Possessing and Sharing Real Hope

Millions of people have purchased tickets for tonight’s Powerball game, hoping to win the $500 million jackpot.  To say that this hope is of a fleeting nature would probably be insulting to other fleeting hopes for the odds of winning are 1 in 175,000,000.  In comparison, according to the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA), the odds of being hit by lightning in a given year are 1 in 700,000 and the odds of being hit once in an average lifespan are 1 in 3000.  Knowing that millions of people are purchasing tickets to be the one to defy these incredible odds and win that jackpot tells me that people are very much interested in and are chasing something that might bring hope.

What is hope, though?  Sometimes, I think this is a word that, though spoken often, may not be accurately known by many people.  And, I also think that Christians have so often connected the word hope to the message of good news that its true meaning has been lost in some picture of something that affects a person in the far-off future of eternity.  As I have been preparing for my Advent sermon series which begins this coming Sunday, the Spirit has been directing my thoughts to the connection of hope, the good news of Jesus coming and evangelism.

At its core, hope is the desire for something better such as a better life reality for one’s self or one’s children.  It could be a desire for a better society.  It could be a desire for the needs of those in need to be met.  Boiled down, it means wanting a better tomorrow than today.  It speaks to real situations, not theoretical ones or ones that will only be seen in some “sweet by and by” reality.

When Jesus came, he came offering hope.  This hope wasn’t just for some future time period, but for the present.  In Luke 4, Jesus finds himself in a synagogue and he reads a passage from the prophet Isaiah.  When he had finished reading, he told those in the room that the words he had read had been fulfilled in their hearing because Jesus had fulfilled them.  Here is what he said about himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  These words contain the essence of the gospel, which means good news.  When, then,  should news be considered “good?”  When that news is favorable towards me and improves the situation in which I currently find myself, that is good news.  News that is not good would do the opposite.  For example, a good fight is one you win; a bad fight is one in which you get your brains beat in and lose.  The good news that Jesus was proclaiming not only brought hope but had that hope realized in people’s current life reality.  I have been discovering that, at least from my Christian upbringing, this hope is far too often “spiritualized” and doesn’t have really anything to do with today and this reality.  If the hope of the good news is only for a future time and not also today, it’s no wonder this message of “good news” is falling many times on deaf ears.

And this brings me to the topic of evangelism.  There is a direct connection between the mission of Jesus, as found in Luke 4, and what we as Jesus-followers are to be doing.  Jesus told his disciples in John 14:12 that “anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.  He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.  And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.  You may ask me for anything in my name and I will do it.”  Luke 4 is the essence of what Jesus came to do – his mission.  We, as his followers, are to continue his mission and go even further than he did during his 3+ years of physical ministry on earth.  What that means is that the hope proclaimed must become more of a life reality for people with each passing generation.  Unfortunately, I believe that in the eyes of many people in this world, this hope, for all intents and purposes, has only resulted in exchanging one taskmaster for another.  Christianity, for many, is seen to only be another way in which to control people, telling them what they must and must not do and then judging them about how well they are doing.  This reality is shameful and really does an injustice to God and the true good news of Jesus.

What this means for evangelism is this: I must be seeking ways to inject real hope into the current life reality of people and show these people the foundational connection between that real hope and the good news of Jesus.  As a citizen of the kingdom of God, I must be demonstrating the benefits of that citizenship.  As a citizen, I have the right to expect certain realities in my life, expectations that a non-citizen does not have the right to expect.  Even though it has often been used as a cliché or pat answer, the truth of Romans 8:28 is still true: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him who have been called according to his purpose.  What should be the normal experience for a citizen of the kingdom of God is “falling into good situations,” situations in which he/she finds him/herself uniquely positioned to bring glory to God and build his kingdom through demonstrating the real hope in which we live every day.  I believe this is what the Spirit does for each and every citizen every day.

The implications of this view of evangelism are many, but I believe they boil down to one thing – relationships.  We must be deepening the existing relationships we have with people who are currently not citizens of the kingdom of God while seeking to create new ones with those people God causes to intersect our path.  It means that I must take the time to get to know a person, his/her reality and how the true and real hope I possess as a citizen can be best communicated.  It means inside that relationship I must be who I truly am; I must be myself and not put on a front.

So, for those of us who are citizens of the kingdom of God through a relationship with Jesus, with whom have we been demonstrating and sharing this real hope?  Have we been doing it in existing relationships?  Are we seeking to create new relationships?  Frankly, the aspect of demonstrating and sharing real and true hope is what excites me about relationships, both established and new.  It is why I call following the leading of the Holy Spirit in this way one exciting ride.



