Reaching Our Cities for Christ

Christopher Wright said it well, “We argue about what can legitimately be included in the mission God expects from the church, when we should ask what kind of church God expects for his mission in all its comprehensive fullness.” (Wright, 534) Alongside this line of thinking, another way to look at this is “I may wonder what kind of mission God has for me, when I should ask what kind of me God wants for his mission.” (Wright, 534) To find any “success” in ministry, that thought is very important. To be effective, we have to allow the Holy Spirit to shape, mold, and transform us into the instruments and vessels he wants us to be. Otherwise, we are doing ministry for our sake instead of for the sake of the Kingdom of God. When looking at cross-cultural urban ministry, Wright’s questions help us put into, better, context what the Apostle Paul writes, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22 NIV)

So what does this look like? Is there a way to be effective in the way Paul was? Yes. Whenever Paul went to a new area, he made sure he went to the city centers. “[Paul] concentrates on the district or provincial capitals, each of which stands for a whole region…These ‘metropolises’ are the main centers as far as communication, culture, commerce, politics, and religion are concerned…Paul thinks regionally, not ethnically; he chooses cities that have a representative character.” (Bosch, loc. 3259-3274) Why did he do this? Because this is where Paul knew the most effective way to communicate to the regions was located. When he did this, he was able to “shift” his speeches and explanations of Christ to show the people he understood them and was willing to do life with them and guide them to come to faith in Jesus Christ. Paul knew how to be the kind of person the people needed, without giving up on who God created him to be. All of this helped to equip the people to carry on the ministry after Paul left and continued on his missionary trek. 

At the same time, Paul knew he was not doing his own work but, rather, the work of Jesus Christ in the world, empowered by the Holy Spirit. He practiced incarnational ministry and did it well. “The significance of incarnational ministry is that ministry belongs to God and His work, first and foremost.” (Buckman, 181-82) This is one of the reasons Paul was successful, he knew he was doing the work begun and continued by the Holy Spirit. He was confident in his calling and did not waiver in the message he proclaimed. So it should be with us. Do we know and have the confidence Christ has called us and given us purpose in this life? It is because of this confidence that we can handle what we go through. “The pastor…who enters a new culture, no matter how hard he or she tries to identify with the people, must expect to suffer, both out of longing for what is left behind and because of resistance to what the people are being called to accept or become.” (Wingeier, 38)

One of the interesting things about cross-cultural ministry is the opportunity to learn more about another culture. “Since most multicultural communities in the United States consist of the dominant (powerful) culture plus at least one other less-powerful culture, justice issues need to be paramount in any cross-cultural ministry, not relief, not charity, but what the New Testament calls righteousness.” (McConnell, 592) This means that opportunities are available if we take the time to learn about different cultures and how people live. “Henri Nouwen teaches us that a powerful ministry occurs with people of a powerless culture when we demonstrate a capacity to learn from them and a willingness to show our gratitude for the gift they thus offer.”( McConnell, 593) The gratitude we experience comes from the knowledge of the blessings God has bestowed upon us. As the cliché goes, “we are blessed to be a blessing.” “’Be a blessing’ thus entails a purpose and goal that stretches into the future. It is, in short, missional.” (Wright, 211) This brings us to contextualization.

Contextualizing the Gospel message to any culture is important. “Contextualization begins in those areas where the biblical context overlaps with the contemporary cultural context. One often talks about certain parts of culture in abstract terms like ‘collectivism,’ ‘honor/shame,’ ‘patronage,’ or cyclical vs. linear views of time. After all, no one today existed in the time Scripture was written. That distance creates an unavoidable degree of abstraction. The critical point at this stage becomes finding how we move from abstract categories to their concrete modern expressions.” (Wu, loc. 1686) There are ways of communicating, here in the United States, that would not fly overseas, like and area such as Saudi Arabia. What is the goal of the missionary? “We desire for people to see all that is good in the gospel. However, this takes time. Thus, we must take steps so that people can see, as much as is possible, what is good in this news. By drawing from the entire Bible, not simply our favorite texts, we gain a balanced perspective on salvation. By not developing a ‘canon within a canon,’ one identifies the major themes or motifs that God uses to explain salvation.” (Wu, loc. 1530) When we do this we communicate the full scope of the Gospel. Jackson Wu says it well, “In a word, the gospel is the message by which sinners are saved. Naturally, evangelism in its fullest sense requires we talk about sin in some form or fashion. This story is not complete without making clear God’s reaction to sin.” (Wu, loc. 1514) He also reminds us “judgment has a positive side. In judging his enemies, God brings salvation to his people and righteousness to the earth.” (Wu, loc. 1522) What about the cities?

Cities, urban areas, are very important. As we have seen, the Apostle Paul utilized the cities to spread the Christian message of Jesus Christ to the outlying areas. He was strategic in where he went and who he spoke to. We should do the same and realize how quickly the landscape is changing within the cities. “The rapid growth of urban populations is well known and has been well documented. In 1800, for example, less than three percent of the world’s population lived in towns of more than 5,000 people. By the year 2000, half of the world’s population lived in cities of more than 100,000 people. As cities have grown, they have become more diverse with respect to culture and class, as well as professional and residential differences, and almost endlessly multifaceted.” (Buckman, 183) Allan Buckman goes on to say, “Moreover, the City has enjoyed a reputation for being welcoming and hospitable toward immigrants and refugees…In other words, the considerable flow of New Americans into the City will almost certainly continue into the foreseeable future.” (Buckman, 183) What does this have to do with contextualization? For starters, this means there is a diverse group of people all in one place. 

