LOSING MY RELIGION
August 8, 2010
The deception of false religion is that it always appears to have a form of godliness, but lacks of any true substance. Don’t miss this powerful message, as Stovall uncovers the truth about the appearances of religion, and helps us identify what is truly of God. Sometimes, you’ve got to “lose your religion” to focus on the things that produce Godly substance in your life.
Today, we’re continuing in our series “Losing My Religion”. If you haven’t been here the last few weeks, I encourage you to listen to the previous messages in this series, because each message has been building on the previous one. In fact, if this if your first time – I know you may be thinking, “I thought that’s what we were here for today? To get more religion, right?” But actually, we’re not. We’re here to get more of a relationship with Jesus, not more of religion. And that’s what this series is all about.
So far, we’ve defined religion as man’s attempt to get to God. And we looked at a guy named Nimrod, (who’s name actually means, “rebel”) who was the founder of false religion. And we read in Genesis, that when Nimrod did that – when he attempted to get to God through man-made efforts, all it did was cause confusion. He built the Tower of Babel. “Babel” in it’s original name, meant “gateway to God,” but then it came to mean, “confusion,” and that’s what religion does. You see, religion, puts itself out there as a gateway to God, but the end of it is confusion and strife and even war.
Also, over the last couple of weeks, we looked at the life of Jesus, and how every time He encountered religion, it was a major deal. Religion was Jesus’ greatest enemy. Religion was what He was always coming up against: the spirit of religion; the idea of religion. And it’s still like that today. There’s false religion in the world, and then there is just religion in general within the body of Christ. Last week we talked about how choosing mercy over sacrifice keeps us from slipping into a religious mindset. Again, it’s really important for you to go back and listen to the other messages in this series.
Today, we’re going to look at another story in the Gospel of Matthew. In chapter 21, Jesus teaches us a powerful lesson, once again, about religion. We’re just going to look at two verses Matthew 21:18-19. The setting of this is towards the end of Jesus’ ministry. In chapter 21 we read of Jesus’ triumphal entry. And what’s going on here is that Jesus has been ministering in Jerusalem. And you can read that whenever Jesus was ministering in Jerusalem, He wouldn’t stay there. He would always go right outside of Jerusalem, to a town called Bethany. It was in Bethany where Martha, Mary and Lazarus lived, (the brother and two sisters). Mary, Martha and Lazarus were real good friends of Jesus, and throughout His ministry, He would spend the night out there with them.
Here in this passage, it was morning now, and Jesus was going from Bethany back into Jerusalem, and He’s going to walk by the Mount of Olives. Here in verse 18, it says, “Now in the morning, as He returned to the city”—speaking of Jerusalem—”He was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and He said to it, ‘Let no fruit grow on you ever again.’ And immediately, the fig tree withered away.” Many of you might be familiar with this story where Jesus curses this fig tree. Now, how many of you will be honest and just say that taking this story as it is, at face value…doesn’t that seem a little bit extreme? Come on, be honest. I mean, I think Jesus is being a little extreme here. Either He didn’t sleep last night because of those parties Mary and Martha were always having. Mary probably always wanted to stay up late, worshipping Jesus, and Martha was always, fixing everything and hosting everyone. Or maybe He had just gotten so hungry to the point he was grouchy. I know some men can relate. I’ve noticed the men get food anxiety. Come on guys, can you relate? Men like their meals regimented. If they don’t know where their next meal is coming from, we start pacing. And if it goes too long, the grouchiness sets in. Anyways, Jesus was hungry, and He sees this fig tree by the road. Now, let me give you a little bit of background. First of all, let’s talk about fig trees. In Jerusalem, in this culture and in this area of the world, fig trees are in abundance. They’re everywhere. Even today, if you went over to Israel and the Middle East, in this part of the world, fig trees are in abundance. There will be several of them in one place and they’re actually a really big tree. They’ll grow to like 25 feet in height and they’re very, very fruitful. So anyways, to the Hebrews, figs were a staple part of the Hebrew diet. There were fig trees all throughout the countryside, and so obviously, when people were traveling and saw a fig tree, if it was the right time of the year and in the right season, they instantly knew they could get some breakfast or lunch or whatever.
