Water balloons and spiritual warfare

April 23, 2015

Last night, I finished up the six-part confirmation class that I’ve been teaching our youth on Wednesday nights. I tailored the class not only for those youth who are being confirmed in a couple of weeks but for the whole group.

After all, we could all use a refresher on the basics of faith, right?

Each week I tried to create a fun and physical outdoor game that tied into the lesson. Last night’s activity, for example, was a combination water balloon war fight and relay race, which I related to the “whole armor of God” passage in Ephesians 6:10-20. The object of the game was to have players carry an egg in a spoon across a field while being bombarded with water balloons, which were launched by opposing teams.

My point was that living a Christian life is hard, not simply because, when it comes to obeying God, we often face opposition within ourselves, but also because we face opposition from Satan and evil spiritual forces. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood,” as Paul says.

You can see a little bit of the game in the following video. It didn’t last very long before it became a water balloon free-for-all, but as you can see, the youth didn’t mind!

Sermon 04-19-15: “Warts and All, Part 2: Foolishness of the Cross”

April 22, 2015

1 Corinthians sermon series graphic

While we often romanticize the early church, the proof from 1 Corinthians is that the church was as messed up in the first century as it is today. And like the Corinthian church, we also struggle with what Paul calls the “foolishness” of the cross. This sermon explores how and why that’s true.

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 1:10-31

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3 file.]

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

I am “grumpy old man” in a middle-aged man’s body. My family is like, “Yes you are!

But I know I am. Because unlike most people I talked to about it, I didn’t want 21-year-old golfing sensation Jordan Spieth to win the Masters last Sunday. I wanted, well… one of the old guys, second-place finisher Phil Mickelson to win. Mickelson was born the same year I was! Heck, even when Tiger Woods was in his prime, before scandal and injury put an end to his dominance as the world’s best golfer, I would root for anyone but Tiger. Why? Because I didn’t want some young whippersnapper to surpass Jack Nicklaus’s record for majors victories. What can I say? I’m a grumpy old man. Someone said that Jordan Spieth might be the man to do it, and I’m like, “No-o-o-o!

Jordan Spieth winning the coveted green jacket.

Jordan Spieth winning the coveted green jacket.

So last Sunday I was rooting for the old guy. Mickelson is my guy. Many people were rooting for the new guy. Spieth is their guy.

In the church in Corinth, there was something kind of similar going on between different pastors in the church. You see, Paul had started the church at Corinth. He preached and taught them the gospel of Jesus Christ to begin with. He had lived and ministered alongside them for a year and a half. After he left, though, another leader came to the church, Apollos. And the Book of Acts tells us that Apollos was very gifted, forceful, charismatic preacher and teacher. And what happened in Corinth was the same thing that happens, well… in a lot Methodist churches and other churches when there’s a pastoral change: One faction couldn’t stand the guy who just left and fall in love with the new guy. Another faction loved the guy who just left, and aren’t very receptive to the new guy’s leadership. Fortunately, in most churches, the vast majority of people keep an open mind. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 04-12-15: “Warts and All, Part 1: God Is Faithful”

April 21, 2015

1 Corinthians sermon series graphic

The apostle Paul was confident in his call from God to be an apostle. We pastors, like Paul, are often confident of our call into ministry. The truth is, all of us—whether we’re clergy or laypeople—are also called by God and “set apart” for a mission. This sermon will explore the meaning of that call.

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

[To listen on the go, download an MP3 by right-clicking here.]

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

This past week my family and I went to the beach at Gulf Shores for Spring Break. One day my kids and I went on an adventure: first, Ian, Townshend, and Elisa and I went banana-boating, and then the two older kids and I went parasailing: they strapped the three of us in harnesses and attached us to a parachute canopy—the boat took off and away we flew. Four-hundred feet above the sea. We would have gone higher, but it would have cost more. But still, it was fun.

And while we were up there, flying above the Gulf Coast, I couldn’t help but wonder how secure we really were—how safe we really were. Like, what do any of us know about those two young men in the boat down below—men in whom we have literally entrusted our lives? How confident are we that they know what they’re doing? How responsible are they? There was a big cooler down on the boat. For all I know, it was filled with empty cans from the case of Bud Light that they had just polished off a few moments before we got on board! I don’t know! I did literally no research on them. I didn’t check any references. I signed some kind of insurance waiver that I didn’t actually read. It’s crazy when you think about it: our lives were in their hands. Our health, our safety—whether we lived or died—depended in part on how well these two men did their jobs—men whose names I didn’t know, whose reputations I knew nothing about. Read the rest of this entry »

Wright: the church was messed up from the beginning

April 18, 2015


As N.T. Wright reflects on the divisiveness within the early church in his For Everyone commentary on 1 Corinthians, I find these words oddly comforting:

It’s a sobering thought that the church faced such division in its very earliest years. People sometimes talk as if first-generation Christianity enjoyed a pure, untroubled honeymoon period, after which things became more difficult; but there’s no evidence for this in the New Testament. Right from the start, Paul found himself not only announcing the gospel of Jesus but struggling to hold together in a  single family those who had obeyed its summons.

N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 8.

Does a virtue-based ethic mean the church is wrong about sex?

April 17, 2015

Evangelical theologian Preston Sprinkle, who, like me, supports the church’s traditional stance against homosexual practice, is hosting a debate on his blog between himself and a gay-affirming Christian ethicist named Jeff Cook. There have been a few exchanges so far.

Cook’s argument, which you can read about here and here, is that the New Testament promotes a virtue-based ethic rather than a rule-based ethic for Christian living. We are not righteous, he says, because we follow rules—even God’s rules—apart from a corresponding change of heart. (I don’t disagree so far.) To make his case, Cook cites Jesus’ frequent denunciations of the Pharisees, for example. They followed all the rules, yet they were “like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.”

But here’s where it gets tricky: Following rules is good inasmuch as those rules promote virtuous living. If there’s no virtue at stake in following a rule (as he understands what counts as virtue) then Jesus, Paul, and the rest of the New Testament would say that we don’t need to follow it.

From Cook’s perspective, a committed, monogamous same-sex relationship is virtuous, therefore when Paul condemns homosexual practice, he must be talking about something other than that kind of relationship. And so, like many gay-affirming Christians, he interprets Paul’s words against homosexual practice to be about exploitative, non-consensual, and/or pederastic relationships.

There’s much to disagree with here. The most important question, as usual in these debates, pertains to one’s view of the authority of scripture. It strikes me as arrogant to say, as Cook seems to, that God’s Word—properly exegeted and interpreted—has to make perfect sense to our finite and fallible minds before we’re willing to obey it. In other words, if we believe that scripture tells us that homosexual practice, per se, is sinful, then why isn’t that enough for us?

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying, “God said it, I believe it, end of discussion.” On the contrary, I’m saying that we need to have the discussion first—to make sure that we have properly understood what God is telling us through his Word. But once we’ve done that—bringing our best thinking to bear and availing ourselves of the wisdom of the saints who’ve gone before us—then, as a matter of integrity, we ought be prepared to obey it, trusting that God is telling us the truth in the Bible that he gave us.

An open mind isn’t meant to remain open forever! As Chesterton said, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

Be that as it may, in the comments section of Cook’s second post, I wrote the following, taking his argument at face value. Feel free to tell me where my logic fails:

Notice in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul confronts the issue of incest head-on. In doing so, he’s looking back to the sex “rules” of Leviticus 18 and 20. For all we know, this man and his stepmother were committed to a lifelong monogamous relationship (the man’s father was obviously dead). What harm would this man and his stepmother be causing anyone? He’s not related to this woman by blood. His father is out of the picture.

As Cook says, “because virtue and divine commands go hand in hand, there must be a virtue-focused reason,” in this case, for Paul’s objecting to this seemingly “borderline” incestuous relationship.

What possible virtue would this relationship be violating? In other words, what is the basis of Paul’s objection, other than that he believes that incestuous relationships, per se, are sinful—that they are, indeed, as contrary to God’s intentions for sexual behavior as homosexual practice?

I can’t imagine a virtue-based objection in this case. Can Cook?

Yet by Cook’s logic, unless there were such an objection, Paul ought to say that the “rule” against incest no longer applies in this case—so long as the couple were behaving virtuously. Instead, Paul tells the church to remove the man from their fellowship in hopes that he’ll come to his senses and be saved! Paul’s language couldn’t be stronger.

Cook is also confident, along with so many other gay-affirming Christians, that Paul is really talking about exploitative, non-consensual, pederastic, or idolatrous same-sex relationships, not committed, monogamous same-sex relationships. Granted, this would be a hard case to make, given that these kinds of relationships did exist and were well-known in the cosmopolitan circles in which Paul traveled.

