Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Power of Pentecost

This was originally a sermon given at Anchorage City Church on Pentecost Sunday May 31, 2009. You can hear it online here and see a PowerPoint presentation (as a PDF) here.

Let's first of all anchor this firmly in John's Gospel, starting with John 14:15.
"If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you." Read entire section (John 14:15-27)
Jesus and His 12 disciples are in the Upper Room where they are eating the Passover meal together. This is their last night together, although the disciples don't know this.

As faithful Jews, these 13 men are celebrating an important Jewish holiday this evening. The point of this feast is to remember how the LORD miraculously "passed over" the people of Israel more than 1,200 years earlier.

The Back Story to Passover

The back story to this is that the Israelites had been in Egypt for hundreds of years. At that point they were slaves, they had cried out to God, and God sent Moses to free them. After many chances to let them go, Pharaoh still wasn't willing to give up the Israelite slaves. This one last plague would change his mind.

God told Moses that he was going to kill all the first-born children in Egypt....but He told Moses a way to save the children of Israel. He told Moses that He would "pass over" their houses if the Israelites would dab on their door frames the blood of a lamb without defect. And it happened just like the LORD said, and Pharaoh let the Israelites go.

Pharaoh changed his mind again not long after and went out after them with his chariots. But the Lord saved Israel yet again when He opened a path through the Red Sea....which then closed in over the pursuing Egyptians. God then led them through the desert with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, and He provided for all their needs. Seven weeks after Passover, God gave them the Ten Commandments and the Law on Mount Sinai. This was His first covenant.

Now, as we go through this story today, remember this: seven weeks from Passover to the Law and the Covenant.

You can read the whole story in the book of Exodus. The powerful Exodus story was surely in the hearts of Jesus and His disciples, but I'll bet they were even more focused on what Jesus was telling them.

Although they did not understand the connection right away, Jesus was about to tie together the first Passover and this Passover. More on this in a minute.

Now let's get back to what Jesus was saying to them. Jesus said he would send "another Counselor to be with you forever". He said the Counselor would teach all things and remind them what He had told them.

The word John actually wrote in his Gospel is the Greek word "Paraclete." This can be translated counselor, or one who consoles, one who intercedes on our behalf, a comforter or an advocate. You'll see these words in various English versions of the Bible and they all convey the meaning of paraclete.

After the last supper, Jesus took his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. The religious leaders of the Jews finally caught Him in that private place and within hours had convinced the Roman governor to crucify him.

Connecting the Dots Between Passovers

That's when Jesus connected the dots between the first Passover and this Passover in a majestic fulfillment of prophecy. He submitted to a bloody death on a cross as the sinless lamb of God as a sacrifice to atone for your sins and mine.

Let's take a look at Isaiah 53:5-7. Notice that this prophecy was given 800 years before the event. It is one of many, many Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in Jesus:
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
So, this is the Passover Connection: By the blood of Jesus, the perfect lamb of God, we who believe in Him and follow after Him are spared from eternal death, much like the children of Israel were spared during the first Passover. Jesus blood, and His body, which we remember every time we take communion are what has made possible eternal life with God. Jesus tied together the first and Passover and the fulfillment of it in his last Passover in AD 33.

The blood of lambs without defect on wooden door frames saved the lives of the children of the Israelis in Egypt. The blood of Jesus shed on the wooden cross saves lives from spiritual death and eternal separation from God.

The Power of Pentecost Revealed in the Book of Acts

I told you all that to tell you this. To really understand Pentecost it helps if we first understand Passover.

Let me set the stage for what is about to happen. Picture yourself in a room in Jerusalem with dozens of other disciples. It is now 7 weeks past the Passover season.

You have witnessed Jesus' agonizing crucifixion, and amazingly, you have also seen him alive, complete with the nail scars on his body.

About a week ago, Jesus gave his final instructions to you and the other disciples. Acts 1:8 records some of those words: "you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." You probably still don't know what that means. After this you saw him ascend to Heaven, and you have not seen him since.

That was a week ago, and now it is the day of Pentecost or Shavuot [shah-VUE-oat] in Hebrew. Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Law by God on Mount Sinai. Shavuot is still celebrated among faithful Jews around the world as a memorial of covenant renewal, and it comes seven weeks after Passover.

