Theme: We often think of God’s call to service as one more burden to carry. Maybe the bigger struggle is laying something down first, to make room for a commitment to service.
In the series, “God’s Mission; God’s Method,” we will be looking at the Book of Acts to see God at work in the early church. The series will help us start our life together by looking afresh at what it means to be God’s people, caught up in the world-changing action of the Holy Spirit. I don’t want to “play church,” just going through the motions. I want us to be the church, the church God calls us to be. ~Rev. John Schmidt
and Isaiah 58:6-9
This morning we have an Old Testament and a New Testament reading. I would like to begin by just reading a portion from Isaiah. It gives a little bit of context for what the early church had in mind when they gathered together as a people. This is from the Book of Isaiah, from the 58th chapter. I am going to be reading verses 6-9.
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.”
And now from the New Testament – from the Book of Acts, the 4h chapter, beginning on the 32nd verse.
“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continue to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.”
Let’s pray. Lord we thank you for this your word and we pray now that we will hear it and that you will root it in our lives, and that we will respond to you whatever way is appropriate. For we ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
About six years ago Debbie and I went to London, actually the whole family, Debbie, myself and our two children. And since it was on the way back from Japan we had a few extra things with us. In fact, we had shipped our stuff ahead, but you know how it is, you ship your stuff ahead and there is still half a house load of stuff and then we threw away some of it, but we ended up in London with 12 bags for four people. That’s the legal limit. Not only were they 12 bags, but they were 12 bags that were maximum legal size. So we had a 250-lb son, 6’4″ and he is carrying bags that are just about 70 lbs. Well, then we decided to tour around. Now, the thing about carrying this much baggage is that it’s no fun. This is crazy. We get our stuff out of the baggage claim area; we’ve got three bags each. We can barely move it across the room and say, “How are we even going to get this out of the terminal?” And then once we get it out of the terminal, is there any public transportation available in England that allows us to take this much baggage? We finally get to our hotel room and we can fit in, but we had two rooms and each room had six large bags in it. And then we had the most difficult time of the whole trip is when we realized that we had planned also to go to Bathe, to Oxford and there was no place to store it. Are we going to try traveling on buses and trains with this much baggage? It’s no fun to travel this way and not only is it not fun, but when you travel like this, not only are you having a hard time, but you are totally oblivious to the people around you. You are so consumed with moving your bags around. I didn’t even have a hand free to hold the door open for somebody if they needed help. You can’t be worried about other people’s needs because you are consumed with the logistical nightmare of moving hundreds of pounds of baggage around a foreign country. It’s not a way to travel, and yet I think far too often that is the way that we travel through life. We carry around far too much baggage.
Think about the kinds of baggage that we carry. The load we carry financially. You are paying off loans from school if you are younger. If you are older, you are paying off loans for school for your kids. You’ve got a mortgage. You’ve got a second mortgage. You’ve got car payments. You’ve got insurance. You’ve got co-payments for the medical. You’ve got to wish and you’ve got, you know, credit cards, vacation plans, home improvements, all of these things are weighing on you financially. And our time load is just as bad. We’ve got to work to pay for all of these things. We need to commute to work. Then we need to chauffeur our kids around to school and then to all the sports programs, to dance team. We have to shop. We have family things that are going on. We have TV. We have church things. We’ve got all these things filling our lives. And so then, we feel so loaded up that we imagine that if we get one more demand on our time, one more demand on our finances, the whole thing is going to collapse.
And then we read in scripture, like in today’s passage, that we are to give of ourselves. We are to give of our time. We are to give of our money. And when we hear something like that in a passage our first response is hold on. Wait. I am to the top of what I can handle. God, not only can I not help, but I need help. In these sermons we have been looking at the life of the early church. God has called the church into an adventure. An adventure that is part of his plan and that we don’t fully control. And he invites us into this and pulls together a community of people called the church. And this church people then has to commit themselves to things that are dear to the heart of God, and so we have talked about our commitment to worship. We talked about our commitment to proclaiming this message about Jesus Christ from the very doors of the congregation to the ends of the world that we are called to mission. And then in today’s text, we find that we are also called to service. We are called to give of ourselves so that we can give of our money; we give of our time, to meet the needs of people and to serve God. And this comes up, this picture of what the church is like, comes up in the earliest picture we have of the church.
