Sunday, July 7, 2013

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
Isaiah 66:10-14
Psalm 66:1-7 (8)
Galatians 6:1-10, 14-18
Luke 10:1-20

And the seventy returned with joy, saying, Lord, even the demons are subject unto us in thy name.

I don’t blame the disciples for being proud of their accomplishments. After all, they’d done miraculous things! “Even the demons are subject unto us in thy name,” they said. They credited the power of Jesus, but really did feel a sense of triumph. They did this thing! And, well, we all have moments when we’ve experienced the pride of knowing we did something good. I get it; I probably would feel the same way. The adrenaline they must have experienced when witnessing such miraculous things was probably overwhelming, and it probably gave them a passion to do more. “Send us out there, Jesus, and we’ll clean up the whole world!”

Jesus was pleased and excited for them, but He knew the trap. If they let this get to their head…

That’s what happens to us. We experience something extraordinary, do something awesome, and then we feel like we can overcome the whole world. The problem is that we then forget the source of our gifts, the foundation of our power, the One who has given us the authority to do these great things. Jesus tells the disciples, “Nevertheless in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Our joy is not in the things we can do, but in the reality that we belong to God and will spend eternity in His Kingdom. Our joy is that our names are written in His book. That book does not keep a record of our good deeds or incredible work. It keeps the names of those who believe in Jesus.

We are sent into the world to do incredible things, and God gifts us with everything we need to do it, but we have to keep our focus where it belongs. Our mission in the world is not ever to overcome the world, to do good deeds or make extraordinary things happen. Our mission is to share Jesus with those who need to know His mercy and forgiveness. The other things are good; Jesus sent those disciples into the villages to heal the sick and proclaim the nearness of God. There are those who would take verse 9 tells us that the important task here is the first one: to heal the sick. However, as we look further in the passage, Jesus tells the disciples to proclaim God’s nearness to everyone, including those who reject them.

Jesus said, “But into whatsoever city ye shall enter, and they receive you not, go out into the streets thereof and say, Even the dust from your city, that cleaveth to our feet, we wipe off against you: nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God is come nigh.” The message of God’s nearness is meant for everyone, healing for those who have received God and His messengers into their town. We often think that what we have to do to share the Gospel is first deal with the physical needs of those to whom we are sent because they will believe once they have been healed and fed.

We might think that if we just did a little healing and a little feeding then they’ll believe and 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 cast out from those places? People even credited Satan for casting the demons out of a man! The works do not make people believe. The people often believed Jesus at first because of what He did, 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 a hard message in our world that treats diversity as the 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 those ways. 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 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 Gospel, the truth of Jesus Christ, how many of them really receive Him? When we begin speaking the hard words, that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, do they stay or do they walk away?

We’ve seen in the past few weeks that it is much easier to make excuses and to keep on our own path, even when we have experienced the love and mercy of God. Last week Jesus told the three men that following Him would never be easy. “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the heaven have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.” “Let the dead bury their own dead.” “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.” There is only one path to salvation and that is through the cross of Jesus Christ.

We are not comfortable saying this. We know it. We believe it. But we don’t want to offend anyone, and we don’t want to appear intolerant. We don’t want to be called “Jesus freak” or “Bible basher.” It is so much easier to go out and serve those in need and hope that God will let them know in some other way that He’s the One who has done these things. It doesn’t take long before we forget that He’s the One who has done these things. And we rejoice, like those disciples, over the things we’ve accomplished.

There might be a cross on the wall and a bible on the bookshelf, but the people we serve walk out with full bellies and no more knowledge of the saving grace of God’s forgiveness. 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.

Remember a few weeks we talked about the Parable of the Sower, the story Jesus tells about a farmer casting his seed on the path, rocks, thorns and good soil? The lesson of that story is “Prepare the soil.” When the soil is prepared, then the Word of God falls on it, takes root and grows. Now, two chapters later, Jesus is sending the disciples out to places that have been prepared and the seed has fallen on good soil. Jesus tells them “The harvest indeed is plenteous, but the laborers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he send forth laborers into his harvest.” And then He tells them to stay where they are received and do good things in those places. And then He tells them not to stay in the places where they are not received.

Then Jesus says, “Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, 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 shall 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 the previous chapter of Luke (9), we hear the story of the feeding of the five thousand in Bethsaida. That alone should have caused the whole town to follow Jesus, but did it? No, because the message that followed the feeding was too hard for them to bear as we heard last week. 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.

Jesus tells the disciples how to recognize if the fields are ready to be harvested. Jesus says, “And if a son of peace be there, your peace shall rest upon him: but if not, it shall turn to you again.” It is almost as if the disciples could tangibly sense the coming and going of their peace. Can we really see peace rest on someone? I think we can. We’ve all known that person who has such a deep faith that they are not upset by anything. It isn’t that they deny the problems of the world, but they know that God is greater. They know that He is near and that He is in control.

The peace of the disciples may not look like a dove or have a physical body, but we can see peace in the faces and actions of others. Have you ever entered a home where you can feel the tension and stress? Sometimes it takes little more than a kind word and a hug to break that tension and make everyone more comfortable. At other times, the tension is too much to overcome. Everyone is on edge and ready to attack, no matter who gets in their way. A word of peace under those circumstances will not bring peace; it will cause the recipients to lash out. Jesus warns us not to take on the tension and stress.

