Christianity 201

October 31, 2019

Helping People Connect with God in an Increasingly Godless Society

(This “Shrunk Sermon” is from a series on The Book of Daniel which begins here)

by Clarke Dixon

How can we help people connect with God in an increasingly godless society? Fewer are calling themselves Christians. Fewer are committed to attending church. Fewer people turn to churches in times of spiritual seeking. People now look for wedding officiants instead of pastors. People now desire a celebration of life rather than a Christian funeral. There is no doubt that people in North American and Western Europe have been turning away from Christianity. With this being the trajectory, are we able to help them connect with God?

In Biblical times Babylon was more godless than we are. King Nebuchadnezzar makes Prime Minister Trudeau, President Trump, and President Putin, all look like angels. Yet in Daniel, chapter 4 we see something remarkable:

Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble. Daniel 4:37 (NIV)

Nebuchadnezzar, a far-from-godly king over a truly godless empire made a God-connection! God’s people were very much in the minority, so we cannot give credit to prayer in schools, or Bible based laws. Church attendance was at an all time low! There is therefore hope for Canadians. If Nebuchadnezzar can make a God connection, anyone can. There are lessons for Canadian Christians in Daniel, chapter 4.

First, note Daniel’s heart:

“Upon hearing this, Daniel (also known as Belteshazzar) was overcome for a time, frightened by the meaning of the dream. Then the king said to him, ‘Belteshazzar, don’t be alarmed by the dream and what it means.’
“Belteshazzar replied, ‘I wish the events foreshadowed in this dream would happen to your enemies, my lord, and not to you! Daniel 4:19 (NLT)

Daniel’s heart broke for Nebuchadnezzar. There is no doubt about Daniel’s heart for God. However, Daniel also had a heart for Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel was moved by what he knew would happen to the king. Keep in mind that this is not a good and godly king. This is a not a friendly empire. This king had thrown Daniel’s friends into the fire. This king had threatened to destroy all the wise men, including Daniel, when they were unable to discern his dream. This empire had invaded Daniel’s homeland and taken people, including Daniel, as captives. Yet, it touched Daniel’s heart that Nebuchadnezzar was about to experience misfortune. Daniel was loving the enemy long before Jesus taught us to do so.

Do our hearts break for those who experience disconnect from God? Nebuchadnezzar was very different from Daniel. He had a different background, grew up speaking a different language, followed a different religion, and therefore had different values. Do our hearts break for those who would seem to be very different from us?

Do our hearts break over the struggles and misfortunes of others, even perceived enemies, or do we say, “told you so”? Do our hearts break for people? Do we faithfully love others? Broken hearts will be the evidence.

Second, note that Nebuchadnezzar’s connection with God was a journey.

Nebuchadnezzar had glorified Daniel’s God before, in chapter two. That did not stop him from throwing Daniel’s friends into a furnace in a fit of rage in chapter three. Chapter four ends with a stronger connection between the king and God than ever before. Yet there is likely more distance to go in Nebuchadnezzar’s understanding of the divine and his relationship with God. The path to, and with, God can be a long journey.

A relationship with God is always a journey. In previous Kanye West albums I have heard some Christian thoughts. In his latest album, called “Jesus is King,” there are nothing but Christian thoughts. Kanye is on a journey! Yet Kanye calls into question the ability of established Christians to walk that journey with him:

Said I’m finna do a gospel album
What have you been hearin’ from the Christians?
They’ll be the first one to judge me
Make it feel like nobody love me
They’ll be the first one to judge me
Feelin’ like nobody love me
Told people God was my mission
What have you been hearin’ from the Christians?
They’ll be the first one to judge me
Make it feel like nobody love me

https://genius.com/Kanye-west-hands-on-lyrics

Helping people connect with God is a great privilege, at any point along the journey. Daniel never gave up on Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel never wrote the king off, but served him with heart. Do we give up on people? Have we given up on our nation? Do we engage with people, serving others as Christ served us? Or do we isolate ourselves? Worse, perhaps we might prefer to isolate them. Are we faithful in our journey with people, as they are on a journey in their relationship with God? Relationships will be the evidence.

Third, watch for God’s heart work.

