Monday, November 28, 2016

"Ripe for Harvest"

It’s harvest time. Across North America, celebrations of the harvest are everywhere. From Canadian Thanksgiving (second Monday in October), to churches that have harvest festivals in lieu of Halloween, to school field trips at pumpkin patches, to American Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November, we’re busy celebrating the harvest. Farmers everywhere are gathering their crops. Even my grandchildren, who have nothing to harvest, are filled with the primal urge to gather. So they take up their rakes and make huge leaf piles in the yard, looking like they’re ready to bring in the sheaves. There’s something inside all of us (farmers or not) that makes us love the harvest.

In the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus talks about harvesting people’s souls. He gives an example of this as he shares God’s truth with the Samaritan woman at the well. As a result of Jesus’ witness, not only did the woman believe, but she became a witness who brought the whole village out to hear what Jesus had to say. What a harvest of souls there was on that day!

In verses 34-38,[i] Jesus talks about our part in the harvest of souls:

You know the saying, ‘Four months between planting and harvest.’ But I say, wake up and look around. The fields are already ripe for harvest. The harvesters are paid good wages, and the fruit they harvest is people brought to eternal life. What joy awaits both the planter and the harvester alike! You know the saying, ‘One plants and another harvests.’ And it’s true. I sent you to harvest where you didn’t plant; others had already done the work, and now you will get to gather the harvest.”

The apostle Paul uses similar imagery when he talks about sharing some people planting the seeds of God’s truth within people’s fertile hearts, and others watering those seeds until they come to fruition. In 1 Corinthians 3:5-9, he writes:

After all, who is Apollos? Who is Paul? We are only God’s servants through whom you believed the Good News. Each of us did the work the Lord gave us. I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow. The one who plants and the one who waters work together with the same purpose. And both will be rewarded for their own hard work. For we are both God’s workers. And you are God’s field. You are God’s building.

Last week, we said that during the holiday season, people are more aware of our Christian witness than at any other time of the year. Their hearts tend to be more open to the gospel. Our job, according to Jesus and Paul, is to get active at tending God’s garden. Some people plant seeds—little kernels of spirit and truth and grace along the way. Those planters may never see their seeds sprout and begin to peek above the surface. They may only be planters, frustrated at the fact that they don’t see results in the lives of those people into whose hearts they are planting. Feeling unfulfilled, they may even decide that those people are unfertile ground. But the thing is, it’s not their job to water and nourish. It’s just their job to plant.

Other people are encouragers, watering those seeds and making sure they have all the fertilizer and other nutrients they need to grow. While we help create the necessary fertile environment, only the Holy Spirit can make people’s hearts grow until they are able to open up to God’s presence. Waterers may become frustrated because they spend all their time “equipping” people, yet they never see the fruit of their labors. Yet it’s not their job to harvest. It’s their job to water.

Then there are the harvesters. We like to think that these are effective evangelists who may lead people in a “prayer of salvation,” or may help someone make a “decision for Christ.” We assume they are preachers who may greet someone at the end of an invitation song at church or a revival or rally. But these benchmark moments aren’t the only ways we know a person has been “harvested” for God. In fact, these may even result in false harvests of sorts. In fact, Jesus’ says that, ultimately, the angels will be the harvesters at the end of the age (Matthew 13:39). In Matthew 9:39 and Luke 10:2, Jesus says that the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few, and asks believers to pray that the Lord of the Harvest will sent workers into the field. But ultimately, we won’t know the quality of that harvest til the very end. Good crops grow together with harmful or useless weeds, and it’s not our responsibility to judge the final produce—that’s God’s job (Matthew 13:24-29, 36-43). Our job is to be faithful workers in God’s garden

My mom is a master gardener. She has a great tool shed. It’s stocked with all sorts of rakes, hoes, shovels, Garden Weasels, trowels, buckets, pitch forks, and everything you could imagine. But no matter how much I love her tool shed, if anything’s going to happen out there, I can’t stay in the shed just admiring the tools. The problem is that too many Christians go to church and stay there, simply admiring the tools. They never go out into God’s garden to do any planting, watering, or harvesting. In John 4:35b, Jesus says, “…Wake up and look around. The fields are already ripe for harvest.” We need to make sure that we get out of the tool shed, and get into the field.

[i] All scriptures taken from the NLT.

