The most frightening words Wesley ever preached

February 18, 2017

wesley01In my sermon tomorrow, I’m preaching on forgiveness—namely the petition from the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:12, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors,” and Jesus’ commentary on it in vv. 14-15: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” And no sermon on these words would be complete without at least glancing over to the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant in Matthew 18:23-35.

I feel like tomorrow’s sermon needs to be a do-over. While I’ve preached on forgiveness before, I’ve never felt the weight of Jesus’ plain words: If we are unwilling or unable to forgive others, our souls are in jeopardy. The connection between the forgiveness we give and the forgiveness we receive is unmistakable.

Could it be clearer?

Yes, I know that we interpret scripture with scripture—and believe me, I want to flee to Romans and Galatians to find reassuring words about justification by faith alone. But Jesus’ words in the gospels are hardly less inspired than Paul’s! (While I sympathize with our Dispensationalist brothers and sisters who teach that the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t really apply to the time in which we currently live, I know they’re wrong.)

But if I can’t find refuge in Paul, maybe my commentaries will offer me wiggle room? No luck. Modern commentaries only underscore how difficult Jesus’ words are. Worse, in one of John Wesley’s “Thirteen Discourses on the Sermon on the Mount,” I may have found the most frightening words he ever wrote or preached:

“As we forgive them that trespass against us.” In these words our Lord clearly declares both on what condition, and in what degree or manner, we may look to be forgiven of God. All our trespasses and sins are forgiven us, if we forgive, and as we forgive, others. First, God forgives us if we forgive others. This is a point of the utmost importance. And our blessed Lord is so jealous lest at any time we should let it slip out of our thoughts, that he not only inserts it in the body of his prayer, but presently after repeats it twice over. “If,” saith he, “ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:14, 15.) Secondly, God forgives us as we forgive others. So that if any malice or bitterness, if any taint of unkindness or anger remains, if we do not clearly, fully, and from the heart, forgive all men their trespasses, we far cut short the forgiveness of our own: God cannot clearly and fully forgive us: He may show us some degree of mercy; but we will not suffer him to blot out all our sins, and forgive all our iniquities.

In the mean time, while we do not from our hearts forgive our neighbour his trespasses, what manner of prayer are we offering to God whenever we utter these words? We are indeed setting God at open defiance: we are daring him to do his worst. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us!” That is, in plain terms, “Do not thou forgive us at all; we desire no favour at thy hands. We pray that thou wilt keep our sins in remembrance, and that thy wrath may abide upon us.” But can you seriously offer such a prayer to God? And hath he not yet cast you quick into hell? O tempt him no longer! Now, even now, by his grace, forgive as you would be forgiven! Now have compassion on thy fellow-servant, as God hath had and will have pity on thee!

What do we make of this challenge? How do we reconcile it with the doctrine of justification by faith alone?

[†] John Wesley, Thirteen Discourses on the Sermon on the Mount (Franklin, TN: Seedbed, 2014), 129-30.


Sermon 02-12-17: “What Reward Do You Have?”

February 16, 2017

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If last week’s sermon was about the sinfulness of anger, this week’s sermon is about its ultimate cause—which is implicit in Jesus’ question in verse 46: “What reward do you have?” Not counting “righteous anger,” which we don’t often feel, we usually get angry when someone messes with our “reward,” or our “treasure.” This sermon, therefore, explores that seldom mentioned motive for serving the Lord: that we will receive a reward. Is there something wrong in working for Christ’s reward?

Sermon Text: Matthew 5:38-48

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

If it’s true that there are five stages of grief, this past week I got hung up on the second stage—anger. I’m referring, of course, to the anger that arose within me around 10:15 or so last Sunday night, when the Patriots broke an NFL playoff record and overcame a 25-point deficit to tie up the Super Bowl at the last minute. The anger I felt wasn’t kick-the-couch kind of anger. I’ve shared with you before how, back in the mid-2000s, when my children were very young, I got so angry when the Georgia Bulldogs took a last-second lead in the annual rivalry game with my Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, and I responded by kicking the couch in frustration. Deeply shameful incident, which I had hoped my kids were too young to remember… but they enjoy reminding me—it’s hysterical to them—of that time when they saw their father kick the couch in frustration. Because of a football game.

