"You can't take it with you!"
We’ve heard the axiom so many times that we don't give it a second thought. We use it to remind ourselves, "Don't waste so much energy accumulating things that don’t last!" Or we encourage ourselves, "Go ahead and use it up now! Better enjoy it while you can! You can’t take it with you!”
But what if we can take it with us?
Jesus said if you store up for yourself treasures on earth, it's a bad investment. Thieves steal, economies collapse, things decay. He said it's better to store up for yourself treasures in heaven where those things don't happen.
But he said it's not just because it's a more reliable investment. He said the reason is because, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matthew 6:21 NIV)
The Christmas season is a good time to look at what you treasure most.
And before you look forward, look back over the year and see what you've invested your treasure in. I find two questions helpful.
We throw our money at a lot of things. Some of the things we spend our money on have no eternal value, or even have eternally negative value! And other things that we say we value just don't show up at all in what we spend our money on.
Usually the disparity is much more grey than paying for "sinful things" and neglecting "holy things." It's paying for lesser things and not being able to pay for better things.
Look back over this year to see where your heart was. In times of uncertainty we really see our hearts! How did you spend your money? Where did you invest your time? What stories did you tell about the things you appreciate and value? Did your cash flow tell the same stories?
Where you spend your time and money tells you where your heart is really invested.
What if you do take it with you?
We say, "You can't take it with you!" and Jesus says, "That's not true! You DO take it with you!"
He drove the point home with a very black-and-white statement. What if there's not as much wiggle room here as we think? He said, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money." (Matthew 6:24)
To be clear, how we spend our money doesn't determine whether we receive eternal life. We don't buy salvation. That's not our gospel. But what we spend our lives on does reveal how eagerly we are trusting and loving God in this life.
Many of us came to Christ knowing that we had racked up insurmountable "sin debt" by doing things that just shouldn't be done. But then we called out to God and he forgave us that debt! He wiped it clean!
When the Lord says, "Your sins are forgiven," it is the last word on sin. This is our gospel. All who turn to the Lord in repentance and faith will be saved. If you've done that, all your sins, your transgression, your debts, have been forgiven. Amen.
But the gospel is more than a debt relief program; it’s an investment that reaps eternal reward.
His last word on our sin becomes the first word on our love.
At the beginning of this Christmas season, consider how you are investing -- not just your money, but your life. And to speak of your life is to speak of whatever things you treasure.
Last week I sent a letter to everyone I could who has connected with SCC this year. In it I explained where we are financially and what is needed to break even this year. As pastor, I have that responsibility to let you know the church's year end needs. But honestly, my greatest desire is that you would be mature in your love and wise in how you invest your life. Because you ARE taking those things with you.
I've attached a copy of the letter below, with all the $$$ signs.
We'll take up a generosity offering as part of our worship this Sunday, but you can give anytime by clicking here. The principle laid out in scripture is that there would be equality in meeting the needs. And that's all I ask. Give in keeping with however God has blessed you.
The discussions that the overseers and pastoral team have been having this year are heavy -- not in a hopeless sense, but in a sober sense. We are full of faith, but because of that, we are doing the uncomfortable work of challenging assumptions. And for that reason we have called the church to prayer.
As pastor, I believe the course we've been on as a church will not accomplish what we had hoped it would.
Too much has changed in the world. The things that used to "work" are not as effective as they once were. And this pandemic has brought it to light.
And when I talk about "the course we've been on," I'm not talking about little decisions, like what songs we sing, or whether we have two worship services, or things like that. I'm talking about the big course we're on, like overall strategy.
And honestly, the "course" we're on is not much different than almost every other American church that has a heart to see people come to faith.
Often called the "attractional" model, it has been useful for several decades at attracting unbelieving people to a presentation of the gospel, and inviting them into fellowship where they can grow in their faith and be supported. This model got everyone's attention in the 1980s and 90s as a natural evolution of the Church Growth Movement of the 1960s (which itself was an attempt to reverse a sudden loss in church growth rate for the first time in two centuries, and to capitalize on the popularity of the crusades of the 1950s).
And so we all learned to measure our effectiveness by worship attendance, and engagement in programs through which we could share common experiences and fellowship, volunteering our time and energy to help make it all happen. Underlying this was the belief that the best thing we could do as a church was to do church in a way that attracted people.
Usually we would frame that as attracting unbelieving people, but the attractional model doesn't really know the difference between believer and unbeliever. We focused on doing things people liked, and ended up competing with everything people liked -- including the stuff other churches were offering that people liked.
As a result, most Christians have learned to choose a church by what it offers, to participate as long as we like it, and to leave when we find a church that offers things we like better.
And so there's been a migration of believers to large churches with big programs. And if we measure it by attendance, and even by people making faith decisions, this has worked in huge ways.
Just in my own ministry experience in the two churches I've served, I've seen probably a thousand people come to faith under this model. It has worked. And it has built thousands of mega churches with big box ministries and impressive facilities to house them all. (And honestly, our own facility that was so impressive in 1980, was built for and supported by the crowds we attracted.)
