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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Providence or Parasite? (Sun Am Follow-up)

Sunday morning I had the privilege of leading our people to consider and apply Mark's version of one of Jesus' most famous and beloved miracles - the Feeding of the 5k (I can only assume because everyone loves food especially when super-sized miraculously!! Hollywood made their own version of miraculous food multiplication but Jesus' is the original). Mark's version focuses intently on the need for rest or, more broadly to include fun & play, "leisure" (6:31). Disciples of Jesus Christ are called to work hard and be used by Jesus (6:7-13), risk much for Jesus (6:14-29), but also plan to rest with Jesus (6:30-47). However, along the way, to increase our trust in Jesus, he may plan to satisfy you with a season of more work or more rest. The point is: Doing His will & letting his will, whatever it may be, satisfy you is the best R&R we can get. It was out of trust in His Father that Jesus himself said when his disciples were encouraging him to rest & eat: "My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to accomplish his work" (John 4:34). 

So plan for work for and be used by Jesus, plan to rest with Jesus, but satisfy yourself with whatever Jesus brings your way.

The set-up. That's about as far as I could get on Sunday. But I left out an important question when it comes to "whatever," or more specifically, "whomever," Jesus brings your way. Some thing or, rather, some ones come between the prospect of rest and the reality of more "work" for the disciples:

"Now many of them saw [the disciples and Jesus retreating by themselves to a desolate place] and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them" (Mark 6:33)

Some of you know this scene from your own life. Understand, due to the position of the Sea of Galilee set in a bowl from which you could see people heading down from the hills and the relatively small size of the Sea, the disciples were watching as in slow motion the reality ahead of them developing. Tired, having given all you can give, people - perhaps some of them the same people you just ministered to - are U-turning back your way to ask for more. Is such a person part of God's providence - His gracious plan for every thought, action, and member of His creation - OR parasite - someone who has begun to look to you and depend on you for what only Jesus can provide them? Providence or Parasite?  (**Please note: I recognize each person as inestimably valued by God and created in His image - only that some persons begin to function parasitically in certain relationships)

Fleshy hearts are always the right start. Something happens when you trust your life to Christ and begin to walk with him: You wish to pass on the same love with which Jesus has loved you. You are not only gifted with a new kind of love but a totally new heart: 
Ezekiel 36:25-27   25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
You may have cared for people before, but there always a hint of selfishness - whether it be to 'have that good feeling,' elicit a response from another, or what at the time seemed like a wholly altruistic purpose but now you recognize: "that was mostly for me." When Jesus invades your life, you learn to love freely because He puts His free love into this free heart given to you. Something else happens: You learn that growth as a Christian continues along as you begin to help another along to further trust and grow in Jesus. It was as a young Christian I heard Dr. Howard Hendricks say: "We begin to grow when we begin to take responsibility for another person." All of this is good and right. But there is a seedy underbelly for taking responsibility for growth of others that begins to show itself when (not if) others exploit it. Please hear me: As a Christian you can't avoid being exploited and used - when you offer to others in word & deed a message of a free gift apart from works - some will take the free gift and rob your works. However, I'm talking about the occasional person you will run across who takes and takes and takes. How can you tell such a person apart from them being someone God has providentially put in your path?

Understanding shepherds. I think our first clue in answering this question comes in Mark 6:34: "When [Jesus] went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things." Jesus had compassion. Though the crowd was filled with liars, cheaters, hypocrites, users-of-people, holier-than-thous, it is toward such (like us) Jesus has compassion. Compassion is a fantastic word - the Gk. is splangnizesthai which lit means "a longing from the bowels." This suggests that Jesus' physical constitution was affected - their pain literally makes him sick to his stomach. Again, the tender, responsive, fleshy middle - where the heart is located - is exemplified in Jesus. Why is Jesus splangnizethai'd? "Because they were like sheep without a shepherd." So Jesus will be their shepherd, right? He will hold them in his arms, cuddle closely, feel the warmth of his heartbeat against theirs. Except that would entirely misunderstand what Jesus means here by "shepherd." The shepherd/sheep metaphor in the Old Testament is indeed a rich one, but also perhaps misunderstood. James Edwards notes in his commentary on Mark: 

"As a metaphor, the shepherd of sheep was a common figure of speech for a leader of Israel like Moses (Isa. 63:11) or more often of a Joshua-like military hero who would muster Israel's forces for war (Num 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17; II Chronicles 18:16; Jeremiah 10:21; Ezek. 34:5; Ezek 37:24; Nahum 3:18; Zechariah 13:7). It is, in other words, a metaphor for hegemony, including military leadership and victory. In his compassion, Jesus sees a whole people...without a leader." 

