Jesus always enjoys doing something to challenge our own idea of how things should be done.
If we were Jesus, we probably wouldn’t have picked 12 fishermen to be on a leadership team. I mean, what did a group of fishermen know about creating a church? We would want the financial and community leaders, and we would’ve made sure we were in close connection with several theologically trained leaders. They would certainly know how to grow a movement, and get a church started off the ground, right?
If we were Jesus, we probably never would have allowed ourselves to be placed in awkward situations. We would’ve never gone to that Samaritan woman and offered her a chance to drink from the living water. Someone would see us talking to her, and we wouldn’t want them to get any ideas, right?
And, certainly, if we were Jesus, we never would associate ourselves with tax collectors and sinners. I mean, the sinners are these folks who are immoral, and they probably are in professions that we in the religious community cannot support. The tax collectors are the worst. They take our money and give it to the Roman officials, all while feeding their own wallets with our money. Why would we want to sit with these people?
Maybe it is a good thing we are not Jesus. In our parable today, Jesus shows us what it means to seek out those who are not in fellowship with God, and gives us an idea of what it means for us to go out and seek the lost. Jesus welcomes the lost, fellowships with them, and engages them. In the process, the lost are found, and they become part of the family of God once again.
Jesus’ actions were quite radical in his time, and they are radical for us today. In those days, the religious leaders would not have had anything to do with the sinners and tax collectors. They took passages like Proverbs 1:15, which advises the people to “[s]tay far away” from the “paths” of those who are evil, and applied it to mean, “We will not have any interactions with sinners, so that we will not be corrupted.” This wasn’t just a limitation on interaction. They wouldn’t even associate with a sinner to teach them the Scriptures or how to come to a relationship with the Father. By not associating with the sinner, the lost, to even show them the way to the Father, the Pharisees and Scribes were creating an “us versus them” relationship. They built a wall that prevent any hope of communication or engagement with them.
Jesus chose a different path, and we are thankful for that. He routinely sat down with the sinners, ate with them, and talked to them about what it meant to follow God. He answered their questions. He met them where they were, and guided them back to what it meant to be in relationship with the Father. Jesus is the picture of the Shepherd in Ezekiel 34:12, and we see this played out in our two parables today. Ezekiel says that God, through Jesus, “will be like a shepherd looking for his scattered flock.” When we are lost, Jesus is looking for us in order to bring us home. We see this in both parables. The shepherd loses a sheep and he goes out and looks for it, even though there are 99 still together. The shepherd knew that lost sheep was important, and he would stop at nothing in order to bring the sheep back into the fold. This is also true for the woman who lost a coin, which was equal to one days work. So she looks all over until she finds it. When both find what they are looking for, they celebrate. They call their friends, and they say “Let’s celebrate! What was lost is now found!” Jesus is saying he celebrates when the lost are found. When those who are outside the fellowship are brought back home, there is a celebration. There is much to rejoice when those who have lost their way find their way back to Christ, or those who have never felt the grace of the Lord experience it for the first time.
Jesus is calling us to be like the shepherd and the woman in our own communities. We are called to seek the lost, to build relationships with them, and to help them to see the fullness of Christ’s love in their life. This is a daunting challenge, but the call to be a disciple is costly. It requires us to participate in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19 to “go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” This is the church’s mission statement. It is to proclaim the love of Christ for all people, and to be the witness of that love at all times. It is to bring people into a deep relationship with the Lord, and a recognition of the Lord’s work in their life through the Holy Spirit.
But before we go out, we have to understand this call and what it means for us. First, we need to understand who the lost are in our area. Living in what has been traditionally viewed as the “Bible Belt” makes us prone to believing that everyone goes to church or that everyone is a Christian. This is no longer the case. As Americans, we live in the largest mission field in North America and the third largest mission field in the world. We’ve lost what it means to be the true witness of Jesus. Because of that, more people in the United States are outside a relationship with Christ than that any other point in our nation’s history. Other countries are sending missionaries here to do the work of the Great Commission, which we have gotten away from.
We must see our communities as the mission field, because there is a vast mission field all around us. We’re not talking about a far distance, but of a two-mile radius. In this two-mile radius around Mackville, only 18 percent of people say that their faith is important. This means that there are opportunities to help disciple people in a deeper relationship with Christ. Even more, only 23 percent of people in Mackville consider going to worship important. It doesn’t take much to figure out that 77 percent of people living within a two-mile radius of the church are not attending. This is while 51 percent consider themselves spiritual. Why the distance in numbers? This could be for a number of reasons, such as being turned off by the church, belief in other faiths, or a false idea that you can grow in faith on your own.
Let’s take this out even more and think about who is living here. In our community, 28 percent are between the ages of 35-54 with children. That will decrease to 25 percent in five years. This means we have an opportunity to engage families who are all around us. The same is true for our senior population, which is a growing population here.
