Proclaiming the saviour of all

This is the text of a sermon I preached yesterday on "Making New disciples", based on Luke 2:8-20. We live in a world where news, good or bad, can travel extremely quickly and far. Social media like facebook, etc, enables us to be part of the news sharing process, and we share everything from the sublime to the ridiculous and very serious. Within minutes of the attacks in Paris, the whole world was kept up to date with the blow by blow account of the attacks, and the ensuing police chase. Newspaper headlines and frontpages have been dominated by these attacks in Paris, and the response of the international community – from millions expressing their solidarity. The hashtag #jesuischarlie was tweeted over 5 million times in the days following the attacks. It was meant to show solidarity with the victims of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, as well as a defense of freedom of speech.

We love to be bearers and recipients of news. I’m sure one of the reasons why some of you are looking forward to church today is that it’ll give you an opportunity to share news with your friends. News spreads quickly, especially if it’s something important. We want to be kept informed, and we feel put out if we’re the last to hear something. And we feel privileged if we’re the first to hear a piece of news or information.

Just imagine how the shepherds felt that night when the angel appeared to them with his very important message.  Shepherds were rather dodgy characters, treated with suspicion by mainstream society. They lived on the hills outside the city, away from everybody. They were shunned by people in polite society. Shepherds were unreliable – not even allowed to testify in a court of law, they were crude, rude and hardy, and you wouldn’t want your sister dating one. So they weren’t your obvious choice to be the recipients of such important news. And yet, God chose to send his angel to them – he chose them to be the first to know that this king has been born. Have you ever wondered why it was them and not some, well, more important people?

The message of the angel has to give us a clue – “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”

Wow, what a statement. This is good news for all people everywhere, full stop. Not the majority of people, but everyone –– every man and woman, including peasants and shepherds, the unemployed, the retired, farmers, teachers, office workers, shop assistants and even members of the clergy; people like you, people like me. This news was for everyone, and as if to illustrate the point, the first people to know, except for his parents, the carpenter Joseph and peasant girl Mary, were these shepherds. They were the first to hear this good news for all people. They were outcasts, so were the very people who needed to hear that there was good news for everyone.

But what was this good news? What could possibly qualify as good news for all people everywhere? Good news is only good news for you if you’re included in the benefits. Last week, it was great to hear about the Coupes’ news of Roy’s new job and Daniel’s success on the trampoline, and it was fantastic to be able to celebrate with them, but that news isn’t good news for all of us – we could appreciate my friend’s good news, but we couldn’t all participate in the benefits.

What good news could affect all people equally, regardless of race, sex, income level, or location? What about a cure for cancer, or world peace, or the end of poverty? None of these, although, it would be wonderful, counts as good news for everyone, because not everyone is impacted by cancer, war or poverty.

When you try to think of something that qualifies as good news for everyone, it’s hard isn’t it? What does the angel say is good news for all?

“Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:11-12).

Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you. 

That’s the only good news that’s equally good for 'all the people.' Not only the shepherds the angel spoke to, or the people of Bible times, or the early church, but all the people anywhere, ever! A Saviour has been born for all people. His birth offers “good news” for all people who have ever been born or who ever will be born.

This baby Jesus, was born in order that he might grow up to suffer and die for you and me. We may feel insignificant and overlooked, but God sent a saviour to be born for you and me. Too many people feel God is out to get them, that his finger is poised on the destroy button as soon as we step out of line. Actually, the news is just the opposite – God sent Jesus on a rescue mission, to save us from our sin and death – as John 3:16 proclaims. “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”

As Dan Schaeffer reflects,

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince people that there is a perfect, righteous God who loves them and forgives them. It’s not an easy sell, strangely, but it is always good news. This baby Savior would grow up in the midst of our sinful world. He would spend time with prostitutes and embezzlers, telling them the same thing He told the religious folks—“there’s a place for you in My house, and I want you to come and live with Me. I know everything about you, and yet, I still want to be your Saviour!” Good news for all the people!  

All the people who have ever lived have done wrong and need a Saviour. Jesus came to be that Saviour, and that is good news of great joy for all people.

“Jesus is the only Saviour anyone will ever have. He is Mother Teresa’s Savior, and he is Madonna’s. … It was as much good news for Pilate and Herod as it was for Mary and Martha. Jesus was the Saviour of the soldiers who crucified Him as well as Peter and Paul who worshipped Him. The good news for the Hindus and the Buddhists and the Muslims is that Jesus is their Saviour.”

The good news both for the terrorists who killed the people at the offices at Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish supermarket – as well as their victims – is that Jesus is their saviour. The good news for those who were involved in the massacre in Nigeria that left over 2,000 people dead – as well as their victims – is that Jesus is their saviour.

