Posts Tagged ‘Timothy Keller’

Sermon 11-26-17: “Rejoice in the Lord Always”

November 30, 2017

Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” Does “always” really mean always? If so, I suspect most of us struggle to obey these words. Our main problem, as I point in this sermon, is that we usually rejoice in our circumstances: “I got the job, therefore I rejoice!” “She said ‘yes,’ therefore I rejoice!” “The tests came back negative, therefore I rejoice!” But notice Paul says to rejoice in the Lord. If we are in the Lord, we always have reasons for joy.

Sermon Text: Philippians 4:4-13

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

The family and I went to my in-laws house in Snellville on Thanksgiving. After the meal, I stayed awake watching football as long as I could—without being rude—before creeping back to the spare bedroom and taking a nap. When I woke up, everyone—my entire family and my in-laws—were no longer watching football. They were watching a movie on the Hallmark Channel. Maybe you’ve seen it? It was that one about this man and woman who meet but don’t get along at first. In fact, they don’t even like each other. But over time they start to secretly fall for one another. But they can’t tell each other, because there are all these obstacles that stand in the way of their relationship. And then, at the very end of the movie, all the obstacles are removed. They finally say, “I love you.” They kiss. And it’s clear they’re going to live happily ever after.

Have you seen that one?

Actually, this one was almost exactly like You’ve Got Mail except it was set at Christmastime. At the end of the movie, the woman gets everything she wants, including a big promotion at work, the perfect Christmas gift, and the man of her dreams. So of course she is deeply happy! She has reason to rejoice! If she got passed over for the promotion; if she lost her job; if her Christmas wishes went unfulfilled; if she didn’t end up with Romeo, well… she would be not be rejoicing. And we the viewers would not be rejoicing.

Because our ability to rejoice depends on… how things turn out. We need the “happily ever after,” or something reasonably close to it, in order to experience joy. That’s because we rejoice in our circumstances—when you get the promotion, when you fall in love, when your dreams come true. If the circumstances are bad, not so much.

Yet notice Paul’s words here in verse 4: “Rejoice in the Lord”—when? “Always.” And as if that weren’t clear enough he repeats it: “Again I will say, rejoice.” Read the rest of this entry »

Unanswered prayer is not a challenge to God’s sovereignty, Mr. Campolo

November 22, 2017

This article made the rounds recently on a United Methodist-related Facebook group of which I’m a member. Bart Campolo, the son of prominent “progressive evangelical” Tony Campolo, describes how he lost his Christian faith incrementally. The process began during his ministry with the urban poor, when he found, time and again, that God wasn’t answering his prayers.

“It messed with my theology,” he explains. “I had a theology that said God could intervene and do stuff.” But after a period of unanswered prayer, Bart admits: “I had to change my understanding of God. Sovereignty had to get dialed down a bit.”

Campolo admitted that changing his view of God’s sovereignty was “the beginning of the end” of his faith. Why?

“Because once you start adjusting your theology to match up to the reality you see in front of you, it’s an infinite progression. So over the course of the next 30 years…my ability to believe in a supernatural narrative or a God who intervenes and does anything died a death of a thousand unanswered prayers”.

Campolo continued: “I passed through every stage of heresy. It starts out with sovereignty goes, then biblical authority goes, then I’m a universalist, now I’m marrying gay people. Pretty soon I don’t actually believe Jesus actually rose from the dead in a bodily way.”

Campolo went on to say that “progressive Christianity” is a stepping stone to atheism for many others.

Maybe so. But if Campolo believed that God’s sovereignty was proven (or not) by Campolo’s perception of God’s ability to answer his prayers, then I wonder how orthodox he was to begin with.

Speaking from my own experience, the “higher” your view of God’s sovereignty, the less concerned you are with whether or not God grants your petitions in prayer. Why? Because your overriding concern is that God’s will be done, not your own. If something other than your petition comes to pass, you can trust that God allowed or enabled it for good reasons—and the ultimate outcome of not granting your petition will be better for you, for your neighbor, for the world, or for God’s kingdom than otherwise. Whether you can grasp even one of possibly millions of reasons that God didn’t grant your petition is beside the point.

