As we begin a new church year we do so with a sense of anticipation for the coming of Christ into our world. We look back to incarnation of our Lord in Bethlehem and we also look forward to the end of the age when Christ will return in glory. These two salvation events anchor our lives in the grace, love and faithfulness of our God who comes to us to accomplish for us what we could never accomplish for ourselves.
These two great events are also central to the mission Christ has given us as his church. On the one hand, like the Apostle Paul, we preach nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2). Our proclamation is grounded in the reality that God, in Christ, entered into the human story, put on our flesh, lived among us and died for us. In Him we see the very face of God and in him we receive the gift of life. This message is the power of God unto salvation and the very thing our broken world yearns to know. We are his ambassadors who bear the treasure of this very good news.
On the other hand, our Lord’s promise to return and establish his kingdom in the new heaven and the new earth (Revelation 21), re-orients us to that which matters eternally. The One who graciously came to our rescue on Calvary, will again return to dwell with His people forever. The implication for us is clear: there is more to life than this present age. Our mission is shaped by this truth. C.S. Lewis observes “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this” (Mere Christianity). When we have the end in view, we live differently in the present. The necessity and urgency of sharing Christ with our neighbors and communities is brought into light.
A new church year is a great time to reflect the initiating grace of God in Christ who breaks into our world. However, Advent is not merely a time of personal reflection, it is a time to recommit ourselves to the mission of Christ in our world. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. May God the Holy Spirit empower us individually, and our churches corporately, for his mission!
“Jesus said to His disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses.”
How did the early church turn the Greco-Roman world upside down? Certainly, a large part of their success lay in their message – that through Christ people could find freedom and salvation from all the things that held them in fear and bondage.
But it wasn’t just the early church’s message that made them so fruitful. It was both Word and Spirit. The early church was empowered by a vital experience of God – the Holy Spirit’s presence.
The Book of Acts communicates a simple message to Christians, that apart from the Holy Spirit, we Christians have nothing and are nothing and can do nothing. Our whole life is dependent on the Holy Spirit. Our coming to faith in Jesus is the product of the Holy Spirit. Our Christian growth is a result of the Holy Spirit, our unity in the church – created by the Holy Spirit. Our evangelism and mission is empowered by the Holy Spirit. Our knowledge of God’s Word is a result of the Holy Spirit. Our hearing from God, our healing, the restoration of marriages and families, our insight into the things of God, our servanthood, our Christian character: It’s all the result of the power of the Holy Spirit.
Listen, there is very clearly and very definitely something to believe in Christianity – we can never let go of that. But there’s also something more. There is Someone to receive, Someone to experience. Christianity has a certain truth content to it. But Christianity goes beyond creeds and beyond propositional content. It involves an encounter with the Holy Spirit – an experience of God through the Holy Spirit. This is partially what Jesus meant when He said, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.”
Much of the church today says not to worry about experiences and not to worry about feelings. Concern yourself with the truth and that is enough. On one hand there is truth in this. You don’t have to wait for a feeling to obey God. The Christian life is not just a life of waiting around for a feeling in order to do what is right or good or helpful. We act in faith based on the truth. We know what God’s Word says –we know what God’s will is and so we do God’s will regardless of our feelings.
But the Bible consistently presents the Holy Spirit as Someone who can be experienced – as Someone who imparts power. A few examples of this biblical witness:
The Apostle Peter wrote truths for us to believe but he also spoke of his experience. 1 Peter 1:8 he writes that as we encounter God we experience “joy unspeakable.”
The Apostle Paul, who wrote some of the most profound and dense theology, said in Romans 5, “God’s love is poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit?” Is that just doctrine or an experience?
Again, Paul, we read in Romans 8 that we have received the Holy Spirit and by Him we cry out, “‘Abba, Father,’ the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirits that we are children of God” is that heart cry, “Abba Father,” just right belief or it is the result of a genuine encounter with the Holy Spirit?
God brought the prophet Ezekiel to a desert valley that was covered with the bones of dead men. While Ezekiel watched, the Spirit of God breathed upon those dried out bones and flesh grew on them and dead men came back to life. Some of us are like those dead bones in the valley. You’re not physically dead. You may be as physically fit as one could be. You may be intellectually fit. Your mind could be incredibly quick and your wit as sharp. But even if you are physically alive and intellectually alive, spiritually you can still be dead – dead to God. Dead, in terms of your awareness of God. Dead, in terms of your experience of God before the power of the Spirit makes you alive to the reality of God.
Jesus said to His disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses.” The power of the Spirit is at work in us to make us look like Jesus. And living like Jesus is a fantastic way to live. Jesus was free. Jesus was secure. His identity was not based on the opinions of those around him. He did not feel the need to prove Himself. He did not measure His success in life by what He possessed or what He accomplished. He did not measure the fruitfulness of His ministry or the faithfulness of His Father by the response of His audience. He was at peace with Himself. Jesus was authentic. He was the real deal.
