"Are You Showing Signs of Life?"
August 7, 2005 Mt.7:15-23 at Point Farms Prov.Park
Alive & Well in the Great Outdoors
Summer's a great time to get outside and do some camping, whether here at Point Farms or elsewhere in this beautiful land God's created. When you're camping, you're more aware than usual of all the living creatures and movement of nature. Last week I spent 6 days at our denomination's family camp at Stayner, near Georgian Bay. Although I was in a bare-bones cabin rather than a tent, I was still very aware of signs of life all around. The towering white pines overhead made a constant soughing as the wind swept through the branches. During a thunderstorm, lightning flashed and rain drummed loudly on the steel roof. Early in the morning, while it was still dark, crows rudely cawed me into wakefulness. And it turns out I wasn't the sole inhabitant of the cabin - some spiders were escorted to the door when they made an appearance!
The 'trail of the pines' at Stayner Family Camp was certainly full of signs of life. Spiritually, a lot was happening, too. On a couple of nights following the evening message, the pews right across the front of the tabernacle were filled with people seeking healing for physical ailments, or reconnection with God and a fresh outpouring of His Spirit in their lives. As a pastor in attendance, it was my privilege to pray with some of these folk yearning for God's forgiveness, direction, and renewal.
It's very evident as we step outside, especially at a provincial park, that living things are active all around us. But what about us? Are WE showing signs of life - particularly in a spiritual sense?
Christianity offers full aliveness, because Jesus is all about life. He said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." Another time He said, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." (Jn 14:6; 10:10) John introduces his account of Jesus' life by noting, "In Him was life, and that life was the light of men." (Jn 1:4) It's as if God has created people with a special part of our soul that's dark and lifeless until we receive Jesus inside.
Paul describes our "deadness" apart from God's intervention more fully in Ephesians 2. He says, "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins..." We were consumed by "gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts", without the slightest interest in spiritual matters. "But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions..." (Eph 2:1_5)
Mike Breen and Walt Kallestad are pastors at a church in Arizona; Mike's originally from Sheffield England. In their book The Passionate Church, Mike recalls how children in Great Britain used to memorize the 7 classic signs of life in biology by the seven-letter acronym MRS GREN - standing for Movement, Respiration, Sensitivity, Growth, Reproduction, Excretion, and Nutrition. Since we're in a park setting today it's a good opportunity to consider whether we're as alive as nature around us, applying the MRS GREN criteria personally and spiritually.
First, are we showing signs of Movement? Living things move - even plants rooted in the ground grow in height and relocate by rhizomes. Sunflowers rotate their heads and lamb's ear takes over a flowerbed. Often you can tell something's alive just because it moves.
Likewise, a relationship with God begins with movement. In the Old Testament, God called people to turn toward Him. Is 45(22): "Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other." Or in Ezekiel 33(11), "As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?" God so much wants us to do an about-face and enjoy life with Him.
Not surprisingly, Jesus starts His ministry with this same language, telling people to "repent" (turn around in their thinking), inviting fishermen to "Come, follow Me" (Mt 4:17,19). Christianity isn't so much about religion as relationship, coming to Jesus, moving toward Him, opening the door of our heart so He can come in, then walking with Him each day. This results in changes in the way we live, there's a movement away from the old self to the new pattern Jesus is forming in us. John the Baptist described such effects of an about-turn as sharing one's food or clothing with those in need; tax collectors no longer over-charging; soldiers no longer extorting money by intimidation, or falsely accusing others (Lk 3:10-14). There's a definite alteration, a shift or movement away from old destructive habits.
One of the speakers at Stayner was Steve Jones, pastor of a large Missionary Church at Fort Wayne, Indiana. But he acknowledged there had been big changes in his life since becoming a Christian. He'd sowed his wild oats at college, so he admitted to us, "If a young man or woman came up to me tonight and told me I was their biological father, I couldn't categorically deny it; I'd have to say, 'OK, let's go get the test.'" Moving toward Jesus, He helps us break with our old shameful lifestyle.
