SOME THOUGHTS ON ‘CONFIDENCE’…

‘He passes through like the wind and invades; but he will be held guilty, the one whose strength is his god’ (Habakkuk 1:11/CEB)***

[The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines confidence as ‘firm trust,’ ‘assured expectation,’ ‘boldness’]

There is a huge emphasis today on personal ‘confidence.’ Research on the raising of children has shown that saturating them with super self-confidence, e.g. ‘You can do anything, you can achieve anything’ can also set them up for failure when encountering real life and perhaps not gaining the promised/imagined/expected results. We hear the success stories but not the drop-out ones. This is what happens, I believe, when we over-exalt human achievement, reason and ‘success’ in our society.

There is of course a valid and healthy self-confidence, when we recognize that each of us has been created uniquely in the image of God, having been given different gifts according to our Father’s wisdom. If you have parents/mentors who nurture this value, you are most fortunate.

On the other hand there is a self/over-confidence which is built on extreme self-belief and pride. E.g. the (smile) example of South Africans priding themselves on leading the top rugby-playing nations of the world. Traditionally the champions have vacillated between our ‘Springboks’ (type of leaping antelope) and the New Zealand ‘All Blacks’ (that’s their uniform).

We recently thrashed the Kiwis in a test-match only to fall prey a week later to over-confidence and succumb before a record crowd of 63,000 at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg. How embarrassing! There’s the example of world-famous Virat Kohli, India’s incredible cricketing batsman, confessing just a while ago that he was suffering from a mental slump in his health, so that he now often feels ‘alone’ in a room full of people. He’s short on runs and his confidence has gone through the floor, the same man who has over many years enthralled hundreds of thousands of people across the globe with his talented captaincy and batting. Think of Steve Jobs of Apple renown: he (understandably) took pride in his magnificent achievements: however before he died a few years ago of pancreatic cancer at the age of 56, he declared that none of his business successes really mattered, the only thing that mattered were relationships and life itself.

Is this not the story of God’s covenant people Israel, repeatedly turning from reliance on GOD to reliance on themselves and the pagan idols of the surrounding nations? Take the account in Judges 6 of Israel being plagued by the Midianites, until God calls one man, Gideon, to stand up and blow the trumpet of truth and call out the nation’s trust in dead idols. The Book of Hebrews chap.’s 2 and 4 emphasize the importance of hearing and obeying God’s Word when he speaks, for he reigns supreme! However in our present Western world we (both society and Church) are ‘thick into idolatry!’ (Walther Brueggemann) We are bound to the gods of military consumerism, greed, fear-driven violence, materialism, exceptionalism (our nation’s enemies are God’s enemies), power and control – only to reap the judgment of a collapsing morality all around us (witness the Russian-Ukrainian war; US gun-violence resulting in the deaths of 12 children every day; etc). And it all starts with the individual, you and me: I’m reminded of the words of William Cowper, ‘The dearest idol I have known, whate’er that idol be, help me to tear it from thy throne And worship only Thee!’ (the hymn is pasted in the opening page of my Bible, but is it pasted in my heart? And yours?) [btw, Brueggemann concludes that the only way to a peacable society is by living the meta-narrative of the Gospel, viz, God’s holiness and neighbourliness]

Then there are assaults on our confidence through personal trials. In my case sickness: I’ve been hospitalized 6 times this year, including for a quadruple bypass with several complications. Beforehand I was issued a pamphlet warning that often males undergoing bypass surgery suffer a collapse of personal confidence during the long recovery period. And yes, it happened in my case! Needless to say, the road back to a healthy self-confidence is a long one and takes constant working on in the power of the Lord. Like the psalmist of old I have to remind myself regularly, ‘Light, space, zest – that’s GOD! So, with him on my side I’m fearless, afraid of no one and nothing. I’m asking GOD for one thing… To live within his house my whole life long. I’ll contemplate his beauty; I’ll study at his feet. That’s the only quiet place in a noisy world, The perfect getaway, from the buzz of traffic. God holds me head and shoulders above all who try to pull me down (Ps. 27:1 and 4ff/MSG). How often, on a daily basis I have to tell myself that my life and circumstances are in the Lord’s hands and that I cannot hasten his healing in my life in the least way.

Thus we all need to build a biblical confidence, learning to confide in GOD as our chief confidant on a daily basis. This is underlined by literally scores of biblical references, including Ps. 27 already referred to, where David addresses some of his personal fears, e.g. personal enemies (like King Saul) seeking his death, etc. But he re-assures himself of ‘living/abiding in’ the LORD’S house (presence) all his days, sure of his defence and protection at all times: ‘But I have sure faith that I will experience the LORD’s goodness in the land of the living…’Hope in the LORD!’ Be strong! Let your heart take courage! Hope in the LORD!’ (v. 13-14/ CEB).

Think of wise King Solomon in Prov. 3: ‘Trust GOD from the bottom of your heart don’t try to figure out everything on your own (how we love to do that). Listen for GOD’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; he’s the one who will keep you on track… ‘(MSG/v. 5ff) ‘The LORD will be your confidence, he will guard your feet from being snared!’ (Prov. 3:25/CEB)

In the NT, the apostle Paul, having unpacked the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Roman church, rejoiced in the Good News reaching the Gentile world so that they also ‘might give glory to God for his mercies to them’ (Rom. 15:9/NLT). In the next few verses, citing the Psalms and the prophet Isaiah, he rejoices in Christ who rules over all and who alone is our abiding hope. “I pray that God, the source of all hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit!’ (15:13/NLT)

My friend, I don’t know where you are in terms of true confidence as you read this, but trust some of the biblical and experiential principles shared from my heart will be, by the revelation of God, of help and blessing to you. Shalom!

*** FOOTNOTE

The abiding value of Habakkuk’s little prophecy (late 600’s BC?) is that it presents the picture of a man who believes and yet questions. God explains that he has sent the surrounding pagan nations to chastise his people Judah, who despite God’s many mercies insisted in corrupting themselves and yielding to pagan idolatry. The next instrument God would use would be the mighty Chaldeans, who ‘worshiped their own strength.’ Habakkuk’s confidence in God amid trial is vindicated by his towering expression of faith scarcely equaled anywhere else in the OT (cf. 3:17ff).

CONFRONTING OUR MORTALITY: A PERSONAL TESTIMONY

[Immortality of course belongs ultimately to the living God alone (cf. Ps. 90, etc), it’s not innate to every person born into this world, as for example the ancient Greek philosophers believed]

Human mortality is such a well-supported historical/biblical fact (Genesis to Revelation) and such a daily reality, yet surprisingly, most try and avoid thinking/talking about it at all costs! In the past 5 years I’ve undergone two major, life-threatening surgical interventions, which in a way forced me to get to grips with the reality of my personal mortality. At present I’m still very much trying to cope following quadruple by-pass surgery, accompanied by some on-going complications. My caring wife and I have been so heartened by the prayers of so many – our wholehearted thanks!

One major thing I can share from personal experience is that we need to learn early the lesson of Francois Fenelon and his ilk that the Christian life and service is all about dying to ourselves and embracing Christ’s cross (Mk. 8:34). In reflective times, I’ve had to say to myself repeatedly, ‘your ministry is not about you, Erroll, its about Christ and him alone!’ – therefore surrender all personal ambition immediately and let the glory go to Jesus. By grace there have been some positive results, but ‘ego’ dies hard. I think of the old hymn ‘The Way of the Cross Leads Home:’ this holds true not just for receiving God’s free gift of salvation (Jn. 3:16) but following Christ in true discipleship. (Mk. 8:34)

The other thing I am very slowly learning is that one cannot hasten the purposes of God. For me, at this moment, my main aim is not to become impatient but to be a daily blessing to my wife and family and reflect something of the grace of Jesus to those around me. I’ve not always been successful but hopefully there has been some progress!

