Good Intervention

We typically resist people who want to “get into our business”, don’t we? And yet, I want to suggest to you that there are occasions when interference by others can actually be a good thing.

I vividly recall being challenged to engage in an after-school fight when I was ten years-old. Foolishly, I agreed.

When the final bell rang I proceeded reluctantly to the designated spot where my opponent and his motley crew were waiting for me. As I approached, my opponent scoffed at me, taunting me to make the first move . . . until we were interrupted by the sound of a man’s voice.

The crowd which had assembled quickly scattered as the man approached. He summoned me forward and ordered the rest of the children to go home.

It was my father.

So you see, interference can be a good thing; especially if the one who is interfering knows better than we do. Interference can be a good thing if the one interfering has abilities that we lack to remedy a problem.

We are reminded at Christmas that this is the story of God’s intervention in human history. Conceivably, God could have left us to our own devices, but He knew that the problem was beyond our ability to remedy.

The core problem, as is identified throughout Scripture, is the problem of sin. Sure, there were, and are, other problems—problems of war, problems of injustice, and problems of poverty—but, clearly, these are the symptoms of the core problem.

What we soon learn is that Jesus did not come to this earth to give us a band-aid solution to our problems. This is not heaven’s version of a public relations visit. Jesus did not come merely to provide humanity with a helpful body of teachings, as if sufficient education could fix our problems. This was a rescue mission. Jesus came to overcome for us the fundamental barrier between God and humanity.

I appreciate the specific details provided by the angel in Matthew’s narrative. Otherwise, we might have missed the primary purpose of Jesus’ birth. Without the angel’s words we might have imagined that our sin was not that big of a problem. Without the angel’s words we might have imagined, as many did, that the role of the Messiah was to be a national liberator. Thankfully, the angel leaves no doubt about what we need saving from: “give Him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21).

In the person of Jesus, born two thousand years ago, God powerfully entered into the affairs of humanity. It was a profound interruption in human history; it was interference of the best kind.

While we recognize and celebrate the intervention of God in human history at Christmas, I also want to invite you to think about the intervention of God in your personal history. Has there been a point in your life where you discerned that God was breaking in? Perhaps, even now, you sense His presence. Perhaps, even now, you detect God wanting to intervene—wanting to change the trajectory of your life and to shower you with His grace.

My plea is for you to allow God to “get into your business”. Interference can be a good thing. Interference from God will always be a good thing. This Christmas, and beyond, my encouragement is for you to let God in.

God Will Change You

I am currently experiencing a number of changes in my life that I’m not real happy about. My daughter recently pointed to an old photograph of me and commented on how much hair I used to have. Over the past year I’ve noticed a subtle emergence of gray hair. I’ve also noticed that my body is not coping with the rigors of sport as well as it used to. I spend far too much time with my physio therapist.

Sensing my frustration with these changes, you can imagine my delight as I read about the positive transformation spoken of by the apostle Paul in 2Corinthians 4:16. Here Paul assures us, ”Though outwardly, we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2Cor. 4:16).

What’s this transformation about? What are we being transformed into?

Paul answers, “(we) are being transformed into the likeness of Christ, with ever-increasing glory” (2Cor. 3:18).

We know from Romans 12 that there are things for us to do–there are things prescribed for us as we pursue Christ-likeness. In other words, growing in Christ-likeness requires our participation. But here’s the awesome thing: Growing in Christ-likeness does not depend upon your participation alone. The reason we can be confident in our spiritual progress is because God promises to help us along.

When Paul says that we “are being transformed into Christ’s likeness with ever-increasing glory“, he says in the same sentence that this “comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2Cor. 3:18).

Now, someone might ask, “Why do I need to change? Doesn’t God accept me the way I am?”

Yes, God receives you as you are, but He does not leave you the way He finds you.

Through the prophet Ezekiel, the Lord says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you” (Ezek. 36:25, 26).

By His grace, God saves impoverished souls, and in His love He does not leave us as impoverished souls.

He cleanses us. He imparts new qualities to us. In short, God changes us.

And so, even as I mourn the breakdown of my physical body, I rejoice at the inward transformation that is taking place. And as I struggle to help this process along with my imperfect devotion to Christ, I am consoled by the fact that God is nevertheless changing me.

As the hymn writer well puts it, “Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” Amazing Grace!

