Too Close to the Edge?

Delivered October 22, 2000 by Rev. Jerome D. Cooper.

Sermon Text:
Mark 1:4-11

An old Somali camel driver once told a missionary who was working in the horn of Africa, “When you put a church on the back of a camel, then I will believe that Christianity is for us!” Well, how do you build a church on the back of a camel? Well, until that Somali camel driver, who is a nomad and who doesn’t have a house, but follows his camels around, until he realizes that the gospel really doesn’t have anything to do with stationary buildings, institutional organizational structures or wearing very specific kinds of clothes on Sunday, until he realizes that’s not what the gospel is all about, he probably can’t ever hear a meaningful, relevant presentation of what the gospel is all about. Because too often when we take the gospel to other places of the world, what we take as much as the gospel is our culture. So for someone to come to Christ, they also have to somehow conform to the culture of the missionary that has gone to that place.

In fact, Neil Thompson and I were working on next Sunday’s worship service and I said, “Let’s put some elements of a Thai worship service in and be creative.” He replied that Thai worship services look pretty much like any Western church, because, when the missionaries came, they brought their way of doing things. They weren’t very indigenous, and they didn’t really try to use many Thai forms. So any of us would feel fairly comfortable in a Thai worship service, since Americans planted most of those churches. That’s probably not the only reason why only about 1% of Thais are Christians, but it probably is a significant factor in people not being able to see Jesus as the Savior in their own culture. We are making them come to our culture as well as to Christ.

To change a culture is much like riding a bike. To turn a bicycle, you have to get on the bicycle and start peddling. As you start moving forward it becomes very easy to turn the bike. In the same way, it is very difficult to change, to turn a culture until you get on and start peddling – until you become a part of it. Once you’re in it and a part of it, you can begin to influence it.

With the Somali camel herders, what does it look like to build a church on the back of a camel? What it probably looks like is for a Christian to get on the back of a camel, because isn’t that what the church is? It is not a structure, not a building, not an organization, it is not a matter of standing up and sitting down at the right times and wearing the right clothes. It is a matter of the presence of Jesus Christ in his people. And so, we are probably never going to reach the nomads in Somalia or in Central Asia or anywhere else, until Christians are willing to give up their rootedness and say, “Okay, I’ll be a nomad, too.” That is the way we can bring the church and Jesus Christ to that culture. This principle – the principle of immersing ourselves into a culture to reach it – is a principle that was taught and lived by the greatest missionary strategist of all time. That greatest of missionary strategists was named Jesus Christ.

A little bit earlier in our service, Lou read for us a few verses from John 1, talking about the Word. “In the beginning was the Word… through the Word, all things in this world were made…” And finally, verse 14 of John 1, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” You see, God himself, the one who created all things, the one who created you and me, decided that in order to show his love, in order to communicate his love and his care and his salvation, he needed to come to us. He needed to immerse himself in our culture – but for him, that was a gigantic step. It meant leaving the holiness of heaven, the beauty of heaven, to come to this earth full of sin, full of darkness. It meant leaving the perfect fellowship he had with the Father and the Holy Spirit in heaven and coming to the world he created, but which rejected him – where even one of his closest friends in the end betrayed him. Yet this Word of God became flesh in Jesus Christ.

He became a man of the first century Jewish culture. He spoke their language. He lived out their culture. He celebrated their customs. He attended their synagogues and their Temple. He was pretty much indistinguishable from any other first century Jewish carpenter. But he did it in order to be with us, in order to minister not just from on high, but in order to be among us, to communicate with us in ways that we would understand, in a language that we would understand, in a form that would make sense to us – or at least, I should say, to a first century Jewish culture.

It is called “the Incarnation.” The Word became flesh. Incarnation. We often nowadays use that word when speaking about “incarnational ministry.” The term is used when a Christian does hands on work as opposed to just sending a bible tract to an orphanage, for example. Incarnational ministry means you actually go “in the flesh” to the orphanage and you relate to the orphans there. You play with them, you talk with them. You get involved in their lives, you hug them, eat with them, encourage them. That’s incarnational ministry.

The term is sometimes used for going to do ministry in the city, when rather then just sending money into the city for someone else to do ministry, we actually go in the flesh to help those who may be in great spiritual and material need. But the problem with much of white, suburban incarnational ministry – and I don’t want to be too harsh here – is that it is only half-way incarnational. You see, our flesh is there, but we too often fail to really identify with the people. We go in and do a little work, and then we head back out without really forming relationships that communicate and relate with the people where they are, as who they are, in the situation where they live.

