More Than Conquerors?

Romans 8:35-39

Introduction

We want God to bless this church. We want God to bless all the churches in our city and surrounding community. We want God to bless every church around the world that calls upon Jesus as Lord. But how do we know if this prayer is answered? How can we know if a church is blessed or not?

There are those who hold to a prosperity gospel, which states that among other things, that God’s blessings and revealed in abundant wealth and physical health. While many Christians reject this message of the televangelists that you need to be rich to be blessed, there are those who hold to what I call “prosperity light.”

Prosperity light is not so dogmatic as to say that God will make everyone rich and heal every disease or injury. But there is an assumption that as Christians, we deserve a certain level of comfort and power. This is manifested in different ways. For example, if you look at the influence the church had in our culture fifty years ago compared to today, things are much different. For some this is something to grieve as it’s felt that it is our right as a church to be the directing influence in culture. Our current marginalization feels unnatural to some.

Aside from political or cultural influence, there are other ideas of what a blessed church looks like. This includes plenty of resources, in terms of people and money. It includes popularity and comfort. It includes an experience that primarily makes us happy.

I’m not criticizing any of these things. They are nice when they are there. But that is not necessarily the picture that the New Testament gives. We don’t see a church that is rejoicing in its power and comfort.

Today, as we recognize the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, we are going to reflect on what a blessed church looks like. Is the persecuted church less blessed than we are? Is it the comfortable western church or the global persecuted church in the natural state for the Christian church? We will examine Paul’s teaching in Romans to sort through these questions.

Roman Church

It is important to provide some brief background to the church in Rome. This is helpful in general when looking at a passage, but is particularly relevant to our subject today.

The church at Rome probably started after the day of Pentecost when Jewish visitors from Rome became followers of Jesus in Jerusalem before returning to Rome. The first core group of Christians in Rome were Jewish Christians. At some point, Claudius, the Roman Emperor, expelled all the Jews from the city of Rome. This included the Jewish Christians. The Roman church needed to rebuild from the remaining few Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians. Eventually the Jewish Christians were able to return and rejoin their Gentile brothers and sisters.

So we see that some persecution was a part of the Roman church experience from the beginning. But if they thought Claudius was bad, Nero was much worse. There are accounts of Nero tying Christians to stakes and setting them on fire to light up his gardens. The Christians were not trusted because in their confession that Jesus was Lord, it was implied that Caesar was not Lord. The uncertain loyalty and the lack of influence made the Christians easy targets. Fast forwarding a bit, it would be in Rome that both Paul and Peter would be executed. Tradition tells us that Peter was crucified upside down and Paul was beheaded.

It is to this church that Paul writes these words of encouragement. He makes the audacious claim that we are more than conquerors. Not just conquerors, but more than conquerors. The problem is that we have to push out of our mind what we normally identify as victory. It is not about power or influence or comfort or wealth. He is talking about a church that is at the mercy of the Roman authorities and yet is still more than conquerors.

Our position has as its foundation not what the world considers to be power but in the love of Christ. Paul makes this amazing statement: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” (Romans 8:35) In case you are wondering, the answer is no these things cannot separate us from the love of Christ. And yet these are the things that make us doubt that love. When life falls apart we wonder if God has abandoned us or is punishing us. Many times I have heard people ask why God is allowing these things to happen.

Part of the confusion is based on our unconscious decision to embrace prosperity light. If we assume that God’s primary concern is our personal comfort, any difficulty is going to seem unnatural. But a comfortable and safe church is not the model that is presented in the New Testament.

I often read this passage in Romans at funerals because I believe that it has words of encouragement in our darkest hours. But I will confess that I usually leave out verse 36. “As it is written:“For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” (Romans 8:36) It doesn’t really lend itself to comforting families as they grieve. However, Paul included these words for a reason. They make us feel uncomfortable but they force us to remember that our faith is designed to thrive in the harshest situations rather than the easiest.

Persecuted Church

This brings up to the persecuted church. Many Christians think that the persecuted church is ancient history. Yes Christians were persecuted in the first few centuries but once the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, things have been easy. Nothing could be farther from the truth. There is more persecution of Christians going on right now than there has been at any other time in history. The killing of Christians by ISIS in Iraq and Syria is only the most obvious examples. Much more persecution is taking place and we should not interpret the media’s silence on this persecution as a sign that it is not taking place.

As Christians in Canada, we need to be clear what persecution is and what it is not. Someone may not like you wearing a cross around your neck. Someone may give you a dirty look when you say grace in a public restaurant. Friends or family may make fun of you for attending church. None of that is persecution. I’m not dismissing how that may make us feel, but it is not persecution.

Around the world, there are people who are dying for their faith. Making a choice to stand for Christ puts not only their own life on the line but that of their family as well. In some countries, economic sanctions are put on Christians, keeping them in poverty and limiting their opportunities. In some countries Christians must worship in secret. They may meet in homes as the government has shut down all public church buildings. That is persecution.

Are these churches blessed? While we may not be eager for that type of “blessing: in Canada, it actually is what Paul is talking about in Romans. Paul would much easier recognize the persecuted church around the world than the wealthy megachurch in the west.

I would like to share an observation that I have made while talking to skeptics. Supposedly, the problem of suffering is a devastating critique to the Christian God. Apparently a good and powerful God would not allow suffering in this life. My observation is that this complaint comes from comfortable, wealthy and healthy skeptics. It is the west with our prosperity light that we struggle with this tension.

When we look to the globe and the Christians who are being persecuted, we don’t find this same critique. In fact it is in the areas where Christian ministry is the most difficult that faith is the most vibrant the church is growing. The early Church Father Tertullian said the “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” That was true in the late second century when Tertullian wrote that and it is true today.

The persecuted church is the church that is more than conquerors. How can this be? It all comes down to who our Saviour is. Who is Jesus? Jesus is the crucified Saviour. Jesus is the one who was arrested, condemned, beaten and execute in the most shameful way possible. Jesus is the measure of faithfulness. How dare we think that comfort is the measure of blessing when our Saviour died in such a manner.

But this is not about suffering for the sake of suffering. It was through suffering that the ultimate victory over sin and death took place, There is the cross but there is the empty tomb as well. The suffering of the persecuted church is not the full story. God is at work in the midst of that persecution, bringing about his glory and eventually the full coming of the kingdom of God. The reason we can have hope is that what we see now is not all that there will ever be.

Conclusion

We should not just take one day to remember our persecuted brothers and sisters across the world. It should be a regular part of our prayer life. There are all sorts of resources available for us to pray intelligently about their specific needs.

But in addition to praying for them, we should be learning from them. We should never fall in the error of thinking we are enjoying God’s blessings while they are not. A blessed church is not measured by the level of comfort. A blessed church is measured by its level of faithfulness. The persecuted church is tested regularly and is found faithful. How will we do when we face the test?

Martin Luther Nailed It!

Romans 1:16-17

Introduction

Many children are looking forward to October 31. They enjoy dressing up as their favourite superhero or some other character, and even more the large amounts of sugary treats that they will consume. It is a great time for all.

But this October 31 is much more significant than Halloween. Many people in the church world recognize October 31, not so much as Halloween, but as Reformation Day. It was this day in history that people acknowledge what was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. And this year, it is exactly 500 years since the start of that momentous movement. It was that event 500 years ago that not only the church, but the entire world was changed. And all this by some guy posting some theological points on a church door. A man named Martin Luther.

