Riding the Rapids: Engaging Today's Culture with Truth and Grace
Topic: Culture Passage: John 1:9–1:18
Riding the Rapids: Navigating the White Water of Today's Culture
Grace Community Church
Oct. 4, 2015
Riding the Rapids: Engaging Today's Culture with Truth and Grace
The American Whitewater Association has created a scale to measure the whitewater difficulty of a stretch of river. There are six classes - 1 being very easy and safe, 6 being extremely difficult and dangerous. Even moderate rapids can hold unexpected danger. In May of 2011 a rafting party of nine people - six guests and three guides- set out on a five day journey to navigate the Owyhee River in Oregon. Most of the rapids they would face would be class III or less so there was little concern of anyone getting hurt. The team was bonding and having a wonderful time when on their second day as they were navigating a section called the Bulls Eye Rapids one of the kayaks holding 65 year old Robert Desmarais and a 71 year old man, was heading straight for a large submerged boulder that had fast running water coursing over it into a deep hole beneath it. The rafters had been warned to avoid this boulder and the deep hole at the bottom of the drop, but when Desmarais and his companion saw that the currents were taking them over the rock, Desmarais said cheerfully, "everybody else has dumped today, I guess it's our turn."
Both men were ejected from their boat as they went over the rock and into the hole, with the older man being spit out of the frothing water immediately, but Desmarais was caught in the grip of the water and he kept circulating to the surface and then back down into the water. The other rafters were helpless to do anything as the hole kept its grip on him for five minutes before releasing him to float downstream. Although the team tried desperately to resuscitate him, by the time the medical helicopter arrived he was dead. To make matters worse, for the remaining eight rafters there was no exit point out of the canyon but to continue rafting the whitewater for the remaining 3 days. Ironically what they found was that between the tragic loss of their companion and their need to lean on each other physically and emotionally for the last three days of their journey, they left the canyon not just rafting companions but a close knit family.
This morning we are starting a new series that I've titled Riding the Rapids: Navigating the Whitewater of Today's Culture. I named it that because our culture is changing so quickly and in such significant ways that for Christians trying to navigate the rapidly changing culture while at the same time holding to our biblical beliefs and convictions can feel like we're shooting the rapids. What should we believe? How should we act? Where should we draw firm lines in the sand and where should we adapt? What elements in our culture are we free to embrace, and what elements are irreconcilable to a follower of Christ? Like the Owyhee River and many other rapids, there are great things about our Western culture - but there are lurking dangers too. And without trying to be an alarmist, I think that the currents of our culture are picking up speed as they go and there's every indication that there are more dangerous rapids up ahead.
Culture is defined as "the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts." We are surrounded by our culture like we're surrounded by air. It permeates everything we do and believe and know. Our Western Culture was heavily influenced by the Classical Period of the Greco-Roman era and by Judeo-Christian beliefs. But the currents of our culture are moving in a direction away from our Judeo-Christian heritage and in fact the movement to reject many of the underlying tenets of our Judeo-Christian heritage are picking up speed. The truth is we live in a post-Christian era and the question is, how are followers of
Jesus supposed to relate to, and interact with, our culture? Over the next several weeks we'll be taking a look at some of the specific cultural rapids we face today. But this morning I want us to look at this question of how Christians should navigate the whitewater of today's culture. Different church movements have come up with different answers.
A growing number of mainline denominational churches - the more liberal churches - have pulled in the paddles and are just letting the current take them wherever it goes. Because many of them have rejected the Bible as the inspired word of God, they don't look to the Bible as their guide or the final authority in their lives. The result is they happily embrace whatever practices and beliefs the culture embraces even when the Bible expressly forbids it.
Other churches go in the opposite direction - they just want to get airlifted out of the culture. They believe God has called them to isolate themselves, build a large wall between them and the culture so that it doesn't affect them or creep into the church. The result is that, while the culture may not affect them much, they don't affect the culture much either - they have little relevance or reach into people's lives.
And then there are the "angry Christians" who never saw a cultural trend they didn't want to fight against. Often called fundamentals, these churches are known more for what they're against than what they're for. A crazy extreme example of this kind of angry portrayal of Christianity is the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. If you google the words God hates fags their church website pops up. They often picket the funerals of soldiers with signs that read Thank God for dead soldiers and God hates you. Their God is a hate-filled God who loathes everything about our culture and hates all those who have anything to do with it. I do not consider the Westboro Baptist followers to be Christians at all, but there are fundamentalists who, while not so extreme, are angry and see the culture as something to be abhorred and fought against.
