John Bradshaw - The River
Thanks so much for joining me today. We're about to open the Bible together and be blessed. We will pray first that, through the Holy Spirit, God would speak to us, communicate with us, and encourage us right now. Let's pray together.
Our Father in heaven, speak to us from Your Word, we pray. It is the living Word. We pray that we would meet Jesus, the Word made flesh, and that You'd speak to our hearts, to our individual needs, speak to our situation, urge us forward in faith and charity. We thank You and ask Your blessing now in Jesus' name. Amen.
I grew up in a small town. Population: around 5,000. Interesting geographical feature in that little town: Two rivers came together, the Waikato River, the longest river in the country, and the Waipa River, a languid, almost cocoa-colored thing, muddy, and, and unclear by the time it came to the end of its journey in my hometown at a place still known today as The Point, where those two rivers come together. I grew up basically on the banks of the Waikato River. My bedroom was 535 feet from the riverbank, 163 meters. How far is that? Usain Bolt could have run that distance in just over 15 1/2 seconds. That's how close we were to the river.
Now, there were two houses between us and the river, but we just climbed the back fence, walked down the neighbor's driveway, 'cause that's what you did in those days, and we were there. That river was a huge part of my life growing up. I learned to swim there. We played there, a lot, climbed the trees, paddled canoes, fished for eels, rowed for the rowing club. And if today you asked me to list my favorite places in the entire world, anywhere beside that river in my hometown would be right up near the very top of the list. And, of course, when we come to the Bible, rivers loom large. We could think of the river of life spoken of in Revelation chapter 22. We will see that in the earth made new.
The Bible speaks of the great River Euphrates. It speaks, of course, of the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized. And there's another river, and you find it in the book of Ezekiel. Much of the book of Ezekiel involves the prophet speaking very strongly with reference to Judah. Ezekiel comes on the scene after Jerusalem has been attacked by Nebuchadnezzar. It's almost the end of the line for Judah, and Ezekiel catalogs Judah's great sins and its sinfulness. It's Ezekiel who is given the vision of sun worship taking place inside the temple. God Himself speaks of the abominations taking place. Judgments are given against the surrounding nations.
And then you'll remember that God appeals to Judah in Ezekiel. He says, "A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them". Beautiful, Ezekiel chapter 36. Don't think it's all obscure-sounding prophecies. You find empathy and grace and an appeal and the love of God and the power of the gospel in Ezekiel. God pleading with His people, promising them restoration. Ezekiel wrote about the valley of dry bones, what God will do in placing His Spirit in His people and bringing them back to spiritual life. And before the end of the book of Ezekiel, there are several chapters going into this, this great detail about the temple. God speaks about true worship and also about the role of the church in earth's last days.
So, look at this with me. You have your Bible, I hope, or a device containing a Bible. We'll look together right near the end of the book of Ezekiel, and I think it's significant that this is positioned right down in the very latter reaches of Ezekiel's monumental book. Ezekiel chapter 47, the chapter, Ezekiel 47, starts like this in verse 1: "Afterward he brought me again unto the door of the house; and, behold, waters issued out from under the threshold of the house eastward, for the forefront of the house stood toward the east, and the waters came down from under the right side of the house, at the south side of the altar". You read that the waters were initially ankle-deep in verse 3. Then they were waist-deep; then they were too deep for Ezekiel to negotiate without swimming.
And so now let's pick it up in verse 7: "Now when I had returned, behold, at the bank of the river were very many trees on the one side and on the other". Verse 8: "Then [he said] unto me, 'These waters [issued] out toward the east country, and go down into the desert, [which] go into the sea: which being brought forth into the sea, the waters shall be healed. And it shall come to pass, that every thing that liveth, which moveth, whithersoever the rivers shall come, shall live: and there shall be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters shall come thither: for they shall be healed; and every thing shall live whither the river cometh.'" Verse 10: "'And it shall come to pass, that the fishers shall stand upon it from En-gedi, even unto En-eglaim; they shall be a place to spread forth nets; their fish shall be according to their kinds, as the fish of the great sea, exceeding many.'"
Hang in there with me. We're looking at verse 11 right now: "'But the miry places thereof and the marshes thereof shall not be healed; they shall be given to salt.'" Verse 12: "'And by the river upon the bank thereof, on this side and on that side, shall grow all trees for meat, whose leaf shall not fade, neither shall the fruit thereof be consumed.'" That ought to sound familiar to you from the book of Revelation. "'It shall bring forth new fruit according to his months, because their waters they issued out of the sanctuary: and the fruit thereof shall be for meat, and the leaf thereof for medicine.'" Reminiscent of John writing in Revelation about the leaves from the tree of life being "for the healing of the nations".
