Saturday, December 20, 2014

Celebrating the birth of Jesus, redeemer of "lost causes"

In this Advent season, I've been reflecting on this Jesus whose birth we celebrate. What is He really about?

Earlier this week, I was talking with a friend and colleague about a ministry effort in which we're both involved that, when it began, seemed so daunting as to be considered a "lost cause."

Now, after much prayer and hard work (especially on the part of my friend), we have begun to see some light in the distance, leading my friend to exclaim, after a week of extensive travel on behalf of this "lost cause," "We can turn this around - I'm sensing it!"

This isn't the first "lost cause" for either of us; both of us are accustomed to swimming against the tide - and have probably come pretty close to being pulled under for the third time on a few occasions.

One of my favorite all-time actors is Jimmy Stewart, and one of my all-time favorite movies is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. There's one scene that has particularly stuck with me through the years, as much as any scene from any movie. It comes after Stewart's character, freshman Senator Jefferson Smith, has discovered that the friend and mentor he had practically worshipped all these years - Senator Paine - is crooked. Paine, who is controlled by a corrupt political machine, is involved in an effort to discredit Smith and a bill he had introduced, because Smith's bill stands in the way of an appropriations bill, framed by the machine, that includes a dam-building graft scheme.

On the floor of the Senate, in the heat of his filibuster aimed at postponing the appropriations bill, Smith approaches the desk of Senator Paine, and says,
I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don't know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for. And he fought for them for the only reason any man ever fights for them. Because of just one plain, simple rule: Love thy neighbor. In this world full of hatred, a man who knows that one rule has a great trust. You know that rule, Mr. Paine. I loved you for it, just as my father did. You know that you fight harder for the lost causes. You even die for them.
Jesus is all about lost causes. What must the task of redeeming the world have looked like to Jesus when he started? For that matter, it's still a pretty daunting task today. Did you notice that "one simple rule" that Senator Smith referenced? Yes, it's what Jesus called the second greatest commandment: "Love your neighbor as yourself." (Matthew 22:39b, NIV) That "rule," in combination with what Jesus called the greatest commandment - "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37) - are the reasons Jesus took on that task of redeeming the world.

And that task is the charge he left with his disciples, just before he ascended to the Father.

Redeeming the world! That takes in a lot of territory - not only in terms of geography but in terms of the task itself. Remember, Christ didn't just say to his disciples, "tell them about me." He told them to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them . . . and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." (Matthew 28:19-20) And what did he command his disciples? Love God and love people.

Some people may seem unlikable to us, but no one is unlovable, no one is beyond the love of God, and we are not to withhold our love from anyone. Jesus doesn't.

Redeem the world? That's going to mean different things to different people, because God calls each one of us uniquely. My call will be different from your call. But the mission to which God calls us, as His people, is the same - to take part in redeeming the world.

Redemption is about following Jesus, who ministered to the whole person. He saw our immediate needs as intertwined with our eternal needs.

Redemptive tasks will often start out seeming like a lost cause. I can't imagine what our Texas Baptists Disaster Recovery volunteers must think when they arrive at a site that has been devastated by a tornado, a flood, a fertilizer plant explosion. It must look impossible, but they pray and they work, and God redeems that "lost cause."

That's just one example. There are all kinds of "lost causes" of different types and of different scales. For example, a long-brewing conflict that has torn a family apart. How to minister to that family and restore those broken relationships? It can seem like a "lost cause," but God is not overwhelmed by it. He's calling some person or persons to invest themselves in that family. Through prayer and the God-blessed effort of His people, He can redeem that "lost cause" until it is no longer lost.

I've seen it over and over again - in my own life and various ministry efforts, and in those of others. All God asks is our obedience and faithfulness.

Oh yes, one more example. I lost my faith during my college years and spent several years of searching before I returned to faith in Christ. I'm sure I seemed like a "lost cause," but my parents trusted God and kept loving me and praying for me, and so did others whom God called to invest themselves in my life during that time. Thank God for Jesus, who redeems "lost causes" like me, and thank God for people who answer His call to take part in that redeeming ministry..

Jesus calls us to take part in His work of redeeming lost causes. To what "lost cause" is He calling you?