Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The Big Invite

The Bible tells us many things about life, creation, God and ourselves. Throughout it's pages there are many times when God extends an invitation to us. Now receiving an invitation is always special. It often communicates that we are valued. After all, you tend to invite your favourite friends to special events where you will spend time, energy and money on them.

God is no different. He places a special value on people, which is why He continually extends invitations to us. The only difference is that God is no respecter of persons. In other words He extends the invitation of knowing Him to all - including those who don't deserve it!

In Matt 22(NIV) we read:
1 Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.
4 “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’

The Bible tells us that history will conclude with a wedding. The marriage of the Lamb (Jesus) and the Bride (the church). This parable tells us that God wants all to come to this wedding. All are invited. But like any invitation it's possible to say no. It's possible to place a higher value on something else instead. And so with every invitation there has to be a response that says 'Yes' if the invite is to have any real meaning. Without a response it simply remains an invitation and no more.

Scripture places great emphasis on our response. It is often a reflection of our heart attitude. When Jesus invited the disciples to follow Him their response was often dramatic. At once they left their nets and followed him; Matt 4.20. And immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him, Matt 4.22 Notice the careful choice of words used: "At once.... Immediately....". There was no delay in their response. It was almost like a reflex. The invitation connected with something that was alive in them and they said 'Yes'.

I want to explore five invitations in the Bible that God extends to us. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list; simply suggestive of the number of different ways that God reaches out to people. Further it shows how much He respects the final choices that we make. The invitation to enter the Kingdom is real and genuine and open to all. However, Jesus makes it clear that this is only possible when some things take place first. So here is the first invitation He throws out to people:

1. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance, Matt 9.13. This is Jesus at His most forthright. The word repentance has become quite loaded over the years. We often associate it with turning from sin and turning to God; feeling bad about things we have done wrong in the past; changing our lifestyle. But the word is made up of two Greek words; meta - to change and noia - mind or thinking. So to repent means to change your thinking; to change your mind.

Jesus calls sinners and invites them to think differently, about life, about sin, about forgiveness, about the future and even about themselves. He is in fact inviting all of us to see things differently. A change in life cannot happen without a change in thinking. This is where it all begins.

Those who came to Jesus often got more than what they bargained for. Many came to get physically healed and found that they needed a deeper healing - a healing of the heart; a transformation from within. The man born blind discovered this in John 9. Having been healed by Jesus of his blindness he found himself excluded from the Synagogue. John 9.35-38 says;

Jesus heard that they had cast him out; and when He had found him, He said to him, “Do you believe in the Son of God?”
He answered and said, “Who is He, Lord, that I may believe in Him?”
And Jesus said to him, “You have both seen Him and it is He who is talking with you.”
Then he said, “Lord, I believe!” And he worshiped Him.

This man's faith was a demonstration that he had a change of thinking; for repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. To do one necessitates doing the other. Faith requires repentance and repentance leads on to faith. Real discipleship always begins with a radical change of thinking. In fact true discipleship requires a lifestyle of allowing your thinking to change. It's called having a renewed mind, Rom 12.2, Eph 4.23.

2. The second invitation I find helpful is in Isaiah 1.18
“ Come now, and let us reason together,”
Says the LORD,

“ Though your sins are like scarlet,
They shall be as white as snow;
Though they are red like crimson,
They shall be as wool.

It's an invitation to dialogue with a promise thrown in. The problem with many conversations today is that they start from a place of hostility. This is what makes conversation and peace talks so difficult in places like the Middle East. Each party is already disposed to believe the worst about their counterparts. They begin from a place of suspicion. God wants us to know that His basic disposition is for us. He is able to transform the worst of us - no matter what we have done. He is looking to achieve reconciliation and delay judgement as long as possible.

Talking with someone when you believe they are for you and have your best interest at heart is totally different from trying to talk to someone who is antagonistic towards you. And the outcomes are different too. When we speak with God in this way He opens His heart to us and invites us to open our hearts to Him. He is not afraid of the hard questions; He has answers. Sometimes those answers humble us and we realise we know less than we thought. Like Job we may find ourselves saying:

4 “ Behold, I am vile;
What shall I answer You?
I lay my hand over my mouth.

5 Once I have spoken, but I will not answer;
Yes, twice, but I will proceed no further.” Job 40

Later in Job 42 we read:

1 Then Job answered the LORD and said:
2 “I know that You can do everything,
And that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You.

