“Revive us again, O Lord” – history knows no straight lines

George Whitefield preaching

George Whitefield preaching

 

Will you not revive us again,
    that your people may rejoice in you?

Psalm 85:6 ESV

 

I once heard someone remark that history does not move in straight lines. We imagine that there is either general progress or general decline, and that pleases or discourages us depending whether we think one or the other is happening.

For instance, we imagine that our culture is becoming steadily less Christian. This can cause trepidation or panic in believers (“look how few people go to Church!”,  “Here are some sure-fire marketing techniques to attract and retain!”, “what about our young people?”).  Or it can cause gloating arrogance in the decidedly non-believing (“look how few people go to church!”, “it’s the triumph of science!”, “down with silly, bronze-age myths!”).

The truth is that history indeed knows no straight lines.  I once heard an offhand remark about American church involvement. I have no way of confirming but it did intrigue me. Around the time of the American Revolution (1776ish), only 17% of the population were involved in church life.  That’s way lower even than today.  But by the time of the American Civil War, about 90 years later, church-goers were almost 60%.  No straight line of decline.

So what happened in between?  A revival happened.  A revival of Christian faith that changed the face of the culture.  It can happen again.  This ought to keep the gloating of the secularist in check.  It should also encourage the believer who longs to see the world come to know God.

A little knowledge of Church history helps us to not be discouraged.  Times for Christian faith have been worse off before.  Read up on the 9th Century – it was arguably the most corrupt time in Christianity (for example)  And low church attendance (a good indicator of Christianity’s health in a culture) has sometimes dipped.  Apparently, on Easter Sunday, 17th of April, 1740 only 6 people were present for communion at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, England.  (source – mention made at approx. the 17-19 minute mark).  Times have been lean before.  History knows no straight lines of decline or increase.

No one knows the future but God alone. But we do know that we must be – and, by God’s grace, can be – faithful witnesses in the times which we’re given to live in.  And we can pray for God to “revive us again…”

 

 

 

Blood, guts… real life

Leviticus

 

 

Theology is a “Victorian” enterprise, neo-classically bright and neat and clean, nothing out of place.  Whereas the Bible talks about hair, blood, sweat, entrails, menstruation and genital emissions.

Peter J. Leithart, Against Christianity

Preparing to preach through the book of Leviticus, Leithart’s comments above ring true in high definition. It is, after all, in Leviticus that we find so much ink spent on issues of blood, food, menstruation, childbirth, semen, animal entrails, burning meat, and on and on. It is not for the squeamish.

Leithart is not insulting theology ( = our thoughts about God) per se.  He is a theologian himself. But the idea of our beliefs about God detached from the dirt beneath our feet, the way we procreate, our physical selves is not what Biblical Christianity is about.

Think of ‘spirituality’. Does that conjure up otherworldly ideas – of mystical praying, detached contemplation, or heavenly intangibles?  ‘Spirituality’ as such is foreign to the Bible – and to Christian life. The God of the Old Testament, who is incarnated in Jesus, is concerned and involved with the physical grittiness of this world.

For me, I am thankful to be so reminded.  I don’t live in esoteric clouds but with my feet on the ground in this world of bowels and blood. And I’m happy to have God involved with us here.

Doubters

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and have mercy on those who doubt  Jude 22

Doubts are real.  Some have doubts that keep them from faith. Others have doubts that continually nag their faith. Doubt need not prevent or corrode true faith but it needs the right prescription. True doubt is predicated upon faith in that it would not be possible to doubt unless there were something out there which is worth believing. And so “doubt comes into the world through faith” as Kierkegaard once scrawled in one of his journals.

Doubt ought not to be condemned.  It is not necessarily corrosive to Christian faith to ask tough questions, wrestle with what we read in the Bible, or even swallow hard on some difficult aspects. Often doubts are stepping stones on the path to greater faith. We even have an Apostle know for his doubts (although he recovered and made a great confession). So doubt ought not to be condemned or the doubter vilified.

 

But neither should doubt be congratulated. Living in the “age of authenticity” as we do, often to doubt is to appear deep, real, or true to yourself. Wrestling with difficult questions of faith is a normal part of growing up as a Christian disciple. But to indefinitely chew upon questions is often a cover for a desire to not make commitments we ought to, or to pay the price for true maturity.  (what better way to not take steps God wants us to take – in the realm of our sexual behaviour, our wealth, or our ambitions or the surrender of our self-interested autonomy – than to perpetually wonder if he can be known or heard from?)

