November 6, 2016

Unstoppable Opportunities

My first youth camp experience came the summer after 7th grade.  Our youth leader had heard recently about a fairly new camp called Passport that was located in a couple of places around the Southeast.  That was a long way from home, but it seemed like a pretty good camp and so off we went to Chowan College.  The campus was beautiful—I’m sure it still is—but more importantly for me, the camp was amazing.  I loved every minute of it (even if I was so tired by the time the nightly worship services came around that I dozed off during the sermon pretty much every night…which just means that I can get too upset when people doze off while I’m preaching).  The experience was good enough that with a couple of exceptions we went back to Passport for the next several years and the group even continued going after I moved away to college.  We went to Daytona Beach, FL, William Jewel College (about 30 minutes north of the church I attended), Louisville, KY, Vale, CO twice.  I don’t really remember anything about any of the camps with the exception of a lesson about centering prayer in Vale, but what I do remember was that I gradually came to the conclusion that when I was old enough I was going to work for the Passport.  The staff was always awesome and seemed to have a great time.  Plus, they all had these really cool Passport backpacks that were only available to staff members.

As a result, during my junior year of college, once I had turned 21 and was old enough to work, I applied.  Now, I really didn’t know anything about the camp beyond my own experience.  I didn’t know that there was a pretty fierce competition for the few staff positions that were available.  I just knew that I wanted to apply and hopefully have the chance to impact kids along the lines of how previous staff members had impacted me.  So, I started the process.  I got online and filled out the application.  I lined up some folks from home who were willing to serve as references for me and gave them the forms they were required to fill out on my behalf.  Then I waited.  And waited.  And waited.  And finally I got an email from the human resources person letting me know that one of my references had never turned in his recommendation form.  What’s more, the deadline for getting all the application materials turned in had past and interviews were already being scheduled.  But, if he could get it turned in immediately they would see what they could do.  He must have turned in a killer recommendation because they granted me a late interview and I found out a few days later that I had the job.

So why does this matter?  It matters mostly because a few months later, I walked onto the campus of Spalding University, a Catholic school in downtown Louisville, KY, on what was essentially a chance encounter.  According to all their hiring policies which were clearly stated during the application process I should never have been given a second look when my reference never did what he said he would do.  It was an incredible stroke of…let’s call it “luck” for now…that I was there in the first place.  And then as I walked to the front door of the dorm that would be home for the next seven weeks, there to greet the few of us who were arriving was this stunningly beautiful girl who immediately attracted my attention to the exclusion of everyone else.  I still remember first laying eyes on her.  It was like the world stopped for a moment and nothing else mattered.  I believe the proper expression here was “love at first sight.”  It took me most of the rest of the summer to very subtly convince her to feel the same way, but God was doing something so it worked.  And because of this one chance encounter…I’m here preaching to you this morning.

Have you ever thought about all the “chance” encounters we have in our lives and the things that have happened because of them?  What if all of those weren’t chance at all, but God up to something and you just happened to have the presence of mind to notice later?  What if there were even more “chance” encounters you could have that would result in hearts, minds, and whole lives being transformed by the Gospel?  Would you be interested in knowing more about how to take them?

This morning we are in the fourth part of our teaching series, Unstoppable Gospel.  If you’re just catching the series for the first time this morning, you are coming in at the halfway point in the movie where things are just starting to get really good.  If you want to find out what you’ve missed you can go to the website to catch the full transcripts and audio versions.  Still, though, allow me to offer a quick “previously on Unstoppable Gospel” for you.

We started out three weeks ago with a grand celebration of everything God has been and is doing around here.  Over the course of that celebration we talked about the fact that we have an unstoppable mission as Christians.  Our mission of advancing the kingdom of God into His world cannot be stopped.  It cannot even be slowed.  When we are about God’s kingdom work, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to spread the Gospel.  There is no power that can stand against Him.

A couple of weeks ago we looked a little closer and saw that our unstoppable mission is driven by an equally unstoppable message.  This message is one of hope and encouragement; of conviction and love.  It is a message that can overwhelm even the hardest of hearts and transform lives as it goes.  It is simple, but powerful: Jesus died for our sins, rose again, and reigns as Lord.  In our unstoppable mission of advancing the kingdom, this unstoppable message is the good news we are declaring.