Why should we care? We are Baptists and not Lutherans. Some Baptists would even say we are not protestants, but I think that might be a stretch. We are definitely not here to worship Martin Luther. Not only was he a mere human, he was also someone with some significant faults. But perhaps it is in his mistakes that we can find hope. If we take one thing from Martin Luther’s story, it is that God uses imperfect people to fulfill his perfect will.

As I said, Reformation Day is the day we remember Luther posting something on a church door. What he posted was something called the 95 theses, that 95 theological points that he wanted to make. In this he was responding to the Roman Catholic Church. We need to remember that this was not a correction from outside but from inside. Luther had for many years been faithful member of the Catholic Church. His primary goal, at least in the beginning, was not to tear down  the Roman Catholic Church or to start his own sectarian group. His deepest desire was to reform the church, to correct the errors that had crept in and to bring everything back on track. There was one particular error that he wanted to address was something called indulgences. The Roman Catholic Church was on a major building trend, including the building of some very important churches in Rome. Such activity required large amounts of money. The church knew that many people were concerned about how long they would spend in purgatory. Although purgatory is not mentioned in the Bible, people believed that everyone who died, even good Catholics, still had some sin and were not ready to meet God, so almost everyone would have to spend time in purgatory to pay off those sins. Purgatory was not as bad as hell, but was still not some place you would want to spend a long time in. It was also believed that the Pope had the spiritual authority to shorten the time that people would spend in purgatory. This shortening of time was made available for a price by selling indulgences. People could give money to the church and thus would be able to cut time off their time in purgatory and get them into heaven quicker.

I must make clear that none of this is meant as an attack on the Roman Catholic Church as it is today. Even during the time of Luther, there were many who stayed with the Catholic Church but acknowledged that the selling of the indulgences was an abuse. The Roman Catholic Church experienced its own reformation after this event and I would say that the Roman Catholic Church ultimately benefited from Martin Luther’s critique.

Responding to the selling of the indulgences was a large part of what Luther did 500 years ago. But it was so much more than that. It was something that directly affects us, something that is relevant even if we have never heard of indulgences. To do that, we are going to have to back up a bit on Luther’s story, going some years before the posting on the Wittenberg door.

The Story of Martin Luther

Our story really begins when Luther was in his early twenties. Luther was an intelligent and gifted young man. He was training to become a lawyer and his parents were looking forward to him marrying and making lots of grand babies for them. That’s why they were horrified by what happened one fateful night. Luther was caught in a terrible storm. Thunderbolts and lightning, very very frightening. Being so scared, he called out to St. Anne and said that if she saved him, he would give up his career as a lawyer and become a monk. Luther survived the storm and became a monk, much to the disappointment of his family (at least on the last point). There is some irony here as Luther would eventually reject the praying to saints.

Was Luther a good monk? That would depend on who you asked. He was brilliant. He dove into his studies and eventually became a theology professor. He had a deep understanding of the Scriptures and was hungry for more. He also took the disciplines and activities of being monk very seriously. He once even walked all the way from the monastery in Germany to Rome, a distance of 1000 miles. So why was there a problem? Luther regularly annoyed his fellow monks and their superiors. Not because of his lack of discipline but because of his overcommitment. If Luther knew one thing it was that he was sinful and that sin separated him from a holy God. He tried to do everything and more to bridge that gap between himself and God. He punished his body, confessed his sins, prayed and read the Bible. But no matter what he did, he could never seem to close that gap between himself and God. Assurance of being accepted by God continued elude him.

That’s where the Bible came in. As a monk, Bible reading was a part of his role. As a theology professor, he needed to do the extra study to teach. One of the parts of the Bible that Luther began to study was Paul’s letter to the Romans. The basic message of Romans is that all people, Jews and Gentiles, start off in the same place as alienated from God and that we can only be saved from this alienation through faith in Jesus Christ. This was exactly what Luther had been struggling with. Paul talks in Romans about righteousness. That’s was Luther’s goal. But Paul makes it clear that we cannot work our way to that righteousness, but rather we are declared righteous by God when we put our faith in Jesus. This is what Luther had been looking for all the time. Luther stopped striving and put his faith in Jesus and found his assurance. This gave him the strength, not just to finally have personal peace, but to transform the church and ultimately the world.

Before leaving Luther, I will tell you that he left the monastery and got married, to an ex-nun of all people and had lots of babies. His parents were happy.

Salvation By Faith

Enough about Martin Luther. We have our own problems. We may not go to the extremes of Martin Luther, but we all start off alienated from God and have to address the question of how get right with God.

I would not want to compare myself with Martin Luther, but there was a time in my life where I believed in God but felt distant from him. I tried to earn God’s love and acceptances. I fulfilled all the duties that I thought were expected of me, tried to be a good person, but the harder I worked, the more distant God seemed. I eventually came to the point where I gave up striving and surrendered myself to Jesus and received my assurance that I was right with God.

Paul, who wrote Romans, was a hard working religious person. He was so zealous for God, he persecuted Christians, who he saw as corrupting his native Judaism. It was only through meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus that Paul’s eyes were finally opened.

In Romans, Paul is writing to two groups of Christians, each of whom think they had an advantage over the other. Paul demolishes their pretensions of advantage and reminds them that they all start from the same place of sin.

Paul speaks of the gospel, the good news. This gospel is not just a neat theological slogan, it is the power of God. This power works toward salvation. This power reveals righteousness.

Would you describe yourself as righteous? Many of us would not want to self-describe as righteous because it sounds like we are puffing ourselves up. But that is because we think of righteousness as something we achieve ourselves and we are only too aware of our shortcomings. But the righteousness that Paul talks about is not one that we can earn. Rather God declares us to be righteous. It is like being out on trial and hearing at the end of the trial the welcome words of the judge, “Not guilty!” That is what God does for us. We are declared righteous.

That is only reached by faith. we must put our faith in Jesus Christ. Faith is more than just believing. Most people believe that there was some person named Jesus, they may even believe some theological facts about him. Faith is closer to trust than it is to mental assent. It is the difference between believing that person could fly a plane and trusting enough to go up in the plane with that person as the pilot.

None of this is meant to say that works are not important. Paul stresses over and over that we are only saved by faith and yet he did so much to preach the gospel and spread the kingdom of God. Martin Luther, once he gave up striving and embraced faith, eventually accomplished more  once he gave up trying to earn God’s love than he did when he was seeking it.

Living as a Christian, working for the kingdom, these are things that we do as a result of being in God’s family, not as a way to get in or even to stay in God’s family. Followers of Jesus seek to become more like Jesus because we are already in the family and a family resemblance should be a natural part of that.

Conclusion

We are not here to worship Martin Luther. He was a man like any other, a jumble of good and bad qualities. But God used that man 500 years ago and many times since to spread the message that we cannot earn our own righteousness but we can be declared righteous by faith.

This was the message that Paul needed, that Luther needed and that we need today. Are you striving and feeling like you are always failing? Let it go and surrender to Jesus. What Jesus did on the cross and his resurrection has the power to do what we cannot do ourselves. When we put our faith in Jesus, we are adopted into the family of God. the gap between ourselves is closed and we are declared righteous, whether we feel it or not. This is the power of salvation, the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Lost and Found

Luke 15:1-10

Introduction

What is it that gets you excited? What is it that makes you want to give a shout for joy? This won’t surprise many but for me it has to do with books. I love books but there is a specific kind of situation that really makes me happy.

From time to time, there is a specific book that I will want to get. I will check it out online and take a look at the price. Then I begin to second guess myself. Do I really need to spend the money? Do I really need another book? I will put it out of mind for a bit and then go back and check it out again. So what is it that gets me excited? After talking myself out of it, I see the exact book that I have been looking at in a second hand bookstore on sale for next to nothing. I take it as a sign and immediately purchase this long sought after book. Does this make me a nerd? I’m okay with that.

You may have something completely different as your motivation for joy. It could be the growing of flowers or the completion of something you have been building. It may be writing a story or writing a song. It could be the learning of a new skill. Each of us are different.

What about God? There is a danger that we see God as an impersonal force. But the Bible describes God as having a personality. While some people focus on God’s anger, the Bible also talks about God being joyful.

Jesus tells us in this passage about what it is that inspires a party in heaven. This is something worth dwelling on, especially since we can have a role in sparking that burst of joy.

Joy of Finding the Lost

In Luke 15, we are presented with three parables that are all interconnected. They are the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. A good argument could be made to look at all three together. However, the parable of the lost son, often called the parable of the prodigal son, is so rich that it will be looked at by itself. Just realize that the same theme is running through all three parables.

The parable of the lost sheep taps into the feelings that many of Jesus’ listeners would have experienced. Some of them would have had herds and would have experienced something like this. There you have one hundred sheep and suddenly one goes missing. What are you going to do? Do you remain satisfied that you still have ninety-nine and leave it at that?

Amanda and I have five children. If one of them went missing, which has happened, can you imagine us being satisfied that we still have 80% of our children? That would never happen.

The shepherd understand that the sheep are safer in numbers and in danger in isolation. The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine and goes after the one lost sheep. The shepherd is on a mission and will not rest until the lost sheep is found. When the sheep is found, the response of the shepherd is not anger for all the fuss it caused but tremendous joy. Not only does the shepherd feel the joy, he shares it with his friends and neighbours. It is time for a party.

One of the themes that Luke provides in his Gospel is a pairing of male and female examples. He frequently shares two different but similar stories, one featuring a male and the other a female. It is sign of the universality of the kingdom of God.

So Luke tells a story of another lost item, this time from the perspective of a woman. A woman has ten coins and loses one. She begins a frantic search for the lost coin and doesn’t rest until it is found. There have been some interesting theories as to what exactly is going on here. But I think that we can make it more complicated than it needs to be. All of us have lost something and have been frustrated while it is missing. That is the main point. As with the shepherd, the woman finds what was lost and celebrates the discovery. Again, like the shepherd, she calls in her friends and neighbours to join in her joy.

What Jesus is doing is awakening us to the emotions that we have experienced in finding the lost. I want you to think about a time that has happened to you. It might have been your car keys or perhaps a valuable family heirloom. You may have thought it was gone for good and then just as you are about to give up hope, there it is. There is a physical reaction of joy when the lost, especially the valued lost, is found.

Jesus shares this with us because this is what happens in heaven when the lost, in terms of people, are found. But what does that have to do with us?

The Lost Are Being Looked For

The beauty of the parables is that they do not provide all of the explicit details. Jesus invites us to enter into the story and to explore the way this will look in our lives. In this parable, I see four questions that are worth asking that may help us see what this means for us.

1.Who are the Lost?

The first question we should ask is about the identity of the lost. The parables describe a lost sheep and a lost coin. Who are the lost ones in our life? Some have simplified this down to non-Christians. If a person has not experienced Jesus Christ, they are the lost. There is some truth in this. Lostness is all about isolation from where we are supposed to be. Since we are meant to be in relationship with God through Jesus, when we are separated from God, we are lost. At the same time, lostness is about more than this. The power of the image speaks to that hopelessness that comes when something is missing. Who is that feels lost? How about those suffering from mental illness and addictions? How about the homeless and poor? How about those who have been sexually abused and struggle with trust? There are people who have called out to Jesus but still feel lost. They may know where they are going when they die but don’t know where they belong while they are alive. Think about the people that you know who are lost, whether they are Christian or non-Christian. Do we have the burden for the lost that the shepherd and the woman show in this parable?

2.Who is seeking the Lost?

This brings us to the next question. Who is it that goes and looks for the lost? It could be argued that it is Jesus that looks for the lost. Jesus is called elsewhere the Good Shepherd (john 10:11). This true and Jesus does seek out the lost. But think about a time when you were lost and Jesus found you. How did that happen? Was it direct intervention by Jesus? Or did Jesus use other means? Perhaps other people? When I think of my journey, there were many people involved. Some people were praying for me and others spoke to me. There were people who wanted me found and they participated in the search. I would say that these parables do not invite us to sit back in our comfortable chairs and let Jesus do all the work. Rather we are called to join in the search.

3.What will we do to find the Lost?

Once we understand that we have a role, we have to ask what our role will be. What are we willing to do to pursue the lost? What if having a heart for the lost means entering into relationships with people who make us uncomfortable? What if seeking the lost means that church is no longer just about what makes me happy? What if we have to talk to someone about Jesus or share what God has done in our life? What if we volunteer to work in ministries that care for practical needs? If you have been in the position of losing something and being desperate to find it, you know that it takes over your life. Even if you have other tasks to accomplish, the search is still running in the background. These parables challenges us on how seriously we take the lostness of the lost.

4.How do we feel when the Lost are found?

Looking at these parables could feel pretty condemning with the wrong emphasis. We might feel guilty for ever having fun or ever relaxing? We should be search 24/7 for the lost. And yet the emphasis in these parables, and it appears in the third parable as well, is that of the joy in the finding. All three talk about parties and this is tied into what happens in heaven. There is a party in heaven when the lost are found. Are we as eager to party in the church? What happens when the lost are found? Do we see that as business as usual? Or worse do we see that as disrupting the way we like things done? What does it do to you when you hear about a person meeting Jesus for the first time?  What does it do to you when a person gets their life back together, when relationships are restored and people move from isolation to community? I generally don’t like telling you what to do but I think Jesus makes it clear that our response should be intense joy.

Conclusion

“I once was lost but now am found.” John Newton wrote those words for his hymn Amazing Grace. This is about him coming from separation from God to relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The way the story is normally told is that he was a captain of a slave ship, he met Jesus, his life was turned around and then he preached the gospel and wrote hymns. The true story is a bit more messy. John Newton met Jesus in 1748 and he gave up profanity and gambling. But he did not give up slaving. He continued to participate in the slave trade until 1754. He didn’t speak out against the slave trade until 1788. The true story is not as neat and tidy as the popular story.

I share this to say that the life of finding the lost is not not always easy. In fact both parables are meant for us to enter into the anxiety of the those that are searching. As we participate in the search, there will be difficult moments. Some lost will not be found and others will stumble many times before coming home.

But Jesus wants us to dwell on the joy of finding. Jesus is ready to party of all the lost that will be found. This is not all left on us, as Jesus is involved in the search, but we are invited to full participants. If you feel lost today, please know that Jesus and his church want you to be found. If you are found, share that joy by finding the others and be ready to celebrate when the lost come home.

The Cost of Discipleship

Luke 14:25-35

Introduction

How much does it cost? When anyone in my family asks me a question, the most likely response that you will get from me is: How much does it cost? My children love to strategize about what presents they want for birthdays and Christmas. They are tech-savvy enough that they can research the things they want online and give me the information. How much does it cost?

Over a decade ago, Amanda called me at the office at my previous church. Logan and Abby were living with us then and we were having a lot of trouble with Logan running away. Amanda had been doing some research and called to tell me that we needed a service dog for Logan. While fully onboard for Logan’s safety, I immediately asked how much this would cost. There was hesitation and then she said twelve. I exclaimed, $1200 for a dog! We used to sell Siamese cats for $50 each and I thought that was a lot. After a bit more silence, Amanda corrected me that it was actually $12,000. We actually ended up raising $28,000 for the dog and the dog we have is worth every penny.

I’m not suggesting that we should look always for the lowest price possible. While there are certain things that are good cheap, many others come under the category of you get what you pay for. I have tried numerous times to cut corners with the cheaper item and it ended up costing me more, not just for replacing but in frustration. What is the cost?

We may not think of following Jesus as having a cost. All we have to do is show up to church from time to time and put a few dollars in the plate. But that is not the biblical picture of following Jesus. According to the Bible, Jesus is not looking for believers, he is looking for disciples. What is a disciple? It is closely connected to the idea of being a learner or a student. But it is much more than the gathering of knowledge. It is about transformation and changing into someone very much like the master or teacher. Discipleship is something that should affect our thinking our words and our actions. Jesus takes this very seriously and he calls us to take it seriously as well.

Understand the Cost

How do you grow a church? One way would be to make the message as easy as possible. Remove anything that even hints at a challenge or offence. I once read about a church that tried to become as inclusive as possible. I’m in favour of inclusivity in principle, but one church took it to the extreme. They removed all mention of the Bible or Jesus because they knew there were people who reacted negatively to them. There was even discussion of removing the idea of God out of sensitivity toward atheists who might visit their church.

That is far from a typical strategy, even for the most liberal of churches. But there is a temptation for every church, conservative or liberal, evangelical or charismatic. The temptation is to take the posture of a salesperson. We need to sell people on joining the church and becoming a Christian and so we make the offer as attractive as possible. We talk about how fun and enjoyable following Jesus is. We talk about the many blessings that come our way. But what does Jesus say?

I’m not sure that Jesus would have been very successful as a salesperson because he goes the complete opposite of common sensibility. In inviting people to become his disciples, he compares it to carrying a cross. We have to work to understand the power of this image. This is not about a slight inconvenience. A person carried the cross because they were going to their execution. The people who heard this teaching would have seen condemned men carrying their cross many times. They saw the people bleeding and broken. All freedom was taken away from them in their last hours as they were forced to carry the instruments of their death to the designated place. There is nothing attractive at all about this. This does not look like a good method of selling people on discipleship.

So what is the cost of discipleship? Being a disciple of Jesus doesn’t mean that we all have to be beaten and executed. But it is still not easy. Once a person picked up their cross, their path was chosen for them. They could not take breaks or get distracted. There was a journey from point A to point B. Personal preferences were gone and destiny was decided. This is what following Jesus is supposed to like. Being a disciple is not about tacking a little Jesus onto your life. It is about surrendering completely to Jesus. It is about putting every part of our life under his lordship. Believing in Jesus is good but becoming a disciple of Jesus has a cost.

Count the Cost

The first step is to understand that there is a cost to following Jesus. Many church people are not even aware of that. The next step is to count the cost. Jesus shifts his imagery to some other aspects of life. Jesus compares what the would-be disciple needs to do to a builder and a military leader. A builder doesn’t start a project unless they know they of the money and resources to complete the project. In the same way, a military leader considering a battle will look at the chances of victory before committing their forces.

I am an armchair historian when it comes to military history. Some of biggest financial investments in the two world wars in the previous century were in the navy. However, the actual use of the ships in battle does not reflect this. Each country was so aware of how much it cost to build a ship that they tended to keep them safe in a harbour unless they were sure that they could win the battle. They knew they could always replace a soldier and a rifle easier than a battleship and so they were more willing to use the infantry.

While I’m not much of a handyman, we have had to do renovations from time to time. We have never just thrown ourselves into it. We always budgeted what could be done and did that much work and no more. The few times we couldn’t finish a project were extremely frustrating. The unfinished work just sits there and mocks us.

Jesus us wants us to take discipleship just as seriously. Being a follower is so much more than having fond feelings for Jesus. We are called to consider the cost and decide whether we are willing to pay that price. The church has fooled itself to think that Jesus is content with as many shallow Christians as possible. Jesus is not as interested in the numbers as he is in the depth of our faith and commitment. It is better not pretend to follow Jesus if we are not willing to pay the price.

There is an interesting passage in Revelation.

“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Revelation 3:15-16, NIV)

When I first heard this, it confused me. Surely a warm faith is better than a cold faith. But Jesus is looking for so much more than a lukewarm commitment. Even rejection of Jesus is more respectable.

Live Out the Cost

We need to understand the cost and we need to count the cost. The next thing that is required is to live out the cost. I have titled this message “The Cost of Discipleship.” That is also the title of a book by a man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was from Germany and lived during the rise and rule of Adolf Hitler. Because of his commitment to Jesus and the truth, his life was in danger. Hitler had taken over the German church and was using it as an instrument of propaganda. Bonhoeffer could not go along with that and he was training other German pastors to take the same stand against Hitler.

Circumstances allowed Bonhoeffer to get out of Germany in 1930 and to travel to the United States. Not only was the United States safe, Bonhoeffer had a bright future as he was a brilliant theologian and could have enjoyed a successful teaching career. But almost as soon as he left Germany, he knew he had made the wrong decision. His place was not enjoying the privileges of academia but rather training pastors to be faithful in one of the most difficult situations. Bonhoeffer returned to Germany, was eventually arrested and was hung before his camp could be liberated. One of Bonhoeffer’s most famous quotes is, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Bonhoeffer lived that out, even if he didn’t know at the time how literal it would be.

I’m not saying that God’s plan for us is for us all to die a martyr’s death. But I am saying that the call to pick up our cross is still valid. Being a disciple of Jesus must be the framework for our entire life. How we treat other people, the way we use our words, the focus of our spending and everything else should revolve around our commitment to Jesus. All of us need to be thinking about how we are living out the cost of discipleship. Are we carrying a heavy cross or is our cross just a piece of jewelry to make us look nice?

Conclusion

This is some heavy stuff and we could easily become discouraged. But I want to share some things to help bring this all together. One is that we are saved by grace alone. We cannot earn our salvation, we cannot earn God’s love. When we stand before God, it is not a weighing of our good and bad deeds to determine which elevator we take. It is by the blood of Jesus that we are saved.

Also, discipleship is a journey. The expectation is never that we decide to follow Jesus and we are immediately perfect. The Bible, both Old and New Testaments, are filled with stories of men and women of God who are weak and make mistakes. We are in good company.

I want you to think once more about that image of discipleship as carry the cross. What happened when Jesus really had to carry his cross to his own execution? He stumbled out of weakness and he needed the help of a man named Simon to carry the cross to the final destination. All of us will stumble while carrying our cross. Hopefully we will have a Simon who comes along side us and to help us carry while we regain our strength.

Remember that we get what we pay for. The high cost of discipleship doesn’t mean that we should avoid following Jesus. It means that we can value it highly and cherish it in our lives.

Who is Welcome in the Family of God?

Luke 14:15-24

Introduction

How would you describe the ideal Thanksgiving dinner? I don’t just mean what types of food you would on the table, although that is important. Who would you want to be there?

The joy and pain of Thanksgiving comes from the same place within us, the longing to be with those we care about. For some people Thanksgiving is a time with friends and family and it is an absolute delight. For others, Thanksgiving is difficult. It may be a reminder of broken relationships or family members that are no longer with us.

I suspect our ideal Thanksgiving would be a good meal with a certain group of people. That ideal may be possible or unlikely, depending on our situations.

What does this have to do with our experience as a church? It has almost everything to do with it. The idea of eating a meal together is a universal image of fellowship. People across cultures and across generations have gathered around the table. The purpose is not just to receive physical nutrition from the food but to share life together around a meal. In many cultures, hospitality is the highest virtue. This was true in ancient times as well.

As Jesus explains the nature of the kingdom of God, he looks to a great banquet. People understood the setting and could see clearly what God desires for his family. One of the questions that is answered in this parable is about who is welcome in the family of God. The church has not always done well with this but this parable can help guide us.

The Invited

The story begins normal enough. A great banquet is being prepared. The food is bought, the tables are set, it is all rather exciting. All we need is some people. Have you ever planned out a dinner party? Have you had specific people in mind of who you wanted to be there? There may be people who are like us or people whose company we enjoy. Not only can we anticipate the taste of the food, we can anticipate the quality of fellowship. It is going to be so good.

The night has finally come and so the master sends out the servants to all the people who had received the invitations to let them know everything is ready. But the servants do not receive the expected response. There is no eagerness on the part of the invited. One by one, they all give their regrets. If you look carefully, there are no evil excuses. There is no demonstration of hatred or anything else. They are simply busy. The routine needs of life have distracted them and they just can’t pull away to enjoy what the master has to offer. Have you ever planned something and everyone pulls out at the last minute? It is frustrating, especially when much work has been done of the event.

Of course, the purpose here is not to entertain or even advice for meal planners. Jesus is talking about the family of God. God is the master and he is the one who is planning a great banquet. The family of God is not meant to be a dreary religion and but an enjoyable party. It is a place of fellowship and community. It is something that everyone should want to be part of. So God has sent out the invitations by the prophets and apostles and Christian witnesses. Everyone should be excited to get in with the party.

But that is not what we see. Before getting into our contemporary context, I need to address something. Some have interpreted this as God’s rejection of the Jewish people and the replacing by Gentiles or non-Jews. That is not what this is about. This part of the story is simply about those who reject the invitation. None of the original audience would have understood this as Jesus bidding farewell to the Jews.

The truth is that there are many Gentiles, many church goers, many religious people who reject the invitation. The invitation is not just be a good person or even respectful toward the master. The invitation is to stop what we are doing and come to the banquet. Like this parable, the rejection of the invitation is not necessarily a bent toward evil or a hatred toward God. For many people, everyday life is so distracting that giving the master our full attention seems like too much work. I can’t worry about God or Jesus or heaven because I need to pay my bills and fulfill my obligations and just be a normal person.

In the parable, the master doesn’t make the people come against their will and neither does God make the invited come when they don’t want to. But that doesn’t mean that God has given up.

The Compelled

In our story, there is still is a banquet hall full of food. Just because the invited are too busy is no reason for this food to go to waste. So the master sends the servants our to bring in the poor and disabled. When there is still plenty of room, the master sends them out again to bring whoever they can find.

What does this mean for us as a church? It doesn’t mean that only the poor and disabled are welcome in the family of God, although they are an important part. Hopefully we have a better respect for differences in economic and physical ability. But in that culture, Jesus was being radical. They would have seen the poor and the disabled as not being the ones who would be invited to the banquet. They are the wrong kind of people. But the family of God is inclusive.

There is not a one kind of person who is welcome in the family of God. Who is our target group? The Psalms tell us that everything that has breath should praise the Lord. So our target are all those who are breathing. It doesn’t matter the level of income or the race or language or age or gender. Who is welcome in the family of God? Everyone!

But this is not a feel-good universalism that Jesus is presenting. Nor is this an excuse for Christians to just sit back and relax. In fact, it is the opposite.

There is sense of urgency in this parable. Who are we in the parable? Not the ones sitting at the table with full bellies. We are the servants who are being sent out to compel the people to come to the banquet. Notice that the servants in the story go out in two waves. It is because the master really wants as many people as possible. Empty tables and chairs are not an option.

The beautiful thing about this story is that it is not guilt-ridden activity of scaring people into Christians. The family of God is a party that God want people to come and enjoy. Yes, there are responsibilities for those who are sons and daughters of God, but joy is the primary image.

The truth is that an invitation that is motivated by joy is the most attractive message that we can give. We are inviting people to a great banquet, one that is as far and possible from a dreary religion.

Conclusion

We state in our church mission statement that we are a welcoming community. But why are we a welcoming community? Is it because that is how you grow a church or because we are nice people? Hopefully both of those are true. But the primary reason, the foundation for why we do what we do is because God is a welcoming God. Who is welcome in the family of God? Everyone.

This means two things for us. One is that we are the servants who invite people to come to the great banquet. There are some who refuse the invitation but many others who will respond if only they knew the invitation was available. Feel the urgency in this story as the table is set and the master is waiting. The other is that we need to be fully welcoming to those who respond. There is not a right or wrong kind of people that are welcome. There are just people. Our job is to make sure everyone feels welcome, no matter who they are or what they have experienced. Not every church does this well. Although I see this as one of our greatest strengths, we must never stop striving to welcome everyone into the family of God.

Living Like Jesus

Luke 14:1-14

Introduction

I had a wonderful lady in a previous congregation. But she had a problem with my preaching. It was not my lack of yelling or the quality of my jokes. It was my theology. Not that she thought I was a heretic. But when I would preach from a passage that said that Christians should act in a certain way, I would interpret it and preach it as Christians needing to act a certain way.

The reason she struggled with this is that she came from a legalistic background, in both church and family, where performance was strictly measured. You needed to earn the love of both God and other people by what you did. She would hear in my message that the only way to be accepted by God was to hit a certain standard. I share this, not to criticize her, but because there may be people here who feel the same way and so I need to make myself clear.

I need to say two things. The Bible does teach us to act and live a certain way. I don’t know how to preach those passages without passing on that message. But I also want you to know that these passages are not about how you get into or stay in God’s family. They are about what it looks like once we are in God’s family.

Having said all that, as much as it is important that we believe in Jesus, we also need to become more like Jesus. When we call ourselves Christians, we are not just saying we have beliefs about Christ, but that we are seeking to follow Christ and following Christ includes attempting to live like him as much as we can.

In the passage we are looking at, we are going to look at a couple of things that Jesus told people to take seriously and how Jesus modelled that life for us.

Humility

When we think of the most powerful people in our world, this includes politics, business, entertainment and so on, we might think of a number of characteristics that they have in common. But it is very possible that humility is not at the top. The people that hold the most powerful are assured of their own abilities and are able and willing to promote their strength and influence to all who will listen. This is not something unique to our word. It has been around for as long as there have been human beings.

However, Jesus has a different perspective on how things should be and this includes humility. Jesus illustrates with a story we can all imagine. There you are at a wedding feast and you want to get a good seat. You find something comfortable, something with a good views and most importantly something near the dessert table. You sit down, feeling good about your choice, when someone from the family comes to you and tells you that seat is reserved for someone more important than you. Everyone is watching as red-faced you begin to rise from the table. You are led to a chair in the corner, right next to the washrooms, all embarrassed. The theological term for this is “awkward.”

But then Jesus gives us another scenario. We go to a wedding feast and we decide to look for the most modest seating possible. When we sit down, content with what we have, the family member comes up. They insist that you move up to a better seat, they want you to be more comfortable and have easier access to the desserts. It doesn’t take a theologian to decide which of these two scenarios are preferable.

Being humble is not a way for us to punish ourselves, it is actually a posture that will end up making us happier. I suppose we need to define humility as it confuse everyone. I remember talking to someone in seminary about this. He insisted that it is impossible to have too low of self-esteem. We should think of ourselves as the scum of the earth as that is the only way to glorify God. I disagree. I think unhealthy low self-esteem makes it more difficult to serve God. I like this definition of humility. Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less. It is not about putting yourself down but of not dwelling upon how great you are and expecting to be treated accordingly.

