Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Mark #3: Rooted in Scripture

This morning, we come to the third mark of the church that is found in Romans chapter 15 verses 1-6.  Verse 4 reads, “4For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.”  This shows that one of the significant marks of the church is that it is rooted deeply in the Bible–it takes the scriptures very, very seriously.

Now, you may think at this moment, “Well, no kidding.  Doesn’t every church take the Bible seriously?”  The answer to that question is: yes and no.

You see, I remember one of the things I did my first week in college.  I attended a Bible study slash gathering of college Christians.  The group was called Koininia.  For our first gathering, we sat in a circle, and we hand introductions and the like.  Now, I can’t remember exactly what led up to the next moment, but I remember it vividly.  There was a sophomore student sitting in our circle who was studying to be a pastor.  I can’t remember if it was part of the introduction or part of the discussion, but he slammed his Bible on the ground and stepped on it.  He said something to the effect of, “This book is just a book.  I take what I need from it, and that’s it.”  I was a bit shocked, and yes, this guy went to seminary.  Now, you could argue that he did take the Bible seriously–but it was only the parts that he liked that he took seriously.

That’s not exactly being rooted and grounded in Scriptures.

Neither is simply randomly picking things out of the Bible as little inspirational quotes.  This too is dangerous.  There is the story about the guy who was looking through the Bible to find out God’s will for his life.  He flipped through the pages, closed his eyes and put his finger down.  The verse that his finger fell upon read, “And Judas went out and hanged himself.”  The guy thought, “That can’t be right.”  So he flipped through the pages once again, closed his eyes, and put his finger down.  This time the verse read, “Go and do likewise.”  The guy was thoroughly perplexed and knew this couldn’t be right, so he flipped through the pages one more time.  He closed his eyes, put his finger down, and read the verse.  This one said, “Whatever you are going to do, go and do it quickly.”

Okay, that’s a joke, maybe a really bad one, but there is a point to it.  The Bible is not simply meant to be a book of advice telling you how you should live.  Oh, many of us love that aspect of the Bible.  We love to pull out quotes that give us inspiration–that give us joy–that give us a sense of power and hope in our lives.  Some churches build their congregations on those sayings, and some of those churches do very, very well.

And why wouldn’t they? 

“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three.  And the greatest of these is love.” 

“But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” 

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” 

“If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.” 

“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?”

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Who isn’t inspired by such things?  Who doesn’t feel those statements deep within their soul?  They are heart warming. They are affirming.  They make us feel really, really good about ourselves.

So, what’s wrong with simply quoting these things over and over and over again?  What’s wrong with simply focusing on these quotes and others like them?  Well, as the great Bible Scholar Dwight Moody said, “The scriptures were not given for our information but for our transformation.”

And that, my brothers and sisters and neighbors is why a church must be deeply rooted in the scriptures.  That, my brothers and sisters and neighbors is why we must be deeply rooted in the scriptures.  The Bible, with everything that is in it leads us towards transformation–it leads us to become different; it challenges us in our status quo, makes us see that we fall far short of what we should be, and then gives us the avenue towards becoming the people God has intended us to be.  If we simply read the parts of the Bible that we like, we will never be challenged; we will never discover our sinfulness; we will never truly meet Jesus and find the fullness of His grace.

Consider this, my brothers and sisters and neighbors, the Bible consists of 66 books written by 40 authors over a span of 1500 years.  In nothing short of a miracle, those 40 authors over all those years were telling one consistent story–the story of how 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.  It is the story of how God could have condemned the world, but instead sent the Son to save it.  Nothing must be read outside of the context of that story.  Nothing must be omitted.  Nothing must be cast aside as superfluous.  This book is God’s revelation of Himself to us!

Last week, I told the parable of the blind men and the elephant.  Some of you were here and remember.  Others might not have been, so let me go through it once again.  A group of blind men stumble upon an elephant in the jungle.  They all want to figure out what the elephant is like, so they each touch a piece of the elephant.  Afterwards, as the men continue their travels, they begin arguing what the elephant is like.  One who touched the tail argues, “The elephant is like a rope, long and stringy.”  One who touched the torso says, “The elephant is like a wall, solid and strong.”  One who touched the tusk says, “The elephant is like a spear, long and with a sharp point.”  One who touched the leg says, “The elephant is like a tree stump, short and stout.”  And on and on it goes as the men argue with one another what the elephant is like.  As I said last week, this parable is usually used to talk about religion saying that each religion has part of the truth, but none has the full truth.  I also said, don’t get too comfortable with that conclusion–it’s easily refutable.