And yet, as powerful as this unstoppable message is, it does not exist without an equally unstoppable context.  That context is love.  Our message is founded upon the unstoppable love of God.  His is a love (that is, an intentional decision to see someone else become more fully who God designed them to be) that flows ever-outward, always looking for an object.  The result is that when His love flows into us, it naturally flows through us to the people around us.  As a church, if we are truly experiencing the love of God within our midst, we will know it because we will be reaching out into our community with that love—and not just or even primarily to other Christians, much less just church members, but to all the people around us who are in need of experiencing its life-changing embrace.  Loving people is a powerful expression of loving God.  As a matter of fact, unless we are loving people after the pattern of Christ it is debatable whether we really have His love.

Well, while we started to move in this direction a bit last week in part three of our series, this morning and for the next couple of weeks I want to get even more practical with you.  And I want to do it by asking this question: What does it look like when all this other stuff we’ve been talking about gets put into practice?  The answer we might be expecting is something flashy or fancy.  But the truth is that it often happens in a way that feels entirely more like serendipity than anything quite so grand as a Damascus Road sort of experience.  When our unstoppable mission driven by our unstoppable message in the context of God’s unstoppable love all come together at one place and time more often than not all we see is a “chance” encounter the result of which is a spiritual explosion that may not be felt or even noticed for some time.  Our challenge is to be aware of what God is doing around us so we can jump in when He extends the invitation.  When God is at work, no matter how small the thing may seem to us, there is a great deal more going on than we think.

Luke records an episode like this for us in Acts 3.  After the miracle that was Pentecost and the initial explosion of the church, life went on for all the disciples—that is, all the members of the church.  After Pentecost Luke starts calling the original twelve disciples “apostles” and starts calling everyone else in the church “disciples.”  In any event, while they had an awesome community together, they still had to integrate into their former lives that had not stopped.  They still went to work and engaged with their neighbors.  They still all considered themselves Jews and so went to the temple on a regular basis for prayer and worship.  They took the Gospel message with them everywhere they went, but they still went.  That is, after all, what Jesus told us to do: make disciples as we are going.  Well, one afternoon Peter and John were going up to the temple together in order to pray like the good Jews they were.  What they could not have known was that they were about to stumble onto one of God’s “chance” encounters and that the resulting spiritual explosion was going to be huge.

Now, to go up to the temple in those days was quite an experience.  Luke tells us that they entered the gate called the Beautiful Gate.  Josephus, the Jewish-Roman historian describes the temple gates like this: “Of the gates nine were completely covered with gold and silver, as were the posts and lintels, but the one outside the Sanctuary was of Corinthian bronze, and far more valuable than those overlaid with silver or even with gold.  Every gateway had double doors, each half being 45 feet high and 22½ wide.  On the inner side however the gateways widened out, and on either hand there was a gate-room 45 feet square, shaped like a tower and over 60 feet high.  Each rom was supported by two pillars 16 feet round.  The other gates were all of the same size, but the one beyond the Corinthian gate, opening out from the court of the Women on the east and facing the gate of the Sanctuary, was much bigger; for its height was 75 feet, that of the doors 50, and the decoration was more magnificent, the gold and silver plates being extremely thick.”

As I said: Quite an experience.  On the outside of this beautiful gate were many beggars of varying sorts.  Many of them would have been lame.  They waited there hoping some of the entering worshipers would give them some alms.  This was a hope often realized because almsgiving was important in the Jewish religion of the day, but also because that close to the temple, most folks believed their charity there would somehow count double in their favor with God.  On this particular occasion Peter and John were solicited by a particular man who had been lame since birth.

Luke describes the scene like this starting in Acts 3: “Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour.”  This was one of the two daily sacrifices that happened in the temple during which a lamb was slaughtered and the people gathered there—hundreds, possibly thousands—worshiped and prayed together.  Think of the scenes of people gathered in St. Peter’s Square for the Pope’s Easter Mass.  So Peter and John were in the great crowd of people streaming into the temple, “and a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple that is called the Beautiful Gate to ask alms of those entering the temple.”  This man no doubt cried out to as many people as he could that day.  When begging you want to cast as wide a net as you can.  But for some reason his eyes were drawn to the pair of apostles.  Verse 3: “Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked to receive alms.”  Now, he expected that they would throw a couple of coins his way and go on like everybody else did.  What happened was something else entirely.  Now verse 4: “And Peter directed his gaze at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us.’  And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them.  But Peter said, ‘I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you.  In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!’”

