Prayer in the Midst of the Storm

 

 

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That’s what Jehoshaphat teaches us. His story shows us how to respond in the worst of all possible situations, and how to pray in the midst of the storm.

2 Chr 20 begins with a statement of the crisis at hand:

“After this, the Moabites and Ammonites with some of the Meunites[a] came to wage war against Jehoshaphat.

Some people came and told Jehoshaphat, ‘A vast army is coming against you from Edom,[b]from the other side of the Dead Sea. It is already in Hazezon Tamar’ (that is, En Gedi). Alarmed, Jehoshaphat resolved to enquire of the Lord, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah. The people of Judah came together to seek help from the Lord; indeed, they came from every town in Judah to seek him….”

The crisis is at hand. It’s already closer than you think. So how did he respond?

He was alarmed. He resolved to ask God. He proclaimed a fast.

In a word: he got serious. He set himself to pray.

Why? Because the situation was impossible, but “the things are are impossible with man are possible with God” (Luke 18:27). And “You have not because you ask not” (James 4:2). In the middle of the storm, ask. God can be touched. God be moved. He knows what you need. Prayer changes things.

Remember Exodus 3? “The Lord said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them…”  God hears, God sees and God cares. And God is on his way! 

God is waiting for a people who will ask, who will pray…. He’s looking for people hungry enough to feed on him. Isa 45:22 Look unto me. Mtt 11:28 Come unto me!Jer 33:3: Call unto me. Call me and I’ll show you! John 15: 16 “Whatever you ask in my name.”

This is how you pray in the storm. You reach for the prayer-answering God. There is a God who hears and answers prayer.

What do you need? Health? Family? Relationships? How much do you want those things? “If we will pray, then God will answer. ” Ps 35: God takes pleasure in the prosperity of his people. ”  Anybody ready to go for it? 2 Chr 16:9 “God is looking for people who are looking to him….”

But look, Jehosphat. Look at the scale of the problem! It’s too much. All the work of Satan is arrayed against you. You can’t do it! Eph 6:12: We wrestle against dark forces, powerful networks of evil.

But “no weapon fashioned against you shall prosper.”  Did he relapse into self-pity or self-doubt? He was alarmed but he sought God. Fear is natural, but it’s what you do next. You don’t have to accept the doctor’s report.

The problem drove him to God.

So they began to fast. They sought God together in a powerful display of national unity.

And what did they pray?

“Lord, the God of our ancestors, are you not the God who is in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. Power and might are in your hand, and no one can withstand you. Our God, did you not drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel and give it for ever to the descendants of Abraham your friend? They have lived in it and have built in it a sanctuary for your Name, saying, “If calamity comes upon us, whether the sword of judgment, or plague or famine, we will stand in your presence before this temple that bears your Name and will cry out to you in our distress, and you will hear us and save us.”

In a word, they filled their minds with who God was and what He had done! This is you, Lord. This is what you do! This is what you have done! And you are the same, yesterday, today and forever.  You keep your word. Your promises are my armour and protection.

Don’t look at the problem. Look at the problem-solver.

In the midst of the storm, look up. Look up and see your redemption drawing nigh.

He is able to do far more than you ask or imagine…. according to the power that works within you.

And the prophet rose and brought God’s answer to the prayers.

Listen, King Jehoshaphat and all who live in Judah and Jerusalem! This is what the Lord says to you: “Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s. 16 Tomorrow march down against them. They will be climbing up by the Pass of Ziz, and you will find them at the end of the gorge in the Desert of Jeruel. 17 You will not have to fight this battle. Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the Lord will give you, Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Go out to face them tomorrow, and the Lord will be with you.”’

Get a new perspective. Look above the situation. This is God’s business, God’s battle. You do not have to fight this battle! Stand still and see your salvation.

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The Way of Generosity

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Remember this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written:

‘They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor;
    their righteousness endures for ever.’

10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.” (2 Cor 9:6-11)

Paul starts, perhaps, with a popular saying, that is repeated in Galatians 6:7: “A man reaps what he sows.” And Jesus said much the same: “Give, and it will be given to you. . . . With the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Lk 6:38).

The principle is clear: we harvest in proportion to our planting.   We get as good as we give. Paul offers the Corinthians three guidelines for giving.

