Monday, April 29, 2019

Holy Spirit Power

Acts 5:27-32    Psalm 118:24-29    Revelation 1:4-8    John 20:19-31
Holy Spirit Power

Pam turned the key in her vehicle’s ignition, but instead of the normal sound produced by spark and combustion all she heard was “click”. A dead battery. She slowly leaned forward and rested her head on the steering wheel. This was not going to be her day.

Have you ever such an experience? Batteries need recharging if they are going to provide power to the many things we have come to rely on in our modern day and age…not just vehicles, but cell phones and computers too. If the battery is not sufficiently charged the device will not function.

This is, of course true of us as well. We actually use the term “recharge” to describe what we need when our proverbial batteries have run down…whether our mental or emotion or physical batteries…or spiritual.  As spiritual beings, we tend to run out of steam if we do not recharge our batteries often…and when we are run down spiritually, and then try to reach into ourselves to tap the necessary sustaining energy to cope with life’s ups and downs, all we ever hear on every front is a sad “click”.

So how do we get recharged?

Jesus’ last words to His followers tell us how. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be My witnesses…” If we are to bear witness to Jesus on any level, we need to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit has received a bad rap for various reasons ranging from innocent misunderstanding to plain full on abuse. Perhaps this is Satan’s tactic to prevent us from accessing the great gift the Father desires to give to us. If God wants to give us something, or in this case, Someone, we ought to say, ‘yes, please’ and receive Him…don’t you think? Because if God wants to give us the Holy Spirit, there must be a good reason…because He is the giver of good gifts…

But who is this Holy Spirit and why do we need Him? Well, in order to understand that we need to go back to Creation. When the Lord created Adam, He formed him from dirt…yup, chaps, that’s all we are…dirt…but then He did something. The Scripture says that He breathed into Adam and Adam became a living being. This word translated “breath” here is the same Hebrew word for “Spirit” – nephesh. Without God’s breath or Spirit Adam would not have become a living being.

What is interesting is that shortly after their creation, God told them to do something…He gave them the command to care for His earth…tuck that into one of the many folds in your grey matter for the time being…but God also told our ancestors not to do something…they were to eat of every tree in the garden except from the one in the middle of the garden.
I really do think there is more to this than what first meets the eye…if Adam and Eve were out there in the world doing what they were supposed to do (caring for the creation as God’s vice regents) and not back at base camp, as it were, in the middle of the Garden, they would never have been tempted to eat the fruit. Does that make sense? So, the disobedience did not necessarily start with the first bite…

Be that as it may, the consequence of their disobedience resulted in death…not immediate death, but like a battery death…slowly over time, the life ran out and the returned to dirt…yes, sorry ladies, while you may have come from Adam’s flank, you too return to dirt.

Let this percolate for a bit…if God’s Spirit gave us life, what was this thing called death?

It is interesting to note that when King David sinned with Bathsheba, he begged God not to take His Holy Spirit from him (Psalm 51)…clearly he had his predecessor in mind. When God removed His Holy Spirit from Saul all chaos broke loose. Is death, in this sense, then not simply an absence of “the Lord, the Giver of Life” to use the words of the Creed? Sin separates us from our Creator and Sustainer…and when we are removed from our life source, then we are dead…and like a dead battery we can only give a pathetic “click”…

Now, it is time to retrieve the matter I asked you to tuck away in the folds of your grey matter. When God breathed His Spirit into our ancestors they became living beings – then He gave them the task to care for His creation.

Remember our Gospel lesson for today? When Jesus appeared to His disciples in the Upper room He said, “Peace be with you all.” This was a traditional greeting at the time, Shalom Aleichem, but it also conveyed a greater meaning given the context. Because of His sacrificial death on the cross, Jesus made peace between us and God…and because the separating wall of sin was now removed because of the cross and resurrection, Jesus could breathe His Holy Spirit into them like at creation. Look at the text. “Then He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” What is interesting is that after this gift of the Spirit Jesus gave them the task to spread the Good News of forgiveness of sins…as the Father had sent Him, He now sent His disciples to continue to do what He had begun.

The Holy Spirit…the Lord, the Giver of Life…is the one who not only gives life as a result of the removal of the barrier of sin by Jesus, He is also the one who gives us the ability or the power to live that life to the fullest. In this sense He imparts life in abundance…in its complete sense…life as it was meant to be at Creation.

But, you may object…if I have received the Holy Spirit when I put my faith and trust in Jesus, why then do you seem to think I need to be filled again? You know, the founder of Operation Mobilization International always used to say that he needed to be filled with the Holy Spirit every day because he had a tendency to leak.

