LOSING MY RELIGION
How to Lose Your Religion
August 1, 2010
It happens all the time. People come to church hoping to encounter the presence of God only to instead, encounter religion. But as followers of Christ, we must ensure that we do everything we can to represent the heart of Father God.
In this message, Stovall helps us avoid things that cause a barrier to people finding God, and instead become a bridge that leads them to the love of Christ.
We’re in the middle of a series entitled, “Losing My Religion”. Over the last few we’ve talked about how many times, we need to lose our religion in order to gain Christ. And the series has been building every week, so I encourage you to listen to the previous messages if you haven’t heard them yet.
Last weekend, we talked about the principle of always valuing mercy over sacrifice. Or another way you could put it is, valuing relationship above ritual; or valuing love above law. Jesus taught this. And we discussed how there’s this religious trap that can try and suck us in.
Once again, remember, we’ve defined religion as man’s way to get to God, but Jesus was God’s way to man. Jesus did not come to start a religion. He came to give us a relationship with our Father. But when we get religious, when we start valuing ritual over relationship, law over love, and we start look more at sacrifice instead of mercy. Then, all of a sudden, we as individuals and the church itself can become a barrier instead of a bridge.
Today, I want to pickup in Luke chapter 15. There is a great illustration here, where Jesus addresses once again, this subject of religion and how it hinders people from getting to God. Today, I want to talk to you about, how to lose your religion. I want to give you some practicals here and some things that we need to have in place in our lives and in our church, where we can get rid of religion once and for all and say yes to Jesus and an exciting relationship with God once and for all.
Luke 15:1 says, “Then all the tax collectors and sinners drew near to Him to hear Him.” Okay, so tax collectors, remember – back in these times, they were considered bad people, okay? They were involved in extortion and all that kind of stuff. It was kind of a pseudo mafia, and they received a lot of kickbacks and that sort of thing. But notice how the Bible says they, “drew near to Him to hear Him”. Now look at verse 2. It says, “And the Pharisees and scribes”—who represent religion, they complained. You know, religion always complains.
And they go on to say, “This man”—speaking of Jesus—”He receives sinners and“—very important—”and eats with them.” Now, let me explain why this was such a big deal to the religious people at that time. It wasn’t just that these people, these unchurched people, these sinners, as they call them, it wasn’t just that these people would come and hear Jesus, but it was that Jesus would eat with them that really bothered them. See, back in Biblical culture, Eastern culture, if you ate with someone, it was a lot more than just having a meal. It represented acceptance. In fact, in some eastern cultures, they actually said that a mystical union took place when you would sit down and eat with someone. So it was a very big deal. This is why you see in the Old Testament and in the New Testament a big deal about coming together and breaking bread together. You see that in the book of Acts. Why? Because it represents union. It represents acceptance.
So thinking back to these days, this is probably why the New Testament believers in the early church had a much better concept of the power of communion. When we would actually break bread and how that represented Christ accepting us and proving that acceptance by His sacrifice on the cross.
So here in this passage in Luke, what the Pharisees were saying here to Jesus was, “Look, we’ve got a problem because You are eating with these bad people.” And basically, by eating with them, Jesus was saying, “I accept these people for who they are, no matter what they’ve done, before they ever change.” By sitting down and eating with these types of people, He was saying, “I love you, and I accept you for who you are, no matter what you’ve done, regardless if you ever accept Me back or if you ever change or not.” Come on, how many of you know, we serve an awesome God, we serve a good God?
Now, take a look at what Jesus does here. Once again, instead of just, like, “Oh, blah, blah, blah. You don’t know what you’re talking about,” No. Jesus pipes in here, and the Bible says, “He spoke this parable to them.” Now, He’s about to share some stories that some of you are probably familiar with. The parable of the good shepherd, who has the 99 sheep that are doing okay, but there’s one that goes astray. This is a real common story. Then He’s going to talk about the lost coin. A lady loses a coin, and she turns on the light, she sweeps the house, and searches frantically for this one coin of value. And then He’s going to talk about the story of the prodigal son and how compassionate the father is, and so happy is the father when the lost son comes home.
Now, this is very, very interesting, because it says here that He spoke this parable—or some of your translations may say, a parable—to them. So this is not three parables. This is not one parable about the lost sheep, one parable about the lost coin, and then another parable about the lost son. This is one parable with three aspects. In other words, it’s all the same story. It’s one parable with three aspects. Just like the principle of the Trinity—there is one God and three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
What Jesus is doing here is demonstrating the one God in three persons and how the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all have this heart for the lost and all have a heart to accept people, no matter who they are or what they’ve done.
So first, He talks about the good shepherd. Who does that represent? The Son. Jesus is the good shepherd. He talks about the lost coin, and how this woman searches, and turns the lights on, and she sweeps everything. Who does that represent? That represents the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Bible talks about how the Spirit of God searches the minds and hearts, and He convicts us, and He draws people to Jesus. And then the prodigal son, who’s that talking about? The heart of the Father and the Father who runs out and hugs the son who’s been lost. It’s Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three in one. It’s one story demonstrating the heart of God towards lost humanity. Aren’t you glad that God’s whole nature is to bring the lost home?
What I want to focus on today, is the final part of this story. But I don’t want to focus on the lost son; I want to focus on the older brother, because the older brother represents religion. It represents how religion puts up a barrier and is actually disconnected from the heart of God.
Look at what it says here. I’m eventually going to pickup in verse 21. But most of you know this story. The son went out, he took his father’s inheritance, and then blew it on crazy living. He was out there in the slop. Can anybody relate? Getting all crazy out there, getting all wasted, getting all messed up? But this son is out there in the slop. And he finally comes to his senses and is like, “Man, I know my father loves me. I’m going back! There’s nothing out here. I thought these things were going to fulfill me and satisfy me. But they don’t. I’m going back to my father.” So he starts walking back, and the Bible say that while he was afar off, that the father saw him. And the father ran out there and hugged him and embraced him before the son ever even said, “I’m sorry.” I want to tell you today, no matter what location you’re attending, and no matter where you are, listen – if you will just take a couple of steps towards God, man, God will run out there and hug you and embrace you. Listen, your Heavenly Father wants you back in His house!
This is a beautiful story. The father’s hugging him, and then the son says, in verse 21, after the father’s embrace, he says, “I am sorry, and I want to come back.” And in verse 22, “The father said to his servant, “Bring out the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it. Let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and he’s alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.” Verse 25: “Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house”—everybody say, “House.” “As he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.” Now listen, this is the father’s house. This is a type and shadow—this is a picture of the church. How many of you know we are the house of God? So watch this – religion draws near to the house of God right here. The first thing that he hears is music and dancing, and he’s got a problem with it.
Music and dancing? What are we doing dancing in a church? What are we doing? You know, the Father loves to celebrate. The Father wants celebration going on, because when we come to the Father’s house, we’re not celebrating or focusing on our weaknesses, but we’re focusing on the goodness and love of our Heavenly Father, and that’s what we celebrate. We’re called “Celebration Church.” We’re not called “Celebration Church” so we can come here and focus on what’s wrong with the world and what’s wrong with ourselves and what we think is wrong with other people. We’re not here to celebrate our weaknesses. We’re here to celebrate the goodness of God. We’re here to celebrate who Jesus is.
This is where religion – where the older brother first went wrong. He was focusing on the weakness of man, instead of focusing on the goodness of God. So immediately he had a problem with the whole situation. Dancing! And I’ll tell you what, I don’t know what kind of dancing was going on in the father’s house, but I guarantee you, they were doing some real dancing. Not the little Christian two-step, you know. I’ll bet there was some throw down, baby, and some…. Music! There was music going on, and think about this: The older brother heard it while he was way out of the house. Must have been a little loud!
