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Finding Community Within The Church

Finding Community In Missions

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | January 27, 2002

Selected highlights from this sermon

Christians can be unaware of the controlling nature of our culture: economically, politically, and even spiritually. In this message, pulling from commands that Paul gives us in Romans 13, Pastor Lutzer tells us that we need to wake up, clean up, and dress up so that we can impact the world the way we should.

I remember as a child we were required to read the story of Rip Van Winkle. It seems to me that he slept for about 20 years while there were many changes that were made. And when he awoke he did not know how to understand those changes. It’s possible that for us as Christians we can also sleep through a revolution. It’s possible that we can sleep through life, being totally unaware of the controlling realities of our culture, both spiritually and economically and politically. And we as a church have adopted a ministry statement – a vision – that says we want to be known as a caring culturally diverse community that seeks the transformation of lives through the Gospel. And we want to be a church that is a light in the night.

We’ve been talking about community in this series of messages, about community in service, community in fellowship and community in suffering. Today we want to talk about community in vision, being the kind of people that we should be, or more accurately, the kind of church that we should be, given our culture and given the opportunities with which we are surrounded.

When Paul wrote the book of Romans he was writing to people who were spiritually at least, or religiously, in a situation much like ours. You can take your Bible and turn to Romans 13, and in a few moments we’ll be looking at verse 11 and following. Keep in mind that the church in Rome was experiencing a great deal of pluralism in their culture. The Romans had many gods. They were polytheists, and you could have whatever god you wanted to have. In fact, nobody objected to Jesus as being one of the gods. The reason that the Christians received so much persecution and opposition was that they insisted that Jesus was the only God, the King of kings and Lord of lords. And Rome would have none of it. As long as you were worshipping a god who was somehow finite, a god who did not claim transcendence, a god who did not claim universality, you could pick your god, and it would be okay. But what they objected to was the exclusivism of these Christians insisting that Christ was God, a very God. As a result the Christians were persecuted.

Rumors were spread about them that were untrue. All kinds of things were said. False accusations were made. The rumor was that they were cannibals because they were eating the body and the blood of Jesus. The rumor was that they were immoral. They were having sexual orgies because they believed in a love feast, which was really like a potluck dinner that they brought together to eat, after which they enjoyed the Lord’s Supper together. And as a result, what we find is that the Christians were under intense and persistent persecution until the time of Diocletian when things became so bad that even the pagans said the persecutions have gone too far.

That’s what others have endured for the cause of Christ. Paul didn’t know that all those things were in the future of this church to which he wrote the book of Romans. But I want you to notice that when he writes this book he knows that they are in the midst of this pagan culture. He can’t foresee three centuries of persecution. But Paul does not lay out for them the means of church growth or a strategy plan. What Paul is basically saying in the book of Romans is this: If you are the people that you should be, you will impact the world the way that church should be impacting the world.

And God would say to us today as The Moody Church, “If you and I are the people that we should be, we’ll impact this community and eventually the world to the full extent that we can possibly impact them with the good news and the light and the glory of the Gospel.

And so what I’d like us to do is to look at three commands that Paul gives in this passage of Scripture. And I believe deeply that if we take these commands as directed to us, if I take the commands as applying to me, as each person who is involved in Moody Church or even the visitors and those of you who are still on the fringes, perhaps not knowing whether Moody Church is your church home, but if at this moment we all see ourselves in this passage, we will begin to impact our culture in a way that is very different and very powerful.

First of all, notice Paul says in verse 11: “And do this, understanding the present time, the hour has come for you to wake up out of your slumber because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over. The day is almost here.”

Paul’s first command is, “Wake up! Wake up!” He’s saying, “You should know the present time.” Now Paul is looking at the time when Jesus is physically absent from this world to the time of His glorious appearing, to the time that He returns, as the era in which there is a great deal of darkness, because Satan is active. But it’s into that darkness that we have been planted. We are also living in a dark culture, and what God expects of us is what He expected of the early church, namely to be salt and light in their environment as we have the opportunity to be salt and light.

