Quest for Fire

(Acts 2:1-21) – J G White
11 am, Pentecost Sunday, June 9, 2019 – UBC Digby

It’s been a long time since I watched the 1981 film, Quest for Fire, about a primitive tribe of ‘cavemen,’ who are seeking a new technology we call fire.  The tribe had fire, but it goes out; they do not know how to start it again. They send a few of their warriors out to find fire. In time, they discover from another tribe the secret of starting fire on their own. 

In a sense, we are on a quest for fire in our reality, here and now.  And no, I don’t mean deciding upon the best energy source: coal, oil, biomass, wind, solar, hydro or nuclear. I mean the spiritual fire that gives energy to human souls and human faith communities.  

Many branches of Christianity celebrate today as Pentecost Sunday, with the story of Acts 2. The Holy Spirit comes with power upon the disciples of Jesus gathered in Jerusalem. The Church is born, we say.

Two thousand years later: what is your spiritual quest for fire?  What is of greatest interest to you, a spiritual being, may be different from what attracts me.  I looked for a few, illustrated in the Biblical story of Pentecost, in Acts 2.

There is, of course: The Quest for Fire in our personal life of Faith.  I think of the lines of a classic, Holy Spirit hymn.  

I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
No sudden rending of the veil of clay,
No angel visitant, no opening skies;
But, take the dimness of my soul away.

(Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart, George Croly, 1780-1860)

We speak and sing so much, as church people, of the individual walk with God, the personal experience of salvation and obedience, the potential for spiritual growth.  And we have the experience in our lives of simply needing the dimness of my soul taken away.

The biblical story today takes place seven weeks after Jesus came back to life, resurrected. Fifty days. His followers are obediently waiting in the city for the promised arrival of the Spirit, whatever that means. Then, during the next big Jewish festival, it happens.  

Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit… (2:3-4)

Perhaps you feel, you feel you know, that this is what is needed. For believers to get fired up, get Spirit-filled, be revived. You want it for yourself; you want it for others around you. I believe a key thing we do to be ready for this is the practice of spiritual disciplines: prayer, fasting, confession, worship, study, simplicity, meditation, and so forth.

For some of you, something else, more cosmic, is important to you, as a Christian.  The Quest for Fire of the Last Days: the Second Coming of Christ. The quest to understand this, and be ready, be watching, as Jesus taught us to be.

Once the powerful and supernatural things happened that Pentecost day in Jerusalem, disciple Peter gets up to explain, to preach. He takes as his text one of the fiery prophets. This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”  (2:16-17)

The last days. We know there has been so much taught, and written, and preached about the second coming to us of our Messiah. Some of you have found this so interesting, so important, so compelling.  Some of us read, years ago, the Left Behind novels, about future days when the things of Revelation, and Daniel, and Mark 13, and so on, come to pass.  

There are several complicated systems of understanding the second coming of Christ, the apocalypse, the end times, the rapture, the final judgement, and all the rest of it. I have never settled on a way to put it all together for myself. I need to keep it simple.  [Our own Basis of Union for the Baptists of Atlantic Canada, from 1906, includes this article, which keeps things to a minimum:

General Judgement — There will be a judgement of quick and dead, of the just and unjust, on the principles of righteousness, by the Lord Jesus Christ, at His second coming. The wicked will be condemned to eternal punishment, and the righteous received into fullness of eternal life and joy.

Our Basis of Union allows us freedom-loving Baptists to have a lot of different opinions on the last days and the second coming.]

We know the frequent Biblical commands to be watchful, be waiting, be prepared. Part of our preparedness is to see and celebrate the breaking in now of the Kingdom of God, before the finale.  

Beyond all this, I think that so many people of the pews are quite interested in this: The Quest for Fire in the glorious Light of Heaven.  Are some of you focused, in your faith, on heaven and its glory?

Beyond what John read for us from Acts 2, Peter goes on in his Pentecost sermon to say of Christ: God raised Him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.  (2:24)  Death does not get the last word. There is life, life eternal!

