Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

Sermon 05/17/2020: “Offering to Others the Reason for Your Hope”

May 18, 2020

Scripture: 1 Peter 3:13-22

When I was young, I was not a graceful or confident swimmer. In fact, I didn’t learn to swim properly until I was in my 20s—when Lisa, my wife, taught me to swim. Until then, I was mostly a scaredy cat when it came to the water. 

So imagine how I felt, then, when, in 1988, I found out I got accepted into Georgia Tech. I was happy. I told a friend of mine at church, and the very first thing he said to me was this: “Oh… You’ll have to take drown-proofing. It’s a requirement for all male students. Goes back to World War II. And oh, by the way, if you don’t pass drown-proofing, you can’t graduate.” 

“What’s drown-proofing?” I asked… innocently. “Well… Let me put it this way: for the final exam, they tie your arms and legs together and throw you into the deep end of the pool. And if you don’t drown, you pass the class!” Suddenly, the prospect of going to Georgia Tech, which seemed hard enough already, now seemed like a death wish. I was reasonably certain I would not survive drown-proofing. 

“Don’t worry,” my friend said, “If you drown, they’ll award you your degree posthumously. They’ll give it to your parents.” Gee, thanks!

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Sermon 05/10/2020: “How to Suffer Well”

May 13, 2020

Scripture: 1 Peter 2:18-25

One of my Christian heroes—at least among Christians that I know in real life—is a man named Tracy Fleming. He’s the owner-operator of the Chick-fil-A in Lovejoy, Georgia, down on the southside of Atlanta, not far from where I pastored a church. I used to go to that Chick-fil-A every week to write my sermons. And I got to know Tracy. And I invited him to speak at our church. I don’t know how this current pandemic has changed what I’m about to describe, but over the course of many years, Tracy made a couple of trips to China each year, spending his own money, in order to train and equip Chinese Christians in some of China’s many underground churches. It was risky and potentially even life-threatening, because when he went there, he knew that he and his fellow Christians were under surveillance by the Chinese government. Tracy himself is half-Japanese—not that that endears him to the Chinese government! My point is, Tracy knew that when he went there, there was at least a small risk that he would never come back! But he went anyway! Because he loved Jesus that much!

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Sermon 05/03/2020: “Longing for the Pure Spiritual Milk of God’s Word”

May 13, 2020

Scripture: 1 Peter 2:1-10

Do you know the difference between dogs and cats during this pandemic? Dogs are happy because their best friends have finally quit their jobs in order to stay home and play with them all the time. Cats are happy because their servants are finally working for them all the time.

I love my cat and dogs. If we’ve learned anything about our dog Ringo over these past two months, it’s that he loves tennis balls. He absolutely can’t get enough of them. He simply never gets tired of having you throw a tennis ball in the yard for him. It’s his favorite thing in the world!

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Sermon 04-26-2020: “Born Again Through the Word of God”

April 27, 2020

Scripture: 1 Peter 1:3-9John 20:19-31

Let’s begin today by looking at John chapter 21. In verse 18, Jesus says something curious to Peter: “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” Then in verse 19, John says parenthetically, “This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.”

Jesus, in other words, predicts Peter’s death: One day in the distant future, Jesus tells him, Peter will be martyred because of his faith in Jesus. Indeed, church history teaches us that Peter was crucified, just like Jesus. This is likely what Jesus means when he says that Peter will “stretch out his hands”: he will stretch out his hands on a cross, just as Jesus did. One tradition even says that Peter was crucified upside down because, out of humility, Peter knew he didn’t deserve to die in the same way his Lord died. 

We don’t know if that tradition is true…

But what we do know for sure is this: Peter changed after the resurrection. And I’m not just talking being martyred. We see him in the Book of Acts frequently risking his life—being beaten, being imprisoned, facing execution. He stands up to the very people who hold the power of life and death over him and says, “We must obey God rather than men!”

What a far cry this post-resurrection Peter was from the man who wouldn’t even admit that he knew Jesus when asked by a servant girl—someone who had literally no power over him!

