This is my final message. I want to start with a video we used to show as we travelled around the area, gathering support for our new church.
I still get kind of pumped watching this video. But that line, “Gardner shows no signs of slowing down” is a bit embarrassing now. I didn’t know it would all slow down. I didn’t know that from the time we shot that video until the time we launched TFC, three other churches would open in town. You know what, I’m glad I didn’t know about the challenges. If so, I might’ve wimped out. But with a church composed of myself, my wife and Jeremy, Tonya and Mason Pride, we bought a house and moved to Gardner, KNOWING this new church was going to help people find a new relationship with Jesus.
I’ve learned to let a lot of this go, but for a long time I was really caught up in numbers, specifically the number of people in worship. I’d beat myself up over it, honestly. When one day, while hanging out at my parents over Christmas I remember asking God (again) why we didn’t have more people in our church. It’s only happened a few times in my life, but that was one of the few times God has answered with an almost-audible voice, “Donnie, I promised you you’d reach unchurched people in Gardner. And you are. I didn’t however, promise you how many.” So I started counting up the people who called TFC home who hadn’t been in a church before, and I realized, “yep,” God had come through on his promise. In a little bit, those of you who have come to faith in Christ at TFC will have a chance to share your story.
In addition to that video, whenever I’d speak at other churches I’d also preach from Luke 15. Luke 15 is all about Jesus searching out people who were lost. Luke 15:1-7
I want to share a couple observations. Some things I learned when I first preached from this passage, 7 years ago. And what I’ve learned during the almost 7 years of leading this church.
The love of Jesus is costly A lot of us have an extra-biblical view of what is happening here. We have this picture of the shepherd, at the end of the day, leading his sheep into the safety of the sheep pen. We see the shepherd counting each sheep as it comes through the gate, “96, 97, 98, 99…” Until the shepherd realizes that one of his precious sheep is missing. So the shepherd wisely locks the other 99 in the pen and then bravely goes out to find the lost sheep. It’s a great image. An image of the love of Jesus that warms us. The only problem is that that image, isn’t in this passage.
I’m not sure where we get that image. In my case, I think it was some songs we’d sing in church. Or maybe because my dad was a farmer and we actually had sheep. Maybe some pictures I saw in a children’s bible. But wherever that idea came from, it’s not in the passage. Vs 4 Jesus is asking a rhetorical question. Of course you don’t leave the 99 in the wilderness just to find one. In farming, it’s just a reality that you’re going to lose the occasional animal. Animals wander off, die giving birth or die from some sickness. It’s just a cost of doing business. But what you don’t do as a farmer is risk the entire herd on the off chance that you might rescue that one lost sheep. While the shepherd is off looking for that one lost sheep, a lot of bad stuff could happen to the other 99. A wolf could attack some. Another shepherd could steal a few. They could walk off a cliff. Sheep are herd animals. If one walked off the cliff, the other 98 would follow. I’m not exaggerating. Sheep are dumb. I don’t know this for sure, but that might be why Jesus compares us to sheep. We all do some pretty dumb stuff.
But that’s not the point of this parable. The point is that the Good Shepherd risks the safety of the other 99 on the off chance that he just might find that one lost sheep. In a bit, we’re going to celebrate communion. It’s a meal that reminds us that we are people of the cross. And nowhere do we get a better picture of how much Jesus’ love cost him than when we look at the cross.
But as people of the cross, we are to be living out that same costly love. GS risked the other 99. So we have to ask ourselves, what is it costing me to share the love of Jesus with other people? Are we risking anything? If it isn’t costing you anything, you’re probably not sharing the love of Jesus. You may be sharing a worldly kind of love – a love toward those who we like or who are kind to us. You may be being nice, polite, friendly, a good neighbor. And those are all great. But unless what you’re doing for other people in the name of Jesus is actually costing you something – it’s not Christ-like love.
Loving people the way Jesus loved costs us our time. Changing our schedule so we can be around people who need the love of Jesus. Loving people the way Jesus loved will cost you some money. We see it all throughout the NT, that one of the most Christ-like ways we love other people is by sharing our money with them. And if we’re not sharing our money, the love of Jesus isn’t in us. Money becomes an idol that replaces Jesus.
