A New Normal | Same Priorities
So last Sunday was our first opportunity to worship together in-person in over a year...and, I’ve gotta say, it was an incredible Sunday. I mean, I can’t even begin to articulate how amazing it was to be able to see some of you face to face for the first time in more than a year, even if the bottom half of all our faces were covered. And I can’t even begin to explain how touching it was to be able to talk to some of you and laugh with some of you, even if we couldn’t shake hands or hug. And I can’t even begin to express how moving it was to be together with you in the same room as we worshiped God after we all spent the last year worshiping on the other side of computer screens.
But even though last Sunday was incredible, it was also incredibly different. Let’s just be honest here, worshiping together in-person last week was unlike anything any of us have ever experienced before. In all our years of worshiping together at Melbourne Heights, we have never had to wear face masks before. In all our years of worshiping together at Melbourne Heights, we have never been forced to spread out across our sanctuary space. In all our years of worshiping together at Melbourne Heights, we have never had to refuse handshakes and hugs. In all our years of worshiping together at Melbourne Heights, we have never had half of our congregation tuning in online while the other half were in the same room
And those are just some of the ways that worship was different last weekend...and none of those things have changed this week. We’re still wearing face masks, we’re still spread out across our sanctuary space, we still can’t shake hands when we see each other, and we still have people worshiping in-person and online. And none of those things are going to change anytime soon.
Whether we like it or not, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our world forever. And there was no way that a virus that infected over 100 million people in a single year and contributed to the deaths of over 2.5 million people worldwide wouldn’t change our world forever. COVID-19 has changed the way that we think about our health, it’s changed the way we interact with other people, it’s changed the way we shop, it’s changed the way we eat. And COVID-19 will change the way that we do church together.
So, right now at Melbourne Heights, we are standing on the cusp of something brand new. We are standing on the cusp of our new normal. And at this point, it’s becoming clear that there is going to be nothing normal about our new normal...at least not anytime soon.
There is going to be nothing normal about our new normal.
And I know that that’s a little scary. I mean, up until March 15 of last year, we all knew what normal looked like in our church. Up until March 15 last year, we had really only done church one way at Melbourne Heights. So our temptation is going to be to get things back to the way they were as quickly as we possibly can. We’re going to want to fill our sanctuary space with as many chairs as we can possibly fit and throw our doors open for the world. We’re going to want to have our Small Groups start meeting together in cozy little rooms as soon as we can. We’re going to want to start relaunching every program and ministry that we have ever offered from our choir all the way down to our children.
But before we start trying to make our new normal just like our old one, we need to spend some time thinking about what God wants for our church. So that’s what we’re going to be doing over the next few weeks. We’re going to be thinking about what God wants for our church as we enter into our new normal.
And to help us get started today, I want to share a couple of different stories with you. Now, one of these stories is about one of the most triumphant moments in the history of sports. The other story is about one of the most memorable failures in the history of sports. But they both came about after something unplanned happened.
The first story took place during the summer Olympics held in Beijing back in 2008. Now, 2008 was a long time ago, so you may not remember much from those Olympic games. But if you remember anything from them, chances are it involves Michael Phelps. In 2008, Michael Phelps qualified to swim in eight different Olympic events...and that meant that he had the chance to bring home eight gold medals.
In his quest to win those eight gold medals, Michael Phelps had some dominant moments. Like in his very first event, the 400-meter individual medley. In that event, Michael Phelps not only won the race...but he shattered his own world record by almost 1.5 seconds. His performance was so dominant that his world record still stands today more than twelve years later.
But every race wouldn’t be that dominant. The truth is that Phelps’ quest to win eight gold medals almost ended during his second event. In the finals of the 4x100 meter freestyle relay, the American team trailed the French going into the final leg. To make matters worse, the anchor leg for the French team was swum by the world record holder in the event...and the anchor for the Americans wasn’t Michael Phelps--he had already swum his leg. So all he could do was watch as Jason Lezak somehow overcame the French swimmer to lead the Americans to victory. For a lot of people, the image of Michael Phelps celebrating that victory with a giant yell is the defining moment of the 2008 Olympics.
But according to another Olympic gold medalist, the Americans come-from-behind victory against the French is nothing compared to what Michael Phelps did in another race in the 2008 Olympics. Rowdy Gaines, who won three gold medals for swimming in the 1984 Olympics, says that “any mortal would’ve folded” if they experienced what Michael Phelps did in the 200-meter butterfly in Beijing.
Now, the butterfly is Michael Phelps’s best event. So going into it, it was a foregone conclusion that he wouldn’t just win the race but that he’d dominate the competition and probably set another world record in the process. But that foregone conclusion was thrown into doubt the second that Michael Phelps dove in the pool.
