A sermon by Fr. Justin Clemente given the first Sunday in Advent, November 28, 2021 at New Creation Church (Anglican), a parish of the community of Hagerstown, MD.
What Does Jesus Care About?
Earlier this month in our weekly newsletter, I sent out an article to y’all called “Dear Pastor…Your Shepherd Doesn’t Care How Big Your Church Is” by Jared Wilson. In it, he talks about his experience church planting in New England, one of the most unchurched or dechurched regions of the country. Pastor Jared writes out of the experience of a failed church plant – one with all the “right” bells and whistles followed by a growing and thriving church plant that lacked these sought after qualities. Here’s what he writes:
As our New England church grew, many churches around us did not. We had all the visible markers of success that normal leaders want. And I got a lot of pats on the back for it. I got taken to a fair number of meetings where other pastors over coffee would ask me about my methods. They were usually disappointed in my answer because I said we just tried to remain faithful to preach the gospel, love each other, and love our neighbors. We did some outreach stuff, sure, and we did some evangelism training. But we weren’t following any of the church growth recipes for increase. We were planting and watering and trusting God to bring the growth . . . or not to.
While I enjoyed the growth and wanted my church to enjoy the growth, I tried (imperfectly, of course) not to take credit. My previous church plant experience also taught me this lesson: the extent to which you give me the credit for the growth is the extent to which you’ll give me the blame for lack of growth. Christ isn’t calling us to grow his church. He will do that. He is calling us to be faithful.
Waiting Well = Standing Firm in Faith (Vs. 6-10, V.8)
Compare that sentiment to another church planter who planted churches in areas that were not just dechurched – they had never been churched at all. We’re talking about the most effective church planter of all time: the Apostle Paul. St. Paul established the Thessalonian church in 49 or 50 A.D. (you can read about that in Acts 17:1-9) and he wrote to this church a year or two later from Corinth. He wrote to them in a time of affliction and distress (3:3-4, 7). They were a church plant younger than we are at the time. When he thought of this church, what made his heart skip a beat? What was it that brought Paul the most joy? Was it the ASA (Average Sunday Attendance) in the First Church of Thessalonica? Was it the slickness of their programs? Was it the giftedness of their presbyter and leaders? No, it was none of this. It was that they were standing firm in their faith in spite of everything!
“For now we [really] live, if you are standing fast in the Lord.” (V.8)
Here’s the irony I was captivated by this week. There are two images in the New Testament for the Christian life: 1) running the race (e.g. Hebrews 12) and 2) standing still. Do you see the irony?
This word here in verse 8 “standing fast” is one of Paul’s very favorite pictures of the healthy Christian life. It literally means “to be stationary” or “to be fixed, unmoving.” Because it’s so common in Paul’s writing, it’s easy to miss how central this is to the life of the Christian. Paul loves to tell us to stand firm. Watch:
- Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Romans 5:2)
- Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. (1 Corinthians 16:13)
- For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1)
- Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. (Philippians 4:1)
So the life of the Christian is dynamic – running the race, active in faith, but we are also to be as still as stone, fixed immovable in the hope of the Gospel. Before the rush of Christmas, Advent is meant to bring us back to that place.
Standing Firm ON the Rock
Let’s notice something else: in order to stand firm, you must have something to stand on. Christians are people whose feet have been set on the rock and not in mid-air. We have been anchored in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, waiting for the blessed hope of his coming again to set the world to rights. Amen?
As we live in our world, what we see, if we have eyes to see, is that many are attempting to hang their lives in mid-air, moving ever faster and unsure of so very much.
This past week, Brooke and I were educated on the lasted and greatest hope in the world of technolatry: the Metaverse. The Metaverse basically take the internets and social media to the “next level,” if you want to call it that. It’s an online creation into which you can step for as long and as frequent as you like. It’s complete with savvier and more expressive avatars, digital clothing and persona, and near endless options for entertainment. One of the most chilling quotes I heard came from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Here’s what he said about it: “We shouldn’t really have to physically be together to feel present or collaborate or brainstorm.” That doesn’t at all sound like the downfall of humanity!
Think about this for a moment: Galatians 4:4 tells us that Jesus came into the world at just the right moment – the God-appointed moment! That means that the Scripture were written at just the right moment, too. When Paul says we live if you are standing fast in the Lord, he’s talking about the gathered life of the saints. We live…if y’all stand firm in the Lord. That is to say, in being who you are as the gathered church. In verse six, Paul said it was like gospel to him when he heard that they were persevering in the Faith together. Real embodied community in Christ, with real sinners, in real time, with real risks. Acts 17 tells us that a guy named Jason even had his house attacked and was dragged before civil authorities for being a Christian. What does Paul tell this persecuted local church: keep at it! In our post-pandemic, ever more digital world, are we willing to fight for that? Do we see it as valuable and necessary as God sees it? Consider this: for Paul, the Thessalonians life together as a church was a demonstration of the power of the Gospel. That’s my prayer for this church.
Here is what I know: in this Word around which we physically gather, at this Table we bow before, in the water in which we are washed, we find a place to stand firm together. Amen?
Now, in our families, are we willing to stand firm? Are we communicating to our spouse, to our children, that we are going to stand firm? Are we saying to our kids, no matter else I do for you, I will give you the Faith whole and intact? In the unrealistic, unrelenting, and dizzying expectations for family life in our modern world, are we serious enough to choose between allegiances? Are we willing to put some things down in order to stand firm in the one thing that matters?
And for each of us, as we consider the call to stand firm, the question before us this Advent is this: is Jesus Christ our place of repose? Is he still the refuge our soul? While “standing firm in the faith” seems to be the preferred posture of the New Testament, we can also take our rest. So the psalmist says, “I will lay down in peace, and take my rest; for you, Lord, only, make me dwell in safety.” (Psalm 4:8)
Paul’s Prayer for the Church: Increasing and Abounding…in Love (vs. 11-13)
It is in the hope of the Gospel alone that our lives and the work the Lord has given us to can bear good, lasting fruit. That’s exactly where Paul goes here in his closing prayer. “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” (1 Thessalonians 3:12-13)
Paul is a Father in God to the Thessalonians, not a church marketing strategist. He prays that they might increase and abound…in what, specifically? Love for one another and for all. The community of Christ is our training ground for Christianity maturity – for having hearts that are established (made firm!) in the holiness we have in Christ, ready to meet him at his return. One commentator writes:
“[T]he Christian community is the school in which we learn to love. Like Great musicians who practice tedious drills for long hours, Christians practice their scales at home in order to sing in public. In the community, love is commanded and modeled, and here is where it must be lived out and practiced.” (Thompson, as quoted in 1-2 Thessalonians by G.K. Beale, pg. 109)
In a Metaverse world, in a world where people are increasingly evermore together and yet alone, in a world where we are encouraged to spin our wheels ever faster, the Body of Christ (including our homes) is where we learn to wait well and stand firm as long as the Lord should tarry.
And so we give all the thanks and praise to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen!