Either/Or or Both/And

Many times in life we assume there is a dichotomy. When presented with two options, it has to be one or the other. It’s an either/or situation. Sometimes we do not ask whether the answer might be both/and instead. In church life, we can have that same struggle about the focus of the ministry we do. Is our call to spread the gospel or to serve others? The answer is yes. In the life of Jesus, we see Him do both. Moreover, we see how his love and compassion for people with physical needs often opens the door to their spiritual needs. Timothy Keller writes in his book, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, about how service to others demonstrates the gospel.
“Ultimately, it is impossible to separate word and deed ministry because human beings are integrated wholes — body and soul. It is both natural and necessary that ministers of mercy also minister the Word while they are in the process of meeting human needs, and that communicators of the gospel also show compassion with regard to the material needs of the people they are trying to reach. An integrative ministry means weaving together word and deed ministry as much as possible. When Jesus raised the dead son of the widow of Nain, he spoke words of comfort (Luke 7:13). After he healed the blind man, he returned with a gospel charge (John 9:35 – 38). These go hand in hand. In Acts 2, explosive growth in numbers (v. 41) leads to radical sharing with the needy (vv. 44 – 45). In Acts 4, economic sharing by people inside the church accompanied the preaching of the resurrection outside the church with great power (vv. 32 – 35). The practical actions of Christians on behalf of people in need demonstrated the truth and power of the gospel.”
Jesus cared deeply about each person He encountered. He also knew that many of them would not be forever changed. We do not read about those fed by the loaves and fishes or lepers who were cleansed following Him by the thousands all the way to His last week in Jerusalem. He served them anyway. Their response was not the criteria He used to decide who to serve. His love was. As people who are loved by Him, we serve because of Him.
– Brian
“Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” – 1 Peter 4:9-10

The End of Exile

This week our Living in Exile series comes to a close. The end of the series has me thinking about the end of exile. Israel may have marked that by returning to Jerusalem, rebuilding the wall or rebuilding the temple. But did they feel for the generations to come like the exile was really over? Biblical scholar, N.T. Wright, has a shared a theory that even in the time of Jesus, the Jewish people had many of the same struggles with Rome that their ancestors had with the time in exile. Exile had come to them. As we have mentioned during the series, sometimes we might feel as if exile has come to us. In the book, Exile: A Conversation With N.T. Wright, several scholars interact with Wright’s concept of exile during the New Testament. Scot McKnight writes about what would signify the end of exile.
“The southern tribe, Judah, was sent by God into exile to Babylon as discipline for unfaithfulness. In Babylon the ideas of ending their exile and returning to the land converged into a story of hope. Some seventy years later the exiles returned, but not all of the promises were fulfilled when they returned. So Wright argues that even though the children of Israel were back in the land, the exile had not yet completely ended. The question then is this: When would it end? When God once again sat on the throne and ruled the land. The exile will only truly end when God rules, when the glowing words of Isaiah 40–66 are more than glimpsed in the realities in the land, when—in other words—the damage of 1 Samuel 8 is undone and redeemed. Until Jerusalem is ruled by God and God alone, the exile is still on.”
We have been reminded several times this summer that God was sovereign through the entire exile and return, and He is still sovereign today. But since Israel first demanded a human king in 1 Samuel 8, people have sought someone else to be in charge. As God warned them in verse 18, “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” They would cry out because of their own king and the kings who would make their exile so difficult.
The exile ends when God rules. Applying that idea to the walk of Christians in 2023, until we are “ruled by God and God alone, the exile is still on.” Like Israel, we must remember that God is our king, and there can be no substitute. He gives us life, freedom and hope.

Working Side by Side

As we have talked this summer about living in exile, I have been frequently reminded that it is not possible to cover every detail. There are so many stories and events that have to be summarized in a minute or two, or passed over altogether. I would encourage you to study along and spend some time filling in those gaps.
One of the things that just got a quick mention last week was the way everyone worked side by side building the wall in Nehemiah 3. There is a lot we can learn about the nature of work and our attitudes toward it from how the people work in that chapter. The Preaching the Word Bible Commentary points out four things that are worth noting.
  • “Not all work is equally distributed, but all workers are equally responsible.” Especially when lots of people are working together on a project, some people are always going to work harder than others, and some work is always going to take longer than other work. But each part of the work and each worker matters.
  • “Not all the work is equally pleasant, but it is all equally important.” Our family spent a Saturday putting up a fence a few years ago. Measurements had to be made. Holes had to be dug. Cement had to be mixed. Poles had to be set. Fence panels had to be assembled. Some of those jobs are more enjoyable than others. Without any one of those things, the fence would not last.
  • “Not all workers are equally gifted, but all are equally valuable.” If you have a child or grandchild in the preschool Bible class, I hope you noticed how great the bullrushes looked on the wall that became the river where baby Moses was placed in a basket. My wife (the creative one) did 98% of the design and execution of that scene. I cut out bullrushes, because it’s hard to mess that up. Don’t listen to that voice that says your work is less important or not valuable. That is not God speaking to you.
  • “Not all workers are equally enthusiastic, but all work repays personal investment.” I will have to admit that I was not enthusiastic about putting up a fence or cutting out bullrushes. I would imagine that some of those in Nehemiah 3 were much more excited about having a wall than building it themselves. Still when we are willing to do the work, it pays off. And if we are enthusiastic about it, that might encourage the next worker on the wall.
“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”   Ephesians 4:15-16

