I Am Sending You (Judges 6:11-24)

The Messenger of the Lord came and sat under the oak tree in Ophrah that belonged to Joash from Abiezer’s family. Joash’s son Gideon was beating out wheat in a winepress to hide it from the Midianites. The Messenger of the Lord appeared to Gideon and said, “The Lord is with you, brave man.”

Gideon responded, “Excuse me, sir! But if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all the miracles our ancestors have told us about? Didn’t they say, ‘The Lord brought us out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and has handed us over to Midian.”

The Lord turned to him and said, “You will rescue Israel from Midian with the strength you have. I am sending you.”

Gideon said to him, “Excuse me, sir! How can I rescue Israel? Look at my whole family. It’s the weakest one in Manasseh. And me? I’m the least important member of my family.”

The Lord replied, “I will be with you. You will defeat Midian as if it were only one man.”

Gideon said to him, “If you find me acceptable, give me a sign that it is really you speaking to me. Don’t leave until I come back. I want to bring my gift and set it in front of you.”

“I will stay until you come back,” he said.

Then Gideon went into his house and prepared a young goat and unleavened bread made with 18 quarts of flour. He put the meat in a basket and the broth in a pot. Then he went out and presented them to the Messenger of the Lord under the oak tree.

The Messenger of the Lord told him, “Take the meat and the unleavened bread, put them on this rock, and pour the broth over them.” Gideon did so. Then the Messenger of the Lord touched the meat and the bread with the tip of the staff that was in his hand. Fire flared up from the rock and burned the meat and the bread. Then the Messenger of the Lord disappeared. That’s when Gideon realized that this had been the Messenger of the Lord. So he said, “Lord God! I have seen the Messenger of the Lord face to face.”

The Lord said to him, “Calm down! Don’t be afraid. You will not die.” So Gideon built an altar there to the Lord. He called it The Lord Calms. To this day it is still in Ophrah, which belongs to Abiezer’s family. (God’s Word Translation)

Today’s story is familiar in more ways than one. It’s a typical interaction between the Lord and the individual. And it’s also the typical way people respond to God, even now in our contemporary world.

Notice how the interaction between the Lord and Gideon unfolds:

The message: The Lord is with you. You are brave.

The pushback: It doesn’t look like the Lord is with our people (and a purposeful ignoring of the bravery thing).

The message: The Lord is sending you (and a purposeful ignoring of the pushback).

The pushback: I’m too weak for that.

The message: The Lord is with you. You got this.

The pushback: It can’t be me. Give me sign.

The message: I will stay. I am with you.

The pushback: I am not acceptable. Here’s an offering.

The message: Chill, dude. You’re wound way too tight. I am with you. You got this.

The acceptance of the message: Here’s an altar to remind me that God is here, and God calms my fear.

Sound familiar? How many times have you had a similar sort of interaction with the Lord?

The message: “Don’t be afraid. The Lord is with you. You have everything you need.” (assurance and reassurance)

The pushback: “Huh!? If I had everything I need, why are my circumstances so hard? Every time I turn around, there’s another adversity staring me in the face!” (ignoring the presence of God)

The message: “Go and make disciples. Love God. Love your neighbor.” (ignoring the bunny trail)

The pushback: “I’m the least gifted person in the world to be doing that sort of ministry.” (goes off point)

The message: “I am with you always until the end of time.” (stays on point)

The pushback: “It can’t be me. Give me a sign.” (i.e. I can’t accept myself, so there’s no way that you do!)

The message: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” (a demonstration of the presence)

The pushback: “I’m not the acceptable person for this… Here, I’ll put something in the offering plate.” (having a hard time wrapping head and heart around God’s grace)

The message: “You are anxious and upset about a great many things. I am with you. You got this.” (still remains on point)

The acceptance of the message: “Here I am, Lord, a living sacrifice.” (now on the same page with the Lord)

Christian ministry is not the absence of doubt or fear; it is doing what the Lord calls us to do, despite the surrounding circumstances.

We are never promised anywhere in Holy Scripture that life will be a bowl of cherries, that somehow circumstances will always be smooth. Instead, we are continually reminded of the promise that God is with us.

