Wednesday, March 13, 2019

February and March Newsletter

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

Contrasts…some contrasts are beautiful, like bright red and yellow cannas growing side by side, or like a red, orange, and blue sunset in the Kalahari Desert. But other contrasts are disturbing or perplexing or bewildering. They leave one with more questions and answers.

These past two months have been filled with contrasts. One example would be the untimely death of a dear 29-year-old friend, Okanyi Omot, or Ojullu as we knew him. Ojullu was one of the most promising students at St Frumentius Anglican College and one of the rising leaders in the Anuak community. He believed he was called to reconcile people from different ethnic backgrounds and to be a disciple maker…and he lived out his calling. His sudden death caused by an untreated form of bowel cancer has shocked us all.

Then a week ago in our community here in Villiersdorp, another very powerful witness to Jesus, a wife and mother and active believer, was found unconscious at home and rushed to the hospital in a neighbouring town. She remained comatose and was transferred to a larger hospital when her kidneys stopped functioning. At that hospital the doctors discovered that there was no brain activity and counselled the family to consider turning off the life support system. So many people from all the different churches and communities were praying for her and her family. As her husband sat by her bedside two days ago, agonising over the decision he had to make, she opened her eyes and spoke! She has been recovering remarkably ever since. Even the medical staff unashamedly confess that this can only be a miracle…there is no other explanation.

We are thrilled, of course, for her and family…but we still grieve over Ojullu. Do we have any answers or explanations for this contrast? No, but together with Job we confess: “The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord.”

Another contrast is differing responses to our disciple-making ministry. Bishop Mouneer Anis of Egypt, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa has sent us an amazing letter of endorsement. In it he not only invites us to continue training the clergy and laity in his Dioceses, but he affirms the training as something that will help grow the church and expand God’s Kingdom. Contrast with others who reject this training out of hand, sometimes in total ignorance and an unwillingness to learn. This is something to grieve about, but as Jesus taught his disciples, there are times when one needs to shake the dust off ones feet and move on. Sad, so sad.

On a very positive note, our year has filled up with trainings all over South Africa, Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg area, Pretoria, Angola, Namibia, and perhaps northern Mozambique. The possibility of training in a North African country remains a possibility and we also hope to complete the final module in Gambela before or after their graduation.

We had a wonderful, up building retreat with other SAMS Missionaries at a stunningly beautiful place called Waterval (Waterfall) in Tulbagh, South Africa. They had an amazingly godly speaker who called himself Padre Richard Copeland, but we renamed him Umfundisi, a title of respect given to revered teachers, missionaries, or clergy. It was not only his teaching, but also the testimony of a life dedicated to the cause of the kingdom that touched us deeply. Thank you to SAMS-USA, Stewart, Denise, and all the others who made this such a memorable event!

Denise Cox stopped with us before the retreat and Mary Chowenhill stopped with us after the extended blessing in so many ways. Thank you to both of them too for their encouragement and support.

A supporter has graciously offered to pay for our air tickets to Israel in September. After the study tour, we will continue on to the US to attend the SAMS Retreat and New Wineskins Conference. Then on to see our children and grandchildren in Alabama…our youngest and his family have moved to Stockholm, Sweden, and we will be winging our way over there to see them today! Can’t wait to hug them all. Face Time is great, but it doesn’t beat a warm, loving hug! Thank You Jesus for making this trip possible.

We have had three days of steady, soaking rain…some places nearby even experienced some flooding…and we hope and pray this indicates a good rainy season lying ahead.

The Queen is struggling with getting old…I don’t know how else to state her present state. She does need 24 hour care, but does not want to admit that. “What to do, what to do…what to do indeed”, as Pooh would say. Or “stuff and fluff” might be more apropos. Please keep her in your prayers.

Louise and I have a group we meet with on a regular basis when we are in town for mutual encouragement and Bible Study. We are planning on taking them through the disciple-making course soon. I preach at our local Anglican Church every other Sunday if we are in town.

With Bishop Mouneer’s letter of endorsement in hand, we are praying about travelling beyond our current borders to train in other southern and central African countries in 2020. We already have open invitations to Rwanda and Uganda, but we would like to train in every country in between them and us too! Pray that we will be able to raise sponsors for this trip as well as obtain permission from the Archbishops and Bishops of the different jurisdictions.

It seems Africa is becoming our parish…and we love it!