In this journey of pain I’ve found that in the ecclesia believers so easily become condemnatory of others who are suffering in one way or another: you know the popular heresy ‘Christians should not feel depressed,’ etc.The reality is there are often doubts and fears that come our way, even as long-standing Christians. I often pray we could embrace a more Christlike God and human Jesus (D. Bonhoeffer). Trite answers don’t help. I’m reminded of the native American who said, ‘Do not judge your neighbor until you have walked two moons in his moccasins!’

Take for example the need for believers to minister TO JESUS himself: cf. Mt. 25:31-66, where Jesus as the Sovereign, Human One announces the judgment of all the nations which includes a final separation, brought about not by him but folk turning their backs on his Christ-Love. To the latter he dares to say, ‘Get away from meI was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat… thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink… a stranger and you didn’t welcome me… naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me…’ When some query his argument, he replies ‘when you haven’t done it to the least of these, you have not done it for me!’ (v. 41-45, CEB). Hmmm…

We see the same principle in Mt. 26:36ff (‘Jesus At Prayer’ in Gethsemane). Jesus is in deep, personal crisis: socially, emotionally and spiritually. “He said to his disciples, ‘Stay here while I go and pray over there’… ‘I am very sad. It’s as if I’m dying. Stay here and keep alert with me…’ As he undertook to drink ‘the cup of suffering’ he asked the Father three times that he may be spared this torment, to no avail. And all this while his closest friends, whose companionship he was counting on, were repeatedly found wanting. Now it was too late… Would we have acted similarly? If so, Jesus had mercy on the ultimately repentant Peter, and so will he on us if we submit to his Kingship here on earth.

In conclusion, the best way to face our immortality is by being at home with God! Both now and in the future…

I relate the prayer-story of Richard Foster, Quaker theologian and author. In tackling a book on prayer, he was spending endless hours in the university library, late at night on his own. One night he was at the end of his tether and about to abandon his task when something happened! He ‘saw’ something, ‘What I saw was the heart of God, and the heart of God was an open wound of love.’ He heard a voice, that of the true Shepherd: ‘I do not want you to abandon the project. Instead I want you to tell my people, my children, that my heart is broken. Their distance and their preoccupation wounds me. Tell them, tell my children, to come home!’ By this Foster understood that the Father is calling us to turn from all our busyness, striving, pushing and shoving and ‘come home,’ to where we belong, to that for which we were created, home to the loving heart of God! We are to come into his living room, the kitchen, its chatter and batter mix – we are co-labourers with Him, working together for the outcome of events…’ In this interchange, prayer is of course key: hence the book title, ‘Prayer, Finding the Heart’s True Home.’

Is this not what Jesus was teaching in John 15, about the Father’s abiding in us and our abiding in him? ‘Abiding’ refers to being ‘at home,’ with other believers and chiefly with God. ‘Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me… Those who abide in him and I in them bear much fruit… whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers… If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you… If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love…’ (15:1ff/NRSV).

The apostle Paul likewise drives ‘home’ (pun intended) the same metaphor in his Ephesian Epistle, ‘This is why I kneel before the Father… I ask that he will strengthen you in your inner selves from the riches of his glory through the Spirit. I ask that Christ will live in your hearts through faith…’ (3:14ff). Dr. Rex Mathie (SA theologian) once equated it to ‘Christ being/feeling perfectly at home in your hearts’ by faith. He must feel perfectly comfortable in every nook and cranny: family life, our bedrooms, relationships, conversation, etc. The point is does he??

In conclusion, what a beautiful reflection of heavenly life we’re given by the prophet Isaiah long before coming of Messiah; take time to read it in Is. 65:17ff; whenever I despair of life on earth, I find it refreshing to ponder this passage from the prophet giving a realistic picture of life in our ultimate abode. Read it at leisure and let your imagination run…

And now a prayer…

https://youtu.be/2qrryKC9vYY?list=RD2qrryKC9vYY

PT. 4: ‘THE UNBELIEVABLY CONSTRUCTIVE POWER OF BELIEF!’

[How do we, under God, grow our faith in him?? My previous post submitted 5 avenues]

Sixth avenue, by putting our faith into action. Dr. Jordan Peterson (below) is a world-renowned Canadian behavioural psychologist and emeritus prof. at the University of Toronto. He’s a high achiever but simultaneously wonderfully in touch with his own and others’ emotions. In recent times he’s abandoned atheism for a journey toward God, weeping at the mere mention of Jesus’ name. Peterson argues cogently and enthusiastically that ‘belief absolutely necessitates acting on it!’

2000+ years ago the apostle James made the same point in writing to scattered, persecuted Christian groups about ‘Listening and Doing’ (I guess most of us are poor at both?). His readers were surely familiar with the many ‘religions’ of the day – James writes concerning a unique, ‘pure religion’ of God the Father: “Don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise you are only fooling yourselves. For if you listen to the word but don’t obey it, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it! If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows and refusing to let the world corrupt you’ (1:22-27/NLT) (‘world’ here = the idolatrous, humanistic, egoistic, materialistic society-system of every age). And so we could be long-time professing believers, kidding ourselves about the genuineness of our faith and practice! If so, let’s repent and act, beginning with v. 26-27!

There is need not only for individual repentance but corporate repentance. A week ago News24 in South Africa published an article by Dikeledi Molatoli,‘The Dead Faith of Christian Churches.’ In it he highlighted the SA Council of Churches’ response to one of the deadliest floods ever to hit our country (in Kwazulu-Natal), claiming the lives of some 500 people and leaving 8,000 homeless. The message included condolences and a request to ‘set aside a moment of prayer’ on Good Friday. The author expressed dismay at this inadequate response: not even calling the Church to contribute finances, food, water, blankets, clothing and equipment. All this when the local Islamic ‘Gift of the Givers’ was already on the ground with immediate practical aid, many churches working alongside that organization because of its proven record in SA and abroad. Molatoli then goes on to quote Jam. 2:14ff, ‘”My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? … Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, ‘Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!’? … In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity!” (CEB)

I’m reminded of a powerful, personal encounter with Jam. 1:26-27 many years ago. I attended our annual national ‘Synod’ on the Reef (Gauteng). One of the early speakers was Ds (Pastor) Christo Botes from Belville in the Cape. I remember feeling so disappointed at the turnout, approximately 50 leaders out of a potential 200? He and his flock had been engaging the poor and broken on the streets and under the bridges of their suburb. His text was Jam. 1:26-27, an ‘unusual’ one for ‘evangelicals’? As he shared those brief verses and his congregation’s journey with the needy, the Spirit was powerfully at work. At the conclusion of his message, he made an invitation in the context of James’ definition of ‘true religion.’ Now imho professional pastors can be some of the proudest and self-sufficient people, believe you me! Overwhelmed, I made my way to the front of the meeting place and knelt there weeping. Others joined me, a bit of heaven came down, and I knew I would never be quite the same again – a powerful, living seed was planted within me that day, and grows within me still. [PS, 15 years ago I learned that 80% of our world is young and poor]

While we are all called to this ‘pure religion,’ some of my readers may/will be called to give themselves more fully to the challenge of the poor – some of my younger readers, and even older ones! (I recall visiting the underground church in China and meeting an elderly couple from the West overseeing a home for children with special needs). So let me tell you the story of Craig Greenfield and family (pic below)…