And why should you know what those reasons are? Who do you—a finite, sinful person—think you are? To put it mildly, what do you know that God doesn’t? Who are you to judge what God “ought” to do? It’s preposterous when you think about it—at least for those of us who believe in the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and providence.

After all, from God’s vantage point, which transcends time, only he foreknows the myriad and potentially eternal consequences of granting or not granting your petition.

In his masterful book Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, Tim Keller discusses chaos theory and the famous “butterfly effect”: that a butterfly flapping its wings in China “would be magnified through a ripple effect so as to determine the path of a hurricane in the South Pacific. Yet no one would be able to calculate and predict the actual effects of the butterfly’s flight.”[1] No one except God, that is.

Now, if even the effects of a butterfly’s flight or the roll of a ball down a hill are too complex to calculate, how much less could any human being look at the tragic, seemingly “senseless” death of a young person and have any idea of what the effects in history will be? If an all-powerful and all-wise God were directing all of history with its infinite number of interactive events toward good ends, it would be folly to think we could look at any particular occurrence and understand a millionth of what it will bring about. The history-butterfly effect means that “only an omniscient mind could grasp the complexities of directing a world of free creatures toward… provisioned [good] goals… Certainly many evils seem pointless and unnecessary to us—but we are simply not in a position to judge.”[2]

Elsewhere, Keller has said these helpful words:

At the very least, we need to approach the “problem” of unanswered prayer with great humility.

Besides, in his model prayer for us, Jesus teaches us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” In his 30 years of drifting toward atheism, was Campolo praying for that? Because if he were, he would have found that God answered his prayer about 10,950 times. Had he been praying for other bare necessities, he likely could add hundreds of thousands more answered prayers for things he routinely took for granted.

“Yes,” the skeptic might say, “but Campolo was going to receive his daily bread anyway—he lives in the most prosperous country in history, after all. He didn’t have to pray for it, and he probably didn’t most of the time.”

That’s probably true. And yet, someone who believes in God’s sovereignty also understands that nothing in the universe “happens anyway”—not apart from God’s providential grace. That you were born in a prosperous country into a middle-class family, that you enjoy life and breath with which to serve the urban poor, and that you receive something so humble as daily bread—all of these are gifts “from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

If we forget to ask our Father for these gifts, yet he gives them anyway, can we at least remember to say thank you?

(And thus concludes the grumpiest Thanksgiving message you’ll likely read this year! 😉)

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 100.

2. Ibid., 101.

My recent adventure in Christian apologetics

November 9, 2017

In response to Tuesday’s blog post, which I shared on Facebook, I had an interesting exchange with Cory Markum, an atheist blogger and podcaster whom I first heard on Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable? radio show. I blogged about that episode last year, and he “friended” me on Facebook.

He began with the following reply:

That’s great, but if [God] exists, he should have stopped the shooting instead of sitting idly by. If anyone else knew that something like that was going to happen and had the capacity to stop it, but didn’t, then we would all conclude that they are culpable for failing to act. I see no good reason to give God a pass, so the fact that God didn’t do anything to stop it, in my eyes, constitutes strong evidence that such a being doesn’t exist.

To which I wrote the following:

I see no reason to give God a pass, either, Cory. But I trust that God knows better than we do the myriad consequences of his intervening to stop what one of his free creatures chooses to do. Obviously, if God were in the business of intervening every time one of his creatures chooses to do something harmful, we would no longer be free, nor would we live in a universe governed by predictable laws. And God knows it wouldn’t be good for us to never suffer consequences of free choices.

