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Sermon: Qualities For Mission

As my current frantic schedule continues, we have moved onto a new sermon series where we use the biblical book of Daniel to look for models of Christian witness when we are a minority in a non-Christian culture. This Sunday’s sermon will be the only one I get to preach in the series, due to the fact that we’re only looking at the first six chapters of the book and other ‘special’ services arise that I need to take, such as Remembrance Sunday, where it will not be appropriate to follow the theme. So here goes …

Daniel 2

Anyone who thinks we are in a Christian country is in for a shock today. We may still have an Established Church, but that is about all that remains of the notion. Don’t expect in forthcoming media coverage of Hallowe’en that the church will be quoted, despite our concern about the occult: rather, expect Age Concern to have spokespeople available to warn about Trick Or Treat. Don’t expect that I will get extra respect in the community because I am a minister: on the contrary, some sections of our society will assume that I am either fleecing the flock or fiddling with the children.

The fact is, Christians are now a minority in our culture, and we have to live and witness from that perspective, whatever memories some of us have of when Christianity enjoyed a privileged status. Although the Gospel doesn’t change, our application of it alters, because our situation has changed.

All of which is why I chose a sermon series on the first half of Daniel. Because Daniel is in that situation. He is part of a minority, living in a different culture, where he seeks to be a faithful witness to the one true God. He is a young Jew who has been forcibly deported to Babylon by the forces of King Nebuchadnezzar. Babylon’s values are different from Israel’s, as our society’s are increasingly different from ours.

So last week in chapter one, Rob Gill will have shared with you the story where Daniel and his young friends decide which battles are worth fighting and which aren’t. They accept Babylonian names, despite the association with Babylonian gods, but they don’t accept the rich food from the palace and go vegetarian instead. Many of you will know that same dilemma of pondering where you need to take a Christian stand, perhaps at work.

Now in chapter two Daniel is presented with an opportunity for witness. It comes right out of the paganism that dominated Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar has a distressing dream – so unnerving that he forgets it. And just as today when people turn not to Jesus but to clairvoyants and astrologers for guidance in confusion, so the king turns to ‘the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers’ (verse 2) at hand. What could be less surprising in a place like Babylon, the probable origin of occult practices such as horoscopes?

In those circumstances, what is a faithful Jew like Daniel to do? As the Jews pondered their place as a minority in Babylon, the Holy Spirit led them to see that practices such as astrology were contrary to their faith. We see that played out in the section of Isaiah that refers to this period of exile (chapters 40 to 55).

A young man like Daniel might well have considered that the prophetic thing to do would be to condemn the wickedness of relying on occult sources of spiritual guidance. Certainly that is what I did as a young Christian. On my first day of work at my office in the Civil Service, the training officer suddenly said to me, “So what’s your star sign?” I replied in quite a huff that I didn’t believe in such nonsense.

I still believe horoscopes are completely out of bounds for Christians. I remain disturbed by the number of churchgoers who read their stars more than they read their Bibles. But what we see in Daniel is something quite different. We see someone who displays the first quality for mission when we are a minority in an alien culture. And that first quality is compassion.

Nebuchadnezzar makes an unreasonable demand: tell me my dream and interpret it, otherwise I will have you and all the wise men in Babylon executed. And that included Daniel and his friends (verses 8-13). At first when they pray, it is so that they will not be killed, along with all the other wise men (verse 18). However, by the time he has the interpretation, his concern is for all the wise men:

“Do not execute the wise men of Babylon. Take me to the king, and I will interpret his dream for him.” (Verse 24)

Ultimately, he’s not just out for a personal escape while thinking “Serves them right if they suffer” about the native Babylonian occult experts. His desire to know the king’s dream and interpret it is driven by more than a desire for personal survival: he has compassion for those others who will suffer, however much he thinks they are wrong and might deserve a fate like this.

Surely we can translate Daniel’s example to our lives. When we mix with people outside our circle of faith, some of those are bound to be folk whose moral values and practices are different from ours, in some cases plain contradictory. If we are not careful, we might end up like Jonah, who we were thinking about recently, and become infected with self-righteousness. We might long for the day when they get what’s coming to them.

