What Does God Expect?

May 27, 2013 was a special day in my life. It was my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. My wife Kathryn and I wanted to do something special, so we flew to Boston. We spent that evening at Fenway Park. It is one of the most loved stadiums in America and is a piece of American history. It opened in 1912, the same day the Titanic sank. Out of respect for the dead, the open day celebration was canceled. It is an amazing story and, I looked forward to visiting it. I had watched games from Fenway for years. I wasn’t disappointed. It met all my expectations. From our right field seats, we witnessed the Indians, now Guardians, win, 12-3! I couldn’t have asked for more. That leads us to an interesting question.

What does God expect? The answer to that question comes from our scripture lesson for today, Acts 2:42-47. They are the closing words of the second chapter of Acts. It is important to note, it is the same chapter that records the events of Pentecost. You remember the story. The Holy Spirit arrived, and lives were transformed. In the verse prior to our reading, we are told thousands of individuals were saved on that day. Our reading tells us about the activities and priorities of those new converts. Verse 42 spells it out clearly:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer

That verse is important because it answers our question, what does God expect? God expects us to do three things. First, God expects us to be devoted to the Bible. In other words, we are to be a learning church. How much time do you spend studying the Bible lately? Second, God expects us to be devoted to the fellowship. In other words, we are to be a generous church. How devoted are you to your church? How generous are you with your church? Third, God expects us to be devoted to worship. When you partake of the body and the blood of Christ and pray, you are worshipping. How much time do you spend worshipping God? It is those three things I want to explore in this blog. May we never disappoint God.

First, God expects us to be a learning church. Verse forty-two says, “They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teachings.” Remember, these words were written about the early church. The apostles were still with them. In time, the apostles would spread throughout that area of the world and spread the Good News about Jesus Christ. In more time, according to tradition, eleven of the twelve would be martyred for the faith. Those times had not yet come. The apostles were still with them. Just think about it for a moment. The apostles were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry. They reported about they had experienced. The early church didn’t just listen to their words. The early church was devoted to their words because they had so much to offer. Time changed things. We are not living in the days of the early church. We are the contemporary church. We can no longer hang on every word of the apostles because they are dead. The best we can do is study their written words. In other words, the best we can do is study the Bible. How much serious Bible study have you done lately? How devoted are you to the scriptures? God expects us to be devoted to understanding the Bible.

In the eighth chapter of Acts is the story of Philip and the Ethiopian. Do you remember the story? The apostle is on his way to Gaza. It is on that road that he encounters an important Ethiopian authority. He was returning home after worshipping in Jerusalem. His life is complex. He is professionally successful, but his personal life is limited. When Philip meets him, the Ethiopian is reading from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. He does not understand what he is reading. He is not the first one who didn’t understand what he is reading in the Bible. He was not the last one. Can you relate to the Ethiopian? Have you ever had a hard time understanding the Bible? There is nothing casual about reading the Bible. If you want to understand the Bible, then you must be devoted to the Bible. How devoted are you to the scriptures? God expects us to be devoted to the Bible. At church, you can get help understanding those sacred words. How are you doing in that area of your spiritual development? Is God disappointed in your efforts? God expects us to study the Bible.

Second, God expects us to be a generous church. Verse forty-two says, “They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teachings and to fellowship.”  Don’t just jump over that word, fellowship. It means more than a potluck dinner or a friendly greeting. It is much deeper. It means they were willing to sacrifice for one another. If you don’t believe me, then look at look at verses forty-four and forty-five. They say, “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.”  There is no way to read that line and not talk about money. How much money do you give to the church, so the church can respond to human need? Do you give sacrificially? Do you give out of your surplus? How devoted are you to the fellowship?

