Lessons learned
by Jack Wald | November 22nd, 2009

Revelation 1:9-18

When Zak, Tracy and I sat down this summer to choose a theme for preaching this fall and came up with Renewal and Revival, we had a different idea of how this would be. We began thinking we would look back at past revivals and see what lessons we could learn from them but as it came closer to the time for the sermon series, we shifted to a focus on God and how God works in us and among us.

It was actually David Bryant, who will be coming to Rabat in March, who led us in this different direction. He said he no longer focuses on past revivals because all that tells us is how God worked before. David said he is much more interested in looking forward to see how God will act in our present and our future.

He encouraged us to read a couple books: One is Christless Christianity by Michael Horton. This book is an indictment of the church in the West that takes all that God has done in history and pulls it inward, making it a me-centered gospel. The church becomes a vehicle to make me feel better and make me happier. Jesus and all his work for us becomes a means to an end, the end being me feeling good about myself. This is a book that describes what happens when our human nature runs rampant. Our human nature puts us on the throne and we expect everyone and everything to serve us.

The second book David recommended is Revival and Revivalism by Iain Murray. In this book Murray contrasts the First Great Awakening of 1730-1760 and the Second Great Awakening of 1790-1840. Jonathan Edwards, the theologian of the First Great Awakening believed that God acts in his sovereignty when and how it pleases him. Our heightened passion for prayer and devotion to purity are responses to his initial work in us. Renewal and cultural revival spring out of his work in us.

Charles Finney was the leader of the Second Great Awakening and he taught that our prayers and passion will cause God to act. He taught that we can bring revival with our prayers and passion. Finney taught that God can be influenced by our actions to act in history. If we gather to pray for revival, God will bring revival.

So in the Second Great Awakening, the door was opened up for human manipulation and revivalists arose who developed methods and techniques that they promised would bring revival.

Bernard A. Weisberger, wrote a book titled, They Gathered at the River: The Story of the Great Revivalists and Their Impact upon Religion in America and in this book he wrote:
By 1854, a correspondent of the Independent could write jovially, ‘Brethren, if you will follow the above directions for two months, and do not enjoy a revival of religion of the old stamp, you may tell me and the public, that I am no prophet.’
… If salvation was available for the asking, then a revival was a matter of getting the greatest possible number to ask – a matter of salesmanship. As theology grew simpler, technique became predominant.

Revivalist theology has endured in American Christianity. It is common to pass by churches with signs in front advertising: Revival coming Thursday night. Preachers advertise that if you come to their meeting, you will see great miracles taking place. God will act because men and women have decided he will act.

The techniques created by revivalists to generate a positive response has also endured. One example is the way we invite people to give their lives to Jesus.

When we ask people to raise their hand if they have given their life to Christ or when we ask people to come forward to give their life to Christ, we are unaware that these were techniques created to put maximum psychological pressure on people to convert. Is there anything biblical about the way we do this? We need to think about this.

A human technique that creates a manipulated response is not at all what I want. I desire a true work of God.

Charles Spurgeon, the great British preacher of the last half of the nineteenth century spoke out against revivalists and revivalism.
If you want to get up a revival, as the term is, you can do it, just as you can grow tasteless strawberries in winter, by artificial heat. There are ways and means of doing that kind of thing, but the genuine work of God needs no such planning and scheming.

When Tracy, Zak and I talked and prayed about renewal and revival, it was and has been our desire for the real thing. We want fresh, ripe, delicious strawberries, not tasteless, artificial ones. So we have preached about who Jesus is, how God works in us, how God has gifted us, and our hope for the future.

We have hoped and prayed for revival and we continue to do that, but it will come when God decides it is time and I pray that we will then be ready and eager to share in whatever God has for us.

We wait for God to bring revival in his own time but renewal is much more accessible. When it comes down to it, renewal is very easy. Renewal is simply seeing Jesus as he is and seeing who we are in reflection to the wonder and glory of Jesus. Many times over the years of our Christian life we experience this as God leads us into deeper and deeper understandings of who he is, who we are, and how he wants us to work with him.

When this happens to a lot of people in a community, there is revival.

We are caught in the struggle between the two books David Bryant suggested we read: Christless Christianity and Revival and Revivalism.

