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September 28th, 2014

“All our ministry is useless if our character does not back it up.” 

Colossians 4:2-6

September 28, 2014

George and Eli

This morning we are privileged to have as our guests George and Eli. (Several details of this manuscript, including the removal of last names and specific locations, have been edited for security reasons.)  Linda and I have known George and his wife Kathy since we all sang in the choir in college almost 40 years ago.  George and I had something in common in addition to being second tenors.  We also grew up as MKs.  I was a missionary kid in Pakistan, and George in Africa. 

Since graduation, Linda and I have been serving churches here in the States, while George and Kathy served for 20 years in western Africa, and since 2003 have been continuing their work – but based in the United States. They work with other personnel to raise up and equip university-level training centers with a biblical world view .  The ministry is called TEN3 which stands for Discipling to the Third Generation.

George is with us today and has brought with him a pastor who was raised in a non-Christian home, but is thankful he gave his life to Christ and found the freedom of the Gospel.  (At this point in the message, Eli gave his testimony in his native language, and George translated for him.)  We will hear from George again in a few minutes.

Just walking

We turn to Colossians 4:2-6 today as we wrap up four weeks of Bible studies, Sunday School class lessons, and sermons on evangelism.  We have been borrowing ideas and themes from Bill Hybels’ book and DVD series, “Just Walk Across the Room: Simple Steps Pointing People to Faith.”  Hybels is a well-known pastor in the Chicago area.

One of the tensions raised during these sermons, at least for me, has been God’s part and my part when it comes to evangelism.  Is changing people’s hearts and bringing them to Christ God’s work or my work?  You already know the answer is going to be “both,” but it’s very easy to lose your balance on one side or the other.

In the churches that shaped my early spiritual life, there seemed to me an overemphasis on my part of evangelism.  If I haven’t seized every moment to tell someone he’s going to die and go to hell unless he accepts Christ, his blood will be on my hands (we used that language), and I will regret for all eternity I didn’t do my part.

The result is not only negative for me (constantly living with guilt and fear) but for the one Paul calls an “outsider” (Colossians 4:5).  On my list of people to pray for this month is a rather well-known community leader who already is turned off by aggressive, judgmental, and narrow Christians.  I don’t want to be one more.

But it’s also dangerous to emphasize only God’s part.  We in the Reformed Church are prone to this threat because we do emphasize God’s sovereignty.  We don’t change people; God does – that’s true!  But if we allow that logic to progress unchecked, we hear coming out of our mouths (or maybe just swimming around in our heads) the words of Calvinist objectors to the early Christian missionary William Carey:  “Young man, sit down!  When God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid and mine.”

Apparently not.  God has every intent to use your aid and mine to convert people.  So we have been asking what that looks like.

  • Just walk across the room (Philippians 2:1-11). You look across the room at people you would normally avoid.  You move toward them, not away.  You try to do what Jesus did – abandon your prerogative and go to them where they are, even suffer for them.  This is incarnational evangelism.
  • You discover stories (Matthew 5:13-16).  You enter their world, like salt touches and penetrates.  People want to be known.  You find out about them before you tell them about you.  This is relational evangelism.
  • You tell your story and The Story (1 Peter 3:8-18).  You learn to tell both simply and briefly.  It’s not that the Gospel is simple or that this is all they need to know.  But you recognize that a longer, more complex story – yours or Jesus’ – will lose them.  So you learn to tell, in just a minute or so, your before-and-after story of how God’s grace has changed and is changing your suffering into hope. This is personal evangelism.

 

This brings us to today’s Scripture text, Colossians 4:2-6.  Once again, we find ourselves jumping into an isolated passage of the Bible, which sort of goes against my grain.  I’d rather stay in one book of the Bible.  We’ll return to that pattern next week when we study the book of Isaiah, where we’ll camp from now through Christmas.

 

It’s always important to get some context.  Paul writes this letter from a Roman jail to a church in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) that has been infiltrated by false teachers.  He teaches them the centrality and supremacy of Jesus in chapter 1, and then spends the rest of the letter telling them what it looks like to “continue to live in him” (2:6).  This affects every aspect of our lives and relationships.

