"Traditions or the Presence of God?" (December 2004)
"And it came to pass, that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father. And his mother answered and said, Not so; but he shall be called John. And they said unto her, There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. And they made signs to his father, how he would have him called. And he asked for a writing table, and wrote, saying, His name is John. And they marvelled all." (Luke 1:59-63) A week or so before Christmas the Lord spoke something to my heart... We are trading the presence of God for religious traditions. A few days after the Lord spoke that to me I was reading the Christmas story starting with the birth of John the Baptist and came across our opening scripture. When I read it, I saw in this passage exactly what the Lord has spoken to me. Traditionally, when a baby was born, it was named after it's father or some relative. This was not to be the case with John. When it was time to name him, the people protested at Elizabeth wanting to name him John instead of Zacharias. Why? Because this went against tradition. Tradition may have said to name him Zacharias, but God said to name him John. God's presence was about to show up in a miraculous way and John was to be the forerunner preparing the way for the Messiah. God was about to do a "new thing" therefore He was changing some "old" things. Too often we are "hung up" in our traditional way of doing things that we become deaf, dumb, and blind to what the Spirit of the Lord may be wanting to do.
While everything in the church should be done decently and in order, and God has given a standard of holiness that we are to follow from His word, and while there are some things that are absolutes, much of what we do in church and consider part of the "Christian life" are actually religious traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation. Some of us were talking about this at my mother in law's home the other day and my sister in law told us the story of a new bride who was going to bake a ham for her husband. When she put it in the pan she cut off the tip end of the ham and laid it aside. Her husband asked her why she did that. She replied that her mother had always done that when she cooked a ham so she was just doing what her mother did. The next day this young newlywed called her mother and asked her why she cut off the end of the ham when she put it in the pan. Her mother answered that she did it because her mother always cut if off before she cooked it- she was just doing what she saw her mother do. Later that day this mother called her mother and asked her why she cut off the tip of the ham when she put it in the pan. To this the reply was, "Because my pan was too small to hold the whole thing so I cut it off." For the next two generations the ladies in this family did something that they saw the previous generation do but did not know why they did it. The church is like this in many ways. We have picked up the "habits" of former generations and don't know why we do certain things certain ways.
My husband was raised in one denomination and I was raised in another. Both of these denominations had as their main teaching the doctrine of salvation through the blood of Jesus, yet there were differences in other areas. We determined that most of these differences came into these denominations (and all denominations) as a result of teachings that were passed down from one generation to another. Paul admonished Timothy to do those things which he had learned from his mother and grandmother. "When I call to remembrance the unfeigned faith that is in thee, which dwelt first in the grandmother Lois, and in thy mother Eunice; and I am persuaded that in thee also. But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; and that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus." (2 Timothy 1:5; 3:14,15) In Deuteronomy God gave a command to the children of Israel that each generation was to teach His commandments to the following generation. "And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children..." (Deut. 6:6,7a) God does want each generation to teach the next generation His commandments. But He does not want them to teach their own personal beliefs, interpretations, and convictions. Herein, I believe, lies most of the problem. "But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men." (Matthew 15:9) A lot of what we have been taught has been taught like it was "gospel" when in fact it was the "commandments of men". This has been going on for thousands of years. The Pharisees were constantly adding new commandments to God's law and teaching the people that it was the doctrine of God.
So how are we "trading" (sacrificing) the presence of God by holding to and practicing our "religious traditions"? When we carry out our religious practices and aren't willing to change because of tradition, we are placing ourselves in control of what happens- in our church services or in our own individual lives- instead of letting God be in control. Too often when we assemble ourselves together and come into God's house we have our own structured program of how the service is going to go that morning. Many churches even have a bulletin printed out of the order of service- you know exactly what is going to happen, when it's going to happen, and how it's going to happen; before it does. (Before you get too self righteous and condemn them for their printed "order of service", you have yours too it's just not written on paper. When you go into a service you know what's going to happen- the same thing week after week: one hymn, three choruses, prayer requests, take up offering, preaching, and altar call; it very seldom, if ever varies.) Can you see how the presence of God has been sacrificed? If God did want to move and do something among His people, He'd have to be added to the program. When we are doing "our thing" (holding to our religious traditions) then we have taken over and shut Him out.
It is not my intention to bring condemnation upon anyone, any church, or any fellowship. We say it's all about Him, yet when we are in His house, it's not; it's all about what we have "traditionally" held to be church. We have shut Him out, in most cases, and not allowed Him to have liberty in His own house. Perhaps this is why people come into our churches hurting, broken, bruised, beaten, discouraged, looking for hope and peace and never find it, but instead they leave the same way that they came. Is this God's fault? Doesn't He care about them? Don't we preach that He is able to "bind up the broken hearted, set the captive free, set at liberty those who are bruised"? Has He changed? Why isn't He "touched by the feelings of our infirmities"? I submit that God hasn't changed- He is still loving and powerful. He still cares about you. He still loves you and wants to heal you, deliver you, and make your life brand new. Yet, if we don't make time for Him to come and meet with us in His house, how can He touch us? If we are going on with our "program" and not stopping long enough to invite Him in, lives will remain the same. It's only in His presence that things change; it's only in His presence where health, peace, and joy are restored, and hope is renewed. But if His presence is "shut out" because we have to do things the way we always have (according to tradition) ...then we are the ones who suffer for it.
