Terrorists behead their prisoners and broadcast the video. A gunman invades a grade school and begins to murder small children and their teachers in cold blood. Children are kidnapped and sold into the sex trafficking industry. A father kills his own wife and children before turning the gun on himself.
These acts shock us. We try somehow to explain how these things can happen. How can things go so dreadfully wrong in a person’s life? What compels a person to leave the rails and commit such unthinkable and horrific behavior? We search endlessly for a person to blame or a systemic problem to fix. Desperately, we try to find a way for humans to quit doing these inhuman things.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I ate lunch with my mother-in-law, a godly woman who has served the Lord faithfully for all of her life. One of those dreadful crimes had just occurred and we wondered out loud who could do such a thing? Softly, a scripture memorized long ago tumbled from her lips, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9 KJV)
She nailed it. Who could behead a man or shoot a child? Me. You. Anyone. As it turns out, these terrible things are not so inhuman, after all. People follow their hearts, and we have a heart problem. Some of us can pretty up the top layer good enough to fool others and even fool ourselves. But dig deep enough, and the ugly stuff starts to show.
So, here is the bad news: The human heart—every single one—is sickened by sin.
But, here is the good news: Jesus heals hearts.
Have you ever heard the expression, “There, but for the grace of God, go I”? It’s true.
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” (Titus 2:11-12 ESV)
While politicians, law enforcement, the media, and behavioral scientists are wringing their hands in angst, God’s Word gives the solution. Now, more than ever, let us introduce people to Jesus, because Jesus heals hearts.
The Great Commission as Worship
The Great Commission. It’s the bedrock of the Church’s unshakable commitment to offer every living person an understandable presentation of the story of Jesus. We use terms like obey, fulfill, and finish when we speak of the Great Commission.
Rarely do we speak of missions as worship. But, what is God up to when he sends us on mission? Jesus told us that “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10 ESV) The lost. We all know what humankind lost in the Fall—eternal life and a relationship with our Creator. God lost something, too. When Adam and eve sinned, God lost the worship of His creation.
Jesus told us what God is looking for, when he told the woman at the well in Samaria, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” (John 4:23 ESV)
God has been seeking worshippers for a very long time, it goes all the way back to the very beginning. Before you continue reading, read this story from Genesis 4:1-9.
A Tale of Two Brothers
Since their parents were directly created by God, Cain was the first person ever born. Soon he was joined by a brother, Abel. Throughout history, it has amazed parents that two children from the same gene pool can turn out to be such different people. This was certainly the case with Cain and Abel. In many ways they were polar opposites.
From the story it appears that Cain was the prototypical first-born child. He was hardworking, dominating, with flashes of arrogance. Adam’s oldest son preferred an ordered life. Not surprisingly Cain gravitated toward the disciplined world of the farmer. Aside from the weather, farming was a predictable occupation. Straight rows. Plant in the spring. Harvest in the fall. Many farmers that I have known value frugality. Save. Avoid debt.
I suspect that Abel was more of a free spirit. Abel adopted the more spontaneous and less-structured life of the shepherd. He was not lazy, but not as compulsive as Cain. While his older brother was plowing straight rows, Abel wandered in search of water for his flocks and fiercely protected them from predators. Of the two sons, Abel may have been more relational, more fun-loving and easiest to be around. This young man was a giver. He valued generosity.
For some time, the “First Four” apparently lived in peace, but the brotherhood of Cain and Abel encountered a strong test.
A Test at Harvest
The story of Cain and Abel—of all humankind, for that matter—takes a big left turn during a harvest season. Harvest is a most important time for the human race, even those who have never seen a farm. During the harvest, the food that sustains us is gathered, ensuring that we will survive and thrive for another year. Harvest is a season to celebrate God’s goodness, provision and favor. God’s grace finds a simple yet profound expression at harvest. Harvest is a season of worship.
Because Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel were the first persons on earth, they were the first to do everything—breathe, walk, eat, bear children, and sin. They were the first to seek God in their brokenness. Their sacrifices were the first acts of worship.
