Is Our Gospel Too Small?

Recorded March 2, 2008

Matthew 28:16-20

16 Then the 11 disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.“

When I finish this sermon I’m going to give an invitation for you to follow Jesus Christ and to begin your journey to become a disciple. I’m going to give an invitation for you to come and to be a part of this church that is more of a movement than an organization. I want you to be praying about that and others in the congregation today who are not ready to make that journey, but are having other struggles. We will have a time at the end to come and to pray here at the front. That is becoming increasingly important for our worship service. But today I want to talk to you about the mission that Jesus Christ has given to us.

In High Gate Cemetery in London, there is the grave of Karl Marx, the man who was the author of the revolution of Russia and of communism. Karl Marx is there and it says under the bust of Karl Marx that is erected there, the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change the world. The point, however, is to change the world. And I want us to know today that that is the point of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The philosophers have tried to do it, but Jesus Christ gave his disciples the command to go out and change the world.

We see it in the book of Matthew, because the last word of the book of Matthew is to go out and change this world. Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus and ends with the universal Savior and Lord of the heavens and earth telling his disciples, this group of ragtag men who have come together there, to go out and do something unique, turn the world upside down. But in between the genealogy of Jesus and the command of Jesus to his disciples, is a group of parables and stories telling how Christians ought to live.

But this book concludes with a worldwide vision of a universal savior, not a savior just for white, American suburbanites and not a savior whose place it is to provide churches where only fun and games can be employed, and not a savior who has called the church to become the good ship Lollipop, where everybody is entertained, like on a Princess Cruise. But it’s a Savior who called out his disciples and told them they’re not on the good ship Lollipop. They’re on a warship going against the forces of evil. And then he gives them their chart, their command, their point. And he says, “Go out into this world and make it different.”

Now you know I get upset with people occasionally who say, “You know,” and they have good intentions, it’s just my cynicism that won’t let them get away with it. They have good intentions. They say, “You know, I just want to make a difference in this world,” and I think at your high moments you have probably said, “I want to make a difference in this world.” And I commend you for that, but Jesus did not call his disciples to go out and to just make a difference. He didn’t care whether they made a difference, because if they made a difference in the world it would be the same old world. Jesus called them to go out and to make the world different.

Do you see the difference in that? Not just, “Go out and make a little impression, leave your fingerprints along the way.” But he called them to go out and take this weary, battered, sinful, chaotic world and turn it inside out and bring it to him and to bring it to God Almighty, and we have never really understood that. He said, “After the resurrection, I’m going to meet you up in Galilee.” Then they didn’t know what was going on, but they gathered there and as they gathered he gave them that commission. He said, “Don’t go fix the world. Don’t go polish it up. Don’t go adjust it. Don’t go trying to understand it. Don’t reorganize it. Don’t improve it. Make it totally different.”

That’s a big dream. That’s an incredibly big dream and somehow in the Christian community, we have forgotten how big the dream of Jesus is for his church. And that dream was given to his church, to those around him. It wasn’t given out to some para-church organization. It wasn’t given to a government. It wasn’t given to a university. It was given to a group of disciples who were his ecclesiae and he said, “Go out and make disciples,” we’ll talk about that in a moment, “and I’m going to be with you all the way. I’ll be there giving you power to do that.”

It was a big dream. But the dream was to make it different. The church has remembered that. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ does not believe, by and large, that the gospel of Jesus Christ is strong enough to do that. For you know what is the gospel? It is the story of Jesus, the Son of God, God in the flesh, coming to be among us. And as he came to be among us he took all of our sins — all of our sins — the sins of those who were on the earth then, those who would be born, and those who had been born, and he took all of those sins to the cross and he paid the price for them with his shed blood on that cross.

Then, not only was he crucified and died, but he was resurrected. Incidentally, why do we only mention the resurrection on Easter Sunday? That’s the center of our worship. We ought to mention it every Sunday. Jesus Christ was a dead man and came alive again and now he commissions his church to go out and tell the world that he is alive and that their life can be lifted, their burdens can be taken away, their souls can be cleaned up, because of what he did and who he is. But the church doesn’t believe that. He stuffed a big world dream into their hearts, but the church doesn’t believe it. He took a dream as big as the universe and crammed it into the lives of these disciples, but those who have come later do not believe it.

