Posts filed under ‘Preaching’

From “If Only,” to “Only Jesus.”

On Thursday, Nanci and the kids went to the high school state basketball tournament in Oklahoma City. Basketball players from across the state were there trying to win a state championship and reach their ultimate goal. To get to state, you have to make it through three levels of tournaments, working through district, regional, and then area tournaments. It takes years of hard work and endless hours of practice to reach this level. High school players dream about winning state, and yet only one boy’s team and one girls’ team from each class can say they attained that dream. Every other team in the state falls short of that goal, and has to learn about disappointment. That’s where my high school basketball experience comes into the story. Even after those same years of hard work and endless hours of practice, my high school team finally made it to the Area tournament my senior year…only to lose out. But don’t worry; I’m over it. There’s no bitterness about being beaten by even though I can remember Turner beating us in the gym at EOSC….thirteen years ago!

We learn about disappointment from situations like these, but as we get older far too often our disappointments go with us. It seems that no one is immune from disappointments, and some of the most famous leaders and artists from history lived and died with disappointment: Alexander the Great was one of the most successful military commanders in history, and undefeated in battle. Yet, after Alexander conquered Persia he broke down and wept because his troops were too exhausted to push on to India. The most powerful man in the world was broken by disappointment. Robert Louis Stevenson, the famous author, only had these words for his own epitaph, “”Here lies one who meant well, who tried a little, and failed much.” John Quincy Adams was the sixth president of the United States, but in his diary he recorded these words, “My life has been spent in vain and idle aspirations, and in ceaseless rejected prayers that something beneficial would result from my existence.”[1] All of this goes to show us that disappointment is no respecter of persons. Even the most powerful, popular, and prosperous people in the world are subject to the same experience of disappointment as anyone else.

In today’s Scripture passage, we see the incredible miracle of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead – an unbelievably amazing event. However…I want to draw your attention to how this miracle came about. This incredible miracle wasn’t born out of the soil of fulfilled expectations and joy; it was forged in the heart of disappointment. Let me show you what I’m talking about.

Jesus and his disciples had just left Bethany when they received word that Lazarus was deathly ill. Lazarus, Mary, and Martha were three of Jesus’ best friends, and this was terrible news. Of course, they sent for Jesus because they believed he could heal him. For the disciples, this wasn’t good news for more reasons than Lazarus’ health. In fact, it put them in quite a bind because just a few days earlier, the people in that area tried to kill Jesus!! The sisters wanted Jesus to come back immediately to heal their brother Lazarus, and the disciples were worried that if Jesus returned he would be attacked and killed.

I think Jesus’ response to this situation teaches us something very, very interesting. Somehow, Jesus’ managed to disappoint both groups! The Scripture tells us that after hearing about Lazarus’ illness, he stayed where he was for two days, which of course disappointed the sisters. And then, after waiting two days, he got ready to go back, even though there was a serious threat of danger, thus disappointing the disciples!! In a situation where he could have chosen a way just to disappoint one of the two groups, he ended up disappointing them both!! The disappointment of Mary and Martha and the disappointment of the disciples really teaches us what disappointment is all about.

Disappointment is the feeling of dissatisfaction that comes when our expectations are not met. The sisters expected Jesus to come back and heal Lazarus immediately, and they were disappointed when he waited two days. The disciples expected Jesus to stay out of danger, and they were disappointed when he decided to return after two days even though Lazarus had already died from his illness.

In a way it’s easy for us to relate. We offer similar requests to God. Many times we pray for people to be healed, only to be disappointed when our expectations aren’t met. Sometimes we pray to be kept from danger and difficulty, only to be disappointed when we end up going through the very thing we hoped to avoid. When Jesus got to Bethany, he was met by Mary and Martha. Martha came first and said, “”Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Mary came later and said the exact same thing, “”Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” The words if only are the two essential words in the language of disappointment. If only I had done things differently. If only I had worked harder, prayed harder, tried harder, and on and on.

But God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are not ours. In the middle of disappointments and doubts, even in the very face of death, Jesus words ring loud and true, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Only Jesus has the power to overcome disappointment. Only Jesus has the power to transform any situation. In these words, Jesus shows us that the power of death can only be defeated by Jesus. So standing in front of the tomb of one of his closest friends, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus come out!” And then we see the most amazing thing: Lazarus, dead for four days, comes walking out of the tomb.

Even though the disciples and the sisters were all disappointed, by trusting in Jesus and staying by his side, they ended up seeing something incredible. Only Jesus can overcome and transform the “if onlys” of our lives. We all have disappointments, regrets, and unmet expectations, and “only Jesus” can overcome them all. We all have “if onlys” in our lives. “Only Jesus” can transform them into something far better. Even though Lazarus was dead, his death became an opportunity to see the amazing power and ministry of Jesus. Instead of being a tragedy, Lazarus being raised foreshadowed the ultimate resurrection of Jesus himself.

