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The Revelation of God in Human Life: Through Every Person

September 16, 2012

                 

Sermon:  The Revelation of God in Human Life:  Through Every Person 
Text:  Luke 18:35-19:10

Our sermon today is “The Revelation of God in Human Life:  Through Every Person.”  Please follow along as I read today’s text, Luke 18:35-9:10.  Hear now the Word of God.

35 As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man (Bartimaeus) was sitting by the roadside begging. 36 When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. 37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”

38 He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

39 Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

40 Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?”

“Lord, I want to see,” he replied.

42 Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.” 43 Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God.

19 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

I heard a story about a French queen, who, whenever she traveled through her country, prohibited any person who was sad, sick, lame, or in trouble of any kind from being visible along her route.  She wanted to keep anything unpleasant from her sight.

This was not the case during Jesus’ travels.  People who were in need – the hurting and suffering, the angry and despondent, the rich and poor – often crowded the wayside along his path.  Jesus never resented them, and he never ignored them.

Bartimaeus is one such person in need.  A blind beggar, he can provide for himself only by sitting along the roadside, begging for alms.  When a person loses one sense, other senses become stronger.  Though Bartimaeus cannot see, he hears very well.  Hearing some of the conversation among those in the crowd passing by him, he realizes the importance of the moment.

“What’s happening?” he asks.

“Jesus of Nazareth is passing by,” someone tells him.

Bartimaeus has heard of Jesus and knows of his healing miracles.  Jesus will never pass this way again, as he is on his way to Jerusalem to be crucified.  This is Bartimaeus’ one and only chance to be healed, so he cries out to Jesus.

Those with Jesus attempt to stop this blind beggar from calling out, but he will not be silenced.  He cries all the more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”  That ascription simply says, “I know you are the Messiah.  Please have mercy on me!”

Jesus, the master of the ministry of interruption, stops, as he so often did, and pays attention to the person in need.  He asks the man an obvious question, “What do you want me to do for you?”  It is as if Jesus wants Bartimaeus to verbalize his request for healing.

Bartimaeus responds, “I want my sight.”

Jesus tells him, “Your faith has made you well.”

The Scripture says that when Bartimaeus receives his sight, he praises God and immediately becomes a disciple, following Jesus on his journey.

You realize, of course, that these Scriptures were written with no chapter division.  We read across a chapter boundary today in our text, moving from Chapter 18 to Chapter 19 as Jesus continues his way toward Jericho.

Along the way he meets a second man, who has little man’s disease.  This man, named Zacchaeus, tries to compensate for his lack of height by imposing his power on people.  He is not just a tax collector; he is the chief tax collector who skims as much off the top as he wants in the Roman tax system.  He is possibly the wealthiest person in all of Jericho.

We have quite a contrast between Bartimaeus and Zacchaeus, yet we see much similarity.  Blind Bartimaeus is positioned by the roadside outside the city, begging for alms, when he hears the throng approaching.   Zacchaeus runs ahead of the crowd and climbs a tree so that he can see the Galilean above the throng. Both men are beggars.  Zacchaeus is impoverished not financially but spiritually.  Both men have heard of Jesus, and both realize their one opportunity.  While people are accustomed to seeing Bartimaeus begging, the people of Jericho are no doubt surprised to see a wealthy and powerful man climbing a tree.  He must have appeared very foolish to them.

Zacchaeus, unlike Bartimaeus, does not say a word to Jesus.  He does not have to say anything.  Jesus sees the tax collector in the sycamore tree and calls out to him by name, “Zacchaeus, come down.  I’m going to your house.”

How forward of Jesus to invite himself to dinner!  Zacchaeus does not turn Jesus away, however; he invites Jesus to come to his home.  Of course, others there think, This is not right.  A rabbi going to the home of a sinner like this?

Jesus knows what he is doing in going to Zacchaeus’ house.  You see from the exchange there Zacchaeus’ total conversion.  Jesus says, “Salvation has come to this house today…” (Luke 19:9).

