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Sermon 08-02-2020: “Why Does God Wrestle With Us?”

August 5, 2020

Scripture: Genesis 32:1-12, 22-32

I’m not much of a fighter. I learned this the hard way a couple of years ago, when I signed up for Tae Kwon Do martial arts class. My son Ian was taking Tae Kwon Do, and I was often dropping him off and picking him up, so I thought, “Why not take lessons with him? It’ll be good exercise!”

What a mistake! Every class concluded with “sparring.” It was sort of like MMA for kids. This was when you’d put on headgear and boxing gloves and special protective shoes and a chest guard… pair off with another student about your size and height… and start kicking, punching, wrestling, and wailing on one another before the instructor announced the end of the round. 

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Sermon 07-26-2020: “Living in Step with the Spirit”

July 27, 2020

Scripture: Galatians 5:13-25

My dog, Ringo, has a one-track mind. And I could describe what’s on his mind at any moment in two words: “tennis ball.” He loves playing fetch with tennis balls. So, yesterday, I thought I would take a couple to Lake Hartwell and have him swim out to fetch them. It’s the first time I’ve taken him, so there was a little bit of a learning curve. I stood on the bank with him and hurled the ball into the water. He stood on the bank and looked at me as if to say, “Oh, darn! That was one of my favorite balls!” And I’m like, “No, dummy, you’re supposed to swim out into the water and fetch it!

So I had to get into the water to show him how to do it. But once I did that, he was fine… a natural born swimmer! He did not require a swimming lesson. He was great at swimming on the first try!

My point in sharing this is, that unlike Ringo, who knew immediately how to swim without being shown how, we Christians are not naturals when it comes to being holy. We do not naturally know how to be righteous. There’s nothing natural about learning how to please God. And that’s what today’s scripture is all about.

Last week, I preached the boldest sermon I’ve ever preached about the radical, completely free grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I said that since there’s nothing that we can do to earn or deserve or contribute to saving ourselves, then it stands to reason that there’s nothing we can do, or fail to do, that will un-save ourselves… Remember: I talked about how hard the Corinthian Christians tried to un-save themselves, as described in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. But even they, Paul said, continued to be beloved sons and daughters of God, in spite of their sin. 

No, there’s nothing we can do to un-save ourselves… other than fail to believe that Jesus has done everything already… in order to save us.

And remember, this is precisely what the apostle Paul fears for these Galatians: that they are in danger of believing that Christ hasn’t done everything necessary for salvation; indeed, that we human beings must add at least a little bit to what Christ has done for us through his life, death, and resurrection. Just a little bit. “Get circumcised… don’t eat pork or bacon… follow these customs and rituals… no big deal… just add these small things to your faith in Christ.” That’s what the false teachers known as the Judaizers were teaching.

And Paul says no: if you try to add any requirement to faith in Christ alone for salvation, you lose Christ. And you won’t be saved. If you say good works are necessary in addition to faith in Christ alone, you won’t be saved.

I boldly preached that last week… 

And now… I have to deal with this week’s scripture—including these frightening words in verses 19 to 21:

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom… 

If you’re like me, you read a list of sins like this, and you immediately start thinking, “Do I do that? Okay, but what about that other thing?” 

Obviously, some of these sins are sins that Christians like you and me might expect to be on such a list: because we judge that they are so-called “big sins”—sins that unchurched people, that “secular” people, that lost people, tend to commit—or be associated with. So maybe some of us—not all of us, but some of us—feel like we’re off the hook for those so-called big sins. But what about the rest: “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy”… Can any of us Christians say, when reading about those sins, that we’re off the hook? And this is hardly an exhaustive list of sins! Notice verse 21: After giving us this list of fifteen sins, Paul adds, “and things like these.” He could have named many more sins!

My point is, these verses include what we often think of as big sins, and what we often dismiss as little sins! I mean, “jealousy envyfits of anger”! “Rivalries, dissensions, divisions.” I’m sorry… Does anyone use Twitter? If so, you’re probably familiar with these sins!

Yet Paul says that “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” 

Any of you feeling uncomfortable about now?