At its core, worship is a worthy offering, from a grateful worshipper to a worthy God. “What will you offer to God?” was the test that confronted Cain and Abel in the season of harvest. Abel passed with flying colors. He offered God his best. He found a completely unblemished lamb, and sacrificed it to the Lord.
“…and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions…” (Gen 4:4 ESV)
This is the essence of worship—if God is God, he is worthy of our best. Abel’s generosity opened the door to God’s favor.
“The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering.” (v. 4b, NIV)
In contrast, Cain miserably failed the test of harvest. He went to his barns and gathered “some of his crops” (v. 3, NLT) While Abel brought the first and the best, Cain offered some. His frugality got the better of him and morphed into tight-fisted greed. Cain saved for himself instead of giving to God. As a result, he erected a barrier between himself and God’s favor.
“but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.” (Gen 4:5 ESV)
Alienated from God and furious at his brother, Cain murdered Abel in cold blood. When God confronted him, Cain utters the most famous irresponsible disclaimer of all time, “Am I my brother’s guardian?” (Gen. 4:9 NLT)
What does all of this have to do with missions? The test of the harvest confronts us in many forms today. Missions is one of them.
Cain lost favor with God when he failed to take responsibility in three important areas…
Sin. Sin is an inherited trait. We do not learn to sin, it is in our spiritual DNA. It crouches at the door of everyone’s heart. Cain failed to master it, as has every person since. Murder was the culmination of Cain’s evil heart, not the beginning of it. Long before God disregarded Cain’s offering, Cain had disregarded God. His “worship” became a meaningless act to Cain instead of a connection to the God of redemption.
When Abel offered a lamb, he anticipated the ultimate and permanent sacrifice that reconciles humankind and God—the death of Jesus on the Cross. We do not need to offer a lamb anymore. But we do need to come to Jesus by faith and give our lives to him.
Service. Many people get themselves into trouble through ignorance, foolishness, or recklessness Fire and rescue personnel often find themselves rescuing persons who have made are drunks, unfaithful spouses, deadbeat dads, or violent criminals. They are not accountable for the choices made by the victims they are rescuing. As public servants, however, they are accountable for the oath they took, to provide the highest level of protection possible to citizens—and when necessary, take calculated risk to save lives and protect property.
I am my brother’s guardian. I go because I signed up with Jesus to "Go throughout the whole world and preach the gospel to all people.” (Mar 16:15 GNB) Jesus came to die so that others may live. They are in trouble and need to be rescued.
Sacrifice. God is God, and therefore worthy of our best. As a follower of Jesus you are compelled to do something—your best—in praying, giving, and going.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Rom 12:1 ESV)
Certainly the needs of the world are great. But I am not committed to missions because the needs are great—that would be its own expression of arrogance and selfishness. I am a missionary because God is great. God has given me a heart for the lost, and I love them; but, I am a missionary because I love Jesus—he called me to this ministry.
Yes, missions is worship. We value missions so highly because Jesus is worthy. Give your best, not to the cause of missions, but to Jesus.
A Debt too Large to Repay
Among the many burdens that this culture carries is the devastating weight of debt. As a nation, we owe more than we can possibly repay in our lifetime. Individuals and families are staggering under the load as well. The average household carries $15,800 in credit card debt alone. To illustrate, assume you have a credit card balance of only $10,000, with an attached interest rate of seventeen percent. If you remit the minimum payment of $142 each month, it will require thirty six years to pay the debt in full. In the end, you will pay $61,000 to eliminate a $10,000 debt, assuming you charge nothing to the credit card in the meantime. Add to this a car loan and a mortgage and we understand that the average family finds their financial margins perilously depleted. It is no wonder, then, that bankruptcy becomes the only solution for so many—they owe a debt that they cannot possibly repay.
One day Jesus and the disciples were invited to a meal at the home of Simon, a Pharisee. That was not particularly surprising, but what was absolutely shocking was the lack of hospitality shown to Jesus when he arrived. A welcome guest would always be greeted with a kiss, his feet would be washed by a servant, and he would be anointed on the head with oil. Despite being denied all of these common courtesies, Jesus took his place at the table with the other men. They began to eat, leaning on one elbow, their feet laying away from the table.