Before moving on, we need to see how Jesus lived this out. This is not a matter of Jesus saying do as I say not as I do. Listen to this passage:

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:3-7)

The Bible student in me loves this passage for its clear teaching of the incarnation, of God becoming human in Jesus Christ. But the Christian in me is challenged by Jesus’ humility. Paul shares this teaching not just to give us good theology but also to help shape Christian living. If Jesus was to humble himself to go from being the infinite God to being a finite human being, is there any situation that is too low for us? Paul’s lesson here is clear: Be like Jesus.

Embracing

I read a lot of books. I wish I could say I remember everything I read but that’s not the case. But I do remember reading a book by an influential pastor. His advice was to be careful who we spend our time with. He suggested that we should only surround ourselves with people who will get us to the next level of whatever we want to achieve. I even said that that you might have friends, who because of your own development, have nothing left to give you and you must leave them behind for more influencers. This teaching stayed with me because it seems to go completely against what Jesus teaches.

In this passage, Jesus stays with the image of the dinner but switches our role from the guest to the host. If we are going to offer a big feast, who are we going to invite? For many people, the natural response would be those who are like us or those who we wish we were like. It would be nice to spend time with those who can give us something, whether quality of conversation or even lending their prestige. Sometimes this called networking, in that we develop relationships with those who may open up opportunities that will benefit us in the future.

But Jesus says don’t do that. Jesus says rather to invite the poor and disabled. This doesn’t mean that we can never share a meal with a friend or a business colleague. Rather Jesus is asking us about our motives. What is the strongest impulse within us? It is to develop relationships to bless ourselves or to bless others?

We can look at this on a number of different levels. Think of this dinner as being the work of the church. Imagine that God appeared to us and offered to send one hundred new people to our congregation who show up every week. Also imagine that God let us pick the type of people that he would send to us. Who would we pick? We might be tempted to choose those who could benefit us a church. Some successful business people would be nice. They could bring both their leadership skills and their wallets. Some people with biblical knowledge and theological training would be good. How about musicians and singers? I would be happy with all of this.

But of that one hundred God was going to send us, how many would we pick that would have developmental or physical disabilities? How many would have mental illness? How many would be in broken relationship and with only enough emotional energy to get up in the morning? How about those in extreme poverty, who not only would not be able give, but would require our financial help? What about the chronically ill and dying?

I’m not asking for all the people with skills and abilities that can benefit the church to leave. I’m only asking us about the kind of relationships we want within our church and in our own lives.

This is about living like Jesus. Jesus did have relationships with religious leaders and wealthy people in his community. But he also had relationships with the tax collectors, prostitutes and the collective group known as the sinners. Even the group of disciples that made up his Twelve, were a mixed bag. Jesus didn’t enter into the relationships based on how they could benefit him. He preferred to be the one blessing in the relationship than the one being blessed.

Conclusion

What does the Christian life look like? What does it mean to be follower of Jesus? A good place to begin is this passage. What was Jesus like? He was humble and he embraced those on the margins. Both of these values are intertwined. They require a strong sense of self and a confidence that doesn’t need to seek affirmation from the outside. These characteristics of Jesus do not mean that Jesus was weak, they mean that he was strong.

Following Jesus means following his example. We may not be as strong as he was or as confident. But as we seek to live the Jesus life, that transformation takes place inside. Seek to be humble. Don’t hate yourself but don’t be full of yourself either. Avoid the temptation of entitlement that you deserve certain honours for you are. Embrace those who have nothing to give you. Don’t surround yourself with those who have something to give to you. Enter into relationships where there are no material benefits and you will find immeasurable spiritual benefits. Be like Jesus.

On the Straight and Narrow

Luke 13:22-30

Introduction

Make sure to stay on the “straight and narrow.” That is a popular saying that comes from the Bible, even when the person saying it doesn’t realize it. But what does that even mean? Most often when people talk about staying on the straight and narrow, they mean that a person should be following the rules. They should stick to moderation, avoid excess and be a moral person. She should do their homework, finish their chores and complete all their tasks. Basically, it is about being a good respectable person.

However, when Jesus talks about the narrow way in this passage, he is responding to a specific question: Will only a few be saved? Saved from what? Before looking at Jesus’ answer, we need to understand the question.

Remember that this is all taking place in a Jewish context. God had made a covenant with Israel as his people. But who was Israel? This was a subject of debate. Was Israel everyone who belonged to the nation, people born to Jewish parents or people who converted to Judaism? Or was true Israel, the faithful remnant that were faithful to God’s covenant in contrast to those who claimed to be Israelites but were unfaithful? This was an ongoing discussion.

But we aren’t Jews. Does this mean anything to us? Since Luke, a Gentile and not a Jew, records this for us and for the rest of his Gentile audience, this must be relevant.

So what does it mean for us to be saved? Saved from what? Some would say saved from hell, but I would say that is only part of the answer. A more biblical answer would be that we can be saved from sin, which disrupts relationships with God and people. Hell after all is eternal separation from God and is a continuation of what sin does to us here.

The mainline church I grew up in never talked about being saved. If it came up at all, it was to criticize people who used that vocabulary. In my twenties, I started attending a much more conservative church and I was informed that all of the mainline churches were not saved, no matter what they believed about or did for Jesus.

Sadly, individual traditions have taken pride in the fact that they are the only ones who are saved. There are Catholics who say they are the only ones saved. There are Pentecostals who say they are the only ones saved. And then there are the Baptists who say only their particular flavour of Baptists are saved and not those other Baptists. I actually had another Baptist pastor email me, pretending to be a non-Christian, to test my theology to see if I was really a Christian.

The problem with all of this talk is that it doesn’t reflect what Jesus says about being saved. Whether we like the terminology of being saved or not, the truth is that sin disrupts our lives and we need to be reconciled to God and to other people. Thankfully, Jesus explains how.

Mistaken Ideas

Before getting to what Jesus says, how do most people think one is saved? I have been involved in an interesting activity of asking random people on the street what they would answer if God asked them why he should let them into heaven. I would say that the most common answer is that they were good people. They have never killed anyone one spent significant time in jail. They will perhaps talk about how they live a moral life, but without sharing their definition or measure of morality. Another common answer is that they have some church background. That might mean they were baptized as a baby, attended Sunday school as a child or presently their name is on some church membership role.

Many people, including myself, are concerned about the attacks upon religion by diehard atheists. However, there is something more dangerous out there than atheism. It is something called moralistic therapeutic deism. That sounds very technical but I believe that you will recognize it when I explain it.

The percentage of the population who are atheists is very small is not growing very fast. But the other part of the population is not active in church. What is going on?

A common form of spirituality is moralistic therapeutic deism. What is that? By moralistic, we mean that they see spirituality as shaping morals. Belief in God should make us nice to other people, protective of the environment and seeking peace. Therapeutic means that there is some personal benefit to the spirituality. It helps you to stay positive, makes you happy and may even keep you healthy. Deism is how they understand our relationship to God. Deists believe that there is a God, that he created the universe and may even have been responsible for the first life. But that is it. This God is like a child who winds up a toy and then walks away. There is no ongoing interaction.

The reason that I say this is dangerous is that it has enough truth in it to distract people from the God of the Bible. People can become satisfied with this incomplete understanding of God that they miss the real thing.

Biblical Ideas

So how are we saved? We are still looking for the answer. If we switched our survey of random people on the street to those within the church, we might get some different answers. The conversation might revolve around the relationship between faith and works. So some would say that we are saved simply by believing in Jesus. Others would say that we are saved by following Jesus, that is doing the things he commanded us to do. Which is it?

Jesus tells us a parable of a man who has a house and who is welcoming people into his home. Some people come to the house and the owner turns them away. The reason? “I don’t know you.”

How are we saved? We are saved by knowing Jesus and being known by him. Let that sink in. What does it mean to know Jesus? It is more than being acquainted with Jesus. Those who are turned away say that they ate and drank with Jesus and heard him preach in their streets. But Jesus still doesn’t know them. Jesus is not looking for acquaintances.

Let me illustrate this with some examples of social media. I have over 1200 friends on Facebook and over 3300 followers on Twitter. If I was struggling in some way, how many of these do you think I would reach out to? You could count them on one or two hands. Sometimes I have people who know me on social media who come up to me and start talking to me. I don’t know their face and often I don’t even recognize their name. They may be aware of me, but I don’t really know them.

We have answered the question of how to be saved by saying it is about knowing Jesus. But this leaves us with the question of how to know Jesus. Is it just about reading about him in the Bible and other Christian books? Is it about hearing about him in church? Those are good parts of the process but the key is reaching out in faith. How this happens is different from person to person. For some it is praying a specific prayer. For others it is responding to an altar call. For others it is so natural that the faith just appears. What is important is to understand that faith is more than just believing facts about Jesus. It is about consciously wanting to be in a real relationship with him. This will include worship, prayer, Bible reading and so on. But it also includes living a life that pleases him, obeying the things that he has taught us. This is not about earning salvation, it is about deepening a relationship.

People who know me, know that I love puns. So people will come to me in person or contact me on social media and share a pun they heard. They do this because they know me and they are responding to what they know pleases me. What pleases Jesus?

This is what I love about the idea of knowing Jesus. It obliterates the conflict between faith and works. Faith and works are all part of knowing Jesus. This is the narrow way.

Conclusion

One of the places that I would love to visit is Israel. It would be amazing to walk the same ground that Jesus did during his ministry. I would especially like to visit the Church of the Nativity in bethlehem. I have no idea if this really was the place where Jesus was born, but there is something powerful about this church. The doorway to the church is only three feet high. This means that you must bow or kneel to get into the church. This is a beautiful image of the narrow door.

How are we saved? How are we reconciled with God? We come to know Jesus. This might sound easy but it is not. It is described as the narrow door because almost any other attempt at salvation is easier. Having a relationship with a person is hard. There is a price to be paid. It makes us vulnerable. But this relationship with Jesus is worth it. This is not something to be entered in out of fear. Rather it is a response to a Jesus that very much wants to know us.

Faith Like a Mustard Seed

Luke 13:18-21

Introduction

This was a big summer for me. For the first time in my life, I had my own vegetable garden. I won’t claim that everything worked, but I had relatively low expectations. My goal was that I would be able to eat just one thing that I had grown from my garden. And I will say that the roasted potatoes that Amanda prepared for me from our garden were some of the most delicious potatoes I have ever tasted.

Beyond being able to eat something we grew, it was fun to just watch what would happen over time. We planted seeds and watered the soil. When that first breaking of the soil took place and we saw the beginning of growth, it was very exciting. It is an amazing thing to be able to watch life grow.

We are going to look at a parable that builds off this miracle. This is a relevant topic for us in our world. We value things that are large. When we check out a business, we look to see how many employees. When we meet someone on social media, we want to know how many followers they have. One of the reasons why some pastors do not like to visit with other pastors is because of the most common question: “So many people are there in your congregation?” I have observed that it is mostly the pastors of larger churches that ask this, hoping that they have more people than the pastor they are asking.

We were visiting some family in a large city. This was a growing and busy city and this carried over into the churches. When family asked about the size of the church I was pastoring, they were dumbfounded by my answer. If they only had that many people in their small group as I had in my congregation, they would shut it down as being unsuccessful.

I believe that what Jesus is teaching in this parable is the message that we need to hear for this church.

Miracle of the Mustard Seed

Before jumping to our interpretation, we need to ask why Jesus originally told this parable. This parable was told to answer a specific question and that is: “What is the kingdom of God like?”

Many people think of the kingdom of God as being heaven. That is not correct, at least not fully correct. If the kingdom of God was only heaven, this parable would make no sense.

The kingdom of God is the reign of God. The kingdom of God is the dynamic of the people of God obeying the will of God. So yes that includes heaven, but most often when Jesus is speaking of the kingdom of God, he is talking about what that looks like on earth.

One of the things that I love about Jesus is that he didn’t just provide theological lectures. Jesus spoke with images that people were familiar with. That is not to say that there is no depth to his teaching. The gospel is simple but it is not simplistic. Jesus spoke about some very complex theological truths but he did it in a way that people could understand.

In this parable, Jesus brought his audience’s attention to the mustard seed. They would have been very familiar with this tiny seed. To just look at it at that stage, there would be nothing impressive about it. But under the right conditions, that seed will not stay the same.

When that seed is planted in the garden and is cared for it becomes a tree. Not a huge tree but much larger than what it was before it was planted. The tree is big enough for birds to come and find shelter in it. It is an interesting thought that the birds could have consumed the seed as a less than satisfying meal but when it is left to grow, it can become their home.

You may not have much experience planting mustard seeds, but you are likely familiar with this principle. Think about how small the seed is for some weed. Have you ever had a weed start to come up through your driveway? Even though it began so small and fragile, it somehow breaks through concrete. It is both amazing and frustrating. Nature all around us teaches that strength almost always begins with weakness.

Learning from the Mustard Seed

While all this is true, it is probably safe to say that Jesus is not offering a horticultural lesson. The lesson in nature is meant to teach us something about the kingdom of God. In order to understand the application of this parable, it might be useful to ask a number of questions.

What is Our Seed?

Jesus begins with the seed. A small tiny little seed that has nothing outward about it to impress us. What is the seed in our context? I’m not sure that there is just one thing but I can think of a number of examples.

One seed is the Bible. Think about this book written thousands of years ago about a culture far away, with boring genealogies and lists of battles that we might not care about. And yet there is potential when we read this book. People’s lives have been transformed by it. Churches have been built upon it. There is a reason that tyrannical regimes ban the Bible as one of their first acts.

Another seed is prayer. Here we are, just regular people, speaking words into the air. Next time, don’t bow your head or close your eyes. Just look around. What we are doing is strange. And yet there is a seed here.

What about a congregation of Christians? I don’t mean a megachurch with dozens of paid staff and a multi-million dollar budget. I mean a normal little church like ours. What if we are the mustard seed that has been planted in this community?

How Does the Seed Grow?

It is not enough to just have an ancient book or to say certain words or to gather people together. Anyone can do those things. What begins the process of growth?

There are things that we can do. There are attitudes that we can bring to our Bible reading and prayer. We don’t have to let these things transform the world around us. But we should. We can come to these things with faith. I want to be clear that there is not a certain level of faith that you have to achieve in order for God to act. Some of the most dramatic answers to prayer that I have experienced were from prayers where I told God I didn’t expect him to act. In those cases, I believe my desperation carried on from where my faith left off.

What about our church? Just getting together is not enough. We need to be more than a social club. We need to be about love more than about gossip and backbiting.

The truth is that it is God that brings the growth and not us. And yet we are called to cooperate with God’s activity. While acknowledging that God is doing it, there are ways that we can encourage the growth.

What Will We Become?

