Christianity 201

February 18, 2021

With So Many Saying So Much With Such Confidence…

My Mum often used an expression when playing the piano: “I’m playing the wrong notes with confidence!” Hearing so many Christian leaders say so many different, even contradictory, things, is it possible that many of us are “saying the wrong things with confidence”? Speaking with confidence doesn’t make things so.

Of course the internet is only making things worse. You don’t need too many clicks to hear differing voices on so many issues; do this, don’t do that, vote this way, vote that way, think this, thank that, and on it goes.

With so many confident, competing, and often less than complimentary voices, how do we know to whom we can listen with confidence?

In the days of Jesus there was no shortage of voices clamoring for people’s attention, leaders speaking with great confidence. There were the Pharisees, “listen to us, and let us become better than everybody else.” There were the Zealots, “listen to us, we are better than the Romans so help us kick these Romans out.” There were the Saducees, “listen to us, life is better with the Romans, so lets just get along with them.” There were the Romans, “listen to us, our Caesar is divine, we build great roads, and besides, if you don’t listen to us, we will crucify you.”

Among all these voices, another speaks up, it is the voice of Jesus:

Let me set this before you as plainly as I can. If a person climbs over or through the fence of a sheep pen instead of going through the gate, you know he’s up to no good—a sheep rustler! The shepherd walks right up to the gate. The gatekeeper opens the gate to him and the sheep recognize his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he gets them all out, he leads them and they follow because they are familiar with his voice. They won’t follow a stranger’s voice but will scatter because they aren’t used to the sound of it. . . . I myself am the shepherd.

John 10:1-5,11 (MSG)

There is one true shepherd we can follow with great confidence; Jesus.

In this passage Jesus is not just speaking about himself as the good shepherd, he is also speaking about the other leaders of the people. They were saying the wrong things with confidence. Even though they thought they had it right, they were so far off that Jesus called them sheep stealers and hired-men. We should note here that all these religious leaders thought that they were honouring God, and that by following them people would be honouring God. Even people who think they are honouring God may say the wrong things with confidence. Perhaps that sometimes includes you and me?

In fact, let us consider the Christian teacher, living or dead, that we hold in the highest regard, for whom we have the greatest respect. You likely have someone in mind, it’s probably not me. We have great confidence in what they tell us. Yet they likely got some things wrong and at some point have said the wrong things with confidence. Every Christian leader will stand before our Lord someday and have their theology corrected. That includes me, of course.

There is one true voice for the sheep to listen to, and that is the true shepherd. Am I as a pastor helping people hear his voice, or are people under my care only ever hearing my voice? I sometimes say the wrong things with confidence. We can always have confidence in Jesus.

We can listen to Jesus with confidence because he is the true shepherd, but also because he is the good shepherd:

“I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd puts the sheep before himself, sacrifices himself if necessary. A hired man is not a real shepherd. The sheep mean nothing to him. He sees a wolf come and runs for it, leaving the sheep to be ravaged and scattered by the wolf. He’s only in it for the money. The sheep don’t matter to him.

John 10:11-13 (MSG)

Even good religious leaders will try to protect themselves. We can imagine many pastors who, if they were pastors today, would be highly revered, yet in Germany in their day did not raise a voice against the Nazi regime. Perhaps some were blind to what was going on. No doubt some were quiet out of fear. Or we can imagine those who today would be known as great pastors and leaders, yet in their day they did not speak out against slavery. Perhaps some were blind to the sin of it, but we can be sure some kept quiet out of fear.

Jesus is the fearless shepherd, willing to lay down his life for the sheep. Jesus is the fearless shepherd, willing to speak the true things that would get himself killed. He did put our well being before his own, he did lay down his life for us, for the forgiveness of sin and our reconciliation to God. He did fearlessly speak the truth and he did get killed for it. He is the Good Shepherd. We can listen to his voice with confidence.

Jesus is the true shepherd, Jesus is the good shepherd, Jesus is also the God-shepherd. What do we mean by that?

Let us consider these words from the prophet Ezekiel:

Then this message came to me from the LORD: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds, the leaders of Israel. Give them this message from the Sovereign LORD: What sorrow awaits you shepherds who feed yourselves instead of your flocks. Shouldn’t shepherds feed their sheep? You drink the milk, wear the wool, and butcher the best animals, but you let your flocks starve. You have not taken care of the weak. You have not tended the sick or bound up the injured. You have not gone looking for those who have wandered away and are lost. Instead, you have ruled them with harshness and cruelty.

