Archive for March, 2014

“Meaning of Marriage” reflection questions, Week 6

March 29, 2014

keller_study

Here is the final set of reflection questions, many of which we’ll discuss in our March 30 class. These questions cover chapters 6 and 8. Here’s the video of a favorite love song of mine, which I discuss in the “Marriage Link” section below!

Chapter 6

Kathy Keller (who wrote Chapter 6) discusses the easily misunderstood topic of gender roles in the Bible. Does she assume that her readers will accept any concept of gender roles? What evidence do you see of our culture’s rejecting gender roles? Where do gender roles remain in effect? What resistance do you have to the idea of gender roles?

In your own marriage, are the roles that each spouse plays interchangeable? If not, what makes one partner more “suitable”for a role than the other?

A widespread belief about the Bible—often held by people who haven’t read it—is that it endorses the subordination of women. What evidence does Kathy Keller offer against this view?

Read Genesis 2:18. Why does Keller say that the English word “helper”is not the best translation? Recall the final scene from Jerry Maguire, which we watched in Week 1. In what ways are Jerry’s words, “You complete me,”consistent with the message of Genesis?

Describe the ways in which God-given gender roles become distorted after sin enters into the world in Genesis 3. Is stereotypical male and female behavior the way things were “meant to be”?

Read Philippians 2:5-11. How does Keller say this relates to the role that wives are called to play in the marriage relationship? If men are to be “servant-leaders”in the marriage, what does that servant leadership look like in light of Christ? To what role does Keller say the husband must submit?

Re-read the section “The Cross and the Other.”How does the relationship between spouses relate to the cross of Christ?

Chapter 8 

What three views of sex are prominent in the world today? How are these views reflected in pop culture through TV, movies, books, and music?

Why is the Bible a “very uncomfortable book for the prudish?”

Read chapter endnote #3 on pages 276-7 (hardback). Why does Wendell Berry say that sex is not merely a private matter but is “everybody’s business”?

Do you believe you can have a happy marriage without a satisfying sex life? According to Keller, what role does sex play in the marriage covenant?

Re-read the last two paragraphs in the section entitled “Sex as a Commitment Apparatus.”What are some practical problems associated with premarital sex?

Describe the inner conflict that Jane Eyre endures as she considers becoming Mr. Rochester’s mistress (in the section entitled “The Inner Dialogue”). What can we learn from her resolve when we face sexual temptation?

Re-read the section “The Importance of Erotic Love in Marriage.”What does Paul say about “marital duty”? How did his words go against the grain of Greco-Roman sexual values? From Paul’s point of view, how important is a mutually satisfying sex life?

Re-read “The Erotic Marriage.” How does Keller say that changing our emphasis in sex from “receiving pleasure”to “giving pleasure”overcome problems in the bedroom? Can you give pleasure even when you’re not feeling in the mood?

Re-read “Sex as a Test.” Why is important to keep working on your sex life throughout all of life’s changes?

Read aloud the section “The Glory of Sex.” What does it mean to you that the “best marriages are pointers to the deep, infinitely fulfilling, and final union we will have with Christ in love?

Marriage Link

Read this blog entry about a favorite song of mine, John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over.”As I wrote there:

But this song rings true to me. Love within marriage can be renewed, reborn, and re-kindled. We should work to ensure that it will be. “We have grown,”the singer says up front. But personal growth doesn’t mean that couples have to grow apart—or if they do, that it’s permanent.

Do you believe that it’s possible to “start over”in your marriage relationship? What have you learned in this course that can help you renew or rekindle your love for your spouse?

“Meaning of Marriage” reflection questions, Week 5

March 29, 2014

keller_study

Here are the reflection questions from last Sunday’s class, which covered Chapter 5 in Keller’s book. You can download them as a separate Word file by clicking here. We watched this video clip, “It’s Not About the Nail,” and I asked how it applied to Keller’s discussion about the “power of truth” and the “power of love.” (See “Marriage Link” below.)

Chapter 5

Keller compares marriage to the Cinderella story. An hour comes when the “real, unvarnished you stands there, unfiltered for all to see.” What has your spouse seen in you that you hadn’t previously seen in yourself?

