Father God, our hearts are indeed filled with thankfulness, when we stop to think of who you are and what you have done for us. We thank you above all for sending us Jesus, and we pray that you would open our ears, our minds, and our hearts to what he has to teach us this morning. Amen.
Here's a question for you folks: What Is the Purpose of Your Life?
I know, that's a pretty big question – but I wonder if you ever think about it? Like just imagine you're starting a regular day. So you jump or crawl out of bed, depending on what kind of person you are – and you head to the bathroom to shower and shave and do all manner of others things that ladies seem to do. You get dressed, head down the stairs for breakfast and just as you're about to dash out the door you look in the mirror to give yourself one last piece of 'go get 'em tiger' encouragement. What would you say to yourself, as you're reflected in the mirror? What is the purpose of your day? Who or what are you stepping out of the door to live for?
Well I doubt very much that you'd be saying the punch line of this little story Jesus told that we're looking at this morning. I mean at first glance it's all pretty miserable, isn't it? Here is this man who has been working in the fields all day and he comes home – and instead of putting his feet up to watch Match of the Day, his master says to him: 'Hurry up and go cook my dinner. And when you've done that get dressed in your best butler outfit so you can wait on me at table. And don't expect any thanks by the way, because you're only doing what I expect you to do.' Then Jesus hits us with the punch line in Luke 17.10:
"So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, 'We are unworthy servants, we have only done what was our duty.'"
Is that the kind of thing you say to yourself as you go out the door first thing in the morning? Or come back home in the evening for that matter? I doubt it!
If you're a guest here and you're looking into what we get up to and what we believe as Christians – I could quite understand if you wanted to leave at this point. But please don't! Because I hope that as we go through this challenging passage we will see that it is a call not to oppression and misery as it may seem at first sight, but an invitation to the very richest of human flourishing.
And the way we get there is all about context. You see folks, we can easily get the wrong idea if we take things out of context, which is why any time you parachute into unknown Bible territory – like an SAS soldier – you should get your bearings and make sure you know what's come before. So as we dive into the gospel of Luke as we're doing in church over the next couple of months, we need to know that it is a carefully researched document to give Christian believers and enquirers confidence in the truth about Jesus. And so it is no surprise to find that Luke's gospel is full of the wonderful welcome God gives to all mankind.
Time and time again we see God in Jesus reaching out to the downtrodden, the outsider, the foreigner, the sinner. In fact it's sinners who he has come for! Amazingly, what Jesus shows us about God is that he isn't all snooty and stuck up sitting in heaven with a frown on his face, but that he welcomes sinners who turn to him in repentance and faith. But then at the start of chapter 17 – having just spoken about the serious reality of hell Jesus issues:
- Firstly – A chilling warning about leading others to sin by our teaching or example.
- Secondly – An encouragement to challenge others in their sin.
- Thirdly – And a command to forgive others just as we have been forgiven.
And each time he says one of these things you can almost hear the collective 'gulp' from his disciples. So much so that they cry out to him: "Increase our faith!" (Luke 17.5) And Jesus gives them a mind blowing illustration to show them the extent of what is possible – beyond their imagination – in godliness, in behaviour, in action and service and even from time to time in miracle… to those who truly trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. And because he knows – as history will show – that they are going to do great things for him… he tells his followers this warning illustration to keep their feet on the ground. And if any of us see God's power and grace at work in our lives, then Jesus wants us to remember three things about who we are and what we're here for, so that we won't get carried away either. The first one is:
1. As Disciples of Christ We Are His Servants
There was a lot of fuss in the summer about a fella called Neymar Jr. being sold for 200 million pounds because he is a bit tasty when it comes to kicking a football around. And because he has been bought by Paris Saint Germain (PSG) he has to turn up to training for them, he has to play in the matches and do press conferences and so on. But even through PSG paid all that money to acquire Neymar's services, he is not owned. So in his spare time he is quite free to drive his Ferrari, go to nightclubs, and play FIFA all afternoon long.
