Archive for June, 2014

Sermon 06-08-14: “Party Time!”

June 16, 2014

Wedding Receptions

Since June is the most popular month for people to get married, I’m going to spend the rest of the month looking at weddings in the Gospels. We begin with the Wedding at Cana in John 2:1-11.

In John’s Gospel, the miracles of Jesus are called “signs”: in addition to demonstrating God’s power, they also communicate something about Jesus’ identity and purpose. What does it mean, therefore, that the very first sign that Jesus performs isn’t about healing the sick, driving out demons, or raising the dead, but enabling people to continue to party? This sermon answers that question.

Sermon Text: John 2:1-11

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

I don’t need to tell you that weddings are a big deal. According to a 2012 report, the cost of the average American wedding, including the reception, is $28,427. It’s even higher in more affluent areas.[1] In Santa Barbara, California it’s over $42,000. Manhattan weddings average nearly $77,000. In other words, many couples are spending on a single event lasting a few hours the equivalent of a year’s tuition at college, or what the average American makes in a year.

As big a deal as weddings are today, however, it’s safe to say that they were an even bigger deal back in Jesus’day. In fact, weddings remain a bigger deal in more traditional societies. Several years ago, there was a movie called Bend It Like Beckham, about a soccer-playing teenage girl in England who came from a very traditional Indian family. Her older sister is getting married, and her very traditional wedding lasted for three days—it looked like three days of non-stop partying. A lot of fun!

The traditional days-long wedding depicted in this movie was much closer to the way weddings were in Jesus' day.

The traditional days-long wedding depicted in this movie was much closer to the way weddings were in Jesus’ day.

It was similar in Jesus’ day, but even more so. An ancient Jewish wedding could last up to seven days. And it was also a non-stop party. Nearly everyone in the village came. It was was the social event of the year! But if something went wrong—like, for instance, running out of wine before the wedding was over—it was deeply shameful. It would ruin a family’s good name and reputation. Read the rest of this entry »

What is that pesky “wedding garment” anyway?

June 13, 2014

wesley_bobbleheadThis Sunday I’m preaching on Jesus’ difficult Parable of the Wedding Feast in Matthew 22:1-14. (There’s an entirely different wedding feast parable in Luke, which I’m preaching next week.) This parable challenges us modern Christians for a number of reasons: many reject the idea that God has wrath toward sin, that God punishes people because of sin, or, indeed, that God sends anyone to hell. (Verse 13: “Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”)

And what does the mysterious “wedding garment” of verse 12 represent?

Resisting the modern Methodist tendency to blindly enlist Wesley into whatever cause we champion, I actually went back to his sermons, one of which concerns this very text, Sermon 120: “On the Wedding Garment.”

As usual, Wesley makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Apparently in his day, many Christians believed that partaking of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner was what it meant to be found without proper wedding attire. Wesley, along with all serious commentators on this text today, rejects this interpretation out of hand.

But Wesley also rejects an interpretation of the “wedding garment” that is as popular in our day as it was in his: the wedding garment is Christ’s righteousness alone, the only means by which we’re made acceptable to God. According to this view, as one of my seminary professors said, “Jesus paid it all, and I don’t owe a dime!”

I definitely see the appeal: No need to worry about my own personal holiness if Jesus’ holiness is all that matters!

But doesn’t this seem like wishful thinking?

Wesley probably thought so. Regardless, he’ll have none of it. For Wesley, the wedding garment is our personal holiness—made possible by Christ’s righteousness alone.

The righteousness of Christ is doubtless necessary for any soul that enters into glory: But so is personal holiness too, for every child of man. But it is highly needful to be observed, that they are necessary in different respects. The former is necessary to entitle us to heaven; the latter to qualify us for it. Without the righteousness of Christ we could have no claim to glory; without holiness we could have no fitness for it. By the former we become members of Christ, children of God, and heirs of the kingdom of heaven. By the latter “we are made meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.”

