What sort of God do we serve, the One in Whom we believe? Both Isaiah and the Psalmist give us answers to that question this morning. Isaiah wrote, “It is He Who sits above the circle of the earth, Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain and spreads them out like a tent to dwell in, Who has created the stars.” He’s “the Everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth (Who) does not become weary or tired. His understanding is inscrutable.”
That’s our God. By that description He sounds a bit scary and a lot remote from our daily lives, lives that cannot begin to match up to His glory. But that’s the point, and acknowledging it is the first and most important step towards discovering what sort of relationship we are to sustain with Him. All those phrases describe the God Who is transcendent, Who resides in the heavens and presides over all that He has created. But Isaiah does not leave it at that. He adds these vitally important words about a God Who is not only transcendent and Whose “understanding is inscrutable,” but Who is also One Who comes to us to give “strength to the weary; and to him who lacks might He increases power. Though youths grow weary and tired, and vigorous young men stumble badly, yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.”
Admittedly we’re a congregation that is some decades beyond those “youths... and vigorous young men.” But that’s not Isaiah’s point! Isaiah is acknowledging that even youths grow weary and tired... and vigorous young men stumble badly.” Now he’s singing our song! But whatever our age or our human energy level, Isaiah adds that we “will run and not get tired, walk and not become weary.” Remember that it’s at funerals where we most often hear the song by Michael Joncas, “He will raise them up on eagles wings,” a promise cribbed from these words of Isaiah. Are you ready for that? No matter how weary and down-trodden you may feel, God has something astonishing in store for you. You will fly into His presence with wings like those of an eagle.
The psalmist is expressing these same thoughts about God in different but similar words. He says that God “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. He counts the number of the stars; He gives names to all of them.” He is “great... and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite.” He “supports the afflicted; He gives to the beast its food, and to the young ravens that cry. He favors those who fear Him, those who wait for His lovingkindness.”
Notice that the psalmist unconsciously and seamlessly mixes together those aspects of God that are transcendent and infinite with those that are immanent and personal. That’s the God we serve, the One Who desires our worship and fellowship, the One Who sent His only Son to be the Savior of the world, Who by His Cross and precious Blood has redeemed us and saved us from our sins. That’s the entire message of the Gospel.
Today is World Mission Sunday in the ACNA. It’s particularly fortuitous that our epistle reading contains these words from the apostle Paul: “Woe to me if I preach not the Gospel.” Most of you know that the word “gospel” literally means “the Good News” concerning the love of God in Jesus Christ that has brought us salvation. There’s no better news in all the world than this, and it’s the message each of us should be sharing with everyone in our paths. I recently read these accurate but disturbing words from Father Kolby Kerr, an Anglican priest in Richardson, Texas. He wrote:
“When we hit our knees to pray, we are coming from a world infatuated with bad news. We love ‘click bait’ headlines that appeal to the worst in us. Our politicians confirm our fears and stir animosity. Our conversations consist of comparing our laundry lists of anxieties, angers, and urgencies. In the midst of that world, we have a call to ‘proclaim to all people the Good News.’ With such a strong pull toward ‘Bad News’, that’s a tough task.”
We all know that Father Kerr is right, that his assessment of our proclivities is spot on, that we’re far more inclined to share our worries, fears, anxieties and health challenges with each other than we are to share the Good News of the Gospel. Sadly, we’re even less likely to share the Gospel with our acquaintances who have no clue about the Good News that we’re keeping to ourselves. But Paul had it right: “Woe to me if I preach not the Gospel.”
Let’s look a bit closer at what Paul seems to have meant by this statement. Remembering that Paul delivered his epistles by oral dictation, it’s not surprising that his thoughts sometimes make more sense when read backwards. I get this, because I, too, have a tendency to say things backwards in my conversations, starting out with my conclusions and ending with my thesis statement that should have come first.
Here’s Paul’s thesis statement (I Corinthians 9:22b): “I have become all things to all men, so that by all means I might save some.” That’s a characteristically loaded sentence that says far more than is caught at first hearing. It really should preface everything he had to say more specifically about being a Jew to the Jews, a Gentile to the Gentiles and a weak person to those who are weak. “All things to all men” is rather comprehensive. It also seems beyond human capability. Have you ever seriously tried to be “all things to all people?” Have you even thought very much about such a thing? If you have, you could only have come to the conclusion that this is something decidedly not humanly possible. It’s really hard just to be all things to a handful of persons who pretty much belong to our own inner circle of friends, those who think somewhat the same way we do. But haven’t we all had friends, siblings and even children with whom we found being “all things” to be quite impossible? I know I have.
For Paul, it all began where he ends: with his motive, a single-minded motive, one motive alone out of a wide range of possible motives. But first let me ask a question: what is your motive for being “all things” to anyone in your life? Be honest!
