Sunday, November 28, 2010

God's Love in Christ Jesus in response to the wretchedness of the human heart

Many years ago, as a young "revolutionary" - if you were a child of the 70's and not determined to change the world then something was seriously wrong - I recalled reading a book entitled " The Wretched of the Earth", by Frantz Fanon. Also recalled reading " Soul on Ice " by Eldridge Cleaver, the then famous Black Power revolutionary. This was all in the mix when many in the world were flirting , and if not having a serious "affair ", with Communism and Socialism and various other
" isms". All in an effort to change the circumstances of millions of people oppressed; in the case of Fanon and the Algerians provoked by colonial France; or suffering from the effects of racism in the USA, as was the case of the Black Power movement; or from capitalism which weighed heavily on the working class and spawned the various revolutions and ideological warfares across the globe.

All of these memories entered my head as I read a verse in Scripture which caused me to reflect very deeply on this Advent Season, the start of which, in my church's tradition, we celebrated this past Sunday and will continue each Sunday until Christmas day. The verse is from the Prophet Jeremiah who was encouraging the Children of Israel were living in exile, on account of their repeated rebellion against God, that the "idols" of Babylon had no power.

"Hear what the Lord says to you, O house of Israel, This is what the Lord says:
Do not learn the ways of the nations
or be terrified by the signs in the sky,
though the nations are terrified by them.
For the custom of the people are worthless;
they cut a tree out of the forest,
and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.
They adorn it with silver and gold;
they fasten it with hammer and nails
so it will not totter
Like a scarecrow in a melon patch,
their idols cannot speak;
they must be carried
be cause they cannot walk.
Do not fear them;
they can do no harm
nor can they do any good."
Jeremiah 10:1-5 NIV

Compare this with Jeremiah's description of the Lord's power.

" But God made the earth by his power;
he founded the world by his wisdom
and stretched out the heavens by his understanding.
When he thunders, the waters in the heavens roar;
he makes the clouds rise from the ends of the earth.
he sends lighting with the rain
and brings out the wind from his storehouses"
Jeremiah 10: 12-13 NIV

The verse points us in two directions. Primarily that, as the Bible indicates, the Kingdom of God which Jesus ushered into being, is about power, and not about talk. Or about the symbols of power that mankind values so much - the car, the house, the clothes - and which are as helpless s scarecrows, as they cannot walk by themselves. That's why since Jesus came on earth, the world has never been the same again. Countless millions of people have died with His Name on their lips and they entered into another world. Handel's Messiah, arguably, one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written and recorded was inspired by a love for Christ, as so too countless other scores written by the famous and the ordinary alike. The entire foundation of Western Civilization, its values, its democratic ideals rooted in the idea of freedom, many of the great Universities - including arguably the best, Harvard - a lot of its great architecture, the origins of media, and so much more, were all inspired by the Christian Religion. A movement of God on earth which began in a small backwater state of history - Palestine - when a " itinerant" preacher was crucified at Calvary for claiming, not just to be the Son of God, but God Himself.
Secondarily, that although the Socialists, Communists and other revolutionaries were correct in identifying the " wretchedness" of man's environment as a great reason for mobilizing masses of people to rise up against their oppressors, in pursuit of a better life, they missed the fundamental problems. And it for this fundamental reason , missed by the revolutionaries, why Jesus came with great power to " set the captives free" and to " bring good news to the poor". As the basic problem with mankind, why there is so much suffering, why there is so much injustice - economic and social - why there is so much immorality and corruption, is that not only are the circumstances of some persons wretched, but that the heart of all mankind is wretched. This is why we have Advent and Christmas. This is why there is a Christian Religion. This is why God of Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob, against whom the Children of Israel, born of Adam like the rest of us, rebelled time and time again, intervened in the world which He, and no other God, created with power and wisdom. Therefore, unless those, both inside and outside the church, recognize this great truth, and bow down and repent of our naturally rebellious nature, and invite the risen Lord to enter into our souls, and create a " new heart within us , as King David prayed, then we will never have access to the kind of power that has transformed lives and nations throughout history.
It is this kind of power that our Prime Minister needs to effect change in a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world. It is this kind of wisdom that we need to transform the great swaths of inner cities communities into areas where people can live and thrive and achieve their full potential. It is this kind of sacrificial love that brings individuals with their passions and ambitions and transforms them into One Body, the church.
As I considered these things, this very morning, the Lord led me to two meditations, both of which speak to some aspects of the problems of the human heart. One of which I will share this week. The other next time. And which if acted upon, with humility and in obedience, will help in leading us to the " creation of a new heart", which is the only thing that can make a permanent difference in my country and indeed the world today.

