Archive for September, 2015

Sermon 09-20-15: “The Pursuit of Happiness”

September 30, 2015

Fight Songs

Psalm 1 teaches us what we need to be truly happy in life. But it looks nothing like our “American dream”-version of happiness. Indeed, as much as I revere our Founding Fathers, they were wrong: the right to pursue happiness, at least for its own sake, is a dead end street. As C.S. Lewis said, “Aim for heaven, and you’ll get earth thrown in. Aim for earth, and you’ll get neither.” Unfortunately, too many of us have spent far too much time “aiming for earth.” Instead, this psalm tells us, the key to happiness is to fall in love with the Lord. This sermon invites us to do just that.

Sermon Text: Psalm 1:1-6

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

If you were a child of the ’60s or ’70s, you have no doubt seen classic live-action Disney movies such as Herbie the Love Bug, That Darn Cat, and The Shaggy D.A. And if so, you’ll know who actor Dean Jones is. Jones died two weeks ago at 84. When he was at the height of his success in the late-’60s and early-’70s, Jones had more money than he knew what to do with—and spent it on lavish homes, fast Italian sports cars, and exotic vacations. And women. Even though he was married at the time, every night he would have a different Hollywood starlet on his arm—and just as often in his bed.

Actor Dean Jones, who died earlier this month.

Actor Dean Jones, who died earlier this month.

For years, he said, he had deceived himself into believing that the Hollywood lifestyle would satisfy him, but it had only left him depressed and suicidal, especially after his wife finally divorced him and he was estranged from his children. He began to see life as a pointless exercise in futility, to be managed by copious amounts of alcohol and a parade of one-night stands.

Later, after he nearly died in a drunk-driving accident, he cried out to God: “I’ve done everything in this world I thought would make me happy and it doesn’t work. I have everything and I have nothing. I have no choice but to believe [in you, God]. If you don’t exist, then I’m a dead man.” And he surrendered his life to Christ, and he was never the same.

But I like this insight: “I’ve done everything in this world I thought would make me happy and it doesn’t work. I have everything and I have nothing.” You and I probably don’t quite have everything, but, like most Americans, we’re probably a lot closer to “everything” than to “nothing.”

But are we happy? Read the rest of this entry »

“For you will not delight in sacrifice”

September 29, 2015

goldingay_psalmsIn my recent re-reading of Numbers, I noticed something that I had overlooked my entire Christian life: the sacrificial system of ancient Israel never presumed to forgive all sin, only sins of ignorance and uncleanness. As Numbers 15:30 puts it, “But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or foreigner, blasphemes the Lord and must be cut off from the people of Israel.” Defiant, “high-handed,” intentional, or deliberate sin (depending on your translation) isn’t covered by sacrifices, including the sacrifice of the high priest on the Day of Atonement. As the author of Hebrews writes in Hebrews 9:7: “but into the second [room, the Most Holy Place] only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people.”

John Goldingay makes this clear in his commentary on Psalm 51:16-17: “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

Sacrifices can deal with small problems of uncleanness but not serious sin; and sacrifices that express praise and commitment are nonsense when your relationship with God has broken down. When your wife has caught you being unfaithful, a gift of flowers or even a new car is not going to get you anywhere. It’s the same with God. All you can do when you have committed serious sin is cast yourself on God’s grace as someone who is crushed and broken by the price you have paid for your wrongdoing—as the Jerusalem community was in the exile. Then, if God forgives you and answers the prayers that come in the psalm, and does see to the city’s rebuilding, you can recommence your regular life of worship, in which sacrifice has its proper place as an expression of praise and commitment.[1]

Why does this matter? Two reasons: First, it makes better sense of our need for Christ. It’s not as if the old covenant was already sufficient to atone for people’s sins; it was never intended to be. Second, whereas David could only “cast himself on God’s grace,” hoping that the truth about God to which the Old Testament bears witness—that God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness”—would enable him to have a restored relationship, we have the objective certainty that on the cross of God’s Son Jesus, forgiveness for all sin has been made available to all. There’s no hoping, no guesswork.

Again, as Hebrews says, “For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”

What else can we do but praise God when we consider this?

1. John Goldingay, Psalms for Everyone, Part 1 (Louisville: WJK, 2013), 163-4.

Sermon 09-13-15: “When God Seems Far Away”

September 26, 2015

Fight Songs

Psalm 42 is about an experience that all Christians will have during their journey of faith: a spiritual dry spell, when God seems far away. How do we deal with it? This psalm offers guidance. First, recognize that this isn’t necessarily happening because you’ve done something wrong. Second, be honest with God about what you’re feeling. Third, speak truthful words to your soul—encourage yourself with the gospel truth.

