putting skin on the sermon: come together

The earliest Christians couldn’t imagine not getting together often and consistently.

“… they spent much time together …” (Acts 2.46)

But, it wasn’t all that long before some Christians had other ideas, requiring a need to say something about it.

“Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing.” (Hebrews 10.25)

And yet …

I have a confession to make: I’ve always been nonplussed by sermons on “church attendance.” When I first began to hear them (as one yet to believe) they struck me as, at best, misguided. How’s that? The people who most needed to hear such a sermon were the ones who weren’t there to hear it. Thus, such messages came across to me as something akin to “preaching to the choir” and as a bit self-righteous (and judging by most of the conversations I often overheard among “the faithful” following such a sermon, I’d say that was about right).

And after I came to be a Christian, such sermons became even all the more difficult for me to swallow. They sounded, well, silly. I mean even as a baby Christian I knew that at the same time God was forgiving me of my sins he was adding me to his family (Acts 2.38,47). God added me to his family?! Hello! A real relationship with God includes a real relationship with his family. And so, to get up and basically beg disciples of Christ to “attend church” made about as much sense to me as telling water to be wet or saying to a rock, “Be solid.” Senseless, at best.

To make matters worse, with rare exception such messages magnified the church at the Lord’s expense. I even recall one such sermon that made not one mention of the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. Incredible. By preaching so, church gatherings were (unwittingly) held up as the “end” of our faith, rather than for what they actually are, a part of the “means” of our walk with God. Consequently, such sermons only threw gasoline (by the bucketful!) on the wildfire of deception already raging among many Christians (i.e. – how often you show up at church is what determines if you’re truly a faithful Christian or not; something like counting coup). It’s all too easy to get into the groove of just “doing church” and “going to church” and doing so without any real engagement with God. Mark it down: it’s very easy to do church without God. Such thinking mustn’t be encouraged, but discouraged.

My years of experience in preaching hasn’t softened my mind on “preaching on attendance” either. I’ve yet to know of a single person who made any lasting change in their habits of gathering with other Christians on the basis of a sermon about it. Across the years, I have seen some folks change their habits in gathering for the better, but it’s always – always! – been sermons about other matters – and usually not sermons at all, but other forms of communication and stimulation – that God used to work that improvement. After all, fading away from Christian gatherings isn’t the problem, but merely a symptom of other, and greater, problems. Ask folks who regularly gather with believers as to why they come and see if “I heard a sermon about it” even gets mentioned. I’ve asked hundreds across the years in three states and I’ve yet to hear even an oblique reference to a lesson or sermon on “attendance.” Think on this. You can take it to the bank.

And so, let me encourage you to think about my current sermon series (Gatherings) as not so much about merely “showing up at church,” but actually about what our understanding and vision of being present together is about. Make no mistake about it – showing up is crucial. I strongly discourage anything less! But, why we show up, and with what sort of mind and expectations we have about gathering together to begin with, is even closer to the center of things important. Or to put it another way, it is our attitude toward God and others (conscious or unconscious) that determines our actions in regard to our deliberately placing ourselves in the presence of other Christians. After all, the church is Christ’s bride and a person who is a true friend of the groom won’t have to be begged to do right by his bride. Get that picture.

So … yesterday’s sermon, in two words … is this: come together. Show up mentally and physically. As often as you can. As long as you physically can. Just remember God doesn’t need your presence; he’ll do just fine with or without you. Show up with the understanding that you need to gather with others (Christianity is community), other believers need you with them (we are saved to serve, not to be served), and ultimately, it’s one of the best things we can do for the whole world (the church must be the church). Capture this attitude: “time together” is precious. And never let go of that attitude; don’t stop meeting together with other believers.

God willing, we’ll consider more of these matters in sermons during the remaining Sundays of this month. And next Sunday, we’ll take a hard look at some of the tough things we will encounter when we “show up at church.” I solicit your prayers … and your presence … for the good of us all and to the praise of our matchless, magnificent God. Amen.

twin towers: what to remember?

 

Let me briefly tell you about two friends of mine from years gone by.

The first was in many ways a tall tower of a good man. He was a very hard worker. He was honest and trustworthy. He was often a man with great self-control. He was very good to his wife.

But, he hated and despised anyone who even remotely looked like they could have been from somewhere in Asia. Deeply so. As in the deepest bitterness I’ve ever seen in a man.

Why? He was a Navy veteran of WWII. He had served aboard a ship that was docked in Pearl Harbor when it was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941. His ship was one of the few that was able to get underway and make it out of the harbor during the attack. Following, he helped collect the bodies, and parts of bodies, burned and blown to bits, out of the water, off the deck, and off of his clothes.

He became an atheist that day. And forty years later, whenever we happened to be together and saw someone of Oriental descent or it was getting close to December, it was easy to see the anger, rage, and resentment that made his blood boil all day long. Some of his rants felt like fire; they seemed to melt all good away.

The second man was also a tall tower. In fact, he was one of the finest men I’ve ever known in life. Far more than hard-working, honest, trustworthy, self-controlled, and good to his wife, he was an obvious embodiment of the all that is the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I saw him in a great many settings across the years, but never saw him express even a hint of anything less than genuine care and love for every person he ever met. Not once.

It wasn’t because he was an Army veteran of WWII. Since he had served in an elite special ops unit known as Merrill’s Marauders (aka: Unit Gallahad) he had seen and experienced, in ways far beyond what words can describe, some of the worst that war can bring to combatants and civilians. The horror of it all was so complete that he very rarely spoke of his experiences at all and when he did, he always did so briefly … trailing off in a broken voice with tear-filled eyes.

He had been a Christian before he became a soldier. And he would tell you, thanks be to God, that the horror and terror he endured, and inflicted, didn’t destroy his faith in God. But, it radically changed it. Anger and bitterness, hate and resentment: he was done with for good. He simply had no room for such in life anymore. He had experienced enough taking of life; he was determined now to give it and share it with all, no matter who you were.

Now I ask you: what made these men different?

Who, what, and how they chose to remember.

Period.

One remembered inhumanity and evil, and so, grew cold and hard, remembering only that. He sailed the rest of his life through in darkness. Another remembered savagery and suffering, but did not stop there, choosing rather to remember it all in light of a still present, ever good, holy, and generous God. He marched through the rest of his life in the army of God.

One, due to memory, chose a path of unforgiveness and so, chose a life of living dead. Another chose, due to memory, the way of forgiveness and so, chose life with, and of, God, here and now.

Neither of these two towers stand anymore in this world. But, their lives still stand in my mind as witnesses of, and monuments to, the choice we each make every day: to move on to love, forgive, and hope, or to cuddle up with anger, hate, and despair.

May God help us all to choose well. To choose God, to choose his ways, and to make him our tower, and strength, and shield. Daily. And nothing less. Lest more innocent and guilty alike die daily, a thousand deaths.

“… if you were raised with Christ, look for the things that are above where Christ is sitting at God’s right side. Think about the things above and not things on earth. You died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. … put to death the parts of your life that belong to the earth … set aside … anger, rage, malice, slander, and obscene language. … Take off the old human nature with its practices and put on the new nature, which is renewed in knowledge by conforming to the image of the one who created it. In this image there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all things and in all people. … as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. … forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. The peace of Christ must control your hearts …” (Colossians 3.1-3,5,8-15)

10 things persecuted Christians don’t say

 

“I’m just burned out on singing the same old songs all the time.”

“I’ll tell you this: I’m not coming anymore if they can’t even make it a comfortable temperature for me.”

“You can bet your bottom dollar on this: get to know the movers and shakers in this town and we won’t have any worries.”

“For crying out loud, I’m telling you if we don’t get a better location and a better building, we don’t have a prayer.”

“How am I supposed to worship when these uncomfortable seats are killing me?”

“I think our teachers and preachers need to use more stories, humor, and illustrations in their lessons and less Scripture.”

“If we could just get more publicity and visibility we’d really be doing something toward being on the upward way.”

“If you can’t dress any better than that, don’t be surprised if we talk about you when you pass the communion around.”

“Why can’t we do things more like the Christians do on the other side of town?”

“If we sing another new song I think I’m going to scream!”

