Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sent with Power

Last week a friend of mine who writes for a car magazine was reflecting with me about what it means to “live out the ancient call.”  “In the drag races,” he reminded me, “they say ‘stay on it’ or ‘don't lift.’ In other words, keep the throttle mashed to the floor from the starting line until past the finish line.  I love that! When he said that, I not only felt his encouragement but the courage of the Holy Spirit…the one who Jesus promised would empower us for mission.   

In John’s gospel the Holy Spirit is referred to as the Comforter or the Advocate (a translation of the Greek word, parakletos).  When we hear the word  “Comforter” today we may think of a “quilt that keeps us warm on a cold night; or we may think of one who cheers us up or makes us feel….comfortable. In reality “Comforter” comes from the Latin word “fortis” meaning “strength and courage.” The Holy Spirit is the one who gives us the strength and courage to get out of bed and bear witness to him; to roll out instead of roll over; to “stay on it.”  The Comforter didn’t come to make us comfortable, as William Barclay once said.  The Comforter came to make us missional. In the first 8 verses of Acts 1,  Jesus the Risen King shows us how he does this:

First, the Spirit instructs us for the King’s mission (1-2).  In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.

Luke tells us that over a period of 40 days, the Risen Christ prepared his disciples to continue with him in his mission…without his physical presence.  Notice that he communicates with them in two distinct modes.  In v. 3 we read that “he appeared to them visibly…presenting himself alive to them by many convincing proofs.”  But in v. 2, we read that he gave them instructions “through the Holy Spirit.”  Was Jesus teaching them how to hear his voice and his instruction apart from his visible presence?  There’s no doubt that this is what Jesus means in John 16:12 when he says that “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth …he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16: 12).  That is, when I have left you physically, I will continue to speak to you and guide you through the Holy Spirit.

What did Jesus teach them?  He taught them about the kingdom.  “The time is fulfilled.  The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe the good news.”   The kingdom is wherever what God wants done is done.  A few weeks ago, a pilot lost control of his plane and crashed into a crowd of spectators at an air show in a tragic accident.  That’s a picture of our world…a world that is flying upside down and out of control; a world where what God wants done is often not done… and people are getting hurt. 

God sent his Son to set the world right again; to bring the kingdom of God near through those who apprentice themselves to him.  He invites us to trust in his risen life, to turn from evil, walk in his ways, and be filled with his Spirit.  That’s the good news we’re called to share as he sends us into our upside down world. Now if you don’t feel competent to share this word, don’t worry about it.  Jesus reminds us that it is the Holy Spirit who will make his words come alive in people through us, or even in spite of us (John 16:12).  We can bank on that. 

Next, the Spirit baptizes us for the King’s mission (6-8).  While staying with them in Jerusalem, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”  You can’t follow Christ without the baptism of the Holy Spirit.  In fact, Paul says we can’t confess that Christ is Lord apart from the baptism of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12: 3).  And we certainly can’t join Christ in his mission without the baptism of the Holy Spirit – because the Holy Spirit is Christ, the Spirit of God living within us.

Remember that to begin our new life in Christ, three things happen (Acts 8: 22-24).  On the human side there is repentance and putting our trust in Christ.  On the church side there is baptism with water, the outward sign that we are numbered among his followers; and on God’s side there is the baptism of the Holy Spirit.  We need all three.  We need to humbly come to him.  We need God’s people to encourage us; and we need Jesus’ Spirit to indwell us…for the sake of his kingdom and his mission.

Michael Green tells the true story of the friend of Rev. Samuel Kameleson, a leading Christian in India.  He wanted to bear witness to Christ in the heart of Brahmin country in Kumbakonam in Southern India, but no one would go with him because of the danger. He entered the courtyards of the main temple and began to preach, expecting a violent reaction to his presence, but was embraced by a Brahmin woman who asked, “Why did you not come sooner?”  She told him how she had been stricken with terminal cancer and gone to Madras to live out here final days.  There, she apparently died and was laid out in a mortuary. 

But she was not dead, only deeply unconscious.  In this state she had a vision of Jesus about whom she knew nothing.  “If you will let me live again, I will give my life for you” she promised.  While the woman lay unconscious, a lower caste cleaning woman noticed a faint movement from the “corpse” and called a doctor.  The doctor resuscitated her but she needed a blood transfusion.  The cleaning woman happened to have her exact blood type and gladly gave her blood.  She happened to be a Christian. 

