Each time, the response has been overwhelming.
Instead of "every head bowed and every eye closed and if you'd like to come to faith, open your eyes and look at me," it's been "every head up and every eye open and if you want to respond to God's love by becoming a Christian, stand up when I say the words, 'Jesus is Lord.'" And people stand! And then they come forward to be prayed over, to receive a "grace bag," complete with a bible and other follow up materials, and to be surrounded by the loving people of the church.
Well, we had such a Sunday again yesterday -- called, appropriately enough, Gospel Decision -- and we again felt the move of God in our midst. And not only with adults in the Worship Center, but our Children's Ministry area gave the same kind of invitation and generated the same kind of response.
So it was a day full of prayer, decision, and celebration.
And in reflection on what's happened in 2012, I've realized two primary benefits from plain proclamation and clear invitation:
1) People become Christians. In the moment. Sitting in seats that have been prayed over, surrounded by God's people, and immersed in Gospel proclamation, they move from lost-ness to found-ness and from blindness to sight. It's thrilling.
2) Long-time believers find their own faith strengthened. It's like our Gospel material by J.D. Greear reminds us: you never get beyond the Gospel, you merely move deeper into it. Here's a portion of an email I received on Sunday afternoon from someone who has walked with Jesus for years: And the people who know Jesus and are in a personal relationship with Him never get tired of hearing the story.
No, they don't.
Plain proclamation and clear invitation. I think I could get used to that.
Some of you might be interested in a written version of the Gospel Decision message. These notes are rough and unedited and include some instructions for our Audio-Visual team. Also, whenever you read the word REFRAIN that means: It's good news when you admit bad news.
The list of bible comics is pretty short. It’s not like there’s a Jon Stewart or a Jimmy Kimmel on every page. Back in the OT a group of 42 young guns jeered the prophet Elisha and called him “Baldhead! Baldhead!” – something I personally don’t find very funny but they no doubt was a riot. God sort of got even with them for insulting his prophet: the next verse tells us two bears mauled them all to death. Watch what you say about a religious leader’s hair. But that’s about it as for as OT stand up comedy.
The NT is not much better. Jesus is known more for his parables than for his wit. Paul . . . we laugh AT him more than WITH him. John the Revelator? He’s too busy scaring us with images of the beast to tickle our funny bone. But Luke . . . well, he might be the exception. In Acts 20 (Luke wrote it), he tells a story of a man in the early church named Eutychus who falls into a deep sleep then falls out a window, dies, and gets prayed back to health. Why did he fall asleep? Look what Luke adds in at 20:9: READ. He didn’t have to add that little detail; but it was sort of his little wink to the early church, saying “You KNOW this guy talks a lot, right? Here’s how much.” Remember I said AT not WITH! Luke, you could say, is a slyly funny guy.
Nowhere is that more true than in today’s story in Luke 3. Here’s the setting: Jesus has not yet begun his public ministry and John the Baptist – Jesus’ cousin, a rebel, the bible’s Grizzly Adams, is in the center of his public ministry. And that ministry revolves around baptizing people – not in the name of the F,S, and HS – but into new life with God. And look at the result of his ministry in 3:7a: READ. Oh man! Crowds coming! I’d be like, “whoa! Gotta be good with this crowd today so they come back next week!”
John, evidently, doesn’t share that obsession with keeping a crowd. Look at 3:7b: READ. YOU BROOD OF VIPERS! Now: they are coming to him for BAPTISM! Bringing family, picnic lunches, cameras, video cameras, the whole works. It’s a day of excitement and celebration and they get greeted with the ultimate in bad news: You? You’re a snake! It’s an image of fire which in those days made snakes slither out of their holes and towards safety. They may not get burned but they’re still a snake.
More bad news follows from John in 3:8: READ. Don’t even begin to talk about Abraham . . . I love that. You’re snakes and you’re Hebrew snakes but don’t you dare trust your Hebrew-ness. It won’t do a thing for you. Your heritage and your ancestry are not a factor in getting right with God. Then there’s more in 3:9: READ. OK, they are snakes, Hebrew snakes, and you don’t legitimately change, hell is where you are headed. In case they haven’t gotten enough bad news already, John piles one more on in 3:17: READ. An image of clear separation: the farmer would use the winnowing fork to gather up wheat, toss it in the air, and the worthless chaff would float away while the valuable wheat drops to the ground. That’s what it will be like for Abraham’s snakes, he says: separation is coming and if you don’t get right, you’ll get burned in an “unquenchable fire.”
It’s bad news after bad news: you’re snakes, your family tree does you no good, hell is a real possibility, and even the one coming after me (Jesus) is as much about separating as he is about embracing. It’s like BAM, BODY SHOTS, HEAD BLOWS, Bad News. Not a way to win a crowd! And you’re like, “Talbot, I thought you said this was supposed to be funny. I ain’t laughed yet. Luke is more Chris Matthews than Chris Rock.” (AV)
But here comes the comedy. Look at 3:18: HUH? Now this may not be LOL Luke had to have a smile when he wrote it. I smile when I read it – not fall out of the chair laughing, but I can tell it’s not accidental. You’ve got bad, BAD, bad, BAD and then Luke slides a “good news” in there. And you’ve got to wonder, “how is such a thing possible?” How in the world can you call people snakes, tell them their family tree means nothing, let them know they’re going to hell, that the coming Messiah is a divider not a uniter and call it good?
