It's that time of year again. As always, Lent has flowed into Easter, and Ascension is still five weeks away. In our service planning, Easter Sunday so logically forms an integrated unit with Lent services, that we can easily be left wondering what to preach about on the Sunday mornings following Easter. To keep our thematic joints from showing through too much, we may need to apply some spring tonic to fortify the link between Easter and the five Sundays before Ascension Day. One way to do that is to take a deep breath, swallow hard, and begin a new series of messages starting already on Easter Sunday that uses contemporary images to celebrate what Jesus has gained for us by rising from the dead.
Although it may leave a bad taste in some people's mouths, the financial world readily provides such images. And don't forget, Scripture itself doesn't hesitate to strengthen our understanding by ladling out healthy doses of marketplace metaphor.
Most worshipers know how Christ's crucifixion benefits us. Fewer worshipers know exactly how Christ's resurrection benefits us. This series of messages uses contemporary examples from current economic life to concretize six biblical answers to that question.
The contemporary image of shares in a corporation unifies these themes: just as shares tie stockholders to the life of a company, so faith lets us share in Christ's conquest of death. Living in the company of the risen Lord pays us rich dividends. These messages show what they are.
A number of churches have begun to experiment with a worship service format that more intentionally focuses on the needs of "seekers" and new Christians. Such community-oriented services generally offer more contemporary music and choruses, more informal liturgy, musical presentations, short drama pieces to set the context for the message, and a sermon that does not assume a great deal of familiarity with Scripture or its teachings. The series of sketches that follow also include suggestions to meet some of the challenges of presenting this type of worship experience.
One note about the songs suggested for the community service: since these songs are copyrighted and many of them do not appear in most denominational hymnals, you must obtain permission to copy them for church use. This applies to permanent copies made on overhead glossies as well as to throwaway copies, such as songs printed in the weekly bulletin. A convenient way of getting permission from many copyright holders is to subscribe to an "umbrella" organization such as CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing, Inc., 6130 N.E. 78th Court, Suite Cll, Portland, Oregon 97218; 1-800-234-2446) that acts on behalf of many Christian songwriters and publishing companies. The cost—a few hundred dollars per year for an average-sized congregation—is well worth the time and effort saved in avoiding the weekly grind of seeking permission on a song-by-song basis.
Week One (Easter Sunday)
Shares in a Vacant Plot
Exodus 14:29-15:2; John 20:1-10
Nothing plants faith in our hearts as strongly as God's powerful intervention when we have our backs up against the wall. We've all breathed "There IS a God!" when out of nowhere a fat check graced our mailbox in the nick of time, or the deadline on a term paper was pushed back that critical extra week.
The Israelites knew the feeling too. Barely out of Egypt, they stood trapped between the Red Sea, the mountains, and a bloodthirsty Pharaoh with revenge on his mind. But God stacked up the waters and led them through safely to the other side, drowning Pharaoh's might in the violent backwash. "And when the Israelites saw the great power the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant" (Ex. 14:31). They emerged from the seabed with more than their hides and their freedom. They walked out with the gift of faith, which allowed them to share in the company of their God.
Something similar happened to the anonymous "other" disciple who clambered into Jesus' tomb to find it empty. For two or three years he hadn't understood a single thing Jesus was talking about, and the crucifixion put an end to any pious dreams he had nurtured in the meantime. But in the shadows of that empty grave, suddenly the light came on: "He saw and believed" (John 20:8). He walked out with the first here-and-now benefit of Christ's resurrection: faith that glued him permanently to his Savior and Lord. Like the Israelites of old, he walked out sharing in the company of his God.
The financial future of shareholders is intimately connected to that of the company they've invested in—even though that company may be thousands of miles away. When the company does well, the investors receive rich dividends. So do we when we invest our lives in Jesus Christ. His victory over death proves to us that resurrections do happen and that our hope for our own resurrection from the dead is not just a "leap in the dark." To make us believe it, God solidly grounds that promise in history. He proved it by personally conquering death. Through that victory he gives us the faith that binds us to him.
