Posts Tagged ‘Timothy Keller’

Sermon 10-06-19: “How Many Loaves Do You Have?”

October 17, 2019

Sermon Text: Mark 6:30-44

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A new word has entered our lexicon: hangry. A combination of hunger and anger, it plays on the idea—which is surely true—that we tend to get grumpy when we’re hungry. The word has been featured in memes on social media and even recent advertisements—from the people at Snicker’s, for instance. One ad says, “You’re not you when you’re hangry.”

And maybe that’s what’s going on with the disciples in today’s scripture. They might be a little hangry. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus had commissioned the twelve disciples to go, two by two, to preach the gospel, to heal people, and to drive out demons—under his authority; he would give them the power to succeed in the mission. And they’ve just returned from that mission, as verse 30 indicates: “The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught.” 

And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.

Mark 6:31-32

But let’s notice something: This “desolate place” where Jesus wants them to go and rest isn’t a place they go to without Jesus. They are going to this desolate place by themselves with Jesus. In other words, Jesus knows that the disciples have been very busy, working hard, doing ministry. And now what do they need to do? Go on vacation? Take a break from all this ministry work? Enjoy some downtime? No. Now they need to spend time alone with Jesus.

If you have your Bibles—and you should—turn a few pages to the left, to Mark chapter 3, verse 14. Jesus is calling the twelve disciples. And he gives a job description for a what a disciple is supposed to do: “And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.”[1] So… looking at those two verses, you tell me: What is the most important thing that a disciple can do?

That’s right: to be with Jesus. It is, in fact, the most important part of the job. You’re supposed to spend time being with him, and then go and do work for him. We saw this in August when we talked about Mary and Martha. Martha criticized her sister for “being with Jesus” when, Martha believed, she should have been helping in the kitchen—literally serving Jesus by fixing him dinner. But Jesus said, “No, Martha, your sister has her priorities exactly right: I don’t want you to serve me as much as I want you to spend time with me… to be with me. Do that first, then worry about ‘serving’ me.”

Listen: I do not want any of you serving this church in any way unless you aren’t also spending time with Jesus! You’ll just get grumpy. You’ll just get mean. You’ll make other people miserable. Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. [Tell the story of Bill, the Admin Board leader and powerful committee chair who for years used his many church responsibilities as an excuse to avoid feeding his soul through worshiping and Bible study. He was always at church, “helping” the church, but never worshiping, never spending time in God’s Word. It’s not like he “tried me out,” didn’t like my preaching, and didn’t come back. No! I couldn’t even take it personally. But when he finally got mad enough to leave the church—because people like him who work at the church constantly without “spending time with Jesus” always eventually get “burned out,” get mad, and leave—when that finally happened, he went to another church. 

And he was trying to recruit his friends away from my church to go with him to the other church he joined. He said, “You need to come to my church. I’m being fed for the first time in years!” And one of my parishioners said, “Right, Bill, you are being fed. Because you’re not so busy serving the church that you’re actually spending time with Jesus. I’m glad that for the first time in decades you’re being fed.But you could have been fed at our church if you’d only ever bothered to show up for worship or Sunday school or Bible study.”]

When Jesus calls the disciples to “come away to a desolate place” and spend time with him, he’s calling them to do the same thing we see him doing throughout the gospels. In Mark chapter 1, verse 35: “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.” But this is just one example. Luke’s gospel, especially, emphasizes the prayer life of Jesus. For example, all four gospels describe the Spirit’s descending on Jesus after he was baptized by John, but only Luke adds the detail that the Spirit came upon Jesus while he was praying.[2] Matthew, Mark, and Luke each describe Jesus’ call of the twelve disciples, but only Luke tells us that Jesus had been up all night praying before he called them.[3] Matthew, Mark, and Luke each describe Peter’s great confession of Jesus as the Messiah, but only Luke tells us that it happens after Jesus had been praying by himself.[4]

And again, those same three gospels describe the Transfiguration, but only Luke tells us that this miracle occurred while Jesus was praying.[5] All four gospels describe Peter’s three denials of Jesus, but only Luke tells that because Jesus prayed for Peter in advance, Peter’s faith did not ultimately fail, and that he would later be used by God to do great things for the kingdom.[6]

Here’s what I want us to consider: Jesus was God in the flesh; fully human but also fully God. He was the only begotten Son of the Father; he was perfect and sinless in every way. He enjoyed a more intimate relationship with his Father than any human being who ever lived.Yet consider this: Jesus would not have succeeded in his ministry—and none of us would not be saved today—had Jesus notmade it his top priority to spend time with his Father. 

