2013 – Burgess Falls State Park, TN
The God of the House of God
Genesis 35: He built an altar there and named it El-Bethel (God-of-Bethel).
Having returned to his home region, Jacob and his large family settle in. However, it isn’t long before things get complicated. The interaction between Jacob’s family and the natives of the land turns ugly with a rape and then retaliation that includes murder. It’s time for them to go and the Lord names the place: Bethel. It was at Bethel that the Lord first appeared to Jacob when he was on the run from his brother. Now, he moves his entire family and all his belongings to Bethel. Apparently, it comes just in time. Not only are the locals preparing for war against them, but many of Jacob’s entourage has begun to dabble in the religions of the region. It’s time for Jacob and family to go to Bethel. When he arrives he builds a new altar to the Lord there. The name “Bethel” means “House of God.” Jacob names the altar “El-Bethel” meaning “The God of the House of God.” He isn’t only bringing his family to the place where he met God; he’s bringing them to God, Himself. I know it’s quite a stretch, but I can’t help but think of our own efforts to impact our families for God. It isn’t enough to insist that they behave themselves or even attend church with us. We need to bring them to God, Himself. Without that, everything else is just sideline stuff that’s bound to fail.
Take away: We need to do all we can to bring our loved ones to a personal relationship with the Lord.
As the curtain falls
Revelation 22: “Come!” say the Spirit and the Bride.
The final scene is that of a river flowing with the Water of Life and a tree called “the Tree of Life.” There’s the Throne of God surrounded by his worshipers. Righteousness reigns…holiness everywhere. John is told to publish his vision, making it available to all who will read. Then, Jesus, the star of this whole story speaks, in effect, putting his signature on the entire vision. Now, we hear a word that’s both an invitation to all and a mission for the Church. There’s the invitation to “come and drink…freely of the Water of Life.” There’s also a commission for the Church, the Bride of Christ, to join the Spirit in echoing the invitation to the entire human race, offering this Water of Life to all who will come. What we receive we offer to others. Now, as the curtain is falling, Jesus speaks again, assuring us of his return. From the audience John answers for all of us: “Yes, Come, Master Jesus!”
Take Away: Jesus is coming back. This is our hope. Proclaiming this truth is our mission.
The disposition of the believer
1Peter 3: Be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble.
The original readers of this letter are under pressure, suffering for their faith. Not only that but they’re in the first generation of Christianity. In this passage Peter describes the general disposition of a believer. Christians are to be agreeable, sympathetic people. We’re to be known for our compassion on others and our humility concerning ourselves. We’re not to advance the cause of Christianity by force and people aren’t to have to worry about watching their “P’s & Q’s” when they’re around us. Even non-Christians are to feel comfortable and it should go without saying that we’re to treat one another in kind, agreeable ways. Sad to say, some believers haven’t gotten this memo. They think that they’re doing God a favor by forcing their moral code down people’s throats. They think they’re being good soldiers in his army by creating lots of collateral damage on fellow believers with whom they have a few differences of opinion. The question I need to ask myself is how do I score on this “agreeable, sympathetic, loving, compassionate, humble” test? Peter, it seems, can almost hear people’s self-justification at this point, so he adds: “That goes for all of you, no exceptions.” He continues, “That’s your job, to bless.” Of course, my non-Christian friends are to know that I believe there’s a superior way for them to live. At the same time, they’re to conclude an encounter with me feeling that they’ve been blessed and not cursed.
Take Away: Do people think of time with us as a blessing or a curse?
The secret to evangelism
Colossians 4: Make the most of every opportunity.
Believers aren’t supposed to create closed communities of the faithful. Rather, we’re to live right out in the open, rubbing shoulders with those outside the faith, making friends, sharing in their lives. I don’t think this means that believers are never to “retreat.” After all, Jesus at least attempted to get the disciples away from the crowds sometimes. Still, he always went back to them, loving them, and, apparently, liking those who weren’t his followers. Paul urges the Colossian Christians to not only stay involved in their community but to make the most of that involvement. Interestingly, his directions for them aren’t as evangelistic as you might think. He describes “making the most” as being “gracious in your speech” and tells them that their “goal is to bring out the best in others in a conversation.” Apparently, our influencing others for Christ doesn’t necessarily start with a “spiritual conversation” at all. Instead, it starts with friendship, respect, genuine interest. In fact, Paul specifically warns them not to “put them down” or “cut them out.” In light of these instructions, becoming a “friend” to someone just so we can tell them about Jesus is off the table. My seizing the moment starts, instead, with my making some genuine friends outside the body of believers. Then, I make sure I’m always gracious in my conversations with them, wanting the best for them. Real friendships are the secret to evangelism.
