Archive for November, 2020

Sermon 11-22-2020: “The Gospel for Goats”

November 23, 2020

Scripture: Matthew 25:31-46

Several years ago, there was a TV show called Saving Grace, starring Academy Award-winner Holly Hunter. It was sort of like a raunchy version of Touched by an Angel. For the wellbeing of your soul, I don’t recommend it. But in the show, a redneck angel named Earl is sent from heaven to save the lives of people who are otherwise hell-bent on destroying themselves. One of these people he’s sent to rescue is a prisoner on death row named Leon. Earl the angel meets with Leon in his prison cell regularly—and Earl gives Leon encouragement and hope. 

In one episode, however, we learn that Leon has been cheating on his “Christian” angel, Earl. It turns out Leon’s been meeting with a Muslim imam and reading the Koran—behind Earl’s back! Leon has decided to convert to Islam. Earl finds out about it and seems angry and hurt. He challenges Leon to go ahead and convert to Islam if that’s what he wants to do.

So before he recites whatever words you have to recite to become a Muslim, Leon says, “Well, I guess this is it. Thanks for everything you’ve done for me.” And then Leon makes this Muslim “profession of faith.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 11-15-2020: “Enter into the Joy of Your Master”

November 15, 2020

Scripture: Matthew 25:14-30

When I was in seventh grade I played Pop Warner football—or “little league” football. Whatever you call it. I played center, like Bill Curry, whom I met as a ten-year-old at Georgia Tech, and who became a hero of mine. But I had a football coach who believed in me; who loved me… who helped to build me up and helped me feel good about myself during an otherwise difficult time in my life. And this coach gave me nickname—he didn’t give anyone else on the offensive line a nickname, but he gave me one. And I could not have been prouder of it. He called me “Mad Dog.”

I’ve heard players say of great coaches—like Nick Saban or Pat Dye or Vince Dooley or Bobby Dodd, coaches like that—I’ve heard them say, “I would run through a brick wall for that man.” Well, I know that feeling. Because this coach made me feel that way. I was proud to be called Mad Dog. And it brought me great joy to do what this coach asked me to do. It brought me great joy to make my coach happy. 

I want you to hold onto this thought… put a pin in it. We’ll come back to it.

In today’s scripture, there’s a rich man who is going away on a trip. While he’s gone he gives a considerable amount of money to three of his servants—these were likely well-educated accountants, businessmen, and entrepreneurs. They likely helped manage the man’s money and estate. And while he’s gone, he’s giving each of them a certain amount of money to invest—a certain number of “talents” to invest. 

Now, right away we have a problem: because the word “talent” has entered the English language directly from the Greek word that Jesus uses in this parable. We use the word “talent” today because of the Bible!

But the way we use it today isn’t what Jesus meant when he used it… In Jesus’ day, a talent was a measurement of money—literally worth about 75 lbs. of gold. If you want to think of it this way, a talent was the largest denomination of currency in Jesus’ day. So… do you know, for instance, what the largest denomination of currency in circulation in the United States is? A hundred-dollar bill. That’s not much anymore. In 1969, before the Federal Reserve stopped printing it, however, the largest denomination was a $10,000 bill. That’s a little closer to what Jesus is talking about when he talks about a “talent”… except a talent was much, much more.

It was about twenty years’ wages for an average laborer. So even one talent was an enormous sum of money! About $700,000. Can you imagine? The servant who received five talents received three and a half million dollars. But let’s not pity the third servant who “only” received one measly talent: seven-hundred grand is nothing to sneeze at.

So notice the first two servants invested or started businesses or put the money to work in some way, and by the time the master returned, they each had doubled the master’s investment—a one-hundred percent return on investment. That’s pretty darn good, wouldn’t you say?

The third servant, however, doesn’t do anything with his talent—besides bury it in the ground.

And he explains why… Verses 24 and 25: “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.”

Notice the servant is quite literally wrong about his master’s character. He says the master reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he scatters no seed? Are you kidding? On the contrary, the master is the one who gives the servants these enormous sums of money in the first place! “Take this money and do something with it… invest it… put it to work… trade with it.” That is the definition of “sowing” and “scattering seed.” 

If the third servant is to be believed, the master is taking what doesn’t belong to him and keeping it for himself—but that’s a lie because these eight talents do belong to the master in the first place!

