Telling Our Story

Yesterday was Resurrection Sunday!  We celebrated our risen Lord together by telling the incredible story of which we can be a part if we will receive Him as our Lord.  We celebrated our part in this great story as individuals, but also as a whole community as we finally put together the three key pieces of our identity into one clear and compelling idea: First Baptist is a place where people can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom.  Keep reading to see how this all unfolded.

 

Telling Our Story

Three weeks ago, we started a journey together.  It was a journey that came out of a conversation about who we are as a church; what our God-given identity is.  The idea here is that while each individual person has a unique, God-designed identity, so do whole churches.  The church is the body of Christ and we are individually members of it.  That means we each have a specific role to play in the body, but one local church does not by itself comprise the whole body of Christ.  That means that each individual local church is itself part of the larger body of Christ and thus has a specific role to play as a community in that larger body.

Think about what this means for a minute: It became popular a few years ago for churches to talk about spiritual gifts.  The idea, well-supported in the Scriptures, is that Jesus gives gifts to His followers when they take up the journey of following Him.  These are gifts that come only by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Jesus follower and will not manifest themselves apart from that.  These gifts are given for the purpose of building up the body in love so that it grows as God intends for it to grow.  The goal of all of this was to help people get their hearts and minds around who God made them to be and the role He designed them to play in the body.  The challenge of this is, as Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 12, that if a person doesn’t play the role he or she was designed to play in the body, it will be less effective at achieving its God-given mission than it would otherwise be.  This is obviously a pretty serious issue.

But, what seems to have been lost in all of this genuinely important teaching and emphasis is that the very same idea applies to whole churches.  Think about it.  What benefit is it to have a whole church filled with people who know their God-designed role in the church if the church itself doesn’t know who God made her to be?  How long will a group of highly-motivated, goal-directed individuals who have a pretty firm grasp of who they are and where they are to be headed stay engaged with an organization that doesn’t?  Not very.  You see, just like as individuals we can’t be fully the stewards of the gifts God has given as we ought to be if we don’t have a clue what those gifts are and for what end He has given them, neither can we as a whole church be.  And so we’ve been talking about it.  We’ve been talking for three weeks about who we are, who God made us to be as a community.  First Baptist is a place where people can connect with God and His people, grow more fully into who God designed them to be, and be empowered to reach out to expand the kingdom of God.  That’s simply who God has made us to be.

This morning, as promised, I’m going to put all three of these pieces together for you into a single, clear, compelling idea.  It is an idea that will give shape and structure to everything we do.  It’s an idea that will give us clarity on the kinds of ministry and mission projects we are going to tackle together in the months and years ahead of us.  It will help us say yes to some things, but no to others—even if they are very good things in and of themselves—because they don’t fit with who we are.  More than even this, it is an idea, an identity, around which you can begin to wrap your own identity as a part of this body.  Before I do that, though, I want to tell you a story.  I want to tell you this story because while our identity as a community of Jesus followers is God-designed and given, it did not come out of nowhere.  It is a part of the much larger story that God has been writing for a very long time.  It’s a story whose climax has already come and whose fulfillment we await with eager anticipation.  It is a story that begins like this: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

Perhaps that’s not how you expected me to say the story started on this particular day, but it is all the same.  The story of which we are a part began in creation.  God created a world that was perfect and beautiful in every way.  And just before He finished His work He added His magnum opus to the picture: Us.  He designed a creature He called man and another called woman.  But this time, unlike with all the other creatures He made, He breathed His Spirit into each of them so that they shared in His image in a way nothing else in the whole of the universe did.  He created the man and the woman so that He could share His love with them in a special way.  And, oh how He loved them.  He gave them authority over His creation.  He set them to work as its caretakers, allowing them to enjoy its succulent fruits to the fullest extent possible.  He invited them to explore it thoroughly.  And He walked with them.  Not for any particular purpose, but just to be with them; to build their relationship; to love them.