Doesn’t it go without saying that if even the perfect, sinless only begotten Son of God needed to do this in order to accomplish his mission, how much more do we? 

Obviously one way that we “come away by ourselves to a deserted place and rest with Jesus” is through having a quiet time and come to church—where we listen to Jesus through his Word [hold up Bible] and talk to him through prayer

One of my favorite contemporary preachers and writers, Tim Keller, confessed in a book he wrote on prayer that even relatively late in his life and ministry prayer was not the top priority it should have been. That only changed around the time he was diagnosed with cancer. He found, like so many of us pastors, that preaching is easier than praying. His wife, Kathy, told him something that helped motivate him to pray with his wife every evening. She said,

Imagine you were diagnosed with such a lethal condition that the doctor told you that you would die within hours unless you took a particular medicine—a pill every night before going to sleep. Imagine that you were told that you could never miss it or you would die. Would you forget? Would you not get around to it some nights? No—it would be so crucial that you wouldn’t forget, you would never miss. Well, if we don’t pray together to God, we’re not going to make it because of all we are facing. I’m certainly not. We have to pray, we can’t let it just slip our minds.[7]

Tim Keller

So the disciples got in a boat to go to this “desolate place,” but it’s no use: People on the the shore saw where they were headed, and they told other people, and those people told other people. And by the time they reach shore, there’s a crowd waiting for them. Time to do ministry again! No rest for the weary. And probably no food for the weary, either. Because remember: Before they got on the boat they hadn’t eaten. And there’s no indication that they have time to eat before it’s time to minister to get to work. So… getting back to what I said earlier, the disciples are likely hangry.

Which would explain why all Bible commentators say that the way the disciples speak to Jesus in today’s scripture is unprecedented in its lack of respect. It’s getting late. Jesus has been preaching God’s Word to a large crowd of people. The disciples are hangry. The crowds are hungry. And they tell him in verses 35 and 36, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” And Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.” And disciples respond with perhaps their rudest, or angriest, words in all of scripture, in verse 37: “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” Two hundred denarii are almost a year’s wages. This response very sarcastic—even a bit mean: Like, who do they think they’re talking to! As if Jesus doesn’t know what time it is! As if Jesus doesn’t know what this crowd of people really needs! As if Jesus doesn’t know how seemingly impossible it is to feed all these people!

Where’s the humility? If they weren’t hangry, perhaps they might preface their question by using the word “Lord” or “Master.” “Lord, we don’t know how to do what you’re asking. Help us understand, please. How can we feed them?”

The disciples’ response to Jesus here reminds me of a meme I saw recently: “I want to serve Jesus… but only as an advisor.”

But let’s get to the question at hand. Verse 38: “And he said to them, ‘How many loaves do you have? Go and see.’ And when they had found out, they said, ‘Five, and two fish.’” 

So they have five loaves and two fish… We learn from John’s gospel that they only have these because a boy in the crowd shared with them. But the amount hardly matters: Remember, these are 5,000 men—with women and children, the crowd could be 20,000 people. Even if they had 50 loaves and 20 fish, or 500 loaves and 200 fish, the ultimate answer to Jesus’ question would be exactly the same… “Not enough.” “Jesus, we don’t have enough to do what you’re asking us to do.”

But here’s where the disciples are in good company. How often is it the case that God’s people in the Bible have “enough”—or are enough in and of themselves—to accomplish what God calls them to accomplish. Noah was just one man… He didn’t have enough time or manpower to save God’s Creation from the flood! Abraham and Sarah were too old—and were unable to have kids when they were young. They didn’t have enough youth, enough good health, or enough patience, to give birth a nation set apart for God! Moses had a speech impediment. He didn’t have enough oratory prowess to stand up to the Pharaoh! Gideon was the biggest coward. He didn’t have enough courage to lead Israel to victory over the fearsome Midianites! David was young. He didn’t have enough strength, experience, or stature to win a victory over Goliath and the Philistines. The prophet Isaiah was a “man of unclean lips who lived among a people of unclean lips.”[8] He didn’t have enough “holiness” to rescue Judah from the Assyrians and tell them about the coming Messiah. And we know about Mary, and what she lacked… And we know about Peter, and what he lacked… And we know about Paul, and what he lacked.

