Discerning the Times – A Surprising Outcome to a Search for Relevance
July 19, 2023
Will our work today make sense a year from now? Will the way you and I choose to invest the hours of this day make any difference in a world spinning out of control?
We live in times when no one can even guess the unknown impact of the deepening polarization that manifests itself in bitterness, vitriol, hatred, and violence, perhaps even a coming civil war.
That leads us to this question: “If our culture continues to fracture at this rate, what kind of a world will we face a year from today?” And more importantly, “what will it require to be followers of Jesus in that culture, and what do we do now to prepare?”
I am going to attempt an answer, and it may surprise you. It did me. I wanted to link specific new behavior now and its potential impact on the challenging scenario unfolding in front of us. I want to ensure that our work today is relevant and innovative as these unique times demand. I wanted a set of practices as radical as our days’ demand to ensure we are ready for the increasing chaos that seems to be our cultural future.
A combination of Scripture and the writings of two people brought me to an obvious yet unexpected conclusion. First, Scripture. Let’s start with 1 Thessalonians 5:
Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.
Paul assures the church in Thessalonica that “this day should not surprise you like a thief.” Why? Because we treat every day as an opportunity to be light in the darkness. We daily engage with soberness, “putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.” Perhaps Paul is telling us that regardless of the state of the world around us, we are to live steadfast lives, prepared, sober, and always letting Christ shine His faith, love, and hope through us into the darkness.
Now consider 1 Peter,
“Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.'”
There it is again. How do we live in a morally decaying, increasingly violent, and polarized culture? We are alert and sober, not conforming to evil but striving to live holy lives.
The end of all things is near. Therefore, be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.
It seems the goal of the life of a follower of Jesus in the midst of cultural opposition and moral decay is to keep your head, cling more closely to Jesus and love others even more deeply. But Peter isn’t through.
Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.
The follower of Jesus confronts societal chaos with humility and sobriety, spurning the enemy, standing firm in faith, and remaining in fellowship with the body of Christ, even if that takes new forms.
What happens when we live such lives? Peter again,
But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
There it is! The assurance that if we live as humble, sober, loving, hopeful followers of Jesus, resisting evil and seeking after holiness, the world will notice! Peter even suggests people will ask us. They will seek us out. They will want what they see manifest in our lives. The more we live like Jesus, the more people will want Him. Not us, not our religion, not our wisdom, and not our faith. They will see Jesus and want Him because He alone is the promise of the life they’ve never known, the peace they can’t find anywhere else, the hope that has been stolen from them.
Two last quotes sealed the deal. The great theologian Karl Barth rejects the idea that our faith and theology need to be adjusted to address the particular challenges of our day.
Has there ever been an age in which theology has not basically confronted a radical negation of the revelation believed in the Church?…there has never been any effective apologetics or polemics of faith against unbelief except that which is not deliberately planned, which cannot possibly be planned, but which simply happens as God Himself acknowledges the witness of faith. (CD1.1, pp. 28, 30)
Finally, Henri Nouwen writes in In the Name of Jesus,
I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self… Christian leaders cannot simply be people with well-informed opinions about our time’s burning issues. Their leadership must be rooted in the permanent, intimate relationship with the incarnate Word, Jesus, where they must find the source of their words, advice, and guidance.
So, what is our answer to the challenge of ensuring that our current work is not as irrelevant? Well, it’s to ensure our current and future work is God’s work. There’s nothing particularly strategic or even radical in this answer. It may not require us to change anything we are doing, but it must call all of us to recommit ourselves to a deepening encounter with God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. It calls all of us to sobriety of mind and holiness of life. It calls us into the battle clothed with humility and grace. It calls us to wield the weapons of love, faith, peace, and hope. It begs us to stand firm in what we know to be true and to be ready to proclaim it to a world that will ask us about the Jesus they see in us.
It’s not sexy or radical and won’t start a movement or spark a revolution. But it remains the hope of the world today, one year from now, and for the remainder of the days, the earth exists.
I will let Henri Nouwen have the last word,
When we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it will be possible to remain flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle, and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without being manipulative.
May it be so with each of us!