Sunday, March 19, 2017

"Perilous Preaching"

            Recently, I read the following story:

Dr. Clarence Bass, professor emeritus at Bethel Theological Seminary, early in his ministry preached in a church in Los Angeles. He thought he had done quite well as he stood at the door greeting people as they left the sanctuary. The remarks about his preaching were complimentary. That is, until a little old man commented, "You preached too long." Dr. Bass wasn't fazed by the remark, especially in light of the many positive comments. "You didn't preach loud enough," came another negative comment; it was from the same little old man. Dr. Bass thought it strange that the man had come through the line twice, but when the same man came through the line a third time and exclaimed, "You used too many big words" --this called for some explanation. 
Dr. Bass sought out a deacon who stood nearby and asked him, "Do you see that little old man over there? Who is he?" "Don't pay any attention to him," the deacon replied. "All he does is go around and repeat everything he hears."[i] 

            Yes, it can be difficult for a pastor to receive criticism all the time.  For most pastors, a lot of prayer, study, and preparation goes into a message.  Also, most pastors (like myself) feel like church administration and parish ministry take so much time that we aren’t able to put as much time as we’d like to into our sermons.  Seminary professors say that for every minute spent in preaching or teaching, pastors should put in an hour of study.  I don’t know a single pastor who’s able to do that.  But when ministers do take the pulpit, they’d like to know that their congregation is listening with attentive ears.  Often, when people leave church saying, “I didn’t get anything out of it,” it’s not because no spiritual food was placed on the table, but because they were too distracted or self-interested to try a bite.

            Jesus knew what it was like to have an audience who was listening with wrong hearts.  In the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel, we read that the crowd gathered to hear him, having the wrong motivations.  In verse 26[ii], Jesus says, “…You are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.”  All too often when we go to church, we are also there for the wrong reasons—for what we can get out of it, so we can “be fed.”  Instead of attending selfishly, it would be so different if God’s people came to church expecting to share God’s blessings from their own heart.

            The people also gathered with the wrong expectations.  “…They asked him, ‘What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do (v. 30)?’”  Not only did they want their bellies filled, but they also wanted their egos satisfied.  If Jesus would simply prove Himself with a miracle, they said, they’d believe.  What they were really saying was that they believed they were so important that Jesus should hang his hat on their approval.  God’s people today come to church with the mentality that everything should be done for their benefit, even as businesses cater to consumers.  Wrong expectations keep people from experiencing the blessings of worship and preaching, because they think it’s all about them and not God.

            Verses 41-42 reveal the people’s wrong attitude in the way they undermined Jesus as a speaker.  “At this [they] began to grumble about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”  Sometimes people can be so focused on God’s messenger that they refuse to hear God’s message.  They spend the whole sermon time critiquing the preacher’s choice (or absence) of necktie, or wondering about his qualifications, instead of listening to the words that God has placed on his heart.  More often than not, it’s our own wrong attitudes, that keep us from hearing from God when we listen to a sermon.

            In verse 52, the people give the wrong response to the message.   They “began to argue sharply among themselves, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’”  Notice, it doesn’t say that they began to discuss the message or even the messenger.  The Greek word means that they were fighting, disputing, or engaging in battle when they heard the difficult sermon Jesus had to deliver.  I know some people who listen to every sermon with an ear that seeks something to argue with.  When we come to church ready to dispute whatever we’re going to hear, we’re giving the wrong response to God’s word as it is delivered.  Instead, try coming with an open ear and an open heart.

            Verses 60 and 66 say that upon hearing Jesus’ difficult sermon, not only did people argue, but they rejected his teaching, got up, and walked out.  Maybe you’ve been tempted to walk out on a challenging message, but let me suggest two things:  First of all, it’s rude to get up and walk out on someone who’s put so much effort praying and preparing a message for the church.  Second, maybe you’re walking out on something God may have just for you, if only you’d stay til the end.  Maybe your anger is, in fact, the perfect evidence that the speaker was on target in the first place.

John Wesley used to ask his young men whom he had sent out to preach on probation two questions: "Has any one been converted?" and "Did any one get mad?" If the answer was "No," he told them he did not think the Lord had called them to preach the Gospel, and sent them about their business. When the Holy Ghost convicts of sin, people are either converted or they don't like it, and get mad.[iii]

            These days, preaching is perilous.  Often, God’s people don’t want to be challenged, but would prefer to stay comfortably in their pews hearing the same thing they’ve always heard before—in other words, hearing messages that haven’t helped them to grow beyond the point where they already are.  Maybe you’ve come to church with the wrong motivations, expectations, attitudes, responses, and reactions.  Instead, God wants you to be like the disciples, who make the right decision regarding the hard teaching they’ve received.  Verses 67-69 say:

“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

            Jesus was glad when His disciples remained, and remained attentive.  So often in His ministry, Jesus would say something like, “Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand (Matthew 11:15)!”[iv]  In the book of Revelation, Jesus says seven times, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”[v]  Your pastor puts a lot of prayer and preparation into his or her perilous preaching.  I pray that even if you have an issue with the messenger, or even if the message is difficult for you to receive, you’ll listen and understand, that you’ll hear not what the preacher is saying, but what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

[i] Pulpit and Bible Study Helps, Vol 16, #5, p. 1.  February 10, 2017.
[ii] All scripture quotations are from the NLT.
[iii] Moody's Anecdotes, P. 123.  February 10, 2017.
[iv] See also Mk 4:9; 7:16; 4:23; Mt 11:15; 13:9.
[v] Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 6, 13, 22.

"I AM is Here"

What’s the worst storm you’ve ever experienced? For me, that would be the tornado that ripped through Amelia, Virginia, in May of 2003. I remember driving down the road and remarking how the sky was turning green. (You always know you’re in trouble when the sky turns green.) Then, when the hailstones started falling, I did what anybody who loves their car would do—I found cover beneath a gas pump shelter. Yes, I felt badly because the cars that came in behind me couldn’t fit underneath. Toddler Lydia was told, “Cover your head!” as the hailstones continued to fall, some of them still pelting our vehicle. Thinking she was doing something productive, she put a scarf over her head. At the same time, unbeknownst to me, two of my elementary school children were on a school bus that got rerouted to the high school because of the storm. They just got safely inside when the tornado tore through, pulling bricks off the front of the building where they were hunkered down. It ripped roofs off other buildings, sending steeples into the courthouse square, and strewing stained glass on the sidewalks so that the town looked like a war zone when it was all done.

When you’re in the middle of a storm like that, you may wonder whether you are going to survive. And after the storm you look around, not knowing where to begin in the cleanup. Your personal storm may not look like a physical tornado, but you might feel just as threatened or devastated by its onslaught. Jesus’ disciples felt this way a couple of times. Once, when the Lord was asleep in the bottom of the boat they found themselves in a storm and he spoke to the wind and the waves, which calmed immediately (Matthew 8; Mark 4; Luke 8). In Matthew 14, Mark 6, and John 6, the disciples had a different experience of Jesus calming a storm. Only this time, not only did they experience fear in the face of the storm, but they found themselves afraid of Jesus Himself. John’s account is shortest:
That evening Jesus’ disciples went down to the shore to wait for him. But as darkness fell and Jesus still hadn’t come back, they got into the boat and headed across the lake toward Capernaum. Soon a gale swept down upon them, and the sea grew very rough. They had rowed three or four miles when suddenly they saw Jesus walking on the water toward the boat. They were terrified, but he called out to them, “Don’t be afraid. I am here!” Then they were eager to let him in the boat, and immediately they arrived at their destination! (vv. 16-21)[i]

Jesus’ friends were afraid of the physical danger the storm brought them. They were also fearful because they had to face this threat alone. Mark 6:48 says, “He saw that they were in serious trouble, rowing hard and struggling against the wind and waves. About three o’clock in the morning Jesus came toward them, walking on the water. He intended to go past them.” It’s interesting to me that Jesus saw that they were in trouble so He came to them, but when he saw how they were rowing he decided to keep going. In other words, Jesus could look at them and say, “Yeah, they’ve got this.” Maybe you’re struggling right now, and you’re fearful because you feel like you’re going through it alone. But all the while, even though don’t know it, Jesus can see you. Rather than stepping in, Jesus is watching and saying, “She’s got this,” or “He knows what he’s doing,” or “They’re learning.” In Mark’s account, Jesus wasn’t even going to get involved until the disciples noticed him and thought He was a ghost. Then, he reassured them, climbed into the boat, and calmed the storm.

Matthew’s version also has Christ’s followers mistaking Him for a ghost, and Jesus comforting them, getting back into the boat, and calming the storm. But Matthew also includes Peter asking the “ghost” that if it really is Jesus, He should prove it by letting Peter come to him on the water. Peter does so, sees the wind and the waves, starts to sink, and cries out to Jesus. Jesus reaches out and lifts him up, lamenting Peter’s lack of faith and asking why he doubted. Sometimes when we’re in the midst of our storms, we just need Jesus to give us a sign that He really is there. And sometimes, He obliges. But the key is keeping your eye on Him, not getting caught up in the storm, and letting Him hold you up.

