Can we work for God and not know God? Can we do religious work and be disconnected from God? If we mistake mission, fellowship, good works, justice, or evangelism for the center of the church or our living, we then dethrone God and disconnect from the renewing streams of mercy and love that flow from Jesus. In time, we tire of our labor and may grow bitter. A life for God dehydrates the soul. Today’s sermon considers such ideas! Let us pray.
One of the possible perks, or pitfalls, of being a pastor is that you go to a lot of weddings and a lot of rehearsal dinners. Usually pastors are seated with the out of town parents of the bridesmaids. Let me share with you a little trade secret – people behave in a different manner when a pastor dines with them! One particularly interesting evening, Connie and I were seated by Irbie Simpkins, the publisher of the Nashville Banner. Newspaper folks are always writing, telling and learning new stories. Irbie shared his kind manner, keen wit, and humor all night. You can do far worse at a rehearsal dinner! We thoroughly enjoyed being with Irbie over 20 years ago! I told you that story, so I can tell another!
From the fifth grade until my freshman year of college I worked for the Lexington Herald Leader. I awoke in rain, sleet, snow, and August humidity at 4:30am and delivered over 100 newspapers on foot or bicycle everyday by 6am. We put the paper on the front porch and even a few back door ramps for our elderly patrons. By junior high, with my learning disability defeated, I read the paper religiously: Billy Reed on Basketball, Creed Black on the world, Merlene Davis on race, or Paul Prather on faith. I swore at the Paper for exposing my beloved Kentucky Wildcats cheating scandal even as my paper won the Pulitzer Prize. I awoke to new insights when Maria Henson won the Pulitzer Prize for her series on battered women in Kentucky. I loved and hated my hometown newspaper. I read it every day. I learned from it. I worked hard for it. My shoulders carried the added loads of Wednesday coupons and the dreaded Christmas ads. On January 19, 1994 I donned a cheap plastic rain slicker on top of my coveralls to keep the wind at bay as the thermometer dipped to 29 degrees below zero- that was not wind chill. My thin plastic barrier accumulated perspiration, froze, and broke into hundreds of yellow plastic shards. I delivered every paper that day. I worked hard for the paper, I knocked on doors, and sent them a check each month. I wore the paper on my fingers especially on rainy days when the black ink just found its way onto your hands and under your fingernails. With all my hard work for the paper, across ten years, I never had dinner with the editor, or owner, or any of the writers. I worked for the Paper’s owners, I found new customers for them, I knocked on doors for them, I knew about them but I did not know them. However, I was never with them.
You can work for God and not know God. You can work for God and not be with God! You can teach, read about God, be devoted to God, give to God, knock on doors for God, live by rules for God, share the good news for God, and go on mission trips for God and still not know God. Indeed, Saul of Tarsus worked hard for God before becoming the Apostle Paul. In Acts 22, Paul tells his story “I was just as zealous for God …I persecuted the followers of this Way.” Saul was working hard for God but did not know God. Saul was driven by oughts, musts and shoulds. But as the old time Gospel song exclaims “Praise the Lord, Paul saw the light” and everything began to change. Paul recounts, “About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me.” This zealous hard worker for God is blinded so that he might truly see. Suddenly, standing with God, Saul cried out “Who are you, Lord?” Paul did not know the God he worked so hard for!
Hard workers for God often take their value from their achievements for God. Wesley warned “beware of zealots- especially the fiery persecuting kind.” Enthusiasm “begets pride, obstinate self-confidence of spirit, and contempt for others” opposed to living with the spirit that fuels humility, love and grace (The Nature of Enthusiasm). Jethani speaks of how zealous workers for God fall into self-righteousness- a smug arrogance that becomes bitter, resentful and angry towards those not sharing their commitment or worldview. Pastors burn out (Jethani reports 1,500 pastors leave ministry each month, “With”). Lay people get discouraged and drop out when their working for God does not pay off as expected!
Do we work for God? Or are we inspired by Love? Does the love of God woo us into Jesus’ work? If I believe I must save the world- that is a burden I cannot carry. If I believe I must end hunger- that is more than I can do. If I think I must defeat poverty, I will end in despair. If I think I must end racism, I will end in grief. If I think I must restore the nation’s morals, I will grow bitter. If I think I must get all our 1,200 members to come to church each Sunday, that is a load that will burn a pastor out. If you think you singlehandedly must love your neighbor or your enemy, surely you will fail. But friends, as Doctor King said, “There is a great benign power in the universe whose name is God, and our God is able to make a way out of no way” (Our God is Able). You see, God does not send us out alone, God longs to go with us! Do we work for God, or join with Christ’s working?
John Wesley wrote “There is no motive which so powerfully inclines us to love God, as the sense of the Love of God in Christ… And from this principle of grateful love from God arises love for neighbor” (The Law Established by Faith). How do we love our neighbor as ourselves? We dwell in Christ’s deep love for us! We give from the eternally refreshing supply of God’s living water that arises within our souls.
Still, it is easy to slip into a posture of working for God. Jethani reminds us that many churches push this model of being in mission, serving others, or living for God. “Ministries use many different devices to motivate people to serve, engage, and give; but their goal is the same—to transform their members from a posture of living from God to a posture of living for him. I’ve heard this goal articulated in a number of different ways. Some hope to move people “from taking to giving.” Another church talks about “making spectators into participants.” And I heard one church leader say his goal is “turning consumers into servants. Or moving from an inward focused church to an outward focused church.”
Excerpt From: Jethani, Skye,“With.” This work for God dries out the soul. It is a work that kills.
