Archive for September, 2014

Sermon 08-31-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 4: Barak”

September 10, 2014

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One of the most difficult truths of scripture is that God permits suffering in our world, whether he causes it or not. The good news is that he redeems suffering too. He constantly uses it for our own good. He did so in the case of Israel at the beginning of today’s scripture, and he did so in the case of Barak. Suffering, as C.S. Lewis famously observed, is like a megaphone by which God wakes us up. But victory is always waiting for us on the other side of hard times, if we can only trust in the Lord.

 Sermon Text: Judges 4:1-22

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

The best-selling new atheist writer and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins got some bad publicity a couple of weeks ago from some remarks he made on his Twitter account. One of his followers said, “I honestly don’t know what I would do if I were pregnant with a kid with Down Syndrome. Real ethical dilemma.” It was no dilemma for Dawkins. He tweeted back: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

Dr. Dawkins received a ton of well-deserved criticism for this tweet, including from a thoughtful writer named J.D. Flynn in the Christian journal First Things. Flynn wondered on what basis Dawkins believed that knowingly bringing Down Syndrome children into the world was “immoral.” Read the rest of this entry »

Thank you, Wolfhart Pannenberg

September 9, 2014

Bonn, CDU-Friedenskongress, Pannenberg

Just a couple of weeks ago, I credited the work of German Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg—by way of my systematic theology professor, Steffen Lösel—for contributing to my journey home to evangelicalism. We got word this week that Pannenberg died, (perhaps) the last in a long line of influential (and long-living) German theologians who powerfully influenced Christian thought in the 20th century.

Somehow, Pannenberg’s death hasn’t rated an obituary in the New York Times or at Christianity Today (yet), but the Baptist Press has an appreciative essay. Keep in mind: Pannenberg was no evangelical, but the article highlights what many evangelicals found compelling about him: the way he brought his fierce intellect to bear on defending the bodily resurrection of Christ (not to mention, as well, a defense of traditional marriage). To say the least, Pannenberg was deeply skeptical of advances claimed by modernity.

Even though I read only a tiny fraction of his work, I’m grateful to God for his influence on my thinking.

Pannenberg came to prominence in the 1960s when many theologians believed Christianity could only be accepted by faith but not studied or defended using rational thought processes. In defiance of that trend, Pannenberg insisted that Christian truth was rational and that reasonable investigation leads to belief that Jesus rose from the grave bodily…

Timothy George, founding dean of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, told BP he encountered Pannenberg personally as a student at Harvard in the 1970s when Pannenberg delivered lectures there. George remembers Pannenberg’s skillful answers when questioned by liberal critics of Christianity.

“I was just so amazed at how he refuted completely and with great conviction and convincing power his hostile questioners,” George said. “He was an amazingly brilliant person, probably one of the most widely read theologians of the 20th century.”

Keller argues that even secular values are religious

September 8, 2014

reason_for_god

I’m leading our new young adult Sunday school class in Tim Keller’s small group curriculum based on his book The Reason for God. The main component of the curriculum is a DVD-based series of discussions that Keller has with a panel of young-ish urban professional non-Christians. I assume they represent the kind of demographic that Keller and his Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan have had great success in reaching with the gospel.

Each session deals with the most popular objections that nonbelievers, at least in America and the West, have about Christianity. To Keller’s credit, while the panelists are polite and respectful, they don’t pull their punches. One week’s session dealt with the question, “Why does Christianity have so many rules?” When Keller asked his panelists if they had any questions, the first one asked, “What does the Bible teach about homosexuality?” O.K., then, let’s not beat around the bush.

Regardless, Keller’s manner of dealing with difficult questions is irenic and deeply humble.

During the session about religious pluralism and Christianity’s claim that salvation is found only in Christ, Keller offers a helpful insight from Yale law professor Stephen Carter. Carter argues that even the so-called “secular” values usually reflected in American public discourse are, in fact, religious in nature. Our secular culture offers a version of salvation, alongside religion, which relates to the notion of human flourishing. Like any Christian, secularism’s adherents take the truth of their beliefs on faith. Keller says:

Stephen Carter, who teaches law at Yale, has written a whole slew of books that essentially says the same thing. He says everybody is bringing religious values into the public square because all values are based on a view of human flourishing—you know, right and wrong, what people need in order to flourish and do well. And it’s never based on any kind empirical scientific fact. Never.

For example, if you’re more individualistic, you feel that people need to have the freedom to decide right or wrong for him or her. Carter would say that’s essentially a religious idea. In plenty of other countries, that idea is crazy. It’s looked at as crazy. That’s not what human beings need.
So he was saying on the one hand you could say every religious believer comes in and has to follow his values. Well, everyone’s doing that—absolutely everyone, including the most liberal secular person—is bringing a view of human flourishing not based on empirical science but based on a view of human nature and life. And so, may the best person win. Go to it. And instead of saying there’s a problem with religious people bringing their values into the public square, he said, “Everybody’s doing it anyway so just let it go.”