This scripture is often preached during stewardship season. And if I were preaching it that way, I would emphasize this point: Every good thing you possess comes as a gift from God. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.” Psalm 24:1. “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” 1 Corinthians 4:7. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” James 1:17.

Therefore, want the three servants each received before the master went away were gifts of sheer grace. And so it is with us: We possess nothing good that doesn’t come from God—including every part of our lives. God literally cannot ask for something that he did not “sow” within us or create within us.

But it’s possible that the third servant saw that the other two servants were given more than he was given, and a part of the resentment and anger and unhappiness that he directs toward his master was based on the perception that he wasn’t being treated “fairly.”

What do you say to that? None of these three deserved anything that they received, so on what basis should they complain?

In my own life, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the vast majority of my own unhappiness comes not from what God has actually given me, but from what God has given someone else, which he did not also give to me. Do you know what I mean? I want what other people have—never mind that what I’ve been given has been custom-designed by God and perfectly suited for me and for my life

Can I tell you something funny: For many years, I was an associate pastor at a large Methodist church in Alpharetta. I was in charge of our church’s contemporary worship service, which meant I got to preach every week, which was wonderful. Well, in Alpharetta, we were in the shadow of the Northpoint Community Church—Andy Stanley’s megachurch—literally and figuratively. Because if you involved in doing contemporary worship back then, in Alpharetta, Georgia, you were going to be compared, favorably but usually unfavorably, to Andy Stanley and Northpoint—objectively speaking, one of the largest and most successful churches in America. If my people didn’t like me, they would often go to Northpoint. Or they came from Northpoint. But I was used to being compared—usually in a negative way—with an incredibly gifted preacher and leader. I mean, how could I measure up? 

As many of you know, I was adopted. And back around that same time, I got in touch with my birth mother, Linda, for the first time. And Linda was very happy to find out I was a pastor. And she would hear me preach and just lay it on thick about how much she liked my preaching.

One day Linda, who lived in North Carolina, called me out of the blue: “I just heard the best preacher I’ve ever heard!” You know where this is going, right? She said, “I saw him on TV. And you know what? His church is down near your church. His name is… Andy Stanley? Do you know that name? He’s so good!”

And I’m like, “I know Andy Stanley… Everybody loves Andy Stanley!” And I remember grumbling about it back then!

But why? Give me one good reason I should resent Andy Stanley? By all means… God gave him five talents, at least, whereas he gave me one or less… But what I have is infinitely more than I deserve!

And what I have is—hear me say this—what I have is perfectly suited, custom-designed, custom-tailored for me and for my life. This is what Jesus means when he says, in verse 15, that the master gave to “each [servant] according to his ability.” What I have wouldn’t work in Andy Stanley’s life, but it works in mine.

After all, who but God could foresee the consequences of God possibly giving me the same gifts of grace that he gave to Andy Stanley? God probably knows that if he did give me those same gifts of grace, those gifts would destroy me; that that level of objective, worldly success—the sheer numbers, the TV audience, the size of the platform—that would go straight to my head, that would inflate my ego even more than it already is, and it would ruin me! My pride couldn’t handle it!

God knows that about me!

So instead of looking over my shoulder and comparing the gifts of grace that I’ve received with the gifts of grace that others have received, I need to trust that God has given me precisely those gifts of grace that I need—which, according to his Word, he has!

See, here’s where the third servant also gets it wrong: He simply doesn’t believe that his master knows what’s best for him or wants what’s best for him. This gift of grace—this one talent—feels like a burden to the servant, not a gift. The servant doesn’t want to have responsibility for it; he wants to do his own thing; he wants to live life on his own terms. He doesn’t want to have to answer to his master. So he does the absolute bare minimum: He digs a hole and buries the talent in the ground, where at least it should be safe for when his master returns. “If I bury this talent, I won’t have to give it a second thought. It will be out of sight, out of mind. In fact, if I bury what my master gave me, I won’t have to give him a second thought: He will also be out of sight, out of mind.” 

So he resents his master. He hates him. His actions prove it. And yet we read this parable and feel sorry for the poor guy because the master is going to give him his fondest wish for all eternity—to be completely free from his master’s care and concern, to be separated from him forever? The master is giving him what he wants!