Where did this courage come from? 

It wasn’t the result of Peter’s willpower. It wasn’t the power of positive thinking. And it didn’t happen because he just tried harder.

No, it happened because he was the recipient of a miracle from God. Can you spot the miracle in verse 22 and 23? 

Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God

The miracle, in other words, is being “born again” through the “living and abiding word of God.” 

I know we often use that term “born again” to distinguish one kind of Christian from another—a born again Christian is a really “serious” Christian—perhaps a fanatic, maybe a fundamentalist, definitely a Baptist. Maybe they’re very strict. Maybe they dress a certain way and vote a certain way. Maybe they’re naive about life in the “real world.” Maybe they’re those Christians who stand on the sidewalk with a bullhorn warning people to “turn or burn.” Lots of negative stereotypes about “born again” Christians!

One thing’s for sure… They’re definitely not Methodists, right? We’re so normal and likable and mainstream. We’re not weirdos like those “born again” Christians! 

Well… I don’t know if we’re “weirdos” or not, but I hope we’re born again! Because contrary to what you might have heard, there’s no other kind of Christian… If we are Christians at all, that means—by definition—we have been born again! 

John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist movement, was born again. And he even describes this experience in his journal dated May 24, 1738. Reluctantly, he said, he attended a Bible study on Aldersgate Street in London. And someone in the class was reading from Martin Luther’s preface to Paul’s letter to the Romans. He wrote:

About a quarter before nine, while [Luther] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

Some of us have had these kinds of “heartwarming” experiences when we’re born again. For me, my heartwarming experience happened around 9:00 p.m. on February 17, 1984. But many of you at home watching this sermon—I know—can’t pinpoint the exact moment when this new birth happened for you. And that’s okay… As I heard one preacher say, you don’t need a birth certificate to know that you were actually born. You can look at yourself and say, “Ah! I know I was born because I’m standing here right now, living and breathing!” 

And being born again isn’t so different: Like Wesley you can say, “I feel I do trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation—right now—and I have this assurance—right now—that he’s taken away my sins—even mineand saved me from the law of sin and death.

“I don’t know when I first began trusting Christ like this, and believing that he did those things for me, but I know that I do trust him right now… and I am, right now, at this moment, convinced that he’s taken away my sins. So… I know I’m born again.”

But the key thing that Peter wants us to know here is, our salvation is something that was done for us; it’s not something that we do for ourselves. And that’s why this metaphor of being born again is so appropriate. When it comes to our own birth, after all—our first birth, our natural birth—we had nothing to do with it. We had nothing to do with being conceived in our mother’s womb. That took the intervention of mother and father—and later on, it also usually takes the intervention of doctors and nurses—to ensure that we are safely born. 

It doesn’t depend on us, on our own hard work, and on our own good efforts. 

And you may object, “Yes, but we have to do something to be saved! We Methodists don’t believe that God forces himself on us against our will.” And by all means, that’s true… We have to do something. But what we do—our part in the process of salvation—is described well by Mark Galli, a now retired editor at Christianity Today. He writes:

Imagine you fall off the side of an ocean liner and, not knowing how to swim, begin to drown. Someone on the deck spots you, flailing in the water and throws you a life preserver. It lands directly in front of you and, just before losing consciousness, you grab hold for dear life. They pull you up onto the deck, and you cough the water out of your lungs. People gather around, rejoicing that you are safe and waiting expectantly while you regain your sense. 

After you finally catch your breath, you open your mouth and say: “Did you see the way I grabbed onto that life preserver?! How tightly I held on to it?! Did you notice the definition in my biceps and the dexterity of my wrists? I was all over that thing!”

Needless to say, it would be a bewildering and borderline insane response. To draw attention to the way you cooperated with the rescue effort denigrates the whole point of what happened, which is that you were saved. A much more likely chain of events is that you would immediately seek out the person who threw the life preserver, and you would thank them. Not just superficially, either. You would embrace them, ask them their name, invite them to dinner, maybe give them your cabin!