Besides, didn’t I just say that salvation doesn’t depend on what we do or don’t do, and that we can’t sin away our salvation… that this is what Paul himself has been teaching in this letter? Yet right here it kind of sounds like Paul says that salvation does depend on what do, and we can sin away our salvation! 

Did I misinterpret Paul? Or is Paul contradicting himself—and now he’s saying that in order to be saved, we really do have to avoid all these sins?

Well, no… I don’t believe I have misinterpreted Paul. And Paul is not contradicting himself. 

Let me explain… 

First, notice that Paul says that there is a war going on within each one of us Christians—a war between what he calls “the flesh,” by which he means our old, unregenerate, sinful human nature, and the Holy Spirit. Now look at verse 17:  the result of this internal struggle is that our sinful nature can prevent us “from doing the things [we] want to do.”

I’m reminded immediately of Paul’s more famous, and similar-sounding, words in Romans 7: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” 

There’s a never-ending debate going on among Bible scholars and theologians about these words from Romans 7: Who is Paul talking about? He’s using first-person pronouns: I and me and my. Is he really talking about himself? He sounds like he’s talking about himself—and the Christian experience, in general, of the struggles of life on this side of eternity. But some scholars say no: that he’s speaking only of his pre-Christian experience, before he found Christ… or the experience of all unsaved people in general. I think horse scholars have a hard time believing that the apostle Paul admits to struggling with sin!

Be that as it may… I’m confident that Paul is talking about himself and all of us who are in Christ—the struggle that we face between our old, unregenerate, sinful selves and our new life in Christ. And I think Paul’s words in today’s scripture lend support to my conviction: when he talks about this similar-sounding struggle in verse 17, he’s definitely speaking about people who already have the Holy Spirit within them, who are already born again; so he’s definitely talking about Christians! 

And if you’re a Christian, I’m sure you agree that the struggle between your old sinful self and the Holy Spirit is real! We all face that struggle—and according to Paul, we are sometimes going to lose battles between the Spirit and our flesh… or we’re often going to lose these battles… we’re often going to do what our sinful nature desires instead of what the Spirit desires… Which means… we’re going to sin.

This is true for all of us who are born again! Look at verses 19-21 again: We Christians are committing at least some of these sins, right? And many more besides.

So getting back to my earlier question… Does this mean we’re in trouble? That we’re in danger of losing salvation depending on whether or not we commit these sins? Is it possible that in spite of Paul’s insistence that we’re saved by faith alone, apart from what we do—is it possible that we who have faith in Christ still won’t “inherit the kingdom of God”?

No! How could Paul be saying that when he suggests that all Christians struggle this way with sin?

But let me give you more reassurance: First, I notice that the English Standard Version, which I love and read every day, was modified slightly in verse 21 back in 2016. Now there’s a footnote on the verse to better explain the meaning of the words “those who do such things.” It doesn’t mean Christians who give in to temptation and sin and later repent and confess the sin. No… as the more recent ESV says, it means “those who make a practice of doing” these sins. The NIV says, “those who live like this.” 

In other words, Paul is talking about a life characterized by a persistent, ongoing pattern of sin—a lifestyle of sin—without repentance, without godly remorse, without confession of sin.

Does that ever describe an authentic Christian life? By no means! 

Does it often describe the lives of people who merely call themselves Christians? Yes, it does!

You know it does! And so there’s a warning here! See, I’m not interested in simply letting us all off the hook, and saying Paul’s warning doesn’t apply to any of us. It might! I can’t look into your heart and know whether you’ve been born again. And maybe you don’t know whether or not you’re born again. If so, Paul is giving you a test to find out: Is your life characterized by persistent, ongoing sins. Are you routinely engaging in them—without godly remorse, without repentance, without confession? 

If so, you could be a Christian in name only… If so, the Lord is calling you right now to confess your sins, to repent of them, and to believe in him today. I hope and pray you will!