But if we are to be a serious missional presence in the world, then Jesus calls us to show compassion. Who knows what fears they have? What if the Christian at the office is known as the person who cares for those facing trouble? What if the Christian home in the street is known as the house where people can ring the doorbell, because there are people who will listen and care?

What does it take? It takes a heart like that of Jesus. Do you remember in Matthew’s Gospel when he looked at the people of Israel all ‘harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’? What does Matthew tell us of Jesus’ attitude? ‘He had compassion on them’ (Matthew 9:36).

So we ask to see people as Jesus sees them. If we do, then like Daniel we shall have compassion for them. We shall be motivated to undertake acts of love and concern for them. We may speak up on their behalf. We shall offer to pray for them.

This is why Debbie and I deliberately lingered in the school community during the last appointment. This is why one of the things I later did at my office after I’d got over some of my early youthful confrontational attitudes was to be the secretary of my union there. You could say it’s where I got my first experiences in pastoral care. Like the young woman whose job was under threat, because her standard of work had dropped. She came and talked to me. It turned out that she had been dating a man at the office. They had gone away on holiday to Majorca, where she had discovered he was bisexual. When she faced him with this, he beat her senseless and she woke up to find herself in a Spanish hospital where she spoke no Spanish and the staff spoke no English.

Friends, let us be known for our compassion in the circles we move in. It’s important for Christian mission. We won’t have to sacrifice our belief in what’s right and what’s wrong, not if we pray to have a heart for people like Jesus did.

Daniel also displays a second quality for mission. It comes in the context of events suddenly being upon him. How will he react? To illustrate what I will label as Daniel’s second quality for mission, I am going to retell a story that Tom Wright tells in his book Virtue Reborn:

On Thursday 15th January 2009, an Airbus A320 plane took off from LaGuardia Airport, New York, bound for Charlotte, North Carolina. Captain Chesley Sullenberger III, known as ‘Sully’, completed all the standard pre-flight checks. Then, two minutes after take-off, while flying over the Bronx in New York, the aircraft ran into a flock of Canada geese. Both engines were severely damaged. The plane plummeted towards this densely populated area.

What would Captain Sully and his crew do? There was little time in which they had to make decisions that would either save or lose many lives. There were one or two small airports nearby, but they would not reach them in time. They could land on a major roadway, the New Jersey Turnpike, but that would create huge dangers for cars and drivers as well as their own passengers. There was only one realistic option: the Hudson River. Except pilots cannot make tiny errors when crash-landing on a river, or the aircraft would break up and sink.

In the space of two or three minutes they had to shut down the engines, set exactly the right speed for gliding without power, and get the nose down to maintain speed. They had to override all the automatic systems, make the plane as waterproof as possible and glide the plane on a tight path that would bring it in going with the flow of the river. They could only do this with battery power and the emergency generator. Then they had to straighten up the plane so it was exactly level on impact and bring the nose up again to land straight and flat on the water.

So … did they do it? Yes. Every life was saved.

But how did Sully and his crew manage to do all their precise tasks in that short period of time? The truth is that not only had they been highly trained, they had repeatedly practised emergency drills, so that when the time came, everything came naturally to them as by habit.

Now I want to suggest to you that Daniel’s second quality for mission is that he was practised in spiritual habits. We see one obvious spiritual discipline in this chapter: he resorts to prayer. But in Daniel’s case, he was not a man who simply turned to prayer when there was a crisis. For him, prayer was a habit. We see that elsewhere in the book, such as in chapter six, where his regular practice of praying three times a day is used against him by his enemies to get him thrown into the lions’ den (6:10).

So if you wonder how Daniel is so tuned in to God as to hear the content of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and its interpretation, consider this possibility. He had so made prayer a spiritual discipline, that over time his attention to this habit made him more naturally tuned in to the voice of God. Because of this, he is able to bring the word to the king that – like Captain Sully and his plane crew – saves many lives.