I believe this model served a purpose.
But when I put my finger to the wind now, I sense that the winds have shifted. And really, it's not even a new sense. The sideways gusts have been hitting for a long time. But my sense is that now it's the old ways that are the sideways gusts. We can still point to examples to say that the model works, but I think the most consistent wind is blowing cross ways to it.
Another way to say that is, for many people the attractional model is ringing hollow. I think it will still have notable gusts where many come to faith, but most consistently the wind is blowing toward smaller fellowships within a larger network.
This pandemic has accelerated the disconnect many were experiencing with how American churches do church. And we are no exception.
That's hard to admit because we like us. We enjoy us. We feel inspired in worship, and encouraged by the word. We have fun doing what we have fun doing.
And if being a church is just about doing stuff we like, that's one thing. But if we are fulfilling a mission, that's another thing. Believing it's the latter, I have been totally reevaluating how we "do church." And throughout the course of this year, I have brought my concerns and thoughts to the overseers for their discernment. And they are laying it out before the church for prayer, to help discern what we will focus on as a church in the future.
In September the overseers decided that, in lieu of their monthly business meeting, they would call the church to prayer twice a month for October, November, and December. In fact, we are suspending our congregational annual meeting until January so that we can follow through on these prayer meetings before doing business.
The goal of these prayer meetings is for the core group of SCC to help discern what God is calling us to next year.
Tonight is our fourth of these six special prayer meetings. If you consider yourself part of the core group (meaning, if you want to be) come to the auditorium or be online at 7pm. It will be an hour of talking to God, guided in a broad sense, but contemplative in the personal sense.
In the first two meetings we spent time focusing our prayers on four questions:
At the third meeting we spent time finishing these prayer starters:
Tonight, we will spend time giving thanks to God.
We'll thank him for the many blessings we've seen. The people who have responded to the gospel in our midst. The people who have come to faith. We'll thank God for those who finished their race well. We'll thank God for those who have supported this church in so many ways over the years. We'll thank God for those who have spent time as part of our fellowship and the blessings we exchanged with them. We'll thank God for the opportunity to even consider our future. We'll discern the many ways God has blessed us already, and give him thanks for it.
Then we'll thank God for things that aren't always comfortable to thank him for.
This year has been difficult. But, like I said yesterday, God uses trials for our good. This is true for each of us individually, and for us as a church. The hardships of this year have given us opportunity to pause and consider what we do and why we do it. So tonight we'll lean into that too.
We'll thank him for the disappointments, the losses, the struggles, the discomforts, and even the uncertainty many of us have. With a deliberate gratitude we will pray blessing on those who have disappointed us. Even those who have wronged us. And we'll pray for opportunity to bless anyone we have disappointed or wronged. We'll thank God for a hard year.
Then we'll spend time with the questions from the first three prayer meetings.
This is our call to discern the future by discerning the past. We need your help in this. God is listening for our prayers.
Let's pray tonight at 7pm, in the auditorium, or online.
This Friday at 7:30pm, we're hosting "Nations Worship" in our auditorium! We'll be gathering by simulcast with others all around the world, experiencing expressions of worship from believers all around the world! It promises to be an inspiring time. I hope you're able to come.
This pandemic has made many feel lonely, and yet at the same time it has made the world feel small.
As I've said many times, this is a great opportunity for the gospel and for the church. This is opportunity for each of us to reexamine our affections and allegiances, and for all local churches to examine their structures and strategies to make sure their fulfilling their true mission.
Sometime last year I start mulling over this mission statement: "Fulfilling the Great Commandment and the Great Commission with Great Compassion and Great Conviction."
I visit that phrase often in my own personal prayer times, and as I search God's heart and mind for what SCC should look like in this new era.
This morning I was reading Psalm 105 and I saw two comments in the margin that I had jotted down some time ago. One says, "Matthew 28:19-20." The other says, "Luke 24:48." This morning I added a third comment: "Matthew 22:37-40."
Let me show you what those three passages say, and then what Psalm 105 says.
[Jesus said,] “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
[Jesus said,] “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things."
[Jesus said,] "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done. Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts. Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice. Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always.
Global Disciples helps to equip near-culture missionaries to "make disciples" among their own people. We as a church have been able to provide resources to assist in those efforts. As a result the gospel of Jesus that gives life to the dead, and forgiveness to the repentant, is spreading throughout the least reached areas of the world!
When I went to Nepal I heard someone say something that stuck with me:
"If you plant a church you might get disciples, but if you make disciples, you'll always get a church."
We have something to learn from them.
In fact, I believe this is part of the change God is calling his church to embrace here in the West -- the changes we've been praying for discernment about here at SCC, where our mission needs to shift from growing a church to making disciples.
Part of that is catching the vision of what happens when people discover the gospel within their own cultural context!
