Sunday, July 07, 2013

Be Careful What You Pray For

[This is another one of the sermons I prepared for worship this morning at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio. It and the second one I prepared sort of got blended in the delivery.]

Luke 10:1-20
There’s an old saying: “Be careful what you pray for. You just might get it.”

This past Tuesday, during my morning prayer time, I stopped talking to God for a time and asked instead for God to speak to me in the silence.

“Is there something that You want me to pray about, Lord?” Often, when I pray like that, all I get is silence and that’s OK because just being able to know and speak with God by way of Jesus Christ is wonderful enough for any believer in Christ.

But, this last Tuesday, sitting in silence, a thought crossed my mind, a thought I believe came from God: It had been a while since I had directly and personally shared the Gospel--the good news that God’s passion for all people is so great that He sent His own Son Jesus, so that all who turn from sin and follow Him, who believe in Him, won’t remain in the state of separation from God in which all human beings are born, but will be made right with God and have life with God forever--[It had been a while since I’d shared that good news] with a spiritually disconnected person.

I’d shared the gospel with the people of Saint Matthew, of course.

I’d shared it indirectly with all sorts of people on my blog and my Facebook and Twitter pages.

And I love doing both of those things.

But, I believe that it was God Who reminded me and convicted me in the silence, that it had been awhile since I had lovingly and compassionately looked into the eyes of a person not in relationship with Jesus and shared the Gospel with them.

So, I prayed, “Lord, help me to share the good news with some spiritually disconnected person soon.”

God loves all people. He wants all people to know how much He loves them. He wants all people to have the relationship with Him that only comes through faith in Jesus Christ. He wants all people to know about Jesus’ death and resurrection so that believing in Him, they can have life with God, now and forever. And ordinary people like you and me--and like the seventy Jesus sent out on a mission in today's Gospel lesson--are the "jars of clay" He uses to carry the message of His love to a broken and needy world.

Well, Tuesday passed. Wednesday passed. There were conversations with a number of folks as I connected by phone or in person. But all of those happened basically, within the Christian ghetto. The Fourth of July was spent with mostly family members. I had almost forgotten my prayer when I went for physical therapy for this bicep tendonitis the doctor’s been treating lately.

I arrived at the treatment center with a bottle of water in one hand and a book in the other. I always take a book with me, just in case there’s some delay or a lull during the sessions.

My name was called and I went back for my treatments. The discussion with the therapists started predictably. “How have you been lately?” we asked each other. One of them told me about tackling and conquering a major tidying project, clearing the way for some redecorating.

Then, about twenty minutes into the treatment, one of the therapists, noticing my book, asked, “What are you reading?” “Oh, an Agatha Christie novel,” I said, Murder on the Orient Express. “I thought it was a mystery,” she said. “That’s a little surprising. Usually, I’ve noticed you’ve brought religious books with you.” She was right. But this was what I’d taken that day.

Now, I hadn’t picked up that Agatha Christie paperback with the idea that, “This book will allow me to share the Gospel with someone at the physical therapy center today.” But bizarrely, the fact that, at the last second, that was the book I picked up, led to a conversation about stories, how Jesus told stories, and how this past week at the IMPACT youth gathering, we heard true stories of young people who, after being rejected by their peers and even their own parents, even after violating the will of God, they found the grace, forgiveness, and love God offers to us through Jesus Christ. They learned that we are saved not by what we know, not by obeying religious rules, and not by being good enough, but solely by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

Now, this conversation unfolded over a period of about a half-hour and it wasn’t as one-sided as that summary makes it sound. But this very natural conversation gave me the chance to share the Gospel with a spiritually-disconnected person.

It was only after I got back to my office at home and was praying that I realized, “God just answered that prayer I prayed last Tuesday!

Somehow, we in the Church have managed to make the simple act of sharing the most important truth anyone can know--the truth that God loves us, sent Jesus to save us from ourselves, and that we can receive that salvation simply by turning from our sinful, self-driven ways and receiving the gift of faith in Jesus Christ--[we’ve turned all that] into something complicated, forbidding, the area of “experts.” But, truly, every Christian has the ability to tell others about the Savior Who has come to save us from hell and to give us heaven with God! Every Christian!

In today’s Gospel lesson from Luke, Jesus calls seventy of His followers to travel two-by-two to cities He intends to visit.

Their message is simple: “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” That makes sense; Jesus is the King of kings Who came to bring the kingdom of God into our world. All who believe in Him are part of that eternal kingdom.

Now, it’s important to remember that earlier in Jesus’ ministry, He sent out the twelve, the apostles, on a similar mission. That’s easy for us to understand. They had become the experts, trained in the world’s most exclusive seminary, three years on the road with Jesus.

But here, in today’s lesson, Jesus sends out non-experts, laypeople, into the world to do the same thing He had earlier sent the apostles to do. They were to share the Good News of the kingdom to which all people can belong by God’s grace through faith in Christ. Our lesson goes on to tell us that the seventy pursued that mission, even casting out demons in Jesus’ Name!

Now, there are three things I want to point out as being  important in this lesson.

First: God wants people to be saved from sin and death. That's why Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. It’s why He sent the seventy in our lesson and it’s why He sends you and me into the world with a great commission.

So, pray that God will send witnesses  for the crucified and risen Jesus into the world. In verse 2, Jesus says, "The harvest truly is great [the numbers of people in need of the Gospel are enormous], but the laborers [the numbers of people willing to share the Gospel with others] are few; therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.”

Out of gratitude for the grace of God given to them in Jesus and out of love for others who need Jesus as much as they do, every Christian should make it her or his business to pray that workers--everyday Christians like you and me--will be prompted and empowered to share the Gospel with their spiritually disconnected friends.

But a word of warning: Be careful what you pray for. It’s often been my experience that if we are passionate enough about something to pray about it, God will often answer our prayers by saying, “OK. YOU be the answer to that prayer.”

As you pray for workers to go into the harvest, be prepared to be one of those workers who carries the Good News into the world, into Logan, into your family, into the place where you work or go to school!

Second: Expect opposition when you share the Gospel. Among those who cried for Jesus’ crucifixion, I’m convinced, were people who knew or at least strongly suspected that He was God in the flesh. They hoped that by killing Jesus, they could overthrow the power of God and believe the lie that Satan has been trying to feed the human race since the beginning, the lie that we can (or should be) like God.

Jesus warns us that the opposition that killed Him will also seek to keep us quiet as we strive to share His Good News. In verse 3 of our lesson, Jesus says, “I send you out as lambs among wolves.”

Jesus never promises that if we follow Him, everyone will love us, we’ll have lots of money, and we will never suffer. Elsewhere, Jesus says: “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world."

Like Stephen, the first Christian to be killed for following and sharing Jesus with others, when we face opposition to the Gospel that we share with others, we can join Jesus in the prayer He offered from the cross: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.”

When, by faith, you know you will rise with Jesus, you can take risks to share God’s love, justice, and hope into the world that you would otherwise be terrified to share. You can face life and death knowing that none of God’s promises will ever let go of those who entrust their lives and their eternities to Jesus Christ alone!

Finally: Share your faith in Christ out of simple gratitude for His grace. Grace, you know, is God’s charity for sinners. Christians know that we deserve condemnation and death for our sin. But because of God’s grace and our trust in Christ, the One Who brings God’s grace to us, we’re set free from death.

Romans 8:1 says: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

And Ephesians 2:8 reminds us: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God...”

Life with God is a gift you and I could never earn nor deserve. There is no greater gift than life with God! 

And it has been bought for us by Christ through the shedding of His blood, His suffering, and His death on a cross!

Of course, Christ’s death and resurrection hadn’t yet happened when Jesus sent the seventy out on their mission. So, maybe they can be excused for the triumphalism they display, getting more excited about being able to exorcise demons from people in Jesus’ Name than they were about the gift of everlasting life with God that Christ gives to all who believe in Him.

But all too often, Christians give Jesus a bad name by looking down their noses on others, acting as though they’re superior because they’re Christians. We must never fall into this trap!

No Christian can ever claim to be superior to any other human being, even if those other human beings are Osama bin-Laden or Adolf Hitler.

We followers of Jesus know that we are undeserving sinners saved only by the wonderful grace God gives through Jesus. That’s why someone has said, “Evangelism--sharing the Good News of Jesus--is nothing more than one beggar telling another beggar where to get bread.”

Jesus is the bread of life Who gave Himself so that all who turn to Him will live.

May it always be our prayer that there will  be workers for Christ willing to share His Good News with the spiritually disconnected in our world and in our community.

But watch out when you pray that way: Jesus may appoint you to be the answer to that prayer! Amen

The Real Joy!

[I prepared two different sermons to share during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio this morning. I ended up giving neither one, but a version that sort of combined both. Here's one of them.]

Luke 10:1-20
Abraham Lincoln once told the story of a man who was tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail. The man was asked how it felt. According to Lincoln, the man said that if it weren’t for the honor of the thing, he would just as soon as have walked.

The seventy people Jesus called to carry the Gospel into communities Jesus planned on visiting may have felt that way as they listened to the instructions Jesus gave after calling them. We may feel that way too: There is no greater joy or thrill than knowing that we have been saved from sin and death by God's grace through our faith in Jesus Christ. But the joy of that free gift only comes to those willing to follow and confess Jesus in a world that often makes following Him and confessing Him difficult.

Last Sunday’s Gospel lesson, on which Jim Kalklosch preached, begins a section of Luke’s Gospel known as the greater interpolation, running from chapter 9 through chapter 19, that details Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, toward His crucifixion and resurrection.

Luke makes clear that Jesus is intent on fulfilling this calling. Luke 9:51 says that Jesus “set His face to go to Jerusalem.” No matter what pain was to engulf Him--and Jesus, as God, knew perfectly in advance all that He would have to endure as a human being in Jerusalem--Jesus wouldn’t allow anything or anyone to stop Him from offering His life on the cross to free from sin and death all who turn from sin and believe in Him. This was His mission on earth.

As I said, as today’s Gospel lesson begins, Jesus anticipates the places He will visit on the way to Jerusalem. We’re told: “After these things the Lord appointed seventy others also, and sent them two by two before His face into every city and place where He Himself was about to go.”

Earlier in Jesus’ ministry, He had sent the twelve apostles into villages He was to visit. The apostles were the ones who were to spend three years in the greatest seminary that ever existed, following, living with, and learning from Jesus day to day.

But now, Jesus was sending ordinary believers, people like you and me on a similar mission. In Christ’s Church, everyone has a ministry and everyone is called to share the Good News of new life for all who repent and believe in the crucified and risen Jesus.

Look, beginning at verse 3: “Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs among wolves.” “Listen,” Jesus is saying, “the life I offer you with God is a free gift of grace. It’s offered to all sinners who recognize their need of forgiveness and a fresh start and who entrust their lives to Me. But following Me in this world will not be easy. Don’t expect the world to throw you a party when you call them, in My Name, to repent and believe in Jesus Christ alone.” If even the Word made flesh encountered hatred, opposition, and rejection, we who follow Him can expect no less.

Look at verse 4, please: “Carry neither money bag, knapsack, nor sandals; and greet no one along the road.” Followers of Jesus are to be as intent on following Him as Jesus was on going to Jerusalem.

In a world filled with all sorts of opportunities and distractions, at least for people like us in middle class America, it’s easy to lose our focus on following Jesus.

But when we veer off course, the God we know in Jesus is anxious to help us to move from sin and move back toward Jesus. 1 Corinthians 10:13 says: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to [the human race]. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” Stay focused on following Jesus and when your focus gets blurry, turn to the God Who loves you and wants what’s best for you to set things right between You and Him!

What Jesus says next is more specifically geared to the seventy He’s sending out, but it has application to us too. He says: “But whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this house.' And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest on it; if not, it will return to you. And remain in the same house, eating and drinking such things as they give, for the laborer is worthy of his wages. Do not go from house to house. Whatever city you enter, and they receive you, eat such things as are set before you. And heal the sick there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.'”

There are people who will welcome you and your witness for Jesus. They may not understand it at first. But as long as they show no hostility to you when you share your faith with them, you shouldn’t stop. The apostle Peter writes: “ not be frightened. But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”

As Christians, our aim, like the seventy Jesus sends in today’s Gospel lesson, is to share Christ--we tell them that His kingdom is as near as their openness to the Word about Jesus that can create faith and give new life to those who hear it.

Like them, we also aim to bring God’s healing to the world. This past week, during the IMPACT youth gathering, the 350 youth and adults there packed over 21,000 meals, meaning that 58 children in Haiti can be fed for a year.

In addition, 25 children were sponsored through Compassion International.

Saint Matthew will seek to share Christ with our community through our Vacation Bible School, August 12 through 16.

And we’ll seek to bring Jesus’ healing to others with the community dinner we’re having on Saturday, July 20 to raise money for the Hocking Hills Inspire Shelter.

The women of the church are this year leading us in contributing bars of soap to be used in this year’s Lutheran World Relief project.

As the body of Christ, the Church is the hands and feet of God! Jesus sent the seventy out to be His hands and feet. He sends us out with the same mission.

Then, starting at verse 8, Jesus makes clear that He gives all of us who follow Him the great commission to make disciples: “But whatever city you enter, and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, 'The very dust of your city which clings to us we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near you.' But I say to you that it will be more tolerable in that Day for Sodom than for that city. "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades.”

As followers of Jesus, with our focus on Him, we can’t get hung up on those who oppose or hate us when we follow Him or share Him. If people are unwilling to receive the peace or good news of Jesus which He empowers us and commands us to share with others, we’re to know that His peace and favor is still with us and simply move on. We're to be people with tender hearts and thick skins!

In these verses, Jesus mentions several Gallilean communities, including His adopted hometown of Capernaum as places on which His judgment will fall because they have rejected His Lordship. He says that two Gentile cities notorious for their sin--Tyre and Sidon--will be better off on the day of judgment than these Jewish cities smug in their self-righteousness, certain of their place in God's kingdom even as they reject the King of kings.

Then, Jesus says in verse 16: “He who hears you hears Me, he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me.’"

When you and I speak, live, or act in the Name of the One Who died and rose for us, we do so in the Name and the power of God the Father. We speak the message of God Himself.

That’s not a thing to be taken lightly. And we’re to be very sure that we never put our words or thoughts into the mind or mouth of God.

But when we have acquainted ourselves with God’s Word, we surrender our every moment to Him, and we know the truth of God that might help another person, we shouldn’t be shy about sharing that Word. We have God’s permission to do so. In fact, we have His command to do it. 1 Timothy 1:7 reminds followers of Jesus: “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

Verse 17: “Then the seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.’ And He said to them, 'I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you.'”

The seventy came back to Jesus in a triumphant mood. Jesus hadn’t even told them that they would be exorcising demons in His Name and they found that they could do it!

But this was a dangerous time for the seventy, a moment of great spiritual vulnerability, a time when the very evil they were so excited about overcoming could, if they weren’t careful overcome them.

Every now and then, I preach a sermon that really seems to "click." People tell me, “That was a great sermon.” (Even Ann!) Now, folks, I know that when a sermon “works,” it’s not because of me. It’s because I’ve gotten out of the way and let God speak from the pulpit that day.

But do you know what happens? The next day, as I start to work on my sermon for the following Sunday, I subconsciously think, “I’ve got to write a sermon as good as last week’s.” Listen: When we think that our good sermons, good deeds, good parenting, good advice, or good anything comes from us, we’re in trouble. James 1:17 says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.”

If VBS goes well, if the dinner for the Inspire Shelter goes well, if any good thing we seek to do as followers of Jesus goes well, we can be grateful. But things going well is not what we should most celebrate in life. That’s why Jesus says in the final verse of our Gospel lesson: “Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven."

The most precious possession any human being can have is a right relationship with God. It’s a possession that can sustain us through anything that might happen to us in this world, that assures us that we belong to God forever.

But we can’t work for it, earn it, or deserve it. It’s a gift. It belongs to those in whom God’s Word and God’s Holy Spirit has planted the gift of faith. It belongs to those who trust in Jesus Christ, Who died and rose for them.

Ephesians 2 reminds us: “For by grace [God’s charity] you have been saved through faith [in Christ], and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God...” 

When, by grace, we come to believe in, trust in, surrender to Jesus Christ as our only God and King and Savior, our names are written in heaven. Knowing that is the great thrill and joy of being a Christian!

When you know that your name is, by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, written in heaven, every good thing that comes your way is gravy. 

Every bad thing can be endured with confidence and hope. 

And, like the seventy Jesus called in today’s lesson, you can dare to share His good news and His healing love with confidence and passion! Amen