Archive for May, 2012

Sermon for 05-27-12: “In Case of Fire, Part 4: The Fruit of the Spirit”

May 31, 2012

When we talk about our lives bearing the “fruit of the Spirit,” we’re really talking about a lifelong process of change called sanctification. The Holy Spirit changes us inwardly, so that we can become people whose lives are characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Becoming this kind of person is surely the key to happiness in life. But it’s hard! As I make clear in this sermon, however, the Holy Spirit does the heavy lifting.

Sermon Text: Galatians 5:1, 13-25

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

This week, on sports-talk radio, one unlikely athlete in an unlikely sport was the main topic of conversation. I’m referring to Lolo Jones. She’s one of the fastest hurdlers in the world, and she’s competing this summer at the Olympics in London. She made news last week not for her athletic prowess or because she was involved in an embarrassing scandal, but because of something she told an interviewer on HBO Sports: This 29-year-old single woman is a virgin. She’s a Christian who is waiting until marriage to have sex.

Olympic athlete Lolo Jones made news in a good way last week.

All the sports-talk radio hosts were amazed by this. They were like, “Google her, if you don’t know who she is. She’s hot!” Typical guy-talk. What they really meant was, “How could this bright, attractive young woman, who seems to be so normal in every way, still be a virgin? She isn’t weird at all!”

Lolo Jones wants the world to know that it’s not impossible—or weird—to wait. It’s what Christians are supposed to do. It’s a part of what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus. Our sexually confused culture needs the witness of faithful Christians like her. Read the rest of this entry »

“Sunday School Heroes”: a new sermon series starting Sunday

May 30, 2012

This Sunday in Vinebranch, we begin a fun summer sermon series called “Sunday School Heroes.” I’m going to preach on classic Bible stories that many of us first heard in Sunday school as a child: David and Goliath, Daniel in the lion’s den, Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree, and many more. You’ll notice from the list below that we’re mostly focusing on Old Testament stories, which are too often neglected once we graduate to “big church.”

This series will feature children’s sermons and even some classic Bible songs. Rest assured, these stories aren’t just for kids!

A funeral prayer

May 29, 2012

I offered the following prayer at a funeral today. The prayer reflects our ultimate Christian hope, not merely for life after death, but for life after life after death—or resurrection.

Eternal God, you give us the gift of life. You sustain our lives by your Spirit at every moment. And when our days in this world are finished, you receive us into your presence and prepare us for the world to come. You do this out of that same love by which you came to us in your Son Jesus, that same love that destroyed the power of sin on the cross, that same love that defeated death in resurrection, that same love from which neither death nor life, nor nor anything else in all creation can ever separate us, that same love that our brother Dave can now experience in all its fullness.

We thank you for the blessing of Dave’s life. We thank you that through his life you have helped to make us into the people that we are today. We thank you that we are better people today because you shared his life with us. For that we are grateful.

We are grateful, but we are also profoundly sad. We have lost so much. Comfort us and all who mourn with us. Strengthen us during this difficult season. Give to us now your grace, that as we shrink before the mystery of death, we may understand that while Dave is lost to us for a time, he isn’t lost to you.

As your Spirit bears witness with our spirit, give us the assurance that, through our own faith and baptism, we, your beloved children, will be reunited with Dave in resurrection.

We ask this in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen

Clichés about preaching we learn in seminary

May 28, 2012

Believe it or not, in seminary, I did pay attention in my preaching class. It’s sad, given how central the ministry of the Word is to us Protestants, that we only had one required preaching class. Be that as it may, one thing our professor told us is that we should be able to summarize our sermon in one sentence. If we can’t do that, then the sermon is obviously too disjointed, too unfocused, too rambling.

I don’t entirely agree. What about the sermons I grew up with in my Baptist church—the three-point expository sermon?

There’s nothing at all wrong with them. They work like this: “Let me begin with a poem or funny story. Now here’s the first point I want to make about the scripture. Let me talk about it and illustrate it. Here’s the second point. Let me talk about it and illustrate it. Here’s the third point. Let me talk about it and illustrate it. Let me conclude with a poem or funny story. Let me invite you to do something. The end.”

