Archive for December, 2012

“Receive into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims”

December 14, 2012

The massacre of the innocents, recounted in Matthew 2:16-18, reminds us that God sent his Son into the same dangerous and violent world in which we find ourselves. The Church commemorates the Holy Innocents on December 28. Here is a collect for that day—or any day like today—from the Book of Common Prayer.

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

When we feel like “total failures”

December 14, 2012
Based on the cover, not so much "for everyone" as for the really beautiful people.

Based on the cover, not so much “for everyone” as for the really beautiful people.

John Goldingay, whose For Everyone commentaries on the Old Testament I couldn’t recommend more highly, writes with candor and self-deprecation, qualities that, I hope, are reflected in my own preaching and blogging. Like Goldingay (I suspect), I tend toward self-doubt and pessimism. I’m not saying that I’m justified in this tendency. But it’s who I am. After 42 years of being this way, I’m probably not going to wake up an entirely different person.

With this in mind, you can imagine how much I appreciate this first paragraph of Goldingay’s reflection on 1 Kings 19, where Elijah runs away in fear from the murderous Jezebel:

I am inclined to think that nothing I do in seeking to fulfill my vocation achieves anything. My vocation is to help people understand the Old Testament and let their thinking and their lives be shaped by it. I am passionately committed to this task and want to carry on seeking to fulfill it rather than retire and spend more time cycling on the boardwalk, but I am inclined to think I totally fail. It is not because I am incompetent but because the odds are stacked so high by the church’s ignorance of the Old Testament, especially in our culture over recent decades. Nothing I can do, like writing all these commentaries or having four five hundred student in my classes every year, can make a significant difference. This raises the question of why I continue seeking to fulfill this vocation, and I guess the answer is contained within the question. It is my vocation.[†]

† John Goldingay, 1 & 2 Kings for Everyone (Louisville: WJK, 2011), 90.

Sermon 12-09-12: “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”

December 13, 2012


“Like Zacchaeus, all the Grinch needed in order to change his life was an opportunity to experience the love of the Whos. Perhaps, instead of waiting for the Grinch to come to them and then opening their circle to include him, the Whos could have climbed up Mount Crumpit themselves and invited him to come and join them in their celebration. Outside the walls of this church are Grinches waiting for their invitation. Amen.”

Sermon Text: Luke 19:1-10

The following is my original sermon manuscript with the Grinch clips inserted in the proper places.

When I was a kid growing up, my father had two jobs related to trimming the Christmas tree. His main job was hauling it into the garage, sawing the bottom of the trunk off, and fitting it into the tree stand. But his other job was untangling the Christmas tree lights and testing the light bulbs. Remember the days when lights were wired in series, which meant that if just one bulb was out, the entire strand didn’t work. And you had to go bulb by bulb, testing. Untangling and testing. Untangling and testing. Dad hated that job! And he used some colorful language to describe it, believe me.

But Dad’s salty language didn’t bother us in the least. We knew that Christmas was on its way when Dad was cursing about the Christmas tree lights!

Read the rest of this entry »

The priority of God’s forgiveness

December 12, 2012

Jesus_of_Nazareth_The_Infancy_NarrativesWhat exactly is salvation?

It is primarily reconciliation with God, from whom, apart from Christ’s atoning work, we are estranged because of our sin.

Although my words are a bit more polished now, this is the essentially the same answer I would have given as a Southern Baptist teenager. Isn’t that funny—even after 16 years of being Methodist, several Disciple Bible studies, a Master’s degree from a mainline Protestant seminary, and a whole lot of reading and studying? It’s still the same answer! What a relief!

