Taking Opportunities

Colossians 4:2-6

June 7, 2014 | Brian Bill

Listen to this excerpt from a book by Mark Buchanan called, “Your Church is Too Safe.”  

Historian Daniel Boorstin documents a momentous shift that occurred in North America in the nineteenth century: we stopped calling people who went on trips travelers and started calling them tourists.

Traveler literally means “one who travails.”  He labors, suffers, endures…To get there, he immerses himself in a culture, learns the language and customs, lives with the locals, imitates the dress, eats what’s set before him.  He takes risks, some enormous, and makes sacrifices, some extravagant.  He has tight scrapes and narrow escapes.  He is gone a long time. If ever he returns, he returns forever altered…

A tourist, not so.  Tourist means, literally, “one who goes in circles.”  He’s just taking an exotic detour home.  He’s only passing through, sampling wares, acquiring souvenirs… He retreats each night to what’s safe and familiar.  He picks up a word here, a phrase there, but the language, and the world it’s embedded in, remains opaque and cryptic, and vaguely menacing.  He spectates and consumes.  He returns to where he’s come from with an album of photos, a few mementos, a cheap hat.  He’s happy to be back.  He declares there’s no place like home.

The kingdom of God is made up of travailers, but our churches are largely populated with tourists.  

I’d say that Edgewood has a lot of people serious about traveling with Jesus instead of just being tourists.   Here are some highlights from the journey we’ve been traveling for the past six weeks as we’ve been learning how to live on mission.

  • Living a Questionable Life: Live in such a way that people will ask you questions
  • Building Bridges: Instead of erecting barriers, it’s essential to build bridges to those who don’t know Christ
  • Mentoring Moms: A mom can be a spiritual mentor to her children with or without the help of a dad
  • Living a Life of Love: What if Jesus meant we’re to love our actual neighbors?
  • Walking Across the Street: Let’s walk across the street and get to know our neighbors
  • Going Global: Start where you are and go everywhere with the gospel

We’ll wrap up our series next weekend as we focus on the pivotal role that dads have in making disciples.  And today we’ll discover that we need to take the opportunities that God gives us.

Before we jump into our text, here are four reasons we struggle to share Jesus with people.  

  1. We’re not living like we should.  As we we estalished in the very first message, when we’re not walking with Christ it’s tough to do much talking about Christ.
  2. We’re focused inward, not outward.  Our individual auto setting is selfishness.  And as a church, the gravitational pull is to always go inward, not outward.  While we must care for our members we must always remember that the church is the only organization that exists for the benefit of its non-members.  Thom Ranier, president of Lifeway Christian Resources, has studied thousands of churches and congregations for more than 25 years.  In a post just this week, he wrote these words: “Stated simply, the most common factor in declining churches is an inward focus…Most of the resources of time, money and ministries have shifted toward the members.  Churches are now getting in holy huddles with little intention of breaking out into a world of lostness and loneliness.”
  3. We don’t really believe that people without Christ are lost and will spend eternity in Hell.  There are many passages that declare this but here’s just one from 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9: “In flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.”  This reality should grip us and move us to tears…and then propel us across the street and to the ends of the earth.

I was really moved by something our daughter Emily passed on to us this week.  When Emily was a student at Moody Bible Institute she became good friends with a young woman named Amy.  They were both missions majors and now Emily is serving in the Dominican Republic and Amy is in a Muslim country (I won’t say the name for her safety).  During their two-hour Skype conversation this week, Amy mentioned that she recently went to a funeral and explained that in that culture the women are expected to wail loudly for hours when someone dies.  Emily asked Amy how she handled that.  Amy told her that she joined in the wailing but focused her grief on the fact that the person who died was in agony in the eternal fires of Hell’s everlasting punishment.  She wept and wailed for all the Muslims she lives with because they’re headed to Hell as well.  She’s definitely a travailer, not a tourist.

  1. Prayerlessness.  We’re going to address this one today.  Please turn in your Bibles to Colossians 4:2-6 as we read together: “Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving; meanwhile praying also for us, that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in chains, that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.”

Our text falls naturally into two parts.