By contrast, consider the other two servants’ attitudes: Look at verse 16: “He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more.” The key words are “at once” or immediately. That implies a sense of excitement on the part of the first two servants… a sense of anticipation… a sense of joy

In fact, these first two servants remind me of the Samaritan woman at the well in John chapter 4. After talking with Jesus for a while, she realizes whom she’s talking to, and what does she do? The Bible says she left her water jar—at the well, the very reason she went to the well in the first place was to get water… but in her excitement she forgets about that; she leaves the jar at the well; and she rushes back to town… and tells literally everyone in town about Jesus! Why?

Because what she found in Jesus was infinitely better than even her most basic human need for water! So of course she forgot her water jar!

Or remember Zacchaeus, the “wee little man”—a despised tax collector, hated by his fellow townspeople—who climbs a sycamore tree to see Jesus over the crowd of people. But Jesus calls him by name. And the Bible says, “So [Zacchaeus] hurried and came down and received [Jesus] joyfully.” And then, when Jesus comes to his house, he tells Jesus he’s giving away half his wealth, and paying back four times whatever he stole from others. Why?

Because what he found in Jesus was infinitely better than money! So of course he gave all that money away!

Or remember the former prostitute who crashes the dinner party at Simon the Pharisee’s house in Luke chapter 7: She’s making a scene, anointing Jesus’ feet with her tears and with expensive ointment. Showing gratitude and honor to Jesus by kissing his feet. Everyone’s gossiping about her. She’s embarrassing herself as far as the other dinner guests are concerned. Why?

Because what she found in Jesus was infinitely better than her livelihood, her earthly treasure, and her reputation. She didn’t care what people like Simon thought of her. So of course she served Jesus in this way!

And see… that’s what all three—the Samaritan woman, Zacchaeus, and the former prostitute—this is what they had in common: They served Jesus… by all means. I mean, you give away half your wealth… to the church? That’s far more than a tithe. We all agree: that’s “serving” Jesus! The Samaritan woman was literally the most effective evangelist in all of scripture. Thanks to her witness, her entire village came to believe in Jesus! I mean, the apostle Paul reached more people in his ministry, but he also faced a lot of rejection along the way. Not this woman… she was batting a thousand in her efforts at evangelism! 

We all agree: that’s “serving” Jesus! 

And the former prostitute? She was literally “serving” Jesus by performing the most humble act of a service that even a slave in the first century could perform—washing a guest’s feet when he comes to someone’s house for dinner.

These people served, they served, they served… by all means. But their service—like the service of the first two servants in the parable—was characterized by joy and excitement. Was it hard for them to serve Jesus in this way? That’s like asking, was it hard for them to do something they wanted to do more than anything else? Of course not! It made them happy to serve Jesus in this way! They wouldn’t want to do anything other than serve him in this way!

And it was for the sake of their own happiness, their own pleasure, their own satisfaction, their own joy, that these servants did what they did for their master in the parable… or for Jesus in real life! 

Do you see that?

Being a Christian, loving Jesus, following Jesus, obeying Jesus, doing his will—indeed, serving Jesus—is meant to bring us a deeper and more lasting kind of happiness than is otherwise available in this world. It’s okay to want the kind of happiness that comes from Christ alone. Jesus gives us permission to want the kind of happiness that comes from him alone. In fact, Jesus says in this parable that we ought to pursue the kind of happiness that comes from him alone.

Somewhere along the way, I’m afraid too many of us have gotten the message that “serving Jesus” is hard; it’s unpleasant; it’s at least something that, all things being equal, we’re not supposed to want to do. I mean, yes, we do it… but only because we have to, or only because we’re supposed to… but mostly, we think… it disrupts our happiness. Happiness, as far as we’re concerned, is living a life devoted completely to ourselves, not to Jesus!

So like the third servant, we do the bare minimum sometimes—we dig our hole in the ground… But give him credit! That was probably a few hours of hard work on his part… a few hours of “serving” his master, in order to keep his master’s treasure safe. And I’ll bet he resented every minute of it… every scoop of dirt he shoveled… I bet he was cursing, wishing that he were doing literally anything else.

But give him credit: at least he “served” his master, right?

