Mirage or Oasis

by Jonathan Whitaker

I can confidently say that Bugs Bunny cartoons did not adequately prepare me for my deployment to the Middle East.  According to Looney Toons, the most reliable feature of any desert is the presence of a mirage followed closely by an abundance of magic lamps.  The cartoon bit was always the same.  Dying of thirst, dressed as Lawrence of Arabia, Bugs Bunny or Yosemite Sam would spot a palm-lined oasis in the distance, only to find their hopes dashed by a pesky mirage.  I have been here since May in the heat of the summer and I have yet to see a single mirage (or lamp for that matter).  It is worth noting that the defining characteristic of a mirage is that it promises something that it can’t deliver.

The expectations I set for ministry prior to my deployment and the things I would accomplish for God’s Kingdom were in many ways like a mirage.  When I arrived at what I thought was a palm-lined oasis, I quickly realized it was something completely different.  Maybe you have had this experience.  You resolve to do something for God, perhaps after hearing one of Aaron’s inspiring sermons.  Before you can realize this great vision, reality smacks you in the face.

I prepared and prayed for this deployment and I had an idea of what God would do through me in this place, an expectation of what that ministry might be.  Not gonna lie, I imagined I would be preaching and leading Bible studies, and if I could get my hands on a guitar… well you get it.  So far, that vision of ‘Middle East Billy Graham’ has been more mirage than reality.  Often we imagine how God may answer our prayers before we pray them.  Usually while we wait on God’s answer to prayer, our hope is that God will give us exactly what we asked for.  Our sin nature causes us to want to lead God to the outcomes we most desire, even in prayer, but is that how it ought to be?

Psalm 25 teaches that God leads and we are to follow: “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.  Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long.” (Psalm 25:4-5) The problem I have experienced is, instead of marching toward a goal, I end up wandering in a desert (quite literally) toward a mirage of my own creation.  Meanwhile, I miss the gentle leading of the Lord, which is the very answer to prayer that I am seeking.  The solution to this problem starts when we stop looking for an oasis that meets all the desires of our prayer and start looking at Jesus.  Jesus was very clear about one thing in His ministry, we only harvest where He has sown the seed. 

John chapter 4 tells the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.  Because of the first century prejudice that existed between Jews and Samaritans, this interaction nearly scandalized Jesus’ disciples.  Jesus promised this woman (and us) living water.  This unexpected encounter (to the disciples), was actually a divine appointment that resulted in a multitude coming to salvation.  Jesus taught his disciples a very important lesson, “For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’  I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” (John 4:37-38).  Meaning, when we have success for God’s Kingdom, it is only because God prepared the way before we arrived.  

The Apostle Paul put this another way, “Paul planted, Apollos watered, God gave the increase.” (1 Cor 3:6).  God always reaps a harvest where he has sown.  Should we pray for God to lead us? Absolutely.  Should you have an idea or expectation of how God might answer that prayer?  You would not be a human if you did not.  The wisdom comes from discerning God’s answers to your prayer.  

So what am I to do?  The mirage has faded and there is only sand as far as I can see.  Satan has whispered in my ear more than once that I have failed.  I think it is time to look around and see the ministry that God has led me to.  It does not include a podium, a microphone, or a guitar.  I have already annoyed everyone at the Base Chaplain’s Bible study with my long theological rants.  So where does that leave me?  The answer is with the fruitful harvest that God has led me to.  I can’t wait to report to you what that is, once I have figured it out.  I remain willing as ever to obey God’s leading, but more than ever, I am also ready to get out of His way.

One last thought.  Between 1947 and 2005, Billy Graham let 417 Crusades, in 185 countries, on every continent except Antarctica. You and I may never evangelize to the untold millions to whom Billy Graham gave the Gospel, but as great an evangelist as Billy Graham was, somebody first shared the gospel with him.  Whether you are Billy Graham, preaching to millions, or the person who witnessed to Billy Graham, in both cases God sowed the seed, and God reaped the harvest. 

