Archive for October, 2015

“The only genuine way to relate to the Law is to be utterly condemned by it”

October 23, 2015

This Sunday I’m preaching on Luke 18:9-14, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The villain of the parable, of course, is the Pharisee, who turns up his nose at the pitiable tax collector, saying, “I thank you, God, that I’m not like him,” among other sinners. And we want to throw stones at the Pharisee. How can he be so self-righteous?

Oh, please! I’m just like the Pharisee, with one small exception: As a good Protestant, I believe that everyone, Pharisee and tax collector alike, must be saved by grace alone through faith alone. Once this happens, however—once we are justified and experience new birth through the Spirit—it’s back on the clock for you and me. It’s back to trying harder, to working harder, to proving ourselves to God all over again.

By all means, the balance sheet was zeroed out when we got saved, but every new sin puts us back in the red, and God’s patience is wearing thin. The “clean slate” that we received when we first placed our faith in Jesus is getting filthier by the minute!

We were like this tax collector at one time… But now that we know better, we are without excuse! So thank God we’re not like him anymore!

Am I exaggerating? Barely!

I think all Christians face this temptation to self-righteousness, but I wonder if it isn’t more acute within Wesleyan Christianity: We’re the ones, after all, who place a greater emphasis on sanctification, on the inward change made possible by the Holy Spirit, than other Protestant traditions. We are not monergists, unlike our Calvinist brethren; we are synergists. We believe Christians willfully participate in our sanctification—even though that participation is also only made possible by God’s grace.

My point is, Wesleyan Christianity tends toward the works righteousness of the Pharisee (not that it ought to, or that it needs to, but that it tends to). I think Wesley himself sees this tendency in his commentary on Luke 18:12. Of the Pharisee’s prayer, he writes: “the sum of this plea is, I do no harm: I use all the means of grace: I do all the good I can.”

Did you catch that? If you’re not a Methodist, you probably don’t recognize that Wesley is saying, in so many words, that the Pharisee is following Wesley’s own “General Rules”! 1) Do no harm. 2) Do good. 3) Attend to the ordinances of God (another way of saying “use the means of grace”).

It’s as if Wesley recognized the danger of turning even the General Rules into “the Law”!

In my own case, this self-righteousness doesn’t hold others in contempt so much as it holds myself in contempt—for the reasons I cite above! “What’s my problem? Why aren’t I a better person? Why am I still struggling with sin?” In other words, why am I not keeping the Law successfully?

So the Law ends up condemning me all over again; it’s as if I’m back where I started without Christ! “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

With this in mind, I’m so grateful for the people at Mockingbird. I’ve already sung their praises recently, but their reflections on the classic Lutheran distinction between Law and Gospel is absolutely what I need to hear right now.

Already, I can anticipate the objection: Yes, but the Lutheran tendency is in the opposite direction: toward antinomianism, toward moral laxity, toward “sinning more so that grace may abound.”

I believe that’s true as a tendency. (I’m still a Wesleyan, after all.) But the Mockingbird people are unpersuaded, as they explain here. And I fully affirm their last two points, which self-righteous Methodists like me need to hear:

4. The true antinomian is the one who tries to distort the Law. The one who reads “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48) as “Do your best, that’s all anyone can ask.” Or who read “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor” as “Tithe ten percent” or “Contribute what you reasonably can.” The very people who accuse others of antinomianism are usually the ones who are themselves denigrating the Law. Because if you want measurable spiritual progress or spiritual accomplishment, you’re going to have lower God’s standard quite a bit.

5. The antidote to antinomianism, therefore, is not to sell people on linear, measurable sanctification, but to preach the Law in all its fullness. The condemning voice of conscience should not be smoothed over by developing good habits, but should be echoed in the pulpit and taken to its extreme, as Christ does in Matthew 5. The only genuine way to relate to the Law is to be utterly condemned by it. Anything less—including using it for exhortation—risks real antinomianism.

