Sunday, March 18, 2007

Edgy Sermon

Note: This is a sermon for Sunday, March 18th, 2006. The church I work with has had some bumpy roads recently and this, for me, is pretty edgy. Please pray that it is well recieved.


I turned 30 years old last November. >pause< Each of you responded in a unique way to that statement. For the teens, if they were paying attention to me at all, they might be thinking, “Man, that is old!” In fact, it is probably hard for them to wrap their brains around the idea of having lived 30 years. It is about twice as long as most of them have been drawing breath. When they were born, I was a freshman in High School. They only way they have to relate to my declaration is to compare me to some standard they have of “old”, for instance.. their parents. Now, the parents of the teens probably reacted a little differently. They might be thinking something along the lines of, “I remember 30. That wasn’t so long ago for me…” They laugh at me when I tell my stories about my young children and secretly think, “Heh, wait until your kids become teenagers!” Now, for those of you older than 30, I’m going to lump you all together because, frankly, my realm of experience and ability to guess how you might react to hearing someone talk about turning 30 is probably going to miss the mark. That’s because I suffer from the same myopic point of view into your world as the teenagers suffer looking at mine. You might be thinking something along the lines of, “Jeff’s just a kid. He’s got his entire life ahead of him at 30!” or I might have lost you completely as you started to day dream about what life was like for you when you were 30.

Anyhow, the reason I started this morning with this little diversion is because I’m taking a class right now called Family Life Cycles. The purpose of the class is to help me to be a better counselor by expanding my horizon and helping me to look at a person in the context of where they are at in life. When a person comes to counseling, they usually give a reason that they are in need of some help working through a particular issue. But two different people may want counseling for depression and although the issue is the same, their circumstances are so wildly different that the counselor needs to look at the context of a person’s life. For example: their age, their family of origin, their socioeconomic status, their profession, their education, their gender and so on.

Obviously, it would be helpful for me as a young whippersnapper of 30 tender years to have some idea of the general life issues that a 60 year old couple may face when I am seeing a husband and wife who’ve been married for 34 years. Also, if I were to counsel a 15 year old who is angry with his parents for divorcing, it would help me to be able to remember what it was like at 15, so I can begin to understand the situation.

So it got me thinking about my Christian perspective on life in general. I think I may have mentioned before that I believe that God gives us things in the physical to help us understand thing in the spiritual. I began to contemplate what a “Spiritual Life Cycle” would look like and where I would fit in that paradigm. In my class, I’ve been able to identify myself in the “Parents of Young Children” stage. I wonder where I would be on a spiritual chart.

If you remember your Bible and Jewish customs, you will probably recall that most Jewish men really entered into their professions in their early thirties. According to the book of Luke, Jesus was about thirty when he began his ministry.

Luke 3:21When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." 23Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry.

Immediately after this, we learn that Jesus was tempted and tried by Satan in the desert. It makes me wonder if there is a place in everyone’s spiritual life cycle where we reach a point that Satan puts us through our own trials and temptations. Jesus had just been affirmed by God at his baptism. He’d spent thirty earthly years preparing to do the work that God had prepared in advance for him to do and before he even got a chance to start his ministry, Satan tries to take him down.

Hebrews 4:15 tells us that one of the reasons that Jesus suffered everything that he suffered while on earth, including this time of testing by Satan, was so that he would be able to sympathize with us because he’s gone through what we go through. This leads me to think that maybe if I’m not feeling that Satan is testing me and tempting me that my faith is not yet at the point where God is ready to allow that to happen to me.

I recall a time when a friend of mine confessed to our life group that she was afraid that her life was too easy. We were all a bit confused by that statement until she clarified it for us. She said, “Well, I read in scripture how Jesus promises us that if are really going to be his disciples that we will be persecuted and reviled and looked down upon, you know? I just feel like my life is going so well right now… I have absolutely nothing that I’m worried about or stressed over… why am I not suffering for my faith in Christ? Perhaps I’m not where I need to be spiritually.”

I really think that my friend was able to do something that most of us don’t do: a self-evaluation of where we are in our Spiritual Life Cycle. You see, it is pretty easy for us to identify our stage of life when defined in a text book based on the aggregate experiences of millions of people in our society. So far, I personally have been through Early Development and Adolescence, Young Couple hood and Marriage and Parenting small children. Next thing I know, I’ll be Parenting Adolescents and then Launching my children into adulthood before sliding right into retirement years. It is all there in my textbook, easy to diagnose and treat. It is not so easy to know where we are spiritually.

I do know that in the New Testament writings, there seemed to be a lot of spiritual growing pains for the young churches that Paul wrote to. Hear what he says to the church in Corinth when he learned that there were factions in the church:

1 Corinthians 3:1Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? 4For when one says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos," are you not mere men?

He goes on to admonish the church at the end of the same chapter in verses 18 and following:

18Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a "fool" so that he may become wise. 19For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. As it is written: "He catches the wise in their craftiness"[a]; 20and again, "The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile."[b] 21So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours, 22whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas[c] or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.