3 You asked, ‘Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

4 Listen, please, and let me speak;
You said, ‘I will question you, and you shall answer Me.’

5 “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear,
But now my eye sees You.

6 Therefore I abhor myself,
And repent in dust and ashes.

Notice that his exchange with God also led to a change of thinking - he repented! His questions about his suffering seemed less important after his dialogue with God. It brought him into a new understanding of his own limitations both in knowledge and experience.

Christianity does not require us to park our brains into neutral so that we can embrace faith. Rather it challenges us to engage our entire being in knowing God. That means it is an intelligent faith and there are intelligent answers for the hard questions in life. Alpha is a program that embraces the notion of asking hard questions and allowing people the opportunity of entering a process where they can think through for themselves the relevance of the claims of Jesus. And to date the results are impressive. According to statistics compiled by the Christian Research Organisation, more than 1.3 million people in the UK have already completed the Alpha Course.

Many people have heard of Richard Dawkins book "The God Delusion". Less have heard of Alister McGraph's book "The Dawkins Delusion?" McGraph holds both a DPhil (in molecular biophysics) and a Doctor of Divinity degree from Oxford. His book is a gracious response to Dawkins many errors, both of history and theology. Dawkins ability to speak with an assumed authority on theological matters belies his ignorance and incompetence when he strays into these fields. As a scientist he is brilliant. As a theologian and historian he is inept.

He has refused to engage in debate with William Lane Craig, who is probably one of the best Christian apologists alive today. His evasion of such an encounter makes me wonder if there isn't a more sinister agenda motivating his vitriolic stance against Christianity. Antony Flew, one of the world's leading philosophers, has changed his mind about God. In his words: "I have become a deist like Thomas Jefferson." He cites his affinity with Einstein who believed in "an Intelligence that produced the integrative complexity of creation." This does not make him a Christian, but it shows what can happen to man who is willing to engage in genuine dialogue.

Listen to the openness with which he speaks; "Since the beginning of my philosophical life I have followed the policy of Plato's Socrates: We must follow the argument wherever it leads." When asked if it was tough to change his mind. "No. It was not hard. I've always engaged in inquiry. If I am shown to have been wrong, well, okay, so I was wrong." It is this kind of honest debate that God invites us to engage in. Through it we can come to new places of understanding and belief.

3. Jesus said in Mat 11.28-30:
"Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

This is a wonderful invitation to partnership. One where we can find peace and rest. A relationship that is easy and not demanding. One that won't burn us out. The metaphor is of course of the Oxen that were yoked together in pairs. Usually an older Ox was hooked up to a younger one. The older Ox had a better understanding of the pace with which to work and expend energy. So the younger Ox could not simply rush ahead. The yoke prevented it. The yoke was a simple crossbeam that went across the neck of each of the oxen. It allowed them to keep pace together. In the same way Jesus invites us to come to Him and do life differently; to do it with Him, where He takes the lead and we learn to go at His pace.

I love this invitation. It speaks to most people who experience life today. Life can be heavy; it can be tiresome. People feel harassed. They want a break. But Jesus offers more than a break. He offers a new way of living; a new way of doing life; a partnership that fulfils us, rather than exploit and use us. He discloses to those who don't know Him, "I am gentle and lowly in heart". Jesus doesn't come as top dog; He comes to serve. He comes to teach us, not from a position of superiority, but from the humble position of a servant.

Like all the other invitations this one too requires a response. There must be a willingness to be yoked. In one sense we have to overcome the fear that we may be abused or exploited and trust in who Jesus has revealed Himself to be. Such a partnership will bring rest to our soul - something we all desperately need. I also find that this must be expressed tangibly through genuine accountable relationships. Timothy was yoked to Paul who in turn had spent time yoked to Barnabas. John Mark was yoked to Peter and Barnabas.

Our submission to Jesus will always be validated by a human relationship that requires our submission. Just as our love for God is worked out in our relationships, so is our submission. One is in fact the test of how genuine the other is. John says we cannot say we love God whom we have not seen if we cannot love our brother whom we have seen, 1Jon 4.20. And this works with being yoked in partnership.

4. God also invites us to celebrate! The story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 ends with the Father giving full and free forgiveness to his wayward son and then throwing a party. The celebration is not about the achievements of the son. Rather it is about the generosity and forgiving heart of the Father. Something that was dear to him was lost and now is found. It was dead and now is alive and this is cause for celebration.

