Trumpian Chaos

9/11

In September, 2001, three planes high jacked by terrorists were aimed at three carefully selected targets: The Pentagon, the Twin Towers and Washington D.C. The 20th anniversary of that event is due this year. The symbolic intent of the terrorists was clear; the first was aimed at the U.S. military, the second at the nation’s economic centre and the third, we may presume, at the centre of its government in Washington, possibly at the President himself. The first two targets were hit as planned, the economic centre taking the severest damage. The courage of the passengers in grappling with the terrorists prevented the third plane from reaching its target – the Presidency and the seat of government was spared. 

Capitol Hill

What the terrorists failed to do in their attempt to symbolically destroy the seat of government and the Presidency, Donald Trump as sitting President has almost achieved in the last days of his Presidency. The bizarre claims of being robbed of the election, the refusal to concede and the stirring up of  violent demonstrations against the seat of government on Capitol Hill which have ended in loss of life have astounded and sickened most law-abiding Americans. 

It is a story line which the most rabid of film makers would be hard pressed to conceive. It is not fiction, however, but hard, scarcely believable fact. The situation for American democracy was utterly critical. It was imperative that Republicans and Democrats put law and order and the constitution before party, and this highly dangerous demagogue  was stopped. Twelve months ago, here in Britain we had our own serious threat to our constitution over the Brexit issue, but in the mercy of God  we survived it. The American scene is, however, much more serious. We must pray that in the mercy of God America will also survive this current chaos. It is crucial not only for America but for the world.

Democracy

In recent years there has been considerable amount of writing about  democracy and what is needed to maintain it. That is largely because over the last few decades we have seen a number of fledgling democracies crumple before unscrupulous “strongmen” and become “tyrannies” beset with corruption. 

The American dream of the 1990s of spreading its democratic ideal across the nations to replace the post-war hard, authoritarian regimes has taken a severe hit in this new century. Among those commenting on the need to watch over the democratic way of governance, there has been a general recognition that certain norms of personal behaviour are vital for the health of democracy. These “norms” fundamentally involve respect (verbal and actual) by political leaders for their opponents and for the laws of the constitution. 

Attacks on these “norms” can be recognised when: 

    1. There is a failure to play by the rules of democracy, that is to say, for example, a refusal to accept credible electoral results, or an endorsement of mass protest movements tinged with violence. 
    2. There is lack of tolerance and demonisation of political opponents, calling them “subversive” or even “criminals”.
    3. There is toleration of violence, refusing to condemn it among their supporters, and even encouraging it. (see: How Democracies Die; Levitsky & Ziblatt p.23).

It is abundantly evident that Donald Trump has consistently failed to observe these norms right from the very beginning of his Presidency, and especially so since his defeat in the recent election. His utter inability to acknowledge any personal defeat of any kind (a very telling and marked psychological weakness) or to take note of any rational advice has been of such an order that the possibility of making him “unfit to rule” as defined by a U.S. constitutional amendment is something that has to be seriously considered.

Consequences

Some very dangerous consequences have already flowed out of the fiasco of these events. In the first place China has been given a propaganda opportunity of the highest order. China has a repressive party regime which keeps that nation under  a strict authoritarian grip. In order for that regime to survive it has to demonstrate its legitimacy against those who urge the freedoms of open democracy. The events in America will greatly help the Chinese rulers to contrast the weakness and foolishness of democratic regimes with its own purposeful regime, and so strengthen its repressive hand. It will particularly help the Chinese rulers in justifying their increasing clamp down on Hong Kong’s freedoms, and will also make them more determined than ever to increase their authoritarian control of their own  country. What is true of China is also equally true of an equally repressive Russia, which has been offered the same propaganda bonus.

Secondly, assuming there is now a proper transition to Joe Biden as President, the new president will face a difficult task in bringing together a bitterly divided American nation and keeping a lid on further riotous behaviour. Existing deep divisions in America have been made much worse by Donald Trump’s divisive political behaviour patterns. Neo-anarchist groups have found new opportunities and become more active. 

The process of healing will not be easy. Donald Trump located people in areas of social deprivation across America and was able to exploit their needs to work out his demagogic call. Recognising that need and addressing that depredation with appropriate legislation will be crucial in the future. If Joe Biden finds that, like President Obama, he is constitutionally prevented from implementing any real remedial social policies the anger and division may well remain. Unrest and bitterness is dangerous in a nation when unity is particularly important at the moment. How much better Joe Biden’s political agenda will be than Donald Trump’s remains to be seen. He may restore “the law”, but if he and his party pursue an all-out libertarian “woke” style agenda with “freedoms” that are in reality socially destructive then he will bring further tragedy to America. 

World Order

This leads one to say that all this current chaotic scene needs to be seen in the ongoing historical process of America’s gradual loss of its position as the acknowledged leader and protector of the world order.

At the end of the last century, with the U.S.S.R. having disintegrated, its position as the dominating world power able to keep “the peace” seemed unassailable. In the year 2000 America stood on a crest. That has now radically changed. The fall from that crest began with the 9/11 attack and the all-out war on terrorism that it provoked. In the decade which followed that attack the military was further mauled in the highly unsuccessful “regime change” attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan, and the economy was equally mauled by the enormous expenditure incurred by those wars and by the disastrous financial and economic effects of the sub-prime scandal and its bank failures. Though spared in the terrorist attack, the presidency of George Bush proved to be weak and was manipulated by stronger and more clever men who were really responsible for the disastrous foreign ventures. 

The presidency of Barack Obama was crippled by his inability to effect legislation for real social relief where it was needed, and by his inability to calm the Middle East, which became increasingly a thorn in America’s side. 

Donald Trump made some significant noises in the direction of China and Iran, but generally withdrew from important international bodies in favour of “America First” and has finally left office causing an unprecedented debacle . 

Containing Russia in the past was one thing but containing China in the future will be equally important and, one suspects, much more difficult.  The future will require the gift to the nation of a president who exhibits a rare ability of wisdom, and strength. For that to happen, the common cry of “God bless America” will have to become a deep and earnest prayer of repentance, and there will have to be a return to the faith and godly behaviour of the nation’s early fathers.

