Education

City Church Announcements, 1.6.10

*REMINDERS* Giving receipts We will begin sending out receipts for 2009 giving during the last week in January. If you prefer to receive a PDF version of your receipt, please email Val (val [at] citychurchrva.com). If you would prefer that a hard copy be mailed to you, please make sure Val has your most current address on file (in the event that it is different than what appears on your checks).

Prayer Life Conference, 1/23 Paul Miller will be leading this conference at West End Presbyterian Church. The cost is $20 per person and includes lunch and materials.  You can register online by following this link: http://www.seejesus.net/events/upcoming/PrayerLife_Rich/PL_Welcome.php.

*NEW*

Ellie Risher Visiting, 1/14 Ellie Risher will be coming to spend some time in Richmond on January 10. Ellie is a City Church-supported missionary preparing to move to South Africa indefinitely to share the gospel and provide relief for victims of human trafficking and vice. The Fishers will be hosting a sit-down with Ellie at their home (2610 Grayland Avenue) on Thursday, January 14 at 7pm. This will be a time to hear from Ellie about her work in global missions and her plans for the future, as well as getting some relational time with one of our sisters in Christ Jesus. For more information on this event, please e-mail Matt Fisher atl mattmoment [at] gmail.com.

Loaves & Fishes, 1/17 Our monthly opportunity to prepare and serve a meal to the hungry will be on Sunday, January 17. We will be meeting at the Conrad Center (1400 Oliver Hill Way) from 11am to 2pm. If you're able to help out, please RSVP to Kira Disse at kmdisse [at] gmail.com.

Let the Healing Begin

Sermon, 9.27.09"Let the Healing Begin" Rev. Erik Bonkovsky Mark 1:21-39

[Click here to listen to this sermon in its entirety.]

A couple members of our church recently went on a mission trip to Africa, where one of them was invited to take part in an actual exorcism.  His takeaway from the event was that the people there were aware of a very real spiritual warfare going on amongst them, and that demons were a palpable threat rather than just a bedtime story.

This passage in Mark basically outlines a typical day in the life of Jesus, and in the course of the day it shows him casting out demons.  Demons are not something that's a part of our everyday lives, at least not in that language.  But we can relate to things in our lives that are controlling us and oppressing us.  The things that in Jesus' day were called demons, are now called obsession, compulsion, and addiction.

Our songs and our poetry betray us, though, for in them the concept of demons is very evident.  As INXS sings,

Devil inside / devil inside / every single one of us / the devil inside

And as W.H. Auden writes,

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand: They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.

And here's a popular quote from the movie The Usual Suspects:

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.

Our modernistic, scientific minds like to slap secular labels on these things, but in the third world we come face to face with reality.  Humanity has fallen from the state that God designed for us.  Sickness, death, and mental and emotional upheaval are everywhere.  Ever since Satan deceived Eve we've been deceived over and over again to think that we can take things into our own hands and be successful.

When Jesus casts out the demons, people are shocked.  It's the same way we're unsettled by our church member's story about the exorcism.  On the holiest day of the week, when it's most important for Jews to be ceremonially clean, he interacts with the most unclean thing imaginable.  And then, by casting the demons out, he does work on the Sabbath.  This story is showing us the character of Jesus and by default, the character of God: it's not about rituals or rules, it's about setting people free.  And he doesn't need a bat's head and toad's foot to concoct a spell to cast out demons, instead he does it with just a word!  He heals with great authority.  In the same way, he heals with great intimacy.  He touched Peter's mother-in-law when he went to heal her, a gesture that would not have been kosher at the time.  The way he acted was unsettling for some, but Jesus explodes the rules!  With true healing it's always a scandal.  It was in Jesus' day, and it continues to be in our day.

So the question we ask ourselves is, "How would we treat a demon-possessed person, if one walked into church today?"  It's too late...one already did walk in.  I walked in with my demons, you walked in with your demons...we wall walked in with our demons.  They're not quite as "on display" as the ones in the passage, but it doesn't make them less real.  Whatever you call your demons -- self, lust, depression, etc. -- they control you, stop you, and limit you.  They are the power of darkness in your life, and they separate you from God.

The message of hope here is that Christ cares.  He wants to take our hurt away.  In his life he always moved toward afflicted people, and he healed them with intimacy and love.

There are two ways that people typically react to this passage which miss the message of hope:

  1. We dismiss exorcisms as a pre-modern thing.  It's easier not to respond to them or to entertain them as serious ideas, because it seems contrary to our self-aggrandizing sureness of everything around us.
  2. We react with jealousy.  We wish that things were as concrete and obvious now as they were then, and that Jesus could come and simply deliver us as he did for the demon-possessed man.

These reactions miss what Jesus did on the cross; what we have access to now!  He already died for this.  These vignettes that Mark gives us show Jesus as a physical, temporal healer, but they point to what comes next.  They point to something greater, that demons have no claim on us any more.  That grace is free and infinite, and that we can take it freely and often.

In the Wilderness

Sermon, 9.13.09"In the Wilderness" Rev. Erik Bonkovsky Mark 1:1-13

In this passage we see a distinct shift of attention to the wilderness by Mark.  Speaking of a prophet such as John the Baptist, previous prophets are brought to mind.  These "wild men" were out there just a little bit.  And John the Baptist's style was the same; he seemed to herald the coming of wilderness with his camel-hair shirt and breakfast of locusts and wild honey.  All of these wilderness clues would have meant one thing to the Jews: "Oh, he wants us to think about RESCUE."  Because it was in the wilderness that God saved his people.

