We come together as parliamentarians from every parliament in Australia, judges and senior public servants, community and church leaders to reflect and pray for our nation and our national leaders. It is a great privilege and responsibility to speak to such an important gathering. Tonight and tomorrow morning at the Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast we expect to hear now, and from Chuck Colson in the morning, a prophetic word from God.
1. AUSTRALIA IS BECOMING A DIVIDED COUNTRY.
A nation divides against itself in time of peace. It unifies in a time of war. The enemy then against us is so horrendous that we pull together over our differences. But today, with no common enemy, we are dividing into all kinds of antagonistic splinter groups. Jesus said Luke 11:17 "Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall."
There is division politically between parties. We have division over the issue of the Republic. We have a split between the indigenous people and those who hold pastoral and mining leases. We have a cleft between the working privileged and the unemployed poor. We have division between the bush and the city. We have a deep undercurrent of racism, a rising number of people in poverty and a whole generation of young people locked out of employment with high rates of suicide and despair. West is suspicious of East, North of the South, the haves against the have-nots. Our aged are confused over the nursing home policies. Our police have been divided by the corruption. The universities are splintered over entry standards.
State Government departments responsible for community services and care for the disabled have been failing in their charge. The number of homeless have risen by 50% in the last decade. We have 750,000 children in Australia with neither parent employed. 700,000 of those children belong to single parent families. Parliamentarians, educationalists, churchleaders, judges and the institutions of the land are under attack as never before.
We normally like to hear of political gossip, economic bad news, and the scandals concerning leaders. "Great people talk about ideas. Average people talk about things. Small people talk about people." As community and church leaders we are expected to be above average and talk about ideas that move people and nations. Such issues as removing the nuclear threat, the population crisis, the degradation of the earth's environment, bridging the gap between the industrial and third worlds, the growth of transnationals, the breakdown in public and private morality, the ageing of our population, the increased participation of women in the workforce, the AIDS epidemic, the drug problem, and the increasing impact of change.
Hugh Mackay in "Reinventing Australia" (A & R) says: "Australians in the last quarter of the 20th century have become a nation of pioneers; some heroically, some reluctantly, some painfully. We have been plunged into a period of unprecedented social, cultural, political, economic and technological change in which the Australian way of life is being radically redefined. All Australians are becoming New Australians." (p6) Many Australians are coping badly with these social changes.
They lash out at society. Some go berserk and shoot and hit and kill. Australians feel themselves to be operating on a short fuse. Many Australians are suffering from the Last Straw syndrome, a condition of stress and anxiety, crankiness and irritability. Road rage, supermarket anger, sporting violence are common. Most of these changes came about because we wanted the promises they brought. We wanted the benefit of change without realising the cost that has to be paid. We are forced to reinvent the Australian way of life on the run.
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. Yet such is the rate of change and the decline in the personal standards of many, we are now facing a national moral crisis.
2. CAN RELIGION GIVE AUSTRALIA NEW HOPE?
We need a moral and spiritual equivalent of a war to pull us together. Traditionally the church has delivered that sense of national cohesion and reconciliation. 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 upon which reconciliation can be built. Some churches are politically aligned and spokespersons speak to every issue along predictable ideological lines that are not supported by a majority of their members. Some churches are compromised politically and morally. 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.
The National Gallery of Victoria recently closed the exhibition by American photographer Andres Serrano including his picture of a crucifix representing Christ lying in a pool of his own urine, called "Piss Christ". This expression is offensive. But when churches reject a revealed faith and objective truth and members believe and behave as they like, the church itself has just pissed Christ. We challenge their definition of tolerance and of truth as merely a social construction. Religious pluralism believes that no-one can be ever wrong. And post-modernism 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 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 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. They became preoccupied with maintenance, membership, and money. A crisis abounds in nation and church. Where is an answer?
3. ONLY COMMITMENT TO JESUS OFFERS US HOPE.
Jesus made the laws of Moses tougher and the standard of morality among His followers harder. He was marginalised because of His teachings and His close association with the poor, the rejected and the leprous, put Him offside with everyone from the Pharisees to the Romans. Yet Jesus Christ became, through the Cross and Resurrection, the Messiah of all. He will one day return to establish God's Kingdom and reign on earth as in heaven. Our only hope lies in committed Christians, obedient to the scriptures, who pray for the governments and witness to their faith, and who are willing to live under the authority of the Word of God. Will our nation continue to splinter or can individuals Christians persevere with this message of reconciliation?
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 coal mines. The coal mine 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 which had hoped for years to get to the finals in the Royal Albert Hall.
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.
Phil's wife has left with his kids. He is trying to earn some money by playing a clown at a Roman Catholic Church's childrens' festival. Seeing the kids is just too much and Phil breaks down. He shouts and storms towards the door. He stops, still in his clown outfit, in front of a statue of Jesus. It is a typical 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 nailholes in His hands and thorns upon His head. Where's the justice? Pilate is washing His hands. Herod is eating roast for lunch. Caiaphas is putting on his robes. 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, aged, unemployed, insignificant miners and carpenters of this world. They are the marginalised people, pushed around, shoved to the rim of society, the despised and rejected. Jesus stands patiently with arms outstretched. The crown of thorns, the bleeding heart, the nail-prints in the hands are all evidence He also was despised and rejected of men. There seems no justice, but the marginalised Messiah identifies with them and makes sure that God's justice will prevail for all.
How can God's justice prevail? Listen to what Paul says from his second letter to the Corinthians:
(2 Cor 5:16-6:2) "So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And He has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. As God's fellow workers we urge you not to receive God's grace in vain. For He says, "In the time of my favour I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you." I tell you, now is the time of God's favour, now is the day of salvation."
We are to be ambassadors of reconciliation. 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. Ambassadors of reconciliation are desperately needed in Australia. 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 practises and policies of injustice.
Chuck Colson said "What we do must flow from who we are. Christians must contend for biblically informed morality and justice in the halls of power. That is the balance that keeps our ethics and our activism in proper perspective. 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!" ("Christianity Today" Feb. 8, 1993, p.112).
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