Click here to read more about Coronavirus and the judgements of God

The God Who Weeps – Comment on the Coronavirus Situation

A God of Compassion

I remember reading many years ago a testimony of an elderly man of God who was preparing to speak on the judgement of God. As he pondered he felt God said to him, “Before you speak of my judgement listen to the tone of my voice”.

The man of God recognised immediately that he was being warned that the subject of judgement was not one to be addressed in harsh and “judgmental” tones. He needed first to recognise that behind the strong and painful disciplinary action of God there was in fact a heart that was tender, compassionate and greatly reluctant to see such pain afflicted; there was a heart of love which was longing to bless, yet in faithfulness had as a last resort to bring judgement and pain. Thus the man of God was not prevented from speaking judgement but he was clearly reminded of a need for tenderness and compassion. The heart of God remains always “slow to anger and swift to bless”. 

Easter presents us with a remarkable scene in which this “tone of voice”, this deep love of God, is vividly demonstrated as Jesus himself speaks of judgement. Luke records how on Palm Sunday Jesus approached Jerusalem by the descent from the Mount of Olives.

As the panoramic view of the city opened up, he wept over it. The tears were compulsive and prophetic, revealing the heart of God. He wept because he knew the appalling judgement that would come on the city as a consequence of its rejection of him and his Father.

It would have been appropriate if he had wept for himself over his own painful death that was shortly to come in the city, but his thoughts and tears were not for himself but for the people of the city and all the pain that was to come to them; he was weeping for a wayward, godless people. And as he wept he spoke out a word of both lament and judgment; 

“If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you.” Lk. 19:41ff 

Jesus was prophesying judgment by “the sword” on the city. Forty years later it happened; the city was besieged and virtually annihilated by a Roman army, with appalling distress and huge loss of life. 

 Two facts are highlighted by this episode: the first is that God is a God of great compassion and deeply reluctant, even distressed, to see people suffer under judgement. He is indeed the God who has “no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather is pleased when they turn from their ways and live”. (Ez. 18:23) There is a striking echo of this truth in the Book of Jonah.

When Jonah warned Nineveh of the judgement to come on account of its wickedness, the people of the city from the king downwards repented of their evil and were spared. God was pleased. But Jonah was actually angry that God had had mercy on the city, and sulked. God rebuked him with the words “Nineveh has more than one hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” Nineveh was one of the most godless and rapacious cities that history has seen (vividly portrayed in the book of Naham) and ripe for judgement, yet God was concerned for it and concerned to spare it. Such is the deep longing in the heart of God for the worst of sinners to come to repentance.

What a contrast this is to the bitter vengeful anger of Jonah who seemed more concerned about his status and validity as a prophet than about “sinners who repent”. He seems to have failed utterly to grasp the fact that the prophecy he had been given of Nineveh’s destruction was designed to give the Ninevites an opportunity to repent, and that his ministry had actually been successful!

There is an important corollary to this Jonah story. It is quite wrong to think that speaking out a word of judgement is an “act of doom and gloom” and to be repressed. If it is done genuinely at the prompting of God and with a heart of genuine love and tearful concern, it can be the very instrument (and in some cases the only instrument) by which repentance can be brought about. (Gospel preaching which never touches on the judgement of God and the deep need of repentance loses much of its power!).

In this judgement/lament the tone of God’s voice is epitomised in the words of Jesus, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes”. They betray a voice of deep, heartfelt sorrow and anguish. They are like the voice of an anguished human father or mother who want to see their child blessed, but see their child turn away in wilful ignorance from the path that would lead to blessing and follow instead a path of pain and destruction. Such words remind us of the stunned anguish with which the writers of tragedy finish their stories in which something that could have been so happy and beautiful ended needlessly in pain and disaster. That is how God saw it.

The teaching ministry of Jesus had spelt out the pathway of righteousness, and his ministry of healing had shown the incredible graciousness of God. In them He had pointed out the pathway to peace.  The tragedy was that Jerusalem had turned its back on both his teaching and his works and was about to kill him. The consequence would be disaster and the loss of all peace. Tragedy always leaves us with a sense of pain. God feels the pain! 

The God Who Has To Judge

It would be very good if we could leave the Palm Sunday scene thinking only of this love and compassion of God. However, the second feature which is highlighted by the story is that, no matter how much God loves sinners, weeps over them and desires them to be spared, the judgement of God remains an awful reality. In fact if judgement were not devastatingly real God would not need to weep! His weeping for Jerusalem was there because his judgement was threatening it and it was no empty threat.

It would have been interesting to have heard the reactions of the people in the Palm Sunday crowds to Jesus’ prophecy of the coming destruction of Jerusalem. The vast majority of people would doubtless have brushed it aside. It was far too busy and exciting a time to listen to “that sort of silly stuff” with the great Feast of Passover looming and so much to do and see. We do know, however, that the ruling religious elite were to hear the same prophecy in parable form later in the week from Jesus’ own lips and that what they heard would confirm their decision to kill him (Lk.20:9ff). For them this Galilean upstart was talking inappropriate and uneducated nonsense among those who were in every way his superiors. It aroused not only their scorn but also their bitter anger.

The Prevailing Modern Outlook

Scorn and anger! These are still the two most common responses to any sort of speak about judgement in our own times. And this is particularly so among the “educated” elites of the modern world. The all-pervading liberal secularism has effectively brushed God and his restraints out of our thinking. With no God there can be no judgement!

Sadly, however, this prevailing world view has penetrated even the Christian world and we find Christian (and Jewish) scholars and leaders who insist that with God there can be no judgement for he is not that kind of God. Love alone can be allowed. Their contempt is very evident for the traditional understanding of judgement as something God brings or allows as punishment for wrong-doing.

 This, of course, is very far removed from the biblical witness. From the Garden of Eden in Genesis to the coming of Jesus as Judge in the book of Revelation God’s judgement remains a constant, persistent and utterly central theme. It is written large in the Old Testament history of the Jews and their law, it is written in the life, ministry and death of Jesus and in the New Testament epistles.

Throughout the whole of Scripture one simple note is sounded: “the wages of sin is death”. Thankfully it is not the only theme. The glory of the biblical witness is that there is forgiveness, avoidance of judgement and life wherever there is repentance and faith in God. This double message of warning and hope is plain for all to see, and the sternness of the message of judgement refuses to be “airbrushed” out by the foolishness of human intellectual wisdom.

