Sunday, September 30, 2012

Where is the Spirit Leading

Have you ever followed a leader? Follow the Leader is a simple children’s game where everyone lines up behind one leader and then they try to mimic the leader’s actions. The leader is usually happy to get to lead and does simple things, like waving arms, jumping, or walking in zigzag patterns. If you don’t follow the leader more or less exactly, the consequence is you’re out of the game. Until the next round, that is.

There are other times, however, when following a leader exactly is more important. For example, if you are walking through a minefield, it’s important to walk directly in the footsteps of the one leading you through. If a guide is leading you along a cliff, chances are that the guide knows where the footing is solid and where it isn’t.

Most of us have probably found ourselves in a situation where we think we know more than the one who is leading us. That phenomenon is nowhere more obvious than the Monday Morning Quarterback, where everyone at home knows better than the coaches and players who played on Saturday and Sunday. We are caught in a difficult tension of being self-determined and independent and also needy. We understand that we need God’s guidance and leadership, but when God tells us to go, all of a sudden, we know better.

Twice in Luke’s Gospel we hear directly from God. The second time is at the Transfiguration, where we read: A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen. Listen to him.” (Luke 9:35)

God himself gives his approval to Jesus and tells Peter, James, and John to listen to him. God wants to make sure that there is no mistake or question about Jesus’ authority. His leadership is important. Where he leads, we must follow. This is what being Jesus’ disciple is all about. Unfortunately, we often take an unbiblical view of the path the Holy Spirit leads us on, expecting everything to be sunshine and roses and when it isn’t, we wonder if maybe God isn’t with us. There are pastors and entire church movements the claim that we can “name it and claim it” – meaning all we have to do is believe something and act like it’s true and it will come true.

There comes a moment when theology and practice collide. In her essay, Redemptive Suffering: A Christian Solution to the Problem of Evil, Marilyn Adams poses that the big question is “How can I trust (or continue to trust) God in a world like this (in distressing circumstances such as these)?”

Most of us can agree on the idea that we can trust God, that the Holy Spirit is a trustworthy guide, but can we be “confident that God is actually trustworthy in the present situation”?

Can we trust that God is active in a town where jobs have dried up? Can we trust God to provide in a town where government assistance is the largest source of income? Can we trust God in our cancer treatments?

It can be difficult to trust God when the evidence around us is less than affirming. When we don’t see God at work, we can wonder where God is. An ancient poem sums up that experience: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent. In case you’re wondering where that came from, it’s Psalm 22:1-2. How can we trust in God when what we see around us isn’t what we want?

Earlier I mentioned how God spoke out loud in Luke’s gospel twice. The first was at Jesus’ Transfiguration. The other time was at Jesus’ baptism. (Luke 3:21-22) When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Right after this, we get a genealogy, and immediately after, we read this: Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. (Luke 4:1-2)

Aside from the great understatement that after fasting for forty days, Jesus was hungry, one incredibly interesting moment in this passage is that it was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus into the desert where he was tempted. Every week we pray that God will not lead us into temptation, but it was the Holy Spirit who brought Jesus into the place where he would be tempted. And God works like that. From Marilyn Adams again: “For what God wants most from us is wholehearted trust and obedience. Yet it is conceptually impossible to trust someone if you know in advance every move that he will make.”

If we were not ever in a position where we were tempted, where there were troubles and struggles, we would never have to trust God. When we are financially solvent, we don’t have to think about relying on God to provide for us. When our family is in great shape and we’re all happy, then we don’t have to turn to God. When we have all kinds of ways that we can satisfy our own desires without God, why would we need to ask him to help? Why would we want to follow the Holy Spirit, when we’ve already experienced that this is a difficult path?

The answer is that the Holy Spirit is leading us to be like Jesus Christ, and to identify fully with Jesus, we must walk the path that Jesus walked. But our God can take even our worst moments and makes them into something beautiful.

One of my favorite preachers is Francis Chan, who wrote Crazy Love and Forgotten God.  He tells a story of a group of Korean missionaries who went to Afghanistan. While they were there, the Taliban arrested them for their gospel ministry and threw them in prison. Francis Chan had dinner with one of the missionaries who told him about the conditions of the prison. A woman managed to sneak a Bible into the cell and they tore it into as many sections as there were people, so that they could have the Scriptures to read whenever they had the opportunity. It became apparent that some of them were going to be put to death and the senior pastor of the group announced that he would die first. Another man told him that he could not die first, because he was their shepherd, and that the second man must die first as he was an elder. They argued back and forth, with the senior pastor eventually winning. It was however the elder who died first and it was the senior pastor with whom Francis Chan spoke.