And so what God says to us today is to also “Wake up!” We have to wake up so that we become aware of our time, our time politically. We live in a very interesting time here in the United States. This crossed my desk this past week: “In the wake of September 11th, an increasing number of California public school students must attend an intensive three-week course on Islam,” reports the Assist News Service. The course mandates that seventh-graders learn the tenets of Islam, study the important figures of the faith, wear a robe, adopt a Muslim name and stage their own Jihad. According to this report, students must memorize many verses in the Koran, and they are taught to pray in the name of Allah, the compassionate and merciful, and are instructed to chant “Praise to Allah, Lord of creation.”

Could you even imagine what would happen if Christians were to teach Christianity like that? What you find in society is the same thing that the Early Church found. It’s that the opposition basically in the future and presently is always going to be targeted toward Jesus Christ. The great debate in our culture still has to do with the exclusiveness of Jesus. And I also read that some politicians are going to want to say in light of September 11th that somehow this illustrates the exclusivity of the Islam faith, and therefore what they want to do is to paint us who believe in the exclusivity of Jesus with the very same brush.

So keep in mind that the Christian faith is not going to be well-spoken of, never mind the great differences, never mind that we believe in freedom. We believe that in America people have a right to be wrong. We believe that the Christian faith must be proclaimed in an environment where there is freedom of conscience. That becomes essentially important. Ever since Martin Luther stood and said, “My conscience is taken captive by the Word of God,” there was an understanding in the Christian faith that people need freedom of conscience when it comes to religion.

But am I negative today? I hope I am not because the Bible not only predicts that that will happen, but it tells us that Jesus walks with us through the darkness and the night, and what we should do is be the most optimistic people in the world because we believe that in the midst of what we are going through and what other countries are going through, Jesus Christ rules and is Lord. And He can never have that taken away from Him. So we have to wake up politically to understand what’s happening.

We have to wake up religiously and realize the pluralism in our culture. We have to wake up globally to realize that there are, what shall we say, four billion who inhabit this planet (seven billion) and I read recently that probably two billion have never met a Christian and do not understand anything about the Christian faith. And what a challenge God has given to us. He has said that we should be global Christians, all of us in some way involved in world evangelism. Not everyone going to the mission field, not everybody cross-culturally, but here in this country God has brought to us people from all over the world so that they can come and be in contact with Christians. And that’s why we thank God for all those who work with international students. And we need to be involved, either in praying, writing letters, giving, encouraging, or visiting, because the world ultimately is our parish.

We have to also be awake locally. This morning we had the opportunity of hearing about Kids Club and the privileges we have. We also have ministries such as branch ministries. And we try to make these available to our people like Alpha and Omega Ministries, Angel Tree (many of us are involved in that.), Break Through Urban Ministries, Care First Chicago, Good News Jail and Prison Ministry, Gospel Outreach and Inner City Impact. And the list goes on and on, because what we want to be able to say to this community is we are here to be the light in the night.

So I say gently to you, as I speak to myself, “Are we awake to the times and the opportunities?” Now sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between someone who is actually awake, and someone who is just sleep walking. You know, when I was a child I used to walk in my sleep. Now I was thinking about that and I realized that I’ve not done that for at least 45 years. I don’t know if it’s something that children do, but my parents would tell me how I would come from the upstairs. I’d go downstairs where they were still awake in the kitchen, and I would have a conversation with them, and then they would gently put me back to bed. And I did all of that in my sleep.

There is one time I remember with clarity when I was sleep walking. I went into my sister’s bedroom, looked out the window. Later on she told me I was looking at things and saying all kinds of things that didn’t make sense. That’s not the only time in my life that that… (laughter) But the reason I remember it is as I was going back to my room, I walked right into a chair, and believe me, I woke up. I knew my way back to the bed with clarity after the impact.

God may be saying to us in the midst of marvelous opportunities to minister, to be united in community in this part of Chicago for this hour, for this day, and for these opportunities, God may want to whisper in our ear, “Wake up. Wake up.” A news reporter said to a Christian, “What do you think the two big problems in America are?” He said, “I don’t know and I don’t care.” The reporter said, “You’ve got both of them.” Am I going too fast for some of you? (laughter) So Paul says, “Wake up.”

