Sunday, August 26, 2012


I was fourteen years old in March of 1986, and I found myself in line with thousands of my closest friends, all waiting for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to receive the autograph of the one-and-only Jim McMahon, the quarterback of the Monsters of the Midway, the Super Bowl-winning Chicago Bears. After I shelled out entirely too much money for a poster, my brother and I waited patiently in line until I was finally face-to-face with the Super-Bowl-winning quarterback himself.

I had watched many of the Chicago Bears’ games that year, most notably the Super Bowl. I knew all about McMahon’s penchant for wearing non-sanctioned headbands, his injuries, even his acupuncture. So how do you expect he greeted me when I walked up the steps to the table where he sat autographing pictures? After all, I knew all about him. If you’re wondering, he didn’t greet me at all. He didn’t even look at me. He just scrawled his name on my poster.

I could tell you that I met Jim McMahon that day, but I really didn’t. And there are a lot of people in our world who have had a similar experience with God. They have been in a crowd where a bunch of people have gathered, many of whom seem to know Him, but others who don’t and are just along to check out the hype.

There is a difference between knowing about someone and knowing someone. It seems like in our American mainline denominational churches, we put great stress on knowing about God – we offer Bible studies and various groups, but there is no guarantee that we’ll actually get to know Him through our various activities.

Unfortunately it seems like we don’t even get the chance to know that much about the Holy Spirit.

The first thing we need to know about the Holy Spirit is that the Holy Spirit is a Person. Not a person, as in a human being, but a Person, as in a Personal Being, not just an impersonal force. We’re big Star Wars fans in our house and the Star Wars universe revolves around an impersonal Force surrounding everything and in everyone and everything, but that is not reality. We cannot describe the Holy Spirit using Star Wars terminology.

In John chapters 14, 15, and 16, we see some clues to confirm that the Holy Spirit is a Person and not just a force. It would help if you turn in your Bibles to John 14, so we can look at some of these passages together. In John 14:16 Jesus says: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever – the Spirit of truth.

Now skip down to 14:26, where Jesus says, “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”

In the next chapter, 15:26, Jesus says, “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth whom goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.”

And in chapter 16, verse 7, “But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you: but if I go, I will send him to you.”

There is a world of difference between being indwelt by an impersonal force or a Person. My family has taken multiple vacations to Lake Michigan, where we’ll spend a lot of time on the beach. It can be fun to ride on a float, going wherever the water takes you, or, if you’re caught in a riptide, it could be tempting to think that the waves are out to get you, but you’ve got to understand that the waves do not have a mind of their own; they are simply waves, following their pattern endlessly, pounding on the shore, redistributing sand, sweeping out and pouring back, again and again.

While waves do act, they are impersonal. They don’t have a goal or opinions. They do not care about you. They cannot counsel, guide, or lead you. They simply crash on the shore and sweep out to sea.

But the Holy Spirit is not an it, but a Person. And this is the One who Jesus promised would live within the believer. When you take this truth into consideration, the next one will be so much more powerful. Not only is the Holy Spirit a Person, but the Holy Spirit is God.

The One who lives within us, who leads us, who purifies us, is God Himself.  Do you want to know God’s will? The Holy Spirit knows God’s will, and lives within us! Listen to 1 Corinthians 2:9-12- As it is written, no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him – but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely taught us. Paul sums up his thought in 2:16 where he quotes Isaiah, saying, “For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

You see, even here, the Holy Spirit is being equated with God and with Jesus. God is Trinitarian – the Father is God, Jesus is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. But the Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit, Jesus is not the Father or the Spirit, and the Holy Spirit isn’t the Father or Jesus. How exactly does this work? I’ve heard the Holy Spirit explained in terms of forms of water: ice, water, and steam, but it just doesn’t work to explain God in human or material terms.

As we read in Isaiah 55:8-9, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. There are some questions we won’t know the answer to simply because we are not God. Turn to your neighbor and tell them, “You are not God.” Now respond, “Good, you aren’t God, either!” Because we’re not God, we don’t have to have all the answers. I like to think I’ll ask God all these questions when I get to Heaven (I probably won’t, but that’s another sermon).

So, if the Holy Spirit is a Person, a Person who indwells us, why is it that we often do not experience His Presence? We often limit the work of the Holy Spirit to our emotional response. If I asked you how you knew the Holy Spirit was here, often the answers include that we experience the presence of the Holy Spirit when we sing the right songs. Or when I get that goose bump tingling sensation or a warm sensation or when I start to cry.

So you’re saying that if the songs aren’t right, the Spirit isn’t there? Or, more like, if we don’t sing your favorite songs or if we don’t use the right instrumentation, then Satan has shot-blocked the Holy Spirit? And I get goose bumps when I feel a cold breeze. And I feel a warm sensation when I’m embarrassed. And I freely cry when I cut onions, especially the red ones I’ve been buying lately. So why don’t I always feel the Holy Spirit, especially since Jesus promised that He would be with us always?

There are many reasons why we don’t experience the Holy Spirit, and I want to highlight three:

1.                  There is often too much noise in our lives. We’ve got 24/7 access to television programming, and the idea of the whole-house DVR means you can watch whatever you want whenever you want to. We have the ability to surf the web, play games, listen to music, check the weather, watch videos, comparison shop, pretty much anything you can imagine, and we can do it all on our phones wherever and whenever we want.  Oh, and we can use them to talk or text as well.

