5th Sunday after Epiphany (A)
February 4, 1996
Discipleship is More than a Twelve-Letter Word
Jesus is preaching to the multitudes on the mountainside. Though He spoke to His disciples, the message is also meant for Christians today. Jesus teaches how to live our lives under the rulership of God. If we take Jesus seriously, we will have one supreme loyalty — a passion that burns within.
He expects us to live out the Beatitudes He taught. The examples of Christians being salt, light and holy are specific guidance. For Jesus, discipleship is more than a twelve letter word — it is a lifestyle.
I. Discipleship is Influence (v. 13)
Jesus speaks specifically to His disciples using the personal plural pronoun, “YOU.” As part of the discipleship team you and I are called to be salt to a saltless world. We are part of the purification, preservation and flavoring of society with a Christian influence.
Salt has the quality of purity Jesus uses the object lesson of salt to remind his disciples to be a purifying force in society.
Our society is not pure. All types of social evils have overtaken us, from abortion, pornography, euthanasia, and gambling, to political and character assassination. It is done in brothels, back rooms of bars, casinos, living rooms, and in front of live audiences.
God has called His church to demonstrate against such evils. For some Christians, these demonstrations are accomplished by carrying placards, silent vigils, boycotts, in courtrooms. For others such demonstrations are accomplished through our financial investments, by using our businesses and professions to support positive influences, sharing a faithful and prophetic witness with friends, family and co-workers. In whatever possible way God has given you and me, our task is to serve Christ as we influence a decadent society.
Whatever form it takes, it is accomplished by influence. As disciples we must be sensitive, loving and caring even to those who are offenders. Our prayer must echo King David’s, “Search me O God and see if there be any wicked way in me.”
II. Discipleship is Openness (v. 14-16)
Secret Christian societies are not allowed. A Christian must carry the light of the Gospel to a darkened world. As believers we are an influence for honesty, acceptance, forgiveness and love. As we provide such lights, we transform and brighten the darkness that surrounds us. We are visible witnesses of the lordship of Christ and the presence of God in the world.
A family traveled to Carlsbad Caverns on vacation. When the tour reached the certain point in the cavern, the tour guide turned off all the lights to dramatize the darkness.
One child, suddenly surrounded by darkness, began to cry. An older brother heard the cries and said, “Don’t worry. Somebody knows how to turn on the lights.”
That is the message of the gospel: even when the darkness seems overpowering, someone knows how to turn on the lights. And He often uses you and me to provide light in dark places in our own parts of the world.
The question is, “What kind of light will you provide today?”
III. Discipleship is Personal Righteousness (v. 20)
The Pharisees and the scribes were concerned about the oral law of God — that set of rules and regulations used to interpret the Law, which often consisted of insignificant points that took a lawyer to interpret. Jesus was concerned about the major principles of life. He and the Pharisees constantly “fought” over the minor rules of religion.
Jesus stated that righteousness is the spirit of living in a right relationship with God and with our fellow man. The Lord was more concerned with people than with laws. Relationships between God and man make the broad strokes of the Old Testament Law and Prophets come alive and pulse with vitality. It is those laws that compose righteous living. The principles that show a respect for life by not murdering, lying, and stealing; principles that tell us to love God with our whole heart are the ones Christians live by daily.
God will give us the grace and power we need to live holy, acceptable lives unto Him which according to the Bible is our “reasonable service.” (Derl G. Keefer)
6th Sunday after Epiphany (A)
February 11, 1996
The Disciple’s Spirit
In his book Men at Work George Will refers to baseball umpires as people who are “carved from granite and stuffed with microchips.” He envisions them as professional dispensers of pure justice. He told about Babe Pinelli calling Babe Ruth out on strikes in one of his games. The Babe gave an argument based on raw numbers lending itself to moral weight. “There’s 40,000 people here who know that last one was a ball, tomato head.”
Pinelli responded with a calm voice and stately manner: “Maybe so, but mine is the only opinion that counts out here.”
If Christians measured by sheer weight of opinion of the world on moral and ethical issues, it would be foolish to uphold any spiritual stand. But Christians know that in the end, only one opinion matters — God’s.
Jesus deals with specific moral and ethical issues in these scriptures. The Old Testament laws demanded respect for the rules, but Jesus demands respect for the spirit coming form a heart shaped by His perspective.
I. Issue One: Jesus Deals with Murder (v. 21-26)
At initial glance it appears that the rule deals only with respect for physical life. It concerns the person who has the audacity to take another’s physical life. But Jesus goes to the heart of the matter. For Christ it is much deeper than the removal of breath from someone; the issue is the attitude of anger. What is it that causes the destruction of life? What drives an individual to destructive words, hostility, wrath, hateful action?
Last November the world witnessed the assassination of Israel’s Prime Minister Rabin. On a news broadcast the Ambassador from Israel to the United States said that it happened because of the “climate of words” in her nation. Taking of Rabin’s life may have been influenced by the hatred that had spewed out of the mouths of his opposition.
Today many people have been destroyed — sometimes physically, Sometimes in other ways — because of the hatred, verbal venom, and emotional abuse that has been heaped on them.
Analyze the remarks you have made about others. Have you been filled with the venom of hatred? Let God help you overcome this devastating emotion that can lead to far greater consequences. Only his healing will bring lasting results.
II. Issue Two: Jesus Deals with Sexual Responsibility (v. 27-30)
What is adultery? Our age can be referred to as the “immediate gratification society.” It is especially true with our world’s view of sexual pleasure and release. Jesus’ teachings and practices oppose our social freedoms expressed in a myriad of sexual activities. Jesus cuts through sexual infatuations to get to the heart of it all. He reveals our vanity and thrill of conquest for ego’s sake.
Jesus does not condemn appropriate sexual activity which was created by God for us as sexual beings, to be used within the context of marriage. But perversion of God’s good gift of sexuality draws us downward to adultery — physical and spiritual.
III. Issue Three: Jesus Deals with Divorce (v. 31-32)
What is the basic issue that results in divorce? What things undermine a marriage? The church and individual Christians must understand the reasons for divorce; then we can begin to work on repairing damaged marriages and methods to prevent divorce.
The basis of understanding starts with our attitudes. How do we respond to divorced people? Each of us has been touched by divorce in one way or another. We have children, parents, friends, neighbors, and church members who have been divorced. Myron Augsburger in the Communicator’s Commentary shares some startling statistics. He relates that one out of four marriages end in divorce and that in some areas it is one of every two. He continues by pointing out that the families who attend church regularly have one divorce out of forty marriages, and in families with a daily devotional life it is one out of four hundred! What we’ve heard all these years is really true: the family that prays together does stay together!
What contributing factors are associated with divorce?
1. Lack of moral integrity.
2. Inability to find meaningful concepts of commitment.
3. Carnal selfishness that wants and never gives.
4. Complacency about the marriage.
5. Lack of genuine communication between the couple.
6. Constant desire for sensual pleasure.
These and others need to be examined and avoided as deterrents to divorce. Are you seeking to do the things in your home, your family, your marriage that will enable it to weather the storms that inevitably come? Are you doing what it takes to ground your home in a solid foundation of faith?
