Click on the image below to download a list of GCI-related topics to pray about each day during December.
Note: This sermon is for the second Sunday of Advent, the season that spans the four Sundays preceding Christmas day. To read a Surprising God post explaining the meaning of Advent click here. For four GCI-produced videos for Advent, click here.
Scripture readings for today: Mal. 3:1-4 • Luke 1:68-79 • Phil. 1:3-11 • Luke 3:1-6
Participants in Christ’s Ministry
(Luke 3:1-6; Philippians 1:3-11)
Note to preacher: You might begin with a personal anecdote about anticipation-preparation: expecting the birth of your first child, the wedding of an adult child, the birth of a grandchild.
When anticipating something good such as a high school graduation, a wedding, the birth of a child or grandchild, a visit with old friends, a much-needed vacation, or retirement, there is joy in the anticipation. But when we’re anticipating something not so good, such as being cut from a sports team, losing someone you love, or corporate downsizing, the anticipation can be filled with dread and agony.
In the time covered in today’s reading in Luke, though the people of God had been anticipating the Messiah for a long time, they were not prepared for what actually occurred. None of the Old-Testament prophets (Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel) had provided the full picture of what was to come. But then came John the son of Zechariah—we know him as John the Baptist. His prophetic ministry was unique in its scope and detail in announcing the Messiah.
Today, on this the second Sunday of Advent Season, we will focus on the important ministry of John the Baptist in preparing the way for the Lord Jesus Christ. We will also draw a parallel with how God has invited us to also be participants in preparing the way for our Lord and Savior.
The picture we get from the four Sundays of Advent is almost like looking in a mirror and seeing a reverse image: we are presented with a picture of the ministry of the Father, Son, and Spirit flowing in reverse from Jesus Christ’s second coming to his first coming. Though today we will focus on our readings in Luke and Philippians, I encourage you to also read Malachi 3:1-4 this afternoon or later this week. Together, these passages portray the anticipation and participation in ministry that we are given as we await our Lord’s return.
John the Baptist’s ministry of preparation
God sent Gabriel from his side in heaven to tell Zechariah the priest about the forthcoming birth of a son to be named John. Gabriel announced that John would “bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God… to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:16-17). After the baby was born, Zechariah, led by the Spirit, spoke these words:
You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. (Luke 1:76-77)
What a special ministry was predicted for John! Let’s look now at today’s Gospel reading to see what John did and how he did it. Luke gives us a historical marker of when John served:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2)
Roman and Jewish historical records place this event at AD 27 or 28. Although John had been appointed some 30 years earlier, God set a specific time in history for his important ministry to begin. The time had now arrived. The Father was soon to send his Son, Jesus, to begin his history-changing, world-saving work, so he led John to begin his participatory, preparatory ministry:
He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.’” (Luke 3:3-6)
According to Luke 1:80, John “grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.” After spending the early years of his life in a small town in Judea’s hill country, John moved to the deserted area east of Jerusalem. Zechariah and Elizabeth had raised him as instructed, taught him the Hebrew Scriptures, and shared with him the prophetic messages about his future ministry. John grew and became strong in the Spirit. When God called him to start his ministry, he left the desert and began preaching a message of repentance in preparation for the forthcoming ministry of Jesus.
John had to leave his familiar, though solitary, home to go where he could work to restore a God-consciousness in the Jewish people of his day. After years of being dominated by foreign empires, the public mindset had become secularized with personal survival being the highest priority. Although the Jews continued to have routine religious activities, the word of God was not guiding their daily living. John called on his Jewish kinsmen to repent—to turn back to God—and he followed up with the rite of baptism (see picture below). The area around the Jordan River was an appropriate setting for those who left their cities and towns to listen as John, a gifted preacher, reminded them of their roots as the people of God. The baptism in water dramatized their cleansing through God’s gracious forgiveness.
Isaiah’s poetic words related to John’s calling predicted a prophet powerfully calling on people to change their ways so that they would be responsive to the saving ministry of the Messiah, God’s Son. John was not seeking his own following—he understood that his role was to point the people to Jesus, not to himself. His ministry drew people’s attention to the Messiah who was to appear very soon.
One of the highlights of John’s ministry was to participate in Jesus’ baptism—a baptism not necessary for Jesus (who had not sinned), but necessary for all of us. Even today, believers continue to participate in that baptism as a sign of their repentance and faith.
As abruptly as John’s ministry at the Jordan began, it ended with his arrest. Herod “locked John up in prison” (Luke 3:20b). He did not enjoy the pleasure of carrying on his ministry into old age. In fact, his ministry lasted for no more than a year or two. Behind prison walls, John could not rejoice in seeing the results of his work of service.
John was a special prophet, foretold in Scripture, and honored to prepare for the Messiah. No greater prophetic work was ever done before him, and yet it was cut short of any immediate rewarding celebration. This combination: privileged calling, yet unfulfilled ultimate results, may seem somewhat conflicting. What lessons can we learn from John’s experience? What similarities do we find in the ministry of the church?
The church’s similar ministry
The New Jerome Biblical Commentary says this concerning Luke’s account of John the Baptist:
Luke raises up John as a model for his churches. They, too, prepare for Messiah Jesus and are not the Messiah. They, too, are the pioneers leading others to the frontiers of faith in Jesus. Whenever John’s story is preached as part of the good news, they are challenged to repent, so that they, too, may be prepared for the advent of the Lord Jesus.
As modern readers of the Gospels, it’s easy to overlook this connection. The profound truth is that just as John the Baptist participated in Jesus Christ’s ministry, preparing people to receive Jesus, so has the ministry of the church participated for the past 1900+ years—and that includes this congregation today.
We were designated before creation and have been called now to participate. We cannot fulfill this ministry inside the walls of our Sunday gathering places any more than John could fulfill his ministry without leaving his familiar home and going to the Jordan River. Our calling is part of an awesome work, and yet, like John, we often serve without the opportunity to enjoy the end results.
Let’s consider another of today’s readings, which enlarges on this role of participation:
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. (Phil. 1:3-4)
The apostle Paul considered the members of the church at Philippi his partners in ministry. Their involvement started when Paul first evangelized the city more than 10 years before he wrote this letter from prison. Over the years that transpired, they had actively continued that participation.
For those of us who wonder if our small congregation can make a difference, let me share what the Oxford Companion to the Bible says in summary concerning the church at Philippi:
[It] apparently was first housed in Lydia’s home. In spite of its small beginnings, it grew and became an active Christian community, taking an important part in evangelism, readily sharing its own material possessions, even out of deep poverty, and generously sending one of its own people to assist Paul in his work and to aid him when he was in prison.
