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.

Esther: “Wrong” Place, Right Time

We have been in this series where we have been looking into the lives of biblical characters to see how we can still see ourselves on the pages of scripture. As we said last week, our way of life, and society may have changed, but human nature really hasn’t changed. We still fall prey to the effects of the fall and original sin. No one is without fault.

But then, we also see a beautiful picture of a God of Holy Love who continually offers grace and works in and through his people for his work in the world. This has been a constant throughout history and is something that will never change. Why? Because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

As we move through the Old Testament, we come, again, to, maybe, a familiar person—Esther.

The biggest verse, the most memorable verse, to many, in this book is chapter 4 verse 14b: “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (NIV)

This is something we do have to really think about for our lives, in general—maybe you are where you are “for such a time as this!”

Now here’s a tough question for you today, “are you happy with your life and what’s going on around you?”

Some will say, “YES!” Others will not.

One of the challenges we face is to realize we have been placed here, at this time, in this location for the purposes of God. If there is any unrest within us, we do need to ask if we are truly doing what God has called us to do. Remember, God’s calling has no expiration date. His work, in this world, is for people of all ages, ethnic groups, socio-economic status, education level, etc. If we ever get to a point that we don’t have to do the work God has called us to, because, “someone else should step up,” maybe God is calling us to do something even more grand than we ever imagined. Maybe God is calling each one of us to mentor and be part of raising up a new generation of believers and Christian leaders, outside our family.

Here’s the reality, not everyone around us, not everyone we come in contact with, not everyone we think about, communicate with will know and fully live into the life Jesus Christ offers. But, everyone is seeking Christ whether or not they realize it. Why? Because life is meaningless without any purpose. Life does not make sense without the grace of God acting in and through our life. Life is empty and hollow without the known presence of Christ. This is what we get to help people realize.

Maybe, you are here “for such a time as this.”

So what is Esther about? Here is a brief recap of the story:

“Esther lived in ancient Persia about 100 years after the Babylonian captivity. When Esther’s parents died, the orphaned child was adopted and raised by her older cousin Mordecai.

One day the king of the Persian Empire, Xerxes I, threw a lavish party. On the final day of the festivities, he called for his queen, Vashti, eager to flaunt her beauty to his guests. But the queen refused to appear before Xerxes. Filled with anger, he deposed Queen Vashti, and forever removed her from his presence.

To find his new queen, Xerxes hosted a royal beauty pageant and Esther was chosen for the throne. Her cousin Mordecai became a minor official in the Persian government of Susa.

Soon Mordecai uncovered a plot to assassinate the king. He told Esther about the conspiracy, and she reported it to Xerxes, giving credit to Mordecai. The plot was thwarted and Mordecai’s act of kindness was preserved in the chronicles of the king.

At this time, the king’s highest official was a wicked man named Haman. He hated the Jews, especially Mordecai, who had refused to bow down to him.

Haman devised a scheme to have every Jew in Persia killed. The king agreed to his plan to annihilate the Jewish people on a specific day. Meanwhile, Mordecai learned of the plot and shared it with Esther, challenging her with these famous words:

“Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13-14, NIV)

Esther urged all of the Jews to fast and pray for deliverance. Then, risking her own life, brave young Esther approached the king with a request.

She invited Xerxes and Haman to a banquet where eventually she revealed her Jewish heritage to the king, as well as Haman’s diabolical plot to have her and her people killed. In a rage, the king ordered Haman to be hung on the gallows–the very same gallows Haman had built for Mordecai.

Mordecai was promoted to Haman’s high position and Jews were granted protection throughout the land. The people celebrated God’s tremendous deliverance, and the joyous festival of Purim was instituted.”**

There is something, seemingly, missing from the book of Esther…the name of God. Does this mean that God is absent? It is easy to believe that God is absent when things don’t get better, or when we’re confronted with challenges that life will bring. But the truth is, God is always present. God is always working. He is always reconciling, restoring, redeeming. God is always bringing people to faith in Christ. God is transforming whole communities through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

A major challenge we face today is that many people don’t really believe God can do all of this, or that God desires to use you and me. But know this, because of God there are no coincidences. It is not coincidence you meet the people you do. It is no coincidence you go in the places you go to. It is no coincidence you have the friends you do. Did God make you do all of this? I don’t believe so. But I do believe that God has been working behind the scenes, and prompting your spirit by the Holy Spirit to step out and follow this path.

I used to tell people that I would know I was following God’s plan when I had complete peace within me. I don’t believe that anymore. Why? Because I get to be in situations that are uncomfortable and unpleasant, simply because of what God has called me to. Imagine the unrest Esther experienced, yet was determined to do what she needed to do. The peace comes because I know I can trust God in all things. And because I trust God in all things, I can live a life of peace even when the world around me seems chaotic. What is God calling you to do? Who is God calling you to be?

I remember it, like yesterday. I was having a lunch Bible Study with one of my friends and his pastor and I remember when Jesus Christ became real to me. I was at a phase in life where I was searching for meaning and looking for who I was supposed to be. I loved these lunch Bible Studies with Bernie and my friend Micah. Micah will probably never know how much I appreciate him for this.

It wasn’t until several years later that I realized what I was supposed to do with my life. This came after 7-8 years of unrest within me. Things were going really well for me, for the most part, but I still was seeking meaning and purpose. My identity was wrapped up in what I did for a living. This is where it got challenging for me.

One day, because of Facebook, I was able to reconnect with one of my Kindergarten and elementary school best friends. I was excited. While on my way to visit some family, on the coast, I stopped to have lunch with her. When I left, I felt the need/desire to read the entire Bible. I had read much of it before that, but something inside me told me to read the whole thing. So what did I do?