Sermon Text: Psalm 42:1-11

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

I was talking to Lisa, my wife, about today’s sermon, and she said, “Are you going to sing this week?” And I’m like, “No. We’ve got talented people like Ryan and Matthew and Haley to do the singing around here.” And she said, “No. In your sermon, I mean.” And I’m like, “Oh, right! Yes, I guess the past few weeks I’ve broken into song—a cappella—in the midst of my sermon. And it’s been the highlight of your week, I’m sure.

So as not to disappoint anyone, I will, in fact, begin this sermon with a song that was a hit a couple of years ago. It goes like this:

Everything is awesome
Everything is cool when you’re part of the team
Everything is awesome
Living our dream

That’s, of course, from The Lego Movie. And it’s ironic because in the movie itself it turns out that everything is most assuredly not awesome, no matter how badly all the Lego people wanted to believe that it was. It’s never the case in the real world that “everything is awesome.” That’s not realistic on this side of eternity. Read the rest of this entry »

Is your Christian faith real, or is it “as it were” or “as if”?

September 25, 2015

When I was preparing my “Disney Summer Drive-In” sermon series both last year and this year I found excellent resources at a “Christianity and popular culture” website called Mockingbird. From there I was introduced to the Mockingbird-affiliated podcast of Paul Zahl, a retired (I think) Episcopal pastor and theologian, and a former dean of a traditionalist-oriented seminary. (As best I can tell, he was on the losing side of his denomination’s culture war and was sent into exile.)

When I heard his podcast, I knew immediately we were simpatico. This happens to me fairly often: I sense that I’m on the same wavelength as a musician, author, filmmaker, pastor, or thinker I admire, and I feel a deep sympathy and connection with him or her. In fact, among my favorite musical artists, this is always the case. They speak my heart’s secret language.

I introduced a friend of mine to this podcast, however, and Zahl did not speak his heart’s language, so be forewarned.

The format of his podcast, called “PZ’s Podcast” (which you can find on iTunes) is unusual: Each begins and ends with a complete song, usually a popular one from the ’60s or ’70s—but, like me, his musical interests are wide-ranging. He’ll connect the song to the theme he’s exploring in that particular episode, which will usually relate to Christianity in some way. In one episode, for example, he connects the ABBA song “Take a Chance on Me” to the risky steps of faith we must take as disciples of Jesus. He also makes frequent references to obscure B-movies and second-tier novels and novelists. Like me, he takes pop culture very seriously.

He’s a great raconteur, like all successful radio or podcast hosts. He speaks quickly, with a stammer, as if his thoughts get away from him quickly, and he’s constantly running to catch up with them. He’s easy to listen to but difficult to transcribe—as I’ve done below.

Still, I hope it’s worth the effort.

In this most recent podcast, he wants to get down to what’s real. Because, in his experience, Christians of all theological stripes often fail to live as if their faith is real. As he says in this excerpt:

Coming from an experience as I think I’ve told you of attending just so many dead, desultory church services in the mainline of late—the Protestant mainline of my own denomination—in which either there’s no religion—it’s all social justice—and the entire purpose of the church as we hear the sermon and the announcements is to be a mission statement for various social concerns… It is assumed that there’s a religious basis for these works of social justice and causes but you never really get into it. Or if you get into it, it’s sort of implicit. There’s a tremendous sense of implicit.

I was hearing someone who was describing… a lovely priest in the Episcopal Church… was describing the nature of baptism and the new birth. And this priest said, “The Holy Spirit descends, as it were, through baptism.” And I was just struck by the expression “as it were.”

Does it or doesn’t it? Does she, does he, does it descend really in such a way that it could be considered a real and empirically verifiable, or ascertainable, or visible, observable experience, or is it as it were? Is it simply a form of words?

And so the character of fakery in the liberal mainstream, it’s a kind of cutting off or cutting short or just sort of assuming that. An ellipsis—that religion is true, but let’s get to the real meat of it: it’s what you do outside of religious concerns which you share with any number of cause-oriented people today in this world. And that strikes me as completely unhelpful to the needy suffering person who’s there to get some kind of stability in a chaotic, suffering, and often very negative world in which he or she is drowning.

And then, on the other hand, you get fakery in the whole world of the evangelicals, which is simply to say, “We talk as if we believe something real is happening. We talk as if it’s the real thing. But then when we actually encounter real life, well, you and I know it has nothing to do with real life, right?” I can talk about the Lord a million times, unless he has to do with something that actually matters, and then it’s a mile away…

He gives the example of one of his parishioners, an evangelical, whose faith was exposed as not real, despite the parishioner’s many words to the contrary. He continues with a recent example from the evangelical world, Billy Graham’s grandson, pastor Tullian Tchividjian, who resigned under pressure from his church after admitting to an affair.

