Isaiah 49:1-6
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
January 15, 2017

What’s the purpose of church? What is it good for?

Some value church for its being like a movie theater where the stories of God are given dramatic presentation in an engaging, entertaining and energizing way.

Others value church for its being like a gas station where people get their spiritual tank filled and their souls pumped up by inspiring sermons and moving music.

Still others value church for its being like a drug store were they can pick up soul
medicine that heals and strengthens them to deal with their challenges.

Yet others value church for its being like a big box retail store where they can find helpful, life-enhancing products and programs.

But on what grounds does Jesus value His church first and foremost?

Jesus speaks of it as His body, a living, breathing organism in which every member has a crucial role to play without which the body cannot operate at maximum effectiveness for carrying out the mission He began in His flesh. That’s why, in a different word picture, He talks about Himself as the true vine, and each of His followers as a precious, fruit-bearing branch.

Likewise, Jesus speaks of His church as being like a family dinner at which people are nourished sharing the Bread of Life. That’s why, in another word picture, He commanded Peter – and through him, all His followers – to feed His sheep.

Likewise as well, Jesus speaks of His church as a city on a hill by whose light the lost find their way into the warm brightness of God’s grace. That’s why, in another word picture, He inspired the Apostle Paul to call His followers “ambassadors”, who are deployed everywhere to represent Him and His culture of love and righteousness.

It is this last vision for the church that today’s scripture lesson brings into focus. While Isaiah’s message was originally intended for the nation of Israel, the New Testament understands the church to be a second Israel and to have the same mission as Israel: to be “a light to the nations, that [God’s] salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

That means that individual Israelites are to participate in their community, and individual Christians in their church, not to serve either themselves alone or even each other alone, but to serve those who are, as verse one puts it, “far away”. An essential purpose of Israel, and the church, is to reach out beyond the bounds of its fellowship and bring those “far away” from God’s central action into God’s full blessing.

In today’s scripture, the nation of the Israelites is talking to the nations of the Gentiles who have not yet been brought into that blessing. The Israelites own up to their conviction that God had made their mouths to be like a sword to prick the conscience of the guilty and their lives to be like polished arrows to be shot out into the larger world. And though, because of their paltry success in winning people over, they wonder whether they’ve spent their strength for nothing, they are sure that God is still telling them that it is “too light a thing” to just take care of their own – raising up the tribes of Jacob and restoring the survivors of Israel – and that God is still insisting on giving them “as a light to the nations”.

What applies to Israel applies to the church.
The only question is, how can we be a light to those living “far away” from the center of God’s action?

Well, sometimes God makes it easy by bringing such “outsiders” right into our midst! Seekers, agnostics and atheists do visit church, both in our worship services and in our special events, and we can at the very least shine upon them the light of God’s warm hospitality, courteous respect and open-hearted inclusiveness. I have to say I am very proud of the welcome this congregation extended to visitors to our last several concerts – and we have another one coming up two weeks from today!

Along these lines, I am also wondering whether, given that the church has recently received a gift of some top-flight weightlifting equipment, we now have a new evangelistic opening in that we might make the newly improved church gym accessible to those in the larger community.

Of course, we can’t just wait for everyone to come to us; love drives us to reach out and to meet people on their own turf. Again, God has made our path to this kind of ministry relatively easy. For this church has a long history of engaging with the larger community in service – by its academic support programs, partnerships in justice issues, and collaboration with organizations like Christian Outreach in Action – and those engagements have created natural opportunities in which to reflect God’s light.

Moreover, almost all of us have family members and friends, with whom we are in contact, who are living “far away” from God’s central action.
But how do we strike up a spiritual conversation with them? Well, if nothing else, we can just ask questions and listen attentively and non-judgmentally – and then see where God takes things from there.

John Crilli, a middle-aged Irish Catholic, learned this when he met five immigrant Muslim young men recently arrived from Kenya and drove them from O’Hare to his home where they would stay until they could find long-term housing. In the dead of an Illinois winter, they came off the plane wearing T-shirts and flip-flops and toting all their belongings in trash can bags.

As Crilli steered his car on to the freeway, he overheard one of them mention something about prayer. Stirred by curiosity and prompted by God, he turned down the radio and asked, “How does a Muslim pray?”

Crilli says the relational dynamics changed immediately. When they saw him admit his ignorance and take a humble and loving stance of only wanting to get to know them better, it emboldened them to take control of the conversation and to share whatever they wanted. They poured out their hearts about what the five daily times for prayer meant to them, with each one chiming in excitedly.

Crilli listened attentively and carefully to them all, speaking up only to ask questions to clarify his understanding. He just heard them out with an open mind and heart – and that was enough to shine God’s light into that darkened car rolling down the road on a pitch-black night. As a result, when Crilli pulled into his driveway, one of the Muslims asked him, “So, tell us, how does a Christian pray?”

Let us reach out and reflect the light of God. It might just earn us the right to share about our Lord and our faith – and put us in a position to see anew what the church is good for and how exhilarating, God’s purposes for it. Let us pray.

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