Sermon: On The Road With Jesus – It Starts In The Church
Scripture: Luke 2:21-32
Date: January 10, 2016
Each year the Servant Leadership Team, in conjunction with the Staff, sets some goals for the coming year. Last year we set goals that had to do with membership and attendance, and, of course, paying down the principal on the mortgage. We deliberately set the goals at high levels to make us stretch ourselves. We did pretty well in achieving all of the goals and as it relates to the Balloon Fund, we, as a church, hit it out of the Ball Park.
Exceeding the annual goal and receiving nearly 40% of the goal for an additional year. As a result we paid down the principal on the mortgage by more than $100,000.
We plan to continue that goal into the New Year. So keep it up. In addition, we set only one other goal for 2016. And that goal has to do with Discipleship. Simply stated the goal is to move every member and regular participant in the ministries of St. Luke, from membership to discipleship. Because here’s the thing. St. Luke has traditionally done a good job of receiving new members.
While many established churches have declined in membership in recent years, St. Luke has experienced steady growth. We are now, in terms of membership and attendance one of the larger churches in the Kentucky Conference.
That’s the good news. But, as is the case with most churches, too many of those who become members end up exiting out the proverbial back door within months of taking the membership vows. The reason: we are not doing as well as we need to be doing in moving persons from membership to discipleship. We often view membership as the culmination of our journey with the church when in truth it needs to be an initial step in a lifelong journey of discipleship. And so this year, as St. Luke celebrates our 40th birthday, we intend to focus on Jesus’ great commission to go into all the world and make disciples because while we spend a lot of time contemplating the purpose of the church and vision statements and mission statements, when we get right to the heart of the matter, to Jesus’ heart, it comes down to discipleship. The church exists to make disciples of Jesus Christ. And what we realized was that if we focus on that, then everything else – membership, attendance, service – will fall naturally into place. So then, we started to think about what a disciple was, what a disciple looked like. And the obvious answer was that a disciple looks like Jesus. In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul spells this out for us when he says:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus. Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
You see here is what is clear in scripture, and in the life of Christ himself, Discipleship is a journey that lasts a lifetime. It begins when we are born in Christ and is completed when we die in Christ. Along the way there are many stops and starts, level places and tall mountains to be scaled. The journey is often been described as like taking three steps forward for every two steps backward. And to make sense of it all, we need to emulate the journey that Christ himself made, because his words to the Disciples that we call the great commission, were not the first words He spoke to them as He called on them to follow, they were his last words to them. Jesus himself did not come as a fully developed, mature man. He began as a baby. He began the journey in the cave of Bethlehem and, in a sense, completed the journey in a cave on the Mount of Olives, when the crucified Jesus stepped out alive forevermore. And so to understand our journey to discipleship, we need to walk with Jesus as He journeyed through this life. To be like Him, as Paul says, we need to spiritually walk where He walked. And so in these weeks between Christmas and Easter, we are going to go on the road with Jesus, walk with Him from cave to cave, from Bethlehem’s Cradle to Jerusalem’s empty tomb. It is the journey, the path of Discipleship. But as we begin, let me warn you, that it was never intended to be an easy path. G.K. Chesterson once wrote: Jesus promised His disciples three things – that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble. So I invite you to come with me on this journey with Jesus, and see what kind of trouble we can get into along the way. And appropriately enough, the first stop for Jesus is the church.
Now there are two detailed accounts of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels. Both Matthew and Luke begin their Gospels by telling us how Jesus was born. And there are many common elements to their stories. A young couple betrothed to be married. A divine conception. The birth in Bethlehem. But yet they are also very different stories because, as in all stories, the telling reflects the perspective of the writer. And the perspectives of the Jewish Matthew and the Greek Luke are very different. Matthew tells his story from the perspective of the church. It’s all pomp and circumstance with Matthew. And so he begins by tracing Jesus’s family tree because He wants us to understand Jesus’ lineage in the line of King David. That was very important to Matthew because it had been important to the Jewish prophets for thousands of years. The Messiah, Isaiah had said, would be the offshoot of the tree of Jesse, who was the father of King David. It is important to Matthew that we understand Jesus’ Royal Heritage. And then in that same line, look at the ones that inhabit Matthew’s story. He talks about King Herod, and the three travelers from the East, who though they were not kings, certainly gave every appearance of royalty. It is clear that Matthew believes that they came in search of a King.
And lest we think that Joseph and Mary are too common for Matthew’s story, He tells of this divine emissary, this angel, that comes to Joseph to help him understand the special nature of this birth.
