Archive for December, 2014

Christmas homily: “The What, How, and Why of Christmas”

December 31, 2014
Ryan Kirk and the choir from our "Christmas Jubilee," held Sunday evening, 12-21-14.

Ryan Kirk and the choir from our “Christmas Jubilee,” held Sunday evening, 12-21-14.

On Sunday evening, December 21, our church music ministry, led by music minister Ryan Kirk, told the Christmas story through song and video. I also had the opportunity to preach the gospel through a short Christmas message. I discussed the true meaning of Christmas using Matthew 1:21: Jesus, which means “God saves,” came to save us from our sin. I then talked about how Jesus saves us, through his atoning death on the cross, and why, using Jesus’ Parable of the Lost Sheep.

My message concluded with an invitation to receive Christ. I compared God’s gift of salvation to a Christmas gift, “which is addressed to us with our names on it.” But we still have to receive it. I said, “I would be failing as a pastor not to offer you God’s gift of salvation, which is available through Jesus Christ.”

You can listen to the message below or download it by right-clicking on this link:

Sermon 12-21-14: “Mary, Highly Favored One”

December 29, 2014
This is the fourth part of my Advent series, which draws upon themes from Hamilton's new book.

This is the fourth part of my Advent series, which draws upon themes from Hamilton’s new book.

We Christians often elevate the Virgin Mary to such lofty heights that she can seem inaccessible to us. In truth, she’s a lot like us—at least those of us who are followers of Jesus. She is literally the first Christian. As such, we can learn a great deal from her example of faith in Luke 1. The best news here is that, just as Mary found favor with God, so can we!

Sermon Text: Luke 1:26-38

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

I love Christmas music. During Advent, I play old Christmas records by artists such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, and Elvis Presley every day.

The only problem is that these songs have become so familiar to me over the years that it’s easy to stop paying attention to them, if you know what I mean. That is, until someone changes the words

A couple of years ago, I was listening to a recent recording of the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” And you know that line—“Someday soon, we all will be together/ If the Fates allow/ Hang a shining star upon the highest bough”? The new version I heard said, “Someday soon, we all will be together/ If the Fates allow/ Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” And I’m like, “What?” I’ve never heard that line before! But it turns out that if you see the Judy Garland movie, Meet Me in St. Louis, where the song originated, that’s what she sings in the movie. But when Sinatra was recording his Christmas album in 1957, he asked the song’s author, Hugh Martin, to change the lyric. Sinatra said, “The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?” And so the change.

Sinatra’s version became so popular that even Judy Garland started singing it that way. So no wonder I had never heard that line before!

My point is, this Christmas song, which I had taken for granted for so many years, had been transformed: it suddenly seemed different and new; more down to earth; more real. You know?

I hope a similar transformation can happen as we hear this very familiar Christmas-related text, the annunciation to Mary, when the angel Gabriel gives her the news that she’s going to miraculously conceive and give birth to a son, even though she’s still a virgin. I hope we can bring the story back down to earth where it belongs. Read the rest of this entry »

It must be Christmas (or Easter): Newsweek trolls Christians again

December 27, 2014


Two Christmases ago, I wrote the following about Newsweek‘s semiannual Christian-baiting cover story. Their article that year was written by every atheist’s favorite New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, and his embrace of the “pious legend theory” regarding the virgin birth.

What bothers me is not that Ehrman’s point of view is represented, but that his is the only point of view represented, as if people who actually believe in the virgin birth are members of the Flat Earth Society. There are plenty of other seriously good New Testament scholars and theologians—including, for example, that German one who now heads the Roman Catholic Church—who could happily go toe-to-toe with Ehrman on the facts. Do they still employ reporters at Newsweek, or is every article now an op-ed piece? Under the rules of journalism, a reporter would have represented these other voices.

To their small credit, Newsweek at least employed a writer in Ehrman who has credentials—an actual Bible scholar at a university, however far outside of mainstream scholarship he may be.