When we determine that our church services will begin at ten and be over by twelve, we take God out of control. Suppose He doesn't decide to "show up" until ten minutes after twelve? Jesus often taught for days at a time. "Then Jesus called his disciples unto him, and said, I have compassion on the multitude, because they continue with me now three days, and have nothing to eat: and I will not send them away fasting, lest they faint in the way." (Matthew 15:32) Paul preached for so long one time that a young man fell asleep during his sermon and fell out of the window and died; then Paul had to raise him back to life. "And there sat in a window a certain young man named Eutychus, being fallen into a deep sleep: and as Paul was long preaching, he sunk down with sleep, and fell down from the third loft, and was taken up dead." (Acts 20:9) Jesus went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, read a portion of scripture then sat down. (Luke 2:16-20) The early church "continued daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house." (Acts 2:46,47) It's not the length of the service that matters most- one hour, two hours, out by twelve, etc.- what matters is...has God met with us. Has He come into our midst and done what HE wanted to do in that service? Sometimes He wants us to tarry (wait) in His presence. Sometimes He will do it in an instant. The important thing is not holding to a "traditional time clock". What's important is letting God be in control of the service whether that means it last five minutes or five hours. If we don't let Him have control of the service, we have traded religious tradition for the presence of God. When God is in control than we can truly say, "It's been good to be in the house of God."
We even have our traditions about prayer. We think prayer is a meeting that is called every Thursday from eleven o'clock to twelve o'clock. Prayer is not just a meeting. We can meet together to pray collectively at designated times, and we should- "Again I say unto you, that if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." (Matthew 18:19,20)- but we were also taught to "pray without ceasing". The church should be praying and not restrict our prayer time to a "special meeting". We also traditionally teach that there is a certain posture that we have to adhere to in prayer. We are taught that you have to be on your knees in order for God to hear your prayers. It's not the position of the body that God is looking at, it's the position of the heart. Look at this parable taught by Jesus. "Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God, be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted." (Luke 18:10-14) Neither of these men were on their knees, they both were standing, but the Lord only heard one man's prayer. "And he went a little farther, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will but as thou wilt." (Matthew 26:39) Here we see the posture of Jesus in prayer- on His face. The Bible gives many accounts of different postures in prayer- standing, sitting, kneeling, prostrate. When you make posture the main condition, you miss the real condition that causes the presence of God to come during your prayers. "The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit." (Psalms 34:18) Our hearts are what causes the Lord's presence to come near in our prayers, not the position of our body.
Another religious tradition is that of gender. Tradition, in some churches, teaches that women should not preach, teach, or even speak. If you confine the calling of God to the male gender only, you'll miss the presence of God. The Bible is full of the names and deeds of women that God used to accomplish His purposes. Deborah was a judge and prophetess in Israel. If it had not been for her, Barak would not have gone to battle against the king of Canaan. Because of this, God gave a woman, Jael, the victory in the battle. (Judges 4) There was a prophetess named Anna who spoke over the Christ child. The women who went to the tomb of Jesus were the first ones to report (preach) the resurrection to the disciples. Consider this, if God entrusted His Son (the Word that was made flesh and dwelt among us) into the womb of a woman (Mary), then had her raise Him, would He not entrust the "written" word to women as well. The presence of God- through the Lord Jesus Christ, Emmanuel- God with us; never would have come into the world if it had not been for a woman who yielded her womb to the will and plan of God. A man could not have done this. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all on in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28) If we hold to our religious traditions that God can't use whatever vessel He desires, whether it's male or female, we will be like the prophet Balaam. He missed the presence of God, and almost lost his life, because it came through a vessel that he didn't think God could use- a donkey.
I want to address one other religious tradition that we have held to in the church- dress code. We have equated the length of our sleeves and hair with holiness. Holding to a religious standard does not make us holy. The blood of Jesus and continued surrender to His Lordship over our lives makes us holy. I completely agree that the church should practice modesty, and there is a time and place for everything, but this is not the standard by which God judges who is fit and worthy to do His will, nor should we. John the Baptist was the one who was sent to prepare the way for Christ and he was dressed in camel's hair and a leather girdle around his loins. (Matthew 3:4) This brings me to the whole point of this message. God is going to do a new thing in this last hour and if we are too tightly bound to our "religious" way of doing things, we won't recognize it when He does it. John the Baptist was not only the forerunner preparing the way for the Lord's first coming, he was also "symbolic" and represented a generation that would come forth in the last days preparing the way for the Lord's second coming. "And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hears of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." (Luke 1:17) John represented a new priesthood- he was in line to be a priest but he didn't look at all like the previous priesthood. The Lord is raising up a "royal priesthood" in this last day to prepare the way of the Lord and they will not look like the "old priesthood" (the traditional church). They won't be dressed in three piece suits and ties; they may be dressed in camel's hair and leather, they may come out of the wilderness, they may
look like "wild men", but like John they have been called and chosen to be the "voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord". They won't be bound to doing things according to tradition, they won't be held to vain rituals, they won't go along with everyone else in the church because it's popular, they will be worship minded- not entertainment oriented, they will come forth with boldness, speaking the word of God with authority, unafraid of the faces of men or devils, they won't put up with compromise. John was chosen in his generation although he didn't look like what they were use to. These believers will be chosen in their generation and they won't fit our "religious traditions"- what we are use to.
We must not sacrifice/trade the presence of God (what He wants to do) in order to hold on to that which we have traditionally done in the past or we will have the Lord weep over us like He did in Jerusalem. "And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it. Saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! But now they are hid from thine eyes...because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation." (Luke 19:41,42,44b)