Redemptive Force

Imagine a scale from 1-10.  It measures the redemptive force of the content of your sermon.  10 is a full presentation of the Gospel: the full plan of God being worked out on the cross by Jesus’ death as our substitute, demonstrating God’s love, inviting us to trust in him and what he has done.  At the other end of the scale there is 1, which points towards the gracious heart of God toward sinners and sufferers, but does not make the journey to Jesus and the cross.  Let’s call this the Redemptive Force Scale.

Question: How far along the scale should you go in your sermon? 

Some would immediately say it has to always be a 10 – after all, Paul’s teaching in 1Corinthians 2:1-5 points to the need to preach Christ and him crucified.  But others might hesitate.  What if the preaching passage doesn’t naturally allow a 10?  Depending on our school of thought, we might feel another value has to be considered too.

Two great values – I feel there are two great values that have to be kept in view.  

(1) One is the value of preaching the Gospel – that is why we preach, it is critical for every listener. 

(2) The other is the value of preaching the text – we need to handle the text well, this is also critical for every listener.  I do not believe we should abandon good handling of the text in order to get to the good news.  It is not wise to imply God is not a good communicator by discarding the Bible in order to get to the Gospel.

Two common mistakes – I also feel there are two mistakes that are made much more than we’d like to believe. 

(1) One is not preaching the gospel at all.  Perhaps we think that the gospel is only for evangelism and there is a different type of preaching for believers.  Or perhaps we don’t realise how much our preaching is really pointing people back to their own resources and their own efforts.  We may not preach salvation by works, but too many of us inadvertently preach sanctification and spiritual maturity by works.

(2) The other mistake is when we sacrifice the integrity of the text in order to jump to Jesus.  A tenuous link, a stretched analogy, a missing stepping stone . . . it is too easy to slip from our passage straight into the shadow of the cross and leave our listeners wondering how we got there from this passage?  If we have to do preaching parkour to get to Calvary, perhaps we have pushed it too hard.

Seven suggestions to ponder:

  1. If the occasion is primarily evangelistic, pick an appropriate passage.  A message on John 3 or Ephesians 2 will naturally yield a Redemptive Force of  8, 9, or 10 without any need to compromise on textual handling in order to preach the gospel.  If the occasion is primarily evangelistic, don’t preach on Ezekiel 38-39 or Nehemiah 7.
  2. If you are preaching a regular church sermon, be sure to get on the scale.  Your listeners all need to feel the redemptive force of the text.  They do not need a moralistic coaching session that puts their focus back onto themselves.
  3. Every text allows a legitimate sermon with redemptive force.  Bryan Chapell points out that every text in the Bible was written after the fall of humanity, and every text was inspired after God had stated his plan to rescue humanity in Genesis 3:15.  Therefore, every text is, in some way, redemptive in what it reveals, what it points to, or how it works in its context.
  4. You can develop the hermeneutical and homiletical ability to move up the scale. To put this a different way, most texts are not just offering a 1 or a 2, but you need to learn how to handle the text well and move legitimately toward the other end of the scale.
  5. You will not be able to hit 10 every week.  Sometimes the text only yields a 6, or even a 3.  Sometimes a congregation is not able to track as you make a complicated link to level 8, but they will grasp the level 5 version (for example, when knowledge of the original language is required to see the level 8 connection, it may not be possible to effectively lead people that far).  Sometimes the sermon time is not long enough to give enough explanation to get to the 9, but a 7 works well.   The text, the congregation, the timing, as well as the occasion, and even the preacher, might limit where you can get to on the Redemptive Force scale without sacrificing good handling of the preaching text.
  6. A church diet with some variety of redemptive force will not hurt people at all, but generally get as far up the scale as you legitimately can.  If you consistently hit 10 in every single sermon, you might give the impression that every biblical text is only there as a launch point to get to the cross.  This may even diminish the rich revelation of God’s heart through the canon of Scripture, if people start to think that every text is only included to launch us to the same presentation of the gospel. 
  7. However you show the redemptive force of the text, let the text still be in charge. To put that in other words, each message should be shaped by the text you are preaching. You should not simply launch from the text and end up giving the same pre-packaged presentation of the gospel at the end of the message. The text you are preaching is the boss of the whole message. You want the gospel presentation to have the implicit authority of God’s Word driving it, not just the sense of authority that comes from your presentation.

I think this Redemptive Force scale could be helpful to us.  Let’s always be sure to get on the scale, and let’s preach with as much redemptive force as the text, the occasion, the listeners, and our communicative ability will allow.  Let us preach the Gospel clearly as we carefully handle God’s inspired Scriptures with precision and integrity.  And let us always remember that only God can give spiritual life to those that hear!

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Desperate Places

In English, we have a phrase, “on top of the world!” It describes someone flying high because of some success or good news. Perhaps they got engaged, passed their driving test, earned a promotion, or won a prize. 

What is the opposite of “on top of the world”? Perhaps it is “carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders.” Another very English phrase, but also easy to understand. It’s when someone feels so weighed down by trouble that they are almost crushed. They feel desperately small and hopeless. All it takes to go from being on top of the world to having the weight of the world on your shoulders is one phone call. 

One bit of bad news can crush our lives. And that is why it is essential to know how Jesus treats people in desperate straits. Let’s look briefly at a story in Mark 10. It comes right at the end of the chapter, and that is important. Let me explain.

Jesus was on a mission. He was headed for Jerusalem. Back in Mark 8, we see Peter’s great confession of Jesus as the Christ, which was immediately followed by Jesus predicting his death. It becomes clear that you cannot have Christ without the cross. Jesus repeated the prediction in chapter 9, then again in chapter 10. In 10:32, we read that “They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid.” Jesus was marching out ahead – he was on his great Easter mission. His disciples were astonished, perhaps because of how boldly Jesus was walking towards trouble. And the entourage of followers felt fear as they anticipated whatever tensions would face them once they arrived. 

Again, Jesus repeated his prediction that he was going to Jerusalem to be condemned, awfully mistreated, and killed. Next, we read that James and John decided to stake their claim to positions of prominence in his future kingdom. It was an awkward moment. But it did allow Jesus to give the key verse in the whole Gospel. Mark 10:45 – “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

With the great line delivered, the natural next verse would be Mark 11:1 – “And they approached Jerusalem . . .” The most significant verse in the book, and then the big arrival in Jerusalem – Easter week! 

But, instead, we get one more story. An interruption. As they left Jericho to climb the long road to Jerusalem, someone started crying out to Jesus. The man could not see, but when he heard who was passing by, he began to shout. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 

Throughout Mark’s Gospel, the identity of Jesus has been gradually revealed. Now we hear a great Messianic title echoing through a crowd who immediately rebuked the shouting man. Perhaps the Messianic language felt too risky, especially this close to Jerusalem. Maybe they feared the authorities, who could be in the midst and ready to hit back against this famous troublemaker from Nazareth and his supporters? But the rebukes failed. He just shouted more.

We watch Jesus’ reaction to this interruption in the last four verses of the chapter. Remember that he was on a mission, and the next stop: Easter week. Now a blind beggar is shouting at him. A nobody, especially in those days. But he was a somebody to Jesus. Notice the three things that Jesus does for this man:

  1. He calls him. In verse 49, we see Jesus calling the man. What an honour! Jesus is effectively saying, “You are somebody, you matter, you have value, and I want to speak with you.” Dismissal, further rebuke, even rejection, could all happen from a distance, but Jesus called him close. Isn’t it wonderful to pause and reflect on what this shows us about the heart of Jesus, and therefore, the heart of God? Yes, God sits on the throne above everything that is. He is high and exalted, in charge of the cosmos. Yet time and again, the Bible shows us that God humbles himself to reach down to the very lowest of the low, to people like this man, crushed under the weight of the world, but important to God.
  1. He asks him. After coming quickly to Jesus, the man is met with a question, “What do you want me to do for you?” (see v. 51). It seems like an obvious question. After all, he is blind. But we shouldn’t judge a situation so quickly. Jesus asked him a question and effectively communicated, “You are a full human, with dignity; let me not assume anything.” After all, we do not know this man’s story. What would he answer? Would he say something about needing to provide for his family? Would he ask something for a family member suffering from an illness? We cannot assume to know his answer, and Jesus didn’t assume to know his answer. 

It only takes a moment for the weight of the world to roll onto a person’s shoulders, but Jesus still honours him as a human with dignity. Naturally, we should do the same for others. And let’s not forget that we are a phone call away, a car crash away, a circumstance away from having our whole life turned upside down. And even if that happens, Jesus will still treat us with dignity too!

  1. He heals him. The man’s request was about sight. And trusting Jesus did lead to him seeing again. Jesus had underlined the man’s value, then the dignity of the man, and now we know that he has a new future too. What a powerful moment for all around! Actually, perhaps the powerful moment is found in the last few words of the story. He “followed Jesus along the road.” The astonished disciples and the fearful entourage were joined by this newly seeing man – a true follower of Jesus.

Can we say he was a true follower of Jesus? After all, maybe he only followed briefly? Interestingly, this is the only healing in Mark’s Gospel where the person healed is named. Why would Mark tell us his name (and his father’s name)? Why would Matthew and Luke not include the name when they told the story in their Gospels? There is a good chance that the reason was that Bartimaeus was known in the church for whom Mark wrote his Gospel. “Bartimaeus? The older guy in the third row?” Yes, him. “Oh, I didn’t know that had happened to him.” There are probably people in our churches today who have a personal history with Jesus we don’t know about. After all, it doesn’t take much to find ourselves in a desperate place. It can happen at any time. And we know how Jesus treats people like that.

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A Psalm written in a desperate place, Psalm 13:

Handle the Text Carefully

When we preach we explain the meaning of details in a Bible passage. We do more than that too, of course. But here are five quick reminders about handling the text carefully:

1. Remember that the passage was originally written in another language, even though you probably don’t need to mention it. As one of my teachers put it, “Greek is like your underwear, it is important to have it on, but don’t let it show.” I think there is wisdom in both halves of that thought. We should use the languages as best we can in preparation, and generally, there is wisdom in not talking about it when we preach. For people who have never learned Hebrew and Greek, it is important to remember that there is both linguistic and cultural distance between the original text and our translation. It is wise to consult serious commentaries as you are preparing, and it is very wise to not support your presentation by appealing to the original language, especially if you are not comfortable translating the passage for yourself.

2. Be grateful for the English translation you have. While it is good to interact with some heavyweight commentators to help you with the original, be thankful for the translations we have. We don’t need to undermine our listener’s confidence in good translations by how we explain the text.

3. The meaning of words will change over time, so don’t build a point on the origins of a word. I read a few deliberately outrageous examples in a Moises Silva article that reinforce this point. He demonstrated, for instance, how we should not trust ranchers because of the old French etymological connection to our term, deranged. Or the argument that dancing should be forbidden for Christians because the word ballet comes from a Greek term that also shows up as part of the origin of the term translated “devil.” Don’t do that. Words mean what they mean in their context, in their contemporary usage at the time of writing.

