We feel that this featured sermon from regular contributor Kevin Miller can inspire ideas for two different sermons: a sermon on the divinity and authority of Christ, or a sermon on how the mission of Christ informs our mission as a church. Of course, you could cover both issues in one sermon as Miller masterfully does. A highlight of this message is Miller's willingness to explore the tension of just how exclusive and inclusive Christ is in his ministry.
A little while ago, despite it being winter, I took a long walk during my lunch hour. The sky had a silvery-blue look, and the trees were standing up black and outlined against the sky. It felt good to be out and about. As I was walking, I had this thought: What if all you had was nature? How much could you know about God? I thought, Well, you can see from nature that God is a God of unfathomable power. Think about it: tsunamis, solar flares, an expanding universe, boundless power. I though, You would see that there is incredible intelligence behind it all. A bird flew by as I was walking, and I thought, I never stop to think that should not be happening. That bird is a creature with mass and density, yet it flies through a medium that cannot support it. Incredible intelligence and power!
The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that's about all you can get from nature about God. You would have no way of knowing what God might do with his power and intelligence. You could assume, I guess, that since the strong prey on the weak in the animal kingdom, God might be out to attack and destroy you—which is what many of the ancient Roman myths about the gods assume—but the only way you can find out about the inner nature, the character, the disposition of God, would be if you could have an encounter with God. And that's precisely why the Bible is the world's perennial bestseller—it allows you to encounter God.
Encountering a God who hears our cries
You don't have to read very far along in your Bible before you hit one of the most famous God-human encounters—the story of Moses, a man past mid-life and wanted for murder, who encounters a burning bush which finds him face-to-face with God. And listen to what God reveals about himself in that encounter: "You can be sure I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard their cries for deliverance from their harsh slave drivers. Yes, I am aware of their suffering. I have come to rescue them from the Egyptians and lead them out of Egypt into their own good and spacious land. The cries of the people of Israel have reached me and I have seen how the Egyptians have oppressed them with heavy tasks. Now go, for I am sending you to Pharaoh. You will lead my people out of Egypt."
This is not what you would expect. You find out that God is a God who hears. He sees the cries and the misery of his people who, generation after generation, have found themselves in forced labor camps. He hears the anguish of the mother whose baby boy has been snatched from her and killed. He hears it all, and he cares. And this encounter with Moses represents something God generally does throughout all of Scripture: He chooses to act through people. God says, in essence, "You go, and I'll go with you."
Surprisingly, Moses goes to Egypt. The story tells us of many wonders that God does through Moses, including the moment that Moses holds up his staff before the Red Sea, and God's power parts the waters. Through this partnership of the divine and the human, people are set free.
Throughout the Bible you see again and again that it is in God's very nature to be a rescuing God. He hears the cries of the poor, and he acts on their behalf. We see that God is out to restore all that is wrong, all that is broken in this world. And notice what Moses says just before he dies: "The Lord will raise up from among you a prophet like me. Listen to him." You get the sense that Moses intuits by the Spirit that what the people of Israel have seen God do through him—a rescue of two million people or so from slavery—pales in comparison to what God will do someday soon. An even greater prophet is coming, Moses hints.
Fast forward twelve hundred years, and come with me to a town of 2,000 people. It's a Saturday morning, and several dozen Jewish men have gathered at the synagogue. They are sitting on the floor while some women are standing in the back. The place is abuzz, because news has come their way that someone who grew up in their town—a man named Jesus—has been doing amazing miracles 20 miles away in Capernaum, and now he has come home. They want to see some miracles of their own, so the synagogue is packed.
After the opening prayers and a reading from the Law of Moses, the attendant of the synagogue picks up a scroll that contains the writings the prophet Isaiah. Jesus, being the guest preacher, gets to select the passage from Isaiah that he will teach on. He opens up the scroll, unrolling it to Isaiah 61. Here is the text he selects:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
After reading the words from Isaiah's prophecy, he rolls up the scroll, hands it back to the attendant, and sits down to begin his sermon. The very first sentence of that sermon cuts right to the point: Today, those words have came true.
Everybody sitting in the synagogue that morning has believed that verse was going to be fulfilled at the end of time. They knew that someday God would send a Messiah—a deliverer like Moses—to set everything right. This deliverer would deal with all of the oppression, all of the burdens. The people of Israel loved these words from Isaiah, and here is Jesus, saying, "It starts today. The revolution is beginning." Jesus takes the future and slams it back into the present. He tells them that everything they've been longing for, everything they've been praying for, everything they've been doubting might even happen is happening now. And Jesus is telling them that it is happening right now through him. "The Spirit of the Lord is on me," he is saying. "I'm the anointed one. I'm the one that Isaiah was moved to prophesy about so many years ago. I'm the one that Moses, moved by the Spirit, said would come. I'm the rescuer. I'm the deliverer.
As you might suspect, the message was a bit more than the people could take. The gospel accounts say those gathered together that morning were deeply offended. They refused to believe in Jesus. You can imagine the scene: A woman standing in the back is thinking, I remember when you used to climb the olive tree in my yard. I would call out, "Come back down out of that olive tree before you break your neck! Yeah—I don't think you're the Messiah! Some guy sitting on the floor is thinking, I remember when you and I were throwing rocks down in the ravine. I could throw farther than you. Yeah—I don't think you're the Messiah. The people aren't buying it because they know him. It would be like if I looked out here today and said, "Hey, Tim, it's great to see you this morning, because I remember when I created you." You all would think, We've got to get this guy out of the pulpit! He's gone from talking about God to thinking he is God! The people in that synagogue were crying out, "We know you! You're Joseph's son! Calm down!"
When I read this story, I thought to myself, Christians today surely wouldn't have made the mistake that crowd did so many years ago. We've lived in a land where for several hundred years Christianity has been the prevailing faith. But consider a recent survey of 3,000 U.S. adults by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Among the Christians surveyed, the majority—52 percent—said they believe other faiths lead to eternal life. In other words, "Jesus, you might be special, but you aren't that special!"
Perhaps we are afraid to set Jesus apart because if we say that he is the one way—not a way, not my way, but the way—people get really angry. Not too long ago, soon after it was discovered that golfer Tiger Woods had had multiple affairs, Fox political analyst Brit Hume was on a Sunday morning talk show. When asked what Tiger should do to save his career, Hume said, "Tiger, turn to the Christian faith, and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world." The media response was unbelievable. Tom Shales, a media critic at the Washington Post, said it was the most ridiculous remark of 2010, pointing out how Hume had offended half a billion Buddhists.
When you live in a pluralistic society, it's hard to make an exclusive truth claim that Jesus is the way—the deliverer.
Back to the people in the synagogue. Full of doubt, they were thinking, We've heard about all the miracles you've done just down the road. Maybe if you did some here we'd believe in you. They thought that in his speech that day, Jesus was going to say something like, "It is so great to be back home. I couldn't have done it all without you. And now let me show you what I can do!" But Jesus doesn't do that. In fact, Mark's account of this event says Jesus couldn't do many miracles there because of the people's unbelief. The problem is, the absence of miracles leaves them thinking Jesus is not the Messiah.
At this point in the story, Jesus turns the tables on them. He says to them that the problem is not with him; it's with them. He says, "Surely you will quote this proverb to me: 'Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.' I tell you the truth, no prophet is accepted in his hometown." Jesus is reminding the people that those involved in prophetic ministry never have a home-field advantage, and he gives them two examples to prove his point.
The first example of a prophet without honor is found in the story of the greatest prophet of all—Elijah. Jesus says: Think about it. There were many widows in Israel who needed help in Elijah's time. There was no rain for three and a half years, so there was no food. People were starving to death, and widows, being at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, were ran out of food first. But did God send the mighty prophet Elijah to do a miracle for any of the hungry widows within Israel? No. He sent him to a pagan foreigner, a cursed enemy. A widow outside of Israel.
The second example that Jesus offers of a prophet without honor is found in the life of Elisha, Elijah's successor. Jesus says: Think about it. There are plenty of lepers in Israel—people suffering from the disfigurement it causes, the social rejection, the isolation. Was Elisha sent to help any of them? No. God sent him to help a Syrian—a Syrian commander of the very army that was attacking God's people!
As you would suspect, this is all a little too much for the people gathered in the synagogue. First of all, it's outrageous to the people that Jesus would compare himself to the two greatest prophets of all time, Elijah and Elisha. Second, they are angry that he will do miracles for people down the road but not his hometown friends. Third—and worst of all—Jesus seems to be suggesting that God might leave them without favor in order to minister to hated pagan people who were constantly attacking Israel.
It isn't long before the crowd's anger overtakes them and they rise up against Jesus. Jesus has just done the only thing he knows how to do, which is to tell the truth, and they do the only thing they know how to do, which is follow Deuteronomy 13—a law that says, in essence, if a prophet starts speaking crazy words, you drive them out of town.
