This message was given at the 11AM Contemporary Service.
July 13, 2014
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
I love Christmas!
I do. I really do. Just think with me of the cold crisp air, the hint of snow on the trees. The holiday lights strung from the branches. The smell of spiced cider.
Then you walk into the church and it is so beautifully decorated. It’s so peaceful. So idyllic in a way. The candles held high during Silent Night. The carols rolling in unison from our hearts.
The anticipation of stockings and wreaths, the carefully wrapped gifts, the crackling fire in the fireplace…
Oh wait, sorry. Wrong sermon!
But I bet you’re feeling cooler now, right!
So why am I talking about Christmas today, in the middle of hot July? I mean other than the fact that I’m a little touched in the head? Well, quite simply, because Randy told me to. No, he didn’t! Yes, he did. I remember in one of his sermons this past Christmas he told us to hold something from Christmas out all year long. For the life of me I can’t remember why, but I decided to do as I’m told, so here we are in July, and I going to preach to you about Christmas.
You know, often at Christmastime, when I’m locking up the church for the night, I’ll come and sit in the sanctuary for a few minutes before I shut all the lights off, and I’ll find peace from the hustle and bustle of the season. It’s almost like God gave us all the little twinkly lights to slow us down a little… to find our awe again.
But I also worry a little about how we celebrate Christmas. I don’t think it would be much of a surprise to most people if I said I think we focus our attention the wrong way at Christmas. Everybody knows the materialism and the frenzy and the hustle and bustle aren’t healthy for any of us. And yet we continue to allow ourselves to fall prey to the culture. But what worries me is actually a little deeper than that. What worries me is the cocoon of pretty lights and Christmas carols we wrap ourselves in. I think we make Christmas just a little bit too much about US. Its about stirring up emotions. It’s about how we feel. It’s about trying to create that warm and fuzzy place.
But maybe Christmas isn’t supposed to be warm and fuzzy. Maybe Christmas wasn’t meant to be about pine sprigs and mistletoe. I think Christmas, to be more fully understood, should actually be much more gritty and raw. It’s a story about an unmarried teenage mom who gives birth to a child in an animal stable far from home with no place to stay. It’s about God making a point. From the beginning until the end of his life and ministry, Jesus is always making a point.
If the Christmas story was happening at our church this Christmas eve, the nativity probably would have been acted out behind the dumpster enclosure in the back of our parking lot, and not here in the warm comfort of our sanctuary. Why? Because God is making a point.
What’s the point? The point is, it’s not about me! The point is that Jesus is all about the poor. Jesus is all about justice. Jesus is all about righteousness. Jesus hung out with the lepers, the outcasts, the sinners and the forgotten people. Jesus was down in the trenches. He was humble, yet spoke with authority. He was kind, yet unwavering. He was forgiving, yet resolute.
Why? Because Jesus was all about eternal things. We get hung up on the twinkly Christmas lights, while Jesus is trying to reach our eternal soul!
So why does this matter to us today? Because we are called to consider this question every time we make a decision. What’s the point? Is this God’s will? What is God calling us to do?
In today’s scripture, Paul appeals to us to look at the world through Christ’s eyes. Jesus has an eternal perspective, so his purposes were eternal.
We do an awful lot of things at this church – some good and some great. Do you know what distinguishes the two? Perspective. When we look at our activities from an eternal perspective, their weight and importance begin to shift. Let’s focus on those things that are lasting!
We’re in mission trip season here at the church this time of year, with a hundred different people traveling in many different directions in this country and abroad. We’re working in schools and orphanages, repairing homes and building new ones, working in youth camps and packaging relief supplies. We are called to personally engage in service to God’s world. And this is good.
But every year at this time, at least somebody asks me some variation of this question – What’s the point? These trips cost us so much money. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to just send money to the places we are working? This would help the local economy and would be far more efficient than buying campsites and plane tickets and all of the other things that go into these trips. Furthermore, aren’t we really just vacationaries, doing this for our own enjoyment? There is so much need right here in Sterling – why don’t we just stay here.
Well, frankly, these are all excellent questions we must each consider in our hearts before engaging in mission. They are not comfortable questions, but they should not be shrugged off. What is the point?
In studying the scriptures, the point in Jesus’ ministry is ALWAYS about relationship. It’s about relationships between us and other people and between us and our Lord. Why? Because that is where the eternal value lies.
Yes, there are times when the right answer is to just send money. When the earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, SUMC had no direct established relationships in that country, and we would have been ill equipped to provide meaningful support through our physical presence at a time when the country’s infrastructure was in collapse. At the same time, the United Methodist Committee on Relief was deeply invested there, and had many relationships and connections. In that case, sending money through our Methodist Connection made all the sense in the world. Our financial support bolstered the already established relationships that God had orchestrated in advance.
In Canton, Ohio, or Bennettsville, South Carolina, for example, it is a very different story. Our mission trips are as much about reunion with people we love, as they are about doing God’s work. These trips break down economic, racial, generational and social barriers. They teach our children about loving others, and service, and gratitude. They teach our adults the same thing. What is the point? Relationships. With the people we work with, with the people we serve, with the members of our own group, and most importantly, with the Lord.
How do I know this is the case? Because I get to read the college admission essays some of our high school seniors write. I read about how their lives where changed by a visit to an AIDS hospice in Jamaica, or a sweet old lady in Bennettsville. I read about how their priorities have changed. Their dreams have changed, their goals have changed. Their lives have changed. I get to read on the mission trip application forms the reasons why people want to go back on mission trips 3, 4, 5, 6, or even 10 times.
