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Sunday, September 6, 2009

Where they Are (John 1.14, 17.13-21)

September 6, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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Though I’m sure I’ll continue to mention shorter sabbatical stories for some time, this Sunday is the last that I’d like to spend a significant portion of the sermon sharing an experience from my sabbatical leave this summer. I do so, not just to tell you what I did, but because I think this experience significantly illustrates the point of our scripture text this morning. So, let me share a story with you and then we’ll look at how this text might speak into our lives.

Young Life, Nicaragua

I’ve told you a little bit about the week I spent with Jason and Tiffany Hinton at the Bible school in Nicaragua. I also spent the first and last nights in Nicaragua with Pratt and Ashley Butler, who also grew up in this church.

Pratt and Ashley are on staff with Young Life (or Vida Joven) in Nicaragua. They work at an international school in English-speaking ministry, but are part of the larger Spanish-speaking Vida Joven ministry in Nicaragua, which ministers in many schools.

One of the original slogans of Young Life is "meet kids where they are." Out of this mission/vision comes important values like going into kids' worlds: high school, band concerts, lunch tables (when allowed), sports events, and generally hanging out where kids hang out. It reminds me a lot of the way Jesus was.

In Pratt and Ashley's case (and there are only something like four North American Young Life staff out of 25 or 30 in Nicaragua), this means hanging out at the International School (their assigned school), where students come from influential families - they are the children of the wealthy, diplomats, politicians, and other "movers and shakers." This also means (conveniently) that classes and conversations tend to be in English since students come from all over the world, not just Nicaragua. But don't think Pratt and Ashley aren't learning Spanish - they are diving in culturally and are making friends and building relationships in their neighborhood and everywhere they go. Eventually, they hope to build a volunteer core out of University students in the area. When we arrived at their house, within three minutes, Pratt and Ashley had already introduced me to 4-5 of the folks on the street outside their house, including the ever-diligent "Mr. Whistle" - who patrols and guards their neighborhood making frequent (constant?!) use of his whistle to keep things under control.

Pratt and Ashley are also building relationships with the Nicaraguan Young Life staff, taking the initiative to visit each of the 19 other "clubs" in Managua (the capital city). On my last night there, they took me to one of the other Vida Joven clubs, led by their friend and YL staff, Narcisso. It took place in one of the barrios - because of travel issues, clubs meet by neighborhood rather than by school. It met in someone's home, with leaders taking care to set up and clean up. The entire club was in Spanish, but Pratt and Ashley took turns whispering in my ear to translate. Some of the jokes, games, and songs didn't really translate, but I saw what I've seen in Young Life since I was a child: loving adult leaders building into the lives of teenagers, earning the right to be heard, and sharing the love of Jesus. Narcisso spoke for 4 minutes at the end on John 3:16 and the teens gave him their attention and respect. And they listened carefully to their friend.

Jesus’ Prayer

Before trying to draw a lesson for the church, let’s look at our text from this morning. First, look at this key verse from John 1:14…

The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw God’s glory…

I’ve talked about that before. Rather than wait in Heaven, removed and remote, waiting for some human beings to climb the ladder of holiness or make enough offerings or sacrifices (which we can’t!), God came down! God put on human flesh and didn’t just visit, but “dwelt” – he made His home and lived with us. Eugene Peterson, the translator of The Message version of the Bible says here, “God moved into the neighborhood.”

God’s eternal message, and Jesus’ earthly message is not “Come to me,” though he spoke those words. Rather, look at his actions. He doesn’t camp out in the Temple and preach a message calling people to come to him. He goes into the villages, into homes, out to the sea and even into the boats of the fisherman. It is there that he says, “Come with me.” That’s what “follow me” means: come with me. And that is God’s example and our pattern.

So then, in John 17, Jesus is praying before the ordeal of his arrest and crucifixion. He is praying for himself, for God’s will, and for his disciples. And in that prayer for his disciples, he prays for all who will come after them and believe – in other words, he also prays for us! And listen to what he prays in verses 15 and following…

I do not ask you to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them (or set them apart) in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I also have sent them into the world…

And why does Jesus pray all this? It’s at the end of verse 21…

…so that the world may believe [that you sent me].

