Throwback Thursdays: The Hope of the World, Part I

 

The Christmas “Throwback” train just keeps on chugging. This week, we listen in on Mitch Majeski’s sermon that opened the “Red Letter” series on the gospel of Luke. The first five messages of this series served as a Christmas preface of sorts, and there’s some wonderful, refreshing truth in these warm, familiar passages of Luke. Here’s the audio for “Glorious and Lowly: Why Christ is the Hope of the World, Part I.”

I have really enjoyed Dustin Kensrue’s version of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” and thought it fit well with today’s message. (His Christmas album is a gem.) Kensrue used to be the front man for the alt-rock outfit Thrice, best known for their hits “Artist in the Ambulance” and “Stare at the Sun.” Kensrue is now the worship leader at Mars Hill Church in Seattle.

Enjoy. And, as always, hit me up with messages/songs you’d like to see on upcoming editions of “Throwback Thursday.”

 


Tensions of Faith: Dependence, Sovereignty and Obedience

 

I’ve heard it said that the Bible is full of tensions. I agree. This post is an attempt to bring a little balance to a particular tension on which I spoke during a recent Rock gathering. In a way, this is a rebuttal of myself, if you will.
 
The gist of my message was that we desperately need God for everything. I know the leaning in my own heart, and it seems the leaning of our Christian culture is to trust more in ourselves and our programs and abilities than in God. If I plan just the right event, if I come up with just the right analogy for sharing, if I have just the right argument or just the right training material, then this will be a fruitful interaction.  

The reality is that Jesus wasn’t kidding when He said we couldn’t do anything apart from Him. Anything eternal, anything of lasting fruitfulness 20 trillion years from now will be the result of God doing it. As we continue to realize our limitations, we will also realize our need to be on our knees in humble dependence on God alone, knowing it will be by His grace that good fruit is produced. I cannot save, I cannot make a heart love God more. Romans says I don’t even know how to pray, that I need God’s Spirit. I need Him so that I can truly love someone unselfishly. I need Him for patience. To fight sin, I am dependent on the Spirit working through me, whose fruit is self-control.  

I still agree with everything written above, and yet, I can see an incredible danger forming if I begin to take this idea and run too far with it. If God is the One who has to ultimately change the desires of those whom I’m pouring into, why even bother having those hard conversations where I point out idols in their life? If God is the only One who saves, why not just pray for someone to walk into my living room and ask me what he must do to be saved?

God is the only One who saves; no one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws him (John 6:44). It is God who works in us to will and to act according to His purpose, but let’s not forget to work out our salvation at the same time (Philippians 2:12-13).

I had a lost friend in the audience when I gave that message. He’s hearing me say, “God alone saves, God has to draw the hearts to Himself, that’s the only way someone comes to a saving faith in Christ,” and yes, I still agree with that statement. And yet, I fear my friend was thinking to himself, “Well, I guess I just sit around and wait until God draws my heart to Himself.” I totally do not agree with that attitude.

Here’s a verse I recently read in Hebrews. Interesting, the author says the exact same things twice in the same chapter and then again right away in the next chapter. Must be important. 

 

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” (Hebrews 3:7, 3:15, 4:7)

 

This verse helped me clarify the tension a little bit. God spoke, and the people of Israel had a choice to trust God and obey, or to harden their hearts against Him. We have the same choice today every time we hear God speak and in the same way we are warned not to harden our hearts.

It is true we desperately need God. Let it drive us to pray often, crying out to Him as the only One who can answer. And yet He still wants to use us to help answer those prayers. When I pray according to His will, 1 John 5:14-15 promises God hears and He answers. I need the Spirit’s help to pray according to His will (Romans 8:26) and yet I am commanded to pray (1 Thessalonians 5:17). God alone saves, that’s true, but disciples of Christ have been commanded to “go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15), not to sit at home and pray for opportunities. We need to pray because we need God to accomplish anything eternal. But we also need to ready ourselves to be the answer to those prayers by obeying what God has revealed in Scripture.

