Stand Firm

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(A sermon preached on Sunday 21st February 2016. The texts were Psalm 27, Luke 13:31-35 and Philippians 3:17-4:1)

You may have seen in the last week that the current presenter of Football Focus, Dan Walker, is going to be the replacement on BBC Breakfast when long standing host Bill Turnbull leaves. Until now, Dan was simply the most high-profile fan of Crawley Town FC and the inventor of the word “thronker” to describe a particularly hard hit goal.

However, media interest has been piqued with the news that he is also a Christian, something which seems to have led certain areas of the media to try to find some sort of odd or politically incorrect belief about him in order to create a storm.

And on 12th February, ironically also Darwin Day (celebrating the life and works of Charles Darwin), a spokeswoman for him confirmed that “Dan is a Christian who believes that God is behind creation.”

Cue the anticipated storm.

Note that this was all that was said about his beliefs, but some in the media went into meltdown at a man who believes that the Earth is only 10,000 years old and that fossils are hoaxes being given a job presenting the news.

Rupert Myers, a Christian himself, in the Telegraph said that

“Putting a creationist at the helm of news broadcasting without any explanation as to what the BBC has done to ensure that creationism or the beliefs underpinning it will not form any aspect of the show’s output is an affront to reason, science and logic.”

Catherine Bennett in the Guardian even suggested that his belief that, as he once said

“I firmly believe that God has a plan for me to progress in the industry,”

quoting 1 Samuel 2:30: “Those who honour me I will honour.”

makes him “difficult to trust”.

Now, I am not preaching on the true meaning behind the creation story in Genesis 1 this morning, but I will say that, just because someone is a creationist it doesn’t necessarily mean they subscribe to the literal 7 day and/or young earth theories. Creationism is simply the belief that God created the Universe and includes a range of theories which includes him being behind the Big Bang and evolution. As young earth creationism goes against modern scientific evidence it makes the juiciest, most sensational story, regardless of whether Dan Walker has ever believed in it.

However, one thing which struck me more than anything in this story was the defence given by, of all groups, the National Secular Society. They have said that to disbar anyone from public life in any way due to religious belief is wrong. This is a wonderful thing to hear, and one I’m sure we all agree with.

They then go on so say that it’s fine, as long as Dan’s beliefs don’t affect the way he does his job.

My first reaction was of agreement. Then I actually put my brain into gear and thought about it. This is exactly what the world expects and wants of all Christians. You can believe whatever you want, as long as it doesn’t affect what you do, or say, or how you act. You can worship whoever you want to, just don’t shove it in my face.

We live in a society where tolerance reigns, but only if you keep your differences to yourself.

This is the kind of situation Paul was speaking into when he wrote to the Church in Philippi. He implores the believers there to follow his example and to “take note of the pattern we gave you”. He then talks of the “enemies of the cross of Christ”. Paul can see that the believers in the 1st Century were under attack; not a physical attack, but a spiritual and material one.

There are pressures all around, pressures to conform to the norms, pressures to take part in the same rituals as others, pressures to think, act and speak in the same way as everyone else, pressures to look to earthly things for their destiny.

It’s the same today. Believe what you want, but don’t let it show. Hide it, conceal it, deny it as it if is something to be ashamed of.

But we can’t do that! How can we when, as Paul says, our citizenship is in Heaven? How can we stay quietly when we have a saviour who can bring everything under his control?

Easily, as it turns out. I’m not sure about you, but when it comes to being different, standing up for my faith, putting myself out there as a Christian, ready to make a difference in this world… I’m pretty bad. I find myself so often allowing myself to be quiet, or conforming, so much so that I seem no different at all. And I doubt I’m the only one.

There’s a story of a young police officer was taking his final exam at Hendon Police College in North London, when he came to this question. It read: ‘You are on patrol in London when an explosion occurs in a gas main in a nearby street. On investigation, you find that a large hole has been blown in the footpath and there is an overturned van lying nearby. Inside the van there is a strong smell of alcohol. Both occupants, a man and a woman, are injured. You recognise the woman as the wife of your Chief Inspector, who is at present away on a conference in the USA. A passing motorist stops to offer you assistance and you realise that he is a man who is wanted for a series of violent armed robberies. Just at that moment, a man runs from a nearby house shouting that his wife is expecting a baby and that the shock of the explosion has made the birth imminent. Another man is crying for help, having been thrown into an adjacent canal by the explosion, and he cannot swim. Bearing in mind the provisions of the Mental Health Act, describe in a few words what actions you would take.’ The young officer thought for a moment, picked up his pen, and wrote these words: ‘I would take off my uniform and mingle with the crowd.’

This is how it feels to be a Christian sometimes. Such are those pressures to conform to the way the world wants us to be, that sometimes it just feels so much easier to take off our uniforms and mingle into the crowd. It’s tempting to just pack it all in and be who society wants us to be.

So, how do we “stand firm in the Lord”?

Well, I wish I had a simple, straightforward answer to that question, but I really don’t. I am, however, heartened by the Psalm we heard earlier. Here we see David speak of evil men advancing against him, of enemies and foes attacking him, of his family deserting him and oppression all around him.

Yet, he still finds hope. “My heart says of you ‘Seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, I will seek.”. He seeks God, he realises that, in a situation which seems hopeless, when he is under attack from all sides and it would seem that the best thing to do is to just give up, God is still his refuge and his strength. He keeps going, keeps moving forward, towards his goal, because he knows what is ahead of him and that God will give him the strength to carry on.

