But We See Jesus
The second chapter of Hebrews opens with the words 'We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away'. We tend to think of the early Christians as being heroic people but the first congregations had the some of the same problems that we have today with people joining and leaving and never being seen again. Even as close to the time of Jesus as they were and as imbued with the power of the Holy Spirit and on a positive journey of growth and expansion, there still were people who gave up on their Christianity. A recent survey of Church membership in the United Kingdom does not make encouraging reading. We are used to these surveys and their prognoses have always been proved wrong. According to one during my time as a student, the Church of Scotland would cease to exist in the year 2007. This latest survey suggests that Christianity will disappear on 2067. That is certainly within the lifetime of our younger members. Christianity will not have disappeared at all by then in this country. But the figures are troubling just the same.
According to the most recent Social Attitudes Survey, the number of Scots who say they belong to the Church of Scotland has fallen overall, from 31% in 2002 to 18% in 2017. In 2002, 14% of those aged 18 to 34 said they followed the Church of Scotland, compared with 4% in 2017. In 2002, 24% of those aged 35 to 54 said they followed the Church of Scotland, the figure is now 13%. 32% of those aged 55 and over say they do so, down from 50% in 2002.
56% of Scots now say they have no religion. Those aged 18 to 34 are the most likely to say this (73%), followed by 35 to 54 year olds (59%) and those aged 55 and over (42%). All age groups have seen a decline in religious identity of between 11-17% in the last fifteen years, which has gone hand in hand with a gradual decline in church attendance at Church of Scotland services. 33% of those affiliated with the Church of Scotland attended at least once per month in 2002 while now only 25% do.
Roger Harding, Head of Public Attitudes at the National Centre for Social Research, said: “We know from the British Social Attitudes survey that people’s views are becoming more socially liberal on issues like same sex relationships and abortion. With growing numbers belonging to no religion, faith leaders will no doubt be considering how to better connect to a changing society.” The Church of Scotland’s answer was to become more like today’s society. It has not worked. The rate of decline has increased. There are fewer members and a risible number of vocations to the ministry.
These are ball park nominal figures and they should be put in context. The membership of the Church of Scotland is now below 300,000. That is a nominal ball park figure. But the continuing decline of nominal membership figures does not reflect the actual life of the Church of Scotland or any other denomination for that matter. It was reported that senior Kirk official has warned against measuring the strength of the Church by reports of a decline in membership numbers. The Church of Scotland continues to play a crucial role in communities across Scotland and in the public life of the nation, said Rev Colin Sinclair Convener of the Mission and Discipleship Council. Mr Sinclair spoke out in response to a recent Scottish Social Attitudes Survey that claimed to show 52 percent of Scots are now atheists. The study based its conclusions on the responses of 1,288 people out of a population of 5,347,600. Mr Sinclair said while there are lessons in the report, the big picture offers a more optimistic story: "When I was young "mission" seemed to begin at the far end of the Mediterranean. What this survey highlights is that mission is now at our doorstep. We welcome the opportunity and challenge of sharing our Christian faith in ways that are relevant to people living in Scotland today. "We do not minimise the challenges we face, yet what the statistics actually show is that one in five people in Scotland do feel connected to the Kirk”.
'How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?' asks the writer of Hebrews. He is thinking of the consequences of rejecting Jesus Christ as God’s saving Son. That conviction of God’s punishment is entirely lacking from our understanding today. Arguably it is only the most committed of Christians who take God’s judgement seriously. Mostly, political, media and social discourse offers no place for God’s point of view. Life is materially better today than it ever was for most people in this country. But it is not better in terms of well being, health and personal happiness. Living with Jesus Christ is an advantageous existence. Living without Jesus Christ shows up all the problems of human nature unredeemed. We learned recently that alcohol consumption in Scotland is increasing again. The average amounts consumed per person are mind boggling, 477 pints of beer per year or 116 bottles of wine or 41 bottles of vodka. Take this congregation – none of us here drink anything like that – so – other people must be making up the difference to get these average figures. But I know people who drink 5 – 6 bottles of wine a week. Lots of men still drink more than 10 pints of beer a week. Why do we humans need alcohol so much? It is a false saviour to be sure. But it is easy to become alcohol dependent. There but for fortune go you or I. We have addictive natures. We have cravings, wants and appetites. What Christianity offers is a better way to channel our compulsions into a health filled relationship with the Risen Jesus Christ and the empowering of the Holy Spirit to moderate and control addictions. If Christ makes you free, you will be free indeed. You can be a lot happier and health filled with the Holy Spirit than you will ever be half or wholly drunk. The children and grandchildren of people who abuse alcohol and other substances suffer greatly. And the children and grandchildren of those who have no time for God in their lives suffer also and are lost souls even if they do not know it.
