Last Sunday I spoke at Montrose Baptist Church on Mark 15 where Jesus is humiliated and beaten by Roman soldiers on his way to the cross. Whilst on one level we see the powers of darkness rejoice, for those that eyes to see, we also see that Jesus covers our shame. Hope you enjoy it.
A poem for our children for the pressure they face to conform and yield to social norms:
Be quiet, be quiet, don’t say a thing,
We are the wise, you are nothing
We are all fine, it’s you who are warped
Whatever you think, don’t say it out loud,
Be ashamed of yourself, so arrogant and proud
We are all fine, it’s you who are warped
Make your children be silent, teach them to be afraid
You’ve polluted their minds, their innocence betrayed
We are all fine it’s you who are warped
Speak up, be bold and you will see our hate
We will misrepresent you before you realise too late
We are all fine it’s you who are warped
We will twist what you said, grab you by the throat
Everyone will stare at the shameful scapegoat
We are all fine it’s you who are warped
You will be all alone, condemned by all
What good are your beliefs when you’re against the wall?
We are all fine it’s you who are warped
We are all dead now, alone in the dark
You are not here now, we miss you’re life spark
You are fine now, it’s we who are warped
“When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” Luke 19.37-40
Losing my religion and finding my faith. Part 3: Fear and shame
In my first post I explored UK society has changed and how it’s view of the church has changed over recent years. In my last post I considered ways in which Christians can and should be a positive influence in society. The key question we must ask now is “How do we respond to a world that doesn’t want to hear about the light?” Today Christians up and down our country are being pressurised to be silent about their beliefs, relegating them to the private sphere. We do not live in an open and respectful environment. So many are afraid of causing offence that we live in fear and silent compliance with society’s beliefs and values. In this post I have some ideas for how to stay undetected and not cause anyone to be uncomfortable…
1. How to protect society from the offence of the gospel:
Believe what you want but keep it to yourself
Pretend that what you have is not that important
Pretend that everybody is fine as they are
Pretend that every lifestyle choice is equally valid and equally meaningless
Never break the pretence of all of the above
Be totally committed to Jesus in your house and church building, but keep your mouth shut outside of those two places
2. How to protect our kids from the offence of the gospel:
Pass on your embarrassment of your faith to them so that they become automatically self-conscious whenever it is ever mentioned
Make sure they blend in to the background and fit in the social groups
Tell them about the love of God but never about the consequences of rejecting God
Don’t teach them a Christian worldview, especially avoid creation, sexuality & materialism
Apologise to their teachers whenever they bring up their faith at school
Leave them to make up their own minds about what they believe when they are old enough
Avoid any hint of indoctrination by never discussing spiritual truths
Never let your faith cost you anything – they might see that and realise it is a dangerous thing to believe
Always put their needs and desires above those of God, making sure that their every whim is met, while bathing them in the aroma of the God of Comfort
3. How to protect the church from the offence of the gospel:
Be self-apologetic: “We are nice people really if you get to know us”
Avoid talking about those parts of the NT that speak about judgement. Definitely avoid preaching on the OT law
Explain how we are much more refined now than those primitive times
Focus only on Jesus’ words, but only those words of his that are comforting & affirming
Never discuss the rejection passages or examples of spiritual darkness
4. How to protect God from the offence of the gospel:
Don’t mention his behaviour in the Old Testament and if it comes up by accident be apologetic and diffident
Explain that he is much more refined now and people back then were naive and ignorant
Explain that he didn’t really mean what he said about hell, human sexuality, judgement, punishment, sin, eternity…
Always present him in a positive light. Emphasise his grace, love, compassion, mercy, patience (it’s a long list of positive traits after all), but never his discipline, anger, wrath, punishment, judgement or justice.