Contrast Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus and his encounter with the rich young ruler, who appears earlier in Chapter 18.  Here the tax collector says, “I am going to make restitution by giving one-half of everything I have to the poor, to people like Bartimaeus.  If I have cheated anyone, I will return it four-fold.”  Zacchaeus was converted, not just in his heart and not just in his mind, but all the way down to his pocketbook.  The rich young ruler, however, found it difficult to follow the path of salvation.  He became very sad when Jesus told him to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor.  He was both unable to accept Jesus’ command to follow him and Jesus’ promise of treasure in heaven.

I was ordained on April Fool’s Day 1970 at Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.  Some of you have made jokes about that date.  Dr. John Claypool, the pastor of the church, presided at my ordination council.  Members of the council included Dr. Frank Stagg, who taught New Testament at Southern Seminary; Dr. Dale Moody, who taught Systematic Theology; and Dr. Henry Barnett, who taught Christian Ethics.  Several deacons and pastors were also present.

During the course of the council meeting, Dr. Frank Stagg asked, “Kirk, what is the soteriology of the Zacchaeus account?”

Dr. Dale Moody interrupted, “Frank, that is not a question for an ordination council!  That’s a question for a final exam.”

I know how to play the game “Let’s Let You Two Fight.”  The two professors argued for a few minutes, giving me some time to think about the meaning of the word soteriology.  I finally pieced its meaning and the question together in my mind and said, “Dr. Stagg, you want to ask me about the level of initiative in evangelism.”

Dr. Stagg said, “That’s right.”

I explained, “Zacchaeus climbed the tree, but Jesus invited himself to dinner.  Jesus took very high initiative because he saw the sincerity of this man’s heart.  His initiative brought salvation to a man who was ready.

Though others in the crowd murmured about the dinner arrangement, Jesus made it clear that he had come to seek and to save the lost, all of the lost.

Consider this thirteenth century nursery rhyme:

Hark!  Hark!  The dogs do bark.
The beggars are coming to town.
Some in rags and some in tags
And some in velvet gowns.

We often think of beggars wearing rags and tags, but do we ever think of beggars wearing velvet, linen, silk, wool, or ultra-suede?  Do we think of beggars in fine clothing?  Zacchaeus is a beggar in velvet.  He is a rich man but impoverished in his spirit.  He is just as much a beggar as blind Bartimaeus.

According to Jesus, both men are searching, seeking.  As soon as Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is passing by, he cries out to be healed.  As soon as Zacchaeus hears that Jesus is coming, he climbs a tree.  We are supposed to seek the Lord.  The Bible tells us, “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near” (Isaiah 55:6).  This is not a game of hide-and-seek.  Jesus is not hiding.  He says, “I have come to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).  The search, which is occurring on both sides, defines evangelism at its very best.

Evangelism is a word that has fallen on hard times.  I can understand why some people are afraid of it.

My dad, who was responsible for planting Croft Baptist Church, often went visiting on Saturday afternoons.  On one particular Saturday I went with him to the Camp Croft apartments.  We were making cold calls, visiting people who had given no indication that they were interested in a church and inviting them to Croft.  Most of those we visited were unchurched.

On that trip, we went to one apartment occupied by a husband and wife.  Dad invited them to church and then prayed.  I had only been a Christian about two and a half years, and I did not say a word.

After we left their apartment and headed to our home, Dad said, “I think the wife is a Christian, but I’m not sure about the husband.  I think he needs to accept Christ.”

The following Sunday morning the couple attended church.  As soon as I saw the husband my heart went out to him.  I thought about how hard it must be for a grown man, not accustomed to attending church, to come.  I do not remember the message in the sermon, but I do remember singing the invitation hymn, “Just As I Am without A Plea.”  We sang it almost every other Sunday.

When we reached the fifth verse, I felt compelled to speak to this man.  I was only ten years old that first time I tried to lead a person to Christ.

I walked back to him and offered, “Mr., if you want to ask Jesus into your heart, I’ll walk down to the front with you.”

I thought he was going to slap me across the Sanctuary.  He stared daggers at me and answered, “Not today!”

I walked back to my seat, shaking and fighting back tears.  I did not cry in church, but I did later.

On the way home, Dad said, “Kirk, we just need to pray.  Sometimes these things take time.”

Eventually the man did accept Christ.  I have no idea that what I did that day had any impact on his decision.  I know this.  Telling people about Jesus is not easy.  No wonder people are afraid.  Evangelism has gotten a bad name.

