Pastoral Relief and Retreat

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Wethersfield, CT, United States
I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Lord's Day Message: Where We Proclaim

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
1  This is what the LORD says: “Maintain justice and do what is right, 
for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed.  
6  And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant— 7  these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. 
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” 
8  The Sovereign LORD declares— he who gathers the exiles of Israel:  “I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.”

Proclaiming Christ is proclaiming what has already been done. 

We’re in the middle of our series on Proclamation, and we’ve been asking the six so-called “reporter’s questions.”  So far we’ve asked who we proclaim and discovered that all proclamation, all good preaching begins with God in his self-existence and his sovereignty.  We must never make the mistake of beginning by asking “what must I do for God?”  Rather, we must always begin by looking at what God has already done and who he already is.  That’s why the Bible begins with the words, “In the beginning, God.” 

Next we asked what it is that prepares us to proclaim.  Think about it.  You and I have been given this profound opportunity.  We’re the ones who have been entrusted with the message of Christ.  So many Christians, it seems, look at the offer God has given us to be his ambassadors and we go back and turn the first question around, as if our telling people about Jesus would somehow placate God.   Preach Christ and God will be happy with you.   But God is already happy with you.  He thought you up and then put flesh to bone and brought you to life.  And when you and I rejected his greatest gift, his own presence with us, he held out his hand patiently to us day after day until we came to him in our utter need.  What prepares us to proclaim is not a class.  It is our complete bankruptcy before God. 

Last week we looked at how we proclaim Christ and concluded that Jesus must occupy every corner of our life and that we are not fully converted until we proclaim Christ in every way, with every ounce of our being.  The hand he holds out to us wants to grasp heart and head and voice and hand until in every way Christ is proclaimed, and in that we rejoice.

The reporter’s questions: who, what, and how… And now we have to ask the question, “Where do we proclaim Christ?”  In Isaiah 56, God has provided a startling answer; one that every church that seriously wants to walk with the Lord has to come to grips with, and especially a church in transition.  Where do we proclaim Christ? 

Look around you.  Go ahead.  Look up at the ceiling.  Look at the walls.  Take a good look at the windows.  Look up here at the platform.  Look behind you, if you’re flexible enough to turn around.  Give the place a good once over.   Where do we proclaim Christ?  It isn’t a trick question.  Where do we proclaim Christ?  The obvious, and as I said, startling answer is… right here… in this room. 

Why should that answer be startling to you?  Because for the past hundred years, at least, Christian preachers of every stripe have cajoled, pushed, ooged, urged, and even guilted their people to try and get them to believe that the chief place where they are called to proclaim Christ is out there, and that this was a place for the saved to gather after they had done spiritual battle out in the world.  Here was the safe place of retreat where we could encourage one another with out tales from the mission field, where we could build one another up for the next battle, and where we could find others who, like us, were wearied from raising the banner of Christ and having it shot at by everyone from governors to janitors. 

But Isaiah 56 talks about three realities; three truths about where we proclaim Christ that we must understand if we are to be an authentic church of Jesus Christ and not just another whitewashed tomb.  Let’s look at them.

Isaiah 56, verse 1.  This is what the LORD says: “Maintain justice and do what is right, 
for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed.   The first reality is this: God has already done Justice. 

Is that true?  CAN that be true?  Look around you in the world.  Just in the past few weeks we heard about an 11 year old murdered in a small town in Northern New Hampshire, we heard fresh accusations of sexual misconduct by clergy, about a mother who killed her five year old son, about violence on the streets of London.  We also hear daily about war in Afghanistan and Iraq, about dictators doing unspeakable things to their own people just to hang onto power.  Here in America people are losing their homes to foreclosure in record numbers, not because they were irresponsible, but because bankers and politicians were greedy.  Can it possibly be a reality that God has already done justice?