I said earlier that once the third servant finished burying his talent, his master was “out of sight, out of mind.” Contrast that with the other two… They doubled their master’s talents. They made an enormous amount of money. Many of you are successful business people. You know that in order to make that kind of return, these men had to commit their lives to it. You know it would take all of their time, talent, energy, skill, creativity, wits to do that… It would require them to think constantly about their master and his talents. It would require them to be preoccupied with their master. And as I said earlier, the evidence in the text is that they did so with eagerness. They did so happily. They did so with joy.

And they did so, not because they were these selfless martyrs who gritted their teeth and worked hard for this very demanding boss. That’s not why Jesus says they did it. They did it because they loved their master and they did it for the sake of the joy that they themselves would experience from pleasing their master! It brought them joy!

But maybe that’s an understatement… That’s putting it too mildly…

Remember I said earlier that the gifts of grace that God has given me—while, by all means, less than some and more than others—are exactly the right amount of gifts for me? 

Why are they the right amount? What are these gifts of grace meant to accomplish within me—which any more or any less might fail to accomplish?

They’re meant to enable me to do what each of these first two servants did: They’re meant to enable me to “enter into the joy of my master.” 

They’re meant to enable me to “enter into the joy” of my Lord Jesus! That’s an unimaginable amount of joy.

Because literally no one who has ever lived on this earth has experienced more joy than Jesus—and the thought that we get to “enter into” or experience for ourselves that same joy… that’s incomprehensible!

In case you don’t believe me when I say that no one who’s ever lived has known more joy than Jesus, I need you to look at something. If you have your Bibles—and you should—turn with me to Hebrews 12. Let’s look at verses 1 and 2:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Why did Jesus “endure the cross”? For the joy that was set before him! He did it for joy… well, the joy of rescuing us from our sins and making us part of his family… the joy of bringing glory to his Father… the joy of pleasing his Father.

Now think about it: Jesus endured mocking, insults, spitting, and whipping… he endured the most painful, violent, hideous form of torture and execution ever invented—crucifixion. And as part of his crucifixion, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Which means on the cross he endured separation from his Father, which is hell itself.

And what Hebrews says here in verse 2 is that the joy that Jesus knew… on the other side of the cross… made his all his suffering, all the hell endured, completely worth it!

The magnitude of the joy that Jesus experienced was greater than the magnitude of his suffering. And Jesus wants to give us that joy! He wants us to experience it too!

If we understand what Jesus is offering us, how could we not happily work for that joy! Such that the idea of merely “serving” Jesus seems beside the point! I wouldn’t want to do anything else!

I began this sermon talking about how proud and happy I was for my coach to call me by a very special name…

Can you imagine how proud and happy I’ll be when my Lord calls me by a name that is infinitely more precious? I want him to call me “good and faithful servant.”

Sermon 11-08-2020: “Choose This Day”

November 10, 2020

I like to run. Correction: I like to have run. Past tense—if you know what I mean. I don’t enjoy running while I’m actually doing it. But with the end of Daylight Saving Time last week, it gets dark… early. And for safety reasons, I don’t prefer doing it when it’s dark. So I did something this past week I haven’t done in a while. I went to the gym.

And you know how you have to scan a bar code when you go to the gym? I did that, and naturally the attendant working at the front desk noticed and said, “Welcome back, Brent! I see it’s been a while!” And I’m like, “How embarrassing!” I feel judged! And I thought this was a “Judgment Free Zone”! Well, I guess I should be thankful: at least she didn’t say, “Welcome back, Brent! You look like someone who really needs to come back to the gym!”

But when I got through working out, I had the same thought I always have when I return to the gym after some time away: I thought, “I’m going to really get in shape this time! I’m going to do it! I’m going to get swole! I’m going to get to the point where I can do more than one pull-up at a time! I’m going to do it this time!”

This time time it’s going to be different!

And when we read today’s scripture, we ought to wonder if the Israelites are feeling the way I feel when I go back to the gym: “This time it’s going to be different! This time we’re really going to stick with it! This time we’re really going to be faithful servants of God!” 

Because make no mistake: the Israelites have made similar commitments before.

Most of the people to whom Joshua is addressing these words were alive back when Moses preached his farewell sermon, in Deuteronomy chapter 30. They undoubtedly nodded their heads in agreement when Moses said words that are very similar to the words that Joshua says in today’s scripture. Moses said,

Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live! You can make this choice by loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and committing yourself firmly to him…

That was many years before today’s scripture. Did the Israelites live up to their commitment back then?

