Sermon 02-02-2020: “New Year’s Resolution #3: Get Organized”

March 4, 2020

Sermon Text: Matthew 6:25-34

It happens, by my estimation, every two or three years. As if there weren’t enough for the average person to worry about in a typical news cycle—from whatever is going on in Washington, to terrorism, to climate change, to the economy; from China, to Russia, to Iran, to North Korea—in addition to all that, every two or three years there’s a new public health scare to worry about. Right now, it’s the coronavirus. A few years ago, it was Ebola. In the early 2000s, it was SARS. In fact, from what I read, the new coronavirus is related to SARS. 

Anyway, I remember SARS well. There was a big outbreak in Canada, in Toronto… And it just so happened at that same time I had to travel to Toronto, on business, when I was an engineer. And you have to understand how my mind works: See, I’m a bit of a hypochondriac, and rationally, I should have said to myself, “There’s a tiny risk of getting SARS if I happen to be in close contact with someone who has it. And worst case, even if I contracted it, there’s an even tinier chance that I would die from it.” Because that’s how normal people think. But when I found out I was going to Toronto, the epicenter of the SARS outbreak, I said to myself, “Well, I guess I’m getting SARS!” Because that’s how my mind works!

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Sermon 01-26-20: “New Year’s Resolution #2: Exercise More”

February 13, 2020
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This past week, the Green Bay Packers and future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers made headlines in an interview on his girlfriend Danica Patrick’s podcast by saying that he rejects the Christian faith in which he grew up. He said, “I don’t know how you can believe in a God who wants to condemn most of the planet to a fiery hell. What type of loving, sensitive, omnipresent, omnipotent being wants to condemn his beautiful creation to a fiery hell at the end of all this?”

Aaron Rodgers

There’s a lot to unpack here. First… the idea that God wants to condemn “most of the planet” to hell is not what Christianity teaches. God wants to save all of the planet from hell. That’s why he sent his Son Jesus. I shared scripture in last week’s sermon indicating that God wanted to save everyone. But consider this: we all know John 3:16. Look at the verse after that: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

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Sermon 01-19-20: “Resolution #1: Lose Weight”

January 22, 2020
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The Atlantic magazine had an article last month that began with these words:

One of the truisms of modern life is that nobody has any time. Everybody is busy, burned out, swamped, overwhelmed. So let’s try a simple thought experiment. Imagine that you came into possession of a magical new set of technologies that could automate or expedite every single part of your job.

What would you do with the extra time? Maybe you’d pick up a hobby, or have more children, or learn to luxuriate in the additional leisure. But what if I told you that you wouldn’t do any of those things: You would just work the exact same amount of time as before.[1]

From the Carousel of Progress: “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow…”

That’s precisely what a new study concludes. We’ve bought a lot of time-saving gadgets over the past hundred years—like refrigerators and freezers. Food keeps much longer, therefore fewer trips to the store. Therefore more time, right? Wrong… We spent that extra time at this new thing called a “supermarket” in order to keep the refrigerator well-stocked. But surely washer and dryer saved us a lot of time, right? No… We just ended up buying a lot more clothes and doing laundry much more frequently than we used to. Vacuum cleaners just put pressure on us to spend more time cleaning floors. You get the picture. Work expands to fill the available time. So we never get ahead.

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Sermon 01-12-20: “The First Half of the Gospel”

January 22, 2020
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 When you were a child, you likely heard a fairy tale somewhere along the way of a prince, facing overwhelming obstacles, who finds and marries his true love—Cinderella is one of those fairy tales. And what happens at the end, when the prince marries his princess? “They lived happily ever after.”

That’s not exactly playing out right now in Britain, at least with one particular prince. Oh, he found and married his true love, against overwhelming odds. But they have found it very difficult to obey and live within the prescribed rules that govern the conduct of the Royal Family. Well, one of those rules is that if you’re a prince, you’re not supposed to marry a divorced, biracial American actress—and they’ve been victims of racism, for sure. But there are many other rules related to protocol, decorum, and privacy that these two ambitious young millennials in the 21st century are having a hard time following.

So last week, in an unprecedented move, they announced that they wanted out of the royal palace… at least halfway out. They said they are going to live half the time in North America, where they would—get this—actually support themselves… by earning a paycheck and working for a living! Not that Meghan Markle hadn’t already been doing that; she’s been a successful actress in Hollywood. But still… 

What happens when we find that a set of rules—which can also be called “the law”—is too hard to follow? 

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Sermon 01-05-20: “New Year, New Creation”

January 22, 2020
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My good friend Hugh, the pastor at Lavonia United Methodist, was appointed to Lavonia the same time I was appointed here. And the first week he was in Lavonia, he joined a gym in Toccoa, and he said, “Join this gym. We’ll go together.” “Great!” So I went to this gym and talked to the guy, and it was a little pricey, and they required a three-year contract. I didn’t know gyms did that anymore. So I didn’t sign up for it. And I’m glad I waited, because just a few weeks later I saw that Planet Fitness was opening; it was cheaper; no contracts; hydro-massage chairs; plus I need to go to a gym that is a “Judgment-Free Zone,” where the risk of “Gymtimidation” is low. I mean, look at me! I’m someone who easily gets “gym-timidated.”