This story of Jesus' baptism occurs at the beginning of his ministry.  Directly afterward, he goes into the wilderness.  This is a snapshot of what his entire ministry is about: facing down wilderness.  Going into the wilderness of sin and brokenness and bringing hope and peace.  Christ calmed storms and exorcised the wild demons from people.  In death, when he headed to the cross, there was a true moment of him entering the wilderness, of entering God's wrath and all that's evil in the earth -- so that he could bring peace to us.  He came in an epic battle of good vs. evil, war vs. peace, and he won.

Why does it matter?  Why does Mark start his story here?  Because we know about wilderness; we relate to it.  That's where we start.  That's what got us into these church doors.  Loneliness, disorientation, feeling threatened, being tempted.  As George Alexander Chadwick wrote, "Surely we may believe that He Who was tempted at all points like as we are, felt now the deadly chill which falls upon the soul from the shadow of our ruined earth."

This is why the happy, clappy Christianity that's sold in some places feels so hollow -- because we know it doesn't ring true.  Here are some ways in which Christ's experience with wilderness help him to relate to us:

  1. He is familiar with wilderness.  What we're going through isn't news to him.  As it says in Hebrews 2:14, he "partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death."  Because he suffered when tempted, he can help those who are tempted.  He's not just this guy in heaven giving out platitudes.  He came here and experienced it.
  2. He takes part in wilderness.  His experience here wasn't one of those idyllic nature excursions where he reached the top of a mountain and took a bit out of a Nature Valley bar.  He was hungry and thirsty, he was dirty and tired.  He faced down the devil, and did battle in the dark places.
  3. He has tamed the wilderness.  He was victorious!  He gained this victory on the cross -- a cross that was outside the city of Jerusalem, on a hill that was really a symbol of wilderness to the people.

Christ's baptism, or knowing to whom he belonged, is what allowed him to face down the wilderness.  God affirmed him by declaring "This is my son, in him I am well pleased."  When a child is lost in the woods or at the mall, what does he cry for?  Not a map, or GPS.  He wants his mommy.  Because the answer to wilderness is relationship.

This week, who will you listen to?  Threats from the wilderness, or this voice from heaven, saying "in him I am well pleased?"

How We're Sent Out

Sermon, 8.20.09"How We're Sent Out" Rev. Erik Bonkovsky 2 Corinthians 5:17-6:10

What does it mean when we say we're "sent out?"  What does it look like for us as a church?  Perhaps the much more important question is "What is the source of our being sent out?"

The way that we're sent out of is by knowing the Jesus has come first to us.  We often begin to think that the effects of God's love are the conditions of God's love.  We say to ourselves "If I do this, and don't do that, God will love me more."  But this is how we fail to see God's point.  Being sent out doesn't originate with what I'm doing or what you're doing, it starts with what God's doing.  That simple fact has been so widely ignored that a lot of people think of Christianity as a set of rules, or as a convenient way to organize your life.  But in reality, God looked down and saw that we were sinners, broken and hurting, and he sent his son to do something about it. So we're not sent out to gain love or approval from God, we already had it in the first place.  We're sent out as a natural reaction to what he did for us.

"The secret of the gospel is that we actually do more when we hear less about all we need to do for God and hear more about all that God has already done for us." -- Kevin DeYoung

There are no try-outs for God's grace.  All that's left for us to do is to receive it.  But the simplicity of this offer is hard for us to accept, because it starts with us admitting that we need help.  That we need that grace.  Because we've been incubated in this culture where you have to earn everything and you can't be satisfied unless you do, we keep picturing ourselves as needing to earn God's love.  In truth it's freeing to know that God has sent Jesus to us, and that we don't have to be "good enough" to get him.

Our motivation for being sent out depends on the constant renewal of this discovery.  It's got to be new for us.  We need to rediscover this again and again and again.  And remember that his work for us was done once and for all, and is still in effect today.  When we see that all of our behavior, good and bad, can't save us, and that Jesus can, we really appreciate what has been done.  The message is to believe, not to behave.

Jesus is sent to us comprehensively.  It involves everything.  Jesus has come for every part of who you are; there's no part of you that's too dark or too bad, or that Jesus can't bring hope to.  Likewise, in every part of our lives we're sent out to be Jesus' ambassadors.

A good reminder of God's love and what our reaction should be is that we are always failing at this kind of love.  When you take your son to a baseball game and he refuses to sit close to the field because he has an irrational fear of mascots, your desire to talk him into it anyway comes from a certain selfishness, and wanting to love him the way you want to be loved.  But God loves us unselfishly, always the way we want to be loved.  His love just fits.  And when we begin to understand how deeply God has loved us, it changes us.  So we are sent out only insofar as we know that Jesus Christ was sent for us.  And when he came to us, he became like us in every way, and died on a cross to bring us back to the God who made us and loves us.