Maybe you see, like I do, the strong connections people feel with deceased loved ones. We count on the grace of God in Jesus Christ to be reunited with them. And there are the highly motivated Christians, who are deeply concerned for their unsaved loved- ones and neighbours. We want the bright glory of heaven for them all. Just as our God wants this for them all. Some of this motivates the next quest.

The Quest for Fire in the fiery Truth to be spoken and win the day! Peter ends his sermon about Jesus saying: Therefore, let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified. (2:36)

The 23 verses here that tell us Peter’s sermon are surely just the synopsis. At the funeral for Rev. Dr. Randy Legassie on Friday, we were reminded of Randy’s advice to preachers, even preachers in Africa: sermons should not be longer than twenty minutes!  Surely Peter’s full sermon on the day of Pentecost was actually a full twenty minutes.

And what Peter sounded like, the energy and force of his preaching, we can but imagine. Most Holy Spirit hymns and songs are so gentle and sweet. The fired-up sermon is not so. And that’s what some Xians look for and long for today. Maybe you also. There is also that longing for the voice of the preacher to be heard again in our whole land, and influence our Canadian culture. We must speak the Truth today!

You who are here often know I continue to quote the Church leaders and scholars who tell us we must understand our times, and understand our people. This knowledge is something the Spirit will use in us, to influence our wider world.

I see also one more, a fifth spiritual quest of Christians.  The Quest for Fire in the Renewal of the Church today.  We read the whole of Acts 2 to be completely inspired and instructed. We love this success story.  After Peter preached, we hear: So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. (2:41)

I think you know as well as I do, that I tend to harp on about things of this nature.  How can we, who come in here, be changed, to make a greater difference out there?

In a sense, I have just given you one multiple choice question, with five possible answers. What is your spiritual quest? What kind of spiritual fire do you want to see rekindled?

I think there is another question to be asked; and this, at last, is my point today. What is God’s Quest for Fire? What does the Holy Spirit desire, and design, and do among us now?  What you or I want is not as important as what the flow of the Spirit actually is. What is God’s spiritual quest, among us?

Step back from Acts 2 and notice how it all happened. It was planned. It was prepared. It was prompted by the Spirit.  Not the choice of the believers, those waiting disciples. Yes, they were trained. Yes, they were obedient. Yes, they were praying. But they did not make Pentecost happen.

Nor do we renew ourselves or our churches or our neighbourhoods – without the will and way of God.  We can do a lot of fake firing things up, in our religion. But the Holy Spirit is the One who brings new life, in new ways.  

Turning Point

(Acts 2:1-4; John 14:15-17, 25-26; 15:26-27; 16:7-14) – J G White
11 am, Pentecost Sunday, May 20, 2018 – UBC Digby

A major turning point comes in the scripture story of Pentecost Sunday.  What Carol read and the choir sang is the fulfilment of all those words Jesus had spoken.  The Holy Spirit appeared; Christianity was born! What a turning point.

Are we at a turning point? Is this a defining moment for us?  Some of you in this congregation may feel it is. And it may well be, for good reasons.

Did you read the leaflet last week called OASIS 2018: TURNING POINT?  We are part of a family of about 450 Baptist Churches in Atlantic Canada.  And as this whole group meets in August (we call it Oasis) we will catch a vision of where we see we are. Baptist or not, this may be true for you.  The pamphlet says:

We are at a Turning Point.
This is a defining moment in our history as a family of churches.  The choices we make now will have ripple effects for generations to come.
A Turning Point is an opportunity to make a change that will impact the future.  Will we make the right choice?  The right choice is not always the easy or pain-free choice.
We have an opportunity to reshape our future now.  We believe in a great future for the church in Atlantic Canada and the part that the CBAC will play.
Oasis 2018 will focus on what is required of us as a family of churches if we’re going to make a difference joining God in our neighbourhoods.
CBAC staff will be the main speakers at Oasis 2018.  They will help us zero in on our three priorities where we must focus our resources and energy.
By 2025 we’ll see:

  • 300 Mission Edge Churches
  • 65 New Congregations
  • 75 emerging Pastor Leaders (total of 150 pastor leaders)

We believe that we’ll see a God-dream of 3000 Baptisms in one year by 2025.  What an exciting dream! We need 3000 people praying for this. Will you join us?

