Archive for March, 2015

Sermon 03-22-15: “King, Crown & Cross, Part 5: Passover Lamb”

March 31, 2015


During his Last Supper, Jesus used the Passover to help communicate the meaning of his death. Apart from Christ’s atoning death, all of us sinners deserve the deadly judgment that came upon the Egyptians—and worse, hell itself. The good news is that God sent his very self—Jesus, God the Son—to be our substitutionary sacrifice—our Passover lamb.

Sermon Text: Mark 14:22-31

[If you want to listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

I was at home last Thursday afternoon when my son Townshend rushed in to tell me that Georgia State was making a game of it against the heavily favored Baylor in the opening round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. How is that possible? A 14-seed versus a three-seed? As you probably heard, Georgia State won the game. They were down by two with seconds left, when R.J. Hunter sank a very long three-pointer to put GSU over the top. A big upset! And the upsets continue. Yesterday, I saw the eight-seed N.C. State defeat number-one seed Villanova.


And this is why we love March Madness—because unexpected, even shocking victories can take place.

In today’s scripture, on this night of Jesus’ arrest by the temple guard, hours before he’s handed over to the Romans for his trial, his beating, his scourging, his mocking, followed by his crucifixion, Jesus is working on the biggest upset victory in history—a victory no one would have predicted. Everyone, including his closest friends and disciples, were caught off guard—first by Good Friday and then, especially, by Easter Sunday.

And in today’s scripture they were caught off guard—shocked, even—by Jesus’ words during this Passover meal, when he held up the bread and said, “This is my body.” And when he held up the wine and said, “This is my blood.” Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 03-15-15: “King, Crown & Cross, Part 4: Anointing”

March 31, 2015


In today’s scripture, Mary does something that disciples then and now struggle to do: She gives Jesus everything—because Jesus is worth everything to her. What can we learn from her example about discipleship? [Please note: the last few minutes of this sermon are cut off. See manuscript for conclusion.]

Sermon text: Mark 14:1-11

[To download an MP3 to listen on the go, right-click here.]

Atlanta-based televangelist Creflo Dollar made the news late last week and lived up to his last name when he made an appeal to his church and supporters to buy him and his ministry a new airplane. Not just any airplane… A Gulfstream G650, which according to the Gulfstream website is the “biggest, fastest, most luxurious, longest range, and most technologically advanced jet—by far”—it says.


Surely it’s one of the most expensive! Rev. Dollar says it will cost the church a cool 60 million dollars!

So… does our church need a private jet? Bob Heath could fly it. Chad Floyd? I’ll run it by the Trustees.

Predictably, since I’m friends with a bunch of pastors on Facebook, they were all linking to the story, talking about, well… how incredibly wasteful, how wrong it is, for a church to spend that kind of money on a luxury jet, of all things… Especially when we have so many who are in such great need. And I don’t disagree—although I’m aware that I’m also a sinner who often fails to be a good steward of money and possessions, too! The only difference is that I fail to be faithful with thousands of dollars rather than tens of millions!

But my point is this: If you and I are shockedbotheredindignant because of what we perceive to be an extravagant waste of money in the case of this televangelist, well… We can at least get an inkling of how these disciples must have felt when they watched this woman break open this expensive alabaster jar of perfume and pour it over Jesus’ head. We know from John’s gospel, chapter 12, that this woman was Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. So I’m going to call her Mary.

Read the rest of this entry »

“Does God Change?”

March 30, 2015

In my previous post, I took issue with any interpretation of the doctrine of God’s immutability that says God can’t or doesn’t respond to us in prayer, that God, in fact, isn’t affected by us in any way, and that God can’t experience emotions—because doing so, say defenders of this extreme view of immutability, would imply change on God’s part.

I’ll forgive the vast majority of my readers who had no idea that some Christians actually believe this, much less represent it as the one and only orthodox position on the subject. When I challenge proponents to explain why they possess such a seemingly unbiblical view, they usually make an appeal to someone else who makes an appeal the Church Fathers. I’m convinced you can make “the Church Fathers” say anything you want to—or Aquinas, or Barth, while we’re at it. “The Church Fathers” include a lot of people who say a lot of things. Even still, the Church Fathers don’t speak the Word of God.

