Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Significant Servants, August 23, 2009

Have you ever looked at a “stereogram?” That is one of those psychedelic 3-D pictures that you have to stare at blankly to find another picture hidden in the background. For a long time I was sure that it was just a cruel joke someone was playing on unsuspecting schnooks like me. I stared and stared, but no picture appeared. Then, one day, it happened. I was staring at the silly picture and suddenly I saw a guy on a surfboard riding a wave. I was part of the club. I could see stereograms. Actually, they nauseate me and give me a headache, but I can see them now. To see a stereogram, you have to look past the details to find the pattern behind the picture.

In this study, we are trying to see a genuine pattern in the way God does his great works here on earth. We will be examining the significant servants of God throughout the Bible and asking ourselves what we must do to become like them; to serve our God in power and accomplish significant work in his name. If we can find a pattern in the great works of God and translate it to our lives today, we can hope to see the power of the Living God at work in us and in our world, much as they did.

Finding these patterns is a dangerous business. It is easy to miss the pattern God has put there or to read our own ideas and desires into the text and call that the pattern. We do not get to do that. God is in charge and we do not get to mold him into what we want him to be. We must look for how the real and living God works. We must examine the “ways of God.”

That term, the “ways of God” describes certain patterns in the way God deals with human beings. God’s always acts in line with his glorious character. He is always holy, always righteous, always merciful, always sovereign. That is who he is. Because God is unchanging and always acts in line with his perfect character, there are patterns in the way that he works. Our job is to carefully and prayerfully examine the scriptures, especially those great works of God revealed there, to discover the “ways of God.”

I believe that such a pattern exists. For several years, I read through the Bible every year, using the One Year Bible. Then, on October 1, 2000, I began a series at my church in Cedar Rapids called, “Through the Bible – Hopefully before Jesus Returns.” Every Sunday night we worked our way book by book through the Old Testament. That’s as far as I got. In August of 2005, the last Sunday before I moved to Sioux City, I finished the Old Testament. In the midst of that trek, I began to see a pattern emerging in the activity of God. It is that pattern that I want to share in this study.

A Common Mistake

As we attempt to define and apply this pattern, there is a common mistake that we must avoid. People have often looked at one or two acts of God and extrapolated a pattern from this inadequate evidence. When God wanted to defeat Jericho, he gave Joshua a battle plan – walk around once a day for six days, then seven times on the seventh day. That was the method that God used. It was not meant as a pattern of victory. When I pastored in Virginia, I would drive into Lynchburg to visit hospitals. On the way, there was a little church up on a hill. One of my deacons told me a story about that church. Their pastor had found another piece of property he thought they should move to, so he gathered everyone together and instituted the “Jericho” plan. They walked around the property once a day for six days, then seven times on the seventh day, claiming the land in the name of Jesus Christ. They did not get the land. Why? They tried to use a method of God as a pattern of God’s blessing.

Henry Blackaby has rightly pointed out that God never did the same thing the same way twice. He always acts according to his character, but he never repeats his methods. There was only one burning bush. Moses was only told to strike a rock once to make water flow. In fact, the next time, God told him to speak to the rock and Moses struck it anyway. (He must have been Baptist. I can just hear him telling people, “That’s the way we’ve always done it!)

We often think that the power of God is in the method God used, so we try to replicate successful programs and strategies, thinking that in doing that we can also replicate the release of God’s power. It usually does not work. My beloved Southern Baptist Convention is, I am convinced, the undisputed world champions of method-replication. One of our flagship churches, First Baptist Church of Daytona, Florida, developed an evangelism program that worked very well for them. They called it FAITH. It was a Sunday School based outreach program using their own evangelism presentation. It worked very well for them. Then, our convention got a hold of it and for a couple of years, they pressured all of us to use the program. “If it worked in Daytona, it will work for you.” Thousands of churches tried to repeat the success that the Daytona church had. Generally, it fell pretty flat. I have no doubt that it was a great program for Daytona. But we keep thinking that replicating programs and methods will replicate the power of God. It just doesn’t seem to work that way.

