I preached this message at The Well tonight (though I can’t say I completely stuck to the manuscript that I have here), but I thought it was worth sharing on here.
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
When Darick and I went on our honeymoon back in February, we drove up much of the northeast and part of our time was spent on the road in New Jersey. I don’t know if you have ever been to New Jersey, but they have a law that all of their gas stations must be full-service stations. When we had to stop for gas, all we had to do was pull into the station, roll down our window and let the gas station attendant take care of the rest. Then we would roll up the window and be on our merry way. We didn’t even have to get out of the car. Full service operation!
Tonight I am talking about the sin of sloth, or what we might call apathy, and we are going to focus in on spiritual apathy, the great immobilizer of the church. We have become conditioned to view the church and its worship gatherings as something akin to the full-service gas station. We just roll in, stay and our seats and wait to be filled up with whatever: with music, preaching, programs. We, in a sense, come expecting to be serviced. We wait to be filled up by these things, often expecting others to do them: we expect the band to fill us up with good music, the preacher to fill us up with the word of God. We expect to come away from worship with our spiritual needs met. If we do come away from worship with those spiritual needs met, then that is great. But that is not why we are here. A worship service is not about each of us being served, and if we come with the expectation that this worship service is for us, then we are following down the road that leads to spiritual death.
How many of you have ever broken a bone or injured yourself in a way that prevents you from using the muscles in that particular limb? What did you find after you had the cast or brace removed? What did you have to do?
When I was in high school, I dislocated my knee. Sadly, I don’t even have a good story of how I dislocated it. All I did was get out of my car and my knee somehow managed to pop out of joint. I had to wear an immobilizer on my leg for a while as my knee healed, and then when I had to go through physical therapy to get my knee back up to strength again. When you have a cast on your arm or leg and you can’t use the muscles for an extended period, they get weak. They lose muscle mass. They atrophy.
When we come here, expecting to have our needs met met by others, seeing a worship service as being about us, then we, in a sense, are letting our spiritual muscles atrophy, leading us to become immobilized. When this happens, we also become increasingly self-absorbed in what we want so that we can’t even really see that we have become apathetic to God’s call on our lives. Have you ever had a time where you have actually slept too much? I know that I have. And when I sleep too long, I don’t feel alive or invigorated. Instead I just feel like I want to sleep even more. We are reaching a point in the church where we have been sleeping too long. We have come, in large part, to see the church as being about us. Its our place, where we worship God. Sure, in part, the church is a gathering of the people of God in worship. But truly I tell you, the Church with a capital “C” is the body of Christ, broken and redeemed for the world. The church is not here just for the benefit of Christians. It is for the benefit of everyone. I challenge you with this question: how is Jesus Christ good news not just for those who will come to faith in Christ, but for those who may never believe? How can the church be an instrument of good news to all people, regardless of where they are now in their lives or where they may be down the road?
But that question makes things much more difficult and it challenges the church’s sin of apathy. We can no longer just sit on our butts in worship and hope other people show up. We all actually have to get up and do something. Not just pastors, not just the current leaders of the church. In fact, I would say pastors, myself included, have done a great disservice to the church by thinking that we need to have our hands in every project and program a church does. We have done a great disservice in letting people believe that we just need more or better programs to be a better church. We have done a great disservice in not empowering more people in our congregations to lead in worship and to lead in ministry. All of this lends itself to the idea that the church is a place of goods and services that we just come to consume instead of understanding it as a group of people, united in service to the world in the name of and for the sake of Jesus Christ. But now is the time for all of that to change!
Today, we hear the story of Lazarus, dearly loved by Jesus, who has died of an illness. His sisters have laid him to rest in the tomb, as they grieve over his loss. Lazarus has been in there for four days, and his decaying body is really starting to smell the place up. Then Jesus shows up and calls Lazarus forth out of the tomb.
I want to imagine this story now as if Lazarus represents the church. The church, dearly loved by Jesus has been ill for a long time with the disease of spiritual apathy. For many years its muscles have been atrophying as it has been getting weaker and weaker. Finally the church is just so sick and feeble and weak that it dies. The church building has become a tomb, trapped within itself, trapped within its own walls. As the lifeless corpse of the church stays inside the building, things really start to smell. They really start to stink. But then one day, Jesus comes and he weeps that his dearly beloved church has died and is stuck within the tomb of its walls. He knows of the wasting disease that crippled and finally killed the church, and he decides that it is time to call the church forth, out of its tomb so that all can see the glory of God. So Jesus goes up to the church, laying lifeless, stuck inside of its walls and he shouts “People of God! Get up! Get out! You are alive! Get out of your tomb!” So come with me now. It’s time for us to get out of our tomb.
::At this point in the message, we all got up out of our seats and went outside by the wooden cross on the lawn in front of the Grosscup Ave. building::
We are so fortunate to have these buildings that we have. We are so fortunate to come together and worship each week. We are so fortunate to have a church home. But if we think that the church is here for us, then we are missing the point. If we are a part of the church to be served, to be filled up, then we are missing the point. The son of God came not to be served, but to serve. Sometimes, in our worship services, and in the life of our congregation, it is really easy for us to get stuck in the tomb. It is really easy to think that the church is here to serve us. But look around you now. Look at Dunbar. This is what the church exists for. We are the church, and the church exists for the sake of the world, not our own sakes! Each of us here has been created with a purpose: to love God and to love our neighbor. This is our neighborhood. We can’t serve our neighbors if we never leave our house. This is not just a job for pastors. This is not just a job for church musicians. This is the responsibility of all Christians.
When Jesus went around preaching, his most common preaching was that “the kingdom of God has come among you! It has come near to you!” How are we proclaiming this good news? How are we a living church for the sake of the world? We may have a building where we gather for worship, but we need to live like a church without a building. We need to get up and wake up to the world around us. We need to look with fresh eyes at the people we meet on a daily basis. We are standing with the cross here in front of us, with houses as the backdrop. This cross needs to become the lens through which we view the whole world. We need to view Dunbar through the lens of this cross.
It’s easy for us to sit in our seats at church and participate in programs that fill us up, but if we are looking only to fill ourselves, then we, as a church, will die from spiritual atrophy and apathy because we will only be focused inwards. We will die, no questions asked. We will die and we will be buried in the tomb of our own walls.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want the church to die. I don’t want it to just merely survive either. I want the people of God to live and be a blessing to its communities. I want the church to live and be a bearer of good news to those who may one day believe and to those who might never believe, but one thing is for sure. We must start thinking beyond ourselves and beyond our walls if we want this to happen. Over the coming weeks and months, lets ask God continually to open our eyes our ears and our hearts so that we can hear him as he calls us up out of the tomb and into our community.