I am currently on my thirteenth address for my lifetime. I would like to keep this one for a while, but thirteen addresses reveals that I’ve moved around a lot. I have lived in Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, New Jersey, and now Virginia. Each time I have moved, I have marveled at the new location – it’s geographic and architectural distinctions, it’s proximity to attractions and events, it’s unique beauty that is unlike any other place in the world. And then, life happens. New roads that are so unfamiliar and strange, bursting my eyes with all kinds of new details become replaced by well-worn trails that I can travel practically without thinking. The newness wears off and the beauty I marveled at when I first moved fades into a humdrum of normalcy.
My family moved to Houston, TX, during the summer just before I started high school. I never once made it to AstroWorld before that Six Flags park was closed and torn down. Houston, like any major city, has a bevy of museums and sites worth seeing. Even now, it would probably take a Google search for me to be able to identify them for you. I never darkened their doors in the four years before moving away for college.
Like many of you, there are places in the world I would love to visit. Scotland, Ireland, and Australia are all places that I would like to go. I was a history major in college, and I’m particularly fascinated now by the history of the peoples that populated the Western Hemisphere prior to Columbus’s European discovery of the Americas. I would like to visit the Incan Machu Picchu, unknown to the Spanish Conquistadors, and therefore one of the few native American sites left intact. Here in the States, I’d love to see the Grand Canyon, witness a rupture of Old Faithful, visit Mount Rushmore, and attend a Broadway play in New York with Emily. One day, having never been myself, I would love to take our kids to DisneyWorld.
Lots of things to go and do. Lots of dreaming of the things that are “out there.” Out there is full of wonder. It is new, different, unexplored, and therefore exciting. When we lived in New Jersey, we lived only 45 minutes from Philadelphia. Yet, we never went to see the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, or Valley Forge. We never walked up the steps of the Rocky-famed Philadelphia Museum of Art, though we talked about it a few times. We did visit the zoo, but only because some friends insisted we go with them. A closer, free zoo never got on our to-do list. Because they were things that were nearby, we assumed that we would always be able to go there and do that, so we just never did. Now I wish we’d taken the hour drive to Cape May, New Jersey, just to be able to say we’d been there. Or the two hours to New York City for a day of exploration there. It’s easier to plan something that requires a full weekend or week’s vacation than just a one-day jaunt we can do anytime we decided to.
When we first moved there, we wondered at the high stalks of corn that filled the fields at every intersection, making driving and turning especially difficult. But as the years passed, that became old hat and more of a frustration that something of interest and excitement.
Familiarity truly does breed contempt. We often hear of those who are frustrated with their life or their situation and just want to “get away” and go some place new. For some reason we imagine that something new will be inherently different from the old and familiar that we have been around. But after a few days or weeks or years, the new becomes old and the desire to move on strikes again.
Luke spent two chapters telling Theophilus about the events surrounding the births of John the Baptist and Jesus. In the third chapter of his Gospel, Luke recounted the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan as well as Jesus’ genealogy back to Adam. In Luke 4, Jesus went out into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights where he was accosted by all kinds of temptations from the devil. Finishing victoriously, he returned to Nazareth. And that is where we have been for the last five weeks, and where we still are today. In Nazareth, at the synagogue, where Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah and announced the purposes of the Messiah and declared them fulfilled.
The townsfolk were truly taken with Jesus. Luke recorded that they, “marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth.” They were highly impressed with what he was saying. And if they had stopped there, then things might have gone well for Nazareth in the ministry of Jesus. However, they did not stop there. They went on: “Is not this Joseph’s son?” they asked. And that was a loaded question. This Jesus was someone they knew. They had pinched his cheeks as a young boy. They had taught him and played games with him. They had watched him grow and mature from a knee-high preschooler into a productive carpenter next to his father. They knew him. He was familiar. And that familiarity was their downfall. In a matter of a few verses they went from being astounded at him to being eager to cast him off the side of a mountain to his death. It was a dramatic turn; a dramatic rejection of the one who had just proclaimed himself to be their Messiah. Familiarity bred contempt among those who lived in Nazareth.
