There are a lot of controversial topics that could create tension between a church and its community. One of them is homosexuality. A church in Illinois recently decided to spend a Sunday morning on the topic. It became a very memorable Sunday, not just in that church’s life, but for the whole community.
You need to know a little about the community. It was known for its open and affirming attitudes. The village president is a lesbian, and several members of the school board are openly gay. There is a large homosexual population.
So when the church sent out 40,000 mailings saying that the topic at church was going to be same-sex marriage, they knew that they would be getting a reaction. They may have got more than they bargained for.
The local gay and lesbian association announced they were going to stage a silent protest at the service. They announced in advance that they would show up to bear witness to a “bigoted sermon”. A hundred protesters showed up to church. The first three services went fairly well, with only one man creating a disturbance. Things got a bit uglier at night.
Listen to a newspaper account of what happened:
Waving placards and shouting through a microphone, dozens of demonstrators marched outside an Oak Park church Sunday evening voicing their anger with the evangelical congregation’s stance against same-sex unions and railing against a guest speaker who describes himself as a reformed homosexual. Protesters chanted “Shame!” and “House of Hate!” as parishioners of Calvary Memorial Church entered the service.
So there you have the type of conflict that can sometimes take place between the church and the world. I am going to return to what happened in this church later, but I want to pause for a minute and ask: What does glorifying God look like in that situation?
Let’s expand the situation a little. There are lots of times that Christians may believe certain things that aren’t popular. There are also lots of times that we’re in situations in school or at work in which people are acting in ways that we don’t think are right.
What I’m getting at are the times that there is a clear difference between those of us who follow Jesus Christ and those who don’t. When this difference becomes clear, in terms of what we believe and how we act, what should we do? What brings God the most glory?
- Do you withdraw from them, so you don’t get mixed up with what they’re doing?
- Do you confront them and tell them where they’re wrong?
- Do you compromise and try to fit in?
What brings God the most glory when we’re in contact with people who are opposed to our beliefs and lifestyle?
A Case Study
I want to look at a case study that I think answers this question. In this passage we’re going to encounter some of God’s faithful people. They faced this situation as we do. They were outnumbered by those who didn’t share their beliefs and their lifestyle. They faced the same choices that we do. Do they stand up for their beliefs? Do they withdraw? Do they just mind their own business?
The people were the Jewish faithful, who against all odds were faithfully serving God after hundreds of years of foreign oppression. It was incredibly hard to stay faithful. Almost six hundred years before, things began to go seriously wrong for the Jewish nation. The nation had been exiled; Jerusalem had been destroyed and rebuilt; for hundreds of years, Jews had been under foreign rule.
The Jewish faithful were outnumbered in every way. The Roman Empire was a massive world empire. The language of the day was Greek, not Hebrew (the language of the Jews). The Jewish faithful longed for the Messiah to arrive to free them from the Romans. There were revolutionaries ready to take things into their own hands and to overthrow the Romans. So you could understand how frustrating it was, how easy it would be to hate the Romans and to want them God.
What would bring the most glory to God if you were one of the Jewish faithful surrounded by Romans?
- Do you withdraw from the Romans and try to serve God while ignoring them?
- Do you confront the Romans and plot against them?
- Do you try to blend in and compromise?
So let’s look at what the main character in today’s passage has to teach us about how to glorify God when we’re outnumbered. Let’s look at what happened in Luke 2.
The main character’s name is Simeon. To give you a bit of background, Jesus was about forty days old, and it was time to dedicate him in the Temple and to complete the rites of purification. So Joseph and Mary take Jesus to the Temple, and it’s there that they meet this man named Simeon.
Verse 25 introduces us to Simeon: “Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him.” Here we learn two important things about Simeon. First, he’s righteous and devout. Second, he’s waiting for the “consolation of Israel”. This is a term that goes back to some of Isaiah’s prophecies, that spoke of Israel’s comfort after the exile. Simeon was looking forward to the time when Israel would receive its promises of salvation and peace once again. He was anxiously longing for the Messiah.
So in other words, Simeon is a man who has good reason to hate the Romans, and to hope that God will judge them and save him.
Then, in the story, you have this amazing God thing happen. You can’t explain this except to say that God did it:
It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required. Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying… (Luke 2:26-28)
So this has been exactly what Simeon has been waiting for. Picture him. He’s holding baby Jesus in his arms, and realizing that this is the one that had been prophesied for centuries. After all these years, this is the one who is going to put things right, and bring comfort and peace to Israel. This is the one who will deliver Israel.
So it’s a little surprising what Simeon ends up saying:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:29-35)
The most surprising part of this is in verses 31-32:
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.
Here’s what these verses say:
First, it says that Jesus is a light to Gentiles. Here, Gentiles are the enemy. Gentiles are the Romans who are keeping Rome captive. They are the people who worship idols and gods, who have lifestyles that are ungodly compared to the faithful Jews.
Today, you could say the Gentiles are those who are not among the faithful who are serving God. Jesus is the light to those who don’t know God. He is the light to the homosexual community who are protesting at a church. He is the light to the guy at work that always has a dirty joke. He is light to anyone who isn’t a follower of Jesus Christ.
This is surprising. You’d expect Simeon to say that Jesus was judgment to the Gentiles, that he will crush them and destroy them. Instead, Simeon says that Jesus is light. He will illuminate their darkness. Instead of crushing them, he will give them just what they need. They will not only see Jesus, but they will participate in the salvation that he brings.
Second, these verses say that Israel’s glory is in bearing the Messiah. Jesus is called a light to the Gentiles, and the glory to the people of Israel. According to Simeon, if you asked what Israel’s greatest accomplishment was, it would be this: that Jesus came into the world through the Jewish nation. He was born with Jewish blood. It was through them that the incarnation of Jesus took place.
