Rev Dr Edgar Mayer – Living Grace Lutheran Church, Toowoomba – Date: 08 February 2015
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Hungry Humble Courageous Resilient
A pastor tells the following story – Jack Deere: Surprised by the Voice of God, p21-23: My friend John Wimber was twenty-nine. He and his wife, Carol, had just recently accepted Christ at a home Bible study. Until then, John had managed to live his whole life with almost no exposure to church, the Bible, or religious people. Christianity was a whole new experience for him, but in recent weeks he had come to love the Bible and began to devour the New Testament.
The man who led the Wimbers to Christ told them they should begin attending church. The next Sunday, Carol dutifully got their four children ready for the family’s first worship experience. Even though they had never done it before, they instinctively knew what to do – they got up late, had an argument, and drove to church angry. Without realizing it, they had already fallen into the typical Sunday-morning pattern for American churchgoing families.
Arriving late, they sat towards the back. The congregation sang a few hymns with outdated melodies. The singing was so out of tune it hurt John’s ears ... The minister proceeded to deliver a rather passionless forty-minute sermon and church was over. As soon as they were outside, John started to light up a cigarette, but Carol made him put it back. “Do you see anybody else smoking around here? You’re not supposed to smoke at church,” she chided. In those days John was a chain-smoker, and he thought it strange that no one else was smoking; in fact, the whole experience seemed strange to him. But he decided to come back, because he had been told Christians were supposed to go to church – no matter how boring [uninspiring] it was.
So the Wimbers became churchgoers. John also became a voracious Bible-reader. Unlike church, the Scriptures excited him. They filled him with hope and longing. They brought him into contact with a God who could do anything, even raise the dead. He began to notice a significant difference between the church he attended on Sunday and the Bible he read every day. The Bible seemed normal. The church seemed weird. This impression was strengthened when, after a Sunday service, one of the elders looked across the lawn and, figuring John was a newcomer, walked over to him and said, “Brother, have you been washed in the blood?” With a quizzical look on his face John replied, “Yuk, when do they do that around here?”
Finally, after weeks of reading a miraculous Bible and attending monotonous religious services, John walked up to one of the lay leaders and asked, “When do we get to do the stuff?” “What stuff?” asked the leader. “You know, the stuff here in the Bible,” said John, as he opened the New Testament and pointed to the Gospels. “You know, like the stuff Jesus did – raising people from the dead, healing the blind and the paralyzed, you know, that stuff.” “Well, we don’t do that anymore,” the man said. “You don’t?” “No.” “Well, what do you do?” asked John. “What we did this morning.” “For that I gave up drugs?” John was incredulous that the experience of the people of God today was so different from the experience of the people in the Bible. However, church leaders were able to get him over his disappointment. The key was just not to expect too much.
This story happened and we recognize its humour because we are in this story. We recognize the setup. Personally, I have never asked anyone whether they were “washed in the blood” but – for all of my life (in Germany and Australia) – I certainly belonged to churches where most members had learned not to be disappointed. The key was just not to expect too much. Later, as an ordained minister, I was especially secure in my convictions (I studied long enough) and never expected that God would have to correct any of my basic understandings of the Christian faith. After all, I was a Lutheran (in Australia) and we take Bible study and doctrinal soundness very seriously.
Yet – at the same time – not questioning any of my beliefs – I did become increasingly restless. When I was studying for my doctorate in Germany, most lecturers and fellow-students were not Christians (the way we define Christians as those that trust in Jesus’ sacrifice for the forgiveness of their sins and put their hope in Jesus’ victory over death when he rose again from the grave on Easter Sunday) but all of them – lecturers and post-graduate students – were Bible scholars. Only, the scholarly immersion in the Bible (complete with Hebrew and Greek language studies) and a love of the Bible was not enough to convict and convince them about the content of the Bible. All they could see was a more historical document written by humans rather than by divine inspiration – 2 Timothy 3:16: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” In this environment, I made no headway with any plausible arguments. Human logic and persuasion were not enough. You cannot talk anyone into believing the Christian faith that in its essence is (if I can use this word) miraculous – testifying to the works of God who came to save us.