In dealing with sin, Jesus always deals with attitudes and not just the act. What is inside of us makes the difference in what comes out of us. In order for you and I to find power to overcome sin in our lives, we must rely on the power of Christ living within us. And if we have never invited Him to live in and direct us, there is no better time to invite Him than right now. (Derl G. Keefer)
Transfiguration Sunday (A)
February 18, 1996
The Glory of God
Christ and His disciples have left Caesarea Philippi. Jesus still is wondering what people think of Him even after Peter’s confession. The passage reveals that Jesus mirrors the glory of God. The word “glory” indicate; a condition of highest achievement, splendor and prosperity.
Two small girls were looking at a portrait of Queen Victoria. One of the girls asked, “What’s she doing?”
The other one studied the picture for a few moments and replied, “Oh, nothing. She’s just reigning.”
God was doing more than just reigning while Jesus was questioning His own personhood. The Father was involved with His Son.
Jesus had taken three of His closest disciples to Mount Hebron’s high regions. He journeyed there to pray and be certain of the Father’s will. This was nothing new for Jesus. He always wanted to be assured that he was in the will of God. That was part of Jesus’s glory and why He is such a model for our Christian lives as we seek to follow Him.
Note four aspects of God’s glory.
I. The Glory of God is Revealed in Change
The word “transfigured” stems from the word “metamorphosis.” This metamorphosis occurs in the core of a person’s spirit. If external changes occur, they do so because the inner person has been reborn.
This experience parallels that of Moses on Mt. Sinai when he took Aaron, Nadab and Abihu with him. There Moses’ face shone from talking with God. Here Jesus’ face shone like the sun. He had an authentic authority. He did not need to be reborn, but He did seek confirmation of God’s approval. He received part of the confirmation that He was within God’s will through this experience.
We need a change of heart in the core of our spirits. When we experience it through the power of God our lives take on a new glow. Our faces shine with the presence of God as our hearts become white with the light of God.
II. The Glory of God is Revealed in Fulfilment of the Law and Prophets
Moses and Elijah appear before the Lord and they enter into conversation together. There is no record of their conversation, but probably it was confirmation again of Jesus’ authority as fulfillment of the Old Testament law and prophets.
The law brings us an understanding of right and wrong. The prophets bring us to an understanding of the spirit of ethics and morals. Jesus was synthesizing the two and fulfilling them as well. Jesus now brings the peak of faith by filling the need expressed in both the law and the prophets.
It is here that Jesus hears the familiar voice of His Father. There is the moment when the Father confirms verbally His satisfaction with the Son. When the Father says,” Listen to Him,” it was not just to those three disciples, but for all people for all ages!
IV. The Glory of God is Revealed in Worship (v. 4-6.)
Disciples impulsively fell on their faces in awe! When we are in the presence of God the most natural thing for us to do is fall on our faces in worship.
A young man visited the Alps to climb mountains. Two guides accompanied him. It was a long, steep, hazardous ascent. For many hours they climbed reaching for the peak. Finally they arrived at the summit.
The guide ahead wanted to let the young man have the first view of heaven and earth, so moved aside to let him go first. In his excitement the man forgot about the gales that would blow across the summit. He jumped to his feet, but the chief guide dragged him down quickly. “On your knees, mister!” he shouted. “You are never safe here except on your knees.”
We are never safe away from the worship of God.
V. The Glory of God is Revealed in a Personal Touch (v. 7)
In their awe, fear and worship, Jesus comes with a personal touch. No one dispels our fears or deserves our worship but Jesus the Son of Glory. He touches each life that will allow Him to enter.
Christ would die for the whole world, but the whole world is made of individuals like you and me. Today let Jesus reach out and touch your life.
If men had pow’r o’er Him
To hang Him on a Tree
Then how could He have pow’r
To help a wretch like me?
Calvary was a myst’ry,
Too great for finite mind;
But deperate, I was seeking.
Oh, look what I did find!
The mercies of God flowing,
And grace so full and free,
And somehow I went knowing
It flowed for even me!
John A. Thomas1
(Derl G. Keefer)
1Albert M. Wells, Jr, Inspiring Quotations (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1988), pp. 173-174.
1st Sunday of Lent (A)
February 25, 1996
Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus
A beautiful song that calls our attention to Jesus of Nazareth is “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.” Often our attention is diverted by the events and circumstances of life. The Scriptures and the people of God remind us that Jesus deserves our full attention.
Bernard of Clairvaux spoke of Jesus as honey in the mouth, melody in the ear, and a song of jubilee in the ears, which naturally leaps to the lips.
Thomas a’Kempis wrote, “O Jesus, brightness of the eternal glory, comfort of the pilgrim soul, with thee are my lips without a voice and my very silence speaks to thee, Thou my God, my hope and my eternal salvation.”
Jesus casts the vision and thrills the hearts as we focus with love upon Him alone.
I. Turn Your Eyes on Jesus Who Gives Life (v. 1-4)
In the wilderness Jesus knew that life comes from God. Satan tempted Him by suggesting that He perform an act of defiance to God. Jesus was not fooled. He realized that in His human form He must keep His eyes on the Father who gives substance and direction to life.
People today are often unresponsive to the will of God. They desire to tell God how life ought to be for them, rather than allowing God to show them how life ought to exist.
Many years ago a country woman at a county fair became angry with her husband. He had gotten a quarter to go ride the merry-go-round. She thought this was a very foolish waste of their money. When the ride finally came to a stop she rushed over and said, “What’s the big idea? You got off where you got on! You spent a whole quarter and you ain’t been nowhere!”
Sometimes life seems like a mery-go-round going nowhere. Give your life to God and let it be on the forward march. Don’t let life get too busy to follow God’s leadership.
II. Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus Who Gives Power (v. 5-7)
Many years ago a large grain elevator, with a floor of concrete 12 inches thick, was built in a western city. For a year and a half, one million bushels of wheat rested on that floor. After the workmen removed the wheat they spotted a place in the floor that was bulging. The men removed the concrete and found a growing plant had lifted up that solid floor with all the grain upon it. What was the source of the power? It came from the power of the sun. Although the plant was buried beneath all that concrete, it still drew on the sun’s power.
We can draw power from the Son of righteousness to lift His kingdom higher even when it seems impossible. When the rays of heavenly sunlight seem hidden the power is still there. Do you need power today?
III. Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus for Service (v. 8-10)
The great evangelist Gipsy Smith tells about a woman who was interested in Christian work in London. She wrote to him, “I have a meeting I want you to come and speak to. It is only a small meeting, and it will take nothing out of you.” Smith replied, “I cannot come and it would be no use if it did come. If it takes nothing out of me it will do nobody any good.” He went on to say, “It is the service that costs, and a cheap religion isn’t worth preaching.”