Secondly, he says, “Clean up.” And one command follows the other because one of the reasons we are asleep is that we have works of darkness. Get the imagery. Paul was saying that if we are living in the darkness, we are not even going to be aware that we are in darkness. We’re going to think that the darkness is light. So this is what he says in the last part of verse 12: “So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality, in debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy…” Let’s just read that far for a moment. Paul is saying that what you need to do is after you wake up, you clean up.

I will not comment on the sins that he lists because they are very clear, except to mention to you that obviously they are desire-driven, aren’t they? Following your desires, which is the way of the world, which is especially the way of our society! Years ago we just to see bumper stickers that said, “If it feels good, do it.” Today those bumper stickers say, “if it feels good, it’s right.” In other words, you not only do it, but it’s the right thing to do. You follow your desires wherever they may lead.

And what else do we see about this list of sins? It puts self on the throne – self-will. As long as I’m running my own life I’m in the center of my life. I will do whatever comes naturally. I will cut whatever corner needs to be cut to go to where I think I want to go. And so what Paul says is what you need to do is to renounce these deeds of darkness that hinder you from being light. That only makes sense, doesn’t it?

Darkness is a very interesting phenomenon. In darkness you can’t tell the difference between a piece of gold or a stone. They are alike. You can’t tell the difference between that which is valuable and that which is cheap. In darkness you can’t tell the difference between a friend or a foe. In fact, it says in Proverbs that the wicked walk in darkness, and they stumble. And this is my paraphrase, “And they do not know that over which they stumble.” In other words, they are stumbling and they don’t even know what it is that’s causing them to stumble. Darkness! Could we, as a church, choose by the grace of God to say that we’re going to put aside all works of darkness that hinder us from being light in the American night?

Third, Paul says, “Dress up!” Notice he says in verse 14: “Rather clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” You clothe yourself with Christ! Now first of all, when we receive Jesus Christ as Savior, we receive His righteousness. We are clothed with Him. We sing it and we say it often: “Clothed in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne.”

You see, after we receive Christ as Savior, sin is still in us, but sin is not on us. The righteousness of God has been conferred to us, and the imagery of clothing is very apt, because it means now that we are accepted on the basis of Christ. We come into God’s presence because of His righteousness, because He has given us the garments that we need, and we don’t have to stitch our own good works to the precious linen and the beautiful garments of Jesus. We simply accept those garments, and say, “Thank you.” But after that we begin to put on Christ regularly. By that I mean we begin the day with Christ.

Every morning before I get out of bed (almost every morning), right after the alarm goes off, or sometimes I actually awaken before the alarm goes off, I always in the wake-up process, when you’re beginning to remember who you are where you are and what you have to do, I like to begin with a prayer. And it goes something like this. I say, “Lord Jesus, today I choose to walk in obedience. Today, Lord Jesus, I choose to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Today, Lord Jesus, I choose to give my day to you and to order it according to Your will, and according to Your purpose.”

I say something like that before I tumble out of bed. Why? We have to clothe ourselves with Christ. And then we are in the Word, and we are in prayer, and we represent Jesus Christ and we take advantage of opportunities like Evangelism Explosion that’s going to begin soon so that we can be a witness in the bank, in the hospital, and wherever God has planted us. And we are anxious to be able to represent Jesus Christ well, because having been clothed with Him we now march into the world.

As a matter of fact, the Apostle Paul actually uses a different imagery also regarding clothing. I skipped over it a moment ago, but it’s in the last part of verse 12 where he said: “Let us set aside the deeds of darkness, and put on (here’s something else to put on) the armor of light.” Notice the imagery. Paul is saying that you are living in a dark world, but don’t sleep in that dark world. Don’t partake in the works of darkness or you will have no light to give anyone. And then he’s saying, “Clothe yourself with the armor of light, that you might fight the darkness.”

