Religious and Indifferent in Sardis

In this talk we look at the Letter to the Church in Sardis, Revelation 3:1-6. There doesn’t seem to be much good said about the church in this once thriving city. We examine what it means to be truly alive and truly a follower of Jesus. Even thought this message is hard, it contains some fantastic encouragement. We can walk with God into eternity proud of what we have achieved here. For those of us who struggling, maybe even dying spiritually, we can be turned around so that we can live. No-one is ever beyond hope.

Click below to listen to the talk audio

Download the Powerpoint Notes for the talk below

light-in-a-dark-world-the-letter-to-the-church-in-sardis

This podcast was recorded at South Church, Mkushi, Zambia 4th September 2016.

© Copyright, Jon Paul Witt, 2016

© Image Copyright “Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavik, Iceland.” Jon Paul Witt 2016.

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Off Message?

We live in a world that is more inter-connected than ever. The internet, instant messaging and communications make it possible for us to envisage a life that is truly international in nature. I’m currently sitting in the hamlet of Cwm Penmachno in North Wales and I’ve just been on the phone to Williams, a translator in Northern Zambia. I’ve also just messaged a friend some 40 miles away. Even a generation ago, this type of communication, at this speed simply wasn’t possible.

As we have understood the world in a more intimate and immediate way, we have questioned the way the world has been portrayed to us and new orthodoxies of belief have emerged. We have become an ever questioning people, the younger we are, the more true this is of us. Beliefs that are seen as older, more ancient are increasingly questioned as valid in this increasingly connected world.

Beliefs that are seen as older, more ancient are increasingly questioned

Within those that are Christian, there has been a shift towards defining who we are in terms of the prevailing ‘spirit of the age’. Christianity becomes about being nice, doing good and personal development. Mission is solely about confronting injustice and practical help alone. I think in some ways we are trying to simply ‘communicate’ well. For me though, there is an issue of losing the distinctive powerful message of Christianity, the message of Jesus himself.

Standing for nothing in particular?

Within the UK I’ve been listening to the election debates that have been broadcast. Of particular note for me has been the performance of Plaid Cymru, the party of Wales. Historically the party stands for and would like independence for Wales and yet on that front, in this election, there has been nothing of the kind said. They seem to agree with everyone else and importantly for me, have lost or are not stating their distinctive position. Not so with the Scottish National Party, they stand for the independence they crave. Not wanting to turn this into a political debate, I believe that Plaid Cymru have faded almost to insignificance, precisely because for whatever reason, they have omitted their central message. Yes people will still vote for them because they are welsh but I believe they could have so much more of a say. Have we in the Church done exactly the same?

The True Message of Jesus

As important as love, acts of righteousness and social justice are, they are not the key part of the Gospel. In fact anything we do is not the key part of the gospel. It is God’s sacrifice f his son to save us that is the key message. Mission in the bible was seen as pretty much exclusively the task of carrying the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth, an evangelistic message. The message was about transformation of individuals, communities and the earth through the acceptance and worship of Jesus in lives everywhere.

Today, mission is simply a ‘helping out’ exercise, dare I say it, one that omits the powerful message of redemption and forgiveness that Jesus brings to us. Have we become so earthly minded to not be of any heavenly use?

Christianity only makes sense if the power of God transforms people and then transforms communities. To try and transform a community without the message of the cross is madness surely? Yet, that is what a lot of mission has become. Why? It simply isn’t ‘done’ to talk of Jesus and so we have retreated in the face of some very real opposition. We often talk and stand for everything Christianity is, except Jesus.

Going Full Tilt…..

Please don’t hear me wrong. It’s important to love people. It is very important to serve them. All of the faceless tasks that Christian’s do from day to day in humility and without boasting are a powerful testament to the power of God working through everyday lives. There are people who without this would be dead, suffering or still in lives wrecked by circumstances beyond their control. That’s powerful stuff.

Yet I believe we need to make sure we go the whole way. We need to be open and share Jesus with everyone that we meet. I’m not saying get out a bible and batter someone with it, but have your life open to everyone so He can be seen and don’t be afraid to speak of him when it is right for you to do so. The ultimate expression of love and respect for someone is to introduce them to the Saviour that we know. To not do so, is surely an incomplete act?

If for the sake of fear we hold back, when the time comes to truly confront injustice we will be afraid to do so. What about the fate of Libyan migrants who are drowning? What about climate change that threatens us all? What about the elderly lady who is ignored by her family and they need to be confronted? In the power and through the message of Jesus, all of these situations come down to the transformation of individuals, groups and communities making decisions and taking actions that affect their fellow people. Some people with God need to initiate that change.

I come across many Christian organisations and people who separate themselves from Jesus to make themselves more palatable. Whether it be personal fear or institutional fear, the effect is the same. We lose our distinctive, we lose who we are. That is needless and such a great shame.

I come across many Christian organisations and people who separate themselves from Jesus to make themselves more palatable…..That is….. such a great shame”.

Will we stand relevantly, passionately for Jesus and the Gospel or will we simply blend into the background like everyone else. The questions of this age, the hunger for justice and love that all of us share, have an answer. We know the answer and yet are afraid to show it.

