As you look at that picture, what do you see? It may be that you see a lovely young lady. But it may be that you see an ugly old woman. (Maybe you can see both; maybe neither). Well now let me ask you to look at something else. Just take a look around you. Along your row, or behind you, or down from the gallery. Look at the people you've wound up with here tonight, and let me ask you: What do you see? What do you think of them?
Maybe we look at other Christians and find ourselves thinking, 'Well, to be honest, most of them are just not my type.' They're not my age or my background or taste in company. For people just looking into Christian things, it can be Christians that are the biggest put-off. 'I'd have to join in with them.' Or maybe it's Christian organisations we find hard to take - churches, CU's Bible study groups. We don't like the way they do things, or the atmosphere, or the emphasis. You feel the pressure to fit in and toe the line. And if you're just looking your bigger fear might be not just that you'd have to join in with them, but you'd have to be like them.
Or maybe it's the hypocrisy that we find hard to take. The non-Christians looking at us spot it far better than we do. It's perhaps what makes them most cynical. As Lenny Henry said, 'Every day, people are leaving the church and going back to Jesus.' But Christians find church a let-down, too. Maybe you've come along several weeks , now, and no-one's bothered to break out of their clique to say hello. May I apologise on our behalf, if so? Or maybe we feel unsupported - that Christians are high on Bible but low on practical commitment. Church is a let-down. Which is why we wonder whether there are better ones; why we change churches; why we drop out of churches altogether.
What do you see as you look at church? What we need if we're believers is double vision. We need to see the church through our own eyes. But we also need to see it through God's eyes. And my brief tonight is to ask how God sees church. And the Bible's answer is this. That church is the very heart of God's plan for the universe. So the aim tonight is to try to look at the peculiar bunch of people we are, met together in this peculiar building, doing peculiarly unBritish things like singing in public, and to ask: how does God see us? How can we be the heart of his plan? Well, you can sum up the plan for the universe in four words: the kingdom of God. God's plan is to bring about his kingdom. And the church is how he pulls it off. And since the whole Bible lays out the plan from start to finish, tonight we're going to do the whole Bible.
1. THE KINGDOM OF GOD IN EDEN
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2) Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." (Genesis 1.26-28) The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the LORD God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it, you will surely die." (Genesis 2.15-17)
Which is all summed up in that second picture. The crown stands for the Lord. The stick-people are Adam and Eve. The circle is the world. And that is a picture of the way things were in the beginning. Human beings living willingly under the authority of God as their King. Man and woman listening to God's word (Genesis 2.16) and trusting God to tell them what is good and evil (that's what the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is about - it stands for the right to lay down what is good and what is evil). So things are right between God and mankind; right between Adam and Eve themselves; and right between them and the world. And that set of right relationships is what the Bible calls the kingdom of God. Someone has put it like this. The kingdom of God is: God's people in God's place, under God's rule and blessing. God's people: Adam and Eve. In God's place: Eden. And as they trust God to tell them how to run their lives, they experience the blessing of life working. It's the good life. But it didn't last.
2. EXPELLED FROM THE KINGDOM OF GOD
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say you must not eat from any tree in the garden?" The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden but God did say, 'You must not eat from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will surely die.'" "You will not surely die," the serpent said to the woman. "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, "Where are you?" He answered, "I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid." And he said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?" (Genesis 3.1-11) And the LORD God said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live for ever." So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the East side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3.22-24)
By Genesis 3, the picture is very different:
The first humans have rebelled. The temptation is there at the end of v5 - Satan speaking: 'You could be like God, knowing good and evil.' That is, 'You don't have to let God tell you how to run your life. You can run it yourself. Choose for yourself what's good and evil. Be your own king. And trust me: nothing will go wrong. You'll still have the good life. In fact, you'll have it even better.' And they swallow the lie. They reject God [the crossed-out crown]. And they strike out as people living their own lives their own way [wearing their own, individual crowns]. And each of those right relationships is broken: with God; with one another; with the world, and the world of work. It all falls apart. And by the end of Genesis 3 they're expelled from God's place and cut off from his presence:
From here on, the solid line between God and mankind stands for their separation: face-to-face fellowship with God is a thing of the past. And instead of the good life they experience the curse of living without God - which simply doesn't work. And they face the prospect of dying without God, and being left out of his presence forever. And that's where every human being since then has been born - outside Eden. Outside the kingdom of God. Born rebels. With one exception: Jesus. But none of this was a surprise to God. Astonishing as it seems to us, he created us with a freedom which he knew we would use against him. And he went ahead with a plan which involved forgiving rebels back into his kingdom. And in Genesis 12 comes God's promise that that was what he intended to do. And it comes to a man called Abraham.