So, yes… we do something… but it’s nothing other than reaching out for a life preserver that’s already been thrown in front of us; it’s not something for which we deserve any credit. As Paul puts it so nicely in Ephesians 2:8 and 9, “God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.”

And yet… if all that is true, what does Peter mean in verse 17, when he says that each of us believers will be judged “according to each one’s deeds”? That sounds kind of scary! 

After all, I wouldn’t blame you if you thought that being saved meant that you weren’t going to have to face Final Judgment. 

While I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that, if you do think that, I need to warn you that you’re wrong. If you’re a Christian you will face Final Judgment. The Bible teaches that everyone—both Christians and non-Christians—will be judged on the basis of their works

Listen, for instance, to Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:10:

For we must all stand before Christ to be judged. We will each receive whatever we deserve for the good or evil we have done in this earthly body.

See, it’s only if we face Final Judgment that we can make sense of Jesus’ many words about rewards… and Paul’s words about rewards… It’s after the Lord judges us that we receive rewards.

And you may say, “Yes, but if we believers face the same ‘judgment according to works’ that unbelievers face, what hope do we have?”

We have all the hope we could possibly need! 

Because we are “ransomed through the precious blood of Christ,” the judgment we face is according to our good deeds, not according to our sins. Unbelievers will be judged for all of their works, both good or bad, including their sins. But our sins have been wiped out… by Jesus on the cross… Hebrews 8:12: God says, “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” Psalm 103:12: “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”

So in the Final Judgment, the good news is that if you’re a Christian, you will only have good works to show for yourself. And the reward you receive will depend on the extent to which you’ve done good works!

Don’t misunderstand: Peter tells us that we need to do good works because we are Christians: “prepare your minds for action”; “be sober-minded”; “set your hope on God’s grace”; “do not be conformed”; “be holy”; “conduct yourself with fear”; “love one another.” Indeed, the New Testament also teaches that because our Father loves us, he will sometimes discipline us, like a loving Father, when we fail to do what he wants. 

But everything that Peter tells us to do here is premised upon this fact: We already know God as our heavenly Father. So, for example, when Peter tells us in verse 17 to “conduct yourselves with fear,” that’s similar to fear that we had for our human fathers when we were young—fear of disobeying him, to be sure, fear of letting him down… Every once in a while, my mom would speak those dreaded words: “Wait till your father gets home.” I knew I was in trouble. I was afraid when she said that, believe me. 

But you know what I wasn’t afraid of—ever, for a single moment? I was never afraid that when my father did get home, he would tell me he no longer loved me, or that I was no longer part of the family. If we’re born again, we can be confident that nothing will separate us from our Father’s love.

But one more thing: Peter says that we’re born again “not of perishable seed, but imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” When he wrote those words, I’m sure he was remembering a parable that Jesus taught him and his fellow disciples: the parable of the sower. If you have your Bibles, and you should, turn with me to Mark 4:1-20.

A farmer sows seed. Most of it falls on bad soil. But the seed that falls on good soil, Jesus says, “produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” That is a miraculously large bumper crop. Jesus goes on in verse 13 to interpret the parable and tells his disciples that this seed is God’s word—the same living and abiding word that God plants within us when we’re born again.

Consider this: When Jesus predicted that Peter would be crucified for his faith, years from now, Peter wasn’t a substantially different person from the man who had denied Jesus three times, only days or weeks earlier. He was still pretty much a mess. And I’m sure that when Jesus told him he was going to be martyred some day, Peter thought, “Ugh! I can’t do it. I’m not brave enough. I’m a loser. I’m a failure. I’m a sinner. I can never find the courage to do that.” 

But what Peter didn’t realize then was that the change within him was already taking place. This imperishable seed of God’s living and abiding word had already taken root in Peter’s heart. And it was starting to grow. 

Nobody could see it in John 21! Just like takes a long time before a farmer starts to see any evidence of his seeds doing anything. 

