Posts Tagged ‘Timothy Keller’

“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 »

Devotional Podcast #20: “Hard Luck Stories”

March 9, 2018

Hard luck stories… Everybody’s got them. Is that all they are, though? Hard luck? That’s just the way life goes, so get used to it? Not if the many promises in God’s Word are true.

Devotional Text: Psalm 66:10-12

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Hi, This is Brent White! It’s Friday, March 9, and this is devotional podcast number 20.

You’re listening to the song “Hard Luck Stories,” written by Richard Thompson and performed by him with his wife Linda on the duo’s 1975 album Pour Down Like Silver.

Here’s why I’m playing this song: We all can tell “hard luck stories” about our lives. Of course, the song warns that the people to whom we tell them may grow weary of hearing them. Nevertheless, we all have them. But what do we make of them? Are they truly the result of “hard luck” and that’s just the way life goes? Not if God’s many promises in scripture are true.

Take this passage from Psalm 66:10-12, for instance. The psalmist says,

For you, O God, have tested us;
you have tried us as silver is tried.
You brought us into the net;
you laid a crushing burden on our backs;
you let men ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.

This scripture reminds me of the plight of Jacob in Genesis 31 and 32. After 20 years of being away from his family home in the Promised Land—of living and striving alongside Laban, his uncle, father-in-law, and nemesis, God tells Jacob, in chapter 31, verse 3, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.”

And Jacob obeys. He packs up his wives, children, servants, and livestock. He leaves his Uncle Laban. And heads home. Even though doing so, as far as he knows, may cost him his life. The last time he saw his brother, Esau, after all, Esau was hell-bent on murdering him—because Jacob had cheated him out of his inheritance and his blessing. He’s desperately afraid. His fear isn’t alleviated when he sends messengers ahead of him, who report back to him: “We saw your brother, Esau. And good news! He’s coming to greet you. And he’s bringing with him about 400 of his closest friends.”

Jacob, ever the conniver, divides his people and property into two camps and sends one camp on ahead: “That way,” Jacob reasons, “if Esau comes to one camp and attacks it, then the camp that is left will escape.” Genesis 32:8. He also arranges a bribe for Esau—offering him a large share of his livestock and servants. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 01-07-18: “Rewarding Prayer”

January 18, 2018

This is the first of a new six-part sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer. In this sermon, I talk about Jesus’ promise of a reward for praying the way that he teaches. I suspect many of us haven’t experienced prayer as “rewarding”—at least as much as God wants us to! I want that to change! I also talk about the privilege that we have in calling God “our Father.”

Sermon Text: Matthew 6:5-9

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

Many of you have seen the funny meme that has circulated this past week, in the wake of the `Bulldogs’ overtime victory over Oklahoma. It looks like this: [show meme on screen] “If you made any promises in overtime, service starts at 9:30 or 11:15 this Sunday morning.”  And so we could change ours to 9:00 or 11:00, but same difference. The point is, many Georgia fans were praying during that game last Monday—and chances are that some of them made promises to God: “I will go to church, Lord, if only you’ll let the Bulldogs win.”

This is funny. I like it. But by the end of the sermon, I hope you’ll see why, according to Jesus, this is terrible theology.

But this meme is about prayer, and today at HUMC we’re beginning a six-part sermon series on prayer—specifically, the Lord’s Prayer. We sort of began last week by looking at a parable about prayer—the Parable of the Persistent Widow in Luke 18. As we saw last week, Jesus told that parable to encourage us disciples to pray always and not to lose heart.

A natural follow-up question to last week’s sermon is, “O.K., I get it, Pastor Brent. I need to pray a lot more than I do now. Tell me something I don’t know! But how do I do it?”

And to answer that question, Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew chapter 6. We’re going to look at just the very beginning of the prayer today—“Our Father”—and the four verses leading up to it. The four verses leading up to the Lord’s Prayer tell us how not to pray.

The first way not to pray, Jesus says, is to do it for the sake of any audience other than God: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Read the rest of this entry »

Devotional Podcast #4: “Thank God for Unanswered Prayer”

January 17, 2018

As someone who’s interested in Christian apologetics, I used to think that unanswered prayer posed a bigger “challenge” to Christianity than I do today. I explain why in this podcast. The gist is this: I know my own heart to some extent. I often don’t know what’s good for me. And I often want things that ultimately cause me harm. Our Father, by contrast, only wants to give us “good things,” as Jesus says. So we can trust him.