Jesus said, “From the beginning until now there have been those who did violence to the gospel.  And the violent bear it away” (Matthew 11:12).  The word evangelism means good news, but I have witnessed some people evangelizing in a way that was anything but good.  It was terrible news because the message was not delivered in the spirit of Jesus.  It was presented with ridicule, rejection, and condemnation.  Evangelism is not grabbing people by the lapel and pinning them against the wall.

A friend of mine, a professor at Converse College, came from Columbia, South America.  He is a devout Roman Catholic.  He told me the story about a time when he was standing on a corner in New York City next to a bank.  Somebody came by and asked, “Have you been saved?”

At that time his only reference for the English word “being saved” had to do with money.  When he did not understand, the person who had asked the question delivered a twenty-minute discourse on what it means to be saved.  The person told my friend that he was lost and that he was condemned to hell.

My friend, laughing as he told the story, said, “I learned that when someone in America asks if you have been saved, the right answer is yes.  I never want to go through that lecture again.”

Evangelism at its best is cultivating a relationship that not only treats a person with respect but also takes seriously their need for Christ.  Evangelism is the gospel of love.  Sometimes to be sure, though, that love must be tough.

My grandmother, Mammy, was from a missionary family.  Her older brother, Wesley Lawton, served as a missionary to China.  His wife, Ida, was actually a Methodist missionary to China.  The two had met there and were married.  Their four children all became missionaries.  I met my Aunt Ida just one time, but I knew several of her children, especially Olive Lawton, with whom I became very close.

Mammy had a real heart for missions though she never went to the mission field.  She did not like riding in a car, and she certainly would not consider flying on an airplane.  I called her a back porch missionary, doing evangelism by serving coffee and sweet tea.  She often met the mail carrier on the porch with a cup of coffee and invited him to sit with her.  As he drank his coffee, she read her Bible and prayed with him.  My grandmother also met the garbage men at the back door with sweet iced tea.  She asked them to sit down in the chairs on her carport as she read the Bible and prayed with them.  When a grandchild visited, Mammy warmed up a big piece of apple pie and added a scoop of vanilla ice cream.  While the grandchild enjoyed that treat, she read the Bible, prayed, and told stories about Jesus.

It is odd that my grandmother refused to join the Women’s Missionary Union (WMU).  Maybe it was because she did not like to riding in a car.  She often said, “I do not want to sit and talk about missionaries.  I want to make missionaries.”  Two of her sons became career missionaries.  The other five sons, who worked in the construction industry either building houses or running a lumberyard, were ordained.  They were missionaries in their own right.

My own mother was a missionary of sorts.  She started the first Good News Club through child evangelism fellowship in our backyard.  She baked cookies or brownies and punch and invited kids from the neighborhood to our house on Thursday afternoons.  She drew a crowd.  In cold weather, she held meetings in our basement.  Dad actually built bleachers there so that everyone had room to sit.  Mama told the children about Jesus, using the wordless book, which offered the simple plan of salvation.

Five or six years ago I was asked to see a man on hospice care.  I did not know him, but he remembered me.  He was somewhat younger than I was.  He said, “Kirk, I accepted Jesus in your backyard.  I prayed the sinner’s prayer with your mother.  She led me to Christ.”  I conducted his funeral several weeks after that visit.

My grandfather, Pappy, kept a Bible in his office.  He and my dad sometimes read it together at the lumberyard.  It was quite something, seeing my grandfather reading a Bible, smoking a cigar, and occasionally using some of his lumberyard language.  He found nothing incompatible about that combination.  I also saw the two men reading the Bible with customers who had a need.

When I first returned to Spartanburg, I found a barber and knew that very first visit that he was not a Christian.  I tried to tell him about Jesus, but he wanted none of that.  He wanted my business but no talk about Jesus.  He enjoyed talking about football, fishing, and hunting; but if I brought up Jesus, he got dead quiet.  I prayed for that man for twenty-five years.

One day when I walked into the barbershop for a haircut, he was not there.  His fellow barber told me, “He’s in the hospital, and he wants to see you.”

The man had been diagnosed with leukemia.  When I walked into his hospital room, I asked, “This isn’t about football, is it?”