Never teach, mention, preach about or discuss any of these latter points and they will die out from neglect, thus removing them from our vocabulary
Be apologetic before and after reading out any passages highlighting the latter characteristics
Teach that in order to be good, God must mirror our values, or we won’t recognise his goodness
Obviously the suggestions above are intentionally sarcastic. What people forget is that the more they tell us to be silent, the more they pressure us to conform, the more they stoke our fire of passion for real truth. Yes, many may comply, but the few who stand will stand taller, brighter, stronger, for longer. Brothers and sisters, we need to remember that we don’t need to deny a truth for it to die out, we just need to neglect to proclaim it for a generation and that will be enough. Let us proclaim the full counsel of God with love, mercy, compassion and tears, but just let it be the full counsel.
“When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him.” Isaiah 59.19
“Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” Luke 9.26
Lord, give us the ability to love people enough that we are prepared to be unpopular; ready and willing to be depised and rejected. Your heart was full of love for people Lord Jesus, you always chose honest love over comfortable compliance. Help us to stand strong alongside you until that final day. Amen
As I read Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer during an intense two-week period of travel, I slowly came to feel like I knew the man. It was almost as if he was travelling with me, sharing his stories, describing his adventures. That was until the last page was turned and I finished his story. The power of that journey is still with me and as I reflect on my few days with Dietrich Bonhoeffer a number of important lessons spring to mind:
- The two paths for God’s people – the path of adversity and the path of prosperity. Bonheoffer’s adult life was marked by adversity: he was misunderstood by his fellow pastors, opposed by the established state church, suspected and finally imprisoned by the Gestapo, separated from his fiancée and martyred for his part in the conspiracy against Hitler. Yet though it all there was a peace and a confidence that he was doing God’s will. Those of us who live in times and places when we are fortunate enough to regularly walk along the path of prosperity need to remember that this is not the normal experience for the Christian. God, in his grace, may allow us to be very blessed materially, but many of our brothers and sisters only ever know the path of adversity. Our momentary visitations or swift passage across this path are nothing compared to living every day on it.
- He was always ahead of the pack – he saw the danger of Hitler’s version of Positive Christianity before any of the other church leaders; he saw the pitfalls of the impotent Confessing Church as it finally took a stand against the “German Church”; and he saw that German had to lose the war if Christianity in Europe was to be reborn. “Bonhoeffer advocated a Christianity that seemed too worldly for traditional Lutheran conservatives and too pietistic for theological liberals. He was too much something for everyone, so both sides misunderstood and criticized him” (page 248). Often he was so far ahead of others that his logic was misunderstood and his appeals ignored. Yet he faithfully proclaimed and lived out his prophetic message. It reminds me that there will always a part of prophetic insight that means the prophet will be lonely, by the very fact that they see things earlier and speak more clearly than most people are ready for.
- He was holistic in his life and ministry. He blended the best of academia and culture, Christian community and intellectual rigour. He loved music and the arts, trained as an academic, lived as a pastor, discipled others by teaching, example and exhortation. He was a holistic person who believed the scriptures should not, indeed could not, be studied without daily prayer and meditation. He sought to build a living Christian community but rather than become isolationist, they purposefully discussed the most pressing issues of the day and Bonhoeffer pushed them to understand the times.
- He was a true anti-celebrity. Not only in the way he lived his life, but also in what he wrote, Bonhoeffer saw through the mirage of success and fame. “In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things the figure of Him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger and is at best an object of pity. The world will allow itself to be subdued only by success. It is not ideas or opinions which decide, but deeds. Success alone justifies wrongs done…The figure of the crucified invalidates all thought which takes success for its standard (from his book Ethics)”. Metaxas’ adds his own postscript that Bonhoeffer realised that “God was interested not in success, but in obedience” (page 363).
- The Christian life must be modelled. For his students he would seek not just to impart knowledge, but a way of life, he always wanted to model what he believed the Christian life and Christian community should be. “Bonhoeffer’s interest was not only in teaching them as a university lecturer. He wished to disciple them in the true life of the Christian. This ran the gamut, from understanding current events through a biblical lens to reading the Bible not just as a theology student, but as a disciple of Jesus Christ” (page 128).
