“Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers
in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” (1 Timothy 4.12)
The Purpose of Signs
What is the purpose of a sign? Our church recently posted our first real, permanent sign after more than 12½ years of existence! We have had, on three occasions, flimsy banners that lasted at most a few months. I hope this new sign is going to last much, much longer. Now, there are some practical reasons we haven’t had a real sign. For example, our previous location did not permit us to post anything more than a temporary banner or yard sign during services.
However, it is time for me to come clean with you. In the spirit of transparency and full disclosure, I must confess that I have been the biggest hang-up when it comes to hanging-up our sign. I want to be honest with you and let you know that I have intentionally made hanging our sign a very low personal priority. How low? Somewhere between hanging toilet paper and putting up a towel rack in the kitchen. Why? Because I know that not one of you has ended up here because of our sign. In fact, I’ll let you in on a little secret ... I believe with all my heart that the best sign a church can have is its people and their enthusiasm for God.
Of course, I finally gave in to the requests for a sign last week. After some enlightening discussions with some of you, I had to admit that it can be pretty difficult to find a church for the first time if there is no sign. And, in that same spirit of full disclosure and honesty, I will also confess that is really the only reason why I finally gave in and posted this new permanent sign of ours -- to help eliminate confusion for visitors. I get it. I acknowledge the error of my ways.
But on this first Sunday when we have our wonderful new sign, I thought it would also be the very best time to share a warning with you about signs. In particular, I feel compelled to sound the alarm about how distracting signs can be. Here is my warning -- heed my words: the sign on our building is not the real sign for this church. You are the real sign of the church -- and, more importantly, of the kingdom of God.
A church can never really POST a sign because the church IS the sign for God’s kingdom.
Lesslie Newbigen was a missionary, theologian, and writer in the mid 20th century. He worked very hard to bring unity to the body of Christ at a time when division among believers and missionary agencies had reached new levels of absurdity. Newbigen believed that the church had three purposes, all of them having to do with revealing the kingdom of God with power on earth. He said that the church is meant to be three things: a sign of the kingdom, an agent of the kingdom, and a foretaste of the kingdom. A sign of the kingdom, an agent of the kingdom, and a foretaste of the kingdom. Let me unpack those three purposes of the church.
First, we are to be a sign of the kingdom. Think about a sign on the highway-- what is its job? To lead you to a destination; to tell you which way to go. Does a highway sign point to itself? No, that would be ridiculous! The sign is never the destination, but a guide to the destination. If we are supposed to be a sign of the kingdom, what should we be pointing to -- the kingdom of God, or ourselves? Of course, the answer is the kingdom of God. Pathetically, very few churches are interested in pointing to the kingdom of God. They would rather point to themselves. It is as though the signs on the freeway have forgotten what their purpose is, and secretly hope they become some sort of destination in their own right. Not only does this short-sighted attitude feed the beast of division within the body of Christ, it distracts from our real job -- to point and guide people to the joyful kingdom of God.
Second, Newbigen said the church is to be an agent of the kingdom. Not 007 secret agents, but present and active representatives of the kingdom. Ambassadors. Simply put, we are to be boots on the ground, doing kingdom work. Establishing hospitals, delivering food to the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned. But more than bringing food and medicine, which are absolutely important human needs, we are also to bring the message of hope to the world -- the fantastic news that God can make us whole again and gives us incredible, meaningful, intentional, hopeful, joyful, peaceful, everlasting life through Jesus. It’s not enough to slap stitches on skin and meanwhile ignore the spiritual cancer that haunts everyone’s soul. Our fellowship is committed to making a global impact through an aggressive and focused missions program. Every missionary and project we support -- whether right here in Spring Valley, in Tijuana, or around the world -- is dedicated to not only bringing about social justice through compassionate aid, but spiritual justice through Christ. But it goes beyond that. Along with the missionaries we support, we also teach that each one of us, every member, is meant to be an envoy of hope, an agent of the beautiful kingdom of God. I pray we will, each of us, grow in our dedication to serving as God’s agents here on earth.