It’s the presence of the Lord that makes all the difference. Our abilities, or lack thereof, have nothing to do with the equation. We are already in the image and likeness of God, created with the inner resources to do the will of God.

The Lord is my shepherd;
    I have everything I need. (Psalm 23:1, GNT)

We have everything we need to live a life that pleases God. It was all given to us by God’s own power. (2 Peter 1:3, CEV)

You already have God’s acceptance; you don’t need to earn it.

“I now realize that it is true that God treats everyone on the same basis. Those who fear him and do what is right are acceptable to him, no matter what race they belong to.” (Acts 10:34-35, GNT)

When God promised Abraham and his descendants that the world would belong to him, he did so, not because Abraham obeyed the Law, but because he believed and was accepted as righteous by God. (Romans 4:13, GNT)

Honor God by accepting each other, as Christ has accepted you. (Romans 15:7, CEV)

There’s a lot we don’t know. Yet, what we do know is that God is with us and God has accepted us. And that’s all we need to hang our hat on.

The Ministry of Jesus (Matthew 4:12-23)

Jesus Calls His Disciples by He Qi

When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali—to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
    the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
    Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people living in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
    a light has dawned.”

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.

Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. (New International Version)

What is “ministry”? 

For some, ministry is only about the souls of people; it is seeing as many people respond to the message of salvation in Christ as possible. 

For others, ministry is meeting the tangible needs of people because there is such a breadth and depth of human social and physical problems. 

And, for others, ministry is defined in terms of what takes place within the four walls of a church building, led by pastors and church leaders.

“Ministry takes place when divine resources meet human needs through loving channels to the glory of God.”

Warren Wiersbe

Problems, however, arise whenever we:

  • Focus on one dimension of ministry. Because, in reality, ministry is multidimensional.
  • Fulfill the outward, administrative demands of ministry – without going after the relational heart of what ministry entails. 
  • Forget about whole groups of people who are different than us. Ministry is for everyone, not some.

We need to look at the ministry of Jesus – what he did and why he did it. Christ’s purpose is to be our purpose: Minister to the total life of all people.

Jesus Preaching

Before there were newspapers, CNN, and 24 hour news cycles, ancient people heard what was happening from heralds or preachers who loudly announced in the streets the important news of the day.

Jesus had a ministry to both Jew and Gentile. Although his ministry was chiefly directed toward his fellow Jews, Christ went out of his way to engage Gentiles, as well, with a message of repentance.

Repentance is turning the whole person – body, soul, mind, will, and emotions – from sin and disobedience to God in obedience to the message of Christ. It involves humility, sorrow for sin, and a commitment to following Jesus.

To repent doesn’t mean to manage sin or clean up parts of my life; it’s a radical conversion from an old way of life to a new way of life. Repentance is not simply adding Jesus to our schedule but is a complete change of how we live.

Christianity is a life, not just an event. Following Jesus is a journey, a life-long process of inner transformation; a complete forsaking of anything that does not please God; and a desire to reorient my life around what’s important to God. 

To illustrate this in a contemporary context, I ask, “What does it mean to follow the Green Bay Packers football team?” A fan not only watches all the games from start to finish, but cheers loudly for the Packers; talks about the Packers with everyone, even strangers; and doesn’t cheer for the Chicago Bears! Fans are committed to their team.

The difference, however, between football and Christianity, is that followers of a team are fans, whereas followers of Jesus are not fans in the stands or watching the television. Instead, Christ followers are on the field of play as teammates with Jesus.

So, when it comes to repentance, we turn from being fans of Jesus to followers of Jesus, doing what he did and saying what he said. We are active participants in the kingdom of God – embracing and embodying a message of repentance to new life in Christ.

Jesus Calling

Jesus calling the first disciples illustrates the kingdom message: a radical break with the old life. Each disciple walked away from a good life and embraced of a new life following Jesus.

Some understanding of Jewish culture in the time of Jesus is helpful here. Central to the life of any Jew was the Torah, the Law. Around age 6, Jewish boys would begin to go to the synagogue for schooling in the Torah by the local rabbi. 

