The idea for this message has been simmering in my brain for weeks. We know a young woman who has become a single mother. She seems to be trying to negotiate the way between her desire for her daughter to grow up in a home with both parents and her desire to be a Christian coming back from serious sin and obey the commandment not to marry a nonbeliever.
We were discussing this situation weeks ago, and at some point in the conversation she said that one problem she has bringing her boyfriend (for lack of a better term) to church or to hang with Christian people is that he does not want to hang around with people who think he's going to hell.
So I've been wondering since then how I would speak as a Christian to him if I ever had the chance. Fast forward to last week when my wife and I were returning from a missions trip with our church. We stopped on the way home to visit a friend and went to church with her. I thought his sermon applied to my situation so well I stole his main takeaway for today.
This is what he said: our goal is reconciliation not alienation; our purpose in interacting with nonbelievers is invitation not condemnation; we get people to accept the invitation by demonstration not accusation.
I need to set this up by making a parable out of a joke that was making the rounds a few years ago. It’s not theologically correct. It’s only meant to put a picture in your mind that I can refer to as I go along.
A guy is minding his own business fixing his car in his garage on a rainy day. After a while, another guy drives up in one of those monster pickup trucks, rolls down his window, and yells, “Hey! There’s going to be a huge flood. The bridges are out, but I can make it out with this truck. There’s room for you, but you can’t bring anything else. Come on!”
The guy in the garage smiles and says, “Thank you anyway, but God will get me through this.” After trying unsuccessfully a few more times to get the guy into the truck, the other guy drives off.
After a while the water level rises and water starts coming into the house, so the guy gets all his valuables up as high as he can. After a while he hears a motor boat outside. The guy in the boat says, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet! It’s still raining upstream from here. There’s only room for you, but come on, get in!”
The guy in the house smiles and says, “Thank you anyway, but God will get me through this.” After trying unsuccessfully a few more times to get the guy into the boat, the other guy motors off.
After a while there’s no more room in the house, so the guy climbs up on his roof. As the water just gets to the top of the roof, a helicopter appears. The guy in the helicopter says, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet! It’s still raining upstream from here. There’s only room for you, but come on, get in!”
The guy on the house smiles and says, “Thank you anyway, but God will get me through this.” After trying unsuccessfully a few more times to get the guy into the helicopter, the other guy flies off.
After a while, the water level is so high the guy can’t hang on to the house, and he floats off and drowns. When he comes face to face with God, he says, “How come you didn’t get me out of that flood?”
God replies, “I sent you a truck, a boat, and a helicopter. What were you expecting?”
The gospel is good news, but only to those who understand the bad news. The flood that is coming is God’s final judgment. We will all fail that judgment, just as there was no way that man could stay in his house, but God also sends us a way out of the flood. We’ll have to leave everything behind, but we will escape the judgment we deserve.
If you don’t believe it’s raining upstream, let me remind you of the commands we fail to obey, the charges we’re guilty of.
Deuteronomy 6:5: “You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.” This is what Jesus called the most important commandment, yet none of us loves God this way.
“Do not worship any other gods besides me. Do not make idols of any kind.” This means we are always to put God first – even before ourselves – in everything we do.
“Do not misuse the name of the LORD your God.” This means we are always to say about God only what is true about him and to attach his name only to those things of which he approves.
“Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” (Self-explanatory, and we all go against the plain meaning of it.)
Honor your father and mother. This means we are always to show proper gratitude to those who have done good things for us.
Do not murder. Do not steal. This means we are always to do all we can for the well-being of others, to protect their health and their possessions.
Do not commit adultery. This means we are always to tell the truth to other people and always do what we say we will do.
Do not testify falsely against your neighbor. This means we are always to protect our neighbors' reputations.
Do not covet … anything … your neighbor owns. This means we are always to put down even the thought of harming our neigbors.
We fail in every one of these points. As a result, we are all alienated from God. For us to say we will stand before God on our own merits on judgment day is to be just as presumptuous as the guy in the story who said that God would get him out of the flood.
Don't forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders by birth. You were called "the uncircumcised ones" by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts.
(This is not to say Jews are bad people. The writer of this passage, don’t forget, was a Jew. It is simply to say that circumcision only affects the body.)
In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from God's people, Israel, and you did not know the promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. (Eph 2:10-22)
Notice those words: “without God.”
We are also alienated from each other. We see in the Bible that Cain killed Abel, Pharaoh and Abimelek abducted Abraham's wife, Esau threatened to kill his brother Jacob, Laban treated his daughters as pawns and almost killed Jacob, and that's in just the first half or so of Genesis! Outside the Bible we all know of families that don't get along; we’ve recently seen riots in our own cities, and of course there are always wars between nations.
God hates alienation. He does not want to be alienated from us, nor does he want us to be alienated from our neighbors. The question is, do we prefer to be alienated, or do we want to be reconciled to God and our neighbors?
To prefer alienation is to tell the guy with the truck “I don't need you.” And to tell the guy with the truck “I don't need you” – to refuse the offer of salvation in the gospel – is to prefer to be alienated from God and our neighbors to being reconciled to them. The choice is yours – make a good one.
Maybe you're not the guy with the house. Maybe you realized long ago that the flood is coming and you left everything behind and got in the truck. Or you fought it as long as you could and realized you had already lost enough that you decided staying around wasn't worth it and got in the boat. Or you were like the thief on the cross next to Jesus: you had nothing left to give up and so you got into the helicopter. You understand that it was Jesus' blood shed on the cross that paid for that truck or boat or helicopter.
