Some reflexions on preaching (Pt. 1)

Reaching a personal preaching milestone recently has provided an occasion to reflect upon the opportunities God has granted me over the years to exercise the gift of preaching and engage in the privilege of teaching His people the truth of His Word.

Here are a few of my reflexions on preaching and the past decade of opportunities I’ve had to participate in it. They are not the thoughts of a seasoned pastor or skilled master-preacher, but some musings of a journeyman who hopes to have many more opportunities to learn and grow in the years ahead. So take them for what they’re worth…

1. Preaching God’s Word is an incredible privilege and honour.

If anyone speaks, let it be as one who speaks God’s words; if anyone serves, let it be from the strength God provides, so that God may be glorified through Jesus Christ in everything. To him be the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 4:11, CSB).

This should go without saying and yet a preacher cannot afford to go without saying it.

That God should choose any of us to be His ambassadors and the communicators of the good news of Jesus is simply amazing. To have partnership with God in His mission to the nations is a greater blessing than anything else in this world could afford. All faithful Christians have that privilege, and yet those of us who preach God’s Word publicly are afforded a special opportunity to glorify God by speaking His words to the assembly of His people. There is nothing about me that makes me worthy to represent God in any way – apart from what Christ has done for me and what the Spirit has done in me.

2. Preaching is a mixture of science and art.

I’ve been saying this recently to a few people at the Bible College where I work and study. Preaching has a “science” component and an “art” component to it. Exegesis is very much like a science. You have a fixed data set (the actual content of the Holy Scriptures) and your task is to discover what the data says (the divinely-intended meaning of the text) and compile your findings into a format that is accessible to those you will convey the information to. But how you present the truths of Scripture in sermon-format is very much an art form. Illustrations and even application take a different kind of skill to that employed in exegesis. Piquing interest, highlighting key implications and persuading your hearers to respond in a certain way are all art forms.

Almost every Christian I know has listened to preachers who are skilled exegetes, but poor illustrators and appliers of their text and/or preachers who are skilled narrators and motivational speakers but abysmal handlers of God’s Word. Sadly, many of us have probably encountered more preachers who lacked in both areas than heard people who excel in both. I want to strive to do both aspects well.

3. Preaching over a number of years has seen me grow, but many of my natural strengths and weaknesses remain essentially the same.

Following on from the point above, I can see progress in my own preaching over the years, but I recognise that some things remain basically the same. Specifically, I have found that God has equipped me over the years to be reasonably adept at understanding the major points of a given biblical text and thus be able to explain it clearly to a congregation. But one piece of regular feedback I’d get as a student minister concerned my need to grow in engagement with my hearers, through pointed questions, helpful illustrations and specific (rather than general or superficial) application.

Several years on, I still find it easier to go into the pulpit with confidence that I’ve exegeted the passage well than be optimistic about my effectiveness in communicating the truths in an engaging, memorable and relevant manner. I believe I have grown, but need to grow more in the areas where I’ve struggled in the past.

4. Preaching expository sermons shouldn’t feel like a straitjacket. 

When I first preached it was in a context where topical sermons were the norm. There may have been a Bible reading at the beginning of the message, but the likelihood of the preacher remaining in that text throughout their time in the pulpit was minimal. Through online influences, I had become convinced that I should preach what a biblical text says, rather than say what I wanted to say and draw on various Scriptures to make the case. Thus, my first few sermons were expositions of biblical passages – albeit dry ones that sounded like a poorly-written Bible Commentary.

I remain committed to expository preaching as a ministry norm. But my understanding of what that entails has changed over the years. Thankfully for anyone who has had to listen to my preaching, I have been trained to expound a passage from the pulpit in a more helpfully-crafted way than merely giving an explanation of each verse and some exhortation at the end.

