I. Intro: The Guest Preacher
You might say that I hit the lectionary jackpot this week. I am a lectionary lottery winner. Because our texts this morning are just so relevant to the topic I’ve been assigned to preach.
And the Luke 4 text is especially relevant.
But the relevance even goes beyond the topic, because, in case you didn’t notice, the passage in Luke 4 is all about a guest preacher. In this case, Jesus of Nazareth.
Here’s how it goes down. Jesus is baptized by his cousin John the Baptizer (not “the Baptist” because there weren’t any Baptists in the first century). Jesus is baptized, and it is kind of like his initiation into ministry. This cleansing ritual of baptism marks the starting point of his mission in the world as a leader, a rabbi, and, as it would turn out, a promised Messiah, the Liberating King of his people.
And after the initiation, he heads into the woods. Which is what you do after an initiation, right? You go on a vision quest, and that’s just what Jesus did. And in the wilderness, he fasted for 40 days and prayed, presumably seeking that vision and clarity for his ministry and mission. He was looking for his purpose.
And, as often happens on vision quests, the whole thing ended with an epic test from a dark spiritual force, a force personified throughout the biblical narrative as the satan, the devil, the unseen instigator of all that is wrong with the world.
Jesus beats the satan at his own game, and epically so. Then he comes out of the woods. And after a few stops along the way in Galilee, he goes home.
And on one Sabbath day in the local synagogue, he is chosen to be the guest preacher.
Now, I have been on no vision quest of late, nor would I venture to compare myself all that much with my God and King, Jesus. But, at least in one sense, on this morning, he and I have something in common: We are both guest preachers.
Being a guest preacher has its benefits. For one, even though I attend here regularly and know some of you, I can get away with saying some challenging things, that Pastor Mark and Pastor Rachel might not be able to get away with. So, advantage: me.
But guest preaching can also be a perilous affair. Though our reading doesn’t go this far this morning, it gets kind of ugly for Jesus after his guest preaching gig in Nazareth. In short, the members of the church there will attempt to throw Jesus off a cliff just a few verses later.
So, church, I implore you, be gracious, be gracious.
II. Missio Dei & Missional Church
I’m here today, in part, because last year you all extended an unbelievable gesture of hospitality to a young church that I was pastoring at the time. A church called Dwell, which gathered right here at First UMC for about 6 months.
My wife and I planted the church in the Fall of 2008, and, as resources diminished and key people moved on, we had to make the very difficult decision to close the church this past August. It was a glorious 4 year run, full of beautiful miracles and intense challenges.
Since closing the church, I have had the wonderful opportunity of continuing the friendship with Mark and Rachel that began when Dwell first arrived here. And that friendship has grown into something of a partnership and collaboration and ongoing conversation about the church’s mission as we head into these next decades of the 21st century.
In case you didn’t know, the vast majority of startups fail, including startup churches. But the word “fail” is misleading. Because I believe the primary purpose of startups is not necessarily to invent new organizations that become great institutions, but rather to inspire existing organizations and institutions to move forward into new things and embrace the future that is coming straight at us…and fast. I believe that, in the long run, that will prove to be Dwell’s purpose.
And it’s my hope that, even this morning, as your guest preacher, I may inspire you, First UMC to move forward into the future that is approaching.
So what about that word, mission?
If you’ve been in the church for any length of time, that word probably conjures up all kinds of ghosts.
The first may be the ghost of Colonial Proselytizing: sending westerners as missionaries to foreign lands and cultures to impose western religion on them. Which doesn’t seem cool.
The second may be the ghost of Agenda-Driven Evangelism: the pressure for Christians like us to “witness” to their neighbors in the hopes of converting them or getting them saved. Which also leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth.
The third may just be the ghost of Programmatic Service: the sense that the church has the task of serving people through the heavily bureaucratic process of organizing programs. This is not as distasteful as the first two, but it’s often painfully cumbersome.
What I want to do is introduce an entirely different way of seeing mission, and exorcise these ghosts in the process.
Namely, mission is first and foremost about God.
Here’s a cool phrase you can drop in casual conversation: missio Dei. It means, literally, “the mission of God.” When we locate mission in the nature and character of God, we realize that it is something that transcends agendas and programs. It is something that can’t be owned by westerners but pertains to all of creation.
God is an overflowing God. Father, Son, and Spirit overflow in love, and the worlds are made. And when brokenness and sin enter God’s good world, the Trinity overflows once more in rescuing love.
And the result is sending. God is a sending God. Specifically, God the Father sends God the Son in the power of God the Spirit to rescue the broken world.
That’s what Jesus was talking about in the synagogue when he was guest preaching that day. He was saying, “I have been sent. I have been sent to bring good news and freedom and healing and peace and favor and justice and shalom. I have been sent because God is a sending God, a God on mission.”
The beautiful thing is this: the sending doesn’t stop with Jesus. No, God is still sending. He is still on that good-news mission to bring peace and healing and shalom.
He is sending us, the church, the Body of Christ, in the power of the Spirit.
III. The Body of Christ
That’s what the other New Testament text we read, is speaking of.
1 Corinthians 12 says, “Now you are the body of Christ and each one of you is a part of it!”
The core of our identity as the church is to be a sent people. Each one of us is sent by God to bring good news in word and deed to our neighbors – to bring love and healing and peace and shalom. Each one of us!
What we accomplished at Dwell was very simply a church that was not just a Sunday service, nor a list of programs, but an everyday community of grace and peace in Greater Burlington. We were a SENT community. We were always looking out beyond ourselves to engage the culture around us with the embodiment of good news. We endeavored to BE the presence of Jesus the Messiah right here in Burlington, Vermont.
Theologian Scot McKnight says it this way:
The guiding theme [of the church] is the notion of missio Dei: God is a missionary God, the church is mission, and the church has no mission but the mission of God.
God’s mission to rescue, heal, redeem, restore, and love the broken world is central to the church’s identity. In fact, it’s the definition of the church’s very existence.
And we all get to join in this great mission. Each of us has a part.
IV. A New American Christianity
I recently finished a biography of one of the most interesting and controversial modern figures in American Christianity: a pastor and author named Rob Bell.
The book is called Rob Bell and a New American Christianity.
And even from the title, you can hear the message: we need something new.
We need something new because most of what the American church is doing these days doesn’t seem to be working.
The author, James Wellman, begins with this assertion:
As a scholar of American religion, I believe that the decline and even the end of the Protestant establishment is an inevitable outcome of our religious history…
Don’t throw me off the cliff just yet.
Then he asks,
Is [Rob] Bell’s work and person catalyzing a new kind of American Christianity?
See, there is good news.
The good news is that God is still a Missional God. And if the American church becomes a Missional church, there is indeed much hope. There is much hope if, instead of growing inward, we turn outward in the power of the Spirit and engage the culture around us.
There is hope if we are sent, together, each one of us playing a part. There is hope if we move forward.
Rob Bell himself is quoted at the end of the book. He says this:
I think there is a better way to read the Bible to be true to what it is. God is pulling us forward; God isn’t an old idea that needs to be fixed or updated. God has actually been pulling people forward from wherever they were all along, and for many people the reason why they don’t like church, is that the Christian God seems to be behind; but really, God is not behind culture, trying to keep up.
God is moving forward. So let’s move forward with God, into the missio Dei.
V. A Personal Footnote
Sharks, Job, & courage to pursue God’s purpose for my life.