The Battle of the Public Square

One of the things that I do on a regular basis is read.  I read books, news articles, op-ed pieces among others.  I do this so as to stay informed about what is happening in the world and what people are thinking in an attempt to understand the culture around me.  It is my position that this is very important for not only a Christian leader to do, but all Christians.  I read from sources which are conservative and those which are liberal and some from the middle in order to gain a whole understanding.  

I hold this view because I believe it is crucial for a follower of Jesus to have, what I call, one foot in the Word and one foot in the World.  One foot in the Word means that I understand God’s truth, his gospel, his character and desires while one foot in the World means that I understand the people, culture and times around me in order to best connect the Word with the World.  If I have two feet in the Word, but not one in the World, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to actually answer questions people are truly asking.  This approach has as a natural outcome people not truly seeing the relevance of God’s truth in their lives.  If I have two feet in the World, but not one in the Word, then I am really adrift with no foundation or anchor to guide how I respond to different situations and circumstances and people.  I have no foundation in hope which is something that all people crave.  I believe the Apostle Paul utilized the one foot – one foot method.  Read Acts 17 for an example.

Through news articles, I have been following a lawsuit involving a nativity scene and the city of Santa Monica, CA.  Here is the link for the latest article I found: http://radio.foxnews.com/toddstarnes/top-stories/judge-denies-bid-to-save-nativity.html.  Personally, I have no problem with the city not allowing any displays, whether Christian, Jewish, some other religion, or atheist.  Two things stood out to me as I read the piece.  First was the quote from William Becker, the attorney for the Christian group.  Becker said, “The next step will be for them to stop any religious speech at all in a public park — whether it’s singing hymns or merely handing out leaflets or merely discussing religion. One day it will all be banned.”  To equate the erecting of a display on public property to engaging people in civil discourse about spiritual and religious matters on the same ground is a big leap.  If a church decides to hold a worship service might a permit to do so be required?  Sure, but I have to believe that an atheistic group would also need to have a permit in order to hold a formal gathering in the same place.  To think that the disallowing of a nativity display is the start down the road to speech and thought police seeking out anyone having a conversation of a spiritual or religious nature with someone so as to stop them from doing so in places like this I find absurd.

The second thing that came to my mind is why do those who have been erecting this display for so many years find it important to have it displayed?  Do they somehow believe that by looking at something with which a person is very familiar  that person will  consider the message of the gospel?  For them, is it a type of evangelism, albeit the “hit-and-run” variety?  I have been coming face-to-face lately with the reality that the things that are considered “essential” to getting the message of hope in Jesus Christ out are not essential.  If these types of displays and the like were essential to the spread of the message of Jesus Christ, how in the world did the church survive in the first 3 centuries when it was illegal to be a Christian and persecution abounded?  Effective evangelism is a life full of the hope, love, grace, mercy and forgiveness of God displayed and proclaimed.  It is a life which proclaims and displays the character, heart and desires of a God who sent his Son to earth because he loved, and still loves, us.

I have no idea how much this group has spent on legal fees because of this case.  I must wonder, though, how else could this money have been spent?  Instead of spending it this way, how about spending it on a cause that truly brings about real hope for those suffering some type of injustice?  The issue of human trafficking is near and dear to my heart.  The issue of the church proclaiming and working to bring about justice for those oppressed is right next to the issue of human trafficking.  The issue of people, and many children, going to be hungry because they do not have the resources to put food in their stomachs forms the Triad of Issues in my heart.  

These are the issues that are truly important, not whether or not a Christian group is allowed to erect and display a nativity scene on publicly owned property.  Jesus did not enter this world so a group could fight to have a nativity scene displayed in a city-owned park; he came, as he said, to “announce the gospel to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and give recovery of sight to the blind and to release those who are oppressed.”

I agree with Jim Martin, a vice-president with International Justice Mission and author of The Just Church, when he writes, “The call to the work of justice is not God sending his church out to a place where God cannot be found.  Rather, God is inviting us into the place where he is already at work.  It is here, among the world’s most vulnerable, that the Good News of God turns out to be very good indeed.  In the work of justice, our good God is offering us what we so deeply desire in our churches.  In the work of justice, God is beckoning us to experience his profound love for us and for the vulnerable of this world.  The call to fight against injustice is therefore the call to intimacy with God and to deep discipleship.”