Sermon 08-24-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 3: Jacob”

September 1, 2014

superhero graphic

Jacob was afraid on the night before he reunited with his brother, Esau. Twenty years earlier, when he fled his home to settle far away with his mother’s people, Esau had vowed to kill him. Was Esau still angry? Was he still willing to keep his promise? Jacob had no idea. To his credit, however, in spite of his fear, he resolved to risk his life to meet his brother. That night, however, he risked his life for a different reason: to receive God’s blessing. Jacob resolved to hold onto God, even if it killed him!

What about us? Are we willing to hold onto God, even if it kills us?

Sermon Text: Genesis 32:22-32

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

sane_godI have a friend named John Alan Turner who’s a theologian and author, and his most recent book is about the seemingly crazy stories of the Bible, and he includes today’s scripture in that category. Since John and I are kindred spirits on most matters related to theology and the Bible, I was surprised and disappointed by the way in which he begins his description of this story. He writes:

I hate Jacob, and I hate this story. ¶ I’m not supposed to say that, am I? It’s true, though. Jacob was a schemer, a swindler, a manipulator, and a cheat. Frankly, it’s surprising to me that people still name their sons after him.[1]

Now, if you or someone you love did happen to name a son after Jacob, let me say that I disagree with my friend John. I love Jacob. And I call him a Bible hero because I sincerely believe that’s what he is! Yes, it’s also true that Jacob is a schemer, a swindler, a manipulator, and a cheat. But let me explain!

Back in ancient times, you had something called the law of primogeniture. This meant that the first-born son was entitled to inherit most of his father’s estate. I know this doesn’t seem fair to us now, and it didn’t seem fair to Jacob then, either. Jacob was the second-born fraternal twin of his older brother Esau. And on two occasions in his early life, Jacob schemes, swindles, manipulates, and cheats his brother, Esau, and his father, Isaac. First, he steals his brother’s birthright. Then, when his father is on his deathbed, Jacob and his mother conspire to trick the frail old man into thinking he was blessing Esau when he was really blessing Jacob. Read the rest of this entry »


God has the right to take human life, which he exercises all the time

August 29, 2014

My sermon texts for the next three sermons come from the Book of Judges, a famously violent book in which even God’s people often do morally reprehensible things—and increasingly so as the book goes on (which is part of its point). Judges mostly reports these events without passing judgment, until its final, thematic verse: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

In other words, the recurring cycles of apostasy and moral anarchy that Judges reports are the reason that Israel needs a king to restore order.

All of that is well and good: we don’t need scripture to tell us that Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter was wrong in order for us to know it’s wrong. The Bible condemns child sacrifice unequivocally.

The larger issue is the episodes of violence that are ordered by God himself. In fact, one recurring problem that Judges reports is that the Israelites failed to wipe out the peoples living in the land of Canaan—including every man, woman, and child—as God had commanded them in Deuteronomy and Joshua.

What do we make of that command and the stories in Joshua and Judges associated with the conquest of Canaan?

Fellow United Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton tries to answer this question first by creating a false dichotomy:

The first—and the only option as I see it, for those who hold to verbal, plenary inspiration—is to accept that these commands and stories accurately capture what God said, what God did, and what God commanded his people to do. Then the task is to explain how the character of God revealed in these seemingly harsh and violent texts is consistent with the character of God revealed by Jesus Christ.

“Verbal, plenary inspiration” is language of inerrancy: it means that while God’s Word is mediated through humans, every word of scripture comes directly from God, as if the Bible writers took dictation. While I respect my fellow Christians who are inerrantists in this way, I’m not one of them. I reject inerrancy in part because it accepts modernity’s definition of what counts as an “error.” For example, while I don’t believe that God created our universe in six literal days, I also don’t think that that counts as an error. Discrepancies between the gospels over the number of angels at the tomb or the names of the women who showed up on Easter Sunday hardly mean the Bible isn’t telling the truth about resurrection.

