November 21, 2010

You’ll Never Walk Alone

Do you remember the first time that you realized you were no longer under your parents’ direct authority?  Yes, the Bible teaches us that we should always honor and obey our parents, but at some point the nature of their authority over us changes as we transition to adulthood.  And for the youth, your time will come.  I realize that it won’t come nearly soon enough for most of you (which will also, ironically, be way too soon for your parents), but it will come.  Personally, I think back to when my parents dropped me off at college for the first time.  I don’t think they left until they made sure my bed was made and all my clothes were folded and put away—and no, that wasn’t the only time those two things happened—but eventually, they did make the long, weepy drive back to Independence.  When that happened, the reality of my situation gradually began to set in.  Now, I wasn’t ever a rebellious kid so I didn’t go buck wild, but I did find myself free to make decisions like when to eat, when to sleep, and what order in which to do things.  In this process, though, I did what many kids in my position do: I found a group of friends with whom to make some of these decisions so that none of us faced making them solely on our own.  These friends became my new security blanket.  They provided me (and I them) a level of comfort in my our environment and helped give me the confidence to move forward.  I have faced several other life points like this as well.  The first day as a Bible study leader at Passport Youth Camp.  The days after Lisa and I got married, moved to Denver, and were really on our own.  The day I started seminary.  The day I started working at OfficeMax.  Even the first day I came over to the office here, sat down, and went, “Well what do I do now?”

Think for a minute about some of these experiences in your own life.  Do you remember the excitement?  How about the brief (or not so brief) moment of panic?  When we are in an environment for very long we develop a comfort level, usually found in the routines of the environment.  We generally do the same things at the same times and in the same ways.  There is a great deal of safety and comfort in this.  But, there are also times in our lives in which we are forced to leave these comfort zones and transition to new ones.  Some of these times are when we move away from home for the first time, start our first job, start a second job, move to a new location, get married, start a family, and so on and so forth.  In nearly all of these times there are certain things that we need to do and we might even have some direction on how to do them, but this doesn’t change the fact that most of us would still prefer some level of security and comfort in order to really feel up to the task.  For most of the tasks we face, though, we gradually do settle back into a comfortable routine.  But, there are a few that are simply beyond us and we never really lose our desire for the comforting presence of someone who’s been there or who has enough authority to bail us out if we flop.

I have to think that this was how the disciples felt when Jesus spoke the words of the Great Commission to them.  I know it’s how I still feel when I make my feeble attempts to fulfill it.  All this month we have been talking about the Great Commission.  This, of course, is the command from Christ which basically deputized all of His followers in the task of expanding the kingdom of God on earth.  The Commission is great not only in the sense of quantity (it is an enormous task), but also in the sense of quality wherein God is involving us in accomplishing His purposes.  The command itself is given on Jesus’ authority which we established a couple of weeks ago is pretty enormously huge.  But, have you ever stopped to think how crazy this was on His part?  I mean, the disciples really weren’t all that dependable a group.  If Peter had his way there never would have been a crucifixion.  Judas sold Jesus out for a pretty small price all things considered.  Peter, James, and John couldn’t stay awake a single hour to pray with Him in His time of greatest need.  The entire group ran like they had dynamite in their pants when Jesus was arrested.  Only one of the twelve was at the crucifixion with Him.  And even after He rose from the dead they were still asking if He was going to establish His physical kingdom right then—in other words, they still didn’t get it.  And if you think about it, we’re not all that much better.

Thankfully, He didn’t just leave them and us on our own to get the job done.  He left us with very clear instructions on how we are to be making disciples.  We talked about this last week.  We make disciples by baptizing them and by teaching them.  More broadly speaking, the call to discipleship is rooted in two different things: sharing in Jesus mission of life (as indicated through our baptism), and sharing in Jesus’ message of grace which we ourselves are working at doing every day.  So we can’t really argue with the source of the command—well, I mean, we can, but it would be like arguing with a mountain—and we can’t really complain that the task is too complex because it’s only composed of two steps.  That’s even simpler than one of Noah’s favorite shows “Special Agent Oso” which calls for three special steps to complete every project.  In spite of all this, however, we still have a big job ahead of us. As I said just a minute ago, there are some jobs I’ve been given that were big enough I wanted some sort of a security blanket even after I’d been told what, why, and how.  This is one of those jobs.  This is why the last part of the Great Commission is so important.  We need to know that we are going on the authority of One who cannot be overruled by any other force in this world, but we also need to know that we are going to have His help as often as we need it.  Well, not only did Jesus tell us exactly what He wants us to be doing, why, and how, but He did indeed promise to be with us as we do it.  Form Matthew 28:20: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  We are to make disciples as we go by inviting them to share in Jesus’ mission and message, and as we go, Jesus goes with us.

