November 18, 2017

In the Study: Christianity For Beginners (7 Sermons)

smorningdevotion.jpgIn The Study posts examine actual sermons I preach. These are primarily, chapel messages, preached to approximately 450 students/staff from all over the world. My goal is to provide models of evangelistic, apologetic proclamation to those who might be engaged in similar ministry.

Every year I do a sermon series with the purpose of laying out a basic overview of Christianity for those who have little or no knowledge of what the faith actually teaches. My target audience is primarily international students who have been with us long enough to understand basic Christian ideas, but who have not filled in the content, meaning or relationship of these concepts.

This series contained 7 messages, though the 7th was not technically part of the series and was preached in a different context.

The series intends to bring the listener to an appreciation of Jesus as our mediator; the “way” to God in several different contexts: knowledge, forgiveness and right relationship. The goal of the series is to encourage the listener to take the beginning step of placing their faith in Jesus as the one who provides a relationship with God. As in all preaching, what I can do is limited. I depend upon the Holy Spirit to do the work of making Jesus real to the hearts and minds that hear me.

The series used the same Biblical text for each message, and focused on different statements or inductions from the text that apply to key components of Christianity.

I constructed a text from two verses in Hebrews. This is somewhat unusual and can be a problem, but in this case the two verses work together without any confusion or distortion. I used a combination of the English Standard Version text and the New Living Translation (revised). I also chose some words from other translations. The text is Hebrews 11:6 and 12:2.

Hebrews 11:6 And without faith it is impossible to please him (God), for whoever would come to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. Hebrews 12:2 We do this by looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

As in any sermon, it’s possible to spend a lot of time in other texts in order to illuminate what I am communicating. In this series I purposely dealt as much as possible ONLY with the texts from Hebrews. My goal was to have the audience come as close to knowing the text by memory as possible, simply by familiarity. By staying in one text, I help my listeners see the relationships and meanings of words on a deeper level than in a single citation.

Because I am in situation where seekers have opportunities to ask questions in classes, to adult staff members, in small groups and in open forums, I feel less pressure to try and say “everything” that a text might imply, answer every question or field every objection. Our chapel sermons are usually about 20-25 minutes long, so the first seven messages took up about 4 total hours of preaching time. The last message was longer, more traditional in sermonic form and aimed at Christians, and was approximately 40 minutes. I preached it in a Sunday evening gathering.

Here are “sermon summaries” that but the overall direction of a message in a short form. I have omitted almost all references to illustrations, and trust the preacher to supply illustrations that fit his/her context. (Many of my illustrations are unique to OBI.)

Message 1: Being A Beginner

All of us at some time go through the experience of being a beginner. This is stressful, but it is a necessary way to learn anything. We purposely trade our ignorance and fear for knowledge and familiarity. This doesn’t happen quickly or without many questions and setbacks. But all of us know that we are glad we didn’t remain frightened of beginning something new, because soon we are having a new and richer experience.

Think of a child making baby steps. Or learning to drive a car. Or doing something extraordinary, like being a pilot or a doctor. It all starts with beginnings and overcoming that fear of just starting out.

In order to become a Christian, you must become a beginner. That means starting at a place of knowing nothing, or very little, and moving forward one step at a time.

These messages are called “Christianity for Beginners” and they will help you see what the first “baby steps” of being a Christian look like. Remember that being a Christian is both some truths to be believed, but also a life to be lived.

What are some beginning places in the journey to become a Christian?

The most common beginning place is your own questions about what Christians believe and teach.

Another starting place is the question of your own relationship to God. (Typical evangelistic diagnostic questions.)

A third beginning place is thinking about important choices we all make: What do we want to do with our lives? Who will we love and how? What will we tell our children about important questions? What is the purpose of life?

There can be many starting places. God will start with us wherever we are. He is already reaching out to us. One of the wonderful things Christians know is that God was seeking us long before we were seeking him, and he makes it possible for us to know him, and to begin a new life as a Christian.

Message 2: Believing

This message makes one point: all of us are believers. People who say they are atheists or unbelievers are also believers. They simply believe in something different than I do as a Christian. But the actual process of believing is very similar.

