Churches tend to have their own gravitational pull. The common theme in a LOT of churches, when “new folks” walk in the door is- FRESH MEAT! On the surface, they welcome you and tell you they’re glad you’re here. And they ARE- genuinely. It’s the MOTIVES for that gladness that come into question. Often, they’re glad you’re here…because they need more people for the Finance Committee or they have been desperately looking for a Sunday School Superintendent or a Youth Group leader! And if they’re not careful, churches tend to do one of two things to “new people”- 1. scare them off before they even get a chance to see if they belong or not or 2. get them SO involved SO quickly that they burn out, tune out and drop out!
Our home church struggled with that when we first started there- low those many years ago! We were an energetic, personable young couple with some education and a handful of “marketable skills” and they saw a gold mine of possibilities. Before we knew it, we were, literally, leading the Senior High Youth Group, Co-Superintendendents of the Sunday School program AND leading Children’s Church!
The problem for ME, personally, was that, while I was very actively involved in the “work” of the church, my faith was about 6” wide…and a ¼” deep! I had NO real spiritual foundation on which to build. I wasn’t attending Bible Study. Frankly, we got the point where we weren’t really even attending worship- we would show up for those “responsibilities” and then…slip out. We came close to unplugging altogether. All because I was so busy doing the “work” of the church that I failed to do…anything…to actually deepen and strengthen my faith.
So many people, when faced with a challenge or question, will automatically ask, “Why?” But God challenges us to instead ask, “Why NOT?” This sermon series focuses squarely on that question- Why Not? Over 4 weeks, we’re asking 4 “why not” questions. Last week, we started at the most basic human level- why not face your fears?- and we are intentionally growing outward in concentric circles toward a new, more positive, worldview. Today, we move from those most basic human emotions- like fear- and we step into the next circle as we ask the question, “Why not deepen your faith?” It will be a two-step process- this week specifically deepening your faith, leading to next week and the next, logical step- making a greater commitment.
The setting for today’s primary Scripture is both VERY familiar and rather painful- the cross. Holy Week has happened. Jesus has been arrested, tried and convicted and is being led out to a place called Golgotha- The Skull- to die.
Luke 23:32-43 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the Jews. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Admittedly a difficult story to hear- Jesus on the cross. This is NOT one of those “feel good” Scriptures…no “warm fuzzies” here…at least, not on the surface. But if you dig a bit deeper into the subtext, there IS a very positive, “feel good” aspect to it.
Jesus has been tried and convicted in a backroom Kangaroo Court, led down the Via Dolorosa- the Way of Sorrow- to the hill called Golgotha- The Skull. He is nailed to a cross and hung between two others who have met the same fate. There He is, a common criminal among common criminals. Meanwhile, the people are, as a teacher I once had would say, “Actin’ the fool”. Gambling for His robe. Yelling at Him. Taunting Him.
And then, even the guy hanging next to Him decides to get in the act. Think that through for a moment- this guy is dying a horrible, agonizing death. Nails through his wrists and ankles. Slowly suffocating. But he decides, “it’s not THAT bad” and joins in. “If You’re the Messiah, save Yourself! Or, at least, save US!” Spitting venom to the very end.
But notice what the OTHER guy does. “Dude, are you NUTS?! We deserve what we get- we earned it. But Him? He’s done nothing. This is wrong.” And then, he turns his head to Jesus and says 8 words- 8 words that change the entire tone of the story…and his trajectory going forward. “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Remember me when You come into Your kingdom. The word “save” doesn’t enter into it. He simply asks to be…remembered. Re-membered. Put back together. Made whole.
We hear stories of deathbed confessions- criminal “accepting Jesus” right before being put to death- and we tend to get righteously indignant about it. “I tried to be a good person all my life. This guy says one sentence, right there in the wind-up, and he gets a ‘go to Heaven free’ card? I don’t THINK so!”
This story is NOT a deathbed confession- a last-ditch effort to simply “get in good” with God, exploit the loophole and skate into Heaven. Instead, this is a story about a guy who has a true experience with Jesus and wants more. Although there is no real evidence either way, I am convinced this guy was NOT a believer coming into the story. Not baptized. Not saved. Not sanctified. A guy…and not a very good one, at that.
And yet, even in the WORST situation in which he could find himself, he has this experience that Methodist founder John Wesley would describe as having his heart strangely warmed. A guy, NAILED to the Ancient Near Eastern version of the guillotine, dying, has his heart strangely warmed? Instead of focusing on the earthly, he asks Jesus to remember him, bless him. If he can have that experience on dying on the cross, then…
So, why AREN’T we more willing to deepen our faith? Maybe we’re embarrassed- what will people think…and say? Maybe we’re more interested in just going with the flow, following the path of least resistance. Maybe we too greatly feel the pull of the world. Or…maybe we’re afraid of what God will call us to do if we actually respond.
What are the things that keep YOU from deepening YOUR faith? Did I hit one of them? Or is it yet something else altogether? Here’s the way I look at it- can I prove to you, definitively, scientifically, quantitatively that God exists? Nope. Do I KNOW God exists? Yep…because I have had very real, tangibles experiences of His power and presence. But can I PROVE it? No.
But what if you look at it this way? “What if I follow God my whole life and, in the end…I’m wrong?” Well, the worst that happened was that it made me a better person and I found peace and comfort in the midst of a chaotic world. Better person. Peace. Comfort. Don’t see a down side. On the other side of the coin, what if I follow God my whole life…and I was RIGHT? I see NO down side.
What are the things that you turn to instead of God? What takes your time? Your attention? Your focus? Are they worth it? REALLY? Are they changing the world? Are they changing YOU…for the better? Really? Are they REALLY more satisfying to your soul? Stepping out and deepening your faith not only offers you a place to belong, it offers you Someone to belong TO. And BOY is that a great feeling!