Church Games

Posted: March 26, 2012 in Isaiah

When I was a kid, my daddy played on the church softball team. I was too young to play, but I occasionally had fun as the batboy, or even learning how to run the old scoreboard from the cool box on stilts behind the visitors’ dugout. I still remember the feel of the cool summer night’s air across my cheek. I remember marveling at how fine the dirt was on the ball field. I remember the smell of the concessions stand and buying the occasional sucker. More often than not I would get a cup of ice-water to enjoy.

I also remember playing “cupball” with other boys around my age. If you’re not familiar with cupball, it’s where you find an empty cup at the ball field and ball it up into as tight a ball as you can get it. The ball is then pitched to the batter, who swings his hand at it and then takes off running around the bases that are ridiculously close together. If there are extra players available, the next goes to bat. If not, the runner can claim “ghost man” and bat again. After a while your ghost men would begin to score runs while you repeatedly go to bat.

Yeah.

Pretty silly.

But we played games like that as kids. Whether it’s wrestling around and calling it cub-fighting, or playing hide-n-go-seek with the neighborhood kids, one of the funniest times of my childhood, and perhaps yours, was in the games that we’d play.           Sometimes we didn’t even really need teams, or rules. Each year when the walnuts would be ready to drop, my brother and I would spent countless hours trying to see how many walnuts we could knock down from the tree. We’d shoot them with our BB guns, or throw other walnuts at them- one time I made a beautiful throwing stick from a branch off a cherry tree. Well, beautiful until it got stuck and in the process of getting it down, it landed on my forehead and busted it wide open, which was the first time I got stitches, I believe.

Probably the dumbest thing I did as a kid was to try taking a stick to Holiday Lake so that I could hold it up while swimming underwater, thereby making everyone believe that a shark was in a water. I didn’t have a fake fin that strapped around my chest and actually looked like a read shark’s fin. It was stick. An old, crooked, barkless, stick. To scare people. To make them think a shark was in the water. What was I thinking?!? Luckily my mom wouldn’t let me take it. Saved a lot of swimmers from a heart attack, I’m sure.

I know it was stupid to think that I could fool people with a stick, but I think that stupidity often carries over into church life, where some of you are playing church games with God that are even sillier. Instead of ghost runners and walnut sticks, and pretending to be a shark, we instead play “Christian” and assume that in the end, if we played well enough, and convinced enough people, perhaps even ourselves, that we’re really, truly Christian, then we get a “pass” and go to Heaven…When the reality is that when you stand before Jesus and say “Look at me! Look at how good I played! Look at what I did,” He’s going to respond by looking you square in the eye and saying this: “Depart from me, you who live as though I never gave a single commandment. I never knew you.

But I guess it shouldn’t really come as any surprise that we play these games. God’s people have been playing them for thousands of years. Israel quickly grew tired of following God and constantly rebelled against His authority over them, even though what He wanted was the very best for them. They played their games with Him in their request for a king, so they could be like everyone around them, ‘cause they weren’t content to be God’s unique people.

And then when things got hard under King Rehoboam, their little games continued, and turning their back on their identity as God’s people, they divided into two bickering kingdoms, Israel and Judah. And then, because they wanted to have their cake and eat it too, they began to incorporate pagan worship into their worship of Yahweh. Every move they made, every breath they took, was designed to benefit themselves…and to the wind with what God wanted.

If there’s one pressing lesson that we can learn as we begin to study the book of Isaiah and the life of this prophet, it’s this: God is far less concerned with our external actions than He is our inward worship. Let’s look at how God addresses the Kingdom of Judah in Isaiah chapter one:

Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
“Children[a] have I reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.”

Ah, sinful nation,
a people laden with iniquity,
offspring of evildoers,
children who deal corruptly!
They have forsaken the Lord,
they have despised the Holy One of Israel,
they are utterly estranged.

Why will you still be struck down?
Why will you continue to rebel?
The whole head is sick,
and the whole heart faint.
From the sole of the foot even to the head,
there is no soundness in it,
but bruises and sores
and raw wounds;
they are not pressed out or bound up
or softened with oil.

Your country lies desolate;
your cities are burned with fire;
in your very presence
foreigners devour your land;
it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners.
And the daughter of Zion is left
like a booth in a vineyard,
like a lodge in a cucumber field,
like a besieged city.

If the Lord of hosts
had not left us a few survivors,
we should have been like Sodom,
and become like Gomorrah.

As you read this, you begin to realize that God sees Israel as a petulant child, one who throws tantrums to get their way, who very stupidly defy the God who brought them out of slavery. And the sad part is, if it weren’t for God’s grace, He’d destroy them like He did Sodom and Gomorrah- two of the most evil cities on the face of the earth. Had God not preserved for Himself a remnant of believers, all of Israel would be a people of pure evilness.

Yet we see them clinging to the tenants of their religion. They still worship as God prescribed for them…with a little bit of their own idolatry thrown into the mix. To this, God says:

10 Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Give ear to the teaching[b] of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
11  “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.

12 “When you come to appear before me,
who has required of you
this trampling of my courts?
13 Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.

