Leave room for the Holy Spirit

[Adapted from Sunday’s message at The District Church: “Leave Room for the Holy Spirit.”]

Meadowkirk Tree at Sunset

“Leave room for the Holy Spirit.”

The first time I heard this phrase, it was in relation to a middle school dance and about not getting too close to the opposite sex, it actually carries a deeper truth than that. Zechariah 4:6 says:

He said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts.”

Zerubbabel was the governor of Judah and the task before him was the rebuilding of the temple, the restoration of the house of the Lord, and this was both daunting and tremendously important because the temple was seen as the place where heaven and earth met, the place where God dwelled among his people.

The word “holy” (as in “Holy Spirit”) means “set apart,” and it refers to the holiness of God, the otherness of God, the set-apartness of God. But “holy” also refers to the work of the Spirit, which is a setting apart, and so I want to make two points:

  1. The Holy Spirit sets us apart from the world.
  2. The Holy Spirit sets us apart for God.

SET APART FROM THE WORLD

When God spoke to Zerubbabel through Zechariah, he said, “You will accomplish this rebuilding not by might, nor by power.” Might and power were how the world worked in those days: whoever had the largest army, the most chariots and horses, whoever had the greatest wealth or the largest empire, this person was seen as the most powerful.

The people of Israel had been on the wrong side of this kind of power: they were returning to a place that had been demolished by the Babylonians, they were returning from an exile they had been carried into by force. They would have understood from their experience that might and power talks, so to speak, and they may even have begun to think that way too.

It’s a perspective that we see even today: the United States spends more on its defense budget than the closest nine countries (including China, the UK, France, Japan) put together. Might and power is still, in many ways, how the world works.

And yet, as Rabbi Abraham Heschel reminds us:

The prophets were the first men in history to regard a nation’s reliance upon force as evil. … The prophets proclaimed that the heart of God is on the side of the weaker. God’s special concern is not for the mighty and the successful, but for the lowly and the downtrodden, for the stranger and the poor, for the widow and the orphan. The heart of God goes out to the humble, to the vanquished, to those not cared for. (The Prophets, 212)

The Holy Spirit sets us apart from the world, not in the sense that we’re siloed into little Christian enclaves, physically apart from other people, not in the sense that as Christians we’re called to stop hanging out with non-Christians, but in the sense that the Spirit of God sets us apart from the way the world does things.

Jesus said:

The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to become first must be your slave. (Matt. 20:25-27)

We’re called to do things differently.

How does the world do business? In a free market economy, everyone is encouraged to seek the best for themselves and to trust that market forces will keep things in balance. Not so with you: in the perspective of the kingdom of God, everyone matters, and you will be held accountable for how you treated the poorest and most vulnerable—how your business decisions impacted them.

How does the world do romantic relationships? Well, you find the person that’s most compatible with you, you find the person that will be the best for you, and you date as many people as you need to until you get there. (Gross overgeneralization, I know.) Not so with you: in the perspective of the kingdom of God, how we treat each other’s bodies and how we treat each other’s hearts reflect our understanding of what Jesus has done for us, and actually maybe our goal in life is less about finding someone who will make us happy than to allow the Spirit of God to make us holy.

“Might and power” also speaks of our own strength. God says to Zerubbabel, “You will not accomplish this mission in your own strength.” And that’s a message we need to hear too: we have a tendency to think we can accomplish anything—that’s part of the American Dream narrative: “if you work hard enough, if you try hard enough, anything is possible. Whatever challenge you’re facing, whatever problem you’re trying to deal with, whatever mission stands before you, if you do X enough, you will succeed, you will triumph, you will overcome.”

But God does things differently. The foundation of our faith is that we can’t.

We can’t.

The prerequisite for trusting in Jesus as Savior and Lord is the acknowledgement that we need a Savior and Lord, and we need a Savior and Lord because we can’t save ourselves, we can’t rescue ourselves, we can’t pull ourselves out of our own sins, heal our own sicknesses, free ourselves from our own addictions, repair all of the damage we cause other people. We can’t.

God says to Zerubbabel, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit. You will complete this rebuilding, you will accomplish this restoration, but it won’t be in the way that the world does it; it will be because of my spirit, because of my presence and involvement with you.” The Spirit sets us apart from the world.

But it’s just not about being different for difference’s sake; it’s about being set apart for something greater. It’s about being SET APART FOR GOD.