In the story the whole house is invited to this party, but the older brother excludes himself. He is indignant, disgusted with his brother's choice of lifestyle and offended by his father's generosity and forgiving spirit. And so the father pleads with him to see things from a different point of view, (to repent and have a change of thinking). Then the story ends. Did he have a change of heart and go in to the celebration or did he remain obdurate and continue to exclude himself? We don't know. And that's the point.

I believe the church needs to demonstrate Heaven's joy over those whose lives are touched and changed by Jesus. Celebration should characterise our meetings. Praise and thanksgiving should be the norm among God's people. We are here for the praise of the glory of His grace, Eph 1. Yet to look at many Christians today you could be forgiven for thinking they had been baptised in vinegar. There is no real joy; no sense of celebration about their life or the transforming power of Jesus in others.

Like the older brother in Jesus parable they are often holding an offence against others and even God Himself. They think they are justified in their stance, not seeing that a self righteous attitude has griped their hearts. It's sad. It's tragic. It's not right. When forgiveness characterises relationships in a church then celebration and joy are a natural outcome. Ephesians 5.18-20 shows us that those who are filled with the Spirit have a continual song in their hearts. Celebration is something they carry with them.

This is why Paul exhorts the church to "Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say rejoice", Phil 4.4. He knows that only those who have entered into God's joy are able to do this. It is why I believe that praise has to be an important part of the way we worship when we come together as God's people. Praise is all about the greatness of God, who He is and what He has done. Celebrating His presence sets the tone for how we will respond to His word.

5. Finally, Jesus invites us to enter into the inheritance He has prepared for us, Matt 25.34-36:
Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for 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.'

The Kingdom we inherit is both 'now' and 'not yet'. In the future we will inherit the fullness of the Kingdom; new resurrection bodies like that of Jesus. Bodies free from sickness, fatigue and any form of decay. The Bible calls them 'glorious bodies'. With them we inherit the new heaven and the new earth. A place fitting for the King to reign in. Until then we have the promise of the Kingdom through the down payment of the Holy Spirit. And in Him we can experience something of the future now.

Rom 14.17 tells us that the righteousness, peace and joy of the Kingdom is in the Holy Spirit. He makes it all real; now. The invitation to finally inherit the Kingdom is not unconditional. Only those who have extended care and mercy to others will receive this invitation. It is reserved for the 'sheep'; those who belong to the King. They have trusted in Him and an inward transformation has taken place. They now care about the things that concern the King.

Every act of obedience now is storing up for us a future inheritance; reserved in heaven where moth and rust cannot corrupt and thieves cannot break in and steal. This should encourage us. We can experience the reality of the Kingdom now in our hearts and relationships and also look forward to a fuller expression of the same Kingdom at the return of Jesus.

My prayer for us is that we will say yes to every invitation extended to us by the king. Our response allows us to enjoy and experience something more than we have to date. It takes us further into God and further into the blessing of being a son of God.

A Vision for People

How do we get people to move from being interested in Jesus and coming to church to being actively involved? What are the steps that will help them on such a journey? And what is our responsibility in that process?

John the Baptist was the forerunner to Jesus. He prepared the way. He prepared hearts to encounter Jesus. In John's gospel we see how he did this. When Jesus walked by he spoke to his disciples, "Behold the Lamb of God! ", John 1.35. John's preaching had consistently told people that someone greater was coming, After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie, Mark 1.7 NIV; one who would baptize with the Spirit and fire, Matt 3.11. So John's disciples knew that Jesus was significant. They trusted John. They believed his preaching. They had followed him. Now he was pointing them to someone greater, the fulfiller of all the promises he had spoken about.

You see John was putting his weight behind Jesus and these disciples trusted his word. He had sufficient trust and integrity with these men for them to take what he said seriously. Now that is an important lesson for us in the church. We can find ourselves in life situations where people get to know us. They learn to trust us. Our opinion matters to them. So when we point people to Jesus we can in fact pique their interest. Notice too how subtle John was; "Behold the Lamb of God". Within Jesus culture this is highly suggestive, but not explicit.

So these two men begin to follow Jesus - from a distance; until He finally turns around and asks what they seek, John 1.38. They are the original stalkers of the NT! Imagine being followed by two men who when you ask them what they want ask you where are you staying!! That's what happened here. And Jesus said, "Come and see!" He meets their interest with an invitation; an invitation to explore and discover for themselves. Now they begin to take initiative. Later in the same chapter Andrew goes to fetch his bother Peter. Philip seeks out Nathaniel. Like John they now put their weight behind Jesus. And like Jesus they extend the same invitation; "Come and see".