There was an essential ingredient that Nebuchadnezzar needed for a better connection with God. He needed humility. In Daniel chapter 4, God, not Daniel, takes Nebuchadnezzar on a journey of self-awareness and God-awareness:

29 Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, 30 he said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?”
31 Even as the words were on his lips, a voice came from heaven, “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. 32 You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”
33 Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. . . 34 At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever. . . . 37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble. Daniel 4:29-34,37 (NIV)

Nebuchadnezzar is taken on a journey from thinking he is the best, with no need for God, to an awareness that he is, and has, nothing without God. Nebuchadnezzar does not make a vital connection with God until he is humbled. He needed some heart work, and God brought about that heart work.

People will not connect with God without some heart work. Merely sharing information won’t establish a God connection. Hearing the truth is often not enough. Daniel could say it, and he did. But Nebuchadnezzar did not learn it until he experienced it. The king had all the information he needed. Daniel put it in his head. However, the king did not have the humility to accept it until God prepared his heart. Still, it was important that Daniel say it. Are we committed to faithfully sharing the Good News of God’s love in Christ, even when we are being ignored? Are we faithful in engaging people’s minds, while we look to God to open hearts? Prayer will be the evidence.

Conclusion

Fewer people seem to be making a connection with God in our not-so-Christian-anymore society. We might despair. But there is hope. If Nebuchadnezzar can make a vital God-connection, anyone can. Daniel was involved in that connection. We can be involved also. Are we faithful in our love for people, really and truly loving our neighbour, even our enemies, as Jesus calls us to? Are we faithful in our journey with people, every step of the way, even the smallest steps, even steps sideways or back? Are we faithful in engaging people’s minds, while we look to God to open their hearts?

September 19, 2019

Settling In as Christians to the New Normal of a Post-Christian Society

by Clarke Dixon

Should we, who are Christians in North America, still be bothered with Christianity when most North Americans are not? If so, should we be bothered by those who could not be bothered with it? There is a new normal in Western society, marked by a move away from traditional Christian beliefs and values. Should we just go with the flow and melt into the new normal of society? Or should we resist the changes, kicking and screaming all the way? How do we as Christians respond to the new normal?

Assimilate, or Be Different?

Daniel and his friends, from the Book of Daniel, would have faced similar questions. Daniel was facing a new normal:

3 Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, his chief of staff, to bring to the palace some of the young men of Judah’s royal family and other noble families, who had been brought to Babylon as captives. 4 “Select only strong, healthy, and good-looking young men,” he said. “Make sure they are well versed in every branch of learning, are gifted with knowledge and good judgment, and are suited to serve in the royal palace. Train these young men in the language and literature of Babylon.” 5 The king assigned them a daily ration of food and wine from his own kitchens. They were to be trained for three years, and then they would enter the royal service.
6 Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were four of the young men chosen, all from the tribe of Judah. 7 The chief of staff renamed them with these Babylonian names:
Daniel was called Belteshazzar.
Hananiah was called Shadrach.
Mishael was called Meshach.
Azariah was called Abednego. Daniel 1:3-7 (NLT)

Daniel and friends were likely overachieving teenagers, perhaps as young as 14 when they were taken captive. They were born Jews in Judah, but now they are being educated in, or more accurately, indoctrinated into, Babylonian ways in Babylon. With three years training, which of course would include training in Babylonian religious ideas, and with name changes, they were facing a pressure to assimilate. They were to become model Babylonians. Should these teenagers even bother with trying to be Jewish? After all, their new normal seemed like a pretty good gig, including the finest food!

Daniel made a decision:

8 But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way. Daniel 1:8 (NIV)

Biblical scholars are divided about what exactly was wrong with the king’s food, whether it was not “clean” or had been used in idolatry, but we need not be caught up in that discussion. What is important is that Daniel decided that he was not going to be assimilated, he would be different! He might be learning to speak like a Babylonian, but he will be Jewish.

Where did Daniel’s resolve to remain Jewish come from when becoming a Babylonian might seem to be an enticing and easy path? Daniel and his friends knew something very important. Despite everything, God is still God.

The opening verses of Daniel highlight this fact:

1 During the third year of King Jehoiakim’s reign in Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 The Lord gave him victory over King Jehoiakim of Judah and permitted him to take some of the sacred objects from the Temple of God. So Nebuchadnezzar took them back to the land of Babylonia and placed them in the treasure-house of his god. Daniel 1:1-2 (NLT emphasis added)

Due to circumstances, king Nebuchadnezzar, or the gods he worshipped, may appear to be in charge. However, it was God, described here as Adonai, meaning ‘lord,’ who was really sovereign over the situation. Since God is still God, Daniel resolves to be different.

