Return

(Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-5) – J G White
11 am, Sun, March 24, 2019 – UBC Digby

A flight attendant spent a week’s vacation in the Rockies. She was captivated by the mountain peaks, the clear blue skies, and the beautiful forest. She also was charmed by a very eligible bachelor who owned and operated a cattle ranch and lived in a log cabin.

At the end of this week, after a wonderful time with this bachelor, she has to return home to her job. While on board the place, she was pondering, “Should I go back to the city or return to the woods and stay with this man in the cabin for the rest of her life?” She was struggling but believes that God will give her an answer.

To refresh herself, she went into the rest room and splashed some water on her face. Just then, there was some turbulence, a ‘ding’ sound went off and then a sign in the rest room lit up: PLEASE RETURN TO THE CABIN. She did – to the cabin back in the mountains. (modified from Reader’s Digest [1/81], p. 118)

Isaiah 55 – a great chapter!  God invites: Come to me; I will make an everlasting agreement with you.  The prophet injects: seek Lord while may be found… Let them return to the Lord.  

This is the phrase that has caught my attention for more than a week.  Return. Return to the Lord. Who is returning to God and Christ now?

One month ago Sharon and I heard Dr. Joel Thiessen, Ambrose University, Calgary, AB, give lectures in Wolfville about how churches thrive.

Sources of Attendance (in Canadian Churches):

Thiessen’s observations: 1. In most churches about 10% of people in the pews we can consider converts.  

  1. People raised in the congregation (green):  One disadvantage in this group: they tend to be slower to change.  Same for many things, not just churches.
  2. The largest groups in congregations are those who joined it when they moved to the town, or who came after leaving a different one in the area.  

So, Thiessen asks, if a congregation is growing in numbers, is it flourishing?  Depends… Most growing churches in Canada are growing because of transfer growth!  Is that good or not? We often decide. These are important questions.

Many of those who enter the local Church now are people returning.  Not new converts. We knew this, I knew this, but I have always felt the ideal way is to reach new, unsaved, unchurched men and women.  Perhaps I need to rethink my goals. Pay more attention to how we include the people of Christian experience out there who are not in Churches?

I think of my pastor friend (Garnet Parker) who dreamed of organizing a new congregation in Hants County for all those people out there who had been hurt the the church in the past, rejected by church, whatever.  The Church of the Unforgiven, or something like that. There’s a lot to be said for finding a place for those who left the church for good reason.

People leave the Faith for many reasons.  Some reasons are quite serious. Why do people suffer so?  That’s a big issue. Always has been. Look at the conversation Sara read from Luke 13.  People talk to Jesus about why a group of people got targeted by Pilate and were killed. Why? They wonder why some folks got killed when a stone tower fell on them.

Jesus’ answer seems to be two things. One, He says, No, these people did not deserve what they got, they were not being punished for something. Yet He also says, Watch out; you turn around, or you might end up the same way.  

This is just one of many moments we have from the Bible where Jesus deals with the suffering of people.  And that is just one reason people give up on being practicing Christians.

It is their return to the Lord that interests us today, to use Isaiah’s phrase.  Many people who come to these pews are returning. Some of you returned to this church of your childhood. In fact, you may have been a member here for decades, having joined when you were a teenager.  [I have a whole sermon for you about this pet peeve of mine – the problem of keeping your membership in a local church after you leave – naughty, naughty! But I will give you that sermon some other day.]

Some of you coming here was a return to church in general, though not this specific one. You were away from it for years, then came to this fellowship.  

Some of you are folk who left some other nearby congregation, and found us after a while, and stayed.

Of course, Baptist congregations have operated for hundreds of years with membership. Though many of you regular participants are not members.  Perhaps today’s a good day to review our membership procedures. If we are happy with people returning to God, or returning to us in this Church, we must pay attention to how we welcome and include them/you.

Article IV – Reception of Members

Upon recommendation of the Deacons and a vote of the Church, a person may be received into membership:  This is one of the most important ministries of the Deacons in any church.

