Sunday, July 17, 2016

Be Strong and Courageous

Joshua 1:6-9  

We face uncertain times. Our world is showing itself to be an unsafe place. Over the last weeks, during a holiday celebration in France, a terrorist killed 80 people by driving his truck through the crowds of innocent people. The military staged an attempted coup in Turkey. In my home country, police killings have made the news – unarmed people shot by police and police gunned down by snipers. Even here in peaceful Zambia, political cadres are being killed by police and by other cadres.

But it’s not only violence that plagues us. We are being pressured by culture to accommodate to the world. To accept the world’s wisdom. To accept the world’s standards. To accept the world’s morality. Even the United Methodist Church herself is not exempt, as some of our American brothers and sisters have seemed bent on changing scripture to meet their desires.

And add to that everything we face every day. School fees. No jobs. HIV/AIDS. Malaria. Cholera. Gender-based violence.

What do we do when life is scary?

The beginning of the Book of Joshua represents a turning point in the history of God’s people. Moses, the one who miraculously led the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery, the one who took them through the Red Sea, the one who brought the Ten Commandments down from the mountain, the one who led them in battle, he is now dead. God’s people are left in crisis. What are they supposed to do? How are they supposed to respond? How are they ever going to enter the Promised Land? And, even worse, if Moses himself can’t enter the Promised Land, what hope do these “normal” people have?

Thankfully, God gave his people a word. There are really multiple parts to the word God gave. First of all, he repeated one phrase three times. “Be strong and courageous.” When God shows up, this is often part of what he says. Do not fear. Does this mean there won’t be scary things? No. On the contrary, God is acknowledging our fear. He is acknowledging the fact that life is scary. But he is also saying that during the worst of it, he is with us.

In Ephesians 6:10-20, we are told to put on the full armor of God. Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. Then in verse 13: Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then… The armor of God is about standing strong and courageously against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12).

Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.

We can stand strong and courageously with God’s Truth. With a right relationship with God. The good news of peace, which we know comes from from the Holy Spirit. With faith shielding us from Satan’s attacks. Salvation protects us, and God’s Word is our weapon.

This is why God tells Joshua to. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Our culture strays to the right and the left all of the time. But their success is not guaranteed. If we follow culture, we miss the mark. Did you know that the Greek word for “sin” literally is an archery term that means “to miss the mark” – that’s what we do when we stray from God’s law.

How do we keep to God’s law?  Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; in other words, talk about it to one another. Know it so well that it simply spills out of your mouth. That’s why I am asking you to memorize Scripture. Do you have it memorized?
Then he continues: meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. You become what you spend your time on. Meditating on the Word determines your trajectory. As you plan the direction you want to go, your thoughts will point you. This is why transformation comes from the renewing of your mind by God’s Word.

This is the secret of success. It’s not getting lots of money. It’s being transformed into Christ’s likeness. And God commands us: Be strong and courageous.

But he does not simply give us the command. He continues by saying:  Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

He promised that he will be with us. And in the Holy Spirit, he is more than just “with” us. He lives in us. We have God himself living in us in the Person of the Holy Spirit. Get to know him, because he will protect you and give you success, as he has defined it. And success means being transformed into Christ’s likeness.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Holy Spirit Gives us Everything We Need

2 Peter 1:3-4

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

We have been talking about the Holy Spirit for months here. Ever since the Holy Spirit encounter, we at St. Marks have been focused on the Holy Spirit. Who He is, what He does. In John 14:12, Jesus tells his followers: I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these [new things!], because I am going to the Father.  Jesus is promising us that we will do even greater things than he did because he is going to the Father and sending us the Holy Spirit.  His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.

I want to ask you a question: Is anything too hard for God? The answer is that nothing is impossible for God. Nothing. OK, follow me here. God has given us Himself, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, who lives within us. If the Holy Spirit lives in us, what is too hard for us? Nothing!

Because God, in his divine power, has given us everything we need. Everything. In giving us the Holy Spirit, God has given us everything we need for life and godliness. God has given us everything we need for life and godliness, and that everything has a name and that name is the Holy Spirit.

