Is the Gospel Still Relevant Today? (Luke 3:1-20)Pastor Jon Truax, July 9, 2017
Part of the General series, preached at a Sunday Morning service
My dad was over at our house last week, catching up after our trip to Hawaii.
He said, “Hey son, do you have a newspaper handy?”
I chuckled and said, “Dad, you are so far behind the times. You’ve really got to get with it. We don’t get the newspaper any more. Newspapers are irrelevant today. Here, this is an iPad. Anything you want a newspaper for you can use an iPad instead.”
“Thanks, son,” he said. He took it from me, then he leaned back and abruptly smashed my iPad against the wall! I’ll tell you this much - that fly never knew what hit him!
It’s not just newspapers! How many of you have faced a disruptive change in your daily life? In other words, has something profoundly changed over the last couple of decades in the way that you work, or go to school, or maintain your home, that is radically different from what you used to do? For instance, I used to have to do sermon research using books in a library; now I have a library on my computer!
I remember that, when I was a child, the very first job I ever wanted was “gas station man.” Back in the days before self-service gas, attendants pumped gas for your car, often checking the oil and refilling your windshield wiper fluid, too. Remember them? As a five-year-old, I thought that looked like an easy enough job for me to do. Plus these guys always seemed to have a great big wad of cash on them! I liked the looks of that. But “gas station men” were gone even before I grew up.
Instead, one of my first jobs was at college. I went to Bowling Green State University, and for two years there I worked as what’s known as a “Fact Line Operator.” The Fact Line was a phone service that the university set up to answer any question, whether mundane or outrageous, ranging from about the university to trivia, that students or even the general public might call in with. That was a fun job, and on busy shifts, I would field dozens of phone calls an hour. Today the job of Fact Line Operator has been effectively replaced by Google!
Some people don’t go to work anymore; they telecommute. They are able to work from their home on their computer. Some people don’t go to work anymore because their job got phased out by technology.
For instance, when was the last time you had an encyclopedia salesman come to your door? Even whole retail chains are starting to struggle today because you can buy things online at Amazon and other online distributors. Taxi drivers are losing jobs to Uber. Surgery is now performed by robots. Bank tellers have been replaced by ATMs. Cashiers have seen their jobs taken over by the self-checkout lanes. And they say that automation will cost millions of more jobs in the years to come. I bring all this up because there have been a lot of disruptive changes in the church in recent years, too.
Debbie and I journeyed to a couple of different churches on our vacation time off, one in Ohio and one in Hawaii. The churches were different in terms of worship style, and feel, and music, but one thing they had in common was – they were half-empty. (I suppose an optimist might say that they were half-full. But I’m not an optimist…)
Either way, half-full or half-empty, it’s undeniable that the church at large has seen some significant shrinkage over the last couple of decades. Many churches, both in our community and across our nation, are half-empty these days.
It’s enough to make me wonder: Is the gospel of Jesus Christ still relevant today? Obviously, I have an answer to that question, and you probably already know what that answer is, but before we get there, let’s take a look at how some people could answer “no” to that question...
The classic view of religion has been that faith provides answers in those areas of life where human beings have no understanding or control over. To explain the unexplainable. So when a ferocious storm or tragic earthquake strikes, God is invoked as the cause as a way to provide a reason. Genesis and other origin stories provide the answer as to where we came from.
But Science has come a long way in taking this territory away from God, piece by piece. Today we know that earthquakes are not God specifically judging those places - but happen naturally as the result of plate tectonics. Hurricanes are merely the result of weather patterns and pressure systems. Evolution and the Big Bang have been advanced to explain our origins. There is less and less room for God all the time – IF you accept that classic view of the place of religion being to explain what science has been unable to.
But I think there’s a lot more to the story than that! Religion isn’t just about the external world; it is also about what is happening here, in the human heart. One of the problems I see is that it’s not just that our churches are half-empty. Often the people in those churches are half-empty, too! Instead of being filled with the Holy Spirit, our low fuel indicator light is blinking. It’s like we’re running out of gas.