It is estimated that about 200 million people in this world who claim Christian faith live in places where there is some degree of deliberate, organized effort being made to exterminate, drive away, or subjugate them because of their faith in Christ. Over 100,000 Christians every year are murdered because of their faith.

And so, this is what we need to hear: “He is risen!

But, is he risen in you?

See you Sunday.

the church Jesus goes to

 

I know where Jesus goes to church. Without a doubt. He goes to the church that lives deliberately, boldly, and consistently …

pursuing peace and reconciliation. Though it lives in a world saturated with anger, disrespect, snarkiness, and insult, with a will it refuses to go there. It’s done with living by rage, choosing righteousness instead. It’s not defined by its own insecurities and its ability to utter barbed wit in retort to those who mock it, but by its humble confidence in its Christ and its dependence on the provision of God’s Spirit in every situation, no matter how dark or difficult. Imagine: a church made distinctive to all by not being abrasive and hard to live with.

unruled by its wants. Though surrounded on every side by people chasing after every kind of lust and sanctifying all sorts of unfaithfulness in every relationship, it isn’t seduced to do the same. It doesn’t seek its own will, but whatever God’s will is for it. Instead of searching for meaning in whatever it perceives as sexy (not just sex itself, by whatever is “sexy”), it finds its meaning in its Lord and Savior, for he is enough, and more. Picture this: a church known to the world for its contentment and reliability.

by its words of honesty. Though the culture in which is resides is given over to dishonesty and deception, it quietly walks its talk. It practices what it preaches, not merely what’s “practical” in the moment. Its ways aren’t determined by always choosing what works out for its own best interest, but by going after the truth that true love can truly rejoice in always. Capture this vision: a church perceived as genuine and true by all who care to truly engage it.

extending mercy generously. Though its world is largely driven by retaliation and payback, fueled by fear and the never ending yearning for hard justice, it walks by faith on higher ground. It thrives on the Spirit of compassion, not the spirit of competition. Its life map is not of doing whatever would instill fear in others of it, but to do whatever would help install faith in others in the God it follows. Draw it in your head like this: a church characterized by selfless giving and costly care.

loving the unlovable. Though seemingly all of society continually calls it to elicit indifference, ill will, hate, or anything and everything else that dehumanizes, it chooses to love with the love of the divine instead. By so doing, it traffics in forgiveness, not fierceness or fighting. This is because it seeks its definition not in its enemies, but in him who allowed his enemies to spike him to a tree. Place this before your eyes: a church that will mount the cross with its Lord, and die with him. Daily.

After all, what else could a person honestly conclude after reading what Jesus candidly said in Matthew 5.21-26,27-32,33-37,38-42,43-48?

And so, I have to ask: what might a church become if it understood and made these matters its chief means of worshiping and following Jesus Christ? In a week? A month? A few years? Over the course of a lifetime? Or after several generations?

Would it not become more and more like the One it worshiped? And wouldn’t that be what both the Lord, and they, wanted most of all?

Let’s find out. Let’s go to church with Jesus!

try

Recently I preached a sermon that addressed the problem of giving all-too-easy excuses for not doing this or that with our faith. It was intended as something of a spiritual kick in the posterior to “get out of the shade and into the heat, off our rear and onto our feet.” Actually, I was preaching some of this to myself and just letting the church overhear it. I suspect I sounded a bit like Yoda in Star Wars: “Try not. Do or do not. There is no ‘try.'”

Hard on the heels of that sermon was another in which I made passing reference to my distaste for some church advertising I had seen of late that said quite simply, “Try God.” As if our Maker was some “thing” we’d give a go at the same way we think about trying on new clothes. “Try God on for size.” It was certainly well-intended and I’m sure as what they meant to convey, but it was just too flippant in nature and too loosey-goosey in aim for me. I mentioned such in the context of what it is exactly that we, God’ creation, owe our Creator, namely, our all, beginning with profound respect.

Not many days after I preached those sermons I was talking privately with a brother who is going through some exceedingly difficult trials in life right now. As I offered a listening ear and some encouragement he happened to mention, “I know you don’t like the word ‘try.'”

