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A Gospel That Makes A Difference

As Christians we are people of the gospel. We have a message that we live and proclaim. When we talk about the gospel we most often think about the forgiveness of sins, being reconciled with God, and having salvation. We talk about being born again and having a personal relationship with Jesus.

But is this all there is to the gospel? While being a Christian requires having a personal and transforming relationship with Jesus Christ, it also requires having a public and transforming relationship with the world around us.[1]

If the gospel is just about me and Jesus, then I can just stay home, keep to myself, and just wait until I die. But the gospel isn’t just about Jesus and me. And being a Christian is more than a private experience. It is about Jesus and me and a world that needs him.

I want a gospel that makes a difference. I want a gospel that makes a difference in my life but also in other people’s lives. I want a gospel that makes a difference in my community and in my world. If the gospel doesn’t make a difference in those places what good is it?

We live in quite a world, don’t we? It is a broken and hurting world.

Over 26,000 children die each day of largely preventable causes related to poverty. We live in a world where 2.6 billion people live on less than $2 a day, and 1 billion people live on less than $1 a day

…where about 1 in 7 people do not have enough food to sustain them,

…where before this pandemic the HIV/AIDS pandemic left 15 million children orphaned in Africa alone,

…where 50 to 60 million people are homeless or displaced because of war and conflict,

…where hundreds of thousands of children are forced into human trafficking,

…where the rates of illiteracy and mortality are staggering,

…where loneliness and mental illness and addiction is growing.

What does God want of his people in light of this?

We serve and worship a risen Lord. Jesus said all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. He went to the poor, the broken, and the sick.

Have we shrunk Jesus to the size where He can save our soul but we don’t believe he can change the world?[2] I want a gospel that makes a difference, and I think as we live the gospel it does make a difference. Because the gospel is more than a set of beliefs. It is something we live. Love, grace, hope, victory over death, compassion are more than intellectual ideas. They are things that live in us as people of Jesus Christ.

In Luke we read about one of Jesus’ first sermons when he spoke what he was about. Jesus returns to his home region of Galilee in the power of the Spirit. He is returning from 40 days and nights in the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan. It is often in the spiritual battles that we come out stronger and in the power of the Spirit.

Jesus goes to his synagogue. We are told that it was Jesus’ custom to go to worship. He didn’t do it occasionally, but it was his habit.

A service in an ancient Jewish synagogue was divided into three parts: A prayer service, the reading of Scripture, and the teaching. In the teaching, various people were invited by the synagogue president to teach, which is how Jesus, a mere carpenter, was able to do this.

After reading the lesson, which is from the book of Isaiah, chapter 61, Jesus rolls up the scroll, give it back to the attendant (the Chazzan), and sits down. Rabbis would sit down when they taught. Jesus begins his teaching by audaciously saying that today this scripture has been fulfilled. What did he mean by that? Jesus meant that the words in the book of the prophet Isaiah applied to him. What Isaiah was looking toward is fulfilled in him.

We might call this verse Jesus’ mission statement. It is who he is and what he is about. Hear it again:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus sees his mission as having to do with those for whom life is hard. He makes clear that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him to do this. We often think of the Holy Spirit being upon someone in a spiritually charismatic way. They speak in tongues, prophesy, have gifts of healing, or other spectacular manifestations. Jesus refers to none of these things when he speaks of the Spirit being on him. He speaks of bringing good news to the poor, helping the oppressed, and serving the hurting.

God’s Spirit is as strong on the person serving meals at the soup kitchen as he is on the one prophesying.

The Old Testament prophets spoke of God sending the Messiah, the Christ, who would bring redemption and salvation. Messiah means “anointed one.” When we speak “Jesus Christ” we are saying “Jesus the Anointed One.” Jesus is saying that he is this anointed one sent from God.

