The following is a sermon which I’ve preached in many churches. I turned it into this article for the Spring, 2021 edition of Revitalizer magazine.
Like most couples who’ve been married for a long time, Donna and I are very much alike in some ways and yet still very different in other ways. On our days off we typically go exploring our area. Since we move so often, it seems that we always have new territory to explore, and we both love this.
But the two of us have very different comfort levels with regard to “exploration.” My wife takes “no trespassing” signs literally, but when I see something interesting around the next curve, like an old truck or the rusting hulk of a boat, I just have to go see it. For me, a “no trespassing” sign is an exciting nvitation to a new adventure!
I guess you could say that I love the exhilaration of going places where at least somebody doesn’t want me to go, and that’s why I find our text for this morning so exciting.
I’d like to show you what I mean from Matthew 16.
Here’s the context of our passage. Jesus has taken his disciples “up north” to get away from the crowds. At one point he gets them aside and turns to them and asks, (I’m paraphrasing vs. 13), “What’s the word on the street? Who are people saying that I am?” Jesus’ disciples repeated the varied answers that they’d been hearing.
At that point Jesus asked, very pointedly, “But how about you? Who do you say that I am?” The Apostle Peter answered (of course!) and for once he didn’t put his foot in his mouth. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” he confessed.
Jesus loved this answer! In verse 17 we learn that he responded with, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
Jesus went on to tell his disciples that he was giving them the keys to the kingdom of heaven, which probably means that through the preaching of the good news of forgiveness through Jesus, their hearers would be able to believe and enter God’s kingdom.
There are issues in this wonderful passage that we can’t dive into this morning, but I’d like to focus on the central promise of the passage: “I will build my church,” Jesus proclaimed, “and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” You’ve heard of the great commission and perhaps the great companion, but I like to call these words the great prediction.
Jesus is depicting his church, his followers, his devotees as a band of brothers: a life-giving military force which will not fail. This band of brothers will do some holy trespassing, storming the gates of hades and by proclaiming the gospel, they will rescue men and women and children who are trapped in the Devil’s kingdom of darkness. Those who believe will be set free and enter Jesus’ wonderful kingdom of light.
“My followers will storm the gates,” Jesus promised, “and I will build my Church in the process!”
I love this way of thinking of the church in motion! It’s martial, it’s aggressive, it’s violent, it’s (let’s face it) very male! It drips with holy testosterone, doesn’t it? Men need a mission. If you’re here and you don’t have one yet, you can’t do better than this. Get into Jesus’ army and spend the rest of your life storming the gates of hades!
There’s no question that the church is supposed to be “in motion,” at all times and in all places. We are supposed to be moving onward and outward in love, toward unbelievers, seeking to bring them to Christ. There is no place in Jesus’ thinking for an inward focused, passionless church.
However, this violent, aggressive picture of the church in motion doesn’t appeal to everyone. It “turns my crank” but it doesn’t do anything for my non-trespassing wife. So I’ve searched the Bible for a few other pictures of the church in motion and I pray that as I share these pictures, one of them will capture your heart and imagination. It’s even possible that one of these pictures might be adopted by your church as a picture of the kind of church in motion which you believe God wants you to become.
This may sound contemporary, but it’s actually a Biblical picture, for the concept of adoption is one of the motifs by which God chooses to help us understand our salvation. Look at Ephesians 1:5: “…He predestined us to be adopted as His sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will.”
Here’s the way King David put it, 3,000 years ago, in Psalm 68: “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in His holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families.”
Here’s an awesome truth: God knew how sinful I would be. He knew that I would have more rough edges than a moon rock and yet He chose to adopt me into His forever family. Amazing!
Here’s a beautiful trend in the Church today: families adopting special needs children, from all over the world. Have you noticed? It’s a glorious sight to look out and see children of every color with every sort of disability, adopted by people who love them just like they love their biological children.
It’s actually a beautiful picture of the church in motion. We can go and find unlovely, unloved, lonely, unwanted people and tell them about Jesus’ love and Jesus’ wonderful family.
I’m thinking of a church which has drafted, as their mission statement, “Bringing the lost and lonely into community.” Beautiful!
So don’t think of your lost co-workers and neighbors as ugly and deformed individuals who are enemies of God’s people. Think of them as hurting victims of the Evil One, in need of adoption by a loving God.
There’s no question that the church should always be in motion, moving towards lost people in love. So far we’ve looked at two pictures of the church in motion: it’s like a band of brothers storming the gates of hades and it’s like a loving family adopting special needs children. But here’s a third picture of the church in motion.
We tend to think of shepherds as working alone and as men, but in truth, Bible-era shepherds more often worked in teams and consisted of women as well as men.