But now it's early on Pentecost morning and something amazing is about to happen. Let's listen to what the Book of Acts says what happened next:
1When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
5Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7Utterly amazed, they asked: "Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?
After the onlookers made fun of them and said "they have had too much wine" the Apostle Peter stood and addressed the crowd. At the end of his message, "Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day."

It's easy to focus our attention on the sound of a violent wind. It’s easy to focus our attention on the tongues of fire and the filling of the disciples with the power of the Holy Spirit and the speaking in tongues that they never learned. God got their attention of the disciples and thousands more besides. It has our attention even today. But maybe the greatest significance of that day was that 3,000 were added to their number.

God had given the disciples power to do the works of Christ, and full of the Holy Spirit they had done it and the Church mushroomed from 120 to 3000 in a single day. What a lesson in evangelism!

In the excitement of that day, maybe the significance of the day itself was lost on the 120. But I'll bet that it wasn't long after that they began to see what God had done.

Remember that Pentecost is a Jewish feast of covenant renewal. The first covenant was given from Mt. Sinai. Legends passed on by Jewish rabbis say that one divine voice proclaimed the law from Sinai in 70 languages. The new covenant was confirmed by many voices speaking in many languages under the power of God.

Watch the timing: 50 days after the first Passover, God gave the Law, the first covenant, on Mount Sinai. 50 days after Jesus' resurrection, God ushered in the New Covenant with a demonstration of power and the Holy Spirit came on all the believers.

The Power of Pentecost Today

On this last day of May in 2009, nearly twenty centuries have passed since the Holy Spirit fell with fire on the disciples on the Day of Pentecost. The question for us is this: is Pentecost relevant today and if so what does it mean to us right now? As I have studied and meditated on Pentecost, I have come to see several important meanings relevant to us today.

Perhaps most importantly, Pentecost is a reminder of the great harvest of souls that is our mission and privilege to help bring in. Jesus said in John 4:35 & 36 "Do you not say, 'Four months more and then the harvest'? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together."

The harvest that Jesus is talking about is the souls of the people that He loves, and he loves us all. Not coincidentally, Pentecost to the Jews of first century Israel was also a harvest festival.

The Birth of the Church

The events on that day in AD 33 mark the birth of the Church. That might make it seem like today is a birthday celebration or an anniversary; or maybe a kind of ecclesiastical Fourth of July. But I would say to us that the birth of the Church is much more significant than any of those.

The Church is not an organization, although local churches are organized. It is not a social network, although social networks are important within and between local churches. It is not a political organization, although the Church must be interested in the political process. We are not a benevolent society, although Jesus told us to care for the poor. Neither is the church a building. In fact, the church would continue to exist even if all the buildings we use around the world were destroyed at exactly the same instant.

The Church is more than Anchorage City Church or any other local church. It is more than any denomination or apostolic network of churches. It is more than the Catholic Church or the Orthodox church. It is more than mainline churches or Pentecostal or Charismatic or liturgical churches.

The Church is made up every Christ follower. The apostle Peter wrote in 1 Peter 2 that we are "living stones" being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood." The New Testament word in Greek, ecclesia, which we translate as "Church" means the "called out ones." Clearly we come together in local churches and we work to extend God's kingdom from our local churches, but still, the Church is made up of called out followers of Christ.

The Church is the Body of Christ. It is the visible representation of the invisible power of Jesus. The Church is God's plan for connecting men and women to himself for eternity through the sacrifice of Jesus.

I have heard it said that without the Holy Spirit, the church is only an organization; liturgy only magic, authority only dominance and mission only propaganda. But we do have the Holy Spirit, and we do as God intends when we walk in the power and grace of the Holy Spirit.

Another part of the Power of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit is now part of the life of every follower of Jesus. In the Old Covenant, the spirit seems to have been given at specific times for specific purposes

At Mount Sinai, 50 days after the first Passover, God wrote the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone and established His First Covenant. Centuries later, In Jerusalem, when the Holy Spirit fell on Jesus' disciples 50 days after that Passover, God wrote His law on the hearts and minds of the disciples as a seal of the New Covenant. This was foretold by the Prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 31:31-33
31 "The time is coming," declares the LORD,
"when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah.
32 It will not be like the covenant
I made with their forefathers
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to [a] them, [b] "
declares the LORD.
33 "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
after that time," declares the LORD.
"I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
Has the LORD put His law in your mind and written it on your heart? If you have committed your life to Jesus, then you have the Holy Spirit. If you want the paraclete, the Holy Spirit, in your life, the first step is to turn away from sin and ask Jesus to come into your life. Romans 10:9 says "if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believes in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."

