Archive for January, 2017

Sermon 01-01-17: “Living and Dying like Simeon and Anna”

January 9, 2017


Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz has a life motto that is becoming increasingly popular among members of his team: “Audience of One.” It means that Wentz strives to live his life devoted to glorifying and pleasing one person, Jesus Christ our Lord. Easier said than done, I know. But as I discuss in this sermon, Simeon and Anna lived their lives that way. How can we?

Sermon Text: Luke 2:22-38

[Please note: No audio or video due to a malfunction on my iPhone. 😦 ]

If you’re a professional football player, you know about something called a “recovery pool.” After being banged around on a football field for three hours, the “recovery pool” is the ice bath that you soak in after it’s over. It helps to heal all the bumps and bruises a little faster. In late October of this year, the recovery pool at the Philadelphia Eagles’ training facility became the site of a worship service as five players—count ’em, five players—were baptized by the team pastor, tight end Trey Burton. And they were baptized in the icy cold water of the recovery pool as about 15 players looked on.

As much as I dislike the Philadelphia Eagles, I have to admit: God is up to something on that team. This is clear from their many well-attended team Bible studies, to prayer and healing services, to the message that quarterback Carson Wentz and a few other players wear on their cleats: “AO1” with the verse Romans 5:8. Romans 5:8 is classic verse most of us know: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” But the AO1 part… What does that mean?

Carson Wentz says that it stands for his life motto: “Audience of One.” Wentz explained it this way: “It was kind of a motto I picked up early in my career, and I finally put it on my body just to live [with] the Lord as my audience whether it was playing football, going to school, or whatever I’m doing in my life.”

So… even though he plays in front of 70,000 fans every other week in Philadelphia and millions more at home, he’s really playing—and living his life—for One, for the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s the only person he wants to impress. That’s the only person whose approval he needs. That’s the only person whose opinion he cares about.

Like Carson Wentz, I want to live my life for an audience of One. Don’t you? Read the rest of this entry »

The ministry of the law as a “sin-damning institution”

January 9, 2017

brunerI’ve said this before, but Frederick Dale Bruner’s commentary on Matthew, The Christbook, is a masterpiece. In fact, I wanted to preach a new series on the Gospel of Matthew in part because I wanted to explore Bruner’s commentary more deeply. One angle of my new series will be to explore the relationship between God’s law and the gospel. I had an intuition that Bruner could help me with this—and so far so good.

The ministry of the law is being restored to our preaching—not as a people-saving institution but, first of all, as a sin-damning institution. There has been too much “accept ourselves” (or “God-loves-us-as-we-are”)  preaching that ignores the tough notes of God’s law and even of Jesus’ gospel. We need John; we need the law of God. “For through the law,” writes the great preacher of the gospel to the Gentiles, “comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20). Consequently, if Christians, too, are to experience salvation from sin, then we Christians must again and again allow ourselves to be addressed by the stinging indictment of God’s law. This law has the cheek to tell us that we are the enemy, that the enemy is not primarily other people. The law warns us; it condemns both the spiritually serious and the socially sophisticated in the people of God, the religious right and the religious left.[†]

Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 91-2.

Why I’m not Catholic, Part 28

January 5, 2017

I hate to be an ecumenical wet blanket. I promise I’m not anti-Catholic. Even last month, I quoted extensively from the former Pope Benedict XVI’s excellent little book on Christmas, which I’d recommend to anyone. And I celebrate the many points of agreement between orthodox Protestants and Catholics.

Nevertheless, in this, the five-hundredth anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation, I will shed no tears: There were good reasons the Reformation happened, and apart from drastic reform within the Roman church, good reasons that we Protestants still refuse to swim the Tiber. One of them is this New Year’s tweet from Pope Francis:

Catholic apologists tell me that praying to the saints is nothing more than asking your friends—in this case, your friends in heaven—to pray for you. They are “prayer warriors”—if unusually effective ones. Indeed, even the Hail Mary prayer asks her to “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”

Not that this isn’t hard enough to swallow. It asks us to imagine that Mary and the saints wait in heaven at our beck and call, outside of time, endowed with God-like powers of omnipresence and omniscience, ready to hear our prayer and intercede for us. At any one moment, after all, thousands or millions could be praying the Hail Mary. How is she not omnipresent? Otherwise, supplicants are competing with one another to be heard—and, let’s face it, she would likely only hear a tiny fraction of the prayers offered. (Is this the reason people repeat the prayer so many times?)

