Archive for November, 2012

Sermon 11-11-12: “Attitude of Gratitude, Part 2: Rejoice”

November 15, 2012

“Rejoice in the Lord always,” Paul says. Does always really mean always? I’s easy to rejoice when things are going our way, but what about when they’re not? How can we be thankful in all circumstances? In today’s sermon, Brent tackles these questions head-on.

Sermon Text: Philippians 4:4-9

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

So… Slow news week this past week, huh? Just kidding. As is the case whenever there’s a presidential election, some of us are disappointed; some of us are happy. That’s understandable. The good news is that our hope doesn’t rest on the shoulders of whatever fallible human being happens to win the presidential election; our hope is rooted in our King Jesus, who at this very moment is reigning at the right hand of God the Father. The future is in his hands; we’ve seen our own future in his resurrection; and we know that, through him, our future is bright. Can I get an Amen? Regardless of whether our guy won or not, I hope we can all appreciate Governor Romney’s very gracious concession speech early Wednesday morning. It was a short speech, but one that was overflowing with this thing that we’re talking about this month: gratitude.

He thanked his running mate. He thanked his wife. He thanked his sons who worked hard on his campaign, and their wives and children who picked up the slack while they were campaigning. He thanked his campaign workers, volunteers, and donors. But at the end of the speech, he also acknowledged his deep disappointment: He really wanted to win. But he encouraged us to join him and his in praying for President Obama, for his success, and for our nation. Not bad! Read the rest of this entry »

“If you could write a letter of thanks…”

November 13, 2012

Last Sunday, I preached on a gratitude-themed scripture, Philippians 4:4-9. Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians primarily as a way of thanking them for a financial gift they sent him while he was in prison. This video features AFUMC people talking about letters of gratitude.

Sermon 11-04-12: “Attitude of Gratitude, Part 1: Heaven”

November 12, 2012

I preached this sermon on All Saints Sunday, the traditional day on which the church celebrates the lives of saints who have gone on to be with the Lord. I tackle the problem of death head-on, and our hope for heaven. “Brothers and sisters, the gospel is this: In this world of tears, in this world of sin and suffering, in this world in which death seems to win, our Lord Jesus Christ assures us, ‘I will make this right!'”

Sermon Text: Revelation 7:9-17

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Heaven has been back in the news recently. A couple of weeks ago, Newsweek magazine featured a cover story on the subject—a first-person account written by a highly respected neurosurgeon named Eben Alexander. Several years ago, Dr. Alexander contracted bacterial meningitis. He was in a coma for seven days. During that time, monitors measured brainwave activity, and we know for sure that his cortex—the part of the brain that controls thoughts and emotions; the part of the brain that makes us human—was shut off. For all practical purposes, he was braid-dead. Yet somehow, during this time, he was fully conscious. And he had what he believes was an experience of heaven.

Dr. Alexander was nominally Christian before, but he didn’t put much stock in the many reports of near-death experiences. He believed they were caused by the cortex malfunctioning. In this case, however, his cortex wasn’t functioning at all. So how is it possible that he had this experience? He’s now not only a believer in life after death; this experience has brought him back to his Christian faith and back to church.  Read the rest of this entry »

Prayer about gratitude

November 11, 2012

I continued to explore the theme of gratitude in my sermon this morning in Vinebranch. Here is the pastoral prayer that I prayed. I was tempted to refer to President Obama and Governor Romney by their first names only (properly, their Christian names), as in the Anglican tradition, but I worried that that would be interpreted as a sign of disrespect. (Far from it!)

Gracious God, who is always working for our good: Since we got out of bed this morning you have blessed us in more ways than we can ever acknowledge. We thank you for all your good gifts. We want to come before you this morning with hearts overflowing with gratitude—we always want to be grateful—but we confess that, far too often, we don’t feel that way. It’s so easy for us to get spoiled. We confess that when we face difficult circumstances, when our plans fail, when our dreams don’t come true, we too easily forget about you and your providential care for us. We forget that in all things you work for the good of your beloved children. We forget that your plans for us are always better than our own, and you’ve earned the right to be trusted, no matter what.

But we can’t learn this lesson on our own. We need you to teach us. We need you to show us. We need you to change our hearts. Please do so. And as you do so, please be patient with us. Forgive us as we fall short.

One of the blessings you give us is the blessing of living in this great country. We thank you for our leaders, our government, our courts. On this Veteran’s Day, we thank you for for those who risk their own lives to work for peace. We thank you that we can have safe, peaceful elections and transfers of power. We thank you that you call people to the difficult task of first seeking political office and then leading—people like Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Pour your blessings on Governor Romney as he enters a new chapter in his life. Encourage him and fill him with your love. Guide, direct, and strengthen President Obama as he continues to perform this very difficult job of leading our country as president.

We pray this in the name of your Son Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever. Amen.

First-world problems are still problems

November 9, 2012

In light of Paul’s words in Philippians 4:6 (“Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks.”), I said yesterday that when it comes to prayer, we shouldn’t worry that our prayer requests and petitions are too trivial, too small, or too self-centered for God.

If our problems are big enough to make us worry, they’re big enough for God. We have a hard time believing this, however, and our prayer life suffers.

As if on cue, Christianity Today‘s Caryn Rivadeneira wrote a blog post illustrating the problem nicely. Last summer, after her power went out for several days, she voiced her frustration on Twitter. She said she was looking for “tea and sympathy.” Instead, her comment got slapped with a popular Twitter hashtag: #firstworldproblem. Here’s one of my favorite examples of a “#firstworldproblem”:

I can totally relate! For a few years, we had this same problem at my in-laws’ house. And we complained frequently!

The idea behind #firstworldproblem is probably a good one: We wealthy Westerners are spoiled. We have much to be thankful for. Often, we have the luxury of being bothered by things that the poor and oppressed of our world would love to be bothered by.

Indeed, #firstworldproblem has done much good in the way of helping us remember that no matter what challenges and heartaches we face, most of them seem quite small compared with the global problems that starve people of the most basic necessities of life. It’s a fun way to acknowledge our spoiled Western natures and catch ourselves mid-tantrum. #firstworldproblem is a lovely reminder that instead of mumbling and grumbling, we ought to be doing a bit more thanking.

But there’s a downside: If we look at every problem we face in light of the world’s Big Problems—like famine, disease, genocide, political oppression—then what right do any of us have to complain about anything? All our problems by comparison become small, petty, and selfish. In fact, they aren’t problems at all. And they’re hardly worthy subjects of prayer.

Suddenly, we’re back to kind of prayer perfectionism I complained about yesterday. And that can’t be right!

Read the whole article. She says makes the point better than me. But I especially like this part:

Sometimes our first-world problems are still problems enough to derail us—and not just when hurricanes hit. Sometimes even distress at not having chai or being sick of Chips A’hoy signals a deeper hunger that’s worthy of lament. Being too quick with the #firstworldproblem can communicate that nothing that happens in the first world is actually a problem. And that’s a problem, because it’s not true.

Jesus tells us that in this world, we will have troubles. Not just the poor among us, not just those in certain parts of the world. These words are not just the disenfranchised and the oppressed. They are words for us all.

“If it matters to you, it matters to God”

November 8, 2012

Prayer is not hard. Seriously! Take it from one for whom prayer has always been a struggle. It’s not really that hard.

By all means, I make it hard sometimes. I imagine that I have to create the ideal environment for prayer. My mind has to be in the right place. I have to wake up early, when the house is quiet. I have to allow this much time for it. I have to do it on my knees. I have to light a candle. I have to read this scripture first. I have to recite these prayers. I have to pray for things in a certain order.

If I buy into the idea that there is this right way to do it, then I find that it doesn’t get done very often. And I feel guilty. And prayer, which ought to help calm my fears, becomes another source of anxiety. Besides, suppose that I’ve finally learned to “do it right”—that through prayer I’m ascending the spiritual heights alongside the greatest mystics—do I imagine that my prayers will ever sound like anything more than “goo-goo, ga-ga” to my Father?

Please!

This week, for my second sermon on the theme of gratitude, I’m preaching from Philippians 4, including verses 6-7. Listen to how easy prayer is for Paul:

Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.

Feeling anxious? Tell the Lord about each and every thing you’re worried about—whether for yourself or for others. Is it too trivial, too small, too self-centered? Don’t worry. If it’s big enough to cause you to worry, it’s big enough for you to mention in prayer. And as you pray, remember also to give thanks for the good things that you’ve experienced.

Even as I write this, I can imagine an objection: “Yes, but there’s so much more to prayer than that!” I agree that there can be. But start here and see what happens. Start here and see where the Holy Spirit takes you next.

As is so often the case, I appreciate N.T. Wright’s words about this scripture:

People sometimes say today that one shouldn’t bother God about trivial requests (fine weather for the church picnic; a  parking space in a busy street); but, though of course our intercessions should normally focus on serious and major matters, we note that Paul says we should ask God about every area of life. If it matters to you, it matters to God. Prayer like that will mean that God’s peace—not a Stoic lack of concern, but a deep peace in the middle of life’s problems and storms—will keep guard around your heart and mind, like a squadron of soldiers looking after a treasure chest.[†]

Speaking of which, this old gospel hymn still rings true for me:

N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 131.

All Saints Sunday video

November 6, 2012

For the first week of our “Attitude of Gratitude” sermon series, a few Vinebranchers offered testimonies about saints in their lives for whom they’re grateful.

Prayer for Election Day

November 6, 2012

Stanley Hauerwas, my favorite theological curmudgeon, offers this prayer for election day. I especially like the part about maintaining a sense of humor. (I’m reposting from Kevin Hargaden’s blog.)

Sovereign Lord, foolish we are, believing that we can rule ourselves by selecting this or that person to rule over us. We are at it again. Help us not to think it more significant than it is, but also give us and those we elect enough wisdom to acknowledge our follies. Help us laugh at ourselves, for without humour our politics cannot be humane. We desire to dominate and thus are dominated. Free us, dear Lord, for otherwise we perish. AMEN.

