I received this angry comment on my blog the other day from, let’s call him George.
“So you say G-D loves us. Easy to say. I have read your articles and yip, sounds great. I used to believe and I was a reborn christian. Then life happened. G-D cares right????? If HE cares so much then I can do without his caring. Free will sucks. You know why? Because you screw up and G-D just does nothing about it. Please do not patronise me wth passages. I know those passages. Hell, even satan knows the bible. Prayers also go unanswered. HE cares right???? Bulls*t !!!!!!!!!!!! I just thought that I would let you know how I feel and to prove that your (my) name can be erased from the book of life. Do not give me the cr*p about once saved always saved. I am living proof of that. I tried to email you but could not find your email address, so go ahead and post this and let all the “blessed folks” share their 2cents worth.”
What happened? Why is he so angry?
ISOLATED AND INSULATED
The problem for most of us who have spent all our lives in the Church and who have found our friends and our interests here, is that we are isolated and even insulated from people outside the Church. Oh, we go to work or school and we mix with non-Christians there. But most of our colleagues know we don’t do the stuff they spend their time and energy on, so they change the subject when we’re around. They sanitise the conversation for us or we ourselves walk away.
So even at work or school we are protected by our Church armour as it were. Yet there are plenty of people out there who feel just as George feels. Yes, he messed up, but surely someone should have been there to warn him, to catch him? Loved ones die or abandon you and you begin to feel angry. The ruthless killing in North Africa and Bahrain, the devastation in Japan and Christchurch; you don’t come through those things unscathed. There are plenty of angry people around: people angry with God, angry with the world, or just plain angry. And the pious sayings we sprinkle around don’t help at all; to say nothing of the mad ranting of arrogant Christians who tell the world that these things are God’s judgement and we should listen or be condemned. Now that’s going to calm the anger nicely, isn’t it?
So, what do we say to George and others like him? And, whatever we say, is he going to hear us, or even bother to listen?
When Abram heard God saying to him, “Leave your country, your relatives, and your father’s home, and go to a land that I am going to show you” (Genesis 12:1), it was pretty scary.
“What? You’re going to dump me in a land of pagans who have no respect for God and no respect for my traditions? For goodness sake, they’re not even going to know who I am! When I get into a tight spot, I won’t be able to say, ‘But you know my father.’ They’ll just say, ‘No?’”
TO BE A BLESSING
But the point of God’s call to Abram was not just to take him out of his comfort zone, to test his faith, or to give him a hard time. It was so that Abram would be a blessing; that Abram would make a difference; that Abram would not be normal and fit in, but that he would become better than normal. And the fact that he wouldn’t fit in would point to a new way and to new possibilities. It would provide hope when hopelessness has overwhelmed everything else, peace in the midst of violence, forgiveness in an unforgiving world, grace in a world hell-bent on revenge.
“I will bless you and make your name famous, so that you will be a blessing…. And through you I will bless all the nations.” (vs 2-3)
LEAST LIKELY TO SUCCEED
Now that’s all very well, but we might have wanted to point out to God that this project really didn’t have much hope of success. I mean if this was part of a high school line up, then this is the one you’d write underneath, “Least likely to succeed.” This is a long-term project (it took 25 years just to get off the ground) involving one man and his descendants, but you’re starting the process with a 75 year-old man whose wife can’t have children? It just doesn’t sound like a winner. Perhaps we should choose a different couple.
But that’s how God works isn’t it? He chooses the least likely candidates: Moses, David, Esther, Peter, Paul, you, me…. “Least likely to succeed.” That’s how God works, because this isn’t about what we can do for God or for the world; it’s about what God can do for us and through us.
Having chosen Abram, God says to him, “I’m going to use you to bless all the nations, but I can’t do that while you’re sitting up there in Haran, in your father’s house. I need you out of there.”
Jesus said in John 3:3, “You must be born again”, and some have suggested that God’s challenge to Abram was a divine ‘push’; spirit-induced contractions, if you like, for Abram and Sarai’s new birth.
ABRAM BELIEVED GOD
Paul tells us that God chose Abram, God marked Abram out as righteous, (a man after my own heart,” is how God described David) not because of anything Abram did or promised to do. “Abraham believed God (Paul writes), and because of his faith God accepted him as righteous.” (Romans 4:3)
What does it mean that Abram “believed”?
The Message puts it: “He trusted God to set him right instead of trying to be right on his own.”
A NEW BIRTH
God rejoiced, not because Abram obeyed God, but because he trusted God. It meant a whole new way of looking at the world, a new birth. It meant that safety and security were not as important as God’s programme; the known and the familiar were not as important as the new pathways God had in mind. Blessing the world became much more significant than blessing himself. Although that took another 25 years to get right. Abram’s sense of self-preservation ran deep. But he got there in the end, and God kept both Abram and Sarai safe.
Abram believed that his future (and the future of the world) belonged with God, nowhere else and with no one else. He may have slipped here and there putting it into practice, but that was his mission, and ultimately, his (and our) salvation.