And she must be able to read our thoughts: I assume a prayer that isn’t verbalized “counts,” for example, if the supplicant is unable to speak. How is that possible apart from omniscience?

I hate to speculate, but what else can I do? I would turn to the New Testament for guidance from Paul and the other apostles, but there’s nothing there. Praying to the saints is an entirely extrabiblical practice.

Regardless, apologists tell us that Catholics are only asking Mary and the saints to intercede on their behalf, nothing more. They don’t believe that the saints have any inherent power to answer any prayer other than the prayer for them to pray for us.

But if that’s true, how do you explain the Pope’s recent tweet? How is it not idolatrous to entrust the future to any creature, rather than to Christ himself? What powers does Mary herself possess to enable peace and mercy to grow?

I like this tweet from Lutheran Satire:

P.S. “Mother of God,” from the Greek theotokos (literally “God-bearer”), was originally a Christological formulation, meant to communicate the full divinity of Christ: When Mary bore Christ, she bore God himself, because Christ was fully God. While I wouldn’t use the term myself, given how it’s prone to misunderstanding, there is nothing unorthodox about referring to Mary that way. Again, it says something about Christ, not Mary.

On Andy Stanley and the Virgin Birth: selling Christianity at the cheapest possible price?

January 4, 2017

In the week after Christmas, while I was enjoying vacation time with my family and mostly away from this blog, another controversy about something Andy Stanley said (see here for an earlier one) erupted, this time over whether or not the Virgin Birth is “essential” for saving faith.

He doesn’t think it is, and many United Methodist clergy colleagues agree. One of them wrote the following on Facebook:

I’ve had this discussion many times. Mark says nothing of it. John seems to know nothing about it. Paul’s letters seem to know nothing about it. Mark and Paul’s letters all predate Matthew and Luke. Matthew and Luke do not tell the same narrative either. To be clear, I do believe Jesus is God incarnate. How it came to be is not clear other than saying “God did it.” What is essential is that Jesus came. The particulars on how can be debated and not mean a thing to me.

See… Christmas is saved!

Spoken like a fellow victim of liberal mainline Protestant seminary. I sympathize.

But what do these words imply about his view of scripture? He says he believes that Jesus is God incarnate. Is his confidence based on something other than what the Holy Spirit has revealed in scripture? Did the Spirit err when he inspired two of its gospel writers to give accounts of a virginal conception and thus mislead two millennia of faithful Christians? How fallible does my colleague think the Bible is?

Later in the comment thread, someone defended the historicity of the Virgin Birth by appealing to Isaiah 7:14, to which this same pastor replied, “No comment.” At this point, I chimed in:

Is this really a debate (as always) over a doctrine of scripture? Of course Isaiah 7:14 prophesies the virgin birth. The debate over whether Isaiah intended to say “virgin” or “young woman” (given that the underlying word in Hebrew could mean either) was settled the instant the Holy Spirit inspired Matthew to tell us in God’s Word that the Septuagint’s translation was the correct one. Case closed. Read Pope Benedict’s words on the Isaiah passage in his excellent book on Christmas. He’s no slouch in the Bible department. And he’s not exactly a raging fundamentalist.

Whether the virginal conception is essential is beside the point. Did it happen? Yes—unless we jettison any meaningful understanding of the inspiration of scripture.

You say that the two accounts [in Matthew and Luke] don’t agree. But they do agree on a virginal conception and Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Their differences, which have been harmonized, for example, even by Adam Hamilton, imply that Matthew and Luke are working with independent sources. Historians would say that that makes the event itself (which both gospels agree on) more likely rather than less so.

Never mind, also, that Mark and John offer hints that Jesus’ provenance was disputed among his fellow townspeople and the Pharisees. (See NT Wright’s For Everyone commentaries for further discussion.)

By this, I was referring to Mark’s unusual “son of Mary” reference in Mark 6:3 and the words of Jesus’ opponents in John 8:41: “They said to him, ‘We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.'” It’s possible, if not likely, that the Pharisees are referring to rumors surrounding Jesus’ controversial birth.

