Archive for December, 2014

“On finding the Jesus you thought you’d lost”

December 12, 2014

wright on bible reading

This Sunday, I’m preaching on Luke 2:41-51, the story of Mary and Joseph losing the 12-year-old Jesus for three days, only to find him in the temple in Jerusalem. N.T. Wright says that this story bookends nicely with another story in Luke’s gospel.

The way Luke has told the story may strike a careful reader of his gospel as part of a large-scale framework around the main story, which is just about to begin. One of the best loved moments in his gospel is the story of the road to Emmaus over the three days that have elapsed since Jesus’ death. Jesus meets them, and explains how ‘it was necessary that these things had to happen’. Here is another couple, coming back to Jerusalem, finding after three days the Jesus they thought they had lost, and having him explain that ‘it was necessary’ (the word is the same in Greek) ‘that I had to be busy at my father’s work’. You might call the pair of stories something like, ‘On Finding the Jesus You Thought You’d Lost’. And if that is the message of these two passages, maybe Luke is wanting to tell us something about his gospel as a whole: maybe he is writing, at one level at least, for people who may have some idea of Jesus but find he is more elusive than they had imagined.[†]

The parallelism is striking, isn’t it? What do you make of it? What might Luke be trying to tell us? This is an insight that I might have to work in my sermon somewhere!

N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2004), 29.

Worshiping is much more than showing up for worship!

December 11, 2014
Our church has given out hundreds of these postcards over the past couple of weeks. We're doing it not so that people will merely show for worship, but that they will actually worship.

Our church has given out hundreds of these postcards over the past couple of weeks. We’re doing it not so that people will merely show for worship services, but that they will actually worship.

I wrote the following for tomorrow’s emailed church newsletter. I had to get it off my chest! As you can see, while I’m writing mostly to myself, I hope these words can benefit others. What if all of us Christians placed a priority in our lives on worshiping?

A few weeks ago, when I preached a stewardship sermon on 2 Corinthians 9:6-14, I didn’t mention an important theme that runs through this passage. I neglected it because it didn’t fit in with our church’s theme for Stewardship Sunday, which was financial generosity.

Nevertheless, it’s important, and it relates to the season of Advent and Christmas.

In this passage, the apostle Paul highlights three reasons why he wants the church at Corinth to be generous with its financial gift to the church in Jerusalem: First, and most obvious, their giving helps meet a desperate need, since their brothers and sisters there were facing starvation in the midst of a terrible famine. Second, God wants to bless them through their giving. (This was the main theme of my sermon.)

Finally, when the people in Jerusalem see the Corinthians’ generosity, they will “overflow” in “many thanksgivings to God” (v. 12)  and they will “glorify God” (v. 13).

In other words, what does Paul say will be an important result of their giving? Worship! The gift will inspire people in Jerusalem to worship. Worship is so important to Paul in these nine verses that he mentions it twice. Can we safely say that it’s Paul’s top priority for his churches? If not, it’s certainly near the top.

This convicts me as a pastor for a few reasons. Since I spend so much time pouring my heart into my sermon each week, I think of “worship” mostly in terms of the sermon I preach. Notice that doesn’t even factor into Paul’s thinking!

I also tend to think of worship more as a noun than a verb. What I mean is, “worship” is that place we gather every Sunday morning, at either 9:00 or 11:00. We go to worship the way we go to a movie, a sporting event, or a restaurant. It’s an event that we sit through more than an activity that we engage in.

I’m not alone in thinking this way. After all, what do we often say when we go to church on Sunday morning? If someone asks us, “Did you go to worship this morning?” we may answer, “No, but I did go to Sunday school.”

Do you see what I mean? Worship is a noun.

Often, a more truthful answer to the question, “Did you go to worship this morning?” might be, “No, but I did sit in a pew in the sanctuary between 11:00 and 12:00.”


Another way Paul’s words convict me is that I’m far more interested in the number of people who show up for worship than the number who actually worship—if you know what I mean. I could blame it on the system. After all, we have to turn in “worship attendance” numbers each week to the conference. No one can objectively measure how many people are actually worshiping or the quality of that worship.

I could blame it on the system, but who am I kidding? If attendance numbers are good, I don’t care much about those other things!

Which is another reason I’m not like Paul!

Paul—please notice—does care. Deeply. He cares because he knows that worship is the best medicine for our souls. We need it like we need oxygen. Hampton, Georgia, needs it. The world needs it! We are made to do it, and we cannot live the abundant life that Christ wants us to live without it.

