The gods who beckon: a personal reflection from John on Daniel 3

John on Corran Ferry

A very personal reflection from John

Duncan raised a most important question in yesterday’s sermon in Daniel 3 – how are we, as Christian people to remain true to God when we are under pressure to deny, or to compromise our faith?  Are there ‘lines in the sand’ beyond which we will not go?

It’s a challenging question, because we are called as believers to be ‘in the world’ – out there in the community, in society – not hiding from it, but reflecting in our own living the light and life of Jesus.

Lines in the sand

I was brought up in a Plymouth Brethren church in the 1950s, where among the outward signs by which one showed one’s allegiance to Christ included things like not going to the cinema, not having a television, not going to dances, or smoking, or drinking, or wearing makeup. These negatives were accompanied by the aspiration to live in, and ‘live out’ Christ’s love, but sometimes in seemed that the negatives predominated.

Back then, of course, the UK was still a largely Christian society. There was a high level of church attendance.  The  Billy Graham mission in Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall brought many to faith. Christianity was still the ‘public religion’ of Britain, as evidenced by the spiritual nature of Queen’s coronation. There was a ‘Morning Service’ each day on BBC Home Service, broadcast live from the chapel in Broadcasting House in London.

A different world

We now live in a different world, and Christians now routinely cross the lines in the sand set down by my fellow Brethren in the 1950s. I think correctly, we have come to see that there is much good in the arts – music, drama, cinema, literature – and as Christians we explore them freely, and detect evidence of God’s grace in unexpected places. We have also come to recognise that the Bible’s teaching about, for example, dress, was culturally conditioned, and that following Christ does not been adopting the practices of an ancient society.

And yet I wonder if, in this freedom, we watch, and listen, and absorb things which do not ‘build us up,’ but rather undermine our faith?

The lines are drawn in different places

When it comes to the ‘detail’ it is almost impossible to draw a line in the sand which will apply to all  Christians.

Christians have different personal convictions on many moral issues. For example, some hold that the Bible’s condemnation of same-sex relationships is absolute, and for all time; others argue that the Bible was not discussing committed homosexual partnerships.

And regardless of our beliefs we differ in how those beliefs affect our daily living. One baking firm decides that they can’t bake a wedding cake for a gay couple because of their convictions; another might decide that they are in the business of making cakes, not of passing judgement on those who order them, and that their primary Christian duty is to provide an excellent cake, on price, on time.

As a young librarian, as was concerned that my library contained books which be damaging spiritually to my readers. But I came to realise that as a good librarian, my responsibility was to provide the best books on every subject of interest to my customers – not to do that, would be to fail as a librarian.

Back in the ‘50s, Jim Cranston would have regarded this as crossing a line – he resigned from the grocery shop where he worked (in those pre-supermarket days) because the management decided to begin selling alcohol.

I think that the lines we draw in the sand will be personal to each of us, dependent on our own convictions, and also the stage we are at on our faith journey. What is vital is, firstly that we are open to challenging thinking, willing to redefine the lines if necessary, and secondly that we are gracious with others who may not be able to do conscientiously what we are able to do.

Respect for conscience

It is vital to allow for conscientious objection in society, respecting the lines people refuse to cross. Only totalitarian regimes like Nebuchadnezzar’s have no room for personal conviction. We watch anxiously the signs in our own society that personal conscience is not valued enough – and yet sometimes as Christians we can be judgemental of other believers because they do not share our view on particular issues, moral or otherwise.

Thus there are some Christians who feel that they have been made to walk through the fiery furnace by other Christians who can’t tolerate their views, and they too have found themselves accompanied in the flames.

But this whole question is not fundamentally about particular issues – it is a holistic, whole-of-life concern. Because how I live outwardly is a reflection of who I am inwardly. Sometimes we try to live Christian lives, when inwardly we are far from Christ. I think the response to Duncan’s sermon for many of us should be not to agonise over lines in the sand, but to be more open to the love of Christ who leaves no lines uncrossed in order to reach us and lift us up.  The kind of risk Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were prepared to take was driven fundamentally not by mind or will, but by passionate commitment to God. And we probably know more of God’s love than they ever did.

The bigger picture

And I wonder whether, in our concerns over particular issues, we are neglecting the bigger picture – the elephant in the room. We are not called to bow down before a 90 foot statue, but many times every day advertising and social media and peer pressure – and our own hearts – summon us to worship four gods, and our worship of these gods can become so natural, so much part of our everyday lives that we do not even notice their totalitarian dominance.

And what are these gods?  Money, sex, power – all serving the great god, self. These gods drive us, and enslave us, and paralyse us – and yet we serve them obsessively even as they destroy us.  Jesus, poor, pure, powerless, self-giving, calls us to freedom from the tyranny of these gods. Even as Daniel mocks the pretensions of Nebuchadnezzar as Duncan pointed out, Jesus laughs at the pathetic gods we bow down to.

Freedom in Jesus

How would our lives change if we realised that our lives are centred in Jesus, that drawing on the refreshment of his welling spring within us we have all we will ever need, we are secure.  We do not need ‘stuff’ to make us happy; we rejoice in our sexuality but are not enslaved by it; we do not exercise power over others, but rather we serve them. Above all, we realise that in opening our hearts to the spirit of Jesus we lose our selves in him, and yet in the very process of losing find our true identity.

This is the challenge facing as Christians  – ‘I will not bow down to money, sex, power, self.’

We may respond to this in a moment of decision, but it will also be a life-long, day by day commitment as we choose to live in joyful partnership with Jesus who daily shows us what true freedom means.

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