When I experience the joy of disciples in other areas of the world it renews me. These people have never been taught to hope in political systems. They have very little earthly wealth or freedom to defend. They simply cast all their cares on the Lord and hope in his salvation. They trust that his care for them really is enough! And their joy is contagious. When I experience their joy in the Lord, my own faith and hope is restored and energized!
I want us all to experience that together. That's why we're hosting this "Nations Worship" event this Friday, at 7:30pm. Let's gather and worship the Lord together with our true brothers and sisters in the faith from all around the world. And let's renew our own love in it.
May God be honored as we lift the name of Jesus high.
In Acts 12, we read that King Herod arrested some of the apostles. He took James, the brother of John (one of the "sons of thunder" as Jesus nicknamed them), and had him killed with the sword, making him the first of the apostles to be martyred.
Then he put Peter in prison and planned to have him tried and executed after Passover. And we read in verse 5 this wonderful sentence: "So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him."
We should hold that last phrase in our hearts.
"But the church was earnestly praying to God..."
Everything about that phrases indicates that something's getting ready to change because of the prayers.
As we read on, an angel shows up in Peter's cell and walks him out of the prison miraculously! It's so miraculous, in fact, that Peter thinks he's just seeing a vision. Because things like this just don't happen. It's not until the angel leaves him standing in the street outside the prison that Peter realizes it really happened!
I wonder if he was "earnestly praying to God." I imagine so. But I wonder what he was praying for. Because apparently it wasn't for an angel to show up and miraculously walk him out. Either that, or he prayed for it without believing it could really happen.
But once reality set it that he was freed, he went to where all the believers were gathered for prayer. He knocked on the door and tried to get them to let him in. They even recognized his voice. But they concluded -- get this -- they concluded that it wasn't really him.
They concluded that it must be his angel or something because, apparently, things like this don't really happen. But then he convinced them it was really him and they praised God.
Back to the phrase: "But the church was earnestly praying to God..."
I wonder what they were praying for?
I mean, the implication is that Peter was released in answer to their prayers. But then when he was released their response shows that they didn't really expect him to be released! It's odd!
Jesus said in Mark 11:24 that whatever we ask for in prayer, "believe that you have received it, and it will be yours." And yet, they didn't believe what they received. Perhaps they were "believing for" something else?
We're not told specifically what they were praying for, just that they prayed earnestly. But again, the implication is that Peter's deliverance was in direct response to their prayers. I wonder if they prayed for something less, and that God fulfilled it by doing even more than they asked for?
Perhaps they prayed, "Lord, strengthen Peter." And God did -- by freeing him.
Perhaps they prayed, "Lord, save Peter's life." And God did -- by freeing him.
Perhaps they prayed (as they did earlier in Acts 4), "Lord, stretch out your hand to perform signs and wonders in the name of your holy servant Jesus!" And God did -- by freeing him.
It may have even been, "Lord, break Peter free!" And maybe they even prayed specifically that "Peter's angel" would go and break him free. And perhaps they were just so caught off guard that it took awhile for them to make sense of it. Perhaps God was two steps ahead of them. Perhaps they were still thinking "Peter's angel" and God had already given them just "Peter."
I suspect it was one of those. The part that matters most is that "the church was earnestly praying to God..."
What are we praying earnestly to God for, and what do we expect to be changed because of it?
If the story was written about these times, and it said in the middle of the story, with anticipation, "But the church was praying earnestly to God!" what might we expect to read next?
A little over a month ago I called the church to prayer and explained why we are praying. I know some of us have been fasting -- a true expression of praying earnestly. Thank you for taking it seriously.
The first two Mondays I asked us to pray through four questions as part of discerning how to pray:
Tonight, on this third of six Mondays of prayer, don't lose sight of the discernment questions, but start praying earnestly by finishing the following prayers. They'll be on the screen for you as we gather.
See you at 7p in the auditorium, or online at https://sarasotacommunity.online.church.
With faith, hope, and love,
Like I said yesterday, the only reason I would ever preach on U.S. politics is because it's needed for our context. If we were living in North Korea or China or Russia I would be teaching the same gospel truths in that context.
I'm actually not really talking about politics, I'm talking about faith. But faith impacts everything else, and here in the U.S. we're in the throes of a contentious election.
There's a lot of anger in the world. And a lot of fear.
I suppose there's also apathy about the election, but it doesn't seem like that's as prevalent as it has been in past elections. Even those who don't like politics are wondering what tomorrow will bring. Even our national neighbors (geographical and political) are paying attention. For whatever reason, as goes the U.S., so goes much of the world.
After tomorrow's election, life will not be what it is today. We will learn something about our nation and our neighbors. We will immediately start to forecast our future as a nation, and our futures as those affected by its policies. Even if the election results are contested, tomorrow we enter new territory.
Like I said yesterday, many of us have a sense that violence is coming.
Some say it with prophetic import. Others have complex interpretations of the apocalyptic scriptures (Daniel, Revelation) that they believe is the final word on how to understand such things. Still others simply watch what people are already doing and feel like violence is inevitable: If one candidate wins, it will be a sudden eruption; if the other candidate wins, the escalation will be more gradual, but violent nonetheless.
