Thank-you for the invitation to join you this morning. I am always interested in getting to know people from neighbouring churches and I think that this kind of a visit is a good thing to help us remember that we are all working together to build the kingdom of God. It is a privilege for me to share from God’s word with you this morning.
I grew up, in a Christian family and we were always involved in church. My parents had come from Russia in the late 40’s and after they were married in 1951, they became involved in a church which had many friends and relatives in it. Consequently, most of our social life revolved around family and friends from church. As I grew up, I attended public school and had friends who lived in our neighbourhood, but there were limits to our involvement in the community. For example, one year a friend of mine invited me to attend Scouts. I went to one meeting and although I enjoyed it, my parents were reluctant to let me participate. I remember them telling me that they were afraid that it would involve events on Sunday morning. Now that I think about that incident, I know that they were trying to protect me from the influences of the world. There were other examples of this separation. We had a party at church on Halloween night and although my sister and I really wanted to go “trick-or-treating,” my parents were uncomfortable having us do that. We also did not go to school dances or attend movies. When I became a teenager, I had a strong urge to be like everyone else. I wanted friends and I wanted to fit in and so become involved, for a little while, in lifestyle practices that did not fit with my understanding of being a Christian. At that time, I was willing to do whatever my friends did just as long as I fit in. After a while, I decided I didn’t want that kind of life and so began to develop values that were fitting for a follower of Christ. After attending a Christian high school, going to Bible school and then seminary and becoming involved in church work, it didn’t take very long before my whole life was lived in a Christian context. I had no non-Christian friends, I did very little with unbelievers and I forgot how to relate to non-Christians. Yet all the while, a great tension was always present in my heart as I wondered, “How does God want us to live our life as His children while we are in this world?”
The Bible presents the tension of this kind of question. On the one hand, we have the warning of James 4:1, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” On the other hand, we have the words of Jesus which command us to go into the world and demonstrate his love in the world. John 3:16 tells us that, “God so loved the world…” and Mark 16:15, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” We also have the example of the life of Jesus who was a friend of sinners. And so the question puzzles us, “How does God want us to live in this world?”
A. The Turtle Lifestyle
While paddling along a river in my canoe, I have often seen turtles slip quietly into the water when we approached. I have also seen them disappear into their shells when danger was near. At times, we as Christians choose to respond to the challenge of living in this world by living like turtles. We realize that the world is an evil place. We know that many people live by values that are opposite to those of Christ. We fear the contamination of the world. Whatever danger presents itself, whatever appears to be of the world causes us to crawl into our shell and hide from the evil that is out there.
When Mennonite people lived in Russia, many separated themselves from the Russian population and lived on their colonies and had little to do with “the world.” In North America, Mennonite people have been known as “the quiet in the land” who at the beginning also separated themselves in colonies and who later on have begun to live in the broader community, but have separated themselves by developing social contacts only in the context of other believers. Christians as a whole have easily drifted into this kind of living.
II Corinthians 6:17 is the verse which is often used to support this kind of a lifestyle. “Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.” (NIV). When we fear the world, we agree with the reaction suggested by this verse. We are comfortable to have only believers for friends and to conduct all our activities with believers. When we have to do business with people who are not believers, we are reluctant to do so and often do so with an “us/them” attitude. We do not understand unbelievers and are very uncomfortable in their presence.
B. The Problem With Turtles
But is this the kind of lifestyle that God has called us to? There are several problems with this kind of a mentality.
1. Inner Sins
Although the world out there is evil, the evil is not only out there, but also within. In Matthew 15:19, Jesus addressed the Pharisees who had accused His disciples that they had not washed their hands before eating. The concern of the Pharisees was that the law should be kept. Jesus accuses them that their great concerned about the outward appearance of righteousness, had made them blind to their failure to meet the requirements of true inward righteousness. He said to them, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” (NIV)
When we separate ourselves from the world because we don’t want to be touched by sin, we fail to realize that although sin is often influenced by things outside of ourselves, its source is always in our hearts.
