Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Fisher of People (Luke 5: 1-11)

Regardless of our profession or daily labor, there is, for Jesus' followers, only one true work.  For Simon Peter, like you and me, understanding what that true work is can take many small steps. Perhaps you can recognize yourself somewhere in the process through which Simon came to understand who Jesus is and the work he called him to do in Luke 5: 1-11.

1 Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2 he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." 5 Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets." 6 When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" 9 For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

When Jesus invited Simon (who will later be called Peter) to go out into the deep water he responded with polite skepticism. Simon had already met Jesus…in the synagogue on the Sabbath.  He heard him preach and pray…he also saw him touch his mother-in-law who was sick with a fever, after which she immediately improved and began serving them (see Luke 4: 31-44).  Now, once again, Jesus is teaching…but not in a synagogue; he’s beside the sea in an area known as Gennesaret which is an ancient district just south of Capernaum where the land slopes down to a beautiful bay. 

When the crowds begin to press in on him, Jesus spies two boats, one of them belonging to his new friend, Simon, and the other to his fishing partners, James and John.  Jesus gets into the boat belonging to Simon, and asks him to put out from the shore a little.  From there, he continues to teach the crowds as he sits in the boat. It was no accident that Jesus chose to teach here … Israeli scientists have verified that this bay can transmit a human voice effortlessly to several thousand people on shore.  Imagine the sea acting something like the Hollywood Bowl, reflecting the sound of Jesus’ voice upward to the crowds seated to hear him.

Now immediately after Jesus finishes teaching, and the crowds disperse, he turns to Simon and, to his surprise, asks him to go out into the deep water and let down his nets for a catch of fish. "Master, we have worked all night long and have caught nothing.” Simon replies.  In other words, 

'Jesus, you know a lot about synagogues and teaching, you seem to know a lot about outdoor preaching, you even know something about treating a high fever…but you don’t know anything about fishing.  You are an expert in religious matters, but not in the daily grind of my own workaday life.  Fishing is my business. The wind and the sea are my companions… the 18 different kinds of fish that fill these waters and the nets I use to catch them with my fishing partners are my specialty. Let me try to explain it to a layman.  Last night we were in search of the tropical Musht fish which migrates to the north shore in winter.  They’re actually drawn  by a warm spring that flows into the lake here. Normally they come together in large shoals but after a long night, we were unsuccessful.  Jesus, if there were any fish out there, we would have spotted them, because that’s our job and we have years of experience. I'm really tired Jesus...and I'd like to go home and get some sleep, but if you say so I'll let down my nets one more time.'

I can relate to Simon’s skepticism, how about you?  A lot of us trust Jesus to advise us on spiritual matters like prayer, interpretation of scripture, and how to get to heaven; but when he starts talking to us about our daily work…whether it’s how to be a parent, or how to run a business, how to get through calculus, or how to finish a degree program…that’s another matter.  This is not Jesus’ expertise.  We’re not sure we can trust him with non-religious matters. What’s beautiful about Simon’s response is that he admits his doubt…and then decides to do what Jesus asks anyway: “I think it’s a waste of time, Jesus… but if you say so, I will let down the nets.’” He takes a blind leap…against his better judgment; opening a door through which Jesus may enter and begin to work.  Do you think you have to believe before you can obey?  Often, what Jesus is calling you to do is obey him so that you may eventually believe.  

As Simon and his partner (perhaps his brother Andrew) throw the net into the sea they immediately discover a huge catch of fish… a catch so large that they motion to their partners in the other boat to come help them, so large indeed that the weight of the fish begins to sink both of the boats. At this, Simon and his partners register another emotion, not skepticism or polite disregard but…amazement, for "all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken."

The text literally reads: “wonder (qamboV thambos) seized Simon and those with him because of the catch of fish that they took in.”  The root meaning of the word thambos  is “to make immovable.”  Today, we would say they were “stunned” or “stopped in their tracks” or made “speechless” by the event they just witnessed. At first this sense of stunned amazement was the realization that Jesus knew more about how to do their daily work well than they did.  It’s the wonder that comes from knowing there is no part of our lives where His presence, power, and perception would be irrelevant.  It was the realization that there was no area in which they had expertise that He was not already Master.   