This is what I’m trying to say here, and this is the first point that I want to make: Religion despises freedom. Religion despises freedom. Let me read the rest of this passage: “He heard the music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant.” Verse 27: “And he said, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’ But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him.” But he answered his father—he says, “Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I have never transgressed your commandment at any time.” Come on! You’re telling me? Do I have some parents in the house today? Seriously? No matter how great your kid is, do any of us have a son or daughter that has never transgressed, never disobeyed one time in their entire life? Of course not! I mean, if he’s never transgressed, well, he could be Jesus! But see, that’s what religion does. Do you know what religion ends up doing in us? We become blinded. Remember what Jesus says? He says, “You’re so quick to point out the speck on your brother, and the whole time, you’ve got a plank in your own”. You can’t even see that you’re in the same situation. Look what He goes on to say, “I never transgressed your commandment”—right—”and you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends.” Bull! I mean, I can challenge that, too. Do any of you have teenagers? Have you ever heard that? “You never let me do this!” Yet you’re thinking to yourself, “Well, I let you do it last week and the week before. In fact, I can think of 12 times just right off the top of my head.” Or how about the famous one, “Everybody’s gets to do this!” So you say, “Well, who’s everybody?” To which they can only respond, “Uh, uh, you know…them.” Come to find out it’s like one person.
Continuing on in verse 30, “But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.” Instead of focusing on the goodness of God, he’s focusing on the weakness of man. He’s focusing on his brother’s faults instead of focusing on the goodness of his father. This is exactly what you see religion do every time. This is how people stop valuing mercy over sacrifice: They start focusing on the weakness of man instead of the goodness of God. This is how people value ritual over relationship: They start focusing on the weakness of man instead of the goodness of God. This is how people end up valuing law over love: They start focusing on the weakness of man instead of focusing on the goodness of God, which is where the older brother should have had his focus.
In verse 31, the father says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.” Notice that -it was “Right.” In other words, this is the right thing to do. “It is right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.” The father is saying, “It is right that we be merry.” This is exactly what I mean when I say that religion despises freedom. Religion always has an attitude like this one. This is what the older brother wanted. It focuses on the weakness of man, as in his heart he’s basically saying, “Hey, look, he’s getting off free! There needs to be some more repentance, Dad! There needs to be some more sadness. He needs to earn our acceptance back! This is all way too happy! Instead, this should be a somber occasion. This needs to be a solemn assembly!”
That’s exactly what religion always does. It always wants things to be more solemn, more sad, more serious. It always demands that there be more repentance. He should be punished a little bit. No, instead the father says, “It is right that we’re merry.” Do you want to know why? Someone did suffer! Do you know who it was? Jesus! Someone did go through some sadness and some solemness. Jesus did! Jesus paid the price for our sins. Think of the analogy when compared to the house of God. When people come into the house of God, they need to be met with the Father’s love, and we need to celebrate that Jesus paid the price for all of their sins and it’s right to make merry! Of course repentance is important, that son ended up repenting. There’s a difference between being somber and being sober. That’s what religion does. Religion wants you to be somber. God just wants you to be sober. Religion confuses holiness with harshness. Somehow, if you’re holy, you’ve got to be more strict. You’ve got to have a holy glare.
I remember when I had just gotten saved. Man, I thought I was doing so good. Before that, I wasn’t going to church at all, and once I got saved, I was going to church like two or three times a month on Sunday mornings. I mean, come on, I thought I was like the apostle Paul! You know? Growing up, we only went to church a couple of times at year – at Easter and Christmas! But then, once I got saved, I was like going to church most Sundays. I was so fired up. My sins were forgiven. I was doing great. And I’ll never forget what happened one day. I got a call from this guy, and he said, “Look, you’re not coming to church on Sunday night. You need to come to church on Sunday night.” Now, let me qualify this, okay? This was more of a traditional church. It wasn’t anything like Celebration, where we have an additional service option on Sunday night. In fact, if I would have had a church like Celebration Church, I’d have been there every time the doors opened! This was a little more traditional. It was one of those churches where people go to church Sunday morning, and they come back and go to Sunday night service too. So anyways, this guy was like, “Man, if you’re serious about God, then you need to come to church on Sunday night.” And you know, this kind of messed with me, because I was sensitive to God. And because of what he said, I felt like, “Man, I guess I’m not pleasing God. What I’m doing isn’t enough.” So I started going to Sunday night, but then, this particular guy and this group of people, started laying out more things. Like, “Well, you need to do this. And if you really love God, you need to do this…” And none of what they asked was done through the right filter. Let me explain, the right filter to have is: we love God, and God accepts us, no matter what. Therefore, because we are children of God, we need to act like it and put God first so that we can be everything God’s called us to be. Do you see? It’s not an attitude of you need to do in order to earn God’s approval and to earn God’s favor. But that was what this guy was communicating to me. So eventually, I got to the place in my walk with God where I was probably doing more religious activity than I’ve ever done. But it was probably the time where I was the least effective in my relationship with God, and especially with other people. Do you know why? Because, number one, I always walked around in condemnation. See you can never do good enough to earn God’s favor. And the second thing was, I started to put that same pressure onto other people. I started to transfer those burdens and that mentality onto other people. And finally, I just had a powerful encounter with God, and He freed me up from all that. But that’s what religion does. It despises freedom. But the heart of the Father wants us to be merry. He wants us to celebrate. He wants us to focus on the goodness of God instead of the weakness of man. Aren’t you glad that God is like that?
