Second Sunday After Pentecost Exodus 19:2-8a, Psalm 100, Romans 5:1-8, Matthew 9:35-10:8(9-23)
When I was a teenager, which I promise you was actually quite some time ago, despite my apparently genetic inability to grow a beard, I went on youth camp.
Now if you have never experienced this unique experience of Youth Ministry in the twilight of Christendom, imagine a conference center with a stage, sound system, games rooms. Ice-breaker activities, Pixar movies to make us all cry, interspersed with talks about Jesus. We were a group of teens from local schools who were very unused to all this Jesus talk and not yet inoculated against the cringe-inducing cliche’s of mimed skits; Sugar highs and the edgy kids who snuck away to smoke cigarettes. Youth camp always featured, on the final night, a late night session of singing praise choruses in low-light and the lead youth minister whispering in deadly serious tones that Jesus came to save us from all our sins. And with every head bowed, in perfect silence, we would raise a hand if we wanted to follow the Jesus who had been proclaimed to us.
I raised my hand at one of these very youth camps. I did, I swear. I think I raised my hand to follow Jesus a number of times over the course of highschool in case the first time wasn’t quite good enough.
I think throughout my time involved with this youth ministry, dozens of young people made professions of faith. We were told that Christ died for the ungodly, that through faith we could haver eternal peace with God against whom we had sinned. Shortly after I raised that hand in a darkened conference hall so soft music, I was encouraged toward baptism and began formation with another young man from the youth group. We told our testimonies, the stories of our journey to faith and what difference it had made to our lives, and were plunged under water. That was in fact 10 years ago this March.
I never saw the young man who was baptised with me again. There was a huge number of young converts to Christ in my hometown and we would run bible studies, outreaches, and serve together. Today thanks to the miracle of Facebook I can see that most of these kids no longer attend church and no longer claim a Christian identity. If they do go to church it might be for their weddings, or for the birth of their children.
By myself I might look at their lives and have nothing but anger or disappointment toward them. You were lazy, I might say. You didn’t have enough faith. You didn’t follow the teaching of our youth pastors. You couldn’t get past the expectations of your parents to live into the life Jesus asked of us. But I sacrificed. I showed up. I kept the faith.
Jesus acts so very differently to me.
Jesus saw the crowds, he saw them floundering beset by sickness, sins, stubbornness, and ignorance. He saw them, and he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
We live in a virtually unprecedented era in recent history, where numerous people have heard the Gospel, that while we were still sinners Christ died for the ungodly, have responded, and then never darkened the doorway of a church again. It is quite the mind-warp to come into faith with a wave of my peers, for us to sing and pray together, to make promises of fidelity and friendship to one-another, and now to live into our twenties and thirties as perfect strangers. My generation are strangers to each other, each languishing in our isolated swamps of habits, sins, distractions, and expectations. Despite the faithfulness and fruitfulness, the love and long-suffering of those youth pastors at numerous bible studies, conferences, and missions outreaches, they could not reverse the tide of young people abandoning Christ.
The youth ministry who witnessed to a whole town’s young people was absolutely astonishing in its effectiveness. Sure its easy to laugh at silly games and campfire clichés, but you know what? They were faithful to the calling they had been given, and faithful to a community of teenagers to pursue them with the love of Jesus Christ. A cynic might pour contempt on the rounds of Manhunt and simple presentations of the Gospel, but those who have been immersed in the story of the Scriptures might come to a different conclusion.
God looked with compassion upon the suffering of a people called the Hebrews. They were slaves in Egypt, tasked with making bricks by hand until they died. Through his servants Moses, Aaron, and Miriam God saved a nation of people from the cruelty of a people who hated them. God promised his people that he would bring them out, and that they would meet him in the wilderness. Far away from the terrors they had faced from their slave-masters Moses declares God’s words to them:
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
And after seeing the wonderful things God had done for them, they respond ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do.’