Who is “Satan” in Job?

November 6, 2012

Say what you will about the devil, Underwood deviled ham is delicious!

Eight years ago, I had to attend a five-day retreat called “License to Preach School” as one part of the lengthy licensing and ordination process in our denomination. For one assignment, we had to preach a sermon in front of our peers, all of whom were also going into ministry. One of them preached on Job. She referred several times to the wager that Satan—the one and only devil from hell—made with God.

The sermon raised many questions in my mind, the foremost of which was, Why would God grant Satan an audience in his heavenly court, much less entertain a wager from him? Why are God and Satan on such friendly terms? Besides, while I hadn’t yet been to seminary, I did read a lot. I took Disciple Bible study. I knew a few things. I shared my concerns with another classmate, who had already completed his first year of seminary.

I told him, “My understanding is that ‘Satan’ in Job is not a proper noun; it’s ‘the satan,’ the accuser. He’s an angel alongside other angels in God’s heavenly court.” My classmate simply said, “I wouldn’t rest too comfortably in that understanding”—which was kind of a jerky thing to say. Tell me why I’m wrongif you think I’m wrong!

It’s eight years later. I’ve now been to seminary. I’ve read even more. And I’m no less convinced that the accuser mentioned in Job is not Satan of the New Testament. By all means, our English translations do us a disservice by capitalizing the name (and omitting the definite article). But still…

I’m happy, therefore, that a blogger at Scot McKnight’s blog has taken up the cause, using a couple of theologically conservative evangelical commentaries to back him up. Of this “satan,” he writes:

The setting is a divine assembly where God as the supreme king is consulting with his court. Heaven is described in analogy with an ancient Near Eastern royal court. Most English translations translate “the accuser” as Satan, capitalized to indicate a proper name. The dramatized audio I listened to cast the voice as a stereotypical diabolical Satan. Both Walton and Longman point out that this is wrong. Walton prefers to use the term “Challenger” while Longman calls him the accuser. Not only is the accuser not Satan, but there is nothing particularly diabolical about the exchange. The accuser is not out to destroy mankind in general or Job in particular. Rather he is challenging the policy of reward and retribution.

Walton summarizes his conclusions about the Challenger (p. 74 – Walton):

He is one of the “sons of God” (a member of the divine council)

He serves as a policy watchdog.

He uses the ambiguity of Job’s motives and concept of God to challenge God’s policies.

He does not act independently.

He is not inherently evil.

He cannot confidently be identified with Satan in the New Testament.

All of this accords well with everything else I’ve read and studied. I have a friend who got a Ph.D. from Emory. Her dissertation was on Job. She agrees with all of the above as well.

Did Huckabee say Christians will “go to hell” based on how they vote?

November 2, 2012

I hope you trust me when I say that this blog has no political—or maybe I should say partisan—axe to grind. Browse through the blog posts, and you’ll see that I’m hopelessly out of step with our culture at the moment, consumed as it is with the events of November 6. From my perspective, regardless who wins, the world will look much the same on November 7 of this year, as it will on January 21 of next year, or even four years after that.

The good news is not that this or that politician got himself elected or reelected, but that King Jesus is reigning right now, and our hope for the future rests securely in his hands. In fact, in Christ’s resurrection we’ve caught a glimpse of our own future, and we know that it will be good.

Having said that, a recent political headline caught my attention, about which I can’t resist commenting. It purports to describe something that former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee said:

A headline from Slate.com, which echoes many similar headlines.

This headline comes from left-of-center Slate, but the idea was echoed around the blogosphere. A political commentator even wrote about it in the New York Times.

Granted, I haven’t listened to the speech (I’ve got a sermon to write!), but if newspapers and blogs are fairly reporting his actual words, then Huckabee said no such thing. Here’s the quote:

Your vote will affect the future and be recorded in eternity. Will you vote the values that will stand the test of fire? This is Mike Huckabee asking you to join me November 6th and vote based on values that will stand the test of fire.

I may or may not agree with Huckabee’s politics (again, this is not my concern here)—though I object to his strident tone—but his point has at least some theological merit. The “test of fire” of which he speaks isn’t the fire of hell, but the refining fire of judgment, of which the apostle Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. I referred to this scripture just last Sunday (and other times recently). Huckabee’s right about the fact that we Christians will face judgment for our actions on this side of eternity. Moreover, as Paul implies there and in 1 Corinthians 15:58, what we do for God’s kingdom in the here and now will somehow be carried forward into our future resurrection.

Two quick points: This judgment that believers face, according to Paul, has nothing to do with whether or not we’ll be saved. When our works are submitted to this refining fire, Paul writes, it may all burn away. “But if anyone’s work goes up in flames, they’ll lose it. However, they themselves will be saved as if they had gone through a fire.”

By all means, let us strive to make sure this doesn’t happen. But if it does, we’re still saved, not on the basis of what we do, but what Christ has done for us. I doubt that Huckabee, a Baptist minister, disagrees with me on that.

My second point is that we will all have much to answer for on Judgment Day, whether we prefer elephants or donkeys.