If the home welcomes the peace, then everyone will experience it. If the home rejects the peace, then we have to remain in the peace which God has given us or we will be tempted into anger or hatred or (like James and John last week) violence. Jesus says, “Wipe your feet and move on” because He knows that we, like James and John, will want to call the fire and brimstone down upon those places because they’ve rejected God.

Have they rejected God? Perhaps at that moment, but what we do not know is the end game of God’s plan. That town may not be ready today to receive His people or His Gospel, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t one day be able to accept God’s grace. Just as it isn’t up to us to convince them to believe in God by doing good works, it also is not our mission to destroy those who reject Him. There is a harvest taking place, plenty of fruit waiting to be picked. There’s work for us to do today. Don’t try to harvest fruit which is not yet ready. Go to the places where the hearts are ready.

I like tomatoes. I love tomatoes as a matter of fact, but in recent years I have come to hate tomatoes. I hate the tomatoes I buy in the grocery store. Those tomatoes are picked so early, while they are not quite ripe, so that they’ll survive the long trip from farm to store. The expectation is that the tomatoes will continue to ripen at least a little in the truck and on the shelves. Unfortunately, they never really taste like those tomatoes my dad used to grow in our family garden. They are bland and have a texture that could be anything from hard to mealy. Even the ‘vine-ripened’ tomatoes are not very good. I try to go to farmer’s markets whenever I can, and when I do I have the most wonderful experience. I like those tomatoes so much that I’m happy to have just a tomato sandwich.

When we try to make Christians by ‘plucking’ them too early, we get something less than disciples. They might respond to the works, and even listen to the words, but they never really receive them in their hearts because their hearts aren’t ready. But if they reject God’s forgiveness and salvation, it is not up to us to condemn them. God calls us to keep going, sharing the good news with those in whom the spark has already been lit. And who knows, perhaps our visit to that town that rejected us (and God) will be the first step to future faith. Having been confronted by their own sin, they might just be ready for the next laborers with hearts of good soil.

It isn’t our message, but God’s message, that we are sharing. If He is prepared to be rejected because of it, why do we think that we can use human responses to get them to listen and receive it? If they listen to us, they are listening to God. If they reject us, it isn’t us that they are rejecting, but God. We need not take their rejection personally. When the disciples returned, excited about the work they had been doing, Jesus reminded them that it wasn’t their success about which they should rejoice but God’s work in their lives. We do not have the right to boast in our accomplishments, but only in the cross of Christ.

Paul writes, “For if a man thinketh himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself.” Sadly, I think we are all guilty of this at some point in our life. We take 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 ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” We are not to compare ourselves to others, thus establishing our own greatness (just like James and John,) but we are to help each other become great.

Good works will sow greatness, while the message that God’s kingdom is near will only bring persecution. We’d rather move 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 help those who are not Christian. 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 with a non-believer and sometimes it means that we’ll wipe the dust off our feet. 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.

Paul tells us that we will reap what we sow. Paul writes, “But far be it from me to glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world hath been crucified unto me, and I unto the world.” The successes of our ministries 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 is to help others find their names there, too.

In the Old Testament lesson, we are confronted by the image of a ruined city. The people had been exiled for some time and were returning home. They remembered the glory of Jerusalem and expected to see gleaming stone and strong walls. God saved them, but when they got back to Jerusalem they discovered that it had been destroyed. Their hope for safety and peace in a strong, safe city was shattered; they found ruin.

Yet, the message from Isaiah offered hope to the people. “And ye shall see it, and your heart shall rejoice, and your bones shall flourish like the tender grass: and the hand of Jehovah shall be known toward his servants; and he will have indignation against his enemies.” God will take care of those who rejected His people. God will provide them with peace. “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream: and ye shall suck thereof; ye shall be borne upon the side, and shall be dandled upon the knees. As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you; and ye shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” When we face rejection and worse, there is still hope. God is in control.

Isaiah promised that they would see the day when God’s promises would be fulfilled, there was no reason to feel hopeless. It is easy to feel like the whole world has fallen apart, especially when we look around us and see so much evil. We know that we can’t overcome it on our own, and we don’t know why God isn’t doing everything we ask. But we see what happens when we are witnesses to God’s incredible power. We fall into the trap of believing that we had something to do with it. The disciples thought the hope rested in their ability to overcome the devil.

Jesus reminded them that they would not overcome the devil in their flesh. They would suffer persecution. Yet, in Christ they have a greater hope. They have eternal life in Christ; His blood bought the salvation that would guarantee eternal life.

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 noise unto God, all the earth: Sing forth the glory of his name: Make his praise glorious. Say unto God, How terrible are thy works! Through the greatness of thy power shall thine enemies submit themselves unto thee. All the earth shall worship thee, And shall sing unto thee; They shall sing to thy name. Selah.” 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 share His forgiveness with those whose hearts have been prepared to receive Him and His salvation? Are we ready to plant the seeds of grace in the hearts of good soil that He’s prepared?

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