The Speed of God

For many of us, summer can be a time when things slow down a little. Our students and educators especially have a time where there are fewer deadlines and assignments. This is the week that all begins to change: back to school! In his book, The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World, Andy Crouch talks about how much technology has changed our world. One of the biggest changes is the pace at which life moves.
“Almost all of human history was carried on at the speed of roughly three miles an hour—the speed of walking. The Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama provocatively called three miles an hour ‘the speed of God’ since it was the speed at which Jesus of Nazareth moved for almost his entire life. Before the invention of modern engines, any increase in speed above this natural threshold would have taken notable physical effort—the exertion of the sprinter or the endurance of the marathon runner, the counterpoised strength and balance of horse and rider, the sailor harnessing the wildness of the wind on the ocean.”
Three miles an hour—can you imagine?! How hard would it be to slow down to that pace? Everything in our world wants to move faster. God’s encouragement in scripture seems to point in the opposite direction: slow down.
  • “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” (Psalm 46:10)
  • “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27:14)
  • “But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)
  • “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient.” (James 5:7-8a)
As life gets hectic and the pace speeds up over the coming weeks, don’t forget to slow down. Take some time at “the speed of God” to see His presence more clearly in your life and our world.

How Did We Get Here?

For God’s people in exile, there was no question about how that journey came about. They were conquered by a nation from the outside: Babylon. They were taken from the homeland they knew to an unfamiliar place. They were trained in the ways of another culture. As we see the parallels to exile today, it’s odd to think that we are in the same place. Things have changed around us.
In his book, Live No Lies: Resist the Three Enemies That Sabotage Your Peace, John Mark Comer explains three “tectonic shifts in Western culture” that have brought about our current reality. (These are not the three enemies from the book’s title.)
  • The shift from the majority to the minority
    “While 49 percent of millennials and 65 percent of American adults as a whole still identify as ‘Christian’ in national surveys. A recent in-depth analysis by the Barna Group, a Christian think tank, put the number of young adults who are “resilient disciples” at 10 percent.”
  • The shift from a place of honor to a place of shame
    “Walk around the downtown core of any major American city, and just look at the buildings: carved into them is the language of Scripture. The Christian vision so penetrated our nation’s early imagination that it was literally chiseled into the stone of our earliest architecture. That time is a distant memory, if that. Most people today want nothing to do with faith in the public square. The church is seen as part of the problem, not the solution.”
  • The shift from widespread tolerance to a rising hostility
    “A growing number of our secular friends and neighbors think of us not just as weird—because we eschew premarital sex, give away a percentage of our income, and refuse to be held captive by a political party or ideology—but as dangerous. As a threat to secularism’s alternative vision of human flourishing. At the risk of mixing metaphors, the literary motif used by the writers of Scripture for this kind of a cultural experience is that of exile.”
Trying to understand how we got here is a worthwhile exercise, but the key is this. We are here. Since this is our reality, how does God call his people to live in exile? We see the answer in the people we have studied so far. We live faithfully. We work diligently. We practice humility. We honor God above all else. We are loyal to Him. We know that He is sovereign and the source of all power. When we feel alone, we remember that we are together with the family of God.

Life Together

So far in our Sunday evening study of Theology, we have talked about the church and our part in God’s mission and who God is. Currently we are thinking about who Jesus is and what He does. As we gradually put these pieces together, we see a bigger picture come into focus.
God intends for His mission today to be working through His church. He longs for us to unify as a team in that work. We know that because we are made in His image. He exists in perfect community. To help us see more clearly how to walk in the way He designed for us, we have the example of the life of Jesus. We talked just last Sunday about ways that we should follow that example.
As people set out to be more like Jesus, many make the mistake of trying to do it alone. In the book, Creating a Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World, J.R. Woodward explains how the need to go alone has been ingrained in us, and why God instead wants us to walk in community.
“Individualism saturates American culture to the point that we no longer notice it. Individualism tells us we can become more like Jesus by ourselves, through a self-help program or more effort. But the gospel tells us transformation happens as we embrace the work of the Spirit in our lives together. Becoming more like Jesus is not a matter of trying but yielding, setting the sails of our lives to catch the wind of the Spirit. It happens when we develop a communal rhythm of life—a collection of thick, bodily (church) practices that engage our senses, grab our hearts, form our identities and reshape our desires toward God and his kingdom. As we collectively engage in grace-filled spiritual practices, we cultivate particular environments that help to create a missional culture, which in turn reshapes us.”
In a society that values individualism so much, let’s remember that we are better together. Scripture teaches us about one another, because God intends for us to work together in His mission in the world.