But for the rest of you, who know you’re born again, yet you struggle with sin and feel guilty about it… please consider this: Every week in church—and perhaps more often in your private prayer lives—you pray the Lord’s Prayer. Remember: this is the model prayer that Jesus gives his disciples to pray. It begins “Our Father.” That’s because through our faith in Christ, we have been adopted into God’s family as his sons and daughters. So we have the privilege of calling God the same name that Jesus himself calls him: Abba… Father… That means that because we’re in Christ, we enjoy or have access to the same intimate relationship with God that Jesus did, and that our Father loves us the same way he loves his only begotten Son Jesus.

Next, there are several things we ask our Father to do in the Model Prayer: to hallow his name—to glorify his name, to make his name great in the world and in our hearts… to bring his kingdom on earth… to enable us to do his will… Then we ask him to “give us this day our daily bread”—that is, to give us everything we need that day, day by day. 

What’s next? “Forgive us our trespasses”—in other words, we ask him to forgive us our sins. That includes even sins like the ones that Paul mentions in verses 19 to 21—“big sins” and “little sins.” We can trust that our Father will forgive them. As John says in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

But here’s my main point in mentioning the Lord’s Prayer: Jesus doesn’t tell us Christians to begin prayer by begging for forgiveness for sins before he’ll listen to us, before he’ll answer our prayers, before he’ll start treating us like his children again!

Also, this is a prayer that Jesus expects us to pray how often? Every day! This means that according to Jesus, there will never be a day when you won’t have sins for which you need to ask forgiveness—yet your Father still loves you and accepts you as one of his children.

[Some of you don’t believe this…]

If you’re a Christian who thinks that unless or until you successfully overcome sin in your life, you will never “earn” the privilege of being loved by your Father, or listened to by your Father, you are believing a lie from the pit of hell. Satan would love for you to believe that this is true! Satan would love for you to think that you’re not good enough or righteous enough or sinless enough for God to treat you like his child! 

Let me be clear: I’m not speaking of anyone other than those who are already Christians. These words of assurance don’t apply to anyone who hasn’t yet received eternal life through Christ.

But if you’re a Christian, remember: you already stand before God as perfectly righteous… clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Your sins have already been decisively accounted for and punished on the cross. 

So your Father isn’t mad at you anymore. He isn’t disappointed in you anymore. He isn’t holding your sins against you anymore… Not if you believe in Jesus! 

This is what it means to be a Christian! Do you believe me yet?

Because we find even more reassurance in Paul’s discussion of the “fruit of the Spirit.” This image of fruit tells us many interesting things:

First, you can’t take duct tape and tape some healthy apples to a dead apple tree and make the tree come alive! By all means, fruit will be a sign of a living and healthy tree. But fruit plays no role in making the tree alive and healthy. Again, this gets back to what we’ve been saying throughout Galatians: only faith can save us, not works; works, like fruit on a tree, can only be a sign of eternal life that is already present within you. 

Second, fruit grows very slowly. So unless you have some kind of time-lapse photography going on over the course of weeks or months, you can’t see it at all.

So it is with “fruit of the Spirit.” Growth is inevitable, Paul says, but it is also slow and often unnoticeable in our perception. So… you’re still struggling with sin and unbelief? Be patient with yourself and others. And be confident that the Spirit is still at work!

Third, the “fruit of the Spirit” is not fruits of the Spirit. You don’t get to specialize in one particular fruit and not the others: Like “I’m producing really good apples, but my oranges and bananas are pretty awful.” No: don’t confuse “fruit of the Spirit” with “gifts of the Spirit.” Gifts are given discriminately; fruit is not. If you are truly growing in the “fruit of the Spirit,” you can be assured that you are growing in all of them at once.

Fourth, and most importantly, “fruit of the Spirit” is not something you can make happen or you can control. Fruit of the Spirit depends on God. Remember the parable that Jesus tells in Mark 4:26-29:

And [Jesus] said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

Our own spiritual growth—the development of “fruit of the Spirit” in our lives—is a part of the kingdom of God that Jesus describes in this parable. So it grows in the same way: it ultimately depends on God!

