Saturday, 16 December 2017

What makes for greatness?

Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people. Proverbs 14:34 (NIV)

Righteousness makes a nation great; sin is a disgrace to any nation. Proverbs 14:34 (GNB)

We are well used by now to President Trump’s slogan: “Make America great again”. Just last week I saw it highjacked by some people in Britain who, I think, are pretty much on the same wave-length as him; they were carrying banners with the words, “Make Britain great again”.

Well, I suppose you can’t blame anyone for wanting the nation to which they belong to be great.

But that triggers the question: What is greatness? How do you define it? Is it material prosperity? Or influence throughout the world? Or a leading role in science and the arts? Or a particular form of government? Or what?

The Old Testament Book of Proverbs is in no doubt: to use the wording of the Good News Bible: “Righteousness makes a nation great”. As the NIV puts it, “Righteousness exalts a nation”.

But then you have to ask: What is righteousness? It’s a big word that can be defined in many ways. At the most basic level, to be righteous means to be right and to do right. But that leads immediately to yet another question: How do we know what “right” is? Who decides what is right? - and, by implication, also what is wrong?

Ultimately, the answer has to be: God alone. Who but he, the creator and sustainer of all things, who alone is perfect, pure and holy, can pronounce on matters of right and wrong? And if we measure ourselves, either individually or as nations, by his standard, which of us can possibly claim to be righteous?

In the Bible human righteousness is never seen as simply a matter of obeying laws or observing rules, important though that may be. No, at its heart is the idea of relationship: for only those who are in a relationship with God can have the slightest hope of loving righteousness and therefore displaying it. Relationship is key.

This is why, way back in Old Testament days, God called one particular nation - Israel - to enter into a covenant relationship with him, a relationship you could compare to a spiritual marriage. This was so that Israel could show to the world what God’s righteousness looks like in practice. In his law he taught them how he wanted them to live; and he sent them teachers and prophets to make the meaning clear.

But they failed in this great calling. By turning away from God’s law they got sucked into the unrighteousness of the world around them.

It was into this tragic situation that Jesus was born at the first Christmas. In his holy life the perfect righteousness of God was demonstrated - and the gospel message is just this: anyone who chooses to trust, love and follow him enters into and receives his righteousness as their own.

This is exactly what it means to be a “Christian” - a Christ-person. We can never be righteous of ourselves, however hard we strain and try. But by being gathered up, so to speak, into Jesus, his righteousness becomes ours.

And what is the righteousness like that we see in Jesus? Answer: just those qualities I hinted at earlier - holiness, purity, goodness, compassion, love. (Not to mention humility. Why else was he born as a human baby to nobody-parents and laid in a cattle-trough?) To be righteous, in the end, is to be Godlike, Christlike. It is to learn to love and humble ourselves before his cross, and to rejoice at his resurrection.

And what that means is this: If a nation - America, Britain, Russia, China, whoever - really wants to be “great”, then the place to start is by looking at the crucified and risen Jesus. All other greatness is, ultimately, hollow and empty, brittle and breakable, cheap and tawdry, vulgar and soiled. And destined one day to pass away. Just look at the ruins of once great empires scattered across the centuries of history: Rome, Greece, Britain... America?

We personally can’t make whatever nation we belong to “great again”. But what we can do - and what we must do - is to make known to those around us, by the way we live, by the people that we are, and by the good news that we proclaim, the true righteousness which has become ours in Jesus. (He himself referred to this as being “salt” and “light” in the world.) Let’s not forget that if it’s righteousness that makes a nation great, it’s also righteousness that makes a person great!

Is this the heart-beat of your life? Is this your consuming passion?

Thank you, Father, for the gift of your righteousness which has become mine in Jesus. Help me to live it out in my daily life, so that, small though I am, I can be a challenge and a hope to the nation in which you have placed me. Amen.

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