Sunday, July 11, 2010

Just Walk Across the Room

Over the next four weeks, we will be engaging with Bill Hybels' Just Walk Across the Room, a campaign for personal evangelism.  The focus of the campaign is that everyone can do it; it's as simple as a "walk across the room."  We must be led by the Holy Spirit to develop friendships, discover stories, and discern next steps.  Stories are powerful - God has as story and you have a story.  The priority is people - numbers isn't, and we're not trying to make people into "projects" or "targets" - we are working on genuinely caring for people. 

Because I am using Bill Hybels' materials extensively for this sermon series, I'm not going to re-publish the sermons on this website.  Though I've reworked them for the context where I am, they're still too close to the original to be "mine."  If you want a paper copy, however, let me know (in the comments) and I can get you one.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

A Message for America

“When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
 2 Chronicles 7:13-14

I’ll admit that I get a little queasy whenever I hear the phrase “act of God” when related to natural disasters.  I know that insurance companies like to be able to protect themselves against unforeseen circumstances, but “acts of God”? Really?  When was the last time you heard good weather referred to as an “act of God?”   “Due to an act of God, crops are great this season.”

But whenever there’s a flood, hurricane, earthquake, tornado, you’ve got someone calling it an act of God, and often blaming the victims.  I remember immediately after Hurricane Katrina, most of our country was disappointed and upset at a popular TV preacher’s assertion that the devastation was God’s punishment for our American lifestyle.

Though everyone was pretty upset about the TV preacher’s comments, his views would have fit in pretty well in Old Testament times.  When disaster struck, were it drought or locusts or plague, they took it as a clear indicator that they had done wrong.  The prophet Amos attributes these exact disasters to God’s hand.  I also withheld rain from you when the harvest was still three months away. I sent rain on one town but withheld it from another. One field had rain; another had none and dried up. People staggered from town to town for water but did not get enough to drink, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the LORD.  Many times I struck your gardens and vineyards, I struck them with blight and mildew. Locusts devoured your fig and olive trees, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the LORD. I sent plagues among you as I did to Egypt. I killed your young men with the sword, along with your captured horses. I filled your nostrils with the stench of your camps, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the LORD. (Amos 4:7-10).

It was clear to the prophets that disasters were due to disobedience.  And King Solomon understood this as well.  In 2 Chronicles 6, Solomon was praying a prayer of dedication for the Temple he had built to God.  He makes a specific request of God: When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain because your people have sinned against you, and when they pray toward this place and confess your name and turn from their sin because you have afflicted them, then hear from heaven and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel. Teach them the right way to live, and send rain on the land you gave your people for an inheritance.  2 Chronicles 6:26-27. Solomon understood calamity to be one of the means God uses to correct his people.
Whether disaster is or is not God’s discipline is up for debate.  When asked about a disaster that befell some Jews of his time, Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish." (Luke 13:2-5).  Jesus didn’t attribute the disasters to sin.  In other words, he’s saying “stuff happens” – but it must be clear that when “stuff” does happen, wisdom uses it as a call to repentance. 

The author of the letter to the Hebrews leads us to endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his sons. (Hebrews 12:7).  In other words, when things are tough, consider that it might be God’s discipline.  If you’re like me, you use the word “discipline” synonymously with “punishment” but that’s only one use of the word.  Discipline is training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character.  You see, God might be using circumstances to teach you something. 

It is into this situation that the LORD speaks, and he gives us something to do in times of hardship. He starts with the word “if.” Meaning that this is conditional. There are requirements for us; it’s not just automatic.  We can’t just sit around and whine because God didn’t answer our prayers if we’re not willing to do our part.

Then he uses a fantastic phrase: “if my people, who are called by my name.” Remember this: when you are on the receiving end of divine discipline, it is because God loves you enough to disciple you.  Proverbs 3:11-12 tells us My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.

There are a couple of ways we learn: many of us would admit that we’ve learned most of our lessons through the school of hard knocks.  We often learn by experience… usually bad experience and the consequences of our actions.  Sometimes we have to have God smack us upside the head with a holy 2x4 to get it through our thick skulls.  But this isn’t the only way to learn.  Wisdom is learning by someone else’s mistakes.  Not every one of us must fail the same ways!  Sometimes we find ourselves figuratively pounding our heads into walls, doing the same things we’ve always done, expecting different results.  That’s a good definition of insanity. 

But God gives instructions.  First he tells his people to humble ourselves.  Understand this: having humility is not the same as having poor self esteem.  It’s not thinking you’re a worm.  When God created humanity, He created us in His image and called us very good. So tearing yourself down isn’t humility; it’s calling God a liar.  A truly humble person isn’t interested in building himself or herself up; he or she is interested in others. 

