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.
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?
Putting Jesus on display
1Peter 2: Treat everyone with dignity. Love your spiritual family. Revere God. Respect the government.
Being a Christian in a non-Christian society has its challenges. Sometimes Christians are viewed with suspicion and other times with contempt. Peter says it’s up to us to correct the mistaken views of our faith. We do that, not by standing up for our rights or debating to prove our point or by withdrawing from society. Instead, we take our spiritual lives out to the streets and let our faith be seen by anyone who cares to look. We treat people well, granting them dignity no matter what their station in life. We treat one another well, refusing to sink to petty infighting over minor differences of opinion. We live as people who reverence God, unashamedly putting our high regard for the Lord on display. Finally, we conduct ourselves as good citizens, not using our citizenship of heaven as an excuse for neglecting our duties as citizens of the country in which we live. The result is that people who don’t know much about our religion will come to respect us. That, in turn, will open the door for us to have a real influence for Jesus. We don’t try to win people by beating them over their heads with our Bibles. Rather, we win them by putting the Jesus we serve on display in our lives every day and in every situation.
Take Away: People are drawn to lives that reflect the real Jesus.
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.
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.
Giving credit where credit is due
Acts 3: Faith and nothing but faith put this man healed and whole right before your eyes.
Peter and John are on their way to a prayer meeting when they encounter a pitiful lame man at the Temple gate. Peter has no money but he does have faith in Jesus’ power to heal. By that faith the man is wonderfully healed. This healing causes quite a commotion and a crowd gathers. It’s now that Peter brings a quick sermon giving Jesus all the glory for the healing and calling on his listeners to put their faith in this Jesus who makes a real difference in people’s lives. As I watch all this unfold I can’t help but wonder how good a job I do of giving Jesus the credit. Here’s what I think: Christians do a wonderful job of giving the Lord credit for organized, intentional ministries. We make sure that people helped through official channels know that we’re ministering to them in Jesus’ name. On the other hand, I don’t think we do a very good job when we minister in unofficial ways. I fear that often people just think we’re nice folks because we take it for granted that they know we’re acting as representatives of Jesus. We need to develop a better strategy along these lines. I need to come up with a line to say when, for instance, I stop to help my neighbor carry some bit of heavy trash to the curb for pickup. When he says “thanks” I need to be ready to say something about my being a follower of Jesus and I just try to do stuff I think he’d do. It may not always be appropriate and it’s probably not a time for me to preach a sermon like Peter does in this passage, but then again, helping carry a worn out clothes dryer to the curb isn’t as big a deal as healing someone like he did.
Take Away: Christians need a strategy for giving Jesus the credit for simple acts of kindness they do it his name.
Rubbing shoulders with the “untouchables”
John 4: Open your eyes and take a good look at what’s right in front of you.
The disciples go into Sychar to buy some lunch. As good Jews they’re uncomfortable dealing with the Samaritans, but they steel themselves for the task, do what has to be done as quickly as possible and return to Jesus who, in their opinion, has wisely waited outside of town. To their surprise, they find him in conversation with one of “them” and a woman at that! Shortly (at least in my imagination) these disciples will squirm and nearly run away as the whole town of Samaritans surrounds them, pressing in on every side. This will be the first small break in their separatist views that will be broken wide open by Paul’s ministry some years later. Jesus describes this Samaritan village, not as a necessary evil, but instead, as a field ready for the Kingdom harvest. In the church we often pray that the Lord will help us find spiritually hungry people to whom we can minister the Good News of the gospel. Is there a chance that we’re like the disciples at this point? Are we overlooking the possibilities right next door? Are there people we carefully avoid who Jesus views as “fields white unto harvest?” Would the Lord have us (me) rub shoulders with some of these “untouchables?” I need to spend more time in this passage.
Take Away: If I’ll just open my eyes I might see some surprising spiritual realities.
Jesus likes people of doubtful reputation
Luke 15: A lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus.
One problem the religious leaders have with Jesus is the type of people he attracts. He gets along with prostitutes and tax collectors, the very ones they use in their sermons as the kind of people who should be avoided at all cost. Jesus, though, welcomes them. He doesn’t tell them to go clean up their acts and then come back. Rather, he welcomes them just as they are. When the religious leaders complain about this, Jesus tells three “lost and found” stories. In each story that which is lost is of real value and in each there’s great rejoicing when it’s found. The religious leaders might think of these folks of doubtful reputation as worthless fodder for the fires of hell. Jesus, however, places great value on them and when one of them comes and listens and then chooses to be a friend of his he thinks a celebration is in order. As I read these lost and found stories I fear I’m less like Jesus and more like the religious leaders who are represented as the elder son in the final parable. In our society a Christian can pretty much saturate his or her life with “Christian stuff.” If I handle things right, I can avoid these people of “doubtful reputation” and not have to deal with them at all. If I do that, though, I have more in common with the religious leaders than I do with Jesus.
Take Away: Jesus loves lost people and so should I.