These things are still going on in our lives and in our world today. In 1920, a young man went before an examining board for selecting missionaries. Oswald Smith had dreamed of being a missionary for years and years. He had prayed over and over, “Lord, I want to be a missionary for you. Please open a door of service for me. Now, at last, his prayer would be answered. Yet when the examination was over, the board turned Oswald Smith down. He didn’t meet their qualifications, and he failed the test. Oswald Smith had expected to be departing for the mission fields, but instead he was met with total disappointment. What was he going to do? Surely the “if onlys” flooded his mind. If only he’d done things differently, if only he’d been more prepared…but as Oswald Smith prayed, God planted another idea in his heart. If he couldn’t go as a missionary he would build a church which could send out missionaries. Only Jesus could transform disappointment into a new mission, a life-giving purpose. So that is what he did. Oswald smith pastored a large Church in Toronto, Canada which ended up sending out more missionaries than any other Church at that time. Just as Jesus transformed the tragedy of Lazarus into the miracle of new life, only Jesus could transform the disappointment of Oswald Smith into something far better. The life-giving Church that Oswald Smith helped begin sent far more people into mission than if he had been approved by the board.[2]

Do you have “if onlys” and disappointments in your life? Have you looked back and wondered how things might have been different? How does God want to use these for something far greater? How does God want to transform your disappointment for his greater purposes? Let Jesus enter your situation. Hear Jesus’ announcement that he is the resurrection and the life. Listen to him calling Lazarus out of the darkness of the tomb. Hear him calling you out of all the darkness, disappointment, and “if onlys” you’ve ever faced. Only Jesus can transform you. Only Jesus can bring new life out of disappointment. Only Jesus can give us the hope and life we all so desperately need.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


[1] Retrieved from esermons.com, March 8th, 2008

[2] Retrieved from esermons.com, March 8th, 2008

March 10, 2008 at 8:09 am Leave a comment

A Few Thoughts on John 11:1-16

Lazarus is deathly ill. Mary and Martha expect Jesus to turn around and hotfoot it back to Bethany. The disciples, on the other hand, seem to be concerned about all the angry folks with rocks waiting back over the horizon. Amazingly, Jesus doesn’t meet either of their expectations. First he waits, upsetting Mary and Martha. Then he returns, upsetting the disciples.

In all of this, I love Thomas’ response. Even though he was just as scared as everyone else about what would happen back in Bethany, he has a classic line. “Well…let’s go. We might as well die with him.” If you follow Jesus, you really don’t know where it will lead. He has this strange way of failing to meet our expectations, only to transcend them in the very next moment. And the only way we can follow him is like Thomas, scratching our heads, shaking our heads, and then following him come what may.

Sure, there will be times when we get tired. Thomas eventually got frustrated enough that he said, “How in the world are we supposed to follow you if we don’t know where you’re going?! (v. 14:5)” But Thomas was the one who loved Jesus so much that he just had to know Jesus had really risen.

I suspect Thomas’ advice to disciples would be this: just follow him. Don’t lag too far behind. Don’t worry too much about your questions. Don’t hold too tightly to your expectations. Just follow him. That’s enough. You’ll see.

March 3, 2008 at 5:05 pm 4 comments

Orwellian Communication

Here’s a great quote from George Orwell that could apply to preaching or any other communication endeavor,

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

How do you think this might apply to communication within the Church?

March 2, 2008 at 8:20 pm Leave a comment

From Crisis to Confession

Since John over at Come to the Waters is wrestling with Moses and the snake out in the wilderness, I thought I’d post an old sermon that I wrote on this. This one ended up in the online edition of Preaching Magazine, so it’s one that I look back on fondly. Here you go:

From Crisis to Confession: A Sermon on Numbers 21:4-9

The people of Israel were “hacked off.” It’s right there in the Bible, they were hacked off. Oh sure, the translation in your pew bible says “impatient,” but in Hebrew it doesn’t say impatient it says qatsar. Qatsar mean making something shorter, and was also used to describe the harvest. When the grain in the field is harvested – it gets qatsar – cut off – shortened. That’s exactly how the people who the wandered around following Moses through the middle of nowhere were described. They felt as if they had been cut down, their fuses were short, and they were at the end of their rope. But most of all they were simply hacked off. Being impatient is sort of a nuisance – we get impatient as we wait to pay for our gas at the convenience store while someone ahead of us leisurely scratches off their lottery tickets hoping to win a dollar or two. Being hacked off is more intense – we get hacked off when someone nearly runs us off the road as we’re driving.

The people of Israel were at the end of their rope. Moses had led them out of Egypt, but now they were in the middle of nowhere and things were more difficult than they ever expected. Along the way they had made enemies, and now they had to go hundreds of miles out of their way to travel around Edom, a country they were forbidden from crossing. A hundred mile detour makes a huge difference when you’re walking over rocks and through steep valleys – especially when you’re wearing sandals. Blisters and calluses were beginning to take their toll. God had provided manna and quail, but visions of Egyptian buffets danced in their heads. No doubt about it, they had had enough.

The old saying goes, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” However, I’ve often found that when the going gets tough, the tough start complaining. That’s just what Israel did. During my time as a professor, I found the same thing to be true. When the tests scores were bad, it was rare that I heard someone say, “You know, I really should have buckled down and studied. I wasn’t ready for that test.” Generally I heard people saying, “That was too hard, can we get a big curve!?” Just like a group of unruly students, when the tests in the wilderness got hard, the Israelites started complaining about everything: What kind of leader would bring us out here in the desert to suffer? What kind of God leads his people around in the desert like this? All of a sudden, even enslavement back in Egypt started looking good. Complaints filled the air – the attitude of God’s people was as poor as it could be. In no time, people doubted God and questioned His reason for bringing them out of Egypt in the first place.

The story then takes a terrible turn, “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” You know, I thought about entitling this sermon, “Complain about your leader and get killed by poisonous Snakes,” but I didn’t think that would go over too well – and all kidding aside, I don’t think that’s what this passage is talking about. Whatever the reason God sent snakes among the people, and it is likely impossible to know fully, there can be no mistaking the fact that this was a terrible crisis in the camp. Things just as mysterious and frightening happen in our lives – people who are apparently healthy just days find cancer slithering into their lives and find they only have months or weeks to live. Marriages begin to unravel. People in our families make poor choices with devastating consequences. We may not face literal snakes, but the symbolic snakes in our lives can be just as frightening and destructive. Like the Israelites, as we travel this world we’re all too familiar with crises in the camp and many times that leads us to question our faith and even to question God.

Yet somehow through the grace of God, against our own inclinations, crises can lead to confession. The Israelites took stock of what they were doing and examined their lives. When we encounter snakes in our lives – poisonous relationships, poisonous health issues, tragic losses, or seemingly insurmountable odds – it is time to take stock and see reflect on what matters most. The people of Israel very simply say to Moses, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” The crisis of the snakes led Israel to confess their failings as God’s people. Not only did they turn against the leader God sent them, but they rebelled against God as well. Is it wrong to question and be confused? No way – the only way this becomes sin is if we decide to rebel against God and call it quits – the ultimate danger is letting the crises of our lives cause us to turn our backs on our faith.

The crisis of the snakes helped God’s people realize that their very lives were in the hands of God. Even though the situation in the wilderness was one of difficulty and challenge, the very fact that they had survived this far was evidence of the ongoing presence of God in their lives. Sometimes it takes a crisis to wake us to this kind of truth. Before I answered God’s call to ministry, I worked in a research lab even though I was sick and tired of it. I had resolved to plow through and just go down the path I had planned. But in the middle of this I encountered a crisis. My father was checked into Saint Francis hospital in Tulsa. My wife Nanci and I made several frantic trips back and forth from Oklahoma City, where we lived, to Tulsa thinking he was going to die at any moment. Even though my father pulled through that difficult time, something changed within me. The crisis led to confession. I understood like never before that our lives are gifts and we never know how long or short they might be. For me, life was too short to do something other than pursue God’s call on my life. The crisis in my life led me to confess I wasn’t doing what God had planned for my life. Every single one of us will have points of crisis in our lives, just like the Israelites surrounded by snakes. Yet, God’s grace offers opportunity for growth in the midst of danger. By God’s grace we’re offered hope in the middle of hopelessness.

Moses prayed and God responded. As Israel confessed their disobedience and admitted their utter need, God responded. God told Moses to make a serpent of bronze and to lift it on a stick. Those who were bitten needed only to faithfully respond to God by looking at the snake and they would be healed. The snake wasn’t magic – it was the sheer power of God that brought salvation into a frightening and horrific situation. There is no situation that cannot be transformed by confession and trust in God’s means of salvation. Sometimes, like the Israelites looking at the bronze snake up on a pole in the wilderness in order to be rescued from their snakebites, God’s means of salvation looks a whole lot like the catastrophe we face. Sometimes, through the transforming grace of God, the darkest situations we face in our lives can actually lead to our healing and salvation.

We don’t need to look any farther than our faith in Jesus to see the truth of this belief. The cross was more deadly and humiliating than any snakebite, but it is at the cross where God’s greatest triumph takes place. The people confessed to Moses, he interceded and trusted God. The people lift up their eyes and receive healing, not from the deadly serpent, but from the very hand of God. It is through the suffering and shame of the cross that God offers transforms the entire world.