We’re busier than ever, always doing something, always going somewhere. A friend of mine wondered after he retired, “When did I ever find the time to have a job?!” Life is busy, and often we’re busy with really good things. But then we’re falling into the devil’s schemes. If he can’t convert us, he can make us so busy that we don’t notice the Holy Spirit.

Because God usually doesn’t speak to us really loudly. Sure, there is the “holy 2x4” that God sometimes uses to get our attention, but God usually speaks quietly. In 1 Kings 19, Elijah is on the run from King Ahab, who is trying to kill him. This is right after one of my favorite Bible stories, the showdown between Elijah and  the 450 prophets of Baal, where God sent Holy Fire down on Elijah’s sacrifice. But immediately after this King Ahab and his evil wife Jezebel are trying to hunt Elijah down and kill him. Elijah is hiding in a cave, and God meets him there.

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the  Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper… (1 Kings 19:11-12) And this was God’s voice. Are we quiet enough to hear the gentle whisper?

2.                  A second reason we don’t experience the Holy Spirit’s presence is that maybe you have built a wall of sin. God is a holy God, and sin cannot remain in His presence. Listen to Isaiah 59:1-2 Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear. There’s a problem: God can hear you when you call, but your sins have cut you off from Him.

I want to be clear here, because there can be some misunderstanding here: if you are a Christian and you sin, you are still a Christian. When I was in Drivers’ Ed, I had a classmate who ran a stoplight. The driving instructor right there said, “There goes your waver,” meaning, “Because you missed that stoplight, you aren’t getting your license.” God doesn’t do that. We are covered by Jesus’ blood. His sacrifice is sufficient to cover our past sins, our present sins, and our future sins. But if we continue living with unrepentant sin, meaning you keep on sinning and you don’t care about your sin, this is going to negatively affect your relationship with God.

Think about it in relationship terms – because the Holy Spirit is a Person. If I lie to my wife, what does it do to our relationship? How about if I continue to lie? When I tell that first lie, there goes a brick. Another lie, another brick. Soon, I’ve walled myself off from my wife. Are we still married? Yes. But is there a problem? Yes! And likewise, when we continue in sin, we wall ourselves off from the Holy Spirit.

We can often become hard-hearted or calloused toward the Spirit; we ignore Him for so long until we forget what His voice even sounds like. When Jesus’ disciples asked why He was teaching in parables, he told them that Isaiah’s prophecy was being fulfilled: “You will be ever hearing but never understanding, you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused, they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and in turn I would heal them.” (Matthew 13:15) This people’s heart has become calloused. We have every opportunity to see the Holy Spirit at work, to hear His voice, and to understand Him, but our eyes are wide open and staring at nothing. Our ears are attuned only to the buzz of static around us, and we never hear. At times we have taken God for granted and have become calloused to the point where we don’t even realize that we’re not spending time with Him anymore. That has to stop!

3.                  Finally, some people don’t experience the Holy Spirit because they’re not Christians. I don’t like to mention this, and I’m not picking on anyone in particular, but we have to realize that even Jesus said,“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)

Maybe this describes you. Maybe you have gone through all the motions, but you’ve never surrendered your life. Realize that you’re not promised tomorrow. Last week I got the news that a good friend of ours died suddenly on Tuesday. Another friend was diagnosed with cancer. Another had a bad fall. Some of you can relate. We are not promised tomorrow. So if you are not a Christian, if you aren’t following Jesus with everything you are, if the Holy Spirit is beckoning to you, calling you, don’t delay.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Time to Turn the Power On

This summer after the storms, a guy went down to the hardware store early one morning and asked for a saw. The salesman took a chain saw from the shelf and commented that it was their “newest model, with the latest in technology, guaranteed to cut ten cords of firewood a day.” The customer thought that sounded pretty good, so he bought it on the spot.

         The next day the customer returned, looking somewhat exhausted. “Something must be wrong with this saw,” he moaned. “I worked as hard as I could and only barely managed to cut up one of the trees from my lawn. I could have done it easier with my old-fashioned saw.” Looking confused, the salesman said, “Here, let me try it out back on some wood we keep there.”

        They went to the woodpile, the salesman pulled the cord, and as the motor went vvvrooommmm. The customer leaped back and exclaimed, “What’s that noise??”

In my experience, the Christian life has been a lot like the do-it-yourselfer’s experience with the chainsaw. We don’t know what to do with it once we have it. Jesus told his followers to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything he commanded them (Matthew 28:19-20), and we’ve often focused on the baptizing part without teaching what comes next.

Last summer I went to a Christian summer camp where every night we got enthusiastic evangelistic messages. Which was fine, except that the audience was already 100% Christian. But the problem is that this is frequently true in our churches as well. We’ve focused on “get ‘em to the altar,” but once we do, we leave them there!

I am convinced that most of the problems in our churches stem from this issue; we have considered the altar, where we make our decision for Jesus, to be the finish line, when it is really the starting line.