We seem to live in an era where God is silent. We have the testimony of His Word, of course, as well as the testimony of His World. Both of those are ample sources of faith that can lead us to Him. But the prophetic voice of God, the thundering command that comes from the mountaintop, is muted. This is not all that unusual. In the Bible, God is often silent for long stretches of time. From Joseph to Moses, about 400 years, the Israelites labored away in slavery while God was silent. That ended with the burning bush. In the book of Samuel, the Bible says that the word of the Lord was rare in those days. From the time of Malachi to the time of Christ, another period of 400 years, God was active in the lives of His people and in the history of the world, yes, but also silent, waiting for the dawn of the new age that would be ushered in with Jesus.
Today’s scripture takes us back to those days, to right before Jesus burst onto the scene. God had sent someone ahead of His Son, a prophet to prepare the way. Back in the days of John the Baptist, I suspect that the mood was a lot like today. There had been much disruption. The nation had been taken over by outsiders, occupiers. There was political discontent and upheaval. The temple was being rebuilt, but religion was farther away from the people than ever. They were looking for hope. Many had abandoned religion as an answer for their lives and the ones who remained had twisted the faith to make themselves seem superior.
Into this mix of hostility, anger, and frustration, John came. He came bringing a specific ministry. Luke explains it in the third chapter of his gospel: He says, “John went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”
Have you ever thought that you might have a share in that same ministry as John the Baptist? That we, as Christians, in our daily dealing with people who do not yet know Christ as their savior, are charged with doing the advance work of the gospel? That it might be our calling “to prepare the way of the Lord” in their lives, to make his path straight? Do we look for those opportunities to plant seeds of witness and grace, that – even if our friends and relatives are not yet ready to open the door of their hearts to God in Jesus Christ – we still find ourselves ministering grace in anticipation of when that day will come? The biblical promise remains in effect. God will one day fill every valley and make low every mountain, making straight the crooked and smooth the rough. All flesh shall one day see the salvation of God. In the meantime, we have a role to play in the bringing of God’s kingdom to earth!
John the Baptist certainly did. He was the appetizer before the main meal, getting people hungry for the redemptive work of Christ. His ministry was the priming of the pump, the opening act, the call to worship. John was sent to get the people ready for what Jesus was going to do in their world.
John’s words, however, were harsh rather than gentle, convicting rather than comforting, challenging rather than cheery. How do you think his message would play today? Luke reports on the essence of his preaching: “John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
In the book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” you will not find the advice to refer to people as a pit of snakes. But John wasn’t trying to win friends and influence people; he was trying to wake them up and get them ready for judgment! The crowds were at least moved to come out to John’s wilderness place and hear his message. And his message was not one of platitudes or flattery; he called them out on their sin. In warning them about the wrath to come, he urged them to demonstrate their faith and repentance through their fruits.
You see, the people of that day faced the same temptation as the people of our day. They thought they were saved through their spiritual heritage. These were “the chosen people”, descendants of Abraham. They had the law of Moses, they had the psalms of David, they had the testimony of the prophets. God was surely on their side! They came from a long line of God’s people - so they must be God’s people, too.
Do those in America, and even those in the Church today, make the same miscalculation? Do we think that, because we have a godly heritage, because we are – or were – a supposedly Christian nation, that that makes us safe from judgment? Are we saved because our parents or our grandparents were saved, and we can kind of ride in to heaven on their coattails? Or, even worse, do we assume that because we had a Christian experience a decade or two ago in our past, that that takes care of all our sins and issues today? I think John would have something to say about that. I know that this Jon does. Just as John said back then that the people couldn’t rely on their spiritual yesterdays, so, too, would he tell us the same thing about the importance of bearing fruits TODAY in keeping with our salvation relationship with God in Jesus Christ.
If I were going to preach a three-point sermon, I might look next at the three groups of people in this scripture who then all ask John nearly the same question. To each group he gives a slightly different answer.
The first are the crowds – the general group of “people”, just ordinary, run-of-the-mill people, who have come out to the wilderness to hear John because they’ve heard that he’s a prophet. They ask him, in response to his preaching in verse 10, “What then should we do?”
