God himself is present in our opportunities to witness
Third in a series of four
Luke 21:5–28 // 2 Thes. 3:6–13 // Malachi 4:1–6
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our sermon text is Jesus addressing his disciples in the middle of this end times discourse: “This will be your opportunity to bear witness.... I will give you a mouth and wisdom.” Our text thus far.
Dear friends in Christ,
God himself is present. Two weeks ago, we saw God himself present underneath the sycamore tree, with his own presence changing everything. Last week, we saw God himself present in the burning bush, with his own presence to save his people from their slavery. Today, we hear Jesus speaking of the end times, even as he assures us that God himself is present in our opportunities to witness.
What comes to mind when you think about witnessing? Perhaps you think of far off countries, of exotic peoples. Perhaps you think of open-top jeeps running through the Sahara, of translating Bibles into foreign languages. Perhaps you think of great debates, standing up for what you believe with apologetics and arguments and logic. Perhaps you think of being put on trial for Christianity, having to stand before the Supreme Court and state what you believe.
What comes to mind when you think about witnessing? All of that is certainly a part of witnessing. The Apostles were sent to exotic places. The apostles spoke in tongues-not-their-own on Pentecost. Jesus even says here that they will stand in front of kings and governors. That all sounds in some ways scary, in other was exciting, and in most ways, way out there. You see, many of us can fall into a distorted view of witnessing, as if there’s our ordinary life over here, and over here, there are these strange and awkward conversations, like witnessing is one totally separated activity that you only do when someone asks you, Who is Jesus? That’s an important question, but it’s the only one.
So, what does it mean to witness? Two points for our meditation on Luke 21 today, point number one is to consider the context of our witness. Point number two is to consider the content of our witness.
First, we consider the context of witnessing. At least the context that Jesus gives for witnessing. Did you notice that in the reading? It’s all about the end times, and it’s really bad. The main message in our text isn’t hard to miss; the main message is that things are going to get worse: wars will be worse, conflicts will be deeper, the earth will groan more, Christianity will come under scrutiny, and even family relationships will be strained.
The sun and the moon and the stars are going to give signs, the sea and the earth will be in distress, and people will be ruled by fear. That is the context of our witness. A world increasingly troubled, lives increasingly filled with fear, a place where hope feels far away.
So, what do you say in times like those? We’ve been living in and with these end times ever since Jesus died. Much of what Jesus said came to pass in the lives of the apostles: they were brought before kings, they were tortured, they were martyred, they saw the easy and the comfortable fall away, and more than that. Almost all of us have seen tragedy, have been around hardship, have felt as though fear rules us, sin rules us, trouble never leaves us.
So, what do you say in times like those? Well, point number two for today is that witnessing is often doing ordinary Christian things in extraordinary circumstances. Doing ordinary Christian things in extraordinary circumstances. What does that mean? Let me explain.
C.S. Lewis says it really well in a short essay called “Living in an Atomic Age”: He published this little essay in 1948, after the United States dropped the first atomic bombs on Japan. How are we to live in an age when we can destroy ourselves, in an instant? He says it so well that I quote him at length: "How then should we live? Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents… This is the first point to be made:”
Lewis reminds us that humanity has always lived in the extreme. There has always been tragedy. The temptation to live in fear has always been near. He goes on...
“And the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things - praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts - not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.”
His point answers his question, How do we live in an atomic age? We live by doing sensible and human things: loving, laughing, caring, helping, sharing the love of Christ.
What does it mean to witness in times like these? To do ordinary Christian things in extraordinary circumstances.
To witness as a Christian is to stand in front of governors and kings just like the apostles -- as fishermen turned disciples turned apostles speaking the same Gospel they spoke among the twelve huddled in with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, the same Gospel they spoke on the extraordinary day of Pentecost, the same Gospel they spoke on the ordinary days following, the same Gospel that Stephen the first martyr spoke on the day of his death, the same Gospel in fact that they have passed down to you and to me: Christ the fulfillment of the Scriptures has died for our sins and rises to give me new life, and since my life is hidden in him, I don’t need to fear anything in this life even when I am afraid. I am not ruled by anything except by his love. I am only motivated by his grace. I find strength where he promises strength can be found.
To witness as a Christian is to change a dirty diaper knowing that you are in that moment being the very hands of God providing comfort and support for his dear child.
