Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Bad Religion

This past Monday, there was an article on the front page of the Houston Chronicle about the growing number of people in our country who are dropping out of church.  As you may have heard, 1 in 5 Americans now have no religious preference.  That’s the highest that number has ever been in this country, and it’s growing.  It’s growing faster than any religion.  In fact, when you ask adults under 30, the number is 1 out of 3 who say they have no religion.  What most people don’t realize, and what this article points out, is that a great majority of these people—74% to be precise—were raised with some kind of faith, most of them Christian.  Most will tell you they still believe.  They still pray and try to live according to the teachings of Christ.  But they have no use for the institutional Church.  They’ll say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”  Some say perhaps this is a good thing; maybe the church has become obsolete.  Maybe in the future, Christians won’t need to gather together.  They’ll just live out their faith individually.  
Let me be clear about this: That is not what God intended.  Like it or not, He created the Church.  In Scripture, He calls it His Body and His Bride.  Would you tell a man, “I like you, but I can’t stand your wife?”  That’s what we tell Jesus when we say we believe in Him but don’t like the Church.  Hebrews 10:25 says, Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the day approaching. So according to God’s word, the Church doesn’t become obsolete as time goes on; it becomes more important the closer we get to Christ’s return. 

That's what the Bible says.  Now, from a purely pragmatic standpoint, our culture needs the Church.  That’s not frequently acknowledged and it’s not popular to say, but it’s true.  Let’s just take our one church for example.  Because of Westbury Baptist Church, Braes Interfaith Ministries is better able to meet the needs of the poor in Southwest Houston.  Because of WBC, an under-resourced elementary school has volunteers and money that enable it to do a better job of helping kids who are at risk of dropping out of school, living in poverty, turning to crime and drugs.  Because of WBC, hundreds of thousands of dollars go around the world to share the love of Christ, to establish and maintain hospitals, orphanages, universities and to do disaster relief work.  Because of WBC, five other churches have a place to worship, rent-free, in languages other than English.  One of these is a very vibrant Iranian church, one of only a few such churches in our city.  Because of WBC, Family of Believers church was established in our area last year.  The past few months, volunteers from our church have given dozens of hours helping them renovate their new worship center.  Since they started worshipping there, attendance has doubled, and they are now planning to baptize a huge number of new believers right here in our baptistery.  And that doesn’t include the hundreds of kids who are touched through day school, day camp, basketball leagues, mid-week programs and Sunday School.  And it doesn’t count all the ways the several hundred active members of this church live more productive lives in part because of the encouragement they receive here. We’re just one church, and not a mega-church at that.  Yet if we suddenly disbanded, decided to become spiritual and not religious, our society could never afford to replace the positive impact of our one congregation.
  But…Jesus knew, even as He was establishing this amazing thing called the Church, that it would have a tendency to stray from His leadership.  He knew His Church would need constant revivals and reformations.  And so we have Matthew 23.  In this chapter, we see Jesus speaking out against His own religion, telling the truth about what needed to be changed. Specifically, He was talking about the scribes and the Pharisees, the leaders of Judaism at that time…and the very ones who would conspire to have Him crucified.  He wanted us to make sure we didn’t become like these men.  This chapter is often referred to as “The Seven Woes,” because of the seven times Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees…”  It is worth reading in great detail.  I once preached a six-week sermon series on this one chapter.  But this Sunday, I want to sum up for you three things about religion that can destroy the work of God; three things we find in the Church today, just as we find them in Matthew 23.  I hope we'll all consider these words of Jesus with an honest and repentant heart.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Resurrection and the Life

I thought of an interesting question this past week.  Aside from Jesus, what person has made the biggest sacrifice for you?   

Most of us instantly think of our parents.  I don’t know about you, but I certainly hope my parents never present me with a bill for all the things they provided for me, things they gave up for my sake, hours spent meeting my needs.  I could never pay all that back in a dozen lifetimes.   

We’re coming up on Veteran’s Day, so some of you probably thought of American heroes who paid the ultimate price to secure our freedom.  

Perhaps you have a story of a friend or loved one who did something extraordinary for you.  I know of a minister who donated a kidney to a man in his church, for instance.   

Some of you, because I'm a pastor, probably assumed I meant biblical figures.  You could argue for Mary, since she did have to watch her first-born son die for our sins.  Paul and the other apostles endured hardship and ultimately martyrdom to spread the Gospel, and we’re all beneficiaries of that, too.   