So I called Hugh to rub it in. “Hugh, I’m glad I didn’t join your gym. I’m going to join Planet Fitness instead.” And he said, “Oh, I’ve already joined.” “Wait, you already joined a gym—with a three-year contract! How did you get out of the contract?” “Eh… I’m a member of both gyms.” 

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“Deliver me, Lord, even from #FirstWorldProblems”: Psalm 119:169-70

January 7, 2020

Let my cry come before you, O Lord;
    give me understanding according to your word!
Let my plea come before you;
    deliver me according to your word.
Psalm 119:169-170

When I read Psalm 119 and the psalmist’s many cries for deliverance or rescue, I think, “My problems aren’t nearly so large as his. How can my #FirstWorldProblems compare? Why should I even bother to pray about this?”

But I refuse to think of it that way anymore. For one thing, when you’re in the first world, #FirstWorldProblems are still problems. Even more, while the psalmist appeals for vindication over his enemy, we don’t know precisely what kind of enemy he was facing. But I know well enough the Enemy that I face, and he’s resourceful: he’s more than happy to use even #FirstWorldProblems if they will rob me of my joy, disrupt my peace, kindle my anger, and harm my witness, which they do… often.

My point is, I need help. I need rescue. I need deliverance—no less than the author of this psalm. Yet I don’t pray for deliverance with the same urgency, or the same volume, that the psalmist does when he “cries out” and “pleads.”


Lord, give me the grace to change. Give me the faith to believe that my “cries” will reach you, and you’ll give me victory. Amen. #esvjournalingbible #biblejournaling

“Every moment of 2019 served your deepest needs”

January 1, 2020

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. 1 Corinthians 3:21b-23

More than a few friends and acquaintances on social media have said, in so many words, “good riddance” to 2019. I sympathize. Objectively speaking, it was hardly a stroll through the park for me and my family, too. Yet on the cusp of this new year, I am confident that this past year has accomplished precisely what God intended for it to accomplish: all of its challenges, disappointments, pain, and apparent setbacks—not to mention the many joyful moments and outright victories.

How could it be any other way?

In the verses above, Paul challenges the Corinthians to change their thinking about their pastoral leaders. These church members had been feeling proud because of their allegiances to different leaders: “each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas.'”

“But you don’t get it,” Paul says. “It’s not that you belong to this or that leader; it’s that he belongs to you. He is your servant—and so is everything else in this universe! They all belong to you—because, in Christ, God is using them to serve you and your interests!”

One thing this surely means is that the year 2019 also belonged to us entirely: nothing of value was lost or wasted; every moment served our interests; God redeemed (or is redeeming) every moment. They were all for our ultimate good, as we will see in this world or the next.

To paraphrase John Newton: “We needed everything that God sent us in 2019; we didn’t need anything that he withheld.”

So thank you, Lord. #biblejournaling #esvjournalingbible

Podcast Episode #38: “It Was a Very Good Year”

December 31, 2019
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On Instagram this morning, I read a post from the Desiring God organization in which the author said, “Take steps to remove or keep yourself from whatever is keeping you from the Bible.” I immediately double-tapped the screen to register my approval of this post: But I saw the irony immediately and commented, “But then I wouldn’t be reading this post right now!” Because the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is reach for my phone and browse social media—as a way of easing into the morning before getting out of bed. I’m pretty sure most of us do this. 

Before long, a half hour slips by, and I’m still clicking and tapping away on my smartphone—a half hour that might otherwise be devoted to—you know—reading or meditating on or memorizing God’s Word.

By all means, take distractions away, Lord, but not the distractions of Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook! I like them too much!

Anyway, while I was on social media I also read about how difficult the year 2019 was for some people—and how eager they are to turn the page, to reset the calendar, on a new year. 

What do you make of that kind of tweet? Don’t get me wrong. I understand what it’s like to have a difficult year… And objectively speaking, 2019 was hardly a stroll through the park! But on what basis would I complain? I mean, seriously… Inasmuch as 2019 was difficult, it was, like, 99 and 44/100 percent my own fault. These difficulties were self-inflicted. Because it wasn’t the circumstances that made 2019 a challenge for me, it was my response to those circumstances. 

And that will surely be true for 2020 as well.

Also, inasmuch as God did not spare me from suffering the consequences of my self-inflicted problems in 2019, how can I not be grateful. Because I learned from these experiences!

Listen, we all know the apostle Paul’s words in Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” And the way I’ve interpreted this verse for the vast majority of my life is like this: In spite of what we’re going through, no matter how bad things are right now, we always have reasons to rejoice—we can console ourselves with the conviction that “this world is not our home,” like so many gospel songs of a certain vintage say; we’ll “fly away to a land on God’s celestial shore.” At least we’ll have a better life on the other side of eternity. 

In the meantime, we can just grin and bear it. Heaven is the consolation prize for life not working out so well right now.

