“The law must do its God-given duty today”

July 13, 2017

At Wednesday night’s Bible study, we dealt with the question that Paul raises in Galatians 3:19: “Why then the law?” Up to this point in his letter, Paul has argued that, contrary to the message of his opponents in Galatia, obedience to God’s law can play no role in saving us. So it’s only natural that his readers might wonder, What’s the point of the law?

His answer? God’s law “imprisons everything under sin” (Galatians 3:22). In other words, the law makes clear how helplessly sinful we all are. It teaches us that our salvation will come only through an act of sheer grace on God’s part. It reminds us of our desperate need for a Savior.

The law prepares us to receive God’s Son Jesus.

I’ve said in previous sermons that our failure to keep God’s law is at least one-half of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we miss this point, we’ll miss the gospel entirely.

The late Anglican theologian John Stott describes the role of the law as follows:

After God gave the promise to Abraham, He gave the law to Moses. Why? He had to make things worse before He could make them better. The law exposed sin, provoked sin, condemned sin. The purpose of the law was to lift the lid off man’s respectability and disclose what he is really underneath—sinful, rebellious, guilty, under the judgment of God and helpless to save himself.

And the law must still be allowed to do its God-given duty today. One of the great faults of the contemporary church is the tendency to soft-pedal sin and judgment… We must never bypass the law and come straight to the gospel. To do so is to contradict the plan of God in biblical history… No man has ever appreciated the gospel until the law has first revealed him to himself. It is only against the inky blackness of the night sky that the stars begin to appear, and it is only against the dark background of sin and judgment that the gospel shines forth.[†]

No man has ever appreciated the gospel until the law has first revealed him to himself.

The law reveals to us who we truly are, without which the gospel will seem irrelevant. I like that!

1. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Galatians (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 1968), 92-3.

Sermon 06-25-17: “A Loving Father and His Older Son”

July 13, 2017

Detail of older son from Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son”

Our scripture today tells the story of the older son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. As this sermon makes clear, we Christians—who are justified by faith alone through grace alone—can easily slip into the “religious” mindset all over again: we believe that we have to earn our place in God’s family.

Sermon Text: Luke 15:(11-24) 25-32

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

We got heartbreaking news last week about the University of Virginia student, Otto Warmbier, who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor last year in North Korea for allegedly stealing some political artwork from a hotel. He died last week of some kind of brain injury, which he received while in North Korean custody.

After his death, a sociology professor at the University of Delaware posted on Facebook that Warmbier “got exactly what he deserved… He went to North Korea for [heaven’s] sake and then acted like a spoiled, naive, arrogant, US college student who had never had to face the consequences of his actions. I see him crying at his sentencing hearing and think ‘What did you expect?’”

As you might expect, she received a lot of criticism for her comments. People on social media were outraged. The university apologized on her behalf. And as tempted as I am to pile on, I remember the uncharitable thoughts that crossed my mind when the news broke last year that Warmbier had been arrested: “Why the heck was he in North Korea anyway? And if he did do something to that artwork—oh my goodness—what was he thinking?

I felt morally superior to him—and obviously this professor did, too.

But why do we feel morally superior? We’ve all made plenty of foolish decisions. We’ve all sinned spectacularly. The difference is, unlike this poor college student, none of us has received a death sentence for it! Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 06-18-17: “A Loving Father and His Younger Son”

July 12, 2017

Detail from Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son”

For Father’s Day, I began a two-part series on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, otherwise known as the Parable of the Loving Father. This sermon focuses on the more popular part of the parable: the story of the younger son, from Luke 15:11-24. Even six or seven years ago, I thought the younger son’s story was for new converts to the faith—that it didn’t “apply” to those of us who have been Christians for a while. Of course, now I see how foolish that is. In this sermon, I challenge us to think about ways in which we’re a lot like the younger son.

Sermon Text: Luke 15:1-2, 11-24

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

A couple of weeks ago, this headline appeared on The Babylon Bee, that satirical Christian news website: “Father of 3 Wonders When He’ll Get Chance to Influence Others for Christ.” This fake news article continues:

Stating that he had been feeling a sense of purposelessness and melancholy for some months now, local father of three Andrew Harbaugh recently began wondering when he would ever get a chance to impact anyone for the sake of Christ, sources close to him confirmed Thursday.

Harbaugh reportedly spends his days working ten hours at a desk job and his nights talking and playing with his three children.

“I just wish God would place a few people in my life for whom I could make an eternal difference,” Harbaugh told reporters, his head in his hands. “I just don’t have time to do anything for the Kingdom of God while I provide for my family and spend time with my three boys.”

“Surely the Lord will have something important for me to do someday,” he added sadly.

You see the irony, I hope. Like Mr. Harbaugh in this article, each one of us who is a father has a God-given opportunity—a God-given responsibility—to do the most important work for God’s kingdom possible, which is this: sharing with our children the love, grace, and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ through our words and through our actions. We are to live out what it means to be a Christian.

Now, I’m not saying that these words don’t apply to equally to mothers, but since it’s Father’s Day, I’m aiming them at us fathers. Or grandfathers—because this still applies to you: The most important mission that God has given us in life right now is to do everything we can to “go and make disciples” of our children and our grandchildren. And we don’t get to outsource this holy work of discipleship to our wives alone. Being a disciple of Jesus, being involved in church, praying and reading the Bible with our children, is not women’s work! Please, fathers, for the sake of our children’s souls, let’s not shirk our responsibility! If we are to be “imitators of God,” as the apostle Paul says[1]—and we can learn a lot about God our Father from this today’s scripture—then we ought to imitate God in his passion for bringing his children—our children—into a saving relationship with him through Christ! Read the rest of this entry »

My sermons are now being podcast! Have you subscribed?

July 11, 2017

I’ve been working over the past couple of months on creating a sermon podcast. I’ve been tweaking the audio settings, and the audio quality is now good enough for me to be proud of it. Each podcast includes an intro and scripture reading, the audio from the sermon itself, and an outro, which includes an invitation to my church, Hampton United Methodist. I purchased the license for the music you hear at the beginning and end.

My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher. Click on one of those links to subscribe. The good thing about a podcast is that it enables easy access on your smartphone or any other device.

I hope you enjoy it!

Here’s a screen cap from my iPhone.

Sermon 06-11-17: “That They May See Your Good Deeds”

July 11, 2017

“Lifestyle evangelism” is often maligned among evangelical Christians, yet Peter makes clear that it is a powerful and necessary component for effective witnessing. How do we do it? Mostly by being in love with Jesus. Are we in love with Jesus? 

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 2:11-17

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Last Wednesday, a nominee for deputy budget director named Russell Vought appeared before a senate panel—a panel that would either recommend or not recommend that his nomination be approved by the full Senate. He got into hot water, however, over something he wrote last year on a blog. He was writing about a controversy surrounding his alma mater, Wheaton College, an evangelical school near Chicago, and the school’s views concerning Islam. In that blog post, he wrote that Muslims have a “deficient theology,” and that they “do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.”

One senator on the panel called these words “indefensible,” “hateful,” “Islamaphobic,” and an “insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world.” So the senator said that he could not recommend that Vought be confirmed.

Which reminds me that I shouldn’t plan on serving in a high government post any time soon! There’s no way I could be confirmed!

In writing what he wrote, however, Mr. Vought was simply affirming a classic Christian doctrine, which all orthodox Christians everywhere have believed from the very beginning of the Christian movement: that salvation is found through Christ alone. As Jesus himself said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”[1] As Peter said in Acts, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”[2]

So it’s not just Muslims, but all of humanity, regardless of their religious beliefs, or lack thereof, who “stand condemned.” And the Bible even says that nominal Christians who profess Christian faith but whose lives show no evidence of repentance are also in grave danger.

The good news, of course, is that God loves every one of these unbelievers, and every one of those nominal believers, and is at work, right now, to bring them into a saving relationship with him through Christ. In fact, he’s calling people like Vought, like me, like you, like these young people who were confirmed or baptized earlier, and everyone else who follows Christ to play a role in this missionary effort. God’s plan of salvation includes using us Christians to save others. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 06-04-17: “The Holy Spirit Lives Here”

July 10, 2017

In this sermon, I emphasize our church has all the power we need to be successful in the mission our Lord has given us. Why? Because we have the Holy Spirit. Are we living as if we believe it? 