Three different approaches to navigating the culture. But does the Bible have anything to say to us about how we as Christians should approach our culture? I don't think there's a one-size fits all answer to every question and challenge our culture presents, but I do believe there are some unchanging principles in God's word that reveal God's heart towards the world and helps to guide us. Let's begin by looking at Jesus' example as recorded in the gospel of John 1:9-18
Engaging our culture with truth and grace
The first thing we see is that Jesus engaged with the world - he became flesh and dwelt among us. He became like us and he lived among us. Jesus wasn't airlifted out of the world, he parachuted into the world - to rescue lost and drowning souls like you and me. Like Jesus, God calls His church to engage with and be involved with our culture in order to influence and impact lives around us. But verse 14 tells us what kind of spirit Jesus has and the spirit we need to have: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (vs. 14)
Jesus embodied truth and grace as he engaged with the world and I believe that is to be our spirit as we engage with our world and our cultures. When we think about truth and grace, one mistake we can make is to think of these as two separate qualities that can be pursued separately from each other. "I'm into truth - not so big on the grace stuff. That's just my personality." Or "I think we just need to emphasize God's grace - not make such a big deal out of what the Bible says is true." Grace and truth describe Jesus' spirit and character - his grace was truthful and his truth was gracious. They aren't two separate things - they are integrally connected to each other. If you take away the grace, the truth is no longer true. And if you take away the truth, the grace is no longer grace. It might be helpful to think of truth and grace like the paddle that a whitewater kayaker uses. They don't use two paddles like a row boat, and they don't use one paddle and go side to side like a canoe. They use a paddle that has one shaft and two blades - one on each side of the shaft. With that they can quickly steer to make sure they are on course. You can't just paddle on one side or the other, you need to course correct by paddling on both sides. Truth and grace go together if we're to imitate the heart of Jesus. I want to share some handles on how we do this, and use various scriptures so that we can see that this isn't a narrow interpretation of one scripture, but a larger theme in scripture. Turn with me to Col. 4.
Engaging our culture with truth spoken graciously
Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. Col. 4:5-6
There is a way to say true things in a way that is completely wrong. When Jesus said he is the way, the truth, and the life, he didn't mean that he was a walking, talking truth serum. That everything that popped into his head he blurted out. There are a lot of things that might be true, but not gracious, to say. I was at a church cover dish (not here) many years ago and one of the single girls had gotten her hair freshly permed. One of the guys in line (not known for his tact), said, as he spooned food onto his plate, "wow, you look like Bozo the clown!" Might have been a truthful expression of his thoughts but definitely not gracious. Jesus wasn't a walking truth serum: wow I forgot I had created anyone as dumb as you…He spoke big, eternal, God-centered truth and he did it with grace. Grace and truth means that grace balances out how and when we express truth. Paul likens it to good seasoning. A little goes a long way. When I was at Bible school one of the older students offered to make me a home cooked meal if I would give her a few pointers on the guitar. So after a short lesson she served up a dinner she had cooked and, as I often do, I grabbed the salt shaker and began to shake salt on the meal. But the top of the salt shaker came off and the entire container of salt landed on my dinner - a small mountain of salt. It made the food inedible. We had to throw it away. Brothers and sisters, let's not be that to our culture - dumping so much salt on people that it makes Christianity taste bad to people.
Let's engage our culture with light, not heat
A lot of arguments give off more heat than light on a subject. Jesus says we are to be the light of the world, not the blow-torch of the world. See, a lot of times when we get heated about something, it actually reveals that, while we believe what we believe strongly, we're not that confident or knowledgeable in our ability to articulate what we believe. So we substitute heat for light. It's like the preacher who wrote in the margins of his sermon: raise your voice here…it's a weak point.
It's good for believers to know what and why they believe what they believe. Studying and thinking is good for us. The old adage, God said it, I believe it, and that settles it for me isn't going to have much impact or influence on people who don't believe that God said it in the first place. We will need to give reasoned answers for the hope that is in us. Light, not heat.
