A while back an old friend told me he didn’t go to church anymore. He said, “It’s the same old thing: ‘things are bad now,’ the preacher always says, ‘but someday Jesus will return and then everything will be better.’ I’ve heard it all before.”
My friend knows I am a preacher, but he is a good guy and did not say this to irritate me. I have been thinking about his words, though. My first thought was, “Well, that is the basic theme of a lot of my sermons, too.” That is, in fact, one of the essential teachings of the Bible. There are other key messages, such as, we are sinners and Jesus died to forgive us for our sins; we are saved by God’s love and grace and not by our own good works; God has given us ten commandments and he expects us to obey him and live by his Word and command; we will die, but just as Jesus rose from the dead, we who believe in Jesus can rise from the dead and live with him in his heavenly home; and so on. Like my friend’s preacher, I do repeat these same messages over and over again. Not only that, but Sunday after Sunday we repeat a summary of all the beliefs of our entire faith in the three brief paragraphs of the Apostle’s Creed– again, the same old thing week after week.
But ‘the same old thing’ week after week is fine with me. Weekly worship was never intended to be the place to try out something new every time. Rather, this constant repetition of the same old thing reinforces and strengthens our beliefs in those basics of the faith. During the week we do not see people rising from the dead. We believe in that promise by faith, and it takes hearing that again and again to reinforce that faith and keep it alive. We know that we are supposed to be honest, tell the truth, be kind to others, keep our promises, and forgive others the wrong that they do us. But things happen in our daily lives that make us want to do otherwise. Our weekly presence in church reminds us that there is a God who is watching, and that reinforces the motivation for our obedience.
Sermons are supposed to help with that, but the sermon is not the whole reason for going to church. Everyone knows what a church is for, and just being there is a reminder of God and your relationship with him, of your sin and need for forgiveness, and of life and death and eternity. My friend’s comment reminded me of the old Roman Catholic way of doing church– the same thing every time and all in Latin. What did anyone get out of that? Maybe not as much as if it had been in English, but they knew they were in a church, and they were there out of obedience to God, and that in the Sacrament they received Jesus Christ who died for their sins. It was the ‘same old thing’ week after week, but it was enough to help them prepare for eternity.
Hebrews 13:8 says, “Jesus Christ, THE SAME yesterday, today, and forever.” THE SAME. Even the best preachers can’t improve on that. In fact, the very next verse is a warning about always hankering after something new. Verse 9 says, “Don’t be carried away by strange teachings.”
We are again in Advent, waiting to hear the same message as we’ve heard every other year: Christ comes to us as a baby in the manger in Bethlehem, and he is coming again at the end of the world. Same old thing. We’ve heard it all before. But what a wonderful message it is, and what hope would we have without it? My old friend complained about always hearing the same old message; ‘Things are bad, but Jesus is coming and then it will be better.’ That is good enough for me. Even when we’re dead and long forgotten, there will still be for us that promise: “Jesus Christ is coming again, for you and for me.”
Hebrews 13:8-9a — Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace…
Romans 10:17 — Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.
Jeremiah 6:16 — This is what the Lord says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’”
Tell me the old, old story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.
Tell me the story simply, as to a little child,
For I am weak and weary, and helpless and defiled.
Tell me the story slowly, that I may take it in,
That wonderful redemption, God’s remedy for sin.
Tell me the story often, for I forget so soon;
The early dew of morning has passed away at noon.
–Katherine Hankey (1834-1911)
This poem was written in 1866 and was the inspiration for the popular hymn I Love to Tell the Story (1867)