This interest is then translated into the first phase that I believe is crucial to people becoming involved; illumination. Illumination is like an aha moment. It's when light breaks in and you see something clearly for the first time. You now have understanding. You get it. This happened to Peter in Matt 16. Everyone had an opinion about Jesus but Peter received a revelation from Heaven. He got it. Flesh and blood didn't tell him. It came from above. Light broke in and he saw who Jesus really was; more than a carpenter; more than a prophet; more than a Rabbi. He was and is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.

2Cor 4.3-4 NIV tells us about three realities.

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

These three realities are; a devil who blinds minds, preventing people from being saved; a God who commands light to shine into hearts, saving and transforming them and finally God's servants who bring the saving message of Jesus. Notice how Paul links the saving power of God with the account of creation. The first thing God commanded was for light to shine. This is crucial. People may express interest in the gospel but until light breaks into their spirit they are still in darkness. Like Peter in Matt 16 they need an aha moment.

In Luke 24 we have the story of two of the disciples on the Emmaus road. These men are believers but they are selective believers. As Jesus drew near to them the text tells us that their eyes were blocked from seeing Him for who He truly was. They knew Him but didn't recognise Him. I call them selective believers because later Jesus says in Luke 24.45; "O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken" They believed, but selectively. They didn't believe in all that was spoken by the prophets. And so they missed Jesus, even when He was right in front of them.

I see this problem in the church today; selective faith. We believe certain parts of scripture and hold other parts at a distance. There are many reasons for this. Sometimes we are lazy. We plateau in our faith being content with knowing what we know and not bothered by what we don't know. But this is dangerous. True discipleship is about constantly growing and learning. When we think we have arrived we can get careless and pride can set in. We are setting ourselves up for a fall. What areas of your life do you have 'selective faith'?

In John's gospel Nathaniel came to check out Jesus because of Philip. He didn't have a high expectation; "Can anything good come out of Nazareth? John 1.46." Nathaniel was incredulous. But then he met Jesus who had insight into Nathaniel; "Behold an Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile". This was a high commendation. But Nathaniel was not easily moved or given to flattery. He is still suspicious of Jesus. "How do you know me?" is his retort, John 1.48. So Jesus takes it one step further. He demonstrates prophetic insight showing Nathaniel that He knew what he was doing earlier that day; "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree I saw you".

This is like an aha moment for Nathaniel. Light breaks in. He goes from unbelief to faith in a second; "You are the Son of God, You are the King of Israel". Jesus response is telling. "I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man". It's almost like He is saying, "If that impresses you, you haven't seen anything yet". Each one of the disciples had to come to the place of seeing Jesus for who he truly is. This is a God event. We preach, but He commands light to shine. So when we preach we must also pray that God will break through the darkness and bring about a new creation event. "Let there be light, in the face of Jesus".

The next phase that is crucial is to get people initiated. We seem to have lost our sense of how important this is with every community. Under Jewish law male babies were presented for circumcision eight days after their birth. This incorporated them into the covenant of Israel. Then at thirteen they came to Jerusalem for their Bar mitzvah. Through it he was seen to have the same rights as a full grown man. A boy who had become a Bar Mitzvah was now morally and ethically responsible for his decisions and actions. The term "bar mitzvah" also refers to the religious ceremony that accompanies a boy becoming a Bar Mitzvah. Today a celebratory party would follow the ceremony and that party is also called a bar mitzvah.

These events were important in the life of the community and helped Israel maintain its sense of identity. This is one of the reasons that gangs function so well. Despite the violence and crime they often engender there is a deep sense of belonging in them. You can't just join a gang, you must be initiated into it. There is a task you must perform to show you are serious, that you can be trusted, that the gang will be something you will give your life for. And often there is a symbol you must accept, a tattoo, a dress code or even a way of speaking that includes a special vocabulary.

This is why Jesus required people to be baptised in water as a symbol of their union with Him. It was public, open for all to see and hear. It required genuine faith and courage because in those early days Christianity was seen as a fringe sect of Judaism. It also reminded people that to be joined to Jesus meant to be joined to His church, the community of people who followed Him. This initiation through water into the community was also a symbol of our baptism in the Holy Spirit. So the early apostles prayed that people would be filled with the Spirit. They actually laid hands on disciples and prayed for this experience. In every case it happened as close to their initial faith experience as possible.

