Sunday, July 26, 2009

Every Day I Write The Book

Luke 1:1-4 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning. It seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

Who likes to read? I love to read. In fact, last Sunday I went to the library and picked up three books – by Tuesday evening I was halfway finished with the 3rd book. I have always loved reading. Are there any other bibliophiles out there?

Today we’re looking at a prolific author. In fact, Dr. Luke wrote almost half of the New Testament. If you’re scratching your head, flipping through the book of Luke, wondering how I can say that, you have to know that Luke is only volume 1. Most scholars, in fact, don’t just refer to Luke, but to Luke-Acts. Because Acts is the second volume. In fact, the only reason that there are two books instead of one is that the scrolls were only so long… approximately long enough for… the Gospel According to Luke. And you’ll notice that Luke and Acts are approximately the same length. And if you are wondering about my reference to him as Dr. Luke, in Colossians 4:14, Paul refers to him as “Our dear friend Luke, the doctor” (as he joins Paul in sending greetings to the people of Colossia).

Today as we have already talked about Bible distribution, we look at Luke, whose scrolls have been distributed around the world, helped, of course, by most excellent Theophilus.

Luke wrote so that Theophilus would know the certainty of the things he has been taught. In all probability, Theophilus was a wealthy benefactor, one who could help spread Luke’s message to those in his sphere of influence. But Theophilus was most likely a young Christian as well, one who had been taught but still had some questions. So Luke, using his best investigative techniques, set out to write an orderly account of what really happened.

One thing that I hear all the time is that we want authors to be “objective.” Let’s be honest here. Luke was a lot of things, but one thing he was not was “objective.” Luke wrote with a purpose. His purpose is persuasion. He is on a mission to use the best techniques available to convince Theophilus (and his future readers) that what they’d been taught about God and about Jesus Christ was true.

You could think of it in other terms. We’ve all heard urban legends. Whether they’re about vanishing hitchhikers or white vans or LSD in children’s tattoos. My favorite are the ones from supposed Nigerian benefactors – all they need is my bank account information and they’ll fill it with US dollars. When I get an e-mail warning of the next horrible thing, I first check it out on snopes.com. They’ve already gone to the trouble of verifying or debunking all of those stories. To a great extent, this is what Luke has done for Theophilus. And Luke has great reason to do so.

Luke was no armchair researcher; he himself was a Christian missionary who frequently traveled with the Apostle Paul. In Acts, we often find instances where the narrator has ceased to simply narrate, but is instead an active participant.

Acts 16:10-15: We got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. 11 From Troas we put out to sea… from there we traveled to Philippi. …On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. 14One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message. 15When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. "If you consider me a believer in the Lord," she said, "come and stay at my house." And she persuaded us.

So Dr. Luke is an evangelist – sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ alongside Paul. In Acts 20:7, Luke is back with Paul taking Communion. That night Paul preached until midnight and a young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in a window seat, fell out the window and died, but Paul prayed for him and he was healed. I wonder what that experience did for him! If you, as a doctor, saw someone brought back from the dead, I wonder how you might think of something like resurrection!

Because of his unique situation and his faith, Luke set himself to write the continuation, not alone to defend the Christian movement, but above all to defend God’s ways in the world. By showing that the story of Jesus was rooted in that of Israel, and by demonstrating how God kept his promise by restoring Israel, Luke assured his Gentile readers that they could have confidence in “the things in which they were instructed” (Quote from Luke Timothy Johnson in his treatment of Luke (Sacra Pagina)).

Guess what? This applies to us as well. If we love Jesus, we have an obligation to learn everything we can about him. To know how His story is rooted in Israel’s story, how God kept His promises to Israel, and how our story is rooted in God’s story. I’ve heard people say things like they don’t need to be a part of the church, their faith is private, they don’t talk about Jesus, or they don’t need to be part of a cell group. This is like a NASA astronaut saying, “I love being an astronaut. I love it so much, but I don’t need a Space Shuttle. I don’t need other astronauts. I don’t need to talk about space or to learn more about space. I just love being an astronaut.” Can you see how ridiculous this is? (this is an adaptation of an illustration from a sermon Dr. Joe Dongel’s preached in an Asbury Seminary chapel service)

Our story is no story at all without God’s story. And it is nothing without interaction with others. In fact, the Apostle Paul describes the Corinthian Christians as a letter from Christ. (2 Corinthians 3:3): You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts.