Monday, November 21, 2016

"Witness at the Well"

            The holidays are upon us.  After the Thanksgiving football game, it’s time to put on your own cleats, helmet, and shoulder pads—for the line of scrimmage you find as you wait for the doors to open on Black Friday.  It’s time for pushing and shoving and getting what you want before the other guy.  What a wonderful tradition as we begin the season that celebrates our Lord’s birth!  In all seriousness, we Christians have got to watch the way we treat people all year round—but this season in particular when we’d better be aware of our Christian witness as we wish people a “Merry Christmas” and bulldoze people out of the way.  The fact is that during this season of the year, people are more aware of our Christian witness than during any other time.  We’ve got to make sure that that witness is positive and not negative.  Looking at the fourth chapter of John’s gospel, I’ve found seven things we can do to make our witness more positive.

1.      Make sure you go through Samaria.  Verse four says that Jesus “had to go through Samaria on the way.”[i]  The fact is, he didn’t.  Samaria was an unsavory area that most good Jewish travelers went around instead of going through.  There were good roads that he might have taken to avoid that neighborhood, just like there are good roads that you probably take to go around the people and places you wish to avoid.  I’m not saying you should put yourself in physical jeopardy, but you should seriously ask yourself the question, “Am I avoiding those people and places because of prejudices I have?”  Then choose to move past your prejudice and go into the places you might otherwise avoid.

2.      Stop and talk with people.  How often we rush through our errands, our shopping, our lives without stopping to talk with people!  We treat the cashier or the attendant like the robot that rings up our groceries, rather than the people that they are.  Jewish theologian Martin Buber talked about a concept called I-Thou.  He said we normally treat people in an I-It manner, but when you treat people as people, respectfully honoring them as individuals, we go a long way towards achieving peace and making a positive difference in the world.  It’s no small thing that in verses 6-8, Jesus stopped and spoke to the Samaritan woman.  Jewish men didn’t speak with women they didn’t know—even other Jewish women.  But to speak with a Samaritan woman was unheard of.  Let’s follow Jesus’ example, and treat others like the human beings that they are.

3.      Ask somebody for a small favor.  In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie recommends asking somebody for a small favor, if you want to get them to like you.  When you do something nice for someone, your heart can’t help but warm towards them.  So when Jesus asked the woman, “please give me a drink (v.7),” he wasn’t asking her to be subservient.  He was initiating in such a way that he knew would warm her heart to further conversation.  We can do the same as we engage the people around us.

4.      Remember that you have something of value to offer.  So many Christians hold back on their witness because they don’t really believe they have anything worthwhile to say to people, yet we have the most amazing thing in the world to share!  Jesus said, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water (v. 10).”  And again, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again.  But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life (vv. 13-14).”  Christians can offer the world compassion, mercy, understanding, charity, hope, love, and so much more.  Don’t hold back—offer the world your best.

5.      Be Real with People, without condemning.  Jesus wasn’t afraid to handle tough topics, and neither should we be.  In verses 17-18, when the woman said she didn’t have a husband, Jesus said, “You’re right! You don’t have a husband—for you have had five husbands, and you aren’t even married to the man you’re living with now. You certainly spoke the truth!”  He didn’t say this in a condemning way, but in a way that let her know that even upon their first meeting, Jesus was willing to engage in deep and meaningful conversation.  I’ve had many people who have unloaded heavy burdens on me, even upon first meeting, once they knew I was safe and willing to be real with them.  But if we’re not willing to be real with people, why should they open up?

6.      Don’t get involved in combative religious conversations.  Too many Christians take the bait that antagonists offer, and get embroiled in unnecessary debate.  Or, on the flip side, some Christians feel they have to prove a point and so will push their opinions on other people.  Jesus did neither of these things.  When the woman asked him whether her people’s religious practices were better or worse than the Jewish traditions, Jesus offered a third option.  “Jesus replied, ‘Believe me, dear woman, the time is coming when it will no longer matter whether you worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem… For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth (vv. 21, 24).”  If you want to be a good witness, don’t be combative.  Let the Holy Spirit guide you in this.

7.      Uncompromisingly communicate the truth (vv. 25-26).  Jesus wasn’t combative, yet he did speak the truth in love, without wavering.  “The woman said, ‘I know the Messiah is coming—the one who is called Christ. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.’  Then Jesus told her, ‘I am the Messiah!’”  Jesus wasn’t pushy, but he did employ a simple, direct method of communicating that convinced her.  So we need to stand for the truth in a direct, yet gentle way.

