"The gospel in a gangster movie": meditation on Genesis 45:16-20

December 10, 2019

“Have no concern for your goods, for the best of all the land of Egypt is yours.” Genesis 45:20

Last week I watched Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Irishman. I think I now understand the appeal of gangster movies: because I want to know the favor of someone who has the power and resources to get things done for me—who would enjoy doing so. And if I had such a person in my life, I would gladly give him love and loyalty in return. (Of course, I might also live in fear of crossing him, because mobsters in movies, if not real life, are capricious, to say the least!)

Not to compare the Pharaoh to a mob boss, but something like this is happening in today’s scripture. Jacob and his sons have found the favor of a seemingly all-powerful, eminently resourceful benefactor. And they’ve done so not on their own account, but on account of their relationship with Joseph.

I’m jealous!

But not so fast. If we’re in Christ, aren’t we in a similar position—only infinitely more so? As Paul writes, “So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23).

These words are astonishing: Do all circumstances, all events, all people, and all things—through God’s sovereign hand—serve me and my interests? And not just me, of course, but everyone who is in Christ? How is this possible?

Yet, how could it be any other way? “We are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” I’m reminded of a quote, which I can’t find at the moment (I think it’s Robert Farrar Capon), which reads something like this: “We are so bound up with Jesus that if the Father wants his Son, he gets us, too.”

As with Jacob’s family, we enjoy God’s inexhaustible favor not on our own account, but on account of Jesus and his relationship to his Father. In other words, because we’re with Jesus, the Father is pleased to give us the “best of the land” and the “fat of the land”—for which he’ll spend our lifetimes preparing us.

To say, as I want to say, “But I’m not worth this,” is to miss the point: I’m not worth it, but God’s Son Jesus is.


Sermon 12-01-19: "Your Prayer Has Been Heard"

December 3, 2019
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I’m always intrigued by the way angels are depicted in Hollywood. Think, for example, of Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life. Think of Michael Landon in Highway to Heaven. Think of Roma Downey and Della Reese from Touched by an Angel. All these depictions of angels have one thing in common: the angels are completely nice, friendly,and non-threatening. They would never do anything for which they would need to say, “Fear not”—because no one who encountered them would ever be afraid of them!

Clarence the angel from “It’s a Wonderful Life”

Needless to say, Gabriel, the angel who shows up to talk to Zechariah in the sanctuary of the Temple—he’s not a Michael Landon/Roma Downey kind of angel. He’s a “fear not” kind of angel. I’ll get to him in a little while. But first, who is Zechariah, and what’s going on in today’s scripture?

We’re told that Zechariah was a priest serving in the temple. Priests were responsible for leading worship services, burning incense, accepting sacrifices and offerings, teaching the people God’s Word, and, more than anything, butchering animals for sacrifice. There were about 24 divisions of priests, each comprising about a thousand priests. Luke tells us that Zechariah served in the “Abijah” division. He and the other priests in his division served in the Temple for one full week twice a year—and also during the festivals of Passover, Pentecost, the Feast of Tabernacles, and the Day of Atonement. In today’s scripture, Zechariah is serving during one of his two regular weeks. 

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“Good Tidings of Great Joy”: media page

November 27, 2019

My new Advent/Christmas devotional booklet will be handed out on December 1, 2019, at Toccoa First United Methodist Church. Devotionals will occasionally refer to media clips on this page. I hope these devotionals are a blessing to you! Enjoy!

Dec. 2: A Christmas Story: Ralphie’s mother saves him.

Dec. 5: A Charlie Brown ChristmasCharlie Brown loves the unlovable tree.

Dec. 8: It’s a Wonderful Life: George rejects a deal with the devil.

Dec. 13: It’s a Wonderful Life: George Bailey prays.

Dec. 14: It’s a Wonderful Life: George gives up on his dreams.

Dec. 16: “Mercies in Disguise,” Laura Story

Dec. 26: A Charlie Brown ChristmasLinus on the true meaning of Christmas.

Dec. 28: A Christmas Story: A drastic change of plans.


“God designed this very moment”: meditation on Genesis 45:7-8

November 20, 2019

And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. Genesis 45:7-8a

Joseph has just revealed his identity to his brothers, who, years earlier, caused him great evil and suffering. But Joseph sees the bigger picture: God chose him to be Egypt’s savior, and his brothers couldn’t impede God’s plan. Indeed, they could only unwittingly help bring it about! God transformed all of Joseph’s trials into something good.

