Sunday, January 27, 2008

Epiphanies in Evangelism (Week #3):
1 Corinthians 2:1-5 -
“Witnessing Like the Newspapers”

Sunday, January 27, and Monday, January 28, 2008

Listen to the audio of this sermon (Real Player)

After dwelling on the principles involved in the Corinthian contentions about men Paul now reminds the Corinthians of the contents of his preaching and of the way in which he preached when he first worked among them….He, indeed, brought them this blessed testimony but he made no attempt to modify it so that in such a new garb it might appeal to them….Paul’s words imply that when he came to Corinth he felt a certain temptation, when speaking to these Greeks, to employ a manner of preaching that might have made a strong appeal to them, namely fine dialectical oration or striking speculative thought; but nothing of the kind was ever uttered by him (Interpretation of I and II Corinthians, Lenski, 86,88).

That paragraph is from this commentary about 1 Corinthians. It makes all seem rather complex what with those academic words, complicated sentence constructions, and big vocabulary.

Strangely enough, this paragraph is talking about chapter 2 verse 1 where Paul says: “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God,” or as another translation has it, “I did not come preaching God’s secret with fancy words or a show of human wisdom” (NCV).

In other words, the fancy words of this commentary say that Paul used plain words in his preaching.

This commentary has its use, but I’m afraid it’s also a great example of how often we make things a lot more complex than they need to be. We think that preaching about Jesus or teaching about God or sharing our faith requires us to use big words, that we’ve got to explain every complex part of Christianity.

Yet, listen to what Paul says: “I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God…. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.”

Paul didn’t use a lot of fancy talk in order to impress people into believing in Jesus; Paul trusted in the power of God, trusted that the Holy Spirit was the One who would convert people’s hearts. Which tells me that God can use any of us to share His Word, because it won’t be about our way with words. It’ll be about the Holy Spirit’s way with His power.

Which brings us to the third and last in our series of epiphanies in evangelism: God gives the Gospel its power, so let’s go and tell others about Jesus using regular words.

The best way I could think of to help us understand this is by looking at what newspapers do. Newspapers don’t use incredibly complex language; they don’t write like academics or university professors. Newspapers write in such a way as to reach a lot of people at different education levels.

I asked Editor George Stanley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about how the Journal Sentinel decides on the reading level of their articles, and he wrote back in an email: “We do try to write clear sentences that are easy to read and understand….The aim is to communicate clearly with a broad, diverse audience. The Bible is an outstanding example of this kind of writing, [and] many of the classic works of western civilization are written with clean, simple sentences that use just the right words and cut away anything that fails to move the story forward.”

It seems to me that this should describe how we share the Gospel, too. “Clear sentences that are easy to understand.” “Communicate clearly with a broad, diverse audience.” “Use just the right words to move the Gospel story forward.”

So we should go out witnessing like the newspapers! Use regular language that people understand; use the words and ideas of the people we’re trying to reach.

I mean, I guess if you’re with a bunch of intellectual academics, then you’re going to need to use intellectual, academic words. But if you’re talking about Jesus at the body shop, it’d probably be better to talk like a mechanic. If you’re hanging around the gym, sharing your faith has to come in between reps on the weight machine or while you’re out of breath on the treadmill. If you’re at a rock concert, talking about Jesus will sound different than if you’re at German Fest. Just think about it, even the way you start the conversation will be different—hello—hey—good morning, sir—how ya doin’—dude—wassup.

We’re not called to go out wowing people with our great words. We’re called to go and speak God’s Word using language people can understand—and the Holy Spirit does the wowing, the Holy Spirit is the One with the power to change hearts and create faith.

Again, today’s epiphany in evangelism is: God gives the Gospel its power, so let’s go and tell others about Jesus using regular words.

Of course, this means we’ve got to start listening to how we talk—how we talk about God. What words do we use? Do we find words that other people understand? Do we talk in a way that invites people into the conversation or do we just sound like we’re from a different planet?

For instance, if you hit the scan button on your radio, as the stations automatically come up, how long does it take you to figure out if you’ve landed on a Christian program?

Probably not long. Either there’s some preacher whose talking like he’s in a church or making 15 syllables out of the name Je-ee-zee-us. Or there’s someone telling a story about God working in their life and every other word is blessed. You can quickly tell that it’s a Christian program, because they’re not talking like regular folk.

And let me tell you: if you’re not a Christian—or maybe even if you are—as soon as you hear someone on the radio talking in some strange, overly religious voice using words that you don’t know, well, you’re very unlikely to stick around to hear just why you should believe in Jesus.

