This sermon, using insights from Andy Stanley’s new book, “Deep & Wide,” challenges us to reconsider our commitment to reaching lost people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. As I argue, we often fail to be like Jesus in this most important respect: we don’t love unchurched people nearly as much as Jesus does! Also, using insights from Andy’s own story, I challenge us to see what God is doing even through the challenges and setbacks of life.
Sermon Text: Matthew 2:1-12
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
We just got back yesterday from visiting Mayberry, North Carolina. Well, not exactly Mayberry… Mt. Airy, the hometown of the late great Andy Griffith and the town after which the fictitious Mayberry was modeled. You can tour the town in a vintage 1961 Ford police cruiser, just like Andy Taylor and Barney Fife drove on the show. Nearly every shop and restaurant has either Mayberry in the name or a name that’s related to the show. There’s a Floyd’s Barber Shop. We ate at a place called Barney’s Cafe—and there were of course pictures of Barney Fife everywhere.
It’s completely hokey, completely cornball, completely cheesy, of course… But you know what? If you’re going to be Mayberry, be Mayberry all the way, you know? Go all out! Embrace your inner Goober! There are Andy Griffith Show fans as far away as Japan. You want them and every other fan of the show all around the world to know that this is the place that they simply must come in order to have the authentic “Andy Griffith” experience—and they’ll spend a lot of money on food, lodging, and tacky souvenirs while they’re here!
And in this regard, I’m afraid the town doesn’t go nearly far enough. For example, when you walk into a restaurant on Main Street in Mayberry, don’t you expect someone to welcome you the way “Aint” Bee might welcome you to Sunday dinner? And if there was no room at the dinner table because Barney and Thelma Lou showed up before you got there, don’t you think Aint Bee would pull up a chair for you and clear a spot for you and be cheerful while doing it? Of course she would!
We walked into one restaurant around lunchtime, and there was no room at any of the tables. We were happy to wait a little while, but no one greeted us. Instead, one of the waitresses shot a look in our direction that said, “Ugh! What are we going to do with you people?” No one was happy that we were there. No one told us that if we’d kindly wait, they’d love to seat us as soon as a table became available. And no one minded at all when we turned around and left… just like a family had done a minute earlier, when we got there. As Lisa told me after we left: “I’m not feeling the Mayberry spirit!” And she was right!
And I got to thinking: There are many fans of Jesus in the world. You don’t have to be a follower of Jesus, after all, to admire him—and Jesus has many admirers from other faith traditions and among people who aren’t religious at all. Suppose a Jesus fan wanted to know where they could go in order to get the full ‘Jesus Christ’ experience.” We’d forgive them for thinking that the institution that Jesus founded, which exists to honor him, bear witness to him, carry on his mission—an institution that is bold enough—some might say presumptuous enough—to call itself the Body of Christ would be the obvious place to go. I’m talking about the church, of course. And a word of warning: this first part of my sermon is addressed to people who are already Christians. If you’re not a Christian, take a little nap, and you can tune in later.
In his new book, Deep and Wide, Andy Stanley argues that the church usually fails to be true to offer the authentic Jesus Christ experience in at least one critically important way: The church doesn’t act like it loves unchurched people nearly as much as Jesus did. Back in the gospels, do you know who most resented the fact that Jesus loved unchurched people? Churched people! But Jesus loved unchurched people: like tax collectors and prostitutes and lepers and Samaritans and Gentiles and hated Roman soldiers and all kinds of religiously “unclean” people known among churched people as “sinners.”
Consider today’s scripture, the beginning of Matthew’s gospel… We’re told that magi from the east—probably from what would be modern-day Iraq or Iran—came to Jerusalem asking about a newborn king of the Jews. These magi did not believe in the one true God. They were pagans. They had no previous contact with the God of Israel. So even here, at the very heart of the Christmas story, we are given a giant clue as to what God is up to in sending his Son into the world: Just as he would do later in Jesus’ ministry, God is reaching out to unchurched people.
So my question is: Are we? Given the priority that God places on reaching unchurched people, are we as concerned about reaching them as we ought to be?