In other words, their greatest glory is that through them, Jesus was incarnated in a way that others could see the light of Jesus.
What brings God the most glory when we’re in contact with people who are not Christians? What brings God glory is when we incarnate Jesus so that his light shines into their darkness.
If you can incarnate the presence of Jesus wherever you go, even among people who want nothing to do with God, then you are bringing glory to him.
It’s easy to get sidetracked with a lot of approaches to those who are not Christians. According to Simeon, what brings God glory is when we incarnate Jesus among them, so that his light shines into their lives.
The Incarnation of Jesus
I want to spend a few minutes thinking about how this might look, because incarnation is a hard thing to get down. The three approaches that we’re most used to are probably withdrawal, confrontation, and compromise.
We withdraw when we avoid people who aren’t Christians. I talked to a youth pastor recently who’s spent years teaching his kids how to share their faith with those who aren’t Christians. One day he realized the problem. His kids didn’t have any friends who weren’t Christians. That’s true of a lot of us. We don’t have any deep relationships with those who aren’t Christians because we’ve withdrawn from them.
Some people try the confrontational approach. That’s certainly what the homosexual community expected to hear from the church when they went to protest. People expect to hear what we stand for and what we stand against. We become like a lobby group that’s known for being against a lot of things.
Some people end up choosing compromise. They go undercover. I’ve been in a lot situations where it’s tempting to blend in, and nobody even knows that you’re a follower of Jesus Christ.
So these are the usual ways we act: withdrawal, confrontation, and compromise. In the life of Jesus, we see a fourth way: incarnation. Jesus modeled this for us.
When Jesus is incarnated, there is no withdrawal. Jesus did the opposite of withdraw. He came. He didn’t avoid sinners. He became their friends. He attended parties with them. He liked them and they liked him.
The key word here is relationship. You can’t have a relationship from a distance. If God is glorified when we incarnate Jesus, then God is glorified when we have relationships with sinners.
I like how somebody put it: “If you want to win this world for Christ, you are going to have to sit in the smoking section. That is where lost people are found.” (Neil Cole, Organic Church)
When Jesus is incarnated, there is low confrontation. This statement may seem controversial, and I don’t want you to take my word for it. Jesus could be quite confrontational. The thing is, he was usually confrontational with those who were religious leaders. When Jesus was friends with sinners, there really aren’t too many times when he confronted them. Here’s why: not because he didn’t care about sin, but because he wasn’t surprised when sinners sinned. That’s what sinners do. Jesus knew that when he became a friend of sinners, he was going to see some sin taking place. And he, who was purely holy, didn’t seem to do a lot of confrontation when he was friends with sinners.
It’s like what Paul said later. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth and told them:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world…What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? (1 Corinthians 5:9-10, 12)
So don’t withdraw, and go easy on the confrontation.
When Jesus is incarnated, there is no withdrawal, low confrontation, and there is also no compromise. Jesus was holiness personified. He never compromised himself once. Yet pure holiness, when he was in human form, was loved by sinners.
How do we bring glory to God when we’re surrounded by unbelievers? Not by withdrawing. Not by confronting. Not by compromising. We bring glory to God when we incarnate Jesus, so that his light shines into their lives.
The Incarnation Continues
So that’s Simeon’s message. Israel’s glory is that Jesus is incarnated through them. And our glory is that Jesus continues to be incarnated through his people. Jesus calls his church the body of Christ. We continue to incarnate his presence today.
One of the best ways for us to bring glory to God is to live incarnationally, so that Jesus is present through us. That sounds like a lot, but it boils down to this: don’t withdraw. Become friends with those who aren’t Christians. Go to their homes. Invite them in your home. Go to parties with them. Take them out for dinner. Be their friends.
Don’t confront. Don’t be shocked if a sinner sins. Don’t let it destroy the relationship.
Don’t compromise. Don’t pretend not to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Trust that if your relationship with Christ is real, that it will show up and that he will show up and work through you. You don’t have to figure it out. You can trust God to work through you.
Here’s how the church I talked about at the beginning did it.
First, they refused to withdraw. It would have been easy to speak about homosexuality with nobody present who disagreed with them. Instead, they invited interaction with those that they knew would disagree with them. Of course, relationships and friendships would have been even better.
Second, they went easy on the confrontation. Listen to part of the sermon from that day:
Every person who is born on the earth is made in God’s image regardless of race, color, nationality, gender, age, or physical condition. Everyone who hears my words is made in God’s image. Everyone who lives in Oak Park—black or white, young or old, male or female, gay or straight—everyone is made in God’s image. We know that each person has worth and value because he or she is made in the very image of God…
Before going any further, I want to comment on the “Us vs. Them” mentality that some people felt this Sunday. We know we have members of the gay and lesbian community who not only came to protest, many also who’ve come inside the sanctuary for the worship service. In moments like this, it’s easy to think that it’s Calvary vs. the gay community. But it’s not that way and it’s never been that way. If you look beneath the surface, you can see that we have a lot in common. All of us are: highly valued, deeply fallen, greatly loved.
We’re all in the same boat. No matter who we are or where we come from, we’re all sinners desperately in need of God’s grace. Our sins may not be exactly the same, but we are all sinners nonetheless.
They also refused to compromise. They were clear on what they believed, but the pastor wrote, “There were many conversations, lots of smiles, and even some laughter. Despite our deeply held differences, we were able to talk together as friends and neighbors. And we all felt, ‘This is how it ought to be.'”
How do we bring glory to God in our relationships with those who not Christians? By refusing to withdraw, confront, or compromise. Instead, to build relationships with them and incarnate the very presence of Jesus in their presence.