God probably won’t send you or me into the mission field we expect, but the mission field he sends us to is always the right one.  Learn from me; don’t keep wandering toward the mirage.  Look around you at the oasis God as already led you to, and share the living water with anyone who will drink.

DISCIPLESHIP Anatomy 101

In our current sermon series, Aaron has been talking about how each of us is uniquely made and how we must seek and pursue God according to how he has made us as individuals. We are all different. But we all are also similar in fundamental ways as well. That is why the Gospel is good news for ALL people—because we all have the same need to have our souls redeemed from sin and to be transformed into the image of Christ. If we intend to faithfully live as Jesus’ disciples, it requires that every dimension of our being becomes aligned with his will. The point of spiritual disciplines and training in godliness is to shape our whole lives, our character, to reflect God’s glory.

Our nature is basically the same for all of us, even though the particulars of our personality, gifts, and talents are very different. For example, we all have a Spirit. If you look at the scriptures, our spirit is also referred to as our heart and our will. This is where our choices originate. It’s the root of our being where our freedom and creativity reside. This is where the power to do good or to do what is evil comes from. Jesus said that this is the source of sin… Mark 7:21-23  "For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery,  (22)  coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  (23)  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."

We all have a mind, and therefore we all have thoughts and feelings. Our thoughts are our perceptions, imagination and ideas. Our feelings are what incline us toward or away from the things that come to our mind in thought. When we think about food, cars, jobs, relationships or God, our feelings are intricately attached. Are our thoughts pleasant, painful, attractive, or repulsive? We have no feeling without a thought in mind and no thought without some feeling associated. Our thoughts and feelings are interdependent.

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Discipleship - The Secret of the Easy Yoke

Have you ever taken test when you knew that you hadn’t done your homework? Were you stressed about the result? Or have you played a competitive sport without putting in the practice time? How well did you do? Many times we look at people who are “successful” (whether it is in school, sports, career, talent, etc.) and it often seems like it comes easy for them. But we typically only see them when they perform—when they’re put to the test. What we fail to realize is that for most of them, their abilities are the result of a regular regimen of mental and physical preparation that no one sees. Their training has transformed them into people who can perform at that level with relative ease.

This is a general principle of human life that applies to anything of significance that we want to achieve. If you want to become a musician, speak a new language, or become a brain surgeon, you will need to regularly train mentally and physically before you actually become a person with those skills.

The same principle applies to our relationship with Jesus and characterizes the life of his disciples. Jesus calls to us in Matthew 11:28-30 "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. (29)  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (30)  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." Unfortunately, so many of us don’t enjoy and enter in to the ease and lightness that Jesus promises. We find following Jesus hard and the burden heavy because we haven’t trained and have not been transformed into people who naturally and easily obey his commands.

To be sure, without God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit working in us, we can do nothing in his kingdom. But what is also true is that if we do nothing, it will be without Him.

The apostle Paul wrote to Timothy in 1Timothy 4:7-8  "Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives' tales; rather, train yourself to be godly.  (8)  For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come." The Christian who expects to act like Jesus when put to the test, even though they have not trained in godliness, is just as ridiculous as an athlete expecting to excel in the game without the proper training. Instead of the easy yoke, all we will experience is failure and frustration.

The Son of God became flesh, which means that he had a body like you and me. Because of this, he too trained in order to walk in full submission to his Father’s will. And this he did this perfectly. We read in Hebrews 5:8-9  "Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered  (9)  and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him."

The secret of the easy yoke to our generation (which was not a secret to the early church) is that we are to follow Jesus in His "overall" style of life, which includes his disciplines and practices when he was not in the public eye. By these disciplines and the grace of God, we are transformed into people that easily and naturally act as Jesus would if he were living my life, in my place, under my circumstances.

