“Make a bronze basin, with its bronze stand, for washing. Place it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar and put water in it. Aaron and his sons are to wash their hands and feet with water from it.” (Exodus 30:18-19)
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word.” (Ephesians 5:26)
In my last post, a little more personal, I laid out my modus operandi for what I write. If (1) you don’t speak dead languages and/or (2) you’re not impressed by persons who remember a handful of common Latin phrases who are trying to cover for a lack of personal experience or authenticity, that means the way I do things.
I don’t talk about things I don’t know about or haven’t experienced. If you are charged with making disciples, you can’t make someone into something you aren’t. Not that people haven’t tried.
I can read a blog post and detect within a few paragraphs whether it stems from the working out of this biblical truth in the crucible of a person’s life or someone had a flash of apparent insight and then uses that as a springboard to add subsequent plausible deductions. I’m sure you can too. It’s the difference between living words and, well, words that are pretty much just words.
I grew up in a mainline Protestant denomination, was baptized as a child (no memory of it), confirmed by age 13 (vague memory) and appointed a Sunday school teacher as a high school student (SMH, as I was sleeping with my girlfriend, also a Sunday school teacher, at the time. Not proud of that memory).
When I was in the youth choir, every Sunday I would take out the golf pencil in the hole drilled for it in the hardwood pew and color in all the typed letters in the bulletin that had closed loops (o,b,p,d and so forth) as if I was filling in the answers on the standardized tests we took every few years in school.
By the time I got to high school, this much I knew about Christianity and the church: If this was representative, I wanted nothing to do with it.
That, in fact, was a good thing. For in less than 15 months, after essentially one presentation of the gospel message in all its facets by 2 or 3 persons over a period of about six months, I became a Christian as a college freshman.
Several years later, after moving back to my hometown, I met several acquaintances from high school who experienced, more or less, the same thing. Raised in the church, yielded to their parents’ wishes to go regularly, by their teen years they champed at the bit to get as far away as possible.
But as with me, when they ran headlong away from religion, they ran straight into the arms of God.
I am recounting this because at times it’s easier—and here the proverb Familiarity breeds contempt certainly applies if you’ve been in the church for a long time—to believe the apparent decadence and steady decline of the faith are irreversible.
It sounds like Elijah felt that way after running for his life from Jezebel’s threats: When the angel of the Lord found Elijah, he said, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty”—and you should watch out when someone starts talking like this because a comparison is about to follow—“The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with their sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too” (1 Ki 19:10).
To give some context, Elijah is talking in the past tense (have been), which begs the question of his present zeal since he’s been tricked into disappearing by Jezebel’s threats. If she really wanted to kill him, why not just do it and be done with it? You don’t telegraph your intentions and let him get away unless that serves the same purpose of silencing the messenger. Bottom line, she got rid of him.
But he also needs to hear something else, perhaps something he truly didn’t know. “Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal” (1 Ki 19:18), the Lord said. Elijah wasn’t “the only one left,” according to one who should know.
Have you ever read a passage and perhaps wondered why, all of a sudden, God punctuates the wording with the declaration, “I am the Lord,” or something to that effect? Here’s my suggested answer. The point of saying I am the Lord is to remind you, You aren’t.
There is category of Christian blogs and websites that are non-stop Cassandras—yes, I know that’s alluding to a pagan source, I’m JHU Class of 1979 and know about Greek mythology—about the state of the church and its alleged irreversible slide towards judgment. I’ve heard so much about the “lukewarm” “Laodicean” church that my coffee has gone lukewarm in the time it takes to read all the repeated accusations.
But here’s the main problem I have with this frame of mind, recalling the one-time-only presentation of the gospel that won me over. Christians and non-Christians alike have heard a lot about what we’ve done wrong, but a lot less about how to truly do what is right.
Or, as Paul put it, come to the place where we are “able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom 12:1-2) (discussed in my last post as how I acquire the understanding of what I write about).
In the tabernacle and later the temple, there was an altar for atonement for sin and there was a laver (the basin in the quote at top of the post) for the priests to wash in before beginning their service within the sanctuary. (Befitting the “portable” tabernacle, the laver was relatively small; in the temple, its counterpart the bronze sea and the movable stands and basins were very large. There’s a diagram of the tabernacle’s layout on the Wikipedia page.)
Over the years, I can recall numerous meetings and church services where the minister, pastor or evangelist hammered home how guilty we were of this and that. By the time the service was over you were either feeling 6 inches tall or your hearing aid battery needed replacing.
There is a place for guilt feelings. It can be like a glass of cold water to the face, awakening you to truly self-destructive behavior or checking you from harming someone else, among other things.
In the days of altar and laver, this is what transpired at the altar in the tabernacle and temple. Real guilt was brought to the altar and it was atoned for through a substitute sacrifice (which foreshadowed the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ).
But if guilt is like a traffic cone or a jersey barrier, it makes a lousy tutor. After I felt guilty, I went out and . . . really didn’t know what to do, because no one took the time or effort to instruct me. For that matter, no one ever identified some of the causes of why I did wrong things, even though there were scriptural reasons for it. Whether the ministers knew themselves and didn’t bother telling me or just liked the feeling of snuffing out smoldering wicks and mowing down bruised reeds is another post for another day.
The laver is about “washing with water through the word.” If the altar takes care of our sin, the laver teaches us to how to approach and serve in righteousness.
It’s no coincidence that a lot of believers get sent back to the altar week after week, in part because, figuratively speaking, a trip to the laver rarely, if ever, happens. One ought to follow the other–always.
That’s what I want to address in the next post: the dearth of good teaching about discipleship. Is the American church, in general, really so reprobate? I don’t think so.
I think there are numerous churchgoers who have never really had one good chance at learning how to do what is right. Can we not “forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” Jesus’ prayer on the cross? (Lk 23:34) I don’t think that’s too much to ask of a merciful God. In fact, it is long overdue.