This morning, I want to begin a new sermon series and I want to do something I don’t normally do. I want to share with you some of my thought process that led me to this series.
I’m reminded of the story of the little boy whose father was a preacher. And, in amazement, the boy watched his father prepare a sermon one day. He asked him, “How do you know what to say?” His father said, “God tells me.” The boy said, “Then why do you keep crossing out some of it out?”
As you might expect, the process of knowing what to say is a little more difficult than that. At the beginning of this year, you may recall that I preached a sermon series on the Seven Deadly Sins and we spent a lot of time talking about all the things that we shouldn’t be doing. And so, this time around, I wanted to preach a series of lessons that are a bit more positive, more focused on the things that we should be doing.
And, of course, what we should be doing is shaping our lives more and more into the image of Jesus Christ. My job as a preacher, as Paul described it in Ephesians 4, is to “prepare God’s holy people for the work of serving, to make the body of Christ stronger. This work must continue until we are all joined together in the same faith and in the same knowledge of the Son of God. We must become like a mature person, growing until we become like Christ and have his perfection.” (Eph. 4:11-13, NLT)
But, that’s a pretty broad goal and, of course, talking about what we should be doing as Christians could go in a lot of different directions. For example, I considered preaching a series of lessons about how we can better reach out to the community. But over the past several weeks, in conversations with several of you, it seems that there is perhaps a greater need for us to focus on our relationship with each other for a little while.
Throughout all of this thought process, I’ve been reading a book by Darryl Tippens entitled “Pilgrim Heart” which contains a lot of good material about how we can follow God in our everyday lives, and so that’s been shaping my thinking as well.
And so, in the end, I decided to call this series, “Our Journey With Jesus”. And I intentionally use the word “journey” because I do believe that the Christian life is a journey. Becoming more and more like Jesus Christ is not something you do while you’re sitting still. In the passage I read a few moments ago from Ephesians 4, Paul said that we are to “grow” until we become like Christ.
But growth involves change. It involves moving from one place in our Christian lives to another place, a little further along, a little closer to Jesus. The sad truth is there are some Christians who don’t grow, who quit chang¬ing, who reach a certain level of maturity and they just stay there. Maybe not intentionally. I don’t think anyone would actually say, “I don’t plan to ever become a mature Christians.” But, as the Hebrew writer mentioned at the end of Hebrews 5, there are some Christians who get older, but who never grow up to be spiritually mature.
I heard a story once about a father and mother who were sleeping in bed one night when they were awakened by a loud noise that came from their son’s bedroom. They immediately got up, rushed into their son’s room where they found that their son had fallen out of his bed. So they held him and comforted him for a while and the little boy said, “I guess I fell asleep too close to where I got in!
And I think that’s a good description of the spirituality of some Christians. They fall asleep too close to the place where they entered the Christian life. There’s no growth, there’s no progress.
What would you think if someone were to say to you, “You’re never going to get any better than you are right now. Spiritually, you’re as close to God as you’re ever going to get.” And I don’t know how you would react to that, but I can tell you that, for me, I would be absolutely devastated. Because I do want to grow, I want to mature, I want to be closer to God than I am right now. But, to do that, I have to change. I have to move from where I am right now to where I want to be.
And so, my Christian life is a journey. And your Christian life is a journey. When you look at scripture, you’ll notice that for a lot of people, their relationship with God involved an actual physical journey. Think about Abraham who made that journey of faith from his hometown of Ur to the land of Canaan. Or Jacob and his family who made the journey from Canaan all the way down to the land of Egypt to be with Joseph. Or Moses, who led the Israelites as they journeyed through the wilderness from Egypt back to Canaan.
And even the disciples of Jesus journeyed with him. Jesus traveled from town to town and his disciples traveled along with him, listening to his words and learning from him. And as they spent time with Jesus, they learned as much from what they saw as they did what they heard. Because Jesus’ teaching was demonstrated in a variety of activities – eating meals, touching people, washing feet, praying, listening to others, reading Scripture, worshiping. In other words, Jesus didn’t simply talk about what it meant to follow God; he lived it out. Day after day, in all of the ordinary things that he did, Jesus lived out what it means to follow God.
And then, the early church followed his example, and the church became known as a group of people who live a certain way in the world. And it’s interesting to the me that one of the first names given to the followers of Jesus in the book of Acts was not “the church of Christ”. It wasn’t even “the church” or “Christians”. The followers of Jesus were first known as “The Way”.
For example, in Acts 9:2, Saul “asked…for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” You see that same term used again in Acts 19 and Acts 24.
That word translated “way” is the Greek word “hodos”. It means “the road that you travel”. And everyone who saw the early disciples recognized that they were traveling with Jesus. They were on this journey.
You may have noticed that Paul and the other New Testament writers often used traveling language to describe our Christian lives. For example, in Ephesians 4:1, Paul tells us to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” And so, I want us to view our Christian life as a journey, a process, a movement from one place in our lives to another.
But more specifically, our journey is a journey with Jesus. Because we’re not just traveling for the sake of traveling. When Sueanne and I lived in the Nashville area, there was an older member of our congregation whose name was Bill. Bill was retired and he loved to travel. But not in the sense that everyone else likes to travel. His favorite thing to do was to get in his car and drive for 12 hours and then turn around and drive for 12 hours to get home. He didn’t drive to see anybody he knew. He didn’t drive to see any particular sites. He just loved to drive.
And I can assure you that I am not like that. If I drive for 12 hours, there better be a real good reason for it. There better be somebody at the end of that trip that I really want to see, or some place that I really want to visit. I travel with a purpose.
And the same thing is true of our spiritual journey. It must have a purpose. It must have a destination. Our goal is to be a group of people who look like Jesus, who talk like Jesus, who love like Jesus. And so, it is a journey with Jesus.
But it’s also important to recognize that it is a journey that we take together. Now I understand that many of us have a fierce independent spirit that wants to say, “I can do it all by myself.” And I understand that some of you, like me, are introverts and we treasure our time alone. And I understand that sometimes life with other people can get messy and frustrating and sometimes downright exhausting.
But, the truth is, we need each other. Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 4, “Two are better than one…For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10). When you journey together with others, it’s easier. You encourage each other along the way, you keep each other company, you challenge each other.
I’m sure you’ve heard that that’s why geese fly in a group, usually in a “V” formation. With the exception of the goose leading the group, each bird trailing behind the other benefits from a reduction in wind resistance. The birds deliberately tailgate each other. It’s the concept of drafting, which is also practiced by bicyclists when they travel together. But the point is, you can travel further in a group because everyone takes their turn in carrying the load.
The same thing is true of our journey with Jesus. God never intended for us to travel this journey alone. That’s why the church was established. We need each other. Traveling “The Way”, taking this journey with Jesus, is not a solo enterprise. When Jesus commissioned his twelve apostles, he sent them out two by two (Mark 6:7). When he sent out the seventy disciples who shared the good news, he sent them out in pairs (Luke 10:1). Wherever he went, Jesus formed communities.
We’ve talked before about the Desert Fathers, those Christians who separated themselves from society and withdrew to live in closed communities around the Dead Sea. But one of the sayings of the Desert Fathers was this — “If you see a young man climbing up to heaven by his own will, catch him by the foot and pull him down to earth; it is not good for him.” They understood that growing in spirituality is not something that we can do by ourselves. We need to be surrounded by community.
There’s an African proverb that I heard many years ago that I truly love. It says, “If you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together.” And I think there’s something to that. If I want to get to the grocery store as quickly as possible, I hop in the car and go by myself. But, if I plan on traveling across the country, I need someone with me.
And, in our Christian journey, it’s not a fast race, but rather it’s a long journey. That’s why the Hebrew writer says in Hebrews 12 that we need to “run with perseverance” (Hebrews 12:1). And as we travel together in each other’s company, we not only find safety and encouragement, we find Jesus himself, walking beside us. From the very beginning, Jesus meant for us to travel together, and church is a name for the group of people who follow Jesus together.
