Tuesday, March 08, 2011

What God Cannot Endure

[This entry follows a sermon titled “Rebellious Children and a Responsive Father”. Click on the title to listen to the audio.]
In the opening chapter of Isaiah, God lays out a convincing case against His people. They are a “sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, [and] children who deal corruptly” (v. 4). Their persistent rebellion against God has broken their relationship with Him, leaving their nation ruined and their religion empty of any real meaning or effectiveness. It is this last bit of information that prompts my writing today.

Focusing on the religious life of His people, God basically tells them to stop making sacrifices but not because He is putting an end to the sacrificial system. Rather, their sacrifices are empty religious tokens and not genuine expressions of repentance and the need for forgiveness. Since that is the case, they may as well gather their lambs, bulls, and goats, and head home. God essentially goes on to say, “While you’re at it, don’t celebrate any more special holy days, and quit praying, too, because I’m only interested in listening to and intervening for those who are repentant about sin…not reveling in it.”

Why does God say this? Because God says, “I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly” (v. 13b). God will not put up with harbored sin among those who are to be a holy people. In other words, God is not merely interested in the act of corporate worship; He is interested in the sincere act of corporate worship.

The truth is…God is not alone in His hatred for known sin among the people of God. We hear objections to Christianity along these lines all the time, don’t we? “I just can’t stand going to church…it’s just full of hypocrites.” How do we respond to such an objection? Well, we don’t object by simply saying, “Everybody’s a hypocrite.” I don’t think the real problem related in the objection is that there are sinners in the church…the real problem seems to be that there are sinners in the church who refuse to admit their sin. That is what is so hypocritical.

In Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector going to the temple to pray. When the tax collector prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (v. 13b), what is Jesus response? He doesn’t say, “You see! This is the kind of hypocrisy we need to avoid…of all people, a sinner in the temple!!!” No, Jesus says that the man actually walks away justified…He is counted righteous before God because of His humble repentance in prayer. It was the Pharisee…the religious man…who claimed that he was “not like other men” who could not walk away justified before God.

This gets us back to the problem in Isaiah’s day…the people were enduring something that God could not endure. They were gathering as Pharisees, when God desired that they would gather as a group of tax collectors. They were quite proud of their religious lives, when they should have been humbled by their sin. Lest we look down our noses as the Pharisees, we must take note that Pharisaical spirit rises up in our hearts more often than we would like to admit.

When some publicly known Christian has committed some heinous sin, we find ourselves thinking, “God, I thank you that I am not like him…” When our church has to discipline a member because of her sin, we think, “God, I thank you that I am not like her…” When we see our extensive commitments to service in the church and think about those who may not involved at our level, we tend to think, “God, I thank you that I am not like them…” Oh yes, the spirit of the Pharisee is there…it is fueled by the one who is seeking whom he may devour (i.e. – the devil).

Closely tied to puffing ourselves is the lie that accompanies it. It is a lie that conceals the real sinfulness of this sinful pride. We think ourselves to be on a “higher spiritual plane” because “I am not like him/her/them,” but that is just not the case. In reality, we have believed the whisperings of the devil, who desperately wants us to forget that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pt. 5:5). It’s as if he says to us, “Yes...you’re right...you are much better than them…this is a good prayer to pray...your spiritual growth is really exceeding all these others.” Yet, God opposes these lies with four little words, “I cannot endure it.”

Because God will not endure vain expressions of worship among His people, we should not endure vain expressions of worship among His people. This begins with self-examination. We should pray that God would “try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me...” (Psalm 139:23-24). God must search out our hearts for the pride lodged there...for the self-exalting motivation in our service...for the self-serving approach to our marriages...for the self-centered concept of worship. He cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly, so if we are to be part of His solemn assembly, we must beg Him to root out the iniquity we secretly cherish.

Beyond self-examination, we should recognize that this is part of the reason corrective church discipline is much needed in the church. This idea of God being unable to endure iniquity and solemn assembly is not a concept locked in the Old Testament. I heard somewhere that many misconceive God as very cranky and mean in the Old Testament, but sometime between Malachi and Matthew, God went on vacation and feels much nicer now. Maybe that’s the way you have thought of God as you look at the Old and New Testaments. However, this is false! In the Old Testament, alongside the revelation of God as One who judges sin, we see One who forgives sin, is gracious, and is patient (see Isaiah 1 as a prime example). In the New Testament, alongside the grace of God revealed in the Lord Jesus Christ, we are constantly reminded of the end awaiting all who do not believe…eternal retribution in hell!

So, since God is the same God in both the Old and New Testaments, then He should not endure iniquity and solemn assembly there either. As we look at the New Testament, is there any evidence that this is true? Yes, and I’ll only mention them briefly…you will have to search some of this out for yourself. First, think about Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11. Here is a couple who gave financially to the cause of the church, but they lied about how much they gave…they misrepresented themselves as being more generous than they actually were. Because of this, both of them were struck dead...something reminiscent of the Old Testament, wouldn’t you say? Could it be that one reason such a severe penalty was imposed by God was to remind the church that He is still the same God as He was when Uzzah steadied the cart in 2 Samuel 6? He cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.

Now, we don’t have people dropping over dead in church because of their sinfulness, and hopefully, we are beyond the idea that, upon the heinous sinner’s entrance of a church building, God will strike him with lightening. So, how is it that God does not endure iniquity and solemn assembly today? Has God gone spineless? Is God a moral jellyfish? No! The answer is that God does not endure unrepentant sinners in the assembly of the church through corrective church discipline.

In Matthew 18, a man who sins against his brother is not immediately cast out of the church. Instead, Jesus says he is rebuked, and his repentance is sought by one, then by a few, and then by the whole church. If he won’t listen to the church, though, Jesus says he is to be removed from the assembly of God’s people. Why? Because “I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.”

In 1 Corinthians 5, the apostle Paul confronts a church who has not done what they should have done…removed a persistent and unrepentant brother. He says they are “arrogant” (v. 2a)…they feel pretty good about their decision. After all, keeping him in the church is loving…it’s gracious…it shows just how accepting we are as a church. Paul says that, instead, they should have been mourning (v. 2b). It should have broken their heart that this man had dishonored the Lord and His church through His actions. What was the proper course for them? “Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (v. 2c). Why? Because “I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.”

The people who gather in His name bear His name before the world, so they must be holy because God is holy (Lev. 11:44; 1 Pt. 1:16). We slander the character of God when we are not concerned to be repentant people and holy people. Yes…the power of sin affects the lives of every man, woman, and child who assembles to worship the Lord. However, this does not mean that we can take the issue of sin in God’s people lightly.

Do you know what presumptuous sin is? It is “sin committed on purpose – knowingly doing what God forbids while presuming that you will be covered by His mercy” (Daryl Wingerd, et al. Divorce and Remarriage: A Permanence View, p. 137). Presumptuous sin is not to be the way of the Christian. “True Christians are repentant sinners, not presumptuous sinners…presumptuous sinners are acting like they are on their way to hell, not heaven. They may be” (ibid., p. 138). This was how serious the sin of God’s people was in Isaiah’s day…it was presumptuous sin. This is also how serious the sin of God’s people can be in our day. May we consider all these things seriously.