Wake up and smell the coffee!
Romans 13: Be up and awake to what God is doing!
I’m chest deep in my life in the church. I’m a pastor so I have a love and responsibility for the flock I shepherd. Beyond that, I’m a denominational pastor so I have connections to maintain, meetings to attend, reports to do. I’m okay with it all. I pastor a fine congregation and I’m proud of my denominational ties. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Still, I have to be careful that programs and meetings and traditions don’t own me. Sometimes, I need to be reminded that God doesn’t exist to help me plan the fall program of the church and he isn’t waiting on the denomination to tell him what’s next. In fact, sometimes God sees trends and opportunities that aren’t even on my radar screen. I need to be careful that my religious life isn’t all about me performing as God sits in the audience wondering what I’ll do next. I belong, not to my local congregation or the denomination or even the Church universal, but to the Lord. I’m reminded of all that today in the words of the Apostle. What’s God doing right now and how does he want me to be part of it? That’s how the Church at large needs to operate. This is how the local church is to think. It’s how I’m to live my life.
Take Away: Don’t get so immersed in church culture that you fail to maintain contact with the Lord.
Acts 18: Paul had finally had it with them and gave it up as a bad job.
Paul spends a lot of time in Corinth, likely over two years. In the beginning he focuses his ministry on the Jews living there and has some success. However, others become more and more entrenched in their rejection of his message. At some point he decides there are more productive ways to minister in the Name of Jesus and ends up next door to the Jews’ meeting place at the home of Titius Justus. There Paul sets up shop for at least 18 months, preaching about Jesus and establishing a church in Corinth. After working primarily with the Jews Paul realizes that continuing to do so is not a profitable use of his time and energy. In his case, there’s a better place right next door. How often do we get so locked into a certain way and place that we continue to try to ride a horse that’s long dead? As the truism goes: “when the horse is dead it’s time to dismount.” Some churches are still trying to do things the way they were done in 1950 and they wonder why what worked so well then no longer packs any punch today. They blame others who aren’t on board for not being spiritual enough or yield to living in a defeated shadow of yesterday. Paul decides that continuing to do what he has been doing is no longer effective so he changes his approach, opening the way for a long and productive ministry. His message remains the same, but his method is upgraded. The mission is permanent but the method is fluid.
Take Away: We must not confuse the message with some transitory method.
The church calendar of events
Zechariah 7: You’re interested in religion, I’m interested in you.
For seventy years the people of Israel have observed an annual day of mourning in remembrance of the fall of Jerusalem. Now, God’s promise of restoration has been fulfilled and many have returned to their homeland. A delegation of Jews arrives to ask whether or not that day of mourning should be continued. A committee is formed to make a decision and Zechariah has a word from the Lord for them. The Almighty says that the annual observance wasn’t for his sake but for theirs. If they want to look to the past, they need to look to the unchanging message of God’s messengers through the years. When all’s said and done, the Lord tells them, its people and not God who get all worked up over religious traditions. His concern is for people and not about annual fasts and feasts. That, my friends, is a terrific reminder for church folks. Having annual events isn’t a bad thing but it’s not the main thing. God cares about people. The Lord’s all for it if a yearly homecoming celebration helps us minister to people. If it’s an inward-focused, remembering-the-good-old-days event, well, the Lord sees it as a waste of time. How we go about doing church matters to God, but his concerns are often considerably different than are ours.
Take Away: The Lord cares about people a lot more than he cares about our church calendars.
Worshiping to please the right Person
Amos 5: When was the last time you sang to me?
Toward the end of Amos 5 the Lord challenges almost everything about their church services. He says he can’t stand their meetings, conferences, and conventions. He washes his hands of their projects and goals and he says he can’t stand their singing which is more focused on what they like than on him. This message may be buried deep in the Minor Prophets but it should be right at the top of our concerns as Christians who go to church each Sunday. It isn’t that their services and conferences should be discontinued and it isn’t that their projects aren’t worthwhile. Also, this is no call to change the music style of the church (whatever it may be). It is, though, a powerful reminder of what (better stated, “Who”) it’s all about. The Lord says that what they’re doing is worthless, not because it’s worthless activity, but because they’re ignoring him and his purposes for their lives. God states, “Do you know what I want? I want justice – oceans of it. I want fairness – rivers of it. That’s all I want.” If I refuse God’s priority of caring for the poor, of helping the one who’s down and out then God will refuse my acts of worship. Maybe this passage needs to be read before we have our church planning meetings!
Take Away: If we’re missing the Lord’s priorities for the church the other things we do aren’t worth much.
Weeping with those who weep
Joel 1: Get them into God’s Sanctuary for serious prayer to God.
The event that drives Joel’s sermon is a natural disaster. A swarm of millions and millions of locusts have devastated the country. Every green thing has been stripped bare. The result is that famine is most certainly coming to the land. What are they going to do now? One thing Joel calls for is for people to take their fear and pain to the Lord. He says to the priests, “You, who lead people in worship, lead them in lament.” This is no time for empty promises that everything will be okay. Rather, this is a time for fasting and crying out to God. Joel takes his own advice and a few lines later he prays, “God! I pray, I cry out to you!” Today, I find this passage to be frighteningly instructive. It’s quite likely that our version of the disaster of Joel’s day will come. What is the church to do when a hurricane or earthquake or tornado sweeps through the community destroying lives and property? Joel says this is a time for pastors and other leaders to lead the community in lament; a time for “weeping with those who weep.” I’m not ignoring the good that can be done in practical ways, but I’m reminded here that the church isn’t to just “put on a happy face.” It’s okay, and even necessary, for God’s people to lead the way in crying out to God, declaring the pain and suffering of a community in the face of disaster.