Now, let's think about this. A river flowed out of the temple. It flowed into the sea, and the waters of the sea were healed. They became fresh water. The creatures in that water would all thrive. The fish therein would all be, or would be, plentiful. The trees growing on the banks of that river will be fruitful, and the fruit will never fail. All right. What could this river be? What could God be talking about? Flowing out of the temple, bringing health to everything it contacts, turning salty water into fresh water, bringing life and abundance with it wherever it goes. Well, keep something in mind. We are talking about the book of Ezekiel. And you can get some interesting interpretations when you discuss the book of Ezekiel. But over the years, many commentators, maybe even most, have agreed that these waters flowing forth represent the gospel of Christ, the message to be proclaimed by the church.
Think with me now. God is seeing a time when the gospel flows from out of the temple and brings healing, healing to the land, healing to the world, healing to those who will be healed, for we notice in verse 11 that some places, the miry places, the marshes would not be healed. Ladies and gentlemen, we see today that God sees a time when the church will carry the gospel to the world, and that that gospel message would be a message of healing and hope. The river represents the church taking the gospel to the world. All right. Let's pause here for a moment and think. What's the gospel? Now, you ask some people, and they will say, "Well, the everlasting gospel". I'm good with that. So, what's that? And they might say, "'Fear God, ...give glory to Him, ...the hour of His judgment is come.' Worship Him who is the Creator. 'Babylon is fallen.' Don't worship the beast or receive the mark of the beast".
Ah, but wait a minute! I did not ask you what are the components that comprise the everlasting gospel. I didn't ask you to walk me through the three angels' messages in Revelation chapter 14. As important as they are, as necessary as they are, as much as we love them, what's the gospel message? You see, ladies and gentlemen, we don't want to make the mistake of failing to see the forest because of the trees. The gospel message will still be Jesus came to this earth as a wonderful Savior, lived a spotless life, died the death we deserve. He took our place. Don't finish. Not yet. They laid Him in Joseph's new tomb, but the grave couldn't contain Him. He rose from the dead, coming forth that first Easter Sunday morning, and He ascended into heaven, where He intercedes for us at God's right hand.
Powerful! The gospel: Jesus came to the earth; Jesus saves you from your sin. Jesus can do something about your dirty heart. Jesus can give you a new heart, as we heard Ezekiel tell us only moments ago. The gospel, there is a Savior; He died for you. No sin is too dark, no stain is too persistent, no guilt is so overwhelming that it ought to keep ya from salvation, because Jesus died, so that by the merits of His shed blood, we may be forgiven and cleansed and restored and remade in the image of God! Jesus, who died for a sinful world to make us new, He's coming back to take us home! It's that message we want to keep front and center, at the forefront of our minds. It is life-giving. It is soul-saving! It speaks of the immense love of this almost-unfathomable God, and what I mean when I say "almost-unfathomable": "The heaven of heavens cannot contain [Him]".
His love is unlike anything you'll find anywhere else. His power is far beyond anything we could imagine or concoct. This great, vast, majestic, sovereign God was the originator of the gospel, which lived in Jesus. He's the embodiment of that gospel. He went about doing good, giving hope to the hopeless, encouraging the discouraged, giving life to the dead, the spiritually dead, most importantly, and even the physically dead. He'll give you life, healing to the broken in body and mind. He'll heal you, physically, according to His will, spiritually, and we know His will: the gospel, the saving message to be taken to all of the world by the church. Ezekiel points that out in Ezekiel chapter 47.
My friend, the church is to be a place of healing, a place of hope. Like a river, it is to bring a healing influence. You can see a river even in an arid place, and it leaves behind itself a ribbon of green. Green trees flourishing, covered in vibrant, luxuriant foliage, line rivers even in the driest environments. And of course that river provides irrigating waters. A river can turn even the most unlikely place into a fertile, productive land. You visit Phoenix, Arizona, it flourishes because of the water that is diverted there from a river, the Colorado River. That's what the church has been called to be. Just like a river, taking the gospel everywhere, bringing life, the life-giving message of the gospel brought by the church. Too often, though, that's not the case. You and I both know that rivers don't always follow the script. I could tell you about Heta Parata, who was in my year in high school. Heta went swimming in the Waipa River in my hometown. They found his body way downstream a couple of days later.
Another student at my high school spent two or three agonizing days in the river searching for his little sister. She had gone swimming in the Waikato River and didn't come home. A young man who lived over the back of our house dived into the river and broke his neck. It was much shallower than he had figured it was. Thank God he survived and made a tremendous recovery. But he was, as you might imagine, impaired a little as the result of that mishap. In other words, a river, something that brings life and so many blessings, can at times deliver bad news or even do much harm. Now, our river never really flooded in a way that did damage, and that was because of the geography. The town was up here, and the river was down there, for the most part, until it got down to The Point. The flow could also be controlled, to an extent, owing to the river having been dammed up in several places so that hydroelectric power could be produced. Which is an interesting thing.
Rivers, like the gospel, like the church, contain great power. Rivers, like the gospel, rivers, like the church, contain great power if that power is harnessed. Look, if the gospel only stays in the pages of this book and never gets out and into your heart and into your mind, then you're not experiencing the power of the gospel. That river can flow, but along comes somebody with great wisdom and says, "We can tap that and provide power". But we know also...rivers can do great damage. Are you thinking? People living along the Mississippi River know that it floods from time to time. They've learned to live with it. But no one was ready for what historians called one of the greatest peacetime disasters in American history. It was April of 1927. Two hundred and forty-six people died, and I might even say, only 246. The Great Mississippi River Flood engulfed 16 million acres, displaced about 640,000 people from Illinois to Louisiana. In Vicksburg, Mississippi, the river swelled to 80 miles wide.
See, the river, which brings life, on this occasion brought destruction. In 1997, the Red River flooded in Grand Forks, North Dakota, wonderful place. The river, just a narrow river really, ended up being miles wide. Three and a half billion dollars of damage was done, 1997. Ten percent of the population left town. Years later, there were streets and driveways, but no houses. It had all been ruined and dismantled. Way back in 1889, a dam failed on the Conemaugh River. It surged, the river did, into Johnstown, Pennsylvania, killed more than 2,200s of people. Disastrous. Rivers, which give life, can often do great damage. You know what I'm saying. There are times that the church, instead of being like a peaceful, life-giving river, sharing the gospel and living the gospel and lifting up Jesus and exemplifying Jesus and experiencing the life of Christ and the life-saving message of Christ, too many times that church turns into a destructive, raging torrent, and there are tragedies.
Instead of being helped, people are sometimes hurt by the church. Even hurt in the church. It's important we think about whether we help or whether we hurt. What do you do at home? You've got company coming over, so you clean up. You straighten up the place. You vacuum the floor. You do something about your dirt. You do something about your dirt when people are coming over. You don't cover it up; you get it out. You put your best foot forward. Friend, we are the church; we must do the same. Consider this with me. Do you know what the church is? Do you know? Let me tell you. I'm gonna, I'm gonna read something for ya. It's a statement from a wonderful book, and the book is called "The Acts of the Apostles," and I, I don't mean the book, the book of Acts in the Bible. There's a book written called "The Acts of the Apostles".
Now, consider this with me. Here's some power. "The church is", okay, let me, let me pause right there and ask you a question. If I was about to tell you exactly what the church is, if I was about to give you the best definition you are ever going to hear for the church, you would be all ears and eyes. So here it is: "The church is God's appointed agency for the salvation of man. It was organized for service, and its mission is to carry the gospel to the world. From the beginning it has been God's plan that through His church shall be reflected to the world His fullness and His sufficiency. The members of the church, those whom He has called out of darkness into His marvelous light, are to show forth His glory". And were you to get the book, "Acts of the Apostles," you would find that statement written on page 9.
I'm sharing that with you because I have never found a better definition for the church outside the pages of the Bible. The church exists so God can use it, work through it, inhabit it to save people, to save the lost. Yet we both know there have been times when the church has been responsible for driving people away from Christ. This happens in several ways. Sometimes people from the outside look in and say, "What are they doing? I wouldn't want to be like them". Sometimes people see us getting caught up in politics, and they say, "That's not Christ". Sometimes you see these ghastly, tawdry appeals for money, and you know I'm not talking about an offering appeal; that's appropriate. It's not inappropriate to ask folks for financial help. But you know that this can sometimes get in the way of Jesus, and it just looks awful. The way we model faith sometimes is a turnoff rather than an attraction.
People can be needlessly offended. There are times we're not careful what we say. A visitor does not want to sit in your Bible class and listen to you criticizing another church or arguing with the Bible class teacher or generally being an idiot. No...don't hear me saying what I'm not saying. No one's saying we shouldn't share the truth in love. No one's saying you can't exchange a point of view. But you know what I'm talking about. If you're inviting company to your house for Thanksgiving, and your crazy brother-in-law shows up, you go into damage-control mode. "Larry, maybe you'd like to sit out in the backyard while the rest of us eat our pumpkin pie". Or you'll say, "Larry, we have company coming over, and you are not allowed to talk about politics or tell your offensive jokes". "Why not"? "Larry, because we want to make a good impression. We want our new friends to feel comfortable. We want our new friends to come back".