I went to stay on the beach for a few days. About a week or so later, the feeling kept coming back, so I went and bought a brand new study bible…the King James Version. I found a plan to read the Bible over the course of a year. But I couldn’t get enough, so I began to read more each day. It still took about 3 months, but I read the Bible all the way through.

But, it was in the book of Genesis, the calling of Abraham that I began to sense God leading me to a life of ministry. I kept is quiet for a couple months, but something strange began to happen. Some of my close friends began to tell me they could tell I was in conflict about continuing martial arts as a job and said something to the effect that they could see me in ministry. A couple months later, I “retired” from martial arts and began this vocation of a life in full-time ministry with God.

Throughout this journey I have come across people I never dreamed up. I often felt, and still feel like sometimes, that I was in a different or “wrong” place than where I wanted to be. But I realized later that I got to connect with people that God needed me to. I got to marry Amanda and have an incredible family.

Because of this life, I have seen incredible things. I have also seen the face of evil. But most importantly, I can see the Kingdom of God and the presence of Jesus Christ all around us.

Church, this is a difficult time for ALL churches. It is easy to try to say we need someone to “fix” everything. The world is looking for people to “fix” whatever’s wrong. Often times we begin to work and fix things that are not the underlying issues.

But there is only one person that can fix the world, and he died on the cross, rose from the grave, and ascended into heaven. He is the carpenter that brings his tools with him wherever he goes and does some hard work in his people. He will begin the work to fix what really needs to be fixed/recentered/refocused/redeemed, and it may not be what we thing or with whom we think.

Jesus is where our eyes stay focused. Why? Because he is focused on you and what he has called you to. Jesus is going to call you to do things and be in situations/positions you are not qualified to be in. He knows what you’re passionate about and what you’re good at.

Jesus continually sees value in you and because of this says, “this is the one I am using here and now.”

Church, look around the world. Look at the media. God is calling you and I to be instruments and vessels to expand his grace and Kingdom. Trust that you are exactly where God needs you to be. You and I are put here for God’s purposes, at this right time and place.

**Taken from: https://www.learnreligions.com/book-of-esther-701112

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.

No Perfect People Allowed

Note: This was the sermon preached on Sunday, July 5, 2020.

Today, we move into a series to see how God uses people no one else would expect to carry on his mission in the world. We‘ll take a few examples of people from the Bible so we can know God better through his people. Remember, the point of the Bible is to know God. We know God, through Jesus Christ, when we read his words in scripture and we open our ears and our hearts to the empowerment and presence of the Holy Spirit.

Normally, the first Sunday in July I would do a “State of the Church” message and cast the vision for the next 12 months. The reality is, we can see the state of the Church all across America. It used to be that everyone around us would label themselves as Christian. But the reality is that in 2019, only 65% of Americans who were polled would identify as a Christian. This is down from 75% in 2015 and 84% in 1990. Protestantism is still considered the majority, however, this number is down to 35% in 2018 from 69% in 1948. People who identify themselves as atheist (do not believe in God) have risen from 2% in 2009 to 4% in 2019.

Something else, we also see that in 2019 more Americans identified as religiously unaffiliated, meaning they did not profess belief in any religion. The rise of the “dones” (those just “done” with church) is growing as well. What do all of these numbers tell us? 

For one thing, no longer can we assume everyone around us is Christian. I’ve said it before, if the only people we are around are Christians, we should expand who we interact with.

Secondly, it means this means there is plenty of opportunity to show the world true Christians and what a life converted to Jesus Christ looks like.

Thirdly, maybe we, as the Church, need to understand what it means to be the church in the world today.

Fourthly, realize the Bible is full of stories where the surrounding culture did not believe in YHWH (God) but were polytheistic (belief in many gods). Believe it, or not, this is the world we continue to live in. The only thing that has changed is the lifestyle of society.

Finally, it is more vital than ever to give Christ glory in all parts of life. This is true when reading the Bible. Christ is the hero, not us, in the scriptures. When we take the time to see Christ as the hero, we realize we aren’t, but we also see how God uses ordinary nobodies to be somebodies for His Kingdom work.

Now, how does this sit with you here and now?

Church, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I believe God is calling His people to rise up and show the world the Kingdom of Heaven like never before. There is so much trying to hold the Body of Christ from expanding that we, as Christians, need to walk in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit and step out in faith, trusting that God will provide and show us what to do and who to reach.

So, now the question becomes, not what do we do, but who do we seek after? There are many people all around you and I who do not know Jesus Christ, some people you probably already know. Then the question becomes “are you willing to worship in the same building as ‘those’ people?”

What about if the person was a drug dealer? Porn addict? Stripper? Murderer? These are real people who need the grace and life changing power the Holy Spirit offers through the grace of God through Jesus Christ. Yes, I am saying we need more “imperfect” people in the church. We need people to know they are broken and incomplete without Jesus Christ. We need people to turn their lives completely over to Christ and witness a complete life change.

So, to be Christ’s church we constantly seek the people Jesus did. Luke 19:10 Jesus came to “seek and to save the lost.” We are sent, like the disciples in Matthew 10, Luke 10 to those around us. Genesis 12:1, Matthew 28:19-20, Acts 1:8 and many other passages send us out into the world, for the mission and purpose of God to be lived out—bringing people to the throne of grace so all people can be saved (1 Timothy 2:4).

This will bring people in who can and will probably ruin our reputation if we are seen with them. But, in the church “no perfect people” are allowed. The only perfect person is the one who died on the cross for you and I, and the world, and he is the head of the church (Colossians 1:8).