Or the current situation with Tullian Tchividjian. Whatever we think about what Tullian says on Twitter, or what Tullian says on Facebook, or how he’s quoted in interviews today, the appalling, the outrageous compartmentalization of the way it was reported that his parish accepted his confession of wrongdoing! Unbelievable! 

“God,” they’ll say, “he is with you at your deepest, worst distress. You cannot go far… so far from God. The worst you can do, he is still there, he is still… That’s where he is most present. Behold!”

But when you actually get there—when Tullian or anybody actually gets to that dark place? [God] is not there, let me tell you! From the standpoint of the people who are there, they do not see God there. Then the Law comes in, the laws of this world, self-protection, all the various things, and [makes exploding sound].

You sort of want to say to these people, “Then why did you say all that about what you said in those sermons and those talks and your acceptance that this is the great message of grace. Were you kidding? Because the actual way it came out—when push came to shove—is that there was not an iota of that message—not an iota!

So what this says is that it’s totally… it’s not the real thing. It never was the real thing…

Is your faith the real thing? Is mine? And if it is the real thing, why does it often seem as if it isn’t?

This thought creeps into my head when we, as a church—any church in my Baptist and Methodist experience in the Bible Belt of the U.S.—prays.

After all, we pray all the time in church—in worship services, in Sunday school classes, in Bible studies, in youth gatherings, in committee meetings, before every meal. But these prayers—let’s face it—often seem perfunctory. When we pray, do we really believe that God is going to do something in response to our prayers that God wouldn’t otherwise do if we didn’t pray? Or are we merely praying, as Zahl would say, as it were?

For example, for eleven years of ministry I’ve sat through one finance committee meeting after another in which we wring our hands—and I’m speaking of myself here, too—about the financial giving (or lack thereof) on the part of the congregation. “What can we do about it?” “What stewardship plan or program or initiative can we introduce to entice our members to greater faithfulness in this area of their lives?”

And we speak and behave as if the answer lies outside of ourselves: with the church down the street that followed this plan; with an expert who wrote this book; with the pastor who implemented this program.

I’m not against plans and books and programs. But our first priority must be God, right? Do we believe that God will provide for us all the money that we need, or don’t we? Is our faith in God as it were? Does God have so little connection with the “real things” of this world?

If not, why is prayer is often our last resort, after we’ve tried everything else?

Granted, better late than never, but still…

I’ve blogged about this before, but when I was in Kenya, the United Methodist pastors I met and ministered with there didn’t pray like that. They didn’t treat God like that! Watch this video, if you don’t believe me. There’s a holy desperation to their prayers! Perhaps it’s because when you have so little, materially speaking, you can’t afford the illusion of self-sufficiency. They know they can’t succeed or even survive without God, and they pray like it!

I feel like crying when I consider, by contrast, what a phony I often am! Am I the only one?

Recently, before getting on my knees to pray—because as often as I can, I now pray on my knees—I’ve told myself, “It’s time to change the world,” or at least my little corner of the world. I need this reminder—that my prayers will make a difference.

Otherwise, why bother? Otherwise, I’m asking God to do something as it were.

I’m done with those kinds of prayers. I hope!

What about you? When you pray, do you believe that through God’s grace, your prayers make a difference?

Questions pertaining to sex aren’t “core doctrine,” say UMC centrists, therefore…?

September 24, 2015

Centrist United Methodists believe that questions related to same-sex sexual behavior are not important enough to divide over. They want all sides to compromise for the sake of unity.

If I’m reading the signs correctly, however, these Methodists have settled on their best argument for convincing people like me that we’re overreacting: Regardless our personal convictions about the subject, it doesn’t rise to the level of orthodoxy or, as one writer put it this week, “core doctrine,” to which the creeds and ecumenical councils bear witness. Core doctrine relates mostly to the Trinity and the Incarnation. (I blogged about this argument in July, the last time, I think, I addressed anything pertaining to LGBT issues on this blog.)

While the main point of this blog post from “Via Media Methodists” isn’t directly related to this argument, the author, Drew McIntyre, implies that there’s something unseemly in arguing about homosexuality when we have bigger theological fish to fry. As Rev. McIntyre wrote in response to one commenter, Casey:

To answer your question, I would say that my experience with progressives and conservatives, in addition to denominational leaders, is that almost no one wants to actually talk about first things, i.e. doctrine… Progressives generally tell me that doctrine is a distraction and evangelicals regularly tell me that their arguments about sexuality are doctrinal in nature (which I reject). I’m more concerned that we have ordained unitarians collecting salaries in UMC pulpits than anything to do with the discussion about sexuality (where I believe there is room, unlike core doctrine, for compromise), but on that score I am a lone voice crying out in the wilderness.

