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What the Wailing Wall represents for me

February 19, 2019

Two days ago I was at the Wailing Wall, that portion of the western wall of the Temple in Jerusalem where millions of pilgrims go each year. Some friends asked me to pray for them there. By all means, my prayers for them in Atlanta would be equally effective, but I obliged. I took this photo to prove it. (I obscured the prayer and their names.)

Above and over the Wailing Wall is the Temple Mount on which the Temple once stood. The Romans destroyed the Temple in A.D. 70. Today, there’s a Muslim shrine called the Dome of the Rock in that location.

Besides praying for my friends, as I was touching the wall and praying, I had this thought: This wall exists because of my sins. This massive building was built in the first place because of my sins (and the sins of everyone else, of course). And as I peer up to the top of the wall and imagine the Temple, the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies—the small room of the Temple where the Holy Spirit dwelt, into which only one person, the high priest, was allowed to enter, and then only once a year—I think, I could never scale this wall to reach God on the other side.

This wall represents the barrier that my own sin placed between me and God. “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3)

Indeed, ultra-orthodox Jews won’t even walk on the Temple Mount above (unlike Gentiles like me who will do so later today), for fear of treading on the place where the Holy of Holies once stood. For them, this wall is literally as close as they can get to God.

And so it would be for me—not only a sinner but a Gentile sinner, a double outsider.

But God’s Son Jesus did everything necessary for me, not only to enter the Holy of Holies, but to have the Holy Spirit living within me! When Christ died, the thick curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple was torn from top to bottom. Through faith in Christ, nothing needs to separate us from God! This means my sins are forgiven; I am sanctified; I am made perfectly righteous, not with my own righteousness but with the righteousness of Christ! “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Thank you, Jesus!

My view looking up the wall. Apart from Christ I could never reach God.

Learning to want what Jesus wants for me

February 18, 2019

“He said to them, ‘Who do you say that I am?’” Matthew 16:15. Here I am at Caesarea Philippi, the place of Peter’s great confession—also the place where Jesus told him, “Get behind me, Satan.” Jesus is patient with us that way.

He certainly has been with me! Today he has given me exactly 49 years of life—of which every moment, every heartbeat, every breath has been nothing but sheer, undeserved gift. Yet I feel like I’m just starting to figure this life out—for example, that being happy, genuinely happy, means learning to want what Jesus wants for me. And trusting that what he wants for me is nothing but good!

I want you who are reading this blog post to be happy in the same way. I want you to know Jesus like I do. He wants to forgive you, to give you eternal life, to show you his favor, to give you new power to live now.

And if you actually know me, you might be thinking—as I would be—“Who are you to tell me this?” I agree. That’s the point! Jesus has done all of this for me. Me! Crazy, right?

Love y’all.

Quick highlights of Day 1 of my trip to the Holy Land

February 16, 2019

I will add more videos as I have time to make them—between an ambitious itinerary, the effects of jet lag, and unreliable broadband access.

But here are the highlights Day 1. I formatted these videos for Instagram, which requires that videos last no longer than one minute. You can follow me on Instagram at @brentlwhite .



The disciple’s most important work

February 16, 2019

I’m in the Holy Land this week—for the first time since my life-changing experience back in 2011, which has continued to bear fruit in my life and ministry. One completely new (to me) site that I visited is the excavation of the ancient city of Magdala, the hometown of Mary Magdalene (Luke 8:2; Matthew 28:1; John 20:11-18). Rome destroyed the town after the Jewish revolt in A.D. 67, and its ruins reflect first-century Jewish life in Galilee moments before that world came to its cataclysmic end.

The most important discovery in Magdala is what’s known as the “Magdala Stone,” which likely served as a desk for reading scrolls of the Bible in the synagogue. The stone was sculpted to symbolize the Second Temple, which was destroyed in A.D. 70. Since this sculpture pre-dates the temple’s destruction, it is, for historians, a reliable source of information about the temple and its activities.

The Magdala Stone

There’s a recently built church next to the Magdala ruins, which commemorates Mary Magdalene. Since I’m trying not merely to be a tourist on this trip but also a pilgrim, I took the few moments between the talking of the tour guide and the inevitable gift shop at the exit to reflect on Mary’s life, as revealed in the scripture above, and to pray in the sanctuary.

Mary’s story of deliverance reminded me of Simon the Pharisee and the “sinful woman” in Luke 7:36-50. I’m not suggesting for a moment that Mary was that sinful woman—she wasn’t. But Jesus words contrasting that woman and Simon are pertinent:

“Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

The extent to which we love Jesus is directly related to the extent to which we perceive that Jesus has healed us, rescued us, forgiven us—saved us. Mary herself, whom Jesus had delivered from seven demons, loved Jesus as much or more than most, as reflected in her steadfast refusal to leave him—either during the shame of his cross on Good Friday or after his death. She had the privilege not only of being the first eyewitness to the resurrection, but also the first to proclaim the good news of the resurrection, because she wanted more than anything to be with Jesus.

Indeed, being with Jesus is the first responsibility of a disciple. We see this part of our job description in Mark 3:14-15: “And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.”

Before we do anything as disciples, we are to be with Jesus—which, today, we do through reading God’s Word and prayer.

But even putting it like that—contrasting “being” with “doing”—is misguided: because it implies that the time we spend with Jesus—which in my tradition is called having a “quiet time”—isn’t doing anything.

Yet we know that being with Jesus is the most important thing we can do.

Isn’t this the lesson of (a different) Mary and her sister Martha in Luke 10:38-42. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

What was Mary’s “good portion”? To sit at Jesus’ feet alongside the other disciples and learn from him—rather than helping her sister in the kitchen—being “productive” or “working” or “doing.”

To say the least, according to Jesus himself, Mary was hardly “doing nothing”; she was doing the most important work of all.

Through the Holy Spirit, through the scripture that the Spirit “breathed out” (2 Timothy 3:16-17), and through our access to our Father in the heavenly throne room (Hebrews 4:16), we may choose the same good portion.

Will we?

More highlights from my sermon on 02-03-19

February 11, 2019

Here are three more Instagram-sized highlights from my sermon, “Submit to One Another.”

Feel free to follow me on Instagram at @brentlwhite.

Genesis 2:17: “you shall surely die”

February 11, 2019

With some minor editing, here are my notes from my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition.

2:17“you shall surely die”: i.e., you will begin a process that inevitably leads to physical death, but your spiritual death begins immediately. This is ultimately the only kind of death that matters—to live outside of God’s will, to live against the grain of one’s existence, to be separated from one’s Creator. (“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell.” Matthew 10:28)

This scripture is ingenious—because it practically forces us to be “tempted” in the same way Adam and Eve were tempted: Because I want to ask why: “Why, God, did you put this tree (of the knowledge of good and evil) in the center of the Garden? Was this wise? Was this necessary? Was your command arbitrary?”

But even in asking, I am attempting to place myself above God, to assert some superior knowledge, to claim some moral high ground above God himself. “Did God actually say…?” (Gen. 3:1)

Why do I presume to second-guess God’s Word? Why do I presume to know what’s best for me apart from God? This presumptuousness is at the heart of so much of my own sin and—not to mention—unhappiness!


Sermon highlight (02-03-19)

February 10, 2019

I’ve recently begun using Instagram, which permits the uploading of one-minute-long video clips. So I hope to expand my reach by creating “highlight” clips from my sermons. This is one of them! Enjoy! The full sermon is available in the previous post.

Feel free to follow me on Instagram at @brentlwhite.

Sermon 02-03-19: “Submit to One Another”

February 10, 2019

The Christ-like love that Paul asks of Christian husbands and wives is the same kind of love that Jesus asks of all of us. What does this love look like? Why is it so difficult to live out? Is there any hope for us? Yes! But only because our faith is in the One whose love never fails.

I preached this sermon at Cannon United Methodist Church on February 3, 2019. 

Sermon Text: Ephesians 5:21-33

Although, technically, today’s scripture begins at verse 21, you’ll notice that verse 21 is the tail-end of a sentence that starts at verse 18. So let me begin at the beginning of the sentence. [Read scripture.]

Most of you don’t know me very well yet. For example, most of you don’t know that back in 2001, my son Townshend was born on the living room floor of our house in Tucker, delivered by a couple of paramedics, while six or seven of Tucker’s Bravest looked on—from as far away as they could possibly be! They were hugging the opposite wall! They wanted nothing to do with delivering a baby! When the paramedics arrived, Lisa asked if she could have an epidural. “No,” they said, “it’s way too late for that!”

So this is what happened. Or so I am told…

You see, I wasn’t actually there when Townshend was born! I was down in Bradenton, Florida, near Tampa… What was I doing? Collecting my trophy for “husband of the year,” obviously! 

Hardly! I was there working on an engineering project at a Tropicana plant. I was there because I couldn’t say “no” when the project manager begged me to go—“just for one night,” he said, “You’ll be right back home in time for your baby to be born.” So, like an idiot, I went, even though it was close to Lisa’s due date and, well… naturally that’s when my first son was born.

My point in sharing this story is to suggest that I am not going to win any “Husband of the Year” awards; I am not well-qualified to lecture or preach to any of y’all about how to be a perfect spouse or how to have a perfect marriage—to say the least! I have often been a miserable failure at marriage—and maybe you have, too. If so, I hope, like me, you’ll find encouragement as the apostle Paul brings the gospel of Jesus Christ to bear on the institution of marriage. And I hope you’ll also see that the Paul’s words are about much more than just marriage. Today’s scripture is for everyone.

For example, verse 21 isn’t even directed to wives and husbands; it’s directed to literally everyone who is a Christian: “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” What does Christian submission look like? How about this: 

[Jesus said,] And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.[1]

Or how about this, also from Jesus:

If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.[2]

Or this:

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.[3]

Or this, from Paul:

[Love] is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.[4]

Or this:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves[5]

When Paul talks about submission, he’s referring to the same kind of self-sacrificial love that Jesus and the rest of the Bible demand of us elsewhere.