One of the problems in life is that we often live by fear instead of faith. It is a sad thing when the church lives and makes decisions out of fear instead of by the Holy Spirit. Just think back to familiar Bible stories and think what would have happened if Bible heroes had acted out of fear.

Noah would have stopped building the ark when his neighbors started in on him. Abraham would never have left his land to head to a land God promised him. David would never have defeated Goliath, and Israel would have been defeated by the Philistines. Nehemiah would never have rebuilt the wall of Jerusalem. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego would have just gone ahead and bowed to the statue of King Nebuchadnezzar. Peter, Andrew, James, and John would never have left their fishing boats to follow Jesus. None of the disciples would have preached. Paul would have just shut his mouth.

And many of us have slipped into a life based on self-preservation. We live in fear. What would happen if God had a fantastic purpose for us? What if God actually believed that His people would do even greater things than Jesus did while he was on earth? What if God actually thought we could?

What might we look like if we stopped being afraid? There are times when people are afraid of what God might call them to do. This is a big problem for churches. What would happen if God calls us to reach out to those people? What would happen if God called us to restructure our personal lives in order to give to God generously and not live hand-to-mouth as a church? Maybe you are afraid to trust the Holy Spirit in everything. Maybe you are afraid to trust the Holy Spirit with your money. When the Bible talks about giving, some people think the tithe is optional. It wasn’t meant to be optional. But with the New Testament, the tithe was abolished as the required giving. No longer were Christians required to give 10%. No, now we are required to give 100%.

God has already given us 100% of himself – at our baptism, we received all of the Holy Spirit. So we don’t need more of God, but it’s about God receiving more of us.And when God has a hold of all of us, every bit of every one of us, then God can (and will!) do amazing things through us. Sometimes people come to me wanting advice or prayer, but often they want an easy fix, but honestly if you want to fix anything that has become such a problem that you’re willing to ask someone for help, then it’s going to be hard to fix it.

But you don’t have to do it on your own! God has given us everything we need. He gave us himself, and he is sufficient for us.

God called us by his own glory and goodness – everything about him – his character, and because of his character, he has made promises to us. What has God promised us? God promises us himself.

Often Christians simply try to overcome our sins on our own, to change behaviors. We work really hard to do it on our own, but truth is, only God can do this. Scripture tells us that God gives us his promises so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

Sometimes we hear phrases like “escape the corruption in the world” and think that it means we need to keep ourselves apart from everything in the world. We can’t allow ourselves to be around non-Christians or in places where non-Christians gather.

Friends, escaping the corruption in the world doesn’t mean hiding. It doesn’t mean walling yourself off from the world. It doesn’t mean pretending that the world doesn’t exist. But scripture says that receiving God’s promises, we may participate in the divine nature. We now have a part in God’s nature! If that’s confusing to you, it just means that we now do what God does because God has replaced our will with His and our power with His. So instead of hiding from the world in fear of having the world corrupt you, we live our lives doing what God does. And what does God do? God goes into the place where He is needed most. God didn’t shun the world, but instead sent Jesus Christ into the world. And Jesus went out and socialized and ate with the “sinners and tax collectors.” Obviously Jesus never walled himself off from society.

I want to also recognize here that Peter declares that the corruption in the world is caused by our evil desires. Jesus was able to be among the worst temptations because he did not share our evil desires. Why not? Because he was totally 100% submitted to God the Father’s desire, not his own. Remember when he was in the Garden, before his arrest? He prayed “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) He was completely submitted to God’s will. Therefore he remained uncorrupted. But be warned, sometimes God even uses our suffering and overcoming temptation to mold and shape us into His image.

Because many times when we struggle again and again and again with the same sinful desires and behaviors the problem is not primarily a behavior problem. It’s a heart problem. That’s why it’s not enough to just avoid sinful behavior. We have to let God get at the root of the problem, to transform us!

