Mission impossible - Luke 10:1-24

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 2nd November 2003.

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One of the greatest ships of the 20th century was the Queen Mary. She was launched on September 26th, 1934 and was one of the most luxurious ships of her time. But she also had another side to her history, as a troop carrier during the second world war. Her wartime service has gone down in the history books as being of major significance. Three times she carried Churchill to important meetings, and at one time she was equipped to carry 15,000 troops. Today she lies anchored in the harbour at Long Beach, California, as a floating museum, and both parts of her life in peacetime and in wartime are reflected in the museum. When you go on board you are faced by a partition which divides the museum. On one side of a partition you see the ship as she was in peacetime. A table is laid as it would have been when the ship was at her dazzling peacetime best. The scene exudes luxury, with a glittering array of knives and forks and spoons, the silverware and napkins all neatly arranged for a sumptuous feast. But on the other side of the partition is the same table laid as it was for wartime. There is a marked contrast between the extravagance of peacetime and the austerity of wartime. Instead of china plates and silver cutlery, there is one long metal tray with indentations where the soldiers would eat their basic meals. In the sleeping quarters, there are bunks 8 tiers high, which explain why the ship went from a capacity of 3000 wealthy guests to 15,000 tough soldiers. Now if you had gone on board that ship in 1940 and seen the transformation that had to take place for the sake of national security, then you would have been in no doubt that the sacrifice was right. For if that huge ship had not been refitted for the war effort then it would have been an outrage. Because when a country is at war, then great sacrifices have to be made.

I think it's true to say that the Christian church in the Western world often has a less than Biblical view of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. We have fallen into the trap of being, what we might call, peacetime Christians. Now in many ways, that is not surprising, given the endless messages we hear from the world around us which are to pamper ourselves and give ourselves and our families the very best. And as Christians it is easy to translate that into our thinking about Christian discipleship. We want it easy. We expect following Christ to be painless and convenient. But the fact is, the NT teaches us that following Jesus is not so much about peacetime pampering as wartime sacrifices. Jesus taught that there was a cost in following him, and that we Christians are called not to a life of ease and leisure but a life of battle and service. We are actually engaged in a war as soldiers of Christ and to act in self interest and self promotion as a Christian is as alien as refusing to refit a luxury liner for wartime service. For Jesus has given us a charge which is to proclaim his kingdom, and everything must come second to that. That's Jesus' view of discipleship.

And it's this view of radical self sacrificial discipleship which is Jesus' concern in Luke chapter 10. For here Jesus is sending out 72 of his followers into the mission field, and it's a task that is demanding and costly. And he makes no bones about what he expects of his followers. They are to be people who proclaim his kingdom and tell of his mission. And in case we're in any doubt as to what Jesus expects of his followers, he's just been explaining at the end of chapter 9 that following Jesus requires complete devotion. Personal comfort and family loyalties must come second he says. And then Luke tells us in verse 1 that Jesus sent out the 72 after these things. Mission, you see, is set in the context of discipleship. It is part of our following of the Lord Jesus.

And it's clear too that this sending out is different from the sending out of the 12 disciple at the beginning of chapter 9. There the twelve are given very specific instructions as to what they are to do. Here Jesus widens then net to send out 72. And there is a clue as to Jesus' intentions in the number. Because back in Genesis 10, the nations of the world are recorded as being 70 in the Hebrew Bible, or in the Greek translations, 72 which accounts for the differing versions of Luke 10 v 1 which you'll see in the footnotes. It seems likely then, that Jesus is deliberately echoing that passage to show that he is beginning to send out his followers to the ends of the earth, to every nation in the world. And of course that's exactly what happens in Luke's second volume Acts.