This first level of education was called Beth Sefer (“House of the Book”) and would last until about age 10. In those four years, the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, were thoroughly memorized.

By age 10, some of the boys would distinguish themselves as good students and able to handle Torah. So, they would continue on in the second level of schooling called Beth Talmud (“House of Learning”). Those that did not continue with school would then learn the family trade and become an apprentice. Those that went on with school would then memorize the rest of the Old Testament.

At about age 14, only the best of the best were studying Torah. At the completion of their studies, they would apply to a well-known rabbi in order to become his disciple. The goal of this third level was to become just like the rabbi. This was called Beth Midrash (“House of Study”). The rabbi essentially interviews the teenager to find out if he has the stuff to become like the rabbi. 

If the rabbi believes the kid doesn’t have it in him, he tells him to go back to the family business. If, however, the rabbi grills the kid and finds he has what it takes, then he will say to him, “Come, follow me.” It was considered a great privilege and opportunity, and the teenager would leave everything to literally follow the rabbi everywhere he went.

Now, let’s return to Christ’s disciples. Jesus calls Andrew, Peter, James, and John. At the time, they were fishing because they were fishermen. That meant somewhere along the line they didn’t have what it took to further their education, or to follow a rabbi. 

Let’s, then, not miss the import and impact of Jesus saying to them, “Come, follow me!”  Jesus is expressing a belief that these men can become just like him. Well, of course you drop your nets and follow him! Jesus believes I can be like him! Jesus took a group of young men who couldn’t make the grade and used them to change human history. 

Jesus also says the same thing to you and me: I choose you. Come, follow me. 

Christ believed in us before we believed in him. Yes, Jesus believes you can do all the work of embodying the very words of God and becoming like him.

The attitude here is not, “Oh, geez, I have to go do ministry,” as if I were a teenager who was just asked to do the dishes. Rather, the attitude is of privilege and opportunity. If we fail to view ministry in this way, then we must come back to the message of repentance and have an attitude adjustment. People who follow Jesus do so because they get to, not because they have to.

Jesus Healing

            Envision yourself walking with Jesus and following him. You observe several things about his ministry of healing:

  • Jesus heals every problem. Christ has the power and authority to do so.
  • Jesus heals the whole person – not just the physical, or just the spiritual.
  • Jesus heals people whether they repent or not. Christ never made repentance a prerequisite for healing. He heals simply because he wants to.
  • Jesus heals to defeat the devil. Christ continually looks to reverse the hold that sin has on people.
  • Jesus chose to focus on healing the destitute, the poor, and the disadvantaged – rather than directing ministry to the higher classes and royalty to mediate his wishes to the people.

Who are the people – the least, the lonely, the lost – in need of healing in your family, neighborhood, and community?

  1. Those who are ill with various diseases
  2. Those suffering severe pain – of body, mind, emotion, and spirit
  3. The demon possessed or demonically influenced
  4. Prisoners and ex-convicts
  5. The working poor, and the elderly poor
  6. Those in the hospital with no one to visit them
  7. Those who grieve alone
  8. Those with addictions and behavioral issues
  9. Victims of verbal or physical abuse
  10. And many, many more….

Jesus had a ministry of both word and deed. To follow Christ is to become like him and pass on what we have learned to reliable people who will do the same.

Why Did Jesus Come? (Matthew 9:14-17)

Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?”

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.

“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (New International Version)

The late Abigail Van Buren, better known in her day as the columnist, “Dear Abby,” was the person who made famous the phrase, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints.”

We occasionally need words like Dear Abby’s that are reminders of why Christians and Churches exist in the first place. The Church does not remain on this earth solely for its own benefit, any more than a hospital exists for the benefit of doctors or insurance companies. 

The Church exists to extend the mission of Jesus through proclamation of the gospel, the good news of forgiveness and new life in Christ. The Church calls people who are ensnared, entrapped, and in bondage to guilt and shame, and who need the restorative touch of grace. 

Our calling is not to find out what others can do for us (e.g. tithing and attendance) but what we can do for others. That’s why we are the continuing presence of Jesus on this earth as the temple of the Holy Spirit. 