 

Our paragraph concludes his instructions with several commands.  Don’t ever let anyone suggest that New Testament faith doesn’t have commandments – that it’s all about grace and then do what you want.  Paul’s letters are full of imperatives.

 

“Devote yourselves to prayer,” he says in verse 3, “being watchful and thankful.”  Prayer is first of all noticing God at work (“watchful”) and then expressing your gratitude (“thankful”).  The Christian is always trying to be more aware of God, an awareness that leads to a constant dialogue with God (“devote yourselves to prayer”).   Let everything turn you to prayer – every joy, every trial, every decision, every morning, every night, every commute, every person you encounter.  Prayer is ultimately about humility. It’s thanking God for what only he could have done, and it’s trusting God for what only he can do in the future.  “Life was and is out of my hands, God.”

 

Then Paul gets a little more specific in some commands that help us tie up this evangelism series.

Praying for specialists

Paul continues in vv. 2-3:  “Pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.  Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.”

Paul is what I would call a specialist in the area of evangelism.  Specifically, he’s an apostle.  There are people God has called and equipped to be apostles, evangelists, pastors, and teachers.  We call some of them “missionaries.”  George is one of those.

Paul knows what it’s like to experience all of the normal human challenges – weariness, stress, time pressure, priorities, sickness, danger, loneliness, opposition, and so on – the same challenges anyone faces.  But he faces those challenges far from home, from a spiritual support system.  He knows we are all connected vertically to God, and he thinks of prayer almost like we think of cell phones.  The signal goes up and back down to connect us.

But Paul’s challenges are also spiritual.  In the field he faces the enemy, the devil, and he needs wisdom and open doors and clarity as he preaches Christ.  Don’t get thrown off by the word “mystery” in verse 3.  Paul is using the word in the same way you would use it for a novel you just finished reading.  The book is still called a “mystery,” but it’s been solved.  How God was working in the world is a solved mystery once Jesus shows up.  Paul wants to be sure he’s clear as he spreads that word.

For this, Paul needs prayer.  George, tell us why prayer is so significant for you, for other “specialists,” for Eli, for the Ebola crisis, for refugees from ISIS and for Christians who are being persecuted.  When you are serving Christ as a specialist in the field, what difference do our prayers make?

George:  The first would be in the area of ministry – which is probably more of what Paul had in mind. “Specialists” need prayer for wisdom and perseverance in ministry. In a cross-cultural setting, that includes adapting to the situation (Eli now understands just how much it is of God that missionaries came and stayed among his people and learned the language and culture in order to share the gospel with them) – especially when you’re far from home and all that is familiar and can’t even speak the language of those around you. They need wisdom to understand how to reach these people with the gospel and what not to do. They need perseverance when they get lonely and tired and sick.

Wisdom in buying

Here is another effect of prayer.  Maybe you’re not in full-time Christian ministry.  Maybe I am, but I’m not over in a foreign country.  What prayer for specialists does for me is exactly what it does for Paul in this passage.  It gets me thinking about sharing Christ where I am.  How can I be concerned about people dying in Africa of Ebola and not be concerned about people dying around the corner?  How can I support a missionary who flies across the ocean and not walk next door to someone who needs Christ?

Paul’s request for prayer for himself (the specialist) easily transitions into instruction for the Colossians to evangelize where they are.  Here he gives three commands –

  • Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders (5).

The focus in this verse is on “the way you act” – how you live, your character.  Once again, I think George has some wisdom and experience on this point.

George:  All of our ministry and our ability at ministry is useless if our character doesn’t back up what we’ve been telling the people. One of our missionaries related to the people well and seemed to be doing a great work, but after many years it came out that he had been sexually involved with multiple young ladies among the people.

We need to be becoming more and more like Christ or it is all useless. We need to demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit. I left a lasting impression on the people in our town when I lost my temper once in public in the early days. Losing one’s temper is a greater sin among the people we serve than even sexual sin.  I heard about it again and again for many years afterward.

