61. On the Way (1)

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 61. On the Way (1)

Acts 9:1,2   He went to the Chief Priest and got arrest warrants to take to the meeting places in Damascus so that if he found anyone there belonging to the Way, whether men or women, he could arrest them

Gal 2:2   I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain.

A Journey: It is interesting that in Acts the new faith was referred to as ‘the Way’ which suggests a journey going from somewhere to somewhere. The apostle Paul several times refers to our faith as a race and of course a race has a beginning and an end. In addition to our Galatians verse above, he said to Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4:7) Throughout this series we have contended for the idea that our lives as Christians are a long redemptive process, that it is God’s intention to change me, and you, and the world. Why? Because He wants something better for us than that which we have presently. Never settle for the present, there is more on God’s heart for you.

The Range of God’s desire: I have just recently been listening online to a Bible week in the UK, a week that always has very high faith levels, excellent teaching and an expectation of the power of the Holy Spirit working. What I have found interesting and challenging is the language of worship leaders and other leaders as they lead the worship and wait on God, such as, “I believe the Lord wants to reach out to those who have been holding onto fears for many years and release you from them,” or “there are people here tonight who have been struggling with their marriages and tonight I believe the Lord wants you to recommit yourselves to making them work with His grace.”   Now I don’t have a problem with those words as such, but they have triggered a thought in me that I have never seen so clearly before: Yes, God does want to come and minister to those people but also those who struggle with anger, with sexual temptations, with worries at work, with worries about their children, and those who are feeling spiritually lethargic, those who are feeling like giving up, those who feel failures, those who are struggling in a myriad of ways, yes, He wants to minister to ALL of these things, all of these people, so why doesn’t He, because these are surely things He wants to redeem us from? The change in respect of each of these things IS God’s will for us, so how does it work?

Aspects of Change: Does God wave a magic wand and we are changed? No, of course not. The Lord works through clearly defined channels. We can see them in the New Testament and there is nothing hyper-mystical about them. They are easily understood, so let’s consider each of them.

My Self Will: Now there is a clear indication in the Bible that we do genuinely have free will and we have the ability to choose how to act in response to anything God says. The Bible shows that God speaks and expects people to respond. He wouldn’t bother to speak if He didn’t have that expectation. Now we also have examples in the Bible of people who did respond positively in belief (and many of our earlier studies showed individuals who did respond positively to God) but we also have examples of people who rejected what God said and disobeyed Him. At the outset Eve could have refused to listen to Satan, but didn’t and so gave way to his suggestions, the temptation in the Garden of Eden.

Heart Condition? You and I can choose how we respond when we hear the word preached, but it is not that simple. There is our ‘heart condition’ and the things that impact upon it. Heart condition? The Bible speaks about hungering and thirsting (Psa 42:2, 63:1, 107:9, 143:6, Isa 44:3, 55:1, Mt 5:6, Jn 7:37, Rev 21:6, 22:17). The person who hungers and thirst is, without doubt, a more open vessel to receive from God. In the Gospels we find people crying out to Jesus to help them. Is that us? Is it possible to make yourself ‘thirst’ for God or is it something He has to do? Both!

Our Choices: I can choose, in respect of the so-called spiritual disciplines, to make more time to wait on God in stillness, I can choose to deepen my study of His word, I can choose to deepen my prayer experiences, I can choose to purpose to worship more fully, I can choose to take notes, listen more carefully and more purposefully respond to the preached word, and all of these things are our efforts to draw near to God. As I do these things I believe there is a changing that will take place in me as He responds (“Come near to God and he will come near to you” – Jas 4:8), and I will find a raising of faith within me, an increase in awareness of Him, and a thrill and sense of thanksgiving rise in me. I can choose to do these things and then have to trust in His responses. This is my contribution to this part of the redemption process.