I hope that’s clear enough… 

Next, in verse 22, he asks wives to love their husbands in this exact same way. In fact, in Greek, the word “submit” doesn’t even appear in this verse: Verses 21 and 22 literally read as part of the same sentence, as follows: “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ, wives, to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” Do you see? The submission that Paul asks of wives in verse 22 is literally the same submission he asks of all Christians in verse 21. Read the rest of this entry »

In Christ, things are exactly as good (or bad) as they need to be in order for God to bless you

February 9, 2019

More writing from my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition

Last Sunday, I had the privilege of preaching on Ephesians 5:21-33. Whenever I preach, there is always material that I have to cut—no matter how much I love it! Below is one lengthy “rabbit trail” I went down. It didn’t ultimately fit in this sermon, but it’s worth sharing here.

In Ephesians 5:21, Paul tells us to do something very difficult: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (NRSV). In Greek this verse is part of a subordinate clause in a sentence that begins in verse 18. The ESV, always more literal than the NRSV, puts it as follows:

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

When we see it in the context of the full sentence, the command of v. 21, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,” is made possible in part by the doctrine of God’s sovereignty that is implicit within v. 20: “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Give thanks always… and for everything? 

Is Paul kidding? How do we do that?

I mean, I’m thankful when things are going my way; when things are working out for me; when I’m getting what I want. By contrast, I’m not usually thankful, for example, when I’m in pain, or when I’m sick, or when I’m suffering in any way. I’m not usually thankful when I’m experiencing a setback, or when I’m dealing with disappointment, or when I’m going through hard times.

In fact, when I’m going through hard times, I can usually only be thankful in spite of the hard times. So my prayers sound something like this: “I give you thanks, God, because as bad as these circumstances are right now, at least I still have these other good things going for me. Or at least it could be so much worse. Or at least I have it better than that other guy over there.” 

But is this the kind of thankfulness Paul is talking about?

By no means!

If we are God’s children through faith in his Son Jesus, we never merely have it “better than” someone else or “better than” some possible worst-case-scenario we might imagine. No… In Christ there is no “better than”! In Christ, we have it exactly as good or exactly as bad as it needs to be in order for God to give us something better… to give us more of our heart’s deepest desire; more of our life’s greatest treasure; more of the best thing we can ever receive… 

Which is what? More of his Son Jesus Christ!

Don’t you want more of Jesus in your life? Don’t you want more of his Holy Spirit in your life? Don’t you want more of his power in your life—more of his presence, more of his victory, more of his blessing, more of his favor? Aren’t you tired of feeling defeated all the time? Tired of feeling discouraged? Tired of feeling disappointed?

Jesus wants more for you than that! Jesus promises more for you than that!  And Jesus always keeps his promises!

You say, “Where are you getting this, Pastor Brent?” Many places throughout the Bible. But let me show you just one place, from the words of Jesus himself. See Luke 11:11-13. Jesus is assuring his disciples that his Father is faithful to give his children only good things when they pray—and if he doesn’t give us what we ask for, it’s only because it wouldn’t be good for us. Jesus says,

What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

Look at that last sentence: We expect Jesus to say, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him!” But he doesn’t say “give good gifts”; he says “give the Holy Spirit.” Why? Because the Holy Spirit is the greatest gift of all—and the Holy Spirit is elsewhere in scripture called the Spirit of Christ; Jesus says that the Holy Spirit makes Christ present to us. 

So we can be confident—no matter what we’re experiencing—that when we earnestly pray, our heavenly Father will always give us whatever we need in that moment to have the best thing of all… which more of Jesus.

So when you’re hurting, tell yourself something like this: “This bad thing I’m going through—it’s really bad, and it hurts—but it’s exactly what I need right now to have more of the best thing of all—more of Jesus!”

If you want more of Jesus, this ought to be really good news, because this is precisely what you’ll get!

And this is the principle underlying Ephesians 5:18-21. This is the basis on which we can give thanks to God “always and for everything.” Indeed, this is the basis on which we can fulfill verse 21 and “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Because we know that, even if it hurts us in the short run, in the long run it will ultimately be good for us; it will lead to greater happiness and joy; it will lead to experiencing more of Jesus in our lives!

And when that happens, how can we not do what verse 19 says and “sing and make melody to the Lord with your heart”? That’s what it means to be happy!

My prayer for the promise of Psalm 23:1: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”

February 4, 2019

My notes on Psalm 23:1, which I wrote in my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition:

23:1: “The Lord is my shepherd”: You are my shepherd, Lord. I am helpless apart from you. I can’t protect myself. I can’t lead myself. I don’t have the ability to discern the right path for myself. There are many wild animals and thieves who want to do me harm. Defend me, protect me, lead me—save me from my own stupidity and self-confidence. I gladly surrender to you, Lord. My life is in your hands. “I shall not want”: Years ago, I made too little of this verse. Give me the faith, Lord, to risk making much of it! It’s the same promise you make when you tell me, “Whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). It’s the same promise you make when you tell me, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9). It’s the same promise you make when you tell me, through Paul, “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19). This is not wishful thinking; this is not hyperbole. You will give me everything I truly need. Inasmuch as “what I need” fails to correspond to “what I want,” change my wants! I often only want things that wouldn’t be good for me, anyway!