Dear Church Family,
Happy “Back to the Future Day”! So named because in the 1989 film Back to the Future II, Marty McFly travels to October 21, 2015 in order to save his yet unborn children. With the arrival of this day, marketers are capitalizing on the nostalgia of the movie and the idea that “the future is now!” – like this advertisement by Toyota which, running at almost five minutes and includes the stars from the original film, is almost like a short mini-movie.
The social phenomenon of this day provides an interesting insight into how we think about our place in history. Human beings tend to think that their place in history is unique (and, I suspect, that in just about every era of history this has been the case). Oops, I’ve already revealed the point that I’m trying to make: everything changes, while everything stays the same. Or, as the Preacher put it, “That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
My point is that people have always thought of their time – their situation in history – as unique or different from every other. And, it has been my experience (limited to my own time and space, of course) that this feeling of one’s present historical situation as being unique is typically worked out in two very different ways. Let me explain.
Things are getting better
In the general populace, I have found that people tend to think that things are getting better. In this interpretation of history and one’s own place in it, everything that has come before is passé and defined by ignorance. With the increase and ubiquity of computers and technology, we have entered into the all-knowing information age. Socially, we have become enlightened and tolerant, seeking to be accepting of everyone and everything. On a grand scale, evolution is always progressing us toward a better and higher biological existence, or so those who have this positivistic view of history would say.
In C.S. Lewis’ book Surprised by Joy, he describes a view that he formerly held as “‘chronological snobbery,’ the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” This is the view of many in our day: whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. And, as I said, I suspect that there have been many who have held this view throughout history. Societies obtain some new advancement, and they think, “We are at the pinnacle of history! No one has ever accomplished, nor will they surpass, what we have done!”
Things are getting worse
Then there are those who tend to think that things are getting worse. In this interpretation of history and one’s own place in it, there is a longing for the past when everyone was neighborly, nice, and moral. I find that this is often the view of many Christians. Sometimes this way of thinking manifests itself as a longing for the Biblical times when God spoke directly to people like Moses and performed great miracles, or the early days of the New Testament church when everything was ‘pure and untainted.’ More often, Christians lament the moral decline of our day, believing that people and the general culture were better two hundred years ago.
To be sure, in our American situation, there are things like a lessening of Biblical knowledge and orthodox Christianity is probably in the minority, but it’s not as if Christians haven’t faced these issues before. In my mind, this is just another form of “chronological snobbery” except in the opposite direction: whatever is new is on that account discredited. It’s a longing for yesteryear when things were supposedly better. And, I suspect that this view has been held by many throughout history, as well. Nations and cultures have come and gone – beginning with high hopes of establishing a new and better society, only to devolve to a point where people began to say, “Things were better a hundred years ago.”
My point is…wait, I’ve already told you my point. There is nothing new under the sun. Everything changes, while everything stays the same. But, I haven’t told you the application yet. In the midst of these conflicting divergent views of history (things are getting better or things are getting worse), there are two things that we should remember, lest we be carried away by either party.
(1) The Ministry of the Church
When we begin to think that everything has gotten better (new technology and tolerance) or worse (an exceptional moral decline in history), we may tend to think that we need to change the message or the method of the ministry of the church. We may start to believe the marketers and church-growth strategists. As Ligon Duncan has succinctly put it:
…there are basically three views of Gospel ministry. There are those who think that effective cultural engagement requires an updating of the message. There are those who think that effective ministry requires an updating of our methods. And there are those who think that effective ministry begins with a pre-commitment to God’s message and methods, set forth in His Word.
In His Word, God has set forth the message (the teachings of Holy Scripture) and the method (the ministry of the Word, sacraments, and prayer) which we are to employ in the ministry of the church – and it hasn’t changed. I encourage you to read the entirety Duncan’s article, “The Ordinary Means of Growth.”
(2) The Second Coming of Christ
Whether we tend to view history and our own setting as getting better or getting worse, we need to remember the promise that all of history is moving to a final conclusion when “the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout,” the dead will rise, and we will be transformed into His likeness (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17; 1 Corinthians 15:51-52). Therefore, we ought to wait patiently and without complaining for the coming of the Lord, strengthening our hearts in this hope (James 5:7-9), letting our gentle spirit be known to all men for the Lord is near (Philippians 4:5-7). Let us pray, “Maranatha (Lord, come!). Come, Lord Jesus – and come quickly” (1 Corinthians 16:22; Revelation 22:20).
Perhaps especially on “Back to the Future Day,” we would do well to not get caught up in the “things are getting better” or “things are getting worse” way of thinking, but remember that there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). At the same time, as a church, let us be about the business or the ordinary means of grace – attending to the ministry of the Word, partaking of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper, and praying for ourselves and the world – seeking first God’s kingdom and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33).
And, let us pray, and long for, the end of history at Christ’s return when He will make all things new (Revelation 21:1-5).
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch