Here are my thoughts for the 5th Sunday in Lent, 29 March 2009. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 31: 31 – 34, Hebrews 5: 5 – 10, and John 12: 20 – 33.
There are two thoughts behind the title to this message. One is in response to what many non-churched say is the problem with the church today; the other is about the attitudes of many people in the church today. The latter reason for this message may have a lot to do with the former reason.
I know that one day I will get old, if I am not already that way now. But the problem is that I don’t know what old really is. Is it when my bones ache and I creak when I walk? Is it when what’s left of my hair turns gray and then white? If that’s the case, I have been old for several years now.
Do you have to be technological “hip” to be young? Are you automatically “old” if you don’t keep up with the technology of the moment? I don’t twitter (I am not even sure that I could twitter because I don’t think I have the right type of cell phone to do such things) and I don’t text message my friends; I was never an aficionado of instant messaging. Does that make me old? I don’t take photos with my cell phone nor do I gather information from the web on my phone; it isn’t that I couldn’t do it but that my cell phone doesn’t have those capabilities.
We live in a technologically-dominated society, a society in which you have to have the newest gadgets and be hip to the latest and newest changes. We are quick to label someone as out of touch if they don’t have the latest gimmick or aren’t a member of the latest social group. And our churches, no matter the denomination, are quick to incorporate these new changes into their worship services.
But is the utilization of the latest technology really a statement of youth and vigor or just an attempt to market the church in a day and time of mass-marketing. How effective are such techniques when the people to whom such appeals are directed are hip to the message and the moment? Do we think that if we portray the church as young and vibrant we will actually get people to see that we are?
Or is old a matter of what you think? Can it be that there are people who are young, according to the calendar, but old in the mind, set in their ways and not willing to change? Can it be that there are people who defy the calendar and are young in heart and mind and soul?
We all know that the primary concern in churches today is the declining membership of many long-time established churches and many of those churches look at the churches which are growing and wonder why? I don’t think it has anything to do with the age of the church itself, the building in which the congregation meets or the calendar age of the congregation that meets in the church building. Nor do I think that this problem has anything to do with whether or not the church is up to date with technology or music or worship styles. Rather, I think it is that many members, no matter how young or old they might be in terms of the calendar, are old when it comes to their ways. And this “oldness” makes it very difficult for them to make the change or accept the change that is needed for a church to adapt to the needs of the community in which it was first set.
Should churches change with the times and the needs of the community? The answer, of course, is most definitely. But the changes cannot be simply because it is the thing to do; the change must reflect the ability of the church to present a timeless message in a manner more appropriate to the time. By the same token, any opposition to change which parallels “that’s they way we have always done it and others are going to have to adapt to what we do” simply shows what amounts to a closed mind.
What the prophet Jeremiah expresses in the Old Testament reading for today should be the basis for any change undertaken by a church. In announcing a new covenant, Jeremiah is pointing out that there needs to be a new thinking, a new way of seeing things.
If you spend all of your life doing things a particular way, you are not likely to seek new ideas or new ways. If you are part of a system that has done things consistently the same year after year and you have to wait “your turn” before you get to do anything, you are not likely to be ready for change when the next generation wants to do something. It is very easy to fall into a pattern, a pattern that runs counter to the very essence of the Gospel and the words of Christ.
We hear the words of the writer of Hebrews who speaks of Christ’s submission to God and how He learned obedience through submission. We somehow think that submission to the system and maintenance of the old ways is what we are supposed to do. We know that Abraham obeyed God when God told him to sacrifice Isaac. But Abraham didn’t challenge God as to why he should do this.
To challenge God is not wrong, if we are to ask what comes next. Abraham trusted in God to provide what God said He would provide. But to challenge God is not to go against God. We are reminded that Job did not accept the given answer that he had done something terrible and only wanted an explanation for his misfortune.
What we are supposed to do is give ourselves to Christ, not to the system. As Jesus pointed out to the Greeks, if a grain of wheat is to bear fruit, it must first die. Those who seek salvation will only find that salvation if they give up their old lives and begin anew. Our world can quickly become a world in which we grow old when we are not willing to give
The problem is that we think we know the ways of God; we think that we can tell people exactly what God wants us to do. The problem is, as Isaiah pointed out in Isaiah 55 8, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. (New International Version) or “I don’t think the way you think. The way you work isn’t the way I work.” God’s Decree (from The Message).
And if we think that obedience to the system is obedience to God, we no longer have a living relationship with God. And without that living relationship, it will be very difficult to even contemplate new ideas or new ways.
The new covenant was the foundation for a new relationship and with the new relationship had to be a new way of thinking. You could no longer rely on adherence to the Law as a guarantee for salvation. The call through Lent has been to repent, to change one’s life and begin anew.
To see the church in terms of the present system is to see an organization and its people growing old and losing its touch with the world. The church is old simply because it has been around for two thousand years.
But the word of the Gospel is not out-of-date; it can be if we are not willing to cast aside our lives in the system and in the world and accept the new relationship established by Christ. The call of Lent is to repent and begin anew.