Luke physically wrote the Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles after studying what happened, interviewing witnesses, and traveling as a missionary.

We, too, are called to study the history of salvation – we teach this under the title “The Progress of Redemption.” We also teach “Hermeneutics” (which is the fancy way of saying we’re studying to understand and classify the meaning of what the Biblical authors wrote). Just as a plug, this fall we’ll be starting a membership class, too.

If we are to be letters from Christ, we need to know what happened.

Just like Luke interviewed witnesses, we need to balance our own knowledge and experience with that of others. This is one reason why cell groups are so important; they give us a chance to learn from and to evaluate others’ relationship with Christ. I can remember times feeling like I was all alone in my walk with Christ. This has two sides: one is that it is vitally important to ask others about their walk with Christ, about their personal experiences with Him. The other is that we are all called to be witnesses. If you aren’t willing or able to talk about Jesus, then I wonder: do you really know Him? Jesus tells us that out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34b).

Luke wasn’t content to simply ask people what happened. He also traveled with Paul on his missionary journeys. Likewise, if we are truly to be letters from Christ, written on human hearts, on our hearts, we have to be involved in ministry and mission work. If you’re going to be a leader in this church, it is vitally important that you are involved in ministry. Not just on a committee. Because you cannot know the heart of Jesus without being involved in his mission. It’s often been said that it is easier to preach ten sermons than it is to live one. But the Holy Spirit empowers us to live one and to be that letter from Christ. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Don't Be a Half-Pint When it Comes to the Heart

(2 Chronicles 25:1-16)

One thing I’ve heard pretty frequently from people who don’t fully understand what it means to be a Christian is that they are trying to live a life in balance: they just want to make sure that their good deeds outweigh their bad. I know many people think this way, but there is a term coined specifically for this way of thinking: ridiculous. Seriously. All this mentality does is determine what is the minimum effort one can give in order to be “OK.” Many of us find ourselves doing this. I can remember working a 9-5 salaried job right after college; our boss joked cynically about nailing things down so they didn’t get swept away by the great gust of wind at exactly 5:00 every afternoon (as all of us rushed to get out). We didn’t have any vested interest in staying beyond 5.

I know many of us have given less than our all, but have you ever been given the bare minimum? Maybe you’re a boss, and you’ve seen your employees just barely do enough to merit a paycheck. Maybe you’re a teacher, and you’ve seen students who could (or should) be A students satisfied with any passing grade. Maybe you’re a parent and your kids barely help around the house. Maybe you’re married and your spouse seems to have time and energy for everyone but you. Maybe you’re a child and your parents seem to always be schlepping you all over the place, but they don’t ever seem to listen to you.

What does it feel like to get the bare minimum?

Today’s character is someone who gave the minimum, but he started so well. Today we’re looking at King Amaziah, whose name combines the term “strength” and “Jehovah” into a wonderful name. 2 Chronicles 25 starts out telling us that “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.” Isn’t that all we can ask for? Isn’t that what the Lord asks for? For His people, especially His leaders, to do what is right in His eyes?

Unfortunately, the verse goes on to say, “but not wholeheartedly.”

Amaziah was an important guy, King of Judah, and he did a lot of good stuff. He even specifically followed Moses’ law (and broke the national trend of killing the entire family of his father’s murderers), but when it came to his heart, he was a half-pint.

Understanding the time and what was going on, it was natural that Amaziah counted his fighting men; Judah was a country at war. He had a standing army of 300,000, but he decided that this wasn’t enough, so he hired an additional 100,000 from Israel for about 3 ¾ tons of silver. Today’s exchange rate would make that about $1.5 million.

