Archive for August, 2012

Is God in control?

August 21, 2012

I would like to answer “yes,” emphatically, except, as my favorite Arminian Baptist theologian, Roger Olson, points out over on his blog, the statement “God is in control” gets easily misinterpreted or misunderstood—at least as far as we Arminians are concerned. (Methodists, please remember, are Arminians.)

If you’re a Calvinist, you have no such reservations about saying that God is in control. You mean “control” in the most literal and extreme way possible: everything that happens—down to the movement of the smallest subatomic particle—is foreordained by God for his glory. The Calvinist would say that while God opposes evil and holds human beings accountable for their sin, even sin and evil must play a necessary role, however inscrutable, in bringing about God’s ultimate purposes. Everything that happens, therefore, serves God’s good purposes.

Think of any ghastly, horrifying event in history. As ghastly and horrifying as it seems, God needed it to happen exactly like that in order for history to work out the way God wanted it to. It could be no other way. What you see is what you get, and what you get is good, even if you can’t comprehend how it’s good.

As cacophonous as this extreme view of God’s sovereignty may be to my Wesleyan ears, I can imagine its bringing comfort to people, especially as they go through a personal crisis. In his book, Questions to All Your Answers, Olson shares an encounter he had with former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, a conservative Presbyterian. Koop spoke spoke for 40 minutes at a college chapel service on the topic “God Killed My Son.”

He related how his college-age son was killed in a mountain climbing accident a few years earlier and said that only his belief that God took his son’s life gave him any comfort. If God took his son’s life, it wasn’t really an accident but an event filled with meaning and purpose even if those are hidden for now.[†]

Notice how different this “meticulous providence” (as Olson calls it) is from saying, along with St. Paul in Romans 8:28, that God works all things together for good. Paul doesn’t (and wouldn’t!) say that everything that happens is really good, if only we could see things the way God sees them. In so many words—unless I’m badly misinterpreting Calvinism—this is what the Calvinist believes. (They would probably quibble over my use of the word “good,” but if everything that happens serves God’s glory and purpose, how could it not be good? After all, God ordained it to happen exactly this way.)

Regardless, there is a vast difference between believing in God’s sovereignty, as we Wesleyans do, and believing that God dictates human history down to the smallest subatomic particle. God is in control in the sense that God has everything “under control.” Nothing that happens in history—no matter how evil, no matter how contrary to God’s will—will thwart God’s ultimate purposes for his good Creation. This doesn’t imply that senseless, absurd, and evil things don’t happen in the meantime. Of course they do! And when they do, we can be confident that God is at work, even in the midst of them, and that God is caring for us.

One more thought: The Bible teaches that sometimes God punishes people in history for their sin—whether by not sparing them from the natural consequences of cause-and-effect or even by actively afflicting them with discomfort, disaster, or disease. Moreover, God’s purpose in doing so is good. I’m happy to report that, at least in the tiniest of measures, God has let me suffer for my sins—at least enough to bring me to repentance. I consider this kind of punishment an act of severe mercy on God’s part.

Nevertheless, Jesus makes clear, in Luke 13 and John 9, that there is no necessary link between suffering and God’s punishment. As Jonah reluctantly confessed, God is “gracious and compassionate… slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” God is always tending toward mercy, as James and John discovered when they asked Jesus about calling fire down upon some inhospitable Samaritans in Luke 9:51-56. We should therefore be very cautious and humble about ascribing disasters, natural or otherwise, to God’s hand.

By the way, if you’re a Calvinist, and I’ve misrepresented Calvinism, please enlighten me. Good heavens, we barely learn Wesleyan theology at a United Methodist seminary!

Roger Olson, Questions to All Your Answers (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 46.

No theological arguments after church, please

August 20, 2012

I had a horrible experience in between our 8:30 and 11:00 Vinebranch services yesterday morning. Since I woke up (on this, my day off) still thinking about it, I thought I would share it with you, my faithful readers.

Yesterday, about 9:30, I had just finished preaching, the service was over, and the band was playing the outro. I intended to make my way to the narthex of our chapel to greet parishioners as they left—as I always do. Before I did that, however, I greeted a visitor who was standing near the front of the chapel. He was the special guest—a messianic Jew—who would be speaking to some Sunday school classes in the Vinebranch chapel between services. He had spoken the week before, and I heard from church people that his presentation was interesting.