Sent Out

Sermon, 8.23.09"Sent Out" Rev. Erik Bonkovsky 2 Corinthians 5:11-21

"Missions," which is translated as being "sent out," is a big part of the focus at most churches.  But we tend to make three major assumptions about missions:

  1. Assumption 1: It starts with and is focused on where you're going and who you're going to. This is the first thing that's asked about when a mission trip is brought up.  There's this us vs. them mentality that begins to develop when we see ourselves with this triumphalistic feeling.  We think of ourselves as saviors going to fix the problems of these people who don't have all that we do.

    Truth 1: Being sent out starts with you. With the reality of Jesus Christ in you, and you finding your identity in him.  The "front line" for missions is in your heart.  It must start there if you're to be of any use.  When we miss this point, we turn missions into just another program that our church does.  But it's about Jesus in us, and it never gets more complicated than that (v. 12).  From this focus, something new is created (v. 17).  The following quote from Donald Miller illustrates what happens when we ignore this:

    "I could not in good conscience tell a friend about a faith that didn't excite me.  I couldn't share something I wasn't experiencing.  And I wasn't experiencing Christianity.  It didn't do anything for me at all.  It felt like math, like a system of rights and wrongs and political beliefs, but it wasn't mysterious; it wasn't God reaching out of heaven to do wonderful things in my life."

  2. Assumption 2: It's for people who have it all together. You know, those holy folks who glide along rather than walk, and who presumably know regular words but only talk in scripture.  We hold these people on a pedestal, and we think to ourselves about missions, "Maybe when I get it together I can do it."

    Truth 2: Being sent out is for you. And you don't have to have it all together, because Jesus Christ has it all together.  The good thing that we're trying to spread by engaging in missions doesn't belong to us, it belongs to God!  And we're just holding it for him; we're just being his jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:5-7).  We need more people to say "I am weak, but he is strong."  It would change our whole outlook!  But it's counter-intuitive and counter-cultural to take the emphasis off of our own powers.

    When you recognize that you don't have it all together and that you are in fact dependent on JC, that's when you're best poised to be sent out.  Because you realize that you and your Big Solutions are not the treasure, but that it's what's inside of you that is the treasure.

  3. Assumption 3: It's just another rule of Christianity that you'd better obey. The idea of doing missions has been hammered into you by preachers, church members, etc., and you always have this feeling that you should be participating in it.  Or perhaps it's the thing that's kept you away from the church, because it induces all of this guilt, this weight.

    Truth 3: Being sent out flows from JC's control and love (v. 14). Missions is not a condition, it's an effect of God's love.  When we really are in a place of assurance and love with Christ, he controls us -- the word "control" literally meaning "held together."  His love holds us together, and this love we feel moves us on to affect other people.  It changes us to where we can't help but affect them.

It all goes back to the fact that JC was sent out to love you.  No matter what you did, or how hurt you are, JC was sent out for you and nothing can change that.

Cliques and Christ

Sermon, 8.9.09"Cliques and Christ" Rev. Erik Bonkovsky Ephesians 4:1-6

In this passage Paul is expressing unity because he uses the word "one" so many times.  It's hard to miss it.

But in reality we separate ourselves.  In subtle ways, we draw distinctions between us and other people.  People often feel like they're on the outside of groups that form around things like having kids or similar jobs, or looking alike.

We form groups to get affirmation and identity, and we tend to reinforce them whether we're inside or outside of the group.  When we're inside a given group, we keep our conversation within the group and we don't extend invitations outside the group.  And when we're outside a given group, we don't make an effort to get to know those within the group and we assume they don't want us around.  This connects to the last sermon, "Seduced by Cool," because things like cool and cliques persuade us to see ourselves based on how humans would define us, not how God defines us.

But how does God define us?  Christ has "broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility" (Eph. 2:13-14).  He has obliterated cliques: instead of being divided, we are all one.

Christ is always about bringing people back together.  Jesus' death has obliterated the wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile, and likewise obliterates the other walls we set up -- like tattoos, clothing, education, home ownership, and neighborhoods.  Those things don't define us anymore; Jesus' death for us defines us.  So all those jokes made about you, your feelings of loneliness, and all those times you felt like you were on the outside looking in -- they don't define you.

If you live in discord with other believers, you're delivering an affront to God because he set things up so that cliques don't matter.  If you decide to exclude another Christian, you're making a statement about what you think about Jesus Christ.   You're not able to love and forgive this person, so you must not believe that Christ loves them unconditionally.  Excluding other brothers and sisters based on arbitrary things, based on anything other than Christ's love for them, is wrong.

"I have community with others and I shall continue to have it only through Jesus Christ.  The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us.  We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity." -- Dietrich Bonhoeffer

So in this spirit we ought to say yes to differences, and no to divisions.  You should definitely have friends and you will naturally gravitate toward those who have things in common with you.  And it's natural for us to want to share good things with those we care about.  But we must be careful to keep our hearts open to everyone, not just those who are easy for us to love.

The only way for our church to remain without cliques is if we constantly look to God and not to anything else to prescribe us our identity. This unity is not something we achieve, it's something God already did!  We can keep it alive by living in the way that's described in verse 2: with humility, gentleness, patience, and bearing with one another in love.  Imagine if we really treated each other in this way.

