As a child, I remember looking up at that teenager with the raised dagger in his hand and I remember thinking, someone really did that! This isn’t just a skit. The words in this book are not just words. At some point in history, a man named Abraham was willing to kill his son because God asked him to do it! Wow! I remember as a kid, I was really touched by that story. All these years later, I’m still touched by that story. As a father, I’m even more touched by that story.
Do you remember another occasion in Abraham’s life, when he was much younger? In Genesis 12, we are first introduced to Abraham, only then, his name was Abram. The writer of Genesis skims through a long genealogy in chapter 11 ending with a man named Terah. Terah turned out to be Abram’s father. And we soon learn that the point of that entire genealogy was to bring us to Abram. And after reading only the first paragraph that describes his life, we realize why it was so important to get to Abram. Listen to this story…
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. (Genesis 12:1–6, NRSV)The most important words in this story, “So Abram went…” Now, listen, don’t read over that too quickly. Abram went. The immediate question that should follow those words is this, “Why did he go?” For all that we know, this is the first encounter Abram ever had with YWHW. The Bible doesn’t tell us that this was the end of a long series of exchanges between this future patriarch and God. The Bible simply said, God began talking and Abram went. He left everything he knew. Everyone he loved. They didn’t have CNN or Google Earth in those days; this was a blind trip for young Abram. He went to a land far away filled with strange people simply because God said, “Go.” And the question that this text DEMANDS that we ask is, “Why?”
Some would call what Abraham (or Abram) did religious. “Religious,” you know, is not a religious word. That’s right. I said it. Believe it or not, it does make sense. To be religious has nothing to do with God or Jesus or church. To be religious simply means to be devout, to be conscientious or as one dictionary puts it: To be “scrupulously faithful.” You can be scrupulously faithful to anything; to food, to football or to God. Abraham was religious toward God. He was scrupulously faithful to God.
Some in our culture have cast the word “religious” in an institutional religion mold. And for some reason, because they have viewed the word religious that way, more and more people in our nation and world are beginning to distance themselves from that word. In a Gallup Poll that came out recently, apparently, 15% of the American public considers itself non-religious. That may sound like good odds to you! After all, that means 85% of Americans view themselves as religious. But, would your excitement be curbed even a little bit if I told you that only a year ago that same question was asked and then 14% of Americans said they were non-religious. And in 1990, that same Gallup Poll said that only 8% of Americans viewed themselves as non-religious. Do you see a trend? Fewer and fewer people in our culture are declaring themselves religious.
Perhaps for similar reasons, there are many people in our culture, even our church culture, that are distancing themselves from another word, “Christian.” That’s right. Many Christians are disowning the name Christian. Not because they cease to believe in Jesus, not because they’ve quit going to church, these Christians prefer instead to be known as Jesus followers, suggesting that the name Christian carries with it too much baggage. If you were to go to the Christian bookstore tomorrow, you would see in the Christian Living section many books that advocate this view. These books are filled with statistics and stories to justify their positions. Mostly, those books are filled with horror stories about Christians and the church. It seems that Christians have adopted the habit of calling attention to all of the warts on the church in recent years. There are hundreds of books that discuss all of the mistakes the church had made. There are many more sermons that highlight and underline the malicious or mistaken steps of people under the guise of religion or Christianity. I want to be careful here. God never called us to view ourselves with rose-colored glasses. He certainly never tolerated His people when they refused to see their own hypocrisy or sinfulness. I think of the way the prophets consistently challenged Israel’s injustice. I think of the words Jesus often spouted to the religious people of his own day. I think God continues to call His people to be repentant and honest about the ways in which they fall short. Let’s face it: it is easier to see the warts than it is to see the places where we thrive. Bad examples are easier to come by than good examples. See the evening news as a case in point! But, we need to learn to balance our critique with our praise. J. J. M. Roberts was a long-time professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. He used to tell his students, “Many of you will make your living working in the church. … You will see the church’s fallenness at close range. Be careful that you are as affirming as you are critical of the church.”
Brothers and sisters, I believe we need to remember something very important. I worked with a guy at Broadway who said this better than I could ever say it. We were visiting about this issue in a staff meeting one day and he said, “We need to remember that when we are speaking about the church, we are speaking about the Bride of Christ. Guys,” he said, “how would you feel if someone criticized your bride?” Here is the issue: Unbalanced critique of anything will have dramatic and lasting effects. I taught a generation of students at LCU that, to be very honest, had very little regard for the church. Now, that doesn’t mean they don’t love God. They DO love God! They show that love in numerous ways. They love God, but they don’t love the church (or have much affection for it.) I found myself in classes sometimes doing something I never thought I would have to do. I had to spend a great deal of time with my ministry students convincing them that the church is not all bad. Many of them wanted to go into ministry, but not in the church. They wanted to get another job to support themselves and help in a local congregation. Or, they want to work for a para-church organization. But, they are so turned off by “church,” that they have a difficult time imagining themselves ever working within the church. I understand their frustration. The fact is: the church is filled with people, and people mess up. This book is filled with stories of people who messed up. But this book is also filled with stories about how God used those messed up people to do amazing things.
I want to suggest that we turn over a new leaf. I would ask that we be intentional in a new process. I do not want us to ignore the problems of the church. But, I do not want us to dwell on them either. Instead of distancing ourselves from the name “Christian” or “Church” or “Religious,” I’d like for us to define it better. I’d like for us to hold up a picture to the world of whom God has called us to be. I’d like for us to be honest and confess that we do not always measure up. But I’d like for us to hold up that picture and remind the world what a Christian really is. I’d like for us, in a sense to begin the process of reintroducing ourselves to the world. Hello, world, my name is Christian. A Christian is someone who…
- Chooses good over evil,
- Chooses unity over division,
- Chooses peace over war,
- Sees the good in creation when the rest of the world sees only bad,
- Is guided by the peaceful Spirit within instead of the shocking news stories on the television set,
- Knows that what goes on Monday through Saturday is just as important as what goes on Sunday,
- Loves the unlovable,
- Protects the despised,
- Joins a community of people not because that community is perfect, but because it has its eyes set in the same place
- Is someone dressed in white preparing for her wedding, not because she is unspoiled, but because her bridegroom, when He looks into her eyes, sees her for whom she really is, one made in the image of her Creator!
How will you share this definition with those around you this week? If the world is searching for an accurate definition of Christian, or if you are searching for a model to follow, look no further than Philippians 2.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,Some believe the church is so far gone that it is beyond redemption. You may believe that. You may believe that that person (whomever you have in your mind) is beyond redemption. You may believe you are beyond redemption. But listen carefully. God did not humble Himself on a cross so that we would have to live perfectly. God humbled Himself on a cross so that whatever our condition, when that day finally arrives, He would see only our white, flowing, pristine gown.
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5–11, NRSV)
We’ve been talking a lot about God’s love in recent weeks. God loves us so much God created this limitless universe! God loves us so much that God also took care of the tiniest details of life, like the intricacies of a flower! God is One who is so great that He would inspire a young man from the land of Uz to pick up all of his earthly belongings and head to Canaan. Remember something else about God this week. God is the One in whose image we were created. That says something to me. It says we were created to do great things. We were not put here to go through the motions; we were not put here to supervise the ministries that our parents and grandparents created. We were here to be innovative in communicating the gospel to this present generation. God put us here, expecting that we would be the embodiment of greatness. It’s time to peel back the brown layers of this onion and get to the heart of the matter. Let’s show the world what it really means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Let’s show the world what it really means to be a Christian.