52. Drowning in Unreality

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 52. Drowning in Unreality

Ex 20:22,23    Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites this: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: Do not make any gods to be alongside me

Unreal gods: A problem that constantly seemed to face Israel was that of idol worship, which was forbidden by the Lord – yet all the surrounding nations worshipped idols. So why did God forbid it and why is it relevant here? The answer to both questions is that worshiping idols is worshipping something that is unreal. The truth is that ‘gods’ don’t exist, the gods of Athens or Rome that we learn about in history are figments of human imagination, made in the image of fallen human beings. The gods of the nations surrounding Israel were expressions of superstition, unreal, make-believe. Don’t worship what is unreal is the message from heaven.

Facing Unreality: So what does our heading today mean, this ‘drowning in unreality’? It means there is a way of thinking today that is quite unreal and its very presence undermines the way Christians think and opens them up, if not to giving way to temptation, certainly to tolerating a lifestyle and failing to speak into the folly of the ways of the world. So what is the unreality that I am speaking about? It is that portrayed in films, TV ‘soaps’ and videos. There is also the unreality of ‘computer games’. I have mentioned temptation and toleration as two outworkings of this unreality (and I will go on to explain more in a moment) but within that there are two things to be observed. First, the behaviour is unreal and second, the very culture that we are looking at challenges biblical norms.

Considering ‘Soaps’ & ‘Sitcoms’: I hope you are familiar with the terms. Soaps are defined on the internet as follows, “A soap opera is an ongoing drama serial on television or radio, featuring the lives of many characters and their emotional relationships.”  A Sitcom is simply a ‘situation comedy’ based on a fixed group of characters.  The reason they are so pernicious is that they appear every week on TV. The ‘sitcom’ genre usually has a very much lighter feel to them and although infidelity is dealt with, it is in much more light-hearted way. Perhaps that makes it more acceptable.

Two Case Studies: Historically there have been two leading influential series, clearly aimed at the younger generation. The first was ‘Friends’ which ran from September 1994 to May 2004 (10 series) and the group being followed were described as, “not above sticking their noses into one another’s businesses and swapping romantic partners, which always leads to the kind of hilarity average people will never experience – especially during breakups.” That softening comment does nothing to undermine the culture that is conveyed which I will define in a moment. The second is the Big Bang Theory’, running from September 2007 and currently to series 11 in 2018.

The Culture: There are certain characteristics that are common to both of these long-running series: a) they are very funny, b) sex has a high profile and is portrayed as normal among young people, c) sex is distinct from committed relationship and indeed both series show the horror that is experienced when one member of a couple uses the words, ‘I love you’, being seen as words of commitment for which neither of them are clearly ready, d) both series had an almost cult following, especially among the younger generations. Neither series deals with inconveniences such as STD’s, unwanted pregnancies, abortions etc. Sex is problem free.

The deceptions: I would suggest (at the risk of being called a kill-joy by the younger generation) the following follies of this culture:

i) Sex is reduced to a simple pleasure with no unpalatable outworkings (see my last comment above; these ‘inconveniences’ do in fact have a substantial negative impact on modern society).

ii) As sex is separated from love and a committed lasting relationship, such a relationship has clearly become a difficult thing to acquire and the fruit of this is clearly observed in the trials and tribulations of the younger generations, many of whom now despair of the possibility of any lasting, loving, long-term relationship, especially with the ease of divorce in modern western societies being as it is.

iii) Sex is portrayed as easy, and always enjoyable and instantly on demand, and having no negative impact on the relationship, whereas surveys indicate a) many women confess that very often sexual experience is not pleasurable but they have to do it because that is what is done, and it wins affection from the male (both untruths), and b) the realities of tiredness, monthly periods (often suppressed by the pill), feeling unwell etc. etc. mean that one or other partner, in reality,  aren’t feeling like it.

iv) Sex is designed (by God and many psychologists would agree) to be just one strand of a growing relationship, friendship, growing trust and sense of security being others. Putting sex before the others (or even using it as a one-night stand) means that the likelihood of a long-term relationship developing is reduced, as is the possibility of creating a family.

v) Despite all the talk of ‘prevention’, a surprising number of (therefore) unwanted pregnancies take place, creating either the single parent syndrome (with its negatives), or a forced ‘marriage’, or a cohabiting partnership which, by its very nature, has an unstable foundation and often results in the man leaving and we are back to the single-parent syndrome again. There is also the matter of abortions often taken as the norm in this culture.

