J Vernon McGee
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We’re in the home stretch of The Foundations Series. We’ve certainly covered a lot of ground in the past 9 weeks, and it is my prayer that it has been helpful and has given you a new understanding of the Christian faith, Christ’s church, your responsibilities as a believer, and a newfound joy of being in relationship to your Lord and Saviour.
God Isn’t A Gumball Machine
I’ve worked hard over the last bunch of sermons to prepare for the next four. What I’ve been doing is laying the groundwork for the part that most Christians I know really want to get to. I’ve had many people over the years sit across from me in my office, or at a small group, or after service, and ask the same question: What do I need to do to grow as a Christian?
What many of these folks want is a program, a system, a list of things to do that will deepen their faith, help them know the Bible more, answer their theological questions, challenge them to serve more, and help them become a better Christian. I’m thankful for these folks. They have a desire, but they don’t know how to get started.
Other people will ask that same question, “What do I need to do to grow as a Christian?”, but they are not doing it out of a thirst for more, but out of a place of pain. What they are really saying is,
“I’m barely holding on to the faith here. My life is a mess, my priorities are messed up, I’m addicted to things that are hurting me, my relationships are in turmoil, I haven’t felt peace for a long time, I’m not enjoying church, I don’t have any close friends, I don’t feel worship, I think I’m losing my faith, my salvation, and maybe my soul.”
They are crying out for help. They want to know what spiritual activity will fix these problems and will make God bless them so they can feel better. I certainly don’t blame them for wanting that, and I most certainly want to help in whatever way I can.
This is why I’ve spent so many weeks leading up to the next four weeks. I needed to build up an understanding of what it means to be a sinner, to be saved, to have faith, and to be a Christian. I needed everyone to have an understanding of the basics… the Foundations… of Christianity before I got into the “how-to” section.
I’ve been putting off this practical section in hopes that you won’t come into it believing that doing all of these things will give you the answers. No, these are tools by which you can access the answers you are looking for.
I’m going to say something strange now, so please pay attention: If you are trying to grow as a Christian, or are trying to figure out how to get out of the messes in your life, you don’t need to know how to pray better. You don’t need to read your bible more. You don’t need to fast, or join a class, or go to more worship services, or get a mentor, or get baptized, or learn more verses. It is not about what you can do.
As we come into this practical section it is absolutely imperative that you grasp that what I’m going to teach you is not a way to build up credit with God, twist His arm, impress Him, or anything else that will make Him indebted to you. Spiritual disciplines are not a way to make God bless you. Putting in more time in prayer or reading the bible does not equal God’s blessing. God is not a gumball machine that you can put in a quarter, spin the dial, and get something. This is not like exercise where if work hard enough you are guaranteed to see results. It doesn’t work like that. Your spiritual life doesn’t work like that.
Everybody – everybody! gets this wrong at some point. They look at God and say, “I’ve done so much for you, now you should do something for me.” And they site all of their spiritual works, their service, their church attendance, all the things they’ve given up, and list all the ways they have been a good boy or girl that deserves a cosmic cookie from God.
It doesn’t work like that. And if there is something that I wanted you to get out of the past 9 weeks it is that your salvation is a work of Jesus, out of the mercy and great love of God, nothing that you have done. God has poured out blessing to you, but it is from His grace, not out of a sense of indebtedness. He saved you from Hell, gave you a new heart, a new life, the gift of the Holy Spirit, of the church, and so much more, not because you deserve it, but because HE LOVES YOU SO MUCH.
Go to Church and Sin
Turn to Amos 4:4-5 and lets chew a while on the proper motivation of our hearts towards these spiritual disciplines. It is critical that we see that God is after our hearts, our love for Him, our relationship with Him, our obedience to His will, and NOT about our religious activities. He wants a relationship like a child has with a father, not like a bank has with a client.
This is such a common temptation that we have to snuff it out at the onset. We cannot come to our daily devotions, to church, prayer, study, visiting the sick, tithing, or anything else with the hopes of trying to get something out of God. It must, must, MUST be motivated by our love for Him, our thanksgiving for salvation, and our relationship with His Son, Jesus Christ.
Listen to how God talks to His people to show them how ridiculous their spiritual activities have become to Him. He says:
“‘Go to Bethel and sin; go to Gilgal and sin yet more. Bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three years [some translators say “days”]. 5 Burn leavened bread as a thank offering and brag about your freewill offerings—boast about them, you Israelites, for this is what you love to do,” declares the Sovereign Lord.”
