Archive for December, 2015

Sermon 12-27-15: “The Word Became Flesh”

December 30, 2015

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The Word became flesh in order to save us from our sins. This sermon explores why our sins are our main problem and how God solves the problem. Along the way, it demonstrates the height, width, and breadth of God’s love for us.

Sermon Text: John 1:1-18

How many of you decorate the outside of your house or yard with Christmas lights?

My family has never been big on decorating outside for Christmas. This year the extent of our decorations consisted of plugging inflatable Mickey and Minnie Mouses on our front porch. Mickey and Minnie are dressed up in matching Santa Claus outfits. They light up at night. Even doing that much was nearly too much trouble for me, because—I don’t know if it was the rain or the wind, but Mickey and Minnie kept falling on their faces. So I frequently had to go out and stand them back up. Too much trouble!

On the other end of the spectrum from me and my family is the family of Tim and Grace Gay, and their children, in LaGrangeville, New York. Last year, the family spent two months building a Christmas lights display at their house that involves—get this—601,736 lights. That’s something like 25 miles of lights. The display spans two acres. The light display is choreographed to 200 holiday songs, and you can tune into an FM frequency on your radio dial to hear it as you drive by. Choreographed lights set to one Coldplay song took 35 hours to program.

Their display last year set the Guinness Record for Most Lights on a Residential Property. But they shouldn’t get too comfortable with their success. They’ve been trading the record back and forth with a family in Australia for the past 15 years. But right now I’m proud to say the record belongs to the USA. Read the rest of this entry »

DeGrasse Tyson tries his hand at theology (again)

December 29, 2015

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A friend linked to this video on Facebook. Here’s what I wrote in the comments section. Thoughts? I could have written much more, but I thought this was a good start. What would you add or subtract from this response? 

A couple of thoughts. First, who cares what Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks about God? He knows as much about theology as I know about astrophysics. He ought to know enough about science, however, to say that the question is beyond the scope of science—by definition. It’s metaphysical, and science is strictly limited to the physical.

On the question of benevolence, however, does he really think there are no signs of it in our world? The very fact that he’s here enjoying life ought to count in favor of benevolence. Or even that we have this wonderfully life-sustaining world, which works out quite well for most people most of the time. And often, when it doesn’t, it’s not because the universe lacks “benevolence.” It’s because human being are foolish.

This is all an interpretation, of course, but the “problem of good” seems like a bigger problem for an atheist than the “problem of evil” is for a believer.

Moreover, even using the word “benevolence” implies that there is such thing as “good” (bene- at the root). Where does the judgment “good” come from? After all, even natural disasters that don’t work out well for human beings often work out quite well for non-humans and the rest of the planet: a forest fire that destroys lives and property will also replenish the ecosystem of a forest; a tsunami that wipes out thousands of humans will be wonderful for marine life. Who’s to say that’s not “good”? (I’m not saying it is good, but from a strictly “scientific” point of view, why should deGrasse Tyson think otherwise?)

Even more importantly, neither deGrasse Tyson nor myself is in a position to say that our world could be better than it is, at least from a strictly physical point of view. The exact same physical forces that produce a sunny and mild spring day also produce (occasionally) tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Maybe it’s not possible to have one without the other. Who knows?

Besides, if the universe were any “better” (from deGrasse Tyson’s point of view), he likely wouldn’t exist. And neither would I. All of us are where we are because we got the universe that we got.

Who am I to complain about that? 😉

Not that you asked for any of this when you posted this! Sorry!

“He will turn to good whatever adversity he sends”

December 28, 2015

I received an embarrassingly inadequate—indeed, spiritually harmful—theological education from the Candler School of Theology. To be fair, I was (as I see now) barely a Christian at the time and thus utterly unprepared to meet the challenge posed by critical scholarship and the liberal mainline. If there were evangelicals among its faculty (and I think they hired one recently), I didn’t know it at the time.

Be that as it may, between Candler’s sixth or seventh helping of “liberation theology,” it apparently didn’t have time to teach classic Reformation-era confessions of faith such as the Heidelberg Catechism.

So, for example, I didn’t know that it included these words in Answer 26:

I trust [God] so much that I do not doubt he will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and he will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this sad world. He is able to do this because he is almighty God; he desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.

In this blog post, Andrew Wilson describes a letter expressing astonishment that Wilson would teach that God ever sends adversity to his children. He says this objection is becoming increasingly commonplace. In my experience, I have to agree. I blogged once about a sermon I read (from a fellow Candler grad, naturally) who said that God “never wants us to suffer. Never!”

When I tried to challenge this idea, politely, I received a pushback that suggested that my opinion on the subject was definitely in the minority, at least when it comes to mainline Protestantism.

Regardless, I like this last paragraph from Wilson’s post:

As I say, the irony of this particular objection is that the love of the Father, which (to be fair) is what the objection is trying to preserve, is often demonstrated most emphatically to us when we are suffering. It is suffering which produces perseverance, and character, and hope, which does not disappoint because the love of God has been shed abroad in our hearts by the Spirit. It is “in all these things” – persecution, danger, nakedness, sword – that we know nothing can separate us from the love of God.  It is through sufferings that our comfort abounds in Christ, and through discipline that we know we are legitimate children of God. And it is God’s ability to turn all things to good, in precisely this context of pain and difficulty, that the Heidelberg Catechism makes central to its statement about God’s loving care for us: “He is able to do this because he is almighty God; he desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.”

Do you find anything objectionable here? I don’t.

God’s word to his children: “It was worth the suffering”

December 28, 2015

I’ll post my full sermon manuscript later, but this excerpt from yesterday’s sermon can serve as a devotional on God’s great love for his adopted sons and daughters. I was preaching on John 1:1-18.

Finally, this passage also speaks of the Word-made-flesh giving us the “right to become children of God”; we are adopted into God’s family as his children.

This really speaks to me because I was adopted. This created some turmoil in my life when I was young. So to make me feel better about the fact that I was different from most of my friends and classmates, my parents used to tell me that, unlike so many other babies, who are simply born into a family—whose parents don’t have a choice and are just sort of stuck with them—I was extra special… Because my parents chose me. They weren’t just stuck with whoever they got; they chose me.

And that sounds great and all, but even as eight- or nine-year-old kid, I didn’t quite believe that, you know—my parents showed up one day at Grady Hospital and the nurses in the maternity ward wheeled out a bunch of babies in bassinets, and my parents said, “We’ll take that one.” Even as a child, I didn’t figure they had much choice in the matter. They would take whoever the adoption agency gave them.

But now that I’ve been a parent for a while, I see the deeper truth in their words: they did choose me. They already had two kids, after all. They were going into this with eyes wide open. They already knew how risky, and difficult, and costly, and worrisome that I or any other child could possibly be; they knew that they would have to sacrifice themselves again and again for the sake of their adopted child; they knew they would have to suffer for this child—for years. So when they adopted me, they willingly chose all of that—whether they chose me personally or not.

Now I know I’m making parenting seem like a terrible ordeal, but not so fast: You see, if you had asked either of my parents before they died, “Was it worth it? Was it worth all the trouble, all the pain, all the worry, all the sacrifice, all the humiliation, all the heartbreak, all the disappointment, all the expense, all the time, all the suffering that Brent caused you in order for your to rescue him and give him a home and give him a family and give him unconditional love? If you asked them that, what would my parents say? They would have been indignant at the question! “Was it worth all the suffering… to adopt Brent, to make him part of our family? Absolutely it was! And we’d suffer it over and over and over again if we had to—for the sake of our love for our son!”

And this is what God’s Word, the Word-become-flesh, is saying to us, his adopted sons and daughters, this morning and for all eternity: Let me prove how much I love you. Let me show you.

Sermon 12-24-15: “Peace among Those with Whom He Is Pleased”

December 25, 2015

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According to the angels in Luke 2, the gospel of Jesus Christ promises peace to those who receive God’s gift of eternal life through Christ. This Christmas Eve sermon explores reasons why we often fail to experience more of this peace right now.

