TF: Bruce's sermon, part 2

TF: Bruce's sermon, part 2 July 24, 2009

Tribulation Force, pp. 60-65

"I am eager to tell you what God has told me," Bruce Barnes tells the new congregation of New Hope Village Church.

And what better way to convince the congregation of that eagerness than to spend another two pages describing it for them?

"Does God speak to me audibly? No. I wish he would. I wish he had. If he had, I probably would not be here today. But he wanted me to accept him by faith, not by his proving himself in some more dramatic way than simply sending his Son to die for me. He has left us his Word, and it gives us all we need to know."

Buck felt a lump in his throat as he watched his new friend beg and plead and cajole his listeners to hear, to understand, to make themselves available to God for the instruction God wanted them to have. …

This is, again, a surreally pre-Event approach to this Sunday service. Bruce says God's message is to be found in the Bible and not in anything more "dramatic," but this follows the grandiose divine destruction of the Russo-Ethiopian air force and the instantaneous disappearance of two billion people — instances one might regard as fairly dramatic (in theory, at least, if not in the way they're presented in these books).

The really strange thing here is that Bruce is speaking to an audience that has, just like him, witnessed all of this, but he still feels the need to "beg and plead and cajole" them into believing his account of what they have already seen and what they already know, obviously, to be the case. The effect is something like stumbling into a New Orleans church service the Sunday after Katrina, the people sit in the pews in their Sunday finest, knee-deep in the floodwaters, as the pastor says, "I don't want you to worry about me. I haven't become a wild-eyed madman or a cultist. But I have read more, prayed more, and studied more this week than ever, and I'm eager to tell you what God has told me: We've been hit by a hurricane. I know, it sounds hard to believe, but hear me out, allow me to persuade you …"

Nobody at New Hope Village Church needs or wants to hear all of this pleading and cajoling and I doubt they'd have the patience for it. Bruce isn't just telling them what they already, obviously know, he thinks he needs to convince them of it. It's hard to believe nobody jumped up to interrupt him, shouting "Enough already, tell us something we don't know."*

But before telling them anything they don't already know, Bruce first — still before beginning his actual sermon itself  — offers yet another rendition of his personal testimony:

Bruce told his own story yet again, how he had lived a phony life of pietism and churchianity for years, and how when God came to call, he had been found wanting and had been left behind, without his wife and precious children. Buck had heard the story more than once, yet it never failed to move him. Some sobbed aloud.

Bruce and Buck both assume that the people there are sobbing during this story because Bruce's testimony is so emotionally powerful. It doesn't seem to occur to either of them that it's far more likely that these people aren't so much moved by Bruce's loss of his "wife and precious children" as they are remembering their own such losses.

Or, of course, they may be sobbing for another reason entirely. It could be more of a "if he starts in on his freakin' testimony one more time I'm gonna cry" kind of thing.

Those hearing it for the first time got Bruce's abbreviated version.

Thank God for small mercies.

Following his testimony, Bruce urges his listeners to get out there and share their faith with outsiders. "Tell your stories," he says, "People can identify with your grief and your loss and your loneliness." Your grief, that is, over the years you wasted in "a phony life of pietism and churchianity," when you ought to have been reveling in the joys of a sincere life of pietism and churchianity. Talk about that grief, Bruce tells them, but not about your grief over the loss of your children, who are happy in heaven with God and must never, ever, be mentioned or thought of again.

I will never again be ashamed of the gospel of Christ. The Bible says that the Cross offends. If you are offended, I am doing my job. If you are attracted to Christ, the Spirit is doing his work.

We've come here to a recurring motif not just in the Left Behind series, but in nearly all Christian-branded fiction intended for evangelical readers. One refrain in all of these books is that Christians must be fearlessly and aggressively spreading "the gospel of Christ" with unbelievers (even though it's rarely clear what, precisely, this "gospel of Christ" means in such a context). To emphasize this urgent duty, Christian fiction tends to include the scene in which the role-model character provides an example of such evangelism, a ready-made marketing script that readers can cut-and-paste into their own lives.