  • Intercession: Speaking to God about people (Colossians 4:2-4)
  • Evangelism: Speaking to people about God (Colossians 4:5-6)

Now, before you shut down and take your mental guilt trip at the mention of prayer and evangelism, let’s allow the Holy Spirit to blow freshness through this passage.  We’ve all heard messages on the need to pray and the need to proclaim and yet most of us struggle because we know we’re not doing enough. 

Speaking to God About Others

Let’s look first at how to speak to God about others.  Verse 2 answers the question, “How do we pray?”  We discover three helpful guidelines in this verse: “Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving.”

1. Pray with earnestness. 

The word, “earnestly” means to “adhere firmly to” and “to be courageously persistent.”  It implies unrelenting persistence and is the opposite of “hit and miss.” It brings back to mind how steadfast the early church was in Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”  In Luke 18:1, Jesus told his “disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”

In a recent blog post, Kevin DeYoung nails it when he says: “Our prayer is often dull because there is so little earnestness in it. We pray as if no one is listening. We pray as if nothing will happen. We pray as if nothing were at stake. We pray without vim or vigor, without passion, without purpose. We pray to pass the time not to pull down blessings from heaven…God stands ready to hear us. He is eager to help us…He who is omniscient delights to know our requests. He who is omnipotent acts when we call upon him. He who is omnipresent will never be nearer to us than when we pray.”

You may have dry times and dull days when you don’t know what to say, but keep praying anyway.

Paul is saying something quite simple: Keep praying.  Don’t bail.  Don’t give up.  Be faithful.  You may have dry times and dull days when you don’t know what to say, but keep praying anyway.

2. Pray with vigilance. 

Verse 2 continues by saying that we’re to be “vigilant” or awake when we pray.  Paul told the believers in 1 Thessalonians 5:6 to not go asleep but to instead be “alert and self-controlled” as the time approaches for the Lord’s return.  This exhortation brings to mind the words of Jesus to His disciples the night before He was crucified in Mark 14:34, 38: “Stay here and keep watch…Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.  The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” 

3. Pray with thankfulness. 

We should never pray without thinking of at least one thing to thank God for.  Gratitude is a stimulus to prayer.  When we see answers to prayer, we will pray more. We can always thank God for His presence, His provision, His pardon, His promises, and for His purposes.  

What to Pray

Verse 2 asks the question, “How do we pray?” and focuses on the characteristics of prayer.  We do so earnestly, vigilantly and thankfully.  In verses 3-4 we see another question, “What do we say when we pray?”  Let’s take a look: “Meanwhile praying also for us, that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in chains, that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak.” There are at least two things we should say when we pray.

1. Ask for open doors. 

It’s amazing that while Paul is under house arrest he doesn’t ask for prayers for his release, or for better food, or anything else like that.  He simply wants an open door for the gospel message.  Even though he was locked up he was able to minister effectively – but he needed the prayers of God’s people for the doors to open.  

Many of you know that our family served in Pontiac for 14 years before moving to the QCA last July.  I’ll never forget how God used a prisoner at the Pontiac Correctional Center to share Christ with a correctional officer.  This inmate had an open door and he took it.  I love the picture of a prisoner telling a guard how to find freedom!  My friend Lance got saved as a result, was baptized and is a member of Pontiac Bible Church.

In Scripture, a door is an opportunity, or ability.  In 1 Corinthians 16:9, Paul says, “a great door for effective work has opened to me.”  In 2 Corinthians 2:12, he writes, “I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me.”  Jesus opens and shuts doors for us as we seek Him in prayer.  Revelation 3:8: “See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.”  

As our family has been neighboring in our neighborhood, I’ve also been building bridges with neighbors around our church facility.  A week ago I noticed something going on with one of our neighbors so I’ve stopped by four times this to see if I can be of help to them.  I’ve not been able to make contact yet so I sent an email to the staff and the deacons this past week, asking them to pray that God would open some doors.

I can open a door for you and you can open a door for me – if we pray for one another.  1 Samuel 12:23 is very challenging: “…far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by failing to pray for you.”  That means that if I don’t pray for you, and you don’t pray for me, we can end up sinning against the Lord.

2. Ask for clarity. 

Once God opens a door, it’s essential that we have the ability to proclaim the mystery of Christ with clarity: “that I may make it manifest.” This means “to make visible, apparent, conspicuous.” 