For all we know, Paul knew nothing about the Virgin Birth when he wrote the letters we have in the New Testament. (But what about Galatians 4:4?) As my colleague says, his letters are early. Mary herself would have been the only source for much of the material in the infancy narratives, and we don’t know when she told the apostles and Luke (who surely used Mary as his source). At best, it’s an argument from silence. Assuming Paul didn’t know about it, once Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels, does my colleague believe that Paul would have disputed the truthfulness of their accounts? Worse, does he think that Paul would have doubted that God could have performed this miracle on scientific grounds?

Regardless, I continue:

Also, people in the first century knew the facts of life as well as we do: women didn’t conceive children without human fathers—which is why Joseph originally decides to divorce Mary: he doesn’t believe her story. Why would he?

My point is, that Matthew (and Luke) include the Virgin Birth anyway suggests that they really believed it happened. This “pious legend” idea is a product of the modern imagination.

As NT Wright points out, prior to Jesus, no one knew that Isaiah 7:14 was a messianic prophecy that needed fulfilling. It wasn’t on anyone’s messianic radar prior to Matthew’s gospel.

Another clergy colleague steps to the defense of Andy Stanley: “He doesn’t say it didn’t happen. He only states that it isn’t essential to believe it in order to be Christian.” To which I ask:

Why is it difficult to believe in the first place? We already believe God created the universe and everything in it. That’s a rather large miracle that we have to accept right off the bat. Not to mention our belief—I assume even among most progressive UMC’ers—that Jesus was bodily resurrected.

The main question is, can God’s Word be trusted? If it can’t be trusted when two of four gospels (each using independent sources, by the way) report a virginal conception, we have larger problems with the credibility of Christianity than the Virgin Birth.

My colleague replies:

Again, I’m not arguing the virgin birth. Stanley, in this sermon, is trying to help seekers (or those struggling with various doctrines) recognize what’s most important and to understand that something like the virgin birth doesn’t make or break your relationship with God nor your ability to be transformed by Christ. He’s talking here about a starting point. Who among you would tell a person that their belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and their belief in the incarnation doesn’t matter if he or she still doesn’t believe in the virgin birth?

Good question. But am I wrong to doubt that many such “seekers” exist? If people don’t want to believe that Christianity is true, they can find plenty of reasons to bolster their unbelief. If they keep an open mind, however, I doubt that the doctrine of the Virgin Birth will stand in their way. I respond:

But if someone already believes in the resurrection and the incarnation, I would ask them on what basis they would reject belief in the Virgin Birth. Then I would gently challenge them to reconsider their skepticism, in part by questioning these very harmful assumptions of modernity that underlie it. I wouldn’t teach them that’s it’s “optional” to believe what scripture clearly teaches and the historic Creeds affirm.

I’m sure Stanley’s heart is in the right place, but our goal is to make disciples, not to sell Christianity at the cheapest possible price. What kind of disciples would we be making who reject the authority of God’s Word—the only sure basis on which we know anything about Jesus Christ in the first place?

And I’ll anticipate your objection by saying that personal spiritual experience, however valuable, can teach us nothing about Christ that isn’t also revealed in scripture.

Later, I implicitly relate this controversy to the one that will likely cause a schism in our denomination in 2019. As I said earlier, the authority of scripture—as always—is at stake in the question.

If the Virgin Birth becomes optional, well… there are many more difficult things in the Bible where that doctrine came from. What will this lightly-formed disciple do with the rest of it?

Sermon 12-25-16: “Amazing Grace in the Manger”

January 3, 2017


In today’s scripture, the angels tell the shepherds that through Christ, God’s peace will come to those “with whom God is pleased.” Who are the people with whom God is pleased and how can we be among them? This sermon explores that question and offers reasons why we can live our lives without fear.

Sermon Text: Luke 2:1-20

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

Back in 2013, I preached my first Advent sermon series using clips from famous holiday TV specials and Christmas-themed movies. One of these, you may recall, was A Charlie Brown Christmas. As closely as I watched that special for biblical insights and illustrations, I confess that I missed something really cool and really subtle. It happened the during the scene in which Linus tells Charlie Brown that he knows what Christmas is all about. Remember?


He walks on stage, walks up to the microphone, and recites the Christmas story from today’s scripture. After finishing his recitation, he turns to Charlie Brown and says, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

But what I missed was this small detail: It happens when Linus gets to verse 10. He says, reciting it from the King James, “And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” When he says “fear not,” do you know what he does? He drops his security blanket! Linus drops his blanket! Read the rest of this entry »