Thursday, May 30, 2019

Our Purpose

Acts 16:9-15     Psalm 67     Revelation 21:10-22:5    John 14:23-29

Have any of you ever read through the book of the Revelation of St John from beginning to end? Did any of you start reading, but stopped because you kept wondering what it was the Apostle was smoking at the time? Or did you think he had discovered a hallucinatory mushroom on Patmos that caused him to see such weird and wonderful things? Or did you have the distinct misfortune of reading an End Times book in which the author sought to prove that the revelation was a doomsday prediction featuring 21st Century helicopters and such?

This is sad, really, as the book was meant to be understood…it was meant to be a revelation rather than an obscuration…something 1st Century folk were expected to understand and obey. In 1:1-3 John seemed to think that what he was writing about was imminent: “This is a revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants the events that must SOON take place. He sent an angel to present this revelation to His servant John who faithfully reported everything he saw. This is his report of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. God blesses the one who reads the words of this prophecy to the church, and He blesses all who listen to its message and obey what it says, for the time is NEAR.” Hard to obey something you don’t understand, isn’t it? And either what John was writing about was fast approaching and on the horizon or he was mistaken about the timing…and if he was mistaken about the timing then why should we listen and obey as he may have been mistaken about several other things as well. No, one must not twist the words of Scripture…ever.

Now I can hear you thinking…alright Dr smarty-pants…if you’re so sure this clear as mud book can be understood, what on earth was John talking about in our reading for today? I am so glad you thought that, because I’m going to give it my best shot in a moment.

But before we take the plunge, allow me to remind you that even though it is John who physically wrote these words, he was inspired by the one Who was sent to teach us everything and remind us of everything Jesus taught…namely the Holy Spirit Himself. In other words, the Holy Spirit is the unseen Author behind the “seen” authors. He is the one behind everything written in Holy Scripture…so, firstly we need Him to guide us as we read and, secondly we need to remember everything He has revealed in all Scripture and allow Scripture to interpret Scripture.

Imagine for a moment that you are reading a crime thriller written by a Swedish author…the suspense is killing you and you want to know who did it and why…so you get the bright idea of picking up a crime thriller written by a British author all the while expecting to find clues in her story to understand his story. That just doesn’t make sense, and you wouldn’t do that, would you? No, you would let the author lead you to the unravelling of the murder mystery, wouldn’t you?

So why do we treat the Bible differently? We need to understand the Bible by and through the Bible…guided and aided by the Author Himself.

 So, keeping that in mind, let’s dive in. Revelation 22:10 and following.

Revelation 21:10-21: The first thing we notice is that it is the Holy Spirit Himself that transports John to the top of an unspecified great high mountain. Without going into too much detail, high mountains in the Old and New Testaments indicated God’s presence in some form or another. Remember Mount Sinai, Mount Zion, the Mount of Olives, and the Mount of transfiguration? So we are not surprised to read that the holy city, the New Jerusalem, descends from heaven to this location.

The second thing we notice is that it is shining with the glory of God, has twelve foundations stones and twelve gates decorated with semi-precious stones and the names of the twelve Apostles.  This is a reference to Exodus 28:15-30 where the High Priest had to wear a chest piece decorated with twelve semi-precious stones on which the names of the twelve tribes of Israel had been inscribed. The reason for this was so that the High Priest would always “carry the names of Israel on the sacred chest piece over his heart when he (went) into the Holy Place.” It is also a reference to a prophetic statement found in Ezekiel 48:30-35 about the Holy City of the future. By the way, the fact that the city was a perfect cube indicates that we are dealing with symbols here and not with literal dimensions.

 But it is not the names of the twelve tribes that are on the gates, but rather the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. This does not exclude the twelve tribes of Israel as all the apostles were Israelites, but it does indicate that the New City is a place for the New Israel…an Israel that includes all nations not just one. I think Peter says it best in his first letter 2:4-10. Writing to suffering followers of Jesus, the Apostle reminded them that they had come to Christ, who is the living cornerstone of God’s temple, rejected by people, but chosen by God for great honour.