And whether by prophecy, scripture, or observation, that would be my sense. The Spirit just keeps telling me to be ready, and to make sure those in my faith family are also ready.
I believe this year is not insignificant. I believe we are going to see a shift that's way more significant than whether Trump or Biden wins the election. I believe we need to be prepared for hardship. I'm not a doomsayer. But at the very least, we need to be ready with a faith that can survive without the structures and systems that have propped us up organizationally for years. Like I said yesterday, if our faith can't survive underground, it doesn't deserve to survive above ground.
And if it's the kind of faith that can survive underground, it will thrive all the more if allowed to live fully above ground.
And so I keep calling us to remember the most difficult of Jesus' teachings.
It's easy to teach "love your neighbor" in times of peace and prosperity. It's easy to teach "forgive those who sin against you" when the example you think of is when that friend was inconsiderate that one time. But to teach "love your enemy" in a time of violence and hardship? That's absurd. And it's commanded.
May God have mercy and spare us that.
But may we in faith be prepared for that.
And just because Jesus told us to love our enemies, it doesn't mean there is anything noble about living where we are harshly treated by our enemies. Our prayer is that our enemies would come to repentance and be filled with the love of Christ! And so it's to that end that I keep preaching the gospel and applying our current situation to it, that we might be prepared for whatever comes along, be it blessing or hardship. And so that we might be a blessing to others in times of blessing and of hardship.
Immediately after the sermon yesterday, I called everyone to a time of prayer as we prepared to respond in song. As I entered my own time of prayer I flipped open my Bible and it landed on Jeremiah 29. I considered interrupting the prayer time to read it out loud, but just tapped my hand on it with a blessing for later, and gave it back to God.
Today is later. I want to give it to you to read. I am asking you to spend time in prayer with it. But with these two caveats:
So, with those two caveats, allow me to apply a very basic analogy to our context. As I read yesterday in 1 Peter 2:11, we are "foreigners and exiles" here on earth until God comes to bring us into our everlasting home. And if we can consider that this world is our temporary Babylon, consider how God might want us to live within it, as you read what he said to those exiled in actual Babylon.
I have emphasized certain words in bold.
(New International Version)
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.
"Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.
This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
The word of the Lord.
May God hear our prayers for peace and prosperity.
May every prediction of hardship and violence be mitigated by God's great and bold display of grace, as he calls all people to repentance, and fills them with his Spirit, and with love, joy, and peace. And may we all long for his appearing, living as a blessing in this world, but living for the blessings that will surely be ours on that day that he comes to take us home.
Even so, come Lord Jesus.
Wendy and I are entering week three of a modified fast where we're taking nutrition but not eating solid foods.
It's tempting to confuse fasting as a hunger strike, but we shouldn't ever relate to it that way. We don't go without food (or other necessities) in order to twist God's arm.
I relate to fasting as a demonstrated prayer that "we want this more than food itself." I crave real food right now. But for every meal that I go without food, it is a reminder of what I crave more than food itself. For me, I am craving God's blessing. I believe he wants to do something new among us, and I don't want us to miss it. I crave that, so that's the focus of my prayer and fasting.
Is there anything you crave so much that you want it more than food itself? Turn it into a prayer and amplify it with a fast, going without something for a period of time as a demonstrated prayer.
Call to Prayer: Monday, October 26, at 7pm
Two weeks ago we entered a season of prayer. We're devoting six Monday nights to prayer throughout the months of October, November, and December. Tonight is the second.
If you're near Sarasota, come into the auditorium at 4041 Bahia Vista Street.
If you can't come in person, join our hosted meeting at https://sarasotacommunity.online.church.
Both start at 7pm.
What to Expect
Like last time, this will not be a time to take turns praying publicly. There's a time and place for that. But tonight is a time to gather in one room together and to pray to God personally, together at the same time.
Some will pray quietly.
Some will pray out loud together.
Some will type in the chat room online.
Some will wander through the room.
Some will silently read the chats, agreeing where they are.
Some will bow tenderly in one of the pews.
Some will write in their journal.
Some will leaf through their Bible.
Some will find a corner somewhere to lie prostrate before the Lord.
Some will sing a song of worship quietly between them and the Lord.
And all will pray and be heard by God.
Who is this for?
Anyone who cares about Sarasota Community Church. If you want it to be for you, it is for you.
But specifically, I am asking all members of SCC to devote time to prayer in this season. I believe these prayers are setting up something new among us. Whatever that means, let it be in answer to the prayers of those of us who have linked arms in membership, praying the prayer of faith.
The reality is that in most churches, most Sunday morning attenders don't attend separate prayer meetings. There are all sorts of reasons for that. But my hope is that everyone attends at least one of the six prayer meetings either in person or online. And if two or three of us (or twenty or thirty of us) are seeking the Lord together, that's enough. (Matthew 18:19-20 NIV)
What are we being asked to pray for?
