‘The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation.’ These words were in a speech given by Sir Winston Churchill to the House of Commons in 1940. Facing defeat, he inspired the nation to fight from the corner, urging them to brace themselves to do their duty and carry themselves in such a way that even a thousand years on people would still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’ The speech was powerful, the nation responded and ultimately a lasting peace was achieved.
It is one of the speeches that shaped the modern world, displaying the power of words. Speeches have affected the outcome of war, women suffrage, human rights and many other issues.
The apostle James writes that although ‘the tongue is a small part of the body… it makes great boasts’ (James 3:5). This small instrument has enormous power. It can cause great damage but it can also bring extraordinary blessings. Your tongue is a powerful instrument.
President John F. Kennedy said, ‘We stand today on the edge of a new frontier… but the new frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises – it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.’
Life is a set of challenges, problems and hassles. We sometimes imagine that if we could just deal with the immediate challenge that we are facing, all our problems would be over. But life is not like that. If we resolve one problem, others are just around the corner.
The temptation is to see these challenges as preventing us from carrying out the ministry God has given us. In actual fact, dealing with the problems is the ministry. As one former Bishop of Kensington put it: ‘These are not the problems associated with the ministry, they are the ministry.’
The Bible is true to life. The psalmist faced pain and distress. Paul faced false accusation and the frustration of being kept in prison on trumped up charges. The kings in the Old Testament faced battles and a massive building project challenge.
I am reminded that the relatively minor challenges, problems and hassles that I face are nothing compared to what the people of God have faced in the past, and still face around the world today.
Corrie ten Boom and her sister Betsie were middle-aged Christian women in Holland when World War II erupted. They resolved to conceal fleeing Jews from the Nazis. They rescued many. But they were eventually arrested and taken to Ravensbrück concentration camp. Betsie died there. Corrie miraculously survived to bear witness to the way in which God can save, heal and forgive.
When asked how to prepare for persecution, she used to tell this story about her childhood:
‘When I was a little girl, I went to my father and said, “Daddy, I was afraid that I will never be strong enough to be a martyr for Jesus Christ.” “Tell me,” said father, “When you take a train trip to Amsterdam, when do I give you the money for the ticket? Three weeks before?” “No, Daddy, you give me the money for the ticket just before we get on the train.” “That is right,” my father said, “And so it is with God’s strength. Our Father in heaven knows when you will need the strength to be a martyr for Jesus Christ. He will supply all you needjust in time.”’
Saint John Chrysostom (349–407) wrote, ‘Prayer… is the root, the fountain, the mother of a thousand blessings… The potency of prayer has subdued the strength of fire, it has bridled the rage of lions… extinguished wars, appeased the elements, expelled demons, burst the chains of death, expanded the gates of heaven, assuaged diseases… rescued cities from destruction… and arrested the progress of the thunderbolt.’
Justice and righteousness are about a radical, selfless way of life.
Like in the book of Proverbs, what does it mean to “bring about just righteousness?”
“Open your mouth for those who can’t speak for themselves.”
And what do these words mean for the prophets, like Jeremiah?
“Rescue the disadvantaged, and don’t tolerate oppression or violence against the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow.”
And look in the book of Psalms. “The Lord God upholds justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, and sets the prisoner free, but he thwarts the way of the wicked.” Woah. He thwarts the wicked?
In Hebrew the word wicked is rasha’, it means “guilty” or “in the wrong.” It refers to someone who mistreats another human, ignoring their dignity as an image of God.
So is justice and righteousness a big deal to God?
Yes, it’s what Abraham’s family, the Israelites, were to be all about. They ended up as immigrant slaves being oppressed unjustly in Egypt, and so God confronted Egypt’s evil, declaring them to be rasha’, guilty of injustice. And so He rescued Israel. But the tragic irony of the Old Testament story is that these redeemed people went on to commit the same acts of injustice against the vulnerable, and so God sent prophets who declared Israel guilty.
But they weren’t the only ones, there’s injustice everywhere.
Some people actively perpetrate injustice, others receive benefits or privileges from unjust social structures they take for granted, and sadly, history has shown that when the oppressed gain power, they often become oppressors themselves.
So we all participate in injustice, actively or passively, even unintentionally; we’re all the guilty ones.
And so this is the surprising message of the biblical story: God’s response to humanity’s legacy of injustice is to give us a gift: the life of Jesus. He did righteousness and justice, and yet he died on behalf of the guilty. But then God declared Jesus to be the righteous one when He rose from the dead. And so now Jesus offers His life to the guilty, so that they too can be declared “righteous” before God – not because of anything they’ve done, but because of what Jesus did for them.
The earliest followers of Jesus experienced this righteousness from God not just as a new status, but as a power that changed their lives,and compelled them to act in surprising new ways.
If God declared someone “righteous” when they didn’t deserve it, the only reasonable response is to go and seek righteousness and justice for others. This is a radical way of life, and it’s not always convenient or easy. It’s courageously making other people’s problems my problems.
