Criticism

This comes up in my world again and again (sometimes I deserve it and sometimes I don’t :)…

“No leader is exempt from criticism, and one’s humility will nowhere be seen more clearly than in the manner in which one accepts and reacts to it. Samuel Brengle, who was noted for his sense of genuine holiness, had been subjected to caustic criticism. Instead of replying in kind or resorting to self-justification, he replied: ‘From my heart, I thank you for your rebuke. I think I deserved it. Will you, my comrade, remember me in prayer?’ On another occasion, a biting, censorious attack was made on his spiritual life. His answer was: ‘I thank you for your criticism of my life. It set me to self-examination and heart-searching and prayer, which always leads me into a deeper sense of my utter dependence on Jesus for holiness of heart, and into sweeter fellowship with Him.’”

Sanders J. Oswald. Spiritual Leadership, Moody Press, p. 120.

The Joy of True Repentance

As the Diagnostic Division Leader for VitalChurch Ministry, I write a lot of reports for churches. While we see similar issues in many churches throughout North America and the U.K. I seek to address each church individually and prophetically. One consistent observation is that every church has the need for ongoing repentance. At VitalChurch we would adamantly assert that every church (and every person) has a collection of sins and sinful patterns that require an ongoing lifestyle of repentance.

Repentance (with accompanying humility) is always the best way forward to begin a season of transition that moves toward revitalization and renewal.  Martin Luther launched the Reformation by nailing the “95 Theses” to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The first of the theses stated that “our Lord and Master Jesus Christ…willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”  At first glance, this seems dreary and depressing. Luther seems to be saying Christians may never make much real progress in transformation. But, actually, Luther’s point was just the opposite. Luther was saying that repentance is the BEST way to make progress in transformation. Indeed, pervasive, all-of-life-repentance is the best indicator that we are growing humbly and deeply in the character of Jesus Christ. And when others encounter this, they often want it too. This is also how the Sermon on the Mount begins—by acknowledging our spiritual poverty and mourning over it is the beginning point of becoming citizens of the Kingdom of God.

Here’s how the late, great Eugene Peterson said it in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction:  “Repentance, the first word in Christian immigration, sets us on the way to traveling in the light. It is a rejection that is also an acceptance, a leaving that develops into an arriving, a no to the world that is a yes to God” (p. 33).

Consider how the gospel affects and transforms the act of repentance. In “religion,” the purpose of repentance is basically to keep God happy and placated so He will continue to bless us and answer our prayers. Religious people continue to ask, “What must we DO to please and placate God? What this question means is that for the religious, repentance is actually selfish and self-righteous because the ultimate goal is to benefit self. The gospel is actually more about what Jesus Christ has already DONE. A gospel view and practice of repentance is to repeatedly surrender afresh to the wonder, beauty, joy, and majesty of what Christ has accomplished on our behalf, which will weaken our impulse to do anything contrary to God’s heart. This happens best through (listening) prayer and through worship.

True repentance is not simply a one-time act that occurs at the time of our regeneration, rather an intentional ongoing daily submission to the God of mercy and grace for our sins of both omission and commission. True repentance then, is the unlikely route to joy.

Practical Equipping Strategies (Moving From ‘Minister’ to ‘Equipper’)

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”  –Ephesians 4:11-13 (emphasis added)

The Greek word translated “equip” (or “perfecting” in the KJV), is KATARTISMOS (καταρτισμός), which means to completely furnish or to fully prepare.  This equipping is an internal work manifesting its fruit in external ministry service.  The verb form of the word is KATARTIZO and means to render fit or complete; to repair, to make an adjustment, or to mend.  As we trace the usage and application through the NT (see Mat 4:21, Gal 6:1, Heb 11:3, 1 Thess 3:10) we will find that the most effective equipping includes both “repairing” and “preparing” the people of God.

The “Why” of Core Equipping Competencies

In order to move permanently past 1,200+ people, the ministry has to be increasingly accomplished by teams of volunteers.  When churches are smaller, relationships carry things; in very large churches competencies carry things.  There is a need to create multiple reproducible structures and systems that are suitable for volunteers to do the majority of the ministry.  While volunteers often do not have the same proficiencies as professionals (teaching skills, Bible knowledge, etc.), real ministry increasingly needs to be accomplished in smaller groups through lay leaders who are growing in their conversational, facilitational, and emotional health skills.  (We cannot be spiritually mature without becoming emotionally healthy!)  People will stay connected while their lay-leaders are searching out answers for them; whereas, if a professional doesn’t have an answer for them—they will be less likely to stay.  People begin coming to a church for many reasons, but they (ultimately) stay for just one—it’s the social/community factor that keeps people, works with them, and supports them over time.  Ultimately, people are bonded by their relationships, which is certainly consistent with biblical teaching.

The “How” of Core Equipping Competencies

There are mandatory disciplines for serving momentum in a church.  Surges will continue if they are serviced.  Growth catapults churches into a new dilemma.  In smaller congregations, most problems are solved informally by the way people behave.  In a very large you can’t ignore problems and think (hope?) they’ll go away.

The following are general descriptions of the core staff competencies essential for pastoral/program staff at very large churches—and apply broadly to all staff.  These may not cover every competency required; yet they are essential skills that will move staff members from a “minister” (or, chaplain) role to an “equipper” (or, team builder) role.