The senior pastor told Chan something that has stuck with me. In fact, I can picture exactly where I was when I heard Francis Chan recount this conversation with the senior pastor. He said that since the incident members of that group kept coming to him privately and saying, “Don’t you wish you were back there! In prison!” They wished they could go back to the prison cell, with the looming threat of death and torture ever upon them, because the fellowship with Jesus brought them so much joy. Faith felt real! It was alive! The group unanimously agreed that they had never been so close to Christ as they were in that cell, completely dependent on Him as to whether or not they carried on in the flesh or went immediately Home to Heaven. 

In other words, by the Holy Spirit, they lived out what Paul wrote about in Philippians 1:21: For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. This is life led by the Holy Spirit. Completely satisfied with where you are no matter where it is. As Paul says in the conclusion of his letter to the Philippian church, I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. Do you want to know what his secret is? I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:11-13).

This bears repeating, and I’d like you to say it aloud with me, because there is power in the spoken word. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

Because our God can give this kind of contentment here and now, but even more, he gives the promise of heaven. Our God can take our moments of deepest suffering and sanctify them to the point where, when we look back on them from heaven, we will not wish away even one of those trials – not because we see something good coming from them, but because we will recognize our times of suffering as times of identification with and vision into the inner life of God himself. This is what Paul meant when he wrote: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection of the dead. (Philippians 3:10-11)

Life in the Holy Spirit is not always easy. Know that whenever we begin to surrender fully to the Spirit, to give him the deed to our lives, to relinquish all control, to die to self daily and allow resurrection, whenever this happens, Satan will attack. It is inevitable. As a church, things are about to get difficult, and that’s as close to a guarantee as I can give. Satan hates it when people give over control to the Holy Spirit and he will do everything he can to oppose you. He will cause confusion. He will use well-meaning friends and relatives and co-workers to try to make you doubt where the Holy Spirit is leading you. He will try to cover you with the same cloud of despair that he has sown over this entire region.

But what did we repeat just a minute ago? I can do everything through him who gives me strength. Do you really believe this? It comes back to the question that we asked earlier – can we really trust God in our current circumstances?

When I was preparing to come to Wellston, and almost every time I talk about Wellston, people tell me the same thing: this is a town with no hope. I don’t think it’s irony that this church is called “Hope” because as we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we have a hope that transcends everything that might come against us. The hope we have is multi-layered:

·         In Christ, we have the hope of our salvation and freedom from sins.
·         We have the hope that God is working all things together for the good of those who love Jesus and who are called according to his purpose.
·         We have the hope that we can do everything through Jesus, who gives us strength.
·         We have the hope that God has already won, and that Satan’s attacks will ultimately be futile.
·         We have the hope that when we reach heaven’s glory, we wouldn’t even want to change the difficulties, struggles, and sufferings that we have gone through on this earth, as we will see that they presented us with the chance to identify with Jesus Christ himself.

Your assignment this week is prayer. I don’t mean little impotent prayers, but prayer as if your very lives depend on it. Pray for hope. Pray against the hopelessness that Satan has sown in our church and in our town.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Living the Life

We’ve been spending a lot of time on the Holy Spirit. We started out looking at who the Holy Spirit is, concluding that the Spirit is personal and the Spirit is God.  We turned to look at what the Holy Spirit does, and we discussed that it is the Holy Spirit who calls us, turning us to God, giving us the freedom to serve God, and even helps us to pray. The Holy Spirit is the One who seals our adoption as God’s beloved children and heirs, transforming us and equipping us to do God’s will, giving us spiritual gifts and growing within us the Fruit of the Spirit. Last week was a powerful service in which we were given the “good news” that the only way to defeat death is to die… and to be resurrected, and to daily die to self, emptying ourselves to be filled with the Holy Spirit. I concluded by reading from Robert Boyd Munger’s pamphlet My Heart – Christ’s Home, where he concluded that it’s not enough for the Holy Spirit to be a “guest” in our heart, but that our job is to sign over the deed to our lives.

Some of you realized that you had never signed over the deed, and others of you realized that although you have given over control, it was a good time to reaffirm your commitment to Christ, to reaffirm that He has the deed to your life.

The big question, then, is what happens next?

In his sermon “On the Holy Spirit,” John Wesley poses that we have to ask our hearts if they are able to admit the Holy Spirit, because though this is the path to life, it is a pathway of death, punctuated by martyrdom, Christian warfare, giving away material possessions freely, loving our neighbor “as heartily as if he were washed from all his sins” – in other words, we’re to treat the miserable wretch who has never had so much as a kind word for you as if he were a beloved saint.
(Well may a man ask his own heart, whether it is able to admit the Spirit of God. For where that divine Guest enters, the laws of another world must be observed: The body must be given up to martyrdom, or spent in the Christian warfare, as unconcernedly as if the soul were already provided of its house from heaven; the goods of this world must be parted with as freely, as if the last fire were to seize them to-morrow; our neighbour must be loved as heartily as if he were washed from all his sins, and demonstrated to be a child of God by the resurrection from the dead. The fruits of this Spirit must not be mere moral virtues, calculated for the comfort and decency of the present life; but holy dispositions, suitable to the instincts of a superior life already begun.
Thus to press forward, whither the promise of life calls him, -- to turn his back upon the world, and comfort himself in God, -- every one that has faith perceives to be just and necessary, and forces himself to do it: Every one that has hope, does it gladly and eagerly, though not without difficulty; but he that has love does it with ease and singleness of heart. John Wesley – Sermon 141 “On the Holy Spirit”)
If this sounds hard, it’s because it is. If it sounds impossible, that’s because it is. This goes against our nature – but not against God’s nature. And life in the Holy Spirit is life continually renewed and guided by the Holy Spirit.

