IN THE MEANTIME—HOPE
by Pastor Mike Fortune
May 9, 2009
Introduction Video: The Michael Gungor Band "White Man"
How do we live grace in the meantime?
- By placing a universal hope [John 14:6; Romans 1:20; Romans 8:19]
- In the finished work of Christ [John 14:10; Romans 9:28 KJV; John 1:9]
- Spreading throughout the world [John 14:12; Romans 5:1-2]
The 2008 Oscar award winning film Slumdog Millionaire is about an 18 year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai, India that is about to experience the biggest day of his life. With sixty million people watching on TV, Jamal Malik is just one question away from winning a staggering 20 million rupees on India's version of the once popular game show “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” But when the show breaks for the night, police arrest him on suspicion of cheating. “Doctors and lawyers rarely get past 10 million rupees,” the authorities wonder. “What can a slum dog possibly know?”
Desperate to prove his innocence, Jamal tells the authorities the story of his life in the slums of India where he and his brother grew up, of their adventures together, and of his feelings for Latika—the girl he loved and lost. In doing so, the authorities see how his life experiences have uniquely prepared him to answer the most difficult of questions on the game show leading up to the very last one. While my kids won’t be watching this film any time soon due to its violent nature and graphic portrayal of the sobering reality of life for orphans in India, it is a film I want them to see some day. Because it will expose them to some real stuff in the world that Christians, if they were aware of, could change. And because it has a happy ending! Which I won’t spoil for you.
But Pastor Rachel has seen orphans like the ones in this film up close and personal. For those of you who attended the 2009 Youth Operate “Valentines 4 India” banquet this year, you heard her show and tell us the heart breaking stories and pictures of children she knows by name in Ward 13 of Kolkata, India. They are part of a shelter called “New Light” run by Urmi Basu whose goal is to stop child prostitution and the trafficking of boys and girls in the slave trade. Much of which takes place in Mumbai and Kolkata and surprisingly to some—even in Toledo! The truck stops along 80-90 and 75 are a main thoroughfare for the trafficking of modern day slavery according to David Batstone in his heart wrenching book Not For Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade and How We Can Fight It.
I tell you this now so you know this isn't just about orphans in India. It’s about a universal hope [point number one] in the finished work of Christ [point number two] so greater things can happen—even in America [point number three]. Let’s see if you see those points in our passage too. Because today, we’re continuing our new sermon series “In the Meantime” and we’re asking: How do we live grace in the meantime? The disciples were wondering some version of that question in the looming shadow of the cross. We’re asking it in the light of the 2nd Advent.
John 14:5-14 [NIV] says, “5Thomas said to him, "Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?" 6Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you really knew me, you would know[a] my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him." 8Philip said, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us." 9Jesus answered: "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? 10Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. 11Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. 12I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. 14You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”
In staff meetings on Tuesdays, the group meeting with me has been reading the book Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them by Thom Rainer. In it, on pages 158 and 159, he says one of the main reasons churches reaching the unchurched successfully do so is because their leaders preach and teach “A Theology of Lostness” to the people in their church. “For most of these leaders, it is not enough to say that Jesus saves; they also believe that those who do not put their faith in Christ are eternally lost. Hell is a clear reality in this theology of lostness. The number one articulated motivational drive of these leaders was a theology that held that only Jesus saves, and anyone outside of Christ’s salvation is eternally damned.”
Can you see why they care so deeply about reaching the unchurched? Because if they don’t, they believe those people are eternally lost. But sadly, I suspect there may be another motivation for reaching the unchurched. A more subtle reason perhaps, but sinister nonetheless. And that is if they don’t preach and reach the least and the last, they themselves will be lost! People who think like this love to quote Ezekiel 33:8-9 which says, “8When I say to the wicked, 'O wicked man, you will surely die,' and you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. 9 But if you do warn the wicked man to turn from his ways and he does not do so, he will die for his sin, but you will have saved yourself.”
But if that’s what Ezekiel really means, and a person’s eternal destiny is based upon my success or failure in witnessing, most of the people I meet are screwed because I’m not very good at witnessing! And since it’s my job to equip you, you might not be very good at it either! So you see what I mean? If our understanding of John 14:6 fuels a theology of lostness based on fear for them or for us, we have created a massive PR problem for God. Because God is no longer love. Or if He is, He is love to only those people in places on earth lucky enough to be the recipient of a world class witnesser like J.N. Andrews.