But… we have a role to play in the process: In fact, Paul gives us a command in verse 25: “keep in step with the Spirit.” How do we do that? Well, what does the Spirit do? Jesus describes the main thing that the Spirit does in John 16:14: “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

The Holy Spirit is sometimes called the “shy member” of the Trinity because he constantly directs the world’s attention away from himself and on to Jesus. He works constantly to glorify Jesus. He works constantly to make Jesus look great!And if we are to live our lives “in step” with the Spirit, that’s what we will do, too!

See, I believe that all the sins listed in verses 19 to 21 are ultimately the result of our efforts to glorify ourselves—to live for our own glory. 

What makes me angry, after all? When I’m not getting the glory or when someone is diminishing my glory! 

What makes me feel jealous! When someone is getting glory that I think I deserve! 

I could go on… 

We think we need glory to be happy, and in a way we do. The problem is we think we need to seek our own glory; the Bible says we need to seek the glory that belongs to Jesus alone! John the Baptist got it exactly right when he said, “Jesus must become greater, and I must become less.” John 3:30. We were made to bask not in our own glory, but in the glory of the Lord!

“O taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.” Psalm 34:8. “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Psalm 37:4. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Matthew 13:44.

I want happiness, I want joy, I want my heart’s deepest desire satisfied. Don’t you?

Here’s the way: “Keep in step with the Spirit.” And like the Spirit, live your life for the glory of Jesus Christ! Amen.

Sermon 07-19-2020: “Don’t Fall Away From Grace!”

July 20, 2020

Scripture: Galatians 5:1-12

We’ve just read Paul’s most impassioned, angriest words in all of the New Testament! Verse 12: “I wish those who unsettle you would would emasculate themselves!” This is heavy sarcasm, in case you missed it! It’s as if he were saying, “Hey, Judaizers! If you’re going to pervert the gospel by insisting that Gentile Christians get circumcised in order to be saved, why stop at circumcision? Why not go all the way and castrate yourselves while you’re at it!” That’s what he’s saying!

Paul is righteously angry here. Why?

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Sermon 07-05-2020: “It’s Not What You Do, It’s Who You Are”

July 14, 2020

Scripture: Galatians 3:5-14

I grew up Southern Baptist, as some of you did. As you might know, Baptists don’t have any kind of confirmation class—you know, “everything you wanted to know about being a Christian but were afraid to ask.” There’s no formal process that leads to young people into making a profession of faith in Christ—for better or worse. Instead it happens something like this: after the pastor preaches his sermon, he makes an invitation for the congregation to receive Christ as Savior and Lord. Then, during one of twenty-six verses of the invitation hymn “Just as I Am,” people respond to this invitation by walking down the aisle, praying a sinner’s prayer, and later getting baptized. Many of you know what I’m talking about because you’ve been through it yourself. I have too. I’m not criticizing this tradition at all.

Except… in my case, at least in the church I grew up in, it would have been nice if someone had explained to me what exactly was happening. Because between the ages of about eight and twelve, I watched one Sunday school classmate after another, one friend after another, walk down the aisle and get saved. That’s what they said was happening: they were saved. And I just sat in my seat, unsure and afraid. 

For one thing, oftentimes people who walked down the aisle were in tears… and I did not want to cry in public, in church! I had a crush on a girl named Betty Jean, and I would been mortified to cry in front of her! So before long I was the only one left who hadn’t walked down the aisle. 

And I felt left out.

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Sermon 06-28-2020: “We Never Outgrow the Gospel”

July 14, 2020

Scripture: Galatians 3:1-5

Not long ago, Paul McCartney gave an interview with Esquire magazine. He was asked if he felt like he still had something to prove. “Yeah, all the time,” he said. “And it is a silly feeling.”

I do actually sometimes talk to myself and say, “Wait a minute: look at this little mountain of achievements. There’s an awful lot of them. Isn’t that enough?” But maybe I could do it a bit better… I mean, I never felt like, “Oh, I did good.” Nobody does.

Wait! So Paul McCartney, who is literally the world’s wealthiest rock star, who was one of the two primary singer-songwriters in a group that sold more records than anyone else, who once wrote a song, “Yesterday,” that people loved so much that other recording artists recorded it more than any other song in the history of recorded music—this same Paul McCartney says that even he “never feels like” he did good—or that he did good enough—and therefore he has something to prove.

