Andy Stanley - Inconceivable
Today I want to do something a little different and I wanna take you back in time with me and I'm gonna ask you to use your imagination. I want you to imagine that you and I and five of your best friends, you pick the people, or family members, all six of us with the five of them, you and me, the seven of us, we are able, somehow, to go back in time to the city of Rome and the year is 82 and in the year 82, when we show up in the Roman Forum, of course people are amazed that time travelers have shown up.
When we show up in this period of history, the emperor is a man called, named Emperor Domitian. You may remember him from school. Emperor Domitian. Emperor Domitian was the son of Vespasian, a little context here, and Vespasian was actually a Roman general that Nero sent to Judea to put down the Jewish rebellion. He was there about two years. When Nero is assassinated, Vespasian goes back to Rome and becomes the emperor. He leaves his son Titus to finish the work left undone, to finish taking over basically besieging the city of Jerusalem, punching through the exterior two walls and destroying the temple. He eventually comes back and becomes the emperor as well after Vespasian dies, but he's only the emperor about two years and then his brother, Domitian becomes the emperor of Rome.
So when we show up, he's the emperor and word travels fast that there are time travelers that have come from the 21st century to Rome and word reaches Emperor Domitian and immediately he sends someone to invite us to a party and the party is at the Colosseum because it's the end of 100 days of games and they're celebrating the end of the 100 days of games with this elaborate, elaborate party and so the person they send us, guides us out of the Roman Forum, down toward the Colosseum and as we're going in this direction, we actually pass beneath the recently, the very recently constructed Arch of Titus. The arch of Titus was an arch that Domitian actually had constructed to commemorate his brother's victory over the Jews just 12 years earlier and as we move underneath, we're able to look up and actually see inscriptions depicting the looting of the Jewish temple, 14 or 1,500 miles away.
Eventually we are escorted through the VIP gate of the Roman Colosseum where we are greeted by hundreds of people. There's a large patio, there is food everywhere. There are curious senators. There are slaves. There are escorts and of course there seated on a temporary throne is Emperor Domitian himself surrounded by his Praetorian guard dressed in purple. It is a lavish, lavish meal. We're unfamiliar with most of the foods. It's exotic meats, exotic fruits, lots of eggs and enough wine to float a ship. In fact you ask for water and I remind you that the water here would probably kill you. So we go thirsty. After the meal, Emperor Domitian sends someone to us and by the way, the only reason we're able to communicate is because I took Latin in the eighth grade and I paid very very close attention.
So consequently I could understand them and I can speak Latin because my Latin teacher in the eighth grade assured us, Mr. LaDuca assured us that Latin is not a dead language and so it comes back to life in this particular episode, but you have no idea what's going on. You're just hearing the foreign language and trying to read the body language and the glances and trying to follow what's going on based on what you see around you and the Roman emperor, Domitian, sends this message with a messenger who comes to our table and says the emperor would like a report from the future. He wants to know what is the state of the Roman empire in the 21st century and you look at me because I'm the only one that can communicate and I realized that if I don't get this right, we may all become part of the gore on the arena floor.
And so I begin and I say, Your Excellency, to understand the future of Rome, I must first rehearse a bit of recent history. On our way to the Colosseum, we passed through the arch celebrating your late brother's victory over the Jewish rebels and while it's true that the Roman legions decimated the Jewish people, and while it's true that they destroyed the Jewish temple, the God of the Jews escaped unscathed and as difficult as this will be for you to believe, eventually Rome, the empire, will embrace the Jewish God as their God. Eventually Rome will come to believe and accept that the Roman Gods that you currently worship are no gods at all. A future emperor will actually oversee the destruction of all your temples. A future Roman empire will eventually oversee disbanding the priesthood and making it against the law to sacrifice an animal to any of your Gods.
Well at this point, the crowd just erupts and you're looking at me wondering what have I said? And Domitian is leading in at a Praetorian guard one by one, drops their right hand to the hilt of their gladius and looks for a signal from Domitian. But he leans forward and he raises his hand and he calls for silence and he asked this question. How, how? How can this be? And I say Emperor Domitian, in order to understand that, I have to take you even further back in time. 50 years ago, just 50 years ago, during the reign of Emperor Tiberius Caesar, in the land of Judea, a man came out of the wilderness named John and he proclaimed that the Jewish God was about to do something in the world for the world. He was an unseemly character, but he attracted a large, large crowd. In fact, all of Jerusalem and all of Judea went out to hear John. He has a nickname, John the Baptist. In fact I see in your group today, Josephus.