But I’ve also realised that I’m not bound to a rigid format of what some deem to be the only acceptable means of approaching biblical exposition. Some of the most enjoyable sermons I’ve prepared and delivered in the last 2-3 years have been thematic. These involve tracing a key theme through a particular biblical book, rather than moving through a whole book chapter by chapter. They were still thoroughly expository, because my task was to show what that particular biblical author wanted to convey about that specific theme.

Likewise, when I preach as a visiting appointee-missionary, my sermon is not stock-standard passage-exposition, but has usually been approached with some creativity to demonstrate the implications that a particular portion of the Bible has for thinking about mission.

5. Preaching in diverse contexts is a valuable means of stretching a preacher to grow.

All of my early preaching opportunities were in a multicultural (but predominantly white) Pentecostal church in the rugged, working class suburbs of Logan City. Then I became a student minister (and later a pastor) in a multicultural (but predominantly Asian) independent evangelical church in the professionalised, middle-class orbit of the University of Qld in Brisbane’s Inner-West.

Not only did I need to rethink how to approach sermon illustrations and relevant application to people’s live – but even my expectation of congregational engagement had to change. My Pentecostal brothers and sisters were used to nodding in agreement, laughing at jokes (even the droll ones), verbally responding to questions and even “amening” key points I made in a sermon. My new congregation was for the most part still, silent and expressionless during my sermons and getting them to laugh at a joke sometimes felt like trying to get blood out of a stone.*

Engaging a different kind of congregation stretched me to think, prepare and preach differently. Since then, I’ve preached in a range of demographical and denominational contexts and some of them have been quite different experiences to one another. I’ve also preached at bilingual services and a children’s service – both of which test the preachers ability to convey the truths of Scripture with simplicity and clarity!

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Preaching a bilingual sermon in Osaka, Japan 2012. Photo Credit: Winston Wong

I hope to share a few more reflexions next time, so please stay tuned!

 

*N.B. It wasn’t an Asian cultural issue per se, as I’ve had better success at getting laughter in other Asian congregations. They were just a tough crowd!

 

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Honourable Citizens (Gospel Citizens #4)

So far in this series we have seen that Christians are citizens of heaven; fellow citizens with all the saints and aliens, exiles and sojourners in this world.

This raises an important question: Is there any room for citizens of heaven, who are outsiders on earth to be active citizens or participants in their earthly communities? How we answer this question communicates a certain message about God and Christianity to the world. So it’s vital that we get it right.

How to get it wrong: some historical examples

There was a group in the sixteenth century who took their status as citizens of heaven and outsiders on earth very seriously. Anabaptists lived separately from the State and refused to take oaths, hold public office and serve in the military.

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Anabaptists

From this group, others branched off and took things even further. The Amish are renowned for living simple lives under strict rules, in there own distinct and separate communities. This is one response – live out your identity outside of the world by withdrawing from wider society and creating your own community of God’s people.

 

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Amish family Photo: Curt Mills
20130902-D6A_8598.jpg (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Another off-shoot group had a more troubling idea. A bunch of Anabaptists led by Jan Matthys attempted to show the world their radical identity as those aligned with heaven, by overthrowing the local authorities in the German city of Munster and declaring it the New Jerusalem – from which they’d spread out to establish dominion over the world. All this ended in a spectacularly gruesome way. Jan Matthys, thought he was the second Gideon and was cut down in battle by a superior force sent by authorities to retake the city. His mutilated body was put on public display. Many in the city were starving and Jan’s successors were also killed and their bodies hung in public.

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Militant Anabaptist preaching at Munster

Giving up the comforts and benefits of modern society or dying for what you believe in, can indeed be noble and justified. But the sad thing for the Amish and the Munster rebels is that both of their expressions of faith have failed to appreciate the biblical picture of how Christians are to live out their identity in the world.

You simply won’t find any New Testament encouragement to Christians to go and start their own private towns or to take one over by force. Not from Jesus. Not from Paul. Not from anyone. So the tragedy of these groups is that they not only reaped the adverse effects of lifestyles not ordained by God. They also communicated the wrong message about God and His people to society.

The biblical approach to civic involvement

1 Peter 2 assumes Christians will co-exist alongside non-Christians in mixed societies. And it helpfully shows us what our approach should be. Christians live well in society to glorify God. We’re not called to rebel or withdraw – but to behave as “good citizens” of our city and country, in order to honour God & promote an accurate understanding of the Christian faith to the world around us.   

Before Peter shows us how to do this, he helpfully reminds us of everything we’ve covered so far in this series. He reminds us we’re heavenly citizens, God’s people whose identity comes from Him. v. 9 You are a chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation, people of His own possession.

v. 10 sounds a lot like Ephesians 2:11-19, which we looked at in part 2. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. We had no common identity and were without God and His salvation, but Jesus brought us near through His blood on the cross, so that we could be reconciled to God and be united as one people.

Then v. 11 reminds us of what we looked at last time. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. We’re aliens in this world who must stand firm against things that would compromise us.
This is our identity as Gospel Citizens, as we’ve seen so far in the series.

Doing good for a Purpose

Peter turns his attention from this to how we can live out our identity the right way in society. Verse 12: Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

The goal of our engagement with the non-Christian community: is to glorify God. We’re to use honourable behaviour and good works to combat the world’s misrepresentations of God & the faith.

If you ever wonder what God’s will is for your life, here it is. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people (v. 15)
God wants you to demolish ignorant misconceptions about Christianity through doing good. God’s will for you as a Christian worker is to conduct yourself in a way that changes or challenges your workmates view of Christianity. God’s will for you as a Christian student is to be so kind and good to others, that whenever someone bags out Christians it will seem rash and biased.

Honouring authority for Christ’s sake

One specific area we need to do well in and not provide ammunition for people’s prejudices is named in vv. 13-14. Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the king as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.

A few years back I was into legal dramas like Law & Order. In an L&O episode entitled “Nullification” a militia group attacks a State building and is put on trial for killing two security guards. The group insisted they were in a state of combat with the authorities and should be treated as prisoners of war. They refused to recognise the authority of the court, but tried to persuade the jury to nullify the charges against them because the laws they had broken were morally unjust and should not be enforced.

Now of course most people outside such a movement would think “These guys are loony!” They think they are justified in their views and actions. But an objective outsider sees them as murderous and a danger to both themselves and the general public.

Christians can’t afford to think and act as if we’re somehow not under the civil authorities. Nor should we suit ourselves when it comes to obeying the laws of the land. This is for the sake of Christ’s name. Followers of Jesus are never to be seditious nutters, inconsistent hypocrites, criminals, law-breakers or threats to public security.

Australian Christians are not prone to insurrection or acts of terrorism. But we all know brothers and sisters who flout Copyright law and commit Piracy. Some of us are a little too willing to break road rules and speed limits when there’s little chance of getting caught.

You may think that some of these rules and others are stupid or stifling. But what message is it sending to others when a Christian only obeys the laws they agree with? It may seem inconsequential, but it’s actually quite a serious matter.

1 Peter 2:16 calls us to Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. God doesn’t set you free so that you can advance your own sinful agenda, abuse what you’ve been given and flout the law when it suits you. You’re free so you can serve God and He’s left you in society for that purpose. To do good to many in the service of your True King.        

We mustn’t make theological excuses or clever justifications for why we can do something illegal or dishonour those in authority through our speech and actions. Instead we need to say: “What can I do to live well for God today with the freedom He’s given me?” “How can I live as a citizen of heaven who blesses Christians and non-Christians alike with my lifestyle?” “How can I be an outsider who’s life is constantly challenging those who speak ill of my people?”

Summary: Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the King.

Live well in society by treating everyone with appropriate respect. Your decency should stretch from your neighbour to the Queen. From the PM to the local police officer. And in all that you do, show your love for God’s people. Respect your fellow-citizens. Display your reverent obedience to God the Supreme Ruler, as a witness to everyone in society of who and what you represent.