When we’re brutally honest with ourselves, it’s highly likely that we’ll admit to having mixed motives: motives that have to do with the other person, but also motives that have to do with ourselves. What will happen to me if, by trying to share my convictions with another person, the result may not be positive? What will happen to me if I drive the other person away from me? What if I do this at the cost of the relationship already in place, however frayed it may be?
So what was Paul’s motivation? He actually gives us two startling and compelling motives: first and foremost, “so that by all means I might save some.” That’s a rather selfless motive! It might take most of us a long time to get to that one. But if the thing that drove all of our relationships was a concern for the eternal welfare of our friend’s soul, how might Paul’s primary motive become ours? It might bring about a seismic shift in the way that our relationships play out.
Paul adds a second motive that I find to be an even greater stretch for most of us. He writes, “I do all things for the sake of the Gospel, so that I might become a fellow partaker of it.” What can that possibly mean in practical terms? Have you ever thought about what it would mean to be “a partaker of the Gospel?” To me, that sounds scary before I even try to figure out exactly what’s implied by those words. On the very surface it sounds frighteningly sacrificial, and sacrificial is not high on anyone’s list of ways to be, other than for a handful of early Christians who actually desired martyrdom as a way of identifying with their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Let’s be honest. Let’s start with me: I’ve never once in my life desired martyrdom. I’ve read all the stories about how martyrs have died: assorted forms of torture, dismemberment, being burned alive, being fed to lions and other wild beasts, being drowned, being disemboweled, being tossed off cliffs and bridges, and so on. None of those endings has the least bit of attractiveness to me.
But Paul was fearless. He went to Jerusalem when everyone told him it would have fatal consequences. So did Jesus. Paul spent time in prison and endured floggings for proclaiming the Gospel. So did Jesus. He went to Rome knowing that his martyrdom had now reached a high degree of probability. And what did he do there? He preached the Gospel, and that, fearlessly! That’s what Paul meant by being “a partaker of the Gospel.”
And we’re held back by worrying that our interpersonal relationships might be damaged if our witness is too forthcoming! To what degree are we actually willing to “become all things to all men, so that by all means (we) might save some” for the sake of the Gospel? Paul takes it to yet another level: he says, “Though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more.” This reminds me a favorite but little known hymn that says, “Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free.” When we sing that, we’re thinking about being captive to God. But Paul says that he’s willing to be a slave to all men, and that out of precisely the same motivation: “so that I may win more.”
In our day we might be inclined to say, “Paul, that’s the profession you chose and that’s the one for which you’re drawing a salary.” But what does Paul say? Just the opposite: “I have a stewardship entrusted to me.” “I offer the Gospel without charge, so as not to make full use of my right.” Paul never viewed his ministry of the Gospel as a job, some occupation he’d picked up after getting tired of making tents for a living. But the important thing for Paul was never so much what he was doing as why he was doing it at all. It wasn’t in the least bit about himself, but about the people he was out to win.
And what did winning mean to Paul? In our day it’s not uncommon to conclude that winning is everything. Someone is going to win the Super Bowl this evening. Whichever team it is will have off the charts bragging rights for at least the full year to come until the next Super Bowl. If Tom Brady and the Patriots win, they’ll have bragging rights for a very long time to come.
But what about Paul? He wrote, “if I preach the Gospel, it is no cause to me for boasting, for I am under compulsion; but it is woe to me if preach not the Gospel.” Paul is saying that a person who does something under compulsion has no bragging rights at all. “Winning some,” for Paul, was not a matter of adding notches to his spiritual belt or padding statistics to submit to his successors. “Winning some” was simply fulfilling his commission, because it was woe to him if he did not preach the Gospel “so that by all means (he) might save some” and “so that (he) might become a fellow partaker of the Gospel.”
Do you want to be “winning some” like Paul? Winning others to Christ is not achieved through a silent witness, no matter how many writers of inspirational books and sermons may tell you that just your way of life is a sufficient testimony. If Jesus had come as a silent witness, we would never have known a thing about Him. If His disciples and apostles had withdrawn into an ascetic and pious monastic life under a vow of silence, we would not be here in church this morning.
We should be under the very same compulsion as Paul to be partakers and preachers of the Gospel, not just to each other, but to those on the outside who desperately need to hear the message that’s ours to share. Paul wrote, “I do all things for the sake of the Gospel.” Today, on “World Mission Sunday,” let’s recommit ourselves to sharing the Good News with everyone we know, to scattering seed indiscriminately, to enabling the Holy Spirit to draw others into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
O Savior of the world, Who by Your Cross and precious Blood has redeemed us, save us and help us, and make us instruments of Your peace, the peace of Christ, peace in a world that’s longing for it.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.