Sunday, April 30, 2017

Galatians 1.1-5: The Saving Gospel

People today often feel that Christian faith is a negative approach to life; we have a ‘glass-half-full’ approach to life in which we are constantly saying, ‘The world’s going from bad to worse and only the end of the world will change things.’ That is the common attitude towards those of us who are willing to call ourselves Christians.

After all, we hear regularly from educational and scientific leaders that we live today in a vastly different world than all the generations who went before us, and, in many ways, they’re right.
  • We are in the midst of technological advancement unparalleled in human history. The invention of the computer – really of the microchip which makes the computer possible allows us to do things never imagined before. The phone in your pocket today has more computing power than the computer we sent to the moon in 1968.
  • We are in the midst of medical advancement unparalleled in human history. The impact of the MRI along with robotic procedures is ahead of anything imagined a generation ago. Diseases like leukemia, which fifty years ago was a death-sentence are now routinely dealt with and put into remission. And the possibilities are endless.
  • And we are experiencing social advancement that has only been talked about for generations. The status of women is rapidly changing. The structures of society, which have been static for many generations are now undergoing tremendous changes including the definition of marriage and family.

And, in all of this, Christianity is looked upon as a force that is holding back the progress that we are making in so many different realms. Why do you always see evil in the world? we are asked.
Well, it’s in part because of what we read in this passage:
‘Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age…’
There you have it. Our detractors are right. Our book calls this world in which we live ‘the present evil age.’

Let’s think about this for a few minutes. Why is it that Christian faith has a decidedly negative cast to it? The Bible at points focuses on the greatness of the creation and the wonderful way in which God has gifted the human race, but with the coming of Jesus, there is this unmistakable emphasis on evil in the world. It is an emphasis that is clear, forthright, and unambiguous.

Why this emphasis on ‘the present evil age?’ Does this mean that our approach is negative? Does it put Christians in the category of those who are only focusing on evil and sin and not doing anything to remedy the situation?

Before we answer that, let’s consider these words in verse four, ‘the present evil age,’ and what they mean. Why does it strike us as being a negative statement?

First, we have to put it in the context of the Bible’s overall message.

It is sort of a commonplace of human life that the young are optimists and as they age they become less optimistic about life. I remember well my grandparents when I was a child in the 1960’s talking about how the world was going to hell in a handbasket and morals, government, business everything was worse than when they were young. Now I’m the grandfather and sometimes I catch myself sort of complaining in the same way.

While that may be the way of the world, it’s not what this verse is talking about. ‘The present evil age’ does not mean ‘this present evil generation.’ It doesn’t mean that 2017 is bad and 1975 was better.

One of the ways to understand the overall message of the Bible is to see that the Bible is divided into three parts: Creation–Fall–Redemption. Now they’re not three equal parts: Creation is covered in two chapters (Genesis one and two); fall in one chapter (Genesis three); and redemption in the rest of the Bible. Nevertheless, the message divides itself that way.

Central to understanding this phrase – ‘the present evil age’ – is the fact that it describes the whole period from the fall in Genesis chapter three to final redemption and the creation of the new heavens and the new earth in Revelation chapter twenty-one. Yes, during that period and in different parts of the world some times will be worse than others. But overall, this world is characterized as ‘the present evil age.’

Another way to understand the Bible is to see it in terms of ‘this age’ and ‘the age to come.’ That begins in the prophets and is expanded in the New Testament. This age – ‘the present evil age’ –  will end at some point and will lead to ‘the age to come’ which will be the final point, the completion of redemption, the new heavens and new earth.

So ‘the present evil age’ is God’s title for life after the fall and before redemption. The amount of evil and goodness present in the world waxes and wanes from generation to generation but, overall, human life is not as it was meant to be. 

Another thing we should note is that the Bible needs to inform us that this world is not all there is because we will have a natural tendency to figure this world is pretty okay. After all, we exist in material bodies and we find ourselves in a material world which is suited to our existence. If there are accidents, sickness, and social problems in this world we figure they can be solved given enough time and growth – after all, there is no other world that we are aware of simply by observing life!

Yet, the Bible informs us over and over that this world is not all there is. There is a spiritual, unseen, unverifiable aspect of our existence that we can only know if it is revealed to us from outside. Jesus claims to be one who came from that other realm to reveal God to us; the Bible is the written revelation of him and what he seeks to impart to us.

And, added to that, there is the fact that something in the human heart knows that we were built for a different world that this – a material world, of course, but one that is not riddled with sickness, death, broken relationships, abuse, and neglect. We long for it, but left to ourselves, we make our way through the world hoping for the best.

In addition, there is the fact that as we move through the world, many people try to make it a better place. So, we figure that if only there were more education, better parenting, more wise leadership, the world would be able to emerge out of its darkness and move forward to be better and better.
But the Bible says,
‘We know that we are from God and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one’ (1 John 5.19).
There you have it again! This negative perspective! This assertion that the problem is not a lack of education, social programs, or medical advancement. The problem is inside the human heart – something bent, twisted out of its proper shape. When you put billions of human hearts together in a material world only words like, ‘the present evil age’ are going to adequately explain reality.

So, let’s put the two side by side:
  • On one hand, you have our present generation’s view of an incomplete world undergoing continual progress. Yes, the world has been characterized by a primitive past — superstition instead of medical progress; wars instead of mutual conversation and understanding. But look at all of the changes; look at the opportunities.
  • On the other hand, Christian faith. Yes, there is progress. Every generation moves the ball forward, so it seems. But all of human history is only one step forward and one step back. The automobile allows for rapid transportation… and brings incredible pollution with all of the difficulties that brings; the splitting of the atom allows for cheap and abundant energy but also creates problems of waste, not to speak of the unspeakable terror of nuclear warfare.

All progress, from the Bible’s perspective is like re-arranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. Changes make life easier for some people, some times; but they don’t deal with the broken heart.
So, the Bible without any reservation and with complete assurance reminds us that the problem with the world cannot be overcome by any external changes to human life.

However, there is a solution. The Bible is not a book that simply has a negative message – ‘life is bad and getting worse.’ It is an alternate solution.

The general solution is for humans and for human society to continue to evolve. Technology, medicine, science, social programs – these are all ways for humans to move forward with the inevitable progress that will lead to a better world. We need only to see the opportunity and grab for it. This world, this age is not evil; it is just incomplete, unfinished.

