This sermon was preached by Michael Cheuk, pastor of Farmville Baptist Church in Farmville, Va., on Nov. 22, 2009.
Today, I’m concluding my sermon series on “The Good Life – At Least According to Walmart.” In this series, we examined the check-out line at Walmart—or really any grocery store—to observe and reflect on what the check-out line is trying to teach and sell as the good life. Throughout this series, we examined how things such as physical health, beauty and sex, wealth, celebrity and convenience can become false gods that can take us away from the worship of the one true God. As I was working on this series of sermons, nagging tensions kept resurfacing again and again. It’s easy for me to preach and warn about those false gods, but how can God help me and others in the congregation live the good life that God has intended for us to live and not fall into the idolatries that the checkout line offers? I know that in my own life, it is so easy to be sucked into living a lifestyle promoted by the checkout line magazines and by other media outlets like television and the internet. So is God calling us to totally boycott the checkout line just as certain Baptist groups have boycotted Disney? But it’s not like we can totally avoid going to Walmart and the grocery stores; nor can we avoid the checkout lines once we get there. Is it possible to participate in our economic system without falling victim to its power to take over the values of God’s kingdom in our lives and in our churches? In other words, can we as followers of Jesus Christ be “in the checkout line, but not of it,” so to speak?
“In the checkout line, but not of it.” This is really not a new challenge for followers of Jesus Christ. I just happen to rephrase it for the purpose of this sermon series. Any of you are familiar with the phrase, “being in the world, but not of it”? How do we live in this world and within its structures and systems without being totally sucked into the values, beliefs and behaviors that those structures and systems demand from its subjects? How do we live first as faithful subjects of the Kingdom of God and Christ the King, and then live as subjects of the present world order – whether it is the Roman Empire or the American Empire? Followers of Christ have struggled with this challenge from the very beginning. As a matter of fact, in our Gospel lesson from John this morning, Jesus addressed this very issue in his prayer for his disciples hours before he was betrayed, arrested and questioned by both the high priest and by Pontius Pilate.
Jesus prayed to his heavenly Father: “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they (my disciples) may have the full measure of my joy within them. I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.”
In this prayer, Jesus affirmed at least two things. First, both he and his disciples were in the world, subject in some ways to the ruling powers of the world. Second, both he and his disciples were not of the world—in other words, they did not identify themselves with the values, beliefs and behaviors of the world around them. Because of that, Jesus said that “the world has hated them,” presumably because the world did not understand them, but more likely, because they understood Jesus and his disciples to be a threat to their power and their authority. Under this threat, Jesus offered a very interesting prayer request to his heavenly Father: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.” Jesus wants his followers to remain in the world in order to witness and to live out a new world order of the coming Kingdom of God. But Jesus knew that kind of lifestyle will threaten the powers that be, and so, Jesus prayed that his heavenly Father will protect his followers from the evil one, from the powers that would seek to pull us down and enslave us back into the old world order.
Now, I’ve just said a mouthful, so let me try to give you an example. What if, during this week of Thanksgiving, the President of the United States urged all citizens NOT to purchase anything this whole week other than food items and necessities, as a gesture of their thankfulness for all that God has already provided them? Citizens could resume their spending habits after this week. Of course, I think most citizens would ignore this pronouncement and continue their annual pilgrimage to the stores, where they hold early sunrise services on the high holy day of our economic calendar called “Black Friday.” But even so, do you think our President would make such a pronouncement? Of course not! That would be political suicide, and he would be labeled a Communist for sure! I would imagine people from both political parties and even some Christian leaders would harshly criticize such a pronouncement as unpatriotic and a threat to our American way of life. Arguments would be made about how such an act would hurt average, hard-working Americans. Anxiety would run rampant among the big retailers. The intensity of the outrage would precisely be a measure of the power that our consumeristic world order has over the minds, the hearts and the behavior of all of us, Christians and non-Christians alike.
Consumeristic materialism is the present world order that we live in, and it is the power that puts a monetary value on things like health, beauty and celebrity. Those who have wealth have convenient access to those things; those who are poor have a harder time gaining access. Consumeristic materialism is a power that leads many to be promiscuous with their bodies but guarded with their possessions. Let me be clear—I’m not saying consumerism or capitalism is an unmitigated evil. We as creatures have to consume and capitalism has brought about many good things. What I’m saying is that we must recognize consumerism and capitalism as powers, and like all powers, it must be harnessed to a master, just like a throroughbred must be bridled to a master. It cannot be the master. What I’m saying is that consumeristic materialism has become a master that demands complete allegiance from its subjects and it does not tolerate any other competing powers or kingdoms. That’s why the Kingdom of God is a threat to the powers of this world. That’s why “this world” hates all those who truly follow Christ the King.
In this prayer, Jesus is requesting that his heavenly Father NOT take his disciples out of this world where consumeristic materialism is a reigning power. Instead, Jesus prays that we live in this world, but in a way that allows God to protect us from its idolatrous tendencies so that we are not enslaved by its power to turn everything into a checkout line item for us to consume and accumulate. Jesus is realistic about the cost of such a lifestyle. The world will hate us for this. We should not expect the world to applaud us for truly trying to live out what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The rulers of this world will always have problems with God’s Kingdom and with Christ the King. I think that’s why it is such a temptation to not just live in the world, but also be of the world.