We have hitched our wagons to political stars. We don’t think the gospel is big enough to make any difference, so we pick a political star. We’ve hitched our wagons to economic stars. We’ve hooked our wagons to some kind of governmental system, some philosophical system. We’ve done all of these things. Oh, we have narrowed the gospel down and made it a one-issue thing. And I’ll say to you, as I have said in every forum where I could raise my voice, any church that hooks its wagon to anything but the gospel of Jesus Christ is going to flourish a little while and then crash, and it will crash with whatever they hook their star to crashes.

The commission of the church is to hook its wagon to the cross of Jesus, to the resurrection of Jesus, to the power of Jesus and to the power of his Holy Spirit. Politicians can come and go, philosophies can come and go, elections can come and go, but the church of the Lord Jesus Christ and the gospel of God is forever. We need to unhook ourselves from these petty causes.

We have Balkanized the gospel. What do you mean by that? Well, what happened when the Berlin Wall came down? The Berlin Wall came down and communism went away. All of these little states — not United States, but in Europe — they started gathering around. Now we have countries we’ve never heard of — Kazakhstan, Serbia, Bosnia — they’re all good places I’m sure. But I’d never heard of Bosnia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan. I’ve never heard of those places and if I passed out a map you couldn’t find it either. In fact, I got out a map the other day to find them and my map was old. The map said, “We don’t know.”

I read this week where the Serbs had set up their own government. Now we have the Turks fighting the Kurds who are in Northern Iran. What all that says is that the world has retreated so that they have created little countries where everybody is all alike. They’re all look alike, and act alike, and sound alike, and believe alike. They’re all in this little place and they’ve built high walls around themselves emotionally. We’ve retreated to do that sort of thing.

We live in a world that sort of is a reduction world. The issues are so complex that we try to reduce these issues down to something we can handle, but it’s too small to do us any good. Churches do that, too. Oh, and churches do that, too. They retreat from a world vision. They retreat from the great vision God has intended for his people. They retreat big time from it. We work it down to a church is worthwhile only if it called me when my second cousin, twice removed, living in Walla-Walla, Washington, split her toenail. You think that’s ridiculous? You ought to see the emails I get.

We think a church is only good if it has a certain kind of worship, if it has a certain style. Someone said one time, “We could sell a lot of clothes if we could find a way to put the label on the outside.” Well, they’ve done that now. I think American people are so style-conscious that they can’t do anything because it’s right. They have to do it because it’s stylish. We have retreated back to our little reductionist enclave. We’ve retreated into our little reductionist enclaves We’re just like we want to be and we don’t want anybody to bother us.

But the gospel is big enough and strong enough that we don’t have to hook it to anything else, and we can test the gospel out in every forum and in every culture. We don’t need celebrities to vindicate the gospel. We don’t need ex-ballplayers to tell us that it works. We don’t need politicians to come and to bless us. We don’t need any of these things. All we need to do is to stand back and do what Paul did at Athens. He preached the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We need to do what Paul did at Corinth. He preached the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the world was made different. When will the church understand this?

We may build a Habitat house. We may repair houses in storm-tossed Louisiana and Mississippi, but while we’re doing it we’re talking about Jesus. We’re becoming disciples of Jesus while we’re there. When Jesus said the whole world, he lifted the eyes off of narrow nationalism and took their eyes off of a petty set of rules of behavior. I could go into that. We argue so much about Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum. He talked to them about all nations — not just white nations, not just rich nations, not just nations that are above the equator, but all nations — changing this world. Changing this world is the only vision big enough for the cross of Jesus Christ and it’s the only vision big enough for a church that takes its calling seriously.

John Wesley said, “The world is my parish,” and Methodism flourished. My dear friends within the Methodist church will be glad to hear me say that about them. But Methodism has flourished because John Wesley said, “The world is my parish.” Most of our churches say, “The parish is my world,” and when we see only the parish as a place for our ministry we die. The local church has a responsibility. It is either, “The world is my parish,” and live and have the power of God, or it is, “The parish is my world,” and die.

