When the sun is setting, you say, ‘We are going to have fine weather, because the sky is red.’ And early in the morning you say, ‘It is going to rain, because the sky is red and dark.’ You can predict the weather by looking at the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs concerning these times!
How evil and godless are the people of this day! You ask me for a miracle? No! The only miracle you will be given is the miracle of Jonah.
Uh-oh. Here we go again. Some Pharisees and Sadducees come to Jesus and ask him to perform a miracle because they want to trap him. I remember what happened the last time on Day 121 and 122. He jumped all over them and told them the only miracle they would get was the miracle of Jonah. He essentially does the same thing here. He accuses them of being clueless, calls them names, and brings up the Jonah thing again.
I already talked about the miracle of Jonah on Day 121, so I guess this time I’ll talk about the necessity of being able to read the signs of the times. I’m reminded of a story in the Book of Daniel. At the time of the story the Jewish prophet Daniel was living in exile in Babylon where Belshazzar was the king. One night Belshazzar was drinking and partying with his royal court when something strange happened:
Suddenly a human hand appeared and began writing on the plaster wall of the palace, where the light from the lamps was shining most brightly. And the king saw the hand as it was writing. He turned pale and was so frightened that his knees began to shake. (Daniel 5:5-6).
A disembodied hand appeared out of nowhere, kind of like “Thing” on the Adam’s family! This is what God’s “Thing” wrote on the wall: “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin.” This wasn’t a known language and it didn’t make any more sense to them than it does to you or me. When none of Belshazzar’s own advisors could interpret the writing, he decided to send for Daniel. Daniel told Belshazzar that God was angry with him and that’s why he sent the hand. What was the writing and what did it mean? Only Daniel could provide the answer:
“This is what was written: ‘Number, number, weight, divisions.’ And this is what it means: number, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; weight, you have been weighed on the scales and found to be too light; divisions, your kingdom is divided up and given to the Medes and Persians.” (Daniel 5:25-28).
Not good news for Belshazzar. His kingdom was going to be conquered by the Medes and the Persians. Belshazzar tried to get God to change his mind by honoring Daniel, but it didn’t work. That same night Belshazzar was killed by Darius the Mede, who then seized power. The handwriting was already on the wall.
Jesus said the people of his time were able to read the skies and predict the weather but they were unable to read the writing on the wall. He was sent to tell the people that their way of practicing religion was doomed – the temple, the sacrificial system, the priests, the legalistic nit-picking – all doomed. Jesus was trying to get them to understand that God was not pleased with the mechanical, formulaic religion that had evolved over the centuries.
In the time of Moses when the Hebrews were wandering around in the desert for 40 years, they were utterly reliant on God. It was God who led them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God spoke to Moses directly like a friend and told him what to do. It was God who saved them from the Eqyptian army, provided water out of rocks, and sent manna from heaven to save them from starvation. They had to look to God for everything. Religion was life itself.
By the time of Jesus religion was mechanical and formulaic, reduced to laws and rituals. I remember a book by worship leader Lindell Cooley where he says that there are four stages to any move of God: Miracle, movement, machine, and monument. It all starts with a miracle, a sign from God, and people are amazed and captivated by his glorious presence. It then grows into a movement as people jump on board to experience what God is doing. Eventually they become preoccupied with the logistics of keeping it all going and it becomes a machine that operates efficiently without God’s presence. Ultimately, without God’s presence, the people all drift off except for a few who maintain their traditions as a monument to the past.
I spend a lot of time thinking about today’s church. Are we reading the writing on the wall? I am not the only one who is concerned about the future of the church. You can go to the Internet or any book store and find many people who offer solutions for the trends of declining church attendance and waning societal relevance. Lots of people create lists of things that they think need to change. They are trying to get the church to see the writing on the wall. Here’s a good one from careynieuwhof.com/2013/06/12-cultural-trends-church-leaders-cant-ignore-but-might/#sthash.Li6MuNKt.dpuf
1. Online as the New Default. You used to have to go to church to hear a message or music, or get the cassette or cd. Now you just need a phone. Every attender can (and often will) listen to any communicator, band or concert they want. And almost everyone who shows up at your door has checked out your church online before they came. What are you doing to embrace the online world beyond a barely-supported and moderately outdated website, podcast or Facebook page?