Being like Jesus means that you are aiming at loving other people and not being self-consumed with introspection or self-pitying, being self-absorbed. Being like Jesus means you’re able to love people who are different than you. People who are different in color, different in background, different education, different ages. Being like Jesus means that you speak well of others instead of always complaining, bad-mouthing, gossiping.
Wouldn’t it be nice to live life like Jesus? Secure, content, thankful, truthful, loving, free? How does it happen? How does holiness happen?
It happens by the Word and the Holy Spirit working together in our lives.
One last thought on this matter. When I was in seminary I had a theology professor who used this ditty to make this point:
To have the Word without the Spirit is to dry up.
To have the Spirit without the Word is to blow up.
To have the Word and the Spirit is to grow up.
May we all grow in the fullness of life that the Lord means for us to know.
“You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!”
So said the first martyr of the church, Stephen, in Acts 7.
Have you thought about how you resist the Holy Spirit? Sadly, all too many Christians create a false dichotomy pitting the Persons of the Trinity against one another: “Oh, we just need Jesus.” Yes, we need Jesus. But who do you think it is that both reveals Jesus to us and then takes up residence within us, thus making Jesus known to us? The Holy Spirit; the Counselor, the Comforter, the One who comes alongside us. Jesus had much to say about the person of the Holy Spirit and our relationship and response to Him. A sampling from the Gospel of John:
John 14.15ff. “If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever – the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. [jumping to v. 26] But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”
John 16.5ff: “Now I am going to him who sent me, yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ Because I have said these things, you are filled with grief. But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.”
The Book of Acts and the letters of Paul capture and continue the instruction to be continually filled with the presence of the Person of the Holy Spirit.
In that deeply touching post-resurrection appearance by our Lord, He walked with those two disciples on the road to Emmaus, opening the Scriptures to them, causing their hearts to “burn” within them – the convicting, revealing work of the Spirit.
When was the last time you could honestly say that your heart burned within you – in love for God, with desire for his presence, in the pursuit of holiness, with hatred for the sins that cripple and maim you and those around you? When was the last time your heart burned for God and for the spread of his Kingdom?
The opposite of the burning heart is, of course, the comfortable heart, the indifferent heart, the apathetic heart, the heart that isn’t moved, isn’t alive, and isn’t passionate. The comfortable, indifferent, apathetic heart experiences God the way one experiences television or political gossip – just another diversion that leaves us cold and unaffected.
In 1746, Jonathan Edwards wrote one of the most important books in the history of Christianity titled Religious Affections. In it, Edwards describes the affections as “the vigorous or intense inclination of our hearts toward or away from something.”
Edwards was keen to show that true Christianity had an intensity about it. We are urged by the apostle Paul “to be fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.” (Romans 12:11) According to Edwards, true faith is exactly opposite the “typical weak, dull and lifeless wishes” which characterize most indifferent churchgoers. Without a person’s affections being touched and ignited by the Holy Spirit, there is no salvation, nor is there any real desire to move away from sin and toward the pursuit of God. By the affections, Edwards refers to the fear of the Lord, hatred of sin, hunger and thirst after righteousness, holy joy, godly sorrow, heart-felt pity, true thankfulness, zeal for God and love.
What is your heart condition this day? Are you spiritually alive? Full of passion? Eager and excited about your relationship with Jesus? Or are you cold, lifeless, critical, unmotivated – a person with knowledge of God but with little real spirituality.
If you are cold, or at best lukewarm (Revelation 3:16), here are some things you can do restore a burning heart:
Repent – In Acts 3 Peter, speaking to his fellow Israelites, told them to “repent and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” There is to be sure an once for all repentance when we turn to Jesus for salvation. But there is also the ongoing life of repentance when we return to the Lord again and again, our hearts having turned to someone or something other than Jesus. Repent, return to the Lord so that times of refreshing may come.
Pray – Ask the Lord to renew your love for him. Ask, and keep asking the Father to give you an increasing measure of the Holy Spirit. Be encouraged by our Lord Himself who said in Luke 11.13, “how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”
Praise – Sing to the Lord! Privately praise the Lord. Publicly gather with brothers and sisters lifting your heart and your voice to him. God is pleased to ignite the hearts of those who worship him.
Meditate – Focus your mind upon deep spiritual truths. Meditate upon the cross and the wounds of Christ. Let the “eyes of your heart” gaze upon the hands, the feet, the side, and the face of the crucified Son of God. Meditate upon your future in your resurrected body upon a new earth free from the stain of sin. Thrilled yet?
Read – Read the Bible, of course, it contains the words of life. But read the great classics of the faith as well.
Serve – Repentance, prayer, praise, mediation, and reading – all good things. But if you are not led into service of those both within and without the Body of Christ you’re missing the point – and living a self-centered life which will always be cold and empty. Jesus told us that “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve” (Matthew 20.28). Demonstrating His meaning, Jesus picked up a towel and washed the dirty grimy feet of His disciples and said, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13.15-17).