Nearly every one of us who was raised in church knows John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.” But how many of us remember the two verses that come before 3:16, “…just 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 what was apparently the greatest defeat of all time, God’s own Son was lifted on the cross. Yet in the providence and grace of God it is through Christ was raised from the dead and we are offered eternal, full and abundant life. Following God and trusting Jesus Christ means looking at the frightening and tragic situations of our life in a new way. Through Jesus Christ, nothing in this world is beyond being used for God’s redemptive purposes in our lives. Whether it is the sickness of our loved ones, the loss of a job, the struggles of a family member, the unraveling of a marriage, or the death of a friend – through God’s grace any of these situations offer one more opportunity for resurrection and can be transformed from the most frightening snake to the most miraculous salvation.

February 25, 2008 at 8:30 am 3 comments

Blazing Pulpits

Burning BushOne of my good friends, and sometimes commenter on this blog, has loaned me an excellent CD set on the Old Testament by Amy-Jill Levine. It is really terrific, even if I crave driving to listen to more of it! Dr. Levine’s lectures have given me new insights on several passages I’ve heard my entire life.

In the episode of the burning bush, I’ve always identified with Moses. After all, he was hearing God’s call to mission. However, after hearing the lecture on this particular episode, I’ve decided those of us who are pastors might better relate to the bush itself.

Let’s be honest, desert shrubs aren’t anything spectacular. They’re kinda dry, they sit there, and they do whatever they can to soak up nutrients from the sun-parched soil. Set ablaze by God’s divine fire, however, they become something important – something worthy of our attention. Aflame, yet not consumed. Burning alive. How’s that for a image of ministry? I think Wesley would like it. Remember this, “Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn.”

Far too often we’re dry shrubs, failing to realize our call to be burning bushes while living hand-to-mouth searching for the stuff of life. What would it take for us to be transformed, catching the attention of would-be Moseses (Mosi?) in our community?

What does God’s fire do to the bush, ever-aflame, but not consumed? I can’t imagine this is comfortable or comforting to the bush itself, even though it isn’t consumed. Is it like Jeremiah who writes, “If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot (20:9).”?

What sets you on fire? What is in you like a burning fire in your bones? What would it take for you to share that with God’s people?

February 18, 2008 at 9:14 am 6 comments

Live Like You’re Dying

This is the first Ash Wednesday sermon I ever preached. May God bless you as you contemplate your mortality and cling to the hope we have by trusting in Christ.

In our world, we prefer to deny death. Death is simply not something we like to talk about. We even disguise the word. We say things like, she “passed away,” he’s “no longer with us,” or they “didn’t make it.” With modern medical breakthroughs and modern science, life spans have increased by 60% since the 1900s. Our culture has even retreated into a battle against aging – there are creams to smooth out the wrinkles that come as we age and if that doesn’t work, then by all means, botox is a viable option! Yet no matter how we may disguise aging and no matter how many decades we add onto our lifespan through healthy eating, exercise, or visits to the doctor, it remains that each and every one of us will die.[1] On one hand it is not unreasonable or even unchristian that we spend so much time in our battle against death. After all, Paul himself refers to death as the final enemy in 1 Corinthians (15:26). Yet on the other hand, there are many ways in which our culture’s choice to deny the inevitability of death impedes our lives. Denying death leads to a loss of life.

A basic Christian spiritual exercise is to acknowledge death. Ash Wednesday is a time where our worship reminds us of this truth. As I put the ashes on your head or hand here in a few moments, I will say to each of you, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This isn’t to be morbid or gruesome. It is simply to acknowledge the reality that each one of us will die. Yet, our awareness of death should remind us to really live.

Sometimes we can remember particular times in our life because of the music that stands out in our minds. The summer I worked as a chaplain at the University of Kentucky Medical Center in Lexington, KY, there was a song that stood out. Each day, I was confronted with death. Death of the worst kind – family shootings – death from abuse – cancer – heart attacks – accidents – death, both unexpected and drawn out. There are songs which we’d never sing in Church that describe things we deeply stand for and believe in. One day on my way into the hospital, Tim McGraw’s song, “Live Like You Were Dying” came on the radio. The first verse was eerily familiar with the experience and response of the patients I saw nearly every day:

“He said I was in my early forties
With a lot of life before me
When a moment came that stopped me on a dime
And I spent most of the next days
Looking at the x-rays
Talking ‘bout the options
And talking ‘bout sweet time
I asked him when it sank in
That this might really be the real end
How’s it hit you when you get that kinda news?

A man is diagnosed with a terminal illness – a man is faced with the news that is ultimately true of all of us. Even though our “real end” might not be as soon as this man, it is nonetheless equally true. When we live in denial that we will all die, we deny the call each one of us has to truly live. McGraw’s song goes on as the man describes what he did in face of the tragic news. As Christians, we are likely not called to, “go sky diving, Rocky Mountain climbing, or to ride bulls for 2.7 seconds!” However, there are many significant lessons we can learn as the song continues:

I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter, I gave forgiveness I’d been denying…I was finally the husband that most the time I wasn’t, and I became the friend a friend would like to have. I finally read the good book, and I took a good hard look at what I’d do if I could do it all again…

    The dying man then makes the most important point of the song, “Someday, I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.”

