Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Make Every Effort Part 3

James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along, Gal 2.10

Like all of the other passages we have looked at in recent blogs, the Greek word for eager, spoudazō, means ‘make every effort’. What is clear from this text is that all of the apostolic leaders believed that caring for the poor was an important priority. They were eager to do it and they made every effort to do it throughout their ministries.

But why this commitment to caring for the poor? What informed their convictions? Here are some key scriptures that shaped the social conscience of Israel in the past and so would, in turn, have shaped them.

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God, Lev 19.9-10.

During a harvest there would be a group of workers that went through a field in line with sickles cutting and then others followed gathering the sheaves. Invariably there were parts that were missed between each of the reapers. These could have been caught in a second wave of reaping but God forbade this. It had to be left for the poor or the foreigner in the land. These people along with orphans and widows were the most vulnerable in any society. So God made laws to protect them.

In one sense this was an enforced generosity on the part of the field owner towards the poor. But in relation to the whole harvest, the gleanings, those parts of the field missed in the first wave of reaping, was a tiny percentage of the whole. God was tempering our tendency towards greed by making the landowners leave enough for the poor. It did not substantially effect their profit.

This is what makes the story of Ruth so beautiful. She was a poor widow who gathered the gleanings from Boaz’s field. When they meet his heart went out to her and he told the reapers who worked for him to intentionally leave handfuls of grain, just for her, Ruth 2.1-12.

The same was true for the grape harvest. Not every grape was picked on the first pass of reaping. Invariably some were missed and God legislated that these should be left for the poor and the foreigner. God was establishing laws that would help to shape a just society. The burden was not placed just on the state but on the people as a whole.

In Lev 25.4-7; 11-12 we read:
But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of Sabbath rest, a sabbath to the LORD. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.

The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.

The Sabbath rest was a weekly feature in Israeli life. But God also built this principle of rest into how the land was worked. So every seven years the land rested. There was no sowing and no reaping allowed. If anything grew up it did so from the previous years seeding. So whatever harvest appeared was a free for all, including the animals.

This was then extended to the year of Jubilee that happened every 50 years when all debts were cancelled and lands returned to their ancestral owners. Thus year 49 was a Sabbath year followed by another Sabbath year in year 50. Two years of Sabbaths. Now if were in any way disadvantaged as a citizen if Israel during that time it was wonderful for you. You had food for your family! You could live.

The spirit of all this is best captured by the verse in Deut 15.11:
There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.

God knew that the poor would always be there but He didn’t want the Israelite community to become hardened and indifferent to this reality. He wanted them to be ‘open-handed’ towards the poor and needy. On the other side of the coin God had these instructions to those who wandered into a neighbours field in Duet 23.24-25:
If you go into your neighbour's vineyard, you may eat as many grapes as you wish, but do not put any grapes into your basket.25 If you go into your neighbour's grain field, you may pick grain with your hands, but you must not cut down your neighbour's grain with your sickle, NCV.

I find this amazing. There was freedom to take enough food from someone else’s harvest for yourself but no more, no matter whom you were. Again the thinking behind this was that in proportion to the harvest, this was an insignificant amount and expressed God’s heart of generosity.

All of this teaching and practice was well known to the apostles and endorsed by Jesus. In Luke 14.13-14 NCV Jesus challenged His hearers with this statement:
“Instead, when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then you will be blessed, because they have nothing and cannot pay you back. But you will be repaid when the good people rise from the dead."

Notice His reasoning here, ‘They cannot repay you’. We give to those who are powerless to give back in this lifetime. In one sense this helps us define who the poor are, those who have nothing to repay us with. Paul goes on to quote Jesus to the Ephesian elders. They are some of his parting words to them:
I showed you in all things that you should work as I did and help the weak. I taught you to remember the words Jesus said: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'

There is a blessing in receiving for sure. We all like being blessed. But the truth is that it is more blessed to give than to receive. I did not understand this truth until I had children. But the joy of seeing their response when I did something for them far outweighed what it cost me to do it in the first place. I felt more blessed than they did!

