This past week reports of a revival on the campus of Asbury University in Wilmore, KY, made the Washington Times, Washington Examiner, FOX News, NBC news, Christianity Today, CBN, and a host of other news outlets. People are excited. People are curious. They are waiting to see what will happen next.
Not long after I became a Christian, a revival started in that same college chapel. It was 1970. The prayer, worship, singing, confession, and reconciliation went on for 170 straight hours. Classes were cancelled. Lives were changed. Students who experienced that revival went around the country telling people what God had done at Asbury. Three of them came to our church in the Greater Cleveland area to tell their story.
What is a revival? It is easier to describe than to define. The word is used in Ps. 85:6, when the psalmist pleads with God: “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” The prophet Habakuk asks God to revive his works of old during the present time (Habakuk 3:2). A revival happens when God’s people – not one here and there, but in a group – are reenergized, awakened to God’s presence, and filled with his love.
I have heard countless preachers wax on about revival over the years. I have heard it so often that I have tuned it out. I have rarely prayed for revival. That is not something I like to admit because in some circles, longing for revival is the mark of genuine faith.
There are reasons for my lack of enthusiasm. For one thing, many of the people I have heard speak most passionately about revival don’t speak passionately about God. They long for revival, but not for God! That is backwards.
Another reason I have shied away from revival talk is that some people seem to think of revival as a substitute for a daily, interactive relationship with God. It’s like someone who won’t eat healthily or exercise but who regularly runs off to health conferences, buys fitness gear, and joins the latest fads.
A third reason for my reluctance is I have heard people say, time and time again, that the only hope for our nation is a revival. They may be right. They probably are right. But by regularly framing it that way, they make it sound like revival (and perhaps the God who gives it) is in service to the nation. But God will not be anyone’s tool, not even to make our beloved nation a better place. To be more concerned about national reform than about the church’s love and holiness is to have our priorities wrong.
A fourth reason for my lack of excitement about revivals is revivalism. There are religious people who have made a trade out of peddling revivals – overhyped, overemotional events that lack spiritual depth. They blow into town and blow back out again but the change they bring only lasts until the emotion fades. I have an aversion to emotional manipulation, which leaves people worse off than they were before.
That is not, as far as I can tell, what has been happening at Asbury. People who have been there use words like “low-key” to describe it. There has been no hype. The revival wasn’t planned. It is not being driven by group psychology methods. It is not taking place at a Pentecostal worship center but at a college with Methodist roots that is named after a Methodist bishop. From what I can tell, God simply came near, and his manifested presence began changing people.
Think of that last sentence: God simply came near. What could that mean? Isn’t the God who inhabits all space and time, filling the vastness of galaxies and riding the roller coaster of quantum uncertainties already near? Do we not “live and move and have our being” in him (Acts 17:28)? If he is already here, how can he come near?
There are different kinds of nearness. I may be sitting near my wife on the sofa, yet we may be miles apart. On Valentine’s Day, I took my wife to a restaurant and afterwards I took her out … to by her a Valentine’s Day card. You see, I hadn’t remembered it was Valentines Day and had forgotten to buy one. (She was, thankfully, not angry with me. After more than forty years, Karen understands that I rarely know the date, sometimes don’t know the day, and occasionally don’t remember what month it is.) She was gracious, but some spouses would really have felt distant because of a failure like that.
So, a man may be right next to his wife and yet be far away from her. Some wrongdoing, selfish attitude, or old resentment may have come between them. And just so with God. We may be separated from him by our sins, our selfishness, or our pride. The prophet says, “Your sinful acts have alienated you from your God” (Isaiah 59:2).
When we are distant from God, certain things – bad things – routinely happen. We can see how this works in Isaiah 63 and 64. We’ll read Isaiah 63:15-17, and then 64:1-3, 5b-7.
Look down from heaven and see, from your lofty throne, holy and glorious. Where are your zeal and your might? Your tenderness and compassion are withheld from us. But you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us or Israel acknowledge us; you, Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name. Why, Lord, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes that are your inheritance.
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.
But when we continued to sin against [your ways], you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins.
A general observation before we dig into this passage. This is a prayer made by people who are desperate. Three times in this prayer, the prophet says to God, “But you are our Father.” “You, Lord, are our Father.” “Yet you, Lord, are our Father.” The prophet seems to be asking, “God, how can this happen when you are our Father?”
When God is far from us, bad things happen to us, and bad things happen within us. Israel exemplifies this. Look at the bad things that happened to them. In 63:18, they have lost possession of Jerusalem. In 64:10, their cities have been deserted and Jerusalem is desolate. In 64:11, the temple, the heart of Judaism, the glory of Jews worldwide, lies in ruins, burnt to the ground.
You can imagine how people talked about these things – the terrible state of their nation and the ruin that had come on them. Bad people – people who did not know God – were imposing laws on them. They were forcing their morality – Jews would call it their lack of morality – on their children. And no one could stop it.
If there had been some version of social media in those days and their posts had been saved for posterity, I suppose they would have read very like our posts today: the government and its education systems are shoving their morality down our throats. They are dismantling our way of life. The faithful will soon be no more.
When God is far from his people, things like that happen—and worse. What could be worse than evil generated from the outside that we are powerless to stop? Evil generated from the inside in which we are complicit. That also happens when God is far from his people.
In 63:17, the prophet cries to God: “Why, Lord, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you?” When God is far away, a spiritual hardness develops in people. They walk in their own ways and not God’s, and so their paths don’t cross with his. When our hearts are hard, we can know what is the right thing to do, but can’t make ourselves do it. The path we’re on doesn’t lead in that direction. Hardness of heart is a terrible thing.