The most powerful way you and I can express both sides of our identity as Christians is to continue to actively seek the good of others in a world that’s rejected us and our King. That says something. It’s actually more confronting and much more positive than being Amish or a revolutionary. Because it has power to bring people an accurate picture of who God really is, in an up close and personal way. And it forces us to depend on God for the strength and grace to live in society the way He’s appointed for His people.

 

 

So ask yourself: is my conduct honourable? Are my actions, attitudes, habits broadcasting the right message about my God?

 

United Identity (Gospel Citizens #2)

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands–remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God… (Eph 2:11-19, ESV)

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Last time we looked at our hope, identity and allegiance as citizens of heaven.
In Ephesians we find citizenship again employed as an image of unity and common identity amongst believers, based on central aspects of the Christian message.

However this time there is a significant difference. In the passage above, civic terms such as “commonwealth” and “fellow-citizens” are used to communicate a radical participation in God’s community. One that should annihilate racial barriers and distinctions of the perishing age. New Testament scholar Lynn Cohick comments that Paul is “hinting at the same truth” here as in Philippians: “citizenship within Israel is membership into God’s family.”[2]

Note that Paul speaks of the “commonwealth of Israel” rather than “the commonwealth of heaven.” The emphasis shifts from the higher identity of heavenly citizenship (that we looked at in Philippians) to the common, united identity between all people who have come into a covenant relationship with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The recipients of this epistle were to understand the dramatic nature of the change in their relationship towards God. This in turn should alter the way they saw themselves in relation to others.

In the Christian “commonwealth” of Israel, both Jew and Gentile can now enjoy the full blessings and privileges of “full citizenship” in God’s city-state.

But the other unmissable emphasis of Ephesians must be the realisation that these two historically separate categories of people have had their dividing line radically removed through what Christ did to the place of the legal ordinances in God’s economy.[3]

The dividing wall of the “law of commandments” stood as a massive barrier between observant Jews and pagan Gentiles who hadn’t received the law – keeping the two groups divided for centuries. Whether it’s the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall or Donald Trump’s proposed wall – we’re all familiar with the kind of barrier that separates one group of people from another.

Jesus has brought down the division that kept Jews and Gentiles separated and entrenched hostility between the two groups. The law has been abolished as the way people relate to God. Now whether Jew or Gentile, everyone who wishes to belong to God and His people, must come through Jesus.

Now the future of ethnic Jews and Gentiles lies in their inseparable unification and they have been effectively predestined to inherit the fullness of God together as one people (cf. Eph 1:4-5, 9-12, 3:4-6).[4]

Thus, the citizenship motif in Ephesians needs to be appreciated in order to grasp Paul’s call to an essential unity of identity in Christ. This reaches beyond Jews and Greeks in the first century to encompass all manner of ethnic groups and traditional racial divisions.[5] It ultimately stands in the same biblical tradition as passages envisioning people from every nation united by Christ in the worship of God (e.g. Ps 22:27, 67:1-7; Rev 5:9, 15:3-4; cf. Matt 24:14, 28:19; Mk 11:17; Lk 24:47; Rom 1:5). All believers from all nations have the same eternal destiny as the household, temple and family of God.

For Christians, to live out the truth of our united identity as fellow-citizens is to reject all forms of racial discrimination towards other Christians and to refuse to “make much” of our ethnic or cultural background with a prideful attitude. We don’t get to erect our own barriers when Jesus has torn down the greatest division of all.

Regrettably, I have heard Christians in church contexts where one ethnic identity is privileged or preferred over others remark that this is “not a gospel issue.” But ethnic divisions in the body of Christ are indeed an implicit denial of the gospel. They suggest that Christ’s death to unite all believers as one people is less significant in practice than the commonalities of their shared racial identity or cultural preferences.