Again and again, the common refrain: “I don’t have enough, Lord, to do what you’re asking. I’m not enough, Lord—I’m far too inadequate; I’m not good enough; I’m not strong enough; I’m not smart enough; I’m not wise enough; I’m not pretty enough; I’m not popular enough; I’m too big a failure; I’m too poor; I’m too big a sinner; I’ve got all this baggage from my past. Who am I to do what you say? Who am I to answer your call? Who am I to be part of your plan?

“I don’t have enough, Lord! I’m not good enough! I don’t have what I need!”

But if you feel this way, hear this good news: God has got you exactly where he wants you!

Oh, it’s true… In a way you’re right: You don’t have what you need… to save your marriage…. to save your business… to solve that problem at work… to solve your financial crisis… to kick your addiction… to kick your drinking problem… to save your family… to save your child… to overcome your health problems… to face that scary diagnosis… You’re not good enough, you’re not tough enough, you’re not smart enough, you’re not holy enough… You’re just too weak.

But brothers and sisters, hear this good news: “[Jesus] grace is sufficient for you.” You’re insufficient; but Jesus’ grace is more than sufficient. “For [Christ’s] power is made perfect in weakness.” Watch what Jesus can do through you—he’s got all the power you need! “Therefore [you] will boast all the more gladly of [your] weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon [you].” Your weakness is an opportunity for Jesus Christ to show you his power! Let him show you his power! “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses… For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Because Jesus Christ is going to be my strength for me.

Say, “I am weak… but he is strong.” Say, “I don’t have enough… but Jesus has enough for me.” Say, “I’m not enough… but Jesus is enough for me.”

Jesus is enough for me… Jesus is enough for me. Amen.

1. Mark 3:14-15 ESV 2. Luke 3:21 3. Luke 6:12 4. Luke 9:18 5. Luke 9:28-29 6. Luke 22:32 7. Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (New York: Dutton, 2014), 24. 8. Isaiah 6:5

Sermon 09-01-19: “Q&A: Why Were You Looking for Me?”

September 4, 2019

Sermon Text: Luke 2:41-52

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Like most pastors, by noon on Sundays I am not at my most clear-headed. Because I’m emotionally spent after I preach. I have a hard time focusing. The greeting line after the service, for example, is the worst time to talk to me about some urgent church matter or to remind me of some upcoming event that you want me to remember. I say this, not so you’ll feel sorry for me, but as a way of apologizing for or justifying or at least explaining the following incident that happened several years ago. 

You see, nearly every Sunday for fifteen years of pastoral ministry my family and I have gone out to eat at a Mexican restaurant after church. And on this particular Sunday, my family was going to get a head start, and I was going to meet them there. At least that’s what I thought. When I showed up at the restaurant, Lisa, Elisa, and Townshend greeted me and asked, “Where’s Ian?” Because it turns out that Ian was supposed to be coming to the restaurant with me… Lisa told me after church to wait for him. But, believe it or not, I don’t always pay strict attention to what my wife says, especially after church on Sunday. So Ian, who was young at the time, was ten minutes away from us—ten anxious minutes—because I left him at church.

Well, in a way this gives you at least a small inkling of what happened to Mary and Joseph in today’s scripture. It’s hard for us modern people—in this age of smartphones—to imagine losing track of our 12-year-old boy for ten minutes, much less ten hours or however much time had passed before Joseph and Mary realized that Jesus was not with them. But things were different back then.  Read the rest of this entry »

“For as many days as you have afflicted us”: meditation on Psalm 90:15

August 9, 2019

Psalm 90:15: Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil.

Pastor Tim Keller, in his sermon on Psalm 88, perhaps the bleakest chapter in scripture, said that even that psalm “whispers God’s grace” to us. Otherwise, apart from grace, why would God—in his “living and abiding word” (1 Peter 1:25) no less—risk having his character impugned like this?

