Archive for April, 2019

“Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”: a meditation on Genesis 18:22-33

April 18, 2019

The following reflection on Genesis 18:22-33 comes from the handwritten notes in my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition.

Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

18:32: “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it”: Undoubtedly, Abraham’s chief concern is not so much with God’s justice as a general principle as for the safety of his nephew Lot, who lives in Sodom. Surely, Abraham reasons, God won’t “sweep away the righteous with the wicked.” But exactly how confident would Abraham be in Lot’s own righteousness?

Abraham himself, you may recall, didn’t earn justification before God through his own good works but through faith: “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Unless Lot was likewise justified (and where’s the evidence?), we should be unimpressed that Lot is relatively more righteous than the citizens of Sodom! Scripture tells us why:

“None is righteous, no, not one… no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10, 12).

“If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3)

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

“For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:6).

In Jesus’ parable of the two debtors and its application to Simon and the prostitute (Luke 7:36-50), Jesus doesn’t deny that Simon is relatively more righteous than the woman. But it doesn’t matter: each owes a debt before God that he or she is unable to pay. The woman realizes it; Simon doesn’t. Therein lies the problem.

But maybe Abraham knows that Lot isn’t righteous. Maybe he’s counting on someone else’s righteousness to save his nephew. Otherwise, why not simply ask God—who would be unjust to “put the righteous to death with the wicked” (v. 25)—to rescue only the righteous in the city? If Lot and his family were among the righteous, then so be it. But that’s not what he asks. He asks, ultimately, if God would destroy the city for the sake of as few as ten righteous. God answers “no” before abruptly ending the conversation.

Yet we the readers might continue this thought experiment: “Suppose there were fewer than ten… Suppose, in fact, there were only one righteous person in the city? Would God destroy the city for the sake of one?”

But we Christians already know the answer to that question, don’t we?

Because, regardless whether Lot, his wife, and his two daughters were righteous, we sinners know ourselves. We know our own hearts. We know that if God were destroying cities because of the unrighteous living within it, we certainly wouldn’t be the basis on which the city is spared! Right? We would need someone else to be righteous for us!

And here’s the good news: Our Lord Jesus is that one righteous man!

He is the One on account of whose righteousness we will be saved. All we need to do is “move in with him” and “live with him.”

I can tell you how to do that!

“Why are you cast down, O my soul?”: a meditation on Psalm 42:5

April 16, 2019

The following reflection on Psalm 42:5 comes from the handwritten notes in my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition.

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation

42:5: Notice the psalmist is now talking to his soul, not God. And one thing he is telling it, as in v. 4, is to remember those times in your past in which you experienced the fullness of God’s presence. If God seems absent at this moment, it is only temporary.

I’m unimpressed with well-intentioned social media memes that urge us to “move on” from the past, to get over it (as if our therapy bills don’t prove how difficult that is!), to look to the future alone. “You can’t change the past,” they tell us.

Respectfully, I disagree: While we play a role in shaping the future—by all means—the future is largely outside of our control. (Think of tourists in Paris right now who are changing their itineraries because of yesterday’s out-of-control events! A building that stood for almost a thousand years and survived two world wars, among other things!)

So, no… it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that the past is practically the only thing we can change! Not the events themselves, obviously, but our interpretation of them. We can grab hold of the promises of God’s Word, which assure us that nothing happens to us, his children through faith in his Son, except that which he causes or allows for good reasons, and always in the best interest of our souls (Rom. 8:28; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:6-7)—given the freedom he grants us to disobey him and make mistakes.

We may experience a healthy kind of regret and shame over events in our past, which are fruits of true repentance, but we don’t stop at regret and shame: We go one step further. We tell ourselves (and pray) something like this: “Gracious Lord, if it took that mistake, that failure, that setback, that heartbreak, that disappointment, that suffering, that sin, to bring me to this place of greater love for you, greater trust in you, greater dependence on you, then I thank you for these events in the past![1] They have made me into this person that I am today—and the person I am becoming in the future.

“If anything had happened differently, I would be someone else. But you want me to be the person I am today—not because I’m perfect right now but because I’m one day closer to becoming that person you are making me into! After all, you did not create me once, when I was born, or even twice, when I was born-again through faith in your Son.

“Rather, you are ‘creating’ me through everything that happens to me—good, bad, or indifferent.

“So I will be grateful. Indeed, along with the apostle Paul, I will give thanks, not in spite of everything, but for everything (Eph. 5:20)—because everything that happens to me has been sifted through your redemptive, providential hand.”

