When we come to Christianity for the first time, or take it seriously for the first time, we bring with us preconceptions, cultural baggage. This is not unusual, it happened in the first century too. When one of Jesus' first followers, Philip, told Nathanael about Jesus of Nazareth, Nathanael replied, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46)
We, too, can make assumptions. Our idea of church, for instance, is of a building, or an institution. We talk about the church on the corner, we talk about the responsibilities of the church in the same way we talk about those of the government.
Buildings can be considered irrelevant because they are often old, frozen in time, and we imagine old things going on in them. Here in the UK we are often the victims of the Victorian misguided fascination with neo-gothic architecture and we pay the price. Institutions – well we all know how we feel about those. They can be impersonal, self-serving and out of touch.
But the church is not the building, its people. When I hear some ask whether the church is relevant in the 21st century I think of the 21st century people who are the church and wonder what on earth they can mean. I often recommend that people visit a Christian bookshop and see for themselves the issues addressed in this 21st century, by 21st century Christians, to speak to our 21st century world.
We can't help our misconceptions, its just part of the culture we grew up in. But we mustn't be complacent about these questions, we know from experience that we can have cultural blind spots. There will be things we are sure we “know” because we have grown up with what we have heard, and we have had no reason to question that - until we begin to look closer because we have decided to find out for ourselves.
The Bible say, “The fool despises teaching, but whoever listens to correction is wise.” (Prov.12:1) If you are taking that step of finding out for yourself, of testing your own ideas as well as Christian claims then you are, according to the Bible, among the wise.
God hears your questions, he really does, and it is the church that can begin to provide answers. Once we know that church is people just like us, we gain confidence in asking those questions; after all, if its only you and me, what is there to worry about?
Here are like-minded people, seeking answers themselves but with the experience of having already found answers and who are now growing in their understanding and, more importantly, in their relationship with God.
The Bible makes church very important. It describes for us the 1st century church and, fundamentally, church hasn't changed that much in 2,000 years:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And all who believed were together and had all things in common...And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42-47)
Three clear things come out of this passage:
- They learned about God
- They shared what they learned
- It changed the way they lived and looked at life
For a Christian, it is significant when God tells us something in the Bible. The first century church leader Paul writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” ( 2 Timothy 3:15-16)
Another way we get our questions answered is by going to what God has already said in the Bible. The Bible is a manual for life, a guide to eternity. We consider it a trustworthy account of God's purposes, of his dealings with people, and we trust that the way he has dealt with people in the past – justly and mercifully – is an indication of how he will deal with us. It is also a clear guide to God's purposes for the future.
God provides answers and we must finally come to a place where we ask him. If I can't say, “If you seek him you will find him,” (Deut.4:29) we may as well all pack up and go home. One 20th century Christian commentator wrote an influential book entitled, He is There And He is Not Silent. (Francis Schaeffer) The Bible says something about this when it tells us:
“Going through a long line of prophets, God has been addressing our ancestors in different ways for centuries. Recently he spoke to us directly through his Son. By his Son God created the world in the beginning, and it will all belong to the Son in the end. This Son perfectly mirrors God, and is stamped with God's nature...It's crucial that we keep a firm grip on what we've heard so that we don't drift off. If the old message delivered by the angels was valid and nobody got away with anything, do you think we can risk neglecting this latest message, this magnificent salvation?
First of all it was delivered by [Jesus] then accurately passed on to us by those who heard it from him. All the while God was validating it with gifts through the Holy Spirit...” (Hebrews 1:1-; 2:1-4 The Message)
Through ancient Israel, through prophets, through faithful teachers, through his word in the Bible and, finally, through his own Son, and by the Holy Spirit, God communicates himself to us.
But this is not a simple game of twenty questions, it is about relationship, a relationship in which we begin to understand why he made us, what has gone wrong with our world, what God has done to put things right and how we can enter into the good of what God has done. Its a story of tragic loss and scandalously generous redemption, of fallen mankind and a God who gives to the uttermost to save us from ourselves.
Where are You?
But when we ask we must also be prepared to hear some questions too. God tells us, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways...For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
In the Bible we read the story of Job, a man who suffered more than we can imagine. Christians often get asked about suffering and there is a lot to be learned from the story of Job. Job and his three friends spend 37 chapters discussing the question of suffering, and with good reason. In the 38th chapter God answers Job – with questions:
“Where were you when I created the earth? Tell me, since you know so much! Who decided on its size? Certainly you'll know that! Who came up with the blueprints and measurements? How was its foundation poured and who set the cornerstone...?” (Job 38: 4-7 The Message)
It seems like a strange answer and, of course, it is picture language, poetry, rather than a literal description of creation. You get a clearer picture of what God is getting at when you see the verses preceding these:
“Why do you confuse the issue? Why do you talk without knowing what you are talking about?”
God begins his reply by reminding us of how limited is our knowledge; talking without knowing what you are talking about. This is not a satisfying answer, perhaps its not meant to be. Rather, its meant to help us start from the right perspective, acknowledging our limited understanding and our dependence on God. As you approach him with questions, he hears; do you recognise your relationship to your Creator? He is God, I am man.
There are no simplistic answers, he wouldn't insult you that way. There are answers, and one supreme answer in Jesus, our Saviour/King. We all have questions, and God hears them and has responded in his Son, the clearest message from God, his very image. If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.
Two questions he wants to ask you remain. The first is the question he asked of man in the Garden, right at the beginning, when man hid from God, “Where are you?” Are you looking for God? God is looking for you.
The last question he asks is the one Jesus asked his first followers, “Who do you say I am?” It all hangs, finally, on what we make of Jesus. God ask us, “What do you think of my Son? What have you done with his name? How do you regard what he has done for you?”
So the invitation is there now. Come and see, ask your questions, let Christians serve you, show you what we have found, and may God bless you with his light and truth.