And if we’re loving people the way Jesus loved them, it’s going to cost us our reputation. At least among good, upright religious folks. People who are so busy looking down on others, they can’t see their own sin. As our church has gone into strip clubs and gay bars, engaging people in the same way Jesus did in the gospels, some people couldn’t handle it. In various different ways, myself and our church has felt the backlash on that. But you know what? It was worth it. In every single way, it was worth it. No pricetag for Sharon’s commitment to Christ. Or for the people who show up at Andy’s every Thursday night to study the scriptures and encounter the life-transforming love of Jesus. Billy Graham once said, It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to forgive and our job to love. But leaving the comfort of the 99 to go after that one that is lost – it’s costly. Building relationships with outsiders – costly.
The love of Jesus is scandalous vs 1-2 The titles “tax collectors” and “sinners” is almost cliché for us. We’ve heard it so many times, we’ve forgotten the scandal. We think, “of course Jesus loved the tax collectors.” But who are the tax collectors of today?
I remember a line from another sermon I was preaching before this church launched, “If Jesus were here today, he’d be hanging out downtown at the gay bars. Showing God’s love to those rejected by the religious community.”
I knew this in my head. But what I didn’t know was that one night, there would be a baby shower in strip club, that as we were given gift after gift, the manager of that club, with tears running down his face, would tell us “no one has ever loved us the way you’ve loved us.” And when the head bouncer warned me, “Donnie, don’t turn around, that girl didn’t follow our request to put on more clothes,” I knew I was taking a risk similar to the risk Jesus took.
Neither did I know at the time I delivered that sermon, that one night I’d be singing karaoke at one of those downtown establishments. But the time that our people spent in that bar would eventually result in people coming to faith in Christ. Whatever that cost our church – it was worth it.
The love of Jesus is scandalous. Even more so when we realize that it meant for Jesus to share a meal with “sinners.” Eating with someone wasn’t just a way to hang out. It was a theological statement, a statement about God. Whenever a rabbi, like Jesus, ate with someone, he was saying, “God loves you and accepts you. There is a place for you in his kingdom.” Exactly why we see this response – vs 2
And you know how Jesus responded to those self-righteous religious leaders? These religious leaders could quote the entire bible. They knew God didn’t accept those people. But here is Jesus – God-in-the-flesh, eating with these “notorious sinners”, therefore declaring, “God accepts you.”
You know what seems like a bigger scandal, at least to me. Jesus ate with the religious leaders, too.
“God loves and accepts you, too.” Jesus’ love is scandalous.
Jesus responded differently to different groups. To the religious people who believed they had it all figured out, looked great on the outside and thought they should tell others how to live. He got in their face, challenging their fake-ness, telling them to stop ordering others around and to focus on getting clean on the inside.
But to the non-religious, the ones whose weren’t faking it, who were clearly messed up. With them, Jesus took a more gentle approach. Assuring them of God’s love and acceptance and then letting the love of God serve as the motivation for change.
Jesus knew what he was doing. In the gospels, we see the religious and non-religious, Pharisees and sinners both choosing to leave their sin and follow Jesus. We also know that a lot of people turned away and some religious zealots eventually got him crucified.
We also see in Jesus’ example that hanging out with people and assuring them of God’s unwavering love is not a condoning of sinful behavior. And getting in the face of religious leaders is not necessarily a condemnation of sincere intentions, even though the judgmentalism was clearly misguided. Rather, Jesus pushed past the bad behavior, past the sinful judgmentalism – all the way to the heart. If the heart could just meet the scandalous love of God, the behavior would take care of itself. We don’t need the addictions of sin when we’re getting our acceptance from God. We don’t need to condemn others when we’re getting our value from God’s love for us.
Churches are great at loving the people who think like us, act like us, believe like us, vote like us, look like us cheer for our sports teams – whatever. Which is why most churches are culturally homogeneous. As author Ann Lamott said, You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people that you do. Unfortunately, a lot of churches are great at creating an “us vs. them” mentality. “God is for us and against them.” But you can know that the love of Jesus is transforming a church when people of different cultures and opinions can live together in community within the same church. Jesus’ love destroys the “us vs. them” mentality. We’re all in this together. We’re all broken and in desperate needs of God’s powerful love.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the years of leading this great church, it’s that unless we’re being shocked by its scandalous nature, we don’t really understand the love of Jesus.