Nevertheless, Hamilton is kidding himself if he thinks that only “those who hold to verbal, plenary inspiration” would have a problem with his solution: which is to say that the events of the conquest couldn’t have happened mostly the way the Bible reports it because, after all, God’s command to slaughter men, women, and children is inconsistent with God’s character as revealed in Jesus Christ.

Before I offer a solution, let me amplify the problem for Hamilton: even if God didn’t really order the deaths of the Canaanites, look at all the other deaths in scripture that God does order or directly cause. How much of the Bible would we have to throw out if we decided that God doesn’t have the right to take the lives of human beings? The flood narrative, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Passover come to mind immediately. The Book of Esther. Or what the New Testament: Ananias and Sapphria in Acts; nearly the entire book of Revelation. What about Jesus’ affirmation not only of the Old Testament’s truthfulness, including its texts of violence and judgment, but of God’s violence in Final Judgment?

You know what’s worse than hell on earth? Hell in eternity. And most of what we know about hell comes from the lips of Jesus himself.

I hope I’ve made the problem clear. If Hamilton is right, then God doesn’t have the right to take the lives of human beings. While Hamilton seems to object to the scale of the killing in the Canaanite conquest, and the manner in which it’s carried out, he’s not being logical: as C.S. Lewis said, “There’s no such thing as a ‘sum of suffering’ because no one suffers it.” If we’re bothered that God permits the deaths of 200,000 from a tsunami in the Indian Ocean, we should be no less bothered that God permits the deaths of two from a tornado that hits a trailer park. It’s also not clear to me why dying of a plague is better than dying by a sword.

All that to say, I hope that God has the right to take human lives because the Bible teaches that he does it all the time! “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). Job’s tragic words after learning of the deaths of his children are nevertheless true: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

God may also exercise his right to take human life using human agents—as he does in Joshua and Judges. Resorting to reductio ad Hitlerum, as Hamilton does when he says that the biblical text risks justifying genocide in other cases, including Hitler’s, is beside the point.

Do I need to say it? The Canaanite conquest is a unique, one-time event, ordered by God alone and carried out under God’s authority alone. If any human ruler claims that his genocide is also divinely sanctioned, we can be confident from God’s Word that he’s lying or badly misguided.

There is an important principle at stake here: every moment of life—every heartbeat, every breath—is an ongoing gift from God. If God ends my life today, or next month, or even 50 years from now, he is justified in doing so. I would be deeply ungrateful to complain.

There’s much more to be said. Check out my earlier words about Andrew Wilson’s “Jesus Tea-Strainer.” Read this fine essay by William Lane Craig on the subject of the conquest of Canaan. Here’s another Wesleyan perspective on Hamilton’s words, which I also appreciate.


My journey home to evangelicalism

August 28, 2014

This week, I had lunch with a clergy friend, who, like me, is an evangelical United Methodist. Unlike me, he didn’t go to a liberal mainline Protestant seminary like my alma mater, the Candler School of Theology. He heard me say once that while I graduated happily liberal on most theological questions back in 2007, I changed: within a few years, I became a conservative (by UMC standards) evangelical Christian. I had what I’ve called an “evangelical reawakening,” having returned, in many ways, to the evangelicalism of my youth—only far better informed. It was nothing less than a conversion experience.

My friend wanted to hear about my journey. What accounted for the change?

Many things, I’m sure, but below are the three most important. Two of them were seeds planted at Candler itself, in spite of its theological liberalism, which later bore fruit.

Dr. Steffen Lösel

Dr. Steffen Lösel

First, I took a systematic theology class (CT503) that was taught by a brilliant young German Lutheran pastor named Steffen Lösel. Dr. Lösel had us study the work of theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg. He told our class on Day 1 that one critical task of pastors and theologians is to be able to defend the faith. He said that in modernity, we can’t easily separate the work of theology from apologetics.

On that note, he justified belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus on historical and scientific grounds. Frankly, this shocked me. I half-expected him to describe the resurrection as some kind of spiritual event that took place in the hearts of the disciples—a “mystery” that we shouldn’t try to solve. But no: while the resurrection was more than merely physical, it was at least physical. The tomb was empty, and the disciples encountered the risen Lord.

