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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Not Your Average 28 Year-Old (1 Cor 3.1-9; Heb 5:11-14)

April 27, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell

Let me describe a phenomenon to you and see if it sounds familiar. A child grows up surrounded by nurturing family, is successful in high school in terms of grades, sports, and friends, goes to college and graduates with a degree in a particular field…

Then what?

Gets a job? Spends a few years finding him or herself? Takes a part-time or light job to make just enough for daily needs? Moves back in with mom and dad, plays a lot of video games, and hangs out with friends in a similar situation?

Does it sound familiar? Does it get your judgmental juices flowing? Can you think of a thing or two you’d like to say to that twenty-something?

Now take those thoughts, that judgment, those words, and that energy… and let’s examine ourselves. “But I have a career… I buckled down… I’ve worked hard to get where I am.” That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a 28 year-old I know that grew up in exciting times, was nurtured carefully, and thrived in the teens. I’m talking about a 28 year-old whose birthday we are celebrating today.

I’m talking about the collective body we call Good Shepherd.

What kind of 28 year-old are we? What have we done and what are we doing with what we have been given and how we have grown up? Are we eating and exercising spiritually in the way we should? Are we doing the work that God intends for us? Are we focused in the way we need to be focused?

Let’s turn some of that righteous energy towards ourselves this morning and, in the light of God’s Word, ask ourselves what kind of 28 year-old we are, and more importantly, what kind of church we are becoming.

What Are We Eating?

In the two passages we read today, one of the big questions is that of spiritual food. What are we eating when it comes to our spirit and soul?

To my shame, I remember some of the eating habits of my twenties (before getting married). In college, Pop Tarts were popular. Just after college, when money was in very short supply, I ate lots of Ramen noodles and PB&J sandwiches.

In the scripture, we read Paul’s concern about believers getting stuck on “milk” and never moving on to “solid food.” In Hebrews, the believers have back-tracked so far, that “milk” has become necessary to re-educate them in the basics of the Gospel message. In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul writes that he cannot communicate with the church because they are not mature spiritually – they are like “spiritual infants.” (v. 1) He explains more in verse 3: “…for you are still fleshly.” He cites jealousy and strife in the church as the proof, and perhaps also the cause, of his description. In Hebrews 5, there is a different problem. It has become difficult to explain the depths and riches of the Gospel of Jesus Christ because the people have become “dull of hearing” (v. 11).

I wonder if either of these situations describes any of us? And rather than diagnose the person sitting next to you, I’d ask you to consider your own health and maturity. Do you have the Corinthian challenge? Have the things of this world – that is what Paul calls “fleshly” – stunted your spiritual growth? These are not just sins, though sins like jealousy and strife, like Paul mentions can definitely keep us from growing up spiritually. There is also lust, pride, and many more. There’s also the spiritual “junk food” all around us. It’s not just that we settle for “milk” – which is healthy, but not deep. We also take in hours and hours of television, Internet, and media, with spiritual lessons from sources ranging from Oprah to Britney to Larry King.

What chance does a 20-minute sermon have against all the TV, music, movies, and Internet you watch each week… probably anywhere from 10 hours up to 50! This is the reason for a personal quiet time – a time of prayer, reading scripture, and listening to God. It’s not because it makes God happy, but because it’s critical to your spiritual health and development. This is the reason for participating in Sunday school and weekly Bible studies. It’s not because you have to for God to like you, but because it’s critical to your spiritual health and development. Without regular, intentional study of God’s Word, you will not grow in faith and mature past spiritual infancy.

Or maybe this isn’t you. You come to all these things and try, but it just puts you to sleep and doesn’t connect with you. Maybe you have the Hebrews challenge – you have become dull of hearing. I think this happens easily in our culture, especially if you have been coming to church since you were a child. Church can become only habit and not heart. The Good News of Jesus can become information and not transformation. We will see that there is a remedy for this as well – and it involves putting faith into practice. That’s what wakes us up and clears the plugs out of our ears.

The first challenging question from these passages, directed to us as a young 28 year-old congregation is “what are you eating?”

What Are We Doing?

