The limitless power of limits

August 15, 2012 | Viewpoints | Number 16
By Phil Wagler |

The church in the North American context is facing limits she must accept, for God has placed them in her path for the sake of his glory and the integrity of faithful witness to the Kingdom of the risen Jesus.

This is nothing new.

Jeremiah is the most tragically limited of prophets. He is caged by the ferocious unpopularity of the message he must bear and the incessant itching of his opponents to hear what he has to say. He’s like a road-side accident—nobody wants one to happen, but everyone enjoys the voyeurism when it does.

The word of the Lord through Jeremiah is this: Israel is to live within the unwanted limits set by Heaven. The exiles in bullying Babylon are to accept their plight and seek the welfare of the place to which they have been sent (Jeremiah 29), while the poverty-stricken remnant left in dilapidated Jerusalem are to stay put and like it (Jeremiah 42). There is to be no running to Egypt for help. There is to be no last valiant stand against the barbarian horde. There is to be no feverish joy in the entitled crowing of false prophets. Israel is to accept the limits brought about by its own dullness and by the jealous love of God for his creation, purposes and glory.

This is frustrating for those who believe their own headlines. This was no easier for Israel to hear than it is for the church in the current reality. Today a new Babylon of proud secular humanism rules and sets the cultural agenda, ethics, and worldview. Confounded by the downturn in western Christianity’s fortunes, some Christians are teetering on the brink of capitulation with a Babylon that appears to be doing well for itself, while others desperately squint through rose-coloured glasses in hopes of a return to “old-time religion.” Neither is a faith-filled response to the season we now find ourselves in. We are at the place where we must embrace the limitless power of limits.

The contemporary task of the church is to live in covenant with the God of Abraham and Sarah who seeks to bless the nations and has raised Jesus Christ from the dead. There is a time to accept that our current limits—like the feeling that our voice is increasingly muted and misunderstood the more we speak—may be placed upon us by Heaven. To be clear, I’m not advocating ostrich-like, head-in-the-sand Christianity that retreats to the hills like Jonah to await a self-justifying Armaggedon-like freak show. Rather, I’m pleading for a courageous church that is convinced that come what may, rule who may, there is a Kingdom not of this world, a Good News-Jesus-centred Kingdom, that shines brightly as a city on a hill.

When the kingdoms and wisdom of the world seem to have won the day, when God’s ways seem most limited, that is when the limitless Spirit hovers. If we rail fanatically against the limits, we may find ourselves fighting against God as the insightful Pharisee Gamaliel pointed out to his comrades (Acts 5). Let us simply be the people of that unbreakable covenant between God and humanity fulfilled in Christ, bound both by the limits of the day and the call to proclaim and live the Gospel as the new covenant community with our gaze fixed on Jesus, who in the words of St. Vincent de Paul, “teaches us to be content to refrain from undertakings which might be within our power, and to fulfill only what charity demands and his will requires.”

Phil Wagler serves within the limits set for him in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. He is the author of Kingdom Culture and a contributor on Mennonite Media’s Shaping Families.

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