And in Church? We are often very good at accepting single mothers into the church community but in so-doing we are loath to make negative corrective comments and so our own young people see this as normal for society. It should not be; there are too many negative sides to this for both the mother and certainly the fatherless children. What I observe is an almost casual attitude to these things growing in the church. If we allow this to continue we will be helping the world in undermining the value and benefits of a committed life-long relationship, and of the family unit being a foundation for a safe and secure environment in which children can be raised. Society is very slow to link the growing number of child behavioral problems with family breakdown. If we were honest about these things, our communities would be transformed. We need to talk these things in depth within our church communities, recognizing the unreality ethos we are battling against and carefully revealing the good of God’s design.

Standards generally:   So far, we have talked about the ethos to be countered, and the very folly of the lifestyle, in respect of sex and modern relationships, but I think we should be honestly aware of the impact of various other things coming out of Hollywood. In the US, (not the UK) I have observed many times an inconsistency in believers’ attitudes to certain films. Because C.S.Lewis appears to have such a following in the US, Narnia films and then the Lord of the Rings films and subsequently the Hobbit films are perfectly acceptable. Harry Potter films, by comparison, are abhorred, because ‘witchcraft is bad’. Yes, real witchcraft is, and the manufacturing industry that capitalizes on it, also is, I believe, but no more the industry that exalts in Halloween which certainly has a dark or even ‘black’ background.  But actually, all of these films exalt good over bad and ‘good’ triumphs. (If you want to be really discerning, you will note the difference between the first two HP books and the last ones). And do you watch ‘vampire’ films or TV???? We need to think about this.

But then I found an acceptance in the evangelical community of ‘The Passion’ the worst example of the most extreme, shock-violence possible. Don’t say it happened; so did many other atrocities that you and I (I hope) would abhor if they were on screen. My other horror, on both sides of the water, is of the acceptance of the first of the Hunger Games films  shown to young teenagers. It’s about teenagers murdering other teenagers for public spectacle! I think Paul’s “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things,” (Phil 4:8) would be an overstatement taken out of context if we try to apply it to modern watching, but there is a truth there to be pondered.

An Approach? These days I would never recommend any watching (My own may be wider than some of you, but I would never recommend it). As a young Christian I was wary, having been brought up in my twenties in a strict evangelical mould, of even watching Crocodile Dundee, and I know there are some Christians who never watch any films. Well that is an extreme, but I would prefer it to the ‘watch anything’ extreme. Paul’s advice about not putting stumbling blocks before others (Rom 14:13, 1 Cor 8:9) is worth considering. The balance is, how can I remain aware of the standards being pushed by the world?  A question to be asked is, “If I watch this particular film/TV series, does it fill my mind, give me nightmares, or diminish my steadfast resolve to hold to God’s laws?” i.e. does it undermine my standards?  Accepting the ethos, whether it is to do with sex or the taking of life, is the danger that I believe is undermining the standards of many Christians. Even more, because there is this ‘clash of cultures’, the ‘modern outlook’ of tolerance, I am certain, undermines both the clarity and certainty of the biblical culture, if I may put it like that, in the minds of many. If in doubt, don’t watch.

Personal Guidelines: My own personal guidelines for watching today (while seeking to be an informed commentator) are:

  • Avoid explicit sex on screen which causes images to be retained and thus causes further difficulties of personal management.
  • Avoid constant use of the ‘f’ word or similar for the same reason.
  • Where relationships involve infidelity, remember the folly and the reality, and where there is violence (either don’t watch it or) remember this is manufactured in a studio and unreal. But don’t let it anesthetize you to the horror.
  • If in doubt, don’t watch; there is plenty else to do in life!

