A Provocative Church: Focused On The Truth
(Graham Tomlin, in his book, The Provocative Church, calls upon churches to become what he calls provocative, arresting places that draw people to them, and consequently, to our Christ. Quite clearly, I believe, a provocative church ought to be focused on the truth.)
I love the story about the little boy in the third grade whose teacher asked him to write a paragraph about his family as a homework assignment. At a loss as to how to begin, he put down his pencil and went to find his mother who was in the kitchen fixing supper. Without warning he said: “Mom, how was I born?” His mother knew that sooner or later she was going to have to deal with the question of human reproduction, but while she was cooking dinner didn’t seem to be the best time. So she put him off with the old saw: “The stork brought you.” The boy nodded and moved on to the living room where his grandmother was knitting. Again, without warning, he asked: “Grandma, how was my mother born?” This dear lady, being a product of the Victorian era, was not about to tackle that one, so she casually said: “The stork brought your mother.” But the boy persisted: “Well, then, Grandma, how were you born?” And she replied: “The stork brought me too.” He thanked her, returned to his desk, picked up his pencil, and wrote: “There hasn’t been a normal birth in my family for three generations.”
Of course, the problem there was that everybody knew the truth, but they were reluctant to speak it. That was also the problem in the church at Pergamum. We know about the church at Pergamum because of the tough words Jesus delivered to that church in the Book of Revelation. The city of Pergamum was built on a 1000-foot high cliff that jutted out into a vast valley. It had a commanding view of the entire region. In fact, that is why the city was named Pergamum. It means “fortress” or “citadel”. So Pergamum was a city of military importance. It was also a city which played host to a whole smorgasbord of pagan religions. There was a lot of religion in Pergamum, but it had very little power of the life of the city and its people. Jesus went so far as to declare that Pergamum was where the throne of Satan was located. The problem with the church at Pergamum was both external and internal. Externally, the Christians at Pergamum became so tolerant and compliant, so permissive and lax, so closely identified with the society around them that they could not be effective as servants of Christ. Internally, they had people in the church—Jesus refers to them as Balaamites and Nicolaitans—people who were bent on watering down the Gospel message and who were determined to sow seeds of division in the church, rendering that church’s witness null and void. Jesus says of them: “Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and make war against them with the sword of my mouth.” Tough words we do well to hear.
So here we stand at the heart of a great city, surrounded by everything the world can conceive, challenged by the world of commerce and entertainment, confronted by people who have lost their way in life and are willing to believe whatever is fashionable. And here we stand with nothing to sell but everything to offer. Therefore, we must maintain our integrity and withstand any attacks upon that integrity at all costs. We must demonstrate such a pure, clear, quality of life that people can look at us and see not us, but our glorious Christ. We must be committed to speak and to live the truth of Jesus Christ. What does it mean then for us to be focused on that truth?
I think it means that we are called to serve Christ right where we are.
William Barclay writes: “Here is something very important. The principle of the Christian life is not escape, but conquest. It may be that we often feel that it would be very much easier to be a Christian in some other place and in some other circumstances, amongst people who are more sympathetic and in a circle where witness is easier; but the duty of the Christian is not to run away, but to witness for Christ where life has set him.” Amen.
Every day when I step from my car onto this property, I am aware of towering buildings, reflecting glass, bright colors, noisy traffic, bustling people. And as I look out upon this city with all its triumph and its tragedy, I say: “This is my parish.” Oh, some days I wish it were not. There are times when I long for a more leisurely life. There are times when I yearn for a less pressurized ministry. However, I cannot evade the fact that God has called me to serve Him right here. It is to this place and to this time that he has called me. I have a mandate from Him and I yield to no other authority. But I have to keep reminding myself of that because all of us are tempted, are we not, to want to serve Christ in any number of ways and in any number of places, except the place where He has placed us.
You may remember the story of the Scotsman who was taking a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. As he prepared to leave, he said to his preacher: “Preacher, I’m so excited about going to the Holy Land that when I get there I’m going to climb to the top of Mt. Sinai and read aloud the Ten Commandments.” Whereupon the preacher replied: “Angus, my friend, take my advice. Stay home and keep them.” Well, I think that is what Jesus is telling us to do. He is telling us to stay right where we are and to work for the truth of Jesus Christ where he has placed us.
Then I think being focused on the truth means that we are to share Christ without apology.
Let me be clear at this point. Jesus, in this message to the church at Pergamum, speaks openly about the power of Satan, and He makes it plain that Satan is at work, both in that city and in that church. I think we need to hear that. I know that some Christians are embarrassed by talk about Satan, conjuring up the juvenile idea of a fiend dressed in red with a pitchfork, and declaring that such an image is out of sync with these intellectually enlightened times. Of course, that in itself is an evidence of Satan at work—Satan always tries to convince us that he doesn’t exist. But I believe that Satan exists because Jesus believed it. And my Savior’s belief is good enough for me. And Satan is out to win the world, and failing that, create as much hardship and heartache as he can. That is a fact that we dare not be naive about. You remember how Paul warned us that as Christians that “we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of this present darkness.” If you write Satan off as a harmless myth, then you do not take seriously the evil that exists in this world. And unless evil is attacked, it will prevail.
However, the Good News is that because of Jesus Christ’s victory on Calvary’s cross, Satan, in the ultimate sense, has been defeated. The war has been won. God has triumphed. Yet Satan, like a mortally wounded animal who fights, claws and scratches until death at last overtakes it, Satan continues to wreak havoc in the world, in the church, and in our lives. That is why Jesus Christ calls us as His church not to avoid the evils of this world, but to plunge right into the midst of the world’s darkness to bring the light of Jesus Christ, because the darkness of evil cannot overcome His light. Like the Christians at Pergamum, we dwell where Satan’s throne is, and therefore, we must bear witness to the truth of Jesus Christ without shame or apology. We need to hear that because I fear that we have been too willing to tone down the truth and to rationalize away the Commandments of God. People can talk all they want about the new morality and the new standards in our time, but the fact is that the Ten Commandments have not been repealed.
I need to hear that because I regularly confront the temptation to preach an easy, comfortable Gospel, when in fact, I’m called to preach the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God. And you need to hear that, too. The pressure to conform in this world is terribly intense. Don’t succumb to it. You have the truth of Jesus Christ, and you are called to bear witness to it. Please do not downplay your Christianity in circles where Christianity may be met with discomfort, or contempt, or indifference, or ridicule, or opposition. Don’t ever forget in your daily life to speak the truth of Jesus Christ without shame or apology. For remember, with Jesus Christ, you are fighting on the winning side.
In the early days of the church, a young Christian was arrested for speaking the truth about Christ. He was shown the executioner’s sword and told that unless he renounced his loyalty to Christ he would be beheaded on the spot. He turned to his adversaries and said: “You can take my head from my shoulders, but you will never take my heart from my King.” Think what would happen if we had that kind of courageous, uncompromising commitment to Jesus Christ in our lives. My beloved people, I plead with you:
Don’t ever forget to speak and to live the truth of Jesus Christ in your life. Don’t ever let anyone or anything take your heart from the King.