Sermon 02-23-14: “Hearers and Doers, Part 2”

February 28, 2014


Perhaps the most important way in which the church fails to be “doers of the word and not hearers only” is when it comes to the work of evangelism. If we Christians believe that eternity is at stake in the question of a person’s decision to accept or reject God’s gift of salvation, wouldn’t we approach this task with greater urgency? Instead, we are often reluctant to witness to our faith. Why? What can help us become more faithful in this mission?

Sermon Text: James 1:19-27

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

So, Satan made news in Hollywood this week. I’m sure that was a mistake on Satan’s part. Usually, he goes about his work in Hollywood under the radar, without anyone noticing!

Be that as it may, Satan was in the news. You may recall that last year, Roma Downey, former star of Touched by an Angel, and her husband, Mark Burnett, creator and producer of the show Survivor, produced a hit miniseries called The Bible. They announced last week that they are recycling part of that miniseries to create a theatrically released movie about Jesus called Son of God.

If you saw the original miniseries, however, you may notice one small difference: Satan didn’t make the cut this time.

Literally, they’re cutting out the scene in which Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness. When the original miniseries aired, that scene caused controversy after Glenn Beck tweeted that he saw a resemblance between Satan and President Obama. And that’s all anyone was talking about the next day. Roma Downey said she didn’t want a repeat of that experience. She said, “I wanted all of the focus to be on Jesus. I want His name to be on the lips of everyone who sees this movie, so we cast Satan out.”

I don’t doubt Downey’s good intentions for a moment. She and her husband are committed Christians who believe in Satan. They even blame him for the original controversy in the first place. But as at least one theologian pointed out last week, you can’t tell the full story of Jesus and leave Satan out of it. For one thing, if Jesus weren’t tempted by Satan, then he would be less than fully human—he’d be like a robot who was only doing what he was programmed by his heavenly Father to do. For another, Jesus came into this world to defeat the devil.

Remove Satan from the story, this theologian said, and you’re left with a kind of “feel-good Christianity” that emphasizes only those parts of Jesus’ message that poll well among general audiences, like “love, forgiveness, and self-affirmation… Satan, sin, and an eternal Hell? Not so much.”

Granted, he said, “evangelism would be much easier” if you left Satan, sin, and hell out.

So what do you think? Is that true? Would evangelism be easier if we just left out the hard stuff? I don’t think so. Surely our experience as United Methodists tells us otherwise. After all—generally speakingMethodists have spent 50 years or so mostly preaching a “feel-good Christianity” of love, forgiveness, and self-affirmation, with little talk of Satan, sin, and hell.

And where has it gotten us? Has evangelism been easier for us during that time?

Probably not, since we mostly haven’t done evangelism during that time. Our denomination’s declining numbers tell the story of a church that is failing to reach people with the gospel—at least in the U.S. And this shouldn’t surprise us. Once you remove the main reason that God became flesh in the first place—to save us from sin, and final judgment, and hell—why bother with evangelism? What sense of urgency should we have to share such a “feel-good” kind of gospel? People can stay home and watch Oprah, or whomever, instead.

One United Methodist theologian, Jerry Walls, puts it like this:

[I]f hell is not perceived to be a serious threat, it is hard to see how salvation can have the same meaning it used to. Not surprisingly, salvation is less and less conceived as a matter of eternal life, and more and more as a matter of personal fulfillment in this life.

He goes on to say that if we redefine salvation to mean something other than salvation from hell, then there’s no way Christianity can avoid being “trivialized.”[1]

I agree with him. We can open our hearts, and open our minds, and open our doors all we want: the world beyond the walls of our church is telling us that they’d rather stay in bed. And who can blame them?

I share these thoughts because I want to remind us of how high the stakes are when it comes to our church’s main task, which, according to Jesus, is to “go and make disciples of all nations.” All of us have sinned against a Holy God, and all of us, left to our own devices, face God’s judgment and hell because of it. Fortunately, God loved us too much to leave us in that condition. God launched a rescue mission beginning way back in Genesis chapter 12 with the call of Abraham and the establishment of a covenant people, Israel. That covenant was fulfilled through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus did not sin, but on the cross he became sin for us, in our place. Our sin was dealt with and punished. And now, through faith in Jesus we, too can find forgiveness of sin and new life through the power of the Holy Spirit. Not only that: once we give our lives to Jesus Christ, “the Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”[2]

All of this is such incredibly good news. If you’ve experienced this good news for yourself, can I get an Amen? Can I even get a Hallelujah?