Different groups (cultures) may live in certain pockets within the city limits, but they are still gathered and lives intersect with others. As Jesus says, “the harvest is plentiful…” (Matthew 9:37 NIV) so there is an incredible opportunity to reach different people. “In the city can be found pockets of small village-like communities where people live as much as they did before they migrated to the city. Within that community they shop at family-owned stores where personal ties are important. They discussed choices with their neighbors. Outside the neighborhood, however, they learn to make decisions as city folk do, and this begins to change their community.“ (Hiebert, 179) This makes strategic movements within the city very important. We cannot just go in and start something new, we have to take time and follow any “chain of command” there is, whether it is stated or not. “When attempting to develop a ministry or program among members of these communities, one must always receive some kind of approval of one or more of the community leaders. If a ministry is to be developed in a manner meaningful to the ethnic community you are trying to reach, it is obligatory.” (Buckman, 186)

One of the challenges with cities we should be aware of is migration. People come from all over the area just to live in the city, but refugees also come from other countries to live in the cities. As ministers/missionaries we have opportunities to reach these people as well. “According to the United Nations Population Fund, there are 214 million displaced people in the world, which is 3% of the total population.” (Wingeier-Rayo, 19) How we live our life affects this group of people also. We may even have to step out of our comfort zone to aid and support and minister to any person that is displaced. “Jesus has crossed geographic, linguistic, cultural, ethnic, gender, religious, and socio-economic borders.” (Wingeier-Rayo, 30) To illustrate this point further, Philip Wingeier-Rayo goes on to say, “[Jesus] left his comfort zone in Galilee…He identifies with the people of his region and shows solidarity with them…” (Wingeier-Rayo, 31) Ready to leave the comfort zone? To do this, we need to make sure we are sensitive to the culture and background of the people. Urban areas provide opportunities to come in contact with a diverse group of people. “This increased cultural and ethnic diversity demands that we attend to and respect the gifts of the various groups now represented in our society, church, and institutions. It also requires us to develop intercultural sensitivity and skill. Most importantly, it asks us to reexamine our understanding of ministry, which can be seen as a way of bridging different ‘cultures.’” (Wingeier, 35) How we communicate the Gospel matters.

Dr. Hiebert writes, “Communication of the gospel across the chasms of cultural differences rests upon the quality of interpersonal relationships between human beings—between missionaries and the people they serve.” (Hiebert, 147) As we communicate, we have to know how to speak to the people. This is where it is important to live a life free of reproach so the message we proclaim is heard from words and actions. “[T]he mission in the church, according to Peter, includes both vertical proclamation and ethical living, and the impact of his tight argument is that both are utterly essential.” (Wright, 390) The context in which people live is important. Context really is king, especially when proclaiming the gospel. “We face a very practical question. When it comes to preaching the gospel, which context is king? The ancient biblical world? Literary context? The interpreter’s culture (or subculture)? How about the cultural context of our listeners? If we are honest, finding an answer is far more difficult and sobering than one might expect.” (Wu, loc. 266) Taking time to understand the meaning of the scriptures and how to communicate them, in any setting is essential. This creates a unique challenge within urban settings. You have to know who you are talking with, and at least some of their background, to be able to understand how to communicate with them the core of the Gospel: Jesus Christ is King. Proclaiming this fact can be done in any setting. “Contextualization, if done well, keeps in perspective for us the fact that Jesus is King of every context.” (Wu, loc. 671)

Before continuing, we have to realize we may not be called, by God to try and reach “everyone.” But we are called to go to different people. It is these people, and this culture, we can immerse ourselves in and learn how God is speaking to them today. This will help us to be flexible in the manner in which we proclaim the Gospel yet remain firm in the core message. “Christians need a contextualization method that has both flexibility and firmness…The gospel does not change. On the other hand, biblical writers clearly present the gospel in contrasting ways. Even within the Bible, there is no single prescribed way of preaching the gospel. In addition, the world’s cultures are diverse and ever changing.” (Wu, loc, 1363) For example, a person in China is more likely to respond to communication about honor and shame versus guilt and punishment. “A person in America may not use words like gaining or losing ‘face,’ but they might talk about ‘people pleasing’ or ‘trying to look good in front of others.’” (Wu, loc. 1391)

Now no matter what context we serve, there will always be the truth God “desires all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4) In urban areas, there are multiple places and venues and ways to find “a truth” that fits the individuals, even what will fulfill the desires each person faces. This raises the reality of other “false gospels” that people will buy into to be justified in the lifestyle they have chosen. “A culture’s false gospels also answer the four questions mentioned above. Thus, we first could ask, ‘Functionally, who is the savior-king in the culture?’ Personally, one asks, ‘Functionally, who is the savior-king figure in my life?’ Second, ‘What has this savior-king done in the past?’ Again, the answer to this second question clarifies both what kind of a person the “savior” is as well as his significance. Therefore, it matters that one knows about this savior-king’s character and power.” (Wu, loc. 2944) In Acts 2, Peter was speaking to a large crowd. They were in the city of Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost. It is possible some people were searching for a relationship with Jesus Christ. Then, when Peter got up to speak, they found what they’ve been looking for, in the mighty works of God through Jesus Christ Peter spoke about. The same is true today. To help people see why God is vital and is enough, we speak about what he has done. We do not have to be fancy with the language we use, we just speak about God. “When talking about God, we need to highlight his works in history in order to explain what God is like. We do not merely want to say he is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. This is how systematic theology describes God. Rather, we seek to emphasize how God demonstrates his character and attributes.” (Wu, loc. 1245) This is a great undertaking but well worth it. The works of God include the person of Jesus Christ and his atonement for the sin of the world, as well as the personal sin of the individual.