Moses never went around giving motivational speeches on “How to Find Your Burning Bush.” Joshua did not copyright and mass-produce a curriculum called “The Walk-Around Strategy” for military victory. They realized that God’s methods were not meant to be universalized and mimicked. They were individual works of God. We have identified sixteen individual works of God. In those works you will see almost no repetition of methods. Fire from heaven? Once. A flood? Only one time. A virgin-born child? Never repeated. Our God has infinite creativity and does not need to repeat his methods. When we try to enforce methodological conformity, we actually hinder and do not promote the work of God.

I have heard more than one church act as if all they have to do is switch from hymns to a praise band and contemporary music and they will magically begin growing. It have heard others say, with just as much conviction, that all we have to do is go back to the hymns, the way we worshipped in the fifties, and all will be well. Some lionize the methods and strategies of days gone by and see success only through the eyes of nostalgia. Others feel like all we have to do is throw off the bondage of the past and adopt new methods and strategies and we will reach a new generation. Both of these ideas miss the truth. It is not the method, not the program, not the strategy that makes the difference. It is the power of God that we need. We can imitate successful churches, we can mimic successful programs, we can adopt successful strategies; none of these will make the ultimate difference. What we need is the presence and power of the God of Heaven displayed among us. That cannot be replicated in a curriculum.

But, make no mistake. I believe there is a pattern in the way God works. God always works on the basis of his character. He does not repeat methods, but there is a biblical pattern in the way he works among mankind. We can look past the methods and discern the stereogram behind the methods. We can see certain things that God did and certain things that he required of human beings so that certain results could happen in the live of God’s servants.

It is not some magical process with easy, simple steps. There is no mantra you can chant, no simple genuflections that will bring the activity of God. But there is a process we can follow. God’s great works followed a distinct pattern. If we will follow the pattern, we can expect to see the powerful working of God in our lives. We can become Significant Servants in the cause of Christ.

Identifying the Pattern

How do we identify the repeatable pattern and distinguish it from the simple methods? We must define what constitutes a pattern in the ways of God. If God did something once, that is certainly not a pattern. If he did something two or three times, that might be an indicator that a pattern exists, but it is not enough to establish a pattern. A pattern should be determined on incontrovertible evidence. In every one of the great acts of God the pattern should be either stated or at least implied clearly. It must be a consistent, repeated pattern that is in evidence in every (or almost every) great work of God.

A Bad Example

Let’s look at how not to do this. In Exodus 14:13-14, God is about to do one of his greatest works. As Israel stands on the banks of the Red Sea with certain death in front of them in the form of Pharaoh’s army, Moses gives them a message from God. “And Moses said to the people, ‘Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.’ Israel had to do nothing but watch God work. They were commanded by God to stand still and watch God work. I have heard that preached as a pattern in the ways of God. Pray, then stand still and see God go to work.

This “pattern” is buttressed in 2 Chronicles 20, a story about Judah’s King Jehoshaphat coming under attack. A prophet delivered this message from God in verse 15, a message that echoes Moses words in Exodus 14. Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s.” He expands on this in verse 17. You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem.’ Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed. Tomorrow go out against them, and the Lord will be with you. Voila, there it is! A clear pattern, right? We should always stand back, do nothing and wait for God to work.

But, there is a problem. Yes, in two situations God clearly tells his people to sit back, do nothing and watch God work. But there is more to it than that. There are times when God may want to show his power to us and tell us to sit back and watch him work. I experienced that one time. A lady in my Cedar Rapids church called me about a situation in her family, asking me to help her resolve it. But as we prayed and talked together, we both became convinced that God was burdening our hearts that we should “stand still” and watch him work. He did. The next day she called me, excited. We had done nothing but pray and God had brought a clear resolution to the situation. Sometimes, God seems to work that way.

