Following God in a Pagan World
We heard an amazing testimony this morning from Fanie about his recent trip. The story that stood out for me the most was the story of his trip into the town where they were amongst militant unbelievers. While those who attended the training course were being instructed that they would have to go out and plant Churches, Fanie shared that to do so would also include facing severe consequences. Maybe the building they were meeting in might be burnt down; perhaps they might have to endure beatings, or worse.
What a challenge to be facing! And yet of the 170 people in the room, 140 stood up and were willing to go right then and there.
We all face the same question: What would I do if I were in that congregation? Would I be ready to stand up and go?
JUST HOW PAGAN ARE WE??
Tonight I want to talk to you about following God in a pagan world. Last week I spoke to you a little about finding God in desert places. This week I want to talk to you about following God in a pagan world.
What do I mean by ‘pagan’? By ‘pagan’ I mean a world that does not know or follow the God of the Bible.
I wonder what your circle of people is like. When you go to school, are you more likely to run into a born-again Christian standing in front of you in the line to the tuck-shop; or are you more likely to run into a boy or girl who doesn’t know God. At work, are your colleagues regenerated and sanctified, or are they anything but? When you have a big family reunion and stand around the braai with your cousins, aunts and uncles, are they family in Christ too?
I would like to talk to you about following God in a pagan world, but unfortunately I can’t. I have some good news for you!: We don’t like in a pagan society. South Africa is not a pagan nation. Do you know that 80% of our country claims to be Christian? That’s good news! That means out of every 10 people you walk past in the street, 8 of them are apparently followers of Christ.
Oh that that were true! Oh that 8 out of 10 men were seeking God’s leading in their families; that 8 out of 10 boys were following God’s directions for how to conduct themselves; that 8 out of 10 women were seeking God’s approval over their colleagues’ approval; that 8 out of 10 girls were seeking God’s direction in the way they dress and what they listen to.
But that is not the case. While 8 out of 10 people profess to follow Jesus Christ, the actual number is far, far lower.
In fact, this is a very similar picture to the land of Israel for almost its entire biblical history. If you were to read through the Old Testament, as I am doing now, you will find that there were very, very, very few Israelites who were true children of God. Just as today there are very, very, very few professing Christians who are true children of God.
Now we know this to be true. We live in a country where 80% of people profess to be God’s children and we know that can’t be true.
So as I was preparing to share this message on following God in a pagan world I was first inclined to draw lessons from the life of Daniel who lived in Babylon. Babylon was definitely a pagan nation. But in fact we face a situation that is less like Daniel in Babylon and more like God’s people in Israel.
Babylon was a nation that did not profess to follow the God of the Bible, nor to even know who He was.
To live in that town Fanie told us about this morning – that would be more like living like Daniel. Or to be kidnapped and held hostage by Islamists, that would be more like living like Daniel. You and I don’t live in a nation that is ignorant of the one true God. Walk down the street and ask people who Jesus is and most of them will be able to give you some sort of answer.
Israel was a nation that professed to know God, but did not follow Him with their hearts. Our country is a nation that professes to know God, but does not follow Him with their hearts.
So here’s some good news: You and I don’t live in Babylon.
Here’s the bad news: We live in Israel. And that has its own challenges.
#1 In a near-Christian nation, false gospels flourish
We live in a predominantly Christian country, in name at least. There are many thousands of denominations of Christianity, tens of thousands of Churches. Some of these Churches are massive, with thousands of people in regular attendance, but unfortunately where the gospel is not taught. Rather, a ‘gospel’ of financial prosperity might be taught, or a ‘gospel’ of miracles, or a ‘gospel’ of happiness.
Sometimes these gospels are taught by people who genuinely feel there is some sort of salvation in the things they preach, many times these gospels are taught by people who are out for selfish financial gain. And if a quick buck can be made in Jesus’ name, many will run to use His name.
In the early Church to call yourself a Christian was to offer yourself up to persecution, perhaps to execution. Saul who became Paul is a good example – he chased down the Christians to hurt them. And when he became a Christian, he was hunted down and heckled, pushed around and stoned.
Even after Paul’s time, as the number of Christians grew they were an easy target for wicked men. They were thrown to the lions, burned on crosses – no clear-thinking individual would call himself or herself a Christian unless she really was. And it’s the same in some parts of the world today.
But where Christian acceptance abounds, false gospels abound too. No trouble will come to someone who calls himself a Christian – only to those who will stand too heavily on Christ’s promises.
And so we have it today. We have government leaders who are endorsed by well-known pastors; we have parties claiming an affiliation with this Church or that Church; and it all looks good on paper but there’s no evidence that God is involved in it at all. Businessmen who claim to be Christian to get your business, beggars on the street quote Bible verses to attract giving, people claiming to be Christian to get out of all kinds of trouble.
We live in a nation that uses the name of Christ, but doesn’t know or believe in His Gospel. In a near-Christian nation, false gospels flourish.
