It was surreal this week, watching the dancing jubilation in Tahrir Square. The faces and the language were different, but were the same as another day twenty-plus years ago when the people danced on the Berlin Wall. Things will never be the same in Egypt.
The series of events that led to the resignation and departure of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek were fascinating to watch. Facebook and Twitter were used to organize the demonstrations that started on January 25 and grew both in number of participants and intensity with every day that passed. The chants of “Mubarek, Go!” rang out for hours, while huge banners screamed the story to the world, as international news crews broadcast it all.
A week or so in, Mubarek was still relatively silent and inactive. The government had shut down internet access and then took away all but government sponsored television which described the protests as little more than illegal riots, fomented by foreign press. A couple of days later, he sent in what were universally described as “goon squads” to intimidate the media and attempt to drive out the protestors by violence. Bloody injuries and even deaths occurred. But the protestors did not back down.
Finally, it was announced that President Mubarek would address the nation and the protestors’ concerns. Speculation grew throughout the day that he would resign. But he did not resign, speaking instead in a paternalistic and condescending tone and offering largely symbolic concessions that would leave his regime in power.
Here’s where it got interesting. Obviously, the people in Tahrir Square were enraged. But analysts of the speech were struck by something more profound. It was evident that President Mubarek was not dealing with the present reality. He was living inside a parallel universe, a fantasy place where the unrest in the streets had little to do with the way he had governed for three decades. In his world, he and state media controlled information and opinion about Egypt; social media was a mere plaything. In his world, ordinary people took what he gave (which wasn’t much) and simply dealt with it; opinion and disagreement with the status quo were whispered and swept away.
Mubarek is out of power and in seclusion in one of his multiple palaces because he grew blind to the times in which he lived. He became a stranger to his world, an alien to his generation. He tried desperately to hold onto the world that was, but simply lacked the courage to deal with the world as it is.
Christ-followers are called to live out Jesus’ revolutionary movement and spread the liberating message of His gospel to all people in our world. That’s our mission. Yes, that means we first need to know and delight in the rich fullness of the gospel, the faith “once for all delivered to the saints.”
But it’s not enough to simply have the message. We‘re called to deliver it to people who live in a specific time. Into our world as it is. The people who need to be set free by Jesus live in our 2011 times. Our times are pluralistic in religion, with everything afforded a seat at the culture’s table- and Christianity is no longer in the prime seat. They are postmodern in philosophy, redefining moral standards and pressing ethical boundaries. Our times are shaped by social media and technology, yet beset by the longing of loneliness. They are marked by incredible creativity and still people hunger for authenticity and simplicity. It is a time much like the early days of Christianity when the majority culture marginalized the sect known as the Way. We are no longer the home team; every day is an away game for Christians on mission.
To deliver the message of Jesus requires that we be like the ancient men of Issachar whose sole distinctive was that they “had an understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chronicles 12:32) We also need an awareness and understanding of our times. We must become acquainted with the uniqueness of the people in our generation so we can love them passionately and make the adjustments necessary to get Jesus’ gospel to them.
The church has faced this challenge before. In the early years of the church, Peter and Paul were commissioned to take the gospel of Jesus to the Gentiles. And it worked! Gentiles in Antioch and other places were turning to God in fresh ways, outside the paths by which most Christians to that point had come to Christ. But then the Jewish people at the mother church in Jerusalem got nervous, because these people didn’t have the same background or heritage or traditions they had followed for centuries.. Their first inclination was to hold tight to what had always been and to insist that the new Christ-followers conform to their old ways. But after an important conversation (recorded in Acts 15), the leaders determined they would not hold tight-fisted to another time, but would lean into what God was doing in their own time. They said “We must not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” (Acts 15:19), and wrote a letter of encouragement to their new brothers and sisters in Antioch. It took deep courage to deal with the new thing God was doing in their times.
It’s crucial that we work hard to engage people who do not yet know Jesus in gospel-drenched conversations. To nudge them towards a consideration of how the gospel of Jesus affects their identity, beliefs, relationships, politics, art and more. To not make it difficult for the people in our time to come to Jesus by adding our religious stuff and extra-Biblical traditions that clutter the gospel.
Letting go of the world that was so we can bring the gospel to the world that is takes faith-filled courage.
If we do not, we may end up isolated and talking to ourselves in our red brick castles. You know, the ones with white spires over the front door.
So, what will it be—
Mubarek or Issachar & Antioch?
Ignorance or understanding?
Isolation or engagement?
Fear or courage?
Our place in the advance of Jesus’ gospel revolution is in the balance.