Sunday, August 25, 2002

Having the Courage of Your Convictions

SERMON PREACHED AT 25TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE DIOCESE OF WEST ANKOLE
Bushenyi, Uganda
25 August 2002

Greetings – Mukama asiimwe!

My theme today is “Having the courage of your convictions” and my text is from the Book of Joshua, chapter 1, verses 7-9. Joshua is addressing the new generation of Israel which was born during the wilderness wandering caused by their parents’ disobedience. But now they are obtaining the promise made long before to Abraham and Moses that they would possess the land of Canaan and displace their enemies.

To outward appearances, taking the land looked like “Mission Impossible.” The occupants of the Promised Land were kings inside their fortified cities like Jericho. By contrast, the people of Israel were a rag-tag collection of nomads. They had only one thing in their favour: their God and the power of His Word. And he had sworn to them by oath again and again that they would possess the land.

So as they get ready to cross the Jordan River into Canaan, Joshua repeats these words of encouragement:

Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law which Moses my servant commanded you; turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go."

Joshua hammers home two main points in this speech: Have the courage of your conviction. Twice he says: “Be strong and of good courage”; and twice he says: “Keep the Law of Moses.” Let us take a few moments to meditate on these two words courage and conviction.

Courage, the philosopher Aristotle observed, is a “habit of the heart,” which is learned early in youth and then practiced in various spheres of life: in the physical, the mental, and the moral. Courage of the hand, the head and the heart. We probably associate courage first with physical strength. People admire the intense training of Olympic athletes. We admire the discipline of soldiers, who go to danger zones and risk their lives for the safety of their countrymen.

But physical strength alone is not courage. “Discretion is the better part of valour,” said Shakespeare’s Falstaff. And indeed some bold acts are not truly brave but foolhardy. They must be accompanied by prudence. According to an African story,

Once a leopard cub strayed from his home and ventured into the midst of a great herd of elephants. His mother and father had warned him to stay out of the way of the giant beasts, but he did not listen. Suddenly, the elephants began to stampede and one of them stepped on the cub without even knowing it. Soon afterward, a hyena found his body and went to tell his parents.
“I have terrible news,” he said. “I’ve found your son lying dead in the field.”
The mother and father leopard gave great cries of grief and rage.
“How did it happen? the father demanded. ‘Tell me who did this to our son! I will never rest until I have my revenge!”
“The elephants did it,” answered the hyena.
“The elephants?” asked the father leopard, quite startled., “You say it was the elephants?”
“Yes,” said the hyena, “I saw their tracks.”
The leopard paced back and forth for a few minutes, growling and shaking his head.
“No, you are wrong,” he said at last. “It was not the elephants. It was the goats. The goats have murdered my boy.”
And at once he bounded down the hill and sprang on a herd of goats grazing in the valley below, and in a violent rage he killed as many as he could in revenge.

What are we to say about the leopard? Was he a coward? Or merely realistic?

Finally, courage has a moral and spiritual dimension. It is a matter of the heart. It is ultimately futile to be strong and courageous for a leader or a cause or a God unworthy of one’s energy. We may remember the words of David to the giant Goliath: “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin; but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.” Goliath was strong but for strong for a mere idol.

This leads us to the second point of our text: the courage of our conviction. Joshua is linking courage to a supreme good: the Lord God and His Law. He is saying: “It does not matter how strong or bold you are unless you live within God’s Covenant and obey God’s Word.” But how can you obey unless you believe in God and His Word? You can’t. Therefore the effectiveness of action depends on the truth of conviction. This particular group of Israelites had not seen God on Mount Sinai nor had they passed through the Red Sea on dry ground, but they believed the report of these doings through Moses and Joshua and they were willing to lay their lives down for what they had heard. They had the courage of their conviction, and their conviction lay in God and the truth of God’s Word.

Now let me be very clear about the substance of Christian truth. The New Covenant, which fulfills the Law of Moses and goes beyond it, is built on one Rock alone: Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour. God has sent His Son into the world that the world might be saved through Him! Amen! If we Christians personally and individually and corporately as a church lack this conviction, then we lack everything; but if we have this conviction, then as St. Paul says, “all things are yours, whether the world or life or death or the future, all things are yours” (1 Cor 3:21-22). And this was my experience when I was saved by grace as a University student at the age of 20.

As you remember the past 25 years of the Diocese of West Ankole, I think it is right that you recognize and honour those who, by the courage of their convictions, risked death and endured the hardships under oppressive governments, and those who helped provide relief and services to the victims of war and poverty and disease. and those who faithfully spread the Gospel during all those years. In all these areas, the Church has offered examples of courage and sacrifice. I do not need to recount the details of this because one of your own new canons, my colleague, Dr. Alex Kagume, has done so with much more knowledge than I could possibly manage.