Male or female, a team of shepherds rescuing lost sheep is a compassionate and exciting picture of the church in motion. Look at what it says regarding Jesus in Matthew 9:36: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
We know of course that people are “sheep without a shepherd” because we are (as in Isaiah 53) sheep who have gone astray. It’s our fault that we are sheep without a shepherd. We are guilty as can be and yet, God loves us and cares about the pain we suffer from our self-inflicted injuries.
In Matthew 18 we hear Jesus say that “…If a man owns a hundred sheep and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go and look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about the one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.”
Interestingly enough, the average church in America has about one hundred people. We love our churches and we should, for when we are with our churches we are “home,” we are comfortable, we are welcomed. It becomes so easy to just hang out with the ninety-nine, night after night and never go after the lost.
Oftentimes we think we’ve done our evangelistic duty if we have a sign out front or put up a nice web site. “If lost people want to be saved, they can come in here anytime they want” we tell ourselves. But people are strayers, not seekers. They don’t walk into churches on their own very often. We have to go after them.
And they’re often found in nasty places, doing nasty things. Sometimes they don’t smell very good either!
But what a joy it is to work together as a team of shepherds going after lost sheep, bringing them to the Great Shepherd and into a loving flock!
So don’t look upon your neighbors or coworkers as people who “ought to come to church.” Look upon them as lost sheep whom we ought to go after, in love.
There’s no question that the church should always be in motion, moving towards lost people in love. So far we’ve looked at three pictures of the church in motion: it’s like a band of brothers storming the gates of hades, it’s like a loving family adopting special needs children and it’s like a team of shepherds rescuing lost sheep. Here’s a fourth picture of the church in motion.
I love this picture of the church in motion! While this one is not in the Bible, we know that Jesus loves parables so I’m sure that he loves this story.
The basic narrative here is found in the famous article, “The parable of the lifesaving station” by Theodore Wedel. The story begins with the fact that before the founding of the US Coast Guard, the shorelines of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Great Lakes were dotted with lifesaving stations.
They operated very much like volunteer fire departments. Hardy young men served as members. When a lighthouse keeper or a citizen saw that a ship was foundering offshore, a phone chain (like a prayer chain) was used to alert the members. (Picture the old crank- operated phone on the kitchen wall.) The guys would rush down to the boathouse at the lifesaving station, jump into their gear and get ready to head out into a raging storm, in their twenty-five to thirty foot boats! Crazy, but courageous!
I had the privilege of standing in one of these crude boat houses on the shore of Lake Superior, gazing in wonder at the old boat – which I think we’d classify as a “launch” – imagining the scene: Everybody piled into the boat. Somebody started up the crude little gas engine located “midships,” in the center of the boat. Another brave lad opened the doors, facing the deadly lake. Somebody else pulled a lever which allowed the boat to slide down a sort of railroad track and plop into the water.
These incredibly brave young men would rescue as many people as they possibly could and then dry off and warm up with them in a simple little warming house.
In the parable however, the young men turned into middle-aged men: older, colder and less adventurous than they were. As their bodies deteriorated, their warming house improved. I suspect that their wives got involved, adding central heating, carpets, handsome furniture and “window treatments! As the years went by, the station members spent more and more time in the warming house and less and less time rescuing sailors. There came a day when they no longer ventured out into the lake at all.
Eventually, a new group of hardy young men started a new life saving station just up the coast. In time however, the cycle repeated itself, until eventually, the lakeshore had many lifesaving stations, though only the newest one was rescuing anyone from the waves.
The parallel to churches is pretty clear, isn’t it? Many towns – even small ones – have many, many churches and yet, only the newest one is actually bringing anyone to faith in Christ. Have you seen this?
Interestingly enough, some church health experts have observed that most churches move all the way through the organizational lifecycle in about thirty years. In other words, in three decades they’re pretty much good for nothing. Some experts believe that we should just discard them, replacing them with new churches.
I see it differently. I believe it’s much more glorifying to God if we revive them instead of replacing them and I know that God has unlimited power to revive and transform even the most stagnant congregations!
Church consultant Bill Easum puts it simply and bluntly with what he calls “the basic law of congregational life,” which says that “Churches grow when they intentionally reach out to people instead of concentrating on their own internal needs. Churches die when they concentrate on their own needs.”
Churches are greatly helped by regularly asking themselves: “What is our church for?” “Who is our church for?” “Are we trying to be the best church in the community or the best church for our community?” “Is our church in motion or are we stuck in the warming house?”
There’s no question that the church should always be in motion, moving towards lost people in love. We’ve looked at four pictures: it’s like a band of brothers storming the gates of hades, it’s like a loving family adopting special needs children, it’s like a team of shepherds rescuing lost sheep and it’s like a lifesaving station rescuing the perishing. Here’s a final picture of the church in motion. This one has become my favorite.