In his sermon “How to Receive the Gift of the Holy Spirit,” John Piper pinpoints two things that characterize the experience of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The first characteristic is a heart full of praise.

In Acts 10:44-45, while Peter was preaching, God poured the Holy Spirit out onto Gentiles, and the disciples were amazed that God had given His Spirit to Gentiles. But in Acts 10:46, the Bible affirms that they knew it was the Holy Spirit because “they heard [the Gentiles] speaking in tongues and extolling (or magnifying) God.” As John Piper affirms, “speaking in tongues is one particular way of releasing the heart of praise. It may be present or may not. But one thing is sure: the heart in which the Holy Spirit is poured out will stop magnifying self and start magnifying God. Heartfelt praise and worship is the mark of a real experience of the Holy Spirit.”  (

The other mark that characterizes the experience of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is obedience. We aren’t naturally obedient; there’s a reason why toddlers learn to say “no” so early!  In Acts 5:29 Peter and the apostles say to the Sadducees who had arrested them, "We must obey God rather than men." Then in verse 32 he says, "We are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God gave to those who are obeying him." ("Gave" is past tense; "obey" is present, ongoing tense.) It is inevitable that when the object of your heart's worship changes, your obedience changes. When Jesus baptizes you in the Holy Spirit, and infuses you with a new sense of the glory of God, you have a new desire and a new power (1:8) to obey.”

So the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is marked by a heart full of praise for God and obedience to God. These things go against our nature – against the flesh, but they demonstrate that God’s nature has replaced ours.

But they aren’t the only marks of our new birth. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul has been writing about spiritual gifts, and this chapter ends with this sentence: And now I will show you the most excellent way. Do you know what this “most excellent way” is?

He goes on in 1 Corinthians 13 to say, If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

We often read this scripture at weddings, but that’s honestly using it out of context. The context is spiritual gifts and the church. Two weeks ago I mentioned that spiritual gifts are part of the whole package when the Holy Spirit indwells us. Every Christian has spiritual gifts. I have seen people who have spiritual-gift-envy where they look around and say, “Oh, so-and-so has all these cool spiritual gifts, but all I have is…” I’ve also seen the other side, where people go bragging on their spiritual gifts and get all puffed up because of them.

But Paul is saying that the gifts don’t matter at all if we don’t love one another. It’s like a gong or a cymbal – just a lot of noise and not much else. Not even the greatest spiritual gift can overcome a lack of love. Not giving everything away to the poor, not moving mountains, not even martyrdom. The clearest scriptural mark of the one who is full of the Holy Spirit is love.

A Pharisee, who was an expert in the law, tested [Jesus] with this question; “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36). In other words, the Law has hundreds of do’s and don’ts and I want to boil it down to the most important thing. What is it? The Pharisee wanted to trap Jesus into denying part of the Law, and then they would have had reason to denounce him.

Jesus replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

If you’ve been in church for any time at all, you know this scripture. And perhaps you’ve really been working on it, and you have gotten to the point where you’re  thinking, “I’m pretty good at love.” Of course, then Jesus goes and ups the ante on love, saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute, you that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than any others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48).

Jesus calls us to love unlovely people. I’m not just talking about the annoying neighbor who plays his music too loudly. I’m talking about people who persecute Christians. In case you didn’t realize it, there are parts of the world where it is not only illegal to be a Christian, but Christians are jailed and even tortured for their faith. I’m a big fan of the Voice of the Martyrs, an organization that not only raises awareness about Christian martyrs, but also supports Christians, especially pastors, in places where they are persecuted, and works to bring the gospel into closed countries. Before Richard Wurmbrand had founded Voice of the Martyrs, however, he was a prisoner himself, tortured for following Jesus. In Communist Romania, Wurmbrand was thrown in prison for failing to declare loyalty to the Communist regime, a regime which was dedicated to the destruction of religion. The jailers attempted to brainwash Wurmbrand and other Christians and tortured them with hot pokers, sticks, and truncheons. They even beat them and tied them to crosses.

Richard Wurmbrand had every right to despise his jailers, but listen to his attitude.
“And then the miracle happened. When it was at the worst, when we were tortured as never before, we began to love those who tortured us. Just as a flower, when you bruise it under your foot, rewards you with its perfume, the more we were mocked and tortured, the more we pitied and loved our torturers.”

