Sunday, October 8, 2017

“The Master’s Plan”

A sermon based upon 1 Peter 2.21
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
18th Sunday After Pentecost, October 8th,    (Series:  THE MISSIONARY CHURCH)

We are preaching on being ‘a missionary church’.   Last week we spoke about the kingdom or rule of God and how that relates the church’s mission.   We said that Jesus came preaching that God’s kingdom had come near, but we also know that it will not be fully realized until Jesus rules in the hearts and lives of all people.

Now that we have spoken about ‘what Jesus preached’, today we need to address more directly ‘what Jesus did’.  Jesus did not only preach about the God’s saving mission, but Jesus lived and died in such a way that he caused God’s saving mission to go forward in a most unprecedented way?   Jesus lived and died according to God’s plan to bring salvation to the entire human race, but how?  And how does what Jesus did then, relate to what we should be doing now?  This is what we will be addressing today in this message.

When we think about ‘what Jesus did,’ we should be reminded of a very popular book written at the end of the 19th century, entitled, “What Would Jesus Do.”  It was a book about how to live the Christian Life, implying that this could be as simple asking ourselves each day, “What Would Jesus Do?”    It’s not a bad approach, but it can get you in trouble.  For you see, you, nor I, are Jesus.  We couldn’t be Jesus, even if we tried.  We can accept Jesus as our savior.  We can follow Jesus in discipleship.  We can also in many ways to love like Jesus did, , but we will never be able to do what Jesus did, nor should we try.  During the late middle ages many people try to copy Jesus’ crucifixion by mutilating themselves with the ‘stigmata’.  This is something we should never do, because only Jesus can be Jesus.

Still, the question of living like Jesus is not to be completely negated or diminished.    Paul said that he ‘bore in his body the marks of the Lord Jesus’ (Gal 6:7).   Paul meant that in trying to take God’s mission into the world required types of suffering.   This is still true.  When we follow Jesus it will always cost us something, but this does not mean we try to hurt ourselves.  To follow Jesus should bring as much joy as it does struggle and pain.  Even Paul considered the pain he endured for Jesus to be a privilege.   When Jesus said ‘take up your cross’ and ‘follow me’, he did not say ‘take up His cross’, but ‘take up YOUR cross’, meaning that we follow Jesus and we try to love, care and live sacrificially for what is ‘good’ and ‘right’,  but Jesus nor Paul ever meant that we should try to ‘be’ Jesus.

The way Jesus preached, lived, and died are unique and unrepeatable, but life can provide a moral and spiritual compass for how we should live rightly and carry out God’s mission in churches today.   As First Peter reads, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”  (1 Pet. 2:21 NRS).   In this way Jesus is not only our savior, but he is also an example of should be and do church (1 Thess 1:7, 2 Thess 3:9, James 5:10).  And while there are many different angles from which to look at Jesus, I want to focus on the primary ways show us God’s ‘master plan’ for being an mission-minded, evangelistic, and ministry focused church.  Back in 1962, a fellow named Robert Coleman wrote a ground-breaking book called, “The Master Plan of Evangelism.”  I’m not going to follow that book, since it is too technical for a sermon, but I do want to follow the Spirit of his book to point out three major ways Jesus showed us how to be mission-minded and evangelistic. 

If you turn in your Bible to the very beginning of the gospel of Mark, you will see a picture of Jesus that focuses upon one of Jesus’ most important agendas for God’s master plan.   It’s the first ‘healing’ story of any of the gospels.  Most of you will remember the vivid images of Jesus teaching in a house, when four friends lower a paralyzed man down through the roof on a mat, hoping that Jesus will heal him.  Jesus does heal him, but before that Jesus says to him, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5).  This pronouncement of forgiveness made the religious leader very angry.  “Who can forgive sins, but God?” They screamed.  It that day you had to go to a priest and follow all kinds of religious procedures to be forgiven.  Jesus bypassed all that, simply announcing that this man was forgiven, just like that.  It was even before Jesus had died on the cross and the man had not even asked to be forgiven.

What we see in the powerful story is that right from the start of his ministry Jesus had forgiveness as primary on God’s agenda.  And it was not just any kind of forgiveness, it was unconditional forgiveness freely given so that it could be freely received.  God’s forgiveness was being announced without any hidden agenda and without any requirement.   This forgiveness was coming straight from the heart of God.  (Every time I read this, I’m reminded of another paralytic, Reynolds Price, who was stricken with cancer of the spine, and in a dream received God’s forgiveness.  When Jesus found floating in the ocean and said his ‘sins are forgiven, Dr. Price asked, “What about my healing?”  Jesus answered, “Yes, and that too.”)

If we are going to be a church on mission for God, then our primary agenda must include the ‘forgiveness of sins’.   There is nothing more basic that being God’s church and doing God’s work in the world.   What this means is that we must offer forgiveness to people freely and unconditionally, no strings attached.   This does not mean that people can be fully forgiven without confessing their sins or without repentance of sins.  These are not ‘requirements’ for forgiveness, but they are how God’s forgiveness is received and acknowledged.   As the Letter of John writes,  “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9 NRS).

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of how Jesus offers God’s unconditional forgiveness is shown in the story told in the gospel of John, where religious leaders catch a woman in the act of adultery.  They are all ready to ‘stone’ the woman, as it was commanded in the law of Moses.  Now, most Bible scholars will tell you that hardly ever did anybody really carry out Moses’ law in this way, but this woman was caught to set a trap for Jesus.   In response, after writing “God knows what” on the ground, Jesus stands and says, “Let anyone without sin throw the first stone at her” (Jn. 8:2).   Most of you know this story, but it is what comes next that shows us how God’s unconditional forgiveness is supposed to work in us, as we receive it.  As all the woman’s accusers walk away,  Jesus turns to the woman and says, “Where are your accusers.  Neither do I condemn you.  Now, go and don’t sin anymore! (Jn. 8: 11).  

What is most important to understand is this word to the woman is not a requirement for God’s forgiveness.  Jesus already says,  “Neither do I condemn you.”  But this is how God’s forgiveness is appropriated and received into our lives.   Only when we  turn from our sin and move our lives in a different direction, is God’s forgiveness having God’s intended affect in our life.   Another case in point is those 10 lepers in Luke whom Jesus healed.  Jesus sent them away to show the priests that they were healed and acceptable again into the community.  Only one of the lepers came back to Jesus, thanking and praising God.  Only to this one, a Samaritan leper, did Jesus give the full and final announcement:   “Get up and go your way, you are made fully healed, that is ‘your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:12).   Again, this is not a ‘catch’ with forgiveness, but this simply how God’s forgiveness always works.  As Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord’s prayer, “Forgive us our sins, AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO SIN AGAINST US.”

What these stories and many others in the gospel remind us, is that ‘forgiveness’ is primary on God’s agenda for being and doing church.   If a church doesn’t find ways to continue to give and receive God’s forgiveness, to each other, and to those who need it most, the church fails to fulfill its responsibility and calling as a church and as a Christian too.   And nothing destroys a church’s witness and work any faster, than a people who hold grudges against each other, or who will not confess their sins to each other, just as they are supposed to confess their sins daily to God. 

