The Jesus Story for Skeptics and Outsiders

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us . . . . With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught (Luke 1:1-4).

I can’t remember a time when the church wasn’t like home to me. The sanctuary furniture, the aroma of Wednesday night dinner, the songs and hymns, the stories from the Bible – throughout my entire life these have formed a kind of refuge. Something familiar and comforting.

I don’t say all of that because I’m a pastor. Perhaps I’m a pastor because I can honestly say all of that.

Having been so thoroughly immersed in “church-world” for so long, the challenge for me is in recognizing that for so many people none of those things is true.

For some people, church was never part of their life.

For others, church failed them. It somehow became a source of pain or hurt or rejection.

For still others, what was once good and life giving simply got elbowed to the edges of life by busyness or any assortment of other things that looked better and more life giving.

For whatever reason, for many people church and faith are alien to their way of life. Interestingly, those are the very people that the church is called to reach.

So how do we tell the Jesus story to skeptics who aren’t sure they believe it, or to outsiders who feel excluded by it?

Some Help from Doctor Luke

The New Testament opens with four documents that tell us about the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Each of them speaks with a distinctive voice, reflecting a distinctive perspective on the story, composed with a distinctive audience in mind.

Among the four, the gospel according to Luke gives us the Jesus story for skeptics and outsiders.

Luke speaks to the skeptics in the very first sentences of his gospel. Here he puts his cards on the table (as it were) and sets forth his methodology for the twenty-four chapters to follow. A skeptic will appreciate something that has been thoroughly examined, researched, thought out. Luke claims to have “carefully investigated everything from the beginning,” examining the eyewitness reports of the earliest followers of Jesus. With this research he compiled “an accurate account” of the Jesus story. His purpose in all of this diligent study was so that we “might have certainty” about what we’ve been taught (Luke 1:1-4 NLT).

Luke speaks to outsides because he knows what it’s like to be an outsider. As Eugene Peterson concisely explains, “Luke is the only Gentile in an all-Jewish cast of New Testament writers.” As Luke tells the Jesus story he does so with an eye to women, common laborers, socially marginalized and racially snubbed. Luke has no patience for “religion as a club.”         

Nowhere is this more evident than in the much-loved Christmas stories. In Luke’s familiar telling of the birth of Jesus we note the prominence of Mary and Elizabeth, the shepherds, the aged Anna speaking a prophetic word alongside the devout Simeon.

Luke’s stories draw us in close, skeptics and outsiders especially welcomed.

Nativity, Mission, Passion

This past Sunday at Grace Church Pastor Marnie introduced a new series that will take us all the way to Easter – that’s about 131 days. We’ll gather weekly as a congregation and hear the Jesus story as told by Doctor Luke. In broad strokes, we’ll work through Luke’s story of good news in three sections:

“Luke: The Nativity.” This will be our focus for the coming month, the weeks of Advent. We’ll make our way toward Christmas Day with some of the best-known Bible stories of the season.

This will be followed in the new year by “Luke: The Mission.” For these weeks we’ll walk with Jesus, observing his powerful deeds, listening to his challenging teaching.

Finally, we’ll come to “Luke: The Passion.” As we approach Easter, we’ll follow Jesus all the way to Jerusalem, the site of his rejection, suffering, death, and resurrection.  

At Grace Church you’ll be provided with a journal that has the text of Luke with space for your notes, allowing you to do your own Luke-like investigation of Jesus. I hope you’ll fully engage this study of Luke’s gospel. But even more importantly . . .

Maybe you know a skeptic. Or maybe you know someone who feels like an outsider to the whole church / faith experience.

Maybe that person is you. Sometimes skeptical. Sometimes on the outs with that messy flawed gathering of God’s people called “church.”

Don’t let these days get by without joining those Bethlehem shepherds and seeing for yourself what God has revealed. Pray for someone you know who needs to do that.

This is “good news of great joy for all people” (Lk. 2:10). Skeptics and outsiders included.

Prayer: Gracious God, we’re thankful for the way you pursue us – and especially the way you pursue the skeptics who struggle to believe and the outsiders who struggle to belong. In the infant Jesus you entered our world, intent on showing us who you are and what you are like. Pursue us in these days of Advent, and give us grace to know you better, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen. 

With Us

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34).

At a very early age I learned exactly where God lived.

I came to understand that God lived in the same place where I went to church every week. God’s address was the address of the Baptist church where my Dad preached and where I went to Sunday school and sang in choir. I knew this to be true because I was told over and over again that the place where we did all these things was ‘God’s House.’ In my young mind that meant God resided there the same way I resided at my house.

To go to church meant to pay a visit to the house of God. And when you went to God’s house a certain decorum was expected. For one thing, you dressed your best. And above all (I had to be told constantly) you were never to run in church.

It would be a few years before I came to understand God’s house in a more nuanced way. I was never bothered by whether the Methodist church or the Catholic Church in town were also God’s house. I just assumed that God inhabited my church, and that the furniture and the carpet and the smell of those painted cinderblock classrooms were part of God’s dwelling place.

The place of worship and the practice of worship were very closely connected. Truthfully, for me I guess they still are in some ways.     

The Tabernacle

As the Israelites made their long wilderness journey they came to a point where they were told to construct a place of worship. Our word for that place is “Tabernacle.” The Hebrew word is mishkan, a word that simply means “dwelling.” Sometimes slightly different words are used. In Exodus 34:26 it is spoken of as the “house of Yahweh.” The Tabernacle is also referred to as the “tent of meeting (Ex. 28:43).

Whatever it’s called, its purpose and meaning is clear: this is the place where God would meet with his people; this is the place where the people would come to meet with God. Biblical scholar Tremper Longman writes that “the symbolism of the entire structure revolved around one central idea: the Holy God was present in the midst of the camp.”[1]

To be honest, if you set out to read the book of Exodus, you’ll feel like you’ve hit quicksand at about chapter 35. The detailed inventory of material used for Tabernacle and the instructions regarding its construction are excruciating to read. But they are not insignificant. Longman points out the ordinary materials are used for the outer areas of the Tabernacle. But as you move to the center, the Holy of holies, the materials become more valuable and precious – silver and gold. That’s because God was at the center of the Tabernacle.

Does Place Matter?

This week as follow Israel’s wilderness journey we will give our attention to this place of worship, the house of God. We’ll be pondering two simple truths that the Tabernacle represents for us today.

First, God is intent on dwelling with and meeting with his people. This truth runs straight to the New Testament in the birth story of Jesus. “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means “God with us” (Matt. 1:23).

Second, the space and place where this meeting happens really matters. To read the instructions given in Exodus is to see that it matters a great deal to God.   

Some might object that we can meet with God anywhere (the golf course is often mentioned as a perfectly viable alternative). There is truth to this. God is not restrained to a structure or a street address. God was certainly present with his wandering people long before the Tabernacle was built.

Nevertheless, the Tabernacle was built. And it was God’s idea, built in accordance with God’s design. This week we’re thinking about why, and what it means for us.

Sure, you can meet with a deal with God anytime and anyplace.

But when you “go” to meet with God, where do you go? Do you go? And does it matter?   


Gracious God, it’s hard for us to grasp that you desire to meet with us and dwell among us. Because we know you in habit all places, we easily take your presence for granted. And we can easily neglect the practice of gathering with your people in your house. Meet us now in these moments of prayer, and give us a yearning to meet with you, we ask in the name of Jesus, Immanuel, God with us. Amen.

Mark H. Crumpler

Teaching Pastor

[1] Cited in Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory, 1105.

Desert Dwellers

Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water (Exodus 15:22).

I live in a comfortable home in the 18017 zip code of the Lehigh Valley.

About two miles to the north is Wegman’s. Roughly the same distance in a different direction is Weiss. In each the shelves are generously stocked. In 18017 indoor plumbing and running water are commonplace, as are central heat and air. During a recent cold snap we decided it was time to pull out the electric blanket. We might have been a little early with the blanket, but we never thought twice about the electricity needed to make it toasty warm.

In 18017 every creature comfort is readily available. And yet this zip code, like every zip code in the country, is a wilderness. The Lehigh Valley is populated with desert dwellers.

This week we’ll follow the Israelites’ journey beyond the soggy banks of the Red Sea to the desert place where God would meet them, provide for them, and go to work forming them into “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” (1 Peter 2:9).

God does some of his most significant work in the wilderness, but it’s the last place in the world we want to be, and we’ll do whatever it takes to get out.

Those “In Between” Places

A little clarification may be in order.         

The desert that surrounds me is neither geographical, nor topological. I’m not surrounded by vast stretches of emptiness, bereft of shelter from the elements, disoriented by the lack of any discernible landmark telling me where I am.

The desert I see all around me, and at times within me, is what Pastor-author Jeff Manion calls “the land between.” In his book by that title Manion explains that “while the land between is prime real estate for faith transformation, it is also the space where we can grow resentful, bitter, and caustic . . . The wilderness where faith can thrive is the very desert where it can dry up and die if we are not watchful.”     

In her message Sunday at Grace Church, Marnie observed that the wilderness does indeed lie between Egypt and the Promised Land, between the life we had and the life we’ve yet to obtain, the comforts we once knew and the gifts we’ve not yet received.

We’ve all spent time in the wilderness. No matter your zip code, we’re all desert dwellers. Maybe your wilderness trek is something you look back on. You made it through. Or maybe you’re there right now, walking through that barren place between what was and what has yet to be.

Complaints and Questions

In the wilderness there are two behaviors that are common to us: We complain, and we question.

We complain or grumble because we’re sure the whole thing is a mistake. Something has gone wrong. We complain because we’re deprived of something that gave us security. We’re not in control of our lives. “In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron” (Ex. 16:2). We do the same thing.

And then, we turn to grumbling’s first cousin: Questions. In her message Sunday Marnie said that in the wilderness we tend to ask (1) Why am I here? (2) What did I do that put me here? (3) How long will I be here?

Tomorrow we’ll think about the grumbling we’re so easily inclined to do.

Later this week we’ll take up the questions.

For today, what has “the land between” looked like in your life? What kind of desert are you navigating right now?

Prayer: Gracious God, the desert is a hard place to live. You seem to choose the wilderness as the setting for our growth in the likeness of your son Jesus, and yet we resist being there. We are slow to recognize what you might be doing in those in between places. Give us the grace we need today in the desert journey we might be walking. Meet us with the true bread from heaven we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.