I did something really embarrassing in our church service Sunday. As I preached a message I repeated the words of an old, old (very Baptist!) hymn, When We All Get to Heaven.
Sing the wondrous love of Jesus;
sing his mercy and his grace.
In the mansions bright and blessed
he’ll prepare for us a place.
And then the chorus comes ringing in:
When we all get to heaven,
what a day of rejoicing that will be!
When we all see Jesus,
we’ll sing and shout the victory!
I was surprised that hardly anyone in our congregation had heard of it, and so at the end of my sermon I walked to the piano and started playing. Carried away, I began singing the words. If you have ever heard my singing you know what it sounded like. Luckily, nobody walked out.
Which brings me to the Bible’s picture of worship in heaven, with a massive white robed choir of redeemed people singing praises to God. With a choir that size gathered from the four corners of the earth singing to God himself, no less, they had to be good. It’s pretty obvious that they’ve been to choir practice. Lots of choir practice, if any of them sounded like me.
Likewise, as we look ahead to the time when we will be in Heaven’s Church we better pay close attention to the church family we are in here on earth. Being part of a fellowship of believers, a church, is absolutely vital if we are going to grow in our faith.
We are so much a part of an individualistic culture in America. We think we can worship God sufficiently while hiking the Appalachian trail or out on the golf course or beach combing or sitting home with our telly-vangelist, but we can’t. We need each other. We need to be connected with others in Christ’s body so we don’t stagnate, but rather develop maturity ourselves and help others along in their own life journeys.
Jesus never said that where one person is walking down Mass Ave on an iPhone listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers or Death Cab for Cutie that he was there with them. No, he said “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Mt 18:20) This isn’t my take. This is what Jesus said. Deal with it.
In Alice in Wonderland Lewis Carroll had Alice ask, “Cheshire-Puss, would you please tell me, which way I ought to go from here?” The cat answers, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” If you want to get to Heaven’s Church -- or heaven itself, for that matter -- you better get to know the One who is The Way. He has prepared a place for you in heaven, and also one right here on earth for you. In this earthly place you can practice your singing skills in choir rehearsal as well as all the other skills that go into living Christianly. You don’t want to be embarrassed when you do show up at Heaven’s Church singing and shouting the victory!
We have a great group of graduates in our church family this year. It is an exciting time of year for them and their families. Graduation is a time of promise and expectation for the years to come. I have been to many graduations. They are all basically the same. Speakers encourage the graduates. Special recognition is given to some who have excelled. Then the diplomas are awarded. Exciting stuff at the moment, but then life goes on and the memories fade.
Of all the graduations I have attended, there is only one commencement speech that I remember anything about. When my youngest daughter graduated from high school, a local sportscaster was asked to give the commencement address. I remember being disappointed at the choice of him as the speaker. How could he encourage the graduates? None of them may remember his speech, but I do. He talked about always being a freshman. He said to the graduating students that they had been seniors but that they were about to become freshmen again. Then he went through the various stages of life that they would encounter and noted that with each new stage they would be freshman again. First there would be college, and they would be freshmen. Then with their first job they would be freshmen. The would come marriage, parenting, and even in retirement, the would begin as freshmen. His speech has caused me to think that with each new phase of my life, I too have been a freshman. But by now, I have learned that with each new stage of life, there is one who sees ahead when I can’t. With each new step in life, we put our faith in God and trust him to direct our paths.
I am reminded of the hymn that says. “I don’t know about tomorrow. I just live from day to day. I don’t borrow from it’s sunshine, for the it’s skies may turn to gray. Many things about tomorrow I don’t seem to understand. But I know who holds tomorrow, and I know who holds my hand.”
Congratulations to our graduates and may you hold tight onto God’s hand as you walk through your tomorrows.
Many signs of spring are finally arriving in New England. Flowers are showing their beautiful hues to our color-starved eyes. The grays of winter are fading away as vivid colors emerge. Every time we are out, Jon and I say to each other, “Oh, look!” at the blooming trees and flowers. They bring such joy.
Another sign of spring is seeing children playing outdoors. Gone are winter coats and mittens which had enslaved them for so long. They are running on the soccer fields and hanging from the low branches of the trees. It’s just fun to be alive when the spring comes.
In my family we also focus on the running of the Boston Marathon. Some of our adult children and their spouses are runners. Our son has run many marathons, and our youngest daughter just ran this years’ Boston Marathon. Our fun comes from standing at the base of Heartbreak Hill and cheering the runners on. They come by in all shapes and sizes, all ages, all ethnicities and races. In that respect, they remind me of the kingdom of God. So many unique individuals.
But there is a lot of preparation that goes into running the race. There are hours and hours, days and days, weeks and weeks, even months and months of training. There are long and short training runs that happen back when the days are short and the roads are icy. The runners must prepare themselves.
The same is true of the Christian life. We must study God’s word when times are good to know how to stand firm when times are hard. We must train ourselves to listen to God’s guidance so that we will be ready in all circumstances to hear His voice among the clattering noises of life that might distract us. We must focus on the goal ahead and move forward.
The Bible even uses the analogy of a race in Paul’s second letter to Timothy in chapter 4 verse 7 “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” NIV
We are in the middle of that run of faith. May we be found ready for the spiritual race set before us.
With the NBA playoffs still occasionally making headlines despite the media circus that swirls around the Los Angeles Clippers and their bigot billionaire boss, Donald Sterling, I am reminded that preaching is a lot like the game of basketball. There are times when you are hot, and there other times when you just can’t hit the basket.
I’ve had my fair share of both experiences. (Preaching, not shooting hoops.) Sometimes I feel as if I can turn my back to the basket, flip the ball over my head, and know it will slip in with nothing but net. Then there are times I give it my best shot and can’t even hit the backboard. The funny thing is that those times when I’m on are often the times when I let the Holy Spirit do the work, and the times when I’m off correlate with my strange idea that I can do it better myself.
So how do you preach? With power, with conviction?
“But Pastor Jon, I don’t preach at all.”
Oh yes, you do. Every one of us preaches -- by our lives. If we are to have a viable church, an effective Christian influence in Arlington and the other communities in which we live and work, then we need the Spirit’s presence in our lives. If somehow we expect to help meet the deep needs in people’s lives, only the power of God is sufficient.
The only thing that will make a church relevant today, the only thing that will give you credibility and make you useful in serving the Lord will be God’s presence in your life. When we live Christianly -- being open to God giving us new depth and integrity in our faith, we will find that who we are will “preach” loudly in a society that craves authenticity and soul.
Christian character in a world of racial bigots, greed, and frivolous sexuality is an unanswerable and powerful kind of statement. It is one that we as followers of Jesus Christ must make in our daily life. Please notice I am not talking about an increased religiosity or “churchiness” -- a superficial coating of sweet evangelical piety or a display of phony churchmanship. I am talking about you and I being in contact with God in such a way that somehow, despite all of our imperfections and weaknesses and mistakes the presence of Christ can still be seen in our lives.
Is there evidence of this in our lives today? In my life? In yours? If so, it will preach. And meanwhile, go Doc Rivers! Go LA Clippers! And go First Baptist family! Preach it!