How can it make sense to anyone that God became a human person in the man Jesus? How does all of God fit into a human frame? How can a human virgin give birth to this “hybrid”? Furthermore, how can this God-man Jesus possibly be killed? If He was not just human but remained God, how could anyone kill God on a cross? Any popular movie will tell you that God is immortal, which means you cannot kill Him. It does not make any human sense.
I became restless that even in an environment of Bible scholars (who were also pastors of the church) faith was ebbing away and I myself realized that I was barely hanging on to my own faith because I had to concede that according to human reason it was more plausible to deny Jesus (the whole idea of a God-man, born as a Jew but saving the world) than believe in him. (And I never seemed to hear God in prayer or experience a relationship with him.)
I prayed: “God, I cannot hang on to my faith. If you want me to believe, you need to hang on to me. You need to preserve me.” Faith became easier again once we returned from Germany back into the conservative fold of the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA) and I became a pastor in the Lutheran heartland of Toowoomba and the Darling Downs. Yet, before long, I was again becoming restless and desperate and discontent – just hungry for more of God. There had to be more:
For all of my knowledge, plans, and programs, I presided over an aging and declining membership in an area that was younger than the national average. In six years, there was not a single convert. No one blamed me for the lack of results, because my colleagues did not fare better and the denomination had become used to the decline. Yet, I became desperate … “God, if this is all there is to the ministry, you can have it back. I am too young for nothing ever to happen.”
Are you hungry for more? Are you suffering discontent in your personal relationship with Jesus and discontent with how you are going as a church? God is amazing but is he also amazing in your own life? You need to have this hunger – a passion for more of God. (This passion is a gift from God.) (The young from our opening story needed his hunger to discover more about God which he did and then impacted countless churches and denominations around the world.) Otherwise nothing will change and if you don’t have this kind of hunger, ask God to make you hungry and you may even try the spiritual exercise of fasting to get you out of a comfort zone that is not of God.
As a young and desperate pastor, I did not know what to do. After a few years of no converts and a slow decline (the occasional drifting away of another young family) I thought that we had nothing left to lose and might as well try something. So – one Sunday – we trialled a contemporary worship service (with puppet play, band and the “orange song book”). It wasn’t the most polished service but it was something new in Toowoomba (in an environment where there was no weekly contemporary Lutheran service anywhere). Something was moving and attendances radically increased when the contemporary services became a monthly feature of the congregation and – eventually – on the strength of the monthly contemporary services – we planted a new preaching place (eventually a new congregation – Living Grace) at the local Concordia College school chapel.
I was happier than before. Within two shorts years, the average worship attendance exceeded 200 people. I loved the creativity of the services, the team approach, the energy and ability to express your heart. But then God came with some radical surprises. I had been desperate for more of God and was restless in searching for more of God. The new congregation and the new freedom in worship seemed to be the answer for what I was looking for – I was even feeling excited – but God had different ideas and he answered my hunger for him in ways that I had never imagined:
The CLN [Christian Leaders’ Network of Toowoomba] pastors had made prayer a priority, not theological debate, but their prayers and maturity taught me more than any lectures could have done. God had put me in the right place. One Friday morning in 2002 we were again praying and singing in a circle. Most people were still standing and singing but I was sitting down and praying. As I was saying the name of Jesus, all of a sudden I felt that some other words wanted to come out of my mouth. Before I knew it, I had opened my mouth and began to speak words which I did not understand. I asked myself, “What is this?” Then, I concluded that this must be the gift of speaking in tongues. No special emotions came with this gift. No one else at the prayer meeting spoke in tongues and no one noticed what had happened to me.
I was not particularly grateful for this gift because I had never wanted to speak words which I did not understand. Moreover, I knew that I could not go home and tell my wife. She had been praying for two years to receive the gift of speaking in tongues but to no avail and now I had the gift against my own wishes. This would not have seemed fair to her. After a few weeks, I thought that I better share this experience with her and, as I expected, she did struggle with God over this but, in time, she herself began to speak in tongues.
What was I to do with this gift? I did not know. The obvious conclusion would have been that God wanted me to use this gift but it took me months before I recognized the value of praying in tongues for my private devotions. Even then, I used it sparingly and felt no need to promote speaking in tongues in our church. This was still unknown territory and I knew that it would be stretching our Lutheran comfort zone. On the one hand, my excitement was growing but, on the other hand, this was beyond my understanding at the time. I needed to learn more about the Spirit.