Anything we do for Jesus will cost us in time, energy, finances, health, friends; but the cost is cheap compared to the gain — God’s approval. When you turn your eyes upon Jesus, you will find far more than you were ever looking for. (Derl G. Keefer)
2nd Sunday of Lent (A)
March 10, 1996
Hurdling Social Barriers in Giving Away Your Faith
Henry Ward Beecher, a great American preacher of the last century once said, “Some churches are like lighthouses, built of stone, so strong that the thunder of the sea cannot move them — but with no light at the top. That which is the light of the world in the church is not its largeness, not its services, celebrant with pomp and beauty, not its music, not the influences in it that touch the taste or instruct the understanding: it is the Christlikeness of its individual members.”
Either you and I are evangelists or we need an evangelist. If you have repented of sin and put your trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, you are called to be His witness.
I am convinced that one of the reasons you and I are not more effective in the sharing of our faith is that we have failed to distinguish between the Gospel of Jesus Christ in its essence and the existence of institutional and cultural Christianity.
We do need to do all we can to distinguish between what the Gospel is in its essence and how it sometimes becomes corrupted in its existence, because the corruption in its existence can get in the way of a clear communication of the faith. Our distortions of the Gospel and the way we flesh it out in our institutional church life and our own hypocritical, personal lives, can make it anything but appealing to nonbelievers. At the other extreme, we can so accommodate the Gospel message to the culture that we make it extremely appealing — except what people are receiving is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ; it is some kind of watered-down, cultural religion that only reinforces selfish, prejudicial, human desires.
What I am trying to say is that those of us who call ourselves Christians can inadvertently find ourselves drifting into an expression of the faith that is not the essence of what Christ came to share but ends up being a distorted caricature, overly self-righteous in its determination to make everybody be just like us or, on the other hand, make us be just like everybody else.
If you and I are serious about giving away our faith, we need to move out of the “safety zone” of the Christian ghetto into the real world where people may not even be aware of their spiritual needs. We are called to understand those persons who have not received Jesus Christ as Savior, many of whom may not have the slightest notion of what this is all about. If we are going to be effective in sharing our faith, we dare not convey a self-righteous superiority before those who are functioning in a very different lifestyle than that of biblical faith. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his study of the Sermon on the Mount, makes this point:
To expect Christian conduct from a person who is not born again is heresy. The appeals of the gospel in terms of conduct and ethics and morality are always based on the assumption that the people to whom the injunctions are addressed are Christians.
Paul Little, in How to Give Away Your Faith, writes:
The message of an ambassador for Christ is first and foremost to be a witness to a God who reconciles. It follows then to ask yourself this question: Will I get that message over by acting as a school marm out to correct everyone’s behavior? Or, will I be starting at the wrong end of God’s truth? Always keep in mind that it is God, not us, who transforms hearts and behaviors. And he begins on the inside.
Are you beginning to see the tightrope which we are called to walk? On the one hand, we need to evaluate how much of our so-called Christianity is not Christianity at all but is a whole set of cultural understandings, lifestyles, and prejudices that have become barnacles attached as encumbrances to a simple, clear understanding of Christianity in its essence. These encumbrances may be that which cause people to turn us off as we try to share our faith. They never get to see Jesus. They just see this distorted stereotype of Christianity, a crazy mixture of Christ and culture.
On the other hand, when we do get our act cleaned up and we have come to grips with the essence of the faith, we can quickly turn around and cut off communication with nonbelievers by demanding of them an understanding of our language, our value system, and our beliefs, which is understandably alien to the nonbelieving culture in which we live.
What we are talking about is the God of the universe, who has chosen to break into human history in the Person of Jesus Christ and who is in the business of transformation, drawing men and women and children to repentance and offering forgiveness and a personal relationship with Himself.
If we are going to share our faith we have to contextualize that faith in a way that people can understand. We are not here to throw John Huffman’s lifestyle at them, with all of my political, social, economic, ethnic, and cultural presuppositions. Jesus Christ is bigger than John Huffman. Somehow I have to get that across. And you need to get across that you are not selling yourself.
Sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ today is one of the great opportunities which you and I are given. But it is also one of the most difficult tasks we have. Why is it so difficult?
First, you and I already live life on emotional and relational overload. There are so many expectations people have for us. Our lives are so complicated. Telephones ring incessantly. CNN takes us to remote parts of the world live. We are deluged with problems which go beyond our capacity to solve. The idea of adding time for evangelism, to share our faith, is just one more obligation.
Second, some of us have been exposed to unhealthy models of evangelism. Some of these have had phenomenal success in certain communities. At the same time, one cannot transplant these methods everywhere.
Unfortunately, some of us see evangelism as what the pastor does on Sunday morning. It has been referred to as “the-big-fisherman” approach in which lay people are encouraged to bring their friends on Sunday morning as fish into the stained-glass aquarium while the pastor, week after week, throws the lure out over the pulpit, hoping some fish will bite. Churches that hear only evangelistic preaching every Sunday are made up of persons who are not being fed the whole counsel of the Word of God. And lay persons who think their job is primarily to expose their friends to the evangelist then feel they have fulfilled their responsibility. That is not what Jesus had in mind when He gave you and me the mandate to be witnesses unto Him.
Another method of evangelism that can be unhealthy is what has been referred to as the “ambush” method. Non-Christians are invited by their friends to an event where a high-powered speaker unloads both barrels. Often the “guest” has no idea of the function and ends up being trapped and embarrassed.
Third, there are outright theological and strategic errors which short circuit some of our evangelism. You and I are called to be the salt of the earth. Salt is no good if it’s stuck in the salt shaker. During my youth I attended a church and lived in a community where we seldom met nonbelievers. God’s strategy is to put us in contact with people who do not know Him and for us to relate to them as people for whom He cares very much. They are not cattle to be lassoed or spiritual scalps to be collected. These are people like you and me who have children for whom they are concerned, perhaps an imperfect marriage, hobbies they enjoy, a mortgage on their house, car payments to be made, and pounds to be lost. These are people Jesus loves every bit as much as He loves you and me. Let’s never forget that.
Fourth, one of the biggest reasons that we are not more effective in our evangelistic outreach is that there is a discrepancy between what we say about our faith and how we flesh it out.
You and I are called to an incarnational Gospel. I don’t always live up to it to the extent that I would like. But my job is to, through my life and relationships, bear witness to the fact that Jesus Christ does make a difference in my life. Do I treat my wife differently because of Jesus? Am I more caring for my children because of Jesus? Do I produce a better quality of work for my employer because of Jesus?
I wouldn’t pretend that Christians have to be enthusiastic and happy all of the time. We are human too. We have our down moments, but I can’t dismiss these words of Sheldon Vanauken: “The best arguments for Christianity is Christians; their joy, their certainty, their completeness. But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians — when they are somber and joyless, when they are self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration, when they are narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths.”
Some of the greatest barriers to successful evangelism are not theological. They are cultural.
I am indebted for some of my thinking along these lines to Joseph C. Aldrich who has written an outstanding book titled Life-Style Evangelism. Joe has a most interesting list of items that he asks us to decide as to whether or not these notions are biblically based or culturally based. Let me list dome of these for you. Try to decide whether or not its support is biblical, cultural or both.
