Monday, December 24, 2018

Moving in the Right Direction

Isaiah 52:7-10    Psalm 98    Hebrews 1:1-12    Luke 2:1-20

An African Proverb says: “If you keep your head and heart going in the right direction, you do not have to worry about your feet.”

Christmas time is when we remember that God loved the world so much that He sent His Son to redeem it…to ransom us from slavery to satan…to pay the penalty for sin by giving His life in place of ours. It is truly the good news of peace and salvation – the news that the God of Israel reigns! The coming of Jesus signalled the end of the darkness…the end of the reign of the ruler of this world.

But this good news came with a price. The Christmas story is essentially a story of suffering. Israel had been in bondage in one way or another since the Babylonian exile. Their current rulers were harsh and demanding and people were crying out for deliverance. The Shepherds responded to the angels’ proclamation immediately because they were waiting expectantly for the Messiah. Simeon, a righteous and devout man Luke tells us, was waiting for God to come and rescue His people. Anna, a prophet of God too talked about Jesus to all who had been waiting expectantly for deliverance. All had lived for years filled with patient hope…believing that God would fulfil His promises…that God would rescue His people.

But Simeon’s prophetic words were dark words, filled with ominous warnings. When the kingdom of God confronted the kingdom of this world, the opposition was sharp. Simeon’s narrative invites us to watch as his words are fulfilled through the rest of the Gospel story. This Child was born to take upon His shoulders the hopes and fears of all the world…He was born to undo what our first parents had done…He was born to crush the head of the serpent, but in the crushing, His own heel would be bruised and His mother’s heart pierced through with a sword.

But the Child was destined to overcome the darkness and in the blinding brilliance of the resurrection the God-ordained goal for Israel was revealed. This Child was born to be a light to the nations. God’s salvation was for all people without distinction. That was and still is the good news of Christmas.

What is interesting about the birth narratives of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels is that while all yearned for a Saviour only some bothered to seek Him out. The shepherds, Simeon, Anna, and the Wise men were all examples of those who followed their heads and their hearts and were rewarded when their feet led them to Jesus. But others, like Herod, the leading priests, and the teachers of the law – who were all only two hours walk away from the place Jesus was born – did not move a toe as their heads and their hearts were already going in the wrong direction. Political power is what they sought and they would resort to whatever tactics necessary to keep that power…even if it meant wholesale slaughter and murder.

If heads and hearts are already moving in the right direction, the feet will follow.

This is perfectly illustrated in the life of our Lord Jesus. His head and His heart were set on doing the will of His Father regardless of the consequence. On the night in which He was betrayed, He pleaded with the Father that if there was any way He could avoid the bitterness of suffering that awful and painful and shameful death on a Roman cross, He would allow Him to do so. But there was no other way…Paul tells us that He humbled Himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on the cross. Why? Because through His blood shed on the cross, Jesus reconciled everything to God by cancelling the record of the charges against us and took it all away by nailing it to the cross.

 This is the good news we have been given to share with the world. We all were once dead because of our rebellion against the only source of Life. But in Jesus God offers us a free pardon – some reject this offer, but to all who believe Him and accept Him, He gives the right to become children of God.

This acceptance is illustrated in the sacrament of Baptism…where we are symbolically buried and raised with Christ, having been set free from the spiritual powers of this world and raised to new life in Him with our heads and our hearts set on the realities of His Kingdom and His ways. And since our heads and our hearts are hidden with Christ in God, so our feet will lead us into the fullness of the good news…to be the holy people God has chosen us to be…to mirror His tender heartedness, His mercy, His grace, His love, His compassion, His humility, His gentleness, and His patience.

But a profession of faith is only the beginning of the journey. If we are to walk as Jesus walked, we need to have our heads and our hearts checked often. We need to hide the very Word of God in our hearts so that we will not be led down the wrong roads. We need to spend time with Him if we are to know Him and if we are to be like Him. We need to be reminded that the Christmas story led to the crucifixion before it led to the resurrection, and if we are to find our lives, we too may need to lose them…if we are to follow the will of the Father, it will demand that we deny ourselves and put to death our own desires so that our feet might follow Him.