4. Don’t read every possible meaning of a word into a specific instance. Let the context identify the meaning of a word. The other possibilities listed in the dictionary or lexicon need not concern you as you preach it. Take the term “chip” in this sentence – “The problem with your computer is a burned-out chip.” It doesn’t matter that the term can be used for a deep-fried potato chunk served hot in England, or a fried slice of potato served cold in America, or a piece of wood flying as the lumberjack chops at a tree trunk, or a useful shot for a golfer stuck in a bunker. Other possible meanings do not matter when the sentence itself clarifies the intended meaning.

5. Context really is king. When it comes to explaining the meaning of a detail in a text, context is always the golden guideline. Don’t get caught up building a point on a nuance of grammar, or a subtlety of vocabulary. Those finer points can usually be left in your study notes, or used to support what you are saying, but if you are going to make a big point about meaning, generally it should be made using context as your primary evidence.

We have to explain the meaning of the text whenever we preach. Let’s keep prayerfully pondering how we can do that in a way that is clear, helpful, instructive and not distracting.

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Haddon Robinson’s Definition of Expository Preaching

I still look back with huge gratitude at the opportunity to have studied with Haddon Robinson in the mid 2000’s. Here is his oft-quoted definition:

“Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the hearers.”

Importance of the “concept” – the central role of the “big idea” is vital to coherent preaching.  Preaching is not the conveying of random details held together by their proximity in a biblical text.  It is easy to let a Bible text nudge you into your favourite theological themes, your anecdotes of choice, or even other disconnected biblical truths. This definition urges the preacher to study the passage in order to determine the big idea of the passage. What, specifically, is this passage saying?

Importance of the study method – among the expository definitions that I’ve read over the years, I think this one is unique in including a definition of the hermeneutical approach advocated.  In order to get to the biblical concept in a passage, the preacher is to use a historical, grammatical, literary study of the passage in context. What, accurately, is this passage saying?

Importance of the transmission – many people miss the two words “transmitted through” that come before the hermeneutical element.  Not only should a preacher use good hermeneutics in the study, but they should exemplify good hermeneutics in the presentation. After all, the preacher is modelling Bible handling before a crowd who will pick up habits from what they observe. How will they read their Bibles after listening to you preach?

Importance of the Holy Spirit – again, many definitions of preaching seem to omit any reference to the Holy Spirit.  This one recognizes the role of the Spirit in applying the biblical concept in the life of the preacher, then through the preacher in the listeners too. Apart from Him, we can do nothing.

Politics? Oh, We Don’t Go There!

I suspect we need to give some more thought to this oft-stated contemporary wisdom: “We should just focus on the Gospel and not get political.”

We live in a society that seems to be increasingly divided and polarized by political discussion and media misrepresentation of opposing views on a variety of topics.  It is understandable that many will automatically agree that in the church, and in preaching, we should simply focus on the Gospel and not get dragged into the political tensions of our time. 

Here are seven preliminary points for us to ponder:

1. Politics is no substitute for the Saviour.  It is easy for some people, preachers included, to get swept up into current affairs and to put their hope in politicians or political parties.  We live in a sinful world and the world of politics tends to highlight human sin and the futility of godless solutions.  Anyone who puts their hope in a political solution to our greatest needs will be deeply disappointed.  Our church and our world need us to preach Christ and him crucified, not a party manifesto.

2. Silence can be highly political.  While we can easily see the problem if our pulpit shifts into a soapbox for a particular political agenda, merely exorcising any hint of a political opinion from our preaching is not the solution.  Sometimes saying nothing about something is really saying something.  In fact, there are times when silence is actually saying something quite strongly.  Saying nothing about gender, sexuality, morality, etc., can serve to reinforce the cultural narrative – especially as the younger generation grow into adulthood.  A lifetime of one message from the media, from social media, from educators and from peers may be affirmed rather than countered by a silent pulpit.

I recently read Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.  It is well worth reading!  He wrote, “So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.”

3. We must define what we mean by “political.”  I hear people referring to “political” as if such a label automatically confirms that the subject must not be touched.  What do we mean by the term?  A dictionary definition is “relating to the government or public affairs of a country.”  So, does this mean the church should have no voice on slavery, racism, human rights, poverty, crime, corruption, etc.?  I think we tend to all celebrate the political stand and achievements of past believers like William Wilberforce, George Muller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, etc.  But we also forget how many churches remained silent on the slave trade, on child poverty, or on Nazi tyranny.

4. Why do we retreat – does the Bible have nothing to say?  So, does the Bible have nothing to say on matters that could be labelled political?  Of course, it does.  The prophets were not typically the “popular preachers” in their era.  They spoke out for God about real issues in their society, whatever the cost.  Today, God cares passionately about the poor, the unborn, the marginalized, the vulnerable.  God hates the damage done by racism, or abuse, or trafficking, or crime, or unjust laws, or human rights violations, etc.  None of these issues is greater than the need for the Gospel to be preached, but let’s not claim to proclaim the whole counsel of God while refusing to address injustice or any other issue that might be labeled “political.”

5. Why do we retreat – are we living in fear?  Today we live in strange times.  We don’t have to go back to the era of the prophets to sense the change.  It was not that long ago that people would disagree and then have a conversation about it.  They might even take onboard the perspective of another and do some genuine personal research in order to understand that position better.  We were all bettered by that approach.  Today we live in a culture that increasingly models “triggered grievance and cancellation.”  If someone does not say the right things and openly affirm the sacred cows of our time, there are plenty of people ready to declare deep grievance and instigate a public take-down and cancellation of the offending party.  This can feel crippling to the Christian in the workplace, to the Christian on the campus, and to the preacher in the pulpit.  I hope we are all learning to speak wisely and avoid unnecessary problems, but we cannot afford to retreat into a silent fear where our salt loses any saltiness, and our light is extinguished by darkness.