How is marriage like a Mack truck driving toward a structurally flawed bridge? Keller writes, “Marriage does not so much bring you into confrontation with your spouse as confront you with yourself.” What have you learned about yourself through marriage? Do you wish you hadn’t known it? How does marriage’s “power of truth” relate to the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Re-read the Rob and Jessica story. Can you relate to it? Can you imagine reasons you were brought into your partner’s life—and vice versa? Have you helped one another become better people?

When we consider our spouse’s flaws, why is it helpful to say, “This drives me crazy, but that’s not truly him [or her]. That is not permanent”? How is it not permanent? What does Keller mean when he refers to someone’s “glory-self”?

If you grow disillusioned with your spouse’s flaws and are tempted to think, “There must be someone better than this,” what would Keller have you tell yourself?

Keller says that marriage’s “power of love” can overturn negative judgments that had previously shaped our self-esteem. Is this true in your experience? Is your self-esteem better or worse since you got married? How is this power of love a “miniature version” of the same power that Jesus has with us? (See 2 Corinthians 5:21.)

What is “love currency” and how does it become part of the assumptions we bring into marriage? What was your mother’s love currency? your father’s? What tension has been created in your marriage over these differing assumptions? What are some actions on your part that say, “I don’t love you,” to your spouse?

What is your particular “love language” or love frequency (using Keller’s radio analogy)? How can our spouse show us he or she loves us? Does this difference in love languages reflect itself in our gift-giving to one another?

When does the “power of truth” become a weapon against our spouse? Read Mark 11:25 and Matthew 18. Why is important that forgiveness precedes confrontation? What does it look like to offer the power of love without the power of truth?

Re-read the story of the Russian czar and his stepson. How does the cross teach us the “power of grace”?

Relate 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 to this discussion. Read the last paragraph of the chapter!

Marriage Link

Watch this video clip, “It’s Not About the Nail.” What does this couple need to fix the problem, the “power of truth” or the “power of love”? Assume this is a married couple. If you were the husband, would you handle the situation any differently?

Sermon 03-23-14: “Taming the Tongue, Part 1”

March 29, 2014

practically_perfect

Preachers like me have let our churches down by emphasizing that God saves us by faith alone—”Just as I am without one plea/ But that thy blood was shed for me”—without also emphasizing that an important part of salvation is what happens after we believe: Through faith we receive a new birth by the Holy Spirit. We’re no longer slaves to sin. Yet we often live as if we still are. What’s stopping us from overcoming sin in our lives? That’s what this sermon is about.

Sermon Text: James 3:1-12

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

For the past two weeks, many of us have been following with great interest the news of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the Boeing 777 that left Kuala Lampur bound for Beijing and went missing somewhere in the Indian Ocean, along with the 239 people on board. We all want to know, “What happened? What went wrong?

crash01

By contrast, let’s remind ourselves of an airliner crash not long ago about which we know exactly what went wrong—and all the things that went exactly right in order to save the lives of everyone on board. I’m speaking of U.S. Airways Flight 1549, which left LaGuardia bound for Charlotte in 2009. Shortly after takeoff, the plane’s jet engines were disabled by a flock of Canada geese who had gotten in the way of its flight path—a potentially deadly coincidence. Read the rest of this entry »

Billy Graham on Vinyl, Part 1: “God’s Delinquent”

March 28, 2014

graham_lp

Given my natural interest in old things, I figure I should have been born around 1952. That way, at 14 years old—the most formative time in life to discover great music—I could have walked into a record store on May 16, 1966, and purchased two of the best albums ever made, both of which were released that day: Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. And I could have easily gotten them both in mono—the way they were meant to be heard!

Ahh… That would have been a perfect day!

Nevertheless, the great thing about being a vinyl junkie is that records—at least since Columbia Records introduced the LP in 1948—are surprisingly durable. Which brings me to today’s subject…

Vintage Billy Graham sermons on vinyl!

I bet there are at least three people out there who are as excited about this as I am!

graham_back_pic

Detail from the back cover.

Consider this a new series on my blog. In addition to today’s sermon, I have five more in the hopper. (And, if eBay cooperates, maybe even more on the way!)

Today’s sermon is “God’s Delinquent,” which comes from Side 1 of Word Records W-6114-LP, circa 1964.