But even with study and thought there will be times when we will have a hard time articulating something we believe, or find that we don't know the answer to something, or get into a discussion with someone who really, vehemently disagrees with us about something we hold very dearly, and it's ok. We can admit we don't know something without all of Christendom falling apart. When Jesus said you are the light of the world, he meant more than that we are little walking answer-men and answer-women. He meant that our witness for Christ and his love and saving power would shine through us. So let's engage our culture with light, not heat.
Respect different viewpoints and opinions
Gracious speech demands that we treat different viewpoints and opinions with respect. I used to have a problem with this until one day a friend pointed it out to me. Andy and I were working for a landscaping company and every other day we used to get into an argument or debate over some theological difference. I remember (to my shame) arguing with him angrily about the love of God - in front on a co-worker who wasn't a Christian!
One day he pointed out to me that I had the habit of getting personal in these debates - in other words, I would start to insult him when we debated, especially if the debate wasn't going my way. Well, I denied it of course. No way I do that! You must be an idiot to think that! But as I searched my heart I saw that there was a tendency to think badly of someone who disagreed with me - at least in the heat of debate. I'd want to chop block the person at the knees - especially if I was losing the debate. I wish I could say I changed immediately but it's been more of a process though I think I've come a long way in that area.
Walking wisely with outsiders and speaking graciously has a built in sense of treating them with respect. You can respect someone's viewpoint while disagreeing with it. Respecting a viewpoint doesn't have to mean you agree with it. This is something our culture is losing sight of: it's getting to the point that there is great hostility and retribution in some quarters if you don't agree with this particular view or that particular view. But as Christians, we need to engage our culture with respect and tact.
Look at Daniel. He was taken forcibly from his people Israel and exiled into the pagan nation of Babylon and the first thing he came up against was their diet violated his religious convictions. Daniel didn't get combative or angry. He didn't rail against their godless traditions. He tactfully appealed to the man in charge and said, "hey feed me nothing but water and vegetables for ten days and then you be the judge." He gave the man a respectful alternative that preserved his convictions but also cared that the man in charge not get in trouble.
Paul was also respectful of the pagan nations he went to. At Mars Hill he said to the crowd, hey I see you're religious in every way (yeah, except the Christian way) - and I noticed a monument to the "unknown god". Let me tell you about Him. Dealt with them with respect and tact, and that opened their hearts to hear from him.
Speaking truth graciously takes courage
Even spoken graciously, it still takes courage to speak the truth. Jesus calls his followers to be light in a dark world and salt in a rotting world. If the salt loses its saltiness or the light is hidden under a basket, Jesus says it's pretty useless. In other words, light and salt stand out as different. There's a lot of pressure today to conform - to look the same, sound the same, think the same. Even graciously spoken and lived out, it still takes courage to look different.
I mentioned Daniel earlier. Daniel and his three friends weren't trouble-makers. In fact they were such good citizens in this pagan nation that they were put in leadership positions. But there came points where they couldn't compromise what they believed to be true to "cooperate" or conform. They stood when everyone else was bowing to an idol. They bowed in prayer to the living God when everyone else was standing. That takes a lot of courage.
Just this past Thursday a 26 year old man walked into a college in Oregon and began shooting. But he had a specific target: he would have the students in the classrooms lie down and then, one by one, he would have them stand and state their religion. If they were Christian, he would shoot them. I pray that all of us would have the courage to stand and confess Christ in a moment like that. But most of us probably won't face a situation quite so stark. What we will face are moments when the people we work with will be mocking something that we believe and it will take courage to respectfully, graciously stand for our convictions. Or the currents of our culture will rush so strongly in a direction the Bible clearly forbids and we will feel the physical pressure to go with the flow - it's so much easier to pull our paddles in and just go along to get along. But Jesus calls us - and the world needs us - to speak the truth graciously and courageously. Being salt and light takes courageous engagement with our culture in order to slow the rush away from God and towards sin. To engage our culture in order to witness of Christ to them, with truth and grace.
The good news is Jesus is with us to help us. Let's close by asking the Lord to fill us with love, grace, truth, and courage so that we can navigate the whitewater of our culture to the glory of God.
More in Riding The Rapids
January 3, 2016Evolution and Creationism Part Two
December 27, 2015Evolution and Creationism Part One
December 13, 2015Being Biblically Correct in a Politically Correct Culture Part Two