What is the Hole?
As many of you know I had a birthday a couple of weeks ago. And you know we often kid about the fact that as we get older, the first thing that goes is our memory …and we can’t remember the second thing.
Well a couple of years ago my age caught up with me as I was traveling down to Roanoke for the Virginia Annual Conference. I went to pack and as it so often happens I was running late and doing most of my packing at the last minute. I sat everything out, clothes, underwear, socks belt, toothbrush and toothpaste, shaving cream and razor. I was going to try to keep up with my workouts in the hotel gym so I packed some shorts and t-shirts and my tennis shoes to make sure I would not forget them. That year I had one of the pastor’s that I had been assigned to mentor who was being ordained so I need to pack a suit and tie and my dress clothes.
Well I got to Roanoke and the time for the ordination service came. So I put on my suit. I buttoned my shirt and tightened my tie. I slipped on my jacket. And just before I was ready to walk out the door I went to look in the little closet there in the room, and wouldn’t you know it my black dress shoes were nowhere to be found! O My God! Now most hotels have little emergency supplies. They can give you a comb or a toothbrush or shaving cream or razor. But size 14 dress shoes? Uh uh! So you can imagine how I felt walking out of the room down the hall, through the hotel lobby, and into Wal-Mart where thank God I found something that would fit my feet!
Usually when you forget things there not all that important. But all of us at different times, we’ve gone on business trips and forgotten something. Or we’ve gone on camping trips or vacations and we’ve left something important behind. And usually when enough time passes we can laugh about those things. And they are pretty funny stories.
But there’s another journey that we’re on which if we forget something on this journey its not so funny.
The series that we kick off today called The Hole in Our Gospel is going to help us see if perhaps we might be forgetting something on our own faith journey. Is our faith just about going to church, studying the Bible, being involved in wonderful worship, avoiding the most serious sins? Or does God expect something more than that from us? Have we embraced the whole – W H O L E – gospel, or might there be a hole – H O L E – in our gospel. Is there something missing?
And over these next six weeks, we’re aiming to explore this topic and if necessary to patch up the hole in our gospel and discover what it means to live the whole gospel.
Now I want to be really clear about something. The title of this series, the book and study that goes along with it is called “The Hole in OUR Gospel.” Not the hole in THE gospel. Ok? I’ve slipped into that several times in terms of talking about the hole in the gospel. No. There is no hole in the gospel. To the contrary the gospel is full. The gospel is complete. The gospel touches all of the bases of what it means to walk in a right relationship with God and to live in a right relationship here in this world. But many Christians are missing something that is in there and it’s been there all along but it’s been missed or it’s been forgotten or it’s fallen down in the list of priorities.
Just let me say one thing before we get rolling here. This is the perfect timing to embark on a study like this. Lent is a time of self-reflection. It’s a time to examine our hearts and lives and to seek to ascribe to a deeper level of faith and a higher level of commitment. And here’s what I know: All of us have room to grow in fully embracing the whole of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I know that I do.
And I am so thrilled of the direction that we as a fellowship here at SUMC are going in. In just 10 short years we have grown tremendously in the depth of our spiritual vitality. More people are involved in ongoing studies and small groups seeking to grow in their faith and relationship with the Lord than ever before. Our commitment to and participation in missions and service to our community and our world has grown exponentially. I am encouraged with where we are as a church. I’m encouraged with the emphasis that we’ve had now for these last years of reaching Sterling and beyond with the good news of Christ. But I know we can be stretched more. I know I can be stretched more.
Now what does all this have to do with the hole in the gospel? Just this. We have a tendency; I have a tendency to just focus on myself. Left to our own devices we lose sight, we forget about those things that don’t touch us directly. And this isn’t a problem that’s new to our generation. This is something that took place fully 700 years before the birth of Jesus where people were missing something vital to the heart of God. And to them and to us God made it very very clear exactly what he expects.
Micah 6:8. Look at the Word with me. “He has shown you O mortal what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” Say that verse with me would you please. “He has shown you O mortal what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
700 years later Jesus would see the hole in the faith of the religious leaders of His day. It’s hard to imagine that He didn’t have this Micah passage in mind when He spoke. He said, “Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You give a tenth of your spices; mint, dill, and cumin but you have neglected the more important matters of the law; justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter without neglecting the former.”
Did you hear the three things that both of these passages – the Micah passage and the statement of Jesus have in common? Justice, mercy, and faithfulness or walking with God. What does God expect of us? Justice, mercy, faithfulness. I want you to keep those three things in mind as we look at today’s text.