One more quote from MLK’s letter: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

6. The church should be diverse.  The church is not supposed to be a group of people that are identical to each other.  The church is strengthened by its diversity.  This is true ethnically, as well as educationally, or materially, or demographically.  A church is blessed to have senior citizens fellowshipping with teenagers, or the surgeon praying alongside the cleaner.  And the same is true politically.  There is a blessing that comes from being able to not just tolerate people with different views, but to really know and love one another – no matter how they might vote when the next election arrives. 

7. There is a difference between addressing political issues and being “party political.”  I think this is the distinction that we would do well to introduce into our discussions about whether or not something is political and therefore not to be mentioned among believers.  There are countless issues that are political in nature that we should be talking about.  But, generally speaking, we should think very carefully before equating one particular political party with “the Christian position.”  On specific issues, some parties do hold abhorrent views.  However, maybe we would avoid some unnecessary angst if, as a general rule, we avoided promoting our preferred political party.  After all, our hope is not in a particular party, which brings us full circle back to point 1.

I recognize that different countries and cultures have differing dynamics on this issue.  I also recognize that it takes real wisdom to handle controversial issues carefully and to lead a diverse congregation humbly.  I am not suggesting we become bombastic or blunder carelessly around complex issues.  What I am suggesting is that we don’t just settle for a simplistic “rule” that will silence us when we should be speaking.  It is easy to say we should never discuss politics or religion in polite conversation.  Actually, I hope we see that we may sometimes need to do precisely that.  May God give us humility and wisdom, as well as clarity and boldness, when we do!

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(Westminster Photo by Deniz Fuchidzhiev on Unsplash)

Christian Living Reoriented

There is a well-worn path in evangelical Christianity.  It begins with the presentation of wonderful news – that God has done everything necessary, in Christ’s death on the cross, to make it possible for us to receive salvation.  All we have to do is trust in Christ and we are saved.  To put it another way, we don’t have to do anything, because Christ has done it for us. 

The path then makes a surprising turn.  Having trusted in Christ for salvation, we soon find the path turning steeply uphill as we discover that living the Christian life is another matter entirely.  Living as a Christian is presented as a list of disciplines, activities, new habits to start and old habits to kick.  The sunny days of gospel invitation give way to storm clouds of pressure and obligation.

A superficial reading of the Bible only seems to reinforce this idea.  After all, there is plenty of instruction and lots of commands directed at believers. 

But a more careful reading of our Bibles will yield a more helpful set of directions.

The gospel is by faith from first to last (Romans 1:17).  That faith is both pioneered and perfected by Jesus (Hebrews 12:2).  And as Paul puts it in Galatians 2:20, “the life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

The Christian life begins by faith, and is to continue by faith.  The way we “get on” is the same as the way we “got in” – by faith in Jesus.  (See Galatians 3:1-3 for Paul’s critical evaluation of the idea that we are to grow to maturity by our own flesh effort instead of by faith!)

I would like to illustrate what this means and then suggest three areas where we may need a reorientation of our perspective.

Illustration – An actively engaged faith. Imagine a couple dancing at their wedding.  We are the bride of Christ, he has won our hearts and we are his.  And now we are invited to live by faith, with our gaze fixed on him and our every move lived in response to his loving leadership.  Just as in a dance, there are three options and two of them are bad.  We can imagine that living by faith means being uninvolved – hanging like a dead weight as he leads the dance.  That will never be a pretty sight.  Or we might assume that we must play our part and fight to express our own leadership on perhaps 50% of the steps.  Again, not pretty.  The beautiful way to engage the dance is 100% active, but 100% responsive.  We fix the gaze of our hearts on him and follow his every lead.  Fully involved, but completely responsive.  That makes for a beautiful married dance.

With that image in mind, let me suggest three wonderful gifts that God has given us for living the Christian life.  These are three gifts that perhaps we need in order to reorient our perspectives and enjoy them to the maximum:

Gift 1 – The Bible.  The Bible is a relational prompt, given to us by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  But we tend to view the Bible as a book about us.  We read it looking for the instruction or the encouragement that we need to live our lives.  We settle for the idea that it is an instruction manual for life and then read through it looking for something that will help us.  Our unspoken feeling is often that it is not a very well-organized manual for twenty-first century living.  Our disappointment can lead to us neglecting this wonderful gift from God.

In reality, the Bible is so much more than a manual for life.  It is primarily and ultimately a revelation of the heart of God, culminating in the mission of Christ. (See John 5:39, for example, where Jesus rebuked the Jewish leaders for daily Bible time spent pursuing life for themselves, but neglecting the revelation of God’s Son.)  When we sit down with a cup of coffee to read the Bible, or listen to it on the way to work, or take a few minutes at lunch time to ponder a few verses, we should come to it with a simple prayer, “Lord, please show me your heart as I read this now. I need to know you. Please show me you.”  Coming to the Bible looking for God’s heart and character, looking for God’s plan that leads to Christ, looking for Christ himself – this is the best way to engage with this relational prompt given to us by God.  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The Bible is a fantastic gift from God to help me do exactly that.

Gift 2 – The Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is a relational prompt, given to us by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  We tend to view the Holy Spirit as being there for us.  We might focus on the Spirit as a means to experience excitement and miracles for our own sake, or we might reduce the Spirit to a mere source of power as we strive to live as we are supposed to live.  Again, our disappointment with either the miraculous or the empowering work of the Spirit may remain unspoken, but may also lead us to neglecting this wonderful gift from God.

