive in our midst and influential in our denomination, and we do not even recognize her! It is time to regain a holy sense of intolerance toward that which God abhors.
There is yet another part of Jezebel’s life that does not get as much press. It comes at the end of her story and is recorded in I Kings 21. King Ahab is “sullen and vexed” over the fact that his immediate neighbor, Naboth, has a prosperous vineyard and will not sell it to him. Jezebel notes his despondency and inquires as to the reason. After Ahab tells his sob story, Jezebel makes a most telling statement: “Do you now reign over Israel? Arise, eat bread, and let your heart be joyful. I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”
Note her attitude. “Ahab, you are the king. You are the authority figure around here. You have a right to that property. I will make sure you get it.” And she does by eliminating Naboth and presenting Ahab with his coveted land.
This is an amazing story that ends with a property dispute! Jezebel assumes that if you are the king you have a “divine right” to what others own, even if it has been passed down from one generation to another in the family. Naboth had a sacred trust of the family property. Jezebel invoked an implied trust based on a mistaken notion of authority that is far from the Spirit of God and the Kingdom of our Christ.
Sound familiar? Maybe there is more to Jezebel in our generation than meets the eye. Need more be said?
Solomon was right when he said “there is nothing new under the sun.” Sin with regard to the big three – money, sex, and power – constantly recurs. The regretful part is that such sin has found fertile soil and taken root in the PCUSA. Her lampstand will be removed if she does not repent.
Into this milieu God sends faithful shepherds. It is a hard assignment in our day and age, but it is a calling of God. On the one hand it is costly, but on the other faithfulness is rewarded with the greatest blessings of heaven. But our day is not unlike others, and currently in our denomination any suffering is minute compared to what others around the world have to endure. Jesus was careful to teach that it would be so. And He is faithful to bear His servants up in the evil day. Paradoxically, the faithful discover peace that passes understanding and joy that is indescribable. This is how the Kingdom works.
So here is a word from I Peter 4:12-19 – “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. By no means let any of you suffer as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God. For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? ‘And if it is with difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner?’ Therefore, let those also who suffer according to the will of God entreat their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.”
Now is the time for our generation to preach Christ crucified for our sins, offer forgiveness in His name, trust His promises, and be obedient to His commands. Now is the time to seek His face and listen for His voice. Now is the time to die to self and be alive to Christ. Now is the time to repent and believe the gospel, for the sake of our selves and our families, for our children and grandchildren, for our churches and communities and nation, and for our denomination.
What do you hear the Spirit saying to the Church? What is God calling you to do or to say in response?
Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)
Related article: Open letter to my friends and former colleagues in the PCUSA by Joe Rightmyer (download pdf file here)
Download pdf file of Rightmyer’s ‘Last sermon as a teaching elder in the PCUSA’