On the other hand, we have in this passage the solution offered by God:
‘Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father…’
The Bible has a problemŠsolution approach: The problem is ‘the present evil age.’ The world is not in an unfinished state; it is in a ruined state though it still retains the remnants of its original glory and we humans still retain the remnants of our magnificent giftedness by God. Yet the problem is one beyond human capacity to solve. Education, good intention, better parenting… all good things are never going to deal with the real problem, which is the human heart.

The focus on the passage is on the solution, not the problem.

First, ‘who gave himself.’ This is a phrase that came from the lips of Jesus himself and became the characteristic way of referring to Jesus among the early Christians. Jesus said,
‘For even the Son of man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10.45).
Rather than us doing something to remedy the problem, God himself did something on our behalf. As the old hymn writer said,
O loving wisdom of our God! When all was sin and shame,
A second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came.
This is the gospel: Jesus came for us; he gave himself for us.

And, not simply for us, but ‘for our sins.’ This is the wonder of substitution: He took our place and died for all of us who believe taking on him our individual and unique sins and paying the penalty for them in our place.

  • In a sense, every soldier who died on the fields of France in World War I, died for us for our freedom. If no one had been willing to fight, our state would not be what it is today.
  • But, every soldier who died while we might say he died for us, didn’t die in our place as our substitute – none of us were going to die if he didn’t.
  • The difference is that Christ became the substitute of his people – he died in our place for our sins. So that we might have the full assurance that, whatever our particular failings have been in life, God, completely aware of them, more aware of them than we are, blotted them out in the blood Christ,

‘Jesus Christ…gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age.’
He came to deal with the real problem: ‘The present evil age.’

You say, ‘I thought he died so that I could go to heaven.’

Yes, but that’s not all. That is a consequence of his death, and important consequence; but that happens because of the real purpose of his death. If you think that’s all there is to it, you won’t even begin to experience what God is seeking to do, in fact, you might miss it completely.

Now, how does God do this? How is it that he is delivering us from the present evil age through the death of Jesus Christ?

The Bible sees it this way: When Jesus Christ came, he appeared from the presence of God the Father to this sinful earth, the present evil age. He came to reveal the values of heaven in a dark world.
When Jesus’s advance man, John the Baptist, came, he said, “The kingdom of heaven has drawn near. And when Jesus began to preach, he said, ‘The time is fulfilled.’ In his life and death, he set inaugurated the kingdom of God. That means, he set in motion the kingdom and its values. Now it won’t be fulfilled until he returns. But what Jesus did is he called people to be a part of his kingdom now – to live by its values and standards and behavior – while we wait for the consummation.

So, there are from the Bible’s perspective, two kingdoms in conflict in the present age. They are ‘the present evil age’ and ‘the people of God, the church.’ These represent two sets of values, ways of thinking, ways of relating and living. These two realms overlap to some degree – they are not diametrically opposed. But in significant ways, they differ.

In a sense, you can say that ‘the age to come’ began with the first coming of Jesus. Those who belong to Jesus belong already to the ‘age to come,’ even while we live in ‘the present evil age.’

What this means is that God’s work in our lives now is one of shaping us, forming us to reflect the values of life that will characterize the age to come, the kingdom of God, when Jesus reigns over this world.

To be delivered from ‘the present evil age’ is to have our lives shaped by God to display those new characteristics.
  • ‘The present evil age’ involves a set of beliefs: It says we, humans, are the measure of all that exists, so the human mind and the human will reign supreme. The belief-system of the kingdom of God says that God orders life and submission to his will is what matters.
  • ‘The present evil age’ tells us what to value: ‘This life is all there is so you had better go out and squeeze every ounce of pleasure and happiness out of life that you can.’ Kingdom values say this life is only a preparation for the life to come so you can sacrificially serve God now with freedom.
  • ‘The present evil age’ says that this world is all there is so you should find a willing partner and capture every experience you can in life ‘cause when it’s over, it’s over. Kingdom behavior says God has designed life to function for his glory when he is honored. Trust him. Obey him.

Sometimes we’re not very clear on that, are we? But, it is what we sing about. It is what we pray for. It is what God calls us to do.

I’m afraid the people of God are too afraid of the world today. We feel so besieged and hounded by the world. We hear people saying that we’re so negative, so unloving, so otherworldly, and we feel harassed and helpless. So what we seem to do is set out to prove that we can be just as hip as the rest of the world. We can be like you in so many ways – music, dress, talk. See, we say, we’re not so different.

But, imagine a person who comes to a church because she feels there is something missing in life. Imagine a young, single mother. She’s working two jobs and trying to care for her two little children; their father left a couple of years ago and she doesn’t have any idea where he is. She looks back and sees that she made some mistakes. She grew up and he didn’t. Life is hard and its not getting any easier.

Imagine that this troubled woman decides to go to church. An invitation from a friend or a memory of childhood, perhaps, spurs her to do that. She knows she needs something. She shows up on a Sunday morning.

Now she assumes that our message to her is, “Become religious like us and God will accept you and help you in life.” She figures that maybe religion can so something for her.

Of course, that is not our message. Christians don’t sing, ‘I once was lost but now I’m religious.’ We know that, while we’ve learned things from the Bible, just knowing more of the Bible doesn’t do the job.

But I’m afraid that, in our zeal to let this young woman know that it’s not religion and it’s not Bible knowledge and it’s not really our classes or our pastor, we sometimes give this message, ‘We’re just like you, only forgiven of our sins. But we still struggle with the same things. Accept Jesus and be forgiven.’

But, if that’s the Christian message, then it seems to me the young woman is going to say, ‘If you’re just like me, only forgiven, that’s pretty miserable because I’m pretty miserable.’

Our message cannot be, ‘We’re just like you, only forgiven.’ If it is, then this passage doesn’t really mean what it says – ‘Jesus gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age.’

But that is not really our message. Our message is, “Apart from divine grace, we are just like you. But God has worked in our lives to bring us to Jesus Christ — in him, we find acceptance and peace with God. And he teaches us to give that to each other; the deepest needs of our hearts are met. Now, we still struggle with things, but we know that God is with us and he is changing our hearts to respond differently to life’s challenges.

This thing that we’re about is all of life — if you are just what you were before you came to Christ, only forgiven, then you are not being delivered from the present evil age. That’s what Jesus came to do. That’s what the gospel is all about. 

