Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"Can I Get a Witness?"

Recently, I read a story about witnessing:

When he was the pastor of the Methodist church in Scarborough, William Sangster had an eccentric member who tried to be a zealous Christian. Unfortunately, the man was mentally deficient and usually did the wrong thing. While working as a barber the man lathered up a customer for a shave, came at him with the poised razor, and asked, "Are you prepared to meet your God?" The frightened man fled with the lather on his face![i]

I have heard the gospel presented in many ways, but I can assure you that I’ve never heard it with a razor to my throat! When I was growing up, I heard the quiet testimony of Sunday school teachers. I heard loud preachers and compassionate pastors proclaiming the Good News from pulpits. I watched my parents live out their faith, and saw God at work both in their feats and failures. I was given gospel tracts, books and Christian comic books. I received the kind word about the Lord from older family friends. At school, my own friends who were believers encouraged me in my faith. There were so many people who led me to meet Jesus for the first time, and others who helped me to grow in my relationship with Him. If you’re like me, then you’ve had many different witnesses to lead you to faith.

In the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus gets in trouble, first for breaking the Sabbath laws, and then for claiming to be the Son of God. As if in a court case, Jesus makes his defense. Because Jewish law requires a matter had to be established by two or three witnesses,[ii] Jesus provides six testimonies that He is the Christ. First, he offers the testimony of John the Baptist, whom God sent specifically as a witness to Jesus’ coming:

“If I were to testify on my own behalf, my testimony would not be valid. But someone else is also testifying about me, and I assure you that everything he says about me is true. In fact, you sent investigators to listen to John the Baptist, and his testimony about me was true. Of course, I have no need of human witnesses, but I say these things so you might be saved. John was like a burning and shining lamp, and you were excited for a while about his message (vv. 31-35[iii]).”

Next, in verse 36, Jesus says that if John the Baptist counts as one witness, then Jesus’ own testimony about himself counts as two witnesses. “…I have a greater witness than John—my teachings and my miracles. The Father gave me these works to accomplish, and they prove that he sent me.” 1 Corinthians 1:22 says that Greeks look for wisdom and Jews seek for a sign. In Christ, we have both. Jesus’ wisdom is the second witness that proves He is someone of spiritual substance, while Jesus’ miracles are the third witness that substantiate the power behind His words. If you doubt one, believe the other—Jesus counts as two witnesses for Himself. Will you heed the testimonies of Jesus’ word and deed?

Then, Jesus says that God the Father provides the fourth witness that He is the Christ. In verses 37-38, He says, “And the Father who sent me has testified about me himself. You have never heard his voice or seen him face to face, and you do not have his message in your hearts, because you do not believe me—the one he sent to you.” Now, when Jesus was baptized, the Spirit descended like a dove and the Father said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy (Mattthew 3:17).” If this is so, then how could He say that they had never heard the voice of the Father? It’s because their hardened hearts were not tuned to God’s voice. In John 12, God’s voice speaks from the heavens, but those with unprepared hearts only think that it has thundered. Jesus says that even though the Father gives testimony to His greatness, not everyone will believe or respond. Will you listen to the voice of the Father, as God testifies to Jesus?

Also, Jesus says that the Scriptures are the fifth witness about Him. In John 5:39-40, Jesus says, “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.” In other words, God gave the Bible in order to point to Jesus—but many people think that eternal life comes from believing in the Bible. Eternal life comes from knowing Jesus. Like the Pharisees, many people today worship the Bible instead of Christ. Placing words on a page over an encounter with the Living Word, they become stuck in rules and regulations like the teachers of religious law. Will you follow the Bible to Jesus, or will you get stuck in glorification of words on a page?

Finally, in verses 45-47, the Master says that Moses is the sixth witness to the fact that Jesus is the Messiah. “Yet it isn’t I who will accuse you before the Father. Moses will accuse you! Yes, Moses, in whom you put your hopes. If you really believed Moses, you would believe me, because he wrote about me. But since you don’t believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” Jesus has already cited the scriptures that Moses wrote, so it seems like He is doubling up again. But Jesus is also talking about Moses himself. Yes, Moses’ words testify to Jesus being the Messiah. But on the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses’ apparition validated the Christhood of our Lord.[iv] Will you believe the testimony as each of these witnesses? Will you accept the overwhelming evidence that Christ is Lord?

Once Christians accept the testimony and receive Jesus as their Lord, God calls us to become witnesses ourselves. The problem is that so many believers think that their story ends at salvation and doesn’t continue with our calling as disciples and missionaries of our Lord. Howard Hendricks says, “In the midst of a generation screaming for answers, Christians are stuttering.[v] Instead of faltering in our call to tell of Jesus’ saving power, we need to accept His mandate to become faith witnesses. He promised we would not be alone, but that He would be with us. He wants to remind us, “…You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere--in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8)."