Devotional Text: Matthew 7:7-11

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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Wednesday, January 17, and this is the fourth podcast of my new series of devotional podcasts. I’m posting new podcasts in this series every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I’ll also post my Sunday sermons whenever I get around to it. So stay tuned.

You’re listening to the song “Beautiful One,” by the band Daniel Amos, sometimes known as DA, from their 1986 album Fearful Symmetry. It’s hard not to hear echoes of the Beatles’ song “Across the Universe.”

Years ago—eleven, to be exact—I attended a debate in Atlanta between Christopher Hitchens, a well-known British political commentator, author, and journalist, and Timothy Jackson, one of my professors at the Candler School of Theology. At the time, the late Mr. Hitchens was staging debates with religious people as part of a publicity tour for his new book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Hitchens was a quick wit and a famously fierce debater, and, although you wouldn’t know it from the boisterous reactions of Hitchens partisans in the audience—it was his book tour, after all—my guy, Dr. Jackson, won the debate… handily. In fact, the debate sparked my interest in Christian apologetics—the art of defending the Christian faith—that remains to this day. It’s hard to remember this now, but I started my blog in 2009 in part to address skeptical questions about the Christian faith.

One such question is the challenge posed by unanswered prayer. How do we square the fact of unanswered prayer with Jesus’ own words on the subject—for example, Matthew 7:7: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” Or John 14:13: “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”

There are many good answers to this question, but I like this analogy from science: Chaos theory teaches us that a butterfly flapping its wings in China could be “magnified through a ripple effect so as to determine the path of a hurricane in the South Pacific.”[1] So even a seemingly small event like a butterfly flapping its wings can change the course of history in ways that we can’t predict. Now think about our prayer petitions: the things we ask God to do for us will likely be far more significant than a butterfly flapping its wings; and only God can foresee whether the consequences of granting our petition will ultimately be good for us, for everyone else, and for the rest of Creation.

My point is, if God doesn’t grant our petition, we can trust that he knows best; we certainly don’t. As pastor Tim Keller puts it, “God gives us what we would have asked for, if we knew everything that God knows.”

I like that answer… I do! But it’s still a little academic.

How about this answer: Often God doesn’t give us—his children—what we ask for because God wants us to be happy—I mean, deeply happy; with a lasting kind of happiness, an invulnerable kind of joy. And we simply don’t know what we need in order to achieve that kind of happiness. But God does.

In that same passage from Matthew chapter 7 that I referred to a moment ago, Jesus says, “[W]hich one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”[2]

Notice Jesus says that our Father will give us “good things.” I hate to say it, but I’m not convinced I want good things much of the time!

Don’t get me wrong: I want things! For example, I desperately want recognition… I want people to praise me… I want people to appreciate me… I want people to show me how much they love me.

And you might say, “What do you want? A medal?” Yes! That’s a good start!

And if I don’t get a medal, I’d be willing to settle for lots of money! I’m not hard to please!

My point is, the things I want… even if I got them, they would never be enough. I would never be satisfied. God knows that!

So thank God for unanswered prayer! I mean that literally… Thank God! Our Father only wants to give his children good things. See, I’m the one asking for stones, and my Father gives me bread instead. I’m the one asking for a serpent, and my Father gives me a fish instead. Or, from Luke’s gospel, I’m the one asking for a scorpion, and my Father gives me an egg instead. Thank God!

God wants us to be happy… Our problem is our willingness to settle for something far less than happiness. Listen to the way C.S. Lewis puts it in The Problem of Pain:

George Macdonald, in a passage I cannot now find, represents God as saying to men, ‘You must be strong with my strength and blessed with my blessedness, for I have no other to give you.’ That is the conclusion of the whole matter. God gives what He has, not what He has not: He gives the happiness that there is, not the happiness that is not. To be God—to be like God and to share His goodness in creaturely response—to be miserable—these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe ever can grow—then we must starve eternally.[3]

“O God, I’m weary from hunger. I don’t want to starve any longer. Give me your bread of life. Give me your Son Jesus! Give me Jesus, and I’ll be satisfied. Amen.”

That’s a prayer that God will answer every time!

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

2. Matthew 7:9-10 ESV

3. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 47.

Sermon 12-24-17: “We Saw His Star When It Rose”

January 4, 2018

Today’s sermon investigates three different responses to the news of the newborn king: from King Herod, from the scribes and chief priests, and from the magi. At different times, our own responses to Christ our king may be similar to each of these. How can we become more like the magi?

Sermon Text: Matthew 2:1-12

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“We three kings of orient are/ Bearing gifts we traverse afar/ Field and fountain, moor and mountain/ Following yonder star.”