Think on this: when Jesus appeared to His disciples in the Upper Room He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit”. Then, just before He ascended into Heaven He said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” Wait. But they had the Holy Spirit, didn’t they? Is this what the liberals call a discrepancy in the text or a contradiction perhaps? Luke didn’t know what John had written or vice versa? No, the Holy Spirit gives us life AND power…we have life in Him, but like a battery, we need to be recharged…we need to be tanked up with power from time to time.

Remember in Acts 4 what happened after Peter and John had been arrested for preaching about Jesus – for obediently doing as they had been told, to spread the Good News about forgiveness of sins to all who receive Him – do you remember? After they had been released, they went back to the other believers and told them what had happened as a result of their being witnesses to Jesus. What did they do then? They prayed for more boldness…more power…and as they prayed, the meeting place shook and…guess what? They were filled with the Holy Spirit…again. Then they preached the word of God with boldness.”

They needed a refilling…they needed to be recharged, as it were…and that recharging emboldened them to brush off the very real threat of the council and continue with the task they had been given…to care for God’s earth, even to the very ends of it.

This is why I am so adamant about a weekly Eucharist. It is the blood of Christ that freed us from our sins and it is the sevenfold Spirit (John’s use of biblical numerology has often given rise to a puzzled scratch on many a head, but seven simply represents the Divine fullness or completeness) who makes us a kingdom of priests – a group of people who take the message of atonement, of forgiveness of sins, of reconciliation between us and God into the world. Here – if we receive the Eucharist rightly, prayerfully, with faith and trust in Jesus’ finished work on the cross - then we can be recharged by plugging into Christ once more…the bread and the wine represent His life…His body given for us, His blood shed for us…and as we by faith partake of the reality of what the elements symbolise, we are refilled with His Holy Spirit…with His Life and His Power.

So, come…come and be filled…come and be recharged, so that when you turn the key of your life, there is the spark and the combustion to help you move forward.

© Johannes W H van der Bijl 2019-04-23

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

A Maundy Thursday Parable

Exodus 12:1-14    Psalm 116:1-18    1 Corinthians 11:23-26    John 13:1-17, 31b-35
A Maundy Thursday Parable
Our coffee had run out. We all noticed it at the same time…perhaps it was because we all needed to do something after our CEO dropped the bomb on us. The atmosphere in the boardroom was tense…electric…and it suddenly felt stuffy in here like someone needed to open a window to let in some fresh air.

Jesse was an amazing employer…as the CEO of the company we had seen her work miracles…she had taken us to heights we never knew we could reach. Now she told us that she had been diagnosed with 4th stage ovarian cancer…in short, a death sentence…and she had decided after consultation with her superiors to forego any form of treatment.

The silence that followed this announcement was awkward…so we all reached out for our coffee cups at the same time…all of which were empty. But nobody made a move. The coffee machine was on the table in the corner, and there were two full flasks next to it…but no one budged. Filling our empty cups was the task of the coffee girl and she had stepped out momentarily. And so we all sat and stared into our empty cups. Someone cleared their throat…someone shuffled in their seat…we were all very uncomfortable. How were we supposed to react? Of course we were sorry, but how did one express sorrow appropriately at a time like this?

Peter couldn’t help himself…everyone knew he always spoke too quickly…he always said whatever popped into his head first…he did not deal well with silence, especially awkward silences. This time his voice was a little too loud…too fast…perhaps even too high pitched and he squeaked out the first few words. “I really must,” he cleared his throat noisily, “I really must disagree with your decision, Jesse. You simply must take the treatment…you must fight this…you can’t just give up. I will be there for you through thick and thin…even if no one else will, I will…to hang with what your superiors and your doctors think. They are wrong.” We all nodded in agreement. Jesse looked at him. Her expression was one of love and tenderness…perhaps even gratefulness…but there was also irritation and annoyance. I didn’t think it possible that the two could be expressed at the same time. “Peter, you have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.”

Then she turned to us. “I want to help you all to be prepared for when I am no longer with you. So, you need to listen carefully to what I have to say. I know I am your employer, but I can truly say with all my heart that what I feel for you all is love…what I mean is, I really want the best for you all…for each one of you to excel.” Her voice was heavy with emotion. “We don’t have much time and every millisecond is precious.” She began to give instructions…she addressed each one of us, praising us for what we had done and giving advice as to how we could improve in the future.

