An Acceptable Fast Manuscript

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[Manuscript of sermon preached on Isaiah 58 at ICF, 11/19/17]

What is the Kingdom of God?

Before you answer that, and it’s a real question, I asked this question to a group of young adults and they all looked blankly at me. One finally raised his hand and tentatively said, “Heaven?” That bummed me out. Severely. If we’re teaching so little about the Gospel of Jesus Christ that they don’t know about God’s Kingdom, we’ve really missed the boat.

Okay, no pressure. What is the Kingdom of God?

One more thing: Heaven is part of the answer. It just isn’t the whole answer.

???

Jesus came to proclaim the Kingdom of God. That was his stated purpose. Mark’s Gospel, chapter 1 verse 14: “now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, [the Gospel], and saying “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Matthew 1:17 beginning of Jesus’ ministry: from that time Jesus began to proclaim, repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Heaven are the same thing, interchangeable terms. Matthew 1:23: Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. Luke 4, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has healed a bunch of people and done crazy stuff, healed Simon’s mother-in-law, cast out demons. The next morning, Jesus goes out to pray before the sun comes up. And the folks who’d had a really good day with Jesus the day before went looking for him and when they found him, they said, “That was amazing! Let’s invite some more people here and you can do more of these miracles.” But what did Jesus say? “I must proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God to the other cities, also; for I was sent for this purpose.” For I was sent for this purpose. Why did the Father send Jesus? The first reason Jesus gives is to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God. That’s. Why. Jesus. Came.

So Jesus came to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and in Luke 4:18-19, we get a glimpse of what that means: Jesus stood up to read and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah ws given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the bling, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Then he sat down, everyone watching him, and said, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The Gospel is the Gospel of the Kingdom. The good news is the good news of the Kingdom. When we’ve told people that the Gospel is “Jesus died for your sins so that you can be forgiven and go to heaven,” we’ve missed the whole what-is-life-here-for part. That’s a big deal. The Gospel is not only “God wants to make you clean from your sin so that you can be with Him in Heaven.” I would go so far as to say that God’s forgiving your sins is just a crucial step to get you started with the Gospel. God definitely wants you with Him in Heaven. He wants you to be part of His Kingdom, here, now.

After John the Baptist, who proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, the coming of God’s Kingdom, was arrested, Jesus began his ministry. And John is in prison. He still has disciples, he’s still trying to live the calling God has given him as faithfully as he can. And he’s hearing these funky things that Jesus is doing. He’s in prison; he can’t see for himself, he can’t go ask for himself. But he’s confused, so he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come, or are we to wait for another?” Get the gravity of this: John the Baptist went out into the wilderness to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, who was Jesus. He said things like “I’m not worthy of untying his sandals” and “I baptize you with water but one is coming who will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit.” John baptized Jesus! And now he asks, through his disciples, “Are you really the one? Or did I misunderstand and we should wait for someone else?” This is John’s purpose, John’s calling before he’s born, while he’s still in utero, remember? And how does Jesus answer?

Luke 7:24 Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sigh, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.

Yes, I’m the one, yes, these are the signs of the Kingdom of God, yes you got it right, and blessed is anyone who receives the Kingdom of God, not with offense but with joy.

Jesus did miracles. He healed and restored. Now tell me what all these people had in common in Jesus’ time: the lame, lepers, the deaf, the dead (uh, what?), the poor. What do they have in common?

They have need, and they are outcasts from society. They are the unclean. They are the rejects, the disadvantaged, the persecuted, the oppressed. They are the poor.

Isaiah 58

Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
2 For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

We’re near the end of our series in Isaiah and I consider this passage pivotal. I wanted to begin with the Gospels so we could see clearly how this prophetic passage foretells Jesus’ declaration of the Kingdom of God. It also rejects, I would say categorically, a self-centered religion that allows people to pray and go through their rituals while living unjustly.

Get this: Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.

These are sins. This is rebellion. Ready?