As I write this piece, I am retired after forty years in the ministry. On my last day at my church, I reviewed the things that brought me the most satisfaction. One of the points I covered was financial. When I went to my church in 1994, the annual budget was $154,000. When I left, the church’s budget was $496,000. That fact makes two points. First, life is getting more expensive. Second, the ministry grew along the way. However, one thing remained the same. Every year, people complained the budget was impossible to meet. That simply was not true. I learned long ago churches do not have a spending problem. Churches have a giving problem. The Biblical standard for giving is the tithe, 10%. According to the people at Vanco, only 5% of American church goers’ tithe. That means 95% of American church goers are living below the Biblical standard, disappointing God. It is my experience, many church goers spend more money on lunch after worship, than they gave to the church during worship. How devoted are you to the church? How generous are you? How are you doing in that area of your spiritual development? Is God disappointed in your efforts? God expects us to be devoted to the fellowship.

Third, God expects us to be a worshipping church. Verse forty-two says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” The phrase the breaking of bread means communion. Jesus broke the bread at the upper room to represent his body. If you combine communion and prayer, then you create worship. How important is worship to you? The faith was never meant to be lived out in isolation. Sadly, the numbers do not lie. According to the Pew Research Group, 70% of Americans claim they are Christian. However, only 47% of American Christians belong to a church. Only 22% of American Christians attend worship each week. You can eliminate everything except worship in the life of the church and still be a church. If you eliminate worship, then you stop being a church. You can eliminate the United Methodist Men, the United Methodist Women and the Methodist Youth Fellowship and still be a church. You can dissolve the East Ohio Annual Conference and the Mahoning Valley District and still be a church. You can eliminate Sunday school and all the committees and still be a church. We could sell the building and still be a church. We could cancel all the concerts and picnics and still be the church. However, the one thing you can not eliminate and be a church is worship. How much time do you spend worshipping? How devoted are you to worship? How are you doing in that area of your spiritual development? Is God disappointed in your efforts? God expects us to be devoted to worship.

Have you ever taken a whale watching tour? On our trip to Boston, Kathryn and I traveled to Gloucester for such a tour. They guaranteed a whale sighting, but I wasn’t convinced. I am a product of this area, so I’m a little cynical. I expected to bob off the Massachusetts coast and see nothing. I figured the guaranteed part was a picture of whale at the end of the trip. That is why I was shocked when I saw a whale. I was overwhelmed. In all, we saw four different whales. One was so close you could study her details. The naturalist called her Pinball because she had a perfectly round circle on her tail. I was overwhelmed by Pinball’s size. We watched Pinball swim under the surface. We watched Pinball shoot water through her spout. We watched Pinball stick that massive tail up out of the water. The whole experience with Pinball made me feel better. I felt better about our world’s ecology. After all, we hear so much about pollution. We must be doing something right! Just think of all the fish that must be in the sea to sustain one whale. How many whales are in the world? The whole experience made he think about God. How could you look at such a superb creature and not believe in God? We were out on the ocean for four hours watching whales. The truth is I didn’t want it to end. Listen to what I am about to say. They whole experience was more than I ever expected. How many times have you said that in your life? Most of the time we are disappointed. Wouldn’t it be great to be more than God ever expected?

Perfect Balance

We find ourselves today in the ninth chapter of Mark. The previous story is noteworthy. Peter has just identified Jesus for the first time as the Messiah. That was a pivotal moment in Jesus’s earth ministry. In many ways, it was the beginning of the end. To underscore the importance of that identification Jesus takes the inner circle, Peter, Andrew, James, and John on a field trip. Jesus takes them to a mountaintop. Many believe, the mountain was Mount Tabor, which stands 1,800 feet high, others say it was Mount Hermon, which stands over 9,000 feet high. For our purpose, it does not really matter. They must have believed they were going to the mountaintop to rest and pray. They had no clue what was about to happen. Without warning, the Bible says Jesus was transfigured. I am not exactly sure what that means, so I cannot explain it. It will have to suffice to say Jesus’s appearance changed. He became transparent and luminous at the same time. The four disciples were shocked. Then, this strange story gets stranger. Without warning, the two greatest personalities of the Old Testament suddenly appear. There was Moses, the great law giver, and there was Elijah, the greatest of all the prophets according to the Jews. Overwhelmed by the experience, the disciples struggled how to respond. Peter mentioned something about constructing shelters, one for Jesus, one for Moses, one for Elijah. There is no time for Jesus to respond because the story even gets stranger. Without warning, God, Himself, suddenly appears, hidden by a cloud. The Almighty announces to everyone present Jesus is his son. For this reason, they should listen to him. And as fast as the scene began, it was suddenly over. As they traveled down the mountainside Jesus tried to explain his future ministry, but his words must have fallen on deaf ears. It was simply too much for a human mind to comprehend. The only thing that brings them back to reality is a problem waiting for them at the base of the mountain. There is a demon possessed boy who needs help. We know it is true. Mountaintop experiences are great, but they do not last. We need mountaintop memories to keep us going. However, we live in the valley surrounded by problems.

