Did you know that over 600 verses in the Bible refer to heaven, more than 500 mention prayer, less than 500 relate to faith, around 50 speak of hell, yet there are more than 2,000 passages which talk about handling money?
So good stewardship is a major theme throughout the Bible.
A week ago at our quarterly church meeting, we made some important decisions that will affect the future mission and ministries of Hobart Baptist Church. One of them concerned the formation of a project team to explore how we can make our church more accessible to new people. This initiative came from a special assignment I gave a new family when they joined us earlier this year.
I asked them to document what it was like for a young family to enter into the life of Hobart Baptist Church for the first time.
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Recently I have been leading a men’s discussion group studying a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas.
Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pastor who spoke out against the political developments in his country in the 1930s. He saw grave danger in the rise of Führer cult which merged the two Nazi ideals of a militarized state and a utopian world base on the Aryan “super race”. The joining of these forces resulted in a world war with the death of millions, the Jewish holocaust, and the devastation of a continent.
In the years before the Third Reich gained ultimate power, Bonhoeffer saw the magnitude of the threat long before others. He spoke up with courage, becoming being ridiculed even amongst church colleagues. When he dared question Hitler’s assurances, he was painted an alarmist. In response he wrote, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
The eighth of May this year was the 70th year anniversary of the surrender of Germany which ended World War II in Europe. While the world has seen progress in many areas since, wars continue to rage across the world. No matter where they are, nations still engage in conflicts and remain vulnerable to rule by totalitarian administrations.
Even in Australia there is evidence of totalitarian tendencies. Read more >>>
At the Tasmanian Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast last week I had the opportunity to provide a short introduction to this annual event. I thought you might like to read a transcript of my speech as many attendees were very encouraged by what I said:
As we gather in the name and spirit of Jesus of Nazareth, we do so in the midst of great cultural turmoil. Within our community are forces at work endeavouring to overturn century-old norms and practices around key moments in life – at birth, marriage, and death. I speak, of course, about abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia.
In that maelstrom of competing voices and visions of the future, many find the very notion of a ‘prayer’ breakfast somewhat strange, antiquated and even dangerous.
Despite the place Christianity has played in Australia’s history, and despite its ongoing contributions, to call oneself a Christian in Australia today invites responses of curiosity, condescension and cool dismissal. Christians are often painted as intolerant, naive, superstitious, and even backward. It is not uncommon to hear Christians put down, not only in casual conversation, but across social and mainstream media.
This caricature, I suggest, is quite false. It falls a long way short of many Christians who join with others to care for millions of Australians in homeless shelters, refuges, aged care facilities, disability services, soup kitchens, detox facilities etc. The contrast between them and the Christianity portrayed is quite striking.
But why? Why such a contrast?
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In a series of messages on revival the great Welsh preacher-teacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones turned to the end of Mark 9.
Here Jesus comes off the mountain to find the disciples unsuccessfully trying to free a boy from a demon. After a quick rebuke, Jesus heals the boy and the disciples ask why they couldn’t do it. Jesus explains how this kind is only expelled by prayer. Lloyd-Jones suggested Jesus used this incident to teach his disciples a lesson: the ordinary, business-as-usual way of doing things, no longer worked. Different times calls for different measures.
Using the story as an allegory, Lloyd-Jones suggested the boy represents contemporary Western culture; the demon is its underlying assumptions, and the disciples are the church. His conclusion was that our past methods of evangelism, while perfectly good for their time, no longer worked in today’s world. The world had changed. The old methods no longer applied. We are dealing with a different, difficult ‘spirit’.
Although the Lloyd-Jones’ message was given in 1959, it is still relevant today.
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It was the Christian German philosopher Georg Hegel (1770-1831) who wrote, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” It’s a brilliant paradoxical statement that contains two seemingly contradictory statements: we learn from history and we do not learn from history.
Which is true? Well, actually, both. That’s the nature of paradox. It is a statement that consists of two truths laid side by side that appear self-contradictory or even absurd. Yet the statement itself is ultimately true.
The Christian life is a life of paradox because there is much that is wonderfully mysterious about God. And a paradox is profound way of communicating that mystery.
Jesus said, “All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11) Paul wrote, “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Now, how can you be humbled and exalted at the same time? And how can Paul be weak and strong at the same time? Don’t they cancel each other out?
It’s the nature of paradoxes that when two true statements that contradict each other are combined the result is not a contradiction. Rather, in putting them together an even deeper truth is revealed. As physicist Neils Bohr affirmed, “The opposite of a true statement is a false statement, but the opposite of a profound truth can be another profound truth.”