Now, I want to talk with you about this Jesus going with us in some detail, but before we get there let me point out a couple of important thing in the text itself.  First, the word my Bible has translates as “remember” is translated more literally as “look.”  This is an exclamation in both Greek and Hebrew used to draw attention to something.  Often this was something God was doing.  In effect, Jesus was drawing attention to what came next.  If we were going to put this idiomatically, we might translate it as: “Hey, pay attention to this because it’s extra important!”  Second, the phrase “I am with you always” translates more literally as “I am to be with you all the days.”  In other words, there is not a day that Jesus won’t be with us.  It’s not going to happen.  It doesn’t matter what our current circumstances are.  He is going to be with us.  Furthermore, there is a special emphasis on “I” here.  It’s not just anyone who is going to be with us.  It will be Jesus Himself.  Finally, the last phrase is pretty emphatic as well.  Noah has a book about a little bear who breaks his mom’s favorite honey bowl.  He goes to see his mom, not to tell her about it, but to make sure she’s not going to throw him out with the broken pieces of pottery.   He asks if she will always love him and then gives some situations in which an action on his part might jeopardize that love including the breaking of her favorite honey bowl.  This is the kind of assurance we long to have from the people who love us.  This is exactly what Jesus gives us here.  He just promised to be with us always.  But for the little bears in the crowd He throws on this extra part at the end: Even to the end of the age.  The thing about this is that the age Jesus is talking about isn’t going to end until the end of the world.  As we go, Jesus goes with us.  Period.

The encouraging thing about all of this is that it’s not new in terms of God’s interactions with His people.  There is no missing text that includes the lost line, “I know that My Father has left you pretty much on your own before this, but I’m going to do things differently.”  That doesn’t exist because nothing about God’s character is changing in any of this.  When God commits Himself to a person or group of people to carry out the task of accomplishing His purposes on earth He hasn’t ever left them to do any part of it on their own.  Oh they may have left Him to try it, but He never moves.  We can see this all the way back at the beginning of the story of God’s people.  When God called Abram to leave his father’s house and his father’s gods and go to the land that he would be shown, he wasn’t ever alone.  God didn’t say, “Go and be a blessing to the world.”  God said go and “I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, I will curse those who treat you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”  God intended to make Abram the vehicle of the blessing, but God was the One who was going to be doing the work.  All Abram had to do was show up and be willing.  A few hundred years later when God called Moses to go lead the people out of bondage in Egypt back to freedom in the land promised to Abraham He didn’t say, “Go get My people, good luck, I’ll see you in Canaan.”  No, He said, “I will certainly be with you,” and “I will help you speak and I will teach you what to say.”  Even more dramatically, when Joshua took over after Moses died and was officially installed by God with the task of leading the people to conquer the Promised Land, God didn’t say, “Good luck, and watch out for those Jebusites.”  He said, “I will be with you, just as I was with Moses.  I will not leave you or forsake you.…Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”  And when David stood up to Goliath, he did not exclaim, “I will achieve this victory on my own because God told me to.”  He stood before the giant and boldly declared, “Today, the Lord will hand you over to me.…Then all the world will know that Israel has a God, and this whole assembly will know that it is not by sword or by spear that the Lord saves, for the battle is the Lord’s.  He will hand you over to us.”  When Jesus declared that He would be with His followers as they went to accomplish the great task He gave them He was consciously invoking this pattern of God inviting His people to act in concert with Him to see His purposes accomplished.  As we go, Jesus goes with us.

This is not the end of the story, though.  This promise to be with His followers was no idle assurance from Jesus.  One of the key purposes for which Jesus was sent into the world was so that God could be with His people all the time.  Because of the weight of sin and the insufficiency of the sacrificial system, God could not be with His people in as intimate a way as He desired.  As predicted by the prophet Isaiah, however, Jesus was also called Immanuel which means “God with us.”  In Christ, God is with us all the time.  Pushing this even further, it was not simply Jesus’ identity, it was His passion.  In Jesus’ great priestly prayer of John 17, He asked His Father specifically for us to be with Him where He is.  In the Great Commission we join Jesus where He is already at work in the world around us.  And when things get rough in our quest to fulfill the Great Commission—which they will—not only do we have Jesus’ assurance to be with us (which by His very nature means God the Father is also with us), but we have even more than that.  In Mark 13, Jesus warns the disciples about the tough times ahead of them.  In v. 11 He says to them: “So when they arrest you and hand you over, don’t worry beforehand what you will say.  On the contrary, whatever is given to you in that hour—say it.  For it isn’t you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.”  Not only are we to be baptizing new disciples in the fully triune name of God, but we have the fully triune God with us as we do.