In reality, the Holy Spirit is able to work miracles when he chooses, and he is gloriously empowering.  But the primary passion of the Spirit is to point our hearts to Christ (see John 14:26, John 15:26, John 16:14, Romans 5:5.)  When we wake up in the morning, why not begin the day by greeting the God who has not slept, but has been keeping watch over us, “Good morning, Father – thank you for your good heart and your love for me.  Good morning, Lord Jesus – thank you again for all you did for me on the cross, that you are alive today interceding for me.  And Holy Spirit, make me sensitive to all the ways you point me to trust in God’s good heart today, help me to keep my eyes on Jesus today.”  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The Holy Spirit is a glorious gift from God to help me continue to do exactly that.

Gift 3 – The Body of Christ.  The Church is a relational prompt, given by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  We tend to view the church as being there for us.  What can I get out of it?  Is it serving my needs?  How easily we become consumers of services offered by the church, reducing our participation to that of a critic posting our negative reviews for others to browse.  Our disappointment with the church is often not kept hidden, and too easily we can neglect this gift from God.

In reality, the local church is a God-given gift, a community where believers can love and be loved in a way that is different from the world around us (see John 13:34-35).  Instead of looking to church as a consumer, ready to evaluate and offer a negative review, let’s see church for what it is.  Who can I love, encourage, and pray for today?  Who can I serve in practical ways?  What responsibility can I take on that will give me the opportunity to point people to Jesus?  When I preach, how can I point listeners to the goodness of God in Christ (instead of pointing them to their own failure and their need to try harder)?  When I teach the children’s class, how can I point them to Jesus so that they might find life to the full?  Who can I send an encouraging text message to today?  Who can I love, and serve, and encourage?  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The local church is a community of faith strugglers like me, encouraging each other to look to Jesus day by day. “The life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”

How Do You Respond to Your Greatest Fear?

We live in a world of fear.  Deep down, most people live with a fear of something happening to their health or their loved ones.  Many people live in cities with soaring crime rates.  Geopolitical changes in a country on the other side of the world can raise the fear of terrorist attacks.  What we see on the news makes us afraid, or else what we don’t see on the news does.  Some are afraid of the cultural shifts that are rocking the moral foundations of society.  And for the last eighteen months, the fear of COVID-19 has been at the forefront of everyone’s thinking.  Either people fear the illness itself or fear the response from governments.  Fear is a feature of life in this fallen world.

I know that logic does not necessarily mix easily with fear – it never helped much with shadows at night when we were children!  But still, logically, it would make sense to fear most what is most significant or powerful.  Why worry about hay fever if a third of your village has died from food poisoning in the last month?  So, what is the most important, significant and potentially life-changing person or problem facing each of us today?

In Luke 8, we find Jesus on tour.  In the previous chapters, he has gathered his disciples around him and begun his ministry.  From the end of chapters 9 to 19, he will journey to Jerusalem and all that waits in store there.  But in chapters 8 and 9, Jesus is on tour in Galilee.  He is teaching and helping people.  The chapter starts with one of his more famous teaching moments – the man sowing seed on four kinds of soil.  The different soils lead to different responses.  But the bottom line of that story is that our hearts can be good soil for the seed of God’s word.  Good soil does not provide the seed, nor the sun, nor the sprinkling of rain.  It is just churned up mud, ready to receive God’s word.  And Jesus promises a multiplied harvest: a hundred times what was sown.

After the teaching comes a couple of stories where fear is a feature.  In the first story (Luke 8:22-25), the disciples cross the Sea of Galilee when a terrifying storm hits.  Even the experienced fishermen are scared of this storm, but Jesus woke from his sleep, and he rebuked the wind and the waves.  Immediate calm descended.  But their hearts were stirred up.  They were afraid.  Notice their response – they ask, “who is this?” and continue to follow him.  That is the correct response.  Jesus has overwhelming power and authority.  The proper response to someone so significant?  Fear.  And the desire to know more about him, to follow him, to be with him.

In the second story (Luke 8:26-39), the disciples arrive with Jesus in the region of the Gerasenes.  I suspect they may have been a little nervous in this foreign territory.  Perhaps they would tell stories about this region over the campfire late at night with the orange glow of the fire flickering on their faces.  This visit did not serve to change their prejudices!  As soon as they arrived, a man with many demons approached Jesus.

Many of us live in a time and place where demonic manifestation is not the preferred strategy of the enemy.  Many of our societies like to think of themselves as too sophisticated for this kind of thing.  Nevertheless, in this one man, we see classic features of evil.  For instance, evil always pulls towards death.  For this man, that meant nakedness and not living in society, but among the tombs. 

Today we see the same pull towards death in anyone struggling with addictive behaviour and its impact on their life.  We see it when we consider the impact of gangs and crime in a city or watch the news and ponder the march of evil on a grander scale.  Stripping away life, civility, community, and fellowship is always a feature of evil, and we see it all too much in our world.  If we look back in history, we see this in the concentration camps of the Nazis, the work camps of Communism, or the destruction of terrorism.  We may not see many demon-possessed men in our local graveyards, but there is plenty of evil in the world today.  Evil pulls towards death, and in Luke, the mass suicide of the pigs only underlines that truth.

This story presents the fearful reality of evil, and it also shows us another aspect that we must recognize.  The multitude of demons in this man greatly feared Jesus!  They didn’t negotiate,  certainly not as equals.  They begged.  They recognized his authority both in the present and in the future judgment.  The greatest evil in this world cowers in the presence of Jesus.