Do you think my definition is too simplistic? Does it leave too much out? Then let me point you to an unexpected ally: Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI. As part of his powerful little book about the first Christmas, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, he reflects on the angel’s words to Joseph in Matthew 1:21: “Mary will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

While the “lofty theological task” of forgiving sins immediately identifies Jesus with God, who alone forgives sins,

this definition of the Messiah’s mission could also appear disappointing. The prevailing expectations of salvation were primarily focused upon Israel’s concrete sufferings—on the reestablishment of the Davidic kingdom, on Israel’s freedom and independence, and naturally that included material prosperity for this largely impoverished people. The promise of forgiveness of sins seems both too little and too much: too much, because it trespasses upon God’s exclusive sphere; too little, because there seems to be no thought of Israel’s concrete suffering or its true need for salvation… Certainly it does not match the immediate expectations of Messianic salvation nurtured by men who felt oppressed not so much by their sins as by their sufferings, their lack of freedom, the wretched conditions of their existence.[1]

I’m glad he said this! As a preacher, I worry that we twenty-first-century Americans, like first-century Jews, don’t feel especially oppressed by our sins. Meanwhile, I’m the wet blanket, reminding people that they are, indeed, sinners. In fact, our sinfulness is the main problem that God needed to solve by sending his Son.

And sometimes I worry: Does this message sell? I don’t know, but it’s the only message I’ve got.

Benedict goes on to relate this understanding of salvation to the four men in the gospels who lower a paralyzed friend through the roof of a crowded home in order for Jesus to heal him. They expect, of course, physical healing. Instead, Jesus pronounces his sins forgiven and seems happy to leave it at that.

This was the last thing they were concerned about. The paralytic needed to be able to walk, not to be delivered from his sins. The scribes criticized the theological presumption of Jesus’ words: the sick man and those around him were disappointed, because Jesus had apparently overlooked the man’s real need.

On the contrary, Benedict writes, Jesus is doing precisely what the angel told Joseph he would do. Jesus goes on to heal the man physically, but only as a demonstration of his authority to forgive sins. “[T]he priority of forgiveness for sins as the foundation of all true healing is clearly maintained.”[2]

Man is a relational being. And if his first, fundamental relationship is disturbed—his relationship with God—then nothing else can be truly in order. This is where the priority lies in Jesus’ message and ministry: before all else, he wants to point man toward the essence of his malady, and to show him—if you are not healed there, then however many good things you may find, you are not truly healed.[3]

1. Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, trans. Philip Whitmore (New York: Image, 2012), 42-43.

2. Ibid., 44.

3. Ibid.

Francis Chan sets the bar way too high

December 11, 2012

Mark Galli interviews best-selling author and pastor Francis Chan about his new book on discipleship in this month’s Christianity Today. Galli zeroes in on a passage in the book that—as it happens—makes my Methodist blood boil. Maybe it will bother you, too. Who knows? (I’ve underlined the offensive part.)

GALLI: Your writing has what I’d call a “relentless intensity” to get readers to do more for Christ. One example among many in this book: “Being a disciple maker demands your entire life …. It requires everything. It means following Jesus in every aspect of your life, pursuing him with a wholehearted devotion. If you’re not ready to lay down your life for Christ, then you’re not ready to make disciples. It’s that simple.” Where does your intensity come from? Is that a family trait? Something you learned as a Christian?

CHAN: (Laughter.) A family trait. Oh, that’s funny. It could be. I don’t know. When I read the statements of Christ, there seems to be this urgency and intensity. I guess that’s what I get out of it when I read the tone of the Scriptures, which is very different from the tone of our culture.

Beware of someone saying, “It’s that simple.” It never is.

Of course disciple-making doesn’t “require everything.” It doesn’t require “following Jesus in every aspect of your life.” It doesn’t require “pursuing [Jesus] with a wholehearted devotion.” Thank God it doesn’t require that! Otherwise, who could possibly do it?

Could Chan? How convinced is he of his own “wholehearted devotion”? Is he currently giving everything for the sake of the gospel? Yet I don’t doubt for a moment that he’s made and is making disciples.

Look, I get it… Whether Chan knows it or not, he’s an old-fashioned Pietist. We non-Pietists need them to challenge us in our own piety. They keep us honest. They hold us to a high standard—or I should say that they remind us of the high standard to which Jesus holds us when he says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And that’s good.