Third, Newbigen said the body of Christ is a foretaste of the kingdom of God. In other words, we are the free sample! What happens when they give out those free samples at the store? It’s a mob scene! People are always interested in trying out something new. In the same way we all clamor for free samples at the store, we also all have a deep-seated interest in spiritual things. Human beings have a built-in curiosity about things of the soul, evidenced by the abundance of world religions. Everybody is curious to try a free sample, especially when it comes spiritual things. The scriptures are crystal clear on the truth of this idea -- God’s word often uses food metaphors to describe spiritual things. Remember the psalm that says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good”? Or how about Jesus when he said, “I am the bread of life”? Or even better, “You are the salt of the earth. Don’t lose your flavor!” Clearly, an important part of our purpose is to provide a foretaste, or a free sample of God’s goodness. What kind of sample are we giving out?
You are the Only...
Back to this concept of you being the “sign” of the kingdom of God. In a very real sense, you and I are the only “signs” of the kingdom some will ever see. This is not by accident, but by design; God created it this way. There is no sign in the world you could hang on a building that will ever be as perfectly-suited as you and me at demonstrating the joy and peace of God’s kingdom. We are to be the example, as Paul writes to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4.12 -- examples of kingdom speech, life, love, faith and purity.
As we conclude for today, I want to first remind you of three important truths about your purpose as a sign, and agent, and a foretaste of God’s kingdom.
First, you are the only brochure some will ever read about God’s kingdom.
Brochures can be a wonderful way to summarize big ideas. With a good brochure, you get the gist of things with just a simple read. That is what our lives are to be when it comes to the kingdom of God. Our speech, our life, our love, our faith, and our purity should be a clear exposition of what happens when we allow God to work in our lives. When your friend or neighbor takes a few moments to read over your life at work or over lunch, they should be able to see very quickly not only who you are but, by your example, what the kingdom of God is about. If a brochure lacks clarity or sends mixed messages -- or if it has a very slick, flashy design, but no useful content, it is of no help to anyone. If God asked you to be His brochure for someone today, what message would they read?
By the way, it occurred to me after I printed today’s sermon handout that the blank following the letter “b” for “brochure” could also be filled in with the word “Bible!” I think that is also a very profound way to look at our purpose: “You are the only Bible some people will ever read.” That is worth considering!
Next, you are the only trailer some will ever see about God’s kingdom.
This week, yet another Star Wars movie trailer came out for the upcoming movie “Rogue One.” I must admit, even after becoming frustrated for months by the drip-drip-drip of LucasFilm’s leaky trailer faucet last year, I found myself nabbed yet again when I caught this new preview. After it ended, I wanted more. A good movie trailer always leaves you wanting more. And that is the effect our lives, our love, our faith, our purity should have on others.Your life should always leave people wanting more. When a friend sees your kindness to a stranger, your gentleness with those who are tumultuous, your hope when it seems as though all is lost, they should say, “I want more of that.” If your life was a movie trailer, what would someone watching it say the story was about? Would it be compelling? Or would it be a snoozer? You have a lot of control over what the trailer looks like. What should be cut and left on the editing room floor?
Finally, you are the only sample of God’s kingdom some will ever taste.
If that is true, what does your life taste like? Is it bland and boring? Or is it stunning and savory? Is your life a TV dinner or a filet mignon? Ask yourself -- “What kind of sample am I? Do people like what they taste? Or do they run away screaming when they see me coming?” Maybe you need more salt. Or, maybe you’re so salty that people want to spit you out. Are you a nasty case of heartburn waiting to attack? Or are you nourishing, and filling, and satisfying? When the world gets a taste of you, what will they see -- that the Lord is good, or the world is still peddling the same old empty calories? Be mindful of the fact that you and I are living samples of the kingdom of God. Every word and every deed should be held captive by that thought.
At the end of the day, you can forget all about our new sign hanging out front. You and I are the real signs for the church. Much more importantly, you and I are the living signs that should point to the amazing, life-changing, abundant, and fun kingdom of God.
If, indeed, you are a sign and a wonder for the world to behold, ask yourself: what is my life pointing to?
May we point to God and God alone. To Him be the glory, now and forever.