Mission, in other words, is not all about doing. It is underpinned by taking the time to be tuned into God. That means spiritual disciplines such as prayer and regular Bible reading. There is no short cut.

A Christian friend of mine is an acclaimed guitarist. As well as being highly respected on the Christian scene, he has played with many well-known musicians, such as Gerry Rafferty and Joan Armatrading. I was once with him and another friend over lunch. The other friend was a Christian singer and guitarist who mainly led the worship group at her home church, and occasionally at inter-church events. She asked him the secret of his skills.

“There’s no secret,” he said, “I still practise for two hours every day.”

It’s the same for us. If we want to be effective in mission as a minority group in our vastly different culture, we need to be practised in prayer. Then we shall have something special and unique to offer that can only have come from one source – the living God himself.

I am fond of drawing attention to something Steve Chalke has said on this subject. He has said that for effective Christian engagement in the world, we need two things: intimacy and involvement. We need both the involvement with the world, but at the same time we need the intimacy of spiritual life with God.

And I’m not far off saying that something like that is at the heart of Daniel chapter two. In advocating that first quality for mission of compassion, I am asking that we invite Jesus to transform our hearts that involvement with people who are currently lost from his love becomes a natural and radical part of our lives. In advocating the second quality for mission of developing spiritual habits, I am arguing that there is no sustained fruitful mission except when we commit ourselves to listen carefully and regularly for the voice of God.

In other words, anyone looking for the quick fix for Christian outreach in our deeply non-Christian culture had better look elsewhere. Instant results are only offered by hucksters and charlatans.

What I’m inviting – no, urging – you to take up is a long term approach to Christian mission. Isn’t it fitting as we prepare to celebrate seventy-five years of this building that we commit to the long term, too? So yes – long term involvement with non-Christians, as we open our hearts to be softened with the love of Jesus for them. And long term involvement with our God, as we take the time to get used to the sound of his voice and learn more closely what he is saying and doing, so we can share that with people for the blessing of the world.

Sermon: Some Basic Christian Convictions About Marriage

Genesis 2:18-25

I wonder whether you know the story of the devout Methodist who refused to get married on principle? He said he didn’t believe in games of chance.

The Lectionary today presents us with readings about marriage and divorce. When these lessons came around three years ago, I preached on the Mark reading and explained that Jesus does not here completely prohibit divorce and remarriage. Indeed, the prohibition on a woman to divorce her husband is actually about not deserting him.

But today, I want to go to the reading from Genesis. In some ways, this is the most fundamental text in Scripture about marriage. Both Jesus and Paul quote this passage when they teach about relationships, especially verse 24:

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

And in a culture where marriage is regarded as simply one of a number of relationship options, we need to think again about our Christian beliefs regarding it. We hear that ‘marriage doesn’t work’. We hear that people should do whatever two consenting adults decide between themselves to do, provided it doesn’t harm anyone else.

Before I launch into this, I want to say one other thing. As both a minister and as someone who didn’t marry until he was forty-one, I am aware this subject may not immediately apply to everyone. We are a mixture of single, married, widowed and divorced people. However, it’s hard to look at all these in one sermon. Just as I explored divorce from the Mark reading three years ago, this time I am thinking about marriage. On other occasions (not in Chelmsford, admittedly) I have preached about singleness. Another time it would be appropriate to think about widowhood and bereavement. Nor do I have time to offer any reflections this morning about homosexuality.

So come with me back to this ancient, inspired text as we explore some basic elements of Christian marriage.

The first point I want to make is that marriage is social. This is not an argument for wife-swapping! It is to say, though, that although marriage is exclusive, it isn’t private. What do I mean?

The context of our passage is about how the man will look after the garden God has created[1]. He needs a helper, a partner. The woman is created so that she and the man may steward God’s creation together. Marriage has a social function. It is designed to bless the world. Whatever goes on in our relationships, they affect the world. This has a negative and a positive consequence.

