Pastor Randy Milleville
As most of you know, I grew up in Niagara Falls. I went to a Lutheran church in a town outside of Niagara Falls called Bergholz. Anybody here ever hear of it? It’s a small town, about half an hour away from here. Two churches. Both Lutheran. And that’s a tale for another time.
I have been back to preach at my home church four times now. The first time was when I was still in seminary. I got a call from the president of the church council inviting me to preach. When I got off the phone, I said to my beloved wife Nancy, “I’ve just been invited to preach up at St. James. With my luck the text will be, “a prophet is not welcome in his home town.”
A few moments later, I heard a shriek from the other room. Nancy had looked up the text for that day. And yes – it was this one. A prophet is not welcome in his home town. You see, here’s the challenge of preaching in your home congregation. They remember you – and the things you said – and the things you did – growing up – especially in a small town like Bergholz – a small town not unlike Clarence Center – where everyone knows you – and where everyone’s related. Where one woman came up to me and said, “I will always remember you as a little boy.”
I suspect something like that happened to Jesus the day he went back to his home town of Nazareth. You see, they know him. They watched him grow up. And they’re saying things like, “Where did he get all this wisdom to teach? And by what power does he do all these amazing things? Just who does this guy think he is? He’s become just a little too big for his britches.” And the text says that he was amazed at their unbelief.
In this episode in the life of Jesus and his disciples, Jesus brings Good News – the Good News of God’s love and grace to the very place where he was familiar and where he was well known. And it appears that not too many people accepted either him or his message. Familiarity breeds contempt kind of thing.
And that’s what I want to talk about with you today. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are Good News people. We’ve got Good News to tell others about. And it’s all about Jesus. It’s all about God’s love – and forgiveness. It’s about a way of life. And I don’t know how any of you feel about this – but for me being a Christian is just – well it’s just a great way to live. It’s a great way of life.
But here’s what we have to deal with. Not everyone is going to believe our message. Not everyone is going to be accepting of God’s Good News in Jesus Christ. And quite often – quite often – those who are most reluctant to believe the message just might be members of our own family – the people who know us the best.
Now I find it interesting that Jesus’ encounter with the hometown folks – and their rejection of him and his message – is followed immediately with Jesus sending his disciples out on their own to bring the Good News to other villages and towns. And he lets them know up front – “Hey guys! Before you go, I just want to let you know. Not everyone will accept your message. And when that happens – wipe the dirt off from your feet as a witness against them.”
Now I’m not sure I could do that. Because I don’t ever want to give up on anybody.
I like the story told by Josh McDowell. “An executive hirer, a ‘head-hunter’ who goes out and hires corporation executives for other firms, once told me, ‘When I get an executive that I'm trying to hire for someone else, I like to disarm him. I offer him a drink, take my coat off, then my vest, undo my tie, throw up my feet and talk about baseball, football, family, whatever, until he's all relaxed. Then, when I think I've got him relaxed, I lean over, look him square in the eye and say, ‘What's your purpose in life?’ It's amazing how top executives fall apart at that question.
“‘Well, I was interviewing this fellow the other day, had him all disarmed, with my feet up on his desk, talking about football. Then I leaned over and said, ‘What's your purpose in life, Bob?’ And he said, without blinking an eye, ‘To go to heaven and to take as many people with me as I can.’
“For the first time in my career I was speechless.”
I know. I’ve told you that story before. But as your pastor – and as disciples of Jesus Christ – I want to ask you, what’s your purpose in life? It would be my strong hope that you would see – at least as part of your purpose – as a father – as a mother – as a son or a daughter – a sister, a brother – a neighbor, a friend – no matter how you see your role in life – that you would be concerned not only about going to heaven some day, but also taking as many people with you as you can.
Now it’s not always an easy task. I get that. People have to be ready to hear the Good News. You’re never going to argue anyone into the Kingdom. You can’t shame them in. You can’t force anyone to believe. So what can you do?
Well, here’s what you can do. Nothing beats the love of Christ coming through the hearts – the minds – the lives of fully committed disciples of Jesus Christ. So love the ones you’re trying to reach. If they won’t believe your words – then show them – show them what the love of Christ looks like in action.
Then when the moment is right, tell them about Jesus. What does that other person believe about Jesus? Who was he? At the risk of sounding like a broken record – who was he? Legend, liar, lunatic or Lord? Tell people not just what you believe – but why you believe. Tell them why you believe that the resurrection of Jesus Christ just cannot possibly be a story that could have been made up. Tell them that all efforts at explaining away the resurrection of Jesus as a myth or a lie fall flat on their faces.
And you know what? No matter how much they argue with you about how they can’t possibly believe that stuff – that God stuff – that Jesus stuff – that stuff in the Bible – then just tell them what your experience of Jesus has been. You tell them what He has done for you. They might try to argue with you on every other point. But no one can take your experience of the risen Christ – and what He has done for you – no one can take that away from you.
So the message of The Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ is one more reason why church matters. And sometimes we forget what we as the church are all about. Some folks think that the church is all about getting their needs met. And quite frankly – I hope that by being here – by being a part of this faith community that whatever your needs are – that we – to the extent that that is our duty and are capable of doing it – that you are getting certain needs met.
But let me tell you something. Getting your needs met – or me getting my needs met – is not our primary task.
Sometimes we get so focused on meeting people’s very real – and sometimes their perceived needs – that we forget to keep the main thing the main thing. We really have only two tasks as the church. And they belong together. To share the Good News (the big church word for that is evangelism), and to make disciples of those who have been evangelized. That’s it. Everything we do – from keeping the bushes trimmed and the weeds pulled – to keeping the bathrooms clean – to welcoming people when they walk through our doors – everything we do in worship – and Sunday School – and pastoral care – to having a hot cup of coffee or tea in the coffee house – just everything we do should have either or both an evangelism or a disciple making focus to it.
And the best way to get started is to show people that we care. That we truly, genuinely care about them.
There’s a story I heard years ago, that goes something like this. There was this nurse in World War II working with wounded soldiers in a make shift hospital. A reporter happened by, and watched her tending wounds. Sometimes the wounds were already infected and created a terrible smell. The reporter said to her, “I wouldn’t do that for a million bucks.” And the nurse replied, “Neither would I. But I would do it for Jesus.”
Folks, we’ve got a story to tell. But before we tell the story, people need to know that we care about them. And that we care about them in the name of Jesus. As I have told you numerous times over the years, people won’t care how much we know until they know how much we care.
You know, it’s sometimes tough for a preacher to preach in his or her hometown. Sometimes it’s tough for anyone of us to share the Good News with the folks who have known you all your life. There are a couple of you in this church who knew me back when. Elementary school. High school. I’m glad there’s no one here who knew me in college!
But, you know what! So what! So what! It doesn’t matter if I was a saint or a sinner – because truth be told I was both. And I still am – both saint and sinner. But the messenger does not diminish the message. The messenger does not get in the way of the message. In fact – that familiarity that you have with the folks you want to share the Good News message with – and that they have with you – the people who know everything there is to know about you – warts and all – that knowledge about you and who you are – will actually make your story more believable.
So if you find your purpose in life is to go to heaven and to take as many people with you as you can, then be honest about who you are. Don’t be afraid to tell the story about this God who loves you. No matter what your life might have been like at one time – don’t be afraid to tell the story of how Jesus has touched your heart and changed your life.
In fact, your story to the people who know you the best just might go something like this: “You see who I am. You know who I was. Jesus made the difference.”