Oh, Methodist brothers and sisters: Let yourself be utterly condemned by the Law! Let yourself be utterly condemned by Wesley’s General Rules! Let yourself be utterly condemned by your own pathetic attempts at “measurable spiritual progress”!

And then make your way to the cross of Jesus Christ. Remind yourself that “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” Remind yourself that Christ was perfect on your behalf! Remind yourself that it’s only through his righteousness, and not your own, that you’re saved, and that even sanctification is by grace alone.

Sermon 10-18-15: “The Stressed-Out and the Calm”

October 21, 2015

choosing_sides

Today’s scripture concerns Martha and Mary, whom we meet again in John 11, where Jesus raises their brother Lazarus from the dead. Today’s episode seems very low-key, very mundane in comparison: Jesus isn’t raising someone from the dead or even healing the blind or lame. But he is healing someone—someone who feels overwhelmed and stressed-out. Couldn’t we all use that healing?

Sermon Text: Luke 10:38-42

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

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Last weekend, which was a long holiday weekend, Lisa, Elisa, and Ian went with our German exchange student to Disney World, leaving Townshend and me at home as “bachelors” for the weekend. Monday was my day off. I went for a run early in the morning. I was having lunch with a friend up in Alpharetta and had to leave early to make it. When I returned to the house my landlord and his wife were at my house. I had forgotten that they were coming to paint the outside of the house. No big deal. That’s the great thing about renting, right? Let someone else do the heavy lifting.

So I’m chatting with my landlord when I get back from my run, and I said, “Do you need anything before I leave?” He said, “We’ll just need to come inside and use the bathroom occasionally.” I said, “Absolutely. No problem.”

And then I went inside in a panic: “I’ve got clean up around here! The living room, the kitchen—it’s a disaster area! I can’t let the landlord see the house like this!” Remember: Townshend and I were bachelors last weekend. And we’re slobs! And since I have an appointment on the north side, I don’t have a lot of time to spare! So I’m frantically trying to get the house in order!

So even last week I could identify with Martha in today’s scripture! I was anxious and troubled about many things! Obviously, if Townshend or I were more like Martha, we wouldn’t be in this mess! Because Martha would make sure our house stayed clean!

Lazarus's tomb in Bethany

Lazarus’s tomb in Bethany. (Photo by Brent.)

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“God does not help us face theoretical situations but real ones”

October 20, 2015

ISIS_martyrs

Ever since those Egyptian Christians gave their lives on a beach in Libya in February at the hands of ISIS, for all the world to see, I’ve had questions in the back of my mind: What if I were facing the death penalty because I was a Christian? Would I have the courage to continue to profess my faith knowing that I would be beheaded? Or even if I did continue to profess faith, would I be falling apart on the inside? How would I handle it?

In a way, of course, I’ll find out—we all will. Although it’s unlikely we’ll face violent martyrdom at the hands of enemies, we will still face what the apostle Paul refers to as the “last enemy,” death. When that time comes, will we face it with courage and hope?

Questions such as these even cropped up in the comments section of a post a couple of weeks ago.

against_the_flowIn his most recent book, Against the Flow, which examines the Book of Daniel in light of contemporary concerns, John Lennox also deals with these questions in relation to the courage of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Lennox observes that while God delivered them, he didn’t deliver them from the fiery furnace; God delivered them through it.

This makes all the difference: In other words, God still let the three friends experience the worst suffering—that which came from the dreadful anticipation of their fiery end. Unless I’m badly mistaken—and I wouldn’t want to know for sure—the intense but brief suffering of burning alive could hardly add more than a fraction of the suffering that they had already endured.

Lennox writes:

There is an important matter of principle here. God is a great deliverer—but he will not deliver us from having to make our own decisions. This is not because he is impotent but because he wants us to be strong. The development of our character depends crucially on the fact that we make responsible decisions before God for ourselves. For God to “decide” for us would be to de-humanize us and essentially turn us into amoral robots.

When children are very small, parents often have to decide for them in order to teach them. But it is sad when we see a situation where parents have to decide for grown-up children, since that is often a sign that something has gone wrong in the development of their character.

So there is a sense in which God, precisely because he loves us, will not save us either from the need to make such decisions or from the decisions themselves. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had to make up their own minds as to whether they were going to put God first. That does not mean they had no guidance. Their guidance was all the accumulated experience of God’s trustworthiness up to that fateful moment. They therefore had decided to trust him once more, no matter what it cost. Then God convincingly vindicated them.[1]

Again, my question: Would I have the courage to make the right decision?

But Lennox adds a helpful and comforting insight. On one of his visits to Russia after the Berlin Wall fell, he met with a Christian who spent years in a Siberian labor camp

for the crime of teaching children from the Bible. He described to me that he had seen things that no man should ever have to see. I listened, thinking how little I really knew about life, and wondering how I would have fared under his circumstances. As if he had read my thoughts, he suddenly said: “You couldn’t cope with that, could you?” Embarrassed, I stumbled out something lie: “No, I am sure you are right.” He then grinned and said: “Nor could I! I was a man who fainted at the sight of his own blood, let alone that of others. But what I discovered in the camp was this: God does not help us to face theoretical situations but real ones. Like you I couldn’t imagine how one could cope in the Gulag. But once there I found that God met me, exactly as Jesus had promised his disciples when he was preparing them for victimization and persecution.”[2]

Lennox goes on to quote Matthew 10:17-20, including Jesus’ words, “When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour.”

We can be confident, then, that the Lord will give us a sufficient amount of grace to handle whatever comes our way, whenever it comes our way—and not necessarily a moment before!

1. John C. Lennox, Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism (Oxford: Monarch, 2015), 147.

2. Ibid., 151.

Sermon 10-11-15: “Search Me, O Lord”

October 19, 2015

Fight Songs

One important message of this psalm is that God knows us infinitely better than we know ourselves: every aspect of our past, present, and future; all our secret thoughts and hidden motives. Whether this idea is deeply comforting or deeply frightening to you will determine how we respond this psalm. God’s intimate knowledge of us, after all, is a potential problem: God knows the sin and evil that lives within us. A God who is committed to justice can’t ignore that. When David says, “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God,” where does that leave us? Listen to this sermon and find out.

Sermon Text: Psalm 139:1-24

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

In the whole history of bad ideas, I just read last week about one of the worst: It’s an app for our phones that is a little like Yelp. Yelp lets you review restaurants and other businesses. So before you try a new restaurant, let’s see what Yelp says about it. And that’s wonderful—the more information the better. But this new app, called “Peeple” will let you review—gulp—your fellow human beings. You get to assign other people a rating from one star to five stars and anyone in the world can read it. And anyone in the world can rate you—as a person. I know!

peeple_app_tweet

No good is going to come from this Peeple app—despite what the two women who created it are saying. As someone tweeted: “so #peeple is what happens when two popular mean girls from your high school grow up & decide to make a slam book for the entire world?”

Do any of us want to be scrutinized like that—to be judged like that? We work so hard on social media, after all—to put our best foot forward, to avoid being negatively judged. We’re very selective about the parts of ourselves that we show online. If you don’t believe me, have you ever watched a teenager take a selfie? Or have you ever taken a selfie with a teenager. It takes forever! Because they’re constantly taking and deleting. “No, that’s not good enough.” Taking and deleting, taking and deleting. “Finally, this one is perfect. This is the one I’ll post on Instagram!”

So we live in this age of the selfie. We live in an age that’s obsessed with taking pictures of ourselves—obsessed with superficial images. More than ever, we want people to see us, to notice us, to value us; we want people to like us on Facebook; to swipe right instead of swiping left on Tinder; to tap-tap on our pictures on Instagram.