And Matthew gives no mention of Joseph and Mary being forced to travel to Bethlehem. That would be no way to treat a Newborn King. No cave. No manger. Matthew emphasizes the glory of it all.
But Luke tells the story from the perspective of the unchurched. Think about who occupy the center stage in his story. There’s Mary and Joseph, a scared young couple, thrown into the midst of events that they don’t really understand. Forced to take a long trip by Kings and Caesars, without regard of the child within her, arriving in Bethlehem poor and suddenly homeless. There was no room for them in the hearts of Nazareth and no room in the homes of Bethlehem. And there are the dirty, poor shepherds who come to the manger instead of kings. And then there are these two old folks who are there in the church when Jesus is brought there, as all infant Jewish boys were brought, to be circumcised and dedicated to God. Only Luke writes about them. Anna and Simeon. Now in legend, we have made Simeon a priest and Anna a prophetess. But reality is probably that they were just two elderly folks who had been promised that the Messiah would come and they had surmised that when He did come, He would come to the Temple, and so they had been waiting. We’re not sure how long they had waited but we do know, from the words of Isaiah that those who wait on the Lord will soar on wings like Eagles. Anna and Simeon represent all of those Jews who had waited through periods of oppression and exile for many centuries for the Messiah to come. And now their wait had been rewarded.
I suspect that there were those who ridiculed Simeon. Look at that old fool. Here he comes again. Have you seen any Messiah’s today, Simeon? What about me, am I the Messiah? And I wonder what his family must have thought as they watched him rise early every day and go and take up his watch, his vigil, at the temple. He couldn’t miss even one day because that might be the day that the Messiah came. How many of us grumble sometimes at the thought of spending just a couple of hours a week at the church? And how many of us come to church every day with the expectation, the hope, that we will see God today? What does it really mean when we say when we join the church that we will be present in the church? If we are going to make this journey with Jesus, then we must be present when He comes. And Simeon’s family must have known that he was waiting to see the Messiah so he could die in peace. He made no secret of that. They must have wondered what kind of life that was? Does Luke include Simeon in the story to illustrate a curious twist of Discipleship? In his book, The Cost Of Discipleship, the Christian martyr Dietrich Boenhoffer wrote: When Christ calls a man, He calls him to come and die. What kind of life is that Simeon? Waiting for the Messiah so you can die in peace? You see, by the time Jesus was born the prophecies of the coming Messiah had taken an apocalyptic tone. The Messiah was not coming to save the world as much as he would come to put an end to it. The coming of the Messiah would usher in the end of days. But Simeon apparently understood the coming of the Messiah not as the end of days, but rather as the beginning of eternity. We die to this world (whether that be physically or spiritually and eventually both) so that we can live with Him for all time. And then there must have been those who questioned why Simeon thought that he would know the Messiah when no one else would? Surely if the Messiah had come, there would be much pomp and circumstance. Simeon, do you really believe the Messiah is just going to walk into the Temple without anyone knowing? What makes you think you’ll know Him? Do we recognize Jesus when He comes into the midst of our life? I think the difference between Matthew’s telling of the story and Luke’s is the difference between seeking and seeing. Everyone in Matthew’s story is seeking Jesus. King Herod, the Wise Men, even Joseph were seekers. If they could see, they would believe. They sought the promised Messiah. But those in Luke’s gospel were those who believed and then saw. Mary, the shepherd’s, and now Simeon and Anna. We sometimes say I’ll believe it when I see it about things in this world. Seeing is believing. But let me suggest that Simeon is in the Christmas story to say that when we believe we will see. Believing is seeing.
And so He came. For how long we do not know. But I suspect that when Luke tells us that he was an old man, he means to imply that Simeon had waited a long time. What we do know is that the Jews had waited for thousands of years. So long in fact that many had lost hope. They no longer believed. Simeon represents those who live devout and faithful lives. Those disciples who believe and then wait to see Christ at work in their lives.
So as we think about the journey with Christ, about his call to be Disciples, what can we learn from Simeon. Well first, I think we learn to take God at His word. Really the story of Christmas is a story that easily contradicts our sensibilities, that does not conform to our understanding of the natural order. Perhaps that’s why Matthew emphasizes the pageantry and not the actual birth. Come on now. Are we supposed to believe a child conceived by a Spirit. A baby born to a virgin. A star that travels until it settles over this tiny, obscure village. This is the stuff of fantasy. And it would be if it had not all been part of God’s word. It was the same word that came to Abraham in his old age and promised to make him a father of great nation. And Abraham believed long before he saw. And so he left his home and went where God directed. He took God at His word. It was the same word that called Moses to lead the people out of Egypt. And Paul to travel throughout the known world. And drew Simeon to the Temple. Disciples take God at His word. It calls us to deny ourselves, to journey through difficult places, to believe sometimes long before we really see, and to know, as Simeon did, that our faith will be rewarded.