In his book, Andy Stanley says—can I pretend like I know him and call him Andy?—Andy says that he’s sometimes asked if he’s surprised by the growth and success of Northpoint. And he says that he’s not surprised—and it’s not because his church was better than anyone else’s. He says it’s because when they launched Northpoint, every other church in Atlanta was going after the churched people market. He writes, “We decided to get into the unchurched people market. That’s a much larger market and we didn’t have any competition at the time… Let’s face it, if you have the only hot dog stand in town, your hot dogs don’t have to be that good.”
I did a lot of soul-searching as I read this book. I thought of how I came to believe in Jesus. I grew up in a Christian home, to Christian parents. They weren’t the saintliest of saints, to be sure. Both of them would experience a deepening of their Christian faith later in life, after I was out of the house. In spite of their shortcomings, they provided me with every opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel. I remember—I remember—the night that I, as a confused 13-year-old kid, lay in bed listening in the dark to a spooky-sounding Genesis song about the end of the world called “Supper’s Ready.” By the end of that song I was scared. I was scared of God’s judgment and hell. I wanted to be a Christian, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t one. And I went to my parents and told them this. And they didn’t quite know what to do about it. But they signed me up for a youth group retreat, which was happening soon. They thought that would clear things up for me. And they made me go, because I didn’t want to go. I wasn’t active in the youth group at the time. And God got hold of me in a big way on that retreat! My life was never the same.
My parents, like nearly all their friends and family, were old-fashioned Southern Baptists from the buckle of the Bible belt in rural South Carolina and rural Georgia. They were from a time and a place and a culture that is spiritually very, very different from the one in which we find ourselves today—even though, geographically, they grew up not far away. And my point is, even with the built-in advantages of my upbringing—having grown up in Sunday school and Vacation Bible school, having sung in children’s choir, having gone to church, often against my will, most Sundays—I almost missed out on Jesus.
And if I almost missed out on Jesus, good heavens! Where does that leave the vast majority of people right here who don’t even have what I had? Is it possible that they will go to hell because, unlike me, they weren’t fortunate enough to be born into a Christian family during a time and place in which churchgoing was sort of the normal and expected thing to do?
Should I be O.K. with that? Should I be satisfied with that? Should I not ask such a question? No wonder many of my fellow mainline Protestant clergy never talk about hell or give up on the doctrine of hell altogether! After all, we can sleep easier at night if we imagine that, no matter what we do in this life—including how effectively or how poorly people like me reach out to the unchurched—God is going to allow everyone into heaven! I totally see the appeal of that idea, even though it flies in the face of the words of Jesus and the New Testament and 2,000 years of Christian thinking on the subject. No, I believe the threat of hell is real and should motivate at least some of our energy and urgency to reach the unchurched.
One thing that Andy’s book consistently challenges us to ask is, How much do we really care about lost people? Andy updates a well-known parable: “Suppose you had seven credit cards in your purse or wallet and you lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the six and go search for the missing card until you found it?” He said he lost a credit card recently, and he never once pulled out the credit card that he hadn’t lost in order to celebrate that he still had it. He felt no urgency about his un-lost credit card. He didn’t call a single person to say that he lost his Visa, but—no worries—he still has his American Express! No, you tend to obsess over things you care about. He writes, “Remember the last time you couldn’t find your phone? Remember the embarrassing, ashamed-to-admit-it, I’m-such-an-American panic that started to filter past your common sense? You took no comfort in all the other un-lost electronic gadgets lying around your house. You were on a mission. Why? You lost something important.”
To pastors and church leaders like me, he asks, “Come on, do you really want to spend your life managing what was lost to the neglect of what’s still lost?” I don’t. And to people who are just ordinary Christians out there, let me ask: Do you really just want to go to church with a bunch of boring churched people? If not, help me. All of us Christians have a role to play in reaching the lost with the gospel of Jesus Christ!