The sermon, as Graham says at the beginning, is aimed at young people and their parents. It’s about Samson, whose story is found in Judges 13-16. It includes several topical references (as all good sermons do), so it’s well past its expiration date. And Graham’s oratorical style—which is GREAT, by the way—isn’t congruent with contemporary styles of preaching (but that’s our problem). But if you can look past that, the message still rings true.

Am I the only one surprised by the frank manner with which Graham discusses young people’s “problem with sex”—even the fact that he uses the word “sex” in a 1964 sermon surprises me. (Eat your heart out, Mark Driscoll!)

I especially like this part:

And there comes a time when a young person has to make up his own mind. When you come to give your life to Christ, you can’t go on your parents’ religion. There are a lot of people who are resting on Mother’s faith or Dad’s faith. No, it’s got to be a faith of your own! You see a lot of us tonight have been reared with religious backgrounds, but you never really come to know Christ for yourself. There isn’t the joy and the peace and the satisfaction and the assurance in your own life. You haven’t really come to him yourself. You haven’t had the experience of Christ in you. That’s what you need.

I heard about some people down in the south that had told everybody that they were going to New York City, and while they were in New York city as tourists they were going to see My Fair Lady when it was on in New York. And they went and to their amazement when they got there they couldn’t get tickets,  it was packed out. And they were going to be there four days and every show was packed. And they wondered how in the world they were going to go back to their little town in the south and tell everybody they didn’t get to see My Fair Lady.

So, they stood in front of the theater one afternoon and saw people coming out after the matinee. And they saw that people were throwing tickets away—half tickets. So they got an idea. They went over and they bought for a dollar a program, My Fair Lady. Then they reached in the gutter and got some tickets, put them in their pockets and went home singing and humming “I Could Have Danced All Night.” “On the Street Where She Lives.”

They had the tickets to show. They had the program. They knew the songs. They had everything, except they hadn’t been to see My Fair Lady.

And that’s the way with a lot of you: You’ve got the language. You’ve got the looks. You can sing the songs. You can quote the verses. You’ve got everything except you yourself haven’t been to the cross… and known Christ for yourself.

To listen, click on the media player above or right-click on this link to download .mp3 file.

“If the church has changed its view of divorce…”

March 27, 2014

I’ve blogged at least a few times about the analogy that Adam Hamilton and others have tried to draw between slavery and the ordination of women on the one hand and church’s traditional stance toward homosexual conduct on the other. If the church disregarded or reinterpreted scripture in the former cases, why can’t they do the same in the case of homosexual conduct?

The difference, as I’ve said, is that the Bible itself offers a trajectory away from slavery and female subordination. If every slaveholder in the first century treated their slaves as fully equal brothers in Christ, the way Paul urges Philemon to treat his runaway slave Onesimus, the institution of slavery would be undermined. (If you don’t believe me, read Paul’s crafty letter to Philemon. It’s a short book.) As for women, the Bible is replete with positive examples of women in leadership. We have, for example, Mary Magdalene serving as (literally) the first apostle, commissioned by the resurrected Lord to bring news of the resurrection to the other, male disciples. We have Paul’s praise of female coworkers, including the identification of Junia, in Romans 16:7, as an “apostle.”

And for both slavery and women, we have Paul’s liberating words in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

I hope that even my fellow Christians who disagree with the United Methodist Church on female ordination can at least agree that we are making a biblical case. That’s what good Protestants ought to do: the Bible is our primary authority guiding Christian doctrine and practice. The UMC, along with most of the universal Church, doesn’t believe that such a case can be made for acceptance of homosexual behavior.

But what about divorce? Hasn’t the church jettisoned the New Testament’s clear teaching that divorce is wrong? Yet don’t we permit divorce and remarriage all the time?

Even yesterday, in the wake of World Vision’s reversal of its policy on same-sex marriage, many critics complained that the organization hires Christians who are divorced and remarried. Isn’t that hypocritical? In February, Andy Stanley made the same point about Christian cake bakers who refuse to bake cakes for gay weddings. “Jesus taught that if a person is divorced and gets remarried, it’s adultery. So if (Christians) don’t have a problem doing business with people getting remarried, why refuse to do business with gays and lesbians?”

Are Andy Stanley and these other critics right?

My first response is, it doesn’t matter. If they are right, it only proves that many people who believe that homosexual conduct is a sin are hypocrites, not that homosexual conduct isn’t also a sin.

