Sermon title: CAN RELIGION KEEP PEOPLE FROM GOD?
Immanuel Baptist Church – Sunday, December 30, 2018
We live at a time in America
when many people are giving up on church
and even giving up on God.
I don’t need to cite statistics,
because we’re all aware of churches emptying out and closing,
and of the attitudes of people around us.
Some people blame bad experiences
at the hand of other church members,
or at the hand of church leadership.
Some point to scandals among church leaders.
For many years,
pedophiles have put on black robes and white collars,
and have abused little boys and girls with impunity.
Some people are disappointed,
because the things they were taught at church
haven’t helped them cope with real life,
or have actually made their lives worse.
Cultic groups, or churches that abuse,
often impose man-made rules and doctrines
that cause real harm.
Mormon teachings have been used to convince a young woman
to become the 3rd, 4th or 5th wife of a dirty old man.
Jehovah’s Witness teachings have been used
to deny blood transfusions
to thousands of children and adults
who died unnecessarily
because of those false religious beliefs.
Even in Christian churches
with biblical teachings and sound theology,
leaders sometimes abuse authority.
Some male-chauvinist leaders
push women around and abuse them spiritually.
Some in church leadership
have misused their position
to enrich themselves with material possessions.
Some have misused their spiritual authority
to become little dictators in the church.
So, spiritual abuse comes in many shapes and forms.
But whatever may have happened,
when you’ve been abused at church,
the pain you experience
can come between you and God.
That is especially true
when the person who mistreats you or hurts you
is someone you looked up to
as a godly individual.
But rest assured—
and this is the main point of this sermon—
If you have been hurt or treated badly
in a congregation of God’s people,
be assured that God himself understands your pain,
and that God is on your side.
God is not on the side of the spiritual abusers,
no matter what position they occupy,
and no matter what spiritual authority they claim.
When I think of people I’ve known or heard about
who have been treated badly
by religious people who claimed to represent God,
there is one case that stands out
as the worst case of mistreatment.
This particular young man in his early 30’s
was ostracized, ridiculed and falsely accused
of being a rebel against God.
It went so far that people actually called him names
and spit on him—
finally, falsely accusing him to the secular authorities,
who beat him until he bled,
and nailed him to a cross to die.
That was Jesus, of course.
It was religious people
who put our Lord through all of that humiliation and agony.
And that’s why our Lord Jesus
identifies so closely with you
when you have been abused in a church setting.
Besides his own sufferings,
the Lord had the Bible writers
record many other examples of religious abuse
so that we can know
he is on our side when we suffer such mistreatment,
and not on the side of the abusers,
despite their claims to authority.
One example is found in John Chapter 9—
the chapter this morning’s Responsive Reading was taken from.
Over the past year
we’ve been looking at the life and ministry
of our Lord Jesus.
We’ve been going through the Gospels
in chronological order—in the order that events happened.
We’ve been looking at
everything that Christ said or did while on earth.
And that chronological coverage takes us now
to the 9th chapter of the Gospel of John—
where we find an example of hurtful spiritual abuse
by religious authorities.
Jesus has been preaching in Jerusalem,
to the crowds in the Temple courtyards.
And now he has left the Temple
and is walking through the streets of Jerusalem.
John 9:1 begins,
1 As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth.
2 His disciples asked him,
"Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents,
that he was born blind?"
The Jews of that day had a superstitious belief
that a birth defect
like blindness or physical deformity
was the direct result of someone’s sin—
either the parents’ sin,
or a sin committed by the baby in the womb.
It was a false belief,
without any biblical basis.
And it was an unkind and uncharitable belief,
because it meant that the person born with such an infirmity
somehow deserved it.
They viewed it as a just punishment
that the person deserved,
either for his own sin,
or for the sin of the parents.
And so, instead of sympathizing with the afflicted person,
they would look down on them with distaste.
A similar false belief can be found in some churches today.
There are churches today
where sickness is blamed on a lack of faith.
And so, if someone in those churches gets sick,
they have the added discomfort
of being looked down on as lacking in faith.
In actual fact, though,
sickness and death afflict all mankind—
those with faith, and those without faith.
The Apostle Peter’s mother-in-law was sick with a fever.
The Christian disciple Tabitha, also called Dorcas, got sick and died.
The Apostle Paul had a disease he called his “thorn in the flesh.”