But what really transformed Simon was not the really big catch of fish; or Jesus’ surprising expertise as a fisherman.  Certainly this was part of it…but beyond all this it was a new conviction: “The Lord of Heaven and Earth is in my boat!”  That in every life situation…Jesus, the incarnation of God, is on board! The implication is that if we ask the Master to show us how to engage in our studies, that if we ask him to give us wisdom as we go about our daily work, that He will amaze us as he enhances our human abilities with his own. He will amaze us as he teaches us how to do our work with excellence. He will amaze us as he challenges any habits that hinder our success. He will amaze us as he shows us not only how to be a success in his eyes, but how to encourage the success of others.

As another Oscar Night approaches, listen to what X-men and Star Trek producer Ralph Winter has to say about the convergence of his faith with filmaking in Hollywood. 
“It is about excellence. It’s also about how I do the job to get to the end result. How I treat people—how I fire them, hire them, deal with them—reflects on God in my life. Hollywood has so many flakes in it. A job done with excellence…makes you stand out. The employers, the executives, the studios, the distributors, the financiers, they know and can figure out pretty quickly who’s got the goods. Christians are held to a higher standard of excellent work, but we also have to work with integrity….I am out to make the best movies I can make, and hopefully some of those movies and stories will stimulate discussion and issues about what is important, what life is about.” [from Faith in Hollywood: An Interview (Part I) with Ralph Winter, producer, and Scott Derrickson, director and writer by Scott Young].  
Ralph works with a conscious awareness that Jesus is on board; that the way he works and serves his family are a reflection and a witness of that reality.  I went to visit an older woman in the hospital the other day, to pray with and encourage her; but as is so often the case it was she who encouaraged me with her faith, her experience of the nearness of Christ, and her conviction that His plans are best.  In essence she was telling me, “Steve, I know I'm in the hospital, but it's OK, because Jesus is on board!”  And whether it is a hospital bed, a lot of homework, or a hellish work week we’re facing, we need this conviction too.

For Simon, this conviction set off a chain reaction as he fell down on his knees and said, “Lord, go away from me for I am a sinful man.”  To be in the presence of the Holy One is to recognize first that he is Lord, then to see the parts of me that are not Lordly or Lord-like, pure or holy. Like Simon, to be in the presence of the Holy One is to repent and turn from the things that I know are wrong.  Then, to receive the promise of God’s forgiveness.  Jesus accepted Simon’s humble confession of sin…but he did not send him away.  The next thing he did was to show him how everything he had learned as a fisherman would now be used in service to Him. For Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people (alive). And when they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”

Friends, regardless of our profession or daily labor, there is, for us only one true work.  We’ve been invited to partner with Jesus in the business of catching people alive…to learn how to recognize them out there (even when it seems they are hiding), how to hold their hurts and concerns, how to serve them, how to welcome them in, love them, pray for them, teach and send them out in his name.  The text literally says, “from now on you will be catching men alive.” Simon, a hard working man of the sea, weathered by the sun and by life…knew men.  It was three women who are named as the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, but it was three men who first dropped their nets and followed him…Simon Peter, James, and John.  There are churches which have neglected the leadership of women, and there are churches that have neglected the leadership of men.  Christ called both, and among his disciples he desired to have many men.  I have a growing conviction that the leadership of men is deeply need again in our local churches.  Women have showed tremendous leadership ability in my own congregation, and for that I am very grateful, but I am concerned that many men are unsure of their role as spiritual leaders in the home, in their workplace, and in the church.

I was reading about Navy Seals and the kind of man that makes it through such rigorous training and into this inner circle of elite soldiers.  Eric Greitens, a former Seal writes: 
What kind of man makes it? That's hard to say. But I do know—generally—who won't make it. There are a dozen types that fail: the weight-lifting meatheads who think that the size of their biceps is an indication of their strength … the preening leaders who don't want to get dirty, and the look-at-me former athletes who have always been told they are stars….In short, those who fail are the ones who focus on show. Some men who seemed impossibly weak at the beginning of SEAL training—men who puked on runs and had trouble with pull-ups—made it. Some men who were skinny and short and whose teeth chattered just looking at the ocean also made it. Some men who were visibly afraid, sometimes to the point of shaking, made it too. Almost all the men who survived possessed one common quality. Even in great pain, faced with the test of their lives, they had the ability to step outside of their own pain, put aside their own fear and ask: How can I help the guy next to me? They had more than the "fist" of courage and physical strength. They also had a heart large enough to think about others, to dedicate themselves to a higher purpose [emphasis added]  Eric Greitens, "The SEAL Sensibility," The Wall Street Journal (5-7-11).
Lately the Lord has reminded me how much he desires to catch men alive because so many are feeling crushed under the weight of their jobs or their responsibilities at home.  Many men want to dedicate themselves to "a higher purpose," and to move, like those Seals, from being me centered to being others centered; to being godlly leaders at home, in their workplace, and in their church community but they need encouragement.  In my own congregation I’m looking for a few men who feel God moving them, like Simon, from skepticism, to amazement, to conviction of sin and our deep need of God; men who would like to train on a regular basis for their ongoing role as spiritual leaders, especially in their families and at work.  If that’s you, please contact me at

