Sunday, 17 February 2013

Waiting for the lion to roar

One of the thrills of Christian ministry is to be able to speak about God. Would-be preachers go off to Bible College and discover lots of interesting details about him (his attributes) and his purposes. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that usually people emerge from such places confident that they are now equipped to define God and his ways.

I have spent the last few weeks musing about Hosea’s call to preach. In some ways, he lived in a period very like our own. The commandments of God were being ignored, a great deal of changes were taking place in society, and uncertainty about the future of God’s visible kingdom was on people’s minds, whether or not they were for it or against it.

Hosea was called by God to preach to such people and discovered that doing so was not very easy. After all, his explanation of divine ways extended literally to how his wife was. It must have been hard for Hosea to say to his neighbours, ‘You are just like my wife.’ Even harder to say to them, ‘I am just like God in this regard – he is patient towards you, expressing costly love, and willing to restoring permanently unworthy persons.’ Yet as we think about what God called Hosea to do with his unfaithful wife, we see a vivid picture of God’s grace. 

Hosea’s message about God had other emphases as well. In chapter 5, God tells Hosea to inform the people regarding their future and in what ways they can expect the Lord’s presence. Surprisingly, God likens himself to a moth and to dry rot (v. 12)! I don’t think I was taught that in theology classes.

Of course, the illustrations depict destruction, slow gradual destruction. A moth begins to destroy a garment and eventually it is full of holes. Dry rot begins to destroy wood and eventually the house falls down. They illustrate an active ongoing presence of God, but a presence that is very disturbing.

Some may respond by denying that God would behave in such a way today. After all, we assume that he is pleased with what is linked to him. But as we look at the visible church, does it reveal evidence that a moth has been at work and that dry rot is having its effects? If it does, then God may be at work – slowly.

Hosea the preacher was called to tell his people, ‘This is God at work.’ Yet they did not listen, and turned instead to Assyria for help with their problems (v. 13). In response, God spoke again through Hosea and this time likened himself to a lion, to a young lion on the prowl for prey, with the prey being his people (v. 14). A moth and dry rot are gradual, giving time for Israel to respond and mend their ways, but a lion? The lion did catch his prey, and they went away into captivity in Assyria. But Hosea would say, ‘Assyria (if he knew that was whom God would use) will only be the equivalent of the lion’s teeth. God, the God you rejected, will do it.’ 

It was sad enough for Hosea to see holes and dry rot. But he had to live out his preaching ministry waiting for the lion to roar. So he would have been thankful he could still call the people to repent (v. 15), which is what preachers are privileged to do today in our society.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Derek Tidball (2011), Preacher, Keep Yourself from Idols, IVP, 200pp.

This book is based on a set of lectures given by Derek Tidball, former Principal of London School of Theology and a well-known preacher in churches and at conferences. The lectures were given at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 2010.

The book begins with an introduction in which the author briefly looks at the nature of idolatry. Aware that some may be surprised by his choice of topic, he asks if the two words 'preacher' and 'idolatry' go together like snowman and sauna. If idolatry has the same effect on a preacher as a sauna will have on a snowman, then the preacher should be concerned about it. The author reminds us that what may be an idol to one preacher may not be to another, and he also notes that what may not be an idol at one time may become one later on. His book then contains four sections, each divided into chapters.

The first section is concerned with Idols of the Self and in it the author gives a chapter each to the pulpit, to the position of authority, and to popularity. Each comes from God, but each can become an idol for the preacher. Preaching, it should be remembered, is not the only way by which God communicates to his people (in this chapter he takes issue with Martyn Lloyd-Jones and others who seem to stress that preaching is the primary way to deal with spiritual issues). And, after all, a preacher at one level is only an ordinary Christian with a specific spiritual gift.

While a preacher speaks with authority when he declares the meaning of scripture, it is obvious that it is easy to abuse such power. The author mentions several ways by which this is done, and I could have put a tick beside some. They include using the pulpit to preach at people who disagree with the preacher, to be dogmatic about minor, disputed areas, to go beyond what God has required, and to use the pulpit to comment on issues that are not the remit of a preacher.

Concerning popularity, Tidball leans heavily on the insights of Chrysostom, the early church father, and gives seven responses to it. After all, a preacher usually cannot help becoming popular, but he can help how he responds to it. Each of the responses is wise and should be adopted by popular preachers. If a preacher is popular, he should accept it as a gift from God. If he is not popular, he should not seek it. A preacher should not be fooled by popularity and assume that such praise is an accurate assessment of his sermons. He should develop a healthy independence from people's opinions (which is not the same as indifference). And he should be aware that the basis on which people praise is often faulty (Chrysostom realised that people normally listen for pleasure, not profit). Popularity should never prevent a preacher from telling the truth. In any case, some people can be fickle and will soon move on to support another preacher. Of course, the most important response to popularity is to remember the Day of Account when Jesus will give the final and correct assessment of what went on.

The second section is concerned with four Idols of the Age: success, entertainment, novelty and secularisation. We should look for success, says the author, because faithfulness usually leads to fruitfulness. It is normal for gospel churches to grow. Yet growth for the sake of growth is dangerous because it can be attained without solid preaching, and that is idolatry.

It is inevitable that entertainment can be an idol for a preacher because it marks our society and is almost impossible to avoid. The implication for a preacher is that his sermon should not be boring, and why should it since he is speaking about the most exciting story ever told! Tidball points out that the only benefit that can come from a boring sermon is patience! Instead our preaching, he says, should be as riveting as our gifts allow. Nevertheless a desire to entertain can be part of a person's personality and if unchecked will spoil preachers. Tidball cites Haddon Robinson's complaint, 'Such sermons hold people's interest but give them no sense of the eternal.'