  • Make the most of every opportunity (6).

I love the metaphor Paul uses here.  The root of the verb “make the most” is the Greek agora, which is the marketplace at the center of town.  It’s really a shopping metaphor.  Whether you like to shop in malls or online or in real estate or on the stock exchange, you look for the right time to buy.  There’s a moment when the price is right and if you don’t grab the sale at that moment, you miss out.  But isn’t it true that comparatively speaking, there are far more moments not to buy?  You look more than you buy.  You study the prices and trends.  You pride yourself on buying at the right time, and on passing up the wrong times.

That’s the metaphor Paul is using.  Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it, wait for it…but when the opportunity comes, by all means, don’t miss it!  Buy.  A lot of evangelism is exactly like that.

  • Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you will know how to answer everyone (6).

The commentators disagree somewhat whether this means your conversation should always be “about grace” – i.e., you should find a way to work God’s grace into every dialogue – or (as most prefer), that you should always be gracious in what you say and how you live.  The context seems to favor the latter as well.

We talked about the salt metaphor a couple of weeks ago.  It’s about proximity and penetration.  It’s about being there, in the messiness of lives far from God.  It’s about trusting the Holy Spirit to help us permeate their world.  One of the ways we do that is listening to their stories, so we can understand their world.  This is the primary missionary strategy up front – listen, observe, learn so you can earn the right to be heard.

Paul adds language similar to what we heard last week in 1 Peter 3.  It’s not that we have to have an answer to every question, but that we should know how to answer – i.e., full of grace, and seasoned with salt.  This requires wisdom from the Holy Spirit.

I often tell people you don’t necessarily have to know the answers to hard questions, but it’s helpful to know that others have wrestled with those questions and found satisfactory answers.  If you have hard questions about faith and reason, or someone is addressing some of those hard questions to you, I would encourage you to attend Chris Van Allsburg’s upcoming class on Faith and Reason.  We also look forward to having J. Warner Wallace preach here in two weeks.  He’s the author of Cold Case Christianity.

There really aren’t any new questions about the Christian faith.  The questions people have are the same basic questions that have been asked for 2000 years.  If the questions had the power to destroy the Christian faith, it would have been destroyed a long time ago.  When you’re confident that there are good answers to people’s questions, you actually feel less like it’s all up to you.

Suppose someone asks me a hard question, like, “Why does evil happen if God is all-powerful and good?” If I am insecure in my faith, I’m going to convey that by lashing out or becoming defense or attacking the person who asked the question or their worldview.

But suppose I’ve been to Chris’ class or read Wallace’s book or some other good resource.  I may not remember everything that was said.  But I can relax and say something like, “A lot of very sincere people have asked that question.  It’s a good question, and it’s a tough question.  I’d love to explore that with you, and look at some of the best answers I’ve found.  But I’m sort of wondering….is that just a theoretical question for you, or have you had some really hard things happen in your life that cause you to question God?”

Now you’ve turned the conversation away from your knowledge and back to the story of the seeker.  You’ve opened a door into their heart and might be surprised at what lies behind it.  You’ve resisted turning the conversation into an argument or a debate and made it about peeling back the layers that might cause them to resist the gospel.

You’ve embraced your part, but you’ve conceded that even the most well-refined answer to difficult questions will not do the job of conversion.  That’s God’s part.

At the end, it really does come down to whether I’m willing to “just walk across the room.”  We’re talking about going to people who make me uncomfortable.  They might even be Christians, at least in name.  But their skin color or their language or their world view or their appearance or their behavior makes it easier to maintain my distance.

What if, instead of focusing on what they believe or do that seems so wrong, I actually began to look at them with Christ’s eyes – what would that person look like if he or she were redeemed?  If they were forgiven?  If they were transformed?  Can I imagine what they could become if Christ’s love nuzzled up next to them and then filled them?  And could I possibly be part of how Jesus wants to make that happen?

Our part is to walk across the room.  God’s part is to transform.  Amen.

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