For day after day they seek me out;
they
seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and
seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

Fasting is, arguably, the most intimate thing we can do with God. We are praying, we are seeking God, and we are foregoing food, so that we can focus exclusively on God. Fasting is not “Okay, God, I’ll make you a deal. I won’t eat for a day and you do what I ask.” Fasting is “I am utterly dependent on you, and I am throwing myself before you.” In the Old Testament, you see five categories of fasting: (1) fasting as a sign of grief or mourning, (2) as a sign of repentance and seeking forgiveness for sin, (3) as an aid in prayer, (4) as an experience of the presence of God that results in the endorsement of his messenger, and (5) as an act of ceremonial public worship. We first see fasting in Exodus 34 when Moses fasts before the Lord.

The way God describes fasting is like, “Okay, you want to seek me, here is a direct route. Here, take this megaphone, not because I can hear you better, but because you will feel more like you’re getting through to me.” When we are desperate, truly desperate, we fast. That’s not a bad thing. God says to. It’s a good way to express grief or repentance. It’s also a spiritual discipline that many people incorporate into their regular rhythm of life. There was a stretch in which I would fast one day a week, and doing so really impacted me. It helped me focus more on God, it brought me into a place of clearer dependence, it actually helped me be more peaceful, which I thought was a surprising fruit of that discipline. I’ve been returning to fasting lately.

But like prayer, we can fast wrong. Can you think of an example of people praying wrong in Scripture? Good. Jesus says, “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray int the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Turly I tell you, they have received their reward.”

 

The people of Israel are asking, “Why have we fasted and you have not seen? Why have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed?” God answers.

Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.

You are doing the “right” acts of worship, but you are not worshiping! Your hearts are not toward God! You say you’re humbling yourself and going before God, but you’re quarreling and fighting! You’re exploiting your workers! You’re oppressing instead of siding with the oppressed! You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it
only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

What kinds of questions are these called? Rhetorical questions. No, no this is not the kind of fast God has chosen.

You should humble yourself. You should bow your head before God. You should lie in sackcloth and ashes. You should forego food and call out to God.

That sounds pretty good, right? That’s fasting, isn’t it?

The key word here is “only.” Is it only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing your head? For prostrating yourself before God?

Absolutely not. And why not? Because the Gospel is not just me and Jesus, getting me “clean,” going through the right rituals, showing God my piety. That’s not the Kingdom of God.

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

Do you understand why I began with the Kingdom of God and with John the Baptist’s questions? This is the Kingdom of God. This is not some discarded Old Testament instruction that some old prophet told the people of Israel that doesn’t apply to our lives. This is the heart of the Gospel. Why? Because this is God’s heart.

I didn’t plan it this way, but this is my third consecutive sermon on biblical justice. I don’t know how you’d preach Isaiah 58 without talking about justice—it would be like fasting while fighting with wicked fists. Now I said that fasting is foregoing food for a time of focused prayer and seeking God with your heart. And I do believe that’s a decent short definition of the spiritual discipline of fasting. But our inward spiritual disciplines must coordinate with our outward ethical lives. The Israelites here were bowing and humbling themselves, but rejecting God in their hearts by continuing with their immoral practices.

But hear what God says is an acceptable fast, the fasting God has chosen:

to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Poverty doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Poverty is a cycle that is both a result of people’s choices and of systemic injustice—which, when you come down to it, is also people’s choices, but powerful people’s choices, usually rich people’s choices, choices of people with something to gain by oppressing others. If you believe that people are poor only because they make self-destructive choices, you have not understand the depth of sin in this fallen world nor the teaching of Jesus about wealth. Hear me, yes, people’s choices play into their condition, but the state of poverty in the world first comes as a result of massive injustice, exploitation, oppression, and greed. When we get out our magnifying glass and look at one household and see that they are making foolish choices with their meager resources, we are choosing to be blind to the bigger picture, to the spiritual battle happening before our eyes.

When I tell you that Jesus is always on the side of the poor and the oppressed, that doesn’t mean merely that he is compassionate and feels bad for hurting people. That means in the spiritual warfare between those who evilly oppress and defy God and those who suffer oppression, Jesus chooses sides. That means he chooses sides for us, too. That means we follow the King by living out his Kingdom in all the ways these passages describe: loosing the chains of injustice, untying the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke.