The problem with all of these scenes, including this one here in Tribulation Force, is that they appear in novels written exclusively for subcultural insiders. They are thus written in the jargon and lingo of that subculture, language that would be impenetrable or off-putting to any actual outsiders exposed to it.

Here, at least, Bruce is speaking from the pulpit, so we're spared the awkwardly stilted two-way conversations that much Christian fiction provides to illustrate proper and successful evangelism. These tend to feature the unsaved character exhibiting the ingratiating enthusiasm of an infomercial host, saying things like, "I've always wondered that, tell me more" or "Why didn't anyone tell me this sooner?"

Take a moment to mourn the plight of the innocent evangelical reader who accepts such passages for what they purport to be and attempts to follow their example in the real world, talking to real people. Consider their panicked bewilderment when their would-be-convert strays far from the prepared script and when none of the instructed phrases produces the promised responses. This happens. A lot. The tragicomedy that ensues is excruciating for everyone involved but it's especially painful, even traumatic, for the would-be evangelist for whom the stakes here are terrifyingly high.**

We've already missed the Rapture, and now we live in what will soon become the most perilous period of history. Evangelists used to warn parishioners that they could be struck by a car or die in a fire and thus they should not put off coming to Christ. I'm telling you that should you be struck by a car or caught in a fire, it may be the most merciful way you can die. Be ready this time. Be ready. I will tell you how to get ready.

Not a car, a bus. It's always a bus.

It's not clear to me why an evangelist would need to be urging parishioners to "come to Christ." You'd think someone might have brought that up with those people back when they were deciding to become parishioners. But then Bruce is doing that same thing here. A minute ago he was urging his congregation to go out and spread the gospel. Now he's urging them to accept the gospel. It seems unlikely that both of th
ose messages could apply to the same listener, at lea
st not in that sequence.

But now, at last, Bruce begins his sermon itself by announcing it's title, "My sermon title today is 'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.'"***

Buck had never seen Bruce so earnest, so inspired. As he spoke he referred to his notes, to the reference books, to the Bible. He began to perspire and often wiped sweat from his brow with a pocket handkerchief, which he took time to admit he knew was a faux pas. It seemed to Buck that the congregants, as one, merely chuckled with him as encouragement to keep on. Most were taking notes.

Taking notes on what, exactly? How do you take notes on sweaty earnestness? At this point I'm starting to worry that Bruce is about to re-enact James Brown's cape routine.

Bruce explained that the book of Revelation, John's account of what God had revealed to him about the last days, spoke of what was to come after Christ had raptured his church. "Does anyone here doubt we're in the last days right now?" he thundered.

A hurricane, I tell you. We've been hit by a hurricane.

And I know I'm repeating myself here, but the book of Revelation doesn't say anything about the Rapture, or even about a rapture. And if that book is really about what is to come after the church is taken away, then why does it begin, "John, to the seven churches in the province of Asia …" followed by three chapters of messages for each of those churches? (LaHaye's wonderful answer to that question is that a literal reading of the text means that the names of those actual churches don't refer to the actual churches named, but rather to symbolic representations of different epochs or "dispensations.")

Then, finally, five pages into this Sunday service, Bruce finally says something that those poor people in the pews might actually want to hear:

"Millions disappear and then what? Then what?"

OK, about time. Here we go.

Bruce explained that the Bible predicts first a treaty between a world leader and Israel. "Some believe the seven-year tribulation period has already begun and that it began with the Rapture. We feel the trials and tribulations already from the disappearance of millions, including our friends and loved ones, don't we? But that is nothing compared to the tribulation to come."

So I wasn't 100-percent accurate when I said that Bruce "never" mentions the missing children of the earth in his sermon. He does mention them, just in an offhand, dismissive way that would make any grieving parents in the audience wish that he hadn't.

