Fight the power – Sermon: 29/05/2016

myth-bird-on-sign

This was a sermon I preached on Sunday 29 May 2016 at Zetland Church, Grangemouth. The lessons were 1 Kings 18:20-39 and Luke 7:1-10.

 

In 1961, in a basement at Yale University, psychologist Stanley Milgram carried out one of the most famous, and infamous, psychological experiments ever conducted. Inspired by the recent trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, as well as stories of guards carrying out atrocities due to “only following orders” he asked volunteers to read word pairs into a microphone to another volunteer in a different room. They would then read on word out and the person in the other room had to give the word it was paired with. If they got it wrong, the volunteer reading the words would press a button to administer an electric shock to the person in the other room. With every incorrect answer the voltage in the shock increased, finally reaching 450 volts.

What the volunteers administering the shock weren’t aware of was that the person they were shocking was actually an actor and no shock was actually being given. Milgram anticipated that just over 1/10% of the subjects would go so far as 450 volts, bearing in mind the screaming and pleading for mercy which would be heard from the actors in the next room. Amazingly, however, 65% actually went to the final shock, despite it being evident that they were killing the person in the next room. Many of the subjects displayed extreme stress and distress, but still carried on pressing the button at a wrong answer.

This experiment has been replicated, with similar results, on several occasions. In each experiment the reason for continuing was that they were being told to continue by a man in a white lab coat, holding a clip-board. They were obeying an authority figure. It shows how even ordinary people are prepared to commit inhuman acts when told to by those with authority.

Authority is an incredibly powerful thing. It can lead to people doing things they wouldn’t normally consider or dream of. It can be used, as the Nazis discovered and as Stanley Milgram demonstrated, as a tool for evil destruction. In the wrong hands, authority is dangerous and to be challenged and mistrusted. Even in the right hands, because it is in the hands of mere human beings it can still be misused or badly misguided.

Challenging authority is a necessity. History is laden with tales of ordinary men and women who fought against the powers of the time, even against the prevalent views of the time, in order to defeat evil and injustice, often putting their lives on the line for such actions. The Peasants’ Revolt, the anti-slave trade movement, the Suffragettes and many others either directly or indirectly brought about social and political change for the better by rising up against the authority of the day and saying “this is wrong”.

Elijah was such a man. He was a hunted man whose life was at risk from the Baal-worshipping king of Israel, Ahab. However, he had returned and presented himself before Ahab in an extreme act of defiance and faith in God. This one man, the only prophet left of the Lord of Israel, challenged the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal to demonstrate the power of their god.

On the face of it this seemed like utter madness. Not only could the king and his men just take Elijah, but to the people of Israel who were watching this unfold he was also trying to overcome insurmountable odds. Surely the prophetic action of the 450 worshipping Baal was so much more powerful than this one man invoking the name of a deity who, they thought, was on his way to being consigned to the history books.

But Elijah knew he was right. He knew that standing up to the earthly powers that be was nothing to fear if he had the ultimate power guiding him every step of the way. And, of course, so it proved. The altar to Baal remained intact whilst the altar Elijah built, and had doused in water, burned brightly. The onlookers could see who the true God really was and immediately started worshipping him.

One man, listening to God and allowing himself to be guided by him, stood up to all the power and might Ahab and the prophets could muster and he prevailed. That God-given certainty in his actions gave him the strength to challenge the authority of the time and, in doing so, allowed God to change an evil, Godless society into a righteous, God-fearing one once again.

We stand at the brink of the same precipice which Elijah stood at on top of Mount Carmel. How often have you watched the news or looked on the streets or heard stories from friends and family and thought “this is wrong!”? How many times have you said to yourself that you wish you could do something, but you don’t really think you can make a difference? How often have you wanted things to change so badly, knowing that they are far from God’s intentions for his creation, but just feel that fighting big industry, or the media, or government, or even society itself is just too difficult, too much of an impossible task?

Imagine what would have happened had Elijah had those same moments of doubt, of insecurity, of hoplessness. Of course, he may well have done. But he didn’t allow himself to be overwhelmed by them. He didn’t let figures of authority, who were clearly in the wrong, dictate his actions in the way those who took part in the Milgram Experiment did. He stood up and let himself be counted. He listened to the voice of God talking to him and acted in the way in which he knew he had to, with little or no regard for the consequences this may have for him. As the line said in the intro to the 80s TV series Knightrider, one man can make a difference.

We are called to be Elijah. We live in a world no less broken than the one he found himself in all those centuries ago and God is calling us to stand up against it.

There is a song by the theologian and former songwriter Vicky Beeching which encapsulates what I mean by this. It’s called Break Our Hearts and some of the lyrics are as follows:

“It’s time for us to live the songs we sing

And turn our good intentions into action

To bring the kind of worship You desire

And move beyond our self-absorbed distractions

 

It’s time to move outside our comfort zone

To see beyond our churches and our homes

To change the way we think and how we spend

Until we look like Jesus again

 

Break our hearts

With the things that break Yours

Wake us up to see through Your eyes

Break our hearts

With the things that break Yours

And send us out to shine in the darkness

 

Here I am send me

To be Your hands and feet

Here I am send me I will go”

 

This needs to be our own prayer as we go out into the world, for God to break our hearts for the things that break his and for us to allow ourselves to be changed and moved to action as a result of it.

And, in challenging earthly authority, we need to submit to real authority. The Roman Centurion Luke wrote about recognised this authority when he sent his men to speak to Jesus. This was a man whose entire life revolved around following those in authority or exercising authority over others, so for him to realise that Jesus would simply be able to say the word and his servant would be healed, from a distance, was remarkable. Jesus himself was struck by the level of faith demonstrated by this gentile and holds him up to the crowd as an example of what faith should look like.