First, giving is to be an individual matter that is settled in the privacy of one’s own heart. Each, Paul says, should give what he has decided in his heart to give. Each is placed first for emphasis. “How much?” is a question that each person must answer for herself. And it is never to be determined by how much others are contributing.

Second, giving requires resolve. The text reads what he has decided (literally, “as each has purposed”). The verb proaireomai, found only here in the New Testament, means “to choose deliberately” or “to make up one’s own mind about something.” Paul says that giving is to be based on a calculated decision. It is not a matter to be settled lightly or impulsively.

Third, giving is to be a private, not a public, decision. It is to be decided in the heart. It is an unfortunate reality that some Christians will give only if there is some form of public acclaim or recognition involved.

There’s four beneficiaries here: the giver (vv. 8-11), the recipients (v. 12), God (vv. 11-12) and the church (vv. 13-14). In the first place, the giver benefits. God’s response to generosity is to make all grace abound to the giver. The idea of grace abounding is a familiar one in these chapters. The verb “to abound” (perisseuo) is found six times. The noun grace (charis) is no stranger either, appearing ten times in all. Here it refers to the giver’s unmerited favor from God.

But what form does God’s favor take? Is Paul thinking of spiritual benefits or material blessings? The focus in the context is clearly on material blessings. Yet Paul could well be thinking of all the benefits we receive from God. For inherent in the term grace is the idea that whatever we possess, be it physical or spiritual, we possess by reason of God’s goodwill toward us, not because of personal merit.

We do well to observe what Paul does not say. He does not say that wealth or surplus income is a sign of God’s blessing. Nor is it giving per se that is applauded. It is, rather, a lifestyle of generosity that Paul commends. For those who give cheerfully and willingly, the promise is that God will provide all that they need to continue doing good.

Not only does the giver benefit from generosity, but the recipients benefit as well. This service that you perform, Paul says, supplies the needs of God’s people (v. 12). The text is literally “the service [diakonia] of this service [leitourgia].” Diakonia, commonly translated “ministry” (3:7-9; 4:1; 5:18; 6:3) or “service” (8:4; 9:1), can refer more specifically to “aid” or “support,” especially of the charitable variety (compare Acts 6:1; 11:29).

God is the third beneficiary of generous giving. This service, Paul states, is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God (vv. 11-12). The grammar of verse 12 is ambiguous. Pollon eucharistion could be “many people who give thanks”  or “many thanksgivings”.  Many expressions of thanks catches the sense. In any event, it is not the Corinthians who receive the recipients’ gratitude but God, which is as it should be.

God is also the recipient of praise (v. 13). Because of this service, Paul remarks, men will praise God. The subject of the Greek participle doxazontes is not immediately clear. Some  take it to be the Corinthians themselves: “you will glorify God by your obedience.” Some assume that the praise comes from the recipients (“those you help“). Others construe the referent more generally as “many” (men will praise God).

On the whole, the second option seems preferable. Since the participle does not stand in strict grammatical agreement with anything in the immediate context, the subject must be supplied from the logic of the argument. And unless Paul has completely lost track of the argument, the logical subject is eis autous (“to them,” v. 13)–that is, the recipients of the offering. Paul’s point is that the church at large recognizes the collection for what it is: God’s grace at work in the lives of the contributors. As in all areas of life, “the chief end” of humankind is “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever” (Westminster Catechism). So while the immediate aim of the collection is to relieve want, the ultimate goal is to bring honor to God–the enabler and provider of all that we possess.

Fourth and finally, the church as a whole benefits from generous giving. Here is the key to the urgency of Paul’s appeal. For the most part, the recipients were conservative Jewish Christians who still regarded the Gentiles with a certain amount of fear and suspicion. For them the collection proves the Gentiles’ profession of faith (v. 13). Dokimes (the noun behind the verb proved here) connotes a test in order to verify someone’s or something’s genuineness or worth. In this case the collection serves as the test by which the Gentiles’ faith is shown to be genuine.

Gratitude is not only the memory, but the homage of the heart rendered to God for his goodness. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! (v. 15). Most, however, identify God’s indescribable gift with Jesus Christ. We can give without loving, but we cannot love without giving. God so loved us that he gave the ultimate gift, whose cost can never be matched: the gift of his only Son.

