Presented on The Lutheran Hour on February 8, 2015 By Rev. Gregory Seltz, Lutheran Hour Speaker (Why Does Christianity Seem to be Spreading Faster Internationally Than in the U.S.?) Copyright 2015 Lutheran Hour Ministries
Text: 1 Corinthians 9:18-23
The Apostle Paul says, "For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them......I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings."
Christ is risen; He is risen indeed. Amen!
Things can change drastically when someone really cares. That's exactly what happened when Alvin and Anita Dickerson cared enough to get involved in a little girl's life. They were running errands in Sandy, Utah when they drove by a man and two women. For some reason, the man looked familiar to both of them. They stopped at a store to make some copies. As Anita left the store, she came within twenty feet of the man, getting a clear look at his face. She knew him. In fact, she just saw a picture of him the evening before on "America's Most Wanted," a television show that highlights unsolved criminal cases; in this particular case it was about a little girl who had been kidnapped. Anita got into her car and she told Alvin that she was going to call 911. As they drove home, she spoke to the police. She thought about that little girl, about her family, and because Anita was paying attention, because she cared about people, she helped police solve a confounding case. When the police notified her that her tip panned out, Anita said she got goose bumps. Who would have thought that paying attention to people could have such significant results?
But it does, doesn't it? Saying hello to a person can brighten his day. Greeting a store clerk and asking how she's doing can take her from feeling alone and overworked to feeling really cared about. Has anyone ever listened to you while you told them your troubles? Has a person ever taken time to take an interest in you? It feels good, doesn't it? In fact, it may have changed your life.
In grade school, I had a teacher like that. His name was Mr. Gerlach. He thought I could be a really good runner. Let's just say that, at that particular time, I didn't enjoy running very much in my life. But he would run with me after school, sometimes just the two of us. He challenged me to give it my all. He made sacrifices with such a joyful spirit. I didn't win much then, but later on in high school, I started to realize my potential. He had seen that all along. As I look back on some of those victorious moments, I realize that without his encouragement, it may have never happened. In fact, the attitude of service and concern that he and several of my teachers conveyed when I was in grade school, I'm sure that had a lot to do with me becoming a pastor today.
Gracious, relational living; taking the time to really serve and care for others even when they don't deserve it; that's what the Apostle Paul emphasized in 1 Corinthians, chapter nine. He said that he felt a burden to share the Good News of Jesus with others by serving others in His Name. He was given a sacred trust to connect with other people and freely give them news that would change their life. The free gift of the forgiveness of sins from God who loves all people was just too precious to keep to himself. So he lived graciously in a way that built relationships with others.
That's why Paul said: "For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I might share with them in its blessings" (1 Corinthians 9:18-23).
The Apostle Paul went to great lengths to live relationally, graciously towards others. He cared about people. He stepped into their lives. He noticed their needs. He showed flexibility and compassion because that's the way that people's lives can change, right? People change people's lives. E-mails don't usually do that. Junk mail ends up in the garbage. Recorded phone messages get deleted quickly. Impersonal presentations fall victim to distraction. But if a friend, or a family member, or a person you care about asks you for help, or invites you to go along, or personally recommends something, you very well may listen. You may try something new, lend a hand, or even adopt a new habit. People change people's lives and that's especially true when sharing the love of Jesus Christ.
Now, you need to understand that this isn't a message to merely challenge you to be more of an extrovert. In fact, to live graciously, relationally, you can be any personality type. You may be the type of person who thrives on meeting people, great. The Apostle Paul was probably on the timid side. The Bible gives us the impression that he wasn't the type of person who stood out in a crowd. It doesn't sound like he was an eloquent speaker. I don't think he was Mr. Popularity. He may have been an introvert--a bit shy, a bit quiet. But being an introvert doesn't disqualify you from living graciously or relationally either. In fact, it may give you some advantages.
In her book, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking," Susan Cain described some of the most influential corporate leaders from a study by business guru Jim Collins. These heads of companies caused their businesses to thrive. Were they in your face, loud, and relentless? Not at all. Cain said, "Those who worked with these leaders tended to describe them with the following words: quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated. The lesson is clear. We don't need giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run," (p.55). They focus on people becoming the best they can be.