By trusting in our risen Lord we receive more than just a death-insurance policy. As we walk through sunshine and shadows, our Easter-grounded faith already in this life makes us shareholders in the company of our God.
- Simple, graphic, visual images would greatly enhance the shareholder metaphor. A large banner or paper-hanging of a share certificate left on display for all six services would highlight the unifying theme of these messages. Important elements to include would be the name of the shareholder and the signature and corporate seal of the (Divine) issuer. Highlighting the sign and seal would be very effective during a baptism or communion celebration.
- To remind worshipers of the previously discussed benefits of Christ's resurrection, a single word or phrase might be superimposed on the share certificate and updated weekly. For this week the word "FAITH" would be appropriate. For the following weeks, you might consider adding the following words: "CERTAINTY" "CREDIT," "LIFELINE," "NEW CLOTHES," and "ETERNAL LIFE."
- To give a 3-D effect, a real estate sign could be placed on the pulpit platform with the inscription: "BURIAL PLOT FOR SALE BY OWNER (HARDLY USED)." While perhaps a bit jarring to some people, this sign strongly reminds the congregation that Christ no longer needs a grave—nor, someday, shall we. The sign can be changed from week to week during the series to highlight the themes of the Scripture and the message.
- Finally perhaps a financier in the congregation may be willing to donate some "penny stocks" that could be distributed to every worshiper along with the bulletin. While it's unlikely in the present financial climate that this will enrich the faithful economically, it will tangibly reinforce the "shareholder" image.
Call to Worship
"Alleluia! Alleluia! Give Thanks"
[RsH 402, PH 106]
"Christ the Lord Is Risen Today" st. 1 and 3, opening; st. 4 and 5, parting
[PsH 488, PH 113, RL 325, TH 277]
"I Will Sing Unto the Lord"__sermon response
"Oh, How Good Is Christ the Lord"—children's hymn
"This Joyful Eastertide"
[PsH 403,RL 328,TH 284]
Shareholders in the Benefits of Easter: Heidelberg Catechism Lord's Day 17 (read responsively)
The Scripture reading and message in the community worship might best skip over the Old Testament material and concentrate specifically on the "shares" metaphor in relation to the John 20 resurrection account. An explanation of the profound parallel of Exodus and Easter might best be made at some other time when the focus is specifically on the Old Testament text. That would allow more time for explaining to community people who the Israelites were and what their role was in God's plan of salvation.
"Alive, Alive"—after word for children
[Unity Praise & Worship, Vol. 1 , Unity Music Ministries, Mississauga, ON, 1986]
[PsH 402, PH 106]
"Christ the Lord Is Risen Today" st. 1,2, and 3
[PsH 488, PH 113, RL 325, TH 277]
"He Is Lord"
"I Serve a Risen Savior"
"I Will Sing Unto the LORD," st. 2—during or after message
"Oh, How Good Is Christ the Lord"—children's hymn
Shares in a Guaranteed Trust
Exodus 16:1-12; John 20:24-31
One financial institution seeks to draw potential investors by calling itself "Guaranteed Trust." Smart move. Nothing appeals more to the cautious majority man the reassurance that its little nest egg is locked away in rock-solid security Unfortunately, in the world of finance there really is no such thing. Even long-lived institutions flounder, and if they don't, sooner or later the debt-burdened currency they bank on will. Our financial futures always remain "iffy." There are no foolproof guarantees.
When leading the people of Israel out of Egypt, God had to do more than dream up a fancy name to reassure them about their futures. Accepting the invitation to become shareholders in God's company was for them an all-encompassing decision that embraced their whole life—physical, spiritual and eternal. Such a decision required proof positive that God was reliable, that God could and would bring them safely to the promised land and beyond. So God sent them quail and daily manna to give them the certainty they needed: "Then you will know that I am the LORD your God" (Ex. 16:12).
Thomas needed proof too—-and we shouldn't be so quick to censure him for doubting. The way of eternal salvation is much too important to gamble on by taking a "leap of faith" or a "shot in the dark." Thomas would not stake his eternal life on the word of others. He wanted proof: tangible flesh and blood and bone and bruises and scars. Can we blame him? To stake our lives on an unsubstantiated "hot tip" smacks of irresponsible foolishness.