      1. i) By baptism – A candidate who gives satisfactory evidence of faith in Christ and a desire to live for Christ, is accepted for baptism.  Baptists got named “Baptists” because our emphasis on baptism.  We believe in individual freedom: the choice to be baptized into Christianity is a choice of the individual person, not of anyone else.  
      2. ii) By letter – A member of a Christian Church practicing baptism by immersion may be received on the basis of a letter of dismission and recommendation from that Church.  Of course, since we believe so strongly in the local church, the reverse is true.  When you, a member of Digby Baptist, leave, you transfer your membership to where you are.  YOU DO NOT STAY A MEMBER HERE. Oops. That is my sermon for another day. 😉

iii) By experience – This is a very interesting part of our identity here.  Not every Baptist Church is like this, even in our own Association or Denomination.  It is what is called ‘open membership.’ We respect Anglicans as Christians, and welcome them as full members if they so desire.  So too with Uniteds, or Lutherans, or other forms of believers. Also…

iii) By experience – A candidate may become a member of the Church if there is satisfactory evidence of Christian experience when:

      1. a) The candidate has been baptized by immersion but is unable, for satisfactory reasons, to obtain a letter of transfer from another church.
      2. b) Members of established Christian churches not practising baptism by immersion, may be received into full membership of this Church through their Christian experience and by vote of this Church.  They must first come before a committee of the Deacons’ Board and be given every encouragement to be baptized by immersion.
      3. c) If a candidate by reason of infirmity is unable to follow our regular form of baptism, the person may be received into full membership by a vote of the Church’s members.  We do not say here in our Constitution that another form of baptism could be used, but I would also recommend that. Once, I baptized a man with a bit of water poured over his head, because he was ill and in bed all the time.  
      4. d) By restoration – “suspended” members may be restored to fellowship.  The unanimous vote of the deacons and a majority vote of the Church is necessary in such a case.  This is another topic altogether – how members can get suspended, and then restored to fellowship.

No matter how someone joins us, or if they officially become a member of the congregation or not, our fellowship is called by God to welcome disciples of Jesus into our ranks. We are in the work of calling people to return to God.  Repent is another Bible word close to this, which means turn around.  

For so many this is not a matter of joining Christ for the first time ever.  It is a return. A new beginning. A fresh start. We all need this, from time to time.  Next Sunday here, we have a show-and-tell about our devotions, our prayer life, our use of the Bible, and so on. This week, show & tell God how devoted you are!

Glacial Gospel

Sunday,  June 5, 2016, 11 AM, UBC Digby

J G White (Isaiah 55:1-2, 6-8; Galatians 1:1-12)

I stood on a glacier once… the Athabasca glacier in Alberta.  Likely some of you have done the same.  Seen and touched a giant river of ice, creeping down from the high mountains. And we’ve read stories of the perilous journeys explorers made upon the incredible icefields around the globe.

Galatians’ is a name for a little letter in the Bible, and refers to the people of a region bordering the Mediterranean Ocean.  Some early Churches were formed in the towns there. I play on this word, and preach a Glacial Gospel this morning, using a text from the book of Galatians. Not that this message is slow and barely moving, nor deadly cold and chilling, nor very old and shrinking. The Christian Gospel is huge and relentless and unstoppable.  

When a church service was over, a visitor in the pews asked: “Do you preach the whole Gospel?”

The preacher replied: “Not every Sunday.”

In a book about the Gospel, written by a friend of mine, the preface says: You see, while the gospel is so simple that a child can understand it, it is also so complex that a theologian can study it all his life and never fully plumb its depths. (Sean Crowe in the gospel & giving answer, Grant Fawcett, 2014, p. 7)

I plan for us to explore this New Testament text – the Book of Galatians – for several weeks.  At issue here is how Christians go astray with the gospel.  We may see what happened to them, and what the Apostle Paul does to set them on the right track again.  In our day, we can discover the ways we are on the right track with Jesus’ Good News, or not.

There are plenty of ways we go astray – as believers.  I don’t even mean how we humans go astray when we are not saved.  After we have joined Christ we still get disjointed!

