Sunday, October 25, 2009

White for Harvest (John 4.27-42)

October 25, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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Last week we looked at this same story, about Jesus revealing the Father to a Samaritan woman through words and acts of grace and truth. We saw how starting with grace opened the door to the woman asking questions about truth. From there we saw God transform her and even use her in ministry to point a whole village toward Jesus.

We return to that story this week and back up slightly from the end, to the point where the disciples return from going to get food in the city. We’re going to look again at what happened, more from their perspective this time. Then I’d like to share some stories of what has been going on Wednesday nights the past few weeks, because I see many parallels to this passage. Finally I want to challenge you from this text to OBEY and PARTICIPATE in what God is doing – or as Jesus describes it, God’s harvest.

What’s Going On Here?

Let’s look first at the text. Near the end of the conversation, the disciples returned from getting food. Verse 27 acknowledges just how unusual it was for Jesus to be speaking to a Samaritan woman (and one outcast from her own people). John, narrating the story names the questions on their mind: “What are you doing? Why are you talking to her?” But none of them say it out loud. It is, perhaps, an additional small grace to her that they do not challenge her then and there, but go along with Jesus’ actions of grace. Who knows if that didn’t also play a part in prompting her to go into the city?! Verse 28 begins with the word “so,” which could imply some link between their tacit approval and her going.

Last week we saw what happened with the woman. She went into town, against all social pressure to keep her distance, and she pointed everyone back to Jesus as the Messiah, using his knowledge of her sin as proof of his divinity. And as we read on, we see that the whole city turned out to see Jesus, and many believed on the strength of her testimony!

Today I want to focus on the disciples. As we’ve seen, they return and at least participate minimally in what Jesus is doing by not challenging or running off the woman. Once she’s gone, Jesus goes on to have a teaching moment with them. They press on to an eerily parallel conversation to the one the woman had. She had asked about thirst; they ask about hunger (v. 31), urging him to eat something. The whole reason they had gone into town was to get food; and now Jesus didn’t seem interested. Just as he had living water the woman didn’t know about, he tells the disciples that he has food that they do not know about (v. 32). I can just picture their faces now! Jesus goes on to say, in verse 34, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to accomplish His work.”

He presses on into the teaching moment, extending this analogy by adding another: the work of God is like planting, cultivating, and harvesting a crop. And his point to the disciples, no doubt tying all this in to what has just happened with the woman, is that obedience to God means taking part in that very work of God – planting, cultivating, and harvesting faith in others’ lives. Even Jesus only intersected with part of the woman’s life story. Surely someone had planted seeds of faith before she met Jesus, because she knew part of God’s story, including the expectation of a promised Messiah. And surely her story went on after the two days Jesus and the disciples stayed in the area.

The disciples overlapped in a slightly different way. Jesus had showed grace and truth and experienced a transforming moment with the woman, which is when the disciples showed up. But then they were on hand to encourage her further and then receive the townspeople when they came back in great numbers to see Jesus. No doubt the disciples then had their hands full with the work of God and with harvesting the outpouring of faith that followed.

Jesus’ point to them travels well into our context: God is at work in the world and invites our OBEDIENCE and PARTICIPATION in that work. We may just intersect with another person for a few years, an hour, or even a few minutes; but we can either be a part of what God is doing or stay uninvolved and miss out. Or we can insist on focusing on lunch when spiritually hungry people are all around. It is a quite compelling teaching rooted in an experience that unfolded right before the disciples’ eyes. And Jesus declared what is still true today: God’s mission field is white or ripe for harvest – the need and opportunity are great, and God is already working.

Let’s consider this teaching in our own context…

Wednesday Nights Out

For some time now we have been wrestling with God's calling to be a lighthouse/searchlight church - that is, intentional salt and light in our community and near neighborhood. Another metaphor for this activity would be participating in God’s harvest – whether sowing, reaping, or gathering.

You have responded positively to this challenge! I have observed, however, that it remains difficult to change patterns of thinking and being. One result of the twin lighthouse (inviting) and searchlight (sending) challenge has been ever-increasing and effective approaches to inviting folks in to the church community. And that is wonderful!! But, I am also convinced that our growing edge continues to be the searchlight part of our identity in Christ. And while embracing that mission requires head, heart, and feet, one tangible way to start in that direction is literally to "get up and get out" - i.e., leave our church property. So, on Wednesday nights, instead of traditional church Bible study in the building and on the grounds, we have been getting up and getting out.

The first week we had about 15 people go out in groups of 3-5. I gave them several simple questions to discuss (with each other) during the hour out. The questions were something like the following: 1) Where did you see or experience God's presence in your life this past week? 2) Is church important to you? Why? 3) Can we pray about anything in your life?