Apart from me, God was also prodding and processing other members of our congregation. He was stirring us and increasing our hunger for a deeper relationship with him. Then came his biggest surprise. A Lutheran pastor from Ethiopia was scheduled to tour our denomination in Australia. His name was Gemechis Desta Buba. I had not heard of him and knew nothing about the tour but received a phone call from the District Church Office asking me whether I would host him on the 1st of January 2003 because they still had a vacant time-slot for this Sunday.
Thus, we prepared for his visit scheduling a Sunday night service and expecting a few worship songs and his preaching. About three hundred people came from across our region. Most of them were traditional Lutherans. We sang about three songs before Pastor Gemechis began his sermon on the Lord’s Prayer. It was a solid exposition but when he began to expound that God was giving us our daily bread fresh each day, he stopped in the middle of his preaching and announced that he felt God prompting him to call us forward for prayer. This was not our usual practice.
However, to my surprise, most people in attendance that night made their way forward to receive prayer with the laying on of hands. I was even more surprised when about two-thirds of those receiving prayer proceeded to fall down under the power of the Holy Spirit. What was happening? I ended up trying to catch our church members as they were falling backwards onto the floor and I was thinking to myself, “What is this? Am I going to be in trouble with the church authorities?” Yet, on the night, no one objected to what was happening. Everyone sensed the presence of God in the worship building. I had never been in a service like this.
There was no hype. The music was not loud and Pastor Gemechis did not raise his voice or become emotional in other ways. Thus, the prayer time was very accessible to traditional Lutherans. Yet, there was a new level of power. Some experienced the Spirit flooding their bodies with the peace of God. Others were simply wondering what pushed them to the floor. When Pastor Gemechis prayed for me, I made sure that my feet were solidly planted on the floor. God had permission to make me fall backwards but I would not be nimble on my feet. This would not have been the German way of my upbringing. As it happened, I stayed upright but was touched nevertheless. I received healing in my heart. All the hurt and rejection which came with planting a new church were washed away. This was an incredible gift and quite unexpected.
We had a memorable night. It was the night that God surprised our congregation with an experience which would take us years to understand in all of its dimensions but it set us on our way. For the next seven years we would debrief what had happened and how the Spirit might want to work among us. This would be a slow journey because I remember that, immediately after the service with Gemechis, two of our key leaders said, ‘We don’t need to have this every Sunday.’ On the night I agreed but later I began wondering, “Why would we not want more of this?”
The greater importance of this service only began to emerge slowly because God had a broader agenda for us than just teaching on the Spirit. We had to learn so much more about prayer, forgiveness, inner healing, discipleship, church unity and obedience. The night with Gemechis was only one seed among many that needed to grow among us. However, it was an important seed.
I discovered that the freedom of the night with Gemechis was not easily regained in normal church life. For years we were doing it hard in prayer ministry because our members were reluctant to leave the safety of the pews and come forward. This was not our traditional culture. We were also not used to being emotional or expressive in worship. It took me years before I felt comfortable to raise my hands in worship and reach out to God with greater passion. Even though I knew that this kind of worship was in the Bible and that Jesus himself had raised his hands in worship, I felt bound by my church upbringing.
I never expected to speak in tongues and never expected to be in a service where people fall backwards under some sort of spiritual experience. This was absolutely new to me – neither sought nor desired – but God surprised us with what he thought that we needed. He remembered how we had cried out to him – hungry for more of him. These experiences had us on a journey which was slow as God gave us time to process so much of what we needed to rediscover about the Bible. So much of what was basic in the Bible was foreign to us good Lutherans.
This was absolutely humbling. The whole journey was humbling. We Lutherans in Australia have a history of separating from other Christians – even other Lutherans – because we don’t want to be corrupted by other Christians’ inferior theological positions. Therefore – for instance – we are not a member of the Lutheran World Federation and – in general – have struggled with joint efforts (maybe less so now) …
I remember how much I struggled to attend the Emmaus Walk – an ecumenical retreat weekend – because pastors from other denominations would lead it and there would be much worship and preaching over the weekend. Would this be on an acceptable level of Biblical faithfulness? I struggled to go and then was very humbled when I received so much over the weekend and realized that these pastors seemed to know more about God than I did. [Joining the local Christian Leaders’ Network was a similar experience.]
