Christ-Like Love in a World of Hate
October 10, 2004
This is the final message in the God Speaks Today series. As I look back on all that has happened, I am amazed at what God has done. In ways we could not have imagined, God opened doors for us to speak to millions of people across Chicagoland. And as a result, we have seen an enormous influx of new people. In just the last five weeks, we have enrolled 30 new families in our Children’s Ministries. When I preached this message, I asked how many people have had a conversation about this sermon series with someone outside the church. The vast majority in every service raised their hands. On September 26, three different groups came to protest us. Yet we know of people who left the picket line, put their signs down, and came in to hear Stephen Bennett. I know of one lady who came to write an article exposing Stephen Bennett as a hatemonger, but afterwards said she couldn’t do it because she felt nothing but love in the things he said. Last week someone told me they had had a three-hour conversation with a person from the local gay organization. And the stories go on and on.
As we come to the end of this series, here are my overall thoughts on the whole experience.
1) It is good for the church to confront the moral and spiritual issues of the day. And this is doubly true when the church speaks out not on the basis of politics or personal opinion, but on the basis of what the Word of God says.
2) We should not be surprised at the opposition we received. As a wise man once said to me, “Remember, you only get flack when you’re flying over the target.” Evidently we were right on target with this series.
3) Those who oppose us are not our enemies and we should not hate them or fear them. This point needs to be stated and restated.
4) God has used this to open doors for us that have never been open before. This should not surprise us either. I know of many conversations that took place that would not have happened without the protests and the publicity. Open doors and opposition often go together. “There is a wide-open door for a great work here, and many people are responding. But there are many who oppose me” (I Corinthians 16:9 NLT).
As a way to focus our thoughts, consider these words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I’ve decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” I love the way he said that. Love is a decision, a conscious, ongoing choice of the heart. It’s a refusal to bear the burden of hate even when hatred seems much easier than love. Love can be hard work at times, and sometimes love, true love, will pull us way out of our comfort zone. Jesus told a story that helps us understand the radical nature of Christ-like love. This is how Luke sets it up: “Now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:1-2). The Jews hated the tax collectors because they collaborated with Rome, and because they overcharged the people and kept the extra money for themselves. The word “sinners” refers to the lowest category of society, such as the prostitutes and thieves. The point is, the worst came to Jesus and he welcomed them. The ultra-religious hated him for that. They said, “If you hang around sinners, you will become like them.” There is some truth to that, of course. Bad company does corrupt good character (I Corinthians 15:33). You can’t hang around with sinners for no purpose and not have your life impacted negatively. It all depends on why you befriend sinners. Jesus told a parable that helps us understand God’s heart for the lost. We call it the Parable of the Lost Sheep:
Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.” I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent (Luke 15:4-7).
I believe God has a message for us today from this parable. By “us” I mean Calvary Memorial Church. We need to hear what the Lord would say to us today. Two weeks ago many members of the gay and lesbian community came to see us. All came to protest, but some stayed to worship with us. We had TV cameras and reporters everywhere. Plus we had security in place and police officers on duty. Today things are quiet again. We have our church to ourselves again. It’s easy for us to think, “I’m glad ‘those people’ are gone. Who do they think they are, coming to ‘our church’ like that? It’s better now. I like it when it’s just ‘our people’ here on Sunday.” But is that what God would say? I don’t think so. I think he would say, “It was better two weeks ago when all those people from so many places came to church.” Sure, it was chaotic and worrisome and tense two weeks ago, and it’s calm and peaceful today. But things were better then because the people we want to reach finally came to see us. I want us to consider this parable against that background. What would God say to us today? Let’s focus on three lessons from this parable.
I. Some of God’s Sheep are Lost
In verse 6 the shepherd mentions “my lost sheep.” Lost people matter to God because he created them in his image. The worst sinner in the world still bears God’s image. And no matter how deeply fallen a man or woman may be, that person still belongs to God. Not by redemption, but by creation. God has a claim on every human heart, and no amount of sin and rebellion can ever cancel that claim.
In the parable, the shepherd knows his sheep even while they are lost. The same is true of our Heavenly Father. He knows his lost sheep while they are far gone in sin. And he knows them by name long before they know him. Most lost people don’t know they are lost. And some of them are on the way to Jesus at this moment—and they don’t know it yet.
