Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

Sermon 01-24-21: “God’s Grace in a Storm”

January 26, 2021

Scripture: Jonah 1:1-17; 3:1-5, 10

Objectively speaking, the “hero” of today’s scripture, Jonah, is probably the most successful preacher who has ever lived. Or close enough! By the end of this book, we learn that through Jonah’s faithful preaching of God’s Word, 120,000 people repented of their sins, turned in faith to the one true God, and were rescued from God’s wrath. They were saved.

Jonah was very successful in his mission! Billy Graham reached more lost people than that, but that was over the course of 70 years; Jonah did it in three days!

But perhaps that’s where the comparisons end. Based on what we learn from chapter 1 of this book, Jonah does not seem much like Billy Graham.

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Sermon 01-17-21: “Come and See”

January 20, 2021

Scripture: John 1:43-51

Young people who hear me say this won’t believe me, but there was a period of time—gosh, 25 years ago now—when buying products made by Apple Computer was considered very risky—even foolish. Because many so-called experts were predicting that Apple Computer would soon be out of business…

Back then, being a “fanboy” of Apple, as I was, was a little like being in a religious cult. I’m not kidding. And if so, I drank the Kool-Aid. See, I was very eager to convince friends, family, co-workers, and even complete strangers that their lives would be much better if they purchased a Macintosh computer and not one of those evil Windows PCs. Please don’t make fun of me. I know it’s silly now.

One time, I was at a computer store, looking at all these shiny new Mac computers that I couldn’t afford, when a young man came up to me and asked me if I knew anything about Macs, that he was considering switching from Windows to Mac, and he wanted to know why I thought it was better. 

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Sermon 01-10-21: “Hope in Our Wilderness”

January 13, 2021

Scripture: Mark 1:4-11

I came home from work last Wednesday, not having watched the news or paid close attention to social media during the day. Like everyone, I was deeply troubled, sad, even angry. Several fellow clergy online were posting their thoughts and speaking out. And I thought, “I have nothing to say that will be helpful right now.” One clergy friend posted on Facebook, “Well, I guess I’ll have to rewrite my sermon now!” And that made me angry—I thought, “How were you able to write your sermon before Wednesday in the first place? You’re just rubbing it now!” 

But seriously, I thought, “I hope that the gospel is good enough for this Sunday. I hope it’s relevant. Surely it is.” Some of Paul’s final words to his young protege Timothy in 2 Timothy are these: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” 

I don’t know if, in light of last week’s events, the gospel is “in season” or “out of season,” but it’s all I’ve got! I wholeheartedly believe that the gospel is what we and our world need now more than ever. So I hope you’ll understand and appreciate that in this sermon I’m going to preach the gospel.

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Sermon 01-03-2021: “Three Responses to King Jesus”

January 7, 2021

Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12

I love today’s scripture, in part because it reminds me of a formative event in my own life as a Christian. My Wednesday night Bible study has already heard this testimony, but I’d like to share it with you. About 13 years ago, I was serving a large church, Alpharetta First United Methodist, as one of two associate pastors. Like April I was in the process of becoming fully ordained. Unlike April, I was in a bad place, spiritually speaking, with my faith.

It was in part because, unlike April, I went to a mainline Protestant seminary that deliberately sowed seeds of doubt in the truthfulness of scripture—including the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. Looking back, I was unprepared for the spiritual warfare that came my way when I decided to answer God’s call into ministry. I was like a sheep led to the slaughter! And as a result, I graduated from seminary riddled with doubts.

Suffice it to say that I don’t for a moment doubt the Virgin Birth anymore. And I could easily and happily answer the objections of my skeptical seminary professors today. But that’s not where I was in 2007, shortly after graduation, when the senior pastor of the large church I served gave me an assignment: He got a call the day before from a man who said he’d like for a pastor to visit him. He said he needed prayer and pastoral care. This man wasn’t a member of our church. His home church was in another state. He had recently moved to the area when he got very sick, and he’d spent several months convalescing at home, cut off from his church family.

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Sermon 12-20-2020: “Mary, Most Likely to Succeed”

December 21, 2020

Scripture: Luke 1:26-38

In last night’s SEC Championship game, Florida was down by six with seconds remaining on the clock. On this last possession, they had one goal: to advance the ball to midfield—so that Kyle Trask, Florida’s quarterback, could then heave the ball as far as he could throw it toward the end zone. If he were able to do that, many Florida receivers and many Alabama defenders would be gathered at or near the goal line. Florida’s receivers would try to catch the ball, score a touchdown and extra point, and win 53-52; Alabama’s defenders, meanwhile, would simply try to bat the ball down and hold on for a victory.

Florida wasn’t able to run that play, of course. Because time ran out before they reached midfield.

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Sermon 12-13-2020: “You Can Be a Star”

December 17, 2020

Scripture: John 1:6-8; 19-29

December 21 is the longest night of the year—the winter solstice. And this year, it’s also the night of an astronomical event that hasn’t happened in 800 years. Astronomers tell us that for the first time since the year 1226, we will be able to see with the naked eye an alignment of Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky—such that these two planets will almost appear as one bright, shining star. This is such and unusual and interesting event that astronomers call this conjunction of planets the “Star of Bethlehem”—and many Christians have even speculated that God might have used this very event over 2,000 years ago to inspire the magi, or Wise Men, to travel the 700 miles or so from modern-day Baghdad to Jerusalem, looking for the Messiah.

Whether God used this natural event, or whether he used some supernatural event, the result is the same: Remember, these magi were literally world’s foremost experts in astronomy. So God spoke to them in a “language they could understand”—the language of astronomy. And what God told them through these stars is, “Go to Israel and worship the newborn king of the Jews.”

It was very gracious of God to do this! It’s unlikely that anything else would have gotten their attention! But as a result, these magi were saved—and if we are in Christ, just think… we will even have an opportunity to meet them some day.

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Sermon 12-06-2020: “More than ‘Muddling Through'”

December 11, 2020

Scripture: Isaiah 40:1-11

I love Christmas music. I’m one of those weird people who begins playing Christmas music around November 1. Like many of you, one of my favorite Christmas songs is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”… except… I hate that line, “Someday soon we all will be together/ If the Fates allow.” The Fates? Those are three goddesses in Greco-Roman mythology! Anyway, I’m relieved to know that that wasn’t what the songwriter, Hugh Martin, originally wrote. See, Martin was a Christian. And he originally wrote “if the Lord allows.” But the producers of the Judy Garland movie, Meet Me in St. Louis—where the song originated—didn’t want it to be too religious—heaven forbid!—so they made him change that line.

Anyway, turns out that wasn’t the only lyrical change that has happened to the song. Do you know what the very next line is? “Someday soon, we all will be together/ If the Fates allow/ Hang a shining star upon the highest bough”? We know it like the back of our hand, don’t we? Except that’s wrong!Go back and watch the movie Meet Me in St. Louis: Judy Garland sings, “Someday soon, we all will be together/ If the Fates allow/ Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” 

We’ll have to muddle through somehow.

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Sermon 11-29-2020: “How to Stay Awake”

December 11, 2020

Scripture: Mark 13:24-37

Welcome to the first Sunday of Advent. While the rest of our culture rushes headlong into the monthlong Christmas shopping season, preachers like me are supposed to say, “Hold on! Not so fast! It’s not Christmas yet! It’s Advent… it’s a season of preparation for Christmas.” And traditionally, on this First Sunday of Advent, we preachers prepare you for celebrating the first coming of Christ by focusing on the Second Coming.

So… While I’m not oblivious to the fact that our culture has already started the Christmas season, I’m hoping that preaching these traditional Advent texts will help us celebrate Christmas more joyously when the time comes!

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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.”

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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.”