And for us as Christians, one of those refutations comes in what Pastor Kevin DeYoung said–the question he asked.  “What if the elephant could talk?”  What if God could talk?  What if we didn’t have to wonder about who God was and what He could do?  What if God could communicate with us? 

Well, the answer is: God did.  God communicated with us.  God spoke to the people of Israel.  God spoke as Jesus Christ.  The writers of the Bible were so infused with the Spirit of God as they wrote it was as if God Himself were communicating with us.  This book that we call the Bible is
nothing less than God’s revelation of Himself to you and to me and to the world. 

And so, the more and more we study the Bible, the more and more we know who God is.  The more and more we study the Bible, the more and more we understand who we are.  The more and more we study the Bible, the more and more we see that there is much more than information and trite sayings that make us feel good about ourselves.  No.  Instead, we are led to admit as St. Paul did in Romans chapter 3, that all–meaning everyone, including ourselves–all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  This is terrible news.  This is awful news.  We have not done what we should have done.  We have not become who we should have become. Yet...yet, the news does not stop there.  We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but we are now justified–made right; declared innocent–by grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God set forward as the sacrifice of atonement effective through faith.  God has acted through Jesus Christ to bring us into a right relationship with Him.  God has acted through and in Jesus Christ to bring us forgiveness and wholeness.  God has acted through and in Jesus to ensure that even though we die, we will live with our heavenly Father forever.  This is the good news!!  To quote Dr. David Jeremiah, “The Bible began with God, and it solves the human’s most pressing need: how to know God and be reconciled unto Him.” 

The Bible is God’s love letter to you.   A love letter that tells you how much He loves you and what He is willing to do to make things right between you and Him.  This letter is meant to transform your heart and soul so that you find joy in Christ.  It is a letter to be read over and over and over because the more you read it, the more deeply in love you fall; and the more and more Christ-like you become.  And if this is the goal of the Christian life, the church and we must be deeply rooted in the Bible.  Amen.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Mark #2: Building Up our Neighbor Spiritually

Today, we come to the second mark of the church presented in Romans chapter 15 verses 1-6.  Verse 2 reads, “Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.” 

On the surface, this looks to be rather simple.  Most world religions and philosophies teach that we should be kind and compassionate.  Most world religions and philosophies teach us to care for those in need and ease the needs of the poor and downtrodden.  Nearly every world religion and philosophy has some form of the teaching, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  So, we as Christians are supposed to be nice people.  We are supposed to be kind people. We are supposed to treat others with such niceness and kindness.  That’s it, right.  End of sermon.  Done.  Let’s call it a day.

You knew it wouldn’t be that simple, didn’t you?  The Greek wording of this sentence adds a little bit of nuance.  A better reading would be this: Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor spiritually.  One of the marks of the church that first falls deeply in love with Jesus is the deep desire to build up our neighbors spiritually.

Now, first off, let me say that this does not excuse us from helping those who are in need.  There is wisdom in the statement that it’s awful hard to hear someone saying, “God loves you,” when your stomach is rumbling; you’re cold and shivering, and you have no place to sleep.  Furthermore, Jesus is very, very clear that when we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned, we are feeding, clothing, and visiting him.  We must care for our neighbor’s physical needs, but we are called to care for our neighbor’s spiritual needs as well–to build up our neighbor spiritually.  This is where things can become complicated.

How do we build up our neighbor spiritually?  It’s easy to give someone something to eat when they are hungry.  It’s easy to give someone a drink when they are thirsty.  It’s easy to give someone clothing when they are naked.  It’s easy to visit someone when they are sick or in prison.  These needs are visible.  We can see them without difficulty.  But how do we build up our neighbor’s spirituality?  How do we help them grow in their relationship with God–and in particular grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ?  That’s not so easy, not so easy at all because we cannot see where people are at.  We cannot see if they even believe in God.  We cannot see how deeply they believe in Jesus Christ.  We don’t know where their faith is at; if they have faith at all; or even if they want to grow in their faith.  How can we begin to build up others spiritually if we cannot see where they are at?