A second sign of life is Respiration. We commonly think of this as our lungs breathing, but really they're only just bringing air into contact with our blood. The real respiration happens within individual cells, where tiny furnaces called mitochondria burn oxygen and carbohydrates (from food) to produce carbon dioxide, water, and the energy that's absolutely necessary to survive. (I'd mention the phrase 'Krebs Cycle' but it might cause some of you high school survivors to have nightmares!)
If we stop breathing, we die. If our airway is somehow blocked, we suffocate. In a spiritual sense, the Holy Spirit is our "air" supply; the same Greek word can mean "a movement of air, wind or breath". The Bible commands us to keep on being filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18). Paul writing to the Galatians notes we live by the Spirit, so need to keep in step with the Spirit, for that's how we experience the "fruit of the Spirit" in our lives - love joy peace patience kindness goodness faithfulness gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:16, 22f,25). Competing with that are the desires of the flesh; Jesus warned in the story of the sower and the seed that "the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth" can "choke" the seed - throttling it (Mt 13:22). What's threatening to squeeze out the Holy Spirit's influence in us?
Deep-sea divers depend on clear hoses to pump life-sustaining air down to them deep below the water's surface. Perhaps prayer is the chief means by which God communicates His Spirit to us. Ole Hallesby says that prayer is to the soul what breathing is to the body. "Prayer is the breath of God filling us up again." (TPC)
Sensitivity is the "S" at the end of MRS in MRS GREN. Living things sense and respond to their environment, they're affected by external factors. In college we did experiments with mimosa or 'sensitive plants' which closed their leaves dramatically if they felt the slightest touch. By contrast, growing up on a dairy farm, some big old cows were considerably less sensitive - if they were standing on your foot, it took quite a nudge to persuade them to move!
Sensitivity is essential in the spiritual life. In our scripture passage read earlier, Jesus says at the day of judgment He will respond to those who only pretended to follow Him, "I never knew you." (Mt 7:23) Knowing is the language of relationship, being sensitive to someone, aware of their words and thoughts and wishes, being involved with them intimately as a friend or on a deeper level. Jesus urged us to stay connected and abide or remain in Him as a branch remains connected to a grapevine; there's no fruit or life possible if the branch becomes disconnected from the main stock (Jn 15:4ff) Switching to an animal metaphor, Jesus described Himself as a shepherd and said, "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.I give them eternal life..." (Jn 10:27) Sensitivity includes listening to Jesus' voice.
It helps if we can give God our attention early in the day. A prophet wrote, "The Sovereign LORD...wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught." (Isa 50:4) What's distracting us from God? What's diverting our attention from Him who seeks to know and be known by us most closely?
This sensitivity applies in an earthly sense as well as heavenly: Jesus' love and compassion move us to become more sensitive to the needs of other people. The Bible says (1Jn 3:17), "If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?" God's agape caring within us makes us sensitive to others' suffering.
At the EMC Family Camp, a rep from the International Bible Society made a presentation about HIV/AIDS in Africa. It's startling: in 2003, about 8,000 people died from AIDS every day; 40 million people were infected at the end of 2004; 92,000 people are being infected every week; it's forecast that 70 million people will die by 2020. The number of AIDS orphans in Africa is more than double the total population of children in Canada. The presenter said it's not just that parents are dying, leaving grandparents to care for the children; grandparents are dying too, leaving a 9-year-old child to look after his or her 5- and 3-year-old siblings. And the dominant myth about a cure being spread by the witch doctors has consequences too horrible to even mention here. True Christians care, we will be sensitive to others' hurts and situations.
Fourth, living things GROW. There's development, maturing, some product. In our text, Jesus said (7:17), "Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit." Elsewhere He likened God's effect to a tiny mustard seed growing to be a large plant, or yeast spreading all through a batch of dough (Mt 13:31ff). In the garden, I was having trouble distinguishing the golden rod from the phlox because the leaves are similar; but as the weed continues to grow it shows its true colours and is now easy to distinguish.
