© 2022 Evan D. Garner
Video of this service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 23:45.
The followers of Jesus have a lot of work to do. Jesus is coming, and with him comes the reign of God—the power and authority and presence of the divine will in every aspect of our lives. Jesus is coming, and he has sent his followers out to prepare for his arrival—to get every town, every village, every home, and every heart ready to receive him and the kingdom that he brings.
A mission that expansive requires an unimaginable level of commitment. More and more people are needed to share the good news of Jesus’ coming, so Jesus commissions his followers to carry out that work through ever-expanding relationships. “The harvest is plentiful,” he explains, “but the laborers are few; therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” There are too many people and places for a handful of disciples to reach on their own, so each disciple is asked to recruit more for the work we share. Being a follower of Jesus means inviting others to join in this movement until the good news of God’s loving reign has transformed the whole world into the dream that God has for all of us.
Back in the first century, Jesus appointed seventy disciples and “sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” These did not include the twelve disciples, whose names we know so well. These were seventy others, whose names are never mentioned—members of the movement who knew that their purpose was to go ahead of Jesus and get people ready for his arrival. Like an advance team, which comes to a city before a presidential visit or a country music concert, these seventy disciples were entrusted with great responsibility.
Where would Jesus stay? Who would welcome him and his disciples? Who would feed all of them? Where would he speak—in the local synagogue or out on a beach or mountain side? Who would come and hear him preach? Back before Facebook or email or telephones or newspapers, how would people know that Jesus of Nazareth was coming to their town and that with him the kingdom of God was coming near?
Two thousand years later, is our mission all that different? Jesus is coming, and with him comes the transforming, redeeming, reconciling reign of God. In the cross, God has made us one with Godself and with each other. Our sins have been forgiven, and the powers of evil and death have been dealt a fatal blow. Wealth and greed and the economic disparity that they cause must give way to the universal prosperity of God’s kingdom. Hatred and prejudice and the violence that they fuel cannot withstand the coming reign of God. War and environmental degradation and the famine that they produce cannot persist when God’s will is manifest throughout the earth. Nothing can stop the fulfilment of God’s promises, which is drawing near to the world in Jesus Christ.
Oh, there is so much work for the followers of Jesus to do. The harvest is still plentiful, but the laborers are still few. We need help. The annals of Christian history may not record our names either, but we are the ones who have been commissioned to do this important work, and there is too much work for us to do it all by ourselves. We must invite other people to know what God has done and is still doing. We must invite them to join us in the good and holy work of preparing to receive the reign of God and the one who brings it to the earth. We must tell them that Jesus is coming, but, usually, when I hear someone say those words—“Jesus is coming!”—I want to run off in the opposite direction. That’s because the people who say them usually seem to care more about their own reign and making me conform to it than inviting me into the glorious, gracious, loving reign of God. So, if we’re going to invite people to do just that—to prepare for the coming of Jesus—we must invite them in a way that is as counter-cultural as the kingdom we proclaim.
“Go on your way,” Jesus says. “See I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.” Jesus’ strategy for his advance team is the opposite of what we would expect. Instead of telling them to pack a suitcase so that they can look clean-cut and professional, he tells them to take not even a change of clothes. Instead of giving them some money so that they can display signs of financial security and independence, he tells them to beg their way from town to town. Instead of encouraging them to make friends throughout a community so that a larger number of people might join their cause, he tells them to pick a house and stay there.
Imagine a poor, disheveled stranger coming up to you and saying, “I have found the one in whom and through whom all of God’s promises are being fulfilled. He is the one who can bring us true prosperity and peace.” Imagine being invited into a religious tradition whose spokespeople aren’t icons of prestige and power, of wealth and accomplishment, but of humility and simplicity. Imagine being invited by them to follow Jesus. We might as well invite people to join our church because it will cost them all their money, their freedom, their power, their reputation, their family, and even their own lives. What kind of strategy is that for growing a church? But isn’t that exactly what Jesus is calling us to do?
The coming of Jesus and the coming of God’s reign, which Jesus brings, represent the overthrowing of all institutions of earthly power. If the kingdom of God stands in stark opposition to the kingdoms of this world, how can we belong to God and God’s rule when we immerse ourselves in the ways of earthly power? How can we belong to the one who belongs to the poor when we ourselves want nothing to do with them? How can we invite others to receive the reign of God when we hold up earthly things like wealth and power as the symbols of ultimate value?
The servants of Jesus invite the world to receive the reign of God by becoming utterly vulnerable in the world’s eyes. Those who would go before Jesus and prepare others to welcome him must embody with their lives the reign of God which they proclaim with their mouths. Are we ready to do that? This vulnerability is not the same thing as passivity. We are not called to sit idly by and wait for God to come and sort everything out. That isn’t discipleship; it’s fatalism. Instead, we are called to believe with our whole hearts and minds and souls and bodies that in Jesus Christ God has revealed a fundamental and unbreakable truth that is more valuable than anything that the world could ever give us. And that truth is this: our fundamental value comes not from who we are or what we accomplish but only from God’s unconditional and sacrificial love which is given to the whole world.
When we believe that with our whole selves, we can afford to become vulnerable. In fact, when we belong to the one who establishes the reign of God by dying for the sake of the whole world, we cannot help but become vulnerable. That’s because, when we belong to Christ, we leave behind the fiction of defining ourselves according to the values of this world and begin to embody the values of God’s reign. And the world is eager to know that truth.
The vulnerability that comes from faith does not remove us from the world’s problems but always presses us deeper into them. It pushes us right into the midst of the ungodly circumstances in our society until God’s reign takes hold fully within them. By confronting the powers of this world with our allegiance to the reign of God, we become vessels through which that reign takes hold. That is how we invite others to prepare to receive Jesus, and that is why we have been commissioned by Christ to go ahead of him with nothing but the clothes on our backs and the good news of God’s love in our hearts.