Keeping God Central

6th May 2003

1. Our Christian lives start with dependence on God
2. Only spiritual power can give rise to spiritual fruit
3. Why we try to build the church in our own strength
4. How to be fruitful
5. The centrality of God is emphasised in the bible
6. Returning to dependence on God
7. Hunger for God
8. The glory of God

1. Our Christian lives start with dependence on God

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?

— Galatians 3:1-3

Today I want to look at why we make the same stupid mistake as the Galatian church did (``You stupid Galatians!'' - J. B. Phillips translations) and how we can avoid it. Having started our Christian lives in total dependence on God, how can we continue to keep him central?

The first thing to notice is that we all begin our Christian lives in total dependence on God. Every single one of us who is a Christian at all started out that way, because there is no other way to become a Christian. In essence, becoming a Christian means abandoning the ludicrous, self-important notion that we can earn God's favour, and accepting it as a free gift: that is, relying on God's great power rather than our own feeble strength. So we all have an excellent foundation for keeping God central: we started with him central.

It's been said that the only contribution we bring to our conversion is our hunger for God. It is God who, in his grace, provides the power that brings us from darkness into light (Colossians 1:12-13), from death into life (Ephesians 2:5). We would be mad to think we could do this ourselves - as though we could breath life into our own dead existence. No: only God can do this, and he does do it.

2. Only spiritual power can give rise to spiritual fruit

Now, being good evangelicals, we all understand that our salvation is entirely God's doing; but what we often fail to realise is that the same is true of building the church, and of any other spiritually significant activity. Actually, Paul makes this abundantly clear: if we intend to fight spiritual battles, then we can only succeed when armed with spiritual weapons.

Though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power.

— 2 Corinthians 10:3-4

And, more succinctly:

``Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit'', says the LORD Almighty.

— Zechariah 4:6

We know this - but too often we behave as though we don't: as though the keys to building a big, strong, healthy church are things like carefully argued preaching, well-designed publicity and meticulously rehearsed music. These are are all good things, but unless the power of God is in them, they can't give rise to anything more than a well-attended social club or charitable society.

So we can see that attempts to build the church or otherwise live our Christian lives by human effort rather than by God's power are ultimately doomed; and not only that, this kind of striving also wears us down, leaves us weary, disillusioned and ultimately burned out. Does that sound like you? If it is, you need to break out of the mindset that tried to carry the burden of the church, as though it were yours. It's not: it's Jesus's. He says ``I will build my church'' (Matthew 16:18)

3. Why we try to build the church in our own strength

So why do we fall into the trap of trying to make churches by our own efforts? The first thing to say is that I think it's nearly always for the very best of motives. We want to give something to God, and in our enthusiasm forget that what we wants us to give is first of all ourselves. So human-effort attempts to build the church are usually well-meaning, but always misguided.

A lot of our difficulty here comes from the culture we live in, in which self-reliance has become a religion in its own right. We live in a world that reveres the ``self-made man'', in which the so-called ``protestant work-ethic'' is prevalent, where people are expected to ``make something of themselves'' and where the ultimate boast is ``Nobody ever gave me anything, I don't owe anyone anything, everything I have I earned''. We need to realise that this is totally opposed to Jesus' teaching: ``Ask and it will be given to you'' (Matthew 7:7), ``Give us each day our daily bread'' (Luke 11:3) and this extended argument:

Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you?

— Luke 12:27-28

We can also be drawn into self-reliance by misunderstanding other Christians' successes. For example, a few years ago, Nick and I both read a book called The Purpose-Driven Church by Rick Warren, a church leader in California. The book tells the story of how the church he leads grew from zero members to several thousand over the course of a decade or so. It's exciting! But I think we both came away from reading it with the completely incorrect idea that it was because of how this church went about things: their demographic surveys, the character of their venues, their evangelistic strategies, etc. No. All of those things are good, but what they do is provide a platform on which God moves. Ultimately, that church grew because God blessed it.

The temptatation to make something other than God central is subtle and insistent. Even in putting this message together, I found myself writing material about how we can only build a good church by putting him central - but as soon as you think like that, you're not putting him central, but the church!