On an evangelical United Methodist Facebook page, where McIntyre linked to his post, I wrote the following:

If you’ll allow a schismatic, anti-VMM [Via Media Methodist] Methodist like myself to throw a wet blanket on this discussion, I share the concerns of your commenter, Casey, who wonders why biblical arguments over sexuality are “superficial” and somehow less important than “core doctrine.”

It’s almost as if you (and some of your fellow VMM colleagues with whom I’ve disagreed) don’t grasp what conservatives believe is at stake in the argument about sexuality. And don’t misunderstand: I’m happy for you to disagree with my (or our, if I may be so bold) interpretation of scripture.

I’m not asking you to agree, only to understand why we don’t believe compromise is possible on this issue: From our perspective, nothing less than eternity potentially hangs in the balance. I don’t know how else to read and interpret Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5 and 6, for example. The man committing sexual sin (incest in this case) without remorse or repentance is on a path, Paul believes, that leads to hell. So for the sake of the man’s soul, he urges the church to expel him at least in the short run, “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”

Suppose the church at Corinth disobeyed Paul’s words and continued to tolerate the man’s behavior? Would Paul have been O.K. with that? Would he have said, “Sexual sin doesn’t relate to core doctrine, so we can agree to disagree”? It’s incomprehensible, given both the content and tone of his words there.

And I haven’t touched on his direct words about same-sex sexual behavior in chapter 6.

I hope you see the point. If “my side” is right about homosexuality, it can’t be a matter of indifference, or a secondary matter, or something about which we can compromise. The stakes are too high for us.

And you would say, “Yes, but ‘your side’ is wrong.” And I would say, “No, we’re not, and here’s why.” And then we’d both have to do what? Argue the Bible, our ultimate authority on this and any other question pertaining to Christian faith. What’s superficial about that?

Now, you say in response to Casey that we conservatives (along with progressives) just “assert” our vision of biblical interpretation (whatever that means), without arguing it. Speaking for myself I’m happy to argue in depth with anyone about why our particular church doctrine on this issue (such as it is) needs to remain unchanged.

I probably should have put “schismatic” in scare quotes above, although that’s what we traditionalists are often accused of being. It’s a strange schismatic who simply wants to preserve church doctrine!

To my comment, however, McIntyre reiterated his objection that core doctrine is defined by

the creeds and ecumenical councils (so, in particular, the Trinity and Incarnation). I believe these are definitive for Christian self-understanding in a unique way. Where the conservatives in our church lose me because of inconsistency is that they have never, to my knowledge, threatened schism over rampant divorce among UMC clergy and laity alike. Stand on the Bible if you like, but if you want to be a traditionalist about sex and relationships, at least be consistent. At least Rome and the Orthodox include their opposition to SSM within a coherent sexual ethic that takes divorce seriously and values celibacy.

In the first paragraph of my response below, I attempt to show that the argument about divorce is a red herring: good arguments don’t depend on the perceived consistency of the person making them. Then I argue that issues pertaining to divorce and remarriage aren’t in the same category as homosexual practice, anyway.

First, two wrongs don’t make a right, as you know. Even if we’re hypocrites, it doesn’t mean we’re wrong. I could be a hypocrite on marriage and divorce and yet everything I say above (and much more besides) about same-sex sexual behavior could be true. A good argument doesn’t depend on the virtue or consistency of the person making it. That’s the beauty of logic and reason.

Second, and more importantly, you know as well as I do that the New Testament, including Jesus’ own words, permits divorce (and most of us would say remarriage) in at least some cases. (Even the Catholics and Orthodox recognize this, however they define it.) And I’m unaware of Protestants arguing that even remarriage after an illicit divorce constitutes a state of continual sinning (every time, for instance, the couple has sex). Even remarriage after illicit divorce is still marriage, as Jesus himself implicitly acknowledges in his conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4. And marriage is good.

Regardless, both of us agree that God’s grace abounds even in tragic situations in which marriages fall apart. But please notice: contrary to what progressives are saying about homosexual practice, none of us Methodists is saying that divorce is good, that it honors God, that it’s something that God blesses, that it’s something God encourages and wants to see more of! No, we recognize the tragedy of divorce; indeed, I hope, the sinfulness of it (even as we recognize that God’s grace prevails). I do. I preach against divorce. I counsel against divorce in most cases.

Finally, you say that “core doctrine” consists of creeds and ecumenical councils. I know… I’ve read you and your VMM colleagues making this argument many times. I disagree in this sense: We’re Protestants in part because we recognize that no creed or ecumenical council carries the same weight as scripture. We acknowledge creeds and councils only inasmuch as they conform to scripture and express biblical truth. Regardless, they are not our ultimate authority.

