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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Monday, December 24, 2018

Moving in the Right Direction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Source of Life and Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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