Ephesians 1:13 says "And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit."

When we make those steps of repentance, confession and belief, the Holy Spirit will come into our lives and be a paraclete to us….he will be a counselor…. comforter…. advocate.

There is also a place where you and I can be filled and fully possessed by the Holy Spirit. In the New Testament, when people were filled with the Holy Spirit they were able to do the works of Christ with boldness and power. It was a definite and distinct experience which took them to a higher level in the Spirit. This Holy Spirit filling is just as available to us 21st century believers as it was to those in the first century.

As wonderful as the experience may be, what is really important is what comes from it. We know a person is filled with the Holy Spirit when we see someone who is led by the Spirit and obedient to Him. We see someone who honors God with his life, rather than seeking after his own desires. We see someone who is looking for what the Holy Spirit is doing, and joining up with that. We see the fruit of the spirit the Apostle Paul wrote about in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. These things don’t come from humanity, but from God.

Frank Bartleman wrote that "Pentecost opens a possibility to walk where the flesh no longer sets the agenda…….Walking in the Spirit is walking in the way of the cross with Holy Spirit leading."
If you are a believer, you have the Holy Spirit. And if you are a believer you can also ask God to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Being filled is not a one time experience, because we leak.

Sin is what separates us from God and sin is what causes the leaks in our filling. Obedience to God and holiness is what brings us close to Him, and that is what maintains a life of being filled with the Holy Spirit. A life led by the Spirit is a life of relationship with God. Just like a relationship with a spouse or a friend, a spirit-led life happens when it involves time alone with God.

Conclusion

Let me finish by saying something personal. While I still far from perfect, and I still sin from time to time, I know the Holy Spirit is in me because I have heard Him speak to me audibly on several occasions and very often in my inner man. The Holy Spirit is a great comfort to me. I am deeply grateful that the Lord made the Power of Pentecost a reality in my life when I opened my heart to Christ.

I'd like to ask you to take a moment to consider how you should respond to this message. For some of you, I know that Jesus has been calling you to take a step of faith towards Him. Jesus says, I stand at the door and knock, and maybe He is knocking at the door of your heart wanting to transform your life into something better than you could possibly imagine. If that is you, you can open the door to your heart today.

Maybe you are already a Christ follower, but you want to be filled with the Holy Spirit more than you have ever known. You can ask the Lord for that on your own, or ask another believer to pray with you to be filled.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Transformational Living

More than 2 in 3 prisoners returned to American society in 1994 committed another crime which landed them back in jail. There is a basic flaw in a correctional system that has such a high rate of failure to correct. We are as a society just warehousing criminals and then returning them to the streets...in many cases with new skills and contacts for perpetrating more serious crimes.

And we have the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world: 751 locked up per 100,000 population. Even Russia is less with 627 per 100,000.

But there is a ray of hope for turning around the lives of prisoners. I met it last night at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River. It is the Transformational Living Community operated at several prisons around the US. Here's what the Alaska Correctional Ministries website has to say about the program:
"The Transformational Living Community (TLC) is an intensive 12-18 month faith-based residential therapeutic program within the prison setting focusing God's transforming power relative to the issues of addiction and life controlling problems in an offenders life. The recidivism rate currently is between 11-15% for those who complete the program and have returned to the community. This compares to a general national norm of about 70%.

This multi-phase program is designed to provide a new alternative to traditional types of correctional rehabilitation programs in which the spiritual dimension of an offender's life becomes the primary gateway to habilitation. Prisoners volunteer to be admitted and may volunteer to leave at any time. The residents live together in a positive, supportive community environment and are expected to embrace high levels of personal accountability, responsibility, and commitment to change. Every aspect of the program is designed to help the residents embrace and internalize truth, and to make the kind of changes that are necessary, so that when they come back into the community they will be a person much better equipped for return to society."
A group of us visited Hiland last night and saw a presentation of how the Community works and met 20-some women who volunteered for the program. Participants in the community live and study together and support one another. "I am my sister's keeper", a large banner ready. A mural depicting Jesus standing on the water lifting Peter from the waves fills a wall. The letters in a large "Transformational Warriors" banner are filled with scripture verses.