With his tongue like a piece of shoe leather from the chemotherapy he received, he mumbled, “No.”

“You want to talk about Jesus.”

“Yes.”

“Are you ready to ask him into your heart?”

“Yes.”

When my barber accepted Christ that day, it was like picking a ripe tomato.  He was so ready, but it had taken twenty-five years.  Sometimes it takes an illness for a person to ask Jesus into his or her heart.  The following Christmas Eve, I conducted his funeral.

This kind of evangelism requires paying attention to everyone:  Bartimaeus, Zacchaeus, the rich and poor, the young and old, the healthy and sick, people of all kinds, red, yellow, black, brown, and white.  All are precious in His sight.  If we pay attention, we will see that every single person is created in the image of God.  If we look closely, we will see that God does not want any person discarded.  He has a plan for every life.

I went to seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, kicking and screaming all the way.  I did not want to be there.  I wanted to be a medical missionary.  I thought, Since I have to do field work, I’ll take a hospital chaplaincy assignment.  Maybe I’ll meet a doctor.  I met a doctor alright, Dr. Wayne Oates, who became my supervisory professor and mentor.

I waited until the very last moment possible to get in line to receive my hospital assignment.  When I reached the registration table, Dr. Oates observed, “Mr. Neely, you don’t want to be here, do you?”

I answered, “No, I do not want to be here.”

“Here’s your assignment.  We are sending you to Hazelwood Tuberculosis Hospital.”

I went through the motions, trying to be a chaplain to the patients, all of whom were dying of either tuberculosis or black lung, the dreaded diseases of the Ohio River Valley.  Visiting there required that I wear a mask, a robe or hospital gown, and shoe covers.

About three months after I was assigned to Hazelwood, I entered a room occupied by four men.  I visited with the three Baptist men first and had prayer with them.  Then I spoke, almost as an act of courtesy, to the fourth man, a Roman Catholic named Mr. Droter.

With saliva encrusted around his mouth, he spoke only in a whisper.  I had to lean close to hear his one question, “Sir, what is your mission?”

Not knowing what to say, I stammered around, giving some type of answer, then left the hospital.

As soon as I reached home, I left my shoes outside on the porch for disinfecting later and took a shower, as always.  I then started reading Daniel Day Williams’ book The Minister and the Care of Souls.  In the passages I read, Williams talked about the Parable of the Last Judgment where Jesus says, “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).  Williams pointed out that it is in the actual practice of ministry that we encounter the living Christ.  I thought about Mr. Droter and his question.

Clare did not understand when I told her that I had to return to the hospital.  I drove back across Jefferson County to Hazelwood, put on a gown, mask, and shoe covers and walked back to his unit.

As I passed the nursing station, the nurse asked, “Why have you come back today?”

I answered, “I came to see Mr. Droter.”

“You’re too late.  He died about an hour ago.”

I take Mr. Droter’s question, “Sir, what is your mission?” to be my call to Christian ministry.

Everyone who professes faith in Jesus Christ is called to this ministry. The clergy cannot win the entire world for Christ.  Every Christian must assume the responsibility.  God has expressed incredible optimism in giving us the mission to go into all the world and take the gospel of Christ.

Sometimes that mission is a high-risk business.  Many missionaries serve in dangerous places.  We have lost a missionary to violence in Jordan just last week.  We do not have to go out of the country, but we must do our part.  We can be missionaries in our own backyard.  I have seen that happen with Bartimaeus, Zacchaeus, the garbage man, the postman, children, grandchildren, neighbors, school mates, and colleagues at work.  Ladies and gentlemen, we have been called to see imprinted on every person an image of God.  We have been called to know that Christ died for every person.  We have been called to take the opportunity to share the good news of God’s love, fully revealed in Christ Jesus.  We dare not shirk that responsibility.

We cannot do this until first of all, we have asked Jesus into our own heart, accepted Christ as our own Savior.  Have you done that?  Some of you have other decisions to make.  You know better than I do what those decisions are.  I invite you to respond to the love of God, fully revealed in Jesus.  Share your love unashamedly with all you know.

Kirk H. Neely                                                                                                                             
 © September 2012
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