Sermon: The Square (Mt. 5:13-16)
05.11.08, Kevin P. Larson,
Who would have thought pastors would be so influential in this year’s elections? No, I’m not talking about church leaders telling members how to vote. I’m referring to how the presidential candidates’ pastors might influence the upcoming vote. Barack Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, is on one side, saying some outlandish things in the media. This hasn’t been mentioned as much, but John McCain has received the endorsement of John Hagee and Rod Parsley, who say things just as odd. On one side, Wright has said this, when asked if Islam is a way to salvation: “Jesus also said, ‘Other sheep have I who are not of this fold.’” This misreads Jesus’s words and makes him not necessary for salvation. He represents liberal Christianity, those who have accommodated the gospel so much that it has lost its distinctiveness in our culture. Hagee and Parsley have said things like this: Hagee said that Muslims will be part of the devil’s army at Armageddon. Parsley wrote that the reason why
In his helpful book, Chameleon Christianity, Dick Keyes illustrates these two tendencies by comparing them to two species of animals that protect themselves in two different ways. We can be a chameleon that changes its colors to fit its environment. There we make the message appeal to our culture, or contextualize, so much that we say and do exactly like those we’re trying to reach. And we don’t get hurt. But we have no impact. Or we can be a musk ox, a type of arctic animal that circles around and fiercely protects its young from harm with its horns facing outward. There we withdraw and contend in such a way that we keep an arm’s length from those we’re trying to reach. And we again keep safe. But we have no impact.
We end up looking cleverly like the culture—the chameleon. Or we end up angrily withdrawing from the culture—the musk ox.
Both of these strategies are illustrated in Mt. 5. We either choose to lose our saltiness—our ability to preserve and flavor our culture. Or we decide to throw a basket over the light we have. Both ways are wrong, brothers and sisters. Both are copouts, I want you to see, that don’t have faith and don’t truly love. But the tendency, among people who take the Bible seriously is to withdraw, to play the musk ox. And this can’t be. The gospel is meant to go public. As Mt. 5:16 says, we are to let our light shine. It was never meant to be hidden. It is meant to go into square. This week we move from the pulpit, the realm of the church, from the table, the realm of the home, to the square, the realm of the city. All three are necessary. And this last realm is critical because we are meant to be on mission as God’s people. Let’s pray.
Taking this gospel on mission into the public square involves four things, four sides of the square that I want you to see this morning. The first is participation in culture. This is Jer. 29 type ministry. Turn with me to Jer. 29:5-7 (p. 656).
Jeremiah 29:5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 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. 7 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.
This is getting a house, a job, and a family and seeking the city’s good. This is creating culture. This looks like living life in our city, amongst unbelievers, making the gospel public, for the sake of mission. This looks like:
· Events: Twilight Festival, Mizzou sports events, that people do
· Places: Coffee Zone, the ARC, where people go
· Services: Tiger Barber shop, Gerbes, where people frequent
· Activities: softball leagues, photography classes, that people participate in
· Schools: Hickman High, Mizzou, where people are educated
· Organizations: Neighborhood associations, City Council, where people lead
· Jobs: Shelter Insurance, the Blue Note, where people get stuff done
We must participate in all of these realms or we will have no impact. But let me camp on the last one for a second. Adam and Eve, before the fall, in the garden, were called to work, to build culture, and, in the image of the Father, to create. This is why at Karis we put so much emphasis on work for God’s glory. We were made for it. Also, this is why we put so much emphasis on the arts here for His glory. We were made in His image. And let me say: when it comes to work, we are not just to be satisfied participating. As those being restored to the image of our Creator, we should be at the forefront of society—being the best insurance agents, best construction workers, best piano players, best doctors, best watercolorists for His glory, pursuing excellence, seeing it all in relationship to Him. When it comes to creative, hard work, we strive not to idolize it as the world does, but not to minimize it either, as the church can often do. But it’s what we’re called to as Christians living here on earth.
What the Christian world tragically chooses is evacuation. We push people into vocational ministry or cheesy, Christian art. We encourage the creation of our own, comparable civic organizations. We pull out our children from the school system. We have our own activities, like church basketball leagues. We have things like the “Shepherd’s Guide” where we can just frequent Christian businesses. We have our own Christian places like coffeehouses. And we put on our own cheesy Christian events.