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 2:4-12

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Roger Moore: If you can’t have fun being a British spy, why bother?

Roger Moore was the James Bond of my childhood. So I love him. And after reading a Facebook post by an Englishman named Marc Hayes, in the wake of Moore’s death last week, well, I love him even more!

When Hayes was seven years old, he was with his grandfather at the airport in Nice, France, and he saw Roger Moore. He said to his grandfather, “Look, there’s James Bond!” His grandfather had no idea who James Bond was, much less Roger Moore. But he walked over to him and said, “My grandson says you’re James Bond. Can he get an autograph?” And so Roger Moore signed the child’s plane ticket. But the child was disappointed because he signed it “Roger Moore,” not James Bond. This kid didn’t know who Roger Moore was. So he and his grandfather went back over to the actor, and the grandfather explained the child’s disappointment.

At this point, Moore took the boy aside, leaned down to him and said,

“I have to sign my name as ‘Roger Moore’ because otherwise…Blofeld might find out I was here.” Blofeld is a famous Bond villain.” Then Moore asked the child not to tell anyone that he’d just seen James Bond, and he thanked him for keeping his secret.

Isn’t that great?

Twenty-three years later, a grown-up Marc Hayes had the opportunity to meet Roger Moore again, this time as part of a film crew that was filming a commercial for UNICEF. And Moore was part of it because he was a celebrity ambassador for UNICEF. Anyway, Hayes told Moore about meeting him when he was a kid. Moore said he didn’t remember the encounter but was glad he had a chance to meet “James Bond.”

Then, after the filming was over, as Moore was leaving the studio, he turned back to Hayes, “looked both ways, raised an eyebrow and in a hushed voice said, ‘Of course I remember our meeting in Nice. But I didn’t say anything in there, because those cameramen—any one of them could be working for Blofeld.’”

I can hardly share that story without tearing up. I’m sentimental about my childhood heroes. When William Shatner and Henry Winkler die, I’m going to be a wreck.

Anyway, I share this story with you this morning because like James Bond, you and I—and everyone who’s a member of Hampton United Methodist Church—have a secret identity. And like James Bond, we have access to a great deal of power. Remember one of the highlights of every Bond movie was when Bond would go into Q’s laboratory and get all these powerful gadgets that enabled him to accomplish his mission? We have something infinitely more powerful than Q’s gadgets. We have the Holy Spirit, which means we have all the power we need to accomplish our mission. Read the rest of this entry »

I’m on vacation this week

July 6, 2017

This is me, not worrying about blog posts!

Sorry I haven’t been active this week: I’m on vacation. When I return next week, I’ll post my last few sermons and reflect on what I’ve learned about the most difficult passage of scripture in the New Testament, 1 Peter 3:18-22, which I’m preaching on this Sunday.

Was the older son really the “good” son?

June 30, 2017

The older son from Rembrandt’s painting.

In my second of two sermons on the Prodigal Son last Sunday (I promise I’ll post them soon!), I preached on the older son. He was, as I said on Sunday, at least as lost as the younger son. Yet we usually consider him the good son: “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.”

Is this true? Was the older son truly serving his father? Tim Keller doesn’t think so, and he uses the following story to illustrate why:

Once upon a time there was a gardener who grew an enormous carrot. So he took it to his king and said, “My Lord, this is the greatest carrot I’ve ever grown or ever will grow. Therefore I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” The king was touched and discerned the man’s heart, so as [the gardener] turned to go the king said, “Wait! You are clearly a good steward of the earth. I own a plot of land right next to yours. I want to give it to you freely as a gift so you can garden it all.” And the gardener was amazed and delighted and went home rejoicing. But there was a nobleman at the king’s court who overheard all this. And he said, “My! If that is what you get for a carrot–what if you gave the king something better?” So the next day the nobleman came before the king and he was leading a handsome black stallion. He bowed low and said, “My lord, I breed horses and this is the greatest horse I have ever bred or ever will. Therefore I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” But the king discerned his heart and said thank you, and took the horse and merely dismissed him. The nobleman was perplexed. So the king said, “Let me explain. That gardener was giving me the carrot, but you were giving yourself the horse.”[†]

The older son, of course, was serving himself—giving to his father in order to receive. It was as if he were saying, “Because I’ve been faithful to my father—unlike my no-good brother—my father ought to reward me. I deserve to have the fattened calf killed; I deserve to have a party.” So when he hears that his father has instead thrown a party for his wayward brother, he’s filled with resentment: “What has he done to deserve that? Why not me?”