A second challenging question comes from the Hebrews passage. It is the question, “What are you doing?” I mentioned that putting faith into practice is a remedy for the dullness described in Hebrews. Hebrews 5:12 has the zinger… “by this time you ought to be teachers.” A few verses later, we read that the mature are able to eat “solid spiritual food” and discern good and evil because of practice. If we don’t use what we are learning from God’s Word, it is not only useless, but dulls us to hearing more of it.

Consider this: every single one of you in this room who is over 16 probably has more formal education than the typical house church pastor in China. And yet, each of these pastors risks life and livelihood to teach what he or she knows of God’s Word each week as believers gather out of the sight of the government authorities.

Every single one of you probably has multiple Bibles in your home. And yet, these same house churches in China sometimes must share individual pages out of one Bible so that the Word of God will not be confiscated by authorities.

For six years running, we have spent at least 4-6 weeks doing evangelism training. For two years we have emphasized sharing the Good News of Jesus as our primary mission. Many of you have sat through multiple Sunday school classes surveying numerous books of the Bible.

We should be teachers by now. By that, I mean that except for those who are preparing to profess faith for the first time, be baptized, and join the church, every single one of you has what it takes to live as an effective disciple of Jesus Christ. You’ve heard the story; you have the information; you have the mission directions; you are challenged regularly.

But here’s what Hebrews says: if you don’t use it, you lose it. I’m not talking about salvation, but I’m talking about your spiritual health and vitality. How do we grow spiritually? How do we discern good and evil? Hebrews says it is through practicing our faith – putting it into action.

It’s not unlike the experience of the college graduate who moves back home. It gets harder and harder to get out there and find a job and make a life. What is hard at 24 is excruciatingly difficult at 28, and only gets harder and harder. The only way forward is to use what we’ve learned and put it into action. Only then will we continue to grow and mature.

Where Do We Set Our Sights?

Now, let’s look briefly back at 1 Corinthians 3. It asks yet another challenging question: where do we set our sights? You know sometimes that is a big issue for the 20-something. “I just don’t know what I want to do.” For those of us who don’t really have a good answer to that question, spiritually, Paul gives us some direction.

In a nutshell, the church in Corinth had gotten side-tracked on its famous pastors – Apollos and Paul. Paul had planted the church; Apollos had developed it. But Paul was reminding them that God is the one who causes growth. Neither Paul nor Apollos are anything; only God, who causes the growth. (v. 7)

Now my point isn’t to draw connections with Dr. Katibah (our church planter) and myself (as second pastor). Sometimes that succession is an issue for churches, but I think we have done pretty well at dodging that pitfall. More broadly though, I think Paul is describing the pitfall of looking to a pastor or teacher to “do the Christian work” for us. Your success as a Christian does not depend on how good a pastor or preacher I am, but on your responsiveness to God’s Word and work in and around you.

Just as parents can’t find a job and do it for their grown child, neither can I be a Christian or even serve the Lord on your behalf. My job is to preach and teach God’s Word to you, to challenge you in your faith, to pray for you, and to care for you; but it is not to be spiritual or faithful for you.

Paul rightly asks where you have set your spiritual sights. That focus must be on God alone, for it is God alone who causes growth. It is God alone whom we follow and serve.

Who Does God Say That We Are?

Finally, I want to end with the last verse from the 1 Corinthians passage. This is a reminder of who we are. We, as a church, are not your average 28 year-old, if by that you mean immature, uninvolved, and misdirected. God has spoken clearly throughout our church’s childhood and teen years, and the calling to us is clear as we grow up into the Body of Christ God desires us to be.

Listen to verse 9:

We are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

I believe we are at a pivotal time in the life of Good Shepherd. And by that, I mean that you are at a pivotal time in your own spiritual journey, for this church is not the building or the land, but the people – it is you. You are the ones God would use to reach our neighbors with the Good News of Jesus. You are the ones God would use to show our neighbors the compassion of Jesus Christ. You are the ones God would use to bring glory to His name in this place, in Old Providence, and in South Charlotte.

God is alive and on the move, and you are God’s fellow workers. He has given you all you need. It is time to get to work! Amen.

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