The seed becomes a tree. That is the primary image in this parable. What does that mean for us? It may mean a large increase in size and it may not. Growth can look different. It may be growth in our relationship with God. It may be growth in how we look like Christ. It may be growth in how we treat one another. The point is that there should be some sort of growth.

When I planted those seeds for my garden, many of the plants sprouted. But a number of others didn’t. When there is no growth, there is something wrong.

We need to pray and read the Bible and gather for worship. We need to do these things in love and faith. We need to trust that God will bring the growth in the way that he has chosen.

Who Will Find Shelter in Our Branches?

I find it interesting that Jesus doesn’t stop with just the growth of tree. Jesus specifies that the birds come and perch in the branches. Is this simply a way to describe how big the tree is? Perhaps.

Another option is that the tree has a purpose beyond itself. Once the seed becomes the tree, it does more than soak up soil, water and sunlight. It provides shelter for the birds.

What is our purpose? Are we to grow as a church just so we can enjoy quality music and hear funny jokes. Is our goal to become as comfortable as possible, to soak up God’s blessings and that is it?

I would suggest that the reason that God brings the growth, in whatever form that may be, is so that we can reach beyond ourselves. I used to pastor a small country church that often had about a dozen people on a Sunday. But their men’s breakfast would often get just as much if not more non-Christians from the community.

Who are the people who will find shelter here? I hope that it is everyone. Being a downtown church, we are surrounded by people in poverty and successful business people. All of them need shelter. There is brokenness around us. Brokenness in every area of life. We have opportunities to provide shelter to all those in need. That is why we are growing.

Conclusion

When you look around here, at the things that we are doing. what do you see? Do you ever get discouraged and feel that our potential is limited?

The parable of the mustard seed challenges how we look at things. What we see at one particular moment never tells the full story. Seeing something as small does not make it without value. All of us have to start somewhere.

I believe that we are doing things that matter. I believe that God has planted us in this place at this time for a reason. I see growth taking place, in some places faster than others. I believe God is at work in us and we should be excited about. We should be excited, not just for the blessings we receive, but the way we can bless others. The seed is growing and the tree is getting read to provide shelter.

A Faith That Leads to Positive Change

Luke 13:10-17

Introduction

As someone who studied marketing in school and as a pastor, I’m very interested in how churches promote themselves. Whether you are a business or a church, you only have a minute or two to get your message across and so you need to be quick and clear.

A number of years ago, I came across a flyer for a church. It was a Baptist church. I don’t remember the exact wording, but the message they wanted people to hear was that they were against the Pope, against Billy Graham and against any Bible translation other than the King James Version. I vaguely recall them being against a few other things as well. I looked in vain for what they were for but only found what they were against. They were looking for people who disliked these things or these people as much as they did.

That is an extreme example but in my reading, many non-Christians see the church in a similar way. When asked what they thought of the church, many offered statements such as anti-science, anti-women and anti-gay. The message that the church has gotten across is about what we are against, not that those statements were accurate.

The truth is is that it is always easier to criticize than to take steps toward building up. This is an ongoing temptation, for both individual Christians and for the church. But there is a better way.

Healing on the Sabbath

The story we are looking at is one of a category called Sabbath controversies. Although Jesus healed on other days, he also seemed to have made a point of healing on the Sabbath. A number of these healings took place in or near a synagogue, so that religious leaders would notice. It is almost as if Jesus was daring them to criticize his healing ministry.

What is the big deal about the Sabbath? The Sabbath was Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. One of the Ten Commandments was to keep the Sabbath holy. Part of keeping it holy was resting and not working. The problem with this commandment is that it is not always clear what is work and what is not. How far are you allowed to walk? How much are you allowed to carry? Traditions grew up around this commandment that filled in the details. If you broke one of the traditions, it was considered the breaking of the commandment.

One day, Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Among the people listening to Jesus was a woman who was bent over with a physical problem that had been with her for decades. Instead of just teaching from the Bible, Jesus performed a miraculous healing on her.

I would hope that if we had a dramatic healing like that in our church that people would rejoice and get excited. Unfortunately that is not what happened here. Instead of praising God, the synagogue ruler criticized Jesus for what he had did. Without even acknowledging the power that had been demonstrated, the man condemned Jesus for the day that he had healed on. It’s fine to heal people if you want, but do it on one of the other six days.

This man was probably trying to be logical. If the woman had been sick for eighteen years, one more day was not going to kill her. But if you have ever had a long-term chronic illness, being asked to wait one more day than you need to is a big things. Suffering is not something that can be looked at in purely logical terms.

Jesus responds to the synagogue leader with reminders that even the most religious help their animals on the Sabbath. How much more should we help our fellow human beings?

i would suggest that Jesus is doing more than just arguing for the permissibility of healing on the Sabbath. Rather healing a child of God on the Sabbath is absolutely appropriate. The NIV says that when she was healed, the woman praised God. But the Greek is stronger in that it literally says she glorified God. What could be more appropriate than glorifying God on the Sabbath?

The synagogue leader was so focused on the things he though you shouldn’t do on the Sabbath that he completely missed out on what you should do on the Sabbath. By only looking at the negative, he neglected the positive.

Healing in Our World

I see this story as being much more than just what we are allowed to do on the Sabbath. Rather this story seeks to create in us a radical paradigm shift in how we understand the Christian faith.

I don’t mean to suggest that there is nothing that we should be against. There are plenty of things I’m against. I’m against human trafficking and child abuse and cheating on your spouse and dozens of other things. There are things that I choose to avoid in order to achieve my goal of growing spiritually. There is a time for the church to have a prophetic voice in speaking against the injustices of our society. All of this is good.

But if we only focus on what we are against, then we are presenting an incomplete picture of what the church is all about. Not only that, only avoiding the bad is not a sustainable practice. For example, imagine a person with mental illness who seeks to self-medicate through illegal drugs. This is a very common situation in our community. What if that person made a decision to stop doing drugs? That would be great but more needs to be done. Drug addiction must be replaced with something else. This may include proper medication under the supervision of a doctor, counselling, becoming part of a community and many other positive choices. If the addiction is not replaced with something, being clean cannot last.

As a church, we need to avoid certain things. We should be a place where lying, gossip and slander is not welcome. But instead of just rejecting those words, we need to replace them words of encouragement and prayers. We must shift from tearing down to building up.

One of the most important questions for a church to ask is how people would react if we closed our doors for good. If we are only known for what we are against, people will not even notice we are gone. But if we are known for what we are for and what we are doing, people will notice. They will say that our church is missed for what we did for newcomers to Canada and for homeless people in our community. They will say that our church was the place where everyone felt welcome and where people could come and meet God.

This is a time for us to ask ourselves what we are for. We need to ask ourselves this both as a church and as individuals. What do we want to be known for and what are we going to do to make this happen? None of this will happen on its own. We need to work for it, seeking God’s guidance, becoming shaped by the Scriptures and sacrificing of our time, talent and treasure.

Conclusion

What is the Christian life meant to look like? There is an important place for personal holiness. We need to make good choices that include avoiding certain behaviours, even if they are tolerated or even promoted within our society. But that only takes us as far as the synagogue ruler.

Jesus took it to the next level by healing a woman who had been sick for a long time. The result was that she glorified God. Healing may look different in our community. But there is a tremendous amount of pain and suffering around us. There are people that have been waiting much longer than eighteen years for help. What are we going to do about it? It is not enough to be thankful that we are not in that position. We must choose to make a positive change in our community. There may be decisions we need to make both as a church and as individuals. What will we do to lead people into glorifying God?