Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Sermon for February 26th: 'Lost'

Lent Sermon Series 2012 #1: ‘Lost’

According to St. Luke, one of the last things that Jesus said to his disciples before he ascended into heaven was this:
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
We all know what the role of a witness is in a court of law: the witness is there to tell what they have seen and heard, and the various lawyers will then take their words and use them to help make their case, for the prosecution or the defence. And so Jesus calls his followers to share their story with others: ‘This is the good news of Jesus that I have experienced in my life’. The Holy Spirit then takes our words and uses them to make his case in the hearts and minds of our hearers, in order to lead them closer to faith in Christ.

This may seem like a strange topic to be talking about on the first Sunday of Lent. In Lent we customarily take time to examine ourselves, to identify areas in our Christian lives where we’re falling short of the call of Christ, and to make the necessary changes. We tend to think about things like prayer, and fasting, and giving to the poor. We often take on some sort of discipline such as giving up coffee or sugar or chocolate, or we might add some extra Bible reading or study or some work of service to others. But we don’t often think about our spoken witness for Christ as being a part of this Lenten discipline.

Why not, I wonder? After all, this is a command of Jesus just as much as any other. The same Jesus who told his disciples “You are the salt of the earth” also told them “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people”. The same Jesus who talked to his disciples about prayer and fasting and giving to the poor also told them to “Go and make disciples of all nations”. The call to be witnesses for Christ is not just an optional extra, like an elective course that you can take or leave as you wish. It’s an integral part of Christian discipleship: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people”. The one is obviously meant to lead to the other.

But most of us feel inadequate about this, for a whole host of reasons that I don’t want to go into this morning. I’ll simply say this: fishing can be lots of fun, but no one is born knowing how to fish; you have to learn, and when you first start learning, it’s pretty painful! But if you give up after the first time you get your line tangled up, you’ll cheat yourself out of a lifetime of enjoyment. And I would like to suggest to you this morning that fishing for people can also be tremendously enjoyable and fulfilling, but you have to be patient and learn to get better at it. So this Lent I want to give you some fishing lessons, built around six words: ‘Lost’, ‘Gospel’, ‘Conversion’, ‘Witness’, ‘Story’, and ‘You’.

We’ll start today by thinking of the word ‘Lost’. Let’s begin by reminding ourselves of the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10:
(Jesus) entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’

Zacchaeus, we’re told, was a chief tax collector, who made his living by taking money from his own people, taking a sizeable cut himself, and passing the taxes on to the Romans. So we can assume that he was a wealthy man; the house that Jesus went to eat in was a very fine house. We can also assume that he was despised by his fellow-citizens, not just as a bloodsucking tax collector, but also as a traitor to his own nation and to his own religion. Tax collectors weren’t allowed anywhere near the Temple in Jerusalem.

I’m pretty sure, though, that no one had heard Zacchaeus described as ‘lost’ before. I can just imagine the reaction of the citizens of Jericho. “Lost? Zacchaeus? You must be kidding! He’s the richest man in Jericho! He’s not feeling any pain!” But nonetheless, Jesus does describe him as ‘lost’.

There are many people all around us just like Zacchaeus. Outwardly they seem to be sophisticated, successful maybe quite well-off financially, probably very pleasant to talk to. But inside, secretly, they are aware of a gnawing hunger for something, something they can’t even identify or define. Don’t be deceived by appearances! Do you think Zacchaeus would ever have let his guard down and let his neighbours in Jericho know how he was feeling inside? Likewise in our society today, we’ve mastered the art of projecting the proper image. We’re so used to fooling others, sometimes we even fool ourselves!

How do we get to be lost? Well, remember another story Jesus told, the story of the lost sheep. My guess is that no sheep intentionally gets lost. It happens accidentally. The sheep’s just doing what sheep do – keeping its head down, eating grass, looking up every now and again to make sure the others are still around. It goes from one patch of grass to another, sometimes without even looking up. It does this one too many times, and when it looks up, it realises two things: first, it has no idea where it is, and second, there’s no one else around!

Most of us don’t mean to get lost spiritually, either. We’re just doing what people do – working our jobs, paying the mortgage, driving the kids to hockey, trying to keep our heads above water. We want to be successful at work so we work longer and longer hours; we want to enjoy the same sort of pleasant lifestyle others around us seem to enjoy. But where does God fit into all of that? We don’t plan to exclude him, but there’s so much else going on in our lives, and without us ever knowing it, God gradually gets squeezed out to the margins. Then one day we wake up and think to ourselves, “There’s something missing from my life and I’m not sure what it is. I think I’m going in the wrong direction, but I’m not really sure what the right direction is”. In other words, we’re lost, and we need a Good Shepherd to find us and show us the way home.

This lostness often shows itself in a real yearning for wholeness and healing. If you look in Chapters, you’ll see that one of the biggest growth areas in the bookstore business over the last thirty years has been the self-help section. The shelves are groaning under the weight of the books that offer us the help we need! How to be more assertive, how to be better organized, how to be more successful. How to figure out your spouse, improve communication in your marriage, and be a better sexual partner. How to lose weight, or find healing from childhood hurts, or get free of your resentments. How to find freedom from addiction to alcohol or drugs or bad relationships or even bad religion (yes, there’s even a self-help group for survivors of religion!).