The other day, I was leaving my office to go pick up my daughter from her dance class.  A man who had come to our church campus to set up for a community homeowner's meeting approached me as I was about to leave.  He asked me about the sound system that was to be set up for the meeting in our event hall.…and he seemed frantic.  Apparently no one had asked for the sound system to be set up and he didn't know what to do.  As I began to help him, he smiled and said to me with some other guys, “You know, you’re making me think I should get religion.”  I smiled. It was the kind of good natured ribbing I’m used to as a pastor…and his way of thanking me. Inside, though, I thought about how many men in our community feel that Jesus is the one we go to when we we're ready to "get religion."  He has no real relevance to my everyday life of work and home and community involvement, but he may be a convenient "add on" when I'm ready to get spiritual. He can't set up sound systems...but he's probably good for something.  So many men don't know that at the depth of their souls what they really need is not religion but a relationship with God, and to know that their #1 job is to be spiritual leaders in their homes,workplace, and community.

Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid Simon, from now on you will be catching men…alive.”  From now on you will be bringing people to me: the lost and lonely, the sick and grieving, the harrassed and helpless, and those who are running from God.  But first you must come to understand that you are the lost who I have found, the lonely who I have loved, the rebels who I have called. “And so like them, let us leave it all behind, put him first in all things, and follow him.”  

Lord Jesus, I thank You for reminding me today that You are on board; that in the midst of the daily routines of life You are at work, and have called me to the great adventure of following You there, and everywhere that You lead. For trying to confine You to religious places and spaces, as if that were possible, for being skeptical of Your ability to help me with the practical concerns of my workaday world, and for all my sins, I ask Your forgiveness. Because You called me, I leave everything behind to follow You, asking that in all things You might have first place. Now make me a true fisher of people as I bear witness to the words You spoke beside the Sea, Your atoning work on the cross, Your victory on the third day, the Spirit that brings me power, and the grace that is greater than all my sin.  Amen.  

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Power & the Authority (Luke 4: 31-44)

Every pastor has experienced some late Saturday evenings finishing a sermon.  I must admit that for me, it's most Saturday nights, not some.  As I climbed into bed at 3:15am I knew it was time to call it a day...and a half.  The next thing I heard was the alarm clock going off at 7:00.  I knew it was time to pray...but I got sidetracked by my search for a cup of coffee.  So it was with some anticipation that I drove to my local coffee shop, got out of the car and headed for the door.  That's when I read the hand written sign: CLOSED - DUE TO POWER OUTAGE.  Since I was preaching on Jesus' power and authority, I felt somewhat convicted. Is coffee really going to cure my power outage…or is God? Who is going to fill my empty cup?  I decided to forgo the coffee, and invite my tired body to rely a little more on his power...and then I really began to pray! In  Luke 4: 31-44, Luke describes a day in the life of Jesus, a day in which we discover the power and authority of his word, and how much we really need it

(i) We need Jesus’ power in the church with God’s imperfect people (31-37).  Having faced rejection in Nazareth, Jesus traveled to Capernaum, along the north side of the Sea of Galilee, the home of Peter and Andrew…and once again he began by teaching in the synagogue.  Two reactions stand out in the synagogue.  