Take Away: For church people it’s a big challenge to make good friends who are outside the church. Still, it’s a key component to evangelism.
Starting at the start
1Corinthians 2: God’s Spirit and our spirits in open communion.
When Paul begins his ministry in the town of Corinth he knows that he needs to take it easy. These folks have little upon which to build. If he starts off dealing with the deeper things of God (like he does in his letter to the church at Rome) they’ll get nothing out of it and will likely turn back to their former way of life. Paul wisely sticks to the basics: Jesus died for our sins and is resurrected. This message speaks to their hearts and they give their lives to the Jesus they hear about from Paul. Still, there’s much more to learn about the Christian life. Now, though, they’re better prepared to learn of the things of God. The reason for this is that now the Holy Spirit is working in their lives. The Spirit, you see, isn’t into keeping secrets. Rather, he’s all about teaching us, leading us one step at a time into a better understanding of the things of God. To some extent we all start our spiritual journey by taking baby steps. It’s important that we, God’s people, remember that in dealing with those who haven’t a clue. There’s no need to argue the finer points of our faith with people who don’t yet have a handle on who Jesus is and what he’s done for us. We start our religious talk here: “Let me tell you about Jesus.” Once a person receives Jesus into their life, the Holy Spirit begins to commune with their spirit, helping them begin to grasp the deeper things of God.
Take Away: We need to start with the basics in dealing with people, and then trust the Holy Spirit to move them along at the pace he knows is right for them.
God at work here
Romans 2: There is something deep within them that echoes God’s yes and no, right and wrong.
Paul hasn’t spent his time locked up in some ivory tower thinking about hypothetical situations. Rather, more than anyone else, he’s gone out into the real world dealing with people from all walks of life and a variety of religious beliefs. We think that if we have a spirited exchange with a friend who’s a Catholic or a Pentecostal or a Baptist that we’ve been debating religion. Paul has encountered a variety of religious views that reveal our denominational differences to be as trivial as they really are. He’s worked with idol worshipers and with a wide variety of pagans. In all that, Paul has never backed away from his faith in Jesus Christ and he’s proclaimed that faith at considerable personal cost. Still, even in the most non-Christian settings he’s discovered in people the image of God. He’s seen in those who’ve never heard of the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount an innate understanding of the concepts taught to God’s people by them. This, Paul says, is a proof of God’s hand in their lives and a reminder that their coming to Christ isn’t as distant a journey as one might think. On one hand, I don’t want to drift into the dangerous waters of universalism. Among other things, that diminishes the sacrifice our Lord made on the cross. On the other hand, I want to appreciate the good things I see in people who haven’t yet come to the Lord. On every human heart, follower of Jesus or not, a sign can be hung declaring “God at work here.”
Take Away: Before I ever think of God he thinks of me and before I ever respond to him, he’s already at work in my life.
Telling thankful people just who to thank
Acts 14: We don’t make God; he makes us, and all of this.
Paul and Barnabas arrive in Lystra and open their ministry there by performing a miracle, healing a lame man. The town goes wild and before they know it Barnabas and Paul are identified as the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes. In the mythology of the day Hermes is the spokesman of the gods and since Paul does most of the talking they identify him as Hermes. Barnabas, though, gets the highest title. Maybe there’s a lesson here that if we keep our mouths shut people will think more of us than they would otherwise! Anyway, it takes some doing to calm the crowd down so that Paul can preach the Good News of the gospel to them. Since the theme of the day is already set, Paul focuses in on the true God and his good will toward all people. That good will, he says, is evident in the blessings that surround each of us. Here’s evangelism fueled by Creation. Even a person who’s secular to the core looks at the majesty of the Grand Canyon or some other natural wonder and feels a sense of gratitude. A good place to start a conversation about the Lord is to tell them who it is that we thank for it all.