Forgive me for being Methodist guy, but where’s the grace? Does Chan not realize that as we are making disciples, we are also being made into disciples? I’m reminded of that famous definition of evangelism: It’s one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. We’re all beggars. We’re all constantly in need of God’s grace at every moment. We’re all on a journey toward perfection. Although we Methodists hold out hope, we know the vast majority of us won’t arrive at perfection—what we Methodists call “entire sanctification”—in this lifetime.

When I say “grace,” I don’t mostly mean—as it’s popularly understood—”forgiveness for falling short.” That’s only a small part of it. I mostly mean grace as “the activity of the Holy Spirit in our lives.” Disciple-making is a Spirit-filled, and therefore grace-filled, process. Disciple-making doesn’t happen apart from the Holy Spirit—again, thank God.

Believe me, I’m striving to be wholehearted in my devotion. I’m striving to be ready to “lay down [my] life.” I’m striving to follow Jesus in “every aspect of [my] life.” I’m not there yet. Are you?

When I read stuff like this from Chan I wonder if he underestimates the power of sin—how insidious it is. I’d recommend he read some Kierkegaard. Maybe—I don’t know—The Sickness Unto Death? I bet he wouldn’t speak so glibly about wholeheartedness after that!

Sermon 12-02-12: “It’s a Wonderful Life”

December 6, 2012


In this sermon, which integrates clips from the classic holiday movie It’s a Wonderful Life, I talk about what it takes to have a wonderful or—as Jesus puts it in John 10:10—”abundant” life. This sermon is part of a series we’re doing during Advent called “A Very Merry Vinebranch Holiday Special.” Each week, my sermon will use clips from a Christmas TV special or movie. 

Sermon Text: John 10:7-10

The following is my original sermon manuscript with video clips included in the proper order. The sermon begins with the following clip:

All we know for sure at the beginning of the movie is that a man named George Bailey is in trouble—so much so that he’s contemplating suicide. People who love and care for him are praying for him. And God hears their prayers. Because an angel named Clarence is assigned to the case. Read the rest of this entry »

Christianity Today’s take on near-death experiences

December 6, 2012

ct_decemberIf you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably know that I’ve softened my stance on near-death experiences. Like the most hardened philosophical materialist, I used to think that NDEs were merely ephemeral impulses of an oxygen-starved neocortex. I now believe that they are, in many cases, gifts from God that have some value for those of us who are interested in Christian apologetics.

Christianity Today editor Mark Galli, whose book-length response to Rob Bell’s controversial Love Wins I recommended last year, shares my point of view. In this cover story, “Incredible Journeys,” he addresses the biggest obstacle that Christians face in accepting the validity of NDEs: What if the God revealed in these experiences isn’t quite like the God revealed in Jesus Christ? Because of these discrepancies, he writes,

many Christians dismiss them as mere hallucination or a deceptive work of the Devil. I, for one, find the latter unconvincing. In most cases, people who have had near-heaven experiences return to earth and give themselves in love and service of others. If the Devil is inspiring such godly work, he’s confused about his job description.

As for the cultural and theological anomalies: First, it is hardly surprising that people interpret their experience through a particular cultural or religious lens. What other way do they have to process what is happening to them? Besides, all who’ve had this experience acknowledge Neal’s point: Words are inadequate to describe what they saw and heard. They really have no choice but to try to describe what happened in the language of their time and culture, and it is no wonder that so many of the descriptions seem to be at odds.

As for the confused theology, we have to remember that those who experience these things are not theologians. We are not required to accept every one of their insights as dogmatic statements of received doctrine. What they experienced is, at best, the anteroom to heaven. We have no idea what happens after the initial 90 minutes or so, what their experience of God will be like, what will be revealed to them if they remain.

And we must guard ourselves against the Prodigal Son’s elder brother syndrome. Too many of us are troubled when non-Christians enjoy an overwhelming experience of unconditional love in NDES. I would hope that we would all hope that the God we preach is in fact the God of prodigals, and that he reveals himself to us while we are yet sinners, sometimes on earth, sometimes during NDES.

