September 20, 2009

Learning

Well so far in our journey to unpack our mission and vision we have talked about what it means to belong at Central. Belonging here means being who God made us to be in the body of Christ. In other words, when you belong at Central we want to help you become fully who God made you to be, and our assumption in this effort is that if you have given yourself to God then He has equipped you with a specific set of gifts in order to help us accomplish our mission. You will find no greater joy in your life than when you are fully maximizing the potential God has placed within you. Now that’s great and all, but there is a fundamental question left unanswered thus far: how do we do that? How do we go about maximizing our God-given potential in order to make an impact for the kingdom through this church? If you remember from what we learned about the early church in Acts a couple of weeks ago, having a tight sense of belonging isn’t enough. That renders us little different from any of the clubs or other secular organizations we mentioned last week. Point of fact: there are a number of things we need to know in order for this belonging to mean anything. Simply creating a place where people matter doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to be empowered to do anything, let alone engage their world for Christ. In fact, if people aren’t given the tools they need—cognitive knowledge and the training to use it well—it’s entirely legitimate to question whether or not they are really valued; whether or not they matter to the organization. Thus, the next important aspect of our mission and vision is learning. Not only is Central a place of belonging, but it’s also a place of learning. The questions in this, of course, are: of learning what and how do we do it? In order to answer those questions we are going to take a journey this morning that at first might not seem to make a lot of sense; but stick with me, because when we get where we are trying to go it’s all going to be worth it.

When I introduced the mission and vision to you a couple of weeks ago and then again last week when we talked about belonging, I said that one of the aims of this entire process is for us to become fully who God made us to be. I believe with all my heart that this is the secret to unlocking the abundant life Jesus came to show us how to live. And though we may have a longing deep within our hearts that might point us in the right direction, on our own we are never going to get there. Not only do we have our sinful nature getting in the way every time we turn around but we enter this world knowing nothing. But there’s more. We are surrounded daily by a nearly unlimited number of opportunities to learn things. Some of these opportunities are good; some seem fairly pointless; some are not good at all. But the point is that we are always learning. Well, if we are trying to become who God made us to be, where do you think we are going to learn how to do that? From the world? I don’t think so. If you want to know why a painting looks the way it does, you go learn about the painter. The full function of something which is designed is only understandable when we understand the purposes of the designer which means understanding the actual designer. If we are going to learn about who God made us to be then we need to first understand who God is. The only way we can understand who God is, though, is to stay close to Him. Yet the only way to stay close to Him is to be in a loving relationship with Him—in other words to love Him. But, you might be asking, how can we love Him if we don’t fully know or understand Him? The same way you fell in love with your spouse before you knew all about him or her. Falling in love with someone is easy—particularly the source of love Himself—loving them every day even when we’d rather not is hard. It takes a lot of work. This was one of the things Moses was getting at when he spoke the words in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 to the people of Israel. Loving God meant (and still means) obeying His commands. But we cannot do that unless we learn what they are and how to keep them. This takes keeping ourselves constantly in God’s hands. For Israel to give themselves fully to God took a constant reminder of and dedication to His words. Staying so dedicated to God’s word is a surefire way to remain in His hands. Indeed at Central Baptist Church, learning the faith means staying in God’s hands.

Let me pause briefly to comment further on this idea. In one sense it comes across as circular reasoning: We learn the faith in order to get in God’s hands but have to stay in those hands in order to learn the faith. But things aren’t quite as circular as they first seem. Before placing ourselves in the hands of our great God we are learning what we need to know in order to be convinced that our lives are better off in His hands than any other. Think of it like this. Say you have a great idea for a new business venture. You know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is going to be the next Microsoft. In order to get off the ground, though, you have to convince some financial backers to jump into the fray with you. So you tell them all the things they need to know—both rewards and risks—in order to be convinced this is the best place they can invest their money. At first they are going to have to go solely on your word and recommendation. But once they join up they will see for themselves what a great thing it is and learn everything they can about the business in order to get out of it as much as they possibly can. Before putting ourselves in God’s hands, everything we learn is aimed at getting us there. It’s not until we get there that we can really start learning about the faith. When we are in God’s hands we are really learning about all the riches available to us. Once we get there, if we pull away for some reason then we are disconnecting from our source of learning and therefore aren’t learning anymore. This is what I mean when I say that learning the faith means staying in God’s hands.

Well, with this in mind, let’s take a look together at Moses’ words to the people of Israel. As it turns out, these are some of the most important words in the history of Israel. They define what it means to be related to God and set the boundaries of monotheism for His people. In fact, you can find these words on the front of your bulletins. Stand with me and let’s read them together: “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. These words that I am giving you today are to be in your heart. Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them be a symbol on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Have a seat.

Skipping over its very well-known beginning, let’s take a look at this passage starting with v. 6. Moses exhorts the people to have the words he was giving them that day in their heart. That sounds really nice but doesn’t mean very much until we know what words Moses is talking about. Well, Deuteronomy itself is Moses’ farewell speech to the people of Israel. He gave this shortly before he went up on Mount Nebo to get a view of the Promised Land and then die as a punishment for his disobedience a few years before. What he does in this speech is to summarize the Law for the people one more time. In other words, “these words” is a reference to God’s Law. Now, there is fairly vigorous debate among believers today as to what is the proper place for Old Testament law in our lives. The opinions run the gamut from believing it has nothing to do with us and we no longer have to pay much attention to it all the way to folks who believe we need to try and follow it just as the Israelites were expected to do. Thankfully, we don’t have to enter that fray this morning. What was God’s law for the Israelites? It was His words to the people regarding how they should live their lives before Him. Using Jesus Christ as our lens for proper interpretation, that is what the Bible is for us today. God’s law is contained in His word. We need to have God’s word written in our hearts. In other words, God’s word should be so deeply ingrained in us that it becomes a part of who we are. After all, learning the faith means staying in God’s hands.

But again, this isn’t something that happens by itself. Left to our own devices, most of us wouldn’t pick up a Bible, let alone read one—particularly if we’ve been anaesthetized to its splendor thanks to heavy exposure. Now in one sense, of course there’s not such a thing as reading the Bible too much, but in another, it’s easy to get so used to the stories that are in the Bible that we forget to really pay attention to what it’s saying. For example, here Moses is telling the people to commit the words of the Lord to their hearts. Well, when we tell someone today that we know something by heart what do we mean? That’s easy: we mean that we have whatever it is so thoroughly memorized that recalling it at a moment’s notice comes almost as naturally as breathing. Folks back then thought the same thing and so they memorized the Old Testament verbatim. How many of you know God’s word that well? But this knowledge, this learning goes beyond mere rote memorization as we see next.

The next thing Moses says is that the people were to “repeat [God’s word] to their children.” Have you ever thought about the fact that the faith is always a single generation away from dying out? If we don’t pass on the faith to our children, they are not going to embrace it on their own. Now, teaching them the faith doesn’t guarantee that they are going to embrace it, but not teaching them almost guarantees they won’t. This is why a significant part of our emphasis on learning at Central is a focus on our children and youth. This is why we have children’s Sunday school classes and do Vacation Bible School every summer. This is why we have Bible studies for the children and for the youth on Wednesday nights. This is why we do a special VBS for the youth at the end of each summer along with youth retreats and special children’s activities throughout the year. I’ve got to tell you, we have a committed group of folks who work with our kids and youth. And if you’re not one of those but happen to have kids here, know well that your kids are loved here. But you know what, they still need help. We need more teachers in the rotation for youth and children’s Bible studies on Wednesday nights so that the folks who currently do it have a chance to be fed themselves in the adult Bible study. We still need a teacher for the college and career Sunday school class. That’s an awfully important group of people who needs someone willing to pour into them. We need folks who are willing to take some time to investigate the material that is available out there in order to make sure we are teaching our young people the things they need to know in ways that make sense to them and are a lot of fun in the process. Because let’s be honest, this group of people is our future. If we don’t prepare them with the foundation of knowledge they need, they will sail with whatever prevailing winds are blowing around them. So if you have a passion for young people or teaching or researching and studying the material available, we have a place for you here. Talk to me and I’ll gladly put you in contact with the right people. You see, learning the faith means staying in God’s hands and we do ourselves a great favor in working hard to put and keep our young people there.

But you know what? We can’t give them something we don’t have ourselves. Learning the faith means staying in God’s hands both for our young people and for us (granting that most of you look at me as one of the young people still!). There is a logical order to what Moses says. We absolutely need to be reminded to teach our children, but again, how are we going to teach them what we don’t know? That’s why the very next thing Moses says is for us to “talk about them when [we] sit in [our] house and when [we] walk along the road, when [we] lie down and when [we] get up.” Let me put that in a bit more modern terms using the Message translation: “Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning to when you fall into bed at night.” Are you starting to get the point here? The word of God should be before us constantly as long as we’re conscious. Moses even goes one step further and encourages the people to attach it to themselves in prominent places such as their wrists and foreheads and in public places like their doorposts and gates. Historically, the Israelites took this literally and pious Jews wore what became known as phylacteries which were tiny boxes tied to wrists and to hang in the middle of their foreheads. Let me be clear: I’m not advocating this. The point though is that we need constant, visible reminders of God’s word in our lives. We should have God’s word at the forefront of our minds so that we can actively seek to apply it to every situation we are in. This will lead to a lifestyle that models the Christian faith for everyone to see, including our children. With such an active engagement with God’s word—and if His word is an extension of Him as we believe it to be then this is an active engagement with God Himself—we cannot help but to learn the faith as we are intended.

Let me be honest with you for a minute. Talk like this scares a lot of people. We hear stuff like this and start thinking about all the ways we don’t measure up to this standard. This makes us feel guilty for not being a “good enough Christian” which does one of two things: either we have a pity party, relish in the guilt, and move on; or we get angry at the person making us feel this way and take a bite out of the bitterness cake. Here’s the thing though: neither of these responses actually results in any positive changes being made in our walk with Christ. You know why? Both of these reactions are tools used by our Enemy to manipulate us into passivity. He knows he can’t have us anymore if we are in God’s hands, but he can make us utterly ineffectual. God doesn’t motivate with guilt. He can use anger, but not self-centered anger. You see, every believer who has a good understanding of the word of God is able to shine light on the devil’s lies. When lies are brought to the light people can see how ridiculous they look and turn to the truth. Satan’s not so much a fan of this happening so he works hard to keep us in the dark. Learning the faith and seeking to internalize and understand God’s word is the single most powerful we can do to make a stand for Christ in the world. This is why we need to stay close to God. Just like students aren’t going to learn nearly as well in a dark classroom, apart from the light of Christ, we aren’t going to learn the things we need to know. Learning the faith means staying in God’s hands. Yet neither am I advocating becoming one of those irritating people who seem incapable of talking about anything but God. Often such talk is an attempt to mask an immature faith that is being made to look otherwise with a holy sheen. Instead, this is a call for us to become so intimately familiar with God and His word that we take it with us everywhere we go and let this light shine on everyone and everything around us. This is about becoming the people God made us to be. But we can’t do this if we don’t know God. And we can’t know God and learn the things of the faith in such a way that we can grow in such knowledge if we don’t know God’s word. Let us as a people make a stand against the rampant biblical illiteracy in our culture. This is one of the primary goals of learning at Central: to make sure that we know all we need to know in order to be powerbrokers for the kingdom. It is in this way that we are empowered to engage our world for Christ.

There is one more aspect of learning that we have not yet covered. This is the driving force behind it. We hinted at this last week when we talked about Paul encouraging us to desire the so-called greater gifts. Those were not specific spiritual gifts given to any one believer but rather the three-fold driving force behind all the spiritual gifts, and in fact behind all of our journeys of faith. The first two of these are faith and hope, but it is the greatest which is worthy of further discussion here: love. Actually, look back at what we skipped over in our passage this morning. Verses 4-5 are where Moses establishes the foundation for everything else. These are, in fact, the most important things we can be learning. The first is that there is only one God. The second is that we should love Him and give ourselves fully to Him. Moses calls the people to love God with all their hearts—the emotional and volitional sides of them; with all their souls—the personal and relational sides of them; and with all their strength—everything else, including their intellectual sides. The word “strength” here is more literally translated something like “very muchness.” The idea is that we are to love God with everything in us. Now, notice that Moses doesn’t say anything about our minds directly. This is because for the people to whom he was speaking, intellectually assenting to a set of ideas about God wasn’t as important culturally as it is for us today. As we have seen, though, the idea of loving God with our “very muchness” includes our minds. Let me ask you a question about all this. How do we act towards someone or something we love or are passionate about? Logan Bishop loves computers and so he learns all about them that he can. Jonathan Branzelle loves NASCAR and I can’t think of anybody I know who’s more knowledgeable on the subject. If you are married, when you first fell in love with your spouse you made a concerted effort to learn everything you possibly could about him or her. And in order to maintain a healthy relationship, you keep learning each day. When we stop learning, we pull away from relationships. The same thing applies with God. If we really love our heavenly Father, we constantly learn about Him in order to understand Him more and better. And we seek to obey Him because we recognize that He is worthy of our obedience. And by doing this, we stay in His hands, which in turn allows us to continue learning. This creates a cycle of blessing that in truth never has to end. Learning the faith means staying in God’s hands. This is the natural result of a love relationship with Him.

So then, am I saying that not knowing enough about God means we don’t love Him like we should? Of course not. I am, however, averring that it is our love for Him that will propel us to learn everything about Him that we possibly can. This in turn will open us up to Him more which will give Him more freedom to work in our lives, helping us to become the people He created us to be. And that’s what our mission and vision are all about. At Central we believe that we were designed for the glorious task of serving our Creator and expanding His kingdom on earth. This is why we believe we exist to help spiritual seekers find a place to belong, learn the Christian faith, and serve unconditionally. When we do those three things we will not be able to help becoming daily more the people God made us to be. We will then know that we matter and will be empowered with the Holy Spirit to make an impact on our world for Christ. But in order to do this we have a lot of learning ahead of us. And we have to stick with God to see that happen. Indeed: learning the faith means staying in God’s hands. Now to turn things back on all of you. Learning is not a passive venture. I challenge you this morning to take ownership of your efforts and opportunities to learn the faith. Don’t be content to merely be fed, but look for ways to actively eat. Strive for it with all you have and don’t let anything stand in your way—like Noah trying to get his hands on our dinner. Think about ways we could improve our opportunities for learning and share these ideas with me. And keep praying for our teachers, that they would have all the wisdom and grace they need as they use their gifts to help us stay in God’s hands. For that will keep us learning together.