The members of the church at Philippi were not apostles. Most of them were not even preachers. But, together, they all participated in the ways that they were gifted by the Holy Spirit. They faithfully fulfilled their calling and mission to make disciples, modeling faithfulness in that mission for other churches. Though their part in this high calling was not always pleasurable, it was always powerful and spiritually rewarding. Paul’s letter to them came from a prison cell. Their emissary to Paul, Epaphroditus, in carrying out his appointed task to visit Paul, almost died for the work of Christ (Phil. 2:30). The congregation experienced both joy and sorrow as they joined Jesus in ministry. Many of the churches of that time—just like today—experienced internal problems, which we read about in some of Paul’s letters.
Paul referred to himself and Timothy as “servants of Jesus Christ” in the opening words of his letter to the church at Philippi. That is who we are as well—servants who partner with Jesus to fulfill his mission. In other words, the members of the church at Philippi, in partnering with Paul in ministry, were participants in Christ’s ministry. From the city of Philippi, they reached out, sharing the gospel, serving the poor and supporting Paul as they reached far beyond their city limits in the work of Jesus.
As we proceed through this Advent Season, going in reverse from the second coming of Jesus toward his first coming, we are wise to consider the stage of Christ’s ministry in which we find ourselves today. Ours is a ministry of participation with Jesus through the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist prepared the Jewish people for Jesus’ ministry. Paul likewise ministered to both Jews and Gentiles, and many of them partnered with him. Today, we follow in the footsteps of these outstanding examples as we participate with Jesus, as he comes to us by the Spirit, in his ongoing ministry to the world.
Small Group Discussion Questions
- The sermon this week addressed the topic of anticipation. Share a time when you were anticipating something negative. Talk about the emotions. Now share a time when you were anticipating something good. Share those emotions.
- For years, Israel looked for the Messiah. Explain what you think that meant to them.
- How are you preparing for the celebration of the Incarnation?
- Read Malachi 3:1-4 and discuss what these verses mean. What does it mean to be like a refiner’s fire, or a launderer’s soap?
- Read the poem of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79). Discuss the poetry. What did people think as they heard it? What did Elizabeth think?
- How are you participating in Christ’s ministry?
This article from GCI-USA Regional Pastor Randy Bloom continues our series on Worldview Conversion and Whole-Life Discipleship.
In the Western world today, Christian faith is largely marginalized. We’ve entered a post-Christian era in which traditional approaches to evangelism (a key part of whole-life discipleship) are largely ineffective. That being the case, we are challenged to answer an important question: How can we, as followers of Jesus, participate with what the Holy Spirit is doing to evangelize people who lack any semblance of a Christian worldview?
Much has been written in answer to this question, but rather than reviewing the literature, I want to share some of what I’ve learned through friendships with non-Christians. While I don’t claim to have all the answers (who does?) or to have the keenest discernment on this challenging topic, there are a number of things I’ve learned that may help us as we seek to discern and then participate in what the Spirit is doing.
What is evangelism?
Let’s start with a simple definition: Evangelism involves sharing the gospel with people and helping them respond by becoming followers of Jesus.
We probably all agree that evangelism is a process—the ongoing ministry of the Spirit as he works in the lives of people over time, relentlessly drawing them to Jesus. We are called to participate in what he is doing, but how? How do we evangelize people who have little interest in the things of God—people who are not yet asking searching questions about God? We already have relationships with some of these people, while others are merely passing acquaintances. How can we participate in what the Spirit is doing to evangelize them?
Let’s face an uncomfortable reality—as Christians, most of us are out of touch with the worldviews (beliefs, values, ideals) held by the non-Christians around us. Perhaps we’ve read some things (book knowledge), or heard some things (often biased and limited information) or gained some (limited) knowledge from our direct experience. But because we’re deeply entrenched in church life, most of us are far removed from the non-Christian world around us. While this is natural, it limits our ability to participate in Jesus’ mission to a largely post-Christian world.
The first step in evangelism is to connect with non-Christians. But doing so is a challenge for most Christians because the worldviews held by non-Christians seem strange to them. Therefore, engaging a non-Christian takes a willingness to be uncomfortable, and it also takes work—perhaps that’s why most Christians shy away from evangelism.
As Christians, we often judge (condemn) or merely dismiss those aspects of non-Christian worldviews that we don’t understand or like. If that assessment seems harsh, remember it’s how Christians are perceived by most non-Christians. So what do we do? A good place to begin is to cease separating ourselves from the non-Christian world.
This separation likely came about unintentionally as we engaged in church activities that were largely inwardly focused. The more we engaged in such activities, the more we detached from unchurched people. This led to us becoming uncomfortable in their presence, finding it difficult to relate to and engage with them. The way we reverse this unfortunate situation is by first humbly admitting that the separation exists, then stepping out of our comfort zone (sequestered behind church walls). If we don’t take these steps, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be able to share our hope and faith with any non-Christians.
Engaging non-Christians (even those who are anti-Christian) at a personal level requires lots of patience and rather thick skin. “Going deeper” relationally with people who do not think like us, and who disagree with us on many issues, is not for spiritual “wimps.” Keep in mind that the “judgment radar” of most non-Christians is sensitively tuned. We Christians too easily fall into judgmental patterns that shut down communication with non-Christians. They hear judgment from us even when it isn’t there—it’s in our looks and tone of voice. We sometimes can’t help ourselves.
For instance, how do we react to and converse with devout Buddhists, Muslims or atheists? How do we react when someone uses foul language, makes crude remarks, or acts in other ways that contradict our Christian beliefs and values? How do we react when someone expresses support for abortion, for LGBTQ lifestyles, or for political viewpoints different from our own? We don’t have to take a compromising stand on these issues, but sometimes the way we react when presented with these worldview issues make us appear uninformed, disconnected from reality and judgmental.
As humans, our sense of personal identity is deeply bound up with our worldview—our core values, deeply held beliefs and key understandings. Because most of us have spent a good deal of time and effort thinking about such things, we tend to view criticism of our worldview as an attack on our personhood. This is true for Christians and it’s also true for non-Christians. Thus when worldviews clash, our interactions can become quite volatile. My point here is that in order to engage people who hold non-Christian worldviews, we Christians must exercise a great deal of understanding, tact and humility. We need to love our non-Christian neighbor as ourselves!
