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Ready for Jesus?

We have been greatly blessed by the series of celebrations for our 90th Anniversary over 90 days. It has been inspiring and encouraging to remember the love and mercy of God towards our congregation. We praise the Lord for His enduring kindness and generosity. WVBC is a testimony to God’s presence and power on the North Shore. We have seen the Spirit of God healing lives and renewing hearts. We are becoming a community of people who love one another and pray for one another.

Looking ahead, what are some of the opportunities and challenges for WVBC? I sense a prevailing culture of amusement and entitlement will affect the way we engage people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Recent reports from Google about the most popular search items in 2011 reveal certain features of this culture. Celebrities and video games dominate search interests. “What is love?” was the most searched query. While Canadians are amusing themselves, there is an inner yearning for love. Ironically, celebrities offer vicarious experiences but do not satisfy the deeper longing for authentic relationships that endure. There is an openness to the spiritual but it is undermined by emotional immaturity and cynicism.

In the Google report, there is a conspicuous absence of “Jesus” among the top ten searches. Brands like Apple and Google are better recognized than Jesus Christ. We are not surprised when the recent “Back to Bethlehem” presentations reaffirmed the vital need to tell the story of Christmas as it really is. People need to hear the Gospel according to Jesus Christ. We have a compelling reason to present “Back to Bethlehem” in 2012. As followers of Jesus, we embody the life and love of Jesus. Therefore, we are witnesses who testify boldly concerning the person and work of Jesus. We are also characterized by a deep confidence and courage in waiting for the return of our Lord Jesus. In other words, we watch and wait with patience and resilience. Just as the first Advent came without warning, so the second Advent will take place when people are most skeptical, cynical and defiant. However, Jesus issued a warning and reminder to his disciples that we should always be ready and prepared.

The Lord Jesus warned the disciples: “Sin will be rampant everywhere, and the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And the Good News about the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, so that all nations will hear it; and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:12-14 NLT) In our day, we observe how sin is rampant and the love of many have grown cold. We also note how the Good News is spreading throughout the world. Therefore, we have an urgent mission today. We are called to share the message and love of Jesus. We are also called to be courageous disciples who grow in love and maturity. It is my prayer that WVBC will become a community of love where the Spirit of Christ is present and the Father is glorified in our worship, fellowship and service together.

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In 1868, Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal priest, wrote the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” after an inspiring visit to Bethlehem during Christmas of 1865. Brooks felt greatly drawn to the mystery of divine revelation which unfolded in this little village. Micah’s prophecy announced in advance that this little place would welcome a great king. “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you, one whose origins are from the distant past.” (Micah 5:2 NLT)

What makes Bethlehem special and significant in God’s economy? To this little village, a Moabite widow named Ruth came seeking a new home and family. She was a foreigner, poor and marginalized. But in Bethlehem, she found love and a sense of belonging. To this little village, the prophet Samuel came searching for the new king of Israel. God chose a shepherd named David, the youngest son of Jesse. To this little village, Joseph and Mary came seeking a place to stay. There was no room in the inn, so Mary brought forth her first-born son in a manger. This son was the promised ruler of Israel, the Messiah King.

Bethlehem was considered an insignificant little village, overlooked and undervalued. Yet in God’s economy, He chooses the “lowly and despised” (1 Corinthians 1:28). God reveals the mystery of His love by coming into our world in human form. The incarnate Son of God confounds the powerful and the wise of this world. Bethlehem, Ruth, David, Mary are no longer ordinary. They were all endowed with purpose and splendor because God chose them. They became exceptional and extraordinary because God desired to bless them.

Perhaps you feel like a Bethlehem—small, insignificant, overlooked, ordinary. But in God’s sovereign plan, He has a special purpose for you. God can accomplish great things through you even as He used humble Bethlehem to host the glorious birth of Jesus Christ.

God seems odd

God seems odd. He seems to create strange new outcomes for our lives. When things appear difficult, overwhelming and confusing, God seems to answer our prayers with unexpected results. One thing is clear. When we learn to pray and to wait on God’s timing, the oddest things happen. God makes a way for us. He shows us new alternatives. He provides new resources. He reminds us of his faithfulness and mercy.

This week has been a series of encounters with the God who seems odd. Just when we feel a major decision has become too complicated, God grants us the wisdom and courage to chose a better alternative. Just when we feel the heavy burden of solving a family crisis, God provides a better solution. Just when we feel the challenge of praying for those in need, we sense God urging us to follow His Spirit’s prompting by doing something about it.