As I said in an earlier blog post, I am the older brother. Resentment and self-pity have harmed me badly over the years. They still do.

These feelings long predate my answering the call into ministry. But I now see that in answering the call, sin seized the opportunity, and I made an implicit agreement with God: “Because I’ve done this for you, Father, you’ll now do this for me. After all, look at how I’ve sacrificed for you! Why haven’t you killed the fattened calf? Why haven’t you thrown me a party?”

And like the older son, I have a difficult time, figuratively speaking, attending parties for others.

This Sunday, I’ll have the opportunity to explore the proper motivation for serving our Father, and how we achieve it, when we turn our attention to the apostle Peter’s words to slaves in 1 Peter 2:18-25.

Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God (New York: Dutton, 2008), 69-70.

Tell me again why the issue dividing the UMC isn’t “essential”?

June 28, 2017

Last April, I publicly disagreed with James Howell, a United Methodist pastor and Duke Divinity School lecturer (who used to write a column in the liberal mainline journal Lectionary Homiletics, to which I subscribed early in my ministry), over the issue that threatens to divide our denomination in 2019. Dr. Howell wrote a blog post in which he said that, irrespective of our convictions on the subject of human sexuality, it isn’t a question of “essential” Christian doctrine. Therefore, why should the UMC divide over it?

He never responded to my objections, unfortunately.

Yesterday, in an unrelated Facebook thread, we disagreed on a different matter. He wrote the following:

I thought about ignoring it, but why? Do I believe that unrepentant sexual sin risks excluding someone—eternally—from God’s kingdom? Do I believe that to whom much is given, much will be expected, and that it’s better for us pastors to tie a millstone around our neck and throw ourselves into the sea than to cause believers to stumble?

So I wrote the following (no response yet):

If that’s true, then I trust that you’ll search the scriptures and understand why our church’s doctrine on human sexuality is, indeed, a non-negotiable “essential” of the faith—just as it was for the Jerusalem Council when the church retained the Bible’s proscription against “porneia” [translated “sexual immorality”], even as they ruled that Gentiles didn’t have to be circumcised or follow other ceremonial aspects of the law.

If we don’t disagree on the authority of scripture, then surely you’ll agree with me that our church can’t place the need for “unity” ahead of holiness, just as Paul himself refused to do in 1 Corinthians 5, for example, when dealing with the man committing incest. Since incest is condemned in the identical context alongside homosexual behavior in Leviticus 18 and 20, it’s difficult for those of us who embrace the authority to scripture to believe that one is a serious enough sin to divide over but not the other.

If we don’t disagree on the authority of scripture, then you’ll understand why appeals to the Articles of Religion or the creeds or anything outside of scripture ring hollow when determining what is “essential” and what isn’t. Unrepentant sexual sin, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 6, risks excluding someone from God’s kingdom. Nothing less than heaven and hell, therefore, hang in the balance. That being the case, surely you and I agree, committed as we both are to the authority of scripture, that the issue that is dividing our church counts as “essential.”

One more thought on Wonderful Life

June 24, 2017

Please see my previous post if you haven’t already.

In the last minute of It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey seemingly gets the happy ending that he thought he deserved earlier in the film: grateful townspeople, former classmates, and even his younger brother express their gratitude and love to him in heartfelt, tangible ways.

But not so fast…

In the clip above, George’s salvation comes before that last minute—as evidenced by his elation at the prospect of going to jail. When the sheriff tells him he has a paper for him, George says, “I bet it’s a warrant for my arrest. Isn’t it wonderful? I’m going to jail!”

As far as George knows, something far worse than hating his job or “playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic eaters” has befallen him. Yet how does he respond? Wth pure joy. Like the younger son in the parable, George has passed from death to life.

The fact that his friends saved him from prison was good, but his true salvation happened before that.

It’s hard not to think of Paul’s words in Philippians 3:8:

I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ.