Sermon 09-18-16: “Keeping the Promise, Part 5: Conversion”

September 24, 2016

keeping-the-promise-sermon-series

Saul of Tarsus was an unlikely candidate for conversion, a “hostile witness” against Jesus who had no prior reason to believe that Christ was resurrected before meeting him on the road to Tarsus. While Luke doesn’t present Paul’s conversion as a template for everyone else’s conversion, we all must be converted. This sermon explores a few things that our conversions must have in common with Paul’s.

Sermon Text: Acts 6:1-7

Filmmaker Oliver Stone has a new movie out this weekend about Edward Snowden, the former U.S. spy and computer genius who leaked top-secret information a few years ago and fled to Russia. Right now, many Americans are arguing over whether Snowden is a hero, who deserves a presidential pardon, or a traitor, who deserves life in prison—or worse. One thing’s for sure: If he leaves Russia, he’ll be arrested immediately and brought back to the U.S. to face trial. If he stays there, he’ll be safe. The U.S. doesn’t have an extradition treaty with Russia. As long as he’s there, the Russians aren’t going to do anything to help us bring him to justice.

Believe it or not, something similar is happening in today’s scripture: A Pharisee from Tarsus named Saul has gone to the high priest in Jerusalem to get extradition papers to arrest Jewish Christians who have fled government persecution in Israel and are now living in Damascus. Saul is trying to extradite these Christians, to arrest them, and bring them to justice in Jerusalem.

These Christians didn’t leak top-secret information, obviously. But they have spread information that the government in Jerusalem considered very subversive: that this man Jesus, who was tried, convicted, and executed for treason and blasphemy, didn’t stay dead: he was resurrected instead, and now thousands and thousands of people are joining this Jesus movement known as “The Way.”

This movement must be stopped, and this man Saul, who later was re-named Paul, is just the man to do it. Read the rest of this entry »


From Lutheran Satire: “C-3PO Crashes a Pentecostal Revival”

September 23, 2016

Here’s a devastating new video from Lutheran Satire. Tom Harkins, this is for you…


Sermon 09-11-16: “Keeping the Promise, Part 4: Our Prayers”

September 22, 2016

keeping-the-promise-sermon-series

The apostles faced a problem in Acts 6: One faction in the church was grumbling that their widows were being neglected in the distribution of money and food. What were the apostles going to do about it?

As I say in this sermon, this kind of grumbling is a sin. It goes against Jesus’ own words about forgiveness and reconciliation. But the grumbling—alongside the logistical problem which gave rise to it—wasn’t the biggest threat the church was facing in this crisis: the biggest threat was that the apostles would be distracted from their main calling, the ministry of God’s word and prayer.

Does our church reflect this same priority and why does it matter? That’s what this sermon is about.

Sermon Text: Acts 6:1-7

Just last weekend, my beloved Yellow Jackets of Georgia Tech played football in Ireland against Boston College. There was an article about the game in the Irish Times. The author pointed out that American football is growing in popularity in Ireland, although it pales in popularity to something called Gaelic football—not to mention in comparison to that sport that the rest of the world calls football, which is soccer to us. One challenge that many people outside of North America have to overcome in order to enjoy American football, according to the author of the article, is that there are “many stoppages” in the game. Isn’t that funny? There are many stoppages. The reporter marveled at the rock-star status that these student athletes enjoy in the public, as well as the huge salaries that these college coaches receive. He also wondered why so many people were passionately interested in a school’s football team when they didn’t themselves attend that school. But I especially liked this part:

A Boston College defender tries to tackle Justin Thomas. As if!

A Boston College defender tries to tackle Justin Thomas. As if!

The fans’ intensity became clear early on when I was warned that Georgia Tech must always be referred to with the ‘Tech’ part included and never simply as ‘Georgia’ – that being the name of their fiercest rivals University of Georgia. Apparently it’s something akin to referring to Manchester United as Manchester City.

My point is, while we have much in common with the Irish; while we speak the same language; while many Americans—including players on both teams—are descended from the Irish, there is much that separates us culturally.

A similar dynamic is going on in today’s scripture. In verse 1, we’re told that a “a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews.” Who are these two groups? Like the Irish and Irish-Americans, they are two groups that had much in common: The Hellenists and Hebrews shared the same ethnicity. They were ethnically Jewish. They both went to synagogues and worshiped in the Temple. And now they both had become members of the same church; they were both followers of Jesus Christ. Read the rest of this entry »


The grace of Israel’s sacrificial system

September 22, 2016

rutledgeFor the sake of his contrarianism, my Old Testament professor in seminary, the late John Hayes, enjoyed telling his class of incredulous mainline Protestants—many of whom rarely used the word “sin,” or did so only in non-traditional ways—that Leviticus was his favorite book of the Bible. Why? Because it takes sin deadly seriously. It demonstrates the costliness of sin.