So, what is the church? Theologian Thomas Oden talks partially about the church this way: The church is…

“ The Christian church is the community through whom the Holy Spirit administers redemption and distributes gifts, the means in and by which God makes the reconciling work of the Son vitally present to humanity. The church is the extension of the work of the Incarnate Lord as prophet, priest, and king. The church is called from the world to celebrate God’s own coming, and called to return to the world to proclaim the kingdom of God…. Pentecost was not an event in which the Spirit was poured out upon wholly separable isolated individuals. Rather it was a community already gathered for a liturgical event in whom the Spirit came to dwell. A community was created by the Spirit in which the embodiment of Christ’s mission continued corporately after his ascension, as a household, a family, a koinonia… The church is local in its universality, and universal in its locality. This means that wherever the church exists locally, it bears witness to the whole church. And wherever the church is said to exist universally, it is known to be such in its local manifestations… The reign of God is present wherever God’s will is done. There God rules… The church is the arena in which the coming kingdom is being proclaimed and actively expected. The church is the place in the world where the coming kingdom is already beginning to happen… The church is subject to the infirmities and temptations that accompany all finite existence. Yet it resists those impediments that appear as obstacles to the coming kingdom. The Spirit is given to cleanse these corruptions and guide the gathered community toward the fullness of truth.” (Thomas Oden, Classic Christianity)

The church is all about proclaiming and demonstrating the presence and works of God in the world. Think about the carefully. How has the church been doing at this mission lately, in the world?

The great news is that God still uses imperfect people to carry out his will and mission in the world. You and I are part of those imperfect people God uses and this means we get to walk in the world without condemning others because, as 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 says, “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

See, aren’t you glad God has paid the price for you and I to enter salvation here and now because of the work of Christ on the cross? We should not have been offered this grace of God, but we have been. Our lives are on a better trajectory because of Christ. Christ is the one who makes us into new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). Whatever we do, in this life, we always do for the glory of God (Colossians 3:17).

Just sitting in these seats today, means we realize we have been granted the grace and the freedom to worship God freely. God is doing great works in the world. All he asks us to do is join Him, imperfect as we are, so the world will know He is God and worthy of all praise.

It may seem as if the church is losing ground, but maybe God is waiting on HIs people to step out to join Him? After all, God is calling His imperfect people to reach imperfect people to extend the grace and mercy He freely gives.

Hope has always been here. God has never stopped working. There is a countless number of people who are primed and ready to hear and witness the life changing presence of Jesus Christ. As John 4:35 says, “Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.”

What an incredible time we’re living in! Church, look around for the people God is working on and leading you to. Pay attention to the incredible Kingdom of Heaven all around us. Trust that Christ will continue to build his church and keep the faith he is calling you to be part of his work in the world, and in history.

*Statistics from: https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/

Invitation to Sabbath Rest (Exodus 20:8-11)

““Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.”
‭‭Exodus‬ ‭20:8-11‬ ‭NASB‬‬

YHWH gives this Sabbath command for the people. This is more of an invitation to stop being restless and live in a restored relationship with YHWH, as at the beginning of creation. Not only is this invitation (command) for the people, but also for all of creation (animals, vegetation, land) to allow the created order to flourish, through times of rest, as designed by YHWH.

The Sabbath command is placed within the middle of the Decalogue, giving it significance to what YHWH finds important as well as show a balance in how to fully live out the relationship with YHWH (commandments 1-3) and with people (5-10). It is as if YHWH is saying, we are not able to accomplish this unless we take the time to rest (cease from normal work) and take the time to praise, celebrate, and glorify God on this holy day. “…the Sabbath would communicate that Israel’s whole life was to be lived in imitation of the Lord.” (Blackburn, 71) The covenant YHWH is making with Israel is working to set Israel apart, making them holy. This is something the people are to teach to their children, grandchildren, and through the generations.

זָכ֛וֹר֩ (remember) is used to begin this section of this commandment. The active state of remembering o keep the Sabbath day holy (set apart) is an act of keeping YHWH as the only God Israel would pay attention to and live for (commandment number one). “The force of the Sabbath, then, is not simply in remembering the fact that God created the heavens and the earth, but also remembering how he created the heavens and the earth, through establishing an order that brings blessing and ensures Israel’s well-being.” (Blackburn, 111) Again, this commandment is set here as a reminder (an invitation) to step into the creative work YHWH has done, is doing, and will do in the world. It is a command to live in such a way that Israel has a completely whole relationship with YHWH, not like the other nations who worship other gods. “Remember” is a key theme throughout the Pentateuch and the rest of the Old Testament. There were many times when Israel “forgot” YHWH and his law and chose to go their own way. But “remember” is also important with YHWH because he never forgets his people or his promises, something Israel was supposed to embody. “Remembering” the seventh day, as a day of rest, is a tangible reminder of what Israel was to be about—the work of God in the world as his priests and a holy nation to the rest of the world. ““Remembering” is more than a mental act, it is an active observance (see God’s remembering in 2:24).” (Freitheim, 229)

The seventh day (symbolic of the day YHWH rested) is a שַׁבָּת, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ (Sabbath to the LORD your God). This was to be a day different from the other six days of work. The Sabbath day is a day to stop doing “normal”, “everyday” work. “Derived from a verb meaning “to cease, stop,” especially from work, the sabbath day was patterned on the divine rest from labor at the termination of creation. It was a day of rejoicing and feasting, related particularly to creation (Ex 20:8-11).” (Alexander, 304) When Israel ceased from work, they were being set free from the burden of having to work for everything as the other days of the week. Stopping normal work allows Israel the opportunity to remember they need to rely on YHWH to provide for them, and to celebrate all that YHWH has done and has provided. “Not having to work freed the people from their material burdens so that they could celebrate their relationship with God and their families. On a holy day, numerous sacrifices were offered at the sanctuary to honor God and to provide an abundance of meat for feasting. Israel was commanded to make each *sabbath holy by observing it as a day of rest (Ex 20:8; Deut 5:12; cf. Ex 31:15; 35:2).” (Alexander, 425)