First, the people were “astounded because he spoke with authority” (32).  Normally Rabbis would cite other Rabbis to support their teaching; But Jesus needed no other authorities to validate his teaching…he spoke like he was the authority, incarnate, the expert on how to live life as it was meant to be lived. Secondly, they were amazed at his power (36).  Not only did Jesus speak, he backed up his words with actions.  In the midst of his teaching, a man with an unclean spirit cries out, “Let us alone, Jesus! Are you going to destroy us?”  I have found that, more often than not, people are more convinced that Jesus will destroy their lives, than they are that he will save their lives.  They fear that if they begin to follow him, he will take away their freedom, ruin their fun, or turn them into religious oddities.  Jesus did not come to destroy our lives, he came to give us our lives back.  "I came that you might have life, and have it more abundantly" (John 10:10) Jesus said.  So, for the record, Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit and commands it to come out of him…and does so "without having done him any harm" (35). 

Now at this point we could spend a great deal of time talking about the possibility of demonic possession.  I find C. S. Lewis' advice helpful on this subject: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight" (C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, New York: MacMillan, 1982, p. 3). For myself, I see no need to try and prove the Devil's existence…when his work does the job so well for me.  Like that asteroid that fell from the sky on Friday, evil is hard to ignore.  We do live in a fallen world.  But the good news is that in Christ’s ministry, his exemplary life, his atoning death, and his victorious resurrection…the Evil One has been given a mortal blow. “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lighting,” Jesus says in Luke 10:18, and like a meteor from heaven he is going down.  So we need not fear him or his power, but…

We must not naively ignore the reality of evil either.  After all, Jesus found a man with an unclean spirit…in a church.  Now strictly speaking, a person who is filled with the Holy Spirit cannot be filled with an unholy spirit for "God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son" (Col. 1:13), but we can be harassed and tempted by the Evil One, just as our Lord was in the desert (Luke 4: 1-13).  This should not surprise us.  We know all too well that sin is in the church, that brokenness is in the church, that gossip is in the church, that anger and unforgiveness is in the church, that unbelief is in the church, that dis-ease is in the church…but thank God, Jesus is in the church too, He loves the church and gave Himself for her (Eph. 5: 25).

Someone said to me, “The church is just a bunch of hypocrites.  I listened as he went on and on about the weaknesses of the Church and then I said, “I totally agree.”  “Well, why are you a pastor, then?  “Because the church is an ER for sinners…not just an RV for saints.”  I’ve seen just how strong and beautiful the Church can be when it lets Jesus shine his light through her.  After all, we're Christ’s Body, the Family of God, and the Temple of the Spirit and “Greater is He that is in you that he who is in the world.”  Our greatest weapon against the attack of the Enemy is the power and authority that we have in Christ as his disciples, an authority which we can claim as we humbly obey him, practice repentance when we fail, pray in hope, exercise perseverance, and rely on his grace and forgiveness. 

(ii) We need Jesus power at home helping our families and friends (38-39). Immediately after Jesus leaves the synagogue, he enters Simon’s house.  Now in Capernaum, the ruins of a 4th century synagogue still stand today (the oldest synagogue structure in the world), and beneath it are the basalt ruins of a 1st century synagogue, which is the one Jesus must have visited.  I’ve stood on the stone floor of that synagogue as I gazed at the Sea of Galilee not more than a hundred yards away.  Now if you head south from the synagogue toward the Sea, not more than 85 feet, you will come to the ruins of several 1st century houses…one of these is believed to be the home of Simon Peter for reasons I’ll explain. This was the house Jesus entered to find Peter’s mother-in-law sick with a high fever.  Luke describes the fever exactly the way a 1st century doctor would.  Notice that Jesus’ disciples ask him about her, and that he comes immediately to help her, rebuking the fever and healing her so that she is able to stand and immediately begin to serve them.

What strikes me about this afternoon visit to a fisherman's home is the intimate portrait of one of Jesus’ disciples…Peter lived just down the street from the synagogue, he was obviously married or widowed, he cared for his mother-in-law, and most importantly, he invited Jesus into his home.  If we are facing a crisis or simply the challenges of life in the home, Peter teaches us that we need only ask Jesus to come…and he will.  He will sit with us, share bread at our table, and his word also, and when asked he will also bring the power to heal and forgive, and to love sacrificially.

A house where Jesus is welcomed will be transformed, just as Peter’s house was.  Archaeologists have discovered coins, oil, and fish hooks there; but even more interesting, a room that was enlarged by the mid 1st century and plastered from floor to ceiling.  It's the only house in ancient Capernaum like this, and suggests that it came to have a public use. During the 4th century a church was then built around this house; and inscriptions on the walls read, “Lord Jesus Christ help your servant.” It seems that shortly after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter’s home became not only a house of prayer, but a house church, and that years later a formal church enclosed that house to honor the ministry of Jesus there and to proclaim his gospel.