Does Wesley’s emphasis on personal holiness detract from his belief, affirmed at Aldersgate 50 years earlier, that we’re justified by faith? Not at all, he says, although he’s aware of the criticism:

Indeed, some have supposed, that when I began to declare, “By grace ye are saved through faith,” I retracted what I had before maintained: “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” But it is an entire mistake: These scriptures well consist with each other; the meaning of the former being plainly this, — By faith we are saved from sin, and made holy. The imagination that faith supersedes holiness, is the marrow of Antinomianism.

The sum of all is this: The God of love is willing to save all the souls that he has made. This he has proclaimed to them in his word, together with the terms of salvation, revealed by the Son of his love, who gave his own life that they that believe in him might have everlasting life. And for these he has prepared a kingdom, from the foundation of the world. But he will not force them to accept of it; he leaves them in the hands of their own counsel; he saith, “Behold, I set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: Choose life, that ye may live.” Choose holiness, by my grace; which is the way, the only way, to everlasting life. He cries aloud, “Be holy, and be happy; happy in this world, and happy in the world to come.” “Holiness becometh his house for ever!” This is the wedding garment of all that are called to “the marriage of the Lamb.” Clothed in this, they will not be found naked: “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” But as to all those who appear in the last day without the wedding garment, the Judge will say, “Cast them into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

For Wesley, being a Christian isn’t merely the decision we make to receive Christ as Savior and Lord, however necessary that decision is. Rather, it’s a lifelong series of decisions that we make—day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment. We “choose holiness, by [God’s] grace; which is the way, the only way, to everlasting life.”

So… Personal holiness matters. No Christian can say, “It doesn’t matter what I do, so long as I accept Christ.”

A theologian friend (who isn’t Wesleyan) attempted to reconcile Wesley’s view with the popular Reformed view in one succinct text message: “A healthy reformed perspective would say that you cannot accept Christ and keep yourself from doing better. You can’t help but do better. If the spirit of Christ really is at work within you.”

That’s not bad.

As I preached during my sermon series on James, saving faith cannot be opposed to good works. We can’t have saving faith without them. Christ’s imputed righteousness and our personal holiness, therefore, are two sides of the same coin.

Sermon 06-01-14: “Prayer and Healing”

June 12, 2014

practically_perfect

 

Below is the final sermon in our James sermon series. This marks the first time in my ten-year ministry that I’ve preached through an entire book of the Bible! The experience has been rewarding for me. I hope it’s been for you as well. In today’s scripture, James looks back to a theme that he began exploring at the very beginning of the letter: “Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” Learning to “count it all joy” begins with the kind of prayer James talks about in today’s letter.

Sadly, we have no sermon video this week!

Sermon Text: James 5:13-20

Do you know about the prophet Elijah? Next to Moses, he’s considered the Old Testament’s greatest prophet. He prophesied during a time of wickedness in Israel, when Israel’s king, Ahab has turned most of Israel away from worshiping the one true God and turned them toward the worship of Baal, the pagan god worshiped by most of Israel’s neighbors. In one dramatic episode from 1 Kings chapter 18, Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a contest to prove once and for all who the one true God is—is it Baal, or is it Yahweh, Israel’s God? Elijah makes his case by asking God to bring fire down from the sky and consume a sacrifice on an altar. Surely now, Elijah thinks, the people would be able to see once and for all who God really is, repent of their idolatry, and turn back to God.

Except it doesn’t quite work out that way. Even after this miraculous spectacle of fire from heaven, most of Israel doesn’t repent, Ahab remains on his throne, and Elijah finds himself on the run from Ahab’s murderous wife Jezebel, who vows to have him killed. He winds up hiding in a cave on Mount Horeb—also known as Sinai, the mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments. Elijah is deeply depressed—he literally feels like killing himself. He feels like an abject failure. Everything he’s devoted his life to accomplishing seems to have come to nothing. Read the rest of this entry »

N.T. Wright on gay marriage—and why we’re not arguing over a few verses

June 11, 2014

Adam Hamilton and many other proponents of changing our United Methodist doctrine on human sexuality often point to the paucity of verses in scripture that relate to homosexual practice—as if that were an argument against the orthodox position. In his coming out sermon a couple of years ago, in which Hamilton said he was (merely) “leaning” toward full inclusion (those were the days!), Hamilton emphasized that we were really only arguing over five verses (if you don’t believe Sodom has anything to do with homosexual practice, then you must also reject Jude).