The first step in Christianity is giving our life to Jesus, but it doesn't end there. That's just the beginning. All our life we will be growing into the Christlike attributes and unique skills God has planned for us. Peter wrote that God has given us everything we need for life and godliness; He helps us participate in the divine nature (becoming more and more like Jesus); thus, we are to "make every effort" to add to our faith such things as goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love (2Pet 1:3-7). These qualities, increasing in us, will keep us from being "ineffective and unproductive" in knowing Christ (there's that relationship again!). There's room in that list for every one of us to keep growing.
And as believers in a church grow individually, the church itself grows. Small groups are particularly important here; they're meant to divide and multiply. That's why we need to always be in training mode, developing new leaders who'll be able to take over a "baby" group. Volunteering as an apprentice leader is a great way to grow in your own life.
Next, living things Reproduce - or else the species would terminate pretty quickly! Daddies and mommies make babies, from bees to hippos (did you know baby hippos are born able to swim - because they're born in the water...learned that in VBS!). Jesus drew attention to this reproductive aspect of faith in a couple of ways. In 7:16 He said, "By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?" We multiply by kind; our spiritual qualities will have an outflow. Reproduction is also reflected in the Great Commission in which Jesus commanded us to "make disciples of all nations..." (Mt 28:19) That is, His followers are to make other followers, baptizing and mentoring them, to the point they in turn can make disciples...you get the idea. We each can be partnering with someone younger as a coach, with a peer as a mutual encourager, and with a godly older person to receive positive influence and example.
Did you know churches are meant to reproduce, too? President Phil Delsaut was reminding us at Stayner that "the fruit of a disciple is another disciple; the fruit of a church is another church." Hanover's church plant at Chesley has outgrown their former facility - that's reproduction.
At camp I got to know better Jeff Bowman's grandmother Dorothy, who attends Auburn EMC. Dorothy is a sweet little elderly lady who has a passion for prayer and the old-time choruses. She and her husband (now deceased) started taking Jeff their grandson with them to Family Camp when he was 5 years old, and it was there he became a Christian. Dorothy was generally sitting on the pew behind me. Jeff & Lynn & Cody were sitting on the pew ahead of me. During one of the services the leader announced that Cody had just celebrated his first birthday as a believer, having been brought by Jeff & Lynn to camp and made his decision to follow Jesus there a year ago. Spiritual reproduction. We need to be looking for opportunities (like Family Camp, or the upcoming Auburn concert) to raise the topic of faith with friends and family members so they can come to know Jesus personally, too.
The "E" of MRS GREN is Excretion - not a pleasant-sounding word, or smell! Living things have an output of waste products - as anyone can tell you who's reluctant to sign up for nursery duty because they might have to change a diaper. Excretion is very necessary: we don't want to be filling up with toxic leftovers from which our system has already taken the goodness. A plugged bile duct turns a person an interesting yellow colour, but it's not healthy.
Excretion has its corollary in the spiritual life. Badness needs to be dealt with. Jesus warned, "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." (7:19) To those who just give Jesus lip-service He will say plainly on Judgment Day, "I never knew you.Away from me, you evildoers!" (7:23) God expels the wicked from His Kingdom - otherwise eternal life would not be complete blessing. In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord exaggerated to make a point, saying if our hand causes us to sin, it's better to cut it off than be thrown into hell with our whole body (Mt 5:30). Radical, dude!
Jesus said these things to warn us, not condemn us without hope; He has provided a way to deal with sin in our lives. John the Baptist described Jesus as the Lamb of God "who takes away the sin of the world" (Jn 1:29). He's our spiritual cleanser; through His death for us on the cross our sins and clinging guilt can be excreted, eliminated. The Bible says if we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous and will forgive us our sins and CLEANSE / purify us from all unrighteousness (1Jn 1:9). Psalm 65(3) in the New Living Translation says, "Though our hearts are filled with sins, You forgive them all." Isn't that wonderful? God has a trash bucket big enough to deal with whatever most shameful thing we've ever done and been scared to admit.