But if you read my post, you know that we Christians believe in heaven. This is not pie in the sky to us; this is an essential part of how God balances the scales of justice and redeems suffering. Whatever happens in this world is a “light momentary affliction,” as the apostle says, in comparison to eternity. I know you don’t believe that, but I wish you did.

He replied:

I wish I did too, man. I’m extremely envious of those who are able to.

I’m curious…do you believe that we (or more accurately, you) will have freedom of this sort in heaven? If so, and if heaven is a place free of evil, doesn’t this show that it is possible for there to be free creatures and yet, no evil? And if such a state of affairs is possible, doesn’t it follow that a perfectly good being would opt for that world, rather than the one we have?

Notice here that Markum raises precisely the objection that Christian apologist Clay Jones discusses in his recent book Why Does God Allow Evil?: If heaven is a world in which free will and sinless perfection coexist, why couldn’t God have created this world to begin with—and spare us the pain and suffering? Markum continued: Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 10-01-17: “Grace Alone”

October 12, 2017

Today’s sermon examines the Protestant (and biblical) doctrine of Sola Gratia—that we are saved by God’s grace alone. I begin the sermon looking at two Old Testament portrayals of grace and how they relate to the cross of God’s Son Jesus. These will give us a sense of how costly grace is. Understanding the costliness of grace will help us fall in love with Jesus Christ more and more.

Sermon Text: Ephesians 2:1-10

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I want to begin with two pictures of grace from holy scripture. I could find dozens of more that would illustrate my point, but I only have time for two. The first comes from Genesis 15: God has just promised Abraham that he will make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. That will take a miracle, but God will do it. These descendants will be God’s chosen people Israel, and through Israel God would save the world by sending his Son Jesus. So Abraham will enter the convent with God on Israel’s behalf.

How he enters this covenant will sound strange to our ears, but this is what ancient people did: At the Lord’s command, Abraham cut in half a heifer, a female goat, and a ram. When night fell, God appeared to Abraham in the form of a fire pot and a flaming torch. And this fiery vision—representing God—passed in between the two halves of each animal carcass. What does that symbolize? It’s as if God were saying, “May I become just like these animals—may I die like these animals—may my blood be shed like these animals—if I fail to live up to this covenant and keep my promises.” And next, we would expect the other party to the covenant to walk between the animal carcasses. But guess what? Abraham doesn’t do that. Only God does. God, in other words, was assuming responsibility for both sides of the covenant: If Israel breaks the covenant, God will suffer the penalty. That’s grace.

Here’s my second picture of grace, from Genesis 22: God commands Abraham to sacrifice the most precious thing Abraham had ever known: his beloved son. Or perhaps I should say the second most precious thing Abraham had known, because, as Abraham demonstrates, God is more precious to him than even his beloved son. How do we know? Because he’s willing to obey God, even though God was asking him to do the most difficult thing imaginable: sacrificing his own son! And of course, as Abraham raises the knife to slay his son, God stops him. And what does God provide for Abraham instead: a ram whose horns are caught in a thicket. Abraham took the ram and slaughtered it and offered it as a burnt offering instead. God enables Abraham to offer a lamb as a sacrifice in place of his child. That’s grace. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 08-20-17: “Anxiety and our Adversary”

September 15, 2017

The following sermon is the last in my sermon series on 1 Peter. It’s mostly about our adversary, the devil, who, Peter tells us, “prowls around (J)like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” I begin my making the case for the reality of Satan and demons before talking about a couple of ways—through seemingly “small” sins (!) of pride and anxiety—that he gets a foothold in our lives.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 5:5-11

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I have a friend from college. I’ll call him Steve. He’s a committed Christian and a Methodist. Many years ago, one of Steve’s good friends encouraged him to join a very secretive fraternal organization. Please note: I’m not talking about the Masons. My own father was a Shriner and a Mason. In fact, Dad was the Grand Poo-Bah, if you remember Happy Days—he was the “Potentate” of Shrine organization in North Georgia. So nothing I say should be interpreted as my being opposed to Masons or other fraternal organizations. But as Steve soon learned, the one that he joined was not benign.

