Sunday, October 29, 2017

Waiting Time is not Wasting Time - Acts 1: 12-26

Before Jesus ascended into heaven, He told His disciples that the Holy Spirit would come. He would give them what they needed to survive and thrive. After He promised this, the Holy Spirit did not come for ten days--about 270 hours--until the morning on the Day of Pentecost.

For the disciples, those ten days must have felt like torture!

I’m not a patient person. I want things done now! Waiting feels like slow torture to me, so I identify with what it must have felt like waiting for the Spirit to come. Sitting and waiting seems like a waste of time.   

Waiting time is not wasting time. There’s something important about these ten days. God was doing something in the disciples. 

Naturally, they didn’t just wait--they had business to conduct! Judas was gone, so they needed a replacement. They narrowed the choice down to two people—Barsabas and Matthias. In the end they chose by casting lots and Matthias won. 

I’m sure they thought the choice of Matthias was huge, but it turned out to be pointless. Matthias, a relative nobody, did very little. But a few years later, God called Paul without all the organizational procedure. This was the only decision they made before the Holy Spirit came. When left to themselves without the Spirit, they made pointless decisions. When the Spirit comes, he makes the choices. His decisions are the ones that really matter.   

We get excited about surface issues because we are shallow, surface people. But what goes on beneath the surface of our lives is far more important than who gets to be a leader and what programs they start. It’s the Spirit that gives power and makes lasting changes. Worldly decisions are pale reflections of what the Spirit is doing within. It’s not what we decide, but what God decides that makes the difference.

There are many times in our life where God calls us to wait. When we find the one we love, we have to wait for sex until marriage. When we go to the doctor, we have to wait for lab results. When we buy a home, we have to wait for reports, credit checks, and closing. When we have surgery, we have to wait to heal. We plant seeds and we wait for the harvest. We pray prayers and wait for the answer, which almost always takes longer than we think. We think of the waiting as a waste of time. But is it? God uses the waiting times to prepare us for greater things.

So what was God doing in them during those ten days?

We aren’t told how many people were with Jesus when he ascended into heaven, but Paul may give us a hint. In 1 Cor. 15:6, Paul mentions that more than five hundred people saw Jesus resurrected at the same time. Most interpreters assume that this was at His ascension. Yet when Pentecost came ten days later, there were about 120 present. That means that eighty percent of those people—four out of five—did not wait around just ten days until Pentecost.

Eighty percent shows up a lot in studies of the church. In most churches, eighty percent do twenty percent of the work, and twenty percent do eighty percent of the work. Guelich and Hagberg in their book, The Critical Journey, assert that about eighty percent of Christians are content to stay on a surface level of faith, and it is only about fifteen or twenty percent who go beyond the basics. The story of Pentecost seems to bear this out. I believe that the majority of Christians don’t wait for God and therefore miss out on what He has for us. They don’t miss out on heaven—that is a free gift—but they miss out on the kingdom living here. They become content with ordinary life and do not seek for deeper growth in the faith, mainly because they do not know how to wait upon the Lord.

Let’s picture this scene—over five hundred people have met together after seeing Jesus ascend into heaven. Jesus has just promised them that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. All they have to do is wait in Jerusalem.

Some of them--the hyperactive ones—say, “We can’t just sit here! We’re supposed to be telling the world! Let’s go post some flyers around town!”

But how do you know where to post the flyers? How much energy are you willing to exert in flyer-posting? When He comes, He will bring all kinds of power, and He will lead you into all truth, including where the posters are supposed to go? Beside we don’t know when the Holy Spirit is coming. Don’t you want to be here when the Holy Spirit shows up?
But some can’t sit still, so they have to go.

Then there are the anxious ones. “We’ve got work to do! We’ve got laundry and ironing! What if the Holy Spirit shows up and we don’t have any clean underwear? Besides, our kids need to be fed. We’ve got to make sure they’re ready for school. We can’t stay here and just wait!”

But isn’t God in charge of our houses and kids?  Isn’t He big enough to take care of things at home while we are waiting for Him here? Besides, do you really want to be waiting in line at school and miss the Holy Spirit, when you could have been there?

Charles Hummel called this, “The tyranny of the urgent.” Little things of little important demand our time and attention, while big things of great importance go neglected. The Holy Spirit is coming, and He comes with little or no warning. We must be waiting and watching, instead of fretting about things that won’t matter in eternity.
But they can’t stop fretting about things, so they leave. 

Then there are the practical ones, “Look, we are just not the praying type. We’re practical. We only understand things of this world. If you want a house built or a ceiling fan put in, we can do that, but the Holy Spirit is for mystical types. We can’t see how sitting in a room doing nothing is going to bring power.

 Once He comes, we’re still going to have to get organized and do the job, so why are we waiting for some kind of spooky, mystical experience?”