No they did not. How do I know?

Look at verse 14 of Joshua 24: “Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.” Or verse 23: “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord.”

Wait… Put away foreign gods…?

What the heck is Israel doing messing around with these idols in the first place?Where did they come from? How long have they had them in their possession?”

And the answer is, “They’ve had them for a long, long time!” Their parents had them. Their grandparents had them. Their great-grandparents had them. In fact, notice Joshua refers to gods that their forefathers served 40-something years earlier, when Israel was in slavery in Egypt. And their descendants are still worshipingthem today!

And consider this: April preached a few weeks ago from Exodus 32, about how when Moses was up on Mount Sinai for 40 days, his brother Aaron and the rest of the Israelites created a golden calf to worship. Before Moses interceded in prayer, God threatened to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, to hit the reset button, to start again by creating a new covenant people, this time with Moses as the father of the nation. 

My point is, even at the same time that God was threatening to destroy the Israelites for worshiping the golden calf, many of these same Israelites had in their possession other idols from Egypt and Mesopotamia. And they were worshiping those idols too!

Think about unbelievable that is!

How many miracles had Israel witnessed during that time? They witnessed the ten plagues against Egypt. They crossed the Red Sea on dry land. They watched Pharaoh and his army drown. They ate the miracle bread from heaven. They heard God speak to them at Sinai. They satisfied their thirst with miraculous water from a rock.

By the time of today’s scripture, the generations that saw those miracles had died off… but even this generation, the one to whom Joshua is speaking, remembers eating the manna from heaven. They remember crossing over the Jordan on dry land. They remember God bringing down the walls of Jericho with nothing more than a trumpet blast. They witnessed God giving them one miraculous victory after another over their military enemies.

They knew who God was… They knew he was real… They knew he was all-powerful… They experienced that power first-hand… Yet at the same time, they also worshiped puny, worthless idols. And they believed in those idols enough to hand them them down to their children… and to their children’s children.

My point is… if all these miraculous and powerful events weren’t enough to convince the Israelites to forsake their idols, how much confidence do we have that they’ll be successful this time? Are they like me at the gym? “This time time it’s going to be different! This time I’m really going to stick with the Lord! Never mind my dozens of previous resolutions to be a faithful to God. This time I’m really going to do it!”

Well… the good news is, this generation of Israelites ended up doing okay this time: If you read ahead in this chapter, in verse 31, we’re told that Israel “served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the Lord did for Israel.”

So what was the difference this time? How did the Israelites manage to stick to their commitment this time?

I think it’s because Joshua convinced them that if they were going “put away their idols” and keep them put away, if they were going to serve God and not, at the same time, also serve their worthless idols, it wasn’t going to happen simply because they tried harder this time. It wasn’t going to happen because they had more will power this time. It wasn’t going to happen because they finally convinced themselves, intellectually, of the truth of the doctrines that Moses and Joshua taught them. It wasn’t even going to be because Joshua forced them to make a choice for God—“Choose this day whom you will serve”; or that when they made that choice they were more sincere than they were last time.

No… Inasmuch as Israel successfully put away their idols and served God, they did so because they took to heart the message of Joshua’s sermon in this chapter. We didn’t read most of that sermon, but let’s at least skim it now… So… if you have your Bibles—and you should—look at Joshua 24, verses 2 to 13. Joshua is speaking God’s Word to the people, and God is recounting to them a brief history of how Israel got to this point—how they made it to the Promised Land. 

Just look at one verse, verse 3: “Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan, and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac.” And it goes on…

If you look at the rest of what God tells Israel, you’ll notice a theme: Joshua’s sermon is all about what God has done: “I did this thing for you… Then I did that… Then I did this other thing.” In fact, the little word “I” appears eighteen times in just ten verses!

Why?

Because God is reminding them, “This is not about you. It’s not about what you or your ancestors did. This is all about Me! I did all of this for you!” Now look at verse 13: “I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant.”

I think we read about these heroes in the Bible, and we often think of them as spiritual superheroes of the faith. We think, “I can never be as faithful and strong and committed as they were! I can’t do what they did!”

In a way you’re right: You can’t. But God can.

