Luke describes for us how Jesus sent out seventy or seventy-two of his followers to go in advance of him. They were to prepare folks in the villages to receive Jesus’ visit and to hear Jesus’ core message, that the kingdom of God was at hand. That was Jesus’ message: the kingdom of God is at hand.
As Luke recorded earlier in chapter 4, when Jesus left the wilderness of temptation to begin his public ministry, Jesus’ first teaching was in the synagogue of his home town of Nazareth.
There in the synagogue, Jesus read from Isaiah the prophet, the word of God which Jesus then claimed for himself and his ministry:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:16-21)
Those words of Isaiah, Jesus said, anticipated what his ministry would be. Those words of Isaiah, for Jesus, summed up the coming of the Kingdom of God.
Several Sundays ago, we considered Luke chapter 7. Luke tells of how John the Baptist sent two of his own disciples to question Jesus: “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Jesus’ told them this: look at what Jesus was doing, and then John could draw his own conclusion, as Jesus lists for them the works and words of his ministry up to that point. In essence, Jesus lists how he was fulfilling what he had earlier quoted from Isaiah. (Luke 7:18-23)
Jesus was asking John the Baptist, “What does the kingdom of God come near mean to you?” What did it mean for them, and what does it mean for us, to say that kingdom of God is at hand?
Long before these seventy, or seventy-two, knew anything at about the cross and the resurrection, long before there was any place in their imaginations for the Garden of Gethsemane and the Garden of Easter morning, their grasp of the Gospel was only this: the Kingdom of God now come near to them in Jesus, and the words and works that Jesus performed.
What is the Kingdom of God now come near and now at hand mean for you and me and for University Baptist Church?
Is it what Jesus described of himself to his fellow worshipers that first Sabbath in the synagogue at Nazareth? Is it what Jesus enumerated for the disciples of John the Baptist to tell to their teacher? Is the Kingdom of God at hand on Earth
about “preaching good news to the poor”?
about “proclaiming release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind”?
about “setting at liberty those who are oppressed”?
Is the fact and the reality of the kingdom of God at hand and near us about “proclaiming the acceptable year of the Lord?” for those who cannot imagine that the Lord God would accept even them?
Because if the Kingdom of God is about that, as Jesus himself professed, then why are we not, in the name of our Lord, also professing that same message and also doing those same works?
Interestingly enough, the key to our answer may be how we hear these few little words in verse 1: the Lord “. . . sent them two by two ahead . . .” “Two by two.” Now, where have we heard those words before in Scripture? It’s the command God gave to Noah, all the way back over at the start of our Bible, in Genesis chapters 6 and 7:
“Make yourself an ark of gopher wood . . . And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two . . . they went into the ark with Noah two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life.” (Genesis 6:14, 19; 7:15) Two by two, they entered the Ark to escape God’s judgment about to come over all the earth.
Early on in Christianity, and on down through the centuries, Christians have viewed the Church as a kind of Noah’s Ark. The Church is God’s Ark into which God is gathering all those whom God intends to save from God’s coming judgement and destruction on all life left outside God’s Ark.
We call this space where we gather for worship on Sunday mornings the Sanctuary. Downstairs is the Fellowship Hall, and upstairs is the Sanctuary. That architectural truism is built into most any Baptist church building. But, historically, Christians have called this space the Nave.
As one scholar describes it, “The word ‘nave’ comes from the Latin word ‘navis,’ meaning ship (a collection of ships is a ‘navy’). The church nave symbolizes a ship with its vaulted ceiling looking like an inverted keel.” In other words, we’re sitting in the cargo hold of an upside-down ship. We are the Lord’s Ark, into which the Lord gathers us “two by two”.1
Well, that’s o.k. We need a sanctuary, don’t we? We need a refuge. We need at least one sacred space in our lives that we know is consecrated to worshiping God. Yes, we can worship God anytime and anyplace, but this place on our spiritual maps is uniquely devoted to the worship of God now revealed through Jesus of Nazareth. This nave, this ship, this Ark, of refuge – that is a good understanding of church.
But, what’s not o.k. is how the Church as Ark often gets turned more into Church as Floating Fortress, a place into which God has separated us and isolated us. In this version of the Ark is the Spirit of God within; without is Satan. Within this Ark are the Redeemed of the Lord, without are those under God’s condemnation.
A.W. Tozer was in highly influential pastor, preacher, author, who ministered mainly in the first half of the twentieth century. You may have read his book, The Pursuit of God, published in 1948. It’s a book that I read as a young man that helped form my earlier faith.
Tozer preached this in one sermon, “The church is depicted as an ark on the flood waters. As the ark of Noah floated on the waters and contained all who would be salvaged, so the church of Jesus Christ is an ark on the flood waters and contains all who will be salvaged.”
“Remember that!” Tozer emphasized, before continuing in his sermon, “All in the ark are saved, and all outside the ark perish. All around us is a perishing world, and we float on top of it in a little ark called the church. All that are not in the church–the ark–will perish.”2
What picture does Tozer’s words form in your mind? What attitude does that description call forth in your heart? Are we in the Church of Jesus Christ really an Ark that floats atop a perishing world, an Arc into God has gathered you and me, two by two, until God has cleansed away the filth, dispensed with the evil, established a new heaven and a new earth onto which God’s Ark will then deposit us safe and saved?
Yet, Luke records for us a very different gathering up of Jesus’ followers into pairs, two by two. These seventy, or seventy-two, depending on your translation, unnamed followers whom Jesus called, not to sit two by two at ease around him, but whom he sent out, two by two, as workers in a field where “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”
These seventy, or seventy-two, whom Jesus called up, two by two, not as innocent lambs gathered in and with the door securely behind them, as on Noah’s Ark. These Jesus sent out to go into their region “as lambs in the midst of wolves”.
In other words, Jesus parked the Ark! Jesus unsealed the door and threw it open! The passengers are told to disembark and to go ashore! Two by two Jesus marches them out, to go out into a field of work, out to pass through a place of risk, to prepare people with a message of peace.
That word, “peace”, these followers knew through the good Hebrew word, “shalom”. They took the message of God’s “shalom” where the broken of humanity are mended and restored, the empty filled up and made content, the anguished befriended and comforted, and the lost brought home and reunited.
Yes, there is much yet to be said of methodology. The verses that follow are very much about methodology. There is every generation’s obligation to learn the language and to know the culture and to form a meaningful message of the kingdom of God and to go.
But, before all that will ever happen, there must be a change of hearing and a change of heart. How do you hear the words, “two by two”? “Two by two, safely gathered in and sheltering in place, until God wipes away all that threatens and dismays us?”
Or, do we hear “two by two” sent out by the Lord of Peace in whom and through whom the Kingdom of God has come near, a great Kingdom gathering for all who will, receive that Peace in their lives?
Shall University Baptist Church gather ourselves in, seal up the doors of our building, ride high above what waves rock around us, until God delivers us safely across to Heaven’s shore?
Or will University Baptist Church be a refuge, be a sanctuary wherein we do come for spiritual rest and reviving before going back out into the field outside our church doors, a field ripe with people in need of the healing presence of Christ, the peace of Christ answering the peace which they seek?
1 Daniel B. Clendenhin, “Under God’s Rainbow: The Church as Noah’s Ark,” for Revised Common Lectionary, May 24, 2014, http://journeywithjesus.net
2 Text sermons: A.W. Tozer: The Ark Analogy, http://SermonIndex.net.