The Platinum Rule (Romans 14)

For the past month or so, we've been looking at a series called Church: Family at Its Best. We've been looking at God's design for what he wants Richview to be. For the next few weeks, we're going to look at some of the unique challenges that we face as a church to try to discover what God has to say. We're going to ask God to speak to where we are right now as a church. Today we're going to look at an issue that is our greatest strength, but also our greatest challenge: how to handle the diversity that God has given us as a church.

Leonard Sweet is pastor, a professor, and one of my favorite authors. He writes of a time that he was in an airport and wanted a soft pretzel, no butter. "Sorry, sir, we don't serve pretzels without butter," the attendant announced as she removed from the oven steaming, hot pretzels which she proceeded to dip into the butter.

"You don't understand," he explained hurriedly, as his plane was boarding its final passengers from the Continental Gate at Newark's C Terminal. "Just hand me the pretzel from the oven. Don't dip it into the butter."

"Sorry, sir, we don't serve pretzels without butter."

Leonard Sweet could tell that this was heading somewhere. He went for broke. "I've had no-butter pretzels at airports all over this country. But let's not argue. I'll give you two for one. Here's the money for two pretzels. You give me that one pretzel there without butter. Deal?"

"No, sir. I can't imagine a soft pretzel without butter. I certainly wouldn't serve you one."

"Let me get this right," he carried on. "You are refusing to sell me one pretzel for the price of two because I want you to leave off the butter?"

"That's right sir. Our pretzels have butter on them."

For years, Christians have been living by the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule says, "Do for others what you would like them to do for you" (Matthew 7:12). For most of our lives, we've believed that if we give to others what we ourselves would like, we're doing enough. But Leonard Sweet says, "Golden Rule Christianity is killing our communities, our churches, our businesses, our faith. The Golden Rule kept me from getting fed. The Golden Rule is based on putting who first? 'Do unto others as YOU would have them do unto you.'"

Sweet concludes his story by concluding that Jesus gave us a new rule that trumps the Golden Rule. It's called the Platinum Rule, and Jesus gave it to us in John 13:34: "Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other." How did Jesus love us? Jesus loved us so much that he didn't treat us the way that he wanted to be treated. Jesus loved us so much that he was willing to lay something down for us - his security, his reputation, his relatives, his life. "The Platinum Rule asks this question: What are we willing to lay down for others that they might find life and health and truth and peace?" (Leonard Sweet)

We as a church are very diverse. We have people here who like buttered pretzels. We have people here who like pretzels without butter. We have people here who don't even like pretzels.

One of our greatest strengths as a church is our diversity. I love being part of a multigenerational church with very different ideas and preferences. It's our greatest strength - but it's also one of our greatest challenges. It gives me the opportunity to treat others not the way that I want to be treated, but the way that they want to be treated. It gives me the opportunity to lay something down for others.

Have you seen the Ikea commercial? Two seniors are stopped at a light in their old jalopy. A car pulls into the lane beside them, with loud music blasting out the open windows. The senior man looks over and gives the teenagers in the other car. It looks like he's giving them the evil eye, but you see his face dissolve into a smile. Both cars have Ikea furniture strapped on the roof. They may be separated by age, they may be separated by musical preferences, but they're united by Ikea.

What would happen if Richview became a multigenerational church in which we were separated by how we looked and what we liked, but united by Jesus? What would happen if we didn't meet our divergent tastes by putting all the generations into a blender and coming up with something that pleases nobody? What if we recognized instead that we have somehow meet and adapt to the various cultures that we have as a church - not just ethnic cultures but generational cultures - by creating environments in which each group is served, so they can serve others and lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ?

BACKGROUND

If you have Bibles with you, I'd like to look at Romans 14 together. I'd like to look at a church that was very diverse. That church was located in Rome, the capital of the civilized world at that time. I think you could probably relate to this church. There were groups of people in this church who not only liked different things, but they also believed the other group was wrong. It wasn't just a case of, "I like this and you like that." It was a case of denying the other group's right to think and behave differently. They had turned their preferences into moral issues.

I love Romans 14 because it doesn't define the issue. It gives some examples of differing beliefs, but instead of dealing with a particular issue, it gives principles on how to deal with differences of opinion in the church over what's right and what's wrong. He calls the one group that's having problems with the other weak. The New Living Translation calls them those with "a sensitive conscience" (Romans 14:2). Although Paul calls them weak, we need to realize that we all fit into that category some of the time. There are going to be times that all of us look at what others in the church are doing, and say, "I disagree with that. They shouldn't be doing that." So the lessons for the weaker group and the other group apply to us all.

What's the example that Paul gives? Romans 14:1-2 says, "Accept Christians who are weak in faith, and don't argue with them about what they think is right or wrong. For instance, one person believes it is all right to eat anything. But another believer who has a sensitive conscience will eat only vegetables." The issue can be summarized in two words: differing opinions. One group was probably the Jewish part of the church, people who had been used to avoidance of certain foods and behaviors. The other group was probably those who had always enjoyed freedom in these areas. They believed that they weren't disobeying God at all by eating certain foods or engaging in certain behaviors. The issue wasn't a moral one - although some wanted to make it that. The issue was an honest difference in opinion, much like we can face in the church today.

Today, across the world, churches are filled with vastly different opinions and preferences. For the first time in history, we are living in a world in which seven generations are living side by side. We're also in the middle of a huge societal shift. We're caught in the transition between what's called the modern world - the world of science, reason, and empirical knowledge - to a postmodern world. Ed's going to be talking about what it means to live in a postmodern world next week. It's a whole new world out there. This has created vastly different opinions and preferences in the church.