In our world, Josephus is a famous Jewish historian and Josephus can confirm what I'm saying about John. Eventually John got sideways with Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, and Herod Antipas had him beheaded, but before he did, John the Baptist announced that one was coming after him that would be greater than him and the leaders in Judea wondered, in fact, if John was claiming to be the Messiah, the one that the Jews had been waiting for for a long time, a King that would actually in their mind, overthrow Rome. But John said no I'm not the one, but there is one coming after me. Keep your eyes open and sure enough, very quickly, before John was beheaded, Jesus of Nazareth appeared on the banks of the Jordan River. He began to preach and he spoke as no man had ever spoken before. He announced a brand new kingdom. He announced a kingdom that was not of this world, but a kingdom that was going to touch down in this world and influence the entire world. He was a miracle worker.
Like John the Baptist, he attracted crowds, but eventually he got sideways with his own people, the Jewish leaders. They had him arrested, they had him condemned and he was crucified by Pontius Pilate. I see as well that Senator Tacitus is with us in the crowd. In our world Senator Tacitus is known for being a famous historian in this era and he can confirm what I've said about Jesus of Nazareth. He can confirm what I said that in fact under Pontius Pilate Jesus suffered the most severe kind of punishment. He can also confirm the fact that what should've been an end was actually a beginning because after Jesus had been buried for three days the way that Jewish people measured days, after their Passover, the tomb was found open and empty and at first people assumed grave robbers, but that didn't make any sense because Jesus was poor. He was a rabbi. He had nothing to steal and besides, it wasn't items that was buried with Him that were gone. His body was missing and within days, there had been rumors that He had been seen in Jerusalem in the vicinity of Judea and even in Galilee and at first it was individuals.
Then it was groups then it was tens then it was dozens and then eventually hundreds of people claimed that Jesus was alive and His resurrection galvanized the courage of His followers and they spread the news that in fact, as Jesus had said when He was alive and had said again after His resurrection, the kingdom of God has come. A kingdom not of this world, but a kingdom for this world and Jesus, the resurrected rabbi is in fact the king and His followers would declare that He was their lord. His closest followers were arrested, beaten, many of them were put to death, but they persisted. Their confidence was convincing. Their confidence was contagious because they had seen, had meals with, had listened to their resurrected friend and Rabbi, Jesus.
Domitian, you know this. Even now in this city, there are citizens, slaves, men, women, freedmen, visitors who are meeting all over the city in their own apartments, in gardens, under trees, by the river who worship Jesus of Nazareth as their lord and for the next 230 years, for the next 230 years, your great empire will leverage all of its power and all of its might to stamp out this Nazarene sept, but your efforts will ultimately fail. And though Jesus of Nazareth never visited your grand and glorious city, in the 21st century, his name, his likeness and his symbol will adorn buildings throughout the city. Emperor Domitian, as impossible as it must be for you to imagine, one day over the very gate that you entered into the Colosseum just a couple of hours ago, there will hang an enormous cross, an enormous wooden cross that will no longer represent the ruthlessness or the power of Rome, but in the 21st century, it will represent the power and the love of God, the Jewish God Yahweh.
Well when I stop, I look around and they're speechless. They're, it's silent. This is impossible. The cross, a symbol of love? All of their temples throughout the empire destroyed? No more priesthood, no more animal sacrifice? Jupiter replaced by the God of the Jews? A Jewish rabbi who's been dead for 50 years will somehow be worshiped by the empire that executed him?
Before they could respond, I continue. Oh great Domitian, as for you, in the future, you will be known primarily for your reign of terror. In fact, Domitian, you along with every other Roman emperor will be reduced to a paragraph of two in our modern history books with one exception and the exception will be the great Caesar Augustus. His name will be referenced every single year in homes and places of worship throughout the world, but not in recognition of his great accomplishments. His name will be referenced within the context of the story of the birth of the Jewish savior. He will be a footnote in the story of the birth of the Jewish King Jesus, whose words will be collected and distributed more widely than all the Roman emperors combined and as impossible, as impossible I'm sure this sounds to you, Jesus of Nazareth will be the most influential and revered man who ever lived and this, Emperor Domitian, is the future of your glorious empire.
Rome is not eternal, but there is a God who reigns eternal. It was His temple that your brother destroyed. It was His son that your governor crucified, but in the end, it was His sovereign purposes that your empire advanced and then I sit down. There's silence. This is unimaginable. This goes beyond offensive. There's no appropriate response, but then slowly, ever so slowly, a smile breaks out on Emperor Domitian's face and then he bursts into laughter and because everyone takes their cue from the emperor, the entire crowd bursts into laughter, but no one knows why. And the Emperor hoists his cup and proposes a toast to the storytellers from the future. Brilliant, he says. Brilliant. You had me believing you right up to the end of your tale. And then he calls for music, makes his way to our table, congratulates us and then he says I insist, I insist that you join me tomorrow night for dinner once again, but this time no more fanciful stories. I want the truth. I must know of what the future holds for our glorious empire and for this, our Eternal City.
You see, my friends, what happened, not what was believed, what happened was absolutely inconceivable. What actually happened was impossible. What happened, no one could dream up. What happened, no one could plan. What happened, no one could orchestrate, but what happened is exactly what Jesus predicted. In the region of Caesarea Philippi surrounded by a group of people with no future and no hope other than to simply survive living under, at the heel of the Roman empire, overtaxed, misled by their religious leaders, Jesus said gentlemen and all of those who came along with the gentlewomen because everywhere Jesus went there were the apostles and then there was the crowd. He says to the apostles and to that group, ladies and gentlemen, I will build my gathering, my congregation, my assembly, my movement. It is going to happen and the gates of Hades, death itself, will not overcome it.
And these words must've sounded so hollow, so thin, so trite, so unbelievable standing out there in that blazing hot Syrian sun, but Jesus meant what he said and the gate of Hades will not overcome it and it didn't and it won't because what God began and what God continued through the ministry and the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus is linear. God showed up in history with a plan and we have so much to look back on. We have so much to appreciate and the thought that we are a small part of what God is doing in our generation, in the church that began all those years ago against insurmountable odds is such a privilege. It's what wakes me up in the morning. It's what keeps me going when things get difficult because we all have a little bit of time and we all have a little bit of opportunity and we have been invited into this grand narrative that no one could've imagined and no one could've orchestrated, but my friends, it happened.
Jordan Peterson in his book 12 Rules for Life says it so perfectly. I just want you to let him tell you. A new book that basically says what people have been saying for generations, but again, he brings it to life in such a way that I just couldn't say it any better. Here's what he writes. He says Christianity achieved the well-nigh impossible. There it is. The Christian doctrine elevated the individual soul, placing slave and master and commoner and nobleman alike on the same metaphysical footing, rendering them equal before God and the law. This was unheard of. The implicit, the implicit transcendent worth of each and every soul established itself against impossible, impossible, impossible odds.
It is in fact, he writes, nothing short of a miracle that the hierarchical slave-based societies of our ancestors reorganized themselves. How, why? Under the sway of an ethical/religious revelation such that the ownership and absolute domination of another person came to viewed as wrong and then this next statement is so heavy and it's so weighty and it's so important. It's why I wanted to read this quote because what is so normal to us, what is so normal to us, what is so expected by us that we think it is just common sense, that it's so self-evident, how could anyone miss it, we are absolutely wrong. Here's what he writes. We forget, and we forget because most of us never knew. We forget that the opposite was self-evident throughout most of human history. That throughout most of human history, what made perfect sense was might made right. The one with the gold makes the rules. Owning another person is just natural. Being able to enslave an entire population is natural.
This is the way of nature, this is the way of things. It is so self-evident, why would anyone ever question it? But when Jesus came, everything got turned upside down and we are stewards of that message. He continues, he says, the society, the society produced by Christianity was far less barbaric than the pagan, even the Roman ones it replaced. It objected, you heard me talk about this before. I just want you to hear it from someone else. It objected to infanticide, to prostitution, to the principle that might means right. It insisted that women were as valuable as men. Unheard of in ancient times. It demanded, it demanded that even a society's enemies be regarded as human. All of this was asking the impossible. But it happened. But it happened and it happened around the teaching of one Jewish rabbi whose words should never have survived the dusty first century.
Once upon a time, what we considered normal, once upon a time, what we consider self-evident was inconceivable and my friends, here's my concern. If we take it for granted, it might vanish from our culture. We take it for granted and our grandchildren and our great grandchildren may not have it. Some of you, some of you want to make America great again and rightly so. Some of you are concerned about what does again mean? What is again in reference to and rightly so. Of course we want our nation to be a great nation.
Of course we want our nation to be as great as it could possibly be and the key to our nation being as great as it can possibly be is a thriving church because a thriving church that truly embraces the message of Jesus both for this life and the life to come is a message that impacts the culture and the conscience of a nation. A thriving church is how we get a great nation because Jesus defined great for us and he turned it upside down and he said to his disciples on their way to Jerusalem when they were arguing about who is going to be the greatest among us. I mean Jesus, we know that you're number one, but we wanna know who gets to be number two and number three in the kingdom. When you rip off your rabbi robe and there's a big M and you're the Messiah and you turn around the back and there's a big K because you're the king, we wanna know who sits at your left hand and who sits at your right hand and Jesus said to them, all of you sit down because you still don't understand.
This isn't the way it works. In the rest of the world, that's how the structures of power work, but not in my kingdom. In my kingdom it's completely backwards. In my kingdom it's completely upside down. I want you to follow me, he would say, but as you follow me, you remember this. Even the son of man talking about himself, even the son of man did not come to be served, but to serve. Even the son of man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many and he would say to them, if you're up for that, you follow me and we will change the world. And they did. This is why be rich is such a big deal. This is why being generous in our communities is such a big deal. This is why creating new churches that get this is such a big deal. This is why you are so important. This is why we are so important.
Jesus said it best, of course he did. He said it this way to his first century audience and I think to us as well. He said you, you, those of you who choose to follow me, you are the salt of the earth and when he said this, the group of people he's talking to are looking around going like, no we're not. We're not the salt of anything. Nobody even knows we're here. We're Judeans, we're Galileans, we're, you know, we're not even a sovereign state. We can't even make our own rules. We can't even trust our own leaders. We're not the salt of the earth. You're the salt of the earth, Jesus said, but if the salt loses its saltiness, that is if you just blend in, if you just go with the flow, if you embrace the power, the structure of power that the world models for us, if you decide it means being number one to the demise of everyone else around you, if you decide that somehow living for yourself makes you someone, if you forget that the value of a life is only, is always measured by how much of it's given away, if you lose your saltiness, he says how can it be made salty again?
It is no longer good for anything. It is no longer good for anything. It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You, he says, to his first century audience. You, he says, to you and to us and again, this, this made no sense. Looking back, it makes all the sense in the world. Little did they know that they were on the verge of greatness. Little did they know that they were at the beginning of something that would truly revolutionize the world and topple an empire. You are the light of the world to which they said no we're not. Rome is the light of the world. The city of Rome is the city set on a hill where all the instructions come from, where all the power emanates from. Rome is the light of the world. Caesar is the light of the world. We're not the light of the world and Jesus would smile and say you have no idea what's in store because I'm going to build my gathering and nothing, including Rome, will stop it. You're the light of the world. Let your light shine before others.
What does that mean? That they may see your good deeds. Nobody's even paying attention to our deeds, Jesus. Jesus says you just wait. You follow me and when people see your good deeds, when people see the way that you treat the sick, when people see the way that you honor women, when people see the way you honor children, when a plague comes through a village and you no longer fear death and you stay behind and take care of the sick, you let people see your good works and eventually they will glorify your Father and Heaven and together we will change the world. And you is not me. You is we. You is us. Think of it. That we are the stewards, think of it.
In our generation, we are the stewards of the church and the faith for our generation and the question I have for you, the question I have to constantly ask myself is as stewards of the church for our generation, what am I gonna do with it? What are we gonna do with it? Will we just take from it? Will we take from it and get what we can get from it and leave it weaker sidelined and ineffectual? Or will we, or will we engage with it and in engaging with the church of the Lord Jesus Christ ensure that the church continues to shape the conscience of our communities and of our nation and of the world. It's impossible for us to get our hearts and our minds and our emotions around, but 2,000 years ago, Jesus launched something for the ages. 2,000 years ago, Jesus launched something for you and for us.
23 years ago, we launched something for our communities and I'm confident because history bears witness to the fact that I'm confident and we can all be confident that God will complete what he's begun and with your involvement at our churches, we will complete what we've begun as well against all odds, it's impossible to even exaggerate. Against all odds, the church changed the world once and there is still a great deal that needs to be changed about our world and by God's grace and with your help, perhaps we can be a small part of bringing about that change in our communities, in our nation and maybe in the world.
And so, here's what I'm inviting you to do. Here's what I'm challenging you to consider whether you have been with us for 23 years or for 23 minutes, in the words of the apostle Paul to a group of first century believers, they had no idea what hung in the balance of their faithfulness, he said to them, my friends, stand firm. Let nothing move you. This was battleground language. Stand firm, don't retreat. Stand firm, dig in your heels. Stand firm, prepare for the assault. Stand firm, let nothing move you. Always, he said to them, give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord because you know, even though they didn't know, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. And their labor in the Lord was not in vain. We are here as a result of their labor. We're here because of their labor.
The question is will we take our cue from them because just as we are here because of their tenacious labor, our labor will determine who's here tomorrow. Our labor will determine what the church of the future looks like, how it operates and if it will continue to embrace the extraordinary command of Jesus, what He said. If you forget everything else, you remember this because this is how people will know you're my follower. You are to love not as you've been love. You are to love not as you want to be loved. You are to love as I have loved you and the morning after He made that statement, He put on a demonstration of love that will take His breath away and the world would never be the same. So, for all of you at all of our churches, engage and stay engaged. We have been given the opportunity of a lifetime.