Compared to practically any other historical account in my experience, the Scriptures generally and the gospels in particular are very terse. The Evangelists write as though the Holy Spirit were charging them by the word. They condense stories to a few paragraphs and character sketches to a few words.
Even though these words are extraordinarily elegant and well chosen, at times they leave gaps in our understanding, especially when it comes to elements that readers 2000 years ago would have understood without further explanation. Just as we can refer to the Statue of Liberty or the White House without having to explain those structures in great detail to an American audience, the gospel writers assume familiarity with the landmarks of first-century Jerusalem. Unless we make an effort to include geographical understanding in the way we read the gospels, sometimes we’re going to miss the point.
In this week’s Bible reading, there are (at least) two places in which a grasp of Bible geography helps us to take hold of Jesus’ meaning. The first occurs during the story of the barren fig tree in Matthew 21:19-22. This text is often misappropriated by the name-it-and-claim-it folks who seize upon the message of v. 22 and insist that we are guaranteed to get everything we pray for, provided we pray in faith.
However, this interpretation fails to recognize several things. First, Jesus isn’t randomly venting His spleen on a poor unoffending fig tree. Instead, He is acting out the conclusion to the parable of Luke 13:6-9, a parable told against God’s unproductive people. In destroying the actual fig tree rather than giving it one more year as in the parable, He is announcing that time is up and the Jewish nation is going to be destroyed.
In this context, the discussion of “this mountain” in Matthew 21:21 takes on a whole new light. Jerusalem, after all, is built on a mountain. As Jesus and His disciples were leaving the city, its prominence, especially the prominence of the Temple Mount, would have been obvious. Jesus, then, isn’t telling His apostles that they will have the power to rearrange random topographical features. Instead, He is revealing that they will participate in the overthrow of the Jewish religious aristocracy that controlled the Temple Mount, and if they prayed, God would give them the help they needed.
A similar analysis applies to the parable of the vineyard in Matthew 21:33-46. Once again, Jesus’ words are referential, this time to the song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7. In Jesus’ repurposing, though, the problem isn’t unproductive soil, as in Isaiah. Instead, it is those who are controlling the vineyard and misappropriating its fruits.
The way Jesus opens the parable leaves no doubt about the identity of the guilty parties. To us, the details about the wall, tower, and winepress seem insignificant. However, Jesus is relating this parable inside the courts of the Temple, so that the wall becomes the wall of the temple, the tower becomes the Temple, and the winepress, the purification basin in the courtyard. It is easy to imagine the Lord gesturing to these features as He speaks! Once again, an understanding of geography makes His meaning clear, and it is certainly true that at the time, His enemies did not miss it.
As has been announced, today at 3, Jason is going to facilitate a brainstorming session in Room 10 about evangelism. I intend to be there, and I would encourage everyone else here to attend as well.
This morning, though, I would like us to consider evangelism more generally, not just what we should do, but how we should think about it. I am sure that when at least some of you figured out what the sermon topic was going to be, you said to yourself “Oh, great. Evangelism,” and sank down a little deeper in the pew. For many Christians, evangelism sermons are guilt-trip sermons. Here is this commandment, and we’re not keeping it, so anything the preacher says about evangelism is going to make us feel bad and not change our behavior.
That’s not my intention this morning. I’m not here to beat anybody up. Instead, I want to help. Let me suggest that maybe part of our struggles with evangelism is the way that we think about it, that the same fear and guilt that all those evangelism sermons stir up is part of the problem. Today, then, let’s spend a few minutes reframing evangelism.
First, I think, we need to UNDERSTAND OUR SITUATION. Consider what Jesus has to say about the original context of the gospel in Matthew 24:4-14. In context, He is talking about the events that will lead up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and it is obvious that the road is going to be rough. There are going to be wars, earthquakes, famines, and persecution. However, in this span of 40 troubled years, the gospel is going to be preached to all the nations.