"Assuredly there is but one way in which to achieve what is not merely difficult but utterly against human nature: to love those who hate us, to repay their evil deeds with benefits, to return blessings for reproaches. It is that we remember not to consider men's evil intention but to look upon the image of God in them, which cancels and effaces their transgressions, and with its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them." -- John Calvin

Isn't it true that the most difficult thing is to love our enemies?  John Calvin offered a really helpful point when he said to just remember that they were created in God's image.  If we truly make this our focus, then with every new person we meet we will not be able to WAIT to get to know and love them.

Seduced by Cool

Sermon, 8.2.09"Seduced by Cool" Rev. Erik Bonkovsky Hebrews 11:1-3; 32-40

As set forth in the book Unfashionable, the church spends a lot of time trying to be cool.  But it's truthfulness, not trendiness, that people are really hungry for.

  • As individuals.

    There is an inescapable seduction that our society calls out, that we must do this, have this, or look like this.  And it is really hard to ignore when it blares at us from every TV screen, billboard, and bus ad.  This culture of orienting everything in our lives to ensure that we fit in leads not only to being motivated by material things, but to rejecting others who don't fit in.  We belittle people who don't get a joke, or haven't heard of a certain technology, or haven't seen some movie.

  • As churches.

    It's easy to get sucked in to the idea that we have to have a really slick web site, a clever name for our youth group, or some ironic facial hair in order to measure up to the standards of the modern church.  And in our case specifically, it's pretty cool to worship in the afternoon, and in the city.  But we can't get caught up with those details, acting as though how we present ourselves is more important than what's really going on inside our church.

What's behind this drive to be cool?  We've established some person -- maybe a celebrity or someone we know -- who has "arrived," and we emulate them in order to feel accepted.  Cool is an attempt to make ourselves look worthy, when judged by such-and-such a standard.  We end up being owned by it, this expectation of being cool, because we can't deviate from it.  And so it becomes a stifling prison; an idol that can never love us back.

But as Christians our identity does not come from being cool.  The bible celebrities described in this passage weren't cool; they were mistreated, ignored, and killed.  And yet the world wasn't even worthy of them (v. 38)!  They were people out of tune with this world, because they were living by faith.  Their identity, their validation came from a promise that God loved them.  They weren't saved by their faithfulness, they were saved by the faithfulness of Christ.    All they did was look ahead, truly believing what they had been promised.

You can be cool for a while, but you can be Christ's forever.  There's something bigger than fashion, music, and getting all the latest jokes.  This is not to say that we shouldn't look nice or listen to good music or obtain a helpful gadget, but that these things cannot be where we get our identity.

Everyday Gospel

Sermon, 7.12.09"Everyday Gospel" Rev. Erik Bonkovsky Colossians 1:1-14

What difference does Jesus make in our lives?

As Christians, we spend our time professing that our lives are better because we follow Jesus.  But how are our lives any better than those of our peers?  According to the book Unchristian, 85% of people think Christians are hypocrites.  We're clearly not doing a very good job of showing others the difference Christ makes in our lives.

  1. Jesus makes a present and ongoing difference in the lives of those who believe.

    Often we think of Christianity as something that happened.  That accepting Christ is something that happened in our lives years ago.  Or we only think of it in terms of future hope, and we look to heaven when we think about Christianity.   But what about now?  The nature of the gospel is that it grows and bears fruit in peoples' lives (v. 6).  We can't think about it in terms of arrival, like perfection is what we're going to get as soon as we accept Christ.  Instead our areas of weakness are continually revealed to us so that we can continue to grow and bear fruit.  So rather than something that happened or will happen, Christianity is a process.

    It's easy to get swept up in "kiddie pool Christianity," where you don't have to know how to swim and you can just wade in as far as is comfortable for you.  We  naturally want to keep things simple, on a one-dimensional plane where we don't have to think too hard about things or examine ourselves in too much detail.  The true purpose of Christianity is more like jumping into a river, where you must learn to swim in order to stay afloat.  Your "walk" (v.10) and "every good work," meaning your daily lifestyle, is what's important.  Everything is spiritual.

  2. Jesus makes a difference in forgiveness.

    How do we define Christians?  Christians are people who are forgiven and are forgivers.  We are told not only that we were forgiven once and for all, but that we must forgive others and forgive ourselves.  And we get to experience this forgiveness again and again, as a daily exercise and part of this larger process that we call Christianity.  And this lifestyle of humility that being forgiven produces should lead to a life free of this sense of entitlement that most people have, and free from the bitterness that comes from feeling a sense of entitlement.

  3. Jesus makes a difference in our kingdom.

    What does "kingdom" really mean?  It's the concept of where we get our identity.  It's what tells us who we are.  Right now, what is it that's telling you who you are?  Are you a part of the kingdom of stuff, or of cool, or of connections?  All of these things will disappoint you or will disappear.  We often try to live in a kingdom of performance with God, where we believe that our salvation depends upon our performance.  But it's not about performance, it's about the assurance of being loved no matter what.  And we get our identity from knowing that Christ did it all for us without the guarantee of any such performance.

