This week we’re going to continue our study on Tithing and Stewardship which we introduced last week by turning to Matthew 25:14 and using it to build a framework for how we are to think about how we use the things that God gives us in this world.
“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
After a long time, the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’
His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’
His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
‘Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
Hang In There
As I said last week, talking about money, tithing, and stewardship of our lives is one of those big deal concepts that tend to have a pretty serious effect on people and you may have one of two reactions to this topic. The first reaction is to groan and set your brain on auto-pilot because you think you already know everything I’m going to say and have settled mind on it. You don’t need to listen because no one is going to change your mind about how you live your life. This sermon is for all those people less holy than you are.
The second reaction is to get angry that I’m talking about it at all. We covered it last week, didn’t we? Why do we have to talk about money? Leave it alone. Maybe you get upset because you assume this is going to be a 45-minute guilt trip where I beg you for cash in the name of Jesus.
If you did have one of those two reactions, let me ask you to stick with me just for a little bit, because this sermon isn’t going exactly where you think it’s going.
First, I want you to notice that this sermon isn’t called “Tithing”, it’s called Stewardship. And that’s important because I’m not just going to talk about money today. What I’m going to talk about is “Stewardship”. And stewardship is about a lot more than how we use our finances. We’re going to look at 4 things that God gives us to be stewards of our time, talents, treasure and testimony. Stewardship touches every part of our lives: The time God gives us, the abilities we have, both natural and supernatural, the wealth we are born with and acquire, the story God is writing in our lives. So hang in there and let’s talk about this.
Q1: Whose Is It?
That brings us to our first Stewardship question: “Whose is it?” We touched on this last week. A “steward” is someone who takes care of someone else’s things. If you go away on vacation and ask someone to look after your cat and water your plants, you have asked them to be your steward. If you work for a company that gives you a desk and a computer, or a set of tools, or a rental car, then you are a steward of your company’s resources. If someone passes away and you are in charge of managing their estate, then you are a steward of their wealth.
Humans are stewards. We often talk about “owning” things. We “own” our home and possessions. We have our “own” money. We can make it on our “own”. The word “own” literally means to have full claim, authority, power, or dominion over something. I control it, and can do with it as I please. I can use it how I want, keep it on a shelf, or destroy it. It’s mine. In this sense, biblically speaking, humans “own nothing” because we are limited in our control, and cannot possess something forever. God is the one with eternal power, authority, dominion and control. We inherit things from others and then lose them when we die. Christians acknowledge that we do not and cannot own anything in this world.
The first realization we must make in the realm of Stewardship is that “everything is God’s.” This is a critical realization because whoever “owns” it has control of it. If I own it, then no one can tell me what to do with it. But if someone else owns it, then I must treat it very differently. No matter what it is.
We teach our kids this, don’t we? We go to a restaurant or park or a friend’s house and as soon as the roughhousing starts we say, “Be careful with that. It’s not yours.”
David in Psalm 24:1 says, and this theme is repeated throughout scripture, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it…”
1 Samuel 2:6-7 says, “The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up. The LORD sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts.”
God’s ownership extends to everything in the universe, from what we eat and drink and wear to the trees, mountains and stars, from the oil deep underground and the birds in the sky. And everything we have made, homes, cars, weapons, rocket-ships, and medicines are just reassembled versions of things that he already owns. It’s not ours, it’s His, and He gives it to us to have, use, eat, take care of, distribute, and enjoy.
This week I had to buy a new coffee pot because my old one broke. I felt no pang of guilt when I unplugged the old pot and threw it in the garbage and replaced it with another. And in the same way, the Bible says that one day, just like I tossed out the broken, dirty coffee pot, the true “Owner” of all things will finally get rid of this world and create a new one. 1 Peter 3:10, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.”
You and I are merely stewards, temporary possessors, of something that we don’t own. We can use it for a few years, and make great big piles of it, and rearrange it in many different ways, and gain enjoyment from it, but as Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 5:15, “Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb, and as he comes, so he departs. He takes nothing from his labour that he can carry in his hand.”
We are merely stewards. This is what Jesus says in the story of the Talents. Look at verse 14 it says the owner “entrusted his property to them.” That’s you and me.
And in verse 15 we read that everyone gets a different amount. Now, remember, we’re not just talking money here. Whenever you read the word “Talent” in this story, think of words like “opportunity” or “blessing” or “time” or “skill”. This isn’t just about money or abilities. God entrusts each of us with different things. We all have a different amount of time to live on this earth. We all have different abilities and spiritual gifts. We all have a different amount of wealth and possessions. And we all have a different testimony or life story.
We are not equal in what God gives us. Some get more, some get less. And though what we get is not equal to others, we are all equal in our responsibility to manage it according to what the “owner” wants us to do with it. Verse 15 says that the owner gave each one a certain amount of talents “according to his ability”. In other words, He didn’t give them more than they could handle or less than they needed. He didn’t set them up for failure. He set them up to succeed.
In the same way, God gives us each a different life to steward, and He doesn’t set us up for failure. He sets us up to be able to do exactly what He wants us to do. Using His gifts, His way makes it possible to actually produce something greater than if we were not to use them – or use them selfishly. It’s a win-win-win, when we properly manage what God gives us we gain joy from using them, others benefit from their use, and God is given glory.
Q2: What am I Supposed to Do With It?
And now comes the second question: “What am I supposed to do with what God has given me?” If our time, talents, treasure and testimony are not ours, but we are merely stewards of them, then what are we supposed to do with them? The options are seemingly endless.
In the parable, we have two different responses to the talents. The first two stewards went and put their money to work, and doubled what they had. And when the owner came back he was pleased. He didn’t look at the guy was given two and say, “How come you didn’t make five like the other guy?” Instead, because the steward used what he had, and did what he could, the Owner was pleased.
Not Using Your Talent
But the third guy did nothing. He just buried it. Now here’s a big questions: Why did he bury his talent? I think that there are a lot of reasons why people don’t use what they have been given by God, but I think this story gives us two big ones.
Take a look at the third steward’s response in verse 24: “Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
Reason 1: A Bad Relationship / Misunderstanding the Owner
The first reason that people don’t use what God has given them is that they have a bad relationship with, or a total misunderstanding of the Owner. This servant didn’t really like his master. He was afraid of him. He couldn’t care less about pleasing him. He was just trying not to get punished. But was the owner really that selfish and cruel? It doesn’t sound like it to me. The owner delegates according to the ability of the servant… that shows he knows them, cares about them, and has wisdom. He leaves the servants in charge and lets them to do their job… that shows confidence and trust. He gives them lots of time and opportunity to get it done… that shows generosity and patience. When he comes back he doesn’t just grab the money out of the other steward’s hands, but swells with joy and pride in them and invites them to come and party and celebrate with him.
The third steward had a totally backwards view of the true nature of his master. And I think that we sometimes do that to God too. We don’t give our time to God because we think He’s selfish and doesn’t give us enough to work with. How many people do you know have complained there aren’t enough hours in the day? What does that imply about God? That He doesn’t give us enough time to do the things we need to do. It’s His fault.
Or maybe we it’s that we don’t use our talents and abilities for God’s kingdom because we think He doesn’t reward people properly. We know we can get more praise, money and thanks out in the secular market, so we give our best to them and leave the leftovers for God.
Or maybe it’s when we don’t give our treasure or wealth to God because we see Him as greedy, always wanting our money, and that this whole religion thing was just set up as a way to get weak-willed suckers to give up some of their cash. We don’t see God as generous and kind but as stingy, tight-fisted, selfish, beggar who is never happy but always wanting more.
One reason we bury our talent is that we don’t know the owner that well.
Reason 2: Fear
The second reason some of us bury our talents and don’t use what God gives us as good stewards, is because of our fear of risk. The first two stewards took a risk and were rewarded. The third guy was afraid to take the risk. He thought that if he just buried it and gave it back, that somehow he would at least avoid punishment. But that wasn’t the case. The talent was given to him so He would use it and gain more. That was the mission – to use what he was given to gain more for the master.
And the owner says as much in verse 26 when he says, “’You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? ” In other words, “You know that I’m all about getting the most out of what I have? You know that I’m all about squeezing every drop of opportunity to gain a profit?” “Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.”
In other words, “You could have done something! But you did nothing! I gave you this to use, and you didn’t, and that is why I am so angry. I gave you this and nothing increased. I didn’t expect much of you, but I certainly didn’t expect nothing from you.”
Some of us are afraid of risk too. Some won’t make a commitment to serve others because they don’t want to risk the possibility of running out of time for other things they want to do. So they never take the risk of getting involved, joining up, or volunteering. That way they ensure they have time for the things they want to do.
Some are afraid that they will be criticized, embarrassed, or rejected, so they never use or develop the talents and abilities that God gave them. They have a heart to teach, but they are afraid of what might happen if someone asks a question they don’t know the answer to… so they never teach. They have an aptitude for music, or public speaking, or dance, or art, but they are afraid to risk showing people because they might get critiqued. They have a talent for organizing, making money, or leadership, but they are afraid someone will misunderstand them, so they only use those gifts professionally. They don’t want to risk their feelings.