It is tragic when a church may subscribe firmly to evangelical doctrine but refuse to allow the gospel to touch this part of their souls.

Churches with one predominant ethnic group who maintain the attitude that others are welcome – so long as they accept they’re part of the minority and learn to do things “the way they’re done around here” – have missed an important gospel truth. In Christ, the things that divide us should be viewed as drastically less significant than the things that unite us. People from other ethnic backgrounds should not have to “conform” to a particular culture to “fit in” – because our culture should be shaped by the gospel and not our carnal, tribal preferences.

The call of Ephesians 2 is for all kinds of Christians to reach out to all kinds of Christians. We don’t just embrace people “like us,” but wholeheartedly celebrate every believer as co-citizens with us.

When we do this, we show our identity, allegiance and belonging are all tied to Jesus and we’re preparing to worship Him in an international society for all eternity. When we fail in this area we send the wrong message to the world about the glorious new people that Christ shed His blood to redeem.

 

 

Sources

[1] Helge V. Keitel “Multiethnic Diverse People in a Circle Holding Hands” (CC BY 2.0) flickr. 

[2] Lynn Cohick, Ephesians NCCS (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2010): 72.

[3]    Lincoln, 150.

[4]    “The believers today are neither Jews nor Gentiles but are Christians who pray and give praise to God as all the saints in former generations.” Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002): 396.

[5]    Thielman, 150;

 

Gospel Citizens (overture)

Issues of citizenship seem to be in the news a lot in Australia. A number of prominent politicians have lost their place in parliament in the last few months when it was discovered that – in addition to being Australian – they were technically also citizens of “foreign” nations. Because our constitution doesn’t allow for divided loyalties, this is something forbidden for all federal parliamentarians. It’s been described as a “citizenship crisis.”

Whenever the government modifies requirements for the national citizenship test, which migrants are required to take if they wish to formally become Australians, there is public debate about whether the questions are too hard or too easy. And not long ago there was significant debate over whether Australians who fight with Australia’s enemies overseas should be stripped of their citizenship status (in the end, due to international law against making people ‘stateless,’ this only applies to dual citizens).

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I personally find issues around citizenship interesting, as they make us ask fundamental questions about belonging, loyalty and identity. Who am I? How do I describe myself? What bigger group or community am I a member of? Where do my allegiances lie?

As someone who is an Australian citizen by birth, a New Zealand citizen by descent, formerly a British subject (this status being subsequently abolished by the federal government) and the husband of a naturalised Australian and former Chinese citizen – I am well aware that for some people the answers to these questions are straight-forward, while for others they are more complex and interesting.

Have you ever wondered how Christians are supposed to think about citizenship?

There’s a fascinating little reference in Philippians that sets us up to consider the New Testament perspective on citizenship: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ…” (1:27a, ESV). The Greek for “manner of life” is πολιτεύεσθε which more specifically means something like “be a citizen” or “live out your citizenship.” So the phrase effectively tells Christians to be citizens in a way that’s worthy of the gospel.

So what does it actually mean to be a “Gospel Citizen” – someone whose identity, allegiance and sense of belonging ultimately comes from the gospel?

Paul has more to say about this topic in Philippians, declaring in 3:20 “our citizenship is in heaven.” In Ephesians he emphasises the common identity in Christ between Jewish and Gentile disciples – describing them as fellow-citizens together in God’s Kingdom.

Other New Testament authors draw out other aspects of our Christian identity using citizenship language. The author of Hebrews sees our citizenship in the heavenly city as something that makes us sojourning pilgrims, foreigners and temporary residents on earth. We live in earthly cities, but wait for a city that is to come. One with eternal foundations, which cannot be shaken. In 1 Peter, the apostle Peter makes it clear that Christians have a special dignity and place of belonging in God’s Kingdom. But he also emphasises the sense of Christians being aliens or exiles in this world. Peter highlights an additional aspect – that of living well in earthly society and being subject to the governing authorities for the sake of Christ.

