What are we to make of the news that rapper Kanye West has reportedly become a Christian — “born again,” according to his wife, Kim Kardashian West? I’m as cynical as the next person when it comes to stories like this, preferring to wait and see if there’s any there there — if the profession of faith was a flash in the pan or a true conversion that bears fruit. I’m doubly suspicious of professions of faith by big-name stars coming out of the entertainment industry. We’ve seen a lot of them over the years (hey, Katy Perry!), and more often than not, they turn out to be little more than a) an emotional decision bereft of theology and/or b) a plea for attention/cry for help.
When I see someone like Kanye West claiming to be a Christian — him of the fast lifestyle, profane lyrics, and misogyny — I’m tempted to dismiss it, lumping his profession of faith into one of the categories above.
But then I hear stories of Christian gatherings sponsored by Kanye going on in cities across the U.S., called Sunday Services, and I admit I’m intrigued. Some have criticized the gatherings as being all about Kanye (and selling his albums and merch) rather than Jesus, and there may be some truth to that. Others have said the invitation-only gatherings are secretive and not inclusive enough. (An article at Page Six by an avowed atheist who attended a gathering in New York suggests that the limited number of attendees is due more to the size of the venues and accommodating regular church attendees than about secrecy.)
Before you dismiss this thing, whatever it is, as a cynical ploy by Kanye to sell albums (more about that from PJM’s Tyler O’Neil here) listen to the sermon delivered at Kanye’s gathering last Friday in Detroit by Adam Tyson, pastor of Placerita Bible Church in Santa Clarita, California. (His church is currently meeting at The Master’s Seminary, which will ring a bell for many Christians, as it’s the school founded by beloved Pastor John MacArthur.) Tyson took attendees through the Old Testament book of Isaiah, chapter 6, and the prophet’s vision of a holy God. He contrasted God’s holiness with our sinfulness and inability to save ourselves. I hope you’ll bear with me for quoting the passage at length (along with the sermon below) because I think it gives some insight into tenor and purpose of these Sunday Services:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
Explaining the meaning of that passage of scripture, Pastor Tyson said:
Today, on this day, through Jesus Christ, you can be made new again. You can have new life again. You can be transformed from the inside out. That you are no longer a sinner. In Christ you are made a saint. You are made into a child of God. He’s adopted you into his family.
He’s a holy God and we’re sinners, so what are you going to do about it? You have the opportunity to receive that coal. That coal from the altar reminds us of the sacrifices of Old Testament, where lambs that were killed, bulls that were killed, goats that were killed at the altar — that by the shedding of blood it would point to a greater lamb, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” This is an example of foreshadowing that Christ would come. It’s taken with tongs from the altar and they come and touch the lips of Isaiah, they say that “your mouth has been cleansed.”
You see, Jesus Christ comes right at you, wherever you are today, whatever your sin is today, he’s coming right at you with love, with mercy, with forgiveness, with purity, with cleansing, with holiness, with his substitutionary atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ, who shed his blood that you and I might have new life in him.
So then we hear what happened to Isaiah after he saw this vision, he realized that his sins were atoned for. And then we read this next verse… He says, “and I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? Whom shall I send to go with us?’ And then I said, ‘Here am I, Lord, send me. Here am I, Lord, send me.’
If you’re here today, this is the message that we bring to you: God is holy, we’re all sinners, Christ came so that you could be born again and have a new life, only by his blood. Only by his sacrifice, and through his resurrection, you can say today, “Here am I, Lord. Here am I, Lord. Send me. Send me!”
Do yourself a favor and watch the whole 12-minute message:
One thing I can say categorically is that Kanye heard the gospel preached — clearly and powerfully. This is not the kind of sermon you will hear at Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel church or Justin Bieber’s Hillsong Church. Tyson preached an unapologetic gospel message to thousands of people at that gathering (including Kanye) and perhaps millions who will watch it on YouTube, many of whom have never heard it before.
Is this evidence that Kanye’s faith is real? Nah, it doesn’t prove anything; only God knows for sure what’s in the rapper’s heart. But all this does beg the question: Is God’s arm too short to save someone like Kanye? Are some people too far gone, too sinful to have a relationship with God?
The biblical answer, of course, is no.
It says it right there in the book of Isaiah, chapter 59: “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear.”
But Isaiah tells us we have a problem: “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.”
“We grope for the wall like the blind,” the prophet says, “we grope like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among those in full vigor we are like dead men.” That’s all of us outside a relationship with Jesus Christ. We wander in the dark groping for something to hold onto — something that’s true and will give us peace of mind.
But that’s not the end of the story. “The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice,” Isaiah tells us. “He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him.” As a result, God promises the prophet that “a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression.” That Redeemer is Jesus Christ, whose substitutionary atonement on the cross gave us the right to be called the children of God and to have our sins — all of them, big and little, public and secret — forgiven. Yours, mine, and Kanye’s.
God has a long history of calling sinful men out of the darkness and into his light. His powerful arm — not our good works, not our own might or cleverness — is strong enough to save the worst of sinners and to transform their lives and renew their minds, so that on Judgment Day God can say to them, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
I hope and pray that God has seen fit to save Kanye and hope he extends his mercy to that whole wacky Kardashian clan and beyond, into the farthest reaches of Hollywood so that it transforms the entertainment industry and the rest of the country — that we’ll experience a revival that rivals the Great Awakening. God can do that. Only God can do that.