That, God says, is an fast he will accept. That is fasting from our power, fasting from our desire to be favored with the wealthy and the powerful and the successful when it means we have to turn a blind eye to injustice, when we have to pretend we don’t notice how things got so imbalanced in the first place—and continue to stay imbalanced.

In case I’m upsetting you here—and I’m okay if God is upsetting you, he does that—having wealth does not in itself make you sinful and greedy and oppressive. How you use your wealth is how God judges whether you are greedy and making the chains of oppression or just and breaking the chains of oppression. We have wealth and power, all of us, and God calls us to use it to make His Kingdom more present here, today. I’m not a legalist, I don’t believe we have to tithe our herbs and spices or that God expects us to eat only bread and water; God is extravagant and lavishes us with abundance. And. And we are called to share, and to use our power for righteousness and justice. Period.

I hope, I actually pray, that you will understand this is not my hobby horse or my soap box. This is God’s heart for his people. God seeks to set the oppressed free, to liberate those suffering poverty, and God seeks to transform us into his image by making us his partners in this purpose. That’s another way to describe God’s Kingdom: our partnership with God to love hurting and broken people and seek justice, through which we will become more like Jesus.

Do you see how different this is than the personal, private, just-me-and-Jesus approach to the Gospel? Because I don’t believe that is the Gospel. If I think the Gospel is only about me and Jesus, then my fast is not acceptable to God. Can you read this passage any differently? [I’m going to go a step further: we can make an idolatry of our ] Because this is acceptable fasting, this is the heart of seeking God:

Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

This is a dangerous road. What if we understand the people suffering hunger and illiteracy and depression are our own flesh and blood? What if they are our family? What if they belong to us and we belong to them? How will that change our choices? Our priorities?

God speaks through the prophet to make clear how fasting this way will change us:


8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

I had someone suggest, with a very good heart, that we could preach more on the Glory of God in Isaiah. Okay. This is the glory of God. To share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—who is the poor wanderer?

Yeah, that’s Jesus. That also might be the immigrant, but it’s definitely Jesus. He says so. And God, our glorious, almighty God, cares for all people, and will say especially those suffering—not because he loves them better, but because they have more need. God’s glory is many things, a sermon series in itself, but one thing I know shows God’s glory is the horrible enemy, the Samaritan, kneeling down beside the bleeding, bludgeoned Jew to carry him to the inn and save his life. That is God’s glory, that action glorifies the Almighty God of Heaven and Earth. These matter to God. When TJ’s One World Health opens a clinic and people who were suffering get the medical care and medicine they need, God is glorified. That reveals God’s glory! Can you read this passage any differently? ‘

then, then, your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

Two more things and I’m done.

Why will God respond to us when we do these things but call us in rebellion and sin when we do the opposite?

9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.

The answer is: Because this is who God is. I said this before: Grace is for freeing us to seek God with all our hearts and minds and to live God’s calling, to be free for obeying Jesus’ words and having our joy made complete in him.

God loves us first. God doesn’t wait for us to be acceptable to love us, God loves us and his love changes us and makes us acceptable. But—and this is crucial to our understanding of Grace—when we sin and rebel and oppress and abuse, God doesn’t say, “Welp, I gave you grace, so I guess you’re good.” God says, “You’re killing yourself and you’re abusing my beloved and you must stop!” Grace doesn’t mean God’s turns a blind eye to our obedience, ever! That’s the point of Isaiah telling them their fast is unacceptable—they are exploiting their workers, they are doing as they please instead of as God pleases, they are opposing God’s Kingdom instead of seeking it. Grace means God will forgive you no matter what, and nothing you can do will make God love you more nor can you do anything to make God love you any less. Grace also means that God will keep calling you to repentance. If we’re not living for God’s Kingdom, we’re wasting our lives. It isn’t that God is manipulative and will only bless us when we finally do the stuff he prefers; the true blessings God desires to give us come through seeking God with our whole hearts, we are made in God’s image and He himself is our blessing, is our home, is our treasure. “Christ is enough for me?” Yeah, and also Christ is everything. Everything that matters.

That’s one. Acceptable fasting and grace go hand in hand. They are inseparable. God’s grace leads us to acceptable fasting. We can get there no other way. We only seek God’s Kingdom through God’s grace.