I can imagine the man laughing out loud.  This was ridiculous.  All he wanted was a few coins so he could buy a bit of bread and olives for dinner and these two loonies were telling him to walk.  If he could have walked he wouldn’t have been there in the first place.  What arrogance on their part to make such a command!  But then this happened: “And [Peter] took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.  And leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them [probably for the first time ever], walking and leaping and praising God.  And all the people saw him walking and praising God, and recognized him as the one who sat at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, asking for alms.  And they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.”

Guess what happens next?  Kind of like at Pentecost, this awesome display of the power of Christ gives Peter an opportunity to explain to the people what just happened.  Much like he did on the day of Pentecost, he proclaims the Gospel with great power, and, after he and John are arrested by the temple guards at the behest of the religious leaders of the Jews, another 2,000 people become followers of Jesus.  All of this from what would have seemed to anybody who was watching to be a chance encounter.  But the truth was that this was nothing of the sort.  This was a divine appointment and Peter and John were sufficiently tuned into the Spirit to meet it.  What’s more, this kind of apparently random encounter leading to a spiritual explosion was by no means something limited to the apostles of the first century.  This is something that any one of us can have when we join our heavenly Father in His work in this world to connect people to Christ.

A few months ago researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago discovered that at the moment when a human egg is fertilized, the cell releases a cascade of zinc atoms which bond with some other molecules on their way out of the cell causing a momentary flash of phosphorescence.  In plain language, the moment a human being is conceived, the original cell sets off a kind of microscopic fireworks display.  It’s God celebrating the creation of life at the tiniest of levels.  Well, when a person connects with Christ and is reborn, something along the same lines happens spiritually.  These spiritual explosions often catch others in their wake prompting even more spiritual explosions as more people are connected to Christ.  But, do you know which catalyst God uses most often in these spiritual eruptions?  Us.  You and me.  He does the heart work, but He prefers to use people to offer the final nudge that lights the fuse.  And guess what form these nudges often take: Apparently chance encounters.  They happen in our daily interactions with the people around us.  They happen as we go to the store or go to work or work in the yard or any number of other things we do on a regular basis.  God is constantly at work in the lives of the people around us.  And because we can’t see that, we never know when someone is at the point that just a bit of a nudge of love from us will put them over the edge and see them connect with Christ.  We intersect daily with people who need Christ.  If we will take advantage of these unstoppable opportunities as did Peter and John, the potential for us to be involved in life-changing, kingdom-advancing work is unlimited.

But what really do we do with all of this?  I mean, it sounds good to talk about making the most of all the “chance” encounters during our day in light of this fact that we intersect daily with people who need Christ, but what does it look like in practice?  How do we take concrete steps in this direction?  It doesn’t seem like simply shooting in the dark and getting really aggressive in sharing the Gospel every chance we get is going to make many converts or friends.  Besides, our goal is to make disciples, not mere converts.  Yet this idea is still right there: We intersect daily with people who need Christ.  How do we make the most of these unstoppable opportunities?

First, we learn to hold all of our plans lightly and with an eye toward what God might be doing around us.  This is harder to do than it is to say.  Even for the most change-oriented folks among us, still, we all naturally long for a comfortable, reliable place of stability in our lives.  When we have something planned, we don’t want that interrupted by anything else.  I can confess that I’m really bad about this.  I tend to get lodged in a routine and sometimes can’t bring myself to break out of it even when I need to do so.  Just ask my wife if you don’t believe me.  If we are going to capitalize on the unstoppable opportunities God places before us we can’t do this.  The way we make a change here is to introduce a bit of discipline into our lives.  Before you make any plans for the day stop and say a prayer like this: Lord, my time and schedule are in your hands today.  I am going to make some plans for what I want to see accomplished, but more than that, help me to be ready to accomplish what you have for me to do even if it means everything on my list doesn’t get checked as completed.  Then, as you go throughout your day, pause in each different setting and offer another prayer: Father, is there anybody around me who needs to hear the message of the Gospel right now?  Please move my heart in that person’s direction and give me the words to start up a conversation with them that will lead to an opportunity to share the Gospel with them.  These are prayers that God will answer as we pray them consistently and with an open heart to what He has to say.