This holiday season, and throughout the year, let’s be aware of the witness we have as Christians.  Let’s make sure that the witness we give is a positive, and not a negative one.  Through the message of Jesus, and by living as true Christ-followers, we can be a tremendous force for good in the world.  1 Peter 3:15b says, “If someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it.”  Let your testimony be more than just a “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.”  Let your message reach across barriers and break down walls.  In short, let your witness be as good as the good news of Jesus.

[i] All scriptures taken from the NLT.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

"Seeking Jesus"

In the old Christmas classic film Miracle on 34th Street[i], the story begins with the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. An elderly gentleman named Kris Kringle takes the place of an actor who was payed to play Santa Claus, yet who got drunk and couldn’t work. He did so well on the parade float that they hired him to work in the store. Everything was going well until people who were looking for hard-to-find toys brought their kids through the store to sit on his lap. If Macy’s didn’t have the toys the parents were looking for, Kris sent the shoppers to Gimbel’s Department Store. This made the customers very happy, yet it made the Macy’s management furious. They told Kris that he was supposed to keep the customers shopping at Macy’s at all costs, and never send them elsewhere, even if what they were looking for could only be found at Gimbel’s. But Kris was undaunted. He was happier to see the shoppers find the toys they wanted even if it was elsewhere, than to see them dissatisfied yet loyal to Macy’s.

We find a similar problem in the third chapter of John’s gospel, only the customers aren’t looking for a toy truck or baby doll. They’re looking for the Messiah. They aren’t looking for sales that will save them money. They’re looking for a different kind of salvation. In verses 22-35, John is Macy’s and Jesus is Gimbel’s. The people are going elsewhere to find what they’re looking for, and some of John’s people are upset about it. But John, like Kris Kringle, isn’t upset about it at all. In fact, he’s the one who sent them away. This migration from John to Jesus gets started in the first chapter, where the prophet shouts, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world..I testify that he is the chosen one of God (John 1:29, 34[ii])” John himself testifies that Jesus is the Messiah, so why should he be upset when his followers seek messianic hope in Jesus rather than in John? Now, in John 3:27-28, 30, the baptizer says, “No one can receive anything unless God gives it from heaven. You yourselves know how plainly I told you, ‘I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for him… He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.”

You see, John understands that Jesus can’t gain followers if they aren’t given to him from God. Likewise, as the people seek the Messiah, it would be impossible to find him in Jesus if the Spirit of God weren’t leading them. The people are seeking the Christ because the image of God that resides in them is unfulfilled unless it finds God in the world. They first seek this God-experience in John, who provides baptism and teaching. While his ministry is certainly God-inspired, it pales in comparison to the ministry of Jesus, who is God-incarnate.  So, naturally, the people shift their attention from the teacher to the Master Teacher.

Far from pouting that the people have found another to be the Messiah instead of him, John rejoices. He, too, has been seeking the Messiah. Now that he has discovered that the Chosen One is his own cousin Jesus, John feels delighted, like the best man at a wedding. Just as the best man is pleased for the groom’s happiness, so John is delighted that others have found the same Christ that he has found. I perform lots of weddings. People are snapping pictures of the bride and the groom right and left. After the ceremony, there are usually more photographs. Usually, there’s a picture of the bride, the groom, and me. But do you think I get bent out of shape that they don’t want more pictures with me in them?  Of course not—because it’s not about me. It’s about the couple. As a friend of the bride and groom, I’m content to simply enjoy their joy. In the same way, John says that all the attention ought to be on Jesus, and getting the Bride of Christ to follow Him. John said that he was glad because of it.

This passage talks about the people seeking Jesus, John seeking Jesus, and also about any today who seek Him. Verse 36 is one of those verses that gives both hope and a warning: “…Anyone who believes in God’s Son has eternal life. Anyone who doesn’t obey the Son will never experience eternal life but remains under God’s angry judgment.” Just like John 3:16 promises eternal life to all who believe in Jesus, so this verse does the same. Yet how do we square the second part of this verse that talks about God’s angry judgment, with John 3:17 that says God didn’t send His son into the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him? Is there a way we can understand this, that preserves our understanding of the love of God for the whole world?

If I imagine myself at a shoe store, I have literally hundreds of choices that are in my size. Yet, only one pair of shoes could be exactly what I am looking for. I try this one on for size, and it isn't the right fit. I look at that pair, but the style doesn't suit me. God knows that Jesus is the perfect fit for my soul. Yet, if I seek God with my ego rather than with my spirit, I may very well end up walking out of the shoe store with the wrong pair.  The wrong pair of shoes can be painful! This is what John refers to as "God's angry judgment." It isn't a God who wants to hurl lightning bolts, but a God who allows us to experience the pain of our wrong decisions, simply so that we'll go back to the shoe store and exchange the mistake for the right fit. Where is God in all this? God is in me, directing me to the Messiah, who is the perfect fit for my soul. Nothing else will do. Without God in me (the Holy Spirit), I would never find Christ. Verse 34 says, "God gives him the Spirit without limit."  Praise God--once I've found Christ, the same can be said of me! Then God in me seeks God in others even more. This "God seeking God" is described as "eternal life."