Why do we do it? I think it’s a fear of contamination. We feel we’ll be impacted by the world and lose our distinctiveness. So we withdraw. We think the battle is lost and that death is near, so we evacuate. But, again, we have a mission. And it involves participation in culture.
To do that, we must have concern, and we must have faith. We must live alongside others in our culture, loving them. And we must trust God will strengthen us and protect us while we do it. We must believe Christ’s prayer in Jn. 17:15 will be answered. He prayed for our protection in this world.
He said, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” We say we fear being polluted, but is it really because we don’t care? And we don’t believe God?
To be missionaries in our culture, we have to participate in it. Evacuation is not an option. Let me share how I see this now in Karis and my dreams for our future. Consider what God is doing now. I think of the show at the Blue Fugue the other night, where we had two Karis members playing music and probably 20 people from our church there. Also, think about the Ratliffs. They have the best tree business in Columbia, hands down. They do the job right and with integrity, and people know that. And, Karis, look forward to a day when we have Karis artists leading in local shows, when we have more and more musicians setting the tempo in our city, when many of us graduate and we have more and more folks working for God’s glory in our city, setting the standards for work.
Second, let’s consider the restoration of culture. This is Mic. 6:8 ministry here. That reads,
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
This is serving culture. This looks like pouring out our lives, among unbelievers, making the gospel public for the sake of mission. Specifically, this looks like:
· Mercy Ministry: caring for hurting, oppressed people in tangible ways
· Justice Efforts: standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves in the public square
· Public Service: doing good for our city, seeking her welfare
This is why each of our C-Groups is pursuing an area of service in our city. This is why we do large group projects to clean up our city. What the Christian world does, though, I’m convinced, is choose abdication. It ignores its responsibility to serve the places in which God has placed us. We leave public service to others.
We consign justice efforts to unbelievers. We leave deeds of mercy to government agencies. We have no part of it. And then we complain about what’s taking place. And we wonder why the world does not see Christianity as valuable to a community.
Why does the church abdicate its responsibility? I think it’s a fear of losing the gospel. Many think that if we serve with our hands in this way, we’ll make people think they don’t need to hear what Jesus has done and be changed in their hearts. It’s a fear of what is called a “social gospel.” But this doesn’t have to happen, friends. Lk. 24:19 says Jesus was “mighty in deed and word.” It’s not either/or, but both/and.
But again, to work on mission in this restoration, we have to have concern and faith again. Yes, all around us we see things are messed up. We call that sin, folks. It’s not how it’s supposed to be. But we trust in God’s ability to fix it and we labor to lovingly help change things. The Christian world has neither, I’m convinced, because it has a bad eschatology, a bad understanding of the end times. We long for the day when we can escape this world while it goes up in flames behind us. Because of that, we can have no hope, and no concern, and even have anti-concern. We can get excited about the world and its inhabitants going up in flames.
But the Christian vision is much different, friends. There isn’t this idea of escaping the earth to heaven. It’s rather a picture, as it says in Rev. 21:2 of “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming out of heaven from God.” It is a hope of a new heavens and new earth, a restored creation, the kingdom of God on earth ruled by Jesus. Now that kingdom of God is not fully here. That awaits the final day. But it has broken into the here and now. And we can begin this labor of restoration. The key is that our understanding of the gospel has to include this vision of restoration. Some say the gospel is more about restoration than proclamation. That’s wrong, for sure, the typical chameleon error.
Others say it’s all proclamation and little restoration, the typical musk-ox mistake. I say it’s both. Tim Keller puts it this way. He defines the gospel and then explains it:
Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from the judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever. When the third, 'eschatological' element is left out, Christians get the impression that nothing much about this world matters. Theoretically, grasping the full outline should make Christians interested in both evangelistic conversions as well as service to our neighbor and working for peace and justice in the world.
Brothers and sisters, because of this promise of restoration, we have hope. And because of that hope, we care. And we seek to restore things that have been broken down by sin.