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No, the anger I felt last Sunday night wasn’t that kind of anger. It was an anger that expressed itself as disgust… Resentment… I felt an urge to disown this team, which, mere minutes earlier, I was cheering for. “Who are these losers?” I thought. I didn’t want to be associated with their city!

I know some of you felt the same way. The difference is, no one in this room besides me preached a sermon about anger a mere twelve hours earlier! Seriously, I was sharing my frustration about the game with one of you on Wednesday night, and you rightly pointed out—in a joking sort of way—what a hypocrite I was. And you’re right!

Anger! Where does it come from? Why is it so pervasive? Why is it so hard to overcome?

In today’s scripture, which has to do with not retaliating against enemies but loving them instead, our Lord has given me an opportunity to take a second bite at that apple concerning this emotion of anger. Because let’s face it, if someone insults us, or physically assaults us, or persecutes us, or takes advantage of us, or steals from us, or exploits us, or mistreats us in any way—as Jesus describes in this text—what is our natural emotional response? Anger! And we retaliate against them, and we fail to love them, because we’re acting out of this anger.

So what is it that makes us angry? Why did I get angry at the Falcons last Sunday night—instead of feeling great compassion and pity and sorrow for them. While it’s true that they lost that game through any one of about two-dozen different mistakes, it’s not like I haven’t made plenty of mistakes that have cost me victories in my life. And it’s not like the Patriots had nothing to do with it! They are a great team!  Read the rest of this entry »


Loving our enemies means liking them, too

February 16, 2017

brunerAs I said in my sermon on Sunday (which I’ll post soon), when Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, talks about loving our enemies, he isn’t mostly talking about the Russians, the Chinese, or Islamic terrorists; he’s talking about the “enemy” who passes you on the street (or in the church hallway). As he implies in Matthew 5:47, our enemy is the one whom we “greet” (or fail to do so). Our enemy is someone we know personally, someone with whom we interact.

With this in mind, theologian Frederick Dale Bruner objects to a distinction that we Christians often make: that we can love enemies without liking them.

A frequent dodge must be noted. It is sometimes said that the agapē love commanded by Jesus is not erōs love; that agapē means “to wish well to” but it does not mean (as erōs does) “to feel affection for.” By this distinction some disciples allow themselves to continue heartily to dislike their enemies, to feel no affection for them at all, and yet by a kind of steel-cool Stoicism to believe that they are keeping Jesus’ Command.

While agapē is more than erōs, it is nothing less. For it is not true that erōs is a hot thing and agapē cold. We are not to be satisfied that we have kept Jesus agapē Command when we treat our enemies with semi-civility. We are to pray, and to pray some more, until we feel something of God’s love for problem people. (And before the holiness of God, are not all of us, even the best disciples, really problem people?) Granted, a miracle is required for agapē to happen, but God is good at miracles. Therefore, we must even beware of the sometimes good counsel that “you can love without liking,” if this should mean that we should block any liking or any natural affection at all. Disciples will permit God’s own powerful agapē so to forgive and affect them that they will actually find themselves with warm feelings, and not just steel wills, when they deal with enemies.[1]

Bruner goes on to say that agapē doesn’t mean we love “the enemies’ character or deeds or teachings or anything else about them; we are asked only to love the enemies themselves.[2]

But I like this a lot: We should have “warm feelings, and not just steel wills.” Notice also he refers to “feeling God’s love” for problem people.

Did you catch that? God feels love for problem people—including sinners like you and me. Are we sometimes tempted to imagine that God’s love for us is a matter of “steel will” rather than affection? What does it mean that God not only loves us (as if that’s what God were supposed to do, however reluctantly), but that God also likes us?

I could benefit from telling myself, “God likes you, Brent, in spite of your sin, in spite of your failures, in spite of your weaknesses.”

What about you?

As for loving our enemies, here’s a possible rule of thumb: we are not loving our enemies sufficiently until we have warm feelings for them. These warm feelings may take a miracle on God’s part, but as Bruner says, God is good at miracles. Start with prayer.

1. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 271-2.

2. Ibid., 272.


Sermon 02-05-17: “Are We Committing Spiritual Murder?”

February 15, 2017

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Jesus’ uncompromising words against anger in today’s scripture puts us on the defensive: “Yes, in most cases, anger is sinful and unjustified, but not in my case!” We often feel perfectly justified in our anger. What if we’re wrong? What makes anger sinful? What do we need to overcome anger in our lives?