As one of our high school students put it this year, “The closest I’ve ever felt to God is on my previous mission trips.” Think about that for a minute. Even if we didn’t accomplish a thing for the world around us, this alone would make the trips worthwhile. And yet we know that isn’t true. Many tears of joy are shed on these trips as homes are repaired, lives are touched, and heats are changed.
This same student went on to talk about the work that is accomplished, but more importantly about the irreplaceable bonds of relationship that are formed. You see, our high school students understand, it’s not just about the windows that were replaced or the siding that was put up – it’s about the people. Jesus would be proud of them.
And for those who feel we should be active in mission in our own community, you couldn’t be more right! Strap on your working shoes, because the need is endless, and there is great joy in service! God calls us to be in service to His world, wherever we find ourselves - and that starts right here at home!
In today’s scripture we are called to be Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. When people look at your life, are you a good ambassador for God?
Think of the soccer World Cup for a minute. (I know I am). Ok, you knew I would get around to this at some point, right? The players, the coaches, even the fans – they are ambassadors. Their actions represent their country.
We represent our God. What do people see when they see our yellow brick church on the hill? Do they see hope? Do they see kindness? Do they see compassion? Do they see love? I hope so.
But the What’s the Point question is not just for mission trips. It’s for all we do as a church, be it Vacation Bible School, or senior trips, or youth musical productions, or choir concerts. Are we ambassadors for Christ in each of these settings? Do these activities and events reflect the eternal perspective of the living God? Do people who come in contact with the church through these events get a sense of awe, a feeling of love and acceptance, and a deeper understanding of our God? If not, we need to let those things go, and focus on those things that really matter.
We’re about to embark on a major building campaign. We’re about to spend a lot of money! I can assure you I had to ask the question for myself – is this God’s will for this church? Certainly it could be argued that this money could best be spent buying tools to teach our children, feeding the hungry, enhancing our worship and welcoming in the stranger. It’s only when we recognize that this precisely what the building campaign is doing, that we can understand the investment. God has given us tools to do His work in our community and world. Our people are a tool. Our talents, ability and time are tools. Our finances are a tool, and our facility is a tool.
Can we be God’s church without a building? Of course we can. Can we do God’s work without a renovation? Of course we can. So the question becomes, why spend this money? It represents a significant sacrifice for our congregation, for your family and for mine. Certainly we mustn’t take this lightly.
The question isn’t can we exist? The question is can we meet our God-given potential? Can we be in the trenches? How can we be most present for the people Jesus would have us minister to?
32 years ago some bold people envisioned a church on the hill to replace the old clapboard building on West Church Road. The new building would have more bathrooms and a bigger kitchen. It would have a modern sanctuary and sufficient classroom space. It would be a place where we could teach our children and serve our community.
And for 32 years our building has been a tool for God’s people to do His work.
Today we have a new vision for a church on a hill, with bigger bathrooms, an updated kitchen, a modern sanctuary, and sufficient classroom space. It would be a place where we could teach our children and serve our community. Folks, it’s the EXACT SAME vision! By the grace of God, the last 32 years have been good to this church, and we’ve grown and grown. Now we want to enable this church to grow some more.
Next year we celebrate SUMC’s 140th anniversary. So we must ask, “Is God finished here? Is this good enough? What legacy does God want us to build now for the next 140 years? What tools will God’s next generation need?”
You see, if this project is about us, we should never embark upon it. If we just want prettier soap dispensers and fancy carpet, let’s stop this nonsense right now. That would be no different than missing the point of Christmas. No, this building project is about God and God alone. Yes, we’re building bathrooms and offices and classroom and storage rooms. Yes, we are updating our sanctuary and expanding our preschool, youth and classroom wings. Yes, we are enhancing accessibility and security. But no, that is not what this project is about. It is about God. It is about being his instrument in a neighborhood where children go hungry and families don’t have enough to eat. It is about being God’s instrument in a community where everyone has not yet heard the Good News of God’s forgiveness and grace. It is about being God’s instrument in a county whose focus is on everything but the eternal. It is about being God’s instrument on all corners of the globe. (Ok, I know the globe doesn’t have corners, but work with me here). Wherever we find ourselves, we are to be God’s ambassadors of the eternal.
Now if we translate the word Paul used for ambassador from the Greek, the word presbeuw means “to be the elder,” or the “older venerated person” as in an elder statesman. The presbyter is the elder of the church – incidentally, that’s where the Presbyterian church derives its name. Now in our church we call the pastor our “elder.” But make no mistake. Paul makes it clear that we are ALL to be God’s ambassadors – not just Randy.
The apostle Paul calls our role the “ministry of reconciliation.”
We are first reconciled to God, and then second, we are called to be God’s ambassadors to reconcile others to God. Who? Anyone we come into contact with. Here in Sterling, in Leesburg, in Louisiana, in the Czech Republic, or anywhere else we find ourselves.
In verse 14, just before the passage we read today, Paul says, “For Christ’s love compels us.” You see, our Christian calling is not optional. It is not “sometimes.” It is not reserved for mission trips or church workdays. Our calling as Christ’s ambassadors is daily. It is always. It is unyielding. It is exhausting, it is uncomfortable. It is life giving.
I believe a life lived for Christ is one where you fall into bed every night, exhausted from service, and rejuvenated by God’s daily blessings.
Surround yourself with heroes of the faith – there are plenty of them I can point out to you in this church. Devote yourself to Christ, and be His ambassador of the Good News! That’s the point in all we do!