Psalm 90, meanwhile, is only slightly more hopeful: the psalmist (Moses, in this case) at least hopes that something good awaits him and his people on the other side of their suffering. But I appreciate the psalm’s candor: “You, God, have afflicted us; you, Lord, are responsible for the evil that has come our way.”

Many of us modern-day Christians are so anxious to protect God’s character (“My God would never cause suffering!”) that we end up impugning his power: “By all means, God hates that this is happening to you, but what can he do about it?” A few pastors and theologians appeal to Satan and spiritual warfare, as if that solves the problem: “The devil causes suffering, not God.” (Yes, but, who created the devil and permits him to have power over us?)

No, the Bible affirms this difficult truth: When God afflicts us, he does so for our good—indeed, for our ultimate happiness. Besides, if this is true, at least you’ll know who to blame!

I like the way C.S. Lewis, with typical English understatement, puts it: “If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.”[1]

1. C.S. Lewis, “Money Trouble” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1123.

Sermon 05-26-19: “Permission to Pray with Power”

May 29, 2019

In today’s scripture, Jesus encourages us to pray bigger and bolder prayers than many of us are comfortable praying. What prevents us from praying the way we should? That’s what this sermon is about.

Sermon Text: Luke 11:1-13

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We learn more about the prayer life of Jesus from Luke’s gospel than any other gospel. For example, all four gospels describe the Spirit’s descending on Jesus after he was baptized by John, but only Luke adds the detail that the Spirit came upon Jesus while he was praying.[1] Matthew, Mark, and Luke each describe Jesus’ call of the twelve disciples, but only Luke tells us that Jesus had been up all night praying before he called them.[2] Matthew, Mark, and Luke each describe Peter’s great confession of Jesus as the Messiah, but only Luke tells us that it happens after Jesus had been praying by himself.[3] 

And again, those same three gospels describe the Transfiguration, but only Luke tells us that this miracle occurred while Jesus was praying.[4] All four gospels describe Peter’s three denials of Jesus, but only Luke tells that because Jesus prayed for Peter in advance, Peter’s faith did not ultimately fail, and that he would later be used by God to do great things for the kingdom.[5] Read the rest of this entry »

“Behold, your servant has found favor”: a meditation on Genesis 19:18-22

May 2, 2019

I’ve appreciated the following words about prayer from pastor Tim Keller since I first heard them many years ago:

“God will only give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything he knows.”

Among other things, this idea helps explain “unanswered” prayer—or, more accurately, prayer that God answers by saying “no.” We simply can’t foresee the myriad consequences that would result from God’s giving us what we ask for. To say the least, each petition that God grants us would have a ripple effect through time and space that would affect many lives, including our own. We don’t know the extent to which these ripples would be helpful or harmful. God knows; we don’t. And God’s Word promises us that in all things, including our prayer life, God is working for our good (Romans 8:28).

Moreover, the Holy Spirit is praying through our prayers: “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). So even when God doesn’t give us what we pray for, he will—without fail—give us what his Holy Spirit prays for. In other words, God always answers his own prayers for us—and we can be confident that what he prays for us is always for our good.

Keller is helpful here, too: I’ve heard him also preach that God always answers the “prayer underneath the prayer.” I believe this idea does justice to what both Jesus and the rest of scripture teach.

All that to say, Keller’s maxim is true, as far as it goes. But for my own sake, if not yours, Dear Reader, I would add this corollary:

God will only give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything he knows—and you had bothered to ask.

In other words, in order for God to grant us the “prayer underneath the prayer,” there has to be a prayer to begin with!

I’ve heard otherwise faithful Christians justify what amounts to a lazy prayer life by appealing to the pious-sounding idea that we want God’s will, rather than our own will, to be done: “I don’t need God to do anything for me; he’s done so much for me already.” Perhaps they don’t ask for God to do anything because, too often, they don’t believe he will! (Believe me, I’m preaching to myself, too!) This hardly accords with Jesus’ own example and teaching about prayer (one passage of which, Luke 11:5-13, I’ll be preaching on on May 26).

Just yesterday, I was journaling my way through the story of Abraham’s nephew, Lot, in Genesis 19:15-22. In this passage, the two angels who have come to rescue Lot and his family from the imminent destruction of Sodom, urge him, “Escape to the hills, lest you be swept away” (v. 17).