Regardless, Robert Gagnon, New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, tackles the question head-on in his book The Bible and Homosexual Practice. I find this very helpful.

(Gagnonwriting mostly for his fellow mainline Protestants, accepts the scholarly consensus that Matthew himself added Jesus’ divorce exception for “sexual immorality.” Since it’s in the Bible either way, it hardly matters.)

For example, on the question of divorce, there are New Testament authors that moderate Jesus’ stance. Jesus’ words were so radical that both Matthew and Paul found ways to qualify them. Matthew allowed for the exception of “sexual immorality” (Matt 5:32; 19:9; agreeing with the school of Shammai), while Paul permitted divorce for believers married to unbelievers who wanted to leave (1 Cor 7:12-16). Of course, one could also point to the availability of the option in the Old Testament (Deut 24:1-4). These kinds of qualification at least provide a basis for further exploration of the issue. Some divorce is permissible for some biblical texts so that one cannot say that the Bible has achieved a unanimous position on the subject. Alternatively, one could argue that the church has become too lenient on the issue in recent years and needs to do what Jesus did: stand against rather than with the culture.

There are other factors that make divorce a very different issue than that of homosexual intercourse. First, few in the church today would argue that divorce is to be “celebrated” as a positive good. The most that can be said for divorce is that in certain cases it may be the lesser of two evils. Second, unlike the kind of same-sex intercourse attracting the church’s attention divorce is not normally a recurring or repetitive action. For the situation to be comparable to a self-affirming, practicing homosexual a person would have to be engaged in self-avowed serial divorce actions. Third, some people are divorced against their will or initiate divorce for justifiable cause against a philandering or violent spouse. Such people should be distinguished from those who divorce a spouse in order to have love affairs with others or to achieve “self-fulfillment.”[†]

Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000), 442-3.

The tongue “reflects and directs” the heart

March 26, 2014

One of the odd things about my sermon text last Sunday, James 3:1-12, is the analogies that James uses for the tongue. He compares it to both a bit in a horse’s mouth and a small rudder on a large ship.

Doesn’t this seem exactly opposite of the truth? How does “the tongue,” by which James means the words that we use, control our thoughts or behavior? Wouldn’t most of us say that the tongue merely reflects rather than directs? There’s a mind behind the tongue, after all, directing or willing it what to say.

It could be that James still has in mind the church “teachers” he’s addressing in verse 1, in which case a teacher’s words can guide or direct an entire congregation, the body of Christ (notice “bodies” in v. 3) for good or ill. This would be true enough, but rather obvious. At least a couple of commentators I respect, Douglas Moo and N.T. Wright, don’t think this is James’s point. As Moo writes:

But our reason for rejecting this interpretation applies just as much here as in v. 2: James has not prepared his readers for any such theological application of the word “body.” Probably, then, it is not so much “control” that James intends to illustrate but “direction”: as the bit determines the direction of the horse, so the tongue can determine the destiny of the individual. Believers who exercise careful control of the tongue are able also to direct their whole life in it is proper, divinely charted course: the are “perfect” (v. 2). But when that tongue is not restrained, small though it is, the rest of the body is likely to be uncontrolled and undisciplined also.[†]

This makes sense: there’s still a rider directing the bit and a pilot turning the rudder—just as there’s a mind willing our words. Our tongue reveal who we truly are, in the same way our “works” in the previous chapter reveal what we truly believe (speech is also a work). Listen to our words and you’ll know the direction in which our life is headed.

Still, I think our first impression of the analogy also holds: the tongue does control us to some extent. When I worked in sales many years ago, I had a colleague who told me that, unlike many of our office mates, he never complained out loud about his customers—even in the “safe” environment of our office, where there was little danger that his words would get back to his customers. He said he was afraid that negative things he said would eventually influence the way he treated them. Our words, he believed, have the power to give life to our thoughts. We can squelch negative thoughts easier than we can the words to which our thoughts give rise.

I thought this was a real insight, and it conforms nicely to James’s warning about the tongue.

