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Preaching In The Transition Zone: Bilingual Baptist

 

Text:  2 Kings 18:17-37 

They sure were cute!  They were the children’s choir of the Colonial Beach Baptist Church.  Each member of the choir was about age six.  As they entered the choir loft they began to sing: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.  Nobody knows my sorrow.”

I thought:  “How much trouble can a five year old experience?” On the way home that evening, I received my answer.  On the radio I heard a story about a boy expelled from kindergarten—charged with sexual harassment—because he kissed a classmate on the cheek.  As it turns out, a kindergartner can experience a great deal of trouble.   But it is not just the little ones who are experiencing troublesome times.  I am sure it comes as no great revelation to you when I say that we are all living in tumultuous times.   Everything is changing. 

Not long ago our prevailing societal myth was that human reason could provide us with a peaceful and prosperous world.  It sort of made sense, especially when you think about all the advancements human reason has afforded us in the areas of science, medicine, and technology.  We can put a person in orbit.  We can extend human life by having them pop a few pills.  We can communicate instantaneously with people on the other side of the globe.   Human reason offered such great hope.  If we could just give everyone a good education, all our problems would evaporate.  We would be able to end oppression, injustice, sickness, sorrow, hunger, homelessness, terrorism, and war.

So, how’s this been working out for us so far?   

Consider that many of the advancements we celebrate are foundational to the very things that threaten to undo us.  The same science that allows us to employ the atom to bring energy into our homes is also being harnessed in a way that makes it capable of ending all life on the planet in about thirty minutes.  I once heard William Sloan Coffin observe that nuclear weapons make it possible for us to destroy the planet fifteen times over.  Once should be enough, but I guess it’s nice to bounce the rubble. 

Human reason hasn’t kept its promise.  Instead of peace and prosperity, we have increasing political turbulence, extreme poverty, and unmitigated forms of global social injustice.   Communities are being fragmented, individualism is leading to isolationism, society is becoming secularized, and institutions which once held our confidence as a sacred trust are now viewed with overwhelming suspicion.  The idea that human reason could fix all that ails us is being shown to be fantasy as human culture finds itself moving through a tumultuous time of transition that many are calling the post-modern era. 

I don’t care what we call it, the reality is that in the muddled mess of all this cultural upheaval people are trying to find their way – and that includes those of us in the church.   The church, like many other institutions, is facing an identity crisis.  More than ever, ecclesiology (or the doctrine of the church) has come to the forefront of theological discussions not only in seminaries and divinity schools, but also in the typical church pew.  Our challenge is to discern what it means to be the church in this new kind of world.   

In some respects it is a rather exciting time, especially if you are a Baptist.   Baptists bring a great deal of experience to the table when it comes to being church amidst cultural turmoil.   Our movement was birthed into such an environment 400 years ago.  In his book, Baptist Ways: A History, Bill Leonard writes “…the Baptist movement began in a time of great political and religious turmoil when individuals and churches were searching for the ultimate revelation.” [i]  Sounds a bit like our times, doesn’t it? 

So how are we to be a Baptist church during this time of cultural upheaval and transition?  I have found some help answering this question in an intriguing interpretation of 2 Kings 18-19 offered both by Walter Brueggemann[ii] and Craig Loscalzo.[iii] 

 The Assyrian Empire had been running rough-shod over all opposition.  Every monarchy that opposed them had been destroyed—their citizens carried off into exile.  Now the Assyrian troops had arrived at the walls of Jerusalem.  Judah was under siege.

Hezekiah, the King of Judah, tried to appease the Assyrian forces.  He sent massive amounts of wealth to Sennacherib, the Assyrian King, in the hope of avoiding a conflict and preserving his reign. It was a futile gesture.  Sennacherib wanted Jerusalem—nothing less would be sufficient.

Assyrian negotiators arrived at the walls of Jerusalem.  They were accompanied by a massive regiment of troops.  Their intentions were clear:  intimidate Judah into surrendering without a fight. 

The Field Commander served as Assyria’s chief negotiator.  Speaking Hebrew he addressed the representatives of Judah. “By what rationalization does Hezekiah hope to oppose us?” he asked. “You don’t have a chance of defeating us!  Your allies in Egypt are too weak to support you.  Your military strength is insignificant.  You say that your God will help you—but your God is no match for Assyria.  You need to give up the fight.  You need to give in to the inevitable.  You need to surrender to our Empire.”

