Do We Hear what the world hears? Fourth Sunday of Lent


In the early 1940s, a Baptist church in a Chicago suburb had a new pastor by the name of Billy Graham. He believed he was meant to be an evangelist but decided to give the pastorate a fair try. Within several months, the church was growing, and so was his popularity. A popular Christian radio broadcast heard in several states called “Songs in the Night” approached the rookie pastor about becoming their weekly speaker. Sensing the hand of God in this invitation, he agreed.

The program increased its listeners and being a secular station, Billy knew there were unbelievers listening. He engaged the wide spectrum of listeners by making sure that they referenced the culture. Let me quote from his autobiography, Just as I Am:
“I built my radio talks around the events of the day. Keeping up with current events through newspapers and radio news programs, I began each message with a reference to something people would have been hearing and talking about that very day. Then I moved into a biblical message, showing that God and the Scriptures are relevant to every problem… (Graham)”

The popularity of this broadcast flowed from this unique approach to sharing God’s word used by Billy Graham. At a Billy Graham School of Evangelism in Orlando, Dr. Graham spoke to us pastors about the difficulty of coming up with new sermons every week. He told us he had six sermons and he just changed the illustrations.

He engaged his community by referencing things they experienced and saw in their day-to-day life. The reason the “Salvation Army” have so many brass bands is because in the 1870s brass bands were popular in England. Although some believed these “Salvationists” had sold out to the world but William Booth new Acts 17 and its purpose. Paul connected with his community when in Athens and it is no wonder that Jesus himself drew on everyday actions in his teaching and preaching—from spreading seed to praying in the temple.

What does it mean to ‘connect with the world’? It means to do so with purpose, discernment, and intentionality.


Connect with a Purpose:

We are seeking to connect with our world for the sake of Christ and His mission. This isn’t about the survival or future of Kenton. It isn’t even about our own spiritual health. We want to cultivate a desire to connect with the unbelievers, the non-churched; those who live next door to us, because Christ told us to into the world and make disciples.

This isn’t easy. A 2018/19 survey by Pew Research found that “65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion (Smith et al.)”. Whereas this was a 12% drop over the decade the number of those “who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular,’ now stands at 26% (ibid.)” a 17% increase since 2009. Oregon is 31% with no religious affiliation.

At the very core of connecting must lie a love of Jesus and His words. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lk 10:27). Or as referenced earlier, the Great Commission (Mt 28:16-20). If we hold on to our perception rather than God’s any claim we have to knowing God is wrong. Here’s what I mean,
"Let me introduce you to Rick, he’s a big Laker's fan.""Actually, I’m a Trailblazer fan.""Well I prefer to think of you as a Laker fan"."Okay, but you’re never really going to know me!
Yet, the most loyal follower of Jesus will from-time-to-time find us believing something about God that isn’t true. We form God into our image instead of letting Christ form us into His image. We combat this by regularly looking at our lives in terms of how we carry out the ‘Great Callings of Christ’s command and commission as individuals and a congregation.

Paul lived a life dedicated to connecting to the world in which he moved. We heard in 1 Cor 9,
“To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the … so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law … so as to win those not having the law. … I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Cor 9:20-22).

Connect with Discernment:

I am not urging us to go expose ourselves to whatever we find. We connect with a spiritual discernment about what is and isn’t OK. Paul wasn’t tempted to worship idols as he saw in Athens. He knew what and, more importantly, who he believed. And though the various idols angered and distressed him greatly he was able to see the city through Jesus’ eyes.

Remember asking Christ to keep us attuned to seeing what he had for us to see in a previous adventure? Paul’s speech is the outcome of a first-century God sighting. He was tuned into God so strongly that he was able to see how even this horrible idolatry could be touched with Jesus’ mercy. Did you hear how Paul starts out his sermon?
“Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. (Acts 17: 22-23)”
Paul’s ability to tie in his presentation of the gospel to a Roman altar didn’t just happen. It was a lesson cultivated in his soul as he spent hours listening to God in prayer and exploring God’s word. And that’s true for us too.

Here’s a homework assignment for us—How does this pandemic allow us to connect with our culture and community? Where is God at work in the midst of this horror? Do you wonder if the Church asked this same question when a plague or Holocaust confronted them? Some did, I’m sure.