Some of you may have heard the parable about the blind men and the elephant.  For those of you who haven’t let me tell it once more.  A group of blind men stumble upon an elephant in the jungle.  They all want to figure out what the elephant is like, so they each touch a piece of the elephant.  Afterwards, as the men continue their travels, they begin arguing what the elephant is like.  One who touched the tail argues, “The elephant is like a rope, long and stringy.”  One who touched the torso says, “The elephant is like a wall, solid and strong.”  One who touched the tusk says, “The elephant is like a spear, long and with a sharp point.”  One who touched the leg says, “The elephant is like a tree stump, short and stout.”  And on and on it goes as the men argue with one another what the elephant is like.  Now, this parable is usually used to talk about religion saying that each religion has part of the truth, but none has the full truth.  Don’t get too comfortable with that conclusion–it’s easily refutable.

But I don’t want to use that conclusion today.  What I would like to comment on is that oftentimes we do such things with one another when it comes to the faith life of another person.  We observe from afar.  We see someone going to church, and we assume that their faith is very strong and that they are a Christian.  We observe someone staying home every Sunday, and we infer that they have no faith.  We observe someone covered with tattoos and body piercings, and we think they are an atheist.  We observe someone clean cut and wearing a suit on Sunday morning, and we assume they are a deacon in a congregation.  Oh, this is just a short list.  We could add many other observations.  And oftentimes, we base our conclusions on just these observations.  Meanwhile, others make different observations and come to different conclusions.  Then, we end up like all of those blind men arguing on the roadside.

But here is a revolutionary thought–it’s not mine.  I actually heard a pastor by the name of Kevin DeYoung use it.  What if the elephant could talk?  What if the elephant could express itself?  What if the elephant had the capability of describing itself to you and telling you exactly what it was like?  How would that change the parable?

Well, if you refused to talk to the elephant, it wouldn’t change things much at all.  You’d still be left guessing, but if the elephant could talk, and you actually engaged the elephant, you might find out some very, very interesting things.  You might find out a whole lot more than you ever thought you knew. 

Now, I am certainly not trying to call our neighbors elephants.  God forbid!  That might cause a bit of a stir, but what I am suggesting, rather strongly, that in order to truly build up our neighbors spiritually, we have to get to know our neighbors.  I mean, really get to know our neighbors.  This isn’t a superficial, “Hey how are you?” kind of knowing.  This isn’t a, “I know your name, your address, and your phone number kind of relationship.”  This is an engagement so that we come to know the height, depth, and length of our neighbor’s relationship with God or lack of it.  For if we don’t know about our neighbor’s relationship with God, how can we even begin to build it up?

The answer is, “We can’t.”  Before I continue just a moment, let me please dispel one thing that sometimes arises at this point.  Sometimes, good intentioned people say, “But pastor, isn’t the church supposed to worry about growing the faith of its members?”  The answer to that is absolutely, positively yes!!  Indeed, the church is here to help the faith of its members grow, but let me add this note–Paul here is very intentional in his wording.  He uses the term neighbors after a long stretch of using the word brothers.  He changes the terminology because for him, brothers means fellow Christians.  He intentionally indicates here that as your faith grows and deepens, you no longer just look to your own growth and building up; you no longer just look to the building up of your fellow Christians, you look outside yourself and outside your church into your community to help others come into a relationship with Jesus Christ and grow into that relationship.

And so, the mark of a church that is growing in its relationship with Jesus Christ is that its members seek out people in the community; seeks out their neighbors to get to know them; to learn about them; to understand them as people; to come to love and cherish their relationship, and then to lead them to Jesus Christ or help them deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ.

I am reminded about the story of two literary giants.  Perhaps you have heard their names: J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis.  Tolkein wrote The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.  C.S. Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, and a host of other well known Christian books.  What you may not know is that C.S. Lewis was originally an atheist.  He railed against Christianity and called it a myth like any Norse mythology.  False.  Untrue.  For five years, J.R.R. Tolkein talked with his friend C.S. Lewis.  For five years, Tolkein got to know Lewis; ate with him; drank with him; engaged him with conversation.  Then, on September 19, 1931, Lewis converted from atheism to theism.  Lewis came to believe in God.  But, Lewis did not convert to Christianity.  It was not until two years later that while staying up past 3 a.m. with Tolkein and another professor that C.S. Lewis came to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of the world.  For you mathematicians, you know that this took seven years.  Seven years of investing in a friend.  Of engaging.  Of questioning.  Of not becoming offended. Of caring.  Of genuine concern for the building up of the neighbor.