Many have asked Wurmbrand, “How can you love someone who is torturing you?” He replies, “By looking at men… not as they are, but as they will be… I could also see in our persecutors a Saul of tarsus – a future apostle Paul. Many officers of the secret police to whom we witnessed became Christians and were happy to later suffer in prison for having found our Christ. Although we were whipped, as Paul was, in our jailers we saw the potential of the jailer in Philippi who became a convert. We dreamed that soon they would ask, ‘What must I do to be saved?’

“It was in prison that we found the hope of salvation for the Communists. It was there that we developed a sense of responsibility toward them. In Communist prisons the idea of a Christian mission to the Communists was born. We asked ourselves, ‘What can we do to win these men to Christ?’”
(from Jesus Freaks: Stories of Those Who Stood for Jesus: the Ultimate Jesus Freaks. By DC Talk and the Voice of the Martyrs)

This is not the only story out there. There are so many, including Elisabeth Eliot, who went to minister to the very people who murdered her husband Jim. How can someone have such love that they not only want to pray for their torturers but actually want to see them come to Christ, to become brothers in Christ? We were created to desire justice, and instead, we see love, the kind that Jesus called for. How does this happen?

As Paul writes in Romans 5:5 it is because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. The only way we can have this kind of love is by the Holy Spirit.

Do you have this kind of love? You’re not going to get it by trying harder – that only encourages discouragement and breeds resentment. But the Holy Spirit is just waiting to fill you with supernatural love, the kind that Jesus shows, the kind that brings glory to God. Will you accept?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven, But Nobody Wants to Die

Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven, But Nobody Wants to Die

There’s an old song that says “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die,” and nowhere is that more true than in our own culture. We don’t even talk about death; when someone we like dies, we say they “passed away” or “went to be with Jesus,” or for someone else, well, they might have “kicked the bucket” or they might be “pushing up daisies.”

Death seems to be the one big enemy, the one that we will all succumb to at some point or another. Sometimes we ignore the fact that every day of life is another day closer to death, but it is inevitable. We are not immortal.

In Romans 8:13, the phrase that the NIV translates “the sinful nature” is in Greek “the flesh.” The mortal life, the flesh, is bound for death.

Though that is bad news, it’s not new; it’s almost as old as the earth itself. When Adam and Eve sinned against God in the Garden of Eden, the punishment was death, and we’ve lived in death’s shadow ever since. And so when Paul writes to the church in Rome, saying, “If you live according to the flesh, you will die,” he does not bring new news. Likewise, Paul tells the church in Corinth: Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. (1 Corinthians 15:50)

So the eternal question is how can we defeat death?

The Egyptians tried by mummification and by burying their dead with supplies for the journey. Hindus believe that to defeat death, one must live a series of perfect lives until one day they stop the cycle of reincarnation by achieving perfection. Our culture tries to defeat death by advances in medical science.

Though every culture seems to try, there is only one way to defeat death: Death.

Now you’re probably thinking, “Oh, great, I got up and made it to church only to be told that the only way to defeat death is to die. What a waste of a Sunday!” If that’s what you’re thinking, I applaud your honesty, and I ask you to hang in there.

The first part of Romans 8:13 says: For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die. In fact, you are already dead. Ephesians 2:1-2 describes the sinful state like this: As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.

Perhaps one reason we don’t like to think about death is that it describes the state in which we live when we live according to this world. There’s a quote from the movie the Sixth Sense where the little boy remarked, “I see dead people… walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.” That’s a pretty accurate depiction of the way most people live. To the untrained eye, they look alive, going about daily duties, families, work, school, even church; they don’t even know they’re dead.

So, I read the first part of Romans 8:13, but the rest of the verse is important, as it brings the good news. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit are sons of God. (Romans 8:13)

Death is the way to life, because without death, we cannot experience resurrection. I am not simply talking about our physical death; this is a spiritual concept. Beyond being one of two Sacraments that the UMC observes, baptism is a powerful image of death, burial, and resurrection, being dead in sin, buried under the water, and resurrected to live anew.

And it was Jesus who said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24)

Losing your life for Jesus is the path to real life, because this is the pathway to being filled with the Holy Spirit. On our own, we are filled with the sinful nature, and when we are filled with the sinful nature, we are unable to be filled with anything else.

Have you ever seen a hermit crab? As it grows, it outgrows its shell, so it looks for a larger shell to live in. If there is already someone living in the new shell, the hermit crab will bypass it. Though in no way am I trying to equate the Holy Spirit to a hermit crab, it is true that the Holy Spirit will no more enter into a life already inhabited by the sin nature than a hermit crab will enter an occupied shell.

To be filled with the Holy Spirit, you have to die to self; you have to empty yourself. This is the same process Jesus went through in coming to earth. Philippians 2:5-8 tells us that 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!

That’s the hard part. The easy part is to ask.

