Sunday, 16 March 2014

The offspring of the church

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Sunday 16th March, 2014. 11.00

Genesis 12:1-9   Now the LORD said to Abraham, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.  2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."  4 So Abraham went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abraham was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.  5 Abraham took his wife Sarah and his brother's son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan,  6 Abraham passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land.  7 Then the LORD appeared to Abraham, and said, "To your offspring I will give this land." So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.  8 From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the LORD and invoked the name of the LORD.  9 And Abraham journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

Revelation 14:1-7  Then I looked, and there was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion! And with him were one hundred forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads.  2 And I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps,  3 and they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the one hundred forty-four thousand who have been redeemed from the earth.  4 It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins; these follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They have been redeemed from humankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb,  5 and in their mouth no lie was found; they are blameless.  6 Then I saw another angel flying in midheaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth-- to every nation and tribe and language and people.  7 He said in a loud voice, "Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water."  
Revelation 21:1-5  Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;  4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."  5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new."

John 3:1-17  Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God."  3 Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."  4 Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"  5 Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.'  8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."  9 Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?"  10 Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  11 "Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?  13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,  15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  16 ¶ "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  17 "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Do you ever have those days where you wonder whether it’s all worth it?
            …Where you wonder just where it’s all going,
                        what the point of it all is?

The stress! the hassle! the disappointment! the frustration!

I’m talking, of course, about church life…

I mean, it’s such a great idea in theory, isn’t it?
            A community of people, filled with the Spirit,
            walking the path of Christ together
                        in loving relationship with one another,
                        and in faithful communion with God.

And yet the reality is so often so far short of the ideal.

Arguments, relationship problems,
            sinful behaviour, and petty politics,
are all too frequently the day to day reality of church life.

Recent research into why people leave church
            shows that whilst many pastors believe that people leave their churches
                        primarily due to a loss of personal faith,
            the reality is often more prosaic, and in many ways more worrying,
                        with a general disillusionment
                                    with the structures and institutions of church itself
                        being far more influential
                                    than any disillusionment with God.[1]

In other words, it’s other people that cause people to leave,
            not God.

And then there’s the numbers issue.
            We might, in theory, believe that through us
                        Jesus Christ offers good news to all people,
            but either we’re not that great at communicating it,
                        or a lot of people don’t want that kind of good news.

And we tell ourselves that numbers aren’t everything,
            and that depth is as important as breadth,
but fundamentally, if no-one comes,
            we’ve not got much of a church.

One might wonder why we carry on?
            And many, in fact, do just that.

I remember reading an article
            in the Baptist Ministers’ Journal a few years back,
written by a recently retired anonymous minister,
            who said that the moment he received his pension,
            he stopped going to church.
He had stayed the course because he had had to be there,
            but over the years he had utterly lost faith in the people of God.
And if I’m honest there have been moments in my ministry,
            when never darkening the door of a church again
            has seemed like a tempting proposition.

So, honestly, is it worth it?
            Is it worth the stress, the hassle,
                        the disappointment, the frustration?

What is the point of being part of this so-called ‘people of God’?

There are many people sitting in congregations across our city
            who are asking what on earth the point is of persevering with church.
And there are many others who used to be in our churches
            who have come to the conclusion that it’s just not worth the struggle.

So, what is the point? Is all this worth it?

Well, I think that this question is addressed is by the passage
            we had read to us a few moments ago from Genesis chapter 12.
Here, in this story of the call of Abraham,
            we find an account of the moment it all starts.

Here, with Abraham, we get the story
            of the beginning of the journey that we are now a part of.

The origin of the ‘called and commissioned’ people of God
            begins right here in Abraham’s encounter with God.

And in this story, which echoes down the millennia to us,
            we find that the call to be the people of God,
                        the call to follow wherever the path takes us,
            is also a call to be good news to all nations.

It seems that the foundational principle,
            right at the heart of the origin the people of God,
            is nothing less than gospel itself
                        – a gospel of good news for all, not just for some.

In the book of Genesis, the move from chapter 11 to chapter 12
            is an important one
because it describes a fundamental shift
            in the story of God’s relationship with humanity.
It is, if you like, the move from pre-history,
            to human history.
And Walter Brueggemann describes it as
            ‘perhaps the most important structural break in the Old Testament’,[2]
and it marks the point of transition
            between the history of humankind, and the history of Israel,
            between the history of the curse, and the history of the blessing.

