I need not tell you that last month we observed the centennial anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. In 1912, the 882-foot ship was the greatest and largest ocean liner ever built. The ship was thought to be unsinkable, and its maiden voyage carried some of the richest people in the world from Southampton, England, toward the port of New York City. You know the story as well as I. On April 14, 1912, the ship entered an area known for icebergs. At 7:50 p.m. a freighter in the area sent a warning about the ice, but the information was never delivered to the bridge. At 10:55 p.m. another ship radioed the Titanic to warn the captain that his vessel was surrounded by ice. The captain was sleeping or had already turned in for the night.
The warnings were sent, but the Titanic’s radio operators were mainly bothered that their work of sending passengers’ messages to shore was interrupted. The warnings were ignored, and at 11:40 p.m. the Titanic struck ice, its hull was ripped open, and the unsinkable ocean liner began her descent to the bottom of the sea. In those frigid waters off Nova Scotia, 1,514 people lost their lives!
I’ve been a little bit caught up in the romance of the Titanic this month. I have found myself reading the various essays and articles in the newspapers. I have even toyed with the idea of seeing Kate and Leonardo sink once again but this time in glorious 3D. (I thought better of it when I realized the headache I’d get from wearing those glasses for over three hours in a darkened theater.)
The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic got me thinking about icebergs and the church – icebergs that lie below the surface of church life and threaten to destroy what God has created. What are those unseen blocks of ice that endanger our very existence as a community of God’s people?
First, there is the iceberg of pride, church pride. The sinking of the Titanic is an inglorious illustration of Proverbs 16:18, Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. The Titanic sailed her maiden voyage at the height of what is sometimes called Edwardian Triumphalism, the notion that with technological advances, we could pretty much conquer the world. There is a scene in the movie when a British aristocrat prepares to board the ship, stops to gaze at its size and strength, and says, “Even God himself couldn’t sink her.” But pride goes before destruction… especially in the church.
SBCC, we are enjoying good days as a church. Frequently I am politely accosted on the streets of Santa Barbara only to have someone say, I hear that great things are going on at SBCC or some such compliment. It is true. Great things are going on in our congregation. People are coming to know Jesus, disciples are being made, friendships are being forged, Christian missions are being advanced, and God is being worshiped. As one of your pastors, I am deeply thankful for all of this and more. And I hope you are thankful for the good things God is doing in and among us. I trust you praise him for the good times we are enjoying. Yes, we are highly imperfect as a church; our list of failures and shortcomings is long. Nevertheless, God is among us. I hope you know this truth, enjoy this reality, and cherish God more because of it!
But, SBCC, let us not be proud. Let us not think for a nanosecond that we are a strong church. All of the vitality, all of the ministry of SBCC, can and will vanish in a heartbeat when we give in to the sin of ecclesiastical pride. Is SBCCunsinkable? Far from it. Everything we enjoy could vanish in a fortnight. When we find ourselves thinking we know what we’re doing, when we say in our hearts, Well, we have this “church thing” down pretty good. . . In fact, we’re quite a bit better than those other churches down the street… When we find these attitudes in our hearts, the end will not be far off. God’s blessing will be removed, and we will become little more than a religious club.
Jesus said to the church in Laodicea, You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked (Revelation 3:17). Santa Barbara Community Church, know this: we are a poor, blind, naked, pitiable church. Were it not for God’s grace and mercy, we would devour one another and forsake God himself. It is because of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed.
Second, there is the iceberg of indifference. God calls his bride to holiness and purity. Jesus calls the entire church to keep watch over the entire church (Matthew 18:15ff). We are our brother’s keeper! We are responsible for pointing one another toward the holiness of God! The church is to be a tightly-knit company of disciples committed to Jesus Christ. But, as a church grows older chronologically and larger numerically, there is the increasing temptation to sail too close to the iceberg of tolerant indifference. Because of our size or our age, we can be tempted to either let things go or simply go with the flow. Well, that’s just the way she is… He always struggles with that sin… We can be doing missions and making disciples even as we overlook holiness.
I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. (Revelation 2:19-20)
Jesus calls his church to holiness. When we begin to tolerate sin in our own lives or in the life of our congregation, a fissure will be torn in our church’s hull, water will come gushing in, and it will not be long before we will need to abandon ship.
Third, there is the iceberg of worldly-preoccupation. Perhaps this is the iceberg that ought to frighten us most. TheTitanic was a floating world. The ship had a daily newspaper called The Atlantic Daily Bulletin. It included news, stock prices, horse racing results, a society column, and the day’s menu. When the Titanic struck the iceberg, the people went about their business. Some were gambling, others were occupied in their conversations, and many were sleeping. Most passengers just kept doing whatever they were already doing. The passengers were preoccupied, simply too busy to stay alert. They were unaware that this night would be their last. Doesn’t Jesus warn the church of the iceberg of worldly preoccupation? In his very last sermon, Jesus warns of our obsession with the present and our lack of focus on the coming judgment of God:
Watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. (Luke 21:34-35)
Members of SBCC, have you enjoyed reading about the Titanic this past month as I have? The stories have taken us back in time and allowed us to visit with people long dead. We have caught a glimpse of what life was like early in the 19th century. But let us put this centennial anniversary to work. Let the sinking of the Titanic serve as a warning to us. To be sure, we can and should enjoy the gift of the church, the gift of one another in community as we serve the King of kings and Lord of lords. But let us be on the lookout for those icebergs that barely rise above the surface and yet threaten to destroy the good gift of God.