Christ and Culture

(James 4:1-8a; John 17:13-18) – J G White
11 am, Sun, Sep 23, 2018 – UBC Digby

For God so loved the world…  We recite John 3:16.  We sing it. How many people around us understand it?  Does our corner of the world know what we mean by this Bible verse?  Our corner of the world that is still loved by God so much. It gets said of Christians that we are to be ‘in the world but not of it.’  What on earth does this mean?

In His big prayer for his closest followers of long ago, Jesus said to God, His Father: (John 17) 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world…. 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.

Two thousand years of Christians have seen themselves as people sent into the world by Jesus.   Today, our Baptist Convention suggests this as one Marker of a Mission-Edge Church: Seeking to understand CULTURE.  

We need to understand our neighbours, our neighbourhoods.  Then, we can share Christ well. So we do things like these:

  • We corporately study how the Bible and Jesus intersects and speaks to culture in our day.
  • We seek to understand culture, rather than hide from culture.
  • We equip one another to know how to engage culture with Jesus’ grace and truth.

A healthy Baptist Church seeks to understand its culture.  But, just when we start to hear this advice, we might remember what we just read from James 4 in the New Testament.  Did it not say that to be friends of the world is to be enemies of God?

I think this is about being friends with the way society does things, with what people value now.  If how we think and speak and treat people (and the creation) is just like the rest of the world, we are not different.  We need to know what is wrong inside us in order to help resist it, don’t we? We need some more changes inside, to be more like Christ.  

These verses in James that say, ‘draw near to God,’ must go with the words of Jesus’ prayer in John 17.  We are sent into the world, with protection, with Jesus, with purpose. This is for the sake of being friends with the people of the world. Loving the world of people. So today’s part of making new disciples of Jesus around here is: know your neighbours really well.  Understand them. Speak their language.

How to make disciples?  One part is our motivation.  Our inspiration to be on mission in our lives.  We are deployed right here, for Christ. Sometimes I feel really inspired and excited about this.  More often I feel shy, unprepared, and cautious about being a missionary in Digby.

About ten years ago I felt inspired by a comment made by Charlie Harvey at an Evangelism Conference.  Charlie and Fran Harvey served for decades as Baptist missionaries in Africa. Nowadays we would call them Field Staff, Global Field Staff.

Charlie got up during a question and answer period and spoke.  We listened. Here was a wise, experienced, retired, respected Missionary.  

He told of the moment, decades ago, when they finally arrived in Africa, and stood before a crowd of people.  He remembered looking out on all those smiling brown faces, who looked back at him, a young, white, Canadian man.  Charlie said he looked out at them and knew he did not have one sweet clue what they were thinking, how they thought, how to communicate with them, what to do.  It took years of living among them to learn and make a small difference in their lives, and they in his.

Then, Charlie Harvey said he retired and came home to New Brunswick.  He looked at the Canadians his grandchildren’s age, and felt the same way.  No clue what they are thinking, feeling, what makes them tick, how to connect with them, how to share his faith. ‘I’ve got to start all over again,’ he suggested.

He was right.  It starts with a commitment to live with them, get to know them.  Be sent into our world.

How to make disciples?  Speak the ‘language’ of the people, not our jargon, our church culture.  So many of us who frequent pews on Sundays know all the code words.  Even if we don’t actually understand them all, we are used to them!

What does a person from Digby who never has gone to a Church think of all these terms and phrases?

For God so loved the world
He gave His only Son
to die on Calvary’s tree
From sin to set me free
Some day He’s coming back
What glory that will be
Wonderful His love to me

It is all code words, right?

I happened to watch a lecture online this week by Steven Pinker, a Canadian, a Harvard professor of psychology.  He gave a very interesting talk about language, style and writing in the 21st century. He says so many professors and experts write in a way that is so unclear and hard to understand.  It is just the way they all do it. And here is an example he gave of how so many professionals talk these days. A young man told what he did to a journalist:

I’m a digital and social-media strategist.  I deliver programs, products, and strategies to our corporate clients across the spectrum of communications functions.  When the journalist confessed he had no idea what that meant, and asked him what he really did, the man finally gave in and said: I teach big companies how to use Facebook.

