Archive for January, 2013

New 2-part sermon series: “Your Work Is Calling”

January 31, 2013

Your Work is Calling_VB_SermonSeries_2-3-13


Recently, a Christian friend of mine was contemplating an important career decision: Should he leave the company at which he had spent most of his career, or should he go to work for a new company, which promised a higher salary and more rewarding work—but with less job security? When asked where he saw God in all of this, he said, “As long as I’m ethical and try to be a witness for Christ where I work, why would God care which job I take? It’s not like I’m being called into ministry. God cares about spiritual things.”

While I’m sure that my friend’s belief is widespread, it’s also mistaken. Why wouldn’t God care about how we spend 40, 50, 60, or more hours of our lives each week? Even if God were only interested in spiritual things (which he isn’t), wouldn’t the time and energy we spend at work have a huge impact on our spiritual lives? And since God designed us from the beginning to be people who work most of the time, isn’t there some higher purpose and deeper meaning in the work we do—regardless what our job is?
I’ll explore these questions and more in a new 2-part sermon series beginning this Sunday: “Your Work Is Calling.” Our primary scripture this Sunday will be Genesis 1:24-2:3.

Sermon 01-27-13: “Timothy Keller’s ‘The Prodigal God,’ Part 2”

January 31, 2013

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In this second of two sermons on the parable of the prodigal son, I turn my attention to the older son: Why does he resent his father for forgiving his younger brother? I argue that it’s because of his mistaken belief that love is something that must be earned. Similarly, the widespread, if often unspoken, belief that we have to earn our heavenly Father’s love causes great harm in our spiritual lives.

If God doesn’t punish us, for example, when we repent of our sins and return “home” to God, why do we so often punish ourselves? I believe that we act like the “big brother” less often toward other people than we do toward ourselves. If so, Jesus is teaching us to cut it out.

Sermon Text: Luke 15:1-2, 11-32

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

About a month ago, I was invited by a pastor friend to watch Monday Night Football at a Taco Mac with some of his friends. This was a “guys night out” sort of thing. I hadn’t met most of his friends before. Some of them were in ministry as well. I have a confession to make: when I’m around other men who are about my age, I sometimes feel insecure. I’m not saying I should feel this way, I’m just being candid. But I think to myself: Have I accomplished as much in life as they have? Do I make as much money as they do? Am I as good-looking as they are? Do I dress as well as they do? Am I successful enough? How do I measure up? What do I have to show for myself?

And on this particular night, I was feeling really insecure. At least a couple of these men had made names for themselves in their field—they were kind of a big deal, you know? And in the midst of my insecurity, one of the men told a story that began with these words—and I kid you not—“When I was on the Today Show last week…” And he didn’t mean that he was outside the big window at Rockefeller Plaza! He meant he was a guest on the show! And I’m thinking, “You win! I can’t compete with that!” I haven’t done anything to top the Today Show. All I could do was try not to act impressed when he name-dropped the Today Show. Someone said that I should have responded, “Is that still on the air?”

No, it’s very likely that nothing I do for the rest of my life will land me on the Today Show. And who cares, right? Except I do care, a little. Obviously. I feel threatened by this person’s success, his accomplishments, his fame. Why?  Read the rest of this entry »

Seeing the Trinity in Luke 15

January 30, 2013

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In my two sermons on Luke 15:11-32, I didn’t have time to discuss the two similar-sounding short parables that preceded the parable of the prodigal son and his brother. If I did, I might have explored the intriguing question that Michael Wilcock explored in his Bible Speaks Today commentary on Luke.

He argues that it wasn’t Luke’s (or Jesus’) style to tell three parables that make the exact same point. From Wilcock’s perspective, therefore, the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son are not all saying essentially the same thing, with the prodigal son adding the twist of the older brother’s resentment. Luke (and Jesus) must be up to something else.

What is that something else? Wilcock argues that Jesus is saying (or Luke is arranging these parables to say) something about the Trinity. It certainly seems clear enough that the lost sheep is about the work of the Son and the prodigal son is about the work of the Father. Is it possible that the lost coin highlights the work of the Spirit?