In chapter two of the Book of Acts, it talks about this issue of service. It says that, Verse 44 of chapter two, “All the believers were together and had everything in common, selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” Then we come to chapter four and again we have a description of the church that focuses in on this issue of service, this issue of meeting needs. Chapter five continues the theme. Chapter six continues it. Now, think about all the different ways they could have described the church. Luke, when he is writing the Book of Acts, could have decided to say, “Well, let’s talk about the music we used.” But he doesn’t. Let’s talk about the prominent members of the congregation. No mention of that. Let’s talk about exactly whose homes we met in and what we did. No, only the briefest mentioning of that. What does he talk about? He talks about this relationship where people are recognizing the needs of others and are free enough to help each other out and to serve God by doing that. Now, when we look at this we can get an idea about how it happened among them. If we take a look at Verse 32, in Verse 32 it talks about an attitude. “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions were his own, but they shared everything they had.” So the first thing is, is that this is not just a dry discipline. This is not something legalistic. There is something going on in their hearts. There is an attitude an attitude of response to God, an attitude of affection for the brothers and sisters, a sense of a unity together and so out of this family feeling, a family with a common purpose, it’s out of that that they respond to God with generosity.
In Verse 34, we see the practical living out of this. It says that there was no needy persons among them. From time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. So again, there is not some legalistic program. You didn’t have to do this to join the believers there. Instead, from time to time someone senses this inner sense that God was calling them to sacrifice, to take an extra step in order to meet the needs around them. So, you have a beginning of an attitude and then you have this spontaneous, this individual response that happens inside of this community and the result of that is that no need went unmet.
And in addition, no one person was meeting all the needs. Different people at different times came to the front and said, “Here use this.” And so people around them could see that being a Christian made a difference, that it wasn’t just something they said, it was something they did. Their lives made a difference. Now we know how good it is to give, to be generous. Think about how good it feels. You know you hear about an inner varsity staff member or campus crusade staff member, they can’t stay on campus unless they get more support. You write a check. Man that feels good. You make cookies for a shelter some weekend or for a reception here at church and it feels good. You teach in a Sunday school class, you help the little kids. We feel good about that. Maybe you carry a hammer and a screwdriver and go and repair a house or build a house for someone who otherwise wouldn’t live in decent housing and we feel good about that. Generosity feels good, whether it is with our time or our money and that is because we have created it to be that way. God feels good about generosity. God likes to be generous. He longs to be generous. He longs to pour out blessings on us. It makes him feel good. And we are created in God’s image and so that means that when we step beside God and get involved in that plan, it feels good for us because we share in that very heart of God. In fact, this is such a part of human nature that even non-Christians are generous and non-Christian people and people all over the world value generosity. We like people who invest themselves in the community or in making the world a better place.
So, if it feels good and it’s deep inside of us, then why aren’t we generous more often? Why aren’t we generous more often? It’s not because it doesn’t feel good. It’s because we are carrying too much of a load. We are too burdened down. We would like to help, but both hands, both armpits are full. We are carrying a load on our back,and we just don’t feel ready to help. We bought into an image of life from Western culture that just lays enormous demands on us. Think about what we say about time. We say, we try to find time, buy time, we run out of time, we even try to make time. We are obsessed with time, because we are so pressed for time. Money and time just kind of flow out of our lives because there is a pace of life where we are trying to have a certain kind of lifestyle. We are trying to offer certain things to our kids. We are trying to achieve certain things in our lives. It requires work. It requires a certain kind of house and certain kind of car. We have a house and car payment, but it’s not just a house and a car payment. It’s a certain kind of house, a certain kind of car that we are trying to pay for. There are second, third and fourth cars. Now, those of us who are parents here, you know that we don’t give that car to our children out of generosity. We do it out of an instinct for survival, because we are so tired of driving them everywhere. When I gave our car to our son, it was like Debbie and I wanted to dance a little dance, because she didn’t have to drive him and I didn’t have to pick him up. We live those kinds of lives. And so our calendars and wallets are overwhelmed and then God seems to be saying here, “Pick up one more thing, you are already loaded down, but pick up one more thing, this thing called service and it’s as big as all the rest of the baggage that you are carrying. Find time to serve others. Find more money to give to others. Pick up a new load.” And so just as we did on our trip to London, we had this feeling that if we pick up one more thing; we are going to collapse.