Familiarity does this to us. It causes us to both make assumptions and accept those assumptions as the truth, however accurate or inaccurate they really are. The townspeople in Nazareth assumed that Jesus was their homeboy – in every slangish definition of the word. They assumed that Jesus would look after his own first. He would heal there first. He would bring prosperity and God’s kingdom first to Nazareth, because that was His home. They thought they knew him, and they started making plans based on what they believed they knew.
People are not so different today. We make assumptions based on what we think we know about what we think is familiar all of the time. We drive to the store or to work or to school the same way every day, assuming the roads are open and clear, because they usually are. Only, sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes there has been an accident or a water line has broken or the road needs repairs and construction crews have closed it down. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out as we have planned it.
You see, we live in a day and an age when the people of our country assume they know Christianity. We eagerly proclaim that we are a Christian nation, that even our Constitution was founded on Christian principles – even though many of the Founders tended to Deism, and could not be said to be true Christians. Thomas Jefferson cut out portions of the Bible he didn’t like, creating his own set of Scriptures. He cut out about a third of the New Testament out of disagreement with it.
Churches can be found in every town, and, in some towns, they can be found on every street corner. Sometimes even multiple churches on each street corner. The church I served in New Jersey was literally across the street from another church of a different theological background. The two churches even had the same sign out front – only with a different denomination listed in the middle of the church’s name.
I think Christianity has become too familiar in America at large. It is so familiar that our nation is growing to hold Christianity in a kind of contempt. They think,”Oh, it’s just the church. There is nothing new or exciting there.” However, those Eastern religions and belief systems, Wicca, Scientology, Islam – those things are unfamiliar. And, like Scotland or Machu Picchu to me, the unfamiliar is therefore exciting. It is enticing. We are a people who constantly crave the new, the different, and the distinguishing. We do it with cars, with homes, with paint colors, with clothing choices. My generation does it with the cell phones they carry and the apps they use on them. Why not do it with their religion?
We have a difficult task as believers of overcoming a culture that is too familiar with a Christ and Christianity they assume that they know. If we are to introduce them to Christ, we have to show them who Christ is not. Because, like the people in Nazareth in Luke 4, our culture assumes they know what Christianity is all about.
After all, they have learned that Christianity is all about being greedy. For a working generation that grew up either around or just after Jim Bakker’s televangelism days, Christians peddling for money to line their own pockets is an assumption, and not the aberration it should be. Society looks at us and assumes that what we are after is a larger building with a bigger gymnasium, a fancier organ or praise band, a larger screen with the latest computers running the visuals, a program of entertainment for every family member, and a coffee pot in every room. They assume that we are greedy to feed the desires of our country club members. And many churches give credence to that assumption.
Never mind that Christ said that the love of money was the root of all evil, and that his advice to the rich young ruler was to sell all of his possessions, give everything away, then come and follow him. That’s not the Christ that the world sees lived out each and every day.
They assume that Christianity is all about being self-centered. Our emphasis is always on making sure that “I” have “my” “personal relationship” with God so that “I” can have “my mansion” in God’s heaven, and that “I” can spend all of eternity with “my family” and “my friends.” Beyond this, they see churches that are only about increasing their numbers – how many attend, how many are saved, how many are baptized, how many are attending Bible study and Sunday school, how big the offering was last week. They assume that we are only interested in how they and their membership can benefit us. “Oh, we’d love to have their tithe!”
Never mind that Jesus said in John 15:13 that the greatest love anyone could have was to lay down his life for a friend. Never mind that Jesus said that the one who would be the greatest had to be the least, and that all of the world’s social hierarchies would be turned upside down. Never mind that Jesus emphasized selfless giving over selfish receiving. That’s not the Christ that the world sees lived out every day. That’s not the Christ with which they have become familiar and built their assumptions upon.
