In the Gospel of Luke, there is a very powerful image that stood out to me, a premise which I fear has been all but lost on we of the “information age.” See, in the Gospel, we read that “there were shepherds in the same country living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.” (Luke 2:8-9). It’s such a powerful image, such an important message, and yet one that we sadly so often overlook.
Picture in your time this age that we are talking about. Think about what the culture was like and what the people did. See, it’s so easy for us to consider this passage and consider that the shepherds were the commonplace sight in the nation. We think of the shepherds in Biblical time as being as ubiquitous as fast food workers in our age. But the fact that we so often neglect is that the shepherds weren’t the Lord’s only choice for this revelation. No, there were the sages, the Scribes, the priests, the prophets; translated to contemporary terms, there were the teachers, the authors, the pastors, the theologians. There were men of great knowledge who had dedicated their entire lives to studying the Scriptures and interpreting them, there were those who had come up with meanings and formulas that had never been written into the Scriptures, but taught them as though they were plainly visible; there were men who had dedicated their entire lives to deep, in-depth study, having grown up in the temples and studied under the wisest and most highly esteemed of teachers.
Yet, for all of their wisdom and knowledge, for all of their years of study and dedication to the Lord, the Holy Spirit chose not them, but common shepherds to reveal the coming of the Messiah to. It begs the question of why He would choose them. Consider in our day and age; to whom would you expect the Lord to reveal the second coming to? Which top named theologian that has divided the Scriptures, which seminary founder and president? See, the Lord chose the shepherds over the leaders of the synagogues or the “founders of the seminaries” for a very simple reason, which is revealed over and over again in Scripture. The greatest theologians of any age are able to look at the simplest message and completely miss it; because they dig deeper and deeper until they’ve missed what was plainly being said. The Pharisees has received the Law and, rather than obeying it, they argued and debated over what the Law meant. Concerning the Sabbath, they argued over what was considered work and what wasn’t. Concerning the resurrection, they argued over whether it was a physical or a spiritual resurrection. Rather than accepting the truths that they were given, guarding the treasures which had been entrusted to them, they chose to argue over the details. No wonder there has always been an adage that “the devil’s in the details.” They argued that “when God told Adam and Eve that they would die, surely He didn’t mean that they would truly die.” The greatest theologians of any time are knowledgeable enough concerning the Scriptures that they can twist and contort any passage of Scripture to mean whatever they want it to mean, and filled with the wisdom of the age, this is a very dangerous thing. I think of our age, where filled with the wisdom of the age, the theologians have declared that for 1900 years of Church history, the Church was wrong, and only in our age have we determined what is true and what is false. The sheer arrogance is astounding to me, to think that we know better than Athanasius, that we understand Scripture better than Basil the Great, to think that we can divide the word better than John Chrysostom, to think that we understand God’s will better than Polycarp, the disciple of the Apostle John himself.
See, the shepherds, on the other hand, were possessors of a very simple faith. They had a very simple faith, fully without guile or “wise words,” choosing instead the words of Scripture as they are stated and never taking it into their own hands to try to twist and contort their meaning. The shepherds were of a faith that could be taught “repent and be baptized,” and would respond with repentance and baptism; not debates over whether “baptism is necessary for salvation.” They weren’t interested in cross references and theological formulas that would allow them to analyze the faith, but rather in hearing the word of God and doing it. Jesus Himself said, “Whoever hears these words of mine and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock…whoever hears these words of mine and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” (Matthew 7:24,26). And again, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep my word…he who does not love Me does not keep My words.” (John 14:23-24). And again, “why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you.” (Luke 6:46). See, this was the faith of the shepherds. When the Lord commanded something, they obeyed. When the Lord spoke, they listened. When the Lord walked, they followed. When they were told to not work on the Sabbath, they took that to mean, don’t work on the Sabbath, rather than debating with the Lord Himself over what was considered work.
