"The Welcome of Jesus"
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts November 6, 2005
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2005 by Mark D. Roberts
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Scripture Reading: Luke 9:10-11
On their return the apostles told Jesus all they had done. He took them with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida. When the crowds found out about it, they followed him; and he welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured.
Avoiding the Crowd
I've got a confession to make: I hate crowds! I'm not agoraphobic or, to use the strict term, demophobic. But I just don't like crowds, and I prefer to avoid them..
It's kind of a family joke, really. Recently I spoke at a Presbyterian pastors' retreat in Northern California. While I was away I called home several times a day. This impressed my son, Nathan, who said to Linda, "Wow! Daddy sure is calling us a lot." "Yes," Linda answered, "I guess he likes us." To which Nathan replied, "Well, Daddy doesn't like people, but at least he likes us!"
In truth, it's not people I don't like, but whole lots of them jammed together. So you'll rarely find me, for example, down at the Irvine Spectrum on the day a hit movie is released. Too many people, standing in line, packed into the theatre. Ugh!
A few months ago I wanted to see Batman Begins when it was just released. So I carefully planned my strategy. Irvine Spectrum in the evening? No way! Rather, I took Nathan to an afternoon showing at the Westpark theatre, which is almost never packed. Of course I arrived a good 45 minutes early to avoid the anticipated crowds. As it turned out, Nathan and I didn't even have to wait in line. We were able to go right into the theatre and grab a couple of seats. Soon after we sat down, Linda called. "How are you doing?" she asked. "Were you able to get seats for the movie?" "Yes," I answered. "But we had a difficult time choosing them." "Oh, why was that?" Linda asked. "Because Nathan and I are the only ones in the theatre so far." "Sure am glad you went to early," was Linda's tongue-in-cheek response. Yet, I didn't mind making that extra effort, even if it weren't necessary, because I don't like crowds.
Jesus and the Crowds
When I read the story in Luke 9 of Jesus in Bethsaida, I feel for Him. Jesus had just sent His disciples off on a mission trip. When they returned, He took them to a small city called Bethsaida. It was about seven miles away from Jesus's home base at Capernaum. The text of Luke suggests that Jesus wanted some alone time with the Twelve, no doubt so they could rest and debrief their recent mission trip.
But things didn't work out as Jesus had planned. As Luke writes, "When the crowds found out about it, they followed him" (9:11). Jesus's hopes for some quiet time with His disciples were dashed by the presence of the crowds who just wouldn't leave Him alone.
How did Jesus respond to them? As Luke tells the story, Jesus "welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured" (9:11).
Why Did Jesus Welcome the Crowds?
Why, I wonder, did Jesus welcome the crowds? It certainly isn't wrong, at times, to tell people, "Look, I'd like to meet with you, but I have something else I've got to do right now." If we don't learn to use our time wisely, we'll end up cheating the very people who mean the most to us and who most deserve our time. This means if Jesus had asked the crowd to wait for a day, he wouldn't have been sinning or anything like that.
So then, why did He welcome the crowds? We get a clue from Luke 9, where it says that Jesus welcomed the crowds "and spoke to them about the kingdom of God." This was the central message of Jesus throughout His ministry: God is here to begin to establish His kingdom on earth. So turn your lives around and believe this great news.
As Jesus explained it, the kingdom of God was available to all people, regardless of gender, position, power, ethnicity, education, or religious background. Those who accepted God's rule over their lives as trusting children would be welcome in the kingdom. Even notorious sinners were invited into the reign of God, as Jesus offered forgiveness and new life to all people.
Jesus's message of the kingdom stood in stark contrast to the teaching and lifestyle of other Jewish groups in His day. The message of the Pharisees, for example, focused on a notion of holiness that meant separating themselves from all that was common, including the vast majority of the Jewish people. Similarly, the Essene community out by the Dead Sea, from whom we get the Dead Sea Scrolls, called its people to such an extreme holiness that they were completely cut off from the rest of the Jews, including even the Pharisees. This explains why they established a community in the barren wasteland near the Dead Sea, far removed from the crowds.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Jesus preached an inclusive kingdom, and His activity followed suit. It just wouldn't have made sense if Jesus had proclaimed the inclusive reign of God while excluding the crowds from His presence. No, Jesus welcomed the crowds because God, as King, welcomed the crowds. He welcomed the crowds because His message demanded it.