This is the same example being held up to us today. To recognise real authority, through Jesus Christ, and to allow ourselves to be led and changed by it, even if that means acting against the earthly authorities around us.

Ultimately, we are God’s hands and feet in this world. Scripture, prayer and the Holy Spirit all lead us to his will and we need to look at our world through the prism of all three of them to see it through his eyes. When we do that, we can have no other reaction than to stand up and, with his help and guidance, to change it.

What do we want…

ME_113_Patience

“Why is patience so important?”
“Because it makes us pay attention.”
Paulo Coelho

On Monday I had my final exam of the academic year, a 90 minute paper on the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. it’s been, as you may expect, very hard work, the language and some of the stories are very difficult for a 21st century mind to grasp. However, it was also very interesting work to look back at the stories, culture and religion of a Middle-Eastern tribal people from around 3-4000 years ago, which so massively influences the lives of many people today.

A great deal of the course centred around a quote from the theologian David Clines,

“The theme of the Pentateuch is the partial fulfilment – which implies also the partial non-fulfilment – of the promise to or blessing of the patriarchs. The promise or blessing is both the divine initiative in a world where human initiatives always lead to disaster, and a reaffirmation of the primal divine intentions for man.” (David JA Clines (1997) The Theme of the Pentateuch, Sheffield – JSOT Press)

The gist of this is that God created the world with a specific intention, but humanity screwed up royally and let sin into the world. God met this sin with judgement at every turn, but also demonstrated grace towards humanity at the same time. This happens over and over, not only throughout the Pentateuch, but throughout human history.

The question I had in the exam regarding this was to to with what is known as the “primeval history”; the first 11 chapters of Genesis from creation and Eden, through the Fall, the Flood, and culminating with the Tower of Babel.

The answer I wrote (which I really hope was right/good enough!) was that this pattern of sin, judgement and grace is repeated several times in the primeval history:

  • God creates the heavens and the earth, tells the first man and woman they can eat any fruit, except from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, or they will die. They eat it anyway, but the punishment is banishment from paradise and separation from God; death will be over 900 years away.
  • Cain, upset at God favouring Abel’s offering over his, kills his brother. Again, the punishment is banishment, rather than death. And God puts a mark on Cain to show he is not to be harmed.
  • Humanity goes totally off the rails in a way which means God decides to wipe them out and start again. But, he saves humanity again in the form of Noah and his family, even going so far as promising never to do something so drastic as the flood again.

Sin, judgement, grace. Over and over again.

Then the people of Babel decide they want to be like God by building a tower so high that it signifies an attack on Heaven itself. Again the judgement comes, the people’s language is confused and muddled. They are scattered across the world. Humanity’s unity is gone.

And the grace? Well, nowhere. Nothing. It looks like God has finally given up.

Of course, he hadn’t. He brings Abraham, followed by his descendants, to a promised land (via Egypt) with the promise that “all nations on earth will be blessed”.

Obviously my answer was a bit longer than that, this was just an overview. It came back into my mind with a couple of other things this week, though.

Firstly, I read an excellent article in Christianity Magazine by Jamie Cutteridge about the need for instant gratification in the age of the Internet, smartphones, tablets etc. We have become an impatient generation; What do we want? Everything! When do we want it? Now!

Secondly was the preparation for the festival which some colloquially call “the birthday of the Church”, Pentecost. The disciples, having come back from the brink following Jesus’ crucifixion and galvanised by his resurrection, face more uncertainty as he ascends into Heaven, leaving them by themselves again.

However, Jesus promised that he would send the Holy Spirit to them and, on the day of Pentecost, that promise is fulfilled,

Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,[b] Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome(both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs – we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!’”

(Acts 2:1-11 NIVUK)

These fishermen, tax collectors and serial Messiah followers, none highly-educated, can suddenly speak different languages, proclaiming the Gospel to Jews from all over the region.

Finally! God promised land, he promised nations, he promised he would be the God of Abraham’s people and he promised that they would be a blessing to all nations. And here, with sin already being defeated on the cross, we see a reversal of the events at Babel. The unity of humanity is back once more, a mere 1500 or so years after the people were scattered.

And that’s the point I realised. The events of Pentecost are a reversal of the judgement at Babel, something made possible by the events weeks earlier on the first Easter. But that reversal wasn’t a quick process, it took centuries after the initial judgement for humanity to be in a position for them to be ready for this.

That’s a difficult message for us to hear in an age when our news, music, food and coffee need to be instant. Yes, we need to wait and sometimes the answer to prayer is “not now”. But sometimes, “not now” means “not in your lifetime”, or “not in your children’s lifetimes” or “not for many, many generations”. How on earth are we expected to take that when we can’t even accept a YouTube video buffering for 5 seconds?

Well, I don’t have a quick fix for that. It would miss the point by a mile if I did, obviously. My patience is appalling and this need to wait on God challenges me all the time. But I do have examples to look back on to see how to cope with it. When I read Genesis I read stories of the patriarchs, especially of Abraham and Jacob, who sometimes displayed a lack of patience and decided to take things into their own hands (which didn’t go too well for them), and also displayed real patience and faith in God, waiting for the fulfilment of a promise they knew would not happen in their lifetime.

The times they coped with the long wait was when they were nearer to God, speaking to him and listening to him. That assurance they got from his presence allowed them to keep that patience because they knew that God would make good on his promise.

At Pentecost, we remember that God is closer to us than ever, since the Holy Spirit was sent to the disciples and continues to work in us today. This divine presence strengthens us and focuses us on God’s will, not ours. But it can also help us to galvanise our faith that God will do what he promised; to bless all the nations and to redeem his people.

Ok, it may take another 1500 years, or more, before it’s fully realised. It may take decades or centuries for the fruit of our own work to bloom.

But what’s a few hundred years compared to an eternity?