To witness as a Christian is to be both gentle and firm when you talk to your children at noon, and to be gentle and firm to your children when they’ve woken you up for the fourth time and it’s 2am.
To witness as a Christian is to mouth thank you in the hospital to your ICU nurse even when she’s adjusting your breathing tube and it hurts.
To witness as a Christian is to say, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” on Easter morning full of joy and to say, “He is risen indeed, Alleluia!” as you lay your loved one to rest.
To witness as a Christian is to know that the Apostle’s Creed that you say in the congregation today is the creed that you may someday have to say in front of kings and governor, and is certainly the creed that you will confess before Jesus Christ on the Last Day.
To witness as a Christian is to know the truths of the Gospel that you’ve known from your mother’s knee, and to know them for all your whole life long, to say them on the days when it’s easy and skies are clear, and to say them on days when it’s not easy too.
The context of our witness is the increasingly extraordinary suffering of humanity under sin that will continue until Jesus comes back. The content of our witness is the ordinary Christian truth that rules us, that Jesus who died for our sins is raised for our life, and it’s true in every chapter of our lives.
The kingdom of heaven is like a large church in a small town that God has been and is still taking through all of the joys and troubles of life. There are people gathered who are having the best day ever, sitting next to others whose lives could not get any worse. And yet, they hear the same sermon together. They share the same hope, the hope of the Gospel, together. They speak the same truths together, and during their ordinary days, these truths lead them on. On their extraordinary days, they find themselves to be in awe of what they have always known.
Amen and amen.
God Himself Is Present Under the Sycamore Tree
First in a series of four
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our sermon text for today is Luke 19, just before Jesus enters Jerusalem, his encounter with Zaccheus, which ends with these words, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he is also a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.”
Dear Friends in Christ,
God himself is present. That is our sermon series for the next four weeks, as we near the end of the church year and the beginning of the next. God himself is present, and let us now adore him, and with awe appear before him. Today we begin considering who God is present among his people. We consider what he does when he is present with his people. We consider how the one who rules the heavens comes down to be present with Zaccheus and all kinds of sinners on earth.
Bu first, let’s ask the first question: What does it mean to be present? Because, there are different kinds of present. At least that’s what my wife tells me. I was washing dishes the other night and only half listening to what Laura said, thinking about how the Packers are in first place in the NFC North when she says, “You need to listen to me.” I was present, but I wasn’t there.
There are different kinds of present, and the presence of God is felt in many ways. The first, and most obvious way is that God is everywhere, among everything. Paul says it like this (he quotes ancient philosophers who got it right) “In him we live and move and have our being.” All the religions of the world have an idea of the presence of the gods that keep the world spinning. In the creed, we confess that God created us and still takes care of us.
And he is present in another way. The God who holds the universe together in an unknowable way is also the God who makes himself known in Jesus. Jesus is God’s presence, in a special way, as man among men.
And he is present in another way. Jesus promises that in his word and Sacraments, you come into his presence. You are washed with water to be united into his body. You eat his body and drink his blood. Heaven comes to you in the promises of his presence.
And he is present in another way. He is present in you. In every interaction, there he stands. In every kindness you do, there Christ is. In every time that brothers and sisters in Christ do all the good works that he has set beforehand for you to do, there Christ is for your neighbor.
Today, we look at Jesus’s presence, as he is present with Zaccheus. Jesus is ending his journey to Jerusalem, and he has been setting his face to Jerusalem. He won’t be persuaded to go anywhere else. Zaccheus is one of many that are looking to see Jesus on the way. He climbs up a Sycamore tree, and Jesus commands him to come down.
Point number one that we would understand today is that whatever our intentions, Jesus’s presence has its own agenda. Notice that on Zaccheus’s terms, he would have seen Jesus from afar, his curiosity would be sated, and he’d go on his way. But Jesus has different plans. Instead of walking by, he stops. Instead of preaching to the crowd, he addresses Zaccheus. Instead of calling out sin, he invites himself in.
The presence of Jesus has its own agenda. It’s the same for us too. Have you ever really wanted to be mad at someone and then you read a verse that rebukes you? Have you ever needed hope, sad and lonely when a Christian song proclaims that you have nothing to fear? The presence of Jesus has its own agenda. We are conformed to something greater, something different. We are called to a higher calling.