But, when the opportunity arose, they rejected His love.  They insisted that their lives be their own and not His.  This was and is called sin.  Now, if it seems shocking that God would have even allowed for such a thing and the ripples it has caused throughout human history to happen in the first place, this is only because we don’t fully understand or appreciate what was perhaps the single greatest gift He gave them by creating them in His image: Freedom.  God didn’t just make them servants, He made them free.  He made them to be able to freely pursue Him with their love and to enjoy the splendor of His creation.  You see, love that is genuine is never forced.  It is always and only a free gift.  He was sovereign over every part of His world, but He gave them the truly unique ability to resist His rule so that they could enjoy it…enjoy Him…to the fullest.  Yet they took His compassionate sovereignty and threw it in the trash so that they could be their own sovereigns.  What they failed to understand and surely didn’t account for was that He was the source of the life they sought.  They wanted to be free of His authority so they could live as He was, but there was no life to be found apart from Him.  And so, when they left Him, death flooded the scene and they soon found themselves adrift in a raging sea with the billows breaking murderously over their heads.

Yet the God who made them and loved them still could not bear the thought of His most cherished creatures dwelling in death apart from Him.  At the same time, His justice, holiness, and commitment to the image He designed us to bear meant that neither ignoring the rebellion nor simply starting over nor still actively changing our hearts and desires were options for going forward.  So, He did what only He could have done: He shouldered the devastating offense He’d been dealt, put seeking the justice He was due on hold, and let us walk down the path we had chosen.  He had made us to be in a relationship with Him and He wasn’t about to let this train wreck out of the gate keep Him from His goal.

And so, He let us go and grow and try to do life apart from Him.  We failed.  Miserably.  Things got so bad at first that God just nearly did have to start over.  But there was one man who was committed to what was right and so God let Noah be the forerunner of a fresh start on the world.  But sin was loose in the human heart and so this new start didn’t turn out much different from the first.  So God began to slowly put some limits in place.  He told us that life was sacred and so killing each other wasn’t going to be the way to human flourishing.  But this was never going to be enough to help us bridge the gap we had created between us and Him by our sin.  He knew it too.

He knew it and when the time was right, He began putting the pieces in place to build a permanent bridge that would provide Him with what He had always wanted and us what we were always made for: To be in a relationship with each other.  He called one of Noah’s descendants, Abram, to leave behind everything familiar and follow Him on faith into the unknown.  As we talked about last week, He promised Abram that He would create a nation from His descendants—even before he and his wife had a child of their own and were both well past child-bearing years.  Yet God keeps His promises and eventually their miracle son, Isaac, had children who had children who had more children and soon a nation began to grow.

This nation grew without knowing much about the God who was directing their path beyond a few stories passed down from one generation to the next as family lore.  Again, though, at just the right time, God moved to bring them out from what had become physical bondage to the much more powerful Egyptian Empire so that He could begin in earnest to deal with the much more serious spiritual bondage resulting from sin.

Through Moses, the entirely unlikely man God appointed to the task of leading Abram’s descendants, now called Israel, God revealed to the people the boundaries of a relationship with Him.  We know these boundaries as the Law of Moses.  As predicted from the outset, the people soon departed these boundaries by sinning.  Getting back across to live within them again would require sin’s payment.  In order to understand this part of the story, though, we need to understand something more about sin.  This is an idea with which people have long struggled and especially so in a culture that prizes personal autonomy free from consequences.

Let me put it like this: Imagine you made a wooden doll.  It could be any kind of a doll you prefer, but the key is that you made it.  You worked really hard to make it too.  You found the wood on your own, carved the individual pieces by hand, assembled them with care, added details painstakingly, and the like.  You invested much of yourself into this doll.  And when you were finished it was beautiful.  People marveled at the splendor of this thing you created.  But then, let’s say I came along and took the doll from you.  I grabbed it and ran.  You called for me to stop, but I ignored you and kept right on going.  I broke it as I ran too.

Now, are we good, you and me?  No! of course we’re not.  I took this thing from you that you had made and loved.  You were rightly proud of this thing and I ruined it.  The only way we are going to be able to be good again is what?  It’s if I give it back restored to its original splendor.