Let me illustrate how I see this happening today, as well as my hopes for the future. Think about the graffiti clean-up on April 12th that the city asked us to lead, where unbelievers labored beside us to beautify our city. Or think of the Mustard Seed that will enable us to sell goods that will enable villages to flourish thousands of miles away, as well as our own. And here is my dream for us—that this request for graffiti help ends up being the norm, and we are known as a church as a resource for serving people in our city, where we function as a type of clearinghouse to get people in mercy, justice, and service opportunities.
Third, let’s take conversation in culture. This is 1 Pet. 3:15 ministry. This is engaging culture. It commands: “…in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” This looks like relating to unbelievers in culture, making the gospel public for the sake of mission. This involves:
· Building relationships with people who don’t know Jesus, which assumes not just talking to people, but actually listening and taking an interest in their lives, and not just looking them as an evangelistic “prospect.”
· Talking about Jesus with people who don’t know Him, which includes not just living a certain way but actually verbally sharing His person and work, but doing it in a respectful, gentle manner.
· Answering objections about Christianity, doing “apologetics,” which means not just telling them what they should believe, but hearing their problems with our faith, even probing those further so they can see deficiencies in their worldviews.
· Understanding our world, doing cultural study, so we can know what people are thinking, what questions they are asking, and how we can best make points of connections, knowing literature, film, music, and current events.
· Hosting larger discussions that allow people we don’t know well to draw near to us, offering the Christian worldview as the best explanation of what’s wrong with the world and how it can be transformed by the gospel.
This is why, folks, we do Movies and MindMaps and Theology at the Forge. This is why we encourage one-on-one relationship building with people that don’t know Jesus.
But here’s what I think the Christian world gravitates to. It’s condemnation. Because of this musk-ox tendency, Christians can retreat, seeing the broader culture as the enemy toward which we must declare jihad, and from which we must defend ourselves. Because of this, we don’t or can’t build relationships. We don’t or can’t share Jesus. We have no opportunity to practice apologetics. We see it as below us to understand our missional context. We gain no hearing for people to discuss things with us. If we do anything, we sneak behind enemy lines, do some evangelistic battle, and then retreat to our Christian camps.
Well, here’s why I think the church does this. It’s a fear of letting a past era slip away. We now live in a pluralistic, postmodern world that is really post-Christian. We are beyond Christendom where people assumed Christian thoughts and did Christian behaviors. Evangelical Christianity looks at the past, longs for this golden age for which it must fight. And it looks to the future and sees nothing but doom and gloom without a successful holy war.
But again, folks, as God’s people, we must have concern and hope. We must look around us and not see enemies, but see people desperately needing to hear our message, people we love. We must have faith, believing that the gospel is the “power of God for salvation,” as Rom. 1:16 says.
We have to remember that the New Testament era was pluralistic and hostile, as well, and the gospel flourished. If we have concern, and we have hope, we will engage in conversations in our culture. And we’ll be characterized by love and not condemnation. The gospel, the story of Jesus’s death on the cross for sinners, will always be offensive to some, but if that truth is presented in love, God has and will use it greatly.
Let me show you what God is doing now and what I pray He does in the future. Consider Earth Day, where we had a table set up commending the Christian worldview as the best ground for environmental concern. Look at Movies and MindMaps where we have had people far from God show up and hear what we have to say. And think about events where people in our church gather in public places, like Buffalo Wild Wings or Flat Branch and talk about Jesus with people. Picture a day when we are recognized as a group of people that can be approached to talk about life’s problems and God’s solutions, and think of a day when we are leading these types of discussions in partnership with places like the RagTag theatre. This is happening elsewhere, and it can happen here.
Fourth, we must seek multiplication in culture. This is Mt. 28 ministry. Listen to what Jesus says there:
Matthew 28:18 And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
This looks like reaching unbelievers with the gospel, making disciples and planting churches, taking the gospel public on mission. This is the fruit of participation, restoration, and conversation. People come to Jesus. A lot of people want to have conversations today, but do we want to challenge someone to become a disciple? We’re not manipulating people into becoming Christians.
But those previous sides of the “square” aren’t meant to be ends in themselves either. This multiplication looks like:
· Making disciples, learners and followers of Jesus, who then go on this mission.
· Baptizing them in the name of the Triune God, showing their identification with Christ and His Church.
· Teaching them to understand and live out the teachings of the gospel in their daily lives.
· Building healthy, gospel-centered local churches, where worship and mission are meant to take place.
