Afghanistan has dominated the airwaves in the past week. I will never forget the pictures of the US troop transporter plane with over 600 passengers packed in like battery chickens, or the image of those not able to get on board hanging from the fuselage until they dropped to their deaths on the runway.
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Life is a mixture of the anticipated and unanticipated. Some events do take us completely by surprise, like the sudden eruption of Mount Vesuvius that engulfed the ancient city of Pompei. Other events do not need a prophet to predict. There have been warnings for centuries of how military involvement in Afghanistan does not usually end well.
Yet many people, including high profile politicians, have expressed surprise at the rapidity of the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. The news of their advance looked like one of those long snake-like lines of dominoes, clicking over one after another.
It made me think of what I was reading recently in a book by Marc Morris on Anglo-Saxon history. It related how quickly the main Roman settlements, including London, deteriorated as soon as the size of Roman armies here were dramatically reduced, and then went into freefall when the Romans were finally driven from these shores.
Perhaps in both cases, there was a failure to change the mindset and culture of the local people. There was conformity whilst the innovators were present but once they left there was a free for all.
Jesus speaks about something similar in Matthew’s Gospel:
‘When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, “I will return to the house I left.” When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.’ (Matthew 12:43–45)
We are by nature such half-hearted creatures that we leave undone the vital parts of what it means to establish substantial and long-lasting change. Sometimes we are worse off as “half a Christian” than if we had not responded to Christianity at all.
As preachers, should we be surprised about this?
Francis Schaeffer suggested that Christians should not display surprise. Surprise indicates a certain naivety that fails to reckon on how low we human beings can stoop and how high we can soar.
Good preaching does not merely produce fireworks that impress and attract.
Good preaching seeks to do a lasting work in the hearer. Augustine wisely reminds us of the importance of doing more than half a job when we preach or listen to a sermon:
“God cannot really bring his own good things into us, unless he first takes our bad things out of us; and the former increase to the extent that the latter decrease, nor will the former be perfected until the later are eliminated” (Augustine sermon 71)
The Apostle Paul speaks of his ambition to finish the job in his preaching:
“(Jesus) is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.” (Colossians 1:28)
Finish the job!