Sermon: Rooted In The Word
Scripture: Ephesians 4:11-24
Date: January 18, 2015
There is hardly a day that goes by that I don’t receive an offer in the mail, by email, a link to a website or Facebook page touting some study or program that claims to know a sure fire way to reach the thousands of people in our community that are unchurched, or the newest term, dechurched. For just $99.95, I can know the secret too. The bookshelves at the Christian Bookstores are filled with books on the subject. It can be quite mind boggling, especially if your mind is like mine and it doesn’t take much to boggle it in the first place. I can’t help but think that if these folks are really concerned with reaching unchurched people and they have discovered a sure fire way to do it, that they probably wouldn’t charge for it. They would want everyone to know it.
The thing is that everyone advocates a slightly different approach. Some say that we need to worship in a whole new way. Throw out the hymnals entirely and replace the organ with guitars and drums, while others say we need to go back to a more formal style of worship. Some say people want to participate more in the service, but others say people would rather not participate. People come to be ministered to. Some say that longer sermons are the way to go. Some preachers in fast growing churches preach for 45-50 minutes. (See you thought you had it bad.) While others say that short sermons, 10 minutes at the most, are what people want. Some churches have completely eliminated the sermon time altogether. (I thought I heard an amen. Don’t let your hopes run away with you.) Some say that we need to remove all religious symbols. No crosses. No stain glassed windows. Because people want to go to church but not know they are in church. While others say that people come to church with a preconceived notion of what it ought to look like and are disappointed if it’s not like they remember or perceive it to be. Some say it’s not worship at all that draws people to church, but rather the key is to give everyone the opportunity to serve others. As we were seeking to discern these goals, we had a great deal of conversation around what brings people to church and encourages them to stay.
Some time ago George Barna, who is the Christian equivalent to George Gallup, did some extensive polling of those who are not a part of the church and found out some interesting things. For instance, he learned that:
* 75% of the unchurched believe that the miracles in the Bible actually took place and that Jesus was born of a virgin.
* 3/4 believe that God helps those who help themselves.
* 3/4 believe that the Bible is the literal word of God.
*And that same number believes that all of the religious groups of the world teach the same principles.
*Only 1/4 believe that Satan is a living being.
*Three out of four of those who are unchurched own a Bible but only 3% read it daily.
*Seven out of 10 believe that God created the universe but less than half of those believe that God still rules the universe today.
*Two out of 10 believe that God refers to a higher state of consciousness.
*One out of 10 believe that God is simply the full realization of human potential.
*Six percent believe that everyone is God, while another six percent believe that there are many different Gods.
*Eight percent do not believe in God at all.
*Twenty five percent say that sin is an outdated concept and will not effect their ultimate destiny.
*Most believe that one can earn their way into Heaven through good works.
With such a wide range of beliefs, it’s no wonder that there are so many approaches to reaching the unchurched. It leaves us with the question of what is a church supposed to do to reach this generation of people. That’s the underlying issue for many who write books and conduct workshops. How can the church be relevant to the large unchurched population in our society today? Let me suggest that might be the wrong question to be asking, that perhaps the church is not called to be relevant, but rather is called to be faithful. Now let me explain what I mean by that. It seems to me that Jesus established His church in an effort to lift people to something greater than mere cultural relevance. To be in essence counter cultural. And, if we are not careful, our efforts to be relevant in today’s world will lead the church to accept something much less then God imagines and hopes the church will be.
Bob Vernon is a former police chief in Los Angeles turned columnist. He advances the theory of parallel lines in comparing the church with culture. He writes that the church should be traveling in a plain that is a little higher than the world and that as the church rises toward perfection, it should be pulling society to a higher level that is parallel to it. But instead, too often the opposite has been true. As the moral and spiritual plane of society has declined, the church has maintained its parallel plane and in doing so has compromised its beliefs to try and conform to culture, to try and be relevant.
I believe that Jesus sought to bring the faithful to an ever-higher plane. And so, He swept the practitioners of relevant religion out of the Temple, challenged the priests and the Pharisees, and did nothing to resist the secular authority of Rome. Instead, He proclaimed God’s word and He modeled the love of God in everything He did. He resisted those who called on Him to be relevant in first century Jewish and Roman society.
I wonder some times as I survey the book shelves and read the books which seek to make the church relevant in today’s society, what Jesus would do if he walked into a Christian bookstore today. I suspect He might push all of those books from the shelves and put in their place, just one book. The Bible. The word of God. Because as well meaning as those are who offer their vision, their dream, who imagine what the church of Jesus Christ should be in today’s world, there is really only one dream, one vision, one imagination that counts. And that is what God imagines for the church.
