This past Sunday we took a look at the final piece of our identity as a church. We are a place designed by God to reach out into our community to advance His kingdom. God made us like this because He is for our community. He is for your community too. The church is to be for the world because our God loves the people in it. Keep reading to find out more.
We’re for Them
I’m not totally sure if they still do them nowadays, but a few years ago both Lowe’s and Home Depot had kids build days one Saturday each month. The projects were usually pretty cheesy, but for the boys they were a lot of fun. It was fun for us to get to see their excitement. The setup was pretty much the same at both stores. There were several makeshift tables composed of upside-down buckets and 8-foot shelf boards. There were a couple of folks at a check-in table taking names and handing out the build kits. Then, you spread out at one of the work stations with a pair of safety goggles and got to work. The kits themselves were generally simple enough and with pretty clear instructions. All the pieces were pre-cut and all the nail holes were pre-drilled. You just followed the instructions and let the kids bang away with the little hammers they provided.
Well, this all seemed like it was really easy, so…we decided it would be fun for Noah’s 4th birthday and its Handy Manny theme, to create a Manny toolbox building project for the kids to do at the party. The truth turned out to be that it took a little more work to put these “easy” projects together. It was not a small process of buying wood, cutting out the pieces, sanding down the pieces, pre-drilling all the holes, buying the screws, painting the wood, and so on and so forth. The end result was a fun, easy project for the party, but there was a lot of prep work that went into making it that fun, easy project. I was fortunate to have my friend Rod Crocket who had the tools, the shop, most of the supplies, and the know-how to make it happen.
The same goes for those Lowe’s and Home Depot projects. Their simplicity belies a deeper truth. You see, in order to make them as simple as they were, there was a whole lot of work that had to go on in the background. Someone, somewhere, had spent hours cutting out thousands of these little pieces and parts. They’d drilled hundreds and hundreds of tiny holes with exacting precision. They’d written up instructions. They’d taken those instructions, made them simple enough for a 3-4 year-old to understand, added pictures, and laid them out on a sheet of paper to be packaged with the kit parts. Somebody else had taken all those parts, fitted them together into a little puzzle, and shrunk-wrapped them one by one. There were probably a few hundred man-hours sitting behind these “easy” building projects for parents to do with their kids. What’s more, neither store ever charged even a nickel for them. That means there were hundreds of hours’ worth of work that the stores were simply eating, hoping that the potential increase in profits from either brand loyalty, convenience, or just plain old gratitude would cover the involved costs. The point here is that just because something looks really simple does not mean it is really simple. Just because we can walk into something, sit down, and get going on it, does not mean there was not a lot of work going on behind the scenes to make that experience possible. And it just so happens that what applies to small situations like this, applies to the bigger picture of our lives as well.
Well, this morning we are in the third part of our fresh look at who God has designed us as a community to be. The reason this matters, the reason we’re spending time talking about this again, is that God doesn’t place local bodies of believers haphazardly as suits His mood. Every single church is where it is and has the people it does because God put them there for a reason. For any church to simply say, “We’re about advancing the kingdom of God,” and stop there isn’t enough. How a church in downtown Charlotte advances the Gospel is necessarily going to look different than how we do it here in Oakboro. The culture is different. The people are different. The customs are different. What constitutes a normal day is different. To a certain degree, even the language is different. While certain themes are going to emerge as reasonably consistent in every context, the particulars won’t. If a church doesn’t understand it’s God-given set of particulars, the identity their heavenly Father has built into them from the ground-up, they’re not going to be able to accomplish their chief task of making disciples with anything resembling the effectiveness they need.
With all of that in mind, we have clarified who God made us to be as a community. I say it to you every single Sunday morning: We are a place where people can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom. That’s who we are. It’s who you are. But, simply having that idea down pat—my goal is for every member of this body to be able to fire that phrase off from memory to anyone who asks them about the church—while really important, is itself not enough. We need to understand it; we need to understand who God made us to be. That’s what these few weeks have been about.
Three weeks ago we looked at what it means that God created us to be a place where people can connect. We did that by looking at how Jesus connected with people, specifically a Samaritan woman He encountered at a well outside the village of Sychar. What became clear was that Jesus connected with people just as they were; so should we. People are going to connect best to a place where they can come in with all their baggage in tow and not have to put any makeup on to get in the door. That doesn’t mean—nor do they expect when they’re honest—that they’re going to be left with all their baggage. That’s not what Jesus does and so it’s not what we do either. He said that we should come to Him with all our burdens and exchange them for His. The point is not that they have to be baggage-free to be able to come, but that they don’t have to be ashamed of it here.