Jesus posed this scenario to his disciples in Luke 11:11-13: “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Are there any parents here who will give their child a snake or a scorpion if your child asks for something to eat? Even parents, living in the sin nature, give good gifts to their children. How much more will our perfect Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit?!

In a different context, James admonishes, “You do not have, because you do not ask God.” This is true of receiving the Holy Spirit! Have you asked God to fill you with the Holy Spirit?

I want to stress to you that this is not just a doctrine, but an experience. In his journal, John Wesley writes the following: In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. I love John Wesley’s honesty – maybe it’s because he never meant for his journal to be published, but sometimes it’s hard to even be that honest in a journal written for oneself. He didn’t want to go to this group meeting. Can we be honest – was there anyone who didn’t want to come here today? The material doesn’t sound all that exciting: Martin Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. But part of obedience to God is going where you don’t want to go, however unwillingly you go, because God has something for you in the experience. Listen to the rest of the journal entry:

About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

John Wesley affirms that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is an experience. What kind of experience is it? Some feel their heart strangely warmed. Some do not. Some spontaneously speak in tongues. Others don’t. But the “strange warming” was not all that Wesley described. He also described a full trust in Christ for salvation. He didn’t just know that Jesus was enough, but he knew that he knew.

Salvation was something that had bothered John Wesley – up to this point, he consistently wondered if he was really saved. During a storm at sea after a botched mission trip, he feared for his life, which to him was a sure sign that he wasn’t even saved. But now he knows that he knows that Jesus had taken away his sins and saved him. He has an assurance. Why? Because the Holy Spirit is filling him, witnessing to his spirit.

I want to stress that being filled with the Holy Spirit is also accompanied by repentance, turning 180* away from your sinful behavior and going in the opposite direction. In Robert Boyd Munger’s pamphlet My Heart – Christ’s Home, he describes it this way:

I said to myself, “I have been trying to keep this heart of mine clean and available for Christ, but it is hard work. I start on one room and no sooner have I cleaned it than I discover another room is dirty. I begin on the second room and the first one is already dusty again. I’m getting tired of trying to maintain a clean heart and an obedient life. I am just not up to it!”

Suddenly I asked, “Lord is there a possibility that you would be willing to manage the whole house and operate it for me…? Could I give to you the responsibility of keeping my heart what it ought to be and myself doing what I ought to be doing?”

I could see his face light up as he replied, “I’d love to! This is exactly what I came to do. You can’t live out the Christian life in your own strength. That is impossible. Let me do it for you and through you. That’s the only way it will really work. But,” he added slowly, “I am here as your guest. I have no authority to take charge since this property is not mine.”

In a flash it all became clear. Excitedly I exclaimed, “Lord, you have been my guest and I have been trying to play the host. From now on you are going to be the owner and master of the house. I’m going to be the servant!”

Is the Holy Spirit a guest in your house, or does he own it? Today is the day to sign over the deed to the Spirit. If you are tired of the struggle that you continue to lose, if you’re tired of cleaning one part of your life, only to find another one dirty, if you’re tired of walking around dead, it’s time to kill the old life and let God raise you in resurrection.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

What Does the Holy Spirit Do - part 2

Acts 9:31: The Church was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.

For the last several weeks, we have been looking at the Holy Spirit, not just to know more about Him, but to get to know Him better. Our goal is never just to know more about God; we can know all about Him without ever knowing Him. I hope this series on the Holy Spirit has at least made you interested in Him, but a sermon series won’t cause you to be filled with the Spirit. The Bible says that the way to receive God is to seek Him with your whole heart. In Jeremiah 29:13, God says, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

What is it like to seek God with your whole heart? If you’ve ever been deep in the water where you aren’t sure if you’re going to make it to the surface in time to breathe, your desire for air is what God is talking about. The Psalmist puts it this way: As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? (Psalm 42:1-2) Does this characterize your spirit, longing, panting for God? If you’re not there, ask God for the desire for Him.

We are not asking something unreasonable; in fact, we are able to ask God for good things for two reasons. First of all, because Jesus paid the price for our sins – allowing us to come into God’s presence. Without this gift from Jesus, we would still need an intercessor to go to God on our behalf, like the Jewish priests did. Back in Temple days, once a year, only one priest, chosen by lot, was allowed to go into the Holy of Holies to meet with God, and he had to undergo special cleansing and atonement to make sure he was worthy to enter. He would have a rope tied around his waist in case God struck him dead – that way his body could be removed from the holy place. When Jesus died, the Temple curtain that separated the people from the Holy of Holies was torn in two, from top to bottom, signifying that we no longer need to be separated from God’s presence because of what Jesus did. (that’s a good place for an amen)

But that is not the only reason we don’t need an intercessor. The other reason is because of our own identities. Last week we were reminded that when we don’t know how to pray, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us. If you read Romans 8 this week, you know that if we are in Christ, our identity has been changed. Romans 8:15-16 tells us For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

We don’t need another intercessor because the Holy Spirit has sealed our adoption as God’s children!