Two: God makes and gifts each of us uniquely. There are, literally, seven billion ways to seek God’s Kingdom, to fight for justice, to care for the oppressed, to love the least. God gives some of us gifts of healing. Then go heal. God gives some of us gifts of preaching. Then go preach. If you love kids, love kids—they need it, so bad. If you can disciple young people, disciple them—they need it, so bad. If you hate injustice, then fight it. If you feel compassion for depressed people, learn to counsel, learn to listen. An acceptable fast to the Lord our Glorious God, to Jesus Christ our Savior, happens when we seek God with our hearts and our gifts and join Him in the work to which he calls us. Yours doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. How can you spend yourself in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed? How can you help loose the chains and set the oppressed free? How can you share God’s love with people who don’t know they are loved and forgiven?

What part has Jesus given you in His Kingdom? Live that and 11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,

8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

Amen.

An Acceptable Fast

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Sermon I preached on Isaiah 58.  

This one is a bit longer and I don’t hold back.  Be warned. 

God seeks to set the oppressed free, to liberate those suffering poverty, and God seeks to transform us into his image by making us his partners in this purpose. That’s another way to describe God’s Kingdom: our partnership with God to love hurting and broken people and seek justice, through which we will become more like Jesus.”

Starts at 0:15, midway through a joke.  Oh, well, I kind of messed up the joke, anyway. 

Corporate Judgment and Justice

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Sermon I preached on Isaiah 9:8-10:4.

This one is kind of intense. 

Note about my pre-prayer intro remarks:  Mitch, our musician on Sunday,  played a children’s song about bearing fruit, having branches, going bananas for God with lots of hand and body motions.  It was one of those songs that goes faster and faster each time through.  That was my reference to “waking up the congregation.”  

 

 

8 The Lord sent a word against Jacob,

and it fell on Israel;

9 and all the people knew it—

Ephraim and the inhabitants of Samaria—

but in pride and arrogance of heart they said:

10 “The bricks have fallen,

but we will build with dressed stones;

the sycamores have been cut down,

but we will put cedars in their place.”

11 So the Lord raised adversariesc against them,

and stirred up their enemies,

12 the Arameans on the east and the Philistines on the west,

and they devoured Israel with open mouth.

For all this his anger has not turned away;

his hand is stretched out still.

13 The people did not turn to him who struck them,

or seek the Lord of hosts.

14 So the Lord cut off from Israel head and tail,

palm branch and reed in one day—

15 elders and dignitaries are the head,

and prophets who teach lies are the tail;

16 for those who led this people led them astray,

and those who were led by them were left in confusion.

17 That is why the Lord did not have pity ond their young people,

or compassion on their orphans and widows;

for everyone was godless and an evildoer,

and every mouth spoke folly.

For all this his anger has not turned away;

his hand is stretched out still.

18 For wickedness burned like a fire,

consuming briers and thorns;

it kindled the thickets of the forest,

and they swirled upward in a column of smoke.

19 Through the wrath of the Lord of hosts

the land was burned,

and the people became like fuel for the fire;

no one spared another.

20 They gorged on the right, but still were hungry,

and they devoured on the left, but were not satisfied;

they devoured the flesh of their own kindred;e

21 Manasseh devoured Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasseh,

and together they were against Judah.

For all this his anger has not turned away;

his hand is stretched out still.

10 Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,

who write oppressive statutes,

2 to turn aside the needy from justice

and to rob the poor of my people of their right,

that widows may be your spoil,

and that you may make the orphans your prey!

3 What will you do on the day of punishment,

in the calamity that will come from far away?

To whom will you flee for help,

and where will you leave your wealth,

4 so as not to crouch among the prisoners

or fall among the slain?

For all this his anger has not turned away;

his hand is stretched out still.

 

Blessed Are the Shalom Makers

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Sermon I preached at International Christian Fellowship, 9-3-17, on Matthew 5:9, looking at the biblical concepts of shalom and justice and how they fit together.  Biblically, if we desire shalom, we seek God’s justice for others.

I  use a whole bunch of other Scriptures, so it may help to have a Bible to track with me.

BTW,  it’s 34:53, not 49:09.  Don’t let the timer fool you.  