In the Old Testament, the understanding of the Spirit of God was that God would send his Spirit on a person at a specific time and for a specific purpose. For instance, when David the shepherd boy was anointed by the prophet Samuel to be the next king of Israel, “the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Sam. 16:13). Any time the Spirit of God came upon a person, it was to accomplish something that would require a lot of help: leading a nation, repelling invaders, prophesying a difficult word. In Isaiah 61, the prophet says:

The spirit of the sovereign Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me … to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners …

Think about it: what the Spirit calls Isaiah to do is no walk in the park! But the Spirit of God doesn’t come upon us so that we can live more comfortable lives; the Spirit of God comes upon us so that we can live more God-filled lives.

The Holy Spirit sets people apart for God, and in Zechariah’s time, the Spirit only came upon certain people at certain times. But the prophet Joel, who we learned about back in the fall, looked forward to a time when God would do something even greater, 2:28:

In those days, I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.

This was the promise of God to his people, that he would not reserve his Spirit, his presence, to a small number of chosen ones, but that he would instead “pour out”—imagine that picture of abundance—his Spirit freely and lavishly to all people in all places, on men and women, on young and old.

But, before all this could happen, something else had to happen: the coming of a man named Jesus.

That passage from Isaiah 61—“the Spirit of the sovereign Lord is upon me …”—Jesus took that as the manifesto for his ministry, his inaugural address, and he actually did all those things—bringing good news to the poor, setting the prisoners free, giving sight to the blind.

Now, it’s easy for us to think that Jesus did all that because he was God but the gospels tell us that he did it by the Spirit of God. It was the Spirit of God that connected him with his Father; it was the Spirit of God that enabled him to heal sickness and cast out demons and discern what people were thinking; it was the Spirit of God that empowered him to live the best, most pure, most beautiful life anyone’s ever lived; and it was the Spirit of God that gave him the strength to say to his Father, “Not my will but yours be done. Not my strength but yours will accomplish the mission you’ve set before me.”

Before he died, Jesus said to his disciples: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

And when the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, they began to prophesy and to heal people and to proclaim the truth of the life-saving gospel of Jesus Christ; they began to love in such a way that the divisions of gender and race and past hurts no longer divided them; the rich shared with the poor; people realized that there was no need to be ashamed any longer, that there was wholeness in honesty, and they confessed their sins to God and to one another and found forgiveness and restoration. The world has never been the same.

Any time the people of God allow the Spirit of God to set them apart from the world and to set them apart for God and his purposes, the world is changed.

In summer 2002, I went to Uganda on my first mission trip with a group from my church. I had just come back to faith, just said to God, “Let’s do things your way.” It was a charismatic church, something I wasn’t used to, but I was learning more and more about this Holy Spirit, and learning that life with God is an adventure. I remember, one day, we were visiting a school, speaking to these students about Jesus, and at the end we asked if anyone needed prayer for anything. Kids formed lines in front of each of us—there were seven of us—waiting to be prayed for. Some wanted to know the wonderful love of Jesus for themselves—we prayed and invited Jesus to make them new; others had physical ailments: colds, chest pains, eye conditions—we prayed and they were healed.

In light of my experience, I wonder why I’m so often afraid to trust in the Holy Spirit, to go out on a limb and talk to a stranger, to ask a sick friend if I can pray for healing, to share how much I love Jesus with those who don’t yet know him. I could say it’s fear of rejection, fear of not knowing what’s going to happen, fear of looking weird. But ultimately, it comes down to control. It comes down to the fact that I have to give up control over the way I want things to be; I have to give up control over my life, over my comfort, over my rights. See, I want to be safe and comfortable; I want the path of least resistance; I would rather not have to face risk and uncertainty and difficulty.

But the word for ‘spirit’ in the Bible—ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek—also means “wind.” The winds in the eastern Mediterranean would seemingly appear from nowhere and cause havoc—think of the storms that we read about in the Bible; they were completely uncontrollable. It’s not for no reason that Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). There is something uncontrollable, unpredictable, about God, about his Spirit, about the life that is available to those of us who commit to following him. How sad that we often settle for predictable, comfortable lives!

God says:

I want so much more for you! I have a challenging and difficult mission for you; it is the work of restoration. And you will not do it with the methods of the world or in your own strength, but by my Spirit.

