Sometimes, preachers need the words God gives to us as much as our congregations.
Two Sundays ago, I preached a sermon I titled “Life ain’t a Pity Party.” Preaching from Luke 15 and the parable of the Prodigal Son, I challenged us to make a choice between the kingdom of Joy and the doom of cynicism.
At that moment – as I was preaching these words – the doom of cynicism, seemed to have swallowed me whole. I felt as low, flat and beaten down by life. I was as down as I have in all the days I have served as your pastor. Rather than choosing the kingdom of joy – I had thrown a pity party in my own honor.
In that state, it doesn’t take long to discover others around me who are having the same party – especially related to our church. We looked around at First Baptist Cornelia and asked ourselves – “Where are all the people today – the ones we’ve had in the past? Where are all the children?” We looked at other churches and wondered what they are doing.
In reality - Pity Parties are happening in churches like ours all over the country. Children – our children – who grew up in church, and their children – are leaving church and many are not coming back. Some are leaving their faith behind and others are just leaving organized religion. Mega churches like the big box stores are pulling in members with exciting programs and low responsibilities. At the same time – older, traditional churches are dwindling in membership, merging with other churches or closing down their doors. The world in which we began no longer exists.
We are left with the challenging question – what will we do? How will we keep up?
Here is the harsh reality – there is NO silver bullet. There is no perfect solution. There is no way forward that guarantees a positive result.
We are left to rethink our model of church success. What does it mean to be a successful church in the first quarter of the 21st century? In the past – we were successful if we had a good attendance in worship. We were successful if we met our budget. We were successful if we gave a lot of money to missions. We were successful if we had a lot of kids in our youth group, if we had a lot of baptisms, if our buildings looked good.
Present reality requires the spiritual courage to ask: Are our old measures of success for a church what success looks like in God’s eyes? Is it possible to be a successful church in our eyes – and yet, miss God’s success?
God desires our whole lives, our faithfulness, and our devotion. What if God has been purging us of our human ways in order to form within a new future for us as the People of God?
Let me invite you to turn to the last half of the Gospel of Mark. In chapters 11 and 13, Mark tells the tale of two fig trees. The tales of these two trees reveal our choice of two futures as we follow Jesus together.
In Mark 11, we find the first tale: The tree of Assumed Living. The story of this fig tree is set off in two passages in Mark 11. Beginning in v. 12 – we find Jesus leaving Bethany and traveling to the Jerusalem temple for the day. His route takes him over the Mount of Olives and then descends to Jerusalem. It’s early and Jesus is hungry. He sees a fig tree full of leaves beside the road. He assumes the tree should have fruit to pick and eat. When he gets to the tree, he finds no figs. It was “not the season for figs tree,” Mark reminds us. In response Jesus speaks a curse on the tree in v. 14 - “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”
Jesus then travels down into the Kidron Valley and into the gate of the Jerusalem Temple. In response to what he sees happening at the temple, Jesus drives out those in the temple who are buying and selling. In a symbolic way, Jesus attempts to cleanses the temple and teach a new way.
The next day, Jesus and the disciples travel the same route back across the Mount of Olives – to teach again in the Temple. Peter notices the fig tree Jesus had spoken to the day before had withered away – down to its roots, Mark describes.
This story of the first fig tree is best understood within the narrative of the cleansing of the temple. Jesus didn’t need to curse this tree. We know he could have caused it to fruit if he desired. .
Jesus uses the tale of this tree to illustrate the consequences of assumed living. By framing the story of the cleansing of the temple between these two narratives of the fig tree, Marks suggests the temple will suffer a similar fate. The temple and all of the religion in represents assumes life will always be the same, that God has stopped acting, and that we need to just keep appeasing God. Yet, the temple no longer fulfills the purpose for which God intended it.
Assumed living leads to a lifeless religious life disconnected from the power of God.
And – God wants more for us. A new life. A renewed purpose.
The second tale tells the story of the Tree of Expectant Living. This parable is found in Mark 13. Jesus tells this tale in the context of an expectant future. In this portrait of the future, Jesus says, “people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” This future requires us to be on the lookout, to live with expectation of God’s work.
“Learn this lesson from the fig tree,” Jesus teaches, “As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door.”
Biologically speaking, there is not much difference between the Tree in tale 1 and the tree in tale 2. Both trees have no fruit yet. Both trees have leaves upon them. Yet, Jesus curses the first and blesses the second. Why.
The fig tree is tale number 2 – is bursting with hope, opportunity, and new life. When we see this tree, Jesus says, it reveals signs of God’s future that is about to break forth into reality. This tree looks to a future held in the hands of God.
The fig tree in tale number 2, however – exists with the assumption that fruit should come because it always has. This tree looks to the past with the assumption that since it has provided fruit in the past it will so again.
These two trees describe for us two paths of living as Christians in this new world we call the first half of the 21st century.
My friend, Eddie Hammett in this new book Recovering Hope for your Church, says for many churches like ours the anxiety and stress – the pity parties we throw – can be boiled down to this reality: Many church leader and churches are practicing more idol worship than God worship. “Our idol has become the good ole days.” We value the feelings and experiences we once had – we love our buildings, our institutions, our traditions, our music, and our programs.
Like the Jews worshiping at the temple, we assume life, faith, and church can just be like it has always been. Assumed living keeps us from looking forward. Assumed living blinds us to the ways of Jesus. Assumed living hides the movement of God’s Spirit. Assumed living – like the fig tree tightly holding onto the ground of the Mount of Olives – will lead to withered hearts, churches, and lives.
Yet – Jesus gifts us with a better future. The tale of the Tree of Expectant Living invites us to raise our heads from what we have once known to catch a glimpse of what is about to be. Jesus uses this parable to communicate a future with a hope. Yes, life is difficult, we face death on a daily basis, and the world changes out from under us. Yet – there is still hope – look for the signs of God bubbling up like the tender shoots of the fig tree coming to life.
This is the Good News for you and me and First Baptist Church Cornelia: The shoots of God’s future have already begun. God has already started preparing this church for its great future.
Let me tell you one more tale: The tale of First Baptist Church, Cornelia, Georgia. When I first arrived someone described this church to me this way – First Baptist Cornelia has the greatest potential of any church in Northeast Georgia. Well – hear this – God’s Kingdom Potential for us has already started breaking through. We can see the signs of the tender shoots and leaves everywhere we go.
First Baptist Cornelia is better positioned for God’s future than at any time in our history. The hard work of praying and preparing that we have done over the last 3 years has come home. The work that we are doing now is the right work at the right time for the right purposes. We are choosing every day as a church to be faithful to God’s mission for us in the world. Look around to see the tender shoots of God’s hand at work among us.
· We are leading the way in Worship to move beyond the manmade divisions between contemporary and tradition.
· We are also leading the way in Missions to advance God’s Kingdom by becoming a church full of evangelists and missionaries where missions is describe as who we are not what we do.
· We are leading the way in discipleship developing a one on one coaching/mentor discipleship culture
· We are leading the way in children/youth ministry in seeking to develop Spiritual champions in partnership with parents.
· We are leading the way by preparing buildings for the future. We will have a new sound system and projection system in the near future.
· We are leading in structures to be better organized for future ministries.
Look at any writer, church futurist – and you will see this is exactly the kind of focus a church needs to have to see God’s future realized among us. The shoots and leaves have already started to shoot forth. This is no time for a Pity Party – this is time for us to celebrate, roll up our sleeves and keep working.
The hit happened on October 28, 1989. The Vanderbilt commodores are on the 15 yard line of the Ole Miss Rebels and they are pressing to score. Brad Gaines, a Vanderbilt receiver, crosses over the middle on the 2 yard line when a defensive back named Chucky Mullins comes forward to block the ball as it is thrown to Gaines. Chucky crashes into Gaines and hits the turf. And never gets up.
Those in the crowd say they know it is bad when they hear the impact. For over ten minutes Chucky lies on the turf. Some are afraid he has died. He hasn’t. Instead, he has crushed 4 vertebrate in his back. A stretcher is brought onto the field.
Chucky begins a slow process of recovery. After his injury, the Ol Miss fans pour out their support for him – raising over $1million for his recovery.
As the season winds to a close, the Ole Miss Rebels are set to play the Air Force Academy. Still the team leader, Chucky, has himself rolled into the locker room before the game. Barely audible – he whispers a battle cry that will sustain and motivate the team. “It’s Time.” He says. “It’s time.” The team hears the battle cry and pick it up. From a whisper the words “It’s time” builds to a crescendo as everyone shouts their task. It’s time. The coach remembered after the game – “Air Force Never had a chance.”
First Baptist Cornelia – today. Now. At this moment – it is time for us to bury our assumed living practices and live expectantly for God’s Kingdom and Future.
· It’s time for us to accept our identity as the People of God, not just good people.
· It’s time for us to be people of faith, not just people of tradition.
· It’s time for us to pray without ceasing rather than pretending to pray so we can remain the same.
· It’s time to listen and follow God rather than listening to sermons and being spectators in worship.
· It’s time rediscover and recommit to why we are church members at First Baptist Cornelia rather than looking for what we get.
· It’s time for some of us to commit to Jesus, to be baptized, and to stop living for ourselves.
· It’s time that we start telling everyone the great things God is doing in our church rather than complaining what we aren’t doing.
· It’s time for us to call each other when we miss church.
· It’s time for us to stop the pity parties and welcome our community to the celebration.
· It’s time for some of us to commit as members at First Baptist Church – some of us regularly worship with us and yet have not committed to us. We need you. We need your energy and your fresh ideas.
· It’s time – First Baptist Church - It’s time! God has gifted us with a marvelous future – it’s time to commit and live with expectation of all God is about to do.
What is it time for you to do today because of the Gift to God’s future to you?
Let’s work together for God’s Future.