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Sunday Night Live Sermons

UNDERSTANDING THE NEW WORLD

Essentials For The Twenty-First Century

Matthew 16:1-4
4th September 2005

Over the next few months, I will be considering those personal qualities and Christian characteristics that have guided Wesley Mission to such strength over the past twenty-seven years of my ministry. But first we consider our changing Australia which is the backdrop against which we minister.

1. OUR CHANGING NATION.

The Australia in which we grew has radically changed. A new mood recognizes that since the first Europeans, the Portuguese, came to our country in the mid-1500’s on the west coast, we could have done better. We carried a lot of the bitterness, prejudice and racism of Europe to this country. We have been racist in our attitudes to indigenous people, Pacific Islanders and Asians particularly. Emeritus Professor of Australian Prehistory at ANU, D.J. Mulvaney, one of my University lecturers, believes the Aboriginal population of Australia in 1788 when Europeans came to the East Coast of Australia, was 750,000 people. This number rapidly decreased through the ravages of European diseases, the worst being smallpox, measles, venereal disease and alcoholism. Pacific Islanders were exploited as indentured Kanakas working on our canefields. The Asians were discriminated against through our White Australia policy. Post War European migrants were labelled Wogs. The hatred between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland came here with Irish convicts and their English overlords creating a divide still be heard in the rhetoric of the debate on our becoming a Republic and keeping our flag with its British Union Jack. Our mistakes of the past are facing a changing nation.

Our migration policies and openness to refugees means that one in every four people in our nation was born overseas. This has meant the Anglo-Saxon heritage has been largely diluted, a significant Middle Eastern culture has been added, an Asian influence is becoming predominant, alternative religions are taking root, our traditional family structure is under threat, the influence of traditional religious denominations has weakened, and the secular humanism, that has swept our universities and newspapers has left many people floundering. Today we are all new Australians facing a changing nation.

Some things haven’t changed. We still pay a huge private price for public sin. We don’t know how to say sorry. We have forgotten how to handle guilt and disgrace. But we are making admissions of our past national failure and that is a healthy experience for any nation. There are indications that we are maturing as a nation. We are recognised for the strength of our economy and significance in our geographical region, and while our fresh brashness continues, we are more willing to recognize our past failures. God promised: 2 Chronicles 7:14 “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” Yet for many people our nation is facing a crisis. We live in a land of peace and prosperity, with sound, democratically elected governments, with growing accountability from those in positions of authority, and a high level of personal morality. So what’s the problem, and who can solve it? Are the Australian denominations able to solve our changing national problem?

2. CAN THE AUSTRALIAN CHURCH SOLVE IT?

Such is the rate of change and the decline in personal ethics we are now facing a national crisis in our values and direction. There is a strong swing to conservative political values and policies. At such a time people have in the past turned to the church. But will that happen today? Can churches give Australia new hope? Traditionally the church has delivered that sense of national cohesion and reconciliation in times of war and peace. But is the church capable of delivering it today? Some mainline churches are divided over lack of commitment to the Scriptures as the only revelation of God. Their acceptance of immoral sexual standards among clergy without any expectation of change of behaviour is a denial of the discipline and beliefs of the church over centuries. That denial is a heavy price for being trendy.

Some churches are politically aligned and spokespersons speak to every issue along predictable ideological lines not supported by a majority of their members. The very organism that people should be able to turn to in

confidence is itself in crisis. These churches are showing signs of wear and tear and lack of direction. Apart from those churches aided by migration of overseas members, most traditional denominations are in serious numerical decline. They adopt a religious pluralism that believes no one can be ever wrong and a post-modernism which declares everything is subjective, open to your own opinion. What is important is not the Bible, nor what Christians believe, but what is your story. One view is as good as any other. Everyone does what is right in his or her own eyes. That wishy-washy church attitude will never help Australia.

For these Churches, Christianity has become a form not a force. Faith is a performance not a person. It is a religion not a relationship. They minister by remote control, preach by memory. They have no fire, no fervour, no friendship with the living Jesus. These churches spend their time on what Kennon Callahan calls “protecting their place on the face of the cliff.” In mountain climbing, climbers can find themselves on the face of a cliff without a handhold or foothold ahead or behind. In that predicament many freeze. They cling for dear life. They fear any move could mean the abyss below. Many churches become frozen on the face of the cliff. They cannot find anything in their history that would save them. They cannot see anything hopeful ahead. They are preoccupied with maintenance, membership, and money. That kind of church and church denomination will die. It has no relevance to the needs of Australia in the twentyfirst century. Unfortunately the statistical evidence is already obvious to those who can read.