Being a Christian means believing in an unseen world. Not everything that is real is practical. God works in an unseen way. Even after seeing miracles like the resurrection and ascension, our practical nature keeps wanting to reassert itself. We understand only what we can see and hear. But just because we can’t see the wind, doesn’t mean it’s not blowing. Just because we can’t see the power of the Spirit doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

But because they can’t see the point, they just go home.

Eighty percent went home. What about those who stayed? What did they do right

They waited in silence. Nothing we can do or say makes much difference. It’s just being there in God’s presence that makes the difference.

People worry too much about what to say to God. What we say doesn’t matter, just be there before Him. We don’t have to know what to ask for, or what we should expect. We just sit down, shut up, and be patient with God.

They waited in prayer. While waiting they thought about God. They probably sang and read Scriptures, too, so they could keep their minds focused on Him. Whenever they started worrying about their jobs or whether their front door was locked, or if their roast in the oven was burning, they kept turning their attention to the matter at hand by reading, singing, or listening.

The waited in submission. When you train a dog, the first command it learns is “sit”. The first thing we must learn as a disciple is to sit, too. Sit and wait for God to speak.

They got themselves ready to meet Him. If the Spirit came to you today, would you be ready to respond? Is there anything in your life that will hold you back?

 Practice anticipatory thinking. Suppose God called you today to leave your country and go to a foreign country, and you had no restrictions due to job, health, or family? What besides outer circumstances would make it hard for you to go?  Those are the things that we must surrender to Him before we can be ready to serve Him. When the Holy Spirit calls we must be ready to go. 

As we wait, we struggle to recognize the voices in our head that call us away from Him.  These voices are things like disobedience, lust, gluttony, impatience, jealousy, fear, discouragement, and pride. To ready ourselves, we must be willing to recognize these voices. 

It’ hard to wait, but well worth the effort. Those who could wait, merely wait, were the ones who experienced anew Pentecost of the heart and the soul. As Isaiah said,

“They that wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. They will mount up with wings like eagles. They will run and not be weary. They will walk and not faint.”

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

You Don’t Have to be a Superhero - Acts 1:1-8

Today we’re starting a new study on the book of Acts.

Why do we call it “Acts”? Sometimes it is called “the Acts of the Apostles”, but that name isn’t accurate. The first verse says, “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.” Acts is a sequel to Luke, where we read about what Jesus “began” doing. Acts is the continuation of what Jesus is doing through the Holy Spirit in the church. It is about Jesus, not us. 

Acts is an unfinished book. You and I are living in Acts chapter 29 even now. Jesus is still acting through the Holy Spirit. This understanding is critical to the way we live today. 

In order to see why, let’s look at these first few verses. Before Jesus left, He gave us the Great Commission. In Matthew 28:19, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Mark 16:15’s version is “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.”

He had only a handful of followers, and there were about 300 million people on earth. How were less than a hundred going to convert 300 million?  There’s no way a handful of fishermen were going to make a difference!

Still, they weren’t worried. They had Jesus right in front of them, freshly resurrected! All He needed to do was to show Himself in public anywhere He could be identified, and He would be crowned as king. Who’s going to argue with a man back from the dead? Then they could spread the word to coming to Jerusalem and see the new emperor! Even the Romans would join. They were only a mile away from the temple—a fifteen-minute walk. Jesus could be king in half an hour. The disciples only needed to go tell people to come to Jerusalem and see Jesus.  If he showed Himself in public, the world would be theirs.

But Jesus showed Himself only to His disciples for almost a month and a half. The disciples were getting impatient. They asked, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”  It’s high time Jesus showed Himself, so they could get on with world conquest! 

But Jesus said to wait. Something was going to happen. They were to be baptized by the Holy Spirit. When that happened, they would have power.

 They were puzzled. They knew about the Holy Spirit, but what was the “baptism of the Holy Spirit?” What’s this “power” He talked about?

Political scientists write about five kinds of power to rule others. 

First, there’s physical power— “brute force.”  Think of it as the “Incredible hulk” kind of power.

Second, there’s legal power—This is “Donald Trump” power. He can write an executive order and the military, government and everyone must obey.

Third, there’s persuasive power--This is “Hollywood” power. Whoever controls our minds sets the agenda.

Fourth there’s nurturing power—The power to do favors. It’s “Oprah Winfrey” power when she gives cars to her studio audience. If we do nice things for others, we can get them to do whatever we want.

Fifth, there’s collaborative power—The power of many people cooperating. It’s “the Avengers” power. A team is stronger than someone working alone.

What kind of “power” will the Holy Spirit bring? None of the above. The Holy Spirit brings a different kind of power altogether.

After Jesus says this, He suddenly rises up into the air and disappears, without anyone but the disciples seeing Him. Any hope of a worldly King Jesus is suddenly gone! This must have thrown them into utter dismay. What if before the Normandy Invasion in World War II, General Eisenhower disappeared?  What if just before Gettysburg, General Lee left the field? It’s something similar here. What would have been easy in Christ’s presence seems impossible in His absence. 

So they did what Jesus told them. They waited for whatever the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” was. That was the key to whatever God was planning. So what is this baptism of the Holy Spirit?

The power to fulfill this great commission is the Holy Spirit’s. It can’t be divided from the Holy Spirit.  We don’t control it--we only carry it. We don’t choose how to use it. It’s not our power, but God’s.

A lot of Christians look at the power of the Spirit like a superpower. They think God gives us power, which we use to either do miracles (as Charismatics think), persuade people to follow Jesus (as Evangelicals think), or to change social structures and reorder society (as social action Christians think). Our teaching on “spiritual gifts” is based on this. We have taken a few passages out of context and made a list of superpowers that God might give us. Then we confuse these power with natural abilities and we must be “gifted” people to be used by Jesus. But our emphasis is in the wrong place.

 We focus on this power as some gift we possess and control--quite apart from the Spirit. To use them makes heroes or superheroes out of us, when they are really are the uncontrolled and uncontrollable manifestations of the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit hasn’t come to make us Superman or Wonder Woman. We’re more like Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane. We call on Him and He rescues us. The miracles are not ours, but His.  We listen to Him constantly just as the disciples listened to Jesus. The Spirit leads through listening and trusting.  We don’t have to be strong, just open and obedient.
The “baptism of the Holy Spirit” is being washed and hidden in Him. We don’t control Him, we are hidden in Him. He does the working, thinking, and planning.

He said “you will be my witnesses.”  A “witness” isn’t a preacher.  Jesus could have said you will my preachers, but He didn’t.  The world wasn’t won by the preaching of the apostles, but the power of God’s Holy Spirit. 

This should have relieved the disciples from the burden of winning the world for Christ.  Once the Holy Spirit came, and they understood what Jesus was saying, I believe it did.

There are many today who hear the Great Commission and say, “I’m ready to go.  Let me at the world!” Those people are simple-minded and arrogant. Do you really think you—or even all of us together—can convert eight billion people?  Do you think you alone can cure cancer?  Do you think you can solve poverty or bring about world peace?  It’s beyond the efforts of every Christian on earth.

Jesus doesn’t say “evangelize.” He says “witness.”  Being a witness is simply to mean living a changed life in the world.  Is the Mona Lisa a witness to the genius of Da Vinci? Is Hamlet a witness to Shakespeare?  Of course! These are works of genius by the hand of masters.  We witness to Christ by being from being lives changed from human wreckage into vessels of divine glory.

Let’s face it—most of us can’t even manage our lives.  We try to live like Jesus and we fail, over and over. That’s why we need the grace of God.  We aren’t Superman. We aren’t even Jimmy Olsen. 

We are overwhelmed by responsibilities, and tired of trying to carry everyone’s burdens. We are tired of beating our heads against the wall, trying to do what we ought to do. We struggle with our inner lusts and addictions, with our helpless attempts to take care of the world. We struggle to keep our heads above water financially and emotionally. Then someone comes along and says, “While you are treading water, you should be trying to evangelize the world!”

But there is one who is coming who can both keep your head above water and be a witness to the world.  He is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit isn’t going to give you superpowers. He doesn’t need to. Instead, He is going to operate in and through you. All you have to do is to hold on to Him. Get to know Him. Let Him carry you.

Here’s what happens with so many new believers. They go to some meeting and hear the Gospel from a powerful, anointed preacher. They are persuaded by that preacher to accept Jesus. They come forward at the altar call, pray a prayer, and confess Jesus as savior. It’s an emotional catharsis, and are temporarily relieved.

In that moment, they declare that they are going to do great things for God—they are going to save the world for Jesus!  We put on our tights and our capes and become Superchristians.

But as time goes on, that emotional moment dissipates, and they are emotionally back to their old selves again. After the preacher is gone and our emotions are settled down, the burst of adrenaline from that divine encounter leaves.  Their insides go back to their original condition. Their life doesn’t permanently change, and the people around them notice.

 They are still talking about Jesus but their old selves are still there. People say their new religion “didn’t take’”
Why? Because they didn’t wait for the Holy Spirit. Or if they did, they took back control. They decided they could take on the world without Him and they failed. Wait for orders. It takes time to be transformed. If we are not transformed by the Spirit we can’t be witnesses for Him.

