Archive for March, 2016

Sermon 03-27-16: “My Father and Your Father”

March 31, 2016

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As I say in this sermon, I have a passion for convincing people that the resurrection of Jesus Christ really happened. But the more urgent need in our church, in our community, and in our culture is this: To convince people who say they believe the resurrection really happened to live as if they believe it really happened! Because if the resurrection happened, then that changes everything!

Sermon Text: John 20:1-18

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

Yesterday I ran a race—a 5K—at my son Ian’s elementary school. It was a fundraiser for the school. Many people ran, including some very fast runners. I did not expect to win—not at all. But I also didn’t expect to get smoked by my son Townshend. The last time I ran a 5K with him, he beat me by a little—and I was still dealing with a heel injury at the time, so I could have chalked it up to that. Besides, the time before that when we ran a 5K, I beat him by a lot.

Yesterday, however, he beat me by a lot. And I thought I was in pretty good shape this time! So I had no excuses. I kept up with him for a little while, but… pretty soon he raced on ahead. So as much as it wounds my pride to say it, I think we have crossed the Rubicon; I will never again be as fast as Townshend.

Sad, isn’t it? No, not really. It shouldn’t be. He’s young! In his prime! Of course he beat me!

Today’s scripture describes something of a footrace, this one between Peter and John, called here the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” the author of John’s gospel. And it sounds like their race ended in a similar sort of way. And I think that John beat Peter to Jesus’ tomb for the same reason that Townshend be me. Because we know that John is a lot younger than Peter.

But the main reason I want to draw your attention to these verses—verses 3 through 10—is I want you to notice how oddly detailed… and specific they are. Why does it matter who got to the tomb first, or what order they went in? Read the rest of this entry »

What is going on with Jesus’ grave-clothes in John 20?

March 30, 2016
Here's an actual tomb with a rolling stone next to the entrance. I took this photo on the side of a highway in Galilee in 2012.

Here’s an actual tomb with a rolling stone next to the entrance. I took this photo on the side of a highway in Galilee in 2012.

As I said in my sermon on Sunday, John 20:1-18 sounds like authentic eyewitness testimony. (Keep in mind: critical scholars often speak as if the author of the Fourth Gospel, who isn’t John, they insist, has little interest in historical truth.) This scripture includes oddly specific details, like the footrace between John, the “beloved disciple,” and Peter, for instance, which serve no purpose other than to describe what happened as accurately as possible.

The details about the order in which the two disciples enter the tomb and see the grave-clothes strike me this way, too.

In fact, I read something last week about these grave-clothes that I had never considered before. Don Carson puts it like this in his commentary:

The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Clearly, John perceives these details to be important, but their exact meaning is disputed. Some have thought that the burial cloth still retained the shape of Jesus’ head, and was separated from the strips of linen by a distance equivalent to the length of Jesus’ neck. Others have suggested that owing to the mix of spices separating the layers, even the strips of linen retained the shape they had when Jesus’ body filled them out. Both of these suggestions say more than the text requires. What seems clearest is the contrast with the resurrection of Lazarus (11:44). Lazarus came from the tomb wearing his grave-clothes, the additional burial cloth still wrapped around his head. Jesus’ resurrection body apparently passed through his grave-clothes, spices and all, in much the same way that he later appeared in a locked room (vv. 19, 26).[1]

Jesus passed through the grave-clothes! That makes perfect sense! John would have remembered Lazarus staggering out of the tomb, struggling to remove his linen cloths—and only able to with help. Jesus, by contrast, who has conquered death in a way that Lazarus didn’t (he lived only to die again some day), can miraculously leave them behind.

At least a few scholars I read last week, along with preacher John Piper, all endorse this idea.

As excited as I was to consider this, the study notes in the ESV Study Bible shot it down:

Though it is sometimes suggested otherwise, nothing in the text indicates that Jesus’ body passed through the cloths or that the cloths were lying in the shape of Jesus’ body. The NT elsewhere affirms the real physical materiality of Jesus’ resurrection body (see Matt. 28:9Luke 24:30, 39, 42John 20:17, 20, 27Acts 10:41). Most likely Jesus unwrapped these cloths from his body when he awakened from death and left them behind.

I disagree: First, Jesus’ “real physical materiality” isn’t in question here. Jesus is physical, but he’s more than physical as we understand it. That’s why, as Carson says, Jesus can seemingly walk through locked doors in John 20 and—I would add—vanish from sight, as in the Emmaus story in Luke 24.