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Malcolm Muggeridge once asked, how do you boil a frog? His answer was not to drop it into a pot of hot water, as it will immediately jump out. Rather, you place it in a pot of cool water and gradually raise the temperature. Then the frog will remain in the increasingly hot water and die without even noticing.
Some suggest this is a good illustration of the church across the Western world. The world we live in has gradually changed and we have been caught unaware, and now, the situation is quite perilous.
Across the media the church is often portrayed as irrelevant in contemporary Australian society. Christian views are seen as relics of a bygone era, out of step with the community and even downright dangerous to the future.
That the majority of Australians still tick the Christian box in our Census is but a historical memory. The process of change, in areas such as science, technology, bureaucracy and the media, has pushed Christian ideas and ideals to the margins. Less than 10% of the population are ‘regular’ church goers (where regular means at least once a month), which leaves the vast majority of the 60% who nominate Christianity as their religion amongst those who regard the church as irrelevant.
In response it is not surprising to find that the Church is often tempted to respond by striving all the harder to be relevant. We see it throughout the churches, in our worship, in our literature and in our architecture.
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Did you know Christians were branded as atheists in ancient Rome? Whereas today an atheist is one who doesn’t believe in the existence of a god or gods, in those days an atheist was someone who did not participate in the public worship of the gods.
In Rome, religion worship was a public affair; something akin to supernatural insurance. People believed religious activities placated the gods, not only to protect your against their wrath, but more importantly protected the empire. Those who did not participate were therefore a threat to the well-being of the community and to the Roman Republic. As a result they were ostracised, at times persecuted and widely known as atheists.
Christians were among them. Refusing to join the public worship of the gods and choosing to exclusively worship their own God, Christians were misfits and rebels, and treated accordingly.
It would seem strange to call a Christian an atheist in Australia today, and certainly Christians would be somewhat bemused. But in profound ways we are not too different from our brothers and sisters in the early church.
Despite their protests, the worldview of today’s secularist is a strong faith/hope foundation very much akin to the religious views they ridicule.
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We are getting to the shortest day of the year when the sun sets early and rises late. The nights are long and there is little sun. While scientists admit it is still a mystery, they do agree that some people do suffer from a winter depression.
There are all types of depressions that afflict people and it is not uncommon for Christians to experience a spiritual darkness far deeper than the passing of winter. John of the Cross, a fifteenth-century Christian writer, called it ‘la noche oscura’ or dark night.
Martin Luther was so afflicted by melancholy that it threatened to destroy him; CS Lewis suffered following the death of his wife; Mother Teresa struggled from the founding of her Missionaries of Charity for the rest of her life; and Charles Spurgeon spoke of how he was “almost completely crushed in spirit” and experienced “deep spiritual depression”.
They are not alone . . .
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Change is at the heart of the Christian life. It’s about repentance and renewal, commitment and character. It is a journey towards maturity and an embracing of God’s values all in the process of becoming more like Jesus. Yet, it is never easy.
The good news that God loves us, that Jesus died for us – that we are set free from sin, death and Satan – is made more wonderful by the reality that it comes to us absolutely free. It is God’s gift. We don’t deserve it, nor can we earn it, all we can do is receive it. But! Although our salvation is free, following Jesus is a different story, it costs everything.
Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). The challenge was not immediately understood by Jesus’ disciples. He’d just let them know for the first time that he was going to suffer, die and be raised again. Even at his crucifixion they were confused.
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Throughout the centuries Christians have constantly wrestled with what it means to live as Christ’s followers in societies and communities that are morally and culturally challenging to their faith.
Even at the beginning, when small, fledgling churches were first established across the Roman world, Christians were surrounded by a pagan culture filled with mystery cults, mysticism, philosophical debate and speculation. The New Testament is full of letters to these churches, letters aimed at helping these Christian communities navigate how they are to follow Christ each in their particular context. The question of how the church relates to the surrounding culture and how the surrounding culture affects the church was ever before them.
These questions remain with us today. In our (post) modern culture we are surrounded with tsunami-like changes spanning across a wide range of religious, secular and scientific thought. Our faith is constantly being challenged and we are prompted to wonder just how we are to live in and relate to the culture in which we live.
Historically the church’s response has swung between two extremes: on the one hand capitulation/accommodation and on the other, separation. Neither of them is biblical. Read on >>>