Intro

Management guru Peter Drucker[1] asked the following (now famous) questions:

  1. What business are you in?
  2. How’s business?

Very large church staffs are in the people development business—seeking to Recruit, Train, Deploy, Monitor, and Nurture (RTDMN) as many as possible into fruitful and effective ministry.

Core Staff Competencies

Recruiting Skills:

  • Intentional about prayer and individually seeking out volunteers to staff, develop, and lead ministries (Mat 9:38)
  • While almost anyone can be trained to facilitate a group, approximately 20% of people have some form of leadership capacity. Look for the 1 in 5 that have leadership potential and develop them to their leadership capacity (see Ex 18:17-26)
  • Uses an invitation of positive language and our intention of offer life development skills (not just “church skills”) to “sell” the vision (Eph 4:12)
  • Start with the “why,” then move to the “how” and the “what”
  • Be clear about specific roles and opportunities
  • Be clear about the commitment required (time, preparation, responsibility, how long?).  Generally speaking, ask for a 3-month commitment

Training Skills:[2]

  • Help leaders plan effectively (ministry and training events)
  • Ability to create an environment that is safe for people to grow, disagree agreeably, and to make mistakes—which increases innovation
  • Able to resist the temptation to interrupt/take over (seek to become a non-anxious presence)
  • Ability to give clear and constructive feedback on a regular basis (Eph 4:15)
  • Ability to emphasize the positive over the negative (“sandwich” negative between two positives)
  • Willingness to regularly invite feedback

Deployment Skills:

  • Willingness to release people into meaningful ministry
  • Clearly stated short- and long-term goals and objectives
  • Realistically and proactively communicative about parameters, expectations, timelines

Monitoring Skills:

  • Establish consistent check-in times
  • Set-up consistent, effective, and agreed upon monitoring and feedback loops
  • Establish appropriate metrics to track progress

Nurturing Skills:

  • Follow-up with developmental care and input, not just ministry goals
  • Facilitate the personal growth of leaders (life skills not just church skills)
  • Ability to listen—reflectively
  • Schedule ongoing care, support, and training
  • Ability to build relationships that last
  • Provide special care and attention at crisis points, looking for opportunities to pastorally “equip the saints” – i.e., repair/prepare (Eph 4:12)

Developmental Coaching Skills Evaluation

Estimate your skill level in each of these areas using the following scale:

1 = Serious concern / 2 = Needs improvement / 3 = Good / 4 = Very good / 5 = Excellent

  1. Recruiting skills                      1    2    3    4    5
  2. Training skills                          1    2    3    4    5
  3. Deployment skills                   1    2    3    4    5
  4. Monitoring skills                      1    2    3    4    5
  5. Nurturing skills                        1    2    3    4    5

Additional skills:

  1. Regular prayer for God’s kingdom to come and His will to be done—in and through the ministry  1    2    3    4    5
  1. Gospel-centered preaching and teaching 1    2    3    4    5

Action Steps:

  1. What are my strengths?
  2. What new skills do I need to learn?
  3. Who can coach/mentor me in this area?

 

[1] Austrian-born American management consultant, educator, and author, (and Christian) whose writings contributed to the philosophical and practical foundations of the modern business corporation (1909-2005).

[2] Discipleship Loop:

  1. Jesus modeled kingdom life & ministry in public
  2. Jesus taught his disciples in private.
  3. He let them do it – and debriefed them afterward.
  4. He let them do it alone & they reported back.

The Grace of Surrender

I want to start looking for words or phrases in my daily Bible reading that move me or capture my attention and ponder them for a few moments. Today it was Psalm 142. David finds himself in a cave and at the end of his own resources. His soul is exhausted and imprisoned. For you and me a prison could be any interior battle or situation that holds us captive.

Bring my soul out of prison,
So that I may give thanks to Your name.  –Psalm 142:7

Although David was a strong and able warrior, he realized that his only hope of living and fulfilling what God had called him to be and to do was God intervening and bringing about his deliverance. This is the same realization of saving grace that ultimately must be embraced and surrendered to by believers in every age.

What sets a soul free?

The controversial author and poet, D.H. Lawrence, longed for liberation in his poem Healing

I am ill because of wounds to the soul,
to the deep emotional self
and the wounds to the soul take a long, long time,
only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance
long, difficult repentance, the realization of life’s mistake,
and the freeing oneself
from the endless repetition of the mistake
which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.

We find surrender in the opening words of the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v.3). If Jesus is the most revolutionary person who ever lived and the Sermon on the Mount is His manifesto, then these opening words are His invitation to become citizens of this revolutionary kingdom through acknowledging our spiritual poverty and surrendering to God. One of my mentors said, “The way in is the way on” meaning that surrender is not a one-time event but an on-going, life-long, multilevel process of letting go of the things that hinder us from experiencing the wonder, beauty, and majesty of God. This is the essence of the gospel. When our heart is awakened to the gospel we see that it is not about what we have done–or, haven’t done, it’s about what God has done in sending His Son to lead the perfectly obedient life that was (eternally) beyond our grasp–and die a criminal’s death. Jesus is the perfect sacrifice and atones for our sins as we surrender, repent, and believe. Then there is the daily surrender to what Christ has done on our behalf and trust in what He has done, our deliverance from prison cannot fail. In Christ, we know that His righteousness surrounds us, and our response is gratitude and worship.

