September 10 - Of Significant Anniversaries.

 Of significant anniversaries

          This is a time of anniversaries. In the year 1560 the Scottish Parliament passed the legislation which led to the establishment of a Reformed Church. For that reason 1560 is usually taken to be the date of the Reformation in Scotland and so this year, 2010, marks the 450th anniversary of that great event. By the time you read this we will have had an evening at which this was marked by a talk on the history and significance of that period.

          There is another anniversary to mark this year, and one which might be said to be of even greater significance, and not without lessons to teach us today. Deadlines for Parish magazines being what they are, I happen, coincidentally, to be writing this on 24th August. This is a hugely important date in history. It was on 24th August in the year 410AD that the great city of Rome fell to the barbarians. In other words, Rome fell exactly 1600 years ago.

          The fall of Rome has been the subject of much study by perplexed historians who reckon that it ought not to have collapsed with such ease. It certainly bewildered and horrified the Roman world at the time, for it seemed inconceivable that the Eternal City, the centre of the seemingly impregnable power of the empire, should be conquered for the first time in 800 years.

It is often said that the great Roman Empire collapsed not because of physical or military weakness, but because of moral disintegration. On 24th August 410 the unthinkable happened and a Gothic army, under Alaric, entered Rome. However much Rome's importance may have faded by this time, it was still the centre of western civilisation and the shock of this event makes it one of the landmarks in history.

          Following that collapse many pagans blamed Christians for not taking responsibility in public life by not worshipping the gods of Rome and thereby inviting their displeasure. The great Church Father, Augustine responded to these accusations by writing his magnificent work ‘The City of God’. He argued that the Roman Empire, which had held sway for so many centuries, drew its initial strength primarily from the moral fibre of the ancient Romans. They may not have worshipped the living God but they upheld high moral values and it was this which gave their society cohesion and success. Listen to what he writes of the ancient Romans:

          “Except for the fact that they did not serve God, but erred in worshipping the vanities that were the established religion of the time... they can be justly held up as models of all the other virtues - frugality, self-denial, chastity, sobriety, courageous in the face of death for their country’s sake, keeping their sworn word...” He then cogently argues that it was the loss of this moral cohesion which was the undoing of Rome. It collapsed from within before it ever collapsed from without.

          Augustine’s approach was very simple - the moral history of a people is far more important than its military history, for it was the virtues of the Romans which made them great in the first place.

          In fact, Augustine reflected insights which can be gleaned from the Bible. The book of Amos, perhaps the earliest and first of the ‘writing’ prophets, describes how the Word of God was brought to the people of God who had completely lost their way, spiritually and morally. As a people they were preoccupied with wealth and luxury and comfort, prepared to exploit the weak to consolidate their own greed. They were very religious, but their religion was a sham and their society was losing cohesion.

       Do horses run on the rocky crags?
       Does one plow there with oxen?
       But you have turned justice into poison
       and the fruit of righteousness into bitterness-

 13 you who rejoice in the conquest of Lo Debar [a]
       and say, "Did we not take Karnaim [
b] by our own strength?" (Amos 6:11-12)

People marvelled and praised their king for securing victory against all the odds. Reverse national fortunes and the world sits up and takes notice. But Amos goes on to note that breaking moral laws draws no such attention, no-one thinks anything significant has happened at all:

          “But you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into bitterness.”

          The tragic truth was that however successful Jeroboam had been on the battlefield, once he allowed justice to depart from the land his kingdom was doomed. It would collapse from within and be defeated from without.

 

          As we celebrate the Reformation, and are reminded of the centrality of God’s Word, so we can also be warned of the calamitous consequences of drifting from God and His word.

          A denomination can drift from God and His word, lose cohesion and simply collapse. History is replete with examples of such meteoric rise and demise. Fellowships which were once vibrant can cease to be, leaving behind nothing more than a deserted building and fading memories. Individuals, once keen to worship, hungry for God and insatiable in their appetite for His Word can, through time, grow cold and their lives merge into the world around them.

          Each generation in the church and in fellowships must learn the centrality of God’s word for Christian living. This time of anniversaries is a good time to take stock, and heed the warnings from Scripture and from history.

          Your minister

          Martin Thomson

 

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