My point is that if you’re going to summarize three-point sermons in one sentence, it stands to reason that it’s at least going to be long compound sentence, right? You might have to use semicolons to make it fit.

Three-point expository sermons are passé in mainline Protestant seminaries, which is a shame, because, as I said, there’s nothing wrong with them. They’re easy on the listener, because even if you doze off during one point, you can pick right up again with the next point without being hopelessly lost. I also enjoy verse-by-verse expository sermons, at least in the hands of preachers who can pull them off. Chuck Swindoll is a master at it. My concern is that in lesser hands, the verse-by-verse expository method can seem more like a Bible study than preaching.

What’s the difference? I’m not sure, but I know it when I hear it.

Something called “inductive sermons” are all the rage in seminary. Although I’ve never actually heard a Fred Craddock sermon (he was retired before I got to the Candler School of Theology), I think he’s primarily to blame for them. No, I’m kidding. I’m sure he’s great. It’s just that, based on his reputation, I worry that I would want to change careers if I heard him preach—like, what the heck am I doing trying to preach?

I’m not quite sure what an inductive sermon is. I think the idea is that instead of just stating your point up front, and then illustrating it and applying it to life, you slowly lead the listener to the main point at the end. I can see how these types of sermons lend themselves to one-sentence summaries.

I don’t know what kind of sermons I preach. I suspect they’re inductive. I don’t like to think about it too much. It’s like how, if you think about something that comes naturally, like breathing, breathing suddenly becomes difficult. I’m just happy and somewhat amazed that I have a new sermon each week—because I usually begin each week thinking, “What on earth am I possibly going to say about this scripture this week?” Or “What on earth am I going to say that I didn’t say last week—or last month?”

Anyway, the fact that I do somehow have a new sermon each week must be because of God’s faithfulness. (And for what it’s worth, I always enjoy my own sermons. I do! I hope that’s not conceited. It’s just that they always speak to me, if to no one else. If I didn’t like them, I wouldn’t preach them!)

P.S. In the future, I want to talk about another preaching cliché that’s currently fashionable: that preaching without notes or a manuscript is somehow better and more “authentic” than preaching with them.

In case you didn’t believe me about Rez Band

May 27, 2012

Here is the song “American Dream” by the Resurrection Band from 1980—smart, political, tough. It still rings true today. And if you’re going to imitate Led Zeppelin, imitate them well. I love this song! My favorite part: “It won’t happen, 1950/ It may happen, 1965/ It will happen, JUST DON’T THINK ABOUT IT!”

C.S. Lewis on self-control

May 27, 2012

I preached this morning on the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22-24. The following excerpt from Mere Christianity accompanies these verses in the C.S. Lewis Bible.

I was reminded of when I was a teenager in youth group. Several of our youth leaders, at one time or another, encouraged us to be teetotalers from “secular” music. This idea was widespread back in the ’80s. One Christian youth magazine had a chart comparing secular rock bands and artists to their Christianized equivalent: “If you like Led Zeppelin, you’ll love the Resurrection Band.” (By the way, Rez Band did rock hard and well back in the day.)

I like a lot of first-generation Christian rock; I find it spiritually nourishing. But even in high school I never bought in to the idea that we should only listen to sacred music. You weren’t going to convince me that the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour or Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home weren’t inspired by God.

Besides, the same kind of obsessive hero-worship was often transferred from Madonna and Mötley Crüe to Amy Grant and Stryper.

By the way, can any of you golf widows out there relate to his diagnosis of “golf-mania”? 😉

Temperance is, unfortunately, one of those words that has changed its meaning. It now usually means teetotalism. But in the days when the second Cardinal virtue was christened “Temperance,” it meant nothing of the sort. Temperance referred not specially to drink, but to all pleasures; and it meant not abstaining, but going the right length and no further. It is a mistake to think that Christians ought all to be teetotalers…. Of course it may be the duty of a particular Christian, or of any Christian, at a particular time, to abstain from strong drink, either because he is the sort of man who cannot drink at all without drinking too much, or because he is with people who are inclined to drunkenness and must not encourage them by drinking himself. But the whole point is that he is abstaining, for a good reason, from something which he does not condemn and which he likes to see other people enjoying. One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting everyone else to give it up. That is not the Christiain way. An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons—marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.

