Reaching Out to an Unreachable World

earthActs 17:6-23

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

How do you preach the Gospel in a knowledgeable, trendy, pseudo-intellectual world?  The circumstances we face today in the 21st century seem overwhelming in regard to witnessing for Christ… but we can learn a lot from the first trail blazer for Christ, the Apostle Paul in the 1st Century.

What did he do then that we should be about today?

1)  Follow the Spirit!

Now if we look at Paul’s journey into Macedonia, we see he has a plan.  He begins in Philippi and the moves on to Thessalonica… these are two stops on what was called the Egnatian Way!  It was a paved roadway across the Roman Empire.  Paul’s plan seems to make sense!  Stay on the sidewalk and set up churches along the heart of the land.

But persecution in Thessalonica sends the team to Berea… which was a good thing because many people were saved there.  But then more persecution hits and they are further turned away from the Main Highway and their team is fragmented.  While Timothy and Silas stay behind to strengthen the young church in Berea… Paul departs alone for Athens:  the philosophical capital of all time… home to greats such as Socrates and Plato.

Now Paul was more than ready to minister to Athens, it just wasn’t part of his plan… Rome, the capital of the empire, seems to have been the target.  But by the movement of the Spirit he came to Athens, the capital of philosophical thought.

Is the Spirit leading you to place of witness that you haven’t though of before?  Maybe a class at a local university or a seat on a community board, or a volunteer position at a local hospital would shake up things in your world.  Stay open to the Spirit’s lead and follow the Lord’s call.  You may have to get off your chosen sidewalk… but that’s okay.

2)  Open Your Eyes!

16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.

A.T. Robertson notes: “Pliny [the Roman writer] states that in the time of Nero [A.D. 54-68], Athens had over 30,000 public statues besides countless private ones in the homes. Petronius [a Roman satirist] sneers that it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens. Every gateway or porch had its protecting god” (Word Pictures of the New Testament, notes on Acts 17:16).

That sounds to me like 21st Century America.  We aren’t tripping over marble statuettes, but we do live in a land of religious plurality.

Chuck Sackett in his sermon “At Ease in Athens” wrote:  “I was reading an article from Newsweek recently: “In Search of the Spiritual.” Apparently, the religious website Beliefnet sends out more than 8 million daily emails of spiritual wisdom in various flavors to more than 5 million subscribers. Generic inspiration is the most popular 2.4 million emails, followed by inspirations from the Bible with 1.6 million.  But there are 460,000 subscribers to the Buddhist thought of the day, 313,000 Torah devotees, 268,000 subscribers to daily Muslim wisdom, and 236,000 who get spiritual weight loss messages.

Even nature worshiping pagans are divided up into: Wicca, Druidism, Pantheism, Animism, Teutonic Platonism, and the God of Spirituality folk. And in case you can’t find one to suit you on that list, there’s Eclectic Paganism.

If I were to walk through Beliefnet’s website, I would draw this conclusion: we are very religious people. In fact, 79% of people in the U.S. under the age of 60 would categorize themselves as spiritual. Not religious, but spiritual.

For all of the choices, many chose not to chose.

“I believe in God. I just don’t know if that God is Jehovah, Buddha or Allah.”  – Actress Halle Berry

She is not that different from a lot of your neighbors.  Open your eyes to the belief systems of those around you.  And from that, see… truly see… their desire to find God… All this belief points to the fact that they are questioning and seeking the Almighty.

 3)  Strike up a conversation!

In Athens Paul is without his support team, but cannot remain silent.

17So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.

Jews and God fearing Greeks in the synagogue were his typical audience.  But Paul also took advantage of the Agora (the marketplace) where ideas were sold as plenteous as groceries.  Paul took the Gospel to whoever would listen.  Verse 18 states at least two groups took note of Paul.

Epicureans –  Now they believed that life was 100% chance… and death was the end.  The other group was the Stoics – They believed that everything was god, that everything that happened was of god and had to be accepted without question.  Hince, we refer to one that doesn’t show emotion in a situation that calls for it, as someone who is very Stoic.

These groups hear Paul’s preaching and say in verse 18: “What is this babbler trying say?”

The Greek word for “babbler” here originally was used of birds picking up grain and then of scrap collectors searching for junk and then of people that stole other’s ideas and peddled them as their own.  This was not a flattering label they were putting on Paul.

To top it all off.. they also thought Paul was advocating new deities:  Jesus and Resurrection.  The Greek word for resurrection has an uncharacteristic feminine ending.  Meaning, they thought Paul was saying Jesus and Resurrection were a couple.  They apparently weren’t listening that well to Paul’s message.

What can we learn from Paul here about striking up a conversation in a diverse religious setting?  We should expect to be misunderstood, mislabeled and at times, belittled.  But that shouldn’t cause us to run away into our Christian subculture and hide… we need to find our feet shod with the Good News of the Gospel and firmly planted in the marketplace of our time.

But, you ask, how do I engage today’s culture?

>Read the paper, watch the news, if only to gain a frame of reference to talk to others.

>Talk to people:  where you work and where you go to school.

>Talk to people of other faiths, other races, other economic statuses.

You can’t make people believe in Jesus… but that’s the Holy Spirit’s job anyway.  We just work to impact  people toward Him.

An Intelligence Test

Acts 17:16-18Test

On the Tonight Show, host, Jay Leno, has a frequent segment called “Jay Walking.”  He goes out into the area surrounding their studio… talks to real people (only to about 15 people and then about 9 make it on the show) and after about an hour of shooting they are ready to go.  Here is a sample of what Jay finds:

A Man who thought the first president was Benjamin Franklin.

A Woman who when asked how many stars were on the American Flag atop a nearby flag pole answered:  “I can’t tell, the wind is moving it too fast.”

My favorite:  A graduate from college still in cap and gown was asked what the Gettysburg Address was.  After hemming and hawing, Jay asked her: “Have you heard of it?”  She responded:  “Yes, I’ve heard of it.  I don’t know the actual address though.”

When asked what separates the inner ear and outer ear, one bright person said:  Your brain?

Another was asked:  Who lives in Vatican city?  Their answer:  Vaticans.  Jay responded:  “No, but he has a tall hat.   Answer:  “Abraham Lincoln?”

Shows like that make me feel smart.  I love shows like that.  Jeopardy, not so much.  Those contestants seem to know everything.  “What is the weight of a ball bearing off a Boeing 747, Alex?”  “Correct!”  They are smart, but that is only Jeopardy smart.

Then there is “Brilliant” smart… it is an intelligence that goes beyond remembering facts… these people have the capacity to understand things at an ultra complicated level.  They can be intimidating.  Particularly if they come to conclusions you don’t agree with.  The atheist with his book about why God doesn’t exist has a lot of degrees after his name.  You know he is wrong, but how do you reason with someone so intelligent?

Often when met with “brilliant” smart, we just stay silent.  Obviously we have nothing to say.

Paul is about to step into the world of the culturally elite.  He had to feel a bit intimidated as he entered Athens.  But he knew he was defending the truth and to stand up for the truth is always the intelligent thing to do.

Heard the story recently of Courtney Ellis, a former graduate student at Princeton:  “When I attended graduate school for English, there were many occasions when my fellow students openly ridiculed the name of Christ. To my great detriment, I stayed silent. I was quite vocal about my belief in Christ at church and with my friends, but I was terrified of what might happen to my reputation if the people at my school found out I believed in Jesus. … Most of them were just ignorant about who Jesus is. Several of them had never even met a Christian before and assumed that all Christians were the uneducated, judgmental stereotypes we sometimes see in the media. Yet, I was still afraid.

As the program went on, I began to feel guiltier for these silences. If I couldn’t be obedient to Christ in such a central thing, how would I be able to serve him in other ways? God was faithful in my rocky road to obedience—opportunities to speak up for Christ continued to come my way.

One day a fellow student asked me flat out—right before class, when many other people were around—if I was a Christian. I was at a crossroads. … I had a clear decision to make.

I took a deep breath, and, with God’s help, I said a soft, shaky, “Yes.” The student looked at me for a second, skeptically.

“Interesting,” she said. “I always thought that Christians were like circus freaks…but you’re actually kind of smart!”

It was a small step, but even the smallest step made in obedience is progress. God tells us not to fear for our reputations, because the truth will always win out.”