Ezekiel 34:1-4 (NLT)

The leaders, both religious and political, had done an awful job. They were supposed to be taking care of the people, but were taking care of themselves. Perhaps, sadly, that sounds like some religious or political leaders we can think of today?

Let us go on to consider the promise of God:

For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD

Ezekiel 34:11-15 (NRSV emphasis added)

It is in Jesus that the prophecy of Ezekiel 34 finds its greatest fulfillment. God has come to us, in Jesus. The LORD is our Shepherd and Jesus is the Shepherd. God, Who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, takes care of the sheep like no one else can.

Since Jesus is the true shepherd, the good shepherd, and the God-shepherd, are we tuned into His voice? Or have we become too dependent on certain voices claiming to speak for him? There are many who help us hear the voice of Jesus, but there are none who can take his place.

The best way to learn someone’s voice is to spend a lot of time listening to them. Therefore we can seek to grow in prayerfulness. We can commit to attentive and thoughtful reading of the Scriptures, especially spending time with Jesus in the Gospels, paying attention to his teaching, but also the example of his life.

With so many saying the wrong things with confidence, let us tune in to the voice of Jesus.


Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada. The full sermon video for today’s devotional can be seen as part of this longer “online worship expression”)

June 17, 2012

What is Man?

Today’s thoughts are from Glory To God For All Things, the blog of Father Stephen where it appeared on May 30th.  We have much to learn to from our Orthodox brothers and sisters.  I encourage you to read this at source — where there are also over 120 responses — and then explore his blog further.  I’ve added a video related to his theme verse here..

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? (Psalm 8:4).

The question, “What is man?” written perhaps a thousand years before the coming of Christ, is the bedrock of true humanism, the only form of dignity that can sustain human life. Our modern world continually re-imagines our nature, but God alone sustains it. I can think of nothing more assuring that the speculation, “What is man?” in a heart of wonder. I can think of nothing more terrifying than the same speculation in the cold calculus of the modern state.

Human dignity is among the youngest thoughts on earth and far from universally subscribed. We are daily exploited, murdered and used for unworthy ends. Individuals fail to see their own worth and give themselves over to evil ends. “What is man?” indeed, and why should we consider ourselves to be of any particular value?

To declare that I am valuable because I am myself – is simply a statement of  self-interest – an instinct shared by most living things. To acknowledge the value of another because it helps preserve my own value is the same instinct extended through a community. This instinct, surely a part of human life from its beginning, has never demonstrated the ability to lift man above his basest desires.

The question, “What is man,” is an echo or a corollary of the question, “Is there a God?” For if there is no God, then the question, “What is man?” has only the emptiness of an echo for an answer. Human dignity is not self-evident. With reference only to our biology we can say that we are carbon-based life-forms that have self-awareness. We cannot assume that other life-forms do not have self-awareness. The question, “What is man?” is thus no more interesting than the question, “What is a bacterium?”

But the question is itself an inherent part of our self-awareness. We want to know if there is anything of transcendent worth in our existence or is it as simply one thing among the many that exists. The question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is similar. Does that which exists have any transcendent meaning – anything beyond the ephemera of its ill-fated billions of years (“ill-fated,” for regardless of how you run the numbers, it will cease to exist).

There are many ways to answer the question, “What is man?” All religions do this in one way or another, and the answers are not at all the same. In Buddhism, self-awareness is simply one of many ephemera – having no bearing on the meaning of existence itself.

But the Christian answer is the primary claimant of the modern world’s attention, whether the modern world acknowledges the source of the answer or not. That we are created in the image and likeness of God, and that God Himself has become man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is the basis of all thought of human rights – the language of consensus in the human community. The assertion of human rights is commonly made today without reference to God. It is thus nothing more than assertion. Human beings have rights because we say they do. Such unsupported assertions only have force when they are asserted by the strong to the weak. This is very much the state of human existence in a secularized world. Rights exist only because a controlling authority enforces such rights. Rights which are denied by a controlling authority have no existence.

Assertions by the West of various human rights, when heard by some non-Western cultures, do not sound like truth claims, only like cultural imperialism. Should women be allowed to drive cars in Saudi Arabia? The answer depends solely on who is speaking.

World culture at present is not grounded in a civilization. There is no consensus of transcendent values, no true common agreement. The secular triumph of a common Europe, the post-War’s version of the tower of Babel, presently stands ready to collapse as the Eurovision confronts the reality of the Euro. “We share a common currency and a bureaucracy in Brussels,” is an insufficient answer to the question, “What is man?”

Modern, secular culture is derivative. Its values are largely drawn from the treasure of earlier Christian values, regardless of their present distortion. Human rights are contingent upon human dignity, itself contingent upon the creation of man in the image of God. Remove the source and the contingencies collapse (in time). Human rights have already begun their collapse. The concept of rights remain, but they exist only as those in power define them. Thus the rights of women (as defined by the state) or the rights of those with minority sexual orientations (as defined by the state) or other state-defined groups have rights that frequently supersede those of other groups. These rights are arbitrary and represent nothing more than the present state of political reality. As such, they do not represent rights, but assertions of power.

The language of rights continues to have the cachet of the earlier imago dei, but one in which the deity is no more than a function of government bureaucracy (of which the courts are but an arm). The great weakness of our present cultural existence is its lack of foundation outside the bald assertion of power. The two most distorted examples of such power-based cultures were Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union. These two cultures continue to strike most moderns as distorted when they are compared to our cultural memory of the imago dei.  But their distortions were justified in the same manner as today’s secularist assertions. Only the present direction of the winds of power stands between modern culture and state terror. The slightest change in that wind can revisit the world with a renewed holocaust. The regime is the same: only the victims change.

The belief that man is created in the image of God yields its own corollaries. As the image of God, human beings are endowed with infinite worth. A human life has value derived from its very Divinely given existence. Our value is not a gift of the state or the result of our own assertions. No one life has greater value than another. Neither usefulness nor talent add value to that given by God.

States (as well as the quasi-states of ecclesial institutions) have sought to reduce these corollaries over the course of the Christian centuries. Thus some have been given greater rights by reason of birth, wealth, race, gender, creed, etc. Each of these assertions of greater rights represent departures from the givenness of the imago dei and a distortion of the Christian faith.

If one human being exists in the image of God, then all human beings exist in the image of God. None of us is more fully the image than another. In Christian teaching, Christ Himself is the definition of the image of God. To the question, ” What does it mean to be human?” Christ is the answer. In Christian understanding, Christ as incarnate image of God is celebrated from conception (the feast of the Annunciation) to His ascension to the right hand of God. No quality of Christ (sentience, wisdom, volition, race, age, gender, etc.) defines or establishes His place as imago dei. He is the image of God. In the same manner, our own unqualified existence establishes us as the image of God.

Only in this fully Christian understanding of man are the value, and thus rights of each human being guaranteed. Only in a culture in which this understanding is agreed and accepted is such value safe and secure. It is perhaps the greatest treasure given to us by God.

There are many modern Christians who have been lulled to sleep by the language of the larger culture, accepting that those who speak of “rights,” actually accept the imago dei. Many Christians have abandoned the public defense of man as God’s image in exchange for a place at the bargaining table of the state’s assertions of power. The state’s ability to assert various perceived rights is not a defense of our humanity – it is its destruction. Our acceptance of the state’s assertion is a capitulation of the gospel. Nothing less than the Divine value of every human life is worthy of the Christian gospel. Those Christians who do not accept such a value have departed from the faith and made common cause with those who would destroy us.

O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens. Out of the moth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightiest still the enemy and the avenger. When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor. Thou maddest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet: All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas. O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! (Psalm 8)

~Father Stephen

January 5, 2011

C. S. Lewis on Life, Atheism and God

This is from the website, All About Philosophy.   I chose this today because we just finished reading (out loud) all of Mere Christianity.

C.S. Lewis Quotes – Life

“You will never know how much you believe something until it is a matter of life and death.” “If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.” – God in the Dock, page 52.

“One of the things that distinguishes man from the other animals is that he wants to know things, wants to find out what reality is like, simply for the sake of knowing. When that desire is completely quenched in anyone, I think he has become something less than human.” – God in the Dock, page 108.

Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself. – The Problem of Pain

C.S. Lewis Quotes – Atheism

“Atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning. . .” – Mere Christianity

“Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable.” – Mere Christianity

“A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere — ‘Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,’ as Herbert says, ‘fine nets and stratagems.’ God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.” – Surprised by Joy

C.S. Lewis Quotes – God

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? – Mere Christianity

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. – Mere Christianity, pages 40-41.

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” – Surprised by Joy

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else. – Is Theology Poetry?