Some don’t want to risk their current or future comfort level, so they never invest their wealth in the kingdom of God. They’re more concerned about their future retirement plans than what God wants. They feel they will get better returns with their RRSP, or their Mutual Fund, or their Real Estate, than if they were to give that money to a missionary or hurting family or church ministry. If it’s in their bank or with their investors then they can control it and use it for a rainy day – but if they give it to a missionary or relief agency or church ministry, then they not only lose control of it but have no guarantee that it will do something positive for them and they may actually end up losing their comforts and seeing nothing in return. So they never take the risk. They convince themselves that making more and bigger piles at home, for their own family, is why God gave them what they have. Sharing their wealth with other Christians is too risky.
And some people are afraid to take the risk of using their gift or even sharing their testimony because being honest with people will shock them. Doing what God made them for or sharing their story will cause people or will see them in a different light. For example, their talent is unconventional – they’re great at art but everyone says that it’s a waste of time, so they bury it. They have a knack for making movies or telling dark stories, but the people around them say Hollywood is evil and telling dark stories is bad, so they bury it. They are a natural gymnast or dancer, but their church looks down on them because they’ve oversexualized it, so they quit. Or God called them to be single and everyone around is pressuring them to get married. Or God gifts them with a bazillion kids and everyone around tells them to stop. Or maybe it’s just that their testimony has some really rough parts, some bad stuff that no one knows about, and they’re afraid to tell anyone because it may risk their social status, so they never, ever share it with anyone. God gives them hopes, dreams, and a story – but they bury it because they are afraid.
Next week I want to get practical and answer question 2 in a more positive way by asking: “How can I use it best?”, but we’ve run out of time and are going to have to stop for now. But let me ask you to consider these two questions.
First, do you see yourself as a steward of all you have been given, or an owner?
And second, are you not using something God has given you, whether it’s time, talent, treasure or testimony, because you are afraid of the risk involved?
Answering those will go a long way toward figuring out how much faith and trust you have in God. Let me encourage you to work on that. If God has equipped you with something, then ask Him how to use it. Just don’t sit on it, or keep it to yourself. Even if it’s just a little… show your faith in God by starting to use it and develop it for His glory.
“Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem. If it seems advisable that I should go also, they will accompany me.” (1 Corinthians 16:1–4)
The calendar is kind of weird this year. I would go as far as to say it borders on ironic. Did you know that the first day of Lent, which is, historically, the 40 days of preparatory fasting that comes before Easter is on Valentine’s Day? It’s hard to start your fast on the same day that someone gives you a big box of chocolates and takes you out for a special dinner.
And, did you know that Easter Sunday is on April Fool’s day this year? Again, bordering on ironic considering how completely central Easter is to Christianity and how many people in these days think that believers are just being fooled into believing lies so they’ll give up their money or go to hell. And yes, that’s my segue into what we’re talking about today, money and the church.
I punched the words “church money meme” into google I got about 20 million hits so I think it’s pretty safe to say there is a lot of anger and misunderstanding about money and the church out there. Even among Christians there is division. Some people think that we should never talk about money in church while others are all about the fundraising for good causes. Some people get offended when anyone talks about their money, especially preachers. I looked back over my sermons over the last 6 years here and while I’ve tangentially mentioned money in lots of sermons, from what I saw I’ve only preached on Tithing once and that was in August 2012, so I think we’re probably due – plus it’s the next verse of our 1 Corinthians study.
Here are a few examples the kinds of things I saw online:
The first one is super common. It’s a standard misquoting of 1 Timothy 6:10 where people assume it says, “Money is the root of all of evil.” And so the thinking is, “If money is evil then why ask for it at church?” That’s logical thinking because it points out hypocrisy. The church claims to be good and then asks for something evil.
I’m not going to preach memes today, but let’s just get the actual quote from 1 Timothy 6 and see what it actually says and I’m going to give it some context, starting in verse 6, “But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” (6:6-10)
What’s this about? That money is evil? No, it’s about being content and not chasing riches. Would you agree that people who are constantly discontent, always wanting more, never having enough, are miserable people? They can’t be happy, can they? So, the warning comes that discontentedness is a trap that leads to destruction, because a heart that is never happy, but has an unbridled craving for more, is going to get you into trouble!
Another standard theme that comes up a lot is that it’s horrible for a church to ask for money. After all group of people dedicated to helping others wouldn’t ask for money, right? Jesus would never ask for money, would He? God doesn’t need our money, does He? Isn’t it horrible that someone would walk into a church poor, hungry, falling apart, and then be taken advantage of by being manipulated into giving their little bit of money away?
I completely understand this indictment and kind of agree with it. Unfortunately, there are way too many churches that call themselves Christian but are merely schemes to take people’s money. The health and wealth, prosperity preachers and the legalists are both to blame for this reputation. They both play on guilt, shame, false theology, false promises, and false threats in order to take people’s money. Then they use the media to spread their false gospel so that the culture thinks we’re all like that. So whenever the church talks about money it’s usually seen it through the lens of the prosperity gospel. It’s a similar misunderstanding to what we talked about last week with the treatment of women in the church.
So let’s tie those two things together – women and money – and see what Jesus did. Take a look at Luke 8:1-3:
“Soon afterward he [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.”
There’s Jesus, traveling with a group of men and women. Some were His chosen disciples, others followed out of love. What is notable here how many women were there and how many different social levels they came from. Everyone from outcast Mary to the wealthy socialite, Joanna followed Jesus! And what were these women doing? Giving Jesus money and supplies for His ministry, which He accepted and gave to Judas to hold onto – who then stole from Him, but that’s another story.
Giving to Jerusalem
Talking about money can be a divisive topic – even more so when it is wrapped in religion. So my plan is to stay away from my own personal views and simply give you a biblical picture of what God says about how money and the church work together.
Let’s start with our passage today in 1 Corinthians and work our way out from there. We see that it starts with “Now concerning” which we learned a long time ago means that Paul is changing topics and moving on to the next question that they had asked him in their letter to him. They asked something like, “We heard that some of the churches were taking up collections to help out the Christians in Jerusalem, what are we supposed to do?”
Part of Paul’s mission, along with planting churches and sharing the gospel, was to collect funds to help the Christians in Jerusalem who were under terrible persecution (Gal 2:10). Jerusalem was under attack and was facing a famine. And while the Jews were harassed by all kinds of troubles, Christians had it even worse because not only were they living in a war zone but were also under attack from their own non-believing relatives and former friends. They were very poor.
This wasn’t a revolutionary idea. We don’t see “survival of the fittest” in the Bible. Generosity towards the care of the poor, the needy, the weak, and the stranger, is one of the foundational principles of the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus. In the Law of God given to Israel, Deuteronomy 15:7-8 says, “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” Generosity was commanded.
So, in the same way, the churches were “ordered” or “directed” to take up collections to help the poor and needy. We see this same ask in other letters in the New Testament (Rom 15:16, Acts 11:29, 2 Cor 8:4). And it’s this collection order that came from the Apostles that I want to take apart a bit.
Regular Lifestyle Generosity
The first thing I want you to notice is the regularity of the giving. It says, “On the first day of every week”. This wasn’t meant to be a one-time donation, a single moment of help during a crisis, but meant to foster a lifestyle of generosity. All over scripture, from beginning to end, in Genesis, the Law, Psalms, Proverbs, and Prophets we see generosity towards those in need as one of the key marks of the lifestyle of the believer. Of course, the OT Law also demanded regular contributions for all kinds of reasons, 10% for the priests to live on, 10% to pay for the religious feasts (Lev 27:30-33, Num 18:21-24, Deut 14:22-27), and every three years a special offering for the poor, but these were a more like taxes than charity. And there were even more commanded times of giving – the Sin Offering, Guilt Offering, Burnt Offerings, Cereal Offering, Drink Offering, Peace Offering, Offering for Vows… which added up to a lot of giving. Israel was forced to get into the habit of being generous.
Jesus came to fulfill the Law and often spoke and told parables about sacrificial generosity, caring for the poor, and regular giving. He equated selfishness with unbelief that leads to hell (Matthew 25:31-46) and praised the generosity of a poor widow who gave her last two cents to the temple as an act of obedience and faith (Mark 12:41-44). Then, continuing this teaching, the Apostles, throughout the letters of the New Testament commanded believers to remember to, “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” (Romans 12:13) This lifestyle giving can’t be done in one swoop. The regularity of it is meant to reflect the change of heart that comes when we repent of our sins and make Jesus our Lord. It shows that we see the danger of the love of money and the benefit of serving others generously and sacrificially as Jesus did every day.
The way that this was taught to the Corinthians and the rest of the churches was to connect their giving to the weekly church service. The day of worship had already been changed from the Jewish Saturday Sabbath to the Lord’s Resurrection Day on Sunday and they were either being told to bring their donation to the church to be kept in one pile or to add it up in in a special place at home, like we would keep a penny jar, until Paul got there to take it to Jerusalem. Later, in 1 Timothy 5 we see this giving expanded to include paying those elders who taught the Bible.
