"Jes' Folks: Finding Bridges to Cross"
Matthew 9:35-38; 10:5-16 Sept.4/05
Ready or Not, Here We Come
Evangelism ought to be a good thing, because it means sharing the good news about Jesus. But we may be reluctant to evangelize because of painful experiences when it was poorly done in the past. Believers who have more zeal than knowledge may offend more often than they communicate. A barber was newly saved, and was eager to tell others what Jesus had done for him. As he met his first customer the next day, he was sharpening his straight razor on the leather strap. His initial approach to his customer was by asking, "Are you ready to die?" (!) One can imagine what went through the customer's mind as he viewed the finely honed razor. No pressure! As someone has observed, "If we don't use tact, we may lose contact."
When Jesus sent the twelve disciples out to evangelize, he gave them instructions that would prepare them to have zeal but also be helpful and tactful, rather than threatening. In today's passage we see Him underline at least 3 things: the urgency of the appeal; the boldness of the announcement; and carefulness in the approach.
Urgency of the Appeal
First, the appeal carries a note of urgency. 9:36 notes that when Jesus saw the crowds, "he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." The next verse switches imagery to that of a "plentiful harvest" but with insufficient workers to bring it in. In 10:6 Jesus refers to the "lost sheep" of Israel - like animals milling about aimlessly, without a leader, perhaps wandering in the direction of a steep cliff or away from life-sustaining water. Later in 10:15 Jesus notes with serious emphasis, "I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town." Judgment will be unbearably difficult for those who have not responded to God.
Consider more closely the condition of the people, "harassed and helpless", that so moved Jesus at a gut-level with compassion. "Harassed" translates a word that means to rend or tear, as if mangled by wild beasts. "Helpless" literally means thrown to the ground, to lie prostrate. What do we commonly see that's torn, mangled, thrown to the ground? Road kill! Jesus sees the damage that sin and evil are causing in people's lives; Satan's Mack trucks of twisted desire and corporate corruption are smashing individuals, laying them out flat like road kill. We're too used to seeing raccoons, groundhogs, and skunks smeared across the pavement; last week Yvonne & I were heading to Heartland when we passed a chicken that unfortunately had been hit. By the time the service was done and we were heading back home, its condition had deteriorated considerably. "Why, O why, did the chicken cross the road?" We may feel sorry for animals killed on the road, or revulsed by the sight of the damage, but when it comes to people - Jesus is moved deep-down; compassion becomes the motivation to do something that will stop the spiritual slaughter.
The harvest that is so plentiful standing in the fields may sprout, go mouldy, lose its protein value or be downed by the wind unless it's brought in to the barn or granary in time. It's urgent that people hear about eternal salvation before their fragile life is cut off. Who would have guessed just 10 days ago that Marion Cook would die so suddenly? Yet it could happen to any of us. The death toll from Hurricane Katrina was considerable; disaster has altered forever the expectations of many.
As an example of an individual whose state evokes compassion, I think of a man Keith has been working with at the homeless shelter in Ottawa. This native fellow was severely injured in a vehicle accident years ago which broke many of the bones in his body and necessitated extensive facial reconstruction. He is plagued by painful memories of an abusive upbringing, particularly a breach in the relationship with his father. When the depression gets unbearable, he's slipped into excessive drinking, which only worsens his condition. In jail, the man started reading his Bible and took an Alpha course soon after. Keith believes the man is a Christian; they talk about the Bible together. But the man has also talked of taking his own life sometimes, the pain and depression are so bad. One day last week the man had come to the drop-in suicidal, asking for Keith who wasn't there, then left. Keith spent hours searching for the man, inquiring amongst those on the street until he found his home. Keith could hear the TV on inside but there was no answer at the door. Life hangs by a slender thread for many people; it's urgent that we introduce them to the Saviour who can help solve the internal issues that lock them in turmoil and drag them down.
The enemy's objective is to steal, kill, and destroy (Jn 10:10); apart from a Saviour's help, for those caught in the undertow of life, self-destruction becomes a real possibility. So the rescue mission is very urgent.
Boldness of the Announcement
The Lord was bold in advertising God's Kingdom and calls His followers to be bold as well in making known the Good News. 9:35 says he went through all the towns and villages, "teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness." He was out there and active with a lot to offer - teaching, preaching, and healing. The message we present is valuable, worth a lot. In 10:7 Jesus commands, "As you go, preach this message: 'The kingdom of heaven is near'." The messengers were sent to the villages ahead of Jesus to build anticipation for His arrival, to create excitement and whet interest. They were announcing a great event about to happen.
The word "preach" translates a word meaning "to proclaim after the manner of a herald; always with the suggestion of formality, gravity, and an authority which must be listened to and obeyed." When a governor or president or prime minister proclaims a state of emergency or a major new source of funding, that's important, others take note, it alters the course of events; preach is like 'proclaim' in that sense. "Listen up! This is important stuff you need to know!"
