Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Power for the Powerless

Paul’s closing words in 2 Timothy stand like a beacon at the end of his life: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

How did Paul reach the point where he could speak with such confidence? The language of racing and fighting successfully suggests a life full of power and success. Before we look more at Paul’s closing words, we turn to the passage from Joel, which gives something that was understood to be basic to the life of Christians in the first church in the book of Acts.

Joel 2:23-32
You know of course that these words are spoken in Acts 2, as describing the followers of Jesus at the Day of Pentecost. But hear them first in their own time and context. The precise dating of Joel’s prophecies is unclear. We read that the prophecies come from Joel: “The word of the Lord that came to Joel son of Pethuel.” And that’s it. No direct statement of when or who was king. The three chapters refer to Judah and Jerusalem, so prophecies spoken first in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. I am assuming that the prophecies were spoken roughly in the middle of Judah’s history separate from Israel, and that the crises that faced the people were the sort of problems that they faced throughout their history—danger from their neighbours, such as Egypt to the south and Syria to the north; and danger from within through religious and political corruption.

God speaks to them through Joel. They are faced with potential destruction—the locusts of chapters 1 and 2. In some way that is not obvious to us, God works through the destruction and against the destroyers. When destruction comes, it proves to be the catalyst for renewal—“rend your hearts and not your garments (2:13)—which leads to God’s Spirit poured out on all people. The presence of the Spirit is the prelude to judgment on the enemies of “Judah and Jerusalem” and the restoration of “Judah and Jerusalem”.

As he describes the blessing of God’s Spirit and the restoration of Judah, Joel uses terms such as “in that day”, “after this”, and “then”—describing a time of God’s blessings that follows God’s judgment. This time has come to refer generally to the eschaton, the end of days when God restores creation and brings in the New Heavens and the New Earth.

So we come to the verses in our text:
23-27: After the judgment, God will restore the people’s fortunes and make God’s person and name central to life in Israel.
28-29: This restoration leads to the full presence of God’s Spirit in all people—old and young, men and women, on all people who serve the Lord.
30-31: This presence of the Spirit will be accompanied by miracles and signs and wonders, bringing in “the great and dreadful day of the Lord.”
32: Then God will save all those who call on God.

God promises Judah God’s Spirit for the last days. The way that this passage is used in Acts 2 builds on the way that Jesus transformed the Jews’ expectation of the Messiah. The Jews expected a political Messiah who would overthrow Rome and lead them to God’s reign through Israel over the whole world. Jesus gave them a dying and rising Messiah. Jesus taught them that God’s reign was within each person and within the new community of the church. Now at Pentecost Peter uses Joel’s words to say that the last days had come. They had entered the time when God reigns on the earth—but that time looked quite different from what they expected.

We also live in the time between the beginning of God’s reign and its coming in fullness. God’s reign began in the church through God’s Spirit available to all people at Pentecost, and God’s reign comes fully in the return of Jesus. We live in this already-not yet time, and we seek to live with the power of God’s Spirit in a world that is often either unaware of God’s reign or actively opposed to it. We need God’s power to survive. A few good miracles and manifestations of the Spirit would encourage us a great deal.

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Paul also lived in the already-not yet. He could remember when they all thought that Jesus would return really soon—in a few years at most. But the years went by, and by the time he writes in 2 Timothy he is probably about 60 or a little older, near the end of his life. We have two paragraphs from his letter for our text:
6-8: Paul uses the image of a war (I have fought the good fight) and a race (I have finished the course) to say that he has lived faithful to God and to the gospel of God. He has, in Eugene Peterson’s phrase, practised “a long obedience in the same direction.” Now as he waits for his death, he knows that God will receive him into the fullness of God’s reign, which waits for all those who are faithful.
16-18: Then Paul looks towards the immediate threat. I wonder if he was going to be on trial again and thought that this trial would end with his death. If so, he says, he will die victorious through the grace and strength of Christ’s presence.

So back to the question: How could Paul speak with such confidence at the end of his life? Joel promised God’s Spirit for the last days— the already-not yet of God’s Reign. How did Paul live so fully with God’s Spirit? How can we emulate Paul and also live filled with God’s Spirit. For each of us, the last day comes as we approach the end of our own lives. God’s Spirit gives us supernatural power to live in and through situations beyond our control. How can we know this and live fully in the Spirit and power of God?

A Thought from Joel
One might think that Joel describes an unusual threat to Judah’s existence, but in fact this kind of language permeates the prophets and the lives of Israel and Judah. I suggest that the possibility of destruction was Judah’s normal state. Situated on the crossroads of the Middle East, between competing empires from the south and from the north, they lived in many periods of peace, but danger was never far away.

Some countries have been protected from invasion by geographic features—for example, England has been protected by the Sea. Other countries have lived under constant competition from neighbouring empires—such as the way that the Korean peninsula has faced pressure from Japan and China throughout its history. It’s a bit like the way that one plays the game of Risk: Asia and Europe are bad centres to build from in the pursuit of world domination; Australia and South America are much better. The Middle East was like Asia and Europe in Risk—a road for invading armies to march through.
[Disclaimer: This description is my non-specialist impression. If Old Testament scholars tell you I have it all wrong, believe them.]

Life today is also full of danger. We look back to the 19th Century as a time of peace, but it was also a time of empire-building, which was not peaceful to those places brought into the European empires. We may think that the 20th Century was relatively peaceful, but it saw two world wars, and several other wars (such as in Korea and in Vietnam) that belie any sense that it was really a time of peace. In the first 16 years of the 21st Century we have seen war in the Middle East and conflicts in various other parts of the world. Violence and conflict are more normal than we might think.