I looked at each one of my fellow employees in turn. Most of us were still staring into their empty coffee cups, but still no one moved a muscle. Suddenly, without a word, Jesse got up from her chair and walked to the coffee machine…she took one of the flasks and began to pour coffee into each one of our cups. When she got to Peter he jumped up and attempted to take the flask from her. “No, Jesse,” he blurted out, “ you can’t serve me.” She gave him that double expression again. He backed down and allowed he to fill his cup. She kept going until we all had a full cup in front of us…we all sat in silence. She returned to her seat.

“Now, do you understand what it means to be the CEO of this company?” She looked at each one of us in turn. “If we don’t learn to serve each other, we will end up doing the exact opposite…if we don’t serve each other, we will trample each other as each one of us strives to get to the top. And the company will suffer because of that…and if the company suffers, our customers will suffer too. All these years as your CEO, I have served you and that is what has made each one of you excel in your respective roles. Do you understand this?” We all nodded…what else were we supposed to do…but did we really understand what she just said?

Clearly Jim didn’t get it. We couldn’t believe that he had to gall to say what he said. “Uhm, Jesse.”  There wasn’t even a hint of embarrassment or shame in his voice. “Have you thought of which one of us will be your replacement? I’d be happy to shadow you over the few weeks we have left with you.” There was that look on Jesse’s face again…tenderness and yet also irritation…so it wasn’t reserved just for Peter!

There was a long pause…awkward silence again. Shut it, Peter, I thought…don’t say a word…please don’t say a word. But it was Jesse who broke the silence.
She spoke softly…so softly we all had to lean forward to hear what she was saying. “This company is not like other companies out there. This company became great because we worked together…as equals…moving towards one goal as a team. You see, we all need each other if we are to function properly. We are like a well designed and a well constructed machine…no part is superfluous…no part is more important than the other. If one part malfunctions, the whole mechanism suffers.”

Jim’s cheeks showed a bit of colour finally…but then I noticed a number of red faces around the room. I swallowed hard. Yes, mine was glowing too. If truth be told, Jim simply said what we were all thinking.

“Jim, you will be shadowing me.” An almost inaudible murmur filled the room as each one dropped the veil for a brief moment. Jesse looked up at us; once more sweeping the room with that gaze that seemed to penetrate steel. “You all…” she emphasised the word “all”…“you all will be shadowing me as I want you all to know what it is like to be the leader of this team…I want you all to know what I do and why I do what I do…I want you all to know me inside out so that you all will be like me. I won’t be with you for much longer, so it is important that when I am no longer with you here, that you all do what I did and think like I thought…that way the company will continue to flourish and expand.”

She paused…then she added: “The gift I want to leave with you…my parting gift, as it were…is that each one of you will know me so well that it will be as if I never left. That each one of you will continue to do what I did in such a way that it will seem as if I am continuing to do what I started…even though it will be you, not me. That way the company will be able to reach new heights…we will be able to do so much more!” Jesse began to paint a picture before our eyes. “I am only one person, but if you are all like me and if you all work like me as a team…as one mechanism…with each wheel and cog functioning as they ought to function for the sake of the whole company…well then, the ends of the earth will be the limit.”

We all shadowed Jesse over the next few weeks…we all saw how she did what she did…how she always managed to see the best in us. It was as if she had the ability to see what we could not see…what we could be if we were built up and nurtured properly…and so she did everything in her power to encourage us to grow and excel. We watched her struggle as the cancer began to gnaw away at her body…the pain was often etched on her face even though she never complained. There were moments when she involuntarily folded over in agony as a scream escaped from her lips. But she never stopped teaching us…training us…caring for us…not until the very end. It was in those moments that we learned how important it was to her that we understand her work ethic…her philosophy of interdependency…of mutual service, one to the other…of raising up a work force equal to her determination to make the company better and greater.

It wasn’t long after she had left us that someone from a rival company made a remark intended to be a sneering sarcastic comment, but one that we all wore as a badge of honour. “They are nothing but rubber stamps of their former CEO” he spat out in an interview on a major television network. “A bunch of little Jesse’s…clones and copy-cats. There is not an original thought among the lot.” When the interviewer remarked that the company seemed to be expanding more rapidly than most, all our rival could do was make a snorting noise.

Yes, we were like Jesse. We served as a team…we served each other for the sake of the company…and we trained others to be just like Jesse too…we had to because the company was growing so fast we needed more workers in the field…more workers like her, that is. So we served…so we trained…so we encouraged and couched and mentored and held one another accountable…all for the sake of the company and those we supplied.

