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Pastor Scott L. Harris
Grace Bible Church, NY
May 20, 2018
Seeing God’s Gracious Hand at Work
It is good to be back with you this morning after being away the last couple of weeks. I am very grateful to Philip Jordan and David Harris for preaching while I was away. It is a comfort to me to know that there are many good men here who can faithfully declare the Scriptures to you.
Diane and I were glad to be able to attend Jonathan’s graduation from seminary. It was a beautiful and respectful ceremony. I pray the many graduates there that morning will carry out the Seminary President’s charge to make disciples. That was the same theme I preached on multiple times while in the Dominican Republic the week prior. We spent the next few days with Jonathan and Danielle exploring in Raleigh, Durham and Wake Forest, North Carolina. It was eye opening to see the rapid changes occurring in that part of the South, and though considered part of the “Bible Belt,” it is an area in great need of the gospel due to the dual effects of immigration there from the Northeast and the secularization of the millennial generation through the schools and media. Jonathan and Danielle are part of a small Bible Church near Durham which is committed to Bible teaching and evangelism. Their pastor, Joe Henson, is faithful to exposit the Scriptures. Another man we met there, Sean, along with some others, goes to Raleigh every Friday night to preach in the streets of the downtown area to those taking part in the night life there. Jonathan joins them when he is able. Sean is a good transition to what I want to talk about this morning about the time Winston and I had in the Dominican Republic.
There is much that is occurring in the world that is disheartening to us as Christians, and especially to those of us who are older, for we remember how things used to be. But for anyone, young or old, it is easy to see the rapid decline into evil, not only in our own nation, but also around the world. American culture is in an active pursuit of what is wicked with a large segment of society even striving to punish those who do what is right before God. Winston commented to me about similar changes he has seen taking place in the Dominican Republic as secular thought rises in that nation.
Yet even in places where sin is obvious and rising, you can also see God’s hand at work. God still has His faithful servants such as Sean that are out on the streets declaring the good news of Jesus Christ. In our own midst, we see men learning, growing and taking their stand to fulfill their God given role in righteousness though it is contrary to the direction of society, and in some cases, the opposite direction of their wives who are following the path of feminism. In the Dominican Republic, Winston and I were greatly blessed to see God’s hand at work in an area of poverty, and if the driving there is any indication, of people who want to go where they want to go and want you to move out of the way as they go there.
Our trip was amazing in many respects, and this morning I want to do something different than normal in order to tell you about it. I was scheduled to preach on Matthew 26:6-13 and its parallel passages this morning, but I think it is also important to follow the directions given in various Psalms to praise the name of the Lord, give thanks and tell of His goodness to the nations. This morning I want to briefly recount some of the ways in which Winston and I were able to see God’s hand at work during our time in the Dominican Republic.
I must begin by saying I am very grateful to Winston’s family for their wonderful hospitality. We stayed at the home of Winston’s parents. When I arrived, I found a lovely towel that Winston’s mom made for me embroidered with my name and a cross and Bible symbol. She had thought ahead about such a kindness though she had just come up here to New York for a knee replacement surgery. Winston’s younger sister, Kiev, was our gracious hostess who set out beautiful and bountiful breakfasts each morning and I was able to try out many fresh tropical fruits and Dominican dishes. It is a beautiful country and the people we met in the various churches were warm and friendly and very accommodating to a Gringo whose Spanish largely consists of the names of Mexican foods.
Our purpose in being there was for me to speak to church leaders – pastors, deacons, deaconesses and those in training – in two separate and distinct church associations, though they have many ties to each other and to another larger and older association of churches. Our connection to them came from our involvement with the Compassion International Center in Cienfuegos over the last few years. The pastor who started that center is the leader of one of the church associations, and the past director of it is the wife of the leader of the other church association. Winston has developed a good relationship with them and over the past year has discussed with them the idea about my coming to speak with them. In God’s timing, all the various elements came together for us to go, and I was to speak on discipleship. We quickly learned to be flexible since many times I was preaching to the whole congregation instead of leading seminars for just the church leaders. As the various meetings of the week unfolded, it became obvious that each was in God’s perfect timing and the various Scripture texts I taught on were just what was needed. In fact, by the time the week was over, enough had been revealed that we recognized that what we did could not have been done at an earlier time. God was at work preparing the hearts of the men and women there to receive what we would be teaching from His word.
