A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on June 12, 2011.
It is difficult to change one’s way of thinking. Most of us are full of biases, prejudices, and other superficially examined beliefs that determine the course of our lives in ways we may not understand. Many of the ways we think may, as we have been, be a part of the culture at large, and though these ways of thinking don’t serve us well, they are so prevalent that they go unquestioned.
–Roberta Gilbert in Connecting With Our Children
I always associate homespun sayings with my grandmother. I cannot remember if she is the first one I heard say this or not, but it is something that all of us have heard. Surely, somebody older told it to us when we were young and fooled by something. We say, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” What you see on the outside is not always what is underneath the surface. We have experienced this sometimes when we have acquired friends. We meet someone at school, at work, while playing golf or tennis, or any number of places and they make a rather good first impression. We think, This is a really nice person. Then we find out later that the person cannot be trusted. On the surface, everything looked good, but underneath, we found out that there was not really anything there.
Perhaps in the time of your life when you were dating, you were charmed by someone who appeared to have it together. You went out with them only to find out that, underneath all that sharp exterior, there was something you did not want any part of.
Have you ever been responsible for hiring an employee, an associate or a partner? On the surface, it looks like they are a real go-getter and then you find out that they are either lazy, incompetent, or something else that makes you wish you really had not hired them. You can’t judge a book by its cover.
We all know that, on the surface, things often look pretty good, but if you go under the surface, either it is different or there is nothing there. We run into people in situations and circumstances in life where we realize that what we are dealing with is the superficial. All we see is the top layer. I think it was Andy Warhol who once said, “I am a deeply superficial person.” We have all run into people like that.
Perhaps it is because Jesus said, “Judge not lest ye be judged” that we are reluctant to apply this in the realm of faith, but the truth is there is some rather superficial faith that is portrayed in America. One critic said that Christian faith in America is 3,000 miles wide and one inch deep. I think that is probably a little harsh, but we have run into things where it looks really good, but underneath there is nothing there.
There is a mega-church in Texas where there is not a cross in the building. When asked, “Why,” the pastor said he did not want to offend anyone with the message of Christ.
There are a lot of churches that have signs, “Adults” this way, “Children” this way. If you are a family, the children go off in another direction where they play and win prizes, and I am not sure what they really learn about Jesus.
In the prosperity Gospel, there is a lot of talk about how to get rich and not much talk about the self-giving love of Jesus Christ. That 3,000 miles wide and an inch deep seems to hold true. There is a lot of superficial faith in our country.
It was true in the time of the Prophet Ezekiel. In Ezekiel’s time, he is criticizing people who preach basically clichés and platitudes, people who would use their own imagination and call it God’s inspiration or they would use their own words and describe it as the words of God. You will probably find great comfort in the text today. It is really a great criticism against those who preach. I am on the spot here, but the word is how can you preach what is not so just to make everybody feel good? How can you provide this superficial faith? Ezekiel said it is like a flimsy wall. You come along and whitewash it to hide the defects in the wall, but then a storm comes and everybody is going to ask, “Where is the whitewash now?” The storm comes and the whitewash fades off and reveals just how shoddy everything is.
Have you ever looked at a freshly painted home somewhere, and after poking around, you find rot underneath the paint that was applied? I can remember buying a car in high school that I was in love with. About three months after I had it, I began to find places where rust had been roughly sanded down, paint had been slapped over it, and the rust was beginning to show through. It was a superficial fix, and Ezekiel uses that image to say, “Can you really just get by with all this stuff you proclaim that really is not the deep word, deep promise, and deep faith of God? Can you really do this and be right by the people?”
When we deal with superficial or deep faith, it is not a matter of trying to have different classes of Christians. O good, I am a deep Christian. I am a first-class Christian, and you are superficial. You are a second-class Christian. It is not about that. It is not about who is superior and who is inferior.
If you look at what Ezekiel says, the problem is that when the storm comes, it washes away what we thought was faith and reveals that there is nothing. We see the damage that is done because people were counting on something that really does not hold up.
On this Pentecost Sunday, I would like to give you a couple of ways to gauge faith. Is it deep or is it superficial? What is your faith? You be the judge.
In a superficial faith, when it comes to prayer, what I find is that people often just pray for things, but a deeper faith prays about the heart. In a church a long, long time ago in a state far, far away, I was sitting at a table at Wednesday night dinner. A woman was telling about a ring she had wanted to buy her daughter. I don’t know how much the ring cost but she said it was just too expensive. The woman had been going back to the jewelry store, watching that ring, and she said, “And do you know what? The Lord put that ring on sale!”
She said, “I prayed and the Lord put that ring on sale. It was half price, so I got two.”
What does God really want us to pray for? Does God really want us to pray for a half price ring or a bigger house or does God want us to pray for a heart that recognizes the blessings that we already have, a heart that is grateful to God everyday for the goodness of God? What do we pray for? There are times where it is necessary to pray for things, but I think a deep faith moves beyond that. The things that are most important for us to lift up to God are the matters of the heart. God, make me more like Jesus. The superficial faith stops with praying for things, but a deeper faith recognizes the needs of the heart and prays about those.