Oh, and by the way, we never had empty coffee cups again…

© Johannes W H van der Bijl 2019-04-10

Monday, April 15, 2019

Triumphal Following

For the Palm Sunday Procession: Luke 19:28-40
Processional Hymn: All Glory Laud and Honour
Isaiah 50:4-9    Psalm 31:9-16    Philippians 2:5-11    Luke 23:1-49
Triumphal Following
The statement of Mahatma Gandhi, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are not like your Christ.” is well known and often quoted to point out how far we fall short of exhibiting the Person of the one we profess to follow. But we forget that there have been many followers of Jesus that have had a very close walk with their Lord and have lived lives very much like His. Just think of the origin of the name “Christian” – it was first used in Antioch in the 1st Century to describe people who resembled the one they proclaimed. They were so much like Him that the unbelievers mockingly called them “little Christs” or Christ-ians.

But what was it that they saw and heard? A dear friend of ours recently said that for much of his Christian life he had thought that being like Jesus only referred to his personal spiritual life…but that recently he realised that being like Jesus was also doing what Jesus did publicly in every day life…walking like Jesus walked…loving like Jesus loved. This realization revolutionised the way he lives out his Christian witness today.

I thought about this when I read the readings for today. Especially the reading from Isaiah: “The sovereign Lord has spoken to me, and I have listened. I have not rebelled or turned away. I offered my back to those who beat me and my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard. I did not hide my face from mockery and spitting. Because the sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore, I have set my face like a stone, DETERMINED TO DO HIS WILL. And I know that I will not be put to shame.”

Jesus was determined to do the will of God regardless of the cost of such obedience.

This is echoed in Philippians where we read that “He gave up His divine privileges; He took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being (even though He was God!). (Then) When He appeared in human form, He humbled Himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on the cross.”

It is the will of God to save the world from sin and Satan…it is not His will that anyone be consigned to eternal damnation (2 Peter 3:9)…He loves the world and wants to reconcile it to Himself…but the only way He could do this was if the penalty for sin…for disobedience…for rebellion…was paid in full and that penalty was death. But such a payment could only be done by a human being without sin…and as sin was passed on from parent to child since our forebears disobeyed God’s command in the garden, no human was sinless and therefore no human could make the payment as they bore the punishment themselves.

Until Jesus was born of a virgin through the power of the Holy Spirit…He was the first human being since Adam and Eve to enter this world without sin…and so He could pay the penalty by dying a sinless death for the sinful.

That was the will of the Father and Jesus loved the Father so much that He was willing to pay it. Unlike Adam and Eve, He would be obedient even if it cost Him everything. Hear His agonising words in another garden: “Father, if You are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from Me. Yet I want Your will to be done, not Mine.” And so He became obedient even unto death on the cross…

But there is far more to Jesus than His obedient substitutional death and His subsequent resurrection! In fact His entire life was one of obedience because He wanted to reveal to people the character and nature of God…that God was not distant but near and truly interested in every aspect of our lives, even knowing something as insignificant as the number of hairs on my head!

Jesus entered into people’s lives right where they were…in the market places, in the fields, in the towns and villages, in the fishing boats, and in their homes. He was not removed from them…He did not expect them to come to Him, but rather He went to them, showing them that He valued them enough to share Himself with them. With Jesus there was no aloofness, or shunning, or distance. He saw the image of God in everyone and treated them with love and respect and He saw the preciousness of each one through the eyes of the Father…
As such Jesus embodied the Great Commandment. He loved God with His whole being – to such an extant that He never said or did anything unless He had seen or heard it from the Father. He never elevated Himself in the eyes of others – no, rather He pointed them to the Father…modelling for us the way we ought to live in humility regardless of our status or socio-economic standing.

He also loved His neighbours…all His neighbours…not just those of His own tribe and language. He loved them enough to give His life for theirs. He forgave even those who spat on Him, beat, Him, reviled Him, accused Him falsely, humiliated Him, mocked Him, and murdered Him. Even as He hung on that awful cross in agony, He was concerned for those who watched Him as well as those dying alongside Him. He comforted the one who confessed Him as Lord with the words we all will hear when we stand on the threshold of eternity: “I assure you, today you will be with Me in paradise.”

In His obedience Jesus also modelled true humanity…we were created to live in harmony with our Creator, but together with our forebears we rebel and struggle against His will as we are self-centred not God centred or other-person-centred.  Jesus lived a life of complete and utter obedience to the will of the Father and thereby revealed to us the kind of life we ought to live if we are to be fully human.

But perhaps the most outstanding quality of Jesus’ life was that He demonstrated intentionality…He knew Who He was and where He was going and what He was doing. In every action He exhibited intentionality…every word, every look, every touch, every meeting, every visitation…all was done intentionally. As I have said before, Jesus only ever did what He saw the Father do and only ever spoke what He heard the Father say. He waited on the Father in prayerful dependence. He followed the lead of the Holy Spirit in Him. He knew the Word and embodied it. His every word and deed was aimed at exalting the Father in the eyes of those around Him. Every relationship was purposeful…

Following Jesus embraces this manner of life…because following Jesus…truly following Jesus means we are to walk as He walked…obey as He obeyed…behave as He behaved…live as He lived…love as He loved…intentionally. No, this will not be easy…we too will be expected to die to our own will and wishes…but in submitting to the will of the Father we will find our true humanity and true fulfilment.

So, as you come to participate in the feast that portrays the character of God so perfectly, ask the Holy Spirit to help you to follow Jesus as He triumphed over sin and Satan through His humble obedience to God…even to the breaking of His body and the shedding of His blood…for the life of the world.

© Johannes W H van der Bijl 2019-04-10

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Parable of the House Owner

The Parable of the House Owner

Matthew 13:51-53

The question, “Do you understand all these things?” is strange as Jesus already said that they were permitted to understand the mysteries of the kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 13:11), that more understanding would be given to them (13:12a), that they would have an abundance of knowledge (13:12b), and that they were blessed with both spiritual seeing and spiritual hearing (13:16), more than what the prophets themselves had received (13:17). The ultimate result of their hearing and understanding would be, according the parable of the sower and the seed, that they would produce an ever-increasing bumper crop (13:23). So why did Jesus ask this question at this point?

It appears that the parable of the house owner concludes this particular parabolic collection, so the question may relate to the new label Jesus was about to apply to His disciples, namely that of “teachers of the law” who are also “disciples of the Kingdom of Heaven”. The parables were all pointing forward to the task that would one day be given to the followers of Jesus…making disciples of the nations, bringing them into the new covenant under the absolute authority of the Triune God, but also teaching them to obey all that had been commanded. Had they not grasped “all these things”, they would not be ready to be co-builders of the kingdom.

It seems clear from later statements of Jesus such as that in Matthew 15:16, “Don’t you understand yet?”, that the disciples did not understand fully, and even to the very moment prior to the ascension they did not see the global aspect of the kingdom perfectly (Acts 1:6), but as with every disciple making movement, this too was a process. We must always remember that while our disciples might grasp matters at one point that later they might appear to not have learned anything at all. If we are pre-prepared to deal with the messiness and ups and downs of disciple making, then the exasperation and disappointment will not be so great.

It is also interesting to note that while Jesus referred to them as “teachers of the law”, the religious leaders of the day saw them as “ordinary men with no special training in the Scriptures” (Acts 4:13). As John Heyward famously stated in 1546, "There are none so blind as those who will not see. The most deluded people are those who choose to ignore what they already know.”

This only goes to show that if we are taught by the Lord through His Word, we are teachers of that Word and do not need any human being’s approval.

The Greek word  grammateus    indicates some form of knowledge of the Old Testament…at least enough to be able to train others. By combining this word with matheteutheis it seems Jesus was saying that if the disciples also understood the principles of the kingdom they were becoming the official interpreters of both the old and the new laws of God’s expanding jurisdiction. As such, the followers of Jesus stand in stark contrast to those “who think themselves wise and clever” as the things of the kingdom have been hidden from them and given to “the childlike” (Matthew 11:25). The disciples are like homeowners with treasure storerooms full of old spiritual treasures as well as “the new reality of Jesus fulfilling that of the old covenant reality”[1].

The treasury referred to here in this parable may hearken back to what Jesus said in Matthew 12:35, “A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart.” This is in keeping with the repeated contrast between good and evil throughout all the parables in this collection. As such the disciples are homeowners of hearts filled with good things, both old and new, and out of their abundance they are enabled to hold both without contradiction. They would see the continuity in the covenants and thus their teaching would be enhanced and enriched as precious treasures.

As disciple makers, we too need to be well versed in both the Old and New Testaments if we are to transfer the whole council of God to our disciples. We are Kingdom Teachers who must both comprehend ourselves and convey to others the reality of the New built upon the foundation of the Old. Only then will we be well rounded in our understanding and able to bring out things new and old for the enrichment of those who have ears to hear.

[1] Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew, Grant R. Osborne, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2010, 545.