    לֹא-תַעֲשֶׂה  (you shall not) is expressed as an action that should not be taken in the future. YHWH giving this command, for future Sabbath days, is setting it apart and making it holy, making this day something different from the rest of the week. Brevard Childs writes, “Throughout the Old Testament the Sabbath is described as holy (Ex. 16:23, Lev. 23:3, Neh. 9:14, Is. 48:13).”  (Childs, loc. 929) YHWH is working on making his people holy. At the same time, YHWH is using this command as a teaching moment to demonstrate the rhythm of creation. “God’s resting is a divine act that builds into the very created order of things a working/resting rhythm. Only when that rhythm is honored by all is the creation what God intended it to be.” (Fretheim, 230) As we have seen earlier, this command (invitation) is not just for the people; it is also for the created order (animals, vegetation, land). If Israel does not live into this command, then there will be consequences, and the consequences will bring chaos because there is not a time of rest. Not keeping the sabbath is a violation of the created order; it returns one aspect of that order to chaos. What the creatures do with the sabbath has cosmic effects.” (Fretheim, 230)

The Decalogue, Ten Commandments, teaches how Israel was supposed to live in the world. If Israel obeyed and kept this covenant, they would be blessed and be regarded as YHWH’s “treasured possession”. (Ex. 19:5) The people of Israel would experience the blessing(s) YHWH has in store for them. For Israel to experience the blessings this covenant would bring require them to be obedient to the voice of YHWH and keep their end of his covenant. If they do not keep this covenant, or obey his voice, the people will be like restless wanderers not able to find the rest, completeness, and identity they have in YHWH. “Restless wandering is a result of sin and its punishment. Thus *Cain was sentenced to be a “restless wanderer” (Gen 4:14 NIV), no longer able to settle and facing the insecurity of threats from enemies…Rest is therefore about more than safety and settlement; it also concerns restored relationships with Yahweh. It is an objective reality and an inner state.” (Alexander, 688)

Following the commands, and living into the invitation of YHWH’s rest allows Israel to live in a complete, restored relationship with YHWH. Israel as priests to the world would be the examples of how the rest of the world could enter into this kind of relationship with YHWH. “It is to this that Exodus 20 appeals, inviting Israel to participate in a weekly sabbath modeled on the original, very good creation (so also Ex 31:12-17).” (Alexander, 697)

Bibliography

Arnold, B. T., & Choi, J. H. (2003). A guide to biblical Hebrew syntax. Cambridge University Press.

Alexander, T. D., & Baker, D. W. (2003). Dictionary of the Old Testament : Pentateuch. InterVarsity Press.

Blackburn, W. R. (2012). The God who makes himself known : the missionary heart of the book of Exodus. Apollos.

Childs, B. S. (1986). Old Testament theology in a canonical context (1st Fortress Press ed.). Fortress Press.

Fretheim, T. E. (1991). Exodus. John Knox Press.

The Problem of Evil

A perfectly good God exists, and evil exists. This is a challenging enigma to contemplate and understand. After all, a good God would stop all evil and suffering from happening, so we would not have to experience it, right? This is where we need to pause and consider some of the characteristics of God and consider how God works in the world.

God is omnipotent. This means that God is all-powerful. Wouldn’t it make sense that an all-powerful God would be able to eradicate all evil in this world? But there is still evil, and many use this as an argument against God, or his goodness. This argument comes in because we have a misconception about the concept and reality of real power, mainly how God uses his power.

Real power is not coercing and forcing your will and desires on other people or situations. Real power comes from restraint, as well. Underlying the all-powerful nature of God is that his nature is of love. God can, and maybe sometimes does, prearrange circumstances to make sure things turn out as he intended, but this does not mean this is how God acts all the time.

Real power also comes from restraint. Since God is all-powerful, he can do anything he wants. Since God is loving, he does not desire his creation, us, to follow and serve him out of anything but a desire and a sincere love for him. Everything has been set in motion and is perfectly aligned and created to make life habitable here on earth for humanity. If there were one, seemingly insignificant part out of correct alignment, life as we know it would end. For example, if the core temperature of the earth was a degree hotter, or the earth’s axis was off by .01, life would not be sustainable. This is true even if the moon was an inch closer to earth. Everything is placed in the proper placement and, therefore, has been given natural laws to run so life can continue. Even though J.L. Mackie says the argument that God limits himself in our world takes away from the teaching God is omnipotent (all-powerful), this is one of the best ways to describe what’s going on.

Another aspect of God’s restraint from merely taking control and erasing evil comes from his great love for the created order, especially humanity. If God wanted people to follow him, no questions asked, he would have robotic slaves. This is not what God desires. God desires a relationship with his creation. Because of this, God has given humanity the “gift” of free-will.

Free will has been a blessing and a curse for humanity. It has been a blessing because we have been allowed to learn, to make our own decisions, and to choose what we believe. It has been a curse because we have also been given a chance to do good or to do evil. There is much evil because people have exercised their freedom to bring evil into the world, maybe even into our situations. This is called moral evil.

Moral evil does not explain all that is wrong in this world because there are things that happen that occur because we live in a world where sometimes things happen beyond our control. We cannot stop the destruction of natural disasters. We cannot always prevent illnesses and diseases that take life. We cannot stop people from making the wrong decision. We cannot stop the consequences from the actions of others affecting us (i.e., Enron or financial systems doing what they believe is right). This is called natural evil.

This brings us to the next question, “did God create evil?” Saint Augustine argued that God only created/creates good things. And since the whole universe is God’s, it is fundamentally good. He also says that evil is not a created thing; it is an entity and, therefore, evil is the lack of good. God is all-powerful and has created an incredible world and universe. He is also unchanging and eternal, but the created order isn’t. Creation is mutable and changeable and, therefore, is corruptible to manifesting as evil. This lines up with the account of the fall in Genesis 3-11. Creation, humanity, rebelled against God, and brought evil into the world.

Bishop Irenaeus taught something a little different from Augustine. John Hick has his rendition of this teaching—Adam and the original creation were innocent and immature but were offered the opportunity to do good by loving God and people. He goes on to say that evil is here because this is an “inevitable stage in the gradual evolution of the human race.”

There is an argument that we cannot know good without knowing about evil. J.L. Mackie argues this with a few points: evil is a necessary counterpart to good, evil is a necessary means to good, and the universe is better with some evil. One of the issues with this kind of thinking is that it implies God is the One who created and brought about the evil and suffering we experience in this life. There is evidence to support this thought in scripture, but we also have to understand people are going to do what they are going to do.

To know evil means we have the opportunity to know good. To identify good means we know what is evil. And this is precisely why we were given the Law in our Bibles—to understand how we should live, so we do not end up living an evil life and corrupting the world even more. The created order is designed to do what God set in motion through natural laws. Humanity is the only part of the created order that has been given the gift of knowing right from wrong. God must have known we were going to make the choices we made and still make today, right?

Many theologians believe that God knows everything—past, present, and future—and lives within the space of being able to see and know all possible outcomes and scenarios (probable and factual). This means that God knows every possible way we could act or think. Some argue that this way of thinking about the knowledge God has means humanity does not have free will if God knows what we are capable of doing and do what we want. Scripture teaches God works all things together for good—meaning, God has a plan in place for every situation we might choose so his perfect will is done here on earth, even amidst the evil that surrounds us.

The biggest thing we have to wrestle with is not, why has God not eradicated evil, but what do we believe about God and what do we believe about how God works in this world and yours and my life. Sometimes faith has to go beyond the intellectual level and go into the heart level. This means there are some things we are going to have to be okay not being able to reconcile, and we have to trust that God is working for the good in this world. If we believe this about God, we can put simple trust that what the book of Revelation says about a new heaven and new earth are real, and God’s goodness will win in the end. The question now is, how will you and I choose to live?

A Whole New World

How would you describe the state of our world? Would you say there is hope left? Why or why not?

What is interesting about these questions is, it all depends on how you and I view life. What do you notice about this picture:

Do you the the glass as half filled? Half empty? Or do you notice there is water in it that can be used for something good?

The point of this is, I believe, there is always hope in the world. The difference comes in with what we allow our minds and hearts be filled with. Do we pay more attention to the negativity, spread gossip, take part in slandering another person simply because they have a different viewpoint than you? These are all questions we need to consider.

I, as I have said, believe there is hope in this world still. There has to be. If this was only as good as it will get, then we are missing out on something greater than ourselves. Part of the issue is that we tend to focus on the viewpoint of our own perspective (which is clouded by our upbringing, our own culture, our race, our position in society, etc.). We can easily miss out on what God is doing if we only view the world through our own mindset. God is still working and he is also asking us can we look at the entirety of creation and see his plan of redemption at work now.

This is hard to do because we see so much that is wrong. Illnesses, crime, shootings, families torn apart, and so much more fill our TVs, newspapers, facebook walls, twitter feeds, etc. When this is what we pay attention to, this is what we will think the world is like.

I have hope for the future because there is always a glimmer of hope because God is always working. I also have this hope because I believe Scripture when it says everything will be made new (Isaiah 65, Revelation 21/22). This is also the message of Jesus, “the Kingdom of Heaven/God is at hand.”

Friends we have access to the Kingdom of Heaven that is right here with us. As long as we pay attention to what’s wrong, we will miss out on what is right. We can easily miss out on the joy/love/hope/peace that is available to us here and now. God is asking us to be part of the solution. Yes, there is so much that needs to be done that we cannot (on our own) do everything, but we can do something.

What can we do?

Find ways to spread joy to those around you. Have a complaint? Seek out what the other person is going through before the complaint is made (seek first to understand then be understood). You never know what kind of connection/difference you can make in the life of the other person (yours too).

With this idea of spreading joy, there is something easy to do – plan random acts of kindness wherever you go. This may mean we go out of the way to do something nice (even if it is a simple smile), but we really never know how this will impact another person’s day, and how they will treat the next person all because you and I did something kind.

Be generous. Christians should tithe (giving at least 10% of our income) to the church. We do this because we fully trust God provides for us and when we give this much we live by the reality everything we have, God actually owns. Now, to do this, I think we have it backwards when we try to “step up” to this kind of living/giving. Jesus never says, “give what you can now and then do more in the future when you’re more comfortable.” No, Jesus says, “follow me…take up your cross.” This means we, at the beginning, place our full trust in him by going ahead and giving that much away.

I know I have just struck a cord with some people by saying to give to the church. There are many people who think the church doesn’t do enough and other community organizations are better equipped. But think about how much more the local church would/could do if all Christians gave 10% and gave it to the church.

Look at what you’re giving to. You may think 10%, at least, is too much, but my bet is you are already more generous than you may realize. How much do you give to civic places, students, clubs, sports equipment renovation, etc. The challenge is making sure what we give our money to will actually make a difference for eternity instead of breaking down and needing more money to fix back up.

What do you sense God leading you to do? If he calls you to it, you better believe he has, and will, equip and provide everything needed.

God is working in this world, through many people…even you! As we seek to love God more, we find we love people more and end up doing more to help build people up for the advancement of the Kingdom of Heaven. This, after all, is what’s it’s all about anyway.

Living with this mindset is the only way we can experience a whole new world. Everything around us may not change, but the lens with which we view the world will change. Then, everything we do will help to make the world look like that.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear!

What is Christian Worship?

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us…Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God.” (Tozer 47) How we worship God during the week reflects how we worship God together at weekly gatherings. What is worship? Worship is more than something we do. It is more than something we attend. It is more than something we know the order of. Worship is a lifestyle. More importantly, worship is a response to the Living God who is here, who gave life, who continues to work and move in and through the believers.