So here was my VISIONARY HOPE: after 6-8 weeks of this, we might have met a few regulars and the staff wherever we are and perhaps God might open a door or two to more significant spiritual conversation. We would be going to where people are, building relationships, and pointing people to God.

Here's what has happened so far:

WEEK ONE: as my group was leaving Caribou, I went to meet the manager/barista and see if there was any possibility of bringing my guitar the following week and providing an hour of live (non-religious) music in the outside eating area. The manager, Desiree, got a strange look on her face and said, "Live music?" She went on to tell me that at her previous store a co-manager had started live music and it was wildly successful. The other managers at this present store wanted her to start the same thing (because she had been at the store where it worked), but she had no idea how to get it going. She told me she had to Google "acoustic music" to see what it even was (no drums or amps, if you didn't know). I realized the strange look on her face was shock that live music had dropped into her lap. I was shocked to find there was already a desire and need and the door was already open! So, another friend and I started up the next week and are now talking to her about possible regular weekend gigs. On top of that, she suggested that we put out a tip jar as live musicians often do. I'm already thinking we might do that, but have it go to a recognizable local mission like "Loaves and Fishes" or "Crisis Assistance." Unbelievable!! We just ventured off the church property and the need was waiting for us. (I also think God thought we could use some encouragement!!)

WEEK TWO: We have been praying for some time about ways to connect with the group home for men across Swan’s Run. We have had some contact over the past few years, but nothing deep. When we started back up this Fall, two of the guys from the home came over to ask if they could participate. The first week we paired an adult and our high school guys with them to shoot a little basketball in the parking lot. Between that first week and the second, a second adult volunteered to help out and the high school guys and youth advisor decided to meet with the group home guys to study the book of James and pray for each other's needs. Since then we’ve met all the guys from the home, their primary house manager, and five of the six guys in the home are involved and our high school guys are engaging in ministry and discipleship!

WEEK THREE: Between the second and third Wednesday night, one of members shared with me that a boy in her son's 6th grade class (and who had attended some church events a few years ago) was struggling academically. He lives in Brighton Place. We have been praying for an open door to connect with families and children in Brighton Place.

This Good Shepherd mom said she had been challenged by the sermons and Wednesday night vision to reach out to this boy and offer to lead a study group with him during the hour-long Wednesday night out. So, starting the third week, she and another member went to Brighton place to meet with this young man, who ended up bringing one of his friends along. By the time they were done, several other friends had gathered to see what was going on and it looks like a serious study group is forming. In the process, we also got to meet the manager of Brighton Place and initiate some conversation with her about using facilities for this purpose.

WEEK FOUR: On the fourth Wednesday, one of the group that goes to Barnes and Noble in the Arboretum shared with me about what has happened there. They have met two of the folks that work at the Starbucks there. One they just asked his name, and he responded, noting that his name was in the Bible. Another they shared that they were sharing prayer requests with each other and was there anything they could pray about for her – and she opened up with them, asking for prayer.

We could have had another Wednesday night study – same content, but here in the Katibah room amongst ourselves. And we would have missed out on all these connections. But we got up and got involved with our neighbors – with the people God loves and for whom Christ came into this world. And look what God has already done! It has far exceeded my expectations. It has also illustrated what Jesus taught: we have not seen any of these people move from complete lostness to baptism or church membership or a prayer of salvation. But we surely have been a part of what God is doing in their lives. Clearly in some cases God has been working before us to plant seeds, and we were part of the watering process. Hopefully we are planting some seeds. If we persevere, we may also see part of the harvest or some fruit. The point is not the product, however, but being willing to OBEY and PARTICIPATE in what God is doing. That is what Jesus modeled and taught the disciples, and I believe it is God’s instruction and challenge to us.

White for Harvest

So here is the question this passage raises for us:

How will you obey and participate in what God is doing all around?

How can you take what you are hearing in here and live out grace and truth out there? Who has God put in your path and how can you take part in God showing Himself to them?

We are practicing this in a very low-key and enjoyable way on Wednesday nights. If you want a taste of that, come join us! My hope is that what we are doing there will translate well and easily into our personal lives every day of the week.

It starts with a kind word or action: being interested, getting involved, bearing grace. Prayer is a great way to keep that person in your mind, on your heart, and before the Lord. Wednesday nights have proven that sometimes all it takes is just putting yourself out there for God to use you. You don’t have to be an evangelist or Bible teacher or expert; if anything, that would put most people off. Just be there. Be a friend. Be full of grace. God is at work all around.

