Holding Out The Word Of Life
There's another struggle taking place between evangelical Christians and atheists in Scotland. It is about teaching creation theology and intelligent design in science classes at schools as a counter to evolutionary theory as the only explanation for life on earth. I remember some years ago attending an evening service in Charlotte Baptist Chapel in Edinburgh. Incidentally, the congregation of Charlotte Chapel bought St George's West Church from the Church of Scotland in 2011 and it has now been renamed Charlotte Chapel. St George's West was once the most famous pulpit in the English speaking world. It suffered catastrophic decline as have done many Edinburgh churches due to weak and liberal ethos. Charlotte Baptist Chapel on the other hand requires St George's larger space and facilities for its growing evangelical congregation. They offered £1.55 million for St George's West which was accepted. They then set about raising the money. Within weeks the members had given pledges of £1.3 million and these were confirmed by mid 2012 enabling the purchase to go ahead. There you have a parable of Church of Scotland liberal decline and Baptist evangelical expansion. I mention this in the passing but it puts our sense of Christian commitment here in context. There is no reason for this Church ever to close.
At that evening service in Charlotte Chapter I listed to an edgy sermon in which it was categorically stated that the story of creation in Genesis chapter one is true. This implies then that the world was created round 6,000 years ago in 6 days possibly on or about 23rd – 28th October 4004 BC. There are some Christian people who believe this to be the case. Evolutionary theory is mistaken they say. The idea of the world evolving over millions of years is simply not true. God's Word is certain on this matter. It is this idea of creation that atheists in Scotland (and of course Richard Dawkins in England) are seeking to ban from science classes in our schools. But Rev David Robertson of the Free Church wrote in Tuesday's Scotsman thus....'if creationism means young earth six-day creationism, then that is not being taught in any science class in Scotland's schools. If however creationism means anyone who believes that there is a creator, then I am right to be concerned that the Secular Society are using the bogeyman of 'creationism' to further their campaign to remove Christianity from Scotland's education system'.
Professor Paul Younger of the School of Engineering at Glasgow University contributed to this debate in The Herald recently writing...'As a geologist and as a Christian I have never felt the slightest contradiction between my faith and my profession....Most Christians have perceived no conflict between cosmology, evolution and faith. Neither do we reject the notion of creation: we simply marvel at the self-consistent universe with intelligible physical laws, through which the whole wonder of God's creativity operates by secondary causes'. Richard Lucas who took part in our October Mission last year criticises wholesale reliance of evolutionary theory as currently proposed, writing in The Scotsman 'I actually regard my Christian faith as perfectly compatible with evolutionary theory. The reason I cannot swallow the entire evolutionary story is that it involves a precarious sequence of ludicrously improbable events. The improbability argument against evolution has not been refuted...so evolutionary theory limps on despite its numerous fatal wounds. As a believer in an intelligent agent behind creation, I can be more open-minded and follow the evidence and logic where they lead'. These Christian men are holding out the Word of Life in our day and age, arguing and contending in public with militant atheists. That's what Paul urged the members of the Church at Philippi to do and that is what we ourselves need to be doing – holding out the Word of Life, the Gospel, the Christian challenge, the good news about Jesus Christ's friendship, forgiveness, salvation and eternal life. We can't all argue about evolution but we can say that we know Jesus Christ as our personal Saviour. We can give a reason for the hope that is within us. We can testify to what God has done in our lives.
In the passage from Philippians which we heard read to us earlier, Paul says, 'continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. What does he mean? It is not a negative as it seems. 'Work out' actually means 'complete', that is 'bring to completion your salvation'. Paul is urging people not to give up half-way and not to be content with second-hand Christianity when the real thing is available. Would you describe yourself as 'Half-a Christian' or perhaps ' a half-hearted Christian'? Not good enough, says Paul. You deserve better than that. Our Christian living has to have effective action, results and consequences. Likewise the words 'fear and trembling' can be explained. They reflect our humanity, our weakness, our powerlessness to overcome by our own strength our faults and failings and to make this world a better place by being more than good. It means our sense of dependency on God to do what we cannot do for ourselves. It is that which brings us to our knees in prayer when we are our own wits end. It is what turns people to prayer when they have never done so before. These words also mean our sense of disappointment when we have failed God. We can be afraid in this sense of what we can do to others, even those who love us. Seeking to complete your salvation in this way is not in the fear of punishment but out of our sense of letting God down. We do not create our Christian life; God within us does so.
Verse 14 might have been meant for congregations today. Do everything without complaining or arguing. If only! Congregations are like families in which we rub off against each other sometimes with tensions and disagreements. There is a strong negative dimension in this congregation. Some people talk in the village abut the dire state of this Church. Is that likely to do any good? Is it even true? True Christians bring answers to problems they don't make things worse. That's not to say that an honest assessment of where we are is not to be encouraged. What is better though are suggestions, commitment and action to make things better.
Paul wants Christians to be different from the non-Christian world. I sometimes feel claustrophobic surrounded by and enclosed within the society in which we live today. If all we had to do was argue with atheists about science and the Bible, we might be quite happy. The weight of decadence, folly and absurdity that is dumped on us everyday on our TV screens is scary. No wonder people don't come to Church - the human spirit is being extensively damaged by our suffocating idolatry. People live in make-believe worlds populated by soap opera characters, footballers, entertainers and so-called film stars. What a relief to come here to the House of Prayer for some sanity and serenity. Holding out the Word of Life.
Paul liked to talk about himself a lot. He put himself on the line often and always. In Philippians here he suggests that he wants to be able to say it was all worth it. He does not want to have laboured in vain, having spent his years for no lasting result. The background here is that of an athlete's training for the Isthmian Games, the Pan-Ionian Games and for the Olympic Games in ancient Greece. The athlete wants to win something for all the hard work. He wants to do his best. He does not want to have regrets and missed opportunities. Paul also describes his life as being poured out like a sacrificial drink offering. This practice occurred daily in the temples in Greek cities and towns. He thinks of the time and energy he has put into building Christian congregations. He has spent his years doing so. Maybe he is tired now and feels that he has done his best. But he is thankful for the faithfulness of the congregation at Philippi. It was worth it. They gave him a sense of satisfaction and of accomplishment.
Holding out the Word of Life. That is our calling, our purpose, our mission, our goal. Throughout the land with congregations shrinking, remaining members are trying to diversify in order to keep Churches open. Just like the days when farmers were told not to plant seeds and grow crops. Instead they were encouraged to open farm shops, nature trails for children, offer space for caravan parking and build holiday homes to rent. So congregations are offering their premises for all sorts of things, many wholly unconnected with the core purpose of the Church. Of course this builds bridges to communities and helps form relationships with people who never attend Church. But – does it bring people to Christian Faith? Does it result in professions of faith and testimonies of conversion to Jesus Christ? St George's West Church in Edinburgh took that path and it closed and was sold to the Baptists. We may have all sorts of activities but if the central calling of the Church is set aside, there is no long term hope. It is not one or the other. It is 'both and'. We can be busy but we must keep worshipping and praying praising and giving. We must live in hope of revival. Who knows when the tide may turn? Let us hold out the Word of Life and trust the Lord to honour our faithfulness.
'O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!
Rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me!
Underneath me, all around me, is the current of Your love
Leading onward, leading homeward to Your glorious rest above!'