A Divine Appointment

Committed Christians can have some frustrating experiences in their witness for Jesus Christ. They want nothing more than to lead a relative or friend to faith in Christ, but nothing seems to work. They diligently read their Bibles and know it clearly tells them to “Be my witnesses.” The Sunday sermon often challenges them to be a witness to the faith. They even attend classes at church on being an effective witness. Yet, they cannot point to anyone who is a product of their witnessing.

Sometimes, they become over zealous in talking about Christ, and are offensive to some of their friends. One of their friends says, “We like Jean and Bob, but sometimes Bob’s zeal for the Lord becomes irritating, so we have not included them at some of our parties.

Jean understands why they are not invited and pleads with her husband to stop preaching. Yet he tells her that this is the persecution they must expect if they are to be obedient servants of the Lord.

Bill has gone to the other extreme and tried to be “one of the boys” by being profane and telling a dirty story or having one too many drinks.

If you can identify with something I have said in these opening remarks of this sermon, I believe our text today will be of help.

Philip was one of the seven deacons appointed to assist the twelve disciples in their ministry. On his way from Jerusalem to Gaza, Philip met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. The Ethiopian was a seeking soul and had been in Jerusalem for spiritual help. On his return, the Ethiopian was reading from the prophet Isaiah.

Walking up to the chariot, Philip was led by the Holy Spirit to ask the Ethiopian, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

“How can I?” he asked, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

Soon they came to some water, and the eunuch asked, “What hinders me from being baptized?” Then he and Philip went into the water, and the Secretary of the Treasury was baptized. When he returned to his home, this new convert became a leader of the church in Ethiopia.

In this story we have two important helps in witnessing our faith in Christ:

First, you need to earn the right, or be asked, to share this Gospel. Second, tell the Gospel as clearly as possible and leave the Holy Spirit to work through your testimony to bring the person to Christ. We must remember that we cannot do the converting. This is God’s work. We simply deliver the Word.

We should also remember that God could have been working in this person’s life long before we were given the opportunity to share the message of Christ with him or her. However, we should be ready to speak when the door is opened by the Holy Spirit. This shows the importance of having a wellÐprepared faith story, which causes the recipient to want to hear more.

Read this beautiful text again. Then ask where you find yourself in the picture.

1. Are you the Ethiopian seeking to know more about Christ and the way of salvation? If so, seek out help from a friend who lives in a personal relationship with Christ and would love to help you.

2. Are you Philip? Then your place is to be a witness to the Savior by telling another person what Jesus has done for you. What was your life like before and after Christ became a part of it?

We have many important appointments in life. However, none is more important than a divine appointment, for the soul of a person is at stake Ð an abundant life on this earth and an eternal home in heaven. This is the primary work of the Church. It is an appointment we do not want to miss.

When All Else Fails, Try a Little Honesty

This text is a difficult portion of Scripture to interpret and proclaim.

Tom Wright, an English clergyman, tells that once, after preaching on this text, he was approached by a lady from the audience who demanded to know the meaning of Jesus’ words. The lady was wondering if the Bible was telling us that we could use any method just to get out of financial trouble.

Wright first had to explain to her that this was not a moral teaching about money and how to use it. It was a parable where Jesus was telling a story about the need for honesty.

The parable reminds me of an old saying: When all else fails, why not try a little honesty?

Let’s review the parable in our text.

A certain man had a lot of land. He was wealthy and did not want to farm the land so he hired a manager. The manager’s job was to hire good, honest farmers and bring the owner a profit each year.

But neither the farmers nor the manager were responsible employees of the wealthy man. They did little work and a lot of partying. When the owner learned of what had happened, he decided to fire the manager. So he called him to his office.

The owner didn’t mince any time letting the manager know that he was fired. However, the owner wanted to learn more about the manger’s plan of taking care of himself financially when he no longer had a job.

The manager told the owner his plan. “There was a farmer who owed you 800 gallons of olive oil; I told him to reduce his bill to 400 gallons. Another man said he owed you 1000 bushels of wheat; I told him to cut his indebtedness to 800 bushels of wheat.”

Through befriending his these farmers, the manager was obligating them to show him kindness when he no longer had employment and would need help from them.

The owner of the land couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He commended the dishonest manager because he had acted so shrewdly. His sarcastic compliment had a bite with it. “The people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

I wonder what would have been the owner of the land’s reaction if the manager had honestly told the truth? If he had seen an honest state of repentance, is it possible that he would have said, “I cannot excuse your deceit and dishonesty. However, because you are repentant, I will give you another chance.”