· Sending people to plant new churches and reform existing ones.
· Doing this here, as well as among the nations.
· In short, seeking to multiply disciples and multiply churches.
Karis, this is why we have interns now and desire to expand that further. This is why this fall, or when God supplies instructors, we will launch a training institute to equip and send out people on mission to our city, our state, and our world. But what the Christian world does, I’m convinced, is choose stagnation. It moves toward and seeks satisfaction in comfort. It gets stuck in maintenance mode. It turns its focus inward. It avoids participation, restoration, and conversation, and therefore sees no true multiplication.
Why does the church do this? I think it’s a fear of personal sacrifice. It wants a good Christian life with a good Christian wife and kids, and a house with a white picket fence. We want our needs met as individuals and consumers, but we don’t want to sacrifice for others in our church or others who don’t know Jesus. This is honestly, folks, reason enough to move to the Missouri Theatre. It shakes us up a bit. It creates a crisis that reminds us that it’s not all about us and our comfort. It keeps us from getting stagnant. It reminds us that it’s about seeing a city changed.
Now, again, to pursue multiplication, it takes concern and hope. We have to look around and see, as the statistics show, that the American church is dying. Even as we build new, huge churches, it’s while hundreds are closing each day. We have to care as we look around and see people who don’t know Jesus. The number of Christians and churches that are here to reach them are dwindling.
And we must have faith, truly believing what Christ said in Mt. 16:18, that He would build His church and the gates of hell couldn’t stop it. If we love those around us, and trust in our Lord, we’ll shake ourselves out of stagnation and pursue multiplication.
Let me tell you what God is doing and what I pray He does in the future. We have five among us going on a trip to Uganda in June to see the church strengthened and encouraged. I’m meeting every week with three interns, desiring to pour into them so that they can plant churches and do it one day with others. We have numerous people meeting one-on-one with others studying the implications of the gospel. We are hosting on June 5th an Acts 29 Quarterly here, which will serve to encourage church planting in our region. And, imagine a day in the not-too-distant future, when we send out 50 Karis people to start a new church on the north side of town. Think about the day when we send people like Jeremy and Jessie to another city to start another church. Imagine a time when we have 20 interns, all working in our church, all being trained in theology so that they can be church planters. And those same theology courses are being taken by laypeople in the workforce who want to grow in working Christianly there.
So there we have four aspects: participation, restoration, conversation, and multiplication. All are essential, friends. If we take one out, our square is lacking. And consider our two motivations for doing so. Let’s go back to Mt. 5:16. It reads, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Our primary motivation is that God receive glory. It’s love for Him. We seek to live in such a way that people see Him and give Him praise, and not us. But secondarily, we want people to see those “good works,” that “light.” It’s love for them. If we extend to them this loving grace of God, it will do much to cause confusion and break stereotypes.
They expect, after all, evacuation, abdication, condemnation, and stagnation from us. And that is rightly so, because that is by and large what we have pursued. We must repent before God for dishonoring Him, repent before our city for not loving them, and then labor to be on mission again.
And that orientation toward mission must pervade the life of our church. Again, our Sunday Gatherings and C-Groups and other events—the “pulpit” in our diagram—must be welcoming and open to unbelievers. We must open our homes up to people—through the “table”—who don’t know Jesus, sharing our meals and lives with them. We must be in the public square, letting our light shine, inviting people to join us in our homes and in our church.
And we must seek to do it here. As I’ve shared from the first day we arrived in Columbia, those churches that affirm the Bible and the gospel have largely departed from downtown and headed for the suburbs. Here, brothers and sisters, is where culture happens: where people hang out, where people make money, where people learn—in “The District.” And this is why I am so excited to have a more permanent, spacious home in the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts.
Let’s return to where we began. Will we be a musk-ox or a chameleon? Rather, let’s find a middle ground. Let us contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints, as Jude 1:3 says. And let’s contextualize it in the heart of our city. And, let’s do it without compromising either what we believe or how we live. Let’s, as His church, take the gospel, into our culture. Let’s not forget the culture and be fundamentalists or musk-oxen. Let’s not forget the gospel and be liberals or chameleons. Let us be His people with the Bible humbly in one hand and reaching out lovingly to culture in another in the heart of our beautiful city. Let’s take it to the square.