Craig grew up in New Zealand, came from an affluent home, and from his earliest years wanted to be well-off, climb the corporate ladder and drive a really fast car! Then, as a corporate executive, Jesus interrupted his life while travelling in Cambodia. He recognized his Saviour in the distressing eyes of the many orphan children. ‘I realized that Jesus left the most exclusive gated community in the universe to move in among us!’ (see Addendum). He and his wife, a Khmer Rouge refugee, emigrated to Canada. Soon God called them both to plant orphanages in Cambodia, and they moved in among the destitute of that distant land. God gave them much success, under extremely trying and dangerous circumstances. At one point, with their lives in danger, they were forced to return to Vancouver, again moving into an inner city community, this time to create a safe community for addicts and the homeless. Over the years they’ve established ‘Alongsiders International,’ a grassroots youth discipleship-movement spreading into Asia, Africa, Europe and beyond. In fact I’ve just read of their work in Malawi in Central Africa, where thousands of children are starving. [In my own tiny ministry in the slum areas of my city, I have learned from Craig ‘never to do for the poor what they can do for themselves’ – quite a challenge to keep the balance, I can tell you]

All of us need to ensure that we escape the extremely subtle self-interest and materialism of our time, live a simple life, so that we can take care of the vulnerable in one way or another. Bob Goff, NY TIMES best-selling author, lawyer and philanthropist, has challenged comfortable churches and church leaders with these pungent words: ‘If you want applause, join the circus, if you want Jesus, find the poor!’

ADDENDUM:

We’ll never be able to fully plumb the depths of that pivotal scripture, Jn. 1:14, this side of heaven! The apostle John has been speaking about the eternal ‘Logos/Word of God’ moving into our world of time and space at a specific point in history. We need to read the preceding verses, i.e. v. 1-13, to capture the the context of God’s massive self-revelation to humankind: v. 14ff/NLT, ‘So the Word became human (Gr. ‘became flesh’) and made his home among us (lit. ‘pitched his tent among us’). He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son’ (the OT word ‘glory’ carries the idea of weightiness, the NT word that of splendour/beauty). The MSG paraphrases v. 14, ‘The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.’ Here is God’s own expression of ‘true religion!’ How shall we express our faith today?? Please ponder that before moving on in your busy world, and may God be with us all!

[PT. 3] ‘THE UNBELIEVABLY CONSTRUCTIVE POWER OF BELIEF!’

HOW do we, under GOD, grow our faith in him?? Let me suggest 6 biblical avenues worth exploring, hopefully avoiding that ‘magic formula’ approach so popular in today’s ‘Church’:

First, by recognizing our helplessness before God and looking to him alone. I refer my readers to Luke’s account of the conversation between Jesus and the two criminals crucified beside him: “One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him, ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, ‘Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus replied, ‘I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise’ (Lk. 23:39-43/CEB). Someone (despite many attempts I’ve been unable to identify the author) has asked very aptly, “How does the thief on the cross fit into your theology? No baptism, no communion, no confirmation, no speaking in tongues, no mission trip, no volunteerism, and no church clothes. He couldn’t even bend his knees to pray. He didn’t say the sinner’s prayer and among other things, he was a thief. Jesus didn’t take away his pain, heal his body, smite the scoffers. Yet it was a thief who walked into heaven the same hour as Jesus simply by believing. He had nothing more to offer other than his belief that Jesus was who he said he was. No spin from brilliant theologians. No ego or arrogance. No shiny lights, skinny jeans, or crafty words. No haze machine, donuts, or coffee in the entrance. Just a naked dying man on a cross unable to even fold his hands to pray.”

More than a century ago 15-year-old Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) was on his way ‘to church’ during a snowstorm in Colchester, England. The blizzard worsened and he decided to shelter in a Primitive Methodist Chapel on the way. The congregation was small, the ‘licensed’ preacher hadn’t arrived, the teenager sat down to hear a ‘layman’ (I don’t enjoy these terms) preach. The preacher kept repeating the words of the Prophet Isaiah, ‘Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else!’ (45:22/KJV) The outcome? Charles simply ‘looked to Jesus’ by faith that day and went on, despite chronic illness and seasons of depression, to become ‘The Prince of Preachers’ and initiator of orphanages for the poor. All of London was plunged into mourning, with 100,000 lining the streets for the funeral procession, flags at half-mast and every pub closed in honour of this man.

Second, by habitual Bible-reading through the lenses of Jesus. His sent-one, the Apostle Paul later wrote to the Roman ecclesia concerning the Jews, “So how can they call on someone they don’t have faith in? And how can they have faith in someone they haven’t heard of? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who announce the good news.’ But everyone has not obeyed the good news… So, faith comes from listening, but it’s listening by means of Christ’s message” (10:14-17/CEB).

My wife grew up in an assembly proclaiming the Gospel of Christ. Her mother regularly instructed her girls, ‘Just read the Bible, even if you don’t always understand it.’ I fell in love with the beautiful ‘product’ of that old-fashioned up-bringing, more than 4 decades of happy marriage behind us. I would add, read the Bible even if you have no Christian background. English Professor Rosaria Butterfield of Ohio State University was an outspoken lesbian and gay rights activist for years. She was befriended by a pastor and his wife, hated his preaching, but decided to read the Bible for herself multiple times… she was converted in 1999. She married a pastor, raised a family and is currently an astute apologist for marriage according to the original Creation mandate (cf. YouTube).

Third, by regularly feeding our belief. CS Lewis wrote in his ‘Mere Christianity’, ‘There are three things that spread the life of Christ to us: baptism, belief… and Holy Communion. If you have once accepted Christianity, then some of its main doctrines shall be deliberately held before your mind for some time every day. We have to be continually reminded of what we believe. Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive. It must be fed!’ At simplest, The Apostles’ Creed comes to mind, i.e. reciting it, thinking about it’s statements and even singing it (cf. Hill Song’s ‘This I Believe’ below).

Fourth, by lovingly ‘gossiping the Good News.’ The story is told of Englishman John Bunyan (1628-1688) of Bedford being powerfully influenced to faith by a few poor women in conversation one day in a doorway. He paused and overheard them speaking of their ‘new birth’ and the Spirit’s indwelling. He listened amazed, painfully aware that he knew none of this. Bunyan, through many spiritual struggles, was eventually converted to bless the world with his ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ and 60 other titles! You may protest ‘I’m no Bunyan!’ May I resume the story of my wife: like her mother (the latter sadly died of cancer at 42) who would spontaneously engage with anyone in the neighbourhood concerning her Saviour, she is one of the most ‘natural’ evangelists I know. I can’t tell you how many have entered her nursing clinic over decades, been gently prayed for (with their permission and without wasting her boss’s time), resulting in an amazing harvest of ‘ordinary’ and professional people drawn nearer Christ. Even if you’re not some Bible scholar, never underestimate the power of your personal testimony to Christ and the change he’s worked in your life!

Of course, winsome Christian Apologists (my personal favourite? Prof. John Lennox of Oxford) have a powerful role to play in our post-modern world. However, I believe Swiss theologian Karl Barth was also right when he said:

Fifth, by persistent prayer even in the face of our world’s stubborn unbelief. As one Ukrainian believer reminded the world recently, ‘Prayer is more powerful than rockets!’ To quote Barth again:

I think the notion of mass prayer being somehow more powerful than small group prayer, generally speaking, is a fallacy (I can think of at least one exception, the 1994 mass stadium prayer-gathering in Durban, South Africa, when a peaceful transition to democracy was sealed at the last moment: however we must never underestimate the many preparatory small all-night prayer meetings across the nation under the leadership of Dr. Michael Cassidy and African Enterprise, leading to that national breakthrough). Consider again Christ’s assurance in Mt. 18:18-20 to the effect that two or three believers in prayer-agreement can bring down his divine presence and power. The young praying Evan Roberts of the 1904/5 Welsh revival comes to mind, his prayers and testimony impacting Welsh society and nations for years! I treasure my copy of David Matthews’ ‘I Saw the Welsh Revival:’ I heard the latter preach in my city as a teen – he was in his 80’s, but the fire was on him still!

