Red Letter Challenge 1: Introduction


Have you had really good intentions of ending up in one place, but you end up somewhere else? In the middle of last month, I was able to take a couple weeks of vacation and during that time Susan and I were able to get away from a couple of nights in Vancouver the first week and three nights in Victoria the second week. The two nights we were in Vancouver, we were staying in a hotel that used to be the old Vancouver Stock Exchange Building on the corner of Howe and West Pender Street. I had looked up directions on Google Maps and figured out how to get there. I had Google Maps up on my phone as Susan and I drove down there and so I was able to follow those directions to a T. Everything was going really well and the traffic was relatively light. We drove on West Cordova Street past the Gassy Jack statue and Susan asked “Who was that?” and I told her what I knew about the unsavory character of Gassy Jack. Just a few days later, that statue was torn down.

Shortly after that, we get to the intersection where we are supposed to make a left turn onto Howe Street, but there is a police car parked in the left turn lane and it looks like there is a protest of some kind going on in the street. So we keep going on Cordova and we turn left on Burrard thinking that maybe we can get to our hotel from another direction.

 We turn left on Nelson with the hopes of turning left on Granville and going back towards our hotel, but just as we were about to do that, another police car pulls across Granville and blocks the lane that we were going to turn onto. So we keep going on Nelson, I turn left on Seymour and then pull over and park so we can figure out what to do next. We decide to find some parking close to our hotel and then walk to our hotel with our luggage. We pull into a parkade and park, get our luggage out the trunk and head down the stairwell to street level to head over to our hotel. This parkade was pretty sketchy, and the stairwell smelled like people had been using it for a urinal. With much relief, we soon stepped out of the parkade into an alley and walked to our hotel without any problem. By the way, when we got there, there wasn’t any protest anywhere in sight.

We checked into our hotel, made plans to go out for dinner and decided that, after dinner, we would go get our car from the sketchy parkade and bring it over to the hotel parkade. When we went to get our car, Susan said, “Let’s walk in from the street instead of going up the stairwell.” So that is what we did. We moved the car over to the hotel parkade and, keep in mind that these two parkades are only a block and a half apart from each other, the hotel parkade was immaculate. Everything was new and bright and clean. Though I didn’t try it, I think that you could have eaten off the floor of the hotel parkade. There was a direct elevator from the parkade to the lobby of our hotel and everything smelled and looked like it should. It was obvious that nothing was being used for a purpose other than that which it was designed for. We were both very thankful to finally get our car where we originally wanted it to be.

Missing the Mark

It is easy for us to have good intentions of going to one place and missing it altogether. The same thing can happen in the lives of God’s people. We seek to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind and love our neighbors as ourselves, but somehow, someway, we end up somewhere else. And it has always been this way. In ancient times, the Israelites got the promise of the Messiah, but they missed the person of the Messiah. Peter, one of the twelve disciples, spent a lot of time in God’s presence but completely missed God’s purpose. The Galatians had God’s gift but somehow missed God’s grace.

The same thing happens today. When we think of Jesus, the things that come to mind are that he is loving, kind, gracious and unwavering in his drive to make wrong things right. But what do people think about those of us who follow Jesus? A few years ago, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons conducted extension research about the attitudes of non-Christians towards Christians and what they found among 16- to 29-year-old non-Christians is that most of their impressions are negative. Keep in mind that these are the people that we as a church are trying to reach. Among non-Christian young adults, Christians are known for being anti-homosexual (91%), judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%) and irrelevant (78%).[1]  These attitudes line up with what Mahatma Gandhi said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”[2]