Sermon Text: Matthew 5:21-26

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

Big game today. Passions are running high. Even churches are getting into the spirit. Some of you may have seen on “Fox 5” news report that the St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Carrollton posted the following message on their church sign: “Even Jesus rose up. Rise Up, Falcons.” I know the pastor there! Then, the church sign in front of First Baptist Church of Sandy Springs reads, “God has no favorites, but this sign guy does. Go Falcons!”

Remember those happy days before the Super Bowl?

Remember those happy days before the Super Bowl?

And I’m excited, too. In fact, this week I even let myself get into an online argument about the Super Bowl. It started innocently enough: A Facebook friend posted his prediction for a Falcons victory. He said he really thinks the Falcons are going to win. And I replied to his comment—voicing my agreement, and offering a few reasons why I thought it would happen. A lot of it has to do with our team’s offense. And then one of his friends—someone I don’t even know—replied to my comment: “It’s easy to have a great offense against teams that don’t have a defense.” Read the rest of this entry »


When the apostle Paul steps on my toes

February 9, 2017

Rembrandt's Paul. He wouldn't really have been writing in a book.

Rembrandt’s Paul. He wouldn’t really have been writing in a book.

I’m currently teaching a Bible study on Paul’s letter to the Galatians. At last night’s study, we looked at Galatians 1:6-9.

Paul’s main concern here is that false teachers had infiltrated the Galatian churches, which Paul established on his first missionary journey, and were distorting the gospel he preached to them. These teachers, often called “Judaizers,” insisted that the Galatian Christians, many of whom were Gentiles, needed to observe Jewish ceremonial law in order to be fully Christian.

Keep in mind: the Judaizers’ error was subtle. As one Reformation-era theologian, Heinrich Bullinger, put it, they could affirm everything in the Apostles’ Creed. “What they denied,” however, “was that everything related to salvation was given by Christ alone.”

As you can see in Paul’s response, this seemingly small error was spiritually deadly.

In his Galatians for You commentary, Tim Keller asks us to consider ways in which contemporary Christians and churches make the same mistake. As I told the class, I see in my own preaching a tendency toward this error when I emphasize the necessity of “surrendering” our lives to Christ. While I like the language of surrender, the problem, as Keller describes it, is that we can overemphasize our human action at the expense of God’s grace.

Surrendering to Christ, in other words, can become more about us than Jesus ChristIt can become a measure of the strength and purity of our faith, or the thoroughness of our repentance. We can turn “faith” itself into a kind of meritorious work that we must perform for God before he saves us the “rest of the way.”

In which case, what we do is very small, but it’s hardly nothing. And contrary to Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:8-9, our efforts would be something about which we could boast.

No. Paul would remind us that saving faith and repentance are not something that we muster on our own, apart from the prevenient grace of God. The biblical kind of surrender that we need to make to God is one that says, “I give up! I am helpless. I can do nothing to earn this gift of salvation. If I’m going to be saved, it’s going to be through Christ’s merit alone. Enable me depend on him completely for my salvation.”

Are you already a Christian? That means that you’re “in the process” of being saved—i.e., you’re being sanctified. God is enabling you to become more Christlike. Paul’s warning still applies: Sanctification is not self-improvement. It is God alone who sanctifies. Surrendering in this case would mean, just as before, trusting in Christ completely to do this good work within us.

But do we have to do anything? Well, yes—if you insist on looking at it from the human side of the equation. But, but, but… I can hardly say that without the legalist within puffing his chest out—or, depending on the day of the week, hanging his head in shame. 

I’ll leave it to John Piper to say the rest. This comes from his post, “Should We Teach that Good Works Come with Saving Faith?”:

I don’t think that question will ever be settled at the experiential level… because human beings are wired to be legalists. We are wired to trust in what we do as the ground of our assurance.

Now along comes a gospel preacher who says, “Christ died for your sins and he provided a righteousness, so that all of your guilt can be taken away and all the righteousness that God requires of you can be provided totally by another. And this forgiveness and righteousness is received totally by faith alone.” Then he follows it up in a subsequent message, saying, “The faith that justifies justifies by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone. It will always be accompanied by graces like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.”