So here in this passage, Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem and the Bible says He sees this fig tree and that the fig tree had leaves. Now here’s another interesting thing about the fig tree: The fig tree is one of the few plant-bearing trees where the leaves and the fruit appear simultaneously. In some seasons, the fruit would even precede the leaves. So if you were in this area of the world, and you saw a fig tree that had leaves, you knew it had fruit. It’s a really easy plant to read. So what was happening here was that Jesus saw this tree. He saw the leaves on it, so He obviously assumed, “Great, this tree has fruit!” But then when He gets to the tree, for some reason, this tree had leaves, but it doesn’t have any fruit. It’s got the appearance of a healthy tree, but it lacks the substance. Or spiritually speaking, I could say it this way, (the way a verse in the Bible says it): It has a form of godliness, but it’s lacking the power. In other words, this fig tree was all about appearance, but it had no true substance.
Every time Jesus encountered religion, whether it was while He was picking corn in a field, or whether He was confronting the Pharisees, He never just simply dismissed the issue and was like, “Oh, whatever” and moved on. He never did that. He always stopped, and would teach a powerful lesson about it, because religion is one of the greatest enemies to a genuine relationship with Christ. So once again, here with the issue of the fig tree, He is going to teach a powerful lesson. It has the appearance, but it has no substance. That’s the first thing that we always see with religion.
Religion has the appearance, but it has no substance. Or, as the Bible says, it has a form of godliness, but it lacks the power. It might look like a gateway to God, but the further you dig into it, it just becomes confusion. It might have all the pomp and all the ritual and all the ceremony; the leaders might wear all the religious garbs and things like that, but…. See, religion loves appearance, but you know what God loves? God loves substance. God’s not into appearance. God doesn’t look at the outward. He looks at the heart! And we see this once again, all the way back to Genesis. Think about when Adam and Eve first sinned. Do you know what was the first thing that they did? They tried to get a form and appearance that would be acceptable, where they could still have fellowship with God. They realized they were naked, and the Bible says they went to a fig tree, and took some leaves. What do the leaves represent? Leaves: No fruit. Leaves represent the form of—leaves represent religion. They went and made a fig leaf cover. How many of you know, that was a sorry fashion statement! I tell you what, from some of the things I see coming off the runway today, it’s not much better than that fig leaf covering. But anyway, they make this fig leaf covering to cover themselves. But what does God do? After God lovingly corrects them, He wants them to get rid of those leaves. In other words, you better lose that religion. And you’re going to need some tunics made of animal skins. God was saying, “You need a blood sacrifice to cover yourself, to bring yourself back in relation to Me.” It was a type and shadow that just the leaves—religion – won’t do. You’re going to have to have a blood sacrifice. The tunics they wore came from animal skin – an animal had to be killed. It’s a type and shadow of Jesus Christ, that He was sacrificed for us, and the only thing that brings us back to God is a relationship with Christ, not a bunch of religion!
Religion loves appearance- but it lacks the substance. So here’s what I want to say to you today: No matter where you are in your walk with God, listen – focus on what brings substance. As a church, as a pastor, as a lead staff here at Celebration Church, do you know what we focus on? We focus on the things that are going to bring substance. That’s what we always talk about, being real, being relevant, being genuine, being sincere. I’ll tell you what, you might like me, or you might not like me, but you can rest in this: What you see is what you get. The Stovall up here today is the same Stovall at my house. It’s the same Stovall at the office. Be who you are. We all have problems. News flash! We all have issues. We all have things that we’re believing for God to change in us. But we don’t want to get caught up in legalism. We don’t want to be a church that’s all about conformity. We don’t want to be a church that’s about exclusion. We want to be a church like we talked about last week. Where just like Jesus, He sat down, and He ate with (that means He came into union with) the notorious sinners, with people from all walks of life, those who were following Him, those who weren’t. The church should be a big tent atmosphere, where we come in, and we’re seeking God, and we’re finding God, and we’re being who we are, and you’re accepted for who you are.