[i] W. Wiersbe, Wycliffe Handbook of Preaching & Preachers,  p. 215.
[ii] Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15; Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1
[iii] All scripture quotations taken from the NLT.
[iv] Matthew 17:1-13
[v] http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/w/witnessing.htm.  January 19, 2017.

"The Family Business"

Many of you know people who received the mentorship of their parents and entered the family profession. In my community, Ronnie learned how to be a farmer from his father Ed. Roy taught his son about cars, and Kevin grew up to be a mechanic just like his dad. Betty worked in healthcare, setting an example for her daughter Kim, who went into the same line of work. Just like Mike and Skip learned carpentry from their father Harold, Jesus learned carpentry from his stepfather Joseph. In our culture, when a child learns a trade from their parent, we say, “Awww, how nice!” But in Jesus’ day, it was expected. In fact, it unnerved some people that Jesus gave up His carpentry job for ministry. It upset them even more that He was learning the God-business from His Father, who was God, not Joseph.

In the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel, when Jesus gets in trouble for healing a man on the Sabbath, his response (verse 17 ) is, “My Father is always working, and so am I.” This makes his detractors seek to kill him, because Jesus has claimed that God was His Father, making Himself equal to God. Instead of trying to get away, Jesus explains how the God-business, and not carpentry, really is the family business. First, he explains how life comes from the Father to the Son, and from the Son to the believer. Then, he tells how he learns everything from the Father, and you can learn from Him.

In verse 21, Jesus says, “For just as the Father gives life to those he raises from the dead, so the Son gives life to anyone he wants.” Then in verses 24-26, He says:

“I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life. And I assure you that the time is coming, indeed it’s here now, when the dead will hear my voice—the voice of the Son of God. And those who listen will live. The Father has life in himself, and he has granted that same life-giving power to his Son.”

You see, the God-business is all about giving life. God gave physical life to us all, breathing into Adam that very first breath. When the Word became flesh and God stepped into humanity, that life of Christ came from the Father. But instead of limited life, Jesus possessed eternal life. Eternal means unlimited—Jesus has enough to give to everybody. So, Jesus took up the family business of giving life to all who receive it. In verses 28-29, He says, “Don’t be so surprised! Indeed, the time is coming when all the dead in their graves will hear the voice of God’s Son, and they will rise again.”

Of course, for anybody to take up the family business, they must first learn it. Just as Jesus learned carpentry from Joseph, He learned unlimited love from God the Father. He watched the Father work, from pre-creation, through eternity, and up to his present day. Jesus says in John 5:17, “My Father is always working, and so am I.” The work of God is love, and that work never stops, never rests, never takes a break. Love is what made the universe, and love is what binds it together. Love will continue to the end, and outlast all things. “Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).” Jesus keeps talking about the love-business in verse 20, “For the Father loves the Son and shows him everything he is doing. In fact, the Father will show him how to do even greater works….” Jesus learns love from the Father, and Jesus transfers that love to other people. That’s how it works. But then something amazing happens. Jesus invites his sisters and brothers, you and me, into the family business. “I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father (John 14:12).”
I don’t know about you, but it blows my mind to think that because Jesus is no longer physically present, He expects us to continue the work. How can we do this? By continuing to learn the trade. As Jesus was always watching the Father, doing everything He saw the Father doing, so we must always keep our eyes on Jesus, in a perpetual apprenticeship.

A friend of mine works with Round Table Pizza on the West Coast. One franchise, owned by Bob Larson, is run just like his father, Bill, ran it. Bob started working at his father’s pizzeria when he was twelve years old. He invested full time in the summers and part time during the school year. From his dad, he learned to enjoy even the menial aspects of the work. He learned his father’s secret recipe for dough and sauce. He learned to be a people-person, how to treat employees and customers right. He learned his father’s generosity, giving back to the local community. When you learn a business, it pays to learn from the best, and Bob Larson learned it all from his dad. Jesus learned the God-business from His dad, and now He passes it on to us.

To take up the God-business means to learn from Dad. We learn to be godly, to literally be like God. So, we watch the things that Jesus does, and do that. It means we refrain from doing the things that Jesus wouldn’t do. Being a Christian means (duh!) to be like Christ. It means to take up the love-business and plan never to retire from it.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

"Lame Excuses"

Mike Lupica writes in Esquire:
Deion "Prime Time" Sanders, outfielder for the Atlanta Braves and cornerback for the Atlanta Falcons, is the only athlete to have hit a Major League home run and scored an NFL touchdown in the same week. Sanders grew up on the mean streets of Fort Myers, Fla., where exposure to some would-be athletes spurred him to make a success of himself. He explains: "I call them Idas. 'If I'da done this, I'd be making three million today...If I'da practiced a little harder, I'd be a superstar.' They were as fast as me when they were kids, but instead of working for their dreams they chose drugs and a life of street corners. When I was young, I had practice; my friends who didn't went straight to the streets and never left. That moment after school is the moment we need to grab. We don't need any more Idas.[i]

