Long before the legendary Iditarod Dog Sled Race was first run in 1973, a more important race took place in Alaska. It happened on the 21st of January in 1925 because the lives of countless children in Nome were at stake. You see, an epidemic of diphtheria had broken out there, and the gold rush city did not have a sufficient amount of the antitoxin. Dr. Curtis Welch telegraphed Fairbanks, Anchorage, Seward, and Juneau, asking for help. In this way he learned that there were 300,000 units of the serum at a hospital in Anchorage but it was the only serum in the entire state. The problem was how to get it to Nome in the shortest time possible. With the Bering Sea frozen and no railroad or roads extending to Nome’s remote location, dog teams were the only solution. So the hospital packed the 300,000 units in an insulated container and transported them to Nenana on an overnight train. Once the serum arrived there, a 674-mile relay race by dog teams awaited. Understand—it normally took mushers who delivered the mail a MONTH to cover that distance. The first musher took the insulated cylinder of serum 52 miles, where he passed the lifesaving baton to the second musher, who traveled 31 miles. From musher to musher this relay that became known as “The Great Serum Race” continued until a total of 20 dog-sled drivers had cooperated to get the needed medicine to Nome by February 2nd. The lifesaving serum arrived in not a month but rather in only 127 ½ hours due to the cooperative effort of individuals willing to brave the austere Alaskan wilderness, sub-zero temperatures, and blinding blizzards.
Isn’t this a great illustration of what happens when people go above and beyond the call—when they do MORE than is expected—when they literally go the extra mile?! That’s why I share this story today—because as I told you a couple months back—that’s our vision for this year—2nd mile ministry. In the coming months I want us to learn what can happen when the members of a church work together to go beyond what is required. With that in mind, this morning I’m beginning a series of sermons geared to show how a 2nd mile mind set impacts each of the five purposes of local churches like Redland. Today we begin with evangelism. In coming weeks we’ll look at the other purposes: discipleship, worship, fellowship, and service.
Now, unfortunately just the mention of the “e word” – “evangelism” — well, it makes most Christians uncomfortable. It makes them feel like they do when they hear words like, “root canal,” or “IRS audit” or “tithing.” I mean, for many believers the word evangelism conjures up feelings of guilt, fear, or inadequacy. It brings to mind awkward conversations and strained relationships. For this reason many Christ-followers don’t go the FIRST mile when it comes to evangelism—much less the second. I mean, the sad truth is most Christians never reproduce themselves spiritually. They never lead another person to faith in Jesus.
And non-Christians don’t feel much better about evangelism. In his book UnChristian, David Kinnaman interviewed hundreds of young adults on their perceptions and experiences with Christianity. When it came to the subject of evangelism, the overwhelming response was negative. The people Kinnaman talked to felt button-holed, bullied, and manipulated. Only one third felt that the Christians in their lives really cared for them. The rest said they felt like someone’s project.
Another reason I shared this story about the sled dog RELAY is because evangelism is often like that. It’s a RELAY of sorts. When a person comes to faith in Christ it’s usually the result of a chain of Christian friends—each doing their part to treat this person—well, like a PERSON not a PROJECT—in this way the PERSON moves closer and closer to the point that they decided to follow our Lord.
So—here is the issue of the day: How can we share the good news of the Gospel so that it’s less of a negative experience for all involved? What do we need to know to do our part and go the extra mile effectively when it comes to evangelism? This morning, I want us to look for answers to these questions in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus—recorded in John 3:1-21. I’m relying on the insights shared in a sermon on Preaching Today by Bryan Wilkerson, pastor of Grace Chapel, in Lexington, Massachusetts—entitled WWJS?
We don’t have time to read the text in its entirety so open your Bibles to John 3 and follow along with me as we study.
(1) The first principle of evangelism we see here is the importance of letting our ACTIONS speak first.
Look at the first few verses of our text. John writes: “Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi,we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.’”