God won their hearts over to the side of freedom. But the wonder of the freedom God brings is that it is for everyone, not just some people. The people of Israel didn’t know it yet, but they were liberated for a purpose. You see its not only Israel who are slaves, but the entire human race. Not only the human race, either, but all of creation is enslaved to death and cannot become all that it was destined for. God liberated Israel because God intends to free all the world from the evil under which it languishes. Israel has come from Egypt, seeing God drown Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea, and stands before his holy presence. In this place far from their chains, God speaks.
I have saved you and I am going to save the entire world, says God. I am going to do this through you, you and I will work together so that all the world will be free from that which enslaves it. In order for God’s people to fulfil their calling, God shapes them to be unlike any other nation on earth. He gives them a law which, if it is followed, will make Israel a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.
Against the backdrop of the Old Testament, this calling for all of God’s people to be priests is informed by what we see in the Priesthood in the Torah. In many cultures throughout history, Priests are mystical figures who have insight that no one else can possibly have, and these clergy can rule a people with their special divine status – they are closer to God than anyone else. More prefect, more pure. Yet in the Torah we have a Priesthood of vulnerability. The priest always had to repent of their own sins before leading others in repenting of theirs. They could not presume to go to-and-fro in and out of God’s presense, but could only do so through a process of purification. The Priests of the Old Testament also did not presume that they were someone with some grand wisdom to dispense to the lowly masses. Rather the priests primary work is as a servant, who helps people to make their offerings, sacrifices, and prayers.
When God calls Israel to be a nation of priests, he is not calling them to rule the world with their special divine privileges, but rather to be ready to serve the unbelieving world as the tribes of the nations come to offer praise, thanksgiving, and sacrifices to God. A kingdom of Priests is a community who are ready to help others to know and worship God.
This is the reason for which Israel were saved from slavery.
Jesus goes from town to town, from synagogue to synagogue, and sees that Israel are not the kingdom of Priests they were supposed to be. No, worse still. They were just as much slaves as when they were making bricks. Harassed and helpless, sheep without a shepherd. What happened to the memory of Pharoh being drowned in the Red Sea? The plagues and signs? The mighty hand of a saving God? God’s people had forgotten that they were saved. God’s people had forgotten what they were saved for. They are like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus looks upon these people with the very same compassion that moved the hand of the Father generations earlier to part the red sea. He is moved with compassion, and he calls 12 of his closest disciples. He gives them power to cast out the evil which bound God’s people, to heal all that afflicted them, and tells them to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
God was moved with compassion for his chosen people and liberated them from slavery. Jesus is moved with compassion and sends out his disciples to liberate them from the bondage of the evil inside their very souls and bodies. Jesus comes to bring to fulfilment the ancient purpose of God the Father. Can you imagine the shame that would be, to hear all the great promises God makes to Israel in Synagogue on the Sabbath, and then to go outside and see the Roman soldiers marching on every street, the pagan shrines and the coins with the Emperors face pressed upon them? Jesus is not deflated by the failure of Israel to be what they were supposed to be. No, he sends out his friends and disciples to go to these people who belong to God, to call them back to the wondrous purpose for which they were called and saved.
I have a friend who from his teenage years played in Christian bands. He produced and recorded. He played festivals and churches. He spent years on the worship team at his local church. He made incredible music. And this morning he is gathering with his friends for brunch.
He tells me that he knows everything he needs to in order to be saved, so he doesn’t need church anymore.
This morning we are going to celebrate the feast God invited us to in Jesus Christ, Holy Communion. We will remember how God made us, saved us, and will make us more and more ready to be his servants in the world. And my friend is missing from this great celebration. Lots of my friends are missing from this worldwide, cross-cultural, inter-generational feast. They know all that they need in order to be saved after all. If I stop and think on this, it makes me wonder if something has gone terribly wrong. Who can I blame? Is it my fault? Can I fix all their doubts?