In our lives, it would be a good exercise to take home the words of our first song, ‘For God So…’ and rewrite it so that any 25 year old could understand us.

How to make disciples?  Don’t blame ‘them,’ the ‘outsiders.’  God so loved the world.  The world of people, the creation, the whole schmear.  

I hesitate to quote this again, because it can be a downer, but the lesson is good.  This comes from Dr. Stephen McMullin’s Evangelism Course Sharon and I took four years ago in Smith’s Cove.  

Many churches, urban and suburban and rural, evangelical and mainline, are dying.  When a church is dying, what are the common responses?

  • Blame society: It is the world’s fault that the church is not growing.  Non-Christians should be coming to Church! Stores should be closed on Sundays.  Sports should not be allowed on Sunday.
  • Blame the young.  They aren’t taking on their fair share of the work.  They owe us for raising them in the church.
  • Blame the old.  They caused the problem.  If they had been willing to change, things would be fine.

Blaming one another, inside, or blaming those outside the churches, is not a helpful sign.  Rather, what’s it like to follow Paul of the New Testament? He said, I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. (1 Cor 9:22)

Or, as our Baptist Staff person, Kevin Vincent, said enthusiastically at Oasis a month ago: Sunday is not a sacred, special day anymore?  Well! We have all seven days to pick from! The whole week is ours!

How to make disciples?  Learn from them – take a respectful, humble posture to non-Christians.  I believe one way of humbling myself before God is for me to be humble before every person God loves.  That just might be every single person on earth!

One: Hear their critique of Christians and of Church.  Ya know, it just might be that people who quit church long ago each have good reason for doing so.  We had best learn from them. We have an opportunity for the Master to teach us a lot through the experience of others. People who have never tried our Christianity have a good outsiders view that we do not.  Some of them are not afraid to say what they see in us, the good, the bad, the ugly and the beauty.

Also, Two: Hear what they need and what questions they are asking.  A house up the street has a sign that says this: ETERNITY IS A LONG TIME TO BE WRONG.  Not only is this written in secret Christian code, life after death might not be the main concern of a lot of contemporary people around us.  What does matter to them?

As we get better at knowing the people around us, we get trained by the Master to serve them.  One new tool just became available on Friday. It is called “Fearless”, and is a study program put out by the MacRae Centre at Acadia Divinity College. ‘Fearless’ is a guide to Christ, Culture & Courageous Faith.  The teaching in this little course is by Dr. Anna Robbins. Let me close with some of her words from a Faith Today article, published one year ago.

But when we look at our culture carefully in the light of day, we may find things are not as scary as we first thought.

Yes, the Church is declining. Yes, the Christian influence in Western society is waning. Yes, culture is [becoming secular] at a rapid rate. No, the Church doesn’t enjoy the same cultural position it used to.

But Dr. Robbins suggests; there are fewer and less scary monsters than we imagine. …God is still on His throne, and His Church is still on mission in this country. …We enjoy an immense amount of freedom to worship and live out our faith with commitment and enthusiasm.

We don’t need to panic that we need to defend God in a godless world. God is at work and will defend Himself.

Perhaps it’s time to learn and teach how to live our faith in contemporary culture with love and joy.

Let’s [stop this seemingly endless cultural lament and] get on with the serious and joyful work of the gospel. After all, it’s not our work, but the Holy Spirit’s to change a heart and a culture.

Be fearless!

Spend Less

(Isaiah 11:3-5; James 4:1-6)
2nd Sun of Advent, Dec 4, 2016 – UBC Digby – J G White

Spend less? In November and December?  The Advent Conspiracy is indeed a conspiracy if it includes spending less, when one has been accustomed to spending quite a lot.  

Many of you read The Pilgrim’s Progress, or saw a film version.  It is quite a spiritual adventure story.  At one point, Faithful and Christian enter the town of Vanity Fair, where buying and selling is of greatest importance.  Our heroes, Christian and Faithful, refuse to buy anything.  The vendors of the town come to hate the holy travelers who are not shoppers.  