So while I share your concern about having “ordained unitarians collecting salaries in UMC pulpits,” we’re not Trinitarians because the Nicene Creed tells us to be: it’s because we believe that God-as-Trinity emerges from our best understanding of scripture, as the council itself recognized. Nicaea was, according to my (Catholic) History of Christian Thought professor, an exegetical debate, centered squarely on scripture, as it should have been.

The knowledge that comes only through love

September 23, 2015

kellerI know I’ve fallen behind on posting sermons here—I promise I’ll fix that problem this week. In the meantime I’m pleased to see that Timothy Keller, my favorite contemporary preacher and Christian author, gets at something in his new book that I preached about in my sermon last Sunday. I was preaching Psalm 1.

Here’s what I said:

Also, notice this verse says that the happy person’s delight is in God’s Word. You can’t fake delight. You know what “delight” is? It’s like falling in love—falling in love—with God, falling in love with Jesus Christ.

I fell in love with my wife, Lisa, when I was in college my first time around. And when I did, my life, my lifestyle, changed drastically! For example, before Lisa, I would hang out with my circle of four or five friends nearly every weekend—I mean, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. This was very important to me. The most important thing in my life, truth be told. And, oh my goodness, when I met and fell in love with Lisa—see you later, friends! Suddenly, I wasn’t hanging out with my friends the way I used to.

I can laugh about it now, but at the time, these friends were mad at me. They were hurt. Because they had no idea what it meant to fall in love with someone. You would do anything for the person you’re in love with. It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you think is important in life, or what your other priorities are—when you fall in love the person you’re in love with moves to the top of the priority list. You need to change careers for the sake of the person you love? Done. You need to move across the country for the sake of the person you love? Done. You need to move to another part of the world for the sake of the person you love? Done. You need to sacrifice your lifelong dreams and plans for the sake of the person you love? Done. And guess what? It’s not even hard to do these things… If you’re truly in love.

Like the old Foreigner song says: [singing] “I would climb any mountain/ Sail across the stormy sea/ If that’s what it takes me, baby/ To show you how much you mean to me.”

If we’re in love with Jesus, that’s what our attitude should be. “What can I do for you today, Lord? I’ll gladly do it.” You want me to go on this mission trip? Done. You want me to step outside my comfort zone and serve you in this church, even though it makes me nervous and scared? Done. You want me to witness to my friends, share the gospel with them, and invite them to church? Done. You want me to tithe—to give ten percent of my income to you through this church, even though I’m worried I won’t make ends meet? Done. You want me to give up these behaviors and habits and trust in you more and more? Done.” These things aren’t hard… not really—not if we’re in love with Jesus.

Of course, if we’re not in love with Jesus, if we don’t delight in God’s Word the way the psalmist says, then doing nearly anything for the Lord can be very difficult. I’m speaking from painful experience, believe me! There have been long stretches of time in my life when, like the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2, I have lost the “love I had at first.”

According to this review, Tim Keller makes a similar point. Using Augustine’s insight about sin as “disordered loves,” he writes the following:

Whatever captures the heart’s trust and love also controls the feelings and behavior. What the heart most wants the mind finds reasonable, the emotions find valuable, and the will finds doable… Your loves show what you actually believe in, not what you say you do. People therefore, change not by merely changing their thinking but change what they love most. Such a shift requires nothing less than changing your thinking, but it entails much more.

Keller goes on to say that there are things that Christians know, intellectually, that they don’t really know—because it hasn’t penetrated their hearts and reordered their loves. As I said in my sermon, when we fall in love with someone, that person moves to the top of our priority list. When that happens, we find it relatively easy to change.

If we find change hard, we should ask ourselves: who or what are we “in love” with?

The date of the book of Daniel

September 21, 2015

against_the_flowOne of the many things that one is taught in mainline Protestant seminary—without any pushback from students in my experience, no doubt because many are too afraid to speak up—is that the historical dating of nearly every book in the Bible is later than the tradition dates them: the four gospels, for example, must have been later than A.D. 70 because Jesus couldn’t have actually predicted with such accuracy the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple.

And herein lies the problem: the reason Bible scholars doubt the traditional dates is not because historical evidence points in that direction; it’s because they share the naturalistic Enlightenment assumption that our universe is a closed system in which God, even among scholars who believe he exists, can’t or doesn’t reveal the future to biblical writers. So if the assumed biblical author says something that he wouldn’t know based on this naturalistic presupposition, then he must have written after the events described. This is especially true when it comes to the book of Daniel, which by tradition was written during Daniel’s time, in the sixth century B.C.

