Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Congregation of One - Luke 19:1-10

The ministry of Jesus lasted approximately three years. The first year was of introduction and proclamation. From a human standpoint, it was very successful. Thousands came out to see Him. The second year was the year of resistance and opposition. By human standards it was unsuccessful. Jesus was preaching a hard message, and the religious leaders marshaled resistance against Him everywhere. At the same time His disciples grumbled and feuded among themselves. Things got so bad that he even asked His disciples if they were going to leave him, too. He was forced out of Judea and Galilees, and went into the wilderness on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. 

The third year of Jesus’ ministry was spent in teaching and preparation. He slowly traveled down on the east bank of the Jordan River, preaching, teaching and performing miracles. Finally, in the month before the final Passover when Jesus was crucified, He approached Jericho, which was the gateway city for Judea and Jerusalem. As He did, the expectation of the crowd swelled again. Once again, the people began to look at Him as possibly the Messiah. Jericho is a large city east of Jerusalem, at the end of a mountain road. The road rises from Jericho and winds for forty miles before you reach Jerusalem.

It would have been a good place for Jesus to stop and preach, teach and heal. It was the last time Jesus would be in a major city before Palm Sunday. Crowds of pilgrims were passing through on their way to the Passover. Jesus could have stopped there and done some amazing ministry. But instead of stopping, He just passed through. 

Imagine the scene--hundreds, maybe thousands of pilgrims and citizens lining the road to see Jesus!  The dignitaries from the synagogues would have been in front. Beggars and sick people crowding the thoroughfares, pleading with Him to heal them. Spiritual seekers waited to hear Him preach. Pharisees and Scribes wanted to debate him.  What would he do in the short time He was with them? Would he preach, teach, heal, or debate—what would he make of those precious few hours?
Here’s what he did. He saw one little man in a tree and spent the whole day with him. A town full of sinners and sick people, and he spent all his time with just one man—a chief tax  collector who was the most hated man in town. It made no sense-no sense at all! Why did He waste such an opportunity? 

Zacchaeus as chief tax collector was universally despised. He was so hated that people wouldn’t even get out of the way and let him pass. He couldn’t even find anyone to give him a boost into the tree. He had to climb it all by himself.

Now, why should we care today what Jesus did that day in Jericho?  Does it make any difference to us where Jesus spent that afternoon? It does make a difference. It makes a life changing difference—at least, it does to me personally.  Jesus’ actions exposes and rebukes my greatest sin in ministry.   
Today, I want to speak to you not as pastor, but as a sinner.  I want to confess my greatest sin in ministry.  It is pride.  I love the limelight too much, and the praise of others.

I started my career as a youth director in a church with about seven hundred members. We had about a hundred and twenty young people. When I was twenty-three, our senior pastor had a heart attack, and I had to function as pastor for several months. I got good reviews. I was even asked to preach at Synod twice in my twenties. It was a great feeling.  I loved the praise and attention. I began to think of myself as “God’s man of faith and power.”  The pastor was retiring in a year or to, and he even suggested that I should stay and apply to be senior pastor. 

But the church wasn’t enough for me. It was too traditional, too stuck in the past. I wasn’t doing enough in the community. I wanted to see it bigger and livelier. Most of all, I wanted to have an influence far beyond the local church. My thoughts were to have a national, not just a local impact.

 An opportunity came up to plant my own church, and I took it. I thought in a year or two surely I would have a church of several hundred. But after four years, I had built it up to only about fifty. Looking for better opportunities, I left and took a church in Florida. I had a successful ministry there, adding about a hundred and twenty over seven years, but it wasn’t enough. I missed the acclaim that comes when you preach to hundreds. 

I accepted a call to a church of more than five hundred. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted more. I wanted to see exciting, soul stirring revival. I became dissatisfied. My dissatisfaction turned inward, and I fell into depression. Finally, I walked away.