A chaplain whose meager salary is paid by donors is the shepherd for this small flock. Volunteer mentors from "outside" visit every week and spend time with inmates.

We listened as the inmates sang songs of faith in Christ. Two shared movingly about their broken lives. A former Hiland inmate who came with us talked about how Jesus had been the key to transformation in her life. As I looked into each face, I saw a common element in their eyes: hope!

The community is made possible by a willing correctional center administration and the contributions of churches. The TLC is entirely faith-based, and could not exist without theses contributions.

The astonishing success of the TLC is due to the transforming power of Christ. Prison experts we talked with said nothing else comes remotely close to this.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Between Passover and Pentecost

We are on May 17 in the days between Passover and Pentecost; between the Old Testament feast memorializing the passing over of the Jews by the Death Angel at the beginning of the Exodus, and the New Testament holy day memorializing the Fall of Holy Spirit in Jerusalem.

The Passover that was has for Christ followers become the Easter that is. At Passover, the blood of lambs smeared on the door frames of Israelite homes in Egypt purchased protection from the Death Angel. On that first Easter weekend, the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God, purchased protection from death for all who following Him. Said another way, Christ's Good Friday sacrifice on Easter morning opened the doors of Heaven -- much like the blood of lambs at Passover opened the door to the Promised Land long before.

In the centuries before Pentecost the Holy Spirit was given to a few for specific purposes. At Pentecost, God fulfilled the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:31-34 and sent the Holy Spirit for the first time to all who believe.

Frank Bartleman observed that Pentecost opens a possibility to walk where the flesh no longer sets the agenda. The fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, etc....these are signs of Holy Spirit baptism. Walking in the Spirit is walking in the way of the cross with Holy Spirit leading.

But, will we arrive at the fullness of Pentecost where the fruits of the Spirit operate in us, or are we lingering at the glory of Easter? It is a good thing to believe in Jesus and to follow Him, but it is an even better thing to also have the power of the Holy Spirit working in us.

Let us press forward to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the supernatural power that comes with it to do the works of Christ !

Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Castle, the Cathedral and the Smokestacks

I originally published this in 2003, I believe. A shorter form of this also appeared in the Anchorage Daily News.

In a beautiful city whose skyline boasts the distinctive shape of a castle of Swedish kings and the soaring spires of the flagship cathedral of the Church of Sweden, the very tall smokestacks of Uppsala's Vattenfall seem at first a little out of place. But I came to understand over the course of a year spent there recently that they, like the castle and the cathedral, are monuments in their own right.

The purposes of the castle and the cathedral were fairly obvious, but I did not for some months understand the purposes of the smokestacks. They were not far from our house, and each time I stepped out, I could see them over the tops of the trees near our house. I thought they were simply industrial smokestacks. A neighbor explained them to me one day in excellent English.

The heat always on during cold days and nights in our multi-unit house was piped to us from the Vattenfall (= waterfall) plant, he said. Electricity comes from the same source; augmented, of course, by a regional electric power grid. What surprised me about what he said was that waste burnables are also burned here, and contribute to heat and light. It was a cool afternoon, but even so, the smoke was not very visible. Efficient scrubbers cleaned most of the particulates out of the smoke stream.

Nearly all of Uppsala is heated from the plant at the base of the Vattenfall smokestacks. Steam radiates out through the community in subterranean corridors. Radiators in the floor or along the walls or in heat exchangers are always on in inverse proportion to outside temperature. Individual radiator controls allow for variation within a building.

We had pieced together much of the rest of the system over our preceding months in the community. We had learned early on that trash must be separated before disposal: source sorting it is called. The signs - in Swedish -- on the garbage containers outside our row house were cryptic at first, but my lexicon clarified that the biggest was for burnables. Another was for organic material - compost. Others were for cardboard or heavy paper, hard plastic, and metal. Disposal trucks came on a regular schedule to haul away one or the other. Our house association paid for this.

