This sermon makes use of material placed on line by Dr Chris Ritter, for which I am grateful. You can find this here.
IntroductionOnly last weekend, we celebrated the most startling event in human history: Jesus Christ died and then rose from the dead, so that by trusting in him we can be reconciled with God the Father. Through Christ we can experience new birth and the transformation of our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The resurrection brings hope to the world. This message of hope spread out from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Countless thousands down the ages have discovered that hope in Christ. People today are still discovering Jesus for themselves.
But things seem not to be as rosy as they were . . .
The graph shows the membership of the Methodist church in Great Britain and Northern Ireland from its inception up to modern times. We see almost continual growth until we reach the twentieth century—and then something changes. Thereafter we see almost constant decline. Of course, this picture holds true not only for the Methodist church. Other denominations are also experiencing decline.
Globally, the picture is not quite so gloomy; the kingdom of God is still growing. Even in our land, there are growing churches. For the most part they are charismatic evangelical churches with in-house team leadership—a very different model from the one we're used to as Methodists.
But the outlook for the Methodist church seems bleak. Is this what Jesus died and rose again for? Is there any hope for this once great denomination? The passage we heard from Isaiah encourages us to believe that there may be.
Original MeaningThe first part of our reading (50:10-11) contains an exhortation and a warning. The people were living in dark times. They were in exile, far from their home. Perhaps they saw no possibility of change. But God speaks to them through his prophet.
Let's begin with the exhortation. Paraphrasing, God says, all you who still believe in me—even though you are in captivity, all of you who are still trying to keep my ways—even though everything seems to be impenetrably dark: trust me! Rely on me! I have all this in hand!
Then we have a warning, which is quite a serious one. God told the people that they could not substitute other things for real faith in God. They could not engineer their own way out of darkness. It seems that God says, you can attempt that if you like but it will do you no good and I will have no part in it; that course ends only in disaster.
So God was saying to them, I am your only hope. Trust in me.
In the second part of our reading (51:1-3), God goes on to back up his exhortation with evidence. “Look to the rock from which you were cut, and to the quarry from which you were hewn.” He says, look what I did with Abraham and Sarah. He was one man, they were one barren couple, and I made your entire nation from them. Look at the evidence: I did it before, and I can do it again! I can restore you to your land and your land can flourish again.
Both parts of this reading begin with God addressing the faithful: those who fear the LORD, who are obedient, who pursue righteousness, who seek the LORD. The encouragement to trust is emphasised for them because Abraham was like that too. Genesis 15:6 says of Abraham that he “believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”
Now, we know Abraham wasn't perfect. He took his eye off the ball a few times. He even tried to lend God a hand to fulfil the promise of an heir—and we still see trouble in the world that stems from that. But Abraham trusted in God, and God was true to his promise.
And God was saying to these people in exile, do what Abraham did: trust me, and I will do for you what I promise, just as I did for Abraham—but please don't try to do it your own way!
Application for TodayLooking again at the graph, these are dark days indeed. In 1906, we had a membership of over 800 thousand. Today, we have fewer than 202 thousand and 69% of them are over 65 years of age. Where did we go wrong?
Here are some words penned by John Wesley.
"I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast . . . the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out. What was their fundamental doctrine? That the Bible is the whole and sole rule both of Christian faith and practice."
I've been a Christian for 45 years but only a Methodist for about five. I've met some wonderful, saintly Methodist men and women, but I've also wondered where many others really stand in their faith. I've been amazed at the lack of Bible knowledge and understanding I've found. If we don't know our Bible, how do we know what we believe? I don't mean to criticise, merely to make that observation.
I'm aware that people have been saying at conference for years now that change is needed – and that's clear from the graph – but I see little change happening. Is change possible? Can we recover, and reverse this graph?
God is good at new beginnings!
I believe God wants to say to us, “Look to the rock from which you were cut, and to the quarry from which you were hewn.” We could look back to Abraham and see what God did through him but, perhaps more relevantly for us, we can look back to John Wesley and see what God did through him.
We need to look at the practices the movement was founded on and reintroduce some of them. What happened to class meetings, for example, where Methodists met to study the Bible? Churches that are growing are still doing some of those things, and the Bible is central to their faith. I know times have changed, but the message hasn't, and God hasn't, and, actually, people are not really all that different now.
