Jon Hevelone's blog
Hypocrites. The church is full of them.
Haven’t you heard that complaint from people in your life? Haven’t you said it yourself? Research from the Barna Group shows that this is the most common complaint about churches made by young adults.
Well, I categorically deny that it is true, at least as far as First Baptist Arlington is concerned. Hypocrites in our church? Absolutely. But as you can obviously see any Sunday morning, we are not “full” of them. There is plenty of room for many more. I would guess our sanctuary could easily hold another two hundred or so without major crowding. Then, we could go to two services.
Christian churches are filled with folks who say one thing and then do something else. We sing “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,” and then go out and walk all over people who cross us or just happen to be in our way. We hold to the high moral standards that happen to be our own personal “hot button” issues, but are blind to the ways we play fast and loose with our list of “acceptable” sins.
Somebody once looked at a group of people an awfully lot like us — people who did not practice what they preach — and said: “Woe to you…you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (Matthew 23:13)
This is a problem: when Christian people do not live up to the high standards of their faith, others notice our behavior. The way we treat the waitress, the tone we use with our children, the looks we give to others we pass on the sidewalk, the attitudes and behaviors that mark our personality are noticed. When what others see about us does not match what we say the label comes out: Hypocrite!
There is an easy, commonly used way to solve the whole problem, and get rid of the gap that leads to the dreaded label. Just lower our standards! If there are no high expectations, then there is no lofty height from which to fall. If I personally have no vision of truth, morality, or purposefulness in life, then I am free to live as it benefits me.
Shifting standards to whatever level is convenient or desirable is not possible for a Christian. There has been a high bar set, and if I am intent on practicing my faith, my goal is to shift my life upward to meet those standards. I have been called to follow Jesus Christ. Period. When I fall short, which I constantly do, there is forgiveness. When I get up and try again God does help. When I live Christianly, there is hope. And every time I fail to meet the high standards yet still keep on by faith, it is my prayer that those on the outside looking at me will see me truly for who I am — a hypocrite loved and being redeemed by Jesus.
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!
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!
We are people of habit. So much of what we do is done on “auto-pilot,” allowing us to get the routine things done while our mind is focused on other things. Sometimes habits are rather strange, or even unproductive. I must frequently participate in that barbaric ritual of wearing a tie. I can not tell you how many times I have tied a tie. I have the procedure down pat. Yet to this this day I can not tie one unless I am looking in a mirror. No mirror, no knot.
Someone said that a habit is just a behavioral groove we get into. Unfortunately, sometimes we dig the groove so deep that it becomes a rut, and we are stuck. This gets pretty bad when the habit or groove we find ourselves stuck in is destructive. You do know about these kinds of habits, don’t you? Feasting on too much junk food, slacking off, or poisoning the air with gossip or inappropriate responses are all habits that can reap unhappy consequences.
If a habit is a grooved behavior pattern, then perhaps we can also groove our spiritual growth, creating patterns that are more more Christlike. These new habits can lead to a far healthier spiritual life than we’ve settled for in the past. In fact, Paul advocates training ourselves in godliness, or as he puts it:
Stay clear of silly stories that get dressed up as religion. Exercise daily in God—
no spiritual flabbiness, please! Workouts in the gymnasium are useful, but a
disciplined life in God is far more so, making you fit both today and forever.
(1 Timothy 4:7-8)
Let me toss out two suggestions for beginning your spiritual workout. First, get in the habit of starting your morning with God. Waking up aware that God has given you yet another day to live unleashes enormous positive possibilities. Instead of hitting the snooze on that blasted alarm clock and pulling the covers up over your head, consider yourself blessed that you have a precious day given you by Someone who totally loves you, has your best interests at heart, and has offered to help you not only get through the day, but become a far finer person than you ever could on your own. Let Psalms 118:24 be your wake up call: "This is the day the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it."
Secondly, make it your habit to identify a specific ministry to do for God for the day. What will you do that honors the Lord, helps someone’s life to be a little better, and builds up God’s Kingdom? Paul’s vision for followers of Jesus is for us to “excel in gifts that build up the church” ( 1 Corinthians 14:12). What gift will you give today? Will it be a smile? A friendly word of encouragement? A chunk of your time? Some sweat and muscle power? Prayer? How can you let your light shine so people will praise God because of you? Get in the habit of using some time during each day ministering. It’s a behavioral groove that will keep you in top spiritual shape for life.