I was shocked a number of years ago when I heard about the Mennonite Mafia. I knew that many of these people were probably connected in some way to churches which were very strict about avoiding the world, and yet, here was the evil within. That is an extreme example of what happens to any of us. We avoid many of the outward sins of smoking, drinking, immoral behaviour, but fail to deal with the inward sins of jealousy, hatred and lust. The point is that no matter how visibly we may avoid the evil of the world that is out there, we do not avoid all evil because it is within. And if the evil begins within, living like turtles will not necessarily prevent us from avoiding evil.
2. How Do We Witness?
The other problem is that when we avoid contact with the world, we also fail to live up to the great commission. God has not left us in the world to hide from it, but to be salt and light within it. Matthew 5:14 “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” (possibly read Matthew 5:13-16)
At one time, my whole world was one in which I was involved mostly with believers. Because we wanted to do outreach, as a church, we presented a Christian film in the community. We were encouraged to invite our non-Christian friends, but I didn’t have any non-Christian friends whom I knew well enough to invite. How could I use this opportunity to witness?
One year, I took a course on making disciples. It took place in Toronto, and part of the course involved going door to door to present the gospel. I found the experience entirely artificial. I kept asking myself, “How could I speak to people if I didn’t know their needs?” I now believe that it is very difficult to reach unbelievers without knowing them and developing relationships with them. The Bible says as much in I Corinthians 5:9, 10, “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.” The implication is that God does not intend for us to go out of the world or to isolate ourselves from it.
Because of these experiences, I have come to the place where I have rejected the “turtle” lifestyle. I don’t want to isolate myself from unbelievers.
The opposite problem, which is a temptation for all of us, is the temptation to fully embrace living in the world. When we do, we are like butterflies. Butterflies flit along enjoying the world. They flit from flower to flower and appear to be happy and enjoying life.
There is a tremendous temptation for all of us and especially for young people to go out into the world and just participate in whatever the world offers. Sometimes the motivation for this kind of a choice is a reaction to the strictness of the “turtle” mentality. Having realized that isolating oneself from the world does not make sense, people will plunge fully into the world. Instead of discerning between what is neutral and what is harmful, people will embrace all that the world has to offer.
I knew a young girl who had been involved in church and after high school, she moved away from home and got involved in a short term mission assignment. While on the mission assignment, we suddenly heard that she was asked to leave. She had gotten involved with a non-Christian man and was going to clubs and drinking and forgetting about her commitment to Christ and instead living her life in the world.
The scary thing about her involvement was that it placed her into great danger - physically and spiritually. Butterflies flit along enjoying life, but, they are totally unaware that they are in great danger and that at any moment a bird might come and eat them or they might become a “splat” on a wind shield as they flit across the highway. They are unprepared for any danger.
If we embrace the life of the world, we are in great danger. James 4:4 says, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”
There can be physical dangers as we engage in butterfly living. Lifestyle practices such as drinking expose us to the physical danger of alcohol related accidents.
There can also be relational dangers. One of the great temptations for young people is to date non-Christians. If in embracing the world, such a relationship is permitted, it opens the door to a lifetime of a relationship with an unbeliever making it much more difficult to come back to the Lord. I knew another girl who also was significantly involved in church. She married a non-Christian and since then her faith life has not been the same. Since that time, she has divorced and remarried and her walk with the Lord has never returned to what it was when she was a young girl.
There will be spiritual dangers as our acceptance of everything the world has to offer hardens our heart against the voice of God within us. The Bible warns us about the danger of hardening our heart against God. Hebrews 4:7 says, “…Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” We may think that we will be able to quickly come back, but when we begin to listen to the voice of self which is often the voice of Satan, it becomes increasingly difficult to listen to the voice of God.
Furthermore, such a choice will result in an inability to be a faithful witness. As we read earlier, as believers, we are the light of the world. People see God through us and when the signal is mixed in our life, we will prevent some from getting to know God. The warning about this is very severe in the gospels.
