Monday, July 20, 2015

We're On A Mission from God

A sermon that was preached in July 2013 about Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

“We’re on a mission from God.”[1]  In the 1980 movie “The Blues Brothers,” Elwood Blues (played by Dan Akroyd) says this several times to explain the seemingly crazy quest they’re on.  He and his brother Jake (played by John Belushi) are trying to put their old band back together so they can put on a concert to raise money to save the orphanage in which Jake and Elwood grew up.  They were in church when they got the idea and Elwood is convinced that God has sent them on this mission.

Saving an orphanage is a good mission.   Missions like that can be part of the overarching story that the Bible tells us—of God’s mission to redeem the world.   God’s mission is much bigger than one issue--it encompasses a lot of issues--but God’s mission often gets executed on a much smaller scale—through people like Jake and Elwood, and people like you and me.
Our scripture reading today from the gospel of Luke helps us to see this.

It’s Everybody’s Mission
Luke is the only gospel writer to include the story of Jesus sending out the seventy.  Maybe that’s because one of Luke’s purposes in writing his gospel seems to be to show how the gospel transcends boundaries and is for all people.   Luke is a gentile, and he makes sure to include the stories about Jesus that show how the good news of the gospel is for all people—rich and poor, Jew and gentile, tax collector and Pharisee.  With this story, Luke is also making sure we see that the job of spreading the good news is for all people.

70 people get sent out to go to the towns between Galilee and Jerusalem.  70 is a significant number, not just because it’s a lot of people, but also because 70 is the number of nations represented in the genealogy in Genesis 10 that describes the lineage of the fathers of the nations that came to populate the Middle East.  70 is also the number of people that were in Jacob’s family when they went to Egypt to settle in the land of Goshen, the place that Joseph had arranged for them to live in order to survive the famine that had gripped the area.  Those 70 became the nation of Israel.  And 70 is also the number of elders that Moses appointed to go with him on Mount Sinai to worship God (Ex 24).  70 is a number that points beyond the 12 apostles and to the greater involvement of all of us in God’s mission.
Paul tells us in his second letter to the Corinthians that we are all Christ’s ambassadors, “as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:20).
The harvest is plentiful
Jesus tells the 70 that the harvest is plentiful.  We often pay attention to the largeness of that statement—that there are plenty of people who need to hear the gospel.  Where we live, it seems like everybody already knows about Jesus, so we may feel like the work here has already been done.  But when we’re out in the world doing what we do every day—going to work or school, going to the store or out to eat—we don’t know which people know Jesus and which people just know about Jesus.  And we don’t know which people have turned away from Jesus, or have come to believe that Jesus can’t love them because they’re not good enough.  Or maybe are just having a rough day and need a reminder that there’s still hope. 

Jesus made a point of using a farming metaphor in this statement.  It’s the harvest that is plentiful.  There’s an urgency in that statement that we might miss.  The farmers and gardeners among you know that when the crops are ready—when the fruit is ready to be picked or the vegetables are ready to come out of the garden—there is a limited window in which to do that harvesting because if you leave them too long they’ll get too ripe or rotten, or animals or bugs will eat them and they’ll be lost.  You have to act quickly or you miss the opportunity.  In translating that to spreading the gospel, we’re often told that our reason for urgency is that we don’t know when Jesus is coming again.  It’s true, we don’t.  But we also don’t know what’s going to happen in our own lives tomorrow, and we don’t know what’s going to happen in the lives of the people around us tomorrow…or even later today.  Even though we see some people every day, we don’t know whether we have a limited window of opportunity or not.  Some of the people we see today we may not see again simply because we won’t cross paths with them again.  Or even if we do see them, the circumstances that made today a good day to talk to them may not exist the next time we see them.  Peter, in his letter, urges us to  always be prepared to …give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).  Make the most of every opportunity!
Ask the Lord to send workers
It might seem odd that Jesus includes the next statement in his instructions to these 70—“ask the Lord to send workers”—since these 70 ARE workers.  One reason might be that they are going to need to invite people to help them, so that they can accomplish even more than they would do on their own.  Also, though, this emphasizes the need for prayer.  Asking the Lord is praying.  We don’t know what’s going on in the hearts of the people we meet every day, but God does.  And if we ask him to help us and guide us, we’re going to be much more effective.  It’s also interesting that the word being used here is not the usual Greek word for prayer.  This word is more often translated as “beg” or “plead.”  The mission is urgent and the need is great.  Beg God for more people who are willing to help with this mission. 