When we present the Gospel, especially to people who can find their pleasures fulfilled on a whim and find purpose in their jobs and people they hang around, there are going to be some questions that will need to be answered when giving a Gospel presentation. “The biblical gospel answers four key questions. I’ll review them briefly. There is a clear logic to the order of the questions. (1) ‘Who is Jesus Christ?’…(2) ‘What has Christ done?’ This question aims to show what kind of a person he is. (3) ‘Why does Christ matter?’ In other words, why is Jesus significant to us? This point largely deals with salvation. Traditionally, evangelicals have laid the greatest stress on this aspect of the gospel message. (4) ‘How should we respond?’” (Wu, loc. 2925)

Now, the challenge will be avoiding syncretism, especially when a concept sounds close to one the person has known before. In the urban areas, even cross-cultural settings, it is possible to keep certain traditions, customs, and way of life and still think they are living as a Christian. One of the ways to combat this is to fully immerse ourselves in the setting. Many call this “incarnational” ministry. The point is to become involved enough in the culture and community to gain the respect of the people. Relationships matter. “If the success of missions depends largely upon the quality of the relationships between missionaries and the people to whom they go, the parent/child relationship model is not biblical. The biblical model is that of incarnation. To bridge the cultural gap between heaven and sinful earth, God became human and dwelt among us, eating our food, speaking our language, and suffering our sorrows, yet without giving up his divine nature. Incarnation is identification, but it does not deny who we originally are. It is, in fact, a bicultural or by personal state. Just as God became one with us in order to save us, we must become one with the people to whom we go in order to bring them to message of salvation.” (Hiebert, 158) Only when living life, on some level, with the people will trust begins to develop and the mission and proclamation of Jesus Christ will be heard and lived out by the people we serve.

This is truly only possible with the presence and person of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who guides as he did for the Apostle Paul by sending him to Macedonia (Acts 16:9). Following the leading and guidance of the Spirit prevents us from proclaiming our own culture and ideas. The Spirit helps us proclaim the full gospel. This is what is important in urban centers and any kind of cross-cultural ministry.

Bibliography

Beale, G. K. (2014). God Dwells Among Us : Expanding Eden to the Ends of the Earth: Vol. North American Edition. IVP Books.

Bosch, D. J. (2011). Transforming mission : paradigm shifts in theology of mission (20th anniversary ed. / with a new concluding chapter by Darrel Guder and Martin Reppenhagen.). Orbis. Kindle Edition

Buckman, A. R. (2012). Contextualization in an urban setting. Missio Apostolica20(2), 181–189.

Martin, M. (2011). Cross-cultural perspectives on the call to ministry. Vision (Winnipeg, Man.)12(2), 70–78.

McConnell, T., & McConnell, J. (1991). Cross-cultural ministry with church and family: the final report of a research project. Religious Education86(4), 581–596.

Wingeier, D. E. (1992). Emptying-for-filling: an approach to cross-cultural ministry. Quarterly Review12(2), 33–56.

Wingeier-Rayo, P. (2015). Jesus as migrant: biblical understand of immigration as a cross-cultural model for ministry. Apuntes35(1), 19–32.

Wright, C. J. H. (2006). The mission of God : unlocking the Bible’s grand narrative. InterVarsity Press.

Wu, J. (2015). One gospel for all nations : a practical approach to biblical contextualization. William Carey Library.

Noah: Nobody’s Perfect

There are movies and books and stories that we allow to speak to our hearts. We fall in love with the characters and root for them, or want what’s coming to them to happen. The stories we seem to pay more attention to add to our notion that life is all about us.

One of the things I love about the Bible, and there are a lot of things, is how the scriptures are full of stories and people we can fall in love with, even dislike. But it doesn’t go there. When we take the time to read through the scriptures, we see the people are just like us. Humanity and human nature have not changed, though our culture and lifestyle may have changed. But Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow!

Noah and the flood is one of those stories many people love from the Bible. But, is there more to it than just Noah, his family, and the animals getting saved from the water?

As with any good story, we have to know and understand the back story:

Before there was anything, God was. The waters we read about in Genesis 1 represented chaos to the ancient people, so, God created order from the chaos. His Spirit was hovering and realigning the chaos to fit his plan, fit his design.

God created the heavens, the stars, the sun, the moon, the plants and animals. His crowning moment of creation was humanity, his image-bearers whom he hand crafted and placed in paradise to care for, till, and even extend paradise to the rest of the earth.

God is the God of goodness, perfection (holiness), and order—there is nothing he is not part of.

Then, the trip into what became the fall of humanity took place. We talked about this last week—Adam and Eve ate from the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the tree they were supposed to steer clear from. They got banished from paradise, yet still allowed to live (that’s grace).

What happens next is horrific. When we allow sin into our lives (in any shape or form) things go bad really quickly. Adam and Eve’s son, Cain, kills his brother Abel because he was jealous. Things got worse from there.

One of the worst parts of the Bible is when God says, “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” (Gen 6:5 NIV)

And then the worst part, “The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.” (Gen 6:6 NIV)

But remember, there is always grace in the pages of scripture. Genesis 6:8 says, “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” This is hopeful. There is someone willing to listen and obey God, even in the midst of all the selfishness, greed, murder, crime, sin, Noah was willing to stand out and follow God.

When a person decides to follow God, they will most certainly stand out and be noticed, even if they are not drawing attention to themselves. So, a question right off the bat is “will you live the kind of life that is completely different from everyone else, for God? Or will we continue to cater to our own comfort and preferences?”

One thing we have to remember is fewer people than we realize live the kind of life they say they live. Jesus said in Matthew 7:13-14 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow is the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (NIV)

Even when everyone else was trying to get Noah to do what they wanted, or do the things they wanted, Noah stood out and found “favor in the eyes of the Lord.”

Side Note: People will do anything to make you look bad, make you look evil, lazy, etc. when you’re following Christ. Don’t give in to it, take the road that leads to life, always.

Genesis 6:9 says, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God.” (NIV) This is a pretty cool picture of God’s grace shining through. Even though no one else was not following God, Noah did, and he did so in a way that people saw there was something about him different from them. The truth is, it is only by the grace of God we are able to live this life and follow God. Without God’s grace we cannot and we will be lost. Noah lived his life in the grace of God.

