In 1984, my grandparents moved to the retirement community of Bella Vista, Arkansas. I have traveled there many times in the past 28 years to visit, and I’ve been privileged to do quite a bit of sight-seeing in the surrounding areas. About an hour or so drive from my grandparents’ house is the town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. It’s a quaint little tourist community with quite a few artisan shops. It has a unique Ozark’s flair and flaunts the hillbilly way. But such things are not the only reason folks flock to Eureka Springs. Being right smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt, more than a few Christians travel to this destination because it is home of the Great Passion Play.
I remember clearly the first time my family traveled to Eureka Springs to see the play. We spent the entire day there taking in the sights and sounds of all the site had to offer including walking to see the Christ of the Ozarks statue. This statue stands seven stories tall and weighs over 2 million pounds! It’s an impressive sight set on a picturesque mountainside. I remember my dad taking what seemed like hundreds of pictures of the statue, and I also remember the inscription carved into the stone at the bottom. It was from our gospel lesson today from the 12th chapter of the book of John verse 32. Jesus says, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself."
It was a rather appropriate comment regarding this statue since thousands of people per year come to see it. They are drawn not necessarily by the statue itself but by the one the statue represents. They are drawn to Jesus.
But as many people come to see this statue, I cannot help but wonder how many of the people who come to view this statue are non-Christians. I mean, in our gospel lesson, Jesus was very clear about who He would draw unto Himself. He said, "I will draw all people to myself." He did not say, "I will draw all believers to myself," as if they were the only ones that counted. Jesus’ heart and desire is to draw all people to himself. Period.
Now, we could stop right here and say, "Well, Jesus, you’re not exactly doing a very good job. Not that I want to question the Son of the Almighty God who has been with God from eternity, but Jesus take a look around the world. The earth’s population is estimated to be around 7 billion people. Just over 2 billion of those people are Christian. Now, that’s a lot of people who believe in you, but that’s only 2 out of every 7 people. You can’t even gather ½ of the earth’s population unto yourself. What’s going on, Jesus? Are you somehow slipping?"
That question might seem a little blasphemous to our ears, but I think it’s a legitimate question to ask. Why aren’t more people being drawn to Jesus? Why does only less than half of the world’s population consider themselves followers of Christ? Why, in our country does the number of non-believers increase and the number of Christ’s followers decrease? Jesus wants to draw all people to Himself, but that’s obviously not happening. So, what’s the problem?
As I think about these questions, and I picture myself going up to Jesus Himself and asking them, I can almost see Him smirk and smile at me. I can almost picture Him putting His arm around me and say, "Do you remember the last thing I told my followers before I ascended into heaven?"
At this, I respond, "Well, sure. You said, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to believe everything you commanded. And you said you would be with them always until the end of the age."
Jesus, beaming, says, "Good job. Your Bible memorization skills are admirable, and you are right about my command. Now, think deeply about what my command has to do with drawing all people unto myself. Is there a connection?"
Well, is there? Is there a connection between Jesus’ desire to draw all people unto himself and His final command to make disciples of all nations and teaching them to obey everything He commanded us?
Simply put: yes, there is–a very strong one.
For you see, my brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus’ desire and His command walk hand in hand. Jesus’ desire and His call to all Christians are intended to work together. Jesus seeks to work through you and I as we engage the world to make disciples and draw all people toward Him. Simply put, Jesus gave the Church the responsibility of reaching out and drawing all people to Him. So, the question gets turned away from Jesus and back toward you and I. The question becomes not: how are you drawing all people toward you, Jesus? But instead: How is the Church working to draw all people toward Jesus? That’s a very different and very difficult question given the circumstances in this world in which we live.
For now, we must address ourselves. Now we must address our congregations. Now we must address how we interact with the world and with our neighbors. We must address our own hearts and minds and attitudes toward those who are and who are not members of our congregations. We must dig down deep within ourselves and see if we are seeking to follow Christ’s command by first learning what He commands and then teaching it to others. How are we being disciples, being drawn to Jesus so that we may in turn then work toward drawing others toward our Lord and Savior?
I am reminded of a sermon illustration I have used numerous times, but as with all good stories, it bears repeating often enough. And if one were to ask me why I keep repeating it, I will respond in the same manner the old preacher once responded to one of his congregation members when he was asked why he kept repeating the same sermons over and over and over again. The old preacher said, "Well, once y’all start living them sermons, I’ll stop preaching them."
Onto the illustration: Tony Campolo tells the story of a reformed drunk, Joe, who was marvelously converted at a Bowery mission. Joe had been an incorrigible wino, and no one who met him ever expected him to be anything other than a homeless drunk. So the transformation that occurred after his conversion stunned everyone who knew him. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Joe became the most caring person that anyone associated with the mission had ever known. He spent his days and nights at the mission serving both the homeless and the drunk, as well as the Christian workers. He considered no job beneath his dignity, whether it was cleaning up vomit or scrubbing the toilets after careless men left the bathroom filthy. Joe did what was asked with a soft smile on his face and with gratitude for the chance to help. He could be counted on to feed feeble men who wandered in off the street, and to undress and tuck into bed men who were too inebriated to take care of themselves.
One Sunday in the mission, an evangelist was delivering his evening message to the usual crowd of still and sullen men. When he made his regular appeal for people to come forward to accept Christ, one repentant drunk shuffled down the aisle to the altar and knelt to pray, crying out to God for help. The penitent sinner kept shouting, "Oh God, make me like Joe! Make me like Joe! Make me like Joe!" The director of the
mission leaned over and said to the man, "Son, I think it would be better if you prayed, ‘Make me like Jesus!’" The man looked up at the director with a quizzical expression on his face and asked, "Is he like Joe?"
What if our lives reflected the same attitude of Joe? What if our lives reflected the same willingness to serve others like Joe was able to serve others? What if our lives captured the same spirit of compassion and understanding and change that were manifest in Joe’s life after he experienced the risen Lord? Would that impact our community? Would that impact our congregations? Would that make a difference as we follow Jesus’ command? Would that help the Church draw all people unto Jesus? Would it hurt anything if we tried to find out? Amen.