Something else worth noting about prayer.  Jesus made a point of praying throughout his ministry.  Luke makes sure to tell us about it, and so do the other gospel writers, because prayer is critical.  It’s been said that it’s not the size of your church that matters, but the work of the Spirit.[2]  Research has shown that an emphasis on prayer is a key factor in churches that have turned around.[3]  We need to bath everything we do in prayer.  This is God’s mission, and we need to stay in touch with him. 

Sent as lambs among wolves
There’s another reason that prayer is important.  Jesus says he’s sending the 70 out as lambs among wolves.  It’s a rough world out there and we don’t want to face it alone.  God goes with us, and his power is great.  In fact, the Bible says that “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).  So don’t be afraid—engage people.    There may be difficult situations and difficult people, but the way to handle those difficulties is to face them.    Even wolves are handled that way.  Not just metaphorically, but in reality.  Facing the wolves is the right thing to do! According to the department of fish and game in Alaska where wolves are prevalent, “If you encounter a wolf or pack of wolves at close range do not run or turn away. If you are approached, act aggressively and maintain eye contact if the wolf is looking at you.” [4]  So expect difficulties[5] and don’t be dissuaded by them.  Sometimes even just making eye contact is difficult.  It’s the first step in engaging with people, but some people are careful to avoid it.  It’s the three-year-old in us that never quite went away—if I don’t see you, you’re not there.  So we may have to be—well, with real wolves we’d have to be aggressive, but with people we can probably back that down a bit and just be assertive.  Make the first move and say something—“hello” is often enough to get things started. 

Take nothing, don’t get distracted
Jesus gives the 70 some additional instructions.  He tells them not to stop and greet people along the way—stay focused on the mission. And he tells them not to take much with them—to travel light.  One reason for this is that the more we have with us, the more we get distracted by taking care of our stuff, and the less we feel the need to rely on God.  Jesus is sending these 70 out like missionaries.  They’re leaving home and going to new places with the sole purpose of telling people that the kingdom of heaven is near and showing this by healing people and driving out demons.  They’re focused on doing the work of Jesus.  They don’t have the every day distractions of doing what they’d normally be doing if they stayed at home.  They’re to rely on the hospitality of the people they meet, and to settle into following the culture and customs of those people as well—Jesus says to eat whatever they give you.  Some of us may be called to missions like that—to go somewhere away from home.  If you do, you find that there’s a freedom in being away from your normal environment.  It’s a little like a vacation—away from the daily chores and distractions, which leaves us freer to follow God’s agenda instead of our own.  But even if we don’t go anywhere, we can follow God’s agenda and be on God’s mission in our everyday lives. 

I had a professor in seminary who is very good about being focused on God’s mission.  He starts every day in prayer, asking God to put him in front of people that need to hear about God’s love today.  And then he goes through his day watching for God to work, looking for opportunities to engage with people.  He talks to everybody—at the gas station, in the grocery store, even just walking down the street.  He was one of the friendliest and most engaging people I met at the seminary.  He’s got some incredible stories about conversations he’s had with people.  He’s the natural choice to be a professor of evangelism—and if we each did even a little of what he does every day, we’d be doing a good bit toward the mission of God.
Rejoice that our names are written in heaven
The 70 that Jesus sent out did a good job of following Jesus’ instructions.  They came back rejoicing that because they went out telling people about Jesus “even the demons submit to us”!  They had seen the power of God work through them and they were understandably excited about that.  And Jesus acknowledges that this is part of God’s plan—he says that even Satan himself falls from heaven because God’s power is greater.  But Jesus also tells them not to be excited about that as much as they are excited that their names are “written in heaven.”  This is an admonishment to keep things in perspective, a challenge not to get caught up in pride over accomplishments.    For one thing, they wouldn’t have been able to do what they did if they hadn’t been acting in the name of Jesus.  It was the power of God at work, not their own power.  We rejoice because of whose we are, not who we are. 

We should notice, too, an important detail that comes at the beginning of the story:  Jesus sends the 70 out AHEAD of him.  Jesus himself would be coming to these same towns, and he’s sending the 70 out to prepare the way.  They’re his advance team.  The United States secret service also uses advance teams.  Whenever the president is going to go somewhere, the secret service sends an advance team there first to tell the people there who’s coming, and to make sure the place and the people are ready to receive him or her. 