Giving Freely

Sermon, 6.7.09"Giving Freely" Rev. Erik Bonkovsky Nehemiah 12:44-13:3

Giving freely is not about bringing a lot of stuff to God so that he'll love us.  It's the opposite:  it's a response to how he's already loved us.  When we talk about giving, we can take either the narrow view or the broad view:

  • The narrow view: Give money to the church.
    • You need to give to the place that's continuing to lead you in worship.  The Israelites gave so that they could sustain their worship leaders.  Just as those worship leaders were focusing on God's service full-time rather than farming for their own food, our church leaders need to be sustained so that they can keep focusing on encouraging us, leading us, and doing God's work.
    • We're a young church, so we can't just depend on the older people to give.  Verse 47 says that "all Israel....gave the daily portions for the singers and the gatekeepers; and they set apart that which was for the Levites; and the Levites set apart that which was for the sons of Aaron."  Not just the established people, and the people who had money to spare.  All Israel. Likewise all of us have a responsibility to give.
  • The broad view: Give joyfully and generously to the work of God.
    • As you receive from God (love, peace, forgiveness), it leads you to give.
    • You will never give generously until you recognize that your resources don't belong to you.  God has given you these resources to take care of for a time. You will also not give generously until you recognize that God has already given the greatest gift -- his son, Jesus Christ.
    • Doxological generosity:  In 2 Corinthians 9:13 we see that the Corinthians' generous giving leads others to worship. "By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission flowing from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others."
    • We can't treat giving as a bill, because if we owed God a bill we could never pay it!  Jesus paid it all.
    • The essence of the gospel is that you're a charity case.  You couldn't pay for it, you wouldn't pay for it, but this is how God has loved us through his grace.
    • The other side of this is that because you know this; because you're changed, you respond in worship.  The gospel begins to pry apart these idols in your heart, these things that want to define you.  And he begins to remake you in the image of God.  This is painful, because we love stuff!  But our money and stuff are rivals for God's love.  When we are trusting in God's love, it becomes natural to give it up.

The result of giving generously is that each time we give, we become richer and not poorer.  By laying ourselves down, we are lifted up.  The humble are exalted.  We profit by investing in the church and God's good work.

The City Worships

Sermon, 5.31.09"The City Worships" Rev. Erik Bonkovsky Nehemiah 12:1-43

This passage is about God's people gathering to worship him.  This is the high point of the whole Nehemiah story, and this high point is reached by worship.

  1. Worship is a joyful response to what God has done. We tend to think that worship is something we do to make God pleased with us.  But it's a response to what he's already done for us; his grace and one-way love.  This is so important that the Israelites set aside a whole tribe to lead them in worship.  Verse 43 says "for God had made them rejoice."  We've seen so much more of the evidence of God's love than these guys ever did, so we have so much more to spur us on to worship.  Worship ought to be our priority, because it's our acknowledgement of the beauty that's in our lives.  We're innate worshipers; it's an acknowledged fact that human beings are bound to worship something.  So let's worship the one who provides for us, not the things that he provides.
  2. Worship is both the end and the means of all of God's work. The purpose of God's creation is that he would be glorified, and this is also the end point of all of history.  All of history is charging to this point as seen in Revelation 5:6-14 where everyone is worshiping the Lamb.  As C. Fitzsimmons Allison illustrates worship:

    "The benefits of worship are not for some future good fortune or something we claim to qualify us for heaven after we die.  Worship is an immediate and very present means of God's love, regenerating now the fearful deadness of our existence into the more abundant life...There aren't any heavenly quantity credits amassed by going to church.  Worship is an immediat and present means of God's love, making us new creatures and giving us ever more abundant life now."

    We're not worshiping to get brownie points with God, we're worshiping because we benefit from it now.  In this passage, the two groups that march around the city meet up at the temple, the place where they feel closest to God.  We're moving to a point where the whole world is God's temple, because he is dwelling with us.  It's not that God has low self-esteem and needs worship from us; it's because he's the most glorious being imaginable.  Because he created us, he knows that we find love and joy when we worship him, so it's the ultimate act of love for Him to command us to worship him.

  3. Worship is always a witness to others. Another term for this concept is "doxological evangelism."  When worship is done right; when it comes from the heart, it draws people in.  It appeals to peoples' hearts to see others pouring their hearts out.  It makes them think, "Hmm, these people must be connected to something bigger."  There is a togetherness and a sincerity about it that they  naturally want to be a part of.  It points to the fact that there's got to be something more in life.

All this talk of worship isn't going to help you worship.  The thing that's going to help is for you to know what God has done for you.  The thing that's going to lead to genuine, heartfelt, spirit-led worship is to know that God died for you and forgave you, so that you could live in joy!  Being reminded of this leads to true worship.  Nehemiah went on a tour of the city and saw the good work and how the city had been renewed.  This led to some of the best worship in recorded history.  Maybe you need to take a tour of the areas of your life that have been renewed, and see again all the work that has been done in you.

City Living

Sermon, 5.24.2009"City Living" Rev. Erik Bonkovsky Nehemiah 11:1-36

We've seen in our recent studies in Nehemiah how God's purpose is to rebuild not just the walls of the city, but also the people of the city.  And in order to do that, the people must live life to the fullest within the city.

