Speaking to God about People and to People about God

When I moved to Bristol about 32 years ago to train at Trinity College it took me some while to figure out why our road was called “Black Boy Hill” and the road next door with all the shops was called “White ladies walk”. I late discovered the ignominious role ports like Bristol and Liverpool played in the slave trade. The many fine buildings in these cities were built with the profits, as was this very church. It is easy to become desensitised to the suffering that occurred in our distant history. The British government has been careful in the way it has expressed sorrow for the past, to avoid a flood of legal claims by the descendants of slaves demanding compensation. Even art does not escape politicisation. We can recognise paintings that epitomise our national heritage – scenes like these painted by John Turner. But what about this one? Recognise it? Painted in 1840, it hangs in Boston’s museum of fine art. Know what Turner is saying? Its title is “The Slave Ship” but Turner wasn’t satisfied. It has a subtitle, “Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying, Typhoon coming on.” “It kicks you in the gut” says art historian Simon Schama. Turner has captured one of the most shameful episodes of the British Empire, when 132 men, women and children, their hands fettered, were thrown into shark-infested sea, so that traders could claim the insurance for their loss. When the transatlantic slave trade was abolished in the British Empire, two hundred years ago, estimates suggest there were around 11 million slaves in the world.

Today there are more, at least 12 million. Tearfund tell us that  “vicious illegal forms of slavery are flourishing across the world. Aside from guns and drugs, no trade is more profitable. Despite the fact that slavery is banned in most countries where it is practised, and prohibited by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the slave trade is flourishing throughout the world right now.”

And with the Olympics about to begin, last weekend we highlighted the trade in trafficking of women from Eastern Europe, bonded into prostitution, children trafficked between West African countries to work on the chocolate plantations while men are forced to work as indentured slaves on South American agricultural estates [is your coffee fair-traded?]. What can we do about it? For a start get on the mailing list of Tearfund for ideas. Here’s another from the first verse of our reading from Colossians.

“Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.” (Colossians 4:1).

It may not sound that radical but it is. The revolutionary principle that we are created in the image of God and that in Christ, we become brothers and sisters caused a revolution in the Roman Empire. The church began to threaten the State by its radical and subversive approach to slavery identifying with the poor and marginalised. It was the Church that similarly stood against slavery in the 18th and early 19th century. And it is the church of the 21st Century which must take up the mantle and do it again in our generation. But what can we say or do to ensure that the people we know, the people in our community come to see trafficking as we do?  How can we change our society for good?

Campaigning for fair trade, exposing the trafficking industry, and lobbying our political leaders are important ways. But there is a more profound and radical way, the way the early Church ultimately defeated slavery. Paul concludes this short letter to the Colossians with practical instructions, with a strategy that works. We won’t change people’s behaviour until we change their heart motivation. That is why we must prioritise, speaking to God about people and speaking to people about God. It is as simple as that.

1. Speaking to God about People

“Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.” (Colossians 4:2)

1.1 How are we to pray?

“Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful”

The First World War saw the development of a specie of religious experience which was aptly named “fox-hole religion”. The kind of religion a soldier got when he found himself in a fox hole on the battle field. It was then he got religious, prayed and asked God to save him. Most people do it in fact before a medical operation or court appearance. But prayer was never intended as a convenience to be taken for granted except in emergencies.

  • Devoted in Prayer

Chiang Kai Shek was the military and political leader of China before the Communist revolution of Mao Tse Tung. In the 1940’s despite the burden of caring for nearly a billion people its recorded that Chiang spent an hour in prayer each morning. Not only that, when he went to pray he actually got dressed in his state robes. He believed it the only appropriate way to show reverence and honour before the King of Kings. Chiang understood what Paul meant when he said “devote yourselves in prayer”. It means to persevere with energy. To make it our first priority. “Don’t quit” would be a literal paraphrase. Do you know what my second most important devotional tool is after my Bible? It’s my bed. When I get into it, and when I get out of it, I give the day to the Lord. The day that has ended, and the day about to begin. The truth is the Lord can hear horizontal prayers just as easily as vertical ones. Whether we are in our Sunday best or in our pyjamas. Why must we be devoted? Because so often the answer is not immediately forthcoming.

We must not equate God’s delays with His denials. As we persevere our hearts are prepared for the answer God will give. Richard Trench, the 19th Century archbishop of Dublin once said, “Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance but laying hold of His willingness.” Devoted in prayer,

  • Watchful in Prayer

Praying with our minds eye open. Open to the world around us, open to changing circumstances. Watchful praying also balances what I said about using your bed as a devotional aid. Don’t quit, and don’t fall asleep either! Devoted, watchful, and

  • Thankful in Prayer

Why? Because it shows we’re trusting, shows we’ve remembered His previous answers. Thankless prayers are selfish prayers.