Negatively, this is where I beg to differ with those couples who choose to live together and not marry, saying they don’t need a piece of paper to prove their commitment to each other. I don’t doubt their sincerity. However, I believe they are mistaken in thinking their exclusive relationship doesn’t have social implications. That’s why marriage is a step of social recognition.

Positively, it means a couple when they come together do not do so simply to enjoy one another and support each other. As a couple, they can have an effect for good on other people, on society and on the environment. Let me repeat something I said in a different context once. The love between the members of the Trinity had to be expressed from and beyond them, hence the creation of the universe. Likewise, the love that exists between a couple has to go from and beyond them to others. The most common way in which this happens is if they are blessed with children, but they may also share their love by serving the community. Marriage is designed to radiate the love within the home to the world.

This can involve simple acts of kindness. Opening up our homes in hospitality to those in need is one obvious way (and of course is not limited to those who are married). Just the other day, Debbie and I found ourselves talking to a friend who is Australian but married to an Englishman. A dear friend of hers back home is gravely ill with cancer. We promised to pray for her and her friend, but we also said our door was always open if she wanted a coffee. It was just a simple way of extending our love to her. It is something married couples and families should, I believe, normally aim to do as a token of God’s love.

Secondly, marriage is equal. You may find it surprising to hear such an argument from the Bible. Isn’t the woman here called a ‘helper’, and doesn’t that make her subservient to the man? Didn’t the Apostle Paul tell women to submit to their husbands, and wasn’t he an ignorant single man? Let’s dismantle this.

Take the ‘helper’ description first. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, God is called ‘the helper of Israel’, and it’s the same Hebrew word for ‘helper’ as here. I hope we are not going to suggest that God is subservient to men! The great Puritan Bible commentator Matthew Henry made this point about the woman being made from the man’s rib: She was

Not made out of his head to top him, not out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.[2]

As for the texts about submission, let it simply be said that we also need to note what Paul required of husbands: we are to love our wives as Christ loved the Church – that is, we must be ready to die for them! The equality of marriage is not so much about equal status and rights, it is an equal relationship of self-giving, sacrificial love. This is what makes for the companionship of marriage. It is not whether we have compatible personalities, it is what we are each willing to do for our spouse for their well-being. The Bible teaches an equality of helping that leads to deep companionship.

Oh, and by the way, Paul probably wasn’t single! He says in 1 Corinthians that he isn’t married, but as a Pharisee it would be unthinkable that he hadn’t married. It’s far more likely, I believe, that he was a widower. I think he did have experience of marriage when he was young.

Thirdly, marriage is a priority. When verse 24 says, ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and mother’, that is a rather curious statement for a Jewish text. Usually it was the other way around: the bride left her parents to move in with her husband, who stayed close to his parents.

But ‘leaves’ may be translated ‘forsakes’, and this is a relative term. Marriage establishes new priorities. It is not that we stop caring about our parents, but they are no longer our first concern: our spouse is.

And I might suggest that this reordering of priorities applies not only to our parents. It applies to the rest of our lives. Which comes first, work or family? Some large companies think their employees can just uproot their families and follow the latest economic whim.

But before we get too self-righteous, we should remember how the Church has sometimes expected members and ministers to show commitment to meetings and programmes at the expense of family life. There was once a church where mysteriously a banner appeared one week across the notice board. It said, ‘All meetings cancelled.’ The stewards set up an investigation to find out who the vandal was. They discovered it was the minister’s teenage son, who felt he wasn’t seeing much of Dad.

It’s why, although I technically work a six-day week, one of the first things Debbie asked me to do when we married was to block one night a week just for us. We can’t get by as a couple simply on one day off a week. So when I look at weeknight meetings from Monday to Thursday (allowing for Friday as my usual day off), once three of those four nights are filled with appointments, I refuse any more. I don’t always get my priorities right as a husband, and I wouldn’t have thought of doing that myself, but it’s what my wife needs and it’s right to do it. After all, those who want their pound of ministerial flesh would soon express disapproval if we drifted apart and separated.

