Monday, February 8, 2016

The Purpose of the Church

This morning, I am going to shift gears a little bit. Many of my sermons recently have been geared to invite people who are outside of the faith to consider having Jesus as the Lord and Savior of their lives. I have tried to show how and why He is worthy of such a position and how the Gospel offers insight and answers to a lot of the problems we all face in this world. I have done very little recently to talk about the role of the people of God in living out our calling to be children of God. Today’s text from the Gospel of Mark leads us directly there, so if you are not a part of the church or if you are considering Christianity, please know that this sermon is not directly intended for you. Hopefully, however, you will appreciate the information included within.

Let me begin by asking you: what is the church’s main purpose? What is the reason for the church on earth? At first, this might seem like the answer is obvious, at least to each and every one of us individually. But as you dig into this question and reflect upon it deeply, I think you will see that it is actually a very complicated question. I mean, if you really want to see just how complicated it is, those of you with computers, go home and Google the question, "What is the purpose of the church?" You will get a whole lot of responses. Some of them similar. Quite a few of them different. And as each author of each article begins to delve into the question, you will see a whole lot of non-negotiables:

The purpose of the church is to worship.
The purpose of the church is to care for those in need.
The purpose of the church is to make and train disciples.
The purpose of the church is to be the earthly representation of Jesus.
The purpose of the church is to be a place of prayer.
The purpose of the church it to provide a place where all are welcome.
The purpose of the church is to enact the kingdom of God on earth.

All of these are good, solid answers. They are theologically and biblically based. One can easily provide all kinds of support for these answers, and I certainly don’t want to demean any of them. They are all correct, but there is a danger that lurks behind all of them. There is a danger that creeps in and lures us away from the true purpose of the church on earth. That danger is our own selfish nature–a nature that emphasizes survival and security over everything else. What am I talking about?

For the last several weeks, we have traveled through the book of Mark, and every lesson that we have had before us has either been in or been about the temple. Jesus triumphally entered into the city of Jerusalem and then entered the temple. Because it was late, He went camping. The next day, Jesus cleansed the temple with a parallel encounter with a fig tree that was rotten from the inside out. The next day, the chief priests, the scribes and the elders asked Jesus by what authority He was doing these things. They asked Jesus that question while Jesus was teaching–in the temple. In each of these circumstances, lurking in the background was the Sanhedrin’s decision to turn the courtyard of the Gentiles into a marketplace thereby excluding the vast majority of the world’s population from worshiping the One, True, God. Jesus exposure of this travesty angered the Sanhedrin, and they wanted to put Jesus to death, and instead of trying to soothe hurt and damaged feelings, Jesus doubles down. He tells everyone a parable. A parable that riles the chief priests, scribes, and the elders even more.

Jesus begins, " ‘A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watch-tower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 2When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. 3But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. 4And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. 5Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed."

Now, this situation was not uncommon in the ancient world. We have discovered a great stash of legal papers in which landlords leased their lands to tenants and agreed upon receiving parts of the harvest as payment. We have also discovered many instances where tenants refused to pay their landlord, and they indeed mistreated the servants that landlords sent to retrieve their payments. Jesus is using real world situations to illustrate His point.

And the point has to do with the nature of the landlord–which we are pretty sure is a reference to God the Father; and the nature of the tenants–which are the Sanhedrin and other Jewish leaders. Mind you, this is not a parable directed at all the Jewish people. It is directed squarely at the Jewish religious authorities who have abandoned the purpose of the temple.

So, what does this parable say first about the nature of the landlord? Think about this for a moment: what would you do if you had leased a property to some renters and they refused to pay the rent? What would you do if you knew that they were reaping the benefits of living on your property without just repayment? What would you do if you sent someone on your behalf to collect the payment and your renters drove them off? How long would you wait before getting the authorities involved? How long would you wait before calling the police? How long would you wait before evicting your tenants? If you are like most people, you would have almost zero tolerance for such behavior. You would act quickly to prevent such abuse, but does this landlord do that? No. Not in the least. In fact, the landlord’s actions almost bespeak of major weakness. He is literally letting the tenants get away with murder. He does nothing except send more representatives. One might come to the conclusion that this landlord is daft.

And the tenants take advantage of this. The tenants are selfish and not only want all the proceeds of the vineyard. They want ownership of the vineyard themselves. According to the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary, "Villagers could take over land from an absentee landlord, if the villagers felt the landlord was too weak to enforce the claims." Think about that for a moment as you think about the fact that Jesus is comparing God the Father to this landlord. Think about that as you compare the actions of these tenants to the actions of the Sanhedrin in the temple. Think about the injustice being perpetrated by these tenants and the Sanhedrin. It should begin to make you angry.

We return now to the landlord. Again, we might think this landlord to be absolutely daft because even after all of His servants were beaten and killed, the landlord decides to send His only, beloved son. What Father in His right mind would do such a thing?!! I mean, if you were that landlord, would this thought ever cross your mind? Of course it wouldn’t. People would think you crazy. You would send a swat team, not your only, beloved child. But that is the difference between you and this landlord. The true Landlord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The True Landlord will go to great lengths to give the tenants a chance to pay–to honor their agreement. The True Landlord will take the chance that His only Son might meet with death because He is a Landlord unlike any other Landlord.

