Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
We are now in the season of Advent, when as Christians we particularly focus on hope. You may find it hard to have much of that at the moment, with economic crisis, war in Ukraine, and a looming environmental catastrophe unless there are serious and rapid changes in our carbon footprint. Add to that the usual struggle between hope (for that read blind optimism) and expectation for England at the world cup. There is added cause for pessimism this year with publication of the 2021 census results showing Christians are now a minority in Britain, although not in Herefordshire and Shropshire, probably for the first time since the dark ages. One can place a spin on this, and tell many stories of Christians making a huge difference in their communities. Only a few weeks ago that work was recognised by the council in Hereford with a 100K grant to fund our work with Ukrainian refugees. Of the people offering hospitality to refugees, a disproportionate number are Christians, as is the case with foodbanks and youth work. We continue to have an influence in society and motivate social action way beyond the actual numbers of people in Church on a Sunday. It may be the case that 50 years ago a lot more people went to church, in part because there was very little else to do on a Sunday. However, if you’ve given up a good career to serve the Church and recognise the increasing difficulty of getting our message across, its hard not to be just a tad depressed.
But, other than the (albeit long) blip of Christendom, this has been the reality for God’s people from our Jewish forbears onwards. Many of our Christian brothers and sisters suffer social exclusion, persecution and hostility around the world. In fact, worldwide, Christians are almost certainly the most numerous persecuted group. We may encounter apathy here, but at least no-one is trying to kill us on a regular basis as they are in parts of Nigeria.
So, the return to minority status is simply to inhabit the usual social space Christians have occupied in most times and places since the resurrection. In this situation, Advent hope takes on a greater significance. In Advent we both look forward to Christ’s first coming to be our saviour, but more importantly, to his second coming to be our judge. Judgement in the scriptures very often has the meaning of vindication rather than censure. In morning prayer over the last few weeks we’ve been reading the darker symbolic passages towards the end of the book of Revelation, which speak of judgement for the Saints in those terms. Revelation, despite its language, often impenetrable to us, was written to a persecuted people as words of comfort. It invites its readers to place their present experience in the context of the veiled spiritual reality of God at work which will be revealed in all its glory in the future. It reassures us that God is telling an unfolding story in which we have a part to play, either great or small. We are rarely able to tell which our part is. As Jesus said, “the first will be last, and the last will be first.” The paradox of this exercise of divine sovereignty is that it is neither thwarted by human sinfulness nor does it override human freedom.
It is depressing that our reach as a church is diminishing, but not because of a loss of power. A weak church is in many ways a more faithful reflection of Christ himself. My sadness is that these headlines reinforce the secular narrative that Christian faith is from the past and no longer has anything to say to contemporary life. As a result, people are encouraged to dismiss Christian faith as a viable option. I wouldn’t remain in this job if I didn’t believe that the Gospel is true. Now is not the time for a loss of confidence in the message of Jesus. A relationship with God the Father through Him is still the place in which we find our true identity, significance, meaning and purpose. The Gospel would remain true even if no-one believed it. Even if we live in a time where it is hard to claim God is working his purposes out, that doesn’t mean he isn’t.
I’m reminded of a verse of a hymn I haven’t sung for some time, but has recently been going around my head quite a lot.
God is working his purposes out as year succeeds to year.
God is working his purposes out and the time is drawing near.
Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that will surely be.
When the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.
In Advent we say, “Amen!” to that.