Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Made For More: Front and Center

We’re in a series right now called “Made for More.”  We’re talking about how God created you for a purpose.  Ephesians 2:10 says you are His masterpiece, created in Christ for good works that He prepared ahead of time for you to do.  When most people think about their purpose in life, they think about career.  I know that’s how I thought when I was a teenager and young adult.  I thought if I get into the career field God created me for, I would love my job and be successful, and that would make me happy.  Some of us think in terms of family: “I need to meet the love of my life and have kids, and that will make me happy.”  So the quest of their lives is to find that perfect person, their soul mate, or to turn the one they’re with into the perfect person they dream of, or to have kids, or to turn those kids into flawless little Stepford Children who will validate their lives.  Here’s the thing: Your purpose in this world, the thing God created you for, is something you’ll probably never get paid to do.  It probably won’t be your career.  And as important as marriage and family are, you were made for more than that, too.  In fact, even if you have to work a job you don’t enjoy, even if you never find that perfect person to marry (news flash: he/she doesn't exist), if you are accomplishing God’s purpose in your life, your life will be fulfilling.    

Put it this way: If my kids grow up to be successful in careers that they love, I’ll be happy for them.  If they get married to wonderful people and produce beautiful grandchildren for me, I’ll be thankful.  But those aren't my fondest hopes for them.  What I hope and pray for is that my daughter and son will find a way to bless people in the name of Christ, to help them experience His love.  To put it another way (because I know what I'm saying here is EXTREMELY countercultural, even within the church), for my kids to find and fulfill their role in God's Kingdom is more important to me than them choosing the right career or marrying the right person.  That's true success.  That's what life is all about.

Last Sunday, we introduced the concept of spiritual gifts.  God has gifted you in just the right way to accomplish the purpose He created you for.  This week, we'll start defining some of the gifts, beginning with the more celebrated ones. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Wasted Windfall

Here’s a little post-Christmas quiz: How many of you received at least one gift card this Christmas?  How many of you still haven’t spent at least one gift card that you received this past Christmas?  Gift Cards are big business.  Department stores, grocery stores, restaurants, and other retail businesses love to sell them.  You know why?  Because they know that most gift cards will never get redeemed.  The Harvard Business Review reported last year that over a six-year period, $41 billion in gift cards went unredeemed. The average American home has $300 worth of unredeemed gift cards right now.  Now, no matter what else I say below, I guarantee some of you will be able to think of nothing else but getting home so you can figure out how many unused gift cards you have.  Think of me fondly while you’re daydreaming of free lattes at Starbucks.  

For the rest of you, who plan to stick with me, I want to talk about a far more tragic waste.  God’s Word tells us that each and every believer in Christ is supernaturally gifted to make a difference in the world, yet most are unaware of their gifts, and never use them.  To put a finer point on it, God has looked down upon you, Christian man or woman, and has said, “Here is a little piece of my power, something only I can do.  I am going to give it to you, so that you can have the joy of bringing love and beauty and hope into this dark world.  I could do all this myself, but I love you too much to deny you the privilege of changing the world.”  And most of us have thrown that gift in the back of a drawer somewhere in our lives and forgotten it.  We’re spending our blood, sweat and tears trying to make a life of significance for ourselves, on our own terms, and the gift of God is going ignored.  As I preach this year about following Jesus in the real world, I'm in a series now called “Made for More.”  We’re looking at how we find our God-given, God-empowered role in His Kingdom.  We’re going to start this Sunday with an overview of spiritual gifts from 1 Corinthians 12. I hope you'll join us. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015


This is NOT a picture of the butcher shop where I worked, get the gist.