Our human nature puts ourselves at the center of reality. When we are hungry, we demand food. When we are unhappy, we seek whatever will make us happy. When we have any need, we make that need the center of our existence. The problem is that in doing so, we push Jesus off the throne and put ourselves in his place. We no longer make Jesus the center of our life, we occupy the center position and seek our own well-being. We end up with a Christless Christianity.

It is amazing to me how difficult this struggle is. Let me give you an example from this fall.

For ten years, we have been mostly self-supported in Morocco. This past summer, when Annie and I went back for vacation, our financial advisor informed us we could no longer do this. The drop in the stock market and the fall of the dollar has eaten away our assets and we have been withdrawing too much of our capital. So, our advisor told us, if we want to stay in Morocco, we will have to raise support.

This was an emotional kick in the stomach and I was discouraged. We were staying with my sister in New Hampshire in her new house and I was depressed when I realized we would not be able to afford a house like the one she had. I began to think that if I had not come over to Morocco but had continued to work in the US, I would have been able to fulfill my dream of living in a nice house on the side of a lake. I realized earlier this year that I had given up this dream by coming to Morocco but it had not kicked in how serious our situation was.

I thought about what I had missed by coming to Morocco but it was immediately clear to me that what I have experienced over the last ten years is worth far more than anything I have lost. These last ten years have been the best of my life so why would I wish I had done something else?

I returned to Morocco and began working on a sermon from Revelation 1, the same passage that was read this morning. As I began understanding John’s revelation of Jesus, I was pulled out of my little pity party and strengthened to have trust and confidence in the all-powerful, ascended Jesus who loves me and will lead me into green pastures and still waters. This sermon was so encouraging for me.

So in this positive mood, I set off for the US on a fund-raising trip. I was already scheduled to participate in a missions conference in our church in Princeton and I added on two and a half weeks to visit other churches and friends in other parts of the US.

I traveled with two friends from Morocco and we prayed that God would use us to bless people on our trip. We made the decision we would accept every invitation to meet with people. As a consequence I left the house where I was staying at 5 or 5:30 or 6 each morning and returned 10:30 – 12:30 each night. I was tired but exhilarated.

Sharing the story of what God is doing in Morocco was very well received. People were encouraged to hear how the church is growing.

As we met with people, I was able to observe how one of my friends or the other was being used to speak into the life of the person we were meeting with. We met with some people who had lived in Morocco for a time and needed healing for some of the hurts from that time and our time together and prayers were a healing experience.

It was an incredibly rich time of ministry. I met with a pastor who was very discouraged and spent most of the time we were together encouraging him and praying for him. We encouraged people in their ministry, prayed for healing from hurts they had experienced, offered insights that helped them in their ministry. I was energized by all I was doing.

But here is the problem: in the midst of this ministry I was also fund raising which meant I looked at people we met as potential ATM machines, wondering which of these people we met would be dispensing cash to me.

I was torn between raising funds and ministering as God opened up opportunities to do so. To my credit, I made the choice to serve God in sharing what he is doing in Morocco but the question of who would be supporting me kept popping up.

Two and a half weeks into the trip, my friends returned to Morocco and I had a week to go. I was on a treadmill exercising one morning in Columbus, Ohio and I was talking with God about my situation. I asked why it was I had not received any pledges of support. My expectation had been that I would pick up a third of the support I needed in Princeton, a second third in Columbus and then the rest in Chicago. But at this point I had not received a single pledge.

God reminded me of all the ways he had richly blessed me on this trip with ministry and with money needed for our travel around the US. The three of us received gifts that paid for all our air flights and other travel expenses. So we were well taken care of on this trip financially as well as emotionally and spiritually.

And then I sensed God telling me, “If I have taken such good care of you on this trip, giving you such rich experiences in ministry, don’t you think I will take care of your financial needs as well? So relax. Trust me.”

And I relaxed. The rest of the trip was much more peaceful for me.

I left for the US with about 40% of the funding we need pledged and returned with about 48% of the funding needed. But I am at peace.

And here is where the lesson from Revelation 1 I thought I had learned kicked in at a deeper level. I realized that the goal of the trip was not to raise funds. The goal was to lift up Jesus and celebrate what Jesus is doing.