The bigger point; God wants His people, as graced people, whether extroverts or introverts, to live graciously towards others with His love and forgiveness so that all who believe can eternally become what God intended. He wants people who care as He cares, people not trying to build their own egos, but people who seek to bless. That's a love that transforms things, changes people's lives, even eternally.
That's how the Apostle Paul lived as a believer. He lived graciously, relationally. And that is your purpose here on earth as a follower of Jesus too: to live a life that blesses people, that builds people up, that shows love and encouragement and affirmation; that serves others. You have the gift and calling of caring about and connecting with people so that they can know God's love and God's forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
But wait one moment, there are obstacles to all this, right? Perhaps you missed what I said because a text message was coming in, or your phone rang, or you were multi-tasking.
It's difficult to stay focused today on our life, let alone the lives of others, isn't it? There're so many things distracting us today. It's even more difficult to cultivate relationships these days. These days, people sit at tables in restaurants and each person is looking at his or her phone. No conversation is happening! These days, it's not easy to carry on a conversation when televisions are blaring, phones are buzzing, and computers are chiming in. Distractions keep us from relationships.
Fear, too, is also a barrier to relationships. You can become afraid of people who are different than you. You can be filled with fear because of high crime rates and a violent world. Fear of being hurt emotionally can cause you to seal yourself off from relationships with others. Fear, too, is a serious obstacle.
Being hurried is another. We live in a time of busyness. Schedules are packed, appointments are plentiful, and things-to-do lists are overflowing. There's not much time for anything or anyone else these days. Being in a constant rush can make you miss the cries of help all around you.
So the Apostle Paul made the effort to explain what truly, graciously connecting with others is all about. Secure in his relationship with God through Christ, resourced by His love; he was willing to invest his life in others in order to win them over. If God always had his back, if God was his certain and sure resource of love, and grace, and forgiveness, well, that's the power to open up his life to others.
Let me say it in other words, by grace, through Jesus, he could also give up his list of things to do, eliminate unnecessary distractions, put fears aside, and really get to know people. He took an interest. He listened to them. He walked in their shoes. He tried to understand what they were going through so he could be a blessing to them, just as God in Christ was for him.
And, people's needs today are the same as then. Above it all, people need the blessing of God; they need His love and grace like they need air to breathe. You can see it when people yearn to be heard, or to be valued, or to be understood. They might not realize it's a God thing, but you do. And, you are there in His Name, for them!
That's what Paul was trying to do. He was trying to open up people's eyes to God's blessing, a blessing that was all around them. Some people missed it because they were afraid to consider anything but their own traditions. Others were missing it because they were living by rules or guidelines of their own making. Some were weak, unwilling to believe they had any value. Some were full of themselves, unwilling to see their flaws and needs. And to those people, he jumped right into their lives. He walked with them, listened to them, got to know them. He lived relationally. Why? To be a blessing--God's blessing of grace for the lonely, the sad, the stuck, or the frantic. Paul declared: "I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings" (1 Corinthians 9:22-23).
So, dear friend, with a God who loves you that much, let me ask you this, "Who is God placing in your life so you can freely share with them God's blessing of grace and love?" Is it your doctor? How about your caregiver, or your kids, or a teacher, or a friend? Could it be the person in the office or cubicle next to you, or the person you eat lunch with almost every day at work?
God puts people all around you and me. He does it for a reason: the world doesn't bring much blessing on its own. It brings heartbreaking headlines, stressful schedules, and worry after worry. It brings financial pressure, unexpected car repairs, and health issues that lay you low. But you? You can bring blessing. True, you need some alone time. Yes, you need rest on occasion. It's true you can't be around people constantly, and we all need privacy; but people are there. And God calls you to dive into those relationships for the sake of the Gospel so that you may share with them in its blessings.
