What’s the purpose of the church?

(This is the sermon I preached yesterday, Sunday, December 13, 2020. You can see the entire service from our website – www.ststephenlc.org.)

What’s the purpose of the church?  Have you ever considered that question?  Maybe that doesn’t seem like a 3rd week of Advent type of question.  I mean, we’re all focused on the coming of baby Jesus right?  Getting ready for Christmas, with the decorations, buying gifts, and all sorts of other things, especially this year when everything is so different.  

But what is the purpose of the church?  We heard in our lighting of the Advent candles this morning that today we light the candle of proclamation and joy.  The phrase that went with that lighting was “May our hearts be forever filled with the joy of his coming.”  

Kind of hard to find joy right now though, isn’t it?  It’s like we are stuck in a perpetual nighttime.  Or maybe we’re caught in a black hole.  Any effort to free ourselves, any progress of breaking free of the gravitational pull of doom and gloom just sucks us back in.  You know the situation.  The day light is much shorter.  It’s dreary and cold most days.  We have a raging pandemic in which we can’t get everyone on the same page.  We have a divisiveness in politics that is frankly quite dangerous for everyone with many people who have no intention of healing the divide.  We have racial tension that is at a boiling point.  We have people in this country who are shoplifting food in order to feed themselves because they have been out of work for so long and there are no relief in sight.  Poverty is a serious problem right now on top of all of this. 

So why am I asking the question – what is the purpose of the church?  Because the answer relates to all of this.  The answer to that question tells us what role the church has in all of this.  The answer tells us and everyone else why we do what we do.  And why we proclaim what we proclaim.  And why it is good news.  

So, what’s the purpose of the church?  Is it to only provide comfort to ourselves?  To steer clear of anything controversial?  To give us some kind of theological defense for what we believe about everything anyway?  Certainly not to challenge our beliefs right?  To be a social club?  To maintain nostalgia?  To coddle us?  To make us comfortable?  To build a wall around us from everything happening outside of the walls of the church – essentially separating the church from the world?  

Is the purpose of the church to be a like many other organizations and businesses – satisfying the customers’ needs and wants?  You know, you pay money and expect to get something in return?  And the organization better satisfy what you want, or else you’ll take your money elsewhere?  This is how we deal with a lot of organizations and businesses in life, so why should we think the church would be any different?  

I’m not sure how the church can proclaim the joy of Jesus coming if the church is just any of those things.  If it is those things, then how exactly is the church anything special at all?  And how is its message actually Good News?

Maybe the deeper and better question I’m asking is this – Who is this Jesus that we are preparing for?  And what is the joyful message that he brings?  Because if church is just about what we want, then where does Jesus fit in anyway?  And why do we care that Jesus is coming?  Will his coming have any impact on our lives, our communities, and our world?  That’s the real question.  It’s kind of hard to proclaim “may our hearts be forever filled with the joy of his coming” and believe that his coming has no impact on us, and our world.  

Scripture declares to us what the purpose of church is – so don’t take my word for it.  And it’s not an insignificant thing.  The summary of it is to serve God and others.  It’s not about serving ourselves.  

One way we serve God is in our worship of course.  We also serve God in living out our faith in the world, outside of worship.  We do that when we see the image of God in others – all others, with no exceptions.  These include our enemies, people we disagree with politically, people who don’t look like us, love like us, believe the same things we believe, sound like us, or people who are from other places. God never declares that everyone has the Image of God in them except…. In seeing the image of God in others, we serve God because we see God in others.  

The purpose of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus.  It’s pretty clear in Scripture.  It comes out of Jesus’ own mouth.  And discipleship is costly and inconvenient and uncomfortable.  But it’s worth it. 

The purpose of the church is to provide a community of believers, or disciples, or seekers who strengthen and encourage each other, minister to each other, and serve together.   Living out values that are foreign to the world, that the world rejects and refuses to live by – forgiveness, not scapegoating and shame.  Mercy, not might makes right.  Hope, not dystopian expectations.  Love, not conditional relationships.  