This isn’t isolated to just Mackville. We see similar numbers at Antioch. In a two-mile radius around the church, only 15 percent claim religion is important to them, while 23 percent say worship is important. Even more, 53 percent consider themselves spiritual. Families between 35-54 are the largest age bracket at 27 percent currently, and 23 percent in the future, and our senior population is the next highest. Again, there is a large field here if we are willing to accept the challenge.
We have to understand the mission field around us, so we will know how to engage and to respond. I want these numbers to be at the forefront of our activities and planning. As we plan ministries and do life together, I want us to be aware of the demographic and cultural climate we find ourselves in. We cannot ignore the vast mission field around us. There is a huge field that is ready to hear that Christ loves them, and so do we.
Just knowing there is a field out there isn’t enough. We have to be willing to move out of the four walls of the church and take the message of Christ to them. Like Jesus, we must engage and enter into relationships with those whom we are seeking to engage and minister to. Gone are the days where we could stand on a street corner, with a large sign in our hands and yell “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.” It doesn’t work today. We must be willing to welcome people into relationship, and offer opportunities for lives to be opened to the fullness of Christ and belonging to a community that loves them. I firmly believe people will belong to something, for instance a church, before they will buy into what it means to be a follower of Christ. In other words, they will live the life before they know exactly what this life is that they are living.
This has some implications for us. It means we must build relationships. We cannot be like the Pharisees and Scribes and create walls between us and the lost. We must be willing to take the first step and engage them in love. This is not an act of condemning, but a way of saying, “God loves you simply because you are you.” We don’t build relationships with someone by saying “You know I really don’t like how you are living your life… can we be friends?” Relationships are built through common interests and common ground. And like Jesus with the tax collectors and sinners, when relationships are formed there are opportunities for engagement and reaching out about what it means to follow God.
One of the most important ways to build relationships is to invite someone to a small group or church. Small groups are great ways to sustain our faith in community. Acts 2 talks about how the believers were in community with one another. In small groups, we share life with one another. We grow with one another. We encourage one another. I am a big believer in small groups, and want to see as many of us as possible in a small group. These are opportunities for deep discipleship, regardless if it is a men’s group, a women’s group, a youth group, a seniors’ group, or parents’ group. Here is the great news – they don’t have to happen at the church. In fact, I would prefer they do not, because I believe people are more comfortable talking about their faith in more comfortable situations and around good food. If you want to be part of a small group or if you want to start a group, talk to me. These groups will, in time, produce an energy of life through the Holy Spirit that will impact our lives, the life of this church, and our communities.
This can’t be a solo effort. Jesus wasn’t on his own in ministry. He had the help of a community of believers who were dedicated to following him. If we are going to reach the lost of our area, then we have to all work together. When we leave growth – both spiritual and numerical – to the work of one, it will not take place. As disciples, we are all called to live into the Great Commission. This isn’t “when I have time,” or “when, I’m trained to do it.” This is our call as disciples. We’re going to help each other in this, because we do not go out into the mission field alone. We support each other and encourage each other, and we rejoice with one another. As we grow in faith, we will be equipped to “do the work of the Lord.” We will train and encourage one another. This is hard work, but we will be in mission together supporting and sustaining one another through the love of Christ. And, it is a mission that must start today.
I want to get us started. In your bulletin, you each received a note card. I want you to spend a few moments and ask God to place on your heart the name of someone that you know is not in church. This could be a friend, a family member, or someone you know from work or school. When you have a name, I want you to place that name on one half of the card. On the other half, I want you to write that same name, but I want you to write three things. First, write the word “pray.” I want you to pray for that person each day this week. Second, I want you to write the word “visit.” Sometime this week, I want you to talk to that person. It could be to see how they are doing, it could be simply a “I’m thinking about you,” or it could be a “how can I pray for you.” Whatever it is, I want you to make time this week to visit that person on your card. Third, I want you to write the word “invite.” At some point when the time is right, and it may not be this week, I want you to invite this person to be part of a fellowship. It could be a small group. It could be church. Throughout this all, pray that God will guide your steps and guide your actions with this person, but that God will do the work.
Now, I want you to tear the card in half. The half that has the name and the three words, I want you to take with you today. I want you to put it somewhere you will see it – maybe your Bible, maybe your nightstand, your fridge, somewhere that it will be a daily reminder. As for the other half, during our closing song, I want you to come up and drop the name in this bowl. I am going to take each of these names and pray for them during my prayer time this week. As you come up, take some time at the altar, if you’d like, and pray for God’s help in this. We cannot grow without God’s guidance and direction.
It is a daunting challenge to seek the lost. Even more, it is a daunting challenge to be part of the growth of God’s church. But, it is an exciting proposition as well. My friends, if we are willing to roll up our sleeves, and allow the Holy Spirit to work in us and through us, some amazing things are going to happen, and are about to happen.
The lost will be found, and what a day of rejoicing that will be.