We know from the rest of the New Testament that during that time, the gospel saw great success. Now, it might seem strange that the gospel was so successful in such troubled times, but let me suggest to you this morning that the gospel was successful because the times were troubled. When everything else was falling apart, people were more disposed to turn to God.
Today, the times also are troubled. Many of our certainties about life have been upended. We don’t know what the future holds. People are afraid. Many are turning for answers to politics, just as many people did in the first century. However, I think those political answers will disappoint, or worse, just as they did 2000 years ago.
That leaves the field wide open for the gospel. In troubled times, God is the best and only answer. I admit that I’m uncertain about the future too, but ultimately, I’m not worried about it, because I know whom I have believed. God is going to take care of me, He is going to take care of all of us, and when others come to Him, He will take care of them too. We are the only people who can promise peace and security and guarantee that it will happen, and if you don’t think that’s powerfully appealing right now, you don’t understand people at all!
Second, let’s spend some time UNDERSTANDING OURSELVES. As an entrée into this topic, let’s look at Philippians 4:15-16. Here, we learn that of all the churches Paul established, the church in Philippi was the only one to support him during his second missionary journey. They were a generous church when others weren’t.
From this, I want to introduce an idea that is both a duh point and incredibly important. Churches are different. Just like people have different strengths and weaknesses, churches have different strengths and weaknesses too. In fact, it’s fair to say that churches have different personalities and identities too. Even if a church does pretty much the same thing on Sunday morning as another church, that different personality is going to shape the way it operates in a million tiny ways.
Since I came here, I’ve invested a lot of thought in figuring out the Jackson Heights church personality. Lauren can testify that when we were on vacation a couple weeks back, I spent hours trying to pin it down. I think the best way to sum it up is to say that the Jackson Heights church is a gracious church. As a whole, this church really likes helping people and being nice to them. That is our core identity.
Again, this shows up in a million tiny ways. It shows up in the way that we welcome visitors. It shows up in the way the members are so generous to people who come through the door wanting money. It shows up in the way we try to bring new members in and make them part of the group. And so on.
Now, I know that some of you long-time Jackson-Heightsians are listening to this and saying, “So?” Trust me when I say that other churches are not like this. Things this congregation takes for granted don’t happen everywhere else. They make us distinctive.
I say all of this for two reasons. First, it is a powerfully attractive personality to have. Who doesn’t want to be part of a gracious group of people that will treat them well and really likes helping others? Second, once we’ve identified our strengths, that will help us to play to our strengths and be as effective as possible.
With this in mind, let’s consider the interplay between THE GOSPEL AND MERCY. Here, look at the words of Jesus in Luke 10:36-37. This is the punchline of the parable of the good Samaritan. Jesus’ message is clear. We choose who our neighbors are, and we choose by showing mercy to them.
The parable of the good Samaritan isn’t exactly a secret. I would imagine that there are many in this room who have helped a stranded stranger or a man who was down on his luck because they wanted to go and do likewise. I think that’s wonderful! I hope that those of you who have been doing this will continue to do so and that those who haven’t will start.
However, I think that the most important application of the parable is one that we perhaps haven’t thought about, and that’s evangelism. Feeding the hungry is an act of mercy. Caring for the sick is an act of mercy. How much more, then, is introducing the lost and hurting to Jesus also an act of mercy?
Yes, I know that proclaiming the gospel is a commandment, but maybe it will help us be more vocal if we don’t think of the commandment as our motivation. If the only reason we’re reaching out to people in the world is so that God won’t be mad at us, that can only make us self-centered and self-conscious. Really, that kind of evangelism is about us, not them.
By contrast, mercy is other-centered and not at all conscious of itself. We are merciful because we see the plight of others and respond. There are lots of people here who are great at seeing others’ needs and then helping, and that’s exactly what evangelism is.