If that’s true for Joseph, how can it not be true for us? After all, if we’re in Christ, we have the Holy Spirit residing within us (1 Cor 6:19); we stand before God as perfectly righteous, with the imputed righteousness of Christ (2 Cor 5:21; Phil 3:9); we are God’s beloved children (John 1:12-13); we are the ones on whom God’s favor rests (Luke 2:14); we are, already, “seated with God in the heavenly places” (Eph 2:6). Not to mention God’s promise to work “all things” for our good (Rom 8:28).

If God’s promises are true, he hardly has less of a good plan for our lives than he did for Joseph’s. And he’s working that plan out through everything we’re going through. Do we dare believe that we enjoy this kind of favor with God? If not, why not?

Lord, give me faith to believe that everything I’m going through at this moment is part of your good plan for my life. #esvjournalingbible #biblejournaling


Sermon 11-17-19: “Spiritual Warfare”

November 18, 2019

Sermon Text: Ephesians 6:10-20

You can listen to this sermon on my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher. Subscribe now!

Last Thursday night, with eight seconds left in the game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns, a Browns defensive end named Myles Garrett pulled the helmet off of Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph, and knocked him in the head with it. Rudolph is O.K. But Garrett is suspended indefinitely. What Garrett did was shocking, and deadly dangerous… and to say the least, he wasn’t fighting fair.

Brothers and sisters, by virtue of being disciples of Jesus Christ, we face an Enemy in Satan who’s deadly dangerous and doesn’t fight fair.

“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood,” Paul writes in verse 12, before going on to describe our Enemy. 

In a way it’s very strange for Paul to say that we “do not wrestle against flesh and blood.” After all, his entire apostolic ministry seems to bear witness to the truth that if anyone ever “wrestled against flesh and blood,” it was Paul. If you have your Bibles—and you should—please turn with me to 2 Corinthians 11, beginning with verse 23. Paul said that he experienced

far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned.

These were all things that flesh-and-blood human beings did to Paul. He goes on to say that he was in “danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city… danger from false brothers.” Look at verse 32: 


“Trust God’s Word when it says you’re loved and forgiven”: meditation on Psalm 119:1

November 11, 2019

How happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk according to the Lord’s instruction! Psalm 119:1 CSB

“How happy are those”: The KJV and its successors use the word “blessed” (NLT: “joyful”) in place of “happy,” perhaps because “blessed” connotes a deeper, God-ordained kind of happiness. Still, I prefer “happy,” because it requires no nuance or qualification: I want to be happy in my life! (Don’t you?) And here’s how happiness is possible, the psalmist says.

Does this book tell the truth? Can I trust it? O Lord, I believe that it does and I can! Let me be happy like this!

But how can I, sinner that I am, be “blameless”? Am I disqualified from this promised happiness before I start? No. First, I remember imputation: that Jesus was made to “be sin” so that I could “become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). I’m “blameless” because my life is found in the One who was blameless on my behalf.

Second, “blameless” does not imply “sinless.” (See Phil 3:6.) Rather, when I sin, I follow 1 John 1:9: confess and trust that God is “righteous” (or “just”) to forgive my sin. Why does John appeal to God’s justice? Because my sin has already been punished on the cross. Therefore, startling as it is to say, it would be unjust of God to punish my sin again.

My point is this: Part of being “blameless” means believing that God’s Word tells the truth when it describes God’s way of forgiving us through the cross.


“Every day is a fight for joy”: meditation on Psalm 116:10-11

October 25, 2019

I believed, even when I said,
“I am severely oppressed.”
In my alarm I said,
“Everyone is a liar.”
Psalm 116:10-11

The fight of my life is the fight for joy. I want to know, alongside the apostle Paul, the “secret of being content—whether well fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need” (Philippians 4:12). O Lord, give me the kind of lasting happiness that doesn’t depend on circumstances. Indeed, my circumstances lie to me nearly every moment of every day. They tell me, “This problem is overwhelming. You’re going to fail. You’re bound to disappoint people who love you. You’re right to be angry”—as if our sovereign God hasn’t promised to work for my best interest (and yours) in every circumstance.

Lacking God’s eternal vantage point, I often shouldn’t trust my senses or my reason (“lean not unto thine own understanding,” Proverbs 3:5).

