Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Good Shepherd (Luke 15:1-7)

Each Sunday at Nisshin Christ Church, the sermon is translated into English in a manuscript that is available for those (of us) who don't yet speak Japanese.  A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to preach the Good News on a Sunday morning.  The manuscript for that sermon follows: 

The Good Shepherd

(Luke 15:1-7) Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Thank you again for the warm welcome you have shown our family. We also want to thank you for your patience with us as we begin to learn Japanese. Please know that we will work hard to learn to speak to you in your own language as soon as possible. We also want you to know that we feel very happy and honored that God has called us to serve with you in Nagoya, Japan. 

In the today’s passage, we see that “Tax Collectors” and “Sinners” were drawing near to Jesus, and the Jewish leaders were grumbling about it. They didn’t approve of how comfortable Jesus seemed to be with these kinds of people.

When reading the Gospels, it seems like Jesus enjoyed being with the kinds of people that most of us try to stay away from. These people liked Jesus, so they must have felt loved and accepted by him. In contrast, they were not drawn to the religious leaders of the day, because the religious people condemned them. 

Jesus told this parable along with the two which follow it, to respond to the objections of the Jewish leaders who were grumbling about the company he kept. It might be good for us to ask ourselves whether outsiders feel loved and accepted by us as they did by Jesus. However, this is not the main point that I want to make today.
This morning, I only have a little bit of time, because Takahashi san must translate for me. So, I want to point out just two things we can learn about Jesus from this parable of the lost sheep.

The first thing I want to point out from this parable is that Jesus is willing to Save His People from their Sins. 

Even though it is not obvious at first, this parable is about Jesus. He is the shepherd in this story. In John 10, Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” Jesus often described himself as a shepherd, because the people living in that country were very familiar with shepherds and sheep. They all knew that a good shepherd was completely committed to the welfare of the sheep under his care. 

Since there are not many sheep in the part of the world where I am from, it has helped me to read about shepherds who lived in this area during this time. I've learned that these shepherds knew each sheep in their flock very well, and they loved them very much. When a sheep went missing, the shepherd recognized it quickly.

The sheep in this story is physically lost. She is out in the wilderness without food and water, and everyone listening knows that she will eventually die. The sheep in the story can’t save herself. She doesn't know the way back. Maybe she has wandered up a high mountain and doesn't know how to get back down. And it is possible that this sheep doesn't even know she’s lost. Oftentimes when an animal gets lost, it doesn't realize the danger it’s in until it’s too late. Maybe she’s been eating delicious grass and getting further and further from the care of the shepherd. And maybe there are dangerous predators and high cliffs all around. The lost sheep is in a terrible situation and in desperate need of help whether she’s aware of it or not! But there is hope for this sheep, because she belongs to a good shepherd who has noticed that she is missing. 

Again, remember that many of the people in the crowd were shepherds, so Jesus’ words were familiar to them. Look at verse 4 - “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the 99 in the open country and go after the one that is lost until he finds is?” 

It is important to realize that the shepherd owns this particular lost sheep. This sheep is important to him. He loves her, and he is committed to recovering her. 

Our family has a little, white dog named Abby. One day, Abby wandered away from our home and was lost. We knew she was somewhere in our neighborhood, but we didn’t know where. So, each member of the family went a different way to look for Abby. And we searched until we found her because she was OUR dog and we loved her. While we were searching, I passed a sign with a picture of another lost dog. But I didn’t look for that dog, because she wasn’t my own. Our hearts broke for Abby and we were committed to finding her. 

Jesus is the good shepherd who knows each one of his sheep. They belong to him, and He is committed to finding them. The shepherd in the story represents Jesus, and the sheep represent his people.
The sheep in this story was physically lost. We are spiritually lost. The sheep in the parable was in grave danger. We are also in grave danger, because our sin is rebelling against the God who made us. And God has promised to punish sin. The sheep in this parable may not have even realized how bad her condition was. And maybe you came here today not realizing how bad your condition really is. The incredible, good news that Jesus is telling people is that even though they are lost and rebelling against God…and even if they do not realize it, yet…Christ is committed to finding them!

Maybe you aren't even sure that you are lost or that the God of the Bible even exists. It could be argued that this is a perfect definition of what it means to be lost. But there was hope for the sheep, because she had a good shepherd and so do we! God sent his only son. The true shepherd to rescue all of his lost sheep who are scattered out all over the world.

Just like the shepherd in the story was willing to leave the comfort of green pastors and go into the wilderness to rescue his lost sheep, Jesus was willing to leave his throne in Heaven and even suffer and die on a cross to rescue his people! So, one thing we see in this parable is that the Son of God is committed to saving each of his people from their sin. 