God's leading. I wrote about it two weeks ago so, rather than rewrite it, I'll just ask you to reread it.
Then, tonight, the following questions will again be on the screen to help focus our thoughts as we discern God's leading:
See you tonight.
Yesterday I wrapped up a three part series on the Spiritual Wilderness, or the Spiritual Desert, and how it tempts us in three areas: the appetites, the anxieties, and the ambitions.
I taught about it as it applies to each of us personally. But it applies to us as a congregation too.
I pointed out in my teachings that it wasn't the devil who led Jesus into the wilderness. He was actually "led by the Spirit." And I believe that's not just because it was Jesus. I believe it is true for us too. Personally, and communally.
Nothing comes our way without God's permission. We accept that easily enough when it means living with the consequences of our own actions. (At least after our initial objection.) But it's a hard pill to swallow when it's the consequences of other people's actions. Nevertheless, we have no other confidence that this, that "in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." (Romans 8:28)
If we love him, we know that whatever we are experiencing has a redemptive outcome, whether we caused the hardship or not.
And we don't have to like it. We just have to trust God in it. And we have to continue to love him through it. And we have to continue to be called according to his purpose.
This invites us to submit to him in all things.
The Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness because of their disobedience. But they didn't enter the wilderness because of disobedience. In fact, they were led by the Spirit into the wilderness as escape from captivity! By God's mighty hand they were miraculously delivered from Egypt, and marched straight out into the wilderness! And there, in the desert, they were given an opportunity to prove that they would trust God when God was all they had.
But they failed the test.
Not only did they grumble about not having enough to eat and drink, they feared the people of the Promised Land and refused to go in.
Don't miss that.
We read in Numbers 13 that God walked them through the wilderness right up to the Promised Land, and said, "Go in and take it!" But they cowered in fear. They refused. They were disobedient to the Lord's command. And so they were assigned a nomadic life in the wilderness for 40 years, so that the unfaithful could receive the inheritance of their disbelief -- the consequences of their inaction.
I believe God's deliverance usually leads us from captivity into some sort of Spiritual Desert.
We initially experience a miraculous deliverance of feeling forgiven and to some degree being filled with his Holy Spirit. But this deliverance always comes by way of repentance where we walk out of captivity, leaving familiar things behind -- things we used to enjoy in abundance.
We lose friends. We lose coping mechanisms. We experience the brokenness of other people who suffered because of our sins, and we feel remorse. We wish we could take it back, but we just have to live with it. And sometimes even the sin habits that miraculously disappeared can start to grow back as our initial zeal begins to fade.
Know this: The desert is part of God's deliverance!
There in the wilderness, where our only abundance is day-to-day provisions, God is testing us to see whether we will trust him! Every detail of this desert experience may not be directly caused by our disobedience, but every detail of it is there to teach us obedience!
The wilderness is a strategic part of God's redemption process whereby he is causing "all things to work together for good."
It is a grace. And grace teaches us. (Titus 2:12)
When we submit to God and to learning from grace, we find provision, even if day to day. But when we fail the test by giving in to doubt, and refusing to trust God, we find ourselves in the desert for an extended period of time.
I don't believe this is God being petty or vindictive. I believe it's God being gracious! His desire is to give us his best, and his best is holiness and righteousness. And it is in the desert experience where we are tested and purified, where we learn holiness and righteousness.
Again, this should be applied personally, but I want us to consider what it means for us as a congregation too.
Yes, 2020 is a spiritual desert for each of us, but it is for all of us too: God's Church! As I have called us to prayer and invited us to labor for what will be, please consider what this spiritual desert experience means for us as a congregation. We are being tested.
If we are together in this spiritual desert, how will we respond?
You heard me say it over and over again: "Every temptation is a test of your trust."
This desert experience called 2020 is testing our trust by giving temptation an opportunity to magnify our appetites, anxieties, and ambitions. Will God provide for us? Will God protect us? Will God fulfill his promises for us? Or will he let us starve? Will he let us die? Will he let us fail?
Thanks to all of you who continue to support the church financially. Because of you, this is not an appeal for provision, it's an appeal for participation in prayer to discern God's leading for the next season of our life together.
Next Monday night, October 26, we will have our second prayer night of this season of prayer. (Every 2nd and 4th Monday of the month for October, November, and December.) As you prepare yourself for that, please spend time reflecting prayerfully on these questions:
Those are complex questions, I know. Take a few minutes right now; grab a notebook or prayer journal, or even just the closest piece of paper you can find, and jot down a few thoughts about that. Whatever comes to mind. And then devote time in the coming days to pray about it.
The reason I ask is because these are the things the pastoral team and overseers are working through and they absolutely affect our life together as a church. We do not want to miss God's leading in this season. We do not want to fail the test. And we do not want to only discern these things ourselves. So we are asking you to pray with us about these things.
I'll have more to say next week I'm sure. For this week, pray.
