An Ark or an Army?
James C. Denison
It’s a tough world out there.
There was a time when new airlines seemed to start every month, promising lower fares and more flights. Now airline mergers are the wave of the future, though we’ll likely see higher fares, fewer flights, and more crowded airplanes.
JC Penney’s CEO told business analysts this week that he has “personally never seen an environment as unpredictable as this one.” The housing downturn has led to the dollar’s decline which has led to economic unrest across the country. Gas and groceries have never been as expensive as they are today. College tuition continues to rise faster than inflation.
This generation may be the first in our history to be poorer than their parents. Consignment and second-hand clothing stores are a new trend. Smaller cars are coming, as car makers respond to demand for fuel efficiency and lower prices. More and more people are downsizing as they struggle to keep up.
In a chaotic world like ours, there are two primary visions for the church in America, two ways to understand the relationship between the gospel and the church today.
One sees the church as an ark, a refuge and retreat in a storm. The church is a place where you come each week to be safe, to be helped, to get your needs met. The gospel is for believing and celebrating and holding. Come to be inspired, encouraged, taught; come for the sake of your family and friends; come to be blessed by God. Come to get inside the ark for a while.
The other sees the church as an army, a movement which assaults the gates of hell, a mighty force bent on the evangelization of all nations and the transformation of the world into the Kingdom of God. The gospel is for sharing and giving to everyone we can.
Have you come today to sit in the ark or to join the army? The answer says everything about whether or not your life will find the purpose and peace and power of God.
Live to give
Our text begins: “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God” (v. 14).
This is the northern region of the Holy Land today, a mixed population of Jews and Gentiles. Arameans, Itureans, Phoenicians and Greeks all lived in the region. Travelers and traders headed from Africa into Asia and Europe came down her roads. Some three million people lived in towns and villages all across this fertile, vibrant region.
One thing they had in common was a dislike of the authorities and legalities which consumed Jerusalem and Judea to the south. If Jesus had established his ministry around the Temple and with its rabbis, waiting for the Galileans to come to him, he would be waiting still. So he went to them.
After he began his public ministry in Capernaum and great crowds flocked to him, he had a difficult decision to make. Would he settle there, teaching in the synagogue and doing his ministry in the city, or would he go to those who would not come to him?
Mark tells us that “very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (v. 35) As a result, he could tell his disciples, “Let us go somewhere else–to the nearby villages–so I can preach there also. That is why I have come” (v. 38). Immediately “he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons” (v. 39).
This missionary impulse to breathe out, to give and share and serve, to go to people who would not come to them, quickly characterized the Christian movement Jesus began. He told them to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), and they took him at his word.
Philip soon went to the Samaritans with the gospel, Peter to Cornelius and the Gentiles. Paul and Barnabas left the confines of Palestine to take the gospel to what they called “Asia,” Turkey today. Paul eventually traveled through Europe and Spain to bring the good news wherever he could. By Acts 17:6 the first Christians had “turned the world upside down” (KJV), sparking the mightiest spiritual movement in human history.
This has always been Christianity at its best and strongest.
William Carey, taking the gospel to the shores of India; Lottie Moon giving her life for the gospel in China; frontier missionaries bringing the good news to the western reaches of American expansion.
I preach each summer at Bloys Campmeeting, a gathering started in 1890 by Presbyterian circuit-riding preacher W. B. Bloys to bring the gospel to ranchers who could not or would not leave their herds to go to church.
Park Cities Baptist Church was started by a group of laypeople who believed there ought to be a Baptist church in what was then the far-north edge of Dallas. Without financial support from anyone, they began this work. Their first act in their first worship service was to take an offering for world missions. That’s the church as an army.
But that’s not your only choice in our culture. This society says that it’s all about you. You’re the consumer, the customer, and the customer is always right.
“Give the people what they want” is the marketing mantra of our day. My job is to help you manage your money or deal with your stress or make your marriage better. Our job is to help you with your problems and meet your needs, whatever they might be. So long as you come, you’ve done your job. So long as you sit in the ark, you’re safe from the storms for a while. If you feel better when you leave, I’ve done my job.
Give to live
If you could sit in an ark, why would you want to join an army? For one simple reason: the ark doesn’t float, at least not for long. Consumer Christianity isn’t Christianity, and it doesn’t really work. It doesn’t change anyone’s life, or heal anyone’s marriage, or defeat anyone’s temptations, or give anyone the purpose and peace and power of God. The simple fact is that God empowers us only when we fulfill his purpose. And his purpose is clear: “go and make disciples.”
The church must get the gospel to the world, or it is not a church.
When David ran at Goliath, sling in hand, he won a great victory. When David stayed in the palace while his army went to battle, he fell into great sin.
Ephesians 6 describes the “spiritual armor” of the Christian: “Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (vs. 14-17).
Notice this fact: the armor covers and protects only the front of the body. If the soldier retreats, he is doomed.
The typical Baptist church grows until it is five years old, then it plateaus. The reason is simple: when the church begins it must grow or die. So it knocks on doors, invites friends and neighbors, focuses on the needs of those it has not yet reached.
But after five years of doing this, it usually has achieved critical mass. Now it begins thinking about its own members and their needs. It focuses on children and youth and facilities and programs for its people. Others are always welcome to join, but the focus shifts from the community to the congregation. And most churches never grow again.
There is more to life than getting what we can and canning what we get. There is a God-shaped emptiness in every one of us, so that our hearts are restless until they rest in him. We long in our souls to be on purpose, on mission, our lives committed to a cause greater than ourselves.
We resonate with the church in Seville, Spain who put over their doorway the statement, “Let us build here a church so great that people who come after us will think us mad ever to have attempted it.” We are stirred by the call to attempt something so great it is doomed to fail unless God be in it. We are made to want more than we can own and drive and spend, to seek lives of significance and eternal impact. That’s just the way we are.
Gregg Easterbrook, author of the secular bestseller, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, makes this spiritual point in a profound way:
“As Alan Wolfe of Boston University has noted, a leading question of our moment in history is: ‘Why capitalism and liberal democracy, both of which justify themselves on the grounds that they produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number, leave so much dissatisfaction in their wake’….
“Perhaps Western society has lost its way, producing material goods in impressive superfluity but also generating so much stress and pressure that people cannot enjoy what they attain. Perhaps men and women must re-examine their priorities–demanding less, caring more about each other, appreciating what they have rather than grousing about what they do not have, giving more than lip service to the wisdom that money cannot buy happiness” (p. xvii).
Consumerism doesn’t really work for the consumer. It certainly doesn’t work for the Christian.
Last week we were called to follow Jesus as he fishes for men, to love Jesus first so we could love others best. Next week we’ll learn how to fish for men ourselves. But before we can learn how to catch fish, we must want to catch fish. We must want out of the boat, the ark of safety which tempts us to be consumers and customers. We must want out on the water, marching against the enemy, joining the army of God.
The decision is vital for our souls. Only when we give can we receive. When we empty our hands, we can fill them. When we live to give, we soon discover that we give to live. We must breathe out to breathe in, or we die.
This morning I am asking you to make a simple decision: will you enlist in the army of God? Will you volunteer for duty? Will you ask God to use you whatever the cost, whatever he asks, wherever he leads? Will you begin every day by surrendering it to Jesus as your Lord? Will you ask the Holy Spirit to fill and empower and control you each morning? Will you spend the day seeking to serve and glorify your Father? Will you fish wherever he sends you? Will you join his army?
One of our days in Israel, part of our tour group hiked through tunnels beneath the Western Wall of the original Temple Mount. Our guide was a young Jewish man who had spent his life in Jerusalem and was now studying for an advanced degree in archaeology. He was brilliant and scholarly, and a privilege to know.
Halfway through the tour, he motioned for us to step aside so a short, stooped-over elderly man could pass. I caught a glimpse of the man’s wrinkled, bearded face, and saw in his eyes a remarkable sense of joy and delight. At the end of the tour, our guide told us the man’s story.
His name is Ben-amin, Benjamin to us. Though he is well past 80 years old, he works every day in the tunnels. He sweeps, takes out trash, helps with tours, does whatever is needed. When he first came to the tunnel area and asked if he could sweep the floors, the custodians were surprised but wanted to honor his age and request, so they consented. Every day, six days a week, from early to late, Ben-amin swept the floors and did the most menial of tasks.
Finally one of them asked him why he gave himself so sacrificially to such demeaning work. The old man sat down and told the custodians his story. When he was a young man, he was taken by the Nazis. He never saw any of his family again. He was sent to one of the Holocaust camps where Jews by the thousands were incinerated.
Because he was young and strong, his life was spared so he could sweep and clean the camp. Every day his camp commander taunted Ben-amin by pointing to the cremation chimneys and their smoke and saying, “That’s the only way you’ll ever see your Holy Land.”
His camp was finally liberated. Many years later, Ben-amin was able to emigrate to Israel. As he had swept the floors of that Holocaust camp, so he wanted to sweep the floors in the Temple tunnels, because that was the place closest to the Jewish Temple and its sacred grounds. God had spared his life, and he had to serve him in response. He had no choice–he had to give to the One who had given everything to him.