In my vision at night I looked and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and… was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom will never be destroyed. Daniel 7:13-14
I watched in fascination as cow-dung was turned into cooking-gas for the tiny one-room house next door.
If you are remotely science-minded you will probably think I was very naive – this kind of simple, basic technology has been around for years. But I am woefully ignorant when it comes to science, so for me it was a genuine eye-opener.
I was on a trip to one of the world’s poorest countries, working alongside a group of missionaries who promoted this kind of initiative.
They also ran a “micro-loan” scheme, providing relatively small sums of money to help people set up in mini-businesses. There was, for example, a man who proudly showed us his gleaming new three-wheeler rickshaw-taxi (pedal power only!) which enabled him to earn enough money to send his children to school; and a little group of women who had been able to buy elderly sewing-machines by which they increased the family income (and also gained for themselves a sense of worth and dignity). There were also educational and health-care projects.
To see this kind of thing going on was humbling and heart-warming.
You may be surprised to know that I am prompted to share these memories with you by a recent series of sermons I have heard (very good sermons, by the way) on the book of the prophet Daniel.
Daniel contains memorable stories – the lions’ den, the burning fiery furnace, the writing on the wall – and also a string of strange dreams and prophecies. It isn’t always easy to understand. But one basic message keeps coming through: God is in control.
In chapter 7 we are shown the vision I quoted at the beginning: the person “like a son of man” who receives from “the Ancient of Days” supreme and never-ending dominion.
Christians, of course, see the ultimate fulfilment of this prophecy in Christ; he is that “Son of Man”, a title he applied to himself. And so, as Paul puts it, “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord…” (Philippians 2:10). Great stuff.
So… where does the cow-dung come in?
Just here: someone raised the question, “If God is indeed so totally in control, and if we can be sure that Jesus is ultimately Lord, does that mean that as Christians we needn’t bother about ‘social action’? – about food banks, about street pastoring, about debt counselling, about climate change and other ecological issues, about (dare I mention it?) Brexit, about politics in general?”
Is there, to put it another way, a danger that our conviction that Jesus is Lord can lead us to a kind of fatalism regarding the needs, pains and sorrows of our world? – “Oh, everything is going to be all right in the end, so let’s just concentrate on evangelism.”
There are Christians who take that view. Our business, they say, is to preach the gospel and to “make disciples” (Matthew 28:19) – to convert men and women to Christ, not cow-dung to bio-gas.
If ever I needed convincing that that attitude is wrong, that trip did the job. Those missionaries promoting “social action” projects were – don’t worry – also engaged in evangelism. They were all heavily involved in local churches, and the local people were in no doubt that the things they were doing were done in the name of Jesus. In the New Testament James tells us that “faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26). Well, that warning would not apply to the people I was privileged to work with.
Let’s spell it out: Christian mission is more than simply preaching the gospel.
This has in fact been recognised throughout Christian history. In Europe, for example, the first schools and hospitals were founded by Christians. In my last blog we thought about slavery, and it is a fact of history that the move to abolish this shocking practice was pioneered largely by Christians.
An example I particularly like is the great Victorian pastor and evangelist C H Spurgeon. He drew enormous crowds to hear him preach in London; that was certainly his priority. But it didn’t stop him also founding an orphanage to help the swarms of homeless and hungry children on the streets.
John Wesley too was an evangelist supreme. But he also addressed these great words to his fellow-Christians: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” Phew, that leaves you quite breathless!
Evangelism and social action are not an “either-or” but a “both-and”. And it doesn’t matter if we are thinking of little things we do personally on a day to day basis, or things done corporately by churches or other agencies.
Doing good in the name of Jesus is what it’s all about. And if that means getting seriously into cow-dung (so to speak), so be it.
Lord Jesus, thank you that you fed the hungry and healed the sick, that you had compassion on the lost and the sad. Please help me to follow in your footsteps, whatever that may mean in practice. Amen.