** “And Now My Lifesong Sings” (Casting Crowns, 2005) ** Did you like that song? The title is “And Now My Lifesong Sings” by Casting Crowns. Let me read a few lines. What tune is your life playing these days?
There’s a progression in this song that I like. It says my life before Christ was lost, far away, homeless, blind, dead, but when I met Christ, a new melody began. Hence the title, AND NOW My Lifesong Sings. In Christ our life is found, it’s about homecoming, its about seeing for the first time with spiritual eyes true reality as God sees it, it’s about life. And the song ends with surrender — and now my life to you I give — and praise – hallelujah. What kind of melody is your life singing these days? Is your life singing this kind of tune, a gospel tune?
Today, I want to talk about the gospel. The title of the sermon is “The Simple Truth.” That is what the gospel is, a simple truth. Sin separated us from God. But loves us to the point of sending His only Son to die on the cross. And by believing and accepting Jesus as our personal Savior, we are reconciled to God. This gospel is central to the Christian faith, yet the message often gets muddled. I want to explore a bit today some of the reasons why the simple gospel message gets complicated and how our only solution is to return to that same gospel again and again.
We recently had an earthquake in LA. Fortunately it was a relatively minor one. If it were larger, even if buildings looked stable from the outside, expert engineers would have to check each building’s foundation to see if there are any cracks.
I feel like through recent events that we experienced together as a church coupled with the Word of God, I have gone through several spiritual mini-earthquakes and it has forced me to check my spiritual foundation. Are there cracks? Is my foundation shaky? Have I been building my house of faith on the wrong foundation to begin with? If there are cracks, how can they be fixed? These are the questions that lay in the background for me during the past few years and I feel like God has been forcing me to deal with them recently. And in so doing He has provided some closure and new direction.
1) First, there was the trip to Tijuana where over 40 of us met some beautiful Christian brothers and sisters working hard for the gospel and the fruit of their ministry was evident in the faces of those children who possessed hope in the face of unimagineable poverty
2) We also celebrated the 5th anniversary of our church in WLA and P Don encouraged us through Nehemiah to quiet the voices of compromise that distract and to resolutely commit to rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem side by side with one another. One comment he made in particular that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind was this – Do not settle for a mediocre Christianity. REPEAT.
3) As a church, we experienced the miraculous answer to prayer through the birth of baby Elizabeth to brother Jae and sister Hannah
4) There were DTs through 1 Corinthians which were very personal reminders about what God wants to do with my life and our church and I’ll be sharing some verses later on.
5) God has been helping us to return to the fundamentals of our faith through the church-wide bible studies led by P Daniel this summer capped by last Sunday’s message on growth, maturity, and working out our salvation. Salvation is not a one-time event. It is a journey, a process of working out our salvation until we see Jesus face to face.
6) I also was impacted by John JDSN’s message about throwing off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.
7) Next, right now we are experiencing God’s heart for the lost as the doors to possible new campus ministries this fall are being opened.
Personally, another event of significance was the passing of my mom’s cousin. My mom and I were able to meet him and his wife a couple of times and attended his funeral last week.
And through each of these events, I feel like God has been raising the decibel level and saying, Ray, listen up, I have a message for you, and I want you to hear it well, I want you to practice it, and I want you to preach it to others.
So today, this message will be part sermon, part testimony and part reflection of how God has been bringing me back to the core Christian message, the power of the gospel. As Pastor Daniel said, the gospel is not doctrine. It is not a checklist, yes I believe that God died for me, check. It is power, it is salvation, it is abundant life.
The Olympics brings out the athlete in me and sometimes it makes me wonder what could have been. You may look at me and think Ray is no athlete. My mom is staying with us and I just want to publicly thank her for taking such good care of our family, cooking, cleaning, helping us save money on daycare, and spending such quality time with the kids. I EVEN thank my mom for the DAIILY reminder that I need to lose weight. Because she knows and I know that I am an athlete. Maybe I could have been an Olympian.
About 10 years and 25 lbs ago, I was a pretty darn fast runner. Can anybody here attest to that? Did you know that in the 100meter sprint, during my college years I was only 3, at most 4 seconds away from world record pace. Honest truth. A little training, who knows, I could have shaved off a second or two and I’d be right there with the world’s premier sprinters. But I guess 4 seconds in a 10 second race is quite a lot to overcome. I’m no Usain Bolt, the new world record holder for the 100m and 200m sprints. I am more like Ray Bolton. Sensitive, artistic, but FAST.
Michael Phelps. 8 gold medals in a single Olympics. This has never been done before. What makes Michael Phelps so special? Sure, he has the ideal physique and body proportions to be a fast swimmer. He was born with incredible talent. And he had the support of his mom and an army of coaches and trainers. He also had his teammates without which 3 of the 8 medals – all relays – would not have been possible.
But we can’t forget one thing — he worked HARD. All he did for years was eat, sleep and swim. He trained something like 10-12 hours a day in the pool. His family and trainers, his teammates, his natural gifting were all essential, but we cannot overlook his hard work ethic, his singular focus and his passion which made him a world-class swimmer.
In the same way, the Apostle Paul was a world-class Christian. He was certainly gifted by God. He was well-educated. He had the support of many dear brothers and sisters and spiritual coworkers. But like Michael Phelps, he also worked hard. He preached, he suffered, he was shipwrecked, he was flogged, he was imprisoned, he knew starvation, and his greatest suffering in his own words was caused by his concern for all the churches. He did not become the great Apostle Paul overnight. Just as Michael Phelps worked hard to develop his God-given abilities, Apostle Paul worked hard to become the powerful Christian we have come to know through his letters. And Paul’s hard work was not all him, but it was also God the grace of God doing its work in Paul’s heart.
In case you didn’t know, I am no Apostle Paul — no major revelation there — but I, too, want to be a world-class Christian. I want our church to be a world-class church. That doesn’t mean big and famous like Rick Warren or Saddleback or Willow Creek. But world-class in our devotion, in our compassion, in our love. I want us to be powerful Christians. I want us to love God and our neighbors to the best of our abilities, unhindered and free from entanglement. I want us to make an impact in our community. I want the world to know that we are Christ’s disciples by the love we have for one another.
In the first letter written to the Corinthian church, Apostle Paul reveals the secret of his power. Let me just give you a quick sampling
of verses that capture the heart of Paul, and I believe the heart of the Christian message.
1 Cor 1:18 – 18For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
The gospel is about power. To those outside of the faith, it is ludicrous. Why would you hang your life on a person who died? And the resurrection? Do people still believe that in the age of modern science and technology? That’s absurd. But this is precisely the message that we believed when we became Christian and it is the exact SAME message we need to revisit time and time again to refocus and to grow.
1 Cor 2:1-5 – 1When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.[a] 2For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. 4My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.
Paul resolved to know NOTHING except Jesus Christ crucified. Period. Nothing else. There are so many great ideas in the world and in the Bible. But Paul states very clearly what we should be focusing on – Jesus crucified on the cross. And again, it is a message that is not about human persuasion or human wisdom. It is a message which demonstrates the Spirit’s power.
The gospel starts with God’s love. God loves you. It’s an obvious truth. That’s the message I was going to bring a few weeks ago when we went to Tijuana for missions, but was unable to give because the translator was unavailable.
It was a message that God loves us regardless of who we are, what we do or don’t do, what we have or don’t have. He is our Heavenly Father and just like I love my kids equally even though they are complete opposites in many ways, God loves us fully, equally, though we are so unique, so different.
And the mission team on the following day performed a skit and Abraham JDSN gave a message about our sin and God’s forgiveness through the cross.
We were there in Tijuana to run a vacation bible school and our target audience was children and so we deliberately tried to make our message and skit as SIMPLE as possible. And interestingly, when we simplify the Christian message, what are you left with? What is the core that you end up with when you have 1 shot to teach others about God? Isn’t it the gospel?
DEFINITION OF GOSPEL
What is a simple definition of the gospel? God loves us. And who are we? We are God-haters. We reject God all the time. We are cynical towards him. We doubt God’s love. God, out of his love, sends His Son, but what do we do? We crucify him. Do we need anymore convincing that we are sinners? But the story doesn’t end there. God’s wisdom is displayed because through the death of Jesus by OUR hands, we have a way to be reconciled to God.
I witnessed the power of the gospel in Tijuana. The people living there don’t have running water, and in many cases, you have a single mom with a bunch of children and barely enough to eat. And through the Christian workers at Central Shalom ministries, they distribute food and water to the people of that community. And in the process, some started attending church and now over 250, mostly children, attend their weekly Sunday services.
It was just beautiful to witness. And the first thought that came to mind was – God, you are fair. In the midst of this physical poverty, the people recognize their spiritual poverty. This is God’s wisdom. And I thought, I am the fool because in LA where I have so many resources and so many options, I have lost sight of my spiritual poverty. GOD IS FAIR.
In Tijuana, most of the poor families have to pay for drinking water. They also have these large wooden barrels that they use to store the cheaper water that is less purified and used for bathing and washing clothes. And during one prayer after I had returned back from that mission trip, God showed me that I am like those wooden barrels – I am constantly being filled with so many blessings and resources but because the love of God is not flowing out to others, my faith has grown stagnant.
Those Christian workers in Tijuana and I share the same gospel, yet the outcome of their lives and mine was so different. Something had to change.
And while preparing for this message for the past few weeks, I kept thinking back to that “simple” message I had ready for those kids in Tijuana. For the past few years, I feel like I have read a bunch of Christian books, devotional books, theology books, I have studied the book of Revelation, I have explored topics of worship, the end times, the Holy Spirit, but through this exploration, sure, my heart was moved here and there, but my stagnant core remained undisturbed.
I reflected on this and my conclusion is this. I was searching in vain for a complicated message because I had allowed my faith to become complicated. A simple heart would respond to the simple truth, the gospel, just like the kids and Christian workers in Tijuana. And for me, it happened in 1993 when I was a soph in college, I gave my life to Jesus and said, Lord, my life is yours, do whatever you want. But sadly, instead of that passion burning brighter, over the years the gospel has grown all too familiar and my heart has grown increasingly cold, and complicated. Therefore, the gospel was no longer enough and I was in search of the next new insight or trend, some revolutionary idea or perspective.
I resolved after Tijuana and the 5th anniversary that I didn’t want to settle for a mediocre Christianity and I committed to returning to the gospel. Practically, I made a small commitment to do prayer walks around my block late at night as often as I could, and during those walks, to preach the gospel to myself.
But it has been a battle. LA has got to be one of the hardest places to be a thriving Christian. There are so many forces that are fighting against us. I call it the LA Meta-Narrative. What is a meta-narrative? The prefix meta means “beyond” and narrative means “story.” So meta-narrative is like a story about a story. Applying that concept to a culture, a meta-narrative of a culture describes the invisible story lines that provide a deeper understanding of a culture that cannot be grasped merely by looking at the externals.
What is the LA meta-narrative? I am no sociologist, but having lived here now for 5 years, I can speak from personal experience what I have allowed LA to do to my spiritual life instead of my faith rising above LA culture.
One obvious fact about LA is that Hollywood is the capital of entertainment, from which emanate endless forms of distraction. Then you factor in a 2 hours commute per day and traffic at all hours of the day. What do those two facts alone due to the psyche of people living in LA? You get home from a long day of work. You are stuck in traffic and it feels like life is just seeping out of your pores by the gallon every second. And your stress level and temper is rising because of the traffic and the bad drivers, who become bad drivers because they are irritable and hence more reckless because of the traffic.
You get home from a long day and you are just exhausted. So what do people do? They invest everything in remodeling and furnishing their homes with the best that their money can buy. Why? The LA home has, in my opinion, becomes a pseudo-spiritual sanctuary. Many of us end up not wanting to leave our home voluntarily to go anywhere. We go to work because we have to. But going anywhere else is a burden and we’d rather stay home.
And at the end of a long day, we need to decompress and unwind by turning on the tube or our stereo or sitting in front of a laptop and drown
ing out everything, including the voice of God.