If the people of God are to be living a life of worship, then the order of worship reflects how lives should be lived. In each worship setting, almost no matter what “style of worship” a person participates in, there is a four-fold movement to help the worshipper move closer to the throne of grace and experience the presence of the Living God. This movement appears in the book of Isaiah chapter 6. In a vision, Isaiah has found himself to be in the throne room of God. Here God is meeting with the heavenly beings, worshipping God, and talking about what should be done on earth. “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?’” (Isaiah 6:8 NIV) Isaiah decides to be the one to respond and say, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8c NIV) After Isaiah responds, he receives the mission and the gifts to do what needs to be done. This shows the movement of worship (Gathering, Word, Table/Response, Sending Out), and describes our life with God through Jesus Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Flow of Worship

Isaiah has been transported, in a vision, to the throne room of God. This is the first movement of worship called the Gathering. In this movement, people are finding themselves to be in the presence of God. This is where the people gather their hearts and spirits together to worship and begin to celebrate, as a community, all God has done, is doing, and will do. The Gathering is the time to center our hearts and our entire being on the reality of the presence of God. An example to help the worshippers understand the presence of God is among the worshipping community is to proclaim, “Welcome to God’s house where the Risen Christ is ready to receive our praises! I invite you to add your praise to those of your sister and brothers as we rejoice together in this day that God has made.” (Cherry 64) Many different components may be used in this movement. When the people wake up to the fact the presence of God is with them, and they are in the presence of God, the worship leader can offer a call to worship, song, opening prayers, prayers of confession and pardon and/or more. Isaiah has found himself to be in the presence of the Holy One and says, “Woe to me!…I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:5 NIV) Isaiah understands where he is and whose presence he is in. He confesses and then one of the heavenly beings comes to cleanse Isaiah from his sin. Being in the presence of God changes lives. There is a need to be cleansed and receive forgiveness, so the people’s hearts are open and ready to fully worship and receive the blessings, peace, and most importantly, the presence of the Living God that is already among them. The point of the Gathering is to help the worshippers understand and appreciate the presence of the Holy Spirit inviting each person to participate in the worship of God Almighty that is already taking place in the heavens.

Since worship is a way of life, one way the worshippers could get ready for the community worship experience is to pray, sing, and read scripture. Psalms 120-134 are called songs of “ascent,” meaning these psalms help the reader, and person of prayer prepare their hearts, minds, the whole being for what is about to happen in the community worship event.

After Isaiah pays attention that he is in the throne room of the Lord, the presence of God, he begins to listen. Through all of the praises going up, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty; heaven and earth are full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:3 NIV), Isaiah hears God speak. This is the next movement the worshipping community goes through, hearing the Word of God read, spoken, proclaimed. During this movement, the worship leader, lay reader, pastor, read the scripture passage(s) for the day and the people are ready to hear the Word of God proclaimed and explained. Since it is the Word of God heard, it is usually a good idea to ask God to open the hearts and lives of the people so the Word can be fully understood and transferred and the Word of God can come in people’s lives and do the work of transformation. This is usually done through prayer, such as a prayer of illumination which calls upon the Holy Spirit to speak to the people through the Word and the sermon of the day.

When the Word of God is read and proclaimed, it is always a good idea to focus on the entirety of the message of the whole Bible, specifically the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. This can be done through several scripture passage readings (Old Testament, Psalms, Epistles, Gospel readings) so the worshipper can keep the full message of scripture in their minds. One way to do this is to follow the Revised Common Lectionary readings which cover most of the Bible over three years. If the lectionary is not being used, it is important to still use more than one text or at least a more extended passage, so the full Word is heard in the context it was written.

God is always speaking. This is something the worshippers (all people) need to remember. So it is not just through the scripture reading(s) the worshippers hear from God; it is throughout the community worship event. When scripture is used throughout the service, the presence and Word of God is continually brought to the forefront of people’s minds and lives.

When God speaks, the only thing there is to do is respond. Isaiah’s response was “Here am I! Send me!” To respond to God means the people are ready and willing to do what God is asking. In the flow of worship, the response to God’s Word occurs in the sacraments (baptism and communion) or through song, prayer, or in the way the worshipping community decides. It is essential to give a response to the God who is present, active and speaking. The response “is an acknowledgment that we have truly listened to what God spoke to the community through the Scriptures and the sermon, and that as a result, we intend to offer back an appropriate affirmation.” (Cherry (99) Acts 2 demonstrates why the response is essential.

On the Day of Pentecost, Peter and the 119 other disciples are gathered together. Suddenly the Holy Spirit comes upon them in the form of tongues of fire, and the people hear a loud gushing wind. Peter stands up to address the crowd witnessing these signs. He boldly proclaims Jesus is still alive and gives a sermon that God uses to “cut to the heart” of each person there. The Word of God is strong, “alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12 NIV), that the people had to respond. As a result, three thousand people decided to follow Jesus Christ and the world began to witness the saving, powerful work of God through Jesus Christ guided by the movement of the Holy Spirit. The world was starting to change. Responding to God means the people are acknowledging the desire to be part of God mission and work in the world. As a result, God fills the people with the Holy Spirit and equips them to do the work they are called to do.

The beginning of the community worship event takes the worshippers into the presence of God. The people are taken to God’s presence. This would be an upward movement, primarily because God’s people are always being worked on to be holier each day, with each experience of God. Then the worshippers have the chance to hear from God. This is God’s Word coming down to the people. When the people respond, the praises, voices, and cries of the people are brought back up to God. The response of the people is essential because the spirit of the people is lifted to God. This is the time when the people have the chance to get “on the same page” like God who is working, moving, and inviting the people to participate in the work being done.