In the Scripture, we read of a lawyer who challenged Jesus over the command to love your neighbor. The lawyer asked him, “who is my neighbor?” This hit me really hard recently, because, in a discussion over the command to “feed the poor, clothe the naked, care for the hungry,” it was pointed out to me that in the passage, Jesus says, “inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethern, you did it to Me.” (Matthew 25:40). It was explained to me that this passage was about caring for fellow believers when they are in need, not caring for all of the hungry and the poor. And my first thought when that was explained to me was, “so, who is my neighbor.” And yet, so often in our generation, we don’t even allow it to get that far. We don’t ask who our neighbor is, we actually argue over the word love. We argue that to love our neighbor is the demand to works, that obedience is works, that repentance is works. We’ve actually gone so far as to twist the Scripture to say that even faith is something that we don’t do, because to believe is to attach our own decision and thus our own work to our salvation. Think about that. There is a growing number of believers who believe that we have no control over our very decision to believe, in fact, we are not even given that decision, because to do so would mean that we have any control whatsoever over our belief. And then we wonder why our church looks so utterly chaotic and lawless. We’ve told everyone that no matter what we do, whether we seek holiness or live in utter debauchery, it’s irrelevant, because nothing we can possibly do, even our thoughts about whether we believe or not, matters, since it is all of God. He has created marionettes in their theology, rather than free willed people who must choose to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
In the Gospel of Matthew, we read, “Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, ‘unless you are converted and become as these little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom.'” (Matthew 18:2-3). Consider what this means for our faith. A little child with his father. He trusts his father, looks up to him, imitates him, loves him, and obeys him without question. A little child trusts that whatever his father tells him is for his own good, even when he doesn’t necessarily like what he is being told. Thus he obeys him. Now, consider how children interact with others. They don’t hate anyone, until they are taught to. They don’t see ethnicity, patriotism, social class; showing neither judgment nor partiality, they openly accept everyone, until they are taught otherwise. Look at how children view the world. Free from the cynicism of the age, free from the despondency that we allow to overtake our lives; they look upon the world with a sense of awe and wonder. They see the sunrise and only appreciate it’s beauty, never feeling the days slowly creeping away from them. Consider this, think of the wide-eyed excitement with which a child greets “take your children to work day.” Rather than viewing life as a series of chores and obligations, they view life as a series of adventures, a source of beauty; until they are taught otherwise. They are filled with wonder and amazement and acceptance and love, until they see us dreading Monday and hating traffic and complaining about the smog and watching us hate one another based on whatever prejudices we have, arguing, rioting.
Jesus used the example of a child because that is what our faith should be like. Our faith in Him should mirror this image of a child. Obedient, trusting, loving, loyal, complete. Our belief should not be a believe that says we believe, but rather a belief that shows that we believe. As James says, “show my your faith without your works, and I’ll show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:18). See, that’s the faith that Jesus expects from us, not questioning His words or His meanings, not using our own wisdom, which without fail, becomes the wisdom of the age, but rather leaning on Him and His Church and His word for everything. That’s the danger with removing the traditions and history of the Church from our theology, is that we then become focused on our current events rather than the theology which has survived so long. It’s hard to admit that our theology has become shaped by the age, but when you compare the teachings of today with the teachings of 200 years ago, even the most conservative teacher today looks pretty liberal compared to a teacher from the same denomination 200 years ago. Whereas the teachings which cling to the tradition of the Church look the exact same as they did 200 years ago, 400 years ago, 1600 years ago.
See, we are on this endless quest for knowledge. And the downside to that is that since we are on an endless quest for it, we can never be satisfied with what we find. We feel as though we must constantly complicate things more and more, creating more mysteries that we must use our theological lockpicks to open. And, each time we think we find something, we immediately put it into our theology, so much so that by the end, the theology looks nothing like what we began with. How you can take a passage that states “hold fast the traditions passed down to you” (2 Thessalonians 2:15) and dig so deeply that you can still get “ignore tradition, if it’s not in Scripture then it’s wrong,” is beyond me. How you can read, “I was hungry and you did not feed Me, thirsty and you gave Me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me…depart from Me into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:42-43,41) and read “this is about taking care of those in the Church is equally beyond me. How we can read “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17) and come to the conclusion that there must be no demand of works during the path of salvation, is beyond me. Jesus said, “whoever believes in Me shall have eternal life.” (John 3:16), and also “whoever believes in Me (same word for whoever believes) shall do the same works that I do.” (John 14:12). See, we always go deeper, starting with our own agenda, with our own “denominational guidelines” which have been ingrained into our minds for years, and then go to Scripture to justify it. We take the Scripture and read and dig and dig deeper until we can make it logically make sense, and thereby remove the necessity of faith from our faith, otherwise we wouldn’t need it to logically make sense. Paul warns very strongly about this in his letter to his son in the faith, Timothy, when he writes, “always learning and never able to come to knowledge of the truth.” (2 Timothy 3:7). Like little children, we begin, we learn the truth, we have a simple faith; but then, as the times dictate, like adults, we want to complicate it, because the more complex we are able to make it, the higher the accolades we can receive for discerning it. And yet, the deeper we dig, the more convoluted we make it, and the further we fall from the truth. Solomon warns us against this very thing, “I gave my heart to know wisdom and knowledge, to learn proverbs and understanding. And this, too, was waywardness of spirit.” (Ecclesiastes 1:17).