Preaching, conveying the truth about Jesus, happens in many ways. Marion Cook preached by her deeds (including her delicious and renowned pies), her words, even her appearance - at the funeral someone was mentioning the 'glow' on her face. Her warmth and manner drew others to want that same peace, radiance, and assurance that they realized came as a result of Marion's trust in Jesus as her Lord. If you were acquainted with her, there was no question who or what she stood for; yet she wasn't obnoxious in her witness. It was interesting to note the wide variety of folks that turned up for her visitation and funeral. Both municipal officials and those on social assistance turned up to pay their respects. Not a one would argue that Marion's relationship with Christ was an important factor in her caring and integrity. She preached by her whole life, with actions and a presence that left a gap in our community. Like the person who advised, "Preach at all times; if necessary, use words."
There's another reason we can be bold in our announcing. Jesus said in 9:38, "Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field." The harvest is not up to us, though it matters that we get involved. The harvest is God's, He's "the Lord of the harvest", He's the boss, the One in charge, the only Sovereign Spirit who can turn people's hearts from sin to the Son. He's responsible, we're just the messengers; if people aren't receptive to our message, we're to shake the dust off our feet and move on (10:14). Knowing God is the Lord of the harvest is freeing; the burden is lifted from our shoulders, it doesn't depend on us but Him, though we are called to do our part and sow seed. Only He gives the growth.
So our motivation is not from a sense of compulsion or pressure but as a response to Jesus' grace as we've benefited from it in our lives. Christ said in 10:8, "Freely you have received, freely give." It's not that we have to fill our quota of so many doors knocked on each week. It's not to be out of duty, but delight, one beggar telling another beggar where to find food.
Freedom, not fear, undergirds the whole process. It's meant to be a choice, people need to 'opt in' to the Kingdom. Myron Augsburger comments, "The important thing in evangelism is making faith in Christ an option - making faith a possibility for people. In doing so we respect their freedom while making them aware of their responsibility." Their decision matters and has real consequences in the eternal scheme of things.
Mike Breen was a pastor in England, now in Arizona. Their church in England creatively combined the announcement aspect of evangelism with helpful servanthood action. He recalls, "In the inner city, we did many things to be present in our community. One regular job was to pick up litter and junk from around the apartments. These areas were really dirty and had loads of trash scattered about. During one of our clean-up days, a set of 16-year-old Asian twins called to us from their third story window asking who we were and why we were doing what we were. I perceived through the Holy Spirit that they were looking for Christ so I sent someone up to pray with them. Then and there they became Christians and they have gone on to become strong disciples of Christ."
Carefulness of the Approach
In some ways, evangelism can be described as finding relational bridges into people's lives and then crossing these bridges, bringing Jesus with you into that person's situation, or perhaps rather discovering where He's already at work unbeknownst to them. Yet it starts with finding the right bridge.
Returning from holiday just over a week ago, we were travelling north on interstate 190 in Buffalo looking for the Peace Bridge across to Fort Erie. I noticed this huge bridge coming across from the left, which I deduced must be the bridge to Canada. But there were no signs saying that. I started getting anxious - "It's a Yankee plot to keep Canadians hostage, staying longer and having to spend more money in the states." We took an exit and followed a sign that said "skyway". Crossing a significant span, we were coming down to land on the far side only to be greeted by a sign that said: "Welcome to Western New York". It was the wrong bridge! Consulting the map, we turned around, got back on the interstate, and soon found the real bridge to Canada appropriately marked after all. To find the right bridge, we needed to be more careful in reading the signs and trusting the process.
So it is in sharing Jesus with people; we need to be careful in our approach, watching the signs closely, in order to discover the right bridge, the open port of entry. Jesus says in 10:11ff, "Whatever town or village you enter, search for some worthy person there and stay at his house until you leave.As you enter the home, give it your greeting.If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you." The searching is a careful investigating, gently probing, sensitively looking for the best approach, or for the person who's at a place in their life to hear and respond to the gospel. When we find the approach or the particular person, that's when we begin to carefully share the difference Jesus makes.
Mike Breen and Walt Kallestad note this "worthy person" is called "a man of peace" in the parallel passage in Luke 10(6), or 'person of peace'. They write, "We are to be on the lookout for a Person of Peace. Who is this Person of Peace, and how do we recognized him? Very simply, a Person of Peace is one who is prepared to hear the message of the kingdom and the King.He is ready to receive what God will give you to say at that moment...One who is not a Person of Peace will not receive what you have to say."