Then he added, “And you are living stones that God is building into His spiritual Temple. What’s more you are His holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God.” Christians, followers of Jesus from all nations, Jews and Gentiles alike, make up the New Israel, the New Priesthood, the New City, the New Temple. We are the chosen people, we are His royal priesthood, we are His holy nation, we are God’s very own possession…and as a result, we can show others the goodness of God, for He called us out of darkness into His wonderful light.

How very comforting, don’t you think? But it get’s better!

In Revelation 21:22, John tells us that we are never ever alone. “I saw no temple in the city (in other words no physical structure), for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” How cool is that? This conjures up all sorts of images like “even though I go through the valley of the shadow of death, Thou art with me” and other Scriptures that speak of God’s eternal presence with His people. The Tabernacle had stood in the centre of the camp of Israel during their wilderness wanderings to show that God was in their very midst. This is what John was trying to say in the first chapter of His Gospel, verse 14, “And the Word became flesh (or human) and TABERNACLED (or dwelt) among us.” But it is in chapter 4 of John’s Gospel, verses 21-24 where Jesus revealed to a woman outside of Israel that a day was coming when the physical city of Jerusalem (and thus the physical Temple) would no longer be the focal point of true worship. Rather it would be a spiritual reality of which the physical had only been pictures.

The Church is not a physical building…it is a spiritual building made up of all believers and inhabited by God Himself.

Of course there would be no need for any external form of illumination if the one who is Light dwells with us. (Revelation 21:23-27) Again this is not meant to be taken literally, any more than when Jesus calls us the light of the world and tells us to let our lights shine before men that they might see the glory of God. What it appears to indicate is that our lives ought to be so attractive, shining out the character of the Lord Who lives with us and in us, that the nations…all ethnic groups…might be drawn into the city…into the Church…into the presence and person of God. This is a reference to Scriptures like Isaiah 60 (Isaiah 60:3, 5, 11, 19-20 (the light), 52:1, see also Zechariah 14:7, Psalm 72:10-11) where we are told that the future Jerusalem would attract all nations, merchants, foreigners, and their kings – all would come in as the gates would stay open day and night. The Church is open to all…its doors ought never to be shut as the dividing walls between us are broken down in Christ. In Jesus all who call on His name are united into a new nation…the new Israel of God.

Now let’s look quickly at Revelation 22:1-5.  The backdrop here is, of course the first three chapters of Genesis. Just read Genesis 2:9-10, and 3:22 when you have time. (See also Ezekiel 47:1, 12, Joel 3:18, Zechariah 14:1, 11, John 7:37-39, Matthew 5:8, Isaiah 60:19-20, Daniel 7:18, 27, Zechariah 14:7) When God created the heavens and the earth, there was no sin and therefore no curse. When Jesus ushered in the new creation with His resurrection from the dead, He removed the curse as He had absorbed it on the cross. So, in John’s imagery, the Church of Jesus – the spiritual Church, not necessarily the physical church, if you understand my meaning – is no longer cut off from the presence of God, but rather built around the very throne room of God almighty and therefore there is no curse there…rather we will see Him face to face and His name will be inscribed on our foreheads…remember in Exodus 13:9 the Word was to be worn on the hand and on the forehead…well Jesus is the Word and it is His name that is placed upon our foreheads at baptism.  

In the spiritual city of Jerusalem there is no night because God shines on us. Yes, in this world we may face tribulation, as did the recipients of this letter of John as well as that of Peter and many other New Testament authors, but in Jesus we have and do overcome the world. That is the image John is trying to conjure up in this passage. God is with us…we are in His very presence for eternity…we are built in Him and on Him…and His glory shines in and on us.