Isaiah has found himself to be in the presence of God. He has been cleansed. He has heard God speak. He has responded. Now, Isaiah is sent back to the people for the mission of God. In the flow of worship, this is called the Sending. What happens in the Sending is the people are sent back into the mission field. The mission field is not a place in another country. The mission field is home, work, the community, the store(s). Wherever the people go, God is working there and inviting the people to participate with the Spirit to work in the world. Robert Webber says “when God blesses us, God confers on us a power to fulfill our calling in righteousness and holiness in Jesus Christ. God’s blessing on us is a gift—an actual pouring out on us the Holy Spirit.” (Webber 184) This is what the Sending is, going back into the world, out of the safety of comfort with other believers, and living into the life and power of God wherever we are and whatever we do.

Liturgy – The Work of the People

Liturgy happens in all worship services. “’Liturgy’ comes from the Greek word leitourgia, translated as “work of the people.” It refers to the actions that worshippers undertake in order to do the work of worship.” (Cherry 39) Cherry goes on to say, “whatever worship acts we offer to God constitute our liturgy.” (Cherry 39)

In traditional worship services, the liturgy will be more formalized and corporate. This means there will be a specific way to pray, to recite, to sing, a particular order. More relaxed, contemporary worship services, still follow a liturgy; however, it may seem more relaxed, or not as obvious. Liturgy is more than what the people say in worship. It is something done in worship. The flow of worship is the liturgy. “Since all worshippers engage to some degree in the actions of worship, all worshippers engage in liturgy.” (Cherry 39)

Time

To help keep the focus on Jesus Christ all year long, the Christian calendar has been introduced and utilized. Time is something sacred. All time is God’s time. “In the tapestry of history, in which God is ever active even if often hidden, that central, brilliant blossom is Jesus Christ who enables us to see so many other evidences of God’s presence, and causes us to know that God is always with us, even when hidden from view.” (Stokey 24) It is through celebrating the Christian calendar, beginning with Advent and go through the year, we have the chance to celebrate the full life and presence of Jesus Christ with us always.

Sacraments in Worship

One of the most significant aspects of Christian worship, for many people, is the participation in the action and practice of the sacraments. The Protestant Churches recognize two sacraments—Baptism and Holy Communion.

Holy Communion, sometimes called Eucharist or breaking of the bread or Lord’s Supper, is best placed within the worship service after the hearing and proclamation of the Word. This is a time of responding to Jesus Christ through the participation of joining him in this meal. When a person participates in this sacrament, sacred moment, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the participant joins in and celebrates the victory of Jesus Christ. “In the heavens, there is a constant and eternal historical recitation of Christ’s great victory over the power of evil and death.” (Webber 129)

The time of Communion helps the participants remember, celebrate, be part of the community, and join in the meal of heaven. During this act of worship, the worshipper is responding to the real presence of Jesus Christ by coming forward to receive the grace, life, and forgiveness Christ offers. This is not something the people go into lightly, nor haphazardly. The people have been building to this time throughout the whole worship service. Now, through the consecration of the elements, the bread and wine (juice) are used to demonstrate the presence of Jesus Christ going into and living through the worshipping community. “The purpose of the table is to engage in acts of worship that enact and celebrate the story of how God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, raised Christ from the dead, overcame the powers of evil, and offers to us the forgiveness, healing, love, and power for victorious living in community and in the world.” (Cherry 86)

Baptism is the second sacrament celebrated and practiced by Protestants. “Baptism, as it is known in the New Testament…is administered only once, at the point of initiation into the Christian community.” (Staples 120) This is an important thing to remember. A person is only baptized once because it is God doing the work, not the people. Baptized people do have opportunities, and should participate in, to remember their baptism by the symbol of water.

John Wesley, in his Treatise on Baptism, says, “The matter of this sacrament is water; which, as it has a natural power of cleansing, is more fit for this symbolic use.” (Wesley) Staples writes, “[Water] helps to create life, but it can destroy life. It nourishes life, yet it can drown it. It can be healing, yet it can be destructive. The Biblical writers knew this.” (Staples 126) Water is also used because Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River.

In 1982, the World Council of Churches published a work called “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry.” In this document, baptism is described as having five purposes: to participate in Christ’s death and resurrection (by going in the water and coming out), outwardly demonstrate an inward working of the Spirit’s cleansing power, it is a gift of the Spirit, incorporation into the Body of Christ, and baptism is a sign of the Kingdom. Just as circumcision was an outward sign for the Jewish people of their status as God’s chosen people, baptism is an inward sign that a person is marked, sealed and set apart as God’s person to live life in a covenant community sharing, showing, and expanding the Kingdom of Heaven wherever the believer is located.

There are many ways a person is baptized—sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. It does not matter how much water is used. The critical thing to pay attention to is how the Holy Spirit of God is working in and through the individual to be a vessel used for the redemption and transformation of the world.

Both Holy Communion and Baptism use symbols to represent the real presence of God through Jesus Christ as experienced by the Holy Spirit. The complete Triune God is present in the sacraments, and the people experience the saving grace of God through these acts of worship which are then transferred to everyday life.

Conclusion

Worship is a way of life. As the people of God gather together in God’s presence each week, they remember the saving act of God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Christian worship is centered around the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and shapes the people of more into the likeness and image of Christ. When the people of God are transformed, by the Holy Spirit, the world will look more and more like the Kingdom of God here on earth. This happens when the people of God live out their worship each day. Alexander Schmemann sums this idea up beautifully:

“The Church is the sacrament of the Kingdom—not because she possesses divinely instituted acts called ‘sacrament,’ but because first of all, she is the possibility given to man to see in and through this world the ‘world to come,’ to see and to ‘live’ it in Christ. It is only when in the darkness of the world we discern that Christ has already ‘filled all things with Himself’ that these things, whatever they may be, are revealed and given to us full of meaning and beauty.” (Schmemann 113)

The Church is the people of God, worshipping, celebrating, and doing the work of Christ in this world, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Bibliography

Cherry, Constance M. (2010). The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Schmemann, Alexander. (1963). For the Life of the World. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition

Staples, Rob L. (1991). Outward Sign and Inward Grace: The Place of Sacraments in Wesleyan Spirituality. Kansas City, KS: Beacon Hill Press.