James says, “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only.” Well, we’ve heard this word about salvation in Jesus Christ. Now what will we do about it?

What will we do, for example, about our friends, neighbors, family members, coworkers and other people in our lives—not to mention the thousands of people within a five mile radius of our church—who haven’t yet experienced this good news; who are currently living their lives apart from the life-saving, life-changing love of Jesus Christ; who haven’t yet received for themselves the gift of salvation in Christ?

We’ve heard the word that “there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved,”[3] and that “no one comes to the Father except through Christ,”[4] that Jesus himself speaks of final judgment, after which people without faith in Christ are sent away to a place of “eternal fire, prepared for the devil and his angels,”[5] a place where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

We have heard these sobering words of warning from both Jesus and God’s Word. What will we do about it?

We’ve also heard that on Judgment Day, even those of us who have received this gift of salvation in Christ will face judgment for what we did or failed to do for God’s kingdom: the good works we did while we were on earth will be tested, as if in a refining fire. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3, “If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”[6]

I don’t want to just be saved; I want to be rewarded for my faithfulness to the Lord. I want to hear my Lord say those words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Don’t you?

We’ve heard these words about the judgment that Christians face. What will we do about it?

The vast majority of people who live around us already believe in God and most of them even call themselves Christians. But many don’t know who God is or what being a Christian means. If they did, I believe that many of them would gladly repent and say “yes” to God’s gift of eternal life in Christ, and they would be saved.

As Paul writes, “For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”[7]

And that’s why we’re here. We’re here to bring that good news! We’re here not simply to reach Christian families who are new to the area and are looking for a church home—although we do that, and that’s a worthy goal. And we’re here not simply to strengthen the faith of Methodist Christians in Hampton through excellent worship services, church programs, and Bible studies—although we do that, and that’s a worthy goal. And we’re here not simply to make the world a better, more just, more loving place through missions work to the our community and to the world—although we do that, and that’s a worthy goal.

We are here primarily to reach the lost with the good news of Jesus Christ. We are here to bring people into a saving relationship with God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are here to make new disciples of Jesus Christ—even as we strengthen existing disciples.

If we’ve heard all of these words, what will we do about it?

Pastor Steve Sjogren gives the following illustration to describe what most churches do about it. He writes:

Imagine going through several days at a parachute training school where the teachers had covered every phase of successful jumping. The students learned how to select the right parachute and how to pack it… They had studied great parachutists of the past, read accident statistics of those who had failed, and then simulated jumps. Finally, the training ended, the tests were graded and a graduation ceremony was held to acknowledge all these who had passed.

At graduation, one student meekly stood up and said, “I feel silly getting a certificate showing that I’m qualified to parachute. I haven’t actually jumped out of an airplane yet.”

Everyone in the room gasped. Someone said, “Don’t you know. We don’t parachute anymore. We just study and talk about parachuting!”[8]

Most churches talk a great deal about fulfilling the Great Commission to go and make disciples. And then they talk about it. And then they talk some more. It’s clear what God’s Word tells us to do. At some point we have to stop talking about it and actually go and do it. Be doers of the Word and not hearers only…

This week, Peru’s first-ever athlete to compete in the Winter Olympics, Roberto Carcelen, competed in the 15K cross country ski event. He did about as well as the Jamaican bobsled team does in their respective sport: Carcelen finished dead last—a full 30 minutes behind the gold medalist, Dario Cologna of Switzerland, and ten minutes behind his nearest competitor. To make matters worse, Carcelen was competing with a fractured rib, and doctors weren’t even sure he’d be able to compete. Carcelen’s goal was simple: just finish the race. And he did.

And when he got to the finish line, Cologna, the gold medal winner from Switzerland, was waiting there to congratulate him—he had been waiting for 30 minutes after he won the race to congratulate him. What a beautiful Olympic moment! It was a great gesture of class, and sportsmanship, and magnanimity on Cologna’s part. In Christian terms, it was also a small but powerful gesture of love—powerful enough to make the news in the U.S., which is rare when there are no American athletes involved!

My point is that even small acts of love and kindness can make a profound statement.