The prophet asks the LORD why he makes the people wander from his way, why he hardens their hearts. It sounds like he is blaming the LORD for what hard-hearted people do. His reasoning goes like this: the people would not wander if God were not distant. He can’t understand why God doesn’t come near, for when God is far from his people, they are bound to do wrong.
But it gets worse. In 64:5, God gladly comes to the aid of those who do right, but people cannot do right when God is far from them; they can only continue to sin. It is a Catch-22 situation: God won’t come to our aid because we are sinning, but we can’t stop sinning because God won’t come to our aid. The situation is self-perpetuating.
Sin makes people (this is verse 6) unclean, which is to say unfit to be in God’s presence. But outside God’s presence, people wither on the inside. “…we all shrivel up like a leaf,” is how verse 6 puts it. To shrivel up on the inside is worse than anything people to do us from the outside.
The result is that we cannot want what we need. That is why (verse 7) “No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you.” The thing we need is the thing we will not and cannot do: we are starving people who cannot eat the only food the universe grows (Lewis).
This is the state of things when God is away from his people. Then why does he not come near? But he will come near. He has promised. We call that coming near the judgment. When he comes near what is inside us will show itself for what it really is. The prophet Amos asked people, “Why do you long for the day of the Lord? That day will be darkness, not light.It will be as though a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear…” (Amos 5:18-19a).
Look at the language Isaiah uses to describe what happens when God comes near: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down …” (Isaiah 64:1-2a). Do we really want the one who causes mountains to tremble to come near? Remember how, when he came near to Israel at Horeb, the mountain “was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently” (Exodus 19:18). Do you remember what the people said to Moses then? “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die” (Exodus 20:19).
Here is the incredible tension under which we live—and not just us, but God too. Because God is far away, people are hardened in heart. But if he comes close while we are intwined in our sins, our sins will burn up and we will be hurt. If he does not come close, we will become harder in heart and even more intwined in our sins. If he comes close, he might destroy us. If he does not come close, we will destroy ourselves.
This is the disaster that Adam’s sin perpetrated on, and has been perpetuated through, all his children. If God comes close, we are ruined. If he stays away, we are ruined. The Bible is the story of how God solved this most intractable problem. It tells how he made a way to come near people without destroying them.
How did he do that? “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” God eternal entered time. The infinite was confined in space. Thousands of years of preparation were necessary. An entire people group was groomed for millennia. The right woman was selected through whom the Word could become flesh. Finally, God sent “his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, for sin…” (Romans 8:3). It is the hinge on which human history turns. Only in Christ could God come among us without killing us.
And what happened? We killed him. God knew through all those thousands of years that this would happen and incorporated it into his plan. It was the way – perhaps the only way – the intractable sin problem could be solved. And God knew through all those thousands of years that he would raise Christ from the dead, which was how the problem of our mortality would be solved.
But then Christ ascended to heaven, and doesn’t that mean that we are back where we were? Is God not once again far from us? Do we only get God for the 33 years that he lived among us in human form? No, God sent his Spirit, which was also the plan for thousands of years. By his Spirit, he can be with us to restore and not destroy.
Long ago, the prophet asked: “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?” (Malachi 3:2). The answer is the person who has received God’s Spirit. It is the presence of the Spirit in humans that enables them to endure his coming. And he places his Spirit in the person who believes in his Son.
Here is the thing. God has not changed. He is still the same God who, when he came near, made Moses cry out, “I am trembling with fear” (Hebrews 12:21). God is not a toy for religious people to play with. Coming near him can unmake a person—or remake him. Because of what Christ did, and the ensuing gift of the Holy Spirit, God can be close to us and remake us.
Now, I am going to say something you might not like, but that I have come to believe is true from personal experience and from pastoral observation: people are as close to God as they choose to be. You may object, “No, I want to be closer to God, but I have three kids.” You are as close to God as you choose to be.
“No, I want to be closer to God, but my schedule is frenetic.” You are as close to God as you choose to be. If your schedule really is your problem and you want to be closer to God, you will change your schedule.
But I am trying to get closer to God. That’s great, because if you are really trying to get close to God, he will get close to you (James 4:8). And when he gets close to you, good things happen. When God comes close in Isaiah 35 and Malachi 4, people experience healing. This, I think, includes both physical healing and the healing of the soul. We make a great mistake when we want God’s healing, but expect it to experience it remotely. God doesn’t usually send healing; he personally delivers it.
When God is with people, they have peace. They receive guidance (1 Samuel 14:36ff). They have hope (Hebrews 7:29). They experience mercy (Isiah 55:6). They gain understanding (Ps. 119:169). They have rest (Matthew 11:28). We wither when God is far away; we flourish when he is near.
But what will it take for God to come near, as he seems to have done at Asbury? We need to become more concerned about what God thinks of us than about what people think of us (John 5:44). If we get that backwards, we will never be able to believe God.
We need to pray. People who have studied revivals claim that they are always preceded by prayer. Not casual and nonchalant prayer, but impassioned and fervent prayer. This was true at Asbury; people have been praying for God to come near.
But God will not come near to people who are choosing their sins over him, for to come near them would be to hurt them. We cannot have God and our sins. Maybe you think, “I’ve tried to get rid of my sins, but I can’t. I’ve talked to people. I’ve joined a group. Nothing works. I am stuck with them.”
Try this: focus more on getting close to God than on getting away from your sins. If you get close to God, your sins will get away from you! Right now, you are a magnet for them, but God’s presence will reverse the polarity.
Take the first step, however small, in his direction. Incline your ear toward him. Move, even feebly, toward him, and he will come to you. Hobble in his direction, and he will cross light years to be with you.