And the unthinkable happens. The tenants reject the Son; kill him; leave his body unburied and disgraced thinking they will now inherit the vineyard. Their thoughts aren’t totally unfounded. It is highly likely they thought the landlord dead when they recognized the son coming. They believed that, according to the laws of the land, if they killed the son and retained possession of the land, they would indeed inherit. Their plan was perfect.

But the Landlord was still around, and Jesus makes no bones about what will happen next. The tenants will be driven out and the vineyard given to others. It’s not a surprising outcome. Again, according to the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, "Since the Law permits the son to act on behalf of his father, the legal definition of agency implies that dishonor and insult to the son would be equivalent to dishonoring the one who sends him." Think about that in light of the Sanhedrin’s questioning of Jesus’ authority last week. If Jesus’ authority indeed comes from God, then to reject Jesus’ authority is to reject the One who sent Him. This is the strongest condemnation possible for the religious leaders.

But here is the interesting part: in the parable, the Son is dead. The Father is still coming to enact judgement, so why does Jesus include the rest of His teaching? For Jesus quotes a portion of Psalm 118 directly, "22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. 23 This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes."

Now, there are couple of things here that are of note. The first is the translation of the words "cornerstone" from the Greek. When we hear this word, we think of a stone at the corner of a foundation–the foundational stone, so to speak; however, the Greek doesn’t really fit that kind of a stone. The Greek, according to Craig Evans, is better translated as, "‘head of the corner’, which probably refers to either a capstone that completes an arch or a capital that sits atop a column or pinnacle of the building." Therefore, it is a stone above all other stones. It is the stone to which most attention is drawn. It is the stone that everyone looks at. This is an important point in light of the last statement, "That this is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes." What is so significant about this verse?

Again, Evans says, "Thaumastae, ‘marvelous’ suggests that God is accomplishing something against all odds, something completely unexpected, something that mortals cannot achieve apart from dvine assistance." Reflect upon that for just a moment as you think about Jesus who is the Son sent by the Father. Reflect upon that for just a moment as you think about the Son who is rejected and killed by the Jewish authorities–who is disgraced. What happens to Him? What happens to Jesus? He is lifted up; resurrected for all to see. Jesus becomes the chief stone, the cap stone, the stone above every other stone that all are to gaze upon.

Which takes us squarely to the purpose of the church today. I mean, I don’t think it’s that hard to figure out now, do you. The purpose of the church today is to point to Jesus. The purpose of the church today is to proclaim Jesus. The purpose of the church today is to lift up the name that is above all other names and tell the world what God has done through Jesus.

I hope that those of you who are sitting here this morning are saying to yourself right now, "Well, that’s obvious. Tell us something that we don’t know." I hope that you believe this is a no-brainer observation. I hope so, because the reality in most of our congregations is quite the opposite. The reality in our congregations is that we focus most of our attention and most of our arguing on things without even referencing Jesus.

Now, I want to be very clear here. I am not trying to get us away from doing things. As James writes in his letter, "Faith without works is dead." And there are those who are quick to point out a very important truth. It is worthless to go up to a hungry person and tell them, "Jesus loves you," while they are dying of hunger. They will immediately think that Jesus has no concern for their hunger–which simply is not true. However, let me ask you a couple of questions: without raising your hands, how many of you have given to some sort of charitable organization in the past month or so? My guess is that many of you have. Second question: how many of you have proclaimed the gospel and told someone about Jesus in the past month or so? I’d bet a good chunk of change that the number of hands would be far, far fewer. In fact, I’d say we have been trained to let our actions speak louder than words. In fact, you may have also heard that wonderful saying, "Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary, use words."

I’ve used that saying numerous times in the past. I no longer use it. Why? There was a brilliant illustration that the late preacher Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones used when talking about the Gospel. He said: Imagine a king went off to war against an enemy that is threatening your country. If that king loses the battle, what does he send back? He sends back military advisors who say, "Archers over here, calvary over here, infantry over here. Get ready to fight for your lives." In other words, get ready to do everything you can. However, if the king wins the battle, he sends back heralds. They proclaim! They tell the good news, "The battle is done. The king has won. Live into the freedom!" The Gospel is literally translated "Good news." News is told. It is not lived. History is told. It is not lived.

What Jesus has done in bringing reconciliation with God is news. It cannot be lived. It must be told. Therefore, all we do must in some way, shape or form point to Jesus. Everything about our congregation, about our lives should lead people to look at the capstone, the head of the column, the stone that the builders rejected that became the chief cap stone. We must proclaim that the Lord has done this. We didn’t. We didn’t do anything. We have been saved by sheer grace. Humankind could never accomplish the salvation that was given through the cross of Jesus: For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him."

This is the ultimate focus of the church and the reason it exists. Jesus is trying to convey just this to the religious leaders of His day. They reasoned that they were helping others by putting sacrificial animals on sale in the market place, but they were only truly helping themselves. Likewise, when we focus on being kind to visitors, having a lot of programming, keeping our grounds looking nice, giving through our community care fund, having perfect worship music, and all other sorts of things–FOR THE PURPOSE OF GETTING MEMBERS, then we too are working for and pointing to ourselves. Christianity is not about that. The church is not about that. We are not to be about that. We are called to point to and tell others about Jesus, and when we are pointing to Jesus; well, then we will be nice to visitors, have a lot of programming, keep our grounds looking nice, help others, worship well, and all sorts of things not for our own benefit, but for His. Amen.

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