I read recently of a preacher whose church was in the midst of their annual stewardship campaign and when the pledge cards were collected, one of them really stood out. It was the pledge of a farmer who just barely managed to scratch out an existence for his family from the land. And yet the farmer’s pledge was one of the highest that the church received. And so the minister went to talk with the man. “Sam,” he said, “this is way too much to pledge to the church. God doesn’t want you to short your family for the sake of the church.” But the farmer was insistent. “That’s what God told me to give”, he said, “and I have to do it. I don’t know how but I believe that if I am faithful to His word, He will take care of us. I know He will.” That kind of faith takes God at His word.
Simeon, you foolish old man. Spending every day in the Temple waiting for a Messiah who has not come in 6000 years. But still he believed in God’s word. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.”
Disciples take God at His word.
And then we learn from Simeon that those on the journey to discipleship with Jesus build their entire life around the journey. They build their lives on their faith. People today build their lives around a lot of things. Money. Power. Prestige. Fame. Beauty. Even Education. Disciples build their lives around faith and everything they do then becomes a faithful response to the presence of God with them.
I read recently an interesting article about London’s iconic Winchester Cathedral. At the beginning of the the 20th Century it was discovered that the wooden foundational underpinnings were rotting away and the structure was in danger of collapsing. So from 1906 to 1912 a man by the name of William Walker singlehanded replaced all of the old beams, working by himself at night and on weekends and paying all of the costs himself. When it was pointed out to Walker that there were others who could have done the job quicker and for less cost, Walker responded, “There were probably persons who could have afforded to do the work much easier than I, but whose lives were built around other things. I did it because my life is built around my faith in God.” There were many Jews who were waiting for the Messiah, but Simeon’s whole life was built around his faith in the coming of the Messiah. He lived for it, and he was ready to die for it. When finally his wait was rewarded when Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus to the Temple, Simeon responded, “Now I can depart from this life in peace because I have seen the salvation of my people.” G.K. Chesterton said of the first Disciples “They went forward towards death as if they smelled a field of flowers afar off.” Disciples build their whole life around their faith.
And the final thing I’d say about Simeon is that he approached his faith with a sense of great expectation. Luke says, “The people were filled with expectation.” In one of my devotional times this week, the writer said this: “Life with God works best when we expect God to be at work for our good—when we believe that God can and will work for our good. Many Christians have lost the expectation edge; we have not made it a practice or a habit to expect God to do wonderful, fabulous, amazing things in our midst. But we can sharpen that edge this year. We can employ our eyes of faith and discover that when we look, we are more likely to see God at work.” You see, I think that most of us in the church approach our faith with a sense of anticipation but not expectation. We come to church, we serve, we pray, we study the word, we even witness because we anticipate that we will someday see Jesus. Simeon’s people anticipated that the Messiah would come someday, but Simeon expected the Messiah to come today. And in doing so, he starts us on our journey of Discipleship with the question of whether we are anticipating or expecting Jesus in our life. How much would our lives change if we lived our faith in expectation rather than anticipation? You see, I think if we expected to see Jesus when we came to church, we would never want to miss church. And if we approached worship with the expectation that every song we sing and prayer we pray and hand we shake and anthem we hear and message we hear, would be a portal through which we see Jesus, how exciting would our worship become, how engaged would we be? And if every time we served in one of the ministries of the church, or taught a Sunday School class or Wednesday.comm class or shared our faith with another, or placed our offering in the plate, or spent time in study and prayer, or knelt at this altar, we did so with great expectation that we would encounter Jesus this very moment, imagine how our life and worship and service and witness would be transformed. Disciples like Simeon live their lives in great expectation that this day, this moment, they will see the Messiah, the Savior, the Lord. There is great passion and power in living a life of expectation rather than one of anticipation. Journeying with Jesus means living every day, every moment, with great expectations. So come along on this journey. From knowing God’s word to trusting God’s word. From believing to seeing. From anticipation to expectation. From death to life. That’s the invitation as we begin this journey with Jesus. And it begins for us as it did for Jesus – in the church, at this altar – dedicating our lives to Almighty God. Won’t you come and take the first step this morning? Or maybe it’s a step back in the right direction that you’re needing to take. This altar is the place to begin, begin again, your journey. You come with a great sense of expectation as we sing.