In LA, there is the added pressure everywhere to look cool, to look thin, to be fashionable. All the celebrities, the models, the athletes, the commercials, the billboards, we are just inundated with images that we are not good enough. I come from Philadelphia and a few years ago it was rated the most obese city in America. It’s been a while but whenever I visit Philly, I feel pretty good about myself. But the LA story is that unless you look like a superstar or a model, you are a nobody. And thinking about our appearance becomes yet another burden.
This next observation is not so much a feature of LA, but I think it is worth noting the impact of technology in our day to day life. I can’t believe that in the mid-nineties, a little more than 10 years ago, hardly anyone knew much about computers. When I was graduating from college, I didn’t even have an email account nor did I know how to Cut and Paste text in Word. Now I work in the IT field so my job forces me to be in front of a computer most of the day. There are endless things that can eat up your time when you have internet access – more than just email and IM, now we have facebook, blogs, twitter. Sometimes I just want to get rid of all of my computers and devices and I want to hurt the person who introduced me to my first device, the pager. In many ways, in terms of the quality of life, I feel like it was downhill from there.
Add in a bad economy and high gas prices the last thing you want to do after a long day is to fulfill any type of Christian duty and love our neighbor. We are too tired, too cranky, too tight with finances to care about anybody but our immediate nuclear family.
God and church slide on our priority list as family and our personal comfort elevate and occupy the top spots. Is this a familiar picture? Am I exaggerating? No, I don’t think so. I see the effects of LA in my life, certainly.
And we settle for mediocre Christianity, still going to church on Sundays, still trying to be good ethical people, but eventually expecting little from God and attempting little for God and others.
We don’t want our Christian lives to turn out like this. We all have good intentions. I have had good intentions to lose weight every day for the past 8 years. I get new running shoes, I sign up for 24 hour fitness. I’m ready to go. Then I drive literally a block from my house to go to the gym and I smell In and Out and it’s over. Ah, there is always tomorrow – that’s my mentality. That’s what LA does to us, it saps away our good intentions.
SUPERIMPOSING THE GOSPEL TO OUR CONTEXT
Tijuana or LA, we have the same gospel but very different cultures and meta-narratives. And I think it would be an interesting exercise to come up with a modern day version of Apostle Paul’s letter written to address our church in Pasadena here, right now in the 21st century? This is exactly what Paul had to do for each of the churches he founded in the first century. Each church had its own culture, its own issues and problems and Paul had the responsibility to pastor them with a consistent message.
I invite you to study the epistles and try to find a common thread in each of Paul’s letters. I submit to you that though Paul might have had different practical applications for each church, his message was strikingly similar. I think you will find that no matter the circumstance and context, the central thrust of all of his letters was the gospel of Jesus Christ.
What is the issue Paul faced at the Corinthian church? It is disunity. We know that one of the leaders there, Apollos, was an eloquent speaker. And somehow along the way, factions starting forming around him and some other charismatic leaders. In the process, Paul was deemed an inferior leader and his message was dismissed.
How did it get this way? For one thing, it is human nature that we get bored of hearing the same old message. We want to hear new things. And given that the speakers at the church of Corinth were so engaging and Paul’s reaction, we can safely assume that these leaders had led the congregation toward teachings that were not central to the faith. Whatever it was that they taught, the messages had no power to transform their behavior. There were lawsuits among Christians and rampant immorality in the church to name a couple.
So we are left with this question.
WHY SHOULD I CARE ABOUT GOD’S CHURCH?
Some of the Corinthian church members must have been asked themselves that same question. Just look at their leadership. So much splintering, so much disunity. So many factions. Who needs this kind of church?
Esp. when we find ourselves in a spiritual wilderness, we become hyper-critical of the church. In a spiritual wilderness, not only do we settle for being mediocre Christians but we also throw out the church because we view it as just another failed human institution.
At least for the Israelites, their wilderness experience was a finite period of 40 years due to their disobedience. For the rest of us who are still kicking sand in our own spiritual wilderness, the hard part is not knowing how long we are going to be there. Not knowing how long can be the hardest thing. God may be screaming at us to leave the wilderness but when cynicism sets in and we see no end to the wilderness in sight, we often enter a kind of self-imposed wilderness.