Don’t go through life, then, with this little voice in the back of your head saying, “I have to tell others about Jesus, or I’m letting God down.” Go through life looking for people who need help: the neighbor who has lost their mom, the co-worker who is going through a divorce, the friend whose kids have gone off the rails.
Then, we. . . help them. We tell them that we’re hurting with them, but that we know a place where they can go where people will love and care for them, where they can find a spiritual family and a spiritual home. And if they think Christians are great, just wait until they get to know Christ!
When it comes to their service to the Lord, many Christians feel inadequate. They see other brethren who appear to have it all together in their service to God—their families are perfect, their smiles undimmed, their spiritual record spotless. What’s more, such Christians also often seem gifted beyond the norm. They serve effortlessly and well in any number of ways.
If we find ourselves troubled by such thoughts, it helps to turn to the story of the widow’s mite in Mark 12:41-44. In earthly, external terms, the widow looks like a spiritual failure too. Next to the massive contributions made by the wealthy, her two small coins looked like a rounding error. She wasn’t helping with the upkeep of the temple in any meaningful way. If she had stayed home that day, nobody but Jesus would have noticed the difference.
However, it is the widow and not the wealthy benefactors whom the Lord praises. They gave what they had left over, but she gave what she had. God wasn’t terribly concerned with the state of the temple’s finances, but He was very concerned with the state of the donors’ hearts. In His eyes, it was the one who gave almost nothing in earthly terms who shone the most brightly.
Today, it is both reassuring and alarming to realize that God judges us in the same way. 2000 years later, He still is not particularly concerned with externals. He is not impressed by the most transcendent talents among His people. If somebody can sing like David or preach like Apollos, it’s only because He made them that way.
The same is true for riches and poverty. If a Christian comes from a wealthy family, that’s a gift from God. Likewise for the Christian who is born with business acumen or abilities that employers value highly. We can squander such gifts or use them wisely, but even in the latter case, the credit belongs to God.
In His eyes, the important question is not what we have. It’s how we use it. Even if we are not very rich or not very smart or not very talented, we can be every bit as pleasing to Him as somebody who is extraordinarily smart and rich and talented.
Sure, the fruit we bear may be insignificant in comparison to the fruit they bear. However, just as the widow’s sacrifice could not be rightly measured by the surplus of the wealthy, our labor for the Lord cannot be measured by anyone else’s labor. Maybe that smart, rich, and talented guy has been coasting for 20 years, and God is pure sick of getting only what is convenient from him!
We don’t know, of course, and it’s not our place to judge anyway. Instead, we should worry less about what others are doing and focus on our own service. “Give what you have,” does not require more from us than we have to give. However, neither does it require less.
The other day, some friends asked me if I struggled with burnout as a preacher. I replied that it made a huge difference to work with a congregation in which other Christians did things on their own initiative so that the preacher didn't have to do everything himself. Indeed, the Jackson Heights narrative yesterday was dominated by members who weren't preachers, elders, or deacons who nonetheless decided to step up, take on work, and encourage others to do the same.
- I am so thankful for all the "ordinary Christians" at JH who see an opportunity to do good and then do it. Your work glorifies God. May He bless you with strength and perseverance!
- It's become trendy to express concern for ministers during the COVID siege. If you really want to help your preacher, be a plus Christian. Don't wait for the church leadership to do something. Don't wait for the church leadership to tell you to do something. You already have a Bible. Live it out!
God of all comfort, heed
Us as we cry in need;
Never conceal Your face;
Hear us with patient grace.
Daily we struggle on,
Pressed till our strength is gone;
Fearful, we feel alone;
Do not forsake Your own!
God of all comfort, bring
Balm for our suffering,
Mercy amid distress,
Song for the wilderness.
When heart and spirit fail,
Still will Your might prevail;
Through You, our eyes will see
Healing and victory.
God of all comfort, teach
As You are kind to each;
Through Your compassion, show
Mercy for others’ woe.
When they are faint with grief,
Help us to bring relief,
Sharing Your comfort too
As we were taught by You.