II. God Wants His Lost Sheep Found
In the story Jesus told, the one lost sheep is valued more than the 99 found sheep. That hardly makes sense from an economic point of view. Why not just write off the lost sheep as part of the cost of doing business? After all, sheep get lost all the time. This week I did a bit of reading in the field of “Sheepology.” All the sources said the same thing, that sheep are not necessarily the smartest animals on the farm. Not that they are dumb, but they easily go their own way, eating a little grass here, then grazing over the next hill, then down by the pond, then through another meadow, until suddenly the sheep are separated from the flock. And they will never find their way back on their own. Isaiah 53:6 uses this very image to describe our waywardness: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” There is a little sheep in all of us, and a lot of sheep in most of us. We go our own way, we do our own thing, we follow our own desires, until one day we discover we are far away from God. We have no clear idea how we got into such a fix, and we don’t know how to find our way back to God. If someone doesn’t come for us, we’ll never find our way back home.
Do we realize that the lost are truly lost? The Bible uses sobering images to describe their plight. They are blind, deaf, condemned, captured, led astray, imprisoned, helpless and spiritually dead. They are blind and think they can see. They are dead and think they are alive. They are captive and think they are free. They are helpless and think they can do anything. They are without understanding and think they know everything. They are bound for hell and think they are going to heaven.
But the lost sheep will not be easily found. The shepherd leaves his flock and goes after the lost sheep “until he finds it” (v. 4). Remember, he doesn’t know where the sheep might be. He has no idea if the sheep went north, south, east or west. So he sets out on a long journey that may take hours or days. And he doesn’t know if he will even find the sheep. He only knows he must go. If he does not go, the sheep will not be found. He must go because you have to go where the sheep are—they won’t come to you.
III. Someone Must Go After God’s Lost Sheep
After I preached this sermon, a thoughtful college student wrote me asking if the three parables of Luke 15 were not really about God and his love for the lost. The answer is yes, these parables are first and foremost about God. They reveal God’s heart for those who do not know him. But that is not the end of the matter. We are God’s children, and as such we are to show forth his character to others. As God loves, so are we to love. He cared enough to reach out to us; we must care enough to reach out to others. God’s love is the foundation of all Christian outreach. We love because he first loved us.
This sort of love requires a definite change in priorities. The shepherd leaves the 99 sheep in the open country. That doesn’t mean he abandons them. That wouldn’t make sense. He would end up finding the one and losing the 99. A flock of 100 sheep requires several shepherds. No doubt Jesus means that he left the flock in the hands of his under-shepherds and went personally on the search for the lost sheep. He didn’t hand it off to the “Assistant Shepherd in Charge of Sheep-Finding.” The head man left the safety and security of the flock and went after the lost sheep himself.
Let me suggest what this means: The found sheep must be left before the lost sheep can be found. That one sentence summarizes the whole sermon. As long as you stay with the found sheep, the lost sheep will remain lost. They will never find their way back home on their own. Someone must go after the lost sheep and bring them back. Many people will stay with the found sheep to make sure they remain in the fold. But someone must leave the comfort of the flock and go out into the dark night, braving the elements, venturing into the unknown, searching for God’s lost sheep. There are always reasons to stay with the found sheep, but if everyone stays and no one goes, the lost sheep will never be found.
This sort of love requires a serious personal commitment. As I studied the text this week, I was struck by the verbs used to describe what the shepherd does:
He leaves … he goes … he finds … he lifts … he carries … he calls his friends.
When I preached this on Sunday, I repeated it several times so the congregation could catch the emphasis:
He leaves … he goes … he finds … he lifts … he carries … he calls his friends.
It’s all very personal. None of it is easy to do. It will cost the shepherd a great deal to find that one lost sheep.
Finally, notice the emphasis on joy. The shepherd rejoices when he finds the sheep. The people rejoice when the sheep returns to the fold. Heaven rejoices when a sinner repents. And that emphasis on joy led me to two further insights. First, the shepherd rejoices even though the sheep is still far from home. He “joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home” (vv. 5-6). Think about that. The sheep is still in the wilderness when the shepherd picks him up. There is a long journey ahead, and the shepherd must carry him every step of the way. But the shepherd rejoices even though the sheep is not home yet. He is safe in the shepherd’s arms and that’s all that matters. The shepherd doesn’t say what many of us might say: “You stupid sheep. Look at all the trouble you caused me. If you ever do this again, I’ll sheer you bald.” We Christians can be so hard on sinners. Almost as if we were never lost ourselves. Second, the people rejoice when the shepherd returns with the lost sheep. It would be easy for the people to say, “What a waste of time and money for one lousy sheep. You put the whole herd at risk. You should have let him go!” Instead, they rejoice that one lost sheep has come home at last.