And that’s even true when it comes to putting into action Jesus’ words about making disciples.

Steve Sjogren, the pastor I quoted earlier, wrote a book about evangelism called Conspiracy of Kindness. Sjogren writes from personal experience about the problems most Christians face trying to do evangelism: It can be embarrassing and intimidating to talk to someone about our faith. We don’t know what to say. We fear rejection. We don’t want to be pushy weirdos. Right?

But Sjogren talks about a different approach to evangelism that churches can take: it’s unintimidating; it’s low-risk; it’s for people of all ages; it’s fun; it’s inspiring; it’s infectious; and it’s so easy anyone can do it. It requires very little money and very little preparation. And here’s what it is: you take a small group of church members, go outside the church and into the community, and perform small, free-of-charge, no-strings-attached acts of kindness for people.

He lists dozens of examples of this type of service: giving out soft drinks to passersby on hot summer days; washing windshields in shopping mall parking lots; cleaning toilets at local retail establishments—in his experience business owners are happy to have someone do that; washing cars for free; raking yards; offering free coffee to motorists; handing out bottles of Gatorade to cyclists and joggers at the local park; going door-to-door handing out lightbulbs—because who doesn’t have a lightbulb somewhere the needs replacing? I was thinking that when pollen is really bad around here in the spring, we could go door-to-door handing out boxes of Kleenex. It could be any number of other things—be creative! But it’s all free of charge. No donations accepted.

Yes, people will be suspicious, he says. Yes, they might think you’re crazy at first. When they ask, as they inevitably will, “Why are you doing this?” His team’s response is, “We’re doing this free service project as a practical way to show God’s love.”

And that’s all the talking, and all the interaction, that’s required.

Of course, sometimes the act of kindness will lead to something more: According to Sjogren, some people begin weeping when offered a small act of kindness. Some people ask for prayer. And, yes, sometimes people will even want to pray to receive Christ.

I confess that this mindset about evangelism—Sjogren calls it a “ready, fire, aim” approach—doesn’t come naturally to me. A month ago, one of you said to me, “We have all this food left over on Wednesday night… Why don’t we go out and give it away to people.” And I promise you, my first thought was, “We’ll, first we have to form a committee… But no… Maybe it isn’t that complicated. Maybe we could just go and do it! See what happens.

When I was reading this book, I was thinking about a missed opportunity that we had up north in Alpharetta, where I came from. Up there, it was very popular, especially on Saturday mornings, for families to walk, run, and ride bikes on the Big Creek Greenway. How incredibly easy it would have been for a team of volunteers from our church to bring coolers filled with bottled water or Gatorade to the entrance of the greenway and just hand them out to people. Everyone’s thirsty. Everyone needs water. Why are you doing this? they might ask.We’re just trying to show God’s love in a practical way.”

I bet you’re already thinking of some things that we can do in Hampton, right now, to show God’s love in a practical way. I was sharing these ideas with someone else from our church, and he said, “When the race is in town, maybe we could walk over and serve people in the RVs in some way.” And I’m like, “Yes! That’s exactly the kind of thinking we need!” [Responses to question: “What’s one practical thing this church can do right now to show God’s love to someone?”] If you have ideas for acts of kindness that we can do, text them to me or email me. Maybe on a Saturday or two or three during Lent, which starts soon, we can set aside an hour or two to go out and serve in this way?

Can you imagine the impact even a small act of love and kindness can have on someone? In Sjogren’s experience, word travels fast! What if we at Hampton UMC became famous in our community as a church that loves and serves in this way? Serving not simply as an end in itself, but as a way of getting the word out about the gospel of Jesus Christ. On a global scale, we’ve seen the impact that our brother Pope Francis has had by performing small but powerful acts of kindness. In our little corner of the world, it believe we ought to be doing the same thing.

James says in verse 27: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.” Religion that is pure goes out and shows God’s love in practical ways!

[Invitation: March 2 at 6:45, after Bible study. Bring bulletins with names and emails on it, indicating a willingness to serve in this way.]

[1] Jerry Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, IN: The University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 7.

[2] Romans 8:16

[3] 1 Peter 4:12

[4] John 14:6

[5] Matthew 25:41

[6] 1 Corinthians 3:14-15

[7] Romans 10:13-15

[8] Steve Sjogren, Conspiracy of Kindness, rev. ed. (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2003), 82.

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