But this brings me to my final point. What is the purpose of this Holy City shining with the glory of God on a very High Mountain top? Why doesn’t it stay in heaven? Why does it come down to earth?

It is so that the nations might walk in its light. Jesus said, we are the light of the world…we are a city set on a high mountain (or hill) neither of which ought to be hidden from view. The Church remains in the world for the sake of the world God loves so much. Our purpose is to bring the nations into the City, the New Jerusalem…our purpose is to provide healing to the nations…to lead them to the tree of life and to the very throne of God.

That is why we are here…built as living stones upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Jesus Christ as our cornerstone. We are the City and we are the Temple of God as God inhabits us – He tabernacles in us – He dwells with us and works in and through us.

Dearest beloved brethren, as you come into His presence once more today to feast at His Table before His throne, reflect on the final words of the Eucharist: “Go in peace to love and serve our Lord.” It is what we do outside the walls of this building that show whether or not we are living members of the City John described in the reading today. It is through us that the Psalm we read today, Psalm 67, is fulfilled…it is through us that the ways of God will be known throughout the earth, His saving power among people everywhere…it is through us that the nations of the world will praise God…it is through our witness to Jesus that they will sing for joy.

It is us, dearest brethren, who have the light…let us not just bask in the warmth of that light, but also take it into the dark places of our world so that those who do not know God yet, will be attracted by what we show in our lives and be led to our God.

© Johannes W H van der Bijl 2019-05-20

May Newsletter

It started off as a security measure. Petty theft and violent crime is commonplace in South Africa and it is on the rise. While many people have been given homes, water, and electricity, there are just not enough jobs to go around…especially in the farming areas where most jobs are seasonal. Add to this the uncontrolled influx of non-South Africans and the explosive population growth in areas where water is already scarce and you can only imagine where this is all heading.

But I digress…the security measure. Our home has a wall facing a farm road and, while it is a rather high wall, people have been known to scale them in the past to secure anything that may have a black market value…like copper pipes. Most folks have opted for razor wire or an electric fence, but I really don’t think living in a prison-like structure is conducive to happy living. So, we resorted to a natural deterrent…cacti. This soon became a hobby of ours and now we have a growing collection of the prickly beauties. Every time we work with them we are reminded of our Lord’s amazing creative genius. The added benefit is that this helps us unwind after our trips and trainings. Louise is exploring the possibility of making our own pots now as well!

 Jesus’ disciple making method, the method we teach, shows us that He first addressed the masses…teaching them, healing them, driving out demons. We call this the “cast wide” period of His ministry. But soon we find Him “narrowing down” as He selects specific men and women to participate in what He was doing (12 men to represent the 12 tribes, and a group of women who accompanied them and supported the ministry). From about halfway through the Gospels, Jesus begins to spend more and more time with this smaller group. However, He also begins to “go deep” with only three…only Peter, James, and John are with Him when He heals Jairus’ daughter, is transfigured on a mountain and has a tête-à-tête with Moses and Elijah, and when He is in crisis in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Louise and I have been “casting wide” for two and half years now, in Mozambique, Swaziland, Namibia, various parts of South Africa, Egypt, and Ethiopia. We have also begun to narrow down with a few responisve clergy and follow-up with them via email, WhatsApp and Zoom. This has been a very positive experience and, I dare to say, we have grown as much as the brethren we train. I am sure we will still do many more of these cast wide trainings, but we believe the Lord is wanting us to go deep with a few key people. While one can narrow down long distance using social media, I really don’t think one can go deep without walking alongside people in their lives as they live them.

We have been involved in our local Anglican church ever since we moved to Villiersdorp, but only when we were available. We have a Bible Study in our home on Tuesday evenings as well. But recently, we have begun to get involved with more and more local people. The most exciting developing relationship is one with a local farmer who has a group of young Xhosa men he meets with on a regular basis. He has taken them through Alpha, but was wondering if we could begin to train them as disciple makers. This may mean fewer long range trips in the future, but who knows where this could lead? Jesus poured His life into a few and look what they did!