When we get to the book of Acts we see how this principle of making every effort to care for the poor played out in the new church community. For a start they relinquished personal ownership of land and property in order to release money to care for the community,

The apostles were doing many miracles and signs, and everyone felt great respect for God. All the believers were together and shared everything. They would sell their land and the things they owned and then divide the money and give it to anyone who needed it. The believers met together in the Temple every day. They ate together in their homes, happy to share their food with joyful hearts. They praised God and were liked by all the people. Every day the Lord added those who were being saved to the group of believers, Acts 2.43-47 NCV.

In the midst of God’s awesome presence seen in signs and wonders the following happened:

1. They shared everything they had!
2. They gave to those who needed it.
3. They met daily.
4. They ate together, happy to share their food.
5. They praised God
6. They were liked by the people who watched them
7. Everyday believers were added to their number.

The generosity of spirit they had was as a direct result of their surrender to the Lordship of Jesus. The OT commands were now being worked out in their community spontaneously. Awesome!

This is played out further in Acts 4.32-37 and 5.1-11 where a sharp contrast is made between Barnabas and his generosity and the deceit of Ananias and Sapphira. The issue was not the reluctance of this couple to give everything. Holding back something for themselves was their free choice, their right. There was nothing sinful in this. The problem was that they lied about how much they received for the property. They left the community with the impression that they had given everything.

It is hard to know what was in their thinking when they did this. Perhaps they thought that giving all was the only option. Perhaps they felt guilty about keeping something back for themselves. Perhaps they felt less spiritual if the others knew this. Perhaps they felt they couldn’t live up to the expectations of others. Whatever the reason they lied. And it cost them their lives. This is the first case of church discipline that we read about. As you might expect fear fell upon the whole community, inside and outside of the church.

All this took place under the new covenant of grace established by Jesus! Why? I believe it was because the church was moving forward with great momentum and the Holy Spirit knew that this sin would slow the process. He did not want the hearts of the people discouraged by this deceit. Honesty before God and the people in such matters was crucial.

Notice too that Sapphira was judged separately from her husband. Saying she was submitting to his leadership was no excuse. She too had a choice and she chose to collude with Ananias. God held her accountable for her choice! They were judged as individuals unlike Achan and his family in the book of Joshua.

When we get to Acts 6 we find the first record of unrest in the church. Essentially it is a social justice issue. The Greek speaking Jewish widows were finding themselves disadvantaged when it came to food distribution. The Hebrew speaking widows were getting more! We are not told who was perpetrating this injustice. Luke records it in a way that hints it is rooted in racism similar to the problems that existed between Jews and Samaritans.

The key thing to see is that the apostles took this issue seriously and acted. They laid out criteria for the selection of a new level of leadership that could take care of this problem. And the criteria combined the spiritual with the practical. Remember that in the Bible wisdom was the ability to live life practically and well according to Proverbs. So they chose men full of the Spirit and wisdom and the apostles appointed them, Acts 6.1-6.

These men acted impartially so that justice in the community was restored. Listen to the consequence for the whole church in the next verse:
The word of God was continuing to spread. The group of followers in Jerusalem increased, and a great number of the Jewish priests believed and obeyed, Acts 6.7.

Not only were people saved but priests, the hardest group to win, were converted. Amazing. Later in Acts 11.29-30 the believers in Antioch learn, through a prophetic utterance, of a famine throughout the world. In response they determine to send relief aid to the believers in Jerusalem. They saw themselves as connected to that distant community and so social justice became a burden they willingly carried.

It’s worth noting that they responded according to their ability.
The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the believers living in Judea, Acts 11.29 TNIV. None gave beyond their means, but they did give.

This apostolic practice is further endorsed in the letters of Paul, James and John. Take a look at James 2.15-18, 1 John 3.16-18 (which strongly resonates with Deut 15.11). Listen to Paul in 1Thess 5.14;
And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.

Everyone needs patience and to be dealt with patiently. That’s where Paul ends. Yet three specific categories of people are listed here. The lazy and disruptive (one word in the Greek), the fainthearted (literally small souled) and the weak. With each group Paul suggests a different approach whilst all need patience.

The lazy group are able to work but choose not to. Paul says, ‘warn them’. In other words they need a kick, a challenge. He will later go so far as to say if a man won’t work he shouldn’t eat. Now there is a way of motivating someone. He even says don’t eat with such a person. They are not living up to Biblical standards and have no grasp of their social responsibility.

The fainthearted don’t need to be challenged, warned or rebuked. These people have a small capacity. They need massive encouragement, building up. This of course requires discernment. We have to be able to tell the difference! If not, we may end up rebuking the fainthearted and encouraging the lazy. Not good! I’ve seen it happen.

The final group are the weak. This term includes the poor, the sick, the lame, the blind, the orphan and the widow. These people need our support. Paul is clear that by support he means financial support. That is the context for using the word in Acts 20.35 NKJV.

All of this resonates with the words of Jesus in Matt 25.31-47 where He speaks of the judgment of the nations. Look at part of the text here:
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.’
“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’

This is Jesus speaking. We can rely on His words. Notice how unselfconscious the sheep are to these acts of kindness. It was part of their lifestyle. They did it without fanfare or hope of recognition. How amazing that when we care for the weak we are in fact caring for Jesus. Wow. I believe it’s time for the church to make an effort to care for the poor; to get involved in social justice issues. To find men full of the Spirit and wisdom who can come up with creative solutions to difficult social problems.

We cannot look to government agencies to have the answers. They need to look to us, to the church. And we need to look to the Lord and step out in obedience. Paul tells us that love is expressed by loving our neighbour. A lawyer tried to justify himself once by asking Jesus who his neighbour was. Jesus then told the parable about the certain Samaritan. You'll find it in Luke 10.25-37.

This is helpful. We cannot meet all the needs around us but we can meet the needs of those God puts in our way. Crossing over to the other side, as though we haven’t noticed, is not a legitimate option. We need to get involved. And like the Samaritan it costs us something in time, energy and money. But as we do, we have the assurance we are doing this to Jesus.

Here are a few suggestions for how you can begin.

1. In the parable of the certain Samaritan scripture tells us he was ‘moved with compassion’. The important thing is to allow yourself to feel what others are going through. Everything Jesus did came from this ability to have compassion on people in their pain and need. Pray that God opens your heart to embrace the pain of others. We must learn to weep with those who weep out of genuine empathy not as professional mourners.

2. Let this compassion be translated into action of some kind. Dare to get involved. The Samaritan did what he could; he treated the man’s wounds and then bound them up, put him on his own donkey, took him to a place of refuge, paid for an extended stay and further care (two days wages – about £200 by todays reckoning), then promised to return to settle any outstanding accounts. That is very comprehensive.

3. Involvement will always cost you something. It takes time, energy and money to make a difference. Choose a lifestyle that leaves enough for such demands. If you aim to live on 80% of your income then you will have money on hand when you need it. Too often we match our lifestyle to our full income. Remember if you have a bed to sleep in, a cupboard for your clothes and a roof over our head you have more than 75% of the people in the world!

4. The goal is to help people so that they are empowered to help themselves and others. We don’t want to create dependency on us. The idea is to see people become whole so that they can face life with faith and hope. That’s what the Samaritan did for the man who fell among robbers. He knew it would take time but he had a clear goal.

5. Dare to go on trip that takes you out of your comfort zone. There are many places in the world with great need. Don’t go on your own. Go with someone who knows what they are doing. You can easily find yourself out of your depth. And when you feel totally overwhelmed with the needs around you, remind yourself that you serve a God whose heart is so big He is able to meet all those needs through Jesus.

I pray that as a believer and as a church we are able to embrace the needs of a broken people in a broken world and bring the touch of heaven to those who need it. Make every effort to remember the poor!

Friday, 23 September 2011

Make Every Effort Part 2

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is near-sighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. 2Pet 1.5-11 NIV

Twice in this passage the phrase ‘Make every effort’ is used. The text is really important for us. Like the other texts we have already looked at this is about ordering our priorities in life and ministry so that we succeed. That’s what the apostle Peter wants; that we be fruitful Christians. He says it’s possible for us to ‘confirm’ our calling. In other words our life matches our profession.

The key idea here is adding; to make sure you add to your faith. Faith is foundational according to 1Cor 3.11. Jesus is that foundation and faith in Him creates that foundation in your own life. Without it you are lost. But with Him as your foundation you are able to build a life that can bring praise to God.