We desperately want people to know us—or at least to know this very carefully curated image we put forward—we want them to know us without really knowing us. Because we’re desperately afraid that if people knew the real us—the real person underneath the image, the real person underneath the carefully selected selfie, the real person underneath yet another “humble-bragging” post about how wonderful our life is, our spouse is, our family is, our job is—well… if they knew that real person, we’re afraid they wouldn’t love us! Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 10-04-15: “Bless the Lord, O My Soul”

October 19, 2015

Fight Songs

This sermon explores the meaning of praise. It’s as essential to Christian living as cheering is to a football game. Praise is nothing less cheering for God. Can you imagine sitting in the stands, watching your favorite team play, and being unable to cheer? You wouldn’t be able to enjoy the game nearly as much! Is it possible that we’re not as happy in our relationship with God because we’re not praising him as much as we should? This sermon, I hope, gives us reasons to cheer!

Sermon Text: Psalm 103:1-19

[Please note: Inexplicably, my sermon video is not on my iPhone. I have no idea what happened! It was definitely recorded. Sorry!]

The following is my original sermon text.

Did any of you see the YouTube video that went viral a couple of weeks ago of the rat carrying the slice of pizza down the stairs of a the New York City subway? I’ve never thought of a rat as “cute” before. But look at this thing! He comes pretty close to cute. Look how determined he is! That pizza slice is twice the rat’s size! He wants it so badly! But he gives up on the third to last step and scampers away. And I’m like, “Don’t give up, little rat! You’re so close!”

The truth is, the rat probably got scared away because there was this guy who was standing over it with his smartphone, filming it!

I think this is a fitting metaphor for us when it comes the subject of today’s psalm: “Bless the Lord, O my soul,” David says, “and all that is within me, bless his holy name!” To “bless” the Lord means to “praise” the Lord. This is what we gather each week to do here, at Hampton United Methodist. It takes work to wake up early on Sunday morning, which for many of us might be our only day off, our only opportunity to sleep in. When the alarm on our smartphone or clock went off, we had to fight the temptation to hit the “snooze” button or turn it off entirely and go back to sleep. But we fought that temptation and didn’t go back to sleep.

Read the rest of this entry »

Psalm 139: The curse that we deserve fell on Jesus instead

October 14, 2015

psalmsPsalm 139, which I preached on last Sunday, presents a challenge to us Christians because it includes literal cursing—words of imprecation against God’s enemies: “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me!… I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.”

How do we deal with these kinds of verses in the Psalms?

First, we appreciate that this psalm is a prayer. Among other things, psalms such as these teach us that God gives us permission to honestly express our emotions to him. We don’t need to censor ourselves. Why would we even try? As this psalm says, God “knows our thoughts from afar.” I’m sure that psychologists would be the first ones to agree that being honest with our feelings is a necessary step toward healing.

Second, in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for “hatred” (שָׂנֵא, or sane) doesn’t connote quite what we think it does. Nancy deClaissé-Walford, in her commentary, says that this kind of hatred

refers to an emotional reaction of aversion to someone or something. But the aversion does not necessarily invoke a desire for harm to come to the other, but rather a desire to distance oneself from the other. In Prov. 19:7, we read, “If the poor are hated even by their kin, how much more are they shunned by their friends!” Isaac says to Abimelech in Gen. 26:27, “Why have you come to me, seeing that you hate me and have sent me away from you?” In the Old Testament, God “hates” particular actions and behaviors rather than particular people. Moses says to the Israelites in Deut. 16:21-22, “You shall not plant any tree as an Ashram beside the altar that you make for the Lord your God; nor shall you set up a stone pillar—things that the Lord your God hates.” And in the Psalter, the psalm-singers affirm that God hates “evildoers” (Ps. 5:5), “the lover of violence” (11:5), and “wickedness” (45:7).[1]

Be that as it may, the psalm reminds us that there are proper objects for hatred. God’s sending people to hell would certainly be a justifiable act of hatred in this biblical sense (even if, as I’ve argued in the past, it springs from a loving God’s commitment to justice). Hell would be the ultimate instance of God’s “distancing” himself from human beings, for eternity.

