Great Commission

Who Are You?

"John the Baptist," icon in Kiev Museum, public domain.

“John the Baptist,” icon in Kiev Museum, public domain.

John 1:6-8, 19-28

The Jewish leaders sent messengers to ask John the Baptist a straightforward question: “Who are you?”

Having drawn crowds of Jews with his preaching and his call to repentance, he answered their real, unasked question, Are you the Messiah?, by simply assuring them he was not the savior prophecy had predicted. The messengers pressed John the Baptist, however, finally leading him to quote Scripture as his answer.

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the Prophet Isaiah said.”

We largely remember John as looking like a wild man, dressed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey. Set aside to serve God from the moment he was conceived, he usually is depicted in art with uncut hair and beard, roaming the desert wasteland most of his life until he drew near civilization to declare the beginning of Jesus Christ’s ministry.

To understand John the Baptist, we have to read his story in all four gospels. In Luke, we learn John the Baptist was a miracle child in whom the Holy Spirit dwelled even before he was born. He leaped in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice, capable of recognizing the presence of the Messiah.

We also understand from Luke that Jesus and John the Baptist were related through their mothers, cousins separated in age by only six months. We can only speculate whether they spent much time together. Luke also tells us John the Baptist grew up in the wilderness, meaning he may have lived part or all his life as a hermit prophet, possibly among a sect of Jews known as the Essenes.

When John the Baptist began his adult ministry as recorded in all four gospels, he preached a fiery call that the people should repent of their sins in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. Ultimately, Jesus came to John to be baptized in the Jordan river, that great symbol of God’s promises and new beginnings.

It is here we really see John’s humility, rooted in his clear understanding of his role in the universe. John initially resisted Jesus’ request, saying Jesus should baptize him. At Jesus’ prodding, John finally relented and performed the act. Jesus’ servant ministry was launched in humble solidarity with people craving righteousness and holiness in their lives.

As John’s story proceeds alongside Jesus’ story, the ministry of the messenger fades as the ministry of the Messiah burns more brightly. There is no earthly glory for John, no story of victory in this life. Ultimately, he died an ignominious death, his severed head presented to a dancing girl and her wicked mother.

How different John the Baptist’s story seems from ours. And yet, Christians, how similar our calling is to his.

If we are ultimately to emulate Jesus, striving to have the attitude of John the Baptist is a good start. I don’t mean we have to wear itchy clothing and roam the desert eating bugs, or die a martyr. It helps us all greatly, however, if we can keep God’s great plan before us and find our role in it.

John the Baptist existed for one reason, to declare the coming of the messiah. Again, in this Advent season we’re being reminded that we, too, anticipate Christ’s return. The church and its members exist largely to “make straight the way of the Lord,” to call people to repentance so they are ready to meet their savior.

How we do this requires John-like humility and a little artfulness. Humility helps keep us holy; to quote Proverbs 16:18, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Any good work we do can quickly dissolve when mixed with sin. Just think Bill Cosby if you don’t understand what I mean.

Artfulness in relationships and communication comes with prayer and practice. It also helps to trust that God’s Spirit can shape us and others in ways we thought we never could be shaped.

Who are you? Regardless of how you may appear to others, or whether you meet worldly definitions of success, you are a child of God, saved by Christ from eternal death because of God’s love for you. So are all the people you meet. Let them know.

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The Invitation

Romans 10:5-15 (NRSV)

“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Amen to that. It doesn’t matter what your feet actually look like—when they arrive carrying you, the bearer of the message of Jesus Christ, they are going to seem beautiful to the person who finds eternal life through your words.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, some of what I write here today has been written on this site before. I want to get it down in a new way, however. In particular, I want the new congregation I serve to hear it.

In our Scripture reading today, Paul uses what now sounds like elaborate language to communicate some core points about Christianity. Salvation, he tells us, is a matter of believing Jesus is Lord and then confessing that belief openly. Salvation is for all; God doesn’t distinguish among types of sinners.

Someone has to make the declaration, however. Once-thirsty people have to tell the parched how to find the living water. Otherwise, the parched will die.

