Sunday, May 29, 2016

Fire up the Chainsaw (#1 in the Holy Spirit series)

Scripture: Acts 2:17-21 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. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

A prominent mzungu went to Builders Warehouse and asked for a chainsaw. 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 right away.
         The next day the customer returned, looking 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 tree. 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??”

Often, our experience of the Christian life is a lot like the mzungu’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). We’ve often focused on the baptizing part without teaching what comes next.

One 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? As Christians we have focused on correct behaviors. 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 say, “praise the Lord” and it would start to howl. It was great. We said, “That dog is almost human!” 

But guess what: that dog, no matter how smart he was, is still 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 behavior modification doesn’t work in the Christian life.

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: what if I told you that you had to run a marathon, 42 km? And I said don’t come back until you’ve finished. Some of you realize that I’m asking the impossible. But what if I said I would run it 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 seem to know God 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. 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)

I don’t think the African Church is as bad as the American Church, behaving as if they don’t even know there is a Holy Spirit, but sometimes it is as if we have a cartoon picture of the Holy Spirit, one who is present in signs and wonders and fire, but not doing what the Holy Spirit does in the Scripture.

The church without the Holy Spirit is like the person without the spirit – dead. I remember my sister and I saw this really awful movie about these two guys who had to pretend that their wealthy dead benefactor 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 without the Holy Spirit, our churches behave like we’re in that movie. 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. In one church I served, I asked for stories of transformation for the district charge conference, and nobody had any.

Even 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 could feed every person in Matero, but if it’s not done in the Holy Spirit, we might as well throw that food away, 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. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Do You Want the Holy Spirit?

Acts 2:1-4
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.

Ever since the Holy Spirit Encounter, we have been talking a lot about the Holy Spirit. Before Jesus ascended into Heaven, he felt that the empowerment of the Holy Spirit was important enough that he told his disciples to wait there for the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Then they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. He never told them “go out and do your best. Take your best shot.” He told them to wait for the Holy Spirit. Today we celebrate Pentecost Sunday. Pentecost was a celebration that happened fifty days after the Passover. It was called the Day of the First Fruits, because on that day the first fruits of the wheat harvest were brought to God. It was one of three pilgrimage festivals where Jews were expected, even commanded to bring gifts and offerings to God. This is important, as God was going to do something awesome.

The first thing I want to highlight is that the Holy Spirit had been promised. Before he was crucified, Jesus told his disciples, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” [hold on to that.] “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever – the Spirit of Truth… I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you… 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.” (John 14:15-17a, 18, 26)

So now Jesus’ promise is being fulfilled. The Holy Spirit is being poured out. I want to focus on the context in which the Holy Spirit comes. It is a required festival day, when faithful Jews have come from all over the ancient near east to Jerusalem and are gathered together in one place. This is not a coincidence.

It’s also not a coincidence who was there in the room. The disciples, who Jesus had commanded to wait for the Holy Spirit, are gathered together in a room. Their obedience facilitated the gift. When Jesus promised the Holy Spirit, he set a condition. The promise for the Holy Spirit came immediately after he had told them, “if you love me, you will obey what I command.

There are many people out there who want the power of the Holy Spirit but not obedience. People always want shortcuts. But I’m here to tell you that the Holy Spirit power does not come to the disobedient! It’s like a guy who is hired for a job. He goes and interviews, and the employer tells him, “Come to work on Monday.” Except he doesn’t show up. Then on Friday, he comes in and asks for his pay. He wants to go out and have a good time on the weekend. Do you think the boss will give him any money? NO! It’s the same thing with Christians. We sometimes think we can do whatever we want all week, all month, but then we find ourselves in need of the Holy Spirit’s power, so we start to beg God. We cry out to God. We plead with him. But if we’re not obedient in the small things, this pleading and crying is not going to force God’s hand. God is looking for obedience. In fact, when questioned, Peter said directly in Acts 5:32 that the Holy Spirit is given by God to those who obey him. You want the Spirit? Obey God. It’s not about catching someone else’s blessing. It’s not about hype.

Listen to what Jesus said about obedience. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’  Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:21-23)

There are those among us who just want God’s blessing. They want to see signs and wonders of the Holy Spirit. But they don’t want to be obedient. Or sometimes there are those among us who want great things, but they aren’t obedient in the little things.

Jesus’ disciples were obedient. They weren’t perfect, but they were obedient. So we find them together in one room, waiting for the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus commanded. They heard what sounded like a mighty wind, and they saw what appeared like tongues of fire resting on each of them. That’s why the United Methodist Church has a symbol of a cross and a flame. The cross is for the sacrifice Jesus made to make reconciliation with us, and the flame is for the Holy Spirit. The cross is the symbol of Jesus’ obedience, and the Holy Spirit is given to those who are obedient to Jesus.

I want to get into one other aspect of this account of the Day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit enabled the disciples to speak in other languages. There are all sorts of theories and theologies, even, to explain or understand this manifestation of the Spirit. One thing is for sure: this example of speaking in tongues was unique, as the Holy Spirit did not simply enable the apostles to speak in languages they didn’t understand, but rather took the apostles’ speech and translated it into languages that their audience could understand. It would be like me standing here speaking English, yet you could understand it in Nyanja or Bemba without a human translator.