With faith, hope, and love,
Tonight we meet for prayer in the sanctuary at 7pm. It's the first of six special prayer meetings called by the overseers and ministry team.
We'll meet the 2nd and 4th Mondays of October, November and December. If you can meet in person at 4041 Bahia Vista Street, please do. If you can't, please join others online at the same time.
This is a call for the core of our church to gather in prayer. And you get to decide whether you're the core or not.
Why are we praying?
I believe this "wilderness experience" of 2020 is a time of purification and testing to humble us and to see what's in our hearts. And for us to make the most of it, we need to be in prayer.
In my teachings the past couple weeks, I've said that in the desert experience we learn to rely on God to provide and to protect. I have been focusing on how it applies to each of us personally. But I want us to also consider how it applies to us as a congregation and as a ministry.
We have some serious decisions in front of us. No emergencies. No fires to put out. Nothing to vote on. Nothing urgent, just important decisions about opportunities regarding our future as a congregation.
When we shut down the programming of the church for the pandemic, my concern was that as soon as it was over we'd just go back to whatever we were doing before Covid. The other way to say that is, I was afraid we wouldn't learn anything in the wilderness. I was afraid we'd come out no different than we went in.
I mean that about us as a congregation, but also the larger Church.
And, lo and behold, many pastors and churches across the U.S. seem to be focusing their efforts on protecting their right to assemble. And yes, I think the right to assemble is a good thing; we take advantage of that.
But while many are fighting to keep from losing what they had, a number of pastors like myself are eager to see the Church take hold of something we haven't yet had -- or at least haven't had in a long, long time.
We see this as opportunity and we don't want to miss it.
It is, by nature, a less public conversation. And by nature, larger churches are less nimble, and they have more to lose in the conversation. Nevertheless, I've seen even some large churches start to role out plans about new ways of being church. And many of the private person-to-person conversations are filled with conviction and desire around a scary and exciting question that's difficult to raise publicly.
But here it is:
What if there's a better way to be Church?
I've written about the difference between doing church and being church. I've spoke about the four devotions we should be gathering around. There's certainly way more to say about that, but I'm not going to try to say it here.
My hope here is to keep the conversation going and to call us to prayer around it. I believe God is inviting us to consider what his Church should look like as we emerge from 2020 -- and what role our congregation should play in that.
I said at the beginning of this year that the prior ten years was a season of laying to rest what was, and that 2020 would be a year of giving to birth what would be. I had no idea the labor would be so long and difficult.
I'm reminded of what Jesus said in John 16:21, "A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world." I relate to that with regard to this season of labor. And I believe that what this season gives birth to will replace the anguish with joy -- if we give don't give up.
We are in labor. I believe the whole world is in labor of sorts. Certainly the Lord's Church is in labor as it seeks to give new birth to those whose hearts haven't yet heard the gospel.
But I also feel like our congregation is in labor. And we don't yet know what we are giving birth to.
Will it be a new way of being Church? Or will it look a lot like what we've been? It's yet to be seen. But if God is in it, what we give birth to will be the right thing.
But right now we are in labor, and the labor is prayer.
I wrote last week that the call to prayer is like Gideon calling his warriors to get a drink. Honestly, everyone knows that when you call a church to prayer, less than 10% show up. But God used less than 1% of Gideon's army to work a miracle.
Today, I'm saying the call to prayer is like the birthing mother's urge to push.
We're feeling the urge to push. It's time to pray. Perhaps God is even calling some of us to a season of fasting. We may be tired already, but when you're in labor, you have to go through with it.
I believe we are in labor, and the labor we're being called to is prayer.
What should we pray?
I'll put questions on the screen tonight to help us in our thought process, but the goal is simply to pray however God leads us. We are praying to listen to God, to hear from God. Prepare your heart around the following questions:
As we pray tonight I want us all to pray as we are led. We won't take turns praying. There won't be open mics. We won't be sharing prayer requests. We'll just be gathering in the same room to pray to God at the same time.
If one person prays out loud so that those who are near them can hear and agree, wonderful. If another bows silently, praying to God in their heart, beautiful. If one lies prostrate before God with their arms stretched out, amen. And if another wanders around the room with their arms raised high, hallelujah.
We are gathering to pray. We are in labor.
See you tonight.
If the spiritual desert teaches us to rely on God, the season of dryness and uncertainty calls us to pray.
Next week will be seven months since life as we knew it was interrupted by Covid19. As I explained yesterday, many of us find ourselves in a season of dryness, like a "spiritual desert." I believe this spiritual wilderness is being experienced not just personally, but communally, in a way I've never experienced in my lifetime.
As I've said often in many ways, this is an opportunity for renewal.
Last week I wrote that God is calling us to a season of prayer. Today I am inviting us as a church to gather for prayer. (Details at the end.) And I want to set that up with an analogy that you might not like, but I hope you love.
I've been thinking lately about Gideon.