The Welcoming Compassion of Jesus
Yet there is something else that explains Jesus's openness to the crowds. We find this in Matthew 9:35-38:
Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest."
Did you catch that? When Jesus saw the crowds, "he had compassion for them." He saw their need for comfort and guidance. He sensed their need for healing and truth. His heart was moved by love for the crowds.
The welcome of Jesus, therefore, comes from both mind and heart. It's a logical extension of the message of the kingdom of God, and it's a natural expression of the heart of Jesus. He welcomed the crowds because He knew God welcomed them. And he welcomed he crowds because He loved them.
Our Calling to Be Like Jesus
Did you notice what else was in the passage from Matthew 9? Not only did we find Jesus's compassion for the crowds, but also His desire to send out laborers among the crowds to reap a rich harvest for God. This implies what is made clear so many places throughout the New Testament: We are the laborers whom God has sent out to welcome "the crowds." Like Jesus, we need compassionate hearts for those around us.
Some of us are wired for welcome. For example, when I first got to this church, Sam and Letty Johnson were famous for their welcoming hearts. Every week at worship they'd look for visitors, greeting them, getting to know them, and often inviting them to brunch after church.
But here's the sad part of this story. For the most part, the rest of the IPC congregation was willing to let Sam and Letty carry the welcoming ball. Very few others were actively welcoming visitors, except for when they were official greeters at the door.
Now I understand our reticence to welcome "the crowds." I've already explained that I don't like crowds. I'm an introvert by nature. When it comes to church and I'm not in my pastoral role, it's terribly easy for me to worry only about my own needs and the needs of my family. I can forget all about the people "out there" whom God cares about profoundly and to whom we - all of us together - have been sent to reach with the gospel. Yet I mustn't let my nature keep me from responding to the clarion call of Jesus.
I believe that if Jesus were with us in the flesh today, one of the things we'd hear Him say is, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest." In light of the Great Commission and Pentecost, it's clear that we are these laborers. We are the ones he has sent to Irvine, Tustin, Costa Mesa, Newport, Lake Forest, and so forth. Not only are we to welcome "the crowds" who show up in our fellowship, but also we've been sent to go out and get them.
Imitating the Welcome of Jesus
My friends, I can't emphasize enough how important this is for us to take to heart, each and every one of us, and all of us together as Irvine Presbyterian Church. This preaching series on welcome isn't something I just pulled out of my hat because I couldn't think of anything else to preach. With all of my heart, I believe it's God's word to us right now. And I'm excited because I see the call to be a welcoming people taking root in our life together as a church.
I've been gratified to hear that many of our ministries have been taking an inventory, asking the Lord how they can become more welcoming. I'd like to encourage the rest of you, whether you're an elder or a deacon, a leader in Women's Bible Study or Junior High, a Sunday school teacher or an usher, to work with your colleagues on how your ministry can be more effective in reaching out to "the crowds."
But, sisters and brothers, this isn't only a corporate challenge. Each and every one of us is called to be like Jesus in His welcoming activity. You can't very well say, "Yes, Jesus welcomed the crowds, but I don't have to." Of course your effort at welcome will look different from Jesus's. Unless you start having a ministry of divine healing, it's unlikely that the masses will crowd around your door when you go on retreat. In fact, you don't really have to welcome "the crowds." Rather, you can take the crowds one person at a time.
I've been pleased to hear from some of you that God has placed this very thing on your heart. Not long ago a woman shared with me that she had been convicted about her failure to welcome others. She was very faithful in coming to worship here, but rarely if ever reached out to someone who wasn't already a friend. So she resolved to do this, but in a manageable way. Her commitment now is to greet and have a short conversation with one person she doesn't know each time she comes to a church event. That's it. Only one person for a short conversation.
My friends, if every one of us decided to do this, our life together would be radically transformed. To be sure, this isn't the whole of welcome. It's only the beginning. But even this small act of welcome would transform our fellowship and our outreach to this community.