And as soon as you say that this faith is going to bear fruit, people shift back into their legalistic mode of “Oh, I see. We’re really justified by our works.” And it takes a lifetime of fighting that battle…


Sermon 01-29-17: “Fulfilling the Law and the Prophets”

February 7, 2017

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Do Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:20, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” contradict our Protestant understanding of justification by faith alone? To answer that question, we need to understand what Jesus is saying in verses 17-19. This sermon explores these verses. In the process, I talk about the inspiration of scripture and the way in which Jesus fulfills the Old Testament.

Sermon Text: Matthew 5:17-20

[No audio or video this week due to an iPhone error. They will be available for next week’s sermon.]

leah-remini-cover-768x1024Leah Remini, the actress who played Doug’s wife, Carrie, on the TV show King of Queens for many years made news in 2013 when she announced to the world that she was leaving the Church of Scientology—after being an active member of the cult for 35 years. Over the past couple of months, she produced an eight-part documentary on the A&E Network about Scientology—and the great harm it does to its followers. Which is kind of brave—because they have an army of lawyers and private investigators and more money than they know what to do with. They will use these resources to try to ruin your life!

As Remini describes in the documentary, the path to spiritual enlightenment that scientology promises involves spending basically all your time and all your money on classes, books, and so-called “auditing” sessions. All together, she estimated that she spent nearly $5 million on Scientology.

After all the money, all the time, all the work, she was supposed to have reached a level of spiritual enlightenment at which point she was completely free from fear and anxiety; she was in a place of perfect peace—a place free of pain and suffering. And did she achieve that? “No,” she said, “not even close.”

Even after all that money… all that work. And I do mean work. She said that when she wasn’t working on King of Queens, she was taking Scientology classes—from 8:00 in the morning until 10:00 at night. Every day. She spent much of her time in Clearwater, Florida, which is the international headquarters of Scientology. At one point, the documentary shows her walking on the beach in Clearwater, and she said, “This is the first time I’ve ever been to the beach.” The first time? And she’s like, “Yes, you don’t get vacation time in Scientology.” Read the rest of this entry »


C.S. Lewis and the parable of the dog and its owner

February 2, 2017

Today’s edition of “What C.S. Lewis said.”

Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount, which we started looking at in last week’s sermon, with the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in heart… Blessed are those who mourn… Blessed are the peacemakers,” etc. Another word for “blessed” is happy—specifically, to be made deeply happy by God. Indeed, a few modern translations substitute the word “happy” for “blessed”—no doubt because translators perceive that “blessed” has an old-fashioned ring to it. 

But I still like “blessed.” In fact, I like the recent phenomenon of being wished a “blessed day” rather than a “nice day”—because it reminds me where true happiness comes from.

My point is, God wants us to be truly and deeply happy. He wants us to be blessed.

Yet, as we turn our attention to the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, it can often seem as if God were trying to thwart happiness at every turn. Jesus makes a series of seemingly impossible (or literally impossible) demands on every aspect of our lives. (We’ll look at one of those demands this week.) If we buy into our culture’s idea that being happy is a matter of “getting in touch with ourselves,” of “being who we truly are,” Jesus’ sermon will feel like a splash of cold water.

Why is God so demanding, so uncompromising, when it comes to telling us how to live?

In a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, C.S. Lewis shares the following parable (h/t Trevin Wax), which can shed light on the answer:

Supposing you are taking a dog on a lead through a turnstile or past a post. You know what happens (apart from his usual ceremonies in passing a post!). He tries to go to the wrong side and gets his head looped round the post. You see that he can’t do it, and therefore pull him back. You pull him back because you want to enable him to go forward. He wants exactly the same thing—namely to go forward: for that very reason he resists your pull back, or, if he is an obedient dog, yields to it reluctantly as a matter of duty which seems to him to be quite in opposition to his own will: though in fact it is only by yielding to you that he will ever succeed in getting where he wants.

In this parable, the dog and its owner both want the same thing: to move forward. Likewise, we want the same thing that God wants for us: to be happy. Like the dog in the parable, we don’t know how to make that happen. And in our misguided efforts to do so, we get ourselves tangled up. This is what the Bible describes as sin. God, however, knows how to untangle us and get us moving in the right direction. But even this is an understatement, considering that the intellectual distance between us and God is infinitely greater than the intellectual distance between a dog and its owner.

Do we believe that God knows what’s best for us? If we say we do, are we living in a way that’s consistent with this belief? If not, what changes do we need to make?

Ask the Holy Spirit to identify and give you power to make those changes.


Is your view of scripture’s inspiration consistent with Jesus’ and Paul’s view?