In many ways 2020 feels like that Gideon moment when God weakened Israel's army so that he could prove his own strength. I believe God is weakening things the Church has thought were strong so he can renew our confidence that "when we are weak, he is still strong."
Yeah, that needs unpacking.
In the book of Judges, chapter 6, a man named Gideon is called by God to save the Israelites from the Midianites who are oppressing them.
In chapter 7, Gideon readies his army to attack but the Lord tells him (verses 2-3), “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’ Now announce to the army, ‘Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave...’ ”
So Gideon does that and 22,000 men leave. That's a lot of men! But he still has an army of 10,000. I mean, it's not much compared to the enemy (their camels alone are too many to count). But at least it's something to work with.
And then the Lord says, verse 4, “There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will thin them out for you there. If I say, ‘This one shall go with you,’ he shall go; but if I say, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ he shall not go.”
Yes: "thin them out."
He chooses a seemingly arbitrary method. He calls the troops down to the water. He tells Gideon to watch how the men drink. If they kneel down and drink straight from the water, send them home. If they cup the water in their hands, keep them.
Out of the remaining 10,000 men, 9,700 kneel!
Only 300 drink from their hands!
And God tells him, “With the three hundred men...I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the others go home.”
And with that, the army that started out as 32,000 soldiers is thinned out to 300! God has reduced Gideon's army to less than 1% of what he had started with! But God is in this, and Gideon is determined to obey him in it.
He sent home 31,700 soldiers and left Gideon with an army of 300 -- literally "something," but for every reasonable consideration, it was nothing. It was only enough to blow some trumpets on cue, and crash some clay jars with torches in them. You can read the story for yourself in Judges 7 but (spoiler alert) God wins the battle for them against all odds. He routs the enemy, sending them scattered in every direction, killing each other as they go.
So that's the original Gideon moment.
To treat the story fairly, we need to acknowledge that this wasn't normal. And it didn't become normal. Like, they didn't conclude from this that "from now on 300 is the right size of an army." Israel went on to have decent sized armies.
And yet, at that time and for his expressed purpose, God chose to reduce the size of Gideon's army to make a point that, even when he invites us to be part of the solution, it is God who saves us, not we ourselves.
I have been living with an inner witness that started out as an inner question, like a pondering. But I'm pretty sure of it now.
This isn't popular to say, but I have to say it: I believe God is thinning out the Church.
Please hear me: I'm not saying he's getting rid of people. Don't let that offense set in.
What I'm saying is that he's getting rid of misplaced confidences. At least he wants to. And this is our opportunity to see him work. But what are those misplaced confidences?
I believe the confidences of the American Church are strategies, systems, and solutions. We rely on strategies to bring people to faith, and systems for getting them plugged into the church, we look to therapeutic solutions for eliminating sin, and now (increasingly) political solutions for eradicating evil.
These all have their place, but they're simply no match for the kingdom of darkness.
We have been waging war with the world's weapons -- weapons that do not have divine power to demolish strongholds. We have forgotten the encouragement of 2 Corinthians 10:3-4, "For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds."
And so, I look at the Church's vast array of strategies, systems, and solutions, and I see Gideon's army of 32,000 going up against Midian. For years we've been busy polishing our strategies, sharpening our systems, and rehearsing our solutions, believing that if we do these things well, we have a chance at winning this war!
But this year Covid19 sent "two-thirds" home. Our "large gathering" strategies were canceled by governors. Our "small group" systems were dismantled by a virus. Our therapeutic solutions proved ineffective against addiction and suicide. And now many in the Church have turned their attention all the more to political solutions. What we had relied on has failed us, but at least we still have "one-third". It may just be politics, but at least it's something. We may have lost "twenty-two thousand" but at least we still have "ten thousand."
At least we still have politics, right? And God will surely cause our strategies, systems, and solutions to be effective again, right?
None of these things will win the war against the kingdom of darkness!
While there does seem to be some statistical correlation, I mean the following figuratively: The Church has lost "two-thirds" to fear, or disinterest, or lack of engagement. Perhaps they realized they weren't really into what the church was offering. Covid gave them an easy out. They were sent home.
We now have "one-third" left, and we're tempted to muster the troops. We figure, at least it's something.
But what if God is calling us down to the water?
Wow, let that sink in for a bit.
What if God is calling us down to the water?
I believe what he is calling us to is prayer. And I want everyone to come pray. But I am actually not concerned about how many come to pray.
I am okay if God wants to reduce the "army" of our confidences to 1% of what it was. Even if the "confidence" is large crowds.
I say that because I believe he wants to do something way bigger, way more significant than just having a large "army," or a large church, or a political win.
I believe he wants to teach us a new confidence that far exceeds strategies, systems, and solutions. I believe he wants to actually rout the enemy.
And I believe prayer is the battle field. And I believe it is going to be there that we break our jars and raise our torches as we sound our trumpets and send the enemy into panic.
As you prepare to pray, read Judges 7:17ff and let God give you understanding.