In the town of Philippi in Acts 16, Paul found first Lydia, a business woman, then later the local jailer, who were both receptive to what he had to say about Christ. Breen & Kallestad note, "The Person of Peace is someone God has prepared for that specific time.It is no good trying to force open doors that God has not opened, and we must not be distracted so that we miss the doors He has opened...God does most of the work...We need to be spiritually perceptive to situations and circumstances, as well as to individuals, in order to identify the Person of Peace. For instance...you are golfing with three other men you just met on the first tee. As you complete your round and are shaking hands after the 18th hole, ask yourself, "What was the temperature of the soil? Was it hot, warm, or cold?" If the temperature was cold - none of the men exhibited any signs of being open to you sharing the Good News with them - move on. Shake the dust from your cleats, as it were, and wish them well. But if you sense any warmth in the soil, pursue a further relationship with that person. He is a Person of Peace for you."
Life becomes an amazing adventure when we approach situations looking for the 'worthy person', the "Person of Peace", who may be open to us sharing our greeting of peace with which God's blessed us. Think of an impersonal and intimidating situation - for example, the freeway. Cars whizzing past each with their own unknown occupants and goals, separated by speed and steel. It's easy to fall victim to road rage when you don't have a clue who's in the other vehicle. But what if we could "freeze" the corridor and have time to stop and talk to those in the other vehicles - get to know them? Would we discover they're 'jes' folks' like us?
That's exactly what happened when Yvonne & I were on our way to Virginia. We'd just nicely got onto interstate 270 towards Washington DC when, a few miles ahead of us, a tanker collided with a car (so we heard) and burst into flame, halting traffic on the four-lane highway in both directions. For two hours we sat there, bumper to bumper, engines off after the first few minutes, waiting for the emergency workers to do their thing and the backup to clear. In the meantime, it was a nice night, so we started to talk to the people in the nearby cars who were also getting out for a stretch and to see whatever they could. Behind us was a local man in a pickup truck who'd just bought some goats for resale. We knew a farmer who milked goats, we said, and discovered these were a different breed of goat.
Beside us in a green SUV was a graduate student from Alaska en route to the University of Maryland. She had her dog with her. She was going to be studying ocean life on the floor of the Chesapeake River. We talked about our own offspring in university at various places across the continent.
Ahead of us, driving a transport truck, was a black man from Richmond Virginia who filled us in on what he'd heard on the CB about the situation up ahead. As time dragged on, I climbed up the door beside his cab and he helpfully showed me an alternate route to the west so I could cross the median like many others and press on to our destination.
Not far behind us was another gentleman who fetched his flashlight and patiently held it while I was checked our fan connection, as the car had been overheating since the mountains of Pennsylvania.
Strangers? Not really, after two hours - they turned out to be 'just folks' after all, each with their own hopes and dilemmas, surprisingly approachable and easy to find points of contact with. If we'd had longer, we may have found there were relational bridges that could have been investigated.
On another occasion, Yvonne & I were having breakfast at a Cracker Barrel in Williamsburg, Virginia. When I greeted the waitress, asking in a general way how she was, she said she was just OK - that didn't sound great. Later on in the meal when she came to check on us, I swallowed hard, went out on a limb, and popped the question: I asked if there were any way in which we could be praying for her. I didn't know what to expect - probably fearful of a cold icy stare or stunned silence. But what resulted was amazing. For the next 5 minutes Pauline (as we found out her name was) stood there and poured forth her weariness and woes. She lived in a trailer with two dogs. Her 25-year-old daughter and two children had moved in with her as a result of a marriage break-up. Pauline worked 3 days a week and babysat 3 days a week. The daughter's cats did not get along with the dogs; the trailer was constantly in a mess. The ex-son-in-law was involving them in a court battle over custody issues. The daughter was hoping to move out west and, frankly, Pauline couldn't wait for that to happen so life could return to normal. No wonder she felt tried and looked less than peppy. But unless we'd asked, we'd never have known. We assured Pauline we'd be praying for her and asking God to provide strength and work things out. She seemed relieved to have been able to share her difficulties with two sets of listening ears and hearts. This "Person of Peace" was receptive to the Healer in whom we trusted. We had stumbled upon a relational bridge much in need of the Master's repair and empowerment.
It takes some boldness and caring to screw up your courage and pop the question, but being used of God is so rewarding! It starts with simply asking. When Henry Ford purchased a large insurance policy, the Detroit newspapers blazoned the fact since the amount was so large and Ford was so prominent. The story was read by one of Ford's old friends, who happened to be in the insurance business. The old friend went to confront Ford to see if the story were true. When Ford assured him that it was, the friend inquired why the policy was not purchased from him, since he was a personal friend and had been in insurance for many years. Ford's reply? "You never asked me."
How many of those we know could say to us, "You never asked me," as to our sharing Christ with them? For how many will it be too late in 2 years...10 years? "Ask...seek...knock..."
But do it with tact - not with a sharp razor in one hand! Jesus cautioned, "Be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves." (10:16) If shrewd, we'll make our interaction intelligent, wise, tactful, creative; while letting Jesus' character shine through in our actions and manner - pure, unthreatening, with no doubt about the goodness of our intentions. Then we will experience the blessing of partnering with Him in the harvest, even as He continues to produce His fruit in our own lives. Let's pray.