But let me believe, Lord, even as I say, “I am severely oppressed.” Inasmuch as “everyone” tempts me to doubt the goodness of your plan for my life, let me say, with the psalmist, “Everyone is a liar.” Your word is true. #HeReadsTruthBible #ChristianStandardBible #CSB


“No obstacle you face is any match for the Lord”: meditation on Psalm 114:3-6

October 18, 2019

The sea looked and fled;
the Jordan turned back.
The mountains skipped like rams,
the hills, like lambs.
Why was it, sea, that you fled?
Jordan, that you turned back?
Mountains, that you skipped like rams?
Hills, like lambs?
Psalm 114:3-6

I often feel afraid. I lack confidence. I feel stuck—as if some bad thing in my life will never change for the better. I feel weak or powerless. But what about God? Who do I think he is? Is he not always on my side? Are his angels not always fighting for me?

Why was it, sea, that you fled?

Why, indeed! Whatever obstacles or enemies I face—real or (just as likely) imagined—are no match for my Lord. In him I have all the power I need.

Here’s the truth: I face no obstacle or enemy greater than the one in my own head—that devilish voice telling me I’m bound to lose. Is the God who causes mountains to skip like rams powerful enough to defeat these thoughts? I pray and believe that he is. #HeReadsTruthBible #BibleJournaling


Sermon 10-06-19: “How Many Loaves Do You Have?”

October 17, 2019

Sermon Text: Mark 6:30-44

You can listen to this sermon on my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher. Subscribe now!

A new word has entered our lexicon: hangry. A combination of hunger and anger, it plays on the idea—which is surely true—that we tend to get grumpy when we’re hungry. The word has been featured in memes on social media and even recent advertisements—from the people at Snicker’s, for instance. One ad says, “You’re not you when you’re hangry.”

And maybe that’s what’s going on with the disciples in today’s scripture. They might be a little hangry. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus had commissioned the twelve disciples to go, two by two, to preach the gospel, to heal people, and to drive out demons—under his authority; he would give them the power to succeed in the mission. And they’ve just returned from that mission, as verse 30 indicates: “The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught.” 

And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.

Mark 6:31-32

But let’s notice something: This “desolate place” where Jesus wants them to go and rest isn’t a place they go to without Jesus. They are going to this desolate place by themselves with Jesus. In other words, Jesus knows that the disciples have been very busy, working hard, doing ministry. And now what do they need to do? Go on vacation? Take a break from all this ministry work? Enjoy some downtime? No. Now they need to spend time alone with Jesus.

If you have your Bibles—and you should—turn a few pages to the left, to Mark chapter 3, verse 14. Jesus is calling the twelve disciples. And he gives a job description for a what a disciple is supposed to do: “And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.”[1] So… looking at those two verses, you tell me: What is the most important thing that a disciple can do?

That’s right: to be with Jesus. It is, in fact, the most important part of the job. You’re supposed to spend time being with him, and then go and do work for him. We saw this in August when we talked about Mary and Martha. Martha criticized her sister for “being with Jesus” when, Martha believed, she should have been helping in the kitchen—literally serving Jesus by fixing him dinner. But Jesus said, “No, Martha, your sister has her priorities exactly right: I don’t want you to serve me as much as I want you to spend time with me… to be with me. Do that first, then worry about ‘serving’ me.”

Listen: I do not want any of you serving this church in any way unless you aren’t also spending time with Jesus! You’ll just get grumpy. You’ll just get mean. You’ll make other people miserable. Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. [Tell the story of Bill, the Admin Board leader and powerful committee chair who for years used his many church responsibilities as an excuse to avoid feeding his soul through worshiping and Bible study. He was always at church, “helping” the church, but never worshiping, never spending time in God’s Word. It’s not like he “tried me out,” didn’t like my preaching, and didn’t come back. No! I couldn’t even take it personally. But when he finally got mad enough to leave the church—because people like him who work at the church constantly without “spending time with Jesus” always eventually get “burned out,” get mad, and leave—when that finally happened, he went to another church. 

And he was trying to recruit his friends away from my church to go with him to the other church he joined. He said, “You need to come to my church. I’m being fed for the first time in years!” And one of my parishioners said, “Right, Bill, you are being fed. Because you’re not so busy serving the church that you’re actually spending time with Jesus. I’m glad that for the first time in decades you’re being fed.But you could have been fed at our church if you’d only ever bothered to show up for worship or Sunday school or Bible study.”]