– Christians should meet once a week before noon.
– Majority rule is the pattern for church leadership.
– Communion should only be served in the church.
– The non-Christian is the enemy.
– A collection plate should be passed each week.
– Choir members should wear robes.
– The pastoral prayer should be part of the Sunday morning service.
– Pastors should speak from behind a pulpit.
– Christians should avoid every appearance of evil.
– Legalism is wrong.
– Mature Christians are actively involved in the programs of the church.
– Midweek prayer meetings are a must for the local church.
– Christians should dress with modest, conservative styles of clothing.
If you take the time to study that list, you might be amazed at some of the things we take for granted that really come more out of our culture than they do from the Bible. There are major cultural barriers. We have to be careful that we don’t “major in minors” and so alienate ourselves from those who could possibly be interested in coming to know Jesus Christ personally if they did not see us as so tied up in knots over things that have little to do with biblical teaching.
Our model is Jesus Christ. The Bible refers to Him as our great High Priest who has built a bridge between God and human kind. The Latin word for priest is Pontifex. That word literally means “bridge builder.” You and I are called to be priests as was Jesus. Jesus got in trouble for some of His bridge building. He did not reject the touch of a prostitute. He was willing to touch lepers. He was accused by the religious leaders as being both a glutton and a drunk. Yet Jesus penetrated the culture of the first century, helping people come to faith in the Lord. You and I are going to have to take some risks if we are going to share our faith in Jesus Christ.
Joe Aldrich talks about four ways in which Christians he knows respond to the culture.
The first response is rejection. This person lives a lifestyle of withdrawal and isolation. You don’t have to be part of a monastic order or religious sect to be this way. I know Christians who have developed their own language values, customs and social activities. They are totally segregated from the nonbelieving world.
The second response is immersion. This is the exact opposite of rejection. These Christians sense a need for radical identification with human culture. You can’t tell any difference between them and someone who does not know Jesus. Whereas the rejectionist is salt that is tightly held within the salt shaker, the immersionist is so watered down by his/her association with the world that as salt they lose their saltiness. They do no effective evangelism at all. They have an audience but they have no message. In the words of the Apostle Paul, the world has squeezed them into its own mold.
The third response is split adaptation. This person combines rejection and immersion in a kind of spiritual split personality. This person lives in two worlds and attempts to be at home in both of them. Like the rejectionist, he/she strongly criticizes human culture as being tainted by sin without redeeming value. At the same time this person conforms to the very world he denies. He floats with the majority opinion. The idea of bringing his faith in Christ to bear on the social ills and political injustices of his culture never enters his mind. This person is so compromised by the “radical difference” that it is neither radical or different any longer. He is in the world but not of it.
The fourth response is that of critical participation. This person understands that he/she has a dual citizenship in heaven and earth. God has involved us in a redemptive mission with cultural implications. Coming to faith in Christ is not to be “de-culturalized.” We are to be spiritually distinct from the world’s culture but not socially segregated from it. We are called to face those problems which come from the collision of the believing and nonbelieving cultures. We are a people of the Book, the Bible, who bring those teachings to bear in how we live our life. We refuse to live in a Christian ghetto. We have consciences instructed by Scripture. Yet we realize that we dare not use our consciences as an excuse to avoid the tough issues of living. This person knows the difference between what it is to be a follower of Jesus and what it is to not be a follower of Jesus. This person is willing to honestly build healthy, positive friendship with those who don’t know Jesus.
Those of us who are committed to this critical participation take seriously what Jesus said to Nicodemus, that no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is “born again.”
I would like to challenge you as a follower of Jesus to take seriously the relationships God has given to you. Don’t get so caught up in church that this is your whole life. See this as a training center. See this as a point of encouragement and instruction. But take seriously those friendships at work, those social relationships at the club, those friendships around your hobbies and sports. Be a good neighbor, a person who loves and goes out of your way to help someone else. Don’t just hammer them with the Bible and with truth and with what you don’t do because you are a Christian.
Allow yourself to be set free by the Holy Spirit of God to genuinely love another person, to do things for that one. But more than that, allow yourself to even share with that one what motivates you as a humble sinner served by God’s grace, “One beggar telling another where you got bread.” (John A. Huffman, Jr.)
3rd Sunday of Lent (A)
March 10, 1996
How to Witness
Recently, I talked with an active member in another church that’s famous for its evangelism program. She took the course. She mastered the material. She went out on those cold-turkey visits in a shopping mall and participated in door-to-door witnessing. Some people came back with marvelous stories of people who prayed to receive Christ. That was not her experience. She came back defeated, shot down by those people whom she approached with the Gospel. She was puzzled by the success of others and her apparent failure. She is not quite sure whether the problem was with her or the approach she was taught. Was she being too invasive in approaching people with whom she had no natural connection? Or was she simply a slow learner who couldn’t seem to get with the program?
I could add dozens of stories of people who once were zealous in the sharing of their faith, out of a sense of obligation, who now back away from such efforts. Is this what Jesus wants? Does He want you to be so manipulated by me that you charge out of here determined to share your faith with everyone you meet in all circumstances, with the ultimate goal of having them sign on the dotted line? The answer is absolutely no!
This does not mean that you and I do not have a responsibility to share our faith. We do. Allow me to make some preliminary observations and then several suggestions as to how you and I can most effectively witness.
Preliminary observation one: There is no salvation other than through Jesus Christ.
Jesus stated it bluntly when He declared, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
That sounds pretty arbitrary, doesn’t it? It is. Theologians will continue to wrestle with the whole implication of what that means. We will probably never in this life fully comprehend in detail all that involves. Scripture teaches that all inheritors of eternal life, all who will be in heaven, will be there because of the work that Jesus Christ did on the cross, bearing our sins and rising from the dead in victory over them. That means that all persons who are saved prior to the coming of the Messiah, even if they didn’t know the name of Jesus Christ, have salvation because of what He has done.
Two of our members were recently on a cruise through the Black Sea. While on their trip, they visited a number of Orthodox churches and monasteries. They brought me back a postcard of one very vivid icon in Istanbul that shows Jesus reaching out to two human beings. On the one side He is touching Adam, and on the other side He is touching Eve, granting them salvation through His work on the cross. It’s a powerful image, isn’t it? I doubt that they knew His name, but they trusted God for salvation as fallen, sinful man and woman, as we are called to do today.
Salvation comes only through Jesus Christ.
Preliminary observation two: You and I are called to share our personal witness of our relationship with Jesus Christ.
We have been given the Great Commission. Jesus said: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20).
In Acts 1, it is recorded how He told us that we are to be His witnesses and that we will be empowered by the Holy Spirit. This is our Christ-given mandate. It has been said about you and me that “either you and I are evangelists or we need an evangelist.”
Preliminary observation three: Your job and my job is to appropriately give away our faith.
