Before You Were Born, God Chose You to be His Servant
Isaiah 49:1-7 Epiphany 2A
Today’s sermon will b based on the Today’s English Version (TEV) of the Old Testament lesson: “1 Listen to me, distant nations, you people who live far away! Before I was born, the Lord chose me and appointed me to be his servant. 2 He made my words as sharp as a sword. With his own hand he protected me. He made me like an arrow, sharp and ready for use. 3 He said to me, "Israel, you are my servant; because of you, people will praise me." 4 I said, "I have worked, but how hopeless it is! I have used up my strength, but have accomplished nothing." Yet I can trust the Lord to defend my cause; he will reward me for what I do. 5 Before I was born, the Lord appointed me; he made me his servant to bring back his people, to bring back the scattered people of Israel. The Lord gives me honor; he is the source of my strength. 6 The Lord said to me, R97 "I have a greater task for you, my servant. Not only will you restore to greatness the people of Israel who have survived, but I will also make you a light to the nations— so that all the world may be saved."
The sermon for today will begin with six questions.
The first question: What is the most unchurched county in the USA? Any guesses. Alpine County in Colorado. In this high mountain country, only 36% of 484 people belong to the church. This piece of trivia is totally unimportant unless you understand that Alpine County is representative of other mountainous regions of the USA and most mountainous regions have fewer churches and fewer members.
A second question: What is the most churched state in the USA? Any guesses? Yes, Utah at 90% of the population (where many Mormons live), followed by Louisiana with 88% (where many Catholics live) and then North Dakota with 86% (where many Lutherans lived.) Of course, many do not consider Mormons part of the Christian Church because of their many strange theological beliefs and practices.
A third question: What is the most church region of the United States? Yes, the South, especially with the numerous Southern Baptist and Disciples of Christ congregations located there.
A fourth question: What is the most unchurched region of the United States? Any guesses? The West coast, with the state of Washington being 60.8% unchurched, Oregon 60.8% and California with 57%.
A fifth question: What percentage of our county is unchurched? Any guesses? Here in King County, Washington, 67% of the population does not have its name on the membership rolls. (Note: Here the preacher needs to refer to his/her own county.)
A sixth question: What percentage of church members do not regard themselves as very religious? That is, when asked the question, “Are you committed to Christ?” They then answer “no.” When asked, “Is your religion very important to you?” They then answer “no.” When asked, “Do you pray every day,” they then answer “no.” What percentage of church members would answer “no” to those three questions? Approximately 25%.
Sociologists have studied church members and have asked these three questions. Approximately 25% of church members think that Christ and Christianity are relatively unimportant compared to other issues in their lives.
So if we add 67% of the unchurched in King County and another 25% of the church members who are not committed (25% of 33%) which is about 8%, that is about 75% of the population in King County who think that Christ and the Christian faith are relatively unimportant.
In other words, three out of four of the people who are your neighbors think that Christ and the Christian community are unimportant.
It is with this understanding that large numbers of people surrounding us are not committed to Christ, the church and the mission of the church, that we approach the Scripture lesson for today.
CHRIST IS FOR EVERYONE
The story of the three wise men is an invitation for the congregation to reach out into all the world and make disciples. The wise men were Gentiles; they were non-Jews; so non-Jews were the first people to come and worship Christ. The meaning of this event is that Christ is for all people everywhere; that he is not to be kept the private possession of the Jews; that he is not to be kept as the private possession of our Christian congregations. It is the very nature of God in Christ that he is for all human beings; for people of all races, all nationalities, and all political persuasions. We cannot box Christ into packages for whites or blacks, Americans or Russians, democracies or dictatorships. Christ came for everyone, regardless of race, nationality or political system. He lives powerfully in every culture of the world. The story of the wise men is God’s announcement that God in Christ is for all humanity, for every kind of person.
When the Bible says that we are to reach out to all the nations, the word “nations” Comes from the Greek word “ethnos” from which we derive the word “ethnic”. Go to all the “ethnics” to worship Christ. Go to the ethnics. . . in other words, To all kinds of people, to the great variety of the human species. Jesus Christ is for every kind of person on earth.
THE PRIMARY MISSION OF THE CHURCH IS TO MAKE DISCIPLES
The primary mission of the church is to make disciples of all peoples, no matter who they are. The first and last invitation of Jesus to his followers was the same: “Make disciples.” The first thing he said to his disciples was, “Come and I will make you fishers of men,” and the last thing he said to them was, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” And so the first and the last commandments of Jesus were the same: “Go and make disciples of all kinds of people.”
There is no room for discussion that this is the primary mission of the church. There is no room for discussion on this matter.
There is room for discussion on other topics. Abortion, for example. There will be Christians who are for and against abortion. Capital punishment. There will be Christians who are for and against capital punishment. Nuclear armaments. There will be Christians for and against the possession of nuclear weapons. But there are some issues for which there is no room for discussion. For example, that God and his Church exist in order to help the poor. There is no room for discussion on that issue. All through the Bible we read of God’s unending favor to the widow, the orphan, the poor. Luke’s gospel clearly tells us that Jesus came to preach the good news for the poor, that the poor are blessed, that the poor he will not send away empty. There is no room for discussion about God’s commitment to the poor of the world. Likewise, there is no room for discussion about the primary and pivotal purpose of the church: To go and make disciples of all peoples. There is no room for discussion on this issue. Jesus and the Scriptures are clear. This is the mission of the church.
The Lord God said in the Old Testament, “Before you were born, I chose you to be my servant. Because of you, all people will come to praise my name. You will bring back the strayed to the house of Israel and you will be a light to all the nations.” (Isaiah 62 TEV). “How will I do this? Through you. Before you were born, I chose you to do this, to make disciples of anyone and everyone, no matter who they may be.”
