Matthew 28:18-20 – Where Will We Do Our Ministry?

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (New International Version)

We will do our ministry by going and jumping into the people’s lives who are in our neighborhood and community. To “go” doesn’t exclusively mean to travel to another place. It mostly involves the willingness to get up, go, and walk across the street, or even just across the room.

Tony Campolo is a Christian preacher, professor emeritus, and author. He tells of once being in a city doing some business and could not sleep. So, he found a greasy spoon diner that was open all night. He retells his experience this way:

“As I sat munching on my donut and sipping my coffee at 3:30 in the morning, the door of the diner suddenly swung open and, to my discomfort, in marched eight or nine boisterous prostitutes. It was a small place, and they sat on either side of me. Their talk was loud and crude. I felt completely out of place and was just about to make my getaway when I overheard the woman beside me say:

“Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be 39.”  Her “friend” responded in a nasty tone, “So what do you want from me, a birthday party?”

“I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”

I sat and waited until the women had left. Then I called over the large man behind the counter named Harry, and I asked him, “Do they come in here every night?”

“Yeah!” he answered.

“The one right next to me, does she come here every night?”

“Yeah!” he said. “That’s Agnes. Yeah, she comes in here every night. Why do you want to know?”

“Because I heard her say that tomorrow is her birthday,” I told him. “What do you say you and I do something about that? What do you think about us throwing a birthday party for her—right here—tomorrow night?”

Calling to his wife, who did the cooking in the back room, Harry shouted, “Hey! Come out here! This guy’s got a great idea. Tomorrow’s Agnes’s birthday. This guy wants us to go in with him and throw a birthday party for her—right here—tomorrow night!”

His wife came out of the back room all bright and smiley. She said, “That’s wonderful! You know Agnes is one of those people who is really nice and kind, and nobody does anything nice and kind for her.”

“Look,” I told them, “if it’s okay with you, I’ll get back here tomorrow morning about 2:30 and decorate the place. I’ll even get a birthday cake!”

“No way,” said Harry. “The birthday cake’s my thing. I’ll make the cake.”

At 2:30 the next morning, I was back at the diner. I had picked up some crepe-paper decorations at the store and had made a sign out of big pieces of cardboard that read, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” I decorated the diner from one end to the other.

The woman who did the cooking must have gotten the word out on the street, because by 3:15 every prostitute in the city was in the place. It was wall-to-wall prostitutes and me!

At 3:30 on the dot, the door of the diner swung open, and in came Agnes and her friend. I had everybody ready, and when they came in, we all screamed, “Happy birthday!”

Her mouth fell open. As she was led to sit on one of the stools along the counter, we all sang “Happy Birthday”‘ to her. As we came to the end of our singing with “happy birthday, dear Agnes, happy birthday to you,” her eyes moistened. Then, when the birthday cake with all the candles on it was carried out, she lost it and just openly cried.

Harry gruffly mumbled, “Blow out the candles, Agnes! Come on! Blow out the candles!”  Agnes looked down at the cake. Then without taking her eyes off it, she slowly and softly said, “Look, Harry, is it all right with you if I keep the cake a little while? I mean, is it all right if we don’t eat it right away?”

Harry shrugged and answered, “Sure! It’s O.K. If you want to keep the cake, keep the cake. Take it home if you want to.”

“Can I?” she asked. Then, looking at me, she said, “I live just down the street a couple of doors. I want to take the cake home, okay? I’ll be right back. Honest!”

She got off the stool, picked up the cake, and carrying it like it was the Holy Grail, walked slowly toward the door. As we all just stood there motionless, she left.

When the door closed, there was a stunned silence in the place. Not knowing what else to do, I broke the silence by saying, “What do you say we pray?”

I prayed for Agnes. I prayed for her salvation. I prayed that her life would be changed, and that God would be good to her.

When I finished, Harry leaned over the counter and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he said, “Hey! You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?” In one of those moments when just the right words came, I answered:

“I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”

Harry waited a moment and then almost sneered as he answered, “No you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that!”

My friends, that’s the kind of church Jesus came to create!  We may not know any prostitutes, but there are people around us who need basic human kindness expressed in basic caring actions, no matter who they are.

Many people want nothing to do with church or Christians because they believe they’ll be given judgment instead of justice.

Its important where we are located. God has sovereignly placed us there. So, we need to be attentive and listen to the people and the neighbors God put around us, no matter who they are. To ignore them is to treat the Great Commission of Jesus as if it were the Great Omission.