When I greeted him, I said, “I heard good things about your talk last week.” He thanked me and introduced himself. “Where did you go to seminary?” he asked.

That should have been my first warning, but I took the bait and answered. “Hey, do you have a minute to talk?” he asked me. Again, I should have seen a theological argument brewing, but I took the bait again. Why do I do this? 

What followed was an argument about the modern state of Israel and the Bible. How this happened is a blur to me. I think I said that I believe (along with classic Christian theology) that God’s covenant with Israel is completely fulfilled in and through Jesus Christ. I hope and believe (along with Paul in Romans 9-11) that ethnic Israel’s rejection of the Messiah isn’t permanent, and that many Jews will yet come to faith in Jesus before the Second Coming.

I also said that, unlike him, I don’t see any continuity between the modern state of Israel and Israel of the Bible. Again, to be clear, the covenant with Israel is fulfilled in and through Jesus. It’s not clear to me how an event in the modern world—like, for example, the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948—should send theologians scrambling back to their Bibles to revise two millennia of Christian thinking on the subject.

(And, no, I’m not saying that the Church or Christians haven’t been deeply anti-Semitic at times. But the Roman Catholic Church, for example, didn’t need the events of 1948 to know that holding Jews collectively responsible for Jesus’ death was immoral and anti-Jewish.)

Needless to say, he didn’t see things my way. He was proof-texting Zephaniah to me! Zephaniah! Off the top of my head, I couldn’t tell you one thing about Zephaniah. I wish I could, but I can’t. And all I could think was, “Why are we having this argument?”

Why are we having this argument? 

Some of my fellow pastors can answer this question: We were having this argument because it’s 9:35 on Sunday morning, and I’ve just preached my heart out, and I’m exhausted, and I’m in no frame of mind to be having a deep theological discussion.

Over the past eight years or so, I’ve had arguments with parishioners or church visitors immediately after a service about a half-dozen times. In each and every case, I should have told the person, “I’d be happy to talk with you about this later. Call me on Tuesday, and make an appointment when I’m in a better frame of mind.”

In retrospect, it makes so much sense to say this, but I never seem to think of it in the heat of the moment. God help me!

To the credit of my messianic Jewish brother, he followed me out of the chapel and apologized for coming on so strong. But I shouldn’t have let the situation come to that.

Memorize these words, Brent: “I would love to talk about that later. How about giving me a call Tuesday and making an appointment?”

“Becoming a Christian is always a miracle”

August 17, 2012

Here’s a profoundly good statement about evangelism and those who do its good work, from The Bible Speaks Today commentary on John, by Bruce Milne. The author of this passage is reflecting on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, “You must be born again.” I’m preaching on this text this Sunday.

The truth of new birth has far-reaching implications for those engaged in evangelism, for it teaches us that becoming a Christian is always a miracle. The Christian witness therefore will inevitably be a person of prayer, and churches which engage in evangelism with integrity will inevitably be prayerful churches, beseeching God for his intervention to enable dead people to be reborn. Salvation is of God, and no advance in Christian evangelistic methodology will ever eliminate or replace this. As truly today as in the first century, the key to effective mission for the living God is prayer to the living God. Only God can save.[†]

Bruce Milne, The Message of John: Here Is Your King! (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 79.

A devotional for those out of work

August 16, 2012

As an associate pastor, I oversee our church’s Job Transition Ministry, which helps unemployed people find work. I prepared this devotional, in part from this blog post, for tonight’s meeting. I hope it provides some encouragement!

Scripture: 2 Corinthians 11:16-33, Philippians 3:7-14

The agony of defeat.

Did you watch the Olympics? There were many Olympic athletes who are Christians, and who publicly prayed and expressed gratitude to God before, during, or after their competitions. A couple of these athletes, like Usain Bolt and Gabby Douglas were huge winners at the Games. And we may think to ourselves, “It’s easy for them to be thankful! They won multiple gold medals! They’re on top of the world right now! Of course they’re grateful to God!”