 The very concept of judgement is, of course, horrific, and it is the sheer horror of it that remains a huge stumbling block for many people (and many Christians), and not without reason. Judgement is horrific because of its nature.

On nations it comes in the main as war, famine, disease and plague. The anguish, the pain and the distress these cause is appalling for all involved. We view it with revulsion and quite rightly so. When it comes, judgement can be very hard to take in or grasp. For many, many years Jeremiah preached judgement would come to sinful Judah, but when he eventually sat in the middle of Jerusalem after it had been cruelly smashed to pieces by the murderous Babylonian armies he found it nearly impossible come to terms with the reality and awfulness of the judgement he had so long preached. His lamentations are those of a deeply grieved and heart-broken man: “Oh, God, how can it be!” seems to sum up his thoughts. Many a tender soul over the years has doubtless expressed that same lamentation. When the casualty lists of WW1 were reported around Britain the heart break was deeply felt in thousands of households; grief hung over the nation like a shroud. But it is utterly wrong to think that God himself is not unmoved by such anguish and pain. On the contrary, he weeps. This is why God is “slow to judge”.

The Seriousness of Sin

The real problem in this question of judgement lies, however, in the fact that humanity fails to grasp how serious a matter it is to fail to walk with its Creator and live in godliness. “The Seriousness of Sin” has been the subject of many a sermon from God-fearing preachers down the centuries. It is a very important subject, not least in our own day. “The things that belong to our peace” of which the Jerusalem crowds were ignorant are the things we are so wilfully ignorant of to-day: fundamentally those things are faith in the Living God and righteousness of life.

The fact is that these things that lead to death are all too prevalent in our self-indulgent society; lust, greed, lying, gluttony, murder and the dismissal of God as unnecessary for life. They are not just surface issues; such behaviour is at the very core of modern living. God is not mocked! What makes sin such a serious matter is that God is serious about judging it and those who embrace it. 

No matter how unpalatable judgment may be we simply cannot write it off. The real challenge is to come to terms with it as a fact of life and to re-direct our lives in the light of it, heeding the warnings.

The Coronavirus Epidemic

And so we come to the Coronavirus epidemic – a plague now of world-wide dimension, and appallingly destructive!  Does God have a quarrel with the world? Its deep sin and godlessness is not covered by its scientific and technological brilliance. God measures people on the basis of his own his moral commands. It is time to take the biblical record much more seriously; there are many plagues in the bible and they are not there without reason nor are they random. They mark divine displeasure. The biblical answer to the question is one to be taken very seriously.  

What Should Christians do in the light of this?

Christians have been given the grace to come into the throne room of God to pray and intercede. We need to take our place there. 

1 The first requirement is to examine our own lives and look at our own standards in the light of God’s standards.  We need to make sure we are not part of the problem. We should point the finger at ourselves first. This is a crucial time for examining carefully our own life-styles and see how much of the world has impinged on us.

2 The second requirement is to acknowledge the sins of the nation, to repent and acknowledge the justice of God’s hand against us.

3 The third is to praise God for his love, his grace and his mercy. We have one plea only, the plea of Habakkuk, “Lord, in wrath remember mercy”. God remains merciful even in the midst of his judgments. He remains the God who weeps over those who “know not their right hand from their left”. Make much of his mercy and grace.

4 Finally it goes without saying that we should seek to be agents of the mercy and love of God in supporting and helping other people who find themselves in distress or need in the present predicament.

Click here to read more about Coronavirus and the judgements of God

A Break in the Sky and A Thunderclap

A Ray of Mercy against Dark Clouds of Judgement

With just days to go prior to Christmas the nation held its breath to see what would be the outcome of one of the most crucial General Elections in our history. Political life and government in the House of Commons had reached a point of unparalleled chaos and confusion, with all the norms of reasonable and sensible behaviour lost in a welter of anger and mutual hostility. We were watching all the time-honoured procedures of our democratic government being glibly overthrown, and we saw even those whose responsibility it was to guard those procedures actually doing most to undermine them. We were threatened with a deep and debilitating constitutional crisis. Politically we were in “meltdown”. It was a hideous, unbelievable dream for a nation which prided itself above all on the fairness and sensibleness of its political institutions. 

At the deepest level, from a spiritual standpoint, as a nation we were clearly experiencing the hand of God’s judgement.  

But with Christmas still before us we woke up to find the nightmare had gone, the confusion abated and a government with a working majority “in situ”; we had had an election which did not leave us with the chaos of a “hung” parliament, or something even worse. Stability had been restored. There was a real calm after the storm, a genuine break in the sky. The relief was palpable and widespread, though obviously not universal.

There had been a great deal of earnest prayer surrounding that election, not only corporate prayer but the prayer of many individuals, and God had shown “mercy in the midst of wrath”.  We had been spared absolute political collapse. Prayer had prevailed it seemed. That is a truth Christians need to ponder and act upon more than ever in the coming days.

A Very Loud Thunderclap

The New Year, however, saw a sudden and totally unexpected thunderclap which severely jolted that feeling of relief. Donald Trump openly ordered the assassination of Qassem Suleimani (“the Mastermind of Iranian foreign policy”) by a drone attack. Such an action was unprecedented and clearly an act of war. Had the President lost leave of his senses in a moment of pique? Did he realise the possible devastating repercussions? Was this Trump at his most irresponsible? The “markets” showed signs of panic. Everyone was alarmed at the possible outcome – war!..? Such fear was eminently reasonable as a first reaction. But then something very surprising happened even in the first two or three days of the “crisis”. A number of eminent journalists and analysts began to say in effect that even if this were the “irresponsible Trump” what had happened was actually not as dire at it first seemed. The fact was that a very definite “red line” had at last been put down in the clearest way possible with Iran. Critically the President was able to show that Iran had been operating through its “proxies” a clandestine and bloodthirsty war with America (and others) for a long time: the strike was intended to stop it. The analysts also took note of the fact that Iran’s options for revenge were very limited, and especially so since it was clear that the U.S. was prepared to respond, and could respond, with superior strength to any retaliation. The shouting on the streets in Iran was threatening but only cloaked a lack of power. Neither did the shouting necessarily reflect the feelings of many Iranians who have been disillusioned by the “regime” for some time now. Moreover it had come at a time when economically Iran is in something of a critical state. And the great powers looked on – mute.