We need to change the story we are telling others about Jesus through our lives

We intended to end up in one place as we follow Jesus, and yet we have ended up someplace else, and that other place stinks. And we cannot simply shrug our shoulders and say, “That’s just the way it is. We cannot do anything about what other people think about us, so I am going to keep doing what I have been doing.” While it is true that we cannot do anything about what other people think about us, and it is also true that we are broken, sinful people and Jesus is not, so we can never measure up to his standards and accomplishments, the fragrance we give off to others is important because we represent Jesus and are part of his mission in this world. In Matthew 9:37-38, we read, Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Matthew 9:37-38) Jesus Christ has not only paid the full cost of redeeming and restoring all things, he has also invited us to be of the work that he is doing of gathering people into the kingdom of God so that they can experience the rich, full, abundant life that Jesus has for them and for us. Because of this vitally important mission of God that Jesus is inviting us into, We don’t just want to change the story we tell about Jesus with our lives, we have to. The eternal destinies of the people around us depends on it. So how do we do that? We stop and pause for a moment, like Susan and I did in downtown Vancouver, and we refocus our aim.

The importance of hearing Jesus’ words & putting them into practice

At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, American shooter Matthew Emmons had already won one gold medal in a shooting event and he was favored to win another in the men’s 50m three-position final. With his last shot, he hit the bullseye of the target, but it was the target in the lane next to him. He was concentrating so much on calming his nerves and steadying his aim that he did not give his full attention to which target he was aiming at. He had crossfired, something which he had not done in years. Instead of winning the gold medal, he was given a score of 0 for his final shot, which dropped him to 8th place in the competition.

We don’t want to crossfire with our lives as we follow Jesus, we don’t want to aim at the wrong targets, but what is the target that we should be aiming for? Jesus tells us as he wraps up the greatest sermon ever, the Sermon on the Mount. He said, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:24-27) Note that Jesus is telling us that the key is to not only hear his words, but to also put them into practice. In Luke 11:28, Jesus reinforces this point by saying,  He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” (Luke 11:28). James, the brother of Jesus, wrote these words, Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. (James 1:22)

5 targets to aim at

So welcome to the Red Letter Challenge. It is called the Red Letter Challenge because Bibles often have the words of Jesus in red letters, and that is what we want to focus on, the words of Jesus. The Red Letter Challenge is a 40-day life-changing discipleship experience to put Jesus words into practice. And we do this not out of a sense of obligation, but because we want to fully engage with the opportunity that is set before us. Following after Jesus is not a burden, but the greatest opportunity of our lives. As we put Jesus’ words into practice, we will change the stories and the picture of Jesus that we are sharing with others, and hopefully we will smell more like him too. As we read in 2 Corinthians 2:15, For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. (2 Corinthians 2:15)

 And to give you something to aim at, here are 5 key areas which Jesus focused on during his ministry here on earth, and we are going to focus on those same 5 areas during the Red Letter Challenge:

                      1.   Being – Many times Jesus talks about how important it is for us to spend time simply being with him. The first thing that Jesus does is invite us into a relationship with him, and then he invites us to do things for Him and with Him. Our relationship with Jesus will determine how effective we are at actually doing the things that he asks. So the first thing that we will focus on is Being.

                      2.   Forgiving – Then we will focus on forgiving. Jesus is all about grace and, in order for us to properly represent him, we need to have his grace flowing freely throughout all of our life. Many of us struggle with receiving God’s forgiveness, forgiving ourselves or forgiving others, and we need to have a greater understanding of God’s grace in our lives and extend that grace to others.

                      3.   Serving – After spending some time with Jesus, and receiving his forgiveness, we naturally want to serve him, and serve others in his name. We do that by being the hands and feet of Jesus, getting out in the community and serving those around us with love.

                      4.   Giving –  Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven more than anything else, but a close second was money. What we will see as we dig into the words of Jesus is that it is impossible to be a stingy Jesus follower. The generous love of Jesus compels us to also be generous.

                      5.   Going – In each of the four Gospels and also in the book of Acts, the last words of Jesus all involve going, and that is no coincidence. For we are not only Jesus’ hands and feet in this world, we are also his voice. And so we go out and tell others about what Jesus has done for us because he is ready, willing and able to do the very same things for them.