Everything that the church ought to be is contained in God’s word. Last week, we talked about inheriting the church as heirs of God, which is a great blessing and a great responsibility. This morning, I want to continue to think about when God imagines the kind of church He would like St. Luke to be, what might that look like.
Let’s look again at what Paul writes to the Ephesians.
Read Ephesians 4:11-24
Speaking the truth in love, (we) may grow up in all things into Him who is the head — Jesus Christ.
I believe that God imagines a church that believes the truth without hesitation and qualification. And where do we find that truth. It is God’s word. Look at our value statements. We must be a church that believes and values the word of God. I read about a church that was preparing to relocate into a new and much larger facility and before the flooring was laid, and I think you might have done this when the Life Center was built, the staff of the church was invited to come into the new building and take markers and write their favorite scripture on the concrete floor. Then when the carpet and tile was laid, it would be placed on a foundation of God’s word. The pastor said that word got out and soon many of the church members began to show up at all hours to write scripture passages on the unfinished floor. In the sanctuary, they recorded scriptures about preaching the word of God and worship. In the nursery, they wrote: ‘let the little children come to me for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” In the education building they wrote: “Study to show yourself approved unto God.” He said that one young single woman who was on staff wrote on the floor of what was to be her office: “It is not good for man to be alone.” Soon there were hundreds of people coming to the new building to write scriptures on the floors. One of the small groups in the church had volunteered to help clean the building and prepare it for the finishing touches. As they were leaving one Saturday, they decided that they would find a room and write a scripture passage on the floor. They found a room that had nothing written on the floor and one person suggested that they write that passage about where two or three are gathered, there I am. “What’s the scripture reference?”, someone said. “Matthew 18:28”, a member of the group replied. They left and went out to eat together. While they were eating, one of the members brought his Bible in from the car to double check the reference. “Oh no,” he said, “it’s Matthew 18:20 not 18:28.” And then someone asked the obvious question, “What’s 18:28?”“It reads, “when the servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him, “Pay back what you owe me”, he demanded.”
That room became the financial office for the church and they built a several million dollar facility without going into debt. (Ok. I made up that last part.) The church must be built on God’s truth. Which means not only must we believe the truth, but first we must know the truth. When George Barna did his research concerning unchurched people, he also polled people who were involved in the church. He discovered that there wasn’t much difference between the churched people and the unchurched. For instance, concerning reading the Bible, he discovered that only 3% of the unchurched read the Bible daily. He also discovered that only 17% of those in the church read the Bible daily.
Jesus said, “know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” But most of us are imprisoned in a secular world, because we do not know the truth. We are quick to embrace things that sound like the truth, but aren’t.
Last year marked the 15th anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. I was reading some articles that were written as part of the observance. I read one that said in the aftermath of the Columbine tragedy in which 13 people were killed by two students at their school, Larry King did a show in which he interviewed Vice President Gore and a Christian minister about the tragedy. He asked them why Americans were so attracted to violence. Vice President Gore responded, “It’s our evolutionary heritage. It’s the nature of tooth and claw.” The minister said that it was a self-esteem problem. “We just need to build up the kids self esteem. It doesn’t matter what religion you are; just tell the kids they’re good and wonderful and beautiful.” Both of those sounded like plausible answers, but they were wrong. Bob Russell who was pastor of South East Christian Church in Louisville at the time, in commenting on these responses wrote: It’s true that kids need to be loved. But they are not just good and wonderful; they are sinners — as all of us are. Youth need to be told the truth — that there is an all powerful God in the universe to whom we will some day give an account; that there is a standard of right and wrong; that we have all violated that standard; and that unless we repent and trust in Christ, we face the wrath of God.
Earlier I said that Barna’s research indicated that those outside of the church believed in the existence of sin, but do not believe that it has an effect on an individual’s destiny. That plays out in our society all the time. Think about how many professional athletes get in trouble and most of the time it blows over and people continue to admire them and lift them up as role models. Remember a few years ago, the basketball player Kobe Bryant came to be embroiled in scandal. He was charged with sexually assaulting a nineteen-year-old woman. In his news conference following the aftermath of charges filed against him, with his wife at his side, Bryant admitted having adulterous relations with the woman, but he said he did not assault her. “I made a mistake,” he said. In the days following, there were interviews with people saying what a good guy Bryant was and people started to dig up things on the woman. Soon it all blew over and Kobe Bryant resumed his career and remains one of the most revered stars in the NBA. But friends, Kobe Bryant did not just make a mistake. Having a relationship outside of marriage is a sin. And the world may be willing to look the other way when people have extramarital affairs but God does not. All of us are accountable for our sin and the church must stand for that truth. Charles Colson, the Watergate conspirator that was saved in prison and became a leading voice in Christian circles once wrote that the number one question in our society today is this: Is there any absolute truth? The answer from the church must be yes, and it’s found in the word of God.