Galli, careful theologian that he is, deals with the chief theological problem I had with Todd Burpo’s Heaven is For Real: What about future bodily resurrection? Our ultimate Christian hope isn’t heaven when we die, but fully embodied life in a renewed world on the other side of resurrection.

Galli couldn’t agree more, but he identifies the pastoral challenge we face when talking about resurrection versus an immediate, intermediate state that begins when we die.

In general, when life-after-the-afterlife folks talk about this future state, the language gets global and the vision abstract. There is a lot of talk about how “justice will reign,” and “evil will be defeated.” There are sweeping statements about “the culmination of history” and “the coming reign of God” and “the renewal of the whole earth.” This is heady stuff, and, as stated above, true as true can be.

But it doesn’t always connect with the widow whose husband was struck by a fatal heart attack. It doesn’t always speak to the 10-year-old whose mother just died of cancer. It doesn’t necessarily help those who wrestle with a question that troubles millions: “What happens when I die?” Some of us (usually the highly educated among us) may be most interested in life after the afterlife, but most people in the pews are deeply concerned simply with the afterlife—the one that comes right after this one. Their highest existential priority is not that justice will reign in all the earth, but to hear some good news about “what will happen to me next.”

Truer words… Even N.T. Wright, who’s done more than anyone to bring the Church back to a fully orthodox and full-bodied understanding of resurrection, tends to get fuzzy on resurrection. If our biggest fear is death, which I believe it is, then it’s enough for most of us to know that there’s an afterlife, never mind life after that afterlife. The distinction between the intermediate state and resurrection just isn’t important to most people.

When it comes to NDEs, Galli gets to the heart of the matter with this conclusion:

Despite their varied accounts and sometimes confused theology, there are moments when it is apparent that many of these people have had a remarkable encounter with the living God revealed in Jesus Christ. In the end, these are not so much near-death or near-heaven experiences, but, as a friend noted, near-God experiences. And when we see that people, even those who do not share our biblical assumptions, experience the God revealed in Jesus Christ—that is, the God of unconditional love—we cannot help but be thrilled and gratified. And to see it as an opportunity to talk about the full counsel of God.

“Why isn’t God a better engineer?”

December 5, 2012

I’ve noticed that astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has become one of pop culture’s go-to guys for science, and it’s easy to see why: He’s charming and friendly, and he obviously knows his stuff, science-wise. I’ve seen him at least a couple times on The Colbert Report, but he’s on TV elsewhere.

The John Templeton Foundation recently asked him (and other notables) to answer this question: “Does the universe have a purpose?” To his credit, he admits up front that answering the question requires “access to knowledge not based on empirical foundations.” We might imagine, therefore, that any argument from “empirical foundations” alone would leave a lot to be desired, as does his answer.

He argues that no universe that looks like ours could be the product of design. If God exists, wouldn’t he at least be the world’s greatest engineer? No engineer would design this universe. It’s far too inefficient and wasteful.

Christian apologist William Lane Craig has handled this objection in debates before. I like this short answer from his blog, in response to a reader named Mike, a software engineer and agnostic:

So these arguments alone give us good grounds to think that a Creator and Designer of the universe exists. Now against this conclusion you oppose two considerations. First, “The universe is wasteful. It’s HUGE and most of it is empty space devoid of life.” Ah, but Mike, recall that it’s one of the insights of the fine-tuning argument that the universe must in fact be very large, since the heavy elements like carbon of which our bodies are made are synthesized in the interior of stars and then distributed throughout the cosmos by supernovae explosions. But it takes billions of years for the stars to go through such a process, and all the time the universe is expanding. So the size of the universe is a function of its age, and that is a pre-condition of our very existence. So all that empty space is not at all a waste! Besides, how do you know it is devoid of life? Maybe there are intelligent beings who exist elsewhere in the cosmos who are also God’s creatures. Why be closed to that idea?