What Kind Of Person Talks To Others About Jesus?

Sharing Your Faith In JesusThe apostle Paul asks the question, “How can they hear (the Gospel) without someone preaching to them?” (Rom. 10:14).

I get that.

I believe that.

My livelihood as a pastor is based in part on this principle—that people are supposed to talk to other people about Jesus.

What I’m sometimes uncomfortable with is the how, and the by whom, part. While I concede that every follower of Jesus ought to be ready to share the reason for their faith in Jesus (1Pet. 3:15), I suspect that there are some who are not the least bit ready but are sharing anyways.

I liken sharing the Gospel to preparing a meal on a stove–with some experience in the kitchen, some basic instruction on food preparation, and with careful attention, we gain the capacity to deliver an outstanding meal for others to enjoy. Without these things, we run the risk of ruining the food—or worse, possibly setting the kitchen on fire in the process. This is why I don’t allow my 9-year-old daughter to cook dinner without close supervision.

I don’t mean to sound unkind or harsh, but I worry that some well-meaning Christians have done injury to the Gospel by the manner in which they conveyed Jesus to others. I suspect this, in part, because I have observed this. But I also say this reflecting back a number of years and remembering my own manner as I attempted to share the reason for my own faith. Yes, I do realize that “we have this treasure in jars of clay” (2Cor. 4:7), but I worry that we often lack the humility that should accompany our position as “clay jars”.

As I recently closed out a short message series, entitled, “Spread The News”, my concern focused on the qualities of the person who is sharing their faith in Jesus. My text was 1Peter 3:8-17 and my conclusion was that two particular marks are necessary for the evangelist:

1) Mindful of the needs of others

2) Intently focused on the Lord Jesus Christ

The danger is to overexpose on one of these marks while neglecting the other. We need to be marked by both.

Before Peter urges us to prepare our defense of the Gospel, he first exhorts us to “live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble” (1Pet. 3:8). It’s as if Peter is telling us that our success in promoting the Gospel is linked to our capacity for relational health.

Theologian, Edmund Clowney, argues that the Greek translated “be sympathetic” means to “enter into the other’s needs and concerns”. The call to “be compassionate” is along those exact lines. You could say that compassion is sympathy in action. Sympathy feels for others. Conmpassion acts for others.

So, how are we going to get there? Because my default, as much as I’d like it to be, is not the well-being of others. What’s going to help me to be more sympathetic and compassionate?

Peter’s answer: Humility.

This makes perfect sense. In order to live in harmony with others, I not only need to increase my concern for the needs of others, but I also need to decrease the attention I give to my own needs.

In addition to being mindful of the needs of others, we also need to have an intent focus on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Peter exhorts us accordingly in 3:15, “in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.” I think Peter realizes that we don’t always assign Jesus to an appropriate place and priority in our life.

I often hear people say, “You’re in my heart”, or “She is close to my heart”. That is saying something significant. Peter wants Jesus to be assigned to our heart—but not simply as someone we love deeply, not simply in a place with dear friends and family—Peter says “in your hearts set apart Christ as LORD.

Jesus is not simply to be “close” to my heart—He is to be the Master of my heart.

As I try and connect what is going on in my heart with what I am required to say, I am reminded of what Jesus has said: “out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).

Could it be, that as I think about talking to others about Jesus, my biggest burden is not to get my speech right, but to get my heart right?

What kind of person talks to others about Jesus?

We need to set Christ apart in our heart as Lord, and we need to care more for the needs of others than we do for our own.

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“The Labourers Of Mission”, based on 1Peter 3:8-17, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, August 14, 2011.

Compelled To Talk About Jesus

Popular comic, Jim Gaffigan, suggests that if you ever want to make people feel awkward at a dinner party, start talking about Jesus. To be honest, I can’t say that I disagree with that statement. And yet, I also know what it is like to feel compelled to talk about Jesus regardless of the context.

In our day, at least in North America, Christians are often made to feel like they are doing something highly inappropriate when they bring up the subject of God in public conversation. We’re sometimes excused of being “pushy” or “arrogant” for bringing the subject up and for suggesting that the God we worship should be worshipped by everyone. I’m not telling you something you haven’t already observed when I say that our society actively discourages the promotion of one religious faith over another.