So he joined this secret organization; he learned their rituals; and one day, he was “practicing” them, as he was taught to do, shortly before going on a hike in the woods. Now, Steve is a smart guy. Scientifically minded. An engineer. And he told me that shortly after performing these rituals, while he was on his hike, he saw an apparition of a demon, which chased him through the woods. He knew it was a demon. He was terrified. And get this: when he told his friend about what happened—the friend who persuaded him to join this organization in the first place—his friend said, “Oh, yeah. That’s happened to me, too. But that’s just some psychological phenomenon. There’s nothing to it. Don’t worry about it.”

Don’t worry about it? Well, Steve immediately quit this organization and these obviously occult rituals. All I can say is my friend is not a crackpot. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 08-13-17: “Living at the End of the Age”

September 7, 2017

This sermon is about Second Coming of Jesus Christ. I chose to preach this doctrine because of Peter’s words in 1 Peter 4:7a: “The end of all things is at hand.” Does this mean that Peter expected that the Second Coming would happen at any moment? Probably not. He knew, based on the teaching of Jesus, that there were signs in history that must occur before that happened. I explore these signs and talk about the most important thing we Christians should do while we wait.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 4:7-11

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

Last Christmas, in the New York Times, op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristoff interviewed one of my favorite contemporary preachers, Tim Keller, who, until his retirement a couple of months ago, pastored a large, multi-campus church in Manhattan. Kristoff said, “I deeply admire Jesus and his message, but am also skeptical of themes that have been integral to Christianity — the virgin birth, the Resurrection, the miracles and so on.”

So Kristoff wanted to know if he could still be a Christian if he didn’t believe “the miracles and so on.” And Keller told him, politely, no—it’s not possible. And of course that’s right. In many ways, Kristoff wanted to do what Thomas Jefferson did: remove all the supernatural stuff from the gospels and focus on Jesus’ teaching. His teaching is great, after all. Or as Kristoff said, “I deeply admire Jesus and his message.”

But I wonder if Kristoff really understands what Jesus’ message is. Now, he likely has in mind Jesus’ great moral teaching, as in the Sermon on the Mount and in many of his parables. You don’t have to be a Christian, after all, to appreciate that Jesus is the greatest moral teacher who ever lived. But what about the rest of Jesus’ teaching? One scholar I read estimates that fully 20 percent of Jesus’ teaching has to do with events associated with his Second Coming.

If Kristoff and many others think Jesus was onto something when he taught about morality, maybe they should hear what he has to say about this other important doctrine.

So that’s what I want to do in today’s sermon: talk about the Second Coming. The reason it comes up is because of what Peter says in verse 7: “The end of all things is at hand”—and this fact ought to dictate how we live. Read the rest of this entry »

Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 2)

August 15, 2017

Hillary Clinton and Bill Shillady

(To read Part 1 of this series, click here.]

Last week, CNN interviewed Hillary Clinton’s pastor, the Rev. Bill Shillady, a United Methodist, on the eve of the publication of his new devotional book. The interviewer asked him if his faith was challenged by the election results. He said the following:

It wasn’t a challenge to my faith in terms of believing or not believing in God. I’m a bit of a process theologian, which means that, as life goes along, I believe in an all-loving God who may not always be in control, rather than an all-powerful God who is not loving. But I was definitely depressed for a few months after the election.

Frankly, if that were the choice we Christians face—between a God who is all-powerful but not all loving or all-loving but not not all-powerful—then we’d all have good reason to be depressed! If it were true that our all-loving God “may not always be in control,” then how can we possibly trust or depend on him? After all, God makes many promises to his children in scripture. How do we know that he has the power to fulfill them?

Fortunately, the Rev. Shillady has offered us a false choice: to say the least, God can be all-loving and all-powerful and also allow Donald Trump to be president! And that would be equally true if Clinton had won.