Across the Street

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(Photo:  our street)

Matthew 25:31-46

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Being a missionary is weird.

So, what do you do?” “I’m a missionary.” “Whoa!” The converstion changes. People treat you differently. There’s now this distance between you and them.

People ask where you live and you tell them and even that changes the conversation. You don’t have to admit what you do and you still get the “you’re a different species” response. They say things like, “I could never do that,” and “You must be so…” and then fill it in with something you know you’re not, like brave or faithful or fluent in Spanish. (Okay, Kim is.)

The flip side is that people have strong opinions, stronger perhaps than with other vocations, of how you should be spending your time and money at the job that they “know” they could never do. Going to a movie in Nicaragua costs about $4, and any time I mention going to a movie I feel a need to explain how cheap it is because people do—I’m not speculating here, these are real conversations—say things like “You can afford to go see movies? I don’t even get to go to the movies here!” Of course, that’s in addition to the people who are shocked that we have movies or electricity or indoor plumbing…

Imagine having a whole bunch of people who are all part of giving toward your paycheck and they all have an opinion on how you should do your job. Just imagine that, Pastor Tim.

Here is a truth that might offend you–and as I say this I’m remembering both that New Song may be our most faithful supporting church and that this is the church at which I once was shouted at while I was preaching…and not even by Tim.

So that’s your warning; here’s the offensive truth:

It’s not okay that people are poor. It’s not. It’s not okay with God. The Bible is all about justice for the poor and God’s care for people suffering poverty. “You matter to God so you matter to us,” says the sign as we enter New Song’s building. God’s not okay with people being poor so we’re not okay with people being poor. Same reasoning.

When Jesus said, “The poor will always be with you,” he didn’t mean, “You know, that’s just gonna happen, may as well accept it and move on, no fixing a big problem like that.” Jesus wasn’t a fatalist. He never says anything else in the Gospels that we read as fatalistic. In fact, Jesus said if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”


Concerning people who are poor, Jesus meant the opposite of “No biggie, don’t worry about it.” Jesus meant, literally, “You’ll always be with poor people; of course you will, because you’re my followers. I’m with the poor, in fact I identity myself as the poor, and because you are my disciples, my sent ones, you’re going to be with people in poverty also.” Jesus doesn’t describe loving or helping people who are in need as some project for us to get done. In Mathew 25, Jesus says helping them is helping me; loving them is loving me. It makes no sense to say, “I love Jesus but I won’t love people suffering hunger or thirst, I won’t love strangers or sick people or prisoners.” Jesus says, “I am those people. When you love them, you love me. When you don’t love them, you reject me.” It’d be like saying, “I love Tim, but I do not love Royals fans. I will not love a Royals fan.” But…Tim is a Royals fan. That doesn’t work. They’re inseparable.  “I love Jesus, but those dirty, stinky, irresponsible people who are hungry and thirsty and refugees, I will not love them.” That doesn’t work.  It doesn’t make sense.  

When Jesus sends us, we get going on following Him, doing what he did, loving whom he loved, letting God’s spirit flow through us so that now God is incarnate in the world through us. HE sends us. And we go because we love him; we go out to love him.

It’s not okay with God that people are poor; we are God’s plan to do something about it. You and me. That’s a big job and we’re a small church. But that’s the deal. God never promises we will eradicate poverty in the world. But God just doesn’t tend to give us a lot of the specifics about how any of this will all play out. We know the big picture: God will redeem and restore, and there will be no more death, God will wipe away every tear, no more cycle of poverty, no more children going hungry. For now, we get very clear directions from Jesus—you might even call them “commandments”–about loving other people, caring for people suffering poverty, not letting money become our master, not being anxious about what we have, using what we have to love and bless others and advance God’s Kingdom.

Those are our directions from Jesus about people living in poverty around us, whether “strangers in the land,” people living in other countries, or people living across the street. A lawyer tries to dance around what Jesus means by “Love your neighbor,” and Jesus defines it for him with a story: “Those people whom you hate and fear, the ones you judge and believe God judges, let’s start with them.” But Jesus, being Jesus, doesn’t tell a story about how a good Jew is supposed to love a wounded, hated Samaritan. No, Jesus being Jesus tells a story about how a hated Samaritan loved a wounded Jew after the “Good” Jews showed apathy toward him as he’s lying there dying by the side of the road. The Jews crossed the road to avoid their fellow Jew.  The Samaritan crossed the road to get to him, to save his life. Apathy is the opposite of love. And neighbor becomes the opposite of enemy.