This initiation marked a transition. They went from being outsiders to insiders, non members to members. Their faith in Jesus was expressed by embracing this initiation ceremony that identified them permanently with His people - the church. Not only that; when believers came from other churches and joined a new local church they would extend to them 'the right hand of fellowship'. It was a public display that they were now part of this particular local congregation. They had a new language too. It was the language of faith. All things were now possible through Christ and that was their confession.

When they sent out missionaries they laid hands on them with fasting and prayer. It was an event! They did the same thing when appointing new leaders. My point is that transitions were marked with a ceremony of some description that initiated them into a new phase of life. We need to maintain and recapture this in the church today. I remember my Baptism, my graduation from Bible College, my ordination. All of these events carried special meaning to me because they were attended by a ceremony of some description. And they were all public! Most of them were simple affairs, but they were memorable and became landmarks in my journey with God. What initiation steps have you taken? What ones remain for you to take? What is holding you back?

People who have been illuminated and initiated now need to be included. Including people is the best way of involving people. And the church should be great at this for it is fundamental to who we are as the people of God. It's interesting to see who Jesus included. He not very PC (Politically Correct) in His choices. Take his disciples; they are all mainly from the region of Galilee, four of them are fishermen. He chooses two sets of brothers and is not embarrassed to have Simon the Zealot on His team. The Zealots were patriotic fanatics who wanted freedom from Roman oppression and would use violence to achieve their aims. Today we call them terrorists! And then along side him is Matthew the tax collector. He collected taxes on behalf of the Romans who were the occupying force. Since 1940 the term used for such people is collaborator. In this context it is a pejorative term. Yet Jesus includes all the men, together!

Not only that, Jesus allowed people like Mary to 'sit at His feet', Luke 10.39. This is a technical term used by Luke to describe those who were the disciples to their teachers. Mary is referred to this way in Luke 10 and so is Paul who was educated at the feet of Gamaliel in Acts 22.3. The inclusion of women by Jesus is radical given the culture and tradition that surrounded Him. But Jesus isn't trying to act democratically or maintain traditions that do not further God's purpose. He is responding to something that He sees in each of these people and so He welcomes them and includes them. That is great leadership.

But to include people also means we exclude others. We need to be careful here that we do not become 'exclusive'. Jesus included Peter, James and John in the transfiguration event and in doing so excluded the other nine disciples. But this wasn't a clique. It was Jesus taking these few men to another level for that event. From there He comes down the mountain and ministered to others. He is never exclusive. So there may be times when we focus on a select few for a season; but let's make sure it doesn't become a permanent feature of our ministry.

Rom 15.7 NIV is instructive. It says; Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. The thinking of the past used to be that to be part of a church you had to believe in order to belong. Now we know that when we belong, we learn to believe. Relationship comes first. It is the transforming power of being yoked to a true disciple that changes us. By making room for others we create an environment of acceptance where people feel included. In such an environment they can develop and sharpen their gifting; they can learn to reach higher levels of faith and grow in confidence.

I often include inexperienced leaders in meetings so that they get the chance to see and hear how I do leadership. I don't expect them to make any significant contribution, (though I have been pleasantly surprised at times). I want them to understand and catch the atmosphere we operate in first. I include them! To delay including people in decision making processes is simply to delay their training. And you can be sure they will be learning how to do it from somewhere. Better for it to be from you - the leader.

People who feel included commit. They get their hands dirty. They get involved. They often go above and beyond what you expect of them. Involvement can be measured in three main dimensions: time, effort and money. Some people give more of their time. Others have less of this to give, but make a huge effort to see things happen. They use connections and networks to serve Kingdom purposes. Others show their involvement by releasing significant sums of money to the Kingdom. A few are able to do a combination of these and some have the ability to be involved in all three dimensions.

Think through where you are in your journey with Jesus. Do you need to go to a knew level of faith? Do you need to open your heart to more revelation? Is there another step of obedience you should be initiated into? Baptism? Filled with the Spirit? Tithing? Connect Groups? Do you include others into your world so that they can include you in theirs? How involved are you? Could you give more time, effort or money to what God is doing in your church?

Once you have some answers to these questions dare to take steps that show this is not just a paper exercise. Share your plan with a friend who can hold you accountable to implement these changes. As you do you will be modelling to others what it means to walk with Jesus in the details of life. And they will be provoked in a good way to follow your example. Your obedience will be their inspiration.