If we’re going to witness like the newspapers, we’re going to have really pay attention to the way we talk, the words we use, the ideas we assume people understand, the way we change the way we talk when we starting talking about “blessed walk in the faith.”

Think about the words we use all of the time at church that are words that people outside the church don’t immediately understand: Christ, Messiah, redemption, sin, Gospel, justification, blessed, benediction, invocation, supplication, catechism, Lutheranism, Missouri Synod, pastor. This is insider vocabulary, the kind of words we can use among ourselves because we know these words—maybe—but they’re not vocabulary that people use in daily, non-church life.

It’s like my experience this week trying to get AT&T to hook up our phone at our new house—and yes, we’re completely moved into our new house and Susan and the kids will arrive this afternoon to be here for good. Anyway, the phone wasn’t all set up for our Internet, but when I called AT&T, the customer service person kept saying it was a problem of the “F order” not being completed so that the Internet services people couldn’t complete their side of the order.

I said, “I don’t really know what you’re talking about. I don’t know what an ‘F order’ is. I just want my Internet to work.”

The customer service person was using insider vocab, using a term like F order that means nothing to someone outside of the company. She wasn’t helping me to understand the problem in a way that made sense to me; in fact, as far as I could tell, it didn’t even answer my problem. It sounded like she was talking about her problem.

When we go and tell someone that they need to believe in Jesus because our sins have separated us from God because He is holy and just and that only way to be brought back into fellowship with God is through the death and resurrection of Jesus on the cross—well, it sounds like we’re talking about our problem. It doesn’t sound like their problem. The people we meet might want to know what God has to do them, but if we use insider vocab, it is very hard for people to see what any of it has to do with their questions about God.

Instead, we need to witness like the newspapers. “Clear sentences that are easy to understand.” “Communicate clearly with a broad, diverse audience.” “Use just the right words to move the Gospel story forward.”

And that’s today’s epiphany in evangelism: God gives the Gospel its power, so let’s go and tell others about Jesus using regular words.

That’s what I’ve been trying to model with the order of service we’ve been using these three weeks during this series. I’ve tried to step back and think about what we’re really trying to say during worship. I tried to write the invocation, opening sentences, confession, and absolution in such a way that either replaced the insider vocab or explains it.

What is the invocation? It’s the part of the service that reminds us that we have God’s Name through baptism. What is confession? It’s admitting that God should kick us out of the family. What is absolution? It’s God saying He wants to keep us in the family, so He forgives us because of what Jesus did.

Perhaps you like the more formal order of service, and in that case, I didn’t write this order of service in the way you speak or think. But in case you ever have felt like worship goes by and you didn’t even really know what we were saying, well, then an order of service like this is meant to help you.

More than that, though, it’s an exercise in getting us to slow down and think about what we’re saying. It’s about seeing if we can use regular words to talk about this wonderful Gospel that we know. It’s about learning how to say what we mean, explain what we know about Jesus as we meet people and tell them about our faith—instead of just repeating a bunch of phrases that we’re only sort of sure what they mean.

There’s a place for poetry, academic articles, and complex vocabulary. Those may even be the most important ways to communicate the Gospel for some people. But when you’re at the grocery store, when you’re talking to a friend while driving in the car, or when your 10 year old child asks about God, you need a different kind of language. It’s then that you have to rely on God’s Spirit to have the power, instead of thinking you have to have some incredible way with words. It’s then that you can’t be caught up in thinking about choosing all of the right words, but instead trust that God will use the conversation for good even as you are just being yourself.

Be yourself and say: “When Jesus died on the cross, it was like He cracked one out of the park, a homerun to give a World Series victory to every Triple-A farm club.”

Be yourself and say: “Dude, you ain’t as good as you think you are. No one’s good. You need Jesus to make up for your pitiful self.”

Be yourself and say: “As far as I can see, Jesus balanced your budget which was extremely in the red. He brought you into the black with His Black Friday.”

Be yourself and say: “I mean I’m telling you that Oprah does a lot of good things, but that’s a little bit compared to the great, big love of Jesus.”

Be yourself and say: “Man, I’m as rotten and dirty as an oil filter after 200,000 miles. And then, just like that, Jesus gives me a clean filter. Cleans me all up and sends me down the highway for eternity.”

Be yourself and say: “I don’t really know how to explain it all. I just know that God made me and wants me to be with Him forever.

Be yourself. God gives the Gospel its power, so let’s go and tell others about Jesus using regular words.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Epiphanies in Evangelism (Week #2):
1 Corinthians 1:1-9 -
“Equipping Disciples to Make Saints?”

