Vision For The New Millenium: Confronting The Culture
Joshua 4:1-8, 19-24
Out walking one day, Alfred Lord Tennyson, the poet, spotted General William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army. “General,” yelled Tennyson, “what is the news this morning?”
“The news, Sir?” replied Booth. “Well, the news is that Christ died for our sins and rose for our justification.” “Ah”, replied the poet, “that is old news, and new news, and good news!”
Let that percolate in your mind for a few moments while I read you some words written by Leonard Sweet in his new book, Soul Tsunami. “One creates the future by wrapping traditional functions into new delivery systems. The admixture of old-fashionedness with new-fangledness, the old and the yet to be born, is the only sure-fire recipe for stability and strength amid changing times. The church exists as a preservatory of the past as well as a laboratory for the future… To prepare for and lead the changes occurring in our society, the church grafts new ministries onto old roots. The church lives out of tradition, not on tradition. The church builds on tradition, it doesn’t live on tradition. Churches that live on tradition, die on tradition.”
Here at First Presbyterian, Orlando, as we cast our “Vision for the New Millennium”, we have a glorious heritage and tradition, but we are not living on that tradition- we are building on it!
Our pattern comes straight out of the Bible, from the Book of Joshua. When Joshua led the people of Israel across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land, the very first thing that he did was to set up a memorial, a reminder to the people of who they were and of whose they were. There were many things pressing in on the Israelites at that point. There were tough, tough days ahead. In order to take possession of the Promised Land, they were going to have to deal with the people and the culture already existent there. Joshua knew that in that land they would encounter opposition, both to their presence and to their faith. He knew that confronting that culture would not be easy, and that in time, the Israelites faith would waver, their determination would falter, their commitment would wane. Therefore, Joshua ordered the leaders of the people to take twelve large stones from the bottom of the Jordan River which they had just walked across dry shod because God had rolled back the waters before them. The twelve stones represented the twelve tribes of the people. Joshua built those stones into a memorial. Then he said to the people: “In times to come when your children ask ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall say, ‘On this day and in this place Israel crossed over the Jordan on dry ground into the promised land’, for then shall all people know that the hand of our God is mighty.’” You see, Joshua understood that to remember how the power of God had preserved them in the past would enable them to claim the land and change the culture in the future.
That strategy is as old as the Bible and as new as this morning’s newspaper. People today are having trouble making sense of their world. I grew up in a world where we taught children the values of the wider culture. Now we raise children in a world where we teach them how to not succumb to the values of the wider culture. It is not so much that people do not have principles anymore- it’s just that those principles too often have no moral form or base. America has become a nation which not only has lost its faith, but has lost its faith in itself. Consequently, discontent marks everyone and everywhere.
Here then is why I believe that we must build this church- build it strong and build it true. We must be able to give this culture the intellectual framework by which people can make sense of the world, and the spiritual scaffolding by which people can change the world. We must find new ways to deliver the old news of the Gospel so that it becomes new news and good news to the culture around us. What does that mean?
Some ministers and some churches in our day are saying that the best way for the church to address our culture is to conform to that culture.
In other words, identify with the world. Resemble the world. Adopt the world’s ways and values. Blend in. Accommodate. Just go along in order to get along. The idea is to settle for the standards of the world rather than to strive for the standards of Jesus Christ. Consequently, all too many churches in our culture are indistinguishable from one political party or the other and one social service agency or the other. Furthermore, all too many Christians in our culture have become “Christian chameleons”, simply adapting to and blending in with whatever circumstance or situation they encounter.
Bishop Arthur Moore used to tell about a young college student who became a Christian and joined the church. The next summer he was scheduled to work in a logging camp up in the northwest woods. His friends in the church were worried about this new Christian being exposed to the rough, tough, worldly life of the logging camp. When he returned at the end of the summer, his friends quizzed him: “Did you make it all right? Did the lumberjacks make life rough for you because or your faith?” The young man replied: “Gosh no, I made it fine. No problem. They never even found out that I was a Christian!” They never even found out.
Now contrast that young man’s experience with that of another young Christian named “Jim.” His story is told in an advertisement which appeared in a number of national magazines not too long ago. The ad pictured this young man, Jim, with a six-day growth of beard, his shirt ripped and hanging open, a canteen on his belt. He had his pants rolled up above his knees and he was wading across a swirling, muddy jungle river. Just beneath the picture in large print were these words: “Jim was voted ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ at his school, but look at him now.”