Can you hear the sarcasm? There’s a lot going on here, but let me summarize. Gilgal and Bethel were important places of worship for the Israelite people, and they were full. They were equivalent to some “mega-churches” today, or the big revival tents of old. (Please understand that I’m not about to bash megachuches. Some of them are AMAZING, Christ honouring, God-fearing, people loving places, with amazing pastors and congregations!)
They were abuzz with religious activity. People were coming from all around to be a part of this amazing “church”. Let’s take a look at the description of what these churches were like 5:21-26 – but we’ll do it in reverse. God is speaking with derision and hatred towards them, but let’s look at them from a human point of view. Perhaps you’ll see some of yourself in these descriptions:
“21 I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me.”
These folks were having great festivals, parties, and assemblies. People were moving and shaking at this church! They were following enough of the religious language and ancient practices that they could call themselves a “church”, but not so much that they were being hampered by the old, boring, restrictive practices of the Law of Moses. Like many Christians today, the people who went to Bethel and Gilgal appreciated the modern twist that this church had taken on their worship times.
“22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.”
This church, and these people were into new worship, new modes, the fun assemblies — the really good stuff — not the boring, orthodox stuff. In chapter 4 which we read before it says that the were coming either every three years or every three days… the idea being that they allowed people to sacrifice either less or more often than they were required so they could show how open, spiritual and cool they were. Show up whenever you want and you don’t have to follow the rules.
Verse 5 says they were bringing “leaved bread” to their sacrifices, which was strictly prohibited by Leviticus 2:11. So in other words, “Worship whenever you want, however you want, in the way you want, with the things you want, and the people you want – it’s all about you!” I can just hear them saying, “God is all about love! Love wins! God isn’t just about rules and regulations, He wants you to enjoy life, to be successful, to have great bounty… so come, bring your sacrifices to the church if that’s what you’re into – or don’t. In fact, this is a place where you can and celebrate your offering — bring your good stuff, your “choice fellowship offerings” and we will make sure that we tell everyone – then God and everyone who comes will be impressed with you! Or don’t… whatever! It’s all about you!”
“23 Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.”
This church had a great band too! All the most modern instrumentality, the coolest singer, the nicest light system. This was a good show to come and watch!
Skip to verse 26, “You have lifted up the shrine of your king, the pedestal of your idols, the star of your god—which you made for yourselves.” Another translation has this, “You shall take up Sikkuth your king, and Kiyyun your star-god—your images that you made for yourselves…”
They had some cool stuff that other churches didn’t have. They were so inclusive! Not only did they worship Yahweh, but they allowed you to worship Sikkuth and Kiyyun who were associated with astrology and the planet Saturn. They had pagan idols right inside the church. This church didn’t make you feel bad for checking your horoscope, in fact they printed it right in the bulletin. They had all the coolest religious stuff from all the different religions – prayer wheels, and native spirituality, worshipping mother earth, you can call God a “she” or an “it”… they let you worship however you wanted, whenever you wanted and whoever you wanted. Worshipping these other gods also had the added benefit of allowing you to circumvent the Law of God and indulge in all kinds of sexual immorality and become wealthy through any means possible. You could have your religious cake and eat it too!
This church wouldn’t judge you. They would accept you with open arms. They would let you feel like you were worshipping the One True God, but also let you have a couple of other pagan gods on the side. They wouldn’t make you do anything you didn’t want to do, believe anything you didn’t like, or do anything difficult. They were all about health, wealth, freedom and peace.
A Church You Can Brag About
Look at the end of Amos 4:5:
“‘…brag about your freewill offerings—boast about them, you Israelites, for this is what you love to do,’ declares the Sovereign Lord.”
This is a church you could be proud to call home. They are in all the papers, the pastor is on all the tv shows, he writes best selling books, the band has their own top 10 CD! I bet that was their slogan: A Church You Can Brag to Your Friends About. This church was all about letting people do what they “love to do.”
A lot of people want this kind of a church and this kind of Christianity. They are quietly ashamed of their conservative church that believes the Bible is the Word of God and that Jesus is the Only way. They wish their church would get more press, be more popular, compromise a little more, and have some of the things the cool churches have. They wouldn’t say it in public, and they certainly wouldn’t say it to their church, but they quietly believe it in their hearts. They can’t brag about their church because it is too closed minded, too conservative, to bible-thumping, not open enough to current trends, current thinking, the new social agenda, modern viewpoints and other worldviews. I believe this is why many Christians swap churches. Not because of any biblical reason, but because their church isn’t cool enough for them.