How are we to pray? Devoted, Watchful, Thankful. This is how we should pray.

1.2 What should we pray for?

“And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.” (Colossians 4:2-4)

What does Paul ask for?

  • Pray for Opportunities for the Gospel

Paul doesn’t ask them to pray that God open the doors of the prison. He does not even ask them to pray that God would soften the hearts of the Prison authorities. Those doors might well open if he stopped preaching. No, They were to pray for an “open door” for the Gospel. Paul wasn’t the only one who knew that a prison sentence cannot countermand divine orders. When John Bunyan was arrested for preaching and put in prison, he was told he could be released if he promised to stop it. “If I am out of prison today” he replied, “I will preach the Gospel again tomorrow, by the help of God.” For twenty five years Brother Andrew’s ministry in Eastern Europe was called “Open Doors”. When the Lord opened the door to Eastern Europe in answer to prayer, Brother Andrew began to work behind another closed door – in the Middle East instead.
His book, Light Force tells the story. If God can open the door of entire continents, he can do the same for individuals. Pray for Opportunities for the Gospel.

  • Pray for Clarity in the Gospel

It is very easy in Church circles to fall into the habit of using cliches and “in” language. Paul uses a very special word to describe his ministry. This is the only time in all his letters that he uses the word “declare” to describe his preaching. This means that the very act of speaking about Jesus is actually part of the process of revelation. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ has already been given in history, and its been written in scripture. But it must be spoken if people are to hear the truth. In this sense every sermon that explains the Bible, every time we talk about Jesus, it should be an eye-opener. It’s by human speech that divine truth is made clear. The Gospel is completed in the delivery, it is revealed as we speak with simple clarity of what God has done in Jesus.

That is why Paul asks for prayer not only for opportunity but also clarity. But notice also how Paul urges them to participate in the ministry as well. The greatest privilege I have experienced is to know you are praying for me during the week, as I visit, as I prepare my sermons. “Pray for me”, says Paul, unashamedly. Speaking to God about people. That is the first step to bringing seekers to Jesus. And the second is simply this:

2. Speaking to People about God

“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:5-6)

The apostle was called to be an evangelist. He lived by the gospel. He was continually taking the initiative. That is what evangelists do. They may not make good pastors or teachers and that does not matter. What matters is that we serve according to the gifts and abilities God has given us, not those he has not. Not everyone in Colossia, any more than here, is called to be an evangelist but we are all called to be ready to respond to the opportunities God gives us – “to answer everyone” Think about it, it makes sense. They were just like you, teachers, civil servants, bankers, home makers, shop assistants. The spread of the Gospel would have been hindered had they all given up work to witness to everyone they met, at every opportunity. “Hello Mr Smith, so you would like an overdraft, good  – let me explain how Jesus paid your debts”… “Yes Mrs Jones, something to get your washing white? Well have you ever considered the cleansing power of Jesus?” Direct assault on entrenched apathy like this is seldom successful. It can sound artificial, it is costly on the nerves, it’s a distraction to our work, a misuse of our employers trust, and at the end of the day it is totally unnecessary. Paul urges the Christians at Colossae to relax and respond rather than initiate, accepting opportunities and not worrying about making them. This takes the strain and the artificiality out of our relationships. We should make friends with neighbours and work colleagues not just in order to share a verbal witness, but because we genuinely care about them. Being ready and willing to respond to divine appointments, will lead to a more relaxed, natural and fruitful approach to evangelism.

It opens the way too for a greater dependence and expectancy on God to use us as he chooses. It means we can become more sensitive to his leading. The most rewarding evangelistic conversations I have had were where people chose the time, the place and the subject. It has been a delight to tell them about Jesus. How are we to answer people? In four balanced ways.

The first two involve our actions, the second two our words.

 2.1 With Discretion: “Wise toward outsiders”

 “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders” (Colossians 4:5)

When the Russian writer Maxim Gorky was a child, his father died. He and his mother went to live with his grandparents. His grandfather was a very religious man, but stern, irritable, and often very cruel. His mother was also religious but she was kind, gentle 

and understanding. Gorky says that when he saw his mother and grandfather kneeling side by side in church, he could not believe that they were praying to the same God. He felt that there must be two gods; one cruel and vindictive, the other loving and forgiving.

