October 4, 2020 Sermon
“The Forest For the Trees: The Forest”
*1st Scripture Reading – Romans 6:23
23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
*2nd Scripture Reading – Matthew 13:44
44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
“The Forest for the Trees: The Forest”
There are so many things upon which we followers of Jesus can place our focus right now.
There are things that are global in scope:
- Issues pertaining to the changing climate of the earth and what we can and should do about it;
- Issues pertaining to this COVID-19 pandemic. Sure, we could think of it as a national thing, but it’s a worldwide phenomenon with more than 33 million cases of COVID and more than a million deaths attributed to COVID worldwide.
- Issues pertaining to global hunger, specifically, and global resource equality, in general.
- Issues pertaining to globalism versus nationalism.
- Just to name a few.
And there are things that are national in scope:
- Maybe you’ve heard that there’s a rather important election coming up in less than a month;
- There are issues pertaining to racial and gender equality;
- There are issues pertaining to income equality and wealth distribution;
- There are issues pertaining to our style of governance going forward, as well as our guiding economic system as a nation.
- There are issues pertaining to violent unrest;
- There are issues pertaining to education;
- Oh…and there’s a vacancy in the Supreme Court that might or might not be filled in the next few weeks;
- Just to name a few.
And there are issues that are Universal Church in scope:
- As the number of people on this planet who identify as Christian shrinks, even just a little, does it make sense for us to be divided into so many factions, so many denominations, or should we be focusing more on unity?
- How does the Universal Church proceed with profound disagreements within the Church on issues like abortion and homosexuality and gender identity?
- Should there be a relationship between Church and national boundaries?
- Is the Church becoming something new, something different; are we in a new kind of reformation? If so, what will the Church become on the other side, and who is, who should be, guiding the process?
- Why are so many congregations closing their doors? And what does it mean that others are thriving while so many can’t stay open?
- Are attendance and financial success the measurements by which we should evaluate the Church?
- To what extent should our Christian identities influence our identities as people of a particular nation and even as global citizens?
- Just to name a few.
And there are things that are congregational in scope:
- Our building gets older everyday, and it’s got some issues that need to be addressed even if it stopped aging right now.
- COVID has impacted our attendance and our giving, not to mention our ability to do ministries of all kinds.
- Like most congregations, amidst social distancing we must deal with issues pertaining to fellowship and connectedness.
- The average age of our members is increasing…which presents its own set of challenges with regard to many things, not the least of which are leadership and our capability to perform various kinds of ministries.
- And what is our unique identity as a congregation in this place and time? Do we have one? Should we have one?
- Just to name a few.
There are so many things upon which we followers of Jesus can place our focus right now. Which means, it would be easy for us to get distracted from what our focus SHOULD be. But, how do we know what our focus should be? How do we know what constitutes a distraction?
This is the topic of a new sermon series we begin today. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “can’t see the forest for the trees.” As a minister, it’s often very easy to feel like we in Christ’s Universal Church struggle with seeing the forest for the trees. So, God has directed me to offer a sermon series to help you – help us – wrestle with this issue, to help you – help us – prayerfully seek discernment about what constitutes the forest and what constitutes the trees…at this moment in human history.
For most of the sermon series, we’ll be looking at some of the broad-strokes issues that constitute the trees, the kinds of things that prevent us from seeing the forest. For today, we’ll focus predominantly on the forest. And when I say “the forest”, what I mean is what Jesus was primarily about, what God sent Jesus primarily to accomplish. Whatever it is that God sent Jesus to primarily be about, it’s what WE should primarily be about…because God sent the Church – us – to FOLLOW Jesus by continuing Jesus’ earthly ministry. So…this is a kind of back-to-basics sermon…which we need from time to time.
I hope you know, God didn’t send Jesus primarily:
- To advise us on when to replace the flooring in the fellowship hall or what to replace it with;
- To command us to take a particular stance in the upcoming presidential election;
- To show us how to convince other people there’s something wrong with their facts or their science;
- To hone our skills enough that we might argue about whether one specific sin is worse than another, particularly perceived sins that Jesus almost never talked about;
- To teach us how to become the world’s best social club…or even a mediocre social club;
- To teach us how to entertain;
- To show us how to get our individual way with regard to any aspect of Church – be it worship or fellowship or Christian education or property or technology or evangelism or outreach or anything else.
I’m not saying there’s not a time and place for any of these things; no, I’m merely suggesting none of these kinds of things constitute the FOREST – what Jesus was primarily about and so what we as Church, as congregation, should PRIMARILY be about.