In an adjacent room sat the women. As they engaged in lively conversation, it was apparent that one woman was not at all welcome. Ignored as the others talked, this woman sat silently by herself, her eyes riveted on the room next door.
The commotion started with the gasps and protests of the women. Suddenly the ignored woman had left the table, and then returned with a very expensive flask of perfume. Gliding into the room where the men were continuing their animated debate, she moved directly toward Jesus, and kneeled at his feet. She began to weep, so profusely that her tears completely saturated the dusty feet of Jesus with their moisture. With both hands, she reached to her head and allowed her hair to fall on his feet, tenderly drying them with her long black locks. Quickly, she reached for the flask, and poured the entire contents over Jesus’ feet.
Shocked into speechlessness, Simon could only say to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner." (Luke 7:39, ESV) Yes, she was a sinner. But this story isn’t about a woman who finds forgiveness. Indeed, it is the story of two debtors. One the consummate insider, Simon, the respected religious and civic leader. The other, the very definition of an outsider, the woman with no name but with an admitted profession, prostitute.
One of these debtors will leave this encounter completely relieved of debt. The other never quite gets it. It is easy to identify with one or the other of these characters, but, as we shall see, it’s not that simple.
Grace that Truly Amazes
Financial debt weighs heavily on families, individuals, organizations, and nations. But there is an even greater burden to bear than a maxed-out credit card. That heavy load is sin. We inherited it, but willingly accumulated more. We're in deep trouble, because there is no way out--well, almost no way.
Sitting with Jesus are two people who would never be in the same room, had it not been for their interest in Jesus. Simon and the woman are so different from one another that you might call them polar opposites. Simon the Pharisee represents the ultimate insider. He has the favor of God all over him. Just ask him. His ticket to heaven was reserved a long time ago. Or so he thought. You see, Simon missed something along the way. While his life of service to God as a Pharisee was an honorable thing, he forgot that it was people that God loves, not their performance. Simon was devoted to the system and missed the Savior.
The “sinful woman”, in contrast, was the definition of an outsider. She wasn't just marginalized; she was hanging on to the edge of the page by her long fake fingernails. We don't know her first name, but Hopeless was her middle name. When she saw how badly Jesus was being treated by Simon (not much better than she had been treated herself), she had to do something. She was wired to be a worshipper, so she started worshipping the only way she knew how, without reservation.
To Simon, the behavior of the woman and of Jesus was completely unacceptable. So Jesus told him a story.
“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?" (Luke 7:41-42 ESV)
An intelligent man, Simon knows exactly the point that Jesus makes with this anecdote. He sheepishly answers, "The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt."
“Bingo!” replies Jesus. Between the two, there is no doubt who's the longest rap sheet was. But there they sat, side by side in debtors’ prison. Both owed more than they could ever hope to repay.
To Simon the Pharisee and to the Sinful Woman, each from opposite ends of the social spectrum, comes the same message of grace, "You are forgiven."
Imagine that Chase Bank sends you a letter, declaring your $10,000 credit card debt forgiven. But it goes further than that. Now imagine that in that very same letter the president of Chase Bank says, “Not only do I forgive your debt, I want to be your friend. I’ll send the jet to pick you up for lunch next Tuesday.”
“That will never happen,” you say. Of course not. That is exactly the point. The outrageous love of God produces grace that God extends to us through forgiveness of our sins. If we accept God’s offer, our sin goes away completely, the load of debt is lifted. Chances are, you believe that your sins are too many and too large. Forgiveness is out of the question. You’re wrong. The love of God can lift the weight of any sin. Give it a try.
It’s Personal No matter how you come to meet Jesus, the bottom line is this: he wants to forgive you. As amazing as that seems, it goes so much farther—God wants to know you, to have a personal relationship with you. And it doesn't matter if you are an insider or an outsider.