Let me also show you this. Remember, in our relationship with Jesus, the purpose is not outward appearance. It’s not conformity. It’s not rituals and sacrifice. We talked about this last week. And you might be asking, “Okay, Stovall, so what kind of appearance should I have? What does a Christian look like?” Let’s look at John 15:16, here’s what Jesus wants. He wants substance. And the substance—you’re going to get this in a second—the substance is the appearance. The substance is the appearance. John 15:16 says, ” You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit.” So Jesus is saying, “Here’s My purpose. Here’s what you need to look like. Here’s what you need to do.” “I’ve chosen you so that“—He’s talking about purpose now—”so that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you.” So now let’s look at that fruit. What should be the appearance of a Christian? The appearance is the substance. Here’s the fruit, and here’s the good news: It’s not your fruit; it’s the fruit of the Holy Spirit. It’s not something that you have to earn. It’s something that comes as part of the package as you focus on your relationship with Jesus. Look at Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such there is no law.” In other words, there are no rules out there that should mess with these things. We talked about love over law. What is the first fruit of the Spirit? What? Love. Joy. Remember, we talked about how religion despises freedom? Religion won’t go in. Religion doesn’t like it when a party’s going on. Religion doesn’t like it when people get festive. Religion doesn’t like it when people get excited about their relationship with Christ. But look what the fruit of the Spirit is! Love, joy, “Joy”! Happiness! Festivity! Peace! Look at what it goes on to say, Longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness—guys, say, “Gentleness.” You thought I’d leave that one out. I didn’t. Self-control. What is the last fruit of the Spirit? Self-control. Do you know what religion does? Religion focuses on these in the opposite order. Religion is always focused on the self-control. It’s focused on the dos and the do nots. God says, “Listen, you focus on loving Me and getting closer to Me and having a relationship with Me. The self-control will be a byproduct. It’ll be a fruit!” So here’s what a Christian—a follower of Jesus looks like: someone that is demonstrating fruit. “Okay, Stovall, so how do I work this out in my life?” Focus on the things that produce substance. That’s why we’re so big here at Celebration Church on personal devotion; having that time with God, spending time with Jesus, focusing on those things, those values, fellowshipping with other believers, getting involved in serving, coming and hearing the Word of God, worship, all those things. These are the things that produce what? The substance.
Watch this. So why is Jesus cursing? Why is He taking this extreme reaction to this fig tree? He comes to the fig tree. The fig tree’s false advertising. It’s a religious tree. It has the appearance, but not the substance. Do you know what that is? That’s confusing. He’s hungry. He needs to eat from the fruit of the tree, and it has no fruit. In other words, the tree’s not serving its purpose. Do you understand, the world needs the fruit of the Holy Spirit, but guess who are the carriers of the fruit of the Holy Spirit? You and I. But religion misses the purpose. It forgets the big picture.
You know, my friend Robert Barriger from Peru is here, and Kerri and I used to do a lot of missionary work down in Peru. But I’ll never forget one time, one summer, I was exclusively working in the Amazon jungle down there, and it was just an awesome time. We’d go through all these tributaries, and we would plant churches, and we would preach the Gospel. And a guy that we were down there with, that was working for Robert, gave him this idea. This other guy gave this missionary the idea, “Look, man, you need to get an airboat. You could do so much. You could help those people so, so much more down there. You could go faster. You could do all these other things.” So he put all this energy into this airboat. And man, you should have seen the appearance of this airboat. It was unbelievable. It had a Cummins turbo diesel engine. You should have seen the fan on the back of that airboat. I mean it was loud, and it was huge, and we were all fired up about this airboat. You even had to wear headphones and goggles and all that. We were so excited. And we spent weeks talking about this airboat. And we had all these great intentions with this airboat. We were going to reach so many more people. And we finally get it out there on the river. We hit the throttle, man it was so loud! And we figured if could get the airboat right up against the bank in the shallow water, it wouldn’t sink too much, and it could eventually get on a plane. But here’s the problem. Guess who’s always swimming and bathing and washing clothes and fishing out in the bank? The locals! The Indians. And that river is not just a straight river, it winds like this. And so what we would have to do – and this was my job—we would hug that bank…rrrrrhhhhhaaaaa I mean, this noise! The Indians were terrified! They thought it was the end of the world! We would have to hug that bank, and my job was to be in the front of the airboat with my earphones on with my Apocalyptic ski goggles. And when we’d come around a bank, and when we’d see some Indians bathing in the river, I’d be like, “Get out of the way! Get out of the way! Run for your lives!” And you ought to have seen some of those poor local Indians in their favorite swimming hole or bathing hole – rahhh! Can you visualize what I’m saying? Machete on our back from hacking through the jungle – we were crazy! But it was the airboat! This airboat had to work! Look at the engine, and look at the appearance! But what we ended up doing that summer – it became about the airboat, and we didn’t realize that we were actually hurting the very people that we were trying to minister to! And that’s what religion does. It usually starts out with good intentions, self discipline or sacrifice—it starts out with good intentions, but it ends up just becoming a bunch of loud noise, and it misses the purpose, the original purpose, for what we’re supposed to do in the first place. Our original purpose was not to terrify all the Indians on the way to the village. Our purpose was to be down there and show the love of Christ to people. And just like that airboat, that’s exactly how religion is. Good intentions, maybe even loud, a lot of show, when instead of helping, it ends up hurting the very people that it was intended to help. We finally got rid of the airboat and renamed that ministry WOD Ministries: Wake of Destruction, because unfortunately, that’s what we did in the Amazon that summer. Can you thank God for learning from mistakes?
That’s what religion does. It misses the purpose. It ends up being about the thing. It ends up being about the doctrine. It ends up being about the way we do this. And it misses the entire purpose. So Jesus encounters this tree. It has appearance but no substance. It’s missed the purpose for why it’s there. It’s supposed to be there to feed people and help people. And then the last thing—and this was the nail in the coffin for this poor fig tree: This fig tree was alone. It was a lone fig tree on the side of the road. Now, if you understand plants, in order for plants to reproduce and grow and be healthy and produce fruit—a plant must have cross-pollination. This is why you typically see fig trees in patches. They’re in groups because they have to cross-pollinate to bear fruit. A fig tree has to be planted in soil with other fruit-producing fig trees, or it won’t grow any fruit. So Jesus comes and finds this lone fig tree. There’s no other fig trees around it. It can’t cross-pollinate, so it can’t grow. In other words, there was no hope for this fig tree. So when Jesus finally cursed the fig tree—appearance, no substance, confusing people, not fulfilling its purpose and no hope of ever producing fruit because it’s not around other fig trees, where it can cross pollinate, Jesus basically just put the thing out of its misery! And He taught us a lesson. Religion is about appearance, not substance. Religion misses the purpose. Religion tries to isolate believers. That is why it is so important that you are planted in a healthy local church with other fruit-bearing Christians, where you can cross-pollinate and grow. The local church is the soil where you plant yourself, and you cross-pollinate, so to speak, with other Christians where you can truly grow. Psalm 92:13: “Those who are planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God.” In the local church. You plant yourself in God’s house, and then the Bible says, and then you will flourish in the courts of our God. Courts speak of design. They speak of plans. If you want God’s design for your life, if you want to know the plan of God for your life, you cannot be like this lone fig tree and just think, “I like all the churches, man, so I’m just going to visit a different one every Sunday.” No, man! Look, I’m not saying you have to pick Celebration Church. If you want to make this your home church, great. There’s a ton of healthy great churches in the Jacksonville area. But you’ve got to get planted in one if you want to bear fruit. There are too many Christians out there who are walking around with a lot of religious language, but because they’re not planted in a healthy local church, once you get up underneath, all you find is just a bunch of leaves.
Religion uses the rituals, the minor doctrines, the disagreements. Religion uses that to try to pull people out of healthy churches and isolate them and bring them over to what ends up being a barren place. You know, heresy is not the same as error. Error is just when something’s just not true, just something about it’s not true. Heresy is when you take a truth of the Bible, and take it to an extreme. That’s what religion does. And then religion will use that extreme—and you can actually find the basic truth in the Bible, but that truth is misappropriated and brought to an extreme and brought to a focus that it shouldn’t have. Religion targets and pulls people out of healthy local churches by doing that. Don’t fall for that trap. It’s the trap of religion.
Remember what Jesus said, “You’ll know them by their fruit.” For your life and the church that you’re in, is there love? Is there joy? Is there peace? I could go on down the list. Is it a church that focuses on the things that produce substance? Do they focus on personal devotion? Do they focus on teaching you? Are they providing a worship atmosphere? Do they teach you how to learn the Word of God, and not just hear it, but to be a doer, and a participator in it? That’s the kind of church you need to get connected to. That’s the kind of church that’s going to be a church that thrives, because it’s focused on a relationship with Jesus, and not a bunch of religion that might initially look like, “Wow, look at this tree, man! Look at all the pretty leaves!” But the more you dig into it, it ended up being just appearance, with no substance.
Focus on the things that bring substance.