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Sermon: A Covenant For Worship And Mission

Still finding it difficult to get back to regular blogging – the diary has been frantic for the first couple of weeks in the new appointment. I hope to resume soon. Meanwhile, here is tomorrow’s (no, this morning’s) initial sermon for Knaphill. It’s Covenant Service, and I’ve introduced a sermon series on Jonah to highlight the theme of mission. A Local Preacher did Jonah chapter 1 last week. I join in at chapter 2.

Jonah 2

Last Sunday morning, while I was innocently engaged in taking my first service at Addlestone, something dastardly happened here at Knaphill. I understand that Graham Pearcey brought the rest of my family up to the front where they were asked to share information about me.

I understand you were told that I cannot sing. Well … that is entirely correct. You will want to shower the AV team with chocolates and expensive unMethodist liquids for them fading down my microphone during the hymns and songs.

But while I am poor at singing, I nevertheless love music. Not without cause did I mention in a piece I wrote for Flight Path, the circuit magazine, that one of my favourite gadgets is my iPod. One band I particularly enjoyed during early adulthood was Talking Heads. Their most famous song was called ‘Once in a lifetime’. The lyrics to the first verse go like this (don’t worry, I won’t be singing them):

You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself living in another part of the world
You  may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself, well how did I get here?

And that – it seems to me – is a good place to begin looking at Jonah chapter 2 in this series on Jonah, the reluctant missionary. How did I get here? There are three questions I want us to ask about Jonah from this chapter, and they take us a little further along the road of his journey into the mission of God. So the first question is this: how did Jonah get here?

And I think my short answer is that Jonah has a warped view of the life of faith, and this leads him away from God’s call to mission. When the call first comes to go to Nineveh, he heads for Tarshish (1:3). Tarshish was a luxury destination: King Solomon’s fleet had returned from there with gold, silver, ivory, monkeys and peacocks (1 Kings 10:22). In the ancient imagination, it was like Paradise. It was Shangri-La.[1] Jonah preferred comfort to calling. That’s something we might well chew on as we renew our Covenant with God later in this service. Are we opting for comfort or calling?

One of the circuit Local Preachers clearly thought we had come to the land of milk and honey in moving from Essex (oh dear) to Surrey – as if it were some contemporary Tarshish. Maybe not so much land of milk and honey, but land of Waitrose. Many others have informed us that the manse is in the most desirable road in the village. So have we come to Tarshish?  Let me make one simple observation: by coming here, our insurance premiums have increased!

A recent report suggested that one reason many children of church families don’t continue in the Christian faith is that what they witness from their parents and their church family is not radical, risk-taking faith in Jesus Christ, but comfortable, respectable living. It has no attraction. It is Tarshish faith, and you end up living in a fish.

Jonah has another warped attitude to faith. Let me introduce it this way. Suppose I ask you what the main purpose of Christian faith is. In my experience, the answer most Christians give is, ‘to worship God’. Wrong answer.

Are you shocked by my saying that? Consider this: it was Jonah’s answer. He told the pagan sailors in 1:9, ‘I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land’. His life was about worship. But just focussing on worship didn’t stop his disobedience and his destiny in the alimentary canal of a large fish.

A better answer about our purpose is not that we are here to worship God, but that we are here to glorify God. The Westminster Catechism, so beloved of Calvinist Christians, more correctly says that our ‘chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever’. We glorify God both in the church and in the world, in worship and in mission. A church that simply concentrates on worship and on internal matters is one that will find herself sooner or later in a predicament.

In this respect, Jonah stands in the book as a representative of ancient Israel, who was called by God to be ‘a light to the nations’, but who was reluctant to fulfil that destiny. The historical Jonah described in 2 Kings 14:25 is one who is more concerned with nationalism than with the blessing of the nations[2].

If we want to end up – metaphorically speaking – inside a fish, spending our time swimming in half-digested food and toxins, then we could do no better than to concentrate on worship and internal matters, and give no thought to engaging in the mission of God. That – and his preference for comfort – is how Jonah ended up in the fish. Are there warped faith priorities that have put us in a similar place?