My first paying job was working in the meat market of a little grocery store in my hometown. I was sixteen, and I was the worst butcher in the history of meat.  One day, an elderly woman asked me to cut up a chicken for her.  I grabbed fryer and a butcher knife and went to work. After several minutes of mangling this poor bird beyond all recognition, I looked up at her and apologized. She said, “Son, I’ve been coming here since the place opened.  I’ve seen ‘em come and I’ve seen ‘em go, and there were a whole bunch of ‘em that weren’t no better than you.”  That was the nicest thing anyone ever said about my skills with a knife.  I had been on the job three weeks, working a few hours most days after school, when the boss and the other two employees of the meat market had to be out of town on a Saturday. That meant the market was all mine.  That was the longest day of my life.  Everyone in Lavaca County apparently decided they needed meat.  I made mistakes.  I got behind.  I managed to cut my index finger on the meat slicer, but didn’t have time to do anything about it, so I filled orders with a bloody paper towel wrapped around my finger.  Somehow, that didn’t seem to hurt business as much as I hoped it would.  Finally, closing time arrived.  Now I had to clean everything up.  I had done this with my boss before, but he had always been the one who took apart the meat grinder.  There was raw meat inside that thing, and I couldn’t figure out how to take it apart.  Finally, I wrote a note of apology and stuck it to the machine, and went home.  One of the other high school kids who worked there told me that when he and the boss came in on Sunday morning, the place smelled like a dead cow.  I decided to call that morning before church to offer a verbal apology.  I called right when the boss was trying to figure out how much ammonia it would take to get rid of that smell, and how much business he would lose in the meantime. So the moment he heard my voice, he let loose with a string of profanities that would make Bobby Knight blush.  Three weeks.  That’s how long my career as a butcher lasted.       

We all fear being given responsibility we don't feel qualified to handle.  Our text this Sunday--Matthew 14:22-33--is a famous story about just that topic.  Preachers sometimes use this story to poke fun at Peter.  They say this incident points out his brash, impulsive nature.  You can read it that way.  Think of all the stupid stuff you’ve seen men do—it’s always men—because their friends were watching, and they wanted to prove they weren’t scared.  But I think there’s more to the story than that.  Why did Jesus tell Peter he could walk on water? And what does that have to do with us?  See you Sunday. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Call

How does a life get changed?  This time of year, we often think about renewal, ways we want our lives to be different.  A lot of our resolutions this time of year have to do with our physical health.  We say we want to stop smoking, drink less alcohol, eat right, get in shape.  It’s no secret that gyms are packed with people in the month of January, as tons of people (no pun intended) resolve to get back in shape.  Then by February, the gyms are quiet.  Those good intentions went by the wayside.  Other people resolve to get out of debt this year, or start saving up for a better house, or for a child’s education.  Still others mention family as their resolution, as in, “I’m going to spend less time at the office and more time with the people I love.”  And one common resolution is, “I want to enjoy life more.”  That one makes me laugh.  Do we really need to resolve to be more focused on ourselves?  One year, my son said his New Year’s resolution was to play more Xbox.  Motivation was not a problem in keeping that resolution.   

But what if I told you that there is someone who knows everything about you, including the reason you exist?  Not only does He know you perfectly, He loves you completely and wants to help you accomplish your purpose in life, the purpose for which He created you.  Psalm 139:13-16 says of God, For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth; Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; and in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.  

And Ephesians 2:10 says, For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. That word "workmanship" literally means "work of art" or "masterpiece."  God knows why He made you.  

If God knows you that well and loves you that much; if He’s like an artist who designed you for a purpose, then doesn’t it make sense to let Him do the work of changing you?  This Sunday, let’s look at the story of how one man’s life was changed forever.  Our text will be John 1:35-42 and Luke 5:1-11We’ll look at three things that happened before this man began the journey of transformation.  And at the end, I have three questions for you to consider.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

We Have One Job

Note: This is the text of the sermon I delivered January 4.  Since I talked about the current state of our church and the direction I hope to see us go in the new year, I thought it would be helpful to post the entire thing here.  


We Have One Job
Matthew 28:16-20

            There once was a little town way out in West Texas. Like most West Texas towns, it wasn’t near anything else.  In an emergency situation, they knew they couldn’t afford to wait on professionals from one of the larger towns.  So the leading citizens formed a volunteer fire department.  Those who were physically able got trained in CPR, firefighting skills, and everything else they would need to know.  The rest of the town did what they could to support the vision.  Children sold lemonade, housewives threw bake sales, and old men donated money they’d been saving. They were able to build a small fire station and buy a fire truck and an ambulance.  Now you might think that a little town like that wouldn’t have many emergencies, but you’d be surprised.  There were grass fires, house fires and barn fires.  There were accidents involving cars, tractors, livestock, rattlesnakes and rabid dogs, not to mention accidental poisonings, heart attacks, strokes, and inflamed appendices.  The volunteers became very good at what they did.  They were passionate, skilled, highly-motivated lifesavers.  Word quickly got around to the surrounding small villages, and soon they had even more emergencies to handle.  Many of the people whose loved ones had been rescued decided to join the volunteers.  Others donated more money.  Big fundraisers were held.  Soon the department was able to build a much larger, more modern building, and hire a professional fire chief with his own staff to train new volunteers and coordinate their efforts.  The community members formed a board to oversee all of this. The department became known throughout the region, and more money and volunteers poured in.  By this time, the fire station was by far the largest, most well-appointed building in that part of the state.  People began asking to use it for weddings, parties, and other special events.    The entire town had been transformed from a sleepy, backward place whose kids couldn’t wait to grow up and move away, to a growing city with immense civic pride. 