In the same way, just as Jesus forgave, even those who crucified him, when we forgive each other, even those who don’t deserve our forgiveness.  There is nothing that builds, establishes, or continues God’s mission in the world any more than daily and continual acts of forgiveness.   Hardly anything else the church or a Christian does matters, without having and showing a ‘forgiving heart.’  Can you think of any grudge you have against someone?   Can you think of any division that has happened in the past that might be holding this church back?  Why don’t you start praying for that person?   Why don’t you then go to that person?  Why don’t you deal with the matter and really put it behind you, so that God can use you and so this church might be allowed to accomplish God’s mission of forgiveness.

Along with ‘forgiveness’, Jesus had another agenda, another part of God’s master plan for mission and ministry pointing to one of the most important functions of a mission-minded, evangelistic church.   If you turn in your Bible a little further over in the gospel of Mark, to chapter 10., verse 45, you will find one of the most important sayings of Jesus anywhere in any of the gospels:  “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). 

Now before you even start to think that Jesus is only talking about his own death on the cross, you need think again.  The whole reason Jesus made this statement was to clarify what kind of followers his disciples were supposed to be.  This saying of Jesus came a couple of his own disciples, James and John, and incited all the rest of the disciples, by asking ‘to sit’ at the ‘right’ and ‘left’ of Jesus when Jesus is to sit on his throne in his glory.  Jesus answers that they have no idea what they are talking about and the other disciples are outraged.   Jesus turns to all this disciples and clarifies what it means to be a disciple of Jesus:  “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord over them, and their great ones are tyrants….BUT IT IS NOT SO AMONG YOU; but whoever wishes to be great among you MUST BE YOUR SERVANT, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark. 10: 35-44).

While it is clear to most people that Jesus ‘came to serve’ and called his disciples be ‘great’ by becoming ‘servants’ to others and to each other, what is often left unsaid is where Jesus got this idea of servanthood.   It wasn’t just that God was telling Jesus and the disciples to be nice to each other or to do something good for others.   That sells the truth in this gospel way too short.   No, the whole idea of ‘servanthood’ come directly out of the Old Testament from a unique part of the prophecy of Isaiah, which scholars call ‘The Servant Songs’.  

There are Four of these ‘Servant Songs’ located in Isaiah, chapter 42, 49, 50, and 52-53.   They originally pointed to the people of Israel as God’s chosen ‘servant’ in the world for the world.  Most of us remember the one about the servant who suffers and bears ‘our transgressions’ and by his ‘punishment’ the people are made whole.   Of course, points directly to what Jesus did as the ‘suffering servant’ to bear sin on the cross (Isa. 53: 2-7), but Isaiah also meant that all of those who serve God, humble themselves, and bear the weight of the world’s sin, so that they can ‘bring good news’ and God’s kingdom (52:7).   As Jesus says,  ‘whoever wishes to be great must…be a SERVANT.

Loving service to others has always been an important part of what it means to be a Christian, and what it means to be church, but this is more important now, than ever before.   WE all know that service is a ‘hot topic’ to authenticate or verifies any ministry or mission in our world today.   If a church does not have an active ‘service’ ministry in the community, it’s message will not be heard by most people.  Today’s churches, if they are going to bear the truth of Jesus in our skeptical world, must be ‘JAMES CHURCHES’.   In the letter of James,  it says,  ‘a person is justified by works and not by faith alone’ (2:24).  “…Someone will say, “You have faith and I have works or ‘show me your faith apart from your works.’   But then James adds, every emphatically, “BY MY (Good) WORKS I WILL SHOW YOU MY FAITH (2:18). 
If you recall, during Hurricane Harvey,  TV Preacher Joel Osteen, took a lot of heat, because his large church did not immediately open its doors to receive refugees and flood victims.  Osteen later explained that they were going to, but where planning to when the city’s planned shelter overflowed.  What we see in a story like that is that no church has any voice or mission left in the world, unless it is unashamedly a ‘serving’ and servant church.  Whereas we used to sing, ‘they will know we are Christians by our love’, today we must sing, ‘they will only know we are Christians by our acts and deeds of love.’   What kind of ‘servant’ role are you playing in this church?  How are you helping this church ‘engage’ its community and prove God’s love with deeds of service in Jesus’ name?

The final picture of Jesus’ example for us, as a church on mission, is perhaps the most misunderstood.   Turn finally to another gospel, the gospel of Luke, and consider one final example of the priority of Jesus, which points to the primary mission and ‘master plan’ for the church of Jesus Christ today.  You will remember this story from Sunday School.   It’s the story Zacchaeus, that ‘wee little man’ (Luke 19: 1-10), who went climb a sycamore tree, so he could get a glimpse of Jesus.   Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector that nobody liked, but when Jesus saw him up in the tree, he invited him to ‘hurry down’ so that he, Jesus could be his ‘guest’ for the day.   Jesus had gone to ‘be the guest of a sinner’ (19:7).  This is one of the few stories where Jesus directly says that he, ‘the Son of Man’, came to ‘seek and to save the lost.’   Jesus also announces to Zacchaeus very dramatically, “Today, salvation has come to this house….”
Today we use that word ‘salvation’ very freely; almost too freely.   We say easily, all you have to do is A,B, C., Admit you are a sinner, Believe in him, and confess your sins, and wallah!  You’re saved!   It sounds good, but as my daddy used to say,  “If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.”

While I think we all agree that faith in Jesus saves us,  we don’t always understand rightly what saving faith means.   Again, this is why the book of James was written, to correct some of the false notions, that all you got to do is believe, and you are saved, just like that.  No, as Paul said, when we are ‘saved by grace’ good works follow, not out of coercion, but out of joy and true faith.   Again, James says,  “You show me your faith apart from works, and I’ll show you my faith by my works.”  Saving Faith in Jesus is a faith that follows and serves Jesus. 

But what is also important to see in this story of Zacchaeus, is what how Zacchaeus ‘proves’ that he really does indeed have ‘saving faith’ in Jesus.   Do you see it?  What motivates Jesus to say ‘Today, salvation has come to this house….’ Is because of what Zacchaeus has just said, not only to prove his faith, but to make his faith work:  “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back for times as much” (Luke 19:8).  What makes Zacchaeus a true believer is simply that he saw Jesus and believed, but that when he believed in Jesus, he contributed to Jesus’ saving mission and ministry.  Jesus had come to ‘preach good news to the poor’, and here, Zacchaeus joins to become part of this ministry.
Now, listen closely, for I want to ask you something.   Have you ever thought of your contribution to the saving ministry and mission of Jesus?   Going back to what I said earlier, you, nor I,  can literally be Jesus.   We can’t ‘save’ people.  We are God’s son’s and daughters, but we are not ‘THE SON OR THE DAUGHTER OF GOD’.  In this way Jesus was unique, as it was noted at his baptism, ‘he was (God’s) beloved’, and ‘only begotten son’.  

