Thursday, August 25, 2011

Sermon preview--Why Do Some People Fall Away?

In the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23, but specifically vv. 20-21), Jesus describes a problem that churches don't often like to talk about. People come to a point in life where they intellectually believe in Jesus, and emotionally, they are so excited to know that they can be forever forgiven and transformed by His love. So they make a public profession of faith, get baptized, start attending church…and then somewhere down the line, they "fall away." The term that is used in the parable is skandalizomai. It also means "stumble." You get the picture of people running a race together, and some just drop out. That happens in churches. I have had the privilege of baptizing hundreds of people. I wish I could tell you that every one of those new believers grew up to be like the person Jesus describes here as “good soil,” that they changed the world thirty, sixty or hundredfold. But the truth is that some—the last time I saw them—had left church life entirely. They now live exactly like people who never believed. They were short-timers, temporary believers. Following Jesus was seemingly just a phase in their lives. Anyone who has spent any time in church life can tell stories of friends or family members who went through this. Most music fans know that Bob Dylan went through a very public Christian period. He made a couple of Gospel albums. Most people don’t know that John Lennon went through the same thing. Holed up in his New York apartment, he started watching Billy Graham crusades and the 700 Club on TV. He began attending church and saying, “Praise God” in casual conversation. He told Yoko Ono he had accepted Jesus Christ. But it only lasted a few weeks. Soon he was back to having his life dictated by Yoko’s astrologers and psychics.

Jesus knew this would happen. It was an even bigger issue in the Early church than it is today. . The big debate in the first centuries of Christianity was on whether someone who renounced Christ under penalty of martyrdom was lost. Should people who had saved their own lives by recanting their Christianity be welcomed back into the church? This is why the subject of endurance or perseverance is so prevalent in the New Testament. The book of 1 John discusses this problem at length. People were falling away from the faith, and the apostle wanted his fellow believers to understand why it was happening. In 2:19, he puts it bluntly, They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.

This whole discussion makes many of us uncomfortable. We live in a very tolerant, live-and-let-live society. The only people we think we’re allowed to judge are judgmental people, which is sort of ironic when you think about it. So we internally cringe at all this talk of who is in and who is out. Let me be clear: I don’t think it’s fruitful, responsible or biblical for you or I to try to decide if someone else is truly saved. We waste a lot of time and divide the Body of Christ when we do that. But as part of the family of God, we should care if there is no spiritual fruit in someone’s life, just like a farmer should care if one of his peach trees stops putting out peaches. We should care if suddenly one of our members stops coming, just like you and I would care if next Thanksgiving, one of our siblings didn’t show up to dinner unexpectedly. So in this message, we’ll look at three questions: Why do people fall away? What can we do to keep people from stumbling? How should we treat those who have stumbled? And then I have one more question for you to answer yourself.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sermon preview--Why Doesn't Everyone Believe?

The movie Back to the Future came out when I was a teenager. I read recently that Bob Gale, the screenwriter, came up with the idea of the movie when he found his father’s old High School yearbook, and it made him wonder if he would have been friends with his dad if he could have gone back in time to when his dad was a teenager. In the movie, the main character is Marty McFly, and his dad George is sort of the classic loser. From all present indications, Marty is headed down the same road. Marty is a musician, and his girlfriend urges him to send in an audition tape of his music so that he can be “discovered.” But he says, “Well, what if I take the tape in and they don't like it, what if they say I'm no good, what if they say "Get out of here kid. You've got no future." I just don't think I can handle that kind of rejection.” Later, Marty goes back 30 years into the past and meets a teenaged version of his father. He learns things about his dad he never knew, like the fact that George McFly likes to write science fiction stories. Marty urges his dad to send those stories to a publisher, but then blushes in shame as he hears his own dad say, “What if they don’t like it? What if I’m no good? I just don’t think I could handle that kind of rejection.”

The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-23) is about a very different kind of rejection. As we return to our year-long look at the parables of Jesus, we’re going to focus these next few weeks on parables of the Kingdom, stories that talk about our part in helping God’s Kingdom spread on Earth. When Jesus told this one, His disciples were beginning to get discouraged. They had left everything to follow this man who they were convinced was the Messiah. And for a while, thousands of Israelites seemed to agree. Jesus was cheered by crowds, mobbed by curious onlookers, and swamped with requests for healing, which He always honored. He was the most famous man in Israel. For the disciples, this must have been very exciting; they were in on the ground floor of something really big. Someday soon, He would be king, and since they were part of the original entourage, surely they would receive hefty rewards. But even more, they looked forward to all the good this man would do when one day everyone bowed before Him. All the enticing prophecies of the Scriptures were about to come true…wolves would lie down with lambs, the evil would be punished, and Israel would be blessed. Then things started to change. The religious leaders made it clear that they thought Jesus was a heretic at best; He might even be a demon in human disguise. People started to fall away. The crowds melted like ice cream on a summer sidewalk. Jesus knew His disciples were discouraged; but He also knew it was going to get worse before it got better. The cross was coming, and afterwards, those disciples would face persecution and martyrdom. So He told this parable to explain why some people don’t believe.

We live two thousand years after these events, but we Christians feel the same sort of discouragement. It’s well known that Christianity’s influence in our culture is growing smaller by the day. More and more, people in America see Jesus as a great and admirable historical figure, but one who has no real relevance on their lives. There is no end to the books and sermons and blog posts that try to explain why this is. But we have Christ’s words on the subject right here. So why do some people reject the Good News about Jesus? Why doesn’t everyone believe? That's what we'll talk about this Sunday.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Sermon preview--The Tenth Commandment

In last week's sermon, I mentioned my friend Jim Overton, who served with me at my previous church. One thing about Jim: He loves chocolate. That fact was well-known in the church. There was this sweet lady who once a month or so would show up at the church office with this big chocolate meringue pie just for Jim. Here’s the thing: I love dessert. Not just chocolate; any dessert you want to name. I’m a sucker for sweets. So I was wondering what I needed to do to get in on this chocolate pie racket. One day, she brought in the pie, and she called me out of my office to see it. It was an especially beautiful pie that day; the meringue was practically a foot high. And she said to me, “Don’t you know brother Jim is going to enjoy this?” And I made my move. I must admit, I was quite shameless. I said something like, “You know, Ludell, I love chocolate pie. And no one ever brings it to me.” I wasn’t proud of myself, but I figured that did it. Next month, here comes Ludell with a chocolate pie…for Jim. In six years there, I was never able to convince Ludell I was pie-worthy. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a sweet lady and a true friend who was never anything but kind to me, but her pie was for Jim and Jim alone. So when I preach on coveting, I know whereof I speak. I say that to say this: I know all sorts of ways to avoid eating too many sweets, but I have not figured out how to become the kind of guy who doesn’t like chocolate pie. Frankly, I don’t think it can be done. So if you can’t get rid of your desire for something you can’t have, how on Earth can you keep from coveting? We'll talk about that and more (including why coveting is a serious offense) this Sunday.