Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

A God with God moment.

I was reading Mark 1:4-5 with some friends in church last Wednesday. Read them and then I’ll make just a few comments.

John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins (NAS).

Our attention was drawn to the two small qualifying adjectives. All. John the Baptist was in the desert, baptizing; and Mark tells us that everyone left the city of Jerusalem and its surrounding countryside to find forgiveness through the washing of water. Now to us today, that would not sound irregular; but in the first century, it was unheard of. In the time of Jesus’ ministry; forgiveness was found in one place, the temple which rose high above all of Jerusalem. Your sacrifice was brought there, the priest accepted it, offered it to God and declared you forgiven.

But, Mark seems to be starting his Gospel with three introductory thoughts. First, whatever was transpiring at the temple thru the priests, it was not meeting the needs of the people of Jerusalem. And he tells us that all of Jerusalem left the confines of the City of David to journey to the desert to find true forgiveness. Second, Jews in the first century were almost never baptized. It was not a rite of passage for a Jew but for a gentile (called a proselyte) who was converting to Judaism. Third, notice the location, the desert. Other translations call this the wilderness. Listen to me say it this way, “the children of Israel wander out to the desert to meet God.” What does that remind you of? Sure, the Exodus. But in the history of Israel, that was their journey of utter disappointment. It was the place where they were tested, failed and then wandered for 40 years.

So, what do you think is Mark’s point for bringing the memory of the wilderness disaster front and center? Here are just a few implications.

  1. The very next scene in Mark’s Gospel is Jesus’ own baptism and then the Spirit leading (driving?) Him out into the wilderness for His own time of testing. And in this desert trial, the very place where Israel was weak and failed; Jesus came forth victorious with an even stronger faith in His calling and in His Father.
  2. In all the rest of the Book of Mark (with the exception of the beginning of Mark 6) Jesus is the central figure of every single episode. For Mark, there is no life without Jesus. Apparently, we learn nothing about God, ourselves, and our relationship with others UNLESS Christ is central in our lives.

May I make some simple applications? Some of you (or some of your fiends) are trying to make it through life with Jesus only on the periphery. You want to have just enough of Jesus to be called a Christian but not too much as to be labeled an extremist.  Or maybe you are going thru the same “forgiveness pattern” and never getting yourself out of the Sin-cycles. (You know what I mean by sin-cycle, pleading with Jesus to “Forgive me of my ______ sin” but then never really allowing the Holy Spirit to transform your life. Read that as actually taking the sin away). Why not let God call you out to a desert place with Him and allow Him to perform a cleansing work in you?

Finally, the most troubling part of this story is that all of Jerusalem returns home with only a fond memory of their baptism (maybe a picture of them with John the Baptist) and their wet clothes that they hang out on the line to dry. For in short order, they quickly return to their “temple forgiveness” patterns. Worse yet, they seek the advice of the un-repentant priests on how to order their lives. In just a few short chapters all of Jerusalem will be crying out (at the persuasion of the religious leaders), “Crucify Him.”  So in the end, whose voice has the most profound influence in your lives? Who is whispering in your ears? Who are you trusting?



We have ears and we want to listen.

Speak to us so You may be heard.

Thru Your Spirit, we lean into the still small voice.

Bring to us men and women of wisdom who will inspire us in Christ-honoring ways.

May we continually befriend folks who are not following  You.              

But may our voices impact them, not the reverse.



Now, Go with God.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Are His Words Enough?

A “Go With God” moment:

As I’ve been working through the Gospel of John recently, I am struck by the simplicity of its theological beauty. Yes, I am sure that to some degree, Clement of Alexandria is right; John is the “Spiritual Gospel.” For example, have you noticed the first “sign” in John; turning of water into wine (not exactly the miracle of choice for Wesleyans).  John’s summary statement of that section reads this way, “This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.” (2:11) This sounds like true belief language, doesn’t it?