Now, this is all a great thing, but if even this was the full extent of the promise, it would take a pretty big leap of faith to buy.  Okay, I will grant you that it takes a fair bit of faith to believe a God we can’t see is somehow spiritually “with us” (whatever that means) as we try to obey him, but, thankfully, we don’t have to take the promise itself completely on faith.  In the book of Acts, Luke includes the story of Paul’s missionary work in Corinth.  This story is significant for two reasons.  First, from what we can gather in Paul’s subsequent letters to the church in Corinth, the Corinthian church was every bit as messed up as the modern church.  Thus, the spirit behind Paul’s interactions with and words to them is extra relevant to us.  Second, while Paul was ministering there he received a word from Jesus in a vision: “Don’t be afraid, but keep on speaking and don’t be silent.  For I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to hurt you, because I have many people in this city.”  Here we have a guy who was out actively trying to fulfill the Great Commission and he gets a word from the Lord that he is not alone.  This was a word specifically to Paul, but the spirit behind it is eternal.  Whenever we are working to see Christ’s kingdom on earth expand He is there working alongside of us.  Whenever we are doing His work, we are not alone.  As we go, Jesus goes with us.

Moving further into the New Testament, as the writer of Hebrews was nearing the end of his letter, like many of the New Testament authors, he included a variety of closing exhortations.  In 13:7-9 the writer is talking about the kind of leaders in whom we can safely place our trust.   Verses 7 and 9 flow smoothly together, but in between sits v. 8 which seems rather out of place until you take into account the context.  In context Hebrews 13:8 is simultaneously one of the scariest and most comforting verses in the whole of Scripture.  “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”  Jesus is the kind of leader in whom we can place every fiber of our trust because His character never wavers.  This does mean that His standards for us aren’t going to change regardless of how bad we get.  But it also means that His promise to be with us isn’t going to change either.  The same Jesus who promised to be with His disciples then as they sought to make disciples of all nations is the same Jesus who now helps us do that very thing.  He has helped us in the past, He is helping us today, and He will be helping us in the future.  This means that we are never alone in the work we do to expand the kingdom of God.  As we go, Jesus goes with us.

Let me tell you what this means for us.  If we believe that Jesus (God the Son) and God the Father are one and the same person, and if we believe in the character of God as revealed in the Old Testament as we have talked about this morning, then this means that Jesus is present with us everywhere we go.  When I was hired on at OfficeMax, my first week was spent taking training courses on the computer.  Not very exciting, but I started learning some of the tasks I would be doing.  Once training was over, my boss Charles stayed by my side for the next several days and taught me how to use each of the different machines in order to produce all the different kinds of documents of which we were capable.  As long as I had him walking and working beside me I had a lot of confidence.  When I got off a bit or made a mistake he would gently correct me and set me back on the right path.  I had instant feedback and a source of knowledge that as far as the subject matter was concerned was nearly limitless.  It is most comforting to work in the presence of someone with great authority when accomplishing some task we have been given to do and about which we do not know enough to succeed on our own.  After a while, though, Charles had to get back to his other managerial duties.  As much as I might have preferred otherwise, his main task was not training me in how to do production and work the counter.  He had to manage the business as well and he could not do that while he was helping me.  He couldn’t be in two places at once doing two different things.   Jesus, on the other hand, can.  Just like having Charles by my side all the time gave me the confidence I needed to work as freely as possible, knowing that we have Jesus by our side all the time would seem to be able to give us the confidence we need to carry out the Great Commission with boldness.  Or think of it this way, the pastor of my church in Denver, Jim Walters, has a really strong gift of evangelism.  He oozes it.  He can’t help himself from sharing the Gospel with nearly everyone he meets.  If I’m going out to do evangelism somewhere, I want a Jim Walters with me.  We have this in Jesus.

