Happy New Year! Hope you had a nice holiday last week. We had family visiting, 17 in total and 8 of them were kids, including 1 Elijah. I love family, but I have to be honest. I am very, very happy that the holidays are ending and the kids are going to be back in school and I can recover some of my sanity.
In recent weeks as we approached the new year, I have switched from a teaching/study mindset to more of a prayerful listening mode in hopes of discerning how God would speak and lead us in the new year. During that time, rather than receiving a new insight, I felt led to revisit some fundamentals and look back on how God has led me personally and convictions and hunches that he has given more over the years that I hadn’t fully fleshed out.
So I want to outline at a high level some key truths that God has used to shape the contours of my spiritual life from the day I accepted Christ as a sophomore in college in 1993 until now.
Today is like laying down the foundation and the scaffolding of a building and it will take some time to put up the dry walls and install the windows and put in the door. Another way to put it, this sermon is a kind of an outline for an essay and it’s going to take time to fill in all the details for each of the paragraphs. But we’ll get there eventually. Frankly, I took this sermon out of the oven only half-baked. I needed a couple of more days, but I trust that God, the ultimate Iron Chef, will still use undercooked 5 loaves and 2 fish to feed His people.
On that note, I want to share my vision for LBC in 2012. And when I say a vision for LBC in 2012, I want to be careful here. I want to break down what I just said. Although I am going to speak about how God has spoken to me and shaped the counters of my spiritual life personally over the years, I don’t believe what I am about to share is my vision limited to just what God revealed to me, or something based on my unique preferences and make-up. Furthermore, I don’t believe what I am about to say is limited to just our church, LBC. I think what I am about to share applies to all churches. Also, I don’t believe what I am about to share is limited to just one year such that next year, I have to look for another vision statement. Frankly, I feel like we can and we will need to wrestle with the practical implications of today’s sermon for the rest of our lives, at least as long as you are part of this body of Christ. I was working until about 10:45am this morning to try to finish this message, but I think I’ll have to save some of the concluding remarks and practical applications for part 2 the next time I preach.
Why do I clarify the statement–my vision for LBC in 2012? And how can I be confident to say, this is not merely a personal vision, nor is it just a mission statement for LBC, nor is it only effective and binding through 2012? Rather, I believe this vision is a universal vision for the individual believer as well as the church, yesterday, today and until Christ returns.
How can I speak with such confidence? It is because what I am about to say is based on the Word of God and that’s where our confidence should always come from. At this point, you have to make a distinction. There are things that are more central in importance in Scripture than others. Not many people know that the prophet Isaiah’s son was named Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. That’s in the Bible, but I don’t think that fact is central in importance, unless you want to name your son Maher. So when coming up with a vision statement for the church, we shouldn’t look to an obscure verse or a fringe teaching.
We hold up the whole counsel of God as the authority. Nothing else. That is why I am a Protestant, Baptist minister. Because I don’t believe anything else should be given equal weight in setting a Christian’s personal direction or a church direction. Church tradition should not be held up and given equal weight as the whole of Scripture. Signs and wonders, though we are open to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, those experiences should not be given equal weight as the whole of Scripture. Social action and taking care of the poor and fighting injustice is important, but that can’t be given equal weight.
The primary purpose of the church is to hold up Scripture and to preach the Word of God. Our worship, our obedience, our devotion, everything flows from this book. Nothing else should have equal say or equal voice in determining the vision for LBC, or any gospel-centered, or Bible-believing church for that matter. But even within the Word of God, when we are talking about a vision for a church, we can’t focus on Bible trivia. We have to focus on a few key truths and let those things drive the other second tier truths in Scripture.
You may argue with me, but in my reading of Scripture, 2 truths emerge as being central. I think many would agree with me that every Christian and every church is called to obey these 2 truths. 1) The Great Commandment and 2) The Great Commission. In a nutshell, for a born again Christian who understands the gospel, those 2 truths govern personal life, church life, everything.
I think the Good Samaritan should be called the Great Samaritan. Because although he is a fictional character, the Good Samaritan is pretty phenomenal in what he does. Then we would have 3 greats–Great Commandment, Great Commission and the Great Samaritan. That has a nicer ring to it. That’s just my opinion. But God has the final say so we will go with the Good Samaritan. 2 greats and a good. The Great Commandment and the Great Commission are the central truths and the Good Samaritan story will help us to tie those two together.
I want to begin by reading the Great Commandment and the Great Commission texts and toward the end we will get to the main text, the parable of the Good Samaritan.