We live in a time when many are turning away from the Christ and the church. But that isn’t the worst part. What’s worse is that they are indifferent to Christ.  They have seen the people who are supposed to possess the Spirit and they see nothing. The world doesn’t see Jesus in us. We can’t control whether or not the world turns to Him or against Him, and that isn’t our concern. Our concern is that we be vessels of His Spirit. The world will not see Jesus, but we must in the Holy Spirit.  We must seek the baptism of the Holy Spirit for ourselves, to be transformed into the likeness of Christ. He will never be real to the world, but will be real to us.  Only then will the world react. 

Unless we are filled with the Spirit, we are like empty Coke bottles on a shelf.  We can have the logo of a terrific product on the outside, but have nothing of it on the inside. No one wants a Gospel that we represent, unless we possess it ourselves. 

Do you want to transform the world? Then stop right here and wait.  Seek the power of the Holy Spirit, and give Him complete control.  Then, if He chooses, he can use us to make a difference in the world.  

Sunday, October 15, 2017

To Love and to Be Loved - Matthew 25:31-42

My father died four years ago at 90. It was a long, slow road to heaven for him--especially the last few months. Mother, who was seven years his junior, never expected to live without him. When he died, she was out of her mind with grief. She wanted to die with him. It was a vital concern to us that we get all harmful medications out of their rooms, because she was a suicide risk.

But not everyone in the family agreed whether we should. At least one member questioned aloud if we should have done that. Was it fair to stop someone who wanted to die from dying, when there seemed no reason to live?

I do not question that we did the right thing by protecting her from herself. But what that family member thought wasn’t hard-hearted or irrational. I must admit it crossed my mind, too. I think it does for a lot of us when we suffer, or when we see those we love suffer and die. We put dogs to sleep—why not people?

Let’s not jump to any easy answers, because they aren’t any. We all have to face death and suffering in ourselves and others. If Jesus doesn’t come back in our lifetime, we will all get sick and die. Most of us won’t die until we go through a period of old age and illness. The World Health Organization reports that Americans on the average will enjoy 69.3 mostly healthy years. Even so, we will die on the average between the 78th and 80th year, which means that we will endure between 8 to 11 years of old age and illness. During this period, we become more and more dependent on others to help us.

 We have to depend on others in this time. The job of taking care of us won’t fall evenly on all our children, but there will be one or two who have that primary job.  

That period of dependency we sometimes call our “second childhood”, because it resembles our first childhood, except in reverse. It usually starts with a “rebellious teenager” phase, where we insist to our children that we don’t need any help, when we do. Once we finally accept our limitations, we settle down and start to enjoy what we can. If we last long enough, though, we become much like babies, complete with spoon feeding and diapers. This is a normal progression of life, just like the process of birth, childhood and maturity. Your grandparents endured it, and so did their parents and their grandparents.

Even so, we hate the thought of getting older, as well as the thought that we will be called upon to take care of our parents. That’s why so many people avoid thinking about it or planning for it. When it happens, we are unprepared emotionally, physically, socially, or financially. Even more, we aren’t prepared spiritually.

Unless we expect it, we treat it as if it’s a total surprise and woefully unfair. We wonder why God is allowing this—as if we are the only ones in history who have ever gone through it!  If we are the one getting old, we wonder why God leaves us alive, when there is nothing more we can contribute to life. If we If we are the caretakers, we may question why we keep someone in this world who does not want to stay. Medicine has gotten so good that we can sometimes keep a body going long after the mind or even the will to live has departed. 

Yet we know that something isn’t right about this. God’s Word forbids killing, even mercy killing.  We know the church is against it, but we seldom talk about what’s wrong with it. We know it’s wrong, but we don’t know why.

This isn’t just about old people. There are plenty of broken people in the world that need a lot of care. Addicts, crippled people, and the mentally ill drain the resources of society. The time and resources spent on the least of our brethren takes away from the productive and whole.

Why aren’t people like gardeners? When a gardener plants a field, he uproots the sick plants to keep the healthy ones growing. In nature, weak antelopes are left to predators, which helps the overall population. Why aren’t we like antelopes? When we want our trees to grow, we prune the parts that don’t bear fruit. Why isn’t society like those fruit growers?  

We don’t do that because it isn’t what God wants. People are not weeds, fruit trees, or antelopes! We are made in God’s image and are therefore to be treated differently. We care for the weak because they are in the image of God. To love them is to love God.

Let me tell you the meaning of life. The meaning of life is not to do—the meaning of life is to be.
We’ve been trained since early childhood to look upon living as something we do. The worth of a person is measured by what they do. It is one of the first questions we ask people when we meet--“What do you do for a living?”  What we are really asking is where do you fit in a productive society? When people die. The most common statements in eulogies are about what we did.  She was a good mother. He was a good provider. The quality we most admire in people is that they could put in a good day’s work. We judge people by effort and contribution.