One great piece of mischief has been done by the modern restriction of the word Temperance to the questions of drink. It helps people to forget that you can be just as intemperate about lots of other things. A man who makes his golf or his motor-bicycle the centre of his life, or a woman who devotes all her thoughts to clothes or bridge or her dog, is being just as “intemperate” as someone who gets drunk every evening. Of course, it does not show on the outside so easily: bridge-mania or golf-maina do not make you fall down in the middle of the road. But God is not deceived by externals.[†]

† C.S. Lewis, “A Matter of Self-Control” from The C.S. Lewis Bible NRSV (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 1330.

You mean virginity isn’t an impossible ideal?

May 25, 2012

The biggest news on sports-talk radio this week was Lolo Jones’s admission in an interview that she’s still a virgin at 29. Jones is a world-class hurdler who will compete in the London Olympics this summer.

“Google her picture if you don’t know who we’re talking about,” various talk-radio hosts told us. “She’s hot!” The subtext was, “How could this bright, attractive young woman, who seems to be so normal and have so much going for her, still be a virgin?”

Regardless, I was pleased that the guy-talk surrounding Jones was universally positive. Men—at least the men who listen to sports-talk radio—approve of this young Christian woman’s decision to wait until marriage to have sex.

It does expose a curious double-standard: earlier in the year, they discussed fellow athlete Tim Tebow’s virginity as if he were an alien from outer space—or gay. (Meanwhile, as if to illustrate how sexually confused our culture is, the online adultery service, Ashley Madison, has offered $1 million to any woman who can prove that Tebow is no longer a virgin.)

Jones says that postponing sex until marriage has been harder than graduating from college or training for the Olympics.

It’s hard, by all means. But she also wants the world to know that it’s not impossible—or weird. As Jones and Tebow both know, waiting is the Christian thing to do. It’s a part of what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus.

Shame on us pastors, youth ministers, or church leaders if we communicate anything other than that to our young people.

“An assurance was given me…”

May 24, 2012

Statue at Wesley Church, Melbourne, Australia

Today is Aldersgate Day (celebrated by Methodist churches and the Church of England), which commemorates an experience that John Wesley wrote about on this date 274 years ago:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate-Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

Wesley scholars debate whether Aldersgate was a true conversion experience for Wesley. The consensus opinion seems to be that Aldersgate represents, not the beginning of salvation for Wesley, but an assurance of it—a peace of mind that eluded Wesley in his Christian life up to this event. Indeed, as he wrote to his mother, Susannah, in a letter from 1725, he didn’t think assurance was possible: “That we can never be so certain of the pardon of our sins as to be assured they will never rise up against us, I firmly believe.”[1]

Wesley’s shift in thinking on the subject occurred under the influence of Moravian missionaries, whom he first encountered on his missionary journey to the Georgia colony in 1735. The Moravians taught that “proper faith will immediately bring with it an assurance of faith” and without such assurance, one is not a Christian.[2] Eventually, Wesley would agree with them.

On his return trip to England in early 1738, he wrote in his journal that he had “no such faith in Christ as will prevent my heart from being troubled, which it could not be if I believed in God and right believed also in Christ.”[3] In other words, without assurance, he did not possess proper faith. The faith he wanted, he said, was “a sure trust and confidence in God, that, through the merits of Christ, my sins are forgiven and I reconciled to the favour of God… I want that faith which none can have without knowing that he hath it.”[4] For Wesley, true justifying faith now implied the assurance of it.

Finally, at Aldersgate, Wesley found that assurance. If Wesley had a theme verse, post-Aldersgate, it would be Romans 8:15b-16: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”

In his later years, Wesley backed away from insisting that assurance was a necessary consequence of saving faith. He knew too many faithful Christians of tender conscience who struggled to possess it. But he did expect that most of us Christians should have it. And I wholeheartedly agree.