We build be adding. Peter gives us a list of things. He begins with virtue. This is moral excellence or goodness. This along with, perseverance, self control, and love are also listed by Paul as a product of the fruit of the Spirit in Gal 5.21-22.

This tells me two things in particular. The first is that the fruit of the Spirit is not meant to be an exhaustive list. In Peter’s list there are four things mentioned also by Paul. Fruit can have many expressions. It is not limited to the list of nine by Paul or seven by Peter.

The second thing is that fruit is a product of life. It is organic. Like a tree that grows and produces fruit, so we too are meant to grow and produce fruit. So when Peter tells us to ‘make every effort’ he is not telling us to try hard to produce fruit. He is telling us to order our lives in such a way that the organic process of God’s life in us will manifest in fruit.

Many Christians begin well but then something in life makes them stumble. Maybe they get offended. Maybe they drift away. Maybe the cares of this world overwhelm them and the life of the seed is choked. Peter tells us that if we are purposeful and add to our faith we will continue to grow in our knowledge of Jesus.

Now a house is built from the bottom up. First there is a superstructure, then the roof, windows and doors and then the fittings and utilities. Finally the place is decorated. This is how we are to build our lives. We add to the foundation so that a house is built.

If we don’t add to our faith we remain vulnerable. Peter implies that we eventually develop spiritual myopia. We simply can’t see clearly and without clear vision people cast off restraint, Prov 29.18. Growth and advancement are meant to be the norm for believers.

As we add to our faith we keep our vision clear. It helps us make good decisions in life, because we have established good priorities. These priorities develop our character and this in turn helps to shape our choices and ultimately our destiny. Adding to our faith is a must but where do we begin?

This is not difficult. Just be honest with what you are struggling with in your life. Are you in a situation where you feel like giving up? Then maybe you need to add perseverance to your faith. Your present circumstances often tell you what it is God is working on right now in terms of developing your character.

For the person who is newly saved but lives with a partner they need to add knowledge and virtue to their faith. Knowledge of how God sees marriage. Studying what the Bible has to say on this issue, or doing a marriage course can help with this. Virtue enables them to be able to talk to their partner in a loving way. In time something should change.

The teenager who has lived with few boundaries and so is brash and undisciplined needs to add self-control to their faith. Without it they are captive to badly learned patterns of behaving. Remember too that this is a process. It takes time. Nor do these additions to our faith need to be sequential. Some can be happening at the same time. They are often linked.

This kind of process often means coming into a relationship where someone else can hold you accountable for your progress. Wanting to change is half the battle but some people confuse desire with accomplishment. We often judge ourselves by our intentions but others by their actions. To ourselves we are gracious while to others we can be unnecessarily tough. Someone else can help us keep it real.

Adding to your faith is a life long process. That’s why I try and position myself to be a lifetime learner. Paul says in 1 Cor 8.1 that knowledge can puff up. The danger is that we think we have arrived. He encourages the Corinthians to take a different position. “We don’t yet know as we ought to know”. There is more!

There is a certain quality I find with lifetime learners.

1. They are more eager to listen than to speak. This resonates with the book of proverbs that often distinguishes the wise man as the one who will listen or take a rebuke. The proud and the foolish don’t do this. They blurt out every thought without really considering their audience or the impact they will have.

2. They don’t write people off just because they disagree with them over some issues. Many believers have vilified Dan Brown because of his book, ‘The Da Vinci Code’. I’ve read it. It’s disappointing. He is not a theologian or a historian. Maybe if he were he would be better informed. But it is a piece of fiction and he has written some other great books. ‘Digital Fortress’ and ‘Deception Point’ are excellent. In my opinion they would make great movies. Lifetime learners know how to make a discerning choice. They don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!

3. They read widely. Doing a Masters Degree brought a certain discipline into my life when it came to study. It forced me to read widely around the subject I was preparing my thesis for. My professor helped to point me towards all the authors who had made a significant contribution to this field of study. I find some believers very narrow in their thinking. They read one book on an issue and think they now have the truth on that subject. It’s sloppy and careless.