I am not saying that we should never mature in our faith, merely that we must be guarded against overcomplicating it. We must grow in a simple faith, but it must remain a simple faith. Our maturity must come from a relationship with God, not merely our knowledge of His scripture. The two must be in tandem. From a conversation about William Tyndale, the statement was made that he acknowledged that in giving the Scripture to the people, he was creating thousands of heresies, and he responded “better to have 10,000 heresies that the truth might prevail.” And I agree with that statement, however, the answer was somewhere in the middle. The answer was not to keep the Scripture out of the hands of people, neither was it to give it to everyone and allow them to do whatever they chose with it. Rather, the right path would have been to have given the Scripture to everyone while still clinging to the traditions of the Church for the interpretation, and allowing the people to check the Scripture, to “test the spirits to see that they are of God.” (1 John 4:1). The purpose of Scripture is to learn about God, to learn His commands and expectations, but not to study it to the point of thinking that knowledge of Scripture is holiness. No, rather, the purpose is to develop a relationship with God, through the Holy Spirit, through the liturgy and through prayer; and through use of the Holy Scripture to test the spirits to make sure that they are truly of God, and to evaluate that you are walking in the faith. So many have mistaken knowledge of God with knowing God, and have mistaken knowledge for maturity. If I can quote Scripture but not apply it, I have become a very well educated pagan. We must remember that Satan himself can quote Scripture better than the most knowledgeable theologian and that, as for faith alone, “even the demons believe and tremble.” (James 2:19).
We need to be like those shepherds in the Gospel of Luke. We need to return to this simple faith, this faith that hears the word of God and obeys it; this faith that trusts the Lord, hears the Lord, and obeys the Lord. We need to look to the Holy Spirit for His guidance, and the Holy Scripture; but also, like the eunuch in his encounter with Philip, we must admit to ourselves that there are things in Scripture that we can not understand without the aid of the Church. The Lord has given us each of the three to aid us in maturing, but in maturing in this simple faith that never evolves into us questioning and arguing over what the Lord “means.” I personally would never be so arrogant as to think that my mind is capable of reading beyond what the Lord says to understand what He “really meant.” And on the day of judgment, as I stand before the Lord, I would much rather say, “Lord, I’m sorry, I took your word too literally,” rather than, “well, y’see, I thought you meant this. Oh, you actually meant it when said I should ‘deny myself?’ I was taught that was a metaphor…”
I heard a teacher recently say, “so I did this talk the other day, and afterwards some guy came up to me and said, ‘man, I could do your job, all you do is read Scripture and then say, “now let’s do it.”‘ and I was like “thank you.”‘” When Jesus calls us to a simple faith, when He tells us that we must become as children, He means, we must become as children, we must have a simple faith. Not overburdened with hermeneutics, not convoluted with theological doctrines; just a faith that hears the word of God and does it, the faith that He tells us is like a man who built His house upon the rock. Study Scripture, learn Scripture, but don’t get so lost in looking at these “deep theological meanings” that you lose sight of what is actually being said. Sometimes, the Lord’s warning that “if you don’t forgive a man who sins against you, then neither will your Father in heaven forgive you your sins,” means that if you don’t forgive the sins of a man who sins against you then the Father won’t forgive you your sins.
Be warned of those who profit from selling theology, for “money is a root of all sorts of evil” and there are so many who see “godliness as a means of gain.” Solomon warns us against this very strongly, “My son, guard yourself, for there is no end to the making of many books, and much study is weariness of the flesh.” We must be ever so careful about those who have acquired wealth teaching theology, because they will recognize that the moment that they get it right, their career is over, and oftentimes they give themselves over to that desire. Consider the self-help industry, thousands of books stating, “the answer is within you, you don’t need anyone else to help you.” If that were true, then there would need be only one such book. Similarly, how many “amazing new insight into the book of Job” books should there be? If one be correct, then all others are idle busyness that could best be used in prayer or in the Holy Scripture. And we must be cautious of forsaking the Church, prayer, communion with God; in the name of expanding knowledge and mistaking it for maturity. To write 100 books on the beatitudes means to find 100 meanings for the beatitudes, but Jesus only had one; the other 99 therefore must be wrong.
May the grace of the Lord be with you, my beloved family.