“Do I serve God for nothing?”

August 21, 2014

“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


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.


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.

The devil as a mere “propensity for blame”?

August 14, 2014
Say what you will about the devil, Underwood deviled ham is delicious!

Say what you will about the devil, Underwood deviled ham is delicious!

You’ve noticed, dear reader, that I talk about the devil a lot. I emphasize the work of the devil, and I see demonic forces as a very real threat to our lives and world. Do I need to cite scripture to justify my interest in the subject? Yes? O.K., start here, for one small example.

While I believe I emphasize Satan in proportion to the Bible’s emphasis, I probably wouldn’t talk about him as much as I do, except as an antidote to this sort of nonsense, courtesy of a clergy colleague from Alexandria, Virginia, named Jason Micheli:

In scripture, satan (שָּׂטָן) is not a personal name or a proper noun; satan is our propensity for blame, accusation and recrimination that so easily leads to violence.

The personification of satan as Satan in scripture reveals the extent to which this spirit of blame and accusation captivate and possess us.

‘Satan’ as a malignant, seraphic rival to God, against whom the Creator struggles for the fate of creation, does not exist, for such a figure reduces God to but another object within the universe.

If ‘God’ by definition is the source of all existence at all moments of their existence, then ‘Satan’ as he’s imagined in popular piety, by definition, does not exist.

One wonders how a “propensity” talks to Jesus during his wilderness temptations, departs from him “until an opportune time” (Luke 4:12), and speaks to him throughout the gospels, through various people who are possessed by him or his minions.

Oh, I know… It’s parabolic. It’s anthropomorphic. It’s symbolic. If the historical Jesus was confused about Satan and believed—alongside chumps like me—that Satan is real, well, it’s only because Jesus was a product of his time, having emptied himself through the incarnation of any special insight about the real world that we moderns understand so much better than he did.

To which I will quote Michael Green, who said the following:

If Jesus was mistaken on a matter as vital as whether or not there is a great Adversary to God and man, why should we take him as our teacher on anything else? Perhaps his belief in the free forgiveness of God is equally culturally conditioned—is there not some talk of free acceptance before God in the Hymns of Qumran covenanters?

This kenotic theory if applied to Jesus’ understanding of Satan, proves much too much if it proves anything at all. It will not do simply to take those areas of teaching of Jesus which we like and regard them as coming from God, while rejecting those areas of his acknowledged teaching which do not appeal to us. Such eclecticism is academically indefensible, and is not a proper option for those who call him Lord and set out to be his learners or disciples. The fact that Jesus taught so clearly the existence of Satan is the most powerful reason for his followers to take the same stance and act accordingly.[†]

I agree with Rev. Micheli that if Satan were a “rival to God, against whom the Creator struggles for the fate of creation,” then by all means such a being wouldn’t exist—and if he did then God would be reduced to one object among others in the universe. But I’m sure Micheli knows that that’s not what Christian orthodoxy holds.

Good heavens, even if you don’t believe in a literal Satan, can you at least attack the actual doctrine and not the caricature?

In case Micheli doesn’t know, we Christians are not dualists or Zoroastrians. Satan and his fellow fallen angels are no “rival” to God. Like all other created things, including us humans, demonic forces are sustained into existence by the God who created them. God currently constrains their power and will one day destroy them altogether.

In the meantime, we underestimate them or reduce them to metaphor at our own risk.

Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 29.

“Trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored”

August 14, 2014

The following is an excerpt of an interview with Canon Andrew White, the chaplain of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad:

INTERVIEWER: Finally, Father, can you conceive of a moment where you might advise your own congregation to quit Iraq, a day when perhaps there’ll be no Christians left in the country at all.

CANON ANDREW: I have always said to our people, “I’m not going to leave you. Don’t you leave me.” Now I can’t say that any longer. If I tell them not to leave, I’m saying, “You have got to be prepared to die for your faith.” And that is what is happening. We have had people’s heads chopped off. We are having people convert. We are even having children slaughtered and cut in half.

And these fine words from “Archbishop Cranmer,” who complains that Western governments too often prefer words to action when it comes to protecting Christians (although U.S. intervention to save the Yazidis is still welcome):

But the persecution of Christians throughout history has ultimately failed because it has tended to separate the wheat from the chaff and caused growth. Eusebius’ account of the martyrdom of Polycarp tells us: “When one governor in Asia Minor in the second century began persecuting the Christians, the entire Christian population of the region paraded before his house as a manifesto of their faith.” The suffering of some Christians spurred others to more faithful living. Martyrs were perceived as having heroic qualities, and many peasants, onlookers, soldiers and members of the nobility became Christians through their witness. Tertullian observed: “The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.” Tacitus agreed, after the persecutions of Nero, that “in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition broke out afresh, not only in Judaea… but even in Rome”.