That is what we must do as well. God wants us to carry on, so he will always give us the strength to do so, to live how he wants. As it says in Proverbs 30:5 “Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.” That’s not to say we will be protected from ridicule or persecution, but the refuge he gives us is that safety in the knowledge that we will reach our goal, if we just stay with him.

Jesus said the same. Under threat of death from Herod, Jesus didn’t shy away, but he didn’t think for a second that he was physically safe.

“Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!”

He knew that, as he kept on doing what the Father willed, it would lead to his goal – his death on the cross. He knew that what he was doing would lead to his death, but he knew that he must press on today and tomorrow, because that goal that he spoke of isn’t just his death, but his resurrection and the victory over death and sin that we can all share in today.

And that is why we must press on today, and tomorrow, and the next and the next. Despite what the world tells us, despite what our own fears and instincts try to do to us, we must stand firm and stand out. Where we see injustice we must speak out, where others hate we must love, where sin invades we must fight back. It isn’t good enough for us to sit back, wringing our hands privately, we must engage and act. We are the hands and feet of God in this world, we need to do as he wants us to, regardless of any opposition or conflict.

Because our goal is for Christ to, as Paul said to the Philippians, transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. Any pain, both physical and mental, that we endure for standing up for the Gospel, all of it and not just those parts which are deemed acceptable by society, by letting it affect every single aspect of our lives, is fleeting compared to the eternity of God’s kingdom.

At the end of that Guardian piece on Dan Walker, Catherine Bennett says,

“If this is, as advertised, God’s plan, it needs work.”

Well, if a Christian being open about his faith and living it in the public sphere gets more of us talking about and doing the same thing, then I think God’s plan is doing just fine the way it is.

Gravitationally wave goodbye to Young Earth Creationism.

            

“We have detected gravitational waves. We did it,” 

These were the words of David Reitze, executive director of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Ligo), at a press conference in Washington, on one of, if not the most significant discovery in physics so far this century (Professor Higgs may choose to argue that point).

First things first; I don’t have the first clue what this means or why it’s so important. My physics studies finished in 1989, even then I only got a C grade and we didn’t touch any of the theoretical stuff.

However, I am aware that this brings us closer to understanding the origins of the universe and further validates the work of Albert Einstein; a man who my wife describes as “rather clever”. I am also aware that it gives greater proof to the generally accepted age of the universe, amongst the scientific community at least, of around 13.8 billion years.

This causes an issue for some within the religious community. At least, it causes an issue for creationists who take the age of the universe, from a literal reading of the Bible, to be around 10,000 years.

Well, you would think it would cause an issue. Then again…

 
 
Glossing over the complete lack of even the most basic understanding of evolutionary theory needed to make that point, this is not an isolated case and really paints a worrying picture of religion in general, and Christianity in particular. We are regularly accused by anti-theists as irrational, unthinking sheep, blindly accepting the myths of an ancient nomadic people who had no other way of explaining the world around them. Sadly, when views like this are espoused, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, it looks like the anti-theists have a good point.

The first chapter of Genesis is a truly wonderful piece of writing. From its first word, bereshit (בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית) – in the beginning, which is so different to other creation myths in that it doesn’t begin with a huge battle in the heavens for supremacy or a series of gods putting together their own little domains. Rather, it starts not at a beginning, but the beginning. It accepts, at the very outset, the idea of the beginning of everything; not just of “the heavens and the earth”, but the beginning of space and time themselves. That is a concept the scientific world is still getting to grips with, but the Bible’s first word not just accepts it, but assumes it.

Then the second word, Elohim (אֱלֹהִ֑ים) – God. In the beginning, God. Before plants, animals, matter, heavens and earth, He was. All that followed, in the 13.8 billion years since the beginning, was down to Him.

And that was because he bara (בָּרָ֣א) – created, the third word. This Hebrew word, bara, only appears in the Old Testament as a creative act of the ultimate creator. He created because it is what He does, from the beginning of everything. For the joy and the love of it.

Hashamayim ha’aretz (הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הָאָֽרֶץ׃) – the heavens and the earth. Not just these, though, this means so much more. Just as you say you’ve looked “high and low” when you’ve looked everywhere, or your marriage vows were “in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer” meaning at all times; the use of the extremes of the heavens and the earth means everything.

In th beginning, the very beginning of everything, God – the ultimate creator – created everything; everything that is, was or ever will be.

Now, this is amazing if you think of it being in a supernatural manner 10,000 years ago. However, how much more incredible, awe-inspiring and beautiful is it if you realise that He did this 13.8 billion years ago, using an infitessimally tiny piece of energy exploding and forming atoms and molecules and gases and dust and rocks and stars and black holes and quasars and gravitational waves and galaxies and planets and oceans and land and plants and clouds and animals and bacteria and fungi… and us?!

Because the Genesis story (the Greek name, by the way. The Hebrew name is Bereshit – In the beginning) is a myth. It is an illustration of the creation of everything by those who didn’t have the scientific knowledge to understand fully. But it is also a true story of who did it and why He did it. He did it because He does that, He creates and creates and creates… and He never stops.

But to deny the scientific discoveries and evidence is to deny how He did it, and is, therefore, to deny some of the most miraculous, wondrous aspects of a God who we cannot even hope to fully understand. In our arrogance we think that we can pigeonhole Him into stories and illustrations, but He breaks out of all the confines we try to put Him into. And He tries so hard to break us out of those same confines, but so many times we try to resist and to stay within our nice safe, comfortable stories.

But it’s not our story we are living, it’s His. And it’s is bigger, wider, deeper and much, much, much longer than we can ever fathom. Let’s all start living it.