Sunday, January 20, and Monday, January 21, 2008

Listen to the audio of this sermon (Real Player)

In the Manitowoc County Jail, when I’d visit with a prisoner—whether a member of the church or someone referred to me by a family member or friend—the jailers would usually have me use an interview room near the entrance doors The prisoners liked that room, because they could look out through the double set of locked doors then through the lobby and actually see outside. A rare glimpse of the sun from within the windowless county jail.

What I liked about that room was how it was a great place to share the Gospel—not just by my words but also by looking at those same doors toward outside.

I explained the Gospel in the same way to a lot of prisoners but let’s take “Nancy” for an example. “Nancy” isn’t her real name. “Nancy” was in on drug charges and fraud charges. She had a long record, an abusive life, and a life torn apart by drugs. She was assisting the Metro Unit in putting some drug dealers behind bars, but she also had a no good boyfriend waiting for her on the outside who would prove to be her undoing.

Anyway, when I sat with “Nancy” in that interview room, looking out the jail doors to see outside, I’d tell her the Gospel is like if Jesus comes into the jail and talks to the Sheriff’s deputy in the bubble—the control room. He tells the deputy that He is “Nancy.” The deputy checks the computer and says there must be some mistake, because “Nancy” is already in jail.

Jesus insists, saying that He is now “Nancy.” It’s the kind of thing that only Jesus could insist on. And therefore, if He is “Nancy,” then He is on the wrong side of the jail doors.

Deputies come and escort Jesus into the sally port, the double set of locked doors. In between those locked doors, Jesus is told to remove His street clothes, and they frisk Jesus to make sure He isn’t carrying any weapons, drugs, or contraband. Deputies take His street clothes up to “Nancy”’s cell.

They go to “Nancy”’s cell to tell her that she is no longer a prisoner. In fact, it turns out she doesn’t even have a criminal record. She is told to remove her orange jumpsuit, and she is given the street clothes of Jesus. The deputies then warmly and gladly escort “Nancy” from the cell block down to the main entrance. They usher “Nancy” into the sally port where she sees Jesus—who is now wearing her orange jumpsuit.

Jesus isn’t “Nancy,” but He says that He is so that He can take her place. Jesus isn’t “Nancy,” but there He is wearing her jumpsuit and headed to a cell. Jesus isn’t “Nancy,” but He has her long criminal record and destructive behavior. Jesus isn’t “Nancy,” but He will do her time for her crime.

As Jesus goes into the jail toward His cell, “Nancy” is allowed to go out of the sally port, through the lobby, and outside. She is free. “Nancy” isn’t Jesus, but she is wearing His clothes. “Nancy” isn’t Jesus, but she has His innocence. “Nancy” isn’t Jesus, but she has His perfection, goodness, and holiness.

And after telling “Nancy” that story, I write on a piece of paper—“Saint Nancy.”

“Nancy,” along with most of the prisoners that heard this same thing from me, laughed at the idea that they are saints. It took “Nancy” a moment to realize that what I was saying with my story is that if Jesus takes her place, if Jesus chooses to wear her jumpsuit and take her record, if Jesus took her place on the cross to die for her sins, then she’s been made innocent, perfect, good, and holy. A saint is a holy one, and so because of Jesus, there’s every reason to call her Saint “Nancy”. Holy One “Nancy”. Holy with the Clean Record of Jesus “Nancy”. Holy in the Eyes of God “Nancy”. Holy Because God Only Sees Jesus When He Looks at You “Nancy”.

Regardless of what ended up happening for “Nancy” when she left the jail months later, despite the fact that she’d contact me about getting baptized but then disappear just as quickly, I know that when she realized that day in that interview room that Jesus makes her to be Saint “Nancy,” I know she understood the Gospel. I could see in her eyes that she was overwhelmed with what true love and forgiveness means.

That experience of sharing of the Gospel makes me think of our mission statement: “Equipping saints to make disciples.” It is another one of the things that thrilled me to be coming here as associate pastor to work in the area of outreach, because that mission statement shows that this congregation has a focus on reaching out, of telling people the Good News of Jesus, of inviting people to become followers of Jesus.

But remembering “Nancy,” I want you to think just for a moment on whether the mission statement should be flipped around. Instead of “equipping saints to make disciples,” should it be “equipping disciples to make saints”?

I went to the jail as a disciple of Jesus, a follower of Jesus, a learner of the ways of Christ. I went to the jail as a disciple, and I made a saint. I mean, Jesus made “Nancy” a saint, but I went with a message that made “Nancy” a saint.
Equipping disciples to make saints. That’s the heart of the message I took to “Nancy” in jail, and really that’s the heart of the message we take to all people: through Jesus, they become saints, holy ones in the eyes of God.