But not so fast… Gabby Douglas fell off the balance beam in the individual competition. Even Usain Bolt has lost a race or two in his life. Then there was Christian athlete Lolo Jones, who failed—you know, by merely being the fourth fastest hurdler in the world. My point is that the path to Olympic success is paved with failure. Failure is often our best teacher. These Christian athletes know that. None of them abandoned their faith in Jesus when they experienced failure. They wouldn’t still be Christians if they did. In fact, all of them would tell you that failure comes with the territory—whether you’re an Olympic athlete or a mere mortal.

No one knows about failure better than the Apostle Paul. In one of his letters in the New Testament, he dusts off his résumé or pulls up his LinkedIn profile and shares some of his many accomplishments. Are you ready for these? He says that he was thrown in prison many times. He was beaten more times that he could count. He faced death many times. On five occasions, he was whipped “40 lashes minus one.” He was beaten with rods three times. He was stoned once and left for dead. He was shipwrecked three times. He spent a day and night on the open sea. He faced dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, and dangers from all kinds of different people—dangers in the city, dangers in the desert, and dangers on the sea. He experienced many sleepless nights. He was hungry and thirsty, often without food—and cold, without enough clothes.

Paul was a pastor like me. But you know what one difference is between me and him? If I experienced just one or two of these horrible events, I would probably think about changing careers! I mean, how many times do you have to be beaten up or go hungry or get sent to jail before you say, “Maybe I should be doing something else”?

Not Paul. He experienced more failures, setbacks, disappointments, and heartaches than anyone else I’ve ever heard about! And, yet, God redeemed each and every one. We’re here in this church today because Paul and other faithful saints like him didn’t call it quits when they failed.

While he was languishing in prison one time, facing what he imagined might be the end of his life, he said that while he had lost everything—at least in terms of what the world values—he considered all that he lost nothing more than “sewer trash” compared to what he had gained through his saving faith in Jesus Christ.

That’s the kind of perspective I want the Lord to teach me to have when I experience failures, setbacks, disappointments, and heartaches. How about you?

Sermon 08-12-12: “All Things New, Part 1: New Beginnings”

August 16, 2012

“Do you want to get well?” That’s the question Jesus asks the paralytic by the pool of Bethesda. Every one who is confronted by the life-changing and life-saving grace of God in Christ has to answer that question for himself or herself. If we say “yes,” however, that will sometimes mean making painful adjustments to the way we live. Fortunately, God gives us the grace we need to be successful.

Sermon Text: John 5:1-18

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

When I was a kid, my favorite place in the house I grew up in, by far, was the basement. My parents often threw big parties down there. The basement had a bar and a loud stereo and a game room. We kids weren’t allowed downstairs during parties. But some of my earliest memories were being three or four years old, lying in bed, listening to the loud rumble of voices, music, laughter, and clinking glasses coming up through the ventilation system. Everyone seemed to be having so much fun! Of course, back in the early-’70s, there was also cigarette smoke coming through the vents. My parents didn’t smoke, but their friends did—and no one minded very much about second-hand smoke back then. You’d open the basement door when a party was going on, and you’d think the basement was on fire with the thick fog of cigarette smoke! Ahh… you gotta love the seventies. Read the rest of this entry »

New sermon series: “All Things New”

August 15, 2012

Here is the schedule for “All Things New,” our new Vinebranch sermon series. I’ll post the first sermon in the series, from last Sunday, later. The theme of the series is our new life in Christ, which I thought was appropriate for the kickoff of a new church year.

Date

Title

Scripture

08/12/12 New Beginnings John 5:1-18
08/19/12 New Birth John 3:1-18
08/26/12 New Heart Psalm 51:1-19
09/02/12 New Mind Romans 12:1-8
09/09/12 Kenya Mission Trip
09/16/12 New Purpose Genesis 12:1-9
09/23/12 New Family Mark 3:20-35
09/30/12 New Direction Acts 4:1-22
10/07/12 New Destination 2 Corinthians 5:6-21

God and the Olympic athlete

August 14, 2012

Usain Bolt prays.

I understand why an unbeliever might be confused and even bothered by athletes’ publicly praying or thanking God before, during, or after a sporting event. Do these athletes believe that God favored them over all the other athletes who didn’t win? Do they believe that if God caused their victory, God therefore caused the other athletes’ defeat? Or do they believe that God rewarded them with a victory because they prayed more sincerely or believed more fervently than their opponents?

