Lighten Up

Rev. James A. Splitt

December 12, 1999

Isaiah 61:1-11 [NIV] The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORDís favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion _ to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations. Aliens will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyards. And you will be called priests of the LORD, you will be named ministers of our God. You will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast. Instead of their shame my people will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace they will rejoice in their inheritance; and so they will inherit a double portion in their land, and everlasting joy will be theirs. "For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and iniquity. In my faithfulness I will reward them and make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants will be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples. All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people the LORD has blessed." I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign LORD will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.

John 1:6-12, 19-23 [NIV] There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God . Now this was John_s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, "I am not the Christ. " They asked him, "Then who are you? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." Are you the Prophet?" He answered, "No." Finally they said, "Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, "I am the voice of one calling in the desert, _Make straight the way for the Lord. "

Thereís a characteristic among Christians in growing churches that I would like to share with you. In fact, I not only want to share it with you, but I want you to absorb it, clone it, breathe it in, identify with it, claim it, become it, and celebrate it. This characteristic of Christians in growing churches belongs to Christ Presbyterian Church as it does to any other church that claims to be the living presence of Jesus Christ in the world today. This characteristic is the one identifiable trait that is common in every Christian church that is experiencing church growth rather than decline today.

It is the characteristic that is tied to the common thread of our two scripture texts for today. It is the captured in the words of Isaiah who said, The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. It is the description of John, the man who was sent from God, [who] came as a witness to testify concerning that light.

If youíve been around church any period of time youíve undoubtedly heard the word ecclesiastical. We are an ecclesiastical body, a church. The Greek word ecclesia [ecclhsia] , literally means a calling out. We are a people called out, with the spirit of God upon us to be witnesses to the light. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus calls Peter out to build the church upon the rock of the living one.

[Matthew 16:17-18] "But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church (ecclesia), and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

When I was called to this church five years ago, I was asked to specialize in evangelism and church growth. The major point that has come from every seminar and workshop on evangelism I have attended is the same: Church growth doesnít happen simply by adding numbers to a congregation. Churches grow because people grow in faith and want to share that growth with others. Bill Easum and Thomas Bandy, two of the best authorities on church growth strategies today write the following:

"The one thing that stands out among Christians in growing churches is that they believe they have been "called out" to form a distinct witness to the birth of a Savior who is Christ the Lord. They witness about Christ, not about their church or their denomination. They see themselves as a community in which the participants all experience a constant connection with Jesus, enjoy "fruits of the spirit" which come from relationship with Jesus, and purposely reach out as the "Body of Christ." With this company of companions, they continually deepen their faith and hope, grow in awareness of self and mission, and share love with complete strangers. Their attitude is always: "Lets bring abundant life to others first, and then we, too will have abundant life." Their strategy is always: First go out among the publics of modern culture to forge new links with Jesus, and then invite people into companionship with the Body of Christ." [William M. Easum and Thomas G. Bandy. Growing Spiritual Redwoods, p. 11].

My sermon title today is LIGHTEN UP! The message of advent is LIGHTEN UP! Drive through Shenandoah Trace, people there know how to LIGHTEN UP their neighborhood. The season when we celebrate the birth of Christ is a time for bringing light to the darkness. It has no meaning if it is simply commercialism, but when those lights are lit to let others know about the birth of Jesus Christ the ecclesia begins to happen.

Another sign of celebrating the birth of Christ is putting up a tree in a special place inside our home where gifts are placed. We LIGHTEN UP that tree and sometimes let it be the only light in a room. The lights we use to celebrate the birth of Christ are simply an echo of the greatest light come to earth, a reflection of the light of Godís love, come to earth. But the lights around our house and in our house mean nothing until the ecclesia begins to happen, the "calling out" to prepare the way of the Lord and spread the Good News among all the people. Our advent prayer is: "Lord let me bring your light to others! Put in my heart the light of your love and I will shine with it for others to see." Everyday of our lives we proclaim Joy to the World because our Lord has come!

Get to know Isaiah and John the Baptist like they were your best friends. What possessed John to prepare the way of the Lord? It wasnít something he did on his own. John felt a divine touch in his life, the nudge of Godís Spirit, calling him out with a divine purpose. God chose John to get others ready to know Christ. Whatever John did, you do it too. Except you donít have to get into eating wild locusts and wearing camelís hair. Do get into this idea of being anointed by God to bring others out of darkness into the light.

Get to know Isaiah, a prophet, a messenger like John, who spoke to everyone in his neighborhood about the coming of the Lord. Isaiah called us to a new life. End oppression, end hatred, end the violence. Heal one another. This is the year of the Lord! LIGHTEN UP! Get out of the darkness of life and live in the Christ light!

The ECCLESIA begins with us when we share the Light of Christ, because the Lord has spoken to us and called us out to LIGHTEN UP THE world with the joy of Christ. Let the ECCLESIA begin!

Amen!

References: William M. Easum and Thomas G. Bandy. Growing Spiritual Redwoods. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1997. Bulletin Insert: (Two Columns) CHURCHES WHERE: THE LIGHT IS FADING are: WHERE THE LIGHT IS SHINING are: Committed to the church Committed to Christ Managing committees Deploying missions Holding offices Doing hands-on-ministries Making decisions Making disciples Trained for membership On a lifelong quest for quality Serving at the church Serving in the world Preoccupied with raising money Preoccupied with rescuing people Doing church work Finding personal fulfillment Retiring from church work Pursuing constant personal growth Surveying internal needs Sensitizing themselves to community needs Eager to know everyone Eager for everyone to know God Loyal to one another Drawn to the unchurched Building faith on information Building faith on experience with Christ Perpetuating a heritage Visioning a future FROM: William M. Easum and Thomas G. Bandy. Growing Spiritual Redwoods. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1997. P. 12.