In a continuation of that, a deep faith is genuinely aware of our sin. This is not an opportunity to beat up on anybody or make anybody feel guilty or have a distorted faith that is based on constantly feeling a failure before God, but it is a little bit like light. The closer we are to God, it reveals our sin.
If you study the great biographies of Christians, saints, and people we all admire and have heard, typically these are people who have a strong awareness of their failure in God’s presence. It would be like visiting your grandmother’s house and the plate that you always saw in the back of the hutch. You always wondered why it was in the back of the hutch. You were always told, “Don’t touch.” But when your grandmother dies, you think, I am going to take that plate and I am going to display it. You go and get it out of the back of the hutch and bring it out, and once it is out in the light, you realize it is glued in three places. It probably was an heirloom once but now it is a glued heirloom but the light has revealed it. That is the way our lives are with God.
The closer we come to God, the more we are aware that sin is real. Again, it is not just a chance to feel guilty but to recognize just how important grace is. It is not really a matter of me being superior to everybody else, but it really is a matter that I am a sinner saved by grace. I begin to see not just everybody else’s sins of the flesh, but we recognize the depth of the sins of the heart—anger, envy, lust, greed, and the worst of all, pride that often gets expressed in those moments when we are confident that we are a better Christian than our neighbor, the person on the pew behind us, or whomever it might be. A superficial faith goes on all the time and it is just, Ho-hum. God gives everything. But a deep faith reminds us that we truly are sinners and we are so dependent on God’s grace and, Look what God has done for us in Christ. A superficial faith also always affirms our decisions. Whatever it is we have decided, whatever it is we like, whatever it is we believe, a superficial faith always affirms that. It rationalizes it, it justifies it so that we never ever have to think about doing it differently, but a deep faith challenges us and calls us to obedience in Christ.
In another church far, far away, I was dealing with a man who was telling me how liberal I was. He was not the first person and probably will not be the last person to tell me that, but he was also telling me that he was getting ready to move in with his girlfriend. This was a man about 50 years of age. I told him, “I’m not getting this right here. I’m liberal and you are moving in with her.”
The man said, “Yes. We have prayed about it and God has told us this is really a blessing in our lives.”
It is just amazing what a shallow faith will affirm. A shallow faith affirms just about anything we want to do. It justifies all of our actions. A deep faith calls us to an obedience even when it runs against the things we really, really want.
In the same vein, a shallow faith seems to be all about our happiness. It is as if faith in Jesus Christ is really just another model of self-help and will all be fulfilled. Everything that I want that would make me happy, God wants for me. But when we read scripture, in a deep faith, we find that God calls us to a life of service and a life of justice. In a deep faith, we find that righteousness is important. We say we become a part of the kingdom of God. If it is the kingdom of God, then what is the most important thing? Is it my happiness or is it what God wants for me? You see? You will find plenty of preaching on TV that will tell you that all that is really important is being happy.
And the last thing is that superficial faith is all about trying, will power, and how we can do things on our own, but a deep faith recognizes that what happened at Pentecost is available for each of us but in a different way. The spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, wants to come and dwell in each of us and do things for us that we are not capable of doing on our own.
There are times when we attempt things for God that are simply not about being smart or being shrewd or working hard, but it is about praying and allowing God to work the wonder of the spirit maybe through us, but definitely something that we cannot do by ourselves. God is at work.
When we read the Church Covenant earlier in the service, we talked about how we can’t do all this by ourselves. It is God’s spirit. Pentecost was an unrepeatable event, an historical event like the resurrection. What looked like tongues of fire descended upon the people. People from all nations were there, and they each heard the Gospel proclaimed in their own tongue. That is beyond the ability of fisherman from Galilee.
A superficial faith believes that it is always about me trying a little harder, believing a little harder, whatever it is we think we have to do. A deep faith recognizes that there are places, times, and tasks that are simply beyond us. We pray and we yield ourselves to God, and the spirit works. Almost every one of us can tell of a moment in our lives when the spirit of God seemed to take over, and we don’t know where the inspiration for the word that we gave to someone came from. We don’t know how all the coincidences worked together to produce a work in somebody’s life that we had been bringing before God for years. All we have to do is sit back and recognize that the spirit of God is working.
I would not be much of a pastor, and I certainly would not want to stand under the condemnation of Ezekiel, if I did not say to you today, let us not be satisfied with a superficial faith. It is not a matter of just having your name on a roll at a church some place or simply a lot of activity, but it is about knowing that God is real, that Jesus Christ is God’s son, the best revelation of God that is possible. God is alive and is working in us. He calls us to obedience and is much more concerned about the nature of our character, our heart, and our spirit than he is about rings, the size of the house, or anything like that.
Let us commit ourselves today to the deep faith that doesn’t wash away when the storms come, the deep faith that is a foundation under all of our lives that sustains us for this day and even in the days to come that are filled with trials, difficulties, and challenges that seem beyond us. A faith that stands. Isn’t that what we want?
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.