Whether people take up that offer of eternal life through faith doesn’t diminish the power of that good news. Jesus is the only saviour – and as Peter says in Acts 4:12, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” Jesus offers everyone salvation. Although many people will never accept Him as their Saviour, will never avail themselves of this good news, this in no way diminishes the character of the news. An act of kindness, even when it is snubbed, remains an act of kindness. Hope, even when it is rejected, is still hope.

When we’re diagnosed with a serious, sometimes life-threatening illness, it’s bad news, isn’t it? But if the illness is treated soon enough it’s possible to recover fully, so that diagnosis then becomes good news. Many forms of cancer are treatable, but only when they have been diagnosed, only when we know there is a problem. It is the same with God’s good news. The good news highlights the bad news. The bad news is: we need a Saviour. The good news is: we have one.

The good news remains good whoever we are, whether we’re kings or shepherds or somewhere in between. And as it’s good news for everyone, there is an obligation placed on us. God has given us a mission – to be bearers of that good news. We’re called to follow in the footsteps of the shepherds and tell people that a saviour has been born to them. Has everyone in Allesley Park and Whoberley been given the opportunity to hear and receive the good news of Jesus’ saving love for them?

Jesus’ command was clear and simple – “go and make disciples of all nations.”

There is no exception to this command. We’re to go – person in every street and every house in this community should have the opportunity to hear and receive the good news. And yet evangelism is something that terrifies us and, as the nationwide statistics of church attendance in the UK over the past few decades tells us, our evangelistic efforts don’t work very well. But why?

If we want to know why our evangelistic endeavours don’t work as effectively as they might, there is one simple reason. We don’t look like the Christ we proclaim. A prostitute was asked whether she’d consider going to church, and she replied, “Why would I go there? I feel bad enough about myself already.” And that’s the problem, churches have simply given Christ such a bad press that people avoid us like the plague. They think of us as hypocrites, bigots and troublemakers. My brother was in a pub in London, near the church where he’s the vicar, and he played a bit of game with a young woman sitting near him, and tried to get her to guess what he did. Finally, she gave up and he told her – I’m a vicar. Her response? With no hint of humour, she said, “I hate everything you stand for.”

That hurts, doesn’t it! I was devastated and, quite frankly, repulsed, to read in the news about so-called Christians killing Muslims in the Central African Republic. They may call themselves Christians, but they do great dishonour to the Christ they proclaim. And if I’m honest, though my behaviour is far less extreme, so do I.

And this is the main reason why our evangelism doesn’t work – because we don’t look like the Christ we proclaim. People will read us before they’ll read the Bible. We are called to embody Jesus, to be like him, to be authentic. And yet we fall so short. As Gandhi once famously said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

This is the key to all our evangelism. God calls us to be like Jesus. This is the goal of our lives. As John Stott, the well-known Anglican minister, teacher and theologian said in his final address,

“What is God’s purpose for His people? I want to share with you where my mind has come to rest as I approach the end of my pilgrimage on earth and it is – God wants His people to become like Christ. Christlikeness is the will of God for the people of God.”

An Arab Christian convert from Islam said 'If all Christians were Christians - that is, Christlike - there would be no more Islam today.'

Wow.

The problem is, we don’t know how. This dilemma is well expressed by William Temple, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War.

'It is no good giving me a play like Hamlet or King Lear and telling me to write a play like that. Shakespeare could do it - I can't. And it is no good showing me a life like the life of Jesus and telling me to live a life like that. Jesus could do it - I can't. But if the genius of Shakespeare could come and live in me, then I could write plays like this. And if the Spirit could come into me, then I could live a life like His.'

And that’s the key. There is no way you and I could become more like Jesus if we were left to rely on our own strength. And so the temptation is to despair, as it seems like God has commanded the impossible and will condemn us for our failure – it doesn’t seem fair – it’d be like giving Alicia the Times crossword and refusing to give her dinner until she was able to complete it. I wouldn’t do that, by the way!

But, the good news is that we haven’t been left on our own. God has given us his Holy Spirit to help us in a work of transformation and to help us on our journey towards Christlikeness. Jesus’ whole purpose is that we live in him and he lives in us. It’s a two-way process. We can be indwelt by the Holy Spriit – God’s wonderful promise is, Christ in me the hope of glory. God wants to help us live a life that pleases him. He wants to help us to become more like Jesus, but he won’t force us to change. He calls us to cooperate with him. Are there areas of your life where you know you’re not living out God’s will? Submit them to Christ. Allow the Holy Spirit to continue his work of transformation in you.

Liz always tells me that I need to ground my sermons and make them practical. Unfortunately, the subjects of evangelism and discipleship are too large to squeeze into one sermon, even when you speak as long as I do. All I can do is promise that in the course of the year – or longer – our sermons will cover key aspects of what it means to live a life following Jesus. I’d like you to help us choose what to focus on, so look out for a survey that’ll come out in the next couple of weeks that’ll help us, from issues from other faiths to the environment, how to evangelise, how to manage our time and money, sexuality and godly relationships, etc.