God is more interested in the person we are becoming, than in what we do. Jesus calls us to a life where behavior like loving one’s enemies is the natural thing to do. True Christ-likeness comes at the point when it is hard for us not to respond as Jesus would. Then we won’t have to ask ourselves "What would Jesus do?" We would just do it!

Discipleship - Not just for Super-Christians

Why has the modern church done so poorly living this eternal life that Jesus made possible? We know that so many Christians are among those caught up in the sad epidemics we see today. Christianity has become viewed by many in the world as powerless, archaic and irrelevant. Either the Gospel is not true and doesn’t work, or we just don’t understand how God works in and through us!

Every believer in Christ is called to become a disciple of Jesus. Our mission as the Church is to make disciples from every ethnic group on the planet and to teach them how to really live the way Jesus taught and lived. Matthew 28:19-20 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (20) and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

The sad truth is that the church is filled with undicipled disciples. An estimated 25% of Americans profess an evangelical conversion experience. William Iverson observes that “A pound of meat would surely be affected by a quarter pound of salt. If this is real Christianity, the ‘salt of the earth,’ where is the effect of which Jesus spoke?” In many churches today it is believed that one can become and remain a Christian without any signs of progress in following Jesus in his example, spirit, and teachings. Too often discipleship is presented as an “option” for those with a special calling.

A big part of the problem is that we have not been faithful to our own message—we have failed to take discipleship and transformation into Christ likeness seriously as a practical issue to be dealt with in realistic terms.

Jesus introduced a revolution of character and life to his first disciples. He said “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” This is where God’s rule and God’s will are done. It’s about what God is doing in the world, and everyone is invited to now become a part of His activity. This is the blessed life. This is the safest place to be. This is where we can be anxious for nothing, because we are seeking first the Kingdom of God. It is here that our deepest needs are met. It is in the realm of God’s Kingdom that our transformation takes place as we allow God to rule in our hearts, minds, bodies, and relationships. The heart of the Gospel is this: Because of God’s mercy and grace, we can become like Jesus in character and in power, and we can realize our highest ideals of well-being and well-doing.

Discipleship is not just for Super-Christians! It is a prerequisite for every believer. The disciple is not the deluxe or heavy-duty model of Christian, but the first level of basic transportation in the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ promises are for his disciples! The New Testament is a book about disciples, written by disciples, and meant for disciples of Jesus Christ. ALL of the assurances and benefits offered to humanity in the Gospel by Jesus are in the context of a life of discipleship - apart from that, they don’t even make sense!

Check back as we explore what the life of a disciple should look like and how we are to follow Jesus in our day.

Discipleship Living an Eternal Life

When you hear the promises of Jesus spoken about at church or read them in the bible, do you ever feel like your looking into another world? It’s because the scriptures describe a reality so different than what many of us normally experience. They describe a divine world with a divine life!

Our world is filled with stress and distress from political revolutions, wars, famines, epidemics and economic disasters. All of which are usually always the result of human choices—the expressions of the human spirit. Individual disasters abound all around us and everyone is impacted directly or indirectly by depression, suicide, loneliness, drug and alcohol abuse, out of control sexual perversion and violence. These aren’t new problems. Humanity has struggled with them for ages. But they are spiritual problems that can only be addressed by a spiritual solution.

Think about these words: John 4:14 “but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." Jesus promised his followers “living water,” the Spirit of God Himself that would keep them from ever being thirsty again - from being driven and ruled by unsatisfied desires. How about these words: John 10:10 “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” This is not just merely getting by with a bare existence. Jesus is talking about receiving everything needed for a fully blessed and satisfied life—this is an eternal quality of life.

At Christmas we sing “Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let Earth receive her King! Let every heart, prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing!” We are reminded of the angels words in Luk 2:10-14 And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!"

The news of Jesus entering our world is that God had come to make a way for things on Earth to really be different. The powers of evil and sin could now be broken so that people can be freed from their bondage and become transformed in righteousness and goodness - to really live an eternal kind of life - to become like Jesus. This is what the “Good News” is all about!