Paul revisits this theme in his famous discourse on civil behaviour in Romans 13. He urges Christians to perform their civic duties: paying taxes, honouring leaders and obeying the law. Finally, Luke also shows us an interesting episode (in Acts) where Paul made use of his Roman citizenship to temporarily get out of trouble – a tactical move he hoped would gain him further opportunities to spread the gospel.

In the coming weeks, I’d like to explore these different aspects in a series of posts titled “Gospel Citizens.” We’ll explore the tension between being a citizen of heaven and a stranger in the world; the importance of our common Christian identity across the boundaries of human identity; and how we’re actually supposed to interact with non-Christian society as people who belong to another world while residing in this one.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about this topic, including writing a Master’s project on the subject and delivering two preaching series that looked at the passages mentioned above. It’s something I think is of great value for Christians in Australia to be thinking about amidst all the chatter in our society about issues surrounding citizenship.

So if you don’t know what Paul means when he talks about our Heavenly Citizenship in Philippians 3:20, join us next time as we dig into this rich biblical metaphor together!

 

[1] Adapted from Michael Coghlan “Australian Citizenship” flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Australia 2017/2018: After Light – Darkness?

Throughout 2017 we celebrated the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. One of the catchphrases that summed up its significance was Post Tenebras Lux – “After Darkness – Light.” God’s work of reformation through Luther and his successors caused the light of the gospel of Jesus to shine more clearly and brightly throughout churches and nations that had fallen into the dark ignorance of medieval Roman religion.

But as we move from 2017 to 2018 – reflecting on the year that was and thinking about the one just begun – I fear we may have to contemplate our situation in terms of the inverse phrase: “After Light – Darkness.”

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For years we’ve been told by Christian and cultural commentators that we live in something of a “post-Christian” landscape. That is to say that the underlying assumptions about the world that accompany faith in God and the Gospel and acceptance of the teachings of Scripture have largely given way to other assumptions in the worldview of Western Civilisation.

This has been somewhat helpful as a corrective against the attitude common amongst many Australian Christians that we are citizens of a profoundly Christian nation and should virtually browbeat non-Christian dissidents into returning to their Christian roots. The better Christian thinkers in Australia and similar societies have long recognised that we are not a cultural majority, the respectable centre or the dominant voice in public discourse in any meaningful sense.

The past year served up multiple, confronting examples of Christian viewpoints being anything but dominant in Australian society. The hyper-progressive Andrews government in Victoria continued to make decidedly anti-God policy decisions, capping the year off with its historic legalisation of state-sanctioned killing (euthanasia). And of course, just over half of eligible Australian voters endorsed a change to the Marriage Act to recognise some homosexual relationships as “marriages,” which the Parliament then made a reality – with no legal protections for the freedom of speech and religion of dissenters. 2017 made it very clear that the majority of Australians do not take God’s Word seriously when it comes to the ethics surrounding contentious social issues.

The real issue facing Christians in 2018 is not how to cope with our perceived loss of social status, respectability and any political influence we may have enjoyed. It’s how to effectively witness to our Australian neighbours who have collectively rejected the Christian message as true.

Admittedly, this is not a new problem – unbelief and irreligion in Western countries have been growing phenomena since well before Australia was founded as a modern nation (117 days ago today). But in the last 50 years this trend has intensified and the kind of social issues that are coming to a head in 2017-18 are symptoms of a long and perilous abandonment of Christian belief amongst this people.

Many have suggested that we need to adopt a posture similar to that of the early church – where they were sharing the good news of Jesus with Greek and Roman pagans who had no prior knowledge or appreciation of the God of the Bible. The problem with this is that our scenario is quite different. The baby boomer generation which currently occupies the major stations of power and influence in our society had access to the truth of the gospel, but so many of them rejected it as old hat. We are not dealing with “ignorant heathen,” but rather “enlightened” rejectors.