But there I go again, appealing to the Bible! Forgive me for thinking that theology must be rooted in God’s Word, or else theology is wrong.

Nevertheless, here’s a dose of good sense from theologian Roger Olson on the topic:

I don’t remember when it happened, but I remember the shock I felt when I first encountered the idea that God cannot change—as an idea I was supposed to believe as an evangelical Christian. It was probably sometime during seminary, but it may have been before in some college religion class. I’m almost certain I never heard it growing up in my evangelical church—except as an expression of God’s faithfulness to himself and to us (viz., that God cannot become someone other than he is).

I have remained faithful all these years as an evangelical Christian theologian to what I learned in Sunday School and from my pastor and other spiritual mentors of my youth: God is faithful to himself and to us and always keeps his promises and cannot be anything but good, but he is affected by what happens in our world and by our prayers.

I was shocked and dismayed to learn that evangelical theologians, by and large, rejected that simple biblical view of God and replaced it with what I have learned to call the “logic of perfection”—that a perfect being cannot change in any way or even be affected by anything that happens in his creation.

Read the rest of this entry »

Any “doctrine” that denies that God answers prayer is wrong

March 28, 2015

Longtime readers of my blog know that I have disagreed often and loudly with fellow United Methodist pastor Jason Micheli on a variety of issues. As I’ve said before, it’s a credit to his skill as a writer and thinker that he gets under my skin the way he does.

Also to his credit, Rev. Micheli let me write a guest post on his blog last year voicing my disagreement with him.

I believe he’s wrong—and in an important way—in this heartbreaking recent post detailing his treatment for what he calls “stage-serious” cancer. He argues, in so many words—and granted there are many words—that because of his understanding of the doctrine of God’s immutability, God doesn’t actually answer petitionary prayer.

Here is my comment on his blog:

I commented on the Facebook UMC Clergy page to this post, as you know. I’m deeply sorry that you have “stage-serious” cancer. You have the moral high ground in every argument, because, after all, you’re the one who’s going through this trial—not us. Still, you continue to write about controversial ideas, and I’m granting you the dignity of believing that you’re asking for us to engage the argument.

Meanwhile, I have and will continue to pray for you. And when I pray for you, I’m praying with the belief that God will respond to my prayer and intervene to help you in some way, not by my own power but the power of Christ in whose name I pray. It breaks my heart to think that for the sake of a bad theological idea you imagine that God can’t respond to our prayers.

Yes, bad theological idea. I know you disagree… But surely I don’t have to cite to you all the scriptures in the New Testament alone that speak of the power of prayer and God’s desire to condescend to give us what we ask for—words from the lips of Jesus himself!

You said on Facebook that your interpretation of the doctrine of God’s immutability is very scriptural. Really? Only if we anthropomorphize nearly everything that the Bible says about God’s interactions with human beings. For example, God is “slow to anger,” the Bible says repeatedly. Well, no, not really. Because anger, alongside any emotion on God’s part—including compassion—would represent change. Every scripture related to God’s feeling something toward us, therefore, is wrong.

You say that if God actually does respond to our prayers then that would imply change on God’s part. Any change would represent, for you, an imperfection in God—what you (or David B. Hart) would say is “unrealized potential.” I can’t comprehend it. From my perspective, there are morally neutral changes. God can change in ways that don’t impinge on his his character, his loving nature, and his consistency in dealing with us. This is the understanding of God’s immutability that I understand and can reconcile with scripture.

I was put on the spot on Facebook to defend the idea that God really answers prayer—not from the Bible, whose answer is obvious, but from the Church Fathers and the Reformers. It was such a weird challenge that I felt unprepared to answer it. Had I missed something so obvious in seminary? Was it true that the Church Fathers and Reformers, however much they believed in immutability, accepted your understanding of the doctrine such that God doesn’t really answer prayer—doesn’t respond to us in any way?

Obviously they didn’t! At this very moment, I’m reading, for example, Tim Keller’s new book on prayer. Throughout the book, he’s in “conversation” with the works of three thinkers on the subject of prayer—Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. He quotes extensively from all three, all of whom, it’s clear, believed that God actually intervenes in our world to answer prayer. None of them believed that doing so threatened God’s immutability.