I was surprised and a bit taken back. I assured him that I do indeed like the word “try,” primarily because it’s a word of great honesty. “Try” admits what doing the right thing is, a real challenge, a challenge that can even be a daunting task. We are human, and we will at times fail even when we try as hard as we can. “Try,” in the right context, also speaks honestly of the good intent in one’s heart. The person who actually gives the right thing a “try” is someone who is not overcome by darkness, but is actively seeking the light. That sort of a “try” is terrific.

Now all of this set me to thinking and asking myself a great many questions. One of those questions was rather straightforward: “How does the Bible use the word ‘try?’” And so, seeking an answer, I threw a quick cast of my net into the New Testament. It did not come back empty. It seems the New Testament has some rather significant things to say about “trying.” I don’t know if what I hauled in will develop into a sermon or not, but the results were enough to set me to thinking yet more. Let me share with you here what I found in the net. Perhaps it will stir some thought in you, too.

Do try to find God.

“It’s impossible to please God without faith because the one who draws near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards people who try to find him.” (Hebrews 11:6)

Do try to please God.

“… we are trying to please God, who continues to examine our hearts.” (1 Thessalonians 2:4b)

Do try to make your ways transparently holy and pure.

“We are trying to avoid being blamed by anyone for the way we take care of this large amount of money.” (2 Corinthians 8:20)

Do try to be there for others as it is possible for you to do so.

“Try hard to come to me before winter.” (2 Timothy 4:21)

“When I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, try to come to me in Nicopolis, because I’ve decided to spend the winter there.” (Titus 3:12)

Try to share the good news of Christ with others.

“Every Sabbath he interacted with people in the synagogue, trying to convince both Jews and Greeks.” (Acts 18:4)

“… we try to persuade people, since we know what it means to fear the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:11)

Try to forgive and re-embrace repentant brothers and sisters.

“… you should try your best to forgive and to comfort this person now instead, so that this person isn’t overwhelmed by too much sorrow.” (2 Corinthians 2:7)

Try to build up others in the community of faith with the gifts God has given you.

“… use your ambition to try to work toward being the best at building up the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:12)

And there are some things we must not try, too.

Don’t try to get revenge or retaliate.

“Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)

Don’t try to be a people-pleaser.

“If I were still trying to please people, I wouldn’t be Christ’s slave.” (Galatians 1:10)

Don’t try to make yourself look good by flattering people.

“Don’t work to make yourself look good and try to flatter people, but act like slaves of Christ carrying out God’s will from the heart.” (Ephesians 6:6)

“We aren’t trying to please people …” (1 Thessalonians 2:4a)

Don’t try to make money the answer to things in your life.

“But people who are trying to get rich fall into temptation. They are trapped by many stupid and harmful passions that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” (1 Timothy 6:9)

Don’t try to make your appearance your fulfillment.

“Don’t try to make yourselves beautiful on the outside, with stylish hair or by wearing gold jewelry or fine clothes.” (1 Peter 3:3)

Thank you, my brother and my friend, for reminding me that “try” is a very, very good word.

radical (9)

“Real success is found in radical sacrifice. Ultimate satisfaction is found not in making much of ourselves but in making much of God. The purpose of our lives transcends the country and culture in which we live. Meaning is found in community, not individualism; joy is found in generosity, not materialism; and truth is found in Christ, not universalism. Ultimately, Jesus is a reward worth risking everything to know, experience, and enjoy.” (p.183)

“… I challenge you to an experiment. I dare you to test the claims of the gospel, maybe in a way you have never done before. I invite you to see if radical obedience to the commands of Christ is more meaningful, more fulfilling, and more gratifying than the American dream. And I guarantee that if you complete this experiment, you will possess an insatiable desire to spend the rest of your life in radical abandonment to Christ for his glory in all the world. We’ll call it the Radical Experiment.” (p.184)

“The challenge is for one year, and it involves five components. I dare you over the next year to … (1) pray for the entire world; (2) read through the entire Word; (3) sacrifice your money for a specific purpose; (4) spend your time in another context; (5) commit your life to a multiplying community.” (p.185)

“We are a planning, strategizing, implementing people, yet radical obedience to Christ requires that we be a praying people.” (p.188)