In fact, this emphasis on assurance is one thing that makes us distinctively Methodist. I wonder if we Methodist clergy preach it enough, discuss it enough, emphasize it enough? Do many people in our congregations struggle with private doubts about their own salvation? Are we doing enough to alleviate their fears?

We don’t alleviate their fears—please notice—by preaching cheap grace. Assurance doesn’t mean we have nothing to worry about regarding our sin, that we don’t need to repent, and that God is going to save us no matter what we do or believe. I’m aware that too many open-hearted, open-minded, open-doored Methodists have gotten this message over the years.

No, preaching assurance in our present context will sometimes mean instilling, first, a proper amount of fear.

To put it bluntly, in order to be assured of salvation, we must first know that we need to be saved.

Do you agree or disagree?

1.“Wesley on Faith and Assurance,” class handout, Emory University, 2007.

2. Richard P. Heitzenrater, “Great Expectations: Aldersgate and the Evidences of Genuine Christianity,” in Mirror and Memory: Reflections on Early Methodism (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1989), 146-149.

3. John Wesley, “An Early Self-Analysis,” in John Wesley, ed. Albert C. Outler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964), 41.

4. Ibid., 49-50.

Sermon for 05-20-12: “In Case of Fire, Part 3: Pentecost”

May 23, 2012

When the Holy Spirit gave birth to the church through the miracle at Pentecost, the Spirit’s first “act” was to translate the good news of the gospel into languages that other people could understand. In this sermon, I discuss ways in which the Spirit continues to do this through us.

Sermon Text: Acts 1:6-8; 2:1-21

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Since we’re near the beginning of summer, many of you will be going on vacation as a family to the beach soon. Do you like taking long car trips with your family? Growing up, my dad never cursed more than in those moments just before we left for summer vacation. I never understood this when I was a kid. Vacation was nothing but fun, and anticipating going on vacation was one of the best parts—all the nervous excitement of getting ready to go.

But as a parent… I totally understand the stress of getting ready to go on a trip. I mean, it’s stressful watching my wife, Lisa, plan the trip, do all the laundry, pack all the bags, pack the cooler, load everything into the car, arrange to have the neighbors feed the animals… It’s stressful to watch that. I hate it for her. But to my credit, I do most of the driving. And not long after we get on the road, we get to hear our kids arguing in the backseat: “Mom, Townshend is touching me. Stop touching me.” “I’m not touching you!” “Yes you are!”

Read the rest of this entry »

A prayer for Pentecost Sunday

May 22, 2012

Our church celebrated Pentecost Sunday a week early. Here is a prayer I offered for the occasion, which tied in nicely with the scripture I preached, Acts 1:6-8; 2:1-21.

God of wind, word, and fire, we praise your holy name for life, love, eternal life, the promise of resurrection, and—on this day, especially—for sending the light and strength of your Holy Spirit. We often find that trusting in you is difficult—it’s much easier at times to trust in things that we can see and feel; it’s easier to trust in the false gods of money, popularity, possessions. But we know that nothing other than you can provide for us what we truly need. So we want to trust, even though we find it difficult.

Deliver us from the mistaken idea that we muster faith on our own, that we simply draw upon our own resources in order to be faithful to you. In reality, you’ve sent us a helper, an advocate, a teacher. You’ve sent us One who sustains us with life at every moment and equips us to accomplish the good work that you call us to do. You’ve sent us your Holy Spirit.

In all honestly, we need more of your Spirit. We confess it’s our own fault for being so needy. When you made us your beloved children by grace through faith, you also gave us your Spirit to live within us, and we seemingly do all we can to quench the Spirit’s power. Forgive us. Enable us to repent. Let everything we do this morning, and, indeed, in our lives outside of church, stack the dry wood and kindling of your holy Word in our hearts. Give us patience to wait for you to light the fire. And we will wait for you. And we will expect you to do that—by your grace. Set us on fire for you. Let our lives give light to a world of darkness. Through Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.