This next part of the sermon is for everyone. You don’t have to be a Christian, I hope, to get something out of it… Getting back to our scripture: Christian astronomers often try to figure out what was happening in the night sky over Bethlehem between 6 and 4 B.C., when Jesus was born. And there are many interesting theories out there. One thing is for sure: The quaint postcard pictures of a bright shining star over the stable in Bethlehem, which everyone in the world could see, probably isn’t right. After all, in their day, these magi were the experts in astronomy. They had studied the movements of the planets and stars all their lives. They were trained to see things that no one else could see. And they were trained, whether they knew it or not, to see this thing that God intended them to see!
Just think: Through all those years of education and training and practicing their craft, God was at work in their lives, preparing them for this journey they were about to take. And on this side of that journey, before they left home, they saw something they thought meant the birth of an earthly king in Judea—like the births of so many other kings in the world. They had no idea that it meant that the king of the universe, God himself, had come into the world. They figured that out later, on the other side of the journey. On this side of the journey, these magi couldn’t grasp the full significance of what they were seeing and what they were experiencing. And they certainly couldn’t see what God had in store for them!
Isn’t that usually the way God works? His fingerprints are all over our lives, the good parts and the bad parts—leading and guiding us—and we often can’t even see it, except in retrospect.
In his autobiography, Steve Jobs talked about how he dropped out of Reed College… Audited calligraphy class… Helped him design the first Mac with beautiful fonts. If he were still alive, I would challenge Steve Jobs to see that God was working through his experience at Reed, preparing him for what came later. I think this kind if thing happens all the time.
It happened to Andy Stanley. Andy grew up a preacher’s kid. Through his father’s connections, he stumbled into the ministry at First Baptist Atlanta, and he was good at it. He planned on continuing to work at First Baptist, helping his dad’s ministry, forever. But God had a plan. Later, First Baptist decided to sell its midtown Atlanta property and move north of the city. They bought the new property, which had been a large warehouse, and planned on selling the midtown property right away. Only the Atlanta real estate market crashed, and suddenly they couldn’t find a buyer—it would be years before they did. This looked like a setback. But God had a plan. Meanwhile they had this property up north. And why not let Andy lead worship services there during this time of transition? That will help establish the church’s presence in that area—you know, until the big church moves there and church can go back to normal. But God had a plan.
Andy said that the deacons in the church kept apologizing to him about the warehouse: It’s not going to be like a church at all. It’s still an unfinished warehouse. Unfortunately, they said, you won’t have an organ or a choir or an orchestra like we have at the big church. You’re just going to have to make do until we’re able to do the renovations.” It sounded bad to churched people. But God had a plan.
The north campus of First Baptist, meanwhile, was very successful at reaching the unchurched. And Andy’s ministry had taken off. Then an ugly crisis came along: Andy’s mom filed for divorce from his dad, which in Baptist circles was a really big deal. Some church people believed Charles Stanley should resign. To make matters worse, Charles perceived that Andy wanted his father to resign—so that Andy could take over the church. It created a rift between father and son that took years to heal. But even through this terrible personal crisis, God still had a plan.
One day in the summer of 1995, Andy describes going with his wife to a doctor’s appointment. She was experiencing a problem during one of her pregnancies. He grabbed a random book off his shelf to read in the waiting room. He said it was as if the author had lived with him for the past 24 months. He started reading it to his wife. And when he got to one passage, he read it out loud, and they both knew it was time to leave First Baptist. They had no idea what would happen next. But God had a plan.
My point is, look at how all these circumstances worked together… The best things in life don’t happen according to a plan—or I should say, according to our plan. The best things in life happen according to God’s plan.
What if, whenever we faced a disruption in our plans, a setback in our careers, or a crisis of some kind in our lives, we asked ourselves: “I wonder what God is up to now?” I wonder what God is up to now?
Shortly after Northpoint started, and it was clear that God’s plans for Andy were bigger and better than Andy’s plans for himself, Andy wrote a short prayer, which he printed out, and it sits on his desk to this day. It says, “Lord, this was not my idea. You got me into this. I’m trusting you to see me through it.”
Here’s a question: Does God only have plans for the Andy Stanleys of the world, or does he also have plans for people like you… and me?
I pray that in this new year, God will get you into something that is not your idea. And God will get me into something that is not my idea. And, together, we’ll trust God to see us through it. Amen.