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Wednesday, 25 January 2012

A living hope

Last Thursday I met with a friend to talk about evangelism. Connie is a wonderful human being. She is full of life and enthusiasm and passion; she is the only person I know who is able to be excited about absolutely everything all the time in a totally genuine way. And she loves to tell people about Jesus. Hearing Connie talk about giving away the word of life is a beautiful and humbling experience. Whereas I often fear saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and messing up opportunities, Connie has no qualms about looking foolish for the gospel. The cross itself is utter foolishness and we are called to join in with it's folly. ("For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength." 1 Corinthians 1:25) For Connie, evangelism is exciting. It is sharing the single most important truth and praying that God will use our broken words and stumbling sentences to create something out of nothing. ("My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power." 1 Corinthians 2:4). As I heard her speak, I wondered about why this is not always the case for me. Why the gospel seems dry and embarrassing and unsuited to the situation when I sometimes try and figure out how to stuff it into a conversation. I think perhaps the reason is that the gospel that I know is too small. Connie asked me if I actually knew the gospel. My immediate reaction was to be offended: yes, I know the gospel. Of course I do. And yet, and yet, there is a sense in which the gospel is so much bigger and more mysterious and wonderful than what I know and the way in which I try to encapsulate it in a series of truth statements. 

At the start of 1 Peter, Peter's praise is that the Father, through the Son, has "given us new birth into a living hope." (1:3) James speaks of it in similar language when he explains the life giving effect of the word: "He chose to give us birth through the word of truth...the word planted in you, which can save you." (1:18-21) Through the word of God (both The Word (John 1:1) and God's written word in scripture) we are saved and given hope. These are both pretty massive notions: salvation and hope. And I think often, perhaps, the struggle to evangelise becomes about the former (saved from hell and God's wrath) rather than the latter: a hope that is alive and breathing and beautifully imminent. We are not saved simply for heaven later as an "end result" (1 Peter 1:9) but given a newness and a freedom in the present, which is to be lived out now. In fact, when Peter uses the term "end result" in verse 9 he is talking about the present, about pulling the future (our ultimate salvation when Christ returns) into the now that we might experience ahead of time something of salvation now. We are redeemed (the past tense achieved by Christ's saving work on the cross), we are not yet redeemed (we will not be fully perfect until he comes again), and yet we are being redeemed now. Not only that, but more than that: we are being redeemers called to be involved in God's redemptive work: "We, as the people of God, are caught up in God's redemptive purpose for creation, for society, for humanity and for individuals", Godwin, "The Grace Outpouring."

In Romans, Paul speaks of how all of creation is waiting and groaning and longing for the children of God (that's us!) to be revealed; we are to be responsible for the liberation of our broken world as it is "brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God" (8:21). This is not often (or at least not often by me) told as part of the good news: do you want to be part of a redeeming family who will release this planet from bondage and see the values and beauty of God's kingdom come now not simply in heaven? Do you want to be involved in the most wonderful and meaningful and purposeful partnership that will see the reality of heaven come close to earth and change people's lives and heal their wounds? That is good news. I would be excited about giving that away, giving away an invitation to have hope and to become it to other people.

I once heard someone preach on Isaiah 55 and expand the idea of God's invitation to humanity:

"Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labour on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
listen that you may live." (verses 1-3)

In part, this is an invitation to be saved and to live rather than pay the wages of sin, which is death. (Roman 6:23). But, it is more. The gospel, the good news, is not simply a rescue mission, a message of God's wrath and our need to escape it, but also an invitation to become part of something entirely different from the way we live at the moment. It is an invitation to be satisfied by a fuller life (John 10:10). Again, this is good news. I can muster up - well, don't even need to muster up really - much more excitment about telling this to someone. About inviting a teenager who is failing at school, and at risk of exclusion, and hating home into an entirely different way of living. Instead of saying that he is a sinner and a mess and needs to repent to sort his life out. This is, of course, true, but is it gospel? Is it good news? It doesn't sound very much like it to someone who is used to rebuke and condemnation and rejection from school and family and society already. Godwin puts this beautifully in "The Grace Outpouring":

"How can we tell the story of salvation to those we meet? What is the good news of salvation for a single mum trying to bring up a couple of unruly kids? She can't manage them; she can barely afford to clothe them properly, let alone feed them well. he feels alone in her situation, even as her children become abusive towards her. Perhaps she turns to drink to relieve the pressure. And then the financial woes only get worse.
     To walk up to this woman and ay to her, 'I've got good news for you: you're lost in sin you're going to die and go to hell, but there's a saviour for you,' might be accurate, but in that moment these words are no gospel, good news at all.
     The good news for her, the gospel, is that the God of hope loves her. The God of hope offers to come now and he can support her, and his people can support her too. She may be facing a tunnel of darkness and hopelessness, but the God of hope can come into her life now and fill her with His hope, and can also transform her children. He's a God who gives, he's a God who longs to be her supplier. We can call on him together and he'll bring to release the resources to enable her family to have sufficient for the future. This is the gospel; this is the good news for her." 

last week, I received a beautiful opportunity to speak good news into someone's life - a young girl from one of our youth groups. She has struggled with bullying and school and friendship circles for the past few months and had broken down to tears at a Friday club I help at. I took her to one side and listened to what was going on, and then asked her if she believed in God and if she thought He was interested in her. She wasn't sure but I told her about the God I know: a God who loves her and longs to spend time with her and wants to help her sort out all the rubbish and confusion and be the person she was made to be. I didn't talk to her about sin. I wanted her to see grace and mercy first. She needs to know about it but, in a way, she already does: she knows that she has done bad things, and said horrible things and getting caught up in a tangle of gossiping and bullying is the result of that. The good news for her is that God gets it and he still loves her. He will bring his conviction of her own sin at the right time; he will provide an opportunity for someone else to help her understand it. That is my ongoing prayer for her - that she would be convicted of her sin and come to come Jesus as Saviour - but my immediate prayer for her on Friday was simply that she would know that God wanted to listen to her and show her a new way of doing things, a new way that school could be.

I don't quite know what the good news looks like for the different people in my life right now but I am struck by Jesus' encounter with the woman caught in adultery. (John 8:1-11) For the woman, the good news, the beautiful and liberating gospel, was that she was not condemned by Christ. He was not going to join in with the voices and accusation and hatred and punishment of the others; he was going to offer mercy instead. And it was the encounter with mercy that gave the opportunity for Jesus to say: leave your life of sin, stop doing what you've been doing and do something different. The woman already had a conviction that her life was broken. She didn't need more condemnation to tell her so. She needed to know that there was an alternative to her current lifestyle; she needed to be invited to join the kingdom.

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