So if the decision for Christ is the starting line, how do we continue in the faith? What does discipleship look like? Let me start by saying that as Christians we have focused on correct behaviors, which is good, because when we are Christians, we are expected to behave in certain ways. Ephesians 4:17 tells the new Christians that they must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. In fact, Ephesians 4 and 5 have lists of how Christians are supposed to conduct themselves – and I don’t have enough time this morning to go into all of them. But what we often do is attempt to hold the unbelieving world to Christian standards while refusing to submit to church discipline ourselves. Nobody wants to call it what it is – we’re much more comfortable pointing out someone else’s sin than confronting our own.

So does being a Christian consist of working really hard to get rid of all the sinful behaviors that were the hallmark of our life outside of Christ? Not really. Once I met a guy who trained dogs. His dog was really talented; not only could it sit and stay and roll over, but his master would tell it to say its prayers and it would rest its head on a chair and fold its paws over its eyes. He would tell it to praise the Lord and it would start to howl. It was great. Many of us who have owned pets have at some point quipped that our pet thinks he’s part of the family or is “almost human.”  But guess what: your dog, no matter how smart he is, is a dog. You cannot turn it into a person no matter how well you train it. And likewise, we can train ourselves to do and say all the right things, but when it comes down to it, even with all that training, we cannot change who we are at the root. This is why simple behavior modification doesn’t work in the Christian life.

Now, understand that there are cases where someone is immediately and instantaneously delivered from a behavior, whether it is an addiction or a sinful behavior. I know people who were addicted to drugs and had an epiphany and never touched another illegal drug, and didn’t even have the desire to. But I also know people who, for the last twenty years, have avoided family gatherings because they know there will be alcohol there, and they recognize that they are one drink away from a relapse.

And there are still others who do everything they can to hold their tongue, and they can usually act really nice in social situations, but inside they are mean, spiteful, and judgmental. And then sometimes it just forces its way out. You know, those times when you’re hungry or tired or when the wrong person pushes the wrong button. I remember reading in Richard Foster’s book the Celebration of Discipline that when you’re fasting and you’re grumpy, that’s the real you coming out, the you that has been covered by food. It can be easy to point fingers at someone in our culture who is self-medicating with prescription drugs (or who has turned to heroin) but the fact is, most of us self-medicate – we do so to hide or suppress the real “me” who isn’t very pleasant whatsoever.

So if the Bible calls us to live in a certain way, and if it really doesn’t work, then what are we to do? It kind of seems hypocritical, doesn’t it? God tells us to do something, and it’s not something that is possible… Does God really expect us to do what is impossible?

The answer is no.  And yes. Think about this: you probably know that I like to give homework assignments during my sermons – what if the assignment was to slam dunk a basketball on a regulation basketball hoop? And I said don’t come back until you’ve dunked. I hope you realize that I’m asking the impossible. But what if I brought in the USA Men’s Olympic Basketball team and said that they would be dunking for you. Would you still insist on trying yourself?

When it comes to living out the Christian life, on our own, we are totally unable to comply. We just cannot do it. If it were possible, then Jesus came to earth and died a brutal death on the cross in vain, and if he did that in vain, why did God send him here anyway? So God requires the impossible, but God does not require us to do something that cannot be done. Did you get the subtle difference here? God requires the impossible, but God makes the impossible possible. The Gospel of Luke first introduces the Holy Spirit in Luke 1, where God’s angel comes to Mary, telling her she will give birth to a son, Jesus, who will be the Son of the Most High. She asked, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1:35-37).

What makes it possible for us to live holy lives, something that is impossible for us? The question isn’t “what” but “who” and the answer is the Holy Spirit. I’m convinced that the one thing that most American churches are missing isn’t a thing, but a Person. With the right combination of personalities and strategies and hard work, any church can grow and can attract a crowd, but if the Holy Spirit isn’t in it, then it’s an exercise in missing the point.

When it comes to the Trinity, we know God’s character pretty well. Our culture really loves Jesus and we have been given the advantage that he came in the flesh and lived here on earth, demonstrating his character. But it seems that the Holy Spirit, as the third Person of the Trinity, is the God we hardly know. The Forgotten God, as Francis Chan has dubbed him. In Acts 19, Paul is making his first trip to Ephesus, and there he finds some disciples and he asks them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” (Acts 19:2) Though most American Christians wouldn’t say that, our actions suggest it. We have to reverse this trend. The church without the Holy Spirit is like the person without the spirit – dead. In the late 1980s there was a movie called Weekend at Bernie’s, which was a terrible movie – bad acting, bad writing, and a bad premise, but the movie was about these two guys who had to pretend that their wealthy dead benefactor, Bernie, was alive. So they carted him everywhere, propping him up to go cruising in his convertible and for boat rides. A really ridiculous movie, to be sure.

But American mainline denominational churches, of which we are one, are running around like it’s Weekend at Bernie’s. We try to do all the right things – we have our worship services, but they are devoid of any power. We offer altar calls, but nobody comes. The district asked for stories of transformation for the district charge conference, and I asked around and couldn’t find any. Listen to what Isaiah says All of us have become like one who is unclean, all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (Isaiah 64:6) In other words, though we look right and though we seem to be doing the right things, if the Holy Spirit is not in the center of all of it, even our most righteous acts are like filthy rags. We can feed every person in Jackson County, but if it’s not done in the Holy Spirit, we might as well eat it all ourselves, because it’s all filthy.