Sermon Text: Luke 2:1-20

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

Talk about having a bad day at work, did you hear about Steve Harvey’s “bad day at work” last Saturday night hosting the Miss Universe pageant? Let me preface this by saying that as someone who makes a living, in part, by standing in front of people talking, I am nothing but sympathetic with Harvey, who is otherwise a very gifted speaker and entertainer. Mistakes happen. But oh my goodness…

In case you didn’t hear, after Harvey announced the second runner-up, Miss USA, it came down to the final two contestants—Miss Colombia and Miss Philippines. And the winner, he said, was Miss Colombia. So the music started playing, the crown was placed on her head, she walked around the stage, waving at the cheering crowd. Then, suddenly, after what seemed like at least two or three minutes, Harvey comes back out, and says he messed up. He read the wrong name… It turns out Miss Colombia was the first runner-up. The true winner, the true Miss Universe, was Miss Philippines. Read the rest of this entry »

“Good News of Great Joy,” Day 26: The Meaning of Christmas Is Easter

December 25, 2015

booklet_coverI recently created a 26-day Advent devotional booklet for my church called “Good News of Great Joy.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and Christmas day. Enjoy!

Scripture: John 1:1-18

In January 2007, a 50-year-old construction worker and Navy veteran from New York named Wesley Autrey was taking his two young daughters home on the subway in Manhattan. While he was standing on the subway platform, a 20-year-old film student suffered a seizure and collapsed onto the tracks in front of a fast approaching train. The student was dazed. He struggled vainly to climb back onto the platform but fell down. That’s when Autrey did something so brave and heroic I can’t comprehend it.

Without having a moment to spare, Autrey leapt onto the tracks as the train neared. There was a trough between the two rails about a foot deep. Autrey pushed the student down into the trough and lay on top of him, holding him down, while five subway cars passed over the both of them, inches above Autrey’s head. Autrey, who was underneath the train, shouted to bystanders that they were O.K., and could someone look after his two daughters until he got out.

Both men were saved. Autrey said afterwards, “I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right.”[1]

All I can say is, I hope Wesley Autrey is around if ever I’m in trouble!

I said a moment ago that I can’t comprehend it, but that’s not quite right: I can comprehend it, but only because I’m a parent. Not that I’ve ever had to put it to the test—and not that I want to—but when my daughter was born I understood for the first time that impulse to sacrifice one’s life for someone else. I remember thinking for the first time, “In the interest of love, I would do anything out of love to protect and save this precious life. I would jump in front of a speeding locomotive to save her. I would push her out of the way of a fast-approaching bus. I would take a bullet for her. Without giving it a second thought!”That’s love, and I fell in it deeply and unshakably and unfailingly when I became a father.

Now consider our heavenly Father’s love for us: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 KJV). The “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” so that God could lay down his life to save us, his children. As my friend Kevin Hargaden, a Presbyterian pastor in Ireland, put it well in a Facebook post one Christmas: “And remember, folks, the real meaning of Christmas is Easter.”

Christmas means that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And the word that God spoke so powerfully through the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of his Son is “I love you.”

Have you experienced God’s love for yourself? You can! 

If you’re ready to receive God’s gift of salvation in Christ, begin by praying this prayer:

Almighty God, I confess to you that I am a sinner in need of your forgiveness. I know that because of my sins I deserve nothing better than death and hell. But I also know that you loved me too much to leave me this way. I am sorry for my sins and with your help I am turning away from them now. I believe that your Son Jesus is Lord. I believe that through Jesus—through his death on the cross and through his resurrection from the dead—you are offering me forgiveness and eternal life. Enable me to receive that gift now. I promise, by your grace and power, to be a faithful follower of Jesus for the rest of my life—in this world and in the world to come. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

If you prayed this prayer, please let me or someone else know. I would love to help you as you begin this journey as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

📲 Here’s a link to the New York Times article.

1. Cara Buckley, “A Man Down, and a Stranger Makes a Choice,” New York Times, 3 January 2007.

“Good News of Great Joy,” Day 25: Risking It All for a Dream

December 24, 2015

booklet_coverI recently created a 26-day Advent devotional booklet for my church called “Good News of Great Joy.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and Christmas day. Enjoy!