Now—Nicodemus was a good man. He was deeply religious; he kept the commandments; he was well-educated and a leader in his community. If anyone in that society should have known God and been close to him, it would have been Nicodemus. But Nic saw something in Jesus that was missing from his own life. He saw the things Jesus DID—saw the WAY Jesus interacted with others—heard the things Jesus SAID. All this led him to the conclusion that Jesus must come from God—must know God in a way that he, Nicodemus, did not.
To be sure, Nicodemus saw Jesus’ miracles—but I think it was more than that. He saw the compassion, the kindness and the mercy of Jesus. I mean, Nicodemus had seen plenty of teachers and prophets and so-called messiahs come and go. But there was something about the things Jesus did and the WAY He did them that made Nicodemus want to know more.
So—here’s the question—would-be second-mile evangelists. Is there anything about your life that prompts people to want to know more? Do the people you work with and live with—to your friends and neighbors—do people who know you or encounter you say to themselves, “He or she must come from God, because no one has treated me with such kindness before; no one has accepted me or cared for me or served me like that before. I’ve got to talk to this person.”
This conclusion is what brought Nicodemus that night. Jesus won a hearing by the quality of His life and works. He earned the right to be heard by virtue of His compassion, goodness, and power. Now–of course, we’re not Jesus. We aren’t changing water to wine or healing the sick or raising the dead—but we have Jesus in us! And with His help we can bring joy to someone’s day with an unexpected visit or some act of kindness or sacrifice. We probably won’t multiply loaves and bread to feed all of Montgomery County but we can provide a home-cooked meal or watch someone’s kids when they need us to or give someone a ride to the doctor or whatever.
The first thing all second-mile evangelists must learn is that fulfilling the Great Commission involves both proclamation AND demonstration—actions as well as words. For too long we have thought of evangelism as telling people what they need to hear. In this text Jesus reminds us that evangelism is also SHOWING people what they need to SEE. Nicodemus needed to see a life that was different from any other life, a life that was better than the life he had known to that point. And—the people we’d like to reach need to see that too.
You know, most people are shy in front of a microphone. They are uncomfortable when asked to share a public testimony of their faith. Well, shy or not, the fact is we all share a testimony ALL THE TIME. Remember, a literal translation of the Great Commission goes like this, “AS YOU GO, make disciples of all nations…” So evangelism is not just what you SAY. It’s everything you do—AS YOU GO through life. That’s harder than delivering a canned evangelistic speech because it’s a 24-7 thing. It’s a second and third and fourth and fifth mile thing. It’s the way you live your WHOLE LIFE. You are constantly sharing your testimony of the impact Jesus has had on your life.
As an under-graduate, theologian/author D.A. Carson co-led an evangelistic Bible study. He confessed that whenever he felt out of his depths, he would take skeptics and doubters to a bold witness on campus named Dave. On one such occasion, a young man who was brought to Dave said, “I came from a family that doesn’t believe in a literal resurrection and all that stuff. That’s a bit much for us. But we’re a fine family—a good, church-going family. We love each other, care for each other, and we do good in the community. We’re a stable family. So what have you got that we don’t have?” Dave looked at the young man and said, “Watch me. Move in with me. I have an extra bed. Just follow me around. See how I behave, what’s important to me, what I do with my time, the way I talk. Watch me, and at the end of three months you tell me there’s no difference.” The young man didn’t take Dave up on that offer, but he did keep coming back to watch how Dave lived his Christian life. Eventually the young man came to Christ and went on to become a medical missionary. Carson concluded what he learned from Dave’s challenge: “A Christian is saying in effect: ‘I’m one poor beggar telling another poor beggar where there’s bread. I drank deeply from the wellsprings of grace. God knows I need more of it. If you watch me you’ll see some glimmerings of the Savior, and ultimately you’ll want to fasten on Him too. Watch me.’” 2nd mile evangelists must be bold like this—as bold as Paul who said, “Imitate me—as I imitate Christ.” (1st Corinthians 4:16)
(2) A second principle we see here is this. We must engage people in real CONVERSATION.