In discussions with non-Christians, referring to the Bible or to Jesus gets a bit tricky. We may assume that they are acquainted with biblical concepts or terms and have at least a basic biblical understanding with which we can address their questions or issues. But we are mistaken in that assumption. We live in a world that is now largely post-Christian—a world where most non-Christians are not only unacquainted with what Christians believe, but are apathetic or even antagonistic toward Christians. They have little interest in What Would Jesus Do? (WWJD) or other Christian platitudes. They are not interested in hearing what the Bible says. Without becoming defensive or frustrated, we have to back off and identify a basic starting point with them—asking good questions, then listening carefully.
Ask good questions, listen carefully
Many of us don’t have a good working knowledge of the many worldviews held by non-Christians. This lack of understanding underscores the need we have to ask good questions and then listen carefully to their answers in order to gain understanding concerning what they actually believe. Our preconceptions concerning their beliefs may be mistaken. So rather than jumping to unwarranted conclusions, we need to patiently and graciously seek clarity. Doing so often takes a great deal of time.
It can be difficult to listen to ideas that are not only radically different from our own, but often are illogical and fanciful. But it’s vital to take time to understand what they actually believe (some research on the side may be necessary—see the references listed at the end of this article). With that knowledge we can then identify points of connection between their worldview and ours—points of agreement that can serve as a bridge of connection, opening opportunities for us to influence their worldview in the direction of Christ. As we listen deeply, we may be amazed at what we learn, and how our own views on some things may change along the way.
The value of a silent witness
In seeking to understand the worldview of a non-Christian acquaintance, its sometimes best to ask or say nothing, taking time to develop relational credibility before bringing Jesus or the Bible into the conversation. In doing so, we need not think we’re failing to stand up for Jesus—he stands for himself just fine! We also don’t need to feel that by not speaking up we are missing an opportunity to “witness.” In our post-Christian world, a silent, nonjudgmental witness is often more effective than words. Silence is often a more powerful way to declare “the right thing.” Simply loving people—being available to them when opportunities arise—is often the best way to help non-Christians come to know Jesus. Silence may be a spiritual gift we need more of as we trust the Spirit to do his often mysterious work of evangelism.
Be ready to answer their questions
As we connect relationally with non-Christians, we’ll encounter some who, further along in their journey with Jesus, by the Spirit, are asking questions, wanting to know about God, the Christian faith and the Bible. It may be that the Spirit has led such people to us to help them unravel the tangled web of their current worldview, and are open to the simplicity, hope and joy of knowing Jesus. How can we be of help at that point? What can we do to evangelize them?
Again, we start by seeking to understand what they are currently thinking and believing. Then we look for points of commonality between those beliefs and the Christian faith. We then proceed, gently helping them see the points of illogic or futility in their current beliefs, and sharing with them the simple truths of the Christian faith: who God is, his love for them, and how they don’t have to jump through hoops to be accepted by him. This is the time to share with them a simple presentation of the gospel. It’s not a time for making profound, complex theological statements.
Remember, we are relating to people who are early in their Christian journey. They will not likely relate to language and concepts that are second-nature to us. Our challenge is to meet them where they are—to understand their questions and needs and then speak accordingly, using terms and thought-forms they understand.
I’ve been told on several occasions by non-Christians that Christian answers to difficult questions typically sound simplistic. Let’s avoid that by answering their questions in ways that share the gospel without coming across as offering simplistic solutions to complex problems. As people respond positively, we can then help them take additional steps. We can continue meeting with them one-on-one, then invite them to a gathering of church friends, a small group meeting, or a church service. The goal is to continue journeying with them.
Trust the Spirit’s work to evangelize
Every step along the way in this journey, we can trust that the Holy Spirit is at work. At some points it may seem there is little or even no progress, but keep in mind that the Spirit’s work is often unseen, even mysterious. Realize that the Spirit is the primary agent in the communication of the gospel and that he is at work in the lives of all people. We can trust him to reach people, drawing them to Jesus in his way and in his time—even those people who appear to be most resistant to his ministry. Our participation in the Holy Spirit’s ministry to evangelize people around us may extend over a very long time—even our entire lives. We need to be willing to be participants with the Spirit in his work of evangelism over the long haul. We will enjoy the process more if we trust the Spirit to work in people’s lives.
There is much more that could be said about evangelism in a post-Christian world. Hopefully this article advances the discussion. Overall, the place to start with evangelizing people who hold non-Christian or even anti-Christian worldviews is to love and respect them, even when they seem rather unlovable and resistant to the truth and logic of the gospel. I pray that we will be willing to connect with them in almost any circumstance, and to get to know them as people who are loved, forgiven and accepted by God, regardless of what they think or believe at this time.
Participating with the Spirit in evangelizing people means living incarnationally—living with them as Jesus does, by the Spirit: where they are, as they are. It means doing the hard work of laying aside our judgments, presuppositions and expectations, while seeking understanding, and while loving people unconditionally at all points of their journey. We can grow in our ability to do this as we live our life in union and communion with Christ. After all, the same Jesus who lived personally and intimately in our alienated, sin-filled world now lives in us by his evangelizing Spirit. Let us live by the Spirit, following him in evangelizing non-Christians.
- Evangelism in a Skeptical World (How to Make the Unbelievable News about Jesus More Believable) by Sam Chan
- The Sacrament of Evangelism, by Jerry Root & Stan Guthrie
- The Celtic Way of Evangelism (How Christianity Can Reach the West… Again) by George G. Hunter III
- Life-Style Evangelism (Learning to Open Your Life to Those Around You) by Joseph C. Aldrich
- FaithTalk Equipper: GCI website with resources that help congregations conduct evangelistic small groups (http://faithtalkgroups.blogspot.com/)
- GCI Resources: GCI website that addresses evangelism directly in the discipleship section (https://resources.gci.org/pathway)
Dear Pastors and Ministry Leaders:
Because we humans are “prone to wander,” those of us called by God to serve within the church as under-shepherds must join Jesus, the Great Shepherd, in protecting his flock from harm (Acts 20:28). This is a vital calling, given the many forces in our day that threaten our members, including the devil’s schemes to undermine a worldview that is solidly Christ-centered. Sadly, an increasing number of Christians view reality (including the Christian faith) through the “lens” of a worldview that is more secular than it is centered on the heart, mind and ways of Jesus.
This issue of Equipper begins a new series of articles that, over the next few months, will explore the topic of worldview conversion. The focus of the series is how we, through what we refer to as whole-life discipleship, can first help ourselves and then help those in our care develop a worldview that is fully Christ-centered.
This letter introduces the series, looking at what we mean by worldview and providing additional comments. I’ll then hand you over to Ted Johnston’s article in this issue for additional details. We’ll then build on this foundation in future articles published here in GCI Equipper.
What is a worldview?