Also, the idea that Jesus would miraculously pass through the cloths makes better sense of the fact that John comes to faith, not after seeing that the tomb was empty, but after seeing the grave-clothes inside the empty tomb. Something about what he saw inside was remarkable. If John had merely seen that Jesus had unwrapped the cloths, would it have had the same effect?

1. D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MD: Eerdmans, 1991), 637.

Good Friday Sermon 2016: “I Thirst”

March 26, 2016

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Sermon Text: John 19:16-30

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

The following sermon was preached on Good Friday evening, March 25, 2016, at Hampton United Methodist Church.

A British software developer named David Dixon moved to Brussels ten years ago to work for a financial services company. Like many expatriates in Belgium, Dixon’s loved ones back home wanted to know if he was all right in the wake of what happened last Tuesday. In fact, we have family—Lisa’s sister and her family—who live in Brussels, and I woke up Tuesday morning with a Facebook message from my niece saying that they were O.K. I hadn’t even heard yet that there was a terrorist attack there. But I wasn’t surprised given that just last week, the Belgians arrested one of the masterminds behind the Paris attacks last November.

So… on Tuesday morning, Dixon received a text message from his aunt: “Had he heard about the explosions at the airport in Brussels, and was he safe? Dixon texted her back: He was fine. And I’m sure his aunt and the rest of his family in England were greatly relieved.

Read the rest of this entry »

Blog rewind: “Holy Thursday and Good Friday videos”

March 25, 2016

I originally posted this on March 29, 2013. Very appropriate for today. Enjoy!

Statue of Peter, located outside the house of Caiaphas, depicting his denial of Jesus.

Statue of Peter, located outside the house of Caiaphas, depicting his denial of Jesus. “Non novi illum” means, “I do not know the man.”

The following are videos about Holy Thursday and Good Friday, which I prepared last year for Vinebranch using photos and video from my trip to the Holy Land.

Mark Burnett and Roma Downey have nothing on me! 😉


Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is both “pleasing” and “necessary”

March 24, 2016

Jason Micheli, a United Methodist pastor and blogger with whom I’ve disagreed vigorously over the years on a number of issues, guest-blogged over at Scot McKnight’s blog today on atonement theology. He sees irreconcilable tension between those (many) parts of the Old Testament in which God delights in Israel’s temple sacrifices and those parts, such as Psalm 51 and prophets like Amos, in which he disdains them.

He sees a conflict, for example, between Psalm 50 (pro-sacrifice) and Psalm 51 (anti-sacrifice: “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.”)—as if he doesn’t notice that Psalm 51 itself ends on a pro-sacrifice note: “Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem; then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.”

So, according to the end of Psalm 51, the problem isn’t with sacrifices per se, but sacrifices offered in the wrong spirit—without accompanying repentance. Why is that hard to understand? What am I missing? One important theme of the Sermon on the Mount, after all, is that the condition of our heart matters more than any law-abiding action on our part.

He asks the following rhetorical questions:

Is God’s self-giving in the Son through the Spirit pleasing to the Father, as the poet of Psalm 50 might imagine? Or is the murder of an innocent scapegoat upon a cross but another example of what Amos decries as the status quo’s practice of turning justice into wormwood? Worse, would God look upon us, who turn such an injustice as the crucifixion into a pleasing, even necessary sacrifice, and thunder ‘I hate, I despise, your worship?’

So wait: He thinks God might be unhappy that we’ve turned the cross into “pleasing, even necessary sacrifice”?

As for its being “pleasing,” why does he think the church has called tomorrow’s holiday Good Friday? Christ’s submitting to death on the cross is the most “pleasing” event (from God’s perspective) in human history! As for its necessity, this is one question that has separated progressive Christianity from orthodox Christianity for the past couple hundred years.

Micheli, offering a sop to Christian orthodoxy, concludes with these words:

Is our thinking, I wonder in Holy Week, that Christ’s cross is a necessary sacrifice for sin a ‘kindness’ God permits because, though God hates all devotion devoid of any concern for justice, it’s just this offering, needful or not, that delivers what God truly desires: a broken and contrite heart?

For me, what’s at stake is this: Does the cross of Christ accomplish something objective in reconciling sinners like me to God?