In a sermon on this same text, “A Lifestyle of Self-Mastery, Part 1,” pastor Tim Keller agrees that the tongue reveals who we are, but that’s not all:

On the other hand, your words redirect your heart. Your words come from the heart but then your words go to the heart. The words, on the one hand, express the heart, but your words also redirect your heart. If you have an angry, bitter thought, and you clothe it in a word, you give it so much more power over your heart. The thought comes from the heart, but then, when you clothe it with a word, it goes back, and it strengthens itself. So when the Bible says you are cursed and you want to curse back, bless. Why? It changes your heart.

He goes on to say that only by coming to Jesus can we heal our hearts. “It is the worship and adoration and praise of his beauty that will move into your heart and heal your words.”

When I confess my sins in prayer, I rarely give a thought to the careless, malicious, or profane words that I’ve said. In my defense, I feel like I have so many bigger sins to confess! What James teaches me is that sinning with words is also a big sin!

Douglas Moo, The Letter of James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 153.

Should we interpret the Bible through the lens of a “love hermeneutic”?

March 25, 2014

In last Sunday’s sermon about “taming the tongue,” I used an illustration from my own life, which happened to me just last week. I was arguing online with a fellow United Methodist pastor, whom I haven’t met in person. The argument didn’t end well. I couldn’t control my anger. While not vulgar, my language was sarcastic and demeaning. If he were standing in front of me, I’d just as soon punch him in the nose as shake his hand. As I said on Sunday, I was seething with contempt for him. Finally, one fellow commenter, Jean, said the following:

jean

To which I replied:

brent

The issue was related, once again, to the United Methodist Church’s traditional stance on homosexuality. He compared people like me, who support church doctrine on the issue, to “idiot” fundamentalists who believe in a literal six-day creation.

A couple of thoughts: My brothers and sisters in Christ who, unlike me, are young-earth creationists are not “idiots” for being so. The vast majority of laypeople who accept evolution’s account of “how we got here” are merely trusting that the scientists who really know something about it aren’t misleading them—it’s hardly because they’ve reasoned it through, and it makes perfect sense to them, for example, how a sponge becomes a whale (or whatever). (I said more about this a while back.)

Besides, many of us who aren’t young-earth creationists aren’t disregarding what Genesis 1 and 2 say about creation. We believe that the text itself permits us to interpret portions of it in a figurative way. So we mostly disagree over interpretations of Genesis, not over the Bible’s authority in general.

Finally, anyone who sincerely loves Jesus and is trying to be faithful to him has a friend in me. I’m not going to call them idiots. Scratch that: my anger is such that I’m liable to call any number of people “idiots” at one time or another but I recognize that this is a sin.

Regardless, I asked my fellow United Methodist pastor if the Bible could say anything on the topic of homosexual behavior that would make him change his mind. He ignored the question. Later, however, to a more sympathetic commenter, he said the following:

I’m certainly not suggesting we just jettison traditions, teachings or texts. We have though, as the Church, over time concluded by consensus that certain teachings are no longer normative or constitutive of Christ. To shut the door on the possibility is to deny the activity of the Spirit…

For me, I think Barth’s view of scripture allows the saints of the past to have gotten homosexuality ‘wrong.’ It’s not simply that we have to acknowledge the different forms of text in scripture; it’s that they’re human, fallible, imperfect texts that God chooses to speak through nonetheless. The Spirit, I believe, has the power to reveal those failings with time—and has revealed on any number of other topics. Bottom line, though, I believe that the best way to approach scripture is through the “love hermeneutic” introduced by Augustine in his De Doctrina Christiana. If a reading of scripture doesn’t edify my love of God or neighbor it’s not prescriptive nor is it, in all likelihood, correct.

When he says that we’ve concluded “by consensus” that “certain teachings are no longer normative or constitutive of Christ,” what is he talking about? My guess is the Bible’s alleged endorsement of slavery and the subordination of women. As I’ve written several times before, including here and here, those are different issues from homosexual behavior. As I said in reference to Adam Hamilton’s argument about women and slavery:

In other words, contrary to his argument, it’s not merely “‘weightier’ scriptures on justice, mercy and love that superseded those on slavery,” it’s also scripture’s direct words about slavery itself that destroyed the institution—again, my colleagues in ministry have it right when they talk about a clear trajectory.

No such trajectory exists for homosexual behavior. On the contrary, those verses that speak against same-sex sexual behavior (“five or eight depending upon how one counts,” Hamilton writes) move in the opposite direction.

