Many years ago, when I was a young guy just starting out in the business world, I was promoted into management by a national retail chain. The stipulation was that I was to transfer to a new Chicago Store where I would be re-located for the foreseeable future. At the time, Barbara and I were all for this move and we left Tonawanda with high hopes and maybe a little trepidation. Upon arrival at the store, I came to meet my assistant manager named Joe Zaborowski dressed impeccably in a starched long sleeved shirt and tie and polished shoes, who as it turned out was sixty-two years old, and had been working for the company for nearly twenty years – but never made it to a manager position. I, on the hand, had worked for the company less than two years, and became the youngest manager ever promoted in the company at age 25.
To say that Joe seemed upset upon meeting me was an understatement and I had the distinct feeling this situation wasn’t going to work out well at all. It is difficult enough directing others to do things but to direct someone who could be my grandfather was a little too much to bear. But I decided I would make a go of it.
Over the course of the next year or so, Joe became increasingly cynical about the way I ran the store and became angry with me on numerous occasions over things that seemed pretty insignificant to me at the time. It finally got so bad that I finally had to ask what the problem was. Why was he so belligerent towards me all the time? I was worried that I might have to have to ask him to be transferred.
When I finally asked the question, Joe looked at me with a certain frown of disgust. He rolled up his starched white shirt sleeve to reveal a tattoo scrawled on his arm. I was shocked to see that it wasn’t just any tattoo, but a number given to him in a Nazi concentration camp. He had been interned with Jews at Treblinka in Poland . . . and he hated me – not because I was young – as I had thought, but because I was German. During the war, the Germans had tortured him with hard labor, they had abused his wife and killed his children and so he hated all Germans, even those who were American descendents of German immigrants. Well, it took a while, but Joe and I eventually became friends over a couple of years through a building of mutual trust in each other.
Joe had lived through the greatest lie ever told. By the time Nazism arose in Germany in the 1930s, anti-Semitism was nothing new. The Jewish people had suffered a long history of prejudice and persecution. Anti-Semitism was manifested in a sweeping national policy known as “the Final Solution,” which sought to eliminate all the Jews from the face of the Earth (sound familiar?).
To accomplish this, Adolf Hitler and his minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, launched a massive campaign to convince the German people that the Jews were the real enemy of Germany. Having taken control of the national press, they spread numerous lies blaming Jews for all of Germany’s problems, including the loss of World War I. One outrageous lie dating back to the Middle Ages claimed that Jews engaged in the ritual killings of Christian children and used their blood in the unleavened bread eaten at Passover.
Using the Jews as the scapegoat, Hitler and his cronies orchestrated what we now would call “the big lie.” This theory states that no matter how big the lie is (or more precisely, because it’s so big), people will believe it if you repeat it often enough. Everyone tells small lies, Hitler reasoned, but few have the guts to tell colossal lies. Because a big lie is so unlikely to be untrue, people will come to accept it and believe it. And because the Germans believed it, the Jewish people in Poland and Germany were rounded up and interned in concentration camps and many millions were killed or exterminated, all on account of the Big Lie.
Today’s Old Testament lesson describes another, even Bigger Lie, that the prophet Elijah exposes today to the people of Israel. The cult of Baal celebrated annually his death and resurrection as a part of Canaanite fertility rituals. These ceremonies often included human sacrifice and temple prostitution.
Priests of Baal taught the people that Baal was responsible for droughts, plagues, and other calamities that directly affected them. People were often worked up into great frenzies at the prospects of displeasing this god Baal. In times of great turbulence human sacrifices, particularly children, were made to Baal and another god called Molech.
The religion of the god Baal was widely accepted among the ancient Jews, and although it was put down at times, it was never permanently stamped out. Kings and other royalty of the ten Biblical tribes of Israel worshiped the god. The ordinary people ardently worshipped this god because they believed that their prosperity depended on the productivity of their crops and livestock. The god’s images were erected on many buildings. Within the religion there appeared to be numerous priests and various classes of devotees. During the ceremonies they wore appropriate robes. The ceremonies included burning incense, and offering burnt sacrifices, and occasionally consisted of human victims. The officiating priests danced around the altars, chanting frantically and cutting themselves with knives to inspire the attention and compassion of the god.
In the Bible Baal is also called Beelzebub, one of the fallen angels of Satan of which Jesus spoke on numerous occasions.
Into this mix came Elijah, severely outnumbered by the priests of Baal and challenged them to a sacrificial duel of sorts that put their god, Baal against the God of Abraham – the Ancient of Days. As we read in the story, upon the sacrifice to Baal, nothing happened, even after the priests cut themselves and begged Baal to come; but upon the sacrifice to God, fire came down from heaven and consumed the sacrifice and the water that surrounded it. The lie became impotent when the truth became clear, and the people in the story gave up their belief in Baal and chose instead to follow God.