I hope so, because if my atonement depends on me—and my “broken and contrite heart”—I’m doomed!

Sermon 03-20-16: “Your King Is Coming”

March 23, 2016

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In his “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, Jesus announces to the world that he is king. Do we live our lives as if Jesus is king? Or do we live as if God’s kingdom were a democracy, and we get to vote on the question? If the latter, now is the time to repent, while we are still in this “season of mercy.” As I warn in this sermon, while he comes as a merciful king the first time, he comes as a king who judges and punishes the second time.

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

There was a story in the news last week that gave me a chill: A University of Virginia student named Otto Warmbier, who was visiting North Korea as part of some organization, was boarding an airplane back to the U.S. when he was arrested. Allegedly, he stole some kind of propaganda sign from the hotel he was staying in. He confessed to doing it, but for all we know, he did so under duress, at gunpoint. I don’t know if stealing this sign was the moral equivalent of stealing hotel bathroom towels, but it didn’t seem much more significant than that. Yet the North Koreans immediately tried him and sentenced him to 15 years hard labor. Fifteen years!

Otto Warmbier

The story gives me the heebie-jeebies because I can’t help but think, “What if that were me?” Not that I would ever go to North Korea—and there’s a good reason the State Department warns Americans not to go there—and if I went, I hope I wouldn’t steal anything while I was there, but still… Even if Warmbier did it, 15 years in a North Korean concentration camp is a terrible price to pay for such a seemingly small and foolish decision! It’s so unfair!

Read the rest of this entry »

Is the conquest of Canaan only an allegory?

March 22, 2016

In this recent blog post, Roger Olson tackles the age-old question of the Israelite conquest of Canaan in Joshua and Judges, with God’s apparent order for Israelites to “devote to destruction” inhabitants of many Canaanite cities. Olson assumes that God’s order amounted to genocide (I’m not convinced that’s the right word) and poses the question: If God ordered genocide back then, doesn’t that mean he could do so again? And if someone commits genocide today, as happens often enough, unfortunately, and claims that he’s acting under God’s authority, who are we to say otherwise?

It’s a strange question: We can have good reasons to believe that God wouldn’t do so today, and doesn’t do so, even as we believe that he did so long ago, when Israel was a theocracy.

But I wonder if Dr. Olson isn’t underestimating the problem. If he thinks it’s cruel, unmerciful—even wicked—on God’s part to order an Israelite to kill a Canaanite child, what does he think of a God who has the power to prevent the death of a child today yet chooses not to?

No wonder so many mainline Protestant types (not Dr. Olson, who’s evangelical and Baptist) accept some form of process theology or open theism, which says, in so many words, that God is unable to prevent suffering and death, at least to some extent, therefore he’s off the hook for it.

In seminary I wrestled with these ideas, too. But now that I’m older and wiser (which is to say I was really foolish in seminary, not that I’m very wise today), I take little comfort in the idea that God has so little control—not to mention that Bible flatly contradicts it, which matters more than my comfort (to say the least).

Even this morning, in the wake of the Brussels terrorist attacks, I saw a fellow pastor post on social media that “God suffers with us.” For a certain theological camp, in which I believe this pastor resides, that’s about the best anyone can say, I guess: God suffers with us. Even if it’s true (and in the sense that God has compassion for us it certainly is), is that all God does?

“I hate it for you,” he would have God say, “but what can I do? My hands are tied.”

So before Olson throws up his hands and resorts to an allegorical interpretation of the Canaanite conquest, I wish he had at least wrestled with some of the principles at stake in the question: God is the author of life and even death: “just as it is appointed for man to die once” (Hebrews 9:27). Even the death of a child, therefore, happens according to God’s will. This doesn’t mean that death is good, or that it isn’t, as Paul says, the final enemy which the cross and resurrection of God’s Son defeats; it doesn’t mean that God “ordains and renders certain” the death of humanity before he created the world. It does mean that God foresaw death as a necessary consequence of creating this world and decided that a world in which people die—even his only Son Jesus—is preferable to any other world. It also means that God uses death as an instrument of his judgment, even as he has the power to redeem it, which he does all the time.

Indeed, the Bible tells us that the Canaanites were being judged for their sins. (See God’s words to Abraham way back in Genesis 15:13-16.)

