Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Devil We Know

1 Thessalonians 5.2   You yourselves know very well that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief at night.

The old saying "Better the devil you know!" has roots in reality deeper than many of us may realise. It's a spry way of pointing out the genuine safety of well tried and tested methods for dealing with life's uncertainties.

Change is a familiar companion to those of us who live in the world's wealthy economies. It's sometimes hard for us to understand that most of the world's citizens look on new ways very differently. For the most part, they live far closer to suffering and death than do we. And when one lives on the edge, when a relatively slight error could pitch one into disaster, then the tried and tested is a better ally than risky experiment.

An acquaintance of mine tells how cattle experts spent days carefully explaining to African tribesmen how to increase milk and meat yields in their herds. After much talk, including quiet consultations in clan meetings, the answer came back: "This is not how our forefathers have done it. Your ways may be good, but ours work better."

Many Jews before and after Jesus, who lived on the breadline, whose families were constantly at risk from war and famine, stayed with the old ways so fiercely that they died in their tens of thousands to protect the ways of their fathers. To this day in Palestine, the killing continues on much the same grounds.

In this hopeless struggle, the Jewish people looked to the Messiah to eventually liberate them from the oppressive yoke of Roman power and High Priestly collaborators. That's why the Thessalonians to whom Paul is writing, and who thought of Jesus as the Messiah, expected "the end of the world" to come soon. Jesus the Messiah would liberate them because they couldn't liberate themselves. The "Lord's coming" would be soon, and they with the oppressed of the world, would at last be free and secure from war, famine and disease.

Alas, as we now know, their expectation was false. Jesus has not come again as they expected. We all still struggle against those forces which bring suffering and death to us. There is no prospect of anything changing. Far from it! The constant, wearing pressure from those who would subjugate us, who would spend our lives for their own gain and power, is a constant we ignore at our peril.

And so, where is this rescuing Jesus today? Can we still look forward as our Christian forebears did to "... the sound of God's trumpet" and Jesus coming down from heaven? As many of us know, perhaps with a sense of astonishment and disbelief, some Christians are able to do just that. I, for one, can't understand the world in those terms. 

So if I am not to be taken by surprise, how can I remain "awake and sober," as Paul puts it?

I think of it this way. When I am asleep or drunk I cease to be fully aware of my surroundings. I am cut off from the messages of my environment. When I'm like this, I'm at risk from the dangerous yet promise-filled world around me.

It seems to me that Christians today should perhaps no longer hang on to the so-called "Second Coming" just because "the Bible says so". There's a danger that we remain with the concept because it's so familiar and we've heard it so often. If so, it may become a "devil we know" and prevent us from living in the real world of opportunity, growth, excitement and adventure - in short, the real world of constant and inevitable change.

We must, however, stay alert. We know enough about how Jesus lived to build on him as a sure foundation. For example, we try to remain sure in our hearts that a full life, including all the changes and risks it brings, is what God desires for us. Jesus thought that not even a sparrow falls without God's knowledge. There is no need merely to stay with the devil we know just to remain safe.

God speaks to us through Jesus, through other people and through nature itself - but only when we remain alert, when we strive to hear the still, small voice, when we look carefully for the signs of the times.

God comes to us unexpectedly, like a thief in the night and we need to stay awake and sober.

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