Sunday, February 24, 2019

Gaining Perspective in an Upside-Down World

Genesis 45:3-11, 15    Psalm 37:1-11, 40-41    1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50    Luke 6:27-38

The church in the Gambela region of Ethiopia is growing by leaps and bounds. It is such a blessing to see how the believers there are simply unable to keep their faith to themselves…they just have to share the Good News about Jesus with anyone who is willing to listen…and even with those who are not so willing to listen.

But oh, it is so sad to see the church divided along ethnic lines! While a few (like our Anglican Church) are willing to work together and to seek common ground, many want to fight over the limited resources and the land. Even church leaders have been known to egg their people on to commit unspeakable atrocities against their fellow believers from a different ethnic group.

This is nothing new of course…division and strife are as old as sin. When Adam was caught out in his sin, he turned against his wife and blamed her. She turned against her new friend, the serpent. Cain killed Abel. And Joseph’s brother turned against him as they sold him into slavery…a fate worse than death. Or at least, that’s what we would think…

The Old Testament lesson reveals a classic theme in Holy Scripture. What we would think of being upside down, God uses to turn right side up. What Joseph’s brothers meant for evil, God meant for good. His slavery led to the preservation of the whole family.

It is this Divine tendency to bring good out of evil that caused David to write in our Psalm for today, “Don’t worry about the wicked or envy those who do wrong. For like grass, they soon fade away. Like spring flowers, they soon wither. Trust in the Lord and do good. Then you will live safely in the land and prosper. Take delight in the Lord, and He will give you your heart’s desire. Commit everything to the Lord. Trust Him and He will help you. He will make your innocence radiate like the dawn, and the justice of your cause will shine like the noonday sun. Be still in the presence of the Lord, and wait patiently for Him to act. Don’t worry about evil people who prosper or fret about their wicked schemes.”

We’ve all been wrongfully accused at some point in life. Our natural inclination is to defend ourselves or to seek revenge on whoever it was who sought to harm us. But Joseph shows us a different way. Many in his position would – quite justifiably – want to get their own back…what we call pay back time. But Joseph looked beyond himself and his own hurt…he saw the bigger picture as it were. He saw the sovereign hand of God behind the evil actions of his brothers…if they had not sold him into slavery…if he had not been bought by Potiphar and wrongfully accused of trying to seduce his wife…he would not have met the butler and would not have interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh and would not have been in the position to save his very own family from starvation. What was upside down, God turned right side up.

The same is true for one greater than Joseph…our Lord Jesus Himself. The Seed of the woman who invaded our world to crush the head of the serpent, had to die first in order to rise from the dead in a new, eternal, resurrected body. He had to die in order to be a life-giving Spirit. What seemed to be the end of the road for the disciples was, in fact, the beginning. The crucifixion, humanly speaking, was a disaster…but God raised Jesus from the dead and inaugurated the New Creation…in His death, Jesus defeated death. Through His death, God turned the upside down world the right side up.

And Jesus taught us to turn an upside down world the right way up by living lives that seem foolish…by loving our enemies, doing good to those who hate us, blessing those who curse us, praying for those who hurt us, forgiving those who sin against us. Like Joseph being sold into slavery…like David being persecuted by Saul…like Jesus being put to death…these things only make sense when we see them from God’s perspective. Joseph became a ruler in Egypt, 2nd only to Pharaoh. David became king. Jesus became the King of kings. God has promised to work all things – all things – good and bad – all things together for the good of those who love Him, who are the called according to His purpose. We may not understand how He will weave tragedies into triumphs, but He promises that He will and we, like the Psalmist, must trust Him and continue to do good…we must become still in His presence and wait patiently for Him to act in His own good time.

Corrie Ten Boom once said that life was like a tapestry. From our perspective we only see messy tangles of the various threads as we see it from the back. But when God turns it around, we see the tapestry from the right side and we are then enabled to see beauty instead of chaos. When we look at life in this world, we see hatred, bitterness, sadness, sorrow, sickness, and death, and we may not always understand. But God turns all these things around for good…and ultimately, for those who die in Jesus, He turns the mortal into the immortal.

