3. A Question of Sovereignty

Lessons in Growth  Meditations: 3. A Question of Sovereignty

Mark 2:14  As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

An Imaginary Conversation: I have more than a few times, as I have written these studies, thought how easily we either read or hear words without taking in the reality of what is being conveyed. I mean, take the verse above. Here is Levi a tax collector and Jesus walks up and says “Follow me,” and so he leaves his booth and goes. Too easy! If I was writing a novel I would want to enlarge what happened:

“Hullo, I’m Jesus.”

“Yes, I know I’ve heard all about you.”

“OK, well I’m looking for a band of men to train up to take over my work when I’m gone so I want you to come with me.”

“But I’ve got a job.”

“This will be a better one. Come with me.”

“Where are you going?”

“You’ll find out as you follow me.”

“What are we going to do?

“You’ll find out as you follow me.”

“When will I be fit enough to take over your job?”

“You’ll find out when you follow me.”

Varied Experiences: Maybe it was like that, maybe it was just as simple as the text shows. I find that people’s experiences of coming to Christ are like that. I had a friend who argued his way into a corner over several months before he surrendered to Christ. I have come across others who just seemed to hear the call and in all simplicity said yes. We’re all different but whether we realise it or not, we all respond to the same call.

Simplicity of Experience: If my own experience is anything to go by, it frequently isn’t a neat, concise experience but one that may have a dramatic moment, lacking by some, but even then the realities of it take a while to sink in. I had heard the gospel from the mouth of the greatest evangelist of the twentieth century and had gone home to make a decision. The extent, the depth, or the shallowness of my prayer that night is not, I believe, a measure of what was coming, but then perhaps it was. I simply prayed, never having prayed before and not knowing what one should say, “Well, God, I’ve heard it tonight and although I suspect I don’t understand half of it, all I know is if you want my life, I will say I believe in Jesus, and here is my life if you want it. Please take it. Amen.”  Or words very much like that – it is now fifty years ago! With that I climbed into bed and fell asleep.

All I can tell you is that when I woke next morning I was a totally different person. That day I was visiting a cousin and spent the day trying to convert him – with almost zero knowledge! I started going to church each Sunday, I bought a Bible and started reading it, I became involved with a youth outreach team which necessitated me moving. Within two years, somehow or other I was leading seven Bible studies a week, my desire was to share what happened with whoever would listen, and along the way I found a wonderful Christian girl who became my wife. A transformed life and it has carried on changing, as I say, for fifty years. Later this morning, I am going out for the first time to help set up a soup kitchen for the homeless. What tomorrow holds, I don’t know.

When I look back on that first prayer, the words that I do remember clearly were, “here is my life if you want it.” It was a radical surrender and, regardless of the words, we use, I believe that is at the heart of every conversion, that willingness to say, I believe, I surrender to you, please save me and take and lead my life, for all of that was in that little part of the prayer I’ve just recounted.

Who Rules? Now you may wonder where this fits in with this series. Well, in the two starting ‘studies’ I suggested that the first phase of the Christian life destined to grow, is death. We die to our old lives and at the heart of that, as my heading today indicates, it is all a matter of sovereignty – who rules, me or Him?  Now I wish it was as simple as that – and don’t believe any preacher who says it is! But it isn’t. On that night, all those years ago, my commitment was real. I had been moved, I had been convicted and all I knew was that I had to surrender – whatever that meant? – and give God my life and put my life in His hands – whatever that meant? We can only act and respond in the measure of the knowledge we have at the time. So, yes, I believe there will be this one-off initiating surrender and God knows the reality of it and impart His Holy Spirit and we are ‘born again’, but that is just the start.

I suspect there are countless times when we come to a fresh place of surrender where, one way or another, we say, “All right Lord, you win, I give in,” and that may be on a requirement to forgive, a need to give, a need to let go, or a whole range of other possibilities.  Each time we face a new challenge from the Lord or from His word, this same thing will take place; we will face the confrontation: “Follow me.” “But what will happen?” “Leave it with me.” “How will I be able to do it?” “I will enable you.”