God humbled us when non-Lutherans ministered to us (also through the Alpha Course) but probably the most painful humbling happened when we realized how wrong we were about the Bible. How much of the basic Bible teaching did we miss?
The gift of speaking in tongues is in the Bible and is not a rare phenomenon.
Acts 2:4: All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and they began to speak in other tongues/other languages as the Spirit enabled them. Acts 10:44-46: While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. / Acts 19:6: When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.
In 1 Corinthians there are further references to speaking in tongues which are very affirmative – 1 Corinthians 12:28: And in the church God has appointed … those speaking in different kinds of tongues. / 1 Corinthians 14:1-5: … eagerly desire spiritual gifts … For anyone who speaks in a tongue … utters mysteries with his spirit … He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself … I would like every one of you to speak in tongues … / 1 Corinthians 14:13-15: For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind. / 1 Corinthians 14:18: I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. / 1 Corinthians 14:39: … do not forbid speaking in tongues.
When I was first reflecting on the Gemechis visit, I discovered that I had been misreading 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 which is a favourite Bible passage for Lutherans – 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 (NIV): “… For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 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.”
I was stunned. How could I get this familiar Bible passage so wrong? We Lutherans agree with the initial thrust of the reading. The central message of the Christian faith is “Jesus Christ and him crucified” and we make the further correct observation that the cross of Jesus is hiding God’s power. God, in general, seems to work with the principle of being powerful in apparent weakness (1 Corinthians 1:25-31). This worked on the cross as Jesus died but saved the world and this seems to work in our preaching as we speak “foolish” words about a crucified Saviour (1 Corinthians 1:18) but offer eternal life. There is encouragement in our weakness because this seems to be God’s way of working salvation.
This has been my Lutheran understanding but it was incomplete as far as 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 is concerned. The preaching may be “in weakness” and there may not be any “wise and persuasive words” but God purposed to back up the message of Jesus and him crucified “with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power”. Faith would not come through the preaching alone but would rest on a demonstration of “God’s power” and this is what happened on the night that Pastor Gemechis ministered to us in Toowoomba.
On further investigation, the Apostle Paul summed up his entire ministry by explaining that preaching and demonstrations of power belonged together – Romans 15:18-19 (NIV): “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done— by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.”
[On another level, I always thought that a sound sermon would be enough to bear fruit and never realized that the preacher must also be filled with the Holy Spirit to minister in power (Acts 1:4-8; Luke 24:49).]
Even before Gemechis came and before we began to learn about the Holy Spirit, there were other core revelations about our life with God that we had missed. For instance, the first budding internal conflict in Living Grace was on the issue of discipleship (October 2002), more specifically the idea that disobedience – especially holding unforgiveness towards another person – would attract discipline and judgement from God. The whole idea that obedience mattered to God was new to many of us. It seemed to contradict our beautiful teaching on grace. Yet, God gives grace for obedience and expects it from us.
We avoided a full blown internal conflict and all of us were on a learning curve. How do you preach on discipleship without becoming a finger-wagging disciplinarian – a legalist and preacher of the law? The key is the Holy Spirit and understanding that obedience is never by our own strength and power but God’s.
I want to add another point of tension or debate (which we had but is still current in our denomination) that is about another core issue of our faith – as basic as the question: Does God talk to you? When you pray, do you get affirmation from him and guidance – experiencing a living relationship with Jesus – or is this not necessary because he has given us the Bible to read? Is the Bible more a manual of doctrines (instead of salvation history with God continuing this history with us) which you then apply according to what makes sense to good rational thinking?
Do you agree? This is not a trifling topic. Does God talk to you about your daily life or not? I am not going to explore this theme – (no time for it now) – but you may consider a few Bible verses:
John 16:12-13: I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth …
Romans 8:14: For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.
