Archive for July, 2018

Devotional Podcast #27: “Closer to the Heart”

July 29, 2018

What is the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ? It can’t be something that we do, as so many preachers—especially Methodist preachers—believe. In this episode I explain why, and why it matters. 

Devotional Text: Mark 1:1-5; Matthew 3:7-10

You can subscribe to my podcast in Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s July 28, 2018, and this is episode number 27 in my ongoing series of devotional podcasts. You’re listening right now to the song “Closer to the Heart,” by the Canadian rock band and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members Rush. I recorded this version of the song from their 1981 live album, Exit… Stage Left. 

This song is the theme of today’s episode because of something I heard at a conference I attended last week on St. Simons Island—a conference for United Methodist pastors. One of the speakers—a clergy leader in our denomination—said something that got under my skin—and I have no interest in naming this person because, after all, what she said could have been said by hundreds or thousands of my fellow Methodist clergy, and no one would think twice because the idea is so pervasive! In fact, when she said it, there was, if I recall, applause and Amens all around this large conference room full of people—so what do I know, right?

Anyway, she said the following: “The heart of the gospel is to be the incarnation of Christ to other people.” 

The heart of the gospel is to be the incarnation of Christ to other people. 

To which I would say, “I hope not! For the sake of my own soul, if no one else’s, I hope not!” And I want to tell you why…

But before I do, please don’t misunderstand: I’m not suggesting for a moment that we who are Christians—we who are members of the Body of Christ—should not try to embody… or bear witness to… or, if you insist, be the incarnation of Jesus Christ for other people, as the Spirit enables us. 

By all means, God calls us to show the world who Jesus is—by obeying him, surrendering our lives to him, submitting to his will and his Word… Indeed, what does the Westminster Shorter Catechism say is the “chief end of man”? To glorify God and enjoy him forever. I was at a meeting just this week with the principal of an elementary school at which our church does all kinds of volunteer work. And I was deeply moved listening to this principal express his gratitude for the work of our church. No school, he said, could begin to pay for all the good work that we do there. In his long career, he said he’s never seen a church be so generous with its time, talent, and resources! Read the rest of this entry »

Devotional Podcast #26: “Is Jesus Enough for Us?”

July 14, 2018

Devotional Text: Mark 5:21-43

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Saturday, July 14, and after a long break, I’m back with you for Episode Number 26 in my series of podcasts. I apologize for the time away. I’m an itinerant United Methodist pastor, and I was recently appointed to a new church. So over the past two months I’ve had to pack up and leave one town and one church move to another town and church. But now that I’m getting settled in, I hope to bring you these podcast episodes with more regularity.

You’re listening to “The Waiting” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, his hit song from 1981. I recorded this directly from the band’s long-playing vinyl record Hard Promises. The song is a happy song, in a way, because the singer sings it on the other side of a long and difficult wait. For the singer, the waiting is finally over—at last—because, you know, he’s finally found true love or whatever. But he wants you to know that waiting for true love was very difficult. In fact, “it’s the hardest part.” “Every day,” he says, “you see one more card”—you don’t see all the cards all at once; you just see one at a time, and you trust—you “take it on faith”—that you’re going to be holding all the right cards before the game is over.

And so it is for us Christians today, and so it was for Jairus in today’s scripture, which comes from Mark 5:21-43. I need to read it because, otherwise, you may not know what I’m talking about… [Read Mark 5:21-43.] 

Jairus is a synagogue ruler in Capernaum, the town that served as Jesus’ home base during his ministry years. That means, among other things, that Jairus is a powerful, wealthy, well-respected member of his community. He is sincerely religious, as we learn in v. 23, where Mark tells us that he “implored Jesus earnestly” to heal his terminally ill daughter. Read the rest of this entry »

What’s wrong with a “Jesus Plus” kind of faith?

July 7, 2018

IMG_1453

Last Sunday’s scripture, Mark 5:21-43, is often called a “Markan sandwich.” The top piece of bread is Jairus’s meeting Jesus on the shore to ask him to heal his daughter and Jesus’ accompanying him to his house, in vv. 21-24. This plot line gets interrupted by the hemorrhaging woman. Her story, in vv. 25-34, forms the middle part of the sandwich. Finally, the bottom piece of bread is the resumption and conclusion of Jairus’s story in vv. 35-43. This literary device is characteristic of Mark’s gospel: See Mark 2:1-12; 3:1-6; 3:20-35; 6:6b-31, among many other examples.