But, connecting is only part of the puzzle. We’re not simply a place where people can connect—that would make us indistinguishable from a social club—we are a place where people can grow. We saw this a couple of weeks ago through a series of agrarian parables Jesus told in Mark 4, most notably the parable of the sower. The big truth then was that growth won’t happen if seeds aren’t planted. We are to be a place where people can grow, but in order for that to become a reality, we’ve got to be planting Gospel seeds in every single thing we do. But, seeds themselves come from plants. Healthy plants create seeds that are then planted to grow into more healthy plants. In other words, we can’t plant any seeds if we aren’t growing ourselves. If we’re going to be growing new disciples, we’ve got to make sure the disciples we already have are growing.
Now, connecting and growing are important ideas. They are ideas that resonate with the depths of our being as a community of Jesus followers. But they don’t happen for their own sake. Healthy growth goes somewhere. It has an end, a purpose to it. For followers of Jesus, the point of our growth is that we reach out into the lives of the people around us; that we reach with the Gospel into the community around us.
And while that perhaps sounds like something that should be patently obvious, I think it tends to be a bit more obvious in word than it does in deed. You see, for most of its history, the church has existed in a context of persecution to various extents. And although the church has often risen to the challenge occasioned by this persecution, we haven’t always done it. You see, the church at various times and in various places has developed the idea that it is supposed to be an enclave from the world. We can come to the church and find protection from the arrows of a hostile world. Well, while we should certainly expect to find help and support in the face of the world’s aggression in the church, an enclave is the last thing we should be. Similarly, the people of God have at various times considered themselves to be uniquely special to God; that God was for them and against the world. This could not be further from the truth.
Since the earliest days of God telling us about His plans, they have always been to work through a few for the sake of the rest. God told Abram that He wanted to bless Him in order to be a blessing to the rest of the world. Israel was to be a light unto the Gentiles. Wherever the people were, they were to be a blessing to their community. This was even true when their community was mostly hostile to them and their way of life. Because the truth is, God is reaching out with His love even when we aren’t actively receiving it.
Nowhere does this truth stand out so clearly to me as it does in a letter the prophet Jeremiah wrote to his brothers and sisters who were living in captivity in the ancient city of Babylon. Jeremiah was one of the prophets God sent to call the people of Judah to get their act together. He spoke the words of God to the people of God in and through one of the darkest periods of their history. If you think God has called you to something hard, let me tell you: You’ve got nothing on Jeremiah. Over and over again Jeremiah complained to God about His call and the terrible things He had to tell His brothers and sisters. He just wanted for things to be smooth and the people to be happy. Instead, God consistently gave Jeremiah messages of judgment and the people received them about as well as most people receive messages of judgment, which is to say, not very well at all.
Well, not only did Jeremiah minster to the people of Israel in Judah, he also ministered some to the people of Israel who were living in exile in Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah. They were living in exile because when Babylon came to town, their goal was not the total elimination of the people they conquered. Instead, they would set up client kingdoms and leave them to essentially manage their own affairs as long as they remained faithfully under the broader authority of the Babylonian Emperor. But, in order to enrich themselves on the misfortune of their victims, when they left a place they had conquered, they would carry back to Babylon with them all the best and the brightest citizens and reprogram them to be good, faithful Babylonians. This was actually incredibly wise of them because it made sure they had really smart people to help manage their ever-expanding empire and left the remaining people disorganized enough that they couldn’t ever mount a meaningful rebellion.
What this meant was that there were a whole bunch of Israelites living in exile in Babylon. Imagine life for these guys for a minute. They didn’t know what was going on. They were terrified and confused and angry and not really sure what to do now. They didn’t know if they should just give up on God and love the one they were now with or try and maintain a separate identity. And if they did that, how hard should they stick to it? What should they think about their new home? Well, God may have given them a national timeout, but He hadn’t given up on them or forgotten about them. Through Jeremiah, He wrote them a letter to encourage them and to tell them how to handle their new reality. You can find these words in Jeremiah 29. Take a look at these with me starting in v. 1.
