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Streams of Living Water: The Evangelical Stream

March 16, 2008

John 3:16

Today, we continue the sermon series Steams of Living Water. We come this week to the stream of living water that is most familiar to us: the evangelical stream. One of the staff members asked me if I had planned the series to work out this way. I did plan to discuss the evangelical stream on Palm Sunday.

After I preached the first sermon in this series, a good friend of mine sent me a note, tracing the Tyger River to the Atlantic Ocean in some detail. I want to share this note with you.

There are actually three Tyger Rivers: the North, the South, and the Middle. Their headwaters are up in or near the mountains of Greenville and Spartanburg Counties. The North and Middle Tyger come together down near Roebuck, not too far from Moore, SC. These combined waters retain the name North Tyger, which ultimately joins with the South Tyger. Their confluence is down near Crab Apple Hill, not too far from Walnut Grove in Spartanburg County. Thereafter, it is known simply as “Tyger River.” Some of us actually refer to it as “The Full Tyger River.”

Leaving Walnut Grove, the Tyger flows in a generally southeast direction through the Santee National Forest, past Rose Hill Plantation where Fairforest Creek flows into it. Thereafter, the Tyger flows into the much larger Broad River, down near Shelton. [The Broad River is actually the boundary line between Union, Chester, and Fairfield Counties at this location.]

Continuing on, the Broad flows down to Columbia where it comes together with the more pristine waters of the Saluda River, thus forming the Congaree River. The Congaree flows through the Congaree Swamp and joins the Wateree River down near Ft. Motte, forming the Santee River. The Santee flows through Lakes Marion and Moultrie, then down through Santee Swamp and through Williamsburg, Berkeley, and Georgetown Counties. Not too far from its final destination, the Santee branches into the North Santee River and the South Santee River, both of which flow gracefully into the Atlantic Ocean not too far north of McClellanville, SC.

After reading this description, we could assume that the Tyger River forms the Atlantic Ocean. That is how it sounds to me. Why would I say such a thing?

The evangelical stream is the one we know best. Let me be figurative. As Baptists, we have been dipped, dunked, and immersed in the evangelical stream. We have a tendency to believe that this most familiar stream is the only stream. That is somewhat equivalent to thinking that the Tyger River forms the Atlantic Ocean. This is not the only stream. It does not make the whole of Christendom. It is important for us to keep in mind that the evangelical stream is simply one part.

I also planned the series so that I would address this evangelical stream not only on Palm Sunday, but also on March 16. If we were to write that date using numerals, we would write 3-16-08. Max Lucado has written a book entitled 3:16. He says that America has been obsessed with numbers that represent terror, such as 9-11. We have been obsessed with numbers that represent our national fears, numbers that divide us, numbers that lead us to be cautious and suspicious, numbers that even cultivate prejudice and hate. Lucado proposes that we need a new set of numbers, 3:16. He is not talking about March 16 in the way that 9-11 refers to September 11. He is talking, of course, about Scripture that is very familiar to us, John 3:16. His entire book is a commentary on that single verse, which is very significant in this evangelical stream.

We sometimes call John 3:16, our text for today, the gospel in a nutshell. When I learned it as a child, I memorized it from the King James Version. Perhaps you did, too. I invite you to say it with me. Enough of us know it by heart. Maybe the rest of you can learn it. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” On this day, Palm Sunday, 3-16, we turn to this great passage of Scripture to be reminded of this particular stream of living water, the evangelical stream. We need to consider this verse carefully.

Because we know this stream of living water best, we need to look not only at its positive attributes, but also at the pitfalls.

In preparation for this message, I read some of the history of the ministry of Dr. Billy Graham. I read with great interest about a time in 1949 when he and his team, all very young men at the time, were preparing for a crusade in Modesto, California. Dr. Graham asked the members of his team – Cliff Barrow, George Beverly Shay, and others – to go away separately for an hour and ponder the causes of the undoing of so many other evangelistic ministries. After an hour, these men gathered and identified areas where an evangelistic ministry, such as theirs, might fall into difficulty.