This lays out the emphasis of our leadership in Atlantic Canada now.  For other hints, just look at the seminars being offering at the gathering in August.  These tell you what we believe in doing.
The Worn Path: moving your church to hospitality
Belonging Precedes Believing
Refugee Ministry: a global way to join God in your nieghbourhood
Fresh expressions for the Mission Edge Church
Being Real: mission edge and the smaller church
Joining God in Our Neighbourhoods & Networks
All this is responding to the present crisis in local churches.  It is about us at the grass-roots. About us.

So, right here, close to home… have you thought that our [your] church is “on the downhill slide?”  This may well be true. I don’t say this because our offerings to the end of April were $2,200 less than we budgeted.  I don’t say this because our expenditures were $8,000 more than our income so far. I say we may be ‘on the downhill slide’ because of other warning signs.  Christian leaders say things like this:

11 Signs Your Church Is Going Extinct (not all eleven…)

  1. Decline has made you cautious
  2. Your affection for the past is greater than your excitement for the future
  3. You mostly listen to the voices of the current members
  4. Your conflict is about the wrong things
  5. Any growth you have is transfer growth

That’s from Carey Nieuwhof of Orillia, ON.

Another expert says: When a church is dying, these are [some of] the common responses.

  • Blame society: It is the world’s fault that the church is not growing.  
  • Seek to save/raise money to help keep the church open.  Bills must be paid. Buildings must be maintained. Establish an endowment fund.
  • Make the members/leaders feel guilty.  Obviously it is someone’s fault.

That’s from Stephen McMullin of St. John / ADC.  These are the warning signs of ill health in the fellowship of believers, in whatever town or city.

This morning we celebrate the Spirit with us in our lives. We heard from Jesus, in his long talk with the twelve disciple, before He was to leave them.  Since He would soon die, and within a month leave them, they were promised they would not be alone. God the Spirit would be with them all.  Do ya suppose God is with us still?

In His first phrase about the Spirit, Jesus said the Spirit of Truth would be with them forever.  Secondly, Jesus says the Advocate will teach and remind them of everything. Thirdly, the Comforter will tell about Jesus, once Jesus is gone.  Fourthly, the Helper will set the record straight about what is wrong in our world, what is right, and how it gets sorted out. And Fifthly, Jesus said the Spirit of Truth will share what comes from God.  Speak what He hears.

We are not lacking Jesus, two thousand years after His lifetime here.  Jesus died, then came back to life, and then left this earthly life, yes.  But God is still with us, Emmanuel. In Spirit. As a wise old pastor, John Bartol, says: the Holy Spirit is like another Jesus.  One with us here, always.  

I am excited here when I see you being stirred up, stirred up to do good.  Stirred up by the Spirit? Yes.

At least three of you – who are seniors – are interested in making some good things happen for seniors. Let’s get together and make things happen.

A group of you are serving and training to help with our children on Sundays. We’re off to a good start.

A couple of you are planning to start a new small group in the fall for care and sharing and support of one another.  

A few of you are keen to learn – to learn basics about the Bible, to learn prayer; or to find ways to have deep conversations and be well fed.  

A group of you are getting on board to help our newcomer friends from Syria bring some of their family members here.  

And a number of you are thinking creatively about how we finance what we do together here.

It is not just our Baptist Convention, CBAC, that is prompting us to be a mission station based in downtown Digby.  God the Spirit is in our moves, our motives, our minds, our melting hearts.

A turning point can come when we feel a crisis coming on, and turn to God.  When we wait together for the Spirit to fill and fulfill.

And at the turning point, we can join in, and become one of the 300 ‘Mission Edge’ Baptist Churches.  A local group that knows we are here and we are together to make a difference among the people of Digby County, and beyond.  A group that can consider changes and make hard choices for the sake of our good work with God. A group that joins the 3000 people praying over the next six years for 3000 people to come to faith in Christ.  