The question becomes, are we as a church; are we as individual Christians willing to invest so much time?  Are we willing to grow in our faith so that we can help others grow over such a long time?  Are we willing to be long term people in a short term world?  Are we willing to do what it takes to really and truly get to know our neighbors, understand where they are coming from, and truly seek their coming to know Jesus as Lord and Savior?  Will we be willing to invest in our neighbors like Jesus invested in us and continues to invest in us to help us grow?

For Jesus sought to win our hearts by dying for us when we least deserved it.  He did not coerce us with fear or anger, but with grace, mercy, and forgiveness.  Yes, He confronted us with our sin, but he did not hold that sin against us.  Instead, He took that sin upon Himself and paid the price for those sins by dying on the cross and facing hell for us.  He then showered us with hope as He showed us what awaits for us when we trust in Him–resurrection and the reversal of all evil.  And now, He walks with us daily living enthroned upon our hearts whispering to us of his love; whispering to us of his grace; whispering to us his guidance and continued support; whispering to us that no matter what we face in life, He will see us through and bring us to something glorious–the Kingdom of God.  It is this love that we are called to share.  It is this love that we are called to pass on to our neighbor.  It is this love that will build our neighbor up.  Amen.

Monday, January 15, 2018

A Christ-Centered Church, "Dilly dilly!"

Today, I am beginning a sermon series titled “Five Marks of the Church” based on Romans chapter 15 verses 1-6.  We read the text earlier, and within it, we see five marks of the church and of the individual Christian.  The text presents them in this order: 1) Outward focused on building up our neighbor.  2) Christ centered. 3) Deeply rooted in the Bible. 4) Living in harmony.  And 5) Doing everything for God’s glory.

This morning, I am going to concentrate on the most important of these marks because it forms the foundation of all that is to come.  It forms the foundation of the church itself.  It is the one mark that is above all other marks: a church must be Christ centered.

Now, what does Christ centered mean?  Let me begin answering this question by turning to those sages of wisdom in advertizing: Bud Light.  For those of you who have heard about or who heard my Christmas Eve sermon, you know that I raised an empty bottle of Bud Light and spoke of the first “Dilly Dilly” commercial.  During that snippet of the sermon, I discovered that while it is nearly impossible to get Lutherans to say “Amen” in a sermon, some will gladly say, “Dilly Dilly!”  It was quite the experience.  But, the thing is, Bud Light did not stop with one commercial, there have been several others that have been done for this campaign, and one of them is very pertinent to the discussion of what it means to be Christ centered.  The commercial that I am speaking of is the one titled, “Wizard.”  How many of you have seen it?

This commercial begins in the king’s throne room.  A large crowd has gathered to watch a wizard perform his magic.  The wizard points his staff at a chair, and poof!, the chair becomes a case of Bud Light!

The king responds, “Well done, wizard!  You are a true friend of the crown!” And holding up his bottle of Bud Light, the king says, “Dilly, dilly!”

The wizard bows as the rest of the crowd raises their bottles and resoundingly responds, “Dilly dilly!”

The wizard then says, “What would you have me do now, your majesty?”

The queen points her finger, and the king says, “Turn that into Bud Light.”

The wizard says, “Okay,” as he points his staff at a candle stand.

Poof!  The crowd gasps as it turns into several stacked cases of Bud Light with a single bottle on top.

The king then says, “Now, turn that statue into Bud Light!”

The wizard then looks at the king and says, “You know, your highness, I can do other things.  I can put a curse on your enemies.  I can make you immortal!”

The king looks at his queen for just a second and then responds, “Yeah, no, just the Bud Light thing.”

The wizard, with a bit of a frustrated look, nods his head, points his staff, and the statue turns into a bunch of cases of Bud Light.

A member of the crowd then raises his bottle and says, “Dilly dilly!”

And everyone else says, “Dilly dilly!!”

When I first saw this commercial, I laughed rather heartily and loudly!  Everyone knows, and I mean everyone knows that the power to put a curse on one’s enemies or to grant immortality is tremendously better than beer!  Everyone get that.  Everyone understands that.  And yet, yet, this king is so consumed and focused on Bud Light, that he would give up immortality to see a statue turned into his favorite beer.  It makes for brilliant advertizing!!