[i] Miracle on 34th Street. 1947.  Twentieth Century Fox.
[ii] All scriptures taken from the NLT.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Who to Trust?

This coming Tuesday, America will elect the President, Vice President, and members of the US House of Representatives. I hope that you will go to the polls this Tuesday and cast your vote. We pray for wisdom to know who to trust in places of leadership, because it can be terribly difficult to know where to place your confidence. I’ve heard some people talking about putting “Jesus” as a write-in candidate, as a way of protesting the two major candidates. I hope you won’t do that. I hope you’ll make your vote count. Jesus isn’t on the ballot for President of the United States (thank God)! But even though He’s not a candidate in our election, I want to look at three criteria that Nicodemus uses, to figure out if he can trust Jesus as his Messiah and pin his hopes on this Savior.

1. The Track Record. In the second chapter of John’s gospel, many people begin trusting Jesus because of His track record—the miraculous things he performs. While I dare say that none of our candidates are performing miraculous signs, perhaps it’s best to look at the “fruit of their ministries,” so to speak, to see who you can trust. In the Gospel of John, a respected member of the Jewish ruling council named Nicodemus seeks an interview with Jesus to find out if he can trust Him. “’Rabbi,’ he said, ‘we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you (John 3:2[i]).’” The word that is translated “signs” means something that bears witness to the glory of God. In John’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t perform “miracles,” but “signs” that all point to spiritual truth. They are proofs of who he is. Just as Nicodemus can begin to trust Jesus because of the things He does, so we can look at candidates and decide who to trust, based on their actions. Do the actions of your candidate reflect a Christlike character? Or—are their actions the complete opposite of the way Jesus would be?

2. The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth. Nicodemus learns to trust Jesus by the things He says. “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him (John 3:16-17).” Nicodemus is trying to see if he can trust Jesus. First he weighs the evidence of Jesus’ deeds, and now he listens carefully to Jesus’ message to see if there he can find truth. Jesus talks about the kind of God Nicodemus already believes in—a God who doesn’t want to condemn the world, but who loves the world and wants to save it. This goes a long way in helping Nicodemus make a choice. As we evaluate candidates prior to the election, we need to pay close attention to the things that they say, whether they resonate with truth or not. Are they saying the kinds of things that you can believe?

3. Promises, Promises. In verses 14-15, Jesus says, “And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.” Jesus is referring to a time in Israel’s history when the people were bitten by poisonous snakes. God directed Moses to make a metal snake and lift it up on a pole so that everyone who looked at it would be miraculously saved. Jesus said that in the future He would be lifted up on a pole (the crucifixion), so that anyone who looked to Him in faith might be saved. This is quite a promise! Political candidates promise all sorts of things, but I’ve never heard any of them promising to lay down their lives to serve the country. Jesus promises to embrace the cross to save the world. This is a promise that Nicodemus can’t ignore. Neither can we ignore the promises candidates make as they tell us what they plan to do if chosen to lead our country.

The country has a choice to make in a couple of days. A lot rides on this important decision, so I hope you’ll take the time to go to the polls. It’s a tough choice, but we have to decide who we can trust to govern our country. Yet, no matter who wins, only Jesus deserves our trust when it comes to governing our hearts. Politicians can transform laws and societies, but only Jesus can make us new again. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God… I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of [womb] water and the Spirit. Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life (John 3:5b-6).” Jesus is talking about a spiritual renewal that can only be understood in terms of a total do-over. Jesus is talking about a move of the Holy Spirit can make you so different it’s like you’re a whole new person. No politician can do that for you. Only Jesus can affect that kind of change. So, we come to the question—who to trust?  Psalm 118:9 answers the question for us: “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.” On November 8, we will go to the polls…and some of us will end up casting a vote for someone we don’t like or we don’t trust. Remember to look at their track record, listen for truth in what they’re saying, and consider what they say they’ll do. But remember this too—only Jesus has the power to transform the soul, to give you a divine do-over, to make you born again.

[i] All scriptures taken from the NLT.