Mark tells his story in this way for two reasons: Not only because this is the way these events unfolded, but also because he wants the reader to see the interconnectedness of these two plot lines. As I said last Sunday, everyone, including the hemorrhaging woman, would expect Jesus to fulfill the request of a powerful, wealthy, credentialed, and respectable leader of the community: Jairus seems like a worthy candidate for a healing miracle of Jesus, whereas this ritually unclean poor woman does not.

Jairus is, as far as his fellow Jews are concerned, an unassailably “righteous” man. Mark doesn’t imply for a moment that he’s a hypocrite; he has no ulterior motive in coming to Jesus; his faith, such as it is, is sincere, as v. 23 makes clear: he “implored him earnestly.”

And yet, is Jairus really so different from the woman—social status notwithstanding?

At first, it seems like it. While they’re both desperate for Jesus to perform a healing miracle, the woman has nothing to lose: She’s lost everything already. She’s exhausted all her options. She has nothing in her favor. And even if Jesus heals her, what credit will she deserve? She doesn’t even have the courage to ask Jesus for help. She intends to steal a miracle from him.

Jairus isn’t like her. When he meets Jesus, he still has something working in his favor: time. In other words, he hasn’t lost everything yet because his daughter is still alive. So long as he gets Jesus to his daughter’s bedside before she dies, his labor will not have been in vain. How wise, how clever, how resourceful he will have been! “Well done, Jairus! Once again, you’ve saved the day—with Jesus’ help, of course. Still… apart from your quick wits, your good reputation, and your initiative, your daughter would have died! So, good job!”

I said in my previous post that Jairus’s faith is far from perfect, and we can see why: Until the messenger delivers the fateful news in v. 35, he isn’t trusting completely in Jesus or depending on him completely. He’s also trusting in his favorable circumstances: “As long as my daughter is still alive, it’s not too late! I still have reason for hope!” Jairus’s faith was not in Jesus Alone: it was in Jesus Plus these other things.

Jesus, of course, wants Jairus—and, by extension, us—to have a Jesus Alone kind of faith, not a Jesus Plus kind of faith. He wants to bring Jairus to the same place in which the hemorrhaging woman finds herself: a place of complete dependence on Christ. And so Jesus (that is, God) “rigs” Jairus’s circumstances to make sure this happens! By taking time to heal the hemorrhaging woman, God knows that final thread of Jairus’s misplaced faith—in himself and his circumstances—will be broken: “Why trouble the Teacher any further? Your daughter is dead. There is no longer any hope, Jairus. Give up.”

To this Jesus says, “Do not fear, only believe.” In other words, Jesus says, only believe in me! I am the Lord of all circumstances. I’m the One who looks at the storm raging all around and says, “Peace! Be still!”

Easier said than done! I prefer to have a Jesus Plus faith rather than a Jesus Alone faith. I like being able to depend on myself, my circumstances, my vain belief that “things aren’t as bad as they seem.” In fact, what often passes for “Christian faith” for me is belief in my own power: the thought that I haven’t exhausted all my options; I haven’t worked all the angles; I haven’t called in all my favors—in which case my prayer isn’t that Jesus would save me—even if I mouth those pious words—so much as these favorable circumstances would save me, or these people who are well-disposed to me would save me. While Jesus often saves through circumstances and people—by all means!—I can easily forget that it is Jesus who does the saving; he is the One in whom I need to trust.

And isn’t that the hard part?

Not to worry, though: as I’ve learned from experience, Jesus will often test me until I remember that I have nothing and no one else to depend on except him. This is the “severe mercy” that Jesus shows to Jairus when he learns that his daughter has died. This is God’s discipline, and as painful as it often is, it is good for us!

The words of the author of Hebrews couldn’t be more fitting:

And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

I’ve heard no one put it better than C.S. Lewis on this subject. (He uses the word “punishment” for “discipline,” but same difference.)

I am beginning to find out that what people call the cruel doctrines are really the kindest ones in the long run. I used to think it was a “cruel” doctrine to say that troubles and sorrows were “punishments.” But I find in practice that when you are in trouble, the moment you regard it as a “punishment,” it becomes easier to bear. If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.[1]

Think of this world as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad. This is classic English understatement, perhaps, but I can only say, Amen!