“Why are you cast down, O my soul?”

That’s an excellent question!

1. Please note: I’m not for a moment implying that we should “go on sinning so that grace may abound” (Rom. 6:1). Rather, I’m saying that God “factors in” our sinful choices and uses their often harmful consequences for our good. Consider the younger son in the parable of Luke 15: Would he have been better off had he never left home, squandered his father’s wealth, and brought himself to utter ruin? Of course not! He was saved through the experience! Apart from it—had he stayed home—he would have remained as lost as his older brother—even if he were outwardly obedient to his father.

Allow me to reintroduce myself…

April 15, 2019

Good news! At the end of June I’m being appointed as the senior pastor of Taccoa First United Methodist Church. Also, beginning May 1, I’m serving for several weeks as interim pastor at Lavonia UMC. If my blog stats are any indication, more than a few new people are interested in learning about me.

With that in mind, I’d like to re-post the following from June of last year… Enjoy!

Last week was an emotionally heavy week, for several reasons. I’ll talk about one of those reasons in today’s post.

I’m an itinerant United Methodist pastor, and this year it was my turn to move. I said goodbye to beloved brothers and sisters in Christ—and friends—to whom I’ve given much of my life over these past five years. After I preached my farewell sermon, on Acts 20:17-27, the church presented the following video tribute as a parting gift to me. It’s the best gift anyone has ever given me!

In addition to heartfelt tributes from many of my parishioners, two of my heroes in the faith—genuine heroes—contributed to the video: N.T. Wright and Paul Zahl.

As longtime readers of the blog may guess, Wright, more than any living person, is responsible for what I’ve called my “evangelical re-conversion,” an experience that began around the time I started this blog in 2009 (even if it took another year or so to complete).

Wright, a retired bishop of Durham in the Church of England, is a world-renowned New Testament scholar—not to mention, for what it’s worth, the most famous. How many Bible scholars, after all, were able to match wits with Stephen Colbert on his old Comedy Central show, for instance?

But it was Wright’s massive book The Resurrection of the Son of God that turned my life around. Here was Wright, an evangelical who has spent his long career within the world of mainline, critical scholarship—a world in which I was immersed for three years in seminary—offering an energetic defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, along with the scriptures that bear witness to it. His writing gave me a greater confidence in the authority of scripture at a time in my life when I needed it. He also helped me understand how seamlessly the gospel fits within the story of Israel and the Old Testament.

His writing affirmed for me classic doctrines of faith that were minimized or neglected in seminary—such as penal substitutionary atonement, Final Judgment and hell, a literal Second Coming, and the infallibility of scripture—if not without much nuance and qualification. But Wright’s qualifications never come from a place of skepticism about the reliability of scripture, only his effort to be more faithful to it. How can I not respect that?

So I love Wright and owe him a debt of gratitude. God used him to make me a more faithful follower of Jesus today—which is to say, a happier, more joy-filled person. And here he is, from his home near St. Andrews in Scotland, congratulating me on my new appointment!

My other hero of faith in the video is Paul Zahl, a retired Episcopal minister and theologian. For the past four years, the Very Rev. Dr. Zahl has been “living in my head” through his preaching, his writing, and (especially) his podcasts. More than anything, Zahl helped me fall in love with Jesus again. (As you hear in the video, this has been a theme of my recent preaching—not a coincidence.) He did so by enabling me to reconnect with a part of myself I lost too many years ago: that gawky 15-year-old who once wore the cover off his 1984 NIV Study Bible. “To find God,” Zahl said—paraphrasing Meister Eckhart—“you have to go back to where you lost him.” Or, put another way, to make sense of your life, you have to go back to that point in time—for me, around age 19 or 20—at which life stopped making sense. Truer words! And his reflections on those words in one of his podcasts—drawing on both Citizen Kane and the great Burton Cummings of the Guess Who—changed my life! Only Zahl could say, without irony, that if you want to understand what God’s love is like, “You need to listen to more Journey.” Indeed!

That these two men—who’ve helped shape me into the pastor and person that I am today—were part of this tribute moved me deeply!

And for good measure, because of my abiding and long-suffering affection for my alma mater, Georgia Tech, and my beloved Yellow Jackets, head basketball coach Josh Pastner offers his well-wishes.

(Special thanks to my friend and brother Matthew Chitwood for reaching out to all these people and putting this video together.)

“The Lord has prevented me”: a meditation on Genesis 16:2

April 11, 2019

The following reflection on Genesis 16:2 comes from handwritten notes in my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition.

And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai.