In his book Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept, James W. Sire offers this definition:
A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being. (p. 141)
Whether we know it or not, we all have a particular worldview. As disciples of Jesus, it is vital that we embrace and live out of a Christ-centered worldview, then help others do so as well. The articles in this series on worldview and whole-life discipleship are designed to help us do that. It is our goal that we will use this material to help our members identify their current worldview, then help them realign their worldview, as needed, more fully with Jesus’ own view of the world—his values, perspectives and commitments. As part of the series, we’ll look at some “hot button” ethical issues—seeking a Christ-centered response in ways that are redemptive rather than merely confrontational.
We pray that this series will help inform our teaching and preaching, leading to positive, Christ-centered, Spirit-led change in our own lives and in the lives of the people we are called to disciple in the way of Jesus.
A shift in worldview
In his helpful book God, Freedom & Human Dignity, Ron Highfield asks a penetrating question concerning the shift in worldview that has occurred within Western culture:
How, when and by whom did it come about that nature, family, community, moral law and religion were changed in the Western mind from identity-giving, happiness-producing networks of meaning into their opposites—self-alienating, misery-inducing webs of oppression? (p. 18)
The dominant worldview in the modern West in our day encourages people (particularly young ones) to cast off family and religious values to embrace an identity that is largely me-centered. This secular worldview, which has become one of the cornerstones of Western culture, is grounded in a form of self-expression that, rather than valuing higher good and right action, has become an end in itself. Highfield continues:
The modern self asserts. “I am irreplaceable, and none can tell me how to realize my own uniqueness or judge my choice or ways of self-expression. I have every right to celebrate my own utterly unique being in ways that I experience as fulfilling.” (p. 31)
The need for grace
A sad state of affairs, isn’t it? Yet, lest we point a finger of condemnation, let’s remember that all of us (due to our fallen nature) are inclined toward self-centeredness, and so are in need of God’s grace. Let’s also remember that our calling as followers of Jesus is not to rail against the culture, or to turn our backs on it in disgust. Instead, we are called to participate with Jesus, by the Spirit, in speaking redemptively into the lives of people—sharing with them not the bad news of a failed culture, but the good news of God’s culture—God’s kingdom. Note this comment from Highfield:
Approaching people with the least hint of judgment or arrogance or love of argument will fail to produce the desired engagement. In my experience, patient listening, sincere probing, and autobiographical confession is the only way to engage with our contemporaries in meaningful conversations about important matters. (p. 36)
Instead of buying into the culture’s propensity toward asserting our “rights” by being confrontational and condemning, we must reach out with the love of God to people, no matter their worldview, to help them discover and embrace Jesus and his beliefs and values. We want to help people experience the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ; to discover God’s plan to give them their true identity as his children, and thus to discover a way of life that is truly fulfilling and liberating. I pray that this series of articles on worldview will equip us to participate with Jesus in the disciple-making work that he is now doing in our world with its largely secular worldview.
Be sure to read the articles in this new series (you’ll find the first one, written by Ted Johnston, in this issue). As we proceed, I invite you to share your thoughts in the comment box that appears at the end of each article.
Seeking to embrace and share a Christ-centered worldview,
—Greg Williams, GCI Vice President
PS: Over the last several months, I’ve been casting a vision for what we refer to as healthy church. It’s my desire to help us examine the steps we’ll need to take in order to move toward the realization of that vision. In my Equipper letter last month I addressed one of those steps: the implementation within our congregations of adaptive leadership. This month, we’ve included an article in which I address the key issue of the faith, hope and love venues. I’ll be addressing additional topics in future issues. Please read these prayerfully, then discuss them with your leaders.
This issue of GCI Equipper begins two new series of articles exploring the important topics of Worldview Conversion and Healthy Church.
From Greg: Worldview Conversion
Greg Williams introduces a series of articles on worldview conversion, which is facilitated by whole-life discipleship.
Worldview Conversion: What and Why
Ted Johnston defines worldview and shows how it shapes our sense of personal identity and ethics.
Healthy Church: Faith, Hope & Love Venues
Greg Williams begins a series on healthy church, looking at the three venues where church health emerges.
Kid’s Korner: Back-to-School Blessing
Georgia McKinnon looks at conducting a back-to-school blessing service.
Prayer Guide: August 2018
Here are topics related to our GCI family to pray about each day in August.
Here are sermons for September that sync with the Scripture readings set out in the Revised Common Lectionary:
–September 2, 2018
–September 9, 2018
–September 16, 2018
–September 23, 2018
–September 30, 2018
Scripture Readings: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Ps. 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50 Sermon by Ted Johnston from James 5:13-20 Drawing from commentary by Warren Wiersbe (Bible Exposition Commentary), Peter H. Davids (New Bible Commentary) and Luke Timothy Johnson (James, Anchor Bible).
Let Us Pray!
In today’s reading in the Epistles, James, the half-brother of Jesus, is wrapping up his letter to Christians. In doing so, he returns to one of his main themes: the power of the tongue. Having already mentioned that the tongue can be used for evil, he now shows how to use it for good by praying for those who are suffering, for those who are sick, for the nation, and for believers who have wandered. There are, of course, other prayer needs, but these four are particularly important ways for us to participate, by the Spirit, in the prayer life of Jesus. Let’s look at each one.
1. Pray for those who are suffering
Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. (James 5:13a)
When we face trouble, how do we respond? A typical human response is to complain and even lash out at God and other people. But James says we should instead pray—asking God for his wisdom to understand our situation and to use it to his glory (also see James 1:5).
Prayer may lead to the removal of our trouble, if that is God’s will. But prayer may also lead to the grace to endure our trouble and use it to accomplish God’s will in our lives. Indeed, in the midst of our trouble, God may “give us more grace” (James 4:6).
This was the case for Paul when he prayed that God would remove a terrible trial in his life, but instead, God gave him grace to endure it—turning his weakness into strength (2 Cor. 12:7–10). It was also the case for Jesus, who in Gethsemane prayed that his cup of suffering might be removed, yet it was not. Instead, the Father gave him grace needed to go to the cross for us.
Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. (James 5:13b)
Of course, not all Christians are currently going through trials. Some are experiencing blessings. God allows in our lives both suffering and joy and mature Christians respond in faith to either. They even sing while suffering, as Paul and Silas did in their Philippian jail cell.
2. Pray for those who are sick
Sickness is a common form of trouble experienced by all human beings, believers included. James encourages sick believers to not only pray for themselves, but to ask others to pray for them. What James says here reflects certain cultural practices of his day and should probably not be taken as a formula to be followed verbatim in the church in all times and cultures. Let’s note the specifics and draw some principles that apply to us.