Notice what happens next in the text. When Jesus invites himself in, the crowd grumbles, and, though they’re grumbling, they have a point. Jesus has been invited in but there isn’t any change. Zaccheus is still a tax man.
What does that mean? Taxes worked different in the Roman world than they do today. Today, we have an arm of the government that collects revenue. In that day, they hired independent contractors to collect taxes any way they saw fit. Today, the IRS employees get paid a regular wage by the government. In that day, the tax man would collect taxes, and anything he charged on top of those taxes was his pay. Zaccheus was considered a traitor to Judea, a stooge of the government, and a sinner.
Point number two that we would understand for today is that wherever we begin, the presence of Jesus changes us. The crowd grumbles, noting the disparity between Zaccheus’s invitation and his behavior.
And then Zaccheus’s remarkable words. The half of my goods, I give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone, I will restore it fourfold. Half of his goods. Remember, he’s a chief tax man. He will restore fourfold. If he overcharged $100, he would give you $400. Jesus’s presence trumps Zaccheus’s agenda. Jesus’s presence changes Zaccheus, and Jesus’s presence changes you too.
Even for lifelong Christians, and for Christians in every chapter of life, Jesus’s presence changes us. His presence gives us the humility to admit our failures, our mistakes, knowing that he has paid for them on the cross. His presence gives us the strength to risk all that is on earth because we know that our lives are hidden in Christ on high. So, what is Jesus calling you to change today? What is Jesus calling us to risk for the sake of the kingdom today? Where is Jesus challenging you to find peace only and ever in him? Jesus’s presence changes us.
We go back to the text. Jesus’s closing words, today salvation has come. Today! It’s the same word that he uses in the Lord’s Prayer, Give us this day our daily bread. It’s the same word that he uses with the Thief on the Cross. Today, you will be with me in paradise. Today, salvation has come to you.
Notice what that means. Today, on that very day, salvation was with Zaccheus. The salvation that Christ would win in the next days on the cross was already Zaccheus’s by faith. The salvation that culminates at the end of all days has already been handed out to Zaccheus and to us.
Point number three for today is that the presence of Jesus means that today we rest in all the benefits of what God promises for eternity. It’s already yours. In your baptism you have died to sin and raised to life so that you will die no more. In the eating and drinking, you have a foretaste of the feast to come an in this little bit, you are getting every benefit of the feast without end. All the glory, all the honor, all the power, all the might, all the wisdom, all the majesty of our God is hidden in these little pieces of his promise, and all of it is yours today.
Because of what? Why is that so? Because the son of man came to seek and save the lost. Which makes one ask, what does it mean to be lost? I can tell you a lot about Nicaragua, and I’m sure that I will in the coming weeks, but today, I want to close this sermon by sharing with you just a little bit of our trip. Our driver’s name was Hamilton. He took us to churches in Nicaragua, mostly out in little villages out there past the capital of Managua, into the farm lands and beyond, to Somotillo, to Via Quince, to Villa Nueva, to Israel. Much of the time we would travel on the two lane highway, winding around volcanoes and lakes, until we would turn off the main road to a labyrinth of hard-packed dirt roads, potholes everywhere, to little sidestreets with volcanic rocks and field stones sticking out, to soft bottom dry riverbeds where we thought our van would get stuck, so we’d get out and walk beside it.
And the truth is, I had no idea where we were, over half the time. But I wasn’t lost. Why? Because Hamilton was there. He knew the roads and the dirt roads, the ones with street names and the ones with no names. He knew how to get out and how to get back in. And since he was with us, we were never lost.
Dear friends, I don’t know where this life together will take us, but the truth is, we aren’t lost. Why? Because the Son of Man is my Shepherd. More than that, he is the Great Shepherd of all of his sheep. He sends his pastors to care for the flock. He stands right by our side, and as often as we listen to his Word, we are never lost.
The kingdom of heaven is like a large church in a small town that is tempted to think that they are lost. They see all kinds of unfamiliar territory around them. They see new challenges ahead. They see the old familiar left behind. But as often as they look at their savior, they remember the old familiar truths. As often as they taste his body and his blood, that often comfort and reassurance well up with them. As often as they cry out for forgiveness, they realize that their savior is by their said, and because they stand next to him, they are already home.
Amen and amen.
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