We are called to share it winsomely by both our actions and our words. It is anything but Good News when we manipulate, bludgeon and coerce people, treating them as objects to be captured, instead of persons with whom to share what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
Preliminary observation four: Ultimately the Holy Spirit is the One who leads people to faith in Jesus Christ.
You and I can be His emissaries, His ambassadors, His witnesses, but ultimately the decisions made for or against Jesus Christ are not our responsibility. They are God’s.
Let me share briefly some practical ways in which we are privileged to share our faith, not coercively but graciously, leaving the final outcome in the hands of the Lord. If you take seriously some of these suggestions in terms of witnessing, you will be set free from those negative experiences and perhaps some of the fears that you have when you think about taking seriously your responsibility to witness.
The best way I know to enunciate these practical suggestions for witnessing is to take a look at Jesus Himself. We are privileged to learn from His encounters with individuals how we can most effectively witness and relate to people.
One of the classic stories is that of Jesus talking to the Samaritan woman at that well in Sychar as related to us in John, chapter 4. I am indebted for these principles to Paul Little’s book, How to Give Away Your Faith. Let these principles challenge you to go out into the world as one who has met the Savior and to share the Good News of His love and forgiveness with others.
I. Contact others socially.
Jesus refused to live life sealed off from ordinary people. In fact, He wasn’t afraid of sinful people. He actually got in trouble with religious leaders because He was a friend of tax collectors and sinners. Not only was He willing to sit down at the well and talk to a Samaritan woman — which was unheard of for a Jewish religious leader — He was willing to stay around and meet her friends and acquaintances, accepting their hospitality, talking with them well into the night.
I have a friend by the name of Doug Coe. His home is Washington, D.C. He spends a lot of time with American business and political leaders and also travels widely, sharing his faith in Jesus Christ with international business and political leaders. As I traveled with him in Korea and Japan, Doug stated to me quite bluntly, “It makes no difference to me whether a person is the greatest saint or the worst of sinners or somewhere in between the two. That’s not my business. That’s God’s business. I am called to love that person as a person, not to make a definitive judgment.”
Doug occasionally gets in trouble because he is too quick to embrace someone as a brother or sister whom the real religious people view as no good and unacceptable. What I found is that Doug is quite effective in sharing his faith because of his accepting attitude. No one is interested in hearing the witness of a “holier than thou” person. They are much more ready to listen to a friend with whom they have a social relationship.
II. Establish common ground.
This principle builds on the first. Some of us are not prepared to take the time to establish common ground for communication. We want to skip the “nonessentials” and get right to the point. I have discovered the hard way that people resent being trapped in a one-way conversation. I myself shy away from someone who is coming at me ready to hammer me with their favorite theme.
Jesus was a master of relating to other people. He would be turned off today by power-hungry, money-grabbing Christian celebrities. Flamboyant behavior in the name of evangelism was not His style. He simply asked the woman at the well, “Will you give me a drink?” (John 4:7). He could have said, “Lady, are you aware that I am the God of the universe? I know that you are really messed up. I have come to challenge you to clean up your act.”
That wasn’t His style. He simply asked her for something He didn’t have, a bucket and a rope. Would she be willing to draw some water out of the well for Him? What was her reaction? She responded, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (John 4:9).
Jesus didn’t have to preach a sermon. He simply requested a drink and demolished social, religious, racial, and political barriers. As a man, He spoke to her, a woman. As a rabbi, He spoke to her, an immoral woman. As a Jew, He spoke to her, a Samaritan. He refused to discriminate. This is “lifestyle evangelism.”
Some of us like to be in the power position. We like to be the one who is always helping other people. We forget that other people might want to help us. He asked her to do something for Him. Not only that. He showed interest in her, engaging her in friendly conversation, treating her with respect, with dignity.
It’s a strange reality, but it’s true. Those of us who stand up in the pulpit on Sunday morning and preach are taken quite seriously, but we would probably be taken less seriously in a one-to-one conversation the following week with some of the same people than you would be. The very fact that we stand in the pulpit minimizes the common ground. You are right there with the person. That’s my challenge also, to touch the common ground, to learn about the personal interest, successes, defeats, hobbies, fascinations of the people with whom we may very well end up sharing our faith.
No, we don’t do this in a manipulative way, just to earn the right to be heard. That would be ripping that person off. It is because we genuinely are prepared to enter into relationship with them.
III. Arouse interest.
Jesus wasn’t afraid to stimulate the woman’s curiosity. Even as she expressed surprise, He would ask her for a drink. He came back saying that if she knew who He was she would also ask Him for a drink. He then compared the water of that well, which would temporarily quench one’s thirst, with the water He had which was a spring of water welling up to eternal life.
It is possible to carry yourself in such a way that people want to know what motivates you. On the other hand, if we are trying to force that person, we can do more harm than good. You and I can be as relaxed in talking about what God has done in our lives as we are in talking about our summer vacation, what our children are into, or the final days of the baseball pennant races.
I have discovered that the most painful experience of my entire life, the loss of our daughter, Suzanne, to cancer, has, in a strange and even painful way, opened the doors of conversation such as I’ve never had before. Every so often, almost out of the blue, in personal conversation with someone, I will be asked a question about how I have maintained my sanity, how I have gotten through this terrible loss. In fact, some people, prior to this horrendous family experience, shied away from me and any talk about spiritual things. Now they bring up the topic.
IV. Get the ball rolling.
Instead of hammering a person with the claims of Jesus Christ, you might want to ask them a question like, “What do you think a real Christian is?” It is amazing to hear what people think. They give answers like, “Reading the Bible,” “Praying every day,” “Going to church regularly,” “Being baptized,” “Trying to be a good person.” Granted, Christians do these things. But that’s not the essence of what it is to be a Christian.
I find that people are stunned to hear me say that going to church doesn’t make a person a Christian. Giving money to the church doesn’t make a person a Christian. I discover that most people think that I am after them to come to my church or to give money to the church.
I have discovered that people like to hear a story, as long as it is isn’t forced on them. There are normal life passages when people are all the more open to talking about spiritual matters. I find that young couples, as they anticipate marriage and raising of a family, tend to give a lot more thought to religious training than they did in their single days. Issues like fear of physical problems, natural reverses, academic failure, disappointment in love, career choices, often open the door to conversation that can lead to realistic, earthy talk about what God is doing in your life
The world has all kinds of problems. I find that people are interested in talking about them. The question, “What do you think is wrong with the world?” can stimulate a fascinating conversation. An apt quote like that of G. K. Chesterton, “What is wrong with the world? I am wrong with the world,” brings a common ground of discussion.
The sharing of books, such as Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis or Becoming a Christian by John R. W. Stott, can get the ball rolling. Or even a discussion about a contemporary movie that deals with some tough issues can lead to discussion of the “ultimates.” After all, isn’t that what discussion about the Lord is all about?
V. Don’t go too far.
Jesus refused to go too far. He didn’t tell the woman at the well the whole story all at once. He let the conversation gradually emerge.
He didn’t get into an argument. I am convinced no one was ever led to the Lord because someone else won a theological argument with them.
