Posted by: 15shekels | March 30, 2010

An unusual birthday party

This past Sunday at church, our pastor shared the following story about sociologist and preacher Tony Campolo:

A few years ago, jet lag and hunger led Campolo to a Honolulu diner at 3 a.m. The group of prostitutes who came into the same diner every night at 3:30 a.m. weren’t used to having company, and when they arrived, they sat on either side of Tony and ignored him. So of course he overheard when one of the girls said to her friend that the next day was her 39th birthday. Her friend bit back sarcastically, “What do you want me to do? Sing happy birthday? Do you want a cake? Do you want a party?” The first girl responded, “Look, I don’t want anything. I’m just telling you it’s my birthday…I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. I don’t expect to have one now.” As soon as the girls left, Campolo, moved, suggested to Harry the diner owner that they plan a birthday party for Agnes. Campolo showed up the next morning at 2:30 to decorate, Harry made a cake, and by 3:15 a.m. “every single prostitute in Honolulu was squeezed into this diner.” When Agnes and her friends walked in, everyone shouted, “Happy birthday Agnes!” and began to sing as Agnes sank down on a stool and started to cry. Later, during an awkward silence, Campolo suggested that they pray:

“I prayed that God would make her new, because we’re here to declare the good news. And no matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done, Jesus can make you new. When I finished the prayer, Harry leaned across the counter and said, ‘Hey Campolo. You told us you were a sociologist. You’re a preacher! What kind of church you preaching?’ And in one of those moments when you come up with just the right words, I said, ‘I preach in a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning.’ I’ll never forget his response. Never. He said, ‘No you don’t…I would join a church like that.'”

Of course Harry didn’t believe him. But as Campolo said in response, “That is the kind of church Jesus came to create.” And Jesus did create that kind of church, literally and figuratively, even though we, in our snobbery, have done our best to steer the church in other directions.

First, literally, Jesus came to bring hope and joy to sinners, and he lived this out. While Jesus walked on earth he spent most of his time with the most obvious sinners he could find. While feasting with “tax collectors and sinners,” he told the furious Pharisees, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) In one of his most famous parables, Jesus tells of a younger son who squanders his inheritance in wild living and returns home sheepish. His father, who represents God, runs out to meet him, throws his arms around him and throws him a great feast. “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:24) Jesus is in the business of throwing parties for sinners. His offer of forgiveness and new life is available to every single person on the planet, and as it turns out, it’s often the biggest screw ups who accept first. Many of us forget this, and instead stand outside the feast grumbling at the riff-raff being let in.

But this leads me to my second point—that figuratively, Jesus is leading a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes. First, I must point out an uncomfortable truth:

We are all prostitutes.

God created each of us for spiritual monogamy, to love and worship Him alone. But every single one of us has turned away and lusted after other things—money, career, power, beauty, loved ones, service, even ministry. None of these things are intrinsically bad, and many are blessings in our lives, but when we turn to them for fulfillment and identity, we are worshipping idols and cheating on God. In the book of Hosea, God speaks of his people, Israel, as an unfaithful wife, and as a prostitute: “Let her remove the adulterous look from her face, and the unfaithfulness from between her breasts…You have been unfaithful to your God; you love the wages of a prostitute at every threshing-floor.” (Hosea 2:2; 9:1). In an extended metaphor in Ezekiel, God again compares his people to a prostitute: “How weak-willed you are, declares the Sovereign Lord, when you do all these things, acting like a brazen prostitute!” (Ezekiel 16:30)

Spiritual prostitution is much worse than literal prostitution, and the consequences of our idolatry are that we deserve death, and eternal separation from God.

But Jesus is in the business of throwing birthday parties for whores.

When Jesus died on the cross, nearby the giant curtain of the temple that separated the Most Holy Place from the people ripped from top to bottom. When Jesus atoned for the sins of the world, sinners were granted access to God. And as the curtain ripped, the doors of the party were thrown open. Invitations went out to everyone who has ever lived or will ever live. Invitations to a birthday party—our own: “In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3).

But there’s more. Not only does the mighty king of the universe throw birthday parties for prostitutes, he goes a step further. He is planning a wedding for a prostitute—and it’s His own wedding. Sure, it was nice of Tony Campolo to buy Agnes a cake. But can you imagine if he had proposed?

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Ephesians 5:25-27).

Husbands are called to model themselves after the ultimate bridegroom—Jesus himself. Jesus didn’t just die so that his friends could go to heaven. He died so that his bride could come to her own wedding:

“‘For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.'” (Revelation 19:7-8)

So what kind of church am I preaching? What is Christianity really about?

It’s the story of a God who followed a prostitute he loved very much into a dirty diner to bring her a white wedding dress, and an invitation to a wedding feast.

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