"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.
Pastor of Sarasota Community Church since 2009.