            Time passed, and a new generation formed most of the board.  By this time, there was a constant tension between the board and the fire chief they employed. The chief and his firefighters complained that the volunteers had all dried up.  There were plenty of people who were technically members of the department, but none of them wanted to go out on emergency calls.  Instead, they saw their membership as granting them the right to use the building anytime they wanted, for events for themselves or their friends.  Often they would come and simply hang out.  There was poker night, movie night, and karaoke night…for members and their guests only, of course.  The board tried to explain to the chief that it was the members and their dues which brought in money, which enabled him to have a job and a nice, modern place to work. So the desires of the members should come first.  The chief said, “But I thought the purpose of this organization was to save lives!”
            That’s not a true story.  Well, not exactly.  If you translate that scenario from fire departments to local churches, it IS a true story, and one that has happened hundreds, if not thousands of times.
            In this new year, I plan to preach on the theme, “Following Jesus in the Real World.” I want to begin by considering what the purpose of our organization is.  There’s no better place to start than with the passage we know as The Great Commission, Jesus’ parting instructions to His followers.

  The Great Commission--Matthew 28:16-20

     16     But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated.

     17     When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful.

     18     And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.

     19     “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,

     20     teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

            What was the purpose of Jesus’ life?  He said it in Luke 19:10, The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.  We all know how He did that: He died for our sins.  But think about the course of Jesus’ life.  He didn’t simply appear on Earth, die on the cross, then leave.  First, He spent three years in active ministry.  Think about how He spent His time during that ministry.  When I went to Israel last Spring, the last place we visited was Caesarea.  It’s on the coast of the Mediterranean.  There’s a beautiful beach there.  It was the playground of the royal family and the nobility.  Herod the Great named it Caesarea in honor of Caesar Augustus, and they made it a Roman-styled city.  He built a sea harbor, bathhouses, markets, temples to Augustus and Rome, massive public buildings, and large amphitheater, where they held gladiatorial games, sporting events, and plays.  That theater still exists. 

The ampitheater in Caesarea.  That's our guide, Tim Rampey, at the bottom. We sat on the top row, and could hear him speaking clearly; it's a marvel of engineering.

When we visited it, I thought to myself how, if Jesus had possessed the mindset of a 21st century American preacher, He would have rented out the theater at Caesarea and put on a week of preaching and miracle-working.  He would have cultivated relationships with the rich and powerful of Israel, then used them to endorse His ministry.  But He didn’t do that.  As far as we know, He never even went to that city.  Instead, He spent most of His time on 12 men.  Yes, He taught large crowds, and certainly, He did miracles.  But often, He got away with those twelve people.  Next week, we’ll look at how one of those men became His follower.  The rest of the year, we’ll talk about how Jesus prepared him and his friends to change the world forever. 
            When I stand before Jesus someday and give an accounting of the job I did as Pastor of this church, He’s not going to be worried about how big our budget was, how impressive our buildings were, how happy the church member were with my job performance, or even how big the church became.  Don’t get me wrong; those things matter.  But they’re not the main thing.  All Jesus cares about is, “Did you make disciples?”  That is our purpose.  When I stand before the Lord, what will matter are these questions: “Did people who didn’t know me begin to know me because of the ministry of your church?  Did your church help those people go from conversion to spiritual maturity?  Did those people then become disciple-makers too?”  That is how God measures the effectiveness of this church.  
            So how are we doing so far?  Of course, only God can answer that question.  But I’ll share my perspective.  There are so many things happening around here that I am excited about.  A year ago, we started our new worship schedule.  I know that many of you made big sacrifices to make this happen.  I am still more grateful than I can say that you were willing to take this step.  When I tell other pastors what we did, they are in awe. They can’t imagine their own churches doing such a thing, purely for the benefit of people who aren’t even members yet.  And it has been worth it, in my opinion.  New people have joined our church in both services.  The 11:00 service was a bold experiment, and we’re still learning how to do things well there, but I am so thrilled with how well it has gone so far.  And that service is made up of a tremendous percentage of people who didn’t go here before a year ago.  The new screens have helped us immensely in that service, and in the 8:30 service, we should be able to use them within the next month or so.   

                 Our Bible study attendance is also up, which means an increasing number of people are helping each other grow through Bible study, accountability and just plain Christian friendship.  We’re not content with that; in fact, soon we’ll start small groups that will meet on weeknights in homes, so we can reach people who haven’t gotten connected to Sunday morning Bible study.   

                  This next summer, we will head south to assist a church plant that is doing outstanding ministry on the border.  Not only will we help them make disciples, I believe it will transform us, motivate us to become more intentional disciple-makers.  We already give hundreds of thousands of dollars externally every year to people who make disciples in our city, our state and around the world, but in the future, we hope to do even more of that.  And it’s not just about giving money.  This church agreed that every small group would do four external ministry projects every year.  Four times a year, members of this church should be visible in our community, helping people in practical ways to show the love of Christ to those who will never otherwise experience it.  And I don’t have time to tell you about the fantastic growth in our youth ministry, or the families our children’s ministry touches, or the tireless faithfulness of our senior adults. 
            Still, I want to spend more time in that baptistry, helping new believers declare how Christ has transformed their lives.  I want to spend more time walking with those new followers of Jesus, helping them discover all the riches that are found in their new family.  I want to see more members of this church involved in intentional disciple-making relationships.  I know times are different than they used to be.  Most churches aren’t seeing these things happen anymore.  I heard an evangelist say a few years ago that churches in America in the 40s, 50s and 60s experienced a bumper crop, but that has dried up.  It takes more work now to produce less of a harvest.  Maybe people aren’t as receptive anymore.  Or maybe we need to rediscover the passion our churches once had for the lost.  I know I do.  

               So that is my prayer for this year.  I pray that we won’t see our church as a place where we consume religious goods and services, where we get a little encouragement and a few good moral lessons to help us live better, more fulfilling lives.  But instead, our church will equip and inspire us to change the world, just as Jesus did for those original twelve.    

                 This year, I plan to talk about how you can find the role God designed you for in His Kingdom, something which is not so very different from a comic book superhero discovering his power and destiny.  I hope that leads to people getting excited about the purpose for which God created them, and seeing incredible things happen as we transform into an army of irresistible love in a community that desperately needs that.  So goal number one for us this year is that everyone would know why God put them here, and be active in ministry.

                 I plan to talk about the process God uses to change us into His image, and what our part is in that process.  You’ll be trying some exercises you may never have heard of, and experiencing God in a brand-new way.  Anytime that happens, it changes people around you, too.  So goal number two is that we all would experience God in new ways, as we add new exercises to our spiritual walk. 

                 But I want to do more than just preach sermons.  I want to do more than just oversee programs.  I want to spend more time equipping people to minister than I spend ministering to people; I want to spend more time preparing disciple-makers than I do preparing messages.  I hope you’ll yearn for the same things.  I hope that, when you think about our church, when you talk about the worship service or some other program, you won’t just rate it like you do a movie or a restaurant.  But instead, you’ll say to yourself, “What does my involvement here have to do with hurting people being helped, with lonely people being loved, with lost people being saved?” My third, and most important goal, is that every one of us would be involved in at least one disciple-making relationship.  Maybe that means there's a friend or neighbor or co-worker who is distant from God who you are loving and praying for and hoping that your actions and words can lead them closer to Christ.  Or maybe it means there's someone newer in the faith than you who you are investing in on a consistent basis, so they can be encouraged to grow.  

            I’ve been here seven years now.  And this church has been here for fifty-one years.  Someday, we’ll look back from Heaven’s perspective and see what it was all about.  I don’t want to find out, on that day, that all of our activities and programs and money and efforts were really for our own benefit.  I hope we don’t find out that all we really were was a fire department that became nothing more than a great place to have a birthday party or a poker night.  Our purpose is to save lives.  I hope that this year, and in the years to come, we’ll do a lot more of it.