It is true that Generation Y and Z have often been denied meaningful exposure to the gospel via the Sunday School experience that was commonplace in the generations before. This makes them more analogous to Greeks and Romans than preceding generations. However, they have also grown up with the media and narratives controlled by the God-is-passe Boomers and the gross moral failures of religious institutions to prevent child sexual abuse. This means they are ignorant of much of the substance of Christianity, but have been groomed to be negatively disposed towards it.

How do we effectively share the message of Jesus with generations of Australians who think they know enough of it to reject it? It’s too big a question to tackle in one post, but one we ought to enter the new year thinking seriously about.

But the other question is, how should we expect God to respond to this nation’s increasing rebellion against him? This too is difficult to answer. While Australia is not and has never been a Christian nation (in the sense of being a Christian being a necessary prerequisite for citizenship etc;) many of the benefits its people have enjoyed have been the result of the deep impact of the gospel upon our culture.

Ingratitude towards God for the many blessings He has bestowed upon this nation and increasing rejection of the good news we have had access to for so long are serious matters which invite judgement. When we add the serious transgressions involving the devaluing of human life (e.g. abortion & euthanasia) and elementary human sexuality, gender and kinship (e.g. promotion of homosexuality and same-sex marriage) – which even unbelievers know deep down to be acts against their Creator – things only become more dire.

God may graciously bring about widespread revival in churches across the nation and widespread repentance amongst Australians. That is a real possibility and would not be a bad thing to be praying for. But it is equally possible that God will consign Australia to judgement – of both the spiritual and temporal kinds – in the coming years. In my research on the Puritan Thomas Watson, I have found him frequently concerned that God would not only punish 17th century England’s sins with invasion, disaster or disease – but that he might even remove the ministry of the gospel from within its borders.

This concern came from the disparity between Asia Minor or Turkey in the time of the New Testament and in Watson’s day. By the time the Puritans were active, many of the areas where the earliest Christian churches were founded had long since been de-Christianised and Ottoman Turkey was a classic example. From Watson’s perspective, Christ had come good on his threat to “unchurch” or “remove the lampstand” of several of the churches mentioned in the opening chapters of Revelation. And he saw no reason that the same thing might not happen to England or other heavily Christianised areas.

The Anglosphere countries (e.g. England, USA, Australia, New Zealand) have long appeared to be trailing the steadily de-Christianising/re-paganising nations of continental Europe, including those where the Reformation was born (Germany, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands Scotland). But this appears as though it could be our decade of decay as the political polarity of pinkist-progressivism and primitive-populism spurs the people of these countries on to further degrees of flagrant rebellion towards God.

The true church may flourish during these times, but not necessarily numerically. Cultural Christianity looks to continue its slow death for another 2 or 3 decades until it is all but extinct. While God may bless our tenacious efforts at evangelism, He may also withhold widespread repentance from a people that has slighted Him for so long. He may concentrate the work of the Spirit to enable people to receive the gospel in parts of the world where it has not been taken for granted. While we can never give up praying for conversions and proclaiming the gospel, we may find that it continues to be hard to see many people come to faith in Christ.

We should fear for Australia. Our nation is in a very dangerous place, where the name of Jesus has been known for so long and once widely acknowledged as holy – yet now is increasingly blasphemed and opposed. Darkness may yet fall where light has been trifled with for too long.

Yet as we move forward into 2018, with our celebration of the Reformation and Christmas in the rear-vision mirror, it is their message that brings us hope in whatever bleak times may lie ahead. For though we live in a land that has seen light come into the world, but rejected it out of love for darkness (John 3:19-21) we also know that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5, ESV).

May God shine the light of Christ into the darkness of this nation in remarkable ways in 2018 and may He gracious grant reform and revival to corrupt and compromised churches, as He did in Europe 500 years ago.

[1] Chad Horwedel Solar Eclipse flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)