When Jesus calls the disciples to “come away to a desolate place” and spend time with him, he’s calling them to do the same thing we see him doing throughout the gospels. In Mark chapter 1, verse 35: “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.” But this is just one example. Luke’s gospel, especially, emphasizes the prayer life of Jesus. For example, all four gospels describe the Spirit’s descending on Jesus after he was baptized by John, but only Luke adds the detail that the Spirit came upon Jesus while he was praying.[2] Matthew, Mark, and Luke each describe Jesus’ call of the twelve disciples, but only Luke tells us that Jesus had been up all night praying before he called them.[3] Matthew, Mark, and Luke each describe Peter’s great confession of Jesus as the Messiah, but only Luke tells us that it happens after Jesus had been praying by himself.[4]

And again, those same three gospels describe the Transfiguration, but only Luke tells us that this miracle occurred while Jesus was praying.[5] All four gospels describe Peter’s three denials of Jesus, but only Luke tells that because Jesus prayed for Peter in advance, Peter’s faith did not ultimately fail, and that he would later be used by God to do great things for the kingdom.[6]

Here’s what I want us to consider: Jesus was God in the flesh; fully human but also fully God. He was the only begotten Son of the Father; he was perfect and sinless in every way. He enjoyed a more intimate relationship with his Father than any human being who ever lived.Yet consider this: Jesus would not have succeeded in his ministry—and none of us would not be saved today—had Jesus notmade it his top priority to spend time with his Father. 

Doesn’t it go without saying that if even the perfect, sinless only begotten Son of God needed to do this in order to accomplish his mission, how much more do we? 

Obviously one way that we “come away by ourselves to a deserted place and rest with Jesus” is through having a quiet time and come to church—where we listen to Jesus through his Word [hold up Bible] and talk to him through prayer

One of my favorite contemporary preachers and writers, Tim Keller, confessed in a book he wrote on prayer that even relatively late in his life and ministry prayer was not the top priority it should have been. That only changed around the time he was diagnosed with cancer. He found, like so many of us pastors, that preaching is easier than praying. His wife, Kathy, told him something that helped motivate him to pray with his wife every evening. She said,

Imagine you were diagnosed with such a lethal condition that the doctor told you that you would die within hours unless you took a particular medicine—a pill every night before going to sleep. Imagine that you were told that you could never miss it or you would die. Would you forget? Would you not get around to it some nights? No—it would be so crucial that you wouldn’t forget, you would never miss. Well, if we don’t pray together to God, we’re not going to make it because of all we are facing. I’m certainly not. We have to pray, we can’t let it just slip our minds.[7]

Tim Keller

So the disciples got in a boat to go to this “desolate place,” but it’s no use: People on the the shore saw where they were headed, and they told other people, and those people told other people. And by the time they reach shore, there’s a crowd waiting for them. Time to do ministry again! No rest for the weary. And probably no food for the weary, either. Because remember: Before they got on the boat they hadn’t eaten. And there’s no indication that they have time to eat before it’s time to minister to get to work. So… getting back to what I said earlier, the disciples are likely hangry.

Which would explain why all Bible commentators say that the way the disciples speak to Jesus in today’s scripture is unprecedented in its lack of respect. It’s getting late. Jesus has been preaching God’s Word to a large crowd of people. The disciples are hangry. The crowds are hungry. And they tell him in verses 35 and 36, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” And Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.” And disciples respond with perhaps their rudest, or angriest, words in all of scripture, in verse 37: “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” Two hundred denarii are almost a year’s wages. This response very sarcastic—even a bit mean: Like, who do they think they’re talking to! As if Jesus doesn’t know what time it is! As if Jesus doesn’t know what this crowd of people really needs! As if Jesus doesn’t know how seemingly impossible it is to feed all these people!

Where’s the humility? If they weren’t hangry, perhaps they might preface their question by using the word “Lord” or “Master.” “Lord, we don’t know how to do what you’re asking. Help us understand, please. How can we feed them?”

The disciples’ response to Jesus here reminds me of a meme I saw recently: “I want to serve Jesus… but only as an advisor.”

But let’s get to the question at hand. Verse 38: “And he said to them, ‘How many loaves do you have? Go and see.’ And when they had found out, they said, ‘Five, and two fish.’” 