Now, the life we live for God will look odd to the rest of the people. The text doesn’t say this, but Noah was really an evangelist trying to teach and show the people what will happen if they don’t turn from their way of life. How do I know this? Noah faithfully kept building ark.

This would have been a huge undertaking and hard to miss. People would have been making fun of Noah for doing this, but he kept building away. He kept being faithful to what God laid out before him instead of giving in to the taunting and desires of the people around him.

The people were probably taunting him and trying to get him to stop what God called him to do because they did not understand. They must have thought because he was not living up to their expectations that he was in the wrong. But Noah kept building away.

Imagine the heartache Noah felt during this time.

Then, the rains came. This was something the people had never experienced before. When the rains came, and did not stop, I’m sure the people began to panic. But God chose to close Noah, his family, and the animals in the safety and security of the ark.

One of the things we don’t really hear much about in this story, except when non-Christians bring it up, is the death toll surrounding Noah and his family. Realize that only Noah and his family were saved from the destruction. Everyone else perished. This is not a children’s fairy tale story.

But Noah stayed the course and trusted God to guide and direct the ark during this time. Noah and his family cared for what they were entrusted with on the ark and kept their trust in God through the storm.

The waters and damage from the rains and flooding did not quickly go away. The rains came for 40 days, but the waters stayed, Noah and his family stayed on the ark for over a year. Imagine the patience and trust, in God, that was required to sustain their faith. Noah faithfully trusted God, especially in the storm, and the recovery period.

When they were finally able to exit the ark, Noah was given the command God gave Adam and Eve, to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. The people of God were starting over in a small number. But Noah faithfully trusted in and followed God.

Then when it was time to plant the seeds for a new beginning, Noah planted and grew grapes. The grapes he grew became fermented and he drank the liquid and became drunk and passed out. Know this, too much of anything puts us in a place of vulnerability and susceptible to sin.

Sin creeps in, and is more tempting, when we are at our weaker points (hungry, hurt, tired, lonely, etc.). This is why the devil came to tempt and to test Jesus after Jesus had fated for 40 days and nights.

Noah’s son found him and basically made fun of him to the other brothers. The scripture could imply other things, but basically Ham did not honor or respect his father. Because of this, Noah’s anger burned and said, “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.” (Gen 9:25 NIV)

Noah allowed his vulnerability, he placed himself him, to cause himself emotional hurt and embarrassment from what Ham did, and then came out in anger.

We’ve said it before: anger is always a secondary emotion. If our needs are not met (whether we say what they are or not), if we get embarrassed, jealous, hungry, lonely, tired, etc., then anger is what is manifested. Not only that, anger is manifested outward instead of inward where the work needs to begin.

At first, Noah found favor in the eyes of God. At the end, Noah still found favor in the eyes of God because of his faithfulness. The covenant, promise, blessing, sign of the rainbow was given to Noah simply because he found the way to faith.

Church, the way to faith is not in anything we can find on our own. It is not something or anything we can do. It is not trying to please people or do things to try and please God. The way to faith is a person. The way to faith, and true salvation (here and now) is in the person of Jesus Christ. John 14:6 reminds us of this truth, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (NIV)

Jesus also said that he is the gate (John 10:7). Not only is he the way, he is also the door to enter into the salvation promised by God, the rest that God promises.

Church, if you feel yourself getting overwhelmed, trying to make sense of the world and events happening. Stop trying to please people, yourself, God. Seek the person and presence of Jesus Christ because he has already found you and is working to give you peace.

Nobody is perfect. We will all make mistakes and will fail others constantly. But God is faithful when we are not and that’s who’s working in us and through us to reach a world hurting to know God.

He has given you a task, an ark to build. Are you building for the Kingdom glory?

Let’s pray…

Gracious God, so often we seek to find our security in people and we miss out on the opportunities you provide all around us. Lead us to complete fulfillment. Guide us to the person and presence of Jesus Christ. We know we cannot live this life without your grace. Thank you for pouring your grace out upon us. Now, O God, we need your strength and courage to live out this life you have called us to live. This, and so much more, we pray in the powerful name of Jesus Christ. AMEN

RESPONDING TO CHRIST AND THE PRESENCE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT HERE AND NOW

NOW IF YOU have never said YES to Jesus by answering his call on you life, now is the time. I pray you get to live into the joy. If you say YES to Christ’s call, let us know and we can help you live your response out. If you say YES again, let us know and we can help equip you for God’s purpose in life.

Knowing Jesus

I’m sure you have heard it said, “know Jesus.” I have often wondered what different people think when they hear something like that. How do you get to “know Jesus?”

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was asked, before his Aldersgate conversion, if he knew and believed in Jesus. His answer was, “I believe he is the savior of the world. After his experience on Aldersgate, Wesley was able to say,

“I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

John Wesley “knew” Christ in a personal way and took ownership of the faith and grace given.

In the Old Testament scriptures, the word for “know” is “yada”. This means more than just casually knowing someone. This has to with intimacy and knowing someone deeply. 

Here are some thoughts: How do you get to know another person? Most of the time we ask questions and seek to spend time with them to see how they are in different situations and what they think. 

The same is true for us to “get to know Jesus.” We seek to spend time with him and ask questions, waiting for an answer. 

There is a difference between getting to know Jesus and getting to know a person right in front of us. For one thing, we can see the person; we trust Jesus is there. This is one of the biggest promises he made when he ascended (“rose”/went/entered) heaven. He promised to be with us always, even until the end of time. Has there ever been a time when, though you may have been all by yourself, there was a peaceful, yet powerful, pretense with you? It is very possible Jesus was making himself known to your spirit that he is there with you and you do not need to worry about being alone.

