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Saturday, September 10, 2011

People Matter to God

Lk 15:10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
“Becoming a Contagious Christian”
This morning we are starting a new series.  We are going to be working through the book “Becoming a Contagious Christian” by Bill Hybels and Mark Mittleberg.  I'm sure that we'd all like to be contagious Christians wouldn't we?
If you said 'yes' to that then this series is for you.
I have the privilege of the first chapter.  It's title is “People Matter to God”, so I will use that as the title of this sermon.
Americans & Motivation
In the first chapter the authors start by talking about what motivates us.  They are American, and have a different view of motivation than us English.  I have worked for American companies for most of my working life and have been subject to their beliefs on motivation many times.  One of my training courses gave some statistics on the motivational effects of pay rises.  If I remember correctly people given pay rises work harder for just a few weeks, after that the motivational effect of the pay rise has passed.  Motivation comes from within.  What we are motivated to do is made up of our God given character and the cumulative effects of the experiences we have had over the years. 
So there's nothing we can do to 'get motivated'. 
No!  That's not true, because God works from within.  He can and will change our motivations, especially so if we ask him to.
Our motivation is shown by what we do or don't do.  If something is important to you, you will be motivated to do something about it. 
People matter to God
If people matter to God, then from what I have just been saying He should be motivated to look after them and care for them.  We can see this is the case within creation.  He has placed us in a world that is ideally suited to our needs.  Life can be harder in some places and easier in others, but God knows that we need problems to solve and difficulties to overcome.  He wants each of us to treat others the way that He treats them.  After spending a few verses telling the Israelite that their sacrifices are unacceptable to Him because of their constant sin He goes on to say (from the end of verse 15 in Isaiah chapter 1) “Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed.   Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”
We see similar things in Jesus ministry.  In Luke 8 there is the story of the man healed of demon possession, and Jairus' daughter whose healing he interrupted to speak to the woman who touched his robe.  There are many other stories of Jesus concern for individual who he did not know.
The three stories in Luke 15
People matter to God.
These three stories that we had heard today show the lengths that God will go to to reach people.  Lets take a look at them now and see what Jesus is getting at.
Lost sheep
Firstly there is the story of the lost sheep.  Shepherds were considered to be the lowest of the low – all of them lying, idle, thieving cheats, but Jesus makes this shepherd the hero of the story.  It does not begin well.  The shepherd has lost a sheep – that's typical, they can't even keep watch over a few sheep.  Then it gets worse.  “Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” No! He doesn't!  Not even a bad shepherd abandons the sheep that he has while he goes in search of the one lost sheep. The other ninety nine are left untended and are vulnerable to wolves and bears, and that's assuming that none of them will wander off.
The shepherd is mad!
But notice how it ends.  The shepherd has a party saying to his friends ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 
It's an illustration of just how desperate God is to find the people he has lost.
Lost Coin
Then there's a woman who has lost a coin.  The economy of the time was mainly based on barter.  The poor would have had only a few coins for use in emergencies or for the rare things they could not make trades for.  It's probable that the coin would have been part of her dowry and would have been kept on a necklace.  If so, when she spotted it was missing she would have been very upset.  She sets about sweeping the earthen floor until she hears the coin move or sees a glint of it in the light, then she knows she's found it. She has made a diligent and determined search for the coin.
This story ends in the same way. The woman has a party saying to his friends  ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 
Lost Son
The last story is of the lost son.  The son asks his father for the inheritance, which is duly given.  The father would have been seen as at least as mad as the shepherd.  No-one in his right mind would split up his estate before he was dead – it is economic suicide.  The story follows the son, but it's not the son that we should be concentrating on, its the father.  Unlike the shepherd and the woman he cannot go and make a search.  He has allowed his son to leave, but he watches for his return – perhaps he does nothing else.  Then in an act of compassion he runs to meet his boy. 