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Luke 1.57-80: When God Visits and Redeems

The Christian faith has contributed many words to the English language that people know but don’t always understand in their Christian sense — words like “saved,” “redeemed,” “reconciled,” “atonement,” and “righteousness.” We use them because the Bible uses them; and when we understand their meaning they become rich.

But I have shared before a memory from early childhood, maybe five or younger. It was cocktail hour in everyone was in the kitchen. I probably wanted attention which was not usually available during cocktail hour in my childhood so I was standing on a kitchen chair and preaching. I was saying, “Brother, are you saved? Sister, are you saved?” For the life of me I had no idea where I had even heard those words — certainly not in the church we attended! Perhaps I had seen someone on television and I knew it would get a laugh.

But how often that happens in more subtle ways. People mock Christian faith by using terms from the Bible that they may hear Christians use but because they don’t understand what they mean, they just sound odd.

There are times when we need to use other terms so that people don’t stumble over them. But, for the most part, I’m not convinced that we can always do that — often what we should do is define the term so that we are communicating what it really means.

This morning, I’d like to do that with the word “redemption.” This is a word the Bible uses to communicate a sober and serious truth. In the psalm of Zechariah, he begins:
"Blessed by the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people” (Lk 1.68).
This is a psalm that he spoke at the birth of his son, John the Baptist. He had been unable to speak and, the text implies, unable to hear for a number of months until the birth of the child. And, we are told, that once the child was named, Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied.

Now it’s possible that this was a spontaneous, Spirit-inspired psalm but the words don’t necessarily mean that. He had several months to reflect on his experience in the temple when God told him that he and his wife would have a child in their old age. This song came out of that reflection.

In Mary’s song, she begins with herself — “My soul magnified the Lord…” and ends with God’s overall work of redemption — “He has helped his servant Israel.”

In Zechariah’s psalm, he does the opposite: He begins with the larger purpose of God in redemption, and he ends with the specific role of John and Jesus in providing that redemption.

So let’s use this to define, in the way the Bible does, the word “redemption.” What is redemption? What does it mean to be redeemed? There are four ideas connected with this word in this passage: Forgiveness, direction, service, and holiness. These four things give us a full picture of what redemption is.

The psalm breaks into two parts: In vv 68–75 he focuses on the whole picture of God’s saving work; then in vv 76–79, he narrows his scope to that one part of the story that brings redemption — the ministry of John and Jesus.

First, he says, redemption brings the forgiveness of sins. To be redeemed by God means, most basically, to have your sins forgiven. Verse 76–77:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins” (1.76–77).
Now forgiveness is not the only aspect of redemption but it is the most basic. Everyone needs forgiveness. This is a lesson I learned at the very outset of my Christian life.

When I was a freshman in college, my girlfriend (who became my wife) explained the gospel to me. She herself was a new Christian and the only thing she knew to do at that point was to read me a little booklet called “The Four Spiritual Laws.” We both remember how I responded that when she got to the second Law which said, “We are all sinful and separated from God.” I said, “Stop right there: I’m not a sinner.” That conversation didn’t get any farther than that.

Now, that was an incredibly self-righteous thing to say, wasn’t it? But let me explain. From my background, sin was those big outward acts that violate God’s law and hurt other people — murder, adultery, stealing, lying. I hadn’t done those things in life and so I figured that I wasn’t a sinner.
So here’s what happened over the next several months — God brought me face to face with the fact that there were many things in my life that I was not able to control: many impulses, many expressions of anger, hurtful things I said. As I read the Bible also I learned that sin was not merely outward — in the teachings of Jesus, it included the impulse to sin, the tendency to sin that was buried deep inside. He wasn’t concerned merely with me not doing certain things. He was aware of the lusts, and the greed, and the anger that was underneath it all.

That’s what the Bible calls “repentance” and it’s why we are told that faith includes repentance. Repentance is first of all a change of mind about something — in this case, my perception that I was a pretty good fellow whom God certainly couldn’t be upset with in any serious way had to change. And as it changed and I began to see how much I wanted to change. But when I tried, I simply couldn’t clean it all up. Repentance is both a change of mind AND a change of desires AND a change of direction.

The next summer, I was at a meeting where a person explained the gospel again — in more depth than I had allowed Laura to do. That’s when I first understood what it means to believe that Jesus died for my sins. I knew that before; I could have said it to others. But it was that day that I saw that my most basic need before God was for forgiveness. Without a word to anyone else, as I was sitting listening to that man, I trusted in Christ alone — not in Christ PLUS my efforts to do better — Christ alone.

First John says, “the blood of Christ cleanses from all sin…” all sin. Not just the outward and evident but the inward and hidden guilt. The problem is, self-righteous people focus on the outward and try to ignore the inward. But God’s gracious work includes that searching of the conscience by his Spirit, that uncovering of the motives of the heart, and that revealing of the true nature of sin.

In forgiveness, there is release of guilt and shame. Not all at once, it’s based on the gospel but for most of it, it is a process that we move through as life goes on.

That’s the first thing God does when he visits and redeems a person — he imparts forgiveness of sins.
The second is direction in life. Redemption provides direction in life — a new path to follow. Look at vv 78–79:
“because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Just as the Bible pictures sin as darkness, and pictures the person who lives without Jesus under the domination of sin as one who walks in the darkness, redemption is the dawning of the light that gives a new perspective on life.

This is God’s account of life without him: Without him, without his redemption, we are locked up in ignorance — thinking we are wise, we live under a veil — thinking we have all of the life that there is and we are going to grab for it. 

Yet we are in fact, under the shadow of death, on the edge of death; we are threatened with rejection, in the dark as regards God and his true character. We lack righteousness — but think we are doing just fine.

So we need forgiveness but we also need direction. The light of redemption is the uncovering of where we need to go.

Now this differs for every person. New direction doesn’t mean that everything changes. Redemption changes this (vertical) — once I didn’t know God, at least, not in a personal sense of my acceptance with him; now I know God. More importantly, according to scripture, he knows me.
“Now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God…” Paul says in Galatians 4.9.
God owns us as his child through Jesus Christ. It changes the vertical which gives new light on the horizontal… but it doesn’t change the horizontal.

If when I come to Christ, I am a husband and a father, conversion doesn’t change that. It enhances it; what it means to be a father becomes ever more important as I come to know God as my father.

When I come to faith in Christ, whatever job I do — as well as my gifts and abilities, my inclinations, likes and dislikes — that doesn’t change. But my relationship with God enhances how I think about those things and what I do with them.