    Ash Wednesday serves as the reminder that we should live like we are dying because in fact, we are all dying. Today is the first day of Lent and begins the time of repentance in preparation for Easter. Many Christians give up something during Lent, perhaps a favorite food or drink or maybe even television. But more and more people are choosing to add something to their lives instead of giving something up. That’s my challenge to you – live like you are dying – love deeper – speak sweeter – give the forgiveness you’ve been denying – become the wife or husband, or father or mother you haven’t been – become the friend a friend would like to have – spend time each day reading God’s word and praying.

    Do these things because the Gospel promises that existence doesn’t end with death – it ends with life. Living like you are dying brings new life – because we live in response to God’s Spirit and the power that raised Jesus at Easter. Easter, which lies at the end of Lent, is God’s answer to death – God raised Jesus Christ from the dead as the answer that death is not the end for Christians. By the power of Christ, we’re enabled to take good hard looks at our lives. Ash Wednesday and Lent remind us that God allows u-turns. We can turn from our destructive ways through the power of Christ and live our lives fully in view of the life giving resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. “Live like you are dying” and you will live a life worth living.

    In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


    [1] Many insights for this section of the sermon were gleaned from Tortured Wonders by Rodney Clapp, Brazos Press 2004

    February 6, 2008 at 10:06 am 3 comments

    Cool Moment in Blogging

    Awhile back I told a little story of God’s mercy, and it became one of my more popular posts. A friend of mine told me he had used it in a sermon, which I was really happy to hear. Now it has traveled both near and far, because a pastor in the UK recently used it in his sermon! This is too cool – one of favorite moments in the blog’s history. Thanks for linking back to me Dave – you made my day.

    February 2, 2008 at 10:09 am Leave a comment

    United Methodist Magi

    Even though most of our nativity scenes have them, the Wise Men aren’t usually the most popular characters in the Nativity. My wife, Nanci, has a Nativity set that she got several years ago. The pieces come separately, so for the last few Christmases she has received new pieces to complete the scene. The first year she got the centerpiece: Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. The next year she got a shepherd, some stars for the background, and even a sheep or two. This year she finally got the Wise Men. That is a little like how we treat the Wise Men in the Church. We get Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, we get the shepherds; but, it’s hard to get the Wise Men. Even though they’re usually there at the manger, these three strangely dressed foreigners kneeling off to the side with their presents neatly in their arms and their camels waiting to skip town, sometimes they’re little more than window-dressing on the manger. Most of the time we don’t look to the Magi for any sort of spiritual or practical insight. Yet, today is Epiphany Sunday, a time we set aside once a year to remember their place in the story of Jesus Christ. I believe there is a lot more to the Wise Men than meets the eye. In fact, I think that we have a lot to learn from them, especially as United Methodists.

    Everyone who has joined the United Methodist Church has taken membership vows signaling their commitment to be disciples of Jesus. When my family first transferred our membership to become United Methodists we had to respond to this same question, “As members of this congregation, will you faithfully participate in its ministries, by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service?” We said we would, and like everyone else who has ever said these words we didn’t give a single thought to the Wise Men as we said it. Yet, I think they serve as a perfect model to remind us of the magnitude of what we agree to when we commit to join the Church. We promise to faithfully participate in the Church’s ministries with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service – the same four things the Wise Men offered Jesus. Let me explain.

    These foreign mystery men pop on the scene not long after Jesus’ birth. It is very likely that these Wise Men (or Magi) were royal priests from Persia (which we know as Iran). In this era of history, the birth of those destined for greatness was said to be accompanied by signs in the stars and heavens, and these men were highly regarded for their abilities to interpret just these sorts of things. Like many people who eventually end up in the Church, the Wise Men were seekers. They were people who weren’t happy with the status quo of their lives, and as a result searched in the only way they knew how for answers to life’s deepest and most important questions. Each night they searched the stars for any evidence of the mystery of the divine, and looked desperately for any spark that might help answer their most profound questions. One night as they examined their star charts and astrological tables, they saw something different. It appeared that there was a new King in Israel, a different kind of King than the world had ever known, one who would deliver his people. So they packed for the trip, and began a journey to be in the presence of this one to see if he was the answer. That’s what we promise to do when we agree to support the Church with our presence. We agree that there is something worth finding each time the Church meets to announce the Gospel, and we agree to simply be here. The Wise Men were the same way. They knew there was something worth finding in the presence of this newborn King and no distance or inconvenience could keep them away.

