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Sunday, October 29, 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 8, 2017

“Peace Be With You”

A sermon based upon John 20: 19-23
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
19th Sunday After Pentecost, October 29th,    (Series:  THE MISSIONARY CHURCH)

Twice, in today’s text, the risen Christ greets his disciples with the word, “Peace”.   This is unusual, because up to this point, the earthly Jesus has never used this greeting in any of the gospels.   While Jesus had instructed his disciples on their mission to say “Peace to this house” (Lk. 10:5), here we can clearly see that ‘peace’ was a unique priority of the risen Christ. 

Doesn’t this mean that ‘peace’ should be the priority of the church too?  When the apostle Paul was writing his magnum opus to the Romans, he made special emphasis of the ‘peace’ Christ gives to those who trust him:  “Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…. (Rom. 5:1ff).  The kind of ‘peace’ Paul means is the kind only a risen Lord can give.   It is a ‘peace’ that gives us direct access to God’s grace ‘by faith’.    Listen to how Paul puts it in unmistakable terms to the Romans: “God has poured his love into our hearts by his Holy Spirit….” (Rom. 5: 5). “Christ died for the ungodly” (5:6).   “Even while we were sinners, Christ died for us…” (5:8). “We have been justified by his blood…. [We] will be saved…from God’s wrath” [9], “We were reconciled to God…” [10].  

Did you catch the verb tense of the language here? “We have been…We will be….We were…”?    All ‘three verb tenses’ of our salvation are represented: the past-what God has already accomplished; justification and reconciliation which carries into the present as righteousness and sanctification (Rom. 6.9).  Then Paul speaks of the future-what God will one day complete—our full redemption and glorification (8:17-30).  But there is even ‘more’ (v. 10) being said here, which Paul calls “much more”.  Consider verse 10 in its entirety: “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, MUCH MORE SURELY, having been reconciled, WILL WE BE SAVED BY HIS LIFE.”    Jesus not only saves us by his death on the cross, but Jesus will save us by the ‘life’ he lived.    It’s not either or, but both and.  It is not only Christ’s ‘death’ that saves, but salvation is not complete until we join in living a Christ-centered ‘life’ which promises more life to come.    What kind of ‘life’ is this?  How does life ‘in Christ’ bring us the peace and promise of more life?

Our text has the disciples meeting the risen Christ for the first time.   Peter and John had witnessed the empty tomb and the neatly rolled up grave clothes, but Jesus wasn’t there.   A weeping Mary Magdalene had informed Peter about the empty tomb, but only later did she report having ‘seen the Lord’ (18), but it was not until that first Easter Sunday evening, John says, that Jesus finally appeared among his disciples.  They were all together, except Thomas, but were hiding behind ‘lock doors’ (19).  They were still hiding because of their ‘fear of the Jews’ who had crucified Jesus.   But it was through all that ‘fear’ and even through those ‘locked doors’ too, that the risen Jesus came wishing them ‘peace’.
This ‘peace’ became real, not merely by seeing Jesus, but when ‘he showed them his hands and his side’ (20).  In other words, God’s peace is passed to them through the ‘stigmata’; the sign of the crucified Christ.   As Paul said, ‘we have been justified by his blood…(Rom 5:9) and ‘we were reconciled…through the death of his Son….(Rom. 5:10).  What Jesus was ‘showing’ them was ‘proof’ of their reconciliation with God.  Now, through the risen Christ, God offers them the peace and power they need to transcend their situation.  They didn’t need to fear the ‘Jews,’ nor do they have to ‘fear’ the ‘wrath of God’ (Rom. 5:9).   The ‘hands’ and ‘side’ of the crucified one ‘proves God’s love’ and gives peace (Rom. 5:8).  

Living in God’s peace is the priority of the risen Jesus.   So, “If God is for us, who can be against us”? (Rom. 8:31), Paul wrote.   It is not simply the words of Jesus, but it is also God’s work in Jesus that peace comes.   Jesus overcame ‘sin and death’ (Rom 8:2) and now his disciples will gain ‘life and peace’ (Rom. 8:6) because they can overcome any situation.   The risen Jesus comes with this new kind of ‘peace’.   It is the ‘peace’ that ‘the world cannot give’.   As Jesus told them, ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give as the world gives.  Don’t let your hearts, be troubled….do not let them be afraid….’ (Jn. 14.27), ‘I have overcome (or conquered) the world! (Jn. 16:33).   Thus, this is not mere Sunday greeting of peace, but this is the ‘greeting’ for a whole new way to look at life and death.

Recently, I visited one of my cousins in Statesville, who lost her husband last year.  I had not been able to get to the funeral home, and this was the first time I’d seen her since his death.   She told me about his passing.  He had been released from the hospital and he was sitting in his chair.   He felt hot.  He wanted me to fan him.  Then, he made a loud noise.  Just like that, she said, he was gone.  When I called 911, they told me to try to do CPR.   I couldn’t get him on the floor.  Then, when EMS arrived, they also tried to revive him.  But it was too late.  He had already died right in his chair.

We all could live in ‘fear’ of what might happen, what will happen, or what has already happened.   Because of what ‘happens’ to us in life, we could live the rest of our lives behind ‘locked doors’.   But the Risen Christ walks through ‘locked doors’ to bring us ‘peace’.   He comes not just to bring us peace in death, but also peace for life.    He does ‘not give as the world gives’, but he gives us His peace is a unique life-giving way.   Can you see it?

Jesus gives his ‘disciples’ peace not by taking all their ‘fears’ or ‘frustrations’ away, but Jesus puts a greater purpose into their lives:  “As the Father has sent me, so I send you….”  Rather than taking away all their fears, Jesus replaces and displaces them with resolution and determination.   Jesus ‘sends’ them into the world on God’s mission. 

But what Kind of peace can come from this?  In another place Jesus told his disciples, “I’m sending you as sheep among wolves… (Matt. 10:16, 10:3).   This is definitely not an ‘easy’ mission.   Jesus has spoken of ‘persecution’, and even ‘peril or sword’ (Rom 8.35).    This is not some kind of refreshing ‘holiday’ or ‘vacation’ volunteer mission trip experience.   This is to be the ‘way’ and the ‘future’ of the rest of their lives.   Being sent on mission is the way of God’s ‘peace’, that is not ‘as the world gives’.   This is ‘my peace’, Jesus says.  It is God’s peace—which is a peace the world can’t give or guarantee.  It is the kind of peace that comes from the purpose in life that only God’s work and purpose can give.  

Do you recall that crazy cult classic movie ‘The Blues Brothers’?  They constantly said throughout the movie, ‘We’re on a mission from God’.   They wanted to put their ‘Blues Brothers’ band back together:  “For me and the Lord,”  the John Belushi character said, “we’ve got an understanding.  We’re on a mission from God….   This bigger than any domestic problem you’ve got…this is a holy thing….We’re on a mission from God…. There’ not gonna catch us… We’re on a mission from God….  The Lord works in mysterious ways….Yeap!      Now this was just a ‘movie’, but the language they were using is the language of the Bible, and the language of mission, which brings ‘peace’ through answering the call to mission, no matter how difficult or the cost.

Jesus came not calm the storm, but he came to give us the kind of peace comes even while we are in the storm.   Jesus told Peter that the church is to intentionally cause a storm by ‘storming’ the gates of Hades and Hell with the saving truth of Jesus Christ (Matt. 16: 18).   “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades (Hell) will not prevail against it.”  This text is not simply saying church cannot die, but it is saying something much more dramatic.  It is saying, as one translation puts it, that “The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it’ (CEB).  It is ‘death’ and ‘hell’ are to live in fear, not the church that is on the mission of God in the world.  Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the victory over death and hell has already been accomplished.

This is exactly the kind of peace my cousin found, after she lost her life-long husband.  This is the kind of peace that keeps her meeting with friends, being faithful in church, loving her children, and talking about her grandchildren, included the one is currently on a full scholarship to study political science at Wake Forest, and is currently working for a Semester in Washington D.C.   She has found the peace to remain involved by trusting, healing, hoping, and moving on in Jesus’ name.   Death did not overtake her, but she overcame death.   

When we are facing the unknown or taking on the world, we have the peace, the assurance, and the promise that no matter what we go through, God is at work, and that ‘all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8.28).’   Did you get the ‘called according to his purpose’ part?   The peace of God is not automatic, but it is conditioned on answering the ‘call’ and ‘mission’ of God in our lives.     Like a soldier who is sent into battle, we march straight into the conflict and warfare, on this mission that helps us transcend our life and fears.   The cause of God we answer is bigger than any fear, real or imagined, which we might have.

Do you recall that powerful scene in the more sensible, true story of Desmond Doss, an Adventist Christian who answered the call to sign up and serve in World War II?   Desmond was a conscientious objector, who believed it was not God’s will for him to carry a weapon.  But Desmond still wanted to serve.   His brother had already signed up.  All his friends signed up.  However, Desmond’s father, who was a decorated War Hero from the Great War, and lost most of his friends in battle, did not want his son to go.  But Desmond had to go.  “This is something I must do….I could not live with myself if I don’t go.”  Desmond Doss, found his ‘peace’, even while serving on a battlefield, as a medic, rescuing others.   He had risked his own life over and over, caring not for his own life.  The other soldiers in his platoon, had laughed at him for not being willing to carry a gun.   But now, after Desmond had pulled many of them off of the battlefield, no one is laughing.  

In one scene, they are about to go up on the ‘hacksaw’ ridge once more.  They are commanded to go, but nobody is movie.  The colonel in charge is outraged.  “Why aren’t they going?”   The captain answers back.  “They are waiting all waiting on Desmond.”  “They are what?”   “They are waiting on Desmond to pray for them.”  They may not all believe the way Desmond believes, but they all respect the belief that Desmond has, and they want him to pray for them before they go back on that ridge and no that they will probably not return.   They did not have the ‘belief’, but they all needed the ‘peace’ that Desmond had. 

Nowhere does the risen Christ impart God’s peace, unless his disciples are participating in God’s mission.    And it is the same for us.   There is no ‘peace with God’ by only accepting what Jesus did.   We will be saved by his ‘life,’ not just his death. 

In the New Testament saving faith is never merely accepting an idea.  Saving faith, James said, ‘apart from works’, that is, apart from participating in God’s work, does not work and does not save (James 2: 18-26).   The peace God gives is imparted to us as we follow Jesus in God’s mission in the world.  Just as there is no salvation through our works (Eph 2:9), ‘faith without works’ that participate in God’s mission ‘is dead’ (James 2:26).

This is why, as Jesus sent his disciples on mission, he ‘breathed’ on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit!”     It this ‘Holy Spirit’ who not only grants peace, but who also gives the power to accomplish God’s mission.   Here, finally, John points to specific life-saving mission of the church—the power to ‘forgive’ or ‘retain’ sins (23).  

This charge is repeated twice in the gospel of Matthew with similar words and Luke’s gospel also refers to it, as the preaching of ‘repentance and remission of sins to all nations…(Luke 24:47).   Even though Mark may have been written too early to formulate this with such clarity (see Mark 16:15),  it is Mark who gave us best picture of Jesus’ daring to ‘forgive the sins’ of a man who was both physically and religiously paralyzed (Mark 2:1ff).   The religious leaders countered that ‘only God could forgive sins,’ but Jesus made his point by forgiving the man’s sins anyway, even without repentance or before God’s forgiveness was displayed on the cross. 

It is into this ‘drama’ of forgiveness that Jesus calls the church to its true mission.   This language of ‘forgiving’ and ‘retaining’ sins is a message the church cannot forget, even if it is not acceptable to the culture around us.  Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book, Speaking of Sin, tells about how her mother took her out of the Catholic Church, right after she was baptized as an 5 day old infant.  The priest spoke such terrible things about her baby, saying that the devil and sin was in her, and she needed the waters of baptism to wash it all out.  But her mother said, saying to herself that her baby was the best thing that ever happened, took Barbara out of the Catholic Church to a Methodist Church, where they never heard ‘sin’ mentioned once. 

Yet, as Barbara came of age and started going to Baptist youth group where she heard a more biblical word, she began to realize that that there were some very important things being said in church, that no one else the power or mission to say.   The law speaks of crimes; medicine speaks of sickness, which are both accurate ways of speaking; but if the church loses its voice to speak of sin, then God’s voice for salvation will be lost, and so will the world eventually lose hope to be challenged and to change.   

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus called the church’s mission to preach, teach and challenge the world’s sin, ‘the keys to the kingdom’.   Have you ever lost your keys, car keys, house keys, or safety deposit box keys?  When you misplace your car keys, you have this nice, shiny vehicle, a motor on wheels, just outside the door, but there is no way to get it going, or to go anywhere in it, until that is, you find your keys.   In the same way, when the church loses it’s primary calling and mission, it’s spiritual, saving mission to name, listen for, forgive, and even to retain sins, then the church only becomes a nice building with nice people, but going nowhere fast.  Whereas the church has many ministries, like feeding the poor, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned; it only has one mission.  This one mission is the ‘key’ to everything else we do.   If we are not confessing our sins and receiving God’s forgiveness for our sins, then we have lost the key.

Of course, to take the mission of naming sin and forgiving sins seriously, we have to name and confess our own sins first.  This is never easy to do, but this is where the mission begins, as Scripture says, ‘Judgement begins at the house of the Lord’.   I’ll never forget how this became the realization of a church in Greensboro.  We had been discussing having a consultant come and help us design a Family Life Center.  Before that, the deacons and I had spoken about how many names were on our church rolls, but most of the people where nowhere to be found.  We had over 1,000 members on roll, but less than 160 were attending our church.   I suggested that we start making calls and figure who wanted to stay on the rolls.  Many of them, where probably already passed on to glory, or had moved to Florida.  The deacons let it drop, like a lead balloon.  Later, when the consultant was figuring out how much to charge our church for his services to make a drawing of our new Family Life Center, he said that he would figure his fee based upon how many ‘resident’ members we had.  We still had over 1,000.  Everyone on the deacon board took a deep breath when they realized only 160 people, and maybe less would be paying the bill for over a 1,000 members.

This is also what will happen when the church loses the key, its voice and its only mission to speak of and forgive sins.  When we fail to pass on our mission to our children and continue to speak of sin in our culture, we are just waiting, even begging to pay the price of what will happen in our homes, our churches, our communities, in our nation and in our world.   The reason speaking of sin is so important, is not so that God can judge us, but so that we can fully receive God’s forgiveness and be changed and challenged by God’s offer of peace.   For you see, the language of sin is not the language of medicine, nor is it the language of civil law, because it goes deeper than both.   Sin is the language of the human soul that takes us back to the time when we stood ‘naked’ before God’s truth.   We can only find ‘peace’ this deep, when we go this deep, and we will only go this deep, when we confess and receive God’s forgiveness where only we and God can go.   

This is where the preaching of the gospel tries to take you each and every Lord’s day.   The preaching of sin is to take you to God’s altar, where the price of sin has already been fully paid,  and where you can find peace, not by walking away, but by continuing to confess your sins and by being sent by the Holy Spirit into the world to take this life, saving message of peace.  

Even if you are not a preacher, or a teacher, you take part in supporting this saving message, not just by saying Amen, but by getting to the point, and helping others get to the main point of all we do.  The main point is of both the crucified Jesus and the resurrected Christ is the ‘forgiveness of sins:  “God has poured his love into our hearts by his Holy Spirit….” “Christ died for the ungodly” (5:6).   “Even while we were sinners, Christ died for us…” (5:8). “We have been justified by his blood…. [We] will be saved…from God’s wrath” [9], “We were reconciled to God…” [10]  and finally, when we join in God’s mission, we gain God’s peace in a way we never thought possible.  In is only then that we realize, we are just as much being saved by participating in his ‘life’ as we have already been saved by his death.   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.