Augustine wrote in his commentary on this psalm that we are commanded to love our enemies, but not to love God’s enemies. To be on the safe side, I would assume that none of my enemies are God’s enemies, except for sin and evil in the world and, especially, within myself. So we can rightly internalize the psalm, as many Christian thinkers have suggested, using these words allegorically, to root out evil within us. When we pray, for example, “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!” we are asking God to slay what is wicked within us—those darkened corners of our own hearts that have yet to be redeemed; those things within us that lead us off the straight and narrow way; those thoughts, habits, and practices of ours that lead to death instead of life. And not to mention Satan and his minions. I want God to slay them, too!

But I’m speaking as a comfortable middle-class American whose life has never been directly threatened by physical enemies. The psalmist, David, didn’t have that luxury. And he didn’t intend these words allegorically. Since I’m not a pacifist, I do believe in justifiable violence and warfare. I can easily imagine situations in which we may rightly pray for God to slay the wicked.

Theologian Miroslav Volf can too. He lived through civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Inasmuch as he is a pacifist—and he at least comes close—his pacifism isn’t based on the mistaken belief that God himself is non-violent, or as some modern-day theologians put it, “God is perfect non-coercive love.” No: God judges the world and God takes vengeance. This is the only justifiable basis, he says, for the practice of non-violence.

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.[2]

Finally, I believe the best way for Christians to read psalms such as these is to remind ourselves who we were apart from Christ. David says, “Slay the wicked, O God!”—because they are God’s enemies who deserve death. And I say, by all means! Apart from what Christ accomplished for me through his life, death, and resurrection, I was an enemy of God who deserved death (Romans 5:106:23). Or as I put it in my sermon:

The curse that deserved to fall on us because of our sins—this death penalty that we deserved to pay, this hell that we deserved to suffer—fell instead on Jesus, was paid for instead by Jesus, was suffered instead by Jesus—and Jesus is God, God in the flesh. God loved us too much to let us to suffer death and eternal separation from him without doing something to save us. So God came to us in Jesus and offered the way for us to be rescued—and it’s a free gift, fully paid for by the blood of Jesus. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

And if we understand this, we can make sense of all those psalms in which the psalmist asks for God to vindicate him on the basis of his righteousness. We can read them and say, “I’m not righteous, except that Jesus has given me his righteousness. Praise God! Jesus was righteous on my behalf!” And we can read all these psalms that invite curses on God’s enemies and say, “I was an enemy of God. That curse deserved to fall on me, but God the Son put himself in between me and the curse—and let it fall on him instead. Hallelujah!”

1. Nancy deClaissé-Walford et al., The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 966.

2. Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 304.

“All our hidden motives are like an open book before God”

October 13, 2015

Last Sunday, I preached on Psalm 139. In his short book The Case for the Psalms, N.T. Wright describes the period in his mid-thirties when he was deeply depressed.

All kinds of anxieties and fears, which I had allowed to build up or had kept at bay with hard work and the general busyness of life, suddenly burst over my head, and I found myself sinking. ¶ One of the wise counselors who came to my rescue and helped me to work through old memories and sorrows drew me to Psalm 139. God was involved, says the psalm, from the very beginning of our mysterious conception, and he knows through and through all that has gone into  making us the people we are…

With all our modern knowledge of how human personalities are formed from the first moments in the womb, we still find human character in all its rich variety a deep and unfathomable well. Likewise, the greatest saints and theologians can only gaze in wonder at the thought that when we say the word “God,” we are talking about one who knows us through and through at all those levels and more besides. All our hidden motives and fears are like an open book before him; he knows where they came from, and he understands what they are doing to us and what we are doing with them.[1]

I like this: All our hidden motives and fears are like an open book before him. Do we experience God’s knowledge of us as a source of comfort or fear?

When I first re-read this psalm, on the other side of a crisis in my own life years ago, I found, like Wright, that the psalm’s words were a source of immense comfort. My life had gone off the rails. I felt lost. I felt stuck. I wasn’t depressed so much as deeply, inexplicably angry and wracked with guilt.

What is wrong with me? How did I arrive at this place?

