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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Celebrate or Sulk (Luke 15:11-32)

November 19, 2006
Sermon by: Robert Austell

Today’s scripture is a familiar story – the story of the prodigal son. Few who hear this story miss the power and gift of the Father’s unconditional forgiveness, even for a son who has taken all the Father had to given him, threw it away, and found himself in the lowest of low places. For those who have been found by God, and even more for those who are in a low place, this story holds out a beautiful picture of a gracious and loving God. I’d like to look with you at what kind of Father Jesus tells us we have in God.

Secondly, Jesus told this story as the third in a row to an interesting group of people. Some in that group knew exactly what it was to be lost. They were tax collectors and other “sinners” – those who were known to lie, cheat, and steal, and who were generally considered the lowest of the low. In that group there were also scribes and Pharisees, known for their “righteousness” and religious devotion. They continued to struggle over why Jesus gave any time or attention to the first group. So, today, most who hear this story identify either with the younger son or the older son. I’d like to look with you at what is necessary for each son – for each of us – to enjoy the love of the Father.

The Heart of the Father: seeking those who are lost

Depending on where you are, you might focus on different parts of this story. But I think the primary focal point is the love of the Father for his children, for it is expressed strongly and poignantly towards each of them. In the first part of the story, we follow the younger son, who asked his father for what would come to him when the old man died. It was his inheritance, but he took it prematurely, while his father was still living. In essence, by asking for the inheritance he was saying his Father was dead to him and he would never see him again. He wasted the money, living the wild life and blowing through the money quickly. He found himself in the lowest of low places, not only tending pigs, but ready to share their food. Realizing that even the slaves of his father lived better than that, he determined to return to his father and beg for a slave’s place in the house. He didn’t expect to be welcomed back; he just hoped his father would hire him as a worker.

What was totally unexpected was to find his father on the lookout for him. His father saw him coming a long way off and ran to him – to his son – embraced him, and kissed him. It was clear that the Father still saw him as a beloved son. That had not changed.

Fast forward to verse 28. The older brother is completely put out with the whole situation. He has never lived wildly; he has never run away; he has served and obeyed his father faithfully all his life. And he will have nothing to do with welcoming his brother home. As with the younger brother, the Father goes to him as well. Look there in v. 28, “…his father came out and began pleading with him.” He goes on to say in v. 31, “Son, you have always been with me and all that is mine is yours.” The Father goes to his older son and claims him as well.

The heart of God the Father is like the father in this story: He seeks those who are lost. Like the shepherd in the first story in Luke 15, like the widow in the second story, God is like this father who searches for his lost son and celebrates when he is found.

The heart of God the Father is not just to seek those who are lost, but also to celebrate those who are found. In all three stories in Luke 15, when what is lost is found, the one seeking calls friends and relatives together and celebrates greatly. So it is with this son who returns.

When he puts the best robe on his son, a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet, the father reclaims his son AS his son. Then he prepares the party – they will kill the fatted calf, the very best for this son. But don’t miss the invitation to the older son. Though that son has refused to join in, the father left the party to go plead with the older son to come in and join the celebration. Even as the father sought the older son, he also desired to include him in the celebration.

This world and we are not just something God does when He’s bored. We are not just a science experiment or God’s house pets. God created us in His image and loves us and desires for us to be FOUND – in right relationship with Him. And so, when that happens in a human life, God celebrates and rejoices. All the angels in Heaven join in. God celebrates when the lost are found.

The Obstacle in Our Way

What gets in the way of us sharing in the celebration – sharing in the heart of God the Father? Each son experienced an obstacle. In the case of the younger son, wanting his own way in his own time at the expense of his father and family drove a seeming wedge between him and his father. His choices in life, to blow through the money in wild living, that created an obstacle between him and his father… or so he and anyone watching would have thought.

The older son – the seemingly obedient son – also experienced a wedge between him and his father. Yes, he was obedient; but he let jealousy and anger keep him from his father’s presence and from sharing in his father’s joy.