The other week, I was driving in the car with my older brother. He attended a church that's a bit more contemporary. He doesn't like the songs. He doesn't like a lot of the things they're doing as a church. One Sunday, he got up in the middle of the service and left for the Presbyterian Church down the road. He loved it! He said it was like going back to the way churches used to be twenty or thirty years ago. It hit me that all around us, we have vastly different opinions of what we like and what we prefer. That's not wrong. It's just our reality.

What did Paul say to these groups with vastly differe nt opinions? Did he tell them to go ahead and start different churches? The solution Paul gives isn't to split from others who have different opinions and preferences. Instead, Paul speaks to each of the groups. We're going to look at what he says.

THE PRINCIPLES

What did Paul say to these groups? The message to both groups is this: DON'T JUDGE. Read with me what Romans 14:3-4 says:

Those who think it is all right to eat anything must not look down on those who won't. And those who won't eat certain foods must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them. Who are you to condemn God's servants? They are responsible to the Lord, so let him tell them whether they are right or wrong. The Lord's power will help them do as they should.

Paul's point could be summarized in two words: don't judge. You may have your beliefs and opinions. They may even be strongly held opinions. To you, they may even seem that anybody who disagrees is morally wrong. But Paul says, "Don't judge." Even though Paul isn't neutral, and seems to have put himself in one group that allowed more freedom, he said to both groups, "Don't judge each other."

There are many issues that are areas of controversy. The Bible doesn't address many of these issues, but people have very strong opinions. The problem is not when we have these opinions, but when we begin to judge others in the church because they don't hold our opinions and behave as we do - when we condemn others who don't like what we do like. That's when we start to serve pretzels only one way: the way that we like them. We expect others to fit into what we like, and if they don't like it, we condemn them.

The problem Paul addresses is that sometimes we forget that others answer to God and not to us. In those days, it was very inappropriate to interfere in an issue between a servant and his master. It was considered nobody else's business. Paul says, in verse 4, to be careful when condemning somebody else who's serving God, because it's not your issue. In matters of opinion, they answer to God, and you have no right to interfere. We have no right to judge each other, because that's God's job. And he'll do a lot better job of it than you and I will. Romans 14:10 says, "Why do you condemn another Christian? Why do you look down on another Christian? Remember, each of us will stand personally before the judgment seat of God."

I heard Howard Hendricks speak a couple of years ago. Howard is now in his eighties. He looked at us as a group and told us that we had to determine what we were willing to go to the mat for. And then he shared with us his personal rule for deciding what he would go to the mat for. He said, "When the Scriptures speak, I speak. Where the Scriptures don't speak, I don't." Don't ever go to the mat over an opinion or a preference. Refuse to go to the mat.

I'm excited by the opportunity we have as a church not to go to the mat over issues of preference. That doesn't mean we ignore the preferences - I'll come to that in a minute. It does mean that we refuse to judge each other based on these preferences and opinions.

A pastor in Alberta writes about his discomfort with the way churches are changing. He's sick of clapping in services, because clapping is for concerts and hockey games, and not for church. He's tired of worship leaders in T-shirts banging on drums or swallowing a microphone. He likes choruses around a campfire, but he hates them at church. He misses some of the traditional elements of the service that he's used to. He misses the midweek meeting, even though he doesn't really mind the home groups that have taken their place.

But then this pastor begins to reflect how easily he was able to accept the way things are done in West Africa. In West Africa, he attended a church with dogs and chickens in the congregation. They didn't sing a song that he knew. He didn't mind the drummers beating the kerosene tins to death as they led the singing. And then this pastor says, "A hideous thought has struck me. While priding myself on not being racist in Africa, have I become a Christian snob in Canada unawares?" He says:

Perhaps - hideous thought…I'm not willing to pay the price of worshipping with people of other ages and other cultures. My age, race and upbringing encourage me to concentrate on the negative aspects of the new worship service, a knee-jerk reaction, in fact. But is not the Holy Spirit Lord also of my reflexes? Maybe I should suspend judgment and spend some time looking at both sides of the question. (Hugh Maclure)

What would happen if we suspended judgment on our knee-jerk reactions, our opinions and preferences? What if we accepted one another, despite our differences? No matter which group you're in - whether you like one thing or another - don't judge. Suspend your judgment. Learn to accept one another, because we all ultimately will answer to God.

Paul gives another principle, given that we still have to live with these differences. Since we're not going to split, and we're still going to have to grapple with our differences, how should we act in terms of our differences? Paul gives us another principle: MAKE ALLOWANCES. Paul especially addresses the group of people who are strong, the group that is being criticized by those who have issues, and says, "You may be okay with what you're doing. You may even be more correct than those who are criticizing you. I'll call them weak. I'm on your side on this issue, but I'll tell you this: make allowances for those who object."

Paul says in Romans 14:14, "I know and am perfectly sure on the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ that no food, in and of itself, is wrong to eat." Substitute music or styles or whatever it is that's an issue for others. Paul would say, "Your music, your style, whatever it is, isn't wrong." Its morality isn't at issue.

However, Paul continues in verse 14-15: "But if someone believes it is wrong, then for that person it is wrong. And if another Christian is distressed by what you eat, you are not acting in love if you eat it. Don't let your eating ruin someone for whom Christ died."

Let's be clear about what Paul is saying. Paul isn't saying that we should conduct our lives according to the strictest standards of the weakest believer. What he's talking about is to cause another believer to violate their conscience. Even if the issue isn't a moral one, never entice another believer to do what they consider to be sinful. Even if it's not sinful, if their conscience won't allow them to do it, don't entice them to do it. Why? Because there's something even more important and valuable than freedom, and that is love. There's a lot more at stake than "what we eat or drink" - the externals that we think are the real issue. The real issue is "living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17).