We do that at home; we ought to do that in the church. And by the way, as I say "in the church," think about how the church is comprised of individuals. It's the folks who are the church more than the institution or the building, so I've got to consider how I take this principle, or these principles, with me wherever I go. There are times that I have been in churches conducting outreach events, and I have seen that, that, that Larry I'm talking about line up a visitor. And I know that he is going in for the kill. He smells fresh blood; he sees a new person. He says, "I am going to unload all of my wacky theories on that person. I'm going to go over there and warn that person about our pastor". You know those people exist. I have gone right over there and, and literally interrupted two people talking. I turned to Larry. "Larry, let's talk". "Huh? What about"? I've taken Larry by the arm, walked across the foyer.
"Pastor, what do you want to talk to me about"? "Anything at all, Larry, as long as you're talking to me". There are times you've got to do that. You've got to do something about the loose cannons who are going to offend people. You know, you know what Jesus said? He said, "It must...be that offences come," but He said, "Woe [betide] that [person] by whom the [offenses come]"! Better if that person be tied to a millstone and tossed into the sea. Think about that. Jesus is saying we've got to be careful that we are projecting and sharing and living and modeling the love of Jesus. We are letting people see the gospel, not just hear it.
Imagine this. A lost person, God has been working in that heart, drawing that person, sowing seeds, bringing good influences. That person comes to church; all heaven is rejoicing. The Lord Himself is rubbing His hands together, "So glad! Oh, that's my child, coming to church"! But the devil saw that person coming to church and made sure to put that person right in the firing line of the church crank. And that person will drive them away. We are never getting them back! I could tell you story after story, story after story. And again, let's personalize this. You meet somebody in the store and you bark at them. Ruff! "Why didn't you serve me quicker? How come you gave me the wrong change"? "Why did you park in my parking space? Excuse me, who do you think you are"? And then they find out what church you go to.
What kind of demonstration of the gospel is that? We gotta make it real. We've got to allow the gospel to mold us, to sand off our rough edges. Yes, mistakes happen. But if your heart is towards Jesus, they happen less and less and less. And if you are praying, "Lord Jesus, I want You to be seen in my life," then Jesus is going to be seen in our lives. We need to think a whole lot more in church about why we do what we do. What do our visitors think? Are we making them welcome? Are we leaving a good impression? Are they seeing Jesus in us? Before we worry too much about visitors, it might be that if you're honest, you're going to admit that you haven't seen visitors in the church in who knows how long. And this is why we get careless sometimes, because we're not getting visitors. And so we're not thinking, Oh, oh, I've got to put on my good graces. I mean, you carry on in your house, you know, one way, but when the company comes over, well, you know, you, you don't burp out loud, and you make sure that you don't cough out across the kitchen table. I hope.
You see, we get careless sometimes because we aren't seeing visitors come into the Lord's house, in some places. And one of the reasons that we don't get visitors? One of the reasons the church isn't growing? One of the reasons that the gospel isn't doing the work that we want to see it do? One of the reasons that the river isn't flowing with power? When was the last time someone just invited themselves over to your house for dinner? Now, you're going to say, "Last week," but, but your brother-in-law Larry doesn't count. When did someone that you don't know well just invite themselves over for dinner? Well, never. Almost never. It just doesn't happen. You know, if we want to see more people respond to the gospel, we've got to actually invite people to respond to the gospel. And if you're going to invite them to come, you've got to have something to invite them to. Last thing in the world you want is for someone to roll up to church; folks aren't friendly, message is, we don't even know where the message came from, folks aren't on fire. You want to have something to invite folks to.
Now, I've gotta tell ya, if all you got is all you got, invite them anyway and pray that God will bless it. We've got to invite them to hear the Word of God. Invite them to learn about the Bible in a way that's appropriate for where they are. Invite them to get to know ya. Invite them to see the character of Jesus being reflected in the people of the church. Invite them to become part of a community where they'll be loved and cared for and cared about. You know that we shouldn't be doing what we do just for us. The church was never intended to be a club, "I pay my dues; I want things the way I want them". No, don't stretch what I'm saying too far. I understand that it could be stretched that way, but that's not my intent. We want to do what we do so that people that we don't know, what we know and don't know who we know can have the best possible chance of knowing Jesus.