The fields are white for harvest; but the laborers are few. Come, obey and share in what God is doing. Amen.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

You're Talking to Her? (John 4.7-30)

October 18, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell

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Once again, the spoken version of the sermon was significantly different than the printed version below. I'd encourage you to listen to the live audio to get a sense of how the Holy Spirit was moving through the proclamation of the Word this morning. ~RMA

Today we are again looking at one of the accounts of Jesus-in-action. Several weeks ago we read the claim of John 1:14 that Jesus, full of grace and truth, reveals the glory or presence of God. We have been looking at accounts of his words and actions that demonstrate that claim to be true.

Last week we heard the story of Zaccheus and saw Jesus acting in a manner consistent with his teaching to love one’s neighbor, even if the neighbor is an enemy. Zaccheus was one of the great public enemies of the day, but Jesus nonetheless came to him in grace – that is, love beyond expectation – and Zaccheus was transformed and changed. I asked last week if there might be a person like Zaccheus in your life, one who has wronged you or hurt you and who God might yet be asking you to show grace in His name.

This week we look at a very similar story. Jesus again befriends someone who would have been considered an enemy and stranger, though more for cultural and political reasons than for any direct insult or injury. Again, Jesus approaches, not with words of judgment, but with gestures of grace, mercy, and love. Those actions open the door for him to speak words of truth and reveal something of who he is and who God is. And like Zaccheus, this woman’s life was transformed and God was glorified. Let’s look at this story to learn yet more about what it means to love our neighbor, even a stranger who makes us uncomfortable, in the name of Jesus for God’s glory.

A Real Outsider

I began last week’s sermon by describing to you just how hated Zaccheus was. This week I want to make sure you understand just how unusual, even unheard of, it would have been for Jesus to talk to the woman at the well. Considered from just about any perspective at the time, the woman was a real outsider, and Jesus should not have been talking to her.

There were three reasons: she was a Samaritan, she was a woman, and she was a social misfit. We talked several weeks ago about the hostilities between the Samaritans and the Jews. They didn’t get along, they didn’t socialize, and they certainly didn’t find any common ground around religion. As is mentioned in the passage, each had a different central holy spot – a different temple and holy city. In many ways, theirs were competing religions, though each looked forward to God’s Messiah or Anointed One.

Second, it was also (as it is today) very unusual for men to speak to women in public as Jesus did at the well. Jesus broke that social taboo often, so the disciples were probably used to it. But the Samaritan people of the town or any others who heard or saw the encounter would have been shocked at Jesus’ actions.

Third, the woman had been married many times and was currently living with someone to whom she wasn’t married. That would have been plenty of reason for the others in town to exclude and cast her out of the respected social circles. The very fact of her coming for water in the heat of the day speaks volumes to her exclusion from her own community. She was avoiding them and they likely encouraged that.

So, if the Good Samaritan was an outsider, this woman was one three times over. And yet Jesus demonstrates here what we heard last week in the story of Zaccheus. He came to SEEK and to SAVE the lost. So there is every indication this encounter was intentional and full of meaning.

As I did last week, I’d ask you to begin to consider who might fit this description in your own spheres of living. Who comes to mind as being on the outside of whatever groups you are a part of?

What Did Jesus Do?

We’ve already twice highlighted in past weeks that Jesus was and is interested in the lost and least, even if they are sinners, even if they are “the enemy.” He continues to demonstrate this interest in this story. Rather than restating that focus, I’d like to highlight HOW Jesus went about relating to this woman. He does live up to the John 1:14 description, embodying grace and truth and revealing the glory and presence of God. But he does so in a very significant and thoughtful way, and that’s what I’d like to explore with you in greater detail.

Jesus is hot and thirsty and goes to a well to get some water. He waits for someone with a cup to approach to share water. Then the Samaritan woman approaches, a woman he recognizes as living with moral compromise either by supernatural means or by keen observation. He bears the message of His Father about a coming Kingdom of purity, righteousness, and glory. What to say? What to do?

Does he proclaim the Law of God, challenging the poor religious and cultural decisions of her Samaritan fore-fathers, who disobeyed God’s word and compromised their faith and culture?

Does he issue a call to repentance, challenging her to give up living with a man to whom she is not married?

Does he avoid her as a foreign, sinful, woman – as any of the religious types of his day would have done?

Does he simply speak the truth as he does elsewhere, and announce the Kingdom, perhaps do a miracle, and move on?

This is the question of the day: when it comes to witnessing to God’s glory and presence to a real outsider, and doing so with grace and truth, how does Jesus do it?

In a sentence, he approaches with grace, which opens the door to speaking the truth, and it leads to personal transformation and ministry.

Let me say that again, because it is a pattern well worth learning and living:

Jesus approaches with grace, which opens the door to speaking the truth, and it leads to personal transformation and ministry.