After reading this passage, how can we not pray that our homes would truly welcome Christ…that as parents we would take it upon ourselves to actively encourage our children spiritually, and that as young people we would seek to honor Christ in the way we live out our lives at home with our families.  Many families today face adversity, marriages are stressed, and many of our dearest family members are far from God.  Some of us have been unsure how to encourage our children spiritually.  Peter began by asking Jesus for help; and after Jesus left this earth, Peter found life-saving power in the fellowship he shared with Jesus’ followers right in his own home…and so can you.  Many Christians today meet in homes all across the world to worship, pray, study the word of God, and encourage each other in mission.  In our own Christian community we call them "Lifegroups."  "My Lifegroup saved my life," someone testified recently.  And it's no wonder, because spiritual power and authority grows as Christ is invited to enter our homes, heal our families, and even transform our living room into a place of welcome where others are invited to discover Him.

(iii) We need Jesus’ power on the street with strangers in need (40-41).  As the sun began to set, signaling the end of the Sabbath, crowds began to bring their sick and hurting friends and family members right to the door of Peter’s home.  We read that “he laid his hands on each of them and cured them” and that “Demons also came out of many shouting ‘You are the Son of God!’ but he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak….” (41).

Some may wonder why Jesus silences the demons when they speak the truth about him?  Perhaps it is because Jesus was not yet ready to reveal his identity as the Messiah, so misunderstood was the term.  Jesus did not come to lead a violent revolt against the Roman occupiers, as many thought the Messiah would do, he came to lead a revolution of grace, truth, and love which would begin to transform the world, one church, one house, one street, and one individual at a time.  One of the things that strikes me about this scene is that Jesus did not have to go out and find a crowd.  He simply began to heal, and they came to him.  I believe in our Lord’s sovereignty over illness and disease…and I also believe that as we engage in his healing work in our city, meeting the real needs of the people around us…men and women and their children will stream to us. 

I was struck by the comment of a Chinese scholar who said that at UCLA, the International Student Fellowship at our Church is the largest gathering of its kind in West LA.  He went on to say what an incredible service this was to the Chinese community… providing friendship, community, and conversation.  He was not a believer, but he was drawn to God’s house because his people are meeting a real need in this community. Each of us needs to ask…how can I be part of meeting the real concrete needs of those around me at my office, in my school, through my volunteer work…and at the same time reveal the love of  Christ to them with his power and authority?!  

(iv) We need Jesus’ power when we are alone…in the deserted place (42a) At the end of a long night of ministry, as day was breaking once again, we read that “Jesus departed and went into a deserted place.” It was the source of his power, and it will be the source of our power as well.  There was something very special about the early morning hour for Jesus.  In the morning Moses went up to Mt. Sinai where he received the commandments (Ex. 19).  Early in the morning the boy Samuel heard the call of God in the temple (1 Sam. 2). “In the morning,” says David, “you will hear my voice” (Ps. 5).  And it was early in the morning that the stone was rolled back, and Jesus rose from the grave.

Jesus warned us of the hazards of ministry…when doing good things and the approval of people can begin to replace our love for God; when we begin to get our sense of worth from what we do rather than who we are (Matt. 6: 1-18).  Jesus calls us back again to the place of solitude where we can hear the Father say, “You are my son, my daughter, with whom I am well pleased.”  Of course, sometimes, it is when we are alone that we begin to doubt our sense of worth and value as people.  As a man, the Lord has been reminding me that my value is not measured by my ability to do more or to do it better.  My identity is not determined by what I do at all, but by who I am in Christ.  Craig Barnes makes us aware of a critical implication of this spiritual truth...
Our theologians remind us, creation occurred "ex-niholo," or out of nothingness.  This means that all things, even the dust with which humanity was created, derive their existence from God.  So when we seek a different identity derived from anything other than God, we don't actually become different but only return to the nothingness we were before God created our lives....So, to be clear, we don't make a living.  We receive it through our participation in the Christ, who has brought us home to communion with the Creator" (M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009, p. 9)
Some have sought to change their identity by changing their work or a relationship or their house or their car...forgetting that their identity was created by God.  We’ve forgotten that God created us “out of nothing” and to deny God and seek an identity apart form him is to return to nothing.  Only in him can we discover that we are really something…and that our power comes from him.