- The challenge of direct action. When evil surrounds and it is your nation’s darkest hour, what direct action would your conscience allow you to take? More to the point, what does God require of you in that situation? Bonhoeffer was prepared to enter unchartered territory, arguing that he followed a God who “demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in that venture”. Metaxas’ again sums up the issue “here was the rub, one must be more zealous to please God than to avoid sin” (page 446). In the mayhem that was Germany in the height of World War II, Bonhoeffer challenged people to rethink their scruples: “Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God – the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God” (page 446).
- The willing embrace of death. Unlike our anaphylactic reaction to the topic of death, Bonhoeffer often considered what it meant to die well; he was ready to die for a noble cause. “We hardly dare admit that we should like death to come to us, not accidentally and suddenly through some trivial cause, but in the fullness of life and with everything at stake. It is we ourselves, and not outward circumstances, who make death what it can be, a death freely and voluntarily accepted” (page 447).
- The affirmation of a redeemed humanity. In the midst of enormous suffering, horrendous violence and world war Bonhoeffer fell in love. His engagement to Maria gave him a greater appreciation for, and affirmation of, God’s earth. Bonhoeffer “was constantly trying to correct the idea of a false choice between God and humanity, or heaven and earth. God wanted to redeem humanity and to redeem this earth, not to abolish them…Bonhoeffer was trying to reclaim everything for God.” He understood the blessings of marriage and argued that “the “desire for earthly bliss” is not something we steal from behind God’s back, but is something that he has desired that we should desire. We mustn’t separate that part of life and marriage from God, either by trying to hide it from him as belonging to us alone or by trying to destroy it altogether through a false piety that denies its existence” (page 457).
Bonhoeffer was passionate about figuring out what it meant to be a disciple of Christ in one of the darkest times in world history. However, he was not only committed to academic excellence, but also devotional living. He was prepared to model, and die for, what he believed. This is his challenge to me – to model what I believe God is saying to me in these days. I feel like I have much to learn in each of the areas highlighted – but I am seeking to understand how this works itself out in today’s church and society.
Through it all Bonhoeffer stands as a man who overcame adversity, temptation, doubt and fear. Even the Gestapo could not defeat him, they could only remove him. The same picture played out in the church; God was using the persecution to refine his church. Ruth von Kleist-Retzow commented to Dietrich “We live in strange times, but we should be eternally thankful that poor, oppressed Christianity is acquiring greater vitality than I have ever known in the course of my seventy years. What testimony to its real existence!” (page 295). God was winning. Even though his people were losing everything they had, they were overcoming their enemies. We too live in strange times; oh that God would renew and revive his church in this day to demonstrate its true vitality to a sceptical world.
(For part 1 of my review click here.)
A review of Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (part 1)
In the hit TV series 24, Jack Bauer is a counter-terrorist agent seeking out threats to national security and doing whatever is necessary for the greater good of saving the American people. In his high-octane adventures, Jack is no stranger to taking the law in his own hands and facing impossible life and death decisions. His no-nonsense attitude considers no risk too great if only he can save his country from its deadliest enemies. His is a utilitarian philosophy of life – making decisions based on what he considers the greater good; reasoning that it is better for him to kill one criminal than for thousands of innocent people to die.
It’s switch-off, escapist telly that has no real bearing on normal life, certainly not for the Christian who would never be found in such extremely dangerous or complex situations. Or would they? How would a Christian behave if they, by some strange circumstance, find themselves in such situations? What if they were in a situation where to act could mean sinning, but not to act would certainly mean compromising your faith? Would it ever be right for a Christian to kill a tyrant to save thousands, or millions, of people’s lives? What if that tyrant was Hitler?
What would you do, when doing nothing was the most unacceptable alternative?
This was the very real dilemma for Dietrich Bonhoeffer and those around him during World War II. Bonhoeffer was a German Pastor who during the war was the key figure in leaking information about the Nazi atrocities to the West, and was part of the inner circle of conspirators seeking to assassinate Hitler. He was one of the people prepared to stand up to the Gestapo and was eventually killed for his part in the conspiracy to kill Hitler.