And Lot said to them, “Oh, no, my lords. Behold, your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my life. But I cannot escape to the hills, lest the disaster overtake me and I die. Behold, this city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there—is it not a little one?—and my life will be saved!”

I was indignant when I read this: Lot’s request is bold to the point of brazenness! After all, I thought, when firefighters rescue you and your sleeping family from an inferno, you don’t also ask them to clean the soot off the carpet!

But not so fast, Brent…

Lot acknowledges that he has “found favor” in the sight of these angels (and the God on whose behalf they’re working); God and these angels have shown him “great kindness.” He isn’t exactly presuming upon God’s grace; he recognizes that the angels could tell him no.

Besides, if we follow the logic of my objection all the way through, on what basis could I ask God for anything? God has given me my life in the first place, and he sustains it at every moment. Even more, he has redeemed my life through the infinitely valuable blood of his Son Jesus. Isn’t it presumptuous of me to ask God to do anything else? Hasn’t he done enough? Am I not being ungrateful in asking?

No… As in the case of Lot and so many other Old Testament saints who are as badly flawed as I am (including David and the psalmists, who frequently ask God to show favor, to rescue, to vindicate, and to make prosperous), we Christians can rightly tell ourselves something like this: “If it’s true that someone like Lot has found favor in God’s sight, how much more true is it for me? After all, unlike Lot, through faith in Jesus and his atoning work on the cross, I am a beloved child of the Father with whom he is well pleased; I am the one ‘on whom God’s favor rests’ (Luke 2:14); I am a brother [or sister] of Jesus himself (Mark 3:34-35; John 20:17), loved by my Father exactly as much as he loves Jesus (John 17:23, 26), entitled to a full inheritance befitting a son of the Father (Luke 15:22-23; Romans 8:17; 1 Peter 1:4-5).

I have exchanged my unrighteousness for Christ’s righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:9). The blood of Jesus cleanses me from all sin (1 John 1:7). Therefore I stand before God as holy and righteous, not because of who I am and what I’ve done, but who Christ is and what he’s done. On this basis alone, I approach the throne of grace with confidence (Hebrews 4:16) and ask my Father for what I want or need—believing that he will give me what I ask for (Mark 11:24).

(Or don’t I?)

Indeed, Jesus says that unless we become like little children, we will “never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). One characteristic of children is that they ask their parents for things—with boldness, with importunity, with no expectation of earning it or paying it back. The relationship of parent to young child is one of utter grace!

So be like Lot! Be as righteous and God-honoring as Lot is! Ask!

“Why is this granted to me that the mother of of my Lord should come to me?”

December 10, 2018

In the picture above, I’m standing on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in February 2011. While the temple was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70, many experts believe that this stone pavilion marks the spot of the Most Holy Place—that part of the temple separated by a thick curtain, in which God’s presence—his Holy Spirit—dwelt in all its fullness. The high priest could only enter the Most Holy Place once a year, on the Day of Atonement, and only after making careful preparations. (See Leviticus 16.)

Except for one lone representative once a year, God’s people Israel had no access to the Most Holy Place.

Why? As the Bible shows us time and again, to be in God’s direct presence was a life-threatening danger. See, for example, Isaiah’s fear in Isaiah 6:5: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Now recall that when Jesus was crucified, the curtain separating the Most Holy Place from the rest of the temple was “torn in two from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:51 and parallels), signifying that Christ’s once-for-all atoning sacrifice for the sin was accomplished for everyone who believes in him. As a result, our sin no longer separates us from God. Indeed, we can approach the “throne of grace” with confidence (Hebrews 4:16) because we have been made holy through Christ. As the author of Hebrews also says,

And so, dear brothers and sisters, we can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus. By his death, Jesus opened a new and life-giving way through the curtain into the Most Holy Place. (Hebrews 10:19-20 NLT)

As if this weren’t amazing enough, we not only have access to God because of Christ’s sacrifice, our bodies themselves are now the temple in which the Holy Spirit resides: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16) While Paul is referring to the local church overall (the you is plural), he refers to individual Christian men later in the letter, when he warns them not to have sex with prostitutes: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

My point is, the Holy Spirit dwells within us individual believers. What a privilege!

