Sunday, July 3, 2016

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 66:10-14
Psalm 66:1-8
Galatians 6:1-10, 14-18
Luke 10:1-20

"But into whatever city you enter, and they don't receive you, go out into its streets and say, 'Even the dust from your city that clings to us, we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that God's Kingdom has come near to you.'"

The disciples were out there doing something new, not only within their own experiences but also to the community. They were preaching a message that was built upon that which they knew, but it was different. There was talk of forgiveness and grace. It was a message for the whole world. At this point, however, it was given to the Jews.

Now, the Jews had been hearing this message for thousands of years, although the forgiveness and grace was getting lost in the law. We often see the Old Testament as something very different than the New, and that grace came with Jesus Christ. While we know that the Old Testament stories point to the promise of the Messiah which was fulfilled in Jesus, too many reject God as He is revealed in the Old Testament because He seems too harsh and demanding. They say that the God they worship is a God of love not wrath. They don't want a God that is not what they want Him to be. What they don't realize is that if He is not the God who demands justice and righteousness, then we'd have no need for Jesus. See, the wrath that is demanded by a just and righteous God was poured out upon Jesus so that we can have the forgiveness and grace that He promised throughout the Old Testament.

God hasn't changed. What has changed is that Jesus paid the price and we receive the benefit. We are saved by His blood. This was the promise that was given to God's people for thousands of years and was fulfilled in Jesus. The Old Testament people -- the patriarchs, the judges, the kings and the prophets -- all pointed to the coming of the Messiah. They planted the seeds of faith into God's people. They spoke about the promise to come. Those seeds had been growing in the hearts of God's people even as the weeds of misunderstanding were developing. It was time to harvest those first fruits when Jesus came.

The seeds of faith were taking root; we see it in the crowds who followed Jesus. There were many who believed, although some of Jesus' lessons were hard. In the end they were not ready for the cross. They were not ready to see the answer to their prayers hung from the tree and they abandoned Him in that moment, and yet those seeds eventually grew and the people truly began to believe. The stories of the early church show us that people were coming to faith as entire families and villages. Three thousand were added to their numbers at Pentecost! And more believed daily from then until today.

At the point of today's Gospel lesson, however, the crowd following Jesus was much smaller. He was having an impact. The twelve believed and left everything to follow. Seventy were sent out to share the Gospel message in today's lesson. The field was ripe! Jesus was just one man and could not possibly speak to every single person in whom the seeds of faith had been planted. He needed help, so he sent the disciples into the town and gave them the power to do what He had been doing. "There is so much to do and so few of you to do it." They were sent to reap the harvest that had been planted for all those thousands of years.

We are just part of the process. Seeds are planted. Faith grows. People are saved. The Word transforms. We might be the one to plant the seeds, to help nourish and water the faith, to help other believers grow into the people God has called them to be. We are blessed to rejoice with them as they are adopted by our Father and become our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are part of this process, partners with God in the Gospel; even so, the workers are still few because the work is very, very hard.

Jesus said, "But into whatever city you enter, and they don't receive you, go out into its streets and say, 'Even the dust from your city that clings to us, we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that Godís Kingdom has come near to you." The message of God's nearness is meant for everyone. Unfortunately, too many of us are too timid when it comes to sharing that message. We are afraid. We don't want to offend; we don't want to be rejected. We would rather live out our Christian faith quietly and privately, doing good deeds and letting God deal with hearts. It is His job to change those hearts, but He has chosen us to help. He has sent us to reap the harvest, to bring His people to His throne to worship with the rest of the Church. We can't do that if we are too timid.

It is so much easier to just do those good deeds. It is easier to work at a soup kitchen or pray for those who are ill. It is easier to set up a homeless shelter or collect clothes for the poor. It is easier to do things for others in the hope that our good works will bring them to faith. "They'll see our love and they will believe." We forget that they can't believe if they do not hear the Word. It is not enough to deal with the physical needs of those to whom we are sent; we have to speak the Gospel. And the Gospel is more than just "God loves you."

We might think that if we just do a few acts of kindness then they will listen to what we have to say, but Jesus knew that it is not true. Look at His ministry! How often did Jesus do incredible things only to be rejected and persecuted? People even credited Satan when He cast demons out of a man. The works do not make people believe. They followed because of the works, but when He spoke they rejected Him. They did not want to hear the truth of what He was saying.