So if we are going to be the church God has called us to be, we must be filled with the Holy Spirit. What might it look like if this church was filled with the Holy Spirit? It might look a little bit like the early church, which we see described in Acts 2:42-47: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All of the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Isn’t that an awesome description? And it doesn’t have to just be a historical account; it can be our personal experience. But we are going to have to get to know the Holy Spirit. If you are a Christian, you have been given the Holy Spirit – all of Him, not just part. But the issue is that you haven’t given Him all of you. In the coming weeks, we will continue by looking at the Person and work of the Holy Spirit, praying not just that He fill us, but that we accept His filling. Perhaps you already know that you’ve been walking around like a zombie. That you’ve been trying to cut with a chainsaw without power. That you’ve been trying to live the Christian life without the Holy Spirit. And it’s all fruitless, and you want, no, need the Holy Spirit to empower you. You may not understand fully what all this means, but you know it’s who you need, and you’re willing to step out in faith and ask God for the openness to accept what He will do, to receive the Holy Spirit to lead and guide you in everything. If so, please come forward during our last song and allow me to pray for you. Maybe you know that you’ve been given the gift of the Spirit and you just haven’t allowed the Spirit to have free reign in your life and you need to step back and allow Him. Please come.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Can I Get a Witness

Last week we began looking at Acts 1:8, where Jesus tells his disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

We spent our whole time last week on the concept of power, a concept that is sadly lacking in most of our American churches these days, where we are more known for our potlucks than our power. I just want to reiterate that this power is not our own power; it’s not that we are already good at something and then we just happen to use that skill in the church. This is Holy Spirit power, the power through which we know that in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8:37)

Do you feel like more than a conqueror? If you are in Christ, that is who you are. That is how God defines you. God, who created the earth in a word, calls us more than conquerors, so this is who you are. Turn to someone next to you and tell them, “You are more than a conqueror through Jesus.”  OK, now tell them, “I am more than a conqueror through Jesus.”

And guess what? You have started to live out the second part of Acts 1:8. You are accepting God’s Holy Spirit power, the power that makes you more than a conqueror, and you’re bearing witness to it. Jesus tells his disciples that they will receive Holy Spirit power and that will enable them to be his witnesses.

If you think of a courtroom, the witness is one who is called on to give expert testimony. Part of the lawyers’ job is to make sure that their witnesses are credible: were they there? Are they reliable? Is there some special reason why the jury should believe or disbelieve them?

The witness that we see here in Acts 1:8 is a reliable witness. What makes someone a reliable witness? In Acts 3, Peter and John encounter a crippled beggar, who asks them for money. They responded that they didn’t have silver or gold, “but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” (Acts 3:6) That’s awesome – the guy is begging because he’s crippled and has been since he was born and he can’t earn a living, so he asks Peter for money, but Peter says, “I can’t do that. But here’s what I do have for you…” Holy Spirit power, that’s what he has! So the Jewish leaders get all riled up about this, and they question Peter and John. This is what happens when you’ve got Holy Spirit power; you get questioned.

But when you have Holy Spirit power, you also have Holy Spirit answers to the questions. The high priest and other Jewish leaders questioned Peter and John and in Acts 4:13 we see what happened. When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and took note that these men had been with Jesus.

I love the fact that Peter and John, the pillars of the early church, are described by the Bible as unschooled, ordinary men. Do you remember their occupation before Jesus called them? They were fishermen. They hadn’t graduated from seminary or studied under the top Galilean rabbis. They were fishermen. 

But there was something different about them. Last week I asked who found sharing the Gospel easy, and Jim Wycoff raised his hand. I’m glad I had gotten a chance to hear his story, which is a story of transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is something different about him. There is something compelling and powerful about a changed life. If I am no different than I was before, then it’s not going to matter a whole lot what I say, because why would you believe me? But when you see a real change… it’s another story completely.

I want you to notice that the Jewish leaders didn’t just see a change in Peter and John’s behavior. They saw a transformation, and they knew it was because they had been with Jesus. I know people who think they don’t have a testimony because there wasn’t a real dramatic “before and after” in their life. You were raised in a good home by godly parents and you’ve been in church all your life. But, believe me, you will change when you’ve been with Jesus. This is one reason why it’s vitally important to carve out time for Him, to be in the Word, to listen when you pray. The important part of our testimony is that Jesus is not just a remote historical figure, but he is real in my life. Because the only thing we really have that is worth bearing witness to is Him!

Our purpose on this earth is two-fold: to enjoy God’s presence and to share him with others. Even as far back as Genesis, God made his plan clear – he blesses so that we can be a blessing. When God called Abram, whose name he would later change to Abraham, God says to him, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

It can be easy to focus on the first part – God will bless me and give me a great name – but the reason for it all is to be a blessing to all peoples on earth.

The sad thing is that Israel never accomplished the task to be God’s witnesses in the world, and so Jesus took over the task and then commissioned the Church to continue carrying it out. But when we circle up our wagons and become inward-focused, then we are ignoring God’s purpose for us.

Our job as Christians is to spread the Gospel, to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. But Paul asks: How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14-15)

If people don’t believe in Jesus or even know who Jesus is, we can’t expect them to become his disciples. So how are they going to come to know him? They will come to know him when the word is preached to them.

