Sunday, 19 April 2009

Acts of Service

Acts of service are ways of blessings others that often open the door for God to move in unusual ways. The chief way this was expressed in the Bible was through hospitality. Hospitality literally means a love of strangers. God has a special place in His heart for the stranger, Ex22.21, You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Notice how their call to act in the future is rooted in their experience in the past. They were strangers in Egypt where they were oppressed and taken advantage of. God says in effect, "Don’t be like that. Show kindness, consideration and care for them."

In 2Kings 4.8-17 we have the story of Elisha and the Shunammite woman. She is a woman of substance – a notable woman who lived with her husband. One day she persuaded Elisha to call by and eat with them. This developed in to a regular part of Elisha’s routine. Every time he was in the neighbourhood he called by. In process of time she could see that he was a man of God and suggested to her husband that they build an extension – a place for Elisha. They put in a bed, a table and chair and a lampstand; everything he would need to be comfortable.

There is no agenda here. The woman is simply responding from her heart to Elisha. She wants to serve and bless him. It was a simple act of service and she didn’t expect anything in return. But Elisha wants to bless her. He tells his servant to speak to her, Look; you have been concerned for us with all this care. What can I do for you? He even makes s a few suggestions. He has access to the ear of the King and even the commander of the army. But she is not impressed. She needs nothing! And then Gahazi mentions that she is childless and her husband is old – implying that there is no-one to carry on with the inheritance.

Elisha is very bold: About this time next year you shall embrace a son. She is astonished. It is not an area in her life she wants to be toyed with. And sure enough the prophecy comes to pass. There is a lot more to this story if we read the whole chapter but what impresses me is how her act of service made room for God’s power to break into her life. The deepest longing of her heart; something she had given up on and could no longer even speak about was given to her. She was incredulous and yet God came through.

This pattern is often seen in scripture. Rahab received the spies. She extended care and hospitality to them and Heb 11.31 says this was an act of faith. As a result she delivered not only herself, but her whole family. They did not perish along with the others in Jericho. A simple act of service led to releasing the saving power of God. And this is my point. Who knows what simple acts can lead to? In themselves they may appear insignificant. But they become part of a chain of events that make room for God to move.

Consider Abraham in Gen 18. The Lord appears to him with two angels. Abraham compels them to stay and prepares food. Amongst other things calf is killed and prepared. This is no quick McDonalds drive through. It would have taken hours. And in that simple act of service the Lord reveals two amazing things to Abraham. The first was that Sarah would give birth the following year. This was life changing for them and an answer to a long awaited promise. But then the Lord begins to speak to Abraham about the judgement that is coming to Sodom – the place where Lot lives. It all takes place because Abraham took the time to serve his visitors with a meal. He extended hospitality and destinies were changed!

In Matt 25.31-46 we have Jesus speaking about the judgement of the Nations. It is the famous story of separating the sheep from the goats. One group enter into life while the others go to hell, prepared for the devil and his angels. Notice the criteria Jesus applies at this judgement: I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me. Six major areas of need are highlighted. Notice how in vs37-38 the righteous are totally unselfconscious of when this happened and question Jesus as to when all this happened? His answer is telling: Inasmuch as you did it to the least of one of My brethren, you did it to Me.

This is powerful. Sometimes Jesus doesn’t look attractive! Here’s what I mean. Sometimes we encounter believers with deep needs. They are not the picture of victorious Christian living. They are not ‘on top’ as they should be. They may well be victims like Paul to abuse for sharing the gospel. As a result they suffer. But the Lord wants us to know that to minister to them is to minister to Him. This was the shocking revelation that Paul had to face on the Damascus road. He wasn’t just persecuting believers he was persecuting Jesus. It was a truth that later in life made him declare himself the chief of sinners – 1Tim 1.15. He could conceive of nothing worse than tormenting believers for their faith in Jesus.

So our acts of service do not just open the way for God’s purpose, God’s power and God’s blessing now, they are part of the criteria used in the final judgement – a judgment that for believers leads to more blessing – inheriting the Kingdom, Matt25.34. Paul encourages the Corinthian church to, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labour is not in vain in the Lord, 1Cor 15.58. Acts of service do not go unnoticed by Him. He sees. He knows. And He rewards.

Matt 10.40-42 bears this out. By simply receiving those whom God sends, we receive their reward. Not only that, Jesus focuses on the most simple act of service that anyone could perform – giving a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple. This is not rocket science. It is the most basic act of service we can perform – refreshing someone with a drink of water. I find this amazingly simple. To do so is to guarantee we will get a reward. Not only that, we get the reward of the one we receive. We may not have a prophetic ministry but we get the reward of the prophet – if receive and provide hospitality to him. This is what is implied in the word receive. It means their needs become our concern. This is what happened to the Shunammite woman and her life was changed – forever.

Sometimes we can think that the real areas of ministry in the church are what happens on stage; the worship team, the preacher, those who lead, the visiting evangelist who gets the response you’ve prayed for years to get. But in a large church these represent only a few people. Ministry can be taking place all the time through simple acts of service – setting out chairs, welcoming people on the door, preparing food, counselling, giving lifts to church, praying for the sick, giving. I could go on. Jesus was just as comfortable feeding the multitudes (John 6.5-12) and healing the blind (John 9.1-7) as he was washing feet (John 13.1-17) or making breakfast for the disciples (John 21.9-10). He is Jesus. Both are important to Him.

Consider Acts 9.36-43. It’s the story of Dorcas who was raised from the dead by Peter. The text says, this woman was full of good works and charitable deeds. When Peter arrived they showed him all the garments and tunics she made. This was a highly productive and industrious woman. Many benefitted from her skills. And now she was gone! Peter knelt down and prayed next to the body. If I were Peter then I would have one simple question for the Lord, Is it her time or has the enemy taken her early as he did with Lazarus? He clearly got the conviction this was not her time. And so he speaks two words and up she gets.

Again I want you to see how her simple acts of service opened the door for the miraculous to come into her life. God’s power broke in. Everyone valued what she did and had no peace in letting her go at that time. The outcome was amazing: it became known throughout all Joppa and many believed on the Lord. Not only was Dorcas restored and the church blessed but many believed. Her testimony had a huge impact on the community. Imagine the pride you would feel wearing a garment made by her – someone who was raised from the dead. She would have been the Armani of the first century; only her garments were for anyone who had need and not just the social elite.

Finally think about the appointment of the seven in Acts 6.1-7. Two of them went on to have outstanding ministries; Philip the evangelist who brought revival to Samaria and Stephen a brilliant apologist who was the first martyr in the church. They both began by being appointed to serve tables and take care of the distribution of food and funds for the widows in the church. They did this humbly, faithfully and saw it as a spiritual activity. This was not the run up to real ministry in their minds – it was ministry. And it wasn’t long before these acts of service opened doors for more dramatic interventions from heaven. And all because they served.

I want to encourage you to place value on what you do for the Lord and the church. We face the challenge of refurbishing a building so that we can have an administrative and ministry centre to touch this community. I’m sure it will be a place where miracles happen; a place where lives are changed and people saved and restored; but none of this will happen if we don’t continue to give ourselves to simple acts of service; practical expressions of love that open the door for God to move and show His greatness. I never cease to be filled with gratitude for all the saints – past and present – who by their faithful service changed whole communities. This is the possibility that lies ahead of us. Let’s gab it with both hands and see what God does!