That was the one major difference between Herod, the leading priests, the teachers of the law and the shepherds, Simeon, Anna, and countless others. Heads and hearts set in the wrong direction will not direct our feet into the way of peace.

The Eucharist serves to remind us of the cost of discipleship…the cost of following Christ…the cost of life in a world bent on self-destruction and death. It demonstrates that while we are in the world, we too will suffer…swimming upstream is not for the fainthearted…but it also shows us that Jesus has overcome the world and that even though the world might persecute us and ridicule us and resist us and even kill us, they can never take away the gift of eternal life given to us by the Babe of Bethlehem…the one born to die…the one born to live again…the one born to reign as universal King.

© Johannes W H van der Bijl III 2018-12-19

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Source of Life and Peace

Micah 5:2-5a    Psalm 4:1-8    Hebrews 10:5-10    Luke 1:39-45

I love my Scorpio Mahindra, otherwise known as the Godmobile…I really do. In fact, I would go so far as to say it is one of the best vehicles I have ever had the privilege of driving. Not only do I like the design and the comfortable interior, but also I love the solidness of the vehicle, her powerful engine, her manoeuvrability and 4X4 capabilities, and her excellent fuel consumption. Not to mention the affordability of the Mahindra in comparison to others in her class.

But woe is me…I have had to take her in to the dealership to have an electronic problem repaired repeatedly…the indicator signal’s sound does not always work and, together with that, the alarm sound that warns you if you have left your lights on also doesn’t work…until I take her in to the dealer. Then all of a sudden the sounds click and buzz away as if I have a hearing problem…which I do, but that’s not the point.

Clearly if I have to return to the dealership often with the same problem, they have not succeeded in fixing it, have they?

The same thing is true for the Old Testament sacrificial system…if the priests and the High Priests had to offer sacrifices to atone for the sins of Israel repeatedly, day after day after year after year, then clearly they were not succeeding in fixing the problem. Instead, those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year, because, the author to the Hebrews tells us, it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away the sins of humanity. Something more was needed…something better or, in this case, Someone. When Jesus came into the world He said to God, “You have given Me a Body to offer.”

Now, to understand the need for Jesus to have a body (what theologians call the doctrine of the incarnation), we have to go right back to where the idea of sin is first introduced in the Scriptures. When God created humans and placed them in His Paradise, because He wanted their relationship to be based on choice and not puppetry, He gave them the option to live in harmony with their Creator or not. This is not hard to understand. If I drive the Godmobile according to the manufacturer’s specifications, she ought to serve me for years to come. If, however, I choose to put water in the tank instead of diesel, or if neglect to take her in for her regular services, I will suffer the consequences. It is not that the manufacturers are deliberately trying to manipulate me or exercise undue authority over me…it is simply the way the vehicle has been made to function. Likewise with us…we are made to live in harmony with our Creator…according to His rules…according to our Manufacturer’s specifications…

Disobedience or rebellion is essentially foolish…it is like cutting off your nose to spite your face, because rebellion or disobedience cuts us off from our source of life. The moment Eve gave Adam the fruit and he said, “Yes ma’am” and bit into it, humanity erected a wall between our manufacturer, and us, if you will. And, like the Godmobile would with water in her tank, humanity spluttered and died.

And this disregard for the manufacturer’s specifications was passed on from parent to child down through the ages…it was like a defective gene or like an HIV virus…we all got it. All have sinned, the Scriptures say, and fallen short of the glory of God. The separating wall is inescapable for all of us…as in Adam…or as we are part of the body corporate…the body of Adam, if you will…we all die. But herein lies the problem: no animal can deal with the wall or with the defective gene or with the virus…the animal sacrifices were just awful reminders to the offspring of Adam and Eve of the result of sin…death. But as the animals were not part of the body corporate, they could not remove the wall.