Read widely around a topic and use a mentor to point you to the authors who really have something to say. I know believers whose only view of the end times is informed by the ‘Left Behind’ series of books and films. If you want to be provoked to consider a different view then read Tom Wright’s book, ‘Surprised by Hope’. He is a brilliant theologian. Try adding to that the ‘Counterpoint Series’ published by Zondervan that presents different views on several topics each held by sincere orthodox Christians.

4. They welcome critique and input from peers. This is fundamental to good research. This is why we do life together. We need the input and feedback of others. Even when it comes to interpreting the Bible we should do it as a community. We have a shared faith. Gordon Fee says the first community we are indebted to is the church in history. In other words what others have said in the past is important to know!

5. They give deference to those who have helped them in their journey. Growing up in a little Brethren church helped me understand the meaning of hospitality. They were great at that and I’m grateful for what they showed me. But it was John Wimber who helped me add the experience of worship and healing to my faith.

Peter Drucker became a great influence on my take on servant leadership. Through the writings of Henry Cloud and John Townsend I added boundaries to my life and it brought a whole new experience of freedom to me. I honour what each of them brought to my Christian experience and understanding.

6. They remain open to learning something new all the time, even in an area where, according to others, they may be an acknowledged expert. Life has taught me that the more I know about a subject, the less I fully know. It helps to create a genuine humility in me. Someone may actually be able to add to my knowledge and experience of God if I maintain that posture of heart.

7. They don’t presume what others don’t know. They begin by listening and then asking questions. The great Danish theologian and writer Søren Kierkegaard said that we couldn’t presume to teach anyone until we first learn what he or she knows. This is the attitude of a real servant. Don't presume what people need to know. Get to know them first, then you can help them.

Let me challenge you this week to reflect on your own journey of faith. Are there some missing pieces? Is there a need for you to add to your faith? Everyone should be able to answer this in the affirmative. The only real question is what do you need to add.

Take some time to think this through. Ask some of your close friends or peers what they think. Dare to listen to what they have to say. Then ‘make every effort’ to realign your life and priorities so that God can add this to you too. Remember, if you do, you will never be barren or unfruitful and your progress will be apparent to everyone around you.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Make Every Effort Part 1

This phrase is found several times in the NT. In a way it helps us to establish a set of priorities for living. When the Bible tells us to make every effort to do something it trying to help us see what is truly important. By focusing on the right things we are able to move forward in life and ministry. Success follows.

In part 1 of this series I want to start with three statements that begin with the phrase, ‘Make every effort’. The Greek word behind this phrase is Spoudazo. It is variously translated as ‘labour’, ‘be diligent’, ‘study’, ‘to exert oneself’ and ‘bend every effort’.

In 2 Peter 3.14-15 NIV we read this advice from the apostle Peter:
But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.

Peter is telling us to live now, in the light of the future. In the future there will be a new heaven and a new earth filled with righteousness, God’s righteousness. That’s what we look forward to. It’s coming as sure as the sunrise tomorrow. That should impact how we live today. So Peter says, ‘make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him’.

One word summarises this approach to life, integrity. Integrity is about how everything in life fits together as a whole. To have integrity is to have an integrated life. This is not about being perfect; it’s about being authentic in the light of the gospel.

There is a great search today for authenticity. It has produced more honesty but not more integrity. Honesty s a good thing but it can be rooted in pride. The youth who boasts in getting drunk to his friends is honest, but he lacks integrity. He carries no sense of shame. Integrity would give him that and compel him to want to change.

The businessman who boasts to others about how he evades tax is honest, but not to the taxman. He lacks integrity. Integrity takes honesty to a new level. It’s not just about admitting what is true but living in truth. There is a difference!

Job was a blameless man. He held on to his integrity even when the circumstances in life pushed him to blame God and react, Job 1.8; 2.3. He chose to worship instead, Job 1.21. But notice that it wasn’t easy for him to do this. The easy thing was for him to take his wife’s advice; ‘Curse God and die’, Job 2.9. But Job ‘made every effort’ to remain blameless – and he succeeded.

Sometimes we experience things that make us want to react, to blame God, to blame others, to choose a course of action that we know won’t help. In those moments take the apostle Peter’s advice. Bend every effort to remain spotless. Joseph could have easily compromised his integrity and allowed himself to be seduced by Potiphar’s wife. But he said no. He chose to be blameless.