The truth is that we are all sinners in need of the grace and forgiveness of God.
The truth is that there will be a day when all of us will stand before the judgment throne of God and be called into account for our lives.
And the truth is that through His grace and love, Jesus himself will be our advocate on that day. If we have claimed Him in life, He will claim us in death.
And the truth is that Jesus is the only path to salvation.
A minister tells of speaking to a group of high school youth about the basic tenants of the Christian faith and when he was finished he asked if there were any questions. One of the young people stood up and said, I used to be a Christian, but I’m not anymore. I just can’t accept a religion that tries to claim it’s the only true one. And the pastor replied, “Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me.’ Either he was telling the truth, or He wasn’t. Yes, it’s exclusive, but that’s what He claimed. I’d invite you to search the Scriptures and the historical evidence to see if Jesus’ claims were valid. If He was speaking the truth, we’d better follow Him.”
Now I agree with that statement, except when it comes to the issue of exclusivity. Because, although Jesus said He was the Way, He did not limit those who could follow Him. He invited everyone to follow. The church must stand for the truth or it will not stand at all. And the truth is found in the Word of God. The Ten Commandments. The teachings of Jesus. We believe in the inspiration of scripture, God as the creator of life, the sanctity of life, the deity of Jesus, personal holiness, and Jesus as the way of salvation through faith and grace. These are the absolutes by which we must live our lives. They are given to us by God, in His word. The world would have us compromise those absolutes so we can be relevant in today’s world, but we must resist the temptation to do so.
So I want to leave you with two thoughts. The first is that when the church stands for truth it will be opposed. Jesus himself said: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Secondly, God’s truth does not stand alone. It must be accompanied by grace. We cannot believe in sin without believing that God desires to forgive us of our sin. Paul admonishes the Ephesians to “speak the truth in love” to a population that is as diverse as ours is today. Ephesus was at a crossroads, a melding of cultures. Built by the Greeks. Colonized by the Romans. Popular with the Jews. It was a city with many sinful distractions and offering many paths to enlightenment. How bold of Paul to assert that there is only one Lord, one Spirit, one truth. But by doing so, Paul does not mean to exclude anyone, as some have claimed, but rather to embrace all “in love,” because the truth is not exclusive to us in the church. It is for all people because God’s truth does not condemn us, it sets us free. It does not convict us without offering pardon. It does not come to us unless attached to God’s great love, and mercy and grace. It does not call us from this world without offering a world that is so much greater. God imagines a church that proclaims the whole truth and nothing but the truth. That’s what God imagines for St. Luke. And we must not settle for anything less than that.
Now, how does that relate to our goals? Here’s the thing. Goals without underlying values are worldly goals and not Godly goals. And faith without truth is nothing but empty faith. If we compromise on the truth in order to build the church, it will eventually crumble. Most of these goals seek to involve more people in the life of the church. Disciple making. To incorporate 300 new people in the ministry of the church, to have 400 new persons come to worship with us, and to retain all those who join the church and to have more public professions of Christ, we’re going to need to embrace some change in how we go about ministry. Embrace change but not embrace compromising on truth. We will need to offer different kinds of worship experiences. We will need to make the goal of our outreach not just serving people but embracing those we serve. We may need to rely not so much on people coming to us to grow the church but do more to encounter them where they live. We may need to figure out new ways to communicate the truth, to introduce Jesus Christ in every life. Scripture tells us that God created us with the desire to live in truth and that Jesus came into the world to be truth and that if we embrace Him, we embrace the truth. And so as we seek the imagination of God for the church, we need to practice the disciplines that we say that we value. Studying and knowing the word of God, prayer, worship, service. And not just practice them, these values need to become who we are. If we do that, if the life of the church becomes a witness to the Life of Christ in everything that we do, then these goals will become a reality. After last weeks message, some of you came to me and said, we’re ready, where do we start. It starts right here. Jesus said, Know the Truth and the Truth will set you free. That’s what God imagines for our church. And speaking the Truth in Love we will grow in all things in Him who is the head – Jesus Christ.