We are at a turning point.  Will we turn?

AMEN.

Some of the Spirit

(Numbers 11:24-30; Acts 2:1-21) J G White

Pentecost Sunday, June 4, 2017, UBC Digby

On Pentecost Sunday the Church celebrates the infusing of God the Holy Spirit into the people of Jesus, and birthing the Christian Church.  We just read part of the story, in Acts 2.  We also look back upon the various ways recorded in the Bible of people becoming ‘spirit-filled.’

If you are sometimes like me, you don’t necessary long to be ‘spirit-filled.’ But you do want a bit more of God, some of the Spirit.  An old hymn prays:
I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
no sudden rending of the veil of clay,
no angel visitant, no opening skies;
but take the dimness of my soul away. (George Croly, 1854)

Numbers 11 – the Spirit poured out upon the 70 elders working with Moses.  Two elders not at the Tent…

This happened in a time of crisis, a season of stress for these thousands of weary pilgrims, transients in the desert.  The scene Peter read of us is in the midst of the Israelites hungering.  They are sick of manna; they long for the cucumbers and melons, leeks and garlic they had, even as slaves, in Egypt.  Moses, their leader, is worn out by his troublesome people.

So they gather.  The elders gather in the place of prayer and the presence of Holiness.  After a time of spirit- filled prophecy, God gives them quail… an abundance of birds to eat each day.  In fact, they are cursed with too many quail, so they become sick of them too!

And if you read on in the book of Number you see the stresses continue. In chapter 12, Moses own brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, revolt and try to mutiny!

At the heart of these hard days, God blesses the leaders – and the whole people – with the spirit-filled moment.  This poignant phrase is used: ‘some of the Spirit.’  Some of the spirit of God that was upon Moses is shared with the seventy elders who helped Moses.  As if the Spirit can be carefully parcelled out with measuring cups and spoons.

Oh, how we could use ‘some of the Spirit, in our wilderness time,’ we might say.  Such is our longing.  Naturally, we think of what we want in term of what we have known in our lives of faith.  

  • Worship attendance ~ faithfulness
  • $$ givings up, tithing
  • Multi-generational
  • Holy, moral living people
  • Influence and a voice in the community/world
  • Music like we like
  • Denominational identity: Baptist Christians

We want ‘some of the Spirit’ in all our people to make the Church great again!

The Holy Spirit will teach and do with us as God wants.  God’s agenda.  God’s timing.  Not necessarily with our specific goals in mind.  

The new goals of the people, filled with some of the Spirit, might be like these in our day:

  • count conversations, instead of conversions
  • celebrate individual ministries
  • find ministry outside the Tent, the church building
  • Church ministry base on giftedness of people
  • regard as holy the many new social ways people connect and have fellowship
  • readiness to be smaller in number and use smaller facilities and resources

The work of a small Church in a community can take many forms, these days.  A decade ago a friend was pastor of a very small church on the edge of the woods in Kings County.  One thing they developed was a prayer ministry.  They simply prayed for people on Sundays, and other occasions… and, they were getting answers.  Because of this, they started getting prayers requests from all over.  They took them, and they prayed.  

Dr. Stephen McMullin of Acadia Divinity College tells of his research, and of one Church in the states that was in an area of a city with lots of techie computer work, and a lot of the church people worked in that industry.  The Church had aimed to reach those people for Christ, and part of their plan was to offer worship that did NOT use any digital projector and screen, did not have electric guitars for music, and so forth.  A haven away from computer life.  

Two years ago Sharon and I visited a friend in St. Martin’s, NB, and she toured us around the little Baptist Church in which she was a very active member.  In the basement of the church building was… a weight room, filled with barbells, weight bars, and all this gym equipment.  They developed a weight room in their community, as a ministry.

These are, to me, example of ‘prophesying outside the Tent,’ doing Christ’s work outside the box of the usual ways we have always done church in town or village.  

As we all know, there will be complainers and tattle-tales when the local congregation does weird things.  