I thought of the picture above, our direct access to the throne room of God, and the Holy Spirit residing within us while reflecting on Elizabeth’s words to Mary in Luke 1:43: “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

But couldn’t each one of us Christians rightly ask, “Why is this granted to me that the Lord himself should come to me?” After all, we who live on this side of the cross should have an even greater sense of astonishment than Elizabeth! For she was merely in close physical proximity to God, whereas we have God living within us! It’s as if we have the Most Holy Place within our heart!

Let this truth sink in for a moment.

In his book Hidden Christmas, Tim Keller describes the astonishment that we ought to feel as Christians. (Do we?)

I would go so far as to say that this perennial note of surprise is a mark of anyone who understands the essence of the Gospel. What is Christianity? If you think Christianity is mainly going to church, believing a certain creed, and living a certain kind of life, then there will be no note of wonder and surprise about the fact that you are a believer. If someone asks you, “Are you a Christian? you will say, “Of course I am! It’s hard work but I’m doing it. Why do you ask?” Christianity is, in this view something done by you—and so there’s no astonishment about being a Christian. However, if Christianity is something done for you, and to you, and in you, then there is a constant note of surprise and wonder…

So if someone asks you if you are a Christian, you should not say, “Of course!” There should be no “of course-ness” about it. It would be more appropriate to say, “Yes, I am, and that’s a miracle. Me! A Christian! Who would have ever thought it? Yet he did it, and I’m his.”[1]

1.Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas (New York: Viking, 2016), 89-90.

The foundation of fearlessness

December 6, 2018

Classic Christian theology teaches the following: At this very moment, God sustains the universe and everything in it into existence. This means that everyone and everything in the universe depends on God for their ongoing existence. Nothing currently exists apart from the active role that God is playing right now in giving it existence. To say the least, every heartbeat that we presently enjoy, we enjoy because God is giving it to us. Every breath we take, we take because God is permitting us to do so. If God refused to sustain our lives, we wouldn’t merely die; we would disintegrate. The atoms that compose our bodies would vanish.

Even the physical laws of the universe—which appear to us as a given state of affairs—cannot govern time, space, and matter apart from God’s enabling them to do so at every moment. Ultimately, physical objects in the universe do not operate according to laws, but to the very hand of God.

If anything, Jesus speaks with great modesty when he offers us these reassuring words about God’s sovereignty from Matthew 10:29-31:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Paul and the author of Hebrews paint a fuller picture of Christ’s sustaining role (emphasis mine):

And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Colossians 1:17).

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3a).

The only proper response to these words about God’s sustaining power is awe. But pastor Tim Keller brings them down to earth for us. In his book Hidden Christmas, he describes the level of faith that God asked of Mary when she spoke those astonishing words of surrender, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

The woman who spoke [at the conference] said, “If the distance between the Earth and the sun—ninety-three million miles—was no more than the thickness of a sheet of paper, then the distance from the Earth to the nearest star would be a stack of papers seventy feet high; the diameter of the Milky Way would be a stack of paper over three hundred miles high. Keep in mind that there are more galaxies in the universe than we can number. There are more, it seems, than dust specks in the air or grains of sand on the seashores. Now, if Jesus Christ holds all this together with just a word of his power (Hebrews 1:3)—is he the kind person you ask into your life to be your assistant?” That simple logic shattered my resistance to doing what Mary did. Yes, if he really is like that, how can I treat him as a consultant rather than as Supreme Lord?[1]

Indeed.

This morning I meditated on the following words from Psalm 3, which David wrote, we’re told, when he and his royal entourage were fleeing Jerusalem, after his son Absalom led an insurrection to overthrow his kingdom:

I lay down and slept;
I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.
I will not be afraid of many thousands of people
who have set themselves against me all around (Psalm 3:5-6).

There’s that word again: sustained. And it is on the basis of God’s sustaining power over our lives that we can be fearless. Why? Because God is giving us the life that we currently enjoy for a purpose—or purposes. And until those purposes are fulfilled (as pastor John Piper said in a different context), we are literally immortal. We are unkillable. Even if “many thousands” of men or devils are plotting against us, literally no one or nothing has the power to harm us.