“But just wait…” the farmer thinks. Because the farmer is patient. Because he knows what’s coming! And he knows it’s good.

To say the least, we need to be patient, too… Patient with others and also patient with ourselves… God is still writing your story… God is still working his plan for your life… 

If you’ve been born again through the imperishable seed of the living and abiding word of God, Jesus is looking at your life right now and thinking, “Just wait! I’ve got something good in store for you!”

Family Devotional 4/22/2020: “The Gospel of Jesus Christ in The Old Testament”

April 22, 2020

Scripture: Jonah 1:16; Luke 24:27, 32

Good evening, Toccoa First family, and welcome back to my series of video devotionals. It’s Wednesday, April 22. 

Since we’re in the Easter season, I want to talk more about Easter Sunday—the first Easter Sunday. Let’s look at Luke chapter 24, and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Some of you have been on the “Walk to Emmaus”; well, this is where the name of that Methodist retreat comes from. One of the two disciples is named Cleopas; Luke apparently doesn’t know the name of the second disciple. But in John 19:25, we’re told a woman named Mary, the “wife of Clopas,” is at the cross. It could be that Clopas and Cleopas are the same person, in which case this Mary could be the other disciple mentioned here. “Mary” was the most popular Jewish name in the first century.

Anyway, these two disciples believed in Jesus—they believed that he was the Messiah. But now that Jesus is dead, as far as they know, their hopes are dashed. They don’t yet understand that the Messiah was supposed to suffer and die for their sins—and later be resurrected. So they’re returning to their home in Emmaus, which is seven miles away from Jerusalem. But while they’re on their way, the resurrected Jesus meets up with them. Luke tells us that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” And then in verse 27, Luke tells us something remarkable:

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

“Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets” is Luke’s way of saying that the entire Bible at the time—all of the Old Testament pointed to Jesus, his gospel, his suffering and sacrificial death on the cross, and his resurrection. It’s not just a dozen verses scattered here and there. It took Cleopas and Mary at least a couple of hours to walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Can you imagine how much of scripture Jesus explained to them—how many scriptures in the Old Testament Jesus interpreted for them?

A couple of years ago, a well-known megachurch pastor preached a sermon in which he famously said—or infamously said—that we Christians don’t absolutely need the Old Testament. In fact, he said that if the Old Testament proves to be a “stumbling block” to you in your faith, you can, quote, “un-hitch” it from your Christian faith… and still be a Christian.

In this pastor’s defense, I know he has a heart for evangelism; he has a passion for reaching the lost that I wish more of us shared. I also know that this pastor himself believes in the Old Testament—he was just trying to reassure potential converts in his church that if the Old Testament confused them, or troubled them—because of its stark depictions of God’s judgment and wrath—that’s okay, he said, because you don’t really need it. All you need to do is to believe in Jesus and his resurrection. You can still be Christian, he said… and just set the Old Testament to one side.

Well… plenty of very smart Bible scholars and theologians rightly criticized this pastor, and I don’t need to pile on. Suffice it to say, I don’t think you can be a faithful disciple of Jesus and “un-hitch the Old Testament.” Not even close! I mean, for one thing, the early church described in the Book of Acts didn’t have a New Testament yet; they had the apostles’ testimony and teaching. But… if you asked any of the apostles, they most certainly had a Bible; that Bible was the Old Testament, and it was at the very center of their lives and their faith. In Acts chapter 7, when the apostles appointed the seven deacons to assist with food distribution to widows, Luke tells us that the apostles did so in order to “devote [themselves] to prayer and the ministry of the word”—and make no mistake: for them that “word” was, in large part, the word of the Old Testament.

Not to mention in 2 Timothy 3:16, in which Paul says that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” the scripture he has in mind is the books of the Old Testament. And of course we can apply those words to the New Testament as well, but the fact remains that the Old Testament is necessary for us Christians, too!