The envoys of Judah were angry.  They were angry because the Field Commander had chosen to address them in the Hebrew language.  “Please speak to us in Aramaic,” they said.  “If you continue to speak in Hebrew the people standing behind the wall will hear what you are saying and we won’t be able to negotiate.”

Arrogantly the Assyrian negotiator continued to speak in Hebrew—only louder so that everyone inside the wall could hear him.  “I have not come simply to speak to you and your King,” he said.  “I have come to speak to all of those behind the wall.  When my leader gives the order to attack everyone in Judah will be destroyed. 

“Listen to me, people of Judah.  Don’t trust Hezekiah—especially when he tells you to place your hope in the Lord your God.  Your God cannot help you.  Like all the other gods that have opposed us, your God will fail.  Give up your fight.  Give in to the inevitable.  Surrender to my Master and he will bless you and protect you.”

The Field Commander’s arguments sound familiar.  He argues for what seems rational, logical, and reasonable.  “We are bigger.  We are stronger.  We are the dominant power.  Your allies cannot help you.  Your leaders are not dependable.  You cannot trust your God.  You are without hope.  Give in.  Give up.  Surrender.  Accommodate yourself to our ways of thinking.”

There are many who opt for a similar strategy of accommodation when it comes to dealing with our culture, especially when it comes to issue like church-state relations.  Being the largest Protestant tradition in the United States, Baptists are often viewed by politicians like a voting block instead of a faith community.  Remember how Barrack Obama and John McCain trotted over to visit Southern Baptist Pastor Rick Warren at his Saddleback Community Church?  You know what they wanted?  They wanted our vote.  In return they tacitly offered political influence to help us advance our theological agenda.  Obama and McCain tried to sound like preachers by translating their political ideologies into the language of the faith.  Be careful when that happens.  Remember that what they want is your vote and, as Craig Loscalzo says, they “… will stand at the wall and speak Hebrew if that’s what it takes.”[iv]    

I know it has been said before, but can we say it again?  God is not a Republican or a Democrat.  The Kingdom of God transcends our political ideologies.  Whenever we accommodate ourselves to the political machinations of any political party or ideology, we forfeit a bit of our liberty.  That’s something we simply can’t afford to do.  Glenn Hinson has written, “Erosion of religious liberty, as of any liberty, takes place almost imperceptivity.   Unless a people are vigilant, they may find themselves without the cherished freedom their faith demands.”[v]    

As Baptists, the greatest gift we bring to the table during this time of ecclesiological reformation and cultural transition is heritage as a people who advocate religious liberty.  It is a heritage that prompts us to oppose any established religion, believing God affords all people the freedom to respond to Him in whatever way they see fit, even if that means not responding at all.  It is a heritage that prompts us to respect all people as human being as created in God’s image, certainly a worthwhile principle to advocate in world that seeks to set us up against one another as enemies in some religious or cultural war.   It is also a heritage that opposes any sort of watered down civil religion that portrays the Christian faith and national patriotism as one and the same.     

From their earliest days in England, Baptists were known as separatist because of their desire to be free from any entanglements from an established church.  In 1611 in Amsterdam, the followers of George Smyth, considered by many to be the father of the Baptists, published a confession of faith in which they said:

The magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience, to force or compel men to this or that form of religion, or doctrine: but to leave Christian religion free, to every man’s conscience, and to handle only civil transgressions…for Christ Jesus only is the King, and lawgiver of the church and conscience. [vi]

 Advocating such principles of religious liberty earned our Baptist ancestors a great deal of abuse.   In my ministry I have served two of Virginia Baptist’s historic churches:  The Morattico Baptist Church on Virginia’s Northern Neck, established in 1778; and the Red Bank Baptist Church on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, established in 1783.  Both churches were started by itinerant Baptist preachers who had an independent streak that got them in trouble with the local government.  Lewis Lunsford on the Neck and Elijah Baker on the Shore regularly found themselves arrested, beaten, imprisoned, or banished simply for the Gospel.   These are my spiritual ancestors. 

Perhaps it was easier back then when Baptists were the minority.  It is always easier to defy the establishment when you are not a part of part of the establishment.  When the Baptist movement first took root in 1609, it was a despised and persecuted little group of renegades who rejected the authority of the established Church of England.  Wouldn’t it be tragic if we sacrificed this freedom simply because we have become one of the dominant religious traditions?   Wouldn’t it be sad if we sacrificed religious liberty on the altar of political expediency and the right to sit in seats of political power?  