So when someone says, “I’ve been praying…,” we sense intuitively that God has been at work. How odd of God to act quietly in response to people praying and then to show us how amazingly reliable He is. How odd of God to work behind the scenes and then to reveal His purposes which are often better than we could hope for. How odd of God to stretch our capacity to trust Him by making us more aware that the Christian life is all about what He wants to do in our lives and less to do with what we try to do for ourselves.

The challenges we face in the church, in our personal lives, in our community are timely reminders that God is at work. Every temptation, every testing, every complication, every obstacle, every problem, every accident and every opportunity prompts us to respond first in prayer and then in listening to God’s Spirit and His Word. Oddly enough, God desires our heart’s unconditional surrender to His will and then in an amazing turn of events, His will has become our will. We experience the joy, the satisfaction, the peace and the confidence in knowing that God is pleased with us and we are at peace with God.

May I challenge you to start praying for everything that is happening in your life right now and then to experience the surprising outcome of observing God at work in your life. Yes, God seems oddly interested in the big and small things in our life. Let us embrace Jesus’ promise in John 14:12-13 “I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father. You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father.” (NLT)

Isn’t that odd that we are invited to do what Jesus did and even more?

We live in an age of persuasion; in a culture of consumption. Manufacturers and retailers direct our attention to a world of branded goods. Through skillful advertising and marketing, the media has generated a compelling sense of need. We are enchanted with the sleek beauty, trendy fashion, and technological sophistication of consumer goods. Ultimately, we are persuaded to satisfy our craving for pleasure, prestige, and possession. The world entices us with an endless variety of desirable things and we find them so attractive. As we enjoy what the world offers, we become this-worldly oriented. The message is consistent and persistent: Pursue your life dreams. Live the good life. Enjoy all you can while it lasts.

It seems Christians are immersed in the same worldly dilemma as non-Christians. We live in a world driven by consumption and exploitation. The capitalist economy urges us to spend, to acquire and to consume. But there is a catch 22. In order to consume, we must have the means to spend. So while we really need to save our money in order to spend, we are deceived by the promise that we can buy first and pay later. Canadians are experiencing a high level of debt amidst a shaky economy.

The culture of consumption exploits our weaknesses. Media advertising propagates the idea that we need the world’s goods and services in order to feel good and contented. But it seems we are never really satisfied. There is an insatiable craving for more, for the latest and for the best. We crave for self-enhancement. We long for attention. We yearn for significance. Those who portray the elite lifestyle of sophistication, success and superiority, know how to manipulate our human cravings. The world seduces us by giving us a smorgasbord of choices and options. We are tempted to lust after the things of the world. We rationalize our discretionary wants into expedient needs. We end up becoming too friendly with the world. In time, we find ourselves entrenched in a way of life that is clearly this-worldly.

The apostle John reminds us about the danger of worldliness: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.” (1 John 2:15-17) The key to living in the world without losing our identity as the people of God is found in the promise of the Father’s love dwelling in our hearts. So long as our love for God transcends our love for the world, we will learn the spiritual discipline of living in the world but not living for the world. We are challenged to resist the world’s system and culture. Instead, we are called to pursue holiness. The question remains: is there an alternative Christian lifestyle that sustains holy worldliness just as Jesus lived wholly in the world without losing his identity and mission?

Last Sunday, we heard the challenge from Jesus not to be afraid of suffering and persecution. We will face resistance and opposition from those who do not share the values and virtues of God’s Kingdom. It comes as no surprise that the local church is treated as organized religion, as an irrelevant institution in a post-modern society. Many young people, especially the millennial generation (those born between 1980 and 2000), have largely given up on the church and organized religion. There are more important pursuits in life than “going to church” on Sundays.

The West Coast lifestyle has become the major attraction. There is greater attention directed to recreation, fun, excitement accompanied by good food and trivial conversations. It seems our lifestyle choices express our true values more than we care to admit. Does it not seem odd then, that Christians can live quite comfortably in a society that advocates the West Coast lifestyle without feeling any tension or threat? What are some “defining areas of conflict and controversy” in our community that challenge our values and virtues as followers of Jesus? Are we aware of any issue or concern in our community that needs to be addressed? Is God revealing some “defining sin or evil” in our context that demands our attention and action?