Look at Jesus. He lived the history of the first century Jews. He bore the burdens that they carried. He took upon himself that the challenge of their economic system and the challenge of being oppressed by the Romans. Incarnational ministry is when we actually go and live as the people do. As Mark and Susan Smith are trying to do in Cambodia, working among the poor. But you know, Jesus went one step further than incarnational ministry. I mean incarnation is a challenge, don’t get me wrong, but he went one step further. He went from incarnation to identification – from incarnation to identification.

Please turn with me in your bibles to Mark, chapter 1. You can find it on page 707 of your red pew bibles – page 707. This is a story of John the Baptist, and when Jesus Christ comes to John in order to be baptized. Hear the Word of the Lord as it comes to us starting in Mark, chapter one, verse four.

And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

May the Lord add his blessing to this reading from his holy Word. Please join me as we pray together.

Lord we do thank you for your Word. We thank you both for your written Word as well as the Word become flesh in Jesus Christ. We thank you for his incarnation and his identification with us and we pray now that as we study these words that you would change us by them and transform us, and not simply educate and inform us. We ask that you would do that by the power of your Holy Spirit at work within us. For we ask it in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness and started preaching and baptizing. And what was he preaching? It was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Now to repent means you look at your life and you say it is not going in the right direction. To repent means you turn your life around and go in the other direction, and as you do that you confess your sins so that God might forgive you of all of your sins, so that we might be cleansed, and given a new life. That message resonated with people and they began to flock to John. They needed to repent – to turn around and head in a different direction. They knew they needed forgiveness of their sins because they could not keep God’s Law perfectly. They knew their lives weren’t right, and the sent to the wilderness to find an answer.

And into all this, Jesus came. And what did Jesus do? Did he say “Yeah, you guys you need to be baptized, because you need repent and forgiveness pretty bad. But since I don’t, I’ll just watch.” That’s not what Jesus said, was it? That’s not what he did. What he did do was an amazing thing. Jesus wanted to be baptized by John. Jesus. The one that we say is sinless, right? The one who doesn’t need to go a new way, because he IS the new way. Why is he submitting to a baptism of repentance? If he is sinless as we say and believe, and as scripture teaches – which is why his death on the cross could actually carry the penalty for our sins, because he had none – why was he asking for a baptism of repentance and forgiveness? Wasn’t his opening Jesus up to tremendous misunderstanding? If Jesus was baptized wouldn’t people start making assumptions, saying, “Oh, my goodness. Look at Jesus. He needs to repent just like we do. Look, he obviously needs forgiveness just like us. It is probably some secret sin that he normally keeps hidden.”

You see, when Jesus was baptized, he took a tremendous risk. The risk of people misunderstanding his intentions – misunderstanding the reason he was baptized. In fact it wasn’t simply a potential risk – most of the people who saw Jesus being baptized would have naturally assumed that he must be sinful. They wouldn’t even give it a second thought. Remember, this is the beginning of his ministry, and people didn’t know his true identity yet. He was just Jesus, the passage says, from Nazareth. Just Jesus. That is not a very common name in English, but it is the same name as Joshua in Hebrew. It was a popular name, like being called Bob today. Hey, there is Bob, Bob from Frederick who is coming to be baptized. Nothing special about him. He is just like one of us. Good old Bob, a sinner.

But the point is, Jesus wasn’t a sinner. He didn’t need to repent, so why did he do it? You see, this is where Jesus moves beyond incarnation to identification. Incarnation is becoming flesh. Becoming like one of us in the sense of our culture and our language, in order to relate to us. But Jesus said, “You know what? I want to do more than just relate. I want to identify with the darkest, most difficult parts of the life that you live. Now, it doesn’t mean that I am going to participate in your sin, but I am going to identify with your sin. It means that I am not going to hold myself as being above you. It means that the pain you feel, I want to feel as well.”

It is like father Damien, the Belgian missionary to Hawaii. Hard place right? Back about 150 years ago, he began to plant churches on the island of Molokai. He planted several churches on the main part of the island, but there is another part that nobody ever went to, willingly. It’s a small Peninsula that juts out north from the island and is separated from the rest of the Molokai by an almost sheer cliff 2,000-3,000 feet high. The only ways to get to that peninsula were to jump off the cliff or go by boat in the open ocean. That deserted peninsula was where the Hawaiians abandoned all their lepers, If you got leprosy in Hawaii, you were taken to this peninsula and abandoned. And Father Damien felt a call to the people there who had been cast off, outcasts removed from society. And he worked there just as he had done on the rest of the island. He built a church with his own hands and helped them build a society – even helping them build houses for themselves – and he lived among them and sought to humbly serve them in any way he could. One day, after he had been there for about 15 years, he was cooking a meal and boiling some water when he spilled the water and it hit his foot. And he realized that there was no pain when it hit. So he tried again. He purposely poured the boiling water on his foot, and there was no pain. That could only mean one thing. He now had leprosy. The next Sunday in church as he began to lead the people in worship, he didn’t give his normal greeting. You see, every Sunday he would start, “My fellow believers.” But this Sunday he began, “My fellow lepers.” He had in every way become one of them. Even taking upon himself their greatest pain.

