Wow, what a privilege to be able to preach here today. The first time I ever preached anywhere I stood right here on January 1 in 1976. A lot of years have gone by since then and we are excited to be here today to see what God will do as we seek His will.
Because we grew up here and because we have family here, we have watched to see what has happened in this church over the years and particularly in the last few years we have truly come to care about this church. We believe that God has a future for this congregation and if we are correct in our sense that God is calling us here to pastor this church, we would look forward to working with you to accomplish what God wants to do here.
Carla asked me what the message was about and I told her “It’s about Jesus.” She responded with a grin that I would give her such a Sunday School answer, but it is not a Sunday School answer. If we identify ourselves as Christians and the church as a Christian church, the foundational truth which must mark who we are, what we do and what we hope in is Jesus. It is that truth which I would like to declare today. As Christians and as churches, there is no more significant message than the centrality of Christ in the message we proclaim, the centrality of Christ in the way we proclaim it and the centrality of Christ in the hope we have of response. If it is about Jesus, then this also calls us to a decision about following Christ with our whole life.
So this morning I would like to encourage all of us that “It’s About Jesus!”
I. The Message
Yet if you are like me, I sometimes find it hard to put the message of Jesus out there like that. I don’t find it too difficult to ask people, “Do you attend church?” I have often invited people to church events like VBS or a special concert. But unless they brought it up, I have not often asked people, “What do you think of Jesus.”
Such reluctance is not surprising. The gospel message, which centers on Jesus, is not necessarily respected in the world. Paul speaks about the difficulty of presenting the message of Jesus in I Corinthians 1:18-25. He knew what he was talking about when he said “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. When he preached Jesus in Athens, we read in Acts 17:32, "When they heard Paul speak about a raising from death, some of them made fun of him…” On another occasion in Acts 26:24 we read that, "…Festus shouted at him, “You are mad, Paul!”
A. Spinning Christianity
So in response to this reality the Christian world has often tried to find ways to make Jesus more acceptable, but what is the impact of those attempts?
The cross has been domesticated and has become a piece of jewelry. Whenever I see someone wear a cross, I wonder if they really understand what it means to them because the cross is not a piece of jewelry, but rather an instrument of torture and death. It represents God’s strategy of gaining victory through weakness and defeat.
Some churches invite people to experience the blessing of knowing God and promise that if they become Christians they will have a better life. The reality is that most people who follow Christ will not necessarily have easier lives. Illness, financial hardship and death all still come to Christian people. On top of that there is a very good likelihood that followers of Jesus will be persecuted in some way. If the only call we have is that life will be better, it doesn’t ring very true.
One of the most common ways into the church is through friends and it is a great blessing to enjoy relationships with other Christians. But if good relationships are the only focus of the church, churches will soon deteriorate into social clubs with all the problems of any human organization.
Churches argue for the logic of God’s existence and that He is creator and that life should be modeled after his rules. But the history of the church leaves many people wondering about the reality of what is proclaimed. The world is not buying it, citing the evil done by “God’s people” in residential schools and so on.
With this confusing legacy of what Christianity has done in our world it is hard to stand up for Christ because from the perspective of those who do not know Christ, the message of Jesus is foolishness. What do we do? Do we continue to spin Christianity so that it looks good to the world? Paul’s message in I Corinthians reminds us that the message we have to proclaim is about Jesus and even though it looks like foolishness to the world, it is still the only message that is the wisdom of God and the power of God.
B. The Message of Christ Crucified
There are two ways to be religious. One is to look for signs of power. This is what the Jews were constantly doing. When Jesus was on earth, the Jewish religious leaders asked him to prove himself with signs. Religions that are able to demonstrate powerful manifestations are impressive. To those seeking evidence of power, the message of Jesus dying on a cross makes no sense at all. The thought is that if Jesus was truly the Messiah, he would demonstrate power, perhaps by calling down 10,000 angels to demonstrate that He was Lord. But that was not God’s plan. Instead, he allowed His Son to die on the cross. What utter foolishness to the Jews.
The other way of religion is through wisdom. It was the way of the Greeks and is the way of every philosopher. The thought is that there has to be logic. To them also the way death of Jesus on the cross makes no sense. What is the sense of having a dead god?
Yet what is foolishness from an earthly point of view is from God’s point of view, power and wisdom. Paul indicates that the message we preach is about Jesus. He says in I Corinthians 1:23, “we preach Christ crucified.” He declares that to those whom God has called this message is “the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
It is the power of God because unlike any other system of human power or wisdom it is actually able to overcome sin. It was the weakness of Christ’s death on the cross which gained for all whom God calls forgiveness of sins, freedom from guilt and the hope of living in a new way.
It is the power of God because unlike any other system of human power or wisdom it is actually able to overcome the sentence upon sin which is death. It is through the weakness of Christ’s death on the cross that God defeated the great enemy of our lives and introduced to all who will accept it the message of life eternal.