I believe Jesus is calling us to respond in prayer, repentance and wholehearted devotion to what He wants to redeem and transform in our lives. These are some defining areas of concern we need to consider:

  • self-indulgence and addiction to alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, food, fashion, sports, entertainment and consumer goods.
  • affluence and entitlement to lifestyle choices
  • indifference and apathy towards spiritual life
  • arrogance and self-serving spirit
  • greed and financial debt
  • compromised ethics and morality
  • unbelief and syncretistic practices that contradict God’s Word.

Evangelist and pastor J. Wilbur Chapman describes the critical concern clearly: “It’s not the ship in the water but the water in the ship that sinks it. So it’s not the Christian in the world but the world in the Christian that constitutes the danger.” May the Spirit of Jesus awaken our conscience and stir up our hearts regarding the dangerous influence of the West Coast lifestyle on our faith and relationship with God. Be prepared to live with the costly tension of being a shrewd and courageous follower of Jesus in an ungodly world.

The Apostle Paul appealed to Christians in Rome: “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Romans 12:2 NLT).

C.S. Lewis was blessed with a special friendship with Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was a man of great imagination yet he knew its limits. One night, after hours of listening to Lewis question certain aspects of the Christian faith, Tolkien wisely pointed out Lewis’ resistance was more likely influenced by the role of imagination rather than the question of belief: “Your inability to understand stems from a failure of imagination on your part.”

Tolkien made an astute observation: Imagination is not the same as faith. Have you ever experienced moments when you felt that God seemed distant and even non-existent? Did you feel the inability to muster appropriate feelings of worship or praise and you felt as if you no longer believed in God? Have you gone through difficult trials or periods of despair and wondered if God really cares?

In some of the intimate letters of Mother Teresa, recently published in “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light”, she admits suffering painful doubts about believing in the existence of God. She shares of periods when she could no longer imagine God’s existence. Consequently, she felt deep pain about this dilemma of faith. We might surmise that she stopped believing in God, that she lost her faith. But, is this true?

It seems Mother Teresa was unable to imagine that God exists. But we need to understand the depth of Tolkien’s comment to C. S. Lewis. Her struggles were much more with her imagination. She was trying hard to generate a picture of God’s existence but this was not the same as her actual belief in God. Why? Because every act of service and compassion we see in her life gives us clear indication that, as she grew older, her faith grew deeper rather than weaker. She acknowledged the mystery of a God who was stronger than her imagination and greater than her fears.

Mother Teresa may have suffered anguish inside of her head and heart every time she tried to imagine the existence of God; yet we know she had lived her whole life in light of God’s existence. Her struggle was with the limits and poverty of the human imagination. In other words, she could not adequately figure out how God exists. Of course, the human mind can never imagine the infinite, mysterious God. Not being able to imagine God’s existence is not the same thing as not believing. Our actions will always reveal our true condition more than our feelings or expectations about God on a given day.

Therefore, the more important question to ask is: Where are you living now? Are you living out your commitment to Jesus Christ? Are you living out your faith in God’s Word and His promises? Are you living in the here and now as the beloved of God? The head might say this doesn’t make sense; the heart might lack the corresponding warm feelings to keep us in faith; but we remain committed, held by something deeper beyond what we can explain or feel. This is where faith lives and this is what faith means. Our imagination might not be adequate but our faith in Jesus Christ is authentically reliable. Jesus said to Thomas in John 20:29: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

The school year ends with farewells and good wishes. Most often at graduation ceremonies, we hear words of encouragement and challenge for the future. Wisdom from the past are appropriated in the present. What do we say to the present generation that will point to a better, more hopeful tomorrow? Will there be a different future if we pursue our dreams? Do we dare to follow our passions and step outside the usual comfort zone?

The founder of Ebay, Pierre Omidyar, started an online community of traders as an experiment because he was passionate about building a simple system of exchange based on the organic principles of growth and self-organization. Started in 1995, Ebay has become the world’s largest personal trading community online. How did Omidyar do it? He explains: “You should pursue your passion. If you’re passionate about something and you work hard, then I think you will be successful. You have to really believe in what you’re doing, be passionate enough about it so that you will put in the hours and hard work that it takes to actually succeed there, and then you’ll be successful.

After graduating from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, Jeffrey Skoll became the first president of Ebay in 1996. Fifteen years after graduation, Skoll was invited to address the graduating class of his alma mater in June 2010. Going beyond Omidyar’s focus on passionate pursuit, Skoll urged his audience to “define your dream and chase it with as much rigor and authenticity as you can muster. Arguably, most all of you are already successful according to conventional definitions, and most all of you will get out of debt quickly, and make plenty of money.  But while you’re thinking about making money, make sure you’re also thinking about making meaning.  Money without meaning can be an unfulfilling life.  All of you entrepreneurial graduates here today absolutely can and should seek both.”