It therefore comes as a shock therefore to realize that Jesus doesn’t give a fig for what a person contributes either in money or action. He doesn’t identify Himself with the productive, but with the unproductive. The weaker members of our fellowship are the ones with whom Jesus identifies.  The kingdom of God isn’t with the strong but with the weak. It’s the poor, the mourning, the hungry and thirsty, the persecuted and the downtrodden, that Jesus calls blessed, and to whom He offers the kingdom of God. If Jesus were on earth today in human form, He would not be just preaching in the churches and cathedrals, but in the nursing homes, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, orphanages, prisons—to people who will never make a positive contribution to the physical growth of society.

 Our potential for productivity means nothing to Jesus’ value of us. What we are matters to Him—not what we do.

It’s easy to forget those who can’t contribute. It’s easy to forget them--unless they are our mothers, children, or brothers and sisters. If those who can’t contribute are our own loved ones, we will bend heaven and earth to make sure they aren’t forgotten.

The greatest tragedy of the modern church is that it is obsessed with being useful. We measure churches the same way we measure individuals. If a church is growing, it is considered a successful church. If a church isn’t growing, it’s considered unsuccessful. But God’s values are very different.  God doesn’t care about how big we are, or how productive we are--only about Whose we are. Are we like Him? Do we love as He loves? Do we love who He loved? 

There is a needlepoint on our wall at home, that reveals the meaning of life to me—"To love and to be loved is the greatest thing on earth.”    

 It isn’t what we do but how we love that matters. 

“To love and to be loved” During our lifetime, we each must play two roles. One is to be a lover and the other is to be an object of love for someone else. We switch back and forth between these two roles constantly. We cannot be one and not be the other. We must not only give love but be willing to receive it.  Each serves the purpose of being the physical representative of Christ on earth. God is love, and when we love, we represent God (1 John 4:7-8) When we love, we should do it without conditions or equivocation.

But we can’t be love-givers all the time.  Sometimes, we must reverse roles and become love receivers. We must become needy so other people can learn to love. In the eyes of the lover, the receiver of love is more important than the one who gives it. God loves us, and made us needy so He can give love. Without anyone to receive, how could God be love?

I have a dog--Natasha. She contributes nothing to our household income, nor does she do any work. From a work standpoint, she’s useless. But if you have a dog, you know that’s nonsense! Our dog contributes much to our household, by simply being there to be loved. We don’t think of her as useless, because she makes us better people. Taking care of her makes us feel more human, gives us sanity, and gives us a chance to love a creature that God made. 

We cannot be lovers without someone who needs our love. We cannot be caregivers without care-receivers. You cannot learn to love until you find a group of people who need your care and affection.
Jesus identifies with the weak among us. By loving them, we love Him. This leads us to three vital conclusions:

1.  We need care receivers as well as caregivers.  People are never useless. By simply being here, you help others become more like Jesus.

2. We don’t waste time when we care for others. You aren’t being distracted from “more important” work—you’re doing the most important work of all—showing Christ to the world.

3.  We as a church must care for the least of our members. The only thing Jesus says is done directly for Him is giving to the least of us. To look after the sick and shut-ins may seem like a burden at times, but it is the one thing that Jesus says is done directly for Him. 

Christian fellowship is a call to love all believers, but especially those who need it the most. We stand with those who do not have so we can hold them up.

We want you to contribute generously to the church in your time and money. But if you can’t contribute a dime, you are just as welcome as if you can. You are contributing by merely letting us love you. When you cannot give, you are offered the honored chair of being the living representative of Christ before us.  

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Snapshots on the Wall

Acts 2: 42-47 and Acts 3: 34-37 

On our kitchen wall there’s an old sign from my Granddad's store--“Fleming’s Grocery”. Underneath are pictures of my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Sometimes I look at those pictures and see my features and those of my children staring back at me. Those snapshots remind me of where we came from. Knowing the past helps us cope with the present.

The book of Acts contains similar reminders of where the church came from. It gives us pictures of church life from the the first generation of Christians.  If we want to know what Jesus intended the church to be like, then we can read its early chapters and get a good idea.

Today we have many models of church life. The megachurches present a corporate model. Their pastors are like company presidents who never meet the ordinary people in the seats. Mini-churches our house churches have small group models, where people sit in living rooms discussing the Bible. In these groups, everyone looks the same and thinks the same. Then there are the old-fashioned neighborhood churches where people go there to make to make friends and connections.

 They often resemble civic clubs or retirement villages. There’s the “activist” model, which sees the church as an instrument for world change, not inner growth. They can be evangelistic or focused on social change. Then there’s “school” model, where the church is a place to learn about God, but not living God’s Word. 