Scripture: Matthew 1:18-21

Since I became an adult, I have been afflicted with recurring bad dreams. They’re mostly related to academic insecurities. For example, in one of these dreams, I get a call one day—out of the blue—from the principal of my high school. I’m sure he’s long since retired now—and, besides, my high school is now a middle school.

But in my dream it’s still a high school, and he’s still the principal.

He informs me that there was a mistake in the record-keeping back in 1988 when I graduated, and, as it happens, I’m going to have to go back to high school in order to receive all the necessary credits I need to earn my diploma. And, oh, by the way… If I don’t go back to high school, they’re going to call Georgia Tech and Emory University and tell them to take away the three degrees that I earned between those two schools.

I’m pretty sure my old high school didn’t have the authority to do that, but in my dream it did!

This is hardly a terrifying nightmare, but when I wake up—after I slowly regain my senses—I am so relieved that this was only a dream. And I don’t give it another thought.

In today’s scripture, Mary tells her fiancé Joseph that she’s pregnant. Joseph knows that he’s not the father, and he knows the facts of life. He doesn’t believe Mary’s story about an angel visiting her, God working a miracle within her, and how she’s giving birth to the Messiah. Who would?

So he decides to quietly break off their engagement. Before he can do so, however, an angel visits him and convinces him otherwise—that Mary’s story, as hard as it is to believe, is true.

Except… there’s a little more to it than that. Notice that the angel doesn’t just show up one day out of the blue, nicely backlit with a halo, like Roma Downey in Touched by an Angel. No. The angel comes to Joseph the same way the principal from my old high school comes to me… in a dream, in a crazy, crazy dream.

Yet somehow, Joseph had the faith, the insight, and the wisdom to discern that this wasn’t just another crazy dream like so many others—that the messenger in his dream wasn’t the result of some spicy food he ate the night before but was actually the voice of God, telling him that his new mission—should he choose to accept it—was going to completely turn his life upside down.

What prevented Joseph from waking up from that crazy dream—the way I wake up from my crazy dreams—and thinking, “Whew! It was just a dream!” No one could blame him if he did. His life certainly would have been easier! Instead, he took the risk to believe, which wasn’t easy.

But the truth is, a Christmas kind of faith is never easy.

Has God ever spoken to you in a dream? How do you discern when God is leading you to do something? When in your life have you taken a risky step of faith?

📲 Watch this movie I made about Bethlehem from my trip to the Holy Land.

God often defies our expectations

December 23, 2015

I’m currently reading Köstenberger and Stewart’s book The First Days of Jesus. They make a point about Mary’s song, the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55, and Zechariah’s song, the Benedictus in Luke 1:67-79, that answers a question I’ve had for a while: Why don’t their songs more neatly align with the gospel of Jesus Christ revealed later in the gospels and the New Testament?

In other words, their songs seem more centered on Jewish expectations for a political and military Messiah who will liberate Israel from foreign domination than for a Savior whose atoning death will liberate all who believe in him from their sins and reconcile them with God. (Of course, ultimately, all their messianic expectations will be fulfilled, too, just not in the way that they imagined at the time.)

The authors say that this is as it should be. Why wouldn’t Mary and Zechariah’s expectations be shaped by the expectations of their prevailing culture? They and everyone else would soon learn that Jesus was going to constantly defy people’s expectations of him. Think of Mary and her sons coming to take Jesus home after they think he’s lost his mind. Think of John the Baptist, in prison, sending his disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the promised Messiah. Think of the disciples scattering after Jesus was crucified.

And in the Christmas story, think of Jesus’ humble birth in a manger.

They write:

We will come back to this issue of expectations later, but for now it is worth reflecting on our expectations of God, his character, and his actions. Wrong expectations are a key source of disillusionment and disappointment. A cynical person might argue that we should never expect anything from anyone in order to avoid being let down. Such an approach to people and God, however will surely lead to a bitter and lonely life. We need each other, and we need God. What happens, then, when God fails to meet our expectations or to act in the way that we thought, hoped, and prayed that he would?