The purpose of the church is to proclaim the good news.  And what is the good news?  We heard in all the readings this morning, in a variety of ways.  In Isaiah we heard this – “He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”  

Wow.  That’s good news if you are oppressed, broken hearted, held captive, or imprisoned.  And if we lived into that good news, imaging what that would mean?  For us, our communities, and our world.  It would probably turn the world right side up.  This is a radical message that we hear.  It’s about changing human society and relationships and community in incredible life-giving healthy ways.  Away from abusive and unhealthy systems and cultures that hold people in oppression and bondage – things like poverty, racism, homelessness, violence, narcissism, greed, debt, seeking power and to many other things to name, but all too common in our everyday experience.  Do you hear the good news that is being proclaimed here?  Freeing people from bondage.  That’s what the purpose of the church is – to proclaim Jesus’ message that God frees people from bondage.  Not just of sin and death at the end of our lives, but of so much more.  Bondage from terrible systems that hold people captive right now. Freed from bondage of unrealistic and abusive expectations – especially for people who supposedly benefit from these systems.  They don’t.  No one does.  Isaiah isn’t talking about the end of life – he’s describing people and systems that existed when he wrote it – while they are alive.  They still exist today.  And people need to be freed from them still.  

The church – when it is living into its call as church, as Jesus formed it and sent it out, acts and speaks bravely and prophetically – names those things, and drives people to the kingdom of God where as Isaiah says, they are set free with God’s Good News.  That is a reason to rejoice.  This is why we celebrate proclamation and joy this week.  That is how our hearts will be forever filled with the joy of his coming.

What is the purpose of the church?  To be like John in our Gospel.  To point to the one who is coming.  To point to the kingdom that Jesus is bringing.  To shed light on the world – the light of Christ.  To live into the faith that we have been given – not just individually, but as a church. 

Why do we do this?  Because what the world offers is not good news.  It’s just more of the same.  Maybe our challenge is that we hear the bad news of the world so often that we have come to expect it as normal and that it applies to the church as well.  And when the church declares the Good News of Jesus maybe we hesitate to embrace it because it sounds so different, so radical. 

The world declares that salvation is found outside of Jesus or in addition to Jesus, in other messiahs and other things.  In political parties, politicians, and ideologies.  In nations and the symbols they represent.  In money and possessions.  In military might and strength.  In technology.  In education.  In physical ability.  In work.  In the people around us.  In everything except Jesus.  How well has that worked out throughout human history?  Not too well, but this failed message continues to be proclaimed anyway.  Maybe that’s why we might struggle to truly embrace the Good News of Jesus because the world has muffled the message so much that it sounds just like what the world is offering – wrapping the Good News in all of these other things instead of hearing what Jesus is saying.  And when we do hear the Good News, it might sound just too radical.  

The reason the world fails in its proclamation of false messiahs and empty salvation is that all of these false messiahs are temporary.  They will die off, fade away, and be forgotten.  Easily replaced with the next fad messiah.  But Jesus is eternal.  So is his Kingdom.  And it is already inaugurated and it is unfolding in our midst.  It has been for some time now.  It was unfolding in Isaiah’s time and through his words that we heard today.  It was unfolding in John as he made straight the way of the Lord.  And it continues to unfold in our midst today.  The ending is not in doubt.  

This is good news.  

What is the purpose of the church?  To participate in the unfolding of the Kingdom of God and to invite others to participate in it too.  This is what the church is about.  This is our purpose for being the church.  This is what we are about and what we do because this is who we are and whose we are.  This is good news.  And we get to proclaim it and live into it.  Because the Good News is life changing, community changing, society changing, and world changing.  How could good news be anything other than that?  

What is the purpose of the church?  To be all in on Jesus, what he teaches and calls on us to live.  And to not do it alone, but together as a community. 

This 3rd Sunday of Advent we light the candle of Proclamation and Joy.  And we do it in a time of deep night.  The message that we proclaim may sound radical.  But that’s only because the world has been expending great amounts of energy to try to change the church into something that it is not.  And that will fail too.  Because this is Christ’s church.  And Jesus has a message and mission for his church.  And it is good news.  The best news.  And it fills our heats so they will forever be filled with the joy of his coming.  Because that’s what Good News does.  And that’s what the church is about.  Because that is what the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are about and what they are doing.  Thanks be to God.   

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