The Second thing I want to Point out from this Parable is that Heaven rejoices when the lost are found!

Please notice that the lost sheep didn't come wandering home full of shame. The shepherd didn't scold her when he found her. Instead, he celebrated! He wasn't angry with his lost sheep, he was full of joy that he had found her! The shepherd returned with his precious sheep on his shoulders, and he called his friends and neighbors and invited them to celebrate with him!

I realize that people celebrate in different ways. Some of us do so openly with singing and dancing and others are more reserved. But there is nothing reserved about the celebration that takes place in Heaven when Jesus recovers a lost person! Jesus says this: “In the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

There is so much good news in this parable! There is a God in Heaven who is willing and able to save sinners who are lost, and Heaven celebrates when that happens! At another place in the Bible, Jesus said, “I will lose none of those that the Father has given me but raise them up on the last day.” The Good Shepherd will not lose even one of his lost sheep!

This parable applies to you if you’re here this morning and you have never known Jesus. Maybe today, the good shepherd is finding you for the first time. Maybe you’re not even intellectually convinced that you are lost or that Christianity is true. Christ even comes for that kind of person, and many times he surprises them unexpectedly.

Maybe as you listen today you find yourself thinking, “I am not sure this is true, but oh how I wish it were true!” That could be the Holy Spirit working in your heart. Maybe the good Shepherd is already on his way to rescue you!

But this parable also applies to those of us who have been Christians for a long time. Sometimes Christians can become disconnected from God and he begins to seem far away. At other times, we return to living in ways that we know are displeasing to God or even worshipping other gods alongside of the true God. That is why I say that this parable also applies to Christians. It applies to Christians because Christ is the good shepherd who comes for his lost sheep again and again. He will never lose one of his own, not even you! 
You can never stray so far that you’re beyond his reach. You can never do something so terrible that his blood cannot save you. You can never move to a land where His is not the King! His power and love are infinite. He is faithful even when we are not.

I tell you this from experience, because He has come to find me many times. One was just last week after we moved here to Nagoya. I realized that my heart was cold, and my love for Christ was very small. Maybe it will be surprising to hear this from a new missionary, but I was not praying much, and the Scriptures seemed very dry to me. I was like the lost sheep…again. I prayed and asked Jesus to forgive me, and to come warm my cold heart…and he did! And it was like I could hear the music of the celebration in Heaven all over again. He has done this many times in my life. You see, I think I’m not a very good Christian most of the time. But Christ is a mighty savior. And he is patient…even with people like me.

And so, if you are here and have never had the joy of experiencing the saving power of the Good Shepherd, you should call out to him today. And if you are here and (like me) your heart has grown cold. You should call out to Jesus today. He loves to pick up lost sheep and carry them back into the fold. And when he comes, he doesn’t shame them…instead, lifts up on his shoulders and calls for Heaven to celebrate!

Let us have a moment of silent prayer, so we can each tell him what is on our hearts. Then, Wayne will close in prayer before we continue with our service.

Monday, November 12, 2012

It's Humbling to be so Needy

Members of Nisshin Church at the Fall picnic last Sunday
     These past few weeks have been very humbling for Gina and me.  We've gone from living in a place where we were mostly competent and self-sufficient to one where we're functionally illiterate, unable to communicate basic ideas, and as a result very needy.
     It's been getting cold outside, and last night I decided to fire up one of the kerosene heaters we'll use to warm the house this winter.  I went to the gas station, bought some kerosene (an adventure in itself), and then topped off the tank in the heater.  The heater itself is more complex than its US counterparts with buttons and digital readouts all over the front.  Of course, each button is clearly Japanese!  I finally did get the heater to light, and it warmed the house nicely. However, I'm not sure which combination of things actually resulted in ignition, so I'll be starting from scratch tomorrow morning!
     Everything in our lives right now is like lighting that kerosene heater.  The buttons on the microwave oven and the washing machine are all written in Japanese - as is the owner's manual for our new (to us) Toyota van and the labels on everything in the grocery store.  It seems like we need help with almost everything!  By the way, this experience has given us a different perspective on some of our Spanish-speaking neighbors back home in Asheboro, but that's a blog entry for another day.
     So, through this transition, the Holy Spirit has been giving us a better view of our weakness.  At the same time, He's been mercifully providing for our daily needs through His Church here.  Our teammates and the Japanese Christians who attend Nisshin Christ Church have been so helpful and patient with us.  I'm pretty sure that someone from our team has spent time with us EVERY DAY over the past month.  When we've thanked them and apologized for taking so much of their time, they've assured us that helping us is their joy, and they're so pleased to have us here on the field.  We feel humbled and grateful for the welcome and constant help they've been to us.
     The Japanese Christians at Nisshin Church have also received us warmly.  Within 48 hours after our arrival, one of the church ladies knocked on our door to take Gina to the grocery store and teach her how to cook a Japanese-style meal.  Another lady took us to City Hall to register our address and then helped us open bank accounts.  Someone else spent their whole Saturday translating for us at the cell phone store to get us set up with phones, and a team of 3 ladies are taking turns meeting with us each week to help with basic language acquisition.  I could go on, but you get the idea.
     The Church here is very (very) small, but God has people here who've welcomed us with lavish generosity.  They're able to do that because they've experienced the lavish, welcoming love of God through Christ Jesus.  He received them when they were aliens and strangers because of their sin, and now they're showing a similar welcome to us.  It's a marvelous picture of God's grace drawn around our new-found weakness.
     I wish I could tell you that we'll be independent again in a few weeks, but that's probably not reality.  We'll need a lot of help (and prayer!) for a long time.  And in the process, God will get glory as He continues to show Himself strong through our weakness.  Thank you for praying to that end!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Encouraging words from John Piper (to language learners)