So Jesus is giving us a foretaste of the great commission to go to all the world and proclaim the kingdom of King Jesus. And that great commission involves sacrificial discipleship, the sacrifices of a soldier of Christ on active service of his Lord in the atmosphere of wartime, not the indulgence of peacetime. So let's turn to this passage to see what our commander in chief requires of us, his soldiers as we are sent out into the world. And we'll see that whilst some of the details relate to that first sending out, yet the principles are timeless. And Jesus gives us four commands to follow:

1) Stay Focussed (Vv 1-9)

2) Stay Faithful (Vv 10-16)

3) Stay Humble (Vv 17-20)

4) Stay Prayerful (V 2, 21-24)

1) Stay Focussed (Vv 1-9)

And the first command the Lord Jesus gives us is to stay focussed. Stay focussed in the face of great cost. And that's certainly what Jesus expects of his missionaries in Luke 10. Verse 1: 'After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go.' And what will this involve for these workers? Well great cost and danger. Verse 3: 'Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.' It's not exactly an inviting job description is it? If you know anything about lambs and wolves, you'll know at the very least that they don't get on. In fact, wolves love to eat lambs! And Jesus says that these folk are heading into danger. It's costly to be a soldier of Christ in a world which doesn't want to hear the message, as we'll see later. And what are these people to do? They are to carry a message. Verse 9: 'Heal the sick who are there and tell them, 'The kingdom of God is near you.'' They are to tell their hearers that God's kingdom is near, in other words that the King has come and he demands a response. You must repent and believe the good news about Jesus. That's the message of the kingdom. And that is what Jesus has sent these people out to declare. The message of the kingdom of God, that God's king, Jesus, is here.

And how are these folk to go about their task? They are to be entirely focussed on the task in hand. They must not be distracted by temptations to give up, or to take the easy option. Verse 4: 'Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road. When you enter a house, first say, 'Peace to this house.' If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; if not, it will return to you. Stay in that house, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house. When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is set before you.' These commands about not taking a purse or bag show that Jesus expected these workers to be dependant on God alone and on the generosity of those they were ministering to. They were not to greet anyone on the road because according to eastern custom, such greetings could last for hours with a meal and long chat. It wasn't just a case of saying hi and bye! No, these people were on the king's business. They had to remain focussed on the gospel priorities that Jesus had given them. And similarly with the charge to remain in one house; these disciples were not to be involved in the endless social whirlwind of tea and cucumber sandwiches, sponging off every wealthy parishioner in the town. No, they simply stayed in one place, eating what was put before them, not worrying about food laws or their own cultural conventions. Rather they had to be totally focussed on the king's business, laying aside personal preferences for the sake of the kingdom.

Now whilst it needs to be said that some of these lessons have particular applications to Christian workers, yet the principle of being totally focussed on God's kingdom work is something we all need to take to heart. Following Christ is no hobby. He demands total devotion to his cause. It is a 24 hour a day, 7 day a week commitment. And in all we do, the priorities of the kingdom are to be seen. Whether it be the way we raise our children, the way we spend our money, the way we act with our friends and colleagues. Christ's disciples must be totally focussed. And the wonderful thing is that when you invest in God's kingdom, whether it be an investment of time or money or energy or gifts, whatever it is, your investment has eternal benefits.

Often the saints of the past have fared rather better than us in the 21st century. I think of man called William W Borden who was the heir of a wealthy Chicago family. He was rich and intelligent, with the world at his feet. But as a young man, he gave it all up to go to China to reach Muslims for Christ. It was an astonishing thing to do, especially on those days. And even more staggering was that before he left, he gave away his entire fortune which in today's money would be worth $10 million. He ended his days in Egypt at the tender age of 26, trying to win more people for Christ. And as he lay on his bed dying of meningitis, he scribbled this note: 'No reserve, no retreat, no regrets.' And it's that attitude that Christ desires of his disciples. We need not necessarily give away our fortune, but Jesus' challenge is to be totally focussed on his kingdom priorities. You write a substantial cheque to support one of our workers. No reservations. You give up a couple of hours a week to help with a children's club or the like. No retreat. You devote yourself to visiting a housebound elderly neighbour who desperately needs help and gospel hope. No regrets. Yes, there might be a cost to pay, but that's discipleship, says Jesus. We're in a battle not peace time. Stay focussed in the face of the cost.