Yet because the book predicts with startling accuracy the rise of Alexander the Great and one of his successors, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, modern scholars say that the book must have been written in the second century B.C. Consult any commentary from a mainline Protestant publishing house, including the UMC’s Abingdon, and you’ll see this date recorded matter-of-factly.

In his new commentary on Daniel, Against the Flow, Oxford University mathematician and Christian apologist John Lennox rejects this later date. By all means, Daniel does predict Antiochus IV Epiphanes. How surprising is this? On the one hand, he says, even in modernity we marvel at the prescience of books such as Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Toffler’s Future Shock, without wondering if they were divinely inspired. On the other hand, do we believe in divine revelation and inspiration of scripture or don’t we?

Some scholars argue that there was absolutely no way the author of the book of Daniel could have known such twists and turns of historical detail unless he had lived under the events he records. Therefore the book must have been written—or completed—no earlier than the second century BC. The detail given in the text is just not the kind of information that he could have guessed, however brilliant he was. And, as these scholars deny revelation, there was no other possible source of information. They do not believe that any source of knowledge exists that could accurately supply details of the course of world events in advance…[1]

But of course, this modern objection to the traditional dating of Daniel—that divine revelation doesn’t happen—is ironic because this is precisely the issue that Daniel addresses head on in Chapter 2, in relation to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream: The sorcerers in the king’s court, you’ll recall, believe it’s impossible to interpret a dream whose contents haven’t been revealed to them by the dreamer himself; they need the king to describe the dream first.

But Nebuchadnezzar tests them: if they have the supernatural power they claim to have, they should be able to know his dream without his telling them about it.

Daniel, by contrast, does have supernatural power: God reveals to him the king’s dream, which he proceeds to interpret.

Another good reason to believe in the earlier date of Daniel, however, doesn’t depend on faith in God: We know from the recent historical discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls that the Essenes at Qumran regarded Daniel as canonical scripture. This community dates to 100 B.C. It’s inconceivable that these scrupulously pious Jews would have so regarded Daniel had it been written only about 50 years earlier!

1. John Lennox, Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism (Oxford: Monarch, 2015), 89-90.

Billy Graham on Vinyl, Part 11: “Man in the 5th Dimension”

September 17, 2015


In honor of Billy Graham, a hero of mine, I’m digitizing some of his sermons from long out-of-print records and making them available as MP3s. This sermon is found on an LP called Billy Graham Presents from his World’s Fair Pavilion “Man in the 5th Dimension” from 1964 (RCA Camden, CAL-813).

[Right-click here to download an MP3 file.]


As you can tell form the title, this record is unlike all the previous ones in this series, which capture sermons and music from various Crusades. This is a soundtrack recording of the 28-minute film presentation that Rev. Graham’s organization made at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.

Click to expand.

Click to expand.

The film is a beautiful apologetic for Christianity. As you can hear from the audio, Graham begins by discussing the scientific progress we’ve made in uncovering some of the mysteries of the universe. Nature bears witness to God’s handiwork, Graham says, and there’s no conflict between science and faith:

The Bible says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The Bible never tries to prove the existence of God. It assumes it. The problem is, too often man tries to subject God to the analysis of the laboratory. But we cannot put God in a test tube and say, “Here is God,” anymore than you can put a mother’s love in a test tube and say, “This is a mother’s love.”

Of course, no amount of scientific progress can solve humanity’s main problem: the sin which alienates us from God. Graham goes on to lay out biblical history, beginning in the Garden of Eden and continuing through the letters of Paul and the promise of Jesus’ Second Coming.

He goes on to discuss great Christian thinkers through the ages from Augustine to Pascal to Tolstoy to some of America’s founders and leaders. He then asks well-credentialed men in fields of science, business, and medicine to offer their witness for Christ.

IMG_5249As usual, he offers an invitation to accept Christ at the end of the film, and he does so with great care. He includes the following words:

Jesus said, “Except you be converted and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” You must come to Christ with the trust and simplicity of a child. First, you must be willing to repent of sin. Repentance means you change you mind about God and your relationship to him. Repentance involves a willingness to change your whole pattern of living.

Notice I said a willingness. You may not have the strength or the ability to repent. But if you’re willing, God will help you to repent.

Second, you must turn to Christ by simple faith and accept him as Lord and Savior. Notice again I said by faith. If you wait until you can understand it all, you will never come. It must be a step of faith.

It’s like receiving a gift: the gift of pardon for the past and a new life for the future. Many of you have come with an emptiness and a restlessness in your heart and soul. Intellectually, some of you are not certain about the purpose and meaning of life. You’ve never really committed yourself to any great cause or purpose. You long to have something to believe in—a flag to follow and a song to sing.

Why not commit your life to Jesus Christ and let his love and authority dominate your life?