So…what is it then that God sent Jesus primarily to do – to be about – and so what we should primarily be about? Before I tell you what I think the answer IS, I will suggest one more specific thing that I believe the answer is NOT…because it will surprise some people. I do NOT believe God sent Jesus primarily to do what we in the Church today call “worship”, and so I do not believe that is our primary purpose as followers of Jesus…at least, I don’t think it’s our purpose while we are on this earth and in this lifetime. Which might shock some of you…because, in our time, worship has become synonymous with “Church”. How many times have you asked someone if they are “going to Church” on Sunday morning? How many times have you been asked? In our time, we have equated Church and worship…to our detriment. Church has become associated with one or a few hours a week on Sunday mornings, whereas Church is SUPPOSED to be our identification with all followers of Jesus throughout the world and EVERYTHING we do as followers of Jesus. In other words, Church is supposed to be our primary identity in this lifetime, not something relegated to one or a few hours a week. The impact of this change in our vocabulary is SIGNIFICANT. This seemingly innocuous shift in our vocabulary has led to a significant watering down of what it means to be Church, which has allowed so many WORLDLY things to occupy the space and time we followers of Jesus are supposed to devote to God.
I can imagine some of you are thinking something like, “Wait a minute, pastor. The book of Revelation suggests worship is the primary function of the Church after the final battle between good and evil. That’s what we will be doing throughout eternity, so isn’t it our primary purpose?” It’s a great point, but it’s the answer to a DIFFERENT question. It’s the answer to the question of our primary purpose after the creation of a new heaven and new earth. Today’s question is about here and now. Today’s question is about Jesus’ primary purpose on this earth and so OUR primary purpose BEFORE the new heaven and new earth.
And, from what I can glean with the resources with which God has equipped us, most notably the scriptures and God’s Holy Spirit, Jesus’ primary purpose was NOT what we would call “worship” – in the sense of gathering in a sanctuary for about an hour to sing songs, say prayers, read scripture, hear a sermon, give our tithes and offerings, and partake of the Lord’s Supper. No, Jesus’ purpose was then, and our purpose is now, different from what we call “worship”.
I would suggest Jesus’ primary purpose was bound up in two things that are really the same thing…but expressed differently: Jesus’ purpose can be expressed in any of the MANY New Testament scriptures that summarize what we might be inclined to call “the gospel message”, OR Jesus’s purpose can be expressed in one of the MANY New Testament scriptures in which Jesus talked about the wonderful, amazing thing or place he called “the kingdom of God.” So, I’ve chosen one representative passage of each of these types of scriptures to consider with you today; these are the passages we read earlier.
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 6:23
This statement by the Apostle Paul, this is the gospel in a nutshell, isn’t it? We, people, are sinful. God created us and gave us free choice to choose for or against God, but, despite God providing us with everything we need to choose God instead of choosing against God, we continue to choose against God to varying degrees. Given our poor choices, God is well within God’s rights to let us die – let us succumb to the death – literal or metaphorical – that results from our poor choices, BUT…God chose instead to send Jesus to offer us eternal life with God…even though we sin.
THAT is why God sent Jesus. To let us know about God’s grace. To let us see and hear and touch and experience God’s grace. And to CHANGE us by God’s grace. In other words, to offer us what Jesus alternatively called “life”, “new life”, and “eternal life”.
With regard to this gospel, we could say Jesus’ primary purpose was to COMMUNICATE the gospel with people. That communication took many forms:
- Communicating by straight-up telling us, like Jesus’ words in John 3:16;
- Communicating by sharing stories and parables with us;
- Communicating through acts of loving kindness, especially acts on behalf of sinners – if Jesus would forgive THOSE sinners Jesus would forgive us, as well. Jesus’ actions provided PROOF;
- Communicating through the provision of memorials, like the Communion meal;
- Communicating through Jesus’ willingness to die for us;
- Communicating by inviting people to FOLLOW him – to experience every moment and facet of Jesus’ ministry;
Y’all, there are many, many different learning styles, so Jesus’ communicated the simple but powerful truth of the gospel message in many, many different ways. But the message was the same: even though we deserve death, God offers us life…if only we would choose it. Communicating THAT message was Jesus’ primary purpose.
Okay, one way to consider Jesus’ primary purpose is through a passage that summarizes the gospel message. But I’ve suggested there’s another way – to find a passage in which Jesus discussed “the kingdom of God”.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” – Matthew 13:44
Sometime in your life, you’ve likely heard a minister say that Jesus talked about the kingdom of God more than any other topic…because Jesus DID talk about the kingdom of God more than any other topic (yes, Jesus even talked about the kingdom of God more than he talked about money.) In fact, almost any time Jesus talked about anything else, he was usually using that something else as a way to say something about the kingdom of God.