(v) We need Jesus’ power on the road…wherever Jesus leads (42b-44).  The crowds looked for Jesus early in the morning…and though it took a while to find him, eventually they did, for “they wanted to prevent him from leaving them.”  The Greek verb, katecw (katecho) is even more forceful: “They wanted to hold him back.”  “They wanted to restrain him.”  One has the picture of them almost physically trying to block his way.  “Just one more healing Jesus.  Just one more deliverance!  Please, don’t leave us yet!”  But Jesus was clear about his mission.  “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also, for I was sent for this purpose.”  Jesus is always on the move.  From the synagogue, to the home, to the city street, to the open road…he is always calling us further up and futher in, to the next mountaintop he wants us to climb, to the next destination he wants us to reach, and it’s thrilling to say to him, if nothing else, “Lead on King Jesus… because wherever you’re going - in the morning, afternoon, or evening - we want to follow.”

When we think about what Jesus accomplished in just one day…the words he spoke, the souls he cleansed, the bodies he healed, the homes he blessed…perhaps you’re wondering what you could possibly contribute to the kingdom? Perhaps you have even asked yourself “What would Jesus do in my situation”?  What would Jesus do if he was living in my home, what would Jesus do if he was at my school and had my friends, what would Jesus do if he had to work in my office?  What would he do if went to this church?  (Not much, if he was in my shoes, we may quietly mutter). But perhaps the question should not be “What would Jesus do?” but “What is Jesus doing?” because the truth is, Jesus is in your situation, he is in your home, in your school, in your office, in your church, when you are all alone…even in that coffee shop.  Our Lord is never "closed" for business because of a power outage.  At any time of day or night we may boldly ask him to fill our empty cup with his Spirit and to display his power and authority through us to the glory of God.  Therefore let us pray this powerful and authorative prayer in his name:

Heavenly Father, in the strong name of Jesus Christ we resist every force that would seek to distract us from our center in You.  We reject the distorted concepts and ideas that make sin plausible and desirable.  We oppose every attempt to keep us from knowing full fellowship with You. By the Holy Spirit we call upon the good, the true, and the beautiful to rise up within us and the evil to subside.  We ask for an increase of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.  By your authority we tear down Satan’s strongholds in our church, in the lives of those we love, in our city, and in our own lives  We command every evil influence to leave; for they have no right here and we allow them no point of entry.  We ask for an increase of faith, hope, and love so that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can be a light set on a hill, causing truth and justice to flourish.  These things we pray for the sake of Him who loved us and gave Himself for us. Amen! [Adapted from Richard J. Foster, Prayer, New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992, p. 242]

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Bringer of Good News (Luke 4: 16-30)

I know you will be inspired by this message from my father, the Rev. Dr. William Craig, who challenges us to claim for ourselves, and to bring to others, the breathtaking goodness of the gospel which Jesus declared in his first public sermon... 
One day, a very winsome and charismatic young man returned to his home town, after some amazing experiences in other parts of the country.  He was welcomed home like a celebrity and the initial reports were full of praise.  In his travels he would teach in the local synagogues and this particular day was the Sabbath in his home town of Nazareth, so he went to the synagogue as usual.  And people flocked to church to hear him.  They were eager to listen to what he had to say because rumor had it that God’s Spirit was upon him.  But, of course, this being his home town, everyone knew that he was just the eldest son of Joseph the carpenter and his wife, Mary.
            Luke, the meticulous historian, writes that wherever he had ministered, Jesus “was praised by everyone.”  Read with me, beginning with vs. 16:
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.  He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.  He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
            “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 go free,
                                    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
            Who wouldn’t want that kind of good news?    These were marvelous words of prophecy that were penned hundreds of years before…words that promised liberty and deliverance for God’s people who had been dominated and oppressed by one super power after another.  Or, at least, that’s how they interpreted Isaiah’s words.  Let me remind you how these prophetic words came to be applied to people like most of us here today who do not have a Jewish background, for -- This was Good News for the World!

