“We’re thankful you are here. After all, we are not that big. We used to be, but many are now gone. There’s not always many on Sunday morning. Someone young like you probably wants more activities. I’m sure one day you’ll be promoted into a larger church.” Those words have hit my ears probably half-a-dozen times each year for the past several years. (And I’m sure I will hear them again.) In those words you find genuine appreciation. Words aware of the past. Words dotted with fear. Why the fear?
You see, when we evaluate ‘church,’ we can find ourselves focusing on nonessential features. That happens when we carry a faulty definition of ‘church.’ So, let’s ask: Is Your Definition of ‘Church’ Right? In Isaiah’s prophecy God highlights two key features to find in this place. (1) Receive satisfaction with the nourishment God provides and (2) Flourish from the comfort God extends.
In order to find these features, we must first define [the word]: ‘church.’ The Bible defines that one little word in two very different ways. You discover both definitions here.
The first definition is what we typically call ‘church-spelled-with-a little-‘c’ (or, the [little-‘c’]hurch). The ‘[little-‘c’]hurch are the churchy items your eyes see. You see a building, an altar, and pews— furnishings associated with a church. You see individual people inside. You see a group of people, also known as a congregation. You see a pastor, Bibles, a message. Your eyes see a religious organization serving people. That’s the [little-‘c’]hurch, the visible church.
Isaiah sees that too. He sees Solomon’s magnificent temple. Glistening white columns tower overhead. Imposing bronze altars consume sacrifices. Smoky incense wafts into the heavens. Isaiah sees people stream into the temple courtyard with animal-sacrifice in hand. He sees priests reading from the books of Moses [the first five of the Bible]. Isaiah sees what you (and I) see: a [little-‘c’]hurch, a visible church.
God is not happy with this sight. Yes, masses stream to the temple—but they arrive for all the wrong reasons. Some come out of empty-minded habit. They stand in the courtyard, the priest reads Scripture, and they stare out the window, daydreaming about the house projects to do after the sacrifice. Others? Well, on the way out the door, they grab the first animal they see, drag it along so that they do not stand empty-handed when it is their turn to give their gift. Still others treat the temple like a good-luck charm. That God must protect Israel because he depends on the existence of this temple. Here stands a [little-‘c’], visible church, but what goes on inside is not good. God is not interested with simple, outward actions. God desires sincere inner motives. So he says: I will choose harsh treatment for them… For when I called, no one answered, when I spoke, no one listened (Isaiah 66:4). God makes it abundantly clear: the temple exists for God to come to Israel, not Israel coming to God.
Do you catch that? The existence of this [little-‘c’], visible church is not what you do for God. It is not about what you want found here. The [little-‘c’], visible church exists for God to come to you.
Still, inside each of us lies this little ego that seizes the opportunity to make church suit me. I just want everyone to see me step foot into a church. Then I look pretty moral, pretty respectable, pretty trustworthy before my community. I gain pride by being here. I want this place jammed-packed so that I look like I am part of some large movement. Then I feel popular, well-liked, well-respected. I come here Sunday mornings because this is my routine. This is my habit. I might forget every hymn by the end of the day. I cannot remember a lick of what the Pastor taught. But I can point to my church attendance; I can feel good that I do my part. Yes, that ego is even the reason we feel sad inside when what is seen does not match expectations. I want a certain-looking church so that my selfish wish-list is satisfied. At its very core I am ordering God to meet my wants, when the purpose for church is me receiving from God.
So, listen again to verses 10-11: “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her; that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious abundance.” You realize that God does not describe the [little-‘c’], visible church here. No. God is using another definition for ‘church.’ This ‘Jerusalem’ is not describing a city on a map. Rather, it pictures every believer gathering in one family of faith (Galatians 4:21-31). We call this the capital, [big-‘C’]hurch. The [big-‘C’]hurch is seen with eyes. The [big-‘C’]hurch is faith.
God uses this [little-‘c’], visible church in order to bring you into his [big-‘C’]hurch. After all, here you receive from God. Just like an infant receives rich nutrients from his mother so that he may grow and remain healthy, you receive God’s Word meant to make you spiritually alive, strong, and healthy.