But what about the slum dogs in India? What about the orphans in Africa? Who is responsible for their blood? Every missionary that flew anywhere else but Rwanda in the mid 1990's? And what about the people being trafficked in America today? They should’ve read that tract in the women’s bathroom before hopping into that truck? Game over you lose?
I don’t think so! No, that’s not what I think Ezekiel means. It’s not talking about our mission to preach and teach a theology of eternal lostness to every slum dog on earth. If you read the context of Ezekiel 33 starting in verse 1, the “son of man” being referred to was Ezekiel and verses 8 and 9 are talking about his mission to Israel—not ours to the world. It’s so dangerous to take texts out of context. But Adventists aren’t the only ones guilty of doing this. Entire bad theologies of lostness are being printed and preached throughout the Christian world. Especially with the very verse we just read today in John 14:6 which says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Why? Because good churches reaching unchurched people are using that text in Ezekiel and this text in John to scare people into witnessing or giving money so other people can do their witnessing for them via satellite or whatever. Go share your faith—or else! Talk about Jesus or a bunch of people are going to hell. And if you don’t, you might be next! Can we all humbly admit, friends, that this is just bad theology? It misrepresents the prophetic voice of God.
But worse than that, it’s offensive to God. Because God loves slum dogs like crazy! And atheists. And charlatans. And communists. And lesibans. And Catholics. And Protestants. And terrorists. And presidents. And even ole’ Pat Robertson as that catchy but thought provoking music video “White Man” by The Michael Gungor Band humorously taught us before I started speaking. So that’s the first reason we should have a universal hope. Because God loves ALL people like crazy! Even when we don’t.
A second reason we should have a universal hope, even for orphans in India and hookers at truck stops, is because God is committed to finding lost people. Even when we aren’t. Which reminded me of Jonah. You remember that old testament prophet with the book by the same name? He wasn’t committed to finding the lost. He didn’t even want to go anywhere near the lost much less preach to them. He wanted the Ninevites to burn—not turn! But in spite of his unmotivated witness, lo and behold the Ninevites turned to God anyway and when they did, Jonah was genuinely disappointed! What on earth was wrong with him? Probably the same thing that’s wrong with us when our theology of lostness scares us into witnessing!
But is there a better way? I believe there is. How do we live grace in the meantime? By placing a universal hope [point number one] in the finished work of Christ [and this is point number two]. Jesus said in John 14:10, “10Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.”
Whose work is it? God's! And who will finish the work? God! In the good old King James, Romans 9:28 says “28For He will finish the work, and cut it short in righteousness: because a short work will the Lord make upon the earth.” The Bible teaches that God doesn’t need us to finish His work. No one will miss out on salvation because you or I failed to tell them about the Savior. Because Jesus, according to John 1:9 is “9The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.”
Yes, there is original sin and every person coming into the world is born a sinner. But where does it say in the Bible that every slum dog is held accountable in the same way we are for being born one? Where does it say that every slave being held captive is also being held accountable for being born into slavery? Where does it say that every one of the 30k children killed by guns in the United States each year will also be eternally penalized for that? Where does it say that the 1.3 million babies being aborted each year will be lost because of the very difficult choices their very young mothers or fathers once made?
The answer is: it doesn’t! At least not the way I read John 14:6 and 10. Instead, Scripture suggests the opposite. That yes, we’re born sinners and yes we are all held accountable for that—but God holds us accountable in different and "invisible" ways.
But that’s not the theology I heard growing up. Instead, I was told some tale about children being saved and lost based on what their parents did until they turned 12 years old. For you Adventist history buffs, you may recall that’s what our pioneers like Ellen White actually believed too for a while. Conveying the widely held Victorian position of her day, she wrote that the sons and daughters of slaves whose slave owners never told them about Jesus would be “as though they never were.” Well, during her lifetime, Ellen White humbly grew in grace and realized such a position about children dying without hearing the truth of John 14:6 undermined the cross and was inconsistent with the rest of Scripture. So with her approval, while she was still alive, those statements were later edited out of her other books.
So sure of her growth in this universal hope, she later said this shocking thing about babies and infants who died too young but are resurrected when Jesus returns: “As the little infants come forth immortal from their dusty beds, they immediately wing their way to their mother’s arms. They meet again nevermore to part. But many of the little ones have no mother there. We listen in vain for the rapturous song of triumph from the mother. The angels receive the motherless infants and conduct them to the tree of life” [Selected Messages, Book 2, page 260]. Why did she say that? Because she grew in grace and in her understanding of salvation. And because she was elaborating on Ezekiel 18:1-18 so read that this afternoon just for kicks.