That’s the way of generosity. God has been there before.

 

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Guidance: Principles of Spiritual Leadership 2

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“Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, “And I will make you fishers of men.” (Mk 1:17)

It’s a word of strategic intent. It’s a supremely useful declaration of guidance. “This is what I want you to do. I want you to assume the character of fishermen. Your role in your previous life has now become the template of the new.”

Isn’t that an interesting principle? Doesn’t it remind you of how the Lord operates? He takes the little packed lunch that you have ready and turns it into the means of a feast. He takes the normal and natural and creates supernatural opportunity.

The second principle of spiritual leadership is contained in that word “guidance.” God uncovers the potential of every opportunity, and then supplies the direction of how that opportunity is to be exploited.

The word “fisherman” is all you need to know. It speaks of patience, endurance and attention to detail.

The call is simple and clear, and the response immediate. It’s done with more than a little humour and a winsome grace, and in this way Jesus models his own message. This is how to do it –with simplicity, with clarity, and with words fitted to the specific occasion.

And it’s not open-ended or vague in any way. They are responding to a message to “Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens is at hand.” That means that something new is upon them and their reaction is urgently due. Imagine an announcement on the radio that the country was at war: “A state of national emergency now exists…” It’s something massive and significant and you must respond immediately. The news is like a bomb alert in a supermarket.

In this context, the word “Repent” doesn’t really mean “Think about all your past life and say sorry to God for your sins…” It rather means: “Get yourself ready to face this new situation.” Of course the two statements run together -readiness requires reflection-  but the contrast is important. It’s important because the new information requires a new response.

And so Jesus outlines the appropriate response: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

But are we being told the story of the first disciples, or are we being given the same call? Is the Kingdom still “at hand” or was that a first century bomb alert?  The question is raised again, in a sense,  in Acts 2:39,  and Peter answers that “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.”  It’s both an historical account and a prophetic summons.

And so we are called into the business of fishing.

Most of us react at that point, with self-deprecating remarks such as “Of course, I’m no Billy Graham. Evangelism isn’t my thing.”

I’d have to agree- as far as my own skillset and inclinations go- but it’s crucial to read the word as it is, and not how we would have it be. It’s crucial, too, to come to the word of God to receive orders rather than to negotiate terms, or look for loopholes!

I will make you fishers of men.The onus here is upon what Jesus proposes to do, rather than upon what the disciples are able to do.I will build my church,” and not you. “I will make you fishers of men,” and not you. This isn’t a job interview, but a subpoena. It’s a call into training: I will make you! We are fashioned in his presence. No one else can do it. Neither books, nor colleges nor friends.

But perhaps we can make an assumption that Jesus is drawing a parallel between their present occupation and their future task. With that in mind, I consulted the book pictured above, Izaak Walton’s classic Compleat Angler (1653). If we are to be fishermen, then what are the characteristics of that role? I thought that perhaps Walton would speak about patience or endurance. But no.

Two things struck me as of great interest in the “making” of a fisherman. The first is that he must keep well out of sight, “Let the trout see the angler and the angler will see no trout.” Is that true of us? How easily we become obtrusive! How easily we are tempted into self-aggressive prominence. Think of the way that “Testimony” can sometimes be less of a witness to Christ and more of a projection of one’s self.

A second characteristic was no less surprising. The writer was suggesting the requisite virtues of the fisherman: “He should not be unskilful in musick, that whensoever either melancholy, heaviness of his thoughts…stirreth up sadness in him…” Why? Why does the writer recommend cheerfulness? Because “when a man is melancholy, his throw will be heavy. When the angler is depressed, he cannot throw a light line…”

What an amazing insight. If I come to preach and I have a nagging, complaining,  and irritable spirit, then it’s pretty clear that I will do no good. We’re never to be light and frivolous, but positive, delicate, alert and full of joy in our subject. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out, “Jesus himself did not try to convert the two thieves on the cross; he waited until one of them turned to him.”

And -in closing- let’s conclude with a wise word on the subject from good old John Piper: “Have you ever wondered what it feels like to have a love for the lost? This is a term we use as part of our Christian jargon. Many believers search their hearts in condemnation, looking for the arrival of some feeling of benevolence that will propel them into bold evangelism. It will never happen. It is impossible to love “the lost”. You can’t feel deeply for an abstraction or a concept. You would find it impossible to love deeply an unfamiliar individual portrayed in a photograph, let alone a nation or a race or something as vague as “all lost people”.