Spend time with him. How can you do this? For one thing, when we spent time with our friends or family, we usually block time out of our day, week, year, etc. to devote only to them and the experience. The same is true with Jesus. To get to know him, read about him in the Bible (especially the Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). See how the words speak to you. Carefully read the Gospels.

Ask questions and pay attention to what he says. Is there anything that just doesn’t make sense to you? Ask. Out loud. Write down the question. Talk about it with other believers of Christ. You never know how and when Jesus will speak in and through you and others to make himself known, to answer your questions, or to give you an assurance/peace beyond an understanding. This is one of the aspects of praying, we talk with God personally and directly.

Allow him to speak directly to you, straight to your heart. This is one of the biggest things we have to do. We have to have an open heart, with faith, that Jesus is speaking to us through the Holy Spirit. When his words come into your life and fill your mind, transformation happens within us. This is the best part about praying, when we open ourselves to hear from God directly.

When all of this happens, we will realize we have a different worldview than before. We also realize we have been called to do the mission and ministry Christ started when he walked this earth. 

Now, is this the ONLY way to get to know Jesus? No. One of the best things to do is learn who his is, talk about him in a group (develop a community), and look for ways you can sense the pretense of the Holy Spirit among you, in you, and working through you. Over time you’ll find you have come to “know”, not just know about, Jesus Christ, the savior of the world, yes; but also your savior who saves you from the power and presence of sin and death.

One day, I know you’ll be able to look back and see you have come to “know” Christ because he has transformed and changed you into his likeness and image. 

May you become so aware of the presence of Christ with you always so your life will be filled with incredible love, peace, hope, Joy, grace, forgiveness, and new life.  

Discovering God through the Book of Jonah (Part 4)

THE BIGGER PICTURE

“But the Lord replied, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?” ~Jonah 4:4 NIV

What do you see in these pictures?

full frame abstract microscopic shot showing the cellular structure of a red rose petal

What do you think? I bet these pictures are not what they seem to be. Here is what they are, from a zoomed out view:

Part of the issue with the fallen state of humanity is we often do not look beyond our own circumstances. We even often do not think big enough about God. When we read the book of Jonah, I hope we can get a big picture of who God is.

Remember a question we started this series with: “If you only had the book of Jonah, what could it teach you, and what could you teach others about who God is?”

REVIEW WHAT WE KNOW OF GOD THROUGH JONAH, SO FAR

  1. God knows our hearts; yet he still calls us
  2. We cannot hide from God. God never leaves us
  3. The Lord is the One who created everything à even you!
  4. People come to know God through our lives
  5. God offers grace and desires life for people
  6. God answers prayer
  7. God has not abandoned you or forgotten you
  8. God relentlessly pursues you and I so we can reach the people we’re called to reach
  9. God desires holiness from all because he is holy
  10. God even cares for our enemies

Jonah 4

Jonah has left Nineveh after reluctantly obeying God and warning the people of coming destruction. Chapter three ended with Jonah seeing that God did not bring the destruction that was foretold. This made Jonah angry. Do you know why he was angry?

First of all, we have to understand anger is not a primary emotion. Anger comes from another emotion/feeling that has grown. Most of the time it is because of being hurt. When we get hurt, we can easily nurse that wound (emotional or physical) until we get into a place of anger toward something or someone else. The reality is, we are really just upset because of another cause.

Look deeper into who Jonah is. Remember prophets were only considered authentic and valid if the prophesies they gave actually came true. From what we have learned about Jonah, both in this biblical book and in 1 Kings 14, we see Jonah has not seemingly done very well. This could have been eating away at him. When he gave the message Nineveh will be overthrown, he went and sat down to make sure it happened. When Nineveh was still there, imagine how he felt about himself being a prophet.

There is a good chance Jonah was realizing people would view him as a false prophet which would make his life much more difficult because people would no longer listen to him. This would be a valid concern if the prediction he gave (from God) did not come true. I am sure the anger he was beginning to feel came from not tending to the deep emotional hurt he was feeling.

Let’s pause for a moment and ask the question, “Why was Nineveh not overthrown (destroyed), or was it?” Jonah had it in his mind Nineveh would be wiped clean from the face of the earth.

But from what we have learned about God, through this short prophetic book, we learn, even more, how God does not work like we work and think like we think. Jonah had one end goal vision for Nineveh – to be destroyed. But remember in chapter 1, God tells Jonah, “it’s wickedness has come up before me.”[1] This was God’s concern the whole time. So, when the text says Nineveh repented, God relented from destruction.

Anytime people turn away from wickedness, sin, self-love, self-pity, and turn to God, that person (that city, culture, country) has been overthrown by grace. So, Nineveh would have been overthrown, just not how Jonah was thinking it would be.

After we understand this, now we can look at what Jonah says to God. “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, and abound in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”[2] What is amazing is that Jonah says that God is good. He names the good attributes about God. This is part of what God says about himself to Moses in Exodus 34. What amazes me is how Jonah knows the incredible goodness of God, yet is still angry at God.

This is the part of the story where we get to witness Jonah throwing a hissy fit and a temper tantrum. He says this is why he tried to flee from God, because he knew God would not bring the destruction as promised. He was viewing his mission, and life, like this:

When God desires he/we look at the world with a much bigger picture, such as this:

This is one of the things I love about reading scripture. Every time I read it, I see a much bigger and deeper view of God than I had before. I also see how much God is working in and through humanity. We see a picture of just how far the journey is to, as Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”[3] Showing this kind of love is difficult because 1) we are not God and 2) humans, in our fallen state, love conditionally (i.e. if you treat me good then I will love you; if not, I don’t like you).

When things to do not go our way, it is easy for us to throw a fit and get angry at God when the reality is we are really upset because we realize we are still so far from perfect. God has not even placed earth as the center planet. Our solar system is not even in the middle of the Milky Way Galaxy.

The weight of this realization is too much for us to bear at times, so it will manifest in anger and self-loathing. This is why the concept and truth of God’s grace is so important for us. We have the opportunities to remember we are not the center of the universe.

