Presented on The Lutheran Hour on September 13, 2020
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Acts 2:37-47
You remember when we used to be able to gather together at concerts and conventions, school assemblies, piano recitals, and then receptions afterwards, ballgames and parties and parades? For the foreseeable future because of a continued threat of pandemic, it looks like large group gatherings just aren't going to happen like they used to. This has been difficult on everyone, and it's been difficult on practicing Christians. This is what we do. Right? We get together. We go to church together, and when we couldn't, it became a problem, and it might still be a problem. But when I look at this problem through the perspective of the Bible, I wonder if there might be something deeper going on. Something beyond our inability to gather physically. I wonder if as Christians, Christians in North America at least, if we had become overly dependent on a church- going system to practice our faith. And when that system broke, we didn't know what to do.
It's kind of like when your furnace dies in the middle of winter, and you're scrambling to keep warm. You're scrambling because you had become dependent on the thermostat, the little dial on the wall you use to program the temperature. Now, if you live in a modern house in a modern neighborhood, there might not be any other sustainable options to keep your house warm, and you just got to wait for the thing to get fixed. But is that how it is in the practice of our faith, in our relationship with God? If the church-going system breaks, what do we do? Do we just privately read devotions and watch a worship service online and then wait for someone to fix the thermostat?
Now, maybe you don't think this is a problem. I can imagine someone saying, "I don't need to gather with other people to be a Christian." And I'd say to them, "Well, what do you mean?" And they'd say, "Being a Christian is about having a personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus." And I'd say, "Yeah." And they'd say, "Well, if that relationship is good, then that's all that matters. That's the most important part." And I'd say, "Yes and no." No because, well, I'm a father and I have four children, and my being a father to them is about my personal relationship with each child. But there's more to it than that because I care about all my children, and I want them to care about each other as much as I care about them. And it brings me great joy to see them gathering together and talking together and playing together and getting along together.
And the Bible says the same thing about God, only more so. He is a father by nature. And in Jesus, He wants to become the father in practice for everybody. And it brings the Father great joy to bring His children together. This is a problem. We found ourselves in a position where our church attendance system broke, but the Bible says we can't stop gathering with other Christians. What do we do? If we can't get together like we used to, are we out of options? And the answer of course is no, we're not. But it's hard to see the possibilities if you become dependent on the thermostat and have forgotten about the fire.
God's people in the Old Testament had become dependent on the thermostat. The thermostat for them was the temple in Jerusalem. They had a system of gathering and services and offerings going on in the temple and as long as that system was set to 72 degrees, as long as everybody was in their place and doing what they were supposed to do, they could set it and forget it. But they forgot that the temple was not their spiritual thermostat. The temple was the house of the living God, who is a consuming fire. But the people had let the embers of their relationship with God get cold and die. What did God do? God took away the temple. God leveled His own house. He sent a foreign army to sack the Holy City and scatter the people to the surrounding countries. Nevertheless, God sustained their faith. Not by fixing the thermostat, but by filling the fireplace.
God sent the prophet Ezekiel to explain it to them. In Ezekiel 11:16 God tells Ezekiel to tell the people. He says, "Although I have cast them far off among the nations, I will be for them, I will be for you, a little sanctuary: a small sanctuary in all the countries where you have gone." God promised that He would be a small sanctuary for the people wherever they went. The big sanctuary was the temple in Jerusalem, but God also promised to be a small sanctuary for them. God promised to light the fire of His presence in every hearth and home and transform every dwelling place into a small sanctuary. God opened up a possibility that had always been there. Every home could be a place where they write the Word of God on their doorframes and their front gates. Where they speak the Word of God when they sit at home and when they lie down and when they rise up. Where they in their households serve the Lord in His sanctuary, the small sanctuary of their home.
Sometimes Christians call the church building the "house of God." And it's true. It's also true that God wants to make your place His house. God wants to be the fire in your place. God promised to dwell wherever His Word was shared. Wherever the Good News of Jesus was proclaimed, inviting people to respond in prayer and praise. The church building can be the big sanctuary where lots of God's people gather, and a called-and-appointed preacher shares the Word of God with people. And other teachers and leaders guide the people in their response to God and their prayers and their praises and their life of purpose. And then this purposeful life follows you home. And the presence of God fills your household with the light and the warmth and the power of His Word and His Spirit. At least that's how God intended it.
I think this pandemic may have unmasked a deeper problem. The problem of thermostat spirituality. Like the people of the Old Testament, we thought that we could control our life with God like a thermostat. As long as we were programmed to go to church, we could set it and forget it. But you cannot. You cannot set and forget a consuming fire.
Consider these three pre-pandemic scenarios.
Three young professionals live together as roommates. They're all committed Christians and they all go to the same church. But they never really talk about the Bible or pray together unless they're in their church or at their small group at church. They relate to God as a church and as individuals, but not as a household.
