Monday, 7 December 2015

A voice crying out in the wilderness

We lit our second Advent candle today to symbolise the prophet’s role in the story of salvation.
Now the role of a prophet was not just or even mainly to forsee things that would happen in the near or far future, but mainly to speak the word of God forcefully into the present, and to  challenge the assumptions, morality, inequalities and injustices of society.
A prophet challenged the sin and corruption of society; challenged it with the word and way of God, to point out the flaws in society and how far they had strayed from God and secondly, looking to the future to tell of a time when God will decisively act to bring about all those necessary changes that are needed to bring about God’s justice.
They were then pretty wild and woolly and uncomfortable characters to be around, people on the edge who challenged authority.
You see this magnificently in the book of Malachi, the last book of the prophets in our Bibles. Malachi in fact means “My messenger” and he prophesies that a messenger will be sent, and God will break into history to lead us on a different path to God’s future.
In the gospel reading today we have another prophet, Isaiah, being quoted, and Isaiah foretells a prophet who will precede the messiah who will be “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” and Christians had no problem in ascribing that role to John the Baptist.
In fact the Jews had come to believe that the coming of the Messiah would be preceded by the return of the prophet Elijah and Jesus himself refers to John as fulfilling this role. In Matthew 11:14, Jesus, talking about John the Baptist says plainly “and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, who is to come”
Now the start of Luke chapter three reads like a brief history lesson, and he lists Emperors, Governors, rulers and high priests. In doing this, Luke wants to achieve two things.
First, Luke is saying, this is not a fairy tale. This happened in history, in the blood and guts of lived reality, politics and religion.
What was about to unfold really happened in a dusty outpost of the Roman Empire, amidst all those aforementioned characters; really happened amidst the corruption, oppression, and intrigue of a particular time and place.
This point is very important nowadays. What we believe is set in history. It happened. The birth, life, teaching, death and crucially the resurrection of Jesus are well attested historical facts. Of course, they are lived reality for us, but they are historical events. This is important because a recent poll revealed that a high percentage of the British population don’t even know that.
They think that Jesus is on the same level as Santa Claus – an unintended consequence of mixing fact and fantasy is that Jesus is reduced to the level of the tooth fairy.
The second thing Luke wants to achieve is set the witness and ministry of John the Baptist outside of the centres of secular and religious authority. John’s voice came from the wilderness, not from Rome or Jerusalem.
And like all prophets that came before him, John was an uncomfortable and uncompromising figure. He spoke God’s truth to authority, both secular and religious.
and they are the objects of God’s disdain.
Time and time again, Israel is judged by God and left to go to rack and ruin when his blessing is removed. This is one of the truths revealed through the pages of the Bible. I’ll leave as an open question where the Church of England may stand here.
But we are speaking of prophets of old here!
What of prophesy today?
It is needed more than ever. Do we have the stomach, the moral fibre and strength that I spoke about last week in the parade service to stand up and be counted in the midst of our society?
Are we bold confident enough to say that I believe that Jesus Christ is the way the truth and the life, not just within these walls, but to families, friends, colleagues or even strangers.
After all, as a minority that makes us outsiders and being seen as an outsider is undeniably uncomfortable. Our preference would be to fit in and keep our heads down.
So the question on the day in Advent that we honour the prophets of old is this;
Are we ready to be prophets in our own time? To be so we need a clear confident message more than ever before
Saint Paul recognised this and he wrote in 1 Corinthians 14:8 “ If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who is going to prepare for battle”, and we are in a battle.
If the church is confident in asserting its faith people will at least have something to either draw or repel them; a diffident church has no chance of igniting anyone or anything.
During this period of Advent and Christmas are we willing to stand up confidently and contend for Biblical truth revealed through the prophets, through and in Christ, and the witness of the New Testament?  
We have found in the process of visiting lots of churches is that that one of the big differences between walking into a middle of the road liberal church and an evangelical church is stark contrast in the levels of zeal, confidence and commitment.  
Many modern Christians, because they are, like secular liberals, basically relativists and set such high store on tolerance, they seem embarrassed by the fact that we might say that our religion is the whole truth and therefore other religions are not the whole truth. It offends their sensibilities. In their desperation to be inclusive their trumpet not only gives an uncertain noise, sometimes no noise at all comes out.  
They do so in the supposedly noble causes of “tolerance” and “inclusivity”.
But you see God is not tolerant of sin, and not tolerant of other gods and religions. For what passes for “tolerance” in the modern church you could substitute the word “cowardice”.
But you know, I want you to know this. I wasn’t always this bullish. You see, I used to be a liberal and I used to think that way myself so I don’t say these things now as if I am spiritually superior. I was there myself, but I have been on a long meandering journey these last few years and I have finally returned to the faith that nurtured me in the first place.  What finally changed me was a religious experience.
There was a time not so long ago when I thought I had cancer. The details are unimportant, it turned out not to be the case, but for a few days I thought I was going to die just after I’d got married and life was back on track.
I remember that on the way back from the hospital I was in my car and I stopped and cried and with tears in my eyes I turned consciously to Christ. And then I knew – I really knew. When the chips were down, I turned to the one who had already turned towards me. What had happened to me in my ministry is that my anchor had lost its purchase and I was being tossed about by every current and fad that came along. I was building not on rock but on sand. So by a long circuitous route I have returned to the faith that nurtured me.
I vowed in that car then that I would never turn my back on Him ever again.
I believe, intellectually and at a much deeper level than that, through spiritual experience That Jesus is the way the truth and the life. No ifs, no buts, no exceptions, no maybes. To proclaim that and say that there is salvation in no other as the Bible tells us in this day and age is to be truly prophetic.
It is uncomfortable and sets you up as a target, an outsider, and you’ll likely get called a judgemental bigot. Much easier to go with the relativist flow.  
But I say again. If we are to grow, we need to be prophets in our own time.

Are we ready and confident to proclaim that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life?  

1 comment:

  1. "One of the big differences between walking into a middle of the road liberal church and an evangelical church is stark contrast in the levels of zeal, confidence and commitment."

    One of the problems I have with this sentence is that it begs the question that zeal, confidence and commitment are in themselves intrinsically good. It seems to me that these qualities need to be qualified by the direction in which they point. Christianity has been traduced in the past by misdirected zeal, confidence in the bogus and commitment to the singer rather than the song [are you old enough to remember Chris Brain?]

    "They do so in the supposedly noble causes of “tolerance” and “inclusivity. But you see God is not tolerant of sin, and not tolerant of other gods and religions. For what passes for “tolerance” in the modern church you could substitute the word “cowardice”."

    This is a false equivalence. Of course God is not tolerant of sin, although he is ready enough to forgive it. But, more importantly, God's tolerance is manifested through his willingness to accept and love us, flawed as we are - and this is a more exact metaphor for the kind of tolerance you describe as equivalent to cowardice. Interestingly, I have rarely been condemned or punished for the cowardly things I have done. Professing tolerance has got me into far more trouble, usually from my fellow Christians.

    Equally, I would rather belong to an inclusive church than an exclusive one - I was brought up in post-war Methodism, where the ethos was, essentially, "do this or be damned". It repelled me then and it still does.

    John Pearce