3. PROMISED - THE KINGDOM OF GOD
The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you, I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." (Genesis 12.1-3)
Here is this 'OAP' called Abraham. And out of nowhere, God takes the initiative. That's what grace is: God taking the initiative. Not responding to something in us -as if we do something and then deserve something from him. But simply loving us and promising to do us good because he is love and he is good. And what God promises is - the kingdom of God:
God's people - v2, 'I will make you into a great nation';in God's place - v1, 'the land I will show you';and back in relationship with God, under his rule, experiencing the blessing of life as it was meant to be: 'I will bless you.' In fact, v3, 'all peoples [all nations] will be blessed through you.' Little did Abraham know that that promise would be fulfilled through the birth of a baby nearly 2000 years down the track from him, who would die on a cross and rise from the dead so that people from every nation could, by faith in him, join a group called: the church.
And Abraham took God at his word. That's faith. And he acted on God's word. That's obedience. And that looks to me remarkably like the kingdom of God. One man, at least, rightly related to God again. Now, read to the end of Genesis and you find that one of those three promises has been kept. Abraham had a son, Isaac; Isaac had Jacob, also known as Israel. He achieved the formidable output of 12 children who became the twelve tribes of a nation called Israel, or the Israelites. And Exodus 1 says, 'the Israelites were fruitful and …became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with them.' So by the beginning of Exodus we have God's people . But they're in the wrong land - Egypt, rather than the promised land. And they're under the wrong king - not God, but Pharaoh. Read to Numbers 10 and by now two of the three promises have been kept. The Lord has rescued the Israelites from Egypt, brought them across the Red Sea, and then met with them at Mount Sinai. And at this point comes the first reference to medicine in the Bible: 'Moses went up upon the mountain to receive the tablets'. So we have God's people; and we have God's rule - God has spoken to them so that they can know what the good life is. But they're still in the wrong place. Read on to Joshua 24 and three out of three promises are in the bag. Moses hands over to Joshua and Joshua takes them into the promised land. And a bit later they build a temple, which stands for the fact that God is with them, and that he is their real King. And they also get a human king - a king with a little 'k'. First Saul, then David in 1 and 2 Samuel. And after one of the battles there comes the first reference to motorbikes in the Bible. We read, 'And they returned to Jerusalem and the roar of David's triumph could be heard throughout the land.' God's people, in God's place, under God's rule. And one Bible passage from that period spells out God's plan for them: 4. THE MODEL KINGDOM
Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, "This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to say to the people of Israel: 'You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now, if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.' These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites. (Exodus 19.3-6)
End of v5: 'the whole earth' is God's - but it has rebelled against him. So God's plan is to make a group of people whom he says, v6, 'will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' 'Priest' really means a 'go-between'. So these people are going to be God's representatives to a world that's ignoring him. And they're going to be 'holy' - set apart to serve his purposes. The idea is that these people will know God and live with God as their King, so that the rest of the world will look at them and see that they're different and that they seem to have found what makes life work, and they'll ask themselves, 'What have these people got that we haven't?' And the answer will be: they've got God. So evangelism is hardly something new. Israel, if you like, was designed to be a model of God's plan for the whole earth and for the whole human race. God's people, in God's place, under God's rule. But it didn't last.
5. THE MODEL IS DISMANTLED In some ways, there's not much more to the OLD TESTAMENT. But just glance back to Exodus 19:5, where there's one very small, very important word: 'if'. 'Now, if you obey me… you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' It's all very well to be a people; and to have a place; and to know God because you've got God's word. The $64,000 question is this: will they obey him? Will they love the LORD their God with all their heart and with all their soul and with all their strength? (Deuteronomy 6.5) And the tragic answer is: No, they won't. The rest of the OLD TESTAMENT is the story of the failure of Israel to be what God intended them to be. Until finally God brings judgement on them. The nation is overrun by other countries and the people are sent into exile. So the model kingdom is dismantled. But, as with everything God allows in his world, it all serves his purpose. The whole OLD TESTAMENT teaches a lesson we need to hear, and it's this: you and I cannot be God's people unless God does something for us and in us. God can give us his word, all we'll do is rebel. He can command; all we'll do is disobey. He can promise; all we'll do is doubt and distrust. The lesson of the model is that we don't have it in ourselves as fallen human beings to trust God or love God or obey God. All we can do is fail and bring judgement on ourselves. We need God to do something for us and in us. In fact ,you can sum up the lesson of the OLD TESTAMENT in three words: WE NEED JESUS. Israel was just a model. What God did in the OLD TESTAMENT wasn't a solution to man's problem. It was just a way of showing the problem up for what it is. And amidst all the gloom and distress of the model being taken apart, the prophet Isaiah saw what was coming next. Not another model. But the real thing:
Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honour Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan - The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned … For to us a child is born, to us a Son is given, and the government will be upon his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Might God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing it and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.
And from there, we leap forward to the NEW TESTAMENT:
6. THE KINGDOM OF JESUS We've been following God's plan to bring about his kingdom: God's people in God's place, under God's rule. We've seen how things were at the beginning before we rebelled; how God promised the kingdom; how he made a model kingdom and then took it apart. And finally we get to the NEW TESTAMENT which tells us that the promise was kept through the coming of Jesus.