A Pagan Mindset
Why do I tell you all this in the context of personal, spiritual development and as an introduction to our “how-to” about intentional discipleship and growing in the faith? Because I need you to get the motivations of your heart straight before you ever start down this path of Christianity. I need you to have your heart in the right place before you take the next step of discipleship. I need your spiritual life to be motivated by your love for your God, your thankfulness to your Saviour Jesus Christ, and a passion to connect with His Holy Spirit – not by a selfish desire to get health, wealth, comfort or anything else.
Does God want to give you good things?
Will you find peace if you do these things?
Will you be comforted? Will you be able to deal with stress, and loss, and fear, and anxiety better?
I would say unequivocally YES!
I believe that if you practice these disciplines you will, without question, grow as a person, become a better person, a better husband or wife or child, a better worker, be able to save your money, live on purpose and feel like you are contributing to the world, be physically, emotionally and spiritually healthier! BUT If you are doing these things for that reason, you are completely missing the point. I hope you understand that!
Read what Jesus said in Matthew 6:31:
“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.”
The pagan mindset is to try to manipulate the spiritual realm for advantages in the physical realm. They build whole religious systems around manipulating their gods to do things they want to do. They do horrible things like cutting themselves or child sacrifice so they can prove their worth and their fear, and they do ridiculous things to impress their gods so they can get goodies from them.
A pagan worries every day about whether or their god is going to bless them, curse them, give them good things, or wipe them off the planet. They just don’t know. And it is completely un-Christian, counter to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, for a Christian to think that way about their Heavenly Father! He’s not a petty, angry, easily manipulated, easily distracted and sinful pagan God, but a loving Father who knows your deepest needs and has already made provision for you by sacrificing His beloved Son on your behalf.
In the next verse Jesus tells us how we need to approach spiritual maturity and our study for the next 4 weeks. He says,
“Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Sometimes, as you seek God’s Kingdom and Righteousness first, God will take you places you never wanted to go, lead you to do things you never wanted to do, and use you in ways you never dreamed possible. The fruit that is going to come out of your life when you turn your life over to Jesus (and stop trying to use Him as a spiritual ATM) will surprise you, and will always require sacrifice. He will ask for more and more of you as you give yourself more and more to Him.
And as you do that, I promise you, you will not be thinking “Wow, I had it better before, when I was a pagan.” You will be thinking, “I can’t believe where I am, how much I care, how hard this is, how much of me this is requiring… and I can’t believe how much joy there is here! I would never have chosen this for myself, but knowing I’m where God wants me gives me something I could never get from the pleasures of the world.”
Your life and mine can be a flourish of religious activity, and our hearts can still be far from God. It’s possible, like in the time of Amos, we could see a revival of sorts happen in our church, but have it be a worldly one. It’s possible that you could do everything I’m going to talk about over the next 4 weeks, and do it with all your might, and have none of it deepen your relationship with God, but instead puff you up with pride because you feel so super religious – or cause you to feel absolutely depressed because it’s not working and you feel like God’s not doing His part. I don’t want any of that to happen.
Let me close by quoting what J Vernan McGee’s commentary says about Amos 4:4-5 (Pg 354):
“It’s very easy for us to join a large, happy religious crowd, enthusiastically sing rousing songs, and put money in the offering plate, and yet not be changed in our hearts. The test of a spiritual experience is not ‘Do I feel good?’ or ‘Did we have a big crowd and a good time?’ The real test is “Do I know God better and am I more like Jesus Christ?’
The people in Amos’ day didn’t return home determined to help the poor, feed the hungry, and care for the widows and orphans. They went home with the same selfish hearts that they had when they left home, because their ‘worship’ was only empty ritual (Isa 1:11-17). Any religious ‘revival’ that doesn’t alter the priorities of Christians and help solve the problems of society isn’t a revival at all.
It’s interesting that Amos mentioned music, because that’s an important part of the church’s worship. However, what the Jews thought was beautiful music, God considered nothing but ‘noise’ (Amos 5:23). People today pay high prices for tickets to ‘Christian concerts.’ Yet they won’t attend a free Bible study class or Bible conference in their own church….”
I find that very convicting, and will spend time seeking God in the next while for places in my heart where I have been trying to manipulate Him like a pagan or where He has been changing me, and asking me to respond, but I have stopped Him because of my own fear, prejudice, unmet expectations, or plain laziness. I encourage you to do that as well this week and as we get into the practical steps towards spiritual maturity next week.