But there are also the big life choices – not to steal, not to covet, not to commit adultery, not to tell lies, not to abuse others in word or deed, not to defame others. Those are the negative choices I have to make, but there are also positive ones – to speak well of others, to encourage others, to love others, care for them with compassion, accept others and be there for them.  These are another set of choices that I have to make as part of my redemptive process.

The Faith Level Present: Now there is no doubt that faith is a key issue. John Wimber used to say that faith was present in someone in every recorded instance of healing in the Gospels. But I have watched over the years and this I know, the preacher who faithfully expounds God’s word under the anointing of the Holy Spirit releases faith in his hearers. Such preaching should produce a ‘wow factor’ response. That may be “Wow, that was amazing, isn’t God good, I must serve Him,” or “Wow, God is holy I must bow before Him and commit myself afresh to Him”. If preaching leaves people unmoved, either they have hard hearts, or the preacher is unexcited by God’s word and lacking the anointing of God. Bringing God’s word, preachers can come with a high faith level and expectation and generate or release faith.

‘Non-Faith’ Churches & People: Very often ‘church services’ or ‘church meetings’ completely lack faith. Why do you need to depend on God turning up when you have a service all laid out and it must be stuck to? Where is there room for the Holy Spirit to move to bring revelation, fresh direction, empowering to bring healing, deliverance or change generally? Being part of a church that is like this means spiritual growth – the journey along the path of God’s redemptive work in us – is slowed down, either to snail’s pace or actual standstill.  I used to agree with those who said you never stand still, you either go forward or backwards. I’m not so sure that is true, because I do know Christians who appear at a complete standstill in their lives and I suspect they are still thinking the same way and doing exactly the same things as ten years ago. That is not growth, but it is also not backsliding, for they would say they are bona-fide Christians who pray, read the Bible, go to church, worship etc. But have they grown in character and spirituality, wisdom, revelation and insight, are they moving in gifts of the Spirit, being more available and more used of God? No.  Yes, sadly I also know those who once were part of church life but no longer, and who now appear to exhibit little if any spiritual life. Their complaints tend to be about the lack of reality in much church life, but they have opted out from trying to change that from the inside and so simply sit outside and criticize.

The Church Spectrum: But the point I wish to make here is we are not people in isolation in this redemption process, we are part of the church and ‘the church’ can encourage us, release faith in us (which is what the Eph 4:12 ministries are supposed to do) and generally help us to grow – or not! The ‘Church’ worldwide is a complex organism and often more an organisation than an organism. In some places you might find a group of ten believers meeting together with a measure of life flowing between them but having little impact on anyone else. At the other end of the spectrum it is possible to find mega-churches with superstar preachers who justify why a personal jet is necessary, and their pew fodder are supporters who simply finance these stars but show little similarity to the disciples of the New Testament, and the ‘body of Christ’ is no more than an untouched idea in Paul’s writings.  Wherever we worship on this spectrum, can we blame the leaders for failing to lead us to the spiritual heights with God and in transforming the world by His Spirit?  Yes we can, but that is no excuse for us making poor choices that limit our growth. I can choose to study God’s word, to pray and seek God’s face, and worship and witness – or not. I can choose to read books that will stir, challenge and build my faith – or not. I can choose to go on spiritual retreats, Bible conferences and the like – or not. I can choose to contribute to my spiritual growth – or not!

Locked in to circumstances? Sometimes it feels like our life circumstances lock us in and lock us down. Sometimes personal illness strikes, sometimes accidents occur, sometimes we get abandoned or falsely accused and hurt, sometimes we lose a loved one unexpectedly and prematurely and life seems seriously unfair. Sometimes the clouds of gloom or depression hang over us and no one seems to care, and so talk of a redemptive process appears unreal; we don’t appear to be going anywhere. But the thing is that despite what we are choosing to do, or not, and despite what others in the church are doing, or not, God is always there quietly working in the background. and that well known verse of Rom 8:28 still proves to be true: “Moreover we know that to those who love God, who are called according to his plan, everything that happens fits into a pattern for good.” (JBP version) or “we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.” (Message version). Our part in this redemptive process is sometimes to simply hang on in there and be able say, “Yes, I still love God,” and then just trust that in all the imperfect circumstances surrounding us, He IS still working through His redemptive process in us.   Amen.