Listen, when that first man and woman sinned, what they did was to take their lives from God and begin to treat them as their own.  They took this beautiful creation that God had literally poured a portion of Himself into and ran with it.  When we sin today we do the same thing.  So I ask you: How are we going to be able to be right with Him again?  We’ve got to give back to Him what was taken from Him.  Stay with me here: What was taken from Him?  Our lives.  Well, if we give our lives back to God as a payment for sin, what does that leave us with?  Not our lives.  Do you see it?  What do you have if you don’t have life?  You have death.  This is why Paul would write in Romans 3:23 that the wages, or the result of sin, is death.  If we keep our lives for ourselves, we die because we are not the source of life.  If we give our lives back to God, though, in order to restore the relationship, we still die because we wouldn’t have our lives any longer.  In other words: Sin brings death.  It’s just what it does.  It separates us from God and apart from God there is no life to be found.  Period.  In order for us to find our way back into a relationship with Him, then, something or someone has to die.

Let’s go back to Moses and the Law.  God wanted to be in a relationship with the people (for their own sake, yes, but also so He could reach through them into the lives of even more people).  On their best days they wanted that too.  In order for this to happen, though, and as we just said, something had to die.  God couldn’t demand their own lives as payment for sin because then they would be dead and you can’t have a relationship with a dead person.  So, in His overwhelming grace and mercy, He allowed them an out: Animal sacrifice.  Now, this was far from a perfect solution for several reasons, but God accepted it for the time being as a way for the people to cover for their sins and enter through an intermediary (a priest, who put on even more coverings for sins) into a relationship with Him.

But think back to that doll I took from you.  If I went to the store and bought you something shiny and new to replace it, would that solve the problem?  Are we going to be good now?  No, we’re still not.  Sure, you might be glad to have this new thing, but it doesn’t replace what was taken most notably because it’s not what was taken.  The same thing goes here too.  We took our lives from God in sin.  And, while He was gracious to allow us to sacrifice animals in our place, giving Him back animal lives was not giving Him back the thing which was taken and so the relationship could not be fully restored.

Here’s the thing, though: When Moses introduced the people to the sacrificial system, nobody understood this.  They couldn’t have.  They didn’t have the lens through which to view it.  God wanted deeply to connect with us.  He wanted to grow us.  He wanted to reach perfectly through us into the lives of others.  But because of sin, He couldn’t yet fully.  So He waited.  He waited until just the right time as Paul would tell us in Galatians 4:4.  He waited until just the right time to send His Son, Jesus, who was born under the Law (meaning He was fully human) to redeem us who were also under the Law (because there wasn’t any better system in place).  And how did He redeem us?  He died in our place.  He lived a perfect life, remaining fully within the boundaries of the Law every step of the way, earned a right status with God, and then gave back to His Father the thing which we had taken from Him: A human life.  In dying for us, Jesus sacrificed Himself so that we wouldn’t have to die.  He never once took His life from God and so God in His infinite mercy and grace accepted His perfect life in exchange for the sinful lives of every other person who has or will ever live.  That includes you.  That includes me.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?  There’s just one question here.  Perhaps it’s one that you’ve asked yourself.  At first it might sound a little cynical, but the truth is that it’s a really important question.  How do we know this is all true?  I mean, it sounds too good to be true, right?  This guy who lived 2,000 years ago died and because He died, I get to be in a relationship with God today, my sins washed clean?  Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but have you seen the teeth on this thing?  Give me a break.  How are we supposed to believe this?  How do we know God actually accepted His sacrifice?

The ancient Israelites had a festival called the Day of Atonement.  Today it is still celebrated as Yom Kippur.  On the Day of Atonement, the people were all gathered together at the Temple.  As they were gathered, two goats were brought before the people.  One became a sacrifice to the Lord on behalf of the sins of the people.  With the other goat, the priests were to place their hands on its head and confess the sins of the nation.  Their sins were thus metaphorically transferred to this scapegoat (ever wonder where that word came from?).  After this ritual process, the goat was led out into the wilderness and released.  As this happened, the people waited with baited breath.  Whether or not the goat returned was their signal as to whether God had accepted their confession and removed from them their sins.  When the goat didn’t return, they celebrated wildly because they had assurance God had accepted their offering and they were clean before God again as a people.