Well, I’m so glad you asked! What we read as “good news” is the same word that is also translated as “gospel.” It’s why this story concludes this series. So the good news John is telling them is that Jesus is King, Jesus is Savior, Jesus is Lord. But here’s why John the Baptist has set it all up like this. He knows, apparently, the broad outlines of what the Coming One (Jesus) will do: Redemption. But before he could tell all these people coming for baptism about the Savior, he needs to tell them they’re lost. Otherwise they’d be like, what do we need a Savior for? John needs to hit them in the face with the awful reality that in their natural state they are sinful, separated, and w/out repentance & change destined for the fire of which he speaks. It’s the least Politically Correct, the least I’m OK You’re OK message ever . . . and that’s why it is hilariously brilliant.
He knows they won’t embrace their need for Jesus unless they see their predicament without him. Here’s what it means: It’s good news when you admit bad news. That’s it! That’s why Luke is so hilariously brilliant here! The good news about God always begins with the bad news about you! Until you realize you are a snake, that you can’t get right with God based on your family tree (or church membership!), that you are destined for the very real and very awful realm of hell apart from grace, you can never truly hear and internalize the good news about God.
It’s like these (put on Rose Colored Glasses). What are they? Rose Colored Glasses! What do they do? Help us see the bright side of life; the best in everything. But these are what we wear in regard to ourselves more than anything or anyone else. I’m a good person. I don’t hurt anybody. I believe in God! I’ll go to heaven when I die because I’m better than most people. Guess what Luke 3 does to those rose colored glasses? BASH! (Destroy them.) So now you can see yourself not as you WISH you were before God but how you actually are before him. On your own, apart from repentance & grace, you are desperately sinful and deeply in need of forgiveness. REFRAIN.
Or it’s like what happened when Peter Cartwright, a Methodist preacher in the 1830s, was leading a service at his church and President Andrew Jackson showed up. So the elders of the church went back into the holding room where Cartwright was and said, “Rev. Cartwright, Pres Andrew Jackson is here. Make sure you don’t say anything inappropriate!” So Cartwright stood up to preach and said, “I’ve been told President Andrew Jackson is in attendance today. I’ve been told to be cautious in my remarks because of it. Well here goes: Andrew Jackson will die and go to hell if he doesn’t repent just like everyone else.” Jackson ended up taking him to lunch that day. Whether you are the president or a pauper you are on equal ground. Your need is the same. REFRAIN Let me be clear here: hell is at stake. John the Baptist’s imagery in both 3:9 and 3:17: READ have eternal, painful destruction in mind. God must deal with sin and he must do so decisively and thoroughly and hell is how he has decided to do it. And the frightening thing is that those who go blindly through life with rose colored glasses on, trusting in their own niceness, or their own genealogy or their church rituals . . . may well find themselves there after they die. As your pastor, I have to have to have to warn you against that. Get those glasses off, see yourself and your needs clearly and turn around. REFRAIN.
Someone (not from this church) told me awhile back that the reason they weren’t scared of what might happen if they died during surgery is because before the surgery happened they said “an act of contrition.” Which is a fine, beautiful prayer from the RC tradition. But it got me thinking in light of Luke 3: trusting a ritual? A written prayer? Even a baptism? Oh, no. How much better is it to trust a living relationship than a printed ritual?!! A living relationship with Jesus deeply rooted in how lost you are without him. REFRAIN
Because it is NOT based on your family tree. That Abraham line in 3:8 – READ – means everything in this story. Your rescue from your sin doesn’t depend on your being an American, a Guatemalan, a Sierra Leonian. It’s because you’ve acknowledged that your heritage has nothing to do with your destiny. The good news about God has its starting place in the bad news about me. Me getting right with God will never be about joining the right church or attending the right school. It will always about getting the stain of sin removed by the blood of the cross.
Now: I’m going to give you an opportunity in a few minutes to do just that. But before I do and in order for me to be faithful to the gospel and to this Gospel of Luke, I have to let you know up front: it’s NOT just about you and Jesus. That’s not salvation. I’d not be truthful if I said, “oh, it’s just a private decision you and Jesus in the quiet of your heart.” There’s more. Because after John calls them snakes, the people getting baptized ask three times “what do we do?” Look at the answers in 3:10-14: READ. Notice? All the answers have to do with how you treat other people: sharing, not abusing, and being content. Getting right with God means making right with others. For some of you it will be speaking to that ex-spouse you'd vowed you'd never talk to again. For others it's reconciling with those parents from whom you have been estranged. And still others it's making the first move with those adult children from whom you are alienated. No way around it. If you are going to respond to Gospel Decision today, do so knowing in advance that you’re going to relinquish your right to get your way, you’re going to have to go to some people in order to right some wrongs that you’ve caused, and you’re going to practice contentment. Because if you have something private with Jesus and IT DOESN’T EFFECT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH OTHERS it means you didn’t get right. Getting right means making right and I want you to know that going in. REFRAIN
But even if that sounds imposing, it’s worth it. Because by admitting the bad news about you, you really do live into the good news about God. Which involves not hell but resurrection. When you repent (turn) you change from the status of a criminal awaiting a terrible sentence to that of an heir awaiting a fabulous inheritance. Makes me think of US astronaut Shannon Lucid who back in the 90s spent six months on the Russian space station Mir. Her return home was delayed by two hurricanes and shuttle problems so she ended up being in space longer than any American ever had, man or woman. When she was finally cleared to be picked up for her return to earth on the space shuttle Atlantis, she told Mission Control, “you can rest assured that I am not going to be on the wrong side of the hatch when they close it.”
I don’t want you to be on the wrong side, either. There is coming a day, either due to your death or Jesus’ return that the hatch will be closed. People on one side – the ones who went through life with rose colored glasses – will be lost. People on the right side – the ones who REFRAIN – will be saved. Which will it be for you . . .