The father of the great Methodist movement was John Wesley (1703-1791). His story is well documented. He was homeschooled in Epworth, England by his mother, Susanna. He went to Christ College at Oxford University. It was while he was there, he formed a small group called the Holy Club. They gathered for three reasons: Bible study, prayer, and debate. At some point, the group decided those sacred acts were not enough. They had to help the needy in their community, so they went to the poorest people in that community and sacrificed for their benefit. Wesley even forwent a haircut and gave that money to the poor. The Holy Club had perfect balance. They balanced worship and missions. I appreciate the United Methodist Church because of that balance. That balance of worship and missions is in our DNA. I pray we never lose our balance, for if we do, we will surely fall. John Wesley did not discover that balance between worship and missions. It is found in the story of the transfiguration. Let us look at both sides in more detail.

First, Peter emphasized worship. If you want to exist as a church, then you must worship. It is the one thing the church must do and still be considered a church. Peter understood the importance of worship. Look at the story with me. Peter is at the top of the mountain with Andrew, James, and John. They thought they were going to be alone with Jesus to pray. They experienced so much more. They experienced God! It must have been great. Peter appreciated the moment so much he did not want to leave. He wanted to stray. What did it say in verse 5? Peter said, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”  Peter emphasized worship.

I appreciate this church because worship is a priority. Prior to the pandemic, we worshipped three times every Sunday morning. We worshipped at various times and in various ways. We worshipped three times on Christmas Eve and four times on Easter morning. We worshipped on Wednesday evenings during Lent. Once the pandemic hit, we found ourselves worshipping in the parking lot using a FM transmitter. Then, we came inside and worshipped virtually. True worship has nothing to do with hymnals, projection systems and organs. True worship has everything to do with experiencing God. Peter emphasized worship and so do we! Because Peter, and us, want to experience God. If you want this church to be what God intended, then we must worship. Peter emphasized worship! However, in the life of the church, there must be more.

Second, the other eight disciples emphasized missions. In the reading beyond our reading, Jesus descends the mountain with Peter, Andrew, James, and John. The four must have been on a spiritual high, but the reality of this world was waiting for them. The other eight disciples are debating with a crowd. In the eye of a debate was a demon-possessed boy. Jesus exorcised the demons because the disciples were unable to do the miraculous. Do not be critical of the eight because they were doing their best to respond to human need. Responding to human need is important because it shows the world our faith is sincere. Churches and individual Christians who do not respond to human are shallow and hypocritical. That is what we found in the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:25-37) You know the story.

It all begins with a question. “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus was being tested. That question was answered with a story. A man was traveling down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The man must have been a fool because only a fool would travel that dangerous road alone. That road was notorious. The expected happened. The man is robbed and stripped of his possessions, including his clothes. Laying there in his birthday suit, he is left to die. The good news is people saw him at his time of need. People who should have helped him. There was a Priest and a Levite. The Priest was from the line of Aaron and a leader in the Jewish faith. The Levite was from the line of Levi and had various religious duties. Both spent their lives worshipping, but they never heard a single word. They did not respond to the man in need. Both walked on the other side of the road and refused to help. The unlikely hero in the story is a half breed. The Samaritans were a mixed raced people. They were a combination of Jew and Gentiles. That was shocking to the Jews of Jesus’s time. No one expected much from him, but he comes to the aid of his fellow man. The Bible says he had pity on him. I think he had compassion for him. He bandaged his wounds, he got him help, and he gave generosity to his relief. So, you answer the question, who is my neighbor? The answer is not the religious people, who sat on every committee at the synagogue and knew every line of liturgy. The answer is the Samaritan because he showed compassion. Christians who do not respond to human need are shallow and hypocritical. That is why missions is so important.