He also taught the exclusivity of God’s revelation in Christ. While we shouldn’t be surprised that Christianity shares much in common with other religions—there is, after all, one Spirit performing the revelatory work—the revelation of God in Christ is definitive. Indeed, as Peter said, “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Moreover, we’re not respecting other religions if we disregard their competing truth claims and say, “All these paths to God are equal. We really believe the same things.”

Dr. Lösel also affirmed the reality of hell and the Second Coming.

ayres

Dr. Lewis Ayres

Another professor at Candler planted an important seed in my mind: Lewis Ayres, a Patristics scholar. Dr. Ayres, an English Catholic, was a well-known theological conservative on the faculty (there weren’t many!), which I didn’t know when I signed up for his class on the theology of Augustine. During one lecture he described Augustine’s view of Satan and the demonic realm. At the time, I didn’t believe in a literal Satan, so I objected: “I don’t need the devil to tempt me to sin—I sin just fine on my own! I don’t understand what role Satan or demons play in human sin!”

He looked at me and said, “Just because you don’t understand what role Satan plays doesn’t mean Satan isn’t real!”

I remember being shocked: this very smart scholar, who more than holds his own, intellectually, alongside the faculty at this mainline Protestant seminary, believes in a literal Satan! I’m sure he wasn’t the only faculty member who did so, but he was the only one who admitted that he did—who didn’t speak as if the demonic merely symbolized evil in our world.

The third and possibly most important influence on my evangelical reawakening was reading, in 2009, N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. While acknowledging the debt to resurrection-affirming Wolfhart Pannenberg (Dr. Lösel’s protégé), Wright argues that Pannenberg concedes far too much ground to modernity. Wright’s massive book, around 1,000 pages, explored historical evidence for the resurrection much more deeply. Wright argues that the evidence we possess for the resurrection is precisely the evidence we should expect if the bodily resurrection of Christ happened. Moreover, Wright wrote this and his many other academic books within the realm of critical, as opposed to evangelical, scholarship.

Reading Wright blew me away. And unlike Lösel and Ayres, Wright is a self-identified evangelical. Intellectual evangelicals? To my shame, thanks in part to Candler, I didn’t know they existed!

My point is, once I began to believe—really believe—that the resurrection happened, that the Bible is telling the truth not only about the resurrection but about the exclusivity of Christ, the Second Coming, Final Judgment, heaven and hell, and Satan, and that I didn’t have to check my brain at the door in order to embrace a high view of the inspiration and authority of scripture, I was ready to become an evangelical.

And so I did… and here I am. I can say, along with Wesley, “My ground is the Bible. Yea, I am a Bible bigot. I follow it in all things, both great and small.” Or at least I’m trying to!


The “powerful corrective” offered by the global church

August 26, 2014
Here I am in Kenya, having one of the best times in my life

Here I am in Kenya, having one of the best times in my life

In last Sunday’s sermon, I talked about my experience of going to Kenya and teaching indigenous United Methodist pastors. On that note, Tim Tennent shares this reflection about the “powerful corrective” that the global church can offer to Western churches. Every word rings true to my experience.

One of the advantages of sustained interaction with the global church is that our brothers and sisters can help re-introduce us to Christianity. As every year passes it becomes increasingly clear that what is “bought and sold” as the Christian faith in North America is often only a pale reflection, almost a dim memory, of the actual article. Our long sojourn with Christendom has domesticated the faith, sanding down every rough edge, making it comfortable, almost coterminous, with western pragmatism. Once you have swallowed the pill of the kind of “feel good-self help-therapeutic-market driven” Christianity which has become so persuasive you can begin to think (after sustained exposure) that this really is the real thing. We slowly begin to actually believe what is said from the pulpits of America rather than what is set forth in the text of the New Testament and proclaimed by the Apostles. This is where the global church can provide a powerful corrective…

We can discover a post-Western Christianity. We can hear and see the gospel through the eyes and ears of others. We can re-discover the gospel itself. I have spent enough time with the church around the world to realize that they, too, have problems and issues, just as the early church did. But, the point is, they are often not our problems; they do not suffer from our blind spots. The result is that they can help us to see our own situation more clearly.