I. Good News for the World
            What happened that day was a turning point for that congregation and for the world – not only because of what Jesus said, but because of what he didn’t say…what he omitted.  The quotation from Isaiah which Jesus read ends with “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  But when we actually turn to that quotation in Isaiah 61, we read “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God” (Is. 61:2).  People of that day longed for God’s messiah who would come one day to exact vengeance on Israel’s enemies.  And this young upstart dared leave out the very part of the prophecy they expected to hear and longed for God to fulfill.  Luke continues: 
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  The custom of that day was for a rabbi to stand to read Scripture, then to sit down when he began his message.  Luke continues:  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 
            They stared at him, and Luke says that at first, All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.  But the more the meaning of what Jesus said and didn’t say sunk in, they quit speaking well.  They were stunned at the implications.  And for Jesus to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” meant that he himself had come to extend God’s grace to Israel’s enemies and to open the flood gates of God’s love upon the whole world.  Any first impressions that were favorable soon turned hostile -- especially as Jesus went on to explain and to make crystal clear what he meant.  Beginning at verse 25:
            Jesus said: But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.  There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.
            It’s right here in the Scriptures, Jesus was saying.  Many years before, during the ministry of the prophets – Elijah and his successor Elisha – God graciously and mercifully ministered to the needs of non-Israelites.  One was a widow who lived in Sidon during a time of severe famine, and the other was Naaman, commander of the Syrian army, who suffered from leprosy, whom God healed.  Now, Jesus was saying:  “I have come to fulfill this promised outpouring of God’s grace upon, not just a few, but upon the whole world.  In the power of the Holy Spirit you are going to see the good news proclaimed world-wide!”  Good News for the World, and secondly, Good News that Transforms! 

II.            Good News that Transforms
            What if Jesus misspoke?  What if he was mistaken, misguided?  What if he hadn’t meant business that day in Nazareth?  Where would you and I be today?  Think of the way our Lord came, not only to deal with our sin problem, but also to make us whole persons.  No matter who we are today, we know what it means to be “poor” or lacking in some way….to be brokenhearted over something or someone.  We know what it means to be captive to the hurtful, painful memories of the past and the limited expectations we have for our futures.  As spiritual as we may think ourselves to be we are still so blind to our true position and place and potential in Christ.  We truly need to be set free, because we know that it means to be oppressed in some way from something we’ve brought upon ourselves, or by someone else.  But, by the grace of God, the more whole we become, the more God can use us as instruments of his healing to those around us.  Last Sunday, I asked you to remember your true address.  Today, we praise God that Jesus is not only in the transportation business, but also in the business of transformation, and each of us can look back and praise God that even if we have a long way yet to go, we can see by the grace of God how far we’ve come and how much we’ve grown.
            Continuing at vs. 28:  When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.  They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.  But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
            It was not yet his time, and he did not allow them to push him over the cliff.  But the time did come, when he allowed them to do their worst to him.  Picture in your mind the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus wrestled with the human drive for self-preservation and the higher way of obedience to God’s will, and he allowed himself to be betrayed to his enemies.  Picture a hill outside of Jerusalem where he willingly hung on a Roman cross for our sins. That sounds so weak.  We live in a day of terrorist cells, drone strikes and cyber warfare, when even individual citizens claim the right to own and use military style weapons.  How could such an act, not of self-preservation but of self-sacrifice, have any power?  What about the way of Jesus?
            I remember what Ernest Gordon shared one time, when he was chaplain of Princeton University, and told how he found Christ during the Second World War in the infamous Japanese prisoner-of-war camp by the River Kwai.  He was exhausted from months of labor on a starvation diet, and lay dying of a dozen tropical diseases.  His buddies gave him up to die and moved him into the death house at one end of the camp.
            But a Christian boy from his company volunteered to help him and to look after his needs.  His offer surprised Gordon, for it was so different from the “dog-eat-dog” attitude of so many.  Slowly Ernest Gordon was nursed back to strength, encouraged by the faith and determination of a young man who believed that God has a purpose for life which even the horrors of a death camp can’t erase.  Can the compassion of just one person actually make a difference in this world?  The compassion of that one young man led to the conversion of Gordon and a whole group of others.  The life of the entire camp was transformed as men regained the will to live.  They began making medicine from jungle plants, started a make-shift university, a library, an orchestra, and built a church.
            Wherever the Spirit of the Lord is at work in a life—whether in a prison camp in the middle of a jungle, or in the factories, schools, offices and homes and hospitals of our civilized jungles – there is the power of God to transform lives.  Last week, Polly got a call from a twenty-year-old she has known for years, who now lives out of state and in her first year of nurses’ training.  She is a perfectionist and is a wonderful, insightful, caring young woman, but she struggles with anorexia.  My Polly has a very special ministry of encouragement with her.  They talk by phone nearly every week, and my dear wife prays for her and encourages her in such a beautiful way. 
            Last Thursday she called to tell Polly about her instructor who is a Christian and noticed that she was struggling with one particular assignment.  The teacher met with her and listened to her story, and assured her that she was available to meet with her regularly if needed.  Right there, that nurse and professor who is also a Christian asked her if she could pray for her.  And this is beyond human understanding, but she is eating better, and we see her becoming more and more the whole person God intends for her to be.  For the first time, this young friend said, “I’ve gained ten pounds and it scares me, but food tastes so good to me now.” 
            She said that she and her instructor talked for quite a while, and the teacher shared with her about the time she was the nurse in charge of patients on a particular hospital floor late one night, when one patient started calling:  “Help me.  Help me.  Somebody help me.”  She went to his room and asked, “What’s the matter?”  “Help me,” he said again.  “You’ll need to tell me what’s wrong, so that I can help you,” she replied.  “I’m dying; I’m dying,” he said, “And I don’t know where I’m going.”  There was no hospital chaplain on duty.  “I’m a Christian,” she said, “May I pray with you?”  “Yes,” he answered.  And she prayed, placing him in the arms of Jesus.  A tear rolled down his cheek, and with a look of peace on his face, he quietly slipped away. 