Well today Jesus has called me again as he called the 12. Jesus does not place blame. He does not criticise or get mad that those around him lack the faith to become the people God intended. He has compassion, and he sends out his disciples on a mission. This first step of mission for the Disciples is not to the Gentiles, who have never heard of God, or the Samaritans who have a faded and warped understanding of God. No, Jesus first sends out his disciples to gather up and give strength to those people who already belonged to God. He does this not because he is humiliated by their backsliding, or angered by their hypocrisy, or offended by their betrayal. He does this because he loves them, and knows that they will only be whole when they are wholly within the purposes God has for them.
This great call Jesus gives is for all of his disciples. There are so many people who have at one time pledged themselves to God, and have missed out on so much of what that could have meant for them. Yet his call comes with a great warning. They are to go to God’s people and proclaim the message of salvation to them – again and again if they must – and they will perform amazing signs and they will use the power God gives them to free God’s people from all the things which bind them. Yet they are not promised success. No they will be rejected by many and their mission will put them at odds even with the people who need to be reminded of the Gospel the most. But this warning is full of promise too – when they are rejected and have exhausted all of their strength and ability, then God will speak through them by the power of his Spirit, and even more people will hear the message of God’s saving power – his Kingdom in their midst.
It is as though God is more glorified by the Disciples’ passionate pursuit of the God’s lost sheep, because when the Disciples of Jesus run toward those people who have turned away from him, the watching world is given a more complete picture of the kind of love God has. God’s love is all-consuming and jealous, absolutely dedicated to seeing the glorious things for which human beings are saved brought to their completion and fulfilment. God’s love for Israel is not only expressed in their being freed from slavery, but in their becoming a nation of priests for the whole world.
Jesus calls his disciples to live out this kind of loyal, patient, and steadfast love by pursuing firstly those people who already belong to God. Though they may be abused, rejected and misunderstood it is of a much greater importance that the world see this testimony to God’s covenant love for his people, than that his disciples should give up on them and move on to softer targets. Jesus gives his disciples a hope that by choosing the winding paths of the lost sheep, people who have never known the Gospel at all will see the saving love of God in vivid flesh and color.
This weekend a small group of the fellow young people who came to faith with me showed the glory of God by not forgetting about those many people who heard and responded to the Gospel in their adolescence. They launched an amazing new ministry in the town I grew up in – the Liberty Tea Room, a place of welcome for all and especially those who are burdened by unbearable financial debt. The whole project was built and staffed by volunteers, dozens and dozens of them. As photographs surfaced throughout their progress, I saw faces I hadn’t seen in years – older now, often with facial hair and less puppy-fat. The people who had come to faith with me and had vanished from the church for years and years had become a part of a growing new community who were boldly living out the full and generous life Jesus called us to! The youth pastors, now with less and greyer hair, and the band of young disciples who had stayed with them, had not forgotten about those who had become like wandering sheep. Years of patient, loyal, and steadfast pursuit has seen an incredible harvest of people who are just now beginning to step into the glorious promises for which they were destined when they came to faith in a dark conference hall, with every head bowed and every eye closed.
In my home town there is a sign of the kingdom of heaven. Not just the exciting new ministry initiative, but more fully in the family of God’s people who have begun to come back together even when so many went astray and became burdened by the terrible burdens this life thrusts upon us.
Jesus calls those who are following him now, to go and pursue those who once did, but now are not. He does this because the love God has for his people is never exhausted. He gives to them the miraculous abilities which make such a pursuit possible, and even the assurance that he is still at work when the love we show is spurned.
This call rings loudly in my ears when I think of my friend who is currently at brunch, when he used to be at church.
Perhaps today I can have the courage of Christ’s love to go after him, and rest in the confidence that Jesus will give me the strength of the Holy Spirit to see such a mission through not to its end – for pursuing God’s lost sheep will never end – but through the long patient years before I finally meet those who have once professed faith with me around the Lord’s Table. Whether that is possible, I do not know.
I do know however that God will be glorified before an unbelieving world by the pursuit of redeeming love. Love which calls God’s wandering people to the wondrous purpose for which they are designed.
May we all be given strength and endurance to obey the call of Jesus, may our lives be made into the very reflection of God’s steadfast love for his people, and may the Holy Spirit always kindle in our hearts the same compassion as was in Christ’s own heart.