Grace doesn’t replace what I am by nature — it enhances it. It purifies it.

So redemption brings forgiveness and redemption brings new direction in life. Third, Zechariah tells us, redemption gives us a life of service — the service of God. Look at vv 74:
“that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear.”
I have a custom of closing services with the words, “Go in grace and serve the Lord without fear.” I’m almost afraid to say it because some of you will wake up and start to get out of your seats to leave. But, now you know where I got it from.

The basic meaning of the word redeem is “release” — to release from bondage. The Israelites were released from slavery in Egypt. God’s redemption in Christ is the release of the guilt and power of sin and, in the end, from its very presence in our lives when we stand complete before him. But it’s not simply a release from something; it’s a release to someone — a release to serve God.
Romans 6:
“For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, leading to holiness.” (Rom 6.19b)
And again:
“Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God…” (Rom 6.22)
We are released to serve God without fear. Now why might a person feel fear about serving God.
  • Well, on one hand, we might fear what he will do. Many people are afraid God is going to ask them to do something they don’t want to do — be a missionary in Africa or something. But usually, when we think about it, God seeks to bring us to do those things that we really want to do… but are afraid of. We would like to do something that would help others — Buddy Break, or teaching Sunday School, or Homework Help. But we’re too afraid to step outside of our comfort zone to do it. But I enjoy seeing people do just that. And usually what happens is that they find service of God to be satisfying and meaningful.
  • But we also fear other people, don’t we? We don’t want to be known as one of the dreadful religious people who are always accosting others and offending them. Well, no one should want to be that! But what happens is, we fear that so much we don’t even offer the legitimate, non-offensive, care and concern that we could.
  • We need to be delivered from fear in order to serve God effectively. That’s what redemption does for us — it provides us with a heart of service to God.

And, lastly, redemption brings a holy life. Verses 74–75:
“that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”
Some people think that all God wants to do is forgive their sins and let them go on their merry way. Now forgiveness of sins is foundational — but it is not all that God is seeking to do in our lives. God is seeking to form within us the image of Christ. That is, he wants, over time to craft us to reflect more and more the kind of love and grace that is true of him.

Some people, when they come to Christ, find themselves stopping certain behaviors that had become a part of the fabric of their lives — for some it’s immorality, for others excessive drinking, for others swearing or dirty jokes. That may be an important part of what God does in your life.
But, here’s my advice: Don’t allow your life to be characterized by what you don’t do. Others may characterize your life that way — I’m saying, don’t view yourself as a person who used to do something and now doesn’t. View yourself in terms of how you relate to others. With kindness, compassion, love, sometimes uncomfortable straightforwardness. See yourself and portray yourself to others not simply as someone who stays away from certain behaviors (thought that may be true). See yourself in terms of relationships, not activities.

That’s Zechariah’s characterization of redemption. When he draws it out in full, redemption brings
  • ·         Forgiveness
  • ·         Direction
  • ·         Service and
  • ·         Holiness

But let’s end with an important point: These are all aspects of what God does when he visits and redeems a person. But they are not the way to experience redemption. They are results of redemption, not the means of getting it.

In other words, a Christian is not simply a person who decides, “Okay, I’m going to serve God” and chooses some activity to engage in. A Christian is not a person who says, “I’m going to live an upright life,” and so they lop off some of the bitter fruit in their life and live right.

Jesus said, “Make the tree good and the fruit will be good.” In other words, the problem is the source of life in the tree, not the fruit on the outside. You must come to God and admit your sin and your need for forgiveness. You must trust in Christ alone as the starting point — everything else flows out of that like the fruit produces by the pure sap of the tree.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The God Who Keeps Covenant and Steadfast Love

I’ve chosen as my text this morning Nehemiah 9.38 which reads as follows:
"Because of all this we make a firm covenant in writing; on the sealed document are the names of our princes, our Levites, and our priests."
This verse is in a context of the greatest covenant renewal ceremony in the Old Testament. When you read chapters 8–10 of Nehemiah carefully you will find that its emphasis on the people meeting for a time of worship in which the Scriptures are read, explained, and applied was the foundation on which the synagogue movement started and grew until it appeared in the life of Jesus. It is also the basis of the early worship of the local churches which grew out of the synagogues. It is very significant.
I have chosen this text for us to begin our covenant life together for several reasons.
  • One is that it describes a renewal of the old covenant in a context of three weeks of study, worship, and reflection which culminate in a magnificent prayer of commitment to God. Our consideration of this Church Covenant has taken place in the context of Sunday morning and small group worship for the last nine weeks. That’s the spirit that I long of us to maintain as we affirm the covenant together.
  • Another reason this passage is significant is that it describes the sealing of the covenant commitment by the princes, the priests, and the Levites. Since in the new covenant community we are all kings and priests to God, it seemed good for us also to seal the covenant together.
  • And finally, the prayer of the Levites that precedes this text is filled with the free, sovereign, and lavish grace of God. And I want us as a people to understand and feel this morning the massive foundation that we have for living our covenant life together. The foundation of what we are doing today is not in ourselves, it is not in our ability to carry out the commitments we make in the covenant, it is not in the covenant itself, but in the inexhaustible grace of our covenant-keeping God.

The story begins in chapter eight when the people request the high priest, Ezra, to read and explain the law to them — the law that had been neglected for years. In hearing the law, the people are struck by how much they have neglected the word of the Lord. As their leaders continue to study the law together, they learn that the very month in which they are meeting together is meant to be the celebration of the Feast of Booths — the harvest festival that Leviticus specifies should be celebrated by all of the people who are to come to the royal city every year to celebrate it together. They call the people to do this and what follows is a rich week of exposition of the law, worship, and joyful feasting.

Let me describe the Feast of Booths: It had a two-fold purpose: to celebrate the completion of the yearly harvest AND to commemorate the time when their fathers lived in tents in the wilderness. The people were commanded that in the fall of each year everyone was to go to Jerusalem for worship. They were to build “booths” made up of leafy branches cut from the trees — and they were build these temporary shanties on the rooftops, in the public squares, and in the streets of the city! They were to save up for this event — and everyone from babies in the arms of their mothers to old people were to feast and enjoy themselves.

This, the passage says, had not been done since the days of Joshua! It seems that the regulations of Leviticus 23 came as something of a discovery! And they set to this joyful festival with a will to make it everything it was supposed to be. But in their context of seeing their neglect of God’s word, they added something to it: They made it also a week of Bible study as every day, in the temple area, they heard the law being read and explained.

