August 23, 2009
download (click, then choose "save to disk" for playback on computer or iPod, or play sermon live in this window below - works in Firefox; IE users will have to use this last.fm link to hear streaming audio)I want to begin with a story from my sabbatical – time in Nicaragua with Jason and Tiffany Hinton. I’ve written about this briefly on my blog, but want to re-tell the story this morning to illustrate an important teaching from scripture.
**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**
I’d like you to conjure to mind a picture of a missionary family serving God across the miles, in a far and unfamiliar location. Picture the kind of people whom you believe God would call to do such a thing.
The main question I want to ask this morning is, “What does it take to serve the Lord?”
The Missionary Pedestal
We were at the volcano crater lake at the "Monkey Hut." The water was as clear as a swimming pool, with strange currents of warm water swirling about because of the underground heat source. Tiffany and her family were out in the water with me when she started making a ruckus (I chose that description because she would probably be mad if I called it "shrieking"… I also admit I am prone to exaggerate for a good story.) Nonetheless, the way Tiffany (the mom) was jumping around and ruckus-ing, you would have thought a 75 lb. volcano fish was trying to swallow a toe or something. I came over to see what was wrong and she was backing away from this little green fish the size of a goldfish. She said she wasn't used to seeing the fish in the water she swam in. And here's the key line... I said, "I think you've just fallen off the missionary pedestal."
By that, I meant the mental picture I had of her as the Queen of the Amazon... the super-missionary-mom who single-handedly raises children and orphans, cooks, cleans, walks miles barefoot to the store, etc., etc... And here she was scared of a little fish.
Now two things need to be said. Tiffany is an amazing mom and super-capable; but, she is just as "normal" as any mom I know who also has to juggle family, house-keeping, work, and a hundred other things. In other words, without taking away from all her REAL talents, the fish-episode was a good reminder that simply being a missionary or living in Nicaragua "for God" doesn't give her super-powers.
This observation was made more real by spending a week in the Hinton's home. I’m not saying that the place was a wreck, the kids little monsters, or any such thing. My point is that their home and family were really not substantially different than mine or yours. And that leads to the point I want to make.
You'd think I wouldn't have had to learn that lesson... because people put pastors and their families on a similar pedestal. But guess what? My kids fight, I lose my temper, I'm scared of bugs, and sometimes over-extend my credit card. I get depressed, afraid, intimidated, and struggle with the same things you do... as do these dear missionary friends.
And here's my point... not so much about us as about those with ears to hear. We (missionaries and pastors) are not super-Christians. We're not even super-people. We are normal people trying to serve God in specific ministry settings. And God asks each of us to serve Him... in different settings. The point is that going to another country or going into ministry or becoming a super-Christian is not what it takes to serve God. It simply takes saying "Yes" to God.
One of the things I say about Good Shepherd is that we are ordinary people serving an extraordinary God. That was a lesson I experienced firsthand living and swimming with the Hintons, and it's really humbling and inspiring when it sinks in!
A Soldier’s “Yes”
I chose the story from Acts 10 because I believe it illustrates this same point. Cornelius was a Roman soldier, a centurion in charge of (actually) 60 men. He was part of the Italian cohort or regiment, consisting of 600 men or 1/10th of a legion. His was the position of a career soldier who worked his way up to his current position (rather than being assigned from noble birth). He is also described as being a God-fearer. That means he is interested in the God of the Jews and observing some of the Jewish religious practices.
There a number of interesting things about Cornelius and about this passage. The main point of it is to describe how God opens up the Gospel of Christ and the developing Church to those who are not Jewish by birth. That is a powerful and significant theme of God’s grace, but is not the point I am going to focus on this morning.
Rather, I chose Cornelius as the closest analogue I could find to you as Christian laypeople. He was not an Apostle, a Jew, a Rabbi, a priest, a scribe, or Pharisee. He had no special calling to be a “holy person” – but he was interested in the things of the Lord. He was interested in serving God.
I think it a peculiarity of our North American and Christian sub-culture that we have created this strange group of “professional Christians” like ministers and missionaries. That is not our Reformed heritage. The Reformation stressed the priesthood or service of ALL believers. And if we look closely at Jesus’ model for faith and service, it is not his way either. He cut against the grain of the professional religious folks like scribes and Pharisees and gathered around himself ordinary men and women: blue-collar laborers, accountants, homemakers, teenagers, and more than a few “less savory” characters like prostitutes and thieves.
Were they particularly gifted to be the first bearers of the Gospel? No... many lacked money or formal education. Was Cornelius particularly gifted to bear God’s message? No… he could command men and had leadership skills, but that is not what God asked him to do. God asked him to send for Peter, welcome him into his home, and receive a message from him.
Now, I will note that Cornelius used the skills and means at his disposal, for he “dispatched” (v. 8) several household servants and one of his soldiers to send for Peter. But the main thing God asked of him was obedience, hospitality, and receptiveness.
Cornelius did all that God asked and when Peter arrived, THAT was the moment and the context for the first great opening of the Gospel to the Gentile world. That was the beginning of the spread of Christianity beyond being a peculiar form of Judaism.
This is a long story and there are many rich details, but here’s the point I want to highlight this morning: Cornelius did not need special training or skills to serve God in this story. God asked for obedience, hospitality, and receptiveness. And Cornelius said, “Yes.”
He said, “Yes,” like Jason and Tiffany said, “Yes.”
What Does God Ask and How Will I Know?
I think a major hurdle that keeps us from serving God effectively is thinking, “I don’t have the skills.” I am not a musician or a Bible teacher or a preacher or a missionary. So I’ll attend church, be a good church member, and believe in God. Those are good things… like being a God-fearing soldier was. But Jesus’ constant call was not, “Believe in me,” but “Come, follow me.” His was a call and challenge to service. And he doesn’t just call to specially gifted or faith-filled… he calls all who will follow. What he asks of you is your “Yes.”
What is God asking of you? I don’t know specifically, yet I can say generally. God broadly asks all for the things he asked of Cornelius: obedience, hospitality, and receptiveness. I believe God broadly asks us all to go out into our community to be the face of Christ. We’re going to talk some more about that in the next two weeks. Sometimes, God asks for specific obedience, like to go somewhere or give up something. I’ve found that sometimes those specifics line up with my gifts and expertise and sometimes they line up with my weaknesses. I have found trusted Christian friends and mentors an excellent sounding board when I’m not sure whether something is a God-thing or a me-thing.
Finally, I believe that often, if not always, God’s honor and glory are at the center of our obedient service to God, or our “Yes.” That is because service is a form of worship and all true worship points to God. Don’t miss that at the heart of the Acts 10 story. Ultimately, that obedience and saying, “Yes” opened the door to a glorious summary of the Good News. It’s there in under ten verses (vv. 34-44), followed by a description of how God transformed the hearts of a whole household by the power of the Word and Spirit. Serving God starts with me saying, “Yes,” but ends up back with God being honored and praised.
The takeaway question for today is this: What might God be asking of you and are you willing to say, “Yes?” That’s what makes a true and effective Christian… not living in an exotic location or having “Reverend” before your name. Are you listening for God and willing to say, “Yes.” That’s what it means to follow Jesus. Amen.
See also this blog post: Living with Missionaries