He had a point—and one with which Fleming Rutledge, author of Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, would sympathize. In one chapter, she examines the cross of Jesus Christ through the lens of blood sacrifice in the Old Testament. Of the sacrificial system described in Leviticus, she writes:

Basic to the ritual is the idea that atonement for sin costs something. Something valuable has to be offered in restitution. The life of the sacrificed animal, together with the sense of awe associated with the shedding of blood, represents this payment. “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22). The blood represents the ultimate cost to the giver. There is something powerful here that grips us in spite of ourselves. The use of the phrase “blood of Christ” in the New Testament carries with it this sacrificial, atoning significance in primordial sense; we cannot root out these connections even if we wanted to.

Leviticus 5:14 maintains that one who sins must bring a guilt offering to the Lord “valued… in shekels of silver.” Note the emphasis on assigning value to the offering. The suggestion is that there should be some correlation of the value of the offering with the gravity of the offense. If the supposed sacrifice is just something we are getting rid of, like those old clothes in the back of our closet that we haven’t worn for years, then restitution is not made. Anselm’s word “satisfaction” seems right here, wth its suggestion of comparable cost. We are familiar with this notion; we are infuriated when people who have committed great crimes get off with light sentences. The trouble is that there is no adequate punishment for a truly great crime. How could there be any offering valuable enough to compensate for the victims of just one bombing let alone genocides of millions? Anselm’s point is one again apposite: “You have not yet considered the weight of sin.” The obvious conclusion, explicitly drawn in Hebrews, is that the sacrificing of animals just isn’t enough. One of the simplest ways of understanding the death of Jesus is to say that when we look at the cross, we see what it cost God to secure our release from sin.[1]

The trouble is that there is no adequate punishment for a truly great crime. Indeed, as Rutledge points out in a footnote, blood sacrifices in the Bible cover only “unwitting sin.” There was no sacrificial provision for “high-handed” or deliberate sin. See Numbers 15:30-31: Israelites are to be “cut off.” Indeed, see Hebrews 10:26-31, where the author alludes to this scripture in a stern warning to potential backsliders. (By the way, isn’t this one of the most frightening passages of scripture in the New Testament? It should give pause to any of us who so easily presume upon God’s grace.)

Rutledge’s point is, as a matter of justice, anything less than the blood sacrifice of God’s Son Jesus would be inadequate to remedy the problem of sin’s guilt. We intuitively understand this, as she says, whenever we see “people who have committed great crimes get off with light sentences.”

And yet, as she points out, blood sacrifices and guilt offerings, no matter how costly, are also “light sentences.” They were never meant to be otherwise. They were meant to symbolize both the costliness of sin and the sheer graciousness of God—which itself prepares us for God’s sacrifice on the cross. Contrary to the widespread stereotype, God always related to God’s covenant people on the basis of grace.

None of this will be persuasive to anyone who does not already know himself to be within the sphere of God’s grace. In view of the widespread notion that the Old Testament is all about sin and judgment, there is an urgent need in the church for more intentional teaching of the enveloping grace in the First Testament. God’s redemptive purpose in electing a people (Gen. 12:1-3; 17:1-27) was put into effect long before the giving of commandments and ordinances. God has already told them, You are my people. God has ordained the means whereby we may draw near to him. The ordinances of the Torah are not a catalogue of tribal customs. They are gifts from the living God.[2]

If we miss this point, then we won’t understand, for example, Paul’s argument in Romans. We might wonder instead what was wrong with God’s original covenant with Israel, such that they, too, are under God’s judgment. Why couldn’t Israel have its means of atonement through the Law and we Gentiles ours through Christ, and both groups be fine?

Of course, many Christians already believe that, unfortunately. If so, they need to read Rutledge’s new book.

1. Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 245-6.

2. Ibid., 246.


A reflection on the power of prayer (or its perceived lack of power)

September 15, 2016

I wrote the following for my church’s weekly email blast.

As I’ve mentioned before, I like to listen to podcasts. And you won’t be surprised to know that I often listen to podcasts related to church and Christian theology.

In the past week, I’ve heard two podcasts about formerly prominent Christian clergy who’ve now lost their faith. [ed. note: here and here.] It breaks my heart. I can’t help but wonder if their training for ministry adequately prepared them for the acute spiritual warfare that accompanies a call to pastoral ministry.

I pray that the Lord will bring them back to their senses.

In both cases, these former pastors cited unanswered prayer as one important reason for their abandoning the faith. One of them wondered aloud, for instance, why God would fail to grant a prayer request for a dying child. If God won’t answer even that prayer, he asked, why would he answer any prayer? Unless, of course, there were no God.

Very smart Christians have offered good answers to these kinds of questions. And on my blog, I’ve tried to do so as well.

For whatever reason, however, unanswered prayer hasn’t been a big challenge for me. Even in instances of profound grief, which I’ve experienced firsthand, I have a sense that God is with those of us who are suffering and is working for our good—even when he doesn’t give us what we pray for.

In general, my experience with prayer agrees with William Temple, an Archbishop of Canterbury from the 20th century. He said, “When I pray, coincidences happen. When I don’t, they don’t.”

Besides, given what the Bible, including the red-letter words of Jesus, teaches about prayer, who am I to complain? I know I don’t pray often enough or with nearly enough persistence. I’m sure there are many prayers that God would answer for me if only I would pray them, or if only I wouldn’t give up on them so easily!

Here’s a frightening thought: How has my own ministry been hampered by a lack of faithfulness in prayer?

I shared this fear on my blog last week, and a friend helpfully cited Paul’s words from Philippians 3:13: “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.”

Amen!

I’m grateful that many of you have joined me these past few weeks in praying each day for our new :44 service, which begins this Sunday. Will you continue to make prayer your top priority?

Or if you’ve tried and failed to do so, pray that the Holy Spirit would give you the power to change.

Your church needs your prayers. Your pastor needs your prayers. Your friends and loved ones need your prayers. You need your prayers!


Sermon 09-04-16: “Keeping the Promise, Part 3: Our Gifts”

September 14, 2016

keeping-the-promise-sermon-series

When it comes to financial giving in church, the Bible doesn’t say what we pastors want it to say: We want it to say, “Thou shalt give a tithe, or ten percent of your income, to support this church.” But notice in today’s scripture, the first church’s generosity is completely free and joyful. Why is our giving often so different? This sermon explores this question.

Sermon Text: Acts 4:32-5:11

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

I don’t think you would consider me someone who is irrationally afraid of heights. But I certainly have what I believe is a healthy fear of them. So you can imagine how I felt last month when I read about a man named Luke Aikens. He became the first person to skydive without a parachute or wing suit and live to tell the tale. It was broadcast live on the Fox network. He jumped from 25,000 feet and landed in a 100-x-100-foot net—about a third of the size of a football field. It was suspended 200 feet off the ground.

luke-aikins-skydiver

Aikens jumped 25,000 feet without a parachute—and lived to tell the tale!

Whether we’re afraid of heights or not, I think we can all agree that that seems crazy. But not so fast… The 42-year-old Aikens has been skydiving since he was 16. He’s made about 18,000 jumps in his life. He’s practiced this particular jump for a couple of years—using special parachutes that he opened at very low altitudes—landing on targets much smaller than the net he landed on last month. And a crew down below rigged some high powered lights on the ground that would indicate whether he was on-target or off-target—so he could make adjustments in the air. Read the rest of this entry »


Tom Wright on the priority of prayer (especially for pastors)

September 8, 2016

NT_WrightI’m preaching on Acts 6:1-7 this Sunday. I selected the scripture originally because I thought it something important to say about Christian service. And of course it does. But I’m more convicted at the moment about what it says about prayer. This bit of commentary from N.T. Wright got to me:

The fact that they mention prayer in the same breath [as teaching and preaching the word of God] in verse 4 is highly significant. Of course, all Christians are called to pray, to make time for it, to soak everything that they do in it. But the apostles cite it as a reason why they can’t get involved in the organization of daily distribution to those in need. That implies, not that those who do the distribution can do without prayer, but that the apostles must give themselves to far, far more prayer. Here, along with the challenge to a ministry of teaching and preaching, is a quiet but explosive hint to all leaders in today’s and tomorrow’s church.[†]

N.T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part One (Louisville: WJK, 2008), 100-1.


When we pray for discernment, what do we expect to happen?

September 8, 2016

In Roger Olson’s most recent blog post, “Evangelical Christian Thoughts about ‘Mindfulness,’” Dr. Olson asserts that genuine Christian prayer must include talking to God. From his perspective, if we’re not talking, we may be meditating, but we’re not praying.

Is he right?

If so, doesn’t this conflict with how we often talk about prayer? In my job as pastor, for example, I often ask laypeople to consider serving in lay leadership positions and on committees. Usually, they respond by saying something like, “Let me pray about it and get back to you.” I know I’ve responded this way when others ask me to make important decisions.