Take Away: One of the ways the Lord has revealed himself to us is through his Creation.
Acts 4: Take care of their threats and give your servants fearless confidence in preaching your Message.
The “silver and gold have I none” healing of the lame man gets the attention of everyone, including the religious leaders. Peter and John are arrested for starting a riot, but the city has caught “miracle fever” and the leaders are in danger of having a real riot on their hands if they don’t let the “miracle workers” go. The disciples are seriously warned to stop talking about Jesus and then let go. Victoriously, they return to the gathering of believers, telling all that has happened. Knowing that these leaders don’t make idle threats, the Church goes to prayer. On one hand, they ask the Lord to deal with their threats. On the other hand, they ask him to fill them with “fearless confidence in preaching.” If the Lord will, then, they seek an easy path in proclaiming Jesus. However, easy or not, they ask for boldness in telling about him. Luke reports that as they pray there’s a “mini-Pentecost” as the ground trembles and the Holy Spirit re-fills them. Out the doors they go in Pentecostal power to tell the story of Jesus. It may be that we go about this “telling” business all wrong. We tend to focus on the “make it easy for me” part rather than the “make me bold” part. There’s nothing wrong with asking the Lord to open the way, after all, that’s what happens in this passage. However, we might just see a more powerful display of the Holy Spirit in our lives if we backed it up by praying the “easy or not, make me more bold” part of the prayer.
Take Away: Maybe we lack boldness because we don’t ask for it.
Don’t leave home without it
John 14: Whatever you request along the lines of who I am and what I am doing, I’ll do it.
Some of the most empowering words ever spoken are those of our Lord as he prepares his disciples for the soon coming events in these closing days of his earthly ministry. The clock is ticking and soon their world will be rocked in ways they can’t imagine. Still, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. As a result of all that’s coming they’ll do even greater things than what they’ve seen Jesus do. I think Jesus is speaking to them as a cooperate group and not as individuals. They won’t all go out and be messiahs in the world, but together, as the Church, they’ll transform the world in the Name of Jesus. They won’t be alone in their task. Jesus is sending the Holy Spirit, his Spirit, who’ll not only be with them but will be in them, empowering them to do his work. When they run up against impossible situations that threaten to stop them from carrying on his work, all they’ll need to do is call out to him and he’ll make the impossible possible for them. This “asking in Jesus’ Name” isn’t an open credit card that they can use for doing anything they want. Rather, this is all about ministry empowerment. Jesus wants them to carry on his work in this world, bringing the Good News of the Gospel to every nation. He promises them power for the task and he tells them that he’ll never be more than a prayer away. This may not be an all-purpose “credit card” but it is, I think, a mighty fine “Master’s Card” that I need to use more often.
Take Away: Jesus has provided us exactly what we need to do his work in this world.
He measures up
John 10: Everything he said about this man has come true.
The situation with the religious leaders in Jerusalem is about to come to a full boil so Jesus withdraws, out of their reach before making one last trip to that city. He returns to where his ministry began, out in the wilderness along River Jordan. It was here that John the Baptizer introduced Jesus as the Messiah, the Savior of the world. In ways similar to what happened in his earlier ministry in Galilee, people are drawn to Jesus and now they come in droves. In this setting the crowds can’t help but remember John’s glowing predictions concerning Jesus, made right here just a few years earlier. They conclude that John nailed it. Jesus is everything John said he would be. There’s something powerful about telling people about Jesus. Even as we make our pitifully inadequate effort to tell the story it’s Spirit-powered. Then, the moment our hearer looks toward Jesus something begins to happen in their lives. As it was with John, our role instantly begins to shrink and the role of Jesus begins to expand in their lives. Still, it’s deeply gratifying, yet humbling at the same time, when someone takes a moment to glance back our way and comment, “That’s the person who first told me about Jesus.” I want to do a better job of pointing the way to all who will listen.
Take away: There’s something powerful about telling people about Jesus.