2) Stay Faithful (Vv 10-16)

But secondly, says Jesus, stay faithful. Stay faithful in the face of rejection. And Jesus warns his workers that they will face rejection. Verse 10: 'But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, 'Even the dust of your town that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God is near.' I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.' Jesus is in no doubts that rejection will come. Of course, we shouldn't be surprised, since Jesus himself was rejected, a rejection which led to the cross. And he warned his disciples countless times that because he was rejected, so would his disciples be rejected. And Jesus makes it clear in verse 16 what is at stake when Jesus' messengers are rejected. He says: 'He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.' To ignore one of Jesus' messengers is actually to ignore Jesus and the one who sent him, God the Father himself. God's messengers carry such an important message that to reject them and their message is to reject God himself.

And that's why Jesus goes into some detail about these towns in verses 13-15. What he's saying is that for those towns like Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, people who have heard Jesus and seen his miracles, but who have rejected him, then they are in even more trouble than some of the OT towns like Tyre and Sidon that rejected the message about God. Why? Because Chorazin and Bethsaida have rejected the full revelation of God himself, Jesus Christ. The more you know, the greater the responsibility there is upon you to act and obey the message. So all that remains for them is for God to give them what they want. They don't want God, then God won't have them. You see at the end of the day, God's judgement upon human beings is a way of recognising human dignity. God will not force himself on people. We have a responsibility to follow or reject him. His judgement upon us is simply to give us what we wish, life without God, what the Bible calls hell. And that's why coming to church is such a serious business. For every time we hear God's word preached we have a choice to make, to hear and obey the word of God or to reject it. So I would urge you if you are not a Christian here this morning to make every effort to understand what is being said about Jesus Christ and to accept and obey the message about him. For to reject the message is to reject the God who made you.

And what does Jesus expect his followers to do when they face rejection? Well he tells them to wipe the dust off their feet. It's a symbolic action saying that they leave that town to stand alone before God. It's a way of saying that they accept the rejection and respect the decision of their hearers. Jesus will not have his disciples brow beating their hearers into submission. He does not want manipulative evangelists trying to force people into the kingdom of God. But what he does want is that the message be clear, so even in rejection, the messengers are to warn the rejecters, in verse 11: 'Yet be sure of this, they are to say, the kingdom of God is near.' We're to be faithful to the message and graciously accept that these people don't want to know.

Now of course, this becomes most hard when the hearers are those closest to us. We cannot obviously leave town if those who reject the message are our friends and relatives. But there is an important lesson for us here from Jesus which is that we should not be party to badgering or brow beating. Yes of course we long for our friends and family to come to Christ. We will shed tears over their eternal destiny. We will warn them when we get the odd opportunity to speak. But we will need to remember that ultimately we can only do so much. We are called to be faithful in explaining the message, but we cannot make them believe or believe for them. It's between them and God. And in that we can take some encouragement in that we really don't know what is going on in someone's heart, even if we are very close to them.

I was reminded of this recently when I heard the true story of a man who had witnessed patiently and prayerfully to a friend for 40 years. Eventually the Christian died, but at his funeral, the man was so struck by the note of hope and the gospel faithfully preached that he became a Christian after 40 years of opposition. Yes, rejection is part and parcel of the Christian life, even by those closest to us. They reject a central part of us when they reject Christ. But Jesus calls us to be faithful and not give up. Stay faithful, he says, in the face of rejection.