It is the wisdom of God because unlike any other system of human power or wisdom it alone is able to bring us into a relationship with God that makes us acceptable to God and allows us to know Him in this life and to be assured that we will be able to see Him face to face for all eternity! Gordon Fee says, “…left to themselves mere creatures cannot find out the living God. The best they can do is to create gods in the likeness of created things, or, as so often happens, in their own distorted likeness.” It is only through Christ crucified that we know God and know Him truly.
That is wisdom and that is power and even though those who are perishing will never understand it, we must continue to proclaim this message so that those who are called by God and those who open their lives up to trust God will find life. If we weaken this message, if we try to make it acceptable to a world that doesn’t get it, we will forgo the power and wisdom of God. May we always continue to make sure that the message which is central to our lives, the message which we proclaim to the world is about Jesus!
II. The Manner
An amazing thing happened in Winnipeg on June 4. The message that season tickets for the Winnipeg Jets were on sale that day was followed by an immediate and overwhelming response that surprised everyone when all available tickets sold out in 2 minutes. The message of Jesus is not usually received with that kind of success. As we have just seen the life giving message which is about Jesus is viewed by many as foolishness, is hated by some and simply doesn’t even come to the attention of many. Yet we have the privilege and responsibility of proclaiming this life giving message about Jesus. How do you proclaim Jesus to those who ignore it, consider it foolish or oppose it?
Some of the ways in which Christians have tried to proclaim it seem to me to be less than what God expects of us. If you have ever watched golf on TV, you have probably seen people who stand in the crowds with the words John 3:16 in front of them. What kind of a method is that? It is a method that proclaims from a distance but doesn’t really engage people. It is tempting for us to point to Jesus without really becoming involved with people. The other extreme would be standing on a street corner and arguing with people and trying to force them to see the wisdom of the gospel. I have seen both and don’t really think they are what God wants us to do.
Peter gives a good answer to this question in I Peter 3:15 where he says, "But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect." The context of this passage is one in which Peter acknowledges that if we do good things we should expect to be treated well. But the reality for God’s people on earth is that even if we do good things, we may experience opposition and perhaps even persecution. Peter was trying to encourage believers who were being persecuted. He challenges them not to shy away from the message about Jesus. If believers in a persecution context were to be faithful in speaking about Jesus, how much more should we. There are three important lessons about the manner of proclamation in this passage.
A. Set Apart Christ
First of all, Peter encourages believers “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.”
Carla’s birthday is this coming week and I was thinking about how we could celebrate it. I was looking online for some fun activity to do together, perhaps a concert or something like that, but it didn’t take me very long to figure out what we would do. I noticed that the Bombers had a home game and I didn’t even have to think about whether that would be an appropriate activity. She is an avid fan and I knew she would love to go to the game.
We are similar in that we all have a heart for something that is our delight. If I had a chance to go canoeing or to a jazz concert, I wouldn’t have to think very long about it because I enjoy these things. Each of us has something that gives us delight.
What would happen if Jesus was at the top of all of the things we delight in? What if we would love Jesus more than anyone or anything else? Is that not what it means to set apart Christ in our hearts?
Of course when it says that we are to set Him apart as Lord, it also means that of all the things which call for our obedience, Jesus is the one whom we are called to obey first of all. So the first strategy of proclamation is that Jesus must be first in our lives. He must be first in our love and first in our obedience. It’s about Jesus.
B. Incarnate the Gospel
The next thing Peter says is to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” The clear message of this phrase is that we need to know the word of the gospel. We need to know what Jesus has done for us and what He can do for others and we need to be prepared to declare that without being shy or apprehensive about it.
But there is a question behind this message. How do people come to see “the reason for the hope that we have?” How do they get to the place where they are asking us about the hope we have? I believe the answer is that our lives need to be where they can see them. One of the most powerful truths of the gospel is the method which God used to bring that message to us. He did not just send us a book of directions. He did not light up a big sign in the heavens. He came to earth as a human being and lived among us. The word we use, most often at Christmas, to describe this is “incarnation.” The word “incarnation” comes from Latin and means to become flesh. By becoming flesh, Jesus left us the model for how to get God’s message into the world and that is to go into the world. When we engage people in our business or become involved in the community center or relate to our neighbors, we are incarnating the gospel.
It seems to me that if we follow these two instructions we will have great effectiveness in making the message of Jesus known. If we love Jesus more than anything and if as people who love Jesus we are deeply engaged with people who do not know Jesus, then they are going to see our love for Jesus and they are going to ask us for a reason for the hope that is within us.
Once again, it is about Jesus about loving Jesus and using the method of Jesus.
C. With Gentleness and Reverence
The other message which Peter has for us in this verse is to do this “with gentleness and reverence.” I believe that once again we need to follow God’s own method. God does not force His way on anyone. He is patient with us waiting until we understand and accept His word. In a similar way, we need to be patient with people.