For us, we’re told over and over again that Jesus died for our sins, that our sins were placed on His shoulders and He took them to the grave, forever paying the price we owed because of them.  But what is our assurance?  How do we know it worked?  How do we know God accepted the offering?  How we know is the very thing we are here together celebrating this morning.  We know God accepted His sacrifice on our behalf because Jesus didn’t stay dead.  Once the price for sin had been paid, the debt owed to death had been settled, life was able to reign once again.  Jesus received it first as the sacrifice-maker, and through Him it is made available to anyone who wants to live.

Here is the most important truth about the Christian faith you will ever hear: Everything hinges on the resurrection.  Everything.  Every single word Jesus ever uttered was validated when He walked back out of that tomb on the third day.  Everything we profess to believe about this life and what comes next is given substance and meaning by the empty tomb.  Everything we do in this life, all the burdens we bear, the sacrifices we make, the persecutions and hardships we endure for the sake of God’s kingdom are justified by our risen Savior.  The apostle Paul puts it like this in 1 Corinthians 15:17: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and your are still in your sins.  Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.  If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

Think about it: Jesus made some ridiculously audacious claims during His life.  Perhaps most importantly, He claimed that His death would be for our redemption.  If He had died and stayed dead, we would have absolutely no reason to believe a word of it.  We would have every reason to believe instead that we still persisted in our sins, separated from God, but by the sacrifice of animals, a ritual process whose very ongoing and repetitive nature proclaimed loudly of its impotence to do the very thing it claimed to accomplish.  Worse yet, as Paul said, we who profess to follow Him would have put ourselves through all kinds of trouble for a promise that is empty.  We would indeed be the poorest of fools, deserving both the derision and the sympathy of our critics who would have been right all along.  If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then billions of people over the last 2,000 years have been the subjects of the greatest scam in human history.  But they aren’t, because He was.  As Paul put it in the next verse: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead…”  Jesus rose and declared triumphantly God’s ongoing intention to make us fully into who we had always been designed to be—image bearers in a deep and meaningful relationship with Him to His glory and our joy.  You can have that if you are willing to accept the work He did on your behalf.  Eternal life and joy can be entirely yours—the resurrection guaranteed it—if you will only make Jesus Lord of your life.  Through the power of the resurrection, you can become fully who God made you to be from the beginning.  Through the resurrection, we become who God made us to be.

We become this as individuals, yes, but we also become this as a whole community of Christ.  Consider the weight of this truth: Just as the resurrection empowers our individual lives with substance and meaning, it gives vitality and direction to everything we do as a community of followers of Jesus dedicated to moving together in the direction of the kingdom and seeing its borders expand from our own.  God made us a place where people can connect.  Well, because of the resurrection, connecting with God and even with other people matters a whole lot more than it would otherwise.  The relationships we build with fellow followers of Jesus in this life will follow us into the next.  The relationship we build with God in this life will determine the scope and shape of the next.  God designed us as a community specifically to be a place where both relationships can be incubated and grown into something worthy of the glory of the kingdom we seek to advance.

Let’s keep going.  God made us a place where people can grow.  Listen, if this life is all there is, growth is meaningless.  And, apart from the resurrection, we don’t have any real hope or confidence that there’s anything more than this life.  But, if there is more, growth we pursue now will follow into what follows.  Or, to turn that around, if we fail to grow, the death we embrace instead will as well.  Folks, God designed this community with the essential ingredients in place for the kind of growth that matters most, the kind of growth that lasts long beyond the bounds of this world, to happen.

Remember the last piece of who we are?  God made us to be a place that reaches out with the Gospel.  The whole purpose of the resurrection is that God was so committed to reaching out to and through the people He created and loves still in spite of their rebellion, that He was willing for His only Son to die to make it happen.  Apart from the resurrection, our reaching makes no difference and, as Paul argued, is in fact little more than a cruel joke.  Apart from a Jesus who is alive today, we proclaim about God things that aren’t true about God.  We are liars without the resurrection.  We offer hope where there is none; peace where there is only trouble, joy where there is only gloom, and life where death still reigns supreme.

Do you see it now?  Through the resurrection, we become who God made us to be.  I’m talking about you and you and you and you and you and all the rest of us to be sure, but I’m also talking about all of us together.  Through the resurrection, we as a church family become who God made us to be.  And who is that?  Who is it that the risen Lord who offers life to all those who would receive Him designed us to be?  We are a place where people can connect to God and the people He loves.  We are a place where people can grow fully into the beautiful image-bearer God designed them to be.  We are a place from which people can reach out with the hope of the Gospel and for the advancement of the kingdom where love and justice, righteousness and holiness reign supreme.  The resurrection power of our risen Lord is what not only gives that meaning, but in fact allows us to become fully that people.  Let’s finally put all of that together.  First Baptist is a place where people can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom.  First Baptist is a place where people can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom.  This is who God has made us to be; a place where people can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom.  By the power of the resurrection, we will become fully who He made us to be, fully this incredible body of believers in King Jesus.  First Baptist is a place where people can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom.

After all of this, then, I’m going to do something I don’t usually do, especially like this.  But, I think this is the right morning for it.  After everything we’ve said this morning and over the past few weeks, here is my invitation to you.  First, if you have not yet experienced the power of the resurrection in your own life, it’s time to do that.  It may be that you are here this morning as someone who has grown up around the faith, but never really made it yours.  You’ve heard—possibly for years—about the resurrection on Easter, but it was never much more than just one of those things Christians talk about on occasion.  You never really heard about just how and why it was so important, so central to the whole operation.  Listen: If the resurrection is true—and the evidence for that is overwhelming—then everything Jesus ever said is true too.  His words are true, and you need to deal with them.  You can’t ignore them any longer.  You can’t escape the fact that you are someone who has rebelled against God, that God loved you anyway so much that He sent His Son to die to pay the price for your sins, and that if you receive His death as accomplishing what the Scriptures proclaim over and over that it did, you can join Him in the resurrection life He now enjoys.  If God has moved in your heart in a fresh, new way this morning to draw you to Himself, maybe for the first time, I invite you to come down here in just a minute and tell me about it.  I know it’s a scary thought, but there’s something powerful about committing yourself publicly to what God’s been doing in your heart.  So I invite you to come.  Come, because what lies before you is the joy of becoming fully you in Christ.  Through the resurrection, you can become who God designed you to be.

Here’s the second invitation: Let us commit together to move with intentionality in the direction God has designed us to go.  Over the past four weeks, we have uncovered the specific identity God designed into this body of believers.  We know now the ways He has created us to impact our community and beyond for His kingdom.  We can’t in good conscience sit back and do anything else but move in this direction.  So let’s do it.  Let’s embrace the resurrection power we’ve been celebrating this morning and set out to maximize our Gospel impact using the tools God has given us to do it.  Through the resurrection, we will become who God designed us to be; a place where people can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom.  You can make this commitment in two ways: You can resolve internally right where you are to be a part of what God is doing in this community and as we sing in just a minute, you can raise a hand to say, “I’m in.”  Or, you can take the extra step of walking up here to symbolically step out in faith to be a part of what God is doing here among His people.  You can step out in faith and stand here in front of the body with me to be a part of the unleashing of God’s resurrection power into this community and beyond.

Two invitations, one golden opportunity.  What will you do?  How will you respond?  How will you step out in faith to be a part of God’s grand story?  Will you let Him into your heart?  Will you unleash His resurrection power in your life?  Will you commit publicly to be a part of that power rolling forward through this community?  I’m going to pray, then we’re going to sing, and then you’ll be able to move.  By the power of our resurrected Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, God is making First Baptist a place where people can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom.  Let’s go with Him together.

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