“Turn to Return”
Jeremiah 4:1-4; Mark 8:31-9:1

First of all, thank you for inviting me to be part of your celebration of ministry here tonight. To share in the leadership of this service with Godsent has been something I’ve been looking forward to since I was first asked. They have a wonderful gift to share, and I’m glad they work so hard at coming together to sing God’s praises with people all over the region.

I also find it a bit interesting that you’ve invited me out here tonight. I guess you couldn’t wait a few more weeks when we begin to have our combined services for the summer and you’ll have to hear me every couple of weeks.

What we’ve done here tonight is bring about the two things that excite me most about worshipping God. Those two things are passionate music and preaching the Word of God. I don’t pretend to be some great preacher who will give you all the answers to the problems in the world, but what I do like to do is make people think. For some that might be their version of a nightmare sermon.

The bad news is, it’s what I do. I think a lot. In many ways I am a church geek. I wasn’t always this way, in fact I never went to church before the year 2000. But the church got a hold of me, well, I should say God got a hold on me, and now I think a lot about the state of the church. I am officially a full-fledged church geek.

So, I have been paying a lot of attention to church meetings lately. I was unable to go to Maritime Conference a couple of weeks ago, but I have an idea of what happened there thanks to the magic of the internet and social media like Twitter, Facebook and blogs. The same goes for the Anglican church who had their General Synod this past week in Halifax, and the Presbyterian General Assembly held this year at Cape Breton University.

Through the magic of technology, I’ve been able to see how these three denominations are all scared to death about their futures. All three have experienced dramatic decline in membership and attendance, which then means budgets are being squeezed at every level.

Also interesting is that each gathering seemed to have some sort of formula, or set directives for the church to improve upon in order to rejuvenate the denomination. As if it could all be packaged up into a neat little presentation.

For Maritime Conference it was (and suppose still is):

  • radical hospitality
  • passionate worship
  • extravagant generosity
  • intentional faith development, and
  • risk-taking mission and service

These are all good things. These are things we need to be considering, they just make sense from a church perspective.

Here’s my problem with programmes and prescribed formulas…

“Where’s God?”

Behind a lot of these things we like to throw around the word ‘love’. Jesus told us to love one another, Jesus wants us to treat everyone equally. Again, good stuff. Love is good. But, loving one another is the second great commandment if you remember. What’s the first? “Love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.”

It HAS to begin with God. Our lives, our actions, our churches all need to begin with loving God first and foremost. We’ve forgotten how to do this. We need to get back to the first commandment before we can effectively do the second.

We need to learn how to love God, we need to learn how to trust Him and to listen to what He is calling us to do. And we need to do it with our entire being. All that we have and all that we are, we need to turn it to God. Fully. Completely. Entirely. That’s how we love God.

Churches have moved past this step and are trying to invoke the second commandment, and it’s not helping. We’re trying to love others without first understanding the love of God in our own lives.

On the night of his arrest, Jesus prayed for his disciples. He prayed that they become one with him and with God and the Holy Spirit. His prayer is that all who follow him will be one with God so that God may be one with them. If this happens, then God is glorified and truth about Jesus Christ can spread to the nations.

I picked the reading from Jeremiah tonight because Jeremiah is a prophet in a time when the nation of Israel has turned away from God. Prophets were killed, run out of town, or just plain too scared to speak. Jeremiah would have been more than happy to have not been chosen for this job, but it was his. God spoke through him, even if no one was listening.

And in chapter 4 we have the words we read tonight that I think speak to our churches today. “If you return to me, if you remove your abominations from my presence, and if you swear, ‘As the Lord lives!’ in truth, in justice and in righteousness, then nations will be blessed.”

It’s always fun to read verses like this in different translations. Here’s how it reads in the version written by Eugene Peterson, called The Message Bible,

“If you want to come back, O Israel, you must really come back to me. You must get rid of your stinking sin paraphernalia and not wander away from me anymore. Then you can say words like, ‘As God lives…’ and have them mean something true and just and right. And the godless nations will get caught up in the blessing and find something in Israel to write home about.”

Get close to God. Get caught up in the blessings only God can offer, and let those experiences speak for themselves. Then, like Eugene Peterson translated, people will find something about us to “write home about.” They will finally notice us.

All these mainline denominations are so stuck on budgets and finding ways to program the church back into a place of significance in society, they are missing the point. People out there don’t really care about the programmes we offer. They just don’t. Why should they anyways? There are hundreds of other ogranziations out there who do a lot of the same work we are trying to do, and they do it a lot better.

The church is not a social club. The church is the body of Christ alive and active in the world, so Paul tells us in his first letter to the Corinthians. The church is where people come to learn about God, who came to earth in Jesus Christ, and who continues to be among us in the Holy Spirit.

There’s a fun quote that has been making the rounds lately. It says, “Going to church doesn’t make a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.”

It’s true! Showing up in the church is a step in the right direction. But so is walking into a garage to become a car.

It’s about change. We cannot continue to be the same people if we turn to God and ask Him to bring us into a life of faith. God will change us. There’s something about God’s love that cannot leave us as we are.

Before I became a Christian in the year 2001, I was a good person. I had ‘christian’ qualities. I treated people well, I cared about people who suffered. I gave to charities to help people around the world. But I also did things that weren’t so great, things God changed in me to make me a better person, better equipped to do the work he would call me to do. Changes that led to me standing here today.

One of which revolved around music. I changed the music I listened to. So instead of music full of profanity and negativity, I started to listen to contemporary Christian music, and now it is a big part of my spiritual practices in that I now play and listen to it regularly to help me focus on God.

God can change us when we open ourselves to the love he offers us in Jesus Christ. When we come to follow Jesus Christ we gain so much, not in just this life, but for eternity.

From the Gospel of Matthew we heard tonight how Jesus invites us to become his followers by denying our own selfishness. He tells us if we want to save our life we need to surrender it. We need to give it to him. We need to let God take our lives and turn it into something that will proclaim the Gospel to the world, instead of seeking to gain what the world has to offer for ourselves.

Jesus warns us, if we are ashamed of his message and live according to the sins the world wants to believe as truth, then we will be quite surprised on the day he comes to collect his faithful followers and bring them into God’s glorious kingdom.

The time when we will be fully aware of just how much God loves us. It will be far greater than we will have ever expected.

But for now we need to seek that love. We need to try and be as close to God as we can. To follow Jesus Christ so that we can be faithful Christians in our lives today.

When we get closer to God we begin to get a glimpse of that incredible love. A love which will enable to us to be faithful to that second great commandment, which is to love our neighbour as ourselves.

First, we learn to love God again. We do this by turning away from the “stinking sin paraphernalia” and seek God with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength and all our mind.

From there we will be better positioned to bring our churches around from the times of struggle we find ourselves in. It will be our turn to return to the love of God and what he has in store for us within and through our churches.

Let’s not focus on programmes and formulas, but let us first love God, follow Jesus Christ and listen to the Holy Spirit and see what God has in store for us first.