“These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the eunuchs, the officials of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metal workers had departed from Jerusalem. The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. It said…”
Okay, that’s a lot of names there. Here’s the quick run-down: Josiah was the last good king of Judah. When he died, his son, Jehoahaz, took over. He got conquered and captured by the Egyptians who put his brother, Eliakim, on the throne and changed his name to Jehoiakim. Jehoiakim (or, Jeconiah, as Jeremiah calls him here) was the king when the Babylonians arrived the first time. They took him back to Babylon to be a part of King Nebuchadnezzar’s king collection, and put his son, Jehoiachin on the throne. He ruled just over three months and rebelled and was quickly replaced by his brother, Zedekiah. It was during his reign that Jeremiah wrote this letter.
All of that is kind of a setup to say this: The remaining people of Israel who were living there in Babylon, had been forcibly plunked down into the middle of a culture that was not only not their own, but really wasn’t all that interested in being friendly to them. It didn’t care about their God or their legal and religious customs. It didn’t want to hear about how great things were back home. And it wasn’t going to be terribly tolerant of their trying to maintain their unique, national identity in this new place. In short, they wanted out of there. God, though, had other plans. He shared these plans with them through Jeremiah’s letter.
Come back to the text with me now in v. 4: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
Now, what kind of a picture is God painting here? Think about what He says. Build houses and live in them. That takes time, doesn’t it? Plant gardens and eat their produce. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t planted any insta-vegetables yet. Mine take a few weeks to grow. Take wives and have sons and daughters. Last time I checked, that’s at least a nine-month process (unless you’re Micah in which case it’s an eight-month process that he tried to shorten to five). Take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage so that they can have kids as well. Now, those could be the sons and daughters who accompanied them into exile, or, more likely, it’s the sons and daughters they have while they are already in exile. God’s telling them to think about their exile in generational terms. “This isn’t going to be a short process,” He says. “Do in Babylon like you did in Egypt,” He might have said. That last part, though, is the most important. Be for your new home.
When they went into exile, the Israelites had two choices: They could hate the people who did this to them, or they could love them. They could be a constant thorn in their side, or they could be a blessing everywhere they went. They could work to undermine the Babylonians and later the Persians, or they could be good citizens. It would have been natural to go with the former in each case. God said that the latter is where life will be found.
Now, we’re different from Israel. We’re not an actual nation, for one. We don’t have the same relationship with God that they did. His expectations for us are somewhat different. His plans for us aren’t the same as they were for them. But listen for a minute to how Peter began his first letter: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect exiles of the dispersion…” Who was He originally talking to? Not Jews still hanging out in Babylon. He was talking to Christians. If you are a follower of Jesus, you’re an exile. You’re not in your home. You’re living in a foreign land with a culture and customs and language and religion and everything else different than what belong to you. The whole letter is basically about how to get along well as foreigners in a hostile environment. It boils down to basically this: Be the best citizens you can possibly be, so that if they hate you it’s because of your commitment to Christ and nothing else. Stay with me here: If we’re really good citizens of whatever nation we happen to inhabit, what does that do for our nation? It makes it better, doesn’t it? So in a way, what Jeremiah says to the people of Israel here still holds for us. In Babylon, even though they were in exile in a foreign land, they were to be for their community. Listen: The church is to exist for our community. We’re to exist for our community because our God is for our community. He made our community. And He loves it. And so should we.
And every single time in history the church has shone brightly, it’s because we’ve gotten this right. Remember what Luke said in in Acts 2 in his summary of how life in the early church was going? “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.” All of them. Not just the believers. What was the result of that? “And the Lord added to their number [daily] those who were being saved.”
What’s more, God plans for us to do that kind of thing. It comes packaged with our salvation. Listen to what Paul wrote in Ephesians 2: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” You knew all that. If you’ve been around the church long, you’ve probably heard that part before. But do you remember the next part? “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Now, sometimes it feels like reaching out into our community is hard, doesn’t it? We kind of have our own little circle of life in the church and it’s hard to break out of that, especially when breaking out means engaging with people and situations we don’t really know how to handle. But listen, when we follow Him into one of these situations, He’s already been doing all the background prep work for us. What we see as compared with what’s actually going on in the bigger picture is a little like those Home Depot building projects. They look simple, but it took a lot of work to make them look simple.