So why are they wrong?

“That in God you have all you need”

March 27, 2015

I’m recording this excerpt from Tim Keller’s Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God for my own benefit. Just think: if we could remember that God is all we need before we sit down to pray, wouldn’t that spare us a lot of frustration and disappointment with unanswered prayer?

After all, if God is what we really need—before anything else we might ask for—the good news is that God is what we Christians already have. If we could only believe that God is enough!

At this point we should remember Augustine’s letter to Anicia. There he says, in short, that you should not begin to pray for all you want until you realize that in God you have all you need. That is, unless we know that God is the one thing we truly need, our petitions and supplications may become, simply, forms of worry and lust. We can use prayer as just another way to pursue many things that we want too much. Not only will God not hear such prayers (because we ask for things selfishly to spend on our lusts [James 4:2-3]), but the prayers will not reorient our perspective and give us any relief from the melancholy burden of self-absorption.[†]

Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (New York: Dutton, 2014), 139.

“Reason to Believe,” Week 3: Examining the alternatives

March 27, 2015


Last Sunday evening, I finished my three-part class, “Reason to Believe,” by examining remaining alternative theories that purport to explain the events of Easter Sunday and its aftermath. Last week we discussed the conspiracy theory, the idea that the disciples had conspired to steal the body and convince the world that Jesus had been resurrected. This week, we looked at the following alternatives:

  • Wrong tomb: that the disciples discovered the wrong tomb, which was empty, and believed on that basis that Jesus was resurrected
  • Apparent death or “swoon theory”: that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross but recovered in the tomb
  • Psychological phenomena: that the disciples, grief-stricken and guilty that they had let their teacher die, experienced hallucinations of Jesus, and believed that he had been resurrected; or they were deluded into thinking that Jesus had returned from the dead, perhaps under the influence of Peter’s leadership.
  • Pagan influences: that the disciples had borrowed motifs from pagan religions about dying and rising gods, and applied them to the life and death of Jesus—if Jesus were even an historical person.

You may download an MP3 of this file by right-clicking here.

“Reason to Believe,” Week 1 is here.

“Reason to Believe,” Week 2 is here.

A thought experiment for my progressive clergy friends

March 24, 2015

Yesterday, I commented on this blog post by a progressive United Methodist pastor named Jeremy Smith. He supports changing our church doctrine on sexuality, arguing that it’s only a matter of time before we all realize that the Holy Spirit is revealing to the church that two men or two women having sex with one another is perfectly fine, at least within a re-defined version of marriage. Among other things, here’s what I wrote in my comment:

Here’s a thought experiment: Suppose God wanted to communicate to us that, indeed, the unanimous verdict of two thousand years’ reflection on the subject is right after all, and that God intends sexual activity to be between a man and woman, and only within the bounds of marriage. What else would God need to say? How else could God have said it? What else would the Bible need to say?

It seems to me that your way of interpreting scripture on this subject rules out the possibility of God’s wanting to tell us that.

Predictably, I got no response. As of a few moments ago, I was the only one offering a dissenting point of view.

I’m not surprised. I’ve asked this of my progressive clergy friends and acquaintances who support changing our doctrine, and you could hear crickets chirping. But it seems like a good question to me!

Suppose, just suppose—hypothetically—that God wanted to tell us that homosexual practice were sinful. How else would God need to say it? I’m not asking you to agree that God is telling us this, only that you explain what the Bible would need to say—if it could say anything—for you to believe that God were telling us this.

Honestly… I raised this question during a lengthy comment thread on Facebook recently. Not only did no one rise to the challenge, but a clergy friend—someone whom I genuinely considered a friend as recently as a year ago—un-friended me on Facebook and won’t return my phone calls or messages to talk about it. Yet, we keep hearing about this need for both sides to have further “conversation” around this issue.

Well, I’m offering the opportunity for conversation—even to my former friend (you know who you are). Please feel free to comment.

The gospel in 30 seconds

March 24, 2015


As I discussed last week, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave a remarkable speech on the importance of personal evangelism, not simply for the “professionals” like me, but for everyone. The most recent episode of the podcast Unbelievable? includes the audio of that speech, along with an exclusive interview with Welby.