The people were convinced that when the Messiah finally arrived, he would take vengeance against God's enemies and show favor to God's people. They certainly weren't anticipating the kind of crazy talk they felt Jesus was offering that day. So the text tells us they mobbed him, pulled at him, ran him out of town, and even threatened to throw him off a cliff.
It's important to point out that in the midst of this, Jesus is not afraid to suffer. It's just that it's not his time. He's got stuff to do. A tax collector needs to be set free from greed so that he can return the extorted money to the poor. A 12-year-old girl needs to be raised to life. A woman threatened with capital punishment due to an adulterous relationship needs to be rescued her from her own angry mob. It's not his time, so the text tells us that he looks his neighbors in the eye and walks right through them. And then get this: he walks 20 miles down the road to Capernaum, sets up his base of operations, teaches in their synagogue every week, and performs several miracles. We later see that Jesus never goes back to Nazareth again.
Partnering with a God who hears our cries
We ought to rejoice that there is a God of unfathomable power and intelligence who chooses to use that for the good of those who are the weakest, the most vulnerable, the most oppressed, the most suffering. Isn't that good news—that God hears your cry, cares about you, and acts to restore and bless you? God is on a rescue mission to deliver this world, and this mission has started in Christ.
You would think we would all be jubilant about this news, but there are two reasons it actually makes some people angry. The first reason regards worship, and the second reason regards mission.
When it comes to worship, Jesus is more exclusive than we want him to be. Let's revisit a thought from earlier. Many think it somehow honors Jesus to say, "You're a way—you're my way—but you're not the way. In a pluralistic society I have to be respectful of others' truth claims, too." But the heart of God is not moved by that kind of worship. Jesus does not give you that option. He says that the Spirit of the Lord is on him. He removes from your field of vision anything other than himself. He is exclusive about who will receive the worship of the people of God—much more exclusive than we want him to be.
But here's what may be even harder for us than the exclusive nature of Jesus: Jesus is way more inclusive than we want him to be. We have no problem helping out people we like. We have no problem with Jesus reaching out to the deserving poor. But how do we feel about his reaching out to the ornery? The addicted? The people who drive you crazy? The people you can't stand? Is it possible that God, in his sovereignty and goodness, wants to rescue them, too?
Manny Mill runs Koinonia Ministries in the Chicagoland area. It's a ministry to ex-cons. Manny wanted to put up a halfway house for nonviolent ex-cons in Wheaton, Illinois, and people went crazy. A fascinating response from Christian Wheaton—evangelical, protestant Wheaton! People who have read "as much as you've done it to the least of these" their whole life went crazy over Manny's idea, arguing it would drive down property values and endanger kids.
When you join Jesus on his mission, it takes you places that will make you uncomfortable. It takes you to places that will impact what you do with your money. It will take you places that might mess with your politics. And it isn't long before you're thinking, Whoa! I didn't sign up for this!
Do you see how joining Jesus on the rescue mission of God can be a little scary? But can you also see that it's also an amazing thing to be a part of?
One Saturday morning, my wife Karen and I got a call from our friend, Joanne. She wasn't a close friend—more of an acquaintance. Joanne beliefs were kind of everywhere and nowhere. For example, she had a little healing crystal on her coffee table. After she divorced her husband, Joanne lived with a slew of different boyfriends. That Saturday she was calling us because her relationship with the latest boyfriend had fallen apart. She needed to move out of the townhouse she was living in, because he had been paying the bills.
I had a lot going on that Saturday I needed to get done, but we went to help Joanne move out. When we walked into her townhouse, Joanne was slumped in a lawn chair in the living room. Her arms were hanging down, head tipped back. She was almost nonresponsive—depressed to the point of almost being comatose. As soon as Karen and I walked in, we realized she hasn't packed a thing. It was right about then that the limits of my compassion ran dry. I thought this was going to be a couple hours—it was just one person, so how much stuff could there be? I thought we could throw it all in the van and go. I knew then that it was going to take the whole day. Adding to my frustration, we were going to have to hustle because the truck were renting was due back by 5:00.
We drove over to a local grocery store and got a bunch of boxes. We came back and started packing. We didn't have time to pack it up in an organized way, but we kept going. All the while she just say there and watched. After a few hours, we're done. Later that night, I thought about the events of the day. As best I know, in all the years between that day and the time that Joanne passed on, she never became a thoroughgoing Christian. But I do think God was trying to tell her something that day. I think God was saying, "Joanne, I hear the cry of your heart. I hear your rejection, your pain. I care, and I'm going to act. I'm a rescuing God, and I'm going to act through my people for you."
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? _____________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ___________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________