I thought I would be called to a bigger church, or some soul-stirring ministry, but dozens of churches turned me down. God opened only one door for me, to the last place I ever wanted to go, a small church so far out in the country that there was little or no chance for growth. For a long time, I was bitter and resentful towards God that he seemed to have abandoned me. 

Slowly, God showed me the error of my ways.  Pride was driving me, not the Spirit. That little church at first seemed unimportant, but God’s Spirit was there. It was a place where I learned the importance of small things, and seemingly unimportant people.
I have told you my story for one reason, because we are all ministers. You are a minister of the Lord, the same as I. The only difference between us is that I have the responsibility of ministering within the institutional church, while you minister in the world. The vast majority of us will never minister to a lot of people, or in a way that will call a lot of praise or acclamation. Most of us minister to just a few or even one. You all shepherd someone. Your “flock” may be a youth group, a Bible study, a group of friends, acquaintances or your family. At some time, most of us will have a flock of one or two people like a baby, an aging parent, a sick husband or wife. You may spend years caring for only one person. You may think there are things more important that you are supposed to do, but there isn’t. This is a truth that escapes the career-bent--that loving one or two people completely is sometimes more important than the whole world.  

Many famous ministers have committed themselves to preaching and teaching the Gospel. But in the process they have forsaken their true flock, that one person God sent to them, that only they can love. I have known many preachers who have been faithful in the pulpit, but who have neglected or been unfaithful to their wives. Many have loved their congregations but lost their children. Dr.  R. A Torrey was one of the most influential preachers of his generation, yet none of his children stayed with the Lord. Francis Schaeffer was one of the great teachers of my generation, but his son stands today against everything he taught. Rick Warren is one of the greatest preachers of today, yet his son committed suicide. We cannot know why these children chose the paths that they did, but we cannot help but wonder if we, in saving the world, often miss the little people around us. If we ignore the importance of persons in our quest to change the world, then we will have missed the true purpose of God.
Jesus could have stood in that crowd in Jericho and delivered one of his great sermons. He could have healed a bunch of people, and received praise from the crowd. But instead He turned his attention to one lonely little man, He was not interested in reputation or acclaim, but in helping people one by one.
Think of the stories you remember about Jesus. Most of those stories center not on crowds, but individuals like Mary Magdalene, Peter, Nicodemus, Lazarus, the woman at the well, and so many others. These were private, not public ministry. Other people told the stories later, but most of it was totally invisible to the crowd. They were ministry opportunities taken by the prompting of the Spirit to a congregation of just one person. Jesus’ ministry style was to put the individual ahead of the crowd, to let changed lives be the witness to the world.

Billy Graham was once asked if he could live his ministry over, what would he change. He replied that he would devote himself to two men, whom would devote themselves to two men, who would devote themselves to two others, and so forth. He calculated that if he did, he would reach more of the world than all his books, crusades and television shows combined. The world is won one person at a time. A city full of people demanded Jesus’ attention, but Jesus gave it to one little man in a tree.
It’s not the big crowds that should interest us, but the little man in the tree. Ninety-nine sheep were in the fold, but the shepherd left to seek one. 
Zacchaeus’ story doesn’t end on that day. An afternoon with this man had a vast impact on the city of Jericho. Zacchaeus gave away half his income to feed the poor. Imagine what would happen if the richest man in our city made a pledge like that!  He became an honest tax collector, and as chief tax collector, he would have demanded that all the tax collectors under him did the same. Unfair taxation was the biggest gripe against the government. Jesus ended that practice in Jericho in a single afternoon!
We don’t know how far our influence will reach when we adopt a congregation of one. It may not go any farther than that one person, but that is all right.  We need to be reminded that God’s greatest works are done through networks of people being changed, and then changing others. Righteousness is from one person to another, by individuals meeting individuals.

I’d still like to preach to hundreds of people, and to see the world touched through me. But I have no power make that happen. That is up to God. The only thing I have to do is to be the best pastor, the best father, the best son, the best husband and the best friend I can be to one person at a time. We all must look for that one person who is our flock, and give our lives for them, and to do that all our lives, one person at a time.

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