Now, I’m not saying that a sign-generated-belief is by any means inauthentic but by the close of the chapter, John gives his readers a stunning retort to this sign-generated-belief.

Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, beholding His signs which He was doing. But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to bear witness concerning man for He Himself knew what was in man. (2:23-25; see also 12:37)

So, maybe sign-generated-faith is not the pinnacle of what Jesus is trying to (re)create within us. If not, what is He working towards? Here is the question I am asking today: “What is a faith that is pleasing to God?”

By the end of Chapter 4, we find the second sign that John actually numbers, this one again in occurs in Cana of Galilee. But this time it is a spoken sign, done at a distance, some 20 miles removed. The royal official’s son lies near death in Capernaum and his father pleads with Jesus to come down and heal his son. Jesus turns and says these words,

“Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders, you will never believe.” (4:48) Again the father begged Jesus, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” Jesus replied, “You may go. Your son will live.”

Now, do not miss the theological punch that John places before his readers (that includes us)… “The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him, and he started off.” (4:50 NAS).

First, notice that the man saw nothing. He only heard the word (Greek: logos) of Jesus and that was enough. Second, ask yourself a question, what would you have done immediately after Jesus spoke? Me, I would have run home as fast as possible to check if what Jesus said actually happened. But if you carefully note of the time element in the passage, you will see that it is not until THE NEXT DAY that the father actually encounters his servant on the road as he traveled home. It is then that they tell him when the fever left his son, at one in the afternoon. Interesting isn’t it. Jesus spoke the word of healing, and the father not only believed him but did not feel the compulsion to run home and see for himself. He lived his life as if the spoken word of Jesus was more than enough.

Maybe, as you read John again, try to do it with fresh eyes. Sorry. Maybe you should make that with fresh “ears.” Listen for all the times that Jesus speaks and His listeners want more than His words offer or even worse, they treat His words as if they are inadequate to meet their daily needs. Let me leave you with the question Jesus presents to Martha at the time of her greatest faith-test, the death of her brother Lazarus. Jesus says,

“I am the Resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (11:25-26).

So, may I ask you the same question, “Do you believe the Words of Jesus and act upon them unquestionably?” So, today; what kind of belief are you asking Jesus to produce within you? Sign-generated-faith or Word-created-faith? Are His words enough for you?


Lord Jesus.

Today, right now. I ask that You speak.

I beg that we have ears to hear.

I plead that our listening will be transformed steps of faith.

Transform Your image in us into Living vessels of Your Glory.


Now, Go with God

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Profundity of Simply Showing Up

A “Go with God” Moment

Let me welcome you all, whether you are a first semester freshmen or a senior…or anyone in between…to IWU. Summer is a good time to rest but the campus without you is non-functioning. It was quiet, it was empty, it was simply wrong. This is not the way IWU is meant to be. So I say, welcome back…

This is the first Monday Memo of a new school year so with it allow me to address just a few words to the incoming freshmen. For some of you, it may seem as if you have been here for a lifetime. So many new settings, hundreds (if not thousands) of new people, and if you are an introvert, there are very few places just to be alone. Each day of this last week could probably be described as “newness overload.” There are too many new places and with far too many names. There is the Phillippe Performing Arts Center but in actuality we only call it, The PPAC. We have an OLD College Church which has an alternative venue for chapel service, but it looks nothing like a church. We have a student center that looks like a Mall with its own coffee shop. We have residence halls galore (with a variety of names; have you figured out where ToHo is?) and academic buildings in every direction. You have discovered that the campus is loaded with real places with real names but often we only refer to them by acronyms or abbreviations. I apologize to you if you have been confused. I promise you that by fall break (another inaccurate term, because it’s only one day long), you will feel right at home.