Now let me break that down.

Grace and Truth

Jesus approaches with grace. Jesus did not let race, creed, or even lifestyle keep him from approaching with grace. Though he came out of a religion of holy separation, his was a fulfilling of the covenant promise to Abraham that God’s people were blessed to be a blessing. So rather than turn away, he went all the way into the Samaritan woman's world, spoke to her, and asked her for a drink of water from the well. He asked for her help! Can you imagine? He who had all the power of God and all the truth of God… he asked this outsider for something. Given her social status, it probably validated her humanity more than anything she had heard or experienced in years and years. You are a real person, worthy of conversation! And she was shocked. In some ways, just having the conversation was grace, it was so unexpected. But look at what Jesus says in verse 10: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” That word GIFT signals grace. That “living water” isn’t conditioned on her race or gender or behavior, but on God’s grace. And it hers for the asking!

Now, I am fully aware that the language I’m using sounds a lot like political correctness, especially when I start listing race, gender, and lifestyle. It makes us squirm a little. But listen carefully: what Jesus is offering is at the heart of salvation by grace through faith. We do not EARN God’s grace or salvation; God offers it freely as a gift to all who ask and receive. Everything in us wants to earn it, but that’s just not the Gospel of Christ. (And a good thing, if you realize how pure God’s holiness and righteousness are!) So Jesus says to this outsider, “If you knew who I am, you’d not have focused on earthly things, but heavenly things.” And just like that, because Jesus treated her as a real person worth saving and with experiencing “life,” she began to ask about matters of truth.

That experience of grace opened a door to speaking the truth. If there is one new nugget of information for us in this story, I think that’s it. Christians use words like grace and truth often, but we don’t really understand grace. We want to parcel it out as people understand and live out truth. If you believe these six things you can join a church; if you get the major sins licked, you can enter the outer circle; and if you really get spit and polished, you can come into the inner circle; and those are the chosen few. And grace is nowhere to be found. We keep singing about it and talking about it and preaching about it, but it’s a concept, not a reality.

And the real tragedy is that when we wield truth in that manner, we often lock grace up and throw away the key, for people either turn away from an impossible standard or begin to pursue it as the means to salvation and never “get there.” Instead, Jesus models for us a relationship between truth and grace that is not only effective, but life-giving. And it neither waters down truth nor locks away grace. Note there is no simple formula: grace is not a free pass, nor is the truth spoken in judgment; rather, both work together as a means to reveal the Father.

So Jesus crosses “outside” to speak with the Samaritan woman outcast. And he offers the free gift of God’s living water (a metaphor for salvation, meaning, and eternal life). She responds with truth questions: What is this water? Who ARE you?

Jesus answers with truth about God and himself (not yet about her): he says more about the living water and what it is, using more biblical imagery and explicit mention of eternal life. Still thinking literally, she asks for the water. And at this point of her expressing interest in spiritual truth, he speaks of her personal life and relationships. Interestingly, he doesn’t judge her situation here, but affirms what little she shared and goes beyond that to see her so clearly that she perceives he is (at least) a prophet.

So in addition to the questions of “What is this water?” and “Who are you?” now the question is raised, “Who is she?” His perceptive truth statements about her life (interestingly, devoid of judgment) lead her to an extended conversation about worship, but one that ultimately leads to Jesus identifying himself as the Messiah, whom she is also awaiting.

In fact, all the interaction, both grace and truth, were driving towards this – Jesus revealing Himself as God’s Anointed One, and inviting her faith response to that revelation. Along the way, Jesus identified the grace-gift of salvation and several truth statements about that salvation, himself, and her own life.

Now this is not intended to be a road map or checklist for evangelism. But it does show in broad strokes the power of grace to connect with someone at the deepest level and to create opportunities to explore truth together. It also elevates truth about God and His salvation to a first priority. Let’s look at what happened next.

Transformation --> Ministry

Look at the transformation that occurred! It was as miraculous as what happened with Zaccheus, particularly when you consider her likely reputation in town. The woman left her waterpot and went into the city with the news. She who had been avoiding all contact with townspeople by coming to the well in the heat of the day now went into town and sought out men of the town to tell about Jesus. She forgot her original purpose (water) and the rejection and embarrassment she would surely encounter.

So finally, note the ministry that came out of the transformation! It is staggering, not just in its scope, but when you consider the woman at the heart of it. Her transformation and witness were so compelling that the townspeople followed her back out to see Jesus. Look at who God used to reach a town of Samaritans… one who was most outcast among them. That goes even beyond the Zaccheus story. Not only was she transformed, but she brought others to Jesus. And lest we wonder whether the truth of her life and sin might be obscured, listen to what she said: “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; could this be the Christ?” (v. 29) No longer was she hiding her sin from the town, but admitting it in the light of the one who knew all of it and still chose to love her unexpectedly and without condition.