The second question is this: why is Jonah in the fish? You may say I’ve just answered that question. But I want to take it further. Why has God put him in a fish? There is a surprising answer.

We may think that his hotel reservation in the belly of the fish was God’s punishment for his disobedience. However, Jonah was booked for drowning, when the pagan sailors threw him overboard. God sent the fish, not to punish him, but to rescue him. The fish is like some underwater lifeboat, come to save him from going to what the Jews called Sheol, the place of the dead[3]. In his prayer, Jonah sees it as deliverance (vv 1-7).

This location of filth and acid is actually God’s salvation for Jonah. The disgusting stench of the fish’s belly is … grace. By this drastic course of action, God preserves Jonah for his purposes of mission.

Grace isn’t always prettified and beautiful. After all, it depends on nails hammered through the flesh of Jesus onto a cross of wood. We affirm that ‘God works for good in all things for those that love him’ (Romans 8:28), and that means he acts in grace as much through the nasty episodes of life as the joyful ones. One author called it ‘A severe mercy’. You may identify with this from your own life. How many of you look back on certain painful or traumatic seasons of your life and realise – at least in retrospect – that God was working for good through that experience? Maybe he did something in your life that could not have happened unless you had endured something unpleasant.

I believe we can apply this to the life of the church as well as to our individual lives. Think of it like this. Jonah is rescued from death by God’s provision of the big fish. Consider the number of churches that have died. Look at their buildings now turned into carpet warehouses or places of worship for other religions. Now reflect on the fact that this church is still alive. Say what you like about things having been better in days gone by – although I believe that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be and that the golden days were probably only nickel-plated. Whatever your fond memories of what you believe to have been better times, and whatever you might not like about church life as you know it today, the fact is that God has preserved this church.

So the question is why he has preserved us in grace. Surely it must also be that we might glorify him. Surely we are here not only to worship him but to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the world, through our deeds and words.

Which means you now know why I picked Jonah as the opening sermon series for my time here. I wanted to make it clear from the outset that I do not believe I came here ‘to run the church’ or ‘to keep everybody happy’. I came with a vision for a church that both gathers for worship and disperses for mission. I believe God has preserved this church in his grace and mercy for such purposes. At this Covenant Service, will you join with me as we renew our commitment to Christ in walking this way?

And that begs the third and final question: what will Jonah do? We read his response in verses 8 and 9:

“Those who cling to worthless idols
forfeit God’s love for them.

But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the LORD.’ “

He rejects idols and promises to sacrifice and keep his vows. Idols are those things or people we set our hearts upon, and to which we will sacrifice. They can be good things to which we wrongly assign absolute status. I am sure you can think of many examples without much problem, especially within our society.

However, since we are considering our own lives right now, let me offer some suggestions about the sort of idols that can afflict religious people[4]. We can be guilty of racial or denominational pride. We can be guilty of moral or doctrinal superiority. But let me offer one particular idolatry that afflicts us all too much: church work itself. This can manifest itself in various ways. Here are a couple of examples.

At one stage in a previous circuit, I had to look after an additional church temporarily for eighteen months. During that time, one of the faithful elderly ladies died, and I was asked to conduct her funeral. I met with her relatives, who told me that the church had been her whole life, not just in terms of worship and fellowship, but it had formed her entire social life, too. Clearly, they thought I would be pleased to learn of this.

However, it saddened me greatly. Why, when we are called to glorify God in both worship and mission, would we spend all our time in the church? Could it have assumed a level of importance far beyond what the New Testament calls it to have?

The other story goes like this. Some of you may remember the controversy in the mid-1990s over the dramatic charismatic-Pentecostal experiences of the Holy Spirit that were labelled as the ‘Toronto Blessing’. At the height of that time, I flew to Toronto and spent a week at the church which was at the epicentre of the movement. As well as their regular Sunday morning services, they were running seminars for pastors morning and afternoon every weekday, and they were holding renewal meetings six nights a week. Without exaggeration, thousands of visitors from around the world came to the church every week.

You will not be surprised to know that in such a spiritually intense time and with the church attracting so much attention, enthusiastic members of that church were volunteering left, right and centre to help at the renewal meetings. Some wanted to come and be on duty every night.

But the church leadership said, ‘no’. Much as they needed the help to run all the meetings, they limited church members only to helping with one evening renewal meeting per week. On other nights, they wanted them to attend a home group, do something for Christ in the community and spend time with their families. I think that by doing that they not only encouraged balanced Christian living, they helped their members avoid church idolatry.

So, no, I don’t consider it a badge of spirituality to be down the church every night of the week. Renewing your covenant with Christ today might mean lessening what you do at church in order to give more time to family and community.

And we ought to take this seriously, because in these words of his I quoted a couple of minutes ago, Jonah uses language that is pertinent to the theme of covenant. ‘Those who cling to idols forfeit God’s love for them,’ reads verse 8 in the TNIV. But God’s love here is a weak English translation of a word that stands for God’s faithful covenant love. Dealing with the idols in our lives is about maintaining the faithful covenant relationship with God. Idolatry is something we should examine at a covenant service. It gets in the way of our calling to glorify God in the church and the world, however worthy it appears to be.

When we deal with it, then – like Jonah – we can offer our sacrifices and keep our vows – the vows we make at something like a covenant service.

So – in summary, God is calling us to renew our commitment to glorify him in worship and mission. To that end, as we make our covenant with him afresh today, will we stop making our personal comfort and other things – even church work – our personal idols? Will we reject those things that lead us to treat internal church life as a priority that has excluded our involvement in Christian mission? Will we recognise that the difficulties and uncongenial aspects of our lives individually or together may even be tools God has used to preserve us for this twin calling to worship and mission?

Could it be that God has brought us to this point – like Queen Esther – ‘for such a time as this’?

[1] Eugene Peterson, Under The Unpredictable Plant, p 15f.

[2] Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods, p 134.

[3] Leslie C Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, p 213.

[4] As suggested in Tim Keller’s book above.

Countering Idolatry: Some Thoughts On Tim Keller’s ‘Counterfeit Gods’

This week I have mostly been reading two books. One of them awaits a future blog post, but the other is Tim Keller‘s Counterfeit Gods, subtitled, ‘When the empty promises of love, money and power let you down’. It manages to be both pastoral and evangelistic, in that Keller diagnoses the affliction of idolatry as infecting both Christian and non-Christian alike.

An idol is for Keller anything – and usually a good thing – that we inflate to absolute good in place of the true God. While covering the usual contemporary suspects such as money, sex, relationships, power and success, he briefly analyses some less common ones. He is well read in contemporary culture and in the analysis of idolatry.

He also distinguishes between ‘surface idols’ and ‘deep idols’. The former are easy to identify, but the latter, the driving forces behind our idolatry, are harder to detect. However, in what may be the strongest section of the book (with the possible exception of the biblical exegesis) he provides a series of ways in which we can diagnose whether something has become an idol. What obsesses our imagination and daydreaming? Are there things on which we spend too much money? For the Christian, do we react with undue anger or despair to unanswered prayer for a particular request? Do our uncontrollable emotions, such as fear, anger or guilt, tell us we are raising something to the level of a necessity in life when it is not? This section falls in the book’s Epilogue, and is priceless.

My one disappointment was with what followed that section. Keller says that it isn’t enough to renounce idols, they need to be replaced by a devotion to Christ and all he has done for us, because in that we will find true satisfaction in life. He tells us this is best developed by the use of spiritual disciplines, but unfortunately then bails out by saying that describing them is beyond the remit of the book. That seemed to be a shame to me, since to describe that would be to outline a major element of the cure. Instead, he simply footnotes books by Kenneth Boa and Edmund Clowney. I am sure Keller is capable of writing lucidly on this subject. It is as if he had run aground against a publisher’s word limit. Perhaps he will offer his own thoughts on this important subject one day.

Despite that one hesitation, this is a book I heartily recommend. It is significant on so many levels. If you are a prophet, its diagnosis of sin in western culture is important: as Keller says, you cannot understand a culture without discerning its idols. If you are an evangelist, it will give deep insight into what holds people captive. The pastor will also appreciate the understanding of the human condition and the tools for discerning idolatry. It is well worth your time and money.