My point is, the apostles simply didn’t perceive any conflict between what God revealed in the Old Testament and what God reveals in the New. When properly interpreted, both parts of the Bible are in harmony. This is the clear teaching of Jesus and the New Testament.

So I share this conviction. When I preach from the Old Testament, for example, you’ll notice that I’m still preaching Jesus and his gospel, because I find always find them there!

But you know what? I would be lying if I said that my convictions about the Old Testament—even as recently as ten or twelve years ago—were nearly as strong as they are today. Back then, I never would have said that I didn’t believe in the Old Testament; it’s just that I used to spend so little time reading it, studying it, preaching it, or teaching it, that I may as well have “un-hitched” it from my Christian faith. I was showing through my life and my example how little I valued it.

Well… I repented, I promise. 

And my change of heart happened, at least in part, because of something I read many years ago that blew me away. I was reading a commentary on the Book of Jonah written by a well-respected Anglican theologian named Phillip Cary. In the book’s introduction he wrote the following:

First of all, this is a Christian reading of the Scriptures of Israel, which Christians call the Old Testament because it contains the ancient covenant to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.

Like the whole Bible… this book is about Christ… the whole Bible? In my three years of seminary training and three more years of preparation for ordained ministry, I never heard anyone speak with such clarity and conviction about the authority and truthfulness of the Old Testament! 

And then, in the commentary itself, Dr. Cary constantly pointed to ways in which Jesus and the gospel were revealed!

For example in Jonah chapter 1. Recall that God is angry at Jonah because he has refused God’s call to preach judgment against Nineveh, whose citizens were bitter enemies of Israel. Instead of heading east to Nineveh Jonah runs away as far in the other direction as he possibly can. He boards a boat bound for present-day Spain, on the western side of the Mediterranean. 

As far as Jonah knew, this was as far away from the place to which God was calling him as he could possibly go—it was the other side of the world!

But as many preachers have pointed out—and as Jonah soon discovered—you can’t run away from God!

When Jonah is onboard the ship, God sends a terrible storm or cyclone his way—one that threatens not only Jonah’s life, but the lives of everyone on board the ship—including the captain and his crew, who are Gentiles and pagans. They are convinced—correctly, as it turns out—that someone’s god was angry at someone on board the ship. The captain wants to find out who’s responsible. And Jonah fesses up. And he says to the captain: “I’m a Hebrew. My God, who created both the sea and dry land—in fact, he created everything, so it was pretty foolish on my part to think I could get away from him… Anyway, my God is angry at me for my disobedience. Throw me overboard, and this terrible storm will stop, and you’ll be saved.”

Reluctantly, with great fear and trepidation, these men do so. And what happens? The sea becomes calm. They are saved. And not only that… These men—pagans and idolaters, one and all—begin worshiping Jonah’s God, Yahweh. Jonah 1:16: “Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.”

This “making vows” indicates that the men resolved to follow Jonah’s God, the one true God, the rest of their lives. These pagans were converted, in other words.

Where is Jesus in this text?

Consider this: Apart from the free gift of salvation available through Christ, it’s as if we’re the ones on board that ship, which will soon be destroyed by a violent storm. Like Jonah, we’re facing God’s wrath because of our sin. And like Jonah, we’re about to be thrown into the deep, dark abyss—which for us means hell, eternal separation from God. It’s what our sins deserve.

Unless someone steps forward and volunteers to take our place, to suffer the death penalty that we deserve… and that someone, of course, is Jesus Christ, our Savior, God in the flesh. 

Like Jonah, Christ chooses to sacrifice his life to save ours, except it’s not for his own sins he’s making this sacrifice, but for yours and mine. By doing so, he turns away God’s wrath so we can have peace and reconciliation with God. 

And, like Jonah, after three days, Christ was given new life—so that we could have eternal life both now and on the other side of death and resurrection.

So this is one small example of how we see Jesus and his gospel in the Old Testament. I hope it inspires you to read it perhaps more than you’re doing so now. And to read it with Christ at the center—the way our Lord intended. Getting back to Luke 24, when describing their encounter with the risen Lord, Cleopas and Mary said, in verse 32, “Did not our hearts burn within us while [Jesus] talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”

I pray that Jesus would “open the Scriptures” to you as well! Amen?