We heard it read from Luke 4. This is Jesus’ first sermon. In it you’re going to find what some have called the mission statement of Jesus. He’s returned to His hometown of Nazareth. It’s the Sabbath day. He’s gone to the synagogue. A crowd of people have gathered. The attendant stands up. He speaks briefly. And then he asks Jesus to read the scriptures.
Jesus gets up. He walks to the middle of the room where there’s kind of a raised desk like a podium. People are excited to hear Him. They’d been hearing a lot about this homeboy Jesus. The attendant carried a heavy scroll to the podium. He handed it to Jesus to read from the prophets. It was a scroll containing the writings of the prophet Isaiah. The scroll had no chapter or verse divisions such as we have in our Bibles; that came later. But Jesus came to that passage in Isaiah that we call Isaiah 61:1-2. And He begins to read in a way that just sounded different to the listeners. Jesus read as if He were speaking about himself. And He was.
Luke 4:18 records what he read. Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Five things he names specifically in this passage. Jesus came to do these five things. Here’s his mission statement:
- Preach good news to the poor
- Proclaim freedom for the prisoner
- Give sight to the blind
- Release the oppressed
- Proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
Then verse 20 says, “Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.”
Do you sense the drama of this moment? Do you sense the anticipation as Jesus sits down and now the people are just watching Jesus, every eye fixed on Him? And he said to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Without any ambiguity at all Jesus states that He is the Messiah. He is fulfilling this prophecy. And as you’ll see in a moment these mission statements have both a spiritual meaning and a literal meaning. They all have a spiritual meaning and on the literal side some focus on mercy, some focus on justice. In his book The Hole in Our Gospel Richard Stearns combines these aspects of Jesus’ ministry into realms. There’s the spiritual realm, there’s the physical realm, and there’s the social realm. And they correspond so well with the two passages that we read earlier about faithfulness and mercy and justice.
Let’s look at these realms in Jesus’ mission. First is the realm that includes the spiritual. The whole gospel includes the spiritual. That’s the faithfulness aspect of things. Micah called this “walking humbly with your God.” Jesus called it faithfulness. For the most part this is the realm that most of us as evangelical Christians, we get this. That’s why we celebrate, we celebrate when hear about a child in our Sunday school class gives their heart to Jesus. Or that’s why we celebrate when we hear about a businessman who’s been so caught up in life and so caught up in money and success but who comes to recognize his need for the savior and repents of his sin and turns his life over to Christ. We hear about that and we celebrate. That excites us. And well it should. We join in with the angels in heaven and we celebrate whenever we hear about that kind of life change.
But let’s look at this a little closer. It says that Jesus came to preach good news to the poor. People thought at that time that being rich was a sign of God’s favor. And being poor was a sign of God’s judgment. But the scripture says that Jesus came to preach good news to the poor; the poor that God loved.
Further the spiritually poor people, whether they had great wealth or not, His message was that anybody could be spiritually rich.
Jesus came to proclaim freedom for the prisoner. The spiritual meaning is obvious. Jesus came to relieve people who were captured in sin. Charles Wesley wrote this in one of my favorite hymns, “My chains fell off. My heart was free. I rose went forth and followed Thee.”
Jesus came to give sight to the blind. Jesus spoke about the religious leaders of His day as being spiritually blind. They were blind in a spiritual sense. Just like many people today. Maybe some of you you’re sitting here and this stuff just isn’t registering. It sounds like so much verbiage. So there’s this spiritual sense of being blind.
Jesus came to release the oppressed. People are spiritually broken by their own sin and by the sins of others that have been done to them. Jesus came to release us from spiritual brokenness.
And Jesus came to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Of course this reference is to the Old Testament’s year of Jubilee. The Law of Moses required that every 50 years that slaves were to be freed. Debts were to be forgiven. Everyone had a clean slate. Jesus said that our sin is like a debt that we owe to God that is so big, that is so large we could never pay it back. But God forgives it and we get a clean slate. Jesus came to establish the age of grace. Some of you can remember the time that it first dawned on you in your spirit that you were saved and your were clean and you were forgiven. You can remember that.
The whole gospel does include the spiritual. But it also includes secondly the physical. Micah and Jesus refer to this as mercy. The gospel includes being merciful to each other in very practical, tangible and immediate ways. For some folks this is where the hole in the gospel begins to appear.