Most churches are a mixture of these models.  But if we stand them next to these snapshots of the church in Acts, they don’t resemble it much. The church in Acts isn’t like any of these modern churches.

What are the characteristics of the church, according to the Bible? Let’s look at two of these snapshots and find out. 
The first was taken just after Pentecost in Act 2: 42-47. Pentecost was the “big bang” of the church--a moment of wild creation when the Holy Spirit came down. Three thousand were converted in a single day. Then, things settled down and looked like this:  
 And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

I want you to notice three characteristics from this early church in this picture. 

I. They wanted to learn as much as they could about Jesus. They did this by listening to the apostles. They wanted firsthand information about Jesus. 

Does the church today want to know Jesus?  Not much. “Knowing Jesus” and “getting saved” are not the same thing. Getting saved is finding assurance of eternal life, but knowing Jesus goes on for a lifetime. These people weren’t satisfied with a minimal knowledge of Jesus--they wanted details. They were all passionately interested in looking, acting, thinking and behaving like Jesus.

2. They wanted to be together. Luke says they devoted themselves to “the breaking of bread” This may refer to the Lord’s Supper, or it may mean they liked to eat together. Either way, it signifies a physical sharing. They looked for ways to share lives in community.

They were passionate about prayer. What do you pray about? It doesn’t matter. Prayer is spending time with God. It doesn’t have to be about anything. 

Not only were they passionate about God—God was equally passionate about them! Here is how we know this.
“Awe came upon every soul” They lived together in a continual sense of “Oh, wow!” 

“Many wonders and signs were being done. Miracles were happening in the shadow of the Spirit. People were saved, healed, and delivered of evil spirits, not just a once in a while occurrence, but continually through God’s miraculous power. These were not the biggest miracles, though. That came afterwards.

All who believed were together and had all things in common.” Which is greater—to heal a leper or to heal a whole community of material anxiety so they willingly give up all they own without complaint or regret?  When we love somebody, we aren’t thinking about our property. When we are obsessed with protecting our wealth, we have not sufficiently learned to trust.

“The Lord added to their number day by day.” Flowing from all of this is growth. It was a natural outgrowth of what God did. They had no strategy for evangelism, but to be filled with the Spirit. 

Jesus told us to be fishers of men, but we aren’t catching any. Maybe that’s because we are using old, stale bait. We show the world an insincere love that quits when it gets too hard, shallow spirituality that doesn’t change our lives, a superficial acquaintance to God which doesn’t include His personal presence, and an artificial grace that declares God’s love, but only if we straighten up. Then we wonder why people aren’t biting! 

The first church was alive with the Spirit, so people were drawn to it. People who hungered for a God encounter were drawn into the fellowship of believers.

Our second snapshot of the early church is in Acts 4:  32-34, following the arrest of the apostles. When they returned from questioning by the authorities, it was to a church like this:
 “The full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
1.  The church had one heart and soul. They had been knitted into one body. It took time to grow together, but when it happened, they were truly a family. The love that began at Pentecost had not diminished, but had matured into unity.
Unity is the chief visible sign of the presence of the Spirit in a church—not miracles, finances, emotion, or growth, but oneness. They grew and gave because they were of one heart. Love for God and each other held them together, not the leadership or a mission.   

2.  Jesus was the head. The apostles are not called leaders in the church. They were teachers of Christ. It is surprising how unimportant leadership is in the New Testament. Though there are two or three passages that describe how leaders are supposed to act, the actual words leader or leadership are rare in the Church. Christ is the leader, we are just servants. 

Most church divisions center around who gets to be the leader of the church. Catholics split from the Orthodox over which bishop was the most important. Protestants split from the Catholics over the leadership of Rome. The earliest denominations took their names from who governed them.  Lutherans, Calvinists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Episcopalians are all names meaning who was their leaders. The early church had just one leader---Jesus Christ. Jesus was not their dead leader. He is alive, through the teachings of the Apostles and the living presence of the Spirit. When the church submitted to the leadership of the Spirit, they summited to Christ, the church submits to Christ. Instead of trusting God, we are always trying to lay down strategies for the future. Strategic thinking is reserved for the leader and our leader is Jesus.

3.  They treated each other with grace. Our church leaders love to talk about the “doctrines of grace.” Grace is not a doctrine, it is unconditional acceptance and love. We preach grace as a quality God has, but we don’t have. We know Christ died for our sins, so whoever believes in Him can have eternal life. But if we get offended by someone we hold it against them forever. 

Grace isn’t something we believe, it’s something we do. If we hold ourselves aloof from others or do not forgive those who have offended us, then we don’t know grace. If you know what Grace is, but don’t have it, it will do you no more good than knowing that smoking, drinking, or overeating are bad for you, even when you are still doing it. You must put grace to work in your life to have it do you any good. Doctrinal knowledge cannot do you any good if you don’t have a personal relationship with God. 