Don’t wait for a feeling or love in order to share Christ with a stranger. You already love your heavenly Father, and you know that this stranger is created by Him, but separated from Him, so take those first steps in evangelism because you love God. It is not primarily out of compassion for humanity that we share our faith or pray for the lost; it is first of all, love for God.”

The verbal tool of exploring mystery together is not confrontation or preaching but dialogue. We subject ourselves to the same questions we pose to others, and as we traverse them together, we may arrive at surprising conclusions we could never have reached when simply trying to defeat one another’s logic. Our questions are open ended, granting the other person the freedom to respond or not to respond. The questions stick with us, even haunt us, long after we ask them, and we await insight together. That process is more important than an immediate decision.

And so, in God’s grace and time, we learn to fish.

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“You are.. you will be…” Principles of Spiritual Leadership 1

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t’s not a grammar exercise, it’s the Bible’s introduction to the life of Peter. There it is in John 1:42:

“And Andrew brought him to Jesus.

Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas’ (which, when translated, is Peter.”

You are one kind of person, but you will be another. Where you are at present is a shadow of where you will be. Your future destiny is not dependent upon your past history. You are Simon. You will be Cephas. It’s the Greek version of an Aramaic name.

Of course, within the context of John’s theology we realise that the future orbit of this Jewish villager’s life will be as an Urban Greek-speaking Roman. So we might understand this as a prophetic utterance that he is destined for a wider perspective. Just as the book of Acts traces the journey of the Gospel from its Jerusalem roots, at the centre of Judaism to a Roman destination (as the head of world political power), so the trajectory of Simon Peter’s life takes him in the same direction. His life will be mapped out by the Gospel of Christ.

But it is the meaning of the name that fleshes out the opportunity that Jesus offers Peter. For Cephas/ Peter means “rock.”  The text says that Jesus “looked at him.” That is to say, he considered him. He probed his character, and pondered over what he saw and then he made a pronouncement:  “You are a rock.”

It’s a statement not of present reality but of future hope. It sketches an opportunity. It offers a challenge. This is what you could be. Despite -as became painfully clear – a tendency towards impulsiveness, vacillation, even hypocrisy, Peter had it in him to be a model of stability, a quality of endurance, and an ability to stand fast in a crisis.

So here’s the question:

Are leaders born or made? Is this what Peter was or what he became?

Gunter Krallman, quoting Gen 1:27-28, suggests that though humans are created with the potential to lead, only a few make it. “Indeed, while potential leaders can be found, effective leaders must be formed.”

Formed, made, moulded, sculpted, crafted – the very verb is an indication of the Master’s hand at work, and of the availability and readiness of the disciple to be thus shaped.

Moses is an example of that “forming” process. As a young man, he jumped the gun in a violent grasping of the role of leadership  (Ex 2:11-15) and God sidelined him for forty years, until the time was ripe. Those whom God calls to leadership, he enables for the task. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you appreciate the “enabling” process!

The same process can be seen in David’s life. Here’s Psalm 78:

“He chose David his servant
    and took him from the sheepfolds;
71 from tending the sheep he brought him
    to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
    of Israel his inheritance.
72 And David shepherded them with integrity of heart;
    with skilful hands he led them.”

The sequence of verbs is instructive. “He chose.. .He took…He brought him to be…” It’s the same pattern that Peter encountered. “You are…you will be.” And then the lovely description of how a godly leader operates: “David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skilful hands he led them.”

Somehow this recalls the statement that Jesus made about the opposite condition, when the People of God have no real God-appointed leader:

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Mtt 9:35).

We live in a generation that experiences the severe shortage of competent spiritual leaders. We too are harassed and helpless,.

So how do we respond to this situation?  We might begin by considering the words of Asa Mahan (President of Oberlin College in the 19th cenutry): “Whenever we attempt to accomplish any specific work which God has assigned us, we must, if we would not have the work fail in its accomplishment, strictly conform to God’s revealed pattern and method of operation.”

So how did Jesus do it?

With Peter, he began with that statement of opportunity: “You are… you will be.”