[More to Come]

Scissor Cut Scriptures

cut bibleActs 17:10-15

Stuart Briscoe in his autobiography, tells this awesome story:

“John Smallwood… was… seeking the Lord but didn’t seem to know it.  His social graces were somewhat underdeveloped.  Before entering my room, which he did constantly, he never bothered to knock.  The door would fly open, he would march into my little abode, and stamp around the limited space shouting, “How could a whale swallow Jonah?” or “How could Elijah go to heaven in a fiery chariot?”  Then, without pausing, he would march out, slamming the door behind him.  I became quite accustomed to these fascinating interludes and was rarely required to respond to them.  So I watched them in amused silence and proceeded with my studies.  One night, however, I decided to change tactics.  When, as expected, the door flew open and John marched in with his latest rhetorical question, I grabbed him, pushed him into a chair, and gave him a Bible and a pair of scissors.

Startled, he asked, “What are these for?”

“I want you to go back to your room, read the Bible—start with the Gospel according to St. John—and cut out all that you don’t accept.  When you’ve done it, then come back, and not before, and we’ll discuss what’s left.”

“Why?  I couldn’t possibly cut a Bible to pieces,” he replied.

“You’ve ripped on it with your tongue every day since I’ve met you.  So why not make it final and just cut out the pieces you can’t accept?”

“No,” he said firmly, “I can’t.  I won’t do it.”

“Then stop treating it the way you do,” I answered.  “And don’t forget that as you pick and choose which parts of the Bible are acceptable to you, all that is left will fit into the confines of your intellect; and with all due respect to your intelligence, my hunch is that we would be left with a God who doesn’t amount to much at all.  Take the Bible with you, start reading where I suggested with as open a mind as you possess, and ask God to reveal himself to you.”

He left the room soberly, taking the Bible but declining the scissors.  It was only a matter of a few days before the Lord opened his heart.  (This week we received an email message from him—after more than forty years!  He still ministers to young men.)  –  Stuart Briscoe  (Flowing Streams, pp. 44-45.)

That was the state of the last church Paul and Silas had visited, Thessalonica.  They cut out only the Scriptures they wanted to believe regarding Messiah.  Continuing on, this missionary team come to a Noble Nook… the noble minded Jews at Berea.

10As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. 11Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. 12Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.

Type of City:  Berea was a small town 60 miles West of Thessalonica which differed from the capital not only in size but in receptivity.  Luke says they were more “noble-minded.”  This is interesting… the big city probably had more actual “nobles”… those of good birth.  This small town had more of those that were noble in their thinking.  This was a “soft soil” city.

Paul’s Message:  It was the same message here but it was more conversational that it was confrontational.  There was more give and take.  He offered Scriptures to support his arguments about Messiah, and these people opened their scrolls and examined Paul’s arguments.

Town’s ReactionMany believed; they received the word with eagerness.  Paul and Silas have greater success in Berea than Thessalonica… not because they have sown the seed better, but because the soil was more receptive.

Now they didn’t just accept Paul’s word at face value.  They didn’t accept or reject based on his personality or oratory.  They picked up their Bibles and discerned whether or not what he was saying was true.  How discerning are you?

Charles Swindoll:  Less than a hundred years ago the Sunday sermon was the chief occasion of community instruction… the only time for formal instruction of any kind.  The Bible was the nucleus of shaping minds and determining decisions.  What a difference today!  The barrage of information that now competes for parishioners’ attention is incredible.  [They] are the target of a deadly accurate dense-pack of information:  an endless number and variety of books, media persuasion, and secular propaganda with its appealing influences flying at us at the speed of light.  Our thinking is changing.

Truth is now up for grabs. – Charles Swindoll  (Come Before Winter, p. 31.)

Swindoll wrote that back in 1985.  How much truer is that is today?  How discerning are you about what you take in while watching a show on the History Channel or reading an article in the Tennessean or listening to a neighbor rant about a political or social issue?  We have been given the words of life.  Are we noble minded enough to crack open our Bibles to get at its truth… and to weigh all that other stuff against what it says?

Outcome:  They STILL get run out of town.

13When the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, they went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up. 14The brothers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. 15The men who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.

We will talk about that third city, Athens, next time.  In the meantime, put down the scissors and take up a magnifying glass.  Dig into to God’s word… you will not be disappointed.

Moved to the Core

saying it well2 Corinthians 12:7-10

     I have been reading through Charles Swindoll‘s book on preaching, “Saying it Well.”  It is autobiographical in a lot of ways and there is a reason for that.  He gives three principles in regard to good preaching:

1)  Know who you are.

2)  Accept who you are.

3)  Be who you are.

Authenticity is not a luxury in preaching, it is an essential.  I know this, I really do.  So why is it that I need such frequent reminders?

I remember years ago that I preached a sermon that included my testimony at a church in Tennessee.  I shared about what it was like to be unemployed as your infant daughter goes in for brain surgery.  I share what it was like to see God miraculously supply your needs when you are drowning in medical bills.  I shared as best I could and from my heart.

I wasn’t feeling particularly well that day and stumbled quite a bit in my delivery.  Afterward I was discouraged and expressed that to my wife in the car on our ride home.  I went over every tongued moment and lamented my performance over and over.  Finally she responded:  “Will you be quiet for a minute!”
I was shocked at her tone!  But she then said:  “I have been trying to tell you something.  Do you remember that lady in the wheelchair in the audience?”

I did remember her but didn’t get a chance to talk with her afterward.  Janine continued:  “She tried to come up to you but couldn’t get close enough.  She wanted you to know that words could not express how much what I had said meant to her.”  I was tongue-tied again as tears filled my eyes.

She was moved to the core… and it wasn’t because I was eloquent.  It was because, on that particular day, I knew who I was, accepted who I was, and shared out of the depth of who I was.  With that formula you can hit a home run every time.

Dorothee Soelle once wrote something to remind us that sermons can’t be detached oratory…   She wrote:  “…one of the strange things about the language of religion and theology is that it does not permit itself to be used.  The reason is this is fairly clear.  It is not something neutral, a mere instrumentality.  When we use such language simply for the sake of using it, the result is sheer nonsense, garbled communication.  The language of religion is the vehicle of collected experience and it is meaningful only when it speaks of experience and addresses itself to experience.”

If I am going to share something, I first have to have something to share.  How many “God moments” am I experiencing in my day to day walk with Him?  Without that touch from God in my life… the sermon preparation well dries up pretty fast.

Authenticity… why do I have to be reminded of it so often.  Thanks for the reminder, Chuck.  It moved me to the core.


P.S.  Swindoll’s book, Saying it Well, is on sale this week (6/12/13) at Lifeway for only $5 as a part of their father’s day sale.  Well worth the 5 bucks!

Am I a “Skeptic’s Haven”?

thessalonicaActs 17:1-9

Last time I asked the question:  “What kind of soil are you?”  Said another way, “What is your level of receptivity to God’s Word?”  As we continue on with Paul and Silas in the book of Acts we come upon a series of cities each with their unique soil conditions.  The first city they come to is:  Thessalonica… a skeptic’s haven.

1When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. 2As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3explaining and proving that the Christ[a] had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,[b]” he said. 4Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.

I begin by noting that Paul and Silas are still moving by the Spirit’s direction in their journey.  Amphipolis is thirty-three miles from Philippi, a day’s journey on foot. Apollonia is some thirty miles from Amphipolis, another day’s journey. And Thessalonica is another thirty-seven miles beyond Apollonia, another full day’s journey.  Three days of walking and not talking.  Why?  Because, by the Spirit’s guidance no doubt, set his sights on Thessalonica.

Thessalonica was the capital city of the region of Macedonia.  It was a perfect place to plant a church.  But it was also a “hard soil” region.  Paul and Silas set up a tent shop… we know they had secular jobs from his letters to this church later on.

So they made tents all through the week. But on Saturday they went into the synagogue reasoned with them, explaining and proclaiming Jesus to be the Christ.

Verse two points out this was all done from Paul’s copy of the Word of God.  In a “hard soil” regions you need a firm grasp on the seed bucket.  You need strong reasoning and debating skills.  Paul possessed those in abundance.

Paul’s Message:  Jesus is the Messiah!  Paul preached the death and resurrection of the Christ, the Messiah. The people in the Synagogue in Thessalonica had a hard time receiving the message Paul was pedaling. They could not accept this JESUS was the Christ because he was crucified like a common criminal.  It did not fit the image of the all powerful Savior that would swoop in and deliver Israel from its enemies and rule the earth with an iron fist.  In fact a suffering, crucified Messiah was a great offense to them.

They read their Scriptures much as we sometimes read ours. They picked out all the passages they liked about Messiah, and read those over and over. They came to believe that that was all the Scriptures had to say about Messiah.  But they ignored those passages which dealt with a suffering and crucified Messiah, and with the necessity for a resurrection.

Paul opened his scrolls and shared with them Isaiah 53 or perhaps Psalm 22?  He revealed to them a God that would die to secure their deliverance from sin.