  1. City living is creative, not cool.  Our purpose in living downtown is not to be in the hippest quadrant, but to bring our gifts and energy into the city.   The list of names that is found in this chapter of Nehemiah illustrates the diversity of those called to live in the city, each with different gifts and abilities.  Some were priests, some were particularly good at worship, etc.  Together, they could display God's glory and bless others.  Like the folks in Jerusalem, we are a sign to others of what will be: by finding ways to help each other, playing together, sharing meals together, and just being a community.
  2. City living is costly, not comfortable.  Christ's model of rebuilding the city was laying down his rights.  Although his position of power could have allowed him to live extravagantly and to triumph over his enemies with a lot of fanfare, he chose to submit to pain and humiliation so that he could heal his people and his city.  Likewise, we'll heal our city, by being generous, and by not hoarding money or power.  Just because we can't do things to earn our salvation doesn't mean he isn't pleased with us when we do obey him.
  3. City living comes from God, not from us.  This idea of renewing a people by rebuilding the city is God's idea.  In life Christ mingled with the folks in cities he traveled to, from the lowliest tax collector to the most uppity Pharisee.  In his death and resurrection, he is building a new Jerusalem which fulfills all his promises.  The idea of our community living within the city and working for its renewal is not a new idea; we are simply following Christ's example by imitating how he lived in his world.

Pilgrims On the Road

Sermon, 4.26.09"Pilgrims On the Road" Rev. Erik Bonkovsky Nehemiah 8:13-18

In this part of Nehemiah the people celebrate Sukkot, the Festival of Booths.  During this time Israelites would build booths for themselves out of branches, and live in the booths for a week.  The custom of living outdoors in simple booths an indicator of harvest time, like when people set up those stands to sell their fruit right out of the field.  This festival would have reminded the people to be thankful to God for the harvest, and it would also remind them that they're a traveling people.  The Festival of Booths was a time to give thanks to God for delivering them from slavery and from years of wandering in the wilderness.

For us, the Festival of Booths has two main purposes.

  1. It instructs us that we ought to be thankful, remembering God's provision in our lives.  And it goes beyond having nice things, and food in our bellies.  Specifically, God provided his son for us, his only son, so that we could understand the meaning of compassion and draw nearer to God.
  2. It reminds us that we, too, are a pilgrim people.  We need to be defined by the one who was sent to rescue us, not by our home and all the possessions that we've amassed.  This is not just about the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, it's the exodus of us being brought out from our doom.  We're on a journey; we aren't home yet.  We need to remember that, because everything in our culture tells us to get comfortable, get a lot of stuff, and surround ourselves with it, and that this will make us feel at ease.  Or we feel like if we obtain the next goal -- house, kids, etc. -- that only then will we be satisfied.  But the fact is, we're not going to be satisfied after the next big step; we're still going to be longing.  As pilgrims, it's okay if we're not perfect and we don't have all our ducks in a row, because we're still on the way.  As quoted from the book Peace Like a River:

    "Once traveling, it's remarkable how quickly faith erodes. It starts to look like something else--ignorance, for example. Same thing happened to the Israelites. Sure it's weak, but sometimes you'd rather just have a map."

    God doesn't give us a map, he gives us faith.  And that should be enough for now, because we are assured of our destination.  As travelers, it's not about how good and big and strong our faith is, but it's about how good and big and strong the object of our faith is.

Even if we don't break out the tree branches and dwell in booths this year, we can continue to dwell on these points for seasons to come.

What Is Hope?

Sermon, 4.12.09"What Is Hope?" Rev. Erik Bonkovsky 1 Corinthians 15:12-23

Why is hope important?  It goes beyond just political slogans and bumper stickers.  What it means is central to everything Christianity is about.  It means that death is over.  Not that you won't die, but that death no longer has a grip on you.  Your sin and brokenness no longer define who you are.  Hope, wholeness, and new beginnings are possible for you, today and every day.  And God wants to do this with everything, not just you: with the city, with our world.  The work that begins in you expands.

On Good Friday, Jesus was crucified and he rose on Easter Sunday.  Imagine the desolation of Jesus' followers on that Saturday.  Luke 24:21 captures this idea: "we had hoped that he was the one."  Often in our lives we spend all of our time living in Saturday.  Death, dirt, and messiness in present in our lives: we try to clean it up, make it smell a little better.  This compact world and all its tangible things make us forget that there is something on the outside -- something bigger than us.  But we don't have to go around with our little perfume bottles deodorizing our lives, because Christ has made us new.    What sustains us in our Saturday?  Hope.  Hope that the resurrection is true.

As verse 23 says, "But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ."  Christ resurrected is the firstfruit: a guarantee, a sign that more is coming.  And this is our hope, for today and a million Saturdays.

Here is a link to the poem about hope that Erik read aloud this week: Poem of Hope

A few more pictures of goings-on at City Church of Richmond can be found here.

Living Generously

Sermon, 3.15.09"Living Generously" Rev. Erik Bonkovsky Nehemiah 5:14-19

The way we treat people reflects our love for God.  In this passage from Nehemiah, we see Nehemiah acting out in bold generosity, embracing the people in a way that showed his fear of God and compassion.  Instead of raking in the standard fee that a ruler in his position would take in order to feed himself, he took his own private wealth and threw lavish dinners for the commoners every night.  This would have marked a lifestyle change for Nehemiah, as he was used to living in lux surroundings with the King of Persia.  Here he is giving away what riches he has in order to feed his people without taxing them, so that the work of God (rebuilding the city) may be done.

Have you given so much that it hurts?  That you have to change your lifestyle in order to accommodate it?  Do you actually change your habits in order to give more, no matter how painful it is for you?

Christ is our fuel.  He's already done the work, and he gives us the power to live generously.