He thinks so, based on what Jesus has already said about the Spirit in Luke’s gospel and the placement of Luke 15 in that context. He also offers this (I’ve put the author’s footnoted references in brackets):

The upshot is that the symbolic meanings often attached both to ‘woman’ and to ‘lamp’ elsewhere in Scripture may well be the meanings we are intended to see in this parable. The church in Old Testament and New is the Lord’s bride [Is. 54:5; Ezk. 16:8; Eph. 5:23ff.], and as a community through which the Spirit reveals God’s truth it is also a light [Mt. 5:14ff.; Phil 2:15]; in the picture-book of Revelation the symbols of woman and light are both used to depict the people of God [Rev. 1:20; 4:5; 12:1-17; 19:off.; 21:9ff.]. If Luke 15:8-10 is meant to have this added significance, we may see in it the Spirit of God lighting the church’s way as she sets about the divine work of seeking the lost.[1]

He goes on to cite a C. H. Spurgeon sermon that makes the same point. Spurgeon said,

We have sometimes heard it said—here is the prodigal received as soon as he comes back, no mention being made of a Saviour who seeks and saves him. Is it possible to teach all truths in one single parable? Does not the first one speak of the shepherd seeking the lost sheep? Why need repeat what had been said before? It has also been said that the prodigal returned of his own free will, for there is no hint of the operation of a superior power upon his heart, it seems as if he himself spontaneously says, “I will arise, and go unto my Father.” The answer is, that the Holy Spirit’s work had been clearly described in the second parable, and needed not to be introduced again.[2]

I’ll be honest: While I was skeptical at first, I buy into it now. I think we should read Luke 15 in Trinitarian terms. It’s certainly true, just in terms of Christian theology, that if the parable of the prodigal son as an allegory for salvation, the younger son doesn’t come to his senses apart from the active work of the Spirit, even if that work is invisible to him. God the Holy Spirit is working through the famine and hardship to get the young man’s attention and enable him to repent.

Wilcock goes on to talk about how the parables reveal different aspects of humanity’s lostness: our mindless wandering away from God, our lifelessness and helplessness (as represented by the silver coin) apart from God, and our active rebellion against God.

Anyway… Good stuff from a good commentary series. The New Testament series editor, by the way, is the late evangelical Anglican John Stott.

1. Michael Wilcock, The Message of Luke, ed. John R. W. Stott (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1979), 152.

2. Ibid., 153.

The world is not the “temporary theater for individual salvation stories”

January 29, 2013

This physical world matters to God. I’ve been preaching this message for a while—especially when I talk about our future bodily resurrection—but rarely have I said it better or more succinctly than Tim Keller says it here:

We acknowledge that the world is good. It is not the temporary theater for our individual salvation stories, after which we go to live disembodied lives in a different dimension. According to the Bible, this world is the forerunner of the new heavens and new earth, which will be purified, restored, and enhanced at the “renewal of all things” (Matthew 19:28; Romans 8:19-25). No other religion envisions matter and spirit living together in integrity forever. And so birds flying and oceans roaring and people eating, walking, and loving are permanently good things.[†]

Timothy Keller with Katherine Leary Alsdorf, Every Good Endeavor (New York: Dutton, 2012), 51-2.

“Go out and prove that you are worth something”

January 25, 2013

Nouwen's book examines Jesus' parable through the lens of this Rembrandt painting. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Nouwen’s book examines Jesus’ parable through the lens of this Rembrandt painting. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

A friend recommended I read Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son in preparation for my two sermons on the subject. I thought I could skim it quickly and be done with it—having already formed a rough outline in my head of Sermon #2.

Yeah, right!

I knew right away that this book is special—just profoundly moving. Nouwen sees himself clearly in both the younger and older sons, even as he aspires to see himself in the loving, compassionate father.

In the following excerpt, he describes ways in which we, like the younger son, resist the voice of our heavenly Father who calls us his Beloved, in order to follow other voices. Nouwen describes my struggle perfectly. I’m glad to know I’m not alone.

But there are many other voices, voices that are loud, full of promises and very seductive. These voices say, “Go out and prove that you are worth something.” Soon after Jesus had heard the voice calling him the Beloved, he was led to the desert to hear those other voices. They told him to prove that he was worth love in being successful, popular, and powerful. Those same voices are not unfamiliar to me. They are always there and, always, they reach into those inner places where I question my own goodness and doubt my self-worth. They suggest that I am not going to be loved without my having earned it through determined efforts and hard work. They want me to prove to myself and others that I am worth being loved, and they keep pushing me to do everything possible to gain acceptance. They deny loudly that love is a totally free gift. I leave home every time I lose faith in the voice that calls me the Beloved and follow the voices that offer a great variety of ways to win the love I so much desire.[†]

Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (New York: Image, 1994), 40.

Sermon 01-20-13: “Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God, Part 1″

January 23, 2013

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What follows is the first of two sermons on Jesus’ beloved parable of the prodigal son (and his older brother). In this sermon, I compare Lance Armstrong’s recent confession to Oprah to the prodigal son’s confession. If we sympathize with Armstrong’s many critics who complain that his confession wasn’t sincere, remorseful, or penitent enough, I wonder if we’re not at least a little like the older son.

The truth is, we can never be sincere, remorseful, or penitent enough to win God’s forgiveness. Our forgiveness comes by way of grace, of which God has an infinite supply.

Do you wonder whether God can forgive you? I hope this parable sets your mind at ease!