That is the power of grace to unlock truth and bring glory to God.

Application

We are going to finish this story next Sunday and see how the disciples responded to the whole thing. We’ll also press further on the topic of how we can show the grace and truth of Christ to others.

So for now let’s return to the question of whether there is someone like the woman at the well that you know. Is there a person who maybe hasn’t done you personal wrong like Zaccheus, but who is thoroughly an “outsider” to you and your group of friends?

What would it look like for you to go to that person, not with the list of reasons why they are that way, but with the unexpected love of God? What would it look like to suspend judgment about their apparent sins and simply relate in a transparent and Jesus-like way? I’m not saying their sin isn’t important or that they won’t have to wrestle with it. But in most cases, judgment (spoken or unspoken) is not the entry point for the Gospel with those who do not know God.

One final caution I’d mention: though this all happens in a single encounter with Jesus and the woman at the well, my experience is that it doesn’t often happen that way. Be patient. For now, see if you can find someone to love unexpectedly, expecting nothing in return; and see what happens.

Monday, October 12, 2009

You're Talking to Him? (Luke 19.1-10)

October 11, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**
We are in the middle of several weeks of looking at how Jesus showed people the face of God by embodying grace, truth, and love. Last week we heard Jesus’ story about “The Good Samaritan,” told to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” In that story, Jesus gave a surprising definition of neighbor: it is not only one in need, but includes one’s enemy! And even more surprising, Jesus said that to keep God’s Law one must not only know this, but do it – we must love our enemies.

This week we see that these were not just idealistic words, but something Jesus put into practice. And we’ll see just how hard it was for the religious folks to understand!

The personal question and application I’d like you to focus on is who you might already know – or what kind of person God might bring into your life – that would generate a comment like, “You’re talking to him?!” And yet, after hearing this text, you believe this is precisely whom God would have you reach out to for the sake of Christ.

Just How Bad Is He?

To understand the dynamic here, you have to understand who Zaccheus was. If you learned this story as a child, you probably remember that he was short and had to go climb a tree in order to see Jesus, who was passing through town, teaching. But there is more to it…

Simply put, Zaccheus was the enemy of the people. He was a Jewish man who had “sold out” to the Roman Empire for money. Not only did he collect taxes (and who likes that?), he and every other tax collector made their own riches from over-taxing people and pocketing the difference. And no one could say otherwise, because he was backed up by Roman soldiers. It was closer to mob collections than any taxes we know about today. And he wasn’t just any old enemy of the people, he was the chief tax-collector. He was public enemy #1!

This past summer I heard the Bible scholar, Ken Bailey, teach on this passage. He also emphasized this point, that Zaccheus was hated and despised. Dr. Bailey noted that there were two reasons Zaccheus could not see Jesus amidst the crowd in Jericho. One was his height; the other was that the crowd would have killed him. That’s how much of an enemy he was.

The story begins with Jesus entering and passing through Jericho. He had just healed a blind man on the way into Jericho. The crowd was no doubt gathering and following him to see another miracle.

So Zaccheus “ran ahead” – not 30 feet down the road to perch in a tree, but clear out of town on the road out of Jericho. Up in the tree, not only could he see Jesus, but he could avoid the crowd, perhaps even avoid them seeing him. But when Jesus got to the place, he did the unthinkable. He called out to Zaccheus. It was a pivotal moment: the crowd suddenly realized who was there in their midst. Their expectation would have been for Jesus to denounce him loudly and strongly, perhaps even to call him down so they could run him off or worse. Zaccheus had likely climbed up in the tree to avoid being seen, and suddenly he was revealed. Unthinkable!

Grace: Love Beyond Expectation

When Jesus spoke, it was nothing anyone expected. He called out to Zaccheus to hurry and come down, but it was not to scold him or hand him over to the crowd. Calling him by name, Jesus said, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” (v. 5)

Last week we looked at the story of “The Good Samaritan.” In it, Jesus taught that we should love our enemies. Now Jesus is being that Good Samaritan. He is crossing social and political lines to reach out to someone who is hated in order to share the grace of God.

A few weeks ago I defined grace as getting what we do not deserve. And that certainly fits here. The crowd’s reaction to Jesus shows just how undeserving Zaccheus was. But here’s an even shorter definition for grace: love beyond expectation. Jesus’ words and actions were beyond any expectation. From his stopping to his speaking to getting involved to going to share food and house with Zaccheus, he exceeded and even redefined expectation and showed the love and grace of God.