Even though I am a church pastor, it is not my church. The church is not your church. It is Christ’s Church and we are to act in accordance with that truth.

Some of you reading this blog post are unhealthy. Some of you are sick with sin; some are heart-sick; others are just plain sick and tired of being sick and tired. Jesus (nor me!) is not looking to heap on you a load of expectations and guilt for things you are not doing; but instead is pointing you to the source of healing and change and inviting you to admit your need and come to him. 

Conversely, you may be healthy, spiritually alive and well. Therefore, it’s your job to roll up your sleeves and serve, to participate fully in the mission of Jesus for the church and the world.

Why did Jesus come? 

Jesus came to set up a new structure that could embrace his mission of bringing new life to people.

Christ used the occasion of John’s disciples asking him about fasting to communicate that his mission of reaching people through mercy and forgiveness will need a significant structural change. 

The two illustrations Jesus used – cloth and wineskins – is to simply point out that old and new wineskins are incompatible; and old and new pieces of cloth don’t go together. I would put it this way: You don’t put a new collar on a dead dog.

The Lord Jesus didn’t come to this earth just to perpetuate the status quo; he didn’t enter this world through the incarnation to simply dress up the Jewish religion, or to make a few minor adjustments to what already is going on. No! Christ came to change the old and do something new so that his mission could go forward through us.

We need a structural system which can accommodate the finished work of Jesus on the cross.

The entire sacrificial system and ritual laws of the Old Testament were only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings – external regulations applying until the time of the new order.(Hebrews 9:10)

Christ is the one who arranges a new covenant, so that those who have been called by God may receive the eternal blessings that God has promised. This can be done because there has been a death which sets people free from the wrongs they did while the first covenant was in effect. (Hebrews 9:15, GNT)

Jesus canceled the first covenant in order to put the second into effect; the old is obsolete and has served it’s purpose. Now, Christ’s new covenant is in effect – a system big enough to hold the mission of the Church. (Hebrews 8:13; 10:9)

I wonder:

  • Is there anything in your life or in your church that is obsolete?
  • Is there a practice, ministry, system, or structure that is ineffective and not contributing to the mission that Jesus has for us in reaching others? 
  • Are there any dead dogs you keep trying to prop up on its legs?
  • Are you focused on what is important to Jesus? Do you know what’s important to him?
  • Do you keep performing the same rituals over and over because that is what you’ve always done?
  • What needs to change in your life to accommodate the mission of Jesus?

If the mission of Jesus is to occur we must develop:

  1. A relationship with Jesus. Engaging in spiritual disciplines of prayer, giving, fasting, reading and meditating on Scripture, are activities that put us in a position to know Christ better and respond to what is important to him.
  2. Relationships with each other that are not superficial but help one another to grow in Christ. We need to hold one another accountable for how the mission of Jesus is being accomplished, or not.
  3. Relationships with those outside of the church. This world is filled with sick, needy, hurting, lonely, unhealthy people who are stuck. They need a major change of life that can come from Jesus working through his followers. 

May it be so. Soli Deo Gloria.

Good News for All (Acts 8:26-40)

11th century Byzantine depiction of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch

An angel from the Lord said to Philip, “Get up, and take the desert road that goes south from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So Philip went.

An Ethiopian man who had come to Jerusalem to worship was on his way home. The man was a eunuch, a high-ranking official in charge of all the treasures of Queen Candace of Ethiopia. As the official rode along in his carriage, he was reading the prophet Isaiah out loud.

The Spirit said to Philip, “Go to that carriage, and stay close to it.”

Philip ran to the carriage and could hear the official reading the prophet Isaiah out loud. Philip asked him, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”

The official answered, “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” So he invited Philip to sit with him in his carriage.

This was the part of the Scriptures that the official was reading:

“He was led like a lamb to the slaughter.
He was like a sheep that is silent
when its wool is cut off.
He didn’t open his mouth.
When he humbled himself,
he was not judged fairly.
Who from his generation
will talk about his life on earth being cut short?”

The official said to Philip, “I would like to know who the prophet is talking about. Is he talking about himself or someone else?” Then Philip spoke. Starting with that passage, Philip told the official the Good News about Jesus.

