Category Archives: The Prophets

The Prophet, the Parchment and the People

A Call to Cultural Re-engagement Part 5.

If you have been following my previous posts on cultural re-engagement, I expect there is one question that is at the forefront of your minds and that is: “it’s all very well saying that the church should affirm, then connect, then challenge, but most of the time church leaders don’t have the luxury of the time required to build engagement before needing to challenge. What do you do then?”

Those of us who work or live amongst those outside the reach of the church do, on the whole, have the time required (if we choose to use it) to develop meaningful, real relationships that are the foundation for cultural engagement. Those who are in positions of leadership in the church often do not. They are required to stand for truth at the risk of being misunderstood, misrepresented and misinterpreted. Their’s is the prophetic call to the nation to turn back to the living God, to hear what he says to a lost generation and warn them of the consequences of their rebellion. Can these two approaches be reconciled? Should they be reconciled? Importantly, is one more faithful to biblical principles than the other?

h-richard-niebuhr2I have come across many theories that seek to provide a universal approach to cultural engagement for the church. One of the most famous theorists is Richard Niebuhr, who outlined the following categories in his 1951 book Christ and Culture. In it he proposed five models for understanding our approach to culture:

  1. “Christ against Culture. For the exclusive Christian, history is the story of a rising church or Christian culture and a dying pagan civilization.
  2. Christ of Culture. For the cultural Christian, history is the story of the Spirit’s encounter with nature.
  3. Christ above Culture. For the synthesist, history is a period of preparation under law, reason, gospel, and church for an ultimate communion of the soul with God.
  4. Christ and Culture in Paradox. For the dualist, history is the time of struggle between faith and unbelief, a period between the giving of the promise of life and its fulfillment.
  5. Christ Transforming Culture. For the conversionist, history is the story of God’s mighty deeds and humanity’s response to them (Source: Wikipedia)”

There are other ways of categorising the approaches but they can be broadly put into one or more of these categories. Church leaders are taking their churches down one or two of these approaches, depending on their denominational roots, church tradition and individual perspective. My question to the church is this – “is it possible that God would have different (biblical) roles for his leaders and his people?”

Could God have purposed that there would be some individual Christians who would stand against the culture as a prophetic voice? Could God have purposed that others would be so immersed in society that their work would transform their town, community or nation? Of course he could. A clear example of this is seen in Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Jeremiah 29.1-7. In this passage Jeremiah, a prophet of God, is in defeated Israel writing to those who had been taken captive to Babylon.

As the tearful prophet sits down to write on this piece of parchment his manifesto to the people of Israel in foreign lands, here is the perfect opportunity to call the people to rise up against the unbelieving, sinful country they were living in and call them to account for their pagan living. Is that what Jeremiah does? No, instead, under the inspiration of God, he commands them to settle in their country, build, plant, prosper, seek its welfare and work for the good of the land they are living in.  Here is God telling his punished people to work for the good of their culture – to cultural engagement in Babylon.

And yet, only a few short chapters later Jeremiah (in chapter 50.1-5) strikes up this judgement of Babylon, again at the command of God. Here is the prophet pronouncing judgement and standing against the culture and land of Babylon. So we see that it is not either / or, but rather both/ and. We need to stop trying to shoehorn everyone into one, or only two ways of approaching culture as if God only ever worked through one means.

We need to recognise that God can, has and will raise up leaders like Joseph (to lead culture), Daniel (to transform culture) Noah (to stand against culture). George Muller,  William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, respectively, are modern day examples.  Today we, equally, need those who will speak a clear voice of biblical truth against our godless culture, we also need those who will get stuck in to working alongside our society to make it a genuinely better place. And we need to recognise the importance, value and God-honouring vocation of all these callings.

es-rock-climbing-01What strikes me is that God commanded the Israelites in Babylon to work for the welfare of the city, even while there was a coming judgement against the city. Amazingly, Jeremiah was the means of providing both the mandate to renew the city, and the message leading to the razing of the city. God cannot be put in a nice easy category, his purposes are too diverse, his means too manifold. All we can ask is “what would you have me do Lord, with this small life that I give to you wholeheartedly?” Obedience is of utmost importance, for few of these people, when they set out on their journey could have ever imagined how God was going to use them.

Finally, this passage in Jeremiah 29 is just before that famous verse where God says “I know the plans I have for you…” which we love to apply to ourselves. But before we do that we must remember the primary application of these verses is to the exiled Israelites, struggling to know the will of God in a foreign land. Not knowing whether to acclimatise or resist, to fight it or fit in. Remember this – God’s plans to bless us are for an alien people in a hostile land, working for the good of this land. Why? Because God has called us to it and promised to be with us and bless us. This is my call to people and prophet alike – fulfil your unique role in this desperate land before it is too late. What are we waiting for?

Running on Empty

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.