Up until this point, through Genesis chapters 1 to 11,
            we meet the stories of humanity’s inability to save itself.
From the fall from grace in Eden, which we were looking at last week,
            to the growing hostility between humanity and creation;
from the first murder
            to the more general wickedness of humanity;
from the destructiveness of the great flood
            to the curse of Babel.

Through the first eleven chapters of Genesis
            we find God’s good creation on a downwards spiral,
with the story of humanity up to this point
            leading to nothing beyond barrenness and futility.

In the Abraham story, his wife Sarah
                        is famously unable to have children, having got too old,
            and so the promise from God
                        that he will become the father of a great nation
            is one which seems to them a laughable dream.

The barrenness of Sarah in Abraham’s story
            is in many ways symbolic
                        of the barrenness of the world as a whole,
            which has itself got old,
                        without having borne the fruit of new life.

The way Genesis has been telling the story,
            up until this point, humanity is going nowhere
                        other than an eventual petering out,
                        and a dwindling away to nothing.

So it is into a world that has run its course,
            to a world that is dying without issue,
            that the promise and call of God comes.

Just as the God of creation called something from nothing,
            calling ‘order’ from chaos,
so in the call of Abraham
            the same God calls humanity to new life;
                        calling forth life from a barren womb and a sterile world;
            calling people of death to experience the gift of life
                        which they meet through covenant relationship
                                    with the living God.

This call of God then echoes through history,
            through the prophets of Israel, down to the first century,
and it’s a call repeated in the invitation of Jesus
            who invited his own disciples to ‘follow’ him.

The call of Jesus is likewise heard as a summons
            to move from chaos to order;
            it is an invitation to move from barrenness to new life.
And like the call of God to Abraham,
            it’s a call that is accompanied by promise.

The Lord told Abraham that through his descendants
            ‘all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
And to this end promised Abraham a new world,
            where humans are reborn, are born again,
            into covenant relationship with their creator.

Through the call of God and the promise of the covenant,
            new way of being opened before Abraham,
                        where that which could not be achieved by other means.
That which building a tower to the heavens at Babel failed to accomplish,
            became possible because of God’s gracious intervention.
Humans could not reach God through their own efforts,
            and had to discover that gift of new life that comes from God
                        comes as a gift from the God of love,
            not as the result of human activity and attainment.

The promise of God is fulfilled by God’s action,
            rather than by the efforts of humans.

The lesson of the call of God on Abraham
            is that people are not ultimately reconciled to God
                        through Abraham’s efforts,
            nor through the efforts of his descendants,
                        nor through the efforts of humanity as a whole,
            but only in and through the one who calls
                        and gives the gift of new life.

But this call to Abraham,
            and the promise to him and his descendants,
            also carried a commission.

God’s chosen people are not to live in a vacuum,
            separated and holy.
They are to live with, for and among the nations of the world.

The good news for Abraham
            is also to be good news for all peoples,
            good news for all nations.
Without qualification, without barrier, without condition.

Just as the Lord called Abraham into new relationship,
            so through Abraham and his descendants
                        the same call must go to all people.
The same promise,
            of new life in relationship with God,
            is for all nations, not just for one nation under God.

In the New Testament,
            we find that both Paul and Peter grasp this truth,
            and see its fulfilment in Jesus Christ as good news for all people.

In his letter to the Galatians,
            Paul says that (Galatians 3:8)
            ‘the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith,
                        declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham,
                        saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.”‘

And in his sermon at Pentecost,
            Peter declares to his Jewish congregation that they (Acts 3:25)
                        ‘are the descendants of the prophets and of the covenant
                        that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham,
            ‘And in your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’’

This is the purpose of the people of God,
            and it has been so from the very beginning.

The Good News is for all nations, for all peoples,
            and has always been so.

This same principle can also to be found in the book of Revelation,
            where the church is described as the Bride of Christ.

Now, I don’t want to get too earthy about this,
            but seeing as we’ve already spoken about Sarah’s child of promise,
                        it seems to me that there is another promise
                        inherent in the image of a bride and a groom.

In the first century world, the celebration of a wedding
            included the hope that it wouldn’t be long
                        before new life came into being,
            as a result of the consummation
                        of the relationship between bride and groom.

