F-Troop was a satirical western television situation comedy series of the 1960’s. One of the recurring word plays that marked its humor (along with burlesque, slapstick and visual gags) was the directions from the Hekawis encampment, the local Native American tribe, to Fort Courage the home of F-Troop:
“Turn left at the big rock that looks like a bear. Then turn right at the big bear that looks like a rock.”
The humor is in the confusion of meaning and sign, a rock, a much simpler object may look like a bear, but a bear, a very complex living object, cannot truly look like a rock.
There is a similar confusion in “Ashes to Go” that was not, alas, done for comedy. Last week on Ash Wednesday various orders of ministers went out of their church buildings to impose ashes on the foreheads of any passersby who wanted them. Here’s an example.
What’s gone wrong here? It’s a confusion of the sign and the meaning of the sign.
When Christ commissioned the church he told us to go into the world to preach the gospel, thereby tying forever the Word of God to the work of evangelism and outreach. The gospel is news, not bare signs. The Greek term “gospel” (ev-angelion) distinguished the Christian message from that of other religions.
- An “ev-angel” was news of a great historical event that changed the listeners’ condition and required response (such as a victory in war or the ascension of a new king).
- So the gospel is news of what God has done to accomplish salvation through Jesus Christ in history. It is not about what we must do to reach God.
- We do not achieve this salvation. We only accept it.
The signs of the gospel confirm the promises of God which the Scriptures declare because it is there in the Scriptures that he has truly revealed himself. It is the Holy Scriptures, and not our signs and symbols, that each TEC minister swears in their ordination as containing “…all things necessary to salvation.”
The sign of God’s gospel, administered by his ministers, must not, cannot, be separated from the news of his gospel in preaching and teaching of his ministers. The signs of God’s gospel, administered by his ministers, must not, cannot, take precedence over the news of his gospel.
Where does that leave the unbelieving and unknowing passerby who receives the ashes? Where is the passerby who leaves with the sign in which they themselves have given meaning rather than received from God’s Word? Precisely where they were before: hostile to God (Romans 8.7). They remain there because we ministers of the gospel have failed in our first duty: “…preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4.2).
If I were to challenge a passerby afterward, what would they say? They might perhaps say, “I believe in God. I say my prayers. I may not be a Christian like you are, but I worship God.” Take the trouble to find out the kind of God they’re worshipping. Is he the God of the Scriptures? You’ll find that he is not, and that is the point. You’ll find that he is a God of the current philosophers or one they’ve conjured up in their own mind. They’ve taken out of God everything they don’t like. They don’t believe in his wrath. They don’t believe in his judgment. They don’t believe in his righteousness. They say, “There’s no need for this shedding of blood and for this death on the cross.” They reject all that and they reject the bulk of scriptural revelation, and still say they believe in God.
And by doing that they prove they are enemies of God. There are so many people who think they believe in God, but when you reveal the God of the Scriptures to them, they hate him. They say, “If THAT’S YOUR GOD…” and there comes out the hatred. The natural mind is hostile to God.
What changes people’s hearts is not whether or not the gospel leads to more moralistic or religious lives, what changes people’s hearts is whether or not the gospel is true. And it is that truth which we must go out into the world to preach, otherwise it is just empty signs.