Well in the Roman world, the world in which Jesus lived there was no such thing as employees, only servants. And they were not the kind of servants like Neymar or even the kind of servants you see on Downton Abbey! Servants in those days were bought at a price and they were therefore totally owned. If you were a servant in the Roman world you were your master's property 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all year round. And the Greek word for 'Master' here in Luke 17 – stay with me here folks, even though I'm now talking about Greek – but in the original language Luke wrote his gospel in, the word Jesus uses for 'Master' is a very common word in the New Testament… and it basically means 'Lord'. As in 'Lord' Jesus. When we say Jesus is Lord, we mean he is the owner and master of the whole shebang. When we say Jesus is 'my' Lord we mean that we have handed over the 'ownership' of our lives to his total control. He is our owner. He is our master. He deserves our full obedience. That is why verses 9 and 10 keep banging on about the servant doing what he was told to do. Did you see that?
- "Commanded" in verse 9
- And again in verse 10: "So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'"
You see folks the whole point of the exaggerated, over the top unfairness of this story is meant to make us feel the weight, the seriousness of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. To feel the weight of the expectation to obey, if we have come to call him Lord.
As ever it's been a real privilege for me to get the opportunity to prepare this for you. It's serious hard work too I'll tell you! But the more I've looked into this passage the more I've realised how much more comfortable I am talking about Jesus being our Saviour, rather than Lord. In fact, I think most of us face that danger – of speaking about the gift of forgiveness and acceptance with God that Jesus offers us on the cross… but not the call to obey that comes with it. They are two sides of the same gospel 'good news' coin. Obedience runs right through the call of the gospel. Jesus says if you are his follower, you are to say 'I am an unworthy servant. I am owned by Christ and I owe him my full obedience.'
Now, you might think all this talk about ownership and obedience sounds a bit demeaning – a bit oppressive. The very last thing you need to enhance your life! But just think for a minute about some of the great figures of the Bible. Like Moses – That towering figure of the Old Testament. If you've never read his story then why not read the book of Exodus this week? But when he died, what did God say about him?
"Moses, my servant is dead."
Do you think Moses had a demeaning life?
- All that privilege of talking with the Lord face to face?
- In being God's agent in delivering God's people from their slavery and bringing them to the border of the promised land?
- Of being the one who stood between man and God to pray for the people and to bring God's words to them?
I think I'd settle for that! Wouldn't you? I don't think that's demeaning or inhibiting! Or why don't we go to Christmas, and as we know from a thousand nativity plays, Mary – in her interview with the angel Gabriel – what does she say, as she is told that her young life is about to be turned upside down in becoming the mother of the Lord Jesus himself?
"Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word."
Or Paul – that great early missionary who took the gospel round great swaths of the Mediterranean world. How does he describe himself at the start of his magnificent letter to the Romans?
"Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus."
Demeaning? I think not! Restrictive? Not at all! People like Moses and Mary and Paul show us that surrender to Christ in obedience is the route to the richest of human flourishing. It is the route to being able to do all those things Jesus has spoken of in Luke 17.1-6. We can do incredible things, if only we have the faith to trust Jesus enough to say:
"We are unworthy servants, we have only done what was our duty."
Folks, where does this cut ice for you? Where in our lives do we hold back from full obedience? Where is there fear, or unwillingness to let go, or whatever it may be – that makes us want to water down the commands of God, and to go our way part of the time… and Jesus' way simply when it suits us? Well just while you digest that, here's the second thing Jesus wants us to remember: We don't actually deserve to call him Lord!
2. As Disciples of Christ We Are Unworthy Servants
Jesus is telling us that not only are we his servants, but as disciples of Christ "we are unworthy servants" at that!
There is something rather awful about having your inadequacies exposed, isn't there? I mentioned the other week that I once was offered a trial for a Premier League football club – albeit for a Scottish Premier League football club, and a trial I didn't even manage to turn up for! But even that was a far cry from the first time I ever played football – which was when I returned to Glasgow as a 10 year old lad having spent a few years in the south of England in schools where football was most definitely frowned upon. And I don't know if you've ever had this demoralising experience, but we all lined up against a wall and as the captains took turns in picking players it was clear I was going to be the last man standing. And I was! But even at that point of being the last pick, there was one final humiliation as the captain whose pick it was turned to the other captain and said: 'That's ok, you can have him as well. He's useless.' Pretty harsh, eh? But it was actually true!