I can’t speak for each and every Christian athlete, but, in general, no. One high-profile Christian athlete who didn’t win a medal at the Olympics was hurdler Lolo Jones, the victim of an anti-Christian hatchet job in the New York Times a couple of days before her race. As she said in a post-race interview, she has never prayed to win a gold medal at the Olympics. Good for her! It’s natural that athletes would thank God for a victory, but winning, per se, isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the primary object of an athlete’s prayers or expressions of gratitude.

Is that surprising? If winning isn’t the main point, what is? Christianity Today‘s Her.meneutics blog covers the topic nicely:

Other commentators, like Timothy Dalrymple over at Patheos, defend [Gabby] Douglas and other Christian athletes for thanking God for their wins. He says to do so is not a simplistic naiveté but rather part of an orthodox Christian belief that “all things are divinely superintended.” “It’s not merely that God gives Gabby Douglas the victory,” notes Dalrymple. “It’s that God gives Gabby Douglas life, the breath in her lungs, the lungs to breathe it with, the talent in her body and soul, the strength in her spirit, the family that supports and inspires her, the opportunity to compete on the highest level, and then (when God gives it) the victory.”

When I think of the extreme unlikelihood of Douglas and Jones making it to the Olympics, where the strength and grace of the human body are on their fullest display, I can’t help thanking God either—for giving both women healthy minds and bodies, coaches, mentors, financial backing, the right equipment, and the sheer natural talent to number among the world’s best athletes, and to even be at the Olympics. Dalrymple is right: God is the source of all good things in athletics, just as he is the source of all good things in every realm of life. It only makes sense that Christian athletes would thank Christ for the blessings on the field as much as they do off.

When we consider all the amazing gifts that God has given us, whether we’re world-class athletes or not, we have much to be thankful for all the time—not only when things happen to be going our way. I’m sure Lolo Jones feels grateful to God right now, even while she’s heartbroken that she didn’t win.

By the way, there’s another objection to these public displays of piety that I wholeheartedly reject. It goes something like this: “Do you really think that God cares about something as trivial as an athletic competition?” Yes! Of course! If God cares about us as individuals, then God cares about trivial things like athletic competitions.

The faulty premise behind this objection is that God is just a bigger, more powerful version of ourselves, and that every moment God gives attention to something trivial is one less moment that God can devote to the “really important things.” There’s only so much of God to go around, so we human beings have to compete for God’s attention.

This is just silly. God is completely unlike what we are. Whatever we are, God is something else entirely. The theological word that’s pertinent here is transcendent. Among other things, God’s transcendence means that God is not one thing among other things in the universe. And because God is not a thing, we are not competing with other things for God’s attention, love, or care. It’s no sweat for God to be intimately concerned about the smallest details of each of our lives—not that winning or losing an Olympic event should even count as a small detail!

Vinebranch video on John 5

August 13, 2012

We showed this video in Vinebranch yesterday to accompany our sermon on John 5:1-18, the healing at the pool of Bethesda. It features pictures and video from last year’s trip to the Holy Land.

If the Old Testament is about Jesus, why don’t we preach and teach it more?

August 13, 2012

In a post a while back, I described being startled by a mainline Protestant theologian’s words of introduction to a recent Brazos commentary on Jonah:

First of all, this is a Christian reading of the Scriptures of Israel, which Christians call the Old Testament because it contains the ancient covenant to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.[1]

While I mostly loved my education at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, these words would not have passed muster in my Old Testament classes there. No one comes right out and says so, but one premise of much Old Testament teaching in mainline seminary is that, contrary to what we learned in Sunday school—and, worse, contrary to what those New Testament authors thought—the Old Testament isn’t really about Jesus. Having been so indoctrinated, I wonder if this is one reason most of us United Methodist preachers don’t preach much on the Old Testament? We stick with the New Testament because at least we know that it has something to say about Jesus and the gospel.

In my recently concluded “Sunday School Heroes” sermon series, which focused mostly on the Old Testament, I purposely tried to find the gospel in each passage I covered. It was surprisingly easy to do. I confess that, in part because of this experience, my attitude toward the Old Testament has changed.

Of course, we Christian preachers and teachers need to uncover what the Old Testament meant to its original audience in Israel—and, by all means, this task is greatly enriched by listening to what our Jewish friends have to say from their tradition. But the question we should ask soon afterward is, “What does this passage say about Jesus and the gospel?”