When I hear the challenge to pursue passionately one’s dreams, I also hear the emphasis on creating meaning, value and worth which transcends the pursuit of money and fortune. Both Omidyar and Skoll believe in socially responsible entrepreneurship. They practice social philanthropy and exemplify creative generosity. They are successful and influential. They made money and meaning. But do we also discern the underlying theme of sacrifice and selfless compassion? Do we recognize the place for faith and faithfulness? In the pursuit of personal dreams and passions, do we align our lives with the deeper calling to be true to the God who made all this possible? The way we measure success and achievement in life must be raised to a higher standard of ethics and truth defined by the Gospel according to Jesus Christ.

As Jesus once intimated to his disciples: “I assure you that when the world is made new and the Son of Man sits upon his glorious throne, you who have been my followers will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or property, for my sake, will receive a hundred times as much in return and will inherit eternal life. But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.” (Matthew 19:28-30 NLT) We are called to experience the promise and potential of God’s KIngdom through sacrifice, selfless service and simple obedience to Jesus Christ. Our dreams and passions are inspired by the message and meaning of God’s Kingdom. Do we hear the challenge from Jesus Christ or do we prefer the speeches of successful entrepreneurs?

“People are struggling to meet the competing demands of a workplace that can reach out to them 24/7, (of) caring for children and aging parents, and (of meeting) their own need to refresh their body and mind,” said Roy Romanow, chairman of the Canadian Index of Wellbeing and former premier of Saskatchewan.

According to a new report from the Canadian Index of Wellbeing, Canadians are facing a serious “timecrunch.” We are juggling many balls in the air and it is a matter of time before we lose our balance and face the consequences. It seems we are experiencing greater stress and time pressures. We also seem to have fewer meals together as a family. As a result, we have less time for leisure and relaxation.

How should we then live? Do we measure the quality of life in terms of our ability to enjoy leisure and recreation? How does the West Coast lifestyle affect our spiritual and emotional wellbeing? Are we rushing to worship services on Sunday because we feel tired and need more rest after a busy week? Are we trying to do more in less time? Have we considered the wisdom of having a rhythm in our pace of life? What should we give up so that the essential dimensions in life are not neglected or compromised?

Aside from the principle of sabbath-rest, Scripture recommends an attitude that seeks to redeem our time because we live in an age of vanity and narcissism. Instead of being driven as consumers to make more money so that we may spend more on ourselves, we are reminded of God’s promise that He will provide all that we need in life as long as we seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness (Mt. 6:33). It seems counterintuitive to devote time to prayer, worship and fellowship if we could do other more exciting and entertaining activities. On Sundays, when the weather is good, we satisfy our craving for recreational fun rather than give priority to worship. When our children’s sports activities compete with church programs, it is not uncommon to give sports greater priority. Consequently, participation in congregational life and spiritual formation suffers from the “time crunch.” We do not seem to have enough time to do all the good things we want to do in life.

The apostle Paul reminds us in Ephesians 5:15-17: “Be very careful, then how you life – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.” There is an urgency because the world is not hospitable to the things of God. We are tempted to spend our time in activities that do not conform to God’s purposes. In addition, we might reason that there will be time for God and the church later, after we have attended to the pressing demands from our work, family and home. But, there is an urgent need to make the most of every opportunity that God gives us because the Lord Jesus warned that he will return most unexpectedly.

Let us make time for conversations with the people we care about. Let us devote our attention to refreshing our souls and nurturing our minds. Let us give priority to worship, prayer and Scripture. Let us slow down and notice the folk around us, recognizing the people who are vulnerable, weak and lonely. Let us take breaks and sabbath-rests as part of our weekly rhythm of life. Let us live fully in the present as God’s people rather than as people of the world.

Come and see

What does evangelism mean today? Do we have a working definition of evangelism? How do we practice evangelism in a context of religious pluralism? It seems to me that we have moved beyond the image of evangelism as a group of “lifeboats” floating in a sea of uncertainty where those in the lifeboats are attempting to “rescue” others who struggling in the water. Likewise, we are no longer convinced the notion of declaring “Jesus is the Answer” will solve people’s problems because the world is asking, “If Jesus is the answer, then what are the questions?” In other words, evangelism is not merely apologetic and certainly not limited to “rescuing” people from their troubles.