But that isn’t what God is saying. If you take a look at what happens in this passage, those people who responded to God laid something down in order to be free to serve God. So those who owned lands or houses, sold them in order to have this freedom to serve. Now, you might not be called on this sort of scale to give or to change, but inevitably in the kind of lives that we are living, if God is calling you to serve, to be generous, then it means that he is first calling you to lay something down. Free yourself up. There is something that you are doing that you don’t have to do. There is something that you own, that you don’t need to own. We need to be ready to put things down in order to be free to serve.
When I was an inner varsity staff member at Tulane University, I remember a freshman girl came up to me and she said, “John, God has told me that I have got to quit the soccer club.” Now, I didn’t know exactly what to make of that, so I talked to her a little bit more and it became clear that she felt like soccer was too big a thing in her life, she was giving too much time and energy to it and she felt like God was saying, “In order to serve me, in order to grow, you need to put that aside.” Now it turned out to be the right decision, because not only did this young Christian explosively grow across her years at Tulane, but she became a leader in the chapter and then now, 20 years or more later, she and her husband have a strong Christian home, a continued witness to Christ, Godly children, the fruit is still being born from a commitment that she began. This commitment to lay things down to follow Jesus.
The church I just came from planted another church in a nearby part of town. In order to do so we had a major capital campaign where we gathered together finances to help pay some salaries while they were doing the church outreach, to buy some land and to build a building on it. And one couple in our church, an older couple on a fixed income made a decision that they were going to give up their vacation that year and take the money from that vacation and give it to God’s service. They laid something down in order to do something more important in their minds. Now, we didn’t then make that some kind of rule for our church. In fact, very few people even know that that happened. So this is not a legalistic thing. Unfortunately, that’s not the way discipleship is. I mean, I think it is fortunate, but sometimes we feel like it would be so much simpler if you could just give us five things to do and it would all be clear and we would know that we were walking right, but walking and growing in Christ isn’t that way. It’s a journey. And so you are called at these different times to make a new decision. And so we need, together with our brothers and sisters, but also on a personal level, have to struggle. It’s not a one size fits all discipleship. And so we have to make this decision, what we are going to lay down and have the discipline to continue? So we need to look at our lives. Why aren’t we more generous with our time and money? We need to look at some of the baggage that we are carrying and see if we can’t get rid of some of it.
When we were in London, we got so desperate that one night in the hotel room we unzipped all 12 bags and we started to go through. I found this old tee-shirt with holes in it. Now, why was I carrying that with me? Toss it. We found some shoes and they still had some mileage left in them, but they were taking up an awful lot of space, size 10 or size 12, who knows whose they were, they were too big, we tossed them. I even got rid of some books that I had read on the first leg of the trip, so that we could fit some of the things that we were getting in England, some of our souvenirs. We couldn’t even fit a map of London into the suitcase without making some room. Well, we need to do that in our lives.
We need to look at our money. First of all we’ve got to take a look at who we want to be. Who is God making us to be? What is the goal that God has for our lives? And we’ve got to get that clear in our eyes the kind of person that we want to be. And then we’ve got to look at our money and say, are the things that we are spending our money on, really getting us there? Or are they standing in the way?
We’ve got to look at our calendar and say, do these things in our calendar are they all equally important? Or are some less important in making us the person that we really want to be, to become fully the child of God, that God has called us to be? We each need to struggle with that so that we can come to the point that we can lay aside some things, so that we can pick up some things that are more important. Each of us has to make a decision on how we are going to travel. Are we going to be the sort of people that have so much in our hands, so much that we are carrying that we can’t spare an extra dollar or an extra minute to do something bigger than us, to do something more important, to do something God sized? Or are we going to be the sort of people that are going to learn to lay down some of the excess baggage? We lay it down so that we can be free, free to respond to the call of God in our hearts, free to do something that not only feels good, but changes lives and makes God smile. In this passage, we see what our brothers and sisters chose to do. What will we choose?
Let’s pray. God, you called us each on to a journey with you and we are each at a different place with different demands in our lives. Grant us grace now that each one of us might in small ways and big ways lay aside things that encumber us, things that are weighing us down so that we might be free and we anticipate the incredible joy that that will bring to our hearts, even as it brings joy to your heart. For we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.