And part of his challenge was accepting the false accusation that was laid against him after doing what was right. It must have taken amazing effort not to give in to despair and despondency. He drew on heavens grace and within a few years God honoured his choice. He honoured his integrity.

These statements by the apostles to, ‘make every effort’, is not about summing all of the human willpower you can muster to get through life. It is about establishing new priorities. A life of integrity is to be our priority, even when it hurts! When our priorities are in agreement with scripture there is grace to live in them. God empowers us to live in truth.

David could have killed Saul on at least two occasions. The situation presented itself and his men saw this as a divine opportunity. But David held back. Even cutting the edge of Saul’s garment brought conviction to his heart. Letting Saul live meant David remained a fugitive. It hurt. But he kept his integrity. And ultimately he became king.

What pressure are you under at present that is tempting you to let go of your integrity? Don’t. Hold on. Make every effort to be what God has called you to be.

The second passage is in Hebrews 4.11 NIV
Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.

I love this text. We labour to enter His rest. Labour and rest in the same sentence? It doesn’t seem right, but it is. Think about what happens when most people go on holiday. How long does it take for them to unwind; to really disconnect and enjoy the break? How about you?

I have a friend who is a high-flying businessman. He takes his laptop and mobile with him everywhere – including holidays. He can’t let go. For him to turn off his phone would take a huge effort. I understand this. I am wired that way too. But life and faith have taught me this is no way to live. It is in fact a sign of unbelief.

The Sabbath principle is that we don’t need to work all the time. We can rest and trust God to give us enough the other six days so we can enjoy Him on the seventh. But we must prioritise this. We must make every effort! My old Bible College teacher told me that the promises of God work best when we rest in them. It’s true.

Labour to enter into God’s rest, God’s provision, and God’s salvation. This is the place of blessing and fruitfulness. Jesus invites us to take His yoke upon us because it is well fitting, (this is what easy means in the Greek), and light, Matt 11.28.

Zacchaeus laboured to enter that rest by climbing a tree. It changed his life. Peter laboured all night and caught nothing but then made an effort to obey the command of Jesus and caught a massive amount of fish. Too often our effort is misplaced. It is directed towards selfish goals or an expression of faith in our ability to do things without God. Don’t live that way. Make an effort to live in the promises of God.

Choose to make an effort to live trusting God and entering into His rest. For the children of Israel this meant the Promised Land. That was their place of rest. Sadly few of them experienced the goal that God had for them. Unbelief robbed them of their true destiny. They died in the wilderness. But as men of faith Joshua and Caleb did enter in. They believed the promise of God and made the effort of letting that be their point of reference, not the walled cities of canaan or the giants in the land.

What is your point of reference? What promise has God made to you that you are holding on to? What unbelief is being spoken by others that is designed by the enemy to rob you of your destiny? Will you give in or will you make every effort to hold on to the promise and enter what God has for you. Remember all the promises in Christ Jesus are yes and amen, 2Cor 1.20

The third text is found in 2Tim 2.15 New Century Version
Make every effort to give yourself to God as the kind of person he will approve. Be a worker who is not ashamed and who uses the true teaching in the right way.

Various products in Britain need to be made to a specific standard of safety. Once this standard is achieved they are awarded a kite mark. It’s a sign that they have fulfilled the criteria required to earn this prestigious sign. They are approved. Wouldn’t it be great if we could see a kite mark on Christians, churches and leaders, to know that they too are approved?

Often it takes time to see whom God has truly approved. Like the fruit on a tree it’s the last thing to appear. Paul was telling Timothy to make this his priority. That’s what David did. He was obedient to God because he sought God’s approval. Saul on the other hand sought the approval of the people. He became a slave to their desire and he disobeyed God. It cost him the kingdom.

David on the other hand had a heart after God. It was His approval he chased. Even when he sinned he returned to the Lord and trusted in His forgiveness. This is vital for us to get right. In our culture we are obsessed with approval from every corner except heaven.

TV producers determine the success of a programme based on ‘approval ratings’. No matter what intrinsic value a program may have it is cut from the schedule if it doesn’t hit the targets set by the station managers. Light entertainment has for the most part replaced serious documentary or news coverage.