Afterward, the doctor said, “You owe your life to the cleaning woman who first detected movement in you…and then gave her blood for you.”  The woman experienced a spontaneous remission of her cancer.  She kept her word and from that day worshiped Christ and renounced her former beliefs.  As a result her family rejected her, her own brothers knocked out her two front teeth; yet her witness led three of them to Christ.  This is why the woman ran out to greet this preacher in the temple; a man who taught her much more about the Lord in whom she trusted (Michael Green, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1975, p. 71ff.).  It’s a mark of the Spirit’s baptism that we are catapulted into mission as this woman was.  What she received she could not keep to herself.  If you have been baptized with the Spirit you share this same desire to somehow give to others what you have received of the Risen King. 

We all have days in which we are weary of the fight, days in which we want to keep to ourselves…but sooner or later the love of Christ urges us onward, and we find that we must share what we have received.  Do you lack that passion?  Do you wonder if you really know the King?  Turn to him in repentance, receive his grace, believe in his name…and invite him to come: “Come Spirit of Christ, baptize me and fill me that I may serve you with your other disciples, forever.”

Most important of all, the Spirit empowers us for the King’s mission (8). But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses”  Remember that the disciples had to “wait for the promise of the Father”! Why?  It wasn’t because they were waiting for a new spiritual experience.  And it wasn’t because they didn’t know what the mission was.  Jesus already told them what it was (Acts 1:8).  They waited because they could not do Christ’s mission without him! As the disciples followed Jesus, so we must follow the Spirit of Jesus into mission.  He leads the way.  We move on his signal.  We can pray for others and preach the gospel until we’re blue in the face, but if the Spirit is not at work in us and the hearts of those around us, there will be no fruit (see Acts 4:31).    

When a hurricane hit South Florida, Norena's home was one of many that was severely damaged. The elderly woman received an insurance settlement, and the repair work began. But when the money ran out, so did the contractor, leaving an unfinished home with no electricity. Norena lived without power ever since. The astounding part of this story is that the hurricane was not Katrina, but Andrew. Hurricane Andrew struck in 1992. It was 2007 and Norena had been living in that dark, unfinished house for 15 years. No heat when the winter chill settled over South Florida. No air conditioning when the mercury climbed into the 90's and the humidity clung to 100 percent. Not one hot shower. 

Without money to finish the repairs, Norena just got by with a small lamp and a single burner. Her neighbors didn't seem to notice the absence of power. But acting on a tip, the mayor of Miami-Dade got involved. It only took a few hours to get the house back on line.  CBS news reported that the first thing she was going to do was take her first hot bubble bath in a decade and a half. "It's hard to describe having [the electricity]…to switch on," she said. "It's overwhelming."  

It’s amazing what a little power can do.  One minute you’re living in a freezing house, and the next minute CBS news is talking about your next bubble bath.  Perhaps the comparison is a bit crude… but it seems to me that many of us choose to live like Norena.  We’ve become accustomed to living without the power on.  The good news is that the Mayor has already fixed the problem; and that we are invited to begin relying on the power which Christ has supplied.  And as you do that, and your life begins to reflect more and more the power of his Spirit, don’t be surprised if people start noticing…noticing what a kind neighbor you are, how you love your kids, the quality of your work, the power of your prayers, your passion for justice, how you deal with adversity.  And when they ask for an interview, that will be your opportunity to point others to him…

Last week I said at the end of our worship service that Jesus had already left the building…and was on a mission that he invites us to join.  This week I want to also say that if you’re passionate about following him out there…you won’t neglect what he has offered right here, right now.  If you're not part of a worshiping community of God's people...find one.  Because it’s the privilege of the church to be the gathering place, the Upper Room in which Jesus pours out his Spirit….
  • During a summer internship with GE in Schenectady NY, my dad was out walking when he was led by the Holy Spirit to the front steps of a Presbyterian church where he met people with a personal relationship with the Savior.  From that point, the mission of his life began to change. 
  • As an undergraduate in San Diego I was hungry to know that God was real, and seeking confirmation that he was calling me as a pastor.  I was led to a church which Jesus used to breathe new life into my faith, reconnect me with an old spiritual mentor, and confirm by sense of call.  
  • I once spoke with a physics teacher from Iran who awoke one morning in Van Nuys to a strong impression; Get up, get dressed and take a walk.  That walk led him to a church where he met Jesus and began to follow him into mission…a mission to his own students. 

Wherever you worship, I pray that you might find there what that church in Schenectady, NY was for my dad and that church in San Diego was for me; and that church in Van Nuys was for my Iranian friend… a place where you receive the Spirit’s instruction, the Spirit’s baptism, and the Spirit’s power.  To do what?  To “stay on it,” to be faithful to Christ’s mission…from the starting line to the finish line.  How do we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit?  We begin by asking!