1. C.S. Lewis, “Money Trouble” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1123.

Sunday sermon follow-up on Mark 5:21-43 (Part 1)

July 6, 2018

Last Sunday, I preached on Jairus and the hemorrhaging woman in Mark 5:21-43. The following are some of my personal notes or observations that didn’t make it into my sermon. I’ll share more in a second post.

This episode likely takes place in Jesus’ adult hometown of Capernaum. (The pictures above show ruins of the ancient city of Capernaum, including the first-century synagogue of which both Jesus and Jairus would have been part.) If that’s the case, Jairus, a “ruler of the synagogue,” knew Jesus personally. He has also likely witnessed Jesus’ healing power, which is why he’s desperate for Jesus to save his daughter.

If we consider Jairus’s plea a prayer, we have much to appreciate: I’m reminded, for instance, of Charles Spurgeon’s commentary on Lamentations 2:19: “[W]e cannot pray too simply. Just hear how Jeremiah put it: ‘Pour out your heart like water before the Lord’s presence.’ How does water pour out? The quickest way it can—that’s all; it never thinks much about how it runs. That is the way the Lord loves to have our prayers pour out before him.”

Indeed, in a sermon earlier this year, I complained that we often make prayer more difficult than it should be. Every morning, each one of us likely has something that is weighing heavily on our minds. Maybe, like Jairus, it’s related to the health or welfare of our children. Maybe it’s related to our jobs, our spouse, our personal health, our school, or our relationships. Whatever it is, it’s something about which we’re tempted to be anxious.

If so, prayer should be easy. Start there… Start praying about that thing that you’re worried about. Be bold like Jairus to tell Jesus what you need! Pour your petition out like water before the Lord.

On the other hand, Jairus is hardly the model of perfect faith. Consider, by contrast, a petition by another man in Capernaum who needed Jesus to heal a sick loved one: the Roman centurion of Matthew 8:5-13 (and its parallel in Luke 7:1-10). The centurion believes two things: first, that he’s not worthy to have Jesus come under his roof (v. 8); and, second, that Jesus is so powerful he can merely say the word—from a distance, without touching his servant—and heal him. Consequently, Jesus says of him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

Jairus shares neither conviction. For him, there’s no question except that Jesus needs to heal his daughter in person. Mark’s readers expect this, too. We believe, like Jairus, that time is running out. The episode with the hemorrhaging woman, therefore, is a needless distraction that adds to the suspense. From the perspective of Jairus, the disciples, and Mark’s readers, Jesus the Great Physician is committing the equivalent of medical malpractice: Why spend so much time with this woman and her chronic illness? He can come back and heal her later! Jairus’s child, meanwhile, is dying!

Also, while Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet out of sincere respect for him (v. 23), he has no qualms about his personal “worthiness” to ask Jesus for a healing.

Consider, by contrast, Peter in Luke 5:1-11: Jesus enables him to have a miraculous catch of fish, so much so that his nets are bursting. Is Peter happy that he’s just had the largest catch of fish in his life? Hardly! He’s terrified! “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (v. 8). Why does Peter respond this way? Because he realizes he’s in the very presence of God, and that sinful people like him can’t easily survive unmediated encounters with God (cf. Genesis 32:30; Exodus 33:20; Isaiah 6:5).

So what’s Jairus’s problem? Either he doesn’t believe, like Peter, that (as he far as he knows) he’s dangerously close to God or, if he does believe it, that he’s an unworthy sinner. Far from saying, “Depart from me, Lord,” he says, in so many words, “Come closer to me, Lord—come to my house, do what I tell you.”

This is why I said on Sunday that it’s likely that Jairus feels entitled to a miracle. Feeling entitled to anything from the Lord is not a prescription for joy and contentment, to say the least! We will inevitably be disappointed. Christ doesn’t live for us, after all; we live for him and his glory. Paul makes this point beautifully well in Philippians 1:19-20:

[F]or I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.

Paul is in prison as he writes these words. He doesn’t know whether he’ll be set free or executed. Yet he says, “I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.” My deliverance… While it sounds at first like his “deliverance” is having his life spared and being set free from prison, Paul doesn’t mean it that way. He means that he will be delivered from the “shame” of dishonoring Christ in his suffering—even if that suffering leads to his death. In other words, inasmuch as Paul is concerned about himself at all, he wants to make sure that, no matter what happens to him, he glorifies Jesus Christ.