I appreciate this church because missions are a priority. Have you ever taken an inventory of all the mission outreaches that come out of this church? The list is impressive. Several years ago, Kathryn and I took sun dresses to Haiti made by the sewing ladies of this church. Since the pandemic, they have made countless face masks to keep people safe. The Helping Hand Closet has raised a small fortune to help a variety of local people who have found themselves in need. Prior to the pandemic, the prison ministry, Kairos strived to save the souls of the incarcerated. I miss seeing that mountain of chocolate cookies. Out in the narthex sits our wooded cow, Bill Johnson. He was purchased by a Christian woman with a good heart. The money placed in the bucket in his mouth goes to the Heifer Project. They buy animals to help those living in the Third World. Thousands of dollars have been raised and countless animals have been purchased that to the generosity of this church. Annually, our youth go on a mission trip to help the poot somewhere else. We have been doing this for twenty years. They have gone has far south and east as Wilmington, North Carolina and as far west and north as Madison, Wisconsin. The Giving Tree makes sure everyone gets a Christmas present. The Warm Weather Tree helps the locals of this area stay warm during the winter months. Did you know this church gave away $13,000 last year to missions, $10,000 went to Christian Camp Gideon in Estonia so boys and girls can learn about Jesus? We have never had a special offering that was a failure. If there has been a natural disaster, we have responded. Your generosity is extremely humbling. I could go on, but I will not. The other eight disciples were involved with human needs. In other words, they were involved in missions. If you want this church to be what God intended, then we must be involved in missions. Peter emphasized worship! The eight other disciples emphasized missions! Do you see the balance?

The story of the transfiguration and the story of the demon possessed boy cannot be separated. Those two stories model for us the perfect balance that should exist within the life of the church. The transfiguration on the mountain represent worship. In worship, we want to experience God. The Almighty is not just pleased with worship, He expects worship. The demon possessed boy represents missions. Our world, locally, nationally, and internationally are filled with problems. God expects the church to respond to human need. In the life of the church both worship and missions are important. It is impossible to be the church God intended and not worship. It is impossible to be the church God intended and not be involved in missions. It is imperative worship and mission stay in perfect balance. For if that balance is lost, we will fall.

Nik Wallenda (born 1979) is a seventh-generation family member of the Flying Wallendas. He is a true American daredevil. He has done some amazing things to display his courage. On June 16, 2012, he walked over Niagara Falls. Tens of thousands of people gathered around the falls on that Friday night to watch him do it, and millions more watched on television.I was one of the millions. He walked on a two-inch wire that was suspended 200 feet in the air over the Horseshoe Falls. It took him less than twenty-five minutes. It really was amazing! I have a difficult time walking on ice on my driveway. Can I state the obvious? It was vital he kept his balance.

It is vital for us to keep our balance too. To be the church God intended us to be we need both worship and missions. We need to keep worshipping and we need to continue to respond to human need. It is not just what I expect from us. It is what God expects from us.

What Is Your Worship Worth?

Many years ago, before man walked on the moon, before a civil war threatened to divide America, or before Columbus discovered a New World, there was a man who spoke for God. His name meant “strong” or “brave,” but we just call him Amos. His ministry lasted for ten years, between 750-760 BC. He was a blue-collar worker, a shepherd by trade. He lived six miles south of Bethlehem or eleven miles south of Jerusalem. He was sent to deliver a message of judgment against the northern kingdom (Israel). Yet, his message also resonated to the southern kingdom (Judah) too. For you see both kingdoms were going through of period of economic prosperity. That prosperity filled the people with spiritual smugness, which damaged their worship.