By what doctrine of scripture would the number of verses matter? Even one verse would suffice, if its meaning were sufficiently clear. After all, there are more verses about homosexual practice then incest or bestiality, yet no one is saying we ought to revise what the Church believes about those things.

Regardless, in this recent interview eminent New Testament scholar (and retired Bishop of Durham in the Church of England) N.T. Wright gives the lie to the idea that we’re really arguing about a few verses when it comes to gay marriage. I’ve made these points before, but not as well and not with a lovely English accent. Wright’s point is that the complentarity of the sexes is one essential feature of God’s plan for Creation. That God designed sex for male and female alone conforms to the whole narrative sweep of scripture.

And he’s unimpressed by the idea that we orthodox Christians are on the dreaded “wrong side of history.”

What would it look like if making disciples were really our church’s priority?

June 11, 2014
Archbishop Welby talking about evangelism.

Archbishop Welby talking about evangelism.

A while back, I shared a link to a blog post by a professor at the United Methodist Church’s lone orthodox seminary, United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, who complained that if the UMC believes that fulfilling the Great Commission and making disciples is our top priority, shouldn’t umc.org, our denomination’s website, reflect that in some way? He wrote:

Perhaps the public website should take a more evangelistic approach. How about, right up front, a link to the testimonies of people who have accepted Christ and known his transforming power? How about a link to a video called something like, “Why Should I Choose Jesus?” Or perhaps a video, or at least a page, called something like, “Why Does Christ Make A Difference?” Perhaps one could have the option to chat or have a video call with a pastor. Maybe it would be helpful to have something on the basics of Christian belief.

I’m certainly no marketing expert, but it does seem to me that if we wish our public internet presence to be consistent with our mission, these types of changes would be in order.

As I said then, “Indeed. But one shouldn’t hold one’s breath.”

Meanwhile, the Church of England (the actual English church, not its heterodox cousin in America, the Episcopal Church), which faces all the same challenges our little UMC faces, only more so, have gotten their priorities straight. Last Sunday, on Pentecost, he Archbishop of Canterbury and other bishops are telling their people that they must do the work of evangelism.

The word ‘evangelism’ means sharing good news. For Christians, it means sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ – what he has done for us, and what he continues to do in our lives.

What does that mean in practice? It means introducing the people around us to Jesus. We do this by how we live our lives and how we relate to one another. But we can also do it by how we express our faith in conversation.

Jesus did all of this so well, and he invites us to share the gospel not just in actions but in words too.

Did you get that: “not just in actions but in words too”? Their website is even called usewords.org. And they provide resources for helping you use words.

But they place their primary emphasis on prayer: they recognize that it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that we’re equipped and empowered to do evangelism. As Archbishop Justin Welby said, “There’s absolutely nothing I can do or any of us can do without the power of the Holy Spirit in the service of Christ. Nothing at all.” Well said!

Not praying also makes a difference in people’s lives

June 10, 2014
william-lane-craig

William Lane Craig

Recently, on William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith podcast, Craig talked about a prominent former pastor and seminary professor named Ryan Bell who made headlines last year saying he was going to “take a year off” from his Christian faith and live as if he were an atheist. Bell wrote:

I will live as if there is no God. I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration… I will do whatever I can to enter the world of atheism and live, for a year, as an atheist. It’s important to make the distinction that I am not an atheist. At least not yet. I am not sure what I am. That’s part of what this year is about.