Second, while going through our days with our eyes and ears open to what God might be doing in the world around us is good, for some of us, our routines are such that we are shielded from much of God’s work.  I can speak personally to this one as well.  While being in my position can result in a lot of God-involved-in-His-world opportunities being dropped at my feet, the reality is that they’re not quite so common as you might think.  This is especially true when you consider how long my commute to work is and how many people are at the church on a regular day.  If I’m not careful, I can get in a place where I don’t encounter non-Christians with any kind of regularity.  I’ll confess: that’s a problem.  The solution to this, however, is to find ways to change our routine a bit and actively seek to put ourselves in a place where we are likely to encounter people in need to receiving the unstoppable love of God so they can hear our unstoppable message.  For me this has taken the form making sure I go with our boys to their practices of various kinds and to be willing to go another step beyond that to get out of my introverted comfort zone and engage with the parents of the other kids.  That’s me, though.  What might this look like for you?  If I can brag on my wife a bit, her doing this very thing at the preschool where she works has resulted in some folks getting connected with our community here who would not have done so otherwise.  It was natural.  She developed relationships with the students and their parents and as these “chance” encounters have presented themselves, she has extended an invitation to connect with what we have going on here where they can connect with Christ.  This kind of stuff does not take a superhero or a rocket scientist or even a super Christian (although Lisa is all of those things).  No, it takes someone willing to pay attention to what God is doing in His world and join Him when He calls them.  With even a little bit of effort we intersect daily with people who need Christ.  We need only share the news when the moment comes.

But, it is easy to fall into a pattern in which we miss all of these times.  The third thing we need, then, is this: If we are going to be aware of what God is doing in the world around us, then we must be in constant communication with Him.  We’ve got to make regular and active prayer a prominent feature in our lives.  But, the approach hand nature of those prayers is important here.  It’s not enough to pray for the few people on our prayer list in the morning and before bed.  We need to commit to actively asking God to place these kinds of opportunities in our path and to equip us with all the tools we are going to need to engage in them in ways that will honor Him most.  You should at all times have a list of 2-3 people you are praying for who are not Christians.  If they become Christians—which is the goal after all—you need to find more.  But don’t just pray, “Lord draw their hearts to You.”  Instead, go one step further.  Pray: ‘Lord, use me to draw their hearts to You.  Provide some opportunities for me to share the Gospel with them today, help me recognize those opportunities, and give me the words to say when I get there.”  Then, be on the lookout because that is a prayer God will answer.  We interest daily with people who need Christ.  Faithfulness to what He has commanded us to do requires that we look to make the most of these opportunities.  It requires us to get entirely more intentional about them than perhaps we are right now.

Now, is this uncomfortable?  Yeah, it can be sometimes…especially if you’re an introvert.  But, just like Peter and John made clear that they were not acting on their own, we never walk into these situations alone.  Now, we need to make sure we are preparing in advance by learning the reasons for our faith and how to answer some basic common objections people might have to the Christian faith—God’s not in the business of putting knowledge in our brains that isn’t there in the first place; that’s not what Jesus meant when He said the Spirit would give us the words to say—but we will be acting with the Spirit’s power and as we have already seen, that’s more than enough to get the job done.  It’s more than enough power to help us offer the nudge in those daily intersections with people who need Christ that will push them further toward the kingdom of God than they were before.  Sometimes we’ll be there when they cross the line and get to see the spiritual explosion like Peter and John were.  But more often than not, we will be the catalyst that helps move them in the right direction.  That may not seem glamorous, but it is being faithful.  And when we are faithful in these unstoppable opportunities, we will be a part of a whole display of spiritual fireworks.  It’s a display we may not see now, but when the kingdom comes, we’ll get to enjoy the show to the great glory of God and the great delight of us.  We intersect daily with people who need Christ.  Let us take these unstoppable opportunities and with the unstoppable love of God, share the unstoppable message of the unstoppable Gospel, and see our unstoppable mission brought to completion.