Fast forward a couple of thousand years and Nicodemus makes a night-time appointment with Jesus. He said to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher sent by God. No one could perform the miracles you are doing unless God were with him.” To which Jesus replied, “I am telling you the truth: no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.”
Now that wasn’t exactly a reply, was it? Nicodemus was getting the conversation going with a compliment; accepting that God was somehow in the work that Jesus was doing. But Jesus wasn’t interested. He got straight to the point. “You can’t see God at work in me or in the world, you can’t see God’s kingdom, you won’t have a part in God’s story, unless you are born again.”
START ALL OVER AGAIN
Now we’ve heard this ‘born again’ phrase all our lives, often used more arrogantly than it should be, so we tend to miss the impact of it. For Nicodemus, hearing it for the first time, it was pretty radical. Jesus says, you can’t get into favour with God unless you start all over again, from the beginning, rebirth.
No wonder Nicodemus was confused. “You mean, unless I climb back into my mother’s womb and start all over again I can’t become part of God’s family. That’s a bit rough!”
“No, Nicodemus. You’re a bit slow here; and I thought you were a spiritual leader,” Jesus told him. “Your natural birth brought you into this physical world; if you want to be part of God’s kingdom, then the process is just as radical; a spiritual birth. You can’t walk into God’s kingdom with all the baggage from your earthly existence: the good, the bad or the ugly. Nothing you have done, nothing you have achieved, nothing you have, will get you into God’s kingdom. It’s a whole new world. It’s like the wind,” Jesus went on. “You hear it, but you can’t see it. You don’t know where it’s been or where it’s going next. The way of the Spirit is the same. It’s so radically different from anything you have experienced.”
OUTSIDE THESE WALLS
So, my friends, just as Abram’s new birth meant being blown out of his father’s house in Haran to wherever the Spirit had in mind, so God says to you and me, “I can’t use you to bless all the nations, or even bless the people of Pietermaritzburg, while you are gathered together here, safe inside these four walls, secure within your fellowship groups. I need you to be my people outside these walls.”
THE CHURCH GATHERED
Peter Houston has been writing a series of articles on his blog about the church gathered and the church scattered.
The church gathered is you and me here tonight: God’s people gathered together doing what church people tend to do best. Where we each have our roles to play and we generally know what’s coming next.
THE CHURCH SCATTERED
The church scattered is what happens when we each go our separate ways between church services; when we each do what we do best in our homes and in our places of work or school. And that, Pete says, is just as much the church as this is.
It’s good to be the church here, together, encouraging and ministering to each other. But if this is all we do, we won’t even meet, let alone have a chance to engage, the George’s out there.
Most of the time, and for most of us, it is the Church gathered that gets all the attention. “We’re going to church.” “Come to church with us.” “The church needs repairing.” And here we have designated roles. The minister gets to do most of the work along with a few others who have been set aside for various tasks. The rest of us are content to watch and listen and (mostly) do as we’re told. We’re happy to be co-opted for this and that but for the most part we are passive observers; or, at best, we are active participants in someone else’s show. But still, we feel more Christian here, gathered together, than we do out there in the world.
We feel apologetic about what we do Monday to Friday, as if it is less Christian than what we do when we are the gathered people of God. We seem to think that it’s only when we are praying or reading the Bible or singing Christian songs, that we are truly the church.
Sad to say, but this (the gathered church) is all that people out there know of us. That’s what worried George. He wanted to email me because, if his comment went up on the internet, all the “Blessed folk” would have their say; from the safety of the gathered Church, we would speak pious words into his life without attempting to engage him.
I have to ask, is that all we do? Or rather, is that all we are known for? Pious pronouncements from a safe distance?
Living as the scattered church is a gift of grace—God’s gift blessing the world. It means getting alongside the George’s in our lives and walking with them—without words, because words too often become barriers between us.
FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD
“For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life. (17) For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its saviour.” (John 3:1-17)
Or as The Message puts verse 17: “God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.”
God loves the world, not because the world (you and I) were ready to be loved or even wanted to be loved; God loves, and God loves extravagantly. And he invites us into his kingdom to love the same way. But you and I can’t possibly love like that. You have to be born into it. It has to be part of your make up, in your genes. That’s why Jesus says to us, be born again; let the Spirit bring you to a new birth.
It means putting on the righteousness of God, rather than the self-righteous cloak that divides us from people; being born again into the unknown, born into a different way of responding to people; a different way of listening; a different way of looking for Jesus in people and places we don’t usually expect to find him; trusting God enough to keep going wherever God leads.
It means being unwilling to live normal lives but, rather, in God’s name, to be better than normal in an angry and fear-filled world.
Someone said, “If we start letting the wind of the Spirit blow through our souls, our church, our families, who knows what might be blown out and what might blow in?” (Alyce McKenzie)
John van de Laar’s prayer, “Born yet again”.
[This sermon was preached at Prestbury Methodist Church on 20 March 2011]
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