Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Awkwardness of God in a Postmodern Generation

We read Ex 4:18-26 this morning. I was very struck by the sheer awkwardness of the passage.
God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. This begins a whole sequence of active-passive-active statements about Pharaoh’s heart: God hardened it, it was hardened, Pharaoh hardened his heart. But this is where the sequence begins: I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.

God tries to kill Moses. Having delivered him from threat of death as a baby, having preserved him through youth in Pharaoh’s court and middle age as a shepherd, having called him to be the Deliverer and argued him through two chapters into readiness to serve, the Lord now tries to kill him.

This passage confronts us with a very untame God. In an age where the church is desperately concerned to show that it is cool and in tune with all that is contemporary, Exodus 4 is a bombshell. Or an embarrassment. 

Of course, there have been plenty of discussions over the years about the various elements in the passage, the relationships between the verbal forms describing the hardening of Pharaoh's heart, the reason why the Lord tried to kill Moses - there are explanations, there are theologisings. But it is so good to just drop all of that for a moment and feel the shock of the text itself and be confronted by the inexplicable and awkward God of the Bible.

Exodus 4 is not alone, of course. It just happens to be what we read together today. But chapter after chapter of the Bible reveals a God who cannot be accommodated easily into our postmodern non-framework. Postmodernism appears to be very accommodating, very free-flowing and laid back. In fact, it is very quick to spit out anything definite, and the God of the Biblical text leaves it gagging. It is hardly surprising that in such a time, the church is desperate to re-position itself away from proclamation of this awkward book, so as to find some position of comfort.

Yesterday I happened to reread Matthew Parris' 2003 article on gay bishops, via David Robertson's blog. For me the wonder of the piece is not particularly the content on that specific issue, but the grasp Parris has of the nature of revealed religion. He writes: 

““Inclusive”, “moderate” or “sensible” Christianity is inching its way up a philosophical cul-de-sac. The Church stands for revealed truth and divine inspiration or it stands for nothing. Belief grounded in everyday experience alone is not belief. The attempt, sustained since the Reformation, to establish the truth of Christianity on the rock of human observation of our own natures and of the world around us runs right against what the Bible teaches from the moment Moses beheld a burning bush in the Egyptian desert to the point when Jesus rises from the dead in His sepulchre. Stripped of the supernatural, the Church is on a losing wicket.”

This atheist understands better than many in the church what Christianity really is. And that applies as much in the SA as it does in any other church.

In all manifestations of the Church in the West, we are under pressure. The awkwardness of revealed religion, the sheer, confrontational nature of God, of his standards, of his historical work in Christ, and of his Future - all of this is in total collision with our present culture. We feel the pressure, and we squirm. We are embarrassed by God, so we reinvent him in our postmodern image. In the process we part company with the tradition of our church, with the great stream of Christian faith, and, most frighteningly, with the Real God himself.

We want to be user-friendly, we want to be winsome, we want to speak in a way that post-moderns understand. But in the process we pressure ourselves NOT to talk about God in the way Exodus 4 does. If we are forced to, we go swiftly into apologetic mode - and not in the classic sense of argument for the truth, but in the sense of apologising for what God is like. More often than not, we simply avoid passages that make us feel this way. And in the long term we end up avoiding real interaction with the Bible altogether. This process is visible in our conversation, our postings on social media, and especially in our meetings.

We want our meetings to be happy, upbeat and winsome. We are frightened of disturbing people, and probably don’t like being disturbed very much ourselves. Church, we think, should be about comfort, not disturbance.

We so need meetings, we need scripture readings, we need preaching, that confront us with the authentic, disturbing God of scripture. Our tendency to domesticate God by watering down, explaining away, smoothing rough edges with our theologising, our avoidance of difficulties - our tendency to tame the God of the Bible needs to be blown away by the power of Word and Spirit.  We need to hear a Word which leaves us solemn and shaken to the core.

