June 27, 2010

A Real Homecoming

What an incredible thing it is to celebrate together like this. We are celebrating this morning a homecoming. When I was in high school, homecoming was always an exciting time of year. Now, I’ll confess that at least part of the excitement was a result of getting an opportunity to dance with a pretty girl for an evening. But there was also the football game to look forward to…or as it was at my high school, the pre-and post-marching band halftime show entertainment. Marching band was the center of my universe in high school. As a member of the marching band, it was always exciting to get to see friends who had graduated and moved on to bigger and better things (college). It was a great time to remember where the band had been and the people who had worked hard to make it what it currently was. And indeed, my freshman year of high school it was a bad band with about 75 people in it. By my senior year it was a regionally competitive band with about 250 people that had played shows at both Pearl Harbor and Cape Canaveral, marched in a Disney Laser Light Parade, and was gearing up to play a series of shows in Canada. Because we took time every year to remember where we had been, we could better appreciate where we were. Now, this didn’t mean that we looked back with scorn on the early years of the band. Those were good days with a lot of good memories. There were some great leaders that came through the band in those years who laid the foundation necessary for the growth that happened after they left. And that growth had to happen. If the band was the exact same my senior year as it had been my freshman years I would have counted my time in the band to be an utter failure. The leaders who had since passed on to other places would have been majorly disappointed that their legacy of leadership and direction had been wasted, cast aside carelessly in favor of the familiar of what was.

In a lot of ways, this celebration of remembrance is exactly what we are doing here this morning. We have gathered here this morning the folks who are here on a regular basis. We also have here this morning a number of the friends and family of Central from years past who at one time or another, in one way or another, played a role in seeing the church reach the place we are today. And I suspect that for both those who have not been here in sometime as well as those who never went anywhere would echo the sentiment that Central is not the same church it was forty, thirty, twenty, or even ten years ago. Indeed, I hope that’s not the case. If we had not advanced beyond where we were ten, let alone forty, years ago this church would rightly have to be pronounced a profound failure because the world has changed significantly during those times and the approaches taken to proclaiming the kingdom to the world have had to change as well. Yet if we stand tall today, we acknowledge that we stand on the foundation that was laid in the past. If we can see the kingdom more clearly and understand who God has made us to be more fully today, we acknowledge that we are standing on the shoulders of giants—many of whom are still around.

When Lisa and I signed on as pastor and wife to lead this church nearly two years ago, we were proud to step into a community that was far from perfect. It was a community that had been through some recently rough times and was still recovering, still healing. There were fresh scars and even a few wounds that had not yet even scabbed over. I can confidently tell you this morning that there has been a lot of healing in the last couple of years by God’s grace but that we are still a long way from having every wound made completely whole. But do you know what that means? It means that we can humbly acknowledge that without the active and working presence of the Spirit of God in our midst, we are simply a jumbled mess of broken humanity. With the Spirit’s active and working presence do you know what we are? A jumbled mess of broken humanity that’s full of the Spirit of God. And that’s something powerful. For without the Spirit’s presence the storms of the last few years would have blown this church away. And yet we are gathered here together this morning, not for the funeral of a once great church, but to celebrate what God has done in our past and the ways He is still using us to accomplish His kingdom purposes now. That’s something. Over the last year we have been talking a lot as a church about the character, the identity God has given us in order to accomplish those purposes. For those of you who’ve been here, let me remind you, and for those of you who haven’t been here, let me tell you about what we’ve discovered about the character God has given this church for this present age.

After a fairly lengthy process of praying and talking about what the fundamental character traits of this church are, three things became very clear: belonging, learning, and serving. We are a body to which people can belong. And I don’t just mean that in the obvious sense of someone becoming a member of this body. What someone coming off the street will find at Central if they stick around long enough is a group of people who care not only about that one individual, who care not only about his parents and siblings, who care not only about her job, but who care about his cousin’s neighbor’s herniated disc. This person will find a group of people who love her, warts and all. He will find a group of people who miss him when he’s not here. She will find that she not only has a place in this body, but a role to play—the very role that God has created her to fill. When you belong to Central, you will find yourself connected to a body of people who are concerned with the state of your soul and are dedicated to seeing you becoming fully the person God created you to be; and not in isolation, but alongside fellow travelers who are headed towards the same goal themselves. And in case you are checking your ears or hearing aids to make sure you really heard what I just said, I’m saying that we aren’t there yet as a body. We still have a lot to learn, a lot of growing to do. Thankfully, that’s one of the other major pieces of our identity. This is a place where you will find the space and opportunities you need to learn everything necessary to become fully the person God created you from the very beginning to be. Though we are a people fully committed to the orthodox teachings of Scripture, we are not interested in telling you how to think. That’s not real learning. We want to teach you how to think about God, about the Bible, about faith, and about everything else that comes along with a healthy, active, and growing relationship with Jesus Christ. By this you will be in a place to learn the things God has to teach you in ways that will shape your life in ways currently unimaginable to you. The Scriptures rightly proclaim that “… no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” This is truly salvation: not a onetime event in which we give our lives to God, but a lifetime journey of learning and becoming fully who God created us to be from the beginning.