My friend, Gordon Dalbey in his book Fight Like a Man, says it well…

  • “Tragically, most [of us] cling to our own strength and scoff at snakes until we are bitten – perhaps by divorce, addiction, or serious illness – and must, at last, confess the truth: We are creatures of surrender.  The question for our lives is not whether we will surrender, but rather to what or whom?”  (p. 8).
  • “[Surrender] takes your pain out of the Enemy’s reach and places it in God’s hands, to use for his purposes”  (p. 19).

What About Revenge?

A sermon preached at Christ Community Church in Rochester MN on April 6 and 7, 2019. If you’d like to watch or listen to the sermon click here.

Jesus Christ was the most revolutionary person who ever lived. Jesus came to start a revolution–and the Sermon on the Mount (SOTM) is His Manifesto (like the Magna Carta or the Declaration of Independence). The following passage has been debated for two millennia. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who many think wrote one of the best commentaries on the SOTM, said, “There is possibly no passage in Scripture which has produced as much heat and [contention as these verses].”[1]

Let’s take a look…

“You have heard that it was said, ‘AN eye for an eye, and A tooth for A tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. 41 Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.” –Matthew 5:38-42

Today, we can compare the SOTM to a grand symphony with four movements that build upon each other. The first movement covers the Beatitudes and crescendos with the promise that those who surrender to the shaping of the Beatitudes will become salt and light in the surrounding culture (Matthew 5:13-16). In the second movement of this SOTM symphony, we find six reinterpretations of the LAW. Jesus makes six, “You have heard it said, but I say…” statements. With these statements, Jesus is diving into our innermost being probing the heart and raising the question of motive.

Today we will be looking at the 5th of the six reinterpretations and we will be asking the question, “What About Revenge?” I find it fascinating that this passage contains four very well-known sayings that are still common to our North American vernacular 2,019 years later…

  • An eye for an eye
  • Turn the other cheek
  • Go the extra mile
  • Give ‘em the shirt off your back

There are 6 phrases in these 5 verses that deserve our attention and understanding to grasp what Jesus is saying here. I have divided the 6-phrases into three points.  I’ll state them, so you’ll know where we’re headed and then we’ll go back and consider them one at a time…

  1. Godly Justice: “An eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth” (v. 38)
  2. Godly Resistance: “Do not resist an evil person” (v. 39a) (This is the most theologically controversial—and it sounds contradictory the way I’ve stated it…we’ll see)
  3. Godly Defiance (vs. 39b-42)

We’ll look at them one at a time…

  1. Godly Justice: “An eye for an eye, and A tooth for A tooth” (v. 38)  Jesus could have said more; He’s quoting from Exodus 21:24-25 (and Lev 24:20; Dt 19:21), which reads “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” What these OT passages are communicating is that the penalty must fit the crime. This is sometimes referred to as the principle of proportional justice and it has become the foundational principle for all human justice in a free society. This law was given by God to restrain our human tendency to reactively pursue revenge. There is a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, which states, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” On the surface, independent of anything else, this is a true statement. However, this quote fails to recognize the context and the purpose of this law in the Old Testament. The Old Testament books of Exedous, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were written as the nation of Israel was rebuilding its social infrastructure after 400 years of captivity in Egypt. There were civil, moral, and ceremonial laws. Again, the point is that justice must be proportional. So, in v. 38 Jesus is reminding His listeners what God’s Law says, then in vs. 39-42 Jesus is telling us how to do that by emphasizing the spirit of the Law, not just the letter of the Law–something the Pharisees had not emphasized. Let’s take a look…
  2. Godly Resistance: “Do not resist an evil person” (v. 39a) On the surface that’s a pretty startling statement! This phrase has caused much debate over the last two thousand years. First, let’s consider what this verse is NOT saying… It’s not saying that we are not to defend ourselves against evil people. Some well-meaning followers of Jesus sincerely believe that Christianity rejects ALL violence at ALL times. These groups include (but are not limited to) the Brethren, Amish, Mennonite, and Quakers. Lloyd-Jones, in his commentary, points out that Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian author, and novelist insisted that this verse meant that to be a truly Christian nation meant that there was to be no police, or soldiers, or even a judicial system.  There are plenty of examples throughout both the Old and New Testaments where a defensive posture is warranted. So, what IS this verse saying? In our attempt to discern and understand what Jesus is saying here, it’s quite helpful to look at the Greek word translated in most of our English Bibles as “resist.” The Greek word for “resist” is anthistēmi. It’s the same word we use for antihistamine and it means, “to stand against.” (anti = against and histēmi = to stand). The most literal meaning of the Greek word means, “do not forcefully set yourself against an evil person.” Pastor, author, Bible teacher and Seminary President, John MacArthur describes the meaning of the word as: “Don’t start a feud.” [Don’t go all Hatfield and McCoy…] Lloyd-Jones is a bit more sublime: “It’s an ‘eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth’ until the Spirit of Christ enters in to us. Then something higher is expected of us…”[2] So, it’s not that we resist the person so much as it means that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we resist the gravitational pull to lower ourselves to their level. In any conflicted or confrontational situation (actually, with an “evil” person or not) seek to become a responder, not a reactor. (don’t get sucked into the other person’s drama!). I am a reactor on a lifetime journey to become a responder… So, how does this happen? We need to go back and review the Beatitudes keeping in mind that each movement of this grand symphony builds upon the previous movement.  When the gospel is awakened in our heart and we enter and become citizens of the Kingdom of God there is an emptying (or surrendering) and a filling (or empowering)…

A quick review of the Beatitudes…

The Emptying/Surrendering

    • Blessed are the poor in spirit… To enter into God’s kingdom, we are invited to admit that we have come to the end of ourselves and are in need of God’s help and care.
    • Blessed are those who mourn… As we are honest about our own sinful tendencies there will be a transforming grief or repentance, that surfaces – not only for our own lives, but also for the injustice, greed, and suffering that grips our world.
    • Blessed are the meek…Grieving over sin and suffering places us in a humble learning posture (disciple means learner).
    • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…Spiritual hunger and thirst is the desire to be empty of those things that don’t reflect God and initiates a deep longing for wholeness in our lives (see Psalm 42:1).