This area of priorities is one where Christians could go against the flow of society. We might not all get the promotions in our jobs that we want, but marriage makes for new priorities.

Fourthly, marriage is a covenant. In verse 24, the man ‘leaves’ or ‘forsakes’ his parents and ‘clings to his wife’ – the old word for ‘clings’ is ‘cleaves’. He leaves and cleaves. It has the sense of sticking to his wife. It is about ‘both passion and permanence’[3]. And that raises the idea of covenant: a permanent commitment that is not simply a legal contract (marriage is more than a piece of paper), but backed with passion, with love.

This, then, is the ‘for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, until we are parted by death’ element of the marriage vows. The man sticks to his wife and sticks with his wife, if you like.

Sometimes people say their marriage just died. I suggest that’s based on a false understanding of marriage. I once read some wise words on the subject. The writer said, it’s not love that will keep your marriage alive: rather, marriage will keep your love alive. In other words, it’s that decision by the grace of God to stick with your spouse in bad times as well as good that makes the difference. It’s the covenant love that loves even when we don’t feel like it. We stick to one another.

And that, I know, can be enormously difficult. A musician friend of mine, Bryn Haworth, once wrote a song called ‘Working for love’, which sums up what the covenant nature of marriage sometimes requires of us. It requires work and effort to maintain that ‘stickability’. But the good news is that the God who calls us to such effort in order to maintain and grow our marriages offers us grace and power all the time and especially at our time of need. For where God guides, he provides.

Finally, marriage is a unity. In marriage, man and woman ‘become one flesh’, says verse 24. In an age of individualism, the unity of two people in marriage reminds us we are not isolated and separate people who make our own decisions regardless of anyone else. The partners in a marriage may be very different, and that may cause tension and conflict, but they act as one. Marriage is not about ‘me’: it’s about ‘us’.

But note the unity isn’t simply that the man and woman ‘become one’, Genesis says they ‘become one flesh’. This is, I believe, a poetic allusion to the act of love. For Christians, sexual intercourse is not simply a pleasure to be pursued, like buying an ice cream (although God does intend it to be pleasurable, as the Song of Songs attests). Rather, it is, as the great spiritual writer Richard Foster says, ‘a life uniting act with life uniting intent’[4]. The sexual act is virtually sacramental for Christians in marriage. No wonder we talk about it as the ‘consummation’ of a marriage.

This means, though, that we find ourselves vastly differing with the beliefs and practices of millions today, who believe in mutual consent but not necessarily in union. It’s another reason why I don’t believe Christian faith can agree with living together, however sincere many cohabiting couples are. If they live together as trial marriage, that makes little sense. Marriage is about total commitment, so you can no more have trial marriage than you can have trial death[5]. Besides, all the research I have ever read shows that couples who live together are much more likely to break up than those who marry without living together first. Sexual relationships without the abandonment to unity are houses built on sand.

In conclusion, then, I cannot state an entire Christian view of marriage from this one passage, but we can find some fundamental building blocks. And what we have here makes for a distinctive witness in our society, if not a thoroughly counter-cultural approach. We take marriage to have social implications rather than being entirely private. We agree with today’s view that it is between two equals, but we say that is about mutual service and sacrificial love, not inflicting my rights over and above another person. We see the marriage relationship as a high priority above the allure of money and career. Furthermore, it is not merely a piece of paper or a legal contract, it is a covenant requiring total commitment and love. Finally, the one-flesh unity cemented in the sexual relationship distinguishes us from the tentative approaches to commitment today and the disposable attitudes to sex found in some people.

This lines us up to be distinctive in today’s world, even to the point of being mocked. May God grant us the grace to hold to our witness, and to hold to it winsomely.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, p51, calls this ‘the far agenda’ as opposed to ‘the near agenda’ of sexuality and sin.

[2] Cited in Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1-15, p69.

[3] Op. cit., p71.

[4] I’m sure this quote is in his book Money, Sex and Power but I can’t find the page number.

[5] I owe this insight to Doug Barnett in a seminar at Spring Harvest some time in the 1980s.