However, before we get to his dilemma, a bit about his background. Bonheoffer had a warm and loving upbringing, full of music, the outdoor life and strong relationships. His family were among the most cultured and intelligent in Germany at that time; his father was an eminent scientist and his brother a famous lawyer. Dietrich was always an earnest young man, sincere, intense and thoughtful. His interest in Christianity was always very personal and real, and finally led to him studying theology and becoming a minister.
As a leader of the church in Germany, Bonhoeffer was a prominent and outspoken opponent of the emerging Nazi government. Until he was strong enough to crush it, Hitler first attempted to woo the established church and deceived many of its leader through flattery. Bonhoeffer was not one of these, he was far too perceptive to be taken in.
Bonhoeffer was ruthless in his search for truth, “he accorded theological ideas the same respect that his father accorded scientific ideas…questions about the Bible, and ethics and theology must be treated with the same rigorousness, and all cant “phraseology” must be identified, exposed as such and cut away and discarded. One wished to arrive at answers that could stand up to every scrutiny because one would have to live out those conclusions” (page 127).
But his clarity of thinking and confrontational views often brought him into conflict with the other more-moderate leaders and his piercing prophetic expressions led to him often being misunderstood. Ironically, it was with leaders outside his native country that he found most like-mindedness. His trips to the UK and USA established strong connections with other church leaders and brought him to the attention of the world scene.
Back in Germany the war was about to start and Bonhoeffer was torn between returning to his homeland, where almost certain death awaited him, and staying in America where his increasing fame meant a secure lecturing position and a prosperous future. Ever the anti-celebrity, Bonhoeffer chose to go home and sailed back to Germany, not knowing what awaited him. He would say later on that “he had been “grasped” by God; that God was leading him, and sometimes where he would prefer not to go” (page 70).
However, once back on home soil Bonhoeffer faced a moral dilemma of either joining an army in a war he morally disagreed with, or to avoid conscription, become a conscientious objector and face the firing squad. In the midst of his dilemma, and seeking to retain a useful role within the church, he took a job as an informer with the German secret police reporting on church activities. In a typical Bonhoeffer move, he actually worked as a double agent, secretly helping the church while pretending to inform on them. Only those close to him knew his true motives and allegiance and his duplicitous role caused many in the church to become confused. But these were confusing times, when loyalties to the state, the church and the family that had been intertwined for centuries in German culture were being pulled apart.
The life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer stands as a symbol of truth against an avalanche of lies. It is the story of the power of right to overcome wrong. In his fight against evil he held nothing back – neither his own desire for happiness or his fear of a painful death. In the end he lost everything he had, his family, his fiancee, his promising career and finally his life. Any yet, as we look back from our vantage point we can see that in the final analysis he won. With some Christian leaders you learn from them mostly through their teaching, others teach you through their lives. For Bonhoeffer his life and devotion add greater depth to his teaching for it cost him so much.
Finally, a word from Bonhoeffer about what drove him: “It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God. I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the centre, not in weakness but in strength, and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness” (page 467). God in the centre, God in life. This is what Bonhoeffer was passionate to see lived out, and this is his legacy for us who follow after him. May we found strength to be willing to lose everything in order to win Him who is worth more than life itself.
Part 2 of my review can be found here
Yesterday I spoke at my home church, Central Baptist Church, Dundee in my series of Postcards from the Prophets on Elijah at Mount Horeb from 1 Kings 19 titled “Running on Empty”. In it I sought to outline Elijah’s external persecution and internal despair along with his encounter with the whispering God. Through it all I sought to understand what Elijah’s experience can teach us in our trials and challenges in the UK today.
The slides are available here and sermon online here or to download here. During the service I also read out an article I wrote last year called “We need the tears of the prophets for a broken nation” – available here.
Revelation Chapter 7 – The 144,000 (word doc available here)
In many ways this chapter answers the desperate cry at the end of the previous chapter (6.17) – who can stand in the day of God’s wrath? – Only those protected by his seal (v1-8). The passage forms a break in the unveiling of the 7 seals, right before the final seal is opened. The second half of the chapter (v9-17) echoes back to the universal worship of chapter 5v13 and anticipates chapter 21v1-4.