As I’ve mentioned before, when we are saved, we are not just saved for heaven, for “out of this world” after we die. We are also saved to live in this world in a transformed kind of way, to live in a transformed community that gives the world a foretaste of what the Kingdom of God is like. When we are saved, God enrolls us in a school of discipleship to engage us in Christian practices and disciplines so that we will no longer be conformed to this world, but we will be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we may discern what is the will of God. In traditional Christian terminology, this process is called “sanctification,” a process in which all Christians are called to take the journey to become more like Christ. It is a school that no Christian ever graduates from as long as he or she is still living on this earth. Unfortunately, many churches are not very intentional about this process; they assume that once you are saved or justified in the eyes of God, then sanctification happens automatically. That’s like saying once we’ve received an acceptance letter to college, learning will automatically take place even though we rarely attend class or crack open a book. Or that once we’ve received a job offer, we’ll automatically know everything we need to know about doing that job well even though we only show up for work a couple of times a week. Either way, we do not learn the skills and the practices necessary to be a success in college or in our career, and we wonder why life is not going the way we had hoped or dreamed.
In the same way, if we have not learned the skills and practices necessary to be a fully devoted follower of Jesus, we wonder why our lives are often not that different from those who do not know Christ. If we as a church do not learn the skills and practices necessary to be the community of faith that God wants us to be, we wonder why we don’t experience the vitality, the joy, and the impact that other congregations are experiencing. Many Christians and congregations are living in the world but they are still of the world in terms of their values, their beliefs and their behaviors
But it is not all bad news. The Good News is that Jesus promises to sanctify us, to make us holy as He is holy, and to mold us more into His likeness and image. But sanctification rarely takes place outside of community. We need each other’s support, encouragement and accountability to grow in our faith and to be transformed in our lives. Several months ago, our church started a spiritual transformation journey, and we organized ten prayer groups (three people each) to begin praying to God to help us discern God’s will and direction for our church and our lives. We haven’t talked about it much recently, but we are still on this spiritual journey. After the first season of prayers, many of our participants reported back that they experienced a renewed connection with God and a greater connection with their prayer partners. But we also acknowledged that we do not have clarity regarding where God wants us to go and who God wants us to serve. So starting in January, we will continue to pray and we want to invite more of you to join these groups. I invite you to contact me if you would like to join or to continue in a prayer group. And as we pray, I truly believe that the spirit of Christ will be with us to sanctify us, to transform our lifestyle by the renewing of our hearts and our minds, so that we may begin to discern God’s good and perfect will for us as a church. Just as Jesus prayed for his disciples to sanctify them in his truth and to fill them with his joy, I truly believe that Jesus will do the same thing for us as we pray for discernment and for His will. This isn’t a program in the sense that we will stop praying when God shows us His will. My hope is that we will become transformed into a praying church that will always seek God’s will to show us how we may worship God, grow together and serve others in new and exciting ways.
Bu we don’t have to wait until January to begin praying and living into a transformed lifestyle. Starting next Sunday, the first Sunday in Advent, I will begin a new sermon series called Advent Conspiracy. Too often, preachers and Christians have complained that Christmas has become too commercialized, too much of the world and of the checkout line. Well, this year, I hope we can actually do something about that as we conspire against the prevailing powers of this world to live out and witness the true meaning of Christmas.
During the Sundays of Advent, we will learn how to worship more fully our true God and not the god of consumerism, because Christmas begins and ends with Jesus. We will also learn how to reorder our desires so that we’ll spend less on ourselves this Christmas in order to free our resources for things that truly matter. We will practice giving more to others of our presence, our hands, our words, our time, and our hearts. Finally we will be challenged to love all – the poor, the forgotten, the marginalized, the sick, in ways that make a difference – because after all, for God so loved the world, that He send His only begotten Son. And during our Christmas Eve service, we will collect an offering to give solely to our community, so that even as we receive God’s greatest gift to us, we may in our thankfulness and joy share that gift to those around us.
These are challenging actions, and ones that my own family has been talking about. We’ve been brainstorming ways that we will try to live out the Advent Conspiracy this year. Instead of spending our money on Black Friday, we will be spending our time at the FACES food pantry this Saturday helping to distribute food while most of their regular volunteers are away. That’s our first resolution for thinking about the holiday season differently. We’re still talking about others. Perhaps instead of spending time trying to find the perfect gift, we will try to spend time writing notes and making phone calls to our friends and relatives. Maybe instead of telling relatives what gifts to buy for us, we will ask them to donate the money they would have spent on us to World Vision, or Heifer International, or Watering Malawi. Last year, we started scaling back on the number of presents we give to our children. We thought they might be disappointed, but Thea welcomed it, and Wesley said, “I think that’s a good idea – because my room and I are stuffed!” These are some small changes that we as a family are exploring as we try to be in the checkout line but not of it. And in the process, I have a feeling that we will experience the true spirit of Advent and Christmas in ways that honors and worship Christ the newborn King in ways that we haven’t before.
May Christ the King help us all to live in the world but be not of it during this coming Advent and Christmas season. Amen.