We too are sort of like an advance team—sent ahead to prepare the way—to tell who’s coming and to point the way to him.   Now a word about metaphors, because if you’re like me you’re getting hung up on whether we go ahead of Jesus or whether we follow Jesus.  Well, the reality is it’s both, and it’s a metaphor, which means it’s not meant to be taken literally.  And the truth is that it’s the Holy Spirit that does the work in people hearts, and that works through us as we go.  The important point is that we go, and that we do our best to be people that God can use in whatever situations we find ourselves in every day. 

Just like the 70, at the end of every worship service every Sunday, we are sent out into the world on a mission from God—as Jesus’ ambassadors, as Jesus’ advance team.  We are part of the one holy and apostolic church that we profess as part of our faith when we say the Nicene Creed.  Apostle means to be sent out and we are sent.  Our message is the good news that God so loved the world that he gave his only son, and that through faith in Jesus everyone can be forgiven, and reconciled to God.  We spread that message by being willing to engage with people wherever we go.  By praying and asking God to use us, and to show us how to be his instruments of peace to the people around us, and then watching as we go to see the opportunities he puts before us.  The more we depend on God to guide us through this, the more he will be able to work through us. 

I have been amazed at how much this has been true for me, even in small ways.  I have for much of my life been afraid to engage with people.   For years I rode the bus to work and I always made sure I had a book with me so I could keep my nose in it to keep people from talking to me.  But as my relationship with God grew and I became more drawn to see what God sees in people, I started making eye contact with people and talking to them, and discovered that they were actually fun to talk to, most of the time. 

I learned more about this during the couple of years that I had to spend a good bit of time on airplanes for my job.  The first time I had to fly by myself, I was very nervous about it, and I was praying like crazy for God to carry me through the trip.  And wouldn’t you know it, he did!  Every step along the way there was someone who came alongside me.  That day there was a line to get into the airport—I don’t remember why, but there was—and the person behind me in line told me all about the way the line would work and what I would need to do once I got inside the building.  She pointed me to the next line, and soon after I got into it, someone else started talking to me and walked with me to the gate area where I met another person who was very helpful and friendly.  On the plane I sat next to someone else who was friendly and experienced with flying, and before I knew it, the trip was over.  God had used the people around me to carry me through it, just like I’d asked.  None of those people knew I was asking God that, and most of them didn’t know who I was or what was going on with me, but they were willing to engage with me, and whether they knew it or not, they were God’s instruments of peace to me that day.
I could tell you much more dramatic stories about people who didn’t commit suicide because somebody they didn’t know just happened to talked to them at just the right moment.  Those things do happen, and we never know if we might be put in front of somebody like that.  Or whether the person we met walking through the aisles at Walmart was having the worst day ever and we were the first friendly face they’d encountered that day.  These sorts of encounters might be small for us but huge for the people we engage with.
Jesus told his disciples, “you will be my witnesses”(Acts 1:8).  Luke includes this story about the 70 to make sure we know that Jesus’ commission wasn’t just for those twelve. The gospel is for all people and the work of spreading the gospel is for all who believe. 
·        The harvest is plentiful—there are plenty of people who need to hear the good news, either for the first time or again, maybe in a new way. 
·        And the fruit is ready to be picked now —we don’t know what tomorrow will bring, or whether we are in this particular time and place for the purpose of engaging the people in front of us right now. 
We tend to think of mission work as work we have to go somewhere else to do.  But there’s a great mission field right here around us.  And we need to be just as focused on that mission as we would be if we’d gone to another city or country.
Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers.  Ask him to send you. 
And then go expecting that he will, and be humbly grateful when he does.

Lord of the harvest, we are so thankful that you sent your son Jesus into the world to show us your love and grace, and to show us how to be your people.  Renew in us the joy of your salvation, our joy that our names are written in heaven, and help us to share that joy with those around us.  Show us the people who need to know your love today, and help us to be your instruments of love and peace to everyone we meet, today and every day.  Help us to remember that we’re on your mission every day of our lives.  Thank you for the opportunity to be your ambassadors to the world.  And may everything we say and do bring honor and glory to you in Jesus name.



[2] Payne, J.D. Discovering Church Planting: An Introduction to the Whats, Whys, and Hows of Global Church Planting.  Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2009.
[3] Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson, Comeback Churches: How 300 churches turned around and yours can too (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2007).
[5] "Lambs in the Midst of Wolves," Nancy Rockwell, The Bite in the Apple, 2013. "Cheap grace, [Bonhoeffer] said, expects endless pleasantness, and is unwilling to confront powers and principalities. True grace knows the cross is part of life in Christ."

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