Historically Used In an Exclusive Sense, This Blog Aims to Explore What God's Up To Inside & Outside the Institutional Church

Does God Do “Retro” ?

retro-12

               Thanks to Netflix and Amazon I am able to indulge in a little nostalgia by watching my old TV favorites like “Andy Griffith” and “Dick Van Dyke.” While obviously dated, there are many times the comedic genius and writing skill shine through. I enjoy the classics in movies as well but realize that the “good ol’ days” are usually more imaginary than reality. Nostalgia used to be considered a psychological problem for sailors and soldiers away from home for long periods of time. “Retro” is now its own brand – Cracker Barrel specialize in providing the candy and toys from the childhood of it patrons. However enjoyable “Double Bubble Gum” or playing with a wooden glider may be, the problem with nostalgia is that it focuses on the past to the neglect of the present, distorts one‘s memory by becoming selective and ignores the potential of the future.

The generation freed from Egypt learned the hard way that nostalgia is dangerous. Though divinely supplied by the Lord, when thirsty, hungry and weary, the former slaves began to reminisce about “the pleasures” of Egypt – “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic” (Num. 11:5) and ended up desiring to return to slavery. In reality, the pleasures of Egypt were anything but (unless decades of toil, deprivation and hardship qualify!). Nostalgia distorted their memory, they forgot what the Lord had done for them and chose to reject the future they had been promised. Their nostalgia resulted in their slow death by wandering in the wilderness.

50s candy

The generation that re-settled and rebuilt Jerusalem and the temple under the leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra faced the same choice. On the day of the “groundbreaking” of the new temple, the shouts of joy are mixed with tears especially for those that had seen the Temple of Solomon before it was destroyed (Ezra 3). When the enthusiasm for the building project lags the prophet Haggai diagnoses what seems to what’s hindering the effort – the memory of the old temple’s glory “back in the day” seems to make the new project paltry in comparison. Yet the prophet declares (Haggai 2:3, 9):  “Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now…Is it not as nothing in your eyes?… The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts.”

The Lord seems to have no interest in a nostalgia that causes his people to lose sight of their future, remain stuck in what has been or desire to return to what used to be, no matter how wonderful or glorious at the time. The Lord never even promises a return to the garden of Genesis, as wonderful as it was & despite the yearning (as Jodi Mitchell put it) to “get ourselves back to the garden.” God does not work backwards but forwards into the future he has planned, promised and is working to bring about. The Lord does not promise a return to the old creation but a new creation and a new heavens and new earth. He does not promise to reform Egypt but “a city to come,” not a restored temple of Solomon but a temple of surpassing glory, his people as living stones, a dwelling for the Spirit. The God of our redemption does not work in reverse but forward, to the future which is far promised to be greater than the past.

Preachers will often invoke a return to the 1st century apostolic church or a repeat Pentecost as an ideal. While such sentiments are often used to whip up the crowd or express a desire for something more than the current status quo of the church’s condition or experience, ultimately they point us in the wrong direction. There is no such thing as a spiritual time machine that can return us to the days gone by. While the church is rooted in its history its future is not found there but in the unfolding of God’s purpose for his people. There is a maturity that will be made reality, a fullness in Christ that will come to complete fruition (Eph. 4:13) that will surpass apostolic days. As wonderful as the day of Pentecost was there is a greater glory to come. While the resurrection of the Son of God was earth shaking, the raising up of millions of God’s saints will amaze heaven and earth. As precious to me is to me is the day of my conversion the day of my transformation and glorification will far surpass it. When it comes to what God will do “you ain’t seen nothing yet, folks!”

glider

Nostalgia can be an enjoyable trip down memory lane but it has its drawbacks – as some “reunion tours” of ageing rock stars reveals – some things are best left in the past! Nostalgia in God’s people can be debilitating when the rose tinted glasses of yesteryear blind us to what God is up to in the present and what he has promised for the future. God’s people are called to remember – his nature, his mighty acts and his promises. But this remembering is to strengthen our faith in the same God for the present and to anchor our hope for the future. The Lord of past, present & future has no reverse gear. He does not work backwards. He is not into “retro.” The Lord is working forward according to his promises and drawing those who trust in him to walk with him towards the future he is bringing to pass.

(This post is an adaptation of a sermon I preached Jan. 27th, 2013)

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2 responses

  1. I find this post confusing. You dismiss those who would look to the 1st century or Pentecost to be their guide but much of the Church is also driven by a tradition-based nostalgia. Many people who seek the 1st century pattern are doing so precisely because Tradition is what’s holding us back.

    Does the nonsense that the church has accreted and repeatedly experiences since the 1st century in any way fulfills Eph 4:13? Maturity is also found in examining that accretion and shedding things that hold us back.

    Apophatic theology is the practice of defining what God is not. I think that principle should be applied to ecclesiology as well. I would argue that most Church tradition, if it’s worth anything, is an object lesson for the Church of what not to be.

    February 23, 2013 at 6:23 am

  2. The problem I identified is nostalgia not tradition. I think the point is fairly simple – God does not work backwards. The first century church was foundational but in infancy & its maturity is not found in regression to another time but in its future, specifically the future God has for it and is working now to bring to pass. That calls for “semper reformanda” not restorational thinking.

    February 23, 2013 at 2:32 pm

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