Grace and peace to all those who are in Christ.
I commend you on behalf of Christ Jesus for your faithfulness in the work of the gospel in this last year. Although we in Wisconsin did not bear the greater weight of the suffering of 2020, the year was a trial to our faith—both testing it and strengthening it. I thank God for the encouragement of seeing the church respond with unity to issues certain to divide any population acting as mere humans in this world. Disease, dividing walls of racial hostility, economic turmoil, and political divisiveness have made this a trying year for people very used to a blessed flourishing. In each circumstance, the elders of the church have consulted with other wise and experienced believers in order to try to take a faithful step towards obedience to God. Every action was fallible, and from some perspective can be faulted. Yet, the body of Christ has held together in unity, respecting those God has put in authority and seeking not only to weather difficulty, but also to harness opportunities for good.
As a whole, the body of Christ here has become much more generous in 2020. I know that for some of us, we had fewer expenses in 2020 and the same or greater income. But as a whole, many of us have struggled financially, yet the church has still given more generously than any previous year when I have been the pastor. It shows that Christ is in you, welling up in generosity toward the shared human need of your brothers and sisters, rather than simply giving from the overflow of a unique abundance. Christ gave out of his abundance and in recognition of our poverty. Our giving is most like Christ’s when we give in worship toward God, but in real compassion towards our brothers and sisters in Christ and our neighbors in our shared city. You have not only alleviated some of the suffering of our brethren in India and in minority communities here in Madison, but you have also cared for the body of Christ by taking care of those in need within our church. In witnessing this, one can truly say, in the words of 1 Corinthians 12, that when one part of the body hurts, the whole body feels that pain. We have shown others that we are Christ’s disciples. We have built deeper relationships and trust with our minority brethren and other local churches. And we have tried to answer the call toward those who are far outside our gaze but are members of our spiritual family abroad.
We have also seen a significant change in how the church is organized in its worship of Christ and care for his sheep. We expanded our video broadcasting capability while seeking to become more robust in our pastoral and personal ministries to people. We have tried to make things more accessible digitally while making them more personal relationally. This may be a grace from God, who may be forcing us to embrace the best of the opportunities of modern technology while leading us to keep the church’s ministry profoundly humane—that is, fitted to the real nature of human beings. Any humane ministry that is truly spiritual must be deeply relational. Digital worship will never suffice for the full corporate adoration of God, nor can it substitute for the ministry of presence and the encouragement we get from being together. Yet, we should be encouraged that God is both changing and sustaining the ministry of the gospel to his flock, and he has led many people to take on the responsibility of shepherding through small group leadership, making sure Christ’s sheep are both fed and defended.
Brothers and sisters, while we rejoice in these demonstrations of God’s work among us, we cannot forsake our vigilance in seeking to obey everything Jesus has commanded. When God speaks to the seven churches in the book of Revelation, he commends almost all of them. In all but one case, however, he has one thing against them, and that thing is often so severe that it threatens to destroy their witness and spiritual integrity. In light of this, there are three areas in addition to those I noted in my sermon on December 27 (part 1 and part 2) where I believe we require increased vigilance. These should take our attention in our private and public worship, in our spiritual conversations, and in our pursuit of sanctification and godliness.
First, we must be vigilant around the covenant of marriage in each of our relationships and as a whole in the body of Christ. Marriage, as the covenantal formation of a family, is God’s first institution. It is his provision of relational wealth for men and women, the exultation of the complementary relationship between the sexes, and the vehicle of God providing for himself godly offspring. It is meant by God to bless us by supporting our happiness and alleviating loneliness in our creation callings. It is also designed as a crucible in which we are made holy. It requires both emotional devotion and wise discipline in order for it to flourish, especially in times when it is no longer supported by abject human need or the good opinion of society. I’ve seen numerous marriages struggling during this season, and many are not looking for or asking for help until problems and sins are far advanced. It is unwise and unspiritual to allow years of resentment to be piled upon even more difficult problems. Do not wait to seek help for things in your marriage that seem difficult to solve and are ruining your goodwill toward each other. Although marriage is in one sense “easy,” it is easy in the way the yoke of Christ is easy. When it is taken on entirely for what it is, and we submit ourselves entirely to it like an animal submits to the yoke of its master, marriage becomes easy in its simplicity. Clouded by worldliness and choked by human hurt, people experience marriage as anything but easy.
To honor Christ in this area, the church must be a place that holds unapologetically to the standards of Christ and offers people the compassion of the Son incarnate, our Shepherd Jesus Christ. Jesus had a way of bringing people to the standards of God unapologetically while making them feel invited to their own salvation rather than judged on the basis of their own doom. If we are to be spiritual physicians to the needs of our brothers and sisters, our advocacy for grace and truth in the lives of people who are stumbling must find this character of Christ. Each of us must be someone that a struggler believes will point us back to what is good and will do so with compassion and a desire to help bear our burdens. Sin is sin, but it is also a heavy wretchedness that is hard both to bear and to overcome. I implore you to seek help early and quickly if you are struggling. And if a struggler reaches out to you, use the truth to point them faithfully to the will of Christ, yet do so with the grace that displays practical, long-suffering compassion. Marriage was created to be easy, but nothing is as easy as intended under the curse.