My Need to Die: It is indeed a case of dying to my self-sovereignty. If I am to grow, it has to die, again and again and again. Now again, if my experience is anything to go by, don’t think that such decisions are split second, momentary things. I think the reality is that sometimes the Lord works on us for weeks or even years to bring changes about, and the amazing thing is that He is patient and loving – and persevering! He will get His way, because He IS sovereign. Whether it is arguing at a burning bush with a Moses, or wrestling with a Jacob through the night or re-equipping a fallen Peter, He will persevere when He sees the potential that you and I cannot see in ourselves.

More than Shallow Emotion: I’ve lost count of the number of times I have sat listening to preachers calling for “surrender” or “commitment” and I find it frustrating because unless the Holy Spirit is convicting us, it will just be an emotional response to please the preacher.  In general terms, I don’t know what it means to ‘surrender’ or ‘be committed’ (don’t be shocked). All I know is that there are times when He confronts me with a “Follow me,” and it becomes an issue, and somehow, with His grace even, I have to come to a point of conviction and saying, “OK,” and that’s it. We move on. I change. He relentlessly pursues His purposes for me and blessing follows.

You see, it took a lot of years, but I have become convinced (why did it take so long, it’s clearly there in His word???) that He has plans and purposes that perfectly fit me and they are for good – mine and for people around me – because He’s like that. When He says, “Follow me,” my intellect says, yes, that’s a good thing, but I know the truth – it’s often through a struggle and ultimately that truth is summed up in, “Will I die to my desire to be lord of my life, and let Him be instead, because He’s so much better at it than I am?” Enough!

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26. Why this history

Meditations in Deuteronomy : 26 :  Why this History

(Focus: Deut 9:4-6)

Deut 9:4 After the LORD your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is going to drive them out before you.

When God calls us or blesses us, there is a temptation to think we have some merit that has caused Him to do it. I have concluded after many years of thinking about this, that the only reason the Lord saves us (apart, obviously, from His love) is because He sees what He can do for us and with us; He sees that we are people who will surrender to Him and in our place of surrender, He can take us and lead us and use us and bless us and change us more in to the likeness of His Son, Jesus Christ. Your only merit is your ability to surrender! The apostle Paul wrote, He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him,” (1 Cor 1:28,29)  and then, For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Cor 4:7) i.e. God chose you because you were weak and you are what you are because of all that He has given you. We have absolutely no grounds for boasting!

Previously Moses had said to Israel, “The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery.” (Deut 7:7,8)  No Israel, you are what you are, and chosen by God, NOT because you were big and powerful because in fact you are a small nation. It was God’s love and His desire to express good-will towards a nation that He chose you and, perhaps in the light of what we have read in the New Testament, because they had been weak and desperate as slaves.

Thus now Moses seeks to put their call into perspective again. Don’t say the Lord is doing this because we are a righteous people because, in fact, he will conclude this paragraph with “for you are a stiff-necked people.” Oh no, it will be despite you that you will go in and triumph!  No, the primary reason that is now given for what is taking place is because God is going to deal with a bunch of very wicked nations and bring judgment on them and end their national status by either driving them out of the land or utterly destroying them – and He’s going to use Israel to achieve that. In fact, as we’ve noted before, it goes right back to Abraham etc., (the oath he swore to your forefathers), to promises that the Lord made to bring blessing to them, their families and their future people, and part of that included dealing with a very ungodly, unrighteous, occult-driven, pagan, idol-worshipping part of the world! (see Gen 15:12-16)

Moses presses the point: “It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the LORD your God will drive them out before you.” (9:5). One commentary declares, “Just how sinful many Canaanite religious practices were is now known from archaeological artifacts and from their own epic literature, discovered at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) on the north Syrian coast beginning in 1929. Their “worship” was polytheistic and included child sacrifice, idolatry, religious prostitution and divination.” That was the ‘wickedness’ of the inhabitants of Canaan. It had got to such a point that it was in danger of polluting the earth and so the time had come for the Lord to deal with it. That was part of the package that involved Israel! They were to be the instrument that dealt with this people.

