I just want to say something for everyone that I see that is standing around or crying. This is nothing to cry about. This is something we could all rejoice about. We could be happy about this. They always told us that we could cry when you're coming into this world. So we're leaving it, and we're leaving it peaceful. I think we should be happy about this. I was just thinking about Jim Jones. He just has suffered and suffered and suffered. I want to give him one more chance. That's few that's gone. There's many more here. That's not all of us. That's not all yet. That's just a few that have died. I'm looking at so many people crying. I wish you would not cry. I've been here about one year and nine months. And I never felt better in my life. Not in San Francisco. But until I came to Jonestown. I had a very good life. I had a beautiful life. I don't see nothing that I could be sorry about. We should be happy. At least I am.
What I have just quoted to you is the last recorded words of an unknown woman who was a member of the People's Temple
- a cult group started by Jim Jones in the 1950s.
As some of you know, this cult group moved to Guyana in 1977
and set up their own town, called Jonestown, after their leader, Jim Jones.
Fearful of investigation from American authorities,
Jones convinced his followers to drink Grape flavoured cordial laced with valium and cyanide.
When the authorities finally reached Jonestown to find out what was going on,
913 people, including 276 children,
had died in the mass suicide.
You may even remember seeing the pictures in the news.
Investigators found a tape recording of the last hour of the cult group's life,
where Jim Jones is heard exhorting his people to drink.
The quote I read to you is from that tape recording.
It is right for us to question how it is that so many people were willing to give their lives up for such a meaningless cause.
But human beings are vulnerable.
Given the right series of circumstances and stimuli, people can commit the most destructive and meaningless acts.
Convinced that Jim Jones was the Messiah, the cult group took upon well-known traits of group psychology like
"Communal Reinforcement" - where everyone thinks the same way, and any dissenter is criticized harshly;
a "Spiral of Silence", whereby anyone with any doubts simply shuts up to avoid being singled out;
"Consensus Reality" - where reality is determined by the group and the group leader, and not by any other means.
There are a number of other group psychology terms that can be used here:
"True Believer Syndrome"
and "Cognitive Dissonance".
Basically it all boils down to this:
If a whole group of people are manipulated to think a certain way,
it's very hard to fight against it.
I'd like to think that I am capable of making rational and intelligent decisions,
based upon facts and evidence
- and I'd also like to think that we all are capable of doing this.
But the fact that we are a group means that sometimes we are capable of believing something that just simply isn't true.
We're looking today at Proverbs chapter 30, verse 5 and 6:
Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.
We have to understand that our belief in this world is determined not by our own impressions,
nor simply by scientific study,
but by God.
How do we know what is right and what is wrong?
It is God who ultimately shows us.
The reason why I spent time talking about Jim Jones and group psychology is that,
ultimately, truth is not found in the experiences of a community
- but neither can it be found in the experience of a so called "free" individual.
Truth can only be found through divine revelation
- we don't discover truth;
God reveals it to us.
I've broken my talk up today into three sections.
1. Every Word of God is flawless.
The first point I'd like to make is that "Every Word of God is flawless".
What is the "Word of God" that the author is talking about here?
Well firstly we have to understand that it is essentially talking about God's speech.
When we read about God speaking in the Bible, we see all sorts of interesting things happening.
The first chapter in the first book - Genesis - is all about God speaking.
But what do we see occurring?
God's speech has power.
God says "let there be light" and there was light.
God's speech is a function of his infinite power.
God says... and it happens.
God doesn't wave his hand like a magician or speaks magic words.
The important thing to realise about this is that God's speech is not only powerful,
it is clear and unambiguous.
When God said "Let there be light",
the darkness didn't just sit there and say
"Sorry, what did you say, I'm not too sure what you mean?".
When God speaks,
no one can be unsure of what he says.
Secondly, the word of God is written in the Bible.
It's fortunate that God did this for us
because how else would he have been able to communicate the same thing to people throughout all history?
Some people think that God wrote the Bible like someone dictating to a typist.
As though God spoke and the person simply recorded what was said.
This did happen in some instances,
but we need to remember that the human writers were deeply involved in the process.
So when we read the Bible we need to remember that we are actually reading human literature.
It contains not only verbs and nouns, but also metaphors and other literary devices.
The Bible contains many different forms of literature,
and each form of literature needs to be read accordingly.
Thirdly, we need to remember that the Holy Spirit is essential in the writing and the understanding of the Bible as the Word of God.