But, if Jesus’ purpose was to communicate the gospel, why did Jesus talk about the kingdom of God so much INSTEAD of just talking about the gospel – repeating phrases like John 3:16 or Romans 6:23 over and again? The answer is simple: these two topics are pretty much one and the same. Remember what I said about the gospel message: even though we deserve death, God offers us life…if only we would choose it. Well, the kingdom of God is the choice God wants us to make. So…it makes sense that Jesus would spend quite a bit of time talking about, describing, this kingdom, this choice. God’s offer of entrance into God’s kingdom IS the gospel.
Sometimes, Jesus talked about what it looks like to make this choice: what kinds of things constitute choosing God versus choosing something else. Take the example of our passage in Matthew 13. Jesus said the way to get into God’s kingdom is to literally give up EVERYTHING ELSE. Which is a BIG task.
And it’s why oftentimes, including in the same passage from Matthew 13, Jesus talked about how WONDERFUL the results of choosing God’s kingdom is. Which makes tons of sense. For some reason, people were making then – and continue to make now – a different choice; they chose the kingdom of the world. Maybe giving up everything of the kingdom of the world is just too overwhelming for us people. So Jesus described God’s kingdom in terms like this: a treasure that is so amazing a person WOULD give everything else to have it. If God could convince us through Jesus that God’s kingdom is so much better than everything else, maybe we would – maybe we will – choose it.
So I suppose you can think of the summaries of the gospel message in the New testament as the “what” of Jesus’ purpose. Jesus came primarily to transmit, to communicate, this gospel message. And you could then think of Jesus’ words about the kingdom of God as the “why” and “how” of Jesus’ purpose. Jesus told stories about the kingdom to tell us how to achieve the fullness of the gospel message, AND Jesus told us stories about God’s kingdom to tell us why we would want to achieve the fullness of the gospel message.
Taken together, these efforts to communicate the gospel message and to communicate the message about how and why to usher in God’s kingdom represent Jesus’ purpose, represent the “forest” of Jesus’ ministry, represent “the forest” of what the Church – WE – are supposed to be about.
And communicating that message – the message about the gospel that is also the message about God’s kingdom – should be OUR primary purpose. Which gets me wondering: how are we doing? And, by “we”, I mean “we” as individuals, I mean “we” as a congregation, and I mean “we” as a universal Church. I don’t want to dive into an attempt to answer the question right now; that’s what most of the rest of the sermon series will be about…the trees that prevent us from seeing this amazing forest, along with some strategies for getting past those trees. For now, I just want to place the question out there and ask YOU to consider it. Go to God and ask how we’re doing. Are we spending the bulk of our time and effort focusing on this primary purpose of transmitting the gospel message about the in-breaking of God’s kingdom and how to achieve it in word and deed…or are we spending the bulk of our time and effort focusing on something else? Oh, by the way, as you seek to answer this question, I encourage you to go back and read the gospels of the New testament ANEW, looking for how the gospel writers portray Jesus as spending his time. How much of Jesus’ time was spent furthering this purpose as opposed to doing ANYTHING else? And compare how Jesus spent the bulk of his time with how we – even you – spend the bulk of our time. Perhaps we should be learning from the One we follow about time management as it relates to this primary purpose.
Let’s go back for a minute to the kinds of things I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon.
There are so many things upon which we followers of Jesus can place our focus.
- There are things that are global in scope.
- There are things that are national in scope.
- There are things that are universal Church in scope.
- There are things that are congregational in scope.
There’s quite a bit vying for your focus and attention…and notice I haven’t even mentioned things like: family, or occupation, or vocation, or hobbies, or personal finances.
There’s quite a bit vying for your attention. If Jesus was right – and, if Jesus is who I believe he is, who I say he is, then Jesus MUST be right – if Jesus was right, we’ve got to figure out some ways to make Jesus’ primary purpose OUR primary purpose, which means somehow letting go of the time and attention we give to so many of these other things. If Jesus was right, we’ve got to do a better job of honing in with the whole of our lives on our primary purpose – spending most of our time working on ushering in God’s kingdom here on earth like Jesus did. If we want to be the followers of Jesus God calls us to be, if we want to be the people of God we’re called to be, if we want to experience this amazing treasure that is worth more than ANYthing else in life…if Jesus was right – and we primarily do anything else – why are we here?
Let’s get ready to spend some time discerning the forest from the trees…and figuring out how to put our focus back on the forest.