In all of this, we discover two sides of God’s character:
A) God’s enormous compassion for the lost.
B) God’s sovereign grace in rescuing his lost sheep.
I realize that one out of 100 is statistically insignificant. If a batter gets a hit 99 times out of 100, he is the greatest player in baseball history. If a coach wins 99 out of 100 games, he’s the greatest coach in history. If you get 99 out of 100 on every test, you’ll end up with straight A’s. For most of us, 99 out of 100 is good enough. But it’s not good enough for God. He cares about the 1 just as much as he does about the 99. That’s the kind of God he is. He doesn’t write anyone off. As far as heaven is concerned, there are no hopeless cases.
God cares for sinners one at a time. We should too. Jesus was called the friend of sinners (Luke 7:34). Would anyone say that about us?
I’d like to close this sermon by telling you a story. Three weeks ago I preached on “Staying Pure in an X-Rated World.” That Sunday we were also baptizing in every service so I was preaching and baptizing and rushing back and forth from the pulpit to the baptistery. As I was walking through the East Wing lobby between services, I happened to see Russell Kozak. We chatted for about 20 seconds and then I headed for the baptistery. I had completely forgotten about the conversation until the next day when Russell called me late in the afternoon. I could tell he was on a cell phone and I heard the noise of buses and cars in the background. “Russell, where are you?” “I’m in New York City.” “Didn’t I see you at Calvary yesterday?” “Yes, but I flew to New York on Sunday afternoon.” Since Russell’s company designs catalogues for high-end companies, his work takes him all over the country. In fact, Marlene and I ran into Russell at the Orange County Airport in California on our way back from Mt. Hermon in August. He was coming back to Chicago after a month or more on the road. That fact is relevant because when Russell called from New York City, he said he had a story to tell me. His story began with the fact that above all else, he had not wanted to go to New York that Sunday. He was tired of traveling, he has been on the road a lot lately, he missed his wife and his son, he just didn’t want to take this trip. And if the trip had not been part of his job, he wouldn’t have done it. I don’t think I’m exaggerating (by the way, I’m telling this story with his permission) to say that he wasn’t in a good mood that Monday morning in New York City. It was just, “Let’s get the job done and go home.” We’ve all been there and we know how that feels.
So he’s on the job and there are a number of people on his team. Russell said this project was for some celebrity in New York, and one of the people helping him was a man he had known previously. A man who was homosexual. Russell knew that because he knew the man and they were friends and the man had told him that he was gay. So that day Russell is trying to get the job done. He’s busy and he doesn’t much want to be there, and this man started to talk to him. Russell is busy and doesn’t want to get into a deep conversation because, after all, he didn’t even want to be there. But the man persisted, and Russell was listening and giving short answers. Finally the man made some comment and then added something like, “But you wouldn’t understand that because that’s about God.” Suddenly Russell perked up and said, “You’ve got it all wrong. I do know about God.” He proceeded to share his personal testimony of his faith in Jesus Christ. The man listened and said, “I knew there was a seed in you, a seed from God. I knew there was something in you that I needed to hear.” So the man asked if they could go somewhere to talk.
They ended up at an Irish pub somewhere in New York City. Even though it was a busy time of day, the pub was almost empty. They found a table and began to talk. It turns out that the man went to church as a child, knows the Bible, and knows what the Bible says about homosexuality. He evidenced a keen interest in spiritual things. “I know the Bible says that what I’m doing is an abomination. But I want to go to heaven. Is there any hope for me?”
God’s Big Party
We all hope for moments like that when the door is so wide open, but when it happens, we wonder if we’ll say the right thing. Russell gave a wonderful answer. “John, you and I both come from large families. And in your family and mine, getting together for a party is a big thing. You plan for months, you make sure everyone knows, and when the day comes, everyone shows up—uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, the youngest to the oldest. Big families know how to have great parties. There is music and laughter and lots of food. The celebration goes on for hours. You look forward to it for months, and when it is over, you remember it for months. The Bible says that God is throwing a big party in heaven for everyone who believes in Jesus. It’s going to be the ultimate family reunion, and it’s going to last for eternity. The goal of my life is to make sure I’m at God’s party and to make sure that my family and friends are all there too. John, God’s invited you to his party. Jesus paid the price of admission when he died on the cross. God sent you an invitation. You can be at the party if you want to come. All you have to do is RSVP to God’s invitation.”
