Engaging With The World
02/07/2000 at 9.30am / 11.15am
Daniel 1; John 17
Jesmond Parish Church
A sermon preached by Jonathan Pryke
This morning we're beginning a new short series called 'Challenges for the Christian'. Over the next month we'll be considering how to handle the challenges Christians face in the areas of schooling, conflict and sexuality. But underlying all of these is the more fundamental question of how the world relates to Christians, and how Christians are to relate to the world. That's what I'm going to tackle this morning.
My title is 'Engaging with the World'. I'm going to make reference to both of the passages that we've heard: Daniel 1; and John 17.13-21. In the prayer of Jesus there is a framework for our lives as his disciples that enables us to understand our situation in the world. And Daniel's experience as a Jew exiled to Babylon and caught up in the life of that pagan court is an instructive example. More of that in a minute. Let me just clarify first of all what is meant when I talk about engaging with 'the world'. What is 'the world' in this context? Because it's a word that can mean different things.
Sometimes it means 'the created world'. Not just mountains and trees, but the whole of the created order. That's the sense, for instance, at the beginning of Psalm 24:
The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world and all who live it; for he founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters.God made it, so it belongs to him. But when Jesus prays about the disciples and the world in John 17, 'the world' has a rather different meaning. It has a negative rather than a positive sense. It is not the created world, but the world that has rejected God. The world in John 17 and generally throughout John's Gospel is mankind in rebellion against God, under the influence of Satan, and blind to the truth of the gospel. So John 1.10-11 describes the situation in this way:
He [that is, Jesus] was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.But Christ is opening the eyes of the blind and calling people to follow him. His followers used to belong to the world. They used to live in the darkness of rebellion against him. But no longer. And in John 17, on the night before he dies, Jesus prays for them. In that prayer, Jesus makes clear six things to do with the relationship of believers to the world. Let me run through them quickly.
One. What differentiates believers from the world is that they have heard God's word. That's how they know Jesus. The world is deaf to God's word, so it doesn't know Jesus. So Jesus says in 17.14:
I have given them your word…Two. The world hates believers.
Three. Believers do not belong to the world.
Both of those are in the rest of 17.14:
I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world.So also Jesus says to his disciples back in 15.19:
If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.The disciples of Jesus are living in a country that is foreign to them. Christians are citizens of the new heaven and the new earth that Jesus will be bring in at the Day of Judgement. In the mean time we live here. So Peter addresses his first letter in this way:
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia …[etc.]Four. Jesus has sent his disciples into the world. 17.18:
As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.Now Jesus is praying here in the first place for those first disciples who were with him that night. But he's not only praying for them. 17.20:
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message…That's us, if we have believed the gospel taught by the apostles and written down here in the New Testament. This prayer is for us. Jesus has sent us into the world.
Five. God protects believers. 17.15:
My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.Behind the world's hatred of believers lies Satan the great enemy of the gospel. But Jesus asks his Father to protect his people from Satan. What Jesus asks, the Father gives. Jesus' prayers are always answered with a 'yes'. So we take this not just as a prayer but as a promise. God protects believers. And he does it through his Son. So at the end of chapter 16 Jesus encourages his disciples to be realistic about what they face, but confident about the outcome, with these words:
In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.Six. The world will get to know about Jesus through believers. Again, that is what Jesus prays for, so that is what will happen. 17.21:
May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.And that is exactly what has been happening for two thousand years. That small band of original believers turned the world upside down. And the process continues as more and more believe that Jesus is the Son of God, sent by his heavenly Father to be the Saviour and Lord of the world.
So that's the framework that believers operate in in the world. Let me just run through that again, because if you're a believer, this pretty much describes you this side of the return of Christ. This is your life, as Eamonn Andrews might have said. What divides the world from believers is the Word of God; and knowing Jesus through that Word. The world hates believers. Believers don't belong to the world. Jesus has sent believers into the world. God protects believers. The world will get to know about Jesus through believers.
Now, in the light of all that, I want to make three points that I hope will help each one of us to think through how we live our lives. They are there on the outline.
I am aware that these points are aimed at those of us who are believers. I'm also aware that you may not yet be a believer. If that is so, then I think the challenge for you has to be this. As you hear this prayer of Jesus, what do you really make of him? As you come along here, occasionally or regularly, and hear more about Jesus, what do you think of him? As you begin to read the Bible and in that way you listen to his voice and the voices of those who lived with him, knew him, saw him die and saw him risen from the dead, what conclusion are you coming to about who he really is?