A Place to Belong

Belonging can be a conundrum. At Southwest, we have a large number of members who have extended family who are also members. I have been here for over five years, and it is not unusual even now to find out about a member’s family relation to another member that I was unaware of. Many churches are like this. This means many church members are already very connected through family bonds, but some of us might struggle finding a place to belong.
There are lots of things that you can do to strengthen your sense of belonging within a congregation. Consider these four ways to get better connected.
  • Consistent worship service attendance: Obviously the focus of our worship time should be coming before God to glorify Him. His grace provides blessings to us during that time as well. Being there connects us with the mission and direction of the church. It is a time to be encouraged and a time to be together.
  • Bible class or group participation: Worship service attendance is just the starting point of our weekly connection. Bible class takes that attendance to another level by increasing the depth of our Bible study. It also serves as another group connection with fewer people. This provides an opportunity for interaction and accountability.
  • Fellowship: Meals and activities at the church building are a good starting point, but true fellowship moves beyond that. In Acts 2:46, church members were together “day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes.” Don’t wait for the next church-wide fellowship event. Spend time getting to know someone better.
  • Ministry involvement: This is more than just the people we see up front on Sundays. There are numerous areas where you can serve and maybe even some we have not thought of yet. The teachings of Jesus were never intended to simply give more knowledge. They are things to be put into practice. When we work together, we make lasting bonds.
In the beauty of God’s design for the church, belonging will benefit you, the church and our part in God’s mission. You are needed, valued and loved. You belong here!

Another Good Samaritan

Usually when we think of the Good Samaritan, we think of the story about peril, rescue and kindness that Jesus tells in Luke 10. The unlikely hero of the story is a Samaritan who does more than is expected. It is not the only story in Luke’s gospel about a Samaritan doing the right thing. In Luke 17, Jesus meets ten lepers whose lives are forever changed.
On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well. (Luke 17:11-19 ESV)
“Where are the nine?”
Are we the one or the nine?
Everything about their lives was forever changed. They could rejoin society. They could fellowship with the spiritual community again. The impossible was now possible, and it was all because of the power and compassion of Jesus. The Samaritan former leper saw that clearly and could not contain his praise and thankfulness. It is exactly the right reaction, but “Where are the nine?”
Maybe the transformation in our lives does not seem as miraculous as the healing of the lepers, but it is actually even greater. We have been taken from death to life by the same power that made these lepers clean. Are we thankful? Do we praise God for what He has done? Do we tell others about Him?
You are forever changed. Thank God every day for what He has done in your life. Let His praise overflow, because it can not be contained. Follow the example of another good Samaritan.

Remember Your One

In 2020, I first asked you the question, “Who’s your one?” We talked about it from time to time, had a box full of names in the foyer, prayed for people by name and saw some of our ones visit and even be baptized into Christ. Most weeks the question has remained on the back page of our bulletin. Since we have added new faces over the years, and some of us just need a reminder; I thought it might be a good time to explain again what the question is about and why it matters.
If you were to ask other Christians to tell you the story of how they came to follow Christ, you might occasionally find someone who was invited to a gospel meeting or answered a knock on their door from a stranger there to talk about Jesus. The vast majority of people will tell you about a person or people that they know. It’s usually a friend, relative, neighbor or co-worker who introduced them to the gospel or lived in such a way to start the conversation. Each of us has a person in our lives who needs to know Jesus. We are the people who could be part of that person’s story of coming to know Him. That person is our one. For those of us who already thought of that one in 2020, let’s keep praying and looking for opportunities. For the rest of you, who’s your one? How can we be more intentional about reaching our ones?
In his book, Everyday Evangelism, Randy Becton offers some advice on how we can become better witnesses for Jesus in our daily lives.
  • Make a list of people in your circle of influence for whom you will pray.
  • Seek to model a Christ-honoring life before them.
  • As you interact with them, attempt to understand their world—their hopes, frustrations and fears.
  • Build friendships with them and the significant people in their lives—especially their family.
  • Watch for opportunities to serve the people and their families for whom you are praying.
  • Seize every opportunity to tell the story of what Jesus has done for you and for them.
God loves you, and God loves your one.

Thinking About God

On Sunday evenings this year we are looking at several topics dealing with aspects of theology. For the first five weeks, we talked about the church and its mission. We have asked and answered the question, “Who are we and what are we here for?” Starting this Sunday evening, we will spend several weeks talking about who God is and who He is not. When I consider this topic, I am reminded of a quote from A.W. Tozer that I heard several years ago. “What comes to mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
What comes to mind when you think about God?
In his book, In the Great Stream: Imagining Churches of Christ in the Christian Tradition, Leonard Allen shares research from Christian Smith about how some view God in our current times.
“In his extensive study of youth and religion, Smith concluded that MTD (moralistic therapeutic deism)–with it’s range of variations–tends to be the operative religion of American young people in the twenty-first century. This new reduced Christianity has three features: it is
Moralistic–God wants be to be a good person.
Therapeutic–God or religion should help me feel good.
Deistic–God is a concept to adorn our lives but not an agent who really does anything.”
In a world where far too many people think of God this way (even many who are Christians), it is incredibly important that we understand who He really is. If we have that understanding, we can help others see that the MTD version of Christianity falls short of the God we serve. He is so much more.

– Brian