This week’s Bible hero, Gideon, had no leadership potential whatsoever

September 5, 2014

for_everyoneThis Sunday I’m preaching on Gideon, that very cautious and reluctant Bible hero who led Israel in victory over the Midianites in Judges 6-8. While I was jotting down personal observations on the text, I wrote the following: “God saw some potential in Gideon that others, including Gideon himself, couldn’t see.”

Sounds nice, right? John Goldingay disagrees.

According to Goldingay, Gideon has no potential whatsoever. But that’s O.K. because this story proves that God needs nothing from us, except our reluctant consent to be used of God.

Is Goldingay right? Well, if I were given a choice between listening to me or listening to Goldingay, I’d go with Goldingay!

Here are his words about Gideon from his For Everyone commentary. When the angel of the Lord encounters Gideon, Gideon tells the angel that he wants to see some action on God’s part:

The good news is that he is about to get some. The bad news is that he is the means of God’s deliverance being put into effect. At one level, his incredulous response is quite reasonable. He has shown no more leadership ability than anyone else in his obscure family. As was the case with Moses, God determines to use someone who is a failure, without obvious potential and without religious insight, because God’s using someone does not depend on that person’s leadership qualities or spiritual insight. God designates Gideon a mighty warrior not because he has potential that no one has noticed but simply because that is the way God intends to use him.

Gideon’s requesting a sign is a further indication that he lacks spiritual insight. Yet even this does not make God decide to abandon him and get someone with more obvious potential (perhaps there was no one).[†]

John Goldingay, Joshua, Judges & Ruth for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2011), 109.

Sympathy for Victoria Osteen

September 3, 2014

joel-victoria-osteen

Since I’ve become a pastor in charge of a church, I’ve become far more sympathetic with fellow pastors who are held up to public ridicule and scorn. It’s a tough job, being a pastor. And I’m not so different from other pastors—even the ones who have far larger flocks than I have. I feel an impulse to defend them, sympathize with them, and give them the benefit of the doubt.

For example, I like this guy, no matter what the comments section on YouTube says:

I’ve defended Mark Driscoll during his recent troubles, here and here.

And once again, I feel myself wanting to defend a fellow pastor, even if she’s the “co-pastor” of America’s largest church, her husband Joel’s Lakewood Church in Houston.

Victoria Osteen has been widely criticized and lampooned for these remarks:

I don’t disagree that Osteen is wrong here (see Dr. Gagnon’s even-handed, but substantial, criticism below, with which I agree). But let’s notice something: she’s clearly speaking extemporaneously. And God knows all of us public speakers risk saying dumb things when we do that! I perceive that she realizes (after she begins saying it) that she might be getting carried away in her enthusiasm. It happens! Notice her qualifying words: “I mean, that’s one way of looking at it”; “You’re not doing it for God, really.” I sense that she’s trying, in vain, to rein herself in.

But let’s affirm at least one small part of what she’s saying: True happiness is found in God alone. Christ promises us a full and abundant life now. Eternal life is not merely a quantity of life, but a quality of life. The New Testament urges us to be joyful no matter what circumstances we face. This implies that only in Christ will we find the spiritual resources necessary to be not merely happy, but deeply joyful: even as we face possible martyrdom, as Paul was in Philippians.

Given all that—not to mention the prospect of heaven or hell when we die—how is following Jesus as his disciple not, at least in part, a matter of self-interest?

So, to her point, even as we love and serve Christ, we are also doing it for ourselves.

Why not be charitable and assume this was her main point? After all, she says this is “one way of looking at it.” It’s possible she isn’t ruling out that other way, which of course is far more important. So it’s not either/or; it’s both/and. Read the rest of this entry »

If God-sanctioned violence in the Old Testament is a problem, Jesus is unaware of it

September 2, 2014

In a post last week, I wrote about perceived ethical problems raised by Israel’s conquest of Canaan, which strikes modern readers like an ancient example of genocide or ethnic cleansing. In Judges, for instance, from which I’m preaching for the next couple of weeks, God punishes Israel for failing to completely drive out the inhabitants of the various Canaanite towns that Israel encountered. Adam Hamilton’s solution is to say that these events didn’t happen in the first place, or if they did, we can know that God wasn’t responsible because of God’s self-revelation in Christ.

I reject this solution on the grounds that it solves one problem while creating a much larger one. As Tim Keller writes in his Judges for You commentary:

The main reason that we consider the conquest of Canaan problematic is because it breaks the sixth commandment (“You shall not murder,” Exodus 20:13) and the eighth commandment (“You shall not steal,” Exodus 20:15). But the the Ten Commandments are in the Old Testament! So if we reject the Old Testament as God’s true revelation, then on what basis do we object to the “immorality” of the conquest? It is arbitrary to say I like Exodus 20 if we then also say I don’t like Judges 1. If the Old Testament is not God’s word, then who’s to say that one chapter is better than the other? To deny the authority of the Old Testament in order to “solve” this issue is like burning down your whole house in order to kill a rat that lives in it. If the Old Testament is not God’s word, then we must find a totally different basis for what is right and wrong… But we can’t quote the Ten Commandments anymore; so what is wrong with a little imperialism?[1]

Of course, many progressive Christians would say that the “totally different basis for what is right and wrong” comes from Jesus. They affirm those parts of the Old Testament that Jesus affirmed. One liberal Catholic scholar I read recently thought he made his case against the conquest of Canaan by pointing out that Jesus “never quoted Joshua or Judges.” QED, I guess?