I remember the first time it really dawned on me that I was actually a nominal Christian. The real tragedy is that such a possibility had never even crossed my mind. So, lift up your eyes and see afresh the mighty works of God around the world. Learn to laugh out loud whenever you hear some new proposal which has as its presupposition that North America is somehow entitled to be the vanguard of Christian faith and practice. Believe in the seemingly heretical possibility that we who were for so long called to be teachers and leaders, just might be called to a new season of listening and following.


Sermon 08-17-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 2: Abraham”

August 26, 2014

superhero graphic

Prior to today’s scripture, Abraham had sacrificed plenty for the sake of God’s call. But everything he did, one could argue, he did in order to receive the promise from God. The question Satan asked of Job, he could ask of Abraham: Does Abraham serve God for nothing? What would Abraham do if God took his blessings away? Would Abraham remain faithful?

What about me? Do I serve God for nothing? What about you? This is an intensely personal sermon for me. Enjoy!

 Sermon Text: Genesis 22:1-18

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

I know many of us were deeply saddened to learn last Monday that actor and comedian Robin Williams committed suicide. He was only 63. Williams, as we’ve all since learned, struggled with clinical depression and alcoholism. He had only in the past few years fallen off the wagon after many years of sobriety.

5.0.2

I suppose each of us has our favorite Robin Williams movie or moment. But I can say with great confidence that for many men of my generation, Williams’s portrayal of English teacher John Keating in the movie Dead Poets Society deeply moved us. In the movie, Keating teaches at an elite, all-boys preparatory school in New England in the late-’50s. He challenges his students to “seize the day”—carpe deim in Latin—to find the courage to be your own person, to not be shackled by other people’s expectations, to live life to the fullest.

I was 19 when that movie came out—the perfect age to be blown away by the movie’s message. And not just me! Every young man I knew! Read the rest of this entry »


“Do I serve God for nothing?”

August 21, 2014
sacrifice_of_isaac

“Sacrifice of Isaac” by Caravaggio (circa 1603)

In my sermon last Sunday on the binding of Isaac (which I’ll post later), I followed a lead from John Walton’s excellent NIV Application Commentary on Genesis and drew an analogy between Job and Abraham.

When God asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, in Genesis 22, Abraham had already sacrificed plenty for the sake of his call: home, family, country, comfort, and security. And he succeeded. He fulfilled his mission.

What else did Abraham have to prove?

Exactly one thing: While it’s true that Abraham sacrificed a great deal in order to answer God’s call, he did so in order to receive something in return: that he would have the promised son, that he would become father of a great nation, that he would have descendants as numerous as the stars, that his name would be revered.

Could Satan’s question of Job not also be asked of Abraham: “Does Abraham serve God for nothing?”

If God took everything away from Abraham, would he remain faithful?

By his willingness to sacrifice his son—thereby throwing away everything he’d spent 40 years of his life pursuing—Abraham answered the question with a resounding “yes.”

Abraham’s example of faithfulness terrifies me. It causes me to wonder: “Do serve God for nothing?”

This question literally kept me awake last Saturday night. I even re-wrote a portion of my sermon at 3:00 a.m. on Sunday morning because I couldn’t not deal with this question.

After all, I sacrificed in order to answer God’s call into ministry: I gave up a successful engineering career. I sold my house. I uprooted my family. I drastically downgraded my standard of living. And God help me, along with financial sacrifices, I also sacrificed some portion of my self-respect. God knows my wife and family sacrificed even more, thanks to me.

Why did I do it?

Certainly a part of me did it because I sincerely believed God wanted me to do it (as God wants all of us to do something).

But I don’t serve God for nothing. I expect something in return. And until last weekend, when I shared it in my sermon, I had never admitted—to myself, to God, to anyone else—what it was.

