Jerusalem, that great city on a hill, had had her virtues turned against her. A strong Syrian army had encircled and besieged her, thereby enlisting starvation as a military weapon. The people of Jerusalem were famished and destitute. The encircling army was implacable. And caught between the two forces, ostracized by both sides, living in a desperate no-man’s land, were four doomed men, four lepers. One of them stated their position with chilling clarity: “If we stay here, we will starve to death. If we try to enter our own city, our people will kill us, or we will die of famine. Our only hope is to throw ourselves on the graciousness of the Syrians. If they will show mercy on us and feed us, then we will live. If not, the worst they can do is kill us, and a quick death is preferable to a slow one.”
Prepared to die, these lepers mustered their courage and entered the Syrian camp at twilight. They braced for confrontation, cringing at the possibility of their abrupt execution. But to their great wonder, no one challenged them. No one was home. The camp was empty. During the night, the Syrian army had fallen captive to its own paranoia. The Scriptures say that God had appointed fierce noises during the night, which the Syrian army had interpreted as treachery on Israel’s part. They suspected Israel of having hired Egyptian and Hittite mercenaries to ambush them during the evening. Rumor bred terror. Terror bred panic. Panic spawned a wholesale exodus in which the army abandoned everything, leaving all of their possessions. Those four desperate lepers, resigned to death, instead found an all-you-can-eat buffet. They stuffed their faces, they drank their fill, they stashed their pockets with valuables, and generally enjoyed the party of their lives. But amidst their raucous celebration, one of the lepers stopped and said something extraordinary, a word that every single Christian ought to take to heart. “My friends, what we are doing is not right. This is a day of good news. God’s deliverance has come. Yet there is an entire city starving, dying of privation. If we keep this banquet to ourselves, the morning light will reveal to everyone that salvation has come. If we continue to enjoy ourselves while allowing the rest of the city to remain shrouded in hunger and thirst, punishment will fall upon us. Come, let us go share the wonderful news of our salvation with the messengers of our king.”
My friends, I hope that you can see yourself within the story. For you and I are the lepers of the king. We are those who could not save ourselves. We of our power would be lost in our iniquity, estranged from God. But God has wrought through the ministry of Christ a wondrous deliverance, bridging the estrangement between humanity and the divine. God has through Christ produced for us a great feast of redemption, and we gather on Sundays to enjoy each other’s company, to pool our resources, to derive nourishment from the power of each other’s love and to be mentored in faith by each other. I carry with me always the memory of a little girl in a former church whose parents reminded her one Saturday night that they were going to church tomorrow. She beamed broadly and said, “Wonderful; everybody loves me there!” May that be the testimony for every one of us! We are allowed the privilege of gathering together to celebrate the banquet table of redemption that God has graciously made available for us. It is indeed good to be in the house of the Lord, and after months of physical separation from one another, we know that truth more acutely than ever. And yet, like those lepers of old, at some point we must look at each other and say, ‘What we are doing is not right. God has provided us with a great deliverance and we are enjoying it among ourselves. But we must also turn our vision out upon a world that is spiritually starving, spiritually destitute.’ We must realize, ‘This is a day of good news – and we cannot keep this good news to ourselves.’ That is why our Lord’s last word to us was “Go! Go into your neighborhood. Go into your state. Go into your region. Go into your nation. Go into your world and share with everyone the good news of God’s banquet table of redemption. And, lo, I am with you always, even into the end of the age.”
Like some of you, I grew up in church, and I can remember as a kid and as teenager hearing somebody pray almost every Sunday, “Lord, bless those that couldn’t be here this morning.” Being the cheeky teenager that I was, I always longed for the voice of God to thunder back, “Bless them yourselves!” Bless that stranger who has come into your midst. Bless that newcomer who has moved in down the street. Bless that person going through a divorce. Bless that person experiencing a medical crisis. Bless that person who has messed up royally who lives in desperate need of grace. Bless that person who looks nothing like you. Bless them yourselves! Come out of your comfort zone and say to those around you, ‘This is a day of good news. Come to the Lord’s banquet table. Come be a part of our family of God.’
When Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God he often uses images of food. He sees the whole world as a field ripe for harvest. But our Lord cries out for people willing to offer themselves as workers in the Lord’s vineyard. Our Lord likens the Kingdom of God to a banquet table, and our role is to be workers who go out into the highways and byways and recruit people to attend the banquet table. When the Prodigal Son returns to the fold, what does the father do? He throws a feast to which he invites both of his sons and all of his household. God has presented us with a feast, but we are not to keep it to ourselves, because our role is to invite others to come and partake the dinner of God’s grace along with us.