All of which raises an interesting question:
            Given that in the book of Revelation
                        John describes Jesus as the Lamb that was slain,
                        and the church as the bride of the Lamb,
            One might well ask who it is that he envisages
                        as the offspring of this marriage that he describes
                        between Christ and his Church?

The Abraham story may help us here:
            The covenant with Abraham
                        was built upon a marriage,
            with the barren Sarah becoming miraculously pregnant,
                        thereby beginning the ‘great nation’
                                    through whom, we are told, all nations will be blessed
                                    (Gen. 15.5; 18.18).

It may be that John’s image of the final consummation
            between Christ and the Church,
                        which he depicts as a marriage
                        between a bride and her husband,
            has in view the ultimate fulfilment of the promise made to Abraham.

If this is the case, then the marriage of the Lamb and the bride
            may not be so much the end of the story, as it’s present reality.

This may not be a marriage that has yet to happen,
            and which will occur only at the end of time.
It may actually be a description of the here-and-now,
            with the church united with her Lord
            in loving and fruitful union.

Rather than seeing the marriage of Christ and the Church
            as the final goal of creation,
we find before us the possibility
            that there is a much greater inheritance due to the Church,
as the embryonic promise of the Abrahamic covenant
            is brought to birth in the proclamation of a gospel
            for ‘every nation and tribe and language and people’ (14.6).

The book of Revelation ends with this picture
            of the church as the Bride of Christ,
and she is seen joining her voice with that of the Spirit
            to call all the nations of the world,
            all those beyond the gates of the new Jerusalem (cf. 22.15),
                        to enter into the city and drink from the river of life
                        which runs through the city (22.1–2).

The covenant which began with Abraham
            thus finds its fulfilment, as the people of God
                        become a source of blessing to all peoples,
            releasing them from their enslavement to the satanic forces of evil
                        and enabling them to enter into the new life
                                    that is theirs when they are born again
                                    as citizens of the heavenly city.

As Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus shows us,
            those who want to enter into the new life that begins in Jesus,
            must do so through being born again, through being born from above.

But they do so as those who are born into the new life
            that came into the sterile world of Abraham,
                        through the barren womb of Sarah,
            at the invitation of the Spirit,
                        by life-giving relationship with Jesus.

This same principle can also to be found in the image of 144,000,
            who are another one of Revelation’s symbols
                        for the faithful and chosen people of God.

Within John’s story, only the 144,000
            can sing the song of salvation to the earth.
Only the faithful people of God
            can speak the gospel to the nations.

However, what becomes clear is that
            through their faithful proclamation of the gospel for all,
            they are seen to be the firstfruits of a much greater harvest (14.4).

The seed is sown, and the Lord brings it to fruition.

This image evokes the Jewish practice
            of offering the first fruits of a harvest
            to symbolize the fact that the whole harvest belongs to God.

Understood in this way, the faithful witness of the Church
            is seen once again to result in good news
                        for all the nations of the earth,
            as the Abrahamic covenant is fulfilled
                        in the gathering in of the great harvest,
                        of which the church are simply the first fruits.

So, to return to the question with which we started:
            Is it really worth it?
            Is it worth persevering in witnessing
                        even through difficulty and persecution?
            Is it worth persevering with the people of God,
                        even when all seems lost
                        and despair, despondency and defeat
                                    lurk round every corner?

Yes, says John, it is!

Because the gospel is good news for every nation,
            and the ultimate result
                        of the faithful witness of the people of God
            is the freeing of all the nations
                        from their enslavement to the forces of evil,
            as the coming judgment of God consigns to the flames
                        all those systems and principalities and powers
                        which distort, demean and destroy the covenant relationship
                        into which God calls the people of the earth.

When seen from the perspective of the earth,
            the people of God might be a feeble, frail and flawed grouping,
            with the good news hard to discern within them.

But when seen from heaven’s perspective,
            those of us who gather
                        faithfully and steadfastly in the name of Christ
            are seen to be the fulfilment of the Abrahamic covenant.

We are those who proclaim a gospel
            which is good news for all nations,
and we are those who pave the way
            for the eventual ingathering
            of all those who pass through judgement.
We are those who have been born again and from above,
            and we are those who will in turn bring to birth
                        a nation so great that no-one can count it.

This, surely, is good news.

Good news for all nations,
            good news for all the world.

This is the gospel of Christ.
            Thanks be to God

[1] Alan Jamieson, A Churchless Faith, SPCK, London: 2002
[2] Brueggemann, Genesis, p. 116

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