The thing that we see here is regular lifestyle generosity. Why do we take an offering at church each week? Because it’s consistent with scriptural teaching and gives Christians the encouragement to get into the habit of giving and meeting needs regularly.
Second, I want you to notice that it says, “each of you”. No one was exempt. That bumps into one of the charges those memes had against the church, doesn’t it? There’s the guy that shows up with his life falling apart and then gets guilted and manipulated into giving. And sadly, that happens. Some false teachers say that if you give money to the church then God is obligated to bless you. They say that the more you give the better off your health and relationships and finances will be. But that’s unbiblical. We come to Jesus as Saviour of our souls and source of eternal life, not as some kind of Santa Clause pyramid scheme that is meant to fulfill our earthly wishes for health and wealth.
What the Bible does teach is that “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24). And, as we already said, that constantly worrying about money and security and stuff is drain on our faith and a poison to our soul. Jesus says, “…do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles [or “Unbelievers”] seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:31–33)
Christians know they don’t own anything in this world, but that everything is God’s (Matthew 25:14-30) and we are merely stewards. That’s why Christians talk a lot about Stewardship. Christians know that we don’t own our homes, cars, clothes, or money. It’s not ours to control. We did not have them when we were born, we don’t have them for most of our lives, and we won’t have them when we die – and so we realize that dedicating our lives to worrying about building and keeping piles of stuff is ultimately “vanity and a striving after wind…”. Ecclesiastes teaches us this.
So we say along with Job, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21) We’re merely stewards of what we have and our faith in God tells us that whatever we have in our hand isn’t really that important because God can either give us more or take it away. He can multiply it like the loaves and fishes or dry it up with a drought –that’s up to Him. All we can do is be faithful with what He has and trust Him to give us what we need.
And so, on each Lord’s day, every one of the believers in the church was instructed to open their hands and demonstrate that they trust God more than they trust themselves through the exercise of giving. It is an act of faith, obedience, and sacrifice that says, “God, everything is yours. I trust you. I know you love me. I’m holding nothing back. Use this to take care of people and I trust you’ll take care of me too.”
Now, the argument comes, “Well, if God is so powerful, why doesn’t He just give them what they need? Why does God need money at all? If everything is God’s and He can make miracles, why does He need my money to do it? Why not just send rain to the deserts, have manna fall from heaven in the cities, heal all the sick, fix all the lame, give everyone a job… why does He want my money?”
First off – it’s not your money, it’s His… but second… He will. When all is said and done, at the end of our time here, He will do all those things. But in the meantime, God is doing His work to sanctify us – to make us more like Jesus. How does He do that? By giving us the opportunities and the choice to help each other – or not. By giving our planet enough to go around and then requiring that we share it with each other – or not. By making some places in the world flourish with an abundance of food, medicine, education, and more – and then allow other places to ave needs – and then give us the means to move around and help each other – or not. He creates the opportunity for sacrifice, generosity, and love, but, as always He leaves the choice to us. It is in making the choice to love that we become more like Jesus.
Generosity is A Choice
Notice that here, and this holds for the rest of the New Testament, the compelling of generosity by religious taxes and the amounts required to give is gone.
Jesus fulfilled the law and upped the ante for His followers. Remember the Sermon on the Mount? The Old Testament Law told people not to murder and forced them to get along on pain of death, Jesus says, “It’s not about murder, it’s about the sin of out of control anger. Be peacemakers. Figure out how to reconcile with one another.”
The OT Law said, “Don’t commit adultery” or you’ll be put to death. Jesus said, “The issue isn’t adultery, it’s the sin of lust that causes you to be an adulterer in your heart. Do everything you can to deal with that.”
The OT Law said, “Don’t break your oaths or else you’ll be punished.” Jesus says, “It’s not about just breaking oaths, but living a whole life where everything you say is simply true.”
The bible teachers the time were saying that God said it was ok to love your neighbours and hate your enemies, but Jesus says, “No. God doesn’t want you to hate people. He wants you to love everyone and do good to them – even your enemies.” That’s harder, isn’t it? That requires more. That requires divine intervention, God’s work in our hearts.
The OT Law told people what to do and what not to do. Be generous or else. But Jesus got to the root of the problem – the sins of selfishness, fear, worry, greed, and said, “I’m not going to force you be generous. I’m not going to prescribe percentages and consequences. I’m going to be generous to you, serve you, give everything for you – my whole life as a demonstration of my love for you – and then ask you to do the same for everyone else. I’m going to invite you to be generous as I am generous.”
And anyone who is a Christian, anyone who understands what Jesus did for them, who understands God’s love for them, who figures out all that was given for them, who finally has that moment where the sacrificial generosity that Jesus showed them clicks – will get it. They’ll realize what the wealth of love they’ve been given, and the generosity of their God, and it will become natural for them to be generous with others.
We’ll talk more about this next week, but I want to leave you with two questions. First, do you know why we pass the plate on Sundays enough to explain it to others? And second, have you begun to grasp how wide and long and high and deep the love of Christ is for you (Eph 3:18), and does your life reflect that generosity to others?
“As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” (1 Corinthians 14:33b-35)
Oh boy, have I ever been looking forward to preaching on this passage…
No one likes to be told to shut up – least of all, in my experience, women. If I tell my guy friends or my sons to “shut up” it goes a lot better than if I were to tell my wife, daughters, or female friends.
But, unfortunately, that’s a reputation that some pastors, churches and Christians have. One accusation consistently brought against the Christian church is that we are anti-female, oppressing and restricting women. And of course, horrible stories like the homeschooling parents who kept their children starving and chained to their beds, or the various reports of religious communes and cults that force women and children into servitude don’t help because they are invariably called “devout Christians” at some point by the media.   And, in our post-Christian, post-church culture, it’s natural to lump everyone who calls themselves Christian together with them. The pastors are cult leaders, the men are mysogonist pigs, the women are fools or terrorized, and the children treated no better than slaves.
I’ve heard from a few of you that some people around this area have even wondered if Beckwith Baptist Church is a cult. Long gone are the days when the small, local, Baptist church was seen as a beacon of morality. Now, the most basic Christian terms like “Christian”, “pastor”, “elder”, “deacon”, “biblical “authority”, “submission”, evoke among the culture pictures of abuse, brainwashing, and financial exploitation. People don’t know the difference between David Koresh and Jamestown, Westboro Baptist Church, or the evangelical church around the corner. Conversations with people about “going to church” or “being a Christian” these days have a lot of baggage, so it’s little wonder that some are ashamed to admit it.
And when it comes to a passage like we are looking at today, it’s even worse. Christians aren’t automatically given the benefit of the doubt to explain what it means, but instead beaten over the head with it as it’s used as confirmation bias for outsiders to spread false beliefs about what goes on here.
And within the church this is the kind of verse that people tend to avoid. They like the Gospels and Proverbs and Psalms and whatnot, even Revelation and Romans, but when it comes to this kind of verse, it’s just easier to pretend it doesn’t exist. But it doesn’t work, does it? There’s always that nagging voice inside of you that says, “What have you gotten yourself into? These people look all nice and happy now, but there’s a secret underbelly where some really bad stuff happens. These women aren’t happy, their afraid – you just don’t see it yet. These kids aren’t loved, they’re terrified to show their true feelings. These church men are all the same – they preach love and grace but secretly they are using religion to control women, harm their kids, and take people’s money. Be careful. Don’t get sucked in.”
These Christians tend to stay on the outside, never really giving themselves fully to Jesus, God, or their church, because they’re afraid they are going to be let down. They feel drawn to God, drawn to worship, drawn to Jesus. They love the message of Salvation, the idea of having a community of believers, and the practical ways that the Bible is changing their lives, but they are secretly afraid of learning too much, seeing too much, engaging too much, of finding out what Christianity is really all about.
Then a terrifying thought hits their brain: “You’re being lied to. You’re being manipulated. This church says that they’re not a cult, but that’s what all cults say isn’t it? It’s when you get into the inner circle that things start to get scary and oppressive.”
So they come to church on edge, waiting for confirmation of this little voice in their head. They start to watch the news with new eyes, seeing how much damage religion is doing around the world, and the horrible things people have done in the name of Christ. They start to remember personal stories of difficult times when they went to church as a kid, or stories their family has told, and remember that there was a lot of hurt there. Now when they attend it feels different. Now the people seem a little stranger, less trustworthy, and all the messages seem to be about judging and hating others, giving more money, and unquestioning submission to some human authority.
They usually come for a while, hoping all this isn’t true, but then, without fail, someone says or does something to confirm everything they’re thinking. A pastor commits adultery, a youth worker abuses a child, a trustee is caught stealing, a small group leader starts a fight. And their fears are confirmed so they leave angry, sad, frustrated, feeling stupid and used, vowing never to get fooled again.