“… Operation World [is] an invaluable book by Patrick Johnstone that has revolutionized my prayer life more than any other book outside of the Bible. This book contains detailed information on every nation in the world … and prayer requests for every country. It also includes a prayer guide you can follow, and over the course of a year, you will pray specifically and intentionally for every nation in the world. … all of the information in the book is available free online (www.operationworld.org).” (p.189)

“The second challenge in the Radical Experiment is to read through the entire Word. And I mean just that. Systematically read through the entire Bible – Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21 and all 31,101 verses in between – over the course of a year.” (p.190)

“… it is more important for you to read Leviticus than it is for us to read the best Christian book ever published … If you want to know the glory of God, if we want to experience the beauty of God, and if we want to be used by the hand of God, then we must live in the Word of God.” (p.192)

“Sacrifice your money for a specific purpose. Notice I didn’t say merely ‘give;’ I said ‘sacrifice.’ … You see, our hearts follow our money.” (p.193)

“… if we make fifty thousand dollars a year, we are wealthier than 99 percent of the world.” (p.194)

“… what would it look like for you (or your family) to make intentional sacrifices over the next year for the glory of Christ in light of specific, urgent needs in the world? … Sacrifice is not giving according to your ability; it’s giving beyond your ability.” (p.195)

“First, spend your money on something that is gospel centered. … Second … give in a way that is church focused. … Third, give to a specific, tangible need. … Finally, give to someone or something you can trust.” (pp.195-196)

“A true brother comes to be with you in your time of need.” (p.198)

“So, the fourth challenge in the Radical Experiment is to give some of your time in the next year to making the gospel known in a context outside your own city I suggest you plan on dedicating at least 2 percent of your time to this task. That 2 percent works out to be about one week in the next year that you will travel and take the gospel to another context in the world, either domestically or internationally.” (p.200)

“The final component of the Radical Experiment is to commit your life to a multiplying community. … Therefore, if you are not a committed, active, devoted member of a local church, then fundamentally the Radical Experiment involves committing your life to a community of faith.” (pp.204-205)

“So what happens when radical obedience to Christ becomes the new normal? Are you willing to see? You have a choice.” (Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream, p.216)

radical (8)

“I can imagine the looks on the disciples’ faces when … the … words came out of Jesus’ mouth: ‘I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.’ [Matthew 10:16]. … We don’t think like this. We say things such as, ‘The safest place to be is in the center of God’s will.’ We think, ‘If it’s dangerous, God must not be in it. If it’s risky, if it’s unsafe, if it’s costly, it must not be God’s will.’ But what if these factors are actually the criteria by which we determine something is God’s will? What if we began to look at the design of God as the most dangerous option before us? What if the center of God’s will is in reality the most unsafe place for us to be?” (pp.164-165)

“Are we willing, as the first disciples were, to be the first to go into danger and possibly even to die there in order that those who come behind us might experience the fruit of our sacrifice?” (p.165)

“To everyone wanting a safe, untroubled, comfortable life free from danger, stay away from Jesus. The danger in our lives will always increase in proportion to the depth of our relationship with Christ. … As long as Christianity looks like the American dream, we will have few problems in this world. But if we identify with Christ, we will lose much in this world. Jesus said this himself: ‘Everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.’ [Luke 6:40] These words should frighten us. … See what Paul said to the church: ‘It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him.’ [Philippians 1:29]” (pp.167-168)

“… we seem to have turned the church as troop carrier into the church as luxury liner. We seem to have organized ourselves, not to engage in battle for the souls of people around the world, but to indulge ourselves in the peaceful comforts of the world. … Are we willing to fundamentally alter our understanding of Christianity from a luxury-liner approach that forsakes comforts in the world to accomplish an eternally significant task and achieve an eternally satisfying reward? This is where Christ dramatically deviates from the American dream. … The reward of the American dream is safety, security, and success found in comfort, better stuff, and greater prosperity. But the reward of Christ trumps all these things …” (pp.170-171)

“We say, ‘Well, if I go to this place, I could be killed.’ Jesus replies, ‘That’s all?’ … The only way this can comfort us is if we have already died with Christ. … Clearly, the only way death can be a reward is if dying really is gain.” (p.175)

“… the essence … the key to taking back your faith from the American dream … is realizing – and believing – that this world is not your home.” (p.179)