For now, simply know that Jesus is good news for everyone, and we are called to bear and embody this good news. We do this best by being like the Christ we proclaim, and we can only do this through the power of the Holy Spirit who is alive and at work in us today.

Be strong and courageous

Just over 32 years ago, I was given the name Andrew. It means "strong, courageous, manly." I remember being in secondary school assembly one day when the local Christian worker was talking about the meaning of names, and he mentioned the meaning of my name. There was a titter that went around those sitting near me, and I was embarrassed, because I felt that there was no way I could live up to that name. I felt far from manly as a teenager, and I don't think that ever really changed. I was never a "blokey" bloke, I felt I related to women better than men, so I felt that I wasn't really doing much to live up to my name. On my ordination retreat in June 2009, i felt so excited, and yet hugely daunted by the prospect of serving God in this new way. I was very clear that I was completely inadequate - there was no way I could do any of it on my own. There is a theological argument in some quarters that people change upon ordination to priesthood. I don't really believe in that, because I believe I'm no more different from any other followers of Christ - we are all part of the "royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9) - and yet, I believe there was a change in me upon my ordination - a moment of anointing and equipping for the ministry to which God called me. I also believe I was given the courage and boldness that had previously seemed to evade me. Suddenly I wasn't so afraid any more. Sure enough, when I went up for prayer at New Wine a couple of months later, the words from Joshua 1:9 were spoken over me, "be strong and courageous." I found myself standing up for things and people I would never have previously. A year or so later, out of the blue, a member of the church community where I served as curate (assistant pastor, for those unfamiliar with the lingo), said to me, "keep being bold." He'd seen and wanted to affirm that boldness in me. I believe I was bold, and that I saw the fruit of that boldness in people's lives.

On the morning of the service to mark the beginning of my life as vicar of St Christopher's Church in September last year, I was in Coventry cathedral. The reading from the day was from 1 Chronicles 28, in which the following words appeared: “Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work for ... the Lord is finished." I believe God was giving me an incredibly timely reminder of his command to me, to be bold and courageous. I would need to make difficult decisions, some of which might be unpopular. In the face of this, God was calling me to be courageous.

Just last week, at New Wine, as I was being prayed for, someone spoke over me, "mighty man of God." I don't know if he knew the meaning of "Andrew" (most people know me as Andy, anyway), but in that moment God through him was bringing me back full circle, to the identity bestowed on me at birth. I am called to be strong and courageous.

One of the themes that leapt out at me from the talks at New Wine, was the command to be courageous, that the church needed to stop being so afraid of losing face, or being unpopular. In short, we needed to get over ourselves! Robby Dawkins, a pastor in Chicago, through whom God has worked amazingly, said, "all of us have more power and authority than we use. ... It's about Christ in me. Christ the resurrector lives in us. We need to step into our true identity as God's children. ... Jesus came to show us what WE can do, not what HE can do." Robby's lived that out in his ministry and seen God do some extraordinary things - not because he's particularly special, but because he's grasped what it means to be people in whom God's Spirit lives and works.

The reason why we can be strong and courageous, living out that command God gave to Joshua, the reason why I believe I have been able to be bold, is because of the promise that's attached to that command ... "be strong and courageous," God says, ... "For The Lord your God will be with you wherever you go." Step out, God says, be bold. You will face opposition and hardship. You will face the regular temptation to fall into discouragement or disappointment, you will have every reason to be afraid, you will face what will seem like insurmountable odds. There will be times you want to throw in the towel and give up. But don't forget something vital, something that changes everything - I will be with you every step of the way. I'll catch you as you step into the unknown. I will never leave you. I will give you the strength you need. I will do all this for the sake of my glory, for the extension of my kingdom." We actually have an advantage over Joshua and Solomon, and the others in the Old Testament to whom that command was addressed - because Christ lives in us through his Holy Spirit. We have all we need to see Jesus work in mighty ways through us in our churches and communities. I believe if we really began to grasp this, we would see change in our nation.

Christ lives in me. His power and authority lives in me. I'm actually beginning to believe this. And so, since returning from New Wine, I have an extra spring in my step. I have prayed for people to be healed with that little bit more faith. I am feeling just a little bit bolder. I am taking courage, because I know that God is with me, that he has called me to love and serve this community that he loves so much that he sent his only Son to live and die for every one of the people who live here. I can be bold, because God goes with me. I can be bold because God's kingdom and the commission he's given us to make disciples matters more than my own reputation. I can do nothing without him, but "I can do all things through him who strengthens me." (Philippians 4:13). It's about time I lived up to my name, and became strong, courageous, enduring, a mighty man for Jesus.