And the truth is that if you believe in Him, Jesus Christ, you will be saved. This is the promise we need to speak.

This is a hard message in our world that treats diversity as a gospel. The Universalist message has crept too deeply into the thinking of too many churches and Christians. We have come to accept the idea that there are many paths to salvation, that we all believe in the same god and that Jesus is just one of many paths. Too many believe that as long as we do good things, treat our neighbors with love and take care of their physical needs, then we will be saved. We teach this idea that the God of the New Testament is just about love and mercy and hide the Old Testament God of wrath who demands justice and righteousness. Yet, in doing so, we make Jesus insignificant.

We rejoice when we see the good works accomplishing something in the world. "Look what we did! We started this ministry. We served a huge number of people. We changed the world." But how many of those that we reached really believe. When we begin speaking the truth of Jesus Christ, how many of them really receive Him? When we begin speaking the hard words, that Jesus is the only Way, Truth and Life, do they respond with repentance or do they walk away?

There might be a cross on the wall and a bible on the bookshelf, but if the people we serve walk out with full bellies and no more knowledge of the saving grace of God's forgiveness then we have not really done God's Work. We don't want to tell people they are sinners; some would say we can't tell people they are sinners. There is no reason to talk about forgiveness if the Gospel is about changing the world by our good works. But Jesus reminds us, "Rejoice that your names are written in heaven." Our mission, then, is to help others find their names written in that book. That will only happen if they believe in Jesus.

Jesus said, "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon which were done in you, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the judgment than for you." Good works were done in those places. As a matter of fact, in Luke 9 Jesus fed five thousand. That alone should have caused the whole town to follow Jesus, but did it? No, because the message that followed was too hard for them to bear. We have to leave behind the comforts of life, our homes and our families. We have to reject the world to follow Him.

It is no wonder that the laborers are few.

We may not be sent into the world in the same way Jesus sent those disciples, but we are called to take the message that the Kingdom of God is near into the world in which we live. God is doing the work and we are encouraged to trust in Him. We must remember that it isn't our message we are taking, but God's message. If He is prepared to be rejected because of it, why do we think that we can convince people with our works to make them believe?

If they do listen to us, they are listening to God. If they reject us, they are not really rejecting us, they are rejecting Him. We should not take their rejection personally. We get so excited when we have success in our ministry, just like the disciples. But when they returned, excited about the work they had been doing, Jesus turned around their thinking: rejoice in the work God is doing in their lives. God has indeed given us the gifts to bring transformation and reconciliation to the world, but we do not have the right to boast in our accomplishments, but only in the cross of Christ.

Instead of voicing our joy over our good works or exhibiting pride in our accomplishments, it would do us well to sing with the psalmist our praise for God. "Make a joyful shout to God, all the earth! Sing to the glory of his name! Offer glory and praise! Tell God, 'How awesome are your deeds! Through the greatness of your power, your enemies submit themselves to you. All the earth will worship you, and will sing to you; they will sing to your name.' Selah. Come, and see God's deeds -- awesome work on behalf of the children of men. He turned the sea into dry land. They went through the river on foot. There, we rejoiced in him. He rules by his might forever. His eyes watch the nations. Don't let the rebellious rise up against him. Selah."

The Jews were constantly reminded of God's grace as they remembered the works of the past. They looked back to the Exodus over and over again in their worship and in their calendar. Their feasts and festivals pointed back to what God did in those days, proving to the world that He is indeed God. As they also looked forward to the promises to come, they knew that God could do everything and that He was faithful because of what He had done in the past. As we can see in the Psalm today, the Exodus is acknowledged as the center of the Jewish faith and the foundation of their life as a people. In remembrance of the Exodus, despite the current circumstances, they can rejoice because God's word is true.

We don't look to the Exodus for our faith, but we have the Gospel stories to give us confidence to live in God's promises. His good work on the cross, which began with the incarnation of Jesus and ended with His resurrection from the dead is the center of our faith and the foundation of the Church. Jesus willingly accepted the wrath of God so we can benefit from the mercy of God. By His grace we have become part of a kingdom, not like the nation of Israel, but a family of people living in hope and peace together. Living as one, we are called to work together to harvest that which has grown where God's seeds have been planted.

There is plenty of work for us to do, and He is sending us out into the world to proclaim that He is near. With pen in hand, He's ready to write more names in that book. Are we ready to call our neighbors to repentance and to share the message of forgiveness found in the blood of Jesus Christ? It won't be easy. As a matter of fact, it will be hard. We will face times of suffering and pain, rejection and persecution. Jesus did, why wouldn't we?

In today's Old Testament lesson, Isaiah reminds the people to rejoice in Jerusalem whether they see success or suffering. Whatever the circumstances, they are encouraged to rejoice. This is a call to trust in God's promises, knowing that whatever happens God will be faithful. We may think that we are failing every time we have to kick the dust off our shoes, but God has everything under control. We may experience rejection and persecution, but God will make all things right according to His promise.

One of the problems with celebrating our success is that we are then tempted to compare ourselves to others. When we turn our attention on ourselves, we take it off God. We also tend to focus in on the faults of our neighbors and use their difficulties to bring praise to ourselves. In today's epistle, Paul warned about this very problem. "For if a man thinks himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceives himself."

Paul tells us that we should help our fellow Christians through their difficult times. When a brother or sister in Christ sins, we are called to teach them the truth in love and gentleness. He warns us to be careful, because it is so easy for us to fall to the temptation to use and abuse our brethren who are fallen, to condemn them because they aren't living up to our expectations. We are to preach the Gospel and leave judgment to God, for He is the perfect judge of all. After all, we deserve His judgment, too.

Paul goes on to say that we will reap what we sow; when we condemn others, we will be examined even more closely. Can our works stand up to the scrutiny of God? Are we spotless? Do we focus our attention on ourselves; is the spotlight on our works? Or are we rejoicing in what God has done? Paul writes, "But far be it from me to boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." The successes of our Christian lives and ministries do not give us reason to rejoice. We rejoice in the salvation that comes from faith in Jesus Christ. We rejoice because our names are written in the book of life. No matter what happens in this life, good or bad, there is hope because God is faithful.

The Israelites were disappointed because their hope rested in a strong, safe home and all they found was destruction. Isaiah called them to look forward to the day when God's promises would be fulfilled. The disciples thought the hope was found in their ability to overcome the devil, yet that was very shortsighted. They would never overcome the devil; life in this world would be filled with persecution and ultimately death. It might seem as though the devil always wins in the end. Yet we know that Jesus Christ beat the devil and by His grace we are saved.

Today's psalm was sung by someone who knew God's saving grace. The protection He offers is not always for our flesh. Sometimes we will suffer hunger and thirst, and even death, for the sake of His kingdom, but we can rest assured that He will guard our souls. "Praise our God, you peoples! Make the sound of his praise heard, who preserves our life among the living, and doesnít allow our feet to be moved."

Sadly, I think we are all guilty of taking pride in what we do, pride in who we are, pride in what we think makes us different, perhaps even better, than our neighbor. That's why it is so important that we stay in fellowship with other Christians. Paul encourages us to help one another keep our focus where it belongs. "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." We are not to compare ourselves to others, thus establishing our own greatness, but we are to help each other grow in faith.

Good works may sow greatness, while the message that God's kingdom is near may only bring persecution. We'd rather work toward greatness than experience the rejection of the world. We justify our choices by insisting that the world will love us and God if we take care of them, but even with full bellies and healed bodies, the world will still reject the forgiveness and salvation that He offers.

This is not to say that we should not be helpful. After all, God does call us to love and serve others, including our enemies. The warning is that we remember our priorities. What is our mission? What is the goal? Who are we called to serve? We are called to serve God, to tell the world that His Kingdom is near. Sometimes that means that we'll share a loaf of bread and sometimes it means that we'll wipe the dust off our feet as we leave them with the promise that the Kingdom of God is near.

The key is keeping God in focus. What is He doing in this place? As we keep our priorities in line with His will, His work will be done. We should never weary of doing good, as Paul tells us, but as we do so let us always remember that the harvest we are reaping is for our Father. We are called to share the Good News, whether they receive or reject us, that the Kingdom of God has been near. Who knows, those very words might plant that seed that will grow for a future laborer to harvest. It is all in God's hands.

The successes of our Christian lives do not give us reason to rejoice. We rejoice in the salvation that comes from faith in Jesus Christ. We rejoice that our names are written in His book. Our mission as we are sent out into the world as laborers in God's field is to help others find their names there, too. Whether we succeed or fail, we can trust that God will accomplish His work in and through us according to His good and perfect will.

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