My human nature made raising funds the goal. The Holy Spirit working in me helped me to see the true nature of my trip – to bring glory and honor to Jesus.

That is always the goal in everything we do. We get mistaken and our human nature pulls at us to make us focus on ourselves and our needs. We are even very good at coating our needs with spiritual significance so we think we are focusing on God, but the reality is our focus has moved onto ourselves.

When John experienced the Ascended Christ in his revelation, John understood that nothing mattered except Jesus. John’s concern for the churches in Turkey he had left behind; John’s questions about his own life and exile on Patmos were all left behind as he focused on Jesus.

And as you might remember from the sermon in September, when John lay at the feet of Jesus as though dead, Jesus put his hand on John and said, “Do not be afraid.” Because Jesus loves us he wants to lead us into green pastures and still waters. Jesus wants what is best for us, but our focus has to be first and foremost Jesus. Then we will receive what is best for us.

I look at my needs and say, “I have to raise funds. Who will be my ATM machine?” When I look at Jesus and serve him, I can relax and be at peace. He will lead me. It may be that I stay in Morocco and it may be that I go back to the US or it may be that I go somewhere else. Wherever it is, if I am focused on Jesus, he will lead me to where I am meant to be. And wherever Jesus wants me to be is where I want to be.

Are you in need? Are you looking for financial help? Are you making a decision about where to go next? Are you looking for a relationship?

We can learn from Paul who had this lesson beaten into him (literally) over the years.
Philippians 4:11-13
I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

It is not that Paul had no thoughts about where he wanted to go or what he wanted to do, but he learned to submit, learned to adapt to his circumstances. Because what mattered most to Paul was that Jesus was preached, Jesus was lifted up.

Paul’s life was certainly not an easy one, but it was a very rich life and it was rich because he had learned to submit to God in all circumstances.

Are you being attacked? Is someone working against you in your workplace or school or association?

We can learn again from Paul. As a reward for his long years of service, Paul was once again in prison, this time under house arrest in Rome and had been there for about two years.

Paul had paid with his life and body for the church that was growing as he sat in his prison and now some of those who were free to preach the Gospel while he was under house arrest were doing so in a way that undercut his authority and reputation.

Paul had developed a great, well-deserved reputation and it was being attacked while he sat under Roman guard.

What would you do in such a circumstance?

I know what I would do; at least I know what I would instinctively want to do. I would want to work to discredit those attacking me. I would want to gather support from my friends to attack those who were working against me. After all, it would not just be me they were attacking. It would be my Gospel for which I have been working for years, for which I have been suffering for years that they were attacking. I would turn it into a holy crusade against those who were working against Jesus and me. I would feel justified in doing this. I would build a case to make sure everyone else saw things as purely and clearly as I did.

But what is so amazing to me is that this is not what Paul did.

Listen to Paul’s reaction in Philippians 1:12-26
Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.  13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.  14 Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.
15 It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill.  16 The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.  17 The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.  18 But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

But what does it matter? This is the phrase that grabs me when I read this passage.

What does it matter? It matters a lot! It matters because instead of people being grateful for all I have done; instead of people affirming me for all I have sacrificed; instead of people admiring me for the ways in which I have suffered, I am being attacked.

It does matter that I am attacked. It does matter that my reputation is being tarnished. It does matter.

But Paul was able to say,  But what does it matter? and he was able to say that because he knew that it was all about Jesus. It was all about Jesus and it was not about him. Paul knew that it is always about Jesus and it is never about us.

Whatever need you have, whatever struggle you are enduring, whatever temptation you are facing, the Ascended Jesus needs to be the focus of your life. When the Ascended Jesus is the focus of your life, then you can move through life in peace.

These are lessons I am learning for myself and are allowing me to be at peace in a time of uncertainty. I pray you too will experience the peace of God as you release your anxieties and trust at ever deeper levels the goodness of God in your life.

Whatever your anxiety, whatever your situation, you are loved by the Ascended Jesus. So why do you continue to struggle?

Proverbs 19:23
The fear of the Lord leads to life:
Then one rests content, untouched by trouble.

May you be at peace.