What a relief to be reminded that while I was a complete mystery to myself, I wasn’t a mystery to God. In fact, from my earliest moment of life (indeed, from all eternity), God knew and understood me completely. God foresaw even the crisis that caused myself and others so much pain. It surprised me, but it didn’t surprise him. I was like one of those 120,000 Ninevites, in the Book of Jonah, who “do not know their right hand from their left.” If God took pity on them, surely he can take pity on me!

When I was tempted to wonder if God still loved me, this psalm reassured me: “You know God loved you in the past—he proved his love to you; you experienced it. When he loved you in the past, he did so with full knowledge of your future—including all the ways you’d try to sabotage it by rebelling against God’s love. Therefore, why would God stop loving you now? Nothing you’ve done has come as a surprise to him!”

I have a feeling that the late Keith Green knew how I felt when he wrote these words:

When I hear the praises start
Oh, I want to rain upon you
Blessings that will fill your heart
I see no stain upon you
Because you are my child, and you know me
To me you’re only holy—
Nothing that you’ve done remains
Only what you do for me

1. N.T. Wright, The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential (New York: HarperOne, 2013), 179-182.

Sermon 09-27-15: “Owning Up to Our Sin”

October 8, 2015

Fight Songs

This sermon is all about repentance: what it is; why we need it; how we distinguish it from remorse; and the role in plays in our lives once we’ve become God’s children through faith in Christ.

Sermon Text: Psalm 51:1-19

Audio only this week. Click the playhead below or right-click here to download an MP3.

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Many of you no doubt heard the news last week about Volkswagen, the world’s largest car-maker. It turns out, the company rigged all of its diesel-engine cars with software designed to deceive both consumers and regulators into believing that their cars were “greener,” more fuel-efficient, and better performing than they really were. Basically, there’s a piece of equipment inside the car’s exhaust system that filters out nitrogen oxides, which are bad for the environment. The car’s computer would only turn that system on when the car was being tested for emissions, thereby enabling it to pass inspection. And then the computer would turn the system off again when it wasn’t being tested.

Why not run the filtering system all the time, you may ask? Because it takes energy to operate the system, which means your car burns more gas, which means it’s less fuel efficient than it would be if the system weren’t running. “So what’s the harm,” the engineers and executives must have thought, “if we just turn the system off when no one’s looking. No one will find out.”

But U.S. regulators did find out. And as a result, eleven million cars around the world are being recalled… Untold billions of dollars to fix the problem… Plus the inevitable lawsuits, the squandering of public trust in the company, the loss of market share, the loss of jobs, the anger of the company’s customer base, the tarnishing of the reputation of a once proud car maker. The magnitude of this scandal has never been seen in the auto industry. The CEO, Martin Winterkorn resigned, reluctantly, saying that as the CEO he takes responsibility, because he’s supposed to, but he didn’t know anything about the deception, and he did nothing wrong. Many auto industry observers say that given the top-down management culture at VW, it’s hard to believe he didn’t know—that he would have had to go out of his way not to know… to turn a blind eye.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Lord’s love is your only true home

October 8, 2015
george_bailey

George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is elated to find himself home again.

A few years ago, months after my mom’s death, we sold my mom’s home. It was the house I grew up in. My parents bought it two years before I was born. Just before we closed on it, my friend Andy—my oldest friend who spent many days and nights there with me over the course of our childhood—said that we should go back and spend one more night there. We could bring sleeping bags and set up a TV in the basement rec room along with my old Intellivision video game system (which I still possess). We could pop popcorn, listen to CBS Radio Mystery Theater on a boom box, and play video games all night.

We didn’t do that, of course. We both had too many adult responsibilities to pull it off. But his suggestion filled us both with longing. If only we could go back home.

Timothy Keller understands this longing. In his sermon on Psalm 103, the psalm that I preached this past Sunday, he uses an illustration from It’s a Wonderful Life to make a point about verses 15-16: “The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.”

