First Things First

First Things First | Romans 14:17-19

“…for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever serves Christ in this way is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then, we must pursue what promotes peace and what builds up one another.” (Romans 14:17-19 HCSB)

Priorities. We all have them and we often have to rearrange them. Things just happen. Shifting our priorities around as our circumstances change and our focus adjusts. However, we can run into conflict when our priorities don’t match up with or our focus doesn’t align with someone else’s. This often happens in marriage and we either adjust and make compromises or we ignore it and suffer the consequences and inevitable conflict.

By the way, it also happens in church. Far, far too often. We develop our own priorities and have our own expectations of where the church should focus her efforts and energies. But, sadly, our priorities and our focus most often reflect our own specific needs and interests, not God’s.

This week our church is celebrating our 75th anniversary. Over the course of those 75 years, we have seen many ups and downs. Many things have changed and some have remained the same. At the end of the Second World War, America and the American church were both poised for significant change, incredible growth and massive cultural shifts. The preceding years of economic depression and the difficult sacrifices and harsh demands of a global war succumbed to the optimism and hope of the returning soldiers and a grateful nation. It is out of that optimism and hope, coupled with a confidence in the purpose of God, that our church was established. What began as a small, dependent mission work in the humble auspices of a rural, one-room school building has grown into a mission-focused community of believers who seek to live out the great Commission and the great Commandments in their daily lives.

A celebration like this is a time to pause, to reflect and give thanks, to remember and celebrate God’s goodness and His work in us and among us. But, it is also a time to look forward, a time to look towards the western horizon and to see the opportunities and the challenges that still lie ahead. We must remember and celebrate our history, but we must also look forward in anticipation of our tomorrows. Tomorrows that are overflowing with the promises of our God and His purpose for our lives and this church.

It is in that vein, that I share these words with you… Paul’s words to the Roman church. The Living Word that flows from the very heart and mind of God through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and out of the mouth and pen of His servant, Paul. Words meant to encourage us, challenge us and inspire us to action. Obedience that ensures the ongoing power, presence and work of God through His church, not just for 75 years but for all of time and eternity. Those of you reading these words, may not be a part of our local fellowship but they are also meant to call you into humble obedience and joy-filled fellowship with other believers. You can’t live out a life of faith to God in isolation. At the very least, you must love and fellowship with Him – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – but He also calls us into love and fellowship with one another.

Paul closed out the previous section and last week’s study with “don’t let your good be slandered,” spoken of as evil or considered blasphemous. Why? Because the kingdom of God is more than exercising our freedoms and eating or drinking what we want. The kingdom of God is more than having the freedom to do as we want, it is the freedom to do what’s pleasing to God. Paul says, the kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Let me state that a bit more clearly in relation to this week’s study…

The Kingdom of God is not about having and building a church fellowship that meets our needs and expectations. It is not about having a fellowship that allows me to exercise my personal rights and enables me to have all of my demands, needs and wants met. It IS about having and building a church fellowship that fulfills God’s plan, seeks the Kingdom’s purpose, proclaims the Gospel and meets His expectations of love and fellowship. Paul specifically chastises this group of “strong” believers who are trying to bend the will of the fellowship to their expectations when he says, “the kingdom of God is not about eating and drinking.” It isn’t about being free to live out your life (seeking life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) but it is about seeking righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

“So don’t worry, saying, ‘What will we eat? ’ or ‘What will we drink? ’ or ‘What will we wear? ’ For the idolaters eagerly seek all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you. Therefore don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:31-34 HCSB)

In other words, first things must come first. We tend to focus our lives on the very things that Jesus told us not to focus on. Must we work to provide for our family? Certainly, and your work should be done in such a way as to honor God. Work hard, do your best, then give thanks to God for His blessings and praise Him for your skill and knowledge. But don’t let life become all about your hard work, personal success and achievements. God has graced you with skills, abilities and knowledge but they are intended to be used for His glory and purpose.

In a similar fashion, the church must not focus on the things we so often get focused on. We focus on numerical growth, financial expectations, needs and demands, developing visionary plans and appropriate ministries and the size, condition and beauty of the physical building where we meet. However, the church was never supposed to focus on those things. The church was told to focus on making disciples, leading them into humble submission, self-sacrifice, and personal obedience to the Word of God. Jesus simply said, as you’re going (perhaps, because of the persecution He knew would come, or even just as they went about life) make disciples, baptize them in my name and teach them about all these things I’ve been teaching you.