Fast forward to the New Testament, Jesus never says “get your life in order and then follow me.” He simply says, “Come…Follow me.”[4] This is an incredible picture of grace. The Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2:

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.[5]

We can get to a place where we understand and praise God for the grace that we did not earn. We can begin to follow Christ, but we also have to battle constantly with the urges we have (deep within us because of Sin) to not retort back to our fallen nature.

Jonah was a prophet of God. He knew the goodness of God. Jonah knew how merciful God is. Jonah still wanted to see his enemies go down. This is what we have to be careful of. There are people we don’t like. There are people who don’t like us. Yet, through it all, God is for all the world, not just you or I. If God can save you, through Jesus Christ, why do we forget God can save the people overseas? The people in the slums? The people in the White House? The people coming to our borders? Why do we still allow our anger to burn against other people, that God is also for (as we saw in the last chapter)?

Jonah was allowing his prejudice to creep in and take over. He was allowing his desire for revenge to be demonstrated. Remember, this book was written during the time of the Jewish exile to Babylon, where Nineveh was. These people took away the livelihood and freedom the Jewish people had in Israel. For them, this book would have been really close to home. Why wouldn’t God take care of and destroy our oppressors when they did this to us? Remember that God is still trying to work on, even the oppressors too.

What we have to be careful of is not allowing our prejudice and our stereotypes of other people groups to be the lenses with which we view the world. When interviewed about the future of planet earth, God skeptic and physicist, Stephen Hawking had something interesting to say. “When asked what human trait he’d like to change, Stephen Hawking replied, ‘Aggression.’ He said it could lead to irrational behavior, like sparking nuclear war and ending the world.”[6] This is why what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount is so important.

“Don’t you see that whatever goes into the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, slander. These are what defile a person…”[7]

And what the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 4, Galatians 5, and Titus 3:

29 Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say. 31 Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil. 32 Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.[8]

18 But if you are being led by the Spirit, you aren’t under the Law. 19 The actions that are produced by selfish motives are obvious, since they include sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, 20 idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry,21 jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that. I warn you as I have already warned you, that those who do these kinds of things won’t inherit God’s kingdom.[9]


Remind them to submit to rulers and authorities. They should be obedient and ready to do every good thing. They shouldn’t speak disrespectfully about anyone, but they should be peaceful, kind, and show complete courtesy toward everyone.[10]

What does this teach us about God? It all goes back to being holy which means being perfect in love. Which means we have to look beyond ourselves and our families and friends to try to grasp the bigger picture—God is working toward remaking (not destroying) the world. Redemption is God’s plan.

God continues to show his creative nature with what happens next with Jonah.

Jonah goes east of the city. He finds a place, makes a shelter, and waits. He would have waited at least 38 days in this spot. (He walked one day journey into a three day journey length of Nineveh. This meant he would have 38 days until the destruction of the city.) It’s easy to imagine the scene. We do it all the time when we’re watching our favorite movies and television shows with a character that is supposed to have something bad happen to them. We get our popcorn and drink, sit back, relax, and wait in anticipation (sometimes happiness) that the character will get what’s coming to them.

But God is not one to be mocked, or break from his character. While Jonah is (patiently?) waiting for Nineveh to be destroyed, God causes a plant to grow which helps produce shade for Jonah. Oh, Jonah likes this. Not only does Jonah get to wait for the destruction of the city, but God was so good to him that a plant was provided for his own comfort. (Sense the humor here?)

But the very next day, God created a worm (irony) that ate the plant. Jonah’s anger continued to burn, this time more so at God. Not only does God send the worm, but God also sends a “scorching east wind.”[11] Imagine how Jonah was feeling now? Did he finally repent of his actions and attitude? Nope!

Jonah continues to have the gall to be upset with God. This time he stays mad because God provided and took away the comfort and shade. Jonah uses the excuse he does not want to live anymore because, as Jonah says, God is too good and compassionate.

Does God deal harshly with Jonah? Not really. Instead, God asks some real important questions about how Jonah’s view of the situation and the world needs to change. This is where the book of Jonah ends:

God asks Jonah, “should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from the left—and also many animals?”[12]

Not only does God ask this of Jonah, but God also asks us this same question today.

So, I have to ask, where is your heart toward God? I’m sure I would hear that our hearts are great with God. This is definitely something we all desire. Now, where is your heart to the people of the world? The person who cut you off in traffic? The boss who isn’t fair? The person who harmed you or stole something of yours? Where is your heart toward the judge who did not give a strong enough sentence to the defendant? This is where it gets difficult.

I sure hope the book of Jonah has come alive to you in a different way than before. I hope you are seeing new aspects that were not visible before. Above all else, I hope we all come away with a much larger picture and view of God than we had before.

God is big enough that we can be mad at him, yet he still seeks to offer grace. This is where the picture and person of Jesus Christ comes clearly into focus.

Not only did God create the universe, create the world, create each and every individual person, God decided to come down and live life here on earth, as a human, for a time, so he could live and dwell among us. High and powerful people did not like Jesus Christ, still don’t, and had him put to death. But catch this. Jesus willingly went to the cross. He willingly was humiliated, tortured, wrongly convicted, wrong executed. With his arms outstretched on the splintery cross, Jesus said, “forgive them.” He demonstrated his incredible compassion and love for all of humanity (past, present, and future). What an incredible picture of God’s compassion, love, and mercy for you and I today.

May we continue to seek to live in true peace with each other. May we continually repent and turn our lives toward God. May we constantly praise and glorify God, even when we do not get what we want. Above all, may we seek to know and love God, and God’s people, more and more each day.