David Bosch, a respected professor of missiology, offers a helpful definition:

“Evangelism may be defined as that dimension and activity of the church’s mission which seeks to offer every person, everywhere, a valid opportunity to be directly challenged by the gospel of explicit faith in Jesus Christ, with a view to embracing him as Savior, becoming a living member of his community, and being enlisted in his service of reconciliation, peace, and justice on earth.”

Missions and evangelism are not two separate spheres of activity for the local congregation. It is vital that we see our witness for Jesus as a natural outworking of our mission as God’s people. Whenever we initiate conversations on our stories of faith, we also invite our friends to discover the stories Jesus told. In the process of sharing these stories, we welcome people to experience the reality of Jesus’ love and compassion. Our goal in evangelism is simply to bear witness to Jesus and to pray for a personal encounter with Jesus.

Perhaps some might feel that evangelism is difficult and unnatural. But if we observe how natural it is when we speak of the good things that God has done for us even when we are going through hard times, then speaking of who Jesus is and what He has done for us is just as natural. We are not attempting to convert others or to proselytize them. Our privilege and opportunity is less burdensome. Evangelism is a way of life for those who recognize the promise of Jesus when he said: “You shall be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). Instead of a command, Jesus assures us that we will be his witnesses through our life, our relationships, our faith-journeys, and our engagement in the ministry of reconciliation, peace and justice. We are simply and authentically witnesses for Jesus if we acknowledge our identity and calling as followers of Jesus.

Reflecting on the life of Jesus, we remember how simple and natural it was for him to practice evangelism. He invited many and welcomed their questions. He ate with them and engaged in conversation. “Come and see. Come and learn. Come and receive. Come and enter the Kingdom of God.” May our hearts be stirred to practice evangelism the Jesus way.

The movie, Invictus, tells the powerful story of Nelson Mandela who united a divided nation through the collective passion for the sport of rugby. The Rugby World Cup was held in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1995. The national team, Springbok, exceeded all expectations by making it to the finals. The team captain, Francois Pienaar, was inspired by Mandela’s courage and challenge to exercise determination and leadership for the sake of a post-apartheid nation. Pienaar realized the outcome of the rugby finals could galvanize the people and inspire greater passion for rebuilding the nation.

Mandela endured twenty-seven years of imprisonment for his political activism. Those years of incarceration transformed him into a mature, rounded, and ultimately more human person. In prison, Mandela cultivated a resilient spirit that bore the character of invictus, which is Latin for “unconquered.” The poem, Invictus, penned by the English poet, William Ernest Henry, inspired and emboldened Mandela to be firmly resolved in facing his future and destiny without fear or regret during his years in prison. The words of the final stanza in the poem formed the lifelong motto of Mandela:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

But a resilient spirit is not sufficient to meet the challenges of reconciliation in a society torn by suspicion, hatred and revenge. Mandela learned the hard lesson of finding the courage to forgive when he emerged from prison. The world was watching the news coverage of his release in 1990 when television cameras observed Mandela’s face, filled with anger and hatred. Mandela reflected on that moment: “As I walked across the courtyard that day I thought to myself. They’ve taken everything from you that matters. Your cause is dead. Your family is gone. Your friends have been killed. Now they’re releasing you, but there’s nothing left for you out there. And I hated them for what they had taken from me. Then, I sensed an inner voice saying to me, ‘Nelson! For twenty-seven years you were their prisoner, but you were always a free man! Don’t allow them to make you into a free man, only to turn you into their prisoner!’”

Mandela understood how an unforgiving spirit creates bitterness and imprisons our souls. To experience the freedom from hurts, hatred, and hostility, one needs to experience forgiveness. Through forgiveness, Mandela gained new courage and resilience to lead South Africans into the new era of hope, reconciliation and liberation. If Mandela saw himself as the captain of his soul, it was largely due to his inner resolve to submit to the God who forgives everyone through the reconciling and redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Mandela conquered his deepest fear and overcame his deepest hatred so that he could freely embrace God’s future for his country as much as for himself.

Invictus is a timely film that explores Nelson Mandela’s courage and humanity in the midst of fear and political upheaval. It is also an exposition of hope and forgiveness that exceeds expectations. If you were in Mandela’s position, would you have reached out to those who imprisoned you and extended the hand of reconciliation? Like Mandela, we may not control our circumstances, but we can chose how we respond. We can chose freedom and forgiveness in the name of Jesus.