Thomas wouldn't buy it. If he was to invest his life in order to receive the eternal life Jesus promised, then he wanted to be sure resurrections can and do happen. Notice that Jesus did not chide him for that. He willingly convinced Thomas by tying his Word to the rock-solid, undeniable reality of everyday history: "Put your finger here ... reach out your hand ... stop doubting and believe" (John 20:27).
So Jesus' resurrection provides us with a second dividend: certainty. Like the manna and the quail, God restores to us the Bread from heaven to prove that Yahweh is our God. Our future is safe with our God—guaranteed.
- Next to the share certificate that visually connects these six messages, you might add a separate cloth or paper hanging containing a corporate seal. If a new wall hanging is not practical, consider placing the seal on the weekly bulletin instead (your church seal would do). Such a seal guarantees the authenticity of the promises made on the document that carries it, just as the resurrection and appearance to Thomas guarantee the authenticity of Christ's promise that we too shall share eternal life.
- The word to add to your share certificate for today is "CERTAINTY."
- Should baptism be scheduled on this Sunday, the illustration of signature and seal could strongly reinforce the image.
- Last week's "Plot for Sale" sign could be replaced with a sign that reads "COVENANT TRUST: REDEEMABLE WHOLE LIFE."
Call to Worship
"Arise, Shine," st. 1,4, and 5
"How Great Is Your Love"
[Songbook 7 Hosanah! Music, Integrity Music Inc., Mobile. AL, 1990]
"The Lord, My Shepherd, Rules My Life," st. 1 and 5
"These Things Did Thomas Count as Real"__sermon response
"This Joyful Eastertide," st. 2—parting song
[PsH 403,RL 328,TH 284]
"Trumpet the Name!" st. 2,8, and 9
"You Are Our God," st. 3 and 4—-after baptism
Focus on sign and seal imagery, and integrate the sacrament with the children's message.
Interspersed with chanted solo or congregational response:
Ever faithful One,
Ever loving God,
Walk zoith us in joyous times,
Walk zoith us in our trials.
[from "Prayer of Ezra," in Canticles and Gathering Prayers, compiled by John P.Mossi, song by Suzanne Toolan. Copyright 1989 by St. Mary's Press, 702 Terrace Heights, Winona, MN.]
In the community service it may be useful to drop the Old Testament reference for now and concentrate on the certainty of Christ's resurrection. The whole concept of resurrection is "old hat" for members, but it may have to be carefully explained to seekers. Expect to answer some skepticism and be ready to supply historical corroboration for this event.
"Blessed Assurance"—after message
[PsH 490,PH 341,RL 453]
"Great Is the Lord"
[Communion vol. 2:A Songbook for God's People in Harmony, compiled by Billy Ray Hearn and Phil Perkens, Birdwing Music, Cherry Lane Music Publishing Co. Inc. , Chatsworth , CA, 1983]
"How Great Is Your Love"—series theme song
[Songbook 7 , Praise worship, Hosannah! Music , Integrity Music Inc. , Mobile , AL, 1990]
"Let There Be Praise"
[Magnify the Lord, Scripture Song for Choir and Congregation compiled by Ken Bible and Tom Fettke, Lillenas Publishing Co., Kansas City , MO , 1986]
"Thy Word"—before Scripture reading
[Maranatha! Music Praise Chorus Book, Maranatha! Music. Distributed bv The Benson Corp Inc., Nashville, TN, 1990]
"Trust and Obey"—children's song
[PsH 548, TH 672]
Shares in an Open Credit Line
Credit cards are sometimes lifesavers. A major vehicle breakdown on a cross-country trek may require funding you had not counted on and may not even possess. But that piece of plastic allows tow-truck operators, mechanics, and motel managers to "call things that are not as though they were" (see Romans 4:17). And that's what gets you off the hook.
To people who cannot afford them, of course, credit cards can lead to crippling debt and financial ruin. In large measure financial institutions must bear much of the responsibility for too easily extending credit to those who cannot afford it.
