Can 2020 get any worse?

Can 2020 get any worse? Of course, no one yet knows the answer to this question, but an announcement made by the Prime Minister today is certainly ominous. The ABC headlined the news with “If Morrison’s defence strategy sounds like war talk, that’s because it is

There hasn’t been a year like it since the 1940s.

In Australia, we started the year with the worse bushfire season on record and with much talk about Climate Change. These were soon laid aside as the reality of COVID-19 became a worldwide pandemic. This virus soon created another plague, that of economic uncertainty, the staggering accumulation of rapid national debt, and a million jobs gone. No one knows when this pandemic will end and what the final toll will be, the human, social, and economic costs.

As the country begins to loosen restrictions, Victoria has experienced a sudden surge in COVID-19 cases, with Premier Andrews forced to shut down 10 postcodes in Melbourne. Other State Premiers have warned their people to stay away from Victoria and borders are being closed to keep Victorians away.

One month ago, in response to the shocking murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protests erupted across the United States, and even here in Australia. While much progress has been made since the days of old when the White Australia policy was in place, and since the horrific treatment toward Indigenous Australians when they were excluded from citizenship, when families were ripped apart, and the silent screams of aborigines who were massacred throughout the 19th Century. Much work toward reconciliation has taken place, but we have been reminded that racism has not been fully defeated. These stories continue to make the news each day.

silhouette of fireman holding hose

Photo by Denniz Futalan on Pexels.com

Somewhat caught behind these news items, but still present and making news, is each new chapter of the rapidly changing sexual revolution. In particular, the transgender movement which is requiring total allegiance and the automatic cancelling of anyone daring to question their dogma.

Today, July 1st marks the halfway point of this unforgettable year. On this day our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, made a major announcement regarding an issue that is still not receiving the public attention that it requires. The PM gave a rare and important address regarding the Defence of the country. Last week he informed Australians about a significant cyber attack on Government departments and Australian businesses by a foreign State. He has increased funding for cyber defence by $100s millions. Today he announced  a$270 billion investment for our military, including long-range missiles. This is a direct response to the growing geopolitical threat posed by China.

I’m not surprised. For some time, Defence experts have been warning the Government of the growing danger of Communist China. A defence white paper was given to the Prime Minister of the time, Malcolm Turnbull, outlining strategic necessities for Australian defence against China. Peter Jennings, who is the Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, has repeated warnings about Australia’s lacking defensive capabilities and unpreparedness for a China who is hungry for power.

Several weeks ago I wrote a piece detailing 6 ways the world may change as a result of COVID-19. My third point was about China. It’s worth revisiting some of the details. I suggested,

“China’s role in covering up the true extent of the Corona Virus and their influence over the World Health Organisation (WHO) is far from the worst of it. 1 million Uyghurs remain locked away in ‘education’ camps in northwestern China, Christian Churches are continually oppressed and Christians arrested, and there is China’s growing interference in Hong Kong and their military expansion in the South China Sea.”

Since then, China’s Communist Government has taken further measures to take control of Hong Kong.

Niall Ferguson is the Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. In December of 2019, he argued that a new Cold War had begun

“Something [else] changed in 2019. What had started out as a trade war — a tit for tat over tariffs while the two sides argued about the American trade deficit and Chinese intellectual property theft — rapidly metamorphosed into a cluster of other conflicts.

In short order, the United States and China found themselves engaged in a technology war over the global dominance of the Chinese company Huawei in 5G network telecommunications and an ideological confrontation in response to the abuses of Uighur Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang region, as well as a classic superpower competition for primacy in science and technology. The threat also loomed of a currency war over the exchange rate for the Chinese yuan, which the People’s Bank of China has allowed to weaken against the dollar…”

The Prime Minister’s announcement today will probably send shivers down the spine of many Aussies and create an audible backlash from others; I think the decision is a sensible one. This significant increase in defence spending doesn’t heighten the dangers around the Indo-Pacific, rather it highlights the already alarming situation. The reality is, we are not witnessing the awakening of a sleeping giant panda, but a dragon.” 

“For the most part, Australia has, alongside many countries, tried to benefit from and also feed a China hungry for economic and political expansion.

You don’t placate a bully, you stand up to them”.

When history books are written in 50 years time, of the myriad of issues faced this year, it probably won’t be the bushfires or race protests or transgenderism, or even the pandemic that will feature; the story will be China.

