One summer I took a month off for a much needed time of renewal. During my time off I decided to do a little research. I wanted to get the perspective of folks who don’t go to church. Preachers are very insulated in a church bubble. Everything we do revolves around church culture for the most part and that is not all bad. But here is the thing — if the church’s main task is to reach those outside of it then it would be wise for me to get the pulse of those outside the church bubble. How can we be effective at reaching others with the gospel if we don’t seek to understand what they do, where they live, how they hurt, and what their hang-ups are about religion?
One of the things I decided to do during my time away was not to tell the people I met that I was a preacher. All kinds of baggage and transference surfaces when you do that. I wanted an honest perspective. For example, one Sunday morning I didn’t go to worship. Instead, I went to that great American institution, the “Waffle House”! I got to know our waitress. I found out she had two kids and was working two jobs to make ends meet. Some of the hardest working people in America are waitresses at the “Waffle House.” She told me how long she had been working there and explained what “scattered, smothered, and covered” meant. Then she told me that around 11 a.m. on Sundays they start to get real busy because that is when the church crowd comes in. I thought, “Here is my chance!” I asked, “What are the church people like?” She replied, “Most of them are terrible tippers.” I don’t know if she goes to church, but her impression of a church crowd is that they are not very generous. So I filed that away — “Impression of church folk: lack generosity.”
Another time I sat at a bar and grill out of town for lunch and struck up a conversation with the bartender. I sat there with my Coke and asked a few benign questions. I found out that she grew up in bars her whole life. Her parents owned a bar. When she wasn’t working at a bar she went to bars and hung out with people. I said, “I’m curious. You have a unique perspective being around bars all of your life. What’s the most important thing you have learned?” She replied, “Never trust anybody who says, ‘You can trust me.’ ” Then she said, “And I have learned that the only person you can count on is yourself.” I filed that one away — “Trust is a very important issue.”
Perhaps the most striking conversation I had was on a golf course when I was out of town. I was by myself and was paired up with a couple of people. I made sure they didn’t find out I was a preacher. When most golfers find out you’re a preacher they stop being fun! They also expect you to give them three foot putts! I got to know a guy in the group who was in sales. He had taken a big hit in the recession and was trying to get his feet back on the ground. He had just gone through a bitter divorce and was going through other person-al struggles. He said, “The older I get the less I find things to believe in.” Then he railed against politics, religion, and anything else he could think of. At the end of the round he asked, “What can you really believe in?”
That question echoed in my mind for days. If I was to run into that guy again, what would I say? What would you say? That really is the feeling of so many people in our culture today. What can you really believe in? What can you really count on in life? In fact, most of the conversations I had with strangers during my time off reflected cynicism about life. Those conversations reminded me of the words of Ecclesiastes, “ ‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the teacher, ‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity… for all is vanity and chasing after the wind’ ” (Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:11). You can translate the word “vanity” as “emptiness” or “meaningless.” The writer of Ecclesiastes came to the conclusion that all of life is empty. Self-indulgence and even hard work leads to emptiness.
It is easy to be cynical in our world and come to this conclusion. It is easy to feel like that man on the golf course, “The older I get the less I find things to believe in. What can you really believe in?” It is easy to feel like the bartender who said, “Never trust anyone who says, ‘You can trust me.’ ” It all feels so empty. Nothing is new. Nothing satisfies. You may be hitting mid-life and feel that way. All the goals and ambitions you set for yourself have lost their luster. Nothing seems new and exciting anymore and you feel stuck. You may be a tired, worn out parent who feels that every day is the same — same routine with the kids, same car pool, same schedule, no change, nothing new. You may be retired and feel you have lost the meaning in your life you once had. You feel it has slipped away. Will you be remembered? Will everything you have done be forgotten? Is it all empty? Is it all chasing after the wind?
I have thought a lot about that question — “What can you really believe in?” If someone asked that again, what would I say? How would you answer that question?
As we begin the Advent season we focus on the things we can believe in. This season is all about preparing ourselves to receive the light of Christ that pierces our dark and cynical world. A good place to start is Jesus’ words in our assigned lesson in Mark, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mark 13:31). This is a comforting and encouraging truth. The world may crumble to the ground but Jesus and his words will last forever. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ provides the ultimate stability in an unstable world.
There are three ways we can break down the eternal truth of God’s revelation to us in Christ. These are three things we can believe in when the world is falling apart. These three things will be true for eternity. The first thing: God is.
After twenty years of preaching and about twelve years of academic theological study, I have learned two irrefutable facts — there is a God and I am not him! There is a God and none of us are him! That seems to be a rather simple thing to understand but it is amazing how many people forget it. In fact, what troubles me the most about Christians today is how many feel they have a monopoly on God. When you talk to some Christians they think God can be summed up in a theological formula or a spiritual law. It’s like they have God in their back pocket. They may not think they are God but they think they have God all figured out and if you don’t think of God on their terms with their language and their systems then you are on the outside. The theological arrogance within the Christian landscape today is staggering.
God is bigger, wider, deeper, and longer than our finite minds can fathom. God cannot be contained by our language and formulas. If God were small enough for us to contain he wouldn’t be worth believing in! God is mystery and uncontainable. God is bigger than our theological systems. God is bigger than our political ideas. God is bigger than denominations. God is bigger than the church. God is bigger than the Bible. Now, these things are important and they have their place but they cannot contain God. Nothing can! All of our language of God is a limited metaphor for his power, glory, love, and grace.
The older I get and the more I grow as a Christian the bigger God gets and the more open I am to discovering the depth of who God is. I submit to you that all Christian growth goes in that direction. The moment we think we have God figured out, we don’t! God says through Isaiah, “My ways are higher than your ways, my thoughts are greater than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). And there is great comfort, security, and trust that come from this — that the God who created this world has got it in his hands. And this God doesn’t think like you or I do. He doesn’t respond the way we would respond. God’s ways are higher than our ways. I take great comfort from that.
There are certain non-negotiables about God. We call that dogma — God is love; God is creator, redeemer, sustainer, and more. But after dogma you have doctrine and opinion and these are flexible and up for debate. There is a relatively small amount of dogma about God and a large amount of doctrine and opinion about God. The sad thing is that much of the history of the Christian church is about the disunity that has occurred through the years over doctrine and opinion.
How can we really know and understand this great big God if he is bigger than we can fathom? This leads me to the second thing we can believe in: God can be known and experienced in Jesus Christ.
Colossians says that Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). We may disagree on the interpretation of scripture. We may disagree politically. We may disagree on the stance Christians take on particular issues. We may disagree on doctrine and theology. But one thing we as Christians can stand together on is that God’s love and grace can be known and experienced in and through Jesus Christ. You want to know what God is like? Read the gospels and see God in flesh and blood reaching out to the world and saving it.
My wife Brandy and I have a dog named PJ. She is a Jack Russell and she is completely blind. She can’t see us at all but she knows us and trusts us because of the way we encounter her and help her. When we guide her on walks she knows we love her and she can trust us. When we pick her up and put her on the bed she knows we love her and she can trust us.
One day Brandy took PJ out to use the bathroom. Up to this point we didn’t use a leash because she stayed contained in a particular area. But on this particular day she sensed a bird and blindly ran after it. She ended up jumping over the sea wall! I heard Brandy scream and I ran out. I saw Brandy climbing over the sea wall and rescuing PJ. PJ’s tongue was hanging out of her mouth and her tail was just wagging.
You know, it is the same with us. We are blind. We cannot know God on our own. We can’t save ourselves. Left to our own devices we are lost. So Christ encounters us, picks us up, and rescues us from sin and death. He rescues us from ourselves and puts us on the right path. We can’t see God but in Christ we know he is love and that love is all that matters.
At the end of the day, what matters is not which church we belong to, what theological doctrine we hold, or what theological system we believe in. What matters is knowing and experiencing God’s love in Jesus Christ. That’s what matters. All else is secondary. Why? Here is the third thing we can believe in: The experience of God’s love in Christ transforms people.
Doctrine doesn’t change people. Theological systems don’t change people. Denominations and institutions don’t change people. God’s love and grace experienced in Christ changes people. I’ve seen people walk down the aisle and receive healing from the forgiveness of their sins. I’ve seen marriages and lives saved, relationships restored, and great healing come all because of the love of God experienced in Christ. That’s what the church is about — being a vessel for people to be transformed by God’s love in Christ.
A colleague once shared a story about a woman in his church who experienced transformation. At 45 years old she was a wreck. She was divorced with kids and had no job or motivation. She visited his church and heard about Jesus and his love. One Sunday morning she received Christ as her Lord and Savior. The experience completely awakened her. She went to college and paid her way through an administrative assistant job. She got a B.A. cum laude and a Masters degree with all A’s in her field. She wrote him an email that spoke of her experience: “Isn’t Jesus amazing? I don’t know why more Christians don’t believe in the miracles of Jesus. I believe in them. He healed me. What could be more miraculous than the forgiveness of sins or the taking away of all my bitterness and resentment? My peace and joy are indescribable. I laugh all the time now when I thought I would never laugh again. I am grateful beyond words… I feel like I have swallowed sunshine.”
After all his complaining about the emptiness of life, the writer of Ecclesiastes came to this conclusion: “For apart from God who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him, God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy” (2:25-26).
God is. You can know and experience God in Christ. The experience of God’s love in Christ transforms people. Those are three things you can believe in. You can experience that love today and be transformed. Give your heart to Christ. Amen.