Others of you have been suffering from a sense of guilt. You would like to wake up tomorrow morning with a sense of forgiveness—to know that all the failure and sin of the past is completely gone; to have an exhilaration that only God can give to a person.

This tremendous change in your life could take place right here and now.

Our commitment to Christ is only a first step. But it’s a necessary step if you’re going to enter the kingdom of God. You could make this commitment at this moment. I’m asking you to do it now. Respond to that inner voice of the Holy Spirit that is saying, “You need God.” This is your moment, your moment of decision, the most important decision of your life. Let this be the beginning of your new life in the fifth dimension—the dimension of the Spirit.


To listen to Part 10 in this series, with links to earlier sermons in the series, click here.

“Why are you cast down, O my soul?”

September 16, 2015
Neko, on a leash, where she belongs!

Neko, on a leash, where she belongs!

On Monday morning of this week, I was savoring my day off, which included a trip to my favorite used record store in Atlanta. As I was getting in my car to leave, my dog, Neko, ran past. Since she’s not allowed outside of the house or the backyard fence without a leash, I was alarmed. How did she get out? The gate to the backyard was closed.

I surveyed the chainlink fence. Sure enough, there was a gaping hole where a large tree had fallen. Among other things, a part of the trunk needed to be removed in order to repair the section of the fence that had collapsed.

So I needed a chainsaw. Only I don’t own a chainsaw. And I’ve never operated a chainsaw.

And suddenly I’m in a dark, familiar place: I’m cursing myself—literally cursing—because I perceive that I’m missing some bit of genetic code that most men seem to possess: that part that enables them to be handy with tools. I have no aptitude for them. I have little interest in them. Repairing fences and sawing logs is something that someone like me has to pay someone to do. Which only makes matters worse, because then I tell myself that I’m about as good at making money as I am at working with tools! Why am I like this? Where did I go wrong?

I feel as if I’m not equipped to be a proper man!

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I’m right to feel this way; only that in these moments this is how I feel.

Coincidentally, in my sermon last Sunday on Psalm 42, I talked about the importance of healthy “self-talk,” in reference to the distraught psalmist, who literally talks to his soul, “Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you in turmoil within me?” I used as a counterexample something Donald Miller said about himself in Blue Like Jazz: that he talked to his own soul in a way that he would never talk to his worst enemy, much less a loving neighbor.

So here I was, one day later, doing the same thing—with so much anger toward myself. And it’s nothing new. Like I said, it’s a familiar place for me.

It is helpful, as I’m sure both Donald Miller and the psalmist would agree, to try to understand why we speak to our souls this way. “Why are you cast down,” the psalmist asks. Why?

Here’s what I know for sure, after years of working on the answer: It’s not only anger at myself; it’s guilt. In fact, it’s mostly guilt. Some part of me, you see, believes that I wasn’t a good son to my father.

My dad, after all, was not only handy with tools—he had been a mechanic in the Air Force—he was also a successful businessman and entrepreneur. If only I had spent more time with him, if only I had shared his interests, if I only had been more like him, I think, instead of constantly defying and disappointing him, I wouldn’t be this way! And I would have been the son that he wanted.

I would have been the son that he wanted. 

So the fact that I feel helpless when a tree falls and breaks my fence is a reminder of this psychic wound that I carry around—which goes back to my childhood. “The child is the father of the man,” indeed.

But healing is possible, I promise! What happened Monday happens far less often than it used to. Thank God! And I mean that quite literally. God is healing me, slowly but surely.

Church Council Homily: “Naming the Name”

September 15, 2015

I delivered this homily before Church Council on September 15, 2015.

Homily Text: Luke 4:16-21

When I was 13 years old, a classmate of mine named Paul was distributing a hand-drawn picture of the inside of a cable box. You remember the cable box, right? If you had cable back then, you only had one choice, so everyone had the same cable box from the same cable company. And this drawing that made its way around the school illustrated the way in which you could twist a particular chip inside the cable box in a certain way, and if you did it correctly, suddenly you would get every single channel that the cable company offered—including all the pay channels like HBO, Showtime, and some others I won’t mention!

I’m not proud of what I’m about to say, but my older sister Susan and I opened the cable box and followed my friend’s drawing and instructions, and, voila!, it worked! Suddenly we had all the channels! So even then, I was showing potential as a future electrical engineer!

Well, our adventure in stealing cable lasted exactly one evening before my parents uncovered what we had done. To make a long story short, they wanted us to put it back the way it was. And we did. Or we tried. Turns out we broke the little prongs on the chip, which meant that we went from getting all the cable channels to getting none of the channels.