What was going on there? Apparently, word got back to Paul that people in the Church in Corinth were fighting about Paul and another preacher, Apollos. Some of the people in the church first heard about Christ through Paul’s teaching. Some of them became Christians as a result of Apollos’ ministry. Maybe they argued about who was the better preacher. What we do know is that it caused a division in the church. Paul tells them here that their spiritual maturity was lacking. He called them “infants in Christ”. I wonder what Paul would have to say to us if he were to write to modern churches about the divisions we have.

I want to issue a challenge for us all this morning. Take a moment to reflect on your own spiritual development. Outside of God himself, you know your own heart better than anyone else, so look deep and ask yourself where you are in your spiritual walk. Have you been living for many, many years on basic principles, on spiritual milk? Would Paul deem you capable of being taught the weightier matters? Are you like my friend, who wondered why she was not being challenged in her faith and worried that things were too easy for her spiritually?

Let me stop right here for just a minute and point out that I’m not trying to pigeon-hole anyone today. I’m not speaking to or about anyone specifically. If anything, when I preach, I preach to myself and y’all just happen to be there to listen. But I hope this morning that the Holy Spirit will move in your heart to help you see where you are in Christ and where Christ wants you to be in him. The book of James offers practical advice for anyone wanting to evaluate their spiritual lives in the first chapter of James:

2Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. 5If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. 6But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; 8he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.

9The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. 10But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. 11For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business.

12Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.

13When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. 15Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

16Don't be deceived, my dear brothers. 17Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

Listening and Doing

19My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. 21Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

22Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror 24and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.

26If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. 27Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Do you hear yourself in that passage? Does it help give you some reference points to help you evaluate where you are, spiritually? I hope so.

Now, I want to take a sharp turn in our conversation this morning. Up till now, I’ve been asking you to think about yourself individually. I’ve asked you to look at your own heart, your own spiritual journey. However, I’d like to point out that as the philosopher pointed out, “No man is an island unto himself”, this is especially true of disciples of Christ. You see, when we accept Christ as our Lord, he adds us to his body and we are told that we are no longer our own, but we belong to the Body of Christ. So, even as Paul wrote to entire churches about their spiritual development, I want to also ask you to evaluate where we are as a congregation.

I asked Bill Oldham if there was anything the elders wanted me to talk about specifically in my sermon this morning. He told me to just speak about whatever was on my heart. I’ll be very frank. I feel like an outsider/insider in this congregation sometimes. Because I live in Abilene and the very nature of my agreement with the congregation here precludes me from being part of the lifeblood of this congregation. On the other hand, I’ve spent a year and a half now being involved in the lives of people in this church and I feel very close to many of you. Having said that, I am a member of this congregation, but the real work of evaluating the spiritual health and direction of this congregation is going to come from those who have been here for a long time and whose lives have shaped the church in Gorman and from those who choose to remain here for the long term. It is my opinion that there has been some spiritual stagnation in Gorman. Some of the worldly ways that we use to measure the “health” of a congregation is our attendance and our contribution. Both of those numbers have been pretty anemic. I hope at this point that you haven’t raised your internal defenses and that you’ve not shut me out because I’m not here to condemn us for getting to where we’re at. I hope we can be honest and see that it is time for an open evaluation and diagnosis of the Lord’s church in Gorman. Where is this congregation in it’s life cycle? Have we entered the “retirement and later life” stage and are ready to shut down? Or are we in another life stage where we should be growing and developing but we’ve gotten sidetracked? You see, that is one of the reasons that families come to the clinic that I work at in Abilene. They are good people, but they’ve got something in their family system that is keeping them from functioning like a healthy family should. What is going on with our congregation that has caused this stagnation? More importantly, can we deal effectively with it and resume the being the healthy, functioning, growing part of Christ’s Body that we are called to be?

I’ve been at churches where when problems arise that threaten the spiritual health of the congregation, the standard operating procedure is to bicker and gossip until someone leaves and then everyone else deals with uncomfortable feelings until time and distance finally prompts them to live and let live and they put their happy faces on and keep going to church. Too often, we’re too proud to admit that we’ve done things or said things that have hurt each other and we aren’t willing to swallow our pride and seek forgiveness. If we’re the injured party, we are inclined to pack up our marbles and go elsewhere or simply stop coming to church at all.

The irony here is that God’s grace is sufficient to cover all our issues if we are willing to seek Him and reflect Christ’s mercy and forgiveness toward one another. If we can imitate Christ’s humility, God promises us he’ll exalt us in due time.

This type of spiritual evaluation is critical. Paul wrote about his own weaknesses and shortcomings in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

7To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. 10That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Paul saw times of hardship and difficulty as opportunity to seek the Strength of the Lord. To risk being vulnerable, for Paul, was an opportunity for the humility of Christ to be seen in his life.

I turned 30 years old last November. I don’t know where the next thirty years is going to take me, but I pray that I will be able to journey on the road of life with waypoints where I can honestly evaluate my spiritual journey and make the course corrections necessary to continue walking with Christ.

Today, if God’s Holy Spirit has convicted you to come forward and seek prayers, the time is now. If you want to know what means to be a part of the Lord’s church and desire to become joined in the Body of Christ through Baptism, the time is now. You may come forward as we stand and sing.

1 comment:

George said...

Son,

It sounds good. I hear you pouring your heart into the sermon and then out to your brothers and sisters in Christ at Gorman. I am very interested to hear how it was received.
You know how my heart bursts with pride for the man of you God you are.
Love,
Papa