So of course we should place a priority on showing up on Sunday for the worship services. We can’t worship the way Paul describes without gathering as a community to do it. But showing up, at least in this case, isn’t nearly half the battle!

Can you join me in praying today that the Lord will bless our worship services this Sunday, that he will enable each of us attending the service to worship him, that our lives will be touched and changed through the experience? Can you also join me in praying, especially during these seasons of Advent and Christmas—when many people are looking for a church to go to—that unchurched people will find a welcome place where they, too, can do that thing for which they were created: to worship!

Sermon 11-30-14: “Beginning with the End”

December 10, 2014
My new Advent series draws on ideas from Hamilton's new book.

My new Advent series draws on ideas from Hamilton’s new book.

During Advent this year, I take a cue from Adam Hamilton’s new book, Not a Silent Night, and tell the Christmas story through Mary’s eyes. This first sermon in the series begins near the end—after the resurrection and ascension of her son Jesus. Although Mary only gets one mention in scripture after those events—in Acts 1:8-14—we can infer that she devoted herself to fulfilling the Great Commission.

Her mission is our mission, too!

Sermon Text: Acts 1:8-14

Audio only this week. Click on the play button below, or right-click here to download .mp3 file.

The following is my original manuscript with footnotes.

There was big news in the world of entertainment last week, as we got our first glimpse of the new Star Wars movie, number seven in the franchise. Of course, when I was a kid, there were only three Star Wars movies. And at the end of the third movie, which we used to call Return of the Jedi, but is now more often referred to as “Episode VI,” the rebels defeated Darth Vader, and the Empire, and the “dark side,” and everyone lived happily ever after, as far as we knew.

From the new Star Wars trailer

From the new Star Wars trailer

But now, guess what? The story wasn’t over after all. And in a voice-over, a menacing voice says, “There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?” I don’t know what has been awakened, but it sounds pretty bad.

The point is, despite the happy ending in the previous movie, the Star Wars story continues—and will continue for at least three more movies.

And believe it or not, something similar is happening in today’s scripture. Whereas we thought that the Gospel of Luke was the end of the story, it turns that it was just a prequel to the next story, one which Luke will tell in the Book of Acts. Luke writes in verse 1: “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach…” Read the rest of this entry »

What’s at stake in a pastor’s denying the Virgin Birth?

December 9, 2014
Sorry, Horus, you can't ruin our Christmas celebration.

Sorry, Horus, you can’t ruin our Christmas celebration with phony parallels between your birth and Christ’s birth.

Yesterday, I received a lengthy email from a United Methodist pastor, sent to a group of undisclosed recipients, complaining about what he perceives to be “a serious problem for the future of the United Methodist Church,” which “needs to be addressed”: “Biblicism,” or biblical literalism, one example of which, apparently, is believing that the Virgin Birth actually happened.

He writes: “Living so closely to Southern Baptists and various fundamentalist churches, and having so many folks who approach the Bible from this perspective in our congregations, we have danced around this issue much too long.  Fearing conflict with influential lay members, the loss of those members and the revenue they contribute, we let misinformation and cultural bias to cloud the way the Bible is read and heard in the congregations we serve.”

“What do you mean ‘we,’ Kemo Sabe?”

Read the rest of this entry »

“Because we live in the world, and we know that everything stinks”

December 8, 2014

The following is the speech I made reference to in yesterday’s sermon—Jerry Seinfeld accepting his honorary Clio award. Profoundly good, if misanthropic. While everything in the world doesn’t stink—and I’m sure he’s employing hyperbole—everything in our world that human beings touch is tainted by sin. And that does stink. As Solzhenitsyn said (which I quoted in the sermon), “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

Being forgiven by God is more than realizing how “forgiving” God already is

December 5, 2014


My margin note on the top of page 58 of Adam Hamilton's Not a Silent Night.

My margin note on the top of page 58 of Adam Hamilton’s Not a Silent Night.

I realize I’m in danger of making penal substitution a hobby horse on this blog. I’m happy to do so, however, given the important theological questions at stake: Did Jesus’ death on the cross accomplish something objective, which deals once and for all with with humanity’s problem—my problem—with sin?

Or is the cross effective only inasmuch as it inspires us to change? In other words, does the effectiveness of the cross depend on our response to it?