This year’s cover story, written by an uncredentialed journalist named Kurt Eichenwald, never lets facts stand in the way of a good story. I’m not exaggerating: Nearly every paragraph is wrong—wrong on facts, wrong on history, wrong on Bible scholarship (obviously). The title of the story, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin,” couldn’t be more ironic.

Let’s start near the beginning, with one of his first supposedly factual assertions:

No television preacher has ever read the Bible. Neither has any evangelical politician. Neither has the pope. Neither have I. And neither have you. At best, we’ve all read a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.

Oh, dear. If he means to say that no one today has read the original autographs of the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts that make up our Bibles, then that’s true, but only trivially so. By that standard no one has read any ancient writing. But even worse: when we read Homer or Sophocles or Plato, we’re not only not reading the originals, we’re reading a translation (assuming we don’t know Greek) of copies of copies of copies that are far less well-attested than anything in the New Testament.

But even worse: Assuming Smithsonian Magazine is telling us the truth, by that standard we also haven’t read Shakespeare. Only copies of copies of copies:

Even if you’re a regular visitor to London, it’s probably never occurred to you to stop in to see William Shakespeare’s original manuscripts at the British Museum or Library. That’s just as well. There are no original manuscripts. Not so much as a couplet written in Shakespeare’s own hand has been proven to exist.

When Eichenwald says that we’ve only read a “bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times,” he’s either, at best, stunningly ignorant or at least incredibly disingenuous. How else can we interpret his words?

Where does this “translations of translations of translations” nonsense come from? He’s wrong, for example, when he asserts that the King James Version was a translation of the Latin Vulgate. (Mr. Eichenwald: Wikipedia is your friend. Or I think I might lend you my parents’ old World Book Encyclopedia.) The Douay–Rheims is an old Catholic English translation of the Vulgate, but even modern Catholic translations—like the New American Bible, the New Jerusalem Bible, and their descendants—translate the Hebrew and Greek.

The King James translated a collection of Hebrew and Greek manuscripts known as the Textus Receptus. Newer Bible translations are generally more faithful to the original Hebrew and Greek because they’re based on older manuscripts than the ones the Church had access to in the seventeenth-century. The fact that we have access to so many manuscripts means that we can be more confident that our Bible reflects what its writers originally wrote.

Regardless, the King James isn’t even a “translation of a translation”; it’s a translation of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, just like any similar ancient writing, except, as I’ve noted, we have access to far older and more reliable manuscripts of biblical books than we do of other ancient writing.

I could go on, but this is literally in Eichenwald’s first section. It doesn’t get better, I promise.

And then there’s the tone of the piece. Here are the first two paragraphs:

They wave their Bibles at passersby, screaming their condemnations of homosexuals. They fall on their knees, worshipping at the base of granite monuments to the Ten Commandments while demanding prayer in school. They appeal to God to save America from their political opponents, mostly Democrats. They gather in football stadiums by the thousands to pray for the country’s salvation.

They are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch. They are joined by religious rationalizers—fundamentalists who, unable to find Scripture supporting their biases and beliefs, twist phrases and modify translations to prove they are honoring the Bible’s words.

Who exactly are these Christians “waving their Bibles” and “screaming their condemnations of homosexuals”? Surely if there were enough of them to “gather in football stadiums by the thousands” I would have seen more than two of them on a city street corner in the past 20 years.

Or is he conflating evangelical Christians (not to mention faithful Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican Christians) with the late Fred Phelps, whose Westboro Baptist had about a dozen members, mostly from the same family.

Given his sweeping generalizations, it’s hard to disagree with Michael Kruger’s assessment that this hit piece “goes so far beyond the standard polemics, and is so egregiously mistaken about the Bible at so many places, that the magazine should seriously consider a public apology to Christians everywhere.”

I won’t hold my breath.

Regardless, scholars are responding to his piece. Dr. James White is one of them. You can watch or listen to his in-depth response here. On Twitter, Eichenwald accused Dr. White of “name-calling” when White said that he was ignorant. But when you don’t know Hebrew or Greek, when you haven’t formally studied church history or Christian theology, when all your research is, at best, second-hand, what other word should we use? Ill-informed? Is that better?