The first and last commandments were the same: You go and make disciples of all kinds of people. God is clear about his will and purpose for our congregation.
AN AMERICAN RECEPTIVITY?
In the United States, there seems to be a receptivity to Christ and the church. According to a recent Gallup poll of the 80-100 million unchurched in our nations, 75% want their children to attend Sunday School, 68% believe in the resurrection, 64% believe in
heaven and hell; 41% say they have had a religious experience, 52% indicate they would be willing to join a church now; and only 1% say they don’t to be part of Christ and the Christian community.
And even in our more distant past, there seemed to be a receptivity to the Christian message. Alex de Tocqueville wrote: “There is no country in the world where Christian religion retains greater influence over the souls of men and women than in America.” This statement was written in the 1820’s when one in six belonged to the church.
The above statistics are not trying to persuade us that America is more religious or better than other nations. Heaven forbid. But because of our history and roots, there does seem to be a receptivity and openness to Christ and the Christian faith.
What is often the response of Christians to “go and make disciples of all kinds of people?”
Apathy. Studies tell us that 50% of Lutherans never speak to anyone about Christ. And 40% rarely do. That means 90% of Lutherans rarely or never reach out verbally to the unchurched.
A common thought is: “My example is enough,” or “Not me, Lord, that’s not my style.”
We, as pastors, are are similar to you, the laity. We pastors too are reluctant to speak to others about Christ. It says in Timothy, “Do the work of evangelism and so fulfill your ministry,” and our pastor response is often, “That’s not my bag. I am a preacher and teacher of the Word. Let the Assemblies do evangelism. Let the Mormons do it. Let the Jehovah Witnesses do it.”
If my memory serves me right, I believe that last year in the Lutheran church, there were more pastors than adult baptisms. If each Lutheran pastor would have brought one person through instruction and adult baptism, the Lutheran church would have grown more than it did.
Essentially, the Lutheran church is not strongly committed to reaching out and making disciples of all kinds of people. That isn’t where we place our energy and emphasis.
And so we have a double conflict. On the one hand, we have a conflict with God. The first and last words of Jesus are clear about the mission of our congregation, “Go and make disciples.”
And so we find ourselves in conflict with the will of God.
And on the other hand, we find ourselves in conflict with the unchurched around us: 75% want their children to receive religious education, 45% pray daily, 40% have made a personal commitment to Christ, 52% indicate they are open to membership in church, 32% say they want to discuss the doubts and questions with a pastor or Christian friends.
And 90% of the Lutherans respond, “I don’t want to be involved in making disciples.” And so we find ourselves in a double bind: first with the will of God, and secondly, with the needs and desires of unchurched friends living around us.
Very often we Lutherans and other mainline denominations are like Jonah. Remember Jonah? God wanted Jonah to go to Ninevah? His response was, “Hell no, I won’t go.” Jonah didn’t want to go to Ninevah, which simply proves that Jonah was the first Lutheran in the Bible! He didn’t want to go to Ninevah. He would have preferred a Mediterranean cruise or trip to the Holy Land. Or we are like Moses, “Not me, Lord, send Aaron, my brother; he has a better mouth than I.” Often our Lutheran response is, “Lord, send someone else!”
GOD FINALLY GETS THROUGH
But slowly and surely, God finally begins to get through to us. The power of his Word and Spirit begin to penetrate more deeply into our psyche and we finally begin to hear, as if for the first time: “Before you were born, I chose you to do this.”
The Word and Spirit finally penetrated Jonah and he went to the Ninevites and to his surprise, they were converted. And the Word and Spirit finally penetrated Moses and he went to speak to Pharaoh, and Pharaoh responded to the will of God.
And the Word and Spirit penetrated the Mjeldes in our parish. Jerry and Larry are forever bringing friend to church, and their unchurched friends have brought more of their unchurched friends. Ann, a hairdresser, is another good example. Can you imagine all the unchurched friends a hairdresser has? And all the minutes they have to chat with their customers? Ann, recently an unchurched person herself, now brings numerous people into the Christian community. Ann understand and lives out the mission of the church.
And God finally penetrates into your hearts and mine and convinces each one of us to reach out to our unchurched friends, neighbors and relatives.
FOR ALL KINDS OF PEOPLE
God in Christ lives for all people and for all kinds of people.
I think especially of the Alcoholics Anonymous group that meets at our church on Tuesday nights. What a find group of men and women! What a fine group of people that God is in the process of healing! And they are “God-fearers,” believing in the “higher power” that is needed to restore their lives.
The Apostle Paul, when he went on his missionary tours, always went first to the synagogues and addressed the “God-fearers,” who often listened sympathetically to the Word. The “God-fearers” seemed to be more sympathetic and open to his message than the atheists in Athens.
Well, the AA groups are like the “God-fearers” in the synagogues of Paul’s day. Here are men and women who are often searching for God, wholeness, healing, wellness, putting their lives back together again. . .with Christ at the core. Many of you are reaching out to the AA community and many AAs have a special evangelism ministry within that group. All parishes need to have close connections with AA groups.
The message of God for the day is clear: “Go and make disciples of all kinds of people, and all kinds of people include Norwegians and Swedes, iron-workers and machinists, secretaries and scientists, engineers and carpenters, friends and neighbors, Asians and blacks, rich and poor, children and adults. You name it. Jesus Christ wants to be Lord of people’s lives, regardless of who they may be. God said: “Through you , allkindsofpeople, will come to praise my name.” That is the mission of the church: to make disciples of Jesus Christ!
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