Look at just two of the phrases in Jesus’ mission statement. He said he came to preach good news to the poor. One of the families that came here yesterday for GRACE Ministries, do you think that when they found that there was food for them to take home with them so they would have something to eat. Do you think that was good news to them? I think so.
Are we just talking about the poor in spirit that Jesus refers to for instance in the Beatitudes? Or are we talking to the physical poor? I think He’s talking about both. Most of the rich had placed their security and their worth in money. Jesus challenged their values to the core. But to the poor Jesus’ message offered something of security and worth in God. The world didn’t view them as being worth much, but God did. Christ gave the poor value and hope. In other words He gave them good news.
Scripture says Jesus came to give sight to the blind. And again as we saw this has obvious spiritual significance. We sing the song, “I once was blind but now I see.” But what about the physically blind? Well all you have to do is go to your gospel. How many times did Jesus touch the eyes of those who were physically blind and give them a physical healing? That’s part of why Jesus came. Do you think that was good news to those blind men? I think so.
Have you ever heard of River Blindness? There are about 18 million people who are infected worldwide; a lot in southern Mexico and in central and South America. Africa has a number of them. Its spread through a little black fly when it bites and gets into the blood stream and causes eye damage and oftentimes blindness. It has enormous economic impact, even beyond the blindness because it prevents people from working. It keeps them from harvesting their crops, from receiving an education or taking care of their children. But when it’s caught in time it’s treatable. It’s just a matter of getting this inexpensive drug into the hands of the victims. And I ask you this. When a missionary does that do you think that’s good news to the people? Do you think Jesus is honored when that happens? You bet!
And the whole gospel thirdly also includes the social. Micah and Jesus both call this justice. A good way to distinguish between mercy, the physical and justice, the social is that mercy deals with symptoms. Justice deals with systems.
And so Dietrich Bonheoffer once said, “―We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice; we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” And with that conviction Bonheoffer would give his life, he’d be hanged by the Nazi’s for what he saw as his God-directed duty to try to overthrow Hitler.
And so Wilberforce because he’s dealing with systems, Wilberforce works tirelessly for most of his adult life to abolish the slave trade in England and her colonies.
This very church, the United Methodist denomination was birthed out of an effort to try to change the systems of oppression and slavery of people. It was birthed with the value of trying to rise up the value of women.
The whole gospel of Jesus includes the social realm as well as the physical and the spiritual. Christians all down through the centuries has always understood this.
The early Christians stood in opposition to the degradation of women, to the gladiatorial combats and to slavery. During the middle Ages we often hear about the crusaders and the horrible things that they did. Some of them did. But think about the monks; think about the monasteries that served as hospitals and places of refuge. During the great plagues and the Black Death when others were fleeing the cities, Christians were running into the cities. Why? To help minister to the sick.
Christians were the force behind getting the vote for women. Wilberforce as I’ve already mentioned, his Christian beliefs motivated him to work for the liberation of the slaves and child labor laws. The Red Cross was founded by a devout Christian. As was the Salvation Army, as was the YMCA. Mission shelters and soup kitchens in virtually every city in our country, most are faith based.
The Wesley/Whitfield revivals resulted in millions of Christian conversions. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism was converted after hearing the gospel message about salvation by faith through grace. And Wesley began to preach this message of Christian piety and salvation by faith. One commentator says this about Wesley. “John Wesley did some things that the Church of England considered vile and unchurchlike. He began to preach in the fields and in the mines where the common illiterate people worked and lived. No one had ever brought the gospel to the people where they were. He did mission work in the areas that the church considered off limits such as in prisons. He reached out to the poor and the common person to provide for their daily needs. He even began to publish short inexpensive books so that the average person could afford to have information in their hands. Not all of these were about theology or about the Bible. Wesley even tried his hand at writing a home medicine book filled with home remedies. He did this for persons who could never afford to go to a doctor.”
That’s why. In addition to communicating the gospel, in addition to inviting people to step into a faith relationship with Jesus Christ, that’s why as the United Methodist Church we are engaged with supporting missionaries all over the globe. You’re contributions makes it possible for missionaries to share the gospel of Christ. But beyond that we’re seeing children being fed, disease being treated. That’s why as Methodists we support hospitals and clinics scattered all around the world.
That’s why we as a church have been directly involved in supporting relief efforts all around the world, be it the tragic tsunami back in 2004 or the horrible earthquake that took place in Haiti or the damaging storms that have taken place in our own country called Katrina or Sandy or the tornados in the south.