You’re either ignorant or you’re lying. At least being ignorant isn’t a knock against your character.

“Journey to Bethlehem” movie

December 23, 2014

I know your Christmas won’t be complete without my annual Holy Land Christmas video. I showed this three-minute movie at Hampton UMC last Sunday. It includes pictures and video from my trip to the Holy Land in 2011. Enjoy!

Sermon 12-14-14: “Amazed, Astounded, and Astonished”

December 23, 2014
This is the third part of my Advent series, which draws upon themes from Hamilton's new book.

This is the third part of my Advent series, which draws upon themes from Hamilton’s new book.

Much of this message is aimed at parents. In Luke 2:52, we’re told that Jesus “grew in wisdom” and in the “favor” of God. Among other things, this means that God’s plan was for Jesus to grow and learn and develop much like other children. If even Jesus—God from God, light from light, true God from true God—needed godly parents to shape him into the faithful person that he became, how much more do our children need us! 

Another part of this message relates to making Christ our highest priority in life.

Sermon Text: Luke 2:41-52

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

In his new book about Christmas, Not a Silent Night, pastor Adam Hamilton shares a frightening experience to which many of us parents can relate: the experience of losing a child temporarily in a crowded public place. For him it happened at Disney World. They were at a gift shop inside a Disney resort, waiting for the bus to take them to one of the parks. When the bus came, Hamilton and the rest of his family got on—or at least he thought they did. The bus pulled out and went about a half-mile down the road before they realized that their six-year-old daughter was not with them. Hamilton’s wife screamed. The bus driver stopped the bus, and Hamilton said, “I jumped off and ran like an Olympian back to the store to look for our daughter. There were thousands of strangers all around and I had left my little girl behind!”[1]

He said he found her in the gift shop, “totally oblivious of the fact we weren’t there.” He grabbed her by the shoulders and said, “What were you thinking? Didn’t you hear me say, ‘Come on let’s go’? Why are you still here? Don’t you know what could have happened? Don’t you ever do that to me again.”[2]

Of course, he’s the 30-something-year-old parent; she’s the six-year-old child. Should he be the one upset? But as I am myself a “yell first, ask questions later” kind of person, I can totally relate to Hamilton’s words! Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 12-07-14: “The Piercing of Mary’s Soul”

December 22, 2014
This is the third part of my Advent series, which draws upon themes from Hamilton's new book.

This is the second part of my four-part Advent series, which draws upon themes from Hamilton’s new book.

Simeon told Mary that a “sword will pierce your own soul,” by which he was prophesying about Mary’s experience standing at the foot of the cross. That sword isn’t just for Mary, however. As we come face to face with the destructive power of sin in our lives, we, too, will feel that sword’s sharp edge.

Sermon Text: Luke 2:33-35

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Last week, comedian Jerry Seinfeld received an honorary Clio award. The Clios are like the Oscars for the advertising industry. And Seinfeld raised some eyebrows with his brutally honest acceptance speech. He said:

I love advertising because I love lying. In advertising, everything is the way you wish it was. I don’t care that it won’t be like that when I actually get the product being advertised because in between seeing the commercial and owning the thing, I’m happy, and that’s all I want… We know the product is going to stink. We know that. Because we live in the world and we know that everything stinks. We all believe, ‘Hey, maybe this one won’t stink.’ We are a hopeful species. Stupid but hopeful.

Ouch. Just in time for this crazy orgy of consumerism that we call the holiday shopping season! Talk about a wet blanket! Who wants to hear that all these great new things we’re buying for others or hoping to receive ourselves won’t really live up to expectations… will only disappoint, will… stink? Who invited him to the party? Read the rest of this entry »

Billy Graham’s “tree stump prayer” echoes the Virgin Mary’s famous prayer

December 19, 2014


In this article from Billy Graham’s website, his grandson Will describes the most important crossroads that Billy Graham faced in his life. It occurred in 1949 at a Christian retreat center in California called Forest Home. Among other things, Graham’s confidence in his calling as an evangelist was shaken by a disastrous recent crusade in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Also, as the uncredentialed president of Northwestern College in St. Paul, Graham had to decide, for the sake of the college’s accreditation, whether to quit his evangelistic career to pursue an advanced degree.