He runs, so he would have had to lift up his full length robe and shown his ankles.  This was taboo, like one of us running down the street naked to meet our son.  Jesus' audience would, by now, have lost all sympathy for the man.  He has no dignity left.  His son is immediately re-instated – given a ring and sandals, which makes him one of the family again.  Then there is a huge party.
As an aside, if you don't understand why the older brother is SO upset by his fathers reaction look at verse 12 “The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property  between them.”  So where did the father get the ring, the sandals and the fatted calf?
3 Illustrations that people matter to God
We've just heard three stories that show how much people matter to God.  He is the shepherd, the woman, or the father.  Each of these characters cares so much for the thing that was lost that they go to extreme lengths to find it and then, when they do find it, they have a party to celebrate.
Just to be sure we have the point Jesus makes it clear for us in verse 7 he says “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”  and in verse 10 “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” 
We are the one sinner
Each of us, at some point, whether we can remember it or not – whether we know when it was or not, each of us has been that one sinner.  God threw a party in heaven for us, because we turned away from our old way of life and accepted that Jesus died for our sins, and said we wanted to live for Him.
That's worthy of a party!
But do they matter to you?
People Matter to God.
You matter to God.  That is why he sent his son to die for your sins.  Now like the lost son you are restored to God's family and have already been allowed into heaven.  As part of your restoration you said that you wanted to live the way God wants you to.  That means being more and more like Jesus – who God sent us to show us how to live, as well as to die in or place.
How much do people matter to us?
How much do people matter to us?
[Read “An Eye-opening Interchange” p8,9, up to “A story about 'once-a-yearers' ending ... God doesn't have any use for them either.”]
How often do we make value judgements of people, perhaps just by looking at them.  Perhaps we've even looked around at the people who come to midnight communion or to Easter morning and thought “Why do they bother, no-one really wants them here.”  I've certainly read sermons that tell them to go away and never come back.  It's a tempting message after all we have to change what we do to accommodate them on our most important festivals – perhaps we should just issue tickets for those services in the weeks before?
It's a tempting message … but it is just a temptation, one of the ways the devil has of getting us off track.
It happens time and again.  We look at someone, the person on the bus or train perhaps, who is unattractive and may not be behaving well and assume that God doesn't care for them any more than we do.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  As we have seen in our three stories today they matter to God more than we could possibly imagine.
Choosing who we talk to
Who do we take the time to talk to?  Only people like us?  Only our family and friends?
Talking to people isn't easy.
I went on a training weekend run by Through faith Missions, the people who do “The walk of a thousand men”.  One of the things we tried was pub evangelism.  The idea was that in the pub you strike up a conversation with someone, and if they want to talk – you talk, and bring the conversation around to Jesus.  You are helped by wearing a sweatshirt with “Walk of a thousand men” on it. 
Who would you choose to talk to in the pub?  The guy next to you at the bar is the most obvious – whoever he is. It is the most difficult thing I have ever tried and I failed miserably.  I was not able to even try to start a single conversation.  Some of us succeeded though. 
I can start conversations with people in the bus queue or at the check-out, but those are generally too short to get anywhere – but you never know!
I am, of course, very happy to answer anyone's questions, if they come up to me and ask me something.
What would make it easier to talk about our faith?
What would make it easier to talk about our faith?
Now we have to come back to motivation.  Most of us talk about things that really matter to us – our family, our friends, our work.  If we were so close to God that our relationship with him was similar to our relationship with our friends and family things would be different.  (I'm assuming of course that our relationships with our friends and family are good!)
So, in order to get us motivated, we need to get closer to God and have a better experience of Him.
We could also start by talking to our Christian friends about our experiences of God.
How much do we want an invite to one of those heavenly parties?
How much do we want an invite to one of those heavenly parties?
I have had the privilege of leading someone to Christ only once.  It was an amazing experience, and my spirits were raised for weeks afterwards – much longer than they would have been by a pay rise.  It is just like being invited to the party that takes place in heaven.  I am certainly hoping that the experience will be repeated.