 And after the conclusion of that festival the leaders tacked something on that is recorded in chapter nine: A day of confession and submission to God — this was not required by the law. It was their response to their realization that they needed to re-affirm the covenant for themselves — I mean the old covenant, the one made at Sinai with Israel — and they chose to re-affirm it by making a covenant with each other.

And on that day, we are told that the Levites lead the people in prayer. It begins in chapter nine and verse four. The most prominent of the Levites stood and said (v 5):
“Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed by your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.”
And what follows is one of the richest prayers in the Bible. It is a prayer of confession, we might say — but really, underlying that it is a prayer of confession of God’s grace as the foundation of the covenant. Sin is revealed but not as a moaning, groaning kind of repentance. No, this is an admission of sin as a backdrop to appreciate God’s mercy.

The prayer unfolds like this:
It begins with the acknowledgment that God is the one who established the covenant.
  • You Lord, in sovereign grace, chose Abraham and his descendants as your own people; you saved us from bondage in Egypt, rescued us from destruction at the Red Sea, provided for us in the wilderness, and made us a holy nation at Mount Sinai when you gave us your law. (9.6–15)
  • Our fathers rebelled against you in the wilderness
    •  (v 17) But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.
    • v 19: “…you in your great mercies did not forsake them in the wilderness”
    • v 20: “You gave your good Spirit to instruct them and did not withhold your many from their mouth and gave them water for their thirst…”
    • In other words, you, Lord, forgave, chastened and strengthened us. You led us into the promised land and blessed them in their enjoyment of it. (9.16–25)
  • And, it doesn’t end there. Even in the land, the people rebelled and wouldn’t follow the Lord and he allowed them to suffer. When they cried out in their distress, he saved them… but they kept doing it. Finally, in a most severe mercy, he allowed them to be conquered, taken from the land to live as displaced persons in foreign nations, their holy city destroyed.
    • v 31: (But) Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.

Now here’s the point to understand — in the covenant, sin is swallowed up by the inexhaustible grace of God. For those whom God has established in relationship with himself, he continues to work, and shape, and change, and refine us.

Last week, after the congregational meeting, one of the brothers wrote to me a very thoughtful email. One of the things he wrote was, “[I’m afraid] I’m going to make a commitment that I have every intention to fulfill, but have no realistic expectation to fulfill.” In other words, who can ever really say to God — I will obey you completely?

When I finally wrote back to him, I’m not sure I could really satisfy his apprehension but I said that any covenant, from the human side, can only be a statement of our desire, our intention — it requires grace to fulfill it. His thoughts apply even to the marriage covenant.

When we get married, men, we say something like to our wife:
I will make your welfare my chief concern in life. I will love and care for you regardless of whatever personal sacrifice it requires of me. I will love, honor, and care for you with all that I am and all that I have… and so forth.
Will any of us do that perfectly? No, in fact, “We will daily break them in thought, word, and deed” as the Heidelberg Catechism says of our inability to keep God’s commands.

Yet when we take the marriage vows we have every intention of keeping them... even though we know in advance that we won't do it perfectly. None of us will flawlessly make the welfare of our wife our chief concern, always sacrifice for her, and so forth. But, when we attend a wedding and listen to people recite the vows we will reflect on what they mean and resolve to continue to seek to put them into better practice. And, on both sides, it will require grace.

The point I want you to see in this prayer is that God’s inexhaustible grace is the basis of our covenant affirmation this morning. We are not, this morning, taking a deep breath and saying, “Okay, I’m going to give it my best shot.” We’re saying, “With such a God as this, there is hope that I will get the help I need. And when I stumble and repent, he will have me back, and strengthen me to continue. So I’m going to press on with the promises I have made.”

Which leads to the request. In verse 32, the Levites lead the people to a specific petition:
“Now, therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love…”
That’s the kind of God you are — great, mighty, awesome, covenant-keeping, persistently loving! Set us free to obey you. Set us free to live for you.

Which brings us to verse 38:
"Because of all this we make a firm covenant in writing; on the sealed document are the names of our princes, our Levites, and our priests."
That’s how we come this morning:

We don’t come because we hope that if we commit ourselves enough to God, he’s love and accept us:
We come joyfully, because we know we have been redeemed by his grace. In the words of the covenant:
“In grateful praise for God’s redeeming grace, we solemnly and joyfully enter into (renew) our covenant with one another to live and serve in fellowship as Christians in this community.”  

We come this morning, declaring that we want to be a church for each other, for the wounded and sin-sick people in our world, and for the glory of God. We’re not claiming to be the only church, the perfect church, or even an unchangeable church. We are simply declaring our intention to be the church as God gives us grace to do that. 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Believing and Belonging, Part 7: Giving Yourself to God (Sunday, October 30, 2016)

This morning, I would like to focus our attention on one paragraph of our Church Covenant: Paragraph 6:

We will work together to maintain a faithful gospel ministry in this church, by participating in its worship, programs, discipline, and doctrines. We will contribute cheerfully and regularly to the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the gospel through all nations.
In order to properly understand what these words mean, I’d like to draw your attention to one verse in 2 Corinthians 8. It happens that, in the mid-50’s AD, there was a famine in places where Jesus had preached. The apostle Paul called on the Gentile churches in what is now Turkey to give to the needs of the Christians living in Palestine. In chapters eight and nine of 2 Corinthians, he calls on them to participate in this offering as they had promised. He reminds them of what the Macedonian churches had done in verses 3–5:
For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints—and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.
Now this is not the passage I am going to use this morning for our consideration. I just want to draw your attention to the last verse I read: “They gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.”

I’d like to think that the words of our church covenant are a reflection of these words. The first sentence is about giving ourselves to God through our participation in the life and ministry of a local church; the second sentence is about our financial contribution to the work of the gospel. Both are important but they must go in that order: We give ourselves, then we give our resources.
So this morning I would like us to ask: “What does it mean to give ourselves first to the Lord? Why is it that the subject of “faithful giving” cannot be simply about giving money to God’s work? How do we give ourselves to God?”