Amen


[1] Jonah 1:2b NIV

[2] Jonah 4:2b NIV

[3] Matthew 5:48 CEB

[4] John 1:39a, 43b

[5] Ephesians 2:4-10

[6] https://nypost.com/2018/03/14/heres-how-stephen-hawking-predicted-the-world-will-end/

[7] Matthew 15:17-20a NIV

[8] Ephesians 4:29,31-32 CEB

[9] Galatians 5:18-21 CEB

[10] Titus 3:1-2 CEB

[11] Jonah 4:8a NIV

[12] Jonah 4:11 NIV

The Greatest Story Ever Told

How is the story of Scripture shaping your life? Do you know how the complete canon (storyline) of the Bible fits together? Here is a message (including liturgy for Holy Communion) to show us how we can understand what the Bible is about.

For more information on Red Lick First United Methodist Church, click here.

GROW IN YOUR FAITH

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Who do you say Jesus is? Some say he was just a good person. Some say he was a prophet. Others say he didn’t exist. C.S. Lewis says, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said wouldn’t be a great moral teacher. He’d be either a lunatic on a level with a man who says he’s a poached egg or else he’d be the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.” It is important for us to know who Jesus is because this is who we are being formed into. We are not forming Jesus into ourselves, but rather he is recreating us to make us into his image.

This 8 chapter book goes over the big moments of Jesus’ life to help us see how the life of Jesus is still impacting our lives today. The next time you’re asked “Who is Jesus?” you can have some answers to help people understand the power of the Risen Christ that is with us always and who is giving us our identity.

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Gift of Salvation

The date was July 17, 2001. Up until this date, I had always thought I was a person who followed Jesus Christ. This day, something changed my life, for the better. Six to eight months beforehand, I had been having lunch with a friend of mine and his pastor. This lunch turned into a weekly Bible study. During this study, I began to sense a desire to say “Yes” to Jesus Christ and have him save me from my sin. What I have later learned is there have been people God has placed in my path my entire life to show me and teach me about God. I have also had people show me what it means to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ. Many people have their own story of how they came to faith. I have learned, though, it is not the “coming to faith” that is the crucial thing. I have learned it is what happens after we come to faith in God through Jesus Christ because of the movement of the Holy Spirit.
When a person speaks about being saved, they are communicating they have been set free from sin and have been given life everlasting by the grace of God. It is the hope, desire, and longing of every person to live for something greater than themselves in this physical life. When John Wesley died, “His last words served to not only capture the quality of life he lived but also the kind of life he wished for others. He died saying, ‘The best of all is, God is with us.’” (Harper 13) Wesley was considered a practical theologian. As Wesley was teaching and preaching and organizing new converts into groups, he learned a process for salvation. This is not something new, but he did organize the thinking into what we know as the order of salvation.
How does a person come to be saved and receive life everlasting? Why would a person desire to be saved? Oden writes, “The benefits of salvation are summarized as justification (receiving the pardon of God), regeneration (receiving new life in the Spirit and participation in the family of God), and sanctification (receiving the growth-enabling, completing, maturing, perfecting grace of God that leads toward holiness of heart and life).” (Oden 607) The Apostle Paul writes in the letter to Titus, “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4-7 NIV) Salvation is a gift of God, it is because of God’s grace we have been saved. (Ephesians 2:8)
The first step in the order of salvation is “realizing that something is wrong with the human race.” (Harper 21) In the beginning, God created male and female in his image (Genesis 1:26-27). Then, in Genesis 1:31, it says “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31 NIV) But then, a brief time later, the humans decided to listen to the voice of the serpent and evil/sin entered the heart and lives of the people from that point forward. Humanity was more interested in themselves, from then on, than they were/are about listening to God.
When a person realizes there is something inherently wrong, there is nothing we can do on our own. “We cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Grace is essential.” (Harper 28) One can look back on their life and see that God has been working and moving in many ways. Even before people have an idea about God, God is pouring out his grace. Wesley called this “prevenient grace.” This is the act and movement of God to work in our lives to bring us out of a place of hopelessness. Prevenient grace is seeking ways to break through into peoples’ lives to show God has been there all along. Romans 1 demonstrates this, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen.” (Romans 1:20 NIV) The Apostle Paul is showing that God is making himself known even before the people realize it.
A person comes to the realization God has been working in their life and has felt a strong sense of conviction about their life in sin. For some, this realization can happen at an instant. For others, it can occur over time. This is the point of justification. “Justification is the acceptance of the sinner, united in Christ by faith, precisely while it remains clear that he or she has done wrong…openly declaring his guilt that acquittal is announced.” (Oden 588) The person has been set free from the slavery of sin and has been given new life in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Christ has justified. Christ has made right the person through grace by faith. The person now belongs to Jesus Christ. Repentance has taken place, and a new life begins to unfold for the new believer. “When the New Testament speaks of repentance, it uses the basic idea of change. Wesley called it, ‘a change of heart from all sin to all holiness.’” (Harper 44) The idea is the person now desires to live for Christ and has forsaken all sin. A new way of life is now beginning. John Wesley called this converting grace.
The work of the Spirit is not done in the life of the person. The process of being made holy, of being made into the likeness of Jesus Christ is beginning. At this point, the person is being made new. We call this new birth. Wesley called this process sanctifying grace because this is the process of being sanctified, being made holy, and it takes time. We also know this as regeneration. “Wesley called it God’s activity of ‘renewing our fallen nature.’” (Harper 56) Oden says, “Regeneration is the work of the Spirit by which new life in Christ is imparted to one dead in sin. It implies a change in the inward person by which a disposition to the holy life is originated, and in which life begins. It is the acts of God by which the governing disposition of the person begins to be responsive to the reconciling God.” (Oden 612) The person is in the process of being made new, living into a new will, receiving a new heart.
God’s grace has done incredible work in the person and is working to change the person from the inside out. Oden helps to define grace. “Grace means unmerited favor. To affirm that God is gracious is to affirm that God does not deal with creatures on the basis of their works, merit, or deserving but rather out of abundant divine compassion. It is through grace that God’s mercy is free given precisely to repentant sinners.” (Oden 73) Salvation is God’s gift because of his grace.
The gift of salvation means the person has the opportunity to live in the presence of God, here and now and in the life to come. “[T]he kingdom of God is here now. We do not have to put emphasis on some future climatic event outside the bounds of time and space as we know it. As Christians, we affirm and look to the existence of eternity, but we live in the present.” (Harper 95) We have been given the opportunity, here and now, to live in the presence of God and allow God’s grace, through the working of the Holy Spirit to refine us from the inside out. “
The final aspect of the salvation process occurs when this earthly life is complete. Wesley called this glorification. This is when we enter, fully, into the life to come and live in life everlasting with God in paradise. This is the benefit of living knowing and following Christ here and now. The goal of salvation is to save us from ourselves (sin nature) and to align our lives with the ever living God who desires to be in relationship with all people. The goal of the Christian life is to become perfect in love.
The order of salvation is not as cut and dry as it may seem. People take their own path, the path God’s grace leads them. The point is so one can experience incredible love, grace, mercy, forgiveness and live in God’s presence through the power of the Holy Spirit. Whenever a person is going through the salvation process, God desires we bring people along with us. We were meant to be in community with one another and what better way to live out God’s love than with others. We are saved from ourselves (sin nature) and we are saved so we can work with God for the redemption and transformation of the world.

