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Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian (OLD)

Joyful Testimonies

 

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2 Corinthians 11:22-30 and Philippians 3: 7-14

Provoke is a strong word. “Why did you hit him?” “He provoked me.” Provoke carries connotations of violence. Yet, the Bible tells us to “provoke one another to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24).

The Greek word for provoke means “to create distress or upset.” A couple of examples. This kind of distress happened when Paul and Barnabas had such a heated argument that they refused to travel together. The Bible uses this word to describe how upset they were with each other. They were provoked with each other (Acts 15:39). Another example was when Paul saw so many idols in a Greek city that it nearly made him sick to his stomach, he was distressed—the same word—provoked (Acts 17:16). This is normally a word that carries negative connotations.

However, in Hebrews, we are told to use what is normally thought of as negative energy to bring about love and good deeds. So how do we provoke each other to love and good deeds?

Another way of considering this question would be to consider the various other ways we motivate each other. How about guilt, or threats of punishment, or promises of rewards? Are not these the most common ways we try to motivate people?

The child sits at the table, pushing her peas from one side of the plate to the other. Every so often, when her mom is looking the other way, the child hides a pea under the edge of her plate. How does her mom motivate her daughter to eat the peas? “There are thousands of children starving across the world. They would give anything to be able to eat those vegetables on your plate right now.” I like the child who responded, “Oh yeah? Name two!”

When guilt fails to motivate, we can use threats of punishment or promises of reward. Most of us have experienced the failures of using guilt, punishments, or rewards to motivate people. The Apostle Paul suggests a different approach. He used his own story—his testimony—to motivate/provoke the Christians in Philippi. Is “testimony” the right word, or have we twisted its meaning beyond recognition. Let’s consider how we can share our stories to help others grow in faith.

Read Philippians 3:7-14.

In this election year, I am recalling the Arizona politician who used to tell the story of his campaigning on an Indian reservation. He recalled that he gave his traditional stump speech in English, aware that they were bilingual. He was told that even though they often spoke their own native language to each other, they would clearly understand him. He began his speech by promising the people that if he were elected his tax cuts would not affect their government benefits. A couple of the respected elders of the village turned to each other, smiled and said with a nod, “Ptui.” The politician promised that if he were elected he would stay in touch with their needs, and his office would be available at all times to listen to their concerns. A few people in the crowd smiled at each other, nodded and said, “Ptui. Ptui.” The politician was feeling pretty good. The crowd was obviously with him now. He waxed eloquent as he promised that if elected he would return regularly to visit their village and see what more he could do for them. By now the whole crowd was chanting together, “Ptui. Ptui.” He finished his speech and was feeling really good about their response. He excitedly accepted the invitation of the village elders to tour their village. The sound of the village chanting their affirmation was still ringing in his head when they walked into a sheep pasture and one of the elders pointed down and said, “Don’t step in the Ptui.”

Did you know Paul used the word “ptui” in his letter to the Philippians? Our Modern Bibles translate Philippians 3 with polite language. Mark Philippians 3:7. “Whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” The word translated as “loss” is literally “animal droppings, dung.”

Paul was very successful by the standards of his day. He came from a well off family. He had Roman citizenship. He was educated in the best Hebrew college of his day. He was tutored by the leading scholar in the field. He was devoted to his Hebrew traditions, proud of his ancestry, and a leader among his classmates in scholarship. Jesus took this highly successful leader and turned his priorities upside down. What he had cared so much about seemed worthless in comparison to following Christ.

Paul’s testimony was about how a successful person can shift priorities and move from the worries of daily finances and success to the concerns of integrity and eternal matters.

Testimonies like Paul’s can provoke us to seek God’s transformation. Paul’s story was a version of the “evangelistic testimony.” The basic format for such a testimony is the description of one’s life before and after meeting Jesus.

I have heard such testimonies often, particularly on mission teams. One of the ways we prepare people to travel internationally is by insisting they have their testimony ready to share. I have heard one of our women share her story of Christ with a group of women and children in a hut in Africa. I have listened as high school students tell a crowd in a park in South America what Christ means to them.