This post has just borne twins, I’ll leave point 6 for the near future. We’ve more than enough to process in the mean time!

[PT. 2] ‘BELIEF (IN GOD): IT’S UNBELIEVABLY CONSTRUCTIVE POWER!’

Having dealt with the unbelievably destructive power of unbelief, we now consider ‘THE UNBELIEVABLY CONSTRUCTIVE POWER OF BELIEF!’ Here follows Part 2 of what has grown into a trilogy (wink)…

Again, we’re talking about faith in GOD, who has so graciously revealed himself in creation (‘the first Bible’); human conscience; and history, i.e. in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth who lived among us, died and rose from the dead! All this, in immense love to rescue us from ourselves, sin, and self-destruction and then to bless us with an eternal love-relationship with himself. [Reminder: we’re not talking here about the power of positive thinking (Norman Vincent Peale), nor ‘faith in faith’ (Kenneth Hagin and his ‘word of faith’ heresy), nor innate ‘belief’ (‘new ager’ Oprah Winfrey and panentheist Fr. Richard Rohr)]

(1) To clarify biblical faith, we turn firstly to Luke 7:1-10, the historian’s account of a very special Roman centurion serving in Capernaum on the North West shore of Galilee, who came to believe in the Messiah. Roman centurions were seconded for administration purposes during a very turbulent period in Palestine’s history. It’s interesting that all 5 Roman centurions mentioned in the NT are men of standing and visible integrity, picked for their character and strength (Dr. E.M. Blaiklock). It’s not strange to find this particular officer attracted to Judaism and its lofty views of God and stern moral conduct – many Romans had long discovered the unsatisfying nature of the Roman and Greek gods. This man seems to have gained some insight into the arrogance of so many Jewish leaders, suspicious of the Nazarene’s messianic claims. In fact, he sees something of the worth and wonder of Jesus’ person – thus he comes to seek him with courtesy, reverence and trust, on behalf of his beloved dying servant. He certainly understood that Jesus had come not only for the salvation of Jews but also Gentiles who were receptive to him. He asks some Jewish friends to approach Jesus for the healing of his servant. In glad response, Jesus had almost reached his house when the officer sends new messengers to Jesus not to bother coming to his home, feeling unworthy of his sheer presence. As a military man of some experience he understands how authority works, so he says: “Just say the word, and my servant will be healed…” When Jesus heard this, he was mightily impressed… He turned to the following crowd and said, ‘I tell you, even in Israel I haven’t found faith like this.’ When the centurion’s emissaries returned home, they found the servant fully restored to health! (v. 6ff/CEB). As South Africa’s superb exegete of yesteryear, J. Norval Geldenhuys, has said (commenting on the centurion’s deep, humble and whole-hearted faith in Christ), ‘Today this is still the only way to receive the divine blessings – we must realize our own utter unworthiness, but at the same time cherish a steadfast faith in Christ Jesus, our Lord.’ In the context of this post, a clear example of the unbelievably constructive power of belief in God!

(2) Biblical faith comes in the context of a great prior, divine love. Here we think of the apostle John’s story, beautifully elucidated in ch. 3 of his testimony to Christ. Many years ago as a young man I heard the renowned American evangelist Dr. Billy Graham preach in Johannesburg South Africa, packing out the Wanderers cricket stadium with folk spilling on to the grass pitch right up to the podium. This was during the Apartheid days, the evangelist bravely insisting on addressing a multi-cultural audience – fortunately our government relented because of popular demand! At that time a popular movie, ”Love Story,” was doing the rounds. Dr. Graham entitled his message, ‘The Greatest Love Story Ever Told,’ basing it on John’s pivotal Jn. 3:16 text. As a believer I was deeply moved by that simple message – on the other hand a fine family member I had invited along, was impressed but remains indifferent to Jesus’ loving claims to this day. His response confirms the message of Pt. 1, i.e. the unbelievably destructive power of unbelief in the face of Jesus’ glorious revelation and his loving call.

(3) Let’s take a glimpse at the great apostle Paul’s theology of saving faith: writing expansively about ‘The Faith of Abraham’ (Rom. 4:1-25), we read that the aged ‘Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact his faith grew stronger (his was a growing faith), and in this he brought glory to God. He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises…’ (v. 20-21/NLT). To this kind of persevering faith, as Abraham’s spiritual seed, we too are called.

By way of practical application, let’s take a look at the faith of two outstanding figures in more recent Church history. They and their devoted families were certainly flawed (as we all are), but hugely faithful and fruitful!

A) Adoniram Judson (1788-1850), American Baptist missionary to Burma, today Myanmar. Of him John Piper wrote ‘He died a thousand times and lived!’ In tropical Burma he and his loved ones suffered multiple diseases such as cholera and malaria. His wife had to take care of their young children when Adoniram was imprisoned for his preaching. Judson underwent total burn-out as a result of his demanding ministry, to the point of digging and sitting beside his own grave. Happily married three times, his wives lost more than seven of their children to disease and weakness. Judson, having married a third time, himself became severely ill, dying alone and unknown at the age of 62, his coffin let into the ocean off the East African coast en route to America. His ministry and that of those following in his footsteps left a massive harvest: 3,700 congregations, 617,000 members and 2 million affiliates! (portrait below)

B) So also Englishman Dr. James Hudson-Taylor (1832-1905) and his family, founders of the famed China Inland Mission. Called to China at the age of 21, Dr. Taylor sailed for that great land to share the Good News at all costs. He learned the power of faith and prayer from his mother and sister. His mission motto was, ‘God’s work done in God’s way will never lack his supplies!’ By faith alone he planted 20 mission stations, enlisted 840 missionaries, and raised some $400 million from the Western Church for the work. It’s estimated that his ministry resulted in 125,000 converts of whom he personally baptized some 50,000! All this while suffering poor sight and sickness, many robberies, depression, his wife’s many illnesses and the loss of 4 children. [A missionary friend of ours in Hong Kong is presently writing her Ph.D on Taylor’s Song of Songs meditations – I learned something of their richness at a silent retreat in our metro some years ago]

From these two faithful mountain-movers, back to Jesus. His frustrated disciples, when confronted with a demon-possessed boy whom they were unable to help, asked the Master why they couldn’t cure the lad: “Because you have little faith… I assure you that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed (so tiny), you could say to this mountain, ‘Go from here to there,’ and it will go. There will be nothing that you can’t do!” (Mt. 17:20/CEB). I don’t know about you, but this statement embarrasses me and (I believe) much of today’s Church no end! Hence in Pt. 3 we’ll think about how to ‘grow our faith’ under God, in our present post-modern world.

[In the mean time, I’m sure you’ll identify with the soulful prayer below]

‘UNBELIEF AND BELIEF: THEIR UNBELIEVABLE POWER!’ [Part 1, The Incredibly Destructive Power of Unbelief]

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[Hiroshima 75 years ago]

There are so many massively destructive powers in our world presently, not least in the political, social, economic, ecological and health realms. We’re all aware of Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine – our news media daily update us on the terribly destructive rocket fire and tank attacks on Ukraine’s major cities. I submit that, in the spiritual and eternal realm, humankind has always been threatened by ‘THE INCREDIBLY DESTRUCTIVE POWER OF UNBELIEF!’