People are just as full of Idas today as they were two thousand years ago. Human nature hasn’t changed. We still like to make excuses for why we can’t accomplish what we’d like to. You may have already made and broken New Year’s resolutions, and you say to yourself, “If Ida just stuck to my diet, Ida lost the weight.” Or, “If my drinking buddies had quit coming around, Ida been able to quit drinking.” Or, “If my husband or wife hadn’t held me back, Ida had a better job by now.” The truth is that often it isn’t other people, but our lame excuses that hold us back.

In John 5:1-7 (NLT), Jesus encounters a lame man who is full of excuses, sitting by a pool in the Holy City. The Bible doesn’t give him a name, but let’s call him Yitzhak. Bear in mind that Jesus’ reputation has preceded him to Jerusalem. When the disabled beggar sees the Master, he knows that this prophet from Galilee is more than a Teacher. Jesus is a Healer. If there had been any doubt as to the newcomer’s identity, the crowd now affirms who Jesus is by crying out to him as they always have before. Everywhere that Jesus goes, people call out things like, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us!” They reach out to Him, grasping just to touch the hem of His garment. Can you hear the clamor of crowd, jostling for position so they can see, hear, and touch the Master? Maybe the gate he’s coming through will create a bottleneck where they can get closer to him. Everybody wants a piece of Jesus—all except Yitzhak by the pool.

Like Moses parting the Red Sea, Jesus steps through the crowd. The beggar’s head is downcast, trying to avoid the Master’s gaze, but now he sees the Carpenter’s sandaled feet stop right in front of him. Jesus knows this man will never cry out to him, so Jesus kneels and whispers, “Would you like to get well?”

Now, this would be an obvious, “Duh—yes!” kind of question for almost anybody. But not for Yitzhak, who has been disabled for thirty-eight years. He knows nothing about making a living as a tradesman. All he knows is begging. Yes, he is located near a pool known for its magical healing properties. Legend says that occasionally, an angel comes to stir the waters—then the first one into the pool is healed. Who knows what really happens. Perhaps a hot spring or some other phenomenon. All we know is that the people believe it. But while Yitzhak is seated by the pool (perhaps because thirty-eight years ago his dear departed mother placed him there and told him to wait), it is clear that he doesn’t want healing. Not once does the beggar cry out to Jesus. Instead, the Master has to come to him and ask a seemingly ridiculous question.

But it’s not ridiculous, really. Some people enjoy the drama of their difficulties. Whether financial, emotional, spiritual, social, or physical, some people would actually rather remain in their dramatic agony than be healed. But Jesus takes a risk and asks the question with the not-so-obvious answer.

“I can’t, sir,” Yitzhak replies. “Because I don’t have anybody to help me into the pool when the water bubbles up. Somebody else always beats me to it.”

This is the man’s excuse. For thirty-eight years, somebody has always edged him out. The truth is that he probably doesn’t believe the myth anyway. But that’s Yitzhak’s excuse. I wonder—what excuses do you have for not achieving or becoming what God wants you to be? Jesus came to the beggar in essence to tell him, “You were made for something better.” But instead Jesus gets an excuse.

How does Jesus respond to the beggar’s excuse? Jesus tells him, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!” Now, I know that this is recorded as a healing, and I’m not going to dispute that. But I’m not certain this is a physical healing. It seems that Yitzhak is healed mentally and emotionally rather than in his body. All he needs is for Jesus to speak into his life with spiritual authority, dispelling all his fears and setting aside all his lame excuses. All he needs is the Master to tell him that he can do it—and the man overcomes his objections, rises, and is never the same again.

You may throw up your hands and say, “Now what? There’s nothing this man can do for a living!” Of course there were jobs that required unskilled labor. Certainly the omnipotent God would not call this man to a whole life if there were no opportunities outside of his brokenness. So too Jesus calls you to give up your excuses, take up your mat, and walk.

I am just as guilty as everybody else, when it comes to excuses. I have started writing more books than I can count, gotten two hundred pages into the text, and quit writing with the excuse that church, family, and friends demand too much of my attention. I’ve finished writing a couple of books, and failed to get them published with the excuse that I couldn’t find the right publisher. The truth was, I just didn’t search diligently enough for a publisher. I can blame other people for why I don’t accomplish what I want, or I can get honest and admit that these are just lame excuses. You can get honest with yourself as well. Hear again the words of Jesus in John 5:8—but hear them not spoken to Yitzhak but directed to your ears and heart. “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!” I wonder, will you have the courage to rise?