John 1:14 says that Jesus came to live among us to reveal the glory and face of God through grace, truth, and love. That is what Jesus is doing here, both to Zaccheus and to those who were watching.

Several weeks ago I shared with you how transformative grace can be, describing how significantly God’s grace had affected me in my own life in the midst of depression and spiritual struggle. It is this same grace that so profoundly impacted Zaccheus, this enemy of the people. It was not necessary for Jesus to spell out to Zaccheus that he was a sinner. Zaccheus knew; and the crowd did not hesitate to name him as such. Rather, Jesus reached out to him in love and grace, much as the Samaritan in his story reached out to the man beaten and in need by the side of the road. Jesus extended friendship and accepted the hospitality of this sinner with eagerness.

We witness a life transformed when Zaccheus spontaneously declares that he will pay back those he has cheated, not the 1/5th required by Jewish Law, but a whopping 4x over! And he is not just repaying those he has cheated, but also says he will give half of his possessions to the poor.

And Jesus declares, “Today salvation has come to this house” and reclaims him as what he is, a son of Abraham. I think you can begin to sense the magnitude of this transformation, but let me also point out the context here. Only the day or two before (and in the previous chapter in Luke), Jesus had told the disciples how hard it was for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And here, Jesus is encountering one of the richest men in Jericho, a known sinner, and an enemy of the people.

The crowd had gathered to see another miracle… and this was indeed a miracle! Would they recognize it as such?

Truth: Who Needed it Spelled Out?

It is clear that the crowd had a problem with all this. They were not prepared to love this enemy like Jesus apparently was. We read in verse 7 that when they saw Jesus going to Zaccheus’ house, the crowd began to grumble. We even get their specific sentiment, “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”

Now I think there were a couple of dynamics going on here. One is that they just didn’t like Zaccheus at all. So, given the public nature of his sin, they simply judged, sentenced, and wrote him off collectively.

Secondly, it is a peculiar trait of humanity that we want to make ourselves look good by making others look bad. I remember that starting very early on in my own life. Am I a fast runner? Well, as long as I can find someone I can trounce – like my little brother – then I must be. (Never mind that I’m 6 and he is 3!) Am I smart? If I can find a few others that don’t do as well, then I must be. Am I good? Well, I know deep down that I’m not perfect, but if I can deflect attention onto others’ grosser sins it makes me look good.

Seriously, let’s pick apart the crowds’ sentiment just a little further, because any of us could easily have been in that crowd. In essence, they are probably not concerned about the purity laws and Jesus somehow being defiled by associating with Zaccheus. More likely, they are jealous that Zaccheus would get to spend time with Jesus or witness the miracle they had come to see and they wouldn’t. Were any of them a better candidate for a lunch with Jesus? Perhaps in their own mind they were. But was it because they were sinless? No way – rather, they probably thought, “I’m not as bad as that guy; how come Jesus didn’t choose me?”

Is that really how we want it to work? That God will smile on me as long as there is someone worse off that He can frown upon? Ten other good reasons aside, do any of us really think we won’t ever find ourselves in last place? That’s not only not a biblical depiction of God; it’s just a bad idea for a view of religion!

Interestingly, it is not Zaccheus who needs the truth spelled out for him. He knew he needed God and when Jesus embodied grace, Zaccheus implicitly and experientially understood Jesus’ purpose and the salvation being offered, and responded in faith and with action.

No, those who needed the truth spelled out for them were the crowd. And maybe we need to hear it as well. Jesus spells out truth for us in verse 10:

For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.

Jesus did not come to stroke the ego of the religious folks, but to seek out those who are weak and wounded, lost and alone, wandering and far from God. He came for the one in last place and for the one who struggles the most. It is interesting and ironic that often those who hear him the best are those who need him the most, and those who have the hardest time really understanding God’s grace and salvation are those who feel like they have their act together.

Lord, give us ears to hear!

Grace/Truth Rooted in Love: flipping our model

Finally, there is significant application for us in this text. We need to flip our model of what it means to be Christian. Being Christian is not keeping out the sinners, but reaching out to the lost as one sinner to another.

I would shy away from using “sinner” because I think Christians have a hard time thinking of ourselves as sinners, and calling those who don’t know Christ a sinner is seldom helpful. I’m not saying that isn’t the truth, it’s just not helpful truth if presented as a separating distinction between me and another person. There simply isn’t a place in the Christian gospel for me to say, “I can’t associate with you because you are a sinner.” That’s not the truth; Scripture declares it a lie when it says “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

Rather, the heart of Jesus’ mission was to seek and save the lost – to go to all who fall short of the glory of God and show them the glory of God! As we follow after Jesus and participate in that mission, we are to intentionally seek out those who are lost, hurting, wounded, and wandering.

