(Earthquake, Central Italy, 2017)
Everything around us seems to be shaking. A few weeks ago we read of a devastating earthquake in Indonesia, a week ago of a 7.3 quake in Venezuela which saw buildings sway and people pour on to the streets. Here in my own country, South Africa, we have physical and other shakings: sinkholes (due to mining) in built-up areas; a staggering economy due to ‘state capture’ and ten years of gross financial corruption; polarising right-wingers and left-wingers, drowning out the voices of reason and solidarity; criminal violence with some fifty seven murders every day (News 24, 11/09/18); etc.
And what about people’s personal lives? Stress levels are soaring, marriages dissolving among ‘Christians’ at a faster rate than non-believers,’ etc. Everyone of us has a story to tell. A few days ago my wife and I listened to a senior pastor in our city tell us of his early church-plant successes and feeling like a rock-star; the next moment he and his young family hit rock-bottom when dad found their two-year old son dead in bed one morning, cause of death unknown. I’ve been involved with a poor, township school for a decade or more – a few weeks ago I officiated at the funeral of a twelve-year old boy who died within hours of a suspected fit/stroke, leaving the young parents devastated.
It’s not much better in the ‘Church world,’ is it?
- Top leaders, Protestant and Roman Catholic have succumbed to immorality, pedophilia, financial greed and power trips.
- In 2015 already American sociologist Josh Packard called attention to the 32 million ‘dones’ in the USA – those done with ‘church as we know it.’ They have left their institutional congregations not because of a lack of commitment but for personal survival, despairing of real change in their local churches. Many of them are younger members, at the other end of the scale I ‘bailed’ after thirty-eight years of ‘successful’ denominational pastoring.
- Further back, in 2008, George Barna (American church statistician) and Frank Viola co-authored Pagan Christianity, based on detailed research. They concluded that much of Church belief and practice has been based on pagan tradition (especially post-300 AD) rather than biblical teaching. It caused a huge stir, shifted some church leaders (including myself) and yet by and large the Church in the West continues to stumble on the same old path. I know of pastors in my city who read the book, paused, and then simply continued with their mega-church merry-go-round. It seems that most pastors are just not willing to pay the price, for popular, self-propagating and economic reasons.
- A week ago theologian Scot McKnight referenced a N. American survey finding that 50% plus of Protestants prefer to ‘worship’ with people who share their political views, the remainder believing they already do so. Pathetic! Unity and diversity are surely not in opposition? And how can we restrict ‘worship’ to what Christians do on Sunday mornings, isn’t it a 24/7 lifestyle in union with the risen Christ?
Where do we turn for sanity and stability? Hebrews 12:25-28 may be a good place. The unknown author is exhorting scattered believers under pressure of Roman persecution and on the other hand Jewish religionists, punting a deadly ‘Jesus plus’ message (‘God is enough. That is the root of peace. When we start seeking something besides Him, we lose it’ – Brennan Manning). Their faith was being shaken. Our text provides four key-pointers in such times of shaking:
- Listen to Jesus. V. 25, “Be careful that you do not refuse to listen to the One who is speaking. For if the people of Israel did not escape when they refused to listen to Moses, the earthly messenger, we will certainly not escape if we reject the One who speaks to us from heaven! When God spoke from Mount Sinai his voice shook the earth, but now he makes another promise: ‘Once again I will shake not only the earth but the heavens also.’ This means that all of creation will be shaken and removed, so that only unshakable things will remain.” Cf. Heb. ch. 1 & 2:3, ‘So what makes us think that we will escape if we ignore this great salvation that was first announced by the Lord Jesus himself and then delivered to us by those who heard him speak?’ We must listen to God in the Bible, in creation, in the Cross and in our personal circumstances. C.S. Lewis warned of God’s megaphone of pain when ignoring the whispers of his love.
- Run into his unshakable kingdom. The ‘gospel of the kingdom’ (see 1** below) is infinitely more than personal salvation and a ticket to heaven. It calls us to repent concerning Jesus and bow to his lordship, participating in God’s great purpose of summing up all things in his Son. His kingdom is the only thing that stands firm when all is shaking: v. 27, ‘we are receiving a Kingdom that is unshakable…’ The apostle Paul says that kingdom is built on a solid foundation: 1 Cor. 3:10-11, ‘Because of God’s grace to me, I have laid the foundation like an expert builder. Now others are building on it. But whoever is building on this foundation must be very careful. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already we have – Jesus Christ.’ Ps. 46 chants ‘God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. So we will not fear when earthquakes come and the mountains crumble into the sea… The LORD of Heaven’s Armies is here among us; the God of Israel is our fortress…’
- Give thanks to the Lord. V. 28, ‘let us be thankful…’ For what? We could begin with the overall theme of Hebrews, i.e. the magnificent supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus as revealer of God and mediator on the Cross. We could continue with the glorious praise hymns of Eph. 1-3, Col. 1-2 and Phil. 2:5-11. We could thank God for the purifying effect of our circumstances (1 Pet. 1:3-12). Those of us who are older can use the phrase ‘I get to’ to get up in the morning, make breakfast, embrace a new day and serve King Jesus in my family and society.
- Worship him. V. 28-29, ‘please God by worshiping him with holy fear and awe. For our God is a devouring fire!’ Yes, He’s the devouring fire of majesty and holiness and white-hot love. Bede Griffiths wrote, ‘The love of God is not a mild benevolence but a consuming fire.’ I love G.K. Chesterton and Brennan Manning’s phrase, ‘the furious love of God’ which pursues us no matter what. See 2 ** below.
Amid temptations to materialism, immorality, strange fire and other upheavals of all kinds, there is one great constant and solution to the shakings of our world, 13:8, ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.’ Why not, right now sing/pray the old hymn, ‘What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear…’ Put your sweaty palm in his cool hand, walk the road with Christ within, ‘the hope of glory’ (Col. 1:27). Star 20th century theologian, Karl Barth, wrote, ‘I am not certain about my uncertainty; I do not believe in my own faith; rather I believe in that which God has done in Christ. This is the great wonder, namely, that I am permitted to believe in something that stands high above me, something that came from God to me, never something that I have in my pocket. I can orientate myself always and only on the cross on Golgotha.’ Praise our mighty God!
- ** I love Frank Viola’s simple definition of ‘the gospel of the kingdom’: ‘The gospel of the kingdom is the good news about the universal kingship of Jesus of Nazareth in the earth.’ (Insurgence)
- ** Brennan Manning, ‘I have a word for you. I know your whole life story. I know every skeleton in your closet. I know every moment of sin, shame, dishonesty and degraded love that has darkened your past. Right now I know your shallow faith, your feeble prayer life, your inconsistent discipleship. And my word is this: I dare you to trust that I love you just as you are, and not as you should be. Because you’re never going to be as you should be.’ (Manning was an American RC priest who served in many places, left the priesthood, got married and then divorced, and spent the rest of his days as a recovering alcoholic and mentor of many who could identify with his vulnerability)