Rubbing shoulders with the “untouchables”
John 4: Open your eyes and take a good look at what’s right in front of you.
The disciples go into Sychar to buy some lunch. As good Jews they’re uncomfortable dealing with the Samaritans, but they steel themselves for the task, do what has to be done as quickly as possible and return to Jesus who, in their opinion, has wisely waited outside of town. To their surprise, they find him in conversation with one of “them” and a woman at that! Shortly (at least in my imagination) these disciples will squirm and nearly run away as the whole town of Samaritans surrounds them, pressing in on every side. This will be the first small break in their separatist views that will be broken wide open by Paul’s ministry some years later. Jesus describes this Samaritan village, not as a necessary evil, but instead, as a field ready for the Kingdom harvest. In the church we often pray that the Lord will help us find spiritually hungry people to whom we can minister the Good News of the gospel. Is there a chance that we’re like the disciples at this point? Are we overlooking the possibilities right next door? Are there people we carefully avoid who Jesus views as “fields white unto harvest?” Would the Lord have us (me) rub shoulders with some of these “untouchables?” I need to spend more time in this passage.
Take Away: If I’ll just open my eyes I might see some surprising spiritual realities.
Jesus likes people of doubtful reputation
Luke 15: A lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus.
One problem the religious leaders have with Jesus is the type of people he attracts. He gets along with prostitutes and tax collectors, the very ones they use in their sermons as the kind of people who should be avoided at all cost. Jesus, though, welcomes them. He doesn’t tell them to go clean up their acts and then come back. Rather, he welcomes them just as they are. When the religious leaders complain about this, Jesus tells three “lost and found” stories. In each story that which is lost is of real value and in each there’s great rejoicing when it’s found. The religious leaders might think of these folks of doubtful reputation as worthless fodder for the fires of hell. Jesus, however, places great value on them and when one of them comes and listens and then chooses to be a friend of his he thinks a celebration is in order. As I read these lost and found stories I fear I’m less like Jesus and more like the religious leaders who are represented as the elder son in the final parable. In our society a Christian can pretty much saturate his or her life with “Christian stuff.” If I handle things right, I can avoid these people of “doubtful reputation” and not have to deal with them at all. If I do that, though, I have more in common with the religious leaders than I do with Jesus.
Take Away: Jesus loves lost people and so should I.
I’ve got a secret
Mark 4: We’re not keeping secrets, we’re telling them.
The theme here is parable telling. Mark tells us some of Jesus’ stories and then remarks that Jesus is “never without a story.” The reason for this approach, according to Jesus, is that he’s in the “secret revealing” business. No hidden, mystic religion of riddles here. Jesus’ purpose is to open wide the doors to the Kingdom of God. People who never understood before now get a crystal clear picture of God at work. Now we understand how the gospel takes root in some lives but not in others. We see what happens when the gospel does take root, starting small but becoming a huge, transforming force in life. And, we see God’s purpose in all this. Those who receive the gospel are to let the light of that gospel shine in their lives. We aren’t to be “keepers of the flame.” Instead, we’re “givers of the flame.” We don’t take the gospel into our lives and hide it. Instead, it’s to be the noticeable thing about us. So, how’s it going? Do people see the light of the gospel in my life? If I’m one of those who has received the gospel and if it has taken root and become the number one thing in my life, is it what others see in me? At the very core of my life, I’m to be a “secret teller” letting others in on the best news in the world. If not, maybe it’s because I’m not the kind of “soil” I think I am!
Take Away: Some secrets are best told.
Matthew 10: It’s best to start small.
Jesus now settles on twelve men to be his core team. They don’t know it yet, but they (with one exception) will become Apostles who will lead the infant church. He sends them out on a mission to spread word of Kingdom come. Interestingly, he spends as much time telling them what not to do as he does telling them what they are to do. For instance, he tells them not to head off for distant places. Rather, they’re to stay local. He tells them that they don’t need to take a lot of stuff with them. Their changed lives are the best “show and tell” imaginable. They’re to stay in modest places, to be gentle and not argumentative with those they encounter, and to leave a place rather than stay for a fight. They aren’t to worry about what they will say but, instead, to trust the Lord to give them the right words at the right times. He tells them not to be afraid or intimidated. His example of Kingdom ministry is offering “a cup of water to someone who’s thirsty.” It occurs to me that I tend to make complicated what the Lord made simple. Maybe instead of spiritualizing all this stuff I need to do something simple like buying some bottled water to give out to anyone who looks like they might be thirsty.
Take Away: Let’s not complicate simple matters…if we keep it simple, we’ll find an abundance of ministry opportunities.
Guess who’s coming to dinner?
Matthew 9: A lot of disreputable characters came and joined them.
Matthew’s job of collecting taxes makes him one of the most disliked people in the community. His dealing with the Romans is unsavory in the eyes of most people and tax collectors are viewed as being dishonest, taking advantage of others. We don’t know if there’s more to the story, but his transition from collecting taxes to following Jesus happens in one sentence here in the book of the Bible that bears Matthew’s name. Jesus invites and Matthew stands up and follows. Later on, Matthew throws a party in honor of our Lord. Having followed Jesus for less than a day poor Matthew doesn’t have any “insider” friends. All he has is “outsider” friends; others who are looked down on by the “right” sort of people. Matthew invites them all to come to this event where they, too, can meet Jesus. The religious leaders can’t believe their eyes. All their suspicions about Jesus are confirmed. He can’t tell the difference between good and bad people. In fact, he’s too at home with the wrong sort of people. Know what? Jesus is right at home with them. However, the question to ask is, “Why are we followers of Jesus so uncomfortable around sinners?” Jesus loved them, enjoyed their company, and offered them a better way. I fear that we church people have more in common with the religious leaders than we do with Jesus. We isolate and insulate ourselves inside our church buildings. We read our Christian books and go to our Christian movies and listen to our Christian radio stations. We have Christian softball and bowling leagues. When the pastor urges us to bring our unsaved friends to church we shrug our shoulders and declare that we don’t have any. Maybe the church world needs to add “befriend a sinner” week to our busy church calendars.