And here it is: for all the sacrifices I’ve made for God, I expect God to make me successful—in a way that I measure success. I expect God to give me the kind of success that other people would recognize and appreciate and praise me for.

And what kind of success could satisfy me? As I said in my sermon:

Would I have to become like Billy Graham and lead a stadium full of people to faith in Christ through the power of my eloquent preaching? Would I have to become like Rick Warren, launch a mega-church, and publish best-selling devotional books? Would I have to be elected a bishop and lead our United Methodist Church to a bright and faithful future?

Ah, who am I kidding? Unless I change, no matter what success I achieve, it would never be enough.

The sin of pride is the oldest in the book, I know. But it’s insidious in my life. It often prevents me from enjoying other people’s success—especially the success of fellow clergy—because if they achieve something I haven’t, then it becomes an indictment: What am I doing wrong?

So I believe the Lord is speaking to me through the story of the binding of Isaac: Lay down your pride, your worldly ambition, your desire for success. Destroy it on this altar. Follow me. Be faithful to me. That’s the only thing that matters.

God, make it so. Amen.


Standing up for Christians in the Middle East

August 20, 2014

In my sermon on Sunday, I discussed the “Vicar of Iraq,” the Rev. Canon Andrew White, and his warning that Christians who remain in Iraq “must be prepared to die for their faith.” On that note, I appreciate today’s New York Times op-ed from Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress:

This bond between Jews and Christians makes complete sense. We share much more than most religions. We read the same Bible, and share a moral and ethical core. Now, sadly, we share a kind of suffering: Christians are dying because of their beliefs, because they are defenseless and because the world is indifferent to their suffering.

Good people must join together and stop this revolting wave of violence. It’s not as if we are powerless. I write this as a citizen of the strongest military power on earth. I write this as a Jewish leader who cares about my Christian brothers and sisters.

The Jewish people understand all too well what can happen when the world is silent. This campaign of death must be stopped.


Billy Graham on Vinyl, Part 7: “The Cross of Christ”

August 19, 2014

graham_record02

In honor of Billy Graham, a hero of mine, I’m digitizing some of his sermons from long out-of-print records and making them available as MP3s. This sermon is found on an LP called Two Sermons by Billy Graham from 1963 (Word Records W-3243-LP).

In this masterpiece of a sermon, Graham says that the cross means three important things: forgiveness of sin through Christ’s atoning death; God’s great love for humanity; and the exclusivity of salvation through the cross of Christ. In this section on God’s love, Graham says the following:

The cross expresses the great love of God for man. I read a magazine story some time ago about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and it said it’s the greatest love story ever told. I disagree. The greatest love story ever told is the story of God’s love for man. Man was created in the image of God. He is the object of God’s everlasting and eternal love. And no matter how dirty and how wicked a man gets, no matter how deep in sin he goes, he cannot go beyond the love of God. He cannot climb higher than the love of God. He cannot go east or west as far as the love of God. God will love you to the grave. He’ll love you to the gates of hell. And God will do everything in his power to save you, if you’ll let him. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…

God loves you tonight with an everlasting love. And when he went to the cross, he loved you so much that he stayed there. And because he was God, he had the capacity to call you by name. He said, “There’s Jim.” He’s yet unborn, but you see everything with God is in the eternal present. There’s no past with God. There’s no future with God. It’s all in the present. To you and me, limited by time and space, there’s past present and future. But with God there’s no past and no future—it’s all present. And God, the Lord Jesus Christ, called you by name and said, “I see Billy Graham.” “I see Cliff Barrows.” “I see the moment they were born. I see their whole life, and God said—Jesus said—”I love them. I’m going to stay here for him.” And he died there just as though you were the only person in all the world.