My fellow pastor writes, “The Spirit, I believe, has the power to reveal those failings [i.e., places where the Bible gets it wrong] with time.”

It’s a shame that the Spirit didn’t have the power to prevent those failings in the first place!

I hope you can see the danger with this point of view. In smart-aleck mode, I asked him how we know when the Spirit is giving us new information that contradicts the Bible? I asked, “Do you have to have some spiritual feeling to accompany it?” It’s still a good question.

My fellow pastor would say that if scripture violates what he calls the “love hermeneutic”—an extra-biblical principle to be sure—then we can scrap it altogether. He believes this is the case with the Bible’s words about homosexual behavior.

From this perspective, however, “love” can never be tough love. If the Bible is right that homosexual behavior is contrary to God’s intentions for humanity and that all sexual behavior outside of marriage—by definition between a man and woman—is sinful, then it would be unloving to say otherwise. Right? If homosexual behavior is spiritually harmful, then we ought to say so, out of love. Even my fellow clergy who disagree about homosexual behavior would agree with that principle, I hope.

Elsewhere on this pastor’s blog, we see this same “love hermeneutic” at work in his recent discussion of penal substitution. (Can you guess where he stands on that doctrine?) Among other objectionable things, he asks this question: “And how is it then that the message of the Son bears no resemblance to how the Father redeems?” In other words, the idea that God has wrath and punishes sin bears no resemblance to the “message of the Son.”

I assume he means this question rhetorically, but not so fast! Has he not read the Son’s many harsh words about hell, judgment, and “weeping and gnashing of teeth”? And what about this? “And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Matthew 10:14-15).

Is Jesus also wrong? Does my fellow pastor’s “love hermeneutic” also filter out what Jesus himself says?

It’s very troubling to me, which is one reason why I lost my temper. The other reason is envy: I’m jealous that this person gets so many more blog hits than I do! My motives are hardly pure as the driven snow.

One more thing: In the same comment thread, he told someone that it doesn’t matter if he’s wrong about homosexuality—despite scripture’s dire warning that this unrepentant behavior excludes us from God’s kingdom. He said, “I tend to think salvation is God’s business and don’t feel particularly anxious that I will get in God’s way of what God wants (or doesn’t want) to do.”

How do you reconcile these words with Paul’s departing words to Ephesian elders in Acts 20: “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” Paul is implying that if he hadn’t declared to them the “whole counsel of God,” he would bear some responsibility for the Ephesians’ salvation. As James says in James 3:1, we preachers and teachers will be judged by a higher standard than many other people. So being wrong on this issue is hardly a matter of indifference.

Or do these scriptures, once again, fail to pass muster with the “love hermeneutic”?

On a related note, referring to Adam Hamilton’s “three buckets” approach to scripture, my fellow Methodist pastor Chad posted the following on Facebook this morning, which made me smile.

chad

A prayer for obedience

March 23, 2014

I’m concluding today’s sermon on James 3:1-12 with this prayer. It nicely captures the themes I’m preaching in today’s sermon—and reflects what’s on my heart. Consider this a sneak preview!

Lord, I know that what you’re telling me to do through your Word is hard. I know that all your words about denying myself, and putting other people’s interests ahead of my own, and giving away so much of my time and money to serve you; making prayer a top priority in my life; keeping myself sexually pure; loving my enemies; taming my tongue, sharing the gospel with others; reaching out in love to the least among us—I know that all these things are hard. And they don’t come naturally to me. But I’m going to do them anyway. Because the idea of not doing them, which means failing to obey you, is out of the question. It’s unthinkable.

I repent of the ways I’ve often failed to take your Word seriously in the past. I repent of all my sin. I know that I will still stumble, as James says in verse 2 of today’s scripture. But when I do, by the power of your Spirit, I’m going to repent, and get right back to serving you.

I’m not obeying you because I believe that by doing so I’m earning your favor, earning my way into heaven. I don’t need to earn it; you’ve made me a child of God by your grace alone; not because of anything I’ve done.

Instead, I’m going to do all these things out of gratitude for what you’ve done for me and because I trust that you know best. Only help me trust you more!

Thank you, Jesus. Amen.

What if we decided to obey God?