That sounds awful, doesn’t it? 

No, it’s not in spite of these bad things that we can rejoice. The Bible goes much further than that. Take, for instance, Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:20. Now, this verse is in the middle of a long sentence with participial phrases. It reads literally, “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” But there’s an implied imperative, and some translations break it up into smaller sentences. The Good News Translation, for instance, puts it like this: “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, always give thanks for everything to God the Father.”

Always give thanks… for what? For everything.

So if you’re a Christian, from Paul’s point of view, there’s no rejoicing “in spite of.” That’s far too mild. There’s only rejoicing because of.

And Paul is hardly a Pollyanna about suffering and evil. Listen to what he says in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9, in which he describes his suffering and imprisonment in Ephesus:

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.

So to be clear: If any experience would put Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:20 to the test, surely it was this terrible experience in Ephesus. Could Paul actually “give thanks” for being “afflicted, utterly burdened beyond his strength, despairing of life, and feeling as if he’d been given a death sentence”?

And his answer would surely be yes. Why? Because, he says, God had a purpose for letting him endure it: “to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises from the dead.”

So when Paul reached the end of that particular calendar year, would he say, “Thank God this year is over”? Or would he say, “Thank you, God, for what you put me through this past year because look at how you used it for my good”?

In some Psalm 119:71-72, the psalmist writes:

It was good for me to be afflicted

so that I could learn your statutes.

Instruction from your lips is better for me

than thousands of gold and silver pieces.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve ever learned anything important in life except through affliction. What about you? And it’s interesting that the psalmist says that God’s Word is better than “thousands of gold and silver pieces.” Because when I’m afflicted, it’s usually because I’m seeking my treasure in something or someone other than Jesus Christ. And then, when the Lord graciously refuses to give me this treasure I seek, I’m disappointed and filled with resentment. And I suffer. Because I didn’t get whatever “gold and silver” I was seeking outside of Christ.

If you’re a Christian, God’s purpose in all of our affliction ultimately is to give us more of Christ. Do we want more of Christ? Is he enough for us? Or are we going to keep on looking for treasure elsewhere?

So thank you, God, for afflicting me in 2019. These afflictions were blessings in disguise—as the old Laura Story song says. And thank you for all of those blessings over the past year that were not in disguise. There were many, many more of those anyway. 

Two-thousand-nineteen was a very good year.

Sermon 12-29-19: “The Real War on Christmas”

December 30, 2019
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I read an article years ago, written by an historian, which asked a strange but thought-provoking question: “in popular imagination, who was Hitler before there was a Hitler?” In other words, for the past 70 years or so, when we’ve needed to compare an evil ruler, dictator, or king to someone from the past who was really evil, we needed look no further than to Hitler and the Nazis. For us, Hitler is the living embodiment of evil, the personification of evil. 

So the question this historian was asking was a good one: Who was Hitler before Hitler even existed? Prior to about 1945, who was the evil ruler to whom people routinely compared other evil rulers?

And the answer, according to this historian? None other than the evil king we encounter in today’s scripture, King Herod, or “Herod the Great.” And this was in large part because of what we see him do in today’s scripture. 

Remember from last week, he sends the Wise Men to Bethlehem to find the newborn King of the Jews. He says it’s because he wants to worship him. Yeah, right! The reality is, he wants to kill Jesus, because he perceives that Jesus is a rival to his throne. And when God warns the Wise Men in a dream what Herod is up to, they go home “by another way,” at great risk to their lives. Because Herod was not somebody you wanted to cross. So he finds out that the Wise Men had tricked him, he flies into a murderous rage, and he sends his army to slaughter all male children two and under in and around Bethlehem. Why “two years”? Because earlier he had asked the Wise Men when the star first appeared. Apparently they told him two years earlier.

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Sermon 12-24-19: “Good News of Great Joy”

December 27, 2019
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So the new Star Wars movie opened last week: “Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker.” My kids and I saw it last Friday. Not to spoil anything, but I was very surprised to learn that the heroine of the trilogy, Rey, was the granddaughter of Jar Jar Binks. I did not see that coming at all, did you?

I’m kidding, of course. I’m not going to spoil the new Star Wars by giving away the ending. But I hope you won’t mind if I spoil the beginning: because it begins the exact same way that the previous eight installments of the series began: a black screen with these words: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” This is, in other words, the filmmakers’ way of saying, “Once upon a time…” “Everything that you’re about to see—no matter how impressive the CGI and special effects—it’s all just make-believe.” Despite the fact that according to a recent census of Great Britain, a depressingly large number of respondents—at least thousands—claimed “Jedi” as their religious identification, the Star Wars universe is nothing more than a glorified fairy tale. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with fairy tales, but let’s please notice how drastically different the beginning of the Christmas story is. Luke tells us that the following events occurred in a specific time and place in history—when Caesar Augustus was emperor. But he was emperor for a long time—from 27 B.C. to A.D. 14. So Luke is more specific: This was Caesar’s first registration—you know, the one he did when Quirinius was governor of Syria

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