Take Away: We can’t bring light to the world if we spend all our time hidden behind closed church doors.
The harsh reality
Jeremiah 14: Preachers and priest going about their business as if nothing’s happened!
Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet” because he speaks of his tears for his people so often. In this passage he says he cries “day and night” over their sin and the resulting destruction it will bring to them. He’s shocked and dismayed by all he sees: so much pain and suffering, so much sin and evil. Now, another thing shocks him. It’s the reaction of the church people to all this. He expects at least for them to share in his tears over it all. However, it isn’t that way. Church services go on as usual. “Wasn’t that an interesting illustration the pastor used in the sermon?” “Yes, but he preached a bit long for my taste, however, that special in song was lovely, wasn’t it?” Off we all go to our favorite restaurant for lunch, hopefully, we’ll get there before the Baptists. Oh, I’m not really against good church services or Christians enjoying fellowship after the service. However, Jeremiah’s heartbreak over lost people does speak to my heart today. We’ve got to stop doing business as usual and find ways to impact our society for Christ. Our church growth model is often more about getting people to switch to our church than it is about seeing people saved. We simply can’t think we’re doing what the Lord commanded us to do by just having good worship services while so many are headed out to eternity without Jesus.
Take Away: We’ve got to stop doing business as usual and find ways to impact our society for Christ.
We are sinners
Jeremiah 14: We know we’re guilty.
The prophet has no false illusions about his people. They’ve sinned against God and their sins have horrible consequences. I note that in this passage Jeremiah uses “we” language instead of “they” language. He identifies with his sinning countrymen. As I read this passage any picture I might have of a craggy old prophet shaking his finger at the “sinners” and telling them to shape up vanishes. Jeremiah cries out for God’s mercy using “first person” language: “we know we’re guilty,” “we’ve betrayed you.” Could it be that one reason the church fails to reach the lost is that we’ve adopted an “us and them” mentality? Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s important to pray for the lost while thanking the Lord that I’ve been found. Still, there’s a place for cooperate confession. Our culture is rotten. Immorality is the norm. These are “our” sins. Lord, we know we’re guilty, we’re bad people. Please do something to help us, do it for your sake.”
Take Away: There’s something powerful and life changing in praying prayers of cooperate confession.
Checking the church calendar
Isaiah 1: Meetings, meetings, meetings, I can’t stand one more!
As a pastor I admit that this phrase resonates with me! In this case, though, it’s God who’s talking and he’s weary of his people going through the motions, filling their lives with meetings and other religious activity, but never simply getting about the business of righteous living. Sometimes, I think, religious activity is a cover up for spiritual failure or it may be a substitute for actually going out and making a difference in the world. There’s a time for meetings but those meetings are to move us to real living in the Lord. I fear that we church folk attend a committee meeting and think we’ve done what Jesus intended we do. In some cases, we’d be better off to drop the meeting and get out into the real world, making a difference in people’s lives for Christ’s sake.
Take Away: Remember, Jesus told us to “go and make disciples” – not “go and have meetings.”
Rescue the perishing
Proverbs 24: Rescue the perishing; don’t hesitate to step in and help.
Fanny Crosby wrote the missionary song that’s based on this proverb. Many a missionary service of years gone by has featured her song “Rescue the Perishing.” Would that the lives of God’s people feature it’s message in this day! The immediate assumption of the proverb is that there are those who are, indeed, perishing. In some cases it’s quite clear that people are in trouble. Their lives are unraveling and it’s plain that things can’t continue as they are. In other cases it takes insight to see what’s happening. People are living ordinary lives and pretty much keeping things together. However, spiritually speaking, they too are perishing. When Jesus stated his mission he gave it in terms of “rescue” saying he came to “seek and to save that which was lost.” As I consider this proverb, I’m challenged to join Jesus in that mission. “Rescue the perishing, care for the dying. Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save.”
Take Away: As followers of Jesus we need to join him in his mission to rescue the perishing.
The God of the House of God
Genesis 35: He built an altar there and named it El-Bethel (God-of-Bethel).
Having returned to his home region, Jacob and his large family settle in. However, it isn’t long before things get complicated. The interaction between Jacob’s family and the natives of the land turns ugly with a rape and then retaliation that includes murder. It’s time for them to go and the Lord names the place: Bethel. It was at Bethel that the Lord first appeared to Jacob when he was on the run from his brother. Now, he moves his entire family and all his belongings to Bethel. Apparently, it comes just in time. Not only are the locals preparing for war against them, but many of Jacob’s entourage has begun to dabble in the religions of the region. It’s time for Jacob and family to go to Bethel. When he arrives he builds a new altar to the Lord there. The name “Bethel” means “House of God.” Jacob names the altar “El-Bethel” meaning “The God of the House of God.” He isn’t only bringing his family to the place where he met God; he’s bringing them to God, Himself. I know it’s quite a stretch, but I can’t help but think of our own efforts to impact our families for God. It isn’t enough to insist that they behave themselves or even attend church with us. We need to bring them to God, Himself. Without that, everything else is just sideline stuff that’s bound to fail.
Take away: We need to do all we can to bring our loved ones to a personal relationship with the Lord.