And we love and appreciate you all! Thank you for faithfully walking with us in this ministry and for supporting us financially and prayerfully. We really could not do this without you and we are ever mindful of that fact.

Much love and 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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The Parable of the Mustard Tree

Matthew 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-32

This parable is closely linked with the other “kingdom” parables and is intended to add another nuance to the hearer’s understanding of what the kingdom of God is like. Just as it takes many notes to make a full symphonic score, so it takes many earthly illustrations to create a full picture of the Heavenly Kingdom.

Like the parable of the seed’s spontaneous growth, this parable refers to the growth of the kingdom, but from a slightly different angle. The God of the Scriptures is a God who specializes in creating something out of nothing or out of what is most unlikely. From an old man and his barren wife, God raised up a nation; from an enslaved nation, God raised up a mighty kingdom; from a colonized remnant, God raised up a Messiah. Through the prophet Zechariah, God instructs us not to despise the day of small beginnings, because He will grant the growth in His time.[1]

The Greek words indicate that the speaker is making some form of a contrast – like “on the one hand…on the other hand”. While the mustard seed is not the smallest seed known today, it was more than likely the smallest seed known to Jesus’ audience. According to Grant Osborne, “This was such a startling fact (a plant growing so much in one season from such a small seed) that it became proverbial for rapid growth; in fact, it was often said not to plant such in a garden because it took up so much space.”[2] This is exactly the point our Lord was trying to make…at the time, the kingdom did not appear to be anything significant; a small band of unimportant people following a single rabbi from Galilee; but in due course, this small beginning would develop into a large kingdom that would cover the earth and become home to many.

It is possible that the reference to “the birds of the air” indicates the inclusion of the Gentile nations, as there are Old Testament passages that use similar imagery.[3] Given the fact that Matthew’s Gospel in particular appears to emphasize the incorporation of Gentiles, it seems likely that this understanding was intended.

Be that as it may, the main point of the parable is that the kingdom, be it ever so small, was already present and from this lowly and humble beginning it would grow into a kingdom that would spread over all of God’s garden, overshadowing and overtaking the other herbs until it became a bush so large that birds could inhabit it. From this we learn that a disciple making movement may start small…others may mock the disciple maker and they may question his or her method…but out of the most insignificant beginning, God will honour faithfulness and grant growth that will surprise us all.

[1] Zechariah 4:10. See also 1 Corinthians 3:6-7; Colossians 2:19
[2] Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew, Grant R. Osborne, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2010, 525-526.
[3] Ezekiel 17:23, 31:6; Daniel 4:9-12, 20-22

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The Parable of the Weeds

Matthew 13:24-30

A puppet master or puppeteer is defined literally as a person who controls and moves an object that represents a creature of some sort by means of strings or hand movements. If this puppeteer is also a ventriloquist, then they control the puppets movements as well as its speech or sounds. The puppet has no life of its own and can only move and make sounds as the puppet master directs.

Figuratively, a puppet master can also signify a person who likes to control others or events in the lives of others…a micromanager of sorts. Usually, this is used in negative terms.

Our God is not a puppet master.

People will often ask why God allows certain bad things to happen. Why does He not step in and stop wicked people from doing wicked things? Is God distant or removed or disinterested? Why is He silent in the face of evil?

The Scriptures do not answer these questions. In fact, these question may never be answered this side of eternity. However, the parable before us helps us see that the Kingdom of Heaven is not quite as simple as we would like it to be. God’s sovereignty does not cancel the responsibility or irresponsibility of humanity. It is what philosophers call a paradox or an antinomy – two apparently contradictory laws that in some inexplicable way compliment each other.

The farmer planted good seeds in his field. Like the farmer in the parable of the seed’s spontaneous growth, this farmer and his workers followed their usual daily cycle and went to sleep. Under cover of darkness, an enemy slithered in and sowed weeds among the wheat and consequently, when the seeds germinated and began to grow, weeds and wheat grew alongside each other in the same field.

The workers were quite naturally vexed and perplexed when they realised that their careful hard work had been spoiled and again quite naturally wanted to rectify the catastrophe immediately. The wise farmer stopped them because he knew that pulling out the weeds would result in the harming of at least some of the wheat. He counselled them to wait until the harvest before attempting to sort the one from the other.