But that which did not a little amuse the Merchandizers was, that these Pilgrims set very light by all their Wares, they cared not so much as to look upon them; and if they called upon them to buy, they would put their fingers in their ears, and cry, Turn away mine eyes from beholding Vanity, and look upwards, signifying their trade and traffick was in Heaven.
Once chanced mockingly, beholding the [carriages of the] men, to say unto them, What will ye buy?  But they, looking gravely upon him, answered, We buy the Truth.  At that there was an occasion taken to despise the men the more; some mocking, some taunting, some speaking reproachfully, and some calling upon others to smite them.  (p. 95)

The pilgrim named Christian escapes from the town of Vanity Fair, but Faithful gets executed after they are put on trial for stirring things up and for not supporting the local businesses!  Faithful and Christian spend less.

This is a famous allegorical novel.  But we have the Holy Bible full of warnings about being big spenders.  Some of the good news of our scripture is in how Almighty God judges in favour of the poor and needy, and does not judge in favour of the rich or strong.  Someone coined the phrase, God comforts the afflicted, and afflicts the comfortable!

It was good news for the people of old when Isaiah the prophet proclaimed God’s word about a Messiah: with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth…  This way was fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth.

We know our greed is dangerous.  Our love of money – whether we have money or not – is a troublesome source of evil.  

I remember the scene in Revelation chapter 18, when the great and terrible city, Babylon, is destroyed and burned. What a marketplace and money-making destination it was!  What a powerful economy!  But it gets judged.  A group of you has just finished a long-term study of that Biblical book, Revelation.  Remember these apocalyptic words?

“All the ship captains and travelers by sea, sailors and toilers of the sea, stood off at a distance and cried their lament when they saw the smoke from her burning: ‘Oh, what a city! There was never a city like her!’ They threw dust on their heads and cried as if the world had come to an end:
Doom, doom, the great city doomed!
   All who owned ships or did business by sea
Got rich on her getting and spending.
   And now it’s over—wiped out in one hour!
The getting and the spending comes to an end, in Revelation 18.

To join the Advent Conspiracy and follow Jesus into not spending like crazy, there are many steps that could help us. Here are a few suggestions from the book called The Advent Conspiracy:
Set a budget; know your limits.
Consider who you are buying gifts for carefully.
Remember your own most important values, and if what you buy reflects your core values.
And so, to slow down on spending, one can do these things:
Seek motivation to change your spending habits.
Among family and friends be a team; agree on the changes in spending you want to make.
Just do it!  Simplify your spending.

The Monday Bible Study group came up with some of those ideas.  All such paths we can find rooted in the Bible.  And all changes in our lives, if they are truly good, will be blessed by our God.  

For instance, take today’s warnings from the book of James; they sound like they could have been written for ‘Black Friday’ shopping in the U S A, and even here this promotion of spending is gaining a foothold. Eugene Peterson translates James like this:

You lust for what you don’t have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn’t yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it.

You wouldn’t think of just asking God for it, would you? And why not? Because you know you’d be asking for what you have no right to. You’re spoiled children, each wanting your own way.  (4:2-3)

With this condemnation, what is the good news?

The proverb has it that “[God is] a fiercely jealous lover.” And what he gives in love is far better than anything else you’ll find. It’s common knowledge that “God goes against the willful proud; God gives grace to the willing humble.” (4:5-6)

God yearns jealously for the human spirit in us.  God gives all the more grace to us.

Grace to be less wanting.  Less in the rat race of spending and giving and obligations and guilt and greed. Grace to be humble and to want the Spirit of God most of all, at Christmas.  

We cannot do it without God.  Can’t have Christmas without Christ.  Can’t live without Jesus death.  Let us remember that now.

Lament, Mourn & Weep

repent

(James 4:7-10; Luke 18:9-14)

Sun, Oct 23, 2016 – UBC Digby – J G White

Repent, the End is near.
Repent, before it is too late.
Repent or perish!
So say the occasional signs along the highways and byways.  

Someone this week asked me if I would be pounding the pulpit, preaching fire and brimstone, when my topic is REPENTING.  No.  

But, Church, we still need a turnaround.  That’s what repentance is: turning around.  Turning away… turning to.  

Ever missed your turn-off while driving down a highway?  Oops, I missed my exit.  Hmm.  Do I wait until the next exit?  It could be a ways down the road.  Do I pull over and do a U-ie?  That’s not always safe… or legal.  But I need to turn around!