The role of elders
Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him… (James 5:14a)
Why call the elders? Frequently James rails against the wealthy and powerful who abuse the weak. This must not be so in the church. James makes it clear that church leaders (elders) are to be servants of all. The weak and sick in the church should expect church leaders to reach out to them with compassion in time of need. However, this does not mean that the sick must call on the elders or that only elders are authorized to pray for the sick. We should all pray for those in need, and non-elders may certainly exercise ministries of prayer for the sick.
The role of anointing with oil
…to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord… (James 5:14b)
The Greek word here translated “anoint” is a medicinal term. James may be suggesting the use of medical means for healing along with asking God for supernatural healing. God can heal with or without such means; but in any case, it is God who does the healing. In that culture, oil was a universal medicine—applied both internally and externally. It thus became a symbol of God’s healing touch—an appropriate symbol to be utilized to accompany prayers for deliverance from all sorts of ailments. But anointing the sick in prayer should not be seen as a commanded practice. Some churches use it and some do not, and people have experienced divine healing both with anointing and with prayer without anointing, In GCI, our practice is for our elders to anoint sick people with oil when they pray for their healing.
The role of forgiveness in healing
…the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. (James 5:14c)
Here James is apparently referring to a sinning church member who is sick because they are being disciplined by God. This may be the specific reason that the elders (who had responsibility for administering church discipline) were being called in: the person cannot go to church to confess their sin, so the elders need to go to them. In any case, this should not be taken as an indication that all illness is the direct result of the sick person’s sin. It may be (and if it is, the sin should be confessed), but it may not be. In some cases the sickness may be because of someone else’s sin.
When healing is needed for the whole community
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. (James 5:16)
The word “therefore” is important: “Confess your sins therefore to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (alternative translation). In this situation, sickness was the result of habitual sin, so the healing would come through the confession of that sin. Note as well that the sickness brought about by this sin was not only that of the individual but of the whole community. Here the word “you” (“you may be healed”) is plural. The community will experience healing through the exercise of prayer accompanied by the confession of sin.
It is not confession of sin that ‘earns’ healing, but healing here included reconciliation that comes through appropriate confession of sin that is impacting the whole community and through prayer of “righteous” people—people who are rightly related to God and to one another. In this way, healing is a community event.
Healing and “prayer offered in faith”
And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. (James 5:15)
Prayer for healing is effective when offered in faith (confident trust in God). This is so because it is not anointing or prayer that heals, but God. The apostle John notes the importance of confidently trusting God:
This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him. (1 John 5:14-15)
A “prayer offered in faith” is one offered in assurance of God’s will in the matter. Here James calls elders to seek together God’s will for the sick and sinning person and to pray for that individual accordingly. Note that James’ example is not of one individual praying for the sick person, but of the whole body of elders praying together on behalf of the whole church.
As we seek God in prayer on behalf of those who are sick, we may not be able to know the specifics of God’s will for them. But it is always appropriate to pray, “Lord, if it is your will, heal your child.” Those who claim that God heals every time, and that it is never his will that his children suffer illness, deny both Scripture and 2,000 years of Christian experience.
3. Pray for the nation
Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. (James 5:17-18)
Here Elijah is given as an example of a “righteous man” whose prayers released power. The background is 1 Kings 17–18 where wicked King Ahab and Jezebel, his queen, had led Israel away from the Lord and into the worship of Baal. God punished the nation by holding back the rain for 3 1/2 years. Then Elijah challenged the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel. All day long the priests cried out to their god, but no answer came. At the time of the evening sacrifice, Elijah repaired the altar and prepared the sacrifice. He prayed only once, and fire came from heaven to consume the sacrifice. He had proven that Jehovah was the true God.
But the nation still needed rain. Elijah went to the top of Carmel and fell down before the Lord in prayer. He prayed and sent his servant seven times to see if there was evidence of rain; and the seventh time his servant saw a little cloud. Before long, there was a great rain, and the nation was saved.
Does the nation we live in today need God’s blessing? Of course. “But” we might argue, “Elijah was a special prophet of God.” To that James replies, “Elijah was a man just like us” (James 5:17)—he was not perfect; in fact, right after his victory on Mt. Carmel, Elijah became afraid and discouraged and ran away. “But,” we reply, “he was a ‘righteous man.'” But so are we, for our righteousness is not our own, but Christ’s, and our prayers are given through him, and the faith is his. Prayer for whole nations is the privilege of all of God’s children, not just some imagined “spiritual elite.”
Elijah prayed in faith, for God told him he would send the rain (1 Kings 18:1). You cannot separate the word of God and prayer, for in his word God tells us his will—he defines his promises, which we then claim confidently in prayer.
Elijah, in praying, not only believed; he was also persistent. “He prayed” and “again he prayed” (James 5:17–18). We sometimes give up in prayer too quickly. It’s true that we are not heard “for our much praying” (Matt. 6:7); but there is a difference between vain repetition and believing persistence in prayer. Jesus prayed three times in the Garden, and Paul prayed three times that his thorn in the flesh might be taken from him. We should not hesitate to ask and keep asking that God’s will be done.
Elijah “prayed earnestly” (James 5:17). The literal sense of the Greek text is “he prayed in prayer.” Sometimes we don’t really pray in our prayers. Maybe we haphazardly recite religious-sounding words, but our hearts are not in it. But “tremendous power is made available through a good man’s earnest prayer” (James 5:16, Phillips translation). Elijah, a good, but not a perfect man (just like us), prayed for his nation, and God answered. Let us pray for our communities and whole nation too—pray that God will bring conviction and revival, and that “showers of blessing” will come. Paul says that one of the first responsibilities of a church is to pray for government leaders (1 Tim. 2:1–3).
4. Pray for believers who have wandered
My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)
Though James did not specifically name prayer here, it is implied. If we pray for the suffering, the sick, and the nation, surely we must pray for a brother or sister who has wandered from God’s truth. And we also must take other action to help restore them.
The verb “wander” suggests a gradual movie away from God’s will. Sometimes a brother or sister is “caught [overtaken] in a sin” (Gal. 6:1); but usually sin is the result of slow, gradual spiritual decline. Such a condition is dangerous for the offender. They may face discipline from God (Heb. 12) and may be in danger of committing “a sin that leads to death” (1 John 5:16–17). Such wandering is also dangerous to the whole church. Offenders can lead others astray: “One sinner destroys much good” (Ecc. 9:18, NASB). This is why members of the church must step in and help the person who has wandered away from the truth.