If a new cold war hasn’t already descended, it should be clear by the falling autumn leaves and the dropping temperature that winter is coming. These next few years will be pivotal in determining how cold or how hot this economic and geopolitical standoff will become.

As we enter the second half of this strangest of years, I’m praying that Australians will wake up and understand that what we assumed was normal and secure isn’t so certain and reliable. We need to anchor life and hope in something better than the health and prosperity that we’ve been gorging on for so many decades.

“Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” (Matthew 6:25) 

At the same time, as a Christian, I’m comforted by the words of Jesus,

 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth pains. (Matthew 24:6-7)

These words don’t diminish the existential realisation of such events. But God is not surprised. For 2,000 years Jesus’ words have been accessible but not always believed, read but not always grasped. We should not be alarmed or surprised by events that take hold of people, nations, and the natural world. We can be appalled and grieve these sharp reminders of a world that is cursed and cannot redeem itself. Alarmism, however, isn’t befitting for the one who trusts in a God who is Sovereign.

What we are experiencing in 2020 is a massive doss of what millions of people around the world regularly experience, and what many past generations have also lived through. What is new, is perhaps the legion of major issues now facing us and perhaps also the lack of political and social will to deal with some of them.

Jesus adds, during this eschatological season, the Church has a mission and it remains unchanged,

“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (v.14)

The hope of the nations is this Gospel of Jesus Christ, the one who died and was raised to life. I wonder, do our churches still believe this? No Government or superpower has a weapon of such power in their arsenal, such that the dead can be raised to eternal life. Churches, be clear about the Gospel. Be committed to preaching this Gospel, because nothing else can save us from hell to come.

Racism, Protests, and our faith in Christ: a letter to my church

“Turn from evil and do good;

    seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14)

 

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Dear Church,

I have never written an email of this nature to you before. I do so out of love for you all and also love for our neighbours.

I understand that among us there will be different reactions to the events transpiring in America this week, and there will be varied thoughts about how to respond.

As a church, we, of course, hold substantial agreement on account of our union with Christ. We confess Jesus is Lord. He is the One Saviour of the world. Together we affirm all human beings are made in the image of God and all are therefore equal before him and have inherent worth. We affirm that racism is anti-Christian, anti-God, and is destructive to society.

This week we are being reminded of how highly charged and partisan our societies have become. In the name of ‘love’ and ‘truth’ too many people have given up love and truth and instead turned on one another. Sadly, cultural movements often have the effect of dividing rather than uniting. We need to resist those temptations and false binaries, both in the church and as we live in the community.

There is a mass protest being organised in Melbourne city this Saturday, to support ‘Black Lives Matter’.

As your pastor, while recognising our freedom both in Christ and in the State to voice our concerns, I want to draw your attention to the following important points:

  1. In the State of Victoria, there remain strict laws enforcing social distancing and limiting meeting in large numbers, both indoors and outdoors. COVID-19 remains a health issue in our society. Both the Federal and State Governments, and the State Police are urging Victorians not to attend because of the COVID-19 situation
  2. Authorities have issued a warning, informing the public that there are protesters planning to incite violence and disorder.
  3. The organising group behind this particular city protest (Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance) does not recognise Australia’s legal system and has called for the dismantling of Australia.

I’m not arguing against the principle of public protest, nor am I telling anyone what they should or should not decide. I personally don’t think protests and marches are the best way to argue a point. But I acknowledge that there can be value for this kind of social action. I have friends who have participated in different protests in the United States in recent days, and many who have not and yet they are very much grieved by the events in Minneapolis last week. It is incumbent upon each of us to make decisions that are appropriate and reflect love for neighbour and that don’t dishonour the Lord Jesus in any way. 

To anyone planning to protest this week, know why you protest and understand your aim. If you are joining with others, know why they are protesting and what they are aiming to achieve.

We can stand against racism and not join this particular protest at this time. You might like to post a statement or prayer on social media to express our belief in the dignity of Indigenous Australians or call for greater measures to tackle the terrible numbers of Aboriginal people who have died in custody since 1991. You could post appropriate Bible verses.

When restrictions are lifted then perhaps organise an appropriate event: a prayer vigil, or prayer walk, as I’ve seen Christians doing in the US this week.

