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It’s the question no man should ever ask! But the season of Advent just sidles up and drops the question shamelessly. Sacred agents, are you expecting?
Me: What? Who? Me? No. Of course not.
Gabriel: Why not?
Me: How did you get into this conversation, Gabriel?
Gabriel: I get around. Now tell me again about how you’re not expecting. God has big plans, you know. Don’t you want to be part of them?
Me: You know I do.
Gabriel: Well then, it’s time to get moving. Your relative Elizabeth is already … oh, hang on, hang on, wrong script. Your brothers and sisters around the world are already busy with kingdom work. So let me ask you again – are you expecting?
Mary: Yes, are you expecting rulers and thrones to be brought down and the humble lifted up? The hungry filled with good things and the rich sent away empty?
Gabriel: Are you expecting empires to crumble while the kingdom keeps growing? Nations and cities to be transformed? Are you expecting churches to thrive? Are you expecting your neighbours, family and friends to be powerfully changed as Christ is birthed and formed in them? Are you expecting King Jesus himself to return in triumph and glory and justice and vindication?
Me: Wow, well … truth be told? I’m not expecting, I’m just a little overweight….
We should measure spirituality by flow, not volume. It’s not “How much of the Holy Spirit do you have?” but rather “How much of you does He have?” Scripture speaks of God’s Spirit blowing like the wind, or pouring like water. He moves, he flows, he doesn’t merely inhabit. When Jesus invites the thirsty to come to him and drink, he immediately says that from those who do, ‘streams of living water will flow.’Jn7
So the question is not merely how much are we receiving, but how much are we giving? God’s ideal is for free flow: ‘Freely you have received, freely give.’Mt10 The servant put in charge of feeding other servants is in trouble if he considers himself rich rather than responsible.Mt24 The servant who receives mercy is in trouble if he doesn’t in turn pass it on.Mt18
So what happens when the flow stops? In the Great Depression of the 1930s a fascinating and awful spiral occurred. People stopped spending. Those with work greatly feared losing their jobs, and so instead of spending their income they saved as much as possible, living as frugally as they could. This meant that sales plummeted and firms making and selling things went out of business, and indeed people did lose their jobs, creating more fear, more self-preservation mentality, and round and round the spiral went. The flow of money stopped, poverty bit hard, and instead of a trusting, trading society it was each person for themselves.
If only people knew that they were going to be OK! If only the fear was overcome, the spiral could begin to reverse. Indeed the new US President Roosevelt famously told his nation “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
The only way to reverse such a fearful spiral was for someone, somewhere to begin spending money with optimism they didn’t feel – in faith. It ended up being the US government, with a scheme called “The New Deal”. It borrowed enormous amounts to guarantee citizens paid work on massive infrastructure projects and bring hope and certainty.
How does that speak to sacred agents? I believe that fearfulness about the prospects of Christians and churches in our society is giving us a defensive and survivalist mindset. There is a narrative of Christianity in decline which is simply not true but widely believed nonetheless. Churches fear closing. We’re reluctant to take risks like adding staff, planting a church or commissioning members to service elsewhere. Even as individuals, when we privatise our faith and begin drawing on God ‘just to get through the week’ rather than to bless others abundantly – we’re continuing a negative spiral in contrast to God’s will.
How do we reverse this? It takes some courageous sacred agents to give more than they can afford to. (I’m not primarily talking about money – but not excluding it). When we give more than we can afford, it leaves us in deficit. But we then call on others to flow blessing to us. And on the Father himself to measure to us with the generous measure that we have used. Do we not know that we are going to be OK? Should we not be the most confident and least fearful of all people? Let us gospel ourselves once more. When we call on the Lord to “open the floodgates of heaven and pour out his blessing” – do we not realise that we ourselves are those gates, and that he is seeking to once again open us?
They must have been difficult words for the Messiah to hear: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” They imply, “We thought you were The Answer To All Our Problems – but now we have more. We thought you’d blow away our enemies – but they still have it over us. We thought… frankly we thought you’d be more impressive.” The words must have hurt all the more coming from John the Baptist, one of the very first to point Jesus out as the Christ.
But John is stuck in prison, and he won’t be coming out in one piece. So a fair question, maybe? We’re familiar with Jesus’ reply: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” But his last sentence has always rocked me: “Blessed is anyone who does not fall away on account of me.”
Think about that: Blessed are those who don’t fall away because of Jesus. Because he is not enough for them. Because he is beneath them.
When Paul wrote to the Romans “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” he wasn’t merely saying that he wasn’t afraid to speak up publicly. The gospel was causing a lot of problems for the Roman church, bringing together ‘those Jews’ and ‘those Gentiles’ and all sorts of ‘those people’ – the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dying, the poor. That in turn meant layers of difficulty and tension. It certainly didn’t make life easy. Paul knew as well as anyone that Jesus can mess your life up. But he also knew this was the way God’s power works. It would bring salvation, upend an empire, change the world and lead to ultimate glory.