Now, I don’t know much about raising an army, nor about the exchange rate from BC to 2009, or about how many fighting men were necessary, but I do know this: this episode follows chronologically well after God led Gideon to drastically reduce the number of Israel’s fighting men “in order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her” (Judges 7:2). God wants the glory that is rightfully His. So an unnamed prophet comes to Amaziah and tells him (2 Chronicles 25:7-9) “O king, these troops from Israel must not march with you, for the LORD is not with Israel—not with any of the people of Ephraim. Even if you go and fight courageously in battle, God will overthrow you before the enemy, for God has the power to help or to overthrow.”

Amaziah asked the man of God, "But what about the hundred talents I paid for these Israelite troops?"

Amaziah demonstrates his divided heart here: I think he even trusts that God will indeed triumph, but his heart is divided over money. He is worried about the $1.5 million.

But verse 9 continues: The man of God replied, “The LORD can give you much more than that.” This is one of my favorite scriptures. It is true. The Lord can give you more than whatever you’re settling for. The Lord could give Amaziah much more than money. The Lord can give you much more than “just settling.”

One of the greatest dangers to our faith is “just settling.” We just settle for our parents’ religion. We just settle for a mountaintop experience once a year, once in a while, or once in a lifetime. We just settle for things that used to work. We just settle for having a one hour a week relationship with the church instead of a vibrant daily walk with Jesus.

The unfortunate thing about just settling is that it is all really simply giving God less than He’s worth. You want to know what God thinks of it? Revelation 3:15-16 gives us a good picture: I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

I love the way Eugene Peterson puts it in his paraphrase The Message: I know you inside and out, and find little to my liking. You're not cold, you're not hot—far better to be either cold or hot! You're stale. You're stagnant. You make me want to vomit.

Giving to God half-heartedly, just settling, makes God want to puke. God wants your all.

But even worse is this: after we’ve become satisfied with giving half our hearts, we begin to slip even more. 14 When Amaziah returned from slaughtering the Edomites, he brought back the gods of the people of Seir. He set them up as his own gods, bowed down to them and burned sacrifices to them.

Duh. This is probably the stupidest verse of the Bible. Not that a verse of the Bible is stupid, but Amaziah is. God just told him, though a prophet, that the LORD could do much more for him, that he didn’t need to hire Israelite mercenaries, that God would win the battle. So he dismissed the mercenaries and won the battle. Then he says, “Gee, I think it would be a good idea to take their useless idols and worship them. After all, it’s obvious that they’re garbage, because they didn’t help their people win the battle. But I still think I ought to take them and worship them. Duh.” I don’t know what incited him to steal their idols, but goes way beyond “just settling.” It’s plain stupid. But some of you know how it goes. You’ve walked with God, hand-in-hand, and you know the freedom God gives you. But instead of using this freedom to enjoy the life God meant for you to live, you use it to become enslaved.

Maybe you were extremely poor, and now that you’re not anymore, you’re a slave to money. Maybe you’ve been controlled – maybe by family, maybe by religion, or by whatever, but now that you’re free from that, you rebel against control by going out of control. Maybe you grew up in a home where alcohol was completely forbidden, and now you’re free, so now you’re always drunk.

The ancient Hebrews had a word for this kind of behavior. Idiot! V. 15 The anger of the LORD burned against Amaziah, and he sent a prophet to him, who said, “Why do you consult this people's gods, which could not save their own people from your hand?”

v. 16 While he was still speaking, the king said to him, "Have we appointed you an adviser to the king? Stop! Why be struck down?"

So King Amaziah has gone from following God and “doing what was right in the Lord’s eyes” to blatantly ignoring the word of God. So the prophet gives him the bad news: So the prophet stopped but said, “I know that God has determined to destroy you, because you have done this and have not listened to my counsel.”(v. 16b)

And that’s just what happened, as Amaziah went on to provoke Israel, he met his match. 2 Chronicles 25 ends this way: 27 From the time that Amaziah turned away from following the LORD, they conspired against him in Jerusalem and he fled to Lachish, but they sent men after him to Lachish and killed him there. 28 He was brought back by horse and was buried with his fathers in the City of Judah.