We have to understand that the work of the Holy Spirit and the work of the Word of God are not two separate things,
but are actually linked
- they can't be separated.
We can't have the Word working apart from the Spirit,
and we can't have the Spirit working apart from the Word.
It was the Holy Spirit that worked in the hearts of the Biblical writers,
and it is the same Holy Spirit that works in us whenever we read the Bible.
Without this work of the Spirit,
we would not be able to hear the voice of God.
Fourthly, we also need to remember that the Word of God became flesh.
Jesus Christ is the Word of God, the incarnate Word.
He is the summation of the Bible's teachings.
If we want to understand what life is all about
- if we want to understand what God wants and what God is saying to us,
we look to Jesus.
No part of the Bible is untouched by the person and work of Christ.
When we think of the word flawless what do we think of?
We think perfection.
We think without error.
We think truth.
There are two more important things we need to understand about the Word of God.
The first of these is called inerrancy.
In the last 200 or so years, many people have decided that the Bible is not from God,
and that it is full of errors.
But if every word of God is flawless, how can that be?
The belief that the Bible contained error is one of the main reasons why many mainline denominations,
including the Presbyterian and Anglican churches,
have declined over the years.
The result of this doubt has harmed generations of Christians.
The Uniting Church today is a classic example of the result of this form of unbelief.
In 1978 a group of Christian leaders got together in Chicago and wrote what is now known as "The Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy".
Amongst the many fine points they raised in the statement you will find the following:
We affirm that a confession of the full authority, infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture is vital to a sound understanding of the whole of the Christian faith. We further affirm that such confession should lead to increasing conformity to the image of Christ.
We deny that such confession is necessary for salvation. However, we further deny that inerrancy can be rejected without grave consequences, both to the individual and to the Church.
The second important thing concerns the sufficiency of the Bible.
If we believe in the Bible as God's word,
what place do we give other forms of authority,
such as our personal experience,
and even the traditions of the church?
The 16th century Reformers
- people like Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox and Thomas Cranmer
- all believed in a doctrine called "Sola Sciptura", or "Scripture Alone",
as being the only acceptable standard of belief.
Some Christians say that the Bible is the supreme authority.
Other Christians say that the Bible is the highest authority.
These definitions won't do.
The fact is that the Bible is the ONLY authority
- it is the SOLE authority.
In 1996 another group of American Christian leaders got together
- this time in the town of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
These Christian leaders were so worried about the church being taken over by worldly teachings
that it created what is now known as "The Cambridge Declaration".
Listen to this important section:
We reaffirm the inerrant Scripture to be the sole source of written divine revelation, which alone can bind the conscience. The Bible alone teaches all that is necessary for our salvation from sin and is the standard by which all Christian behaviour must be measured.
We deny that any creed, council or individual may bind a Christian's conscience, that the Holy Spirit speaks independently of or contrary to what is set forth in the Bible, or that personal spiritual experience can ever be a vehicle of revelation.
What this declaration says is quite simple
- the only way God speaks is through the Spirit-inspired word of God,
Nothing and no one else can bind our conscience.
2. God is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
Let me move swiftly on to the second point
- God is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
I really like what the writer of this proverb says here.
It is almost as though the statement itself can be ripped out of its context and read on its own.
Of course we as Christians all believe that God is a shield to everyone who takes refuge in him.
But we need to remember that this bit of the proverb is sandwiched between sections that talk about God's word.
So if we're to interpret this properly,
we have to understand it in light of God's Word.
The reason why God is a shield to everyone who takes refuge in him is because God himself says that he is.
And if God says something,
then it is automatically his word isn't it?
But there's more to this.
Those who are protected by God are those who have been called by God
- and God's call is the call of the Gospel.
As I mentioned before,
if we were to summarise God's word to us it is found in the person and work of Jesus.
Jesus, God's son and God himself, came to earth as a man.
He walked among us.
If we had been there at the time we would have heard him,
talked with him
and even touched him.
When Jesus spoke, people were hearing the very words of God himself.
Those who experienced Jesus were unwittingly experiencing God.
Of course the mission of Jesus was not just to come and teach us,
but to die for us.
His death on the cross,
while a travesty of justice and the result of mankind's utter rejection of God,
was the reason why Jesus came.