They still have a hunger for God in their heart, but they keep that all to themselves now. They stay home, read the bible themselves, or start to experiment with other religions.
This story has been played out over and over in the church. Perhaps you know someone who has gone through it, or perhaps you secretly thinking some of this yourself.
So what do we do at times like this? It is my belief that everything I just described is a direct Satanic attack on the souls of people seeking God and who believe in Him. He’s a liar, a master deceiver, a manipulator who has been playing this game for a long time. So what is the solution to these sorts of lies? What are we to do when we come across a difficult passage like this that stirs up so much inside us? The only way to defeat a lie is with the truth, and so instead of avoiding these passages, we have to dig into them. We need to confront our biases and our fears and be willing to allow God’s Word to tell us what He is really saying.
So I want to do that today. I want to give us four questions to ask when it comes to these types of difficult passages so we can have a deeper faith, more trust in God, and a stronger witness to the unbelieving world.
Does this Sound like the Biblical God?
The first question I want you to ask yourself is “Does my interpretation of this passage sounds like what Jesus preached and what the rest of the Bible teaches?”
Let’s read it again,
“As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
What does that sound like to your modern ears? Based on your personal history and worldview, what does that sound like? It sounds like the Apostle Paul is telling all women everywhere to keep their mouth shut when they come to church, right? He cites God Law as his authority and in verses 37, which we didn’t read, he says, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord.” It sounds like he’s saying, “God says women in all churches for all time need to shut up. Jesus says a woman asking questions is terrible.”
Sounds close, right? But is it? Does that interpretation line up with what the rest of the Bible says? Not even close. What does the Bible say? It says God created woman as the other half of His image, a compliment and gift to man, different in many ways, but equal in dignity, worth, purpose (Gen 2). It was sin that turned men against women making them use their physical strength to oppress, subjugate and enslave them.
When God gave Israel His Law, they had come from a world full of violence, superstition, oppression, and evil. His people were to be different so He broke them away from the norm and gave them a higher set of standards that elevated the status of women and children, giving them rights and protections under the Law they never had before.
And it gets better. In the New Testament. Jesus treated women and children with so much more respect and care than the culture ever did. He didn’t see women as sexual objects, or judge them by their beauty, age, marital status or anything else. He simply saw them as genuine persons worthy of love and respect. He met with them, protected them, listened to them, taught them, and cared for them as no one else would, and then taught his followers to do the same.
I want to play a clip from a man named Todd Friel who is the host of Wretched TV and Radio. He talks a little funny, but he’s a good, Christian guy and I think this clip helps us understand something important about the Christian view of women.
I could do a whole sermon on the biblical view of women, but that’s not the point today. Does the Bible teach that men should oppress women? No. Now, does it teach that women should shut up in church?
Well, in the same letter in chapter 11 it says that women are allowed to pray and prophecy in the church. It says, “…but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head…” I won’t get back into the issue of head-coverings, but notice that there were women praying and prophesying in church. In the Old Testament we have women like Meriam and Deborah leading worship and speaking publically to the people. Psalm 68:11 (NET) says, “The Lord speaks; many, many women spread the good news…” In the New Testament we see the Prophetess Anna speaking at the temple (Luke 2:36-38), Philip the Evangelist’s four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:9), and the Apostle Peter saying at Pentecost, “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dream…” (Acts 2:17).
Clearly, from scripture, we can say that women have the same spiritual availability to not only teach, prophecy, and share God’s Word but were doing it in the Christian church right from its inception.
So if Jesus elevated the status of women, and the church has been a champion of women’s rights, and so many other places in scripture say women can speak in church, what’s going on here?
What’s the Historical Context?
That’s the second question: “What’s the historical context?”
Notice that he’s not just telling women to change their behavior, but everyone! He tells those coming to church and eating all the food to stop it (let’s be honest, that’s probably the men). He tells those who are getting drunk at church to stop it. He tells those who are flipping out like they did at the pagan temples to stop it. He tells everyone who is being noisy and disorderly to stop it. He tells those who are yelling and singing over each other to stop it. He tells the tongues speakers to limit themselves. He tells the prophets and preachers to take turns. That’s men and women.
He’s like the referees at a hockey game where a brawl has broken out. He’s blowing his whistle, separating fighters, sending some folks to the bench and others to the locker room. He’s restoring order.
And another issue he’s dealing with is that there were a specific group of women who were disrupting the church services with questions. Whether it was because they didn’t understand what was going on and wanted to learn, or they were arguing with the points the teachers were making, or something else, these women were causing trouble in the church.
We’ve talked a lot about context over the past while so I won’t bore you with a repeat, but there are two things I want you to remember: the situation with the headdresses and the problem of disorderly worship.
Remember how messed up and chaotic the church services in Corinth were. Everyone in the church was doing whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, as loudly as they wanted, right? Remember the context of 1 Corinthians 14 where Paul is talking about what it means to be orderly in church. That’s a really important part of what’s going here. Paul’s not singling out women, but listing a whole bunch of things that are going wrong in their church services. One of those things, among many, was this group of women.
It’s likely the same group of women who were being addressed in the head coverings controversy. Remember when we talked about them we saw that there were some women that were coming to church and were not only causing disturbances but were embarrassing their husbands by they causing scenes, flaunting their sexuality and independence, and were being a bad witness to the church and the rest of society. In that lesson, we talked about how one of the big issues was that these women were disobeying God by refusing to submit to the biblical teachings of complementarianism and male headship (again, something I’m not going to repeat here). That’s very, very similar to what’s going on here.
It’s not that these women weren’t allowed to pray, prophecy, speak in tongues, worship, or serve – it was that they were part of the disorderly service problem and needed specific correction. They were asking so many questions that it was causing a ruckus (just like those speaking in tongues were). Sure, they were allowed to learn, but the worship service wasn’t the time to be interrupting with a bunch of questions.
Notice as well that this is addressed to wives. That’s what gives us a clue that this is connected to the headdress and male headship issue. It’s likely that these women weren’t just politely asking too many questions, but were actually making a scene, being out of control with their words, and reflecting badly on their husbands and families. So Paul gives them the same message as before – respect your husbands enough to show some self-control and bring your spiritual concerns to them privately first.
I wonder if this also speaks to the women who refuse to talk to their husbands about anything spiritual at all, but instead keep all those conversations for their Christian girlfriends, small groups, pastors, and Christian professionals. They have so little respect for their husband’s spirituality that they leave them completely out of the conversation. They have an issue in their heart and need counsel, a question about the Bible, need some wisdom or direction, or help with some other part of life, and don’t even talk to their husbands about it, but immediately go to their pastor, small group leader, or Christian friends. What does that say about how much they value and respect their husbands opinions? That it has zero value. That’s hurtful to the marriage disrespectful to the husband. Wives, talk to your husbands first about what’s going on in your heart. Don’t leave him out of the mix.
The first question is, “Does my interpretation of this passage line up with what the rest of the Bible teaches?” and the second question is “What is the greater historical context of this difficult passage?” . So, the third and fourth questions are simply, “What does this passage mean?” and “Will I submit myself to it?”
So, what does this passage mean? It means that the Bible elevates women, not degrades them. They have equal access to God’s Holy Spirit and are invited to learn and participate in church worship services just like men, and are under the same rules to keep it orderly. But, it also means that there is a lesson there about self-control and humbly submitting to how God wants to do things. It means that you don’t get to say whatever you want to say whenever you want to say it. It means practicing patience and submission to authority. It means respecting your husband enough to include him your spiritual walk, asking his thoughts, listening to his answers, even if it makes you uncomfortable or you don’t feel like he’s up to it.
In the end, once we study this passage, and strip away our own bias, what we see here are some verses about the godly attitudes of humility and respect? Humility and respect toward God and His rules for how we live our life. Humility and respect for your church family, placing their desires above your own. And humility and toward your husband, and that’s something that, I think, everyone can understand and agree on.
I encourage you to be introspective this week about this. Have you let Jesus take control of your tongue, your pride, and the openness between you and your spouse in your marriage? Are you practicing humility and respect in these areas?
Ok, so I need you to take a moment to remember the last few sermons, because they have all been, in some way, preparatory for this one. On the first Sunday of the year we talked about we are sometimes convicted to make changes in our life, and therefore make “Resolutions” to change – but how those resolutions rarely last very long. That’s when we talked about accountability not only to God but also to each other. The next week we talked about the Church Membership Covenant and how it is simply a type of accountability tool to help each other walk with Jesus more joyfully, biblically, and consistently. That was followed by last week’s message on “Unity and Harmony” which was an overview the theological underpinnings of how and why the work of Jesus on the cross brings us back into fellowship with Him and with each other, and how us doing the hard work to live that out brings glory to God and honor to Jesus.
Hopefully, those big thoughts of Accountability, Unity, and Harmony have been bouncing around your head for the past month because it will help you understand what is going on in our passage today. Please turn to 1 Corinthians 14:1-33.