So, has even this dangerous-looking thunderclap really got a silver lining? Does what has happened look like some merciful restraint on Middle East violence? Are we in this country in a better position both nationally and internationally than we were toward the end of 2019? It would be unwise to get too optimistic. The next twelve months could be another bumpy ride for our government over the EU issue. How sure can we be that America will see the job through in the Middle Eastern boiling pot or will President Trump do a characteristic back-track? What will the other super-powers do? They are watching and waiting for their opportunity.

The fact is that though we may well have seen something of the mercy of God for our nation, the sky is still dark with the threatening clouds of judgement. The spectre of major war has been raised in a very significant way, even if there has been a silver lining. Biblically, the judgements of God can be seen to progress from political chaos to war, and we do well to take heed of the warnings of God. That is the overriding feature in the outlook, and the truth we need to keep firmly before us. The fact is that our nation still pursues its non-moral course of behaviour, if anything getting gradually worse in its obscenities, its legal absurdities, its violence, its unbridled lust for money and pleasure etc. And what is true of our nation is true of the whole Western world. We are utterly dependent on the mercy of God. The recognition of that dependence needs to be paramount in our praying. “In wrath remember mercy” has to be our constant cry both corporately and individually, and it needs to come from “pure hearts and clean hands”. 

I feel very strongly that this is a time when the prayer of concerned individual Christians is of the utmost importance; it is not a time to wait for prayer meetings to be called (though there is need for that in our churches), but a time to take individual responsibility in prayer.

A SHADOW OVER CHRISTMAS

“INCOMPETENCE ON A MONUMENTAL SCALE “

It is very important for us to keep an eye on the progress of Brexit at this critical point in our history. Two headline statements made in the Press this week have stood out vividly for me, and call for comment:

“IT IS INCOMPETENCE ON A MONUMENTAL SCALE”.

Mervyn King, former Governor of the Bank of England; on the planning and process of Brexit.

“DARK FORCES CAN BE UNLEASHED WHEN PARLIAMENTARY POLITICS BREAK DOWN”.

Title of a Newspaper Leader

This week Theresa May brought her Brexit “Deal” into the Commons to be debated and hopefully to be accepted. On the first day before the debate had really begun the Prime Minister and the government were found in breach of contempt of the House on three separate issues. This was totally unparalleled in the history of the Commons: three in the five year life of one parliament was not unusual, but three in one day bordered on the absurd. This was a very ominous start to the week-long debate. It was the first cannonade of uproar that continued to resound in the Commons.

One act of contempt stood out in particular; the Prime Minister had refused a full publication for the House of a report on the legal basis of her “Deal”. This had proved to be at the very least a misjudgement on Theresa May’s part. It was a failure to play her political cards correctly, and seemingly a result of an intransigence which would not take advice. True, it was not to her advantage in the debate to have the report published, but to have refused to publish simply made matters far worse in the event. It heightened the huge storm of protest (equally unparalleled) as she went on to outline and commend her “Deal”.

By day three of the debate, the rancour and heated division had reached a point where she found herself isolated and pleading with some emotion that she had put everything she had into making the “Deal” the best she could; she had worked hard and long and withstood any amount of abuse in her efforts to do her duty. She begged for support for her plan. Not surprisingly, it seems to have had little effect – the issues were too deep and important for that sort of personal appeal. This illustrates the tragedy of Theresa May. Without any question there has been widespread recognition of her sense of duty and commitment to the best for the country and there has been recognition of her refusal to get embroiled in any kind of political mud-slinging. She has maintained great and exemplary integrity. Unhappily, however, severe misjudgements have clearly dogged her path. A readiness to get on with the job and “go it alone” in the face of the confusion of ideas may have seemed in one sense laudable, but unfortunately her decision to “go it alone” proved to be one of her worst misjudgements. Losing all semblance of support, she tended to lean over into a disposition toward autocracy, and, not listening to advisors she came up with a plan that was so unworkable it pleased nobody.

“Incompetence” is a hard and derogatory word, and I have refrained from using out of respect for Theresa May’s integrity, but taking the Brexit process as a whole I think Mervyn King’s description of that process as being a demonstration of “incompetence on a monumental scale has to stand as very accurate. What I am anxious to underline about this comment is something I stressed in the last blog, namely that it is the classic description of what happens to decision making in government when a nation disowns its Maker. Even if there is a degree of courtesy and genuine selfless concern in any particular politician for what is right it is not sufficient to stem any process of judgement. Misjudgements, and devastating misjudgements with dire consequences, are bound to be made when the fear of God remains as ignored as it is in our nation, whoever might lead. Such misjudgements are quickly seen as incompetence.

The second quotation above, from the Press article, spoke of “dark forces” being released when normal “parliamentary politics break down”. Such a statement reflects with very great accuracy what can happen when political incompetence reaches such a degree that orderly government by due procedure and consensus starts to collapse. We can actually see this happening today in numerous places in our world where the dark forces of autocracy, violence and repression have begun to take over from disorderly democratic rule. Turkey is sadly perhaps the nearest country (being in Europe) to witness something of this downward spiral. The author of the article is not suggesting we have arrived at such a point, but he is certainly sounding a warning that we are moving in that direction. He noted that things become “problematic when there is a clash between the Executive and Parliament of the sort we are potentially seeing at the moment”.  He warns against complacency about civil upheaval. Historically we can never overlook the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the consequent rise of Hitler’s dark forces in what was a highly civilised Germany. The fact is that the road ahead of us with Brexit is highly fractious and dangerous. Almost any direction we take will be divisive, and the chaos of bitter division is the point of entry for dark forces. What we need to recognise is that division and bitterness is again something that humanity walks into (whether in Parliament or anywhere else) when we move away from God’s pathway of righteousness.

As a nation we have been under the growing judgement of God for some years. Rather than getting back to God we have as a nation rather increased the speed at which we are rejecting the moral behaviour which he requires. We have increasing lost any semblance of being a “God” culture, and we have reached a crisis point in His dealings with us.

The greatest gift God could give us as a nation at the moment in His mercy would be that of sound competent and godly leadership, but to be sure of that the greater need is for the nation to find its way back to the God of its forefathers.

