November 20, 2016

The Vision of the Church


Scripture: Luke 1:68-79

68 “Bless the Lord God of Israel
    because he has come to help and has delivered his people.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house,
70     just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago.
71 He has brought salvation from our enemies
    and from the power of all those who hate us.
72 He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
    and remembered his holy covenant,
73         the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham.
He has granted 74 that we would be rescued
        from the power of our enemies
    so that we could serve him without fear,
75         in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes,
            for as long as we live.
76 You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High,
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.
77 You will tell his people how to be saved
    through the forgiveness of their sins.
78 Because of our God’s deep compassion,
    the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
79     to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
        to guide us on the path of peace.”



Hello, my name is Nick, and I am a pre-Christmas Grinch. For those of you who are familiar with comedian Lewis Black, my inner monologue around Christmas turns toward his sketch on the ridiculously early arrival of Christmas each year. Let’s be honest – our obsession with Christmas is out of control. It seems to start somewhere in august. I know that because my parents were stressing me out about a Christmas list on November 2. November. Second.


A friend and I were having dinner the other night out on his patio, because Mother Nature has granted me my wish of summer that lasts eight months (although I wonder if that is a good thing), and we watched his neighbor hang up lights and inflatable characters. Poor Frosty has become the epitome of ironic hipster decorations.


I wouldn’t be such a Grinch about it but I know when Christmas comes, people tend to get really uptight right up to the week of Christmas. Kindness and compassion fall victim to whether or not we are prepared for this or that and “THAT’S MY SPOT I SAW IT FIRST, YOU JERK!.” Anxiety about decorations arise and whether we have every ornament placed and figurine dusted. For all the joy we are to imagine at Christmas, it really does sometimes bring out the worst in people.


This concern brings me to question what the church is saying in this season, whether intentionally or not. It is still technically our holiday, right? Or have we lost it amid all the ruckus? I do like that as it gets closer, people become momentarily more devout, but it doesn’t last. We get a couple of Christmas visitors then all goes back to normal.


If I have learned anything about this time of year working in the church, we care a lot more about checking off items on our to-do list than we do spreading the message of Christ in ways people understand. Sure, it is good that we have plays and cantatas and candlelight services, but what message are we sending to those who see them? That God came to earth to save humanity from ourselves by showing us a better way or that we are really talented?


It may be better that we take a strong look at the meaning of the season before it starts. We have to ask what our role is in welcoming the newborn Prince of Peace and King of Kings into the world before he gets here. I think the best way of doing that is by examining the prophesies that came before his arrival.


When Christ came to earth to call people back to righteous faith in God, he was doing so as a fulfillment of prophesies found in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, and much of the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Today’s passage is not one of them. Instead, it is the prophesy of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, who was Jesus’ cousin.


John had a special job. He was to proclaim the coming of Christ’s ministry that would lead to fulfillment. Traditionally, this Sunday is known as Christ the King Sunday in the Christian calendar. It is the last Sunday of the Christian year. Traditionally, we focus on the passages that declare Jesus’ true role as ruler of all creation. I chose to instead focus on the passage about John, because he gives us a better glimpse of what is to come right after the Advent and Christmas seasons.


John sets up the vision of what the followers of Jesus are to do before there even was a Christmas to celebrate. The beginning of Jesus’ ministry comes at his baptism, not his birth.


John’s job is the same as our job but in a different manner. John was proclaiming the coming of Christ. Our job is to proclaim Christ has come. When you think about it, the message is really the same: Belief in Jesus requires that we live better. We should repent (turning away from our poor behavior), seek forgiveness (healing our relationship with others and/or with God), and live in a way that serves others and God.  That, in a nutshell, is what the kingdom of heaven is about.


The church, then, is an extension of the kingdom of heaven found in the witness of believers. Our job collectively is to feed the hungry, clothe the poorly clothed, offer shelter to those without shelter, and be a space of mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. In addition to that, our primary, number 1 reason for existence is to make disciples of all those who come by faith. We must take care of the first part before we do the latter, otherwise we have naked, hungry, homeless disciples; however, we also must not do the first part and neglect the latter because then we are a help center. Churches do both.


No amount of Christmas pageants and concerts or live nativities or carols will do those things for us. I hate to say it, but I imagine Jesus would walk through every church doing their Christmas specials and would walk right past them asking where the lost and broken were. He would call the little children forward and know them all by name. Do we do that?


More often, we operate in the realm of whether or not the church meets our desires and preferences. Biblically speaking, what is the nature of the church that was begun by John the Baptist if the believers’ biggest concern is whether or not we like the temperature of the water? (metaphorically speaking)


The vision of the church is so much more than making sure our wants and desires are met first. It is making sure those called to Christ are fed, clothed, healed, and told they are welcome. It is teaching our friends and neighbors that the kingdom of God – where we are made whole and loved unconditionally – is real and here right now if we are willing to believe in it.


So how do we do that? How do we live as the church we are supposed to be? In a recent training on youth ministry that Becky, Jay, and I attended, the facilitators made some claims about churches that really apply to the whole church when it comes to making disciples.


Number 1: We have to invite people, and we have to actually invite them in person.  Our church will not grow simply by being the church on 49. There’s already other churches on 49, so why come here? Also, it is you that must invite them. If I invite them, they’ll connect with me. When I’m gone, they’re gone. When the person who invited them is still here, they are far more likely to stay. Churches that are successful and remain successful invite their friends and neighbors and keep inviting them.


Number 2: Discipleship matters. I preach so that you will continue to hear the words of Christ but that isn’t the same as discipleship making. You have to commit yourself to study and growth. Join together in small groups and read the Bible. Join a Sunday School class and make sure that class always reads the Bible at least once per class. Coming to church alone does not make a disciple. It makes an attendee.


Number 3: Care about the faith formation of others. So often, we like to say that if we don’t like teaching it must not be our gift and we shouldn’t have to do it. That’s just wrong. We need multiple styles and methods of teachers and helpers so that our kids grow up knowing something real about the God they claim to serve. They need to see people they can get to know and respect leading them. We are about to get desperate for teachers because we are using up those we have. If you care about the church and our kids, consider this a slight nudge to help out and volunteer when we start asking for helpers in the new year.


These are just the beginnings of establishing a basic vision of our church. I have already shown you what God wants and what Christ demands, so where do we go? First, we celebrate the mission we have been given.  When Zacharias first learned of his son’s birth, he celebrated it. He was exuberant about it. In the same vein, John took his life very seriously because his father and mother cared deeply about his life’s work. He grew up to be one of the greatest prophets in the faith, because he knew the vision given to him and he took it to heart.


It is good that we celebrate Christmas. It is good that we hang the greens and adorn this sanctuary with light. It is good that we have our kids tell us the story of Jesus in plays and choirs sing choruses that speak of that same story. But it only points to the real message: “The kingdom of heaven is coming. Come all ye weary and needy. Come all ye hurt and heartbroken. Come all ye saints and sinners. It is time to follow our Lord.”


Who is brave enough and devoted enough to help us find our path to give light to those sitting in darkness? Who is going to invite somebody new or teach our young ones and make disciples?


That is your vision to claim for yourself. Amen.

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