The “truth” in view here is the truth of God’s word. “Your [God’s] word is truth” said Jesus (John 17:17). Unless the believer stays close to this truth, they will start to drift. “For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Heb. 2:1, NASB). The outcome of this wandering is “sin” and possibly “death” (James 5:20).
What are we to do when we see a fellow believer wandering from the truth of God’s word? We should pray for them, to be sure; but also seek to help them directly. They need to be turned back (converted) to the right path. Jesus said to Peter, “When you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32). Let us do so as well.
Remember that we should always approach a wandering brother or sister in an attitude of love, “because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8). Both James and Peter learned this principle from Prov. 10:12—“Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs.” Love not only helps the offender face their sin and deal with it, but love also assures them that those sins, once dealt with, do not need to be remembered any more.
May we hear and heed the admonition of the apostle James, who has given us these ways to use our tongues for good by being people of prayer.
Let us pray!
Scripture Readings: Prov. 31:10-11; Ps. 54; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37 Sermon by Martin Manuel from Mark 9: 30-37: Prov. 31:10; Prov. 9:10; James 3:13-16
Restoring Humility to our Humanity
Though we all possess the corrupt, fallen human nature that resulted from Adam and Eve’s rejection of God, there is good news: The eternal Son of God, in the person of Jesus, entered into the human condition, assumed our corrupt nature, and through his life of perfect submission to the Father overcame its fallenness, opening to all humans the possibility to be who they truly are in him—their true selves, beloved children of God.
Now, through the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit, God works to conform believers to the true humanity that is found in Jesus. One of the beautiful characteristics of that humanity is true humility—a quality in short supply in our self-centered, prideful world.
Our Scripture readings today speak to the restoration of that humility, and in this sermon we’ll see three ways in which we cooperate with what the Holy Spirit is doing to form that humility in us: 1) embrace our identity in Jesus, 2) live in the fear the Lord, and 3) practice the wisdom from above.
Embrace our identity in Jesus
In Mark 9 we read of the time following Jesus’ transfiguration. Rejoining the disciples who were not with him on the mountain, Jesus took them on a retreat where he could share some important truths:
They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” (Mark 9:30-31)
Though what Jesus was saying was important, his disciples did not understand, and were afraid to ask (v. 32). To admit we don’t understand can be humiliating, and if we’re competing with others, we may not want to disclose our lack of understanding. Perhaps that was what was going on here with the disciples. Jesus sensed this and waited until the end of the trip to take up the conversation again.
As they came to Capernaum, Jesus asked, “‘What were you arguing about on the road?’ But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest” (Mark 9:33-34). Like children caught misbehaving, the disciples sheepishly withheld their reply. But Jesus knew what they were arguing about, and patiently taught them a vital lesson about leadership in the kingdom of God: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
In human organizations, those who are ambitious often expend tremendous energy climbing to top positions of leadership, where they exercise authority over those below them. Those being ruled serve the ruler, who dictates everything the people do. This autocratic style of leadership is designed to benefit the leader, not the people. Those serving are considered less important than the leader, although often they do the important tasks necessary for the organization while the leader does little besides dictating.
To illustrate the backwardness of this worldly style of leadership, Jesus took a nearby little child into his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).
A child small enough to be cuddled in the arms of an adult is weak compared to an adult who tends to find it easy to consider the child of little importance. But Jesus illustrated a different attitude—one in which the adult sees the child as important because of the one who gives the child its identity. Jesus is that one.
This lesson brings to light a radical concept: seeing ourselves and other humans, even the smallest and weakest, through the lens of their identity given them by Jesus Christ, their Creator and Redeemer. This perspective is radical because human worth is usually associated with things like stature, appearance, intelligence, wealth, authority, and social standing. From Jesus’ vantage point, the only real standard of measurement of human value and importance is who that person is in relation to him—their Creator, Redeemer and Lord.
When our identity is in Jesus Christ, we express confidence in him, not in ourselves. When our identity is in Jesus Christ, we don’t have to bother with comparisons with other people. We are freed to see ourselves as we actually are—small and weak, dependent on our Lord for everything. From this vantage point, our lives are not about pursuing personal ambitions, not about status and glory. Instead, our lives are in him, with him and for him.
Jesus used a little child not only to teach his disciples about servant-leadership, but also about humility. Note how he associates humility with our true identity in him. Ultimately, it is getting a true understanding of our identity in Christ that restores in us the childlike humility that is so essential, so endearing.
Live in the fear of the Lord
Another important shaper of humility is highlighted in today’s Old Testament reading in Proverbs 31. The topic is the woman of “noble character” (Prov. 31:10, NIV) called the “virtuous woman” in the KJV. Why is she virtuous? Several reasons are mentioned, but first and foremost, she “fears the Lord” (Prov. 31:30). What does that mean? The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology answers:
“The fear of the Lord” does not mean being afraid of God. Rather, it is a reverential trust in God that makes us want to please and obey him. And yet there is a wholesome feeling of being sure that we do not disobey or displease him… Fear as a preventative has value. But fright or terror has no place in the Christian life, at least in his relationship with God.
The lifestyles of those whose choices reflect a humble regard for God’s lordship over them are the opposite of those who, in their haughtiness, refuse to consider God to be the Lord of their lives. Humble submission marks one; proud self-determination the other. That is why dozens of passages in the Psalms and Proverbs encourage the fear of the Lord, including Proverbs 9:10, which says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” It is through this “reverential trust”—this realization of our dependence on God—that we receive and respond to his grace toward us.
Practice the wisdom from above
The wisdom we speak of here is not about mere human intelligence or experience. As we read in James, there is a difference between wisdom from above and wisdom that is earthly:
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. (James 3:13-15)
James’ contrast of these two types of wisdom reinforces the admonitions in Psalms and Proverbs about the lifestyle differences between those who fear the Lord and those who do not. One comes across as gentle, the other bitter like poison. Think again about the beauty of a seemingly innocent little child, and what it is that draws such a warm response from those who interact with the child. Is it not the quality of humility?
Those who disregard God often think they are too savvy to fall for what they consider religious superstition. Theirs is the arrogance of the child who thinks it knows more than his or her parents! Such counterfeit wisdom is rooted in demonic minds. It infects otherwise rational, intelligent-minded people, deceiving everyone not experiencing the gracious restoration given by the Father, Son and Spirit. The result is a world grasping for power, wealth, status and glory. That world despises the adult who exhibits wisdom from above:
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. (James 3:16)
Pure? Peaceable? Gentle? Willing to yield? Anyone who exhibits these qualities in this world is likely to be told, “Grow up!” Such qualities might be appreciated in a young child, but they typically are not respected in adults. That’s why James calls it “wisdom from above”—it’s not of this earth. It does not come from corrupt human nature.