True story. I wish I didn't have to tell you this. A lady was greeting at the door of the church. I can actually tell you which church, but I won't. A teenage girl dressed, oh, a young woman, 18, 19 years of age, dressed in black, black everything, black, I mean everything, fingernail polish and dyed hair, black everything. She arrived at the door of the church with her friend, who likewise was dressed like she'd just escaped out of a horror movie. Our dear saint who was greeting that day said, Lord, help us, told the teenage girl that she knew, "Sorry, honey, you can't come in here dressed like that. You need to go home, and your friend, and get changed before it would be appropriate for you to come inside". No! No! No! Bring them in! Bring them, "your poor, your tired, your huddled masses".
Bring them, the goths and the drunks and the drug dealers and the mean-spirited and just the everyday folks who are lost. Bring them, and you tell them, "Just like you are," "Mí casa, su casa". "You are at home here". Bring them in! God will change them. God will transform. No one says you've got to lower the standard. No one says you've got to forget the principles of the Bible and throw them out. But the primary principle that you want to remember is, if you "have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, [you] have done it unto me". "Love your neighbor". Bring them in. There ought to be somebody in your church who smells like liquor. There ought to be somebody in your church who's high on opioids or marijuana or something. No, no, I'm not suggesting pass the communion wine. I don't mean that. And I'm not suggesting get people lit up before they, I'm saying, if you've got someone sitting in the back row of your church who smells like a brewery, it's good news, inasmuch as it's evidence that the Holy Spirit of God has drawn someone home to Jesus Christ.
I'll tell you this story. A fellow I know told me this story. He said, "Pastor, I used to come to church and sit in church, and I wasn't getting anything out of the sermon, and so I would go to the bathroom and line up a little row of, a line of cocaine and sniff it right up my nose". Now, that's not good, and I would not advocate anybody bring cocaine to church. I would not advocate anybody bring cocaine anywhere except to the police or the trash. But having said that, he said, "One day", and you wonder why a guy who's getting wasted in church would even come to church. But he was coming to church, every week. And then one day, he was listening to the sermon, and he's going, "Ehhh," got up, walked to the bathrooms, lined himself up a little line of cocaine. He was just about to snort it right up his nose when he felt God speaking to him. Not an audible voice, but God said, "Man, you don't need that. You can do better than that. You don't even need that in your life". And he thought to himself, You know, You're right. He pushed it into the sink, flushed it all away, or ran it all down the drain, you know. Never used again!
Bring them in! We're all sinners. You come to church with your pride. You come to church with your anger. You come to church with your lust. Okay, maybe not you, maybe somebody else. You come to church with your racism. Okay, not you, people do that. Bring them! Bring the sinners! We are going to meet Jesus, because when you wade out into a river, you cannot help but get wet, and if the church is a river, and the gospel is flowing out of the church, and it's in the church, come on, bring people inside. They're going to get wet. They're going to get baptized in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We cannot afford to offend people. We have to love people! We can't afford to ignore people. We're going to make them feel like they just came home. Which is what Jesus does. I know it's not always like that. We could trade stories about the, how the unlovable were loved, I know that. We could talk all day long, I hope, about how people went out of their way to do the right thing. It happens.
But, ladies and gentlemen, I am of the conviction that if the church is to be like that river, uh, taking the gospel, flowing here and there and everywhere, it's time for us to pull up our socks, every last one of, I've got to come to Jesus and say, "Lord, what am I doing to make a difference? What's my influence like? What's that atmosphere that follows me everywhere"? If somebody brushes by me, are they going to say, "I feel drawn to Jesus" or "...pushed away from Jesus"? Yes, the right thing happens, just not enough. It's time, if we are serious about getting people ready for eternity, that we develop a culture of love and acceptance, and we understand what the gospel can do in my life, so then God can do something about that in other people's lives.
Let me tell you this, powerful! I was standing in the foyer of a church once. It was a smallish foyer, not teeny-tiny, but smallish. And I was standing over here against the wall talking to the pastor. He said to me, "Those two people", "The hmm"? "They just walked in". "Oh, yeah, I see them". Looked like a mother and a daughter, or maybe two sisters. He said, "They've never been before. This is their first time". He said, "Let's watch". And so we did. We watched as we talked to each other. They were greeted with obvious care. After chatting a few moments, it wasn't just, "Hello, here's your bulletin". Poof! "How you doing? Oh, really, that side of town? Me too. Oh, is that so"? After chatting for a few moments, the greeters handed them off to another couple. "Oh, really? Me too, just two streets away. How long you've been there? Fantastic. Oh, I'm so glad you're here. Oh, just, I do know that guy".