The problem we face, however, is that we don’t really believe this to be the case.  Now, before you jump up and down defending your commitment to Christian orthodoxy, let me explain what I mean.  I mean that most of us don’t really believe that Jesus is with us all the time to help us in our quest to fulfill the Great Commission.  Clearer now?  Consider for just a minute the difference in our behavior if we really believed that?  We can claim to believe whatever we want, but if we don’t act consistently from this belief, then we don’t hold it very strongly.  The fact is that we act most consistently out of what we believe the most deeply.  When we react to the Great Commission with fear, hesitancy, or outright resistance, we reveal that the promise from Jesus to always be with us is not one of our core beliefs.  Now, hear me well that I have no assumption or expectation that all believers will be out standing on street corners proclaiming the Gospel every chance we get in order to really be counted as faithful.  Our minds construct radical situations like that in situations like this so that we can reject calls for Great Commission obedience as too far out there for “normal” Christians.  I reject situations like that right alongside you.  What I am talking about is the very simple and relational step of inviting our friends and family who don’t have a relationship with Jesus to share in His mission and message.  The great assurance of the Great Commission is that as we take this step of simple obedience, Jesus is right there with us.  As we go, Jesus goes with us.

Enough challenge.  Here’s the encouragement in all of this.  Jesus is with us all the time.  I can’t say that to you any plainer.  He is with us.  Constantly.  Period.  There will never be a time in which Jesus won’t be with us.  When Jesus is with us (which is always), we know that by His very name and nature—Immanuel, God with Us—God the Creator of the universe is with us.  The sovereign and all-powerful God who knows every part of His creation with complete intimacy is present with us at every point.  Now, there have been and will continue to be tough times for Christians.  This is a fact of life in this God-created, but sin-broken world.  For those of you who have been here for any of the last few weeks of our Revelation study, you know this is the case.  Yet, Jesus here promises to be with us even (and especially) through that.  Always.  To the very end of the age.  When you feel alone or scared or incapable of the task that stands before you as a follower of Christ, worry not.  Instead, take a minute and offer a prayer of thanks to Jesus who is in fact there with you, empowering you as you rely on Him.  I have talked before about my time in high school band with you.  It really was one of those experiences that shaped me in a lot of good ways.  It taught me the value of good leadership, the worth of people on whom you can depend, and the importance of tradition.  Well, one of our traditions was that at the end of every football game we circled up beside our bleachers and played our theme song.  It was a song that reminded us that no matter what happened during those turbulent days of high school that we would never face them by ourselves as long as we were part of the band family.  I remember crying like a baby when the band played it my senior year as I joined my friends in the long senior recognition line at our last home game.  Part of the reason for the tears then was that only a few weeks before I had found tucked inside of my hat a copy of the lyrics.  I understood more fully that it wasn’t just a pretty song with some beefy low brass harmony parts that made your heart flutter with emotion.  It had a message that spoke right to the core of a lot of high school students’ hearts.  It doesn’t speak only to high school students, though.  It is a message that speaks right to one of the core needs of every human heart.  It offers those of us who are seeking to fulfill the Great Commission a word of encouragement and hope as if it was coming from Jesus Himself.  Let me read these words to you: “When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high and don’t be afraid of the dark.  At the end of a storm is a golden sky and the sweet silver song of a lark.  Walk on through the wind.  Walk on through the rain, though your dreams be tossed and blown.  Walk on, walk on with a hope in your heart and you’ll never walk alone.  You’ll never, ever walk alone.”  As we go, Jesus goes with us.

He goes with us as we share in His mission and message.  He goes with us as we invite others to share in His mission and message.  In fact, it is because of His mission and message that we go at all.  Yes, His authoritative word has sent us, but this authority was cemented through His mission and message.  More specifically, it is because of His mission.  If you’ll remember from last week, Jesus’ mission of life culminated in His sacrificially atoning death and life-giving, death-defeating resurrection.  We are going to celebrate these two events this morning using the other major symbol (besides baptism) important to our faith tradition: the Lord’s Supper.  As we break bread and share the cup together in this way, we share in the presence of Christ in a special way.  Now, there is nothing magical about the bread or the juice or the words I’m saying now, but in this act of intentionally remembering and celebrating the mission of Jesus, we are empowered spiritually to continue the struggle of advancing the message of the kingdom in the world around us.  Thus as we focus this morning on the presence of Christ in our quest this is an entirely appropriate thing to do.  This morning as the deacons serve you, eat and drink as your hearts are prepared.  And as you do, take a few moments and just sit quietly in the presence of Christ.  Feel His Spirit ministering to yours.  Rest easy in the strong embrace of His arms.   And know that as you go from here this morning to continue on your journey to bring the mission and message of Jesus to a world very much in need of them, you’ll never walk alone.  As we go, Jesus goes with us.