For you, God might be asking you to listen and obey when the Spirit says, “Get out of your comfort zone,” whether that involves getting to know your neighbors, joining a small group for the first time, committing to learn about your neighborhood and your city, committing to live in such a way that the kingdom of God comes a little bit more through your life. 

God has poured out his Spirit on those of us who want him. He has made available a life more full than we could ever imagine; he has promised to grow in us the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; he has offered to partner with us to forge a new and better and more whole way of building friendships, of being in relationships, of loving our neighbors, of making peace with our enemies, of finding fulfillment in our work, of seeking reconciliation and restoration.

This is the work we are called to, the adventure we are invited into, the story we are being written into, if we allow God to be God and by his Spirit to work in and with and through us. So the invitation this morning is this: be filled with the Holy Spirit, and then live by the Holy Spirit. God gives his Spirit to us in order to partner with us to accomplish his purposes; we have a part to play, and God wants to help us fulfill our role. And all we have to do is ask. That’s it.

And whatever lies before us, whatever mission or challenge or mountain God may bring us to, the word of the Lord says that we will not accomplish it by might nor by power but by the Spirit of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.

He is Here – Gungor (feat. Amena Brown)

Gungor came out with a new live album last week–A Creation Liturgy–and while I’d recommend the whole thing, I especially wanted to share with you this piece  that comes toward the end.

It’s called “He is Here” by spoken word poet Amena Brown, set to Gungor’s “We Will Run.” And I hope it’s as much a blessing to you as it has been to me.

Audio and words below.

He is here

He’s right here

In this room, in your heart

 

He is near

Nearer than breath, heartbeat

Nearer than you are to you

Closer than second chance, or next opportunity

Closer than tonight or yesterday

 

He is real

More real than touch, see, hear, smell, or taste

More real than reality—he is our reality

More real than joy, pain, sorrow, or the love of being in love

 

He is present

Like space, wind, time, silence, night

 

He is waiting

Like creation, like words on the tip of tongue

Like songs that have yet to be sung

 

He is beauty

In oranges, blues, every hue, every shade

Sunset and sunrise whisper his name

 

He is holy

Cannot be touched, explained

Like sweet seconds of prayer

like grandmother on knees, wood floor bare

 

He is old hymns

The extending of limbs stretched across trees

Stripes to heal disease

 

He is Son

Distinctly three, distinctly one

The only one, the only wise, the only resurrector of lives

 

He is king

And no earthly throne can house him

No amount of elegant words can espouse him

He is moment and voice, power of choice

In word and deed, in fruit and seed

Nailed hands, nailed feet

Innocent wounds that bleed

 

He is believe

He is all, he is call and purpose

Everything we can sacrifice—he’s worth it and more, much more

Our good deeds are mere pennies, will never even the score

 

He is behold and wow

He is who, what, when, why, how

He’s the one who puts on the show

He’s the one that we come to see

He is soul’s cry and sinner’s plea

He is the epitome that no one light a candle to

Or come within a million foot pole of

 

He is above

He is a father’s love

Maker of ways, of earth and wind, Ancient of Days

Have no fear, have no fear, have no fear

Our God is here

This weekend, God sort of blew my mind …

… and reminded me that he is truly at work.

On Sunday, I preached on Acts 2–“Promise” (see also “A Promise, a Mission, and a Call” and “The Comfort of Being Called”)–and part of my message was about how God calls us out of comfort, out of our comfort zones. During the prayer time of the first service, a woman came up to me and introduced herself. Giulia told me that she was new to DC, and had just moved here a month or so ago from Colorado for college. Over the last month, having left home and family, she’d been feeling really alone and like she couldn’t find any others at her school who loved Jesus. To top it off, she lost her phone this weekend and that was the last straw–she was talking to her parents about moving back.

She explained to me that she’d been trying to go to another church, but because she lost her phone, she found herself on a bus heading in the opposite direction. She asked somebody else on the bus where the bus was going–it turned out to be a woman who was coming back to The District Church for only the second time! She told Giulia that the bus was coming to Columbia Heights and that she was coming to church.

So Giulia ended up joining her, and listening to a message about being outside of her comfort zone, where everything has been stripped away. And she realized that this might be where God actually wants her to be. Time will tell if she decides to call DC home after all; if she decides that this is the place she’s supposed to be for this time. But either way, it was encouraging to hear.

On our newcomers cards, we have a line that asks “How did you hear about us?”

Giulia’s card read: “I got lost and ended up at church.” 