It is fitting that you should honour the past. At the same time, my brothers and sisters, new situations require new forms of courage. In my opinion, the Church in Uganda faces a different kind of challenge than it has in the past. As we find ourselves on the other side of the 21st century and third millennium, like the Israelites under Joshua we see giants in the land. How will a poor landlocked nation join the developed countries of the world? How will a Church which has been patterned after the rural parishes of England avoid the disaster of the Church of England, where today a mere 2-3% of the population goes to Church? And where are the Joshuas who will lead this country and this Church forward into the new territory?

Let me humbly address two issues, which I have observed as an outsider who has been called to serve this country and this people. First, you, the leaders of the church, must tear yourselves free from the mindset that you are an established church, like those of Europe, because all the state churches of Europe are empty and lifeless. It is not the number of bishops or canons or archdeacons or whatever that made the Church of Uganda what it is today. It was the catechists, evangelists and humble parish priests who spread the Gospel across this land. Don’t quench the Spirit in hierarchy and bureaucracy. The opportunity is here today for another rapid expansion of the Christian Gospel. Look at your brethren across the continent in Nigeria. The Church there stripped itself down to the single goal of evangelism and the numbers of Anglican Christians alone has grown from six to almost twenty millions.

Can Uganda be revived today? Of course it can! Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow and His Great Commission to evangelise all peoples has not changed. All it takes is Christians with the courage of their conviction. May God bless you as you move into a week of revival.

Now let me speak to a second issue. The growth of this country and this church is taking place in a new setting: the global marketplace. The global community has its own Canaanites, its own giants in the land, which Christians must stand up against. A primary one is the giant Secularism, who used to go by the name Mammon. Secularism challenges not only the worldview and folkways of traditional people like those in Africa, but it also challenges the claim of any one religion to speak for God. Indeed, Secularism declares that God is dead or at least is taking a nap!

Another giant in the land is political Islam. Political Islam – and I do not include all Muslims in this category – imitates the militancy of Joshua and the Israelites without obeying the truth of the God of Israel and the God of Jesus Christ. It is therefore a pretender, and as a pretender to truth it summons its youth to acts of misguided courage. Christians are soldiers in another army, an army that does not wield the sword for God as Joshua did or as Mohammed did. Our sword is the sword of the Word and the Spirit, but we need evangelists and teachers who have every bit the courage of the terrorist who straps on a bomb in the service of a false gospel.

I come from a country which has a long history of Christianity, a country which has wrestled – and continues to wrestle – with the giant of secularism; and which has newly encountered the giant of militant Islam. It is not at all clear how the battle for the soul of America will end up – God knows. But I think I can bring this word of wisdom from my experience there. The Church must accept the challenge of these giants head on. If our God is the Creator of all that is, then we have nothing to fear from true knowledge. But we must force ourselves to learn the language of Canaan and the lay of its land, to occupy its cities and fortresses. We cannot retreat into the past, into some nostalgic vision of the Church of the past.

Far be it from me, as a newcomer to your country and Church, to give detailed prescriptions today. But let me say this about the little I do know – about education. I see Ugandans embracing the ideal of universal education and university education. This is necessary and good if the country wishes to develop within the global community. But education of the head must be accompanied by education of the heart, by forming a Christ-centred ethos or way of thinking; and by education of the hands, by the willingness to apply one’s mind to practical progress. The foundation of Western educational dominance is practical science and what is called the Protestant ethic of hard work, honesty and the fear of God.

I believe that a new generation of Ugandans is being raised up who will serve God with their hearts, their heads and their hands. But it will not happen by just wishing. It will take the courage of the youth, the sacrifice of their parents, the guidance of their bishops and priests and politicians. It will take what one writer has called “a long obedience in the same direction.” It will involve, and some will fall by the wayside. It will take, in short, the courage of our convictions.

And if we have the courage of our convictions, we also have God’s promise of blessing. He says to Joshua: “turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go.” And he repeats the promise a second time for emphasis: “be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” Mukama Ruhanga waawe aryaguma naiwe!

Members of the Diocese of West Ankole, today you may rest and rejoice in the blessings of the past 25 years, for God indeed has been with you. But do not stay too long. The Church is being called into a new generation and a new territory. The armour of the past will not suffice; indeed like the armour of Goliath it will only weigh you down. Strip yourself down to the Gospel and to Christ and that alone and put on the new armour of God for a new era. And remember his unchanging word to Joshua: Have the courage of your conviction that God may bless and prosper in the way ahead.

Tukutendereza Yesu!

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