This indifference to our own welfare characterizes the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer, which we Methodists often pray:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

This prayer makes me a liar. I don’t want to be “put to suffering,” “laid aside for thee,” or “brought low for thee.” I don’t want to be empty or “have nothing.” Do you? But if this is God’s will for us, and by doing so we can glorify Christ, why wouldn’t we?

One final thought (for now): One important difference between the hemorrhaging woman and Jairus is that the woman understands that she isn’t worthy to have Jesus to do anything for her. She’s a sinner who deserves God’s judgment, death, and hell. This is the first half of the gospel: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), and the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). But please note: the woman’s status before God changes. In v. 34, Jesus calls her “daughter”: In other words, because of her faith in Christ, she is now a child of God!

How does this happen?

On the cross a great exchange takes place: Christ takes upon himself all of our unrighteousness and suffers the penalty for it; in return, he gives us his righteousness. And this exchange becomes effective for us through faith. Apart from faith, we are unworthy. Through faith, however, Christ makes us worthy. Far from being sinners separated from God, we become beloved children of God, from whose love nothing can separate us (Romans 8:38-39).

A parent-child relationship is unlike any other: children are never presumptuous to ask their parents for what they want and to believe that they will receive it. Having become children of God through faith, we can do what the author of Hebrews tells us: We can “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

Reflections on Micah 1:3-4: “Tread upon the high places”

July 4, 2018

From Micah 1:3-4:

For behold, the Lord is coming out of his place,
and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth.
And the mountains will melt under him,
and the valleys will split open,
like wax before the fire,
like waters poured down a steep place.

This morning, I wrote the following in my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition. 

These “mountains” and “valleys,” and the ease with which God destroys them, ought to remind us of the importance of living our lives with the proper perspective: I’m, in general, a coward. I’m afraid of other people’s opinions of me, what people say about me, how they regard me. I’m afraid that I’m not being properly “recognized” or “appreciated” or “loved”—because I keep trying to satisfy my soul with “created things” rather than my Creator. I’m afraid for my physical health, because if I die before what I perceive to be “my time,” then I’m afraid I’ll miss out. (But miss out on what? My death will only mean greater life for me! I’ll have everything because I’ll have Christ! Isn’t he enough?) This verse, by contrast, reminds me that at Final Judgment, all of these “lesser things” that inspire fear will be exposed for what they truly are: IDOLS!

Dear Lord, please “tread upon” these “high places” now, before I face your judgment, so that I will be spared the pain that I otherwise deserve. Amen.

Sermon 07-01-18: “Jesus Makes Us Whole”

July 2, 2018

Yesterday, I preached my first sermon at my new appointment, Cannon United Methodist Church in Snellville, Georgia. (I’m an associate pastor there.) My scripture was Mark 5:21-43. If you haven’t seen me preach in a while, you may notice a somewhat looser, more conversational style. I attribute this change to the fact that, for the past few months, I’ve been preaching from an outline rather than a manuscript.

I made this change a few months ago after my previous church introduced a once-a-month Sunday evening service, for which I preached a different sermon from Sunday morning. (I developed a new appreciation for the Baptist pastors of my childhood who did this every week!) I simply didn’t have time to prepare a full manuscript for a second sermon on these Sundays. So I preached from an outline for the first time in my life. To my surprise as much as anyone else’s, these were some of the best sermons I’ve ever preached. As a result, I decided to do the same thing on Sunday morning.

One result of this change is that I put less pressure on myself to be clever, funny, or entertaining. I’m embarrassed to tell you, for instance, how much I used to sweat over creating an engaging introduction to my sermons each week! Now I just dive right in. In general, my sermons stick more closely to the scripture. And why not? I love the Bible. Why did I assume that my congregation wouldn’t love it, too? Especially if I could show them my heart for it—show them my passion for it? So that’s what I try to do now.

I’ve also changed the way I prepare sermons. For example, I now take notes longhand, as opposed to typing on my laptop. I find that “slowing down” in this way helps me think more clearly. (Have any of you tried this?) The people at Crossway, from whom I’ve purchased many products recently, would be delighted to know that I use both my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition and their new ESV Scripture Journals (about $5 a pop on Amazon!) to do this.

Anyway, feel free to see the results of these changes in the video below. Scroll the video ahead to “-1:08:20” for the start of my sermon.