The same is true for music, films and theatre. Sometimes A class actors will put their names to a project because they know the film will not be made if they don’t. Peer pressure works on the same basis. We get approval from others and it is important to us. We bend to the expectations of others, often to our own hurt.

But at the end of the day we will not stand before a TV audience or our peers or any human court. We will all stand before God. Ultimately it is His final verdict that makes all the difference. So Paul advises Timothy to live life in the light of that reality. For Timothy this meant pursuing excellence in ministry.

All of us are aware of when someone is performing well and when a job is under par. When a singer hits a bad note we all hear it. When a carpenter makes a window that won’t fit the hole it’s meant to go in, it becomes obvious. Remember a skill is a practiced ability.

What skills do you have that need to be taken to another level? Can you point to what you do with a sense of pride that it’s your best effort and it will gain a kite mark? Are you happy for others to look at and critique your work? A skilled craftsman is never afraid for their work to be inspected.

But today we have ‘cowboy builders’, ‘knock offs’ and ‘pirate videos’. Quantity has become the substitute for quality. I think we are missing something. Now the danger is that we take this attitude into our churches and ministries. It will show in time. You can paper over the cracks but eventually they will show through.

If you are involved in worship then you need to know the songs that you sing or the music that you play and know them well. The best way to learn them is by heart. Then you are free to minister while singing or playing without focusing on reading the words or music. They flow from your heart. And there is a flow.

If you are a preacher then you need to prepare well. Use every opportunity to write down a good quote or a good illustration. Like any journey, know you destination. Read widely, pray fervently, prepare well and then deliver your message without apology. If you have to apologise before speaking it’s probably not worth even talking.

My point is simple. Excellence attracts excellence. Skill is always admired. Seek to get God’s approval for all that you do in life and ministry and you will not feel ashamed when you stand before Him. Your work will be tested, 1Cor 3.13-16. If you’ve built with gold, silver and precious stones you will get the title AUG – Approved Unto God. There is no better accolade.

Now developing skill takes effort. Yet when we connect with our passion the effort is a joy. I have a friend who is passionate about art. Her idea of fun is spending a day in London going around all the art galleries. When she paints time flies. She is making a huge effort but if you asked her she would say it is effortless. You see it’s her passion.

Find your passion in life and ministry and then pursue it. David was a worshipper so when he wasn’t fighting battles he was writing songs and gained the title ‘The Sweet Psalmist of Israel’, 2Sam 23.1 NKJV.

Make every effort to live a life of integrity, to enter into God’s promise for you and to pursue excellence. It will be worth it in the end. And heavens smile will be on your life.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Making Transitions

Change is inevitable. A person can start a new job, get married, move house, be made redundant or find they facing a tsunami. We’re never quite sure what tomorrow will bring. Change tends to focus on the external factors. The objective reality of what is happening to us; what we are going through.

But there is a subjective side to change; the internal process that determines how we feel about the change and our ability to embrace it. This side of change is best described as a period of transition.

Transitions signify the passage from one chapter of life to another. They can be marked by times of celebration or grief depending on how we choose to interpret what is happening to us.

The nation of Israel went through some very specific transitions. Five stand out in particular. Egypt, the wilderness, Canaan, Captivity and the return of the remnant. The wilderness was a special time for Israel. It was only an 11-day journey from there to the Promised Land – God’s objective for the people. Yet the nation spent forty years in this barren place. Why?

Deut 8.2-3 gives us some insight:

And you shall remember that the LORD your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD.

The wilderness was a test; a place where Israel was humbled. There is nothing more humbling than to realise you are in a situation you have no power to control. God did that to the nation to teach them to depend on Him and look to Him. But this period is characterised in several places as being a time where they murmured and complained. They failed the test. They were not able to make the transition even though they had made the change!

And that is my point. Making a change is one thing. Making a transition well is quite another. This is why I believe that God ordained for Moses to be brought up in the house of Pharaoh. He did not grow up with a slave mentality. To be sure he needed to be delivered from self-sufficiency but he did not have a poverty mentality like the slaves in Egypt. God protected him from this crippling mind-set.