How did Jesus select people?

I think it’s  important to note something quite simple and obvious here, that Jesus knew what he was doing. He had a plan and an agenda with which to fulfil the plan. There was a decisive journey to be undertaken which would end in his death, and through that, his disciples would be empowered to continue his mission “to the ends of the earth.” With that in mind, he picked his trainees with great care.

He chose twelve from his own cultural milieu. They were mostly working class Galileans. They were male, unpretentious, unsophisticated and tough. He chose them, after a long night of prayer, from those who were already following him as a teacher and leader.

We must choose with great care, not being blinded by outward appearance. We must not be in a hurry, and must not skimp on our prayerful attention to detail. We must not be satisfied with less than assurance in God.

What did Jesus expect?

The name-switch is not unique. Abram becomes Abraham. Jacob becomes Israel. There are many others. In all these instances, the event of being renamed established a memorial for significant change  in future purpose. God is readying you for expansion.

Did everyone qualify?

No, of course not. For God-fearing, faithful spiritual leadership, the  requirement is more than mere personal desire, natural aptitude or outward compliance. It is depth of character. It is a heart marked with love for God, and zeal for the righteousness of God.

And us? Are we in this picture? “The world has yet to see what God will do with and through and in and for the man who is completely dedicated to him.” Dwight Moody determined to be that man. It changed the world.

And it’s a lifelong learning curve. You never arrive.

But if you’re reading this, then I have a shrewd notion that God has called you and you are positioning yourself ready to take the plunge.

“You are…” but what shall you be?

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How does the Word work?

Hebrews 4:12

 

In Hebrews 4:12, the Word of God is described as “alive and active.” It’s an interesting pair of adjectives. If a book is tedious and uninteresting, or stodgily academic, we might plod through slowly and become easily distracted, but God’s book is not like that!  It is like no other book. It lives. And because it lives, it moves and stirs in us. It takes hold…

The connection that is made in Hebrews is with the “word” as prophecy,- speaking, creating, declaring the will and purposes of God- and Jesus. It’s how Hebrews begins: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”

God spoke “at many times and in various ways.” But now, supremely, “he has spoken to us by his son.”  This is how creation itself was purposed, and performed, and sustained. The Son sustains “all things by his powerful word.”

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Jesus is called the Word of God… the Speech of God. He is as near to God as a word is to the speaker. He declares God to us. He slices open the meaning of who God is, effortlessly dissecting with scalpel-precision between what is “soul” and what is “spirit.” Just as he did with Peter (in Mark 8), discerning the words of Peter that were spiritual (“You are the Christ…”) and those that were demonic (“Get behind me, satan…“)

The word of God lives, acts, penetrates, divides and judges.

The word of God generates responses, enacts transformation, creates conviction, forms catalyst for change. This is how Jesus operated. Jesus personifies that word. – Jesus uses the word as a weapon of attack, a backbone , a last line of defence (Think of the Temptations in the desert). He uses the Word of God as a life-source: a plug socket, a well of water. He uses the Word as an activation code, releasing power.

When we say “Amen” or “In the name of Jesus” we are beginning to tap into the same reality.

Technically, the whole of Scripture works like this. We confess and declare the words of Scripture.

How does the word work? It allows the physical to be a reality.

The word is powerful. Jeremiah called it a hammer. It may break or tear down. It brings life – or death.

One may steward it or limit it.

The word instructs and nurtures: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

It exposes, and reveals, and tears down.

The word heals. “He sent forth his word, and healed them.”

The word provides: “Ask and you will receive.”

The word guides: “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.” (Psalm 119:105). “How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word.” (Psalm 119:9)

Think of the word as the declaration of truth, and of the possibilities of receiving.   “I will say of the Lord…” Psalm 91.

Note the “If… then” promises of God. “If my people will…pray and seek. Then I will hear….

Consider the words of Jesus  – the stories and parables as guides to life and decision. Jesus as “the word made flesh.”  The words of Jesus challenge and transform. Jesus continually confronted and disturbed. He challenged the thinking of all that he encountered. He offered forgiveness, healing and expelled demons.

The word of God demands obedience. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” (James 1:22) And Jesus “replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” (Luke 11:28).