I can imagine the disciples at this moment.  They would not have been fanning out through the crowd offering their expert commentary on Jesus’ actions.  I imagine them squeezed in behind Jesus.  Nervous.  Awkward.  “Me? Oh, I am with him!”  We must remember Jesus’ authority over all evil and lean in close to him.  We are with him!  Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).

This story does not just present us with evil and its fear of Jesus.  It also shows us that fear in the response of the local people too.  As they came and found the impossible-to-contain man dressed and in his right mind, they were afraid.  This Jesus is too powerful, too significant, too much of a life-changer.  He made them feel uncomfortable and afraid.  Like many people, even today, it is too scary to let someone turn their world upside-down.  Much better to live with the evil we have gotten used to than to have everything changed.  So they were afraid (compare verses 25 and 35), and they sent Jesus away.

The rescued man wanted to be with Jesus.  He begged that he might be with Jesus and get in the boat too.  We know from reading the Bible that he would eventually get to be with Jesus, as we all will, but first, he had work to do.  Jesus had churned up that region like ploughing mud in a field.  Now he was going to plant this man as a single seed into that mud.  I am excited to imagine what a hundred-fold increase might look like for him!  Maybe we will meet the Gerasene contingent when we get to heaven!

I wonder, did he look jealously at the disciples?  “Why do they get to be with you when I get planted into this fear-churned world?”  Again, we know from reading the Gospels the answer to that too.  The disciples would need a longer apprenticeship, but after three years with Jesus, he would also plant them into this evil world.  Jesus planted them with a promise.  “All authority has been given to me, therefore go and make disciples . . . baptizing . . . and teaching . . . and don’t miss this: I am with you always, until the end of the world!” (Matthew 28:18-20)

We do live in a world filled with fear.  One day we will be with Jesus, away from all evil.  But for now, Jesus is with us as he multiplies a crop from our apparent insignificance.  May we not only see the evil around us that causes us to fear.  May we remember that evil cowers before Jesus.  May we respond to his greater significance in the right way – pondering who he is and leaning into him and his plan for our role in this world.  Fear Jesus, for he is more powerful and significant than any evil, or all evil!  Let us trust him as he places us in the mess of this world and see how he transforms lives through us!

Lockdowns & Online Church: Time to Evaluate?

There are few subjects as controversial as Covid-19.  Many churches are feeling the stretch of a full spectrum of views within the congregation. It certainly feels safer to not venture into writing about this subject, but I feel it is important that we evaluate what we do in church world – whatever our view of the actual issue may be.  Obviously, each context is different.  What my church was allowed to do will be different than the rules in your country or state.  What my church decided to do may have been inappropriate for another church in the same town because of different facilities, congregational demographic or local context.

At the beginning of the global crisis in early 2020, most churches saw the situation as a no-brainer.  We were confronted with a new virus and we did not know the extent of the risk (although early predictions were anticipating hundreds of millions of deaths globally).  What we did know was the importance of everyone pulling together to save lives. To illegally meet as a church during those early weeks could easily have been the talk of the town (and it would have made Jesus look very bad).  So for us, and probably for most churches, it was time to get creative and adapt to this unforeseen and temporary lockdown.

Now, 18 months later, we are in a better position to look back and do some evaluating.  In our context we had a long first lockdown, followed by a summer of restrictions, then a shorter lockdown in October/November.  The third lockdown, for the first half of 2021, did not apply to churches (although there were plenty of restrictions). 

Our church experienced the sudden move to “meeting” online without a budget for setting up a high tech studio.  When we were allowed to meet again, we experienced meeting in different venues because our normal venue would not rent to us during the pandemic.  We met in a place where our numbers had to be limited way below our congregation size.  We met in a field, actually two different fields, a large English garden, and as guests of a very kind Anglican church in our town.

Every church will have its own story.  Every church situation is unique.  I am not writing to criticize anyone.  But we should all evaluate.  We are so thankful for the way our congregation responded with flexibility and enthusiasm to the constant changes. As leaders I am sure we made mistakes during these months.  We probably all did.  None of us ever took a seminary class in how to do lead a church during a never-before-seen global health crisis!

So as we look back at online church under various levels of lockdown, let’s take stock of both the costs and the benefits.

There have been benefits – I have spoken with many church leaders and church members who have spoken of learning to be flexible.  Having to adapt to new technology and changing circumstances is probably healthy for all but the most fragile Christians.  Many of us are now as capable of hosting a Zoom call as a business executive, or as familiar with streaming live on YouTube and “speaking to camera” as a social influencer (even if we are still not as comfortable with it!)  Perhaps the reach of your church has extended to people who would never have stepped into your building.  Perhaps, moving forward, the blessing of your live-stream will also be felt by church members at home with a sick child or travelling for work.  

And it is not just about technology and livestreaming.  We have had to think through how to shepherd people that we don’t see in person multiple times each week.  We have had to think about unity more than ever before since Covid has scattered people across a spectrum of responses and perspectives.   We have possibly been given greater clarity on the spiritual condition of many in our churches than was obvious under “the old normal” of predictable church routine.  We have hopefully been pushed to our knees to recognize that we rely on God alone for the health of the flock and not that predictable structure of church life. It is right to recognize the benefits and thank God for His faithfulness during these challenging months of change.

There have been costs – Some people will only speak positively of the impact of lockdown on their church experience.  Perhaps there is something in the air these days that makes it feel forbidden to critique any aspect of Covid response?  But we must evaluate.  Our calling is too significant to do otherwise.  What has been the cost of the loss of fellowship?  What has been the cost of loneliness for believers living alone or as the only believer in their home?  Have people grown to see church as merely watching a sermon and perhaps singing?  What value does corporate worship have in the spiritual life of the believer? What about the relational dynamic at the heart of biblical Christianity?  What about discipleship?  What about serving others?  What about unplanned conversations, warm greetings, handshakes, smiles and hugs?