I’ve just heard Mike preach on Psalm 34, which was recorded for this Sunday. I encourage you all to listen on Sunday; it is a good and timely word. We want to be focused on God, we want his word to direct our motives and attitudes and thoughts. Even as a church where we agree racism is evil, we may want to respond in different ways. Be gracious to one another when we talk and share. Be prayerful. Find ways to love your neighbour: welcome them into your home, speak a kind word, ask them how are they doing.

We want to avoid the danger of falling into popular narratives from the left and from the right. Instead, our identity and our lives are now defined by the Gospel of Christ; this is what it means to be Christian. Therefore, let our motivations, words, and actions promote this good news. Doing so doesn’t make our voice weaker, it is more powerful and attractive.  It allows us to grieve with those who grieve,  to express anger for those who are trodden on, to forgive, and to know God will do right. 

“The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,

    and his ears are attentive to their cry;

but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil,

    to blot out their name from the earth”. (Psalm 34:15-16)

The Paradox of the Cross

This headline appearing in The Age caught my attention, ‘Bad weather in Victoria is a “blessing” for social distancing’.

“Victoria’s Deputy Health Officer Dr Annaliese van Diemen called the bad weather over the Easter Weekend a “great blessing” in keeping people at home.

She said there were only four reasons people should be going out: food and supplies, medical care and care giving, exercise and work or education and that police would be out in force issuing fines.

“Chocolate can be considered a food and can be sold in supermarkets, people are allowed to leave home to get food and essential supplies,” she said.”

Leaving aside the apparent argument over whether chocolate should be considered a food, there’s little disputing the fact that the weather in Melbourne has deteriorated over the Easter weekend. It’s been raining, the wind is blowing, and the Autumn cool has arrived.

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It wasn’t the predictability of Melbourne’s unpredictable weather that grabbed my attention, but the intentional paradox made by Victoria’s Deputy health officer: our “bad” weather is a “blessing”.

This partnering of bad and blessing, and especially the bad being the cause of something positive, cuts against the logic of how we usually think of life. We readily assume that bad is the opposite of blessing, and with good reason.

However, Dr van Diemen’s words are a timely illustration of the paradox that belongs to Easter. The days leading up to and including Good Friday can be aptly described as bad. Indeed, it was truly horrendous. Jesus was innocent of all wrongdoing. The judge at the trial, Pontius Pilate, declared the Nazarene’s innocence. It was said that Jesus was the Son of God, a claim that Jesus himself attested to throughout his life, and yet he was now being ridiculed as a heretic and as an enemy of the State.

Good Friday was truly awful: the crucified one was the one without sin, the one who offered perfect love, kindness, and compassion, the one who didn’t play games with the rich and influential but who sought out the poor and the weak and welcomed them. The most holy man to have ever walked the earth was put to death in the most gruesome way imagined, slowly, deliberately, and to cheers and applause of those looking on.

It was bad and yet it was also a blessing because the Bible explains that Jesus’ death was not him losing, rather it was God bringing about a decisive win over death and evil. The cross recognises the naked reality of human corruption and enduring love of God who was paying the penalty in our stead. The Old Testament speaks of anyone hanging on a tree as being cursed by God. As Jesus announced in his cry of dereliction, Jesus willingly endured that curse on the cross so that we might experience the undeserved blessing of God.

Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, summaries this paradox in this way,

“He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).

In his death, Jesus was taking the justice of God that is aimed at all the injustice in the world. The blessing or good news of Jesus’ death is that it means guilty people are forgiven, broken people can be healed.

The world cries out for the paradox: for justice and for mercy, to punish wrongdoing and yet also to forgive.

As Melbourne theologian, Dr. Michael Bird suggests,

“The proclamation of the cross sounds like folly to many, when in fact it is God’s wisdom.

What looks like powerlessness is God’s power.

What sounds like a tragedy is stunning victory. The death that looks so shameful has established God’s honor.

What appears as a cause to mourn is a cause for inexpressible joy.

God has triumphed in the cross of Jesus, and we share the triumph with him.”

Easter is the most significant of all Christian celebrations, for it marks the beginning of all Christian hope. The cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s answer to the greatest paradoxes, tensions, and hopes that we share. It is why the good news message of Jesus remains compelling and why it is cherished by so many millions of people to this day.  It is not a message however for those who think highly of themselves and who count their morality or spirituality as wise and strong. This is a message for people who grasp their unworthiness before a holy God and yet who become convinced that, through that weekend in Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago, God is more forgiving than we can possibly imagine.

As we remain indoors this Easter weekend, perhaps we can take time to ponder this most astonishing of paradoxes.