A couple of weeks ago I preached at Wheatley Community Church. For those who haven’t picked it up yet, this is a new church starting in Wheatley with a number of folk from Woody Road involved. As quite a number were away I was asked to write up the sermon. I thought I would post it for anybody interested- please do pray for WCC.
It is really good to be at WCC right at the start of its life. I don’t know what emotions the new church is stirring up for you- perhaps nervousness at how it may turn out and sadness at loosening connections with our home churches alongside real excitement at what God might do in Wheatley. But whatever emotions we are going though I want to suggest that the big question at this point is this- what should we be aiming at as a church? Or more precisely, what does God want us to be like as a church?
We need to ask that question because we come from different churches with different traditions. All churches accumulate baggage- things which happen and nobody can quite remember why. If we all brought our stuff with us then WCC would just become a pile of baggage- probably not the most attractive picture for a church! No, a new church is an opportunity to start afresh with the big question- what does God want us to be as a church?
Each of the letters in the New Testament is the Holy Spirit saying to a church- this is what I want you to be like. So when Paul writes Romans, the Spirit is telling the church in Rome how they should think and live. And I assume God hasn’t changed His mind since then- God’s priorities for His church then is what He wants for WCC today. When you read Romans 11:33-12:2 (the passage I was asked to speak on) I think you see two priorities for a church.
A church needs a big God. In some ways, that is pretty obvious. Our children might sing “Our God is a great big God!” However, it can easily become a while since we last stood in awe of God and bowed before His greatness. By the end of Romans 11 Paul has summarised God’s great plan- how despite our failure to glorify Him, He made a way for us to know Him through the death of His Son. He has talked about how this plan is for all people everywhere- it is a plan to break down barriers. And as Paul thinks about all that God has done He bursts out in praise.
There are two things that Paul marvels at. He is astonished at God’s wisdom in v.33-34. Just think about the cross as an example of this. God’s holy justice means He must punish sin and yet He longs to rescue and save people. How can both of these desires be fulfilled? Only God could come up with the plan for His perfect Son to become human and pay for our sin so that God is both just in punishing sin and able to rescue people He loved. It is such a demonstration of God’s wisdom. CS Lewis describes the Gospel as “uninventable”- no human could have dreamed it up. And nothing confuses God. So often we get stuck- whether it is difficulty with homework, a troublesome DIY project or a big moral dilemma. We don’t know what to do- we have to ask for help. But nobody has ever needed to help God- nobody has been his counsellor. We need to bow before God’s wisdom.
And we marvel at His generosity. Nobody has ever given more to God than God has given to them. That’s the gist of v.35. God gives us a beautiful creation and then, after we have ignored Him, He gives us His Son. And He gives us His Spirit and then He promises a whole new creation. He gives and gives and gives again.
That’s what leads to Paul’s conclusion in v.36. Everything is from God. All things like adoption and forgiveness and the opportunity to pray come through God for they are all the result of the work of Jesus and His Spirit. And if everything comes from God and through God then rightfully everything goes back to Him. To Him be the glory!
You see Paul wants the church in Rome to bow before and worship an all wise and incredibly generous God. I love the phrase that the American pastor John Piper uses for a church. A church is a God besotted people.
Now that might be obvious- but it is so easy to forget, particularly as a church starts. There are so many things to think about and to get done. The problem is before too long that you have lost that sense of God being at the centre of everything. Perhaps in a more sinister way it is possible for humans to become central. Instead of a wise God we trust our wisdom so we prioritise our thoughts over Scripture. Or we think about much we are giving to the church in terms of effort instead of looking at the generosity of God. And of course if we focus on our wisdom and generosity- well to us be all the glory. No- from the outset you want to say that we are a church with a great God and we bow before Him.
And that will lead to being a church with big commitment. That’s where Paul goes at the beginning of chapter 12. He picks up Old Testament language. How would you worship God in Jerusalem City Temple? Well, in part, by bringing bulls and goats for sacrifice. But, mercifully for the décor of the Merry Bells, that is not what is required now. How do you worship God at Wheatley Community Church? By bringing yourself as the sacrifice. That’s what God says to us through Paul.
That involves massive commitment. Let’s be honest- the future wasn’t particularly bright for the animals being brought to the temple. They had limited life expectancy. And Paul is saying that in a similar way the Christian who has grasped God’s mercies comes to die- to die to our ambitions, comfort, selfish preferences and so on. But then we live- for the Lord and for His people. It is our bodies that are now set apart for the Lord in v.1- hands to serve and care, ears to listen well to people, mouths to build people up and speak of the Lord.
All of that is radical. One writer puts it like this- “We ask ‘Where does God fit into the story of my life?’ when the real question is ‘Where does my little life fit into the story of God’s mission?’”. So often we have our life- career, families and hobbies- and we try to fit God in somewhere. God is sort of there to fulfil my ambitions. But the beginning of Romans 12 changes everything- I am here to serve God and live for God with all that I am. I love cricket and so, for me, CT Studd made the ultimate sacrifice when he gave up playing cricket for England to be a missionary to China. His reason- “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him.” My longing is that those in Wheatley will see that you are serious about God as you live wholeheartedly for Him.
That will involve the church looking different. As Paul says- Christians don’t think in the same way as the world around according to v.2. WCC needs to be generous and outward looking to the village- and different from the village. Let’s be honest, singing to and listening to a God you can’t see marks you out as different. You may have to take some unpopular stands on ethical issues at times. But, above all, Paul says that the church will be marked out by a counter-cultural humility. I have hung around a fair number of cricket teams over the years. I would love to say they have been marked by great harmony but often personal ambition gets in the way- “We would have won if I had bowled more/batted higher etc.” Not so the church. We are to think about ourselves differently- not considering ourselves more highly than we ought. Because the church is to look different- with everybody saying that it isn’t about them but rather about living for an all wise and generous God.
“What sort of church should we be?” Wouldn’t it be great if WCC were a Romans 11 and 12 church? A church with a really big God and a church where everybody is serious about living for that God. A place where we don’t get the glory but He does. How will that happen? It may be that as individuals we are still not sure of our role in the church. I want to suggest- make your contribution by bringing a God centredness in all that you do. To that end here are a couple of questions to reflect on: How big is my picture of God at the moment? Would “living sacrifice” be the way I would describe myself? A church with a big God and big commitment could be a church that God would really use.