I don’t really think we need to change the mission statement. I just want us to think today about the fact that the message of Christ makes people fully members of the Kingdom of God. There’s no hierarchy. It’s not that we’re the saints, and the people who hear our message are just lowly disciples. It’s not that we’re the insiders, and they’re outsiders trying to work their way in. It’s not that we have the full Gospel, and they’ve just got a part of the Gospel.

I don’t think that this is what our mission statement means, and perhaps none of you have ever thought about it that way. You just saw it as a reflection of the Great Commission, how at the end of the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus calls on us to go and make other disciples.

But just in case any of us have ever gotten caught up in thinking that saints versus disciples is some kind of ranking system, if we’ve ever gotten caught in thinking us versus them, inside versus outside, veteran versus rookie, a Lutheran Christian my whole life versus the newcomer, if we’ve ever gotten caught in thinking that way, well, then flip the mission statement around: “Equipping Disciples to Make Saints.”

That’s today’s epiphany in evangelism: The Gospel message makes us holy ones through the work of Christ, so let’s go and tell others that they are saints.

That was the message that “Nancy” heard, that she so desperately needed to hear. Her life was nothing but trouble upon trouble, and through the Word of God, she got to hear that her name is now Saint “Nancy.” She is Saint “Nancy” whether she’s in jail or on the outside, whether she’s doing drugs or clean, whether she stays in her spiral of destructive behavior or straightens up her life. She is Saint “Nancy” through believing that Jesus Christ died for her sins and has made her forgiven and holy.

This Epiphanies in Evangelism series is based on Paul’s experience in Corinth. Last week we saw in Acts chapter 18 how the church began in Corinth by tapping into the community, but now the reading we heard today is from the 1 Corinthians, a letter Paul wrote around three years later.

Now some commentators will say there’s irony in the these opening words from Paul, that it’s kind of tongue-in-cheek, said with a wink or a rolling of the eyes. Because Paul says, “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy.” In other words, it’s a letter to the saints. Now Paul knew very well that the church in Corinth was filled with problems, inconsistent behavior, people acting like the rest of the town which had a bad reputation. In fact, the whole point of Paul’s letter is to address some of these problems, so people see the beginning of this letter and think: “Well, Paul’s just buttering them up. He tells them that they’re sanctified, holy, but he doesn’t really mean it. It’s just pleasantries, polite speech, because Paul really thinks they’re no good, rotten excuses for Christians.”

Except that’s not what Paul is talking when he says “sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy.” Paul isn’t talking about the behavior of the Corinthians; Paul’s talking about the behavior of God. Paul is talking about what the Corinthians have become because of what Jesus did. Paul isn’t talking about “Nancy” sitting in a jail cell because she keeps going down the wrong path; Paul is talking about “Nancy” in street clothes because Jesus is wearing her orange jumpsuit. The Corinthians are saints because of what Jesus did. And so no matter what problems Paul addresses in his letter, no matter what sins the Corinthians have committed, no matter what sins we’ve all committed, the first and basic thing remains true: we are sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy; we are saints.

Again today’s epiphany in evangelism: The Gospel message makes us holy ones through the work of Christ, so let’s go and tell others that they are saints.

You are not being sent to just point out where people have sinned. You are not just being sent to tell them that they should be wearing orange jumpsuits issued by God, because they are spiritual criminals.

You are being sent to tell people that they aren’t wearing the orange jumpsuit anymore. They are wearing the clothes of Jesus. They are wearing His perfection, goodness, and holiness. Jesus wore their orange jumpsuit on the cross, so that they can be saints.

Instead of going out feeling like it is us versus them, feeling antagonistic, conflicted, angry with people who are outside the church, instead of thinking that evangelism is some kind of fight, think instead about “Nancy” and how much she needed to hear that Jesus took her place and gave her freedom and life.

Despite the fact that I don’t know where “Nancy” is and what’s going on in her heart, the opening words of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians still apply to her, because they’re about what Jesus did for her. So I can say: “I always thank God for [“Nancy”] because of His grace given [to her] in Christ Jesus. For in [Jesus, “Nancy” has] been enriched in every way—in all [her] speaking and in all [her] knowledge—because [my] testimony about Christ was confirmed in [her]. Therefore [“Nancy” does] not lack any spiritual gift as [she] eagerly wait[s] for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep [her] strong to the end, so that [she] will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called [“Nancy”] into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, [God] is faithful.”