Nehemiah's generosity shows the ultimate type of hospitality.  The root of the word "hospitality" is "hospital," and what does it mean to run a hospital?  It means you're helping people who are hurt.  It takes a sacrifice from us -- when we open our homes, and give to those in need.  And when we are hospitable in this manner, we are mirroring the gospel.  We can sum up the story of the Bible by saying it's the story of God's hospitality to us.

We are God's heirs!  If you truly believe you're getting ready to receive a huge inheritance from God, you can afford to be generous now.  Do not be afraid; rely on God to give you the means to live generously.

No Longer Slaves

Sermon, 3.8.09"No Longer Slaves" Rev. Erik Bonkovsky Nehemiah 5:1-13

In this passage, Nehemiah has found out that some of the Israelites are taking advantage of the economic situation of those who are working on rebuilding the city.  They were buying the workers' children as slaves and exacting interest from them on fields and vineyards.  As Nehemiah sees it, this is undoing all the good work they've been doing: "We, as far as we are able, have bought back our Jewish brothers who have been sold to the nations, but you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us!" (verse 8).

This may seem irrelevant to modern times, but we are in bondage to our sin.  It is our master.

We act as slaves by:

  • Making laws for ourselves and then measuring ourselves by those laws
  • Putting on a show or puffing ourselves up for others
  • Trying to do tangible things in order to make others value us

We enslave others by:

  • Expecting all this "good Christian" stuff from them instead of just loving them
  • Subtly taunting them with all the great things we're accomplishing
  • Judging them, and being quick to point out their faults in a Pharisee-like tone
  • Guilt-tripping and manipulating them

Why do we do things that enslave ourselves and others?  Do we see God as some great slaveholder, and us as his slaves?  It makes sense that if we feel enslaved to God, we're going to feel that way toward others: lowly, not good enough, under obligation.  But the Bible makes it clear that though our disobedience has mortgaged us to God, Jesus has paid our mortgage.  We are not as slaves to God, but as children (Romans 8:15). We are not to slink away from God in disgrace, but to approach the throne of grace boldly (Hebrews 4:16).

When you remind people of the grace of God, you can't put conditions on it.  You can't say they need to do the right amount of groveling, and then they can receive grace.  That's not how it works.  Grace is unconditional and free, and the only requirement is reaching out and accepting it -- thereby choosing daily not to live in bondage to some made-up human standards, self-imposed or otherwise.

Yet, though I am not what I ought to be nor what I wish to be nor what I hope to be I can truly say, I am not what I once was.

-- John Newton

The Sword and the Trowel

Sermon, 3.1.09"The Sword and the Trowel" Rev. Erik Bonkovsky Nehemiah 4:15-23

Famous preacher Charles Spurgeon had a magazine called The Sword and the Trowel, and that phrase sums up the passage we're studying today.

Trowel work

We need to engage in real work.  It's good, and God has called us to it.   It's hard and painstaking sometimes.  Often we think of our day job as something we're doing just to pay the bills.  We squeak by with the least possible effort.  But we need to look at our occupations, whatever they may be, as what God has called us to for now.  Everything we do can be potentially life-giving, which is why we're instructed to "work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men."  Do you see your job that way?

For example, the Robinson Theater was recently re-opened in Church Hill.  A group of people worked hard to raise the money to have it fixed up, and now that it's re-opened it's giving life back to the community.  So by doing the work, we get closer to where this story started in the first place: God in a garden, doing work, and making things that are beautiful and useful.

Sword work

In our lives, we face attacks from the outside and from within that devalue our work.  We are told that work is all about money, security, bills, or comfort.  Freeing ourselves of this outlook is constant work, and takes vigilance.  Under these attacks, we need to pick up the sword of the word of God to reinvigorate our purpose.  Our work is derivative; we engage in this work because God did.  God is always fighting for us; he defends us (Ephesians 6:10-20).

Examples of where we can apply this work ethic

Relationships are hard work.  On an everyday basis, they can be repetitive and messy.  The trowel means pursuing people, getting to know them, and truly hearing them.  Relationships don't just happen, it takes investment, love, and listening.

Housework is another area to focus our hard work on.  When we're creating an atmosphere where life can happen, where meals can be shared, and where friends can be invited in, we're doing God's work.  As illustrated in the song "Holy As a Day is Spent," there is a Godward dimension to everything in life.

So when the voices of doubt creep in, telling us that the daily grind doesn't matter, we have to beat those voices back.  God doesn't just care if you preach or lead a small group or lead worship -- he cares that you're being faithful.  And that extends into everything he has called you to do.

Fighting Without. Fears Within.

Sermon, 2.22.09"Fighting Without.  Fears Within." Rev. Erik Bonkovsky Nehemiah 4:1-14

Our story this week opens with Sanballat jeering at the Jews for attempting to rebuild Jerusalem's walls.  Not only were Sanballat's attacks demoralizing to the workers, but they were also attacks on God.  God's instructions were to rebuild the city, and this man was questioning both the plan, and their ability to carry out the plan.

Later, even their fellow countrymen question the plan to rebuild Jerusalem, urging the workers to go home to their respective towns.  They call attention to the gargantuan amount of work to be done, and the small number and energy of the workers.

But Nehemiah said "Do not be afraid of them.  Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome" (v. 14).  The Israelites succeed not by stiffening themselves and working hard to prove the naysayers wrong, but by remembering God

What are the doubts that creep in for you?  Some examples could be opposition from your family, people being dismissive toward you, people condescending to you about your faith, the challenge of getting to know who you married, or wondering if God will provide someone for you to spend your life with.  These doubts seem to accost us at every turn.  But instead of letting ourselves become overwhelmed, we have hope:

"Hope is not simply wishful thinking; it is a fruit of the Spirit born of the spiritual discipline of remembering.  This is why, even in the darkest eras, God has left us a witness of what happens when his people believe and follow him in the fight for justice" (Gary Haugen).

The Jews had plenty of reasons to believe in a great and awesome God, who had led them out of slavery in Egypt and into the promised land.  They had concrete evidence that allowed them to continue in hope.  But we can trust in this hope completely because Christ has already faced down the opposition.  He has vanquished the mockers.  This verse from Colossians is the fulfillment of Nehemiah's prayer:

"He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him."

So as much as others may seem to tell us, "give it up!" we cannot listen to them.  Jesus is saying them same thing to us, but he is saying that we need to give up trying to overcome our doubts with our own strength.  He has already done it for us, and we need to rest in that truth.  We are not perfect, but the beautiful part is that we don't have to be.

"The Reason Why"

Sermon, 1.25.2009"The Reason Why" Rev. Steve Constable Titus 2:11-15

God's desire to be a part of our lives and to offer us his grace is what sets us apart.  Contrary to the billboard that says "Don't make me come down there. -- God," he has already come down here.  In an unfathomable act of grace, God reached out to us via his son.  This grace is important for three reasons:

  1. Grace has broken through the dark clouds of our lives.  A key word in this passage is "appeared."  It's an epiphany: the revealing of something previously invisible.  At a time of his choosing, whenever seemed right to him, he appeared to us.  Grace breaks through all the circumstances that are in the way, and the sheer power of total, undeserved forgiveness is what we are left to bask in.  Do you know that grace?  It should not just be something that happened in the past.  It should be something that is continually happening to us.
  2. Grace teaches us a new way to live.  We're living in a new landscape, unfettered by the constraints of the old covenant.  We have no idea of what being "godly" is, or any idea of how to do it.  So truly living in the way that God desires us to live is by being dependent on grace.  Again, it's about being constantly restored and forgiven.  When we are given this grace, this stream of living water, then it should flow from us in turn.
  3. Grace encourages us about our reward.  Our reward is Jesus himself.  There's an old Jesuit prayer that suggests that we should never seek a reward for serving.  But contrary to this idea, our passage in Titus makes it clear that what we hope for and what God has promised will be ours.  He will redeem us and purify us.  We should be hanging around the mixing bowl of grace, just waiting to lick the beater blades and lick the bowl clean.

So how do we apply this?  How do we show God's grace to others?  By showing them good things, and by encouraging them.  Be patient: God knows what you need, and he will give it to you at the right time.  At the hour of his choosing.  Be full of hope.  Although we always seem to have such big worries, we need to realize: this is not the first time this has happened.  He will provide.

"Nehemiah's Calling"

Sermon, 1.18.2009."Nehemiah's Calling" Rev. Erik Bonkovsky Nehemiah 1:8-11

What are the characteristics of Nehemiah's calling?  Nehemiah's calling:

  1. Is dependent on his circumstances.

    Nehemiah is among the Jews that have been scattered away from their homeland.  What skills does he have; what is he able to do for Israel?  His role as an Israelite is to return to Jerusalem and pour himself into the efforts to rebuild the city.

  2. Is revealed through prayer.

    It becomes very apparent to Nehemiah what it is that he needs to do, and in this case he didn't see a vision or have a prophetic dream.  His calling is revealed to him through prayer, as a product of weeping and fasting and praying for days.  He tunes himself into God completely, and not to outside distractions.

  3. Reshaped his life and his priorities.

    Nehemiah holds the position of cupbearer to the king of Persia, a high position within the king's court.  He has rank, esteem, and a future there, and yet he drops it at a moment's notice to devote his life to restoring Jerusalem.  When God calls us to a task, do we give up money, status, comfort, etc. to follow it?

  4. Has God's glory as its primary purpose.

    The essence of what Nehemiah is saying is very sincere, and it's easy to tell from his prayer that he wants only to glorify God.  This is further exhibited by the fact that following this calling doesn't really benefit Nehemiah.  It's going to be hard, and it's going to involve years of labor and frustration and dealing with hard-headed people.  So it's only for the glory of God that he embarks on this journey.  Nothing else is to be gained!

Whenever we read the Old Testament, we have to resist the temptation to apply it directly to us.  We have to look at it through the lens of Christ.  And Jesus' life also fulfills these four points about Nehemiah's calling, as summed up in the verse Luke 22:42: Not my will, but yours, be done.  While Nehemiah's mission ultimately fails as Israel turns its back on God if he turns his back for a moment, the enduring message is that Christ has not failed.

Nehemiah's whole purpose, then, is to the point us to Christ and the message of his calling and sacrifice.  Good works are not a measuring stick or an impossible standard that we have to live up to.  We have been called out of a life of bondage, and we don't have to jump through hoops for our parents, our spouse, or friends, etc.  If we truly believe that we are saved, we will stop acting like slaves, and the grace that we become sure of will lead us to good works as well.