We could throw away plastic drink containers if we wanted, but the fact was we were strongly motivated to return them to a grocery store. The bigger containers had a return deposit fee of about $0.40. Besides….it was fun to put the bottles in the automated return devices. We put them in headfirst, waited for the green light and put in the next bottle. Crates of beverage bottles could be returned for credit in specialized machines in larger stores. Beverages packaged in aluminum cans had automated machines, too, and printed credit slips just like those for plastic. We would hand the bar-coded credit slip to the cashier, and reduce the overall price for our grocery items.

If you looked at my list above closely, you might have noticed the absence of glass waste, newspapers and magazines. Glass items we cleaned and brought to large round-top containers scattered around the community marked "colored" and "clear." Swedes use more glass in packaging food than we do. Light bulbs had to go into yet another container, as did dry cell batteries. Newspapers and magazines we placed in a central location in the common area of the house. They were bagged monthly and left out for the recycling trucks.

We never threw away anything large, like a television set, a car, or a computer, but each of these have disposal procedures as well. I think the largest item I disposed of was our small Christmas tree. I cut off its limbs, cut the trunk in half and placed it among the burnables. Sometime later it returned to us in the form of electricity and heat.

There is more to the recycling system than I have indicated here. Our limited command of the language kept us from more fully understanding its intricacies, but what we saw impressed us with its integration and completeness. We never thought it onerous or complicated. We quickly adapted to life with multiple disposal containers.

While we observed a bit of litter in some particularly public places, by and large, Sweden is an exceptionally clean country. A well-entrenched recycling system contributes to that, but I believe it is also true that most Swedes are temperamentally inclined to keep their surroundings clean.

Pollution is a fact of life wherever people live, but Swedes have done an impressive job of reducing the fouling of their air and water. The waters of Lake Mälaren flow in several channels through Stockholm, the capital and largest city. In the summer months, some Swedes fish right downtown - and the fact that they can and do eat their catch is a remarkable testament of their national commitment to clean air and water.

While I recognize great differences exist between Sweden and Alaska, there may be some lessons for us here. Uppsala is about the latitude of Homer, and the climate is somewhat similar to Anchorage, although a little warmer in winter.

People in Uppsala don't seem to think much about recycling and sorting their waste…it's just the way these people live. It is an obviously more expensive system than that here, but seems to me to have advantages in reducing waste and energy costs.

My first glimpses of Uppsala took in with admiration the huge spires of the cathedral. Built beginning in the 13th century, it is a national treasure and a testament to the Christian heritage of the nation. Only slightly newer, the castle occupies a commanding hill nearby. Unusual in shape, it is still obviously a building of significance in the community. While I admire these two edifices, I find my imagination returning again and again to the tall Vattenfall smokestacks and the carefully organized system of recycling and reuse they represent that is so well applied in this ancient Swedish city.

The Book of books

Here's what showed up this week on the NY Times Best Seller list:
1. LIBERTY AND TYRANNY, by Mark R. Levin
2. OUTLIERS, by Malcolm Gladwell
3. COLUMBINE, by Dave Cullen
4. ALWAYS LOOKING UP, by Michael J. Fox
5. THE GIRLS FROM AMES, by Jeffrey Zaslow
Perhaps these are all good and worthwhile books, but none is familiar to me. Chances are very good in 50 years, they will be more or less unknown. In a 100 years, they will be antiques.

There's another book that isn't on the list. It's the best seller every week of every year. It is not listed because it would always be number one.

That book is the Bible. There have also been more Bibles printed than any other book; I've seen estimates ranging from 2.5 to about 6 billion since the invention of the printing press. It has been translated into over 2,000 languages, and more language versions are appearing every year.

At first it was copied letter by letter onto parchment or papyrus scrolls by scribes who went far beyond careful to insure there were not copying errors. The text we use today has an incredibly small number of differences from copies made almost 2,000 years ago.

The Bible is not just one book; it's 66 different books written over a span of around 1500 years. We believe the Bible was written by people inspired by God.

And what it really is is a love letter from God to man. When you look at it as a whole, what you see is this incomprehensible love of God for humanity. The story line throughout all these books is this: He made us, but we have often turned away from him, still he keeps pursuing us with a love that will not quit. That story continues even today. Here is a very small sample from the book of Jeremiah (29:11):

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

This book of books; this Bible will open doorways for you, as it has me, into a life of connectedness with the God of the universe. All we have to do is read it and let these timeless truths change our hearts.