Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” But the people said nothing.
1 Kings 18.21
If Jesus Came Back…
Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters has a marvelous scene with Max von Sydow as a Swedish painter ranting about the American TV wasteland—“Nazis, deodorant salesmen, wrestlers, beauty contests, a talk show.” He saves the worst of his bile for televangelists, “third-grade [sic] con men telling the poor suckers that watch them that they speak with Jesus, and to please send money… If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in His name, He’d never stop throwing up.” I always flinch at that; it unnerves me to think how many well-meaning, genuine ministers get unjustly lumped in with the charlatans. I still laugh, though, as a shrewd inside joke adds bite to the artist’s disgust. Most Americans identify von Sydow with two roles: the priest in The Exorcist—which made millions bilking “poor suckers” in Christ’s name—and Jesus Himself in The Greatest Story Ever Told. So, in movie terms, no one’s better qualified than he to speculate how Jesus might physically react to criminal misuse of His name.
To my knowledge, von Sydow hasn’t commented on controversies currently inflaming American imaginations. (Why would he? In Sweden, universal healthcare, marital equality, gay adoption and military service, abortion rights, and church-state separation are the law of the land.) Were he to offer his opinion, however, I suspect he’d reprise the Hannah line: “If Jesus came back...” And honestly I’m not sure what Christ would find more nauseating, the hostility and disregard masquerading as “Christian values” or the silent complicity of believers too timid to speak out in His defense. This thing has gone far beyond a bunch of scam artists building mansions and cathedrals on penny-widow donations. (Heinous though that is.) We’ve reached the point where the very fiber of Christ’s law is unraveling under the guise of honoring it.
False prophets—and I charge them as such without hesitation—have built altars to special interests and political agendas. They’ve coerced impressionable Christians to serve their gods by creating confusion. Preventable sickness, premature death, and financial ruin looming over 47 million people should rally every American Christian to support healthcare reform. False prophets have brilliantly stolen the focus from Christ’s principles to fictitious threats—subsidized abortions, euthanasia, and every other monster they can yank out of their hats. Christ’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves should compel every American Christian to demand equal rights for all, regardless of personal beliefs. False prophets have perverted the Gospel’s manifesto of love into a ministry of fear. Tolerance for other faiths—as modeled by Jesus’s respectful interactions with Samaritans and pagans—should drive every American Christian to revile religious bigotry. False prophets have justified hateful stances against non-Christians as a Biblical imperative. Need I go on?
On every front, we’re where Israel finds itself in 1 Kings 18: at a crossroads where we must choose between indulging false prophets or obeying Christ. The similarities between modern America and ancient Israel are eerily close. At the urging of his pagan wife, Jezebel—the power behind the throne—a new breed of false prophets emerges under King Ahab’s leadership. Ahab is a warmonger consumed with forging coalitions to settle old scores with his father’s enemies. With Israel on constant battle alert, it ignores corrupt influences creeping into its cultural and religious life. Prophets of Baal gradually displace prophets of God and idolatry replaces fidelity to His ordinances. Yet the Israelites don’t seem bothered by this; they passively accept what they’re told. Then the clouds vanish from the sky. A drought throws the nation into crisis and still no one but Elijah summons the nerve to confront the impostors. He challenges them to implore their god to send rain. He’ll do the same. The god who answers will be the god Israel follows. Everyone shows up for the big showdown. It troubles Elijah that people who once knew and served God would countenance a contest like this. There should be no doubt as to the outcome. Before the main event, he gives Israel a chance to decide. “How long will you waver between two opinions?” he asks. But the people say nothing.
Railing against false prophets who hijack Christ’s teaching and cheapen His name is like howling in a vacuum. Those who should be warned won’t listen and those who listen need no warning. The moment for diatribes came and went years ago. The moment to examine ourselves won’t wait. For too long, we’ve wavered between two opinions, neither one a viable option. Either we’ve held the “high ground” while this heresy spread unchecked, or we’ve spewed invective from the sidelines. We’ve elevated moral outrage into high art and congratulated each other for the good conscience to be offended. But this isn’t about us. It’s about Christ and protecting His principles and His name. It’s decision time.
Many crucial decisions must be made without delay. Will we defend the poor, sick, and rejected as Jesus taught us to do? Will we speak against abuse of His name and gospel? Will we confront impostors who exploit fears and stir up confusion? Will we remind those who’ve been misguided—even those who’ve willingly strayed—that Jesus expressly said we’ll be judged by what we do for the least among us? Will we press our concerns on government and religious leaders who’ve succumbed to the deceits of false prophets? Will we risk criticism and discomfort for Christ’s sake? Or will we say nothing? How long will we waver? How long can we?
It’s time to protect Christ’s principles and name from misuse by false prophets.
(Tomorrow: Chasing the Wind)