In other words, these aren't people looking to mooch off the disciples, tell their sob story for the umpeenth time hoping someone will finally take them in as their own, nor be adopted as the sole and consuming pet project of one of the disciples, nor stop by every so often fishing for affirmation and compliments - these in Mark 6 are looking for a strong leader to lead them that they might become strong. Another way to put it: Some are looking to stay coddled lambs always nursing on newborn milk, but not here - these are looking to be healthy functioning, and productive sheep - dare I say: Strong Rams. Such people approach you in weakness but also seek guidance toward deliverance and change. 
Don't get me wrong, these are all wonderful images of Jesus that you may find in any church nursery built in the 1970s.

Teach us to care through prayer. Jesus leads others to himself by teaching them "many things" (v.34). This is how he begins to shepherd people looking for genuine change. While teaching truth about Jesus has a critical place, we can begin to lead others to the Shepherd through prayer. One reason prayer I have found prayer not just spiritually but also practically so helpful is that early on in an encounter or relationship prayer begins shed light upon whether the person has come to find life or to rob it. 

A busy man once relayed to Oswald Sanders: 
"Up to some years ago, I was always annoyed by interruptions...then the Lord convinced me that He sends people our way. He sent Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch. He sent Barnabas to Saul. So when someone comes in, I say, 'The Lord must have brought you here. Let us find out why He sent you. Let us have prayer.' This does two things. The interview takes on new importance because God is in it. And it generally shortens the interview...pleasant but brief." 
What I have found fascinating is that often times people don't really want prayer - they get antsy when I suggest it or, upon saying "Amen," immediately continue on with the complaint right where they left off as if prayer were a sneeze or a yawn mid-sentence that has no bearing on one's stream of thought - not to mention attitude or perspective. Prayer then either: (a) Brings the person to the One who can give life, sustain growth, and transform weakness to strength; or (b) Exposes an unwillingness to change. I've found great assistance from the Psalms so that I'm not just praying my own words but God's and subtly teaching the person to develop their own prayer language with Him also. I've also found it helpful to have a "go-to" Psalm. Mine is Psalm 130 (It gives a person words to the need for both help from circumstances and forgiveness from sin, truth that God alone can forgive, insistence on how we are to wait upon the Lord, and why God alone satisfy us - all in 8 verses!). Sometimes I'll pray it out loud but if I have a second Bible handy I encourage the person to look and pray with me.

Eugene Petersen wrote a brilliant article years ago, which was also a chapter title in a book of his, called "Teach us to care, and not to care." His thoughtful expose really helped me answer the question: How do you help people who wish to be helped and how can you tell who those people are? I'll leave you with this lengthy excerpt:

I do not mean simply praying for people, although that is involved. I mean teaching them to pray, helping them to listen to what God is saying, helping them to form an adequate response. Teaching people to pray is teaching them to treat all the occasions of their lives as altars on which they receive his gifts. Teaching people to pray is teaching them that God is the one with whom they have to deal, not just ultimately, and not just generally, but now and in detail.
  Teaching people to pray is not especially difficult work — anyone of us can do it, using a few psalms and the Lord’s Prayer — but it is difficult to stick with it, for we are constantly interrupted with urgent demands from family and friends to, as they say, “do something.” And it is difficult to get the person who has asked for help to stick with it because there are a lot of other people in the intersection, offering short-cut approaches for providing care, shortcutting God and promising far quicker results. It is difficult for all of us to stick it out, for often in the confusion and noises of wasteland traffic, it is hard to stay convinced that sin and God make that much difference.
   But difficult or not, this is our calling. Whatever else we are doing is with our hands, with our feet, with our minds — bandaging, directing, giving. This is the core of what we are doing, getting them in touch with God, with neighbor, receiving love, grace. If we do not use these occasions of need to teach people to pray, we cave in to the pressures of care in which there is no cure.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

8 reasons why enjoying God with others is better than you and Yahweh "doing your own thing"

This past Sunday I had opportunity to teach from Psalm 40 and try to explain why this prayer-song was a kind of pattern for David's spiritual life - and ebb and flow from worship in private prayer closet (in his case - fields and caves) and public worship with God's people (whether it be dancing before an Ark in his underoos or in the sanctuary). My emphasis for Sunday was upon how running back each day to the private prayer closet - alone with God - serves to re-fuel and sustain every effort of corporate worship.

However, I did make a brief comment: Public, corporate worship - hearing from God's Word together and singing it to one another and to God - protects and enlargens the prayer closet. This is the other side of the coin in developing intimacy with God. The impetus behind that brief comment largely stemmed from a sermon I read last week by David Clarkson.