To be honest, I sometimes hold my breath as someone starts their testimony. I have seen Christians get a little competitive over whose testimony is the most dramatic. One person says, “I was on drugs and dropped out of school. I was married and divorced twelve times, then Jesus got hold of me and set me straight.” The next person tries to outdo that one by sharing, “I was on drugs, lived on the streets for three years, went to prison … Then I met Jesus…” It almost feels like the best testimonies have to go from a horrible life of dysfunction to a life of joy and perfect peace.

Is it just me or does anybody else have problems with these kinds of testimonies? What about those of us who have not experienced this kind of dramatic conversion? Many who love and follow Jesus came to faith at a young age while growing up in church. We never served time in prison. We never took drugs. We never even kicked the dog. How do we provoke such good-hearted, well-meaning people to continue doing good deeds for the Lord?

It is worth noting that the Apostle Paul shared different aspects of his own story according to his audience. For instance, he tells of his successes and shift in priorities to the Philippians, who were also Roman citizens residing in a community of successful people. Yet, in his second letter to the Corinthians he gives a different form of his testimony.

Recognizing that their struggles felt difficult and they sometimes wondered why God was not answering their prayers, he shared more of his struggles while following Jesus. In 2 Corinthians chapter 11 Paul described his difficulties after encountering Jesus. Meeting Jesus had not made the rest of his life go easily. Rather, Paul had been imprisoned and beaten for preaching the love of Christ. He had been shipwrecked and lost at sea. He had experienced danger during his travels. His life had been threatened. If that weren’t enough he admitted that his thoughts were often anxious.

Paul’s intent was clear. Whatever struggles others were facing in their faith, he struggled too. In other words, it’s okay to struggle. Whatever we are facing, we are not alone in our struggles.

Sometimes we need to hear a testimony about how a person’s life has changed dramatically from pre-Christ to post-Christ. Sometimes we need to hear how those of us who are successful still need to refocus our priorities. And sometimes we just need to hear that it is okay to struggle even when we are following Jesus. We are all weak, confused, and sometimes get in bad situations. Even while we love Jesus.

Have I shared the story about the night a Tlinget man tried to slice my throat in that little Alaskan village? A man waved a knife close to my throat and held me trapped for about a half hour. He was high on drugs and wasn’t making sense. He said something about my preaching making his sister cry. It was the only time while we lived among the Tlinget Indians that I truly believed my life was in danger.

Let me be honest here. It was mostly my own fault. Kate and I had recently had a conversation about my ministry to drunks in the middle of the night. It was pretty common for drunks to knock on the front door asking for prayer from the village pastor. She said their loud voices were upsetting our young children, so I had agreed to always step out onto the front porch and close the door behind me when a drunk came by in the night. That night, when I stepped out on the small front steps, I heard the door lock behind me and realized that I was trapped. That was when the man pulled the knife.

It felt like hours as I tried to reason with him. It was probably not more than half an hour. When he finally walked away I called the village police and learned that this man had just been released from prison. They promised to keep an eye on him and told me to call if he threatened me again.

A few days later I spotted him coming down the street toward our home. I told Kate to call the police. To this day, I don’t know what I was doing. It was pure panic. While she was on the phone, I rushed to the bathroom, climbed in the bathtub, and pulled the shower curtain. Why I thought that shower curtain would save me, I have no idea (I’ve seen “Psycho”). All I know is that I wanted to hide. Within a few days the man was back in prison.

We are all weak and confused sometimes. We all face fears sometimes. Paul wrote to those Christians at Corinth and said it was okay to be weak. In fact, it helps to share those confusing moments with each other and realize we are not alone. Welcome to being human with the rest of us. Serving Jesus doesn’t mean we have it all together all the time. It simply means we are moving forward in our journey toward faithfulness.

The Apostle Paul often shared his stories of past experiences. But with the Philippians he shared one more part of his testimony: he gazed into the future.

In his most positive letter where the joy bubbles to the surface and flows over his words, the Apostle Paul bears witness to his hope for the future. For Paul, the past was nothing more than Ptui compared to the joy of pressing on—“Forget-ting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:13).

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