Finally, does this aspect of life, diminish the reality of ‘ongoing redemption’ we have been considering? If yes, it’s time for a change.

50. Personal Action Specifics

Meditations in Hebrews 12:  50.  Personal action specifics

Heb 12:14  Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.

Direction – Goals to work for: We have said that the Christian life is always a partnership between us and God and as we approach, in more detail, the things we can do, we saw three ways where, in general terms we could show weakness, ceasing to be fruitful, ceasing to remember who we truly are and ceasing to remember that we have a direction to go in this life. This leads us on to verses which pick up on specific things we can do or not do in the Christian life.

Peace: He starts with, “Make every effort to live in peace with all men.” (v.14a) We live in God’s world and there we are to seek to create the environment of the kingdom of God – peace. Sin is disruptive, hurtful and harmful. We now are to work against such things and it must start in our heads and then be translated into our lives.

Holiness: He continues, “Make every effort to… be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” (v.14b) To be holy is to be utterly different with that unique God-like characteristic that is described by such words as wholeness, complete, perfect, pure, utterly righteous. Holiness comes with God’s presence but the warning, “without holiness no one will see the Lord,” implies that we have a part to play in being holy. As we draw near, as we spend time in God’s presence as we direct our lives on him, so we will find His glory, his holiness will be reflected in us (see 2 Cor 3:16-18) We have added an additional note at the end of this particular study.

God’s Resources – His Grace: So the first two encouragements are to focus us on our relationships with other people and with God. The Christian life is all about relationships, but these relationships with other people can go wrong and so we need God’s resources to help us: “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” (v.15)  The grace of God here is the sum of all the resources that God makes available to us to enable us to cope with life on this fallen world. Without it we can become vulnerable to wrong ways of thinking about other people, especially when Satan sows discord between us and others. We do not expect disagreements within the Church so that when it does happen (e.g. Paul and Barnabas Acts 15:37-40) we need to learn how to disagree peaceably and not let it fester and cause ongoing trouble and embroiling others in it as well.

Linking Two Failures: But then he says two things that initially at least appear unconnected: “See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son.” (v.16) So what is the link? Well Esau’s sin, for that is what it was, was to be indifferent to his family heritage and his family’s inheritance. If you like it is not bothering about the family name. He gave it aware because of human desire, he was hungry, that was all, and he threw away his inheritance. Now what happens when someone is sexually immoral? Well starting in reverse order, they live by their desire for sex. But then they forget who they are, a holy child of God; they show that for that moment at least they don’t care about the name of God.

In both cases we have a warning not to be ruled by what used to be called ‘carnal appetites’, physical desires of the moment. How strong these things can be! Do I say that because I have been down that path? Thankfully no, but I have known a number Christian leaders who have, and those who were not leaders. In a world that declares that sex between unlimited numbers of adults is normal the pressures to give way to temptation increase and so we need to increase both our vigilance and our inner faith building. The problem with these sorts of failures is that they have big repercussions. Existing relationships are demeaned and made meaningless, and future relationships are weakened (those with regular different sexual partners find it more difficult to establish ongoing relationships and we are creating a people who grow old in loneliness and in insecurity).

The Repercussions: But it is the spiritual repercussions that are more serious.  Here comes a warning he has given at least twice already “Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears.” (v.17) Once he had sold his birthright, it was too late, he could not get it back. Once you have committed adultery you cannot get back to how it was before. Now there is a question of guilt to be dealt with which may hang around for decades. Now there is a question of trust to be regained should you wish to maintain our existing relationship, and that will be hard going. But then there may be all your family and friends whose love for you for damaged because of the desire of a moment.