Connect with Intentionality:

Paul is extremely intentional when he speaks to these men. He quotes Greek poets whom the Athenians such as Epimenides credited with writing, “In him, we live and move and have our being.” He seems to know Aratus, a contemporary of Alexander the Great, who wrote, “We are his offspring.”

Paul may or may not have learned of these in his schooling as a Pharisee. Either way, he is aware of what ‘secular’ or ‘worldly’ people did and believed. He also seemed to take great pain to make sure they were applicable to the message of Jesus. This isn’t the only comment. In 1 Corinthians 15:33) he references Menander when he writes, “bad company corrupts good character”. And in Titus 1:12 he quotes Epimenides, “Even one of their own prophets has said, "Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.”

Paul gives us three guides in connecting with community and world.

Be Attentive—don’t just go through life but do it with intentionality and prayer asking God to show us how we can connect with our world. Make an effort to learn about the world around you—even those things you think are stupid, useless, or horrible.

I know nothing of Rick and Morty except it deals with a crazy grandpa and his grandson. I do know a bit about the world of retail sales and print and marketing. In what do you need to invest some attention—sports, cartoons, movies, contemporary music/TV?  Be attentive, guided by God and do it.

Be Positive— It’s easy to be against something than for something. I have to catch myself from immediately seeing the problem in what someone is saying. Like the guy who walks into a church meeting as a vote is taken and quickly says, “Nay”. When asked about the vote he said, “I don’t know but I know I’m against it.” This is the attitude that colors ALL of our politics in the US and we, as followers of Jesus Christ may NOT do this. We don’t have the luxury of assuming our view of the political landscape is the god-given one. Only when others see you are serious about hearing them out and giving them the benefit of the doubt can you hope to engage with them in such a way that we earn the right to speak into their lives.

Be Bold—there is nothing apologetic about Paul’s response. He doesn’t say “You’re right, there are other ways to Heaven.” He proclaims Jesus as the ‘unknown God’ who they need to know.

Two challenges for you this week. First, write down a list of the non-Christians who populate your life—family, neighbors, co-workers, other club members, quilters, people in recovery with you. When you have a list start asking God how you can connect and impact this shared space for the purpose of the Kingdom.

Second, and part of the discernment, list what do you have in common with these people? What knits you together? What is your common experience? Maybe you married into a family or you root for the same teams. Perhaps you’ve worked in the same industry. Ask God to show you who and what you need to know. Then, and only then, seek God’s timing for when you can introduce YOUR faith story.

The very real practical outcome of this will be part of what allows Kenton Church to survive. I am retiring soon and if God is going to preserve our voice for Christ in this neighborhood it will be through the individuals with whom you connect and show Christ’s love and those whom you are integral in the discipleship making commanded by our Lord. Let us pray?

Works Cited

Bootsma, Dave. "The God You're Looking For." Sermon Central. 2006. Web. 17 Mar. 2020.
Graham, Billy. Just as I Am. New York: Harper Collins, 1997. Print.
Smith, Gregory A., Alan Cooperman, et al. "In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace." Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project.  2019. Web. 21 Mar. 2020.
"The Unaffiliated - Religion in America: U.S. Religious Data, Demographics and Statistics." Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project. Web. 21 Mar. 2020.

Bibliography

Blumberg, Antonia. "How the ‘Nones’ can find a sense of community outside of religion." Huffpost.com.
Bootsma, Dave. "The God You're Looking For." Sermon Central. 2006. Web. 17 Mar. 2020.
Burton, Tara Isabella. "Why We Should Stop Using the Term Religious 'Nones'." Religion News Service. 2018. Web. 21 Mar. 2020.
Gilson, Tom. "The Misunderstood Church" The Stream.  2018. Web. 19 Mar. 2020.
Graham, Billy. Just as I Am. New York: Harper Collins, 1997. Print.
Jacobs, Alan. How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. Currency, 2017. Print.
Smith, Gregory A., Alan Cooperman, et al. "In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace." Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project.  2019. Web. 21 Mar. 2020.
"The Unaffiliated - Religion in America: U.S. Religious Data, Demographics and Statistics." Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project. Web. 21 Mar. 2020.

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