What happens if we do this? What happens if we make allowances for others? Read verses 18-19: "If you serve Christ with this attitude, you will please God. And other people will approve of you, too. So then, let us aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up." Romans 15:5-6 says:

May God, who gives this patience and encouragement, help you live in complete harmony with each other-each with the attitude of Christ Jesus toward the other. Then all of you can join together with one voice, giving praise and glory to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Let me try to summarize so far. If you have issues and objections to what other Christians are doing, and it's just a matter of opinion - even strong opinion - then you need to stop judging. It's not your place to judge. You're being disobedient if you do judge. Don't condemn them for what they're doing. Change your attitude, change your mind about them.

If you're being criticized, and you may even be in the right in what you're doing, then "be considerate of the doubts and fears of t hose who think that these things are wrong" (Romans 15:1). The opposite of love is self-interest. You've got a simple choice: to stick up for your rights, or to sacrifice and to love others. We're not talking about making people happy here. We're talking about sacrificing for the sake of others by putting them first, even if we're within our rights.

What does this mean for us at Richview? We're committed to being a multigenerational church. That means that we are choosing to wrestle though these issues, and to try to live by the platinum rule. We're committing to lay our preferences and opinions down for others that they might find life and health and truth and peace.

My dream for Richview has always been that we would be a community in which the younger people are always asking, "Are we doing enough for the older people?" and in which the seniors are asking, "Are we doing enough for the younger?" I dream of being a community that's more concerned with one another than our own preferences and dislikes. That's going to be one of our greatest challenges - and also one of our greatest strengths.

We don't want to serve only one type of pretzel. We don't even want to serve pretzels that have been half-dipped in butter. We want to follow the Platinum Rule.

What I'd like you to do today is this. If you're here and you're not yet hooked up with this church, or you're checking us out or even what Christianity is all about, you need to know that a lot of what sets Christianity apart is this: it's not about you. It's not about me. What we're wrestling through is a great antidote to our society, because in our society it's possible to have everything our way, and still not be happy. I live in a family, and one of the things I like about my family is that I don't always get my way. I complain once in a while, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

The other week, my family was out somewhere. That night, I got to do everything the way that I wanted. I ate the food I liked. I watched the TV shows that I had chosen. I had it my way. But my heart still leapt when I looked out the window and saw my family return. Having everything your way is overrated. There's something much better, and that's community.

If you're not sure about this church thing, or even where you stand with God, I invite you to get to know us better. I invite you to get to know the person who knew that you were a sinner, but chose to put your needs ahead of his when he died for you. He paid for you to be forgiven, and he offers you forgiveness and eternal life when you come to him and choose to live for him. Paradoxically, Jesus said, you only find life when you're finally okay with losing it. In invite you to find out that living for Jesus - that living for others - is a way better lifestyle than simply living for yourself.

If you're part of Richview, I need to ask you to do what only God can give you the power to do: to begin living the Platinum Rule. I'm going to ask you to treat others in this church not the way that you want to be treated, but the way that they want to be treated. I'm going to ask you to pay the price of worshipping with people of other ages and other cultures - to even overcome your knee-jerk reactions because you want to love those with whom you may disagree. This is humanly impossible, but I'm going to ask you, because the God who has commanded us to do this is the God who has also promised to give us the power. If you'd commit, I'd invite you to pray with me.

Prayer:

Father, I'm naturally selfish. I'm also naturally judgmental. I want things done my way, and I'm quick to complain when they aren't.

Your word commands us to live for others, and to accept those who differ from us. We ask today for your power in following the example of our Savior, knowing that when we "accept each other just as Christ has accepted you, then God will be glorified" (Romans 15:7). We pray this to bring him glory. In Jesus' name and through his power we pray. Amen.

Posted on February 17, 2002 and filed under Uncategorized.

Outreach: Invest and Invite (Luke 15)

A few years ago, we attended a very large church in Florida. When you attend a church for a while, you become accustomed to the way that things are done. I've attended church all my life, so I have a pretty good idea of how things operate: when to sit, when to stand, and what's going on when different things happen. I don't even think about it; I'm familiar with the protocol. But this church was different. When it was time to sing, nobody announced a song. Everybody just stood up, pulled out a hymnbook, and started singing. It wasn't until midway through the service that I figured out what was going on. The service was being televised, and they didn't want to break up the flow of the service, so we had to follow along and anticipate what was happening next, find the hymn numbers ourselves, and always stay one step ahead. It wasn't what we were used to, but we were able to figure it out.

Most of us have probably had the experience of attending another church in another tradition in which they do things differently. I've sat in churches where there are three or four books in the pew, and you've got to figure out which one to grab at the appropriate time. People stand and people sit, and people just start speaking in the middle of the service. I remember thinking, "This isn't the way you do church." Of course it was they way they did church, but it didn't fit my Baptist background. There are all kinds of things that we do that we take for granted, but they can be very confusing for someone coming in. It's like going to a cricket game without knowing any of the rules. There's a bit of a learning curve.

One time, before I was a pastor, I decided to invite a couple of friends to attend church with me. I attended a good church. Our pastor was a good speaker. The people were generally friendly. But all of a sudden I began to think about what my friends would encounter when they came to church. I thought, "I wonder if the pastor's going to be preaching on tithing." I remember phoning him to find out the subject of his sermon. I began to realize that they would be lost by a lot of what we do as a church. The problem wasn't that I didn't go to a good church. The problem was that it wasn't the easiest church for a newcomer to attend. It was fine if you grew up in a church and knew how a Baptist church operates. But for someone new, it was like a ladder with the bottom rungs cut off. They almost needed a tour guide to explain to them what to do.

The tables were turned on me a couple of years ago. I was required to attend a mosque as part of an assignment. I looked around and realized that I looked very different from everybody else there, and that I was the only one who didn't know what to do. The mosque wasn't set up with newcomers in mind - just like a lot of churches aren't either. It wasn't really friendly to outsiders.