There is nothing worse—no worse nightmare—than that place in It’s a Wonderful Life, the Frank Capra film, when Jimmy Stewart—remember George Bailey—he’s sent back to Bedford Falls, New York, right? And his place remembers him no more. He’s sent back, and it’s as if he’d never been born. He goes to see his mother. His mother has no idea—“Who are you? Get out before I call the police.” He goes to see his brother. Well, his brother is dead because—remember that? He’s in the cemetery because George wasn’t around to save him. He goes to see his wife—his wife, Mary. Doesn’t know who he is! Goes to his house—his house! His home.

Now what is home? Every other place you fit in. But home is the place that fits you. Home is the place where the chair’s where you want it. A real home is the place where the colors, the architecture, the furniture—everything is where it ought to be. The smells, the fire, the chair by the window. The ultimate home fits you. The ultimate home is everything you want.

And he goes to his ultimate home, the perfect home, and it’s a ruin. And it’s a nightmare. He says it’s a nightmare. Of course it’s a nightmare! He goes back to the place where he grew up. Verse 16: “And his place remembers him no more.” He’s a man without a place. He’s a man without a home. What a nightmare, right? Why?…

Why is our place so important? I don’t know. But the one thing we do know is that this is the human condition… Over and over and over again we go back and we find that our place remembers us no more. No matter how hard we try, houses crumble, we can’t make the mortgage, people break up, people get divorced, children won’t speak to you… that beautiful field you always remembered has a shopping mall now!

Why? What is this getting at? What it’s getting at is, we all need a place, we all need a sense of home, and until, we’re being told, you realize what your heart is really after, you’re going to spend all of your life chasing will-o’-the-wisps. You’re going to spend all of your life working too hard. You’re going to spend all of your life searching for something, and where can you find it?

Take a look at the contrast. It’s amazing. Its place, verse 16, remembers it no more, but… verse 17: What’s the replacement for that? “From everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him.” The Lord’s love is the home. The Lord’s love is the place. The Lord’s love is the only place that when you go there, they have to take you in. The Lord’s love is the only place where the fire never goes out in the fireplace. Jesus Christ says to his disciples, “I go to prepare a place for you.” Where? “In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” The ultimate home your heart is looking for is in there. The ultimate absolute safety you need is in there.

God knows I spent too many years of my life looking for home somewhere else! Don’t make the same mistake.

The following is a song about home from the Kinks’ 1969 masterpiece, Arthur, or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire. Any home we try to make outside of our Father’s home won’t satisfy us.

We’re only free when life isn’t our absolute value

October 6, 2015

against_the_flowIn his commentary on the Book of Daniel, Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism, John Lennox describes Nebuchadnezzar’s anger, in Daniel 3, over Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s unwillingness to bow down and worship the king’s statue:

Nebuchadnezzar had never in his life before encountered such studied defiance. As it began to dawn upon him that there was a very real sense in which he was powerless against these men, his anger knew no bounds. Of course he could kill them, but that was not the point. What he could not do was to force them to bow. Up to now he had thought that human beings would do anything to save their lives. His whole scheme of getting his nobles to bow depended on the assumption that, for each person, life was of absolute value. To his utter amazement he discovered that this was not always the case. Even in his own very administration there were men, men of proven ability and high office, who regarded their lives as of relative value compared with the absolute value of God. Nebuchadnezzar’s reaction was a a fury of impotent frustration.[1]

The most powerful man in the world was powerless over these three men (even before their miraculous rescue), not because he couldn’t kill them, but because he couldn’t use that prospect alone to bend them to his will. I like that! Their lives were only of relative value compared to the absolute value of God.

Following Jesus is about learning to relativize our lives. “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25).

But here’s what bothers me: While we’ll likely never face the kind of life-or-death choice that these three friends faced, we will face daily, hourly, moment-by-moment choices that either prove or disprove our belief in the absolute value we place on God. If we are failing to prove it in the small decisions of our lives, how confident are we that we, like the three friends, would prove it when it comes the ultimate decision—to live or die?

1. John C. Lennox, Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism (Oxford: Monarch, 2015), 144-5.