In Galatia (which is in central Turkey) the Apostle Paul came to realize that some of the people he had taught had come to believe in a lie taught by others when Paul was absent from them. He writes to them saying “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel– not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.” The church of Paul’s day like the church of Elijah’s day fought heresy, corruption and lies told by the enemies of God.
Today Christians face many of the same challenges that were faced by the ancient Israelites, by the Galatians of Paul’s day and the Germans of not so long ago. The Big Lie today is that somehow God has changed his mind, and that Biblical truths are now outdated and no longer apply to anything we do in the modern world. Christians who hold an orthodox view now considered mean and un-Christlike, homophobic and without compassion. The Big Lie of today tells us that people should be allowed to have sex for recreation and to murder their unborn for the sake of convenience (just like the Canaanites). They should be allowed to marry whomever they wish (male or female) as many times as they wish (and probably soon to be with as many as they wish at one time). The Big Lie tells us that Christians should be allowed to worship God the Father along with any other god (or no god) as suits their preference . . . and the institutional church and the government have decided to go along with this because it is the ‘will of the people’ and we are a ‘democracy’ where majority rules. And so, if you stand against abortion, against equal marriage, against redistribution of wealth, (and soon to be) against euthanasia, you are deemed un-American, unpatriotic, unchristian and possibly an enemy of the state. These are the challenges that we face today as Orthodox Christian believers in a world that has fallen for the Biggest Lie of all time. We, like Elijah today, are vastly outnumbered by the priests of this new religion based on a lie . . . but like Elijah, we have something the our adversaries do not have . . . we have the Truth and it is the truth that sets us free, but like Elijah shows us, the truth takes great courage to reveal it to others.
I have found that courage is quite rare in many Christian circles. This explains the surrender of so many denominations, seminaries, and churches to the current liberal agenda. But no surrender on this issue would have been possible, if the authority of Scripture had not already been undermined by leadership in the church. And yet, even as courage is required to combat this fall, these times call for another Christian virtue as well, that of compassion.
True compassion demands speaking the truth in love . . . and so here is the problem we face when encountering the Big Lie in the world today. Far too often, our courage among the orthodox is more evident than our compassion. In too many cases, the options left to us seem to be reduced to these . . . liberals preaching love without truth, and conservatives preaching truth without love . . . all this with the immortal souls of men and women hanging in the balance.
I believe that we are failing the test of compassion. If the first requirement of compassion is that we tell the truth, the second requirement must surely be that we reach out to those who disagree with us with the Gospel. This means that we must develop caring ministries to make that concern concrete, and learn how to help everyone escape the powerful bonds of sin–even as we help others to escape their own bonds by grace.
If we are really a Gospel people; if we really love everyone (including homosexuals and abortionists) and other sinners; then we must be willing to reach out to them with a sincerity that makes that love tangible. We have not even approached that requirement until we are ready to say to everyone, “We want you to know the fullness of God’s plan for you, to know the forgiveness of sins and the mercy of God, to receive the salvation that comes by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, to know the healing God works in sinners saved by grace, and to join us as fellow disciples of Jesus Christ, living out our obedience and growing in grace together.”
Because such were all of us, at one time or another, in our lives . . . but the church is not a place where sinners are welcomed to remain in their sin. To the contrary, it is the Body of Christ, made up of sinners transformed by grace. Not one of us here deserves to be accepted within the beloved. It is all because of God’s grace that each one of us here has come out of sin.
Indeed, I believe we err if we call homosexuality or abortion, or any number of evils something other than sin. But we also sin if we act as if these sins cannot be forgiven – because they can. We cannot settle for the state of ambiguity in which we find ourselves . . . that is preaching truth without love or love without truth.
This week it was reported that a former gay porn star by the name of Jake Genesis turned from his previous life in pornography and returned to his Catholic roots and accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Mr. Genesis relates in his blog that he is now on a journey of “reconciliation, forgiveness and redemption” within the Church. He knows God’s mercy is “infinite” and quite naturally, at the same time, he struggles to work out how and why he lived eight months of [his] life in absolute contradiction to who he knew he really was.
The story of our lives might be different from his, but we are all, nevertheless, on a similar journey. Jake Genesis’s story reminds us to pray for all victims, both adult and children, of a hellish world that he has managed to escape, because whether you might believe he was a priest or a victim of the Big Lie, God’s grace is sufficient and he is now truly free . . . and truly forgiven.
The genuine Body of Christ reveals itself by courageous compassion, and compassionate courage. We see this realized only when people like my friend Joe Zaborowski or a pornstar named Jake Genesis are freed by God’s grace from the bondage of sin and feel free to stand and declare their testimony–and when we are ready to welcome them as fellow disciples into our midst. Amen