The blood of Christians is seed.

Muslims loyal to the Islamic State will do what they believe they have been called by their prophet to do. Presidents and prime ministers will try to bomb them to hell. But the Living God will strengthen His people to be courageous and fearless. And persecution is nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary, it is one of the marks of true gospel ministry and discipleship. Sharing in the sufferings of Christ translates into sharing a future glory. As St Peter says, it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God: “But and if ye suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye: and be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled” (1Pt 3:14).

Canon Andrew White suffers with his people because Christ suffered for him, leaving us an example, that we should follow in His steps and in his steps. He is a bold and gracious witness to the whole world.

I prayed for the safety of Christians and Yazidis in Iraq last Sunday and that the American intervention there will play a role in bringing peace with justice. I hope you’ll join me in this prayer. I’m reminded of the words from this great hymn:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!

The recent movie Noah got some things exactly right

August 14, 2014

In preparation for my sermon on Noah last Sunday, I watched the movie Noah, which came out last spring. Given that the movie was over two hours long, and it only covers a few chapters in the Bible, the filmmakers had to take some liberties with the story.

For example, Noah believes that God is calling him to rescue only non-human creatures for the world after the flood. Therefore Noah isn’t interested in his sons taking wives aboard the ark. (Shem has a wife, but Noah mistakenly believes she’s barren.) From Noah’s perspective, his family would be sinning if they propagated the species after the flood. Why would God want to save human beings, he reasons, given that they were the creatures who messed everything up?

It’s understandable that Noah would be confused in this way. After all, God doesn’t say that he wants to save human beings until after Noah offers the sacrifice at the end of Genesis 8, in v. 21, when God says, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”

This verse doesn’t say what we expect, by the way. We expect it to say, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, despite the fact that the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” Instead God says it’s because the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Strange—except it expresses the truth that if God is going to continue to work with us human beings, he’s going to have to put up with our sinfulness. Or do something to solve our problem with sin.

Speaking of which, in the following scene, Noah’s wife tries to talk him out of the decision against taking wives for his sons. “There’s good in us,” she tells him. And she’s right. But Noah’s response is also correct: as good as he and his family are, they’re also sinners.

As I said in my sermon:

And make no mistake, the movie got it exactly right: Noah didn’t earn his place on that Ark, either. We know this because of verse 8: “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” This word for “favor”—it’s exactly the same as saying, “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” “Noah found mercy… pardon for sinsforgiveness in the eyes of the Lord.” No matter how righteous a person Noah was, he wasn’t righteous enough to pay for the grace that bought his ticket on board that ark. It was a free, completely undeserved gift.

The recent atheist meme about the ex-pastor

August 13, 2014

An atheist meme going around social media includes a picture of a pensive looking older man, ostensibly a former pastor, saying the following:

I’ve been a deep believer my whole life. 18 years as a Southern Baptist. More than 40 years as a mainline Protestant. I’m an ordained pastor. But it’s just stopped making sense to me. You see people doing terrible things in the name of religion, and you think: ‘Those people believe just as strongly as I do. They’re just as convinced as I am.’ And it just doesn’t make sense anymore. It doesn’t make sense to believe in a God that dabbles in people’s lives. If a plane crashes, and one person survives, everyone thanks God. They say: ‘God had a purpose for that person. God saved her for a reason!’ Do we not realize how cruel that is? Do we not realize how cruel it is to say that if God had a purpose for that person, he also had a purpose in killing everyone else on that plane? And a purpose in starving millions of children? A purpose in slavery and genocide? For every time you say that there’s a purpose behind one person’s success, you invalidate billions of people. You say there is a purpose to their suffering. And that’s just cruel.

I planned on ignoring this meme, wondering why it took a Christian pastor (assuming he’s a real person) 58 years to realize that this world for which God takes complete responsibility is also a place in which not only evil and suffering occur, but they also do so in ways that seem absurdly unfair and indiscriminate.

I changed my mind about responding, however, after a clergy friend linked to the meme on Facebook, with the words, “Amen!” attached to it.