Francois Felon
Verse Leviticus 19:18

Self-love must be uprooted, and the love of God take its place in our hearts, before we can see ourselves as we are. Then the same principle that enables us to see imperfections will destroy them. When the light of truth has risen within us, then we see clearly what is there. Then we love ourselves without partiality, without flattery, as we love our neighbour. In the meantime, God spares us by revealing our weaknesses to us just in proportion as our strength to support the view of it increases. We discover our imperfections one by one as we are able to cure them. Without this merciful preparation that adapts out strength to the light within, we should be in despair. Those who corrects others ought to watch the moment when God touches their hearts; they must bear a fault with patience till they perceive his spirit reproaching them within. Then they must follow his providence that gently reproaches them, so that they may feel that it is less God that their own hearts that condemns them. When we blame with impatience because we are displeased with the fault, it is a human censure and the disapprobation of God. It is a sensitive self-love that cannot forgive the self-love. The more self-love we have, the more severe are our censures. There is nothing so vexatious as the collisions between one excessive self-love and another still more violent and sensitive. The passions of others are infinitely ridiculous to those who are under the dominion of their own. The ways of God are very different. He is ever full of kindness for us, he gives us strength, he regards us with pity and condescension, he remembers our weaknesses, he waits for us. The less we love ourselves, the more considerate we are of others. We wait for providence to give the occasion, and grace to open hearts to receive it. If you would gather the fruit before its time, you lose it entirely.

So as we wait in this the Advent period of human history, let us ponder well the story of Jesus - who loved himself less, and was more considerate of others. And did not come to judge but to call sinners to repentance - in His first coming. The Second One will be quite different. Thus issued forth the Power, the Wisdom and the Love of God, all because of the wretchedness of the human heart

Inner City Life, Social Justice and God's Love in Jesus Christ

We woke up this morning in my country, to the news that four persons were brutally murdered the night before. Apparently reprisal killings resulting from the the shooting death of another man, whom it was theorized, was the relative of a " ranking" Don of a gang. So the waste of human life made in the image of God continues unabated. And when one adds the number of persons killed by the police, who allegedly opened fire on them, or acted suspiciously, then the situation becomes even more acute.
But it is not only that persons are dying but also that lives are being sometimes unalterably changed. This week I came face to face with one such set of persons and the experience affected me profoundly. They were skimpily dressed, which was quite inappropriate for my office. I was about to suggest that they should dress differently the next time around, when the conversation very quickly revealed that they were " exotic " dancers. Perhaps it was a good thing that I held my peace, as maybe the conversation would not have been so free flowing and revealing about the " respectable" men who they encountered . All because of poverty, as when the conversation ended, and I had prayed for them, it was clear that there was significant remorse and a desire to " do better".
For some reason, this same week " provoked" by a meditation I had read, I began praying earnestly for all the inner city communities in my country, where huge numbers of persons live, quite often in subhuman conditions, condemned to a life of squalor, privation and injustice by a largely uncaring society. (Lately, with an admixture of seriousness and jest, one of the chaps who sells newspaper at the corner, has been asking me repeatedly, to write him a letter of recommendation to the US embassy, so that he can get a visa, as life in the ghetto is " rough". We both laugh as he and I know that I have no such connections.) And then I wondered what could the church do, to help, based on the words of the prophet Ezekiel,

" You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the stray or searched for the lost. you have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no Shepherd, and when scattered they became food for all the wild animals". Ezekiel 34:4-5 NIV.

Yes, people " wonderfully and fearfully" made by God, have become " food for all kinds of wild animals" in my country. Pursued by gunmen, enticed by the lure of money, led astray by the promises of a better life, failed by the education system, unexposed in great measure to basic values of forgiveness, repentance, unrequited love and delayed gratification; used and abused by the modern day shepherds - some politicians and if truth be told even some pastors - aided and abetted by " the respectable ", deceived by their own desires, weighed down by the loss of hope and seemingly without any caring Shepherd. This is the context in my country in which I read the following meditation and was greatly moved and knelt down to repent of the fact that we who serve a Mighty God had " tolerated" this evil in our midst for far too long.


Henry Emerson Fosdick Isaiah 5:7

" The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are the garden of his delight.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed:
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress."

Anyone who cares about character must care about social conditions, for every unfair economic situation, every social evil left to itself to run its course means ruin to character. And the God of the Bible, because he cares supremely for personal life at its best, is zealously in earnest about social justice; his prophets blazed with indignation at all inequity, and his Son made the coming kingdom, when God's will would be done on earth, the center of his message. To fellowship with this earnest purpose of god we are all summoned; God believes in the glorious possibilities of life on earth; he is counting on us to put away the sins that hold the kingdom back and to fight the abuses that crush character in men. To believe in god, therefore - the god who is fighting his way with his children up through ignorance, brutality, and selfishness to a " new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness" -- is no weakly comfortable blessing ( see 2 Peter 3:13). it means joining a moral war; it means devotion, sacrifice' its spirit is the Cross and its motive an undiscourageable faith. And our underlying assurance that this war for a better world can be won is not simply our belief that it can be done, but our faith that God is, and that he believes that it can be done. When we pray we say, " your kingdom come," and we are full of hope about the long , sacrificial struggle, for the purpose behind and through it all is first of God's. Our earnestness is but an echo of his.

The problem with confronting the " evil' of the harsh conditions inner city or ghetto life, and how it serves to ruin people's character is that, first of all many Christians are not convicted of this mission. Secondly, those who are so convicted, hold too " small a view" of God and the infinite possibilities associated with the God who, alone " stretched out the heavens and the earth". Thirdly and finally, those who suffer need to be told that there is a God who is just waiting to act if they would only believe, repent and cry out to Him.

Hopefully the meditation above will jolt a few. In respect of the second point perhaps a brief recounting of the situation in England in the early 18th century might help as recoded in a book by the theologian John Stott writing about the Evangelical Revival led by John Wesley, who started the Methodist church, might help

"Bready describes the deep savagery of much of the 18th century, which was characterized by the wanton torture of animals for sport, the bestial drunkenness of the populace, the inhuman traffic in African Negroes, the mortality of the parish children, the universal gambling obsession, the savagery of the prison system and penal code, the welter of immorality, the prostitution of the theater, the growing prevalence of lawlessness,, the political bribery and corruption, the ecclesiastical arrogance and truculence( church gone bad)....such manifestations suggested that the British people were then deeply degraded and debauched as any people in Christendom.

But then things began to change. And the 19th century slavery and slave trade was abolished, the prison system was humanized, conditions in the factory and mines improved, education became available to the poor, trade unions began.......

Whence, then, this pronounced humanity? ..this passion for social justice and sensitivity to human wrongs. there is but one answer commensurate with stubborn historical truth. It derived from a new social conscience. And if that social conscience, admittedly was the offspring of more than one progenitor, it nonetheless was mothered and nurtured by the Evangelical Revival of vital practical Christianity -- a revival which illumined the central postulates of the new testament ethic, which made real the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of men, which pointed the priority of of personality over property, and which directed heart, soul and mind, toward the establishment of the Kingdom of Righteousness on earth.
The Evangelical Revival did more to transfigure the moral character of the general populace, than any other movement British history can record. For Wesley was both a preacher of the gospel and a prophet of social righteousness. He was the man who restored to a nation its soul."

In respect of the final point, repentance and crying to God. All of us should take note of the following Word from the Lord. A Word which has greatly helped me to understand what the Lord requires of me at this time in my life. As it is all about God's mercy.

"This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says:
In repentance and rest is your salvation,
in quietness and trust is your strength,
but you would have none of it.
You said, No, we will flee on horses.
Therefore you will flee!
You said we will ride off on swift horses.
Therefore your pursuers will be swift!
A thousand will flee
at the threat of one;
at the threat of five
you will all flee away,
till you are left
like a flagstaff on a mountaintop,
like a banner on a wall.

Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you;
he rises to show you compassion.
For the Lord is a God of justice,
Blessed are all who wait n him"
Isaiah 30:15-18 NIV

I pray God that we will appreciate how deeply the Holy One of Israel cares for personal character and how injustice, and poverty and ignorance helps to ruin it. I pray God that there would arise, through a renewed church, a renewed " social conscience" in my country, and that a nation may have its soul renewed. I pray God that, He who did a " new thing" in Palestine in and through the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, in England through John Wesley, and in Jamaica in the past, through our national heroes Sam Sharpe, Marcus Garvey and others, will do a new thing again as we repent of our sinful ways, of what we have done and left undone, and cry out to Him for help. Amen.