Repentance is turning away and turning to.  Lamenting where we’ve been headed – being sad about our sin.  Mourning it – what we’ve done, who we’ve been, what we’ve lost, who we’ve hurt.  Weeping – real sorrow that expresses our weakness and need to God, who hears our tears.  

Linda read for us some warnings and strong advice from James 4.  The little book of James is FULL of advice, if you have not noticed.  Lament, mourn and weep, we are told.  But, let’s hear these particular phrases again, now put into English, in his usual creative way, by Pastor and author, Eugene Peterson.  From James 4.

Quit dabbling in sin. Purify your inner life. Quit playing the field. Hit bottom, and cry your eyes out. The fun and games are over. Get serious, really serious. Get down on your knees before the Master; it’s the only way you’ll get on your feet.

My daily email from the Center for Action and Contemplation so often hits on this theme.  The spiritual theme of hitting rock bottom in order to be lifted up.  Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upwards, is all about this.

And so is Jesus’ parable of the two people praying in the Temple. This is our last Jesus story for the fall, our eighth week in Luke’s Gospel.  Next weekend we will celebrate Reformation Sunday with Romans 3, and then have a few Old Testament weeks.

Today, a parable of Jesus that has a clarity and directness about it.  Get your prayer attitude right and your attitude about yourself and others right. And let’s hear this one afresh, from Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Version of Luke.  (1969)

Two men went into the chapel to pray.  The one was a church member, the other was an unsaved man.  The church member stood up and prayed to himself like this: ‘O God, I thank you that I’m not like other people — greedy, mean, promiscuous — or even like this unsaved man.  I go to church twice on Sunday, and I am a faithful tither of all my income.’  But the unsaved man, standing way off, wouldn’t even lift up his eyes, but knelt down and cried, ‘O God, have mercy on a sinner like me.’  I’m telling you, this man went home cleaned up rather than that one.  For everyone who puts himself on a pedestal will be laid low, and everyone who lays himself low will be put on a pedestal.

Repentance must stay in our vocabulary with God.  We who are Sunday morning people, pew people and pulpit people.  We, more than the non-religious, should know how to pray these ways.  These ways Jesus taught, in parables.  

So, what are our personal prayer habits?  When we are on our own; and when we are together here, or in a small group?  What is your praying and my praying really like?  How much time does it take?  How much concentration?  What happens when you bow your head? Our attitude comes out: what is it like?  Is there any lamenting, and mourning, and weeping?  We each have our habits.  And we each may have little tools we use.

The devotional booklet The Daily Bread is very light on prayer.  Some days include a short prayer. As I looked through October, there seemed to be one day out of 31 that had a prayer of confession.  October 12.

I’m selfish sometimes, Lord.  I get more concerned with what I need than what others need.  Give me a heart of integrity and compassion.  

November looks like it will have four days that suggest prayer of confession.

Other prayer resources that I have found helpful seem to have more repentance, more lamenting and mourning and weeping over sin.  A classic is John Baillie’s A Diary of Private Prayer, 1936.  A little volume with 64 prayers for morning and for evening, each day of a month, and one extra day.  About one in three days, the evening prayer is about repenting.  

On the 18th day, the evening prayer includes these confessions:
For my deceitful heart and crooked thoughts :
For barbed words spoken deliberately :
For thoughtless words spoken hastily :
For envious and prying eyes :
For ears that rejoice in iniquity and rejoice not in the truth :
For greedy hands :
For wandering and loitering feet :
For haughty looks :
Have mercy upon me, O God.

A newer book of prayers I recommend is Dr. J. R. C. Perkin’s Prayer Diary: short prayers for busy people, 1998.  I know from using it that it frequently encourages a humble attitude. I skimmed through October’s prayers, and, like Baillie’s book, Perkin’s has confession one third of the days. Here is part of October 25ths prayer, for this coming Tuesday…
Forgive me, Lord, that I am often unwilling
To undertake lowly tasks within my capabilities,
But seek to do important things
 For which I am not properly equipped.

In his book simply called, Prayer, Richard Foster gives four steps in ‘turning around,’ repenting.  I’m going to expand on this with six steps.  May these be helpful.

One.  Awareness of wrong.