Why then, do Christians still insist on talking about the God of the Bible? If so unpopular, why do some Christians feel nonetheless compelled to talk about Jesus?

I certainly can’t speak for every Christian. I imagine that the reasons for talking to others about God are varied. I also gather that the manner in which we talk about God to others also varies. I don’t doubt that Jesus is sometimes proclaimed through a tone that wreaks of arrogance and condescension. While I hope that never describes me, I concede that there have likely been times when I have shared the Good News of Christ in a less than ideal manner.

The most common reason, I suspect, for talking about Jesus comes from a genuine concern for other people. Those who have come to experience the profound joy and satisfaction that comes from a relationship with Jesus naturally want to share that experience with those they care about.

Would you be surprised to hear me say that the wellbeing of others is not the primary impetus for evangelism (sharing the Good News) that we find in the Bible?

I am grateful for the ministry of John Dickson, who rightly points to a different impetus for talking about God to others. One of the Scriptural examples that Dickson cites is Psalm 96, where we read: “Sing to the Lord, praise His name; proclaim His salvation day after day. Declare His glory among the nations, (and) His marvelous deeds among all peoples” (Ps. 96:2,3).

There’s the call to get the word out—to everyone and to every place. What’s the reason? The subsequent verse offers the answer: “For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; He is to be feared above all gods” (Ps. 96:4).

Quite simply, our logic for mission is that God is great. God is so glorious, so wise, so holy, so powerful, so loving, so abounding in mercy, that God’s people cannot remain silent.

John Dickson shares a story about Joe Louis, the world famous boxer, that comes from the early 1930s. At a time when Joe Louis wasn’t yet a recognizable face, he was riding a bus through downtown Detroit. While on the bus a group of young men began to taunt and verbally abuse Joe Louis. The young men were trying to bait him into a physical confrontation, but Joe Louis just ignored them. The abuse soon escalated to a point where one of the young men struck Joe Louis. Even then, a restrained Joe Louis did not retaliate, but simply got off at the next stop.

Now put yourself on that bus, just a few seats away from Joe Louis. From the vantage point of knowing who Joe Louis is, how do you respond as this confrontation unfolds?

One response might be to stand up and shout, “You guys are crazy! This guy could really hurt you! For your own wellbeing, stop this nonsense immediately!”

While that response might make some sense, I want to propose that a better response would be stand up and declare to the young men that they should be showing utmost respect to the finest boxer in the world.

You see, these young men were in the presence of greatness, but they did not realize it.

I genuinely care about the wellbeing of others, but something more compelling motivates me to talk about Jesus—His greatness.

This is how many Christians view this world—and this is what compels me to talk to others about Jesus—we live every minute in the presence of God’s greatness, but not everyone realizes this. Until I’m convinced otherwise I will continue to seek to sensitively and sensibly talk about Jesus with others. Sorry Jim Gaffigan.

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“The Logic Of Mission”, based on Isaiah 43:10-13, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, July 31, 2011.

Preferring Church Over Jesus

The letter to the Church in Ephesus, recorded in Revelation 2:1-7, captures my attention in that it describes a gathering of people who appear to care more about their church activities than they do about their relationship with Jesus.

The letter begins well. We are pleased to read that the Lord Jesus Christ perceives that many good things are happening at the Church in Ephesus. The commendation given to them by Christ is quite an impressive one.

I know your deeds”, Jesus tells them (Rev. 2:2).

This appears to be a busy congregation. This is not a congregation that merely gathers for an hour on Sunday morning and then scatters—the Ephesian Christians are accomplishing things. They are like a congregation in our day that has a vibrant Sunday School and a variety a mid-week programs. I suspect that the Ephesians are attentive to the needs of the poor and the disenfranchised.

Jesus goes on to commend them, “I know . . . your toil”.

That is to say, ‘I recognize the effort required in your deeds.’ The Greek word for toil implies a loss of strength; or a weariness that results from the work. Apparently, the kind of deeds being carried out in the Church at Ephesus required significant energy. The work being done was not a nominal work. These were the kind of people who could be counted on to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty.

Jesus commends them further, “I know . . . your perseverance”, He tells them.

The work of the church in Ephesus was not a short-term venture. This congregation is seeing their work through to conclusion. There don’t appear to be any ‘quitters’ in the Church at Ephesus. Evidently, the people who had signed up to do particular tasks were staying with their tasks.