First, and as always, a little context first. 1 Corinthians is a letter written by the Apostle Paul, inspired by God and with the authority of Jesus, to a new and relatively small church in the ancient Greek city of city of Corinth. Corinth was not unlike Ottawa or other big cities in North America today. It was cosmopolitan, multicultural, multi-ethnic with a vast array of religions and places of worship. It had very rich and very poor people, famous thinkers, great actors, beautiful architecture, and was a port town with lots of tradesman and visitors.
Atheism was almost unheard of and the life of the city ebbed and flowed from the pagan temples. They were where you’d go not only for worship, but for entertainment, to find work, to buy groceries, or to eat out. The experience of being part of a “worship service” in one of these temples was pretty intense. There were temple prostitutes, drugs, music, and other pretty crazy stuff going on two as people opened their minds to demonic influence. Some people would scream, others laugh. Some would fall down and shake, writhe on the floor, speak gibberish, or tell fortunes with special “words from the gods”.
None of this was considered weird though. It would be normal for someone, rich or poor, man or woman, to come into the temple, join an orgy, take drugs, and party – or beg favour from the god and be told to either pay money, hurt themselves, or do something extreme or terrible to ensure the god’s goodwill. That was normal.
Then the Apostle Paul came to town and planted a Christian church and it was very different from what they were used to. He was tired and overwhelmed from a long, difficult mission trip, but stayed for a year and a half, preaching, teaching, counselling, and preparing the church. He taught them that God loved them and saved them by grace, and didn’t need or want them to do all the crazy stuff they were doing at the pagan temples. He taught them God’s expectations for biblical faith, salvation, prayer, and how God creates people for his glory and equips them to worship Him and take care of each other.
He left and went on to plant and help more churches, but it wasn’t too long until he started hearing that there were problems in Corinth. We’ve been covering a lot of those issues over the past year or so, but most of them centred on divisions in the church – which we learned last week means that they had forgotten the very foundation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
They had divided on which teacher they liked better – some choosing Peter, others Paul, others Apollos – forgetting that their first allegiance was to Jesus and the teachers all just worked for Him. Because of the fighting in the church, they had given room for Satan to have a field-day among them and some of the habits of the old temples had worked their way back into their church. They forgot the gospel and started to believe they had to do certain things to get saved and win God’s favour. They forgot what God had said about purity and righteousness as both rampant sexual immorality and some form of pleasure denying asceticism had grown up in the church. They forgot about the unity and harmony that comes from being united to Jesus and started suing one another. They had also forgotten about the exclusive claims of Jesus, that there is only one God and one way to be saved as they grew bored with their church or felt pressure from society to go back to their old temples to offer worship to the pagan gods – while other people were using their freedom in Christ as an excuse to offend everyone around them by refusing to conform to the basic, cultural standards of their society.
In the section before the one we’re looking at right now, we’re seeing how all this had crept into the most foundational of their Christian practices as even the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, what we call Communion, had been corrupted. They’d meet for a worship service, which always included the special time of Communion where the sacrifice of Jesus was remembered, and it was a fiasco. Some would come early and eat all the food, others would get drunk on the communion wine, and the hungry among them would continue to starve.
Paul then, in chapter 12, turns the topic to Spiritual gifts, which are God’s special gifts given upon conversion to believers, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to help people worship God, serve their church family, and spread God’s love around the world. We talked about that in November and the sermon is online, so I’m not going to review it here, but I want you to remember that the big issue was that they had gotten God’s gifts confused with the type of things that were happening at the pagan temple.
In their previous religious experiences, it was all about self and selfishness. It was about manipulating the gods and the people around them to get what they wanted. It was about having intense ecstatic experiences that centred on their own desire for pleasure or excitement. It was about being the centre of attention, feelings special, and being more spiritual, more euphoric, more intense than those around them.
But the Christian church isn’t about selfishness, it’s about selflessness. It’s about being like Jesus, the servant of all who gave His life as a ransom for many. It’s about God saving us unto good works and living a life humbly serving His will and not our own. It is about using our gifts, talents, abilities, finances, to help others and point them to Jesus.
Giving up self-centred religion is hard though. Giving up on the belief that we can manipulate God is hard. Giving up being the centre of attention and living for others is hard too – which is one reason why this church, once the Apostle left – slipped back into old habits and needed to be corrected. In that correction, Paul gives some teaching on the Spiritual gifts, teaches them about loving service in Chapter 13 (which I hope you remember), and then here in chapter 14 addresses two of the gifts that were causing most of the trouble – Prophecy and Tongues.
Prophecy and Tongues
Just a quick note on what those are, so the passage is more easily understood when we read it:
Prophecy is, essentially, is the spiritual gift of speaking words from God. This is either something God has suddenly revealed or brought to mind, usually the words of scripture that apply to a certain situation or some piece of wisdom or direction or are very much like the gifts of preaching and teaching when God uses a person to speak and explain the Word of God to someone. They come through normal, human language, and according to the Bible, have to be tested or evaluated for truth, based on what God has already revealed in the Bible (1 Cor 14:29, 1 Thess 5:19-21).
So the picture of the New Testament spiritual gift of prophecy isn’t Moses standing on a hillside declaring words from God that no one has heard before, but more like a Christian friend, teacher, elder, or preacher speaking words that line up with scripture and seem to exactly fit a certain moment in time, bring glory to God and clarity, comfort, and direction to those who are listening. Sometimes God uses the words that the person is speaking to go straight into the heart of the listeners, believers or unbelievers, so much so that it seems like the secrets of their heart have been revealed to the speaker and God is speaking directly to them.
The gift of Tongues is similar but different in that the message from God is coming in a language that the person speaking doesn’t know – sometimes as another human language, like in Acts 2, or sometimes in a language that no one knows. This can happen when a Christian is alone, during their private prayer times, or publically when God takes over a person’s voice and shares a message that no one is able to understand until someone with the gift of interpretation stands up to explain what the message means. When spoken privately, it’s an intimate act of worship. When spoken publically, just like the gift of prophecy, this public message is meant to bring glory to God and clarity, comfort, and direction to those who are listening.
You can see how tempting it would be for a person who wants that weird, ecstatic, religious experience, or who wants to be the centre of attention, or who wants to feel special, to want this to happen to them. And especially for those in this Corinthian church where people were coming out of those pagan worship rituals. The other spiritual gifts, like hospitality, encouragement, service, giving, mercy, faith, or helps are not nearly as spectacular or flashy as tongues, right?
So, with that in mind let’s read 1 Corinthians 14:1-33 together:
“Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.
Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.
Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. In the Law it is written, ‘By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.’ Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.
What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.”
A Gospel Issue
Do you see what the big issue is here? God is all about Christians using their gifts. He wants people to speak His word to people, to bring His wisdom and comfort and joy to them. He wants His power to be shown, for Christians to be built up, for faith to grow, worship to be exciting and inspirational, and for people to get saved. He wants believers to experience what it’s like to speak the words of life to one another and see God’s Spirit move in a powerful way.
But, as with all sources of power and all gifts, there is the risk of it being misused. Usually, our greatest strengths are those that cause us the most trouble, right? This church had a lot of amazing spiritual experience, and had seen God move in amazing ways, had experienced God’s grace in an amazing way, but with that explosive power had come the temptation toward selfishness, division and pursuing the gifts rather than the Giver.
Instead of listening to God, they were more interested in being heard by others. Instead obeying God, they kept trying to tell God what they wanted. They were treating Jesus the way they had treated their pagan gods. Instead of coming to the Son of God humbly for salvation, for direction, for hope, for help, they came for the gifts and experiences associated with Him.
This still happens today and happened when Jesus walked the earth. Turn to John 6 where it tells the story of when Jesus had preached all day and those who were listening hadn’t brought food and were hungry. He had compassion on them and miraculously fed thousands of them with one boy’s lunch. After everyone had eaten until they were full, the disciples gathered twelve baskets of extra food left over!
Now read what happened next:
“When the people saw the sign [the miracle] that he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!’ Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” (John 6:14-15)
What did the people want from Jesus? Eternal life? Salvation from death? Freedom from sin? Peace in their hearts through a right relationship with God? Did they even want to be with Jesus, the source of life and light, the very Son of God? No. They wanted full bellies. So Jesus takes off, runs away, and that night escapes to the entire other side of the sea. But the people follow him. Read from verse 22:
“On the next day the crowd that remained on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there, and that Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. Other boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus.
When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.’”
Do you see that there? Same issue as in Corinth. They were willing to completely bypass their relationship with God, forget about the Word of God, and dismiss everything that Jesus was offering them – for the sake of the gifts. In this case it was the food and freedom from hunger, in Corinth it was the spiritual gifts of tongues so they could feel special and powerful, but it was the same motive. They didn’t want Jesus, they wanted to use Jesus to get what they wanted – even if it meant trying to make Jesus give them what they wanted by force. They completely missed the point of the Gospel Jesus was preaching. He offered eternal life, these Jews wanted sandwiches. Jesus offered peace and purpose and a spiritual family, they wanted to babble and look cool to their friends.