The first pitfall they identified involved money. They agreed that money can undo an evangelistic ministry. How many times have we seen greed entering into the course of this ministry, side-tracking it, and even taking it completely away from what God intends? These men made a decision to be very careful in their accounting and to refrain from taking exorbitant salaries. They would be good stewards of what God provided for their evangelistic work.

A second pitfall they identified as a factor that takes this type of ministry off track was sexual temptation. When evangelists become intoxicated with their own sense of power, they are susceptible to sexual temptation. Dr. Graham made a determination that he would never eat a meal with a woman alone and never travel with a woman alone, even a member of his team. In addition, he determined that whenever he was with a woman, his wife would be present.

Another area they identified as a pitfall was evangelistic campaigns that tended to alienate main-line churches. They decided to include other churches in their evangelistic procedures. They would be supportive and considerate of other churches, never criticizing what they were doing. They would also seek companions along the journey, regarding their fellow ministers as colleagues.

Identifying the pitfalls early in their evangelistic ministry has helped in Dr. Graham’s work.

As we go through this sermon today, I want us to be not only be aware of the strengths of this evangelical stream, but also aware of the pitfalls.

Pay attention, just for a moment, to the structure of the Sanctuary. It reminds us of this evangelical stream within the Christian faith. Look at this table, which we call the Lord’s Table. The inscription on the front reads, “This Do in Remembrance of Me.” We gather at that table to celebrate one of our two ordinances: the Lord’s Supper. On that table, you see an open Bible. We believe that God’s Word is central to our faith and thought. God’s Word is open. We are people of the Book, believers who gather each week around the Word of God. On either side of the Bible is a candle, which is symbolic. Jesus Christ is the light of the world, and he calls us to be the light of the world. Above the table, the Bible, and the candles, you see the pulpit, sometimes referred to as a sacred desk. This pulpit is the place where the Word of God is proclaimed in this Sanctuary. All of those who stand here understand the responsibility that we have to speak God’s Word.

A young seminarian asked me one time when I got over my nervousness before I preached. That just has not happened yet. I have butterflies every time I preach. They come much later now, usually on the last note of the choir’s anthem. I still feel that surge of anxiety because this responsibility is one I do not take for granted. I do not know how anyone can do this work without an abiding sense of humility.

Beyond the pulpit, you see the baptistry, which is like a window. That window allows us to see a picture that is worth a thousand words. Next Sunday at both services, that window will be open. I will baptize new Christians during each service next Sunday morning. An ancient tradition of the church was to perform all baptisms on Easter Sunday morning. Baptism is the picture of what Christ has done in human life. It is our second ordinance. “We are buried with Christ in baptism and raised to walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

Above the baptistry, you see the cross, the cross that is central to our faith. It reminds us always of the death, the burial, and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. In this evangelical stream, the Word of God is very important. We trace our heritage, back not only to the early church, but also back to the great reformers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Think of Martin Luther, for example, a scholar who had studied the Bible. He challenged the organized church of his day, believing that the message of the Bible was not to be kept in academic circles. The message of the Bible was not to be cloistered within the church. It was to be available to all people. Luther thought that ordinary people ought to have access to the Word of God. The church had essentially removed the reading of Scripture from common people. Scriptures were written in languages most people could not read. Even worship services were conducted in Latin, which most people could not understand. Martin Luther, considered a traitor and convicted of heresy because of his stand, made a remarkable statement: “I have been taken captive by the Word of God. Here I stand. I can do no other.”

I remember when I was in Vacation Bible School as a boy. We used to sing a song, “Oh, the B-I-B-L-E! Yes, that’s the book for me. I stand alone on the Word of God, the B-I-B-L-E.” Maybe you remember that song, too. My parents and grandparents took that song to heart and wanted me to memorize Scripture. I commend it to you. If you have not made it a practice to memorize Scripture, I would suggest that you try to memorize one verse a week. There is nothing quite like having Scripture engraved on your heart. Learning Scripture by heart means that you write the verses “on the tablets of your heart.” Only then can you understand the teaching of the psalmist, “Thy word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against Thee” (Psalm 119:11).