2. Wifi and Smartphones. They are googling you while you’re speaking, and checking out other options while you’re listing yours. Do you assume your audience is intelligent, literate and has options?
3. Dialogue. People want to talk, not just listen. While sitting around tables every Sunday may not be the answer, increasingly a church without conversation is a church without converts. What scalable, meaningful venues do you have for people to go to online and inhouse for real conversation?
4. Loyalty. Brand loyalty is low. 4 of the top 5 global companies didn’t exist 40 years ago. Being around for a long time can be seen as a liability with the next generation. (Rich Birch has a great info-graphic on this.) How are you showing the relevance of an ancient faith to the current generation?
5. Lack of guilt. Guilt used to motivate people to change and even to come to faith. The next generation feels less guilt than almost any previous generation. Are you still using guilt to motivate people? (By the way, Jesus never used guilt to motivate outsiders.)
6. Declining trust in authority. People will still trust authority when the authority has earned their confidence. But they start out with suspicion. More than ever, trust is earned slowly and lost instantly. How is the way you exercise authority worthy of people’s confidence?
7. Declining trust in institutions. You have to show people how an organization can help them, because by default, they don’t think it/you can or will. How are you demonstrating trustworthiness?
8. Personalized, eclectic spirituality. People want to find their own unique path, and most start out that way. They will embrace the path of Christ, but they don’t start out there. How do you embrace where they start but encourage them not to finish there?
9. A desire for greater purpose. Millennials will not stay long at work or causes that have little greater meaning or purpose. I wrote more on why you need young leaders in your organization here. Is your mission and vision clear, compelling and inexhaustible?
10. Personal mission. People aren’t waiting for someone to change the world, they’ll just do it. From charity runs to starting non-profits from home, the next generation not only believes they can have a global impact, many are having it. If your church doesn’t have a burning sense of purpose and vision, you look lame compared to the average 22 year old. How is your vision motivating people who have vision?
11. Trust in user reviews. What you say about your organization matters less than what others say. People place far more trust in user reviews than advertising copy. What are others saying about your organization and how would people find that out?
12. The death of cash and checks. When was the last time you wrote a check or paid $500 cash for something? No one does that anymore. But every Sunday most church leaders expect most of their offering to come in via cash or check. Is most of your giving happening online? Why not?
I think a lot of the things on the lists like this one are superficial, quick fixes that don’t get to the root of the church’s issues. The problems go much deeper. One thing is for sure – the glory days of the medieval Roman Catholic Church are gone, the American Protestant church of the 1950s is not going to reappear, the newer contemporary evangelical and charismatic churches are already losing their vitality. Just a flash in the pan.
What are the signs of the times when it comes to today’s church? What is God writing on the wall? I think the word for Christendom is the same as the word for King Belshazzar in the Book of Daniel – ‘Number, number, weight, divisions.’ And this is what it means: number, God has numbered the days of Christendom and brought it to an end; weight, it has been weighed on the scales and found to be too light; divisions, your kingdom is divided up and given to the people.”
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I think the institutional model is dying. I think God wants a church where people don’t just connect by sharing buildings, traditions, and theological viewpoints. He wants a church where people who love God connect with each other heart to heart. The foundation of the real church – the Kingdom of God – has been laid through the ministries of the institutional church and we must now figure out how to continue with the construction process. We have to take it to the next level where the emphasis is on encouraging each other to desire greater levels of spirituality, love, freedom, healing, and personal obedience to God’s will for their lives. We need to get back to that dependence that the Hebrews in the desert had, when they were guided by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
Change is in the wind, but anything God initiates must be good. I think we need to really internalize and embrace the message of Jesus. I think we are still having trouble reading the words that God’s hand directed him to write on the wall during his lifetime. Jesus is leading us on to glorious new things if we only have the courage to embrace the miracles and kick the machines to the curb. God is indeed on the move and we need to focus on following his lead. We need to watch for the signs and listen for his interpretations or else we risk being left behind and missing all the action. But we always need to remember that it’s all good. Whatever God does is good.
What does this scripture say to you?