The Israelites were trapped in their thinking. Years of slavery had made the promise of a homeland too distant for them to embrace. But that is what faith does. It embraces the future now. Notice the emphasis of the Deut 8 text. They had to learn to live ‘by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’. Moses phrases this sentence in the present tense.

God had spoken a promise in the past but now He was active in fulfilling that promise. He had come down to deliver them through Moses, Ex 3.7-10. He had a new word for them to embrace. A now word. Transitions work best when we embrace what God is saying now. Seven times in revelation 2-3 we are told to hear what the Spirit is saying (present tense again) to the churches. God speaks and He wants us to listen.

Think of one of the most important transitions in the Bible. Jesus has risen from the dead but is going back to heaven. How would the disciples cope? Walking with Jesus for three years, knowing Him personally, having Him there to rescue you from all your mistakes. That is what they had known. But now He was leaving.

Jesus anticipated their sorrow of heart. Listen to Him as He speaks to them in the upper room just before His death, John 16.5-7:

But now I go away to Him who sent Me, and none of you asks Me, ‘Where are You going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you.

They were sorrowful but Jesus knew it was to their advantage that He left. He wasn’t abandoning them. He was preparing them for ministry that would more than multiply everything He had done through the empowering presence of the Spirit. It was a good thing He was leaving!

In Acts Luke records key events that help us understand the birth and mission of the church. Jesus spent forty days teaching the disciples things concerning the Kingdom. This was a post resurrection intensive training program! It culminated with the command for them to wait for the promise of the Father, Acts 1.1-9.

I notice two things about this time. He gave them information with the promise of an impartation. We need both. Good information helps us order and frame reality. It is rooted in knowledge, knowledge that was birthed in revelation. This is what we have in the Bible.

But Jesus also reminded them of a promise, first spoken of by John the Baptist four years earlier and now finding fulfilment in Jesus through His ascension. The promise was no longer years, months or weeks away. It was days ahead! He built their sense of anticipation. And so over the next ten days their faith grew.

They had heard about the Holy Spirit but now they were about to experience Him. He had been with them. Now He would be in them. Jesus left them in no doubt that this would be a power encounter and equip them for effective ministry, as if He were still personally present. Wow. This gives us all hope because we are 21-century believers. We haven’t walked with Jesus but we can be filled with the Holy Spirit and do the works of Jesus.

What was there response to this information and the promise of impartation? “They all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication….” Acts 1.14. They prayed into the promise – together. Personal private prayer is important. But this was together. It was corporate prayer to see the fulfilment of a promise for the whole church. They made it a priority. They came to together. There were no ‘Lone Rangers’ on this team.

Transitions always work best when we have a promise to hold on to. Joshua and Caleb were different from the other spies who witnessed the same thing as them in Canaan. These two men were guided in their vision by the promise that God had already given them the land – long before any battles were fought. They nurtured the promise in their hearts and it was manifest in their confession.

Acts 2.1 tells us that when the day finally arrived, ‘they were all with one accord in one place”. The one accord continued over the ten days of waiting for the promise. And now Luke emphasises that they were all in one place. Transitions always work best when we do them together. Proverbs 18.1 says: A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; He rages against all wise judgment.

The church is a body. We function best together. Of course you can have a personal relationship with God on your own but you can’t have church alone. It’s where two or three are gathered together. We need to be in one place. Thomas was not with the disciples when Jesus showed up the first time so he refused to believe He had risen, John 20.24.

The early church loved to gather together because they knew that God would show up in unusual ways when they did. And that is the consistent testimony of Acts. Some of the most difficult transitions I've had to make were made easier when I met to together to worship with other believers. It lifted my spirit. I was encouraged to move ahead in faith - and I did!

Think about some of the transitions that you are facing. Do you understand the topic? Have you read around it? Do you have all the information you need? Do you know what scripture says on this issue? Is there a promise that you are holding onto? A 'now word' from God that you expect to be fulfilled, not many days from now? Are you in ‘one accord’ with other believers? Finally do you take the opportunities you have to come together with others in ‘one place’?

If you do you will be far better positioned to handle any changes that come. Your heart will be ready to make more than a change. You’ll make a transition and do it well.