This is a terrible temptation for any counsellor, preacher, or evangelist, but when we concentrate on the gifts, point people to the good things Jesus offers, we inevitably miss out on presenting the Gift-Giver! If they are converted to the gift, if we seek the gift, we will invariably feel let down because it will only feed our selfish desire for more – but if we are converted to and seek the Giver, only then will we be satisfied.
Jesus says, “I showed you signs that I’m the Saviour and the path to eternal life, but you don’t want that, do you? You want the gifts.” In another place He says,
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)
Or, what is the point of eating your fill if you don’t accept eternal life? What is the point of speaking in tongues if you aren’t making any sense, helping anyone, worshipping God, or even connected to Him? What is the point of being the centre of attention and getting all the adulations of being a prophet, if you are far from God?
Keep reading in John 6 because something important happens there. Look at verse 28: “Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’”
The Corinthian church was so active with these gifts that they had forgotten what they had believed and the work of sharing the gospel of Jesus! Their worship services didn’t proclaim Jesus anymore. They were as bad as the pagan temple, a cacophony of drunken noise that didn’t make sense to anyone. There was no message telling people how to find peace with God, no sharing what it means to be righteous, no message of hope, mercy and grace – just meaningless madness done no longer in the name of Apollo or Aphrodite but in the name of Jesus.
Jesus implores His listeners to see the miracles as signs that they must do the one thing they must do to be saved – believe in Him. Paul, in the same way, implores the church to quit focusing on the signs and the gifts, and go back to the simple message they first believed, and to proclaim it in an orderly, understandable, humble, God glorifying way.
I could go farther into this, but I’m out of time. I want to you to take some time this week to read 1 Corinthians 14 in the light of John 6 and to explore in yourselves what ways you are focusing on the gifts rather than the Gift-Giver.
- In what ways are you simply using the people around you, the church, and even God, as a way to get what you want – even at the expense of your relationships with them and God?
- In what ways have you made your life, your home, your church, or your soul, a cacophony of self-centred noise that is out of tune with what God wants for your life? What I mean is to ask yourself about what ways you are being self-focused, self-centred, self-motivated – but pretending to do it in the name of Jesus. Teaching, helping, speaking, giving, singing, reading, eating, working, all for yourself, so you can be seen and steal glory from God by being seen by others, rather than using your gift to bring glory to Him and serve those around you. It’s impossible to hear God when everything in your life is focused on telling you how great you are.
- In what ways have you replaced a simple, orderly relationship with God, simple worship, simple prayer, simple bible reading, simple service, simple singing, with complicated, bombastic, ritualistic, religion? It could be choosing not to read the Bible so you can read the latest Christian book or listen to some preacher – or only talking about God when you are in public, but never giving Him a second thought when you are alone or with your family – or being caught up in trying to impress God with good works or punishing yourself.
- In what ways have you complicated your relationship with Jesus so that you are losing your focus on Him in favour of things that are merely about Him?
When we are saved by Jesus, He gives us a lot of gifts. One of those gifts is to become a member of His church, a family of believers spread throughout the world. All believers, everywhere are part of the Kingdom of God, the Body of Christ, the Universal Church both living here and in heaven. If you are a Christian you are part of God’s family. The church isn’t intended to be seen merely globally though, it’s most accurately seen and experienced locally as individual believers from the same geographic area choose to meet together to worship Jesus, fellowship with each other, learn and be discipled, and do good works to spread His love in their own neighbourhoods. Certainly, each church should be thinking about their global impact, sending and supporting missionaries and charities in countries that need help, but for most Christians, most of their impact, most of their work, most of their learning, most of their worship, most of their evangelism, is done at their home church.
The letters of the New Testament, though universally applicable, were mostly sent to individual churches: the church in the city of Corinth, in Philippi, in Rome. When Jesus gave John his great Revelation, he addressed it not to the universal church, but to seven specific, local churches. When God works, He doesn’t usually do it on a grand, global level, but instead chooses to work mostly through individuals like you and me in a local church just like ours. That’s the common, normal way God enacts His will in the world. Even the great, global impacts that we’ve seen some ministries have are part of a local church.
If you’ve read Purpose Driven Life, you’re reading a book written by a local pastor in Lake Forest, California. If you’ve listened to the band Casting Crowns, you’re listening to a youth pastor’s band from First Baptist in Daytona Beach, Florida. The Emotionally Healthy Spirituality book we’re going to do came from a ministry built over some years in a church in New York City.
Charles Spurgeon, one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century, became a Christian when he was driven to a Methodist Chapel during a snowstorm. A substitute preacher, with not much training, was simply reading the book of Isaiah. He came to Isaiah 45:2, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else.”, stopped reading, pointed straight at 15-year-old Charles and shouted, “That young man there looks very miserable! Look! Look, young man! Look now!”. God worked a miracle in Spurgeon’s heart, he was saved, became a preacher, and went on to plant many more churches.
It’s not just preachers and writers that have great impact, of course. God sets up preachers and teacher for training others – it is the rest of the church that gets credit for doing most of God’s work in the world. The deacons who visit the sick and serve those in need. The small groups who meet to pray and to share. The ministry leaders who care for children, teens, and seniors. The old married people who take newlyweds under their wing. The families who adopt and foster kids in tough situations. The musicians, artists, and actors who point people to God through their art. The mothers and fathers raising Godly children, and the countless others who go to work every day and serve God’s will there, working hard, having meaningful conversations, and sharing God’s love. That’s how God usually works. Though believers like you.
We talked a little about that last week when we talked about how our church helps us change our lives for the better, and in a lot of our sermons last year on the Body of Christ. The church is an important place, a vital place, for believers to be.
Keep You From Church
But not all believers want to be here. It’s the truth that growing Christians want to be with fellow believers but backslidden and sinning Christians tend to run away from other Christians. My wife was given a Bible a long time ago and I found these words inscribed in it: “This book will keep you from sin, and sin will keep you from this book.” Turns out it’s a quote from DL Moody. I could adapt that to say, “The church will help to keep you from sin, and sin will help to keep you from the church.”
People that are working on their sins, want to learn more about God, grow in righteousness and be trained for ministry flock towards the church and it’s ministries. Those who are fill of unrepentant sins, have unforgiving hearts, are prideful, selfish, or bitter, tend to avoid coming under the leadership of the elders, avoid meeting with other Christians who try to get into their business, avoid places where they might hear something they don’t like. They stay on the outskirts of the church, and are often used by Satan to start church fights and splits. If you are full of guilt and shame, because you are refusing to repent before God for your sin, then you’re not going to want to be around a bunch of people who are worshipping Jesus, saying they have been forgiven, and are trying to do good – because it makes your shame and guilt feel all the more acute. When your heart is messed up with sin it’s easier to be with sinners than Christians.
It breaks my heart that more people aren’t availing themselves of the blessing of being part of a godly, local church. There are so many lonely, confused, addicted, afraid, stressed out, falling apart people out there that are either running all over the place trying to find something to help – or have simply given up and are just trying to medicate or entertain the pain away until they die.
There are people that long for intellectual stimulation, to serve their community, a place to find their purpose, a group of people that sees the world differently than anyone else and knows something they don’t know. They long for the presence of God, the healing and forgiveness that comes from Jesus, even if they don’t know it. Sometimes they do turn to God in their desperation, but most often they refuse Him when He shows up and invites them to turn to Him in their times of distress. Sometimes they do turn to God, and start to pray or are driven to read God’s Word, hoping that something the Bible will help – not realizing, or refusing to believe, that so many of their needs can be met by not only talking to God, but being with His people and joining a good, Godly church.
And of course, there are far too many people who call themselves believers who have divorced themselves from the church. Whether because they had a bad experience or because of their own pride, they now refuse to be part of a church, choosing to stay home and watch tv preachers, listen to podcast, and chat with people online – all the while growing in bitterness and being led astray by lies because there’s no one there to correct their thinking.
It’s sad because sitting at home alone isn’t usually where miracles happen. They happen when you submit yourself humbly to Jesus and choose to live your life with the people of God.
Blessed to Be Your Pastor
I believe we are a good, Christ honouring church, and that most people here work hard to ensure that we stay that way. We’ve gone through a lot together and I can say that the furnace of affliction has refined this church and that God is preparing us for something special in 2018. You are an open church, willing to accept people that are different than you. You are a patient church, showing love when frustrations and difficulties have come. You are a humble church, being willing to do all kinds of things without requiring recognition or reimbursement. You are a generous church, giving more than expected, taking care of each other’s, showering blessings and help on people who share their needs. You are a church that does the hard things to seek unity, having extra meetings, holding people accountable, and being honest with one another even when it’s hard. You are a good church, wanting to make sure God is honoured by what is done here. You are a Biblical church, consistently showing your love for God’s Word.