I love it when God shows that he can work through brokenness and discomfort and disorientation and even getting lost. There’s probably a sermon in there somewhere …

The Comfort of Being Called

[Part 2 of the blog adaptation of yesterday’s message at The District Church: “Promise.” You can read Part 1 here.]

The more I live, the more I experience, the more I reflect on life and Scripture, the more I spend time with God and participate in his mission, the more I realize that at the very core of our being, at the very depths of our soul, we were made to find our satisfaction and our end—our home and our comfort—in God, the One who made us, the One who loves us, the One who saved us, and the One who calls us to something greater—something, in fact, that we were made for: to be in right relationship with God and working with God to help make the world right again. There is so much more to life than what the world tells us.

Every day, I have to remind myself that God calls me his child, that through Jesus’ sacrifice for my sins and for the sin of the world, and through his resurrection and vindication by God, the Father was able to adopt me into his family and call me his own, that I am loved by God—by God. This is such a different kind of comfort than the world offers; this is the comfort of being called. This comfort is true: it doesn’t sugarcoat the realities of life, it doesn’t pretend that you’re something you’re not or that life is something other than it is; but it also doesn’t pretend that God is not who God is—mighty and majestic, high and holy, intimate and immanent, constant and close.

Here. Now. In this place. With us.

I have to remind myself of that every day, because every day I am faced with voices that would say otherwise, that would call me in other directions, that would pull me from my mission, that say you have to be successful in order to be loved; you have to make yourself attractive in order to be loved; you have to get this job or this education or live in this place or drive this kind of car or own this kind of phone in order to be loved, in order to be accepted. And every day, God says, “No. I love you as you are. I have always loved you and I will always love you. There is nothing you can do to make me love you any less or any more—that is how much I love you, how much I accept you, and how much I am pleased with you, my child.”

Some of you need to hear this: to hear that the grace and love of God are greater than anything you’re facing, anything you’ve done, anything that’s been done to you, any addiction you’re struggling with, any doubts you’re wrestling with. You need to hear that God promises power to his people—the power of his Holy Spirit, a power that enables us to know God’s love—and, as Paul writes to the church in Rome, “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). You need to know this love that will empower you—and not just empower you but so overwhelm you with its truth that you will be unable to do anything else but be a witness—and testify. And in this, you will know both a calling out of the comfort of the world—that is a false comfort, a veneer of comfort, indeed no comfort at all in reality—and you will know the true comfort of being called by God.

Bob Dylan, in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine, said:

Everybody has a calling, don’t they? Some have a high calling, some have a low calling. Everybody is called but few are chosen. There’s a lot of distraction for people, so you might not never find the real thing. A lot of people don’t.

It’s really easy to get distracted from the call of God.

  • The call of the Father that says, “You are my beloved child,” gets drowned out by the voices that tell you that you’re not good enough or good-looking enough, you’re not successful enough, you’re just not enough—and so you keep trying to change yourself to please the wrong audience.
  • The call of Jesus that cries out, “Come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest,” gets drowned out by the distractions of a world that rewards busyness and activity and earning your way in the world—and so you work harder and try harder and wear yourself out trying to change the world in your own strength.
  • The call of Jesus—the mission of God—that says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” gets lost in the advertisements that sell comfort and convenience as the highest goal, and the voices that trumpet safety and security as the measure for success.

And so you stay on your couch, you watch another episode of TV, you don’t get to know your neighbors, you don’t take the time to learn that language so you can go to that country—or even a next-door neighborhood, you distance yourself from risk, you make your life about pleasure, about yourself, about what you feel like.

I confess, I do these things too.

And let me tell you, when we do this, when we let ourselves get distracted from God’s call, from God’s mission, we miss out on a life that could be so much fuller than it is, a life so much more stable (and not stable in a boring way, but stable in its foundations), a life in which we are truly alive.

Bob Dylan’s right: there is a lot of distraction for people—and we inhabit a world full of people that are so distracted that they haven’t found their calling: not even their calling in the sense of “God is calling your name; God desires a relationship with you; God is seeking you; Jesus loves you,” let alone their calling in the sense of “This is what I was made for; this is what I was made to do, who I was made to be.”

And maybe that’s you, too. Maybe you’ve been trying to figure out what your calling is, what God wants you to do with your life, who God wants you to be; and it isn’t becoming any clearer. God’s taking a long time to answer and you’re getting worried that you may have missed his reply!