Going back two millenia, the evangelist Mark (6:1-6a) captures the ministry of Jesus in Nazareth. This record demonstrates some sharp contrasts between the Nazarene’s failure and success, opposition and acceptance, misunderstanding and understanding – of all places, in Nazareth, where he grew up! We might have expected the village to give a warm welcome to its now famous son, just as a modern country might celebrate some distinguished person whose reputation has spread across the globe: e.g. South African and world statesman Nelson Mandela, who first brokered peace in our divided nation. But when Jesus visits the local synagogue on the Sabbath and accepts an invitation to teach, his audience is largely skeptical – surprised but not impressed: “They asked, ‘Where did he get all this wisdom and power to perform such miracles?’ Then they scoffed, ‘He’s just a carpenter, the Son of Mary and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon. And his sisters live right here among us.’ They were deeply offended and refused to believe in him'” (v. 2-3/NLT) [The fact that Joseph isn’t mentioned here indicates that by now he was probably deceased or it was a blatant insult to the family: Bible scholar E.M. Blaiklock makes the point that in ancient Hebrew culture, describing a person’s parentage without naming the father was tantamount to hinting at illegitimacy, i.o.w. a calculated insult!] The sad result: ‘Because of their unbelief’ there was nothing Jesus, the very Son of God, could do in Nazareth beyond healing a few sick (v.5-6). All he could do was remind his followers that great men (and women) are not appreciated at home, even the greatest of prophets! The evangelist John brilliantly exposes the essence of unbelief, commenting on the work of the Holy Spirit: ‘And when he comes, he will convict the world of its sin, and of God’s righteousness, and of the coming judgment. The world’s sin is that it refuses to believe in me… (Jn. 16:8-9/NLT). In short, there is a day of ultimately accountability, and our final destiny depends on what we think of and do with Jesus!

In sharp contrast (Mk. 6:6b-13), Jesus’ work had now reached such momentum beyond Nazareth that he could send out the Twelve to repeat his work in the power of the Spirit, through preaching, exorcising demons and healing the sick wherever people accepted them (otherwise they were to shake that town’s dust off their feet, an action all pious Jews performed on leaving a Gentile territory). A seemingly harsh judgment, but indicating to Jew and Gentile alike the seriousness of unbelief! Mark ends this passage with good news: ‘So the disciples went out, telling everyone they met to repent of their sins and turn to God. And they cast out many demons and healed many sick people, anointing them with olive oil’ (v. 12-13) (cf. Acts 13:46-52 where Luke contrasts the Jews’ stubborn unbelief in Pisidian Antioch with the Gentiles’ joyful response to the Good News).

[Just a mention of Mk. 8:1-21, recording Jesus’ miraculous feeding of 4000 people, in spite of the disciples’ ill-preparation and lack of faith in the Master’s power] In Mk. 9:14ff we read of Jesus’ encounter with a loving dad who had brought his severely demon-possessed boy to the disciples for healing, his followers failing to do so because they were ‘faithless people.’ Jesus responds, ‘bring the boy to me.’ Dad replies, ‘Have mercy on us and helps us if you can.’ Jesus: ‘If I can?… Anything is possible if a person believes.’ Dad: ‘I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!’ (v. 24) (I’ve been there many times, haven’t you?) After some struggle, the boy is set free to the joy of his family! When the embarrassed disciples ask Jesus why they were unable to help the boy, Jesus responds,‘This kind can only be cast out by prayer’ (v. 29/some mss ‘by prayer and fasting) – one assumes by fervent, sincere and persistent prayer as an expression of true faith in God. (I know of some staggering healings right here in my city, which only took place months or in one case years later, in answer to believing prayer)

The Epistles endorse the Gospels’ teaching, a clear example being Heb. 3:16ff, written by Apollos (?) to persecuted Jewish (and Gentile) believers tempted to return to un-persecuted Judaism. The writer reminds them that Jesus is infinitely greater than Moses! ‘And who was it that rebelled against God, even though they heard his voice? Wasn’t it the people Moses led out of Egypt? … And to whom was God speaking when he took an oath that they would never enter his rest? Wasn’t it the people who disobeyed him? So we see that because of their unbelief they were not able to enter his rest’ (NLT).

My fellow-pilgrim, the message of unbelief is not just for ‘those bad (and perhaps ‘good but lost’) people out there’ who refuse to believe. Every time I’m tempted to control circumstances myself, with resultant anxiety, am I really believing in Jesus? I think of passages such as Ps. 27 (recently, after some teaching on this psalm by one of our house church members, we decided to read it privately every day for a week, with much benefit), Mt. 6:25-34 and Phil. 4:6-7… Faith surely = TRUST!

Finally, imagine the plight of the billions around the world today, who, having been faced by God’s truth and love powerfully expressed over millennia in creation, our conscience, the Bible and the Living Word, only to turn their back on this revelation in preference to their ego, resulting in eternal lost-ness! It makes me shudder. We recall Jesus’ familiar words in Jn. 3:16, ‘This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.’ Jesus continues in v. 17ff, ‘God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-king Son of God when introduced to him’ (MSG). That same Jesus urges each generation (us) to preach his Kingdom to all the world – by word, deed and life. Are we?? Someone related the story of a lone Christian prisoner in a Nazi death camp bungalow. For breaking some minor camp-rule the inmates were all sentenced to death by locking them up with no access to air, food and drink. The story goes that, aware of the inevitable, the Christian man began to share the message of Jesus with each one. When he had completed his task, he died. What an example for us all…

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PLEASE LOOK OUT FOR PART TWO OF THIS CRITICALLY IMPORTANT TOPIC

AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH (PT. 2)

In part 1 we submitted that a major ‘inconvenient truth’ facing today’s world and Church is the widespread failure to grasp the identity of Jesus as ‘Lord:’ i.e. of our life, God’s people and the whole universe!

[I recall standing at the foot of the Christ statue overlooking Rio de Janeiro and longing that its and the world’s citizens would bow before him as Saviour and Lord in their hearts]

(3) Having examined the gradual revelation of Jesus’ identity to Simon Peter, we now come to the full revelation as recorded by the historian-evangelist Luke in his Acts of the Apostles. Peter boldly proclaims to the Pentecost crowds gathered from all nations in Jerusalem: ‘Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified!’ (Acts 2:14-36) The result was an outpouring of the Spirit on the penitent crowd that added thousands to the kingdom of God in a matter of days.

(4) We next refer to a mature Peter, encouraging the persecuted assemblies of Asia Minor to bow before Jesus, even amid their sufferings and anxieties. Both Rome and the Judaizers were constantly hounding them. However, Peter encourages them: ‘But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you… do it with gentleness and reverence’ (1 Pet. 3:14-16). British Bible scholar Alan Stibbs comments,‘In such circumstances (i.e. suffering for righteousness’ sake) they should maintain their heart-reverence for Christ as Lord and be ready openly to confess their Christian hope… It is note worthy that the sanctuary in which Christ is to be acknowledged as holy and worshiped is the heart. Such phraseology may have in mind circumstances due to persecution in which joining in corporate worship in the common meeting-place might be impossible. Christians are thus exhorted, whatever their circumstances, to enjoy living communion with Christ by realizing His indwelling Presence and by maintaining inner heart reverence towards Him. Such an exhortation also emphasizes the inner and spiritual character of all true Christian worship. It is ultimately independent of place. For Christ has promised to manifest His Presence, not in particular buildings, nor in connection with visible material objects, but with His people, in their hearts and in their midst (cf. Mt. 18:20; 28:20)… The Christian is then to engage, not in an aggressive attack on the other person’s will or prejudice, but in a logical account (the word translated ‘reason’ is ‘logos’), or reasoned explanation of the hope that is distinctive of the Christian community (cf. Heb. 10:24/RV). He ought, also, to do it with meekness and fear, i.e. without arrogance or self-assertion, with due respect and deference towards men, and with proper awe and reverence before God.’ Now it’s hard to submit to Christ’s lordship when suffering and anxious, wouldn’t you agree? At the same time it’s absolutely necessary that we do so at all times, for it’s a reminder that ultimately God, in his sovereign love, is in control of all that comes our way, individually and as assemblies. Such an attitude also makes us far better people and ‘apologists’ for the hope that is in us…