So, what do we learn from these two snapshots about what made the early church great? Four things

1. They stayed connected to Jesus. Nothing interfered with their worship time in church. We must put prayer to God and worship of God in a class by itself.

2. They stayed connected to each other. There was no agenda other than love. Never should business come in the way of grace. We can’t just fellowship with the back of people’s heads. Every member should be involved with at least a few other members in small groups, where they can love and support each other. It is my goal to see no member forgotten.

3. Jesus was the real leader. God, though the Holy Spirit, leads the church. He is the strategic thinker for the church in every sense of the word. It’s our job to follow Him.

4. God responded with Spiritual blessings. They didn’t work as hard as we do today, for one simple reason. God was working with and through them. It wasn’t theoretical, but real.    

When we look at these pictures of the early church, do we see our own image? Or do we see how far we have strayed from our models?  God help us to get back to their submission and dependence on the Holy Spirit, to seek His help and support in all we do. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Listening for the Voice of God - 1 Kings 19: 9--11

 The purpose of Christian friendship isn’t just to keep us company, but to point us to Christ. If our Christian friendships are like our other friendships, then we are not experiencing all that Christian friendships can be. In times of trouble, we want to help, but are limited in the help we can offer. But if we can point our friends towards Jesus, there’s no limit to the amount of help they can receive.

A friend walks with you. A soul friend walks with you to Jesus. That’s what spiritual friends are--just walking to the Cross with a friend who cares. 

We can’t help a person find Jesus just by preaching to them. We must walk with them. Usually it’s not what we say, but what we don’t say. Just walk with them to the Cross where we meet Jesus together. Together, we hear the voice of God. 
Have you heard from God lately? How can we know if we’ve heard God?  There’s no better teacher of the art of listening to God than Elijah the prophet.

Elijah was everything we want a prophet to be. He dressed like a prophet. He wore a sheepskin cloak. He wore sandals or was barefoot--like a prophet out of a Hollywood movie. 

He was full of the Word of God and the power of God. His prayers caused a three-year drought. He raised a boy from the dead. On Mt. Carmel he defeated over eight hundred prophets of Baal in a duel before the whole country by calling down fire from heaven. If any man heard God, it was Elijah.

 Elijah was the perfect prophet—or so everyone thought. But he had “trust issues.” After his stunning victory on Mt. Carmel, Queen Jezebel sent out assassins to hunt him down and kill him. Despite having stood down the king with all his wizards and shamans, he ran in terror from the evil queen. In 1 Kings 19:4 we read: “He himself went a day's journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.’”

He became depressed and he wanted to die. A short time before he brought down fire from heaven--now he couldn’t believe that God could help him escape one angry queen. One day he was full of faith, and the next, he cowered in fear. 
Most of us have an inconsistent faith. We sing about God taking away our burdens. We crow about having a personal relationship with God. Then we act as if God isn’t there when we are anxious.

 It would be nice if someone could walk with us to the Cross. Instead, our friends just preach at us to “hang in there.” When we are afraid, being told to believe is like being shot and having someone tell you to stop bleeding!

Psychologists have a field day with Elijah. Some have written based on this passage that he showed symptoms of bipolar depression—with his huge blasts of manic energy, followed by a deep depression. Maybe so, but when we get exhausted, it’s easy for us to get depressed. When we are depressed, we no longer feel the presence of God.  Our deepest fears take over. But God spoke to Elijah and encouraged him. 

God doesn’t take the sources of our anxieties away, but He gives us courage and strength to face them. Most of all, he assures us that He loves us.

When we are depressed, it isn’t what God says that chiefly matters. It’s knowing God is with us. Imagine being in stuck in a mine that has collapsed. You are alone in the bowels of the earth. You want to hear a human voice from the outside world. If you hear anything, you know rescue is on the way. You don’t care how they reach you—you just want to know they hear you and are on their way. When cut off from God, we listen for His voice from the other side to assure us that He’s there.

One message got through to Elijah---go to Mt. Sinai, and God would speak to Him there. So Elijah went there, hid in a cave, and waited for God to speak.

When we are listening for God’s voice, whether we are doing it alone or on behalf of someone else, we expect it will come the way we heard Him in the past. If we are Bible readers, we read the Bible, expecting to hear God there. If we are churchgoers, we go to church and think the preacher will give us a message from God. If we are nature lovers, we walk in the woods and listen with God among the trees.  But God doesn’t speak the same way all the time.  God wants us to be attentive to Him. He speaks to us in a thousand different ways, not just one.