Because if he really is the Son of God, as the Bible testifies, then his view of the world is the truth. It is reality. And there really is this fundamental eternal divide between those who believe in him and those who don't; between those who choose to remain at home in the world that underneath its sophisticated veneer hates Jesus and those who follow him.
And if Jesus really is the Son of God, then the challenge to you as you hear Jesus praying in this way for his disciples is to ask yourself whose side you really want to be on. Do you want to be at home in the world and an enemy of Jesus? Or will you believe in Jesus and stand with him against a hostile world? These are blunt questions, I know. But none of us can avoid them for ever. It's as well to face up to them now, before the world gets a grip on you again and you can no longer the voice of Jesus calling you back to himself. Here then are my three points.
First, THE WORLD WORKS TO GET CHRISTIANS WORSHIPPING ITS OWN GODS
Jesus says that the world hates his followers. But of course, that's not how the world sees it. The world's hatred is generally well hidden, well under the surface. Sometimes it erupts in open hostility with no restraint at all. You need to read a book like 'Killing Fields, Living Fields' about the experience of the church in Cambodia over the last hundred years to get an idea of what that's like. But most of the time, and certainly in the West nowadays, everyone likes to think of themselves as tolerant. The world's hatred is mostly hidden even from itself. But it's still there. And it shows itself in the way that the one thing that the world will not tolerate is faithful biblical Christianity. The world calls it bigotry. Lyndon Bowring, the executive chairman of the Christian organisation CARE, wrote recently:
"In our media age we are surrounded by slogans, sound-bites, spin doctors and pressure groups, each weaving a sophisticated web of opinions, statistics and darkness-dressed-as-light… It is by grace that we have been saved and with grace that we should treat other. But let us recognise that, sadly, we ourselves will be increasingly the subjects of intolerance, when many in the media, press and parliament attack us for our Christian views. As Paul reminds us in that letter to Timothy: 'in fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted'."
Daniel is a classic example of one of God's people under persecution. At times that persecution is open and violent. So eventually Daniel is literally thrown to the lions. And it mustn't be forgotten that the very reason Daniel is there in Babylon and not in his home city of Jerusalem is that Nebuchadnezzar the King of Babylon beseiged Jerusalem and carried off its people in waves into exile. Daniel was among them, as a young man, and finds himself living at the heart of an empire that was hostile to his faith.
Not that God had somehow lost control of what was happening to his people. The main lesson of the Book of Daniel is that God is always in control of everything, and is working out his purposes. Daniel 1.2 says that the Lord delivered the king of Judah into the hands of the king of Babylon. Jesus sends his disciples into the world. God sent Daniel to Babylon.
But that's not how Babylon saw it, and Babylon was determined to crush the faith out of Daniel. Not that they would have put it that way. They just wanted Daniel and his friends to be useful to them, serving their purposes and not causing trouble. And if you're a believer, that's how the world thinks of you. Just be like them, and do what the world wants you to do and the world won't give you any grief at all.
So Daniel was put through a programme that was designed to assimilate him. At this stage it was all very friendly. First Daniel was selected for special treatment because of his promise and potential to be useful to the Babylonians. Then the process of educating him in the language and literature of the Babylonians was begun. What a powerful tool an education system can be for making sure that the minds of believers are conformed to the world! Then his diet was prescribed. Then his Israelite name was changed to a pagan name, and Daniel became Belteshazzar.
All this adds up to a powerful programme of assimilation. "Make him like us; reeducate his mind; teach him our ways; seduce him with the pleasures and riches of our way of life; and he will forget his God and serve our purposes." That is the way of the world with believers. And Daniel wouldn't have faced any pressure at all on account of the faith that he once had if he had simply gone along with all that and allowed his identity as believer to be swamped and finally to disappear.
That is the pressure that the world puts on us as believers. As long as we are prepared to compromise and finally to lose our Christian identity, we won't face any pressure at all. Going with the flow produces no resistance at all. It just destroys our faith. So how can believers respond? There are three possible routes. And that is my second point.
Secondly, CHRISTIANS CAN EITHER SUCCUMB OR WITHDRAW OR ENGAGE
It really has to be one of those three. So faced with pressure from a hostile world, believers do one of those three things. Daniel was faced with the same set of choices.