So I try to remember this when church is hard work, when ‘those people’ are frustrating, when progress seems slow and when God’s enemies seem to be winning. I hear Jesus saying “Blessed is anyone who does not fall away on account of me.” If those people and that path are not beneath him, they mustn’t be beneath me. Let’s keep learning not to look down on Jesus but to trust him and his way instead.
“In the unlikely event of an emergency, oxygen masks will fall from the ceiling.” If you’ve flown before, you know the drill. And the next part of the safety message: “Be sure to fit your own mask correctly before assisting others.” It makes sense, doesn’t it? The faster you get yourself sorted, the sooner you’ll be able to help others.
But it doesn’t seem to make sense to many of us sacred agents. When we share the gospel, we often forget that part. Calling people to a response – to ‘hurry up and get themselves sorted’ with God – seems a bit pushy to us. Aussies don’t like to be pushed. And Jesus isn’t pushy, is he? Is he?
Actually, the urgency of being reconciled to God is all through his teaching. “Reconcile quickly with your adversary, even on the way to the judge.” Won’t a king facing a stronger king “send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and ask for terms of peace”? And all those parables about being ready because we never know when we’ll face the Master.
Our news is not merely that God loves everyone. If our message can be met with “that’s good to know” or “that’s lovely to think about” then it’s much less than the gospel. Imagine Fred proposing to Helen over and over and getting that response … and then Helen’s agony when she sees Fred finally marry Susan instead! Jesus is not just the pilot announcing “It’s all going to be OK, go back to what you were doing.” He calls people to action – to come and belong to him and join his mission.
The people who do so – who emphatically and publicly say “Yes” to Christ in baptism,getting themselves quickly sorted with God – these are the ones who (masks fitted and breathing in the Spirit) will go on to help others also find life in Christ. For responsibility begins with a response.
“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself in Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation … We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5)
Just the word ‘evangelist’ seems to spook so many people. We can handle some people being called pastors, elders, deacons, worship leaders and administrators … but the role descriptor evangelist seems especially loaded. It’s in sore need of some demystification.
Scripture calls God’s people the body of Christ. The ministry of Jesus, the mission of God, continues by the Holy Spirit through us collectively. We have each been entrusted by God with a unique role to play and contribution to make to the whole, which is why I’m constantly emphasising that there are no lone sacred agents.
It’s good for us to have the words to describe the different kinds of ministries and ministers of the body in order for us to operate together well. The evangelist, in simple terms, is the mouth. Evangelists are the spokespeople of the church to the world. They tell the good news. Again, I emphasise that the whole body is on mission, that we all are called to be missionaries together. We’re all called to demonstrate God’s kingdom, but we’re not all called to articulate it.
So how do you know who is? Here’s a simple test: If your church was having an Open Day and inviting the whole neighbourhood to come for a look-see, who among you would you choose to say a few words of explanation of what your church is on about? For such a day you have a sense for who is better to be positioned behind the scenes (equally essential) and who is better out in front. Good evangelists have a knack for speaking to those with little knowledge of God, using words and ideas that they can relate to.
Evangelists come in many shapes and sizes. Our Queen is one of the world’s foremost evangelists. But closer to home, take my test and jot down some names. Who would you ask to say a few words explaining what your church is on about? Do they need some encouragement, support and development? And do they need to be released from other duties to grow more in evangelism?
Sacred agents need to be alert and ready for action. This is the third in a series on having our senses heightened by God’s Spirit. So far we’ve discussed Peripheral Vision and Eavesdropping. Stay tuned for Rat-Smelling and Detonator-Touching still to come…
If you haven’t seen The Princess Bride, then you must immediately, not least for the classic Battle of Wits scene between Vizzini and the Man in Black. It’s a challenge: To the death! For the princess! Which of the two goblets of wine has been poisoned with Iocane Powder? (It’s odourless, tasteless, deadly, and apparently an Australian export.) *Spoiler alert* Our hero in Black prevails only because he has built up immunity to Iocane over several years.
I don’t have to remind you sacred agents that there’s a lot of poison going round. On your journey of rescue you’ll face many battles-of-wits, where the binary options of fight and flight look equally unpalatable. Do you keep your head down and avoid the hostility? That doesn’t seem like Jesus. But nor does weighing in with hostility of your own. That’s where we need to be alert enough to see and select a third option Jesus offers us.
This is the option of engaging with hostile people with radical love that turns the other cheek and goes the extra mile. It’s a lot easier for me to type this than practice it, because cheek-blows and pack-carrying are both quite painful. But it’s the only thing that will really progress our journey of rescue and redemption. It’s God’s chosen way to change the world.
If following Jesus means getting up close and personal with a fair bit of poison, then we need to build up our immunity to it. Our first battle-of-wits is unlikely to be face to face with IS terrorists or the panel of The Project (not to compare them). It’s in the small barbs we’ll face each day from those we live and work with that we can practice Jesus’ redemptive presence and gradually build up our immunity to evil. It’s as we take to God in prayer the insults and pressures we face that we’ll build the capacity to absorb more.
Every day we can build our cross-carrying muscles, and thus stay in the adventure to rescue the princess and see True Love prevail.