The parable doesn’t say this, but it is possible that this could have happened.

In its broader scope, this parable of Jesus gives us a lesson in the need for honesty when we are dealing with God and humans. There is so much dishonesty that one can almost believe that it has become a way of life. We see dishonesty in government and big business. Our nation faces an indebtedness that the average citizen cannot comprehend. Investigations are revealing that some of this money has been gained through dishonest dealings. Others in politics have been less than honest in winning reelections.

Time magazine (August 23, 2010) tells the sad story of Ted Stevens. I quote, “Stevens was a titan in both Washington and Alaska, particularly during his eight-year tenure as the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, a post he used to steer billions of dollars into pork back home, including for much criticized projects like Alaska’s infamous Bridge to Nowhere. But in 2008, Stevens was found guilty of corruption for failing to disclose $250,000 worth of gifts from a powerful Alaska businessman. His conviction was later overturned because of prosecutorial mistakes.”

Such disease will destroy us and our nation. Is there any hope it can be changed, or will dishonesty continue until we will decay from within? This we do know Ð that when individuals can become new people in Jesus Christ, their lives are changed, and such people will not sell their souls for financial wealth.

America needs a spiritual revival. We need a serious study of this parable. The change in our nation will come about if individuals meet Christ and then find their places in positions of leadership.

This leads us to a challenge within the church. Our churches have strong articles of faith, which we confess each Sunday morning. We claim the Bible to be the inspired Word of God and the authority in all matters of faith and life. Does that not include the sin of dishonest living in all parts of life? We dare not add or subtract to this Word God has given to us in order to gain millions of dollars or elections to high places in the government or church. We must lead the citizens of this blessed land back to the cross. Lessons in morality are not enough to change us. This comes only through spiritual awakenings where people are converted.

Spiritual awakenings have happened in the past, and they can happen again. There is hope. To say it cannot happen paints a dark picture for our world. But let us not lose heart. God’s Word is powerful. Let us be faithful to Him and remember that, when all else has failed, we will try a little bit of honesty as we kneel before the throne of grace in repentance and faith.

The Power of a Story

I recently heard a lecture delivered by Dr. Haddon Robinson in which this prominent professor of preaching said, “We live in a storytelling world. If the preacher wants to reach his congregation, he will have to use stories.”

So this morning I would like to tell you two stories. The stories are true. However, I have tried to describe the setting in which they were told and took some liberties to make them a bit more dramatic. With this introduction, let me tell you the stories.

It was a cold, snowy New England night about eighty years ago. My mother and I were home alone; my father was working at the paper mill. I was an only child and my mother worked hard to entertain me. This was before we had radio in our home. Before I went to bed that night, I said to her, “Mom, tell me a story.” She was an excellent story teller. So, with a bowl of popcorn in my hands, I snuggled up to her on the davenport and listened as Mother began telling this story.

“When I was a little girl, the farm that my father rented was on the ocean. It was a wonderful place to live. We had a lot of fun playing on its beach. My older brothers had a boat and they would check their lobster traps each morning. The rest of us dug clams, if the tide was out, and had a contest to see who got the largest clam.

“We also had a Newfoundland dog who loved to swim in the ocean. We would throw sticks into the water and Rover would go after them. Then he would ride the waves to shore with the sticks in his mouth. Sometimes the waves would be so large that Rover went under the water, but he would always come up with the stick and beg us to throw it out again.”

With those few facts, Mother could make that story last for several minutes.

Then she told me her second story. On our living room wall we had a picture of Jesus with a staff in his hand and a sheep hanging over his shoulder. “Jesus told us a story about that picture,” Mother said. Then she went on, “Let me tell you the story that Jesus told about the shepherd.

“Shepherds had a hard job. They worked on the side of the mountain where the grass was green and there was plenty for the sheep to eat. The shepherds also had to watch out that a sheep did not leave the flock. If it did wander away, it was in danger because there were wild animals that would kill it. At the end of the day, the sheep would be led into a shelter for the night. As they entered the pen, the shepherd counted them to see if they were all there.

“One night a sheep was missing. The shepherd then left the ninety-nine sheep in the shelter, locked the gate, and went looking for the lost sheep. He called for the sheep until he finally heard the lost sheep’s cry. The sheep was afraid, because he was caught in the thicket and could not get free.