Here, the host of the show, Justin Brierley, asks Welby to imagine that Brierley were a non-Christian and asked Welby to explain the gospel in 30 seconds: what would he say?

Here the archbishop’s response:

I’d go straight in simple language to John’s gospel, chapter 3, verse 16, and say, ‘There’s a problem with human beings, which is that we don’t know God. In one way or another there’s a barrier between us and God. God has solved the problem, and it’s open to us to take that solution into our lives by opening our lives to his presence. And the Bible says that God so loved the world—because this is about love—that he gave—because it’s him taking the action—his only Son Jesus Christ—he himself—so that all who believe in him—that’s just put the weight of their lives on him—should not perish but have everlasting life. This is about hope. It’s positive. It’s really good news.

Welby is a theologically sophisticated person. Yet, notice how simple this short presentation is. It requires remembering one Bible verse, which we probably already know. Any of us can remember and recite something like this to someone.


The Sinner’s Prayer and its evangelical despisers

March 23, 2015


Here we go again… Several years ago, and not without irony, Katherine Jefferts-Schori, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, criticized the Sinner’s Prayer as a symptom of “that great Western heresy,” our individualistic focus in salvation. This week, Asbury professor J.D. Walt has joined her in the complaint.

To be fair, just because Jefferts-Schori said it doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but given a choice between her and Billy Graham, well… I know whom I’ll trust. 

On the other hand, no one—certainly not Billy Graham—believes that this prayer alone saves anyone. It’s not a magical incantation. But it provides a way for a sinner to express his desire to repent of his sins, to trust in Christ, and receive God’s gift of salvation. Indeed, to put it in biblical terms, it’s a way for that person to do what Paul says we all must do to be saved in Romans 10:9—to confess Christ and believe. There’s nothing at all wrong with that! We don’t have to throw out the Letter to the Romans in order to accommodate the Rich Young Ruler. 

Is the person praying the prayer sincere in his desire to repent and receive Christ? Is the Holy Spirit, in that moment in which he prays the prayer, justifying him and giving him new birth? We can’t know, but it’s certainly possible—often even likely. 

This is why we believe such a prayer represents a beginning. We have to get started somewhere, right? Sometimes, as the example of the thief on the cross demonstrates, getting started is all anyone can do. Fortunately that’s enough.

I posted these words on Facebook, along with this comment:


Sermon 03-08-15: “The King Is Coming”

March 21, 2015


What do you think about the Second Coming? Chances are, you hardly think about it at all. For a variety of reasons, the Second Coming may not seem quite real to us modern Christians, yet as Jesus and the apostles make clear in the New Testament, this doctrine is near the very center of our faith. As I argue in this sermon, the Second Coming should motivate us to live with hope and with urgency. Among other things, it means we have only a limited time to get our lives right with God and introduce others to the life-changing, soul-saving love of God in Jesus Christ.

Sermon Text: Mark 13:24-37

If you want to listen on the go, right-click on this link to download an MP3.

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

I shared my testimony with our youth at our January retreat, and I told them about my very real fear as a 13-year-old that the world was going to come to an end in a nuclear holocaust. Nuclear war was all over the news back then—but also in movies, TV shows, and pop songs. But the event that had the biggest impact on me—the impressionable kid that I was—was a 1983 made-for-TV movie called The Day After, which imagined life in America literally the day after nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

450-Newsweek-1I remember this Newsweek cover. It asks, “How will [this movie] affect children?” Based on my experience it will mess with their heads! On the cover, there’s a still picture from the movie. If you look closely it shows a jogger on the road, just going about his daily routine, when all of a sudden—a brilliant flash of light and then… the end of the world.

The Second Coming of Jesus Christ kind of feels like that, too, doesn’t it?

It probably makes many of us uncomfortable, to say the least—maybe even fearful. Yet, when Paul and Peter and John talk about it in the New Testament, they say, repeatedly, that it’s something we Christians should look forward to with great hope! Because while it means the end of the world as we know it, it also means, for those of us in Christ, life in God’s new world; it means the fulfillment of our deepest desires as we experience God’s love in all its fullness; it means the end of death, and sin, and and suffering. It also means that justice will be fully and finally done. Read the rest of this entry »