We can add to the dangers of the world arena the stress of daily life. Although we are technologically far more advanced than 100 years ago, we face an epidemic of family problems and personal struggles. Clearly technological progress does not bring us to a state of complete personal and public peace. The number of people looking for ways to die is evidence of the struggle to live that surrounds us.

If the description of impending disaster in Joel is more or less normal, we can guess that the ordinary dangers of life are our path to God’s full presence. God uses the locusts to purge Judah before God can restore Judah. God promises us also that the Holy Spirit will be poured out on us as we face the dangers of life today.

But How?
Sometimes we turn this question of how we receive God’s blessing around. We start asking: How can I get this blessing? How can I gain God’s power? That’s the wrong question—like Simon in Acts 8, who asked Peter to give him the power of the Holy Spirit. When we start asking for power because we want to be powerful, we find that the locusts are waiting for us.

I said earlier that a few good miracles and manifestations of the Spirit would encourage us a great deal. The fact is that we do see manifestations of God’s Spirit. I have not seen many wonders, but I have seen enough to know they are real and that God is at work in our world. I remember when my wife’s parents called us in Zimbabwe, September 1990, to tell us that Dad was dying of cancer. We went home in December and were able to have three months that we could visit Mom and Dad regularly. One day we were talking with my sister, and she told us how in September she had a sense that something in our lives was very wrong and we needed help. So she started praying. It was just at the time that we got the call from Mom and Dad. God gave comfort and strength to deal with the locust of death.

I remember a friend of mine 20 years ago now who sought release from the oppression of an evil spirit. I saw him set free, and six months later he testified that he had found continued freedom of a sort he had never known: That experience was real! Sometimes I think that God showed me God’s power for my friend’s benefit and for my encouragement.
A side note: As the story of Simon in Acts 8 and of the story of the seven sons of Sceva in Acts 19 make the point that we dare not try to take this power for ourselves. Emmanuel Milingo was the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Lusaka in the 1970s. He had an extensive healing ministry. Once he was asked how to get the power to heal and cast out demons. He said that you should never seek such power. “Unless the Holy Spirit compels you to do this so that you cannot resist, you should not try it. If you do, the spirits will eat you alive.” [The quote a paraphrase from memory, from The World In Between.]

I could go on, but the theme would be the same: I have seen God’s power at work in various times and places, but God’s Spirit has never been ours to control. God acts as God chooses, and we receive God’s power for living in a dangerous world.

The question, however, will not go away: How? Consider Paul’s example. He began his life pursuing God through the Law. He was a Pharisee, which means that he was “set apart” for the Torah, the Law of God. When Jesus came to him on the Damascus Road, he found a new source of life, and a new pursuit for his life. In Romans 1 Paul says that he is “set apart” for the gospel. That is, where he used to be a Pharisee for the law, he is now a Pharisee for the gospel of God. That is why in Philippians 3 he can still call himself a Pharisee of the Pharisees. He never stopped pursuing God; only the means changed. He allowed Jesus to transform from the inside out through the gospel of grace. Now he pursued God through the gospel of God’s grace.

So when Paul says he has fought the fight and finished the race, he means that he has been faithful to this lifelong pursuit of God. In Philippians 3: 12-14 he puts it this way: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.”

How do we receive God’s power? By repentance: “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” And by living for God, pursuing God, keeping God in Christ at the centre of all that we think and say and do. I have been doing research on Brethren in Christ World Missions, reading the reports sent home by missionaries in my church 100 years ago. There are many things about these letters that they sent regularly to our church periodical, The Evangelical Visitor. Some are disturbing, such as the relentless reminder of the extent of a casual racism in the conversation of that time. They refer, for example, to the boys that they work with—but those boys were full grown adult men, worthy of the same respect as any other man. Clearly the missionaries loved the people they worked with, but equally clearly they were part of the colonial structure and shared the assumptions of the colonial powers.

At the same time I observe the difficulties and hardships that they took for granted. They walked many miles through the bush to visit the people. They accepted the risk of dying from tropical diseases that were not well understood. At times they put their own lives on the line to save the people they had come to serve. Like us, they were people bound up with the problems and blindness of their time. Like us, they became conduits of God’s power bringing new life when the locusts pass through.

Twelve years ago, veteran CBC journalist Brian Stewart gave the convocation address at Knox College, Toronto. He talked about how he had assumed that the church, so weak and ineffectual, would soon disappear. He told how, over a 40-year career in reporting, he came to realize that the church was filled with an amazing power. He gave several examples, and then said these words:
I rather regret that the term muscular Christianity has gone out of use, because a lot of the Christianity I’ve seen is very hard muscular work, where there’s lots of sweat and dirty hands. The spirit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is alive. Many of us in news crews noticed something else hard to put into words. So often after a day in the field filming volunteers at work, we’d be sitting back over our nightly drink and one of us would say something like: “Strange people those, know what I mean? There’s just something different about them. They’ve got something that we don’t.” I believe that a form of human happiness emerges when based on a flourishing life in which spirit and intellect are used to the full, for the purpose of the good of all. Yes, they seemed to be “flourishing.” C.S. Lewis wrote of Christianity producing “a good infection.” Christian work on the front lines infects those around them, even those who are not Christian, with a sense of Christ’s deep mystery and power. I've felt it. It changes the world. Still.

A good infection of power for the powerless—not just for those who go overseas or engage in extraordinary work, but for all those who follow Christ and keep their eyes on him to the end of their lives. Then they, and we, can say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who long for his appearing.”

Grace Bible Church
23 October 2016

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