“Nancy” may have walked away from these promises, but the Lord has never walked away from her. “Nancy” may have chosen her old ways over new ways, but the Lord is still able to supply everything she needs for salvation. “Nancy” may be acting as if her only choice is to be the drug addicted lost person that she has been, but that doesn’t change that Jesus died on the cross to make her Saint “Nancy.”

And if I ever get to talk to “Nancy” again, it won’t be a conversation about how she threw all of these things away. It’ll be a conversation about how God made her a saint, how God is still at work in her life, how Jesus wore her jumpsuit on the cross. It’ll be a conversation about making her a saint.

So is our mission “equipping saints to make disciples”? Are we the saints going out to make disciples? Yes, that’s what the Lord has called us to do. We go out with the Gospel, calling people to follow Jesus.

But are we also “equipping disciples to make saints”? Are we also being equipped to make saints? Yes, and the Gospel is our equipment that transform people into the holy ones of Christ. The Gospel is the street clothes to replace people’s orange jumpsuits. The Gospel message makes us holy ones through the work of Christ, so let’s go and tell others that they are saints.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Epiphanies in Evangelism (Week #1):
Acts 18:1-10 - “Brookfallsbutlertosawaukee”

(Year A - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Sunday, January 13, and Monday, January 14, 2008

Listen to the audio of this sermon (Real Player)

I want to show you a TV commercial about evangelism. (Click here)

Philawarepragueicago. I love this series of commercials (directed by Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Life Aquatic). The whole idea that AT&T is a network that works in the place where you live, even if it is called Philawarepragueicago, is exactly the idea of evangelism, reaching out to our community.

That’s why you’ll find the map on the insert in your bulletins; it’s also on the screen. Our network, our immediate area surrounding Immanuel could be known as Brookfallsbutlertosawaukee. We’re not just a congregation for Brookfield; we’re a congregation that touches Brookfield, Menomonee Falls, Butler, Wauwatosa, and Milwaukee. That’s our network: Brookfallsbutlertosawaukee.

The map you have only goes out about 4 miles in any direction from Immanuel. If the map included where all of our members live, the map would stretch much farther out. But this is a map of the network for where our church building lives, the network of our immediate community, the community that we can touch through what happens in this place.

I am thrilled with how much Immanuel is already doing in missions—whether it is in the center city of Milwaukee or in Uganda or other places. That’s awesome, and please don’t let that stop.

Yet, I know a lot of you have also been saying that the next step this congregation needs to take is to make a real connection with our immediate community, our Brookfallsbutlertosawaukee. When I think about wanting to help us focus on reaching out to our community, my first thought is: what’s nearby? What’s in our immediate area that we can support, get involved with, have a presence at, make an impact on, show up at, get to know?

For instance, I know there’s been discussion about wanting people to know us more than just being the church across from Blair’s True Value. However, Blair’s is an easy landmark to use for directions to our church, and Blair’s does a lot more advertising than we can. If we say we’re across from Blair’s, there’s a lot of people in the area who will know immediately where we are.

Yet, how many of us really know anyone at Blair’s? They let us park in the parking lot on Sundays, but have we really taken the time to get to know their employees, find out how we could help them, look for ways to do business with them, etc.?
That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about with this Brookfallsbutlertosawaukee thing. Let’s rethink our immediate neighborhood and find ways to partner with businesses, support community events, ask city and village governments how we can help them, lend aid to organizations and schools, and just get to know people who are very close to our church—but who may not know Jesus.

And that’s today’s epiphany in evangelism: This congregation is in this location for a reason, so let’s go next door and find out who needs to know Jesus.

That’s what happened for Paul in our reading from Acts 18. Paul was in Corinth for a reason, so he went next door and found out who needed to know Jesus.

When Paul is in Corinth, he starts like he normally did; he preaches in the synagogue, among the Jews, the ones who would understand the idea that Jesus had come to fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament.

But when they grew tired of him, when they told him he couldn’t preach anymore, he looked to see where else he could preach in the immediate community, and it turned out someone named Tishus Justus lived next door. Tishus Justus believed in Jesus and let his house be used by Paul for preaching and teaching. Paul taught in Corinth for a year and a half because he tapped into his network, got in touch with others in his immediate community.

And what did he get to tell them? He told them that they are saved through Jesus, Jesus who is the Messiah, the fulfillment of the Old Testament, the One whom God sent to save His people from sin and death. He got to rejoice with people who found out for the first time that they could have the hope of eternal life. He got to preach a message that brought joy and peace and comfort to people’s lives.

God called Paul to be a part of His mission to save people, and God called Tishus Justus to be part of the mission, too. Paul was God’s messenger through his preaching and teaching, but Tishus Justus was God’s messenger through being a guy with house to use for meetings. Both Paul and Tishus Justus had the privilege of working in God’s kingdom, and everyone else involved was an important worker as well.