“Look to the rock from which you were cut.” This wouldn't be the first time Methodist people have taken stock and returned to basics.
At the Liverpool conference of 1820, only 29 years after the death of John Wesley, people were deeply concerned that in the space of only one year the Methodist movement had lost 4688 members. In terms of membership, that's like loosing our entire circuit nearly seven times over. If we add in the community roll numbers, it's like losing everyone almost twice over.
Back in 1820, nationally, there were more Methodists than there are today! They were concerned at losing 4688 people. If they were concerned and determined to do something about it, shouldn't we be?
So what did they do? Well, they looked to the rock from which they were cut.
They agreed that the problem was spiritual, not societal, and they passed 31 resolutions to put their house in order. You'll be relieved to hear we are not going to examine them all in detail. We can summarise them like this:
- The preachers agreed to seek personal renewal. They recommitted themselves to personal devotion to God, to mission and discipleship. They prayed for spiritual gifts to empower their ministry, and recommitted to study for the good of their work.
- They agreed to renew their preaching, focussing on the vital doctrines of the faith, presented in an evangelistic, experiential and zealous manner. Their preaching would be orthodox, practical and would call for a response. They would take the gospel to the people rather than expecting the people to come to the gospel.
- They renewed their commitment to prayer and fasting.
- They agreed to plant new classes where there was no existing witness.
- They made re-commitment to serve young people well.
- They set about providing proactive pastoral care and encouragement of discipleship.
- They renewed their teaching, giving high-quality, practical and relevant instruction.
- They established “bands”, what we would call house groups, that were smaller and more intimate than classes to encourage accountability and spiritual growth.
The good news is that the medicine worked and the patient made a remarkable recovery, going on in leaps and bounds, despite a big falling-out in 1850.
God is good at new beginnings!
Can something like this work again? We cannot seek merely to maintain the status quo. The status quo is decline, as is evident from the graph. What must we do to invoke God's blessing? We must “Look to the rock from which [we] were cut.”
Perhaps John Wesley's words from earlier give us some insight. We must “. . . hold fast . . . the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which [Methodists] first set out.” We must grasp again the “. . . fundamental doctrine . . . [that] the Bible is the whole and sole rule both of Christian faith and practice.”
Many, if not all, of the measures put in place in 1820 would go a long way to helping us grasp and hold fast these things.
God is good at new beginnings!
Our God is fully committed to us. We read in Romans that he showed just how much he loved us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. He didn't wait for us to improve! He'd still be waiting!
Our denomination is in deep trouble but this is not a time for despair, it's a time for real trust and reliance on God. Let me illustrate what I mean by real trust.
You see that chair over there? It's a very fine chair—I wouldn't have it in my lounge but it is nonetheless an excellent chair. When I look at that chair, it tells me, “I am strong, I can take your weight; I can uphold you and give you rest.” I believe in that chair.
Actually, this is not believing in that chair. This is real believing [sit on chair]. For benefit of those sitting at the back, my feet are off the floor. I have put my full trust in this chair. If it fails, I am embarrassed and sitting on my backside on the floor.
Being a Christian is not about being religious on a Sunday. It's about putting full trust in Christ, risking it all on him. If he fails, I am embarrassed and flat on my face. I'll take the risk! Why? Because the evidence for doing so is rock solid.
- God created the nation of Israel from one man.
- God restored the exiled Jews to their homeland.
- God brought about salvation for all through faith in Christ.
- God used John Wesley in leading many thousands to find that salvation for themselves.
- God restored the fortunes of the early Methodists.
Winding upWe cannot live by the light of our artificial fires and torches. We cannot merely follow tradition and formality. We must do things God's way with full confidence in him. It will involve commitment and change.
We can't live on past glory. We need the power of God in our lives today. The world needs the power of God in our lives today!
We can't leave this for someone else to do. This is personal. Who here will stand up and be counted for God? Who will declare, “Yes, I will trust fully in God and seek him earnestly. I will look to him for personal renewal, for renewal of this church, for the renewal of this movement.”
Who knows? The next Methodist revival could begin here, in this Methodist Church. And you can be part of it!
God is good at new beginnings! All that's needed is that we go with him.