Jesus doesn’t merely come to us in the flesh, while at the same time trying to escape our experiences of pain, not really identifying with who we are and our struggles. He doesn’t hold himself apart from, or even higher than us.

When I was at Kay Smoes’ church in Costa Rica, I was speaking with the elders and deacons about missions and about what it means to care for and support missionaries when one of the men shared an experience he had with a Western missionary. He said, “Many years ago a missionary moved into my neighborhood, but nobody liked that missionary because he didn’t really want his children to play with our children. He didn’t want to get involved with the things that was important to the other families. He looked down on us. He viewed himself as being better than we were and thought we had nothing to offer him. I’m not saying he did no good, but he just couldn’t be very effective.” Unfortunately, that missionary didn’t really understand God’s call. He got the first part of the incarnation principle, “I’m supposed to be there in the flesh.” He was there, but he failed to identify with the people and thought he was better.

Now think about Jesus. Who are the only people he ever had problems with. It wasn’t the sinners. The worst people in the eyes of religious society were the folks that Jesus hung out with. The people Jesus couldn’t stand – well, maybe that’s too strong – the people he had the most trouble with were the self righteous. The Pharisees. And what was their problem? It was that they were not willing to identify with the failings of other people. And they even had sin their own. Jesus had no sin, yet he wanted to identify. The Pharisees, although they had sin themselves, were so afraid of it that they were unwilling to identify with the common people. Afraid that people might think less of them, stop revering them. They probably thought that if they identified with common people, they might be lumped into the same categories. Others might even misunderstand and think they shared the same sins. But Jesus said, “Let them misunderstand. The risk is worth it, because to show God’s love to its depths, I’ve got to identify with the people where they are, even their sin.”

Now what does that mean for you and me today. I could talk about what it means in Costa Rica and in Southeast Asia, but you know what? Here at Central, we need to start applying missiological principles to our own life and community. In fact, when the Session was going through a visioning process earlier this year, one of the observations was that we need to do exactly that. Not just observing mission principles out there, but applying them right here. Not just being incarnational and contextual when we go to Thailand or Cambodia or Costa Rica or Brazil or Somalia, but right here in Baltimore – right here at 7308 York Road. And what does that look like? What does it mean for us to being applying these principles? There are two questions that we need to wrestle with as we think through this. The first is: “How do we use the gift of choice that we have been given in life?”

How do we use the gift of choice? In our lives we have almost unlimited choices, don’t we? For example, we get to choose where to live. In fact, most of us here have the material means to live almost anywhere we want – although admittedly, there are a very few places that may be out of reach for most of us. But where do we choose to live? Do we choose to live in the places that provide the most comfort, or that provide the most ministry opportunities? Do we choose the places where people are like us or do we opt for places of greater diversity, whether ethnically, economically or educationally? So we choose a place according to our needs that can be met, or where we can meet the needs of others? Do we exercise our gift of choice selfishly or strategically?

Okay, let’s come even closer to home – or at least a little closer to where we are sitting right now. What worship service do you choose? It seems that most of you have chosen 8:15, at least this morning. Let me ask another question. On February 4 when we move to three services, which service will you choose? 8:15, 10:00 or 11:30? Are you going to choose contemporary, traditional or new contemporary? Are you going to choose based on time and convenience and thinking, “Well, I like that kind of music the best, so I’ll go to that service.” Or will you choose strategically, saying, “It isn’t so important which one I like the most, or which is most convenient. I am going to go the service where I can serve God most effectively.” Which way are you going to choose worship? Now most of us choose based on time and style, don’t they? And that is my inclination as well, so I identify. That’s the way most of us are. But God has given us the gift of choice for his own purposes, and we can use that gift to stay comfortable or step out in a strategic way. For Jesus to stay comfortable would have meant staying in heaven. Don’t go to that dirty, evil planet that is only going to reject you and all the love and new life that you want to give to it – where you will be misunderstood, betrayed and crucified. Don’t go there. Yet, Jesus came not for reasons of style or convenience, but for reasons of love and strategic ministry, because only in that way could he maximize our ability to comprehend God’s grace.

You know, that’s the only reason why we are even starting a third service – not out of convenience, because it is not convenient to start a 3rd service – because it is strategic if we are to maximize our ministry to our community. It is to reach out to new folks, for whom their culture says, “Man, you don’t get up at 8:15, or 7:00 am or whenever you have to get up to get here. You see, if you don’t already know Christ or you’re not an early riser, your probably not going to be coming here. Being strategic means we choose something that may not be our preference, in order to reduce barriers in reaching others for Christ. That’s applying mission principles to our life here in the church.