But I want you to consider something else.  Think about the common language when people speak about ‘Saving the planet’ or ‘Saving the environment’.   Constantly, in our world, when it comes to doing good, the world uses the language of the Bible about what people can and should do to save the world, and even to help or rescue others.   Recall that fellow in Houston, who said, “We are going to keep saving people until this thing blows over.”    While we in the church can’t save people in that we can get them into heaven, we can save people in a way that we can keep them out of Hell.”  

What I’m mean is the most important mission and ministry we have, as a church, is to take part in God’s ‘saving’ mission in the world.   We are not ‘serving’ ministry.   We should serve and help people in need.   This legitimizes our saving work, just as Jesus’ own healing ministry legitimized His God’s saving work.   But what we all know is that Jesus did not come simply to forgive or serve, but Jesus came to release God’s healing and spiritual power into people’s lives.   As Jesus said,  “The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”  If we follow Jesus in our true mission calling, we will not just work in a serving capacity doing good deeds of social ministry, but we will also take part in God’s ‘soul’ ‘saving’ ministry.   The question is: What does this really mean?  How do we participate in God’s ‘soul’ saving work in the world?

Here again, we need to let Jesus be our example.   Think about it in this very strange, but interesting way.  Prepare yourself for a shock, and hear me out when I say:  “Jesus really didn’t save anybody either.”  Jesus invited people.   Jesus called disciples.  Jesus shared the truth of God’s love with people.   Jesus showed people how they could be better people and even how they could find eternal life.   But in reality, Jesus didn’t save anyone.   This is why Jesus was always saying to people he healed,  “Go, your way, YOUR FAITH HAS MADE YOU WELL.  Unless people wanted to be saved, they couldn’t be saved, even by Jesus.   Jesus pointed people to God’s saving grace.  Jesus was an example of God’s love.   But Jesus could only point people to God’s salvation by forgiving them, serving them, and by sharing God’s saving love.

So, now, when you hear the word “Jesus saves”, it really doesn’t mean that the human Jesus actually saved anybody.  The world rejected Jesus.   It still does.   What it does mean to say that Jesus saves, is that Jesus did what we can also do:  Jesus shared God’s love, Jesus showed us God’s love, and Jesus sacrificed himself to make that love real.  Now, of course, Jesus did these things uniquely, because he was uniquely God’s Son.   You, nor I, need to die on a cross to show people what God’s love means.  Jesus already did that.  But you do and I do have to do, is to die to ourselves, and become a living sacrifice for what God calls us to do and be.  We are to forgive others freely.  We are to serve others faithfully.  And we are to point people to the only kind of love that can save anybody and everybody.  God’s great love.   When we do these things, in ways that we are called to do, we take part in the Master’s plan.  AMEN.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

“This Kingdom Gospel”

A sermon based upon Matthew 13: 24: 14; Acts 1: 6, Mark 1:15; Luke 11:2
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
15th Sunday After Pentecost, October 1st,    (Series:  THE MISSIONARY CHURCH)

Almost everywhere you go in Europe, be it to Germany, France, England, Scotland, Ireland, Italy or Spain; you will find the ruins of old castles.    Those old castles represent the medieval world of territories that were once ruled by Lords, Dukes, Princes, Kings and Queens.  It sounds very romantic, and perhaps it may have been for a privilege few.  But most people who lived in that time were peasants not lords.  For the majority, the old feudalistic world was filled with more disadvantage than advantage.   Only the royal or noble bloodlines had the ‘cards’ stack in their favor.

The castles I imagined most as a child where located along the Rhine River in Germany.  Perhaps you have fantasized about some of those castles too.  Those old ancient Castles still represent a ‘fairy-tale’ world of long, long, ago.  Walt Disney seized upon this fairy-tale image to create his own vision of a ‘magic kingdom’.   The castle that provided his inspiration was Neuschwanstein located in Bavaria.  This was not a medieval castle.  King Ludwig II had it built in 1886, trying to escape back to an already-forgotten time.  Ludwig nearly bankrupted the government while building it.  His own ‘kingdom’ finally declared him ‘insane’ and put him under house arrest.  Shortly thereafter, he was found drowned in a nearby lake.

In the real world, where most people live and have to finally ‘come down to earth’, it is very difficult to establish or maintain a fairy-tale world.  This is why most castles are uninhabited or in ruins today.  Even here in America, where we don’t have castles, we have had the Vanderbilt’s, the Rockefellers, or the Reynolds.  But those fairy-tale lives were just as difficult to manage or maintain as their houses, weren’t they?  This is normally how it is with human kingdoms; here today, but gone tomorrow. 

What about God’s kingdom?   In our text today, close to the end of his ministry, Jesus told his disciples that ‘this good news’ or ‘this gospel’ of the kingdom must be preached throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations…’ (Matt. 24:14).  Jesus often spoke of the Kingdom of God or Heaven (Matthew).  In fact, the Kingdom was the most important ‘theme’ in all of Jesus’ preaching and teaching ministry.  But where is it?  What is it?  And what does the kingdom mean when we live out the mission of this church?  Is the Kingdom just as ‘outdated’ as a world long-gone, or is there still an important ‘gospel’ significance in the message of God’s kingdom? 

In the book of Acts, as Jesus was preparing to ascend to heaven, some of his disciples around him, had to ask him a final question.  They had just a few more moments left with Jesus, but it wasn’t Jesus’ leaving that was primarily on their hearts, but it was their own expectations about the kingdom.   Expectations can tricky.  During his last 40 days of Jesus’ time on earth, Jesus was still ‘speaking about the kingdom of God’ (Acts 1:3).  Now, as he leaves, he tells his disciples they were ‘not to leave Jerusalem’, but instead to ‘wait there for the promise of the Father (4).’  The suspense is killing them, so they ask:  “Lord, is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (6).

The disciples still don’t get it.  In this final moment with Jesus, some of them are still imagining an earthly, political kingdom of Israel, whereas Jesus has been trying to get them to understand the ‘kingdom’ is no longer just about Israel, but it is a ‘gospel that must be preached throughout the world…to the nations’ (Matt. 24:14).  But like us, the disciples want to keep the kingdom close as their own, but Jesus says, ‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8)

It was the vision of God’s ‘glory filling the whole earth’ (Psalm 72:19) that they had trouble comprehending.  They only envisioned the kingdom in Israel, as it had been envisioned by their forefathers and ancestors, going all the way back to David.   David was the King ‘after God’s own heart’ who ruled in the glory days.  Scripture even promised that David’s kingdom would be ‘established forever’ (2 Sam 7: 16).  How could this happen unless God restored the Kingdom to Israel from Mt. Zion, just as all the prophets had also envisioned (Jer. 31:6).  This was the major question on the minds of Jesus’ disciples as Jesus’ earthly ministry came to a close.  When?  How?  Is it ‘time’ now to ‘restore’ Israel’s kingdom? 