(This is where I use several illustrations on the nature of faith, and the fact that we all engage in faith constantly. My goal is to show that the “unbeliever” is simply refusing to believe certain things, while believing others.)

Now the question is, what do you believe and why do you believe it? There are many sources for what we believe, some reliable and some not as reliable. Scientists believe in evidence, but they are constantly working to disprove other kinds of evidence.

Examining and questioning our beliefs can feel like we are doing something wrong, but all of us should examine what we believe and know that what we believe and live for is what we know to be true. Sometimes we may have to step out and be very brave to question our beliefs, but this is always the right thing to do.

Why do Christians believe in Jesus, the Bible and the a particular message about God? They are persuaded that these things are true. Sometimes this belief comes by examining facts. But other times, believing as a Christian is like believing in a person we come to love and trust.

Christians “believing” by different names. One of those names is faith. The Bible verses we read and you see say that we must have faith- belief and actual trust- in God. How does that happen?

As hard as it is to understand, Christians believe that God has come to us and persuaded us to believe in him. Not by appearing to us, but by speaking to us in our minds and hearts, by his spirit and through the Bible. That’s what we are praying happens for many of you.

Message 3: Does God exist?

In order to be a Christian, you must believe that God exists. That seems rather obvious, doesn’t it?

Some Christians believe that you can prove that God exists to someone who doesn’t believe. I tend to think it is very difficult to prove something to someone who is inclined to not believe it. No matter how much evidence we have, a person who doesn’t want to believe won’t believe. (Lots of illustrative possibilities.)

This is why the Bible doesn’t spend time arguing about whether God exists.

All of us have “presuppositions” that we use to filter out what we don’t want to believe and allow in what we do. For example, think of your country. You are probably inclined to believe good things about your country and not believe bad things. It’s not so much about proof, as it is which way we are leaning as we hear the message.

The greatest evidence for the existence of God is right here in this room: it’s you. A very wise person named Pascal- a math genius by the way- said that human beings should be the happiest creatures in the world, but instead they are unhappy. Human unhappiness, when we can have everything any animal wants to survive and be happy, suggests that there is more to us than there is to a dog or a bug. It isn’t just a bigger brain. It is something else.

(C.S. Lewis quote on not being made for this world because nothing in this world satisfies us.)

The Bible says we are made in the image of God. Do you see the verse that says we have to believe in God so we can “come to him?” That means that we were made to have a relationship with God, and because something is wrong in that relationship, we’re unhappy, and we’ve made the world and our lives into very bad places.

In some ways, you are the image of your parents. You can have a good relationship with them and be grateful for who you, or you can be in conflict with them and want no relationship with them at all. In much the same way, we were made for relationship with God, but we try to live as if God doesn’t matter at all. In fact, God is the key to everything about your life, and life itself.

I believe in God for many reasons, mostly having to do with Jesus, who we will talk about later. But when I look at human beings, I see someone’s fingerprints. Not an empty universe or mindless evolution. I see the fingerprints of a person. That person is our creator, and for some reason we are not in a right relationship with him.

That brings us to a very important question: What is God like?

Message 4: What is God like?

Our Bible verse says that we must believe, that we must believe that God exists, and we must believe God is a rewarder of those who seek him.

What is God like? There’s an important question. It really wasn’t very necessary to preach that last message and say “You must believe in God,” because most of you do. What we want to know is what is God like?

The Bible says we have a problem here. We are fine with believing in “a” God, but we want that God to be one we are comfortable with, one who doesn’t have any issues with us. This is called “idolatry,” and we are all very good at it. The God we think about usually isn’t very bothered by our particular mistakes and failures. He dislikes those we dislike and fits in with the way we want to live. He’s like a mascot or an approving computer friend, not like the creator who made us with perfection and love in mind.

That’s why the Bible shows us God giving the Ten Commandments to his people. It was a way to always know what God was like. And, of course, those of you who know the Bible know that God’s people immediately rejected those laws and made idols for themselves, the famous golden calves.