So the cable guy was called out. And I was worried because there were stories in the news about how illegal it was to tamper with one’s cable box, and I didn’t want my mom or dad to go to jail. So I was looking at this little monthly magazine that came from the cable company. And there was a blurb inside about how—if you call the cable company this month and report that you’ve tampered with your cable box, you will receive amnesty. And I’m like, “What is that? That sounds bad. So now I’m sure that my mom and dad are going to jail!” But I looked up the word in the dictionary, and it sounded like “amnesty” was a good thing—it meant they’d replace the box no questions asked, so long we called this month.

Whew! Off the hook! The guilt of my crime was removed! I was declared “not guilty.” I received grace. This magazine was declaring the “month of the cable company’s favor,” and I was the beneficiary, and I was so relieved! Presumably, if we had waited until next month—somebody in my family would be going to the slammer! That’s what was going through my 13-year-old brain.

I share this to give you a sense of Jesus’ startling announcement at the very beginning of his public ministry: God the Father had sent Jesus Christ the Son to “declare the year of the Lord’s favor.” Which was another way of saying that Jesus came to initiate a period of grace, during which people, by placing their faith in Christ, would receive mercy and forgiveness of sin, salvation and eternal life! Regardless what sins they had committed in their past. This was the “year of the Lord’s favor.”

And this is the period in which we’re living right now. And remember: Now that Christ has been resurrected, now that he’s ascended to the right hand of the Father, we the church are his body on earth until he comes again. Remember what Jesus said: “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” And he also said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.”

So this mission statement that Jesus announced in Nazareth during his first public sermon is one that we the church are to continue in his absence. And of course he’s not really absent at all, because he makes himself present through the power of the Holy Spirit. And we won’t just continue Christ’s ministry, we’ll expand it, because together, Jesus says, we can accomplish even more than Jesus could accomplish if he had remained on earth and not ascended to the Father.

So, this mission that Jesus announces, Hampton United Methodist Church, is our mission.

Now, churches tend to make one of two mistakes when it comes to these verses: Some churches “spiritualize” these verses completely, such that blindness is only spiritual blindness, bondage is only spiritual bondage, poverty is only spiritual poverty. And they think that by doing so, they’re off the hook when it comes to alleviating the suffering of people in the world.

But I don’t think United Methodist churches tend to make that mistake. They tend to make the other mistake: of interpreting Jesus’ words as being only about the very real physical and economic hardships that people in this fallen world face. And our job as Christians is to alleviate those “real-world” problems, while forgetting about or underemphasizing the spiritual part of Jesus’ mission statement.

As Methodist evangelists Eddie Fox and George Morris point out in their book Faith-Sharing:

The United Methodist Church shows tremendous proficiency and commitment when it comes to doing the deed of the gospel. We do the compassionate deed from the best of motives, and we do that deed with skill and commitment. However, we are reluctant to name the Name in whom we do the deed.

We are reluctant to name the Name in whom we do the deed.

That convicts me. How about you?

We must name the Name of the one in whom we do the deed!

A friend pointed me to a YouTube video of an interview with singer David Cassidy that took place this week on British television. It embarrasses my family how much I adore those Partridge Family records that he recorded with the greatest West Coast musicians back in the early-’70s. So it breaks my heart to say that in this now infamous interview Cassidy appeared to be drunk and in no condition for a television appearance—he’s famously struggled with alcoholism for many years, and it’s heartbreaking to see him like this. He’s also going through a divorce. And he just filed for bankruptcy.

The point is, Cassidy is a man who had everything! Even long after his teen idol days were far behind him, he was still living very comfortably with every possible physical need met and creature comfort provided for. But guess what? It wasn’t enough! He still needs his blind eyes to see… He still need to be released from the addictions which hold him captive… he still needs to be set free! He still needs to hear that this is the year of the Lord’s favor! In other words, he still needs Jesus! And we all do! We’re no different from David Cassidy in this regard, even if our own sins are less public, less conspicuous, less obviously self-destructive. We all need Jesus!

By contrast, think of those 21 Egyptian Christians who were beheaded by ISIS terrorists on a beach in Libya earlier this year. They were poor by our standards, yet they were rich in faith; they were literally prisoners, yet Christ had made them free; they were blindfolded as their captors led them to their place of execution, yet they saw the Lord clearly as they shouted, “Lord Jesus Christ!” moments before death.

You can’t die a death like that unless your life has been transformed by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ! That’s what our world needs more than anything!

Church, this is our mission: We are anointed by the Holy Spirit to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind; to set at liberty those who are oppressed; and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor—while we still can… for this year of the Lord’s favor won’t last forever. Christ will return like a thief in the night. And when he does, God’s judgment and wrath will follow for those who haven’t trusted in the Lord for salvation.

So our mission couldn’t be more urgent!