The call to accommodation in the biblical story is clearly seen in the Field Commander’s use of the Hebrew language.  Aramaic was the accepted language of commerce and diplomacy.  It was the appropriate language for this situation.  Hebrew was the language of faith.  Loscalzo points out that Hebrew “is the language that members of the community of faith use to speak to each other…to speak about God… (and) to speak to God.”[vii] 

The Field Commander spoke Hebrew.  He spoke Hebrew because he thought it would give him the upper hand in negotiations.  He thought he could cast fear into the hearts of the people of Judah.  Notice what happened.  Those behind the wall refused to dignify the Field Commander’s ravings with a response.  They knew that this Assyrian was not a part of their community.  He may have acquired the grammar and syntax, but he didn’t understand their culture.  He didn’t understand their faith.  The people behind the wall remained defiantly silent. They refused to submit.  They refused to surrender.  They refused to yield to the Assyrian perceptions of reality.  

After receiving word about the comments of the Assyrian leader, Hezekiah goes to the temple.  He commands his political advisors and temple priests to find the prophet Isaiah and depict the situation.  Isaiah’s response was direct: “Don’t worry!  God is in control!”  Such an assertion makes no sense to those at the wall, but it is the very spiritual lifeblood of those behind the wall.  For me it sounds a great deal like that Baptist confession quoted earlier.  “Christ Jesus only is the King, and lawgiver of the church and conscience.”[viii]

At the wall the Assyrians seem to be in control.  Their assumptions reign supreme. Their perceptions are commanding. Their world view seems dominant.  At the wall Judah’s trust in God seems absurd.   The only thing that made sense was accommodation to the whims of the Empire.   Behind the wall, however, a different world view commands attention.  Behind the wall a different set of values and perceptions are at work.  Behind the wall the language of faith was being spoken.  Behind the wall no one doubts the power of God. 

How do we Baptists discern what it means to be the church in this ever changing world?  Certainly that’s a big question – bigger than we can answer in these few moments together.  I would suggest, however, we can at least begin by remembering that one basic principle which forged our identity from the start – that being the highly cherished principle of religious liberty.  This is who we’ve been, who we are, and what we have to share.  Lots of things may change and probably must.  Worship styles may be altered.  New hymns may be song.  New technologies may be engaged.  New models of leadership may be developed.  New ways of sharing the Gospel may be employed.  One of the things that cannot change, however, is that we be a people who live and die for freedom.  Without freedom it will prove to be impossible for us to explore all these other emerging movements of God in this post modern world.  

In his commentary on this passage Brueggemann says that the argument at the wall is a metaphor for the conversation taking place between the church and culture.  How is the church to interact with our culture?   Brueggemann calls for a bilingual Christianity.[ix]  I guess you might say what I am calling for is that we become bilingual Baptists.  Behind the wall, we need to remember our heritage as advocates of religious liberty.  If we don’t, we might just find ourselves selling out when the Empire arrives at the wall.  It is also important that we learn how to communicate the value of this sacred tradition to those outside the walls.  Maybe if we do we can help birth a new Baptist movement that will be able to flourish in a more faithful fashion than ever before as we repeat that strong affirmation of our Baptist ancestors who said, “Christ Jesus only is the King, and lawgiver of the church and conscience.”[x]


[i] Bill Leonard, Baptist Ways: A History, (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2003).

[ii] Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation and Obedience:  From Faithful Reading to Faithful Living.  (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1991), 41-69.

[iii] Craig Loscalzo, Evangelistic Preaching That Connects. (Downers Grove, Illinois, 1995), 135-136. 

[iv] Craig Loscalzo, Evangelistic Preaching That Connects. 138. 

[v] Glenn Hinson, Religious Liberty: The Christian Roots of our Fundamental Freedoms (Louisville: Glad River, 1991) 22.

[vi]The Confession of Faith of Certain English People Living in Amsterdam”, in Baptist Confessions of Faith, ed. 7. W.L. Lumpkin (Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1959) 140.

[vii] Craig A. Loscalzo, Evangelistic Preaching, 138.

[viii]The Confession of Faith of Certain English People Living in Amsterdam”, Baptist Confessions of Faith, 140.

[ix] Brueggemann, Interpretation and Obedience, 41-69.

[x]The Confession of Faith of Certain English People Living in Amsterdam”,  Baptist Confessions of Faith, 140.

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