In our reading for today, Amos does not worry about hurting anyone’s feelings. It is not that they are not worshipping. They conducted worship regularly, not their worship had growth shallow. In other words, they are just going through the motions. If you take the time to tear down the writing for today, there are five deficiencies in their worship. This is the list:

  1. Their ceremonies were meaningless.
  2. Their offerings were not sacrificial.
  3. Their praise was insincere.
  4. Their idolatry was shameful.
  5. Their devotion was false.

This is the bottom line. Their worship was worthless. However, worship does not have to be worthless.

Several years ago, I was in Vladimir, Russia. It is about one-hundred and twenty miles east of Moscow. It was Orthodox Christmas Eve, January 6. The days of communism had past, and the church was full. In true Orthodox tradition, all the worshippers stood the entire service. Our little group from the United States stood in the back of the sanctuary and tried to blend in. We failed. The locals looked at us and wondered about us, foreigners. However, we did not ruin the worship. The white robed bearded priest walked through the crowd with his incense burning as the crowd chanted the ancient liturgy. The Holy Spirit washed over the crowd, including me. There is no other way to explain it. It was an incredible experience. It was an incredible spiritual experience. I do not know the orthodox tradition. I do not know the Russian language, but that service moved me. I experienced God that night.

However, what I remember most were the worshippers who attended. I studied their clothes and I looked at the lines in their faces. There was not a celebrity in the crowd. They were just people, like me. They came to church on Christmas Eve to worship and remember the birth of their savior. I wondered about their lives. I wondered about the homes in which they lived. I wondered about the problems they carried. There was much I did not know. However, there was one thing I did know. They came to church to experience God and they came to worship to experience some hope. It is not just true of an Orthodox congregation in Vladimir, Russians. We come to worship to experience God and be reminded there is hope.

William Temple was not wrong. He once said, “Worship is quickening the conscience by the holiness of God, feeding the mind with the truth of God, purging the imagination by the beauty of God, opening the heart to the love of God, and devoting the will to the purpose of God.”  This is the question you must answer What is your worship worth? Worship is more than a collection of songs and responses. Worship is more than the readings and a message. True worship connects us with God and changes the way we live our daily lives. I can only speak for myself. My week is incomplete without worship. My soul is incomplete without God.

There is a website called Church Leaders. In February 2019, they posted an article written by Philip Wagner. He says there are five different reasons why worship is important. I cannot disagree with a signal one. This is his list:

  1. Worship involves surrender of our lives. Our daily lives are filled with what we want to do. Worship is not about us. Worship is about God and what God wants us to do. Romans 12:1 says, we are to be living sacrifices.
  • Worship is putting our focus on God. Worship is not about your personal preferences, what songs you like or dislike, what style of worship you like or dislike, for example. True worship makes God the priority, not you.
  • Worship involves ‘Getting Out of the Way.’ We must learn how to remove our worries, our opinions, and our questions. Worship is not about you. It is about God.
  • We must worship in the face of pain and suffering. You know the truth. Life is hard! There is nothing simple about life. It is filled with all kinds of challenges. When life is hard, draw near to God, not away from God.Worship can be extremely powerful when life is hard.
  • Worship is celebrating who God is and what He has done. God is not just an historical figure who created the world and sent Jesus. God is contemporary. That means God is with us today.

It is important that you note none of those points relate to church size. You can have quality worship in large membership congregations and small membership congregations. It does not matter if you are a mid-size church like this one. It is important that you note that you can have quality worship in any church tradition. It does not matter if the church is Roman Catholic, Mainline Protestant, Orthodox, or Evangelical. It is important that you note denomination does not matter. Quality worship can happen in one of the branches of Methodism, Presbyterianism, Lutheranism, or Baptist. You can have quality worship regardless of theology, liberal or conservative. It does not matter if the style of worship is traditional, contemporary, or blended. God is not selective. The only thing that matters is the heart of the worshipper. What was the condition of your heart when you came to church today? What is your worship worth?