Adoption is a powerful concept, and one I am passionate about. Adoption places the adoptee in a new family. It allows for a level of ongoing care and nurture which hadn’t been present before, and now the adoptee is eligible to receive an inheritance. But perhaps the most powerful aspect of adoption is that it gives the adoptee a new identity. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we actually are God’s children!

I want to make a distinction between a couple kinds of adoption. When Tara and I were newly married, we went to visit the Jessamine County Dog Pound. There were cages full of dogs there, all available for adoption, but there was this one black dog that stuck out to us. We asked the attendant if we could take him out for a walk, and he said, “The mean one?” No, we didn’t want the nasty one – we wanted the quiet one. We ended up loving that dog and we ended up adopting him. Now, we chose that dog based on his demeanor and size and friendliness. We didn’t choose the mean dog based on the same criteria.

But when God adopts us, he does not take our conduct into consideration. He doesn’t just go through and find the nice ones and the good looking ones and say, “I pick this one.” Listen to how it is described in Deuteronomy 7:7-8: The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

The deliverance from slavery in Egypt is mirrored by the way the Holy Spirit sets us free from slavery to sin, and it bears repeating that without the Holy Spirit, our identity is that of sinner, estranged from God. And the passage in Deuteronomy is a stark reminder that there is nothing you can do to make God want to adopt you. It is not because you had the best behavior or because your family has always been in church. God chose you to bring glory to himself, even in that choosing.

When the Holy Spirit adopts us, he transforms us into different people. I love the stories in scripture where God actually changes people’s names – sometime I might do a sermon series on that – and although we don’t usually receive an actual new name when the Holy Spirit indwells us, our identity has been forever altered. We are no longer the same person!

The Holy Spirit equips us with strength and power to accomplish God’s purposes, things we cannot do on our own. In Acts 1:8, if you remember from a few weeks back, right before Jesus ascended into heaven, he told his disciples, “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.” It is Holy Spirit power that gives us the power to be Jesus’ witness in your own community as well as around the world.

Have you ever thought, “I would never know what to say.”? I can understand that. There are times when I go into situations wondering what words I can possibly say, and there are times when the Holy Spirit gives me the words right at the right time. I love what Jesus told his disciples in Mark 13:11 “Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.” First of all, notice that Jesus didn’t say “if” you are arrested and brought to trial; he knew his disciples would suffer for his sake. But he also knew Who would speak for them. At this point in history, Christian brothers and sisters around the world are being persecuted and are witnessing to prison guards even as we sit here in relative prosperity and comfort. But know that each of us will have times of testing – the test isn’t like the tests you endured back in school, and the test isn’t even so much about how you will behave in troubling situations, but will you relinquish all control to the Holy Spirit? Will you be completely surrendered to Him, to speak what He tells you to say and only what he tells you to say? Jesus already established that the Holy Spirit only speaks what God tells him (in John 16:13) – will we be characterized by that same dependence on the Spirit for every word?

God calls us to be witnesses wherever we are – whether that is in a so-called secular job, in an unbelieving family, in your school, at the store, wherever you are. There is someone who the Holy Spirit is sending you to meet. There is someone the Holy Spirit is sending you to encourage. There is someone the Holy Spirit is sending you to challenge or hold accountable. We so often compartmentalize our lives – Sunday is for church, weekdays are for work, weekends are for doing whatever you want to do… but with the Holy Spirit, there is only one compartment – and it’s all-inclusive. The Spirit wants to have control over every aspect of your life, not just the churchy parts.

I like to watch “Bar Rescue” on Spike TV, where John Taffer comes in to miserably failing bars and figures out why they are failing and then turns them around. He always finds filthy kitchens and that always makes me wonder what’s in the kitchens of places I eat, and he also finds other areas where they are failing. A difficulty he almost always runs into is that the owner doesn’t want certain changes to take place. One example is the name of the bar – there are some names that just don’t invite people in, and so John will say he wants to change the name. Inevitably the owner will get all riled up about the name change. So John will tell the owner to trust him. The customers and the bar employees always love the new name and the new atmosphere.

We are in the same boat; the Holy Spirit is saying that he is going to change our identity, clean us out, and use us for his purpose, but we’re going to have to trust him. Jesus tells us that we can trust the Holy Spirit to give us the words we need in tough circumstances. After all, God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and self-control. (2 Timothy 1:7)

But the Holy Spirit does not only transform us; the Holy Spirit also gives spiritual gifts. 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 says: Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines. 

The Holy Spirit gives spiritual gifts – if you are a Christian, you have at least one spiritual gift, and the Holy Spirit gives it to you for the common good, to build up the church, and to give you your place in the body. If you have never done a spiritual gifts inventory, I have some that are available in the back of the sanctuary after service. I don’t want you to just take them and fill them out and say, “oh, so that’s my spiritual gift” – the idea is that you find out your spiritual gift so you can use it!