The Spirit anointed him to preach good news. Good news means gospel. Jesus came to preach the gospel. Not just the social gospel, or the “salvation gospel” but the gospel. The whole good news. And what is this gospel? Here he doesn’t mention anything about personal salvation and going to heaven. He will. This isn’t the only place Jesus teaches. But in that synagogue in Nazareth, in the power of the Holy Spirit, ready to begin his public ministry, Jesus says this gospel is for the poor

…for prisoners

…for the blind

…and the oppressed.

For a long time, people have dichotomized Christian faith by saying you either save souls so people get to eternity, or you pay attention to people’s physical needs in the here and now. Why does it have to be either/or? It wasn’t for Jesus.

We need a whole gospel that isn’t either/or, that isn’t this against that. We have a gospel that is for the soul and the body, the heart and the stomach, for the sanctuary and the streets. The whole gospel is salvation by faith - a faith that also shows in compassion for the hurting and the sick.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Jesus to preach good news – gospel – to the poor. I think it means the economically poor, but also the socially poor, the spiritually poor. The poor are those who recognize their deep need. We live in a time of overwhelming physical needs for people in our world, but also overwhelming emotional need. There are a lot of people these days who have financial means but they are depressed.

Do you know where the church is growing the most in our world? In Africa, Southeast Asia and South America. The gospel is flourishing in those place because people there are so aware of their need. The gospel is going almost nowhere among the rich and the secure. That is why it is having little effect in the United States and Europe.

But even amidst the wealthy and developed western world, the people who are grasping the good news of Jesus are those who know their own need. When we read the gospels we see that both economically rich and poor – Zaccheus and lepers – responded to Jesus when they understood their deep, deep poverty.

It doesn’t matter what someone’s social or economic or religious level might be, the good news is for all who know their own poverty of spirit, body and mind.

God’s Spirit is upon us to live this good news. Jesus’ ministry is continued by his church and empowered by the same Spirit.

For the gospel to make a difference in our world it first has to make a difference in us. We go to church and we might have our daily devotions of prayer and Bible reading. And that is great. Everyone should have a daily time with God. But our devotional life needs to make a difference in our practical living.

The prophet Isaiah spoke to the people of Jerusalem and spoke about this very thing. They were doing all the right religious things: going to the Temple, praying, and fasting.

Fasting was one of the fundamental acts of Jewish spirituality. Fasting is to do without something as an act of devotion. Usually fasting involves going without food for a time. Jesus spoke of fasting. People in Isaiah’s day were fasting but only as a ritual. It wasn’t touching their hearts.

God said, “Yeah, you fast, but you still get into conflicts, you are harsh on your workers, and you only look out for yourself.”

God says, “I’ll tell you the fasting I am looking for: go and undo the bonds of injustice. Take the yoke off those who are oppressed and let them go free. Those who are being treated unfairly and can’t get a break in this world – help them out. Share your bread with the hungry. Bring the homeless into your home. Clothe those who don’t have the clothes they need. Look after your own family. Stop pointing the finger and blaming everyone else. Don’t say evil things, insulting and putting others down.

The Lord took their ideas about spirituality and turned it upside down. Again, having a personal and transforming relationship with the Lord requires having a public and transforming relationship with the world.

Here’s the rub: we hear these massive statistics about hunger, poverty, and refugees. We see the news reports. And we say, “Well, what can I do? What difference can I make? It’s overwhelming!” We hear about so many emotion-crushing needs that we get “compassion fatigue.” It no longer effects us. No one can handle it all.

First of all, you and I are not called to solve the problem.

In Deuteronomy 15:11, the Lord said, “There will always be poor people in the land.” Jesus once said you will always have the poor with you.[3] When God touched down on this earth in Jesus Christ he did not solve the great social and economic issues of the day. There were all kinds of things Jesus did not do.

However, though we can’t change the world, and though we can’t do everything, it doesn’t mean we don’t do anything.

God never asks us to save the world. That’s his job. But there is too much – way too much – in God’s word about paying attention to and helping the poor, the hungry, the sick, the fatherless, and the elderly to not do anything.

Not only did Jesus see his mission as bringing good news to the poor and oppressed, he also told a parable about feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, taking care of the sick, and said that when we do it to those we are doing it to him.