Turn to the person next to you and tell them “You’ve got beautiful feet!”

Do you have beautiful feet? They are beautiful not because you got a pedicure, but because they are used to carry you to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to those who don’t yet know him.

Jesus also shows the progression of how the gospel is to be spread: you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  

He told them to start in Jerusalem. They were already there – they already had established networks there; they knew people, and the people knew them. Jesus calls his disciples to first be his witness to the people who they already know. This can be hard, but it is extremely effective. When the people around you notice a difference in the way you live, they are first going to be skeptical. After all, you’ve tried “new” things before. Remember that diet where you lost all that weight, only to gain it right back again? Remember that time you tried to quit smoking, and that didn’t last. Or when you resolved to be a better… (and you filled in the blanks with whatever you were struggling with) and you were for a little while, but then you were right back in it. But this transformation is different – though there are times when you do fail, they no longer define you, because you are more than a conqueror through Jesus Christ who gives you strength.

It will be hard, because you’ve already wired your brain to do certain things, but the Bible tells us that renewal is possible: The first part of Romans 12:2 tells us Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Don’t allow yourself to just follow the world’s patterns or the patterns you have just drifted into; God will transform you by renewing your mind if you allow him. Yes, it takes work. You have to be intentional. I had friends whose marriage was in trouble because of drugs – they moved out for a while, but when they came back, they went right back to their old friends.

I’ve found that when I want to change a behavior, it’s no good just to decide to change; if I don’t share it with someone, I’m not going to do it on my own. I have a group of fellow pastors who I can and do share pretty much anything with, and they’ll ask me the tough questions.

Here’s another difficulty in sharing Jesus with people around you; it used to be said that the two things you didn’t bring up in polite company were religion and politics – but you can’t swing a dead cat these days without hearing a political discussion or debate. When someone says, “Don’t get me started on (a particular candidate or politician)” you know they’re going to get started on that particular politician! But somehow it’s considered impolite to talk about Jesus?

Penn Jillette, the illusionist and outspoken atheist, tells of a time when someone gave him a Bible after a show. He doesn’t believe the Bible, but listen to what he said about the guy who gave it to him.

“I’ve always said that I don’t respect people that don’t proselytize…I don't respect that at all. If you believe that there's a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it's not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward, and atheists who think that people shouldn't proselytize  -  ‘Just leave me alone, keep your religion to yourself.’

“How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize?” Jillette asked. “How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? If I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming at you and you didn't believe it, and that truck was bearing down on you, there's a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.”

“There’s a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.” He has a real point. There are people right here in Wellston who are going to Hell, and we can do something about it. How much do you have to hate them to not tell them the good news?

Jesus doesn’t expect his disciples to only evangelize right where they are, however. They are supposed to go to Judea, which is the larger region in which they live. This is their country, their people. This is so-called “safe” evangelism. But they aren’t to stop there; Jesus calls them to go to the hated Samaritans, people who Jews didn’t even associate with. Who might be our Samaritans? There are people who we sometimes just dismiss from Gospel conversations – I wouldn’t share Christ with… because…

Who might be our Samaria? Who do you really not want to go to? That just might be our Samaria…  But don’t expect to go somewhere else and share Christ with another culture if you’re not doing it here already. Missionaries don’t just go and then start sharing Jesus; they are sharing Jesus and God calls them to go and share Him elsewhere as well.

This week we have a chance to get started being Jesus’ witness, in our own Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. If you aren’t walking with Jesus, you have got to start. Get into the Word. If you’re not willing to get into the Word of God, then quit faking and pretending that you’re a Christian. Go ahead and admit that you’re not. You aren’t too busy – you’ve made an idol out of other things. But if you are a Christian, spend time with God. Allow the Holy Spirit to empower you, to give you a former life, to have a testimony of how you have been with Jesus.

Something I do with my boys is that I have them share God-sightings. This isn’t just for kids, though, and I’m going to ask you to look for God sightings this week. Write them down and come next Sunday ready to share them. This might help you to be aware of where God is at work around you.

If you are already aware of how God is working in your life, then it’s time to share. Make the effort to share it with another Christian, maybe someone in this room. And celebrate together what God is doing. If you’re already doing that, it’s time to take it out to others. One great way to start this is to write down a couple of names of people who don’t know Jesus – write them down and make the effort to pray for them every day and to look for opportunities to share with them. And we will be his witnesses – here locally. And let’s start thinking about how we can be his witnesses even globally… Maybe someone here would like to participate in the Vietnam initiative that our district is so strong in.

And as we go from here, remember to spend time daily in the Word and with Jesus. Because we can’t do this on our own; we can only do it when empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Friday, August 3, 2012

I've Got the Power

Acts 1:8

When I was a kid, I had a paper route. I walked the route – it was about  1 ½  miles all told – a lot of time to daydream. One of my daydreams was about having super powers. I came to the conclusion on those walks that I would want the super power of teleportation. That would have cut at least nine blocks off my route. Plus, I figured that I would probably use most super powers for evil or at least for mischief if pressured.

Have you ever wished for a super power? What power did you wish for?