“The shepherd picked up the sheep, put it over his shoulder and headed for the shelter. He was one happy shepherd. On the way, he invited other shepherds to come to his shelter to celebrate, because the lost sheep had been found. So the lost sheep lived happily ever after.

“Jesus told this story to the people who lived during the days he was on this earth. He wanted them to know who God was and how much he loved us. Then he inspired Luke to write this story, and it is in our Bible. It tells us that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and he loves his sheep.”

Then Mother got her Bible and read the story to me. And as she read the script, she explained to me what the Bible story was saying.

“Let me help you understand what Jesus is teaching us in this story,” Mother said. “We are the sheep, and sometimes we walk away from Jesus, who is the shepherd. When we walk away from him, Jesus comes looking for us. He does not want us to be lost, because there are many people out in this big world who would like to destroy our faith in him, and then we would be lost. Jesus does not want anyone to be lost. So, when the lost person is found and comes back to the flock, Jesus is very happy. He has a party, rejoicing that the sheep had been found. So we pray that you will always trust Jesus, because we are sinners who need a Savior to forgive us and keep us in Zis family.”

“How does the story end?” I asked my mother.

“It is late and you need to get to bed. Dad will tell you what the Shepherd did for him tomorrow.”

I went to bed, but my mother waited until my father got home from work and shared with him about telling me the story of the Good Shepherd. “He kept wanting to hear more, but I told him that it was late and that you would tell him what the Shepherd had done for you.”

My father surprised me when he said that he was in that picture on the wall. “I was the sheep that Jesus had in His arms. When I was a young man, I left Jesus and did not have much to do with Him. Then Jesus found me.”

“A minister came to town, and I went to hear what he had to say. In his sermon, he reminded us that, if anyone listening to him had walked away from Jesus, the Savior was anxious to have that person come back to Him.

“I kept thinking about what that minister said and realized that God was talking to me. He found me and had me in his arms. I then began going to church every Sunday, and there I met your mother, and we married. God used her to help me come back to Jesus. That is the way Jesus finds people. He uses believers to tell those who are away how much God loves them, and that is what happened to me,” Dad said.

I do not know what happened to that picture, but I would like to have it today.

Enough for the stories.

I told you at the beginning of this sermon that the stories were true, but the setting had been embellished to help you understand the power of this story in my life. When that story was told to me, I was only a child. However, at age eighty-six, the message still lives in my soul. I have heard powerful sermons preached on this text, but none was more powerful than that story I heard in my boyhood home told by parents who knew the Shepherd.

I feel sorry for those people who have not had the privilege of hearing the gospel from the lips of their fathers and mothers. But it is not too late. If you are a believer in Christ and your children have not heard the story from your lips, tell it to them. You have a faith story to tell, and these sons and daughters, whatever their age, have a right to hear it from their parents if they are committed Christians. This is what makes the family come alive spiritually.

If you are that sheep who has strayed away, God wants to use this sermon to tell you how much he loves you. He died for you and, if you will receive him as your Savior and Lord, there will be peace in your soul. As the text says, there will be joy in heaven over another sinner who has met the Lord.

Salvation Is Free, but Discipleship Can Cost Everything

It is exciting to watch a congregation grow. I was privileged to have this experience. Our city and the surrounding area had a population of about 100,000 people. Many new families were moving to the Cedar Valley and looking for a church. Our congregation’s goal was to call on every new family who moved to Cedar Falls.

As our membership grew, the attendance increased. This called for new buildings and facilities to accommodate the members and their friends. We increased our staff to serve them. All this called for larger budgets, and the general public realized something was going on at Nazareth Church. We became proud of our church, and that had an effect on our egos. All this was both good and bad. Over the course of forty-three years, the congregation grew from 700 to 4300 members. Our budget increased to more than two million dollars, and we were listed among the largest churches in our state.

I stop here to make an important point: I am not talking about the ministry of Homer Larsen, but that of Nazareth Lutheran Church and its members who loved the Lord. While I was a part of the leadership and had been given many responsibilities, we also had a strong staff who was committed to their work. In addition, hundreds of lay members labored night and day in reaching people with the message of God’s Word. A growing church needs a strong staff. Nevertheless, nothing will happen, from a human point of view, unless there is a faithful laity.