He not only gave them a vision, an incredible vision — I could see them now on that mountain when he said, “the entire world.” They couldn’t even find Galilee. He said, “the entire world,” and they were standing around arguing which mountain did he say to be on? We don’t have a GPS system. We can’t find it. But then he said something else. This is what our deacons talk about. He said, “Make some disciples.” He said, “Go out and make disciples.” Disciple is a follower, one who learns from one who is closely identified with, one who takes on even the very aroma of the one who teaches him. He didn’t say, “Make casual consumer Christians.”

Let me stop here. Remember, when I preach I have something to offend everybody, but in American suburban Christianity, we are plagued with consumer religion. I was at a neighborhood gathering the other night. I asked the man where he went to church. He said, “Well, we go to such and such church for the music, then we go to another church across the neighborhood for the sports program. We go to another one for the religious education program.” I said, “Yes, but what church do you go to?” He said, “Well, we go to all. I want to spread it around.” I said, “Where do you give your money?” “Oh, we don’t give much. We just pay for what we use.” No, they don’t. They take their preaching here and I know.

The Christian faith is not something to be put out as a shopping center for Christians to cruise around and see as a consumer product. The Christian faith is a movement. It’s a family. It’s a part of something organic and you’re connected to it. What do you think of families that split up and cruise around? You don’t like that. What do we think of church members — note I said church members — who just have a shop here and there. Jesus said that’s not on this table. “I want a disciple who will follow me and learn of me. I want a disciple who is committed to something.”

I think all of us need to examine what level of commitment, what level of discipleship we have. We’ll talk about that more later, but if I’m going to get out of here at 2 o’clock I’ve got to move. He said, “Baptize them.” Now I preached a sermon on baptism a few weeks ago. It means “immerse in water” is an initiatory act into the Christian faith. If you’re going to begin to be a disciple, you have a step you take and then you begin becoming a disciple.

I don’t want to have any more arguments about baptism. We baptize in water, when there’s enough in the pipes around here to do it. Then he said teaching. That’s why we have Sunday school. You’ll make a disciple, you’ll baptize and you’ll teach. It’s simple. That’s how the church grows. About 15 years ago, I may have told you this story. I want to tell it again.

My wife and I had the privilege of knowing the United States Ambassador to Burma. Now it’s called Miramar. We made a journey out to see him. It’s halfway around the world and I figured if the Mission Board would send us halfway around the world they’d have to bring us back. So we had a round-the-world trip. We went to Thailand and visited some missionaries and went into Burma. You know, it was behind the Bamboo Curtain. It was kind of spooky back there.

We saw Judson Memorial Student Center at the University of Rangoon, all these names have been changed since the revolution in there. We went to church downtown, at a Baptist church on the square at the Judson Memorial Church, Adoniram Judson, the great missionary who had started the work there. The ambassador, incidentally, was an African American and when he told them he was coming he had to do that. We got there and they sang, “We shall overcome.” It was a great service we had.

When we had finished our trip to Burma and went back to Thailand to get on the main road so we could get a plane out of there because it was really isolated I was talking to one of our missionaries and I said, “We’ve been to Burma. We’ve seen Christians.” In fact, we received word right after we came out, that the Burmese Baptists had their national convention and baptized 5,000 people at their national convention. You know what the missionary told me? The missionary said, “You know how the gospel came to Thailand?” I said, “I guess Southern Baptist missionaries took it there.” He said, “No way. Adoniram Judson, in the early part of the 19th century, went to Burma, ended up being in jail for six years. All he did was get off the boat and they put him in jail.”

His wife was allowed to visit him. When she went to visit him she started learning the language. She was a linguist. She also heard another language that she didn’t understand and she inquired and found out that there were some Thai prisoners of war there because Burma and Thailand were always at war with one another, and so she learned their language and translated the book of Matthew into Thai. Had a Bible study with them every morning, then, when they were released from jail, they went back to Thailand as Christians.

