By Pastor Steven Molin
Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
We hadn’t been living in Oregon for very long when a member of our church invited me to go salmon fishing. Salmon fishing! We took a launch out of Lincoln City and sailed two miles out to sea, and there, among the rolling waves of the Pacific, I caught my first salmon; a Chinook, twenty-one pounds. I remember calling my dad that night and telling him “Dad, I caught the biggest fish of my life today! The salmon here are as big as your leg. You’ve gotta see this, Dad. You’ve got to come out to Oregon and go salmon fishing with me.”
Five years later, he did. In the meantime, my mom had died and my dad had had both legs amputated just below the knee because of diabetes. When we got to Lincoln City, it was low tide, so I had to put him on my back and carry him down the gangplank to the dock. But that day, my dad caught a salmon. He was able to see for himself what my description could not do; to picture a twenty pound fish on the end of his line. The adage is true; seeing is believing.
But this happens all the time in our lives. I would never believe that a pilot could guide a powerless aircraft to a safe landing on the Hudson River, but then I watched the news on Friday night and watched in amazement. I wouldn’t have believed that a small congregation like ours five years ago could build a great facility like this one, but I was here to see it happen. There is an internet video floating around that shows a three foot tall young man with no arms or legs, speaking to a crowd of high school kids. When he intentionally fell over, there is no way he can get up by himself; but I watch…and he did. Seeing IS believing.
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When Jesus was an unknown preacher, traveling in the region of Galilee, he happened upon a young man named Phillip. “Follow me” Jesus called out to Phillip, and Phillip did, but first he went and found his friend Nathaniel. “We’ve found the Messiah; he’s a man named Jesus of Nazareth.” But Nathaniel was not impressed. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Phillip did not try to convince his friend, didn’t try to describe Jesus, or tell Jesus stories, or provide a list of Jesus’ references and credentials. Phillip simply said “Come and see.” And that invitation changed Nathaniel’s life forever.
“Come and see.” That is the greatest invitation in all the world. Come and see fish as big as your leg. Come and see your new granddaughter. Come and see mountains that are three miles high. Come and see the Savior of the world. Come and see. Those are the very same three words we continue to use to invite people to church in the 21st century. Come and see.
But the problem is, we typically invite people to come and see things other than Jesus. Come and see our magnificent pipe organ! Come and see our church’s beautiful stained glass windows. Come and see our stunningly handsome pastor; not the female one, the guy. Come and see our senior choir. Come and see our cute children. Come and see our cute sign.
The problem with those invitations is that none of them has the capacity to change a person’s life. In a world where bigger and better things are always just around the corner, people will not be convicted by stained glass windows, or grand organs, or precocious children or beautiful buildings. This is not what the Church has to offer. All we really have to offer is a glimpse of the Savior, Jesus Christ. But that attraction doesn’t seem to be enough, so we have to up the ante; beautiful people, beautiful music, beautiful buildings, beautiful things. Oh yeah, and also Jesus.
In his book Finding God in Unexpected Places, author Philip Yancey describes the time he and his wife visited Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone Park. They were having lunch in the lodge, watching the digital clock ticking down the minutes until the next big splash. When the clock reached 30 seconds, diners left their tables and rushed over to the windows overlooking the geyser. When Old Faithful erupted, and all the tourists were ooohing and aahing, Yancey looked over his shoulder and saw that the waitresses and busboys were using this time to clear tables of their dirty dishes and garbage. They had become so familiar with that spectacular eruption that it no longer impressed them; it no longer held their interest.
And Yancey wonders if that isn’t also true in the church? And now I am wondering the same thing. Jesus is the Savior of the world, the Creator of the Universe, the very Son of God who came into our world to die on the cross so that we might have eternal life, and he has become to us, boring. And the Church has helped make him boring! Boring pastors droan on in monotonous voices and put people to sleep. Stale music and stale coffee and stale conversations about weather and sports and Oprah may be safe but they are not life-changing. That may not be true in this church, in our church, but I fear it is common in much of Christendom. Like rock bands that always employ “warm up groups” so does the church, only in the church’s case, Jesus is the warm up group: the main event is the building, or the liturgy, or the anthem, or the preacher’s sermon about recycling, or the donuts after worship. Ho-hum, Jesus. We are no longer impressed by what you have done to save our souls, so we have to spice your story up a bit with our own side show.
In times of prosperity, when life is a party and people are dabbling in all sorts of exciting things, maybe that’s what we think is necessary. Fluff. Pizzazz. But when times are hard, as times are hard today; when the challenges of life have knocked us down and we don’t know if we can get up, people need more than a side show. They need to hear about a God who has the power to change their world. They need to know there is a community where people do not weep alone, and encouragement and prayer are precious gifts. We need to extend the invitation once again: “Come and see Jesus Christ at work. Come and hear how God has touched our lives. Come and know that there is a God who knows your name.”
You know, for nine straight years, worship attendance has increased at Our Savior’s. But in 2008, our worship attendance decreased by 8%. I wonder why that is. Have we become bored with the story ourselves? Have we begun to take for granted that God will feed us even if we don’t show up for dinner? Or has this church somehow failed to present a relevant message for this hurting world? Have we church leaders become lazy, and turned the astonishing story of God into dry bones? I am concerned about this because we need to be a people of worship. We cannot invite people to come and see if we ourselves are not coming and seeing on a regular basis.
The story is told of Karl Barth, that he had scrawled into the inside of his pulpit, these words: “That they might see Jesus.” And every Sunday, when he climbed into that pulpit, he was reminded of his singular task. He was not there to entertain them, or to scold them, or to impress them, or the coddle them. And this is my prayer for 2009; that we would gather here each Sunday to see Jesus. The pastors will do our best to be faithful to that calling. Preachers will preach about Jesus, choirs will sing about Jesus, the teachers will teach about Jesus, and we will clearly see the God who is our hope and our life. This is no time for fluff. This is no time for pizzazz. This is a time to come face to face with the Savior. Thanks be to God. Amen.