It comes down to trust. Prayer is a great litmus test to expose whether I am trusting in myself or if I am dependent on God. But as I hear God’s voice, as I see His commands revealed in His Word, I have a choice to display just how much I trust Him by taking His Word at face value and trusting the results to Him as I obey. Or I can tell God through my actions that I don’t trust Him and my heart grows harder and harder.

May we trust God completely. May we be a people who display that trust by desperately depending on Him through prayer. May we also show that trust by being a people quick and eager to obey at the slightest nudge of God’s voice.

The Savior and the Scapegoat

 

My wife and I spent two-and-a-half months this last summer in Nepal, where there is literally no constitution, no formal or recognized government, and where corruption abounds. There is constant striving and bickering, and deals in smoke-filled backrooms happen all the time. Consequently, the people of Nepal have resorted to primarily two mindsets: apathy or complete disgust. It is not difficult to see why, when for six years there has been no progress at all. It opened my eyes to the wonder of what a working government really is, one where there is trust between constituents and elected officials. Amazingly, life goes on there, somehow. In Nepal, there is no illusion that the government can help me or work for me, because they only always work for themselves.

Coming back to America, it was shocking to witness the other side of the trust pendulum. Whereas Nepal had a lack of trust and hope in government, most Americans were trusting, hopeful and generally didn’t seem apathetic to the level that the Nepalese did. In fact, leading up to the election, it seemed whether you were for big government or limited government, you were hoping in some form of government quite highly. There were lots of expectations, hopes, and subsequent disappointments all wrapped in five months of debates, political ads and campaigning.

This election became a functional savior to many Christians, when, no matter who won the election, it would have no direct bearing on people’s spiritual state eternally. The America that could have existed if other candidates had won would still be unable to deliver cultural redemption on the scale that was hoped for. Our public policies can change legality, but they cannot change the heart. In all of this, I noticed that there had become a paradox within America. The idea of “America” at once had become both a savior of sorts, and a scapegoat of sorts. Let me explain. 

When asked, “What is the problem with the church in America?” or, “What hindrances are there to new disciples being made or current disciples growing in faith,” the response I usually hear is summed up in one word: America. American technology, American TV, American way of life, American ideals are the problem. To an extent I agree.

But then I ask the question, “Would you prefer the Nepalese technology, the Nepalese TV, the Nepalese way of life, or Nepalese ideals? Or perhaps the Algerian? Or French?” When we frame it that way, it becomes clear that these are not just “cultural” problems, since all of these cultures are fallen and unable to redeem souls in and of themselves. America as a nation is not the scapegoat, just like America as a nation is not the savior. Rather, these “cultural” problems are human nature problems, and culture is collectively made up of these individuals, who mostly live in rebellion to God. When I blame America for the problems in the church or hard soil around me, the solution quickly turns to “make another new, better culture.” Since culture is the problem, a new culture is the solution. Let’s build this thing from the ground up and make sure every brick is well-intentioned.

The alternative, at least in my mind, would be to not see American culture as the problem and scapegoat, but what Paul describes in Ephesians 2:1-3:

 

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

 

It’s interesting that Paul never mentions “Greek” culture, as offensive and unbiblical as it was. He always drives to the heart of cultural problems: not the external labels of “Greek” or “non-Greek” and their symptoms, but sin.

If sin is now the problem, then I know a different solution to our cultural problems: Jesus. Defiant living to Jesus is the cultural problem, and individuals reaching a restored, right relationship with him is the cultural answer. It always has been this way. Individuals can be redeemed; there has never been an entirely redeemed culture on Earth in all of history. While this will be true until Jesus returns, we are not to abandon culture and head for the hills; rather, we are called to always be salt and light amongst the greater culture, and that should inspire us to create with a gospel intent. 

The amazing miracle of Jesus is that He is both the Savior from sin and the scapegoat for sin. He is what we should hope in and trust in, and he has willingly offered to take all the blame for all the problems in this world: Greed, corruption, entitlement and any other attitude that sets itself against his wisdom. It becomes painfully clear that we are strangers living in a foreign land, while we wait for our Son to come back and make things perfectly right. 