The Filling/Empowering

    • Blessed are the merciful…As we receive God’s mercy we begin to give mercy – to ourselves and to others.
    • Blessed are the pure in heart… Mercy cleanses our heart and restores purity to our lives.
    • Blessed are the peacemakers… Purity gives way to a personal serenity and peacefulness. Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the absence of anxiety in the midst of inevitable conflict – and when others encounter it, they want it too.
    • Blessed are the persecuted… Living life from a kingdom of God perspective will place us in conflict with those that oppose it (often times it’s “religious” people!).

So, the goal in any conflicted situation is to respond with the mercy we’ve received, motives that are being purified, and promoting the peace of God. And then we get persecuted. Persecution is inevitable, this is how Jesus lived—and they killed Him.

3. Godly Defiance (vs. 39b-42) We can’t dive into these four principles as much as they probably deserve but I’ll try and provide an overview of each. (And just so you know, there’s some theological diversity regarding how these verses are interpreted…) The best way to grasp these four principles is to picture them being spoken to a 1st century occupied people. And in many ways, it was a triple occupation…

    • Roman forces had occupied Israel for about 40 years.
    • The ruthless King Herod was a Roman “client” King of Israel and then his wicked son Herod Antipas replaced him.
    • The legalistic Pharisees and scribes who placed heavy religious burdens upon the people.

So, the common person who Jesus was speaking to was living under the weight of foreign occupation, political corruption, and suffocating legalism. With that said, we’ll take a brief look at the remaining four principles of godly defiance. Notice how nonviolent resistance could startle reactive people and deescalate an altercation…

    • Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (v. 39b) The Jews said that the most demeaning, contemptuous, arrogant act of a person is to slap you with the back of the hand. Most people were right-handed, and the left hand was considered unclean because it was used to manage bodily functions. In conflicted situations people of superior societal classes would backhand those of lesser societal classes—a Roman could slap a Jew, a master could slap a slave, etc. However, peers in conflicted situations would tend to fight with their fists. (The backhanded slap was much more demeaning.) What Jesus seems to be saying is if someone treats you as an inferior don’t retaliate physically but position yourself to cause them to treat you as a peer. In this case, if the person who was slapped turned their left cheek, the perpetrator would have to treat them as a peer and hit them with a fist to continue the altercation. Here is how MLK addressed this: “The nonviolent resister not only refuses to [hit] his opponent but also refuses to hate him.” –Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. [3]
    • “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also” (v. 40) A working-class person often owned only one shirt and one coat. The vibe of this verse indicates that if a person is being sued unjustly, give them your shirt AND your coat, which in the 1st century, means you’re standing there naked. In Jewish culture, nakedness was not only shaming to the one who was naked but also to the one (or ones) who viewed the nakedness. This cultural perspective goes back to the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve experienced shame when they saw their own and one another’s nakedness after the Fall. This action by the one being sued—giving up both their shirt and their coat, could startle the other party and cause them to settle the case quickly.
    • “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two” (v. 41) A Roman soldier could conscript a Jewish person to carry his pack, which weighed about 70lbs. but the soldier was limited to only make the conscripted person carry his pack for 1-mile. So, to go the extra mile would cause the soldier to fear the consequences of his superior if it appeared he was asking more than was allowed by Roman law. This would cause the soldier to deal with the conscripted Jewish person more humanely. It would also cause the soldier to wonder about the kindness that was offered to him.
    • “Give to him [or her] who asks of you, and do not turn away from him [or her] who wants to borrow from you” (v. 42) We don’t need to know anything about 1st century culture to know that this principle is about being generous with our resources, which includes our time, energy, and money. The protection contained in this principle is that we don’t always need to give people what they’re asking for. We need to be wise and discerning in this area. What Jesus is saying here is don’t be hardhearted, callous, and dismissive—be fully present with people. Here’s an example: I live in Santa Barbara where we have a significant homeless population. When I pastored in SB we encouraged our church to buy and distribute MacDonald’s coupons (or other stores where alcohol was not sold) so that we were ready to give when asked. We are to look for ways to generously serve others without becoming codependent

As we bring this to a close, here’s another quote by MLK that summarizes what Jesus is teaching in our passage for today…  “Clearly the kingdom of heaven does not operate like the kingdoms of this world. How will we know when we see God’s kingdom?  When anger results in reconciliation rather than retaliation God must be at work.  When enemies are overcome by love rather than violence God’s reign is present.”  –Martin Luther King Jr. [4]

How do we get there from here? Two quick practical applications:

  1. Stay in the Beatitudes. They are a spiritual formation process that will continue to challenge, cleanse, heal, and fill us.
  2. As much as we are able, leave “revenge” to God. God’s “revenge” is much different than ours. Leave the person to the care of God.