“In wrath remember mercy”.

07 – 12 – 18

POLITICAL MAYHEM!

Everybody apparently is bored with BREXIT; at least this is what the headlines have told us this week. Unfortunately we can’t afford to be bored! It is far too serious a matter. A huge amount depends upon the outcome. A well-known reputable weekly journal put the situation perfectly when one of its columnists wrote, “One thing increasingly clear in the fog of Brexit is that it is the most serious domestic crisis Britain has faced in the modern democratic era”. He went on to quote the transport minister’s remark that in its Brexit dealings the government was responsible for “a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis in 1976”.  He noted that others had compared “the current debacle” of Brexit to the IMF’s bail out of Britain in 1976 and the gold standard crisis of 1931. He continued, “In fact it is worse than anything else Britain has experienced in peacetime. The political system is all but paralysed, the country is divided into warring ideological tribes, the civil service is overwhelmed, and in the event of no deal, Britain would be staring into the abyss”.

These are very serious comments. The Press is not averse to “building up” a crisis, of course – crises sell newspapers and journals! But these comments do not strike me as being in that category. Despite the “fog” of the Brexit process, it is patently obvious that we have a government in confusion and crisis, following a leader with whom very few agree and with whom most strongly disagree, and consequently utterly unable to come to any kind of real consensus at a time when the nation faces one of the most critical decisions of its history.  The possibility of much greater chaos when the House of Commons debate the Prime Minister’s plans is all too real. The fall-out could be extremely serious, with political collapse leading even to dangerous autocratic political take-overs.

No! We cannot afford to be bored – certainly Christians cannot – we have a responsibility.

Serious as this massive political issue is, however, there is a much more serious issue surrounding it than just finding the right political solution. Irrespective of the issue being a complex Brexit, the sheer incompetence of the process, the appalling and aggressive nature of the in-fighting, the confused chaos of the process are all pointing to something deeper, something spiritual. This “something” needs to be stated bluntly, and it is that God is indicating his displeasure against the nation. This is the sort of thing that happens when nations do not walk in the “fear of the Lord”, and have no regard for Him and his moral requirements. They degenerate.

To make this sort of remark is, of course, to invite from most people an immediate disdainful response. Such comment belongs, they reckon, to the “loony fringe”. The biblical prophets knew all about that kind of reaction! Such reaction is only to be expected, however, for this world has little time for God and its Maker as it blindly battles on in its own supposed “wisdom”. But those who have come to know the reality of a holy God have come to know that God is utterly central to our life and our well-being. They realise that He is not indifferent to the way we live but expects godliness and righteousness, and that if we do not walk that way we can meet with trouble in our lives! Furthermore our God is the God of the nations; he created them and expects of them what he expects of individuals. When they honour Him, he blesses them; when they arrogantly reject Him and his ways they meet with trouble – trouble of all kinds, and incompetent and chaotic government is frequently one such kind of trouble.

This  is not an obscure or extreme or “fringe” idea. It is written on page after page of the biblical record, and we meet with it in most of the books of the Bible. The Old Testament in particular is essentially a story about a nation – the Jewish nation. But it also the story of many other nations alongside Israel. As the biblical history of those nations unfolds, it is constantly commenting on the well-being or demise of those nations and demonstrating one essential theme; that those nations and their leaders who walk in God’s ways experience wisdom and blessing, and those who do not walk in his ways experience distress of every kind. This is no “fringe” idea; it is an utterly central idea, culminating in clear and definitive fashion with all the main biblical prophets. It is “fringe” only to those who have no time for God, though, sadly, it may also be “fringe” to those whose faith in God is only “personal” and does not grasp God’s deep concern for the nations.

The lesson from the biblical record is that our “troubles” as a nation will continue (and get worse) as long as we insist on living the way we live. Violence is on the increase, sexual immorality and confusion abounds, greed, covetousness and corruption are very much with us even at the highest levels of society and seemingly know no bounds; and our children are more and more tainted with what is not good, but destructive.

No, Brexit is not really the main national problem; it is only an ugly symptom of the main problem. The real problem is the systematic way we have strayed away from the fundamental requirements of God – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and your neighbour as yourself”. The second of those two requirements (love your neighbour) is totally dependent on the dynamic provided by the first (love the Lord your God). The nation has chosen a liberal secular belief system, opening the way for an increasingly self-indulgent life style, and the movement away from God has been swift. We have lost  the anchor to which we have held (albeit often with lip service) for centuries. It is no longer woven into the national fabric. We have reverted to paganism. In all our praying for the nation (so desperately needed at this time) the confession of this must be paramount.

We are left literally to the mercy of God. He is ready to judge, but he is able to have mercy and restore. There is no other positive platform for our prayer other than that of pleading his mercy. “It is of his mercies that we are not consumed“.

BOB DUNNETT

A WORLD IN NEED OF WISDOM

I have been listening in to some of the proceedings of the World Economic Forum’s annual conference in Davos, Switzerland. The conference brings together some 2,500 top business leaders, international political leaders, economists, celebrities and journalists for up to four days to discuss the most pressing issues facing the world. Over the years it has had bitter criticism as well as rough handling at the hands of protesters; it has been inevitably branded by conspiracy theorists as a world “take-over” group, and it has been maligned as the spearhead of globalization activists etc. Nonetheless it continues to be a place where international contact can be made between leading world politicians and those who are heading up the vast new business empires and the technological revolutions that are rapidly re-shaping our age At the same time the fundamental intention of the forum still remains the resolution of the tensions and difficulties in the world. To have such a forum is important. The subjects under discussion are wide, impressive and relevant. Theresa May, for example, has spoken at the Conference (very ably) on AI (Artificial Intelligence) – a massive issue for the future. Of course we have to acknowledge that in such a forum different interest groups (whether business or political) will inevitably watch carefully over their own interests, but there never has been in this world any kind of forum on any aspect of life where that has not been the case. Despite such divergent interests it remains a fact that such forums have done good and can still do some good. Finally it is worth noting that it is the brain child of a Business Professor of the University of Geneva, not a politician; the politicians are invited because the resolving of our the problems in our future society will require business and politics to operate together more than ever before.