Meanwhile, his good friend and fellow evangelist Charles Templeton, with whom he had ministered at Youth for Christ, did abandon his career in evangelism for the academy—at Princeton Theological Seminary. While there, he began doubting the Bible’s trustworthiness until he later abandoned the Christian faith altogether and became an atheist. Did Templeton know something that Graham didn’t?

This was the context in which Graham accepted an invitation to speak to a church group at Forest Home. Will writes:

One night at Forest Home, [Graham] walked out into the woods and set his Bible on a stump – more an altar than a pulpit – and he cried out: “O God! There are many things in this book I do not understand. There are many problems with it for which I have no solution. There are many seeming contradictions. There are some areas in it that do not seem to correlate with modern science. I can’t answer some of the philosophical and psychological questions Chuck [Templeton] and others are raising.”

And then, my grandfather fell to his knees and the Holy Spirit moved in him as he said, “Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word—by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word!”

The next day, the organizer of the retreat remarked that Graham “preached with authority” that she hadn’t seen in him before. Four hundred people made a commitment to Christ in response to Graham’s message. This marked the beginning of a new and fruitful chapter in Graham’s ministry.

While Graham’s “tree stump prayer” didn’t change the course of human history on nearly the same scale, it still reminds me of Mary’s prayer when the angel Gabriel tells her that she’s going to conceive and give birth to the Messiah, Savior, and Son of God. Like Graham, Mary struggled with God’s word. She was “greatly troubled” by it (Luke 1:29). She had questions about it that she was unable to answer: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

Like Graham, hers was not a blind faith or an unquestioning faith. She was inquisitive. She wanted to reason it through.

Ultimately, however, she accepts it, not because it all made perfect sense to her, but because she trusted God, with whom “nothing will be impossible.” She took God at his word. And like Graham, it made all the difference for her—which is an understatement, of course. Ultimately her freely chosen obedience helps make all the difference for all mankind: because through her son we find forgiveness of sin and eternal life.

Inasmuch as I have trusted in God’s Word and committed myself to following it—in spite of my questions, in spite of my doubts—I can attest that it’s made the biggest difference in my life and ministry. God has proven himself; he’s rewarded my faith. And those questions and doubts get smaller and less significant.

Almighty God, make me faithful to your word the way Mary was: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38, NRSV). Amen.

Billy Graham isn’t wrong (or why even church Christmas concerts should include altar calls)

December 18, 2014

Billy Graham isn’t wrong to emphasize the decision to accept Christ as Savior and Lord.

I have a Methodist clergy colleague and Facebook friend who tends to post things that make me feel both inspired and guilty—or maybe “convicted” is the right word. A post of his from this week was no exception. He said that while he enjoys seeing online photos from various church Christmas musicals, cantatas and programs—and he knows first-hand how much work goes into pulling these things off—he finds it perplexing that he rarely hears about conversions at these events. Is it because we’re not inviting people to respond to the good news of Christ’s incarnation?

Meanwhile, he said, Mt. Pisgah United Methodist Church in Johns Creek, Georgia, the largest United Methodist church in our North Georgia Conference, reported over 100 professions of faith during their recent Christmas program.

Over 100 professions of faith! During a Christmas music program!

I can’t comprehend that. I am, like most of my colleagues, one of those pastors who hasn’t offered an invitation to salvation at a Christmas program. Nor have I ever seen it done (at least since I was a child in a Baptist church).

Why? We are not betraying our Methodist heritage, or becoming more “Baptist” (if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that fear expressed by clergy colleagues, I could at least buy a grande latte at Starbucks), if we offer an altar call at the end of our services. Revivalism is more authentically a part of our Methodist tradition than the ecumenically-minded liturgical reforms that mainline churches implemented in the wake of Vatican II.