Take Away: Sometimes it’s the role of the people of the Lord to lead the way in crying out to God.
Preachers and listeners
Ezekiel 33: They love to hear you talk, but nothing comes out of it.
They’ve gotten used to Ezekiel. For years he’s preached his sermons and acted out various illustrations for them. His words are seldom encouraging, in fact, they’re down right condemning. Beyond that all his approaches to basically the same sermon have become to them like well-worn clothes: nothing to get excited about, but comfortable. These days, it isn’t unusual for folks to show up at Ezekiel’s house on a summer evening just to see what Ezekiel has up his sleeve today. They aren’t interested in responding to his message but they do find his rants somewhat entertaining. As a Sunday preacher I have to say that this passage is chilling to me. The folks at my church have also heard my sermons for a long time now. Sometimes I fear that they’re so used to me that, as it was in Ezekiel’s day, “they love to hear you talk, but nothing comes out of it.” It’s interesting how small things become big things as I think about stuff like this. For instance, a couple of weeks ago I suggested folks take a particular course of action. Yesterday I was handed something someone had done as a direct result of that sermon. I can’t tell you how encouraging that is to me. It’s also humbling. I’m flattered that anyone would come to my church and listen to me preach my sermons week after week. I’m encouraged that some folks actually take what I say to heart and literally respond by doing something they wouldn’t have done otherwise. I’m humbled that I have the opportunity to touch lives each week in this way, realizing that in myself I have nothing to offer. If anything “comes out of it” it will take cooperation with God by both preacher and listeners.
Take Away: Preaching must be much more than entertaining.
Which church would you attend?
Jeremiah 23: They preach…their “Nothing Bad Will Ever Happen to You” sermon.
Jeremiah isn’t the only preacher of his generation. In fact, he has plenty of competition from preachers who enjoy large followings and enthusiastic support. Folks love their positive, uplifting, and encouraging sermons. No doubt, these preachers find some really good texts that proclaim God’s love for and protection of his people. The problem is that their sermons are, in Jeremiah’s words, just so much “hot air.” The people in their congregations need to repent and return to God. The truth is that everything’s not going to turn out fine and bad things are coming, whether or not these preachers will admit it. Can’t you imagine a family getting ready to go to worship services? “Where are we going to church today, dear?” the wife asks. “I don’t know. Jeremiah’s preaching nearby, but you know he specializes in telling it like it is. I hear that the ‘Things are Great and Getting Better’ church has big things planned for today and they have a terrific praise band. Shall we go there?” So, where would I go to church? How entertainment oriented am I when it comes to worship? I’m not suggesting that “gloom and doom” is always God’s message while “happiness and security” is always just hot air. Still, I see here a reminder that there’s more to worship than a main course of an entertaining sermon with large helping of great music on the side.
Take Away: Sometimes God-directed preaching isn’t all that fun to hear.
Taking our religion outside
Proverbs 21: Clean living before God and justice with our neighbors mean far more to God than religious performance.
I love the church and owe a great deal to it. I was raised in church and most of the big events of my life are associated with it. When properly defined, I believe “religious performance” matters. That is, I think church attendance and activities are important. However, the measure of my religion is more than how I spend an hour or two on Sunday mornings. It includes how I live the rest of the week. This proverb doesn’t diminish the importance of religious matters but it does underscore the importance of taking my faith out of the church and living it in the rest of my life. Aside from extraordinary circumstances religion without the church is destined to become shallow and self-focused. However, religion that stays in the church displeases God and self-deceptive.
Take Away: Religion is best practiced out in the real world, outside the church.
Not one size fits all
Revelation 3: The people I love, I call to account – prod and correct and guide so that they’ll live at their best.
The message of the Lord to each of the last three churches is far from uniform. Two of these churches are in trouble. The third is doing quite well. One of the two that is failing on the surface looks quite healthy. It’s a church that’s operating an aggressive program with lots of meetings and activities – a full calendar. The other church that’s failing believes in moderation. They feel they’re successful and have earned a respite. Sorry to say, that attitude has caused them to take a bit of a break from God too. The result is a stern warning from Jesus. The third church, though, has been through some tough times. Many have fallen away leaving a small, but dedicated group that’s been tested in painful ways. Through it all they kept the Word of the Lord with “passionate patience.” In other words, their love for the Lord has done nothing but increase even as they’ve patiently worked through some of the hardest days of their lives. The Lord’s pleased with them and promises to open doors for them and to vindicate them and to keep them safe. As I read about these three churches my takeaway today isn’t that it’s a bad thing for a church to have an aggressive program or for church and people to take a breather once in a while. I don’t come away thinking that to be small and poor is to be more spiritual. Frankly, I’ve been around a few groups that were small and poor and proud of it. What does come to mind is that there are challenges to be found in just about every situation. A busy, successful church needs to be careful not to mistake what it does for Jesus for a vital, living relationship with him. A church that has had some success needs to be careful to keep its priorities straight. To personalize this farther, I need to remember that it’s the same for individuals. The satisfied, fulfilled Christian life isn’t defined by past success or current business for the Lord. It’s all about living in a daily, connected relationship with him.
Take Away: My spiritual life isn’t defined by what I’ve done or am doing for the Lord. Rather, it’s all about my living in a current, abiding relationship with him.