I was caught on the horns of a dilemma yesterday, trying to decide what to blog about this morning, when the Lord—or Elon Musk, who can be sure—delivered up to me a gem. Andy Stanley is starting a new sermon series called “Starting Point,” and just the first small clip of it available on Twitter is everything one could expect:
Stanley talks so fast and strings so many well-timed phrases together that it’s hard to know where to break in to try to write down what he is saying. I’ve tried my best to faithfully catch the part from the middle that I found the most interesting:
You know, Adam and Eve and Jesus Noah and Moses and Jesus coming back. It’s all equal. It’s all on equal terms. But unfortunately, because the Bible was presented to us as a book, which it is not, because it was presented as one wholistic thing, which it is not, because we never even understood where this came from, it was a house of cards….we discovered that even though it was sacred, it wasn’t scientific, and even though it was something to appreciate, it wasn’t necessarily something that was factual, and even though there were stories in here that were inspirational, they weren’t necessarily true, and then we experienced life…
If you’ve read anything I’ve written about the preaching task over the last many years, you might be able to spot the most objectionable parts of this ironically well-constructed house of cards. Even more wonderfully, the lections appointed for today illuminate exactly where he has gone wrong. Stanley, like so many charlatans, mixes several truths together with some well-beloved lies. In so doing, he attaches his hearers not to Christ and any possible salvation, but to himself and his own brand of whatever it is he is selling. This is very nice for him, making a group of people dependent on him, but not nice for them, neither in the near nor the long term. Rather than bringing his congregation to a pool of water to drink, or into a lush pasture to be fed, or over the hills into a wide gracious land to settle, he is making sure they live always in that dark, strange room of screens, experts, and a paltry scrabble of self-help.
First, says Stanley, you were lied to. “Adam and Eve and Jesus and Noah and Moses and Jesus coming back—it’s all equal.” Well-meaning preachers who didn’t know any better told you it was all inspired and inerrant “from Genesis to maps.” Therefore, you grew up thinking it was all “equal” which I imagine meant in bygone times all important and worthy of reading and study. But that’s not quite right, is it? When you were taught about “Adam and Even and Jesus and Noah and Moses and Jesus coming back,” did those preachers and teachers tell you they were all “equal?” Is that quite the way it happened? Second, he says, you were told it was “one whole book,” “one wholistic thing.” This claim necessarily comes out of that first one, that everyone in the Bible was “equal” and then that the book—which he says is not a book—is “wholistic.” That’s such an interesting word. And then, for the gusto, Stanley comes right out and says that some of it isn’t “true.” Lots of nice stories, of course, but not “true” or “factual” stories.
I wonder, just as an aside, which ones of the stories Stanley would leave out. He must have some criteria for choosing. Other people have already gone before him to do this. Some of them with different colored beads, others with pairs of scissors. The trouble is, it’s hard to stop once you get started. In the end, most people who start down this path are left with a few phrases here and there and maybe one or two historical dates and that’s about it. If they are really careful, they end up with a God who looks astonishingly like they do.
So anyway, two people whom Stanley names step out onto the page in this morning’s appointed readings. The first is Moses who commands the elders of Israel to tell the people to “Go and select lambs for yourselves according to your clans, and kill the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin.” This is, we discover as we toil along through the text, one of those many non-winsome, heavy-handed object lessons that God uses to show us two things—who he is, and then, how we can be related to him and have communion with him after all.
As a child, one of those benighted preachers may have taught you that you are a sinner, that you have not done what you ought to have done and done what you ought not to have done, and that there is no health in you. You wanted good things, but you couldn’t get them because you had gone in the way of your ancestor, Adam, who rebelled against God. In fact, you, however wicked you were, needed a savior. And so God, who, from the very first moment of that very first sin, began to make a way to save you because he loves you, also worked out signs pointing to the very salvation that he himself would accomplish. Before we have even had time to worry about what to do, God already arranged the most essential of these signs. Here’s the trouble, though. You have to want to see them. You have to accept them on their own terms. You have to want to see who they are pointing to.
Which is to say that none of the people in the Bible are “equal.” All of the people and stories are pointing in one direction. The lamb’s blood over the door—just one of these signs—turns out to be no mystery, no incomprehensible fable or trick card. For “he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’ And then, again the next day, “he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’”
Why do you need a lamb whose blood is shed and then smeared not over the door of your house, but rather over the lintel of your heart? Because you are a sinner. Because you are ignorant and helpless. Because you can’t feed yourself nor clothe yourself nor help yourself. You need to be saved from death—eternal death.
What is so troubling about scripture, if you read it over and over, searching in its depths and details for information about God and even yourself, is that you do discover—to Stanley’s second point—a “wholistic” message. God—and again, he is not subtle or winsome about this, but as heavy-handed as any preacher—has one thing he wants to say:
Blessed is the man who makes
the Lord his trust,
who does not turn to the proud,
to those who go astray after a lie!
You have multiplied, O Lord my God,
your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us;
none can compare with you!
I will proclaim and tell of them,
yet they are more than can be told.
In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted,
but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering
you have not required.
Then I said, “Behold, I have come;
in the scroll of the book it is written of me:
I delight to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.”
I have told the glad news of deliverance
in the great congregation;
behold, I have not restrained my lips,
as you know, O Lord.
I have not hidden your deliverance within my heart;
I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness
from the great congregation.
As for you, O Lord, you will not restrain
your mercy from me;
your steadfast love and your faithfulness will
ever preserve me!
Isn’t it amazing, how God is able to use so many human authors to say the same thing over and over? Isn’t it strange that a man would tie on his sandals and walk out onto the dusty roads of ancient Israel and be the very person, the Lamb promised from the very first moments of the world all shiny and new? I wonder how God would do that? How could he say what he wanted to say? Why would he have so many words written about the Lamb—himself—who comes to take away your sins?
But Stanley thinks that some of it isn’t “true.” By implication, he would like you to trust him to tell you which is which. When you are facing a house of cards, someone has to be clever enough to stand them up in a certain order so that they don’t fall down. He wants you to let him be our guide in the construction of that house.
Trouble is, Andy Stanley isn’t Jesus and doesn’t love you with a steadfast and faithful love that’s strong enough to save you. He isn’t the Lamb. His blood will not do anything for you. All he has is a screen and some incredible marketing.
So anyway, go to church…one where you’ll hear someone tell you the truth and offer you the Bread and Wine and the Word that will bring you to salvation.