On our first full day there, we met with Pastor Ercilio Garcia and his brother, Tomas. Ercilio is the senior pastor of Congregacion Cristiana Cienfuegos and leads the association of churches that have been planted by it which is known as Ministerio Apostolico de Luz Y Gracia. We then toured the Compassion Center which Ercilio started there 16 or more years ago. Most of you are a little familiar with it from the reports of our missions trips there the last few years. I will only add that it was a little larger than I had thought, and they have developed a very comprehensive program to help families living in an area of poverty. It begins with prenatal care, classes on infant care, child rearing, marriage, and continues on to augmenting the education of children and teaching practical trade skills to teens while proclaiming the gospel throughout. Its ministry is tied directly to the several local churches that are involved with it.
This was also my first experience with the roads and drivers there. The roads have an excessive amount of speed bumps everywhere which are not really needed due to the frequent dips and potholes encountered. You could not drive fast there even if you wanted to do so. David told me the driving there is like any third world country where the drivers may or may not have a license. Just aim your car and go. Traffic lanes, lights and signs are often just suggestions.
Tuesday evening we had our first meeting with the group of churches that goes by the acronym PANAL (Pastores Nacidos Libres). They are a group of pastors committed to helping each other according to an Acts 2:44-47 model of freely sharing with one another. Many of the leaders of the various churches were there, but so was the congregation of the church, so I preached instead of giving a seminar. We preached on Matthew 28:16-20 and the priority of discipleship in the church. (See the 9 sermons on the Great Commission starting here) That evening I also learned that Dominicans are loud. Throughout the rest of the week, I often had to step outside during their singing since the volume caused the ringing in my ears to increase. We met after the service with the 20-25 church leaders present to share a meal and talk about their organization. My own involvement in leading pastors’ associations enabled me to suggest some practical things for them to improve their effectiveness.
On Wednesday morning, I led the seminars on discipleship from Matthew 28 for the other group which had about 40-50 church leaders present. That evening we preached for Pastor Ercilio at Congregacion Cristiana Cienfuegos. This is the largest church in either association with seating for several hundred. My sermon was on the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 as a description of the characteristics God develops in those that are disciples of Christ. I used the opportunity to give an overview of the Sermon on the Mount and set the passage in its context before expositing it. (See: https://gracebibleny.org/category/sermons/sermon_on_the_mount) This has been an area of weakness in the churches there. They love God’s word, but do not necessarily exposit the Scriptures in their context. The tendency there, just as the tendency in many churches here, is to read a few verses and then preach a sermon which may or may not be true to the meaning of the verses in its context. The sermon was well received with the Pastor commenting after that though the church had a charismatic origin, this was the direction they needed to go. That was the first statement that let me know that something extraordinary was happening.
This became even more clear on Thursday morning as we finished the seminars for the Ministerio Apostolico de Luz Y Gracia group. We went a couple of hours longer than scheduled. A few had to leave for work, but most stayed as I tried to flesh out in practical ways how to bring discipleship into the church as something that is done by the body of the church and not just the leaders. We had met with Pastor Ercilio prior to the seminars to explain the One-to-One Discipleship books that we brought with us that Jandry Bernal and Sarah Olang had translated and we had printed and copied the Saturday before going there. They were very receptive to what we explained, and after the seminars, were committed to begin using the material immediately.
The seminar that morning included an exposition of Ephesians 4:1-16, and I was wondering how it would be received when I said that there were no longer any apostles like those described in New Testament. (See: The 5 Sermons on Ephesians 4:1-16) Remember, apostolic is part of the name of this group. The pastor was busy taking notes and was very favorable to us. We found out later that he had separated himself from the church association he had been part of when they had removed that term from their name. God had done a work in his heart over the last year and he had reconciled with them, and so now was very open and interested in what I taught. God was at work in a mighty way far beyond what we could have expected.