But you may need help, and so you might consider getting a good study Bible. I use this one, the ESV Study Bible. One of its very best features is an appendix called the “History of Salvation in the Old Testament Preparing the Way for Christ.” It cites specific verses in each book of the Old Testament that point to Christ.

Let’s pray…

Sermon 4-19-2020: “Tested by Fire”

April 22, 2020

Scripture: 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

When we think of the apostle Peter, we often think of someone who’s brash, impulsive, presumptuous… brave but foolish… a loudmouth. Full of pride… 

I mean, give Peter credit for having the courage to walk on the water out to Jesus… but of course his faith falters, and he begins to sink before Jesus rescues him. Give Peter credit for being the first disciple to confess Jesus as Messiah and Son of God, but in almost the next breath he insists that Jesus must never suffer and die on a cross—and Jesus rebukes him: “Get behind me, Satan!” 

When Jesus predicts that Peter will deny him three times, Peter protests: “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” Then of course, what does he do within the next several hours? He denies him three times… Oh, Peter…

But today I’m beginning a new seven-part sermon series called “Rocky VII: Seven Lessons from Peter after the Resurrection.” Peter is a nickname that literally means Rocky. Anyway, this series will take us through Pentecost Sunday. In a way, these sermons demonstrate howEaster changed Peter—and the good news is, Easter can change us at well.

If you have your Bibles—and you should—look with me at verse 3: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” 

The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ… Remember we looked at John 20:17 last Sunday. Mary Magdalene encounters the resurrected Jesus, and he commissions her to go tell the other disciples about the resurrection. Jesus said, “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Because of what happened through Christ’s atoning death on the cross, which was confirmed by the resurrection, the God and Father of Jesus has now becomes the God and Father of everyone who believes in him… We are sons and daughters of our heavenly Father and brothers and sisters of Jesus himself. The resurrection proved that. We’re part of God’s family… 

Speaking of Peter, though, there’s a perfect illustration in Peter’s own life of how Easter changes us. Way back in Luke chapter 5, just before Jesus called his twelve disciples, Peter and some of the others had been up fishing all night. They hadn’t caught anything; I’m sure they were frustrated. Jesus, who’s not a fisherman, tells Peter to go over to a certain place on the lake, to cast his nets, and there he’ll catch something. “But, Lord, the fish aren’t biting… we’ve tried!” But to humor Jesus, he does what he says. And what happens? He catches more fish than he’s ever caught before in his life… all the fishermen do. Their nets are bursting and the boat is sinking there are so many fish!

But does this make Peter happy? Does Peter run over to Jesus and say, “You and I need to start a fishing business together. We make a great team! Let’s do it again tomorrow!”? No. Luke 5, verse 8: “But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’” 

Peter understood that he was in the very presence of God, and guess what? It terrified him! And this sort of thing always happens in the Bible when sinners get too close to God. Think of the prophet Isaiah, in Isaiah chapter 6. He has this amazing encounter with God in the Temple, and what’s the first thing he says, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Isaiah thinks he’s a dead man!

All of us sinners become afraid for our lives when we get too close to a perfectly holy and righteous and just God.

So that’s what Peter’s doing when he falls down and begs Jesus to leave him.

But after the resurrection, there’s another miraculous catch of fish. In John 21. Once again, Peter and some other disciples are fishing all night; they don’t catch anything. And there’s a man on the shore. They can’t make out who it is, but he gives them some fishing advice. “Throw your nets over there.” And they do so… And once again, they bring in a miraculous haul. Once they figure out that the man on the shore is Jesus, Peter can’t wait to see Jesus. He leaves the others with the fish, puts all his clothes on, jumps in the water, and swims to shore he’s so eager to see Jesus.

So this time, instead of begging for his life or running away or wanting Jesus to leave, he can’t get to Jesus fast enough! 

