God can’t do it that way again?

Often I hear things like: “we can’t do it that way anymore”, “that would never work today”, or even “God won’t do it that way anymore”.  Times have changed, we’re told.

As someone who does not go in for innovation for innovation’s sake, this line of reasoning doesn’t quite sit with me. And not just for the sake of the theological principle that God can do whatever pleases Him.  For historical reasons as well. Consider that in 1946 the dean of Harvard Divinity School had counted the tradition of large-scale evangelistic preaching to be discredited entirely.  It was the realm of hucksters and hacks.  The very idea of evangelism was loaded with images of charlatans who used big tent revivalism for personal gain.*

And then a few short years later, a young Billy Graham rose up in the public eye. His ministry could at the very least be described as, ahem, fruitful.

The lesson?  No one gets to tell God who He’ll use or how He’ll use them.  And no one gets to say what is over and that God can’t or won’t work that way again.

Billy Graham in 1955

Billy Graham in 1955

 

 

*see page 35 of Ross Douthat’s excellent book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics

How Should God Be Loved?

Marc Chagall, The Song of Songs

Marc Chagall, The Song of Songs

I am in the midst of a sermon series through the Song of Songs (which is Solomon’s).  Not in the midst of preaching but in the midst of being under that preaching.  *an advantage of co-pastoring is that one can both preach and receive preaching*

Bernard of Clairvaux, was unmatched in his commentary on Solomon’s Song, and his writings unpacking it are still amazing to read today.  He saw the fundamental question as being, how should God be loved?  He believed that the love between the young lovers of the Song showed the answer – achingly and without any limit.  And why should God be loved? Simply because He is God.

Consider first how God merits to be loved, that there is to be no limit to that love, for he loved us first. Such a one loved us so much and so freely, insignificant as we are and such as we are, that as I said at the beginning, we must love God without measure.

My God, my help, I shall love you as much as I am able for your gift. My love is less than is your due, yet not less than I am able, for if I cannot love you as much as I should, still I cannot love you more than I can.  I shall only be able to love you more when you give me more, although you can never find my love worthy of you.

-On The Song of Songs

“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…”

 

 

 

Here’s 3 ‘million dollar words’ (Jude in July)

JUDE in JULYIn my most recent sermon, the first from Jude’s Letter, I dropped what I called 3 ‘million dollar words’.  No one should feel silly not knowing them, many well-trod Christians don’t know them even if they intuitively feel the concepts. Words are important, however, and so these 3 should work their way into our consciousness.  The Apostle Jude is concerned with people being led away from true belief in Jesus by those who have crept in. Christians need to stick with what they’ve been given.  But in order they need to know what they’ve been given. Jude implies that Christianity is received, authoritative, and shared with all Christians.

Here’s where our 3 words come in (they’re each worth $1,000,000 and so pay attention! I paid a lot of money to learn them in seminary but I’m giving them for free today)

1) Jude says that the Christian Faith was once for all delivered to the saints (v3).  This means there is a body of beliefs (about God, Christ, human nature, salvation, etc…) that has been received as a package deal.  If something is a gift than we can’t just mess with it, or choose which parts we like and which we don’t.  This includes both belief and behaviour apparently, as Jude’s opponents get both wrong (v4). The Faith is a received gift and the word that this applies to is: Orthodoxy (adjective is orthodox).  Literally meaning “right belief and/or thought”, to be orthodox refers to be faithful to what has been handed down, respecting how it all fits together.

2) From whom do we receive it, though?  That leads to the question of authority – whose authority do we trust to teach us the truth about Jesus? Jude’s opponents, relying on their own dreams and rejecting authority (v8). Jude warns that their authority to teach spiritual truth is no good.  The authority we need to trust in is that of the apostles.  They were with Jesus, chosen by Him, and to reject them is to reject Him. Any wisdom or revelation must be tested against authority on which Faith is based, that of the apostles.  The word for this is Apostolicity (adj. apostolic). And where is this apostolic authority?  It’s in what they wrote, their accounts and teachings about Jesus in the Scriptures.  Their writing is what is authoritative for us.

3) Our third million dollar refers to the fact that we share our Christian Faith with others.  Jude points out that our salvation is a “common” one (v3). In such a self-centred, self-determining age it is humbling to know Christianity is not our possession.  We share globally with so many different types of believers and historically with so many previous generations.  This is important because we have so many cultural blind spots that other ages and cultures don’t have. It keeps us faithful when we allow them to check us.  The word for this is Catholicity (adj. catholic – notice the small ‘c’). We may think of the Roman church being “Catholic” but all catholic (small ‘c’) means is universal and undivided. To our RC friends we may have to say that we’re “too catholic to be Catholic” (thanks to Peter Leithart for the line!)  Tragically, there is Christian division but we really do share the Faith with many others even as we disagree.

orthodox, apostolic, (c)atholic – a received, authoritative, and shared faith – this is what Jude is promoting and encouraging his people to stay faithful to.  And so must we in the face of pressures and teachings from all directions.

Now you’re a millionaire.