The Holy Spirit also gives us the Fruit of the Spirit, as detailed in Galatians 5:22-23. The Fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. I have often done nine-week sermon series on the Fruit of the Spirit, taking one aspect each week, but today I want to focus on a few things. Notice that the word “fruit” is singular? Unlike spiritual gifts, we do not just get one or two of these. We get all of it. I have heard sermons preached again and again about the Fruit of the Spirit and I am embarrassed to have even preached them myself – of how we are supposed to work really hard to achieve them – try to love people more, find things that bring joy, try to be more patient, and so forth, but that just does not work. Why not? Because this is Fruit of the Spirit, which only comes from the Holy Spirit living within the believer.

If you want to grow an apple, you have to plant an apple tree. If you want to grow strawberries, you have to plant strawberries. An apple tree can’t try really hard to grow strawberries and no matter how hard a strawberry plant tries, it will never grow an apple. Someone can tie a strawberry on an apple tree branch, but it will end up getting all mushy and then drying out and rotting. And as much as we try to work harder and achieve love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, they don’t grow on us naturally. This Fruit only grows from the Holy Spirit!

So it is only in Him that we really become loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. This is the essence of being a Christian and this is where Christian behavior comes from. Have you ever heard the accusation that someone doesn’t want to be part of a church because the church is full of hypocrites? Well, if our hearts remain unchanged and we just try hard to exhibit the Fruit of the Spirit, which is what has been advocated so often, then we’re teaching Christians to be hypocrites. Fake it ‘til you make it does not work.

In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul is talking about Moses, who spoke to God face-to-face. Whenever Moses came from God’s presence, his face glowed with God’s glory, so much that he had to wear a veil to cover his face. So here’s what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:17-18: Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

I’ve mentioned the freedom in the Lord the last couple of weeks and it bears repeating, because there is no freedom from sin apart from him. Every sin must be paid for, because every sin is first and foremost a sin against God, and only Jesus Christ can pay the price, which he did on the cross. And the Holy Spirit actually transforms us – with ever-increasing glory – into Jesus’ likeness. You want to see good behavior? Allow the Holy Spirit to transform you!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

What Does The Holy Spirit Do - part 1

What Does The Holy Spirit Do?

In John 16:7, Jesus made the audacious statement that 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.

How crazy is it to think that there would be a situation that would be better than Jesus walking the earth in the flesh. And that we live in that situation! Last week we focused on who the Holy Spirit is – I can summarize in two phrases: the Holy Spirit is a Person, and the Holy Spirit is God.

Today we are looking at what the Holy Spirit does. A good place to start is the day of Pentecost, a celebration that happened fifty days after Passover.

Acts 2:1-4, 14-21
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
17 “‘In the last days, God says,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your young men will see visions,
    your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
    and they will prophesy.
19 I will show wonders in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
20 The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
21 And everyone who calls
    on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

The Holy Spirit showed up in a real way that day, and nothing has ever been the same. The problem is that we’re unsure of how things aren’t going to be the same. I’ve heard all sorts of things attributed to the Holy Spirit that really don’t have anything to do with Him. For example, there are some pastors or church leaders who never plan their worship gatherings or write their sermons, expecting the Holy Spirit to “show up” and do all of that for them. Hey, there are times when that works. Like the time when my small group had a dinner, and nobody planned what to bring, and it completely worked out with salad, appetizer, entrĂ©e, dessert. But without order and planning, the meal usually ends up being a whole bunch of beans, a bag of chips, and a cake. I knew a pastor who said he was relying on the Spirit to give him Sunday’s messages… but in his case, that was just his excuse for laziness. On the other hand, there are churches where order and decorum are the hallmarks of their worship services – if someone raises their hand in worship, people will talk. But in some churches, they say that the Holy Spirit inspires them to raise their hands in worship, to dance to the music, or to share testimonies or prophecies during worship. There are entire denominations who believe that speaking in tongues is the sign of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and go as far as to say if you don’t speak in tongues, you don’t have the Holy Spirit.

The problem is that when we think in these terms, we often unconsciously limit the Holy Spirit to only working during our worship services and only in very limited (and honestly not very biblical) ways.

So, what does the Holy Spirit do? Well, part of that goes to who the Holy Spirit is. Know that because the Holy Spirit is God, the Spirit will never go against God’s will. I once had someone tell me that they felt like the Holy Spirit was telling them to do something that was contrary to biblical teaching, but since it just had to be the Spirit, and well, who am I to go against him? God does not contradict God.

But if you learn who the Holy Spirit is, you will learn about some of the things He does. John 14:26 says that He will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. In fact, Jesus goes so far as to say that the Spirit will not speak on his own; he will only speak what he hears. (John 16:13)

So the Holy Spirit will speak, but this isn’t the case where you can go to one or another Person of the Trinity and get a different answer. God is God is God. This is why John can write Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1).