As with most events, this can be faked. Speaking in tongues does not guarantee the Holy Spirit’s presence or activity. As with prophecy, the test is in the fruit. We have a good way to measure things: in Deuteronomy 18:22, the test for a prophet says if someone predicts something in the name of the Lord and it doesn’t come true – if only one prophecy fails – then that person is a false prophet. If a prophecy or so-called word from God contradicts God’s Word, then that person is a false prophet. If the utterances serve to elevate a human over God, to amass a person great wealth, but that person does not exhibit love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control, then they just might not be from the Lord.

Just because you hear speaking in tongues, just because you see signs and wonders, these are not guarantees that they come from God. Listen carefully to the message as well. Spend time with God, with the Bible, listening to the Holy Spirit, to determine what God is saying and doing.

The last thing I want to say now is this: some of you know what you’re supposed to be doing, but you aren’t doing it. You can’t have it both ways. Some of you might need to repent, to stop what you’re doing and turn in the opposite direction and do what God is calling you to do. Some of you have made excuses why not to do what God is telling you plainly. Stop making excuses. Today is the day to obey Christ. Today is the day of salvation. Today can be your Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit is poured out. But that won’t happen for the disobedient.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Be My Witnesses

Acts 1:1-11
Last week we met up in Kabangwe for the Holy Spirit Encounter. Pastor Blake worked hard to help you understand that the Holy Spirit is calling Christians to lead in ministry, to take the Good News of Jesus Christ to this church, to your neighborhood, through Matero, throughout Lusaka, all over Zambia, and to the world. Some of you stood up and accepted the challenge and the mandate; you are going to be God’s witnesses.

This is what is happening in the first part of the book of Acts. Just a little background before we get into the message today. I did not know this until I was in seminary, but the book of Acts isn’t its own book. It’s the second volume of a two-volume work. Does anyone know what the first volume is? We know it as the Gospel according to Luke. Each is the size of a standard scroll, but together they make up a whole. So when scholars talk about these two books of the Bible, they regularly call them together Luke-Acts.

Anyway, in the second scroll, starting at Acts 1, Luke, the author, reminds his readers what happened in the first scroll. It included all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.

He told his apostles to wait until they had received the Holy Spirit. They still didn’t understand what was going to happen; they still had two major questions. The questions were: are you going to restore Israel’s power, and when are you going to do it? They still did not understand what it was that Jesus was doing. They wanted a physical kingdom with Jesus as King. But they got something else. Many Christians want to live in a Christian nation, ruled by Christ himself. But think about it. Does living in a Christian nation make the citizens Christians? No. It doesn’t. Sometimes it forces citizens to behave like Christians, but forcing someone does not make them Christian. Becoming a Christian has to come from a true desire for Christ. So their desire was short-sighted. Jesus had a far bigger plan.

Some of you stood in front of the congregation last week in Kabangwe and promised to God and in front of all of us that you would be God’s End Times Messengers, or, as Jesus put it, his witnesses to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth. How have you borne witness to Jesus Christ this week?

Here’s the thing: there were several who stood up on Friday to volunteer to be End Times Messengers. But Jesus calls all of his followers to be his witnesses, in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. It means we all have a mission field. Every Christian is called to a mission field. Your mission field absolutely includes your family. It absolutely includes the people who live around you, who work with you or play with you or go to school with you. If the people who you interact with daily do not know you are a Christian, by your actions and your words, then you aren’t living it.

There are lots of mission fields. You might think a Jerusalem mission field or a Judea mission field might be easiest. But the fact is, sometimes they are so familiar with you that they won’t even listen. This isn’t anything new; they even said of Jesus, “Isn’t this the son of the carpenter?” and refused to listen to him. The saying that a prophet is without honor in his hometown makes a mission to Jerusalem or Judea difficult. You have such good things to say but you find nobody listening.

A mission to Samaria, on the other hand, is a mission to the enemy. Samaritans and Jews didn’t get along. So this is a difficult mission field. As is a mission “to the ends of the earth.” This is a mission where you leave everything you know and follow God wherever he leads. It will be difficult.

Did you notice that I said the same thing about all of the mission fields? It will be difficult. Sharing Christ is difficult because that’s the one thing Satan opposes the most. Satan does not want you to share your faith. So he will oppose you on every front. But the fact is, when Jesus says that his followers will be his witnesses everywhere, that’s not the first thing he says about it. He says that “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Did you get that? The Holy Spirit comes with power. It drives me crazy seeing Christians who don’t even try to share their faith because they don’t think they can or because they don’t think anyone will listen. I know it is a challenge to invite someone to church when your church meets in a classroom. Do you think God is somehow limited by this? That God says, “I was going to move in this person’s heart, but I can’t because this church meets in a classroom” – how silly is this? I remember starting a Bible study in a fraternity house in college. Fraternities were known for wild parties and alcohol. But we had several Bible studies going on there, in such an unlikely place. And God did great things with those Bible studies. Sometimes we look at the obstacles instead of looking at God. We think about how great the barriers are, and when we do that, we forget how great God is, that with God, nothing is impossible.

Jesus made this command immediately before he ascended into heaven. He didn’t say anything else – why not? Because he wanted his followers to remember it. When they received the Holy Spirit, they were to get to work. We have the same mandate. The command is the same. If the Holy Spirit has come upon you, what are you waiting for?