We believe that the Bible, as God’s revealed Word inspired by the Holy Spirit, is the proclamation that God’s Word becomes very real. The writer of Hebrews says that it “is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even the deepest parts of the human spirit” (Hebrews 4:12). We can translate that passage to mean that God’s Word is living and active like a surgeon’s scalpel, opening us up to the healing power of God.

What is the pitfall in believing that the Word of God is important? The pitfall is that we might start worshipping the Bible instead of worshipping the God and the Christ that the Bible proclaims. Some say that the Baptist church has a paper pope, meaning that we worship the Bible, treating the Bible itself as the object of worship. The Bible directs us to Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God “made flesh…full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). We need to be cautious about that pitfall and avoid it.

The second characteristic of this evangelical stream of living water is the faithful proclamation of God’s Word. I am not talking just about preaching. In fact, preaching is really secondary to the faithful proclamation of God’s Word. In this evangelical stream, proclamation is not just a task for those who are ordained; proclamation is the responsibility of every Christian. We have an obligation to share with others what Jesus Christ has done in our lives.

My favorite definition of evangelism is “one hungry person telling another hungry person where they found something to eat.” It is simply giving the bread of life, sharing the bread of life, which is the Word of God, with other people.

Jesus himself identified the pitfall. He said, “From the beginning until now, there have been those who have done violence to the gospel and the violent bear it buried away.” What does it mean to do violence to the gospel? Euangelion, the Greek word for gospel, means “good news.” Sometimes the way people present this good news becomes very bad news. They treat it as if people should not have a choice, as if they ought to be forced into believing. Charlemagne, the emperor of the holy Roman empire, decided that everyone in his army should be a Christian. He sent his men into the middle of a river and had a priest stand on the bank and say the words of institution for baptism, baptizing his entire army while they marched through the water. What kind of choice is that? You have all heard of the Spanish Inquisition, a time when the church was so vehement in its persecution of those who did not follow what it considered to be right doctrine. The church actually tortured and executed fellow Christians.

In my own lifetime, I have seen what amounted to Baptist Inquisitions, times when Baptists turned on each other with a vengeance. Evangelism is important, but the kind that is most effective for most of us is what I would call relationship evangelism. It simply means being in relationship with other people and sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with them, not only in word but also in deed. Sometimes in this business of proclamation, the sermon we preach is one without words. It is a sermon we preach by the way we act, the way we live our lives.

This ministry of proclamation has some important elements. One is a call to conversion. We are not at all timid about that. We believe that Jesus Christ can change lives and issue a call for people to accept Christ in every service of worship. The pitfall is one of our favorite doctrines: “Once saved, always saved.” I believe that once Jesus Christ saves us from our sins, we have a security as believers. Is saying “Once saved, always saved” a little bit like saying, “Once bathed, always bathed”? A bath forty years ago has probably worn off by now.

Many people believe something similar about their conversion to Christ. I have learned in my own life that in a sense I need to experience Christ anew, every single day. It is the reason daily devotions are so important to me. I do not think that Christ is through with me. Paul says, “He who began a good work in you will continue it on to completion” (Philippians 1:6). We have to be open to the fact that Christ continues to work in our lives. We do not need to get blocked in by this doctrine of the security of the believer and think for one minute that we do not need to change. We all do.