Town’s Reaction:  Despite the doubters, some believed.  Even on hard soil some seeds will grow.  Throw grass seed on a concrete sidewalk, and some seed will find the cracks and eventually its shoot will crack the sidewalk during its ascent to the sun.

Do you know a hard nut to crack?  You need, like Paul, to learn to debate knowledgeably and with respect.  And then take hope.  When you leave the results to God, He can cause growth in some pretty unexpected places.

For Paul and Silas in Thessalonica there was also a great band of unprejudiced Gentiles, Greeks, who, tiring of the emptiness of their pagan philosophies, had come to the synagogue hoping to hear the truth about the Living God. They had been attracted by the Jewish Scriptures. They knew there was something there, but they had not yet become Jews and were not yet circumcised. As these Gentiles heard the word of the gospel, they were persuaded and they believed.

What is the final Outcome:  They get it run out of town.

       5But the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd.[c] 6But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, 7and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” 8When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. 9Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go.

We don’t know what the bond Jason had to post was, but it probably involved a condition that Paul and Silas (the one’s singled out as the trouble makers) would move on to another town… in any case that is what they did.

Final question for you:  Are you like Thessalonica?

Do you read the Scriptures for a “feel good” shot in the arm to start your day?  Do you like “happy” devotionals, with just one verse or two out of context and then not much by way of challenge?

When a preacher or teacher gets too close to something you don’t want to change… are you tempted to “run them out of town on a rail?”

Are you a skeptic’s haven?

The Great Bible Heist

BibleMark 4:1-20

“And He was saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (v.9)

It was Easter Sunday morning in my church back in Petaluma, CA.  I was dressed in a nice new dress shirt… unusual for me in my northern California church. (I usually wore a polo.)  I entered the sanctuary from the front and was humming to myself “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” when I heard :  “Pastor, come quick.  I need you!”  One of the women of our church was calling me from the back.  I quickly perceived that my church member was engaged in an altercation with a strange woman I had never seen before.  It seems that this woman had wandered in the front door and exhibiting signs of mental illness became obsessed with our Bible on display in the foyer.  It was one of those large coffee table Bibles.  When my church member called me, the woman suddenly grabbed it and was made off with it.

“Stop her!” my church member yelled to me as I approached… “She’s stealing the church’s Bible!”  As I reached the back of the church she was already half way across the parking lot.  I suddenly caught a vision of me scuffling on the blacktop with this Bible thief… in my nice clothes… on a Sunday morning… just as Easter worshipers were arriving.  It responded:  “Let her go.  It’s hers!”

As I watched her with this 50 pound Bible tucked under her arm making her getaway… I had another thought:  “At least now it might get read.”  It reminded me of the coffee table Bible we had in our home as I grew up.  Never saw it opened.  Never saw it read.

Jesus once told a parable:  A farmer went to sow seeds:  some on the path in full view of hungry birds, some on a rocky hillside where the plants could not put down roots so they withered in the sun, some were sown  among thorns where the plants grew up but were then choked to un-fruitfullness… but some were sown on good rich soil where the plants grew tall and plentiful.

I don’t know about you, but I want to be the soil that grows the big crop.  I don’t want be some sickly garden; I want my life to be robust and healthy.  I want there to be fruit in my garden to share with others.  But I’m not sure my soil is always soft.  You see, I get seed slung at me all day long… and most of it is not God’s word.  My email inbox, the Nightly News Cast, a casual conversation with a friend, or a blog about something that interests me, they each throw at me… opinions, ideas, theologies, and world views each hoping to raise up a crop in me.

What happens after being bombarded day after day?  My soil gets hard.  I become less a student and more a skeptic.  And yet… I still want that good crop!  How do I get it?

There is a word that can help you and I get to a rich crop of righteousness… that word is “receptivity.”  In Jesus’ parable, the seed is sown… and all the soil can do is accept or reject the seed.  Are you adept at accepting the Word of God?   Or does it sit unopened week after week… its life changing message doing nothing for you.

Soren Kierkegaard reminds us:  “To truly hear the word of God is to say over and over again to yourself, ‘It is talking about me, and it is talking to me.’”  He who has ears to hear… let him hear.  Yes, Jesus was talking about you, and he is talking to you.

What condition is your soil?  Do you have ears to hear today?

(By the way, this heist wasn’t unique apparently.  Read:  Blessed reading!