That is why Jesus needed a body to offer…He needed to be the first human being to live without that separating wall between Him and the Creator…the only source of life. And as death was linked to the wall…or to sin to give it its biblical name…it couldn’t hold Him…it had to let Him go as He was still linked to the life source…because He was sinless.

So by offering Himself, Jesus could effectively start a new humanity. All who are “in” Him are free from the Adamic body. That is why baptism illustrates a death…our death as part of the old body and our rebirth as part of the new body…by believing in Jesus and by being symbolically buried with the sinless one and resurrected with the sinless one.

At Christmas time, we remember that Jesus came to earth to do God’s will…and God’s will was for us to be reconciled to Him…to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time. There is no need to repeat the sacrifice over and over again as Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself was sufficient for all who obediently eat from Him as the Tree of Life.

For this reason, the Scriptures speak of the Eucharist in terms of eating His body and drinking His blood. It is a rather earthy yet graphic way of spelling out our becoming one with Him. It is sacrificial language…the sacrifice that bought peace between rivals was eaten together as a sign of the cessation of hostility between the two parties…and Jesus is our source of life and peace…

Likewise, every time we eat of this bread and drink of this cup we declare before heaven and hell that Christ has died and we have died with Him…that Christ was raised from the dead and we are raised together with Him…we are now one with Him and therefore we are no longer dead in Adam, but alive in Christ. Jesus has given us free access to the very throne room of the Father, the one and only true source of life, and He has fixed the cause of the malfunction for all time.

© Johannes W H van der Bijl 2018-12-16

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Christmas Feet

Johann and Louise: Training Disciples to Make Disciples in Southern Africa

An African Proverb says: “If you keep your head and heart going in the right direction, you do not have to worry about your feet.”

What is interesting about the birth narratives of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels is that while all yearned for a Saviour only some bothered to seek Him out. The shepherds, Simeon, Anna, and the Wise men were all examples of those who followed their heads and their hearts and were rewarded when their feet led them to Jesus. But others, like Herod, the leading priests, and the teachers of the law – who were all only two hours walk away from the place Jesus was born – did not move a toe as their heads and their hearts were already going in the wrong direction. Political power is what they sought and they would resort to whatever tactics necessary to keep that power…even if it meant wholesale slaughter and murder.

Christmas time reminds us that the world is still in need of a Saviour. Without beautiful feet carrying the Gospel of peace to a world estranged from its only source of life, heads and hearts will continue to go in the wrong direction.

That is why we are here in Africa…that is why we train others to train others to make disciple makers…

We had an absolutely marvellous time training leaders at the Anglican Church of St Martin’s in Bergvliet recently. This is an Alpha church, so they quickly understood that disciple making was the essential next step for their walk with Jesus.

Due to the withdrawal of provincial funding, the depletion of the budget allocated to our training ministry, and the resulting need to downsize, Growing the Church has decided they are no longer able to host us as members of their team. However, as the Lord is always way ahead of us, prior to this announcement, J-Life Africa had approached us to ask if we would consider working more closely with them as we already use their material. We have discussed this with SAMS-USA and we will be meeting with the J-Life leaders to finalise matters in February when SAMS Southern Africa meets in here for a retreat. Working with J-Life will also grant us greater freedom to work outside the borders of the seven countries in which we currently serve.

Speaking of other African countries, Bishop Mouneer has once again invited us to train the leaders in Gambela, Ethiopia, so Louise and I plan to leave South Africa just after Christmas and to return the first week in February. We are also currently investigating the possibility of training in an otherwise closed North African country in April. Your prayers are very much appreciated, as it is not easy for Americans to get visas to this particular country.

The Queen has decided she needs to move into the local nursing home, which comes as a great relief to us. It was simply no longer safe for her to stay alone in her apartment. Please pray with us that the transition will go smoothly and that she will enjoy being with all her old friends again.

Louise is currently studying the Scriptures through George Whitefield’s Explore Course and enjoying it thoroughly. Our disciple-making group continues to grow spiritually as we work our way through the four Gospels. They will be taking a break for the holidays and gather again in the New Year to discuss the book by Dann Spader, 4 Chair Discipling. Once we return we will resume our study.