Jesus’ point is easy to see in relation to his audience at that time. Jesus was seeking out the tax collectors and sinners because they, too, were children of God. Jesus was looking out for them and inviting them “home” to their Heavenly Father, ready to celebrate their homecoming and restoration to God’s family. Jesus was also speaking to the Pharisees and scribes, who lived the obedient life, but missed the obstacle that was developing from their anger and jealousy, a sin that would eventually do as much damage to them spiritually as the wasteful living had for the younger son.

So often we portray the Pharisees as Jesus’ enemies. But Jesus loved them, too. They just could not bring themselves to be part of the Kingdom-celebration that Jesus was announcing.

Sharing the Heart of the Father

What is the antidote to these obstacles that come between us and God, our Heavenly Father? Perhaps you have been wildly disobedient and need to come home. Perhaps you are dutiful and faithful, in church every single Sunday, but can’t seem to share in celebration of what God is doing in the world. The antidote is thankfulness or gratitude. Yes, at the heart of that is faith and God’s forgiveness, and really the character and purpose of God, but the obstacles most readily dissolve when we are able to experience and express our gratitude to our Heavenly Father for His amazing love.

Jesus came announcing God’s Kingdom. As he began describing that Kingdom and his purpose on earth, it became apparent that he came on a search and rescue mission, to find those who are lost from God. Jesus did and does so as a reflection of the character and heart of God, a Heavenly Father who not only seeks those who are lost, but who celebrates when they are found.

If we are to be people after God’s own heart and a church after God’s heart, then we not only need to be a lighthouse/searchlight church, joining in God’s search and rescue operation, but also a church ready to celebrate. We need to be ready to celebrate, really celebrate, what God is doing in the world. If we slip into the sin of the older brother and sulk, reluctant to break out of the chore of our religious duty, we will miss the best part of being children of God, and we may cut ourselves off from being a part of what God is doing in the world.

I’ve said it before – it might get messy. We may find God calling for our fatted calf to be used – maybe a teenage band using the “holy sound system” or God’s house being filled up with all kinds of people who have come home to God.

It might get easy to long for the “good old days” when every face was a long-familiar face and every song a long-familiar song. That cherishing of our beginnings and our heritage is valuable and precious, but it cannot cost us fellowship with the Father and those the Father would bring home.

If we are serious about being obedient and faithful, about being a lighthouse/searchlight kind of church, let us be intent on knowing the will and heart of the Father and in giving thanks to God for everything He does in and through us. Amen.

Monday, November 13, 2006

A Searchlight Church (Luke 15.1-10)

November 12, 2006
Sermon by: Robert Austell

Last week we talked about what it means for us to be a “lighthouse church” and “lighthouse Christians.” We are to be obedient, involved, and prepared with the good news of Jesus Christ. This week we will look at a second picture of what it means to be faithful Christians and a faithful church: God wants us to be “searchlight Christians” and a “searchlight church.” We will see that not only is our God a searching God, not only did Jesus come to seek and save the lost, but all of Heaven rejoices when a lost one is found. God’s people and God’s church are to join in this mission to the world and in celebration when God accomplishes His salvation in a human life.

What Does a Searchlight Do?

Before we look at our passage, let’s think for just a moment about what a searchlight does. For example, it is used in the dark. It is used to find something or someone (or at least look!). It shows the way: if you are searching in the dark, you don’t want to become a casualty yourself. The light from the searchlight pierces the shadow – pressing through ahead of you to the nooks and crannies that are hard to reach. The purpose of a searchlight is just what the name implies – to go and find in the dark. A searchlight can be a flashlight in the hands of one searching; it can be the floodlight on a helicopter or search-and-rescue vehicle. It is not dissimilar to a lighthouse – but it is mobile or at least “on the lookout” while a lighthouse is fixed as a point of reference.

So we are to be with the light of Jesus Christ. We are to be a lighthouse – a fixed point of reference welcoming all who see us into the sanctuary of the presence of and relationship with God. But we are also to be a searchlight – getting up and going out into the dark places of life, our community, and people’s lives to share the light and life of Jesus.

Let’s see what Jesus had to say about it.

Jesus as a Searchlight

We talked a few weeks ago about the grumbling over the company Jesus was keeping. Talking and hanging out with sinners and tax collectors didn’t look good in the eyes of some. That was when Jesus said that the healthy do not need a doctor… but the sick do. He came to seek and save the lost.