Farther down the page in slightly smaller print were these words: “Too bad. Jim had it made. Personality, initiative, college degree with honors- all of that was his. Success and the good life were his for the asking. Now look at him: backpacking across some jungle river, giving his life to a bunch of pre-literate people barely out of the Stone Age, working night and day translating the pages of the New Testament into obscure languages, exposing the senselessness of superstition and ignorance, relieving pain and introducing the possibility of help, building a bridge of love to a neglected people—and to think Jim could have been a success.” Then right across the bottom of the page in even smaller print were these gripping words: “If you’re interested in Jim’s kind of success, contact the Wycliffe Bible Translators.”
My friends, what we are building here in this mission station at the heart of this city is a place where men and women and young people and children can learn not only what it means to be a Christian, but also how to live as a Christian out there in the world. We are creating new ways to make the old news of the Gospel into new news and good news for a culture choking to death on bad news.
And that is why this minister and this church are saying that the best way for the church to address our culture is to confront that culture with Jesus Christ.
We are called to change the culture, not surrender to it. We are called to transform the culture, not conform to it. That’s what Jesus came into the world to do- to redeem us and to redeem the world- and He calls us to join Him in that redeeming work. That call is clear and unmistakable.
So many times I hear people say: “Charity begins at home.” Isn’t that nice? But, you know, I’ve looked in the Bible and I can’t find that in the Bible. What I find in the Bible is Jesus saying: “Go into all the world and proclaim the Good News to the whole creation.” Today I hear people say: “Brighten the corner where you live.” That’s sweet, isn’t it? But you know, I’ve looked in my Bible and I can’t find that in the Bible. What I find in the Bible is Jesus saying: “As the Father has sent me into the world, so I send you into the world.” Today I hear people say: “Bloom where you are planted.” Lovely, don’t you think? Problem is, I’ve looked in the Bible and I can’t find that in the Bible. What I find in the Bible is Jesus saying: “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…” Yes, that’s our call- to confront this culture with the reality of Jesus Christ and to win that culture to Him.
Pope John XXIII was a short, rotund little man, rather homely actually, with big ears and a big nose. He had a gravelly voice and he walked as if his feet hurt. There was nothing about him that gave him the aura of greatness. But he was great- and he was great because his heart was great. And while his papacy lasted only a short while, he so profoundly impacted the world’s culture that subsequent popes have all built upon the foundations he laid. There is a memorial to Pope John XXIII in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It is unusual in its appearance but it is unforgettable in its impact. There stands in the basilica a great block of solid steel. Wide. Thick. High. Carved into the bottom of that block of steel is all of the ugliness and the hurt of this world of ours- dying children, bodies with bayonets in them, barbed wire, grasping hands, broken buildings, sickness and torment, abuse and addiction, it’s all there- anything in the world that is ugly and broken and hateful and hurtful. And the steel makes it seem so hard and cold. But then, rising up out of one side of this obelisk of steel and stretching out over all of this hurt and brokenness, there is the figure of Pope John, bending down with arms extended, ready to pick it all up and to pull it to his heart and to soften and to change it there.
If you take us as individuals, there is not much about us that smacks of the greatness of God. However, when you put us all together in this church and when we commit ourselves to give what we are and what we have to the work of this church, then we can pull all of the ugliness and brokenness, all of the hurtfulness and emptiness of the people and the culture around us- we can pull it to our hearts and there it can be softened and healed and changed by our Jesus.
You see, I want future generations to look back at us and say: “There was a church which dared to stand for Jesus Christ in a difficult time. As the culture around them surrendered to the innocuous yet insidious claims of secularism, they dared to confront people with the Good News of Jesus Christ without apology. When values and morals were being eroded, they dared to stand firm on the joyous, freeing, uplifting law of God. When the sanctity of the home was under threat, they undergirded the family and gave new hope to the youth. When little children were being neglected or led astray, they dared to love them with openness and joy and ultimate sincerity. When single persons were being tempted or tormented by loneliness, they dared to welcome them with love and flood them with hope. When racism infected human relationships, they dared to stand for the worth, value and dignity of all God’s created children. When the church of Jesus Christ was in decline all over America, they dared to be and to do something different in the heart of the city of Orlando- and to do it all to the glory of Jesus Christ.
May it be so.
Great God, may it be so.