And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment - to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession - to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1.9-14)
It wasn't obvious even to Isaiah exactly how the plan would finally be pulled off. But, v9, 'God has made known to us [us believers] the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ.' We now know that the plan was finally pulled off through the coming of Jesus. So, v10, we're now seeing the fulfilment of that promise to Abraham way back in Genesis 12. And what we're seeing is - end of v11 - God bringing all things in heaven and earth together under one head, even Christ. So that, looking around this congregation, I see students who have Jesus as Lord, and people of different nationalities who have Jesus as Lord, and unemployed people and professionals who have Jesus as Lord, teenagers and seventy-somethings, Newcastle and Sunderland supporters - all of whom have Jesus as Lord. 'All together under one head, even Christ.' And v13 tells us how we came to have Jesus as Lord. 'You also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation.' We heard the Christian message. We heard that all we can be is failures and we deserve judgement for that. But that Jesus was born so that he could die on the cross in our place. He came to be judged so that we could be forgiven. That's the message that saved us. What Jesus did for us. And as we heard the word, v13, God did something in us by his Spirit. So that we realised we were in the wrong. And we were prepared to admit that; and to ask Jesus to forgive us and to have his rightful place as Lord in our lives. And since then we've found his Spirit changing us and enabling us to live for him. And every time that happens to someone - and it happens here week by week - God's promise to bring about his kingdom is being fulfilled. And the result - the church - could be pictured like this:
So let's end by glancing one last time down those three ingredients of the kingdom. God's people
v11 'In Jesus we were also chosen,' writes Paul. And almost certainly the 'we' meant 'we Jews'. Paul was a Jew who then came to Christ. V13, 'And you also were included.' And almost certainly, the 'you also' meant Gentiles who'd come to Christ. The Jew/Gentile division was the deepest division in the world as it was then, and God chooses people from both sides, forgives them, puts his Spirit in them and brings them together: (v10) 'All things together under one head, even Christ.' Not just some things - middle class ones, intellectual ones, British ones. All. Application: no wonder we look around churches and Christian groups and say, 'They're not my type.' Of course they're not. They're not our type because they're not our choice. The people who write about church growth tell us that it's much easier to grow big churches if the congregations are homogeneous - ie, everyone is very similar. Which is no doubt true. But it's totally at odds with the purposes of God. God's agenda for his people is not to show the world that he's the God of the middle classes, or the intellectuals, or the British, but the God of the world. (Remember Exodus 19.5-6?) What will bring him glory (end of v12, end of v14) is a people where there are all sorts together under one head. So that people look in and say, 'What have they got that holds them together?' And the answer is: Jesus.
Who rules the church? The minister? Who rules the CU? The Exec? Who draws the lines and says this goes and this doesn't? Who says what you have to be like, what you have to conform to? The answer is Jesus: (v13) he speaks through the word of truth, the Bible which is now complete. Application: no-one else rules the church. The minister doesn't rule the church. The Bible study leader doesn't rule the group. Jesus rules us by his word. We may help one another understand his word and hold one another to it; particular people may have specific gifts in that direction; but we don't rule one another. To be a Christian is to have one King and one only. And his aim is to conform us to be like him. So you don't have to be a CU type Christian or a JPC Christian or a conservative Christian or a charismatic Christian. We're called to be 'Christ-ian' - Christ's people. To spend the rest of our lives seeking to know and understand him through his word and to live as the individuals we are, under him. So sit loose to stereotypes, and lines on this and that. Sit loose to everything that doesn't demonstrably come from the word of God.
Finally: God's place
The third problem we began with was hypocrisy. Non-Christians point the finger, and rightly so. We are hypocrites. Not one of us here has lived a day of the Christian life as we ought. I wish we became perfect and sin-free the moment we came to Christ. It would make it so much easier to tell who the Christians were, and it would help our witness no end. But it isn't like that. Because we're not yet with God, in God's place - heaven:
God is in us (end of v13): 'you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit'. And he's changing us from inside out, from desires out to actions. But what God is doing in us now is only a beginning. It's a bit like putting a deposit down on something - you've done something, and it's a guarantee that you'll do more, but at the moment it's only something; it's not yet finished. End of v13: 'the Holy Spirit who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession.' Application: over every Christian life and over every congregation should be written the words, 'God hasn't finished with me/us yet.' There is no perfect Christian and no perfect church. That would be heaven. In fact, that is heaven. If you're an inquirer for whom our hypocrisy is the stumbling block, all I can do is to apologise and ask you to look at the best Christian you know, not the straw man. And above all, to look at Jesus in the pages of the NEW TESTAMENT. And for Christians? Well, we can change church as often as we like; it may be better, but it won't be perfect. The answer is not for us to change churches but for God to change churches. By which I don't mean that God should go to a different church; but that God transforms churches as we stay in them and allow him to change us. And by us staying and praying and serving and growing ourselves, so God will change the church we're in, starting with us. But the bottom line is: we're still in the wrong place. We're not yet in heaven. We don't yet have sin-free ,resurrected bodies; we don't yet live in a sin-free, environment. But that's where we're going to be. God's people in God's place, under God's rule perfectly. So in the meantime? Well, lets work at getting on with fellow-believers - in view of the fact that we'll spend eternity together. And let's work at getting the word of salvation out to not-yet-believers - in view of the fact that they may not