Paul Little says that there are basically two kinds of people who have not accepted the Lord. The first group lacks information about Jesus and wouldn’t know how to become a Christian if they wanted to. The second group has all the information necessary and hasn’t yet said “yes” to Jesus Christ, responding to that information. Our job is to plant the seed and let the Lord bring the harvest when He chooses.
One of the first persons I was privileged to help come to Jesus when I came here fifteen years ago was a fellow who, over lunch, asked me a number of questions about the Christian faith and the implications of it if he were to accept Jesus. He was a member of AA. He had found more spiritual reality in that group than he had ever found in a church. He was willing to experiment a bit, and he got into one of our covenant groups. At the time of our lunch, he wasn’t about to accept Jesus Christ. A year later, he called me, took me out to lunch, and he brought up the topic, saying, “I am now prepared to sign the name of my Higher Power as Jesus Christ.”
VI. Don’t condemn.
Remember when they dragged that woman caught in adultery to Jesus. He knew she was wrong, and so did she. But His response to her was not to condemn her, although He challenged her to leave her life of sin. Our message is not how good and moral you and I are and that we are here to help others be just like us. That attitude has done more to turn people away from Jesus. No one likes a hypocrite. To pretend to be something someone isn’t is the ultimate distortion of self reality.
VII. Stick with the main issue.
The woman at the well that day tried to get Jesus off on a tangent. She started talking about how the Samaritans worshipped there at Mount Gerizim but the Jews worshipped in Jerusalem. Jesus wouldn’t let any secondary question sidetrack Him. He shifted the emphasis from where to how one worships.
We are ambassadors of reconciliation. We are there to somehow help the person to reach out, to grasp the hand of Jesus. No one has done anything so bad that Jesus would turn His back on that person. Transformation is His business. So we need to avoid majoring in minors, getting caught up in little stuff at the periphery of religious discussion when the real issue is whether or not one is willing to say yes to God’s love in Jesus Christ.
VIII. Confront the person directly.
An effective ambassador knows how to invite a decision about the message they are communicating.
One question I suggest you don’t ask is, “Are you a Christian?” Unless a person is Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, agnostic or into some other variety of religious belief or nonbelief, they are probably going to say yes and not necessarily understand what it is to be a Christian. It is not a label we are trying to convey. It is a personal relationship.
One person quite regularly asks the question, “Have you ever personally trusted Jesus Christ, or are you still on the way?” This question defines clearly what a Christian is but also gives the opportunity to receive a no answer without rejecting the person. You can build on that and ask the question, “How far along the way are you?”
These are some of the principles we can use as we share our faith.
I hope you see some of the exciting implications of taking seriously what God has done for you in Jesus Christ and then sharing it winsomely in a friendship kind of way, willing to accept the fact that not everybody is going to accept what you are sharing. That doesn’t mean you write them off. In fact, your willingness to love them in spite of that could ultimately be the most powerful draw to Jesus.
May we go from this room into all the world, sharing graciously, lovingly, winsomely what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. (John A. Huffman, Jr.)
4th Sunday of Lent (A)
March 17, 1995
Why Can’t We See?
Have you ever asked yourself the question, If I had to lose one of my senses, which one would it be? I’ve thought about that before, and it would be a tough choice. You have to have great respect for persons who have overcome the disability of being without sight, or hearing, or the ability to speak.
I think the one sense I would least want to lose would be the ability to see. It seems that sight would be the most difficult loss to overcome.
In this biblical story, Jesus brings healing to a man who had been born blind. Of course, there’s really more going on than that. We are actually seeing a blind man gain two kinds of sight — both physical and spiritual — while those who think they can see are shown to actually be blind where it matters most. While they have physical sight, they are blind to God’s work right in front of them. And that kind of blindness can still be found among us.
What is it that keeps us from being able to see?
I. Tradition may blind us (v. 16)
Sometimes we are so sure we know how things ought to be done that we are oblivious to God doing something new right in front of us.
The Pharisees were precise in their keeping of the Mosaic Law; that included very strict rules about what could or could not be done on the Sabbath. They were so concerned about keeping the rules and regulations of Sabbath observance that they couldn’t even see that God puts human need above procedure. As Jesus would say elsewhere, “The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
Yet tradition can be a powerful force that keeps us from being able to see God’s hand at work in new ways.
There was a tribe that had lived in a certain valley for many years. Over time, the fields were overgrazed and the land became less fertile, and a group of younger men took a journey to seek out more productive land.
Upon their return, the young men said, “We have been across the mountain, and just on the other side is a wonderful, rich valley that is much better than this one. We should take our families and our livestock and move there.”
But the young men then encountered a group of older men, known as “The Committee That Knows How Things Really Are.” And the older group said no, there could not be a place better than where they were. So the tribe stayed there in the same valley until the older men had died, then they moved to the lush new territory, where they thrived for many years.
But eventually, the new land also became overgrazed and less fertile than it once had been, and a group of younger men went out in search of new territory. They came back and reported, “We have been across the mountain and there is a land much better than ours, with rich soil and much water. We should move there.”
By then, however, the young men who had led the tribe to this new spot had themselves become “The Committee That Knows How Things Really Are.” And they insisted that there could be no place better than where they were, so the tribe stayed there until the older men had died.
And so it goes. It is so easy for us to fall into such patterns, convinced that things must always be the way they have been in the past. It is true in families, in community affairs, even in churches — especially in churches! And tradition is a good and healthy thing — it gives us roots that connect us with our heritage, and helps us judge our thoughts and actions by the standards of those who have gone before us. But tradition is not God, and we must beware lest it be transformed into an idol that can stand between us and what God is doing among us. Tradition can sometimes keep us from seeing.
II. Fear May Blind Us (vv. 20-23)
The man’s parents knew what they had seen, but they also knew that the Pharisees were powerful people who could influence, intimidate, even force them from the synagogue. And they allowed fear to limit their vision.
For many of us, fear may be the most destructive weapon in the devil’s arsenal to keep us from seeing God’s hand in our lives. We may fear loss — loss of financial resources, loss of position, loss of certain friends. We may even fear gain — afraid that what God is going to give us is something that will be new, overwhelming, different than what we had in mind.
Fear can keep us from seeing what God is doing, and what God wants to do in our lives.
III. Pride May Blind Us (v. 28)
The poor man! Ever since he gained his sight, he has had nothing but trouble from these Pharisees! He is a simple man, unlearned and untrained, and they want him to offer theological insights about what he has just experienced!
Since the Pharisees are so curious about the healer, perhaps they want to be His disciple? The very suggestion brings forth a torrent of abuse. Follow this heretic? They would not do anything of the kind. They were disciples of Moses! God spoke to Moses, and we are his followers — so it is almost as if God has spoken to us as well. And they were plenty proud of it, too!
The Pharisees were proud of their religious status — so proud that they were willing and able to completely miss the most remarkable event in human history. They were completely unaware that the very One they ridiculed was the Messiah, the Savior they and their ancestors had awaited for centuries. Indeed, as Pharisees, their very purpose was to seek obedience to the Law so that Messiah would come. Their pride blinded them to the very fulfilment of their own dream!