Winston took me on a quick tour of some of the property that his father owns, which I appreciated because of my agriculture background. I saw several fruit trees that I had only read about in my studies in college. We had an informal dinner meeting scheduled that evening with some of the pastors of the PANAL group at the home of Anibal & Milagros Peralta, but we were late due to a tropical downpour that flooded the streets. We made our way tentatively and cautiously, especially in crossing one particular street that had become a fast moving stream. A car crossed in front of us and showed Winston a path to drive through it, but we saw a bike rider being knocked down in much a smaller stream. God was gracious to us. The storm did keep some of the others from attending, but the Lord still blessed that meeting tremendously. We talked for a couple of hours with more light hearted conversation punctuated by much laughter, and here I must give Winston an extra thank you for his incredible skill in translating and keeping me informed about what was being said so that I could even laugh with them. We then talked more seriously for several hours about their backgrounds, ministry and pastor’s association, after which we explained chapter by chapter the One-to-One Discipleship books we had given to them. We left Friday morning about 1:20 AM, and they were excited about using this tool to enhance the ministry of their churches. I was impressed by the commitment of these men who worked other jobs full time and would be at work by 6 AM. These same men would meet with us again that night and Saturday night and all day Sunday.
Friday was more relaxing for us. Winston took me out to a place called Mao to visit with his uncle Genaro Reyes and cousins and tour their banana plantation. We then made a quick trip north through the mountains to Punta Rucia to see the ocean and beaches there for about a ½ hour, then back again to Cienfuegos to preach again at Communidad Disciplulos de Jesus and meet with the PANAL group.
Saturday we went north into the middle of the mountains between Santiago and Puerto Plata to a little village called Yásica Arriba to preach at a church associated with Ministerio Apostolico de Luz Y Gracia and pastored by Ercilio Garcia’s brother, Tomas. We preached again on discipleship from Matthew 28 with the goal of encouraging the people there with what Pastor Tomas would be doing there in the months to come. It was well received and the people were gracious to offer us some very good looking food, but by this time, I was starting to have some stomach issues, so I politely skipped the meal. (I would end up with dysentery on the way home. Does that make me a real missionary? – No, didn’t have to go to the hospital).
You may have noticed by now that I keep saying, “we preached” instead of “I preached.” I am doing that because in a real sense, Winston was not just translating, he was also preaching, not only by his manner of speaking, but also because he has been translating my preaching for so long that he knows what I teach well so he can quickly expand on a point and make it more relevant to the people there. It is also an example of what we wanted to emphasize to the people. God uses multiple people with varying gifts working in harmony with each other to carry out His will. That is the nature of the body of Christ, and why it is so important that everyone in the body is a growing disciple of Jesus Christ.
We were back in Cienfuegos that evening to preach at a small church plant pastored by Luciano Caraballo. They meet in a garage with chairs also sitting outside. They have been given land and materials to build a church building, but some legal issues are delaying them from getting started. The situation seemed appropriate for a sermon on Philippians 4:11-13. Most of the time was spent explaining the context of Philippians for two reasons. First, setting the context increases both the understanding and impact of Paul’s teaching on contentment in Philippians 4. Second, it also gave a good example of what it means to be expository in preaching and why that is important. (See the 4 sermons on Philippians 4:10-16 starting here)
Sunday morning proved to be incredible. I knew we were preaching in one of the churches in the PANAL association, but knew little about it. What information we did get about it led me to think it was a group of older Christians that needed some encouragement about being more personally involved in the body life of the church. I also knew that some of the other pastors in this group would be there since their churches meet on either different days or different times on Sunday, so I did not want to repeat something they had already heard. I talked it over with Winston and prayed about it on Sunday morning and decided that I would cover the topic of true spirituality examining 1 Corinthians 12-14. Those chapters expose the false spirituality of using spiritual gifts and ministries for public display and self promotion contrasted with the true spirituality of godly love and being a humble member of the body of Christ seeking the edification of the rest of the body.
When we got there, we discovered it was an Assembly of God Church. That presented a dilemma since a proper exposition of those chapters is directly opposite Assembly of God doctrine. That was also complicated by the fact that the music was so loud in the small cinder block building that I had to go outside to protect my ears, and when I did go back in, I had to cover my ears, and I was hoping they were not being offended by that. Winston and I talked it over and decided to continue on as planned and leave the results in God’s hands.
When we were asked to come up to speak, I began by putting down the microphone I was given and Winston put his down too. I asked if they could hear me in the back, and of course they could, since it was a small building. I then commended them for their very enthusiastic worship of God with heart and soul, and that we would now seek to worship God with our minds. I also explained that I had old ears and that the loud volume made them hurt, so I would preach without the microphone. I then explained I had been praying about what to preach that morning and believed that the Spirit had led me to preach on 1 Corinthians 12-14. I then gave an overview of the book of 1 Corinthians followed by an overview of those chapters highlighting the most important sections beginning with the introduction in 1 Corinthians 12:1-3.