What’s at stake, therefore, is the question of whether or not the Atonement is objective or subjective.

hamilton2I hope for my sake that the Atonement is objective. If the effectiveness of the cross depends on my weak and waffling response to it—even after 30 years of being a baptized, professing Christian—I’m afraid I’m in trouble.

That is, unless our sins aren’t really a problem for God after all. But if that were so, how do we make sense of most of the Bible, not least of which Romans 1-7? More on that in a moment.

In his new book on Christmas, Not a Silent Night, Adam Hamilton sides with those who believe that the Atonement is subjective. He writes:

Precisely how Jesus’ death saves is a mystery; there are multiple theories of the Atonement, and each carries some important truths. Some view the Atonement—God’s use of the cross to redeem, forgive, and restore us—as though it were a mathematical, economic, or juridical formula. But to me the cross makes the most sense when I recognize it more as poetry, as a divine drama meant to touch our hearts, move us to repentance, and lead us to acceptance of the truth that we are sinners and Jesus is our Savior. It is meant to lead us to accept a love and mercy that we don’t deserve and cannot afford. And it is meant to lead us to an assurance that he has, in the famous words of John Wesley, “taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”[1]

Elsewhere Hamilton writes, “Sin alienates us from God, but on the cross God was seeking to help us see the seriousness of our sin, the costliness of our forgiveness, and the magnitude of his love.”[2]

This is about as succinct a statement of the subjective theory of Atonement called “moral influence” as I’ve read. And I don’t disagree that the cross, to some extent, does these things. But notice the emphasis is almost entirely on how we respond to what God has done on the cross: we’re “touched” and “moved,” until we are “helped to see” and “led to accept.”

One of the things that the cross “leads us to accept,” Hamilton says, is the truth that Jesus is our Savior. But I wonder if he isn’t begging the question: Saved how? Saved from what?

If Hamilton is right that the objective theories of Atonement get it wrong—reduced, so he says, to “mathematical, economic, or juridical” formulae—then we are saved from our ignorance: ignorance of our sins, ignorance of the costliness of God’s forgiveness, ignorance of how much God loves us. And how are we saved? Hamilton implies that we’re saved when the cross melts our hardened hearts, and we finally see the truth.

While he’s not entirely wrong, his words don’t go nearly far enough: I would say that we mostly need to saved from our sins themselves—not our ignorance of them or anything else!

Hamilton says that our sin alienates us from God. And I agree, but why does it alienate us? Paul answers this question nicely in his Letter to the Romans: God is holy; God has justifiable wrath toward sin; God is committed to seeing to it that justice is fully and finally done. Among other things, this means that sin must be judged and punished. God was telling the truth in Genesis 2:17 when he warned Adam that eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would lead to death. Paul, inspired as he was by the Spirit, was telling the truth when he said in Romans 3:23 that the wages of sin is death.

Hamilton says that our sins are a serious problem, but they only seem to be problem from our side of the relationship: again, they prevent us from “seeing” properly. If our sins are a problem on God’s side, Hamilton doesn’t say.

Instead, from Hamilton’s perspective, being forgiven isn’t a matter of accepting God’s gift of forgiveness made possible by Christ’s costly, atoning death on the cross, which he suffered willingly out of an incomprehensible love for us; rather, being forgiven is a matter of realizing how “forgiving” God already is.

Which of these alternatives makes better sense of the biblical witness?

1. Adam Hamilton, Not a Silent Night (Nashville: Abingdon, 2014), 57-8.

2. Ibid., 60.

“What a minister is on his knees in secret before God is what he is

December 4, 2014

kellerI’ve started reading Timothy Keller’s new book, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, and, as of the end of Part One, it’s characteristically excellent. First, this made me laugh out loud:

A pastor and friend of mine, Jack Miller, once said he could tell a great deal about a person’s relationship with God by listening to him or her pray. “You can tell if a man or woman is really on speaking terms with God,” he said. My first response was to make a mental note never to pray aloud near Jack again.[1]

I laughed because I recognized myself in Keller’s response! Prayer is, by all means, the lifeblood of Christian faith. We preachers frequently have to attend continuing education courses in order to keep up our credentials (we’re professionals, after all!). The theme of most of these classes and seminars is church growth—and how we need more of it. Some expert will share, for example, the “Eight Things Every Church Leader Must Do to Ensure Church Growth.” What they never say, however (and I mean, literally never, ever, ever) is that the number one most important thing that we pastors ought to do to facilitate church growth—not to mention actually getting people saved, not to mention preventing the devil from utterly ruining our ministry and lives—is to spend more time with God in prayer. Keller quotes a 17th-century theologian named John Owen who would rightly perceive the shallowness of our approach to church growth with the following words:

A minister may fill his pews, his communion roll, the mouths of the public, but what that minister is on his knees in secret before God Almighty, that he is and no more.[2]

I feel very convicted. When I preached on the binding of Isaac a few months ago, I shared a personal anecdote in which I said that God showed me that I needed to sacrifice my personal and worldly definition of ministry success on the altar. “Just let me be faithful to God, and let the chips fall where they may.” This faithfulness begins with prayer. When we attempt to make it a priority in our lives, however, we find out something very obvious: Prayer is hard. This is as it should be. Keller writes:

I can think of nothing great that is also easy. Prayer must be, then, one of the hardest things in the world. To admit that prayer is very hard, however, can be encouraging. If you struggle greatly in this, you are not alone.[3]

But the struggle is worth it, as far as I can tell. Keller admits that he only made prayer a priority relatively late in his life and ministry—some time around the time that he was diagnosed with cancer. He found, like so many of us  pastors, that preaching is easier than praying. He said his wife, Kathy, said something that helped turn him around and motivated him to pray with his wife every evening.

Imagine you were diagnosed with such a lethal condition that the doctor told you that you would die within hours unless you took a particular medicine—a pill every night before going to sleep. Imagine that you were told that you could never miss it or you would die. Would you forget? Would you not get around to it some nights? No—it would be so crucial that you wouldn’t forget, you would never miss. Well, if we don’t pray together to God, we’re not going to make it because of all we are facing. I’m certainly not. We have to pray, we can’t let it just slip our minds.

Prayer is life-saving medicine for the lethal condition of human sin.

1. Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (New York: Dutton, 2014), 23-4.

2. Ibid., 22.

3. Ibid., 24.

UMC’s General Board of Discipleship denies the Second Coming

December 2, 2014

How else can you interpret its “Preaching Notes” on Mark 13:24-37, the gospel lesson for the first Sunday of Advent in Lectionary Year B?

After quoting from the text, the author of the notes (which have no byline) writes:

Perhaps we are accustomed to hearing these words of Jesus preached as a prophesy meant for the distant future, a time when recorded history will cease and the world will come to an end with the judgment of God.

Indeed, we are, and for good reason, since this view represents a consensus of Christian thinking on the topic for the past two millennia. And even if, like N.T. Wright, one embraces an orthodox form of preterism, believing that many of Jesus’ words here refer only to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, one does not deny the Second Coming of Christ at the end of history, followed by resurrection, followed by final judgment, followed by a new heaven-and-earth-made-one.

Like Wright, I believe, along with many evangelicals, that Jesus’ words about “this generation” not passing away “until all these things have taken place” is a reference to the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, which was a cataclysmic event for people who lived through it. I don’t believe, however, that that’s all Jesus is saying in this passage. And neither does the universal church, which places this text in the lectionary for the first Sunday of Advent because it intends to teach us about the Second Coming. Historically, that’s what the first Sunday of Advent is about.

Regardless, the author isn’t representing orthodox preterism. Not with words such as these:

Peter must have mulled Jesus’ words over in his mind a thousand times, weighing every syllable, thinking about what Jesus meant, and wondering if perhaps his teacher might have been mistaken. Finally, it must have occurred to him that Jesus was not mistaken. It was he, Peter, who was mistaken. He had been looking at the clouds in the sky when he should have been looking at the clouds inside himself…

The Son of Man doesn’t come stepping off of a literal cloud in the sky. When he comes and sends out his angels to gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven, where will he find them? Our souls do not blow literally in the winds, the earth has no literal end, and neither does heaven. The souls of men and women are not to be seen with the naked eye, anymore than is heaven.

No. All these things are matters of the spirit, where the present and the past and the future are merged, so that Jesus speaks to us now in exactly the same way he did to James and John and Peter and Andrew long ago on the Mount of Olives.

When does the Son of Man come on the clouds with great power and glory? He comes to us at the same time he came to Peter. He comes after we have suffered great tribulation.

“Looking at the clouds inside himself…” “The earth has no literal end…” “All these things are matters of the spirit…” The Son of Man comes “after we have suffered [personal] tribulation.”