So, if you’re tracking with me, what I’m telling you so far is that: God loves all people, including people living in poverty; Jesus commands us to love other people, specifically people suffering poverty, and loving them is loving Jesus. As you can tell by Jesus commands,“love” means a lot more than “feel warm and fuzzy toward.” What exactly does “love” mean? For our purposes today, we’ll say love means, “treat the way God wants them treated.” That’s not bad, right? Does God want them judged or hated or ignored by us? Or does God want us to care for and share with them, empower and encourage them and tell them about his astounding, endless, grace-filled love for him? That’s a rhetorical question.

Now I’m guessing if you’ve been at New Song longer than 2 weeks, you’ve heard most of this before. Pastor Tim, one of my favorite people in the world, visited us last year to see our place and meet some of our neighbors across the street. We were talking about New Song’s work in India and Ensenada and the Wenatchee Valley. I asked some question about “How does it work with New Song’s other missionaries?” and Tim said, “You’re the only ones, you and Samuel and Sarah.” Because all of New Song’s ministry in countries suffering extreme poverty is directly with the leaders in those countries. The orphanages and schools and pastor trainings you folks support are all with the people who live there. You are part of making their calling possible. New Song is loving Jesus in those places.

We’ve been in Nicaragua for six years now. We went there because Jesus said “Go.” Actually, Jesus was there before we were and he said, “Come, join me.”  But why did he say that to us? If I really want it to get tense in here, why didn’t he say that to you? Or has he?

Why did Jesus say “Come love these people in Nicaragua with me?” Why did Jesus say, “Cross this street, love these neighbors?”

Well, obviously, God said that because these people are poor and need our help. There’s a problem so God sent us to work on it.  Right?

No, I don’t think that’s the main reason. As a high school science teacher of mine often said, “That’s the right answer, but that’s not the answer I’m looking for.”

Well, obviously, God called us because we are exceptionally gifted, capable people who can have the biggest impact in Nicaragua. Right?

Wrong.

Okay, last try. Why did Jesus invite me and Kim and our family to love people in Nicaragua, some shockingly poor, some wealthier than we are (whoa, that wealthy!), some Nicaraguan, some Chinese, some Korean, some gringos from Canada and the U.S, a few Germans and a family from Zimbabwe?

I believe the primary reason Jesus called us there is the same reason God has us do anything.  It’s why we come together in this building on Sunday morning or gather in someone’s house during the week.  It’s the same reason you spend time praying.

God invited us to Nicaragua to be with us. We gather in worship on Sunday morning because we believe God is present here when two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name. We come because God’s here.  I hike so much when I’m back in the Pacific Northwest because that’s where it’s easiest for me to experience being with God.  

To be clear:  God doesn’t call us to Nicaragua because we’re good at being Christians, or even because we have the specific spiritual gifts the people of Nicaragua need. God calls us to Nicaragua so we will be with him. When God calls us to be with him, he doesn’t just call us to hang out. God calls us to be with Him and being with Him changes us. Specifically, being with God changes us into the image of Jesus.

I want to make certain you’re getting what I’m saying here: God loves people in poverty and God shares with us His love for them by making us part of His Kingdom work to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Loving them isn’t a job we do for God; loving them is loving God. Our calling is not merely the task God give us, it is the way God has designed us to be with Him. God is not one of those bosses that just wants the work done and considers the workers interchangeable parts with no value other than completing the work. NO, God love us and calls us to be with him because he loves us.

There’s a funny moment in the Gospels that I’d always wrestled with. The story is in Mark 5 and Luke 8. Jesus heals a man who has a LOT of demons. Jesus casts all of those demons out, frees the man, restores him, and then sits and talks with him. Listens to him.  Loves him.