There is a type of praying that gets called the prayer of examen.  Sort of an unknown term, but it really is about asking God to examine you from the inside out.  It’s the theme of Psalm 139, which ends:
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
   test me and know my thoughts.
24 See if there is any wicked way in me,
   and lead me in the way everlasting.

You study in school, and there are exams.  You go to an MD to get checked out, and he or she puts you through a physical exam.  You do some housecleaning, and find a long lost object in a closet: you examine it closely.  

To be aware of our wrong, our sin, the knots that tie us up inside, we sometimes need the prayer of examen.  Often, the simple way to see inside ourselves is to ask for this blessing from our Master. Show me, Spirit.  Shine Your light inside.  

Two.  Ask for a contrite heart.  There’s another old-fashioned word.  But we see the meaning in the praying sinner in Jesus’ parable.  The tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  This man had a definite attitude of regret and repentance.  We might have to ask for help to get to this stage. We may need definite time alone to open our hearts to God… and ourselves.  

In all the centuries past, when people were converted to Christ, the deep sorrow about their own sinfulness always was there, coming to the surface.  Often the regret and lamenting would last days and weeks.  Here’s a bit of the story of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard coming to faith, at age 22.

As I stood… there [by the seacoast] alone and forsaken, and the power of the sea and the battle of the elements reminded me of my own nothingness, and on the other hand the sure flight of the birds recalled the words spoken by Christ: not a sparrow shall fall to the ground without your Father: then all at once I felt how great and how small I was; then did those two mighty forces, pride and humility, happily unite in friendship. (The Journal, 29 July 1835)  Out of a time of inner darkness, Jesus reached him.

Three.  Confess.  Actual, specific confession of failures.  We could skim over this step, thinking, well, our gracious God knows it all already – everything about me.  No wonder the example of scripture includes: cleanse me from hidden faults (Ps 139).  But we are unlikely to skip deep confession of the details if we have already seen what is wrong and have a heart that regrets it.  

There is a role for you and me with each other. As the book of James says in chapter 5, …confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. (J 5:16)  It is a ministry of reconciliation, as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5 in the Bible.  Next week’s sermon – about the reformation of the Church – is going to make mention of the value of this ministry.  Watch for it.

Four.  Ask for mercy.

What was the prayer of the tax man in Jesus’ story?  ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  

This depends, of course, upon if we think of God as the source of mercy we need.  There is a problem if we decide just to be merciful to ourselves, or we find some person who will be easy on us and tell us, ‘There, there; everything is going to be all right.’  But, if we have seen our problem, and truly felt badly about it, we are likely to be deeply asking for mercy, a mercy we cannot make for ourselves.  Only from God.  Only from the Cross.  

I am not usually a lover of really simple, modern Christian songs.  But one I always appreciate is Michael W. Smith’s Breathe.

This is the air I breathe
This is the air I breathe
Your holy presence living in me
This is my daily bread
This is my daily bread
Your very word spoken to me
And I, I’m desperate for You
And I, I’m I’m lost without You

Five.  Receive.

The promises of the Word are incredible for us.  1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. This is what we receive.  

Here is another personal story, from the conversion of John Bunyan, as he told it himself…

Suddenly there fell upon me a great cloud of darkness, which did so hide from me the things of God and Christ… I was as if …my hands and feet had been tied or bound with chains…  After I had been in this condition for some three or four days, as I was sitting by the fire, I suddenly felt this word sound in my heart, I must go to Jesus; at this my former darkness and atheism fled away, and the blessed things of heaven were set within my view… (Grace Abounding)

After dark, regretful days, Bunyan saw he could receive Jesus and His great gifts.  

Six.  Obey.

Turning away is always a turning to a new way.  Christ’s actings here on earth tell us sin and wrong and evil are not a dead end.  And when the healing forgiveness is applied to our souls, Jesus is the way.  The new way for life, the new path, and our Guide.    

Shall you Repent, for the End is near!?  That is up to you.  Yet we should also say Repent, for the beginning is near.  That’s what a friend suggested to me the other day… and he was right.  Repent, for the beginning is near!  

Evil and wrong in life is no dead end.  A U-turn is possible – make legal, safe and secure by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Saviour.

 What did Christ preach?  Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near.  

Repent, for the beginning is near.  The Gospel we preach does not end with a happy ending, so much as it ends with a new beginning. Let us pray.