Don’t let pride in your past achievements blind you to what God is doing today and tomorrow. Pride can keep us from seeing.
One person in this story, however, goes from blindness to sight — not only physically but spiritually. The one who was born blind also experiences a new vision because he is open to seeing what God is doing in his life.
He certainly doesn’t understand it all at first. At first he doesn’t even know who healed him; all he knows is that the man told him what to do, and now he can see. It was clear, however, that this man was no sinner as the Pharisees tried to portray Him (v. 16). So the man guessed that He was a prophet (v. 17). Once he encountered Jesus in person, however, his new knowledge blossomed into faith.
Could it be that God is reaching out to touch your life right now? Are you willing to open your eyes and see what He is doing? And are you willing to respond in faith and obedience. Are you willing to see? (Michael Duduit)
5th Sunday of Lent (A)
March 24, 1996
Revival in a Graveyard
In the November, 1992 issue of Southern Living, a fascinating article was published about a subject that is not widely held to be fascinating: cemeteries. This particular article focused on cemeteries in Charleston, South Carolina. According to Lynette Strangstad, a specialist in gravestone preservation, a lot can be learned in a cemetery. The epitaphs and artwork tend to reflect what was going on in the society at large at the time of death. For example, the kind and ornateness of a gravestone may indicate how many deaths were occurring at the time, or how settled and stable was the community. Obviously, one can also learn something about the wealth of the deceased, as well as the strength and prominence of his or her faith.
You can learn a lot in a graveyard. That should not come as a great surprise to us, for almost six centuries before the birth of Christ, God had a spiritual lesson of enormous import to teach His prophet Ezekiel, and He put him in a graveyard in order to do it. In fact, this lesson was so pivotal that it had the potential to change the outlook and direction of all of the people of God, as well as that of the prophet of God.
Ezekiel was the son of a priest and a member of Jerusalem’s aristocracy. When he was 25-years-old, the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem and took many of the Jewish people into exile; Ezekiel was one of them. The Bible says that when he arrived at what would be his home in exile and saw the physical, emotional, and spiritual condition of his fellow Jews, he merely sat for seven days, overwhelmed by what he saw (Ezek. 3:15).
During that time of exile the word of the Lord came to him, and he began to prophesy. His message from the Lord helped the people to interpret their suffering as the judgment of God; it was a message of hope and future restoration after judgment. But month followed month, and year followed year, and the people were still in exile. Nine years after Ezekiel’s exile he received word that his wife had died in Jerusalem. The next year the exiles were given the report that Jerusalem itself had been completely destroyed by the Babylonians. Naturally, the mood among the exiles was that of dejection, discouragement, helplessness, and hopelessness.
And then God set Ezekiel down in the middle of a graveyard. Could there by anything more depressing than a valley full of the dry bones of the dead? Yet the lesson God was to teach Ezekiel did not have to do with death, but with the life that He would give. In Ezekiel’s graveyard class, God would teach him about hope snatched out of the grasp of despair, and the possibility of spiritual renewal among God’s people even when circumstances seemed least promising.
Ezekiel 37 may be read as a model of how God brings revival. When are the conditions among God’s people right for a powerful, God-initiated, spiritual renewal?
I. Revival can come when we recognize that it is needed.
The reason God showed His prophet a valley full of dry bones is that it was an apt illustration, a visual metaphor of the condition of the people of God. In verse 11 the people themselves are quoted as saying, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely cut off.”
The people were in a state of spiritual stagnation, even despair. They felt spiritually and emotionally dry, and they doubted that anything would or could be done about it. It was as if they were dead to any new hope or spiritual vitality. But it is to their credit that they recognized their spiritual need.
Obviously, one does not attempt to repair something if it is not believed to be broken. We are not ready for a new work of God in our lives until we are willing to pray, “It’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” And when do we stand in the need of prayer for a spiritual renewal? It is when we have something against our brother or sister and have not gone to them to make it right; we can’t be right with God and wrong with our fellow man at the same time.
A need for renewal exists when there is not full obedience to some command of God — for example, the commands to tithe, to evangelize, to pray without ceasing, to speak no unwholesome word to or about others to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Are these commands that you can disobey and feel no sense of grief or conviction? Then you are in need of a fresh encounter with God and the spiritual renewal and refreshing that only He can give.
Have you been lazy in serving God? Are there things or people that you love more than Him? Are there portions of His word that you have denied, opting for what others say instead of what God says, calling it your interpretation when it is really unbelief? Has there been a lack of love or forgiveness in your relationship with others? Have you been covetous wanting more of the things of this world? Have you been selfish, wanting your way instead of others’, or even God’s way? Then you are in need of a fresh encounter with God and the spiritual renewal and refreshing that only He can give.
When are conditions among the people of God right for renewal? First, when we recognize that it is needed.
II. Revival can come when we have faith that God can bring it.
What a strange question God asked Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones! “Son of man, can these bones live?” (v. 3). The obvious answer is “No, they are just dry bones.” But Ezekiel was a man of great faith in a great God, and he knew that if God wanted the bones to live, they would live. So Ezekiel answered, “O Lord God, Thou knowest.” He knew that God can do anything.
Have you ever been in a situation that you thought was virtually hopeless? Maybe you feel that you are in a valley of dry bones today. You are not where you should be spiritually; you are frustrated with your vocation; your marriage, or relationships to your parents or peers, are not what they ought to be. Your daily fellowship with God is in the doldrums or nonexistent. Can these dry bones live?
This morning, could you see yourself as Elijah on Mt. Carmel — all alone against 340 prophets of Baal, when the only hope was for God to send fire from the sky? It did fall. Could you see yourself as Paul in Athens, all alone telling the Greek philosophers about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead? God made dry bones live that day as some believed. Could you see yourself as Jesus on the cross, all alone, dying a painful and humiliating death? Yet, three days later God made His dry bones live.
Is there a situation which you thought was hopeless? “With God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). He can replace your vocational frustration with His purpose for your life. When we have the faith to put Him in charge, He can dissolve conflict between people, and He can melt cold hearts like wax in a furnace. He can transform your discouragement into hope, depression into joy, and spiritual compromise into renewed commitment to Him. These dry bones can live.
If someone had not believed that God can act to bring life out of death, then children would still be working in sweat shops sixteen hours a day, women still could not vote, blacks would still be enslaved, there would be no outcry against the juggernaut of abortion, and this church, and many other churches, never would have been built and paid for. God can make dry bones live. Do you believe it? When you do, you may be ready for a fresh encounter with God and the spiritual renewal He brings. When we believe it, then this church is ready for revival.
When are the conditions among God’s people right for renewal? When we recognize that it is needed, and when we have faith that God can bring it.
III. Revival can come when are willing to do whatever God asks of us.
After Ezekiel expressed his faith in God in response to a strange question, the Lord gave an even stranger command: “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord'” (v. 4). I have practiced my sermons by preaching to empty pews, to video cameras, and to the mirror, but I can assure you that it was never with the belief that they would actually hear. But Ezekiel’s preaching was not a dry run; it was the real thing, and his congregation was a collection of dry, disjointed skeletons.