We're fooling ourselves if we think we can make the church achieve anything significant if our eyes are first of all on the church (or indeed on the world.) ``Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith'' (Hebrews 12:2). If we want him for himself, everything else will be thrown in; but if we look first for the church or for the world, we will lose it; and with it, God. As Jesus says, ``Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well'' (Matthew 6:33)

4. How to be fruitful

Here's what Jesus says about fruitfulness:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. [...] Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

— John 15:1-5

This ``apart from me you can do nothing'' used to bother me, because it was obvious that non-Christians, who are clearly apart from Jesus are perfectly capable, of breathing, walking around, designing marketing campaigns, etc. Then I realised that Jesus said this in the context of fruitfulness. In other worlds, is about achieving things of spiritual significance. It's true, folks. Apart from God, we can do nothing of any spiritual significance.

Let me say that again, because I don't think it comes naturally to us to believe this: Apart from God, we can do nothing of any spiritual significance.

5. The centrality of God is emphasised in the bible

We see the centrality of God, and his desire to be central with us, running all the way through the bible. In the Old Testament, you read things like ``You shall have no other gods before me'' (Exodus 20:3 - the first of the Ten Commandments), ``the LORD is God; besides him there is no other'' (Deuteronomy 4:35) and ``I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God'' (Isaiah 45:5). And in the New Testament, Jesus says things like ``I am the way and the truth and the life'' (John 14:6) and ``I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty'' (John 6:35). And ``This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent'' (John 17:3). Jesus did not call people primarily to doctrine or behavioural standards, but to himself.

In six separate places in the Old Testament, God is described as ``a jealous God'' (Exodus 20:5, 34:14; Deuteronomy 4:24, 5:9, 6:15; and Joshua 24:19). What the word ``jealous'' here means is that he doesn't want us giving first place in our affections to anyone or anything else. Not our jobs, not our children, not the church. Just God himself. Now in a human, we would consider that level of jealously a bit silly or even offensive. That's because no human is worthy of our total devotion - but God is! His jealously is absolutely right; in a sense, he would be selling us short if he was not jealous for our affection, because if he allows us to settle for anything else ahead of him, then we are settling for something that will never be able to bring us the deep wholeness, contentment, peace and joy that God himself brings. ``You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand'' (Psalm 16:11).

6. Returning to dependence on God

So what's the answer? We must rediscover our hunger for God himself. ``I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first'' - Revelation 2:4-5.

We need to get back to how we were in the early days of our Christian lives, with the simple recognition that God is God and we need him. We've all understood that in the past, because it's how we became Christians in the first place.

And now, a story.

When Fiona had finished her music degree at Cambridge, she went to study for a postgraduate year at the Guildhall Music College. By this stage, she'd won the wind final of Young Musician Of The Year, and had been regularly playing solo recitals for years. She could rattle of The Flight of the Bumblebee in her sleep. When she went for her first flute lesson at the Guildhall, she was expecting to be taught challenging new techniques. Instead, she played one note - B - throughout the whole lesson. B is the first note you learn on the flute: playing it is absolutely trivial: the point of this lesson was to go right back to the most basic of basics - to hear again, as though for the first time, the sound a flute makes and to rediscover fundamentals of flute playing. That lesson, which a less mature person might have rejected as humiliating, silly or patronising, ultimately enabled Fiona to go on to be a much better player.

In the same way, we sometimes need to go right back the basics of our Christian life: leave out all the flashy finger-work and all the achievements we're so proud of, and go back to the source, to the foundation. Sometimes we need to forget all about preaching, small groups, leading worship, kids' work and all the rest - and just look at God himself.

7. Hunger for God

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus says, ``Blessed are those who hunger and thirst [...] for they will be filled'' (Matthew 5:6). Only those who rediscover their hunger for God will search for him, and therefore find him.

What does this hunger look like? We see it in Paul's life:

Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him [...] I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him.

— Philippians 3:7-10

Paul is not reluctant to ``consider it loss''. He's not making some kind of big, impressive sacrifice by putting his pharisee background aside in favour of Jesus - it's that he just can't be bothered with it, because he's found something so much better. He's single-minded because he's found the pearl of great price.

The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

— Matthew 13:46-47

In a similar way, the Puritans have had a bad rap over the years from people who see them as being miserable because they were not big on things like music and theatre. But as I understand it, at least for the early Puritans, this was not because they had legalistic prohibitions against these things, but simply because they couldn't be bothered: they'd found a deep intimacy with God, and that was what they wanted to give their best time and efforts to. Everything else they ``considered loss''. May we be similarly consumed with him.

Our passion for God will only grow as:

8. The glory of God

This is what God is like:

I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang:
``Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!''

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing:

``To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!''

— Revelation 4:11-13

[And into worship, using songs like All I Once Held Dear, Jesus Be the Centre, Hungry and This is the Air I Breathe.]

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