February 2016

Discomfort of discipleship

            Being a Christian in the UK today can be deeply uncomfortable.

            Prior to Christmas, many Christians were objecting to a play being performed in Belfast that depicted Jesus as the transgender Queen of heaven. The play was described as a re-imagining of Gospel stories, from the perspective of Jesus as a transgender woman. As far as I could discern from reports, the objections from those who found this offensive were ridiculed and belittled, and largely equated with bigotry.

            At the same time, a Church of England-sponsored advert featuring the Lordís Prayer was banned from cinemas, on the pretext that it might offend those of other faiths or none. The 56-second advert depicts schoolchildren, a farmer and a policeman speaking lines from the Lordís Prayer, and ends with the message ďPrayer is for everyoneĒ. The intention was to have the advert screened prior to the new Star Wars movie, as a lead-up to Christmas. Wonderfully, because of the publicity surrounding its banning, hundreds of thousands watched it online anyway

            Being a Christian in the UK these days can be deeply uncomfortable.

            Early in December a report was published by the Commission on Belief and Religion in Public Life, chaired by Baroness Butler-Sloss, that affirmed that Britain was no longer a ĎChristian countryí and should stop acting as if it was. It says that the decline of churchgoing and the rise of Islam and other faiths mean that a "new settlement" is needed for religion in the UK, giving more official influence to non-religious voices and those of non-Christian faiths.

            Being a Christian in Britain is not without its struggles and disappointments. We live in a society that can seem increasingly hostile and surrounded by churches that are increasingly confused (think of the Church of Scotlandís contradictory stance on matters related to sexuality and marriage)

            Being a Christian in the UK these days can be deeply uncomfortable.

 

            Why are we surprised?

            Many of the New Testament letters were written to Christians who were under pressure, feeling the heat of discrimination, the pain of misrepresentation or the horror of persecution, and at the same time having to be doctrinally corrected, lest they fall into believing the wrong things or behaving inconsistently with the Gospel. Engagement with the world around them could be uncomfortable and church life was messy. Tíwas ever thus!

 

            Let me give you an example from the Old Testament. The Book of 1 Kings traces a remarkable decline in the people of God, from the high point and glory days of David and Solomon to the darkness and paganism of the time of King Ahab. This decline took about a century, which is all it takes in our own day. One generation has the Gospel but does not have the power of the Gospel. The next generation has the form of the Gospel but not the heart for the Gospel and the next generation again despises what they see as hypocrisy and rejects the Gospel altogether.

            When the Gospel has been present, and is then despised, people turn to paganism. Instead of people made in the image of God and worshipping the God who made them, they turn away from the Creator and to the created. They live for things. They exist for the material. They seek a religion which is convenient and comes with no moral challenge. You end up with the absurdity of people marching to save the planet but also marching for the right to abort babies in their hundreds of thousands.

            Back to 1 Kings: Elijah has the task of living in such an authentic way that he is to give the lie to paganism. In that sense, he is like you and like me. We are called, by the quality of our Christian lives, to expose the emptiness of the paganism around us, and show the power of the Gospel to transform and bless. Elijah was called to bring Godís word to the people of Israel (the visible people of God) at a time when the nation had been flooded with violent paganism in the form of Baal worship (a kind of nature religion). The nation, under King Ahab and his ghastly queen Jezebel, had plunged headlong into moral and spiritual darkness. Jezebel was steeped in Baal worship, and she hated all that Elijah, and those like him, represented.

            At a time when Elijah was in grave danger, he was protected by God and provided with the basic necessities of life in the midst of a drought. He was taken to a brook and provided for by the ravens.

            Then God gave him a new commission. God sent him to a place called Zarephath. Zarephath was about 8 miles south of Sidon and 13 miles north of Tyre. That places it in the heart of Jezebelís home country. In other words it is Baal country. It was bad enough to be in Israel when Baal worship had been introduced, but here Elijah is sent to the very heart of Baal worship itself, the very land of the Baal.

            Can you begin to see how Elijah would be stretched by this in his understanding of who God is, and in his trust in God? This was about as uncomfortable a place to be as could be imagined. As God had sustained the prophet through his confrontation with Ahab and the subsequent drought, Elijah had shown that he trusted Godís promises and was prepared to live by them. He had also experienced how God was Lord over nature and could send the ravens to sustain him miraculously. But now he was going to learn that God was also the Lord over all the universe, even Lord in the very place where Baal seemed supreme.

            This surely demonstrates the truth of Psalm 23:

            ĎYou prepare a table before me

            in the presence of my enemies

 

            Being a Christian in the UK today can be deeply uncomfortable. But we were never promised comfort. We are promised that God is with His people and often He calls us to be His witnesses in the midst of the discomfort. He remains Lord of all! Even in Scotland. Even in the Church of Scotland!

            Donít expect discipleship to be a dawdle!

            Donít waste time and energy moaning about the ills of society or the failures of the church.

            Buckle up! There is a Gospel to share, and opportunities to share it and demonstrate its power. Letís not miss or squander those opportunities whilst we have them.

            Your minister

 

            Martin Thomson

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