3. IS THERE ANY HOPE FOR OUR FUTURE?

In the dramatically changing world of the Jewish people in the first century AD, Hellenic culture from the Greek civilization was swamping Jewish culture. The military might of the Romans installed foreign governors over the people. Splinter groups were dividing the traditional Jewish religion. The signs of the times looked ominous. So people asked Jesus over and over about hope for their people. The middle chapters of Matthew’s Gospel outline the crisis in Israel, and the conflict between people over the signs of the times. Jesus replied the only sign was that He was a prophet to the nation, like Jonah was, and like Jonah, he would be delivered from death.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were together because they represented the Sanhedrin, or because Jesus was their common opponent. These men came to Jesus to “test” him asking for “a sign from heaven”. Matthew 16:1–4 “The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away.” They had all the wisdom in the world, but when faced with a crisis, did not know how to handle it. The answer of Jesus lay in a recognition of Himself as Messiah and in following His teachings, not that of the Greeks or the Romans.

A crisis abounds in our nation and church today. Different cultures and religions compete for our attention. Where is an answer? Only commitment to Jesus Christ and His way offers us hope. I saw the film “BRASSED OFF”. This is a Yorkshire term which expresses how people feel sometimes about the bureaucracies of governments and churches. The Yorkshire miners are brassed off with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher whose 1980’s economic rationalist policy saw the closure of 184 coalmines. The coalmine in Dibley was being closed after 110 years and with it the Dibley Colliery Brass Band. The film is about a class struggle between the union and mine management, the impact that redundancy has on a working man’s family and the loss of morale in the brass band.

There is a powerful moment when the bandmaster’s son, Phil cannot take any more and breaks down while at church playing with some children. Phil’s dad is dying. Phil is deeply in debt from the 1985 strike. His furniture has been repossessed. His wife has left with his kids. He is trying to earn money playing a clown at a Roman Catholic Church’s children’s festival. Seeing the kids is just too much. Phil breaks down. He storms towards the door. He stops, still in his clown outfit, in front of a statue of Jesus. It is a typical Catholic statue, with Jesus having an open bleeding heart, thorns on his head, arms outstretched with nail wounds in his hands. Phil shouts at the statue: “What are you looking at? My job’s gone. The pit’s closed. My wife’s left. The kids are gone. My furniture is repossessed. My dad is dying. And Margaret Bloody Thatcher is healthy and well and enjoying life! Where’s the justice?” He slams the door.

The camera pauses on the statue. Jesus stands with bleeding heart, arms outstretched with the nail holes in His hands and thorns upon His head. Where’s the justice? Pilate is washing His hands. Herod is eating roast. Caiaphas is robing. And Jesus, the best man to have ever lived is crucified! Where’s the justice? There is no justice for the poor, coloured, disabled, indigenous, for many women, the aged, unemployed, insignificant miners and carpenters. They are the marginalized people, pushed around, shoved to the rim of society, despised and rejected. Jesus stands patiently with arms outstretched. The crown of thorns, the bleeding heart, the nailprints in the hands are evidence He also was despised and rejected of men.

Jesus Christ identifies with them and makes sure that God’s justice will prevail for all. Our only hope lies in committed Christians, obedient to the scriptures, who pray for the governments and witness to their faith, being willing to live under the authority of the Word of God, witnessing to Jesus. Jesus Christ cares for the hurting, the confused, the unemployed and the poor. The churches can help the nation by pointing it to Jesus. But as Jesus said, people can read the “signs” that predict weather, but they remain oblivious to the “signs of the times” happening in their nation. Are we also that blind we cannot see the signs of our times?

Christianity is not a way of life. It is not Western culture. It is not conformity to a standard of living. Christianity is a relationship with Jesus Christ who sends us as His ambassadors of reconciliation. We are facing a rapid deterioration of the Christian ethic. Jesus confronted the economic and political power structures of His day, out of His commitment to God. He died on a Cross, not because He dared to change hymn-numbers, but because He cared for the poor and was prepared to confront and change practices and policies of injustice. Chuck Colson said “ I urge you to hold tightly to your courage and your moral convictions during the stressful days ahead. This is no time to wimp out!” How relevant to Australia today! Australia is changing under world pressures. We must point to Jesus Christ, for in Him lies the answer to our changing national needs. That is a mega-trend. More people becoming more Christian, so that more Australians can know Jesus Christ. That is our national need.

Gordon Moyes

Wesley Mission, Sydney.