Today’s scripture is in the beginning of Acts – which is the second installment of Luke’s orderly account of the Truth concerning Jesus’ life. Luke and Acts are each about the same length, which is not-coincidentally the same length as a scroll was. At the end of scroll 1, which we know as Luke, Jesus told his disciples to stay in the city until they were clothed in power from on high. (Luke 24:49). Luke recaps the end of the first scroll with further details, as the first scroll focused on Jesus and the second on the early church. The disciples were waiting for an earthly kingdom, but Jesus said something else was coming. Acts 1:8 “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and to the ends of the earth.”

On the day of Pentecost, as recorded in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit was poured out in a dramatic way – we call Pentecost the birthday of the Church because something new was born that day. But when we talk about church today, very rarely do we talk about power. We talk about programs. We talk about worship music. We talk about preaching. We talk about numbers and budgets. But we just don’t talk about power.

The word that Luke used to mean power is from the root word dunamai, which where we get the word dynamo, and it means “to be able or possible.” Now, understand this: there are things that each of us has the power to do. The Olympics is always interesting to me because I do not have the power to do the things that I see done by these athletes. I can’t swim fast. I’m not gymnastically inclined. Olympic runners make me look like a turtle. I suppose I could throw a badminton game, but I couldn’t win an Olympic medal. Every Olympic athlete has worked really hard to get where they are. Most of them have made tremendous sacrifices and have worked and practiced for hours and hours. That sport is their life. But here’s the thing: every one of their accomplishments is within the realm of human power.

In 2006 I ran a 40K trail race up at Hocking Hills (that’s almost 25 miles), and after the race I was limping around talking to another runner and I said something like, “The human body wasn’t meant for this kind of abuse.” The response I got was, “Yes it is; otherwise we couldn’t have done it.” There are lots of things that are possible – maybe not for everyone to do, but possible nonetheless. But when Jesus says, “You will receive power,” this isn’t the kind of power that we get from more and more practice. Jesus is saying that we will receive supernatural power.

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer every week, we finish up ascribing to God the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. True power is God’s alone. It is this power that enables us to affirm with Jesus that with man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God. (Mark 10:27).

Jesus is clearly talking about salvation in this passage, but it holds true for God’s power in other areas as well. Holy Spirit power makes the impossible possible.

In Luke 9, Jesus was sending his disciples out on a mission. Their job was to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. So look at what Jesus did in Luke 9:1: When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out demons and to cure diseases.

Jesus gave his disciples supernatural power and authority. Throughout Luke’s gospel, when healing happens, Luke, who happens to be a physician, always makes it clear that it only happens by God’s power. So this is confirmation that these healings are not happening by medical means. In our culture we value science and technology and we depend on them for our healing, and I’m not saying that it’s wrong to seek medical attention, because God, by his grace, has given people medical knowledge and the ability to treat diseases, but medical technology is not the final word.

So when the disciples went out, the Bible tells us that they set out and went from village to village, preaching the gospel and healing people everywhere. (Luke 9:6) From this we can learn that the power and authority Jesus gives are effective. They aren’t mere words. What do you think might happen if we were to see that kind of power today?

As Jesus was preparing to ascend into heaven, he told his disciples “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) These are the disciples who had received Jesus’ power to preach the gospel, to drive out demons, and to heal all kinds of diseases.

Throughout the Bible, power is a clear indicator of the kingdom of God. In Mark 9:1, Jesus tells his disciples, “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.” Then six days later he goes up on the mountain with Peter, James, and John, and he was transfigured, and God speaks audibly from a cloud (does this remind anyone of God’s appearance in the Exodus?). God kingdom showed up with power.

Unfortunately, churches these days are known more for our potlucks than for our power. When I ask people what is the hallmark of their church, the first thing I hear is, “We’re a really friendly church.” Friendly is good; we don’t want to be really nasty and chase people away, and some churches really are friendly while others are friendly to themselves but you’d better not ever make the mistake in sitting in someone else’s seat or breaking the unwritten rules because we’ll friendly you right out the door. But even the most friendly church isn’t being faithful just because we’re friendly! When the church shows up in power, Jesus himself says that even the very gates of Hell cannot prevail against it! (Matthew 16:18)

The devil quakes when the church embraces the power of the Holy Spirit. The sad thing is that we haven’t done much to make the devil quake. While I was writing this sermon, I saw that the US Olympic basketball team had defeated Nigeria 156-73. Do you think the mention of the Nigerian basketball team will cause opponents to shake in fear? Opponents are not trying to come up with special plays to stifle Al-Farouq Aminu. But we’ve been behaving as if we are the Nigerian basketball team! We sit in our little room together and we don’t take the fight to the devil because we don’t think we have power.

At the end of Luke (Luke 24:49), Jesus tells his disciples, “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” And the disciples did… until the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit, the one who God promised, was poured out upon them. The command was to stay in the safe place until… and then, once they had power, to go!

In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit is poured out dramatically, and the church is born – 3000 were baptized in one service, and Acts 2:47 records that the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. Not yearly, monthly, or weekly. But daily. I read this week that the average United Methodist invites someone to church once every… wait for this… 38 years. That’s not living in the power of the Spirit.