Thanks to a fellow-blogger, I recently took note (via YouTube) of South African/Canadian genius Elon Musk, of space exploration and Tesla Motor Co. fame, being interviewed on a Christian TV show, babylonbee. The interview was about his views on Jesus. The presenters tried to probe his stance regarding Jesus: graciously, humorously and brilliantly he evaded a clear and direct answer. Yes, he did approve of Jesus’ teachings (turn the other cheek, etc), but basically indicated that Jesus was welcome to get on with his mission while he focused on his. As a voracious reader, I hope Musk has read some of equally brilliant CS Lewis’ writings, which make such a view untenable. Either Jesus is what he claimed to be or he’s a madman! (1)

On the same point South African Dr. Michael Cassidy relates the dialogue between missionary statesman E. Stanley Jones and the renowned Mahatma Ghandi, whom he’d got to know very well during his many years of ministry in India. Ghandi (1869-1948), a Hindu, was talking about his admiration of Jesus’ principles in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Mt. 5-7), to which Jones replied, ‘But oh, Mahatma, Mahatma, you have missed the Person!’ At the end of the day it’s not about our religions, philosophies, the golden rule, our morals or ethics – it’s about the PERSON who lived and preached the sermon! My dear friends, are you and I (and our faith communities) crystal-clear regarding Jesus’ identity, even if ‘an inconvenient truth’ to us?

In summary, the kingdom is for the obedient: Jesus in the same Sermon on the Mount said, ‘Don’t look for shortcuts to God. The market is flooded with surefire, easygoing formulas for a successful life that can be practiced in your spare time. Don’t fall for that stuff, even though crowds of people do. The way to life – to God! – is vigorous and requires total attention… What is required is serious obedience – doing what the Father wills. I can see it now – at the Final Judgment thousands strutting up to me and saying, ‘Master, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God-sponsored projects had everyone talking.’ And do you know what I am going to say to you? ‘You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit. You’re out of here!’ (Mt. 7:13-14, 21-23/MSG) (2)

A final story… Elizabeth Prentiss (1818-1878), lost her father Edward Payson at age 8, after he had suffered much and long from TB. For years she struggled with anger, toward God and others. Determined to beat this anger, she married a minister, George Prentiss. They were deeply in love. Two children were born to them, then they lost young Eddie to meningitis. Three months later little Bessie was born, the picture of health – suddenly she fell ill at about one month, dying the next day. Through her many struggles with suffering she came to see the ‘bigger picture’ of God’s sovereignty and love revealed in Christ. Out of this pain and triumph she wrote the moving hymn ‘More love to Thee, O Christ, more love to Thee…’ Re this hymn, I’ve read somewhere that a group of North Korean Christians sang it when facing an on-coming steam-roller. I’d love to congratulate them in heaven one day. (3)

FOOTNOTES:

(1) Musk professes to follow Benedict de Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch/Jewish philosopher and rationalist who promoted a kind of pantheism, leading to what has become known as the ‘Enlightenment,’ still so influential today (how ‘enlightening’ you can decide for yourself).

(2) It was Welshman Edwin Orr who said ‘revival’ is like judgment day (another ‘inconvenient truth’). Cf. the Scottish Cambuslang Revival under George Whitefield – we’re told the hillside looked like a battle-field of the fallen!

(3) Do yourself a favour and listen to Dr. Henry Blackaby speak on ‘Corporate Revival’ (2002). Personal repentance and obedience to Christ as Lord was ‘key’ in the famous 1907 Korean revival, as it is to this day…

‘AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH’ (PART 1)

Former USA Presidential candidate, Al Gore, produced an Oscar-winning documentary about the world environment, explaining how humans have messed up our planet. The documentary issued an urgent warning on what must be done, and done quickly, to save the earth. That was 12 years ago! The title of the production? AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH.’ It still is.

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There’s another inconvenient truth facing today’s world and the Church in particular: a widespread failure to grasp the identity of Jesus as Lord! There are many reasons for this, I’ve selected three in the light of our times (1 Chron. 12:32; Lk. 12:54-56; Rom. 13:11-14)…

(1) A general biblical illiteracy among Christians. People today tend not to read, never mind read the Bible. We prefer to view/listen-to our ecclesiastical gurus via the media, use their ‘thought for the day’ devotionals (often selective and devoid of context), etc.

(2) Daily breathing-in the toxic air of an egoistic world and Church environment. Many believers have sold out to selfish humanism; ‘personal peace’ (Francis Schaeffer); the ‘prosperity gospel;’ a search for ‘identity,’ no matter the source: nothing wrong with personality-tests and enneagram wings but none compare to Christ’s estimation of us; an egoistic existentialism that leaves zero room for any kind of objectivity: a scientist friend of mine used to say that when lost at sea its helpful to have a lighthouse or two! Overall, we set ourselves up as judges of all, including God himself, who has come so gracefully and beautifully near humankind in Jesus. The creature is worshiped instead of the Creator (cf. Gen. 1-3; Rom. 1). Speak out against the ‘worship’ of political correctness, wokeism (etc) of our day and you’re seen as un-scientific, ill-informed, obscurantist and intolerant (1).

(3) Our Creator-Redeemer formed us for his pleasure and ours: he means us to see him, live with him and draw our life from his smile. Tragically we’ve been part of that ‘foul revolt’ of which Milton wrote when describing the rebellion of Satan and his hosts (2). The undeniable consequences are there for all to see.

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Let’s take a look now at Jesus’ identity through the eyes of Simon Peter, one of his oh-so-human followers…

1st, Peter’s encounter with Jesus of Nazareth on the Galilean seashore, as recorded by scientist-historian Luke. Simon (and his fellow hardy fishermen) had worked all night without a catch. Jesus tells Peter to put out into deep water and try again. His reluctant obedience resulted in a colossal catch, threatening nets and boats alike! He falls down at Jesus’ knees, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ Jesus encourages him not to be afraid: ‘from now on you will be catching people.’ When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him” (cf. Lk. 5:1-11/NRSV). An early hint at Jesus’ identity through the eyes of our friend…

2nd, Peter’s land-mark identification of Jesus at Caesarea Philippi (just north of Galilee), passed on by OT specialist Matthew (Mt. 16:1-20). Caesarea Philippi was home to the Graeco-Roman god Pan, half human, half goat. He ruled the wilds, shepherds, pastures, etc, hence his popularity in this rural area. His worship included gross immorality, prostitution, bestiality, etc. Just prior to this Jesus had faced another (not so obvious) occultic challenge, i.e. from the sign-seeking and controlling clergy of the day (v. 1-12). In this difficult context, Jesus asks his disciples what people-on-the ground were saying about his identity (v. 13-20): “‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say I am?’ Simon Peter answered (speaking for the group?) ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!’Matthew loves and repeats Jesus’ title ‘Son of Man’ (v. 13), signifying Messiah’s sovereignty and suffering (many imagine it’s only about his humanity: Dan. 7:13-14 kills that idea). Next Peter refers to him as ‘the Son of the living God’ (v. 16). Bear in mind that Israel’s expected messiah was not necessarily divine: the nation was looking largely for a national political deliverer, whereas he had come to be Saviour and Lord of all nations (Mt. 28:16ff). In all this Matthew points us to Jesus’ early and burning desire for a core-group of ‘ordinary followers,’ utterly convinced of his identity as Ruler over all. Our Lord follows up Peter’s inspired response with“‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church (ekklesia = a local assembly of believers: how much damage this mis-translation has done over the centuries) and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it!'” (Mt. 16:13-20) [The granting of total Church authority to Peter according to Roman Catholic dogma respectfully has no parallel in the NT Gospels or Epistles, nor does the Book of Acts identify any such unique and ‘infallible’ authority in the Apostolic leadership of the Church. That authority belongs to Jesus alone (3)]. What makes Peter’s response unique is his precise expression of Christ’s identity, although hardly grasping it at the time.