One of the best ways to be missionally rooted in the place we are planted is to walk the community, be in it, and hang out. Developing an understanding of what’s going on and being connected to the issues a neighborhood is facing, is key to building neighborhood credibility and demonstrating that we really do care about the people, whomever they are.

Photo by Maria Orlova on Pexels.com

Discovering what people care about doesn’t necessarily mean we need to do something for them but with them. To go most often involves going where the people are – getting to know them and being a friend.

Whenever a pastor or parishioner becomes someone the community knows, neighborhood residents will share their hopes and concerns. The church can be the center of community life, going out and opening up to the neighborhood.

Often, we might focus on what’s lacking, what’s not there, the deficits within a person, family, or community – instead of looking for the assets, what is there already, and what is going right. It’s wise to begin with the good things already happening, the potential which already exists, and the dreams people have for the future of their place.

In focusing on what’s already there, here are some things we begin to see:

  1. Each person having a contribution to make, no matter who they are.
  2. Relationships building the community.
  3. People being active participants in developing what is good, right, and just, rather than passive recipients.
  4. Everyone can get involved because everyone has a meaningful place in the community.
  5. People caring and not apathetic about the neighborhood.
  6. Making decisions with everyone’s voice being valued.
  7. Asking for ideas is better than giving solutions.
  8. Folks doing the work are given authority and power.
  9. People mentoring others and building into their lives.

All of this requires getting to know local businesses, neighborhood associations, healthcare institutions, places of worship, schools, and cultural groups, as well as the individual talents of those within them.

We are to serve others, rather than imposing our own agendas on them. This is how we begin making disciples, that is, developing people who follow the words and ways of Jesus.

And it all begins with the command by our Lord to go….

Lord Jesus Christ, let your presence fill our hearts and overflow through our actions so that we may proclaim the good news of your Kingdom. Fill us with your compassion and insight to respond to human need with loving service. Let the fire of your goodness and justice burn into us and through us so that we may seek to transform the unjust structures of society. Guide us to renew and sustain the life of your creation.

Almighty God, in our baptism you adopted us for your own. Renew us by your Spirit in body, soul, and mind so that we may worship you in sincerity and truth, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

A Big Glorious Vision of Worship

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
    the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook, and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:1-8, NIV)

Uzziah was a king of Judah who reigned for fifty-two years. For most of his rule, he followed God faithfully. Under Uzziah the Jews had enjoyed the best political stability, economic security, and consistent worship of God since the days of King Solomon, hundreds of years before. 

Yet, if one were to look below the surface of Judah, it was also a time of spiritual complacency, apathy in worship, taking prosperity for granted, and self-centered – often oppressing others. The nation needed a fresh experience of God, and it came through the prophet Isaiah.

The essence of worship is a recognition and celebration of the triune God. Worship is a relational rhythm between God and humanity in which God self-reveals and people respond.

Worship is an experience of seeing and hearing divine revelation; repenting from wayward actions; and renewing missional service.

Worshiping the triune God ideally happens every day. It’s a lifestyle – not the result of one cleverly planned hour on Sunday. The people of Isaiah’s day were going through the ritual motions of worship without having their hearts in it. Worship was a kind of rabbit’s foot for them in which, if they had regular attendance within the temple, they believed they could do whatever they wanted with their lives outside the temple. 

As a result, the people did not see or hear God in their worship. Authentic worship of God does not have to do with the environment, the fellowship, or the music. True worship of the triune God is a heart desire to see and hear God. 

If worship does not happen in the sanctuary, that is because worship fails to occur daily life. Real worship is a life-changing encounter with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It experiences God’s revelation and changes our view of him. Bona fide worship leads to repentance and changes our view of self. True worship brings spiritual renewal and changes our view of mission and service.

Revelation: Worship Changes Our View of God

Isaiah saw a vision of God in the majestic divine throne room. It was a grand and transcendent vision of a God who dominates the entire setting. The train of God’s robe filled the temple. This is Isaiah’s way of saying the vision was incredibly large. If the train of his robe fills up the temple, then God is an immense Being. Gaining a vision of God’s hugeness is what causes our human problems to be seen as small. 