The search for novelty is often an idol, especially if preachers look for a new insight in a verse in order to get praised for it by sermon-tasters. Instead of that kind of novelty, preachers should be looking for fresh ways to present old truths that will illuminate the passage for their hearers. He suggests we listen to the comment, 'Anyone who simply sets forth the text and gives its meaning distinctly will be accused of freshness.'

Secularisation may seem an unlikely idol for a preacher, but it can become so because it has affected church life to some extent. We now live in a society marked by pluralism and relativism and they can influence the way we preach.

The third section is about two Idols of the Task: oratory and immediacy. The danger of oratory is a dependence on vocal techniques and the danger of immediacy is to judge a sermon only by its instant effectiveness (calling for a response). Obviously both can be helpful, but clearly both can become idols.

The final section is concerned with three Idols of the Ministry: professionalism, busyness and familiarity. One way to deal with professionalism is to remember that all ministry is a relationship before it is a task. Busyness, as we all know, is one of the most effective ways of doing nothing. And it can prevent a preacher having sufficient time to prepare. Familiarity too has its effects and we can easily think of what some of them are.

The author says at the beginning of the book that his aim is not to condemn but to alert preachers to subtle aspects of their work that can turn into idols. He manages to do this. As he indicated, every preacher does not have the same idols. Yet it would be very surprising if one or two of the nasties he deals with are not present in the lives of our preachers. If you are a preacher, it would be a pity if you decided not to buy the book because you imagine most chapters might not concern you. After all, one idol is more than enough!

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Life in a Secular Society

Last month, as we know, the European Court of Human Rights passed its verdict on four cases brought by different Christians regarding where and how, publicly, they could express their faith and where and how, publicly, they could not. In a sense, the outcomes were not surprising because Europe, including Britain, is now a secular environment and, indeed, has been so for a long time.

Although the decisions have been presented as secularism against Christianity, it is more accurate to say that they represent secularism and a secular state against religion.  If Moslems rather than Christians had brought the cases, the outcomes would have been the same. A Moslem working for British Airways would be allowed to wear a small, non-threatening symbol of her faith, a Moslem working as a registrar would not be allowed to opt out of performing state-allowed marriages, a Moslem counsellor could not retain his job if he refused to counsel a homosexual couple, and a Moslem nurse cannot wear a religious symbol that may inflict injury on a patient.

I suppose we would agree with the fourth and not be too bothered about the first. Regarding the second and the third, it looks as if it will not be possible now for religious people to remain in employment situations where the principles of their faiths prevent them participating in legally-allowed actions that are required by the government or by employers.

With regard to employment, a Christian has two reasons why he may not work in a certain area. (1) If the work involves actions that the Bible forbids, such as gambling, then he chooses not to work there. (2) He may want to work in an area, for example a government department, but government requirements prevent him doing so, such as the registrar who refused to obey the state’s requirement that she perform a civil partnership involving a homosexual couple.

Something similar happened a couple of decades ago with regard to working on Sundays. Overnight it was difficult for Christians to get full-time work in companies that wanted their employees to be available seven days a week. I recall a young girl who was offered a job with a prominent shop in the Eastgate centre, but the contract specified that she be available for Sunday work. She refused to sign it, and did not get the job even although the company had recognised her worth and offered her one in the first place. Of course, since then the notion of Sunday as a special day that belongs to God has disappeared from our society. But that does not mean that God no longer regards it as special.

The war with secularism has been a long one. In our country it has fought against Christianity for centuries but received an enormous boost with the rise of evolution and its replacement of divine creation as the origin of life in the middle of the nineteenth century. Since the 1850s there has been an ongoing advance of secularism as it has taken over gradually the major areas of society, including education, and ensured the increased marginalisation of the Church.

The increase in secularism has already led to the demise of the concept of personal sin and the value of each human life. Christians show that they value each human life by witnessing to the need of divine forgiveness and renewal for each person. Taking away the fact that we are sinful also takes away our God-given dignity as humans and denies us the remedy for our condition.

It is a myth to assume that a secular society is a tolerant one, and that is the case at a whole range of levels. Already in Britain, secularism has led to the widespread practice of abortion, ignoring the rights of the unborn because they are not regarded as persons; in societies that are more progressive in their secularism, euthanasia also has been legalised, ignoring the rights of the old and weak who cannot care for themselves. Our secular society has not shown much tolerance towards those who refuse to work on Sundays, so their rights too is denied. Now it is about to redefine marriage and insist that it is no longer valid to call the couple husband and wife. Who knows what the outcome of this change will be?

So how can we live in a secular society? One way is to do what Jesus wants and the other way is to do whatever anyone or anything else wants. Those who will do what Jesus wants will stand out very clearly from the rest. What does Jesus want? Along with participating in normal activities of everyday life, he wants his followers to do certain things in private and certain things together in public. Privately, he wants them to find time frequently to read his Word and pray to his Father; publicly, he wants them to identify with the communal gatherings of his followers (what we call church services on Sunday and during the week – after all, if we don’t, we are imitating what the secularists do).

In other words, he wants them to live for him and obey his instructions, whether it is a secular or a non-Christian society. And we should remember that most Christians elsewhere in the world have been doing this for a long time.