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24_

There is a durable, diamond-edge quality to the word of God: The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.” (Isaiah 40:8)  

As for God, his way is perfect:The Lord’s word is flawless;he shields all who take refuge in him.” (Psalm 18:30)

Jesus made the same point: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” (Matthew 24:35)  “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

The word of God is something (someone) to cherish and hold on to: “Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation. Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.” Hold on firmly!

Remember the word of Jesus in John 8: ‘To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

In God, whose word I praise—
in God I trust and am not afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?

For the Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.

Proverbs 2:6

Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.” (James 1:21)

The word is possible, and accessible because of the fact of the incarnation: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

 

*Notes from the Christ and Comedy class last night – about the power of speech and the theology of conversation. The discussion then moved on to : In what way do I speak/ act out the words of Christ?

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Do you want to stay sharp? (Heb 5:12)

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“In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” (Heb 5:12)

When I was still 18, I travelled back to my home city of Sheffield, in the UK, to spend Christmas at home. I’d just completed my first term at Bible college in Manchester, and the pastor of my home church -which had sponsored me- had asked me to preach. I pulled out all the stops and did my stuff. It felt great. Afterwards I had a little conversation with my pastor -Leslie Evans- which has stuck in my mind all these years. Mr Evans was a distinguished preacher and an effective evangelist, but it was his pastoral advice which I have cherished. He said that he noticed a change in me. Oh yes? More sophisticated? Intellectual?  The change- he said- was a “slight dulling of the edge of your passion.”

He knew he’d hurt my feelings, so he went on quickly, with a really helpful challenge. I trusted him enough to receive it and it changed everything. He asked: “Do you want to stay sharp? ”  “I do.” “Then read your Bible as if it is alive – because it is! And “sharper than a two-edged sword.” ”

It was a very perceptive challenge. I’d been studying like crazy, and embedding myself in the study of languages, Biblical criticism, contextual history and theological ideas. The consequence had been a “slight dulling.” The Bible had become a text-book for courses, and not a source-book for life.

He just reminded me that one time, but it was enough. Stay sharp. Let the word of God speak.

In Hebrews 5:12, the writer reminds his readers of this. You’ve forgotten the first principles, the rudimentary point, that this is God speaking.

It’s one reason why so many believers stop going forward, and why the Enemy finds it so easy to knock us off-balance. E.W.Kenyon called them “spiritual hitch-hikers, always depending on someone else’s prayer, someone else’s wisdom, someone else’s interpretation of the Word.”

Instead of developing that sharpness, we grow dull. Instead of stepping out into the fulness of life in the Spirit, we just dwindle to a halt. There’s very little growth or development. Why is that?

There may be many other reasons, but the one on my mind right now is the way you think about the Bible – your relationship with the word of God.

To those of us who sometimes come into that category, we “need someone to teach us the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.” Go back to basics. Go back to the first verses that you ever memorised. Keep it simple. Go back to the start of your walk of faith.

Because instead of living out the word of God, of acting it out, of taking your place in it, and making it the central truth of life and action, we’ve remained undeveloped, like babies. By this time we should be grown and strong, feasting for ourselves and providing for others.

Perhaps your mind has never been renewed by the Word. And it can’t be renewed until you begin to practice it.

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:24-27)

This is a powerful story, which is so familiar that we sometimes don’t hear it with the freshness and challenge that we should. Kerry Nelson said this:

“Your own strength, health, intelligence, youth, talents, loved ones, parents, and friends cannot be the foundation stone for life. They all can be easily carried away like the shifting sand and you can be left floundering for a footing. It’s also too big a job for anyone but God.

God wants to be the foundation and meaning of our lives.” God’s word is truth. Stand on it.

I was very impressed by the preacher who instructed his congregation to make this confession before every single sermon:

“This is my Bible.
I am what it says I am.
I can do what it says I can do.
Today, I will be taught the Word of God. I boldly confess:
My mind is alert, My heart is receptive.
I will never be the same.
I am about to receive
The incorruptible, indestructible, Ever-living seed of the Word of God.
I will never be the same .
Never, never, never.
I will never be the same.
In Jesus name. Amen.”

According to Heb 11:6, “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”

When we come to the Bible, we are earnestly seeking, by faith, to hear what God is saying to us. And we renew our minds by affirming that “I am what it says I am.
I can do what it says I can do.”

