This article grew out of an annual national Baptist Assembly, but its implications are wider. What spiritual season are Western Churches experiencing today?
At the NZ Baptist Assembly in 1995 we were doubly challenged. First to reflect on what is the Lord saying to the family of Baptist Churches. Secondly to picture which season describes our local Church.
The clear answer to the second question is that for some it is winter while others experience the hope of spring and only a few the harvest of autumn. As Assemblies will, we gladly jumped from there to the conclusion that winter is over. "The river is rising" one group said (referring to the vision of a river flowing from the new temple after the exile in Ezekiel 47).
We need hope. Indeed our God is source of hope. Yet I wonder. For our culture as a whole, for the Baptist Churches of New Zealand rather than for my (local) Church is winter really ending? The nineteenth century, as Ian Brown (Executive Secretary) reminded Assembly, was a glorious autumn. The harvest of souls was rich and plentiful. Through the heyday of missions the gospel of Christ received response unprecedented across the world since the first decades after the resurrection of the Jewish carpenter. Yet as with autumn in the fields, the harvest was accompanied by the drying and browning with which autumn heralds the frosts to come.
The twentieth century has seen frost. Our faith has been assaulted first by rationalism and materialism, then pluralism and relativism. Till now, in full flood of secularism, our society scorns faith, especially Christian faith. Today sexual sin is called "a lifestyle option". Nothing is truly real or really true.
Winter is upon us. But is it ending? Do a few shoots from hothouse bulbs mean that winter's tide of unfaith is waning. As I look at the world through the oblong spectacles of the TV tube I really doubt it.
The prophet for today is not primarily Ezekiel foreseeing the end of exile
but rather Jeremiah. When faced with prophets who proclaimed that the coming
exile would be brief and that soon the Lord would free His people, Jeremiah
4 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:4-7 NRSV)
It is my belief that this is what the Spirit is saying to the Churches today. The exile of Christian faith in the Babylon of modern western culture will not be short. There will be no easy quick return to Christendom. The pluralism of multiculture will be with us for years to come. Rationalism may fade before peoples natural desire for spiritual experience; but the people of Megalopolis are as likely to seek it in the new age of "Aquarius" as in the New Creation of Christ.
We must learn to build houses in the Babylon of materialism and live in them ("in the world but not of the world"). Learn to cultivate the words and images of our expression of the Gospel of Christ in the culture of a post-modern world. And somehow we must continue to sing the LORDS song even while our very neighbours and families come from the godless wasteland around us.
In view of what I have just said do I see no hope for the Church today? Has
God abandoned his people? Far from it. Again I hear the prophets who criticise
us and call us back:
12 Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
says the LORD,
13 for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:12-13 NRSV)
and together with his accusation the plea of God:
1 Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David. (Isaiah 55:1-3 NRSV)
Why do we seek wisdom from the latest guru? Chase the fashionable? Why seek
refreshment in cracked cisterns? Of all people, we Baptists should hear the
call of the prophet and return to the priceless water. This water is the word
of the Lord. Found first in the prophets own words and today revealed
to us in the Bible.
Yet it is true, that though we revere Gods book only a few of us read it regularly. The words that Tyndale and others were willing risk persecution to place in the hands of the ploughman, are now the province of the pastor, almost alone. Preaching which was once the proclamation of the Word of God, is now too often merely wholesome and uplifting entertainment, and as such palls beside the simulated violence of the Video-game. Why do we spend our money on exotic juices when all we need to do is listen carefully to the LORD? Let us again call Gods people to the study of His word.
In our bewildering, changeable, fastpaced and fickle world we Baptists have a double calling. Faithful to our heritage we must hold fast to the unchangeable Word of God, the Bible. Faithfully study it and joyfully hear, through our reading, the voice of the LORD. But recognising that we are now exiles in a culture hostile to faith we must seek both to understand that culture and as missionaries to use it "that the world may believe".
Winter is not past - indeed we may only have experienced the first cold snaps - but our God is faithful and calls us to remain faithful. We are exiles - strangers in hostile territory - yet the Lord is faithful and our exile like Israels long ago will one day end. Our faith like hers will emerge purified and strengthened, but not just yet.
© Tim Bulkeley, 1996-2002
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