Have you ever needed to be rescued? Ever need someone to come to your defense? Ever needed someone to be your advocate?
When I was growing up our neighborhood, like any other, had a bully – he was about four years older than me. And for whatever reason the summer when I was nine he decided to make my life miserable. It was really miserable. Nothing worked. My dad talked to his dad and it just got worse. One day I was walking down to my friend Mike’s house – just three houses away – and the bully caught me. By the time I made it to Mike’s I had a bloody nose and was pretty roughed up. Mike’s older brother Louie came to the door. Louie would become one of the best athletes our neighborhood had seen – a two sport star – football and wrestling – but this particular summer he was thirteen just like the bully. “Stevie, what the heck happened to you?” I told him the story – I told him about the whole summer of suffering. Next thing I know Louie’s running out the door. He comes back a little bit later and tells me the bully will never bother me again. He told me if anyone ever bothered me to come tell him. My first experience of a saviour was a kid named Louie Matteo. He was the big brother I never had. No one ever bothered me again.
The Bible tells us we have a Big Brother. The Bible also tells us we have a powerful enemy. But he is not all-powerful. In fact, the Bible reveals to us that Satan is a defeated enemy. The Apostle John says: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” Paul writes of Christ, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame by triumphing over them in him.”
Jesus disarmed and destroyed Satan, taking away from him the power and fear of death by triumphing over him by His cross and resurrection and opening to you (and me) the gateway to eternal life. Our stronger, older Brother is both deliverer and Saviour. So, the Apostle John will write, “But to all who believed Him and accepted Him, He gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn – not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.” (John 1.12-13)
Friends, may your Lenten observation and Easter celebration lead you back to the One who has loved you and fought for you and saved you for Himself.
One of the men who most influenced my young Christian life was a man named John Wimber. Wimber, as you may remember, was the founder of the Vineyard Church and he had a soft spot for us Anglicans. I did not know him but my then rector did and so I came into contact with both his preaching and his writings. The “tell” and “show” nature of his ministry was very attractive to me – and remains so.
One of Wimber’s greatest gifts was making the gospel understandable and then helping us ordinary, every-day kind of Christians (through his teachings, encouragement and model of ministry) believe that we really had a part to play in the ongoing unfolding of God’s kingdom. I have in my files any number of his stories and illustrations. One particular story he told about fishing and evangelism remains a favorite. Wimber wrote:
In 1990 Larry Shaw was trying out a new outboard propeller on Ohio’s West Branch Reservoir when he saw a huge muskie just below the surface. Shaw motored over to it, and cast toward it several times with no luck before the fish disappeared. About a half hour later Shaw returned to the cove where he had first spotted the big muskie. And wouldn’t you know, it was back! Shaw turned on the trolling motor and crept closer to the big fish. Suddenly, the muskie started swimming toward the boat.
Shaw quickly put on a leather glove and stuck his arm into the water, grabbing the monster just behind the gills. The muskie started splashing and fighting to escape but Shaw held on. It was quite a fight, but with the help of a nearby fisherman he was able to get the fish into his boat.
The muskie weighed in just a bit over 53 pounds. If Larry Shaw had caught the fish with a rod and reel, it would have broken the then record for the largest muskie ever caught in Ohio. When reporters asked him about the fish, Shaw said, “I was in the right place at the right time, and I was fool enough to grab it.”
That’s a good description of evangelism: being in the right place at the right time, and being fool enough to share the good news of salvation found in Jesus Christ.
In Matthew 4 (v.19) we read of Jesus’ call to his soon-to-be disciples; an invitation to be fishers of men and women. When Jesus used metaphors like fishing his listeners heard what he was saying in a very different way than we do in our Western world. For most of us fishing is a hobby – a recreational diversion from the business of our everyday lives. I am a casual fisherman. And so when I come home empty-handed (more often than not) I am still content for having spent a day on the water.
Jesus issued that first invitation to join his fishing expedition to Peter, Andrew, James and John. Fishing was not a pastime for these men. If they failed to catch fish they did not eat. Fishing was their livelihood. Repeated failure was not an option. As fishermen these men would have learned how to adapt their fishing technique to variety of situations. Was it sunny or overcast? Calm or windy? What was the time of year? What kind of fish were they fishing for? Some fish are very quick to respond. Some fish, especially the older, larger, ones had learned the fishermen’s tricks and were more wary and elusive. When Jesus said to them that they would be fishers of men He spoke in a language they understood.
How does this apply to you? To your church? Well, what are the trends in your community? What kinds of people are moving into your neighborhood? What are the challenges they face? What are their aspirations? We live in the South and in many of our communities there remains a strong residual of the Christian faith within our culture. But folks who live in Asheville, Raleigh and Charlotte face unique situations that those of us in the Outer Banks, midlands, lowcountry or upstate do not face (and vice-versa). Good fishermen know how to read their environment. They know what bait the fish are hitting on. They are aware of their presentation.
Friends, Jesus commanded us to go and make disciples. Are you going where the “fish” are, or are you waiting for them to come to you?