John 5:19-20: So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing …
Acts 13:2-3: While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
I found it absolutely humbling when God provided his own answers to my hunger for him and revealed my ignorance about the Bible – even though I was meant to be a Bible expert. God crushed so much pride in me but also showered me with so much love when he revealed my blindness to the Bible and its core truths – the basics of our faith basic questions such as: Do I need to obey God? Does God speak to me? In mission work, does God confirm the preaching of the crucified Jesus with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power? Correction hurt but – ultimately – I was too hungry and excited about him to care.
What about you? I am here because this congregation is hungry for more of God and is considering to receive more teaching and then receive according to the teaching and promises of God. Are you ready to be humbled? This is what it will cost you. You may have been a Christian (and a good Lutheran) for all of your life and you may even be in your seventies and eighties. How hard is it to acknowledge that you have been missing core truths of the Bible? This is big and I admire especially the older ones (e.g.: Merna Thamm) that are willing to look at the Bible with fresh – with humble – eyes.
More happened to us at Living Grace and the more that was happening, the hungrier I became. What I was experiencing was humbling but it was also real and potentially amazing long-term. God was opening up an amazing way of living with him.
The phenomenon of falling down under the Spirit’s power also caused tensions among us a long time after Gemechis’ visit. At first, there was no repeat of this manifestation for years. Then, I led a national Lutheran Prayer Summit in Adelaide (2005) and had planned to close the three days of meetings with a communion service. By the time we were preparing for Holy Communion I was absolutely exhausted. It was hard work to remain sensitive to the Spirit’s leading and let him set the prayer agenda in a group context. My last task would be that I would pray for people with the laying on of hands as they were making their way to Holy Communion. I could not wait for the service to finish and felt sick in the stomach with all of my energies completely drained.
Then, a heavy-set man came up and stood before me. I prayed and had my eyes closed when I heard a mighty thud and realized that this man had crashed onto the hard wooden floor. I was shocked. My face expressed sheer horror which provided significant amusement later on. Our pastoral assistant never seemed to laugh so hard as when she retold this story. I thought that this man had died of a heart-attack on the way to Holy Communion. However, when I kneeled next to him, saw that he was conscious and asked him, “Are you all right,” he looked at me with uncomprehending eyes. He had received what he wanted. The Spirit of God was making him feel wonderful.
This was unexpected and new once again. Another woman also went down under prayer but she caught herself and stayed upright. Only, the sudden movement jarred her knee and she said, “This was not comfortable.” I apologized to her but what could I do? Still another woman stood in front of me and asked for prayer. She explained that she had been running away from God and wanted to stop running. I prayed and she also fell to the floor but she ended up lying there with a contorted face. What was going on with her? I knelt next to her and asked whether she was all right. She said, “I’m fine.” However, she did not look fine to me and, without thinking, I laid hands on her again and said, “Whatever makes you run, leave now.” Immediately, her face turned to one side, completely relaxed and she seemed to be sound asleep like a baby. Did I just drive out a demon? This was quite a finish to our Prayer Summit but I learned something about the power that comes from sustained prayer and how God is not dependent on how I feel. My exhaustion did not stop him.
Reflecting more on what happened at the Prayer Summit, I became upset – very upset over the “accidental” deliverance of the woman from a demon. In 2003, when God surprised us in a worship service with the guest-preacher Gemechis Desta Buba, a Lutheran pastor from Ethiopia, one of our long-term church members was sitting in a pew and he was not happy. Not only had his wife put pressure on him to attend the service, he also felt something stirring inside of him, besides the anger. A demon was manifesting. This greatly upset him. He was not at all comfortable with any manifestations of the Holy Spirit and tried to keep him at arm’s length but now an unholy spirit intimidated him by taking control with bouts of rage and thoughts of suicide. He knew that he was not himself and was frightened to have a demon in him. After a few days, aided by prophetic dreams and much prayer, he again experienced freedom.
This whole episode was quite a new experience also for me and I wondered how I should process what had happened. This demon must have been in my friend and church member for a long time and seemed to be linked to a family history of Freemasonry. Why did he not manifest earlier? I came to understand that the unusual intensity of God’s presence in the service forced the demon to “blow his cover”.