If we hadn’t been sure about the reference just now to “the oath that he swore to your forefathers”, Moses explains it further: “to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (9:5) As we noted just now, this was a promise that their families would inherit this land and at the same time bring judgment on a people who were sinking deeper and deeper into sin which was reaching its peak at this time. It is now time for them to be dealt with.

So, he concludes, “Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.” This is not all about you and about how good you are, for indeed, history has shown how you are a rebellious and stubborn people who have a knack of getting it wrong!  The history of the people of Israel, in a nutshell, simply reveals that sinful mankind can’t get it right even when God talks to them and gives them guidance – it needs something much more to deliver the human race from its Sin; it needs the work of Jesus on the Cross and the Holy Spirit’s empowering and changing power today. Nothing less than this means we keep on in our foolish and sinful ways!

 

40. Loving Acceptance

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 40. Loving Acceptance

Mk 2:15 While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him

There is a similarity here between this story and that of Zacchaeus in Luke 19 but the names are quite specific and different and so we will assume they are different. This is a follow-on from the verses we considered previously about the calling of this tax collector.

I was once preaching in a church in the West of England when I was interrupted by a man in the congregation. It seemed natural to answer his question and then carry on. A little while latter I was interrupted again by the same man and again answered his query. At the end of the service a lady came up to me and commented on how I had accepted this man’s interruptions as almost normal.  I replied that it was more a matter of accepting the man for who he was, which of course was exactly what Jesus was doing with this tax collector and his friends.

We are so often fearful of people who are different from us or who behave in ways contrary to our behavior, but Jesus accepts each person exactly as they are.  Jesus  wants them to change, to have something better than that which they have at the moment, but he knows that that will come as the result of the process of following him. It starts at the point of crisis when we surrender all and go and follow him, and it goes on until the day we die and go to be with him in heaven. There seem to be a number of them who have followed Jesus among this band but the change has hardly had time to take effect in them. When the Pharisees look on they find it difficult to differentiate between them

So often we Christians expect non-Christians to behave like us immediately at the point having come to surrender, and yes there will be major changes taking place immediately but as has often been said, each one is a ‘work in progress’ – and Jesus loves them just as they are. He knows some of the changes are going to take the rest of their lives and he loves them while they are still far from perfect. In fact he is also mingling, it seems, with those who haven’t yet surrendered and he’s loving and accepting them as they are, waiting patiently for ‘the penny to drop’ for them. They are an open-hearted bunch and that is the most important thing for the moment. The big stuff will happen in God’s time, so let’s just love them while we’re waiting for it to happen.

16. Separation

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 16. Separation

Mk 1:20 Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

“Without delay” – such simple words we might even miss them. But why say that? Was it that they had already witnessed what had happened with Andrew and Simon and so there didn’t need to be any preliminaries. Did Jesus just say to them, “OK, you saw what happened. I want you to join us too.” Whatever it was, it was a brief encounter resulting in them leaving the family business. Wow, this is slightly different from Andrew and Simon, this means a separation from father who probably ran the business.

What was it about Jesus that could call forth this sort of commitment that meant abandoning even the family? Now that might have happened with Andrew and Simon but there was no mention of it. This accentuates the significance of the calling and the separation it calls into being.

Later Jesus was to declare, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Mt 10:37) This is a unique call that Jesus brings: if you are going to follow me it has got to be utterly wholehearted. If family try to call us away from Jesus we are not to heed them. Our loyalty to him has got to surpass family. He is the Son of God and He knows best for us. If family challenge that, then we have to reject family advice to heed what Jesus says.

That is the measure of the call to separation that comes with the call to follow Jesus. There can be nothing or no one who competes with his call. That may be difficult sometimes but it is a case of, will we listen to God or to those close to us?

Now we should never do this out of bad feelings about our family. It only comes when we recognise our plight and realise that Jesus alone is the answer to it – and that is not about a single commitment at a particular point of history, although it is that; it is a lifelong response. It is what we give ourselves to for the rest of our entire lives. Jesus doesn’t say just follow me for the next week or the next month or the next year. His call is without end!

Lord, I surrender my life to you for you to lead it, both now and for ever more.

11. Gifts Change

Meditations in Romans : 11 :  Gifts are for Change

Rom  1:11-13   I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong– that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.