We can gain some insight into that by looking at Jesus’ teaching in Luke chapter 14. This is on page 874 and I’d like you to look at it with me:
25Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, 26“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
Let’s pray: Our gracious and holy God: Thank you for carrying us safely through this last week and bringing us again to worship you this morning. When Jesus looked at the people of Galilee, he saw that “they were like sheep without a shepherd;” and, as a result, we are told that “he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6.34). We find ourselves in the same condition in this barren world through which we are making our pilgrimage. So please, Lord, teach us through your word by your Spirit today. May we find ourselves sitting at your feet and hearing your voice as we look into your sacred word. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
We talk a lot at Grace about “discipleship.” This word simply means to be a learner or a pupil of Jesus. The idea is that the whole purpose of a local church is to be a place where people become well-instructed and devoted followers of Jesus Christ—we develop a growing grasp of his teachings; and that understanding is accompanied by a serious desire to put them into practice in our daily lives.

This passage is about discipleship—the section heading in my Bible is, “The Cost of Discipleship.” This is the essence of what it means to follow Jesus Christ. Jesus asserts that the cost of following him is so high…
  •          That even your closest family members, whom you love, must become a distant second in comparison to him;
  •          That it means accepting any burden and carrying any load in life that he gives you;
  •          That, like a man building a tower, you had better assess carefully whether you have the resources to complete what you set out to do, or people will call you a quitter;
  •          That, like a king who stirs up conflict with another king, you should first assess whether you can win, otherwise you’ll be called a loser.
  •          In fact, he draws a simple, concise conclusion — v 33: “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”

This is quite an astounding demand and the context in which Jesus made it is even more disquieting. “Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned to them and said…” (v 25). This violates the usual strategy of Jesus in the gospels. Most of Jesus calls to discipleship were given to his closest followers in the context of their training by them. But this time, he turns to the crowds and he makes crystal clear to everyone what his message is really about — from little children, to casual listeners, to the religious opposition, to the most ardent believer present. He rolls back the curtains and says, “Let me give you a panoramic view of what I am all about —my object is to gain your exclusive devotion. If you become my follower, I will ask you to give up your agenda in life, whatever plans you have for yourself, whatever dreams you harbor about your greatest hopes, and I will expect you to accept my agenda for your life instead.”

That is a breathtaking requirement. The breadth of Jesus’ demand should sober you, even stun you.
Jesus calls you to give yourself to him. This means that you and I must say: Everything I am and everything I have is from God and I am simply the manager of it. This is the reality the gospel demands: Every resource I have been given in life—my mind, my temperament, my abilities, my liabilities and all that I gain by using those things, whether money, or relationships, or responsibilities… all of that is from God ultimately. He gives them to me to use for him during this short stay on the earth. Being his follower means to acknowledge NOW that all I am and have is from God: Therefore, I am going to manage what I have been given in order to honor God and maximize my impact for the gospel.

Now, what would it be like for you to choose, from the heart, to live by this conviction and its cor­responding resolution? What would need to happen for you to feel that this demand is, in fact, a gracious invitation from the Lord of the universe to do what is in your best interest? For you to realize, as Jim Elliot once said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he can­not lose.”

For that to happen, there are three things that you will need to do:
  •           You must, first, have the relationship that Jesus extends to you.
  •           Then, you must understand the commitment that Jesus asks.
  •           Lastly, you must make the choices that Jesus directs.

Let’s think about these together.

First, in order to respond to Jesus’ words here from the heart you need to first have the relationship that Jesus extends to you. Now I mean two things by this:

First, giving yourself to God is different from receiving eternal life. Receiving eternal life happens when we come to understand that we can do nothing to earn God’s favor. Because of our sin, we are guilty and lost and completely unable to change that condition—no amount of church attendance, Bible reading, being good, or giving money will ever make up for the fact that there is something dreadfully wrong with us, with our heart. When we realize that, we come to grasp the magnitude of our problem before God. The God who made us for himself, who is infinitely holy and created us to be holy as well must hate sin and reject sinners. But the gospel of Christ is that God sent his Son to live and die for us, in our place, so that when we trust him we are forgiven and cleansed and restored to God — by grace not by our own goodness or actions. Jesus says,
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11.28–30).
And, second, giving yourself to God is something subsequent to receiving eternal life. Just as a child must have life before she lives life, you must be a Christian before you can live as a Christian. Jesus gracious invitation to receive the gift of eternal life must be received before we can begin to live out that life.

And it is only when we have the life of God — when we know that we are saved by grace and we belong to God — only then can we hear Jesus’ call to discipleship in Luke 14: “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”

First, you must have the relationship Jesus extends with his nail-pierced hands. Then, and only then, can you begin to understand the commitment that Jesus asks.

Now, in the passage it is evident that Jesus as asking for total commitment. To express the concept of total commitment he uses hyperbole — he overstates the requirements. He exaggerates! What, you say? Well, look at verse 26:
"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple."
These words raise for us the impossibility of the request he is making. I have a natural love for my parents, for my wife, and even more for my children! That’s a built in response that the Bible affirms I should have! How can I hate them?

Well, obviously Jesus is speaking of a comparison — everything else in life, even the most important things, lose their importance in comparison to the devotion, the love, and the dedication we give to Jesus. He must come first.

And the last saying, verse 33:
"So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14.33)
How could I renounce all that I have? And, if I ever did, how could I guarantee that I wouldn’t find something the next day that I have and want to keep.

Again, this is an exaggeration: Everything in life belongs to him; he loans it to us for the short time of our lives. To renounce all that we have means to use it as though it were only loaned to us — to hold it like this [clenched fist turned down], so that I can let it go when it is demanded back.

The commitment Jesus is asking is worded so as to give us a taste of the magnitude of the request and the impossibility of fulfilling it in human terms.

Consider a person, man or woman, in their thirties and forties. Often, in those years you are going through the most intense period of responsibility you will ever face. You still have children at home and they are growing up. At the same time, you have aging parents and they may require care that is both time-consuming and heart-wrenching. And, at the same time, you may be at the point of entering into greater responsibility in your chosen profession — thirties and forties are times when people move up the company ladder or find themselves as leaders in their field. You often feel pulled in all directions at once. And, if your children do their job, you don’t find raising them to be as easy as you would like — they have this uncanny ability to not really care about your other responsibilities as they move toward developing their own attitudes and making their own way in life. It can get pretty hairy.

Now, consider your youngest child, the seven year old child. She comes home from school and feels the pressure of relationships with classmates some of whom aren’t so nice, the pressure of learning to read beyond the basics, and not having enough time to play after school because of piano lessons.
You want to say, “Okay kid, let me tell you what real pressure is!” Of course, you don’t if you’re a good parent because you know that she is handling the pressure she feels at a seven year old level, as she should. She doesn’t need to feel your pressure.