Think of that lovely worship song: “I’m no longer a slave to fear. I am a child of God.” The power of the song is in its determination to declare what the Bible says about us, and not what we might feel about ourselves.

I often reflect on the life and ministry of Brennan Manning. In Ragamuffin Gospel, his most popular book, he said this: “My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.” 

Such a powerful expression of grace. Such a wonderful way of allowing the word of God to renew your mind until you become what God says you are. Loved. Graced. Blessed.

And sharp.

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Defining Freedom with Love (Galatians 5:1-15)

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“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” 10 I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. 11 Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. 12 As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!

13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the fleshrather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

Freedom and the Spirit

In Galatians, freedom is both enabled and governed by the Holy Spirit. Through baptism, the Spirit gives Christians freedom in the sense of an empowerment for and a responsibility to live a life in the Spirit. Freedom does not mean that one may live and act in an arbitrary way. There is no alternative for Christians, as only in this way the cross and its significance for salvation remain valid. Anything else would mean a return to a life in the flesh and, therefore, a lifestyle without Christ. Hence, in Galatians, in terms of the opposition between the Spirit and the flesh, freedom is positioned clearly on the side of the Spirit. It is a freedom made possible by Christ and gained in order to follow the Spirit and to distance oneself from the flesh.

This governance has a directive purpose: it moves the self away from the “flesh “to an attitude and life in love. Freedom enables one to live and to act with an attitude of reciprocal service in love, in order to realise one’s common destiny with the crucified and resurrected Christ, initiated in baptism. The Spirit guarantees the necessary dynamic for this. In this sense, freedom is a precondition, in that one has the opportunity of choosing to enter in a relationship with Christ and God and with each other. Without this choice there would be no relationship; a relational reality exists only on the basis of freedom. Thanks to the gift of the Spirit by God, one is able to choose the right way of life built on, and saturated by love, instead of a lifestyle dominated by the flesh.

As far as the relation between the Spirit and love is concerned, the Spirit is the force guiding freedom in a relation of love. Love not only means brotherly love, but also refers to a basic attitude of love, based on one’s faith in Christ. Hence, love has its origin in the personal relationship with Christ. Christians learn to open themselves to each other and live their life in love as a basic relational category rooted in Christ.

Freedom and the “flesh”

The relation between freedom and flesh is to be understood in contrast to the above, in terms of the close relation between freedom and the Spirit. Freedom has a distinct position within the opposition between the Spirit and flesh, but on the side of the Spirit. This is not self-evident, as freedom implies that one may take an opposite position. This openness distinguishes freedom from power. Freedom implies that one could follow the flesh, and live an arbitrary life. (In Gal 5:13, there is an indication in this direction.) This is not the case in Galatians, as, in this letter, freedom, is viewed as being directed by the Spirit. Accordingly, there is a relation between freedom and flesh, in that freedom could theoretically choose the flesh, but it intentionally decides against the flesh. Thus the relation between freedom and flesh is strongly influenced by the opposition between flesh and the Spirit. This opposition colours the relation between the Spirit and the flesh. Flesh and Spirit build the two extreme opposites in the Pauline understanding. By means of the two catalogues in Gal 5:19-21 and in 5:22-24, Galatians offers concrete descriptions of both. These elements prove that the relation between the Spirit and flesh is dominated by insurmountable differences and that no compromise between the two can be found. One thus has to decide for the one or the other, and a combination is not possible.

As far as the relation between freedom and love is concerned, freedom is dependent on the Spirit for the enjoyment of love, since the Spirit serves as the point of reference, guiding freedom towards a life of love. The Spirit is thus the directing and dynamic entity behind the relation between freedom and love. Similar to the relation between freedom and flesh, freedom could theoretically also take the decision for a lifestyle without love. In Galatians, however, it is argued that freedom should be expressed under the guidance of the Spirit, who calls one to live a life in love.

Regarding the relation between love and flesh, it emerges from the discussion of the relation between freedom and love, between freedom and the Spirit, and between love and the Spirit, that love has no place in a life oriented to the flesh.

Love cannot grow in such an environment and under such an influence. Love depends on the power of the Spirit, and is incompatible with a flesh-oriented way of living.

 

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