Welcome and Stewardship
Before I finish today, I want to draw a line of connection between this sermon and stewardship. In particular, I want to respond to a question that I get from folks every year when we talk about next year's budget. The question: Why does the church budget always get bigger? Or, why can't we just live within our means?
Of course part of the answer to this line of questioning has to do with rising costs. If electricity costs more, if we have more buildings to use in ministry, if there's an increase in worker's comp, then the church budget has to grow.
But the far more important reason for the growth of our ministry budget has to do with our calling to welcome our neighbors. If we were satisfied simply to be a church for ourselves, then our budget could be relatively static. But may God forever keep us from such satisfaction! We have been sent to this place to reach our neighbors for Christ. And we are a small but essential part of His mission throughout the world. So until "the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ," we'll be forever reaching out with the gospel. And, like Jesus, our gospel of God's welcome requires us to be welcoming people. And sometimes this costs money.
If you look at where our church budget has grown in recent years, you see direct evidence of the connection between welcome and money. We added the Veritas worship service. Why? So that we might welcome into worship folks who wouldn't join our other services. After only ten months we're averaging around 80 folks each week in Veritas, many of whom have come from "the crowds," and most all of whom were not worshiping with us before in any service. In the last couple of months alone we've baptized three high school students in Veritas. Do you realize how amazing and wonderful this is? So we're off to a great start, though we have a long way to go in this ministry if we're going to truly welcome "the crowds" at Veritas.
To cite one other example of welcome translated into budget, in the last year we added a director for our nursery and toddler ministry. Pam Grossman has been doing a fantastic job. Why did we hire Pam? Not only to provide a more welcoming environment for our own children, which is hugely important, of course, but also to welcome children and families from our community into this church. And, under Pam's gracious leadership, we're already seeing fruit of this effort. But it means our budget is bigger than it was last year.
So, as you consider your pledge for next year, and as you hear the Session say we need a ten percent increase in our budget, I hope that you'll make the connection between this and what God's been saying to us about welcome.
A Compassionate Heart
Sisters and brothers, I can explain why we must be welcoming people, pointing to the nature of the gospel and, of course, to the example of Christ. If we believe that the Bible is God's authoritative Word, there isn't much doubt about our call to welcome.
But this truth will only take us so far. Though we can make decisions about church ministry and budget in light of the truth of Scripture, as indeed we should, we will not become the welcoming community God has called us to be without a change of heart. Yes, there are a few of us here who already have compassion for "the crowds." I think of folks on the Outreach Task Force, the Missions Committee, and the Pizza lunch crew. There are others too, of course. But many of us need the Lord to soften our hearts for those "out there." We need God to give us compassion for "the crowds," rather than only our family and friends.
I'll confess to needing this change of heart many times. On Friday morning, for example, I was over at Tully's meeting with a man who was interviewing me about the impact of my blog in the world. I mentioned that one of the most popular blog series I have done was on The Da Vinci Code. At this, a woman nearby perked up her ears, and in a couple of minutes she came over and joined our conversation.
Honestly, my first reaction was negative: Why is she bugging us? When will she go away? Remember, I'm not wired for welcome. But as she talked, God softened my heart. It turns out she's a former Catholic with a deep interest in religious things. She alluded to some health difficulties in her life and other challenges. As she talked, I found myself feeling more compassion, more desire not to have her go away. By the end of our chat, I hoped - and still do - that we might run into each other again.
I know some of you can relate to my initial feelings of "back off, lady." In fact, many of you can. Yet, if we're going to follow Jesus, and if we're going to have the heart of Jesus, then we can't be satisfied with our natural introversion. My prayer for myself, for you folks, and for our church is this:
Dear Lord Jesus, even as you once welcomed the crowds, even as you had compassion for them, so help us to be like you. Help us, as individuals and as a church, to be a truly welcoming people. Change our hearts, dear Lord, so that we might have compassion for the people around us. Help us to reach out to them with your love, and to welcome them into our lives and our church. May the crowds come here, Lord, and may they find Your welcome in this place. In your name, Amen!