The revolutionary teachings of Jesus in the SOTM are beyond our human capacity to “will-power” them into existence.  Many have tried and all have failed.  Jesus teaches that anger = murder; to refer to someone as a fool condemns us to hell; lust = adultery!

The SOTM is not about exchanging one set of rules for another (thank goodness!), rather it’s about trusting in what Jesus accomplishes on the cross to re-orient our values, our vision, and our habits from mere external righteousness to grace empowered change from the inside out. This is what we call the gospel. It’s not about what we do to please or appease God, it’s about celebrating what Jesus Christ has done.

Here’s how Paul says it in his letter to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”  Ephesians 2:8-9

Theologians would say that salvation is granted by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Have you received “the gift of God”? Have you rested from thinking (or believing) that salvation is the result of works?

 

[1] Lloyd-Jones: 273.

[2] Lloyd-Jones: 277.

[3] MLK. Stride Toward Freedom: 92.

[4] From a speech MLK delivered to the YMCA/YWCA at the University of California on June 4, 1957.

Seeing the Relentless Love of God

Advent

A sermon from Dec 1&2 at Christ Community Church, Taunton MA

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. The word “Advent” means coming and Advent is all about actively anticipating the coming of Jesus to establish the kingdom of God on earth. The kingdom of God was established with Jesus’ first coming and will be consummated at his second coming. Currently, we have a foretaste that is seen through the eyes of faith. Advent is anticipating His second coming as well as His first coming.

It might be helpful to think of the Advent Season as a four-lane highway…One lane that is easy to get caught in is the commercialism lane. We can get sucked into overspending in an effort to keep up with family or friends that have more disposable income than we do.

Another lane we can get stuck in, especially if you’re a type-A or a first-born, is the anxiety-riddled lane; wanting to make sure all the Christmas parties and family get-togethers are scheduled and well-planned and that packages sent reach their destination in a timely way. We can become an anxious presence instead of a non-anxious presence.

Another lane is the depression and grief lane. Feelings of sadness for the people you have loved who have died or walked away.  We don’t walk in denial, but also, we don’t let the feelings dominate.

The lane we want to encourage you to travel in this holy-day season is the lane of quiet prayer, reflection, worship, and anticipation regarding the implications of the magnitude of God’s gift in Jesus coming down from the comfort and perfection of heaven and descending into our brokenness of humanity to make a way for us to become part of God’s family.

To be sure, we all move in and out of the various lanes throughout the course of the Advent Season but what we’d like to do for these next few weekends (and Christmas Eve) is to provide a refuge for you, your family, and friends to move out of the commercialism lane, the anxiety-riddled lane, and the depression and grief lane and spend some time in worship, adoration, reflection, and anticipation of the gift that is Jesus Christ.

My assignment for this weekend is for us to consider the relentless love of God through one of the Messianic Prophesies recorded in the OT. If you’re new to the Bible, there are about 456 verses (or sections) listed throughout the OT that accurately describe the who, what, where, when, and how of the promised Messiah.

Pull out the insert in your bulletin for a list of some of the more important or specific prophesies pointing to Jesus. It would be worth your time to look them up…

The late mathematics and astronomy professor Peter Stoner, who wrote a book entitled, Science Speaks calculated the probability of one person fulfilling only 8 of the messianic prophecies in the OT to be one in 10^17 = 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1.

Stoner concludes, “Any [person] who rejects Christ as the Son of God is rejecting a fact proved perhaps more absolutely than any other fact in the world.”—Peter Stoner [1] You might be thinking that is an outlandish statement??  It’s because of the sheer number and accuracy of the hundreds of messianic prophecies scattered throughout the OT that point to Jesus as the Messiah.

Today, I’d like for us to consider the first of these several hundred messianic prophesies. It’s found in Genesis 3:15.  Let’s consider some context before we read it…

Gen 1-2 are about Creation – when everything was as God meant it to be. SHALOM – much more than the absence of conflict, it’s undefiled harmony with God.  (Also, Rev 21-22)

In Gen 3 we turn a horrific corner—it’s referred to as The Fall where Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden fruit. We’ll pick it up in v. 7 and I will read through v. 15…

“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings.  8 They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 Then the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ 10 He said, ‘I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.’ 11 And [God] said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ 12 The man said, ‘The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.’ 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this you have done?’ And the woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate.’ 14 The Lord God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are you more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; on your belly you will go, and dust you will eat all the days of your life; 15 and I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.”

What these verses are telling us is that Adam and Eve are plunged into alienation — both from God AND from one another. V. 15 is both perplexing foreshadowing. God says to the Serpent, “Because you have done this, I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. Her offspring will bruise your head, and you will bruise his heel.” There’s a lot to be said here, but here’s what I’d like you to see…

Imagine a family at the park or, on a hike, and all of a sudden, a venomous snake slithers into their midst. One person goes after the snake and begins to stomp on it.  Finally, the head of the snake is crushed and the family is saved, but only after the snake bites the one who did the stomping—and the poison goes into him, and he dies.  That’s the picture.

So, what is God saying here? The snake is not just a snake but is the Devil, or Satan, who represents pure, unmitigated evil.  God is saying that one of the descendants of Adam and Eve, the seed of the woman, a human being, is coming and will destroy sin and death and, in the process, lose His life.  Gee, I wonder who that could be?