Paul spoke of Timothy’s stomach trouble and frequent illnesses.
We’ve all inherited sickness and death
from Adam and Eve.
So, the modern so-called “health and wealth gospel”
is a false teaching.
It iscomparable to that superstition
that prevailed among First Century Jews.
And that Jewish superstition
influenced the thinking of Jesus’ disciples,
until he taught them otherwise.
But, when Jesus answered his disciples’ question,
he focused more on the end result in this case:
the good that would be accomplished
when Jesus healed the man.
In Verse 3,
3 "Neither this man nor his parents sinned,"
"but this happened so that
the work of God might be displayed in his life.
4 As long as it is day,
we must do the work of him who sent me.
Night is coming, when no one can work.
5 While I am in the world,
I am the light of the world."
6 Having said this, he spit on the ground,
made some mud with the saliva,
and put it on the man's eyes.
7 "Go," he told him,
"wash in the Pool of Siloam" (this word means Sent).
So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.
What an amazing miracle!
Not only did the miracle bring blessings
to this young man and his family,
but it also blessed everyone who heard about it,
giving them evidence
that Jesus was the Messiah,
and pointing them to the way of salvation.
But people had mixed reactions.
8 His neighbors
and those who had formerly seen him begging asked,
"Isn't this the same man who used to sit and beg?"
9 Some claimed that he was.
Others said, "No, he only looks like him."
But he himself insisted, "I am the man."
10 "How then were your eyes opened?" they demanded.
11 He replied, "The man they call Jesus
made some mud and put it on my eyes.
He told me to go to Siloam and wash.
So I went and washed, and then I could see."
12 "Where is this man?" they asked him.
"I don't know," he said.
By this time in history the Jewish religion
had been corrupted by the Pharisees and Sadducees
who ran the local synagogues.
And this interfered with many people’s ability
to see the hand of God
in the healings Jesus performed.
13 They brought to the Pharisees
the man who had been blind.
14 Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud
and opened the man's eyes was a Sabbath.
15 Therefore the Pharisees also asked him
how he had received his sight.
"He put mud on my eyes," the man replied,
"and I washed, and now I see."
16 Some of the Pharisees said,
"This man is not from God,
for he does not keep the Sabbath."
But others asked,
"How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?"
So they were divided.
17 Finally they turned again to the blind man,
"What have you to say about him?
It was your eyes he opened."
The man replied, "He is a prophet."
So, the young man who had been born blind put his faith in Jesus.
But the other Jews were having a harder time with that.
18 The Jews still did not believe
that he had been blind and had received his sight
until they sent for the man's parents.
19 "Is this your son?" they asked.
"Is this the one you say was born blind?
How is it that now he can see?"
20 "We know he is our son," the parents answered,
"and we know he was born blind.
21 But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes,
we don't know.
Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself."
Commentators say that the courts of that era
would recognize the testimony of a boy
who had reached the age of 13.
So, the fact that this man’s parents were both still alive
in that era when people died young,
and that were called in to testify—
together with their response that he was “of age”
and could “speak for himself”—
all of this indicates he was probably
in his early 20’s or an older teenager.
But, next, notice how intimidated the parents were
by the authoritarian religious leaders
who controlled the local synagogue:
22 His parents said this
because they were afraid of the Jews,
for already the Jews had decided
that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ
would be put out of the synagogue.
23 That was why his parents said,
"He is of age; ask him."
24 A second time they summoned the man
who had been blind.
"Give glory to God," they said.
"We know this man is a sinner."
25 He replied,
"Whether he is a sinner or not, I don't know.
One thing I do know.
I was blind but now I see!"
26 Then they asked him,
"What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?"
27 He answered,
"I have told you already and you did not listen.
Why do you want to hear it again?
Do you want to become his disciples, too?"
28 Then they hurled insults at him and said,
"You are this fellow's disciple!
We are disciples of Moses!
29 We know that God spoke to Moses,
but as for this fellow,
we don't even know where he comes from."
But the young man stood firm
in his new-found faith in Jesus.
He didn’t yet know much about Jesus,
but he boldly defended him from these attacks.
30 The man answered, "Now that is remarkable!
You don't know where he comes from,
yet he opened my eyes.
31 We know that God does not listen to sinners.
He listens to the godly man who does his will.