A young father: he didn't grow up in a Christian home and therefore has no muscle memory for how to pray together with his own children. And so he limits that activity—praying—to church going. And he figures as long as I am taking my kids to church, I'm fulfilling my duty as a Christian parent.
A couple that's been married for years, and they go to church together every week. But other than a set prayer at suppertime, they don't pray together or open the Bible together at home. Relating to God is something they do at the church building, but not in their house.
Those three scenarios come from the book that I mentioned last week, The Spiritually Vibrant Home by Don Everts. And even though they're hypothetical scenarios, they have the ring of truth. And they illustrate this deeper problem of thermostat spirituality. Thermostat spirituality says, "As long as I can program my relationship to God with church attendance, I can set it and forget it." Go read the New Testament book of Acts and you will see something different: not a thermostat spirituality, but a fireplace spirituality where God's Spirit is on the move to light a fire in the hearth and home of everyone who hears the Good News about Jesus, the Messiah.
In the second chapter of Acts, the apostle Peter stands up to preach this Good News. Peter's standing with the other apostles, the witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus, and they are there with all the first believers in Jesus. It's a group of only about 120 people, and they're all together in a house. And as they're there, this sound comes like a mighty rushing wind, and it fills the house. And then fire—fire, flames of fire descend and appear and remain on each one of them, all 120 of them. And this is drawing a crowd now, and Peter stands up and he lifts up his voice to speak the Good News of Jesus to that crowd. And he talks to them about the part they played in the crucifixion of this Jesus of Nazareth. And he tells them the good news that God raised this Jesus from the dead, and that Jesus is alive because it was not possible for the cold grip of the grave to keep hold of the fire of the Lord.
And the people—they're cut to the heart, and they say to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what should we do?" And Peter says to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the Name of Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you and your children, for all who are far off, for all whom the Lord, our God, will call." And those who received his word were baptized.
And that day 3,000 souls were added and they continued to devote themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers, and awe was coming upon every soul, and great wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all the believers kept on being together and having all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and their belongings and sharing them with anyone who had need. And every day, every day they kept on devoting themselves together in the temple, and breaking bread in their households. And they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God, having favor with all the people and the Lord kept adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. Acts 2:37-41.
A few years back, the heater in our house died, in the dead of winter. And it happened on a weekend as these things always do. And the parts wouldn't come until Monday, and so we had to figure out how to heat our house. We had a fireplace in our living room, and we said, "Well, we'll keep the house warm with the fire. And we learned that heating a home with a fireplace is a messy, inefficient, all-consuming activity. But it's also kind of fun. It put all the busyness of our life in perspective. Tending the fire and warming the household became our number-one priority. And we still talk about this years later, how we had to split logs and gather kindling. We refined the art form of starting a fire and keeping it going, and saw how quickly you could fan the coals into flame again, even after it seems to have died in the night.
And in hindsight, I realized that no one in my household has ever said to me, "Hey, you remember that time, that time we set our thermostat to 72?" No, they've never said that, but we still talk about that weekend when the six of us, plus the dog all piled together under blankets and sleeping bags around the hearth of our home, in the presence of an all-consuming fire.
We've been talking about a problem—problem of not being able to get together in church buildings like we used to. And we said that it is a problem because Christians are called to gather together, but this situation has unmasked a deeper problem of thermostat spirituality. Have you been trying to program your relationship with God like you would set and forget a thermostat? So you don't have to think about relating to God beyond the act of going to church? If so, God has more for you than that. God sent His Word and His Spirit to be the fire in your place. Maybe you look at the spiritual fireplace in your household and all you can see there is dead embers, and it doesn't look very hopeful. But God has not given up on you or your household. The God who raised Jesus from the dead can ignite and enliven a fire, even in your house.
I miss being able to gather together in the big sanctuary, without all the risks and precautions. And I pray that the threat of this pandemic would go away. But even if it stays longer than we planned, the fire of the Lord will still fill the hearth and the home of every household that gathers around His Word and responds with faith-filled prayer. Would you pray to Him with me now?
Holy Spirit, fire from heaven, fill our hearts and our homes. Fill the members of our extended households, frequent guests in our home, and fill the households in which we find ourselves as frequent guests. And if we live alone or are isolated from other Christians, sustain us with Your holy fire, and bring us quickly out of the cold and into the warmth of vibrant Christian fellowship, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Father, one God, consuming fire, forever and ever. Amen.
Reflections for September 13, 2020
Title: Fireplace Spirituality
Mike Zeigler: This week again I get to talk with Don Everts. He's the content development manager at Lutheran Hour Ministries, also the author of this book that we've been talking about, The Spiritually Vibrant Home. A spiritually vibrant home is a place where faith in Jesus is being nurtured. In the book, you talk about commonalities that spiritually vibrant households have. You call them messy prayers, loud tables, and open doors. We'll talk more about the last two as we move on in the next couple of weeks, but we're going to focus on that, the messy prayers. Why did you call it messy prayers?