Have people thrived spiritually with online church, or have they just survived?  There is a cost to not meeting for weeks, or even months on end.  Remember how we would be very concerned pastorally about people who stopped participating in the life of the church for extended periods of time before Covid-19 came along?  That concern still applies.  As churches come out of existing online to meeting in person, they discover that they have lost people.  Some are lost to “pajama church” while others are lost to no church connection at all. Sundays have taken on new rhythms for them.

And what about the loss of opportunities?  We can and should celebrate the people that found church online, but what about guests that never came to church, never experienced believers worshipping together, never experienced the love of a community of God’s people welcoming them warmly?  What about the loss of in-person communion and group prayer?  What about the loss of other opportunities: childhood friendships and life transition moments, mission trips for teens at that key stage of transition to adulthood, youth group heart-to-heart conversations after youth group adventures, and so on?

What do you think? Personally, I believe that online church and lockdown has had far more costs than benefits.  If we had to do it again, what would we do differently?  And are we now happy to switch to online church whatever reason is given for future lockdowns?  Are we really settled with the idea that the authorities can mandate what we do as a church, who we meet with, what we wear, etc.? Is the plan to do what is commanded, or what is culturally popular, whatever the reason? Or are we making different plans to handle what may still lie ahead of us?  Whatever your perspective, it is vital that we all take stock and evaluate. 

I want to recognize that it has been a challenging season to be in church leadership. Thank you for all you have done where you are. It has not been easy. Hopefully, your congregation have expressed their gratitude for all that you have done to make it work in these strange times. Hopefully, you have seen God at work despite the challenges. Jesus promised to build his church!

Our contexts are different and rules seem to be constantly changing everywhere.  How vital it is to think it through, pray it through, and learn lessons in the late summer before another winter comes (whatever that may look like where you are).

(I have sought to gently provoke with questions in this post. I am not looking to stir a political debate, but prayerful reflection. Please do share in the comments anything that could be helpful for others.)

We Need Each Other

Some years ago, I was chatting with my future in-laws about their experiences on the mission field.  They mentioned a couple that they were close to during a challenging season of missionary work.  I asked if their very different denominational backgrounds were an issue.  The response was so helpful: “Secondary things do not matter when you are in the trenches.”

Back in the first century, the Apostle Peter wrote a letter to some believers in the trenches.  They had probably been kicked out of Rome by Emperor Claudius and transplanted to five regions in what we would now call Turkey.  These people had been unwanted back in Rome (troublemakers or guilty by association with others), and they were now unwanted in their new locations.  So Peter wrote his epistle to help them.

Today we live in cultures that are increasingly hostile to Christians.  We can certainly take on board the instruction Peter gave to those first-century believers.  In chapter 4, after the main body of his argument, Peter urges believers to live in light of their situation. God’s great redemption plan is in its final stage; they need to live with disciplined thinking for the sake of their attentive prayerfulness.  But then he gives a not-to-be-missed “above all” point:

“Above all, love one another earnestly.” (1 Peter 4:8)

He is not referring to casual and comfortable fellowship.  The word Peter uses here, “earnestly,” implies a full and sustained effort.  Think of the muscles of a thoroughbred horse working at full capacity as the horse gallops.  Or think of the strenuous and sustained efforts of an athlete in competition.  Peter is not just asking Christians to be pleasant to one another; he is speaking of how much we need each other.

In this paragraph, Peter gives us three “one another” instructions to help us understand how much we need each other:

1. We need each other’s grace. In verse 8, he urges them to “love one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” Of course, some sins should not simply be covered over.  Sometimes the most loving thing to do is to graciously confront the sin of a fellow believer.  Sometimes a sin is so significant that you should inform the authorities.  But here, Peter is speaking about ongoing, every day, frequent annoyances. 

Think about a group of children gathering in a minibus for a day at the seaside.  They will be full of energy and excitement.  They will probably tolerate annoying pokes and name calling from their friends in this state – every comment will be met with laughter and joy.  But fast forward to the evening when they all clamber back into the minibus, exhausted and emotionally fraught.  Now the slightest poke in the ribs, a crossed word from a friend, or another tiny thing might provoke tears and tension.  As adults, we are often more drained by life than delighted.  How easily Christians can aggravate one another.  That is why we need one another’s grace.

Eugene Peterson translated the underlying thought in Proverbs 10:12 like this: “Hatred starts fights, but love pulls a quilt over the bickering.”

 2. We need each other’s generosity.  In verse 9, Peter goes on, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.” We tend to think of hospitality in the New Testament as an essential support to the church’s missionary work.  Travel inns were expensive and dangerous, so finding a place to stay with fellow believers was a vital feature of the Gospel’s spread.  However, in this verse, Peter is speaking of hospitality to “one another.” Maybe this is less about helping travelling missionaries and more about supporting one another in the local community of believers.

After more than a year of restrictions and lockdowns, some of us are appreciating the blessing of being in each other’s homes more than ever.  Let us never take for granted the gift that it is to share a meal with fellow believers.  It is not about the performance of the chef or the presentation of a picture-perfect house.  We are not auditioning for a magazine.  We are a family that needs each other.

Sometimes, the gift of time, practical support, and fellowship can make the difference between making it through a challenging season and not making it through.  We need each other’s generosity.

3. We need each other’s gifting.  In verse 10, Peter adds one more “one another” to the paragraph: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” God designed the body of Christ to be interdependent.  We need the gifts that others have.  Some gifts are more visible and up-front, while others are more behind-the-scenes and play a support role.  We need each other.