With this in mind, I appreciated Trevin Wax’s words about preaching and teaching the Old Testament:

— Is there anything about my treatment of this Old Testament text that a faithful Jew could not affirm?

If we preach the story of Moses, for example, without ever pointing forward to our Passover Lamb (Jesus Christ), then we are preaching the Old Testament much like a rabbi, not like a Christian herald of the Gospel. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus told His disciples that the Old Testament pointed to Him… So when we preach from the Old Testament, it’s imperative that we point people forward to the Messiah.

What do you think? Should Christian preaching/teaching from the Old Testament always point people toward the Messiah?

Proclaiming Jesus in John 5

August 10, 2012

A portico as described in John 5:2

This Sunday our scripture is John 5:1-18, the healing of the paralytic by the pool of Bethesda (or Bethsaida or Bethzatha). I took a class on John’s gospel in seminary, and the professor and most of the books I read contrasted this man’s healing with the healing of the man born blind in John 9. The man born blind was a hero of faith for his fearless proclamation of Jesus. The former paraplegic, by contrast, is so ungrateful for what Jesus has done for him that he goes and rats Jesus out to the religious leaders, who, consequently, resolve to put him to death (vv. 15-18).

I no longer find this interpretation convincing. In fact, if Gail O’Day, a professor at Candler, had taught the class, she would have rejected this interpretation, too. As she rightly notes in her New Interpreter’s commentary on John, the former paralytic doesn’t merely “tell” the Jewish leaders (NIV, NRSV) that Jesus healed him; he “announces” to them that Jesus healed him, or, as the new CEB translates it, “proclaims” that Jesus healed him. The Greek word for “proclaim” is stronger than merely telling: it’s used in a few other places in John’s gospel, and it’s always used in a positive way.

The man doesn’t proclaim Jesus in order to rat him out, but because they had asked the man earlier. He’s simply telling the truth—he’s excited and he wants the world to know who healed him. He likely has no idea what motivates these leaders to ask.

Commentators on this text are also quick to note that there’s no mention of the man’s faith. There’s no word from Jesus about the man’s “faith making him well.” But there doesn’t need to be: the man had enough faith to believe Jesus when he commanded him to get up, take his mat, and walk. He responded in faith. What else was he supposed to do?

Another insight I’ve gained has to do with the nature of the religious controversy. Of course the religious authorities don’t approve of Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath. But the part of the story that puts Jesus in their crosshairs is his words in v. 17: “My Father is still working and I am working too.” While Jews were commanded to rest on the Sabbath, they didn’t believe that God was also resting. God worked on the Sabbath: babies were being born, after all, and God continued to govern and sustain the universe. Jesus tells his opponents that just as God works on the Sabbath, so does he.

These authorities correctly interpreted the meaning of these words: Jesus was claiming an equality with God—because, as Christians confess, Jesus is God.

In his NIV Application Commentary, evangelical scholar Gary Burge writes that this passage reminds him of C.S. Lewis’s famous “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic” formulation from Mere Christianity. If Jesus claimed to be God and wasn’t, Lewis wrote, then he was either a liar or a lunatic. The religious authorities in today’s scripture would likely agree with him!

I’ve noticed that many people today strenuously object to Lewis’s formulation, mostly because, they say, Jesus never said that he was God. And that’s true: he never came right out and said it. It seems likely his ministry wouldn’t have lasted long if he had done so. Rather, this central Christological claim is implicit in his words and actions—just as it is throughout the whole New Testament. The Church made this clear during its debates about the Trinity at the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century.

John 5 makes this same Christological claim: Jesus is God. I’m sure this Sunday’s sermon will explore the question, “If Jesus is God, then what?” I like what Burge writes in his commentary:

In my academic community, the Jewish/Christian dialogue is predicated on the notion that together we will find religious commonalities that do not offend the other party. To speak otherwise is to “blaspheme” the process of interfaith discourse (cf. John 5:18). In the university marketplace of ideas, Christian religious belief is generally held suspect because most assume that lurking beneath the surface is an absolute argument for truth that wants to upend secular systems of thought and faith. They are right.[†]

Gary M. Burge, John: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 185.