    Once they arrived, they went through the streets of Jerusalem asking everyone where this new King was to be found. Obviously, they thought, such a miraculous and monumental birth would be common knowledge. Yet it seemed as if no one had heard anything. It appeared as if Jerusalem was going about business as usual. King Herod, who had been appointed by the Roman authorities as the official King, was still in charge. Of course, he wasn’t even an Israelite. In fact, he was an Edomite, one of the cultures most hated by Israel. So when Herod’s informants reported there were foreign dignitaries in town looking for a new King, he immediately sensed trouble. Like everyone else, he had heard the common hope for a King from David’s line, and if this had truly happened, his reign was in serious jeopardy. So he called for his Jewish cultural advisors. “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?” he asked. They reminded him of the prophet Micah and assured him that it was clear that it would happen in Bethlehem.[1] So he called the Wise Men and sent them to Bethlehem under the pretense that he wanted to worship this new King. When they entered Bethlehem, led by the star, they entered the house where Mary and the child were and knelt down in worship before Jesus. There at the feet of Jesus, they embody our promise to support the work of God in the Church through our prayers. Prayer is both spoken and unspoken, but it can also be more than words. It can be the very posture we take at the feet of our Lord, like when we kneel when receiving Holy Communion. The Wise Men are a picture of the believer kneeling in humble prayer. When we enter fully into the life of the Church, we promise to submit our hearts, minds, and lives to Jesus in prayer.

    They then offer Jesus gifts fit for royalty: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Over the years, Christian interpreters have attached a great deal of symbolic meaning to each of these gifts, but at their very simplest they are gifts fit for a king, the best money could buy. When we enter into a committed relationship with Christ and join the church, we promise to give Christ nothing but the best. We promise to offer Christ gifts fit for a king, and the most profound and personal gift we have to give is the gift of our lives: our time, our talents, our skills, and our wealth. The Wise Men were wise enough to give Jesus the very best, and we are truly wise when we do the same.

    After their gifts, the Wise Men reached a point of decision. Who would they serve? Were they going to serve the King appointed by Rome (Herod) or the King appointed by God (the Christ Child)? Were they going to go back to Herod and report they had found the threat to his Kingdom or were they going to serve Christ and leave unannounced? We face these exact same moments of decision. Are we going to follow Jesus without fear, or are we going to continue to wait because of fear or hesitation for whatever reason? The Wise Men made their decision in service to Christ and left without responding to Herod. In spite of the possible consequences, they refused to serve the “so-called King” Herod, and served the true King Jesus. When we promise to support the Church with our service, we make a decision and a promise to God. In our membership vows, we commit our lives to choosing the true king over any other pretender. We commit our lives to choosing Christ in situations when any other choice might be safer or comfortable or more acceptable. That’s true service and it’s the commitment and promise we make.

    Unfortunately, we never hear anything else about the Wise Men in the bible. They ride off into the sunset and are never seen again. It’s enough to make us wonder about the decisions they made once they returned home. Did they continue to live out this pattern of commitment to the new King? Did they try to share their experience with others and become witnesses to Jesus? The bible doesn’t answer this questions and I think I know why. We’re called today to answer these questions with our own lives. We’re called to finish the story of the Wise men. Our lives with Jesus are not over just because we answer yes to following Christ by supporting the Church with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service. We’re asked to continue to live in this four-fold promise of discipleship. We’re also called to invite everyone we know and love to help us finish the Wise Men’s story. Today each one of us has a choice for 2008. We can continue to live in commitment to Christ and the church through our presence and gifts, or we can choose to live only for ourselves. We can choose to follow Christ into new avenues of service and commitment or we can choose to be satisfied with resting on our laurels. I know the choice I want to make, I know the choice we most need to make, and I believe I know the choice we all want to make. In 2008, let’s commit to live up to the vows we’ve made, let’s decide to really follow Jesus, and let’s invite others to join us on this journey. When we offer this as our Epiphany gift to the Christ Child, God will continue to be powerfully in our midst, and will constantly challenge and transform us in the New Year ahead!

     


    [1] Micah 5:2

    January 1, 2008 at 6:44 pm Leave a comment

    Lessons from Craig Groeschel @ 40

    At the ripe old age of 40, Craig Groeschel has had a series of posts on 40 things he wished he had been told at 20. I’m 10 years late, but maybe they’ll be worth hearing at 30! haha If any stand out to you as particularly important or insightful, make a note in the comments.