Sometimes you receive words meant to cut you (and me) down. Words that strip away self-righteous pride: I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine (Psalm 50:9-10). Words that inscribe what God demands from us: Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:21) because God wants the heart (Psalm 51:17). Yes, you receive words meant to strip away pride. Because when pride is gone, you can see Jesus here.
You can see Jesus come to you and assure you that he has wiped away the demands you made of him. That he has washed you in the waters of baptism. That he has clothed you with his innocent life. That he has set you on the lap of his Father and that the Father cradles you as his adopted child.
That is the right definition of ‘church.’ Here, in this visible building, God comes to you individually so that you can (1) Receive satisfaction with the nourishment God provides. That you receive spiritual nourishment from the Word. Then when you leave here, you can (2) Flourish from the comfort God extends.
For thus says the Lord: “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees.” Do you see what you receive? Peace. Do you know what that means? Peace is God standing at-one with you. He does not turn his back, he faces you. He does not plug his ears because you broke your promises to quit doing wrong, he declares your shame removed. You can point at heaven and say, “That’s my home! I know that because God says it!” You can pray and say, “Amen! God hears me because he says he hears me!” You can confront struggles head on, saying, “God does not stand against me, but with me, because he extends peace to me!” Here, in this [little-‘c’], visible church you hear ‘peace.’ Those words hit your heart and keep you in God’s [big-‘C’]hurch. Since you stand at peace with God, your life flourishes.
God does not stop there. He takes his peace and combines it with comfort. As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. That is good. The devil will always try to convince you that what matters most about church is what is seen. That’s why you feel down at times, the devil tries to convince you that God lacks power. The devil knows that if he throws you into despair, then the Word does not sound so appealing. Then your time here is not spent growing, but rather spent holding onto past memories of what you once had. Yes, the devil knows that if he can get your mind off of the one thing church is all about, then he has gained the upper hand.
So, seize the upper hand back from him— and you can because Jesus has won. That, my friends, is something Satan has no answer for. He never will have an answer. Because the moment Christ cried out on the cross: ‘It is finished!’ it sealed the devil’s defeat forever. When Christ rose from the dead, he could sigh: ‘Peace be with you’ and the devil could not change the impact of those words. Everything written in Scripture is just another stinging reminder that the devil lost. It does not matter what is seen here, but rather what is heard here. When that Word is proclaimed here, the devil repeatedly hears his defeat.
Set your sights on God’s Word of comfort that tells you the way things truly are. Then you will flourish from the comfort God extends. You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice; your bones shall flourish like the grass; and the hand of the Lord shall be known to his servants…
Yet, there remains one final line, and it’s almost easy to gloss over it. [H]e shall show his indignation against his enemies. In the midst of this magnificent fanfare stands a sobering reminder: God will punish those who stand opposed to him; he will damn every nonbeliever to hell. That is not a pleasant message. It does not feel right to say that. It sounds harsh. It feels wrong to think that your neighbor, your child, your spouse could go to hell.
Realize that God makes this truth clear so that we can lead others to the comfort God extends to them. Last Thursday, you celebrated your freedom to do just that. The United States of America protects the freedom of religion. That means, you can bring others to your [little-‘c’]hurch so that God can bring them into his [big-‘C’]hurch, his family of believers. The words spoken here are what matters most.
That’s what makes this place so special. The world tends to examine churches by what is seen. Even we look for people, for activity, for success. Yet, that is not what God emphasizes in a church. He uses this place to bring his Word into many hearts, and he works through the Word to bring people into his family of believers.
So, back to those phrases.“We used to be big, but not so much anymore. Someone young like you probably wants more activities. I’m sure one day you’ll be promoted into a larger church.” No. That is not what I look for here. That is not important in life. What matters is that God’s Word is here. That’s what we look for. That’s what we cherish. That is the reason we are here. Let’s keep the Definition of ‘Church’ Right. Here you: (1) Receive satisfaction with the nourishment God provides and (2) Flourish from the comfort God extends.