Literally one of my favorite Christmas hymns. Just a beautiful melody. Yet it’s wrong in nearly every detail!

First, these magi worked for a king—they were courtiers; they were not kings themselves. They believed that the movement of the stars foretold important events happening on earth; likewise, when something important was happening on earth, they believed that it would be reflected in some way in the stars. So their job was to study the night sky, discern what important events might be happening here on earth—or might be about to happen—and report to their king what the “latest news” was. Also, we have no idea how many of them there were—probably more than three. The “three” comes from the number of gifts they gave to Jesus, but that doesn’t indicate how many of them there were. And they weren’t from the Orient; they were from the Middle East—likely Babylon, or the Persian Gulf area. So there probably weren’t three; they weren’t kings; and they weren’t from the Orient. But besides that it’s a great song!

Notice verse 2: They came to Jerusalem seeking the newborn “king of the Jews” because they saw his star rising. We don’t know what this star was—it might have been a natural astronomical event or a miraculous event created by God to lead these men to Jesus. We don’t need to get hung up on what the star was. It sounds to me like the star that led them from Babylon to Jerusalem might have been a completely natural event—highly unusual but scientifically explainable, which the wise men, because they were the world’s leading experts on the movement of stars and planets, were able to see.

But then, in verses 9 and 10, when the star moves and comes to rest over the place where Jesus is, it sounds like that is a supernatural event.

Does it matter? Not at all! If it was a natural event—which astronomers today can study and explain scientifically—it was a natural event designed by God before the Creation of the world to appear at this particular time and place in order to lead these wise men to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Just think: God is so powerful, so sovereign, so in control of this universe that he doesn’t even need to work a miracle that defies the laws of physics in order to be active in the world: he can work through natural events. God is always working at every moment in every event and through every person to accomplish his will in the world! This is called the doctrine of God’s providence, which means that we can know that everything that happens in the universe happens according to God’s plan and purpose! By the logic of providence, God is constantly intervening in the world, so, in a way, “miracles” happen all the time—even when modern science can explain why something happens. A scientific explanation is merely the most superficial reason; there’s always a deeper reason. And God is always behind it. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 12-17-17: “My Soul Magnifies the Lord”

January 4, 2018

In today’s scripture, Mary visits her relative Elizabeth and finds her pregnant, thus confirming the angel Gabriel’s message to her in last Sunday’s scripture. She exclaims, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” In the same way, we need to teach our soul to “magnify the Lord.” Too often, however, we Christians magnify our problems instead. As I point out in this sermon, our God is so much bigger than any problem we’re facing.

Sermon Text: Luke 1:39-56

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“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” What does this mean for us today, and how do we do it? That’s mostly what this sermon is about.

The last verse of the scripture I preached on last week was Luke 1:38, which immediately precedes today’s text. After the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she’s going to conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit and give birth to the God’s Son Jesus, Mary courageously responds with some of the most beautiful words ever spoken: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

Let us hear now the next sentence of that verse: “And the angel departed from her.”

And the angel departed from her.

Mary, undoubtedly, has dozens of questions at this point: “Is this really happening to me? Am I dreaming? Am I hallucinating? How will I tell Joseph? When should I tell Joseph? Will Joseph believe me? Will we still get married? What will our families think? What will our friends think? How am I supposed be the mother to God’s own Son? Am I smart enough? Am I wise enough?”

Mary could not google the answers to any of these questions. And even if smartphones existed in the first century, it doesn’t seem like Gabriel would be the type to say, “Just message me if you have any further questions.” He is not Aladdin, and Mary does not have a lamp. Gabriel has left Mary to face a frightening, uncertain future all by herself—without the benefit of any further angelic appearances. Remember: even the angels who visit the shepherds on Christmas night don’t show up at the manger. The shepherds report that event—secondhand—to Mary and Joseph.

My point is, in verse 38, Mary has submitted herself to God’s will, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t scared. Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not also terrified. And being faithful doesn’t mean you don’t have any doubt.

Or else, Gabriel’s words to Mary in verse 36 would make no sense: “And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.” Why does Gabriel tell her this? To give her a sign—a way of reassuring her and confirming for her that everything that he told her will come to pass. Mary knows that Elizabeth is unable to have children. And in verse 24, Luke tells us that Elizabeth has kept her pregnancy a secret. So Mary would have no way of knowing that her cousin is pregnant. So if she shows up at Elizabeth’s house and finds her pregnant, well, that’s a pretty good sign that the angel was telling the truth! Read the rest of this entry »