Bibliography

Harper, Steve. (2003). The Way to Heaven: The Gospel According to John Wesley. Grand Rapids: Zondervan

Oden, T. C. (2009). Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology. New York: HarperOne.

NEW BOOK: “Jesus Is…”

Kindle & Paperback Editions

https://www.amazon.com/s?k=Ryan+Stratton+jesus+is&ref=nb_sb_noss

“Who do you say Jesus is? Some say he was just a good person. Some say he was a prophet. Others say he didn’t exist. CS Lewis says, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said wouldn’t be a great moral teacher. He’d be either a lunatic on a level with a man who says he’s a poached egg or else he’d be the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.” It is important for us to know who Jesus is because this is who we are being formed into. We are not forming Jesus into ourselves, but rather he is recreating us to make us into his image.

This 8 chapter book goes over the big moments of Jesus’ life to help us see how the life of Jesus is still impacting our life today. The next time you’re asked “Who is Jesus?” you can have some answers to help people understand the power of the Risen Christ that is with us always and who is giving us our identity.”

Experience the Power of the Holy Spirit

Live,Laugh and Love

Do you have your copy of the daily devotional on the Book of Acts?

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The Book of Acts tells the historical events that shaped the early church through the powerful, dynamic movement of the Holy Spirit. This power is still available and working today all over the world. As we encounter the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we have the great opportunity to watch God do incredible work in and through us. This daily devotional walks us through the book of Acts so we can experience a personal revival and help us experience a powerful movement of the Holy Spirit in our own lives.

FOR ALL ORDERS DURING THE MONTH OF DECEMBER, I WILL BE DONATING ALL OF THE PROCEEDS.

Loving to Life Pt 2

MEETING PEOPLE WHERE THEY ARE

Last week we began a series to help us love people to life. When we go to a new place, it it easy to assume we know what people need to do. In many cases, we may be right.

The best thing to do is to pray, and listen, to see where God is working and how God is working in the new area we’re in. Go night to a new place and driving forward our plans, without seriously paying attention to the work of God already in progress, can create some issues. This is not saying God will not bring redemption through work we do;  but the work could actually take longer.

So, we’ve prayed and we believe we have listened carefully to God’s voice and have opened our eyes to see the work in progress. We must be careful not to give into the temptation to get to work right away. I know this seems odd to say. The truth is we would do so much better if we took our time.

Taking our time means we begin the process of getting to know the people. Plus, it gives us a chance to “meet people exactly where they are.”

Think about that for a minute. How did Jesus Christ begin working with your life? He met you, the person you were, in the exact situation you were in. I would also bet to say that when you realized Jesus was right there with you, he did not start off by saying, “I’m here to fix your life, so you need to do these steps right away!”

Instead, I believe Jesus first said to you, “I love you. Come and see what your  life can and will be like with me.” That’s basically what he said when he called the disciples in Matthew 4, Mark 1-2, Luke 5, John 1. He invited the disciples to join him, just as they were. That’s when the transformation begins.

Our number one priority in this life, aside from loving and worshipping God through Jesus Christ, is to love the people God created.

Now we have to ask the question, what does meeting people where they are look like?

This is really one of the hardest things we will ever do. This involves simply listening to their stories, what they say about other people, how they say they live their life, anything they want to tell you…without judgement. It involves us learning the area, past customs, past traditions, history of the area, learning what dreams people have. All of this is done at the same time we are praying for God’s wisdom, vision, for the area while we are there.

I have found that, most of the time, you will hear people begin to say things that are very similar to what God has been speaking to you. And, when we take time to get to know the person and witness their life, trust is formed through this relationship. Then, we can begin to see the work of Christ in their life. Afterall, this is how we would want other people to treat us.

We may have a grand vision, grand ideal, for an area, for the life of a person, or people group; but Jesus may be working on something deeper than what we can see and experience at the surface. This is why it is so important to meet with people where they are, as they are, so we can see how God is using us to work with him in that person’s life.

Here is something I have had to learn to consider in every situation: maybe it’s not just about working to make change in other people’s lives; maybe it is also about God’s redemptive and transformative work within our own life.

How is this sitting with you, right now? What did you know about this concept? What do you not agree with?

Additional questions to consider:

1) What do the people do/act like, that is hard for you to be around?

2) Do you think you have to patience to continue this work for getting to know people for months or even years without getting frustrated or impatient?

3) What do you sense God working on in your life, as you get to know new people and their stories?