Second, you object that “Even on earth the process of life was very wasteful. The majority of species have gone extinct.” But is it true that life was wasteful? The primeval forests were the basis for the oil and coal deposits that make modern civilization possible. (Try to think of human culture ever evolving very far in the absence of fossil fuels!) The extinct creatures that existed during those times were part of the eco-system that made the planet flourish. And don’t you think that God, if He exists, delighted in the dinosaurs and other marvelous creatures now extinct? I think He did!

That brings us to the real crux of the problem, in my opinion. The implicit assumption seems to be that God wouldn’t create such extravagant waste. God is like a super-efficient engineer who wouldn’t engage in such waste.

Mike, I love you engineers because you respond so well to my approach to apologetics! But you’ve got to be really careful about creating God in your own image and projecting your values onto Him. As I said to Quentin Smith, who originally raised the efficiency objection, God may be more like an artist than like an engineer, someone who delights in the extravagance of His creation, in far-flung, undiscovered galaxies, in flowers that bloom unseen on a remote mountain hillside, in beautiful shells lying in the ocean’s unexplored depths. I see no reason at all to think that God should be like the engineer rather than the artist. Efficiency, as I said, is a value only to someone with limited resources or limited time, or both. But God has unlimited time and resources, so why shouldn’t He be extravagant? Granted that your engineer would marshal his time and resources carefully; but suppose God isn’t (just) an engineer?

Sermon 11-25-12: “Attitude of Gratitude, Part 4: The Grateful Leper”

December 5, 2012

Attitude of Gratitude

The key to gratitude is remembering who we are and what God has done for us. “All of us sinners, regardless of our sin, have one important thing in common: We are lost. We are hopeless. We are all bound for hell. We are eternally separated from God. That is, unless God does something to solve our problem with sin for us. The good news is that God did just that when he sent his Son Jesus into the world.”

Sermon Text: Luke 17:11-19

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Have you heard of the band called Asia? They were popular in the early-’80s. They had a few hits, including “Heat of the Moment” and “Don’t Cry.” I had the pleasure of seeing them in concert last Monday at the Variety Playhouse in Little Five Points. And unlike so many old groups touring these days, these were the four original members of the band—living legends, as far as I’m concerned, from great ’70s bands like Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and King Crimson.

I know that Asia isn’t exactly topping the charts anymore, but this medium-sized venue was packed with very grateful fans. And because it was general admission, my friend Mike and I were able to get there early and get right up to the edge of the stage. What a thrill to be so close to these musical heroes of mine! We were going nuts, cheering them on, yelling, whistling. Several people around us were making the Wayne’s World, “We’re not worthy!” motion. As my friend Mike said, this concert was a place where we could release our inner-dork. It was a safe place to be a dork, a geek, or a nerd, and nobody was there to judge us! Read the rest of this entry »

Insightful book on “It’s a Wonderful Life”

December 3, 2012

My annotated title page of the new book “Finding God in It’s a Wonderful Life.” Most of my books get marked up like this, which is why Kindles and other e-Readers don’t appeal to me!

I sensed that the congregation had a blast yesterday with the first of our “Very Merry Vinebranch Christmas TV Special” services. My sermon time featured clips from It’s a Wonderful Life, which I related to the gospel—and especially the plight of Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus. I’ll post the sermon later this week.

In the meantime, if you want to go deeper into the film’s Christian themes, I heartily recommend Greg Asimakoupoulos’s recently published Finding God in It’s a Wonderful Life. Regarding the scenes in which Clarence lets George see what the world would be like had he never lived, the author cites Jeremiah 1:5 to offer this reflection on God’s providential care:

But, even if you’re not a prophet to the nations, you are a person with a holy purpose. From the time God first thought of you and pictured you on planet earth, he has choreographed your steps and orchestrated your circumstances in order to positively impact people in your sphere of influence. Even before you were conceived by your parents, your heavenly Father conceived in his mind how you would waltz with wins and tango with losses. And in each situation, others in your life would be inextricably shaped by your presence in theirs.[†]

Greg Asimakoupoulos, Finding God in It’s a Wonderful Life (Escondido, CA: eChristianBooks, 2012), 106.