What should we focus on? The kingdom of God and personal righteousness. The kingdom is not a global TV ministry, it is the rule and reign of God in our daily lives. God is more concerned with your personal righteousness, your holiness and walk with Christ than He is about your financial success in business or the global reach of your TV ministry. If your personal righteousness suffers while your TV ministry achieves astronomical growth, God will be greatly disappointed. He would rather your ministry dreams fail than your righteousness fail. Surprised by that? Catch Paul’s next statement, “Whoever serves Christ in this way (righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit) is acceptable to God and approved by men.”

Acceptable to God… Let that settle into your heart and mind, for a few minutes. Mediate on it. I want to be “acceptable” to God. My redemption is secure in Christ, but that’s not enough. Love compels me to give my all for Him, my best to Him. My personal goal for life is to hear my Heavenly Father say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful in these few things, now I’ll put you in charge of these many things. Come, share in your Master’s joy!” (Matt. 25:23)

There was a time, in my early years of ministry, when I wanted to be like the “big name” preachers that I knew, had seen on TV or heard on the radio. As the years rolled by, I learned that a few of those men were worth emulating but most weren’t. I vividly remember sitting in a conference waiting to hear a well known preacher. He was the next person on the conference schedule and I’d never heard him except through audio recordings. His voice was a deep, deep bass and as smooth as silk. I was envious. I wanted to be able to preach like, sound like that, mesmerize an audience like that.

As I waited, a gentleman slipped in through the back doors and sat near me on the back row. I glanced over at him and silently assessed him. He was well dressed but balding, 40-ish, a bit odd looking and with big, thick glasses. I assumed, like me, he was here to listen to the well known preacher. As the conference host began introducing the next speaker, the one I was waiting to hear, this gentleman stood up and began making his way to the front of the room. At first, I assumed he was simply trying to get a better seat, closer to the front. Then, it struck me! He’s not trying to get a better seat, HE’S the preacher I’ve been waiting to hear. What? Mr. Egg Head is him? It can’t be, but it is. He stepped to mic, opened his mouth and there was that voice – deep, resonating and smooth as silk. I wanted to be like him, all over again. Fast forward about five years, this same preacher was being named pastor of one of America’s premier Baptist churches as its renowned pastor was retiring. Wow.

Then, everything crashed. The preacher I had wanted to emulate was going through a divorce, his ministry came to a screeching halt. The big church where he was the new pastor dropped him faster than you’d drop a hot potato. The last I heard of him, he was selling used cars. Well, he certainly had the voice for it.

What’s my point? Because of my immaturity I had wanted to emulate a man I admired. I admired his success, his preaching skill, his sermons, his spiritual insights, and THAT voice. In my immaturity I overlooked the most important thing, his righteousness. I didn’t need to emulate him, I needed to emulate Christ. My personal goals and spiritual goals changed. Instead of seeking to pastor the next bigger and better church, to climb the ministry ladder and achieve ministry recognition, my goal became to emulate Christ and be acceptable to God wherever He might place me. I had been led to believe that being a bi-vocational pastor (two jobs, one as a pastor and the other to pay the bills and provide for my family) was just the first rung on the ladder of ministry success. Nobody wanted me to stay in that role. Nobody.

Nobody, except God.

Seek my kingdom, first. Not fame. Not fortune. Not success. Not a bigger church. Seek Me and My kingdom, first, then I’ll see that those things needed for life will be there for you. Those aren’t words just for a bi-vocational pastor, they’re words for each of us. God knows we need these things and He’s promised to see that we get them, when we seek Him and His kingdom, first.

He’s also promised that for His church when each of us pursues Him and His kingdom, first. He’s promised that despite COVID and challenging mask protocols. Seek ME and My Kingdom, first. God’s not seeking a BIG church, He’s seeking an obedient church. God’s not seeking a church with the best growth plan, He’s seeking a church that’s growing in its love for Him and its love for others. God’s not seeking a church with enough money, resources and building space to achieve its ministry dreams, He’s seeking a church with enough faith to pursue His kingdom goals while trusting Him to provide the necessary resources to achieve those goals.

So, let me conclude by challenging you to see beyond these human limitations, beyond the empty pews, beyond the threats of a new Covid variant, beyond the mask or no-mask requirements and arguments, beyond the 75 years of history and the uncertainty of the future. Instead, pursue what promotes peace and what builds up one another. Seek first, God’s kingdom and His righteousness, then all of these things you need will be provided for you. Seek Him first and, I assure you, He WILL build His church. I know He will, because He has already promised to do just that…

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