No matter when you left your house and were rescued, you're now safe from the flood, but the flood is still coming, and there are still other people in its path. And the Lord who rescued you has given you a job: to get them into your truck, or your boat, or your helicopter.
Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. (Mt 28:19-20)
What's the best way to get them to come aboard?
Our tendency – well, OK, my tendency – is to go after people and tell them what bad people they are. That's easy to do because everyone is a rebel against God, and our rebellion against God hurts other people and we even hurt ourselves with it. And there is a time to do it. The guy with the truck does have to tell the guy at the house that the level of the water will be higher than the roof of the house. The problem with that is that he won't be telling the homeowner anything he doesn't already know.
The truth about God is known to them instinctively. God has put this knowledge in their hearts. From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made. They can clearly see his invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God. (Rom 1:19-24)
Now we all know how the guys with the truck and the boat and helicopter would talk to the homeowner. They can’t just harangue the guy and make him feel like an idiot. They need to invite him. They need to let him know he’s welcome to join them. Here how Jesus tells people to get out of the flood:
Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke fits perfectly, and the burden I give you is light. (Matt 11:28-30)
Not only does Jesus welcome us to take shelter, he invites us to become part of what he’s doing in the world. When he invites us to take his yoke upon us. he's telling us he's going to give us work to do, but it will be work that God has designed especially for us. We don't have to do work that he has designed for others to do, but we expects us to do all the work he has assigned us, and he will be with us as we do it until the job is finished.
I didn't read all of the job description I read earlier. Here’s the rest:
Be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matt 28:20)
And, of course, here’s the rationale for the church’s whole enterprise:
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it. (John 3:16-17)
Our job is not to condemn the world, but to invite the world to come to Jesus. Jesus paid the price of our reconciliation to God on the cross, and our job is to invite people to be reconciled to God.
Today the church has an image problem. As we've seen in the recent news cycles about gay marriage and Planned Parenthood, people outside the church tend to think of Christians as haters. We supposedly hate gays and lesbians and transsexuals and abortionists and women who get abortions. I might add that Middle East Muslims think we hate them too, seeing that in the last decade or so hundreds of thousands of them have died in the war we started and at least 16 million of them have been run out of their homes. If the invitation sounds like an invitation, one can understandably wonder what the invitation is an invitation to.
I mentioned that my wife and I went on a mission trip with our church. It was to the Cherokee Indian land in North Carolina. The expropriation of their land by Americans is still a sore point. Their language and culture were destroyed to a great degree by the American practice of taking Indian children to boarding schools and beating them if they spoke Cherokee or engaged in activities that looked too “Indian.” The motto of those schools was “Kill the Indian and save the man.”
Many Christian missionaries made sure nothing Cherokee – language, music, or otherwise – came into the Christian church. As I explain in detail here, many Cherokee consider the Christian church simply an extension of the American invasion of their land.
In all these cases I've mentioned, Christians have attempted to use power – either raw military power or the velvet glove over the iron fist of the vote – to get their way. How different this is from at least one branch of the early church:
Don't ever forget those early days when you first learned about Christ. Remember how you remained faithful even though it meant terrible suffering. Sometimes you were exposed to public ridicule and were beaten, and sometimes you helped others who were suffering the same things. You suffered along with those who were thrown into jail. When all you owned was taken from you, you accepted it with joy. You knew you had better things waiting for you in eternity. (Heb 10:32-34)
The Bible does say there is a time for war as well as a time for peace, a time to kill as well as a time to heal, but all actions have consequences, and the consequences of actions Christians have taken recently and not so recently give me reason to question the wisdom of those actions.
I urge you in your online time to visit IcommitToPray.com and read the stories of people who are demonstrating what it means to call people to Jesus. Here's one of many stories on the main page today.
Hindu radicals in India beat Pastor Augustine Jayraj and two other Christian men and had them arrested by local police on July 23 because of their Christian outreach to a village. A group of 20 RSS members stopped the Jesus film partway through the video, locked the three men in a room and called police. The men were beaten, arrested and charged with forced conversions.
Our brothers and sisters were falsely accused as Jesus was falsely accused. They were beaten as Jesus was beaten. They were arrested as Jesus was arrested. This is the normal Christian life, at least in many places where the church is growing.
So we have come full circle back to the problem of alienation. Those who beat Pastor Augustine are alienated from God and from their neighbors. God calls us to be reconciled to them – to forgive them their trespasses as we expect God forgive our trespasses against him. We are not to condemn them or accuse them – though they do deserve condemnation and accusation, just as we do – but we are to invite them to come to Christ and to demonstrate Christ's character by being like him.
To repeat the takeaway I stole from the sermon last week, we pursue reconciliation not alienation; our purpose in interacting with nonbelievers is invitation not condemnation; we get people to accept the invitation by demonstration not accusation.
I'll close with some hard words from the Apostle Paul. Think of these as the words of the homeowner who chooses to get in the truck or the boat or the helicopter:
Everything else is worthless when compared with the priceless gain of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I may have Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own goodness or my ability to obey God's law, but I trust Christ to save me. For God's way of making us right with himself depends on faith. As a result, I can really know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I can learn what it means to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that, somehow, I can experience the resurrection from the dead! (Phil 3:8-11)