Elijah heard God’s voice just by opening his mouth. God spoke through the wind in His own lungs. He spoke in the fire on Mt. Carmel when He destroyed the prophets of Baal. He had heard God in the shaking of Ahab’s kingdom. Now, God was not in the fire, the wind, the thunder or the earthquakes.  He did not hear God in them, as he had done before.
 When we are depressed or far from God, we don’t see him in the usual ways. He doesn’t appear to us in worship, or in Bible study. Our prayers feel like they just hit the ceiling and bounce off. But then, in an unexpected way, God speak to us and we hear Him.

Don’t misinterpret this passage to say that God always speaks in a still, small voice. There is no reason to assume that God will speak through any particular way. God’s voice is coming to us from every direction. It’s only our inner blindness that keeps us from hearing Him everywhere. 

Martin Luther heard God’s voice first in a thunderstorm, when a lightning bold hit a nearby tree. Soldiers have heard Him in shipwrecks and foxholes. God’s way of speaking is not always quiet. But what Elijah needed right then was a still, small voice speaking in quietness and solitude.

Let’s imagine that you were Elijah’s friend, and you were sitting with him in that cave. Elijah needs to hear from God, but how can you help him hear.  Our first instinct would be to try cheering him up, or lecturing him about the voice of God. We might try reasoning with him about all the great things God had done in the past. No doubt our efforts would have resulted in just making more wind. But God’s voice was not in the wind. 

Then we try a little fire. We say, “What’s wrong with you?  Come on, let me light a fire under you.”
It doesn’t work. 

Then we try a little thunder. We think if we keep saying the same thing louder, they will eventually hear us.
It doesn’t work. Elijah wasn’t deaf—only depressed.

Spiritual depression is a kind of deafness, but speaking loudly doesn’t stop it. It is not a lack of hearing, but a lack of recognizing what we hear is a spiritual voice. We go through depression or commit a sin that robs us of spiritual joy, and we cry out like Jesus on the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But God is still speaking to us. We just went temporarily deaf. 

Many of you who read these words can think of friends or loved ones near you who are lonely, depressed, in sin, or estranged from God. Maybe you want them to hear from God and be encouraged. But how? We must listen to God ourselves. We must be willing to sit with them in silence, listening along with them for God to reveal Himself. We must allow the Lord to speak in His own unique way to the soul of another. 

Most Christian churches are uncomfortable with silence. We like a lot of wind in our services. We don’t like quiet in our worship services, so we fill every minute with music or talking. When we evangelize, we keep or mouths moving. When we teach, we are talking, too. In most of our churches, everything is built around the sermon, which is twenty to thirty minutes of nonstop talking. The pulpit is central, and usually lifted high. We think of prayer as talking aloud and if we are shy about talking aloud, then we think we can’t pray. Our church standards require the preaching of the Word at every service—not just reading it, but preaching it. A Presbyterian minister robe is a scholar’s robe. It looks just like a graduation robe, because we are supposed to be filled with words and able to talk. We think that hearing a preacher’s voice is the same as hearing God’s voice, as if our voices and God’s voices are the same. They are not. I speak to the ear, God speaks to the heart. 

We carry that same idea into the realm of soul friendships. We think we have to be teaching and telling people things. Our job is to talk them out of whatever they believe to be true. If we aren’t making a lot of wind, God can’t speak.

My Pentecostal friends seem to be looking for an earthquake every Sunday. They refer to a good service by saying, “God really shook the house!” But God isn’t in the wind, or in the earthquake. Wind and earthquakes can both reveal Jesus, but He isn’t either of them. Jesus is bigger than the results we see.

In our relationships with the people we love, we think that we must move them, not God. If we haven’t talked them into seeing our view, or if we haven’t shaken them out of their bad mood, then we feel we have failed. We can’t be the voice of God to another. In our zeal to make them hear God’s words, we just put up barriers to them hearing it. We push too hard, and they cannot hear God.

We hear God when we listen. Fire, thunder and earthquakes wear us out in the end. We can’t always have earthquakes. It’s in stillness, when we listen, that we hear the voice of God.

There is a difference between solitude, silence, and stillness. Solitude and silence are things we create in our environment by withdrawing from people and turning off the noise. Stillness is something that exists in our souls. If we are alone in a quiet room with minds that are anxious and full of thoughts, then we are still drowning out the voice of God. Stillness is something else. It is sitting alert and attentive, like a deer listening in the words, The psalms put it this way in Ps. 123: 2, “As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maidservant, to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God,”

The next time you are tempted to give someone advice, or fuss at them about their behavior, or preach at them, don’t do it. Just listen and pray. Don’t fall victim to the urgency of those who believe that God is not capable of speaking for himself.  Instead, trust Jesus to speak to their heart. He may use you, and give you the right words to say, or he may not. Either way, He will speak. It may be that the best way to help someone hear God is to say nothing, and listen in prayerful silence.