But one person you probably haven’t thought of is Lazarus.

If you're not familiar with Lazarus' story, it's found in John 11, which will be my sermon text this coming Sunday.  I never really thought of Lazarus as a sacrificial figure, but I do now, and this Sunday I'll tell you why.  More importantly, we'll discuss why Jesus required such a huge sacrifice from Lazarus, His close friend. And we'll explore how that sacrifice should impact our lives today.  

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Transfiguration

On Faith in Action Day last week, we were with a family in our church that has a small child, and this little girl was asking her mother questions.  Lots of questions.  I remembered that when my kids were that age, they asked Carrie and me questions constantly.  And the thing about a little kid is that you can rarely answer a question in a way that satisfies them.  Either they don’t understand your answer, or your answer doesn’t accord with the way they think the world ought to be, or worst of all, they know you’re bluffing and they call you on it.  Either way, they just keep on asking.  So, for instance, your child might ask, “Why do dogs and cats live in the house, but cows and pigs and chickens don’t?”  You might try to explain about how some animals are easy to domesticate and some aren’t, or you might point out that we eat cows and pigs and chickens, so it might be a little awkward to have a chicken lounging on the couch with you while you snack on his sibling, but I can guarantee that eventually, after hearing some variation of that same question again and again, you’ll finally say, “Because they just do!”  (Just like your parents used to say.)  And thinking about that, it made me think about all the questions we answer in the course of our lives.  We must answer tens of thousands of questions in a lifetime; everything from mundane questions like, “Would you like fries with that?” to huge, life-altering questions like “Will you marry me?”  And then there are the questions no one asks us out loud, but we have to deal with them internally, questions like “Who am I?  Why is my life important?  What do I want to accomplish here?  What is most important to me?”  But out of all the questions we answer, there is one that is more important than any other.  This Sunday, we're going to take a look at the story of the Transfiguration, a very mysterious event that happened in Jesus' life.  The story is found in Luke 9:28-36.  This amazing event helps us answer the most important question of life.  You'll see what that question is and, more importantly, what its answer is, this Sunday. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Friend of Sinners

               I'm planning to start this Sunday's sermon with a rather harsh story, but at least this week, no horses will die (you have to have heard last week’s sermon to get that reference…).   I won't tell you the story yet, but I will tell you the point of it: All around us people are literally dying.  They may not know it, but they are lost, separated from God and the joy and purpose and love He wants them to experience; and worst of all, they are in real danger of spending eternity that way.  God sent Jesus into the world to make a way for the spiritually dead to experience life—new life, abundant life, and eternal life.  Our primary purpose as followers of Jesus is to be His Body on Earth, to do what He would be doing if He were here in the flesh...the same thing He did when He WAS here in the flesh: Setting people free.  Raising the dead.  Changing lives forever.  2 Corinthians 2.14 says Thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through Him spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Him.  Here is what I think that means: If we are living for Christ, devoted to Him, being conformed to His character, we won’t need any kind of fancy evangelistic program.  All we need to do is live out our faith naturally, and the Lord will use us to draw people to life, just like the smell fresh-baked cookies draws a hungry kid into the kitchen.  But here’s the problem: If you talk to irreligious people today—and by the way, they represent the fastest-growing religious group in our nation—you will find that, overwhelmingly, they don’t see Christians as the inviting smell of chocolate chip cookies.  They see us as a mean old lady smacking their hand with a spatula. 
            The irony of course is that the irreligious people of Jesus’ day saw Him in the exact opposite way.  They flocked to Him, couldn’t get enough of Him.  Jesus’ enemies called Him “A friend of sinners.”  They meant it as an insult, the way people in this country years ago would have called someone a Communist or a Nazi sympathizer.  But to Jesus, that was a compliment.  That is exactly what He set out to be.  “Sinners” in Jesus’ day were anyone who was considered far from God.  Jesus wanted to be their friend, because He was God in human flesh, and God’s deepest desire is to take people who are far from Him and bring them home, so that they can have life again.  For many years, most irreligious people in this part of the world knew that if they ever got fed up living life on their own terms, they could come to church and find a new way to live.  They could get right with God.  Today, people don’t seem to feel that way anymore.  It’s not for me to determine how or why that change occurred in our culture.  What I want to do this Sunday is take a look at one story that illustrates why Jesus was known as a friend of sinners, in Mark 2:13-17.  Then I want us to talk about two things we must do if we want our church to be a friend of sinners as well.