So, I asked you to think about whom God might have you speak to or reach. Is it the kid who sits alone in the lunchroom or on the bus? Is it the mean kid or the rude co-worker? Is it the one at the pool or the club or in the neighborhood whose life is a mess and everyone just kind of talks about them? Or is it the “black sheep” in your family?

Jesus did not come to create an “I’m better than them” religion, but to seek and to save those who are lost. And he often did so by first showing God’s love in unexpected ways – that’s grace. And often, it was and is that grace that is so transformative that people open up to hear truth and experience salvation through Jesus Christ. May we have ears to hear and hearts to follow! Amen.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Loving My Neighbor (Luke 10.25-37)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
October 4, 2009
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Sometimes the delivered sermon varies quite a bit from the early written version. This is one of those times and I encourage you to listen to the audio version, if possible. There is nothing wrong with the written version; the Holy Spirit just led me in a slightly different direction during the worship service.

Today we begin a five week series on grace, truth, and love to follow up on our study of John 1:14 from the past few weeks. From John 1:14 we have talked theologically about how Jesus enables us to experience God’s presence or “glory” through words and acts of grace, truth, and love. For the next five weeks we are going to look specifically at Jesus’ words and actions and see how he embodied the claims made about him in John 1:14. Today we are going to talk about love and how living out godly love creates a true witness to God.

Today’s texts are well-known. The first is the “Great Commandment” – a summary of God’s Law and teaching in the Old Testament. The second, which follows immediately in Luke 10, is the story of the “Good Samaritan” – told by Jesus to illustrate his reference to “neighbor” in the Great Commandment.

Many, many times, when Jesus told a story or gave a teaching, he took topics that were very familiar to his listeners and somehow flipped them around for a kind of “surprise” ending or punch line. By doing so he challenged the conventional wisdom and caused people to wrestle directly with God’s will and word.

I want to give some brief background, then look with you at not one, but TWO surprises in the story of the Good Samaritan. From those surprises, I want to find two corresponding applications for our own lives together.

Love and the Stranger Next Door

There are several important things to know about the context here. First, Jesus is speaking to a “lawyer” – that is, and expert in Jewish Law. Think of the beginning books of our Old Testament – not just the Ten Commandments, but the many, many laws about conduct, food, and purity. On top of that there were centuries of interpretation and application. The lawyer was a spiritual leader who knew the Law of Moses backwards and forward and was instrumental in interpreting it for the Jewish people.

We are told in verse 25 that this lawyer was “putting Jesus to the test.” In other words, he was trying to trip him up, or at the least see what this popular traveling teacher knew about the Law. So the lawyer asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life. Religious leaders at the time debated this fiercely, even whether there was a resurrection of the dead. Jesus turned the question back around and to the area of the man’s expertise: the Law.

The man gave a good answer, according to Jesus – and how could the man argue with Jesus when he had provided the answer to Jesus? Jesus affirmed that in faithfully keeping the Law one might indeed live, both in this life and eternally. But Jesus only paused there for a moment, and then went on to build on the intellectual completeness of the man’s answer to speak to the need to embody or live out that answer. It is Jesus’ definition of “neighbor” that we are going to focus on this morning. I mention all this context because it is important and necessary to place the definition of neighbor in the fuller context of worship of God through love of God and neighbor and to what it means to live here and now as well as eternally with God. It is also important to realize how and where the lawyer would identify with the characters in the story.

Surprise #1: love outside the community

There are two significant questions addressed by Jesus’ story. Interestingly enough, neither is the original question, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

The first significant question Jesus answers is spoken by the lawyer in verse 29. He asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” This is the part we most easily take away from the story. A man is beaten by robbers and is dying on the side of the road. Two religious leaders pass by and do not help, even moving further away to avoid the man. Finally, a third person passes by. It is the third person who helps the wounded man in a clear act of compassion and mercy.

The first surprise for the lawyer would be the portrayal of the religious leaders as missing the clear intent of the Law as he has just defined it. The priest and the Levite were understood to be holy men and keepers of the Law. And yet they not only didn’t help the wounded man, they actively avoided him, crossing to the other side of the road. Possible reasons for their actions about: they may have avoided him as “unclean”; they may have not wanted to get involved; they may have had high and holy tasks and didn’t want to be late. While it is easy to blame them for being hypocrites, it is even easier to see reflections of ourselves in them!

And without naming these reasons or explicitly pointing the finger, Jesus’ portrayal of these two holy men would have been a piercing challenge to the lawyer and any other religious folks listening in, including us.