For several years I was a trustee of a charity caring for children who had suffered abuse. I realised how we can so easily affect, even damage, a child’s view of God by our actions. If we would long to tell them of God’s love we must show it. Witnessing with discretion means thinking ahead to how people are going to perceive our words and actions. Someone told me this week how shocked she was to hear a Christian teacher shout at another teacher in the school playground in front of parents and children. Put yourself in their shoes. How responsive would you be the next time that person tried to talk to you about Jesus? We must have discretion. To balance the wisdom of discretion we are also told to witness

 2.2 With Initiative: “Making the most of every opportunity”

“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.” (Colossians 4:5)

The time is short, the future is uncertain. If the door opens take the opportunity as a divine appointment. As young Christians we have the tendency to jump in with both feet and can lack tact and discretion. The older we get the more likely we are to lack boldness and importunity. May God give us balance between tact with zeal, wisdom with boldness. With Discretion. With Initiative.

2.3 With Attractiveness: “Full of Grace”

“Let your conversation be always full of grace” (Colossians 4:5). When I speak what is my motive? To win an argument? To prove I’m right? To make them squirm? To look intelligent? Or is it to express God’s loving grace, God’s free unmerited favour? Our speech is to be full of grace, and fourthly,

 2.4 With Conviction: “Seasoned with Salt”

 “Seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:5-6)

This is not the same thing as saying “take this with a pinch of salt”. That is usually just an excuse to get something off our chest.  If food is seasoned with salt, you’re not aware of the salt, only how palatable and tasty the food is. I usually rate Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day” not only on its truth factor, but also on its bite? Is it true to Scripture? Does it make me think? Do I remember any of it beyond the 8 o’clock news? Speech that is seasoned with salt is like well seasoned food. Memorable. Let your words be full of grace and seasoned with salt. In the 18th Century many people urged the MP William Wilberforce to stand for the position of Prime Minister. Although ably gifted and well suited, he turned the invitation down. John Newton, the former slave trader and author of “Amazing Grace,” offered Wilberforce wise counsel: “The Lord has raised you up for the good of His church and for the good of His nation.”

On October 25, 1787, William Wilberforce wrote in his journal, “God has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners”  Shortly before his death, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodism, wrote to Wilberforce. Wesley urged him not to give up on his efforts to end

“the execrable villainy [slavery], which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature….Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils, but if God be for you who can be against you?”

Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect (the group of men and families who surrounded him) understood that the campaign to eradicate slavery in the British Empire was ultimately a spiritual battle.

In addition to all their political efforts, they also prayed three hours a day! Their heart-cry before the Lord was, “May you yet find a remnant of Your people here who are faithful to You, that You will spare this nation.” For twenty years, Wilberforce and his allies laboured unwaveringly without success. Then, on the 25th March 1807, Parliament finally voted to abolish the slave trade. The bill was passed in the House of Lords by 41 votes to 20. In the House of Commons it was carried by 114 to 15. Wilberforce then fought for another twenty-six years for the abolition of slavery itself. Finally, in 1833, Wilberforce learned that his lifelong dream would soon become reality. William Wilberforce died on 29th July, 1833. One month later, Parliament finally passed the Slavery Abolition Actthat gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom. Wilberforce wrote a little book called “Real Christianity” In it he said this.

“Boldly I must confess that I believe the national difficulties we face result from the decline of religion and morality among us. I must confess equally boldly that my own solid hopes for the well-being of my country depend, not so much on her navies and armies, nor on the wisdom of her rulers, nor on the spirit of her people, as on the persuasion that she still contains many who love and obey the gospel of Christ. I believe their prayers may yet prevail… May there be here at least a sanctuary, a land of true faith and piety, where we may still enjoy the blessings of Christianity. May there be in this nation a place where the name of Christ is still honoured and men may see the blessings of faith in Jesus.”

We may not remember his titles, his roles or his positions. But we do remember what he stood for and what he gave his life for – all 49  years of lobbying, of writing, petitioning and speaking in order that  slaves might be set free. That’s real Christianity.

But freedom remains an elusive dream for millions of people trapped in cruel forms of modern-day slavery. Together let’s take up the baton from Christian abolitionists such as William Wilberforce and break the chains of poverty, slavery and injustice in our day. This is basic Christianity. This is the Christian’s ministry. Living and sharing the transforming power of Jesus. Isn’t that what the good news is all about? Isn’t that what people hunger for? Isn’t that worth giving your life for? Speaking to God about people, speaking to people about God. You can start by asking Him to open a door of opportunity this week for you. Pray for God to open a door for you, but don’t be surprised if he then asks you to walk through it. Let us pray.