Some of these books are helpful, some are not, but what are they telling us? Who is buying all these books? Surely they are evidence of a deep hunger for healing and wholeness in people’s lives. It seems as if there’s something about the way we humans live our lives these days that just seems to mass-produce hurt and broken people, and we’re all looking for something to take the pain away. The streets are full of the walking wounded, all in need of the touch of a healer.
We Christians can’t afford to be simplistic about this; we can’t give easy promises that if you just put your trust in Jesus all your problems will be solved overnight. But we do have good news to share about what God has done in Jesus to bring healing to our world and the people in it, and it’s news that people desperately need to hear and experience for themselves.

Lostness also commonly shows itself in loneliness, which I think is one of the biggest problems in our society today Building good marriages and solid families and lasting friendships can’t be rushed; it takes time, and time is something we’re all very short of, especially here in Alberta. Did you see that survey last week that showed that we work longer hours on average than the people of any other province in Canada? Some, of course, took pride in this: “We know how to work our butts off to get ahead in this province!” But there’s a price to be paid, and its usually paid in the coin of relationship failure.

Our lives so often feel like expressways – one mad rush from one activity to another, whether it’s work, or meetings, or ferrying kids to sports and other activities. We sleep an average of two hours a night less than our grandparents did. We’re exhausted, and we’re just too tired to give the sort of quality time that solid relationships need. Hence, our loneliness.

But it’s not just loneliness for a human relationship. Deep down inside, each of us has a need for a superhuman relationship, a relationship with the One who made us in the first place for the pleasure of knowing us, and wants us to know him and enjoy his company. Asking human beings to take the place of God in our lives is a sure-fire way of destroying relationships; no human is up to the job. At the very deepest level, our loneliness can only be satisfied by God, and that’s the very thing Jesus came to do for us – to lead us home to the God who loves us.

Another way lostness often shows itself is in a sense of guilt and failure. The Christian concept of sin and forgiveness may be foreign to most people in our society today, but many people are very conscious of a sense of failure nonetheless. Some people have acted dishonestly or violently and deep down inside they feel ashamed of themselves. Some people have broken vows of fidelity to a spouse or someone else and have caused deep pain in that person’s life. Some people have done things they think they can never be forgiven for. And some people just can’t forgive themselves.

Over my years as a minister it has been my privilege to listen to many members of Alcoholics Anonymous as they go through their Fifth Step. People working the Twelve Steps are required to undertake a searching and fearless moral inventory of themselves, to make a list of all the wrongs they have done, and to admit to God, to themselves, and to one another person the exact nature of their faults. The  ‘admitting to one other person’ is the Fifth Step, and I’ve heard many of them over the years. It’s very clear to me that many people feel a deep sense of shame and guilt about the pain they have caused, and are anxious to know whether God can forgive them.

Often, they aren’t too hopeful about that; we don’t live in a very forgiving society, and our usual response to injury is to sue someone, not to forgive them. So it’s wonderful news that the God who created us is a God who loves his enemies; he wants to forgive us and restore us to relationship with him. That’s what the Cross of Jesus Christ is all about – Jesus giving himself for the sins of the whole world, so that we can receive God’s forgiveness and the gift of a new relationship with him.

There are many other forms that lostness takes in our modern world, but I’m running out of time, so let me just mention one more: the fear of death. Have you noticed how we try to ignore death in our society? We disguise it linguistically: no one says “My Mom died”; they all say “My Mom passed away” or “passed on” or even “expired” (like a driver’s license!). We disguise it cosmetically; we pay funeral directors thousands of dollars to hide the ravages of death on dead bodies, and we pay the cosmetic industry millions of dollars to do the same thing on living bodies. And so many people live in denial of this basic fact of human experience: the mortality rate is 100%. Everyone dies.

To some people, this is fearful because it seems to make their lives meaningless; what’s the point of working hard and getting ahead, building a business and raising a strong family with lots of love, if it’s all going to end in death? To others, it’s the prospect of separation from loved ones that is so awful; those of us who have good marriages are particularly terrified of this, I think. And for others, it’s the fear of what might lie on the other side. Is it extinction? Or is it something worse?

One of my favourite Bible passages is this one from the New Testament letter to the Hebrews:
‘Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, (Christ) himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death’ (Hebrews 2:14-15).

That’s what the Christian gospel can do – set us free from fear. The Good News tells us that Jesus has won the decisive victory over death; for a Christian, it’s only a temporary state. The day is going to come when we are raised from the dead as Christ was raised from the dead, and we will live with him forever in a creation set free from all evil. That’s our Christian hope, and people need to hear it and believe it.

Well, there are many more things that could be said about lostness, but these will do for now. All of this serves to underline the point that spreading the good news of Jesus is an act of love for a hurting world. People have a sense that they’ve lost their way in a busy and confusing world; people are looking for healing and wholeness; people are lonely, guilty, and afraid of death.

How does Jesus see these people? Listen to Matthew 9:35-38:
Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’

Jesus has compassion on the people because they are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. He is the Good Shepherd, the one who can lead them home to God, but he needs help in getting the word out. And so, to change the metaphor, he longs for more labourers in the harvest – more people who will share the good news with their friends and families and work colleagues and help them to find the Good Shepherd. I know that he is calling all of us here to join him in that work.

But what exactly is the Gospel, the good news that he wants us to share with others? Stay tuned – next week we’ll explore that question together!

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