3) Stay Humble (Vv 17-20)

Thirdly, though, Jesus tells us to stay humble. Stay humble in the face of success. You see it might seem a little strange to read the next verses which tell us that the disciples came back rejoicing. After all Jesus had said about sacrifice and rejection, they come back saying it was a piece of cake! Verse 17: 'The seventy-two returned with joy and said, 'Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.'' And Jesus is inclined to agree. Yes it had been a success. Verse 18: 'Jesus replied, 'I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.'' Jesus isn't endorsing snake handling. What he is saying is that in the preaching of the gospel Satan's defeat is affirmed. It was on the cross that he was dealt a mortal blow. And when Jesus returns he will be totally destroyed. And as Jesus' followers proclaim Christ' victory then Satan's defeat is reinforced. He can have no hold on those who are Christ's. Yes it is wonderfully exciting to be involved in preaching the gospel to others. But for all the success, he gives his disciples a warning. Verse 20: 'However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.' Yes you might be excited by the so called successes of your ministry says Jesus, but actually that's not the most important thing. The most important thing is where you will spend eternity. Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.

And this may well be a timely word for us here at St. John's. For it seems we have much to give thanks for. We have over a hundred different children coming to our groups throughout the week. We have congregations at the various churches which are growing. We have many gifted people involved in our church family. We have a thriving ministry to students from all around the globe. And yet let us not boast in our success. Yes we thank God, but most importantly we rejoice that or names are written in heaven. For success in terms of numbers may come and go, but the one thing we can be sure of is that our names are in heaven if we trust in Christ. Don't get complacent says Jesus. It is so easy for our self identity, perhaps as ministers, or as individuals or as a church to become entangled with success. Don't get carried away with success. Rather rejoice that your names are written in heaven. That is the true source of blessing and joy. And when everything else has been stripped away, then that joy remains. Because if you focus on the outward successes and find your joy in those, however wonderful they are, then when they go, as perhaps they will, then your joy is found to be misplaced.

Martin Lloyd Jones knew the reality of this verse. He died of cancer in 1981, but he had been possibly the most influential Christian in Britain in the 20th century. And when he was dying, one of his younger colleagues asked him how he was coping now he was out of the front line of ministry. How was he coping now he wasn't as outwardly successful as years before, now he was sidelined and dying. And Lloyd Jones replied in the words of this verse. 'Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.' He knew where true joy was to found. And Jesus urges us to stay humble and remember where our security really is. Stay humble, he says, in the face of success.

4) Stay Prayerful (V 2, 21-24)

But then lastly Jesus urges us to stay prayerful. Stay prayerful in the face of the task. Because it would be very easy to feel completely overwhelmed by the size of the task. Our friends and family may resist the gospel and there are many in our city, let alone the world, who do not know the Lord Jesus Christ. But it's at this point that we need to remember something that Jesus says to his disciples in these verses. For Jesus rejoices that ultimately it is God who changes lives and he has the power to bring sinful rebels like you and me back to himself. God alone can melt hard hearts and raise the spiritually dead. Verse 21: 'I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.' God reveals himself to those who are humble enough to come to him. And it's only the Son, Jesus himself who can bring us to God. 'No-one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.' So if salvation is ultimately in the hands of the Lord of heaven and earth, then what should we do as he sends us out to proclaim Jesus as the king of the kingdom?

Jesus' answer comes back in verse 2: 'The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.' The answer is to ask the Lord of the harvest to send workers. Get praying says Jesus. Here is a clear indication from Jesus as to the sort of things we should be praying for. Pray for workers. Yes we know how hard the task is and how large the field is. So let's not complain, let's pray! So will you commit yourself to praying for more workers. Why not make this your prayer each day in the next few weeks, that God would provide not just for us here at St. John's but also across our land and the world. God knows that we need more workers in this land. So ask the Lord of the harvest. And do you know the scary thing about this type of prayer? You could be the answer to your own prayer. Yes says Jesus the task is great. But in the face of the task, be prayerful.

Discipleship is costly, according to Jesus. It's about a war effort not peace time pampering. So will you take up the challenge? Hear again the words of the Lord Jesus Christ. For he commands us to stay focussed in the face of great cost, to stay faithful in the face of rejection, to stay humble in the face of success, and to stay prayerful in the face of the task.

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