Most preachers, especially Pentecostal ones, usually skip those verses or only give them a cursory nod, but Paul’s introduction explains the subject of chapters 12-14 and why he would use speaking in tongues as an example of contrast to true spirituality. Few bother to find out what Paul means in verse 2 referring to them “being led astray to the dumb idols, however you were led,” and therefore do not know that speaking in an unknown tongue was considered one of the greatest indicators of spirituality among the pagans believing the gods were taking over the person and speaking through them. This idea continued in the Corinthian church claiming it to be the Holy Spirit at work, however, the reality was that some doing this were actually cursing Jesus (vs. 3).
I went on to explain in verse 7 that every gift, ministry and empowerment is a “manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
I also stressed verse 13 that every believer is baptized by the Spirit at salvation explaining the meaning of baptism itself in taking on the qualities of what you are baptized into, like a piece of cloth taking on the qualities of the dye into which it is baptized – immersed. I noticed the pastor paying close attention. I went through the rest of the chapter 12 explaining the importance of every member of the body and the different and contrasting list of gifts at the end of the chapter compared to the beginning of the chapter. I then explained the contrast made in 12:31-13:3 between various spiritual gifts used improperly and love. The Corinthians thought they were spiritual because they did not lack any spiritual gift (1 Cor. 1:7), but they lacked true spirituality because they lacked love with 1 Cor. 13:4-7 defining love in specific contrast to their actions. It was because they were not spiritual as demonstrated by their lack of love that caused them to be split into factions and doing all sorts of ungodly things such as practicing immorality, visiting the temple prostitutes, taking each other to court and getting drunk at the Lord’s supper. I concluded by pointing out Paul’s contrast in 1 Cor.14 between the selfishness of speaking in tongues and the superiority of prophecy because it edified all. (See the sermon series on True Spirituality)
When I finished, I wondered what the response would be. As is common in that culture, I received a lot of verbal feedback during the sermon, but I did not know what the final response would be to my conclusions. My first surprise was that the first person up after I sat down said they had all heard the word of God clearly though spoken softly, and no one that came up after that picked up a microphone. Our example had a much greater effect that I could have ever expected. My second surprise was that their pastor, Freddy Marte, rode in our car with us to our next meeting that afternoon. He was not offended by what I had preached, but was instead stimulated to ask many questions sincerely wanting to know what I believed the Bible to teach on a variety of subjects. He proved to be a man that loved God and His word and wanted to understand it better and be true to it despite Assembly of God doctrinal traditions.
We had dinner with Pastor Anibal, and then car pooled and drove about 60 miles southeast to a small village a little past Bonao, about halfway between Santiago and Santo Domingo. It was a church with a difficult history. It had grown to more than a 100 people and had built a simple, but nice building, then about three years ago, a false shepherd, a wolf became the pastor and nearly destroyed the church. When the current pastor came three years ago, there were only four people. It has since built up to 25-30. We preached through Ephesians 4:1-16 trying to encourage the people to take ownership of the ministry in their community, an absolute necessity because Pastor Bolivar Almonte and his wife, Maria, live in Cienfuegos. It took us an hour and twenty minutes to drive there by car, but they do not have a car or motorcycle. They have to ride a bus out each Sunday which takes much longer. He works full time and can rarely travel there more than just Sunday, but Maria usually travels one additional day per week.
Our final point of ministry was to go that night to pray with Flavio, a old friend of the Bernal family that is scheduled to have a kidney transplant next month. He was not a believer, but his wife, who is a Christian, asked us to come pray and he was open to it. In brief, God used us though I was tired and not feeling well. After finding out his religious background, which was not good, we presented the gospel and God graciously brought Flavio to repentance and belief in Jesus as His savior and Lord. He is now ready for the kidney transplant regardless of its outcome. A Bible study already meets at his home, so he will be able to grow quickly.