This is what Jesus meant by loving your neighbor as yourself. It’s about a lifetime commitment fueled by the words of the ancient prophet Micah: “God has told you humans what is good and what the Lord requires of you: is to do justice, to love Mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
If you were a praying mantis, it would be socially acceptable to devour your mate. And if you’re a honey badger, you have no regard for other animals, you don’t care. If you’re a Panda with twins, it’s normal to abandon one to take care of the other.But if humans do any of these things, we would call it wrong, unfair, or unjust.
Why do humans care so much about justice?
Well, the Bible has a fascinating response to that question. On page 1, humans are set apart from all other creatures as “the image of God.” God’s representatives who rule the world by His definition of good and evil. And this identity, it’s the bedrock of the Bible’s view of justice: all humans are equal before God, and have the right to be treated with dignity and fairness, no matter who you are. And that would be nice if we all did that, but we know how the world really works. And the Bible addresses that too: it shows how we are constantly redefining good and evil, to our own advantage at the expense of others.
Self-preservation, and the weaker someone is, the easier it is to take advantage of them.
And so in the biblical story, we see this happening on a personal level, but also in families, and then in communities, and then whole civilizations that create injustice, especially towards the vulnerable. But the story doesn’t end there. Out of this whole mess, God chose a man named Abraham to start a new kind of family. Specifically, Abraham was to teach his family to “keep the way of the Lord, by doing righteousness and justice.”
Doing Righteousness? That’s a Bible word I don’t really use, but what comes to mind is being a good person.
But what does that even mean, “being good?” The biblical Hebrew word for “Righteousness,” is tsedeqah, and it’s more specific: it’s an ethical standard thatrefers to right relationships between people; it’s about treating others as the “image of God.” With the God-given dignity they deserve. And this word “justice” it’s the Hebrew word mishpat. It can refer to retributive justice. Like if I steal something, I pay the consequences.
Yet most often in the Bible, Mishpat refers to, restorative justice. It means going a step further, actually seeking out vulnerable people who are being taken advantage of and helping them.
Some people call this charity. But mishpat involves way more, it means taking steps to advocate for the vulnerable, and changing social structures to prevent injustice.
So justice and righteousness are about a radical, selfless way of life.
Handley Moule, when he was Bishop of Durham, had the task of visiting the relatives of 170 miners who had been killed in a mining accident. While he was wondering what to say to them, he picked up a little bookmark his mother had given him. As he held it up, on the reverse side of the handwoven bookmark there was a tangled web. There was no rhyme, no reason, no pattern, nothing. But on the other side it said, ‘God is love’.
The world often seems to us like a tangled web. Often we cannot work out what is going on or why we are suffering in the way we are. But the claim of Jesus and the Scriptures is that behind it all is the love of God. Even though things may seem very difficult for us to understand now, God is working out his loving purposes in the world.
God can weave a pattern from the threads of our lives – including the suffering, heartaches and even our mistakes and make something beautiful. The apostle Paul tells us that ‘in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28). Reflect today on the fact that, even though your situation may be challenging, God is weaving his purpose for your life.
Job said, ‘You gave me life and showed me kindness, and in your providence watched over my spirit’ (Job 10:12). Everything that happens in this world is within the sphere of God’s working. ‘Providence’ means God’s foresight: the way he anticipates and prepares for the future. ‘Providence’ is the way God guides and steers human history – he is present and active in the world – sustaining it and ruling it.
It is also the way he guides and steers your life personally and individually. God has a specific, unique destiny for you. Sometimes this thought worries people: that they might somehow mess things up and miss out on God’s purpose. But that isn’t the case. Even your mistakes he uses for good. In all the circumstances of your life and the events going on around you, you can trust in the providence of God.
In Buchenwald concentration camp, 56,000 people were put to death by a totalitarian regime that saw the Christian faith as a threat to its ideology. One block of cells in the camp was reserved for prisoners who were deemed especially dangerous or notable. Paul Schneider, a Lutheran pastor who was called ‘the preacher of Buchenwald’, was placed in this special block because even from the small window in his cell he loudly proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ – in defiance of the orders of the Gestapo guards.
Otto Neururer, a Catholic priest whose work on behalf of the Jews and other so called ‘undesirables’ had made him a threat to the Nazi warlords, was also put in this block. He too ministered in Jesus’ name to his fellow inmates in the concentration camp until he was crucified upside down.
In unity, these two men, one a Catholic and the other a Protestant, bore witness together to their common Lord – Jesus Christ. Unity is so powerful.
Yes, I recommend giving this sermon a listen. Dated February 14, 2020.
It is mind blowing to me how crazy deep, rich, broad and intimate God’s love is!
“The Love of God” Hymn is a favorite of mine and gives a descriptive attempt at the vastness of God’s love:
The love of God is greater far Than tongue or pen can ever tell It goes beyond the highest star And reaches to the lowest hell The guilty pair, bowed down with care God gave His Son to win His erring child He reconciled And pardoned from his sin
Could we with ink the ocean fill And were the skies of parchment made Were every stalk on earth a quill And every man a scribe by trade
To write the love of God above Would drain the ocean dry Nor could the scroll contain the whole Though stretched from sky to sky
– A few stanzas from The Love of God hymn
And to think that in Christ his love is inseparable!
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Romans 8:38-39 NASB