Tuesday, 6 January 2009

What's your Story?

Have you ever wondered how people come to faith? In the ultimate sense we can say with Jonah, ‘Salvation is of the Lord’, Jonah 2.9. But God has called us into partnership with Him, 1Cor 3.9 – we are workers together with God. In that partnership there are things that He and only He, can do to save a person. We will look at what that is another time. For now I want to focus on what we can do. What role do we play in helping people come to faith? I am hesitating to use the word evangelism because for many this co notates images of hours and hours walking the streets handing out tracts to reluctant strangers. This is not what I mean.

I want to explore the different ways recorded in Scripture where God broke into people’s worlds. For me the first and most effective was through the power of personal testimony; the simple act of telling our story or sharing our journey with God. Already you may be thinking, ‘But who wants to hear my story?’ And this is my point. We often assume that our story has no value. Nicky Cruz has a great story, as does Joni Erickson and Cliff Richard. But who am I? And so we remain silent. Disqualified, not by the mockery of others but by the simple act of a comparison we have made in our own minds that left us feeling inadequate.

But when we come to the NT we see in the book of Acts a group of people empowered by the Spirit to speak, to tell their story, boldly, confidently and without fear. The church began its life having favour with all the people, Acts 2.47. But it wasn’t long before their way of living brought a reaction. Persecution began. In Acts 8.1 all the disciples, except the apostles, were scattered. The story is picked up by Luke in Acts 11.19 where he tells us that some of these disciples travelled as far as Antioch speaking about Jesus.

The Greek word used for preach here is interesting. It is ‘laleo’ meaning to tell, speak or say. Luke is emphasising that the Antioch church was not planted by special emissaries – apostles; but by ordinary believers on the run from persecution, telling their story of how Jesus impacted their lives. Notice that from a human perspective, life and events surrounding their personal circumstances appear out of control. They have to relocate, changing friends, jobs, accommodation; literally starting over again. Yet they use this as an opportunity to introduce themselves and speak of Jesus. It has a big impact.

Acts 11.21 says, ‘The hand of the Lord was with them and a great number believed and turned to the Lord’. Think of it. What did not happen in Jerusalem is now happening in Antioch – gentiles (non Jews) are getting saved. There is no great preacher like Philip as in Samaria, Acts 8.4-8; just ordinary believers telling their story, sharing their journey. Finally the apostles in Jerusalem here of these things and send Barnabas to investigate. He has the prophetic insight to see the grace of God in operation, Acts 11.23 and the foresight to know the right man to help give shape to this church – Saul of Tarsus. This is the place that history records believers of the Way were first called Christians! It will go on to become the greatest missionary sending church in the NT. And it all started from the ground up by a scattered group of believers who told their story. Amazing!

We see the power and impact of personal testimony many times in scripture. Right at the beginning of John’s gospel Andrew introduces Peter to Jesus, ‘We have found the Messiah... And he brought him to Jesus’, John 1.41-42. Clearly Peter is a type of the kind of person who is looking for something. When Andrew declares that he has found it Peter trust’s his brother. They have a relationship. It is his integrity that Peter is relying on to begin with until he personally meets Jesus for himself. In the same text Philip fetches Nathaniel, ‘Philip found Nathaniel and said to him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph”. Nathaniel responds with incredulity, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But Philip is not put off. Instead of entering into debate about the subject, he offers an invitation to Nathaniel, “Come and see”.

How simple. No complex theology to argue through; just a simple invitation to experience the man Jesus for himself. And herein lays a key for us. We don’t always have to enter into debate with people. Sometimes it’s about an invitation that gives them the freedom to make their own judgement. Once Nathaniel encountered Jesus everything changed. But he would have never got there if hadn’t been for Philip. His invitation came out of a personal conviction. This is what people often hear and it peaks their interest.

Later in John 4 we have the story of Jesus and His conversation with the Samaritan woman. She too returns to her village and invites people to, “Come see a man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” John 4.29. An invitation and a question are presented. No hard sell. No debate. No arguments. And they responded, John 4.30 ‘Then they went out of the city and came to Him’. But notice the climax of this account, John 4.39 ‘And many of the Samaritans of the City believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, “He told me all that I ever did”. We don’t have to say much to peak someone’s interest when God is on the move. Remember that text about the church in Antioch – ‘the hand of the Lord was with them’. Sharing our journey, our story, our experience with others is simply about giving them the opportunity to hear how God has worked in our life along with an invitation to experience it for themselves.

