There is in the heart of man a longing for the holy. The psalmist declares, "Deep calls to deep" (Psalm 42:7). There is an abiding dissatisfaction with the sense of cosmic lostness that has gripped the human race ever since our first parents lost their intimate communion with God and were expelled from the garden of Eden. This can be denied but it cannot be eradicated. Solomon wrote, "He (God) has also set eternity in he hearts of men" (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
The modern church seems determined to refute this proposition. Taking its cue from the postmodern mindset it has opted for the light and frothy. Cute little jingles have replaced the great hymns of the faith. Encouraging pep talks salted with humour have taken the place of searching expositions of the scriptures. An emphasis on the horizontal at the expense of the vertical has pervaded church services. Relevance, rather than reverence, is the catchword.
And yet it won't wash. Deep still answers to deep. And so there a movement back to ceremonies and ritual. Evangelical churches are now adorned with banners. The use of candles is increasing. They first appeared in weddings and Christmas services but are becoming accepted in normal weekly services. Incense must be on the way.
Ministers in the Uniting Church of Australia have taken to wearing cowls. In America there has been a drift of evangelicals into the Orthodox Church. Franky Schaeffer, son of Francis Schaeffer, is the most prominent example of this phenomena. Others have taken the Canterbury trail. While most evangelical churches would not yet come at processions and pilgrimages they are happy to take part in Jesus Marches. When the reality of the faith fades the ritual grows in significance.
How are we to answer these developments? Surely we need to stand with the Reformers and declare that God is encountered in His Word. When some of his disciples turned back and no longer followed Him Jesus asked the Twelve if they also wanted to leave. Peter answered for them, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God." (John 6:68,69) Peter had come to understand that Jesus was holy, that He was "totally other." His empty and lost heart was drawn to this "otherness." But he had also realised that he experienced this encounter with the holy primarily through the words that Jesus spoke. In this he was reflecting the teaching of his Lord. Jesus said, "The Spirit give life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life." (John 6:63)
Later in life, reflecting back, Peter would write, "His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires." (2 Peter 1:3, 4) When Peter speaks of "his very great and precious promises" he is of course referring to the words of Scripture.
Paul picked up the same emphasis on the Word of God. He wrote of, "the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ." (2 Timothy 3:15) He declared, "faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ." (Romans 10:17) Hence his admonition to Timothy was, "devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching" (1 Timothy 4:13) or in short, "Preach the Word" (2 Timothy 4:2).
Ultimately the church has nothing to offer unless it will unashamedly proclaim the whole counsel of God. God is still pleased to reveal Himself through his Word. Nothing else will meet the needs of the human heart. Deep still calls to deep.
David Marshall, Pastor of the Reformed Baptist Church, Hamilton, New Zealand.