But look at what verse one actually says, “Maintain justice and do what is right.”  He doesn’t say, “seek justice.”  He says, “maintain justice.”  And you can’t maintain something that isn’t already present.  So here’s Reality #1: God has already done Justice.  We have to wreck the justice he has already done or it will come to pass.   In Jesus Christ, God brought about perfect justice for every man, woman, and child who ever walked the planet.  That’s what John 3:16 means when it says, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” 

God has already done justice.  And he has held out the offer of justice to ALL.  And he has entrusted to the church, to those of us who sit inside these four walls the honor of proclaiming the justice Jesus brought about on the Cross to all the world.  More than that, he has given to the Church the intolerable honor of being the only ones who can maintain that justice.  When we proclaim Christ with heart and mind and voice and hand we are in the world to maintain something which has already been accomplished.  The extent to which we are not thoroughly converted in heart and mind and voice and hand is the extent to which we will fail to maintain the justice that God has already brought about in the world.   

Notice that he doesn’t merely say “maintain justice.”  That would be honor enough.  He couples it with, “and do what is right.”  We not only get the privilege of announcing the ultimate justice; we also get the blessing of bringing about justice of our own.   Psalm 34:4 says, “Seek peace AND pursue it.”  It isn’t enough that we tell the world about the Prince of Peace.  We must be people who pursue peace ourselves for its own sake.  It isn’t enough that we tell the world about Jesus.  We must show the world the Jesus who does justice, by doing justice ourselves. 

If you and I bring about justice out there, they will follow us when we come in here.  So much effort has been expended by the church in the last couple of centuries as it has tried to find some gimmick, some hook; something the church can use to draw people in.   Justice is maintained where righteousness is revealed.  If you are wondering where all the people have gone, ask yourself the question, “Have we been a church where righteousness is revealed?”  Ask yourself the question, “Are we a people who spend ourselves bringing about justice?” 

Reality 2: God has already brought the nations to his door.  We have to make it hard for them or they will come.

Verse 6 and the first half of verse 7 says, “And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer.” 

You know, one of the funniest things about the church is our pathological need to make sure that everyone in here knows the rules.  That’s one of the ways we end up  keeping people out of the church.  Do you know how hard it is for someone who has never been in a Congregational Church to go to one?  We think we’re a pretty friendly bunch.  But if the person who comes to our door happens to be a Catholic or a Lutheran or an Episcopalian, or even a Baptist of a certain type, they’re going to have a really hard time figuring out how we do things here.   How much harder do you think it would be for a person who had never been part of a church of any kind before?

C.S. Lewis puts it this way in his wonderful little book, The Screwtape Letters, when he imagines what it is like for a man the first time he shows up in a Christian church:

“When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print.  When he gets to his pew and looks around him he sees just that selection of his neighbors whom he has hitherto avoided.  His mind flits to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew.  It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains.   Provided that any of those neighbors sings out of tune, or has boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, he will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.”  

That’s what Isaiah means when he talks about the foreigner who binds himself to the Lord.  When you think of it, it is a wonder that any of us is here, because we were all foreigners at some point.   Our judgments of one another and the judgments we make of those who have not yet learned the rules are not good.  We say we want sinners here, but we don’t want people here who are certain kinds of sinners.  We say the Church is a safe place, and yet if someone comes up with an idea that is too far out of the box, we make sure they understand that’s not the way we do things.  No wonder churches have trouble getting people to volunteer to help out.  Most of us have learned that critique swiftly follows our offer to do a job in the church.   

But look at what God asks of foreigners who want to bind themselves to him.   God has a simple four point plan for bringing people into relationship with him. 

At the top of the list is, “Love the name of the Lord,” 

Next comes “serve him.”

Only after that does he get to anything like a rule, when he says “keep the Sabbath” – and that’s only good for us.  By the way, when he says “keep the Sabbath, he’s not talking about going to church.  He’s talking about observing one day of rest each week.  We’re the ones who have reduced Sabbath keeping to an hour on Sunday morning.  