We have a lot to learn from Amaziah. He started out so well, but he was half-hearted. He had everything going for him. He was the king of Judah. He walked in the favor of the Lord. God showed him His favor and gave him a taste of His goodness and provision, telling him “I can give you more than you ever dreamed was possible, something much better than $1.5 million.” But by the time he dies, Amaziah is running away from his people, in hiding, in fear for his life. He has turned away from the God who loves him and provides for him to worship the impotent gods of Edom.

What can we take from Amaziah?

First, we have to learn how to be accountable. We all make mistakes, but how we respond to those mistakes is crucial. What do we do when someone from God tells us that “The Lord can give you much more than that”?

Second, don’t just settle. Don’t just settle for a relationship with God that only lasts for ten days at Camp Sychar. Don’t just settle for the warm fuzzy feeling you once had. Don’t just settle for a minimal Bible knowledge. Don’t just settle for church membership.

Don’t settle for being half-hearted in following God.

Third, give God your all. Don’t give Him half-heartedly. It nauseates God to see us, His beloved people, who He created in His image, for whom His Son Jesus died, just lamely lukewarm. It makes Him want to puke. This means you have to evaluate how you spend your money. You have to evaluate how you spend your time. How you treat people. What you put into your body. What you put into your mind. Don’t allow your freedom to enslave you.

Because you see, in the person of Jesus Christ, God gave us His all. He gives you much more than any worries over finances, troubles, anything.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Now THAT's Evangelism

John 4:4-30; 39-42

What do you think of when you hear the word “evangelism?” Perhaps some of you think of the sandwich board wearing “the end is near” shouting kind of street corner Christian. Maybe you think of someone well-versed in scripture, someone like Rudy who is always prepared to give an answer to anyone who has a question or objection to matters of faith. Maybe you simply think of someone who shares God’s love. Unfortunately, to many people, evangelism has a bad connotation.

Because instead of being euangelion, which means “Good News” evangelism has instead become the art of “Bad Newsing.” Which is good news: “you’re going to Hell!” or “You can go to heaven”? Which is good news: “you’re a hopeless sinner!” or “You can be forgiven”?

If I asked you to name a good evangelist, you might come up with a name like Billy Graham, one of the most influential and well-known Christians of our time. Everyone respects Rev. Graham, and he has a fantastic platform from which to share the good news. Unfortunately, many people think they have to be like Billy Graham to share Jesus.

This couldn’t be any farther from the truth.

The best evangelist looks like… you. If you’re thinking about all of the reasons you can’t share Jesus with others, those shouldn’t be any hindrance.

Jesus showed up in a town that the Jews called Sychar. I know most of us associate Sychar with a holiness camp, and we have pleasant thoughts about that name, but it wasn’t meant to be a complimentary name. It’s like the name “Methodist” which was used to make fun of John and Charles Wesley and their friends who were just so “methodical” about their Christianity. Sychar was most likely a Jewish name for the ancient city of Shechem, a famous city in Jewish history. By Jesus’ time, it was the leading city of Samaria, and Jews hated Samaritans. So they nicknamed their leading city sheker meaning “falsehood” (Hab 2:18 “Of what value is an idol, since a man has carved it? Or an image that teaches lies?”).

So Jesus meets a woman there at the well. She had at least four strikes against her. She was Samaritan: Jews and Samaritans didn’t mingle. She was a woman: Jewish men did not speak to women who weren’t related to them. She was unmarried: for a woman of this time period to be unmarried at her age was a source of shame. In fact, she had gone through multiple husbands – we don’t know why, but, again, even if she had been widowed five times, this would have been seen as judgment against her, and she was with another man who wasn’t her husband. It was no wonder why she came to draw water during the heat of the day, instead of in the cool of the morning, when others would draw their water.

So it was unlikely that Jesus should have even spoken to her. Yet he does. He approaches her, not after she’s cleaned up her act, not after she’s left her non-husband she’s living with, not after she makes peace with the other women, not after any of those things. Jesus goes directly to her, right in the midst of her sinful life.

Know this: Jesus loves all of us this much: while we were still sinners, He died for us. Not after we got things right with Him.

As they spoke, it becomes obvious that this woman needs something. Why is this obvious? I think she’d given up. I think she was tired of fighting. I think she had gone beyond the point where she was ready and waiting for life transformation. She was beat. Anyone here ever experienced that?

I sure have.

I also think she was needy because of how hard she tried to change the subject. After Jesus asked her for water, she says to him (John 4:9-12) “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?”

Did you notice her tactic? She first tried to cover her sin problem with her pedigree. “I am a descendent of Jacob!” We do that a lot. “My parents are active members of this church!” or “My grandparents helped build this church!” or “We’ve lived in this town for X years!”

Jesus isn’t fazed by her distraction. He directs the conversation back to Himself. (John 4:13-14) Jesus answered, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."

The woman’s next evasion is her felt needs. (John 4:15) The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water so that I won't get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water." She wants this water so she doesn’t have to go out in public. Now she won’t have to daily confront her shame, because she won’t have to face the other women who come to draw water. I think this is what’s going on here. She is begging, not even to be made whole, but just to be left alone. She doesn’t even know what she needs most. She hasn’t even considered that what Jesus has to offer is so much more!

So Jesus cuts to the chase. (John 4:16-18) He told her, "Go, call your husband and come back."

"I have no husband," she replied.

Jesus said to her, "You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true."

Ouch. One thing about Jesus is that he doesn’t pull any punches. He tells it right like it is. I wonder what went through the woman’s head when he tells it to her like it is. She is saying all kinds of things to avoid the real problem, and Jesus cuts right to the heart issue.

So she avoids him a third time, this time by going to theological matters. (John 4:19-20) "Sir," the woman said, "I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem."

This isn’t the issue, and Jesus knows it. Likewise when people who don’t usually talk theology question you about deep theological issues; often those issues aren’t the real issue. When I went to Russia, I prayed that I would get a roommate who was friendly and who didn’t ask the tough questions “just to stump me” – I got just what I asked for, and my roommate and I barely had any deep conversations. But I also made a couple of friends who asked hard questions, just to stump me. Finally Radick asked me what I would think if the Russian Orthodox Church sent missionaries to the USA. I told him, “If you can spare any, bring them on.” The question wasn’t really about Russian Orthodox Church missionaries; it was about trust.

Now the woman is almost there, but she grasps at one last straw. We can’t know any of this yet. But when Messiah comes… (John 4:25) The woman said, "I know that Messiah" (called Christ) "is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us."

Jesus finally hits the big revelation: (John 4:26) Then Jesus declared, "I who speak to you am he."

Now that she knows who Jesus is, and (this is great), she leaves her jar and runs back to town. She goes to the same people she was ashamed to confront earlier. She tells everyone about Jesus. I think this is funny: she claims he “told her everything I ever did” and wonders “could this be the Christ?” – He really didn’t tell her anything more than everyone already know, and he told her flat out that he was the Christ. I think she was still ashamed; she didn’t have an awesome testimony of a changed life; she just thought that this might actually be the Messiah that they were all waiting for.

And because of her testimony, (John 4:39) Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I ever did."

Because they were captured by her words, they came and checked it out for themselves. A key thought here: she didn’t have it all down. She wasn’t all of a sudden a theological genius. She didn’t have all the answers. But she invited them to meet Jesus for themselves.

You see, as an evangelist, her job wasn’t to convert people; she had a simple task: introduce them to the Jesus she had met, the Jesus who met her right where she was. And notice this: her job wasn’t to point out their sins – her job was to point them to Jesus. I had an experience recently: in the span of about five minutes, someone made a comment that I was “catching them sinning” and another person asked me if I was going to “preach at them and tell them what to do.” My response: I’m not the Holy Spirit. That’s his job. It’s not our job to convict sinners. Our job is to lead them to the Jesus we know. And, YES, the Holy Spirit will convict them of sins, just like Jesus refused to pull punches with the woman at the well.

(John 4:40-42) So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers.

They said to the woman, "We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world."


Here’s the final word: When we meet Jesus and commune with Him, He will change our lives. And those changed lives will bring others to Him; He will change their lives as well.