But the fact is, the demands of life are way beyond her ability to comprehend. What will be expected of her in life is the kind of devotion you are now being called upon to show in your job and your marriage and your parenting. What is required of you is even for you overwhelming at times.

And that’s what Jesus’ call to discipleship really means: It is a statement of the all-encompassing nature of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
  •          Can anyone do it perfectly? Only the Son of God!
  •          Is it realistic? Not humanly speaking!
  •          Is it what Jesus requires of us? Absolutely!

So, what it means to give ourselves to God is to follow Jesus Christ in discipleship. It means to give up our agenda in life in order to adopt his agenda for our lives.
          We need, first, to have the relationship with God that he calls us into through Jesus. That’s the starting point. Without that, discipleship is simply a list of things to do in order to try to make God happy and get him to accept you. Like putting the cart before the horse, the demands of discipleship by themselves provide no power. But when you have the favor or God and you know that he accepts you through Jesus Christ, then your obedience then your obedience is the gratitude of a well-loved child.
      And, second, we need to understand that the demands of discipleship are beyond human capacity and that they are the growing responsibilities of God’s children as we grow up to adulthood in faith and spiritual life. 

So, lastly, we must make the choices that Jesus directs us to make.

Let’s look one more time at the paragraph in our church covenant:
We will work together to maintain a faithful gospel ministry in this church, by participating in its worship, programs, discipline, and doctrines. We will contribute cheerfully and regularly to the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the gospel through all nations.
This isn’t meant to be a complete description of everything that discipleship demands. In fact, the whole church covenant isn’t a complete statement of that — the whole Bible is written to picture for us the life of discipleship. But this statement is meant to underscore what it means to give ourselves to God.

What this paragraph emphasizes is the context of discipleship. After all, if you want to list the ways in which you might give yourself to God, the list would be endless. But, the context in which we are called to live the life of discipleship is clear: the local church. The church is the family in which we are birthed to life and called to learn to live for God. And in that context we are called to participate in the activities of discipleship.

These words are not meant to say that everything in life must be focused on the local church and they are not meant to limit the way in which you live as a disciple. They are simply meant to express that your primary responsibility is to the family in which God has placed you. It is by participating in the life of the church that your life of discipleship is shaped, enhanced, and used. It is, according to the Bible, the primary place in which you give yourself to God.

Let’s step back for a minute and ask, “What is this church covenant all about?”

In essence, the whole point is about discipleship. In many ways, the days in which you and I are living are unique. I don’t use that word lightly because, generally speaking, I think people today think that they are somehow different than the common human clay that has preceded us on this planet. There is a lack of understanding today that our ancestors were no different than we are despite the fact that they didn’t experience our technological advancement.

But even though that is true, I want you to note that we are living in days in which the future of our country and of the Christian movement in the US is being determined. And if there is anything we Christians need to do it is to clarify the nature of true Christian discipleship.

I returned on Wednesday evening from the Balkans. I was with many people whom I have known and loved for many years. I didn’t plan this trip in order to escape the presidential election but, when I went, I was looking forward to some respite from the news for a few weeks. But everywhere I went — in Macedonia, in Kosovo, and in Albania; and everyone I met — missionaries from South America, from the Balkans, from the UK and from the United States… everyone asked me about the election and who I wanted to see win. And they weren’t shy about telling me what they thought should happen. And they said, “What happens to the US affects us.”

Our church covenant is not about the election. No, it’s about something much bigger than the election. It’s about you and I giving ourselves “first to the Lord and then by the will of God to” other people for the sake of the gospel of Christ. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

CEA Ministry Trip - Tetovo, Macedonia (Final Day)

Today G. & K, and I drove up into the mountains of the Albanian Alps and visited a Ski Lodge. I never thought I would find anything like this in Macedonia! There is a town full of chalets up in the mountains with magnificent ski hills.

We took a long walk to a beautiful resort - interestingly, there was an Orthodox Chapel on the grounds of the resort. G. said Albanians would never come to this resort or eat at the restaurant; it must be only for the Macedonians or Serbs to vacation. There were other hotels as well that would be more accommodating to Albanians.
On the way back down, we stopped and I took this panoramic picture of the city of Tetovo - 100,000 people "having no hope and without God in the world" (Ephesians 2.12).
In the evening, G. and I spent a couple of hours over coffee with F. (missionary from El Salvador) discussing the work of building relationships in the city and seeking to establish a foundation for the communication of the gospel. G. says that Kosovo was in the same state when he moved there in 2004 - now I just think of the 15-20 ardent Christians, especially the young men, that I met in the church in Gjilan.

I leave this beautiful country wanting to pray that God will do the same thing here in Macedonia.

Monday, October 24, 2016

CEA Ministry Trip - Gjilan, Kosovo

Saturday afternoon I spoke to the Young People's Meeting (high school and college). They are just starting the year and only a couple of teens were present in addition to five leaders who are all in their early twenties. The young couple whose wedding I attended in Gjilan on October 9 are volunteers - I didn't recognize the woman until she told me her name and I realized this was the bride. They were both pleased to see pictures that I took at the wedding, especially of some of the women dancing a traditional dance.

Lirik is from Gjilan, Kosovo; Christina is from Shkoder, Albania where she and her sister attended "The Brother's Church" as they call it here. That is a Christian Brethren Assembly in Shkoder, which is the kind of churches Laura and I came out of when we planted Grace. They met in some combined church events. I learned on Sunday that this is only the third time Christina has been at the church in Gjilan. Now that they are married and living in Gjilan, she is a member along with her husband.

The official name of the church that G. started in Gjilan is "Bashkesia Ungillore Dyert e Hapura" or Open Door Evangelical Fellowship - in Kosovo, they avoid the word Church since it is used for the Serbian Orthodox Church, the long-time "enemy" of the Kosovar Albanians. The building is close to where Paulin & Violeta live so I was there a number of times for various meetings.

Sunday morning I spoke to the church. There were about 40 people present - though this number included five missionaries with two children and five men who are a part of a drug rehab center that one of the missionaries runs in a nearby village. I was pleased to meet Hysen's brother, Eduard. I didn't know that he was in the rehab center but learned that G. helped him to go there.