Sermon Text: Luke 15:1-2, 11-32

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Our scripture begins: “All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”

The truth is that when Jesus was here in the flesh, people who weren’t religious—the “unchurched,” we might call them today—loved Jesus. And many of the deeply religious people—the Pharisees and the legal experts in today’s scripture—didn’t. We talked about this a few weeks ago when we looked at Andy Stanley’s new book: Andy said that he believes that if we’re doing church right, then unchurched people ought to like us the same way they liked Jesus.

In his recent book on this parable, The Prodigal God, pastor Timothy Keller says that unfortunately that mostly isn’t the case. He writes: “Jesus’s teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted”—represented by the younger brother in today’s parable—“are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people.”[1] In other words, Keller complains, our churches tend to be filled with a bunch of people like the older brother in today’s parable.

I don’t know what he’s talking about? Do you? Our church isn’t filled with older brother-types who can’t celebrate the fact that God is so loving and gracious and forgiving, right? We’re not like the older brother, are we? Read the rest of this entry »

A Christian reflection (from Ireland) about abortion

January 23, 2013

My friend Kevin Hargaden, who’s training to be an Irish Presbyterian pastor by attending a Catholic seminary (only in Ireland!), is writing a fine series of five blog posts related to abortion and Christian faith. His country will possibly (likely?) soon join most of the West in permitting legal abortion. Knowing next to nothing about Irish politics and not wanting to bother with a Google search, I gather that his opinion is in the minority—or isn’t the cool one, regardless.

I heartily recommend these posts: part 1, part 2, and part 3, so far. Today he writes about the slander that prohibiting abortion in Ireland is motivated by Church-based misogyny. Of this, he says a few things that relate to our discussions over the past couple of weeks concerning the place of women in church. The following is one long excerpt—but check out his blog, too. It rules! (He’ll be disappointed by how little blog traffic my endorsement elicits!)

Here’s the thing that people might not know and if they did know it, they’d be a whole lot slower to suggest that Christianity is inherently anti-woman. Let us imagine for a moment that Jesus isn’t actually the second person of the Trinity, which is surely not a hard thing to imagine. In that world, a purely non-theistic explanation for why Christianity emerged as top-dawg among all the strange apocalyptic Judaisms of the 2nd Temple era would have to rest in a large part on how it honoured women. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s enough to preach Christ crucified

January 22, 2013

Unlike with several other episodes this season, the writers of last Saturday’s Saturday Night Live episode didn’t appear to have taken the week off. It was unusually funny, with the delightful Jennifer Lawrence as host. And the musical guest, the Lumineers, killed. The TV was still on as I was getting ready for bed—and there on my TV was none other than Andy Stanley.

I forget that he has a show on after SNL. Of course he does! How cool is that? How hip! What better way to reach the unchurched, his passion in life, than by catching them right after Saturday Night Live?

I’m trying not to be jealous.

I’ve said so many nice things about him recently—in the wake of my recent sermon inspired by his book Deep & Wide—that I forget that I’m not supposed to like him. As a United Methodist pastor, I’m supposed to complain that he “waters the gospel down,” that he compromises the message, that instead of offering the Good News, he offers the “news that you can use.” He hears this stuff from preachers like me all the time.

So there he is on TV, in front of a relatively large, young, post-SNL audience, talking about personal finance, credit cards, consumer debt… And I’m sure he’s giving good, practical advice—like he’s a regular Dave Ramsey.

Andy, you’re killing me!

First, he’s 50-something, and he looks like he’s 27. How is that possible? Second, while I fight the temptation to imagine that I have to compete with him on Sunday mornings, he constantly reminds me of how overmatched I’d be if I tried.

I don’t know jack about personal finance. Not only did I not take that class in seminary, seminary itself messed up my personal finances for years! So I would never feel qualified to preach about it.

I’m sure that Andy relates personal finance to the gospel in that clever, creative, and relevant way of his. Trust me: I’m only being a little snarky here. Andy’s approach works beautifully for him. My point is, I’m not him. I can’t be him.

I mostly only feel qualified to stick with the gospel—and the Cross. Even in the midst of last Sunday’s sermon, in which I related the prodigal son to Lance Armstrong, I had this to say about God’s grace:

Do you know why God has an infinite supply of grace? Because God—by coming into the world through Jesus Christ—has paid an infinite price for it: he’s paid for it with the gift of his own precious life! He didn’t have to, but he chose to out of love.

I’m always coming back around to the Cross. As Paul says, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved” (1 Corinthians 1:18-19). To me, it’s the best news of all.

So preachers like me can take heart in this new article from Mark Galli in Christianity Today. He writes in response to the dust-up between Louie Giglio (an Andy Stanley friend and associate) and the political opponents who pressured him to step down from offering the benediction at yesterday’s Presidential inauguration.