I say this as someone who is not anti-liturgical. I have a great love for our denomination’s Anglican roots. I love the Book of Common Prayer. I appreciate that our movement’s founders, John and Charles Wesley, were lifelong clergy in the Church of England.

But inasmuch as the Wesley brothers were high-church, they were high-church evangelicals. They rightly understood that merely being baptized and confirmed, and going through the motions of liturgy week in and week out, without a corresponding change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit, is meaningless.

All that to say, even we Methodists need to be converted! Indeed, we need to be saved! 

And, yes, we understand that salvation is a lifelong process of inward change that begins with God’s prevenient grace—by which we are able to repent, believe in Jesus, and be justified—and continues throughout our lives through the Spirit-initiated process of sanctification. We understand that God has given us means of grace, such as the Eucharist, holy scripture, prayer, and worship, through which God sanctifies us. We understand that we are not fully and finally saved until we arrive safely in heaven on the other side of death, the Second Coming, and resurrection.

And more controversially, unlike most of our fellow evangelicals, Methodists do stress the possibility of backsliding. Even after we’ve been converted, we believe, God grants us the terrifying freedom to turn away from Christ, such that we lose salvation.

I think I’ve faithfully represented—in a very brief sketch—our Wesleyan understanding of salvation. I affirm all the doctrines underlying this understanding.

So I understand that salvation is much more than a one-time decision made in response to a preacher’s invitation at the end of a church service. I understand that leading someone to pray the “sinner’s prayer” is, by itself—apart from genuine conversion, without the corresponding change of heart wrought by the Spirit—insufficient for salvation.

I get all that. But for all the outrageous slander directed against pastors like me who affirm praying a sinner’s prayer (bless your heart, mainline Protestants!), would somebody please tell me a better way for someone to get started down the path of salvation and lifelong discipleship? What would you have someone do when the Holy Spirit has led them to accept for themselves God’s gift of forgiveness and eternal life through Christ?

Everyone must ultimately decide for themselves whether they want this gift of salvation. Everyone must make a decision! That’s what the sinner’s prayer represents.

And this, in my mind, is the rationale for preachers like me inviting people to “accept Christ as Savior and Lord.” I have no problem with using this revivalistic language. Because it’s true—even if, in respectable corners of our dying mainline Protestant tradition, it’s unrespectable.

I couldn’t care less about respectability. We are facing a desperate need on the part of people to be saved. We Methodists have enabled them to avoid making a decision long enough. We’ve taught them—at least unintentionally—the damnable lie that simply going to church, getting baptized, going through confirmation, and being a “good person” is somehow enough.

I’ve been part of that problem, believe me!

Jesus said, “Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.”

We Methodists keep saying, “There are yet four months.” Then, when four months pass, we say there are four months more. And so on. The harvest, oddly enough, never arrives.

As you can tell, I’m convicted.

Our church’s Christmas music program is this Sunday evening. It just so happens that even before I read my clergy friend’s Facebook post, my music director and I had built into the service an altar call for people to receive God’s gift of salvation. There will be people who come to that service—I have no idea who they are—who haven’t yet made a life-changing, soul-saving decision to accept Christ. I’m going to invite them to do so.

Will they respond? I don’t know. But I’m praying with all my heart that they will. Will you join me in that prayer?

The gospel in Genesis 18

December 17, 2014

Phillip Cary begins his Brazos commentary on the Book of Jonah with these powerful and convicting words:

First of all, this is a Christian reading of the Scriptures of Israel, which Christians call the Old Testament because it contains the ancient covenant to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.[†]

Like the whole Bible, this particular Old Testament book is about Christ. 

For the past year or so, I’ve taken this message to heart, and it’s changed my preaching for the better. It’s also changed the way I read the Old Testament. It’s not that I now read the Old Testament as allegory: I believe the Old Testament reports the history that it does first because these events really happened. But I’m convinced that the Old Testament is filled with signs that point to Jesus, whether its authors intended them or not.