One objection here is, “Yes, but what about children? Aren’t they being judged for their parents’ sins?” And the answer is, yes, they are. And this happens all the time, then as now: Take the Exodus story, for instance: Did those Egyptian children in the Passover deserve to die for their parents’ sins? We can all think of instances when children suffer and die because of the sins of their parents—or other adults. Whether God directly causes it or merely allows it to happen, the difference isn’t nearly as great as many people often imagine, as I’ve argued on this blog repeatedly.

Moreover, we all deserve death (Romans 3:23; 6:23). But we can be confident that children who die before they reach an age of moral accountability will be saved. As always, heaven is real, and any discussion of theodicy—whether, in the end, God will see to it that justice will be fully and finally done—must include an afterlife.

And do I need to point out that Good Friday and Easter mean that God loves us too much to let death have the last word?

All that to say, unlike Olson, I believe that the conquest of Canaan is literal history (because the authors of the Bible intend for us to take it that way). Is there something I haven’t considered? Do you agree or disagree? Why?

Holy Week video: “Via Dolorosa”

March 21, 2016

I created the following video a few years ago from my trip to the Holy Land. It traces the likely path that Jesus took from the Antonia Fortress, where Roman soldiers mocked and beat him, to the cross. I showed it yesterday in church.

Sermon 03-13-16: “Do You Want to Be Healed?”

March 18, 2016

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Do we Christians water down Jesus’ hard sayings? After all, in today’s scripture, he tells the man who had been paralyzed for 38, “Sin no more, so that nothing worse will happen to you.” By contrast, don’t we often say, in effect, “There, there… Just do your best. Your problem with sin isn’t so bad”? Well, Jesus wants us to know that our problem with sin is so bad—it’s the worst problem imaginable! And unless or until we come to grips with this fact, we’ll never receive the saving grace that he offers us.

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

Sermon Text: John 5:1-18

Growing up, the basement of our house was the very center of my childhood. The basement was a rec room, or rumpus room, back when those were popular. And in the early-’70s my parents entertained down there—a lot. My parents’ social life revolved around the Shrine Club, and the stereotype of Shriners, let’s face it, is that they liked to party. So my parents threw parties down there for dozens or hundreds at a time. And literally some of my earliest childhood memories involved lying in bed at night listening to this loud rumble of partygoers as they talked and laughed and listened to music and clinked their glasses together—the festive sounds reverberating through my bedroom vent from the basement down below. And of course, since this was the ’70s, cigarette smoke also came through my vent! No one smoked outside then!

At one time or another, the basement included a pinball machine, a dartboard, a pachinko machine—which is a Japanese pinball machine used for gambling—an early Pong-like video game system, a TV, a stereo… But the showpiece of the rec room was trouble—which started with T, which rhymes with P, which stands for pool. Yes, we had a pool table. And when the grown-ups weren’t around, that pool table doubled as a tank, and an airplane, and a spaceship, and battleship, and a fishing boat. We climbed all over that thing. And the cue sticks were swords, spears, bazookas, and fishing poles.

But our favorite game by far, which actually involved using the pool balls, was a game we affectionately called “bloody knuckles.” To play, opponents would stand at opposite ends of the table, and roll the pool balls as fast as possible to the other side of the table. And the object was to smash the fingers of your opponent with these heavy balls. [mimic this action] It probably should have been called bruised knuckles rather than bloody knuckles but still… Bloody knuckles was great fun, until… inevitably, someone—usually my sister, or a friend, or a cousin—started crying… because I was good and ruthless at bloody knuckles. And often that person would go tell my mom… and my mom would walk up the hill in the backyard to get what she called a “hickory stick,” a switch, and then I would be the one who was crying! Read the rest of this entry »

St. Patrick and bad analogies for the Trinity

March 17, 2016

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I’m linking to the following Donall and Conall video from Lutheran Satire. I assume, looking at the St. Patrick icon in the video, that Patrick is responsible for some questionable analogies for the Trinity. Who knows?

Regardless, Patrick authored the following blessing, which we can make our own:

May the Strength of God guide us.
May the Power of God preserve us.
May the Wisdom of God instruct us.
May the Hand of God protect us.
May the Way of God direct us.
May the Shield of God defend us.
May the Angels of God guard us.
– Against the snares of the evil one.

May Christ be with us!
May Christ be before us!
May Christ be in us,
Christ be over all!

May Thy Grace, Lord,
Always be ours,
This day, O Lord, and forevermore. Amen.