What exactly was my colleague affirming? In the comments section of her post, she said that she doesn’t believe that God would permit one child to die of an illness while saving another.

Really? What’s the alternative? Either God permits evil or he doesn’t. If he permits it, that means he has the power to stop it but chooses not to. If he doesn’t permit it, that means that while God may hate evil, he’s powerless to stop it. The latter option absolves God of responsibility for evil at an unacceptably high price for us Christians: God is impotent in the face of evil, and the Bible isn’t telling us the truth about him.

There are several other problems with the ex-pastor’s words.

The first relates to gratitude. If we can’t thank God for being the sole survivor of a plane crash (to use the ex-pastor’s example), we can’t thank God for anything at all.

Here’s why: Whereas we’re extremely unlikely to be involved in a plane crash, most of us, at least in the first-world, eat three square meals each day (or have the opportunity to). How can we be grateful to our Father for giving us this day our daily bread when so many people in the world are starving? How is that not also, in the words of the ex-pastor, “just cruel”?

By this same logic, we should disregard Jesus’ and the Bible’s many words about the importance of petitionary prayer. After all, by this ex-pastor’s logic, it wouldn’t be fair for God to give me what ask for when he fails to give someone else what they ask for.

But suppose we still believe in petitionary prayer. Suppose God chooses not to give us what we ask for in prayer: Do we assume that God is capricious—and whether or not God answers prayer is a crap-shoot—or do we assume God has good reasons for not giving us what we ask for? All of us Christians would agree that God has good reasons.

To say that, however, implies purpose.

So, getting back to the plane crash, we would be theologically justified in saying that God has a purpose in enabling one person to survive even if all the other people die—many of whom were undoubtedly also praying for their personal safety.

The ex-pastor is wrong to say that if God enables one person to survive he therefore kills everyone else on board. No—the laws of physics, or poor judgment, or mechanical error, or some combination thereof, are likely what “killed” everyone else on board.

Nevertheless, since God has the power to prevent the plane from crashing and people from dying, God is still responsible. Let’s be tough-minded enough to say so. As the Psalms make clear, God can handle our anger, hurt, and disappointment.

lewis_bookNone of these words may be pastorally helpful in the midst of someone’s grief or suffering—which is why it helps to think things through before tragedy strikes.

To help us do that, I heartily recommend the following three books:

C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain,

Timothy Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, and

Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

New 12-part sermon series: “Bible Heroes”

August 12, 2014

superhero graphic

Last Sunday, I started a new 12-part sermon series for this fall called “Bible Heroes.” It corresponds with the “Superhero” theme of our new children’s ministry initiative.

I’m excited about it for a couple of reasons. First, it gives me an opportunity to introduce or reacquaint you with heroes from the Old Testament, many of whom capture the imaginations of children growing up in Sunday school or Vacation Bible School. Their stories include Noah and the flood, David and Goliath, and Daniel in the Lion’s Den. I look forward not only to helping you identify with and learn from each of these faithful heroes, but also showing you how these stories relate to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

My series includes five passages of scripture I’ve never preached before, including the story of Jael, who drives a tent peg through the head of Sisera, and heroic but unheralded King Josiah.

Below is the schedule with links to scripture passages. I preached about Noah last Sunday. I’ll post that sermon this week.

Date Sermon Scripture
August 10 Bible Heroes, Part 1: Noah Genesis 6:9-22; 7:24; 8:14-19
August 17 Bible Heroes, Part 2: Abraham Genesis 22:1-18
August 24 Bible Heroes, Part 3: Jacob Genesis 32:22-32
August 31 Bible Heroes, Part 4: Deborah & Jael Judges 4:4-22
September 7 Bible Heroes, Part 5: Gideon Judges 6:1-27, 33-40
September 14 Bible Heroes, Part 6: Samson Judges 13:1-5, 24-25; 16:4-6, 15-31
September 21 Bible Heroes, Part 7: Ruth Ruth 1:1-18; 3:1-5; 4:13-17
September 28 Bible Heroes, Part 8: David 1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49
October 5 Bible Heroes, Part 9: Elijah 1 Kings 17:8-24
October 12 Bible Heroes, Part 10: Esther & Mordecai Esther 3:8-11; 4:1-17; 7:1-10
October 19 Bible Heroes, Part 11: Josiah 2 Kings 22:1-23:3
October 26 Bible Heroes, Part 12: Daniel Daniel 6:1-10, 16-23


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