Once forgiven, having 'excreted' our sin through the atoning blood of the Saviour, we can forgive all the junk other people have done to us. Bitterness and resentment are a poison you don't want to let build up in your system; as someone has said, bitterness "is the poison we drink hoping someone else will die". The book The Passionate Church states, "Research is now showing that unforgiveness causes increased blood pressure, hormonal changes, cardiovascular disease, and impaired brain functions, including memory loss.Not excreting what others have done to us is just as unhealthy as not getting rid of our own sins." Let it go - let God deal with it. You are not another person's judge, but you can be the one who pardons them and releases the grudge.
Finally, the signs of life in MRS GREN end with N - Nutrition. We've got to eat to live, haven't we? Here's a sensitive subject if we're prone to over-indulge. However an article by Denyse O'Leary in ChristianWeek suggests it's more important and healthy to stay active than to make oneself miserable through some diet to stay thin. "Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look..." (That's Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, not Scripture)
Jesus several times referred to Himself as spiritual "food". He said things like, "I am the bread of life.He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty." To the woman at the well, struggling to find a satisfying male relationship in her life, Jesus promised, "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." (Jn 6:35; 4:14) And in John 7(37f), the verses from which our congregation gets its name, He declared in a loud voice at a public gathering, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him." He wants to be our complete source for spiritual nutrition.
Knowing Jesus is more than a mystical connection in the closet; He reveals Himself to us as we also follow Him in obedience through the day. He told His disciples at the same well, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work." (Jn 4:34) This ties in with our passage earlier: it's not those who say "Lord, Lord" that enter the kingdom, "but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." (7:21) How do we find out God's will, what He wants? Maybe - reading His instructions might help? The Bible is indispensable for discovering God's will and doing it. All Scripture is profitable for teaching and training so that God's man or woman is adequate, prepared, "thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2Tim 3:16f). Have the attitude of Job who declared, "I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread." (Job 23:12) Peter urged, "Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation..." (1Pe 2:2) No nourishment - no growth! Are your spiritual snacking patterns dwarfing you, or helping you develop and stretch your Kingdom muscles?
Change for the Better
Life involves change - and when Jesus is part of the picture, it's change for the better, in the long run. When life is just about satisfying fleshly desires, we give ground to the enemy of our souls who's out to destroy us.
Our daughter and son-in-law are involved in Christian outreach to young people in Edmonton. They see first hand how people get dragged down by the world's substitutes for the satisfaction only God can offer. This week my daughter shared a prayer request: "Please pray for C___....He's on the brink of suicide.Two or three days ago, he tried to hang himself.He's refusing to commit to calling us if he feels like killing himself, which is a sign of desperation. He's continuing [to] worship the ground of a girl (J___) who is so hung up on the drug of Ecstasy that she doesn't even know he exists - and kicks him in the face when she realizes it.But he refuses to let her go.Meanwhile, he's continuing to pray everyday, but he says God isn't answering him.He needs a job, a more secure place to live, and a vision. Please lift him up with us.Please also pray for J___, that salvation will break through the clouds and give her hope."
Meanwhile, at another city in the same province (Calgary), a chiropractor who attends Canada's largest EMC church is heading up an evangelistic team which preaches to street people in the open air - novel idea, but it seems to be having an effect. The Street Church as it's becoming known happens each Sunday afternoon at a green-space sandwiched between a downtown drop-in centre and the Bow River, which also serves as a baptismal tank. Lawrence Irwin, the leader, says: "It's been more than a year since a group of us first went out on 17th Avenue and began preaching simple messages from God's word...This is God's doing...It is truly humbling to be used by God in experiencing that simply declaring the gospel results in the power of God unto salvation."
An email to supporters speaks of 10 people receiving Christ in one day, 3 another. One person in particular illustrates the change Jesus helps happen. "Travis, one of the five that were baptized, was out again on fire for Jesus...He...says he wants to be an evangelist.Every time he talks, he is talking about Jesus and quoting Scripture. Praise God for the change in Travis' life - from a life of drugs to a life for Jesus!"
What will it be - drugs or the Redeemer, death or life? Jesus invites anyone who hears His invitation to trust Him, follow Him, and discover the kind of life that alone can truly satisfy - on and on into eternity. Let's pray.