I’m happy to report that the evangelical seminary that employed him swiftly fired him. A very cynical part of me imagines that there’s a book deal around the corner—following successful books such as A.J. Jacobs’s A Year of Living Biblically and Rachel Held Evans’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood. “A Year of Living Without God”—or something like that.

Why would he need to conduct this experiment to know what it’s like to live without God?

I wouldn’t! I’ve hardly lived my Christian life so consistently that I can’t imagine what it’s like to live without God. Can anyone?

I’ve known days without God. Maybe weeks. I’ve gone through stretches of time when I’ve lived as if I were practically an atheist—even as I was going through the motions of Christian faith. Fortunately, when I’ve wandered, God has always gotten hold of me and brought me back safely into the fold.

My point is this: During those times in my life when I’ve lived as if I were practically an atheist, I was hurting myself. I was robbing myself of happiness, joy, peace, and contentment—bringing myself under God’s judgment!

But when I’ve wandered from the narrow and difficult path of faith, I never considered who else I was hurting. At least until I heard Craig’s podcast. When talking about how destructive it is to take a year off from your faith, Dr. Craig asked, “What about all these people that God would have had him pray for during that year?”

That convicts me. When we become members of a church, we have a responsibility—a duty—toward one another. A duty to support and love one another by praying for each other.

As I’ve emphasized in my past two sermons, praying makes a difference in people’s lives. And, sadly, not praying also makes a difference!

FDR’s D-Day Prayer

June 6, 2014

normandy_beach

Seventy years ago today, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the following radio address to the nation (heard by roughly 70 percent of the population).

He prayed the following prayer, perfectly fitting for the occasion:

Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.

Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.

They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.

They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest-until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.

For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.

Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.

And for us at home — fathers, mothers, children, wives, sisters, and brothers of brave men overseas — whose thoughts and prayers are ever with them–help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice.

Many people have urged that I call the Nation into a single day of special prayer. But because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves in a continuance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking Thy help to our efforts.

Give us strength, too — strength in our daily tasks, to redouble the contributions we make in the physical and the material support of our armed forces.

And let our hearts be stout, to wait out the long travail, to bear sorrows that may come, to impart our courage unto our sons wheresoever they may be.

And, O Lord, give us Faith. Give us Faith in Thee; Faith in our sons; Faith in each other; Faith in our united crusade. Let not the keenness of our spirit ever be dulled. Let not the impacts of temporary events, of temporal matters of but fleeting moment let not these deter us in our unconquerable purpose.

With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister Nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.

Thy will be done, Almighty God.

 

Billy Graham on Vinyl, Part 4: “Why I Believe Jesus to Be the Son of God”

June 5, 2014

graham_label

In honor of Billy Graham, a hero of mine, I’m digitizing some of his sermons from long out-of-print records and making them available as MP3s. This sermon is found in a 4-record box set called A Billy Graham Crusade from 1962 (RCA Victor Custom Record Dept. BG4314).

The people of God, who are the church made visible in the world, must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced. There can be no evasion or delegation of this responsibility; the church is either faithful as a witnessing and serving community, or it loses its vitality and its impact on an unbelieving world (¶ 129, The United Methodist Book of Discipline).

As I said in the sermon I shared yesterday, the community around the church where I pastor is filled with people who are lost, who have not received the gift of God’s saving grace. Unless or until they repent of their sins and receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, they are bound for hell—for eternal separation from God. It’s sobering to imagine that the difference between hell and heaven for them could be us. It could be our church!

While I know that Methodists (among other Christians) often speculate about post-mortem opportunities to repent and turn to Christ—United Methodist theologian Jerry Walls made that case in his book Hell: The Logic of Damnation—I wonder if it’s not to assuage our consciences for shirking our duty to “convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced.”

graham_label2

Billy Graham has devoted his ministry to “convincing or leaving unconvinced.” He rightly understands that decisions made on this side of eternity make a difference on the other. (I know this is baby-talk for many of you, but many United Methodists, including myself, need the reminder!) Like a muscle that atrophies from lack of use, the more that sinners fail to respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, the less they’ll be able to respond—until it’s too late. Graham makes this point in today’s sermon, from a 1962 Crusade in Chicago:

You can neglect Christ long enough until you’ve actually rejected him! And it’s too late because unknown to you, there’s a quiet operation in your heart going on… You’re actually hardening your heart, and you don’t even realize it. Until after while, your heart is so hard that you suddenly wake up and say, “I better become a Christian! I’ve got to follow Christ! I better be born again!” But now you find that you cannot find the voice of the Spirit of God convicting you. And the Bible says there will be a day when you call on him, and he’ll not answer. You’ll seek him but you’ll not find him!

To listen to sermon, click on play button above, or right-click here to download as a separate .mp3 file.

Click here for Part 1.

Click here for Part 2.

Click here for Part 3.

Wright: “The entire biblical sexual ethic is deeply counter-intuitive”

June 4, 2014

tom-wright

Just in time for our present debate, N.T. Wright goes there in this week’s interview with Jonathan Merritt.

Then how does your view of scripture inform the sexuality debates today? Would your approach to the Bible allow, for example, the blessing of monogamous, lifelong same-sex relationships?

NTW: Monogamous, lifelong same-sex relationships were known in the ancient world as well as in the modern—there is plenty of evidence, despite what people sometimes say. When Jesus reaffirms the traditional Jewish standards of sexual behavior (he was talking in a Jews-only context where people would know what his shorthand sayings meant), and when Paul, speaking in a largely Gentile context, spells out a bit more clearly what is and what isn’t part of the new-creation lifestyle for those “in Christ,” this way of life was always counter-intuitive in that world, as it is again today.

But it’s important that we do not reduce the Bible to a collection of true doctrines and right ethics. There are plenty of true doctrines and right ethics there, of course, but they come within the larger thing, which is the story of how the Creator is rescuing and restoring the whole creation, with his rescue and restoration of humans at the heart of it. In other words, it isn’t about “do we allow this or that?” To ask the question that way is already to admit defeat, to think in terms of behavior as a set of quasi-arbitrary, and hence negotiable, rules.

We must ask, with Paul, “This new creation God has launched in Jesus—what does it look like, and how can we live well as genuine humans, as both a sign and a means of that renewal?” We need to remind ourselves that the entire biblical sexual ethic is deeply counter-intuitive. All human beings some of the time, and some human beings most of the time, have deep heartfelt longings for kinds of sexual intimacy or gratification (multiple partners, pornography, whatever) which do not reflect the creator’s best intentions for his human creatures, intentions through which new wisdom and flourishing will come to birth. Sexual restraint is mandatory for all, difficult for most, extremely challenging for some.  God is gracious and merciful but this never means “so his creational standards don’t really matter after all.”

Sermon 05-25-14: “Who Needs a Doctor?”

June 4, 2014
"Jesus Eats with Publicans and Sinners," by Alexandre Bida

“Jesus Eats with Publicans and Sinners,” by Alexandre Bida

Our church is in the midst of a series of changes, which are intended to strengthen our ability to fulfill our mission to make disciples for the transformation of the world. I postponed my last sermon in our James series in order to preach a sermon on our mission. I challenged our church to claim responsibility for the souls of children living near the church who haven’t heard the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Sermon Text: Matthew 9:9-17

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

Many of you know that I used to be an engineer, and I helped design machines that put cans in boxes. Really…At Coca-Cola plants—these big machines that put cans in 12-pack cartons. The machine would pick up a flat paper carton, unfold the carton, shove cans in it, glue it and fold it shut, and send it on its way—and the idea was to do it as quickly as possible. I liked the job. Except for one thing. One week out of the month, I had “the phone.”And it was literally a separate cell phone that I would take home with me. And for one week, I was responsible for handling any after-hour calls from all over the world that came in to technical support. I’d take the phone home on Monday, and set it on my night stand when I went to bed. I would often have trouble sleeping because I was just anticipating that stupid thing ringing. Read the rest of this entry »