So get this- God’s people are obeying the prescribed methods of worship, but God hates it because of their attitude behind it. They see God as someone they can manipulate, so they play their little games and offer up worship, but the entire time their heart is as far from God as it can get. And the irony of it is this: God designed worship as a means of growing closer to Him. So why was their worship driving them apart from God? Because their hearts were not in it.

And we see it all the time in our own church culture. Except now instead of sacrificing animals, we’re sacrificing our time to attend a service or two each week. Instead of offering incense, we’re singing along with the powerpoint. We’re raising hands, because everyone else at Winterjam is raising hands. We’re attending a small group, or a Bible study, or Christian fellowships at school, or faithfully and dutifully attending REALife student ministries. We’re doing these things with the idea that by doing this, not only can we convince others that we’re good Christians, but sadly enough we can even convince ourselves…but the truth is that God is not fooled.

It’s not hard to figure out why we do this. It generally comes as a means of reducing pressure that’s on us. Could be our parents are holding us to higher standards…perhaps we have Christian friends that aren’t like us, but we don’t want to let them down. Or you’re dating a Christian and therefore- why not be a Christian too? Or perhaps you’ve recognized the spiritual deadness in your soul and you think that “acting” like a Christian will make you one. Like the saying goes, though…being in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than being in a garage makes you a car. Sometimes we do it simply to manipulate the creator of this universe into responding to our every beck and whim.

I think the primary cause of this is that too many of us have never encountered God. For real. Like, in a life-changing way. I was attached to the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles, while on deployment to Iraq. Towards the end of the deployment my company, the 811th Ordnance Company, was in a formation before the commanding general of the 101st, Major General David Petraeus, who quickly promoted to Lieutenant General, then General, and now he serves as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He and his Command Sergeant Major walked through our ranks and shook each of our hands, giving us a special coin made specifically for those of us serving under him in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Imagine the feeling I had as a young E-4 Specialist, shaking hands with an officer who had stars on his collar, and him giving me a coin! I can remember it like it was yesterday; it was one of the greatest days of my life as a soldier in the United States Army….But I find it weird how an encounter like that with a mere man can change my life, yet so many of you who claim to have encountered God haven’t changed a bit because of it!

Isaiah sets a great example of what an encounter with God looks like. Flip over to chapter six, where he recalls his unique calling to be a prophet for the God of Israel. It happened in the most tumultuous of times. King Uzziah had died from leprosy after ruling for 52 years, and his death marked the end of an era of prosperity for Judah. In the midst of the chaos and political disarrary, Isaiah sees God. Listen to his story:

6 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”[b]

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”

There are four things I want to point out from this text, and in doing so I challenge you to ask yourself this: “Have I seen the same things in my own life?”

The first is this: when Isaiah was confronted with King Jesus, he recognized Him for who He is. Have you come to see God for who He is? Holy, pure, just, loving, righteous? Have you come to see God as the sinless One that He is? Have you come to understand that He alone rules the universe, and your only role in life is to submit to His authority and to subject yourself to His rule?

The other side of the coin, and the second thing we see in this encounter between Isaiah and Jesus, is that Isaiah is confronted by his own sinfulness. Look at his response to the King: “Woe is me. I am lost! I am a sinner! And I dwell among sinners!” Isaiah is convinced that because of his own sinfulness before a righteous God, he can’t possibly survive…and this is the same realization that Jesus calls us to when he commands us to repent. It means to undergo that shift in reality where your sinfulness is finally seen in the light of God’s holiness, and you know beyond any doubt that apart from God rescuing you, you are going to die and go to Hell.

The beautiful part, though, is that God doesn’t leave us like that. Isaiah’s problem was his foul mouth, and we see that God sent one of his angels, and “having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar, he touched my mouth and said, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.’” Isaiah received the remedy for his sinfulness, and God has also provided a remedy for our sinfulness- His own son Jesus Christ, who bearing the sins of His people on the cross provides forgiveness and reconciliation to His Father for all who will trust in Him as their Savior. But…this is something that you simply cannot do until you truly see yourself for who you really are. And if that’s never happened, you can start by simply asking God to really show you who you are.

Lastly, we see that Isaiah’s encounter with God resulting in an unconditional surrender. As God asks “whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah responds with, “Here am I! Send me.” And then God sends him on a mission doomed to failure. His job was to proclaim God’s Words to the people, but the end result would be their refusal to hear and their inability to understand. It’s important tonight that you realize that giving your life to Christ doesn’t automatically mean that everything in your life is going to get “fixed” or that things will be better. Quite often it means the worse. Salvation is not something to be desired as a means of having your best life now, but rather to gain a relationship with God through His son.

So who are you?

Are you playing the church game where you put on a good face once or twice a week, trying to fool yourself into thinking that what you’re doing is good enough? You’re trying to fool your friends, family, and church into thinking you’re a follower of Christ, and you do this by acting like those around you, going to church, participating in church things, pretending to worship as you see others doing? It won’t work, my friend. Sooner or later you’re either going to be found out and you’ll lose this game, or you’ll run out of energy and quit playing.

Why not turn to Jesus? He died rose again as a demonstration of God’s love for us and His hatred of sin, and through that He can now offer eternal life to those who give up on their religiosity, on their church games, and simply trust in Him as their only means of salvation. Will you do that…or just keep playing?

 

 

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