Just as there were way back with the children of Israel in the wilderness.  Some young guy ratted on Eldad and Medad, the elders who did not gather with all the others at the Tent of Meeting, but still started prophesying anyway.  And Moses’ own assistant, Joshua, got on board and said, “Yeah, Moses, tell them to stop!!”  Thankfully, Moses had enough humility, and enough grace from God, to say, “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!”

Didn’t Jesus respond the same way, millenia later, when some of His disciples warned that some guys who were not with them were casting evil out of people in Jesus name?  “Whoever is not against us is for us,” said Christ.

So, if you were given, for a time, ‘some of the Spirit,’ what would that do for you?  

What could the next step in your life be?

I have friend in Mochelle, who, since she retired, has been helping people with their income taxes.  I had a very busy tax season, she says in an email to me.  I did about 280 tax returns all together.  I think I told you I do returns for Stephen McNeil’s office because they offer a drop-off service to people who meet their income requirements.  So I did a lot for them.  And we offered tax clinics through the volunteer program at the United Church this year.

Let us be ready for what ‘some of the Spirit’ will do in us, this church.  Inside the tent, and outside the tent.  Ready, when times are tough for God’s people.  Ready, not to turn up our noses at new things, but ready to bless them.

Glad & Generous Hearts

(Malachi 3:6-10; Acts 2:42-47) J G White

Sunday, May 7, 2017, UBC Digby

That scene from the book of Acts is such a classic, ideal moment at the birth of the Christian Church.

Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous/sincere hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.

They loved one another.  It was obvious.  

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

And they also discovered they had a mission to their whole world.  We are here today – as Christians – because of them.  They were generous, in every way.  

Today, I want to talk about generosity.  And I want to talk a bit about finances: how we plan and give money.

Ever notice all the words that are in the word “stewardship”?  First, there’s “stew,”  which is what a congregation will get into after a sermon on tithing.

Then there’s “war,” which is what can take place in a church budget planning meeting.

“Ship” is the third syllable.  Like the Titanic, if there’s a hole in church giving, it can sink pretty fast.

Finally the word “hip,” a reminder that total stewardship is about the whole body, not only about the wallet at your waist.  (Paul M. Miller, The World’s Greatest Collection of Church Jokes, 2003)

The scene recorded so briefly in Acts 2 gives a beautiful, ideal picture of that first fellowship of Jesus’ Way, in Jerusalem.  How congregations in towns and villages developed through the first hundred years naturally followed some pattern of the Jews, with their synagogues and so forth.  Their financial giving was to be the first from everyone, not the last bit left at the end.  You may know about the Old Testament patterns of animal and grain sacrifices – the firstfruits of all your produce, bring to the LORD God.  Make an offering and come before Him.  Their giving was not in the form of money, of coins, but of their crops and animals.  The very best and the very first was given away.

There were a variety of uses of the offerings made, including the famous Tithe, which means ten percent.  The Priests and the Levites were maintained by the offerings of food.  At times, the tithe was eaten by the givers, and those who were poor were provided for in a great feast before God.  There was even a tithe of the tithe.  Ten percent of the ten percent given to the Levites would be given to Aaron and the Priests.  

Out of all this evolved the giving of the people in a congregation.  The passing of offering plates at every regular worship service is rooted back there.   

Now, I don’t know how you as an individual give.  And so it should be; I should not know.  And you don’t know what Sharon and I do.  But I will say something about how we give.  We have a set of offering envelopes. One for every Sunday of the year – 53 in 2017. Plus a few extra occasions.  How many do we use?  Twelve.  I give once a month – usually the first Sunday of the month.  So, today, our envelope is in the plate with our givings for May.

This, naturally, takes some planning.  Especially if Church is thought of as the first expense to pay in your life, not one of the latter or optional things to spend on.  

So, if individuals give to the local church, the local church also gives to the wider ministry of God going on.  This I think of as a tithe of the tithe.  Ten percent given away, out of the ten percent we all give.  Or, whatever percentages they happen to be.  If you don’t know what your percentage is, check it out!