In one sense, I can’t help you: I can’t tell you for certain what that thing is that God would have you do. God has made each of us unique and uniquely gifted to bring our contribution to the body of Christ and to be that part, to play that role, in the work of the kingdom of God. It took me until I was almost twenty-eight years old and only after I’d actually started in full-time pastoral ministry here at The District Church that I knew for sure that this was it—and it came after a lot of twists and turns and trying to make the best decision I could, trying to listen as best I could, trying to discern—with others as well as on my own—where and how God might be leading me. But when I did realize my more specific calling, when I did figure out what God had crafted me for, I also realized that God had been molding me all along—on the journey, in the process.

And I realized that everyone has a calling in another sense: everyone has the calling to play a role in accomplishing this mission, to be—as Jesus said—“my witnesses”: the calling of following Jesus, of being like Jesus, of telling others about Jesus, of inviting others along on the ride and to the relationship, of living in such a way that the world is put to rights. And that—you can do that wherever you are; you don’t have to wait around for that. And you know, I think it’s in following that broad calling to be Christ’s witnesses that we may well discover the more specific calling that God has prepared for us.

I want to point out a couple additional things from Acts 1 to bear in mind as we consider this mission. First, verses 10-11:

While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

It’s as if they’re saying, “Jesus just told you what to do: ‘Go back to Jerusalem, wait for my Spirit, go be my witnesses.’ Why are you still standing around?” John Stott commented,

There was something fundamentally anomalous about their gazing up into the sky when they had been commissioned to go to the ends of the earth. … Their calling was to be witnesses not stargazers.

Sometimes we can do that too; sometimes we look up to heaven as if God hasn’t said anything at all and we’re just waiting for him to say something before we do anything. Tell me what to do, God!

And God says, “I have. I have given you a mission: be my witnesses. Testify, in your words and in your deeds and by your life, the good news of Jesus Christ, the good news of redemption, the good news of restoration, the good news of grace and mercy and love and justice.”

The last thing I want to point out is from the end of the chapter, when the apostles are choosing a replacement for Judas. Out of the hundred and twenty who are there, they narrow it down to a shortlist of two: Joseph and Matthias. Matthias gets chosen. There’s no suggestion that he had a better heart or that Joseph was less worthy, or that God favored or disfavored one or the other. One was simply chosen to be an apostle and the other was not. And you know, we don’t hear anything more about either of these two in Scripture—we don’t know what happens to them. And the point is, as N.T. Wright puts it:

Part of Christian obedience, right from the beginning, was the call to play (apparently) great parts without pride and (apparently) small parts without shame. There are, of course, no passengers in the kingdom of God, and actually no ‘great’ and ‘small’ parts either. The different tasks and roles to which God assigns us are his business, not ours.

So it comes down to this: if we are Christians—followers of Jesus Christ—we have been given a mission to be Jesus’ witnesses, to testify to what we know, to what we believe, to the evidence we’ve found, and to be credible in telling and living out those truths. It is a mission that may seem impossible at times, and it will call us out of our comfort zones, out of what we know or what we think we know, out of the false comfort of the world and its distractions. But it is also a mission that we are not expected to accomplish on our own. Indeed, on our own, it is an impossible mission; but Jesus promises us power, the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of God, the life-saving, world-changing, soul-awakening power. And as we enter into that mission, as we walk in the power of that Spirit, we will discover the true comfort of being called: called by name, called sons and daughters of God, called friends of God, called to join God in the adventure, in the story, that he is involved in.

And so your mission, should you choose to accept it, is this:

Receive the power of the Spirit of God; be Jesus’ witnesses wherever he calls you and whatever he calls you to, shaking off the chains of what this world calls comfort; get out of your comfort zone and discover the true comfort of being called by God.

A Promise, a Mission, and a Call

[Part 1 of the blog adaptation of yesterday’s message at The District Church: “Promise.”]

Remember the 60s TV show, Mission: Impossible, that Tom Cruise successfully shifted to the big screen? Remember that famous line: “Your mission, should you choose to accept it …”?

In Acts 1, we are sort of given a mission by Jesus. In verse 8, he says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

To unpack this mission and hopefully to help us understand it better, I want to break it down into three parts: “Promised: Power,” “Wanted: Witnesses,” and “Called: Out of Comfort.”