Being “in love” is a remarkable thing isn’t it? Take the fifteen year old boy who has never willingly taken a shower in his life. He’s not usually very polite to anyone and he’s never been very generous either. (If you’re a fifteen-year old boy, you’re welcome to beat me up after the service!)
All of a sudden his parents notice that he’s bathing, voluntarily. They hear him speaking sweetly, gently and politely to someone on the phone. Then he starts spending his money on gifts; exorbitant gifts! It looks mighty suspicious, and sure enough, it turns out that he’s in love. Being “in love” is a remarkable thing isn’t it?
Now let’s talk about our missionaries for a moment. We honor them for their service and well we should. They are normal people but they do remarkable things. They give up nice homes, good jobs, late-model cars and family relationships. At great personal expense they cross oceans, learn new languages and take up residence in some not very nice places. They also learn new musical styles and even dress differently for the sake of people who do not even appreciate them. This is amazing, isn’t it?
Our missionaries, of course, are following the example of the Apostle Paul, who adapted himself to an extraordinary degree in order to win lost people. In I Corinthians 9 he said that he made himself “a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” In other words, he’d do anything except sin to win lost people to Christ.
For his part, Paul would tell you that he was simply following the example of Jesus himself. The Son of God gave up the wonders of heaven. He gave up, the theologians say, “the independent exercise of his Divine attributes” (His powers and privileges as God), to come down here. He left his glory, his glorious appearance as the Son of God, up there. He became, in fact, in our medical terminology, a zygote or conceptus (a human being at the one cell stage), then a morula, then a blastula, then a fetus and finally an infant. He was raised in poverty and obscurity and he did it all so that he could take our sins upon himself and die a horrible death in our place.
Missionaries adapt themselves to an extraordinary degree. Paul adapted himself to an extraordinary degree. But no one in history has ever adapted himself in love to win lost people like Jesus did!
Think again about our missionaries. The couple comes home to visit their supporting churches. They give an update on their work with – it used to be slides and now it’s more likely a video. We watch the video and secretly pray, “God, thank you for the Swansons, but please don’t send me over there!”
After the service you approach one of the Swansons and express your admiration. You mention that it must be great to be “home” and that you would think that it’s going to be hard to go back. To your amazement your missionary friend disagrees. With some hesitation he admits that it’s hard to be back in the US and actually, he can’t wait to get back there with “his people.” You are astonished!
So what has happened here? More than likely, what happened is that your missionary friend, by giving up so much, by pouring himself into his work, by getting to know the people he’s trying to reach and adapting himself to them to an extraordinary degree, has fallen in love! His ministry has become – almost – easy, because he is “smitten” with the people he is seeking to win. Didn’t Jesus say that where your treasure is, there your heart will be also?
Isn’t this the way it is with our children? For two years we had a stinky, messy little foster baby in our home. We got him as a five pound “preemie” right from the hospital intensive care unit, but eventually had to give him back to a seriously dysfunctional family. Towards the end of that time a big hit on the radio was “How am I supposed to live without you?” Every night, getting our little guy ready for bed, I would sing, with tears in my eyes, “How am I supposed to live without you, after I’ve been changing you so long?” We had fallen deeply in love with that child!
Here’s what I’m saying about our churches. If we will act like missionaries – thinking of our churches as mission stations on the mission field – if we will give ourselves in love to the messy, lost people of our communities, if we will adapt ourselves like Jesus and Paul and our missionaries, we will fall in love with our own communities and that love will make it easy to give ourselves away, year after year.
I love these pictures because there’s no question that the Church should always be in motion, moving towards lost people in love. We’ve looked at five pictures of the church in motion: it’s like a band of brothers storming the gates of hades, it’s like a loving family adopting special needs children, it’s like a team of shepherds rescuing lost sheep, it’s like a lifesaving station rescuing the perishing and it’s like a team of missionaries in love with their community.
Has one of these pictures grabbed your heart and imagination? Could one of these pictures become a vision of a better future for your church?
Here’s the bonus; here’s the reward from God. The churches that are truly in motion, moving towards the non-Christians of their communities in love, are the congregations which are having all the fun. They not asking for “fellowship activities,” because they’re enjoying sweet fellowship by working together to win the lost. There is great, great joy in being that band of brothers, that loving family, that team of shepherds, that lifesaving station crew or those love-struck missionaries.
So here’s what I’d ask you to pray about right now:
- Does God want me to adopt as my own, one of these five pictures?
- Who does God want me to deliberately go to?
- Am I encouraging my church’s leaders to help us become a church which is “in motion”?
- How am I helping my church in its mission of going to the lost?