Finally, at the bottom of the list he says, “hold fast to the covenant.”  Remember what Moses said at the end of his life about the covenant?  We quoted it last week.  It is in Deuteronomy 30:11-14 “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off.  It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’  Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”

God’s plan for bringing people to himself is simple, it is elegant, it is based in love and grounded by service.  It offers us rest and doesn’t ask us to forever be inventing a new program, and it calls us into a covenantal relationship with God and with one another to do those first three things.

Do you know what God says happens when people come to him on that basis?  He says it in verse 7.  These I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer.  Joy.  JOY. 

If you have been wondering where all the people have gone who once were an active part of this church, ask yourself the question, “Are we a church whose program is calling people to love and serve the Lord?  Are we a church that offers people rest when they are here?  The purpose of a Covenant is to seal an agreement between two or more parties.  Are we a church where joy is sealed?”  Ask yourself the question, “Are we a people who are joyful in the house of prayer?” 

The first reality is that God has already done justice.  The second reality is that God has already brought the nations to his door.   If churches aren’t seeing justice done in the world around them; if churches don’t see that people are dying to come and be part of what’s going on here, it isn’t because people have changed and it isn’t because God hasn’t done what he said.  If we don’t see these realities it is because something has gone terribly wrong with the Church, and we have turned our attention inward.  Churches that come to that point always end up spending all their energy on how to stop the bleeding.   They are bleeding people and resources because they have taken their eyes off of the God who made the building and have focused on the building itself.  They have taken their eyes off the God who made the Church and focused on how to keep the church together. 

Now, there’s a third reality, and it is designed specifically to snap the Church out of that kind of thinking.  Let’s pick up the text in the second half of verse seven.  God is talking about the foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord, and he says, “Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” 
The Sovereign LORD declares— he who gathers the exiles of Israel:  “I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.”

When the first Christians met for worship and to celebrate Communion, they met in the round, with the table in the center.  It was a simple dining table, and the elements were on the table unadorned, on whatever kind of plate the people had at hand and with whatever kind of cup was available.  Taking their cue from the Passover Seder, they drank common table wine with some sort of unleavened bread.  The altar was open to all because everyone was a foreigner and the whole thing was new and no one was concerned about the theology of what was happening.  They were simply overjoyed to be in fellowship with one another and with the Lord. 

It didn’t take too long though, before there were too many people at the table.  They couldn’t comfortably celebrate the meal in the round, so they pushed the table to one end of the room and did it that way, with the people standing facing the table and the leader on the other side of the table from them.  The deacons stood to the sides and helped the people come to the table in an orderly way.  They soon realized that it would go more quickly if there was more than one plate, and the deacons began to serve the elements to the people. 
Then a question began to form in some people’s minds.  Who should be admitted to the table?  If this was in fact the body and blood of Christ, then those who didn’t know the Lord yet would be profaning the table by participating.  So they separated the preaching service from the table service.  Preaching and education were for all, the table was only for believers. 

As the church began to build buildings specifically for worship, they raised the altar so people could see better.  But with the number of people who were coming, they were concerned that some of the elements might fall on the floor and be trampled under foot.  So they stopped passing the elements to the people altogether and erected tall iron bars and gates between the altar and the people. 

Think about it.  Was this what Jesus was thinking when he broke the bread in the upper room and said, “Take.  Eat.  This is my body which is for you?” 

Reality #3: God has already opened the altar to all.  We have to wall it off or they will offer their sacrifices there, and most of the time they won’t have a clue what it is that they are doing.  And that needs to be okay because we were once exiles too.  

What does Paul say in Ephesians 2?  “Through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”

We must maintain access to the altar for ALL because it is a reality.  God has already granted access to all, why should be wall it off?  You see, Access is maintained where exiles are healed.  Who do we proclaim?  We proclaim the God who IS, sovereign, holy, glorious.  What makes us fit to proclaim?  Our poverty, our need, our brokenness.  How do we proclaim Christ?   In every way.  Where do we proclaim Christ?  We proclaim Christ when we call the nations, strangers, exiles like we once were, and gather the nations before the altar that they may hear and know the God who IS, sovereign, holy, glorious and that they may discover their poverty and learn to proclaim Christ in every way.


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