I am beyond blessed to not only be your pastor, but to have me and my family be the recipients of so much of your God-given grace. That tells me that God is showing you love, working in your heart, and doing good works in you. That He is fulfilling His promise that the good work He has started in you will be carried on to completion (Phil 1:6). It tells me that you are trying to be sensitive to His Spirit. Yes, we’ve had some struggles, and I know that each of you has their own separate and very real trials – but here you are, worshipping, giving, and being attentive to God’s Word and His people. Here you are, looking forward to small groups and study groups. Here you are, serving, training, loving and caring for people. I’m blessed to be your pastor. Anyone who distances themselves from you guys is crazy, because you are being the hands and feet of Jesus.
And so, we come to that part of the year when we read our Church Membership Covenant again. This is the document that every single member of this church has agreed to. If you’re not sure if you’re a member, then you probably aren’t, because it requires baptism, meetings, and voting. It’s a big commitment here.
Last week someone said that they appreciated when I share my own struggles during the sermon and I said that I’ve learned that whenever you are working with a group and are starting a project, ministry, prayer group, small group, or whatever, that it’s really important to set the bar upfront. People will look to the leader to see how things are supposed to be. This is how hard we will work. This is the quality that’s expected. This is how we will talk and act. This is the level of openness and honesty expected. This is the level of risk we’ll be taking. I strongly believe that, so I try to set the bar high.
But it’s not me that chooses where the bar is set, I’m just following the example and commands of Jesus. It is He that sets the bar. He’s our saviour and our model. When we want to know how respectful, kind, honest, open, hard-working, risk-taking to be, we read His word, witness His example, and listen to what He says. That’s all I try to do – imperfectly for sure, but that’s what we’re all shooting for, right?
And that’s why we have a church membership covenant. It’s our man-made, human way, to hold each other accountable to the bar that Jesus has set for us. He sets the bar, then we follow Him, and work together to help each other to keep following. There’s lots of reasons we have this document, Why Our Church Has a Membership Covenant, but this year I simply want to take time to read it and remind us as to what is in it, what we’ve agreed to and to remind us to hold each other accountable to it.
A good church reminds each other of what the bible says and holds each other to it in love. This is simply a summarized way to do that. Is it a perfect document? No. But we here believe that it’s helpful. Here’s what it says:
Having been led, as we believe, by the Spirit of God, to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as our Saviour, and on the profession of our faith, having been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we do now, in the presence of God, most solemnly and joyfully enter into covenant with one another as one body in Christ.
We engage, therefore, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, to walk together in Christian love; to strive for the advancement of this Church in knowledge, piety and godly living; to promote its spirituality in sustaining its worship, ordinances, discipline and doctrine; to contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the Church, its work against sin and injustice in the world, the relief of the poor and the spread of the Gospel throughout all nations.
We agree to promote family worship and maintain private devotions; to educate our children in the teaching and practice of our faith; and to seek the salvation of our kindred and acquaintances. We strive to walk circumspectly in the world, to be just in our dealings, faithful in our engagements and exemplary in our deportment; to avoid all idle talk, backbiting and unrighteous anger; to practice temperance in all things; and to be zealous in all our efforts to advance the Kingdom of our Saviour.
We agree to strive to walk worthy of the vocation wherewith we are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love, endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
We covenant to watch over one another in brotherly love, to remember each other in prayer, to aid each other in sickness and distress, to cultivate Christian sympathy in feeling and courtesy in speech, to be slow to take offence, always ready for reconciliation, and mindful of the commandments of our Saviour.
That’s quite a list, isn’t it? Hard to live up to, right? This is why we thank God for grace and give grace to one another. Just as none of us will live up to the standard of being Christlike, or be perfect as God is perfect, or perfectly follow God’s word, until we finally get rid of this mortal flesh and receive our new bodies, so none of us will live up to this bible-based set of standards. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t supposed to try.
Being a Christian means taking responsibility for our own sins, our own attitudes, our own decisions, and our own actions. We own up to them. A lack of studiousness and godly living isn’t anyone else’s fault but our own. A lack of passion in worship or discipline isn’t because life is so hard, it’s because we’re sinners. A refusal to share the gospel with others, refusal to lead our family in a godly way, refusal to use our money properly, isn’t because our work is too busy, our kids are too much trouble, and our bills are too high – it’s because we’ve made poor, selfish, choices.
A Christian admits this. First we admit it to Jesus. We pray, “Jesus, I’m a sinner. I’ve messed up so much. The effects of the sin in my heart, my own selfish, stupid choices, have rippled out of my soul and affected everyone around me. Most of all, my sin has torn me away from you. Please forgive me, help me, heal me, put me on the right path, and help me stay there.” We admit to Jesus that we are sinners, and then we ask for His help. But it doesn’t stop there.
As we talked about last week, as James 5 says, we “confess our sins to one another and pray for one another, that [we] may be healed.” We need to bring others into the loop. This membership covenant helps us do that. It helps us see how we fall short of God’s standards, and helps us to see some things we need to ask our church to help us with.
But it does something else. As Galatians 6:1-2 says, it helps us to bear one another’s burdens, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
This covenant drives us to confessing our sins to Jesus. It gives us a list of ways we can grow and ask others to help us. And agreeing to it gives others permission to hold us accountable. It gives them permission to say, “Hey, are you reading your bible? Are you praying? How’s your marriage? Are you resting? Are you working hard? Are you serving others? What are your needs?” or “Hey man, you’re thinking some wrong things about God and we need to talk about that.” Or “You haven’t been to church in a while, you’re not giving or serving, and that’s not spiritual healthy – what’s going on?” Hey, you are stealing – not doing your taxes honestly, taking cable from the neighbours, illegally copying music or movies, ripping people off – and the God’s Word says you need to stop.”
By becoming a member of the church you are agreeing that the elders, deacons, and other members have permission to ask you hard questions and hold you accountable. This is how we keep sharpening each other (Prov 27:10). We do it as 1 Corinthians 13 says we should do it, full of love – but sometimes that love means doing the hard thing like confronting the sin. This is how we remain a good, godly, Christ-honouring, church. This is how we all grow closer to God and more like Jesus, together.
I’m going to try to bring the membership covenant up more this year to keep it in front of us, but my encouragement to you is to keep this document in your bible, use it to spur yourself and others on. Read it in your small group, your family devotions, and go over it in your private study time. Use it to spur your prayer life, your conversations with other believers, and to motivate you to help others.
The start of the year, as I said last week, is a time when a lot of people take time to evaluate where they are in life and make some decisions about making some changes, often called “New Year’s Resolutions”. They feel convicted that some area of their life needs to change, and the tossing out of the old calendar seems like as good a time as any to start.
Some people focus on their physical health, vowing they will eat healthier and exercise more. Others focus on their work life, telling themselves that this is the year they will finally get a better job, get that promotion, take that training they’ve been putting off, get a raise, or change their habits so they’ll be more effective. Some people turn towards relationships, running through the list of people on their contact list and deciding to purge the toxic people and make new friends, get reconnected with old ones, spend more time with their family, or even decide to start a family for themselves. Some decide to be more environmentally conscientious or to do better with their money. Others look more deeply at their spiritual side, vowing to meditate more, get more “centred”, pursue things that bring more meaning, and finally figure out why they have been put on the earth in the first place.
I think all of these are good things. I applaud anyone who puts down the remote and their phone, turns off the computer, gets quiet and does some self-evaluation. Introspection is usually a genuinely positive thing that is a good step towards true, substantial, life-change.
But no matter how much introspecting and resoluting we do, it often doesn’t get very far, does it? For every New Year’s Resolution there’s a breaking of that resolution. We want to be better, but temptation is too strong. Diets are abandoned, the new guitar sits dusty in the corner along with all the books to be read. Gyms are packed full in January but back to their regular clientele by February – not they care considering all the 1 year, unbreakable memberships they sold. The folks who made the resolutions feel like failures – but repeat the cycle for their birthday, when spring comes, when school starts, and then again the next year.
So, what can we do to make sure that those changes stick? Well, there are two things that we need to do before we ever make those changes. We need to talk to God, and we need to find accountability.
Bringing it to God
The first thing we need to do when it comes to these moments of resolve is to make sure we talking and listening to God. There is a real danger if our introspection and decision making is done in a vacuum. What I mean by this is that we as individuals shouldn’t be doing all this evaluating and resolving without including others in the mix. We, by ourselves, are generally not very good at either figuring out what’s wrong with us or how to fix it. We will usually err one of two ways, either toward pride, thinking too much of ourselves, giving ourselves too much credit, and making excuses for ourselves, or we’ll err too much toward the negative, beating ourselves up, evaluating ourselves too harshly, and change things we really don’t need to.
For example, we assume that people don’t like us because of our looks so we spend time changing our body and clothes, and it turns out that it’s because we’re actually a jerk who doesn’t shower enough. Or we assume that we’re amazing at drawing or singing or writing, so we figure it’s time to let the world see our wonderful works, but it turns out that we’re actually terrible at it. Or vice versa, we look at our art or listen to ourselves sing or play or write and we think we’re terrible, but if people saw it, they’d actually really like it.