In all three Gospels, the way that Jesus reassures the disciples is by saying, “I am here!” In the original Greek, you might read this a different way: “I AM is here!” Back in the Old Testament, God revealed the divine name as I AM. Throughout his Gospel, John has Jesus echoing the words “I am,” as in “I am the way,” “I am the bread of life,” or “I am the living water.” Here, Jesus says, “I am here—or, really, I AM is here!” This is the reassurance we need in the storms of life. God is with us. Sometimes He says “You’ve got this.” Other times, He proves His presence and reassures. But always, God is there. When hurricanes howl, when tornadoes threaten, when tragedy turns your faith to fear, remember, Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid…Take courage, I AM is here (Matthew 14:27)!”

[i] Scripture quotations taken from the NLT.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

"The Test"

            I invite you to take just a moment and think about the teachers that you liked best when you were in school.  No doubt they made an impression on you because of the way they taught, or some emotional connection they made.  I remember my third-grade teacher Mr. Stewart, who employed all sorts of rhymes and games to teach us difficult subjects.  Then there was my sixth-grade English teacher Mrs. Dickerson, who allowed me to write a lengthy book instead of doing a book report like all the other students.  Or my high school Spanish teacher SeƱora Giles, who communicated not only a foreign language, but made us feel loved along the way.  My guess is that you have teachers like this as well, and that you remember them for their special attributes, and not their tests. 

But what would a teacher be without tests?  Teachers need to make sure their students are learning, and students need a gauge as to where they need to improve.  John 6 tells the story of Jesus testing His disciples, and whether they learned.  It also shows how they could prove the trustworthiness of their Master.  Verses 5-6[i] say, “Jesus soon saw a huge crowd of people coming to look for him. Turning to Philip, he asked, ‘Where can we buy bread to feed all these people?’ He was testing Philip, for he already knew what he was going to do.”  We must ask ourselves the purpose for this test.  Is Jesus seeing what Philip has learned, or whether Philip will apply this learning?  No—because Jesus already knows these things.  The purpose of this test isn’t to assess Philip.  This first test is so Philip can see the full extent to which he can trust Jesus.  When you go through struggles and tests, are letting them show you just how much you trust in God’s provision?

The second and third tests come in verses 7-9: “Philip replied, ‘Even if we worked for months, we wouldn’t have enough money to feed them!’ Then Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up. ‘There’s a young boy here with five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that with this huge crowd?’”  There are two tests here.  In this second test Andrew, like Philip, will see just how much he can count on Jesus to take care of the people’s needs.  Then the third is when the little boy with the lunch decides he can entrust his only food to the Teacher.  He might literally lose his lunch, yet he hands it over anyway.  What are you willing to give to God, that the Lord might use you in the service of others?

The fourth test involves the whole crowd that gathered.  “’Tell everyone to sit down,’ Jesus said. So they all sat down on the grassy slopes. (The men alone numbered about 5,000.)  Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks to God, and distributed them to the people. Afterward he did the same with the fish. And they all ate as much as they wanted (vv. 10-11).”  In this test, Jesus is seeing whether the people will trust him and obey his command to sit down, even though there clearly was no meal to be set before them.  What would you do, if you were a guest at your teacher’s home and were asked to sit down to a meal, even though there was clearly no food in the house?  Their obedience and trust is one of the secret recipes that makes this delicious miracle!  When God asks something unusual of you, will you pass the test and show God your obedience?

The fifth test is to see whether people will trust God for more.  Verses 12-13 say, “After everyone was full, Jesus told his disciples, ‘Now gather the leftovers, so that nothing is wasted.’ So they picked up the pieces and filled twelve baskets with scraps left by the people who had eaten from the five barley loaves.”  So often when God blesses us, God also tests us to see whether we’re stingy with that blessing.  Our tithes and offerings represent trust that God’s financial blessings will continue to flow.  Our willingness to give back a portion of what God has given us is proof that we believe God’s provision will remain constant.  Instead of hoarding the leftovers, their willingness to give back proves their trust.  Will you prove yourself willingness to give back to God, or will you stockpile the Lord’s provision instead?

The sixth test is for the people to prove that they understand the sign given to them by God.  “When the people saw him do this miraculous sign, they exclaimed, ‘Surely, he is the Prophet we have been expecting!’ When Jesus saw that they were ready to force him to be their king, he slipped away into the hills by himself (vv. 14-15).”  God is showing them that they will always be taken care of, but God is not promising to provide rations to supply an army to overthrow Rome.  The people take God’s provision, but come to the wrong conclusion.  What conclusions will you come to, when you see God at work in your life?

When we were in school, testing proved two things: it proved both the student and the teacher.  Students typically only think about how they are proven in the testing process.  An A grade shows success, and an F shows failure.  But testing also proves to students that they can trust their teacher’s instruction.  When life brings you trial, pray that God will give you strength and wisdom to pass the test.  But also take these difficulties as opportunities to prove that you can trust your Teacher, who remains faithful at all times.

[i] Scripture quotations taken from the NLT.