February 1, 2017

My sermon last Sunday (which I’ll post soon) was on Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:17-20. This passage includes these words from verse 18: “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” In my sermon, I reflected on the meaning of the inspiration of scripture. I said the following:

Now, when Jesus refers to the “Law and the Prophets” in verse 17, or even “the Law” in verse 18, Bible scholars tells us that this is shorthand for saying, “the entire Bible”—which at the time was what we would call the Old Testament.

And he’s saying two very important things about the Bible.

First, he’s saying that the Bible—every word of it—is given to us by God. And every word of it matters. That’s what Jesus believed. Why do I say that? Well, notice Jesus refers to “an iota” and a “dot.” Jesus would have been referring to tiny strokes in letters of the Hebrew alphabet. But for us that “iota or dot” would be similar to the crossing of a “t” or the dotting of “i” in our own alphabet—or putting an apostrophe or a punctuation mark in the right place. Or distinguishing a lowercase “q” from a lowercase “g” by adding a curl to the end of the stem. That’s the level of detail that Jesus is talking about. And he’s saying, in so many words, that God cared about each of those details in the Word that he gave us.

The end result of all this, as New Testament scholar N.T. Wright said, is that God ensured that we the Church have exactly the Bible that God wanted us to have.

From here, I talked about recent controversies surrounding Andy Stanley’s words about the Virgin Birth and Adam Hamilton’s “three bucket” approach to scripture. In my view, neither of their viewpoints is compatible with Jesus’ own view of the inspiration of scripture.

Or Paul’s…

I’m starting a Bible study tonight on Galatians, and I was reminded that Paul’s argument in Galatians 3:15-18 depends on a close reading of two verses in Genesis. Unless we believe that Paul was wrong, and such a reading was unwarranted, then what does that say about our view of inspiration?

The ESV Study Bible commentary on v. 16 puts it like this:

Gal. 3:16 God spoke promises to Abraham on several occasions, but probably Gen. 13:15 and 17:8 are particularly in view. And to your offspring. Paul knows that the singular (Hb. zera‘) can be used as a collective singular that has a plural sense (he interprets it in a plural sense in Rom. 4:18). But it also can have a singular meaning, and here Paul, knowing that only in Christ would the promised blessings come to the Gentiles, sees that the most true and ultimate fulfillment of these OT promises comes to one “offspring,” namely, Christ. Paul’s willingness to make an argument using a singular noun in distinction from its plural form (which occurs in other OT verses) indicates a high level of confidence in the trustworthiness of the small details of the OT text.


Sermon 01-22-17: “The Only Bread We Need”

January 31, 2017

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In the spiritual battles that every Christian fights against Satan and his minions, God has given us a little-used weapon in our aresenal: fasting. If Jesus needed to fast to prepare for his testing by Satan, what makes us think that we don’t? This sermon begins by addressing the real and present threat that Satan poses and makes the case that, in order to face that threat, we Christians should fast.

Sermon Text: Matthew 4:1-11

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

Did you ever see The Exorcist? I have not. But I know that this 1973 horror movie is one of the highest-grossing movies of all time—and one of the scariest and most influential. The director was William Friedkin—who is still around. In last month’s issue of Vanity Fair, he admitted that until recently he had never witnessed a real live exorcism. He is himself an agnostic, he said. But he wanted to see an exorcism for himself, so he went to Italy and filmed one. It was an exorcism of a woman—not Linda Blair, in case you’re wondering. And then he showed the video to two of the world’s leading neurosurgeons and researchers in California.

One of them, Dr. Neil Martin, the chief of neurosurgery at UCLA Medical Center, said the following:

There’s a major force at work within her somehow. I don’t know the underlying origin of it … This doesn’t seem to be hallucinations … It doesn’t look like schizophrenia or epilepsy … I’ve done thousands of surgeries, on brain tumors, traumatic brain injuries, [etc.] … and I haven’t seen this kind of consequence from any of those disorders. This goes beyond anything I’ve ever experienced—that’s for certain.

The other doctor was equally baffled—saying that whatever was happening to this woman was authentic. She wasn’t faking. But he had no idea what was causing it or how to treat it.

Actress Linda Blair and director William Friedkin on the set of <em>The Exorcist</em> in 1974.

Actress Linda Blair and director William Friedkin on the set of The Exorcist in 1973.