We think of and pray for y’all often and hope that all is well.

May the Babe of Bethlehem, born to set us free, rule and reign in your heads and hearts this Christmas and direct your feet into the way of peace throughout the coming year.

Many blessings.
Johann and Louise


Support Us
Johann and Louise spent two years helping to develop the St. Frumentius Seminary in Gambella, Ethiopia. At present, they are mostly working in Southern Africa where they are serving in seven southern African countries, although they continue to work with the Diocese of Egypt, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa as well as other southern and northern African countries, through engaging in a disciple making movement in order to grow the body of Christ. They are partnering with J-Life and other like-minded ministries. This ministry is massive and has the ability to reach thousands.
We are sent  through the Society of Anglican Missionaries and Senders, a missionary sending community, engaging in building relationships with the worldwide church to experience the broken restored, the wounded healed, the hungry fed, and the lost found through the love and power of Jesus Christ. 
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Friday, December 7, 2018

Preparatory Anticipation

Malachi 3:1-4     Luke 1:68-79 (for the Psalm)    Philippians 1:3-11     Luke 3:1-6

Between the years 605 and 538 BC several waves of Jewish citizens were exiled to Babylon and even though they returned 70 years later, they remained servants of foreign overlords for many years. First the Persians, and then the Greeks and the Syrians…until a group of men rose up against the tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes, and managed to win back a fairly stable quasi-independence for Judah.

Out of this group a new dynasty arose called the Hasmoneans who ruled as both High Priests and as “Kings”. For a while, things seemed to go well, until a struggle for power between two brothers drew the attention of Pompey who, under the guise of a willingness to arbitrate the difficulties, once more brought the Jews under a foreign power, this time Rome. It is also at this time that an Edomite advisor to the puppet king by the name of Antipater began to seek powerful positions for his sons, one of whom later became known as Herod the Great.

Now although this is a complicated yet fascinating history, it does give us a brief glimpse of the backdrop behind the opening chapters of the New Testament. Like the other empires before them, Rome proved to be harsh and demanding taskmasters and the paranoid Edomite King Herod who ruled with an iron fist was thoroughly disliked by many orthodox Jews. As the High Priests were chosen and controlled by Rome compromise was the order of the day, so a group of priests left the Temple and started their own strict religious community…they are known to us as the Essenes and they lived in an area called Qumran.

Another group known as the Zealots began guerrilla warfare against the Romans and against any Jewish collaborators like the despised tax collectors. Rumours of would-be Messiahs were commonplace, but those who dared to gather a following quickly met with a rather sticky end…crucified patriots dotted the landscape as a warning to anyone who might entertain thoughts of liberation and independence.

Enter in  - onto this volatile and unstable stage – a voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the Way of the Lord!”

Can you imagine the excited expectation of the people? Their Lord was coming and they had to be ready to meet Him. One of the first times this call for national preparatory repentance and ritual cleansing was heard was during the time of the Exodus. The Israelite slaves had been delivered from bondage and had gathered at the foot of the Mountain of God, Mount Sinai. Moses instructed the people to wash themselves and their clothes in anticipation for the Lord’s arrival three days later. Surely the connection between this call of Moses and John’s message of repentance and ritual cleansing in preparation for the arrival of the Lord would not have gone unnoticed. God was about to show up! Something big was going on here! Surely nothing short of another deliverance!

Add to this the fact that John was the first prophet to break the four hundred year’s Divine silence and that he was baptising in the river Jordan right where Joshua led the people into the Promised Land, and you can understand why people flocked to hear him and to be baptised by him! An expectation of deliverance was in the air…conquest, the restoration of the geo-political kingdom of Israel, the reconstitution of Israel as an independent nation!

Of course, deliverance did come, but not quite the way the Jews expected.