Ezekiel was a desperate man among desperate people. He ached for the people to see what only God could do, and he was willing to do whatever God told him to do in order to see it.
Do we want spiritual renewal and recommitment enough to do whatever God tells us to do? Or would we prefer instead to hold on to just a few areas of compromise or unbelief? Are we willing to do what God tells us to do as long as it doesn’t make us seem strange to the world, or out of sync with our pagan culture? Or do we want a renewed relationship with Him and fervor for Him enough to obey every command, no matter what?
Some Christians are actually afraid of what God may do if they give Him control. They fear the changes He may bring. They are like the little girl who was afraid in her bed one night, so she went to her mother’s bedside and told her about it. Her mother said, “It’s alright, honey, Jesus is with you in your room.” That seemed to satisfy the little girl, so she returned to her room, peered through the door, and said, “Jesus I know You’re in there, but if You move You’ll scare me to death.”
Some people are actually like that. They know that God is around and that gives them comfort, but they are afraid that if He does anything significant in their lives it may embarrass them. They would rather sit in spiritual exile and complain than preach to dry bones with a belief that God can make them live.
But Ezekiel chose the latter. He preached to the dry bones with faith that if God wanted them to come to life then they would come to life. Without that kind of trusting obedient faith Moses never would have gone back to Egypt, Abraham never would have ascended Moriah with his beloved Isaac by his side and a knife in his hand, the priests carrying the ark never would have stepped into the Jordan River expecting it to part, and without it you will never experience what God can do in you and with you.
A fresh encounter with God and the spiritual renewal that results comes when we want it badly enough to obey whatever God tells us to do.
IV. Revival comes when God brings it by the power of His Spirit.
Ezekiel recorded in verses 7-8 that the bones came together, then tissue was added to the bones, and then flesh grew and covered the lifeless bodies. How did it happen? I don’t know; maybe God found the fossil of a mosquito that still contained some human DNA and He added water, and presto chango — it’s Exilic Park. I don’t know how God managed to show this to Ezekiel, but it must have been a scary sight. Ezekiel was now surrounded, not by bones but by human corpses.
The next step was that God told Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath, or wind, or spirit (same word in Hebrew) to come into the dead. And just as God breathed the breath of life into the first human, He caused these to come to life by His breath. It was a beautiful and compelling display of the fact that spiritual life, and physical life, comes from God. He gives life.
What God did in the graveyard that day was proof that God can turn carnality into spirituality, despair into hope, and death into life. But only He can do it. In Ezekiel 37 God does it all. He sent Ezekiel, He gave Ezekiel the words to speak, and He caused the bones to live.
That is why we must pray for revival — because it is a work of God. We must cooperate with God. Paul must plant and Apollos must water, but it is God who gives the increase. There are churches that meet and conduct business, and everyone thinks they are a success if the people like the preacher, they have good crowds, and a good time is had by all. But they are never heard talking about what God is doing in the lives of people. That secularized, compromised version of the church is not what God has in mind. He wants His church filled with His spirit, evidencing the fruit of the Spirit, following the words inspired by His Spirit.
You can learn a lot in a graveyard. You learn that God can change everything — despair into hope, doubt into faith, and even spiritual death into spiritual life. And you learn that happens when we recognize that it is needed, when we have faith that God can do it, when we want it badly enough to obey whatever He tells us to do, and when God brings it by the power of His Spirit. So, let us pray, with Bessie Porter Head,
“O Breath of Life, come sweeping through us,
Revive Thy church with life and power;
O Breath of Life, come, cleanse, renew us,
And fit Thy church to meet this hour.”
(N. Allen Moseley)
Palm/Passion Sunday (A)
March 31, 1996
The Goal of the Christian Life
This passage is the Pauline version of the greatest comandment as endorsed by Jesus Himself: “Love the Lord thy God with all your heart, and soul, and might, and love your neighbor as yourself.” For truly if the mind of Christ were in us all, the Holy Spirit’s job in us would be done!
Paul gives some examples from the ministry of Jesus which characterize His mind, and then he gives examples of where he has allowed the Holy Spirit to transform his own mind into one more like Christ’s.
What are the clearest characteristics of the mind of Christ being in us? Paul lists two: humility and obedience.
I. We are called to Christlike humility.
Jesus’ humility is seen in v. 7: “He made himself of no reputation.” Literally, Jesus emptied Himself when He stepped down from a throne in heaven to be born in a stable in Bethlehem. He could have chosen a palace, but He emptied Himself of any vestige of glory and grandour, and, as Paul said, took the form of a servant.
Thus Paul, a bit too humble perhaps to use identical wording, but picking up the same ideas nonetheless, says in v. 17, “… I am being poured out as a drink offering in the sacrifice and service of your faith.” Paul took upon himself the mind of Christ, the self-emptying, self-pouring out attitude of servanthood.
It is through this door of humility we must pass before we can approach God. We must confess our inability to earn God’s favor, abandon the throne of our own lives, pour out any claims we have upon God, and humbly approach Him, not in our own names, but in the name of Jesus.
Jesus made Himself a servant. This title has been sanctified and made the highest title available to people in the Kingdom of God. We strive for titles such as “Reverend,” “Bishop,” “Deacon,” or “Mission Society President.” But Paul identified himself more by the title, “servant of God” than any other.
II. We are called to Christlike obedience.
Remember, the sentence began with, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who…became obedient to the point of death.” Paul, like Jesus, was willing to answer that call and be obedient even to death. Several times you read of him being beaten to the point of death, stoned and left for dead, and placed in jails where his life expectancy was short. Nonetheless he continued to be obedient. Is Paul calling us to such radical obedience? Is Paul calling us to a willingness to die?
History is full of the accounts of martyrs who were called to be obedient to the point of death. The Bulletin of Missionary Research estimated the number of Christian martyrs for 1992 at over 100,000. But if it were only one, would we be willing to be that one?
I once was called on to introduce one of the most outstanding men in our community. He was president of three automobile dealerships, on numerous boards, and President of the Southern Baptist Brotherhood Commission. But I introduced him as the man who gets to church on Sunday before the pastor, who sweeps the sidewalk, makes the coffee, and picks up the old bulletins out of the pews before the evening service. These were the most important things I could say about him because he had the mind of Christ in him.
Are you willing to be obedient to the point of death? When we are not willing to be obedient to the point of tithing, witnessing, and serving in our churches, I think we answer a bit quickly when we say, “Yes, I’d obey Christ to the grave!” (Bill Groover)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: Derl G. Keefer, Pastor, Three Rivers Church of the Nazarene, Three Rivers, MI; John A. Huffman, Jr., Senior Minister, St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Newport Beach, CA; N. Allen Moseley, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Durham, NC; Bill Groover, Pastor, Bethany Baptist Church, Louisville, KY; and Michael Duduit, Editor, Preaching.
5th Sunday after Epiphany (A)