A friend pointed us toward this video from John Piper where he encourages missionaries who are in the process of learning a second language for the sake of communicating the Gospel.  I'm mainly posting it here so I'll have a convenient place to come back to it in the future.  However, maybe some of our friends in different places will be encouraged as well.

Grace and Peace!

Jeremy and Gina

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Two weeks in...

Joshua in front of our ride to Nagoya on 10/17/2012
Today marks the end of our second full week in Nagoya.  In fact, it was about this time 14 days ago that our wheels touched down at Chubu International Airport and we began the next phase of this adventure we've been on for the past two years.  In one way, it feels surreal to think that we've already been here so long.  It's even more surreal to think about how long it may be before we're back realize that we are in fact home.

Our biggest challenges these past two weeks haven't had anything to do with the transition to Japan.   Everyone except Josiah has now been sick with what I'll call a bad, long-lasting, chest cold.  Lot's of coughing, low grade fevers, and generally feeling yucky.  And it seems it will never end (7-10 days to run its course).  Garrett, Joshua, and I are now on the mend, but Gina's still in the thick of it. 

On Sunday, we also got news that Gina's grandmother had passed away unexpectedly.  She had undergone surgery to remove a cancerous lesion on her liver, and she died of complications related to the surgery.  Up until that moment, Skype and email had seemed sufficient to keep some semblance of connection with family and friends at home. But technology can't give or receive a hug...and that's what everyone needed.  The cost of this calling began to feel a good bit heavier than it did before.

Our home for the next year or so...
In spite of sickness and sadness, we've also experienced a lot of joy these past few weeks.  When we arrived in our new home, there was already a card waiting for us from home.  Some precious friends took the time to write a note and sent it on ahead of us.  There was also a loaf of homemade banana bread in the fridge from our teammates here - along with a welcome note telling us how happy they all were to have us here.  That first Sunday at church was overwhelming in many ways, but there was a steady stream of people who approached us to introduce themselves and genuinely thank us for coming.  The Japanese Christians are conscious of the fact that we've made a big sacrifice to be here, and they come across as being very grateful.

These past few days, I've thought about how much of our ministry will be built on the foundation laid by those who've gone before us.  So much about our transition has gone smoothly because we're joining a team that's been on this field for a lot of years.  They were here to welcome us, stock our fridge...bake us banana bread.  They've planted a church where many of the members speak relatively good English, where there are friends for our boys, and where there's an elementary school for Garrett to attend.  The team has relationships with people all over Nagoya who trust them...and whom they can trust (trust is something that's incredibly important and hard to come by as foreigners in Japan)

Steps leading up to one of the many temples in our city
The current team inherited many of those relationships from teammates who plowed even harder soil before them and have long since retired or gone home to be with Jesus.  And before our missions agency (MTW) was ever born, there were Christian missionaries in Japan who were laying down their lives in the face of bloody persecution to bring the Good News to the Japanese.  There's such a legacy here, and it helps me to remember that we're now joining a work that the Church has been laboring at for many hundreds of years.  More importantly, it's a work that the Holy Spirit has been doing long before we sensed His calling to come.  It's moved quite slowly to this point...only God knows what lays ahead.  But we feel honored to be here to play some small part in bringing the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to this dark land.