If the commendation of the Church at Ephesus stopped here I would be sufficiently impressed, and yet, Jesus goes on: “I know . . . that you cannot endure evil men, and you put to test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false” (Rev. 2:2).

That the congregation in Ephesus is unwilling to “endure evil men” points to their integrity. This is a morally upright group of people. We also learn that they are a discerning group of people. The Church at Ephesus had the ability to identify imposters—people who presented themselves as apostles, but were not.

And then, after all of that—after saying all of those positive things about the Christians in Ephesus, we read what no church ever wants to hear from our Lord:

BUT

But I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (2:4).

The Lord Jesus Christ perceives many good things about the Church at Ephesus, but He also perceives that there is something fundamentally lacking with them—the people have forgotten that which is most vital: a loving relationship with Jesus Christ.

We can be sure that this is no little shortcoming based on the language employed by Christ. The element of loving Christ is so critical that the diminished expression of this love causes Christ to say that He has something “against” the congregation at Ephesus.

This is severe. If someone approaches you and says, ‘I have something against you’—that’s serious. So when Christ tells the congregation in Ephesus that He has something “against” them, my attention is sufficiently arrested. My attention is arrested, in part, because of the severity of the statement, but it is also arrested because I suspect these words apply to more congregations than we could probably number.

And, I suspect there are at least occasions when these words of our Lord apply to you and to me . . . “I have this against you, that you have left your first love.

The notion that you have diminished your love for Christ need not cause you to altogether despair. It brings me great relief to see that Jesus follows His severe words with an obtainable prescription. Though Christ be against us when our love departs, He prescribes for us a course that will return us to a right relationship with Him.

Christ prescribes for the people of Ephesus, and He prescribes for all who have wandered from the love of Christ, “Remember” . . . “Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first” (2:5).

What is implied in this prescription is the notion that our love had a distinct character when we began with Christ. I know mine did. I remember how I felt when I first comprehended that Christ died for me on the cross and that, in Him, I had found forgiveness for all my sins. I remember how inflamed my love for Christ was at the thought that He had become my Saviour, my Lord, and my friend.

Now, remember that each for yourselves. Did you have such a day? Was there a time when your love for Christ was such that you longed to pray to Him; a time when the prospect of gathering with His people on Sunday morning excited your very soul?

If there was such a time, remember it. Bring to mind those thoughts that overflowed into loving devotion.

If there was such a time when loving Christ was your first priority, if there was a time when Christ was the most important thing about you, it will also be helpful to ask yourself: “What has happened? Why is Christ less than that now?”

I agree with Charles Spurgeon, who asserts that our love grows cold when we neglect communion with Christ (not talking about the Lord’s Supper). Spurgeon is referring specifically to our dealings with Christ in prayer and our dealings with Christ as we read the Scriptures. Spurgeon goes on to say, ‘We shall never love Christ much (unless) we live near Him.’

Jesus’ call to “repent” (a word which means “to turn around”) then, is a call to us who are far off, to come near again. It is a call to us who have grown cold in our prayers, to return to fervent prayer. The call to repent is to us who have regarded the words of Scripture as bitter, to once again reckon them to be “sweeter than honey” (Ps. 119:103).

This is the prescription of Jesus Christ to all those who have left their first love.

And lest anyone think that a return to Christ is unnecessary, He finishes His message to the Ephesians with strong words of persuasion, “I am coming to you, and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent . . . (but) to him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God” (2:5, 7).

In other words, this is a matter of life and death. The punishment threatened here is corporate—the removal of the “lampstand” signifies the removal of light and life from the local congregation.

What is your local congregation like? Does your congregation run excellent programs? Does it serve the poor? Do your people exert themselves for the Gospel? Is your congregation marked by moral integrity? But, of course, the Church in Ephesus was marked by such things.

It appears that we are not going to be judged according to how busy we are. It appears that we are not going to be evaluated according to whether we accomplish the items listed in our mission statement.

The most critical point is whether or not Jesus Christ is our first love.

Jesus doesn’t simply want us to love Him a lot. He wants us to love Him first.

I’m challenged by that. But I want that—for myself, for my family, for my congregation, and for you.

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“Recovering First Love”, based on Revelation 2:1-7, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, June 26, 2011.