 

For to us a child is born,

    to us a son is given;

and the government shall be upon his shoulder,

    and his name shall be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

                      (Isaiah 9:6)

 

For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. (Hebrews 13:12)

Scouting Report: The Japan Team Returns

 

A few weeks ago, we interviewed the four Summitview members who were headed to Japan on a missional scouting trip. Torgun Lovely, Mark and Tiffany Schreiber and Lee Vary spent a week in Japan serving with David Cervenka and exploring the possibilities of long-term mission trips. The Cervenkas are supported financially through Summitview's "No Small Thing" missions campaign, and the potential that could come from a trip like this is incredibly exciting. So, after the jetlag subsided, Torgun, Mark, Tiffany and Lee were kind enough to share their thoughts on the trip and their hopes for the future. 

How were you able to connect with David Cervenka, and how are his family and ministry doing there?

TORGUN: We were primarily working with David and his ministry, which is a bit diverse at this point, so what we did was pretty varied, as well.

A lot of time was spent investigating possible opportunities to relocate to Japan on a longer-term basis. Mark and I visited international high schools, and Lee scheduled a college visit.

We served with a local church that is sponsoring David’s visa, and some of this time was with Hiroto Sawane, as well. We attended two church services, a leadership training event where we equipped people to share the Gospel with the C2C method, a Thanksgiving dinner and a tract-distribution event.

We did a prayer walked with David around his neighborhood, asking God to open “Heaven, hearts, homes, highways and hands,” and meeting with some of the people he is focusing on reaching with the Gospel.

And we also spent a lot of time with an English professor on two different college campuses (one with Hiroto), assisting him by helping students with their English. Those efforts culminated in a “Bible Talk” meeting on a Friday night that was one of the highlights of the trip for me.

David and his family are doing fine, but I definitely got the sense that being in the mission field full time is and will continue to be a strain on their family. They are doing well, as they are both committed to the Lord, each other and the mission, but it does not seem easy at all.

MARK: David and Danielle are doing great, as is their ministry. Currently, they are helping out with a Japanese church in an area called Funibashi about 40 minutes from Tokyo. They are also helping a former Great Commission church member who lives in Tokyo, Richard Wilson, with his university student outreach. Both of these ministries are doing great and hopefully will “bear much fruit.” While we were there, we helped in outreach to the local Funibashi neighborhoods and on two different college campuses. 

TIFFANY: Mark and I stayed with the Cervenkas, and that was great. We had four days in close quarters with kids who don't sleep through the night yet, all while using Japanese bathrooms and figuring out singing showers. It was fun! Seriously though, it was great to see them. I have a deep respect for both David and Danielle. They are committed to the mission God has them on and to each other. David is a good leader of people and of his family. He seemed to have a good balance of being out in the world and at home to serve and love his wife. I would imagine that the stress of living in a city where you don't know the language would be isolating, and Danielle is hanging in there, but I could see the day-to-day stress needing to be constantly addressed.

The ministry is taking off. I participated in one life group with local non-believers while I was there and it was something I will never forget. David's focus on the T4T method seems to be a good strategy for Japan. Finding and discipling the interested people and helping them to come to Jesus so they can reach their friends and family is so important since non-Japanese speakers aren't as effective long-term.

What’s the condition of the spiritual soil in Japan right now? Were most people open to hearing about Jesus? Did anyone take a step closer to salvation through your times sharing?

TORGUN: The spiritual soil seems ripe for planting seeds and watering seedlings, but the work to take someone who hardly has a concept of God to true belief is significant. The analogy that came to mind is that the harvest is plentiful, for sure, but it is high up in the trees, requiring building ladders to reach the fruit. There isn’t a lot of low-hanging, easy-to-pluck fruit. We did not get a lot of opportunities to do cold-turkey evangelism, as the English professor had to be careful about our interactions with the students. We had a Bible study with eight unbelieving students on Friday night where they got to hear a testimony, a clear Gospel presentation, and then go through a Scripture passage in smaller groups with a few believers in each group. I definitely got the sense that it advanced the Gospel in the hearts of some of the students. I was working with two students, Takeshi (male) and Kayo (female), both of whom I am continuing to pray for. If I were still in Japan, I would definitely try to set up regular meetings with Takeshi to discuss the Bible and the Gospel.