- Why does God choose this moment to hold back the destructive forces coming upon the earth (v1) in order to seal his people? What is the seal (Revelation 14.1, Ephesians 1.13)? What difference does the seal make to them?
- If the seal is a mark of God’s Spirit, how can we know that we have received this mark (2 Corinthians 1.21-22 & Romans 8.14-16))? What does this mean for someone who believes we can never know if we are saved or not? Do you have assurance of your salvation?
- In v4 John hears the number of those to be sealed. Is this number symbolic or literal? Explain your answer. Who is missing from the list of sons, and which grandson is included? Does the fact that by AD70 the ancestral records of the 12 tribes had been lost effect your interpretation? If it is symbolic, what is it symbolising and who are included in this number?
- What do Jehovah’s Witnesses believe this number to represent? How would you respond to their interpretation? Compare and contrast the two groups of believers in this chapter (v4 & v9) – do you think they are the same group of the redeemed church seen from two vantage points? Why or why not?
- One commentator writes that the 144,000 are “faithful believers about to enter the period of final testing”. What will the result of their faithfulness be (6.9-10, 14.1-5)? How would we feel if we were one of this number?
- What do we fear most about embracing suffering for the sake of Jesus? Would we be ready to lose our homes, jobs or life, or see those that we love suffer in order to remain faithful? What encouragement does this passage have for suffering persecution today for the sake of Christ?
- Another commentator states that God’s seal protects against tampering, marks ownership and certifies genuine character. If you are a Christian, how does this threefold stamp of adoption comfort you in the face of your own troubles and difficulties?
Spend a few moments meditating on the fact of God’s seal over your life, thanking him and offering our lives in adoration. Remember each other in the trials we each face and particularly those who face martyrdom today for the sake of the Lord.
Here is my second study in John chapter 15, you can find the first one by scrolling down or on the new page I have added to the blog.
John 15v18-6v4 Testify.
In our last study on the opening verses of John 15 we were confronted with Jesus’ challenge to be ready for the pruning that is an essential part of our union with him. He now increases the challenge by preparing us for the inevitable persecution that will accompany all those who follow him. As the full cost of our discipleship is gradually revealed to us, Jesus encourages us that the result of our faithfulness will be the proclamation of the gospel and the perseverance of our faith.
- In Jim’s sermon he mentioned a time when he came face to face with the hatred some people have for Christians, when someone said to him “death will take care of people like you”. Have you ever had a similar experience? What should be our reaction to such experiences? (Mat 5.11)
- What would you say to someone who said “most Christians in the UK would do anything they can to avoid ridicule and rejection” – do you think this is a fair assessment? How can we know if we worship comfort more than Christ?
- In an attempt to make Christianity more appealing some leave out this hard teaching about the cost of following Christ. What happens to our discipleship when we leave out this aspect of the cost? How can we help those who have lost this understanding?
- “When the revelation of God is made it will evoke a reaction” – why do some people respond with hatred when they don’t know anything about us personally? What reaction are we evoking in daily lives? How can we balance this expectation of rejection with Proverbs 16.7?
- What is our responsibility in the face of persecution (1 Peter 4.14-16)? What is our confidence (Mat 10.19-20, Rom 8.35-38)? Share an encouragement of how you have grown through testing.
- In Acts 9.5 Jesus is effectively saying “if they are persecuting you, they are persecuting me”. Why does God allow his son to be persecuted? Would God ever deliberately lead us into persecution (Acts 20.22-24)? How does this challenge a shallow understanding of God’s love?
- If the message of suffering is not what people want to hear, and if the cost is so great, why does the church grow so quickly in times of persecution? Do we generally make it too easy or too hard for people to become Christians in our presentation of the gospel? What is our confidence in saying these hard truths to those outside the faith?
Even though we know the truth of these passages, the reality is that we are often far from living this way in our outlook on life. Why is this? Take a moment to reflect on the full cost of following Christ and ask God that he would give us all the strength to withstand persecution when we are tested.
Father would you break us and free us from our love of comfort and enable us to give our lives as sacrificial offerings for your purposes, whatever they may be. For Jesus’ sake, Amen