So, over the weeks ahead, we’re going to talk about what it means to journey with Jesus, to grow spiritually as we move from one point in our spiritual lives to another. And the way that we’re going to do this is by looking at some spiritual disciplines. Now, I hesitate to use that terminology because whenever we hear that phrase, we usually think of things like fasting, praying, meditation, and a lot of other things that you do all by yourself, in a back room with the door closed.
But the Bible talks about not only those spiritual disciplines that we practice alone, but it also talks about spiritual disciplines that we practice with other Christians, what you might refer to as community spiritual disciplines. For example, we can pray alone, which is a personal spiritual discipline. But we can also pray together with the church, which is a community spiritual discipline.
And the truth is, we need both of those things. There are some things that we need to be doing in our personal lives to grow spiritually. But my focus in the weeks ahead is going to be on those things that we need to be doing together.
And a key word in that phrase is “doing”. Because a spiritual discipline is an activity; it’s something you do. Now, I believe that our Christian growth can be measured in several different ways – we need to know certain things, we need to do certain things, and we need to be certain things. And, throughout this series, I’ll be mentioning things from all three of those categories, but I’m especially going to be focused on those things that we do.
Because spiritual disciplines are things that you do. If you read your Bible, that’s something you do. You meditate on Scripture. You pray, you fast, you worship, you serve, and so forth. Those are all activities.
But it’s important for us to see that the goal of practicing any given discipline is not so much about doing so as it is about being: being like Jesus, being with Jesus. But the way we grow to be more like Jesus is by doing certain spiritual disciplines.
I think Paul described it well when he said in I Timothy 4:7, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (NASB). The goal is godliness, but the way we achieve that is by disciplining ourselves. We discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness.
It’s not just about doing more and more. You can do all the right stuff, but for all the wrong reasons. Just ask the Pharisees. But with the right motivation, spiritual disciplines are those things that we do in order to be like Jesus.
And spiritual disciplines are things that we need to do repeatedly. We all understand that there is value in exercise. But I hope you realize that getting up one morning and exercising for 15 minutes is not going to transform your life. But 15 minutes a day, over a period of time, can transform your life and bring about some real changes.
And that’s true of anything you do. If you practice playing the piano 15 minutes every day, you will become a better piano player. On the other hand, if you spend time every day whining or complaining, that behavior will become part of you. The words you type into Facebook, the people you hang around with, the TV shows you choose to watch, they all help to shape who you become.
The difference between who you are now and who you were five years ago is largely due to how you’ve spent your time along the way. The habits we get into shape who we are, one minute at a time. And so, a small thing, repeated, is not a small thing at all.
I also want to make the point that many of these disciplines involve things that are very ordinary. As we talk about spiritual disciplines over the weeks ahead, talking about things that we need to be doing repeatedly to shape our lives into the image of Christ, there are probably hundreds of different things that I could talk about. But I want to focus on some things that perhaps we may have tended to neglect or under-value. And I hope that we can come to see how the life of Jesus can be lived out in very ordinary ways.
Richard Foster once said, “The discovery of God lies in the daily and the ordinary, not in the spectacular and the heroic. If we cannot find God in the routines of home and shop, then we will not find him at all.”
I realize that sometimes it’s hard for us to picture how to live out our Christianity in “ordinary” ways. I often hear Christians say, “I have a hard time living like Jesus. I spend all my time all day long at work behind a desk.” Or, “I spend all my time chasing three little kids around the house and changing diapers.” Or, as Ida wrote this past week, “Life has given me many challenges, and sometimes I feel so inadequate.”
Most of you are familiar with Garrison Keillor. He used to be the host of the radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion”. And he would close every monologue by saying, “That’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
And we were amused by that because all of us like to think that our children really are above average. And so are we! But, not everyone can be above average. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to acknowledge that most of us are pretty ordinary. As Abraham Lincoln put it, “God must love the common man, he made so many of them!”
But there’s a part of us that doesn’t like the thought of being ordinary and we may not feel that we have much to offer God unless we can be something other than ordinary.
But, it strikes me as I read the story of Jesus that even though he was the Son of God, there was a certain ordinariness about his life. Aside from the virgin birth, Jesus came into this world in very ordinary fashion. He was born to two poor parents.