Usually, unclean spirits prefer to remain hidden in people so that they are not at risk of being confronted. This is in accordance with Satan’s normal strategy of blinding the minds of sinful people whose concrete sins allow him footholds even in the life of believers and empower him to work through the “deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13; see also 2 Corinthians 11:14-15; Ephesians 2:2; Ephesians 4:26-27). However, no demon can endure an intensified invasion of God’s holy presence. Holy power makes the demon extremely uncomfortable and he exposes himself as a result in order to make a last ditch effort of resisting expulsion. In desperation, he may try to intimidate the human host and withstand the authority of Jesus’ name but his uncovering is already a sign of weakness and promises imminent victory.
Jesus’ own ministry was marked by such encounters where demons reacted to his presence and authority by crying out and manifesting in people.
The more I began to understand this dynamic – especially after the 2005 Prayer Summit – the more I began to get upset. At the service with Pastor Gemechis, the holiness of God confronted and forced the demon in our church member to “blow his cover”. Why had this not happened earlier? For years, this person had been attending our weekly worship services. Why had this demon been comfortable sleeping through every single service which I was leading? This challenged me because I realized that somehow I was lacking spiritual authority and power and a new hunger began rising within me. I wanted a stronger ministry which would upset the demonic strongholds.
Deliverance from demons and wrestling against powers and principalities of darkness is everywhere in the Bible and our own Lutheran confessions but I was ignorant of this reality and lacking Spirit power to be effective in this kind of ministry. Fasting and prayer and three days of seeking God allowed God to fill me with the Spirit and his power but – as I realized – I needed more of this on a more permanent basis. My hunger increased.
How prevalent is this power struggle with Satan? We consider a few more Bible passages: Ephesians 6:12: “. our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” 2 Corinthians 4:4: “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ …” Acts 26:17-18: “ … I am sending you … to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins … “ Ephesians 2:1-10: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient … But because of his great love for us, God … made us alive in Christ … “ Ephesians 4:27: “Do not give the devil a foothold. [Do not sin.]”
Martin Luther, like many of our fathers and mothers in the faith, concurred with the Scriptures. He saw our conflict with Satan as central to our faith and wrote: “This is why Christians have to be armed and expect every day to face constant attacks … He is the kind of enemy who never gives up or gets tired. When one temptation stops, new ones take its place … The petition [“deliver us from evil” from the Lord’s Prayer actually means – rightly translated from the Greek of the New Testament – “deliver us from the evil one” and] seems to refer to the devil, as if to compress everything into the one idea that the sum total of all our prayer should be aimed at this main enemy of ours … this petition also includes all the evil that can happen to us under the devil’s rule: poverty, disgrace, death … all the … heartache which never ends here in the world. Because the devil is not only a liar but also a murderer, he never stops trying to kill us, and takes his anger out on us by doing what he can to get us hurt in accidents, and to do us physical harm. This is how he manages to break many a person’s neck and to drive others insane. Some he drowns, and many he pushes into suicide and many other terrible evils …” (Luther’s Large Catechism, translated by Friedemann Hebart, Adelaide: Lutheran Publishing House 1983, p159-160).
If you want renewal, you need (and God is supplying everything that you need) hunger (holy discontent), humility to read the Bible with fresh eyes (and submit to what the Bible is saying) and then you need courage. You need courage to adjust your theology to the truth of the Bible and not the level of your current experience. I still remember when I first preached on the Holy Spirit – what we have come to believe (the messages that became the Holy Spirit seminar “But Wait There is More” and then the book “Surprised by the Holy Spirit”). I had never prayed for anyone to receive the Holy Spirit and then the person received the infilling of the Spirit. I had never prayed for anyone to receive any spiritual gift – certainly not the gift of tongues – and then witnessed how this prayer was effective. Yet, I preached six messages on the Holy Spirit and then decided to use them at a Holy Spirit seminar (held in 2007 at Toowoomba City Church and recorded on DVD there). Preaching was fine but prayer ministry was different. Would this work? Would anything happen? It took courage to go for it. Potentially, there was embarrassment waiting for us with nothing happening for anyone (with about 150 people being there). [God was faithful and confirmed the preaching and poured out his Spirit.]
I also remember the fear (and I am usually never nervous when I am preaching at Living Grace because this is home) that I had when I committed the congregation to believe for the healing of a man (a loved member of our church family) who was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas. It took courage to believe and pray for healing when our track record of healing by prayer was negligible.