In Galatians Paul writes about how faith shows itself and works through love.[4] James writes that if we see someone poorly clothes and lacking food and we tell them to go in peace and be warm and filled without giving them anything, what good is our faith?[5]

The gospel makes a difference.

Though God says in Deuteronomy that there will always be poor people in the land, he goes on to say this, “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and sisters and toward the poor and needy in your land.” To be openhanded is the opposite of being tightfisted. It is to be giving and generous.

Let’s not get stuck with what we can’t do. What can we do?

Perhaps you have heard the parable of the man and the starfish:

One early morning, after a fierce storm had hit the coast, I strolled to the beach for my morning walk. Horrified, I saw that tens of thousands of starfish had been washed up on the beach by the winds and waves. I was saddened by the realization that all of them would die, stranded on the shore, away from the life-giving water. Despairing that there was nothing I could do, I sat down on the sand and put my head in my hands.

But then I heard a sound, and I lifted my eyes. There, in the distance, I saw a man bending down and then standing up, bending down and standing up. Curious, I rose and walked toward him. I saw that he was picking up the starfish, one at a time, and throwing them back into the sea.

“What are you doing?” I yelled.

“Saving the starfish,” he replied.

“But don’t you see, man, that there are tends of thousands of them?” I asked, incredulous. “Nothing you can do will make a difference.”

He did not answer me but instead bent down, picked up another starfish and cast it back into the water. Then he smiled, looked me in the eye, and said, “It made a difference to that one!”[6]

Jesus didn’t call us to solve the problems of world hunger or homelessness or addiction. He didn’t. We read the Gospels and Jesus meets a lot of individuals, one on one. I am preaching this sermon because these are severe days and the needs are overwhelming.We can be “starfish throwers” by just doing simple acts in the name of Jesus.

The gospel makes a difference when we really try to love like Jesus. Remember he said whenever you do it to one of the least of these, you do it to me. Sometimes that will be organizing a big or longterm effort and sometimes it will be just a brief even spontaneous act.

The gospel makes a difference when we get our cue from him. It might be when we listen to a lonely or hurting person. Just this week a friend of mine who has had a horrendous year involving death of family, divorce, and someone close to him with severe mental health issue needed to vent. I just listened. And in that moment I sensed God wanting me to do just that. The Spirit anointed me just to listen and be a friend at that moment.

When we brought food for the Souperbowl of Caring we showed that we believe the gospel makes a difference. As we bring clothing for people who are cold we show that we believe the gospel makes a difference. When we throw coins in the Noisy Bucket, when we give our offering, when we give to special offerings we show we believe the gospel makes a difference.

Our church sponsors the local chapter of the Fuller Center for Housing. Our own Laura Wills-Mitchell is on the board. The Fuller Center for Housing is a fait-driven, Christ-centered ministry that promotes partnerships with individuals and community groups to build and rehabilitate homes for people in need. Several of you have participated in their projects. When you do that you show that the gospel makes a difference.

When we visit the elderly or homebound we are saying the gospel makes a difference. The gospel makes a difference when we visit someone who is in prison, or in a rehab center, or a senior living home. The gospel makes a difference when we give our time and energy to a place that is helping refugees or homeless people or children with special needs.

Whenever we serve and love in order to bring God’s healing and hope to this hurting world the gospel is making a difference.

Jesus is the center of the gospel. Jesus’ business is our business. Jesus’ mission is our mission. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us to do this.

Prayer: Spirit of the living God fall afresh on us so that we live and proclaim the mighty gospel. Give us faith that believes and also loves. Give us grace that forgives but also feeds. Give us hope that doesn’t throw up our hands but looks to you to take whatever we do and know you will use it.

Make us your hands, your heart, your eyes, your ears, your people.

We pray this in the name of the One who not only can save our souls but can also heal this world. Amen.

[1] The Hole In Our Gospel, Richard Stearns, p. 3 [2] P. 23 [3] John 12:8 [4] Galatians 5:6 [5] James 2:15-16 [6] The Hole in Our Gospel, p.162

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