Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Set the Gospel Free - The New Thing

Preached on Sunday, January 17, 2016

Scripture readings: Isaiah 43:18-19; Luke 9:10-17

Some Scenes Around the Feather River and Live Oak CA
January 2016
If you hold the good news of Jesus in your heart; if you have died with Christ on the cross, and if you have risen to a new life through him; then you have it in you to be an evangelist. You see that everyone in the world around you is busy trying to be as happy as they can in a world where good news is hard to find, and you know that the good news of God, in Jesus, is the greatest news in the world.
You don’t have information for the world. You have good news.
I bet that when you got married, you shared it with others and made people smile. I bet that when you had a baby, you shared it with others and made people happy. I bet if you won the lottery, you would be afraid to share the news with others, because you’d be afraid of other people wanting your money. Besides, winning the lottery is the worst thing that happens to some people. Winning the lottery might not be good news.
When you have real good news, you share it. And you never worry about not doing it right, because it’s good news.
OK sharing good news doesn’t always get the joy across. But let’s not go into that. Life is complicated. But good news carries its own motivation with it, and you share it with others.
The good news of Jesus does something to you. It’s like a good virus and you are the carrier. My favorite Christian writer, C. S. Lewis, called the good news “The Good Infection”. (“Mere Christianity”, Book 4, Chapter 4) As a disease changes the body, the good infection is an event and a process that changes your life; and it is something to be shared.
There is a great verse in the Old Testament that describes this change. It’s from the Book of Isaiah, and Isaiah is sometimes called the gospel of the Old Testament. The verse tells us about how God speaks of his own good news. “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See! I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:18-19)
I’m old enough now so that, in my younger days, I once knew people who (as children) crossed prairies and deserts in covered wagons. As children they learned how to read from the newspapers that were pasted over the walls of their homestead shacks to keep the wind from blowing through the cracks.
For those children it was an adventure, but I wonder how the adventure felt for their parents? Of course the parents were in search of good news, but it didn’t come easily.
There was risk and danger. The oxen, or mules, or horses pulling the wagons needed water. The parents and their children needed water, and that was hard to come by when you had wide prairies and deserts to cross, or to settle.
Here, in the part of the country where we live, the pioneers had the Columbia River, and they had Crab Creek to lead them a long way westward so that they could get to the river. There were, “streams in the wasteland”. That was good news and they would have shared it with anyone who needed to know. They would have shared it with anyone who might find themselves in this desert.
The word “evangelist” means any person who is dedicated to giving good news. The pioneers were all “streams in the desert” evangelists.
Thinking of the words of Isaiah, it isn’t that hard to learn what they mean about the good news that Jesus gives us. We “forget the past”.
Forgetting the past is good news only because of the acceptance and grace which we find because Jesus died for us and rose for us. It means that we can put behind us the brokenness of the past. We don’t have to live in that brokenness anymore. Jesus has died for our sins and he has risen to give us peace with God, and with others, and with ourselves.
We can learn to forget what we need to get past, because we have a new life ahead of us. We have new motivations. We have forgiveness, and the healing of our brokenness, and a new way of seeing life and the people around us. And so we live with “streams in the wasteland.”
When we find the streams in the wasteland we always find other people who have found the streams with us. The good news always includes other people. Nowhere in the Bible does God ever call anyone to follow him alone. Jesus called people to follow him and it always brought them together with a fellowship of disciples.
Even in the Bible, all those other people don’t act or talk like they are good news for each other. Look at their stories. They compete. They fight. They don’t seem “spiritual”, or kind, or patient, or faithful. The disciples didn’t always have faith in Jesus, and yet Jesus often talked to his disciples about the thing that they would share together, about the way that they would belong together:  that thing they would have to share together would be his church.
The word Jesus used for church could be translated as an assembly, and that word sounds as strange and formal to me as the word church. It makes me think of school assemblies.  Whatever we call it, it essentially means people who are called together for a common purpose, and it only exists and works when they really are together and work together.
Jesus insisted on calling people together, and he insisted that they know and act like they belonged to each other. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples; if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) For all the trouble this has caused, the strange fact is that Jesus intended this weird and troublesome thing called the church to be his evangelist.
Jesus intended his church (the people he has called together) to be his method for all people knowing him. According to Jesus, all people will come to truly know him, as he truly is, because they first know that we are his disciples, and that all of us belong to each other in love. Or maybe they need to know that, because of Jesus, they belong to us in love.
If we will believe that Jesus intended us to be called to be his evangelists together, then we will see that something has gone wrong. The church often doesn’t look like a good evangelist. We haven’t done so well.
Some parts of the church seem to have done better than others. Some congregations have done better. Some of what we call “denominations” seem to have done much better than we have.
Some parts of the church and some congregations seem to shrink and die while the others grow. And yet all of the church, according to the Bible, is part of the message of Jesus. The church is part of the good news of the gospel. Much of the church has not shared its part in the message.
Sharing the good news is supposed to be our way of saying, “I love you,” so others can hear it. Sharing the good news is supposed to be our way of saying, “Jesus, I love you.” (We do it because we love him.)
Sharing the good news is supposed to be our way of saying to our neighbors (and to the whole world) “Jesus was willing to die for you and so am I.” The church was created to say, with one voice, not “I love you” but “We love you.”
We are surrounded by people whose lives would blossom in ways they could never imagine if they heard you say, “I love you.” Even more, their lives would bear new fruit if they could hear us all say it with one voice, “We love you. Jesus loves you.”
Family is a wonderful gift. A stable family is a rare gift. But there are families that do not know how to say “We love you” very well. Some families show the message “We love you” without being good at saying the words. Some families don’t even know how to show the message. There are families that do not show the life of a family very well.
There are also families that attract other people’s children. They attract other people’s children because they know how to say “We love you” in word and deed.” Those families are good news in a world that needs it.
Large parts of the church have buried their love of Jesus in fear or confusion about how to show it and tell it. They might be afraid of seeming pushy. They might be afraid having it come out wrong and sounding like, “We love your money” or “We love the kind of elder or teacher you would make for us.”
Some churches do share the message in ways that don’t sound very loving. They might even say “We will love you if you take our side” or “We will love you if you promise not to talk like a Democrat.”
There are so many ways of loving conditionally, and these can never show that we are the disciples of the one who loves everyone unconditionally. The people with whom we share the good news know this.
Sometimes we may have been hurt or slighted by people who say, “We love you in Jesus’ name.” I’ll bet you that we have all felt this before. I have met Christians who thought I was unsaved because I couldn’t possibly be a Christian and a Presbyterian at the same time.
A lot of issues can make us afraid. A lot of experiences can make it hard for us to share the good news of Jesus, even when that is the most precious gift of our lives.
But I do think this has an affect we may not be aware of. I do think that, if you hold your love in, it becomes harder and harder to share. If you practice holding good news in long enough, you will only be able to change by great courage and by faith in a power and a love that is greater than yours.
That is exactly what we believe in doing.
There was this enormous crowd that had seen Jesus and left everything in a hurry to follow him and listen to him. No one, in over five thousand people, thought of bringing food with them.
The disciples had done better. They had five small loaves of heavy barley bread, and two dried fish (when I was young I had a neighbor who made the best salmon jerky in the world). Even the disciples weren’t as well prepared as they would have liked to have been, just for themselves.
No one was prepared. No one had enough. Even the disciples (who had seen Jesus do wonderful things) didn’t understand what Jesus wanted them to do, and they couldn’t comprehend what Jesus could do. The gospels never show the disciples as people of great faith.
Jesus gave the crowd the good news of his loving care in the form of an impossible meal. The crowd probably didn’t know, at that time, what Jesus was doing. Jesus was doing the miracle of taking inadequate gifts, and a lack of preparation, and a lack of faith, and making them into love. Jesus is able to do this.
The disciples shared their inadequate gifts, and Jesus did great things with those gifts. The disciples had the joy of being at risk and taking part in a process that was ruled by Jesus who was not limited by their limitations.
Jesus is not limited by your limitations, or by the limitations of this congregation, or by the limitation of our relationships with other churches (for example, the thing called denominations). In that good sense, Jesus doesn’t care. Jesus isn’t limited.
There are people, who don’t know Jesus, and those people will look at us and focus on our limitations, but they don’t know this Jesus. There are even Christians who will look at us and focus on our limitations, but they have forgotten what they knew about this Jesus.
We can never complain about their forgetting, because we forget too. The disciples were always forgetting about what Jesus had done for them. That’s the story of us all.
There are people who may think that the Jesus of the Bible is not willing to be the Jesus of the Bible for us. But the Jesus of the Bible is the Jesus who is there for sinners and for doubters like the twelve disciples and like us. We are no worse sinners or doubters than anyone who was fed by Jesus that day.
Our first obligation is honesty. To have true faith we must let the word of God tell us who we are and how limited we are. Then we must let the word of God give us faith in this Jesus: the Lord of the Impossible.
Our love and our motivation will grow in the care of this Jesus. Jesus will give us impossible things to do, and we will find countless reasons and excuses for not doing those things. Faith has nothing to do with those reasons and excuses.
Only do this. Let Jesus do a new thing because he loves to do new things. Remember to let Jesus be all that he can be for you. That is the good news. That is what you will learn to share, in word and deed. That will make you, and me, and this church to be evangelists. We have this in us, because Jesus is there.

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