When God turns the tide
Great time here at New Wine! And for this morning, for the main meeting in the Arena, we have William Paul Young. Who's he? Well, many of you will have been bowled over by his imaginative and idiosyncratic novel, The Shack, which stretches Trinitarian orthodoxy to it very limits. We sold over 60 copies at Christ Church.
Anyway, it will be interesting to see what he is like.
I'm halfway through my current read, the one volume account of the second World War , "All Hell Let Loose" by Max Hastings, the journalist who liberated Port Stanley in the Falklands campaign. Despite the fact that he writes for the Daily Mail, Hastings has to be our foremost military historian - I've read most of his books. And this has to be his crowning masterpiece.
For in just 675 pages he manages to give the big picture. That is, from the perspective of 70 years he succeeds in seeing the conflict as a whole. And one of the themes which comes across is that during the conflict few people, especially those in leadership, were aware of the important turning points at the time they happened.
A good example is from the North Atlantic theatre. "While posterity knows that in 1942 the U-boats inflicted the utmost damage of which they were capable, and that thereafter the tide of the convoy war turned steadily against them, at the time Churchill and Roosevelt saw only a steeply rising graph of losses, which, if it had continued, would have crippled the war effort." (page 275)
It wasn't apparent at the time to the Allies, in fact the very opposite - but the military balance for the Atlantic convoys had started to move in their favour. "Just hold on, Winston. The tide is turning!"
Our main speaker on Sunday was Ken Costa, a former chairman of UBS's investment bank and the church warden of Holy Trinity Brompton, the London church which gave us Alpha. It is no surprise then that Ken, as the Chair of Alpha International, has his finger on the national pulse. And one of his assertions is that the tide is now turning away from secular materialism and towards the Gospel, the good news of Jesus. Over the years I have heard this claim made many times - but he may have a point.
For example, he referred to a big budget commercial featuring the Brazilian football star, Neymar, "the Game before the Game" made by a leading advertising agency, recently acquired at great expense by Apple (Ken, as ever a banker, gave the price). It's worth watching, but mainly for the end.
The commercial concludes with a reference to the armour of God, something which he claims would never even have been contemplated just five years ago. The world is looking not just for meaning; it is looking for God. A strategic shift is taking place in our culture at the a time when we as Christians continue to think that the battle continues to wage against us.
As it happens, the Shack - which was self-published in 2007 - suddenly out of nowhere made the number one slot on the New York Times paperback fiction best seller list in summer 2008 - and stayed there for 70 weeks. All this with a marketing budget of zero. Where did that come from?
Costa also made the point that we have a new Archbishop of Canterbury and a new Pope. Nothing particularly new in that - but this time the world is listening. Did you know that Pope Francis is the most influential Twitter user in the world. More than 14 million people follow the Pope at @Pontifex in nine languages and each tweet made by the Pontiff is on average retweeted nearly 17,000 times. (President Obama comes a poor second)
One of the things I picked up during the church leaders' forum was the ambition for church growth by Archbishop Justin as the need for more ordinands, for more people to offer themselves for ordained ministry in the Church of England. At present I understand it is about 1300 or so each year; Justin thinks we need at least 5000. He is preparing for advance rather than the usual planned retreat. A good general can read the battlefield.
I heard this during an inspiring presentation on St Mellitus, which since it was founded just seven years is now the biggest theological college in the country helping to meet this target of 5000. This is theological training but not as we used to know it. Their full-time church-based ordination training seeks to combine learning on the job in a local church along with classroom work. And it is not residential - no need to uproot and move house for just two years.
Again a sign of the church being prepared to embrace radical change for the sake of the Gospel - just like the massive shifts in working practices forced upon our country by the demands of the last war.
The people of Israel had long come to terms being exiled in faraway Babylon - their homeland was 1000 miles and 70 years away. They had resigned themselves to living in a strange land. And they could see no way back. So get on with it. And when Cyrus the Great King of Persia started to extend his empire, this event did not seem particularly relevant to their situation.
But one prophet saw things differently, that's what prophets do.
“This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armour, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut." (Isaiah 45:1)
For amazingly God speaks of this pagan potentate as being summoned to rescue the people of Israel. ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.”’ (44:28)
What no one realised at the time was that Cyrus was about to completely overwhelm the Babylonian Empire and send the people of Israel back home. What this remarkable prophet was saying to his disheartened people is that the tide had turned - for the simple reason that the Lord is the God of heaven and earth is engaged with this world, his world. They took some persuading.
"I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things." (Isaiah 45:7,8)
We serve a God who does things, often taking us by surprise. And I guess no one was more surprised than William Paul Young when the Christmas gift he had written for his six children was published at the behest of his friends to become an international best seller with the result that just seven years later he is about to speak in a very big tent near the Somerset market town of Shepton Mallett. Bring it on, William.