And while having our inadequacies exposed is painful, I need to say that it can also be quite liberating! Let me explain. Remember that Jesus is talking to his disciples here – do you see that in verse 1? And Luke has already made it clear that these twelve guys are a highly inadequate bunch. They are frankly a collection of no-hopers!
- They have already been shown to be inadequate because of their inability. They have been unable to heal or cast out demons or do many of the things that only Jesus can do!
- But even more relevantly they are inadequate because they are morally bankrupt.
'Unworthy' because of inability. 'Unworthy' because they were sinners. And yet… these 'unworthy servants' were the people who turned the world upside down for God. As in the book of Acts we can read of how the good news about Jesus came through them to people all over the middle east, then into Europe and down through the years even to us too. And all because…
- The Jesus who exposed their sin, died on a cross so that they could be forgiven.
- The Jesus who lamented their unbelief, sent his Holy Spirit to empower them beyond their dreams.
Maybe you're here this morning just looking into Christianity and you're thinking: 'I just haven't got what it takes to be a Christian. I'm not good enough. I could never have enough faith to believe.' Well I want to encourage you: Neither did the twelve! Or you may be a Christian intimidated by all those other people around you in this church who seem much more talented and clever, and it makes you feel like you really don't have much to contribute. Well take heart – neither did the twelve! They were 'unworthy servants'. And I don't know about you, but I don't have so much of a problem owning up to my unworthiness – when I see it as the gateway to that kind of blessing and usefulness.
But as I say that, let me give a word of caution to those of us much more confident in our belief and abilities. I think we can often say the right things, but be quite blind to the fact that we haven't quite taken them on board in our own lives. A friend of mine used to be a teacher in a strong Bible believing college, who was until recently being well used training young men to be ministers. But once they were trained, they would not go to take up posts in unpromising, unfashionable, or difficult areas. So he gave up his job as a professor and went to be a minister in a difficult urban parish. He said: 'I couldn't believe that so many men would think they deserved more than to simply serve the Lord wherever the need might be.'
I wonder what sense of entitlement or worthiness is stopping you from doing what God wants you to do? What role in church, in your work, in your family might you frankly think is beneath you? Folks, sometimes we need to be devastatingly honest, don't we? And stand before Jesus not quietly pleased with ourselves, not assuming we have some right to a cherished position in God's work, but saying: 'We are unworthy servants'. Well if you're not convinced – let me give you the twist in the tale of this story. And it's this:
3. As Disciples of Christ Our Master is The Servant King
You see, Luke expects us to have read all of his book so far. So as we finish, could you just quickly flick back to chapter 12. Here Jesus is talking about his eventual return at the end of history, to claim his people. And he tells the story of some 'servants' waiting up for their master to return home from a wedding banquet in the middle of the night. And then Luke 12.37 – what happens? Here's the twist in the tale!
"Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them."
What kind of Master does that? It is absurd to think that this ancient middle eastern Master would turn the tables and wait on his servants – who he totally owns. And yet Jesus again uses an over the top picture here to show what he will do for those who truly serve him now. As he will do for us what our earthly masters would never do. When the Lord of Glory comes back to collect his faithful, watchful servants, he will give us the red carpet treatment – he will serve us up a wonderful royal feast and give us the rest that he has won for us in his death on the cross and his rising from the grave.
Do you see? What Jesus calls us to do is nothing he is unwilling to do for us. Nothing that he hasn't already done and won't do for us abundantly more when he takes us home to glory. So when you step out of your front door tomorrow morning –Whatever else you say to yourself to focus you for the day, say: 'I am an unworthy servant, yet it is my great privilege to serve the servant king.' Brothers and sisters, that is who we are. It is what we were made for. So may God give us grace to hear his call and take it up.