Father, when you send forth your Spirit, the Light shines in the darkness, and creation breathes. When you send forth your Spirit, the Word becomes flesh. When You send forth your Spirit, Jesus, the King is revealed, good news is proclaimed, hearts are reformed, love is evident, the power of evil is broken, diseases are cured, enemies are reconciled, gifts are given, hope is established, death is conquered, the Body is alive, and your Kingdom goes forth! Gracious God, please fill us. Fill us with the power of your Holy Spirit!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Sent by the King

Steve Jobs remarked this year in the Wall Street Journal, “When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something -- Steve Jobs Best Quotes, The Wall Street Journal (8-24-11).

I wonder how many of us live life with that kind of clarity?  I wonder how many of us have a mission that is worthy of our life’s devotion?  Steve Job’s mission was “to make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.”  In other words, advancing humankind through technology.  I love technology; and there is no doubt that humankind has advanced technologically because of Steve Jobs.  But has humankind advanced morally and spiritually? A good man can use technology to cure a disease or send a message of hope.  An evil man can use technology to destroy a city or broadcast fear. How many of us are texting on our cell phones right now?  How many hours do we spend a week on facebook, or checking our email?  I want to invite you to unplug for a moment and consider whether you have a mission that is worthy of your full attention, and your life’s devotion?  I want to consider for a moment Jesus’ mission, to redeem humankind by advancing the kingdom of God.

Let’s begin by looking at the message of the Kingdom (Gen. 1:28; Mark 1:15; Acts 1:3)  Mark tells us that Jesus went throughout Galilee proclaiming a simple message: “The time has come.  The kingdom of God is near.  Repent, and believe the good news!”  After his death, Luke tells us in Acts 1:3 that he presented himself alive to his disciples by many convincing proofs and for forty days spoke to them about the kingdom of God.  The kingdom was central to Jesus’ preaching…but what did he mean by it?   

“The time has come.  The kingdom of God is near.”  This is strange language to us.  In America we haven’t had a king since the War of Independence.  The only “kingdom” most of us have been to is “The Magic Kingdom” and that’s an amusement park.  God’s kingdom is real; but we do not always recognize it, or our longing for it.  Let me give you some examples from recent news stories…
  • A father whose young daughter died in a terrible car accident last week said on the news, “I’m not worried about my little girl, I know that she is saved and is with the Lord; but I am asking you to pray for my wife right now who has third degree burns over 80% of her body.”  
  • Then, on Tuesday a Texas man, Cornelius Dupree, wrongly convicted of rape and robbery was released after 30 years in prison. He’s starting his life over with his wife of 20 years that he met and married while he was in prison. "I just feel that the system needs to be fixed by whatever means so that this won't happen to anyone else."
  • Downtown, crowds are gathering calling themselves, “Occupy LA.”  A lot of them have lost their jobs in the down economy, or their homes in the mortgage meltdown, or can’t afford school tuition.  They’re frustrated.  We may laugh at them or sympathize with them, but in the end, what they hunger for is the same thing that man whose daughter died is hungry for, what Cornelius Dupree hungers for, and those people out on the street… the Kingdom of God.  It’s the same thing we all long for. We long for grace, for a world where sinners like us can turn back to God! We long for the lame to walk and the sick to be healed!  We long for justice to be done in an unjust world!  We long for a life that is stronger than death! When Jesus said that “the kingdom of God is near” he was talking about God’s rule and reign, he was talking about advancing God’s will on earth as it is done in heaven. He was saying that in his life and ministry, the kingdom of God is available to all who would enter it. 

Just look at Jesus' first sermon in Luke 4 where he opened the Isaiah scroll and reads: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed to free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Jesus did not invent the idea of the God's kingdom with his arrival; it has always been here, but he did claim that in him the kingdom of God is both advancing and accessible as never before.  Thus he dares to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing!” 

The second half of Jesus’ kingdom message is as important as the first.  “Repent (or turn) and believe the good news!”  What is the good news, really?  From the very beginning, it was God’s intention to bring his kingdom to this world through those who loved him and desired to walk in his ways.  In Genesis 1.28, human beings are commissioned to have dominion over the earth, and to carry out this responsibility with God as their co-worker.  This was our original job description. But as we mistrusted God and distanced ourselves from him and each other, our rule was corrupted.  That’s the bad news.  As we grow up, we begin to notice that the newspaper is filled with bad news– stories of selfishness and greed and violence and corruption.  We sense that it’s not the way things are supposed to be, but it is what happens when we attempt to rule the earth apart from union with God acting with us.  As we refuse to let God rule over us, we begin to rule over and dominate one another – and that makes for a lot of bad news. But that’s why Jesus calls the message of the Kingdom good news. The good news is that we can repent, turn from all our failed plans for living, and turn toward the King and his kingdom; that we can fulfill our original job description as we live in concert with his principles and ways.  