Think about this—what if the older brother, instead of focusing on the weakness of his younger brother, would have focused on the happiness of his father? What if he would have focused on the goodness of God? It would have been a whole different story.
The second thing is, religion criticizes from afar. Isn’t that interesting how this older brother wouldn’t go in? He liked to stay in the outskirts, and he liked to communicate third party. And here’s what I’ve seen about religion: Religion loves to criticize, and it loves to criticize from afar, and most of the time, it’s afraid to go in. I’ve even heard people say that about Celebration Church: “You better not go there, ’cause you’ll never come back!” “People go in, but they don’t come out.” “Something must be wrong with that church! They’re just reaching too many people! Surely, they must not be preaching the truth because so many people are going to that church.” You know what? It’s actually the opposite. If you don’t preach the truth, people are eventually going to leave that church because people want the truth. If people are looking for God, they need to find God! Do you realize what people are really saying when they say things like that? “They’re not harsh enough over there. Not enough somberness going on over there.”
The Bible says all of heaven rejoices over one person that repents and comes to God. We have hundreds of people do that almost every week at Celebration Church. Remember the “Our Father”? Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. If heaven is rejoicing… if heaven says it’s right to be merry, shouldn’t we be rejoicing? Shouldn’t we say that it’s right to be merry?
One of my dear friends, many of you know him, he’s one of the presbyters of our church, Chris Hodges, pastor of Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, Alabama. Great church, great friend of mine. God’s doing phenomenal things up there. And I remember in the early years, (I think his church was about five years old), it was growing really, really fast. And there was this one guy who was on one of those “Christian watchdog groups”, so to speak. Now watch this – never went to his church, never heard him preach one message, but he wrote up an entire article on his church saying things like, “This church is just growing really fast, and the preacher is preaching heresy…” And he just started listing all these things that were just totally not true! Published it in a Birmingham periodical. Filled with all these rumors about there being something wrong the church, and all that kind of stuff. Yet the guy never went in! It’s so easy to criticize while sitting behind a computer, isn’t it? We get in our little negative blogging—and for some, it’s really not blogging, you’re bittering. Some people are not Twittering; you’re littering. Anyways, so this guy wrote up all this stuff and Chris called me, and a couple of his friends. And he was like, “Man, this thing’s out, and all this isn’t true. This guy isn’t even in our church. I can’t believe he’s done this. The community is saying all this and that.” It was real bad. But Chris just prayed. And of course you know me, I didn’t know what to do. I was like, “What? What are you doing? Let’s go fight him!” No, I’m kidding. But we all prayed for Chris and Chris prayed and was listening for the Holy Spirit to give him an answer. And you know the answer was exactly opposite of what religion would have done, which was essentially what was attacking him. And all Chris said was, “These things have come out in the paper. We invite everybody to come and see for yourself.” He didn’t write a refute; he just said, “Why don’t you come and see? Listen to my messages. Experience our church and find out for yourself.” And so guess what? People did. People came in and realized, “Man, this guy preaches the truth! This is a phenomenal church!” So the church ended up growing more! And here’s why: Religion likes to criticize from afar. Religion is very narrow-minded. As followers of Christ, we should not be narrow-minded. There’s a very, very big difference in walking a narrow way or walking a narrow path and being narrow-minded. As followers of Christ, we walk a narrow path. Jesus is our leader. We follow Him. But at the same time, we’re open-minded. We read the Bible with an open mind. That’s how you find truth, by being open-minded and studying the Scriptures.