So they have five loaves and two fish… We learn from John’s gospel that they only have these because a boy in the crowd shared with them. But the amount hardly matters: Remember, these are 5,000 men—with women and children, the crowd could be 20,000 people. Even if they had 50 loaves and 20 fish, or 500 loaves and 200 fish, the ultimate answer to Jesus’ question would be exactly the same… “Not enough.” “Jesus, we don’t have enough to do what you’re asking us to do.”

But here’s where the disciples are in good company. How often is it the case that God’s people in the Bible have “enough”—or are enough in and of themselves—to accomplish what God calls them to accomplish. Noah was just one man… He didn’t have enough time or manpower to save God’s Creation from the flood! Abraham and Sarah were too old—and were unable to have kids when they were young. They didn’t have enough youth, enough good health, or enough patience, to give birth a nation set apart for God! Moses had a speech impediment. He didn’t have enough oratory prowess to stand up to the Pharaoh! Gideon was the biggest coward. He didn’t have enough courage to lead Israel to victory over the fearsome Midianites! David was young. He didn’t have enough strength, experience, or stature to win a victory over Goliath and the Philistines. The prophet Isaiah was a “man of unclean lips who lived among a people of unclean lips.”[8] He didn’t have enough “holiness” to rescue Judah from the Assyrians and tell them about the coming Messiah. And we know about Mary, and what she lacked… And we know about Peter, and what he lacked… And we know about Paul, and what he lacked.

Again and again, the common refrain: “I don’t have enough, Lord, to do what you’re asking. I’m not enough, Lord—I’m far too inadequate; I’m not good enough; I’m not strong enough; I’m not smart enough; I’m not wise enough; I’m not pretty enough; I’m not popular enough; I’m too big a failure; I’m too poor; I’m too big a sinner; I’ve got all this baggage from my past. Who am I to do what you say? Who am I to answer your call? Who am I to be part of your plan?

“I don’t have enough, Lord! I’m not good enough! I don’t have what I need!”

But if you feel this way, hear this good news: God has got you exactly where he wants you!

Oh, it’s true… In a way you’re right: You don’t have what you need… to save your marriage…. to save your business… to solve that problem at work… to solve your financial crisis… to kick your addiction… to kick your drinking problem… to save your family… to save your child… to overcome your health problems… to face that scary diagnosis… You’re not good enough, you’re not tough enough, you’re not smart enough, you’re not holy enough… You’re just too weak.

But brothers and sisters, hear this good news: “[Jesus] grace is sufficient for you.” You’re insufficient; but Jesus’ grace is more than sufficient. “For [Christ’s] power is made perfect in weakness.” Watch what Jesus can do through you—he’s got all the power you need! “Therefore [you] will boast all the more gladly of [your] weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon [you].” Your weakness is an opportunity for Jesus Christ to show you his power! Let him show you his power! “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses… For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Because Jesus Christ is going to be my strength for me.

Say, “I am weak… but he is strong.” Say, “I don’t have enough… but Jesus has enough for me.” Say, “I’m not enough… but Jesus is enough for me.”

Jesus is enough for me… Jesus is enough for me. Amen.

1. Mark 3:14-15 ESV 2. Luke 3:21 3. Luke 6:12 4. Luke 9:18 5. Luke 9:28-29 6. Luke 22:32 7. Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (New York: Dutton, 2014), 24. 8. Isaiah 6:5

“God promises us victory”: meditation on Psalm 108:10-11

October 4, 2019

Who will bring me to the fortified city?
Who will lead me to Edom?
God, haven’t you rejected us?
God, you do not march out with our armies.
Psalm 108:10-11

In Psalm 108, David has heard a new word from God: “Moab is my washbasin; I throw my sandal on Edom. I shout in triumph over Philistia.” In other words, while God had previously not been “marching out with our armies,” that will no longer be the case. God has relented from punishing Israel; he is ready to give her victory.

Here’s some good news for us: If we are in Christ, this “new word” that David heard in the sanctuary (v. 7) will always be true for us: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31) While God disciplines us for our ultimate good (Hebrews 12:5-11), he will never punish us for our sin—not anymore. He will never cease to “march out with our armies”—whatever that may look like in our context.

How could this not be true? Christ has made us righteous before God (2 Corinthians 5:21). God’s favor rests on us (Luke 2:14). The Father loves us exactly as much as he loves his Son (John 17:23, 26).

As with David, God has spoken in his sanctuary, and we need to hear his word and believe it: “Whatever harm the Enemy wants to cause you, I will give you the victory!” #BibleJournaling #HeReadsTruthBible #CSB