In today’s text we have the first two of three short stories Jesus told to illustrate his (and God’s) perspective on those who are lost. I use the word “lost” because that’s the word Jesus uses. These “lost” are indeed sinners, just like we are! We are just “found sinners” – found by God. Jesus is talking about “lost sinners” – those who are just like you and me, but who do not know God and who are lost with respect to God.

He tells two stories. In the first, a shepherd who has 100 sheep leaves the 99 to go look for one that is lost. Jesus was speaking to people who knew about sheep and shepherds. This was a real-life example that made sense. If it doesn’t connect with you, don’t worry, the next one is about losing money!

Let me just highlight a few things in this first story:

What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not LEAVE the ninety-nine and GO AFTER the one which is lost… (Luke 15: 4)

One of the qualities of being a searchlight Christian is mobility – a willingness to get up and get out, to “leave and go after” like the shepherd in the story. This is, in fact, what God did! Jesus left heaven to come to earth to go after us… the ones lost to God because of human sin.

Let’s keep going. He leaves and goes after the one… UNTIL HE FINDS IT. When he has found it, he LAYS IT ON HIS SHOULDERS… (vv. 4-5).

A second quality of being a searchlight Christian is caring persistence. We are to keep getting up and going out because we care about those who would never wander in here on their own. And we don’t give up easily. One flyer in the mailbox is neither caring nor persistent. We are to search and search until we find those God wants us to find… then caringly show them the compassion and love of God, tending to their hurts and wounds if necessary.

Let’s look at the second story for a moment. In it, a woman loses one of ten silver coins. I’m sure you remember losing something important as a child. In our case, the new dog has made off with several of the girls’ possessions: dolls, pencils, and more. You’ve probably also had the experience of leaving a purse or wallet somewhere. Well the woman in the story loses one silver coin of ten. And what does she do?

Doesn’t she LIGHT A LAMP and SWEEP the house and SEARCH CAREFULLY?

Another quality of being a searchlight Christian is permeability. By that I mean something a little different than persistence. I’m trying to describe the thoroughness with which we search. A quick once-over of the house is unlikely to turn up the missing coin, though we might try that once in hopes of an easy discovery. She had to turn up the light, sweep all the floors, and probably get on her hands and knees. As we think about being “searchlight Christians” in our near-neighborhood, we will have to permeate the neighborhood… not just give it a once-over.

Notice, too, that the woman was also persistent. She kept looking until she found the coin.

Let’s take those three qualities (mobility, permeability, and persistence) then, and ask what is the quality of our “searchlight” as a church and as individual Christians.

What is the Quality of our Searchlight?

What does it mean for us to be a “searchlight church” and how can we improve as one? Let’s consider the three qualities revealed in our text today.

1. Mobility

Mobility is the “leave and go after” aspect of carrying the light of Christ. It is the “get up and get out” factor, and we can’t effectively be searchlights for Christ without it. Yes, we can be a great lighthouse church and do a great job with people who come to us, but Jesus’ clear teaching involves getting up and out into the world as salt and light.

It’s easy to fool ourselves. Some of our seemingly best “outreach” ideas only have a strong lighthouse factor. We fail to consider the real outreach or searchlight component. For example, I recently was talking to Kathy about the exciting idea of sharing our drama ministry beyond the walls of the church. We were talking about taking the drama on the road to other churches or inviting people from other churches to act in one of our dramas. It’s truly an excellent idea! And it’s a lighthouse idea… a good one. But, what if we open it up to the community, so that people could audition for a role whether they were a church member or not? Would someone do that… act in a clearly Christian church-produced play? They might, if they loved to act and lived nearby. What better opportunity to be exposed to a vibrant and mature Christian faith than to work with Kathy to understand the character and plot of one of her plays. The same person might run as fast as they could from preaching, but could be “found” through a dramatic role in a gospel-centered play.

Or take a conversation I’ve had with the elders on several occasions. We have wonderful music, arts, and other great features here at Good Shepherd. Why don’t we advertise on 91.9, the Christian radio station? I think with a little publicity and marketing that we could fill up our church, build buildings, and max out our plot of land here, entirely with Christians from all over Charlotte who would flock to the particular style and blend of arts, music, and worship we have here. But is that the work of the Kingdom of God?