Gen 3:15 becomes the first Messianic Prophesy of the OT. What is truly remarkable about v. 15 is that as soon as Adam and Eve sin, God initiates a rescue plan. This is where we begin to get a strong sense of the relentless love of God.

Let’s look at v. 15 again… “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.”

V. 15 is such an important verse it has its own word: protoevangelium, which literally means “first gospel.” Not only is this verse the first Messianic Prophesy, but it is also the first declaration of the gospel in the Bible. It is from this point forward the gospel of God’s grace and God’s rescue plan to bring about redemption in and through the Person of Jesus Christ becomes the central theme of the whole Bible. Another way to view it is as the organizing theme for the rest of Scripture and the rest of human history. And if this registers in your heart and in your head, it will change the way you read your Bible.  You will begin to see the relentless love of God everywhere in the Bible as you read it.

“Genesis 3:15 is the perch from which to view all of world history.” When we align the plan of God with the seed of the woman, we begin to see the reconciliation and restoration of all things begin to come into view.

In order to get better acquainted with the RELENTLESS LOVE OF GOD, let’s go back and consider what just happened in Gen 3…Adam and Eve sin and destructively change the course of human history, but what does God do??

He doesn’t smite them, He doesn’t lose His temper, He doesn’t lash out…In the midst of this incredible disaster is this perplexing and intriguing response by God. God begins by asking some questions, “Where are you? What have you done?  Have you done what I asked you not to do?” What is God getting at with these questions? Certainly, God already knew the answer to these questions. The only reason God would be asking these questions is if He’s seeking to provide an opportunity for Adam and Eve to own-up to what they’ve done.  To say what they did.  Own it.  Take responsibility. But they didn’t do that did they? Adam blamed Eve AND God; Eve blamed the serpent.

What we see here is God is treating Adam and Eve as adults. He’s not treating them as objects, He’s not treating them as children.  He’s engaging in what people in AA or Celebrate Recovery would call an intervention. The bottom-line is that God is seeking them out in love. He knows they’ve sinned—and He still makes Himself available to them.  But shame keeps them hidden from God and now, from one another.  It’s important to see that God didn’t remove Himself from them, they removed themselves from God.

God is asking them honest and real questions instead of just telling them what they’ve done wrong. It’s actually a very beautiful and grace-abounding passage considering the magnitude of what has just happened. Now is a good time for us to consider our takeaway for today:

Whether you woke up amazed by God’s grace and mercy or shamed by the worst mistake of your life, the single storyline of the Bible declares God’s relentless and unending love for you.

Again, after a grievous sin God instantly quickly reinstates a rescue plan that is full of mercy and grace. It’s the same for you and me.

Finally, I’d like for you to notice one more thing about this Gen 3 passage: Notice that while God asks Adam and Eve questions, He doesn’t ask any questions of the serpent. Do you know what that means? It means that even after grievous, heartbreaking sin God holds out hope for sinners, but He will not compromise with evil. God initiated a rescue plan way back in Gen 3 that is still available to you today—no matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done…

The first Adam disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden and allowed Satan to destroy his family, the Second Adam became obedient to point of death in the Garden of Gethsemane and created a new family…

Christmas is a time for giving. Not all gifts keep on giving, but there is one gift that is for everyone that does keep on giving. God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, as a gift to the World.

 

[1] Stoner: 112.

Sacred Joy In the Assembly

SacAssembly

The VitalChurch UK team is working with a church that held a “Sacred Assembly.”  The following are notes from a sermon that was the final step to assist the church in their preparation…

Nehemiah 8-9

Imagine with me for a moment…What if you lived in your house (or flat) with your family and it had no front door. And to make matters worse, there was no law enforcement to speak of – and bands of marauders would regularly descend upon your neighbourhood.

How would that change the way you live? How would it change the way you slept?  How would it change the way you work – or planned your day?

That’s what it was like for the people who lived in the city of Jerusalem for several decades before Nehemiah came on the scene.  The account of Nehemiah follows the humiliating defeat of the Jewish people by Babylon, the survival of a demoralized remnant in Jerusalem for 70 years, then their improbable efforts to rebuild the ruins of Jerusalem.

Here’s what we need to see about Nehemiah as we prepare our hearts to allow the word of God to speak to us this morning: Nehemiah prefigures Jesus.

  • Nehemiah left the comfort and opulence of the king’s palace to go and identify with, serve, and lead a bunch of broken and desperate people. Jesus did the same thing. He left the comfort and perfection of the King’s palace to step into the brokenness, desperation, and shame of humanity.
  • Jesus is the better Nehemiah who came in obedience to the Father and out of love for the Father and laid His life down as a sacrifice for sinners to rescue us and spare us. We want to (always) acknowledge Jesus as the wise Rebuilder, primary Leader, and Senior Pastor of His Church.

From the safety and security of the palace, we read in Nehemiah 1:3-4 that when Nehemiah heard his people’s “great distress and reproach,” that he wept, mourned, fasted and prayed for days on end (1:3–4).

The first of 12 prayers prayed throughout the book:

“Let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father’s house have sinned.” –Nehemiah 1:6

He took four months to pray, fast, repent on behalf of the sins of his “father’s house,” and to plan.  He presented his plan to the king and secured both the confidence of the king (and queen – Esther??) as well as the resources to carry out his plan.  Nehemiah traveled to Jerusalem and after some preliminary investigation and planning oversaw the rebuilding of the city wall and the gates in just 52 days.  Stiff opposition was consistent throughout Nehemiah’s ministry in Jerusalem.

Once rebuilt, the people gathered in the city square as God’s community to hear Ezra read and teach the Torah. The outcome of rebuilding wall was that God began to rebuild His people.  The walls give them a safe place to rebuild their lives and people, both from the surrounding area as well as Jews returning from their captivity, return to Jerusalem and begin to repopulate the city for the glory of God. (A picture of a transition season.)

They begin to study the Scriptures again and in hearing them expounded by Ezra (and the other priests), a deep and gripping repentance overcomes them. And as a result, they begin to experience revival.

Takeaway: Repentance is the unlikely route to our joy.

Overview of Nehemiah:

Chapters 1-6 describe the restoration of the wall and the gates of Jerusalem.

Chapter 7 serves as a transition chapter.

  • Nehemiah wanted to give credit to those who had returned to do the work during the crises.
  • Nehemiah was transitioning from rebuilding the wall and the gates to instituting specific reforms as they repopulated the city of Jerusalem in order to re-establish Jerusalem as the vital centre for the active presence of God – as well as Jewish national and spiritual life. (Today, that centre is the Church, not a temple — or a city.)

Chapters 8-13 describe the restoration of the people of Judah. In many ways, chapter 8 is the high point of the book and of the history of Israel as a whole.  Why?

  • God’s people were re-established as a people of the book. This meant more to them now than ever.
  • The visible greatness of impressive institutions such as King David’s reign and King Solomon’s temple had disappeared. Only the promises of God remained.

Focusing in on chapters 8-9 they can be divided up into four main points:

  1. 8:1-8: God’s people re-establish the centrality of God’s Word.
  2. *8:9-12: God’s people re-establish the joy of the Lord as their strength. [Sacred Joy]
  3. 8: 13-18: God’s people re-establish biblical patterns for regular (i.e., consistent) worship and study.
  4. 9:1-38: God’s people call for a Sacred Assembly as they re-establish authentic confession and repentance as a lifestyle.

We can view these four points from Nehemiah as an overview of the transition season here at Bethany. We will take a quick look at all three of the four points this morning, but we will spend the majority of our time in Nehemiah 8:9-12, so I would like for us to read those verses now.

We will consider each of the four points:

“Then Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law. 10 Then he said to them, ‘Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ 11 So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, ‘Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.’ 12 All the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them.” –Nehemiah 8:9-12 (NASB, emphasis added)

Let’s look at them one at a time:

1. 8:1-8: God’s people re-establish the centrality of God’s Word.

They gathered together to listen, learn, and worship “as one man” (v. 1 ff); they became unified and focused as a nation. (Ezra had arrived in Jerusalem 13-years before Nehemiah did.)

When they heard the Torah read the people began to repent, mourn, and weep (v. 9).  God’s people were beginning to get back on track. The safety and security of the wall helped them to refocus and re-establish??

An important part of the task of VitalChurch at Bethany has been to take time to consider your past, your present, and your future.  We have invited your input each and every step along the way…  There has been a rebuilding of theological and governance systems – and more recently adding to the staff to nurture and disciple the young people in the church as well as reach out to those in the surrounding area.

2.  *8:9-12: God’s people are re-established in the joy of the Lord, which became their strength.

Nehemiah and Ezra said, “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” –Nehemiah 8:10

There was repentance that led to joy. Repentance is the unlikely route to joy.  How does this happen?  Let’s look first at repentance and then see how it builds into joy…

Repentance:

Within the safety of a rebuilt wall and a re-established governance model, the people witnessed the faithfulness and mercy of God and the people became emotionally safe enough to hear and receive the Word of God, which generated in them a deep and convicting repentance.

“You just have to get rid of so much baggage to be light enough to dance, to sing, to play. You don’t have time to carry grudges; you don’t have time to cling to the need to be right.” — Anne Lamott

How shall we define repentance?

Repentance is an internal shift in our perceived source of life, and it involves the response of humble hunger, bold movement, and wild celebration when faced with the reality of our fallen state and the grace of God –Dan Allender, The Wounded Heart

C.S. Lewis describes repentance as the “process of surrender…full speed astern.”[1]

There is a gospel repentance that will repeatedly tap into the joy of our union with Christ in order to weaken our need to do anything contrary to God’s heart.

Repentance is the first 4-Beatitudes (Mat 5): Acknowledging our spiritual poverty, mourning over our own brokenness and the brokenness of sin-sick world system, becoming humble learners, which result in a deep thirst and holy hunger to know and embrace God’s gift of righteousness.

Repentance is Isaiah encountering the glory of God in Isaiah 6 — just walking into church one day and he encounters the glory of God.

When Isaiah is in the glorious, exhilarating, and disturbing presence of God, honesty, confession, and repentance erupt out of his soul.  Isaiah sees with disturbing clarity that his heart is sinful and incongruous with the weighty presence of God.  Then, when he repents and confesses his sin God begins to explode into his life.  Isaiah most likely thought the wrath of God was going to kill him when the seraphim picked-up the fire with the tongs and began to fly toward him.  But instead of death, there was cleansing and healing. God’s holiness did not destroy Isaiah; it (actually) cleansed him.  Isaiah’s self-image was deconstructed and reconstructed on the spot in the temple that day.  Once we’ve had an encounter with God He becomes more real than our needs, personal preferences, and desires.  And as we realize we are more sinful than we ever dared to believe, we simultaneously see that we are more loved than we ever dared imagine – and joy springs up in our hearts — and we surrender ourselves afresh into the service of the Living God.  Repentance is the unlikely route to joy.