We think immediately, of course, of Ephesians, taking on the armor of God, being clothed, and it’s not simply like something you put on every day, although we should be putting it on every day. It’s a whole lifestyle of the preparation of the Gospel of peace, sharing the Gospel. We always have before us the shield of faith, the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, because what we want to do is to march into this dark world, and not leave the world as we found it. We want to be able to impact that world and make a difference for Christ, first of all, for our overt witness for Jesus, and secondly, through the transformation of lives at every social level. That’s why we have so many opportunities. It’s because it’s not just handing out tracts and preaching the Gospel. It’s working in Kids’ Club. It’s working with Evangelism Explosion, or one of our branch ministries, because we’re saying, “I can’t just live in my little cubby hole.” God is calling me, and this church to something greater, that as an army we might march together for His glory.

You know, the image of the armor reminds me of shields that were beveled in those days. And that meant that they were simply interlocking shields. Now if you think about a whole group of shields, each shield, of course, being carried by a soldier, you can see that as they interlocked, the shields, as the soldiers marched, a whole wall was moving along into enemy territory. See, that’s why we need every one of you. That’s why we can’t do the job alone. That’s why we need to be able to sign up in God’s army. It’s because we need your shield connected to somebody else’s shield, because there is darkness out there, and we can do a lot more together than we can possibly do simply one on one. So Paul is saying, “Dress up, and you will change your environment and your world.”

You know, this is a very famous text. It’s famous because it’s in the Bible. And that in itself makes it famous. But in church history, this text is famous because of the conversion of a man by the name of Augustine. Augustine was in North Africa, and he his mother, Monica, was a fervent Christian, but his father was a pagan. And Augustine was involved in immorality, as many young people are today, and were back then. And one day he was experiencing conviction of sin. Oh, the blessing of conviction – the gift of conviction – because without that gift you cannot be saved.

And so Augustine was in this garden, and he heard a child say, “Take up and read! Take up and read!” I’m not sure exactly what the child was saying, but that’s the way Augustine interpreted the words. And he took this as a word from God that he was supposed to open the Bible and read it.

Now, you know, we’re opposed to the idea that when you have your devotions you just simply flip your Bible open wherever it happens to land. That’s not a very good idea. You might come across the verse, “And Judas went out and hung himself.” Then you might say, “This isn’t blessing me at all.” And you go to another verse and it says, “Go do thou likewise,” and you flip over here and say, “I still need something today,” and oh, “Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” So you don’t do it that way, but sometimes God overrules.

And Augustine happened to pick up the Bible in the book of Romans, and perhaps he already had some acquaintance with the Scripture, and he reads verse 13. Now he’s an immoral man. “Let us behave decently as if in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not even think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” That last phrase means don’t even plan to sin. Don’t even have forethought. That’s what the Greek says literally. Don’t have any forethought as to how you are going to sin. Some people plan to sin. They’ve got it all mapped out. Don’t do that. That’s not pleasing to God and that’ll get you into deep trouble.

Now, Augustine reads this, and this is what he said: “I had no wish to read anything further, nor was there any need, for immediately at the end of this sentence, as if the light of certainty had been poured into my heart, all the shadows of doubt were scattered.” And there, through this passage of Scripture, he was converted.

When we were up here singing a moment ago I thought to myself, “I wonder if there is someone in the balcony who needs to be converted today.” And just listening to this passage of Scripture makes you realize that you are a sinner and you are glad for the gift of conviction, and you reach out and you say, “I receive Christ today as my Savior,” even as Augustine did back in about 354.

Later on, after Augustine was converted he struggled with sin. Is there anybody here who can identify with that, or am I all alone on that one? And he prayed, and he said, “Oh God, deliver me. Just don’t forgive me, but deliver me from some of my sins.” He wanted to keep a few. Later on he prayed and he said, “Oh God, deliver me from all of my sins, but not yet.” And then he said, “Oh God, deliver me from all of my sins, and do it now.”