On the other hand, Jesus gives us the perfect picture of humility:  Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8)

Are you humble?  No, don’t answer that question; there’s just not a right answer! “Yes, I’m humble!  I’m the humblest person to ever live!” The best way to answer that question is to ask the people who are closest to you.  They’ll know.  And if you’re open enough to hear the truth, they might just tell you.

If you’re not humble and want to learn humility, there’s really only one way.  To do what Jesus did; serve others.  Even better: serve others and don’t take the credit.  You can tell if you’re doing something to puff yourself up if you want the credit.  But if you’re willing to serve without getting any credit, that’s humility.

So how about us? Can we start a conspiracy of serving? 

One of the issues in our country is that Christians have gotten ourselves a bad reputation.  We’re hypocrites. We don’t care about people. We’re self-righteous.  The problem is that people accept these perceptions and we often don’t do anything do dispel them. Can you imagine the difference: people saying: Did you meet those Christians?  You can’t go anywhere without having some Christian serving you!  They listen, they love people.  They are so gracious, even when they’re right and I’m wrong.  They are all so humble! Can you imagine how much more easily we could spread the Good News of Jesus Christ if that was what we looked like?  Honestly, we could take a look at Mormons to get a better idea of how we’re supposed to live our lives.  You think Mormonism gets spread because people hear and believe the message from Joseph Smith’s angel Moroni?  That people study Mormon theology and then decide to go to a Mormon church?  A much more likely scenario is that they’ll see a Mormon family living what they see as a wholesome life.  Or they’ll see a couple of clean-cut young men who are enthusiastic enough about their faith to share it with everyone door-to-door.

What would happen if we were not only that enthusiastic about our faith, but humble as well?

As we begin to live humbly, God also calls us to pray and seek [his] face. Prayer is possibly one of the most under-understood aspects of our spiritual life.  Prayer is often utilitarian for us; we do it when we need it.  When we have a need, we pray. We’re supposed to pray for our needs, but what would happen if we prayed humble prayers?

Jesus told a story about this: Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘Go, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ (Luke 18:10-13)

Whose is your prayer life more like?  What do you find yourself praying for most?  I spend a lot of time praying for people’s physical and emotional conditions – much of it for you.  But do I have God’s heart in my prayer?  There was a time when worship wasn’t touching me emotionally whatsoever, and that was really frustrating. It was hard, sitting there in a room full of people who were very emotionally engaged, and here I was, flat.  So I asked God to give me His heart for worship, and immediately my heart broke.  It was overwhelming.  I felt compelled to pray for people I had never even met, people around the world and right in our own community who didn’t know the joy of knowing God. That the worship God is seeking isn’t just on an individual level, but global!

So when you’re praying, do you consider that prayer isn’t just us talking?  That God actually wants to speak to us

When I was a teenager, my friend Todd brought one of his friends to church with him, and he managed to get my sister’s phone number; she was kind of interested...  So later he called her, and it was pretty obvious that her interest had quickly waned upon talking to him.  She was looking bored when I walked into the room – then she handed me the phone. “Just listen to this guy!” she told me.  I did.  He never even noticed that she wasn’t on the other end; he just kept right on talking about himself.  Guess how many conversations they had after that…

Guess what: this was the way we’ve often used prayer.  We’ve spent our prayer time seeking our own needs and wants and we’ve neglected to seek God’s face. There is a reason why Jesus starts his model prayer with “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Even He begins his prayer by praising God, not for what He’s done, but for who He is.

Honestly, seeking His face is probably the most important prayer you can pray.  He will transform your entire life if you seek him.  Jesus tells us to seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)

Do you want a healed land? Seek God’s face instead of all of the other distractions we’re seeking.  I read in the paper last week about some teenagers in Somalia who got in horrible trouble… for watching the World Cup games on TV.  The accusation was that they were being distracted from their serious devotion to Islam. If we only had ½ of the devotion to seeking God’s face as we have for the Buckeyes or for our favorite TV shows, can you imagine the transformation we would experience? 

Finally, and quite predictably, God tells his people, who He loves, to turn from their wicked ways. I want you to remember something about this: God isn’t talking to people who don’t know him.  In other words, he’s not telling non-Christians to stop sinning.  He’s talking to us. I’m not going to spend a lot of time here, because it’s pretty self-explanatory.  But please notice that it doesn’t stand on its own.  It’s the culmination of the other commands: humble yourself, pray, seek God’s face.  If you do these three, then you’re on the right track to follow through on turning from wicked ways.  You’ll have the background and the context to actually follow through with a transformed heart, not just changed behavior.

The result of these four commands: humility, prayer, seeking God’s face, and turning from our wicked ways is this: “then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Do you want a healed land? Do you want forgiveness of sins?  You’ve got the prescription.  But it’s up to every one of us to actually follow through on God’s commands.  It depends on us and how we respond.  All of us.