This past week I ran into some of you, and was told more than once, “We missed you.”  I was away for four days, last weekend, including Sunday morning and evening.  Thank-you for your fond words of welcome and appreciation.  But now I wonder, do the rest of you experience this?  Or am I favoured? If you were away from here last Sunday, from your pew, would anyone fawn all over you, telling you how much your absence was noticed, and how good it is to have you back?  

There is such danger in a local church being too focused upon the Pastor, being too ‘pastor centric,’ I call it.  Sunday mornings and weekday activities depend upon the Pastor, and what he or she leads.  People invite friends to services saying good things about the Pastor, or about the music, or the Pastor’s good music, instead of saying good things about the Saviour.  

I for one easily fall into this habit of clinging to a gospel of good times, rather than of Christ, and Him crucified.  I want hymns and music I like. I evaluate the preaching, and prayers, and scripture reading.  I start to believe that my congregation is just right when it is stable, happy, and peaceful, with no conflict.  Some brave preacher said this about churches being stable: Stable?  Corpses are stable!

Turning to a ‘different gospel’ can be a matter of turning to comfort, looking for prosperity, seeking to get what we want from God, and God’s Church.  And if we don’t get it, there is another congregation just down the road where we might get what we want.  

I think I saw this Facebook post the other day: “Share and God will take care of all your bills.”  The Good News of Christ is gigantic and blessed, but I don’t think it is financial magic for middle-class Canadians.  A ‘gospel’ that is all blessings and prosperity for us is not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In his letter to the Galatian Christians, Paul starts off not with the customary prayer for the recipients, but with this!

6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.  

The Gospel of Jesus Christ also gets watered down by grasping at one or two elements of it, and making that the whole thing. But the Good News is glacial, as I say, it is gigantic and through history is always on the move.  

The message of salvation we have to share is not simply believe in Jesus if you want to go to heaven when you die.  

My friend, Grant, is a missionary of sorts, working from a Christian Camp on Grand Lake, NB.  A couple years ago he had this experience:  …I had a teenager tell me she had “become a Christian” every summer for nine summers at bible [sic] camp, but she couldn’t tell me the first thing about the gospel other than she “prayed the prayer” every year. (Grant Fawcett, the gospel & giving answer, 2014, p. 45)  To know what is right and true about the Good News of Jesus – and how to be saved – we start to notice the ways we go astray: the false teachings and false conversions.  

Then again, as some have claimed, bank tellers do not study counterfeit in order to pick it out.  They study real currency, in detail – the paper and fibers and inks and holograms and such – and then a counterfeit is easily noticed when it comes along. So too in our faith.  As we know our Saviour better and better through the years, and study the Word of truth, what is false shows up more easily before our eyes.

As Paul begins his scathing letter to the churches in Galatia, his words of greeting point out some essentials of the gospel.  The gospel which, we will see, was such an issue for these new Christians.  They’d gotten mixed up about it.

To the churches in Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins…  

That tiny word, so burdened with meaning and feeling: SIN – it reminds us what we know so well.  All is not well in this life.  There is wrong.  There is evil.  There is hurt and harm.  There is pain.  There is failure.  There is unfairness.

All this – the whole constellation of what’s wrong in the world – is handled by God in Christ, dying by execution.  …to deliver us from the present evil age…  Paul says.  To be set free where we are, even in the middle of things, is possible, by God’s amazing actions.  

In my bare feet the other day I stood on a hornet; so, naturally, it stung me.  If I had stood on a whole bees nest, you would have seen my flying fast!  But a beekeeper, with know- how and proper equipment, can go among the bees and work in their hive with freedom.  

The Good News of Jesus is how we can be set free in this evil, unfair world.  While we are still here. We enter the heavenly, eternal Kingdom Life now.  We can take steps farther into it, week by week.

And Paul says this is …According to the will of our God and Father; to whom be the glory for ever and ever.  The whole Gospel starts with God, actually.  To talk about the Good News is to talk, first of all, about who this God is.  

So, we will continue to explore this, with Paul’s challenging letter to the Galatians, Christians of long ago.  We shall hear our Master speak again, from these pages.

The Christian Gospel is huge and relentless and unstoppable.