That’s why we have begun a Hispanic/Latino Ministry here within this congregation. That’s why we open our doors to GRACE Ministries or go out into the local elementary school to provide food through backpack buddies. That’s why over 100 of you now each summer give up a week of your vacation to go to a variety of places to lend a hand to help families who do not have a decent home to have a safe and secure place to call their own. That’s why people like Don and Donna Meyer are using their retirement not to lounge around and take it easy, but instead have traveled just this week to the poorest part of Appalachia to spend the next three months in ministry to the people of Red Bird Mission.
Friends that’s part of embracing the whole gospel; spiritually, physically, socially.
Now it’s true that there are some churches, though I’d be hard pressed to call them Christian churches, who only practice the social gospel. And they focus on mercy and justice and leave the issues of faith and spiritual matters behind. I would say to them, “You’ve got a big hole in your gospel!” It’s not even the gospel.
But just imagine the unprecedented impact that we could have for the gospel, the whole gospel of Jesus Christ if we could just understand and embrace three things.
First of all understand that Jesus wanted His kingdom to influence and encompass the spiritual, physical and social realms. He wanted His kingdom to affect every sector of society, education, government, healthcare… That’s why it’s so important where you work; you’re a representative of Christ there. You’re salt and light in that situation. If you’re a stay at home mom with kids at home you’re a representative of Christ there. If you are a student in a classroom you are the Lord’s agent in that place. He wanted His kingdom to impact culture and society. It has in the past. It must continue to do so. So much more could be said about the positive influence of Christianity upon the world down through the centuries.
But secondly greatest influence was in creating a culture of compassion and justice. Jesus emphasized helping the neediest. Think of Mother Teresa. Think of the Salvation Army. Think of religious hospitals and all the incredible things done in the name of Jesus.
Is Christ honored or not when His followers address matters of social oppression and injustice? Is Jesus honored or not when His followers speak out against racism and sexism? Is Jesus honored or not when His followers seek mercy and justice for the weak and the poor and the broken? I think you know the answer to that question.
Finally Jesus’ mission has made the world an incalculably better place. By joining your life to His mission, you can make this a better world too. And we can do so as a church. Every time you step out and give of yourself, and give of your time, and invest your financial resources in the church – I’m thinking of volunteers for GRACE Ministries. I’m thinking of volunteers to tutor children during the Amigos service. I’m thinking of being a teacher in our Sunday school program. Every time you are engaged in participating in the mission and ministry of this church through the giving of your time, talent and money you’re investing in terms of sharing and sending light into a dark dark world.
I celebrate what we’ve done. I celebrate what we’re doing. I am so pleased and I think even properly proud of what we’ve been able to do in terms of services and resources places here and around the world. But there is new territory for us to claim. There is that which is beyond anything we’ve previously done. And I’m having to ask myself the question, “Randy, what does that look like for you? You can keep on doing what you’ve been doing, that’s good. But what is the next level? What does that look like practically?” What does that look like for you?
It looks like this. If you haven’t been involved in supporting or participating in missions and ministry, start. If you’ve been involved in supporting or participating in missions and ministry, wrestle with God about what does it look like to bump it up a notch? Maybe for you it means stepping into a new area of service – just trying it out a little bit. Connecting somehow with any of our opportunities to serve one another in congregational care or music or fellowship events or evangelism.
Is there a hole? I tell you there’s not a hole in THE gospel. But I’ve got to look and find out if there’s a hole in my gospel. And you know what? There may not even be a hole in my gospel. Maybe we’ve got it together. But maybe there is higher ground that we can claim. Maybe there are deeper levels of commitment we can achieve. Maybe we can make an even more significant difference in Sterling and beyond.
That’s what the season of Lent is all about. I challenge you to use this season, this time of reflection to ask yourself that question; where is the hole in my gospel? And what can I do, what must I do to take the steps necessary to live the whole gospel?
Would you pray with me please? Father, how can I say thanks for things you have done for me? Things so undeserved yet you gave to prove your love for me…We are debtors to the nth degree. And we would communicate to you O God our heartfelt gratitude for releasing us from our prisons, for giving us sight for previously blind spiritual eyes, for giving us life in exchange for our death rags. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! And as we as a congregation, as we as individuals seek to follow in the steps of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, O God give us insight to do so. Give us courage to step out. And might this community, might this world be a better place because Sterling United Methodist Church is here and because the people of this congregation are here. O God help us to embrace your expectation of us that we would do justice, love mercy, and humbly and faithfully follow in your steps, I pray. In Jesus Name. Amen.