Luke 13:18-30 (click to display NIV text)
Aug. 4, 2013
Pastor Dwight A. Nelson
“People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the Kingdom of God.”
I remember in my seminary days that one central question among students was, “Which church or denomination will you choose to serve in?” The school I attended had students from a great number of church bodies, so we were aware of many possibilities. It is one thing to make a commitment to Christ and another to choose a particular church, denomination or institution in which to serve. We work within imperfect structures and to commit to one of them is always a risk. It means that I will work in an organization where I will not always agree with what is decided, and I will not always be appreciated or rewarded by those in authority. Yet, you have to locate your commitment and service somewhere. You probably can’t be a minister at large in the earth. So where to serve is a serious question. I took it that way, although I never really considered moving to another church body. But I did enter this Covenant Church ministry in a very intentional and realistic way.
I am glad now for the choice I made. It has been a good context over the years in which to serve. There is much to appreciate about our Covenant Church. I have also been aware of the cost of serving in what might be called an “off-brand” church, a small body with limited resources in areas like worship or curriculum. There have been times that I have been envious of what the bigger groups are able to offer.
The Covenant Church has retained much of the flavor of an ethnic church. That is both good and bad. We have held on to our Swedish roots more than many other churches have. We have been nourished by the hymns of our heritage, and by the insights of our forbears, the Pietists. We appreciate a sense of strong fellowship and care. We have retained sensitivity to the immigrant, the poor and the marginalized, for that is our story.
Jesus healed a woman who was crippled and bent over (Luke 13:10-17.) She was a marginalized person, largely unseen in society. The synagogue ruler could not understand why Jesus would heal her on the Sabbath. Why not wait one more day, if at all? But Jesus saw this woman as a daughter of Abraham, and so he released her from the oppression of Satan. Joel Green writes, “The Kingdom of God is made present even in such a seemingly inconsequential act as the restoration of an ill woman who lived on the margins of society.”
Jesus knew that the Sabbath was a day to remember freedom from slavery. We understand that too.
But the Covenant Church also struggles with an insider pride, a culture that quietly excludes the outsider, the newcomer. I remember when the African-American pastor Henry Greenidge came to join with us. Henry is an accomplished musician, and he often played the piano at ministerial events. He learned all of our music, our hymns and songs, and led us in them. But then he invited us to sing the songs of his heritage, he invited us to participate in his tradition, and that was more difficult.
I have noticed at events like the Midwinter Conference that we always sing several songs in Spanish now. At first they were introduced with instruction of pronunciation of words and translation. But now Spanish songs are simply sung. There is an expectation of Covenant pastors that when we gather we will participate in the singing of Spanish songs, and we will join in the experience of the black church and we will learn from the second generation of Asian pastors and put their insights into practice. I think those are good expectations.
Jesus said that people will come from the North, South, East and West to sit at table in the Kingdom of God. He is talking about the Messianic Banquet, which is found in Isaiah 25:
“On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth.”
As the years went on, the understanding of who would be included in this banquet became more tightly defined. In the Dead Sea Scrolls it says that Gentiles will not be present, and neither will any “blemished Jews.” When Jesus was asked who would be saved, he said it is a matter of repentance and of the heart, and not a matter of heredity or custom. We need to listen to what Jesus has to say.
He says that the door is narrow. Entering the Kingdom is a matter of hearing his word and obeying. Salvation is by personal faith in Jesus, a conversion of the heart. This faith leads one to a life of discipleship, of following Jesus.
Jesus also says that the door will close one day. So, he says that NOW is the time of salvation. Today there is opportunity to follow the Lord. That is Good News. So we are to respond while the door is open, while it is yet day.
Finally, the door is open to many peoples. This word from Jesus has led us to be a mission-centered church. Christ is for the peoples of the world. Today we celebrate sending Hanna Monson into missionary service. We desire that many more would also be called and would respond.
We value our relationships with our missionaries, and we have special bond with Karl and Sue Peterson and with the work in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Our guests from Mexico this summer have helped us to discover a common interest with Grace Covenant in Chicago. Perhaps we can find ways to work together to bring the Gospel to people from the South.
We have a relationship with Redeemer Life Church that I hope will continue to be strengthened. They can teach us much about reaching into our communities where the world has come to live among us. We can also encourage and help them as a new church.
We have come to appreciate the work of Alaska Christian College in the villages of the far north.
We take Jesus seriously. The Gospel is for the whole world, and so we care about people from the North, the South, the East and the West. We are a mission-centered church.
The last characteristic about our church is that despite our striving to be big and successful and accepted in our communities, we still value the mustard seed. My father knew what it was like to be the child of immigrant parents, to be called a “dumb Swede,” and to live in a different world at home and from the one at school. So he tried very hard to be fully an American. Many of the children of immigrants became over the years very successful and very prosperous. We like to be well thought of and respected. We like to blend in with the community. But we also embrace the mustard seed.
The Kingdom of God is not large and prosperous and well accepted. Quite often it is unseen and ignored and scorned. But God chooses mustard seeds to bring the Kingdom. We plant a garden knowing we cannot feed the world from it, we deliver furniture knowing we cannot give every child a bed, we preach the Word of God knowing it sounds foolish to the wisdom of the world, we hold a small, broken cracker and take a sip of juice and we say Christ is real and Christ is present. Christ is risen; the Kingdom of God is near.