On Sunday 30 September 2007, I began a preaching series on healing. It took me until Sunday 16 November 2008 – more than one year – to complete the six-part series and I was relieved. This was the hardest preaching series ever. What was God saying? In my office, I had dozens of books on healing that contradicted each other. One book had a rather dramatic title: “The Healing Epidemic” and the author warned his readers with these words: “… healing … is being promoted in Christian circles as never before … healing seminars pack the largest conference halls in major cities across the world … We have bared our throats to the devil’s knife …” (Peter Masters: The Healing Epidemic, London: Wakeman Trust 1988, p12-13).
These words notwithstanding, I carefully – cautiously – anxiously – observed that – in the Bible – Jesus commanded us to heal people and he expected them to be healed (without regular objections). The Bible teaching seemed radical but quite simple – James 5:15: “And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.”
When the series was finished, I sighed a deep sigh of relief. We had survived another controversy and it was time to move on. Only God had other ideas. One of our members – a father (Greg Storey) with a young family – became sick with pancreatic cancer and I had the pressing conviction that God did not just want sermons on healing but the healing itself. Practise what you preach but I had objections. We had just lost a third of our congregation over the baptism with the Holy Spirit. When was this going to end? How many will leave us now over praying for the healing of cancer? I had serious issues with God, saying to him: “Cancer! God, did it have to be cancer? Could we not have prayed first for a tummy ache?” This would not make me popular with the Lutheran church or anyone. My colleagues will just say that I have set up the congregation for failure.
There is no time to continue the story but God was faithful (not quite as expected). Yet, it took courage and still does:
It is risky. What if nothing happens? After years of preaching, I may feel reasonably confident about the process of public speaking, and sermon notes on the lectern give me a feeling of safety. But signs and wonders, healings, impartation of spiritual gifts, life-changing repentance, experiences of God’s love and joy and peace are absolutely beyond my control. I can invite people and announce that God will back up the preaching with an experience of him; but contrary to every other aspect of the service, I know that I had no fall-back options in the event he does not come through. If the Spirit is not on the preaching, I can still go through my notes. If the Spirit is not on the worship, we can still sing the songs. But it is impossible to receive from the Spirit of God in our own strength.
Courage is in fact a requirement of faith – the sure expectation that we can believe God and his promises – that he will do what he said – and everything (as Lutherans know) works by faith:
Hebrews 11:6-12: And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith.
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.
Matthew 17:20: He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
Martin Luther was convinced that unbelief is the chief sin because it makes God out to be a liar whose promises cannot be trusted. He writes: “Where this faith is missing, there can be no proper prayer … they get nothing” (Martin Luther: Large Catechism, Explanation of the Lord’s Prayer’s last petition).
What else is required to let God move you into renewal and revival? There is hunger (holy discontent), humility to read the Bible with fresh eyes (and submit to what the Bible is saying), courage and then there is resilience. Not everyone shares the same hunger – the same humility to come into alignment with the Bible – the same courage to risk faith (which can be uncomfortable) – therefore, there is going to be conflict as church history confirms with every revival (including the Lutheran reformation). Sometimes it is the hunger of some that intimidates others but there is grace for everyone and all of us will always keep growing (2 Corinthians 3:18). [Then, God does not reward spiritual experiences or the possession of spiritual gifts but good works and the fruit of the Spirit.] [Importance of prayer and supporting leaders.] [We had witches and warlocks targeting us – coming on the property and performing rituals, attending worship services, power encounters at the Jesus Tent, …]
We have had our share of conflict – including a third of our congregation amicably breaking away over the direction of the congregation (event though we had no theological disagreements). Yet, God healed me of hurt when I needed to be healed – (I receive an unexpected healing of the heart when Gemechis prayed for me) – and there are other encouraging testimonies:
Bill Johnson: Face to Face with God, Lake Mary: Charisma House 2007, 12-14: In 1996 I became the pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, California. I was invited to take that position because the church had been crying out for revival. The church I had been pastoring in Weaverville, California, was experiencing a wonderful outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Bethel was the “mother church” of our church in Weaverville, and because of that connection I was glad to accept their invitation to come and be their senior pastor.
When I first spoke to Bethel’s congregation about my coming, I told them that I was born for revival. I said that if they didn’t want the move of the Spirit of God—along with the messes that come with such an outpouring—they didn’t want me, because revival is not negotiable! They responded positively with close to unanimous support, which was unusual for such a large church.
The outpouring began within a month of our arrival. Lives were changed, bodies were healed, and divine encounters increased in amazing proportions, along with the unusual manifestations that seem to accompany revival. On top of that, approximately one thousand people left the church. This wasn’t the kind of revival they wanted. Understandably, it was difficult for people with that opinion to coexist happily with the perspective I held, which was that we should take whatever He gives us until He gives us something else.
Few things are more devastating to pastors than when people leave the church. It often feels like rejection. Pastors are a unique breed—even when people who hate us leave the church, we still feel bad. Yet in this strange season of exodus, my wife and I were immune to the devastation. Usually that is only possible if your heart is calloused to the point where no one can affect you either negatively or positively, or you are in denial about the impact such a loss is causing in your heart. Thankfully, there is one other possibility, and that is that God has actually given you a supernatural grace to live opposite to your circumstances.
Because of the grace given to us, not one day was spent in discouragement or questioning God. Our food really was doing His will. His will provided all the nourishment and strength we needed. Plus, His presence was the reward. The public criticisms and slander, the humiliation of decreased numbers, the daily calls of complaint to our denomination for close to a year—none of it had teeth to its bite. The need for respectability had all but disappeared on the night of my first visitation.
My closest friends could rightly argue that the fear of man was never really strong in my life. And in part that is true. I had learned this from watching my dad in my early years. He displayed the priority of obedience to God regardless of what others might think. Yet God knew what had been lying underneath it all when He asked for my respectability in exchange for the increased manifestation of His presence. It was the kindness of God that made it all possible.
Along with the increased manifestation of His presence, God simply made His will too obvious to miss. God often spoke to my team or me in a dream or a vision. Sometimes He brought forth a prophetic word that confirmed or added understanding to a direction we were to take. There was never a question. The fruit of this move of God was undeniable. It included an increased measure of His presence along with the bounty of transformed lives. That was all we needed to make us smile in the face of such apparent loss. To this day we consider that time of our greatest loss as one of the most precious and delightful seasons of our lives.
Resilience will be needed when God builds the character in us that is needed to steward his gifts and I may add that spiritual warfare will increase in renewal because the devil does not cede ground without fighting back. However, God is worth it. A life with God is rich, bears fruit, holds the promise of eternal life, gives purpose, fills the heart with joy, peace and love and makes us trust God, saying: “Abba, dear Father.” With God, there is forgiveness and acceptance and encouragement. He loved us so much that he sent Jesus to die for us. God is worthy of all of our love, all of our sacrifice and all of our passion. He is good to us beyond description and life with him is an adventure.
I may close with another word of encouragement. When God surprised us with renewal and I began to look for answers and explanations, I discovered that we were not experiencing anything new but simply rediscovered the Bible and what God had been doing throughout church history. I discovered that there were also plenty of Lutherans that had rediscovered the Holy Spirit, obedience, the gift of tongues, etc. and I was able to learn from them – read books and consult with other mature ministers. Some of them took us under their wings and you also do not have to walk alone. You are not going to be on the fringe of sound teaching and practice. You are rediscovering the centre and there are others that will walk with you joyfully – including our church (Living Grace Lutheran Church).
Larry Christenson: The Charismatic Renewal Among Lutherans, Minneapolis: Lutheran Charismatics Renewal Services 1976, p14-18: [This testimony is not from the author of the book but is quoted from Lutherans, the Spirit, the Gifts, and the Word, unpublished manuscript edited by a group of Missouri-Lutheran pastors, June 1973, pp.8-13. In the 70s and 80s “the 15,000 Lutheran charismatics that gathered annually in Minneapolis remained the largest annual meeting of Lutherans in the country” (Vinson Synan: The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 1997, p263).]
Are you hungry for more of God? Are you humble – prepared to take a fresh look at the Bible? Do you have courage – a willingness to step out in faith – and are you resilient – faithful when not everyone welcomes what God is doing among you? These are big questions and without Jesus we cannot do anything but God will give you the strength and the desire and the passion to say “yes” to all them. Amen.