As church people, we have to get this concept, and then we have to live it. When we fail, we stop being the church. We instead become the equivalent of a Ruritan Club operating under a Christian name.

I’m going to give you a basic strategy for Luminary UMC, one rooted in Paul’s words. It’s a big-picture strategy, and it should drive every other decision we make.

Step 1: Stop inviting people to church. Never do that again. “Church” is perceived by the lost as a place, a building on a piece of ground. The people inside might even seem old or out of touch to many of the lost. It is just one of many places they may or may not choose to go.

Step 2: Start inviting people to a relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, known through his radical teachings and his sacrifice, is attractive to all when properly understood.

Every other appeal I might make would be rooted in this change in attitude. Understand the difference in these two invitations, and everything else we do as a church will fall into place.

Now, like I said, this is big-picture stuff. I have no doubt that many of you just said to yourselves, “I can’t do that,” or maybe even, “There’s no way I’m doing that—I’m not going to look like a fool.”

I understand. I’ve been there. I don’t have time today to teach you in full how to share Christ with others, but let me promise you this: It’s easier than it sounds. I learned, and I’ve never once felt I was embarrassed or perceived as weird while helping people learn who Jesus Christ is.

You know how to make friends, right? First, you simply need to be relational, to be open enough to get to know people and let people get to know you. It also helps to pray for a heart open to people different from you.

The next part is learning to talk naturally with others about your relationship with Jesus Christ. This is mostly about trusting that the Holy Spirit has arrived ahead of you in the person’s life—you simply have to follow God’s lead.

As I learned to tell others about Christ, I was astonished at how I mostly was in the position of answering questions. I’ve never had to be pushy or calculating; I’ve never forced my beliefs on anyone. People are hungry for some word from God, for some assurance that life is about more than 80 or 90 years in pursuit of stuff. Tell God you’re willing to be open about your relationship with him, and people will actually invite you to answer their questions.

Sometimes in a particular church, a few people embrace these ideas and remarkable events begin to happen. I saw this happen at Salem UMC, a church in Kingsport, near my last appointment.

For reasons that will become obvious, I wanted to get to know Salem’s pastor, Will Shewey. Will has since moved on to participate in a new church start in the Kingsport area.

Over a period of about four years, Salem’s average church attendance grew from 90 to well over 200, and most of that growth was from first-time professions of faith. For example, in the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost in 2013, Will baptized 26 people. Similar numbers have continued into this year.

Will said that people he had never met before would walk into his office asking for baptism. They had encountered one of Salem’s parishioners in one setting or another and found their way to life with Jesus.

“So you’ve got your people trained to evangelize?” I asked.

Will laughed. “I’ve got five or six who take it seriously,” he said.

That’s the kind of impact just a handful of people can have. Imagine a church where a significant percentage of the church’s members agree to do what Jesus called all of us to do—tell others about Christ.

I preach this message here at Luminary UMC expecting a very specific response. Will you be one of those people? Are you willing to learn? Will you let this new attitude become the basis for our decision making here?

If so, I’m willing to teach you, with full confidence that Christ will take care of a faithful church.

Action!: Wholeness for All, Now

James 5:7-20

As I was preparing for this Sunday, I had flood-damaged Buffalo Mountain Camp, and how Cassidy UMC can raise money to help, in mind. So, as you can see, I made a little camp scene in the sanctuary to remind us of the situation.

I ran into one problem, however. When I went to set up the tent, I discovered that the tent poles were not in the tent bag. A tent without poles is pretty useless. It is basically a puddle of polyester.

Often, we think of tension as a bad thing. Tension can be a good thing, however. Like a tent, our lives can be shaped by certain kinds of tension. The tension may even be what makes our lives livable.

During our series on James, we’ve been learning a lot about having faith in Jesus Christ, and then acting accordingly, trusting God’s power to help us. I’ve talked about the need to have a faith that shows fruit in terms of Spirit-driven works. I’ve also preached on the importance of how we speak to one another, and our need to keep our heads as much as possible in the present, that place where we can engage directly with God. Melissa brought us a wonderful personal testimony last Sunday, talking about how we find joy in the midst of turmoil.

In all of those ideas, there is tension, mostly the tension between what is broken and what is holy. At the end of his letter, James reminds us of the tension that exists in the universe right now, a tension Jesus Christ created by dying on the cross and then showing through the resurrection that sin and death have been beaten.

In other words, the world broken by sin is still broken, but healing has begun, and healing will come in full. “Strengthen your hearts,” James tells us, “for the coming of the Lord is near.”

A quick Greek lesson: the word we translate as “the coming” is parousia, and it’s one of those meaning-packed words that can be a little hard to translate in full. It’s about more than just arrival; it implies a full, complete presence that changes everything.

In the context of Christ’s return, we know it means all things will be set right. What troubles you will be undone in a way that it will never trouble you again. I don’t care what it is—the death of a loved one, abuse you may have experienced, or tragedy  that has scarred your life—the pain will go away. It is a moment that begins eternity, and it is a moment we all should crave, assuming we understand it as Christians should.

While not a Christian movie, the current film “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” has a character who lives by a philosophy that any Christian who understands parousia could embrace. “Everything will be all right in the end. So if it’s not all right, it’s not the end,” he says.

Implicit is a desire to move beyond where you are toward the end, which is the best place to be. Or maybe I should quote Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

James was speaking to an early Christian audience that was for the most part oppressed. Accepting Christ impacted their ability to find work, to worship as the Jews most of them continued to be, and to remain in relationship with their families. Sometimes, their beliefs cost them their lives. These people clearly craved Christ’s return—they wanted things to be all right, quickly.

Being separated from the earth-trodding Christ and his resurrection by nearly 2,000 years, we sometimes fail to have the early church’s sense that Christ could return at any moment, despite our theological need to hold on to the concept. (Just because Christ’s return hasn’t happened doesn’t change the fact that Christ could return at any time.) So we miss the tension of having to practice patience while at the same time living as if Christ truly is “standing at the doors.”

In the 13th verse, James takes this concept of parousia and turns it into practical advice about living. In many ways, he returns to some themes we covered when talking about living in the present a couple of weeks ago. If you’re suffering, pray—prayer is how we engage directly with God.

If you’re cheerful, sing songs of praise. Again, engage with God in the present moment, acknowledging that while Christ is coming in full at any moment, God also is present with us now via the Holy Spirit. And if you’re sick—well, that’s where we receive some particularly detailed advice.

Here, James’ advice is rooted in the communal nature of our faith. He tells us to seek healing in ways that require a group of Christians. We seek prayers from mature Christians around us; we receive anointing with oil as a symbol of the Holy Spirit’s presence, a presence that binds us all to the body of Christ.

And perhaps most interestingly (and strangely to Western culture) he ties confession of sin to healing, making a link between our spiritual health and our physical health. Churches with active small groups, where people can be intimate with each other and share details of their lives in confidence, generally function better than churches without such small groups for a reason. A biblical cycle of confession, repentance and forgiveness cleanses the communal body and clears a path for God’s grace to grow church members in holiness.

In this context, James closes with one last type of action we should consider. We not only receive healing, we pursue people in need of healing, particularly if they have been part of the body of Christ but have fallen into sin. This recommendation is along the lines of Christ’s Great Commission. We are more than passive recipients of grace. We carry grace to others, too.

Yes, Christ has yet to return, but we are to live as if he has, reminding others that wholeness is available now. James offers Christians a way of thinking that is both comforting and empowering.

Thy Will Be Done

The Book of Jonah

If you’ve not read it start to finish in awhile, I hope you’ll take time to immerse yourself in the story of Jonah. It’s just four chapters long, but those few pages in your Bible reveal much about what it means to say to God, “Thy will be done.”

The story opens with the prophet Jonah at home somewhere in Israel, hearing from God with the clarity most biblical prophets seem to experience. God gave Jonah a simple command: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”

Nineveh was to the east, in what is now the northern part of Iraq. (Its ruins are near the city of Mosul, where American troops fought so many battles in recent years.) It was one of the great cities of the Assyrian empire, a wonder to those who beheld it. Jonah had no doubt which direction Nineveh lay, yet Jonah headed west by sea, rather than east by land.

The story tells us Jonah went to the coast and got on a ship bound for Tarshish, a place not easily identified today. In the novel Moby Dick, the clergyman at the New Bedford Whaleman’s Chapel, Father Mapple, preaches on Jonah and asserts that Tarshish must have been a port in Spain, the farthest point west a Jew in Jonah’s day would have known. It’s not a bad notion—we’re told Jonah is trying to go “away from the presence of the Lord,” so what seemed like the end of the earth would have been a logical destination.

Storms soon began to worry the ship on its journey to Tarshish, however, to the point that the pagan crew cried out to their various gods. The captain implored Jonah to pray, too. They cast lots to determine who was the cause of the problem, and the throw of the dice showed it was Jonah.

And, very early in the story, Jonah began to understand that God was present regardless of how far Jonah ran or sailed. He admitted to the crew who he was and what he had done, and despite their initial reluctance, he convinced them to throw him in the sea. The sea immediately became calm.

This brings us to the part we know best from childhood: God sent a big fish to swallow Jonah. (Yes, it could have been a whale; the Hebrew word used in the story literally means a large fish, but the Jews would have used this word to include whales.) In the belly of this large sea critter, Jonah prayed a powerful psalm, in part acknowledging that God is everywhere, even capable of hearing one of his rebellious prophets trapped beneath the waves, “at the roots of the mountains.”

In response to this prayer, God had the fish vomit Jonah out somewhere on dry land. And Jonah once again heard his marching orders: “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” This time, Jonah headed in the right direction, presumably after cleaning himself up a little.

Once in Nineveh, Jonah preached his message. “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And here’s the twist we might not expect when reading this story the first time—those pagan, supposedly godless residents of sprawling Nineveh responded!

Even the king put on sackcloth and ashes and repented. He ordered everyone to do the same, and to fast. They went so far as to cover the livestock with sackcloth and withhold the animals’ food and water. The prayers, wails, bleating and lowing set up a din that had to reach to heaven.

God heard, and God relented from the destruction he had promised. And that, we learn, was precisely what Jonah feared would happen.

“O Lord!” he prayed. “Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Jonah was so bitter, he prayed that God might kill him. You see, the Israelites considered the people of Nineveh their enemy. The Jews had suffered terribly under Assyrian rule; Jonah had hoped for a scene of destruction worthy of Sodom and Gomorrah. And now, here was the God the Jews acknowledged, the God over all things, showing mercy to these people!

I said at the beginning that this story is important for anyone wanting to know what it means to say to God, “Thy will be done.” God’s will doesn’t always match our own. God is love; we often are a mixture of love, hate, anger, jealousy, and a whole other range of emotions and sinful desires that interfere with our ability to appreciate what God is doing in the world.

Here’s what I take away from the story of Jonah. I don’t want to be like Jonah. (I find it surprising the early church declared Jonah a saint.) I don’t want to run when God wants me to do what I might dislike, and I don’t want to be bitter when God clearly has had his way.

When my will fails to mesh with God’s will, I know I need to pray, “Thy will be done, and my will be changed.” Sometimes it’s hard to spit the words out, but I hope I grow to mean it more each day.

Christians actually find themselves in Jonah’s position on a regular basis. There is one command we should be able to hear clearly from God: Go into the world and make disciples of Jesus Christ. It is our Great Commission, yet often, we shrink from it, wanting to run west instead of east.

The task can seem too large, and the people we are called to reach with the message of Christ can be, well, not that likable. Maybe we don’t like their ethnicity, associating them with people who hurt us. Maybe we don’t like their lack of social graces or their lifestyle. But when such things bother us, our will is misaligned with the will of God.

May God reveal to us where our Ninevehs are, and may we have the strength to go there.