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.”