Second, we are in danger of losing our fire for Christ or falling into sin because of the effect of emotional burnout. Unexpected change, suffering, and difficulty will deplete our fortitude and courage. For many, you’re already feeling emotionally dead, spiritually tired, or theologically disinterested in God himself. It is much easier to watch TV, eat more food, or do whatever feels pleasing at the moment. I have written recently on overcoming burnout, but the long and short of it is that we must live lives that are more humane. That is, lives more in line with how God created us as human beings with recognition that we are the spiritual creatures that bear his image. That means that some of our rejuvenation comes from spiritual practices and some from physical ones. We are made for rest, in terms of both sleep and leisure of mind. We are made for meaningful relationships. And we are made to enjoy devoting our hearts to God in worship. The four practices of devotion, rest, enjoyable work, and human relationships of delight are all necessary for the sustaining of human flourishing spiritually, emotionally, and bodily. The apostles affirmed that everyone must work, everyone must rest, everyone must worship, and everyone must fellowship. These all give us meaning in different ways and fulfill us both in our created purpose and in our Savior. In order to embrace discipline that will lead to spiritual thriving, we must devote ourselves to wholesome expressions of these four realms of human activity. If any of them is missing, we will suffer for it. If all are present, we can thrive in very difficult situations over very long periods of time—sometimes growing much stronger through difficulty.
Third, as much as we must embrace the disciplines of rest, work, worship, and fellowship, we must also recognize how we must exert ourselves to escape distraction and diversion. Many things in our lives are making us more sensual creatures. Our minds are crowded, cacophonous, and divided. It’s hard to have a silent place inside of us. Our bodies and temperaments are drawn to immediate sensual pleasure—food, romantic intimacy, video games, YouTube, news that makes us mad, frivolous gossip, and many other thoughtless actions that waste time and produce nothing good. Diversions often look like rest, worship, work, and fellowship, but they are either greatly diluted or false versions of each. Winning short video games or getting likes on posts in social media feels like a better worship, since we are the ones who are good and worthwhile. It is a much more glandular experience of affirming the good, except we are that good instead of God, and the good we are celebrating is trivial rather than substantial. Eating junk food mocks the wholesome enjoyment of food and drink as a reward for work. Trivial activities replace meaningful work. And digital interactions are substituted for substantial in-person spiritual fellowship. Christ’s disciples must recognize these diversions for what they are, a sort of froth on the meaningful flow of the river of life. They are its least meaningful and least substantial elements, not just in their physical existence, but also in their moral and theological meaning.
This is all true, even recognizing that Scripture teaches that God has given us everything in this natural world “for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17). But even this affirmation of wealth comes after a very pointed exhortation on the dangers of wealth. Enjoying creation without being enslaved by Mammon is a critical distinction that is easily confused when we are spiritually blinded by our own wretchedness. The best way to know whether we are enjoying creation in our leisure and indulgence rather than being enslaved by Mammon is to ask ourselves if we are still doing the wholesome things that flourishing in Christ require. Are we happy and eager to go to church and fellowship with the body of Christ? Do we find times of silence in our soul to concentrate on the single thing that is God himself in prayer? Are we drawn to and do we enjoy fruitful labor in our chosen vocation, in service of our neighbors, and for the common good? Are we happy to include other people in our leisure and indulgences who may enjoy them with us? Will our life be marked as a life of service, or one where we do the minimum for others and spend the maximum amount of time doing as we please? Do we naturally stop to worship and thank God throughout our day? Are our minds well-focused, and quiet enough to think about the things of God and cherish them?
I have great concern for the flock of God in an era of diffuse attention, digital realities, sensual temptations, and general godlessness of mind and action. We live in a time when many truths are twisted while others are partially celebrated. It is a difficult time for having both the mind and heart of Christ. Great wisdom, great devotion, and great discipline will be needed for us to thrive in such times. We should be thankful to God for all of the advances, securities, wealth, and resources of our times. God himself created all the best of science, and every day we seem to be unlocking parts of its promise for human flourishing. And yet, our spiritual poverty seems to be increasing geometrically. We have the opportunity to live in a time of great scientific advancement, and to do so with hearts for the God who created all that science studies, while responding to him in his revelation in Jesus Christ. However, like all generations of Christians, we must do profound battle with the flesh. We must intently and intentionally resist both religious legalism and rampant worldliness. And we must be vigilant of the schemes of devils, never being unaware of the constancy or ruthlessness of their schemes.
Even when the things of this earth are so pleasing and clamor for all of our attention, we must, in the words of the apostle, set our minds on things above, not the things of the earth. In all times, but particularly in our age of distraction, setting our minds on anything beyond human happenings requires the rigorous training of our minds in the school of mental solitude. There, with the Spirit as our teacher, we must put our conscious meditation on the fact that we have been raised with Christ, who is our life, and have been redeemed from an old way of life and death and raised, re-clothed in the identity of righteousness, as Christ’s redeemed, as God’s chosen people and a holy nation. Firmly rooted in these truths, we must take our place as a kingdom of priests and kings, inviting all people to experience God’s reconciliation, to fulfill both the mandate to believe in God’s Christ, and to live out the creation mandate to take dominion over creation for its good.
May God bless you in every way in Christ and make you sensible of his greatness. May he interest you more than Mammon, worldliness, flesh, and sin. May you and the generations under your care find comfort in the care of the great Shepherd who knows, understands and is shaping the future.