Recap: What have we seen in these verses? In verses 14 and 15 we are reminded that life is all about relationships, with people and with God and, in a sin-inhabited, fallen world, it is so easy for those relationships to be damaged. We are challenged to “make every effort” to preserve these relationships.

But then he reminded us that so often such relationships can be broken by sexual immorality and we become just like Esau who threw his heritage away for a simple human desire – hunger – so that other powerful human desire – sex – can also cause lasting damage and may even threaten our spiritual inheritance. True repentance is always the way back, but even then immense grace is needed on all sides which is yet another reason why we need the grace of God.

Human life and experience can be very fragile and it is so easy to throw away what is good in a moment. No wonder this pastoral writer is so concerned to keep on warning and warning and warning his readers to be vigilant, making every effort to hold to their faith and to the love and goodness of God. be aware of the temptations facing you even today and turn to the Lord and cry for His help. He is there for you.

Addendum on ‘Holiness’

Being: Holiness we have said is about being utterly different, about having that God nature that is unique. First, we ARE Holy because the Holy Spirit indwells us. Second we are becoming more holy because we are bring changed, stage by stage by the Holy Spirit, more and more into the likeness of Jesus.

Behaviour: Now there are two wrong behavioural extremes, I observe, in Christians. First there is to measure oneself by how we see ourselves conforming to certain ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ and, second, there is cut oneself off entirely from the culture of the world around us. Jesus did neither of these two things.

Attitude or Outlook: Holiness grows in as much as we hear and encounter God. Growth is always about response to God for the Christian. Second it is about ‘being’, as we said above and therefore we can be just like Jesus AND be part of the experience of his world around us without shame and without compromise. We look, assess, enjoy, be aware of differences and take His love to our culture, being in it but not of it.

2. History

ADVENT MEDITATIONS No.2

2. Truth based in History

Luke 1:5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron.

There are some people who have some funny ideas about Christianity and there are some people who just have funny ideas. The ‘funny ideas about Christianity’ people often think Christianity was just some fairytale set of ideas dreamt up by some mystics some where along the way in history. The people who just have ‘funny ideas’ often are people who are led by mystical ‘funny people’ who have just dreamt up some strange ideas somewhere along the way in history.

Now the truth of Christianity is far from either of these two groups of weird and wonderful believers. Christianity is rooted in down to earth, time-space history. Things happened and those things were recorded. Yesterday we started these meditations by considering Doctor Luke who wrote what we call ‘Luke’s Gospel’. He had gone to some trouble to make sure he had checked things out very carefully. Today’s verse is steeped in history. It identifies the time as that in history when King Herod ruled in Judea. It speaks of Jewish culture and life at that time, of the practice of Jewish priests coming from the tribe of Levi and specifically from the descendants of the family of Aaron in that tribe.

This says that all that we are about to read follows in the flow of history, and much of the culture and background is because of what has gone before. We are never simply isolated figures in history; we come into history, into a world that has been shaped by all that has gone before.

Later on, Luke was to write about the coming of a forerunner to Jesus Christ and described it as follows: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar–when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. (Lk 3:1,2). Those two verses are packed full of historical information defining the exact point in history when all this occurred. This is a writer who wants us to realize that this is all happening at a specific point of history in a specific geographical location, with a specific culture. You can’t be more down-to-earth than this!

In a day when political correctness or post modern rhetoric tends sometimes to spew out notions based upon emotion and little else, coming to the Bible and its concrete foundations may produce a sense of culture shock in some. There is nothing vague about the New Testament history; it is clear and concise, sometimes almost too much so. However, if we wish to use the Christmas story as recorded in the New Testament as a basis of our mediations, we would do well to face up to these things early on in the day.

What we are about to read is rooted in time-space history. Having read it verse by verse, word by word, for many years now, I am going to treat it as the accurate history that it is. If you have a problem with that, either stop reading these meditations now, or risk seeing how different they might be from the vagaries of unbelieving theologies. You might be pleasantly surprised! Risk it, stay with us!