What accounts for that change?

Only this: Easter… and Easter changes everything!

Look at verse 3: Peter says that God has “caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” How does the resurrection enable us to be born again and have this “living hope”?

I think it’s like what Paul describes in Romans 6, verses 4 through 6: Paul talks about how we are united with Christ… Our “old self,” Paul says, was crucified with Christ, so that Christ’s death counts as our death; his experience of hell counts as our experience of hell; his experience of God’s wrath counts as our experience of God’s wrath; his death penalty for sin counts as our death penalty for sin. Because Christ suffered and died for our sins, in our place, we won’t suffer and die for our sins; we won’t be punished; we won’t go to hell. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” 

Peter could jump out of that fishing boat and swim to Jesus as fast as he could because he knew that despite all his sins, despite his failures, despite all his mistakes of the past—Peter knew—that there was therefore now no condemnation for him, because he was in Christ Jesus!

Make no mistake: Peter still sinned even after the resurrection. Paul himself describes confronting Peter for the sin of hypocrisy in Galatians chapter 2, verses 11 to 14. This was long after the resurrection. Peter did not become a perfect man after the resurrection, but he knew that because of the cross and the resurrection, his sins were wiped out… God wouldn’t punish Peter for his sins because those sins were already punished through Jesus on the cross… so Peter stood before God as if he had never sinned

And that happens to all of us Christians when we’re born again! It’s made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection.

But even more… even more… being united with Christ doesn’t only mean that God has taken care of our problem with sin—not that that wouldn’t be enough. But no… it also means we are united with Christ in his resurrection. That means new birth into God’s family now; a newness of life now; an abundant, eternal life now; a Spirit-filled life now; a living hope for the future now…and get this… see verse 8… we get a “joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” now.

This kind of joy, the Bible says, is available to us now. God wants us to have it now… he wants us to experience it now.

And please notice: Peter is writing to a group of mostly Gentile churches in Asia Minor—present-day Turkey—who are suffering. Many of them are facing persecution—violent persecution in some cases, even death, because of their Christian faith. Many of them are slaves. Most of them are poor—many destitute. To say the least, their lives are generally much, much more difficult than ours are today—even in the midst of this coronavirus plague. Yet Peter reminds these suffering Christians of all the reasons that they have for rejoicing—because of what God has done and is doing for them through Christ. 

So in verse 8, when Peter says that they “rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory,” he means that they can rejoice and experience this joy right now… He means that even suffering is no impediment to the kind of joy that we have in Christ!

Indeed, as strange and difficult as it might sound, Peter says that God can and will use this suffering as a means to this joy.

Because let’s notice what Peter says here: verse 6: “for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that…”—in other words, Peter says, there’s a reason you’ve been grieved by these trials—”so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

What is Peter saying? He’s comparing the trials that we face to gold that’s been put in a furnace for refining. What happens to the gold? The dross—all the combustible impurities that are mixed in with the gold—is burned away. The gold is purified as a result. Similarly, Peter says that all the trials, all the suffering, all the persecution, that these Christians are facing is serving a valuable purpose: God is using them to purify their faith, to strengthen their faith. Like it or not, Peter says, this is how God does it: through suffering, through trials, through pain. If there were a better way, God would do it. But God is doing what is necessary. Notice verse 6: “If necessary, you have been grieved by various trials.”

The 18th century Anglican pastor and author of “Amazing Grace,” John Newton, put it like this: He said, “Everything is needful that [God] sends; nothing can be needful that He withholds.” Peter is making the same point in verses 6 and 7. 

Before my Wednesday night Bible study was so rudely interrupted by COVID-19, we were studying 1 Corinthians. The church to which Paul was writing was badly divided—over a number of issues. Among other things, the church was split into factions based on which apostle was their favorite: Some said, “I belong to Paul; he’s my guy; he’s the best.” Others said, “No… Forget Paul. I belong to Apollos! He’s a much better preacher!” Still others said, “I belong to Jesus’ numero uno apostle, Peter himself!” Paul refers to Peter by his Aramaic name, Cephas. So some were saying, “I belong to Cephas!” But listen to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3:21-23 and prepare to be blown away:

So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.