Now most times I’ve heard this story taught, this is where it stops. And the application stops there as well: we should help those in need, like the man beaten by the side of the road. We all understand the cautions and the reasons for passing by, and we hear this story and feel a little to a lot guilty and think, “Well, if I encounter a homeless guy or see someone broken down, and it’s not too terribly risky looking, maybe I’ll try to help in some way next time.” And by the time that situation arises again, this text and lesson are long past.

But listen: that is stopping far short of what Jesus was teaching. For one, we’ve got to see that “need” is not limited to the homeless or those with a flat tire. The big question leading into this story was, “Who is my neighbor?” and it was asked to help understand the Great Commandment, the summary of God’s Law. It is clear from Jesus’ story that love of God and love of neighbor is not exhausted inside the realm of the holy and religious folks. While there are needs here among us, the first great challenge of this story is to say that those we are to love as neighbors are all around us in the community, whether broken down on the side of the road, isolated and holed up in the house next door, or in the line in front of us at the grocery store.

The first great surprise in this story is Jesus’ claim that to keep God’s Law we must venture outside the realm of the holy and into the world of the profane. To put that in today’s context: in order to obey and love God, we must love those who are not in here! Now that’s nothing you haven’t heard me say before, but hear it with some fresh words and with the intensity with which Jesus said it. It is his application of the Great Commandment – the GREAT COMMANDMENT! In order to keep God’s Law, that is, to be obedient to God, to love God, and to serve God, we must love our neighbors. And Jesus is explicitly teaching that our neighbors are not where the holy men were headed, but those they passed by.

That begs the question: whom do we pass by on our way to be “good Christians?”

Think about it. Do we even notice? And if we do, does our heart go out to them in love, as the Heavenly Father’s does or do we think them a little less good and godly than we are? That is the force of Jesus’ story and it hits me right between the eyes.

Here’s the first surprise and its application once more: in order to love, serve, and obey God, we must love those who are not in here, even those furthest away!

Surprise #2: love your enemy

Hard to imagine, but that was not the biggest surprise of Jesus’ story!

The biggest surprise was that it was a SAMARITAN who helped the wounded man. And the youth video got this so right. What would have been the very last person Jesus’ audience would have expected to help… especially if you were a mouse? Yes… a cat!

I’ll remind you that about 600 years before Jesus’ time, the Jews were expelled from their country and taken captive into a foreign land. They referred to this as the Exile. One of the most important things for the Jews during Exile was to preserve their identity. The Samaritans were Jews who returned (or never went) and who inter-married with other races and religions. Once everyone returned from Exile, the Samaritans were outcast as being of mixed race and mixed religion. Many Jews looked upon them as cultural and religious traitors and the Samaritans and Jews had little love or regard for each other. When Jesus cast a Samaritan as the literal and spiritual hero of his story, it would have been incredibly shocking.

But the shock of a Samaritan hero is nothing compared to the surprise of Jesus’ final question in verse 36: “Which… proved to be a neighbor to the man…?”

Most teaching I’ve heard notes the unusual nature of a Samaritan, but points to the wounded man as the “neighbor” we need to love. And that much is true. But Jesus presses beyond that to an even more shocking assertion: that the Samaritan is the neighbor who kept God’s Law and who must be loved to keep God’s Law. That’s when the lawyer’s jaw would have dropped to the ground. Unbelievable! And yet, he had to answer Jesus’ question. I even wonder at his answer – as if he couldn’t bring himself to say “the Samaritan.” He just said, “…the one who showed mercy.” And Jesus tells him to go and do the same.

What Jesus is saying is that the Samaritan proved to be a servant of God, against expectations to the contrary. We must be willing, not only to venture outside the walls of the church, but sincerely ask the question, “What is God doing outside our church and how can we be a part?”

As we venture out beyond the walls, we must recognize that we are not blazing a trail for God; rather, God has gone before us and we are following in faith. We may find some very non-Presbyterian looking (whatever that means!) people doing God’s work! They may have different color skin or different accents or a lot of tattoos and piercings. We might even learn something about being a good neighbor from one of them.

And none of this is to say that we shouldn’t ALSO be concerned about theology, right beliefs, and maintaining faithful worship of God… that is all part of the first part of the Great Commandment! Jesus didn’t set up an either/or Great Commandment, but a both/and, and his story highlighted where religious folks have often fallen short. We draw close to God and tend to cluster with each other and shut the world out.

And sometimes it takes a shocking image, whether that be finding an ally in a Samaritan, or a cat, or someone who really makes YOU uncomfortable. But God doesn’t play favorites, but goes ahead of us into the world. We can either follow after Him and be faithful, or we can look like the holy people in this story.

Get up and get out; God is on the move! Amen.