John’s answer, in not so many words, is to love one another, to be compassionate, to be generous. The Bible records his response: “In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” John identifies giving generously from among our possessions and provisions to those who are not similarly blessed to be a major part of the calling of the life of a God-follower. Jesus is going to up the ante when he comes along. He won’t say “whoever has two coats must share with him who has none.” Jesus’ take is more extreme. He says, “From anyone who takes your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” The principle is the same: if we belong to God, then we must demonstrate that by the fruit of giving.
The second group that asks John the same question is a class of notorious sinners, the tax collectors. The others in the crowd probably rolled their eyes when the tax collectors spoke up. Luke says that they came to John with the same burden, “Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” In other words, they’re asking, do you have a different standard to apply to us?
John’s reply? He does not lay on a heavier burden on them, but he does tailor his message to fit the specifics of their situation. Tax collectors were known for extortion, for bleeding the people dry and raking them over the coals when making them pay their taxes, backed by the might of the Roman government. To them, he insists that they must act with fairness and integrity. “He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” In other words, don’t be greedy, don’t take what doesn’t belong to you. Be fair…. Hard to argue with that.
Finally, there is a third group that approaches John. These weren’t despised tax collectors; these were Gentile soldiers of Rome! Not even God’s people! “Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” You can almost imagine the crowd booing and hissing them.
John said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” Again, the message seems to be concentrated on our relationship with others and our physical possessions. We should not abuse our power and force others to give us things that don’t belong to us. Instead, we should be content with what we have.
We could sum up all three of John’s responses to the question, “What should we do?” with the command, “Be generous; don’t be greedy. Don’t take from others; give to them.”
This is a message that, like the larger gospel, is still relevant. Even though people feel detached from God, faith, and one another, they remain spiritually hungry, searching for the right way to live. If a figure like John the Baptist popped onto the scene today, this is the question he would be fielding: “How should we live? What should we do?”
The gospel is still relevant today because the need for the gospel is still relevant. We still have a need for forgiveness, both to learn how to receive it and how to give it. We still have a need for healing in our bodies, our souls, and our relationships.
We still have to deal with the reality of death and what comes next. We still have to deal with family disharmony, marital breakups and sexual sins. We still have to deal with fears and failures. We still have to deal with issues of self-control - losing our tempers, reacting with anger, battling lust, rising above greed, and putting God first in our lives. All of this is still true today, so of course the gospel is still relevant!
Really quick, as we wrap up today, there are three ways that our church is reaching out in ministry to meet people in the area of their need with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Beginning this week, we are resuming “Community Connection” on Wednesdays at 6. We will offer Kindness Club as a way to introduce children to Jesus Christ, and begin a 7 week study of the Most Important Questions of Life for youth and adults who want to wrestle with some of the deeper issues of faith in a small group setting.
For those specifically dealing with grief, or are interested in helping others going through it or preparing for the day when you will deal with it, Dennie Kohler will be leading six sessions of a grief group during the traditional Sunday School time beginning next week.
Finally, we want to provide a way to reach out to those beyond our church walls. This week, our Outreach Committee began working on a vision for September as part on an Open House Sunday when we can invite our friends to church and check us out. We are taking the second Sunday of September, September 10, and designating it as Open House Sunday here at Science Hill. For one thing, we hope the new Roundabout will be completed, so we will encourage people to take the roundabout to church. After worship, we will offer tours of the church and invite some groups within our congregation to share about their ministries. We hope to conclude the morning with a free picnic for our church family and guests. The Outreach Committee will provide the main dish, and we will be asking church members to bring a salad, side or dessert, keeping in mind to bring a little extra on this occasion to cover those visitors who may be in attendance but not bringing anything with them. They will simply be welcomed as our guests. This is just two months away, so please keep in mind September 10 as our Open House Sunday which will be our unofficial start to the kickoff of our fall ministries.
Is the Gospel of Jesus Christ still relevant today? My friends, there is nothing more relevant! Every age has a need of the gospel, but ours is so spiritually hungry and thirsty and bankrupt that we need God like never before. Be sure that you yourself have done business with God and have had the needs in your life met by His grace. Then consider who in your life you can invite to church, introduce to the Lord, and involve in the great adventure of faith that is the eternally-relevant gospel of Jesus Christ!
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