There is also a second question we need to wrestle with: How are we relating to the world around us?

How do we relate to the world? Through antagonism and arrogance, or through humble identification and incarnation? There are several different ways of approaching this, but I want to explore three particular areas that may impact us particularly. More specifically, the question is whether and how we identify with other people in terms of what we would consider their weaknesses and sins.

Let me start with the most difficult of the three – and I don’t have the answer to this, but I think we need to deal with the issue. We all know, especially in Baltimore, that racially we are far from where we should be. There is considerable tension between blacks and whites, and there is sin on both sides, isn’t there? But what often happens is that we look at the sin on the other side and say, “That’s the real problem. You’ve got to get rid of that for us to really be able to relate.” Well, what if rather than judging and being antagonistic and arrogant, even feeling better than you – as if my sins were less, what if I say that I want to identify with that weakness in you and not consider myself to be any better, any more righteous, but I want to identify with your sin and weakness. And what if the African-American community said that, “rather than holding that big sin of slavery and continued oppression against you, we are going to identify with your sin.” What might happen? What could happen if we actually identified with each other’s sins rather than antagonizing each other because of them? I am not quite sure, but I throw it out as a question to a racially divided church.

Second one – morally. Sometimes there are sins that we just don’t want to have anything to do with, because maybe we are afraid that we will be seen as sinful ourselves because we are associating with the wrong kinds of people. I wonder how many people might have gone (GASP) when Iosif shared that he went to the bar and he actually drank with folks to identify with them. I won’t call for a show of hands, but I imagine there were quite a few wondering, “Is he going too far?” And I guarantee you that many in the Romanian church would have judged as being off the edge of acceptability. But sometimes to live in faithfulness, to follow the footsteps of Christ, we’ve got to be on the edge. We’ve got to be on the edge of acceptability. We’ve even got to live on the edge of scandal. I have talked to people who think, “Yes, morally, we need to reach the gay and lesbian community, but I don’t want to get involved.” Or, “If I hang around and identify too much with them, won’t people think that I’m the same kind of person?” I have actually had people at Central say “I don’t want anything to do with those people.” That, thankfully, is a great minority here at Central, but unless we are willing to identify with anybody, even identify with the sin of anyone, it will be difficult to reach them, because we would be holding ourselves above them, and that is the biggest problem this world has with Christians. Not only that, but we would be putting ourselves exactly where Jesus did not put himself and we would become exactly the kind of people that Jesus didn’t get along with. No matter what the moral sin might be, we need to live among and identify with the people, even with their sin. Not participating in the sin, but identifying with it.

And finally – culturally. It is tempting to think that we are in a culture where everybody either does or should think and act the same, but it is really not true. Just take this postmodernism thing. I don’t know how many times I have heard how bad postmodernism is. We let me tell you something. There are some truly good parts of the postmodern perspective, like the value placed on community, authenticity and mystery. True, there is one particularly bad part of it – and that is the denial of absolute truth, when the Bible clearly teaches that there actually is absolute truth. But until we can identify with people who don’t think there is absolute truth, unless we say, “Yeah, I understand the attraction of that. I understand how that seems to make life easier to live. But there is another way.” Until we identify with that and learn to live within that culture, we probably won’t be able to reach that culture. And that’s one of the things we are seeking to do with this 3rd service. It’s to reach out to the culture we are in, which is a postmodern culture, rather than expecting them to change to our culture in order to come to church and to Christ. But it means that we need to identify even with the “wrong parts” of their world view. We need to look for the beauty and intention of their perspective and to appreciate the journey for meaning that it represents. Remember, you have to get on a bicycle and ride it in order to turn it effectively.

Living like Jesus through incarnation and identification is living on the edge. It’s living on the edge of our comfort zone, pushing the envelope in ways that we wouldn’t prefer, but we choose to do out of faithfulness – because it’s strategic for the kingdom of God. We live on the edge of scandal, the edge of being misunderstood, just as Christ was. But the exciting thing is that we also live on the forward edge of what God is doing in this world. We become partners with him in this ministry and that’s what it is all about. That is why we have been called as his disciples. That is why we are the body of Christ, the Church. We have been called to be incarnational – to identify with the world in all of its trouble, with all of its burdens, with all of its sins – because it is who God has called us to be and it is where he has placed us.

Please join me as we pray.
Lord we pray that you would give us the desire of our hearts, that you would help us to truly be your effective ministers, your representatives, your ambassadors in this world and we pray that you would help us to live on the edge in faithfulness, that your kingdom might be spread and might continue as people come into fellowship with you and as they realize the love that you have shown us in Jesus Christ. For we ask it in his name, Amen.