This is the last in a 4-part sermon series called “Living Faithfully.” In this series, Pastor Drew will be addressing some of the deeper truths by which we profess our faith in and commitment to following Jesus Christ, even as our denomination faces the likelihood of separation later this coming summer. The theme for today’s message is the unchanging nature of God and the unchanging purpose of the church.
- Sermon #1 – January 30: “God’s Still in Charge!“
- Sermon #2 – February 6: “What Did Jesus Do?“
- Sermon #3 – February 13: “Called and Equipped“
Scriptures: Ephesians 2:1-4, 4-5, 11-18 and Isaiah 40:26-31
It was during my second appointment in Mackinaw City when we made the decision to purchase the cottage that had been in Caroline’s family since she was in early grade school. We took this big step in property ownership for a number of reasons. But mostly because we knew we’d be moving quite a few times in the ensuing years, so this cottage would be the one constant in our lives. Anticipating the possibility that Rachel might grow up feeling like she didn’t have a true home base, we could see how having the cottage might fulfill that need. And as it’s turned out, it really has been something in our lives that’s remained the same, that’s provided a kind of grounding for our family.
These days, things change quickly, don’t they? Speaker and futurist, David Houle, has given a name to the age in which we how find ourselves. He calls it the “shift age.” In this 2-minute video below (https://is.gd/Na5Hhf), he talks about the modern shifts in the speed of change.
Welcome to the shift age, indeed! My guess is that a lot of us, if not most of us, hear what he says with more than a little bit of apprehension. Change can be scary.
The fact is, we don’t have to look beyond the walls of our own denomination to get a sense of the anxiety this reality is causing us. We’ve been desperately trying to identify a way to move past all the debates and arguments and litigation in regard to the inclusivity of those in the LGBTQ+ community within The United Methodist Church. This debate really does reflect a seismic shift in society’s overall acceptance, and even approval, of same-sex relationships.
American Methodism is 238 years old. For the first 188 years, our denominational stance on this issue was never challenged. While there were people on the fringes of church and society pushing for recognition and full inclusion of gays and lesbians, it wasn’t until 1972 that this issue was officially debated on the floor of General Conference. Until then, there was nothing in the Book of Discipline about it. Its silence on the matter clearly reflected a general and unspoken agreement amongst those within the church that same-sex relationships were viewed as not acceptable. And it reflected the same general feeling of society at-large.
Since 1972, there’s been in ever-increasing level of acceptance of same-sex relationships, both within society and the church. It didn’t get a lot of traction at first, but it was enough that with every passing decade there was a slow but sure shift in the beliefs around this matter. The fact is this topic has been debated at every General Conference since 1972. And if you think back over just the past 20 years or so, that shift in attitude and perspective has picked up speed exponentially. Today, we’re told that same-sex relationships are viewed as socially and morally acceptable by the majority of Americans. I’m not sure that was the case even 10-15 years ago. Historically speaking, this shift in attitude has been a relatively recent phenomenon.
Why do I bring this up? Mostly because it illustrates the fact that things in this world can change quickly, even things that we never believed could ever change. For example, my father-in-law grew up in England in the 1920’s. Here’s the cover of kid’s magazine he says would students in hot water with their school headmaster if they were caught reading it. It wasn’t unheard of to be punished for reading science fiction about space travel, as it was considered rubbish and utter nonsense. He remembered the teacher flat out telling them, “Such a thing is impossible and will never happen.”
Here’s someone many of you are familiar with. Dick Tracy premiered in in 1931, and he was famous for wearing a 2-way wrist radio, a device of science fiction….until now. Today, because of Bluetooth technology, a real Dick Tracy Watch is being made. It’s no longer science fiction. So, whether it’s space exploration, medical break-throughs, or new discoveries in quantum physics, we live in a day and age when change is happening so fast, we can hardly keep up.
It seems to me that this is also true when it comes to social and ethical mores. On July 5, 1996, something happened that catapulted the science world and the world of medical ethics into a new age. You might remember the sheep name Dolly. She very first mammal cloned from an adult somatic cell, which is a cell that’s not formed as part of the fertilization process. That was only the beginning. Cloning has become commonplace since then, and we hardly bat an eye when we heart about it. However, there are some within the science community who are concerned that despite the fact that cloning is not legal, it’s probably only a matter of time before a wealthy financier secretly funds the cloning of the first human being.
Does that sound crazy to you? If you think the cloning of a human being is impossible, or that it’s so unethical that it could never happen, dare I say, think again! What was socially and ethically unacceptable “yesterday” is often viewed as much more acceptable “today.” Views change. Beliefs change. Even truth, to a degree, can change. For example, only recently has science disproved the widely held belief that earth is the only planet where water exists or existed at one point in time.
So, with so much around us that is constantly shifting and changing and evolving, from objective science to subjective beliefs and attitudes, it’s nice to know that we worship a God who doesn’t change. It’s reassuring to know that God’s nature and function are not affected by popular thinking, scientific break-throughs, planetary discoveries, or anything else in our world that heavily influences our own lives. God is God, and always will be. Whether you think of God as Father or Mother, that doesn’t change him. Whether you believe in God or wholeheartedly reject his existence, that doesn’t change him.