Thirdly, religion focuses on all the wrong things. Just look at everything this older brother was doing. I like to say it like this: Religion focuses on all the minors instead of focusing on the majors. The major doctrines are things like, the Trinity, that Jesus is the only way to heaven, that the Bible is the inherent Word of God. I mean, there’s only five to seven major doctrines, as far as being a true follower of Jesus. But yet, religion has a way of getting us to focus on all of the little minors. Got to focus on this aspect of the Spirit. They’ll focus how you baptize. Do you baptize in Jesus’ name, or do you baptize in Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit? Or what about this: How many weeks is your membership class? Come on somebody! Seriously? Our membership class at Celebration Church is 30 minutes! If you get saved, you’re a member of the body of Christ at large. If you feel like this is your home church, you can join right now. And you know, some people are going to say, “Well, I just don’t like that.” To which I’ll say, why don’t you read Acts chapter 2? Three thousand were saved in that one day, and they were added to the church. It wasn’t a six-week process! Or how about this one. “What kind of translation of the Bible are they reading?” What? Oh my gosh. Can I say this? Just like I was several years back, and just like many of you are today. First of all….if you’ve not been following Jesus, ANY translation of the Bible is probably better than what you’ve been reading. Am I right? It’s going to be a hundred times better than the stuff you’ve been reading or the stuff you’ve been watching!! But yet, why do people feel that they have to put that kind of stuff, that kind of pressure on people? “King James only”. Most unsaved people are like, “What is King James? Is that like LeBron James?” Why do we want to make the “thees,” “thous,” and the “hither theretos,” and the “how so asunder there be its,” WHY would we put that on someone when they’re just trying to find God? Do you see what I’m saying?
Just so you know this, I’ve been studying the Bible for 21 years now. I’ve studied every single book that promotes King James Version only. And if you read these things with an open mind, look – it’s not just King James Version only. When you get down to it, it’s the Greek, and it’s the Hebrew, and it’s the right translation for the culture at hand, okay? So just move on. Let’s make Jesus the focus here! Religion focuses on all the wrong things.
Think about this: What if the older brother, instead of criticizing from afar, would have just gone in and just experienced it and had an open mind? What if he would have focused on the joy of his father, the goodness of God instead of the weakness of his brother? What if, instead of focusing on all the little things, like what he did, what he hadn’t done, what his brother did, what his brother hadn’t done—what if he focused on the bigger picture? Which was that the lost – what is so valuable to God – was found. This is why we are here. Jesus came to seek and save the lost. The parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, the parable of the lost son… instead of focusing on the little things, what if he had focused on the bigger mission? What if he would have thought to himself, “I might not agree with how exactly this is going on, but I know we are fulfilling the mission of what God’s called us to do (as a family). I’m focused on what my father really wants.” What if the older brother would have had that attitude?
Here’s the sad truth. Today—this is a type and shadow of the house of God. Today, many people will visit God’s house. Visit what’s called a “church”, but instead of encountering the heart of the Father, they’ll encounter the spirit of the older brother, and they’ll go right back to the slop that they’ve been living in because they encountered religion instead of a relationship with God. Listen, we all have a choice to make as individuals, and we have a choice as a church. Are we going to be a place that represents the heart of the Father? Religion gets disconnected from the heart of the Father. Are we going to be a church and are we going to be people that represent the heart of the Father, so that when people come home, when they come to God, when they need to find God, and they want God, that they’ll encounter that love and acceptance? You know, there are going to be churches that sadly, are going to be more like that older brother. And when people come and try to find God, those people won’t see God. They’ll see religion. They won’t find a bridge; they’ll find a barrier, and they’ll go right back out into the slop, and they’ll think, “Man, if God’s like that, I don’t want any part of it.” And you know what? I don’t blame them. We have a decision to make, about our lives and our attitudes in general. And what I’m asking you to do right now is to make that decision in your heart: “Lord, I’m always going to focus on the goodness of God instead of the weakness of man.” And you know what? It’s the same way in your own life. If you are constantly focusing on your weaknesses instead of the goodness of God, you will walk in condemnation. And if you focus on other people’s weaknesses instead of the goodness of God, that religion, that barrier, will set in with them.