If you look at this text you see that there is a real give and take—a back and forth—between Jesus and Nicodemus. When Nicodemus comes with his question Jesus doesn’t flip out a copy of Four Spiritual Laws. He doesn’t take out a napkin and map out the plan of salvation. He will eventually get to that because there is a time for that—but that’s not where our Lord starts. I mean, He doesn’t do like many modern day evangelists and leap at the chance to deliver some canned presentation. No—what He offers is a CONVERSATION starter. Look at how He replied to Nicodemus in verse 3: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are BORN AGAIN.” Of course most of us are very familiar with this expression, “born again.” But for Nicodemus, it was something he had never heard before. As a Jew he valued—treasured even—his physical lineage—the nationality he was born into—but born again?
Notice that Jesus intentionally introduced a new way of talking about faith. Nicodemus was expecting Jesus to say something about keeping the commandments or knowing Scripture or offering sacrifices. Instead, Jesus talked about a new kind of life—a born again life.
The point here is that Jesus doesn’t do what many of us do—turn to the predictable, worn-out religious clichés in talking to Nicodemus. Nor does He dump the entire Gospel message on him at once. No—at this point all He wants to do is to keep the conversation going and get Nicodemus thinking in new ways about what it means to know God.
Paul Borthwick has written a helpful book on this subject entitled Stop Witnessing and Start Loving. In it he tells the story of a guy he got to know at the gym over a period of months and eventually invited to have lunch one day. After a bit of small talk, Paul decided to cut right to the chase. He said: “Bill, have you ever heard the message that God loves you and offers you the gift of eternal life?” Bill responded, “Yes, but could I ask you a couple of questions?” “Sure,” said Paul. Bill went on, “What do you mean by ‘God’? What do you mean he ‘loves me’? And what do you mean by ‘eternal life?’” At that point Paul realized that he needed to slow down and lose the religious jargon. He and Bill just needed to talk for a while—to get better acquainted. He needed to listen for a while and find out where Bill was at spiritually, and through that find out what he needed to talk about. Listen. Sharing our faith isn’t about delivering a speech or making a sales pitch. It’s about entering into conversations with people. It’s as much about listening as it is about talking.
Todd Hunter is the former president of Alpha USA and is something of a specialist in the area of contemporary culture and evangelism. Hunter says that people used to come to faith by LISTENING—hearing a clear presentation of the gospel in a crusade meeting or a home visit.
Now he’s finding that people come to faith by TALKING—airing out their doubts and questions in a series of conversations over lunch or a cup of coffee. He says the best thing we can do for people is to listen to them—to offer them a thought or two and let them TALK—CONVERSE—their way to God.
This is what Jesus did with Nicodemus. If you have a red letter Bible you see the print go from red to black to red to black, etc. I mean, it’s a back and forth conversation—question and answer, comment and response. If we were to flip over to chapter 4, we would find a similar thing happened when Jesus encountered a woman at the well. It seems as if John put these two stories together near the beginning of his gospel to provide us with examples of how Jesus typically talked with people about faith.
That should make you feel better about going the second mile when it comes to evangelism. It means you don’t have to memorize a lengthy canned speech. You just have to be able to ask and answer questions. You just have to engage people in real conversation—and usually it’s a SERIES of conversations—conversations in which you learn to rely on the Holy Spirit when it comes to knowing what to say and when to say it.
(3) Here’s one final thing we see here that we should note: Tell GOD’S STORY.
To review: sharing our faith the way Jesus would share it means letting our ACTIONS speak first and then engaging people in real CONVERSATIONS. But sooner or later we want to get to THE MESSAGE—what we call the gospel, the Good News. That’s what Jesus does in verse 16. It is perhaps the most loved and familiar verse in the entire Bible. Look at the screen and say it with me: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Jesus says four things here—four things He would want us to say should we have chance to speak for Him and tell His story.
a. First, he would want us tell them about GOD’S LOVE: “For God SO LOVED the world….”