When he dove in the pool at the start of the race, his goggles broke and started to fill with water. And once that happened, most people would’ve stopped to pull the goggles off...but Michael Phelps knew that if he slowed down to take his goggles off that he’d have no chance of winning. So he swam on as his goggles continued to fill with water.
Midway through the race, he couldn’t see anything at all. Now think about that for just a second. Michael Phelps is in the middle of one of the most important races in his life...and he can’t see what’s happening. For most of the race, he couldn’t see where he was in the pool. He couldn’t see anyone around him. He couldn’t see when to make a turn. He couldn’t see when to reach for the finish line. Like Rowdy Gaines said, most people would’ve folded in that situation. So it’s amazing that Michael Phelps even finished that race.
But what’s even more amazing is that he actually won it and set a world record in the process.
But not every sports story has that kind of happy ending to it. Sometimes the most memorable moments in sports happen when someone fails. And that’s exactly what happened to Leon Lett in Super Bowl XXVII. In Super Bowl XXVII, the Dallas Cowboys were playing the Buffalo Bills, and Leon Lett was one of the cornerstones of the Cowboys defense. He played defensive tackle and had a knack for getting to the quarterback.
And his knack for getting to the quarterback almost paid off big time in the Super Bowl. Late in the fourth quarter of the game, one of his teammates sacked Buffalo’s quarterback, Frank Reich, and caused a fumble. And Leon Lett was there to scoop the ball up. When he had the ball in his hands there was absolutely no one standing between him and the end zone. When he scooped up the ball, he was on the verge of making history for the longest fumble return for a touchdown in the Super Bowl ever.
But after racing 54 yards down the field, Leon Lett started to celebrate when he made it to the ten-yard line. He slowed down a little bit and extended his hands and that’s when Don Beebe, a wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills, came racing up behind him. Beebe managed to catch Leon Lett right before he crossed the goal line and he knocked the ball out of his hands.
So instead of scoring six points for the Cowboys, Leon Lett turned the ball back over to the Bills. And all of that happened back in 1993. But even after 27 years, it’s still considered one of the biggest failures in Super Bowl history. And it would’ve only been worse if the Cowboys hadn’t won that game.
So in these stories, both Michael Phelps and Leon Lett found themselves in unexpected situations...just like we’ve faced over the last year. But one of them rose to the occasion and triumphed over adversity while the other one missed a golden opportunity.
So what was the difference between the two of them? Why did Michael Phelps succeed while Leon Lett didn’t? Well, it all came down to their priorities.
Here’s what I mean: when Michael Phelps made it to Beijing in 2008 he had one goal, he wanted to win eight gold medals. So he wasn’t going to let anything come between him and that goal. So even though Michael Phelps never would’ve expected that his goggles would break during an Olympic event, he made sure he was ready if anything went wrong.
You see, even though Michael Phelps couldn’t see through most of that race...he actually didn’t need to. He had been swimming for so long that he could literally do everything he needed to do in that race with his eyes closed. So that’s what he did. He counted each one of his strokes along the way. He knew exactly when he needed to turn and exactly when he needed to reach for the wall. He knew what he needed to do to win that race because winning that race was his biggest priority.
But in Super Bowl XXVII, Leon Lett forgot what his biggest priority was. His biggest priority should’ve been winning that game. So he should’ve been prepared to do whatever it took to win that game. But, in the heat of the moment when he was running down the field toward the end zone, he forgot. Instead of doing everything he could to help his team win the game, Leon Lett decided to showboat a little bit. And when he did, when he took his eye off his top priority, and he cost his team 6 points on the scoreboard.
But what do these stories have to do with us and our new normal? What can we all learn from Michael Phelps and Leon Lett that will help us when it comes to our future as a church? Well, here it is: In our new normal, some things will change...but our priorities can’t.
In our new normal, some things will change...but our priorities can’t.
But that begs the question: what should our top priorities be in our new normal? I mean it’s not like any of us are world-class athletes preparing to compete in the Super Bowl or the Summer Olympics. So, if we’re not chasing after the Lombardy Trophy or an Olympic gold medal, what do our top priorities need to be?
Well, that’s what we’re talking about in this sermon series. We’re talking about what the top priorities for our church need to be as we enter our new normal. So each week, we’ll talk about a different priority. So what priority are we talking about today?
Well, to answer that question, I want to tell you another story. This story comes from one of the shortest books in the Bible, the book of Haggai. Now the events recorded in the book of Haggai take place more than 500 years before Jesus is born. But even though this story takes place a long time ago, it will help us understand what our biggest priority should always be.