Giglio got the gig in the first place because he’s mobilized so many young Americans against sex trafficking—a cause everyone can get behind. (And from the White House’s perspective, being associated with a popular, “friendly” evangelical leader is never a bad thing.) The gospel will rarely be so congruent with our culture as it is in the case of sex trafficking—which is also why Giglio ended up losing the gig: out of faithfulness to that same gospel, he preached a sermon many years ago against homosexual behavior.

David Kinnaman’s UnChristian signaled that many Christians have concluded the big problem is that the evangelical church has aligned itself on the wrong side of some social issues, or with social issues that have little or no cultural cachet—and thus they move to champion more popular social causes to win a hearing for the gospel. It would uncharitable and unfair to suggest that Giglio and his church have done this, but if other evangelicals are like me, it remains a temptation for any who have a heart to introduce Jesus to others. Sometimes it works, as Giglio’s invitation to pray suggests. But as a strategy, it will invariably backfire, no matter how much we try to hide our work on unpopular causes, as the fury against Giglio’s 20-year-old sermon illustrates. The degree to which we employ this approach merely as a tactic to gain a hearing is the degree to which we will eventually be spurned by the very people we hope to attract.

Galli says that we don’t need to gain a hearing with our culture by any means other than the Cross.

Need-driven preaching… communicates that Jesus is just another way to solve our problems. It is no wonder that the culture looks at us, pats us on the head, and says, “But we’ve found other, equally valid ways to solve our problems, thank you.” We tend to think that postmoderns have brought relativism down upon us, but it seems, we Christians have been the culprits the more we make our message about meeting people’s needs.

The most needful and difficult task of the church today is to again preach the message of the Cross, and to do so in a way that alarms, surprises, scandalizes, challenges, invigorates, and inspires a 21st century world. What that would look like exactly is hard to say; our theologians and pastors need to help us here. In the most general terms, it has to be about Christ first and last. It has to be about the Christ who came into the world not to improve generally good people, but to resurrect the dead, not to bolster our self-esteem but to forgive us, not to make people successful but to make them loving, not to win the culture but to establish a kingdom without end. Even more scandalously, the message of the Cross is about a universe saturated with grace, where nothing we have done or can do earns us the right to participate in this stunning new reality; all has been done for us. The best we can do is acknowledge the reality (faith) and begin to live as if it is reality (repent).

The current state of our preaching is driven by an admirable desire to show our age the relevance of the gospel. But our recent attempts have inadvertently turned that gospel into mere good advice—about sex, about social ethics, about how to live successfully. This either offends or bores our culture. A renewed focus on the Cross, articulated in a culturally intelligent way, is the only way forward. Some will be scandalized by it, others will call it foolishness, and yet some will cling to it as salvation. But at least everyone will be talking about that which is truly First and Last.

So my challenge as a preacher is not to look at some other preacher and wonder, “How can I do that?” Rather, I need to look at what I’m doing and wonder, “How can I do that better?”

MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

January 21, 2013

Thanks to John Alan Turner, I’m linking you to Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I note with some shame that King directed this letter to a group of eight white clergymen, two of whom were bishops in what would soon become the United Methodist Church.

Here are a few of my favorite parts.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Sermon 01-13-13: “Rachel Held Evans’s ‘A Year of Biblical Womanhood'”

January 21, 2013

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This sermon, using Rachel Held Evans’s bestselling new book as our conversation partner, tackles some of the most challenging words in all of the New Testaments: Paul’s words about women “keeping silence” in church and not teaching men. What do we make of them—especially those of us who are United Methodists, who believe that women should be ordained and exercise leadership in church? Do we simply dismiss Paul’s words here as sexist? Is Paul an unwitting victim of the patriarchal culture of which he was part? Or is there another way of understanding these passages?

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35, 1 Timothy 2:8-15

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Please notice that Stephanie Newton is not here today. That’s very deliberate. I told her that, since she’s a woman, she would have to remain silent in church. She actually gave me permission to use that joke! Today’s Vinebranch Bookclub book is Rachel Held Evans’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Evans is a Christian author and blogger who grew up first in Birmingham and then moved to Dayton, Tennessee. She went to a Christian college there—Bryan College. And she lives there today.

I gather that she grew up within a very conservative evangelical tradition that had rigid and narrowly defined expectations about what a Christian woman could be and do. Her church taught her that a faithful Christian woman’s highest calling is to be a wife and mother; that her place was primarily in the home; and that when it comes to the Bible, our attitude ought to be, “God said it; I believe it; end of discussion.” As she got older—and she’s all of 31 now—she came to believe that Christians arbitrarily “pick and choose” what in the Bible to obey and what to ignore, especially when it comes to issues related to women. From Evans’s perspective, the Bible commands all sorts of things that Christians routinely ignore. Why make an exception when it comes to women? Read the rest of this entry »