As that couple I told you about, those two people walked into the sanctuary, I heard with my own ears one person, one of them, say to the other, "I am so glad", listen to this. They walked in the church, spoke to two people, got handed off to two more, like a tag team, they're walking into the sanctuary now, the church, where the worship takes place, had never met the pastor, hadn't heard a sermon, hadn't stayed for a fellowship meal, but one of them turned to the other and said, "I am so glad that I have finally found a church home". Just like that. Why was that? Because they had been loved as soon as they set foot in the door. They met people who demonstrated, who modeled, who exemplified the love and care and concern of Jesus. You can go to churches and be ignored.
When we should have decided a long time ago we're going to make a big deal about everyone who comes in the door. I have left church, saw somebody, a visitor; they walked out; I've chased them. I mean, literally, have run after them. "Excuse me! Gotta get to know you. Want you to know you're welcome here". I spoke recently at an event. Many churches came together. A dear friend of mine heard that her friend, not a church member, heard about this event and said, "I watch the programs. I've seen that guy speak. I want to go and hear him in person". Oh, that's exciting, you see. Somebody who'd never been inside the church was coming to church. So my dear friend asked her later, "How was it"? "Oh, it was great"! And then she said, "But, you know", heh, "Oh, it was great! But, you know, not a single person said hello to me".
Where I live there's a bunch of churches. It's grand central station for churches. Some new folks came to our church. I said, "Hey, how you doing"? "Great". "Hey, how did you end up here and not in another church"? They said, "Well, we visited a bunch of churches". They said, "This is the first church we stepped into where people said hello". I'm going to give the other churches the benefit of the doubt. There, there, there had to have been extenuating circumstances. Folks can't even say hello. You know why we're, the reason why? We're too busy figuring out Daniel 11. We're busy saving the world. We're busy establishing universities and hospitals. We're busy telling people what the book of Revelation means. So busy that we cannot find time to say, "Hello".
I read this recently. This is a true story, uh, well, I don't lie to you, an actual account. A man wrote recently about his experience as a fake shopper. Now, what's a fake shopper? A business was struggling to get customers in its doors because construction was happening outside the front door. And so the business hired people to pretend to be happy shoppers. The idea was that people not in the store, when they walked by, would see that there's something actually going on in there, and they'd look in, and they'd say, "Oh, those people look happy," and they'd be attracted into the store. There's a message there, isn't there? What if people looked inside the church and saw happy, satisfied people in the church? Would that be attractive to people on the outside? A whole lot more attractive than looking in from the outside and seeing unhappy, unkind, unloving, joyless people.
What do people see when they look into your church? Or into your heart? Jesus said in Matthew 5 and verse 14, He said, "You are the light of the world". Simple. No, you don't want to fake it, but isn't it important that people who believe there's a God, who believe there's a place called heaven, people who believe they're going to spend eternity with God, isn't it important that people who believe in forgiveness and grace and kindness and love actually look like they enjoy believing that? If someone wandered in off the street into your church, wouldn't you want them to see that the people there are plugged into God and are shining 'cause the gospel got them? You can't win somebody with a gospel that doesn't work for you. Apparently that fake shopping thing worked out quite well. People see joy and happiness and excitement, and they want to be part of it.
And the same principle is true in matters of faith. No one wants to be part of something that doesn't exude joy. Thankfully, we don't have to fake it. Let me say that again: Thankfully, we don't have to fake it. If Jesus has you, it will shine out. He will shine out. If a group of believers is committed to Jesus, it's going to show. I heard somebody once say that "the greatest argument in favor of the gospel is a loving and lovable Christian". Think with me now. What if Jesus lives? What if? What if you're a sinner? What if Jesus died to save you from your sin? What if Jesus has opened to you the doors of heaven? And He doesn't say, "You've got to win a Nobel Prize to get in here". He doesn't say, "You've got to be the biggest and fastest to get in here". He doesn't say, "You've got to get a, you've got to ace the SAT to get in here".
What if Jesus were to say, "This is how the gospel works"? I died for you. Believe, and I will credit to you my righteousness. Abide in me, and you will bring forth much fruit. What if that were true? If that were true, then that means Jesus gonna take away my sins. If that were true, it means my name is written in the Lamb's Book of Life. If that were true, then I can look forward to the day when gravity loses its power on the soles of my feet. If that were true, doesn't matter what anybody says about me because I know what Jesus says about me. I hear the voice of God say, "This is my beloved [son], in whom I am well pleased". Imagine if the gospel were true and that you could be saved from your sin by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. What is sin? "Sin is the transgression of the law," given us in one Bible definition. What does sin do? "The wages of sin is death".
