This is a sermon that I gave for the 3rd Sunday in Advent on December 12, 2004 at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY). (First published on 12 April 2008).
I think you would all agree that there is something frustrating about getting a handle on a concept or a thought only to have a new concept or thought come along to replace it. And the area of church growth and how to go about it is no exception. The dominant model for church growth has been politely called the "megachurch" model and Willow Creek Church in suburban Chicago has been its flagship.
But now a new model for church growth is emerging and it is known, coincidentally, as the emerging church matrix. The proposed goal of many in this movement is to provide an alternative to the "seeker-driven, big church" model that blankets the evangelical countryside like kudzu on a southern hillside. For those of you who have never encountered this ubiquitous southern weed, kudzu grows anywhere and everywhere under almost any kind of condition. It has been said that if you parked your car on the roadside next to a hill where kudzu was growing, it would be enveloped by the kudzu within twenty-four hours.
If "seeker services" were considered contemporary worship and looked more like a Christian version of a rock concert, then emerging church worship could be considered more like a Christian version of Starbucks with its small spaces, comfortable seating (preferably couches) and interactivity. The things that have been stripped from the contemporary worship services of the seeker service (the cross, candles, bread and win, altars) are very much a part of the scene in this new style of worship. In addition, just as in the contemporary worship service, there is a heavy emphasis on the modern technology.
What I found most interesting is the use of words such as post-conservative and post-liberal. There seems to be a discussion of the relevance of the church in a world that has been divided by the church and its adherents, both liberal and conservative. This discussion focuses on using the methods of today in conjunction with the traditions of the past to bring about a more relevant relationship with God. But for all its new style and return of old traditions, the emerging church model will fail as an alternative if it does little more that offer a newer, more hip version of the current culture. (Adapted from "The Emergent Matrix" by Scott Bader-Saye, Christian Century, November 30, 2004)
As I read about the emerging church, and knowing what the Gospel message for today was, I could not help but think of John the Baptist sitting in his jail cell and wondering what was going on outside the walls of the prison.
John was in prison because he had angered Herod. Isolated from the world outside his cell, John had no idea what was going on. Yet he was hearing rumors, rumors that disturbed him. The Coming One that he had baptized was now beginning to proclaim His ministry to the world. In his mind and knowing that he had called for a major revival in the world, John was certain that the smiting of the evildoers would soon commence. Soon God’s judgement would be pronounced in no uncertain terms. But the rumors said this wasn’t true. Jesus was saying things like "See, I send you out like sheep in the midst of wolves . . . They will hand you over to councils . . . and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next . . . Do not fear those who kill the body . . . Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet no one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father" (Matthew 10: 16 – 31, passim)
And yet, the sparrows do fall. John was soon to be among them. As he hears of Jesus’ ministry, he begins to ask himself if Jesus really is the Messiah. Was Jesus going to prove that everything John did was wrong? So he asks his friend and his cousin, "Are you the One? Or do we look for another?"
Jesus tells John’s disciples, sent to query Jesus about what is going on, to tell John what they see and what they hear, how the blind now see and lame walk, how lepers have been cleansed and the deaf regain their hearing. Tell John, Jesus says, how the dead have been raised and the poor have received good news. (From "Cellmates" by Frederick Niedner, Christian Century, 30 November 2004) Then, after they leave, Jesus tells the crowds that John’s mission to prepare the way has been accomplished.
What Jesus does not tell John’s disciples is the story of His own time in the wilderness, that time when a decision was made about how the new kingdom would be built and what kind of messiah Jesus would be. Jesus could have opened the prisons where the hungry were starving; Jesus could have overthrown the tyrants that rule the nations of the world; Jesus could have been the king of all the earth. But would any of that really been the promise of God to bring peace to this earth?
When Jesus left the wilderness and came to the River Jordan to be baptized by John the decision had been made. The stones that could have been bread remained stones. The tyrants of the world still ruled and physical death was still a part of the people’s daily life. But someone was going to have to pay for all of this that makes life so cheap. And Jesus would be the one to pay it. He would go to the cross, He would be like a sheep among wolves. And He would die, just as John would die before Him.
But in his death, we would find life. John had prepared the way for Jesus though not in the manner that perhaps John thought it would be done. What we know from Matthew’s Gospel is that Jesus leads us deeper into the wilderness, deeper into a land that at times is void of hope and promise.
But it is only void of hope and promise if we are there because we are not with Jesus. If we are there because we have followed Jesus, we know that the land will grow again, that hope will return. We hear the words of the prophet Isaiah telling us that God will come and we will be saved. We hear Isaiah’s words telling us that the blind shall see again and the deaf will once again hear. We will see the lame walk again and those who cannot speak pronounce the words of God themselves. In the wilderness will be a path, a straight path that is only for those who have followed Jesus.
We are at a time when the church is struggling. You cannot help but think that there is a struggle when you read and hear about models of church growth that rely more on hype and marketing than an understanding of the Gospel. Maybe the emerging church matrix, with its attempts to bring the old ways back will do that; I do not know. What I do know is that we hear the words of James, telling us to be patient, because we know the time of revival is near.
But we have to ask, as the title of this sermon suggests, "what comes next?" How do we find patience in a world that demands immediacy? How do we find hope in a world that seems to have forgotten there is such a word?
In the sixties young people sat at lunch counters in North Carolina, only to be arrested. Other young people rode buses into the Deep South, only to be beaten and abused by angry crowds. Young children marched in Birmingham, Alabama, only to have dogs set upon them. Not one of them probably ever felt they were ready to take on the world and they all probably had some degree of fear in their souls. And they probably knew the words of Christ who told them this would be the reward they would gain for following Him.
Yes, they were all afraid, as have been the countless others before them who stood up for justice, witnessed for peace or gave their lives for freedom. But each one had heard the call, the voice inside them that said, "There’s a job for you to do." Let the Pharaohs, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the scribes of today be warned. New calls are being heard this day and they are calls for a new vision of this world.
We probably already know what we need to do but, like Moses when God called him to go see the Pharaoh holding the Israelites in captivity, we feel inadequate and overwhelmed by our weaknesses and fears. But, in the end, that is okay because we don’t have to be ready. We don’t have to have immense strength or power, we just have to hear God calling out to us, saying, "I have a job for you to do." (Adapted from The Soul of Politics by Jim Wallis)
We come to the table this day because we know that Jesus experienced those same fears. We come to the table this day because we know that Jesus was certain that he was too weak to carry out the task. We come to this table, as we will confess in a few moments, knowing that it is only because of God’s grace that we can. What comes next? It is for us to realize that, just as Jesus turned his soul over to God, so should we. As we follow Jesus deeper and deeper into the wilderness, we see life clearer and more certain.