Archive for October, 2017

Why isn’t God’s presence more obvious?

October 6, 2017

In light of this week’s tragedy in Las Vegas, I’m preaching a one-shot sermon this Sunday called “Where Is God in the Midst of Tragedies.” My text is Luke 13:1-9. In my view, this scripture is Jesus’ most important word on evil and suffering. At the very least, it speaks directly to modern objections to God’s existence based on the “moral problem” of evil. I preached what I’m sure was a theologically and biblically inadequate sermon on this text back in 2010. I’m almost afraid to re-read it now!

Still, in preparation for Sunday’s sermon, I’m currently reading Clay Jones’s Why Does God Allow Evil. Among other things, he expands on ideas he debated on an outstanding Unbelievable? podcast in 2015. I admire the forcefulness and clarity with which he approaches a subject that most of us only approach with great caution. Perhaps he’s fearless because, as he says in the book’s introduction, when we understand who we are as sinful human beings, the so-called “problem of evil” vanishes. After all, no one asks, “Why do bad things happen to bad people?”

I don’t disagree with him.

In fact, I’ve been blogging for a while about how ill-equipped most contemporary Methodists are in dealing with questions of human or natural evil. Remember this official UMC article on the recent hurricanes? Most Methodist thinkers say something inadequate like, “We don’t know why there’s evil, but God is with us!”

Regardless, one nagging apologetic concern I have struggled with more recently is the apparent “hiddenness” of God. Why does God not make his presence more obvious to people whom he otherwise wants to save?

Dr. Jones tackles this question nicely:

If God wants us to be significantly free (know the kind of freedom we now possess), then God can’t make His presence too apparent; He can’t make His presence too “saturated.” His presence in the world is not smothering, like an overbearing parent. He is not an ever-present “helicopter God” (philosophers call this epistemic distance or divine hiddenness). This is so because if God’s existence were at every moment absolutely unmistakable, then many people would abstain from desires that they might otherwise indulge. As C.S. Lewis put it, “there must perhaps always be just enough lack of demonstrative certainty to make free choice possible: for what could we do but accept if the faith were like the multiplication table?” In other words, if Christianity were unmistakably true, then people would have less free will and they would be compelled to feign loyalty. For example, I’ve asked guys, “If you were getting up to speak at a podium, and there were cameras on you, and an audience watching you, and if there were a pornographic magazine on the podium, would you open it or even look down at the cover?” Of course the answer is always no. Why? Because they know that everyone is watching them! Similarly, God could make His presence and His power so evident that everyone would always do the right thing—whether they wanted to or not. But that would interfere with our acting freely.[†]

What would be wrong if the truth of God and his gospel were as obvious to us as the multiplication table? After all, we would know that God exists. We would know that the doctrines of Christianity are true. We would, in a sense, “believe in” Jesus.

But this wouldn’t be true faith. As I said in my recent sermon, “Dead Faith Can’t Save Us,” genuine faith is not merely knowing facts about God; it’s not agreeing to a set of propositions. It’s also entrusting ourselves to God—out of love for him and gratitude to him. It’s being loyal to him. Without this “epistemic distance,” as Jones says, we would “feign loyalty.” True faith may never take root and grow.

So without God’s “hiddenness,” the vast majority of people would believe in God, but they wouldn’t have faith in God. There’s a big difference!

Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil? (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2017), 112.

Sermon 09-10-17: “Rise Against Hunger”

October 4, 2017

In today’s scripture, Jesus wants to feed approximately 15,000 people (5,000 men plus women and children). So he asks Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He’s asking him, John says, in order to “test him.” What was the test? To see whether his disciples believed that in Christ, they had enough. Do we present-day disciples believe that?

I preached this sermon on the Sunday in which our church, Hampton United Methodist, packaged over 10,000 meals for hungry people around the world.

Sermon Text: John 6:1-15

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Last month, a team of explorers from New Zealand was on an expedition in Antarctica. They were excavating 150 artifacts left behind by a team of British explorers back in 1911—106 years ago. One of the artifacts they found was a perfectly preserved fruitcake, still packaged in its original tin, made by a British biscuit company. The tin was badly rusted, but the fruitcake itself, according to scientists, was remarkably well-preserved. It is, they said, “almost edible.”

What does a 106-year-old fruitcake look like?

Would any of you be tempted to take a bite? And many of you are like, “I wouldn’t eat a fruitcake if it were brand new. I’m not going to eat one that’s 106 years old!” But the discovery does prove that there are at least two fruitcakes in the world… You’ve heard the joke: There’s just one fruitcake, and since no one likes it, it just gets re-gifted to one person after another.

Now consider, by contrast, a steaming-hot loaf of fresh-baked bread. It’s irresistible. Everyone forgets about their diet when there’s fresh warm bread around. Is there anything better—assuming you don’t have celiac disease! In today’s scripture, Jesus creates bread out of nothing—or almost nothing—five loaves and two small fish—in order to say to us, “As satisfying as warm, fresh baked bread is to hungry people, I am more satisfying to you than that.”

In a sermon on this same text, pastor John Piper said the following:

One of the reasons God created bread—or created the grain and the water and yeast and fire and human intelligence to make it…— is so that when Jesus Christ came into the world, he would be able to use the enjoyment of bread and the nourishment of bread as an illustration of what it means to believe on him and be satisfied with him. I believe that with all my heart. Bread exists to help us know what it is like to be satisfied in Jesus.[1]

He may be on to something. You won’t learn this in a high school physics class or biology class, but nothing, the Bible says, nothing exists for itself. Nothing in this universe is here accidentally. It’s all designed by God for a reason. Listen to Colossians 1:16: “For by him”—Jesus Christ—“all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible… all things were created through him and for him.” For him. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 09-03-17: “Dead Faith Can’t Save Us”

October 3, 2017

My previous sermon was about the classic Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone. But that sermon didn’t mention the 800-lb. gorilla in the room: What about good works? Don’t they play a necessary role? In fact, doesn’t the apostle James warn that “a person is justified by works and not faith alone” (v. 24)? Is James contradicting Paul? This sermon answers these questions.

Sermon Text: James 2:14-26

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Yesterday, Sports Illustrated wrote the following: “J.J. Watt might be the best defensive player in the NFL, but literally nothing he has done or will do on the field can ever top what he’s done for the city of Houston in the past week.” Have you heard about what the defensive end for the Houston Texans has done? Last Sunday, he launched a fundraiser to raise money for victims of Hurricane Harvey. His goal was a substantial, but very doable goal for someone of his means and influence: $200,000. That goal was surpassed in less than two hours. Donations continued to pour in, and as they did so, he kept upping the goal and upping the goal and upping the goal. As of yesterday, he’s raised over $17 million.

Seventeen million dollars. And counting. So here’s a question: One day, when Christ returns, and J.J. Watt stands alongside everyone else who’s ever lived, and faces God in Final Judgment, will this generous, selfless act of his count in his favor—toward his salvation?

I’m reminded of something that Warren Buffett, the world’s second richest man, said after he announced a few years ago that he would donate 85 percent of his $44 billion fortune to five charitable foundations. When asked to comment on this extreme act of generosity, he said, “There is more than one way to get to heaven, but this is a great way.”

So… Is Buffett right? Will 85 percent of $44 billion—which is $37.4 billion—and Watt’s $17 million and counting help either of these men get into heaven? Read the rest of this entry »