One time the Assyrian King Sennacherib invaded the land and approached Jerusalem during the reign of Uzziah’s great grandson, Hezekiah. The Assyrians were the dreaded horde of the ancient world, and it seemed no one could withstand them. So, the people prayed:

King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz cried out in prayer to heaven about this. And the Lord sent an angel, who annihilated all the fighting men and the commanders and officers in the camp of the Assyrian king… So, the Lord saved Hezekiah and the people of Jerusalem from the hand of Sennacherib king of Assyria and from the hand of all others. God took care of them on every side. (2 Chronicles 32:20-22, NIV)

Isaiah’s vision included seraphs – angels with the job description to glorify God with ceaseless praise. Their physical description symbolizes their function: covering their face symbolizes humility in God’s presence; covering their feet identifies it as holy ground; and flying symbolizes their work to do God’s will.

The seraphs have two-thirds wing power for worship, and one-third wing power for work. If this is any indication how God’s creatures are to conduct their lives, we as humans have a great deal of adjusting to do to accommodate the worship of God.

The sound of worship that came from the seraphs was proclaiming God’s holiness. Isaiah’s view of God changed as a result. As he saw God’s glory, Isaiah saw God as much bigger than he had before. For example, European visitors who come to the United States sometimes have no frame of reference as to how spacious the geography of our country is.

Some have a notion they can make day trips to places like San Francisco, Houston, or New York City because where they live is much more geographically compact. But once they get here, they experience the land in all its glory, and they gain an appreciation for the bigness of America. We all need to experience God’s glory and see God’s holiness because it will cause us to repent of old ways of seeing.

Repentance: Worship Changes Our View of Self

Isaiah was reduced to nothing after seeing a vision of the holy God. Humans cannot see God’s glory without also seeing their sinful selves. Isaiah’s response to God was not praise, but confession. Show me a proud, self-centered, and arrogant person and I will show you a person who has not seen God. Isaiah was unable to cleanse his own sin. Isaiah needed God to purge and purify his uncleanness. The New Testament says:

If we live in the light in the same way as he is in the light, we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from every sin… If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong. (1 John 1:7, 9, CEB)

Seeing God completely unravels us, for we see our depravity for what it truly is:

  • When the Apostle Peter saw the Lord’s immensity and power through a miraculous catch of fish he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man.” (Luke 5:8) 
  • When the Apostle John had a vision of Christ’s glory, and heard his voice, he fell at the Lord’s feet as though dead. (Revelation 1:12-17)
  • When the prophet Ezekiel had a vision of God and saw the appearance of God’s glory, he fell facedown. (Ezekiel 1:25-28)
  • Even Daniel, perhaps the most righteous prophet of all time, when seeing a vision of God’s glory, fell prostrate with his face to the ground, totally overwhelmed with God’s holiness and his own human sinfulness. (Daniel 8:15-18)

There is wickedness and indifference in the world. People do not see God’s glory and holiness. Because, if they did, they would be totally undone and see the foulness and degradation of hate and injustice. They would turn from apathetic and complacent ways of living. The world and the church need a vision of a holy God that comes from meeting with God. Isaiah saw the Lord. And because he repented, he was then able to hear the voice of God.

Renewal: Worship Changes Our View of Service

God is calling us. God’s voice has gone out. If we do not hear it, it’s because we have not experienced God’s self-revealing and have not responded with repentance. Apart from worship, we are unable to hear God. While Isaiah was worshiping God, he saw, responded, and heard the Lord. The early church heard the voice of God to service and mission:

The church at Antioch had several prophets and teachers…. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit told them, “Appoint Barnabas and Saul to do the work for which I have chosen them.” Everyone prayed and fasted for a while longer. Next, they placed their hands on Barnabas and Saul to show that they had been appointed to do this work. Then everyone sent them on their way. (Acts 13:1-3, CEV)

Isaiah was willing. He didn’t ask any clarifying questions. He neither inquired what the mission would be nor questioned God as to the plan. Isaiah plainly said, “Here I am, send me.”  It was an unconditional response to hearing God. Isaiah made no deals with God, did not try and negotiate terms of service. Isaiah simply told God he was willing to be sent. 

Many people fill their lives with stuff and activity. And they are unable to hear the voice of God. There’s just too much noise drowning out God. We have uncritically, without any discernment through prayer and worship, filled our lives to overflowing with never-ending things to do. And we have even sanctified it and called it holy, as if God’s will for us is to be constantly on the go.

Someday, we must give an account of our lives. God will ask why we did not take a risk, get involved, and go out into the world with a deep sense of mission. Too many people will say, “I never heard the call!” Yet, God was calling. “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” says the triune God.