In Acts 4:33, we see the apostles at work! With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and his grace was upon them all. It’s not easy to share Christ – at least not on our own. But the Holy Spirit gives us the power to have a testimony – and then to share it. I like to listen to sermon podcasts while I am running, and phrase I heard recently in a sermon was “God wants to give us a former life.”

“I was… but now I am…”  a former life. The apostles gave their testimony of how Jesus’ resurrection transformed them, and that is powerful beyond measure. People don’t want to know that Jesus is just a remote historical figure, but that he is real in my life, that having the Holy Spirit living within me makes a difference in me daily. There are people out there who are just argumentative and want to debunk Christianity just because they are hard-hearted and deceived, but for the majority of people who aren’t Christians, it’s because they’ve never seen the benefit in it. They hear us complain about our churches and they think, “Why would I want to be a part of that?” They never see God working in power. They don’t see a former life transformed.

How do we start living in power? It takes faith. We have to believe that God will give it. In the first chapter of James, he is talking about asking God for wisdom, and that God, who gives generously to all without finding fault will give it to him. But James 1:6-8 says, But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.

Do you really believe the Holy Spirit can give you power? Do you trust that the same God is still God?  So if we believe that we serve the same God who was God in the Bible, why don’t we see him working in power? Doubt is one reason; we don’t think God will really work, so, as James tells us, the person who thinks that way won’t receive anything from God.

In the conclusion to his letter, James tells the church this: Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. (James 5:13-18)

According to James, there are several reasons our prayers aren’t answered: the first, as we looked at earlier is doubt. If you are mired in doubt, read the scriptures and remember that the same God who was active then is the same God who is active today. And ask God to build your faith.

Another reason James gives for our lack of power is sin. When we continue in sin, we allow Satan to have power over our lives, and so it’s no wonder we aren’t living in God’s power! James says if this is the case, confess our sins to one another and pray for each other so we can be healed. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we see neither mutual confession of sins nor Holy Spirit power in most of our churches these days.

In one of the most understated verses of scripture, James says that Elijah was a man just like us. We think of him as a spiritual giant, a spiritual superman, but he wasn’t. He was a normal human. But when he prayed, God answered in power! Why? Because the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. What would happen if we believed that God still works in power? What would happen if we confessed our sins and repented (turned 180* from them)? What would happen if we prayed, believing that God would answer? What would Hope Church look like? What would Wellston look like? Instead of praying limp, lifeless prayers, let’s pray that God will do something in Wellston that only God can take credit for, something that we can’t do on our own.

God's Got a Plan

As many of you know, I am an avid long-distance runner. I have been a runner for most of my life – I joined the track and cross-country teams in 6th grade and ran through high school. When I was in seminary, I picked up running again and have put many miles on many pairs of shoes. About five days a week in seminary, my friend Nate and I would run a 3 mile loop with my dog. I started running 5K races, but I never got any faster and I never ran any farther. Fast-forward a few years – my friend Rob, who is a United Methodist pastor up near Columbus, went and ran a marathon. I figured, if Rob can run one, I sure can.

One thing I learned quickly about running a marathon was that you have to have a plan. This is true for most people training to run any distance, but it is vital for anyone wanting to run a marathon. I can pretty much go out and run any shorter race without much additional training, up to a half marathon, but not so with a marathon. To run a marathon, you’ve got to have a plan.

But it’s not good enough just to have a plan. It’s got to be a good plan, and you actually have to carry the plan through to completion! Otherwise you will never finish.

Paul tells the church in Corinth: Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:24). This is one of my favorite verses, not only because I can understand the running analogy, but because it is true in living the Christian life. I think I told you before that when I was a little boy, I really thought that for adults, living the Christian life was easy because that was the impression I was given at church – after you’re baptized, you just “livetheChristianlife” and that it is pretty much automatic.

Living as Jesus’ disciple is tough. There’s a reason the word “disciple” has the same root as the word “discipline” – it’s tough, and, like a marathon, we need a plan. So, what plan do we use? Can we go on Runners World online and find one? Thankfully, there is a plan. In Jeremiah 29:11, we read “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

God has a plan, a good and perfect plan. Now, this scripture is one that tends to get overused, often out of context, so let’s look at its context. Just as an aside, most of you probably already know this, but it bears repeating: the three most important things when doing biblical interpretation are context, context, context.

God is speaking here to a people in exile. They are not living in their homeland; they have been carted off to live in a foreign land with foreign rulers who worship foreign gods. God tells the exiles to seek the welfare of the city, but do not be deceived by the culture of the city. We can apply this directly to our lives – in exile or not. 1 Peter 2:11 tells us Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. I want to focus on the first part of this verse: I love the USA, but my citizenship is Heaven. Most people in our culture accept this country as our home, but it is not. Thus, we have to be aware that our own culture is trying to deceive us. Our culture tells us lies like “it’s a choice, and everyone needs choices.” Our culture says, “Look out for #1.” Our culture says, “Buy more, more, more. You need it, and you deserve it.” Our culture tells us that democracy is the best of all possible governments, and so it should work equally well for churches. While I love having a voice and a vote, God’s will is not subject to a vote. Do not be deceived by the culture of your city or your country. Our citizenship is heaven.