And it makes for brilliant advertizing because it picks up on something in human nature–our own willingness to settle for far less and desire things that are of far less value.  What do I mean by that?  Well, I would like to use the example of the church to begin with.  Throughout my years, I have heard numerous reasons that people have given to invite people to come to church.  I have heard numerous reasons for the church to want to get members.  Some of them are good.  Some, not so much.

Here’s one of the not so much ones: the church needs to get members to keep the lights on and the bills paid.  That’s really not a good reason to have people join the church–that’s simply about survival, but there are congregations that actually function with this mentality.

Some folks invite people to come to church to hear a particular pastor.  “Our pastor preaches fantastic sermons, you should come and hear him or her!”  This is an okay reason, but in the long run, we pastors will always disappoint.  We’re human.  We mess up.  We retire.  We leave for other congregations.  Having a church centered on a pastor is really not the best of ideas. Because as one pastor said in a sermon, “We are not here to follow the messenger, we are here to follow the message.”

Here’s a better reason: you should join a church because the church provides a place of community.  We are social creatures, there is no doubt about that.  We need one another as well as needing to be individuals.  The church is a place where you can find community.  Not a bad thing.

Here’s another good reason: you should join a church because you can work together with others for justice and peace.  The world is full of injustice.  The world is full of division and hatred.  The church provides an avenue where people can come together to challenge the status quo and show a different way of living.  That’s a good thing!

Here’s a final one: you should go to church because you will be encouraged to be a better person.  You will be taught right and wrong.  You will be given examples of people who lived a good life, and you will receive encouragement to go and do likewise.

Now, these are just a few reasons, and the list is not exhaustive.  Most of these things are good–except a couple, and there is nothing wrong with such things.  But let me now offer you the most important reason for coming to church.  Let me now offer you the most important thing that the church offers, and let’s see how it compares with the things that I have just listed.  The church is here to bring people Jesus.  The church is here to give people the Gospel–the Good news of what Jesus has done for them in His death and resurrection–so that Jesus may come into their hearts and they may be filled with the Spirit of God.

How does that compare with all of those other things?  Here, in this hand, you have all of those things, and here in this other hand, you have Jesus Himself, in all of His glory, in all His divinity.  You have Jesus who loved you with an unimaginable love; who stretched out His arms and died for you when you least deserved it.  You have the God who took your sin upon himself; who took your place on the cross; who suffered what you should have suffered; and who gave you what He earned–eternal life; the endless love of the Heavenly Father; the knowledge that you no longer have to look to any other thing for your value and self-worth.  You have Jesus who shines light into the darkness; who lives in you and clothes you with Himself; who gives you the everlasting promises that no matter what may befall you–no matter what trial you may undergo, He is waiting to bring you through it and transform whatever wrong into goodness and light.  Can anything else compare?  Can anything else even come close?  Bud Light or immortality; is there even a choice?  Jesus or all that other stuff, is there even a choice?

The greatest and most important mark of any church is that it is Christ centered.  Everything that church does points to Jesus.  Everything that occurs is done with the mind set of helping others see who Jesus is and what Jesus has done for the world because Jesus is the greatest treasure that we could ever have.

But, there is a catch of sorts.  I was listening to a sermon by a pastor in Austin, TX by the name of Matt Carter.  I was struck by something he said in that sermon.  He said, “We will never be a Christ centered church until we are full of Christ centered people.  We will never be a Christ centered church until Jesus is all of our first love.”  When I heard that statement, I knew it was the truth.  I knew that if the Church is to be Christ centered, its pastor must be Christ-centered and its people must be Christ centered.  We must have Christ as our first love.  We must have experienced His grace and His mercy in our lives.  We must have found ourselves at the foot of the cross thanking Him for what He has done for us by dying for us and making us right with God the Father.  We must have found the true treasure of Jesus and have had Him claim us as His own.

Have you been grasped by the love of Jesus?  Does He sit enthroned in your heart?  Have you found the endless love, peace, and joy that He can bring?  Today, Jesus looks at you and says, “I will give myself to you.  I will pour myself into you and into your heart.  I will never let you down.”  Will we open our hearts to him, or will we say, “Yeah, no, just the Bud Light thing.  Yeah, no, just the worldly thing.  Yeah, no just the community thing.  Yeah, no just the whatever thing.”?  If we are to be a Christ centered Church, let us be Christ centered people and with the great hymn writer, let us also sing:

Give me Jesus.
Give me Jesus.
You can have all of the rest.
Give me Jesus.  Amen.