Doubters are neither to be condemned as faithless nor congratulated as the authentically deep.  They need mercy.  That’s Jude prescription. And why not turn our doubtfulness upon itself.  Why not doubt our doubts?  Or better yet, doubt our own desires that may form hidden motivations for doubts?  True and responsible doubting always leads to true and responsible searching. Undertaken in good faith such searching carries with it a promise that ought not to be doubted.  Seek, and you shall find… 

 

 

 

 

 

Scoffers

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 1.52.06 PMBut you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers…”  Jude 17 ESV

 

We live in a cynical age.  One of the ways I know this is because much of the news consumed these days comes via comedians.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for satire and sometimes they’re funny. But it speaks of how much we swim in an environment of mockery and scorn when our news is delivered within a steady diet of sarcastic jokes.

We ought not to be surprised when Christian faith falls under similar scoffing. It’s not like we weren’t told this would be the case (the apostles predicted it).

Scoffing (mockery, sarcastic scorn) comes through the media through explicit derision or just through the way it shows us faith or religious people. Bad examples of pastors, priests, churches, and so on are paraded and so loom large in the popular imagination.  All this serves to shame Christians.  We feel it, we may even shrink back from it.

Humour is from the angels.  Laughter is a blessed thing and everyone ought not to take themselves too seriously.  Scoffing, though, is diabolical in that in order to scoff one doesn’t need to stand for anything.  Irony is easy and cheap.  Sincerity is hard and costly.  To tear down another you don’t need to stand for or upon anything yourself.  This is true whether we’re atheist, agnostic, Christian, or something else, to sincerely stand is the harder job and makes one vulnerable to scoffing.

If we’re Christian, we ought not give in to the scoffing. We shouldn’t participate in the tearing down of others.  It’s too easy and we should do the harder thing. That is, perhaps disagree but do so from a place of understanding and respect.

And we’ll have to get used to enduring some scoffing.  Faithfulness takes the form of a hard forehead sometimes. What are the chances that a cable TV news anchor comedian will represent our beliefs fairly and charitably?  We ought not to be surprised.  We’ve been told.

 

Advent – there’s resistance

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all the region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.         Matthew 2:16-17

"Massacre of the Innocents" Giotto, from the Scrovegni Chapel, 1305

“Massacre of the Innocents” Giotto, from the Scrovegni Chapel, 1305

Herod executes all the boys he can find, trying to stamp out the competition for Kings of the Jews. There were probably only a couple dozen, and this sort of thing may not have even made Herod’s top ten, but still…   How do piles of infant bodies fit in the Christmas story?  Does it make for good reading round the tree?

And yet, there it is, this gruesome account along with all the rest. The point? It’s that when God arrived into the world, to establish his kingdom and save his people from their sins, he was resisted.

He was resisted by Herod, a cruel, petty, puppet-king. And if we’re most honest, he can be resisted by us. Jesus was born not to remain cute baby Jesus. He was born to make a way for us to come to God through the plan of salvation he made.  How often is that resisted?

Jesus came to be King of the world. How often is his rule resisted, mocked, or sidelined?

Jesus came to be our Lord, the one who commands and we follow.  Do we ever want his gifts while refusing his demands?

Jesus came to shower us with the grace of God – the forgiveness of all our sins.  How often would we rather hang on to guilt rather than let him cleanse us?

If the Gospels tell us anything, it’s that it does not end well for those who resist Jesus’ arrival.  It doesn’t end well for Herod or his second rate sons (both also named Herod).  But we who believe are invited to always be laying down our resistance to God in Jesus. And when we surrender, we win.

Advent – Born With Purpose (born to die)

“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people for their sins.”       Matthew 1:20-21

 

Eric Drooker, crying baby

Eric Drooker, crying baby

Reflect on the birth of Jesus and some things easily emerge.  That while he most certainly had a normal birth, his conception was not normal. Virgins don’t normally become pregnant.  It’s impossible, actually.  To the skeptic who asserts “Virgins can’t give birth to babies!”, the Christian replies “we know, that’s kind of why it’s a big deal”.

But even as the amazing circumstances of his birth are being recorded, the end of his life is not far from view.  Matthew records that at the giving of his name, from the angel to Joseph, the very purpose of his coming is revealed.  Jesus means saviour. In greek and hebrew it reads the same as Joshua, recalling a figure who brought God’s people from where they were to where they needed to be. And in that name is embedded the purpose of his birth – to bring again God’s people out from where they are. Specifically, it is to save them from their sins.

Even prior to his birth, the purpose of that birth is revealed to his adoptive father. Salvation from sins through his death on the cross. The Gospel writers were never just rolling along without the entire story in sight. Even at before the cradle the cross was in sight.