And tonight, when you go out in sin, and you tell a lie, and you commit immorality, and you cheat and you lie and you get angry, he sees you. But in spite of that, he says, “I love you. I love you.” And God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

Notice a couple of theological nuances here. Graham always maintains that nice Arminian balance between God’s initiative and humanity’s responsibility. Echoing Romans 8:38-39, he describes how God’s love is persistent and nearly inescapable. Yet there is a limit; there is a boundary: God will love you to the grave and to the gates of hell, but not necessarily beyond. Therefore, we must respond to God’s loving offer of salvation now. “God will do anything in his power to save you,” Graham says, before adding this critical qualifier: “if you’ll let him.” In other words, God will do anything to save us, short of overriding our free will.

Later in the sermon he defines repentance as a willingness to repent from our sin. “Now notice I said ‘willing.’ You can’t give up your sins by yourself. But if you’re willing, God will help you. All you need to do is be willing.” Again, Graham always emphasizes our need to respond to the grace that God freely offers us.

graham_record01

To listen to the sermon, click the play button above or right-click here to download as a separate mp3 file.

Click here for Part 1.

Click here for Part 2.

Click here for Part 3.

Click here for Part 4.

Click here for Part 5.

Click here for Part 6.


Sermon 08-10-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 1: Noah”

August 18, 2014

superhero graphic

Some Christians struggle to believe in the story of Noah and the flood, not because they have trouble reconciling it with science or history, but because they don’t believe God could be so angry and hurt by human sin. Jesus, however, warns that the Second Coming and Final Judgment will come upon people in our day, or some future day, in the same way. Even in the midst of the “bad news” of God’s judgment is good news: God gives us sinners a new beginning through faith in his Son.

Sermon Text: Genesis 6:5-22; 7:24; 8:14-19

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

An award-winning Christian singer-songwriter named Michael Gungor was in the news last week. I saw a few links on Facebook and Twitter. Maybe you saw them too. Gungor leads a band named after him, and he and his band wrote and recorded at least one great song that I’ve heard, called “Beautiful Things.”

But he made headlines last week for saying something that kind of rubbed me the wrong way, and it’s something that relates to today’s scripture.

Lisa and Michael Gungor

Lisa and Michael Gungor

He was talking about how his view of the Bible had changed in recent years. And he said he could no longer “literally believe” in the story of Noah’s Ark. He said he can’t believe in these things any more than he can believe in fairy tales. “But,” he said, “I have a choice on what to do with these unbeliefs. I could either throw out those stories as lies, or I could try to find some value in them as stories.”

Some value in them as stories? For heaven’s sake, those Disney movies we were watching last month have some value as stories, but those movies are far from being on the same level as holy scripture! Surely he’s not implying that!

Read the rest of this entry »


God doesn’t relate to us by “mind games played inside God’s head”

August 15, 2014

Based on the cover, not so much "for everyone" as for the really beautiful people.

Based on the cover, not so much “for everyone” as for the really beautiful people.

John Goldingay’s Old Testament commentary series, “For Everyone,” is a treasure. In his commentary on the scripture I’m preaching on this Sunday, Genesis 22:1-18, he deals briefly with the difficult question, What does an omniscient God “learn” from Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac?

As I said in a recent post, Goldingay doesn’t care about “systematic theology” nearly so much as he cares about what the Bible actually says. I care about both—inasmuch as our systematic theology is faithful to scripture—so I’m more interested in reconciling tensions between the two than he is. Still, I find his words below helpful.

Perhaps even for God, there is a kind of “knowing” that comes through watching human beings do things in the world that is different from merely knowing in advance how they would behave—even by watching it unfold in the mind’s eye of God’s foreknowledge.

But this story is explicit that the testing happens so God can discover something. That was so at the beginning of the story in the reference to testing. It was so when the aide bade Abraham halt the sacrificial act: “Now I know that you revere God; you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” The Bible ignores the logic of the question of whether God could not know how a person like Abraham would react if he had this demand placed on him. Perhaps God could indeed know how Abraham will react, but God does not relate to us and to the world by mind games played inside God’s head. It is one thing to know that someone who loves you would do anything for you because of that; it is another kind of knowing when that person actually makes a monumental sacrifice for you.1

John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone, Part Two (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010), 53.


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