2. Permeability

I believe the specific mission and challenge God has given us is to be one of God’s churches for this neighborhood – over 10,000 people live within a mile or so of our church. I can just about guarantee you that 5,000 and maybe more like 7,000 or 8,000 do not attend church regularly and do not have a personal relationship with the God of the universe. Even if my numbers are wrong… even if only 1000 or 500… those people are the ones God would have us show the light of Jesus Christ. We don’t have to convert them or make them believe or save them. But God would have us go to where they are with the hope and light and life of Jesus.

That means a once-over the neighborhood won’t do. When I started here I used the image of “low-hanging fruit” with the elders. Sure, we can send out a few flyers and invite folks to some special events and we’ll attract some folks who are ready to fall out of the tree and into a chair in church. That’s the low-hanging fruit… it almost picks itself. But remember the woman in Jesus’ story? She cranked up the lights, swept the floor and looked diligently for the lost coin. Some folks aren’t going to invite themselves to our Christmas cantata. Some folks are going to toss the flyers we mail them. Some folks are not going to answer the door when we come Christmas caroling down their street. And those are the folks God would have us reach with the light of Jesus. Those are the folks who need to hear, “God loves you and has not given up on you; neither do we.”

3. Persistence

We need to keep going back to the same streets, the same houses, the same folks again and again, not in an annoying way, but in a caring and persistent way, thinking of new and different ways to meet and invite them. We may well find that the door closes not because of who we are, but because of wounds or hurts suffered over the years. That is why we are called to a caring persistence… Is there anything we can do for you as a church? We can pray… we can provide food or counseling or friendship… I say we keep going back to Swan’s Run, Bon Rea, Rea Road, Candlewycke, Chadwick, Old Providence, Brighton Place, the elementary school, and hanging out at the Colony & Rea shopping center until we find all those God wants us to find!

In order to be a searchlight church, we need to be searchlight people. That means applying all this on a personal level. We need to get off the path that runs from our garage to work to church and meet our neighbors. We need to seek out co-workers and ask meaningful questions. We need to meet our children’s friends’ parents and get to know them better. As we do that individually, so we will do it as a church family.

I know most of you have already filled out your commitment cards and have them with you today. One of the sections of that card is a commitment to be a searchlight Christian. I encouraged you there to write down for yourself the names of some folks that God might want you to search out. Maybe you start simply by praying for them. Maybe you move to socializing and talking with them. Maybe you are ready to listen to their story and share your story. Maybe it’s time to invite them to church or to one of the “beacon” events like the Christmas cantata or the Christmas play. Maybe God will give you the opportunity to invite them to Christ. Whatever it is, make a plan; be intentional; write it down and pray over it. The woman in Jesus’ story turned up the lights and got the broom out. Let’s be intentional like that and be the kind of searchlight Christians God is calling us to be!

There are a lot of exciting “searchlight ideas” before us for the coming year… Christian yoga classes, a CATS commuter coffee ministry, community drama and community choir, VBS-on-the-road at Brighton Place in addition to VBS here. There are many more ideas. I’m looking for your ideas as well. The best and most effective ministries are those God places on your heart. If you come to me, like Shannon did with the Christian Yoga idea, I will do my best to work with you and bless you with church resources.

If we can really embrace this idea of being a lighthouse and searchlight church for Jesus, this will become the “best lit” neighborhood in Charlotte, to God’s glory!


Let me end with one last observation. In both stories that Jesus told, the story ends with rejoicing. And this is not just a little rejoicing, “Oh I found my lost coin”… it is a come home, call your friends, throw a party, rejoicing! So Jesus says it is when even one who was lost to God is found.

I’m ready to shelve the word evangelism – it scares people; it sounds like Christianity for the advanced super-Christian. What God wants is simply people who are so full of Jesus Christ that they light up a room, even light up a neighborhood. I’ve seen you light up this room as you welcome folks and worship God. I know you can light up this neighborhood because I know the source of your joy and hope and life. And I’m ready to celebrate what God is going to do! Amen.

SEE ALSO: lighthouse/searchlight blog and short definitions here