And as he grew older, there seemed to be nothing special about him. Despite the pictures you see, he didn’t walk around with a halo constantly over his head. In fact, Isaiah said of Jesus, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2, NIV).
In other words, there was nothing special about the way Jesus looked. He looked ordinary, he lived an ordinary life, and, in fact, it was because of that that the Jews couldn’t imagine that he was in any way extraordinary.
And yes, Jesus performed miracles which made it clear that he was the Son of God, but so much of his life with his disciples was spent doing very ordinary things – eating and drinking, walking, talking, sitting, socializing, listening, touching, telling stories. And don’t forget the time he spent as a carpenter. We don’t know anything about Jesus’ life between the ages of 12 and 30, but I think it’s safe to say that he spent much, if not all of that time, working in his father’s construction business, because the people knew him as “the carpenter” (Mark 6:3)
And so, when Jesus said to his mother in the temple at the age of 12, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49), I don’t think he was just talking about that one day. I think that was a sum¬mary of his lifetime commitment.
And what that means is that while Jesus worked as a carpenter, he was serving God. Jesus didn’t spend 18 years of his life counting down the days until he could get the chance to “really” work for God. Jesus worked for God day in and day out, in so many ordinary ways – making yokes, building houses, repairing carts.
And so, over the weeks ahead, I want to look at ways for us to grow in our relationship with God that are very ordinary. Spending time doing these spiritual disciplines isn’t necessarily going to cause you to stand out from the crowd.
In fact, a lot of things that we do are most powerful when they’re not noticed, when they don’t attract attention, when they’re simply an expression of who are. When our life in the world becomes a way of being and relating to one another that seems “natural.” And I think maybe that’s one of the reasons that we sometimes fail to recognize the value in these spiritual disciplines. They just seem so ordinary.
And so, we’re going to look at these ordinary spiritual disciplines as we journey together with Jesus. With some of these disciplines, we’ll have the opportunity to practice on one another. With others, we’ll lend encouragement and challenge one another. Because we journey together, we journey as a group, as together we seek to be shaped into the image of Jesus.
But there’s one more piece that we need to fit in to this equation. Because if we’re going to make this journey together, there’s one more thing that we’ve got to have.
Richard Beck wrote in a blog recently, “One of the questions I often ask myself about my church…is this: What binds us together as a community?”
And he said, “As best I can tell what binds us together is liking. We’re at our church because we like it. Because we like the sermons. Or like the worship. Or like the programs. Or like the Bible classes. Or like the people. We are there…because we like the same things.
“[But] obviously, this is a very thin web of support…that is holding us together. What happens when we get a new preacher and we don’t like the sermons as much anymore? Or what if the worship style changes and we stop liking it? What happens when the going gets tough? When sin needs to be confronted, when discipleship gets costly, when love gets sacrificial or when deep disagreements are aired? What happens when doubts deepen and faith grows cold? Will liking be enough to bind us together during these seasons?”
And he concludes, “There needs to be something more than liking. So what might it look like if a church was bound together by promises rather than preferences? Because love, it seems to me, is less about liking than it is about promising.”
And I think Beck is exactly right. We’re all Americans and so therefore, we are consumers. We shop around. We buy exactly what we want. And if we don’t like it, we return it within 30 days, no questions asked. We base all our decisions on what we like. We go to the restaurants we like. We listen to the music we like. We spend time with the people we like.
And there’s nothing wrong with any of that. But we do need to understand that liking will not hold us together as a church in the tough times — because we don’t like the tough times. And so, when the going gets tough, we’d rather go somewhere we like better.
And it’s not that the church shouldn’t have good sermons and worship services. It should. And my wife should never be in a bad mood or have a bad day. The difference is that when she does have a bad day, I don’t leave. I made a promise. In fact, I try to make her day better. It’s about keeping my word. Having integrity. And that’s what it means to truly love someone. Because I don’t just like her. Love is different. Love lasts.
And that’s why Paul said to the Christians in Colossians 3:14, “And above all these [things] put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
And so, in the weeks ahead, I want to talk about how we actually live out that love with one another through these community spiritual disciplines. I hope that you will all be here to join us as we take this journey together.