James asserts in the first part of chapter 4 that it is due to worldly attitudes that there is human conflict at all levels. Whether in the home, among neighbors, within churches, or on battlefields between nations, the root causes are related to human pride and lust. Thus, James concludes with this strong advice: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).
The Jamieson Fausset Brown Commentary says this concerning the word proud: “The Greek means in derivation one who shows himself above his fellows, and so lifts himself against God.” This is the same sinful attitude, which came from the devil and infected the demons. No wonder it is so dangerous to us!
God resists the proud because sinful pride has no place in his peaceable kingdom. This does not mean that God withholds all grace from unrepentant, prideful humans. Jesus said his Father makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45). The Father sent Jesus to save, not condemn, the world. The context of James 4 explains that the grace given to the humble is a special grace. In the first part of Matthew 5, the Beatitudes address this grace—special blessings that take place in the realm of the kingdom of God, not in this world. Jesus spoke these beautiful words of blessing and those who hear them can be sure that Jesus modeled the attitudes and behaviors he was advocating. His presence on earth said all that needs to be said about humility.
Are we willing to yield to God as he works to transform us into the likeness of Christ where we reflect his characteristic humility—a humility expressive of the wisdom from above? Sadly, that wisdom is typically ridiculed by the world. Jesus’ apostles would likely not rise to prominence were they living in today’s prideful, egocentric world. Why? Because, through the indwelling Spirit, they shared in Jesus’s perfected humanity, which includes his humility.
As we too yield to the transforming work of the Spirit, Jesus’ humility will shine through us more and more. May the transforming grace of the Father, Son, and Spirit work in us as we 1) embrace our identity in Christ, 2) live in the fear of the Lord, and 3) practice the wisdom from above.
Scripture Readings: Prov. 1:20-23; Ps. 116:1-9; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38 Sermon by Lance McKinnon from James 3:1-12
A Word Fitly Spoken
In his epistle, James, the half brother of Jesus, begins by seeking to strengthen the faith of Christians going through difficult trials. Then in the section of the letter covered in today’s reading, he warns his readers against relying on their own abilities (including the use of their tongues) during those trials, rather than relying on Jesus.
In James 3:1, he tells them to not envy teachers who may be perceived as having more influence. Teachers use their tongue for their trade and there is real weight and responsibility that comes with that. What’s more, nobody is perfect in controlling their tongue. So, if someone wants a position where they think using their tongue will give them control over their troubles, they may find in the end that this will only make matters worse.
James’ point is that it is toward the perfection of Christ that God is leading us. Already in James 1:2-4, he has stated that this is God’s purpose in allowing our trials. Perhaps James’ point now is that followers of Jesus should trust in the Father’s working through their trials rather than relying on the use of their tongues to get themselves out of those trials. In making this point, James gives three illustrations that show the enormous power of the tongue. First he gives two illustrations concerning the positive power of the tongue: a small bit in the mouth of a large horse, and the small rudder on a large ship (James 3:2-4). Both illustrate how the tongue can direct and determine the destination of large things for good.
He then uses the metaphor of fire to illustrate the destructive power of the tongue (James 3:5-6). James’ point is that we need to be rescued from the destructive consequences of trusting in the divided tongue of the serpent instead of trusting in the Word of God.
Jesus, the Living Word of God, is our rescue. He is the “tongue” that speaks on our behalf. Jesus is the final word of judgment on the destructive fire that has been consuming the world and poisoning our souls.
The Word of God in the smallness of crucifixion and death directs and determines the final destination of the entire world. Jesus is the bit and the rudder that brings us all safely home. It is in this final victory spoken by the Word of God on the cross and through the resurrection of the Word from the tomb that we are set free to use our tongues to be a blessing rather than to be a source of destruction.
As we participate in the Word spoken to us and for us, we find that we have been set free to be the source of the kind of speech that is truly a blessing, and not a curse. It is fitting and proper for our words to be words of blessing, seeing that we are created in and connected to Jesus.
Ultimately, we see that the word fitly spoken from our tongues is our Amen to the Father’s Word. We agree with his Word of blessing to us, who is none other than Jesus Christ.
Scripture Readings: Isa. 35:4-7; Ps. 146; James 2:1-13, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37 Sermon by Linda Rex from Mark 7 and Isaiah 35
Hearing and Speaking the Word
Stories about animals that talk and understand humans are fun and fascinating for children and adults alike. Perhaps that’s because God created us for relationship. We see our dog’s tail wagging and wish he could tell us what he is so happy about. We wonder, why does our cat meow loudly every time she gets done eating? Is she saying thank you? Is she praising God?
Jesus honors the faith of a Gentile woman
Perhaps in the world to come we will have an answer to these questions. In the meantime, we can learn something from the story in today’s Gospel reading concerning a Gentile woman who apparently enjoyed her pets.
[Read Mark 7:24-30 if it has not already been read in the Scripture reading.]
Jesus has removed himself from Galilee and come to the largely Gentile area that included the cities of Tyre and Sidon. He was hoping to remain in the background, unnoticed by the people. Well, that’s not how it worked out. He had become known as a great miracle worker and though he told those who witnessed the miracles to not let word get out, they refused to be silent. Jesus was not able to escape being noticed, even in this Gentile region. It was only a matter of time before Jesus was accosted by someone wanting something from him. In this case, it was a Syrophoenician woman—a Gentile. She kept asking Jesus to heal her little daughter of an unclean spirit. He responded with a statement which at first could seem rather insensitive to someone in her situation: “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” The word “dogs” does not necessarily point to the Gentiles but was often used in the sense of wild dogs or scavengers.
Nevertheless, she seemed to have a sweet spirit and a quick wit. She took Jesus’ figurative language and used it to express the heart of a kind and gracious parent: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.” The nuances of the Greek here are lost in the English translation. In Greek, the diminutive is used so that it might have better been said, “Yes, Lord, but even the little dogs (or household pets) eat the children’s crumbs under the table while the family eats.” Her words express the idea of a warm family meal, with children and pets at the table gathered in love and harmony.
What she expressed, probably without even knowing it, was the heart of Abba—God the Father’s heart not just for his children, but for every creature under his care. Indeed, this is a description of life within the Trinity—a relationship of warm fellowship and companionship.
It seems that this woman trusted that there was enough love and grace and power available in Jesus to heal her daughter even after he first tended to the needs of his disciples and the Jewish people he was sent to serve. In her quick wit and persistent effort, Jesus saw a faith that he did not see in the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders he had been speaking with in the past few days. In her he saw an understanding of who he was as the Messiah—the one who heals, restores and frees from evil.