The problem, as Andrew Wilson pointed out not long ago, is that the fully formed portrait of Jesus that emerges from the gospels, unlike the “progressive-y red-letter” Jesus based on a highly selective reading of them, is that “Jesus himself seemed so comfortable with many of those passages, and affirmed stories about destroying floods, fire and sulphur falling from the sky, people being turned into pillars of salt, and so on. Not only that, but he actually added to them, by telling several stories that present God in ways that modern people are not inclined to warm to.”

As I implied in my earlier post, the only thing worse than hell on earth is hell in eternity. And Jesus talked about that more than anyone!

Old Testament scholar John Goldingay prefers to take the Bible at face value. He assumes that if we have a problem with it, the problem lies with us, not God or his Word. He sheds light on God-sanctioned violence in his For Everyone commentary on Joshua. He doesn’t waste a word in the following three paragraphs:

Many modern people don’t like the way the book portrays Joshua’s leading Israel in killing many Canaanites, but there is no indication that the New Testament shares this modern unease. The New Testament pictures Joshua as a great hero (see Hebrews 11) and portrays God’s violent dispossession of the Canaanites as part of the achievement of God’s purpose in salvation (see Acts 7). If there is a contradiction between loving your enemies and being peacemakers on one hand, and Joshua’s undertaking the task at God’s command, on the other, the New Testament does not see it.

We need to separate two issues in considering the questions all this raises. One is that the Old Testament sees the Canaanites as under God’s judgment for their wrongdoing. The idea that God judges people for their wrongdoing runs through both Testaments; Jesus is tougher about it as he pictures God sending people not merely to early death but to hell, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. In the context of modernity, we do not care for this idea, but we need to note its prominence in Jesus’ thinking.

The other issue is that the Old Testament sees God as using the Israelites as the agents of judgement. I’m not sure why we don’t like this idea, but the concern people often express is that it could become the basis or justification today for making war against other people. But Israel itself never saw God’s commission to dispose of the Canaanites as a precedent for its relationships with other people. Nor does the book of Joshua imply that Joshua’s action was a pattern for Israel’s future practice. Occupying Canaan and being the means of bringing God’s judgment on the Canaanites was a one-time event from the beginning of its story.[2]

1. Timothy Keller, Judges for You (The Good Book Company, 2013), 211-2.

2. John Goldingay, Joshua, Judges & Ruth for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2011), 3-4.

Sermon 08-24-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 3: Jacob”

September 1, 2014

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Jacob was afraid on the night before he reunited with his brother, Esau. Twenty years earlier, when he fled his home to settle far away with his mother’s people, Esau had vowed to kill him. Was Esau still angry? Was he still willing to keep his promise? Jacob had no idea. To his credit, however, in spite of his fear, he resolved to risk his life to meet his brother. That night, however, he risked his life for a different reason: to receive God’s blessing. Jacob resolved to hold onto God, even if it killed him!

What about us? Are we willing to hold onto God, even if it kills us?

Sermon Text: Genesis 32:22-32

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

sane_godI have a friend named John Alan Turner who’s a theologian and author, and his most recent book is about the seemingly crazy stories of the Bible, and he includes today’s scripture in that category. Since John and I are kindred spirits on most matters related to theology and the Bible, I was surprised and disappointed by the way in which he begins his description of this story. He writes:

I hate Jacob, and I hate this story. ¶ I’m not supposed to say that, am I? It’s true, though. Jacob was a schemer, a swindler, a manipulator, and a cheat. Frankly, it’s surprising to me that people still name their sons after him.[1]

Now, if you or someone you love did happen to name a son after Jacob, let me say that I disagree with my friend John. I love Jacob. And I call him a Bible hero because I sincerely believe that’s what he is! Yes, it’s also true that Jacob is a schemer, a swindler, a manipulator, and a cheat. But let me explain!

Back in ancient times, you had something called the law of primogeniture. This meant that the first-born son was entitled to inherit most of his father’s estate. I know this doesn’t seem fair to us now, and it didn’t seem fair to Jacob then, either. Jacob was the second-born fraternal twin of his older brother Esau. And on two occasions in his early life, Jacob schemes, swindles, manipulates, and cheats his brother, Esau, and his father, Isaac. First, he steals his brother’s birthright. Then, when his father is on his deathbed, Jacob and his mother conspire to trick the frail old man into thinking he was blessing Esau when he was really blessing Jacob. Read the rest of this entry »