March 21, 2014

divineconspiracyAs I’m reflecting on James’s harsh, uncompromising words about, well… words in James 3:1-12 for this Sunday’s sermon, I keep coming back to Dallas Willard’s book on the Sermon on the Mount, The Divine Conspiracy. Willard says that one obstacle we face in actually doing what Jesus commands us to do is believing that Jesus knows what he’s talking about. Do you doubt it?

Here is a profoundly significant fact: In our culture, among Christians and non-Christiains alike, Jesus Christ is automatically disassociated from brilliance or intellectual capacity. Not one in a thousand will spontaneously think of him in conjunction with words such as well-informedbrilliant, or smart.

Far too often he is regarded as hardly conscious. He is looked on as a mere icon, a wraithlike semblance of a man, fit for the role of sacrificial lamb or alienated social critic, perhaps, but little more.[1]

I’m thinking of Willard’s words because it’s clear to me that I—and probably we—don’t really believe Jesus (whose own words about words are echoed by his brother in this passage) when it comes to the things we say. We may still be conscientious enough to resist “big” sins, but who on earth can be bothered to mind the words we say (or, often in my case, write)? I’ve noticed, for instance, that we’re mostly desensitized to the use of God as an expletive, as in “Oh my God!” or OMG.

Is this a problem for anyone?

Doesn’t the idea that anyone would be scrupulous today about such a small thing as cursing—by which I mean old-fashioned “cussing”—seem hopelessly quaint? Heck, some of the cool preachers are even doing it in church! Never mind the literal cursing we do by saying things to wound, insult, demean, or ridicule others. Never mind the gossip. Never mind the self-justification. Never mind the boasting.

If it’s true that the tongue is a “fire, a world of unrighteousness… set on fire by hell… a restless evil, full of deadly poison,” you’d hardly know it by me!

Does it matter to us that we sin in this way? Does it matter that Jesus (and James) commands us not to do things like this?

Again, here’s Willard:

We would now say, and say correctly, “Trust Jesus Christ.” But we have already seen in previous chapters how the idea of having faith in Jesus has come to be totally isolated from being his apprentice and learning how to do what he said…

If people in our Christian fellowships today were to announce that they had decided to keep God’s law, we would probably be skeptical and alarmed. We probably would take them aside for counseling and possibly alert other responsible people in the group to keep an eye on them. We would be sure nothing good would come of it. We know that one is not saved by keeping the law and can think of no other reason why one should try to do it.

This leaves us caught in a strange inversion of the work of the Judaizing teachers who dogged the footsteps of Paul in New Testament days. As they wanted to add obedience to ritual law to faith in Christ, we want to subtract moral law from faith in Christ. How to combine faith with obedience is surely the essential task of the church as it enters the twenty-first century.[2]

Do we believe that Jesus knows what he’s talking about? If so, will we do what he says to do?

Will it be unthinkable to us that we, his apprentices, would ever willingly do otherwise?

Until it is, I suspect we’ll keep on doing otherwise.

1. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 134.

2. Ibid., 140.

Sermon 03-16-14: “Faith and Works”

March 21, 2014

practically_perfect

Today’s scripture from James serves as a necessary antidote to the “easy-believism” that often afflicts popular Christian theology: “Jesus paid it all, and I don’t owe a dime!” While it’s certainly true that we’re saved by faith alone, saving faith will include good works. James isn’t pitting “faith” against “works,” as is popularly thought: he’s pitting living faith against dead faith. What kind of faith do you have?

Sermon Text: James 2:14-26

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

When I was at Georgia Tech, there was a series of three physics classes that every engineering major had to take. The second of these was famously difficult. It was called electromagnetism, “E-mag” for short. E-mag was considered a weed-out course—a way of separating the men from the boys. And I know that sounds sexist, but I almost mean it literally. Because it is around the time you’re struggling in a class like E-mag when you begin to notice that there aren’t many girls in class with you, and there aren’t many girls on campus… And you wonder why you didn’t go to a school like UGA, where the odds are much more favorable—and where you don’t have to take classes like E-mag!

I said the class was called E-mag, but the class’s nickname was really “Re-mag,” because so many students flunked it the first time and had to repeat it. And if you were taking the class as “Three-mag,” you were really in trouble! Read the rest of this entry »