MARK: I felt like the Japanese people that we met were very open to hearing the Gospel message, yet at the same time they come from a totally different worldview. That, coupled with the language barrier, can make sharing the gospel a bit challenging, to say the least. I think there were definitely some seeds planted and some great, deep questions from students in the Bible study groups. I think that given time these seeds will grow and people will come to a saving faith in Christ.

TIFFANY: The handful of people I talked to seemed interested and wanted to know more, so that was encouraging. I wondered about their cultural politeness, however, in terms of their perceived interest. Were they just being polite, or did they really want to know more? The students, however, didn't just listen but asked a lot of great questions. And at the life group there was a realization by one woman of the Spirit’s presence and she was really moved. I think at least four women came closer to salvation from my talking and sharing with them directly.

What one story from the trip showed you God's well-designed sovereignty?

TORGUN: In one of my meetings at an international high school, I was shaken by God’s plan to have me grow professionally. I did not go with that intention, but it was an unexpected blessing!

MARK: I could probably tell stories for hours of how I saw and continue to see God at work in Japan. But if I had to pick one it would be about my wife Tiffany. She wasn’t planning on going on this trip at all. She was going to hold down the fort at home while I was gone. Through a series of circumstances that would take too long to share, she got to come along. She was a bit nervous, leaving the kids for almost two weeks, traveling across the Pacific to a foreign land, and then potentially sharing the gospel with people she didn’t even know. I assured her that she probably would mostly be helping David and Danielle, maybe watching the Cervenka kids while David and Danielle took the lead on ministry. I figured I’d be doing most of the sharing and being the point-man for our family.

Well, to make a long story short, Tiffany shared the most of anyone on the whole team, and I didn’t get to share much at all! God really used Tiffany because she was great at sharing the Gospel. Partly because she is so used to sharing deep gospel truths to our girls in simple, bit-sized chunks and with simple language – exactly what a non-native English speaker needs. So, I would highly recommend Summitview sending a bunch of moms over to Japan next time! 

TIFFANY: We took a sight-seeing trip to the huge temple in Tokyo. While we there, I felt like I should talk to someone and I followed the Spirit’s leading to the area where people were directing the smoke from the huge incense pot over their bodies. I looked around for who I was supposed to talk to and a girl walked right up to me. She wanted to practice her English so we talked a bit. I asked her some questions about the temple and then was able to share about God, Jesus, and invite her to our Thanksgiving dinner. It was a powerful morning and I felt God's love for the Japanese people and His deep sorrow for a country full of people trying to find meaning in a religion of emptiness. The girl got in a traffic accident the morning of the dinner, but we connected through email and she and the Cervenkas got together after I left. David said it's common for people who are interested to suddenly have something happen to them so they can't come to events.

What do you see as future possibilities in Japan for our church and/or yourself personally? How can we continue to pray for the church there?

TORGUN: I think it would be great to plan more short term trips there, but even better if we could find a way to send over a more long-term contingent to support David, start a student ministry and plant a GCC church. I would like to personally have the opportunity to get a teaching job there and be part of that effort. It is a bit unlikely, though, as the jobs are prestigious among the international teaching community and it is a very competitive application/hiring process, but nothing is outside the reach of God.

Luke 10:2 is painfully true. The harvest is indeed plentiful – but not easily harvested – and the workers are alarmingly few. Pray for workers to reap the harvest. Pray for David’s influence in his community. Pray for the local church through which David is working. Pray for the access that Richard Wilson has with his students, that God would leverage it for the Gospel.

MARK: I think it would be great to have a “Summitview Tokyo” at some point but that is probably a ways off. I think a student ministry to university students could be very fruitful. Maybe a summer Infusion project could be set up since the universities are actually still in session in the summer! As for our family, I would still have a lot of thinking and praying to do before packing up and moving to Japan. Tokyo is definitely a livable city and I think it would be a great place to raise a family.