So let’s take a look at what the book of Haggai has to teach us. We’ll start reading in Haggai 1:1. It says:
1 The Lord’s word came through Haggai the prophet in the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month on the first day of the month, to Judah’s governor Zerubbabel, Shealtiel’s son, and to the high priest Joshua, Jehozadak’s son...
Okay, this first verse helps set the scene for us. In this verse, we’re told that this story takes place in the second year of King Darius’ reign. And it happens on the first day of the sixth month. Now, that’s not the way that we’d record a date in the 21st century, but that little description tells us exactly when this story takes place.
Based on this information, scholars can tell us that this story takes place on August 29, 520BC. And that date’s important for a couple of reasons. First, by knowing the year this takes place, we know that everything we’re about to read happens about 18 years after the people of Israel were freed from their captivity in the Babylonian Empire and they were allowed to return home to Israel. And by knowing this happened on the first day of the month, we know that it happened on a day when the people of Israel should’ve been making special sacrifices to God at the Temple.
And, as we keep reading, we’ll find out why both of these things are a big deal. So let’s pick back up in verse 2. It says:
2 This is what the Lord of heavenly forces says: These people say, “The time hasn’t come, the time to rebuild the Lord’s house.”
3 Then the Lord’s word came through Haggai the prophet:
4 Is it time for you to dwell in your own paneled houses while this house lies in ruins?
So, as this passage begins, the people of Israel have been back home for 18 years. And they should’ve been going down to the Temple to offer sacrifices and to worship God on the first day of the month for all those years...but they can’t. The people can’t go and worship God because they have not rebuilt the Temple.
But that’s not all. Not only have the people of Israel left the Temple in ruins for 18 years, during that same time they have also been decking out their own houses. The New Living Translation makes this clear for us in its translation of verse 4. It says: “Why are you living in luxurious houses while my house lies in ruins?”
So the people of Israel have pulled a Leon Lett. The people of Israel have lost focus on their priorities. And, as we keep reading in the book of Haggai, we’ll find out there are consequences for their behavior. Picking back up in verse 5, we read:
5 So now, this is what the Lord of heavenly forces says: Take your ways to heart. 6 You have sown much, but it has brought little. You eat, but there’s not enough to satisfy. You drink, but not enough to get drunk. There is clothing, but not enough to keep warm. Anyone earning wages puts those wages into a bag with holes.
7 This is what the Lord of heavenly forces says: Take your ways to heart. 8 Go up to the highlands and bring back wood. Rebuild the temple so that I may enjoy it and that I may be honored, says the Lord. 9 You expect a surplus, but look how it shrinks. You bring it home, and I blow it away, says the Lord of heavenly forces, because my house lies in ruins. But all of you hurry to your own houses. 10 Therefore, the skies above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce because of you. 11 I have called for drought on the earth, on the mountains, on the grain, on the wine, on the olive oil, on that which comes forth from the fertile ground, on humanity, on beasts, and upon everything that handles produce.
Haggai 1:1-11 (Common English Bible)
So, since the people of Israel have had their priorities out of whack, they haven’t been able to produce the fruit that they should be producing. And the same thing will happen to us if our priorities get out of whack as we enter into our new normal. We won’t produce the fruit that God has called us to produce if we don’t have the right priorities.
So, as we enter into our new normal, what do our priorities need to be? Well, this passage from Haggai makes it crystal clear what our first priority needs to be. In our new normal, worshiping God has to be our first priority.
In our new normal, worshiping God has to be our first priority.
So that’s where we’re going to start. We are going to start by focusing on worshiping God together...and that’s it right now. So, we’re not going to be rushing back to start up in-person small groups, or trying to offer a bunch of different programs that people can be involved with. We’re going to start our new normal by focusing on worshiping God.
And that’s not limited to just the people that are gathering in-person to worship. If you’re joining us online right now, I want you to know that we aren’t going anywhere. Even though we are offering an in-person option now, worshiping online will continue to be a priority for Melbourne Heights in our new normal. So you can still worship with us every Sunday on our church website, on our Facebook page, or on our YouTube channel.
Why? Because God is giving us the same chance today that God gave the people of Israel in Haggai’s time. God is giving us the chance to rebuild his church, and to reach more people than we ever did before. So that means we can’t limit our church to what can happen in a physical location. We have to build a place online where we can gather, where we can worship, and where we can grow closer to God.
So that’s our starting point...but it won’t be the end. We’ll talk about a couple more priorities in the weeks to come. But know this, as we enter our new normal, we will continue to work to be the church that God wants us to be. Because God’s priorities for our church haven’t changed even though the world around us has.
God’s priorities for our church haven’t changed even though the world around us has.
So let’s get our priorities straight as we enter into our new normal. Our first priority is worshiping God.