Russell has been telling me all of this on the telephone. At this point, he got really excited and said, “Pastor Ray, guess what? Right there in the Irish pub, John and I prayed together and he committed his heart and life to Jesus Christ.”
But that’s not the end of the story. After they had prayed, John asked Russell a question. “Would you have talked to me about God if I hadn’t brought the subject up?” The answer was no. After all, Russell didn’t even want to be in New York City so he wasn’t looking to talk to anyone about anything. Then John added these words. “Russell, you must talk about what Jesus has done for you. I needed to hear what you had to say, and people who have lived like me need to hear your message. You can’t keep it to yourself. You’ve got to share it. I knew when I saw you today that we should talk. I could tell that you weren’t offended by me or afraid of me or angry at me. You’re comfortable with who you are so you weren’t bothered by who I am. You’ve got to share this message. We need to hear it.”
“It’s About God”
After Russell told me all that, he gave me the real moral of the story. “Pastor Ray, last week (the first week of the God Speaks Today series) you said, ‘Your marriage is not about you. Your marriage is about God.’ And then yesterday (the second Sunday in the series) you told us that sex is not about us. It’s about God. Now I see that my work is not about me. It’s about God.”
To which I replied, “Russell, you’re right. The reason God sent you to New York is not because of your work. God sent you to New York to talk to John and lead him to Christ. Your work was just God’s excuse to get you there.”
So I bring this sermon and this series to a close with one final thought.
The problem of the world is not the world. The problem of the world is the church.
The problem of the world is not the sinners in the world. The problem of the world is the saints in the church.
The problem is not the bad guys out there. The problem is the good guys in here who won’t take the Good News out there to the people who really need to hear it.
The problem is not the sin we see all around us. The problem is the really good people who remain comfortably trapped inside the four walls of the church.
I’m happy about all the people who visited us during this series. That’s wonderful, and we hope they return. But nowhere in the Bible are the unsaved commanded to come to church to hear the Good News. If we wait for the lost to come to us, we will have to wait a long time. And many will never come at all. Our only hope is to go where they are.
Some of God’s sheep are lost.
God wants his lost sheep found.
Someone must go and find God’s lost sheep.
That means we can’t stay here in the relative safety of 931 Lake Street, in these lovely, historic old church buildings. We’re going to have to move out from these sacred halls to the highways and byways of life. We must go where the people are.
If that means going to an Irish pub, that’s where we’ll go.
If that means going to Arlington Racetrack, that’s where we’ll go.
If that means going to a homeless shelter, that’s where we’ll go.
If that means walking a factory floor, that’s where we’ll go.
If that means going to the beauty parlor, that’s where we’ll go.
If that means walking the halls of the local high school, that’s where we’ll go.
If that means going to the community center or the local library, or to TGI Friday’s, or to Parky’s, or to the Rotary Club, or the Country Club, or to West Suburban Hospital, or to the Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor, or to an AIDS hospice, or to a high-rise in Chicago, that’s where we’ll go.
The church must go where the people are. We’ve waited 90 years for the people to come to us. By and large, most people have found abundant reasons not to come here. I know that relative to other churches in our area, we are larger than most. But compared to the population of this area, we’ve barely made a dent. And that’s after 90 years.
The church must go where people are, meet them where they are, love them as they are, and with God’s help, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, bring them to Jesus. We cannot expect them to come to us. We must go where they are.
That’s what the future looks like for Calvary Memorial Church. We must become the “church in many places.” And ultimately we must do the work of the church in many places, not just in one place. That’s another sermon for another time, but it’s not unrelated to this theme.
Jesus told the story of the shepherd who went after the one lost sheep. He was speaking of himself and his great love for the lost. If we are going to be like Jesus, we must do what he would do if we were here today. Come to think of it, he is here today because we are here today, and Christ lives in us. So we have no excuses for holding back from a hurting world.
Lord Jesus, fill us with your love, and may that love move us out of this place and into the world of hurting people. As your love overcame a world of hate, do the same through us today. Amen.