You have been given the message of the Gospel, and it is your privilege to be His workers also, to find ways to preach and teach, to open your house, to make coffee, to clean the floor, to go to a community event, to sit on a village action group, to clean up a yard, or to ring a doorbell. Through whatever you find to do in our network, whatever way you help us to reach others in Broofallsbutlertosawaukee, you help bring the joy and peace and comfort of the Gospel to people’s lives.

When I think about my home congregation in Bloomington, Minnesota, I think we missed out on a lot of chances to rejoice with people about Jesus. We did so little about tapping into the neighborhood network. They put the church in the suburbs where there were lots of young families, a growing community, but in my years there, driving through that neighborhood to get to church, it seemed funny that I only knew three families that lived within six blocks of church.

More than that, we seemed unaware of our network. We ignored the city park across the street which held big Little League tournaments. It was in Social Studies class at our public junior high school that I first learned about the historical buildings that were less than a block away from my church. Our land touched on the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, but I don’t think we ever asked the refuge whether we could help them clean up the river valley. We weren’t far from the public high school, but we didn’t have a presence there. And most of our neighbors, the houses around the church, we only knew them from complaints they had about us or complaints we had about their dogs.

It seems to me that if we Christians are going to set up a church somewhere, we should get to know the people in our area.

Now maybe you all know more of our neighborhood than I realize, maybe you’re looking at that sheet in your bulletins and thinking: “I could list 25 community contacts we have or could have.” If that’s the case, write them down, so I can know our network.
But maybe you’re also looking at that sheet and realizing how many people you drive by to get to church without realizing those people might want to come to church, too. Maybe you haven’t been thinking that there’s missions to be done right here in Brookfallsbutlertosawaukee.

I guarantee there are people inside the borders of that map that need to know Jesus. I guarantee there are community organizations that would be thrilled if someone called and said Immanuel Lutheran Church wants to help. I guarantee that there are people and organizations that don’t really know anything about Immanuel, but that if we showed up for a community event, asked to clean up a park, or said we’d like to be in a Fourth of July parade, that people will be surprised and thrilled to see a church giving back to the community.

So that’s why I want you to take the insert with you, write down as many ideas on the back, and give them to me. Or email me your ideas. Any kind of organization that you know about that’s in this area, write it down. Any kind of business that might need our help or could be a partner with us on a project, write it down. Any place where we can have a presence in our community, so that when people realize they need spiritual guidance and support, then they’ll think of Immanuel, the church on Hampton that seems so involved, so caring, so connected with the people around them.

This all seems very practical, but again, the reason to think about this is because of today’s epiphany in evangelism: This congregation is in this location for a reason, so let’s go next door and find out who needs to know Jesus.

And what do we get to tell them? We get to tell them the same message Paul preached in Corinth. We get to tell them the same message that you treasure so much, that you’ve invested in supporting through this congregation, the same message you come to hear every week.

We get to out into Brookfallsbutlertosawaukee and tell people that they are saved through Jesus, the One whom God sent to save His people from sin and death. We get to rejoice with people who find out for the first time that they can have the hope of eternal life. We get to share a message that brings joy and peace and comfort to people’s lives.

And look. Any time we start talking about evangelism, we’re all bound see the ways we fail to speak up and tell others about our faith, how we are reluctant to invite others to church, how we are lost in thinking about the “club” instead of thinking about inviting everyone into the Gospel.
I take the sign by the driveway of church as kind of a reminder of our sin in this area. There is at least one sign by the exit onto Hampton that says: “You are now entering the mission field.”

Except the sign is faded, rusted, and worn. And perhaps in thinking about evangelism today, that’s your epiphany—you’ve let your mission-focus get faded, rusted, and worn down.

If that’s the case, take this to be a reminder of your absolution, your forgiveness through Jesus Christ. (show a new sign) As a gift to the congregation, I purchased three new signs, three brand new, clean, bright signs that say: “You are now entering the mission field.” We’ll get those by each driveway to remind us that the mission field is here in Brookfallsbutlertosawaukee. As soon as you’re leaving the driveway, you’re looking at houses, business, buildings, cars, parks, and stores where there are people who need to know Jesus.

If you feel like your mission-focus has faded, well, just remember these new signs. I’m not asking you to prove your mission focus before I give you the new, clean, bright signs. I’m just giving them to you, replacing the old ones, without even stopping make you take a test or earn the new signs.