For example, I’m currently re-reading Genesis. In Chapter 18, when the Lord warns Abraham of the impending destruction of Sodom, Abraham intercedes on their behalf. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

Likewise, Abraham is emboldened to ask if God will destroy the city if there are only 45 righteous within it, then 40, then 35, on down to ten. Even for the sake of ten righteous people, God says, he will not destroy the city. Abraham doesn’t dare to ask about fewer than that, but he probably got the point: no one in Sodom was righteous. Lot and his family were saved, but as the men of Sodom complained to him, Lot and his family were merely sojourners (Genesis 19:9), not citizens.

So let’s ask the question Abraham didn’t ask: What if there were only one righteous person? Would God spare the lives of the people for the sake of the one?

We already know the answer to that. God answered that question on the cross. Jesus Christ was the one righteous person for whose sake God offers salvation to the world. Christ lived his life and died his death on behalf of the ungodly.

Isn’t that beautiful? It wouldn’t have even occurred to me to make that connection even a couple of years ago. The next time I preach this passage, I promise I will!

I’ve written about this Christ-centered approach to reading the Old Testament before, including right here.

Phillip Cary, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Jonah (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 17.

Is it selfish to complain? Only if it’s also selfish to be happy

December 15, 2014
My son Townshend and I enjoyed this recent Georgia Tech victory, over Clemson.

My son Townshend and I enjoyed this recent Georgia Tech victory over Clemson.

I’m almost embarrassed to say how happy I was a couple of weeks ago when my beloved alma mater, the Georgia Institute of Technology, defeated its in-state SEC rival to win the Governor’s Cup. I say I’m almost embarrassed because of course it’s unwise to let a group of 18-22 year-olds affect my happiness to such a great extent. So the voice of reason within said, “Act like you’ve done it before, Brent.” And we have done it before, although our current losing streak had been five years.

Still, the next day at church I disappointed a few Tech fans who wanted me to gloat. But it’s not my style. Act like you’ve done it before, Brent.

Happiness from sports is a zero-sum game. One team’s happiness from winning always comes at the expense of the other team’s misery from losing. Since we Tech fans, unfortunately, are much smaller in number than University of Georgia fans, our team’s victory in this game inflicts a disproportionate amount of pain on our state. Not that I mind!

Predictably, this pain was reflected in my Facebook feed that afternoon. One clergy acquaintance posted that he was tempted to complain about so many things regarding his team’s performance and the coaching decisions but decided not to—which is probably for the best. But I gently disagreed with the reason he gave for not complaining: all the “real” suffering in the world, from ISIS’s campaign of terror against Christians to parents in his church who are grieving the death of a child.

I replied, “Yes, but by that standard what right do any of us ever have to complain about anything?” Football is trivial relative to the scale of suffering in the world—as are most things that occupy our time and give meaning to our lives. Yet, my clergy friend and I both spend money on our respective teams’ games and merchandise. Why do we do that when that same money could go to help relieve suffering in the world? Why do we even spend time watching football games when we could more productively spend that time working for justice in the world?

Do you see the problem with my friend’s logic?

If we can’t complain about “little things”—for the sake of what other people are dealing with—then we can’t complain, period. Because no matter what we’re going through on a particular day, there are always at least tens or hundreds of thousands of people who are going through something much worse.

Moreover, if we can’t complain about little things then, by all means, we can’t let ourselves be happy with little things, either! For example, how can we be happy with presents that we receive on Christmas Day when so many people around the world have nothing, or next to it? How is our happiness not selfish? How can any of us be happy until God finally balances the scales of justice in Final Judgment?

Obviously this is not a Christian disposition. For one thing, God’s Word is filled with righteous complaining and complainers. God seems O.K. with that, even as he also tells us repeatedly and emphatically to rejoice in all circumstances—no matter how favorable or unfavorable, how significant or insignificant.

God gives us gifts—even like football, which I’ve blogged and preached about before—and he wants us to enjoy them.