One of the greatest heroes in the Bible, after all, is Abraham. He was chosen to be the father of the nation of Israel, the father of the people through whom God would save the world through his Son Jesus. You think, “I can never be like him.” Not so fast: look what Joshua says about Abraham in verse 2. When God called Abraham, God didn’t go looking for one faithful man among the millions who was already serving God, one man who was already loving God, one man who was already being faithful to God, one man who was already well-suited to the mission God was calling him to fulfill! No! God wouldn’t be able to find that man even if he tried: Paul describes who each one of us is apart from God’s grace in Romans 3:

None is righteous, no, not one;

    no one understands;

    no one seeks for God.

All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;

    no one does good,

    not even one.

So when God called Abraham, Abraham was no different: look at what he was doing in verse 2: Abraham was “serving other gods.” He was a pagan… an idolator. God did not choose Abraham, in other words, because Abraham was worthy of being chosen. 

No… God chose him first… and then made him worthy.

God chose him first… and then made him worthy.

That is the way God always does things. That is the order of grace…

And even when we work hard for God, when we serve God, when we do good works for God—as many of us did yesterday at the Rise Against Hunger event, as some of us did last week at the Halloween event—it wasn’t really us doing it; we don’t deserve the credit. The apostle Paul makes this point in 1 Corinthians 15: When he’s talking about all the hard work he’s done as an apostle, he almost has to correct himself in mid-sentence—or at least make sure his readers don’t misunderstand him. He writes, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them [the other apostles] though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

Did you catch that? Paul did all this work. But it wasn’t Paul, it was God’s grace within Paul that was doing all the good work through him. God deserved the credit.

I believe that Toccoa, Georgia, has hardly begun to see what God’s grace can do when that grace works powerfully through normal, average, everyday sinners like you and me at Toccoa First United Methodist! They’ve hardly seen it yet! Don’t you want them to? Don’t you want to see what powerful, miraculous things God can do even through us. I believe they can and they will! 

And when they do, they’re not going to say, for example, “Boy, that Josh Villars is really something special! Look what he did.” No… They’re going to say, “That can’t be Josh! Josh can’t do that! That must be Jesus!”

That’s how grace works!

Speaking of grace, Pastor Steve Brown is a Presbyterian pastor down in Florida who’s famous for saying outrageous things about God’s grace and God’s unconditional love—outrageous things that also happen to be true! He said one time, “When I was growing up, I just knew that my mother loved me so much that if she found out I was serial killer, she would say, ‘Well, they probably deserved it.’” 

Isn’t that terrible? But I’m sure it was true! That’s the way our mothers love us—or at least that’s how they’re supposed to! There’s nothing we can do to make our mothers stop loving us… That’s unconditional love, and that’s a good thing.

Pastor Steve went on to say that he knew his dad’s love was no different: his dad loved him unconditionally too.

But psychologists tell us that, unfortunately, most of us children don’t experience our father’s love like that. Most children grow up believing that our dads love us only as much as live up to their expectations. We don’t want to risk disappointing our fathers because if we do… well… we’re afraid they won’t love us anymore… or they won’t love us as much. It’s sad that children often feel that way!

Now let me ask you: How do you think your heavenly Father loves you?

Because I think that the hardest doctrine to believe in all of Christianity is that God loves and accepts us by grace alone, and not based on our own merit. 

No, I take that back: It’s not hard for me to believe that God loves and accepts you by grace. I mean, in comparison to me, you’re wonderful… But what’s very hard for me to believe is that God loves and accepts me—even me—by grace, and not based on how wonderful I prove myself to be.

Well… that’s why someone like me needs to hear the same sermon that the Israelites needed to hear in today’s scripture! 

God is telling Israel something like this: “You didn’t make it to the Promised Land because of anything you did! See, I’ve known all this time… I’ve known for the decades that have passed since I sent Moses to liberate you from slavery, that you were carrying around those idols. Worshipping those idols. You didn’t know I knew, but I did. You can’t keep your sins a secret from me. Which means I must really love you to have brought you into a ‘land on which you have not labored’ and given you ‘cities that you have not built’ and allowed you to ‘eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant.’

“I did this all the while knowing that you were cheating on me with other gods—serving them, loving them, trying to please them…

“So now you know that I love you based on grace alone, right?”

“Which means that I love you in spite of what you do, or in spite of what you’ve done. And now that you know that, how about giving up those idols? Obviously, I’ve proven to you that I love you even with your idols. But it’s time to give them up. It’s time to start loving me with your whole heart. It’s time to throw those things away.”