While we wait for heaven, remember that God has a plan. A plan of prosperity, the Bible says. So we should all sit back and wait to win the lottery, right? We’re gonna get rich, and when we do, make sure to tithe. Right? Except that the word “prosperity” is kind of a bad translation here. We associate prosperity with money, but the Hebrew word used here is shalom, which encompasses peace, wholeness, well-being, freedom, financial prosperity. God’s plan is a plan of complete wholeness for us, a plan for us to be the people he created us to be.

God has a future for us, and that should be enough to give us hope. But the question I hear asked all the time (and one I ask myself) is: what is God’s plan for me? The question I ask back is “Do you really want to know?”

Do you remember back in the days before we had GPS in our cars and before we had Google Maps on our phones? Back in the day when maps were paper and impossible to refold? If you wanted to go somewhere you had to look at the map and figure out where you were going. The good thing about it was that you had the big picture. You could see the whole route.

Now, when I was in high school, my best friend, David, and I went on a road-trip to Oklahoma – we had been offered full-ride scholarships at the University of Oklahoma, so we thought we should at least visit. David’s dad had a Triple A membership, and he went to the office and got this cool map thingy they called a TripTik. It was a series of maps on a ring, and you just followed the one map until you got to the bottom of it, and then turned to the next map.

This is closer to the kind of directions God usually gives me: he will only tell me the next step. Not the step ten steps from now, but the next step. Psalm 119:105 says: Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.

God’s Word is the light that shows us the way. I generally like to go running before dawn. That is, when I get to bed at a reasonable hour! I love to see the stars, but mostly I love to beat the heat. I will sometimes remember to bring my headlamp along. It’s not very strong and I mostly count on it to help drivers to see me, but it does illuminate my path. Here’s the thing, though: it only illuminates the path right in front of me. You should have seen me running through the Ridgewood Cemetery at night with just a little light shining… I was moving pretty fast!

God’s Word gives us our ultimate direction – Christlikeness. It shows us our ultimate destination, heaven, fully in God’s presence. But the directions that God gives are more like the step-by-step directions. I believe that God only gives us step-by-step directions often because if he gave us the full plan, we would be overwhelmed.

This week in my daily Bible reading, I read this passage: Psalm 25:4-5 Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long. David, who is said to be a man after God’s own heart, prayed this way: God, make me to know your ways. Teach me your paths.

What would your life look like if you prayed that way? Why don’t you make an experiment of it: bookmark Psalm 25:4-5 in your Bible and pray it every day? Write it down somewhere that you are going to take it with you and remember it. When you ask God to show you his ways, the Holy Spirit will begin to speak to you. But you’re going to have to get yourself into a place where you can hear. Turn off the TV. Put down your cell phone. Stop being so distracted.

Our goal is Christlikeness, so shouldn’t that mean that we seek after God’s heart? But we don’t just want God to teach us his ways – there are plenty of people who know about God but they don’t know him. David prays for God to lead him in his truth. The Holy Spirit will lead you if you listen. In 1993 I went to Russia on a mission trip. It was a cultural exchange, where we would each be paired with a Russian roommate (they were all English language students), and one thing I prayed specifically was that God would give me a friendly roommate who wouldn’t ask hard questions just to stump me. God granted me my request – my roommate was the most social guy in the program. Unfortunately he kept everything up on the surface and would never go deep. But I also met Radick, who kept asking hard questions just to stump me.

And it seemed like every time he asked one of those questions, I had an answer right away. Not because I was so smart or because I had prepared for them, but because the Holy Spirit was speaking through me, giving me the answers. The last hard question he asked me was, “How would you feel if the Russian Orthodox Church sent missionaries to America?” (My answer, by the way, was, “If the Russian Orthodox Church can spare some, bring them on; the USA needs Jesus, too.”) It finally made sense; he was never really asking the questions that he was asking, if that makes sense – he was asking, “Can I trust you?” The point is that because I was listening to the Holy Spirit, I had answers every time.

A few years later, I was on a camp-out with a friend and two brothers who we had just met that night. We ended up having a really deep conversation around the camp fire, and I had all kinds of great comments to add to the conversation… and then the Holy Spirit clearly spoke to me, saying, “Shut up.” Because my comments would have distracted from the gravity of the situation and would have diverted attention to me, away from God. The Holy Spirit will direct you if you listen and follow.

The Holy Spirit will lead us in God’s Truth. How do we know God’s Truth? From His Word. From knowing Him intimately.

Some of you know of him – you know a lot about him, but you don’t know him. Take the time today to come to him, to ask him to reveal his presence to you, so you can know him, so he can lead you in his path. His plan for you is perfect wholeness. And he has a hope and a future for his people that is better than you could possibly imagine.

If you are someone who does know him well, then it’s time to quit making excuses. God is forever asking ordinary people to do extraordinary things – things way outside your comfort zones. When God asks you to do something, it’s not going to be something you can do easily – otherwise you could just do it on your own; you wouldn’t need God for it, and God wouldn’t get any glory for it. So God calls us to do something that only God can get credit for, something we might think is impossible.

If you are a leader in this church, your job is first to pray for God to give you His vision for this church – what are we going to attempt that would be ridiculous without God? And, get this, back in 1890, Charles Spurgeon told us that delayed obedience is disobedience, and it’s still true today. So if God is calling you to do something, don’t wait. Do it now. Trust God to do what you cannot.