So yes, we’re born sinners and we are all held accountable for that—but we’re held accountable to God by God not man. And we’re held accountable to God in different ways. Neal Punt, an evangelical pastor and author started saying this in the late 1970's and early 1980's. Sadly, it hasn’t caught on in most of Christianity yet. But I’m naively and hopelessly optimistic that it will. Because long before Ellen White or Neal Punt wrote anything down about it, Paul said something similar in Romans 1:20. “20For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”
Thank God slum dogs in India are held accountable to God by God’s “invisible qualities.” Thank God orphans in Africa are held accountable to God by God’s “invisible qualities.” Thank God children in America [aborted or abandoned] are held accountable to God by God’s “invisible qualities.” And thank God that God loves them all like crazy! Psalm 87:6 says, “6The LORD will write in the register of the peoples: ‘This one was born in Zion.’” He knew them before they were even born [Jeremiah 1:5] and knit them together in their mother's womb [Psalm 139:13-14]. After they are born, God knows what they were taught and how they responded to what they understood about love and God. God is going to take every detail of every situation into account.
And because Jesus lived grace and showed Philip love and the rest of us disciples what the Father is like, so much so that He proved He would rather die than spend eternity without any of us, we can be sure that He will be fair! Nobody will be saved who wouldn’t want to be. And nobody will be lost who wouldn’t want to be. And nobody in all creation knows for sure who will be saved and who will be lost anyway! Romans 8:19 says, “19The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.” So forgive me for being a little suspicious of any author in any church that says they do!
So in the meantime, what should be our motivation for witnessing? Psalm 66:16 says, “16Come and listen, all you who fear God; let me tell you what he has done for me.” Daniel 4:2 states, “2It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me.” John 3:11 adds, “11I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen.” And Acts 4:20 concludes, “20For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
Why should we witness? Because we can’t help it! That why I don't think Jesus needed to tell the disciples to go ye into all the world. As if that was something new they had never heard before. God told Abraham to be a blessing to the nations a long time before that in Genesis 12:1-3. Rightly understood, mission to the world has always been one of the active ingredients in all the various covenants of God along with justification, sanctification, and reconciliation [for more on that read In Granite or Ingrained by Skip MacCarty pp.37-56]. So mission isn’t there to motivate us. It’s there because God knew people saved by grace would be motivated! “Discipleship,” Dietrich Bonhoefffer reminds us, “is merely the life that springs from grace” [Cost of Discipleship, p.63].
So that’s the first reason we witness. Because we CAN’T help it. But there’s another reason. And it’s just as good. It’s because we CAN help it! Like Jonah, we can choose to use what we know about love and God—even if we don’t always feel love for God. And if we do, God just might re-light that fire for Him in us that's waning because it’s often in the obedience of our going that God re-kindles our fire for God. Absence does make the heart grow fonder. But absence can also make the heart wander. To keep it from wandering, witness every chance you get! Seize the day! Live grace in the meantime! Even when you don't feel like it!
How? By placing a universal hope [point number one] in the finished work of Christ [point number two]. Which as a result, will spread throughout the world [and this is point number three]. God knew this would happen with or without you [cf. Matthew 24:14; Luke 19:40; Revelation 18:1]. So you might as well ride the greatest wave! John 14:12 says, “12I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”
But in what ways will we be doing greater things than Jesus? Will we walk on water? Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know. But what I do know is many more will walk beside the water of the Sea of Glass in heaven one day. Because Revelation 7:9 says the multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language will be so great that no one will be able to count it! Not because of our work. But because of Christ’s. Not because of our best witness. But often, like Jonah’s, in spite of it.
Still, Jesus told his disciples, “The poor you will always have among you” [John 12:8]. So there may always be slum dogs and orphans and truck stop hookers. And even with limitless access to all of God’s invisible qualities and divine nature, many of them may still say no to what they know of love and God! But in the meantime, if we place our universal hope, in the finished work of Christ, and His work spreads throughout the world, maybe God will use YOU to help Him save many more of those we used to think wouldn't be! That’s what I think Jesus really meant when He said in John 14:6 that “He is the way, the truth, and the life.” And that’s why Romans 5:1-2 says we still have this hope!