You should not approach your church or church group on Sunday mornings and midweek expecting to learn something new… in fact, you should hope you don’t! That’s the way heresies begin (Heb.13.7-9). Now… that is a bit of an overstatement, but let me explain.
You ought to approach such gatherings expecting to hear something in accord with the gospel that has been handed down from generation to generation and proclaimed even to you… the very gospel you believed!
If you’ve been a follower of Christ for more than a few years… you ought to have heard it all before. The disciples only had three years to hear the teachings of Jesus. They had years to learn the OT stories beforehand. And they had the Holy Spirit after Jesus ascended, but the revelation of the Son of God is complete… and has been for two thousand years. If you’ve not learned at least an introductory grasp of all Scripture… it’s your fault, and no one else’s… especially in such a world as today. Biblical illiteracy is a choice.*
The author of Hebrews chastises the church because they “should already be teachers” but instead they have to “return to the basics”—that is “Who is this Jesus guy again? What did he do? Why does it matter?”** In other words, if you can’t point to Jesus and show who he is, what he’s done, and why it matters… you haven’t even mastered the alphabet yet. Righteousness comes after understanding how Jesus is the focal point of Scripture (Heb.5.11-6.8). Indeed, it comes only when we understand Jesus as the focal point of life (Heb.10.26). The ‘Great Commission’ in Matthew 28 burdens every follower of Jesus with “teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” Which can be summed up in “Love God… love others.” Notice that the object of teaching isn’t the recent medical/psychological theory about autism and vaccines; the object of teaching is obedience to the King: “Behold all authority on heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore: Go, and make disciples [by] baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, even to the very end of the age.” Jesus rules, therefore reorient your entire life under his Triune glory (baptism), and love him and others (obey) and know that he is near (behold).
Don’t Get Me Wrong
I do learn things I didn’t know before… sometimes it’s small details like “His father was” so-and-so; other times it’s a pretty significant reality I never quite grasped myself… like the reality that Jesus took our sinful flesh, east of Eden, inborne with all the same bent toward rebellion and sin I have, and marched to Golgotha and put that flesh to death, not simply an Adamic-clean flesh, but my own. But hopefully when I say something like that, you agree with me that the truth isn’t new… and even the basic concept isn’t new. If anything is new it should be in the detail. I shouldn’t have to explain to anyone who calls themselves a Christian that Jesus is the GodMan, though I probably need to explain what that entails. I shouldn’t have to explain that Israel sinned against God or that the Spirit is coeternal and equal in power and glory with the Father and Son, though perhaps I need to remind people of the truth they already know, or explain that it does matter for true life. I shouldn’t have to defend my argument that our Triune God is all deserving of glory or that worshiping idols is false and life-killing, though perhaps I need to draw connections between Isaiah 48 and John 17 or Deuteronomy 6 and Matthew 28 or Genesis 1-2 and Luke 23-24. Perhaps these are things that are ‘new’ and something I’ve ‘learned.’ But really, isn’t it just looking at the diamond from a different angle, or perhaps holding a mirror to it in order to see what it looks like in its own reflection?
The facts we learn are only valuable when they help us know God.
The reality is Jesus. The truth is Jesus. And all of Scripture points to Jesus. And every sermon should show you Jesus. And if you are begging to be taught something new, then maybe just maybe you’ve forgotten your first love. Or maybe just maybe you’ve never seen him anyway. You want instruction for marriage? I’ll give you Christ the perfect bridegroom who loves you and made covenant with you. Obey him in love. You want a new Greek phrase to tout? I’ll give you Christ, the Alpha and Omega. Obey him in love. You want to know how to get ahead in your job? I’ll give you Christ the King who took a servant’s cloth and lay down so others could walk on top of him. Obey him in love. You want an Akkadian myth to relate to the flood account? I’ll give you Christ, the one who endured the flood of God’s wrath and delivers you on the other side. Obey him in love. You want to know how to parent? I’ll give you Christ who says that he will care for you, Christ who says you’re evil, Christ who obeyed the Father perfectly, and the Father who gave his Son in death for your sake. Obey him in love. You want the latest study on gender in society? I’ll give you Christ who calls people to deny themselves and to follow him; who breaks down barriers between gender and country and reconciles them to himself. Obey him in love.
I will not give you something new. I will not give you relevant sermons. I will give you Jesus until you fall in love with him. And Jesus will give you life.
Love and outworking of righteousness come only through being overcome by the glory and love of Christ. In other words, the “do” is the natural result of the “done.” The “be” is the response of the “is”—or more appropriately, the “I Am.” You will only do once you see Jesus. You will only be once you see Jesus. And yes: this probably means an insight from Scripture colors the picture a bit, but it should never be something which is ‘new.’
You can be illumined to understand Scripture in a different way, or its significance might be increased this time you hear that passage because God has created you as a dynamic human being, and you’ve come with a new load of experiences on your back. Or maybe the pastor will bring up a recent scholarly article that gives more context to the passage in question. Cool. All well and good. Even relatively necessary for us who are forgetful people, but the primary purpose of Church is not learning, but worship.
CH is for Worship
The sermon should remove the fog from our sinful eyes; it should present us with Christ, whose Spirit removes the noetic effects of the fall. But you have been baptized in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and therefore your life has been reoriented to the life, death, and resurrection of the Son who is the Truth, the Way, and the Life. You now conform to him… anything ‘new’ is only on your part: a new sin you must confess, a new child you must sacrifice, a new job you must give thanks for. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. But you aren’t. Sunday after Sunday you must come and give yourself to him and his people. Church is more than the sermon. In fact, that’s only the mouth doing his job. But the Church worships in love, performing its task for the body. The ears listen to the sorrowful, the hands work for the good of the body, the feet return from their week of taking the gospel to the world and bring report to its body, the blood courses through bringing oxygen and strength to the weary, the tongue encourages. And all do so in the grace of God for the love of others—and that is worship. Each act of worship should be participated in. And perhaps if we focus on the many different expressions of worship in our church on Sunday, we’ll be less disgruntled when the sermon doesn’t give me what I want. Even this picture of esteeming Christ alone in the sermon isn’t a common experience for many churches, for which I grieve, and for which you should too. But let that draw us into prayerful dependence on Christ the chief shepherd who cares for the lilies of the field… who died for his bride… what then would he not give us if only we ask?
Unfortunately, like most of life, we expect that church should give us something without a reciprocal demand. But when has that ever been true? We need to start remembering that church isn’t built for us. We are simply a stone in the edifice! Built for the glory and presence of God. Perhaps if you start performing your role in the church, the body will get out of the couch and start feeding you, exercising you, and cleaning you.
As Trevin Wax recommends, let’s change the questions from “What did you learn at church?” to “How was worship this morning?” And a whole-natured full-spectrum worship… not a sad, isolated segment of music and familiar songs.
*This is an indictment against peoples in the ‘modern west,’ and not a statement against the unreached/unengaged people groups… who in fact are a second indictment against us.
**I take some liberty in this paraphrase, and it’s because I understand that the author is specifically referring to how all the Scriptures point to Jesus.