Surprisingly, God appears to be in that category. God extends credit to individuals who cannot possibly repay—to people like Abraham. God "calls things that are not as though they were." God calls this wandering senior citizen Abraham ("Father of Nations"), even though he has no heirs and no human hopes of begetting one. God grants to Sarah and Abraham what they do not deserve and cannot repay: a child in their old age. That God should extend such credit makes them laugh; they name their son Isaac ("Chuckles").
More than that, Paul tells us in Romans 4 that Abraham believed the promise of God, and so "it was credited to him as righteousness" (4:22). His faith did not pay off the monthly credit card statement. It simply accepted the conditions on which credit was extended: sheer undeserved grace.
When the Israelites left Egypt, they deserved to have the angel of death destroy their firstborn just as much as the Egyptians did. But a bit of animal blood smeared on the doorpost was sufficient for God to credit them with righteousness they did not possess, causing the avenging angel to pass over their households. This sign of their faith and obedience allowed God once more "to call things that were not as though they were."
Paul assures us in Romans 4:23-25 that God will also extend such credit to us. God calls us "saints" even though we know we sinned all through last week. God calls us "holy" even though we spent days serving ourselves and only minutes serving our Lord. God calls us the "Body of Christ" even though we may have done more to shatter our (comm)unity than to build it up.
When we use plastic, we know that sooner or later a statement will appear, demanding that we pay back what we borrowed. But with all the credit God extends, the bill never arrives. Why not? Doesn't full payment have to be made?
Paul's message in Romans assures us that it does. However, the payback for the credit extended to us is not drawn from our account, but from Christ's. He picks up the tab in full. The name on the credit card God extends us is not Visa or American Express. It has our Savior's name on it. We only need to sign the counter check, accepting the same terms as Abraham and the Israelites did: by grace alone.
Once we recognize how God freely extends us credit we cannot repay, our thankfulness motivates us to extend such credit to others—even if they cannot repay the debt.
We freely lend money to the needy even if they are a bad risk. We give credit to our loved ones even when, perhaps, little credit is due. We forgive the puny debts owed us because we see how great the debt is that Christ paid off for us. That brings to mind Matthew 18:21-35. Reading it makes a fitting conclusion to this message.
- The sign for today might resemble a credit card. The card could have the term "MASTER'S CARD" prominently displayed, and beside "Expiration Date" either "Unlimited" or "None."
- The word to add to your share certificate for today is "CREDIT."
- A credit-card slip could be handed out to each worshiper along with the bulletin. Encourage people to sign their name on the slip, indicating their ownership of the terms of the agreement—accepting the credit God extends to them which by grace will be drawn from Jesus' account. Especially in the community service this could be a good tool to call "seekers" to commitment.
Call to Worship
"Fill Thou My Life," st. 1—after directives for living
[PsH 547, RL 147, TH 589]
"How Great Is the Love of the Father"—after children's message
"How Great Is Your Love"—after assurance of pardon
[Songbook 7, Praise worship, Hosannah! Music Inc., Mobile, AL, 1990]
"How Vast the Benefits Divine"—after message
[PsH 497, TH 470]
"Nations, Clap Your Hands"
"To God Be the Glory"—parting song
Again the Old Testament reading would probably take too much time to explain in this context, and the focus might best be specifically on the theme of the undeserved nature of divine credit. The Romans passage is also difficult, so it may be best to use Matthew 18:21-35 as the primary reading and Romans 4:25 as the text on which to base the message.
"Amazing Grace," st. 1,2, and 4
[PsH 462, PH 280, RL 456, TH 460]
"Great Is Thy Faithfulness," st. 1 and 3
[PsH 556, PH 276, RL 155, TH 32]
"How Great Is Your Love"—message response
[songbook 7, Praise worship, Hosannah! Music, Integrity Music Inc, Mobile, AL, 1990]
"To God Be the Glory"—parting song. A soloist could sing the verses, and the congregation could join on the refrain as found in the Psalter Hymnal.
"We Bring the Sacrifice of Praise"—gathering song
[Maranatha! Music Praise Chorus Book, Maranatha! Music. Distributed by Benson Corp. Inc., Nashivile, TN, 1990]