A second element in this ministry of proclamation is our great mission imperative. We believe in the Great Commission. If you read Matthew 28:19-20 carefully, you see that God has asked us to go into the entire world to make disciples. There, we come to another pitfall. Sometimes, in our evangelical fervor, we are so intent on helping people come into the Kingdom and experience this new birth that we fail to realize that afterwards, they need nurturing. What happens if a mother gives birth and then abandons her child? That child will not grow and develop unless someone rescues the child. Something similar to that happens to some people who come into the Kingdom of Christ. They are birthed into the Kingdom, but nobody takes the time to nurture them, to help them grow, develop, and become what Christ wants them to be. The result is that we have Christians who are retarded spiritually. Though they have been brought into the Kingdom, they have experienced no growth. As a church, we have the responsibility, not only to bring them into the Kingdom, but also to make disciples.

A third element in proclamation is biblical study. Sometimes we Baptists have been anti-intellectual, saying, “You do not need to go to seminary and study with those professors. You just need to have the Holy Spirit. You need to preach because the Spirit leads you.” The Scriptures call us to be students. They call us to study: “Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (II Timothy 2:15). Studying the Bible is one of our tasks. If we are going to be responsible Christians, we must be prepared. I do not know everything about the Bible though I have been almost a life-long student of God’s Word. One of the joys of living the Christian life is the constant ability to continue to learn and grow. You will notice that when you come to Morningside, I never ask you to check your brains at the door. I do not ask you to listen to me and not think for yourself. What happened in the town of Berea when Paul went there to minister was significant. The book of Acts says that following Paul’s preaching there, the people went home and examined the Scriptures themselves to see if he was correct. Some of you do that very well. You hear me say something, then examine the Scriptures. You might call or e-mail me and ask questions. That helps us all stay on the right track.

A fourth important element in proclamation is sound doctrine. The pitfall here centers on remembering what the essentials are and what the peripherals are. In the essentials, we need to be in agreement. The essentials are that Jesus Christ is Lord. Jesus, the man of Nazareth born in Bethlehem, the child of Mary and foster child of Joseph, is the Christ. He is the anointed one, the one prophesied about in the Old Testament. He is Lord, Yahweh. He is God. He is the divine revelation of God in human form. Many of the issues we squabble about are the peripherals. It is essential that we make that distinction.

The two elements in “Streams of Living Water: The Evangelical Stream” I have discussed in some detail today are the centrality of God’s Word and proclamation. The third element is our focus on Jesus. Here on Palm Sunday, we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Riding a donkey down the Mount of Olives, he paused to weep over the city of Jerusalem, the city of peace. Jesus wept because the city of peace “did not know the things that made for peace,” he said (Luke 19:41). I wonder if he would weep over New York. What about Baghdad? Los Angeles? Cape Town? I wonder if Jesus would weep over Spartanburg. I think so. You only have to read the headlines of the newspaper to know that we do not know the things that make for peace.

As Jesus entered the city, a crowd waved palm branches and shouted, “Hosanna!” Some even spread their garments on the pavement. He was quite a celebrity. Such honor! My goodness, did those people misunderstand! By Friday, many of those same people shouting “Hosanna!” on the previous Sunday were shouting “Crucify him!”

Sometimes I ask myself, Who required that our Lord go to the cross? Did God require that His Son die on the cross? Did the Roman leaders – Pilate and Herod – require it? Did the Jewish leaders – Caiaphas and Annas require it? The best answer is that we required it. We are part of the mob, shouting, “Crucify him!” I am not sure we would have believed how much Jesus loved us if he had not loved us to death. Jesus did love us to death.

This week, we remember his passion. Tonight, we will celebrate Christian love in our Agape service, which is very much like a Moravian Love Feast with a Baptist distinctive. On Thursday night, we will gather here around this table to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. On Good Friday at noon, we will assemble here beneath the cross and remember the sacrifice of Jesus. Next Sunday, we will come to this place with rejoicing. We will observe baptism in both services, celebrating with those who have become new Christians and making a commitment to nurture them in faith.

We have so much to be grateful for in terms of this evangelical stream. It has so much strength. We must be mindful of the pitfalls, however, so that we can more fully be the people God has called us to be.

© 2008 Kirk H. Neely

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