The God Who Is There

I recently spoke at my church on the next in my series on Elijah. This time Elijah is facing the prophets of Baal, King Ahab and the people of Israel at the top of Mount Carmel. Its a classic passage from Israel’s history and I focussed on 1) A guilty silence (ie the people who refused to respond to Eljah’s challenge for faithfulness), 2) An impotent enemy (the prophets of Baal who couldn’t get their God to show up) and finally 3) The testifying God. On this final point I spoke about how God used the method of fire from heaven to testify to his presence throughout Israel’s history, but challenged us to whether we allowed God to change his methods? I gave a brief apologetic to explain how the UK has no place for supernatural events and why believing in miracles such as these is so hard for people today. I explained how Francis Schaeffer sought to understand and explain these changes back in 1968 in his book The God Who Is There, and what that means for us today. I finished by looking at 1 Timothy 2.5+6 as Jesus is presented here as God’s final testimony – better than fire from heaven, for as God’s character is revealed so his testimony is refined. The sermon is available here as a download, or online here, and slides here.

The Outlaw and Obadiah

In the evening last Sunday I preached on Elijah meeting Odadiah, the fourth in my series of Postcards from the Prophets and used this encounter to ask some questions about a Christian’s view of civil disobediance, including looking at Martin Luther King Jr and Oscar Schindler. You can access the sermon here and the slides here.

We need the tears of the prophet for a broken nation

For those of us who live in the UK the events of the past week have been shocking and saddening. Today the Prime Minister declared that the UK had a “broken society” . Many are now searching for reasons as to why this eruption in social unrest should break upon these lands so quickly and with so little warning. Those of us who have watched the moral collapse of our country first hand are not surprised. But while we have long predicted that moral collapse would follow the wholesale abandonment of the UK’s Christian heritage, now is not a moment for “I told you so”.

For the last couple of months I have been studying the life of Elijah and his ministry to a backslidden and apostate Israel. Elijah realised that at the heart of the people’s problems was their broken relationship with God. So too in our day, I believe that the first place to look for a cause for our situation is at the door of the Christian church. God has appointed the church to be a light to the world, preserving the good, opposing the bad. Although a marginalised church cannot prevent a nation from self-destruction, if the light is not shining brightly then how great is the darkness?

Thus it is that for years in the UK there has been gradual deterioration in the faithfulness and purity of the church. The church has been under sustained attack and has not, on the whole, managed to withstand the attack. The result has been an undermining of our confidence and belief in the supremacy of scripture, the reality of judgement to come and the uniqueness and lordship of Jesus. Our modern liberals call themselves “Progressive” as they discard the historic truths of the Christian faith, our institutional leaders call themselves “Embracing” as they ride roughshod over central biblical truths on sexuality, edit out the miraculous from scripture and refuse to speak out on anti-Christian legislation.

The role of the prophet was to speak God’s eternal and unchanging truth into the ever-changing contemporary world. It was often an unpleasant word as they rebuked the indifference and compromise of the people, the hypocrisy and self-serving of the leaders and the dishonesty of the king. But there’s was no impersonal detached edict – it was the burning passion for the honour and glory of their God that etched itself across their souls. They spoke as they felt and they felt God’s heart – broken for the waywardness of his children who should know better, who should repent sooner, who should obey more wholeheartedly. Although they did speak judgement on the nations around Israel, they were not primarily concerned with these nations. Their first and primary calling was to the nation of Israel, to God’s own people, called through Abraham, rescued through Moses and exalted through David. They had had all the blessings and privileges possible, and still they abandoned Jehovah within two generations of the wilderness refugees.

And are we so different? We in the UK, indeed in Scotland, have a blessed heritage. Many prominent Christians have shaped this nation in the past centuries to give us as strong a foundation as anywhere in the world. But what type of building have we constructed on this foundation? When did our light go out in this dark nation? When did we cease to pass on the truths to the next generation? When was that connection of 2 Timothy 2.2 broken? Like the melting of an iceberg – imperceptible but continual, the erosion in historic Christianity has occurred. Gradually we lost our theology, then we lost our convictions, then we eventually lost our piety and practise. We were left with nothing to say and no one listening.

The word of the prophet speaks into the darkness – “Remember the height from which you have fallen and do the things that you did at first. You have lost your first love, but return and I will return to you, break up your unploughed ground and clear your filled wells. Come back in brokenness, humility and fear and I will heal you”. Only as there is a reformation in the church can the healing hope for our society be administered, for there is no one to administer it apart from the church. Our nation is looking for an answer and will look to every solution apart from God, but nevertheless, now is a moment for those in leadership to bring a prophetic message, mixed with tears of pain, to a wounded nation. Are we prepared for God to break us for our nation so that we can say: “streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed” Psalm 119.136?

Father have mercy on us this day, remember your people, restore your church, bring hope to the nations. Father, give us the tears of the prophet broken for your people, the heart of the prophet to feel as you feel for the lost world, the mouth of the prophet to speak your truth into our hurting nation and give us the eyes of the prophet to see the glory of the coming king who will refine his church, judge the corrupt and restore the honour of his name in his world.

The Call

On Sunday 31st October I began a series of sermons on the prophets. I’m calling it Postcards from the Prophets and throughout the series I will seek to understand what these significant moments in the history of Israel have to say to us today.

The first one was titled The Call and was looking at the call of Jeremiah. The sermon can be downloaded here.