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.