What always helps me regain an eternal perspective is the Eucharist. Here I am a witness to the Divine tendency to turn the wrong into right…to bring good out of evil. Jesus’ death is my life and your life. What seems foolish…what seems tragic…what seems upside down, it actually wise, triumphant, and the right side up. Here in this very simple sacrament we see things differently…we look beyond our own limited resources and behold the great plan of the Almighty.

So come…come to His Table…come into His throne room, asking Him to turn your upside down view of life the right side up. Come and see things from His perspective…come and be still in His presence and commit everything to Him.

© Johannes W H van der Bijl 2019-02-22 

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Tale of Four Men

Isaiah 6:1-8    Psalm 138    1 Corinthians 15:1-11    Luke 5:1-11

In 1974, Christians in Chad suffered persecution because of their devotion to Jesus and because they rejected idolatry. At the time, hundreds of churches took a strong stand against government-enforced tribal initiation rites. The believers were severely persecuted, and many of the clergy were martyred together with members of their churches. They were told that if they renounced their faith in Jesus, they would be spared. While a few apostatized, the majority preferred death to renunciation. All foreign Missionaries were expelled as well and Chad remained a closed country until 1975.

The question one asks when one reads reports like these is often simply, why? But for me, it is not why did God allow this or why were humans so cruel to other fellow humans…no, for me it is more a case of why did these men and women and children choose death instead of renunciation?  Only severely depressed people actually want to die…most of us would rather choose to remain on this side of the turf, right?

So what was it that made these dear children of God choose to die, sometimes in the most horrific ways? The answer they would give is this: It was their encounter with the living God…because they knew Him, they chose death rather than deny Him.

In today’s readings we read about four different individuals from four different periods in history all of whom had one thing in common and that was each one of them had a personal, life changing encounter with God.

The first man we met was Isaiah, a prophet who served under four kings of Judah, Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. It seems that he had been preaching to the people of Judah for some time before the event recorded in chapter six, but together with many believers before him and after him (John Wesley is a good example), it may be that Isaiah did not have a complete understanding of Who God really was. Many of us know about God, and we can talk about God, and even tell others about God, but we have never truly met God…this seems to have been the case with Isaiah. But all this changed in chapter six.

In this heavenly vision, the prophet saw himself and, indeed, the nation against the backdrop of God’s holiness and glory. Meeting the Almighty God face to face in one sense was for the prophet an epiphany…a moment of reckoning…a moment of exposure…a moment of clarity. The piercing light of this revelation of the Person of God cut through the layers of blind self-justification and self-righteousness and uncovered the depths of Isaiah’s core being.  And what Isaiah saw was that his spiritual condition was no different from the people he was preaching to…he too was a man of unclean lips. This vision changed the prophet forever…the glory, the majesty, the purity, and the righteousness of God became his message…or more pointedly, it became his life.

It is interesting to note that according to the Talmud, Isaiah suffered martyrdom by being sawn in two under the orders of the evil king Manasseh. Like the Chadian martyrs, Isaiah chose death rather than deny his Lord.

The second man we met was from an earlier period in the history of Israel…the great king David. In Psalm 138, David rehearsed his personal reasons for worshipping God…one of which was the fact that God had preserved his life even in the midst of trouble, struggle, and persecution. But it wasn’t simply the gift of preservation that brought about David’s declaration of praise…it was his knowledge of the character of the God he served that undergirded his faith. In verse two David said, “I bow before Your holy Temple (and keep in mind that this is God’s heavenly Temple, as the earthly Temple had not yet been built) as I worship. I praise Your name for Your unfailing love and faithfulness; for Your promises are backed by all the honour of Your name.” Holiness, love, faithfulness, and honour…all character traits of God.