We knew some people who came to church who didn’t have a relationship with Jesus. People of the church befriended them and it was a joy to get to know them. They asked questions and were given the answers, but did not respond right away. Some people became anxious and wanted to push them to make a decision, but we decided instead to be patient with them. When she was ready, she made a decision and declared her new faith through baptism. We are still waiting for him to make a decision.
I believe that such patience is important because it also involves reverence. Reverence means that we give them the absolute right to make their own decision in their own time. It respects the person and I believe that is what it means to proclaim Jesus with gentleness and reverence.
So as proclaim the message of Jesus, we must also use the method of Jesus – being incarnational, loving Him and allowing Him to draw people as we live our love for Jesus before them.
III. The Miracle
If the message is about Jesus and the method is His method, what hope do we have, in a world that sees the message as foolish, that there will be any response?
Last year the Winnipeg Blue Bombers were the best losing team ever. Their statistics in some categories were amazing, but they had a hard time winning. So of course we hoped for next year. After the season ended and before the new season began the coaches and managers did all they could to strengthen the team. As this season has begun, we have put our hope in the strategies of the coach, the abilities of the coach and the abilities of the new players they have brought to the team. But what kind of a hope is that?
In a similar way churches often look for different things that will give them hope that they can grow and be a healthy church. But where does our hope that the message of Jesus will be accepted truly lie? Luke gives us an answer to that question in the miracle performed in Luke 5:1-11. It is really quite a fascinating event.
We read that after Jesus had finished speaking, he told Peter to go fishing. It seems quite presumptuous that Jesus, the carpenter, would tell Peter, the fisherman, to go fishing. He didn’t go out immediately but first argued with Jesus pointing out some things that made a lot of sense from the perspective of his experience as a fisherman. I like the line, “we’ve worked hard all night” because it points to the skill and dedication Peter had in his profession. Yet that day he had been a failure in his profession. In spite of applying all the skill and knowledge to the task the text tells us that they hadn’t caught anything.
However, in obedience to Jesus they let down their nets and immediately they caught fish like they had never caught fish before. Their response of awe and worship tells us that they learned something very important about Jesus that day. In a context in which they were called to be fishers of men I believe that this account has an important lesson for us because it also tells us once again that it’s about Jesus.
The hope we have for the building of the church is in Jesus. The implication of the conclusion is that Jesus will give success to His church. This is a message which is contained in other places in Scripture as well. In Matthew 16:18 Jesus promised Peter, "… I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it." The apostle Paul also understood this truth when speaking about the church he told the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 3:6, that it was God who "…made it grow.”
So once again we see that it is about Jesus. It is about what Jesus wants to do and what Jesus will do to build His church. It seems to me that since we accept that hope, our response must be that we seek Him for His guidance about how to be involved in what He wants to do and that we ask Him to build His church. Jesus will build His church and our hope is in Him. It is about Jesus.
IV. The Mandate
Armed with the message of Jesus, using the methods of Jesus and relying on the miracle of what Jesus will do, we are called to respond to His mandate.
It is interesting that at the point at which they had just observed huge success in their chosen profession; Jesus called them away from that profession to become fishers of men.
Having seen what Jesus could do in their profession, they realized that following Jesus and obeying Him and becoming fishers of men would be even more fulfilling than catching fish. The text tells us that they “left everything and followed him.”
This is the mandate which Jesus has left with us as well. If it is all about Jesus, as we have seen, then there is nothing that makes more sense than leaving everything to follow Jesus. But what does it mean to leave everything? I do not believe that it means going to the office tomorrow and handing in your resignation. However, it does mean going to Jesus today and submitting your application as a way of telling Him that even though you are a carpenter, or a lawyer or a teacher, the first priority in your life is to be a person who catches people for Him. We have eternal life, but Jesus has left us in mortal life precisely because He has called us to do His work.
In the church in Rosenort, we have been reading Scripture from the Lutheran Liturgy since advent last November. So each Sunday we read a Psalm, an Old Testament reading, a Gospel reading and a New Testament reading. The passages which I used this morning were from the readings assigned to this Sunday. Interestingly they convey concepts which God has been putting in my heart for some time and concepts which he has put in my heart specifically as I have thought about Portage Avenue Church. It is interesting how God does these things.
My heart’s desire in examining these scripture passages has been to lift up Jesus. As we contemplate the message of Jesus I hope that we will be encouraged that it is about Jesus. I hope that we will keep Him at the center of our life. I hope that as we consider how to make His name known we will also remember that we are called to use the methods of Jesus. The promise of Jesus is that if He is lifted up, people will come to Him. He will build His church. So because it is about Jesus, our mandate is to love Jesus in the world and see what He will do.
My hope is that in my life, in your life, in this church it will always be about Jesus.