Watching all this as a sort of “layman” in a hideously technical and complex debate I am struck once again by the fact that the new modern world requires a huge amount of wisdom from those steering the vast changes that are taking place. I am alarmed by how little grasp even the best informed economists have on the vast fluctuations in the world economic processes. It’s not just economic wisdom we need, however. At another level the technological changes promise great gain, but at the same time are fraught with appalling social dangers: Face Book, for example, has brought great social gain and yet at the same time grave social dangers. We need wisdom for that.

The problem in the modern world is not so much what we know as what we do with what we know. Knowledge is what we know; wisdom is what we do and how we handle what we know. It is wisdom we need. We know how to split the atom, but we need to understand what to do with that knowledge; we now know how to cram an infinity of knowledge on to a very small “chip”, but we need to know what we should and should not do with that chip! The world has excelled in knowledge over the last decades; it now needs to excel in wisdom!

This wisdom, however, is not just scientific or economic or business wisdom. The wisdom that is called for is a wisdom that will restrain irresponsibility and evil self-aggrandizement; we do not want the “wisdom” that creates greater and greater profits for just a few, or that puts a few on higher and higher pedestals. That, unfortunately, is the horizon of too many powerful people. It’s a “selfish” wisdom. Rather the need is for a wisdom that creates a much wider and greater social benefit. In other words the wisdom required must have a strong underlying moral aspect. We want a wisdom that leads us away from the jungle of the “survival of the fittest”; we want a wisdom based thoroughly on responsibilities to people. That, of course, is a huge challenge to our self-centred humanity. The best of the Davos thinking would not disagree with that desire, I’m sure: indeed many of the discussions centre on human social needs. But the problem is to keep focused on such a desire! I do not think any algorithm will find the way to such wisdom; at best it would only affirm the intransigence of humanity in its propensity to do the wrong thing!

It is precisely such wisdom that our Christian faith offers. That is fundamentally because it offers the strongest of moral bases. It constitutes a call to a deep personal rejection of pride, power, unlimited possessions, and an embracing of responsibilities for other people. The billionaires who make up the guest list of Davos are in grave danger of missing this call simply because of their worldly success, though some have clearly acknowledged the need of a moral basis for their discussions. The wisdom that the Bible offers is summed up in the simplest of terms: “The fear of the Lord (an awesome respect for his commandments) is the beginning of wisdom” in the Old Testament, and “Love your neighbour as yourself” on the lips of Jesus. A Holy God calls us to a personal rejection of all evil and to a simple trust in Him and his Christ. The world lacks wisdom simply because it does not walk with its Maker as it should, even though his “wisdom” has been conveyed to us it such simple terms.

Bob Dunnett     25/01/18

THE “WISE MEN” and HEROD’S MEN

How wonderful and intriguing is the Christmas story! And not least is that dramatic part of it which tells of the visit of the wise men (or Magi). This visit of the “wise men” is in actual fact probably a little post-Christmas; Matthew’s Gospel alone records the incident and there is no mention of a “stable” or a manger, and Mary and her baby appear to have been found by the magi in a “house”. Reflecting this, their visit is celebrated in the Anglican Church calendar two weeks after Christmas day. Hence this post-Christmas blog. I hasten to add, however, that it is a very happy act of traditional license which puts the whole narrative together, since none of the meaning of the story is lost and, providentially (it seems to me), the traditional story ministers beautifully to the faith and imagination of children. That is important because the Christmas story indelibly underlines the value of children to God. Jesus, in being “made man”, lived in a womb, was born a baby and grew up as a child. Bringing up a child, therefore, is a great and important calling; no child should be an “afterthought”, much less an intrusion! They deserve an introduction to Jesus in such a beautiful and appropriate way.

But there are, however, profound lessons for adults in the visit of the Magi. The main lesson stems from the fact that we have Magi (the number of them is not specified in Matthew, and neither is their precise status) who come “from the East” in order to worship this King who is to be born to the Jews. These men are not Jews; very clearly and significantly they are Gentiles. All the other participants in the Christmas story are Jews, even Jesus himself, and he is to be King of the Jews. The Magi have come to do homage to the king and to worship him. The true significance of this is that they are the forerunners of those who through the coming ages were to fulfil the great prophecy of Isaiah concerning his Messiah in which God said, “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). It resonates well with the remarkable account in Luke in which Jesus was brought into the Temple a month or so after his birth, and Simeon, full of the Holy Spirit and led by the Spirit, spoke prophetically over the child with very similar words, “my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light to lighten the Gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel” (Lk. 2:29-32). There is no doubt that this is exactly as Matthew understood the coming of the Magi; it was not just a gratuitous wonder story for the ignorant and illiterate, but a real event of great prophetic importance. These Magi were both fulfilling prophecy and also pointing prophetically to what the future would hold. He is saying to us in this story “Jesus is not simply Saviour to the Jews but to all mankind”. It is worth noting in this connection that Matthew not only begins his gospel with a focus on the Saviour and the “world”, but in his concluding chapter he leaves us with Jesus saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt28:18).

We are all familiar with the theme of the nativity of Jesus being attended by poverty and identification with the poor. Jesus was indeed a king but was not born in a palace, and his angelic heralds spoke to working shepherds not to royalty. But the Magi do not fit into this theme. Whether we can legitimately call them “kings” may be in doubt, but they were clearly men of very considerable substance, standing and wisdom, and professionally as astrologers would at the very least stand close to kings. They were important enough to stir the whole city when they arrived in Jerusalem asking where the King of the Jews was to be born, and Herod took them very seriously (Matt 1:3). Their exalted positon gives a further prophetic dimension; as they knelt before the child Jesus they represented the wisdom of the world submitting to the Christ of God, and they pointed to a fulfilment of Isaiah prophecy, “many nations will be amazed at Him, and kings will shut their mouths because of him” (Isaiah 52:15).

We need to recognise that we are very much in our own times a witness to the prophetic truth of this story. Some of us, for example, have lived long enough to see tens of millions of people from all over the world becoming Christians and kneeling before Jesus. We have, for example, seen China not only drawing level with the U.S.A. economically and militarily, but also in terms of its Christian population. A century ago that would have seemed an impossible development on all those fronts, and least of all in the spiritual dimension. More recently, despite all the carnage revolution and war in the Middle East we have seen thousands upon thousands of Arabs coming to Jesus. The striking feature of these huge waves of conversions has been that they have taken place not for political or economic gain (producing “rice Christians”), but against the strongest political and religious persecution. They have been the result of the “power of the Holy Spirit”. Looking at the world from our place in the West it is almost as though we are hearing those words coming across the globe saying again, “We have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him”! In addition the miraculous manifestations of visions and healings by which many of these modern “Gentiles” have come to Jesus are equally reminiscent of the manifestation of the star of the Magi. I have listened to such testimony at source and their authenticity is not in doubt.