Never underestimate the power of those six words. I mean, those words would have caught Nicodemus completely by surprise. He knew that God loved Israel. But the idea that God loved everyone—Samaritans and Gentiles, tax-collectors and sinners—would have blown all his categories. And it’s no different today. Many people have no idea that God loves them. They figure God is either mad at them or oblivious to them. Others have heard that God loves them, but they don’t know what that MEANS or if it’s really TRUE. That’s why it’s so important for words and deeds to go together. Many people will not be able to experience God’s love until they have experienced it from another person—someone who accepts them, cares for them, helps them, or does something good for them. That’s why words and deeds go together.
b. Second, tell them about JESUS: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only SON.”
I mean, it’s wonderful to know that God loves us, but without Jesus, we would be forever separated from that love. Jesus came to bring God near. Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins. Jesus died to remove the barrier between sinful man and holy God. Jesus rose to conquer death. There is no gospel without Jesus. So when you get a chance, say something about Jesus. You don’t have to tell someone everything, but tell him something. Tell him one story from Jesus’ life; tell him something Jesus said or did. Tell him to read one of the gospels. Most importantly, tell him what Jesus means to YOU.
c. Third, tell them about LIFE: “For God SO LOVED the world that He gave His only SON that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have ETERNAL LIFE.”
Tell them that eternal life isn’t just about life after death. It’s that—but it’s more than that. It’s about life that begins TODAY. It’s not just LIMITLESS life; it’s BETTER life in spite of the problems that come our way. Tell them it’s life the way it was meant to be lived—a life of meaning and purpose and joy. Tell them how knowing Jesus has made your life more abundant and meaningful. Listen. People don’t know this about God. They think of God as great the Killjoy in the sky. They think the Christian life is all about things you’re not allowed to do. We need to show them and tell them that life with Christ is the best kind of life available to a human being! It is a truly abundant life. (John 10:10)
d. Finally, tell them about BELIEF. “For God SO LOVED the world that He gave His only SON that whoever BELIEVES IN HIM should not perish but have ETERNAL LIFE.”
People need to know it’s not about good works or going to church or being baptized or knowing the right answers. It’s about saying “Yes” to God’s love and life. It’s about inviting Jesus to forgive you of your sins. It’s about asking Jesus to be the Master of your life so He can make you into the person you were meant to be. Tell them how you came to believe, and if it feels right, ask them if they’re ready to do that.
These are the things Jesus would say if He were walking among us. He’d say something about love and His sacrifice and life and belief. But since Jesus isn’t here in the flesh, it’s up to you and me to be not just the hands and feet of Jesus, but to be His VOICE as well. So we let our actions speak first, then we engage people in real conversation. And when the time is right, we tell them God’s story. We don’t have to tell it all at once, and we don’t have to close the deal. We just need to say what Jesus would say.
Jesus gave us an ordinance to help us remember GOD’S STORY—the basic Gospel message—let’s use it today for that purpose. As we do so I invite all Christians to join us because even if you are not a member of this church—if you are a Christian—if you are His, this is Yours.
THE ORDINANCE OF COMMUNION
As we come to our time of invitation, we invite you to respond in any way that God leads. Some of you may simply want to bow your head and recommit yourself to be the evangelist God calls all Christians to be. Perhaps God has laid on your heart the name of a friend or co-worker who is not a Christian—and you want to pray for that person—pray that God would use your actions and words to lead him to Jesus. You may not have a church home—and God is leading you today to move your membership here to Redland so you can join us in doing our part of the Great Commission. Or—you may be here and you understand your need for Jesus’ forgiveness. You want to say, “I have decided—to follow Jesus.” Please come share that decision with us. We will rejoice with you! If you have any other decision to make—or if you have questions—please come forward. Bobby or Kevin or I would love to talk with you.