PROMISED: POWER

Here in DC, power is a common concept. Decision-making power. Budget-setting power. The power to craft policies that impact people. We might define power as “the possession of control or command over others,” or the strength to make decisions over (and sometimes against) others. And because it affects others–often drastically, we can shy away from it a little.

But in the Bible, power isn’t portrayed as a necessarily bad thing—and more importantly, power isn’t understood solely as a political concept. For Luke, our author, power is the work of the Holy Spirit. And so Mary is, it says in Luke 1, “overshadowed by the power of the Most High,” and she conceives. Jesus has power as he is anointed by the Spirit of God; he stills the storm with power; he exorcises demons with power; he heals the sick with power; he raises the dead with power; and here in Acts, he tells his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” Jesus has power and he isn’t afraid to use it. Why? Because he understands where it comes from, how it is to be used, and what it is to be used for.

In the prayer of Ephesians 3:14-21, Paul talks a lot about power–only he seems to use it in a different way to how we’d use it. He talks about power to be strengthened by the Spirit, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts; power to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ; power to know this love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Power isn’t simply the ability to bring about whatever you desire, to exercise or effect control over others. True power has a source; true power has a proper exercise; and true power has a purpose—where it comes from, how it is to be used, and what it is to be used for: it is the power of God by his Holy Spirit, working through his people, to see more of heaven come on earth—as it says in the Lord’s Prayer, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

This is the power that is promised to the disciples in verse 8. This is the power that is promised to us. This is the power that will change your life and that will make this mission possible.

WANTED: WITNESSES

But Jesus doesn’t just stop with the promise of power. Jesus’ last words are, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses …” (v.8)

Last week, for the first time, I was selected for jury duty—picked to be one of the twelve jurors (more on this to come!). In a jury trial, the two sides call their witnesses and they examine and cross-examine these folks, asking questions about what they saw and what they remember happening and were they really sure that’s what happened or did somebody else tell them that’s what happened. It’s on the basis of these witnesses’ testimony, their credibility, and the evidence shown, that the jury is called on to make their decision.

Here in Acts, the Greek word that’s used for ‘witnesses’ carries that same connotation of testifying in legal matters: testifying to what you know, to what you’ve experienced, to the evidence you’ve found, and being credible and trustworthy.

So it is with us: not only are we promised the power of the Spirit, we are also charged to be witnesses in that same legal sense—to testify to the truth, to what we know and to what we have experienced and to the evidence that we have found, and to live our lives in such a way that we are credible and trustworthy as we also speak the truth.

And the truth that we get to proclaim is no less than the gospel: the good news that Jesus Christ is alive, that our sins are forgiven, that a restored relationship with God is possible, and that this God—the Creator of the cosmos—is offering us a mission, should we choose to accept it, that will change the very world we live in.

CALLED: OUT OF COMFORT

But as with any mission in any adventure or story, however impossible it might seem, there is a call—and it is a call out of comfort.

In less than three months’ time, the first installment of the movie adaptation of The Hobbit will come out. In The Hobbit, for those of you who don’t know, the main character is a hobbit—or a Halfling—by the name of Bilbo Baggins. Actually, let’s turn to the first paragraph of the book:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

But very soon—in that very same chapter, in fact—Bilbo finds himself agreeing to go on a mission: a very noble mission with great companions and a lofty purpose, a mission in which he will encounter all sorts of weird and wonderful folks—dwarves, elves, wizards—but a mission that seems somewhat impossible and a mission that will take him out of his comfort zone, out of the comfort of his hobbit-hole and take him into places and situations that, if he had known about them beforehand, might seriously have led him to reconsider.

Jesus’ disciples didn’t know what they were getting themselves into when this man approached them and said, “Come, follow me,” but there was something about him that drew them in, something about the way he carried himself, something about the way he talked and the things he said. And now, risen from the dead (as if that weren’t crazy enough!),  he comes to them and gives them this mission:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (v.8)

Jerusalem sounds good: capital city, center of power, happening place. That’s where change will happen—that makes sense; good call. Judea might be the opposite way to where we want to go—that’s away from the decision-makers, away from the influencers of the world. And then, Samaria?!

Samaritans and Jews didn’t get along. At all. There were ethnic, cultural, and religious differences between the two, not to mention hundreds of years of animosity and rivalry. Jews looked down on Samaritans as dogs, not even human, not worth interacting with. In fact, if you look at the map above, if they were traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem or the other way, Jews would go around Samaria rather than through it; that’s how much they didn’t get along—which, by the way, makes Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well and his parable of the Good Samaritan all the more powerful, and which makes his instructions to the disciples—his mission—all the more uncomfortable.