Isaiah 59 and verse 2 will tell you that your sin separates you from God. That's where we are! But through the provisions made by the gospel, oh, ladies and gentlemen, I'm not watering something down. Somebody thinking, Wait a minute, he hasn't talked about obedience yet. He hasn't talked about Christian standards here. Ai-yi-ya! Let's start at the beginning, shall we? Jesus died so I might live. Jesus lives His life in me, and He can't live His life in you without changing you and making you what you cannot make yourself. Righteousness by faith! We believe that God will work in us "both to will and to do for His good pleasure".
If the church is like a river, we are going to flow with the gospel message and take it to the world. It will flow out of the heart of Jesus Himself. Keep in mind, my friend, there are all kinds of rivers. Some rivers are so polluted you just wouldn't believe it. I have stood on the banks of the Ganges River in India. It is considered to be an actual god by Hindus. But it's so polluted that if you or I drank even a little of that water, we'd be sicker than a dog. In 1969 the Cuyahoga River in Ohio actually caught fire, owing to all of the pollutants in the river. At about the same time, the River Thames in London was declared to be biologically dead. In the 19th century people regularly contracted cholera from that river and died. If taking the gospel to the world is depicted by Ezekiel as a river flowing out of the sanctuary, then, friend, let us covenant right now to clean our churches up so they'll be healthy places. No, no, I don't believe too many churches are like the Ganges. But I bet you there are some.
We want to be intentional about making the church a healthy place where people love to be. It starts, you know what I'm saying, don't you? You can't fix the church by going to the church. That change starts here. Look at what God said about people who are not yet church members, through the prophet Isaiah, in Isaiah...and chapter 56. Isaiah 56, let's see what the Bible says. "Also the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the Lord, to serve Him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be His servants, every one that keepeth the Sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of my covenant; even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: ...for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people". Let's take a moment to focus on an obvious aspect of Ezekiel's prophecy. The gospel flowed. It flowed. The gospel going to the world is depicted as a flowing river, not as a lake or as a stagnant pond.
In the other direction from where I grew up, the, the river was that way; that direction, exact opposite direction, was a gully. And when there was a lot of rain, that gully would fill up in places. Stagnant water, I learned as a kid, isn't any fun. It doesn't smell good. It is not a nice color. When we don't go, when we don't flow, we are stagnant, and we don't look good, and we don't smell good either. Jesus said, "Go therefore and make disciples of all...nations". Isaiah wrote, "Ye are my witnesses, saith the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen". The Bible says, "I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light [to] the gentiles; to open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house".
That's Isaiah again in chapter 42. Jesus said to His people, "Ye are the light of the world". "Ye are the salt of the earth". The church is God's fortress. It's His city of refuge. And, please, you don't have to like it, but you must remember that the church is the apple of God's eye, the one object upon this earth upon which He bestows, in a special sense, His supreme regard. We want to build it up. We want to grow it! We want the very best for it. That's one of the reasons why I'm looking forward so much to "Revelation Today: Hope Awakens". We are starting that series on April 17. I hope you'll get involved. Tell others. Share with others. Get your church on board. It's a wonderful opportunity during a time of extremity that we can offer hope to the world and share Jesus, the embodiment of hope. Don't you believe people can't be reached. They can. They won't be if we sit on our hands. But if we move forward prayerfully, we will see God do amazing things.
It's time for the church to flow again. Don't get me wrong. Look around the landscape. There are so many Christians doing so wonderfully for Jesus, so many churches that are on fire. But, come on, now, we are a body, and you don't want the left arm healthy if the right arm is withering. You don't want the little toe healthy, but the big toe festering. We want to be healthy, and when Jesus flows through us, we may be, that's our privilege. Somebody sent me something. Probably was an email, I'm sure it was. There was a terrible thing happening in the church, and a dear soul wanted to tell the whole world about it. Be careful, friend. God's church is for building up, not tearing down. If you see something in it that you don't like, if you see a leader make a mistake, what do you expect? The church is made up of people, and as you have learned in your own experience, people are faulty.
This isn't a time for tearing down; it's a time for building up. I'm not saying everybody gets a free pass for foolish behavior. Pray, if you must. Counsel in the Spirit of Jesus. Share a concern with the appropriate person, but don't go to the world and air all the church's dirty linen. You are tearing down what God is wanting to build up. Don't run around the church, some dear old lady, she doesn't know A from B when it comes to church problems, dear old lady, "Did you know that the pastor" is this and that? "Did you know that the president" is all this and that? "Did you know that our church..."? And now, this dear sister, didn't have a clue, now she's up in arms. "Oh, we're all going to hell. Church is in a mess". No, you don't want to do that.