You're here today, so you're likely used to how we do things. But I think that many of us can agree that church can be a very difficult invitation to make. We're not sure what our friends will encounter when they come to church. There are a lot of people who are very interested in God, but the church thing scares them off. The obstacle for a lot of people is the church. They want to know God, but the whole church thing scares them off. And the irony is that church, without anybody ever meaning it, becomes an obstacle to people who want to establish a relationship with Jesus Christ, rather than a help. We don't intend it, and sometimes we don't even know it, but church can be a scary place for people who aren't already part of that church.

One of the amazing qualities that Jesus possessed while he was on earth was that Jesus was very attractive to people who weren't religious. If you look at the life of Jesus, you find that religious people were often offended by Jesus, but sinners flocked to him. As holy as Jesus was, they felt comfortable in his presence. Jesus was somebody that sinners like to be around.

The Bible teaches that when Jesus returned to heaven, the church took over the job of being the body of Christ in this world. In other words, the church is meant to be the community of people where if you want to meet Jesus, that's where he will be. The church is designed to be as close as you can come to the physical presence of Jesus Christ in this world. That means that the church should resemble Jesus.

The problem is that in a lot of cases, the church has devolved into something very unlike Jesus. And my concern today as we look at the subject of outreach is that we need to avoid becoming a church that is unattractive to sinners. My concern is that we should never deviate from being what Jesus was - a friend to sinners. Because when the church develops services and ministries that are not conducive to the unchurched, they stop showing up and we stop being like Jesus. We can't afford for that to happen.

The Bible teaches that God is more concerned with the outsider than the insider; he's more concerned for the lost than the found. God is more concerned with the unbeliever than the believer. The tendency is for every church to create an environment in which believers feel comfortable, but unbelievers remain lost. It's the pull in every church. But we must always maintain the goal of being like Jesus, because even those who were unsure about God were still attracted to him. I want us to be a church like Jesus - a church in which the lost are attracted. They may not yet believe everything that they believe, but at least they're being attracted slowly into that relationship with Jesus that can change their lives.

The passage I want to look at today with you is Luke 15. Luke 15 is one of the clearest chapters in the Bible on how much God cares for those who aren't yet in relationship with him. We don't have to go far in this chapter to discover what Jesus' point was. In Luke 15, Jesus tells three stories. The backdrop for these stories is found in verse 1: "Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach." Tax collectors were viewed as being dishonest and immoral traitors. These were the type of people that were attracted to Jesus. They loved being around him. If you consider yourself to be a sinner, you need to know that if Jesus were here today, he would eat with you and welcome you. He loved to be around sinners.

The Pharisees - the religious leaders of the day - had a different belief. They wanted to stay religiously clean by avoiding the wrong kind of people. That's why they complained. Luke 15:2 says, "This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such despicable people-even eating with them!" They were asking, "Why is Jesus spending so much time with these ungodly people?" It was to address this issue that Jesus tells three stories.

STORY ONE: THE LOST SHEEP

The first story is one that would have resonated with many of the men. It's about a shepherd who had 100 sheep - a pretty good number - but who lost one of those sheep. In that day, a shepherd would count his sheep every night - not to put the shepherd to sleep, but to ensure that all the sheep were accounted for. If a sheep was lost, it would be in great danger. The remaining sheep would be left in a safe place, probably under somebody else's care, but the priority would be for the sheep that was lost. When a sheep is lost, that sheep becomes the focus of attention - not the sheep that are already found. And when the sheep is found, there is a celebration.

A few years ago, Charlene lost her engagement ring for a few months. It wasn't just a few days. It was lost for so long that by the time we found it, we already had the insurance money and a new ring almost made up. Not once during the time that the ring was lost did Charlene go over to all her other jewelry and say, "Look at all the jewelry I still have!" It was the ring that was lost that consumed her attention. And when we found the ring, there was indeed a big celebration. And it wasn't even because we now had the ring and the insurance mone y. We did return the insurance money.

What gets God excited? It's not the righteous people who gather together to sing and to praise every week. It's the one lost person. When somebody is lost, that person becomes the focus of God's attention - not all the people who are found. And when they are found, there is a huge celebration.

STORY TWO: THE LOST COIN

Jesus told a second story. I love this story, because in it he addresses the women of the audience - something that speakers of his time never did. At that time, women were given ten silver coins as a wedding gift from their fathers. They would wear these coins as a headband. This collection of coins would have monetary value - each of the coins would be worth about a day's wages. But it would also have sentimental value. Houses were dark, with only small windows, and the floors were dusty. But when this woman lost a coin, she lit a candle and swept her whole house until the missing coin was found, and then there was a great party.

It's not hard to get what Jesus is saying. Father God is on a search for the person who isn't connected with him, because they are immensely valuable to him. And when that happens - when a lost person is found - there is a celebration, because God is immensely happy.

STORY THREE: THE LOST SON

There's one more story - one that you're probably familiar with. It's the story that we normally call the prodigal son. We usually look at this story in isolation, but it's a story that stands with the others in revealing why sinners loved to hang around Jesus. The youngest son in a family went up to his father and said, "Dad, I wish you were dead." He asked for his inheritance - which, as second-born, was a third of his father's estate - and then went and lived his own life. Luke 15:14 says, "He wasted all his money on wild living." He bought the fast car. He hit all the clubs. We blew his share of his living father's estate on nothing. And when his money ran out, he had to go to work in a pig farm. Everybody in Jesus' Jewish audience would have gasped, because pigs were viewed as being vile, unclean animals.