By his death on the cross,
Jesus was able to fulfil God's covenants that are recorded in the Old Testament
- Covenants which were binding agreements spoken to God's people by God himself.
that which cuts us off from God,
is dealt with by his death on our behalf.
Because of this,
we as individuals can be forgiven and given new life.
Because of this,
we as a group are the true heirs of God's promises
- the church.
As individuals and as a group,
it is the Gospel that shields and protects us.
God has saved us from his own wrath,
and we are safe knowing that nothing in all creation can take us away from God's love for us in Jesus Christ.
3. Do not add to God's words
The third point that this proverb raises is the issue of adding to God's word.
Obviously this is seen as a rather serious spiritual activity,
because it is warning us against presuming God's mind on things.
Let me give you an example.
Some of you know this story and some of the people involved.
A few years ago, a Christian husband and wife from a church in Newcastle discovered that the wife had cervical cancer.
Despite the fact that cervical cancer responds well to chemotherapy,
the couple prayed together and sought God's guidance.
They believed that God was telling them that he would miraculously heal the woman.
In a show of faith, the couple refused treatment,
instead spending time in prayer
and going on some special spiritual diet that they believed would heal her.
As far as I can tell,
their church leaders did not attempt to stop them in this quest.
Although the church did not publicly side with their belief,
it did not condemn it either.
The result was that the woman died
leaving a bereaved husband
and a bunch of young kids without their mum.
She could have been easily treated with chemotherapy,
but they were convinced that God had told them that she would be healed.
Rather than being a couple that we should praise for their strong faith,
they should be held up as an example of spiritual pride,
- a warning that we should heed.
There is no doubt that they were earnest and honestly believed that God was giving them a clear message
- but they were wrong... dead wrong.
Many churches today do not embrace the Bible's teaching about itself
- that it is the only thing we need to live the Christian life.
Christians find the idea of studying the Bible to be too intellectual or too unspiritual
- as though reading God's Spirit-inspired word somehow prevents the Spirit from working.
I think the opposite is true.
If you don't have God's Word being listened to as the Bible is taught and the Gospel preached,
then you're not going to have the Spirit working.
When the Word of God is explained;
and the Gospel of Christ is proclaimed;
the Holy Spirit is not constrained.
I started off this morning talking to you about Jim Jones and the People's temple.
What is interesting is that even in the early 1970s - years before he convinced his followers to drink the kool-aid
- he was teaching that the Bible could not be trusted.
Instead, he was God's instrument on earth.
That's why he was able to get so many people to follow him.
I honestly think that the church today needs a healthy dose of cynicism.
Too many people take themselves too seriously.
We need not be suspicious of God nor do we need to be suspicious of his word.
We do need to be suspicious of Christian leaders who become too popular,
or churches that get too big too quickly,
or Christian authors who sell too many books which have too little content.
We need to be cyncical because we can too easily follow the herd;
We can too easily set aside our concerns and trust in the goodness of sinful people;
We can too easily close our mouths and refuse to speak out.
We can too easily be swayed by the emotional manipulation of those in positions of power.
The fact is that when people no longer hear God's words,
they get hurt.
They become spiritually starved,
or spiritually arrogant.
Do we dare pray to God,
asking him to spread the gospel?
Do we dare pray,
asking God to speak his word clearly and firmly in the church?
Do we dare pray that God use us to preach Christ to those who remain in darkness?
Do we know what we are getting into when we pray these things?
We'd like to think that such a process will be like a glorious endless summer's day,
full of joy and happiness and butterflies,
like a communist party propaganda poster.
But remember that most of the Apostles had their lives ended for proclaiming the truth.
Remember that, throughout history, whenever the Gospel is rediscovered and God's grace is discovered anew,
that the opposition from within the church was exceptional.
If we truly want God to work,
then forget all the images of holding hands around camp-fires singing Kumbya.
God's work will involve pain;
it will involve tears and sweat;
it will cause division;
it will expose sin and cause arguments.
In Hebrews it says that God's word is a double edged sword.
Preaching the truth hurts.
Preaching the truth may lead to churches splitting.
It may lead to churches closing .
Are we prepared for that?
People becoming Christians.
People growing in holiness.
These are all results of God's work through his word.
But let's be realistic.
If we pray that God's word be proclaimed then we need to remember what we're in for.
It is hard work.
It will not be enjoyable.
It will not be easy.
Dare we commit ourselves to God's flawless word?
From the Kerygmatic Department
© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 License.