Now, the corollary to this life lived in the salvation of our God is spelled out by Paul in his letter to the church in Ephesus: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” In other words, we were saved to serve. At Central, you will find a serving body. You will find a place where there is not merely the expectation that you will be serving as a function of your unique, God-given identity, but the opportunity for such pursuits. Whatever facet of God’s manifold grace we bear by virtue of our creation, the fundamental task for which we were all created was to serve God. Unless we are actively serving God by serving those around us we are never going to be as happy as we could be because we are necessarily not acting according to our purpose. When you put all of this together, you have a picture of this church as God has currently designed and equipped it. If you are not currently actively a part of what God is doing here for whatever reason, you have my cordial invitation on behalf of this body of believers to fix that. I’d love to talk with you about ways the path God has set you on and the gifts He’s equipped you with to get there can find a home here. This is, after all, a homecoming.

And it is right and proper that we celebrate like this, for it is precisely a homecoming celebration that we anticipate as believers as the final reward for our faithful perseverance through this life of trials and tribulations. We have a natural longing for home built into the very core of our souls. This stems from the fact that as long as we are in this world in its current state we are not home. We are sojourners together in the wilderness of life just like the Israelites on the way to the Promised Land. The reason for this is that we were created in the beginning to be home with God. This is, of course, not a reference to a physical house; for a home is not a house, but a place of safety, comfort, familiarity, grace, peace, and wholeness. This was Adam and Eve in Eden before the Fall. Genesis 2:25 stating that “the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed,” is not merely a physical reality, but a deeply emotional, relational, intellectual, and spiritual one. We were home, and like the prodigal son of Luke 15 we demanded our inheritance from our Father before we were ready for it and ran away from home. We ran away from home and have been wandering in the wilderness since. Just like the journey of the children of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land, the time of our wandering increases whenever we reject the still actively present help of our Father who never stopped loving us, never stopped trying to gently persuade us to return to Him while the opportunity is still available; for it won’t always be available. But when we finally decide to respond to His wooing we can begin the journey back home. When we, like the prodigal son turn to the Father and say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, I am no longer worthy to be called your son,” with a sincere desire to live under His eaves once again instead of our own fickle rules, He will respond just like the father in Jesus’ great parable: “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”

Now, make no mistake, such a turning towards home is no guarantee that everything will be perfect from here forward in this life. Children of God who are homeward bound will still have to live with the consequence of our humiliating departure from Eden until the time for repenting and sanctification is complete. When that is we don’t know, but we do have a fantastic assurance that it will come, and that when it does the pain we deal with now will be made to seem but a momentary downturn in the glory of eternity. And when that time arrives, we are going to celebrate with a great feast just like we are about to do in a few minutes. Christ revealed to the apostle John through a fantastic vision the celebratory feast when we arrive at the last and greatest homecoming: “‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure’—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ And he said to me, ‘These are the true words of God.’” And then after this incredible feast at the table of Christ: home. From Revelation 21:2: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with [people]. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’” Our celebration today is fantastic, fitting, and proper, but I’ll be honest with you: that’s the homecoming I’m really anticipating. And when we come home to this awesome reality that goes deeper than any of the stabs in the dark that we allow to pass for reality here and now we will truly belong—to God and to our fellow brothers and sisters in Him. We will have an eternity of learning ahead of us as we for the first time become possessed of the ability to see clearly. And we will serve God in all the ways for which we were created. Belonging, learning, serving. Sound familiar? There is certainly more to our final homecoming than these three, but what this does mean is that every time we gather together like we are this morning as Central Baptist Church we are rehearsing for that day in all the ways God has created us to rehearse.

Now, before I send you down to eat, I would be remiss if I sent you off thinking this glorious homecoming and marriage feast of the Lamb were for everyone; because they’re not. Just a couple verses over from this incredible promise of God’s unending presence is a verse detailing a number of different kinds of people who will not be participating in this glorious homecoming. What all these descriptions boil down to, however, is the group of people who insisted on finding their own way through the wilderness and playing by their own rules. If we never take the return journey of the prodigal son we will forever be living in the slop of life wishing we could eat the scraps that fall from the table of eternity. Those folks will reach a final destination when the time for wandering ends, but it will not be home. They will spend eternity languishing in the knowledge that they had the opportunity to set themselves on the path towards home and disregarded it in favor their own wisdom that was actually folly. Don’t stay in the wilderness any longer than you must, my friends. The path home, the path that will lead to this final and glorious homecoming has been opened. It has been opened by Christ and His sacrificial death on the cross. By this He opened the path to life. Actually, He is the path. He is the trustworthy road to life; the way, the truth, and life in fact. My friends, that we do here today is a great thing. We are remembering and celebrating the work God has done through His homeward bound servants to bring us to the place we are today. But if you are not on the road to this final and great homecoming, don’t leave here without putting yourself there. Take the steps of the prodigal son and embrace the life that is truly life; get on the only road that really leads home. Leave here not merely anticipating the next time we have a homecoming in this fashion—which is all we could do after homecoming passed when I was in marching band—but anticipating the homecoming that will bring us truly home. My friends, get on the only road that really leads home.