What’s tragic, however, is that so many Methodist laypeople, Secretary Clinton included, are being taught otherwise!

Still, Shillady’s words are a timely reminder of why we need a firm grasp on God’s providence.

So let’s go back to the controversial 2007 post from pastor John Piper, which he wrote after the 35W bridge collapsed and killed 35 people and injured 145. Was Piper right or wrong?

Piper begins by saying that on the night the bridge collapsed, the appointed scripture for his family devotion time was Luke 13:1-5. He writes, “It was not my choice. This is surely no coincidence.” I assume Piper means that the reading came by way of a pre-determined calendar of scripture readings or a devotional book.

If so, Jesus’ words in that passage couldn’t be more timely. Jesus and his disciples have just received breaking news: Pontius Pilate massacred Galilean worshipers in the Temple in Jerusalem. It’s likely that the messengers who delivered the news expected Jesus to endorse a widely held theological interpretation of tragedies such as this one: God was punishing its victims for their particular sins. Instead, Jesus says the following:

Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

Notice that Jesus’ other example of recent tragedy—a tower falling on people—couldn’t be more closely related to the 35W bridge disaster. So I agree with Piper: The fact that this scripture was the appointed text on this particular evening is surely no coincidence… Unless of course meticulous providence doesn’t exist, in which case coincidences abound.

Because even my saying that this was “no coincidence” requires a lot of providential string-pulling: For example, months or years earlier, God, foreseeing the 35W bridge tragedy, inspired someone—a devotional writer or publisher—to choose Luke 13:1-5 as the reading for this particular day, after which God made sure that this devotional book got into the hands of John Piper and his family, and they were reading from it the night of the tragedy.

Pastor and author Tim Keller makes a similar point about the establishment of his church, Redeemer Presbyterian, in Manhattan:

Redeemer exists to a great degree because my wife, Kathy, and I were set to New York City to start this as a new church. Why were we sent? It was because we joined a Presbyterian denomination that encouraged church planting and that sent us out. But why did we join a Presbyterian denomination? We joined it because in the very last semester of my last year at seminary, I had two courses under a particular professor who convinced me to adopt the doctrines and beliefs of Presbyterianism. But why was that professor at the seminary at that time? He was there only because, after a long period of waiting, he was finally able to get his visa as a citizen of Great Britain to come and teach in the United States.

This professor had been hired by my U.S. seminary but had been having a great deal of trouble getting a visa. For various reasons at the time the process was very clogged and there was an enormous backlog of applications.

What was it that broke through all the red tape so he could get his visa and come in time to teach me that last semester? I was told that his visa process was facilitated because one of the students at our seminary at the time was able to give the school administration an unusually high-level form of help. The student was the son of the sitting president of the United States at the time. Why was his father president? It was because the former president, Richard Nixon, had to resign as a result of the Watergate scandal. But why did the Watergate scandal even occur? I understand that it was because a night watchman noticed an unlatched door.

What if the security guard had not noticed the door? What if he had simply looked in a different direction. In that case – nothing else in that long string of ‘coincidences’ would have ever occurred. And there would be no Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the city. Do you think all that happened by accident? I don’t. If that did not all happen by accident, nothing happens by accident.

I like to say to people at Redeemer: If you are glad for this church, then even Watergate happened for you.

Very seldom do we glimpse even a millionth of the ways that God is working all things together for good for those who love God. But he is.[†]

Even Watergate happened for you. 

Do we believe that God has the power to work in the world like this? Do we believe that God loves us enough to work in the world like this?

If not, then let’s stop thanking God for happy coincidences. They are nothing more than the outworking of blind physical forces and ungoverned human will.

And you might say, “Yes, but I believe God’s providence applies to good things that happen in the world! Every good thing happens for a reason, just not the bad things!”