Our Lord Jesus, who at this moment is holding your life together—along with the rest of universe(!)—will protect you until the moment that he has decided to bring you safely into his presence through death—an enemy that he’s already disarmed for us who belong to him.

1. Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas (New York: Viking, 2016), 91-2.

Devotional Podcast #27: “Closer to the Heart”

July 29, 2018

What is the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ? It can’t be something that we do, as so many preachers—especially Methodist preachers—believe. In this episode I explain why, and why it matters. 

Devotional Text: Mark 1:1-5; Matthew 3:7-10

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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s July 28, 2018, and this is episode number 27 in my ongoing series of devotional podcasts. You’re listening right now to the song “Closer to the Heart,” by the Canadian rock band and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members Rush. I recorded this version of the song from their 1981 live album, Exit… Stage Left. 

This song is the theme of today’s episode because of something I heard at a conference I attended last week on St. Simons Island—a conference for United Methodist pastors. One of the speakers—a clergy leader in our denomination—said something that got under my skin—and I have no interest in naming this person because, after all, what she said could have been said by hundreds or thousands of my fellow Methodist clergy, and no one would think twice because the idea is so pervasive! In fact, when she said it, there was, if I recall, applause and Amens all around this large conference room full of people—so what do I know, right?

Anyway, she said the following: “The heart of the gospel is to be the incarnation of Christ to other people.” 

The heart of the gospel is to be the incarnation of Christ to other people. 

To which I would say, “I hope not! For the sake of my own soul, if no one else’s, I hope not!” And I want to tell you why…

But before I do, please don’t misunderstand: I’m not suggesting for a moment that we who are Christians—we who are members of the Body of Christ—should not try to embody… or bear witness to… or, if you insist, be the incarnation of Jesus Christ for other people, as the Spirit enables us. 

By all means, God calls us to show the world who Jesus is—by obeying him, surrendering our lives to him, submitting to his will and his Word… Indeed, what does the Westminster Shorter Catechism say is the “chief end of man”? To glorify God and enjoy him forever. I was at a meeting just this week with the principal of an elementary school at which our church does all kinds of volunteer work. And I was deeply moved listening to this principal express his gratitude for the work of our church. No school, he said, could begin to pay for all the good work that we do there. In his long career, he said he’s never seen a church be so generous with its time, talent, and resources! Read the rest of this entry »

The difference between living as a “son” and a “slave” in Galatians 4

June 9, 2018

In Galatians 4:1-7, which I covered in my sermon last week, Paul writes, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Paul here describes something objective that God has done to ensure that through faith in Christ we can have forgiveness of sins and a right relationship with God.

The objective character of what God has done for us on the cross cannot, in my opinion, be overemphasized. I have little patience, therefore, with subjective theories of atonement such as Abelard’s Moral Influence theory, which argues that the cross isn’t so much about what God has done for us—once for all, objectively, to take care of our problem with sin—as our response to it: “See how much God loves you that he was willing to suffer death for you? Doesn’t this melt your heart? If so, what are you going to do in response? Don’t you want to give your life to Jesus now?”

If that’s what the cross means, God help me!

Because I am—apart from the work of the Holy Spirit—a hopeless and helpless sinner. If my salvation depends even an iota on what I do in response to what God has done on the cross, I am lost! There are moments, even now, having been a Christian for a few decades, when I feel the weight of my sin, when I need reassurance. And in those moments my only recourse is to the cross: here is what God has done for me—objectively—to deal with my problem with sin. Sometimes I need to convince myself of this, intellectually.

I need to tell my soul something like this: “Brent, it’s true that you continue to sin, and you sometimes feel as if God won’t forgive you. But remember the cross. Remember the great exchange that took place. Remember that your sins were imputed to Christ, who paid the penalty for them in full. Every single one of them! There is no sin that you have ever committed or ever will commit that wasn’t ‘nailed to the cross’ (Colossians 2:14) with Christ. Also remember that his righteousness was imputed to you, meaning that you’re only able to have a right relationship with God because of the gift of Christ’s righteousness, not your own. Now, because of this double imputation, what’s true of Jesus is true of you: You, Brent, are God’s beloved son, with whom your Father is well-pleased.”

I can tell myself words such as these even when I’m not feeling it.