    1. Life is short. Make every day count for God’s glory.
    2. Life is short. Don’t take it too seriously.
    3. Ministry is a marathon, not a sprint.
    4. Jesus cares more about the church than you do.
    5. You can’t please everyone…so why try?
    6. People will criticize you. Quit whining. Get used to it.
    7. Three months from now, you won’t even remember most of the things that are bothering you today.
    8. You can’t do it all. Stop trying.
    9. God called you because He is good, not because you are.
    10. If you blame yourself for the bad results in ministry, you’ll likely also take credit for the good results.
    11. Become close friends with other pastors in your town (as many as you can).
    12. Your kids will be grown before you know it. Don’t sacrifice them on the altar of ministry.
    13. Your ministry isn’t your god. God is your God.
    14. You know how to give and how to minister to others. If you don’t learn how to receive, you’ll burn out and/or die.
    15. Studying for sermons doesn’t replace your personal time with God and in His word.
    16. Err on the side of generosity.
    17. Believe in people that others overlook.
    18. If you’re going to reach people that others aren’t, you’ll have to do things that others won’t.
    19. Your integrity matters more than you can imagine.
    20. Hire staff members that you like.
    21. When you have a tough decision to make, but you know it’s right, make it immediately. (Like pulling off a Band-Aid: do it fast, and all at once.)
    22. Hire slowly. Fire quickly.
    23. You can’t change people. Only God can.
    24. Don’t criticize others’ ministries. Yours isn’t nearly as perfect as you think it is.
    25. Take care of yourself. Eat right. Rest. Exercise. Take time off. No one else can do that for you.
    26. If you don’t take much time off, it’s because you’re proud, and you think you’re more necessary than you really are.
    27. Don’t just delegate responsibility. Delegate authority.
    28. Laugh frequently.
    29. People will leave your church. People you love and trust will leave your church. Don’t take it personally.
    30. When you suffer and hurt because of ministry, worship Jesus all the more.
    31. Talk about Jesus every time you preach.
    32. Be careful what you say. You’re being watched (and recorded).
    33. Don’t return emails when you’re angry.
    34. Check to make sure your microphone is turned off before you use the bathroom. Double-check.
    35. Check to make sure your zipper is zipped every time before you preach. Double-check.
    36. Love your wife more than you love the church. The church is Jesus’ bride, not yours.
    37. Always be caught speaking well of others.
    38. Compliment, encourage, and build up your staff and volunteers.
    39. Hand write thank you notes.
    40. Smile and look people in the eyes when you talk to them.

     

    December 14, 2007 at 12:49 pm 1 comment

    Sermon: Luke 18:9-14

    This morning, my message was based around a reflection on the Luke passage from the lectionary combined with having just read the first chapter of Dan Kimball’s new book (which you can find here at Zondervan). I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but plan to buy it soon. After reading it, you’ll see that I borrowed liberally (with a few edits) from his opening chapter in my first paragraph. I was committed to preaching this passage from Luke in a way that stirred my own passions, and Dan’s book provided just the spark I needed to see this as an important passage about how we’re called to be if we’re interested in reaching non-Christians.

    There’s a new book out about the church with a title that’s intentionally a little challenging. It’s called, They like Jesus, But Not the Church. The author of this book, Dan Kimball, got the idea for this book after an encounter in a gym. While he was there, a young lady was helping him get oriented with the weight equipment when they began to talk about some of the music she liked. As the conversation went on, Dan found out they had a lot of interests in common. As they were having this great conversation about music, movies, and so on, she finally finished showing him all the equipment and asked a final question, “So what do you do for a living,” to which he responded, “Oh, I’m the pastor at a church.” Her expression changed, she took two steps back, and nearly tripped over the leg of a machine as she said, “No way you’re a pastor, I don’t believe you!!” As he tells this story, Dan said it took several minutes to convince her that he was actually a pastor so he asked her what she thought pastors were like. Without hesitation she said, “Pastors are creepy…” To this girl, pastors were definitely not normal and Dan didn’t fit her expectation of what Christians, especially pastors, would be like. So Dan began to do some research. He struck up conversations everywhere he went with people who weren’t Christians and compiled these conversations in his book. Unfortunately for those of us who believe God deeply about the world the title is also the summary of his findings, They Like Jesus, but not the Church. This was a recurring theme. Almost everyone he met had interest in Jesus, but many of them were turned off by how they perceived Christians to be.

    One of the recurring themes Dan found was the idea that Christians are angry and judgmental. Now, I can’t imagine where anyone would get an idea like that! If we weren’t part of the Church and based what we know about Christians solely on what we see on Television, or other bad examples we’ve seen, what would we think? It’s unfortunate, but there are times when those who are the worst representatives of what the Church is called to be are the most vocal and visible in the news. It is no wonder the caricature of the Church is that we just might be a tad bit angry and judgmental!

    Maybe you’ve experienced this in your own life. When I first began seminary, one of the first classes I took was a required course. Over the course of the semester, we were able to explore what it meant to be called into ministry and serve as a minister. One of the components of this class was to be involved in a small group of men and women who met weekly. In this small group, we’d come together and talk about our faith. We’d discuss how we practiced our spiritual disciplines like prayer and bible study and try to encourage one another in the faith. These kinds of groups are only as successful as the investment you make in them, and so I decided I was going to throw myself into the experience. In the first few weeks, we were talking about how we were doing spiritually and it was my turn to share. So I decided to be brutally honest and open with the group. We had just moved to Kentucky, our daughter was less than a year old, and we were just getting situated in our new home and life there. So I talked about this. I said, “You know, my spiritual life is pretty much at a standstill right now. I’m really tired and stressed and as a result I’m not reading my bible much at all and my prayer life is nowhere near what it should be. Most of the time I’m having a hard time praying” I had been a part of groups similar to these before, and so I kind of expected some support and encouragement. Instead, two of the other three people in the group looked at me like I had just revealed the most horrible thing they’d ever heard. One even said, “Wow…that’s really bad,” and I don’t remember if he said it or not but I got the distinct impression that he had never missed a day of praying or studying the bible in his entire life. Needless to say, I felt pretty condemned. Here I was, in a group that I had hoped would be a safe environment for sharing. At that point, I had been a Christian for nearly 20 years, I was in the middle of pursuing a clear call to ministry, and I felt totally judged and condemned. Now, after experiences like that, I can only imagine how someone might feel if an experience like this was their only image of the Church. I can only image what someone might think if their only image of Christianity is based on the condemnation and anger we sometimes see on TV.

    That brings me to our Scripture for today addressing this very issue. Jesus tells the story of two men, and I think we can read it as two ways of being. Two men entered the temple of God. One of the men was a Pharisee, a religious official and one of the most respected types of people in that world. The other is a tax collector. In order to be a tax collector, you had to be affiliated in some way with Rome. At this point in history, Rome was occupying Israel, and as you might imagine the Romans were not popular folks with most people in Israel. So together before God, we have someone honored for their faith and discipline and someone rejected for being in cahoots with the occupying Roman regime. The Pharisee stood off by himself making sure he wouldn’t be “contaminated” by getting too close to the tax collector and loudly began to pray, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men– robbers, evildoers, adulterers– or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” Across the temple, too scared to approach the front and too ashamed to even look up to heaven, the tax collector began to pray as well, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Two very different men and two very different prayers; keep this image in mind the Pharisee at the front praising himself in front of God, and a tax collector in the back pleading for God’s mercy. With that image in mind, listen to Jesus’ words, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

    That brings me back to the book I talked about in the beginning. The reason that some people like Jesus, but not the Church, is because of the times that we act more like the Pharisee in this story than the tax collector. If you’re like me, then you’re never just one or the other, sometimes you’re both. I have to rely totally on Jesus to avoid being the Pharisee, just as I have to rely totally on Jesus to understand I need mercy just like the tax collector. When we rely totally on Jesus’ grace & love, we’ll be the ones going home justified – in a right relationship with God.

    In my story about the small group, there was another person I didn’t mention. Daniel Kim (name changed :-)) was a Methodist from South Korea pursuing his doctorate in missiology (the study of missions). The South Koreans on campus had the reputation as being the kind of people who prayed for hours, studied the bible passionately, and had a deep abiding love for Jesus. Daniel was a leader among the international students. After the small group where I shared how I was struggling spiritually was over, he came up to me. He said, “You know…I understand how you feel. I’ve been there too. I’ll pray for you.” In that moment, I didn’t feel judged, I didn’t feel condemned….instead in his gentle words, I knew God’s love. In that moment, I knew I wasn’t alone and I felt encouragement that that time of struggle would pass. In that moment, Daniel could have very easily been just another Pharisee. Instead, he was a fellow tax collector…and out of his own experience with God’s mercy, he shared that mercy with me.

    What kind of Christian do we want to be? Do we want to pat ourselves on the back thanking God we’re not adulterers, evildoers, robbers, or tax collectors (or any of the other the sins we conveniently don’t participate in)? Or are we confident enough in God’s grace to know better…do we know the kind of God who receives those who bow humbly pleading for mercy?

    Even though we all have moments of both, my friend Daniel had chosen to make the latter the dominant pattern of his life. He was a man who knew a God of grace and forgiveness….he bowed humbly before God pleading for mercy, and that fact seeped out of every pore of his being. If the people Dan Kimball interviewed could meet a few more Christians like him, I believe they would be different. They just might be able, by God’s grace, to like Jesus and the Church.

    I want us to commit to being that kind of Christian. I want us to commit to being that kind of Church. I want us to be the kind of people who are so transformed by the merciful love of Jesus that we can’t help but show it. The world is hungry for us to do that very thing. They’re hungry for us to show them what being a follower of Christ really means. This week, let’s refuse to be the Pharisee, trusting in our own goodness. Let’s be the kind of people who not only like Jesus, but love him so much that we become like him drawing others to the foot of the cross to receive the same mercy, grace, and forgiveness we all so desperately need – the very grace that makes both Pharisee and Tax Collector right before God.

    October 28, 2007 at 2:07 pm 4 comments

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