Nevertheless, Cook’s words fail to appreciate that Paul also condemns lesbian sex in the same breath as male homosexual sex. Based on what I’ve read, lesbian sex in antiquity was not known to be exploitative, non-consensual, or pederastic.

Again, why does Paul fail to see any virtue in these relationships?

Easter Sermon 2015: “He Has Risen—He Is Not Here”

April 16, 2015


My Easter sermon for 2015 is one part apologetic for the resurrection of Jesus Christ and one part proclamation of what that resurrection means: forgiveness and reconciliation with God, eternal life, and God’s putting the world to rights (as N.T. Wright often says). This is the first time I’ve preached Mark’s version of the resurrection in nine or ten years—although I would hate to re-read my sermon from back then!

Sermon Text: Mark 16:1-8

[To listen on the go, download an MP3 of this sermon by right-clicking here.]

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

When I was a child, to my great shame and embarrassment, I was a crier. For whatever reason, when I was a kid, I cried easily and often. This fact embarrassed me greatly. I know I know There’s nothing wrong with crying, but I was mortified at the thought of crying in front of my classmates in elementary school. The prospect filled me with dread. Yet somehow it still happened, year after year. Year after year, from first grade through sixth grade, something would happen—I’d get in a fight, I’d get in trouble, teachers would yell at me—and tears would flow. I would cry at school, and I felt like the whole world saw me.

Here’s the worst incident: It was literally the last day of sixth grade. I had gone the entire year without crying even once. A new record. And back in those days no one did any work on the last day of school. We spent most of the day in class parties or on the playground. What could go wrong? It was such a happy day. What could happen that would cause me to cry? Well, we were on the playground. By one of the jungle gyms. And I said or did something to cross Doug Smith—the class bully, my nemesis, my enemy—and he punched me in the gut. Cold-cocked me. Knocked the wind out of me. And I promise you, it was as if my skin turned green; it was as if muscles grew and ripped through my shirt and pants. It was as if I transformed into the Incredible Hulk. Read the rest of this entry »

More on God’s sovereignty

April 14, 2015

The following words of mine come from a response I gave to my friend Grant in the previous post. I think it covers some important ground, so I’m posting it as a separate blog post:

In some clergy circles in which I run, God’s sovereignty is almost a bad word, which blows my mind because Wesley himself certainly had a high view of it.

What turned me around on the subject more than anything was reading C.S. Lewis and, oddly enough, a Jewish Holocaust survivor named Viktor Frankl.

But honestly: if we believe that God has the power to grant our prayer petitions, and will do so at least sometimes (and even most Methodist ministers still believe that!), then it follows, logically, that, indeed, everything happens or doesn’t happen for a reason—unless we believe that God will answer prayer only arbitrarily.

If we pray for something, for example, and we don’t get it, then we can only assume that God has a good reason for not giving it to us. It’s easy enough to imagine that he does have a good reason, given that only God can foresee all the possible outcomes and effects throughout all of history of granting or not granting our petitions.

Do you see what I mean?

I had an argument once with a Methodist minister who said that while he believes that God has the power to intervene, and sometimes he does, often God just lets things run according to the laws of physics.

So, for example, if a boulder rolls down a mountain and happens to flatten a man in its path down below, God merely “lets physics run its course” and kill this person. God has nothing to do with it.

And I said, “Yes, but what if that man’s mother was praying that very morning for his safe travel to his destination. God didn’t grant her petition. Why? Did he not hear it? Did he not care? Did he not have the power to stop the man from being in its path at that exact moment? Could God not have redirected the boulder—not even miraculously, but by arranging before the creation of the world to have a small twig fall in the boulder’s path to steer it off its course?

God could have done that and it wouldn’t even involve a “miracle.” (In fact, I believe God intervenes in this way all the time.)

Or did God hear the mother’s prayer, consider it alongside every other circumstance happening at that moment and all future moments—alongside every other person living at that moment and all future moments—and foresee that intervening in that case (to prevent nature from running its course) would cause some greater catastrophe later on? And if God considered all that, then there’s no way around it: even the boulder flattening the man happened for a reason.

