Turning back to the source of life
… has a nation ever changed its gods? (Yet they are not gods at all.)
But my people have exchanged their glorious God for worthless idols…
… My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water,
And have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.
On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.
A saying famously attributed to GK Chesterton, says that when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything.
We live in a civilisation in transition between two radically different worldviews. The old one was based on the Judaeo-Christian understanding. While not everyone had personal faith in Christ, most people believed in the “given-ness” of the world in which we live: seedtime and harvest, society with its history and structures of authority, male and female, the distinction between the human psyche – “me” - and the transcendent creator – God “out there”.
In today’s society, we now hear that for the first time, those who believe this are less than 50% of the population of Britain and Europe. Increasingly, some people not only doubt the existence of God but also an ordered universe, the importance of family and even basic biology.
But, following the words of Jeremiah, when people push God to the margins, they replace him with something else. So we see new gods demanding new sacrifices, new ways of satisfying spiritual hunger and search for meaning, and those holding to traditional views viewed as outdated and even dangerous. Detached from the security of previous certainties, our culture looks increasingly to technology and the State, materialism, or to revived versions of old pagan spiritualities for support and protection as individuals attempt to become their own creator and redeemer.
The New Testament apostles understood this dynamic of “truth exchange” in the same way as Jeremiah, with his powerful picture of substituting a refreshing natural spring with a leaky man-made water tank. Paul says to the Romans that the thinking of the world is characterised by exchanging the truth of God for a lie (Romans 1:25). This is fundamentally at the root of the ‘culture wars’ we see around us today, and also, since this thinking has infiltrated the church, it explains, for example, why the church has found it so hard to talk publicly about God in the context of Covid, and why there are such divisions over sexuality and gender.
But this does not mean that the people of God should retreat from the world, giving up hope in its redemption. Firstly, secularism has produced casualties, hurting and confused people who need compassionate care. Secondly, the bible writers promise that God will intervene and bring about change – and we have been celebrating this intervention this past few weeks, in Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. “Return, faithless people…I will give you shepherds after my own heart”, says the Holy Spirit through Jeremiah (3:14). Paul explains how in the face of the stubborn sinfulness of humanity, the promised gospel has been revealed (Romans 1:2-5), in which “righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:22).
And so, while we lament the West’s continuing detachment from its Christian heritage and the effect this has on individual lives, we can celebrate and participate in godly, bible-based responses of fellowship, prayer and action. Lausanne Europe is one such initiative (see below). Another is Gafcon, which was formed when courageous church leaders from around the world intervened when some Western Anglican leaders have denied God’s truth, and tried to re-interpret Christian language and worship forms in an attempt to win the applause of the world. Gafcon continues to speak clearly in warning, to bring together those who believe the unchanging word of God from different cultures in a new movement of faithful Anglicans, to provide oversight for new expressions of faithful Anglicanism.
Compromise with secularism is a strategy of despair, in effect saying we don’t believe that the bible’s teaching is practical in the 21st century – or even that it isn’t true. Instead, we express hope, “shining like stars” when we have the faith and boldness to “hold firmly to the word of life” (Philippians 2:15-16). Together we continue to bear witness to the “spring of living water” which may be hidden for many, but which has not dried up – it is available to all who come to Christ.