Don Everts: The research didn't say that you had to have expertise when it came to being in the Bible with each other. You didn't have to have experience. You just had to be doing something. You had to be nudging your household forward in these things. So messy prayers, to me, better captures that sense that if you can help your household hang out with God in some way, maybe a little bit more than you did last month, you're there. You're getting there. You're on the road.
Mike Zeigler: In your book, you use a great image. You talk about the difference between ... is it neat furnace or clean furnace?
Don Everts: Neat furnace.
Mike Zeigler: Neat furnace and a messy fireplace. And that for you ... that really stayed with me. How did that help clarify what you were trying to say in this chapter in the book?
Don Everts: If you think about a furnace, furnaces are, I mean if they're working right there, they're neat. They're tucked away somewhere. They're in your basement, they're behind a door. You don't see the furnace. You just have that little dial in your hall, that little thermostat. If it's the summer, you set, "Here's the maximum temperature I want." Or if it's in the winter, "Here's the minimum temperature I want." And if it dips below or above that, it kicks on and magically the temperature changes. And I think sometimes when you think about nurturing spiritual disciplines or the spiritual life of a household, I think we can approach it in that way. We say, "What are some minimums?" It's neat to say, "I'm doing my job of nurturing their faith if I just make sure they go to church." That's the minimum "I'm going to put that on the thermostat." "Hey kids, you have to go to youth group. All I have to do is enforce that. "Hey, you have to go," and then the youth worker or the Bible study leader, they do all the other stuff. But what the Scripture reveals and the research confirms is that what actually helps nurture faith is more hands-on, and a little more messy. So you think about heating a house with a fireplace rather than a furnace, fireplaces are messy, right? You have to constantly be tending them, and you can't just push a button and the heat starts. You have to build a fire, so you have to start with the kindling. You know what this is like, right?
Mike Zeigler: Yeah.
Don Everts: It doesn't mean that you're pristinely religious. It means that you're hands-on, tending to the fire. And the research revealed that if you're doing that, if you're saying, "Hey, before we drive away on vacation, why doesn't someone pray for our time before we leave?" And we're find you don't even have to be the one who prays. Just to nudge your family in that way or to nudge those in your household. Before a meal, you have friends over for a meal, with you and your roommates or whatever, and to just say, "Hey, we spent all this time cooking this food. Can someone just like ... let's give thanks for this and thanks for the other things God has given us in our life right now." Little nudges like that, constant nudges, are actually what helps grow the fire of our faith over time.
Mike Zeigler: There's a lot of emphasis on individual devotional habits. And this is something a little different as I hear you talk about it. This is not just me having a quiet time or reading a prayer book, but doing this with the people of my household, and extended household.
Don Everts: The research didn't show us that if people have individual spiritual disciplines that their faith is growing. What it revealed is that if they're corporate, if they together, are doing these things as an aggregate, as a whole household, they find their faith growing. And that is, you know, we tend to think in two categories, that God cares about and relates with us as individuals, and that God cares about and relates with us as congregations. But in the Bible, there's this middle thing called a household that God actually cares about and wants to have a relationship with your household. And that is newer, maybe even more in the West, it's new for us because we've inherited, kind of in the air we breathe, is more of an individual emphasis. And the Bible has much more of a corporate familial aggregate emphasis that God wants to be with us, not just with a bunch of different mes.
Mike Zeigler: And even as I'm thinking back to the Scripture reading we heard in the message today from Acts 2 that the early believers, they were gathering in the temple, it says every day, and in their households, to break bread and to continue to be together. So there was that third place, not just the sanctuary, not just individual, but in that household.
Don Everts: But also in the household. Which you think all the way back to when God is instructing Israel and saying, "Here's how to be My people." And you have the great Shema. "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart." And what does He say afterwards?
Mike Zeigler: Talk about them and ...
Don Everts: "Now talk about these things when you lie down, when you're in the road." In these domestic places, God wants us to be talking about our relationship with Him, having a living relationship with Him as a household.
Mike Zeigler: I'm talking to Don Everts. He's the author of this book, The Spiritually Vibrant Home. A resource that could help you take a step forward in growing in spiritual vibrancy as a household. And this applies even if you're living alone, that you're probably part of an extended household, or maybe you have people who come in and out of your home, and they're a part of your extended household. Don, if somebody wanted to grow in this area, what would you encourage them to do or to try?
Don Everts: One really fun thing that the research revealed is how often food is what gets a household together. In fact, when we looked at what do households, including the extended household, do when they're all together, the most common thing is eat. And so there's actually a correlation between families that eat together and have a spiritually vibrant faith. One thing that I would encourage people is just start doing more together, eating some more meals together, playing together, doing more things together. It's kind of a catalyst because it increases your togetherness. Even having fun and eating food, and then sprinkle in some of these spiritual disciplines. And the research tells us that actually will move the needle for your household.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you for making time to talk with us about this.
Don Everts: Yeah, good to be with you, Mike.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Come Down, O Love Divine" arr. Henry Gerike. Used by permission.
"Come Down, O Love Divine" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)