Of course, this doesn't mean you target people in order to make a spiritual conquest. And it doesn't mean that you live carelessly, putting your own integrity at risk. It just simply means showing self-sacrificial love. And remember, the key to it all is to remember where you get that kind of love. It comes from the One who first showed it to you and me.
You see, Jesus gave up everything to be in a relationship with us. Listen to the way that Paul describes that in Philippians, chapter two. He says it this way: "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, (or held onto) but he emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:2-8).
Jesus took complete interest in you and He does the same today. He entered into human flesh and died with your sins upon Himself. He humbled Himself so that you could be encouraged, so that you could be blessed with forgiveness and new life. And now He stays with you. He said, "I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20).
You are not a conquest in Jesus' ledger of lives won for Himself; you are a person, a person Jesus values, a person Jesus is interested in. You are in a relationship with your Savior. And because of it, you have a refuge and a strength in times of peril. You have Someone you can cast your cares on. You have Someone who listens to you when you speak and who helps you in time of need. You have Someone who gives you the blessing of eternal life. Jesus cares about you. And now, in Him, you are free to care about others. You are sent to bless people with what is truly good and uplifting. You are free to take an interest in people, to give them an encouraging word, to show them that joy still exists and someone is still out there who cares about them. You are free to share the reason for the hope you have: your Savior and friend, Jesus Christ.
I'll never forget hearing about a woman named Nancy. She was going through a rough patch of life and felt extremely lonely and depressed. Her co-worker, Joanie, had become a friend to her over the years. As Joanie noticed Nancy's sadness, they talked together. Joanie offered to pray with her. Nancy accepted the offer. Months of conversations went by. Joanie encouraged her friend and listened to her. Then one day, Nancy asked if she could hear more about Joanie's beliefs. Joanie shared that she could never make it through the day without Jesus' help and strength. She confessed that some of the difficulties she faces may only find their resolution one day in heaven. And she held on to that hope in Him. Nancy wanted to know more, so Joanie invited her to come with her to church. Just a few weeks later, Nancy was baptized. She needed what Joanie had: God's blessing in the middle of a difficult life. Nancy and Joanie are still good friends. They're glad to walk in faith now and in life together.
And that's the point of this life this side of heaven; living relationally deepens your walk with Christ as it brings blessing to people that He brings into your life. Living relationally is what God created you for. From His relationship with you, you bring His encouraging love to others.
Sometimes it simply means stopping, looking, noticing, and speaking up.
I mentioned Anita Dickerson at the beginning of this message. After she called the police, several officers approached the man and two women Anita and her husband saw that day. One officer was certain he recognized the woman who was wearing big sunglasses and a wig. He looked her in her eyes, took her aside, and he asked her, "Are you Elizabeth Smart?"
Fourteen-year-old Elizabeth was abducted from her home just nine months earlier. Massive searches yielded no clues. Many thought she had perished. But Officer Victor Quezada took time to look very carefully at this young girl dressed like an older woman. The frightened girl's heart was beating fast and hard. The officer could see her fear and apprehension. It was true that some thought Elizabeth would never be found. It was true that, as a busy police officer, he had many other things he could be doing that day. But he also knew how important it was at that moment to connect with this young girl in distress. So he asked her again, "Are you Elizabeth Smart? Your family is looking for you." Finally, in spite of the intimidation of her captors, the frightened young woman admitted that she was, indeed, Elizabeth Smart. You can imagine the reaction of her parents when they found out their daughter was found. You can imagine the celebration and the joy that permeated Elizabeth's hometown that day. It all happened because people cared.
Well, that's what God is calling us to do and more. Living graciously, relationally, we get to be agents of His blessing in the lives of people. Can you see people in your life whom God is calling you to notice today? Can you imagine God's abundant grace overflowing from you to them, so that they can be blessed in Him too? Let's find out together, in Him.
LUTHERAN HOUR MAILBOX (Questions & Answers) for Feb 08, 2015 Topic: Why Does Christianity Seem to be Spreading Faster Internationally Than in the U.S.?
ANNOUNCER: Now, Pastor Gregory Seltz responds to questions. I'm Mark Eischer. Pastor, a listener wonders why Christianity seems to be spreading faster in other parts of the world than here in North America.