But this is not a pattern in the ways of God. There are other times when God does not tell his people to stand still and watch, but gives them an interesting act of obedience to perform. We have talked much of Joshua and the walls of Jericho. God gave the people an act of obedience to perform and when they did that he worked in power. Gideon was told to pare his army down to 300 men and then take pitchers, trumpets and lanterns to attack the enemy. Hardly “War College” strategy, is it? But they did what God said and God displayed his power. There have been times when I have sense God calling me to do something that made little sense, but when I did what he said, the blessing came.

And sometimes, God just made the people go to war with the promise of his power. In fact, most of the time that is exactly what happened. In the first battle, God told Joshua to walk around Jericho. But in every other battle the people actually had to pick up swords and spears and go out and fight in the name of Yahweh. God empowered them to victory in the battle. When Sennacherib’s army came against Hezekiah, he encouraged the people of God with these words found in 2 Chronicles 32:8, “With him is an arm of flesh, but with us is the Lord our God, to help us and to fight our battles.” And the people took confidence from the words of Hezekiah king of Judah.” This time, there was no sitting back and watching God work. And there was no act of token obedience. This time they had to fight the battle – bloody, violent warfare.

Is there a pattern in all these examples? Yes, I believe that there is. But it is not the ones that we often draw. We cannot tell people that they should always stand still and watch God work. That’s not the way God does it all the time. Sometimes, an act of token obedience might be required. Often, we will have to go out to battle in the name of Jesus and face down the enemies of God in that way. But whatever the method, we can depend on God to provide the victory. There is only one common theme in all these passages; one clear pattern in the ways of God. Obedience. God’s people had to do what God said. When they obeyed him, God revealed his mighty power. The key to any pattern in the ways of God is obedience.

So, what we are looking for is a clear, consistent, uncontroverted pattern in the ay God works. In every one of the sixteen great acts of God, you should see this pattern either spelled out or clearly implied. If God did something several times, it’s a method which he may or may not use. If God consistently acts a certain way, it becomes a pattern.

We are going to look at, in this study, what I believe are five steps in the pattern of power; five clearly defined aspects of the way that God displays his power through human beings. I will give you an overview of this pattern, then we will look at each aspect individually. My goal continues to be that every one of us will learn how we can become Significant Servants, experiencing the power of God as we do his work.

The Pattern

The important thing to remember is that pattern for divine power begins and ends with God. There is something required of us if we want to see God at work in our lives, but the process does not start with us. It is God’s power, God’s purposes and God’s plan that are primary in all the great acts of God. While we study what we must do it is important that we also remember that ultimately, it all depends on him.

The First Step

The first step in the process is the revelation of the purpose of God. Since Creation, there are certain purposes that God has been working out in this world. He works in all things to glorify himself. He displays his power in this world to redeem a people for himself and transform them to be like Jesus Christ. He is always at work to accomplish his eternal purposes.

When God appeared to Noah, he revealed his purpose. “I am going to judge the world.” To Abram, God said that he wanted to make him the father of many nations, bless him greatly and bless the world through him. He told Moses that he was ready to deliver the people from their bondage in Egypt. In each of these situations, God revealed his purpose to the man he was going to use to carry out that purpose.

There are certain purposes which seem to govern all of what God does on this earth. There are other times when the purpose is more specific. But God is always at work to accomplish his sovereign purposes on this earth. Amos 3:7 makes an interesting statement. “For the Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.” God reveals himself to his people as he prepares to do his work.

We will examine the purposes of God here on earth and learn how we can bring ourselves in line with them. We must bring our lives onto God’s agenda; to work in line with the eternal purposes of God. God does not release his power so that we can accomplish our own desires or ambitions. He displays his power through his servants for his own purposes.

The Second Step

In each of the stories mentioned above, there was a second part to what God revealed. First, he revealed his own purpose. Then, he revealed his plan for the man he intended to use. His purpose was to flood the earth. The plan was for Noah to build a boat. God’s purpose was to rescue Israel. God’s plan was for Moses to go to Egypt to face Pharaoh. God reveals his plan and then shows us what our part in that plan is.

I have been told often that a good leader today needs creativity and the ability to innovate. That sounds great, but it is not a concept I find in scripture. There is not a single story I can find where God appears to anyone and says, “Here’s what I want to do. Do you have any good ideas how I can make it happen?” He did not ask Noah how big the boat should be. He did not consult Joshua for his ideas about a war strategy. God revealed both the purpose and the method.

That is going to be hard for many of us to accept. We want God to bless our ideas. God seems to want us to obey him. He had infinite creativity and the ability to come up with brilliant plans to accomplish his work. We need to read scripture to find God’s ways. We cannot improve on the way God wants things done no matter how modern we think our ideas are. And we cannot improve on the work of the Holy Spirit within us guiding us to the plans God has for us. Our job is not primarily to figure things out, but to seek God and do what he says.

The Third Step

It is here that the problem develops for a lot of believers. In the third step, the servant must decide whether he will serve. We must respond to God’s purposes and plans. God revealed his plan to Abraham, telling him to go to Mt. Moriah and sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. Genesis 22:3 says that early the next morning, Abraham set out on the trip. Moses argued with God for a while, but then packed up and headed to Egypt. Gideon took the army out to face the Midianites. They obeyed God. That is the key response any human being must have if we want to see the glory and power of God.

Americans have developed a widespread but false religion. Church-going folks all over this land believe that they can live and they please, ignore God’s will and ways, embrace the ways of sin and still expect God to bless them when they have a need. Look at how the prophets define a false prophet. A false prophet was someone who offered people peace with God and blessing from him without requiring repentance and obedience. Any prophet who told people that they could continue in their sin and still expect the blessing of God was condemned as a lying prophet.

The same principle is true today. Do not expect to see the power of God at work in your life if you do not submit yourself to him. As a matter of fact, there is only one kind of person who can expect the power of God – a dead person. Romans 6:4, which I quote every time I baptize someone, makes it clear. “We were buried with Christ by baptism into death, then raised to walk a new life in him.” It is only when we die with Christ that we can expect a new life in his power. In Romans 12:1, Paul told us to present our bodies as living sacrifices. Jesus told us to take up our crosses to follow him. Both of those figures imply death.

It is only when I die to my life, to my own will, my own ambitions, my own plans and dreams that I can hope to experience the power of God. He does not work to make us successful in the lives we want to have. He works to use us in the life he has prepared for us. If you want the life of God you must die to self. Its just that simple.

The Fourth Step

This is the step that has sometimes tripped me up. When I submit to God, I expect everything to work out immediately. But Abraham had to wait 25 years for the promise of God to come true. Moses herded sheep for forty years until God showed up. Joseph was told he would be a ruler, but went through 13 years of betrayal and imprisonment before God elevated him to the place he had prepared for him.

After we yield to God’s purposes and plans for us, there is often a time of testing. During this time, circumstances will often conspire to call the word of God into question and make it seem like what he said must not be coming true. This is where the second key quality of the Significant Servant is revealed. The first key quality is obedience. The second is perseverance. The servant of God must do what he says. Then, he must continue doing it when it gets hard, when it seems like God’s word has failed, when everyone around him thinks he has lost his mind. He must persevere in the will of God, disregarding circumstances until God brings the harvest, until God fulfills his word.

The Fifth Step

When God reveals his purposes and his plans for us, when we do what God says and keep doing it when it gets hard, that is when the power of God will be revealed in us. We become Significant Servants by yielding our lives completely to Christ, dying to self and living to God, whatever comes.

That is the pattern that I see in scriptures. We will examine each of these in detail in coming chapters. These are not easy steps. In essence, they require everything we are and have. But if we wish to be significant servants in the kingdom of God, this is the irreducible minimum. We cannot see the power of God until we die to self. We cannot walk in sin and God’s power at the same time. My hope and prayer is that you will decide to present your body to God as a living sacrifice; the only acceptable act of worship any of us can really give. Then, you will stop conforming to this world and experience God’s transformational power. You can become a significant servant for the glory of God.

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