We have been trying to train folks in the Pretoria Diocese for over two years, and this dream became reality this month. Their Bishop made attendance compulsory, so we had most of their clergy in training. Then we trained a few how to train others. That weekend, these freshly trained clergy trained representatives of their own laity. How amazing is that? We are looking forward to furthering our relationship with this Diocese in the future as we take them through each of the four modules.

Bishop Mouneer has asked us to train the Gambellan clergy in basic biblical knowledge. We are praying about when to do this, but it is likely that this will happen in June coinciding with the St Frumentius’ College graduation.

Personally, things are going well. I am the healtheist I have been in a long time, praise God! Probably all the gardening! Louise is loving her correspondence biblical studies through GWC. The Queen has moved into the Nursing Home and is happy. Our children and grandchildren are doing well.

Thank you for your ongoing support. We are so grateful to each one who prays for us and supports us financially and otherwise. Our SAMS account could be better, but then again it could be worse. The Lord knows our needs and we leave that in His hands. Bless you and thank you.

All our love
Johann and Louise

Monday, May 20, 2019

Disciple Making and Social Media

In his excellent book, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, the late Nabeel Qureshi wrote about how Christian street preachers never had any impact on him as a non-believer, because he felt disconnected from them. He admired their courage to stand up for what they believed, but thought that what they had to say could not possibly have any bearing on his life because they simply did not know him as a person. “Effective evangelism,” he maintained, “ requires relationships. There are very few exceptions.”

A missionary friend of ours who works in Mexico recently wrote the following: “When a very wise friend once told me that ministry is really all about loving people, I suddenly realized, that that was the real secret to his success in ministry. And he is so right. People don’t really care about our theology or how smart we are. They want to know if someone loves them.” It’s all about relationships.

Jesus was certainly one of the most relational people our planet has ever known. Throughout the Gospels we find Him with the people, in the market places, in their homes, in their fishing boats, in their very lives, as it were. He rubbed shoulders with social elitists and with the social outcasts alike…to Him there were no exceptions…He loved people…all people and He related to them out of that love.

Because of Jesus’ own working methodology, most discipleship experts will agree with Nabeel and with my friend. Disciple making requires – or rather, demands, relationship…in order to help someone walk as Jesus walked, we have to walk alongside them…with them, side by side, in their lives as they live them. In other words, you cannot disciple people from a distance…you cannot disciple people from the pulpit or from a street corner or through an email or a post. You must know them and be known by them…you must earn their trust…they must see you practice what you preach.

Now, I was asked to discuss disciple making and social media. So this evening, I’d like for us to examine the question: Is it possible to utilize social media in the making of disciples? Those of you who use social media will know that there is a measure of disconnection between us and the people we relate to through Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, email, Instagram, blog sites, podcasts, and so on. For instance, I have over 2000 friends on my Facebook account…of those 2000 plus, I personally know about 1000…and of those 1000 I would consider myself fairly well connected with about 300…but of those 300 very few are close confidants…people with whom I would feel comfortable baring my soul.

So, going back to Nabeel’s comment that he felt disconnected from street preachers as they knew nothing about him as a person and that “Effective evangelism requires relationships,” would it be possible to fulfil his requirements via social media? Before we answer that question, let’s look at the positive side of social media first.

Social media has exploded over the past few years. If we look back a generation or more, you will see that people did communicate with each other through mediums other than the spoken word, but that was very limited…not only because ever communication had to written by hand, but also because such communications had to be delivered by hand – by horse and rider, by mail coaches, by bicycle, by ship, or by plane. But that did not stop people from trying to persuade others through the written word…in letters, newspapers, pamphlets, and books…or with a disconnected verbal word, such as the radio or television…and not just their friends, but total strangers too.