He says to himself, “Look at this mountain of achievements… Isn’t that enough?” And for him, the answer is no. And he says the answer is no for the rest of us, too.

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Sermon 06-21-2020: “Living in Step with the Gospel”

July 14, 2020

Scripture: Galatians 2:11-21

Over the past few weeks, the Lord has continued to lay this story on my heart to share with you. I’ve told the Lord “no” a few times, but he doesn’t seem to care. He really wants me to share it with you—and it does tie in to today’s scripture. 

In the summer of 1976, I was six-years-old. My parents had this crazy idea that what my two older sisters and I needed to do that summer was to take ice-skating lessons. Ice skating… in Atlanta. There was a skating rink at the old Colony Square shopping center in Midtown. So that’s where we had our lessons. For at least a few months, we spent a lot of time ice-skating.

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Sermon 06-14-2020: “The B.C. and A.D. of Our Lives”

July 14, 2020

Scripture: Galatians 1:11-24

Do you know any millennials—I’m talking about that generation of people aged 25 to 40? Some of you are millennials, of course—but for the moment I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to the rest of us about you. If we know and love millennials in your life, they could probably use a hug about right now. Not that I can recommend that you literally hug anyone in this time of coronavirus! But listen to this: according to a new survey of 2,000 millennials, fully 80 percent of them feel as if they’re not “good enough” in virtually all areas of their lives. 

Seventy-five percent admit that they constantly feel “overwhelmed” by pressure to succeed in their careers, to find a meaningful romantic relationship, to meet others’ expectations, and to maintain a presence on social media. In all, 80 percent of respondents even say these worries have negatively impacted their sleep and admit that their overall mental health has suffered.

So… millennials could use a hug. They could use some encouragement. In general, they’re not feeling good about themselves!

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Sermon 06-07-2020: “The Gospel of Completely Free Grace”

July 14, 2020

Scripture: Galatians 1:1-10

I am this close to deleting the Twitter app on my phone. I don’t know if I’m sanctified enough to get rid of Twitter yet—because I love it so much! I wake up in the morning—and first thing, I reach for my phone: “I gotta check Twitter!” Even though it only seems to get me angry and worked up and righteously indignant these days. 

But… speaking of anger and Twitter, I saw an angry tweet from a young woman in the Atlanta suburbs this past week. I gather that she is still a teenager, 17 or 18, and that she goes to or recently graduated from an elite high school in metro Atlanta. Anyway, the tweet was calling out—by name—her classmates, acquaintances, and now former friends for being racist. Even more, underneath the tweet, she linked to one smartphone video after another of these white, highly privileged high school kids using the N-word and other racial epithets—again, on video for all the world to see. And since this is the internet, all the world will be able to see the sins of these young people, I suppose, for the rest of their lives. 

So… When these kids apply to college… when they apply for a job… when they fall in love… when they run for office, if they do… these videos will haunt them forever, potentially.

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Sermon 05-31-2020: “What’s Gotten Into Peter?”

July 14, 2020

Scripture: Acts 2:1-21

Just last week I was reading and journaling through Exodus chapters 3 and 4—where God appeared to Moses in the burning bush and called him to go to Pharaoh and demand that he let the Israelites, who were in slavery in Egypt, go free. 

And I couldn’t help but notice that the word “but” appears frequently: Exodus 3:11: “But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?’” Exodus 4:1: “Then Moses answered, ‘But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, “The Lord did not appear to you.” ’ ” Exodus 4:10: “But Moses said to the Lord, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.’” Exodus 4:13. “But he said, ‘Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.’”

You have to hand it to Moses… at least he’s honest!

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Sermon 05-24-2020: “Do Not Be Surprised at the Fiery Trial”

May 27, 2020

Scripture: 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11.

Cavonna Holcomb referred to me as Dr. Doolittle on Facebook two weeks ago—because I rescued a baby possum from my garage and brought it to her place. She named it Otis, and it’s living in one of her pastures. The week before Otis visited us, we had a groundhog in our garage. But even Cavonna doesn’t know the best story about an animal showing up at our house, which happened 14 years ago… 

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