16:2: “The Lord has prevented me”: Sarai’s view of God’s sovereignty is correct: her inability to have children is a purposeful part of God’s plan for her life.[1] What she should have said, however, is not “the Lord has prevented me,” but “the Lord has prevented me so far.” After all, on what basis can she presume to believe that too much time had passed for God to keep his promise and fulfill his plan? It will take a miracle, regardless—whether Sarai conceives a child today or ten years from now.

Nevertheless, instead of waiting on the Lord, she takes matters into her own hands.

And here’s the problem: Up to this point in the story, God has made his will known to Abram by speaking directly to him. Surely if God wanted Abram to take Hagar as a secondary wife by whom God would fulfill his promises, God would have revealed that to him.[2] Besides, since when is it our job to “help God out,” or “improve God’s plan,” or “speed up God’s timing”—especially when doing so masks a lack of trust in God?

Not that I’m one to judge. I’m the biggest hypocrite! I like taking matters into my own hands. I like feeling in control. I like depending on myself.

By contrast, waiting on God, surrendering to God, depending on God alone—it makes me feel deeply insecure.

I would much rather know, regardless what God does or doesn’t do for me, that I have options. Like Sarai: “I’ll wait on God to help me for a certain amount of time, but if he doesn’t come through in the way that I expect, I’ll always have a ‘Plan B’ to fall back on.” How comforting! Hagar was Sarai’s Plan B.

What about me? Do I have a Plan B?

At this moment, for instance, for reasons of which you may be aware, the future looks far less secure than it used to look for United Methodist pastors. “Will I still have a career if this or that other ‘worst case scenario’ happens?” One anxious family member said, “At least you have that engineering degree to fall back on.”

Ugh! No! Don’t tell me that!

I know he meant well. And I’d be lying if I said the thought didn’t cross my mind, too—along with this troubling thought: “I’ve forgotten all engineering knowledge. I have nothing and no one to fall back on if this career doesn’t work out. I have no Plan B.”

But that’s beside the point: Following Jesus means that I shouldn’t have a Plan B! Either I’m all in for Jesus or I’m not!

Either Jesus is going to be my rock, my fortress, and my refuge (Psalm 31:3-4), or he’s not. He’s going to “supply every need of [mine] according to the riches of his glory” (Phil. 4:19), or he’s not. He’s telling the truth when he says that “all these things will be added to [me]” (Matt. 6:33), or—make no mistake—I am “of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19), and I have wasted my life.

But as his disciple, I’m supposed to be willing to bet my life that Jesus is telling the truth!

Am I betting my life? Or am I the Rich Young Ruler? “I’ll trust you, Lord, with 90 percent of my life. Ninety percent! That’s a lot! Just let me have 10 percent for myself.”

If so, be sure of this: Jesus has been and will continue disciplining me until I surrender that ten percent. Maybe that’s what “sanctification” is.

It hurts. But it’s good for me. So thank you, Jesus.

Footnotes:

1. One of those purposes, as with the blind man in John 9:3, is likely that “the works of God might be displayed” in her. Regardless, Christians who deny God’s meticulous providence over events in the world will hardly find evidence for their view in this particular scripture.

2. Not to mention the potential sinfulness of doing so: God’s intention for marriage, as revealed in Genesis 2:24, is one man and one woman only in a lifelong monogamous relationship.

“To your offspring I give this land”: a meditation on Genesis 15:18

April 10, 2019

The following reflection on Genesis 15:18 comes from the handwritten notes in my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition.

On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…”

15:18: “I give this land”: Or “I have given this land” (NASB; see footnote in ESV). In other words, there’s a sense in which God has already accomplished what he promises to do in the present. God is already in the future, after all, so there’s no doubt how his promise to Abram will turn out.

Do you see how encouraging this is?

When God says that something will happen, we can be confident that it will happen this way—indeed, from God’s perspective it already has happened. When he makes this promise to Abram, he has already done everything necessary to ensure that Abram’s descendants have received the land; because God is already in the future, seeing that his promise is fulfilled and waiting for Abram to arrive there himself.

By contrast, when I want to assure someone that I will fulfill a promise, I might say, “Don’t give it a second thought. It’s done!” But it’s not done. In fact, I could drop dead before I fulfill the promise, no matter how sincerely I give my word.

Needless to say, God’s word isn’t like mine: when God says, “I will do,” he always means, “I have done.”

Consider how this applies to the glorious promise of Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

This means that the blessing that awaits us, on the other side of whatever trial we happen to be going through at this moment, is as certain as the stars in the sky (v. 5).