Now the message of John the Baptists was quite simple: in order for the Holy God of Israel to come to the rescue of His people, the people had to be prepared…they had to be ready. Israel had become corrupt under the rule of Herod and the Sadducees, the two main collaborators with Rome…the Zealots had blood on their hands…so, purification and cleansing was necessary. Indeed, the Lord whom they sought would suddenly come to His Temple and He would cleanse it in a fury of righteous indignation because the Temple of Herod and the Sadducees resembled the pagan temples of the day with the buying and selling of trinkets and items for religious use…and the teaching of the Scriptures had been corrupted because of tradition and hunger for political power…consequently, many of the lay folk were largely biblically illiterate….hmm, sounds like some churches I have visited in the past.

But perhaps that’s just the point of retelling this story every year during the Advent season. The call for preparatory soul cleansing is still needed today; in fact it is needed everyday if we are to finish our spiritual journey well. Sir Francis Drake, the sixteenth century sailor who sailed around the globe, once said that it was not the beginning of the work that mattered, but rather the finishing that yielded the true glory. Paul basically said the same thing in our Epistle reading for today. The Christian journey is one that does not end with a profession of faith…that is only the beginning…there is a journey ahead that one must walk with God to the very end. And thanks be to God, we don’t have to do this on our own steam…He is the one who began that good work in us and He is the one who will bring it to completion.

The church in Philippi, situated in northern Greece, was one of the first to hear the Gospel through the missionary work of the Apostle Paul. Paul had of course moved on to establish other churches elsewhere and was, at the time of writing this letter, in prison because of his missionary work. An he wrote to them because he knew that their initial response to his message of salvation through faith in Jesus was only the beginning. Like newborn babes, they had to be fed in order to grow to maturity. And so he wrote this letter to encourage them to seek a deeper and more meaningful relationship with the one in whom they claimed to believe.

After having bolstered their confidence in reminding them that what God begins He always finishes, Paul also reminded them that they were a people who were dearly loved both by God and by him. Anyone who has ever had children or worked with children will tell you that children thrive when they have a sense of security and when they know they are loved. I don’t believe we ever really move beyond these basic needs…security and love…and we find both through faith in Jesus.

In the light of this confident love, Paul prayed for them. Firstly, he prayed that their love would overflow more and more, and that they would keep on growing in knowledge and understanding. You see, in Christian thought, the heart and the head are not separated as some may think. For Christian love to be Christ-like, it must express itself in knowing and understanding the way life really works in God’s world. We have to understand what really matters if we are to love as God loves and if we are to do what God does.

For this reason, the second thing Paul prayed for was for moral discernment. The world of the Philippians, like our modern day world, was filled with all sort of moral issues that were not always easy to label as either good or bad…sometimes things were unclear or the fine line between right and wrong was blurred because of cultural biases or other reasons. After all, none of us are ever truly objective.  It is the knowledge of God and His ways and an understanding of His Word that helps us make difficult decisions in life. And that is something we only learn over time as we humbly allow His Word and His Spirit to direct us on a daily basis.

But notice the reason for this prayer for moral discernment. It was so that they might live pure and blameless lives until our Lord’s return.

This statement echoes the voice crying in the wilderness. John the Baptist’s world, Paul’s world, and our world was and still is morally corrupt because it is spiritually bankrupt. And as the faithful in John’s time anticipated the coming of the Lord so we too anticipate the return of our Lord. But this anticipation is never passive…John was called to prepare the way of the Lord by instructing the people to cleanse themselves so that they might live pure and holy lives. We are called to do the same…we are cleansed in Christ and now we need to continuously be filled with the fruit of that salvation – that righteous character that is produced in our lives by the finished and yet continuing work of Jesus…who, as we have already seen, will continue the work He began in us until it is finally finished on the Day when He returns.

Two comings…two anticipatory periods…two preparatory periods…both instructing us to strive towards maturity in our new identity as followers of Jesus.

Now, I believe the Eucharist serves to remind us of these two periods. In 1 Corinthians 11:26 Paul tells us that every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we are announcing both our Lord’s death as well as His return….His 1st Coming as well as His 2nd Coming. As such, through this sacrament, our voices unite with the voice of the one crying in the wilderness. Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming…

© Johannes W H van der Bijl III 2018-12-04