Prince William’s job description is to be a Prince.  There’s a rumor going around that Prince William and Catherine are going to have a baby.  It’s gossip headline news. Why?  Because it means there will be an heir to the throne one day…and more money to be made from those paparazzi photos. What right does this child have to be king or queen?  For that matter, what right does Prince William have to be king one day?  What right did William have to that fairy tale wedding with Catherine in Westminster Abby as millions looked on?  Only one right.  His birthright. In the 20th century there was one well known instance where a prince gave up that birthright (watch the Best Picture of 2011, "The King's Speech"), and in a sense that is the situation we are in because of our sin.  But the good new is that King Jesus has reclaimed us as members of his forever family, and that through faith in him we have a royal inheritance. Paul says that, “God’s unchanging plan has always been to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:5). For “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son" (Col. 1:13). 

Once we understand this good news and trust in the One who announces the message of the kingdom, we’re ready to go on a mission with the King; to begin advancing his rule and reign as citizens of his eternal kingdom.  In Acts 1:6-8, the Risen Jesus describes that mission to his disciples before he ascended to heaven.  

The mission of the King (Acts 1: 6-8)  When Jesus said “The Kingdom of God is near” his disciples naturally thought it was coming immediately.  They also thought it would mean the restoration of Israel’s national influence and power, which is why in Acts 1: 6, they ask the Risen Lord, “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel”? Notice that Jesus does not correct them, but gently and firmly responds, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”  In other words, do not fret over or speculate about the future; rather, focus on the present reality of God’s unfolding spiritual kingdom and your place in it.  

We are not so different from these first disciples.  We have our own agendas, our own “kingdoms” that we want to establish; and we hope to use God as the means to our own ends. I’m thinking of the man who says of his fiancĂ©, “She’s the answer to all MY dreams.”  I can’t help but ask myself, “Yes, but are you prepared to be the answer to all HER dreams?”  So often we see other people, the church, even God, as a means of fulfilling our agendas.  Jesus is reminding us that he is the King and that he is on a mission, the missio dei, mission of God; a mission he wants us to take part in.  “Your dream is to restore the kingdom to Israel; but my mission is bigger than that…to bring every nation into God’s kingdom and plant the seeds of the kingdom in every human heart, bringing repentance, and restoration, the fruits of righteousness, and the blessing of eternal life.”

Steve Jobs said that the quote that made an impression on him went like this: “Live everyday as though it was your last, because someday it will be.”  I want to suggest that it takes even more courage to live everyday as though it was the first...of an eternal life; to live knowing that the decisions you make now will affect the present moment and the lives of those around you…for eternity (Rom. 3:23).  What does that look like?  Well, first off we’ll have to turn off our cell phones and close our lap tops long enough to talk to people face to face!  At the gym, God is calling me to listen to a man filled with a lot of anger.  He knows I’m a follower of Jesus, and my ministry right now is to listen to him and occasionally get in a good word about God.  On Friday a woman from China asked me the most wonderful question as we sat at tables, face to face, in conversation.  “What is grace?” she asked.  I told her that grace is the undeserved love of God.  Her eyes brightened.  It’s exciting to go with Jesus on his be a blessing to people all around us as we advance God’s kingdom.

A little Nursery School girl came up to me after we had chapel time and asked, “Pastor Steve, do you live here at church?”  I respond, “No, I don’t live in the church, but I do work here.”  Don’t we often think of Jesus the same way?  We say to him, “King Jesus, you are my Lord and Savior.  I believe in you and I want to meet you right here every Sunday and praise your name…and then be with you forever in heaven.”  That’s great, but notice what Jesus is doing right about now…he’s walking out the door.  "Hey, Jesus, I thought you lived here. Where are you going?”  “Come and see,” he calls after us.  “But Jesus, it’s so comfy in here.  The pews are soft, and the music is beautiful, the sermons are a little long, but I can deal with that.  Hey, Jesus!  Come back!” You see, King Jesus is on a mission, and to follow him means we must go with him, out there, out into that big strange, beautiful, scary world, and find out what he’s up to.  Are you ready?  Let’s pray…and then, let’s go.