Last week in my message I spoke on the Gospel. I began with who God is, and moved on to talking about who we are, our sin, and the judgment it requires. Then I began to speak of Jesus. I told of who He is, of His divine nature, of His life, of His crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. And then I spoke of our response to this: faith.
After the service, one man spoke to me and said: "You know, a lot of times when people are teaching the Gospel, they speak about faith, but it's hard for people to understand what that means exactly. But you told us all the story of Jesus, and asked us to believe that story. It was so clear what you meant by 'faith.'"
That comment confirmed to me something I had been thinking about, and that I had recently been discussing with a friend. In many cases, the church has lost its understanding of what the Gospel is. We have stopped having faith in Jesus, and instead have "faith in faith." Our faith is not placed in Jesus, but in the fact that we have faith. Does that sound confusing?
Think of it this way: when people teach the Gospel, what do they focus on? Often they focus on faith. Only believe. You must believe. If you have faith you will be saved. But the Gospel message is not simply "you must believe."
The Gospel is that Jesus Christ died for our sins according to scripture, that he was buried, and that he rose again on the third day (see 1 Corinthians 15:1-5). Faith is our response to this Good News.
A few months ago my pastor did an experiment in which he "preached the Gospel" without ever even talking about Jesus. He was curious to see how many people would recognize what had been left out. In our church, he was pleased to see that many people recognized what had been left out. But he said he had seen churches where no one realized what was missing.
This is a tragic state of affairs.
If your message is not about Jesus, it is not about the Gospel, because the Gospel message is a message about Jesus.
I have a violin which was given to me by my aunt many years ago. It is a beautiful instrument, and is capable of making very beautiful sounds. When I look at my violin, and listen to the sounds it makes, I think, "What an extraordinary piece of workmanship!"
The pieces of wood were carefully cut from the trunk of the tree in thin sheets, which were then cut into exactly the right shapes to fit together into a musical instrument. But that's not the end of the process; the ribs (the wood separating the front and back plates of the instrument) had to be planed to the right width, heated, and bent to the shape necessary.
The face plates were carved in a "bowl" shape, and hollowed out to make just the right thickness and curvature to resonate properly. Too thick, and the violin wouldn't resonate. Too thin, and the violin wouldn't hold the tension of the strings.
If only the tree trunk could speak -- what would it say? "What are you doing to me? Why are you cutting me up? Why are you putting me on the fire and heating me? Get that knife away from me!"
But each painful cut, each bending and twisting, is necessary to make something beautiful! If only the tree knew what the violin maker was doing, how it might rejoice to know that it was being transformed into something of extraordinary beauty! So it is with us; James tells us (James 1:2-4) to rejoice when we face difficult times, because difficult times mean that God is making something beautiful of our lives, just as the violin maker transforms the drab tree trunk into something amazing. We should approach our difficult circumstances with the attitude, "Hooray! God is making me complete and beautiful!"
Of course, one of the difficulties for us is that we cannot see the end of the work. Just as the tree trunk can't understand what the craftsman is doing, we can't see what it is God is making of our lives. Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that we will not "find out what God has done from the beginning to the end." Nevertheless, the same verse tells us that God "has made everything beautiful in its time."
The real tragedy would be if the tree could stop the violin maker from creating what he desired. What would be the end result? The tree would never become something beautiful and long-lasting. The violin would never be made. But the tree would still serve a purpose; it would keep someone warm in the winter time. But if I had my choice, I'd choose being a violin over being firewood!
Several years ago we had a yearly tradition of taking our church youth group on a hiking trip to Mount Katahdin. If you've never been to Katahdin, it's the tallest mountain in the state of Maine, and a wonderful place to hike. The views from the top are downright amazing.
We would hike up Pamola Peak (the second-tallest peak on Katahdin) and then cross Knife Edge to get to Baxter Peak (which is the tallest peak). Knife Edge is a trail, approximately a mile long, which runs along a ridge between Pamola and Baxter. You can probably guess what the trail looks like, just from the name of it: Knife Edge. At times you really do feel like you're walking along the edge of a knife; you stand on the ridge and you can look down to your left and see the bottom of the mountain -- then you turn and look down to your right and you also see the bottom of the mountain! It can be a bit intimidating for people who are afraid of heights.
One time when we took this hike, we had a teenager with us who was a seventh grader, and this was her first "serious" hiking experience. When we got to Pamola Peak we gave the teens the option of pressing forward, or turning back the way we came. This girl was determined to go forward.
But once she got out on the ridge, she discovered that, with the wind blowing, and her being tired as she was, she felt like she was going to get blown right off the mountain. So she hiked the entire Knife Edge on her hands and knees.
It was a long hike that day, stopping every couple minutes for her to rest, and get up her courage to press on. The rest of the group pushed on ahead while a couple of the leaders stayed with her. We would stop, sit down on the rocks to look at the views around us (which were, by the way, absolutely stunning and amazing!), and then we would point at a turn in the trail, or an outcropping of rock, and say, "Do you think you can get that far?" And the girl would get a look of grim determination, nod her head, and off we would go again.
As we hiked, I thought to myself, This is what life is like. The trail is rough, narrow, tiresome, and occasionally nerve-wracking. But we don't have to travel the entire trail all at once. Crawling along the trails of life on our hands and knees, we only need worry about what lies directly ahead of us. When the trail gets hard, we only need the grim determination to make it through one day at a time, and when the day is done, God says to us: "Take a rest, and tomorrow we'll tackle the next part of the trail!"
For those who think they have to face the entire trail all at once, take the time to read from Jesus's Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 6:25-34. And especially verse 34:
Have the faith to travel as far as God gives you to travel in a single day, and let tomorrow -- and God -- worry about tomorrow!