And then, “to the ends of the earth.” Even if this is hyperbole and he’s referring to the limits of the known world at the time, it’s a long way. If we look at how far the Roman Empire stretched in Jesus’ day: Egypt, North Africa, modern day Spain, France and parts of Great Britain, Italy, Rome, Greece, Turkey. Remember, the people Jesus chose as his disciples weren’t sophisticated world travelers; they weren’t high rollers or hobnobbers with the movers and shakers of society. At least four of them were fishermen and one was a local tax collector. Moreover, many of Jesus’ followers were women—in those days, not considered the most reliable or credible of witnesses nor the most valued members of society—and yet Jesus calls them too, as it says in Acts 1:14: the eleven apostles were “together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus.” The women were part of this, too. All of Jesus’ followers were given this mission and called out of their comfort zones—out of the comfort of the jobs they knew, the families they knew, the lives they knew, their hometowns, out of the comfort of everything they knew—to be Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

For much of my life, I have struggled and wrestled with the idea of home. I was born an American citizen in Hong Kong, went to an English school in Hong Kong, learning English as my first language, speaking Cantonese at home, going to a Southern Baptist church. At fifteen, I decided I wanted to leave, to explore the wide and wonderful world, and so I headed off—newly baptized—to the UK, where I spent the next eight years, an American (who’d never lived in America) in London. Then, sensing a desire to do something in church—and it wasn’t too much more defined than that at the time—I moved to California to go to seminary; and then after that, discovering a love for politics, I moved to DC to pursue advocacy.

Over the last three decades, with my parents in Hong Kong, my brothers now in Australia and California, and my best friends in London, there has never been anywhere that I didn’t feel at least a little bit at home; but more strongly than that, there has never been anywhere that I have felt completely at home. My journey, like Bilbo Baggins’ and like the disciples’, began a little inadvertently—I didn’t know all of what I was getting into, I couldn’t have foreseen where the road would lead, the relationships it would lead me to and through, the trials and struggles I would encounter, the failures I would endure, the people I would hurt.

Jesus called me out of my comfort zone: God broke my heart for the poor and those in need, and called me to the city—a place of transience—to DC, in fact—the epitome of transience—which, for someone who desires roots, is not the most comfortable thing.

Maybe you can relate: you’ve been faithful, you’ve followed God where he led, and you can say, without a doubt, that God pulled you out of your comfort zone—and it doesn’t just have to be geographic, though it may be:

  • you’re from a small town and now you find yourself teaching in an inner city school or working in an inner city hospital;
  • you’ve been working hard and for many years on a degree in one area and now you somehow find yourself doing something completely different;
  • you’re finding yourself stretched at work or at home or at school—or all of the above—in ways that you don’t know if you can handle;
  • you’re in a marriage or a relationship or you’re a parent, and you’re discovering that it’s far more work than you thought it’d be;
  • maybe you just realize how much God still has to do in your life—with your heart, with your words, with your thoughts, with your actions, with your soul.

It is not comfortable.

But the good news is that we aren’t called out of comfort—out of our comfort zones—just for the sake of it. Jesus doesn’t simply ask us to give things up that we love or move to a place we don’t know or invest in a city we’re not sure about or make friends with people we wouldn’t normally hang out with or to allow him to do his sanctifying surgery on our lives—just for the sake of it. Jesus calls us out of comfort for a couple reasons:

  1. So that we might be in the best environment in which to grow. When everything is going your way, when everything is sweet and easy, when everything is comfortable, there’s no reason to change anything, is there? There’s no reason to do anything different in our lives. And when everything is comfortable, we too easily forget the grace and goodness and generosity of God.
  2. So that he can redefine it for us, and to do so in relation to God. When Jesus comes, he redefines a whole lot of things and helps us understand them as they were meant to be understood. He redefines power as something that comes from God to be used for the purposes of God; he redefines love as a central characteristic of who God is and says, “This is love” and then gives of himself even to death so that others might live; he redefines what it means to be human by living the life that we were made to live. And so also he redefines comfort—true comfort—as something that can only be found in companionship with God and as we choose to carry out God’s mission. I want to call this, “The comfort of being called.”

[To be continued … tomorrow.]