Now, church, do we know what our percentage is that we give away for ministry?  How much have we, Digby Baptist, planned to give away in 2017?, to the usual things:  the Sharing Way, our local Food Bank, our denomination – Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada, our institutions of learning: Acadia Divinity College and Crandall University, our global field staff: the Carters in Europe and the Soucys in Latin America, our local Baptist Association?

For some years it seems we would set goals for all these, $600 here, $400 there, $50 to something else.  But we did not include revenue for this, just expenditures.  This, to me, does not make sense.  This whole – let people designate their givings for what things they want to support – is a poor idea, to me.  I want to be a member of a Church – not to mention the pastor of one – that budgets for revenue and expenditures for these organizations that are not us, that are bigger than us.  

So, what were our giving goals for the Carters and the Soucys for 2017?  What did we decide to give to Crandall and Acadia this year?  What percentage of our budget shall we dedicate to Almighty God by giving it away for relief and development around the world?

Zero. Nill. Nothing. No goals. Nothing in print. Ze-ro.

I recommend that we all consider this seriously before we meet for our semi-annual meeting on June 21st.  That might be a good occasion to set some money giving goals for Digby Baptist Church, over and above our budget.

Beautiful things can come out of making these others out there some of our top priorities.  A church budget that gives the first of the offerings away, trains the individuals to do the same.  Offering the firstfruits as worship to God.  

If one family or person actually tithes to the church, what should be a percentage goal of the whole church to give away?  5%?  7%?  Oh, my, even 10%?  

Hence the Old Testament text I chose for today.  In the rich chapter we call Malachi 3, we heard these words of God: (Malachi 3:8-9)

“Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.

“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’

“In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me.”

Sometimes hearts that are not glad and generous need to be warned in order to be warmed.  And there are plenty of modern prophets warning about churches that snuggle in and keep safe and decide they cannot afford to give away much of anything.  I won’t quote these church leaders except to give my synopsis.  It means death.  Death for the local church.

I like life. I see life.  I know your passions and power to make a difference all over the place.  You are the kind of people who can testify to how your sacrifices in the past have made a difference in the world.  

But if we start to act like a congregation that does not know how to give away, people will just join Digby Care 25, or the Masonic Lodge, or whatever, to find ways of making a difference nearby and far away.  

To give money away is commanded and inspired by our Master for so many reasons.  Giving the first away in the name of Christ:

  • Makes a difference far beyond us.
  • Connects us to our priorities: sacrifice, live for other.
  • Widens our vision of what God is doing.
  • Trains us to be free of the love of money.
  • Helps us let go of our desires to control.
  • Makes possible things we can’t do alone as a Church
  • Inspires our ministry by seeing what others do.

In the end, God is glorified.  And our hearts become glad; our hearts grow generous and sincere.  

Once upon a time, a local Church in Corinth, Greece, heard about the needs of their brothers and sisters in the little Church in the big city of Rome.  They could send money to help those believers, far away.  Their mentor, Paul, wrote to them at length about this, and at one point said:  Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7)

God is in the business of changing lives, saving souls, developing character, transforming hearts.  Making cheerful givers out of us.  Growing glad and generous hearts within us.

It is from the outflow of our goodness to the world that the world will see our good works and give glory to God.  Some modern church leaders are always suggesting that the best way to reach people and see them come to Christ and into His Church is for us simply to do good things, to bless our world.  In that very first ever Church, in Acts chapter 2, we are told: And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.  The Church people did good.  The Spirit of God added more and more people to them.  As one commentator on this scripture said, they did not “devote: themselves to evangelism, but to teaching and fellowship, to worship and to acts of caring. (Walter Brueggeman et al, Texts for Preaching – Year A, 1995)

Locally, as a congregation, it is our part to do more together than we can alone, as individuals.  It is our part to celebrate one another and worship God when we do good ministry.  It is our part be in the bigger, wider team, across our province and around the whole globe.  

A Canadian Baptist Ministries motto of a few years ago was Think Globally; Act Locally.  May the first of our money, the first of our prayers, the first of our actions, be given away, off the top.  We have been saved to do good.  God pours love into our hearts that we may be glad and generous.  Let it be so.  Amen.