Being, Forgiving, Serving, Giving, Going. These are the five targets that we are going to aim at during the forty days of the Red Letter Challenge. To help you do that, we have some workbooks available in the entryway that you can use. Those workbooks have an entry for each day, so we will start on Tuesday, March 8, and we will wrap up on the Saturday before Easter, which is April 16. And here is my hope and my prayer for you: By putting God’s words into practice, you will find the life God has made for you.

Over the next six weeks, we are going on a journey together. Before we do that, I want to strongly encourage you to pack two things before we go. First, Invite Jesus into your Red Letter Challenge experience. It almost goes without saying that our world is a far cry from the perfection which God originally intended for it to have, especially these days. And God’s solution to the world’s brokenness was that his Word would become flesh. That happened when God the Son wrapped himself in human flesh and entered into this world in order to save it. But the story of redeeming and restoring the world does not end there. For Jesus also asks us to be his word to our family, our friends, our neighbors and our co-workers. And for us to represent Jesus well, we need to make sure that Jesus is in us. So pack the strength of God. Second, invite others into your Red Letter Challenge experience. All of us need the support of others.

We need each other

When Susan and I were coming back from our time in Victoria, we got to the ferry terminal at Swartz Bay early, so we were the first car in the second lane of cars waiting for the ferry. We went inside the terminal and passed the time until it was time for us to go back to our car. Because we were the first car in our lane, I didn’t want to be late getting there. When we got to our car, I noticed that the second car in the lane beside us had its hood up and a woman was bringing a portable battery booster from her trunk to the engine compartment. I went over and asked her if she needed some help. She said that she left her lights on, her battery was dead and her car wouldn’t start. She had this portable battery booster, but she wasn’t sure if it was charged up. It turned out that it wasn’t. After she hooked the booster up to her car, it still wouldn’t start.

What struck me about this woman is that, even though she was all alone and had a car that wouldn’t start in a long line of cars waiting to go on the ferry, she was not anxious or worried in any way. She remained pleasant and cheerful throughout all this time.

I have no idea where she was in terms of her faith, I don’t know what she was hoping or expecting would happen. But I remember thinking that I would like to be like her, to have confidence that, even though things looked dire, somehow, someway, the right solution would present itself. And, within moments, a man came towards her with a portable battery booster that was no bigger than a box of chocolates. They hooked it up to her car and she was able to start it immediately.

Dear friends, there are times when following Jesus will be fun and full of excitement and joy. But there will also be other times when following Jesus will be very hard. And that’s when you are going to need your church family around you. You need the support of others, just like that woman did.

So, pack strength from God and pack support from others. To put Christ’s words into practice, you need strength from Jesus and support from others. That’s why we are also inviting you to lead or join a Red Letter Challenge small group. But I am also inviting you to consider leading a Red Letter Challenge group of your own. Please prayerfully consider doing so and, if God is guiding you in that direction, then email our church office at admin@wglc.org and we will get you set up with the resources you need and publicize your group through our communication channels.

So, welcome to the Red Letter Challenge! Let’s take the words of Jesus and put them into practice! Let’s aim at those five targets of Being, Forgiving, Serving, Giving, and Going. And as we do that, we will grow in living more of the rich, full, abundant life that Jesus wants to give to us. Amen.

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(This sermon is based on one written by Zach Zehnder which is available at redletterchallenge.com. This sermon was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on March 6, 2022. For more info, please go to wglc.org.)

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[1] “A New Generation Expresses its Skepticism and Frustration with Christianity,” Barna Group (Internet; available at: https://www.barna.com/research/a-new-generation-expresses-its-skepticism-and-frustration-with-christianity/; accessed March 1, 2022).

[2] “Mahatma Gandhi: Quotable Quotes,” Goodreads (Internet; available at: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/22155-i-like-your-christ-i-do-not-like-your-christians; accessed March 1, 2022).

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