Friedkin said:

I went to these doctors to try to get a rational, scientific explanation for what I had experienced. I thought they’d say, ‘This is some sort of psychosomatic disorder having nothing to do with possession.’ That’s not what I came away with. Forty-five years after I directed The Exorcist, there’s more acceptance of the possibility of possession than there was when I made the film.

Interesting! I hope that Friedkin’s experience shakes his agnostic worldview and enables him to believe in the reality of the spiritual realm—and God, and his Son Jesus.

I am a scientifically minded person—not many pastors have an engineering degree from—if you don’t mind me saying—one of the world’s best engineering schools. And in the past I’ve certainly been a naturally skeptical person. But I’m telling you: I believe in Satan. I believe in the reality of evil and personal spiritual forces at work in the world, forces which oppose God and his kingdom and are working against individuals and against the church. The best reason to believe in Satan and his fellow demons is because this is the clear teaching of scripture and because Jesus himself believed in them. One theologian, Michael Green, points out that 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?… ¶ 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… 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.[1]

So I believe in the devil. C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors…”

There’s no question that in our United Methodist Church, we tend to fall into the first error: We tend to not believe in Satan and his minions. Or even if we say we do, this belief makes no practical difference in our lives. We fail to see the devil as a clear and present danger. We fail to heed the apostle Paul’s words that we “wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”[2]

The funny thing about Paul’s words here is that if you read the Book of Acts, you see Paul seems to “wrestle” plenty against “flesh and blood”—flesh and blood people oppose him everywhere he goes; people try to kill him; people beat him; people abuse him; people throw him in prison. How can Paul say he “wrestles not against flesh and blood”?

Because he sees a deeper, more powerful struggle underneath the surface of reality. One that’s invisible to the naked eye. Yes, people do all kinds of evil, awful, sinful things all the time—and God will hold us responsible for our role in these things. But the Bible teaches that we’re not doing sinful, evil things on our own. Unfortunately, we have a deadly spiritual enemy who is all to happy to help us. In fact, we often make it all too easy for him.

Do you remember a couple of years ago, when kids in elementary schools were playing this game called “Charlie Charlie”? They would make something like a Ouija board, stack pencils on top of it, and call upon a demon named Charlie to answer questions. The Vatican issued a warning to kids and their parents not to mess around with this. And many people scoffed: “Oh, it’s just a harmless game,” people said. “It’s not real.”

Who’s to say that’s not something the devil could use? Why take the chance?

As many of you know, I’m a big music fan—I’m always looking for new bands, new artists I might enjoy. Recently, I was reading about a rock band that was getting great reviews; they sounded like something I might like. Only… The critics who reviewed their albums said that their music was great, but their lyrics were really silly—always singing about demons and witches and occult stuff. But of course they’re not serious about that! It’s all a joke. Besides, you can just disregard the words and pay attention to the music. And I started to download one of their albums off iTunes—before my conscience spoke up: “You can’t do that, Brent! The devil is hard enough to resist when you’re fighting against him. And here you are, practically inviting him into your front door! You can’t do that!”

But you know… demon possession, Ouija boards, the Charlie Charlie Challenge, devil-worshiping rock bands… These are kind of obvious examples of ways that the devil works in the world. Most of the time, he’s much more subtle, much more discreet, much more invisible.

Even in today’s scripture, notice that we’re not told in what guise the devil comes to Jesus. If we’re picturing the Underwood Deviled Ham figure—a red guy with cloven hooves and a pitchfork… Well, we’re certain he doesn’t look like that. Was he visible to him? If he was, I’m sure he was very beautiful to look at. Maybe he came in the guise of a person. Or maybe he came to Jesus the way he so often comes to us—through our own thoughts. By planting ideas in our minds. By sowing seeds of doubt. Lying to us. Exploiting our weaknesses.

Keep in mind: Jesus is not a superhero. He is God-made-flesh. He is fully human. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us that these were real temptations. That means he had to consider each one; he had to think about it. He doesn’t just brush them away like they’re gnats. In fact, the Book of Hebrews says that in Jesus, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” The point is, these temptations are really tempting; they challenge him. And why wouldn’t they?

After all, why not turn a stone to bread? Jesus has been in the wilderness for forty days—that’s about as long as anyone can go before starvation sets in. A messiah who dies before accomplishing his mission and going to the cross and dying for our sins isn’t going to do anyone any good. And notice that Jesus responds to this temptation by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3. Moses is reminding the Israelites that after God delivered them from Pharaoh’s army through the Red Sea, they immediately started grumbling—“Did Moses bring us out here in the desert to starve to death?” So what does God do? He gives them bread from heaven, called “manna.” God feeds his people with miracle bread. So when Satan tempts Jesus, he’s really just reminding him, “Hey, you did this before, Jesus—when you were with Israel back in the wilderness. You’re God, alongside the Father and the Holy Spirit! You fed them when they were starving in the wilderness. And guess what? Now you’re in the wilderness as Israel’s representative. Are you going to let yourself starve, Jesus? Feed yourself with miracle bread, just as you fed the Israelites with miracle bread so long ago.”

Do you see how tempting that must have been? Satan is so close to being right. And he’s counting on Jesus not being able to think clearly, so he thinks, it just might work.

But this verse—“Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord”—means not only are we not supposed to live by bread that we make by hand, it also means that we’re not supposed to live by miracle bread, either. We’re not supposed to live by anything other than God himself. Satan loves miracles because he knows that they can distract people from God. In John chapter 2 we’re told that crowds are seeing Jesus work miracles, and they’re impressed with the miracles. And they start following him because of the miracles. But what does John say? “But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people.”[3] He knew that the people weren’t falling in love with Jesus; they were falling in love with miracles. They didn’t have genuine faith in God; they were just captivated by the miracles that God performed.

God is telling us in Deuteronomy 8:3 that the purpose of the miracle bread was not to feed hungry Israelites; the purpose was to get hungry Israelites to fall in love with the supplier of this miracle bread—to fall in love with God; to place their faith in God; to trust in God—and not in the things that God provides, be it earthly bread or heavenly bread. The purpose of the manna wasn’t to satisfy their physical hunger but to awaken within them a hunger for God! Jesus knows the meaning of Deuteronomy 8:3. That’s why he won’t feed himself with miracle bread. He’s got everything he needs to survive in his heavenly Father.

Consider John chapter 4: When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well. Remember what happens? Jesus’ disciples leave him at this well in a Samaritan village while they go into town to buy food and bring it back to him. John tells us that Jesus is hungry. In the meantime he has this long conversation with a Samaritan woman. By the end of it, she comes to believe in Jesus as her Lord and Savior—and she rushes back to town to tell everyone about Jesus. When the disciples show up with food for Jesus, they urge Jesus to eat. But he doesn’t. They’re confused. Jesus says, “I have food to eat that you do not know about… My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.”[4]

Jesus somehow has so much of his heavenly Father—he finds so much pleasure in pleasing his Father and glorifying his Father and doing his Father’s will—that somehow it satisfies even his deep physical hunger. How is possible? I don’t know. But I would love to find out.

I would love to be so filled with God’s love, to be so filled with Jesus, to be so filled with the Holy Spirit, that I don’t need anything else this world has to offer. I would have God and that’s enough for me. I wouldn’t need more money. I wouldn’t need other people’s approval. I wouldn’t need recognition. I wouldn’t need trophies. I wouldn’t need popularity. I wouldn’t need to be liked. I wouldn’t need to measure up to other people’s opinions. I wouldn’t need to please other people. I wouldn’t be enslaved to the things of this world. My only “food”—my only sustenance—would be to please God, to glorify him, to do his will.

Don’t you want that? I do! How do we get it? How do we get more of God?

God is showing us one important way in today’s scripture. He’s actually showing us more than one way, but I’m going to focus on this one—because frankly, we’re failing miserably at it. Me included.

I’m talking about fasting. 

When I was ordained as a United Methodist elder-in-full-connection six-and-a-half years ago, I lied. Because one of the promises I made to God, to my bishop, and to the North Georgia Annual Conference is that I would teach my people to fast. I’m serious. It was a question: “Will you teach your people to fast.” And I said “yes.” If I said “no,” I wouldn’t get ordained, so I said “yes,” like everyone else.

Have I said a word about it to you? Nope. That’s got to change.

Before beginning his ministry on earth—before facing and overcoming these three temptations and many more besides—Jesus prepared for it by fasting. This means he went without food for a period of time. He drank water, but ate nothing. Now, forty days is really extreme. On the other hand, Jesus had to accomplish by far the most difficult task that anyone has ever had to accomplish. So in order to get ready for it, what did he do? He fasted. Of course he prayed, too—prayer and fasting should always go together. But his spiritual preparation included fasting.

Here’s my question: Why doesn’t ours? If the Son of God—God from God, light from light, true God from true God—needed to fast in order to overcome the trials and temptations that he would face, what on earth makes us think we don’t?

Jesus fasted. In the Sermon on the Mount, which we’ll get to soon, he teaches about fasting and says, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites… But when you fast, anoint your head with oil and wash your face.” He doesn’t say “if” you do it; he says “when” you do it. In Luke 2, we’re told that Anna, the prophetess who blesses the baby Jesus in the temple, prays and fasts. The apostle Paul fasts for three days after his conversion in Acts 9. Later in Acts 13 he and the rest of the church at Antioch fast just before the Holy Spirit anoints Paul and Barnabas to be missionaries to the Gentiles. In 2 Corinthians, he says he fasts often. And of course, the roll call of people who fast in the Old Testament is a Who’s Who of heroes of the faith.

Fasting is a means of grace. From at least the late first century, many churches instituted a twice weekly fast. John Wesley fasted twice a week for most of his adult life. When he grew old, he only fasted once a week.

In 1756, King George II called the people of England to a national day of prayer and fasting because of a threatened invasion by France. On February 6, 1756, the day of the fast, John Wesley wrote in his journal, “The fast day was a glorious day, such as London has scarce seen since the Restoration. Every church in the city was more than full, and a solemn seriousness sat on every face. Surely God hearted prayer, and there will yet be a lengthening of our tranquility.” In a footnote, he added: “Humility was turned into national rejoicing for the threatened invasion by the French was averted.”[5]

Fasting teaches us the kind of “bread” that we live by. [Richard Foster, unmasking what’s already there in our hearts—like anger.]

[Talk about the “130” goal. Good plans to accomplish it. But you know what we need? We need power. By not fasting, it’s as if we’ve taken an arrow out of our quiver and thrown it on the ground—“we don’t need that one.” Without fasting, we could be missing a weapon in our arsenal that we need to fight the devil and wage successful spiritual warfare.

We need all the power we can get. Because as our church turns the corner and marshals it resources to reach 130, we can expect that the devil will fight back hard.

Will we be ready for that fight?]

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

2. Ephesians 6:12 KJV

3. John 2:24

4. John 4:32, 34 ESV

5. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, rev. ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 50.


Remember: When angry, direct your anger toward God

January 28, 2017

mockingbird_devotionalI realize I’m going to the well of The Mockingbird Devotional twice in one week, but there’s a reason this book was my go-to gift this past Christmas. It’s good!

In today’s devotional, Paul Zahl reflects on Exodus 17:2, which describes the Israelites’ anger at Moses shortly after being delivered from the Egyptians:

Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?”

Notice that Moses rightly understands that the people’s anger was misdirected: Despite their words and actions, they weren’t angry at Moses; they were angry at God. “Why do you test the Lord?” He was the One who was ultimately responsible for their being in this predicament—on the verge of dying of thirst—not Moses. And that’s true for all of us who are facing any kind of hardship.

After all, even if God didn’t cause it, God certainly had the power to prevent it. Why didn’t he?

Of course, you might say that we shouldn’t get angry at all, and I’m sure that’s true. Anger is almost always destructive. And don’t resort to saying, “Yes, but Jesus was angry when he overturned the money-changers’ tables.”

Do I need to point out that we’re not Jesus?

No, by all means we should trust that, despite the fact that our lives aren’t going according to our plans, they are going according to God’s—and that God’s plans are always better than our own.

I don’t deny that we ought to feel that way. But when we don’t, which—let’s face facts—is most of the time, here’s some good news: we can do something productive with our anger: we can blame God!

One recurring theme of my blog over the past few years is my affirmation of God’s sovereignty and providence, which is another way of saying that God is, indeed, “pulling the strings.” That being the case, when we find ourselves angry, at whom ought we to be angry? As Zahl says in his devotional, nothing good comes from being angry at people. God, however, is big enough to absorb our anger. Let’s be angry at him.

Try it. For a second, stop blaming the “SOB” ruining your life, and instead blame God, who, by definition, must be pulling the strings. It will be for your good to have done so, though I don’t expect anyone to pickup on that until… “Afterward” (Edith Wharton).[†]

Paul Zahl, “January 28” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 57-8.