It is upon this understanding…this personal knowledge of the Creator God…that David built his request for further preservation. “The Lord will work out His plans for my life – for Your faithful love, O Lord, endures for ever. Don’t abandon me, for You made me.” Even when his life was threatened, David rehearsed his full trust in God’s plan for his life…his repeated experiences of God’s Presence, gave David the strength to stand even in the worst of times.

The third man we met was Paul. Like so many other believers throughout history, Paul thought himself blameless, pure, and righteous…until he encountered Jesus face to face on the road to Damascus. In that moment, just as with Isaiah, Paul saw the depths of his soul laid bare in the blinding light of the revelation of the Person of Christ. Later he would write to fellow believers in Philippi that everything he once held dear he now considered worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord. His tireless ministry was based solely upon his personal knowledge of the grace and greatness of God.

In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul listed all his trials and sufferings for the sake of preaching the good news of Jesus to the unbelievers. In verse 27 he wrote, “I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my feeling that weakness? Who is led astray, and I do not burn with anger? But if I must boast, I would rather boast about the things that show how weak I am.” Boast in his weaknesses? How many leaders do you know who boast in their weaknesses? Later, in chapter 12 Paul said, “So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That is why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Paul knew where his strength lay – not in himself, but in Jesus. Paul had met Jesus on the road to Damascus and his life was never the same again. Tradition tells us that Paul was martyred for his faith in Rome by decaptitation. Again, a man willing to choose death rather than renounce his Lord.

The last man we met was one of my personal favorites, the Apostle Peter. The interesting thing about this account of the miraculous draught of fish was that Peter had been called to follow Jesus before, but had, for some or other reason, declined. By this time, Simon Peter had known Jesus for quite a while. He had heard his brother testify that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah…he had personally heard Jesus teach and had marvelled at his authority together with the crowds…he had seen him heal lepers and drive out demons…he had even witnessed the healing of his own mother-in-law. But still Simon Peter was not convinced…at least not convinced enough to leave behind his apparently lucritive business to follow an itinerant rabbi. Peter had it all…a boat…business partners…a rather large house by 1st century standards…why would he risk losing it all for the sake of following Jesus?

That is until he saw Jesus for Who He really was…the one Who had power even over creation. Like Isaiah, Peter’s immediate reaction was one of repentance brought on by a realisation of how sinful he was in the light of the holy One standing before him. By asking the Lord to leave him Peter was confessing his unworthiness to be a disciple. He had yet to learn that no human could ever claim to be worthy…and this is the lesson we all have to learn.
None of us are worthy…even the best of us fall far short of the glory of God. The Lord’s love for us is not based on our merits, but upon His grace. He loves us not because we are great but because He is great! Isaiah, David, Paul, and Peter all encountered the living God and all realised their emptiness, their sinfulness, their unworthiness…and all experienced that amazing relief as the burden of their guilt was lifted off their shoulders by one greater than their sin. This revelation of the Person of God was so life changing that everything else paled in comparison…even life itself…each one of these men, and countless men, women, and children throughout the ages, have chosen to die rather than disown their Lord.

A radical revelation indeed…

Have you seen the Lord? Have you seen Him high and lifted up? Have you heard the angelic beings crying out ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’? Have you experienced His care and His protection and His provision? Have you been touched by His immeasureable love?

Jesus wants to meet with us all…that is why He instituted what we call the Lord’s Supper…the Eucharist. It is here at His table that every one of us can meet Him face to face…it is the most intimate expression of His love for us…the giving of His life for ours. It is the most intimate expression of His unity with us, His beloved children…He in us…us in Him…it is a preview, if you will, of heaven. Here we see Him high and lifted up…and here He draws us into His holy presence.

So, as you come to partake of these gracious symbols of His love and His compassion, ask Him to open the eyes of your heart…to shine into the depths of your soul…so that you, like these four men, may experience the reality of His greatness…and be changed forever.

© Johannes W H van der Bijl 2019-02-06

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Our God is Moving!

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

Ah, where to begin? So much has happened since you last heard from us! The Lord is on the move and we are thrilled to be witnesses of His glory!

Prior to leaving for Ethiopia, we hosted the priest of St Matthew’s Addis Ababa together with his family from the US and Australia. We love Roger and Lynn to bits and have always enjoyed their company and appreciated their maturity in Jesus. As Roger was in South Africa, it was our privilege to preside over the baptism of the granddaughter of other dear friends in Addis…what a joyous occasion, but little did we know that this was a small preview of what would happen in Gambela!

There’s something special about returning to ones previous home, isn’t there? Every time we walk into our old house in Gambela, we feel we have never left. What a joy it was to be with our adoptive families – the Anuak, the Nuer, the Po, the Mabaan, and now the Jum-Jum, and Dinka too.

Our Anuak and Nuer brethren have acquired keyboards and speakers…I suppose this was inevitable. Interestingly enough, these electrical devises come with only two volume settings: loudest and distorted. The first Sunday we had our ears blown out as we were sitting in the front row! We didn’t make that mistake again!

Ethiopian Christmas was celebrated on January 7 and I had the distinct pleasure of not only preaching at this daylong event, but also baptising 51 people – from babes in arms to the elderly. We only made it to lunchtime and then retreated into our home and sat under the fans…yes, I know…chicken!

Louise and I taught the third of the four disciple making modules, Vision, to a number of clergy and lay leaders who had already completed Strategy and Foundations. We had planned to train them in Multiplication as well, but the acting Dean of the College asked if I would teach an intensive on discipleship to the students instead. Would I ever! This was a practical project for the students. I provided Scripture passages and teaching on the Gospel, the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Disciplines, and Missions/Evangelism and they had to take the information and write their own disciple making tool in their small groups.

This was the first time we had used the LEAD material at a seminary level – and it works well! May the Lord open more doors for us to teach leaders before they enter a ministry!

Louise spent most of her time in her beloved library. She unpacked every book, cleaned them and reshelved them, and catalogued and shelved about 500 more. We also played grandparents to the five missionary kids on the compound. Praise God for Chris and Suzy, Abigail, Matthew, and Micah and Josh and Jenny, Fletcher and Theo…what amazing families!

We also got to visit with our dear brother, Jeremiah and our brethren at St Luke’s as well as a few fellow missionaries and friends both in Gambela and in Addis.

One of our challenges was to prepare the Bishop’s house for our new Archdeacon, Rajan Jacob, originally from Tamil Nadu, but most recently from Libya. The house was infested with bats and rats and the ceilings were disintegrating because of their bodily discharges. I’m trying to say that nicely. So we had Dereje, our trusty building contractor, to help take down all the old ceiling boards, get rid of the bats, seal all entry points, and replace the pressboard with gypsum. Unfortunately, we left before we could see the end result.

We returned home earlier as we received news that the Queen was not doing well. Please keep Louise’s mum in your prayers as they battle to stabilise her mood. She is no longer in the Nursing Home and Louise has her hands full caring for her as much as she is able. Annie really needs 24-hour care.

Our discipline group is already in full swing and I will be presiding and preaching at the Eucharist this Sunday. Some of our plans hang in the balance, as Louise has to be here for her mum. Please pray with us for a solution to this conundrum.

Our youngest son and his family are in the process of moving to Sweden…we haven’t seen our children and grandchildren for quite a long time now and hope to be able to swing by Sweden on our way to a possible ministry opportunity in Northern Africa. Wish we could make a big loop and include Birmingham, AL as well!


Thank you for your partnership in the Gospel! We hope to see y’all when we are in the US in October and November! We would love to share about the Lord’s work in Africa…we can no longer just say Southern Africa, can we? If you would like us to come to your church, small group, prayer group, whatever, please let us know as soon as possible as time get gobbled up quickly. What a joy to be so popular, huh? J

We love you and pray for you often…

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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