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.
I’ve got a secret
Mark 4: We’re not keeping secrets, we’re telling them.
The theme here is parable telling. Mark tells us some of Jesus’ stories and then remarks that Jesus is “never without a story.” The reason for this approach, according to Jesus, is that he’s in the “secret revealing” business. No hidden, mystic religion of riddles here. Jesus’ purpose is to open wide the doors to the Kingdom of God. People who never understood before now get a crystal clear picture of God at work. Now we understand how the gospel takes root in some lives but not in others. We see what happens when the gospel does take root, starting small but becoming a huge, transforming force in life. And, we see God’s purpose in all this. Those who receive the gospel are to let the light of that gospel shine in their lives. We aren’t to be “keepers of the flame.” Instead, we’re “givers of the flame.” We don’t take the gospel into our lives and hide it. Instead, it’s to be the noticeable thing about us. So, how’s it going? Do people see the light of the gospel in my life? If I’m one of those who has received the gospel and if it has taken root and become the number one thing in my life, is it what others see in me? At the very core of my life, I’m to be a “secret teller” letting others in on the best news in the world. If not, maybe it’s because I’m not the kind of “soil” I think I am!
Take Away: Some secrets are best told.
Matthew 10: It’s best to start small.
Jesus now settles on twelve men to be his core team. They don’t know it yet, but they (with one exception) will become Apostles who will lead the infant church. He sends them out on a mission to spread word of Kingdom come. Interestingly, he spends as much time telling them what not to do as he does telling them what they are to do. For instance, he tells them not to head off for distant places. Rather, they’re to stay local. He tells them that they don’t need to take a lot of stuff with them. Their changed lives are the best “show and tell” imaginable. They’re to stay in modest places, to be gentle and not argumentative with those they encounter, and to leave a place rather than stay for a fight. They aren’t to worry about what they will say but, instead, to trust the Lord to give them the right words at the right times. He tells them not to be afraid or intimidated. His example of Kingdom ministry is offering “a cup of water to someone who’s thirsty.” It occurs to me that I tend to make complicated what the Lord made simple. Maybe instead of spiritualizing all this stuff I need to do something simple like buying some bottled water to give out to anyone who looks like they might be thirsty.
Take Away: Let’s not complicate simple matters…if we keep it simple, we’ll find an abundance of ministry opportunities.
Guess who’s coming to dinner?
Matthew 9: A lot of disreputable characters came and joined them.
Matthew’s job of collecting taxes makes him one of the most disliked people in the community. His dealing with the Romans is unsavory in the eyes of most people and tax collectors are viewed as being dishonest, taking advantage of others. We don’t know if there’s more to the story, but his transition from collecting taxes to following Jesus happens in one sentence here in the book of the Bible that bears Matthew’s name. Jesus invites and Matthew stands up and follows. Later on, Matthew throws a party in honor of our Lord. Having followed Jesus for less than a day poor Matthew doesn’t have any “insider” friends. All he has is “outsider” friends; others who are looked down on by the “right” sort of people. Matthew invites them all to come to this event where they, too, can meet Jesus. The religious leaders can’t believe their eyes. All their suspicions about Jesus are confirmed. He can’t tell the difference between good and bad people. In fact, he’s too at home with the wrong sort of people. Know what? Jesus is right at home with them. However, the question to ask is, “Why are we followers of Jesus so uncomfortable around sinners?” Jesus loved them, enjoyed their company, and offered them a better way. I fear that we church people have more in common with the religious leaders than we do with Jesus. We isolate and insulate ourselves inside our church buildings. We read our Christian books and go to our Christian movies and listen to our Christian radio stations. We have Christian softball and bowling leagues. When the pastor urges us to bring our unsaved friends to church we shrug our shoulders and declare that we don’t have any. Maybe the church world needs to add “befriend a sinner” week to our busy church calendars.
Take Away: We can’t bring light to the world if we spend all our time hidden behind closed church doors.
The harsh reality
Jeremiah 14: Preachers and priest going about their business as if nothing’s happened!
Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet” because he speaks of his tears for his people so often. In this passage he says he cries “day and night” over their sin and the resulting destruction it will bring to them. He’s shocked and dismayed by all he sees: so much pain and suffering, so much sin and evil. Now, another thing shocks him. It’s the reaction of the church people to all this. He expects at least for them to share in his tears over it all. However, it isn’t that way. Church services go on as usual. “Wasn’t that an interesting illustration the pastor used in the sermon?” “Yes, but he preached a bit long for my taste, however, that special in song was lovely, wasn’t it?” Off we all go to our favorite restaurant for lunch, hopefully, we’ll get there before the Baptists. Oh, I’m not really against good church services or Christians enjoying fellowship after the service. However, Jeremiah’s heartbreak over lost people does speak to my heart today. We’ve got to stop doing business as usual and find ways to impact our society for Christ. Our church growth model is often more about getting people to switch to our church than it is about seeing people saved. We simply can’t think we’re doing what the Lord commanded us to do by just having good worship services while so many are headed out to eternity without Jesus.
Take Away: We’ve got to stop doing business as usual and find ways to impact our society for Christ.