The Bible (Romans 12:2) tells us that we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. Renew your mind by spending time meditating on Scripture. In prayer and fasting. Serving others. Because God has already given us everything we need for life and godliness – he gave us Himself!

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Holy Spirit Brings Freedom

One of two "tamed" cheetahs at Chaminuka Game Park
This week I got to see an amazing sight. I got to see two full grown cheetahs. They were big, majestic, and muscular. There was only one unfortunate thing. They were shut into a fenced-in enclosure. Now, that was probably a good thing for me and my family, but the reality is, a cheetah was not created to be fenced in. A cheetah was created to run free, to use its speed to take down prey in the open grassland.

God also created us to be free. But when we live to please our flesh, our sinful nature, we make ourselves slaves to sin. Romans 6:16 poses the question: Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? 

Jesus says in John 8:34 Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Everyone. Jesus didn’t offer qualifications. He demonstrates that we’ve all offered ourselves as slaves to sin. This is not God’s will for our lives. Galatians 5:1 tells us It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

We were not made to be slaves, but we were slaves to sin. No question about it. So Jesus came to set us free. Listen to his words from John 8:31-32. To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Most of us have heard this before. Most of us know that the truth isn’t just a concept or a right thought. Here are Jesus’ words from John 14:6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. We know that Jesus himself is the Truth, and the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth. If we have accepted Jesus and hold to his teaching, then we know the truth, and that is the truth which will set us free.

But the fact is, we can be like the cheetahs I mentioned earlier. But as we know Jesus, he has opened the gate for us to go free. Indeed, 2 Corinthians 3:17 tells us Now the Lord is Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So the gate stands open, and we all celebrate it, but then we stay inside the enclosure! You haven’t walked in freedom. This is sometimes a side effect of Christian evangelists and preachers who lead people to the altar and leave them there.

The big question, then, is how to walk out of the enclosure of sin. The Bible tells us that those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. (Romans 8:14). It is the Holy Spirit who leads us out of the enclosure of sin. One of the concepts throughout the New Testament is death to self. By the Spirit, put to death the misdeeds of the body, and you will live. (Romans 8:13).  In baptism, we can see a picture of our lives being buried with Christ in the waters of baptism, dead to sin, and being brought out of the water alive in the Spirit.

Living this out is not simple. It’s not automatic. Some people think that when they become a Christian, they will automatically be sin-free. That doesn’t happen instantaneously. When I was a boy, I was taught that the steps to being a Christian were confess your sins, repent, get baptized, then “live the Christian life.” That was said as if it was simple. I thought Christian adults had no problems living like a Christian. So I must be strange because for me, living the Christian life was hard. And is hard. But I take consolation that the Apostle Paul found it hard as well, as he recounts in Romans 7.

It is only by the Spirit that we can put to death the misdeeds of the body. We are called to put aside everything that is not godly. So when we return to sinful behavior patterns, we are going back into the cage of sin. But the Spirit helps us in our weakness. Romans 8:26

Walking by the Spirit, out of the cage of sin, takes spiritual discernment. It takes knowing what the best thing is; what is that good work that God prepared in advance for you to do? It takes vigilance. Is this of God, or not? So traditional spiritual beliefs and practices have no place outside the cage. They do not lead to freedom, nor do they help you maintain freedom. They are simply another form of slavery. Walking by the Spirit takes practice. It doesn’t come naturally. A Christian walk is similar to an athlete, who works hard and conditions his body. We do our exercises which make us stronger. What kind of exercises do we do? We call them spiritual disciplines.

Reading the Bible. Studying and meditating on the Bible. By the way, if you are interested and available, we are doing a Bible Study at Mavies’ house on Wednesday afternoons at 15 hours sharp. Our own Youth initiated this Bible study, but it is open to anyone. Fasting and praying. Serving the poor. Visiting the sick. Feeding the hungry. Spending your time with the Spirit, listening to his voice, obeying him. And when you exercise like this, you’ll find yourself more and more drawn to the freedom that only he can give!