He finally came to his senses, prepared a speech about how unworthy he was, and returned to his father hoping to be accepted as one of the employees. But he never had a chance to give that speech. When his father saw him from a distance, he went running - something that was hard to do in the robes of that time. Luke 15:20 says, "Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him." Men at that time would have cringed that the father welcomed his son back. There was no way that a father would welcome a son back like that. Jesus continued to say that the father threw him the biggest party, because he knew that his son wasn't just back spatially. His son was back relationally. Jesus' point for all the three stories was the same: "Heaven will be happier over one lost sinner who returns to God over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven't strayed away!" (Luke 15:7)

If you're here today, and you're not sure where you stand with God, you need to know how valuable you are in God's eyes. There'll be a bigger party when you come back to God than for all the rest of us who have already been found. You are the focus of God's attention in a way that the rest of us will never be again. He's just like the father in the story. He doesn't welcome you back with a scowl, and say, "Let's talk about all that you've done wrong." He welcomes you back with love and with compassion.

Jesus did mention the older brother. The older brother became angry about the father's reaction - just like the Pharisees. The father did what no father would do. The older son essentially said, "All these years, I've been found. Where's my party?" It's easy to think when you've been found that it's all about you. God does love those who are found, but his passion is for those who are still lost. And when lost people return to God, God runs to meet them and to welcome them, and to begin a celebration that you wouldn't believe, because lost people are the focus of God's attention.

Jesus was saying to the religious leaders of that time, "This is why I spend so much time with irreligious people - because they are the focus of God's attention." And the local church that reflects the heart of the Father is the local church that is mobilized and strategized around that purpose. The church that wants to do what Jesus did is the church that will prioritize relationships with sinners and irreligious people. And the church that forgets that purpose will become a group of searchers that gather together, but never do any searching. Some believe, and I think that I agree, that when a group of searchers stops searching, the chief searcher is no longer needed, and he stops showing up. A church that doesn't do what Jesus came to do is a church that will soon be marked by the absence of Jesus.

APPLICATION

There are two ways to apply this. The first is to address those of you who may be here, and you feel like you're the sinner, the lost coin, the lost son. You may even feel a little insulted that Jesus considers you lost. You may feel like if God is God, that it's impossible for anybody to be lost, because doesn't God know everything and he certainly knows where you are?

It's possible to never get lost spatially, but to be very lost relationally. It's possible for two people to be very close to each other physically, while at the same time remaining completely disconnected relationally. God does know where you are, but may be disconnected with him. You can be lost without even knowing it. If you've ever driven a car for any length of time, you know how easy it is to get lost.

But hear this: the fact that God calls you lost means that he considers you valuable. He's not insulting you. You have things that are missing that you don't consider lost. If I asked you, "Are they lost?" you'd reply, "No, they're not lost. I don't know where they are, but they're just missing. I wouldn't call them lost." If I asked you where your high school diploma is, you may not be able to find it, but you may not consider it to be lost either. Why? It's not that important to you. You haven't been trying to find it, because it's not really going to help you in any way. The more valuable something is, the more you are going to search for it.

You are so valuable to God that he sacrificed his own Son for you. The thought of you reconnecting with him brings such joy and excitement to God that he's going to throw a party for you that he will never again throw for me. God's heart is for you. When you come back, he welcomes you with wide-open arms. He's inviting you to enter into relationship with you right now. He sent his Son to pay for all that you've done wrong, and he's just waiting to throw a party for you, because God considers you to be valuable.

There's a second application that we can make, and it's addressed to those of us who are found. It's to those of us who are the searchers, and the application is this: have you joined with the Father in the search? Or are we just sitting around the campfire, roasting marshmallows, talking about the search, maybe even studying books about the search - but never searching? After all, we've been found. And even though we're now searchers, we've discovered that we like some of the other searchers. It's a lot more fun to hang around with other searchers than to go out there and actually search. Jesus' question is: have you joined in the search?

There's a gravitational pull in every church to become more inward focused. Over time, the focus always becomes what will keep us satisfied and happy. There isn't a church in existence that doesn't feel the pull to gradually scale back on searching, and to spend more time focusing on our own needs. Most of us, after a while, forget what it's like to be lost, and we don't even know a lot of people who are lost. Most churches like to keep their distance from the scam artists and t he notorious sinners that Jesus loved to hang around. Most churches start to center around meeting the needs of believers rather than searching for those who are not yet believers.

Over time, without even knowing it, we can start to erect barriers for sinners. We can do things as a church that we all understand, and we can place obstacles in the way that we don't even notice because we know the way around the obstacles. I've been in churches in which the cost of the search seemed too high, that the search was called off.

When groups of searchers stop following the lead of the chief searcher, there's really no need for the chief searcher to continue to come. If God's chief concern is for the lost, and we are called to partner with him, why should God continue to show up if we abandon the search? We can never become a church that's comfortable hanging out with searchers. Because the minute that happens, we stop being a blessable church.

The application seems pretty simple, and you can some it up in two words: invest and invite. At the personal level, it's this: INVEST. Invest in at least one person, outside of your family, who is lost. As many of us have discovered this past year, investments can take a long time. There are setbacks with investments, and there isn't always an immediate payoff. But I want you to think of one person who is lost, and to make them a priority in your relationship. Commit to praying for that one person every day. Commit to building relationship with that person - not just with the agenda of saving them, or they'll realize that you're just using the relationship. Commit to investing in their lives and make it a matter of prayer. I'm going to ask you in a minute to think of somebody, and to begin to invest in their lives.

At the church level, I want to summarize what we need to do: INVITE. I'm so glad that we're at a stage in which we're evaluating our ministries and setting some direction in the future. I'm thrilled that we have identified evangelism as one of our highest values. We want to partner with you in the search. Part of that is the creation of environments at Richview that are inviting environments for lost people - where you can bring people in whose lives you've made an investment.

We want this church to be the kind of church that's like Jesus: a place where sinners feel welcome. We want to be a church where you can invite your friends - where if any lost person is going to be offended, it's going to be about Jesus. We want to partner with you in the evangelism process. If we want this to be a church where God keeps showing up, we need to create a church in which lost people can participate. We need to be as committed as possible to removing any obstacles that would get in the way of the search. Because when we get too busy to search, and there are too many obstacles in the way, then the chief of searchers will stop showing up.

Everything that we've done today is going to be better in heaven. The music will be better, the worship will be better, the sermon will be better. There's only one thing we can do better here that we won't be able to do in heaven: to search. That's why we're still here.

A few weeks ago, we had some of our kids playing in the church here. One minute, my son was here. The next minute, he had completely disappeared. I started to look all the places that he normally goes. I started to panic, and get some of the other parents looking. We even looked outside to see if he had gone off. We looked everywhere that we could think of, and we still couldn't find him. Eventually, we did find him in a room where he normally doesn't go. My heart started to return to normal, and I felt much, much better. Not once in those few minutes did I think, "It's okay - we've still got another kid." Because my son is of such value that I wouldn't abandon the search until I found him, and then I was going to be very glad that he was okay.

Prayer

God's called you to join in his search. Luke 19:10 says, "I, the Son of Man, have come to seek and save those…who are lost." I'm asking you to make a serious commitment today. I want you to think of one individual outside of your family who's lost. Beginning today, you're going to make a commitment to invest in their lives - to pray for them, to grow closer to them, to invite them, ultimately, to a place where we can partner with you in leading them into a relationship with Jesus Christ. I'm going to ask you to pray before God right now, and make that commitment to invest in their lives. Bring into focus mentally someone who is lost.

Father, make us a church that's blessable. Make us a church that's on a search for lost people. Never let us be satisfied with hanging around other searchers. Make us a church that's like Jesus - a church that attracts and loves lost people - even notorious sinners.

If you're a sinner, and you're ready for God to throw a party for you, you can pray and say, "Father, thank you that you're filled with love and compassion for me. Thank you that you're running to me now, that I'm of value to you. Because of Jesus Christ, I accept your forgiveness and the promise of eternal life. And I thank you for the celebration that you're throwing for me, because I have been the object of your search. In Jesus' name, Amen."

Adapted from a message by Andy Stanley
Posted on February 10, 2002 and filed under Uncategorized.

Service (Acts 6:1-7)

"Why him? I built this field. You wouldn't be here if it weren't for me…I want to know what's out there. I want to see it. Not invited? What do you mean I'm not invited? That's my corn out there. You guys are guests in my corn. I have done everything I've been asked to do. I didn't understand it, but I've done it. And I haven't asked once what's in it for me. I'm saying, what's in it for me?" (Ray Kinsella, Field of Dreams)

For almost two thousand years, God has been building his church. It's amazing to realize that God could have designed the church any way that he wanted, but God designed the church to use people, empowered by his Spirit, to accomplish his mission. God could have done it otherwise, but throughout history God has used people to build his church - people just like you and me. I'm still amazed that I get to be part of it. One of my favorite verses is 1 Timothy 1:12: "How thankful I am to Christ Jesus for considering me trustworthy and appointing me to serve him." I can't believe that God has given me a role to play in what he's doing.

One of the problems with serving God is that over time, our attitudes can change and we can start to get a sense of entitlement or privilege. Our motives can be fine for years, but all of a sudden we wake up and think that we deserve church to be a certain way - that God or the church owe us something. Jesus once taught that our attitude should be that of servants. In Jesus' day, when a servant came in from his work in the field, he didn't sit down at the family table and expect to be served. He had to get up and prepare the meal for his master. Even when that was done, he didn't expect a big thank you for a job well done. Jesus' point was simple. He said, "In the same way, when you obey me you should say, 'We are not worthy of praise. We are servants who have simply done our duty'" (Luke 17:10). We're called to serve and obey God, and when we do, we have only done our duty. We're servants who are privileged to serve, and we have only done our duty.

One of the greatest strengths, and also one of the greatest challenges we face at Richview right now is in the area of service. I want to tell you first of all that the number of people who serve God here every week amazes me. I'm continually surprised by the number of people who have taken seriously the call to strategically serve somewhere, and to devote time and energy to building a community that will lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. What takes place here is a testament to God's power working through some very committed people. It's one of our greatest strengths as a church - one that we often overlook.

I really notice this because when I invite people to come here, it's not really me that they notice. I play a part, but it's you that they notice. When you invite people here, you start to see everything through their eyes. You start to notice and appreciate the greeters at the door who welcome you, and can show you where the kids programs are. You notice the ushers who hand out the programs, and answer any questions. You start to notice the children's workers who have been there for half an hour before the first child showed up, making sure that the classroom has been set up. You start to appreciate the little things that are taking place - the water being set here so I don't choke; the PowerPoint being finalized so we can read the lyrics and follow the sermon; the sound check taking place; the worship team praying before the service. What takes place here every week - not just on a Sunday, but in all our ministries - is a result of people using their gifts and talents. When we get together and use our gifts and talents, something incredible happens. We're fulfilled, ministry happens, and people are drawn. It's not the sermons that make a church. It's people like you using their gifts to make a difference.

One of our greatest challenges as a church comes from the flip side of our commitment to serve. I've found that it's easy to get confused over time why we're serving, and we start to think that we're serving ourselves. As Ray Kinsella said in Field of Dreams, "I have done everything I've been asked to do. I didn't understand it, but I've done it. And I haven't asked once what's in it for me. I'm saying, what's in it for me?" And the minute we start to serve with an expectation of "What's in it for me?" we fall into one of the greatest dangers of service - a danger that is ultimately fatal to a church.