Unless books are your idol, I suppose.

Today, I Have Mostly Been Thinking About Buildings …

… because two issues have been on my mind. The first is that a major upgrade to our church hall should be finished in time for rededication on Sunday. We have spent a lot of money bringing it more than up to scratch for disabled access, and implementing some necessary refurbishments at the same time. We shall have good reason to say a public thank-you to the man who has seen the scheme through from vision to completion.

But finding a form of words to use for rededication is difficult. There is an order of service in the Methodist Worship Book for the dedication of a new church building, but it doesn’t fit what we need here. (Not that the denomination should provide a liturgy for absolutely everything.) Even if that service did have some resonances, much of the wording assumes that church = building. And I don’t think so.

The second also revolves around some joyful news. I have been asked to conduct a wedding. However, the couple requested they have a low-key informal wedding in a country house or similar property. The trouble is, English and Welsh law won’t allow that. As an ‘Authorised Person’, I can only conduct Christian weddings in registered religious buildings. The law that allowed weddings in public places other than register offices and places of worship specifically limited those ceremonies to civil weddings, that is secular ones where no religious content is allowed. I’m fairly sure that’s because the Church of England saw the move as a threat to their ‘business’, but it means I’ve had to disappoint the couple concerned. As far as they were concerned, if their Christian friends were present, then wherever they were, they were ‘in church’, because church = the people.

Before the last General Election there was a White Paper before Parliament proposing changes to marriage laws, where the deciding factor would not be registered buildings but registered celebrants. As a minister in a mainstream denomination, I would have become a celebrant, and if I deemed a venue suitable (and it met certain otehr minimum criteria), then I could have conducted a wedding there, rather like the Scottish system. The White Paper died at the election, and hasn’t been resurrected. We are thus left with a church = buildings assumption built into the marriage law of the land.

None of this is to deny the necessity of buildings, or to romanticise the church = people equation. I know of churches planted in Uganda that have been desperate for their own buildings for the pragmatic reason that they needed to get their people out of the intense heat. And just as I know what a burden it can be in an historic denomination to have to maintain a building, I also know of issues with ‘new churches’ that find  the hiring of buildings difficult. Lugging equipment in and out of a school every Sunday can be a drain. That isn’t viable with the predominantly elderly congregations I serve – although neither is it easy for them to find enough able-bodied people to take care of everyday maintenance.

The other side of the coin, is of course, the idolisation of buildings. I have seen church communities so devoted to their bricks and mortar that you wondered who or what was being worshipped.

And maybe worship is the issue. Buildings are not masters but servants. Where we worship them, God is not worshipped – whatever religious activities we conduct within them. When we recognise them as servants, they are in their proper place. Treating buildings as servants becomes a healthy framework for our decisions about them. Is what we are proposing to do a way in which the building is used to serve God and serve other people?

Even then, we have to watch our hearts for additional or ulterior motives. There is no doubt on Sunday morning that when we rededicate our church hall there will be a major element of service about that. It is used by many community groups. At the same time, the fact that it is brings in necessary income for us. I like to presume that the offering to the community takes predecence in our thinking over our need to raise money. (We have invited our hirers to the service, and we shall pray God’s blessing on them – the dancers, the pre-school, the silver band and all the others.)

For if it were to be the latter motive of balancing the books, then we would need to think seriously about our motives. If our overall aim was about our finances, then I’d start thinking of Jesus’ words in Mark 8 that those who want to save their lives will lose them. I don’t see why they can’t be applied corporately, to churches, not just individually. Many churches are obsessed with self-preservation, and how they view their buildings can be one sign of this sickness. However, those aiming for self-preservation, and whose reasons for using their building reflect this, are the churches most likely, according to Jesus here, not to be preserved at all.

So by all means let’s have buildings. We need them. Let’s ensure they are our servants, not our masters. And when they are used as inanimate servants, let’s be careful to watch our motives. May God search our hearts.