One option was to succumb. He could simply have said "yes" to everything. Gone along with it all without question. Lapped up the education. Relished the food. Wallowed in the wealth. And ceased to be a believer at all. No doubt he could have kept some semblance of his religious past. He could have chosen the Hebrew Scriptures module in the comparative religions course. As long he didn't try to argue that the Hebrew Scriptures were the truth and the pagan religions were not. He could have had the wedding in church. As long he didn't try to insist that sex outside marriage was a danger to individuals and society alike. They wouldn't have minded a veneer of the old religion. He just shouldn't believe it and live it. Succumb to the pressures. That's the easiest option of all. And the deadliest.
The second option was to withdraw. That can be attempted in two ways.
The first is to withdraw into the mind. Keep matters of faith private. Believe it; but believe it in secret. The trouble is, because God is Lord of everything, there's only one way of keeping faith secret in the long term, and that is by compromising it. So withdrawal becomes surrender after all.
The second way to try and withdraw is to withdraw into a ghetto. As far as possible make church your whole life and have nothing to do with the hostile world. Leave the world alone in the hope that it will leave you alone. Many try this. This, too, is an option with great attractions. But this, too, is fundamentally flawed. For one thing, it's disobedient to God so it cannot be done without compromising the faith. For another thing, it simply cannot be done. We cannot help being involved with the world. A church that tries to withdraw from the world always ends up being invaded by the world. This side of judgement day we are in the world unavoidably, just as Daniel was in enforced exile. Return to Jerusalem was not an option for him.
Then the third option is to engage with the world. Face up to the reality of the situation. Recognise that the whole world belongs to God and it is not wrong to be in the world. We should be serving the world, in the right way. But be in the world without being of the world. Be ready to be distinctive, whatever the consequences. And that will inevitably mean drawing a line. It will always mean standing out from the crowd in one way or another.
Daniel knew that. He was glad to be of service in so many ways. But on God's terms, not on the terms of the Babylonians. Daniel 1.8:
But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself in this way.That's where the rubber hits the road. That's where the demands of Daniel's faith begin to engage with the demands of the world. Daniel knew it had to happen. But he didn't shrink from it. For him, the issue was food. Mind you, from then on, he was a marked man. Refusal to be steam-rollered in one thing is clearly and rightly read by the world as a refusal to be steam-rollered, full stop. Suddenly the world has to reckon with your faith. It becomes public knowledge, not only that you have a faith, but that your faith makes a difference.
Then when that happens, the tables are turned and it's the world that begins to feel the pressure. Which is my third and final point.
Thirdly, JESUS SENDS HIS FOLLOWERS INTO THE WORLD TO INFLUENCE IT
That brings us back to what we learned from the prayer of Jesus. The world will get to know about Jesus through believers. But they have to be believers who neither succumb nor seek to withdraw. They have to be believers who have resolved, like Daniel, to engage with the world, and who carry their resolution through. Is that us? That's the question. Is that us? Here are a few simple rules of engagement for those who resolve to be different for the glory of Jesus and for the sake of the gospel.
First, know what you believe. Resolve the fundamental issue of allegiance in your mind and in your heart. Who do you belong to? Is it Christ, or is it the world? Get that straight now, before more pressures are brought to bear to make you succumb.
Secondly, get involved. Don't even try to withdraw from the world. Quite the opposite. Get your hands dirty serving the world in the name of Christ. Whether its in schools, or politics, or the media, or the health services, or business, or among friends and family, or in clubs and activities and organisations: get involved.
Thirdly, be vigilant. Don't underestimate the lengths to which the world will go to destroy your faith. Sometimes the methods will be open and obvious. Sometimes they'll be subtle and seductive. But don't underestimate the underlying hatred of Christ that there is in the world. Forewarned is forarmed.
Fourthly, at the right time, take a stand. Dare to be different.
And then fifthly and finally, trust in God's protection. It was reported in the paper that a few days ago a tornado tore through a small Australian town. It was so powerful that it sucked a family of five, including a 17-month-old baby, out of their home and dumped them in a field. The baby was sucked out of its high chair, through a window and into a paddock fifty feet from the house. The baby landed in haystack. It was unharmed.
God does not prevent us from getting caught up in the fierce winds of the world. He sends us into the world. But he does protect us. We too, will land in a haystack, so to speak. You may not feel secure, caught up in the tornado of the world. But you are. Trust God. Jesus sends his followers into the world to influence it. We will not be overcome. Jesus has overcome the world.
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