We hinder the spread of the gospel when we isolate ourselves from the world and we also hinder the spread of the gospel when we engage so much in the world that we are indistinguishable from it. So how do we do it? Over the past number of years, I have come to understand that God wants us to live our life like a song bird.
This spring, I was watching a wren build its nest in a bird house which I had put up. It was flying around, cheerfully singing its song. But as I watched, I also noticed that it was very cautious. Its little head was always going back and forth watching out for danger. God has left us in this world to brightly and cheerfully sing the song of Jesus, but he has also warned us that we are living in enemy territory.
A. Singing The Song Of Jesus
This has some significant implications for our lifestyle. It means that we must find ways of singing the song of Jesus. To start with, this means that we must learn to know people who are not believers. When I realized that I had no non-Christian friends, I deliberately made a choice to learn to know people who were not Christians. I played hockey and although it was hard to listen to the language that was spoken in the dressing room and to have to say “no-thank you” without being judgmental every time I was offered a beer, I got to know some of them. I found out later that their nickname for me was “German Shepherd” which I took to be a sign of positive influence. My wife and I joined a community choir and enjoyed our participation and were able to make friends with people who didn’t know the Lord. I made a concerted effort to go to the coffee shop. These things were not necessarily easy for me, but I did them because I wanted to puat myself in the place where I could be an influence.
Doing such things definitely involves going outside of our comfort zone. But it does not mean doing things that are unnatural to us. We got involved in things that we already enjoyed and simply did them with unbelievers. As we look at our life, we can find areas where we are already in contact with unbelievers and make more deliberate efforts to be in contact. We need to examine our circle of influence and in that circle of influence make an effort to be a friend to people who don’t know the Lord. All of us can be friends, it simply takes a shift in attitude that we be willing to be a genuine friend to a person who has not made a commitment to Christ.
Although it may be a challenge for us, it is definitely worth striving to learn to be comfortable with them. I am always amazed at the way in which Jesus was so comfortable with tax collectors and sinners. Equally amazing is that he conducted himself in such a way that they were comfortable with him. He treated them with respect and not as objects of proselytization. He met them at the point of their need with a word of grace and hope.
I am fully convinced that if we will put ourselves in natural and friendly contact with unbelievers and if we will be deeply in love with Jesus, we will fulfill the great commission and make disciples.
We do not have to be evangelists to make a friend. We do not have to be Bible scholars to tell a friend what Jesus has done for us. Each of us has unique opportunities to have an influence and through love and telling the good news we can all sing the song of Jesus in the world. I would like to challenge you to begin by making a list of unbelievers you know and deliberately building those relationships and being open to building the list of friends who are not believers.
B. Aware Of Danger
At the same time, we must be aware that we are in a world which is under the influence of Satan. He is the enemy who is prowling around looking for someone to devour (I Peter 5:8). That means that we must always be aware of the dangers which present themselves.
The first thing to be aware of is to recognize that sin arises first of all within our own hearts and not in the world. We must be aware that there are a lot of things in the world that will feed our sinful heart and draw it into acts of sin which will destroy our witness and draw us away from a relationship with God. It is only as we live in a close relationship with the Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit that we can live victoriously in this world. If we are to be like songbirds, singing the song of Jesus in the world, we will also have to be a people who are deeply in love with the one who created us, sustains us and has redeemed us. When we are, the tricks of Satan will have much less influence on us, we will safely walk in the world but avoid its influence. At the same time, we will be a shining light pointing the way to Jesus.
There are two men in the Bible who are excellent examples of this way of living. Joseph and Daniel were thrust far away from the “turtle” environment of their home tribe. Joseph was sent away from his family and rejected by his brothers and sent to Egypt. Daniel was forcibly taken from Jerusalem and brought to Babylon. Both of these men were young when this happened to them. Both of them had reason to reject the God of their families and live by the gods of the land they came to live in. Yet both of them were strong in faith. They lived fully immersed in evil and pagan worlds and yet maintained a godly walk, to the extent that they were an influence to the people they met and were instrumental in the redemption of God’s people. Can we be like them?