With a moment’s reflection, however, I think you’ll see that you can’t have one without the other. God will often have to work through pain, suffering, sin, and evil—as he did in the events of Watergate—to arrive at those events that are good for us and our world—for example, the founding of Redeemer. Besides, as Job wisely said, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” We can know that Job was espousing good theology, by the way, because the very next sentence tells us, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.”

Years ago, during a wilderness period in my spiritual life, I was a skeptic on the doctrine of providence. When I heard someone thank God for something that I considered trivial, I often thought, without saying out loud, “If you’re going to thank God for something that goes your way, are you prepared to blame God when things don’t go your way?”

Although I would never put it like that today, my logic was sound: If God is in control, he’s in control all the way. It cannot be the case that we live in a world in which some things “just happen,” as I’ve heard more than a few pastors say, while other things reflect God’s providence. Why? Because the things that “just happen” affect everything else in the world. There’s a ripple effect—or as Keller puts it, a “butterfly effect”—of unimaginable consequences from even one small, seemingly insignificant event. Not to mention that all along that causal chain, God’s people are praying, and the God to whom they’re praying has promised to answer our prayers and grant our petitions.

Years ago, I argued with a friend in ministry about whether “God cares who wins the Super Bowl.” I was emphatic: Of course God cares! How could he not? He’s got players, coaches, team owners, front-office personnel, stadium vendors, and fans of both teams, all of whom God loves and all of whom care passionately about who wins and loses. For many, their livelihoods depend on or are deeply affected by the game’s outcome. Moreover, many of them are Christians who are praying to a God who tells them in his Word that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” All means all, including the snap of every ball in every play!

Why would a Christian believe that God doesn’t care about who wins the Super Bowl? Do we believe that God has “more important” things to care about—global terrorism, hunger, nuclear proliferation, racism, etc.? In which case, we think, God is “too big” to care about something small and insignificant like a football game. In believing this, however, we’re really saying that God is too small to care: He’s merely a bigger, more perfect version of ourselves: like us, he has a limited amount of time and attention to give to things and people in the world. Every moment he spends redeeming a heartbreaking loss for an Atlanta Falcons player (or fan) is one less moment he has to spend on North Korea’s nuclear program.

Is my logic wrong here? Is the underlying assumption not a faulty belief that we’re competing for God’s attention alongside billions of other people or things in the universe?

Anyway, I didn’t make it more than three paragraphs into Piper’s essay, and I’ve written over 1,700 words. I’ll write more soon!

Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 265-6.

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.

Our only hope in life and death

June 22, 2017

Recently, I’ve become interested in catechesis, the instructions that the church gives to people who are going to be baptized or confirmed. Our church’s confirmation class, for example, is one form of catechesis: “Here are the essentials of the Christian faith and our Wesleyan movement. Here’s what it means to be a Christian. Here’s what it means to be a Methodist Christian.”

A couple of centuries ago, churches often expected confirmands and converts to memorize catechisms, a series of questions-and-answers about the doctrines of the faith, along with scripture references. Some churches still use these. Earlier this year, I began studying one famous catechism, which John Wesley adapted for us Methodists, the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The well-known first question and answer is the following:

Question 1. What is the chief end of man?

Answer. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

Drawing upon classic Protestant catechisms of the past—like the Westminster Shorter and Heidelberg Catechisms—Crossway, publisher of the ESV Bible, recently produced The New City Catechism. Pastor Tim Keller, one of my favorite contemporary preachers, helped to put it together.

A couple of weeks ago, I bought the version that included devotionals—one historical and one contemporary—for each entry. John Wesley is one source for the historical devotionals. I’ve been reflecting on the first question and answer, which you can see in the photo above:

What is our only hope in life and death?

That we are not our own but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Savior Jesus Christ.[1]

The scripture reference is Romans 14:7-8: “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

I’ve written and preached before about my sinful tendency to compare myself to others. Even last Sunday, describing my experience the week before, I said the following:

I can hardly enjoy Annual Conference without looking over my shoulder at what my fellow clergy have—how prestigious their appointment is; how high their church’s steeple is; what awards and recognition they’ve received. And I compare myself to them, and I’m miserable because I worry that I’m falling behind.