'What is man that you are mindful of him'. This is a quotation from Psalm 8. In our human rights based society we big up humanity but the Psalmist and the writer of the Hebrews are awestruck that someone so great as our Creator can have time, interest and care for each of us. That is the Knowledge of God given to the Jews and shared with the world through Jesus Christ. Why would our Maker care about what you do for the rest of the day? Jesus said - ‘So much that God knows how many hairs we have on our heads’. Is God not greater than these huge computers that make a million calculations in less than a minute? Hebrews reminds us of our favoured status in creation, a little lower than angels and stewards of this physical planet earth and all that is in it.
Those who wrote the Bible were not stupid. They wrestled with God and with the problems of our relationship with God. Job did, Paul did also. Even Jesus struggled in prayer with God. The writer of Hebrews admits candidly ‘Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him’. It is a contradiction that we call Jesus Lord and have to look at this world today. But it was no different in the early years of the Christian Church. The world of humanity is not fully under the discipline of Jesus Christ. It is hard to see that it will ever be. The UK Government recently passed a law to make the supply of legal high drugs illegal. But people were on the radio saying that there will always be those who want to take drugs and they will find them and buy them from suppliers and consume them. That is human nature rebellious – self-harming.
The writer of Hebrews then makes one of the greatest affirmations of the New Testament, an affirmation that has carried through the centuries and one which we can make today 'But we see Jesus'. And we see Jesus crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God, he might taste death for everyone. God, he says, made Jesus perfect through suffering. Sports people like to win and enjoy doing so but they tell us that they always learn more from defeat. In the great novel War and Peace Pierre Bezukhov has lived an aristocratic life but he is taken prisoner by Napoleon’s army and is led on a Russian winter frozen death march. He is rescued by partisans and returns to his former privileges. He meets his childhood sweetheart again and they marry. But he does not regret the time of suffering and near death and volunteers that he would not have missed that time of trial. For him it was a cleansing experience. It chastened and stabilised him and made him a better person. Soldiers of wars say similar things although nowadays many admit to having post stress disorder. We do not like to suffer but somehow we learn through it and become better people.
'But we see Jesus'. This is our testimony in this troubled world. We are upheld and sustained by the Risen Jesus in our faith and faithfulness. We are inspired to serve and help His name and cause. We see Jesus in other people also. We see His victory. The boxer Muhammad Ali used to say ‘Ah am so great – Ah can not be beat’. It was a boast rather than a truth. Time, illness and death beat him. But Jesus cannot be beat. Resurrected, safe in heaven, He is victorious over this world we continue to live in. The writer of Hebrews says, ‘I will declare your name...in the presence of the congregation, I will sing your praises’ (quoting Psalm 22.) . This Jesus is real to us by his presence in our midst.
Chapter 2 of Hebrews draws to a close with the affirmation that Jesus had to become a human person to accomplish our redemption and salvation. Jesus did not leave heaven just to reorganise the angels. He did not remain aloof from human physical life as some Greek inspired heresies were claiming at the time. Jesus was involved in all the contradictions and messiness of human existence. His was a sacrificial life on behalf of many. His obedience made atonement for humanity. However elevated the writers of the Bible may have been in Christian faith and commitment they never lost sense of proportion. Chapter 2 ends with another of the great sayings of the Bible. 'Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted'. You won’t find this kind of thinking in Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism. Christianity is intensely personal. Jesus, the Son understands your struggle and mine. Jesus understands the temptations of addictive substances and addictive behaviour. He knows what inner conflict is. He offers us his strength and his victory. Put your trust in him. Throughout the world today this same Jesus is making people better. He can make societies better. He can make nations better. He is the Saviour of the world. To all that is thrown at us day by day we have a wonderful response. 'But we see Jesus'.