Moreover, any loving God in his providence can’t merely “let physics run its course” because the death of that one man sends ripple effects across all of history. His death affects so many other people’s lives—people living and not living. It has a profound impact on future generations. At what point would my friend start believing that God’s providential care “kicks in” and God starts “intervening”?

I hate to even use the word “intervene” because it makes it sound like God’s involvement in our lives is an exceptional event, rather than a continuous occurrence—as if there were moments in our lives when God isn’t intervening, and that can’t be true: Every breath we take and heartbeat we enjoy is a completely gratuitous gift of God. Every moment of life is given to us directly by God. He sustains us at every moment. So he’s continuously intervening.

The only theological question at stake for us Wesleyans is that God enables through his Holy Spirit our free acceptance of rejection of his saving grace.

That’s it! When planning the future, can God not foresee that free choice and arrange history accordingly—without abridging whatever freedom we need to love God and others?

This view of God’s sovereignty doesn’t seem very difficult to understand. But what am I missing? Where am I wrong?

Isn’t there at least a sense in which “God helps those who help themselves”?

April 14, 2015

It seems like a list such as this one, “7 Unbiblical Statements Christians Believe,” makes the rounds every few months. I can affirm a couple of these with only a little qualification. Even number one, Ben Franklin’s aphorism, “God helps those who help themselves,” isn’t terrible, as anyone who commits to the daily practice of prayer and Bible study can attest: sleeping late certainly doesn’t help you grow closer to God! Nevertheless, it is only by God’s grace that we are able to grow closer to him—or accomplish anything good.

My point is, it’s not either/or, it’s both/and. But to reject personal responsibility would put us at odds with much of scripture, including many Proverbs, not to mention many words of Jesus, including the Parable of the Talents, for instance.

Regarding number two, “God wants me to be happy,” I would say the following: God does want us to be happy—so long as we understand that biblical “happiness” or blessedness comes only through our relationship with God. After all, Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with the words “Happy are those who…” Paul tells us to rejoice always. Whatever else “rejoice” means, it implies a kind of deep happiness.

The Book of Acts has Peter and John feeling happy and grateful that they were considered worthy of suffering for the Lord.

Regarding number five, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” it’s hard for me to see how this isn’t true, at least for those of us who trust in the Lord: God doesn’t give us more than we can handle, in the sense that through faith his grace is sufficient for whatever we’re facing (2 Corinthians 12:9). Even if we face the worst case scenario—martyrdom, say—won’t God give us the strength and courage to handle it? Obviously, “handling” it doesn’t always (or usually?) mean coming out of a crisis unscathed, though we can trust, as Paul says in Romans 8:28, that God is using the crisis for our good.

Speaking of providence, let me put a plug for an often-scorned aphorism that isn’t on the list—probably only because the author forgot about it. (It’s been on other, similar lists.): “Everything happens for a reason.”

By all means, terrible, evil things happen, which God certainly doesn’t cause, but which he has the power to prevent if he wants. If we believe God answers prayer, what’s the alternative? If God chooses not to grant our petition for someone’s physical healing, for example, does he have a good reason or is it arbitrary? If God allows something to happen, we can only assume that he does so for a reason—even if only to prevent something worse from happening later on.

As I’ve said before, we Wesleyan Christians, in general, are so afraid of being “Calvinist” that we miss out on having a robust belief in God’s sovereignty. I find it immensely comforting, for example, to know that whatever I’m facing in life, God is using it for his purposes: it’s happening for a reason, whether we see it or not, and God is bringing good from it.

Sometimes, when it comes to my more progressive colleagues in ministry, I want to ask, “Do you think God does anything in the world, or does he just sit around feeling awful that we have to go through all this bad stuff?” How many times have I heard or read a Methodist minister, not to mention many progressive Christian bloggers, say that we can only count on God “being present” in the midst of suffering. Well, yes, God is present in our suffering, but he’s also working through it to accomplish good! We’re going through whatever we’re going through because he wants us to. If he didn’t, we wouldn’t.

Granted, in a world without the Fall, without sin, he may not want us to suffer, but given that we live in this world, he’d rather us experience suffering than some alternative in which we’re protected from it.

This blog post gives me a sermon series idea: examine each of these popular sayings from a biblical point of view and consider what we can affirm about them and what we can reject.