So, the first thing we need to do when it comes to these things is to make sure that what we are deciding to do, or the thing we want to change, lines up to reality – and that can’t happen without including others in the mix.
And the most important “other” we need to be sure to include is God, for He is the source of all truth and the one who knows us best. Proverbs 16:9 says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” Or Proverbs 19:21, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.” Psalm 127:1-2 says, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.”
Non-Christians, and too many believers make these grand decisions without ever consulting God or His Word, and so everything is messed up from the very start. John Calvin once said, “Man’s nature is a perpetual factory of idols”. The Bible says it this way in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
When we make these resolutions or life-changing decisions without bringing them to God and listening to Him, we will almost always be listening to our own deceitful heart and feeding our idol factory. I’ll use myself as an example: I turned 40 this week so I posted to Facebook asking for any tips. Most of them were about taking care of my physical self because it gets harder from here on in. Buy a scale, watch the diet, exercise more, sleep enough, take care of my knees, start taking vitamins – only one person told me to buy a red convertible and embrace a mid-life crisis. And all those physical things are good advice I need to take, but what happens when I decide to do this without talking to God?
Well, I slip into the error of 1 Timothy 4:8 that says, “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.” In other words, it’s possible for me to make all these wonderful resolutions but actually miss the real problem. My issue isn’t that I eat too much sugar, not enough vegetables, and watch too much tv. If I solved all that myself, I would be healthier, sure, but God isn’t simply concerned about my weight and vitamin intake.
The deeper issue is that there are areas of my life I haven’t fully turned over to God and still believe myself to be in control of. I still believe that my way of handling stress, sadness, or temptation is better than God’s. I still believe that God won’t provide comfort or help or peace, so I go looking for it in an idol called food or entertainment. The issue isn’t sugar intake or lack of self-control, the issue is that I don’t trust God enough, I don’t fear God enough, I don’t believe God’s promises enough. Which come down to an inadequate prayer life, a stale worship life, lazy bible reading and study habits… which cause me to drift from God and leave me open to demonic temptation.
When I talk to God about this and list to His word, the problem becomes clearer, more understandable, deeper – and I see that the solution isn’t a weird diet and exercise plan or some vitamins, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ, where I decrease and He increases, where I fall at His feet and ask Him to be my greater joy, where I realize that He’s not saving me from merely bad habits, but deadly sins that leave me spiritually weak and an easy target for the enemy of my soul.
And now the solution come more clear that if I am on my knees more, read God’s word more, learn to trust Him more, believe Him more, and ask Him for more grace – that I will learn that Jesus will help me more than my idols will and I will gain more joy from His good gifts of food and work than I did before when they were my slave masters.
Do you see what I mean? It’s no different with any other resolution we may have. We feel convicted to learn guitar, build better relationships, become more successful in our work – and we think we need to simply rejig our schedule and buckle down, but when we come to God with those things He shows us so much more.
Our desire to learn guitar is a deeper desire for acceptance, love, to feel special, to fill a gap in our heart – which are all Gospel issues addressed when we realize we are already loved. Our desire for better relationships, more friends, better friends, or closer ties to family, ends up becoming a journey that shows us where we have grown bitter with unforgiveness, reveals our fear of abandonment, our habit of blaming others, or a realization that we hate ourselves and use others to distract us from that self-hatred – which are all issues that are addressed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and a closer relationship with God. Our desire for success and commitment to work more hours ends up, when turned over to God, becomes a realization that we are never satisfied, that we are addicted to adrenaline, that we’re afraid of failure, or that we have been working somewhere doing something that God never wanted us to do in the first place – which are all Gospel issues, addressed by finding our identity and purpose in Christ and the practice of listening to the Holy Spirit more.
So the first thing we must do whenever we feel that sense of conviction or are making a big decision like this, is to invite God into the conversation, but we also need to invite others. This is the greatest disadvantage of our society’s turn towards radical individualism. When the only voice in our head is ours, and the only standard for good that matters is whatever we decide, we’re in trouble. When the only people we’ll allow to talk to us is the echo chamber of people that think and act like us, we’re in trouble. Certainly the greatest form of accountability is reading God’s Word and listening to the conviction of His Spirit, but we can’t do that alone either. We were designed to be in community. When we become a Christian by trusting in Jesus as our Saviour, He gives us a lot of gifts, and one of those is to be made a member of the Body of Christ, the church. (1 Cor 12:27).
It is this community that Christians are meant to be part of most, where our closest relationships outside of that of God and our family are formed. Not our sports team, community clubs, affinity groups, or even para-church and ministries, as wonderful as those are. Christians are meant to be part of a growing, diverse, Christ-centred, church. It is with the church that we share our hopes, struggles, sins, fears, and convictions. It’s within the community of a Word-centred church that Christians experience God’s teaching, rebuking, correction and training in righteousness. It is in the church that we grow the most in our faith.
Now, there are some churches that have taken up the world’s view on things and have decided to become more and more homogeneous, more and more alike, more uniform, separating people from those that are unlike them, and that’s not good. It is in our diversity of ages, experiences, maturity, preferences, hopes, fears and struggles, that we grow most. Sure, it’s nice to hang around people that are like us – same age, same experiences, same backgrounds – and it has its place, but that’s not where we grow most. We do ourselves a disservice when we remove ourselves from the diversity of the church.
For example, say you’ve been thinking and praying about some changes in our life and have come to some resolutions and conclusions. You’ve felt God’s conviction, have read God’s word, and think you’ve got a good handle on things. How do you know you’re hearing right? How do you know you’re not stuck in an echo chamber, just hearing what you want to hear? What about your blind spots? And if you did get it all right, how will you get started? And you know you’re weak, so how will you make sure you stick to it? “God will do it for me!” is true, but God most often works through His church.
We need to listen to people that are wiser and older than us, people who have struggled with similar things and have seen God’s victories, people who have been reading the word and praying for longer than us. We need people to help us choose good books, good helps, good tools, based on their experience. We need people younger than us to give us inspiration, energy, unique perspective, to ask questions we never thought of, to introduce us to tools and concepts we’ve never considered, and to cheer us on. We need elders to lend us wisdom, deacons to visit us in our struggles, small groups to pray for us, and the presence of children to hold us to a higher standard. We need to see amazing, Godly people that give us a standard to strive for, and see a whole bunch of messed up people so we know we’re not alone in our striving.
The church is where we experience the “one anothers” of love, encouragement, spurring to good deeds, serving and being served, instruction, honour, kindness and compassion. (1 John 4:12, Heb 3:13; 10:24, Gal 5:3; Rom 15:14; 12:10, Eph 4:32)
Listen to the words of James 5:13-20,
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
James is a very practical book of the Bible. If we have issues in our life that need changing, what James calls “sufferings”, what are we to do? Bring it to God and pray. Then what? Tell the church and ask others to pray. What if you’ve sinned? What if you’ve totally messed something up? Are you to keep that secret because sinners don’t belong at church and everyone will just judge you? No. Confess the sins to people at church and pray that God will heal your heart and the situation. Why? Because prayer has power, and the prayer of many has more power. What if someone wanders away from the truth, follows lies, and gets all messed up? Someone from the church should go get them, tell them the truth, and bring them back (Gal 6:1).
All of this is God working through the church. We’re never meant to do any of this on our own.
I’m not sure what’s been going on in our heart and life over the last month or so, but I am sure that every single one of you experience some sort of conviction to change something in your life – maybe multiple somethings – and you feel you need to do something about it. Some of you are trying to ignore that feeling because you’re too lazy or too afraid of failure. Others are ashamed of their issue and want to keep it secret – either because it’s something that will get them in trouble, or something they think is too shocking to share, or they think their alone, or their afraid of being judged. Some have already started and failed at their change, and feel guilty about it. Some look at the mountain of changes they feel they need and are utterly overwhelmed. Some have physical handicaps, others emotional weakness, that make it harder. Some have spiritual and religious problems they can’t get past, others have addictions that keep them bound to failure.
My simple point today is this: Allow those convictions, those desires for change to drive you to your knees before God, into His Word, before the face of Christ in prayer – to be the fuel that runs your prayer life and makes you desperate for God’s forgiveness and healing.
And then, once you have started working with God, bring it to the church. Vow that you are going to be honest, once and for all, about what you are struggling with. Vow that you are going to drag the sin into the light so it can lose its power and finally be dealt with.
In invite you to call me so we can talk about it. Talking to your pastor is a great place to start and walking with you and helping you is one of my greatest joys. If not me, then talk with one of the deacons or a Sunday school teacher or a Christian friend. If we can’t handle it, we’ll help you find someone that can – and then stick with you along the way.
Not only that, but make the commitment that you are not only going to make sure you are at church for as many Sundays as you can get here, but that you are going to join a small group, the youth group, a study group, or some other place where Christians are invited to share, pray, and grow together. Not simply because you are supposed to, but because you believe that it is when the church gathers that God chooses to do most of His work.