The author seems to believe that because Jesus is employing highly figurative, apocalyptic language here, there is no literal truth about a great tribulation preceding the culmination of history, or final judgment, or even a physical resurrection of the dead, presumably—since all these things are “matters of the spirit,” and Jesus is only interested in our souls and not our bodies.

The author says that Peter himself realized that Jesus wasn’t talking about a Second Coming. How does the author square this view with Peter’s own words about “scoffers” who “will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires”?

They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

One thing the author of these notes would say, alongside so many mainline scholars, is that Peter didn’t write 2 Peter. While I strongly reject with this modernist old saw, let’s say for the sake of argument that it’s true: contrary to the earliest Christians who were in a far better position to know, Peter or a scribe writing under his direction didn’t write this letter.

Do we at least believe that the pseudonymous author was representing the apostle’s viewpoint, which he had learned firsthand from the apostle or someone who knew the apostle well—that this letter was somehow an homage to the apostle and his life’s work? (I think that’s the liberal explanation for what appears to us to be a deeply unethical practice.) Do we at least believe that the author of 2 Peter was writing inspired scripture? If so, why does the pseudonymous author believe that Jesus was talking about a literal Second Coming? Why do we know more today than this inspired author of holy scripture?

Sadly, the author of these notes doesn’t wrestle with any of these questions.

But in a way I’m sympathetic: if the author attended a United Methodist-affiliated seminary like me, he or she wasn’t prepared to ask these kinds of questions. Not when the presumption of that education is that the Bible—far from being infallible or (yeah, right) inerrant—isn’t even an essentially truthful document.

Sermon 11-23-14: “God Loves a Cheerful Giver”

December 1, 2014

During this time of year in which people will go to great lengths to save money, the church asks its members not to save it, but to give more of it away!

I preached this sermon a few days before Thanksgiving, which is the also the kickoff of the now-misnamed Black Friday. During this time of year in which Americans go to great lengths to save money, preachers like me are telling you to give more of it away! Why do we do that? Because giving generously is good for our soul, as Paul makes clear in today’s scripture.

This sermon is, I believe, the best I’ve ever preached on stewardship. I’m especially proud of my Mentos illustration. 🙂

Sermon Text: 2 Corinthians 9:6-14

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

So it’s a fact of life now that for major retail stores like Walmart, Target, and Best Buy, “Black Friday” no longer begins on Friday; it begins on Thanksgiving evening, around 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. I read about a California Best Buy where two women are camping out for Black Friday—already! By the time the doors open on Thanksgiving evening, they’ll have spent 22 days camping out in front of the store. More than a few Twitter commenters have pointed out that if they just got a typical part-time job making minimum wage for those 22 days, instead of sitting there camping out, they would have made about $1,500. Unless they’re planning on saving at least $1,500 on Black Friday door-buster deals, well… it’s obviously not worth it.

For all I know it’s a publicity stunt for which Best Buy is compensating them, but who knows?

What we know for sure is that we Americans will go to great lengths to save money!

And so it is within this cultural context, as we approach the kick-off of this Christmas shopping season, that preachers like me are telling you not to save money, but rather to give money… to the church… and to commit to do so as part of our church’s annual stewardship campaign. Look, as I said last week, I get it… No one, least of all pastors, likes talking about money. I don’t like stepping on toes, and there’s no better way to step on toes and get up in people’s business than by talking about money. I get it! Read the rest of this entry »

“The jihadis can destroy nothing but the body”

December 1, 2014


I’ve preached about Canon Andrew White, the “Vicar of Baghdad,” a couple of times before. His faith, his courage, and his witness are an inspiration. Here, Archbishop Cranmer reflects on the decision by Archbishop Justin Welby, the spiritual leader of the Church of England, to bring White home in the wake of ISIS’s $57 million bounty on his head. Much to digest here, but let’s start with this:

[White] has no fear of ISIS personally, and has said so many times. He knows that at an appointed time he will go to be with the Lord in eternity, and that the jihadis can destroy nothing but his body, which is already ravaged and weary with Multiple Sclerosis. His witness throughout his own suffering has been manifest; his courage consistent; his sacrifice of love profound. His love of Jesus radiates like laser of light in a world of darkness and shadows. “I’ve been shot at and bombed and they’ve tried to blow me up,” he says. “People say, ‘Aren’t you afraid where you are?’ Never, not one day; I love it. I feel really sad that I’m not there now.”