The world instead learns of a Christ that is all about sexual addiction. Priests abusing children. Pastors having affairs with members of their flocks. An obsession with how, when, and with whom it is appropriate for someone to have sex. Certainly, God makes it clear how what is and is not appropriate. But the world does not see a church that is unified on this. They do not see a church that lives and practices these things any different then their non-churched friends do. The stories of sexual promiscuity and abuse within the church and by her leaders and members far outshine stories of humble saints faithfully serving their communities – like the Lottie Moons and Mother Teresa’s of the world.
The world learns that Christ and the church are all about legalism and rule setting. They have learned that the church is all about telling what one can’t do. No dancing. No smoking. No drinking. No TV watching. No R movies. No short hair on women and no long hair on men. The church has given rules about everything from what clothes should be worn (or, more often, not worn) to what kind of music someone can like, listen to, and worship through.
Never mind that Christ himself proclaimed that the truth would set us free, not bind us. And that it is for freedom that we have been set free from sin and death. Never mind that Jesus himself freed his followers from keeping many of the rules of the old covenant like what foods are clean and unclean. He declared to Peter that all foods were clean and good for His followers to eat.
Most of all, the world has learned that Christ, the church, and Christians are about hypocrisy. We preach one thing and do another. We preach against divorce, but our divorce rates are either roughly the same or actually higher than the world’s. We preach forgiveness and yet we condemn those who are not like us. We preach grace and yet demand that the world be better, healed, and redeemed before coming to us. We preach purity and yet our leaders live in promiscuity. We preach sacrifice, but act like Ananias and Sapphira, keeping a small (or not so small) portion for ourselves in an attempt to protect our own interests.
This is the church and the Christian faith that the world thinks it knows. Like the Nazareth townspeople thought they knew Jesus and what He would offer to them. But just because something or someone is familiar, it does not mean that our views and assumptions are correct. Nazareth was wrong about Jesus. They rejected Him – their very own who happened to also be the Son of God. America is largely wrong about the church. What it believes is familiar is not at all familiar. What it thinks is boring and uninteresting is in fact thrilling and life changing.
We have a significant and difficult task of living so well our faith that we can counter these wrong assumptions and draw people into the church by the help of the Holy Spirit. But this change, this challenge begins with each of us. We have to demonstrate a church, a faith, a fellowship, a Body that is different from what our society thinks it knows about us. We have to clearly live in such a way that they can see what we are really about. Not the legalism and hypocrisy that so many non-Christians assume is the norm, but the true religion that Jesus described in his purpose statement from Isaiah 61. Religion that loves God, loves our neighbor as ourselves, cares for the poor, the widow, the orphaned, the imprisoned, the oppressed, and the downtrodden of the world.
It is not enough to throw our money at the problem. It is not enough merely to tell others about the truth. We have to show them. We have to live this truth out ourselves. And it is up to me. And it is up to you. We must each do our part so that our Body can function well and we can have the hope of having a fulfilling ministry beyond our own circle. Otherwise, we will continue to get the response from non-Christians that we have been getting: apathy or outright antagonism. They will continue to operate on their assumptions in the same way that the townspeople of Nazareth operated on their assumptions of Jesus.
The center of the church has been shifting consistently westward. From Jerusalem, the center of the church theologically and actively moved to Rome. From Rome, it moved into Germany and western Europe with the rise of Protestantism. For the last century, America has been predominant in the theological and missiological development and work of the church. But that is ending, and the center is moving once again. Now it is moving southward – to places like Africa. And further west to the Far East – in places in South Korea and the Philippines.
If we are to honor the Body of Christ and play our continuing role in the life of the church – even if its center does move away – we must step up and challenge our society’s assumptions about what it means to be a church. We must buck the trend of what people have come to expect of churches. We must show that Jesus does not just prosper hypocrites, but offers true transformation into new creatures.
This we must do before society takes us to a cliff and threatens to cast us over. When they do, we who are saved will be safe. But what will become of them?