In conclusion of all that we saw God do, I want to tell you how I was personally challenged and give a challenge to you as well. Though the people there expressed that Winston and I were a great blessing to them, and I do believe that God did use us in a mighty way among them as we pointed them to the truths of his word, I found that I was the one blessed by them and humbled to be among them. Nearly everyone of the men we met works full time at some other job to make ends meet. Most are striving to lead their family and raise children, though a few were single or older with adult children. I got the impression that most of the wives worked as they could. They live simply in humble places, travel on dangerous roads, and must be diligent to protect themselves from theft and dangerous people. All the homes in Cienfuegos were gated with metal bars over the windows and sturdy locked doors. The church out past Bonao was robbed at gunpoint, and Maria also recounted a dangerous situation traveling back on the bus one night, so that she now only goes out during the day when more people travel.
We have a great abundance here, with even the most poor among us being rich by comparison and living in relative safety. Yet I wonder if the sermon on contentment from Philippians 4 is not needed more here than there. Are you content and thankful for the circumstances in which God has placed you? There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to achieve more and improve your circumstances unless it is driven by a discontentment that leaves you ungrateful for what you already have. Paul stated “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am” (Phil. 4:11). This does not come naturally, but is learned as you grow in your understanding of God and His hand upon your life. If you are not content, then your priorities and understanding of life need to change to match God’s will so that you can learn it.
The people we met in Cienfuegos were committed to ministry though the cost was high for them in every respect. Pastor Anibal is a school teacher and could afford to live in a nicer area. Instead, he has chosen to live in Cienfuegos so that he can minister there. He added a second story to his home so that the church could meet there. Pastor Luciano works very long days driving his car as sort of a taxi, though restricted to a particular area or route. He considers each of the 200 or so passengers he might pick up in a day to be opportunities to share the gospel. How intentional are you in using the circumstances in which God has placed you to further the gospel? Do you use your home, your job, your hobbies as platforms and opportunities to glorify God and tell others about Jesus Christ?
A related question. Does love underlie your use of your spiritual gifts as you seek to serve God and others with them? Anibal’s wife, Milagros, has a very bad back and I could tell she was in much pain, yet she was joyful as she served us. The only frustration I sensed was that it limited her in doing all that was on her heart.
I was also impressed by their commitment to each other, not just the pastors in the PANAL association, but also the people in general to one another. Perhaps part of that was the deep relationships they had built with one another in their various cell or small groups. That was the model that had enabled them to plant so many churches. It is a model that is a good challenge for us to consider and follow.
Yes, I know you may be tired when you get home from work, or busy with other things, but if you have time for TV, Facebook or other forms of entertainment, then you have time to be part of a small group. Currently there are two men’s Bible studies, a ladies Bible study, a college / career study and Sunday school with a Spanish class too. You should be in one of those and / or in personal discipleship. For a church our size, there should also be other home Bible studies, especially in those areas distant from the church. We do not lack people capable of teaching. We do lack those willing to host and invite their neighbors. Summer is a good time to start such a small home Bible study. If such an idea would be of interest to you, talk with me after the service or sometime during the week. It is easy to do an Inquirer’s Bible study to which you can invite neighbors and friends and then see what the Lord does from there. That is the way in which people can learn of about Jesus and see Him living in you, new friendships are made and developed, the body of Christ can be made strong, and new churches can be started.
Praise the Lord for His abounding mercy and grace, and for allowing us to see His hand at work. Give thanks and tell others about it.
Sermon Notes – May 20, 2018
Seeing God’s Hand at Work – Report on trip to the D.R.
Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help. Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch. Older Children – 1) Count how many people you see in the pictures. 2) Discuss with your parents how you can serve the Lord.
THINK ABOUT IT!
Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others. In what ways do you see the world declining into greater evil? In what ways do you see God’s hand at work? Various Psalms call us to praise God, give Him thanks and declare His works to others. How do you do that in your own life? What is the importance of Matthew 28:16-20 in establishing the purpose of the church? What is that purpose? How are you being used to carry it out? How is God developing the characteristics of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) in you own life? In what areas do you still need to grow? Ephesians 4:1-16 explains the unity, structure and functioning of the church. In what ways is the church body helping you to mature and how are you helping it? How does a Christian learn to be content – Philippians 4:11-13? How content are you? 1 Corinthians 12-14 explains the nature of true spirituality. Explain what that is and why speaking in tongues is not a sign of such true spirituality. Does your involvement with the body life of this church enable you to use your spiritual gifts and others to use theirs with you so that everyone becomes more mature? If not, what needs to change?
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