What does the leper say? “If we don’t share news of God’s deliverance with others, if we keep this news to ourselves, punishment will fall upon us.” “Punishment,” is a harsh word, but it was warranted in this case. Let me translate his sentiment for our time: If we as the people of God do not have a passion for sharing with other people the good news of our family of God, if we do not live with an enthusiasm to invite people to God’s banquet table, if we don’t relish our responsibility to be recruiters for Christ and see this responsibility as our key role, then Vineville Baptist Church will dwindle and will ultimately die. Our role as lepers of the King is to proclaim the message to the surrounding community, “This is a day of good news! Deliverance has happened by what God has done. Come take advantage of it!” I will be the first to admit that “evangelism” is a much-abused word. Christians have employed some of the most manipulative, exploitive and tacky tactics imaginable in behalf of such a word. But the heart of evangelism is just one person telling another person of God’s good news. When I pastored in North Carolina a Wal-mart was opened next to a Baptist church north of Charlotte, but the entry road was confusing enough that plenty of people entered the church parking lot by mistake. This gave the pastor an idea that was ultimately approved by Sam Walton himself. In the church’s front yard the pastor erected a sign that said, “This is not Wal-mart. But it is the saving place.” The church is meant to be a saving place! It is a place from which we are meant to go out and share with others the news of God’s deliverance. I once heard a wise Christian say, “Everything we do as Christians should always ask the question, ‘Does this action not only benefit us inside the walls, but does it also benefit those outside the walls? Does our ministry and visions not only have an internal focus, but does it also have an external component as well.’ “ Everything we do ought to include the question, ‘How can this activity bless those outside our community of faith?’ That seems so simple. It speaks to the heart of the Gospel. Yet so much of what churches do is “self-focused.”
The truth is, any organization that becomes self- focused is doomed to diminishment and death. That is not homiletical hyperbole. It is historical fact. The greatest example of this axiom is China. Well into the Middle Ages, China was the world’s most technologically advanced culture. China was the premier source of innovation during this era. China could boast canal locks, cast iron, deep drilling, gunpowder, paper, porcelain, and movable type long before any other culture. For centuries, all of the world’s discoveries migrated from East to West. Europe became aware of these innovations only through Chinese export. So why did China cease to be the center of inventiveness, inquiry and discovery? Because at the end of the Middle Ages the Chinese government chose to close its borders! They built a wall to keep intruders out. They forbade her merchants to engage in international trade. Worst of all, the Chinese rulers took the amazing step of outlawing her boats, burning her ships and dismantling its shipyards. They made it a crime to travel. So, too, how many churches have burned their boats to reach the outer world! How many churches have become so self-focused that they have abandoned the challenge of interacting with the dangerous, contemporary world – even though this world cries out for spiritual nourishment?
Sometimes we like to excuse ourselves for our lack of outreach by telling ourselves and others, ‘I never come in contact with anybody looking for a church home. I never encounter anybody hungry for an invite to a spiritual community.’ That might be true. But I doubt it. I think of a detective story about the “invisible intruder,” a tale told by the great writer G. K. Chesterton. Father Brown, Chesterton’s amateur sleuth, knows that a friend of his is in mortal danger and locks him away in a safe place, then posts a sentry outside the door with the instructions, “Let no one enter, until I return.” Father Brown takes a short trip elsewhere, only to return and find that the engendered man has been murdered. He asked his sentry friend, “Who came by here?” “Nobody; I was awake and alert the whole time. No one came by.” The man’s death seemed to have been the work of an invisible intruder. Then Father Brown noticed a letter in the dead man’s hand and asked, “How did this letter come?” The guard replied, “Oh, the mailman brought it. I let him in.” “That man,” said Father Brown, “was your invisible intruder. He was invisible to you because he didn’t look like a murderer; he looked like a mailman.” How many people are invisible to us because we regard them as part of the accustomed furniture of our lives? But there are spiritually hungry people in our work places, in our schools, at the grocery story, at the pharmacy, at the ball field, in shopping malls and virtually every place that life takes us. You look “through” such people as if they were invisible to you, though their spiritual needs are real. Their spiritual hunger is real, and we often ignore them.
When boiled down to its simplest terms, the Christian faith is about recognizing our indebtedness. None of us saved ourselves. All of us are the beneficiaries of God’s unwarranted grace. And virtually none of us taught ourselves the great themes of the Gospel. We were patterned and mentored in the Gospel by ministers and friends and parents and grandparents and Sunday School teachers – and a host of others. We live with a great spiritual indebtedness. We live indebted to those believers who founded this church and committed their lives to keeping it vibrant. Part of our responsibility is to honor that spiritual legacy by making God’s Gospel vibrant for our generation. Part of our role as people of faith is to say, ‘This is a day of Good News, news too good to keep to ourselves!’ Do we feel this responsibility in the depth of our being?
One of the enduring images employed to describe the church is a ship, the ship of faith. But what kind of ship is it? There are many churches who think of their ship of faith as an ark, whose role it is to pluck a few drowning sinners out of the generally-doomed mass. That is not my image of the church. I think of the church as a landing craft, similar in character to those Higgins boats that delivered forces of liberation to Europe and the Pacific islands during World War II, boats that brought liberating good news to enslaved people. Our church must be a landing craft that sails into communities of need and announces, ‘This is a day of Good News. God has wrought deliverance through Christ and we want to share it with all whose ears are open to hear it.’ For sharing that news is our responsibility and our high privilege. For we are, my friends, lepers of the King.