Now that man was there in jail six years. I think his church ultimately had 10 or 12 members in it. Some of them were his own family. Well what happened? The gospel went to Thailand. The gospel’s planted in Burma. And now, over 200 years later, it is paying dividends deep, deep profound dividends, in the lives of those people. The gospel goes that way. You can’t judge it just one hour after the next.

I had a man in my previous church, dear man, but he had the vision of a mole, and every time I would preach a mission sermon he would come to me, it never failed, I could set my watch by it, “Bill, we wasted all that money in China and you’re preaching missions.” I heard that man so I’d see him coming after mission Sunday, I’d shake his hand, and I’d say, “Yes, we wasted all that money in China, didn’t we?” He’d shake his head and walk off. Well, I did his funeral. He was a good man; he just didn’t have any vision.

Let me tell you about China. The strongest church in the world right now is in the southern part of Africa, the southern hemisphere of the United States and in China. The church is burgeoning in China, the underground church and the above-ground church. I heard the report the other day of one of the churches that has six services on Sunday morning. They line up to get in.

I think about Lottie Moon and those other missionaries. Ruth Bell Graham, Billy Graham’s wife, was born there as the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries who worked and labored there. It takes a while for the seeds to get in, but it pays off. All of us, if we are honest, would have to admit that we are Christians, not because we were born in this country, but we’re Christians because somebody, somebody told us about Jesus Christ, started the old church we grew up in, and some unattractive, not exciting but very faithful Sunday School teacher, deacon, or preacher witnessed to us. We are all a product of missions. We need to learn that.

I do know what time it is. That doesn’t mean a thing. We’re not going out across the world taking a bunch of rules. He didn’t say, “Go out and take these rules.” That’s where we made a mistake in the Christian gospel. Paul didn’t intend to set out a bunch of rules. He was trying to get rid of a bunch of rules. He was telling them about a person he had only met, a person, a resurrected person and the core of everything he did was to tell them about a resurrected person, Jesus Christ the God Man. And when we go out and make disciples, we’re calling people to follow that resurrected person God Man Jesus Christ.

I would pray that God would call you to go deeper into faith and to become a disciple, not a consumer. I would pray that God would call you to the place where being a follower of Jesus would become the primary thing about your life, not a secondary thing, not a piece of optional equipment you add to the automobile if you want to.

Quickly I’ll say the last thing. He promised to give them heaven-sent power. We don’t do this on our own by our own wits. We don’t even do it by our own skill. We do it because he promised heaven-sent power. Since the coming of the gospel and the preaching of the gospel around the world, someone has asked, “Has it done any good?” I’ve never seen a hospital or an orphanage overseas that was not started by Christian missionaries. The president of Liberia, before he was assassinated, told me that if it was not for the missionaries who had come throughout the generations to Liberia, there would be no educational system there.

In this country, slavery has died because of the work and preaching of the gospel. Legalized racism has died in this country because of the preaching of the gospel. Women have been given equal rights in this country because of the preaching of the gospel, and communism has crumbled because the people learned freedom by studying the Bible in Eastern Europe. They went out and tore the wall down. The gospel has made the world different.

We usually ask the question, “If you were to die tonight would you wake up in heaven or hell?” That’s a relevant question. I’ve asked it from this pulpit in the last few months, but I want to ask you another question. If you had only a few years to live, if you had only a few years to live, what kind of life would you want? If you had assurance that you had just a few years, how would you like for those years to be spent? Would you like them to be spent as a disciple of Jesus, a God Man, the resurrected God Man, or do you want to use them in indulgence, laziness, and play? It’s up to you.

We’re going to give an invitation. If you would take Jesus as your Savior, start your journey, come on. And then I want you to look at this matter of church membership very clearly. If you’re ready to be a part of this movement, then come on. I’m not trying to get consumers to buy at our store. I’m trying to get people to understand that we’ll help you become a disciple, move your life and letter here. Come on. There are many of you that may have personal things that you need to pray through, we’ll have some time here. The congregation is praying for you. This is the most important thing we do and have done all day. It’s the most important thing we’ll do this week. Would you be praying for those who make decisions? Would you be praying about your own decision? You’re either a missionary or a mission field. Make the choice.

(Taken from an audio recording with minor editorial revisions.)