32 Nobody has ever heard of
opening the eyes of a man born blind.
33 If this man were not from God,
he could do nothing."
34 To this they replied,
"You were steeped in sin at birth;
how dare you lecture us!"
And they threw him out.
35 Jesus heard that they had thrown him out,
and when he found him, he said,
"Do you believe in the Son of Man?"
36 "Who is he, sir?" the man asked.
"Tell me so that I may believe in him."
37 Jesus said, "You have now seen him;
in fact, he is the one speaking with you."
38 Then the man said,
"Lord, I believe,"
and he worshiped him.
39 Jesus said,
"For judgment I have come into this world,
so that the blind will see
and those who see will become blind."
40 Some Pharisees who were with him
heard him say this and asked,
"What? Are we blind too?"
41 Jesus said,
"If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see,
your guilt remains.”
This account helps us appreciate
that our God is fully aware
how often he is misrepresented
by men in religious authority.
It happened back then in Jewish synagogues,
but it also happens today in some Christian churches.
The Apostle Paul listed the dangers he faced
as he ministered from church to church,
in 2nd Corinthians 11:26,
and, along with “danger from bandits,”
he wrote that he was
“in danger from false brothers.”
And if we turn to 3rd John,
the tiny half-page letter from the Apostle John
that is found at the back of our Bibles
just before Jude and Revelation,
we’ll see that there were already churches in the First Century
where un-Christ-like leaders had taken control.
In his Third Letter, John says this, beginning with Verse 9:
9 I wrote to the church,
who loves to be first,
will have nothing to do with us.
10 So if I come,
I will call attention to what he is doing,
gossiping maliciously about us.
Not satisfied with that,
he refuses to welcome the brothers.
He also stops those who want to do so
and puts them out of the church.
John wrote this letter to his friend Gaius,
who was apparently a member of the church
that Diotrephes dominated so abusively.
It sounds like Diotrephes may have refused to read to the church
a letter John had written to the whole church.
Instead, he said bad things about John.
And Diotrephes was even expelling good Christians from the church.
So, John told his friend Gaius
that he would do something about Diotrephes
when he got there.
Now, some of the hurts that people suffer at church
are caused by honest misunderstandings
or innocent human weakness.
A loving and caring student teacher
was greeting young childrenas they entered the classroom.
On little girl mumbled something to her,
and the teacher responded sweetly, “That’s nice, dear”—
at which the little girl immediately burst into tears.
Then the teacher discovered the girl had said,
“My hamster died,”
and was hurt when the teacher responded, “That’s nice.”
As adults at church we, too, can be similarly hurt
when others in the church body—maybe even the pastor—
only half listen to us
or respond inappropriately to our needs.
But, as adults, we can remind ourselves
that our fellow church members—even the leadership—
are frail humans like ourselves,
and have human failings.
I think of the occasion
when the Apostle Paul had to publicly correct the Apostle Peter
after Peter gave in to the pressure of Judaizers in the church
and separated himself from Gentile believers.
Imagine if you had been one of those new Gentile believers!
Your feelings would certainly have been hurt
when Peter left your table
to go sit with Jewish believers,
and quit eating with you.
Peter was wrong, of course.
And he straightened up later,
showing that he listened to the correction he received from Paul.
So, we don’t want to let the sins of our brothers and sisters
cause us to stumble in our walk with God.
But there are many grievous wrongs
done to people in churches—
sometimes by the leadership—
that are really inexcusable.
And God recognizes that and talks about it in the Bible.
Evangelist Billy Graham once said,
"A counterfeit Christian, singlehandedly,
can do more
to retard the progress of the Church
than a dozen saints can do to forward it."
Religion has been used as a mask
for evil pedophiles to prey on young boys and girls.
Religion has been used as a tool
by evil impostors exploiting poor people
by taking their money on false pretenses.
But whether we have been hurt
by such malicious false brothers,
or whether the harm was done to us
by genuine Christians
who showed their immaturity
and that the old sin-nature was still with them,
for our own sake,
we need to look beyond them
and the hurt they caused us.
We need to look beyond them,
and fix our eyes on Jesus.
Hebrews 12, Verses 2 & 3 says,
2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus,
the author and perfecter of our faith,
who for the joy set before him
endured the cross,
scorning its shame,
and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
3 Consider him
who endured such opposition from sinful men,
so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.