God is still God today. Jesus is still Lord. Since God is still God, do we, who are Christians, have the same resolve as Daniel to be different? Is there something different about us that demonstrates that we have not wholly been assimilated into society around us? Perhaps church attendance is one thing, but is that it?

If we resolve to be different, then how will we relate to those who are different?

Since God is still God, and since Daniel resolves therefore to be a God-fearing Jew, what will that look like in Babylon? How will Daniel relate to the Babylonians? Will he fight them? Will he lead a movement against them? Will he be confrontational at every opportunity? Will he refuse to serve the king because he serves the King of kings?

We are told what Daniel does:

18 When the training period ordered by the king was completed, the chief of staff brought all the young men to King Nebuchadnezzar. 19 The king talked with them, and no one impressed him as much as Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. So they entered the royal service. Daniel 1:18-19 (NLT)

Jewish Daniel served the Babylonian king. In fact we will discover, as we keep reading, that Daniel will spend his whole life serving the current king, the next king, and even the king of the next empire to seize power. Daniel’s life is marked by serving people very different from himself. Daniel is different, but he also fits in. His attitude is not one of confrontation, but of servanthood. He does not come across as a warrior for God, but a servant of all.

How do we relate to the society we find ourselves in? How do we relate to people who may have quite different beliefs and values from us? God is still God, so we can be resolved to not be assimilated. But are we therefore to be warriors in a fight to the death? Or are we servants, like Daniel and his friends, and like Jesus? Are we to be confrontational at every opportunity? Or do we have an attitude of servanthood? Let us remember that Jesus came, “not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45).

Daniel and his friends served the Babylonians, and quite well, we might add:

20 Whenever the king consulted them in any matter requiring wisdom and balanced judgment, he found them ten times more capable than any of the magicians and enchanters in his entire kingdom. Daniel 1:20 (NLT)

Daniel and his friends will be known as different, but not because they say they are, so much as because they really are. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak, not in the shouting out of the recipe.

In our being different, is the proof in the pudding, or the shouting out of the recipe? Are we different in ways that matter? Not in being overtly and overly religious, but in subtle and important ways, things like “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23), which are the fruit of the Spirit? If we are truly different, and genuinely serving others, people will ask about our faith. We will have opportunities to speak about it, there will be no need to shout about it.

Daniel resolved to be different, to not be assimilated, to not become a Babylonian. But then he did not live in a Jewish bubble either. He had no plan to destroy the Babylonians. Rather, he served the Babylonians as someone who feared God and loved people. Can we serve our fellow North Americans as God-fearing, people-loving people?

(This post is part of a series on Daniel which begins here.)

September 12, 2019

A Christian Nation No Longer: How Did We Get Here?

After a few weeks off, we welcome back Thursday regular contributor Clarke Dixon. I not only get to post this today, but I was able to hear the sermon on which this is based as it was originally given on Sunday. Although it reflects a Canadian context, it’s equally true of the U.S. as well; it’s just that the UK and Canada are further down the road of secularization. This kicks off a series on the book of Daniel.

by Clarke Dixon

Does it feel like we are no longer living in a Christian nation? The influence of Christianity seems diminished compared to just a few decades ago. We, who are Christians, may feel like we are now outnumbered. With the pace of change in Canada, we might feel like we are living in a new and strange land with new and strange values.

How did we get here? Who gets the blame? Who is responsible for the diminished role of Christianity in Canadian society? Should we blame the government for changing laws? Should we blame the people for a lack of interest in Christianity?

Scholars have been pointing to the Old Testament Books of the Bible from the time of the exile of God’s people as a good mirror of our position today. The Northern Kingdom fell in the 700’s BC, while the Southern Kingdom, Judah, fell to the Babylonians in the 500’s BC. Those who were deported to Babylon from Judah, including Daniel and his friends from the Book of Daniel, found themselves living in a new and strange land with new and strange values.

How did they get there? Who gets the blame? Who is responsible for the likes of Daniel and his friends winding up in Babylon? Could they blame the Babylonians for being cruel? Could they blame their own government for defence cuts?

Where the responsibility lies is made quite clear in the Old Testament:

15 “Now listen! Today I am giving you a choice between life and death, between prosperity and disaster. 16 For I command you this day to love the Lord your God and to keep his commands, decrees, and regulations by walking in his ways. If you do this, you will live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you and the land you are about to enter and occupy.
17 “But if your heart turns away and you refuse to listen, and if you are drawn away to serve and worship other gods, 18 then I warn you now that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live a long, good life in the land you are crossing the Jordan to occupy. Deuteronomy 30:15-18 (NLT)

Long before God’s people were deported to Babylon, covenant promises were made as recorded in Deuteronomy. God’s people were not deported from their land because the enemy was stronger, but because their devotion to God was not strong at all. They refused to listen to God over the course of hundreds of years! God’s people themselves, were responsible for their ending up in a strange land.