In that same way, whatever sins you’ve had in the area of evangelism, however many times you’ve left that task to others, Jesus comes to make you new, clean, and bright. He doesn’t make you prove yourself, take a test, or earn the right to be His messenger again. He just comes with that precious Gospel, a beautiful gift, the Gospel that makes us rejoice that God gives us eternal life even when we don’t live up to His mission.

You are the new, clean, bright mission sign, because Jesus is shining through You with His mission. You are the new, clean, bright mission sign in Brookfallsbutlertosawaukee, because you are reflecting the love and joy and peace and comfort of Jesus. You are God’s messengers in Brookfallsbutlertosawaukee, because this congregation is in this location for a reason, so let’s go next door and find out who needs to know Jesus.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Matthew 2:1-12 - “Home By Another Way”

(Year A - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Sunday, January 6, and Monday, January 7, 2008

Listen to the audio of this sermon (Real Player)

On this Epiphany, I thought we’d take a look at how singer-songwriter James Taylor tells the story of the Wise Men in his song “Home By Another Way” from the album, Never Die Young, which was released back in 1988. It wasn’t a Christmas album, but “Home By Another Way” is definitely an Epiphany tune. Let’s listen to a clip from the song. The lyrics will be on the screens, and after the clip, we’ll see how Taylor’s lyrics compare with what we know from Scripture. So here is the first verse and the chorus.

Those magic men the Magi,
Some people call them wise,
Or oriental, even kings,
Well, anyway, those guys,
They visited with Jesus,
They sure enjoyed their stay,
Then warned in a dream of King Herod’s scheme
They went home by another way.

Yes, they went home by another way,
Home by another way,
Maybe me and you can be wise guys, too,
And go home by another way.
We can make it another way,
“Safe home” as they used to say,
Keep a weather eye to the chart on high,
And go home another way.

James Taylor starts off by identifying the Magi by every name they’ve been given—Magi, which could roughly be translated as “magic men,” also known as Wise Men. When Taylor says that some people call them “oriental, even kings,” he’s referring to the carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” They were Wise Men coming from the East—perhaps the Far East, the Orient, Asia—and since they came with expensive gifts, some people have traditionally called them kings.

I think what Taylor misses—and actually what we often miss when we think about Epiphany, too—is that this is the only event in the Bible where magi are thought to be positive or somehow in line with God’s purposes.

There are magi in a lot of other places in Scripture, wise men, astrologers, diviners, and spiritualists who pretend to know answers about the future or how the invisible world works. Yet, every time they show up, God shows them up. Every other time we hear about magi, they’re calling on a false god, telling a king what he wants to hear, or trying to make themselves rich. So when Matthew starts telling this part of the story of Jesus, it would’ve put everyone on edge.

It’s like Rumpelstiltskin who helps a girl spin straw into gold, but turns out to be a dastardly little fellow who demands that the girl give him her first-born son. When Rumpelstiltskin shows up, we are clued in to realize he’s not someone to trust. When Matthew says the Magi come looking for Jesus, the readers would’ve thought they weren’t someone to be trusted.

Except that’s not what happens in Bethlehem. Like Taylor says in his song, “They visited with Jesus,/They sure enjoyed their stay.” In fact, it’s even more positive than that. The Magi bowed down to baby Jesus, they worshipped him, they gave him expensive gifts. These Magi weren’t trying to prove they knew better than Jesus; these Magi weren’t trying to prove their own power. Instead, they came to worship the true God, and as far as we know, they went home to always proclaim the name of Jesus, the King sent from God above.

God sends that star, points to the prophet Micah, tells them to go to Bethlehem so that they can come and worship Jesus. God doesn’t stop them, judge them, or send fire down on them for their evil astrology. Instead, God leads them to the truth, to the True King of Kings, and then God takes it one more step: He warns them in a dream that Herod plans on killing them, so they should go home by another way.

Here’s the core of James Taylor’s song, the chorus which talks about the Magi going home by another way to avoid Herod. They don’t return to Herod like Herod had told them to do. They don’t go and tell Herod where Jesus is. God has changed the hearts of these Wise Men, has brought them to faith in His truth, and so now He guards and keeps them, sending them home safely and meanwhile also making sure that Herod didn’t use the Magi to find Jesus and kill Him.

James Taylor’s song has done alright in telling the story so far, but in the chorus, you realize he’s using this as a metaphor for our lives. He says, “Maybe me and you can be wise guys, too,/And go home by another way…./Keep a weather eye to the chart on high,/And go home another way.”

I like the metaphor, saying that we like the Magi will need to go home another way sometimes, go a different way in our lives to avoid people who may threaten us—specifically threatening our faith, our beliefs, our claim that Jesus is the Lord. In that sense, it’s a good metaphor. God will protect us in our faith, sending us away from the people who might cause us to go away from believing in Jesus.