I don’t know how much you know about ancient findings in the land Israel, but one of the most difficult areas of biblical archaeological research is to prove that David’s kingdom ever really existed.   There have been no references to him in Egyptian, Syrian, or Assyrian documents recorded of that time.  Most scholars have suggested that not only did David not exist, but even if he did, his kingdom rule was more like a large tribe or chiefdom, rather than a glorious kingdom.  

Only recently, has there ever been any evidence outside of the Bible to support the existence of King David.   This evidence came on July 21, 1993 when a team led by Prof. Avraham Biran, excavating Tel Dan in northern Galilee, found a triangular piece of rock, measuring 23 x 36 cm.  On it was an Aramaic inscription dated in the 9th century, about a century after David is thought to have ruled.  It said: “Bet David” (House or Dynasty of David).  The only other external evidence of David’s kingdom comes from surveys kept from digging around in the hills of Judea, showing that during the 11th and 10th centuries, the population of Judah almost doubled .

The point I’m making with that though it might be proven that King David and his Kingdom actually existed, this is still a long way from a ‘kingdom’ established forever (2 Sam. 7: 16).  Although there is a nation of Israel today, there is still no ‘throne’ nor is there any kind of house of David.   In the day Jesus disciples inquired about ‘restoring’ Israel,  whatever there had been of David’s kingdom,  had already ‘crumbled’ in the Jerusalem dust.   Since Jesus didn’t restore it, would he return to restore it? 

Perhaps the most important question here is why did Jesus disciples even think about this?  How did the restoration Israel’s long-lost kingdom become a renewed in their hope?   The answer, of course, comes from Jesus himself.  According to the opening chapter of Mark’s gospel, we read that “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news” (Mark 1:14-15). 

There are several clues to why Jesus is preaching ‘good news’ about God’s kingdom, long after David’s kingdom was gone.  First, notice where Jesus begins to preach.  He is not in Jerusalem, where David’s throne was located, but Jesus is in Galilee, far north of Jerusalem and Judea.   Another interesting clue is about when the kingdom comes.  Jesus does not say that God’s kingdom has already actually come, but that God’s kingdom has ‘come near’.   It is carefully worded that this is not the final fulfillment;  the beginning, but not the final coming of God’s kingdom.  The Kingdom comes ‘near’, but it still not fully ‘here’.  To add to this, finally the how of the kingdom is addressed.  The entrance to God’s kingdom is not through a gate or a door, but God’s kingdom is entered the spiritual responses of repentance and having faith in God’s good news.

This all means that God’s eternal kingdom, promised in David, and now being realized in Jesus, is a different kind of Kingdom.  This was very hard for Jesus own disciples to understand, so Jesus spoke about God’s kingdom with parables, or stories.  The disciples were stuck trying to visualize a politically, national kingdom, but Jesus wanted them to imagine the kingdom spiritually, using earthy, but non-political, less nationalistic terms.  
Perhaps the best place to grasp Jesus’ own understanding of the ‘secret’ of the kingdom  (Mark 4:11), is to make a quick review of the seven kingdom parables found in the gospel of Matthew.  You will remember these as (1) the Parable of the Sower (Matt 13: 1-23, (2) the Parable of the Weeds (13: 24-30), (3) the Parable of Mustard Seed (13: 31-32), (4) the Parable of the Yeast (Matt. 13: 33-35), (5) the Parable of the Hidden Treasure (13: 44), (6) the Parable of the great Pearl (13:45), and (7), the Parable of the Net of Fish (13:47-52). 

Each of these stories have a little something different to say about the ‘nearness’ of God’s kingdom, from showing how the kingdom grows, how it is hidden, is of great value, and is determinative for the future.  But what all these parables have in common is even more striking.  Even though the Kingdom has come near and has been made available, the kingdom becomes realized in the kind of humans should make.  In other words, to put it in the daily terminology of Jesus’ day: someone has to sow the seeds, someone has to leave the weeds, someone has to put in the yeast, someone has to hunt for the treasure, someone has to pay the price for the great pearl, and finally, someone has to cast out a net to catch the fish.   In each case, the nearness of the kingdom depends upon the participation of God’s people, as much as, it the kingdom depends upon God. 

If any of you are Will Ferrell fans, you may be familiar with the 2006 film, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Ferrell plays the role of Ricky Bobby, a dimwitted daredevil who is also the most successful driver on the NASCAR circuit.   In typical Will Farrell fashion, Ricky Bobby is morally and ethically bankrupt. The only things that matter to Ricky Bobby are winning races and self-indulgence.

But Ricky Bobby is religious, after a fashion. He even prays when it suits his desires. In one scene he is saying grace before a meal. He prays, “Dear Tiny, Infant, Jesus . . .” And he continues to address Christ throughout the prayer as “Lord Baby Jesus.”   Finally, his wife and his father-in-law decide to interrupt him as he prays to the Lord Baby Jesus. Carley, his wife, says “Hey, um, sweetie . . . Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him baby. It’s a bit odd and off-puttin’ to pray to a baby.”  To which Ricky Bobby replies, “Look, I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I’m sayin’ grace. When you say grace, you can say it to Grownup Jesus or Teenage Jesus or Bearded Jesus or whoever you want.” (Adapted from a sermon by The Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell,

It’s a bizarre sequence, but also quite revealing. I suspect that many of us would prefer to keep Jesus as a baby, not a king. Many of us would agree with Ricky Bobby that the Christmas Jesus is best. The Christmas Jesus is no threat to our childish views of the universe or our self-serving views about faith. The Christmas Jesus is soft and huggable. He says nothing to us about taking up a cross or saving a dying world.   But from the very beginning of his Gospel Mark gives us a picture of a grow-up Jesus. Mark says nothing about Jesus’ birth. Instead he begins with Jesus’ baptism, then telling us how Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news which means ‘The Kingdom of God has come near, so we must repent and believe the good news!’

When God’s kingdom came near in Jesus, people still had the choice of either to receive him with repentance and faith, or to reject him.  The kingdom is never a ‘done’ deal.   We have to put our hearts into it, or its fails to stay ‘near’ or ‘here’ and close to us.  Even after Jesus finished his earthly ministry and ascended to God’s throne, the church had to be ‘wait’ to be ‘filled’ with God’s Spirit and go into the world as witnesses.   The kingdom came close, but the kingdom doesn’t stay close, unless we stay close to Jesus.   We still have to follow Jesus by believing and obeying God will, for the kingdom to stay close to us in this world.  

THY KINGDOM COME…. (Luke 11:2)
So, will the kingdom ever fully come to us, not just ‘come near us’?  Will the rule of God ever be actually be realized ‘here’ and ‘now’, in this world?  Jesus taught his disciples to pray “Thy Kingdom come’ (Luke 11.2).  Does this mean that God’s Kingdom will one day be fully established on ‘earth, just as it is in heaven?’  That is what Jesus taught us to pray for, isn’t it?  Maybe.

But Jesus’ most direct answer was that ‘is not for [us] to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority’ (Acts 1:7).  Everybody has in their own mind a ‘plan’ of how it will all work out, but only God has the ‘authority’ to make it work out.  Instead of trying to figure everything out, Jesus told his disciples to ‘receive’ the Spirit’s power and be witnesses where they lived.   Our obsession should be the simple doing of God’s kingdom work, not figuring out everything.  We shouldn’t do that because we can’t.  As Jesus said “God’s kingdom is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is! Or ‘There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”  (Luke 17:20-21).   

Do we fully understand what Jesus is saying?   The kingdom is not some kind of individual party you have within yourself, when you say ‘yes’ to Jesus in repentance and faith alone, but the ‘kingdom of God’ is God’s rule ‘among you’ as come together in repentance, faith, and fellowship, and then go back out into the world to do the kinds of kingdom ‘work’ God commanded the church to do.  The parables really point to everything the church’s kingdom work should be about:  We are to sow seeds of the gospel on good ground.   We are to stop injuring the wheat, by pulling on the weeds.  We are to put in the yeast and let it rise up.   We are hunt for the hidden treasure, then pay any cost to keep it.   We are to search for great pearls and when we find the one with the greatest value, we are to buy it, no matter the cost.  Finally, we are to cast our gospel nets to catch all kinds of fish and put them in our baskets. 

Do you understand all this?  Jesus asked his disciples.  They answered ‘yes’!    But before we answer yes, we’d better make sure we understand.   Perhaps a story can help sum it all up:  A six year old boy was assisting his mother with some spring gardening. The mother was absorbed in her work while the little boy explored the miracle of growing things exploding everywhere.  All at once the boy picked up a daffodil bud, and sat down on the ground, and studied it. Then with his two little hands, he tried to force it open into a full blossom. The result, of course, was disappointment and a mess: limp petals and a dead flower.

Frustrated, he cried out, "Mommy, why is it that when I try to open the buds, it just falls to pieces and dies. How does God open it into a beautiful flower?"
Even before his mother could answer, a broad smile broke across the child's face, and he exclaimed, "Oh! I know! God always works from the inside."

When God rules over his kingdom, he rules from the inside out.  God’s kingdom is alive and it is growing, but God’s rule can’t be realized in the world until he rules in us from the inside out.  God is the king, we can’t make him rule, but we must allow him to rule.  It is then, and only then, that the kingdom comes near and comes here, beginning in us, and continuing to be realized in this world through God’s people, the church.  Are letting God rule in you, from the inside out?   The kingdom can’t come near us, unless it comes here, within us.   Amen.  

Sunday, September 24, 2017

“Israel Matters”

A sermon based upon 1 Peter 2: 4-12
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
14th Sunday After Pentecost, September 24th, 2017,    (Series:  THE MISSIONARY CHURCH)

I once had the opportunity to walk through a Jewish cemetery, located in the village of Furstenberg, a small village surrounding the city where we lived in eastern Germany.  As I walked around, I noticed that some of the tombstones noted how the person did not die a normal death.   They died in German concentration camps like Auschwitz, Buckenwald, Dachau, or Sachenhausen. 

On one particular stone, I noticed that a man had been a decorated German war hero in World War I.  But when Hitler came to power he was treated sub-humanly, like millions of other Jewish men, women and children.  No matter that Germany was also this man’s ‘Fatherland’, because he was Jew, he was treated as a criminal and hauled away to Auschwitz to be murdered along with 6 million other Jews.

To force themselves to remember such cruelty, many German Baptist Christians had Menorah’s in their homes, reminding them to pray that such inhuman atrocities would never happen again in Germany, or in any other part of the world.   How could a land that called itself Christian, ever commit such war crimes?  How could people who had built some of the most beautiful churches in the world, and worshiped the ‘prince of peace,’ turned against the people who were the same race of Jesus Christ? How could one single Christian ever forget that Israel matters?

As we continue to think about our ‘missionary’ calling as part of the church of Jesus Christ, we need to understand that our mission and God’s saving purpose is also rooted in God’s choice of Israel to be his ‘own’ chosen people.  

In the text before us, writing directly to Jewish Christians (not Gentile Christians), Peter uses the word ‘chosen’ several times.  First, he speaks of Jesus as a ‘living stone’,… rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight…’ (4). Without the choice of Israel, there would have been no Jesus.  Even though it was the Jewish religious leaders who crucified Jesus and the Jewish crowd who ‘rejected’ Jesus, Jesus is ‘chosen’ and ‘precious’, just as the Jewish people are still ‘chosen and precious’.

The second time Peter this word ‘chosen’ (6), he speaks of how Jesus was raised from the dead, making him the ‘cornerstone’ of all saving faith.   ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner”(7).  But also, in an even stranger statement Peter says that Jesus is also ‘A stone that makes them stumble and a rock that makes them fall.’  Why this happens, is the most outrageous statement of all: “They stumble because they disobeyed the word, as they WERE DESTINED TO DO’ (8).  

Peter is not this kind of thinking, because this is the same thing Paul wrote to the Roman Christians: ‘Through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles’ (Rom. 11:11).  Salvation is why God allowed (or ‘appointed’ KJV) Israel to reject Jesus: ‘In regards to the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors;  for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.  (Rom. 11:28-29 NRS).  What Peter and Paul are saying is that what happened to Jesus is how God works out His saving purpose.  Recall his previous word to the Romans,  “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.  For those he foreknew he also predestined to conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family….(Rom. 8:28-29)….‘God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew’ (11:1). God does not take back his promise.   Instead, God has established through Israel’s rejection a ‘remnant, chosen by grace’ (11:6) so that someday, God can ‘be merciful to all’ (11:31) and ‘all Israel will be saved’ (11:26).  

This is some of the most beautifully inspired thoughts about our saving God.  God wants to save people.  Some people don’t want what God wants, so they reject God and his saving purpose.   God does not reject people, but some don’t want what God wants.    God chooses people.  God chooses because he wants to save more and more.  God will always have a ‘chosen’ people.  But to accept God’s choice which can be us too, we must learn to want what God wants.

This learning to desire or want what God wants is at the heart strange Old Testament word which Paul quotes in Romans 9:13, which has God saying, ““I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau” (see also Malachi 1:2).   How do we say God wants to save more and more when Scripture has God saying “I have hated Esau”?  What we have to understand that this is not about God’s feelings, this is about God’s purpose.  As the Firstborn, Esau did not want what God wanted.  Esau wanted to spend his life hunting and fishing, rather than lead God’s people in God’s saving purpose.  So, God choose to channel his love through Jacob, rather than Esau.  Jacob was no better than Esau, in fact, Jacob’s name means deceiver.  This ‘love’ relished on him was not about ‘works’, but it was about grace and it was about Jacob’s desire to be a part of God’s saving purpose.  Jacob wanted what God wanted. 

Do we want what we want, or do we desire what God wants?  This is key to being chosen by God to take part in his saving purpose.  But to do this, we will often have to change our wants.   We will have to make adjustments, adapt, and alter our plans.  A great example of how this might work in our lives, is what happened to Lewis and Clark, the great early American explorers of the Northwest.  Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were commissioned by President Jefferson, to find where the Mississippi River ran into the Pacific Ocean.  They took their team and canoed up that great river, with the help of native guides.  But instead of paddling their canoes to the Pacific, they ended up, as one writer says, ‘canoeing the mountains.’  Of course, they didn’t actually canoe the mountains, because they ran out of water when they were the very first Americans to reach the Rockies.  

When they found the mountains, rather than the ocean,  Lewis and Clark could have turned around and come home, because they did get what they wanted, nor what President Jefferson wanted.   Instead, they decided to change what they wanted, and they found something just as good, maybe better than a northwest passage to the Pacific Ocean.   They found more land, more beautiful, wild, mountainous land, than they had ever imagined.  They also discovered the potential of amazing natural resources.  They also established potentially good relations with the native Americans.  They didn’t get what they wanted, but they learned to change their wants and got much more (From Tod Bolsinger’s, Canoeing the Mountains).

What wonderful new discovery will we uncover about us, when we learn to change our own wants to what God wants?   Speaking directly to those Jews who accepted God’s saving choice in Jesus, reminds them of who they have become when they have learned to want what God wants: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light’ (v.9).   In the richness of this one verse, those ‘accept’ God’s choice; become ‘God’s own people’.  By accepting God’s choice of Jesus, God’s saving will and purpose in Jesus is now passed on to them, as they learn (are disciple) in learning what God wants.  Now, they too have become part of God’s saving people.  Now, they join God’s saving mission as they have been ‘chosen’ to choose what God wants.

Consider this most interesting idea that Christians, followers of Jesus, God’s choice, are now ‘chosen’ to choose what God wants.  We have a lot of ‘wants’ in this world, but now, when we accept Jesus we are called to ‘learn’ to make even better choices with our lives.  In Jesus, we are chosen to change our wants so we too, will learn to choose what God wants.  As Peter goes on to quote Hosea: ‘Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”   This is who we are in Christ, but then, Peter continues: “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. (1 Pet. 2:10-11 NRS).  What this means is in Jesus Christ, we also chosen by God’s saving purpose, but we also, in addition, chosen FOR God’s saving purpose, as we choose to continue to learn to want God wants. 

What is our learning to choose what God wants all about?  Why does it matter?  The answer comes as Peter names ‘God’s own people’ as a ‘royal priesthood’.   Now, we b Baptists don’t have priests, like the Catholic Church does.   We can now see the failure of that all over the recent moral failures within the scandals of the American Catholic Priesthood.  No, we don’t have priests, because we don’t need priests.  We already have the “High Priest” who is Jesus Christ.   All we need is Pastors who shepherd us to become ‘priests to each other’, as great Baptist preacher Carlyle Maurney put it.  Because of God’s saving choice, and as when we learn to choose what God chooses, we become, as Peter says,  ‘a holy priesthood’ offering ‘spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’ (v.9). 

All this religious, Old Testament, priestly language, may sound archaic,  but we need to realize again, that our call to choose to ‘be priests to each other’ is at the very heart of what it means to be a biblical Christian.  This is what Baptists have always intended to emphasize in our understanding of the ‘the priesthood of all believers’.    God’s people Israel, were originally called to become a ‘perpetual priesthood’ (Ex. 40:15) as a ‘priestly nation’ (Ex. 19:6).  But when Israel wanted to be ‘like other nations’,  they choose ‘politics’ of ‘priesthood’, rejecting God to be their King (1 Sam 8:1ff).  Israel was not called to be or do like everyone else, but as God told Moses, ‘They are to obey my voice and keep my covenant” so they can be God’s treasured possession out of all the peoples.  “Indeed, the whole earth is mine,” God said to Israel, “but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:5-6 NRS).  Israel was chosen to have a different purpose for the world, rather than be like the rest of the world. 

Now, however, with Israel’s rejection of Jesus, the mission of being a ‘royal priesthood’ has come to those who follow Jesus.  But guess what?  We also have to choose God’s choice of us too.   The mission is not automatically given to us, nor is the success of the mission, unless we learn to choose to want what God wants.  As God told Israel, ‘Indeed, the whole earth is mine’…(Ex. 19:6).  We too can choose to get involved in politics, or many other causes, purposes, or ‘desires of the flesh’ in this world  (1 Pet. 2:11). But God has called us to choose to be part of his saving purpose and his saving mission, but we have not only want what God wants, we have to choose to be the mission oriented people God wants us to become in Jesus Christ.    

The point in all this is that God always needs ‘a people’.   The saving, redemptive, and reconciling mission and ministry of God cannot be accomplished without ‘a people’.  This is why God chose Israel.  This is why God chose Jesus.  And this is also why God ‘choses’ us ‘to be a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.’  Even God cannot do His saving work without ‘a people’.  God has shown his saving ‘mercy’ to us, not just to save us, but to reveal his mercy and save more and more. 

Finally, notice the great reason God’s chooses people.  Peter says, “You are a chosen race….in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light…. (9).   Peter’s point is clear: God’s salvation and God’s light come to you to share with others. 

Of course, the question of our age is not, whether or not we are ‘chosen’, but what are the ‘mighty acts of him’?   It is becoming more and more difficult for even the most devout Christian or believer to see the need of God in this world.  Recently, I read of a major evangelist’s son,  Bart Campolo, who traveled with his evangelist Father all over the world, even starting his own gospel outreach ministry among the poor, who recently left ‘faith’ or ‘belief’ in God altogether.  He now works as a Humanists minister, doing everything he did before, ‘without need of God’, he says.  Most interestingly, he explained that he did not ‘chose’ to leave his faith, but his faith left him.

Maybe the answer, ‘MY FAITH left me’ is most revealing.  When Peter said ‘to those ‘who believes’ (2:7), Jesus is still ‘precious’, concludes with ‘why’ Jesus and faith in God is still ‘precious’ to us.  We see in Jesus, and now in us, something God does, that we could never do on our own.  What is that?

Well, think about these terrible Hurricanes lately, Harvey and Irma.  People can lose faith in God, when they live through or consider the terrible wrath of such storms.  Such destructive powers can destroy most everything you consider ‘precious’.   But what if what is most ‘precious’, goes beyond the things loss in such a great catastrophe?  What if, in a great storm, maybe even in a spiritual ‘hurricane’, you discover something even more precious than your own life?   A good example is what I heard during the coverage of Hurricane Harvey from Houston.  They interviewed a black man who was using his boat, or truck to help rescue people.  He said, and I quote: “I’ll keep on trying to save people until ‘this thing blows over.’  Did you catch that?  In the midst of the worst of times is revealed the best of people!  And do you know something else, ‘this ‘thing’ hasn’t blown over yet.  Life still needs those who are ‘chosen’ to ‘choose’ to become whom God has chosen them to be.

Today, ‘until this thing called life blows over’,  we are God’s chosen people just like Israel is.  In the midst of all ‘the wars’ still waging against body and ‘soul’ (11), we are God’s chosen to ‘proclaim’ in word and deed, what this ‘marvelous light’ from God now means.  As the song says, “It only takes a spark, to get a fire going.”   One single person can be ‘spark’ the fire for the God who is love and the source of our life.  Will you be that spark?  Will you show and share that light?  How do you choose? Amen.

Sunday, September 10, 2017


 A sermon based upon Acts 10: 34-48
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
14th Sunday After Pentecost, September 10th, 2017,    (Series:  THE MISSIONARY CHURCH)

You’ve probably heard the joke about a kindergarten teacher who was observing her classroom while they drew pictures. Occasionally, she would walk around the room to see each child’s work.
“What are you drawing?” she asked one little girl, working diligently at her desk.
The girl replied, “I’m drawing God.”
The teacher paused and said, “But no one knows what God looks like.”
The little girl replied, “They will in a minute.” 

What does God look like?   How do, should you, should we, imagine God?   Way back in 1961, Anglican minister J.B. Philips wrote a book entitled, “Your God is Too Small.”
His point was simple, yet profound: Too many Christians have a view of God that is way ‘too small’.   Philips wrote about both ‘destructive’ and constructive ways to understand God.   Destructively, we limit God by imagining God like a ‘policeman’, a ‘grand old man’, someone who thinks like our ‘parents’, or some like a ‘pale’ wimpy Galilean.    These kinds of images make God more like our image, rather than our image like God’s image. 

The second part of Philip’s book points to more ‘adequate’ understandings of God.  He suggests we should imagine God by focusing on what God focuses on.  We should try to image, not what God looks like, but what God desires and does.  The primary focus of the biblical God, he suggests, is on the beauty that is more than skin deep, a goodness that is good for everybody, and the truth that is always rooted and grounded in love. (See “Your God is Too Small”, by J.B. Phillips, 1961). 

J.B. Philips insights about imagine the true God echoed what the great little prophet Micah once wrote: “He has told you, o mortal what is good and what the Lord requires: to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).   We best imagine God, by what he desires and what we should do.  But if we are not careful, we can still succumb to our very human tendency to ‘put God in a box’.  At time, Christians have mistakenly put God in a Catholic box, an Anglican box, a Methodist Box or a Baptist box.  Today some still put God into their own, non-denominational box, or even only in a Christian  or a merely ‘religious’ box, even though it was a non-Christian, Jewish prophet named Isaiah who told us that God’s way are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts (Isa. 55:8).  It has always been an occupational hazard for humans to try to imagine God without limiting God. 

What we are given in our Bible is never an image, nor even one ‘picture’ of God.  Instead, we are given a story of how Israel’s God is at work in our world through Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit and the Church.  In our text today from Acts 10, we see how God was at work stretching the spiritual imagination of Simon Peter.  The Holy Spirit led Peter to Joppa to an Italian soldier’s house, whose name was Cornelius.   Unbeknownst to Peter, God was already at work in this non-Jewish man’s life in ways that Peter would never have imagined on his own.  

What we see is this story is that Cornelius was a good,  God-fearing man, but he wasn’t Jewish and he knew little about being ‘Jewishly’ religious.   In short, Cornelius was a Gentile, a pagan, an outsider, one of ‘them’, or even as the man Jesus called them, he was another one of those Gentile ‘dogs’, just like the described to the Canaanite woman.  For the most part, Gentile dogs were ‘unclean’ and unworthy  to have God’s food, meant for his own children, thrown to them (Mark 15:27).   

But now, in this text, after the life of Jesus, but through the Spirit of Jesus, God is still at work, doing even ‘greater works’ based on what Jesus did.   Even Jesus himself didn’t show us ALL of God.  Some Christians may not want to imagine this, but God the Father, who ‘sent the Son’ is ‘one’ with the Son, but he is still to be distinguished from the Son.  As one of my teachers once taught me, “Jesus takes us right to the ‘heart’ of who God is, but even Jesus, as God’s Son, didn’t show us all there is to God. “ On the cross, Jesus finished what God sent him to do, but Jesus never finished what God has sent the Spirit to call and commission us to do.   With God there is always more.  Can you imagine that?

This story about God revealing himself as ‘more’ that who we imagine God to be, goes all the way back to one of the very first stories of the Bible.  It was when people were still living in small, family tribes, rather than in big people groups or nations.   Even way back then, the true God was a God who was bigger and larger than the people who was working with and working through. 

And this understanding of a God who always stretches the human imagination continues to haunt the Bible’s story, right up to the New Testament story of Jesus and the Birth of the Church.   If God’s people had ever settled on making God only ‘their God’, God would have become a ‘God too Small’ or only a ‘God in a certain kind of box’, as he still is in many minds today.   However, the biblical God, the true God, Israel’s God, and the God of Jesus Christ, has always been a God who is, as one philosopher has said,  is the one who is ‘greater than can be conceived.’ As I learned in Christian philosophy class, only when God is the one who is ‘greater than can be conceived”, God is and remains, God (based on Anselm). 

Turn to Genesis 12 and read in the first three verses how the true God is a God who is always more, always stretching the human imagination, and always taking God’s people on a journey to more, not less.  You remember the story.  It’s the story of the call of Abraham.   Read this brief word again and consider how God was leading Abraham to God’s more; more of God, more for Abraham, and more for the world. 
Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.
 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (Gen. 12:1-3 NRS).

The message of ‘more’ in this text is not confusing.  It is the simple message of the God who calls Abram to ‘Go….to the land’ he will be shown, so that God can ‘bless’ Abraham, making Abraham a ‘great nation’ so that Abraham  can also ‘be a blessing.’  Those who ‘bless’ Abraham’s faith, will be ‘blessed’.  The goal is that ‘all the families of the earth shall be blessed’.  Now, that’s a lot of ‘more’ for a little tribe given a desert land on the back side of nowhere.   How could something like this ever be possible?  How could the ‘faith’ of one person end up becoming a way to ‘bless’ ‘all the families of the earth?

Back in 1990, after I had decided to become a missionary to work with ‘The Foreign Mission Board’ (now International Mission Board) of the ‘Southern Baptist Convention,’ I felt I needed all the preparation I could get.  I knew that Southern Baptists could prepare we well, but I wanted to know what other mission groups were doing and had done.  I chose to go for a week of training at the “Overseas Mission Learning Center” located in New Haven, Connecticut.   It was located at Yale Divinity School and part of my time there was to do some mission research in the Yale Divinity Library, one of the largest missionary libraries in the United States. 

I’ll never forget my surprise, not only about being in that grand library, but about trying to find a book about on to be a faithful Missionary.  There were thousands of volumes of books by missionaries doing all kinds of scientific experiments, social work, and many other kinds of humanitarian work around the world.  But there was very little to be found about ‘how’ to do missionary work.   What was there, in tons of old books, was a record of how through the years, almost since the beginning of the United States, missionary after missionary, from almost every main denomination, had gone into the world, risking their lives and giving their lives, all in the name of Jesus, not to simply build churches or make the world more ‘religious’ (that too), but to ‘bless the world’ in whatever way they were gifted to do, all in Jesus’ name.   At first I was taken aback, thinking that this was all wrong.  But the more I read, the more I learned, the more I came to realize that this was exactly what Jesus would do.  Jesus would not have gone into the world to ‘make a name’ for himself, but Jesus would have gone into the world to be a blessing.  Jesus would have helped, have healed, and have rescued and saved people, by blessing them in the name of the one, true God.    That is what I learned that it meant to be a missionary.  It is the same now, as it was since Abraham; God calls his people to be ‘blessed’ and ‘to be a blessing’.   God’s people are always looking for how God is up to more; how they can ‘be blessed’ so that they can ‘be a blessing.’