The gifting may be different for one who preaches and one who sets up the facility, but both are intimately connected to God.  The speaker speaks the words of God.  The server works with the strength God supplies.  And whatever type of gift we have, God is at work amongst us as we benefit from one another’s spiritual gifts.

Whether we are living in a time of relative comfort and ease or a time of growing antagonism and complexity, the reality is that we all need each other.  It is an incredible blessing to be part of a local family of believers.  As we love one another earnestly, we will benefit from each other’s grace, generosity and gifting.  And the impact of all this will be a blessing for us, a powerful witness to a fragmented watching world, and glory to God.

What would it look like if you earnestly loved the people in your church family this week?

The Cost of Diversity

It is such a wonderful thing to look around a church and see the diversity of people that make up the body of Christ.  People from different backgrounds, with different stories.  Some seem to be likely participants in a church; others seem most unlikely! 

One person might say, “I was raised in a Christian home,” but next to them will be someone who might say, “I never went to church until recently.” Someone might say, “You would not believe what I used to be like,” while another will say, “I always thought I was a good person.” The church is a beautiful blend of backgrounds, personalities, cultures, and stories.

In Acts 16, Paul and Silas traveled through Turkey on the second missionary journey recorded in the book. Eventually, they arrived at the coast, and God directed them to cross over into Europe.  We are thankful they did!  Their first stop was Philippi.

In Philippi, we are introduced to three people who encountered the transformational power of the love of God.  In just these three people, we get a glimpse of the diversity to come as God builds the church in Europe. And there is also a challenge for us.

The first person we read about is Lydia.  She seems to have been a successful businesswoman from what we read of her home town and her trade (purple cloth).  Paul met her at the prayer gathering beside the river.  (If there weren’t ten Jewish men in the town, then there could not be a formal synagogue, so this gathering was the informal equivalent of a synagogue.)  We read that Lydia was already a worshipper of the Lord.  It is hard to imagine someone easier to reach with the Gospel!

In reality, even religious people who know the Bible are not easy to reach.  The text reminds us that it is always a miracle when someone accepts Christ because, we are told, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”  Lydia was a person with a successful life and a genuine interest in God.  What a blessing it is to have this kind of person before us in ministry.  Still, let us remember to pray that the Lord will open their hearts – otherwise, the story will always end very differently!

The second person we read about is the slave girl.  This girl must have had a horrible life.  She was a slave, used by her owners for her demonic powers.  The brief glimpse we get of her in this passage shows that she seemed to be a genuine inconvenience to Paul.  Thankfully, God delivered her from the evil spirit.  We don’t know what happened next, as the story swiftly moves on.  It doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine believers like Lydia taking care of her.

Europe still has many people that we might find inconvenient, in comparison to the Lydias.  So many people in our continent bring with them a lifetime of brokenness and baggage.  Reaching them might feel more like a spiritual power encounter than a pleasant conversation about spiritual things over a cup of coffee.  And discipling them will always be more complicated for the church.  What a blessing it is to have this kind of person before us in ministry. Let’s pray for eyes to see the broken and the hurting around us. Let’s pray for God’s power to set them free and change their story!

The third person we read about is the jailer.  This man was probably a retired Roman soldier who had served his twenty years and was now responsible for the local prison in this colony.  He was perhaps a hardened man who had seen a lot and was now content to live with his family and experience as little trouble as possible.  This man would be hard to reach.  Thankfully, God knew how to get through this man’s hard exterior and capture his heart.

Reaching this jailer proved to be a costly experience for Paul and Silas.  They were seized, dragged before the authorities and tried by a mob.  They were stripped, humiliated and beaten with rods.  Then their wounded backs were probably pressed against a wall as their feet were put in stocks by the jailer—a horrible few hours, and perhaps a lifetime of scarring to show for it.  Perhaps the jailer heard the Gospel from them as he locked them up.  Maybe he lay in bed wondering what they had to sing about.  And perhaps he had just drifted off when the earthquake shook him awake! Sure that they would have escaped, he prepared to end his life to save the higher Roman authorities the task.  But then Paul called out and brought him into the jail.  They were all still there, after all.  And at that moment, the jailer was turned spiritually upside-down!

If God could release a slave girl from demonic oppression, why did God not do another mighty miracle in the town square and impress everyone with his power?  Why all this suffering for Paul and Silas?  God could have sent a bolt of lightning down during the day, but instead, he waited and sent the earthquake that night.  Why?  Because that hardened jailer perhaps would have joined the crowds and prostrated himself before a display of God’s power, in fear and trembling, grovelling before this foreign god.  Yet God’s goal was not to show his power but to demonstrate his love. 

As the jailer stood before Paul and Silas, he discovered that their suffering was not under compulsion.  They chose to stay in that cell.  Their suffering was somehow voluntary.  That blew the circuits of his hard old heart.  Maybe this is what they meant when they spoke and sang about Jesus willingly suffering for sinners like him!

We should praise God for the diversity of people brought together in the body of Christ.  The “successful” people like Lydia, the people with lots of baggage like the slave girl, and the hardened veterans like the jailer.  Some might seem easier to lead to Christ – praise God when they are!  Some are more inconvenient to rescue and disciple.  And some will cost us a great deal of suffering to reach.

There is an actual cost to make the diverse body of Christ possible.  But ultimately, that cost is not ours, but Christ’s.  He suffered voluntarily to reach the hardest of hearts.  If we keep our eyes on him as we walk whatever path God sets before us, then maybe we can be like Paul and Silas. Perhaps we will also sing hymns of praise as we get the opportunity to represent the voluntary suffering love of God’s heart.