But James Taylor’s song seems to end up focusing on our actions, on our ability to realize we need to go home another way. He says we should be keeping an eye to the chart on high, which I suppose could mean paying attention to God, but the thing is: the Magi didn’t know to go home by another way because they were paying attention to the stars or their other tricks anymore. They knew to go home by another way, because God sent them a dream, God spoke to them, God intervened in their lives. God used them curiosity about the star to get them to Bethlehem, but once they had realized the truth, once they had seen Jesus, now it wasn’t the talents of the Magi that kept them safe. It was God’s Word in a dream.

In that same way, God might get us curious about Him through a lot of things in our lives. He might even use a song by James Taylor to get us thinking again about Epiphany, but once we realize the truth, once we see again that Jesus is the truth, now it isn’t our talents, our popular culture, our interest in science or figuring it all out that will keep us safe.

Now God protects our faith. God is the One who will send us home by another way. God is the One who will provide a way out of temptation when we thinking about leaving the faith. God is the One who will continue to work His Holy Spirit in our hearts as we travel through dangerous territories, meeting people and being in places that could tear away our belief in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

OK, so I like that James Taylor is telling the story of Epiphany in his song, but I’m not so sure about I like how he uses the metaphor. But I suppose I should give him another chance here to show us more about what he’s saying in the song. Let’s take the second verse.

Steer clear of royal welcomes,
Avoid a big to-do,
A king who would slaughter the innocents
Will not cut a deal for you.
He really, really wants those presents,
He’ll comb your camels fur
Until his boys announce they’ve found trace amounts
Of your frankincense, gold and myrrh.

You see, I started to get down on James Taylor, and then the second verse really tells the story nicely. The reason the Magi need to go home another way is because Herod is not the type of king that’s to be trusted. When he realizes that the Magi weren’t coming back to see him, he issues the order to kill all of the baby boys under the age of two, hoping to kill the new king. Jesus is safe, because God tells Joseph to go with the family to Egypt until it’s safe to come back.

I like how Taylor tells this part of the story, kind of a CSI: Bethlehem type scene. Herod’s men would’ve done what they needed to investigate and interrogate the Magi until they found out the truth about where Jesus was. God was protecting the Magi and Jesus by keeping the Magi far away from Herod and his henchmen.

Let’s try one more verse from James Taylor’s song. This last clip is the third verse.

Well, it pleasures me to be here
And to sing this song tonight,
They tell me that life is a miracle,
And I figured that they’re right.
But Herod’s always out there,
He’s got our cards on file,
It’s a lead pipe cinch if we give an inch
That Herod likes to take a mile.

Taylor’s back to using the Epiphany story as a metaphor for our lives. It seems like he likes the Epiphany story for its miraculous touch. And maybe that’s why Taylor implies we can save ourselves from the Herods in our lives, the people who threaten us. If the Epiphany story is just something about stars and dreams, an unexplained, mysterious force that led these Wise Men to go to Bethlehem and then go home by another way, well, then I suppose we could believe that there’s a mysterious force that’s able to save any of us, too.

Getting through life, getting past the evil Herod people, places, events, and problems in our lives, well, it’s just about tapping into the stars and dreaming the answers. “Keep a weather eye to the chart on high.” Study the stars, learn the signs, mull it over, figure it out. That’s how you’ll get that mysterious help from the invisible world according to the implied message in James Taylor’s song.

Except that’s not what Epiphany is about at all. God used the Wise Men’s natural interest in stars in order to get them to pay attention to the truth, but the stars, the astrology, the false religion, that’s not what saved the Wise Men. It’s not what saved them from Herod, and it’s certainly not what saved from eternal death.

Epiphany is about how God intervened in the world, sent His Son to save the whole world—the whole world, even people from faraway lands who were trusting in false gods for answers. Jesus came to save the whole world, to speak His truth so that everyone would go home by another way for eternity, go home to be with the Father instead of landing in hell.

It’s a fine metaphor to think that the things that threaten us are like Herods, but tonight you don’t have to go to sleep hoping you’ll have the right dream that will save you from those Herods. You’ve already got the answer, the Way that leads past Herod, the Way that leads to life and salvation. You’ve got Jesus, the Way the Truth, and the Life. You don’t need to figure it out yourself; God has sent His Word into your life to lead the way.

You are going home by another way, you are going to eternal life by the Way of Christ. Herod’s always there, but God already outwitted him once. Whatever Herod shows up in your life trying to trick you into giving up the faith, well, God will outwit him, too. You are going home by another way through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.