Herein lie two lessons for those who are willing to listen. The first has to do with waiting. God alone is all wise and He alone is all knowing and He has a timetable. Jesus frequently referred to times and seasons that the Father alone knew and set for good reason (cf. Acts 1:7). The disciples often wanted to rush in where angels fear to tread and two in particular earned the name sons of thunder, as they wanted to obliterate a village that rejected their message (Luke 9:51-56). So the first lesson is simply this: workers in the kingdom need to learn to wait for the Lord’s timing.

The second lesson is related to the first, but it has more to do with the nature of God than the timing of His actions. Our God is a holy God. He is altogether perfect and altogether good and altogether righteous. Humanity, on the other hand, is broken and flawed and even our best good works fall far short of God’s perfection. The Scriptures indicate that people – even “good” people like Moses and Isaiah – would die in the presence of God (cf. Exodus 33:20; Isaiah 6:5). Consequently, if God were to intervene in the affairs of humans, both wheat and weeds would be destroyed.

As N. T. Wright has said, “If the price of God stepping in and stopping a campaign of genocide were that He would also have to rebuke and restrain every other evil impulse, would we be prepared to pay that price? If we ask God to act on special occasions, do we really suppose that He could do that simply when we want Him to, and then back off for the rest of the time?”[1] God is pure and He does not discriminate – to deal with one form of evil and overlook another is not His nature. We may have created an elaborate system of superlatives in which one sin is greater or lesser when compared to another, but in God’s economy all sin is equal. To use the images in our parable, if God were to uproot the weeds, He would have to uproot the wheat as well.

And so we come full circle…we must learn to wait. In Jesus’ day, various revolutionary groups wanted a Messiah who would overthrow their Roman overlords in one fell swoop. They were yearning for God to act and were more than willing to help Him to act, but in this parable Jesus taught that this is not how the Kingdom of Heaven comes about, nor is it in keeping with the holy, just, perfect, and righteous character of God.

At the very core of the parable is the need for patient trust. Our God does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent (2 Peter 3:9), and so He waits for the time of the harvest…He delays His judgement because He is merciful and deeply compassionate. He is not a grand puppeteer, but a loving Creator Who wants all to come to a saving knowledge of Christ.

Jesus has acted once for all, decisively and dramatically on the cross. We are now waiting for the full outworking of that salvific event. Waiting is hard especially as we wait in a dark world. But we wait in hope, as we have seen the Son rise, and He will make all things new in His time.

[1] Matthew for Everyone: Part One, Tom Wright, SPCK, Westminster John Knox Press, London, 2004, 168.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Does God Keep His Promises?

Deuteronomy 26:1-11    Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16    Romans 10:8-13    Luke 4:1-13

You have all no doubt heard about the so-called resurrection miracle that went viral only to be denounced as a fraud by all, including the pastor who claimed that the family of the living corpse had tricked him into believing that the man was dead. Some friends of the pastor have said that this is not the first time he has staged such a stunt…but let’s be fair to the pastor…it is really hard to pull a miracle out of the hat every day, and when there are so many other “miracle workers” out there one has to do something to keep up with the Jones’, right?

Having said that, the temptation to perform a mesmerising and dazzling feat is nothing new. Jesus faced that temptation too, but He did not succumb. He knew that He did not have to prove anything to anyone, He knew that all He needed was to love the Father…so He told the devil to go jump himself.

But there is more to this fraudulent “resurrection” miracle than a desperate pastor and the temptation to fake it for the sake of keeping his followers faithful. It tells us something about people in general as well. People are hungry for some sort of miraculous proof that God is there and that He cares and that He keeps His promises.

When sickness or death or loss of some kind or poverty come knocking at the door uninvited, we are all tempted to turn our eyes upward to say, “If You are God, tell this to go away! After all, You have promised that no evil will conquer us, no plague will come near our home…that You would give your angels an order to protect us wherever we go…that they would hold us up with their hands so that we would not bump our toes on a stone. You promised to rescue us and protect us. Where are you in all of this?”

I know of a woman who kept her dead husband at home for more than three days all the while believing that God would resurrect him. Grief will make us do strange things. Or we have all heard of pensioners giving their life savings to someone who promises that God will provide even more in return…of course when this doesn’t happen, the pensioners are told that they simply did not have enough faith.