Not that this is usually the case. Usually, I do feel a sense of assurance that I’m a child of God. See Romans 8:16. Where does this feeling of assurance come from? Paul tells us Galatians 4:6: “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”

There was a period of time—from what I’ve read, in the middle of the 20th century—when many preachers would talk about how Abba, the Aramaic word for father, was literally baby talk—the equivalent of “Daddy” or “Papa.” It’s a word for “father” that’s easy for an infant to say—among a child’s first words. But we preachers aren’t supposed to say this anymore: In fact, while it’s true very young children called their fathers “Abba,” so did grown children. It just means “Father,” no more, no less. Don’t make more of it than that, scholars tell us.

But not so fast… If Abba doesn’t suggest or imply something more than simply “Father,” why does Paul distinguish it from “Father” (Greek: patēr) at all? Of course Abba means more than “Father”! It suggests a greater intimacy with God—the same intimacy that Jesus himself had with his Father; indeed, Abba is the word Jesus used. J.B. Phillips put it nicely in his translation: “Father, dear Father.”

So we enjoy this same intimacy with the Father. And this intimacy ought to penetrate our emotions. This goes beyond a faith that resides only in our heads!

So Paul is giving us something in these verses, Galatians 4:4-7, to feed both head and heart. If we are authentically Christian, we should normally feel a sense of intimacy with our Father. But when our emotions fail, we have the objective certainty that God has done everything necessary—objectively—to bring us into a right relationship.

In my sermon on this text, I also made a point that I had never previously made about Paul’s contrast between living as a slave versus living as a son and heir. I received this insight from Tim Keller. He made his point by talking about the prodigal son: Keller said that it seems very humble on his part to ask his father to “treat me as one of your hired servants,” but it isn’t; it betrays a lack of faith in his father’s love and mercy.

To illustrate this point, he writes the following:

Alexander the Great had a general whose daughter was getting married. Alexander valued this soldier greatly and offered to pay for the wedding. When the general gave Alexander’s steward the bill, it was absolutely enormous. The steward came to Alexander and named the sum. To his surprise Alexander smiled and said, “Pay it! Don’t you see–by asking me for such an enormous sum he does me great honor. He shows that he believes I am both rich and generous.”

So, when our hearts convict us and we’re tempted to doubt that God loves or forgives us—or that he does so only grudgingly—the problem may be a lack of faith on our part, not excessive humility! So we need to repent.

Devotional Podcast #22: “God’s Wrath and the Gospel”

March 16, 2018

This is Part 2 of my reflection on the Bible’s most popular verse, John 3:16. Today I tackle an unpopular subject: God’s wrath. Why does a God of perfect love have wrath? I hope my words help make sense of it. Scripture is Numbers 21:4-9.

Devotional Text: Numbers 21:4-9

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Hi, This is Brent White! It’s Thursday, March 15, and this is devotional podcast number 22.

And it is a jungle out there—at least if this 1974 hit song, written by Ian Anderson and performed by the band Jethro Tull, is true. I recorded this from their album WarChild. “He who made kittens,” Anderson tells us, referring to God, “put snakes in the grass.” And that’s literally true when it comes to today’s scripture in Numbers 21:4-9.

Remember, this is the second podcast related to John 3:16. To hear the first in the series, go back and listen to devotional podcast number 21.

As I said last time, to understand the Bible’s most famous verse, we have to look at this short passage from Numbers 21—because Jesus refers to it in John 3:14-15 when he says, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

In Numbers 21, the Israelites are nearing the Promised Land after almost 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. And now, a new generation of Israelites is complaining to Moses about his leadership and God’s providential care. Verse 5: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” And what does God do in response to their ingratitude, their blasphemy, and their lack of faith? He sends poisonous snakes in their midst… to kill them.

Why? Because, as uncomfortable as it makes modern people feel, God has wrath toward sin. God is giving us a small picture of his wrath in Numbers 21. Wrath is God’s justifiable anger toward sin and evil. When we think of the word “wrath,” we probably think of losing one’s temper and being out of control with anger—flying off the handle. Needless to say, I hope, God does not lose his temper, nor is he out of control or flying off the handle. In fact, God’s wrath is a consequence of his love: Because God loves this world, and especially his image-bearing creatures within it, he is angry at all the sin and evil that harm it. I hope that makes sense. Read the rest of this entry »