David Clarkson (1622-1686) was a colleague and successor in the pulpit to the famous Puritan John Owen. His sermon is entitled: Public worship to be preferred before private from Psalm 87:2 and it contains an absurd number of Roman numerals that will cause you to either grow dizzy or begin to form a shape (various Star Wars or Lord of the Rings characters are common) if you look at them (or through them) for too long. 

Ultimately I disagree David's his overall assessment in part because of the inherent dangers of vanity that accompany overindulgence in worshipping God in the midst of others, which Jesus warned us about (Matthew 6:5-6), but mostly because it begs the question: Why would you try to pit two friends against each other?!. The private re-fuels and sustains genuine, lasting public worship while the public worship protects private worship from becoming introspective, selfish, heretical while spurring on insights in to God, the Bible, life that you wouldn't have noticed yourself. Each serves the other as a good friend would. But many of his points are insightful, well-girded by Scripture and so worth taking a gander.

Without further ado, here are 8 reasons (Clarkson gives 12 but 4 of them are, in my estimate, not well-supported) to stop telling yourself: "Oh, I'll just stay out later and spend time with God by myself on the beach when I wake up" or "Must...hit...snooze...button.  Sleep...better...than...preacher" or "God understands that I have ____ going on or ____kids or need to put in ____ extra hours at work" and instead enjoy the benefits promised in God's Word of gathering together to grow from and gladly respond to God's Word.

1. The Lord is more glorified by public worship than private. This first point by Clarkson should makes sense. More people means more voices singing, more gifts at the table, more testimonies of thanksgiving - but also more opportunity for the Holy Spirit, through the bond of peace (Eph. 4:1-3), to make unlikely unity out of such diversity of backgrounds, ethnicities, interests and seasons of life. For brining unity where there would otherwise be relational chaos, God receives maximum glory.

2. There is manifest more of the Lord's presence in public worship than in private. Clarkson argues for this beautifully: "The Lord has a dish for every particular soul that truly serve him; but when many particulars meet together, there is a variety, a confluence, a multitude of dishes. The presence of the Lord in public worship makes it a spiritual feast, and so it is expressed in Isaiah 25:6."

4. There is more spiritual advantage in the use of public worship. For instance, certain deeper spiritual truths which one tries to suss out on his/her own, can be apprehended more readily and precisely when he/she listens to good preaching and worships together with others. Clarkson rightly quotes Psalm 73:16-17 here. Asaph has just been querying GOd as to why the wicked and proud prosper - it all starts to make sense once he arrives to the sanctuary to worship God together with others. For one thing, you realize the true prosperity you possess in community and being a part of the church of the living God most acutely when you get there.

5. Public worship is more edifying than private. In private, you seek God merely for your own good, but in public you seek the good of both yourselves and others. Every person who trusts Jesus brings with them a gift "to serve one another" (1 Peter 4:10), "for building up the body of Christ" (Eph. 4:12), and "for the common good" (1 Cor. 12:7).

6. Public worship is a better security against apostasy than private. Heresy is a fun word, but apostasy - yikes. The former has to do with believing and espousing a false teaching or truth but often without contrarian motives. Apostasy, however, is the espousing of false teaching as an act of willful rebellion. Either way, when one locks himself or herself in the private closet without bouncing ideas about the Bible, truth, Jesus off someone else, it's easy to stray the course - often without contrarian or malicious intent. I remember years ago doing this once for the first sermon I ever preached during our preaching lab in seminary. The combination of wanting to preach something more 'original' and not really running my notes by anyone else made for an interesting teaching from II Corinthians re: how people should plant churches. There was some errant content in there. Lesson learned. "Where there is no guidance, a people fails / but in an abundance of counselors there is safety" (Proverbs 11:14).

8. Public worship is the nearest resemblance of heaven. A wedding feast, a banqueting table, a heavenly city are all descriptions that entail more than just you and J.C. over a candlelight dinner. 

10. Public worship is the best means for procuring the greatest mercies, and preventing and removing the greatest judgments. So next time you hear about your church conducting a prayer meeting, a prayer vigil, etc, I would caution against the "I'll just join in from home" approach. The number of verses to support the above statement are astounding. Joel 2:15-16: "Blow the trumpet in Zion, consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly, gather the people. Consecrate the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children, even the nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room and bride her chamber" (you can read Joel 2:17-18 for God's response). II Chronicles 20:3-4 & Acts 4:31 are other poignant examples of God calling His people to come together or using His people as they come together to seek Him.

12. The promises of God are given more to public worship than to private. There are more promises to public, and even the promises that seem to be made to private worship are applicable and even more powerful in the context of public worship. A great example is Revelation 3:20 - often quoted as a most encouraging verse (ie. God is knocking at the door of your heart). But really this invitation is extended not to an individual but to a church. Jesus will come in and fellowship with the church body that hears His voice and invites Him through the door.