Let me pick that apart for a moment. There are other ways ‘world’ is used in the Bible; but often, as here, ‘world’ refers to the broken and darkened place where human beings live apart from God. And there has always been a tension between Christians and the world.

Sometimes Christians have withdrawn altogether (from the 1st century Essenes to the present-day Amish); sometimes there is no distinguishing the Christians from the culture (from the New Testament Corinthians to some of what passes for American Christianity); and sometimes there is a balance of retreating into community but going out in and amongst the world (many of the early to present day monastic communities and other Christian groups).

So what did Jesus pray? Let me briefly note four things.

1. Jesus prayed for God NOT to take us out of the world, but to protect us in it. That’s a huge difference! Rather than retreat and try to protect ourselves, we are to remain in the world, but seek and depend on God’s spiritual protection.

2. Jesus declared that we are not OF the world, as those whose sins are forgiven and who are washed by grace. We do not belong to this world, we belong to Him! This is also an important distinction. It is possible (and even desired according to Jesus’ prayer here) to live in the world while not being identified, corrupted, or co-opted by it. We can live among the people of the world without yielding to the darkness of the world. Jesus statement here is a reminder of who and whose we are, wherever we might live!

3. Jesus asked God to set us apart in truth. That happens through God’s Word of Truth, the Bible, and through the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit living and at work in us. This gets into some of the detail of how God would protect us in the world and how we can be equipped to live there.

4. Jesus asked God to SEND us INTO the world as he was sent. Ours is not just a passive get-out-there-and-try-not-to-get-hurt. Remember how Jesus was sent into the world in John 1:14? He moved into the neighborhood and made his home with us. That’s the example; that’s the mission!

So, with Jesus’ prayer as instruction and Ashley and Pratt’s ministry as illustration, let’s consider what the lesson and the challenge is for us as individuals and as a church.

A Lesson for the Church

I think the lesson for the church is so clear, but is one that seems so hard for American institutionalized Christianity to grasp. If there ever was a time for "build it and they will come" Christianity, that time has passed, and I’m not sure it was ever the right or best means of answering God’s mission.

We (as the Church) need to learn from ministries like Young Life - not because they are successful, but because they are Biblical - and meet people where they are! Their slogan, so succinctly put, is what God has put so heavily on my heart.

We need to understand Jesus’ prayer and challenge to be sent as he was sent and to live among in holy witness rather than live apart in holy hypocrisy.

Practically and specifically, the Church (in general) and Good Shepherd (in particular) needs to explore the surrounding community, learn what the culture is, and enter into it to build relationships and earn the right to speak into it. Less and less will we (whether Church or Christians) speak from a position of respect and privilege just because of who we are. Rather, we need to get up and get out into the world to be the kind of "salt and light" that Jesus taught that we should be.

Let me encourage you that you ARE growing in this direction. We are! Our reaching out to and welcoming of the Windyrush club community, when their clubhouse burned down, has opened more doors and conversations than you can imagine with our literal neighbors. Our willingness to let Swan’s Run and other neighborhood associations meet in our buildings has opened up more doors and conversations than you can imagine. But we need to leap where we’ve tiptoed. These are not “programs” for a few to volunteer for, but a change in our understanding of church and Christian identity. We must become people who roll down the window to introduce ourselves to neighbors walking on the street – remember, it was one of them who brought our shepherd statue back! Do we simply say thanks and go back to our church thing, or do we leap at the opportunity to meet another neighbor… perhaps, even get to know him as Richard?

We stretched one summer and took Vacation Bible school off the property. I think it was one of the most glorious things we’ve been a part of. Do we have the obedience and will to keep doing it? That’s where the Gospel happens – out there!

That’s what Jesus prayed about – for you and for me. May God give us ears to hear – and mold us into those with the heart of Christ. Amen.

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