Wanting to justify himself, he asked, “Who is my neighbor?” (Part 1)
a sermon on Luke 10:25-37 preached 12/30/2007:
I love to preach the New Year’s sermon. The Advent series is over but since so many are out of town I don’t want to go back to Romans yet. So on the Sunday between Christmas and New Years I get to preach whatever I feel like preaching. I pick something that I’ve been thinking about all year and the task of preaching about it is very helpful to me for it forces me to organize some fresh thoughts.
This year I am particularly excited about this opportunity, for my thoughts about ministry have been changing a lot this year. I hope you will still like me when the transformation is complete. I’m sure that, as always, reviews will be mixed.
This year’s sermon is also especially significant for me because I just turned 40. So I am more aware than ever that this is the first sermon of the rest of my life.
So let me begin by describing in general terms how my philosophy of ministry has been changing recently and then in a few minutes we’ll come to the text and you’ll have a better understanding of why on this occasion I have chosen this particular text.
Basically, I’m coming to see more clearly that the ministry of the gospel must be carried out in both word and deed and I’m craving less talk and more action. Of course, I’ve always believed that we should spur one another on to love and good deeds. But, and I am ashamed to admit this, I used to think of good deeds as just a kind of advertisement for the preaching. Now there are some verses that say this. In Titus we are told to adorn the doctrine of God our Savior by our good deeds. It is true that when people see our good deeds they will be drawn to our message. But that is not the only value of good deeds. I am now convinced that neither word nor deed should be seen as a means to the end of the other. Rather, word and deed are the two rails on which thekingdomofGodmoves forward. Social concern without orthodoxy is not true social concern, it doesn’t get to the root of human need. But we can also say that orthodoxy without social concern is not orthodoxy.
One of the passages that the Lord impressed upon me at this year’s elders retreat was Isaiah 1:13, 17 Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations- I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. …. learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.
Lest our worship be a vain offering, I want to learn to do good. I want to learn how to seek justice. As we saw this summer in Psalm 146, justice in the Bible is not just retributive justice, the punishment of the evildoer, it also includes distributive justice, feeding and clothing the poor. Psalm 146 describes God as the Doer of justice for the oppressed, the Giver of food to the hungry.
The trees burst into song when He comes to judge the earth, for his justice means not only the punishment of the wicked, but also the lifting up of the poor from the ash heap. And his kingdom of justice has in fact already been inaugurated in this world. The church is to be an outpost of the comingkingdomofGod. And so when we do justice in this world we are ambassadors of the coming King. Not only through our preaching but also through deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.
Now I don’t mean to diminish the importance of the ministry of the word. In fact, to keep myself from going astray as I pass through these midlife changes, I’ve decided to have my devotions for a while in the pastoral epistles. And the strong impression I get from 1 Timothy 1 is that the most important thing a shepherd can do for the sheep is to protect them from wolves. The most important task of an elder is keeping watch for false teachers. An elder must be able to refute those who contradict the truth. An elder is entrusted with guarding the good deposit, the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Doctrine is essential. If we just become a bunch of activist do-gooders with no message to proclaim this church will die! But that’s not the danger we’re facing. No, the false teaching that we must contradict is the heresy that says that good works are optional. We must become doers of the word and not hearers only lest we deceive ourselves says James who also says five verses later that the religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction. Or as John says in 1John 3.18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
I think that I really used to have some Gnostic errors in my philosophy of ministry of which I am now repenting. Gnosticism is the belief in salvation through knowledge rather than salvation through faith alone in Christ alone. And although I would never have admitted it to myself, I think that deep down I believed that if I could just understand and explain Reformed theology clearly enough we would thereby be magically transformed into people who love like Jesus loved. But thanks to the internet, I’ve now encountered dozens of people who seem to have a more thorough knowledge of Reformed theology than I do but who don’t seem to be very much like Jesus at all. Perhaps that sounds judgmental, but I think it’s the right kind of judgmental that Jesus describes later in Matthew 7. It’s looking at the fruit of a man’s life to decide if he’s a good example to follow.
Now this is not a departure from Reformed theology, but it is a departure from believing that the path of study is the way to Christlikeness. I’m not that interested anymore in deepening my understanding of the Bible until I make more progress in obeying the parts I do understand. And in my ministry, I’m not that excited about doing another Bible study with you, I’m much more interested in having long, open and honest conversations with you about why we don’t obey what we’ve already learned in Bible study years ago. Is another Bible study really the need of the hour?
Maybe it is, for now I’m going to ask you to open your Bibles to Luke chapter 10 where I’ll begin reading in verse 25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
(to be continued…)