The next great advancement in the human understanding of this God is ‘more’ and is always doing ‘more’, come from the writing of the greatest Hebrew Prophet, Isaiah.  Isaiah’s prophecies not only span the life of the prophet, they go beyond his life.   Even Jesus based his own calling and ministry on Isaiah’s words.

There are many important images of God, and the ‘more’ that God was up to, in the writings of Isaiah, but perhaps the first one was most important.   It was how the prophet came to understand God’s calling upon his own life.   In the year that his ‘King’ named Uzziah died,  Isaiah says that he ‘saw the Lord siting on a throne’.   In that vision he heard God’s declared to be, “Holy, Holy, Holy”.  He then realized that before God he was ‘lost’, being someone with ‘unclean lips’ living among people unclean ‘lips’ and lives.   Still, the next word he heard is most amazing.  This holy God does not destroy Isaiah, but he calls and commissions Isaiah, calling out with his own voice, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”   It was Isaiah who answered this call, saying, “Here am I, send me!”   (Isa. 6:1-8). 

My wife will tell you that this is one of my favorite texts in the Bible.  I preached from it in Revival meeting after Revival meeting, in the first years I was preaching.   The title of my message was, “Why God to Church?, which I picked up from a very great preacher. What this text taught me, and should teach us still, is all the right ingredients of true worship of God; including seeking God, confessing sin, answering God’s call to take God’s message to the world. 

But what is behind all that is going on in this text is not simply what God was asking Isaiah or us to do.  The main ‘message’ of this text is what God was doing when he called his prophet.   The kind of God that called and commissioned Isaiah is the same God who also sent his son Jesus.   This God is the God who is always moving forward, always calling people to more, always loving more people, and who is already at work to and ready to do more through those who will serve him, right now.   

This ‘more’ that God is ready to do is exactly why Jesus chose to read from a text from Isaiah, chapter 61, when he began his public ministry.   Turn in your Bible and you can read for yourself what this ‘more’ is, that Jesus came to do.  As you read it, let it surprise you a bit, just like I was ‘surprised’ when I went through Yale’s mission library.  Can you see or hear it?   According to Luke, Jesus read:  "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,      19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."    20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.     21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."   (Lk. 4:18-21 NRS).

After Jesus announced to the people in his own ‘hometown’ that ‘the Spirit of the Lord’ was upon him to do ‘more’, do you know what happened next?   They ran him out of town and they even tried to kill him, their own home town boy.  When he read the Bible and said, “Let’s do this” more than God has called, not just me, but us to do, they would rather have murdered Jesus, then and there, than have answered God’s call in their lives, or even realized God’s call on his life.   In short, they preferred to have “God” in their box, than to have a God who was alive and well and at work in their midst, calling and having his “Spirit’ upon one of their own.

What about us?   Are we ready for the God who calls us to do ‘more’ and to ‘be more?’  Are we any more ready for the God who shows us the ‘more’ we can do and the ‘more’ we can be?   And this ‘more’, as we also see in Isaiah, and in Jesus too, more than anyone else, is not just a ‘more’ for us, but it is also a ‘more’ for others too.  The God who calls to ‘bless us’ is always about us being a ‘blessing’ to others too.  In the life of Jesus, as Luke continued to describe it, we see this ‘blessing’ only beginning to open up, as Jesus sent his own disciples, 70 of them on their very first mission task.  We call it ‘The Mission of the Seventy’, as told in Luke 10.   This was another one of my favorite texts to preach on, when the Seventy return to Jesus, rejoicing that ‘Lord, in your name, even the demons submit to us!”   Jesus then announces his own vision:  “I saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening” (10:18), affirming that he has given them ‘authority’ over ‘all the power of the enemy’

 But an even greater reason they should rejoice, Jesus adds, is because, by becoming God’s missionaries and doing God’s ‘more’, they ‘know that their names are written in heaven’ (10:20).   The only true affirmation or assurance of knowing the true God or of having the truth of God in us, is when we want the same ‘more’ that God wants.  Recently, I read that in the early church, after Easter, they used to have parties to celebrate the trick that God played on the devil, as God raised Jesus from the dead.  The joke was put on the devil because when the devil thought God’s work ended, it was really just started.  By raising Jesus, and sending Jesus’ disciples into the world to preach the ‘good news.’ God beat the devil at his own game.   This is a great trick, but the joke falls back on us, not just the devil, if we don’t keep taking this ‘good news’ to the world.    This brings us back finally, to our text in the book of Acts.  

After doing this quick survey of the Bible’s story, which is also the gospel’s story,  we need to come to ‘understand’ exactly what Peter came to understand.   Our text explains that as Peter witnessed God as work in a stranger, an outsider, a Gentile and a pagan who ‘feared God’,  this is when Peter came to understand something more and most important about God.   Peter came to understand that among peoples of the world, God shows ‘no partiality’ (vs. 34).

Now, this new ‘understanding’ has big ramifications, both for Peter’s understanding of God and for Peter, and the rest of the disciples of Jesus too.   This means that God is not limited by one group of people, one religion, or one understanding of God.   The true God of the Bible is more than anyone humans have ever understood.  As Peter explained,  “in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable….”   This means that Jesus came ‘preaching peace’ not just among the nations, but also among the ‘religions’ and the ‘religious’.   This also means that Jesus is ‘Lord of all’, not because he is denouncing love found in anyone else, but because Jesus came to reveal a God who is love, and God’s kind of love is always more, never less.

But the most important ‘understanding’ of this God who is more is that “he commanded us to testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”   The point Peter is making is the point I want to make to us today.   The God who is always more, is a missionary God, who calls us to be a missionary people to people everywhere.   This does not mean that we are better than anyone else, or that Jesus puts down anyone who loves and fears God.  What it does mean is that if we want to be more, do more, we must understand, love, serve, and ‘testify about him’  and to envision and obey this God who is more, because he is a God who wants to do more through us.  

Our God is a missionary God.  If we are not on mission with him, then whose “Spirit’ do we have?   If our God is not at heart, a missionary God, then our God too, is a God who is too small.  This ‘too small God’ is never a Great God, because he is a ‘dead’ God.  He is a God who was dead, even before you ever tried to take him out of your box.  He was ‘dead’ because he is only in YOUR BOX.  

So, if you want a ‘living God’,  will you join Abraham, Isaiah, Jesus, and Peter, and Paul too, to follow the God who can take your out of your shell, and give you the more you could never have with a God in a box?   I hope you will.   No, I know you must.   Only a missionary God is the God of more, who can be ‘the judge of the living and the dead’ (v. 42).  Amen.