Listening recently to some old recordings of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, I was struck by the manner in which he said the word ‘God’. Some of his language is dated, his manner is noticeably 1940s/50s, but the intense seriousness overall and sense of almost explosive power in that particular word is still arresting. Here is preaching that makes you sit up and take notice, that startles, that alarms, that confronts, that perturbs. Here is preaching that makes you feel uncomfortable before it makes you glad. Here is preaching that DOES deal with objections and counter arguments, but not by putting God in the dock, on trial for his awkwardnesses and worse, but by genuinely bringing us to the bar of eternal realities.

When did you last hear a sermon that shook you with the immediate presence and power of God in his word? When were you last confronted with the bigness, holiness, awkwardness, frighteningness of the Living God? When did a sermon last deal with moral issues in a way which boldly confronted the prevailing mind-set? When did preaching last convict you of sin and of your need? When was Jesus Christ crucified last put before your eyes as the only hope any of us have?
‘He who marries the spirit of this age will be a widower in the next.’ We can go further: as the Salvation Army parts company with the Bible and embraces the spirit of the age, so the church itself will die.

And as we return to prayer and preaching that sets forth a big view of our awesome, holy, powerful, gracious and loving God, so the church will live and grow.

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If I can quote from William Booth's greatest contemporary, it is worth reading and pondering this excerpt from what is known as Charles Spurgeon's “Own Funeral Sermon”. He actually preached it a few years before his death, but Mrs Spurgeon herself felt that it was a most suitable eulogy. He had preached on “For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep.”—Acts 13:36. Amongst other things he said:

People talk nowadays about Zeitgeist, a German expression which need frighten nobody; and one of the papers says, “Spurgeon does not know whether there is such a thing.”

Well, whether he knows anything about Zeitgeist or not, he is not to serve this generation by yielding to any of its notions or ideas which are contrary to the Word of the Lord.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is not only for one generation, it is for all generations. It is the faith which needed to be only “once for all delivered to the saints”; it was given stereotyped as it always is to be. It cannot change because it has been given of God, and is therefore perfect; to change it would be to make it imperfect. It cannot change because it has been given to answer for ever the same purpose, namely, to save sinners from going down to the pit, and to fit them for going to heaven.

That man serves his generation best who is not caught by every new current of opinion, but stands firmly by the truth of God, which is a solid, immovable rock.

But to serve our own generation in the sense of being a slave to it, its vassal, and its valet—let those who care to do so go into such bondage and slavery if they will.

Do you know what such a course involves? If any young man here shall begin to preach the doctrine and the thought of the age, within the next ten years, perhaps within the next ten months, he will have to eat his own words, and begin his work all over again. When he has got into the new style, and is beginning to serve the present world, he will within a short time have to contradict himself again, for this age, like every other, is “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

But if you begin with God’s Word, and pray God the Holy Ghost to reveal it to you till you really know it, then, if you are spared to teach for the next fifty years, your testimony at the close will not contradict your testimony at the beginning. You will ripen in experience; you will expand in your apprehension of the truth; you will become more clear in your utterance; but it will be the same truth all along.*

Is it not a grand thing to build up, from the beginning of life to the end of it, the same gospel? But to set up opinions to knock them down again, as though they were ninepins, is a poor business for any servant of Christ.

David did not, in that way serve his own generation; he was the master of his age, and not its slave. I would urge every Christian man to rise to his true dignity, and be a blessing to those amongst whom he lives, as David was. Christ “hath made us kings and priests unto God his Father”; it is not meet that we should cringe before the spirit of the age, or lick the dust whereon “advanced thinkers” have chosen to tread.

Beloved, see to this; and learn the distinction between serving your own generation and being a slave to it.

 * It is salutary to compare this with the currently popular saying, widely though doubtfully attributed to Thomas Merton, “If the you of five years ago doesn’t consider the you of today a heretic, you are not growing spiritually.”    

The full text of the Spurgeon sermon can be found at

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