#2 In a near-Christian nation, Compromise is easier
1 Corinthians 15:33 “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.”
I had a wonderful chat with the security guard at Jubilee Christian School this last Friday morning. I went to give devotions at the school and ran through their front gate in quite a rush – I wasn’t sure what time they started and I didn’t want to be late. But the security guard didn’t know me and he gave me quite a stern stop and told me to explain myself.
While I was a little embarrassed, I was also glad to see he took his job of protecting the school very seriously. After the assembly I went out and chatted to him for a little bit. He told me his name is Astronaut – what a fantastic name! He comes from Mpumalanga and up until a little while ago he was part of a trouble-making crowd.
He was with them drinking and smoking and would go with them to steal cars – that is, until they got caught. He stayed four days in jail to find out if he would be sent to prison, and in those four days he re-evaluated his situation. As soon as he was out, he left the bad company.
He says that even till today his old friends come around and invite him to go and cause trouble, to drink or smoke or party. They call him a loser because he’s a security guard, and they tell him he’s never going to get anywhere. While that hurts him, it’s much easier not to compromise because he’s put the bad influences away from him and put some good influences around him.
When everyone around you, those closest to you, are sinning outrightly, it can feel really difficult to retain integrity.
Maybe at work you’ve encountered this. Your boss asking you to change a number here and there to benefit the company. Your friends encouraging you to watch this or that movie with them. Maybe at school there’s a lot of pressure to swear or to use God’s name in vain.
It can feel very easy then to compromise just a little, because it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal.
What then is our responsibility in such a culture? I suggest two responsibilities: To call, and to stand.
I love God’s call to Ezekiel in his ministry to God’s people. It’s a beautiful and a weighty assignment to be a watchman for God’s people.
A watchman was a person who would stand on the outer walls of a fortress and watch for coming trouble; he would be the first one to spot it because his eye was trained and focussed.
If the watchman fell asleep, the enemy could come through the wall without him raising the alarm and the city would fall and many would die. His job was exceptionally important. This is God’s instruction to Ezekiel the prophet (Ezekiel 3:16-21):
“[The LORD] said, “Son of man, I have appointed you as a watchman for Israel. Whenever you receive a message from me, warn people immediately. If I warn the wicked, saying, ‘You are under the penalty of death,’ but you fail to deliver the warning, they will die in their sins. And I will hold you responsible for their deaths. If you warn them and they refuse to repent and keep on sinning, they will die in their sins. But you will have saved yourself because you obeyed me.
“If righteous people turn away from their righteous behaviour and ignore the obstacles I put in their way, they will die. And if you do not warn them, they will die in their sins. None of their righteous acts will be remembered, and I will hold you responsible for their deaths. But if you warn righteous people not to sin and they listen to you and do not sin, they will live, and you will have saved yourself, too.”
Ezekiel was God’s watchman. He was trained and focussed; he knew where trouble would come from because of God’s Spirit working in him and because he knew God’s Word.
I want you to know that you ought to be trained and focussed. We ought to know where trouble comes from, what sin looks like, what will cause trouble, and be ready to sound the alarm! If we don’t do that, many will come to grief, and some may die in their sin.
Maybe you say, ‘Oh no, that was God’s mission for Ezekiel, not for me.’
But this is God’s mission for you and for me, for those of us who belong to Christ. He says this in 2 Corinthians 5:
“…anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.”
Our responsibility in the world is to call out – to call out God’s offer of forgiveness for sins. To call out to people who are heading for destruction. To call out to them because apart from the gospel they have no hope. To call out to them in love. To call out to them even in desperation – as if this is the last chance they might have.
Our responsibility in the world is to call out.
Our responsibility in the world is also to stand – When the pressure comes to compromise, to give in to sin, we are called to stand in obedience to God’s commands, to stand on what God’s truth is, to stand even when there is pressure to sit down and be quiet, or pressure to give in.
Listen to what Paul tells us in Ephesians:
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of…”
Why does God want us to stand? Because by standing we show the people of the world and the forces of darkness the power of God. And this honours Him. When we stand in the power of God we worship Him, we show our submission to Him, and we honour Him.
What makes us different from those who are not God’s people? That when the pressure comes to sin, to rebel against God, to buckle under that pressure, what makes us different is that we stand in God’s power and say NO! I choose God’s way instead. That brings God glory. That pleases Him.
Jesus well described us when He said we are in the world but not of the world. In some ways that might be easier if we lived in an out-and-out pagan society. But here we face our own challenges: In a near-Christian nation, false gospels flourish all around us, and that can make it difficult to reach the lost; and in a near-Christian nation, compromise can sometimes be easy.
But God is calling us not to be like the society we live in, even if that society is calling itself Christian. Instead, God has given us certain responsibilities as His chosen people:
To call out – to call out to the lost and to call them out of darkness and into light To stand – to stand in obedience to God, even when those around us compromise, even those who call themselves Christians I challenge you this week to be a faithful watchman – to be a faithful watchwoman. I intend to be that next week as we speak about the currently quite popular topic of homosexuality. Please come and join us for that, and invite along friends or family who might be eager to hear what God’s word teaches on the subject.
Let’s pray together.