The village people freak out a bit because when Jesus cast out the demons , they begged Jesus to send them into a herd of pigs. Jesus did. Then the pigs did a swan dive off a cliff and plunged to their death. You can see how that passage could raise some questions, though if you are offended about the pigs dying, let he or she who has never eaten bacon cast the first stone. Side point. No, the question that’s always bugged me about this passage isn’t about pigs or even about how people can see such an awe-inspiring, life-restoring miracle and ask the miracle doer, “Please go away?”

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”

What, Jesus? I thought your ministry was “Come, follow me.” “Drop those nets, follow me, I’ll teach you to catch folk, not fish.” “Leave your tax collecting and follow me.” “Sell all that you have, give the money to the poor, and come, follow me.”

So here we have Jesus casting out a Legion of demons, the guy says, “Can I come, too?” and Jesus tells him, “No. Go tell everyone what God has done for you.”

That used to just drive me nuts. What? If anybody was ever in need of a little new believer care, it would be this guy, right? Does Jesus just not like him as well as everybody else? Doesn’t particularly want that follower?

This passage finally made sense to me in Nicaragua.  Jesus loves this guy. Jesus came to that specific beach in Gentile territory (pigs, remember?) to heal and restore this particular man. But Jesus has a different calling for him, a different direction for him to go in order to be with God. “And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.This man has a wild testimony. He has been through some awful things, to put it mildly. To know God better, to draw closer to God, this man needs to go and tell the people in the Decapolis what God has done for him. “Deca” means ten, so ten Gentile cities.  He becomes the first evangelist in gentile lands.

“But Mike, look what this guy’s been through! Why would God send someone so unequipped?” Let me answer your question with a question: Why would God send a forty-something year old man who doesn’t speak Spanish and who is not particularly gifted at learning Spanish to a Spanish-speaking country? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked God, “Why didn’t you send someone from here who was already fluent in Spanish?”

God loves us. He does what he knows we need, he treats us how he knows we need to be treated to know him. He draws us to him and through that he makes us more like him.

God’s desire for us is to be with him. I John says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” God’s commitment to us is that he will make us like him, that he will be faithful to complete the work he’s started. And God’s means to do this work in us is our calling. Let me say that again: Our calling is what God uses as his means to bring us closer to him.  We are called to be with God and through our calling God transforms us to be more like Jesus.

Here are a few implications. I’m not answering these, but I’m leaving them for you to ponder.  The joy of being a guest preacher is that I get to make the mess and then leave it for Pastor Tim to clean up.  

1)We kinda gotta know our calling.

How has God made you? How does God want you to know him better? What is God saying to you? Are you following your calling now? Are you knowing God through that?

2)Our callings don’t necessarily entirely make rational sense to us.

Funny thing about God is, he’s God. My friend Pastor Bismarck and I have developed this saying: No soy Dios; Dios es Dios, Gracias a Dios.  I’m not God.  I don’t have all the answers.  I don’t know all the reason.  What God does will not always make sense to me, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t calling me.  

Jesus identifies with the poor. There are many kinds of poverty all around us. One out of five kids in Wenatchee lives below the poverty line.  There’s also severe poverty in Nicaragua and North Africa. God can call us anywhere. He can send us to the Decapolis to proclaim what God has done. He can send us to a Spanish-speaking country when we are Spanish-language challenged. He’s God. We know that God calls us to love the poor in some form, all of us, because that’s whom Jesus tells us he is. And our calling is to be with Jesus.

3)Mileydi and Juan Carlos live across the street.  Kim and Mileydi have become sisters.  The family who sells tortillas for six cents a piece have their driveway directly across from ours. What God has called us to may seem crazy and foreign and you might even leave here saying, “Thank God that God isn’t calling us to go there!” When we were training in Honduras to go to Nicaragua, Samuel and I saw pictures and heard stories of a certain country in North Africa and afterward we literally said to each other, “Well, at least we aren’t called there!” Then Samuel and Sarah fell in love and now Samuel is there. Because God’s funny like that. If I’ve learned anything from these six years, it’s that God loves us so much that he does whatever it takes for us to be with him. Go to Nicaragua…and then cross the street.

So where is Jesus?  Where is he waiting for you, calling for you to join him?  Where is he calling you to cross the street?