Somebody has said, "The greatest sin of the church today is not any sin of commission or sin of omission, but the sin of…no mission" (Leonard Sweet). Service, by its very nature, means that we're serving others. The minute that we make our mission to serve ourselves, or to make the church something that meets our needs, the minute that we abandon God's mission for our mission - we cease to be a church. Peter Drucker was right when he said that every organization exists to serve people outside the organization. When it exists to serve people inside the organization, it dies. We can't afford to exist as a church to serve ourselves, and to meet our own needs. We can never afford to come to church and ask, "What's in it for me?"

But when we come together, and everybody uses their gifts and talents - not for their benefit but for others - amazing things happen. God's up to something in building his church, and we're all an important part of it. When all of us play our part, we have front-row seats in watching people enter into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ, until they grow up in him to become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. That's the big picture of what God is doing, and you and I all have a part in it.

PBS had a show on one single day during the Second World War. They interviewed a number of soldiers about that day, and said, "Tell us about what happened that day." One guy said that he sat in a foxhole all day, and played cards, and nothing happened at all. Another guy said that he sat in a foxhole, saw two tanks far away, and fired at them, but he was so far away that nothing happened. Another guy said that he was involved in a firefight that lasted for about an hour, but then just ended. They all knew what they experienced that day, but none of them saw the big picture. They were simply doing their duty. They didn't know that they had been involved in one of the greatest battles of World War II, the Battle of the Bulge. They could tell their kids, "I was there for one of the greatest battles. I did my part." Amazing things happen when we play our roles. Even when we don't see the big picture, we can be used for a higher purpose without even knowing it.

Philip Yancey said a really good thing: "Great victories are won when ordinary people execute their assigned task." Imagine what can happen if we partner with God in what he's doing by completing our assigned task with faithfulness, perhaps never seeing the big picture, but instead focusing on what he wants us to do without ever asking, "What's in it for me?"

THE STORY

One of the best examples of this is found in Acts 6. If you've never read the book of Acts, it's an exciting book. It records the birth and growth of the church. It starts with about five hundred people who had seen Jesus come back from the dead. After Jesus had spent about 40 days with them after his resurrection, his followers watched him return to heaven, while angels appeared and told them, "Jesus has been taken away from you into heaven. And somebody, just as you saw him go, he will return!" (Acts 1:11)

Not long after, right in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit came down to where they were meeting, and all of Jesus' followers were filled with the Holy Spirit. The apostles preached, and right there, in the middle of the Jewish hub, the church exploded. The church went from nothing to three thousand people in one day. The apostles all of a sudden were the main guys. They were preaching, leading, teaching - they were doing everything. The church co ntinued to grow.

Jesus had said, "I'm coming back." The early church took this seriously. They didn't know when Jesus would be coming back. Some of them probably wondered, "Will it be after dinner? Will it be tomorrow? Or will he wait until next week?" They lived for eternity. They sold all their possessions and gave the proceeds to the apostles, so that the apostles all of a sudden found themselves in a new role. Now they were accountants. And the church kept on growing. There were people joining the church in Jerusalem who weren't even from Jerusalem. They were Greek Jews. This led to the very first church problem. If you've been around church for very long, you know that churches always have problems. Acts 6 records the very first problem that the church ever had. The church was probably only two weeks old, but it already had a problem.

The problem is that some of the Greek widows weren't being cared for. Jewish society had a system to help needy widows. It's possible that when these widows joined the church, they were cut off from receiving help from their normal system. Greek widows were especially vulnerable because they didn't have relatives in Jerusalem to care for them. In Acts 6:1, we read, "But as the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent. Those who spoke Greek complained against those who spoke Hebrew, saying that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily distribution of food." For whatever reason - intentional or not - there was a group of people being neglected.

The apostles faced a decision. They could have taken charge of the food program. Or the other solution is that others in the church could play a role in serving a need. Acts 6:2 tells us what happened:

So the Twelve called a meeting of all the believers. "We apostles should spend our time preaching and teaching the word of God, not administering a food program," they said. "Now look around yourselves, brothers, and select seven men who are well respected and full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. We will put them in charge of this business. Then we can spend our time in prayer and preaching and teaching the word." This idea pleased the whole group. (Acts 6:2-5)

The result is that they selected seven men to meet the need of the neglected widows. It would have been easy for the seven men to think, "Great. You guys go out and be heroes, and maybe write the Bible while you're at it, and we'll stay here and serve widows." But instead of this, people played out their assigned tasks, and as a result the problem was addressed.

We read the result of this decision in Acts 6:7. As a direct result of this action, "God's message was preached in ever-widening circles. The number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish priests were converted too." The payoff: one - God's Word was spread; two - the number of believers increased; three - priests, who had an incredible opportunity to influence other Jews - became believers. The church stayed on focus, and God's Word spread because ordinary people carried out their assigned tasks, even without seeing the big picture, and without ever asking, "What's in it for me?"

The heroes of this story aren't the apostles. If it had been left to the apostles at this point to do all the work, the church could never have grown so fast. The real heroes of this story were these seven men, who each went to work and played an important role in building God's kingdom.

Last week, we looked at what our purpose is as a church. We're here to lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. We want to take people, no matter where they are on their spiritual journey, and to lead them to become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. We're on a mission. We're not here because we like the music, or because our needs are being met, or because we've seen what's in it for us. We're not even here to feed all the Christians. That's our by-product.

We're here because we believe that there's a heaven and a hell, and whether or not you're in a relationship with Jesus Christ makes an eternal difference in the life of every person who lives within our spheres of influence. That's why we're here. That's why we're a church.

We're also here because we believe the Word of God contains the answers to life's most important questions. This book is God's message, the most important message that people need to hear to have their eternities settled, but also their lives changed, their marriages straightened out, their priorities reordered, their life make sense.