Of course, God wasn’t happy. It’s not that God is touchy and sensitive. He’s holy. He’s God! Nothing works right for us or in God’s world when we ignore, or replace, or remake God into someone who looks like us, our nation or our particular ideas.

The very first human beings ruined everything with their answer to this question. What is God like? The true answer is that he is worth worshipping and obeying. Their answer was “He’s not good and we don’t trust him anymore.” Of course, immediately, everything was ruined. Not destroyed, but ruined, including us, our relationship to God and to each other. Death and sin took over what had been a perfect world.

So it’s a very important question. What is God like? (It would be possible to divide into another message here.)

Our verse says he is a rewarder of those who seek him. That means he’s not a force, or an idea. He’s someone who actually wants to reward YOU for seeking him about anything else.

Christians sometimes get criticized for believing in heaven, but what would you think of God who created you, but then had no interest in you? God wants to reward you, with rewards beyond what you can imagine. He wants to give you love that never ends, eternal life, perfect security, confidence, purpose and more. To have that reward, we have to do something that’s very hard for us.

Seek God. Not God’s rewards or God’s gifts. But God. We have to love him, want him, value him more than anything else. Our great reward is not something God does for us or gives us. It’s God himself.

Did you know that the Bible describes heaven in many amazing ways, but it never celebrates any of those things? Those in heaven spend all their energy praising and worshiping God, not praising golden streets.

It should be easy to put God above everything else in life, but it’s not. It’s like no matter how hard we try, keeping God and his commandments in first place in our hearts and our behavior doesn’t work.

It’s like there is something wrong with us, and no matter what God is like, we can’t get to him, love him, obey him and enjoy him as we should.

What would you think if I told you that God himself has done something about that?

Messages 5 and 6: Jesus : Author and Finisher of our Faith (What a preacher wants to do here is very much the case of the level of the audience and the context. My goal in general is to stress three things: Incarnation, perfect life and substitutionary death.)

(Review of previous messages will now be important in the opening of each message.)

Up till now, I’ve said almost nothing that is uniquely Christian. It’s time to understand how God shows us what he is like, and allows us to come to him by faith, through his son, Jesus.

“We do this by looking to Jesus.” So says our Bible passage.

Who is Jesus? And how did he get into this story? Good question.

I want to know God. I want to seek him. I want to be rewarded by God. And I’m totally at a loss on how any of that happens. The Ten Commandments point me in the right direction, but something in me just won’t go, or keep going. I mess up and I give up.

If I were God, I would give up on us. I would sure give up on Michael Spencer.

But God didn’t. Instead, God, our creator, became one of us. He stepped into history. He came into the story that is this human mess. He was born as a baby, lived as a child and a teenager, taught us, was an example to us, and lived a life that everyone agrees was perfect. Strangely, in the end, he died a violent death, but even then he showed us amazing things about love and forgiveness. The Bible says he rose from the dead, and Christians believe that, more than anything else, should convince us that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life we need.

The Bible says that Jesus came to answer that big question: What is God like? He showed us God as our father, and he showed us that God loves us, and is seeking us. When you realize you aren’t seeking God very well, it’s great to know he is seeking you!

One thing Jesus did that is important is he took the Ten Commandments, and he actually lived each one perfectly, 100%. And when he died, the Bible says he was dying for the sins, wrong doing, bad choices, evil and mistakes of people like me and you. He was righteous, and he was punished. Perfectly. For all of us. And he offers his righteousness, and the finished work of his punishment for all your sins, to you, freely.

Showing us what God is like. Living a perfect life. Dying in our place. Being raised from the dead. Offering us his life, death and resurrection for free. A pretty amazing person. If you are at all interested in being a Christian, the obvious place to start is with Jesus.

(These messages obviously leave lots of room for going all kinds of directions. In my context I would compare Jesus to Islam and Buddhism, for instance. Consider your audience and what they need to hear about Jesus to make the Gospel clear to them.)

Here’s how:

First, read about him in the gospel of Mark or the gospel of John in the New Testament, and ask Christians lots of questions.