Take the Apostle Paul as an example. Most of his letters were written to people he knew – people he had either evangelised or discipled at some time in the past. As such, he was known to them and, for the most part, trusted as an authority figure and a friend (the exceptions, as far as trust is concerned, are possibly Galatians and Corinthians). Some of his letters, such as those he wrote to Titus, Philemon, and Timothy were very personal. A glaring exception to this, of course, is the letter he wrote to the believers in Rome. This letter could be considered Paul’s Magnum Opus and his best defence of the Gospel, and yet it was written to people he had not yet met. In 1:13 he said, “I want you to know, dear brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to visit you, but I was prevented until now. I want to work among you and see spiritual fruit, just as I have seen among other Gentiles.” This begs the question; if Paul did not know the people he was writing to, were they hampered from growing in their faith by this disconnection?

If that were the case, then none of us would be touched by what we read in the Bible, as none of us know the authors personally…although, one may argue, we who are believers do know the real Author. But my point is that people have had their lives turned around by reading words written by others who are, for all intents and purposes, wholly foreign and unknown to them. So in this sense, social media can be used to transmit the truth of the Gospel to people we have never met or with whom we do not have a personal relationship.

But can we disciple them? That is the question we need to answer this evening.

Social media is great for getting the word to people on the other side of the ocean in real time and when we have believers in otherwise closed countries, we are able to send them messages, podcasts, blogs, and even pdf files with books otherwise banned in their countries…very cool, don’t you think? So should we use social media as believers? Most certainly, yes! But you need to plan how you will use whatever medium(s) you choose in order to be most effective. Think before you click. Pray before you post. Be selective and always consider the consequences of what you send to others…especially if they live in dangerous countries or families. And don’t forget that you always need to be aware of your own security and privacy as well! Cyber crime is becoming a huge problem and hackers etc. are always way ahead of even the best of us.

So when you do use social media…make sure that what you post is good quality. I know very little about how cyber space works…but I do know that if I Google something, that very item will suddenly appear on my Facebook feed the next time I check it. Now I am told that if one posts a variety of good quality material that is liked or shared by others often, it works the same way…it somehow comes up on search engines when people are looking for something on the internet. So, whatever you post ought to be relevant and personable and interesting and up to date so that people will actually read what you write and be edified by your posts. And if people do message you or comment or share your content, interact with them. This demonstrates that you actually care about them and want to be involved in their day-to-day lives.

And then there’s Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, and other such wonderful inventions that allow you to talk to others (almost) face to face. This is the way we communicate with our children and grandchildren in Stockholm and Birmingham. Just a pity you can’t reach into the screen for a hug and a cuddle.

But…and here’s the million dollar question again…can one make a disciple who will make other disciples via social media? Sure, we can get the material out there…we can evangelize…we can persuade…we can encourage…we can uplift and comfort…we can teach and train even “face to face” in real time…but can we make disciples who walk just as Jesus walked? Does disciple making not demand a closer contact…a closer connection? Most people would agree that character formation – as that is part of disciple making – cannot be done from a distance.

In one sense, social media is a disembodied consumer experience. (But then, so is this sermon.) For many sceptics and cynics such an unobservable, untouchable, unaccountable medium will not be sufficient…they want to see our faith in action if they are to change their belief system or behaviour…if they are to believe, change, and grow.

So, while social media is a very positive method we can use to disseminate the Gospel, to catch-up with people we cannot see every week, to encourage, teach, and so on…it simply can never replace true one on one, life on life discipleship, just as artificial intelligence cannot replace a real flesh and blood human being in a marriage or other close relationship. True, it can help equip people into becoming better followers of Jesus…it can provide them with links and articles, and blogs, and podcasts, and resources otherwise unavailable to them. It can encourage and exhort people to fulfil their callings in Christ. But in the end, it must lead people into the community of faith where disciple making can be demonstrated through connected lives…where the mind and person and behaviour of Christ can be seen and modelled and duplicated.

© Johannes W H van der Bijl 2019-04-26