Ok, so where am I going with this? Let me tell you a short story (a living parable) about what happened to me last spring. My wife Angie and I were on Sabbatical (every 7 years a professor gets a semester off to hone his/her trade of teaching). We decided to travel to three different Wesleyan Bible Colleges in Africa. At our last stop on the seven week tour, Mozambique, I was bitten by a tick and developed typhus; high fever, extreme exhaustion, and one nasty bite on the back of my leg. However, I was only going to be at this one Bible College for three weeks. During that time I was trying to teach an entire semester’s worth of work in three weeks. So, imagine if I stayed in bed for the next week (advice from the missionary). One third of the semester would have been lost. Instead, I promised my wife that if I taught for four hours a day, I would return to the mission home and rest the remainder of the day. Well, on the first day of class, I explained to the 50 young ministry students (who BTW, had traveled up to five days journey to attend this class) that I was sick but I wanted to try and teach my may through it. So I sat on a three legged stool and taught. Angie kept handing me glasses of water to keep me hydrated. It was 95 degrees with 95% humidity, and we were in a building without electricity or even a ceiling fan. I had never been so exhausted in my life after the first two hours of teaching. And in actuality, I do not remember a word that I said. But at the first morning break, one of the English speaking students came up to me and said, “Dr. Smith that was the greatest teaching I’ve ever witnessed.” His words of course got my attention, so I said (with a good bit of self-serving pride), “What was it that I said that encouraged you?” As I waiting for him to stroke my ego, he said, “Oh, it was not what you said that was impressive. It was the profound fact that you simply showed up.” He went on to explain that when most western teachers come to Mozambique, if they contract an African disease, they simply stay home. And when the teachers stay home, 50 people lives are put on hold and they miss out on all that God has for them.

Now, my new freshmen friends, may I make a simple spiritual application to you today. If you are lonely, hurting, feeling a bit overwhelmed; please simply show up. Place yourself strategically in every position to succeed. Go to every class, with work done; simply show up. Attend the activities in the dorms which will help fashion you into a community; simply show up. Give God the opportunity to pour Himself into you. I mean, really, He has brought you to a time such as this; please simply show up. Allow Him the opportunity to bring you through to the other side. 

Let me try to end this with a few “showing  up” suggestions which may help this week set a good foundation for your long-term success at IWU:

  1. Make Fall Summit a priority. Try to think of your education holistically rather than compartmentally. You grow as a person, body mind, and spirit. Classes for the most part are seen as your intellectual development. But if you have not picked up on it, we endeavor to offer you an integrated education; where we are concerned about your spiritual growth and your academic development. Set aside Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday morning and Monday and Tuesday evening for worship. BTW, Tim Elmore is one great preacher.
  2. Get to know your professors. Make certain in the first several weeks of the semester to stop by the office suite of the School of Theology and Ministry (2nd floor Christian Ministries Bldg). If you do not know him/her, introduce yourself and set up a time for coffee or even a lunch. In my educational career, the time apart with professors had an equal or greater impact on my life than the time in class.
  3. Seek out a church home. Chapel is not a church. Certainly it is a worship experience and spiritual food. But I encourage you before the semester gets too far along to find a local church to call “home.” Now, many of you will say that your church home is, well, back home. But in the ensuing semesters, you will grow academically and spiritually in ways you never imagined. And the people “back home” will not see this. They may always see you as the high school graduate who went off to IWU. I will ask you to put yourself into an accountable relationship with a multi-generational congregation with folks who can watch you, encourage you, challenge you, etc. Moreover, many of you will never return to your “home church” with any sort of regularity. So, finding a local church to worship and serve in now…will be setting an agenda for the rest of your lives.

For Summit this week, I pray that You would anoint Tim Elmore, embolden his heart, and quicken our ears.
For relationships across campus, I pray that You will bind together students and faculty into an academic and spiritually collaborative community.
May we learn from one another in the beauty of Your Spirit.
May we see the local church as Your Body;
May the Body pour into the students, and
May the presence of the students encourage the local church.

Now, Go With God.