Years ago, I was involved in the local pulpit exchange. You know the pulpit exchange. All the local preachers exchange pulpits for one week. For preacher it is a working vacation. For lay people it is a way to meet someone new. Usually, it is the third Sunday in January, so the weather is horrible in Ohio, so nobody comes. That was the case on that particular year. Before I any further, I will not tell you the church I preached at that particular year to protect their identity.

When I arrived, everyone was practicing social distancing because no one had come. When I walked in the back door everyone ignored me. I walked up to a woman holding a handbag the size of a small car. She looked terrified and clutched her handbag against her bosom like I was going to steal it. I introduced myself, “I am Russ Adams from Western Reserve United Methodist and I am the guest preacher today.” She sized me up and down and coldly responded, “Follow me.” She led me to the front row of the sanctuary and said to me in a stern voice, “Sit here. Someone will be right with you.” I sat down because I was afraid to stand. About forty minutes later, a man walked up to me with a smile on his face and said, “So, you’re our preacher today? I guess, you will do.” It was about time for worship to start so we sat up front facing the crowd. There was a thirty. They were scattered through the sanctuary. The smiling man began the service by welcoming everyone and asked someone in the crowd if Pearl was feeling better. Then, someone responded with a cynical comment. Then, we stood, and the smiling man introduced the first hymn. The organ sounded like something at the local roller rink and the organist must have thought we were at a funeral, because the hymn sounded like a dirge. The smiling man then prayed using horrible English, read the Psalter lesson, asked for prayer requests, reminded them to come to the chili cook-off, and prayed one more time. Then it was my turn. The smiling man introduced me as Ross Adams the preacher from down to road. They must have heard about me because about ten of the thirty got up and left. I lied to them and thanked them for their hospitality and read the scripture. That was when things got bad.

About five minutes into my sermon one of the ten evacuees came back into the sanctuary. He had a frantic look on his face and spied the crowd for someone. He found him sitting near the back of the sanctuary. He whispered something in his ear, and he got a shocked look on his face. He turned to the woman on his right and whispered something in her ear. She got a shocked look on her face and the three of them ran out together. The woman returned a few moments later and told another woman. The woman with the handbag saw everyone leaving so see left too. She grabbed a man’s arm on the way out and motioned him to come. I kept preaching to the faithful few and then the original man came back in the sanctuary. Standing in the middle of the center aisle, he waved to the smiling man who was behind me. The smiling man jumped up and left me. As I preached, I wondered if something was wrong? Maybe someone had a heart-attack. Maybe someone fell and broke their hip. Maybe someone had a stroke. I preached on and listen for an ambulance. However, there was not a sound. Curiosity got the best of me. I cut the sermon short and told the crowd we were only going to sing two verses of the last hymn and said a hasty benediction.

I hustled to the back of the church into the narthex and looked for everyone. I wanted to help. I did not see anyone, but I heard some people talking. I followed the sound down a short hall and found everyone standing in the unisex bathroom. They had surrounded the toilet, which someone had clogged. It was a gross site, but they found it fascinating. The congregation was trying to figure out who was responsible. They said it was probably the teenagers, but everyone in the crowd was over seventy-five, so I did not think that was possible. I think it was the woman who I met with the handbag. I stepped into the hallway and slipped out the same door I entered a few hours earlier. This is the point.

On that day, a clogged toilet was more interesting than me. On that day, a clogged toilet was more important than God. What is more important to you than God today? In worship, there is nothing more important than God? Worship is not about us. Worship is about God. Let me ask you the question of the day one more time. What is your worship worth? Do you remember what William Temple said about worship? He said, “Worship is quickening the conscience by the holiness of God, feeding the mind with the truth of God, purging the imagination by the beauty of God, opening the heart to the love of God, and devoting the will to the purpose of God. What is your worship worth?