Conclusion

God’s glory was revealed to Isaiah. Isaiah responded to that vision with confession and repentance. This brought a renewed sense of mission to his life. Isaiah was then able to hear God’s voice calling him to service. It is not our ability God cares about. Because God can equip anybody for any type of work. Instead, it is our availability God cares about.

We need to put ourselves in a position to see and hear God. The obstacles to visioning God’s glory and hearing God’s voice are legion: inattention to God’s Word and God’s creation; no mindfulness to the Holy Spirit; intense, constant, and prolonged preoccupations; lack of availability to the ways of Jesus; little sleep; unhealthy habits; a dull spiritual sense; lack of personal and divine awareness; a paucity of spiritual practices and disciplines; and a failure to be able to experience a vision of God.

God has graciously revealed himself to us as Father, Son, and Spirit. The Trinity is not so much a doctrine to believe as it is a powerful reality to live into. If we see and hear God today it will cause us to repent and be renewed in mission and service.

*Above painting of the prophet Isaiah by Marc Chagall, 1968

Isaiah 49:5-15 – Restoration

Even before I was born,
    the Lord God chose me
to serve him and to lead back
    the people of Israel.
So the Lord has honored me
    and made me strong.

Now the Lord says to me,
“It isn’t enough for you
    to be merely my servant.
You must do more than lead back
survivors
from the tribes
    of Israel.
I have placed you here as a light
    for other nations;
you must take my saving power
    to everyone on earth.

Israel, I am the holy Lord God,
    the one who rescues you.
You are slaves of rulers
and of a nation
    who despises you.
Now this is what I promise:
Kings and rulers will honor you
    by kneeling at your feet.
You can trust me! I am your Lord,
the holy God of Israel,
    and you are my chosen ones.”

This is what the Lord says:
    “I will answer your prayers
because I have set a time
when I will help
    by coming to save you.
I have chosen you
to take my promise of hope
    to other nations.
You will rebuild the country
    from its ruins,
then people will come
    and settle there.
You will set prisoners free
from dark dungeons
    to see the light of day.

On their way home,
they will find plenty to eat,
    even on barren hills.
They won’t go hungry
    or get thirsty;
they won’t be bothered
by the scorching sun
    or hot desert winds.
I will be merciful
while leading them along
    to streams of water.
I will level the mountains
    and make roads.
Then my people will return
    from distant lands
in the north and the west
    and from the city of Syene.

Tell the heavens and the earth
    to celebrate and sing;
command every mountain
    to join in the song.”
The Lord’s people have suffered,
but he has shown mercy
    and given them comfort.

The people of Zion said,
“The Lord has turned away
    and forgotten us.”

The Lord answered,
“Could a mother forget a child
    who nurses at her breast?
Could she fail to love an infant
    who came from her own body?
Even if a mother could forget,
    I will never forget you.” (CEV)

Restoration is a major theme in the prophetic books of the Old Testament. In today’s lesson, God speaks of bringing Israel back to her original calling and purpose. This would be accomplished through the nation of Israel and focused upon God’s Servant, the Lord’s Messiah. The scope and vision of what the Savior would do is enunciated by God: rescue people, lead them home, and show unending mercy. The Servant of the Lord is made a light for the nations so that God’s salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

Messiah is more than a Jewish thing. The Christian tradition discerns Jesus as the Servant, the Savior of both Jews, and Gentiles – Christ is given to reach the entire planet. The incarnation of Christ was meant for more than gathering Israel together, as if it were some sort of Bill Gaither Homecoming tour. Rather, Messiah’s place and power is so significant that it is to be shared with everyone in the world.  Although Israel was to be a holy entity and separate from the surrounding culture, their mandate had always been to be a light to the nations.

This has great import for Christ’s Church and every individual believer in Jesus. The church is much more than a country club which only caters to club functions and members. The church is a missional community with an outward focus, as well. It has always been God’s vision to reach the nations. The Lord wants more than one group of people; God wants everyone. Along with caring for its own, the church is designed as a missionary enterprise which puts significant resources into shining the light of Christ to every nook and cranny of creation.

However, we are a wounded people living in a culture whose first response to differing voices is to accuse, attack, and injure. Our hurts are carried by all of us collectively and personally, and it gives rise to bitterness, isolation, and resentment. When our hope runs dry, we become marked by cynicism, apathy, and escapism.