TIFFANY: Prayers for the Japan group to find those people interested in hearing about Jesus. Protection for interested people in a country full of evil. A better understanding of their culture but also capitalizing on the Japanese people's love of western culture. There is a unique "in" as an American, and I don't know how long that will last.

 

Drinking the Cultural Kool-Aid

 

The world around us exists as a mind-numbing contradiction. 

Everyone exists with an eternal soul, everyone exists for only a brief moment in time in this world, and everyone is careening toward a moment before a holy God who will seal everyone’s destiny forever. Yet daily life for nearly everyone is spent in a whirlwind of messages that assure us that real life can only be found in the here and now. And most of the time, these messages can be found in the most inane sources. 

I think traveling often confronts me most strongly with this contradiction. I'm just returning from China, having had a wonderful visit with the Swings. The time was refreshing, challenging and, as overseas travel usually is, a powerful reminder of the global reality of the Great Commission. Once again God convicted my soul on the call to be a bondservant in His work, and of the profound implications of God's reality and eternity.

But traveling is also the world of airports, buses, big cities, crowds, advertising and the messages of this world presented everywhere in the most powerful ways possible. Endless images of women, sports stars, innumerable products, cars, violence and sensuality (to name a few) present themselves in a torrential kaleidoscope, and are always attached to the promise of being somebody I can't be or getting something that's not mine to have. Undergirding all of it is an overwhelming narcissism and immaturity that is both seductive and sickening. Even now as I sit on the plane coming home I am both repulsed and drawn to what is on the TV screen in the seat next to me. The world is serving us all an elixir of Kool-Aid that is killing us. And all over the world a materialistic mono-culture is growing that is desperate for ways to drink it down faster.

My reading has been in the Old Testament lately. I started in Genesis and am now finishing Deuteronomy. It has been interesting to note how often and how strongly God warns the Israelites about the dangers of the cultures they were sent to conquer. It is apparently very hard to be a righteous, holy people and at the same time live among those who are not. Perhaps I find God's instruction to the Israelites so noteworthy because I see that tension in the church around me today. And I know that tension in my own heart. 

At some point the tension between the reality of Christ and His eternal judgment on one hand and the narcissistic Pavlovian programming the world feeds me on the other can no longer be held together. I must either let go of Christ or let go of my identification with this world. I think the church is reaching a critical point in culture where it must define itself – to itself – as separate and called apart, a people holy unto the Lord. If it does not do so it will lose its salt altogether. If we let the world entertain us, if we let the world educate us, if we let the world continually speak its values to us, I fear we will become like righteous Lot. He was a man who knew God, who was righteous. Yet as he lived in Sodom his understanding of right and wrong slowly degraded until he became a righteous man who did unspeakable things. How could someone who knows God come to the way of life Lot lived and make the choices Lot made? Yet today there is almost no social measure where Christians are different statistically than the rest of the culture. Though we are righteous in Christ, we are following Lot. We are drinking the Kool-Aid.

When I see the Lord face to face I don't want to look back on a life that got more and more conformed to this world. I want to present a life that grew closer and closer to Him. I want to know Him more deeply next year than I do today. I also know experiencing such a life means that I have to be making some real choices now. Just like losing weight or getting in shape, good intentions accomplish nothing. You have to actually change things to change things. 

I am setting my heart to make those changes. I am going to pray more, read God's word more, set my heart to obey more. I am going to spend my time more carefully and understand I am a bondservant of Another. I am going to choose to be engaged in His work, bearing fruit and rewards in an eternal Kingdom. I want to lay down my life and take up my cross and follow Him. With the grace and help of God, I am choosing the narrow road. I know if I don't, the day may come when my heart no longer knows how to find that road.

As I listen to other believers, I get the sense that other people are seeing the same crossroads, and setting their hearts to make similar changes. Maybe God is calling His church in a new way, is calling His bride to come apart and be with Him. If so, I look forward to the days ahead, no matter what else they may hold. Believers who discover anew what it means to walk in the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ is the best future I can envision.

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