While we stay with these verses we need to focus on something different, that we have only made brief reference to and which deserves greater consideration; it is about the impartation of gifts and the harvest brought thereby. Paul’s desire to come to the Christians in Rome is partly motivated by a desire to come and “impart to you some spiritual gift.” It is not until he comes to chapter 12 do we see further references to ‘spiritual gifts’. For his greatest exposition on such gifts we need to go to 1 Corinthians 12-14 but all we need say here is that when Paul uses the phrase he is quite clear that he is speaking about some particular manifestation of the Holy Spirit that is used primarily to build up the church. Now some people are very negative about spiritual gifts, more I think out of fear and the recognition that we are talking about a godly supernatural dimension which ‘naturally’ we are unable to operate in. For those of us who like to keep the Christian faith purely in the intellectual realm, the activities of the Holy Spirit, especially when in harmony with us, are particularly threatening.

So Paul is aware that he, as an apostle, has the ability to pray over others at God’s directing and impart these gifts or release these gifts in them. He sees that these gifts will help the Christians in Rome and make them strong. Strength comes when we are flowing in harmony with God’s Holy Spirit, for He is the source of all strength. He is also aware that as he comes with the faith that God has given him, it is an encouragement to the church. Looking back on my own life, I don’t know how many times I have been encouraged and strengthened by being in the presence of others who are gifted by God. Such supernatural gifting helps us realise that this is not merely about intellectual assent; it is about living in relationship with the all-powerful God who is real and who brings His power to bear in our everyday lives as we allow Him to.

Everything about this subject challenges the concept of Christianity being a passive and static faith that is all about just believing certain things. That is where the crusading atheists of the twenty first century are blind, for they do not realise that it is not merely about arguing about specific beliefs. They don’t realise that they are having to combat the living experiences of God that Christians have. It is impossible to explain away the changes that have taken place in my life on purely psychological grounds. It is impossible to explain away the many experiences of God that I have had on purely intellectual or rational grounds.

If only we did have such a thing as time travel then such silly atheists could travel back and watch and investigate the incredible works of Jesus while he was on earth, and then the things that happened to the early Christians as recorded in Acts. Seeing such simple and naïve people doing the impossible again and again would truly upset some of these carping critics. Sadly today most of them seem to lack the integrity that would go and investigate the millions of changed lives that can be observed in those who have encountered Jesus today. Travel the globe and you encounter millions of such people whose lives have been dramatically changed by encountering the living God and His Son Jesus Christ. Where are the other world religions that testify to such changes? Where are the millions of atheists who can testify to their lives being dramatically changed when the heard the good news of atheism, who found a new power source flowing in them that set them free from addictions and bad habits and bad behaviour when they received that good news. We can testify to such things because we have encountered the forgiveness, the love and power of the living God and we know that these are the things that have changed us.

Now for Paul it was a two-way street; it wasn’t merely about him, as an apostle, imparting something of a supernatural dimension to those Christians he encountered. Oh no! What he imparted had an effect on the lives of those Christians and they would thus bring forth ‘a harvest’ or a crop of fruits if you like. When Paul speaks about a harvest he surely means first of all a harvest of salvation of people coming to Christ and giving their lives to him and being born again. That is surely the first ‘harvest’ that he refers to. But there is also the fruit that comes forth in those lives and this goes back to what we were saying earlier.

The Christian faith is not static or passive, it is all about change. It is not about turning up at church once a week, it is about a radical life change that starts when we repent and surrender our lives to Christ and he forgives us and puts his Spirit within us. It is that power that changes us as we allow Him to work in us. Paul was able to write to the Galatians about the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ or the outworking or changes that the Holy Spirit brings in us when we come to Christ. He listed some of those fruits there: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22,23). There will be a steady growth of all these things in the true Christian – and a lot more. It is a life of change, the New Testament declares, a life of becoming more Christ-like. That can only come about as we submit ourselves to the Lord and He, by His Spirit, empowers us and brings about the work of change. That is what Christian leadership is all about – about bringing change to lives through the direction and power of God’s Holy Spirit. Hallelujah!