Stookey, Laurence Hull. (1996). Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan House, 1984.

Webber, R. E. (1998). Planning blended worship: The creative mixture of old and new. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.

Tozer, A.W. (1961). The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God, Their Meaning in the Christian Life. New York: Harper

Why Study the Old Testament?

Does the Old Testament have any authority for the Christian believer today? Why should we even try to study the Old Testament?

This is actually something I have dealt with in a couple of my contexts. Some of the people say they only want to talk about that God is love and this is all you need to know. Others say they are “Red Letter Christians” meaning they only hold to and pay attention to the words of Jesus (red words) and this is what shapes their faith. We do have to pay attention to the “red letters” but we also have to understand the context they are written in.

One of the helpful things I have come to learn is the Old Testament is actually our story. When we read through the Old Testament, even the difficult passages, we can see how God related to the people, which is the same way God would relate to us today. God, especially through Jesus, is the same yesterday, today, and forever. So, as Christians we have to understand what it looks like to live out our lives in faithfulness.

Jesus says many times, “You have heard it said…but I say…” What does this mean unless we go back to see what he was talking about? Eye for an eye, as an example, is not just a saying in our culture; but it is a phrase that was used, for a specific reason, in the Old Testament. In essence, Jesus is giving more meaning to the words the people have heard and lived by all their lives, and therefore making them go deeper in their meaning to help the people see the seriousness of sin. In other words, Jesus is trying to show we do not have to be legalistic about our faith, just live it out of the heart—this, after all, is where our true motivations come from anyway.

Jesus gave the teachings and writings of the Old Testament authority, because he is God incarnate and therefore said the words. This is the first thing we have to pay attention to. Because of this, we see the apostles and early church give authority back to the Old Testament. Paul said that all scripture is God-breathed, God-inspired and he was talking about the Old Testament. But, without the Old Testament, we miss out on seeing the bigger picture God has in mind for being sent out to all the nations.

Through the Old Testament, we understand that Yahweh is the God who created the universe, and therefore is completely “other” from the universe, yet is also constantly active and personal in all of creation, especially through the lives of the people. We see how Yahweh has been set above the other “gods” of the world Because God is active in the world, we can better understand the mission Jesus sent his followers on by looking back at the calling of Abraham, even look back further to see how the world was set in order and how people were supposed to live with each other from the very beginning.

Back to the Old Testament is our story. Many people say that “our lives are the only Bible people will read.” This is true. I can also see how our lives tell the story the Bible tells. We are created out of love (whether or not this is true from a human perspective, we are created from the love of God). Because we are created out of love, we have been set to live this life in this particular time, this particular culture, with this particular personality, and gifts/talents/motivations, etc. We have been placed here to tend to and cultivate what God has given us, and go into the world. We have been created for a purpose.

We also see how we have been given teacher, preachers, books, other people to guide us and teach us the “rules of life” so we can learn what it means to be a “good/decent person”. The Lord did this with Israel with the Sinai Covenant. God gave the people the law to show what it means to live a holy/set apart people. But, we learn we still have this desire to do what we want and disregard what God said (blessing and curse of free will). This helps us understand there is something in us we cannot take out or get rid of on our own—something that seems to be ingrained in us to do things we know we shouldn’t do. We see this through the continual living faithfully and calling of Israel to repent by the Prophets.

There comes a time when God says the people have done their own thing for so long before stepping in to take over. God has always been present in our lives and there comes a point when we realize we need God to be the One leading us and changing us. We need God to step in to the world/our world, and show us how we are being transformed and make us into something even more than we could have ever imagined. This is where Jesus comes in.

Jesus comes, and we finally realize we need only him, he is the only One who can do what we need. Now, because of the Old Testament, we can better see how God has been working in the world to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven. The Savior we have been hoping for has come, is changing our lives, and taking us to a place where we can work with him to change the world and see the world redeemed because of his grace. Because of Jesus (Yahweh in flesh), we can go from the chaos of our world (the world) and move into a life of order, peace, and true faithfulness.

Why study the Old Testament? A scholarly answer would be so we can understand the entire message of the Bible and to understand what is really going on. A theological answer would be so we can understand what the New Testament is actually saying and how it is applied to our lives. A personal answer, at least to me, would be so we can better understand our purpose and how we are supposed to live. More importantly, so we can better understand our lives and see how we sin and fall short of God, we constantly go back and forth from doing what we are supposed to do/not do, we see God (through Jesus Christ) coming to change our lives, and we see us moving toward a future with a hope because God has it already in the palm of his hands and has an ultimate plan for the future.

We study the Old Testament because it is our story. It is the story God tells so we can understand our mission to be in a holy community, and to be lights to the world to take the message of salvation to all the nations. If we can take this time to study and understand the importance of the Old Testament, we can better see how God through Jesus Christ is reshaping the world back the original intent.

Because people, by fallen nature, are self-absorbed, bringing us to a place to see we are also in the story of ancient Israel could make it seem like reading about your own family history and given better understanding to why we live like we live. This could also give people the motivation to learn more, on their own and in groups, to study the complexity, yet simplicity, of the message of the Old Testament and see more clearly how Jesus is really fulfilling (not obliterating) the law and words in the Old Testament which should give greater clarity and purpose to our lives and reason for living as a mission community to the rest of the world so God’s plan is completed.