God can certainly keep us in the wilderness and there are lessons that we can only learn in a wilderness where we are stripped of everything. But that doesn’t mean we have to be okay with being there. Personally, I don’t want to stay in my spiritual wilderness a day longer than I need to. I want out.
But whether you are in a wilderness individually or the entire church is in a wilderness, the solution is the same. The way out of the wilderness is returning to the gospel.
PAUL’S SOLUTION: THE GOSPEL
To a church out of sync, what is Paul’s solution? It is the gospel. Paul is not blind to the faults of the church. The church is imperfect, but God is perfect. He never makes a mistake. If we throw away the church, we throw away God’s redemption plan.
So Paul looked at the flawed (hand) CHURCH at Corinth and he took the (hand) GOSPEL message and SUPERIMPOSED the gospel on top of the church. And he did the same thing for his other churches. Your problem is disunity. The solution is the gospel message. If your problem is an overemphasis on rituals, the solution is the gospel message. If your issue is you have gone too much in one extreme, what is the answer – the gospel.
Billy Graham, as you know, was one of the greatest evangelists of our day, a real world-class Christian of our era. In an interview toward the end of his life Dr. Graham freely admitted he has been preaching the same two or three sermons for more than 60 years, changing only the topical references to keep them current. And when he preached those same 2 or 3 sermons repeatedly, you better believe he talked about the simple gospel truth of Jesus Christ each and every time.
I feel that through these events and the Word of God given over the past couple of months, God is providing a way out of the wilderness. It is no accident that the exit door is not marked by more introspection, more ministry, a new theological perspective. The exit door is labeled the gospel of Jesus Christ. Preached first to ourselves, then preached to others. In other words, loving God, and loving others.
PASSING AWAY OF MY MOM’S COUSIN
My mom and I recently attended a funeral of my mom’s cousin. I got to visit him twice in the past few months with my mom to pray with him and the family as he battled with throat cancer. My mom’s cousin lived a hard life. When he was a young boy, he drank some type of cleaning chemical and burned his entire esophagus area. The doctors told him that he would not live past 40. But God sustained his life another 25 years beyo
nd that prognosis, and in that time, my mom’s cousin joined a vibrant Korean church in the LA area and gave himself fully to do God’s work, eventually becoming a missionary to Mongolia.
Toward the end of his life, his throat canal became so narrow from swelling that he could barely swallow a few drops of water at a time. But to the end, he wanted to preach the good news in Mongolia. Recently, he was forced to return to the States because literally he could not swallow at all. He had numerous throat surgeries over the course of his life and during his most recent surgery a few months ago, they discovered a lump, and sure enough, it was cancer.
Each time, we visited, though we were the ones who came to pray with my mom’s cousin and the wife, they ended up ministering to me because of their strong faith in the Lord.
It was such a blessing for me to attend the funeral because so many church members, family members and friends came to pay their respects. Typically, funerals have a few people shedding tears – immediate family, maybe a few close friends. But in this funeral, hundreds of people in the church shed tears. It was a testament to the kind of life my mom’s cousin lived and the impact he had. I heard that materially speaking, they struggled, but what was lacking in financial resources, God more than made up for through spiritual riches.
My mom’s cousin knew that life was not about living the American dream. They knew that life was not about the most beautiful home and amassing things. Because when you die, you take nothing with you. He lived for the call of the gospel, and at the end of his life, you see the power of someone who lived for the gospel.
God loves sinners and provides a way to be forgiven through the cross of Jesus Christ and His resurrection. He has saved us so that we can have an eternal relationship with God through accepting Jesus Christ as our personal Savior and Lord. And he has saved us to be part of a community of faith that lives for eternal purposes. This is the gospel and its message will radically change the trajectory of your life.
What is the title of your lifesong? What tune are you singing with your life? May it be now and forever about the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord. I want to close with one last verse from 1 Corinthians.
1 Cor 15:58 – 58Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.