Again, getting back to Pastor Steve Brown: He was talking about the doctrine of sanctification—that long, slow process of the Holy Spirit changing us from within. He said, “I’m better than I was”—by which he meant, “I guess I’m a little holier than I used to be… a little more Christlike than I used to be.” “But,” he said, “it’s only because I realized I don’t have to be better than I was.” 

“I’m better than I was. But it’s only because I realized I don’t have to be better than I was.”

Isn’t that good news! That’s the radical grace of God right there!

And I think that’s what the Israelites finally grasped when Joshua preached this sermon: Look at how much God loves us. Look at how much grace he’s given us!

I think that message just melted their hearts. And I hope it melts yours. 

I worry that in emphasizing God’s grace so much that I’ve made it sound like we don’t do anything. And that’s not true.

We have to do what Joshua tells the Israelites to do in verse 15:“Choose this day whom you will serve.” 

Let me briefly share three ways that this is good news:

First, it’s good news because some of you, as far as you know, have always believed in Jesus. You don’t remember a time in your life before Christ… You don’t remember having a dramatic conversion experience… You don’t remember being born again. And you might think, “Maybe I’m not saved.”

Well, here’s a test: Are you choosing Christ today… and every day? Are you repenting of your sins as you become aware of them today… and every day? Are you seeking to follow Christ today… and every day. The evidence of saving faith isn’t whether you remember a time before you were a Christian, or you remember being converted, or you remember being born again… Look, we all know so-called Christians who went through confirmation or at one time prayed a “sinner’s prayer,” and that’s the only evidence of their Christian faith. God is not impressed with that!

What he’s impressed with is, Are you choosing him this day?

A second way this is good news: Some of you are feeling guilty right now because you haven’t prayed in a while, you haven’t gone to church in a while, you haven’t read your Bible in a while, you haven’t even thought about witnessing to your neighbor… You feel like you’re just sort of going through the motions of being a Christian. You know you’re not as faithful to God as you ought to be. And you feel awful about it.

If so, please hear God’s Word: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” God is giving you a second chance—or maybe even a 5,872nd chance.” It’s not too late for you to choose him again. For you to repent of your sins, put away your idols, and choose him this day… not last week,  last year, or 50 years ago, but today—forget about the past—God wants to be in a relationship with you today. Choose him today!

Finally, there are others of you who never really made a choice in the first place. Maybe your parents made it for you when you were young, they made you go through confirmation and get baptized like it was some kind of rite of passage, but you know you don’t have a personal relationship with Christ. You might even believe it up here, intellectually, but you’ve never surrendered to Christ.

If so, God is telling you, “Choose this day!”

God wants you to choose, and then his Word promises to give you the power to change.

Choose… and let God change you!

Amen.

Sermon 11-01-2020: “The Source of Our Hope”

November 6, 2020

Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

The CDC recently reported the results of a survey that showed that in the wake of the coronavirus, 63 percent of American young adults, between the ages of 18 and 24, report symptoms of anxiety or depression. Maybe a number like that doesn’t surprise us any more. But how about this: 25.5 percent of these young people said they had seriously considered suicide within the 30 days before taking the survey.

A quarter of young adults over the past several months have “seriously considered” suicide!

How is that not a crisis? So many young people living with an absence of hope.

Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 10-25-2020: “Amazing Grace and a Gracious Warning”

November 6, 2020

Scripture: Matthew 22:1-14; 1 Timothy 3:1-7

I had a “frenemy” in church youth group when I was a teenager. His name was Rick. He was popular, good-looking, girls liked him… So naturally I hated him. But also… he was very conceited about it, and he picked on me… a lot. Anyway, Rick was very predictable. Because every time we went on a youth group retreat or church summer camp—a couple of times each year—you could count on Rick, responding to the youth pastor’s altar call, walking down the aisle… to receive Christ as Savior and Lord in tears… very emotional.

And I wanted to say, “Rick, didn’t you do this six months ago?” And I’m sure he would have said, “Yes, but this time I really mean it, I promise.” And I’m like, “How many times do you have to get saved before you’re finally saved? Besides… maybe if you stopped picking on me so much, you wouldn’t feel so guilty!” 

Read the rest of this entry »