Mark 5.1-20 gives us the account of how Jesus delivers the Gadarene demoniac. The outcome is so astonishing that the people beg Jesus to leave. After all 2000 pigs run off the end of a cliff. They have never witnessed such power, such authority. Amazingly He obliges. This individual is so appreciative that he wants to follow Jesus. He wants to be a disciple. So as Jesus is climbing into the boat to leave he ‘begged Him that he might be with Him’, Mark 5.18. Imagine that. He pleads with Jesus to let him come along. He wants more. But Jesus said no, for one reason. If this man goes then this region will have no testimony of what God has done. So instead, Jesus commissions him, “Go home to your friends and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you and how He has had compassion on you”. He has had no formal training, but he has had an encounter. He has had an experience that was life changing. All could see it. This was enough. Mark 5.20, ‘And he departed and began to proclaim in Decapolis all that Jesus had done for him; and all marvelled’.

He simply told his story. Enough people were around to know how he had been living the past number of years. They knew the change was radical. Here he is, now in his right mind. Astonishing! Who could have effected such a change? Well this man was there to tell them who. This man was a Gadarene. It was one of the ten cities making up what became known as Decapolis (literally ten cities). He told his testimony and travelled through all the cities. Later Jesus would return to the region, Mark 7.31-37 where they will ask Him to heal the sick. His testimony has had an impact. There is a different response to Jesus; one of expectation rather than fear. And this was His objective.

In John 9 we have the story of the man born blind being healed and the impact this has on him, his parents and the religious leaders. The leaders want to know how this has happened and who did it. The man born blind tells his account, but they don’t believe him. They try to engage him in a condemnation of Jesus, but he is clear, ‘Whether He is a sinner or not I do not know. One thing I know; that though I was blind, now I see’, John 9.25. My spiritual mentor once told me, the man with an experience is never at the mercy of the man with an argument. He’s right. This blind man had an experience. His testimony is simple but powerful and a threat to the understanding of the religious leaders. Consequently they do to him what all oppressive systems do – they cast him out. Notice that at this point of the story the man has not yet put faith in Jesus personally. But he does know God was working through Jesus. He is on a journey. Once Jesus heard that he had been cast out He searches him out. It is during this encounter that he comes to personal faith after a direct challenge by Jesus. But now he has the capacity to accept the challenge. He knows God wants to do good things for him. He knows God is out to bless him not blame him – which is how the story begins. Who can we blame for this man’s condition? John 9.1-4. And in seeking to find fault the disciples missed the opportunity to work a work of God that would set a captive free. Now this haled man had a complete story to tell.

In the Old Testament we have the account of Naaman being healed of leprosy, 2Kings 5.1-19. For me this is one of the most fascinating accounts in the Bible. This man stood out as different. He was a man of honour; so much so that the Lord actually granted victory to Syria when Naaman led them into battle – even against Israel. God used this to reach out to Naaman. For in one of the raids they captured a young Israelite girl and she was given as a handmaid to his wife. Listen to the simple testimony that this girl speaks to her mistress, “If only my master were with the prophet who is in Samaria! For he would heal him of his leprosy”, 2Kings 5.3. She talks about Elisha. She is just a young girl – a teenager. But she has heard many stories of this great prophet and so she boldly tells Naaman’s wife where her husband can find healing. Without her there would be no encounter with Elisha and no healing.

Further this man shows signs of faith. In 2Kings 5.17-19 He declares he will no longer offer sacrifices to any other god except the Lord. But he lives in a foreign country that doesn’t worship Yahweh. He serves a king who worships in the temple of Rimon. He knows he will have to honour his master and enter the temple and bow before this false god. So he asks Elisha to pardon him for this. And Elisha responds – “Go in peace”. This is amazing and shows the grace of God. Now there are two people in Syria who know of the power of God. Imagine the impact this man’s testimony would have on his return. On his wife, his household, his army, his King! Story is one of God’s most effective tools to touch people. It’s why we love to read novels and see movies. A good story captures our imagination and helps us believe things can be different. And a story rooted in truth – the truth of God touching real people in real situations, is compelling.

Every one of us who are born again has a story. God has taken each of us on a journey. It is unique to us. Yet there are people in the world who will relate to our story. It has value. It is important. Don’t despise it. Rather use the natural opportunities that God gives you to speak, to tell of the great things God has done for you and how He has had compassion on you. As you do this, don’t be surprised if people ask you what the next step is. There is a deep hunger in the human heart for reconnection with our creator. In Jesus this has been made possible. Every barrier has been removed. God’s love and forgiveness is being extended. Share how this has touched you and leave the rest to Him. He knows how to unsettle the heart. Even Paul found it hard to ‘kick against the goads’. But that is His job, not ours. Ours is to tell what we know. Could it be simpler?