We hope to look further at Peter’s journey with Jesus in Part 2. In the mean time, if seriously seeking God, do consider Prof. CS Lewis’s challenge:

‘You must make your choice: either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God!’

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And if you’re a little further down the road in following Jesus, I invite you to make a fuller/full surrender to his lordship, in your personal and corporate life: do so in the context of God’s relentless love (‘furious love’/Brennan Manning) in Christ for you and the whole world. Christ’s Kingship and Saviourhood are inseparable twins.

FOOTNOTES:

(1) Canadian blogger Rusty Foerger (More Enigma than Dogma) has very helpfully addressed the pressures of being ‘PC’ at all times, ‘wokeism,’ etc. Cf. ‘When You’re Not Woke Enough,’ etc. Heather Holbrook commented, ‘Only Jesus is fully woke. We must strive to be like him.’ ‘Yes’ to both of them! (cf. Eph. 5:8-16/NRSV).

(2) Cf. F.V. Filson, Professor of NT at McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago. Et al…

(3) Cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s poem ‘WHO AM I,’ concluding ‘Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!’ On the basis of Part 1 above, I submit that we as God’s unique creation discover our own identity best in Christ’s! Give this some thought, would you? And if you’re one of those dear people painfully wrestling (I’m sure) with gender identity, I humbly commend to you the personal journey and testimony of Prof. Rosario Butterfield, easily accessible on YouTube.

(4) I gave much of my ministerial life to counseling believers: in an attempt to be empathetic, I regret too often failing to point them to the inconvenient lordship of Jesus Christ over our attitudes, choices and behaviour.

MAMZO MARY

‘To him who has the Son, Scripture is an open book!’

(Martin Luther)*

‘Mamzo’ is the isiXhosa (one of South Africa’s 11 languages) for ‘Mum.’ It’s given to a dear and honoured Mum (or Gran), as with Mary, Mum of Jesus and his siblings. Mary would have fought tooth and nail against kind of veneration – she believed Yahweh alone deserved that honour. Yet Mamzo Mary teaches us much as Jesus’ disciples (apprentices).

A young Jewish virgin between twelve and fifteen, Mary was engaged to a salted and respected Nazareth carpenter-builder, Joseph.

Luke, the physician-historian (1), gives us a glimpse of God’s mighty intervention in young Mary’s life through the angel Gabriel: “Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. ‘Don’t be afraid, Mary… you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Son of the Most High…'” (Lk. 1:26ff/NLT). Wow! These words vibrate with other-worldly majesty, mystery and purity. At the end of the exchange between Mary and Gabriel, she simply and remarkably responds, ‘I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true’ (v. 38). Now put yourself in ‘her sandals’ for a moment, then accelerate to 2021 and Christendom’s degeneration to ‘what can you do for ME’ instead of ‘I am at YOUR disposal, my Lord and King!’

Next Luke records ‘The Magnificat,’ ‘Mary’s Song of Praise’ (1:46-55). Obviously Mary had a poetic gift, inspired by God’s Spirit – take a moment just to soak in her magnificent words (perhaps from a good Bible version/paraphrase you’re not used to)…

All climaxes in the actual birth of Jesus (2:1ff), the angel of the Lord visiting the shepherds in the Bethlehem fields, the armies of heaven singing ‘Glory to God in highest heaven,’ followed by the shepherds’ rushing off to see the baby (and afterward publishing their findings far and wide)… By sharp contrast, Mary ‘kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often’ (2:19/NLT). Or, ‘Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself” (MSG). These words reveals a pensive, deep-thinking lass to say the least! You know, there are sometimes words and events, so sacred in our experience, that they compel us to silence and contemplation before sharing them with others. Today we’re familiar with so many highly publicized, dramatic ‘conversion-stories’ of music and sports and movie celebrities, lasting just a few months or short years before their behaviour or words betray them. The 17th century French mystic Francois Fenelon said, ‘When God deals with your old nature He heads straight for the center of all that you hold most dear. Allow Him to bring you the cross in the very center of who you are. Don’t grumble and become agitated when the process starts: Silence and peace will help you much more than being upset.’

Some years later, following Joseph and Mary’s 12 year old’s staggering Passover dialogue with the temple leaders and his parents’ frantic search for him, ‘he returned to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. And his mother stored all these things in her heart.’ (2:41-52). ‘His mother held all these things dearly, deep within herself.’ (v. 51/MSG)

While, as far as we know, Mary didn’t accompany Jesus on his missionary journeys (too busy serving the family?), she surely followed him in her daily thoughts and prayers. Notice e.g. Mary and Jesus’ intimate, even playful interaction at a wedding feast in Cana (Jn. 2:1-11): Jesus is not being disrespectful when he addresses her as gunai, often rendered ‘woman,’ but saying something like ‘Hold on, Mom dear…’ When touring Israel, our Israeli guide described Mary’s attitude as typical of a Jewish mom showing off her son, i.e. ‘My son can do anything!’ And he really could and did, turning water into sparkling wine, among many other greater things!

From the example of Mary, we learn 3 valuable lessons (the Good News is more corporate than individual):

1) The importance of Internalizing the Word. Mary from her childhood had learned to ‘soak in’ the Hebrew Scriptures. In my country, Afrikaners love to dip a rusk in coffee, soaking up the coffee and enjoying the softened rusk. This internalizing of the truth is threatened today by the horrific 24/7 bombardments of social media! Rose, one of our house church members, recently taught us how to engage in daily ‘thought-prayers,’ turning our meditations into short praises and petitions to God (2).

2) The importance of Externalizing the Word. Mary, from the beginning, probably unwittingly, became an evangelist of the Living Word. After all, her testimonies formed one of the key ‘primary sources’ of the evangelists. She spoke the Gospel in word and deed. Where are our gifted evangelists today, I often wonder?? (Eph. 4:11) And how urgently do we need every believer’s life and way to speak of the magnificent Saviour in these days of ugliness, confusion and fear! Have we learned to put our ‘lamp on a lamp-stand’ for all the world to see, the shining the result of careful ‘listening’ to the Scriptures?? (cf. Lk. 8:16-18)

3) The importance of Serving the Word. Mary’s whole life became one of humble and obedient servanthood to her son and Saviour (Lk. 2:46ff), including her fellow-followers and community. She’s found at the Cross (Jn. 19:25), her second major bereavement, Joseph having died earlier. She’s found in the assembly praying for the coming of the promised Spirit (Acts 1:12-14). Faithful to the very end.

By way of practical application, two lessons:

(a) ‘Key’ to the disciple’s and ecclesia’s life today is the attitude of our heart toward God. At all times it should be, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ (Lk. 18:13-14/Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector). Do we reverence Jesus? How do we speak to/of him? Do we willingly submit all to his Person? The Wisdom writers advise us: ‘Guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life’ (Prov. 4:23/NIV). Even better, ”Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flows the springs of your life.’ (NRSV).

(b) Believers, corporately and individually, learn to take time with the Word: as a run-of-the-mill believer, a particular verse/passage, illuminated by the Spirit, can charm me for weeks on end! After soaking it up, I usually share it with our house church for corporate enrichment. In this way God’s Word sinks in so profoundly that it becomes part and parcel of our everyday life, whether we realize it or not.

FOOTNOTES:

* Cf. Quote from Rob Stroud’s recent post ‘Out of Context,’ blogged under ‘Mere Inkling Press.’