Right at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns all the tireless, sacrificial, religious workers that on the Day of Judgement “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you!’ (Matthew 7:21-23). We can work hard for God and yet not know God. We can work for God and not live with God. Jesus’ warning might drop us to our knees in deep reflection. A second theme emerges from Jesus’ warning- our relationship with God matters more to God than our works! This is Good News! This is grace, mercy and love.
Jethani says “And while the mission of God is immensely important… many in the activist streams of the church see little else when they engage the Scriptures. As a result, they err by making mission the irreducible center of the Christian life.” God cares about our time living with God, more than our hard work done for God.
What is the irreducible center of the Christian life? Is it the Gospel? Is it the mission? Friends- the irreducible center of the Christian Life is Jesus!
Listen to Paul, the hardest worker ever for Jesus, the greatest missionary who ever lived, who traveled all over the Mediterranean Coast and wrote half the NT, who was beaten, shipwrecked, imprisoned and maligned for the Gospel! Listen to Paul’s prayer for Christians in Ephesus “I keep asking that God may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know Christ better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which God has called you, the riches of Christ’s glorious inheritance, and God’s incomparably great power for us who believe” Ephesians 1:15-18. Paul does not pray for them to get busy. Paul does not offer a program, an outreach strategy or a new ministry. These missions and works are all secondary. Paul prays they might know God!
Do we work hard for God, or are we wooed by God’s love into places where God is at work? Do we work for God or live with God? It is a subtle difference- that makes all the difference! Do we pray: “Lord, let us know Christ better so that the eyes of our hearts may be enlightened? Lord let me know the hope to which you have called me?” Do we seek God’s incomparably great power for us who believe? Or do we ask God to bless our pre-laid plans? Or do we get busy working hard for God without the power of God Love’s wooing, joining, guiding, lifting, empowering and enlivening our labors? Do we do our chores for God or fall in love with Jesus and follow him into places of service? If I think I must save the world, I will grow weary and maybe even bitter. If I follow Christ, if I walk with God, then the mission may not overwhelm me. Christ’s love changes everything!
“For this reason I kneel… I pray that out of God’s glorious riches God will strengthen you with power through the Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:14-19 NIV
Will we pray Paul’s second Ephesian prayer? “For this reason we kneel, we pray that out of God’s glorious riches God will strengthen us with power through the Spirit in our inner being, so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith. Lord, we ask that we would be rooted and established in love. Lord, give us the power to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ so that we might truly know the love of God that surpasses human knowledge! Lord, fill us beyond the rim with the fullness of God.” Amen!
What is the irreducible center of the church? What is the irreducible center of our lives? The love of God is! The church exists in order to connect us to Jesus- not to grow, not to do good, not to be in mission, not to win the world, not to have high worship production values, not to keep our kids safe, not to keep our teens righteous, not to have good Christian friends, not to feed the world, not to comfort the sick, and not to ensure morality. Jesus is the center of the church. When we take our focus away from Jesus, we bow down to lesser gods. Christ is the center of all Christians. God is the irreducible center of our lives. Now, once a life, a Christian, or a church deeply encounters Jesus we will become like Jesus and we will live into good things. But if we make mission, fellowship, good works or evangelism the center of the church or our living, we dethrone Jesus and disconnect from the streams of mercy and love that refresh us and keep us moving along the narrow way that leads to life.
Indeed, “Churches and ministries fail to understand (that) the primary purpose of our worship gatherings, preaching, and programs should be to present a ravishing vision of Jesus Christ. When people come to see who Jesus is and what God is like, treasuring Christ becomes the natural outcome. But in many places the vision of Christ remains hidden behind shadows while lesser glories—often some variation on the culture’s values or the church’s mission—are given the spotlight.” Excerpt From: Jethani, Skye, “With”
The primary purpose of our worship gatherings, preaching, good-doing and programs should be to help people encounter Christ. To say “wow” to God- not to stunning music, helpful sermons, high production values, or noble causes. Jesus is the renewing center that refreshes the soul and empowers our actions.
We see glimmers of this face to face relationship with God in Moses. Moses worked so hard for God, but Moses also dwelled with God on the Holy Mountain for forty days. “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near Moses,” Exodus 34. Indeed, the put a curtain over Moses because he was too shiny! The word Doxology is rooted in the Greek word, which holds a sense of brightness, splendor, light, radiance, glowing like a halo. This is an inner glow that sometimes escapes onto our exterior expression when we are living with God!
How do we enter into this glow, this splendor? How do we lay aside our formulas, steps, programs, rules, needs, labors, obligations, musts, oughts, shoulds, always, nevers, and can’ts? First, know that God’s love often evades the one who seeks blessings from God, those who live under God in fear, and those who work hard for God. God’s Love is a spiritual experience that may escape our beloved science and theology. When a theological teacher and hard worker for God asked Jesus about life with God, “Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again…. Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” John 3:3, 5-8. God’s love changes work for God into spending time with God! It is hard to nail down, explain, reduce, or chart. So it is with the love that surpasses knowledge.
If you are a busy church worker, come find rest. If you are always seeking divine blessing, come seek to know Christ- not get something. If you are shackled by a heavy burden, crushed by a load of guilt and shame, open your heart to the Love of God. If you are hollow and broken hard worker, come let the Love of God find you. If you are a zealous hard worker, cease and seek to know Christ!
Let us pray, Paul’s prayer! Lord we kneel, praying that out of Your glorious riches You will strengthen us with power through the Spirit in our inner being. Oh, that that Christ might dwell in our hearts through faith. Let us be rooted and established in love. Give us power so that we might grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. Let us know this love of God that surpasses human knowledge. Fill us to the measure with the fullness of God. Let us be born anew into Your matchless love. Amen