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Wednesday, December 30, 2020

"Identifying Marks of the Church" (Matthew 25:31-36)


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Sunday, December 27, 2020


            Back in the 1990’s Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago, and Saddleback Community Church in southern California were both a big deal.  Both churches drew 1000’s to their weekend services.  Each became known for being exemplars of a “seeker-sensitive” model as opposed to the stuffy, unwelcoming traditional church.  These churches had cool music.  You could dress however you wanted when you attended.  You didn’t have to put on your “Sunday best” or act in a certain way.  These churches grew rapidly into megachurches because they had innovative, charismatic leaders, and they were known for doing church differently. 

            What is the church known for?

            The Crystal Cathedral, also in southern California, preceded the churches I mentioned as a mega church with a celebrity pastor.  The Crystal Cathedral had huge windows that opened so you could see in from the parking lot.  You’d tune your radio to the right station, you could hear everything, and you’d actually gone to church, seen it all, and heard it all without ever leaving your car.  Convenient!

            What is the church known for?

            A new church here in Chapel Hill, Jubilee Baptist, wants to help people locked in debt, get out of debt.  It’s as wonderful a name for a church as I have heard – Jubilee.  They are trying to live into the name, based on the Old Testament year of Jubilee in which debts were forgiven and everyone in the community could start over.  This church wants to be known for helping people find freedom in Christ.

            What is the church known for?

            Today there are a lot of mega churches, usually known for their celebrity pastors, The Summit in Durham, Elevation Church in Charlotte, Lakewood in Houston, with best-selling author/pastor Joel Osteen.  The Manhattan branch of Hillsong United not had a high profile pastor, but a lot of famous people in the congregation every Sunday.  These oversized operations are known for their glitz, fame, and big productions.

            What is the church known for?  What should it be known for?

            Every congregation I’ve mentioned, however big and famous or small and unknown has its good qualities and its weaknesses.  I pray God will bless every one of these churches and I hope people attending worship services in in these varying faith communities meet Jesus. 

It doesn’t matter how many Instagram followers you have, or how many people come to watch you in concert, or how much you get paid to play basketball.  You need Jesus!  Everyone needs Jesus.  Whether you come to know Jesus through the oversized ministry of a glitzy megachurch or the simple, understated witness of a small country chapel, either way, it’s Jesus.  Everyone needs Jesus.

            We are Hillside Church.  We have existed as a congregation for about 118 years, and have operated under our present name for 1 year.  On this final Sunday of 2020, I invite you, the people of Hillside, to contemplate a question specifically with our church in mind.  What are we, as a church, known for?  What should we be known for?

             “When the Son of Man comes in his glory …” says Jesus.  He’s talking about his return, the Second Coming.  At that time, he will divide everyone up, and we want to be on his right side.  To those at his right he says, “Come, you that are blessed …, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (v.34).

            There’s another option.  To those on his left he says, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v.41).  Jesus presents this as two options: kingdom prepared as an inheritance or fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  I want the kingdom.  I want to avoid the fire. 

            How do those who inherit the kingdom get there, and how can we be among them?  Why are these fortunate ones gifted entry into God’s kingdom?  Jesus tells them, “I was hungry, and you gave me food, thirsty, and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”

            Note a couple of things.  First, the blessed one taken into God’s kingdom did not know they were serving Jesus when they cared for those Jesus calls “least of these.”  When they volunteered for a hospital visitation ministry, they just thought they were going to pray with people in the hospital and encourage them.   It wasn’t O, I’m doing this for Jesus. It was just compassion.  When they donated to the clothing drive, contributed money to Children’s hope chest, performed individual acts of compassion to help hurting people they met, it was just that: a heart of love helping someone who needed the help. 

            I point that out because this passage is not an explanation for how to get to heaven when you die.  In this passage, Jesus explains the characteristics of those who are heaven-bound.  They had no idea that their acts of compassion in this life had any effect on the way they would spend eternity.  They discovered that after they heard the judgment.

            That’s the second important observation.  When Jesus tells this parable, he’s just days away from being arrested.  This is one of the final messages he’ll give.  He’s talking about something that is a done deal.  The sheep and the goats’ fates had been decided and their eternal fortunes were directly tied to how they cared for the most vulnerable and needy people in society.

            That would be a third observation to make.  Jesus identifies himself with the needy and the poor and the struggling.  When the blessed visited people in prison, it doesn’t people wrongly imprisoned.  They were compassionate God-worshipers who cared for prisoners; and those prisoners were guilty.  Jesus even identified himself with the guilty and said when we love them, we’re loving him. 

            The blessed did not understand their acts of compassion would impact their eternal fates, the decision was already made, and Jesus himself identified with the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned.

            Earlier I mentioned churches with famous pastors, churches with different approaches, and different churches here in Chapel Hill and around the country to demonstrate that different churches are known for different things.  I want the people of our church to inherit that kingdom God promised the blessed.  But that comes later, at the end.  Right now, the question facing us is what, in 2021, will Hillside Church be known for. 

            I pray that our members will be known as compassionate, welcoming people who share the love of Jesus with all who come our way.  I pray that around town, when you hear “Hillside,” people will say, “That’s a loving, welcoming church.”  It’s far more important that we be defined by love than that we be known for our creative innovations or rapid numeric growth.  We’d love to have more people in church, and I want us to be creative; however, the biggest aim is that we be known for how well we love as we point people to Jesus. 

            We show our compassion through our ministries.  We are developing a local ministry platform that includes 2 food pantry distributions a month, on-site blood drives every other month, a mobile dental bus in June, and our handyman ministry, once social distancing restrictions are lifted.  We will also resume our tutoring ministries once we’re past COVID-19, and our elders have approved contributing funds to another tutoring ministry here in town during the pandemic.  In all these works, we love hungry people, financially struggling people, and people who have specific needs.  Our motivation is love and compassion. 

Heaven will take care of itself later.  We are driven to bring God’s love to people right now.    We need our members to enthusiastically pray for these ministries and be a part of them.  The vaccine is here.  2021 is not going to be like 2020.  We’ll soon be able to re-enter life and when you do my fellow Hillside member, do it as a disciple of Jesus, determined to love the most unlikely of people with the zeal you’d show if you were loving Jesus himself.

            Our attitude is as important as our programming.  I can stand here every Sunday and do a run-down of our ministry programs and explain our vision for a platform of works of compassion.  This vision will come to life as our members embrace it and live it. 

Many already are!  The volunteer spirit and the generosity of our most committed members is a picture of Jesus.  As you re-engage with the church in the new year, take your cues from those already involved in works of compassion.  Ask God to give you a heart for what matters most to Him.  Decide how you will love Jesus in 2021 by loving people who need help. 

A new year lies before us.  We can put pandemics and contentious politics in the rearview mirror.  This is our time to look to Jesus and decide what our church will be known for.  The need is all around us, so we remember that where needy people are, Jesus is.  We welcome Him in and go out to him.  We do for the “least” because compassion, welcome, and love is who we are.”


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