(1) To grasp the Evangelists’ differing birth narratives, see Dr. Ian Paul’s blog dated 15/12/21 under Psephizo and the article by James Bejon of Tyndale House. E.g. Matthew’s narrative presents Jesus as a Moses-like leader, Luke’s as a Samuel-like servant.

(2) With this insight, you’ll read Jesus’ renowned Parable of the Farmer Scattering Seed (Lk. 8:4-21) very differently, for it reveals degrees of ‘hearing’ (CS Lewis spoke of the simplicity yet complexity of the Christian message): the term ‘listen/hear’ is mentioned 6 times in the passage. When Mary and the family later ask for Jesus, who had been swamped by the crowds, he gave this unique definition of ‘family’ (not in a derogatory way): ‘My mother and my brothers are all those who hear God’s word and obey it.’

(3) Here in Mandela Bay, in the early 1990’s, God through Pr. David Thomson of Argentina gave our metro pastors a city-wide vision of the Kingdom. After the talk, David challenged a core-group of leaders to remain behind, pleading with us not to talk about this revelation for a good number of months: sadly (I believe), we lost much of the impetus of that vision through some not taking that call seriously. [Ed Silvoso’s ‘Harvest Evangelism’ & ‘That None Should Perish’ tell the transformation stories of Resistencia, San Nicolas and Mar del Plata in Argentina. For interest’s sake, the vision had 5 critical paradigms: discipling nations; reclaiming the market-place; seeing work as worship; being salt and light; eliminating poverty]

Resistencia Chaco Argentina Stock Photo | Adobe Stock

[Resistencia, Argentina]

MISSIO DEI (FOLLOWING JESUS INTO THE WORLD, PT. 4)

[From addressing the global ecology and Islamic mindset we turn to some practical applications]

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Some time or another, believers are constrained by Christ’s love to ‘step out of their comfort zones’ to follow their Master into a turbulent world: ‘If you want to walk on water, get out of the boat!’ (John Ortberg) Hence I dare you to step out of the boat with me – a very scary (I’m in my 70’s) but rewarding experience…

Where does Christ’s mission-mandate rate in your personal life and local assembly? Is it central or peripheral? A recent missions training-day in my city highlighted several practical issues:

a) The training could have benefited from the fact that the Gospel/’Good News’ commences, not with Gen. 3 and the ‘fall’ (however important) but with the beauty of God’s person, creation and communitas in Gen. 1-2. How many popular ‘gospel presentations’ fail this test?

b) I was arrested by the statement, ‘mission is God’s pathway to maturity:’ “After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, ‘All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all those who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them'” (Mk. 8:34-35/CEB). Every time I hear these familiar (over-familiar?) words, I’m ‘undone!’ Jesus’ balance between the inward and outward journey scrutinizes our claims to maturity, both individually and corporately.

c) In contrast to the OT’s largely selective anointing of prophets, priests and kings, we should be struck by the NT’s major, ‘game-changing’ drum-roll of the Spirit poured out on all people for the sake of the Kingdom (Acts 2:17-18). Note the apostle Paul’s clear statement in 2 Cor. 5:17-20, ‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ… And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God!’ ‘Reconciliation’ appears 5x, ‘us’ 4x! How wrong the Calvinistic Strict Baptist Fraternal in the late 1700’s got it when newly-ordained Englishman William Carey rose to plead the cause of world mission: an older minister interrupted,“Young man, sit down! You are an enthusiast. When God pleases to convert the heathen, he’ll do it without consulting you or me!” Thank God Carey ignored the silly old man. He went on to serve in India for 41 years at great personal cost, translating the NT into Bengali and earning the legacy ‘The Father of Modern Missions!’ (1)

d) We noted the amazing growth of the Early Church, when persecution and mission was ‘normal Christianity.’ Take the story of the little Thessalonian assembly, ‘The Lord’s message rang out from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia – your faith in God has become known everywhere!” (1 Thess. 1:8-9) Interestingly, subsequent to Christianity becoming the state religion under Constantine, the NT ecclesia drastically faded in life, power and mission, for centuries! Over the past 200 years, ‘Christianity’ has once more become a global force, although the challenges are enormous: with approximately 6.5 billion people strangers to Jesus and some 714 local churches for every 1 un-reached people group. What does this say about the state of the Church today? The seminar suggested that the task is do-able in a generation, ‘If we get back to what God intended Christianity to be from the beginning – a movement of the Spirit!’ (Zech. 4:6-7).

e) On the Church being an ‘organism that is organized,’ I would personally counsel against over-organization which throttles it’s very life!

f) The seminar submitted that in addition to the biblical metaphors of body, family, etc, we may add contemporary metaphors like hospital, refueling station or even an airport/a rail terminal facilitating God’s people on their outward journey.

g) The ideal is for every congregation (or network of congregations) to reach a ‘critical mass’ in mission:

I relate my ragamuffin missions-story. I was raised in a nominal Christian home, at age 14 Christ graciously encountered me, resulting in my new birth and simultaneous call to preach. Besides my Bible, the first two books I read were ‘Teach Yourself Preaching’ (sigh) and James Hudson-Taylor’s story ‘The Man Who Believed God.I confess to losing the plot somewhat in High School due to academic and sporting pursuits. However the Lord graciously restored my sense of call during my first year of training as a chemical engineer. After 3 years of study and work, I was privileged to undergo 4 years of excellent theological training, an anonymous party sponsoring all my accommodation and tuition fees. Again I confess to somewhat neglecting my missional sharp-edge during my first two pastorates, but God patiently disturbed me in the 3rd and 4th. A North American, David Bliss, came to South Africa in the late 80’s to revive the message of Dr. Andrew Murray and his trumpet-call to ‘prayer, revival and mission.’ David Bliss and a prayer-warrior David Mniki from the Transkei brought their shared burden to the Eastern Cape. This was followed by two decades of annual city-wide conferences in Port Elizabeth under the banner of Bless the Nations, monthly ‘concerts of prayer,’ a ‘lay’ missions school I was privileged to lead, etc. During that move, our local congregation and others in our Metro gained, under God, the required ‘critical mass’ for outreach locally and abroad. In co-operation with various missions agencies, our congregation was able to to send missionaries into various parts of South Africa, the Middle East (Turkey and Cyprus) and South America, including a church-plant among the un-reached Quechua/Morochucos in the high Peruvian Andes. Other congregations in our city commissioned missionaries to Northern Mozambique, Egypt, Russia, Uzbekistan, Thailand, Japan, etc.

Let me conclude by honouring David Bliss’s erstwhile professor of evangelism at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, Dr. Christy Wilson, veteran missionary from Afghanistan and speaker at one of our earlier conferences.

Where No One Has Heard: The Life of J. Christy Wilson Jr.: Wilson, Ken:  9780878086313: Amazon.com: Books

At this time my wife and I had been considering a possible missionary career in Malawi. Providentially, we hosted the saintly and prayerful Dr. Christy Wilson in our home. What a man of prayer! After sharing our interest in Malawi with him, he wisely challenged us to instead motivate world missions pastorally. God kindly gave us a measure of success in this regard. I share this story to show that even a Joe Soap believer like me or small assembly can impact our world for the Kingdom!

Are you and am I, and our church-family, willing to follow Jesus into his world, even if it means ‘taking our little candle and running to the darkness?’ (cf. song below) With such a scary step comes Christ’s personal assurance ‘I am with you always,’ to the end of the age! (Mt. 28:20)

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FOOTNOTES:

(1) On the other hand, what about the pre-Reformation Bohemian martyr, Johannes Hus, and the subsequent 18th century Moravian revival movement in Herrnhut Germany, which did more for global mission than the Church world-wide? By 24/7 prayer alone, they sent missionaries to Greenland, the West Indies (selling themselves into slavery for Jesus’ sake), the USA and even my native South Africa.