The question for all of us is will we relevantly present Jesus to this world in ways that people will understand? Will we confront the issues of this world with the love and power of the Cross in a spirit of humility?

Let’s not lose our distinctiveness in the ever more connected and busy world.

I’m not a Trainspotter….

African TAZARA RailwayNow let me say first, I am not a trainspotter. I had a brief phase when I was 8 years old, but I managed to pull myself away from it. I do remember getting excited however at spotting a particular type of train……. enough of that before I vilify any reputation I have online. 🙂

I was flicking through some channels the other day, and came across a documentary called African Railway, filmed by Bafta Nominee Sean Langan.  What got my interest it that the subject of the documentary was the TAZARA railway, which runs from Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania to Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia. Those of you that know where I live in Zambia, will know that the railway runs some 3km from my house. I often saw the trains running and had to cross the track every time I went anywhere. So I had a genuine reason to be interested 🙂

The particular interest of the documentary was the ‘inefficiency’ of the railway and how it is kept running by the everyday people that work on it. Sean often tries to track down and talk to the mysterious Chinese investors in the railway, and is blocked by that mysterious almost divine power of African bureaucracy.

It was interesting viewing for me, because I no longer have the simple view of a European, I have a fair amount of African mixed in as well. Facts that seemed to be presented as shocking such as lack of maintenance, long hours worked, how things are ‘just’ kept running and the like, didn’t really shock me at all. I actually found it quite amusing that someone would expect these things to be solved and running well at all. It really highlighted to me the chasm of difference between the UK and Zambia, in particular in terms of expectation. Every time a fact was highlighted as surprising, it simply struck me as normal.

In the UK we expect so many things to work out OK. The pensions strike action is a good example of that. Whatever side of the fence you sit on, the driving force is an assumption that life should be fair and equitable. If it isn’t, well we can do something about it. That is simply not the case in Africa. Many workers are not paid on time, conditions can be terrible and life very hard. However, there is a ‘working with’ or ‘acceptance’ of those facts, that is actually admirable. You could call them enduring qualities.

Perhaps an area in the Church where you see this, is where we blame God. We expect everything in our life to be well. We don’t expect anything to go wrong. However, life is not like that is it? And yet, when things do not go well and our expectation is crossed, we blame God. I have never found an African who does this, certainly not openly…… interesting isn’t it?

Africa causes me sometimes to be irritable, but I think I have learned to have more realistic expectations in life. Maybe we all should take that lead and we would spend more time enjoying life, rather than fighting against something to simply being dissatisfied.

So no, I’m not a trainspotter, but I did learn something from the African Railway.

From Religion to Faith

“Listening is what distinguishes faith from religion..”

There I was taking my father down to Wales to spend a couple of days with him. I hadn’t seen him properly and with me going away, I thought it was high time we spent some time together. Somewhere near Ruthin, I was playing around with my radio and came across Radio 4’s Lent Series talk. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006xp1x I was very surprised to hear a programme about God, and more than that, a Christian programme about God. So there I was driving through the dark welsh countryside listening to a sermon on the radio and it’s message, well very simple but very profound, to listen. The sermon was being presented as part of the Lent talks on Radio 4 and was presented by Sister Elizabeth Oddard, a Carmelite Sister.

Christianity can be very busy. Is this the way it is meant to be? Religiosity is busy. The rules and regulations of obligation can pull at our time, personal and family life and ultimately kill the faith, that we profess to begin with. Is that ‘christianity’ then indeed true Christianity? I would venture not. Faith is not meant to be a pressure cooker, driven by targets, driven by dreams and desires. No! I don’t believe it is ‘driven’ at all. I do believe it is the response to hearing the voice of God. That is the golden rule for all of our lives. That is what faith is about, to not listen is to be religious and dead.

To listen is about bringing our lives to the center of God’s plans, not looking for God’s blessing on our plans. What are we wanting for our lives, a self centred utopian life that blesses us or a life of obedience, sacrifice and constantly listening to the will of God. The two are certainly very different. God’s voice will never take us into ourselves, but always outside of ourselves. He is a God whose human form was Jesus, the servant King who went outside of himself, who gave himself for our sins. It is a contradiction in terms for God to make us more centred on ourselves in our faith. I see this in churches and in Christian organisations. Who in the end cares about Dignity for example? In eternity Dignity will not mean anything, but the lives of those we touch, when we listen and go outside of ourselves, that will last, that will last forever. The same is true in our Churches. We shouldn’t for one minute build our church building, ministry or anything as a prime objective. No, the key thing is to listen and to push the Kingdom of God into everywhere that the Lord directs you. This approach is messy certainly, unpredictable and not easily planned. Who cares though? It’s efficacy is not based upon the whims of a person, but the direction and work of God, so is it effective? yes! more can be achieved in one action that in ten thousand.  If it hurts, if it involves you becoming lower and less well known, it is almost certainly the voice of God. As you decline, he will ascend in your life in heavenly power. It all begins with listening.

I’m pretty fed up with the manufactured go getting Christianity that does not make time to listen. I personally want to develop this discipline above all others because it is the first step to obedience. Psalms declares that “obedience is better than sacrifice”. I want this to be a well spring of life that will flow within me and touch many others.

Listen. Make time to Listen.

Simple.