"During these seven years, God will pour out three consecutive sets of judgments — seven seals in a scroll, which we call the Seal Judgments; seven trumpets; and seven bowls. These judgments, I believe, are handed down for the purposes of shaking us loose from whatever shred of security we might have left. If the Rapture didn't get your attention, the judgments will. And if the judgments don't, you're going to die apart from God. Horrible as these judgments will be, I urge you to see them as final warnings from a loving God who is not willing that any should perish."

All that stuff about God not needing anything "dramatic" to prove himself to us? That's so last-month's dispensation. Now it's Tribulation time and God is a big old drama queen.

But all of God's lethally violent tantrums serve a purpose. God is just trying to "get your attention" so you will come to see that God "is not willing that any should perish."

And if God has to kill you to get your attention, then he'll kill you until you listen. If he has to kill everyone on earth until they all accept that he is not willing that any should perish, then that is what God will do. Because he's all about the love. And Bruce urges you to appreciate that love — or else.

Conquest, war, famine, death, a great earthquake, hail and fire mixed with blood, poisoned water and locusts that sting like scorpions. He hit me and it felt like a kiss.

"As the scroll is opened and the seals are broken, revealing the judgments, the first four are represented by horsemen — the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. If you have ever been exposed to such imagery and language before, you probably considered it only symbolic, as I did. Is there anyone here who still considers the prophetic teaching of Scripture mere symbolism?"

Bruce waited a dramatic moment. "I thought not. Heed this teaching."

The phrase "mere symbolism" here is redundant. For the authors, all symbolism is "merely" symbolic. No, I don't know what they mean by that either. Particularly not in this instance, where Bruce introduces the Four Horsemen then tells us that these are not symbolic figures. I remember Nicolae Carpathia wearing a neatly tailored business suit and resembling a young Robert Redford, but I don't recall reading that he rides around on a white horse, wearing a crown and carrying a bow.

Bruce's dramatic pause here is the authors, yet again, congratulating themselves for proving the validity of their strange hermeneutic by concocting a fictional story in which it is demonstrated to be true. (See also: Rand, Ayn.)

The saddest thing about that isn't that the authors really seem to think this constitutes actual proof, but that their fictional demonstration turns out to be itself so howlingly implausible and impossible that it works as a kind of disproof — demonstrating that even the authors themselves cannot imagine a scenario in which what they believe could be made to seem even a little bit true.

– – – – – – – – – –

* In some Baptist churches where the customary style of worship includes congregants interjecting responses during the sermon, the proper response here would be to call out "Well" (it can be pronounced with anywhere from one to three syllables). It's a subtly nuanced call. The shout of "Amen" is unambiguously affirmative. "All right" is also clearly affirmative, meaning something like "Yes, keep going." The word "Well," however, while still generally affirmative, also can carry a note of something like, "OK you've made that point, now stop milking it and move on."

** It's a bit similar to the lop-sided stakes at play in an unexpected and unreciprocated profession of romantic love. I don't mean the creepy, stalker-ish kind of unwelcome advance (although that also has its parallels in similarly abusive and harassing forms of proselytizing) but the vulnerable expression of a genuine love that doesn't turn out to flow both ways. It's important to remember, should you find yourself on the receiving end of such an unexpected confession, that while this is painfully awkward for you, it's awkwardly painful for the other person. Tread softly, be kind and do not break the bruised reed.

"I tell you, buddy," Jack Nicholson says to Greg Kinnear in As Good as It Gets, "I'd be the luckiest man alive if that did it for me." I wish I'd always had the grace to respond as gently when presented with an unwelcome offer of another person's love or faith.

*** Someone mentioned this in comments last week, but I've never heard a preacher begin a sermon this way either. It's like Abraham Lincoln starting out, "My speech today is titled, 'The Gettysburg Address.
' Four score …" Sermon t
itles are often printed in church bulletins, and they may even be posted on those notorious sign boards out front, but it's just strange, homiletically, to start a sermon by announcing the title. It reminds me, somehow, of the song "A Book Report on Peter Rabbit" from You're a Good Man Charlie Brown.

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