If you've stumbled across something that concerns you, speak to the right people. Do it kindly. Pray. We want to help people up! We don't want to help people out. Help them up. Make this church a better place. Make your congregation a better congregation. And as you are more like Jesus, too easy sometimes to tear off and haul off on criticism. That's not denying yourself. The default route, I'll slash and burn, because I feel that satisfaction that comes from indulging self... oh, no, don't do that. Deny yourself. Come on, now, take up your cross; surrender to Jesus. The devil will tempt you to see all the bad things about the church. He'll let you see the hypocrites and the insincere and the people with problems. But instead of getting bogged down in that, we are going to see the positives. We are going to shun the temptation to succumb to temptation. We are going to allow God to take care of the church, because God has called us to be faithful to the mission of the church.
And what is it? I repeat: "The church is God's appointed agency for the salvation of men. It was organized for service, and its mission is to carry the gospel to the world". That's why we are here. The church is an organism designed by God to, to bring and offer and present salvation. Come on, God is at work. God wants to work even more. I don't think we've seen the best yet. I heard, I read it in my Bible, that there'll be something called "the latter rain," and folks have commented on that and said that will be a time of great ingathering into the church. Oh, God is fixing to do great things, great things! And we see some of them, don't we, as we go by?
If you've got your eyes open, you'll see lots of them. I recently attended a very small church, just a few people there. I sat in the study time. I enjoyed the discussion. And it wasn't until the visiting preacher, a layman, stood up, that the penny dropped for me. I had not recognized him up until then, and I didn't want to stare. But when he stood up, it dawned on me. He'd been baptized 10 or 15 years earlier after an evangelistic series that I had held. He'd been brought to that series by a family member. She had invited her entire family to be there.
So now he's in church with his pregnant wife; he's opening up the Bible. Christ is the center of their home. He shared a message that encouraged and inspired every one of us. If not for his sister inviting him, if not for church leaders who said, "We've got to hold meetings and invite the community to hear the gospel," without a church that wanted to flow, without a church that had a sense of mission, he would not have been there that day and would almost certainly have been lost. Oh, come on, friend, this is a great day. But like a river, we want to flow. Like a river, we want to be healthy. Like a river, we want to bring life into the lives of all we contact. We can't always get it right, but God always gets it right. Unfortunately, we're not all all that we need to be.
Maybe I should say that again: Unfortunately, we are not, any of us, all that we need to be. But if I bring my loaves and fishes to Jesus and say, "Lord, take my heart, for I cannot give it. It is Your property. Keep it pure, for I cannot keep it for Thee. Save me, in spite of myself, my weak, un-Christlike self". If I pray that prayer, I've given Jesus permission to have my heart. Man, if I pray that prayer, at least my little corner of the church is going to shine for Jesus. "Arise, shine; for thy light is come".
And if you go to Revelation chapter 18, the Bible promises you that there is coming a time that the whole world will be lit up with a manifestation of the character of Christ. That's Revelation 18:1. And that manifestation of Christ will be seen in God's people. I'm going to call them the church. Don't you want to be part of the great movement of God, the great moving of the Holy Spirit? We are in this together, and we need each other. So, arm in arm, well, right now not arm in arm; six feet from each other, we're going to march forward, allowing Jesus to take our heart, our collective heart, and use His church like He's never used it before. You want to see that happen, don't you?
Come on, now, let's pray, pray for us, the church. Pray for the church, the church. Pray that God would do great things and let us, come on, now, by some miracle of divine grace, be determined to be a force for good everywhere so that God, through us, can do good anywhere. Let's pray.
Our Father in heaven, we thank You for Jesus. We thank You for the gospel. Jesus died on an old rugged cross so that I might live eternally. Jesus, the sinless, spotless One, died for my sins. He took my sins so I can have His righteousness, and through this transaction, based on faith, I can have the assurance that I may, through faith in Christ, enter in the everlasting gates one day and walk on streets of gold. I can have the assurance now that salvation is mine.
Friend, you must have that assurance, too. Would you accept Jesus, again?
Jesus, take my heart. Lord, live in me. If You live in me, then my little patch of the church is going to shine for Jesus. Lord, do that in all of our lives so that the church can truly be like a, a river flowing and taking the gospel to the world. Let it be, dear Lord, we pray. Thank You for, for taking my heart, the hearts of all who right now are saying, "Yes, Jesus, take my heart". Is that your prayer, friend? Can you pray it? Would you say it? Out loud or, or silently: "Yes, Lord Jesus, take my heart". Father, be our God now and ever. We pray and we thank You in Jesus' name. Please say with me: Amen, and amen.