To fully understand the ministry of the Holy Spirit, we have to realize where we are without Him. We cannot even approach God in our natural sinful state; we don’t recognize God at all. But the Holy Spirit goes before us, in what John Wesley called “Prevenient Grace,” calling us, wooing us. Romans 5:5-6 reminds us that it is by the Holy Spirit that God has poured his love into our hearts; while we were powerless – meaning we couldn’t do anything to save ourselves or even to approach God ourselves – Christ died for the ungodly.

The Holy Spirit approaches us with Truth, convicting us of our sin. When He [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: (John 16:8) Our culture doesn’t like to admit that there is a such thing as sin anymore, that everyone gets to choose what is right and wrong. I think I know the difference: right is when I do it, wrong is when someone does it to me.

When we continually ignore the Holy Spirit, our hearts become dulled and calloused to His voice, and, in turn, we don’t recognize sin as sin. Romans 1 has the whole continuum, which culminates in the sad commentary: Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed, and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent new ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. (Romans 1:28-32)

If we continue to ignore the Holy Spirit, God says, “You want to ignore me? Fine, then do what you want. But you’re going to be apart from me.” If you want to see how this plays out, turn on your TV. Almost every so-called reality TV show glorifies sinfulness, and our culture not only approves of these things but begs for more.

Why is this? Because those who live by the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. (Romans 8:5)

In a word, the sinful nature is selfish and self-absorbed. I know this first-hand. On my own, I only think of myself. It’s only by surrender to the Holy Spirit that I am willing to follow what God desires instead of what I want.

According to Romans 8:8, Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. There are no two ways about it. You can’t have both. You are one or the other. You are controlled by the Holy Spirit or you are controlled by the sinful nature, and if you are controlled by the sinful nature, you cannot please God. On the other hand, as we see King David imploring God in Psalm 143:10 Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground.

If you want to know God’s will, ask. But David asked for more than a knowledge of God’s will, David asked for the empowerment to do God’s will, for the Spirit to lead him on level ground. In this room, I see a bunch of people who don’t need to know more of God’s will – I see people who need to do God’s will. And you’ll need the Holy Spirit for that.

You see, it is only through the Holy Spirit that we even have the freedom to do God’s will. Romans 8 is a good place to park for a while, and in fact, your homework this week is to read and re-read Romans 8. In Romans 7, Paul writes about his struggle with sin. I’ve told you before that when I was a little kid, I didn’t understand that adults struggled with sin; I thought it was supposed to be easy once you accepted Jesus. But Paul puts those thoughts to rest in Romans 7, detailing his personal struggle with sin, culminating in 7:24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

That’s the context of Romans 8, where we read first that There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:1-2) One of the roles of the Holy Spirit is setting us free from our lives of sin. There are sins we just cannot overcome on our own. Working harder sometimes doesn’t work, because it’s not just a matter of behavior, it’s a matter of transformation. When Jesus tells Nicodemus that “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again,”(John 3:3) Nicodemus is right to be upset and confused, because no matter how much plastic surgery you put yourself through, and we can probably all think of some Hollywood actor or actress who has tried, nobody can take a day off their age, let alone be born over again. We have overused the phrase “born again” to the point where it lacks its shock value, but think about it for a moment…

Jesus told Nicodemus that Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. (John 3:6). Did you get that the only way to see the Kingdom of God is to be born again, and the only way to be born again is by the Holy Spirit? The good news is that this birth sets us free from slavery to sin. As 2 Corinthians 3:17b tells us, Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

Let me make a distinction: in his death on the cross, Jesus took upon Himself our sins, and they were buried with Him. He took our place and bore the penalty for our sins. So in that sense, Jesus bought our freedom. We are no longer declared guilty. But in our flesh, even having been set apart by God, we wage war. But the Holy Spirit gives us the freedom that we do not have to continue in sin!

In fact, when we struggle most, the Holy Spirit helps us pray (Romans 8:26-27) the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our heart knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will. What an amazing picture, that when we are at our weakest, we are really at our strongest. When we relinquish control to the Holy Spirit, when we realize that we don’t even know what to pray for, then the Spirit intercedes.

I think this is a good place to stop this week – it should be a lot to think about. Remember your assignment, to read Romans 8. If you came this morning and you are feeling overwhelmed by your own self-centeredness and sinfulness, it might just be the Holy Spirit speaking to you. If that is you, it’s time to allow Him to give you freedom. If you have not accepted Jesus, today is the day to accept him. The Holy Spirit is the one calling to you today – just as He called to so many on the day of Pentecost, where three thousand were saved from their sin and punishment in hell, just as He saved many more each day in the early church.

If you have accepted Jesus, yet you still can’t shake the compulsion to sin – you aren’t growing in Christ’s likeness, it is time to let the Spirit set you free. It is time to allow the Holy Spirit to renew your mind, to admit your weakness and to let him intercede for you.