Drugs has become a serious problem in the Balkans. Under Communism there were no illegal drugs; one was imprisoned for even being in a house in which drugs were found. The end of Communism has brought an end to that kind of A great deal of marijuana is grown in Albania and then smuggled into Kosovo and other Balkans countries. Heroin has followed and now there is quite a serious problem with it. The center accepts men with any kind of addiction and is unique at this point in the Balkans. The leader, Curt (from Switzerland), has influenced many of those in the program to come to faith in Christ.
This picture was taken before the church meeting started.

The rest of those in the meeting were from the church; not all are members, some are visiting or learning. There are a number of very strong young men in the church. Paulin (the pastor) has started a deacons group with eight young men. They are meeting twice each month for prayer and study and he is allowing them to help make certain decisions for the church. This seems quite well thought through and we should pray that it bears fruit.

Sunday evening I went out to dinner with Paulin & Violeta. I am so impressed with the maturity that I see in them now and their commitment to the men and women of the church.

Today, the Albanians have been meeting with the missionaries for continued discussion and reconciliation. I have been working on a number of things in preparation for my return to the US on Wednesday.

Friday, October 21, 2016

CEA Ministry Trip—Prishtina, Kosovo

Today, G. came to Gjilan and the Albanians (Paulin, Violeta, Geni, G.) were planning to have a series of meetings with the missionaries. Since I knew they would all be tied up in conversations today, I decided to go to Prishtina (the capitol, about one hour away) to visit Hysen (pronounced Hyoo’-sen — Hussein in Arabic) & Esmeralda Kanani. Esmeralda and Hysen are both from Gypsy families in Albania (Gypsies are officially the Roma people; Esmeralda & Hysen are from another people group, considered lower than the Roma, and found only in the Balkans, but also called Gypsies in popular culture). He has been on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ (“Cru” in the US) for ten years and is the “campus director” at the University of Prishtina.

For those who have never heard me speak of Esmeralda, she grew up on Shkodër in extreme poverty; for a time, she lived in a cave on the mountain where Rozafa castle overlooks Shkodër. G.’s parents (Roza and Zef), who became believers through G. in 1993 met her when they were ministering to Gypsies in the city — something unheard of in Albanian culture. Her mother left her with two other children and moved to Italy. When her father died, he asked G.’s parents to adopt her. On my first trip to Shkodër in 1996, I met her when she was nine years old. Roza and Zef were at that time having trouble with her grandmother who was, I think, trying to get money from them to adopt her.

Eventually she was adopted and raised by G.’s parents. She moved with G., K., and Roza to Gjilan, Kosovo in 2004 (Zef died in 1997) where she finished high school and then attended the University of Prishtina.  I have never met a more gentle, loving soul in my life. Her life should be a Hollywood movie.

Hysen met me at the bus station and took me to the beginning of their staff meeting. There are seven staff at the University of Prishtina — he asked if I would lead a Bible Study with them. I met with them from 10:30a – 12:00p. Mostly I told them about my time on Campus Crusade Staff at Virginia Tech (1976–1978), about starting our church, meeting G. in 1991 in Athens, and the relationship of our church with G. and his workers.

Interestingly, I didn’t need a translator because they all spoke better English than Hysen & Esmeralda.

I asked them about their ministry and learned that there is only one Christian student involved in their ministry. They have about forty other students who are coming to various kinds of meetings during the week. In Kosovo, despite the fact that most people are nominally/culturally Muslim, there is little opposition to sharing their faith. However, for a student to make a decision to trust in Christ and follow him is very difficult. They cannot make “individual” decisions — rather, they have to consult their family for any change of that nature. Most are supported by “a rich uncle.” Usually, this is someone in the family, possibly outside the country, who provides for them while they are at the University. To change religions is not something that would be wise because they will most likely lose this support and then not be able to go to university. 

(With the Cru Staff Team at University of Prishtina)

I asked them how they maintain their encouragement in the face of so little fruit (in terms of conversions to Christ) from their work. They all spoke the importance of their staff team, of the encouragement of their church in the city. They told me about a village of 50 people in Kosovo where the men decided that they were sick of Islam and wanted to become Christians (they had met some Christians in Albania during the Kosovar crisis). So they contacted the pastor and asked him to come — all fifty people came to Christ. They are looking forward to moving of God’s Spirit among students like that!

So, I led them in a brief Bible Study from Psalm 25.14,
"The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant."
We discussed the importance of maintaining closeness to God and I spent time in prayer for them.
I went out to lunch with Esmeralda, Hysen, and Emet at a nice restaurant. Esmeralda told me that Laura and I gave her the first doll she ever owned when we came to Albania the second time (in the fall of 1996). She was still staying with her grandmother before she was adopted and Roza would only let her play with it when she was at her house.

In my life- and ministry-experience, Esmeralda is the greatest example of God’s sovereign grace — grace that reaches to the most unlikely places and people, lifts them up, grants them his life, and transforms them into something beautiful for his own glory. A gypsy girl, despised in her culture, made the daughter of the King of kings. Ephesians 2 says,
"But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved… For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." (verses 4, 10)
The word translated workmanship is, in Greek, poēma (from which we get the word ‘poem’). It means a work of fine craftsmanship — a masterpiece. Esmeralda is God’s masterpiece which he displays to the host of heaven, both now and for eternity to come, as an example of his saving power.
For those from Grace Church who are reading this blog: Hysen was supported solely by Campus Crusade for Christ for the first five years and then he began to raise support. They supplemented his support until two years ago and now they are supported by donations to the organization (in the US). I found out today that they have only made it this year because of a $5,000 gift we gave them from the World Ministries Budget at the end of 2015 (we hadn’t given our entire missions budget in December, and the team chose to give some of the remainder to them).

It is my practice not to raise support at the church for outside missionaries — this is why I rarely talk about Church Expansion Albania (CEA) and the three families I am meeting with and mentoring on this trip to the Balkans. I am concerned that we learn as a congregation to first support our local ministry as a church before supporting other causes; we are just doing that. However, I will make a exception for this: If you have any interest in supporting Hysen and Esmeralda Kanani, you may go to the following website: and type Hysen Kanani in the search box. Their account is # 2812954 (I don’t think you need the account number to give). 
Added Note: Kosovars LOVE Bill Clinton because he bombed Serbia during the Kosovar crisis in 1999 (without asking Congress for permission, I might add). They have a stature of him on Bill Klinton Boulevard in the center of the city. I had my picture taken with him for your edification.