But what are we really saying when we say we’ll “pray” about a decision?

I suspect few of us imagine that God will tell us in an audible voice whether we should do something or not. So are we waiting to feel an intuition, a hunch, a warm feeling in the pit of our stomachs? And if so, am I right to be suspicious of this kind of “prayer”?

C.S. Lewis certainly would have been. In The Screwtape Letters, the senior tempter Screwtape urges his young apprentice to get his human patient to focus on his feelings when he prays. (Please note that when Lewis uses “Enemy”—writing from the perspective of Screwtape, a demon and senior tempter—he’s referring to our heavenly Father.)

Whenever they are attending to Enemy Himself we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the actions of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing. When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.[†]

These words convict me. I often judge the success of my prayers based on how I feel while praying, or shortly thereafter. So when I pray for discernment, how much of what I “discern” will depend less on the Holy Spirit and more on whether I’m “well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment”?

Once, while talking to a candidate for ministry, I told him he should seriously consider going to a particular seminary. He said, “I’ve prayed about it, and I just don’t feel that the Lord is leading me to go there.” Frankly, I thought he was mistaken. And I wanted to say to him, “Yes, but how do you know that my telling you this isn’t a part of the Lord’s guidance? Maybe the Lord is using me to get you to consider going to this seminary.”

On what basis did this person discern that he shouldn’t go to this seminary if not his own feelings? Is that O.K.?

What are your thoughts?

C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 195.


Sermon 08-21-16: “Keeping the Promise, Part 1: Our Prayers”

September 7, 2016

keeping-the-promise-sermon-series

As I say in this sermon, we often treat prayer as if it’s the maraschino cherry on top of church sundae. Instead, it ought to be at the very center of everything we do as a church and as individuals. The church in Acts 12 prayed as if prayer were a matter of life and death. Because it was. And it still is.

[Please note: The last few minutes of the sermon were cut off. Sorry! Refer to the sermon manuscript.]

Sermon Text: Acts 12:1-17

The Olympics are drawing to a close today. As usual, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them—especially the swimming. And no—not even the foolish, drunken antics of Ryan Lochte can detract for a moment from what our swimmers accomplished in the pool. Especially my favorite Olympic hero, Katie Ledecky. In the 4x200m freestyle relay, Ledecky was anchoring the team. And the Australian swimmer in the lane next to Ledecky started the final leg of the race with what I thought was a significant lead over Ledecky—89-hundredths of a second. And I’m like, “Ugh! I don’t like this!” But the announcer on the TV was far more confident than I was. She said, “I’m afraid that’s not going to be a big enough lead for the Australians,” and sure enough, Ledecky won by nearly two seconds!

Why did I doubt her?

The great Katie Ledecky

The great Katie Ledecky

An article in the Washington Post last week described the kind of goals that her swim coach, Bruce Gemmell, makes with her. Ledecky and her coach call them BFHGs. “Big fat hairy goals.” They mostly keep these goals a secret from everyone—including Ledecky’s own family. But t hey did reveal one of the goals that they set for the Olympics this year. The goal was that Ledecky would finish in the range of 3:56 seconds in the 400m freestyle. She actually finished at 3:56.46. So mission accomplished. Read the rest of this entry »


Why did Ananias and Sapphira drop dead?

September 1, 2016

mockingbird_devotionalAny pastor who preaches annual stewardship sermons knows that the Bible doesn’t say what we want it to say when it comes to financial giving. We’ll take free grace over Law every day of the year except “Commitment Sunday.” I’m talking, of course, about the Old Testament law of the tithe. If only we could convince our parishioners that Christ has set them free from every law except that one!

No one believes me when I point to the generosity of Zacchaeus or greed of the Rich Young Ruler and say, “See… Ten percent may not be enough for us Christians!”

All that to say, I like this insight concerning Ananias and Sapphira (in Acts 5:1-11) from Jeremy Coleman in The Mockingbird Devotional:

What’s terrifying, then, is that Ananias and Saphhira don’t drop dead for deceiving or withholding truth from God, but for believing what is untrue of God. They believe they must give something; that in order to be acceptable before God and church, something is required. Ananias and Sapphira hold as truth their requirements and pretenses, and reject the truth of Christ’s freedom. Because they believe their lives are being tallied, God takes their lives, leaving them in the only thing Jesus needs for their resurrection: their death.[†]

While I would have modified that first sentence (“…Ananias and Saphhira don’t drop dead merely for deceiving or withholding truth from God, but also for believing what is untrue of God.”), I still like it.

Jeremy Coleman, “September 11” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 311.