III. Good News that Transforms the World
            There is transforming power in the Lord Jesus Christ, enough power, friends to transform the world!  Last Sunday I told you the story of Abu-Jaz, the young Muslim husband who met Jesus as the result of a miracle of multiplying macaroni, and has become a leader and teacher among Muslim background believers.  About half of these new believers come because of a dream or vision of Jesus, and step by step the Holy Spirit is transforming their lives, but don’t expect all of them to look like you or me.  You and I are culturally Western, and Muslims think that Christianity in the West is the same as Western culture.  They don’t know that we believers are as distressed as they are over the oppressive, immoral, promiscuous, self-indulgent and materialistic style of life that characterizes so much of our western culture.
            John 3:16 is a favorite scripture:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”  And the next verse:  “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him.”
Who would have believed that the Savior of the world could be reaching out to those we consider to be our enemies?  The leading authority on Islam in the U.S. is Dr. Dudley Woodberry of Fuller Seminary, who told me last week that the fastest growing Christian movement today is in – Iran!  There, and in other Muslim countries, it is happening quietly and gradually, like yeast that slowly leavens the whole lump.  Join me in praying for the Islamic world, won’t you?  Pray that God’s redemptive purpose will be fulfilled in ways beyond our imagining, ways that will be signs of hope as Christianity declines and loses influence in the West.  “Father, in the name of Jesus we pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in those countries, and also in our own.  “We are in desperate need, Gracious God.”
            Was it about 25 years ago that, after 70 years of Marxist oppression of religion in Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that there is transforming power in Jesus Christ.  He admitted two things:  that (1) Communists had been wrong to persecute religion, and (2) that the powerful moral force of religion was essential to the success of perestroika.  Is what he said any less true of what is needed in modern day America and the entire western world?  We miss the meaning of what God is doing today if we do not apply it to our own country and to our own lives.
            Claim who you are in Christ!  Every member of this congregation is commissioned by Jesus as a minister!  You are not powerless!  You have his compassion!  He has commissioned you and His Spirit guides you to bring good news to some in your own family and to others around you.  You have the power and ability to care and to do for them what that Christian soldier did for Ernest Gordon that transformed an entire prison camp.  You can counsel and pray for a young girl who is struggling and needs your support.  You can be the chaplain who prays for a dying man and helps Jesus usher him into the very presence of God.  You can offer hospitality to your Muslim or some other neighbor who needs to know the Savior who has conquered death, and forgives sin and gives the quality of life that is abundant and eternal.  Beloved, the Risen Christ says:  “As the Father has sent me, so I send you!”
            “The Spirit of the Lord is upon you;
                                    because I have anointed you
                                        to bring good news to the poor.
                        I send you to proclaim release
                                    to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
                                        to let the oppressed go free,
                                                to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
“Let it be, Lord!  Make it so, for your glory and in your name!  Amen!”