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53. Talents

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 53.  The Talents 

Mt 25:14-15   Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey.

We come to what I have to confess is my favourite parable, for a slightly strange reason that I will share later. Notice the start word: “Again”. Jesus is continuing on picturing what it will be like at the End and I suppose it can be summarised as “An Accounting”. The thrust is in the punch lines at the end but to get there we have to go through what is a fairly lengthy but simple story.

Remember the context of pointing towards the end time: Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them.” (v.14) That is the background scenario, in Part 1 of this parable, a property looked after by servants while the ‘master’ is away. In a sense Jesus is ‘away’ at the present time, as he reigns from heaven, seated at his Father’s right hand. He is ‘away’ and will come back at some point in the future; that is to be remembered at the heart of this parable.

However, before he goes the master entrusts each servant with a number of “talents of money”.  A talent would be the equivalent, I am told, of quite a lot of money. This is a rich master giving out generously. To one he gives five, to another two and to another just one, “each according to their ability” and then he went on his journey (v.15) The parable is about how each one used what they had and then the Master’s response when he returned.  The one who had five made five more, the one with two made two more but the one with just the one, “dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.” (16-18).

Now Part 2 of the parable is of The End: After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them.” (v.19) Each servant comes before the Master and accounts for what they have done with his money. (v.20) He praises the first one, “His master replied, `Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (v.21) A fulsome praise. The same response is given to the second man. (v.22,23)

Now the response of the third man is the thing that highlights this parable because I believe it portrays the response of so many Christians and needs addressing in these days. Indeed it may be one of the most significant things that limits the church today. So see his response: “Then the man who had received the one talent came. `Master,’ he said, `I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’” (v.24,25)

I will come back here in a moment, but notice the Master’s response. First of all the rebuke: “His master replied, `You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.” (v.26,27) IF, and it is an ‘if’, IF the servant believed what he said, then logically he ought to have done something with the money more than he did. Whether we respond to His love and generosity or we respond out of fear of the accounting, we NEED to be Doers, responders.

Second, observe the severity of his response: “Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (v.28-30) Note two actions and sandwiched between, a two-sided principle.

First action: According to this parable what has been entrusted to each of us in life, will be taken away at the End if we don’t use it wisely, i.e. living with a focus on the Father (v.28). Second action: the removal of that life will mean being cast away from God.  The Principles: 1. When you come to God He will give you His blessings and as you use that, He will give you more.  2. If you don’t come to Him you will have nothing and even that will be taken from you!

Now I need to clarify something. Earlier I said the last man often epitomized what appears to be the response of so many Christians today. Now this man in this parable ends up being cast away from God. Does that mean hell? No, I believe that means into a place of severe disciplining. I don’t believe people will lose their salvation because of their attitude that God is a ‘hard man’ but they will be disciplined, and that in this lifetime.

So what does having an attitude that God is a ‘hard man’ mean?  First of all, it is an attitude about God. Some people get locked up by the thought that God is a God of severe judgment who is to be feared but as one person on the Internet has noted, “Only about 60 verses in total in the Gospels might be construed as either directly or indirectly referring to hell” (1.58%) whereas “192 verses have Jesus referring to heaven, eternal life, or his coming kingdom” (5%). i.e. hardly any of the Gospels are taken up with the thought of what happens to sinners after death and at the End. The Gospels are Good News! It was good news for those who encountered Jesus and it is good news as far as far as our ultimate eternal life will be concerned.

I have previously recommended learning three sets of verses from Ezekiel in this respect and I do so again. They are: Ezek 18:23 “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” and Ezek 18:31,32 “Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” and Ezek 33:11 “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?”  Our God is a God of grace and mercy!

But second, this attitude manifests itself in unbelief seen in passive Christianity that prefers to sit in the pews rather than risk stepping out in faith and maybe getting it wrong, and the ‘hard man’ mentality fears being slapped by this harsh holy God who cannot tolerate imperfection. Look again at Jesus meeting with the sinners! God loves His children stepping out in faith (and sometimes getting it not quite right!!!). He is NOT a hard man and He loves all of us, when we get it right and when we don’t. Aim to get it right, but risk His love!

8. On a Journey

Meditations in the life of Abraham : 8. On a Journey

Gen 12:4,5  So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.

The thing about meditating on Scripture is that it allows you to think beyond the surface of what is there.  So we have this aged man and his wife and nephew (who tags along!) setting out from Haran, leaving his father and his entourage to go to a place that has not yet been made clear. Somehow, we assume, he has been told back in Ur that Canaan was their destination (11:31) and so now they arrive there. It has been a long journey and an interrupted journey, having stopped off at Haran. Now that stop at Haran must have been frustrating for Abram because the indication is that God had spoken to him, he must have shared it with his father, and then his father had taken the family on the journey to Canaan but then got distracted along the way.

The main thing about a journey is that it involves time and effort. For Abram to get to Canaan meant travelling for some considerable period of time, presumably by camel. (they are a well-off family 12:5). The future blessing was clearly linked to Canaan and therefore the sooner they got there the better. What would happen once they got there, only the Lord knew. A journey is a means to an end. There is a sense whereby we are on a journey and the end is heaven. While we are here on this earth, we are not at our final destination, therefore we are journeying towards our final destination.

Another thing about a journey is that things happen along the way. As we’ve noted already, for this family, along the way, they stopped off and a significant part of the family separated off.  Now Abram had been told to leave his father’s household behind and that might have concerned him when the whole family (except Nahor) had come with him. Leaving his father behind now might, therefore, have been a relief. He was now being obedient to the original call – except Lot insisted on coming along and Abram was not sufficiently strong in his understanding to insist he went alone. Yes, along the journey things change, slowly but slowly it seems sometimes, our lives come into line with the will of God. It is only after it has happened sometimes that we realize we had not been in line before.

But actually this is what working out this new relationship with the Lord is all about. We don’t realize it when we first become a Christian; we think we have arrived, but actually it is just the start of a journey of change. We didn’t realize it back then but even though we had been born again there were still some pretty big changes to be brought about in us, the biggest being learning to trust the Lord in the walk ahead. That’s it, isn’t it – we have a way ahead of us and because we’ve never walked that path before, it is unknown. Furthermore, because it is unknown things will happen that we can’t foresee and it is quite likely there will be things we cannot handle on our own and thus we will deepen our knowledge of the Lord and learn to rely upon Him more. Is a mark of growing or developing maturity, how long it takes us to call on the Lord when we face difficulties – the more we mature the shorter the time!

But the story of Abram thus far, reminds us or nudges us to think that this journey can get interrupted and we can get distracted and yet I am sure that no experience is a wasted experience. We can learn from everything that happens, even when we get it wrong. The apostle Paul spoke of it more as a race and the Galatians obviously were getting sidetracked over the subject of circumcision so he eventually says, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?” (Gal 5:6,7). Yes, perhaps if we are being real, we might acknowledge that life is made up of a number of distractions along the way, distractions that seek to lead us from the truth, and distractions that seek to keep us from being obedient.

Eventually Paul was able to say, “I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:14). Yes, he was putting all aside as he remembered what his calling was – heaven!  He was going to get there and he wasn’t going to let anything distract him or turn him away. We, likewise, have the same calling. It is to walk the walk with Christ while we are on this earth, and remain faithful at all times. It is a journey and we may get distracted, but once we realize that, let’s get back on the faith track, working out our relationship with the Lord. Let’s press on in faithfulness and godliness. Amen?