Second, pray, and ask Jesus to reveal himself to you. If you want to know God, your creator and Father, then you open up yourself to this new relationship and new reality. It will feel a bit odd, but new relationships often do feel strange. It’s hard being a beginner, remember?

Third, find Christians- not hard at OBI- and worship with them. They should read the Bible and talk about Jesus so you can learn more about God as a beginner. As you are with Christians, you will be able to learn more about what it means to be a Christian yourself, and you can ask the specific questions that apply to your life or your culture.

Finally, at some point, you may want to say, “I believe in Jesus as my God and as the one who gives me a relationship with God.” When you can say that and mean it, be baptized. Openly proclaim yourself a believer in Jesus, and become someone who is loyal to Jesus as King and Lord.

It’s important at this point to remember some mistakes people often make. Don’t make these as you begin your spiritual journey.

a. Christians and churches are not perfect like Jesus. They are followers and beginners, too. Don’t be surprised if it seems that some people who “believe” in Jesus seem to need to get to know him better. Still, the church and other Christians are essential to your journey. There is much you need to know. and many wonderful discoveries to be made.

b. Don’t associate Jesus with any one group or place. There are people following Jesus all over the world, in many different languages and cultures. In your culture, there will be Jesus’ followers, too.

c. It’s a long journey. Like a marriage, it starts off with big decision, and then we live it out for many years. Be a follower and believer in Jesus for a lifetime, not just while it’s fun, or easy.

How do we know God? We look at Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. We keep looking at him, and we we do what we see and hear as we look. We become beginners, but the Bible’s word is “disciple,’ which means a daily follower or a person we want to learn from and imitate.

In one more message, we will look at what we are looking at when we look at Jesus.

Message 7: Looking at the Cross

(Same text as all the other messages. This message is less “apologetic,” and is more “traditional.” It focuses on what we can know about Jesus by looking at the cross.)

In this message I want to talk about the single most important thing Jesus ever did. You probably already know this because most of the time you see a picture of Jesus, it’s a picture of Jesus on the cross.

(Tell story of my dad from “Do You Know About This?”)

Some people don’t know about the cross because they’ve never heard. Some have heard, but don’t know what it means. Some know, but they have never said, “That changes my life.”

Points:

1) He endured the cross.

What is crucifixion? Why did people want to kill Jesus? What happened?

Walk through gospel of Mark and show how quickly (3:6) Jesus was condemned to die. Go to Gethsemane and stress that he made a choice to save us.

Jesus chose the cross. He had a choice and chose it. Why? Romans 5 says God loved us when we were his enemies and sent Jesus to die for us.

2) The Shame of the cross.

What is the shame of the cross? That an innocent, sinless person was held responsible for our sins.

Twilight zone: waking up and you are being held responsible for crimes you didn’t commit. Jesus took our sins on himself, and gave us his righteousness. This is the Gospel, but remember: it is a curse, a shame for Jesus to be punished at all. It is a wonder that he would do this for me and you.

3) The Joy of the Cross

A strange word. What is it doing here? What could be joyous about the cross?

The Father’s joy in reconciliation and the glorifying of his grace in Jesus.

The Son’s joy in doing the will of the father. We are his treasure.

The joy of sinners forgiven and given heaven and eternal life for Jesus’ sake.

4) The results of the Cross: (Unpack each as much as you feel is appropriate.)

Resurrection

Reign

Return

Why did Paul say, “I want to know nothing but Christ the crucified one?” The cross is the one place our faith must clearly sees who we are, what Jesus means and what it will mean to be a Christian. The Good News is the good news of the cross.

This series is typical of the kind of evangelistic preaching I try to do at OBI. Forty percent of my students are from Asian, African or International backgrounds. We use “Two Ways to Live” as our “bottom line” and make it available to all staff as training and to all students during the year. This kind of presentation will focus on key ideas, and “Two Ways To Live” will fill in others.

I hope this puts some preaching ideas or Bible studies directions in your mind. I am very pleased with how much can be done with two verse from Hebrews!

When you’ve spent a week being told that you don’t believe the Bible and you aren’t a Christian, it’s good to remember what you are actually doing with your life.