Do we, as Christians in Canada bear any of the responsibility for the fact we find ourselves in a strange land? Yes, for several reasons.

First, we have watered Christianity down.

We have tried to make Christianity palatable to a people who find the beliefs and values to be weird. By “we,” I of course do not mean all of us, but many of us, too many of us. Many Christian teachers have downplayed the supernatural elements of Christianity, focusing instead on faith as being ‘helpful’. The messaging has been; become a Christian, not because it is true, but because it is useful. However, when we water down Biblical teaching, when we delete the supernatural, Christianity becomes tasteless. Who could be bothered?

The Psalmist tells us to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8 NLT). In many churches you can taste and see that the social club is good, but perhaps not as good as the senior’s centre; the entertainment is good, though perhaps not as good as Lady Gaga; that the celebrity pastor is good, though not as good as Oprah; that the good works are good, though maybe not as good as the cancer society. Church needs to be a place where people experience that God is good. Church needs to be a people who know that God is good. We cannot water down the teaching of God’s goodness and grace.

I recently attended a church where the vision statement was something like “helping people on whatever journey they are on, wherever it leads, thanking the earth for its goodness.” Where did God go? What about Jesus? When Christ is diminished in our churches, don’t be surprised when Christianity is diminished in our society.

Second, we have added unnecessary ingredients to Christianity.

My Mum once tried adding a tin of Heinz baked beans to Kraft Dinner. That did not work. The beans destroyed the Kraft dinner. Likewise there are beliefs and practices people try adding to Christianity that don’t work. These are destructive to Christianity.

By adding in religiosity and making it all about the rules and traditions, we have made Christianity taste awful. When Christianity is all about being religious, and not at all about being in relationship with the living God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, then it becomes just another religion. When Christianity is just another religion, don’t be surprised when people choose another religion.

Also, by adding in unBiblical doctrines, we have made Christianity taste awful. I heard of some big-name Christians “de-converting” in recent years. Their faith began to unravel when they realized that what they were taught, that obedience leads directly to blessing from God, just didn’t work out in real life. However, that theology misses the mark with regards to what the Bible teaches. When Christians have trouble holding onto the theology of a church, because it is apparently not how the world works, then don’t be surprised if no one else is interested either.

Third, we have taken away important ingredients from Christianity.

Some people don’t need cream or milk in their coffee, but I do. I have great difficulty drinking coffee without a wee bit of something. Likewise, many will struggle with Christianity without some helpful ingredients.

Here is one helpful ingredient; the possibility of expressing doubts. Christian churches, movements, and even denominations can become subcultures which are based on certainties on practically everything. Doubts are not allowed, often about anything. Leaving out this ingredient leaves a bad taste in many mouths.

Here is another helpful ingredient; the encouragement of thought. Thinking is often discouraged in Christian circles. Christian artist, Marty Sampson from Hillsong, recently expressed his doubts publicly. In his post he listed some things along with “nobody is talking about it.” Actually Christians are talking about the things he listed, perhaps just not in his church. He also said that ‘science has pierced’ religion. Maybe science and faith don’t mix well in his church, but they work well together in ours, and many others. Freedom to be able to think through things, including how Christianity and science interrelate, can be a very important ingredient for many of us.

If thinking is discouraged, if the expression of doubt is impossible, if understanding is not there, then don’t be surprised if people are not there either.

Daniel and his friends found themselves in Babylon as a consequence of their own actions. If we, who are Christians, find ourselves in a strange land, we should not blame the government or the people of the land. We bear some responsibility for where we are. In spurning Biblical teaching we have watered down Christianity so that it has no flavour. In adding in unBiblical rules and doctrines we have added unnecessary, even harmful ingredients, to Christianity, so that it tastes awful. In taking away opportunities for people to express doubts, to think and rethink, and grow, we have taken away important ingredients. Before we call Canadians to repentance, let us look to what we need to repent from.

(This is an introduction to a series on the Book of Daniel called “Outnumbered. The Book of Daniel and Living As Christians In A Not-So-Christian Society.” Watch for the rest in the weeks to come.)