Got Your Invitation? 15th Pentecost
Psalm 79:1-9 1 Timothy 2:1-7
I’d like you to remember back to when you were in elementary school. You have a bit of a dilemma, because your birthday is coming and you’re going to have a party, and you have to decide which kids in your class are going to be invited. As you look around the classroom, you see a couple of “popular” kids—you know, the ones with more money than the other kids, or better looks (or both). You can’t really invite them because they would be offended and would snub you in front of the others! So you look a little further, and you see the “unpopular” kids—you know, the ones with less money, grubbier clothes, the kids no one would want at their birthday party. So you make your list of kids to invite, and you show it to your parents.
Now, if you had parents like mine, they would look at the list and ask, “But what about so-and-so?” (naming one of the kids you left off your list.) And you might reply, “I can’t invite them—they’re too popular or too unpopular!” Then your parents would tell you, “You have to invite every kid in your class—every kid—no one gets left out.” Does this sound familiar? Well, as exasperating as it is to a kid, it’s even MORE SO to an adult! Thus our dilemma with today’s Scripture readings. The Psalm is full of anger toward the unrighteous and a call for retribution, but finishes with a prayer for forgiveness. Then Paul’s letter to Timothy says that God wants us to pray for everyone; that God wants everyone to be saved; and that Christ gave himself as a ransom for all.
At first blush, this isn’t really problematic for us because we think of it in general terms without thinking too much about specific people. But these verses move us to think outside the box when it comes to those individuals whom we might neglect in our prayers…people we might not want to lift up for God’s blessing. Let’s take a look.
We Are Invited to Pray
Paul says that he URGES us to pray for everyone: that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone” including those in high positions. Now, in today’s political climate, we hear all kinds of rantings and ravings against many of our elected officials. It’s nothing new—it was the same in Paul’s day! But he is urging us to pray for them as well, saying “this is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior.”
He knows that prayer makes a difference!
Here’s an interesting example: in May of 1934, a small group met together on a dairy farm to pray. It was the middle of The Great Depression, and the dairy farmer had lost all of his savings when his bank collapsed. But he set aside some precious work time to pray with his friends. In their prayer, they asked God to raise up a person from their area who would share the Good News of Jesus all over the world. Now, at that time, the farmer’s teenage son was in the habit of mocking his father’s faith—but a few months later, he committed his life to Jesus. His name? Billy Graham! Friends, what might NOT have happened if this group of farmers had not asked God to provide a gospel preacher to reach around the world? Prayer makes a difference!
Sometimes you and I will say, “I’ll pray for you.” It might be because we cannot think of something more concrete that we can do to help. We value action, but prayer and action are not mutually exclusive!
Bill Hybels once said, “When I work, I work. But when I pray, God works!” Prayer is just asking God to join in on the workJ
When you and I lift others up to God, then God’s light shines on us!
We Are Invited to Engage God
When God’s light shines on us, good things “come to light.” The shadows within us are diminished, and God’s warmth causes new life to bloom in us—and that’s good news.
I love what Frederick Buechner says about the term “Good News.”
“What is both Good and New about the Good News is the wild claim that Jesus did not simply tell us that God loves us even in our wickedness and folly and wants us to love each other the same way and to love him too, but that if we will let him God will actually bring about this unprecedented transformation of our hearts himself! What is both Good and New about the Good News is the crazy insistence that Jesus lives on among us not just as another haunting memory but as the outlandish, holy, and invisible power of God working in countless hidden ways to make even SLOBS like us loving and whole beyond anything we could conceivably pull off by ourselves. Jesus never claimed that the process of being changed from a SLOB into a human being was going to be a Sunday School picnic. Part of what it means to be a slob is to hang on for dear life to our slobbery!”
Paul explained to Timothy that God’s desire, God’s will is that EVERYONE will be saved (transformed from our “slobbery”), and that EVERYONE will come to the knowledge of the TRUTH. And keep in mind that, before Jesus showed us what God is like, we didn’t really know! But, in Christ, we have a better picture of God’s wide-open welcome!
Christ Died for Thee
Paul tells Timothy, “Christ Jesus, himself human, gave himself a ransom for all.” This came as quite a surprise, quite an upset, for those who thought they had an exclusive lock on God’s affections! But “all” means every person (including those you might not think to include). Buechner makes this winsome suggestion: “The next time you walk down the street, take a good look at every face you pass and in your mind say, ‘Christ died for thee.’ That girl. That slob. That phony. That crook. That saint. That darned fool. Christ died for thee.”
And this is God’s invitation: to give ourselves to God. We are invited to a relationship—one that justifies us. No, we cannot justify ourselves, but God is offering to bring us into a right relationship! Last week, we briefly looked at Paul’s conversion, the experience that put him on a trail away from exclusivism and into a new understanding of God’s welcome. Here’s how Frederick Buechner writes about Paul: “During his Pharisee phase or ‘blue period,’ Paul was on his way to Damascus to mop up some Christians when suddenly he heard the voice of Jesus Christ, whose resurrection he had (up ‘til now) considered only an ugly rumor. What he might have expected the voice to say was, ‘Just you wait!’ What in effect it did say was, ‘I want you on my side.’ Paul never got over it! As far as Paul was concerned, he was the last man in the world for God to have called this way, but God had, thereby revealing himself to be a God who was willing to do business with you even if you were in the process of mopping up Christians at the time! Paul also discovered that all the Brownie points he had been trying to rack up as a super-Pharisee had been pointless. God did business with you not because of who you were but because of who He was!”
I’ll finish today with an excerpt from a story by C. S. Lewis, one in the Narnia series—The Last Battle. In this story, Narnia has been invaded by Calormenes from the South—people who brought their own religion, the worship of Tash. When the final battle was over, it was time for the realm of Narnia to come to an end. Aslan (the Christ figure in these stories) set up a door through which all the characters could pass (or not). Those who went through the door went further in and higher up! And, as they went through this delightful land (which was like Narnia only more wonderful), they came upon a young man who had been in the army of Calormen—the “enemies” they had just defeated! He told them his story about how Aslan had found him—and how he had expected to be destroyed. Instead, he related that, after conversing with Aslan, “He breathed upon me and took away the trembling from my limbs and caused me to stand upon my feet. And said that I must go higher up and further in, and then he was gone!”
Friends, we have our invitation! It is stated in the sweet little song from Tanzania that the choir sang today: “Listen! Listen, God is calling, through the Word inviting, offering forgiveness, comfort, and joy!” God invites us into relationship, into adventure, into active prayer—engaging God’s power in our lives and in our world. Let us pray!
God, give us the ability to see others with your eyes, to extend an invitation regardless of “worthiness” or “station in society.” Thank you for reaching out to us, even in our slobbery, and inviting us into your welcome arms. In the name of Christ, amen.