The vision of Isaiah gives us an alternative approach. Reflection on God’s mercy, salvation, and loving guidance leads to repentance; repentance of our unholy thoughts, words, and deeds leads to a restoration of our true calling as missionaries of faith, hope, and love to the broken world around us. Restoration brings healing of the stresses and anxieties that plague our planet, and ourselves. 

Since God has a missionary heart, all of God’s people are missionaries to the world. It behooves each believer, then, to be taught, trained, and led into God’s restorative mission to the nations. Let us build caring relationships and extend loving actions both to those within the church and toward those outside of Christian fellowship so that God’s intentions are carried out. For we know that not one person on planet earth is forgotten by God.

Restoring God, you bring us back to close relation and fellowship so that we might extend your gracious purposes throughout the world.  Revive us again, God, so that we can hear your call to the nations through our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Philippians 1:3-14 – Unity Through Shared Purpose

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare even more to proclaim the gospel without fear. (NIV)

Physical health does not just happen. Care of the body is necessary through eating well, exercising, and coping adequately with stress. In the same way, spiritual health and care for the Body of Christ occurs when we put every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).

When spiritual health breaks down in the Body of Christ there are divided loyalties, unhappiness, and disunity. And this is precisely what happened in the ancient Philippian Church. They were spiritually sick and relationally fragmented through inattention to one another.

Unity is much more than the absence of division. It is a common community, sharing life together, working on supporting one another and reaching out to others. In our New Testament lesson for today, the Apostle Paul begins his letter with emphasizing that the Body of Christ realizes unity through a shared purpose of embracing the good news of Jesus Christ and proclaiming it to others.

Every pronoun, each “you” used in these verses is not singular but plural. We are meant to establish our common life together around a shared mission of gospel proclamation: The kingdom of God is near. Through repentance and faith in the person and work of Jesus there is forgiveness of sins, new life, and participation in the life of God. The mission is not for larger church attendance, although that is nice and may happen; it isn’t to do more, or to get other people to stop swearing or avoid tattoos.

The Apostle Paul knew that without a focus on mission, on sharing the good news with each other and proclaiming the gospel to others, that the lack of purpose would create spiritual sickness. Apart from a deliberate focus on centering life and mission around the person and work of Christ, a group of people just nit-pick one another to death with all their various opinions and wants.

Wherever there is an absence of shared purpose, there you will find constant complaining, endless arguing, and a bunch of crotchety curmudgeons who nobody wants to be around.

Conversely, with a polestar on mission, the community of the redeemed work together in close fellowship with the result being joy. Happy people are a breath of fresh air to be around. A good healthy spirit is a delight to others. In fact, folks will find hope and healing through a common purpose of life together which imbibes liberally from the redemptive events of Jesus.

Good news is fun to share. It is joyful. The gospel of Jesus Christ is wonderful news, worthy of exuberant celebration. The Apostle Paul had fond memories of his partnership in the gospel with the Philippian believers. Although he had been jailed and beaten, Paul joyously sang in the prison – to the point where the jailer took notice and listened to the good news of new life in Christ. The jailer and his entire family became followers of Jesus. (Acts 16:16-34)

The Philippians were Paul’s spiritual children. They had sacrificed with Paul toward the shared vision of proclaiming good news. So, Paul wanted them to remember their own significant events of coming to faith, enjoying fellowship together, and working toward common objectives. In reminding the Philippian believers, Paul hoped to help get their heads screwed on straight again. He was confident this would happen, having an unshakable belief that God would continue the good work started within them.

This confidence was the basis of Paul’s prayers for the church. He beseeched God to unleash the Philippians’ collective love in a grand experiential knowledge of the divine so that they might discern well, making solid decisions which place the gospel as central to all of life.

There is an incredible depth to human need – a deep spiritual longing for what is good and beautiful. Relational unity brings out the beauty and majesty of humanity. Sometimes we just need to recall past days when this was true of us when we are facing animosity and acrimony.

In times of frustration, anger, demonstrations, riots, violence (both physical and verbal) and injustice, we desperately need a vision of humanity which locks arms in unity without vilifying one another.

When we place priority on the good news, I believe we will again discover the joy of life, of knowing Christ. Perhaps, with a watching world observing basic human kindness and joyful relations, we will find ways of being better together and working toward the common good of all persons. And methinks, Jesus wants to help with this, if we will only let him.

May the risen and ascended Lord strengthen our efforts to mend the ruptures of the past and to meet the challenges of the present with hope in the future. May we embrace the grace which a sovereign God holds out to us and to our world. Amen.