Jesus, seeing her faith, told her that her daughter was healed. So, she went home and discovered that indeed, this was the case. Her daughter had been healed at that very moment. Jesus had not only healed the little girl—he had also restored the family circle. The family could again sit together at a meal with their pets and enjoy sweet companionship and fellowship. The longing of this woman’s heart was fulfilled in Jesus’ gracious response to her persistent requests and her faith.
Jesus heals a deaf and mute man
Mark then tells us that Jesus moved on from Tyre and Sidon to the region of the Decapolis. There he encountered a man who was deaf and mute.
[Read Mark 7:31-37 if it has not already been read in the Scripture reading.]
In many ways this man was an illustration of the Jewish people who Jesus had been sent to—they refused to hear Jesus, and they were incorrectly speaking the word of God. Earlier, Jesus had challenged the Pharisees and scribes with inaccurately teaching the Holy Scriptures:
Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: “This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men…. You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. (Mark 7:6-9, NASB)
Jesus knew the scribes and Pharisees were giving the people wrong ideas about who God is and about what it means to live in relationship with God. Their emphasis on Jewish tradition and on meticulous law-keeping were coming between the people and the God who loved them.
God’s law was meant to be an expression of the inner relations of God as Father, Son and Spirit. God’s people were meant to share in the peace, harmony and oneness of God’s love and life. A relationship with God is not about mere religion or a group of rules to follow. The law of God expresses a way of being—God’s way of Being—the way of covenant love. It shows us how we may be off the mark in our relationships with God and others.
The Jewish leaders also refused to acknowledge the truth about who Jesus was. Their insistence on keeping their positions of power and influence rather than acknowledging Jesus as being Israel’s Messiah was evidence of their deafness. Jesus said to them:
That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man. (Mark 7:20-23, NASB)
They were blind to this truth about themselves—about the condition of their hearts and their need to repent. On the one hand they would insist on meticulous law-keeping—no healing on the Sabbath, for example—and then on the other, immediately go out and begin to plot Jesus’ death.
Jesus was pointing out that they were not living in the truth of their being as made in the image of God—not living up to their calling to love God wholeheartedly and to love their neighbor as themselves.
Jesus was initially sent to his brothers and sisters, the Jews, and he reminded his disciples and others of that fact. Yet, the Jews refused to hear him. They even sought to destroy him. Ironically, it was the Gentiles, whom the Jews despised and rejected, who welcomed Jesus and sought him out. A gentile woman who all the Jewish leaders despised and looked down upon, was the one who acknowledged who Jesus was, and was humble enough to place herself at his mercy and ask him for help. She was willing to throw all she counted on to the wind and put her trust in Jesus, trusting him to show her grace and compassion, and to heal her little girl.
Going back to our story, Jesus took this deaf and mute man aside into a private place and began to show him what he was going to do. He put his fingers in his ears, spit and touched his tongue, then looked up to heaven in the common stance of a Jew in prayer and with a deep sigh, breathed out the word, “Ephphatha” meaning “Be opened!”
Poured into the deep sigh as he breathed this word was no doubt his heartfelt desire that all deaf ears be opened to hear and all tied-up tongues be freed to speak. He knew that he would soon pay a hefty price for this release, this healing. But Jesus walked the road to the cross freely and joyfully on our behalf. His heart, which fully reflects the heart of Abba his Father and ours, is that everyone be able to hear, understand and speak the truth about who God is and who we are as his beloved, adopted children.
Each of us is made in the image of God to reflect his likeness—we are created to love and to be loved, to live in the perichoretic dance of mutual service and outgoing concern in which God dwells as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But as God’s creatures, we are so unlike God in our humanity. We struggle to comprehend just who God is and who we are. Our bent is to turn our eyes from the truth and to close our ears—making ourselves blind and deaf to the truth, or twisting it in agreement with Satan’s lies.
This is why God came to us in the Person of Jesus Christ, in the incarnate Son of God. Christ entered our humanity so we could understand the truth about who God is. In Hebrews 1:1-3 (NASB), we read that “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son.” This Son, Jesus Christ, is God in human flesh—the exact representation of God’s being. When we look at Jesus, we see the Father. God wanted us to hear the truth about his love for us and so he spoke to us in a way we could understand—he gave us Jesus—God in human flesh.
Jesus did not turn away the outcasts. He did not refuse to help those who could not help themselves. He healed the Gentile woman’s daughter without even speaking a command—it was so because he made it so, because he was compassionate and understanding, because he is Lord of all.
In a more demonstrative way, Jesus healed the deaf and mute man. In doing so, Jesus used signs the man could understand so he could participate in his own healing. This healing gave clear evidence that Jesus was the Messiah prophesied by Isaiah with these words:
Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with anxious hearts, “Take courage, fear not. Behold, your God will come with vengeance; the recompense of God will come, but He will save you.” Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will shout for joy. For waters will break forth in the wilderness and streams in the Arabah. The scorched land will become a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water. (Isaiah 35:3-7a, NASB)
Jesus did what only God could do—casting out an unclean spirit from a little girl, healing a deaf person’s ears, and enabling a mute person to speak and shout for joy. The reason Jesus was able to do these miracles was because of who he was—God in human flesh. He was the long-awaited Messiah, but he came as a humble Servant, not a conquering king.
His purpose was to redeem and restore our broken fellowship with his Abba. He came into our humanity so we could begin to grasp and understand who his Father was, and what it meant to be embraced by God’s covenant love. The Word of God, Abba’s one unique Son, took on our human flesh, lived our life, and died our death, thereby sharing in every aspect of our broken and sinful humanity. He took our brokenness and sin right through death into resurrection. He gave us healing and new life, delivering us from sin, Satan, and death.
This is the gift, the grace God has given us in Jesus—the gift of eternal life—life in loving relationship with our Triune God both now and forever. Our life in Christ is a life that reflects the very being of God as Father, Son and Spirit. In Christ, we are included by faith in the warm, loving family fellowship at God’s table. The Spirit calls you and me to believe and embrace the truth of our being—that we are God’s beloved, adopted children, healed and made whole in Jesus, God’s Son. Will we receive and by faith embrace that gift?
Let us pray [introducing Communion]:
Heavenly Father, thank you for all your blessed and perfect gifts, for your love and grace expressed to us in Jesus. We thank you for the new life, healing, and wholeness that we can participate in right now through your Holy Spirit. We come joyfully to your table in gratitude and praise through Jesus our Lord. Amen.