27 … Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.
18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
The Greatest Commandment and the Great Commission. One is the greatest commandment because Jesus himself said it is the greatest and therefore most important commandment. And the other one, the Great Commission, is Jesus’ farewell address, his final words to his disciples prior to his ascension after his death and resurrection. If you are on your death bed, for your family members, your final words would hold a lot of weight. Your loved ones would pay close attention to what was said. In the same way, the Great Commandment is important because Jesus said it was important, but also, the Great Commission is important because it was Jesus’ final words to us.
Love God, love neighbors, make disciples of all nations–all 3 have to be pursued simultaneously. How do you do that? That’s why living out Christian life is messy. Which one is a priority, which one should be done first, is there an order we should follow? No, there is no order because in my reading of Scripture, all 3 are fundamentals. Like legs of a tripod, you take away a leg and the tripod will fall down. If one of these 3 components is missing, your spiritual life will fall down and not take off as it should.
Clearly, we know that what passes for spirituality today, the kind of ME-first, self-centered, God-you-need-to-meet-my-needs, that kind of faith we know is a distortion of the Bible. God does meet our greatest needs. He forgave me of my sins and so let me spend the rest of my life loving him–we know that’s a good first step but that is like reading the opening chapter of a book and then closing it. You miss the character development, the twists in the story, the conclusion if all you do is to read the first few pages.
The same goes for the Christian life. It’s more than just living in a monastery and praying and reading the Bible all day and feeling close to God in a devotional sense. Love, according to the Bible, is not a fuzzy emotion. In John, 14:21, John links love with obedience.
21 Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.
If we love God, we will obey him. And what should we obey? I believe it has to be related to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.
And therein lies the tension. We are not spirits so we can only be at one place at a time and only do one thing at a time. There is a tension between loving God and loving neighbor. There is a tension between loving my family and loving those outside the family. There is a tension between loving my actual neighbors, meaning those I spend most of my time with–my wife and my kids, perhaps my friend down the street–and loving those outside my immediate sphere of contact. There is a tension between loving those within the church and the stranger, those outside the church. There is a tension between building up the local church and equipping the saints and releasing our members for works that will take them outside our local context. There is a tension between local evangelism and local missions and God’s call which for some will take us to places where the gospel has not yet been preached.
I often find myself in this tension. Do I spend the morning praying or meeting someone? Do I prepare for the sermon or do I need to take care of our church building situation because in a few weeks we could be on the streets? Do I focus on educational material that will strengthen the core of our church or do I meet a guy from World Impact to talk about ministry opportunities to strengthen another church in the inner city? Do I lay out a 5 year plan for planting our next church or do I follow Pastor Don’s timeline of planting a church next week? My life is tension. Choosing between two good options. Which is better? I don’t know.
Sometimes, God forces us in a direction even when we are not ready to go in that direction. I think about the 1st century church. Like the church in Acts 2. The church broke bread and gathered every day to give praise to God. They shared all their possessions. The love they had for one another was concrete and sacrificial and they were in awe of what God was doing in their midst. And God added to their number daily those who were being saved. Why would anyone want to leave a church like this to plant another church and to obey the Great Commission? That’s why it’s no accident that the church was birthed under a pagan Roman Empire in a time of great persecution. Even if the church was not willing to obey the Great Commission, they were forced to go into hiding and become an underground church and spread out due to the threat of imprisonment and death.
But today, we are not persecuted. So we all have choices. So which one will you choose–love God vs. love neighbor or love the church vs. obey the Great Commission? It’s messy. However, there is one thing I have learned. When I love God, I am compelled to love my neighbor. It just overflows out of my life to those around me. Likewise, when I love my neighbor, I feel my lack and my inadequacy so it drives me back to God. I might be dry so I could spend the next hour praying, or I could meet a student and many times I find that meeting someone and sharing my faith stirs my heart in a way that hours and hours of prayer may not. It’s counter-intuitive, but that’s why loving God and loving neighbor are two sides of the same coin.
We are not there yet, but I know that as we stretch ourselves to care for those outside the church–including local missions and ministries as well as overseas missions–those experiences will strengthen our love for God. From my experience, that’s how spiritual life works.
3 legs of a tripod–love God, love neighbor, make disciples of all nations. We need to pursue all 3 simultaneously.
We can try and we should try to pursue all 3 simultaneously in hopes of achieving a perfect balance of all 3, but at the outset, I want to say that we are going to fail.