In other words, here these church members are, arguing over which apostle they “belong” to. And Paul says, “You don’t get it. You don’t belong to me or Apollos or Peter. We all belong to you! Because our heavenly Father, in his sovereignty, is enabling us to serve you and your best interests. Always.” In fact, Paul goes on, This is true of literally everything in the universe! Everything that happens to you… You may not be able to see it right now, but everything that happens to you, everything that will happen to you in the future—even your own death—it’s all for you… it’s all working out perfectly according to God’s plan for you. And because you’re in Christ, his plan for you is always for your good; his plan is always to serve your best interests. Because you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

And of course these astonishing words here are implicit within the 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.”

And one of God’s “good purposes” for our suffering, Peter would say, is to strengthen our faith, so that we can learn to hold more firmly to this “living hope,” so that we can believe in Jesus more deeply, so that we can love Jesus more fully, so that we rejoice with a joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.

Sermon 04-12-2020: “To My Father and Your Father”

April 15, 2020

Scripture: Luke 20:1-18

As much as I dislike this situation, there is something very fitting about preaching to an empty room on Easter Sunday. There are a few people here, of course, which is about how many showed up to the tomb on the first Easter Sunday. John’s gospel only mentions Mary Magdalene, but we know from the three other gospels that there were other women with Mary. The reason so few show up at Jesus’ tomb is simple: none of Jesus’ closest friends and disciples actually believed that Jesus would be resurrected. 

The women went to the tomb expecting to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. 

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Good Friday 2020: “The Good in Good Friday”

April 14, 2020

Scripture: Luke 23:18-25, 32-43

Earlier this year, I preached on the three temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. Remember the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil just after Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan. And he heard the voice of his Father tell him, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” This was not a coincidence because the temptations that followed were meant to test exactly what it meant that Jesus was God’s Son. Recall the first two temptations: Satan prefaced his words to Jesus by saying, “If you are the Son of God, then do these things.” For example the first temptation: “If you are the Son of God, turn this stone into bread.” In other words, “If you’re the Son of God, save yourself, Jesus! Surely no Son of God would be out here starving for 40 days in the wilderness! This is no way to live!”

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Sermon 04/05/2020: “Your King is Coming to You”

April 7, 2020

Scripture: Exodus 1:1-10; Matthew 21:1-11

The Book of Exodus tells the story of how God called Moses to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt. But at the very beginning of the book, before the Israelites become slaves, they’re doing quite well for themselves. In Exodus chapter 1, verse 7, we’re told that after Joseph and his brothers died, “the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.” 

As we read in the closing chapters of Genesis, the king of Egypt, the Pharaoh, had shown favor to Israel on account of Joseph and the work he had done to save Egypt from the devastating effects of a famine. So the Pharaoh made sure that Joseph and his family prospered. 

And why shouldn’t this prosperity continue indefinitely? Why shouldn’t the Israelites be confident in a future based on their relationship to their patriarch Joseph… and their belief that future Egyptian kings would continue to honor Joseph and his memory—and honor the family he brought with him out of Canaan?

Why shouldn’t they?

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Family Devotional 03/31/2020: “How to Fight Fear”

April 1, 2020

Scripture: Proverbs 1:20-22; 2 Timothy 1:7

Good evening, Toccoa First family. It’s Tuesday, March 31. Welcome back to my series of devotional videos.

I’ve told you before about some crazy, recurring dreams I have. They’re often related to my experience in high school and college. In one, for example, I’m in college—again. I’m back at Georgia Tech. There’s a class that I’ve blown off the entire semester. I haven’t even bothered to go to the class since the beginning of the term. Now it’s final exam time time, and not only am I completely unprepared; I don’t even remember where the class meets. I have to ask someone where to go. 

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