There is one great difference between the story of the Magi and the story of Gentiles coming to faith in our own generation. The Magi were at the beginning of the process. We are at a point where the end seems to be coming into sight. As Christians, amid all the chaos and troubles of our time, we need to keep a clear grasp of the fact that the fulfilment of God’s purpose in bringing in the fullness of the Gentiles is moving at a pace we have never seen before. The world is currently a great harvest field and the reapers are very busy. Whatever else this year may bring forth, it will certainly bring widespread additions into God’s harvest. This is a fact which makes it possible to respond to the call to “Rejoice in the Lord!” whatever the outward circumstances. It should stimulate us to look for His Coming – the real Epiphany!

What about “Herod’s Men”, and the dark shadow they cast over the story of the “Wise Men”? It is certainly not something appropriate for children to linger over with its gruesome description of the destruction of children. None the less, it puts a focus on one of the most disturbing features of reality that we are all too often seeing on our screens and reading in the news. Commonly described in art and literature as the “Massacre of the Innocents” the murderous work of Herod’s men is disturbingly prophetic. It is as much a part of our modern world as is the ingathering of the Gentiles. Indeed it is part and parcel of the story of that ingathering throughout history. Herod’s men have always been around and are still very much with us!

Herod the Great was the archetypal autocrat; paranoiac and intensely jealous for his position, power and wealth. He was vicious, cruel, scheming, clever and utterly ruthless, and he had gained his power and maintained it by those means. Hearing of this new birth of a king from the magi, he immediately perceived a serious threat and so the child must be removed. If the child could not be identified every suspect child must go. But unhappily Herod is not just found in history. We can find a very considerable number of “Herods” in our modern world. Every day one or another of them is in the news. Some are petty tyrants, some rule very large countries. Like Herod of old they tangle with anything and anyone which has the true flavour of Jesus about them. Christians are an immediate threat to their pride and position, and to the reign of fear that alone keeps them in power. As creatures of darkness they hate the light of Christ. The sword is quickly out and the men that wield them move ruthlessly about their business of suppression. It was precisely in this way that Jesus himself died; though in his death the wrath of men was seen to work out the purposes of God, for no tyrant can suppress the Living God.

So today we see not only a world in which the Gentiles are coming to Jesus in their multitudes, but a world in which the “powers that be” are all too ready to respond with the sword. The story of the Wise Men is no fairyland fable. It is a hugely prophetic paradigm for our times. Our eyes need to be keenly focussed on working for the light to shine more and more on the Gentiles, and focussed on those who in our generation live and suffer under the shadow of Herod’s sword.

 

Bob Dunnett      04/01/18

“EMMANUEL – GOD WITH US”

 

“EMMANUEL – GOD WITH US”

“The Word became flesh”

“He was incarnate of the Virgin Mary”

For me one of the most exciting things about the Christmas story is the sheer exuberance and blatant joy with which it revels in the “other worldly” and the supernatural. We have angels manifesting themselves and speaking out heavenly announcements, angels in great numbers gloriously filling the night sky; we have the miraculous birth of John the Baptist and then an even more miraculous virgin birth for Mary; we have a very bright star hovering over the birth place of Jesus, having been followed by magi from the East. There are some, of course, who would feel much more comfortable if all this were reduced to “folklore”, and the Christian faith kept securely to the “rational” and the “ethical”. Indeed that is what many “Christian” scholars and commentators have actually striven to do, and still strive to do. But, happily, the story of Christmas is not about man and his “rationality”; it is a story about GOD. God is on the scene at Christmas and revealing something of his hidden glory that we don’t normally see.

It is a brave (or even “impertinent”) person who would seek to put God in a rational box, and deny Him any activity or creativity beyond our normal common human experience. Take the angels for example. God, as creator has brought into being an extraordinary wonderful planet perfectly fitted for the equally extraordinary creation of human beings. His creativity in the universe still goes on, baffling and amazing us. On what reasonable basis, then, can one deny Him creating a whole myriad of other beings, spiritual beings, in some other realm where He has a more “visible” existence? On what reasonable basis can we deny these spiritual beings access to this creation of ours when God so wishes? We have to “let God be God”, and angels be angels! If we have any faith in God at all, we must allow him to be infinitely bigger than our own comprehension. We simply cannot tie him down to our own human experience and understanding. If we do we betray a lack of grasp on the sheer greatness of God!

Part of our problem as Christians is that we tend by default to make him in our own image and make him much smaller than he is, as though he were tied down by the normal rules and regulations of this creation. We need to remember that he made this creation and he is much bigger than this creation. He can, and does, add the miraculous touch to the normal workings of the world; he can make things work out differently in our lives in answer to prayer. He can “tweak” the natural processes as he wishes – and he indeed does! When we start to acknowledge him and walk in fellowship with him the course of our lives will change and change for the better, and the providences of our lives will also change for the better. So we need to rejoice in the greatness, the power and the glory of God!

The supreme miracle of Christmas, however, is of course that God “took on” human flesh in the person of Jesus. Inevitably, therefore, there had to be a virgin birth where the “Father” (so to speak) of the Child could only be the life-creating Holy Spirit, the One who alone is “The Lord and Giver of Life”. But at the same time the miracle happened on account of the simple faith of Mary, the woman who was to bear the child. What a challenge that simple faith in a big God is to us! At the human level we need to believe more in our God, and more in his power and willingness to use it on our behalf.

What does the “incarnation” say to us? I always think first of the fact that it puts immense value on us human beings. I want to exclaim with the Psalmist, “What is man, that you are mindful of him?” God has not “taken the form” of an angel, but he has taken human form! In reaching out and identifying with us God indicates how precious we are to him. Drinking in this truth should in no way breed in us proud complacency, but humble thankfulness, and it is intended that it should produce in us a profoundly deep inner satisfaction and peace. Equally, if we want any basis for our attitude toward other human beings in this world, then we may find it spelt out crystal clear in this human birth of Jesus, the Son of God. His identification with us means we are to treat other human beings with the greatest respect, and we are to be careful with human life at all its stages. Human life is sacrosanct.