In such instances, we need to reevaluate our expectations to make sure they align with the promises of God. God has not promised us that we will be free from all sickness and have lots of money in this lifetime. He has not promised that bad things will not happen to good people. He has not promised that we and our loved ones will never die. In this present age life is fatal; no one gets out alive. He has promised that he will be with us no matter what and that nothing can ever separate us from his love. He has promised that resurrection will triumph over death and that there will be a future day when he will personally wipe every tear from every eye and remove sickness and death from his creation forever. We will not always understand why things happen, but we can trust that God will fulfill his promises. He is faithful.[1]

1. Andreas Köstenberger and Alexander Stewart, The First Days of Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 143.

Sermon 12-20-15: “Reel Christmas Classics, Part 4: A Christmas Carol”

December 23, 2015

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This sermon uses themes from the 1984 George C. Scott adaptation of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” to illustrate Jesus’ Parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14:12-24. It explores the nature of idolatry and how it relates to our lives. And, as always (I hope), it communicates the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

I’ve inserted the videos below in the order in which they were shown last Sunday.

Sermon Text: Luke 14:12-24

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

Last week, Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, announced his decision not to lift the Pete Rose’s permanent ban from the game—a ban put into effect 25 years ago after it became clear that Rose had bet on baseball, both as a manager and player. Although, to be fair, as best anyone can tell he only bet on his team to win, which, if anything, would have given him more incentive to win. Because of this ban, Charlie Hustle, as he was known, the all-time hit leader who sprinted to first base even on walks, who is easily one of the best to ever play the game, and who—from the perspective of a kid growing up in the ’70s and ’80s was never less than a great role-model on the field—this same Pete Rose has been excluded from the Baseball Hall of Fame.

He wants in the hall so badly. No one will invite him. You know why he can’t get in? Not only because of the sins he committed while he was coaching and playing, but also because he’s lied to the baseball commissioner since then—to hide embarrassing details about his sins. No one else ever does that! And because he continues to gamble on baseball in Vegas, where it’s a perfectly legal activity. Not that anyone else does that, either! Read the rest of this entry »

“Good News of Great Joy,” Day 24: How Greed Steals Christmas

December 23, 2015

booklet_coverI recently created a 26-day Advent devotional booklet for my church called “Good News of Great Joy.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and Christmas day. Enjoy!

Scripture: Revelation 3:14-22

In How the Grinch Stole Christmas! you may recall that the Grinch snuck into the town of Whoville on Christmas Eve night and hauled away the toys,  presents, food, and Christmas decorations that belonged to the town’s residents, the “Whos.”

We’re tempted to look down on the Grinch and think, “Shame, shame, shame… How could he imagine that he could steal Christmas by stealing all these things? Things aren’t what Christmas is about.” As the Whos sing, “Christmas is always in our grasp, as long as we have hands to clasp.”

But, if we’re honest with ourselves, we might instead forgive the Grinch for being so confused.

grinch1In his book Christmas Is Not Your Birthday, United Methodist pastor Mike Slaughter points out that while the size of the American family has shrunk over the last 30 years, the size of our houses has increased 42 percent. “We eat out more,” he says, “and spend less time cooking, yet kitchen sizes have doubled.”[1] He quotes an author who says that, for us, shopping is spirituality. We attempt to find meaning and purpose in products we buy. We confuse our real, built-in desire for God our Creator, with a desire for created things—things that can never possibly satisfy our souls. This is the very definition of idolatry.

In Revelation chapter 3, Jesus tells the church at Laodicea, “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” The Laodiceans professed faith in Christ, but they put their trust in money and possessions. Do we ever do that, too?

Good old-fashioned American consumerism, which is a form of greed, has this destructive ability to reduce our Christian faith to nothing but words: we say we believe in Jesus, but our faith is somewhere else.

How does the sin of greed manifest itself in your life? Are you facing the temptation to be greedy during this Christmas season? Take this time to repent of the sin of greed. Pray that the Lord will help you resist this temptation and replace greed with generosity.

📲 Watch a clip of the Grinch discovering the joy of Christmas.

1. Mike Slaughter, Christmas Is Not Your Birthday (Nashville: Abingdon, 2011), 77.