Good Friday 2015 sermon: “Truly This Man Was the Son of God”

April 9, 2015


A parishioner told me after the sermon that this was the best she had heard me preach, and I don’t think she was far off. In this sermon I make the case for Christ as our substitute on the cross: truly, he lived the life we were unable to live and died the death we deserved to die. I challenge us to think about ways in which we are like the crowds on that Good Friday morning, yet God used even our sinful rebellion against him to accomplish the greatest good.

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

The following is my original sermon manuscript, with footnotes.

Lisa and I were at a party once many years ago with a friend named Kathi who was getting a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Emory. And most of her friends at the party were also Bible scholar-types and Ph.D. students. A real lively bunch! So I was trying my best to make small talk with these people. This was years before I ever thought about going to seminary, but I was a Christian, and I loved the Bible. So I said to one of Kathi’s friends, a woman who, like Kathi, was getting a Ph.D. in Old Testament: “Gosh, that would be really interesting to study the Bible at that level! I wouldn’t mind doing that. Maybe I should get a Ph.D. in the Bible.” And she looked at me with contempt—like, “Who is this idiot I’m talking to?” And she said, “Are you a Christian.” I said, “Yes.” She said, “Then I’m guessing that you’re not interested in getting a Ph.D. in the Bible.” I’m sure I looked confused. She said, “You probably want to get a Ph.D. in the appendix to the Bible.”

The appendix to the Bible. She was referring, of course, to that part of the Bible that we call the New Testament. And, you know… She had a point. We have this much Bible that’s part of the Old Testament, and this relatively tiny part of the Bible that’s the New Testament. And yet we spend by far the bulk of our time in the tiny part. You know? But I do hope that you are reading and studying the big part of the Bible and not just the small part because—oh my goodness—when you do, you begin to see Jesus in that part too—on nearly every page.

Let me give you three examples of places in the Old Testament that I see Jesus. In Genesis 18, three angels come to visit Abraham and Sarah, and they tell them that in a year’s time they’re going to have a baby—the long-promised son Isaac. But after giving them the good news, the angels tell Abraham, “Oh by the way, while we’re in the area, we’re going to check out what’s happening in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to see if there’s as much injustice and wickedness there as we’ve heard.” And if there is, they tell Abraham, God will wipe them off the face of the earth. And the angels leave for Sodom. Read the rest of this entry »

Seeing Jesus in the Psalms

April 9, 2015

In my Good Friday sermon, which I plan on posting later today, I used a few examples from the Old Testament to show that Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross needed to happen in order for us to be saved. I also said that if we read the Old Testament well and often, we learn to see Jesus on nearly every page. This is sometimes referred to as a “Christocentric” reading, an approach I enthusiastically embrace.

Tim Keller, more than anyone, has taught me through his own sermons to read the Old Testament in this way. This doesn’t mean I think that the original authors of the Old Testament always or often understood that they were saying something about the Messiah. It only means that Author behind the authors of scripture was often pointing us to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

What’s the alternative? While the authors of the Old Testament may not always have imagined the kind of Messiah and Savior that God was going to send, the Holy Spirit imagined him completely and perfectly!

This week, in my private devotional reading, I read Psalm 7. This is one of those psalms in which David puts his righteousness on the line and potentially calls a curse down upon himself:

Lord my God, if I have done this,
    if there is wrong in my hands,
if I have repaid my friend with evil
    or plundered my enemy without cause,
let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it,
    and let him trample my life to the ground
    and lay my glory in the dust…

The Lord judges the peoples;
    judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness
    and according to the integrity that is in me.

When I read words like this, I think, “I could never pray that way! I would never pray that way!” If the Lord judges me according to my righteousness, my integrity, I’m doomed! I much prefer those psalms, like Psalm 103, in which David asks, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” Certainly not me!

But suppose we read Psalm 7 with Christ in mind? We’re reminded, first of all, that God is a righteous judge who will judge and punish evil. Moreover, we’re reminded that our own sins deserve judgment and punishment: truly, if the Lord judges me according to my righteousness, I’m lost.

Then we remember Jesus: “For our sake, God made him to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). We’re reminded that we don’t have a righteousness of our own that comes from keeping God’s law, which nones us can do apart from Christ, but a righteousness that comes through faith in Christ (Philippians 3:9). Indeed, we’re reminded that Christ lived the life we were unable to live and died the death we deserved to die.

And by the time we’re finished reflecting on this psalm, our hearts are filled not with guilt, but with gratitude.


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