“For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” –2 Corinthians 7:10

The joy of the Lord

Paul asks the Galatian church…“What has happened to all your joy?” –Galatians 4:15 (NIV)

“Joy is the serious business of heaven.” –C.S. Lewis

To truly begin to understand joy we must distinguish it from happiness.

The words happiness and happenstance come from the same root word. The prefix “HAP” means “luck.”  So, we can say that happiness, like happenstance, is circumstantial.  They come and go in life.

Happiness is external, while joy is internal. Happiness depends on “happenings.” You’re just lucky or fortunate…

Joy encompasses and transcends both happiness and sadness. Joy is like the sun, always shining even when night falls or clouds cover it.  Happiness is like the moon – waxing, and waning.

Christian joy is a deep and calm delight in the soul, produced by the Holy Spirit, as we encounter the beauty, majesty, and holiness of God in the gospel and we thus surrender our vain attempts to achieve happiness and contentment in our own strength.

Let’s look at what the Bible has to say about joy (look at the back of your outline, at the bottom):

  • “For the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 8:10
  • “For the kingdom of God is…righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” 14:17
  • “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them.” 17:13

It was not the wall that made the returning Jewish refugees strong – it was finding their joy in God that became the basis for their strength.  The joy of the Lord would unite them, encourage them, make them brave, and stimulate them to serve God’s purposes.

3. 8:13-18: God’s people re-establish biblical patterns for regular (i.e., consistent) worship and study.

We see that team ministry began to flourish in their midst.  Nehemiah, Ezra, along with the priests formed a leadership team that provided enough safety and security for the people to turn their attention more completely to God and His Word – which they did…

Until now, Nehemiah has been in the forefront. He was a gifted leader and administrator who could organize and mobilize people to get the wall built.  But when it came time to teach the Word, he took a back seat to Ezra, who was skilled in the law of Moses.  Ezra had set his heart to study it, practice it, and teach it (see Ezra 7:6, 10). These two men, along with the priests, illustrate beautifully the principle of team ministry.

This is the role of VitalChurch. We have experience in helping to build the walls of team ministry, good governance, healthy systems, and we provide consistency and a focus on a theological perspective that keeps the gospel at the centre.  (In most churches we work with there has been a theological drift.)

They prepared themselves for a Sacred Assembly (v. 18c): “and on the eighth day there was a sacred assembly…” –Nehemiah 8:18c

4. 9:1-38: God’s people re-establish authentic confession and repentance as a lifestyle.

We will see how this works tonight…

What we see in this chapter (vs. 5-38) is the longest single prayer recorded in the Bible.

It is a corporate prayer of repentance. Upon completion of the wall, the people gather together to worship and hear the reading of the Torah.  In chapter 8 we learn that Ezra and other leaders preached and taught the Scriptures for an entire day, and after that, they came back to learn more.  As the Word of God was read and proclaimed the people’s hearts were convicted as they realized that God had been faithful to them, but they had not been faithful to Him.

This prayer is an expression of their desire to repent and return to their God.

Chapter 9 is a sacred assembly — a time to come together and confess both corporate and personal sins.

Remember what Nehemiah prayed in 1:6: “Let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father’s house have sinned.” –Nehemiah 1:6

The wonder of the gospel that ultimately captures the wandering and wounded heart is that in spite of our sinfulness and selfish desires God sent His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ to die for us, and His Holy Spirit pursues us individually — and as a church.

God’s faithful pursuit is not stymied by our anger or ambivalence, our lack of faith, or our refusal to trust.  The only thing that will ultimately produce change and joy in our lives is recognizing our sin and receiving God’s grace.[2]

Some people may be sitting here saying that all sounds fine – but that was the OT and we now live under a New Covenant, so a Sacred Assembly is not necessary.  To that person I would say that Revelation chapters 2-3 are a call for these seven churches to consider their ways – remember there was both affirmation and rebuke.  Let’s close by considering what Jesus (through) John spoke to the church at Laodicea:

“I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore, be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.” –Revelation 3:18-20

V. 20 is often used for evangelism yet please notice it is addressed to a church. There are seasons in the life of every church where the Holy Spirit comes alongside.  To open the door is to recommit and return afresh to the leading of Jesus Christ as the Senior Pastor of the church.

How To Start a Revival

James Burns asks the question:  Do we want a revival?  Do we really?  And then he answers…

To the church, a revival means humiliation, a bitter knowledge of unworthiness and an open humiliating confession of sin on the part of her [pastors] and people.  It is not the easy and glorious thing many think it to be, who imagine it filled the pews and reinstated the church in power and authority.  It comes to scorch before it heals; it comes to [convict] people for their unfaithful witness, for their selfish living, for their neglect of the cross, and to call them to daily renunciation and to a deep and daily consecration.  That is why a revival has ever been unpopular with large numbers within the church.  Because it says nothing to them of power, or of ease, or of success; it accuses them of sin; it tells them they are dead; it calls them to awake, to renounce the world [system] and to follow Christ.[3]

 

[1] CS Lewis, Mere Christianity: 44.

[2] Adapted from Dan Allender, The Wounded Heart.

[3] James Burns. Revival, Their Laws & Leaders, Hodder and Stoughton 1909:50.