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.
Hebrews 10: Not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on.
All the heavy lifting to provide my salvation has already been done by Jesus. It’s his obedience to the cross that’s opened a new, living way to God. It’s his blood that’s been shed, providing the final, ultimate sacrifice. Now, the way to God is opened and I have sure, absolute promises upon which to take my stand. So, that’s what I do. I respond in belief and then do all I can to nurture that hope I’ve been so graciously given. One of the ways I do that, according to the writer of Hebrews, is to worship with fellow believers. In spite of the fact that some folks don’t think it is necessary or worth the time, I’m to see it as a valuable component of the life of faith. As part of a worshiping community my connection to Jesus is strengthened, my understanding of the things of God is deepened, and opportunities for serving the Lord are provided. Some may think they know better or that they have bigger fish to fry. I see it as one of several ways in which I more firmly grasp my hold on the things of God. After all, Jesus has already done the heavy lifting here. My being faithful to his Church and all the other disciplines of the Christian life is nothing in comparison to his bleeding and dying on the cross.
Take Away: Thank the Lord for the gift of the Church, the Body of Christ.
It’s all about Jesus
Hebrews 3: Take a good hard look at Jesus. He’s the centerpiece of everything we believe.
I have but a vague idea of what church was like for the original readers of this letter. Even if I can’t hear what’s being said I can walk into nearly any Christian worship event today and recognize elements I identify as “Christian.” Could I do the same if I found myself back in 50 A.D.? It’s a good question but I don’t have a good answer. How much of what we do is at the core of Christianity? Is preaching or singing or receiving the offering at the core? The writer of Hebrews reminds me today that Christianity is all about Christ. That must be the same whether I’m doing “high” or “low” church. In fact, if I make Christianity about church I’ve already missed the boat. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-church, in fact, I’m all for it. However, for Christianity to be Christian it has to be absolutely focused on Jesus Christ. Even beyond that, it’s a living, right-now, kind of focus. I’m not looking at some old, dusty story or some tried and true belief system. I’m looking to a person who’s alive and well and with whom I have an up-to-date relationship. Only in such a relationship can I be a real Christian.
Take Away: If we’re not careful, we make Christianity about behavior or beliefs or church…that’s all mistaken. Christianity is about Christ.
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.
God’s priority list
Zechariah 7: The message hasn’t changed.
The question asked concerning the day of fasting in memory of the destruction of Jerusalem opens the way for the Lord to restate what he requires of his people. Through Zechariah the Lord reminds them that his requirements are unchanged. He isn’t very interested in their traditions but he’s very interested in how they treat one another. He’s always called for them to love their neighbors and be compassionate in their dealings with one another. Also, the Lord still has a special concern for widows, orphans, outsiders, and the poor. If these Jews want to please the Lord, they’ll focus on these things more and on their traditions less. Zechariah goes on to describe how, when their ancestors ignored these things that the Lord became angry with them and scattered them throughout the world. Is it possible that we spend too much time worrying about doing church properly and too little time pursuing the things the Lord lists here? When all is said and done, is the Lord more interested in how capably I can do church than he is in how I treat the poor? This passage ought to serve as a compass for all who consider themselves to be a people of God. Here we find a description of how God’s people ought to live.
Take Away: When all is said and done, the Lord is more interested in how we treat others than in how we do church.
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.