Now I am old, and I sit back and reminisce. I see how the Holy Spirit can take ordinary people filled with the Gospel and make things happen. The Gospel fed hungry souls who were converted. Others were spiritually awakened to the meaning of being a disciple for Jesus Christ. Still others were satisfied to be an ordinary church member supporting their congregation, but not anxious to become very involved. Their lives were already busy, so they were content to leave church activities to other members.

I think of a professor at the seminary where I was a student. He told us to preach the full counsel of God. Remember that the Bible contains Law and Gospel; sin and grace; heaven and hell. I loved to preach the Gospel telling of God’s love for us and Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection that we might be brought into a living relationship with him. But what about a text such as ours today? Had I neglected texts like this one? This is the lectionary text for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Listen to its words:

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus. Turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters Ð yes, even his own life Ð he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ÔThis fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”

Jesus had become a popular preacher. The crowds liked what he taught and was thrilled to watch him perform his miracles. But now Jesus wanted them to know that, if they were going to continue following him and become his disciples, he had to be number one in their lives.

What did He mean when He said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters Ð yes, even his own life Ð he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Hating family and self is not Jesus’ style. I believe Tom Wright helps us with Luke’s words: “The Gospel writers are choosing words that will convey the thought Jesus is making. When there is a task to be done, then everything, including one’s own life, must be put at risk for the sake of the Kingdom. Jesus is not denying the importance of family. However, even the family cannot take precedence over loyalty to Christ.”

Let me illustrate. My brother-in-law was a pastor in a small Iowa town during World War II. After much prayer, he and his wife concluded that it was right for him to enlist as a chaplain in the Navy. His ship was sunk in the battle of Leyte Gulf, and for forty-five hours the survivors hung onto life rafts in shark-infested waters. The sailors were frightened. Some drowned, some died from their wounds, and others were eaten by the sharks. They needed the assurance that Christ was with them and, through faith in Him, another life awaited them. Chaplain Carlsen was also fully aware that he could be among those who would not survive. At home were his wife and a child.

We are thankful Chaplain Carlsen did arrive home safely. I will never forget a sermon he preached after his experience in the Navy. His theme was: Salvation is Free, but Discipleship Can Cost Everything. He had learned this truth from Jesus the hard way.

It was a joy for me to tell my congregation about the salvation we can have and to assure them that Jesus is our Good Shepherd. But now I often ask myself if I told them that if they wanted to be His disciple, they also had to take up their cross and follow Him.

Having a part in building a large congregation is fun. However, it is not the same as building the Kingdom. In the midst of our joy with inflated egos, do we hear Jesus telling us that, in order to be his disciple, he must be first in our life? Being a member of a congregation is one thing. Being Jesus’ disciple is something else. Not all members in the congregation are citizens in God’s Kingdom.

Now let’s draw another picture. Mary and Bob have moved to town with their two children and have chosen to become members of our congregation. Bob has a high administrative position in a large business. Mary is a social person and becomes involved with many groups in the community. Neither one of these people have a personal relationship with God. Weekends are times to relax and, when it is convenient and fits into their schedule, they attend worship services.

Soon the congregational leadership feels these people should become involved in the church’s programs. Bob, with his administrative skills, and Mary, who was a trained public school teacher, felt an obligation to give the church some of their time. So Bob served on the church council and Mary taught in the Sunday School. However, neither were committed Christians and had not arrived at a place in their spiritual life where they were willing to “take up their cross and follow Him.”

Did they belong in these important callings? Would you want Mary to be your child’s Sunday School teacher? Might Joe, who worked in the factory and did not have Bob’s smoothness of personality and administrative abilities but walked daily with his Lord, have been better qualified to serve on the council?

J. C. Ryle, an Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, and Oxford scholar, wrote in 1860, “The temptation to admit people to full communion and to endorse and approve them as true Christians before they give evidence of dedicated grace is very real. The inclination to set before the young inquirer the joys and comforts of the gospel without any proportionate exhibition on the cross and the fight requires consistent concern. It may be laid down as a general rule that communicants admitted are worth little, and to call people Christians upon lower terms than those which our Lord set forth, in the long run does more harm than good” (British style of expression).

These are difficult words to read. Still, the congregation must take them seriously in a day when the truths of God’s Word are being adjusted to meet the prevailing culture of the day.

Salvation is free Ð discipleship can cost everything. Jesus taught this truth; and where the Church is the Church, it is practiced.