As they were going along the road, they came to some water. The official said to Philip, “Look, there’s some water. What can keep me from being baptized?”  The official ordered the carriage to stop. He and Philip stepped into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they had stepped out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away. The official joyfully continued on his way and didn’t see Philip again.

Philip found himself in the city of Azotus. He traveled through all the cities and spread the Good News until he came to the city of Caesarea. (God’s Word Translation)

We are in the Christian season of Epiphany – a time of celebrating that the light of the Lord has been given not only to Jews but to Gentiles, as well. The good news of mercy, forgiveness, salvation, and peace in Jesus Christ is for everyone, and not just some.

So, we have a very appropriate story in today’s New Testament lesson illustrating God’s grace for those who have been typically the “outsiders” when it comes to the worship of God.

God’s grace is really a merciful divine intervention into another’s life, providing something a person or group needs, yet cannot obtain on their own.

Philip, one of the original twelve disciples of Jesus, received instructions from the angel of the Lord. Take a certain road. That’s it. No other explanation. The command is, however, full of grace. Most of us don’t do all that well with multiple instructions given at once. We do much better with a single imperative at a time.

And so, the next piece of guidance came as Philip was taking the road from Jerusalem south to Gaza. Go hang out around a certain carriage. Philip needed no more direction after that; he took to what was happening.

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch by Herbert Boeckl

Maybe reading the story from our contemporary perspective hinders us from seeing just how scandalous and unthinkable the story was for people in the first century. Jews and Gentiles didn’t hang out with each other; and, if they did, there were all sorts of rules regulating how the interaction would go.

We really don’t have any of this with Philip. He simply emulates his Lord and ignores societal and cultural mores to meet the need of someone very different than himself.

An Ethiopian man was in Jerusalem and heading back home. He was an official in the Queen of Ethiopia’s court, and a eunuch (a castrated official). He was a person of color with a mutilated body and could have very well been of a different gender than Philip was used to. In other words, he was about as foreign from Philip as one can get.

Yet, what better way to communicate that the gospel is for everyone? Philip had learned from Jesus not to adopt the divisions of race, religion, and gender that others did. See, instead, with spiritual eyes to the heart of a person.

And this Ethiopian eunuch had a heart curious about God, a mind trying to understand God’s words, and a gut that told him this guy approaching me for whom I don’t know and isn’t from my country is perhaps God’s messenger to me.

That’s what I call a divine appointment.

Those divine encounters always result in changed lives. I believe both the Ethiopian and Philip were changed that day. The only way that any of us truly changes is through the interaction with others different from ourselves.

The good news of Jesus is for all. If, however, we remain in a closed system which is not open to others of differing cultures and communities, then we harden into believing the gospel is for us, and not them.

Christianity is not, therefore, an exclusive club made up of insiders who demonize outsiders as not looking, acting, or thinking like we do. We already have plenty of that insidious junk in the world. At its inception, Christianity was different. And, I believe, it needs to keep that edge of reaching out to all persons with a life-giving message of salvation and peace – not a death-dealing sermon of Christian cultural hegemony.

Good news for all people everywhere means that proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ needs to occur for all nations and ethnic peoples. It’s a message of grace, not judgment; of mercy, not threats; of open love, not closed hate.

Philip and the Ethiopian show us the way through their sensitivity to the divine, their open dialogue with one another, and their shared commitment to doing what is right and serving the Lord. Philip was a guide, not a conqueror. And the Ethiopian became a follower of Jesus, not Philip.

Let’s make sure to keep it straight; and to keep reaching out.

Lord God, thank you that in love and mercy, you reached out to us – and that when we were dead in our sins, you sent Jesus to make us alive. Thank you that you have a heart that seeks the lost. Thank you for saving us.

Give us hearts that care for the people who are in darkness and need the light of Christ. Teach us to care for them as you do. Grow us to care for the common good of all humanity. 

Help your Church everywhere to know and love you; and to invite others into your divine dance. May our conversations with others be seasoned with salt and full of grace; may our relationships show people the love of Jesus. May our hearts reflect your own heart, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.