Here's the call to prayer:
Monday, October 12th at 7pm, in the sanctuary.
And if you're not able to join us in person, gather with two or more people wherever you are.
I believe God is calling us into a season of prayer.
I suppose that's obvious. If you've been listening to what I've been saying the past six months, I have in various ways called us to be face down before God about the disruption of things we've found meaningful in the past.
I hope it's obvious. And yet it still needs to be said.
This past weekend a whole bunch of people gathered in D.C. to pray. To pray is to worship. To petition God is to worship. To call out to God is to worship. To make our appeal to him is to worship.
This is beautiful. I pray that it's a tender witness to those how oppose us, and more than simply another political demonstration.
Here in our "war torn" country, where it seems we're facing an insurmountable division of values and ideology, we should thank God that a group of Christians was able to meet peaceably in our country's capitol to pray. And not just pray to some higher power, but to declare through all manner of explicit and implicit statements that "Jesus is Lord."
Let's continue to pray for the healing of this land.
And with this post I am.
Even if it brings a challenge with it.
Yesterday I asked the question, "Can prayer change reality?" And I answered that question by saying "Prayer is the reality." (If you didn't hear it or want to review it in a more succinct form, you can watch the stand alone sermon here)
We are those who pray.
Prayer is our reality. It is perhaps the most elementary expression of faith. And yet, in my experience, that expression of faith does not always come from a place of understanding.
In my study time this morning I read Isaiah 1. The whole chapter is worthy of our attention, but I want to highlight verses 15-20 here:
When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.
He goes on:
"Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.”
It's important that we don't see America as God's Israel. The prophet Isaiah wasn't writing to American Christians about how to keep America Christian. He wasn't writing about America at all. He was writing about Israel. But we can and should apply it in principle to any country we live in. (As I've said elsewhere, we are the "Kingdom within the kingdoms we're in.")
Today, as I mull over my morning reading of Isaiah 1, and yesterday's teaching on prayer, and the weekend's national gathering for prayer, I carry a burden that I know isn't popular to say, but am convicted that it needs to be said nonetheless.
We live in a country whose "hands are full of blood."
This is not some anti-patriotism rant. Nor is it a statement against "the other political party." In fact, this is the echo of any among us who devote themselves to seeking justice against all violence and wrong-doing. This is a lament on behalf of our country.
We all know there are law breakers among us who kill their victims. We lament that but it's obvious.
More disturbing is that there are law keepers among us whose hands are full of blood -- the blood of their enemies and the blood of their unborn babies. We must lament both.
And even more disturbing is that we have law makers calling it good.
God says to "Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow."
God's heart grieves wrongdoing, injustice, oppression, and apathy about those who need our help. He calls it "blood." And he says that he can't hear past the blood on our hands: "When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you...I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood!"
(Are you uncomfortable with the political overtones of this? Is not God "uncomfortable" that we hear it as being political and not about being faithful?)
God is rebuking us. Tenderly.
But not delicately.
His heart is tender. He is not saying, "You're dead to me." He's saying, "Live to me! Turn to me!" He's saying, "You need to know this! I can't hear your prayers because your hearts are so duplicitous! You are so filled with hatred for others and love for yourselves!"
And he says that to invite us! He says, "Wash and make yourselves clean! Do that and I will hear you!"
We pray for our land as we should. And even if it's not always God's will that we be healthy and wealthy, I do believe it's true that, "if [we] are willing and obedient, [we] will eat the good things of the land."
We should desire that.
Because it's also true that, "if [we] resist and rebel, [we] will be devoured by the sword."
And we should try to avoid that.
As Christian Americans it's popular to mobilize around the promise of scripture that, "If we will just pray, God will heal our land!" This is good, but let's remember the full challenge of that promise. It was spoken by God to Solomon after he finished the Temple. It's recorded in 2 Chronicles 7:13-16.
“When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. I have chosen and consecrated this temple so that my Name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there."
And even if America is not the "new Israel," scripture tells us that the Church is the new temple. And we must be those who gather as the "temple" of the Holy Spirit to pray. And we must be those who gather not in boasting but in humility, and not in posturing but repentance as we turn from every wicked way.
We are those who pray, but let us not be those who only say our prayers.
Our country's future is uncertain.
Our past is heavier than we expected.
Our present is filled with tension and violence.
This calls us to a season of prayer -- and let it be nothing less than a season of humility and repentance.
Are the prayers you're praying the kind that can be prayed on your knees face down without a single boast? Keep praying those prayers. And would the prayers you're praying be magnified and emboldened by a confession of your own sin rather than merely confessing the sins of those who hate you? Keep praying those prayers.
But if your heart is in any way aligned with those whose hands are full of blood, "Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you." (2 Corinthians 6:17)
We are those who pray. Let us be those who live in humility and repentance, before God, but also in front of those who oppose us. I believe this is the heart and mind of God for us in this time.
"Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves." (Romans 14:22)
Pastor of Sarasota Community Church since 2009.