Sometimes we hear or read the comment that Jesus became human in order that we in our turn might become divine, and in that way his incarnation brought us our salvation. That sounds wonderful and logical, but it is a statement to be carefully clarified. In the first place it is not the purpose of God to make us “divine” or “give us divinity”. We are human beings, a creation of God, and will always remain so in the world to come. Divinity is not something we are destined for. However, what is true, and is indeed wonderful, is that we are destined to be filled with the Spirit of God and to be people in whom God dwells by his Spirit; our humanity will be shot through with the divine presence. Moreover, the extraordinary fact is that we can begin to experience something of this destiny even now, for already the Holy Spirit has been poured out and indwells those who follow the Christ. We already have a glorious “first instalment” of the kind of being we shall be in the world to come. Our glory will be, not that we become divine, but that God will live in us and fill us with his nature.

We need also to keep in mind the fact that wonderful though it is, the incarnation in itself is not sufficient to bring to us the forgiveness of sin by which alone the Holy Spirit may come and dwell with us and inside us. The incarnation can teach us of the love of God for us and for humanity, it can teach us of the “humility” of God and his great grace, and it can teach us something of the lengths to which God was ready to go on behalf of humanity. In a real sense it was truly a sacrifice on God’s part for us. But it was not the sacrifice for sin that alone could bring us back into the presence of God, forgiven and cleansed and thus ready for the indwelling Spirit. That took place on the cross. It was there that a perfect and totally innocent human being voluntary took on himself the punishment due to the rest of humanity on account of its sin, the punishment of being “cut off” from God. Such a spotless sacrifice could not have taken place without the incarnation for only in such manner could a “second human and sinless Adam” have been born.

The cross became possible because of the incarnation; the incarnation found its purpose fulfilled in the cross; the baby was after all presented prophetically with myrrh.

O come, let us adore Him!

 

Bob Dunnett

PEACE ON EARTH

And suddenly there was with the angel

a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest and on earth

Peace among men of goodwillLk 2:14

 

Yet midst the woes of sin and strife

The world has suffered long;

Beneath the angel strain has rolled

two thousand years of wrong;

And man, at war with man, hears not

the love song which they bring:

O hush the noise ye men of strife

and hear the angels sing

                                                                                                    Rev. Sears 1849

Christmas is close upon us, and this year no doubt, as with previous years, our Christmas cards will bring the word “PEACE” to our attention. Many cards will simply have on the front just this word “PEACE” in large letters against a suitable and richly coloured background. It should strike a deep chord. Peace is the deep longing and need of innumerable people all over the world. Everywhere, from needy individual hearts right up to the whole world of the nations, the cry is the same, a longing cry for peace. But it constantly escapes us. Yet this is the great promise of Christmas. This is what the angels sang about in the Christmas story, “peace on earth”; this is what was being offered; this peace is at the heart of Christmas. This is a very great gift; peace of heart and the deep serenity that surrounds it are worth more than a mountain of riches. Peace is a facet of “the pearl of great price”.

For most people Christmas brings a temporary respite of parties, presents and festivities of different kinds. But “peace on earth”, where does that fit in?  That seems like wishful thinking.  It seems to belong to the “fairy story” bit of Christmas. The great traditional carol which starts off with the verse, “It came across the midnight clear that glorious song of old……..peace on earth, good will to men” continues, however,  with the verse quoted above which speaks of the “world suffering through the woes of sin and strife”, of “two thousand years of wrong” and “man at war with man”. We can relate to that sentiment. It is certainly not wishful thinking, nor a fairy story. Violence, wrong-doing and strife make up the stark reality of life.

The author was right to bring into his carol the sober reality of the strife of human existence. The Christmas story is not just a blind or ineffectual wishing of peace upon people. It goes much deeper than that. It recognises the fact that the world (that is people everywhere) has lost real peace and needs to know how to reach peace. It not only proclaims peace but shows the way to find it. The heart of the story is in the birth of a child, who is named by the angel as “Jesus”. Biblical names mean something, and “Jesus” means “Saviour” or “God saves”. His life’s work was enshrined in that name. He came to save people from their inherent propensity to selfishness and strife. In other words he came to challenge the fundamental problem of humanity, which is human “nature” as we know it. People have an inbuilt tendency to do the very things that destroy peace in their lives, and in Jesus God wants to do something about that problem.

Running through the bible there is one very simple proposition concerning our human living, and that is that righteousness of life and peace are inextricably linked together. We are told quite bluntly that “there is no peace for the wicked” (Is. 48:22) but “the end of the upright man is peace” (Ps 37:37), and (more poetically), “righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Ps 85:10), that is to say righteousness and peace “belong” to each other, they are united in the most intimate of ways. Peace cannot be dis-associated from character and godliness. So the Christmas story comes not simply with a vague wish for peace but with a clear challenge to live righteously and uprightly.

The Christ child has a fundamental role to play in this. It is not simply that he was born to live a model life of righteousness himself, something for us to copy. Our problem of living uprightly is much deeper than that, for we do not have within us the resources to live a truly upright life.  He was born first to bring forgiveness to each one of us, since each one of us has failed in the walk of righteousness, and second to impart to us his own Spirit by Whom we may receive the inner resources and motivation to live uprightly. Both of these can come to us, not so much by his life as by his death. The Cross saw him bear the punishment of our sins, and his resurrection led to him securing the gift of the Spirit of God to infuse us with both a longing for godliness and with the power to be godly.

Christmas, then, is not just a party time! It’s a time of challenge. The challenge is to acknowledge our need of peace, our need to live in a godly manner in order to obtain it, our need to find the resources for godliness in Jesus and our need to come to him in faith and commitment. Where this is done peace will come, where this is rejected “Woe and strife will continue to prevail.

The Christmas message is not peripheral sentimentality, but a fundamental need everywhere in our world.

There are many who will find great peace by simply going into their own room and “kneeling at the manger” in commitment.

 

Bob Dunnett 1/12/17