And later on he met his mistress along the street. And she came running to him and he was running away, and she said, “Augustine, it is I, it is I!” And he turned around and he said, “But it is not I,” and he kept running. He was a changed man by the power of the Gospel.

What is God saying to us today as a church? What is God’s message to The Moody Church, 21st century with opportunities bursting around us in a pluralistic world, opportunities to put our shields together and to march into the night and to shed light wherever we go? I think that God is saying that obviously first of all, you can’t be light if you’re walking in darkness. You can’t be light if you participate in the deeds of darkness. What you have to do is to make sure that you not only wake up, but you clean up, and you dress up, because there are opportunities out there. And God would say that to us today, and He says that to me today.

Now, interestingly what happened to the church in Rome to whom Paul wrote this letter? They went through all that period of persecution. Nero was ruling when Paul wrote this. Nero was an evil man who killed his own mother. If you know anything about history, it is said that Nero burned the city of Rome and blamed it on the Christians. Some historians dispute it and think that he was falsely charged, but we don’t know. It certainly would not be beyond him. It’s not as if he wouldn’t be capable of that.
And so the Christians are living in this environment.

My wife and I were in Rome many years ago, and we were in Nero’s old palace. In fact, one of the guides leaned over the rope and actually took a little piece of the tile that was laid there, and gave it to my wife. I think that we have since lost it, but that was from Nero’s old palace. And then they showed us the place where Christians were taken, and they had tar poured on them, and they were lit to light Nero’s backyard palace. Now those Christians were giving light to their world but in a way that’s quite different than you and I experience. They were being burned to death. Well, pretty discouraging I would think, wouldn’t you, to make that kind of commitment and see nothing happen? But I want you to know today that because the Christians were firm in their commitment, because they continued to be light despite the opposition, God began to work. And there were more persecutions, and more persecutions, but the church eventually triumphed so that really paganism was replaced by Christianity in Rome. And from Rome Christianity went out throughout and embraced the world. Now of course, you and I know that we don’t agree with the directions that the church eventually took in Rome, but that’s not my point here. The point is that faithfulness of Christians changed their world.

And you go to Europe and you see these beautiful cathedrals. My wife and I, this fall, were in St. Stephan’s in Austria. You have to go there. You have to be in Vienna and be in that awesome cathedral. It took centuries to build. The people who laid the foundations and did some of the original work were long since dead. They never saw the cross on top of the cathedral. That came centuries later.

But I want you to know that when you are a part of something that is bigger than you, you don’t always have to see its end, if you are faithful in the part God gives you, believing that in the end your contribution is going to make a difference. We might not see all the good things that God is going to do through The Moody Church in the next hundred years, should the Lord tarry, but I want to be a part of that foundation and to say that we can have a start that others can build on.

One of the vision statements of The Moody Church that we’ve often emphasized in the past is that we want to be a church that can help change a city that could change the world. The Roman church changed a city that changed the world. That’s our mandate. And through the community of God’s people and sharing a common vision for our area, for our neighborhood, and eventually for the world, we too can do that in God’s good grace. But God would say to us, “First of all, what you have to do is wake up. Wake up!” I don’t want to shout too loudly because there may be some that I actually do wake up. (chuckles)

And then God says, “Clean up! Dress up!” And there’s nothing that can stand before us that we cannot march into for the glory of the honor of our beloved Savior.

I guess I’m asking you today to sign up with us. By God’s grace, let’s be a church that could and does help change a city that could change the world. Wow!

Let’s pray.

Our Father, we thank You today for the church at Rome, and those early Christians who gave their lives, who kept being faithful in the midst of pluralism and opposition and false accusations and debt and burnings and wild animals eating them. And they just kept being there until eventually they changed their culture.

Now, Father, invigorate us as people who need to awake, who need to be cleansed, and need to march. Oh, dear Father, we ask this in Jesus’ name.

Now what do you need to talk to God about today? What is God saying to you about your relationship with Him, your relationship to The Moody Church, your relationship to the city?

Oh God, grant us Your grace we ask, and may we respond as You give us opportunity obediently we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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