God is at work in the community around us. He’s at work there all the time. He’s at work there because He cares about it. He loves it. He loves them. When we reach out into it with the fruits of the Gospel, we are only ever joining Him in what He’s already doing. We are joining in the plans He’s been unfolding since the Garden. Ever since Adam and Eve bucked God’s authority and ate the fruit, breaking the sinless beauty into which God had placed them, He’s been working steadily to redeem it. He blew open the doors to the whole thing on the cross and with the empty tomb, and now we are the heralds and participants of this incredible thing He has done. We are to be joining Him in giving the people around us who haven’t yet experienced it a taste of what real life in the kingdom of God can be like. When we reach out, we join in God’s plans.
Friends, this is who He has designed us to be. We’re a place where people connect, yes. We’re a place where they grow, sure. But what we’re talking about right now is the reason for those things. We connect and grow to reach. And when we reach out, we join in God’s plans. Everything points in this direction. If you connect with this body of believers, I just want to be honest with you: This is where we’re going to take you. That’s because this is who we are and its where we’re going. We won’t be satisfied until our community has been totally transformed by the power of the Gospel and that takes reaching out into it every single chance we get. It’s just who we are. It’s who God made us to be. It’s what He’s doing. When we reach out, we join in God’s plans.
But still, what does this look like? I mean, it’s fine to talk about it like this, but let’s put some shape and structure to it. What does it look like when we reach out into our community? It looks like Rita Crisco starting our Meals on a Mission ministry with an excellent and growing team that has already expanded well beyond its original aims and is serving as a real blessing in the lives of the folks who receive it. It looks like Cliff Edwards volunteering weekly as a math tutor at the STEM school. It looks like the Brotherhood being intentional about raising money to support West Stanly Christian Ministries and the great work they are doing in the community. It looks like our WMU ladies putting together backpacks for some kids in rural, eastern Kentucky, and traveling there to help deliver them—something you’ll hear more about next week. It looks like hosting the West Stanly Football team for dinner. It looks like partnering with some of our sister churches to create a safe, fun Halloween event for several hundreds of families to feel comfortable bringing their kids to have a great night. The list here could go on. This is being who God made us to be. This is reaching out. And when we reach out, we join in God’s plans.
Okay, but what else can we do. I mean, don’t get me wrong, these things are all awesome, but that’s not the end of it. It can’t be. It can’t be because our God’s not done reaching out. There’s still more of our community that’s waiting to be impacted by the Gospel. We aren’t a place that reaches once and quits. We are a place that keeps on reaching into new and more places, constantly on the lookout for how we can expand the Gospel impact we are having. When we reach out, we join in God’s plans. So, where else are His plans moving in our midst?
Well…I’m not totally sure. But God is. Remember: When we reach out, we join in God’s plans. He’s got a great handle on what He’s doing in our community. He’s ready to tell us too. But, that means asking. And not just once either. It means asking again and again with our eyes and ears open to what He has to say until He extends to us a clear invitation to join Him in reaching out. Do you see where I’m going here? What do you call it when you talk to God over and over and listen for Him to respond? I don’t know about you, but I call that prayer. Knowing best where to reach out requires prayer. It requires intentional, focused, ongoing prayer.
So much of our prayer is focused on who’s sick in our lives. Think about it: When I ask about things we can be praying for at the Gathering Place, we mostly get a list of who’s struggling in some kind of a way. Now, that’s a good thing. But—and this may challenge you a bit—it should never become the primary focus of our prayer. The primary focus of our prayer—especially as a community designed to reach—should be for the movement of the Spirit of the Lord and the courage to join Him when He invites us to do so. Friends, the Lord is moving in our community. Oakboro is an incredible little community. It’s the kind of community where people want to raise their kids. Even some anecdotal demographical observations bear this out. Real estate sells fast here. We’ve got lots of young families either already living or else looking to move into the area. And I’m not talking about Locust either. Oakboro, Stanfield, Red Cross and the like are all growing. With the likely addition of Charlotte Pipe’s new place in the next couple of years this trend will not only continue, it will accelerate. We have a huge opportunity to become an indispensable presence in our community; even more so than we already are. But, it is going to take a concerted effort of prayer on our part to make all this potential into a kinetic movement of the Gospel into the hearts of the lost in our midst. It is going to take a concerted effort of prayer that I would like to begin with you this morning. When we reach out, we join in God’s plans. God’s got some incredible plans and it’s time we start listening well so we know what those are.