We're here because the church is the tool God is using to transform people and society. We are God's plan. We aren't just God's plan A, we're his plan B, C, D, and E. God has allowed us the privilege of partnering with him to reach and to lead people into a growing relationship with his Son. Because there is a heaven and a hell, because the Bible is God's wisdom for life, and because the church is the tool that God uses to transform people, what we're doing matters.

Here's the application: WHAT YOU'RE DOING MATTERS. Your ministry matters. Whether it's giving that friendly smile, or handing out a bulletin, or playing basketball with youth, or teaching a child about the Bible, or whatever it is that you do - your ministry matters.

If you're welcoming people, you're not just shaking hands - you may be the first person in somebody's week to give them a warm smile. You may be the person who's the first one to make them feel welcome all week. If you're working with children, you're not just providing childcare - you're laying a foundation that will last for life. You may feel like your part is small, but it's not. Because "great victories are won when ordinary people execute their assigned task."

Here's what else it means. WHEN YOU SERVE, IT MATTERS SO MUCH THAT YOU MUST SERVE WITH ALL OF YOUR HEART. Because when people show up here, or come in contact with our church, or are exposed to one of our ministries - it matters what happens! Because what we're doing matters so much, this had better be the people and place where somebody coming in does feel welcomed, where they can easily find out where to send their kids, where the kids do receive good care and have fun, where nothing gets in the way of helping lead them into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.

I've had the experience of bringing new people here, and watching them come in. I've had the feeling of watching them, and thinking, "Come on! I only have one shot." Their kids had better enjoy the program, so they'll want to come back next week. They had better receive a warm welcome. The washrooms better be clean and well stocked this week. The message had better be on this week. Because this might be the only chance that we get. Ultimately, as I watch that newcomer come in, I'm depending on God, but I'm also depending on you. We go through this every week. Somebody's here, and we have an opportunity to touch their lives for eternity.

You may be serving already. If so, I applaud you, and I remind you that what you're doing matters. It may not feel like it. You may feel like what you're doing is insignificant. You may feel like you don't really see the big picture. But it matters. You are partnering with God, and what you're doing matters not just for here and now, but for eternity. Keep on doing what you're doing, and do it with excellence.

You may be here thinking, "I've done my time. I'm too young. I'm too old. I'm to busy." You fill in the blanks. You're too something. YOU NEED TO KNOW THAT WE NEED YOU. We don't need you to fill in a slot in an organization. We need you to partner with us in leading people to become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ - in helping to change lives for eternity.

It's dangerous if you're not in the game. It's dangerous because we won't reach people that we could otherwise reach. It's also dangerous because lethargy breeds lethargy. The more people who are here, who don't serve, the more lethargic a place this becomes. And soon those of us who once served with passion and purpose, get to the point where we start asking, "What's in it for me." We need you to serve, not just because we need your ministry, but because we need your influence. We can't afford to have too many people who aren't involved with the game. We need you to join us on our mission.

Where should you serve? We have a great tool that you can use to find your place of ministry. You can complete a communication card and check off that you're interested in Class #301 - Discovering My Ministry. We can help you discover your part in the work.

But here's a caution: it's easier to find your place of service once you start serving. This past week we had a bit of snow. I saw people skidded of the roads and in the ditches. I didn't do it this week, but I've sometimes stopped to help people who needed a push. At that moment, I could tell them, "Sorry - I'd love to help you, but I don't have the gift of service." I could have said, "Let me use my gifts. I'll prepare a sermon on safe winter driving so you can avoid getting stuck in snow drifts." I could have said, "Let me pray about helping you." But the appropriate thing to do is to help out, even outside of my area of giftedness. It's to fill in and serve where needed.

If you're not involved in ministry, stop making excuses. Get involved in the game. You can always find another place of ministry later, if you find out that what you're doing isn't the area of your best contribution. But get involved.

We want to pay the price for an evangelistic harvest. I believe that we're coming up to one of the most exciting periods in our church's history. The potential for making a difference is huge. But there's a price. That price may be comfort. God has not called us to be comfortable, but to pay the price to serve, because great victories are won when ordinary people execute their assigned task.

What I'm going to ask is simple. If you'd like to take Class 301, then go ahead and fill that out. But if you'd like to get involved, to serve, maybe on a trial basis, then just fill out a card and write on it, "Service." You will be saying, "Yes, I'm going to serve. I'm going to partner in what God's doing here." We will contact you to tell you some areas of need right now - not so you'll make a life commitment, but so you can make a contribution, infect others with your passion for service, and come closer to discovering how God has equipped you to serve. Just complete a card and write on there, "Service."

You may be here today, thinking, "Now I know what you're up to." You've found out that we have an agenda for your life; that we want you to enter into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. You're right. We want you to experience what we've experienced. We believe the Bible is God's message for us, and that there is a heaven and a hell, and we do want you to enter into a relationship with Jesus. The Bible teaches that every person has sinned; that the penalty for that sin is death; and that Jesus came to pay the penalty for our sins. And Jesus invites you to come to him, so you can have your sins forgiven and so you can receive eternal life.

The good news is that when you do come, you get to be part of what God is doing. You get to be used by God to touch other people for eternity. Because great things are won when ordinary people execute their assigned tasks, we need you to get involved.

Prayer:

Father, I want to thank you for the incredible people you're using at Richview to build your Kingdom. They may not be aware of the big picture, but you're using them. It's because of them that people are being attracted and lives changed. Thank you for allowing us to be part of what you're doing.

I pray for those today who will respond in obedience and get in the game. I pray that they would know the joy - the rush - of being used by you to touch others.

I pray that there would be some here today, who today or tomorrow or sometime soon will receive the gift of eternal life, the promise of forgiveness, not just for their own sake, but so they could partner with us in loving and serving others.

"Then God will be given glory in everything through Jesus Christ. All glory and power belong to him forever and ever. Amen."

Posted on February 3, 2002 and filed under Uncategorized.