It’s difficult for me to ask people for help but I want to ask you for something.  Would you please pray for me?  I am cognizant of the fact that I will not have open doors and I will not be able to preach with clarity unless you are praying for me.  If you don’t pray for me and I preach a confusing sermon, it’s really your fault!  Seriously, I can’t think of anything more comforting and assuring than to know that many of you are praying for your pastors every day.  

Notice also that Paul says, “…as I ought to speak.”  He sees this as a necessary duty.  This same word is used of Jesus in Matthew 16:21: “Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem.”

Speaking to Others About God

When we speak to God about others, Paul urges us to be earnest, vigilant, and thankful.  When we wonder what we should say when we pray, we’re given two practical requests – pray for open doors and pray for clarity when those opportunities arrive.  As we come to verses 5-6, we’ll gain some insight into how to speak to others about God.  This is where prayer dovetails with evangelism as we discover that our ability to impact people is directly related to the intensity of our intercession.

Verse 5 focuses on how we walk.  In verse 6 the emphasis is on how we talk.  We must balance our life and our lips.  Let’s look first at verse 5: “Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time.”

1. Walk in wisdom. 

To be wise in the way we walk means that we’re careful not to say or do anything that would make it difficult to share the gospel.  We need to remember that those who don’t yet know Christ are watching us.  You’ve no doubt heard it put this way: Who you are speaks so loudly that I can’t hear what you’re saying.  When Dr. Will Houghton became pastor of the Baptist Tabernacle in Atlanta, a man hired a private detective to follow him around and report on his conduct.  After a few weeks, the detective reported that Dr. Houghton’s life matched his preaching.  As a result, the man became a Christ follower.  

When Jesus sent his disciples out to spread the good news, he told them in Matthew 10:16 to be “as shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves.”  Brothers and sisters, we need to be careful about the way we act because people are making decisions about the validity of Christianity based upon our character and conduct.  When we pray, God will give us open doors.  Let’s not shut them by our behavior. 

2. Make the most of opportunities.  

The phrase “redeeming the time” is a commercial term that means to “buy up.”  It’s the picture of finding something on sale and buying all you can afford because the price is so good.  Likewise, we’re to buy up every opportunity to speak for Christ when we see one. 

I try to be on the lookout for bridge building opportunities.  Just recently I was asked to be the “pastor on call” for the newly formed Quad Cities Missing Person Network.  This has already given me open doors with people I would otherwise not ever know and I’ve been in contact with one family so far when their loved one went missing.

3. Be gracious. 

Verse 6 challenges us to guard what comes out of our mouths.  Our wise walk should lead to wise words: “Let your speech always be with grace…”  It’s important that we communicate with words of grace when we speak with those who don’t yet know Christ.  We need to stop judging those who sin different than we do.  Let’s  be more like Jesus, who was the perfect embodiment of both truth and grace.  Even when He dealt with sin, He spoke words of grace.  In Luke 4:22, after listening to Jesus teach, the people “spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.” 

Let me point out something very interesting.  In verse 3 and verse 4 the word “speak” is used twice.  The idea behind this word is “to talk at random, like children chatting.”  Now drop down to verse 6.  The word “speech” here is the word logos, which refers to “intelligent, well thought-out words.”  As I pondered this it hit me that we must be able to talk about the weather and then move to worship or start with sports and then move to the Savior.  Begin with random conversation and then look for ways to move to God’s revelation.  

Here’s how it worked with the neighbor I was drinking coffee with.  We started talking about garage sales and then she mentioned that she was going to a visitation.  I expressed my condolences and then I mentioned that the Bible says life is like a vapor.  While the door was open I told her that eternity is forever and life here is short and so we better make sure we’re ready to die when its our time.  She agreed and then we went back to talking about the weather.

Pray and ask God what to say

This past week Beth and I went for a walk down by the Mississippi.  When we got out of our car I saw a man who had just finished a bike ride.  I asked him how far he went and he told me that he biked 10 miles.  I congratulated him and then he noticed I was wearing a shirt with some Swedish on it and wondered where I got it.  I told him I was Polish (why are you laughing) but that Beth’s family is Swedish.  That led to a handshake and the sharing of names.  We talked some more and we found out this his wife had died suddenly two years ago.  We expressed our sympathy which led to a discussion about church.  I then gave him the Soul Satisfaction booklet and he said he would call to invite me to Rotary sometime.  This was an opporunity that came about by simply commenting on how far someone went on his bike.  Here’s the principle.  Pray and ask God what to say.  Begin with any random comment and then look for conversational bridges to speak of Christ.

4. Be appetizing. 

Our conversations need to be: “…seasoned with salt…” Salt enhances flavor and makes food appetizing.  Salt also preserves, purifies and cleanses which helps us see that we should have a positive impact on our culture.  Shawn Masengarb passed along an email this week: “The March 2014 edition of Men’s Health Magazine refers to a study done at the University of Michigan (page 40) that shows that Living on Mission in your neighborhood could lower risk of stroke. ‘People who rated their neighbors highest in friendliness, trustworthiness and helpfulness were 48 percent less likely to suffer a brain attack than those in the least unified hoods.’”  Mr. Rogers was right, wasn’t he?  “I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you.  I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.”

“Salty speech” in Paul’s day referred to witty and clever discussion.  It was the opposite of being boring or monotone.  When we talk about our faith how can we not but be interesting?   Salty speech also makes people thirsty for the savor of the Savior.  We should be talking about Christ in a way that makes someone’s mouth water!  But, in order for salt to work it must get out of the saltshaker, right?

Salt was also added to the Old Testament sacrifices in Leviticus 2:13. Maybe Paul is implying that we should view our words as verbal offerings to God, just as our words of praise are spiritual offerings in Hebrews 13:15.  Recognizing that what comes out of our mouths is a sacrifice to God should help us to be both gracious and appetizing.

5. Be ready. 

When we choose to mix it up with people who don’t yet know Christ we need to be ready to give them an answer when they ask us some questions: “…that you may know how you ought to answer each one.”  Another way to say it is that when we are gracious and appetizing, people will want an explanation.  This is a natural process that will happen when people see Christ in us.  Peter put it this way in 1 Peter 3:15: “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

We must be ready to answer everyone.  You can do that any number of ways.  First of all, simply tell your story.  Talk about how you became a Christian.  Secondly, tell His story.  Focus on Jesus, explaining why He had to die on the cross and the need for us to respond to what He has done.  Thirdly, invite your searching friends to a weekend service. 

Cancel Your Guilt Trip

Mack Stiles has written a new book called, “Evangelism.”  I share his longing:

I long for a church that understands that it—the local church—is the chosen and best method of evangelism.  I long for a church where the Christians are so in love with Jesus that when they go about the regular time of worship, they become an image of the gospel.  I long for a church that disarms with love, not entertainment, and lives out countercultural confidence in the power of the gospel.  I long for a church where the greatest celebrations happen over those who share their faith, and the heroes are those who risk their reputations to evangelize.  I yearn for a culture of evangelism with brothers and sisters whose backs are up to mine in the battle, where I’m taught and I teach about what it means to share our faith; and where I see leaders in the church leading people to Jesus. I want a church where you can point to changed lives, where you can see people stand up and say, ‘When I came to this church two years ago, I didn’t know God, but now I do!’  I long to be part of a culture of evangelism like that.  I bet you do, too.”

Now, before you leave here feeling beat up because you don’t pray enough and you don’t say enough, let me encourage you to cancel your guilt trip and become a grace traveler.  The real answer is to cultivate intimacy with God by bowing to the supremacy of Jesus.  We won’t really pray until we see prayer as a way to express our love to Christ and recognize that He is even more eager to meet with us than we are to meet with Him.  Likewise, it’s impossible to salt our speech with the deliciousness of Jesus when we haven’t been enjoying the taste ourselves.  If evangelism is what spills over when we bump into someone, then we must make sure that what bubbles over is appetizing.

Intercession and evangelism flow out of relationship.  Are you growing in your love for Him?  

Cancel your reservations on the guilt cruise and book your grace trip today.

I wonder if some of us need to be broken before we’ll move from the inward to the outward, from ourselves to others.  

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?