Why do I do this? In part, it’s because I don’t believe that my only hope in life and death is that I belong to God and his Son Jesus. I place my hope in many other things: in career success, in other people’s opinions of me, in physical fitness, in my enjoyment of leisure time and hobbies. How do I know I do this? Because if something threatens any of these things, I fall apart. I’m filled with resentment.

Even last week in Athens, tendinitis in my left Achilles tendon (which is itself an “overuse” injury from trying to get in shape for an upcoming beach trip) prevented me from running in a 5K with my son Townshend. And I was so angry about it! Why? Because I derive some measure of my self-esteem from being able to compete (and beat) other people in 5K races. I place some measure of hope in this kind of success. And now—suddenly—my body tells me I can’t do that? Then what good am I? How will others know I’m valuable?

Yes, I know it’s ridiculous.

By contrast, suppose I believed—really believed—that my life was not my own; it belonged solely to the Lord. Suppose I believed that every moment of every day was his to do with as he pleases. Suppose my chief concern in life was pleasing the Lord and not myself?

“What a wonderful world this would be,” as the song says.

Are you like me? Are you placing your hope or hopes in something or someone other than Christ? Where are you placing them?

Here’s the prayer that accompanies the New City Catechism’s first devotional:

Christ Our Hope, in life and in death, we cast ourselves on your merciful, fatherly care. You love us because we are your own. We have no good apart from you, and we could ask for no greater gift than to belong to you. Amen.[2]

1. The New City Catechism Devotional (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 17.

2. Ibid., 19.

Sermon 05-21-17: “Craving the Pure Milk of God’s Word”

June 20, 2017

In today’s scripture, the apostle Peter quotes from Isaiah 40: “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass…” We Christians are often distracted by things in our lives that don’t last. Yet Peter is calling us to build our lives on a foundation that which lasts for eternity: the gospel of Jesus Christ and God’s Word. How do we do this? That’s what this sermon is about.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 1:22-2:3

One of my all-time favorite TV shows is Parks & Recreation, which features a character named Ron Swanson. In one episode, Ron gets taken to court. A couple of his friends who are called to testify on his behalf lie under oath—in order to protect their friend. Ron says, “Tom and April were excellent witnesses in my defense. Unfortunately every single word out of their mouths was a lie. There is only one thing I hate more than lying—skim milk, which is water that’s lying about being milk.”

My favorite character on my favorite TV show, Parks & Recreation: Ron Swanson. He’s famous for knowing how to be a man.


When did we all switch to skim milk? For my family, it was back in the early-’80s, when I was a kid. And I distinctly remember how, when I poured it over my Rice Krispies, it looked blue. Do you know what I’m talking about. I did not want to drink blue milk. Well, eventually I got used to it; and I bet many of you did, too. We got used to it because skim milk was supposed to be good for us.

Well, I read an article not long ago that said that we were sold a bill of goods. That long-term studies show that whole milk—milk that stays white when you pour it over cereal—might actually be better for you than skim milk, and help you lose weight more effectively than skim milk. For one thing, the article said, it helps you feel full, so you eat less.

I don’t know if that’s true or not, and I’m not recommending that you make the switch without consulting with your doctor, but that was just the excuse that I needed. So I switched back to whole milk. And I’m much happier. And my cat, too. He’s always at my feet at the breakfast table when I eat cereal. Because he loves whole milk and expects me to put the bowl on the floor when I finish up.

So, accept no substitutes: I don’t want water that’s lying about being milk; I won’t settle for watered-down milk; I want milk. Pure whole milk.

And in today’s scripture, Peter makes a similar point: Accept no substitutes, he says. “Long for,” or crave, “pure spiritual milk.” Don’t settle for anything less than that. Read the rest of this entry »