Some people have been so hurt or confused or embarrassed or angered that they either deny God’s existence completely (Atheists or Agnostics) or believe that God is too far away to care (Deists) or that He has simply given up doing the miraculous stuff (Cessationists). But, as always, the truth lies in the middle somewhere. I firmly believe in balance and in order to have a balanced faith one has to look at the whole of Scripture; let Scripture interpret Scripture and never take one verse or one passage out of context. This is exactly what Jesus did when Satan threw the book at Him…He threw it right back, correctly interpreted.

I believe the events surrounding the first temptation in the Garden of Eden are key to understanding why God appears to be withholding His hand of help when we need Him most. Let me explain: God created humanity to be in fellowship with Him…but this fellowship was meant to be based on mutual love. We all know what fair weather friends are…when the going is good, we have many friends…but when the going gets tough, our real friends are revealed while the fake friends fade like mist before the sun…and that hurts. No one wants a fair weather friend.

Well, neither does God…and so He graciously gave Adam and Eve the option to walk with Him in fellowship or not. Of course for such a free choice to be possible there had to be something they ought not to do…in their case it was eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now, that’s not unfair as some have said…every relationship has boundaries…every relationship has things that are permissible and things that are not permissible. If you truly love someone, you will not do the things that will hurt them or in any way harm the relationship, right? Why then would it be any different with God?

When God promised to give the freed Israelite slaves a land filled with blessings He gave them a clear warning. In Deuteronomy 8 the Lord said: “Be careful to obey all the commands I am giving you today. Then you will live and multiply, and you will enter and occupy the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors. Remember how the Lord your God led you through the wilderness these forty years, humbling you and testing you to prove your character, and to find out whether or not you would obey His commands. Yes, He humbled you by letting you go hungry and then feeding you with manna, a food previously unknown to you and your ancestors. (And here comes the familiar bit.) He did it to teach you that people do not live by bread alone; rather we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” You see, it is easy to say we believe in God when all is well…when the weather is fair…but God wants to know if we love Him for Who He is and not because of what He gives us…just like us and our friends, or our spouse.

Jesus understood that and so when Satan came with his temptations, some of which were direct quotations from the Word of the Lord, He reminded him that there was more at stake that satisfying His hunger and His thirst. God is God. There is no other God. He alone is the creator of all things. He alone is the sustainer of all things. He must be worshipped at all times because He is worthy of our worship, whether He gives us what we want or not.

I think the modern church has regressed back to toddlerhood in many ways. When we don’t get our way, we throw tantrums and we yell until we are blue in the face when our heavenly parent doesn’t come running to make it all right. What’s wrong with this picture? Like the Israelites of old, we rejoice when we are set free, but the moment we get hungry or hot or thirsty or tired, we grumble and complain. Not so Jesus! For Him the number one priority was not comfort, but a good relationship with the Father. For Him it was all about serving the Father, worshipping the Father, and remaining true to the Father.
Yes, God does give generously to all who call on Him and yes, everyone who trusts in Him will never be ashamed or disgraced. But, dearest beloved brethren, what greater gift can God give us than what He has already given in and through His Son? Seriously, God has given us an eternal “get out of jail free card” and we whine about not having a hotel on Musgrave Road. Sorry, Monopoly imagery.

No one enjoys suffering…if you do you need to see a professional. And yet most of us will admit that the times when we grew the most spiritually was when we were going through a dark valley crying out to a God Who seemed to be absent and yet Who was walking with us all the time…we only realised that once the lights went back on.

The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is what prepared Him for His ministry…a ministry that would lead Him to a point where His friends would desert Him at the hour of His greatest need and where those He had come to save would turn on Him and kill Him in the most brutal way possible. The trials we go through are momentary, but they are preparing us for a greater glory. We just have to realise that this life is not all there is…that there is a life that is far, far better than this one where there will be no more suffering and no more tears and no more pain and no more sorrow. Jesus promised that in this world we would have tribulation, but that we should take courage as He has overcome the world. The world and all its trappings that seem so valuable to us now, will one day fade into oblivion when our eyes behold His glory and His majesty and His beauty.
We get a glimpse of that beauty here at His table every Sunday…here where His love for us is demonstrated again and again…here where we partake of His ultimate gift to us…His Body broken, His Blood shed…for you and for me. So as you come to feast on His goodness once more, ask Him to help you see how much you are worth in His sight…how much He loves you…how much He wants you to love Him in return. Find your place of refuge here in Him…your place of safety…trust Him and continue to live in the shadow of His gracious wings.

© Johannes W H van der Bijl 2019-03-04