SELTZ: Wow, Mark, that's a complex question, but there's one thing to keep in mind. According to Revelation 7, God is bringing people to faith from every tribe and nation; so we shouldn't be surprised to see it happening all over the world!
ANNOUNCER: Now, many people are being brought to faith in Jesus in what's been called the "Global South."
SELTZ: I'm glad that you didn't name some of the countries because the Christian faith is forbidden in a number of them, but suffice it to say that in Africa, many parts of Asia, and the Middle East, many areas of Central and South America, we are seeing a rapid increase in the number of believers.
ANNOUNCER: What accounts for that increase and why are we not seeing that same kind of activity in the U. S. and Canada?
SELTZ: First, let's be clear about the reason for the increase. Just as in the United States, there are people coming to faith in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God to transform their hearts and lives. And let's be honest: there are many reasons that people in the Global South are hungering and thirsting for an eternal hope that the risen Savior Jesus gives; maybe more so than in North America.
ANNOUNCER: In many of those places people are facing oppression, violence, and suffering of all kinds.
SELTZ: They are. And that can create an openness to the hope and help of the Savior Jesus. There is something about desperation in the face of tribulation that causes people to cry out to God for help. And God calls out to them in Hebrews 4; it says "Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:16).
ANNOUNCER: But what about our nation? Are we crying out to God for help?
SELTZ: I think that's the real question. We've got immense challenges in our nation. But, it is important to know that even here, even now, God is still mightily at work and there are many who are still turning to God for answers. I know the studies and statistics have been painting a bleak picture of the Christian Church in the United States and Canada, but the same Spirit of God is alive and well.
ANNOUNCER: That's a good point; but wouldn't you also say there are some big obstacles though?
SELTZ: Of course. Each nation, region, and community has its own obstacles. I think in the West, we're struggling with a long list of challenges: materialism distracts us from what is important, giving people kind of a false feeling of contentment; post-modern philosophy causes people to doubt truth and so they become cynical about everything. And then, of course, with all the stuff we have there's this narcissistic individualism that leads people to focus selfishly on ourselves and not even consider the things of God. So, I find that people feel more overwhelmed today with everything, causing a hopelessness amidst abundant blessings.
ANNOUNCER: And once you miss that purpose of life that's found in Christ, it's easy to become apathetic and complacent.
SELTZ: Yeah, it sure is. Some of the worst tendencies of people come out when they have all that they want and they still aren't satisfied. Unfortunately, that can affect Christians, forgiven sinners, too.
ANNOUNCER: Any examples of that?
SELTZ: Sure, the church even becomes embroiled sometimes in infighting at the brink of harvest. Or, our faithful confession as Christians can become tainted by immorality, racism, and meanness. We've all got to be on our guard not to get in God's way even among us and through us. We always need to remember that we too are forgiven sinners, even broken healers, and we are bearers of Christ's news alone!
ANNOUNCER: And would you say that's why the church seems to be developing more slowly here?
SELTZ: I believe that it could be. In fact, our wealth and prosperity, which are blessings from God, can be a distraction to His eternal riches of grace in Christ. And, I also believe there are times and seasons for the movement of the Holy Spirit. So, let's prayerfully realize that these challenges exist everywhere, and certain challenges arise at certain times in every nation's life, but, amidst it all, our calling is clear in all those places. With love for our neighbors, we preach "Christ Crucified" the power of God for all who believe. Today's opportunity is tomorrow's harvest; today's harvest brings unique challenges too.
ANNOUNCER: So, in closing, let's rejoice in all that our faithful God is doing all around the world.
SELTZ: Yes, with that joyful spirit, let's see what God can still do with us here in this place too. I talk about it all the time; lets learn to be ourselves, graced people in Jesus, for others, people who strive to live graciously where God has planted them!
ANNOUNCER: And, let's see what God can do with us!
ANNOUNCER: Thank you, Pastor Seltz. This has been a presentation of Lutheran Hour Ministries.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" arr. Henry Gerike. Used by permission.
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