This is one of the most important themes throughout Scripture.
- Through the prophet Malachi, God made this truth very clear to anyone with ears to hear. I am the LORD, and I do not change. (Malachi 3:6)
- Hebrews 13:8 says, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
- James 1:17ff says, Every good gift…comes down from the Father, the Creator of the heavenly lights [what we call outer space], in whose character there is no change.
- In Numbers 23:19, we read, God isn’t a man that he would lie, or a human being that he would change his mind.
- Psalm 102 is a prayer of someone talking with God. In the last part, he makes this statement: You laid the earth’s foundations long ago; the skies are your handiwork. These things will pass away, but you will last. All of these things will wear out like clothing; you change them like clothes, and they pass on. But you are the one! Your years never end! (Psalm 102:25-27).
- And making that very same point, the prophet Isaiah writes, The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand. (Isaiah 40:8)
They’re all making the same important point: God’s doesn’t change.
So, how do you feel about change? If you’re like me, you’re somewhere in the middle. Some changes are fairly easy for me to accept, and some are more difficult. Sure, I recognize that nothing in the world stays the same forever – even our little cottage in the U.P. But what gives me hope for the future is the fact that despite all that’s shifting and changing around us – for good and bad – the God in whom we’ve staked our lives is not a beach, but a rock. And as far as I’m concerned, this is a good thing!
God doesn’t change!
In addition to that, the bottom-line purpose he’s given the church remains unchanged as well. In John 12:32, Jesus said the work his Father gave him was to draw all people to himself. Drawing people to himself was his purpose. At a later point in time he said, “As the Father sent me, so I’m now sending you.” Put another way, I’m sending you out to do the very work the Father gave to me, which is to draw all people to myself. And to make sure we were abundantly clear about our task, he literally made it the last thing he said before returning to his eternal glory. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). That mission hasn’t changed since the day he gave it to the disciples.
God doesn’t change. And our mission to cultivate followers of Jesus Christ hasn’t changed. The problem is disciple-making is tricky work. First of all, though the mission itself hasn’t changed, the manner in which we carry it out changes all the time, and so we have to learn to adapt as society evolves. Also, it can be “dirty” work in the sense that doing it well means getting our hands and feet dirty. At times it’ll mean creating relationships with people who are different, and maybe even people who are hostile to our message. It means that when some of those people hear the claim of the Gospel and respond, and join us, they’re going to come as they are. And coming “as they are” has the potential of upsetting the status quo, the homeostasis we work so hard to keep in place. Let’s just say that a healthy, transformative, forward-moving church is almost always going to be wrestling with itself to some degree. A church at perfect peace is probably a church that’s stagnant.
The first century church discovered this the hard way. In the Apostle Paul’s day, the earliest followers of Jesus were Jews. But the more the message spread, the more diverse this movement became. At some point the church was no longer only Jews for Jesus, but it was also Gentiles for Jesus. The problem was, Jews and Gentiles basically didn’t get along. They had two different world-views and were guided by different values and cultural norms. And when they found themselves together as one, this created tension in the early church.
This is why Paul was quick to remind the early church of what Jesus did to rectify this precarious situation. He reminded them that Jesus Christ was their peace. The peace they wanted wasn’t in sticking to their familiar societal norms nor in being in 100% agreement about everything. No, Jesus Christ was their source of peace.
He reminded them Jesus made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. And that through his sacrifice on the cross, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided them. He, Jesus Christ, created “one new person out of the two groups” (Ephesians 2:14-15).
Wouldn’t it be nice to say that division in the church is one thing that has changed over the last two thousand years? Unfortunately, it hasn’t. We’re still broken people, and unfortunately, division is still a reality with which we have to cope. It’s vital, therefore, to keep in mind that apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, differences among us will naturally give rise to division. Unchecked, we’ll take sides and draw lines in the sand. It can easily become us vs. them. You vs. me. Sides are taken. We’re right and they’re wrong. And yet Paul’s reminder still remains true today. Jesus broke down the barrier that divides us one from another. In him, God has the power to create one “new person” out of the two groups.
It’s here that we now find ourselves—looking for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon our denomination so that we might be a living testimony to God’s power to unite and make whole what we frail humans have managed to divide and break. I’m encouraged by the fact that 2000+ years later, the Church is still intact. And not only is it intact, but in many places it’s thriving. And changing lives. And drawing unto Jesus persons who until now haven’t known him.
With all my heart I believe that Port Huron First United Methodist can and will be one of those thriving, life-changing faith communities who is committed to the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ above all else.
And you know what else I believe? I believe that because the Holy Spirit dwells with us, we can do this important and challenging work as one body even if individual members within the body don’t all share the same beliefs and perspectives on various issues, including the one that’s before us today.
Friends, in the face of all the change that lies before us—changes we can anticipate and changes we don’t see coming—I want to encourage us move forward as one body, standing on this rock of a promise from God:
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of all the earth.
He never grows weak or weary.
No one can measure the depths of his understanding.
He gives power to the weak
and strength to the powerless.
Even youths will become weak and tired,
and young men will fall in exhaustion.
But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.
They will soar high on wings like eagles.
They will run and not grow weary.
They will walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31)