One might say that here we are, reclining at the table with Jesus today. Are you the “Simon” in the room? You have been near the things of God for a long time, perhaps your whole life. You have done good things and avoided doing evil things. But the personal relationship just isn’t there, and you know it. When I first met Jesus, I was a Simon, albeit a very young one. The oldest child of a pastor, I literally “grew up in the church pew.” I knew the songs by heart, learned my memory verse every Saturday night, and said my prayers at bedtime. But I didn’t know Jesus personally. That all changed on a hot summer Sunday night. Seated in my accustomed spot, I began to hear the words of the guest preacher (who happened to be my grandfather) in an unusual way. As the Holy Spirit began to speak to me, I suddenly understood that the Lord wanted to know me, and I wanted to know Jesus personally. I came to the altar, pouring my heart out to God, and sensing God’s presence for the very first time.
Perhaps your story is more like the Sinful Woman/Sinful Man. The first Sunday that Lori (not her real name) attended church, she was covered in an undeniable attitude of resistance. Invited by an acquaintance, she had reached the bottom of the barrel. No money, estranged from her family, with nowhere to turn, Lori arrived with plenty of doubts. She looked downward, with a mix of fear and anger. During the service, an invitation was given for individuals to come forward for prayer for special needs in their lives. Lori reasoned that it probably wouldn’t hurt to go ask the minister to pray for her to find a job. I asked Lori what we needed from the Lord. She surprised even herself when she blurted out, “I want to ask Jesus in to my heart.” And I had not yet even preached my riveting sermon! Jesus was meeting Lori in a direct and personal way. Her life was altered dramatically in that moment. Lori remains a follower of Jesus today, a blessing to her church, her family and her friends.
There is only one way to authentically connect with God in a personal relationship. Humble yourself. Absolutely, no way around it. Humbling yourself means to quit trying to fool yourself and quit making excuses. Simply make an honest assessment by asking yourself, “Do I have a personal relationship with Jesus?”
Sadly, Simon never got it. He walked away from an encounter with Jesus. His life continued on as before, alienated from the God he claimed to serve, carrying his unbearable burden of sin-debt. In contrast, the woman who had lived a life filled with shame and regret walked away transformed and debt-free. Because Jesus forgave her, she could forgive herself. Jesus lavished her with grace. She responded in a surprising way.
Most who witnessed her actions that day said that she went way too far. But how do you say thank you for restoring a ruined life?
And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. (Luke 7:37-38)
What Simon could not bear to do, the sinful woman could not wait to do. She fell at his feet in worship, in complete abandonment of her life to the one that she now knew loved her more than she could imagine. Her most valuable possession had to suffice as her expression of love for Jesus. If possible, she would give much more.
Worship in its purest form is to pour back on Jesus everything that you are and everything that you possess. The enormous grace that God lavished on us compels us to worship without end and without limits.
God’s Love for You is Greater than Your Failures
As this emotional drama has unfolded, perhaps it has become clear that there is a barrier of sin that exists between you and God. That barrier is no shorter for church kids; it's no taller for drug pushers. There is one and only one solution to that barrier—God's unmerited favor. Even if you are coming from a very bad place, Jesus will meet you with forgiveness, if you will approach Him in humility. Many times over, Jesus Christ loves you more than your failures, more than your sins, more than the pain you have caused to Him and to others.
Experiencing God’s presence doesn’t require a church service, just a prayer from your heart to His. There is an ocean of grace and forgiveness waiting for you.
Sunday marks the beginning of what many Christians around the world observe as Holy Week. It kicks off with the festive, praise-filled expressions of Jesus' disciples as he enter Jerusalem, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” By Friday, the enormity of God’s grace compels us to deep reflection as Jesus is laid in the tomb. But then again, inexpressible joy overwhelms us as we behold the resurrected Jesus. I encourage you to select one of the gospels and live in the Holy Week story this week. Get on the emotional roller coaster and allow the word of God to change you this week.
Read more about Holy Week in this blog written by James Emery White.
David L. DeGarmo (D. Min.) serves Global University as Associate Dean of the Graduate School of Theology. Along with his wife Ruth, he is also a U.S. Missionary. He has extensive experience as an educator, missionary, and pastor.
David writes an additional blog on a variety of topics. Check it out...