Tag: preaching

Sermon: God’s Indictment, Instruction and Invitation

Last Sunday I preached from Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 NIV. Amazingly, the circumstances in Isaiah’s day in 742 BC were similar to those in 21st century America. Politicians disagreed on how best to provide security for the nation of Judah. Strategic alliances to combat national enemies such as Assyria, and even Israel, were formed and then dissolved. The nation’s economy was rigged in favor of the well-to-do, and the weakest in Judah’s society — widows and orphans — were being cheated and oppressed.

But, in the midst of political, economic, and spiritual turmoil, God has a word for his people. Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God condemns their religious practice because it was not consistent with their conduct. Or maybe their worship was consistent with their conduct because both were lacking in obedience to God and compassion toward others. Here’s the audio of the sermon:


Lenten Sermon: An Incurable Blindness

On the fourth Sunday in Lent this year, the lectionary reading from the New Testament was John 9:1-41, the story of the man born blind. Here’s the message I preached last Sunday:

A Great Day Sunday and Back To Work on Monday

We had a great day on Easter Sunday! Les Adams led the service, Don Reagan read scripture, Eleanor Haskins presented the children’s sermon, others prayed, Charlotte was amazing on the organ, and the choir outdid themselves on Resurrection Sunday. Thanks to our great lay leaders, all I had to do was preach — and I got to do that sitting down!

Seriously, it was great to be back, and folks graciously welcomed me home after a three week absence. No one was happier than Debbie and I were. To top it off, we had guests from our former church in Greensboro. Fran Moseley, the minister of music then, and Nancy Davis, our accompanist, and her husband, Jerry were welcomed guests at our service. Actually, some of our folks thought they were a pastor search committee, so they weren’t welcomed warmly at first until that issue was out of the way!

This week I have a follow-up appointment with the surgeon who did the biopsy, and hopefully I will start physical therapy. Debbie spent part of the morning on the phone with Medi-Share, a Christian medical bill sharing ministry that we have subscribed to since 2008. They were very helpful in clarifying everything, and advising us on physical therapy. To top it off, I was in the office a couple of hours this morning, until I got really tired. But, at least I got started. We hope to hear from the biopsy on Tuesday or Wednesday, and I’ll update you when we do. Until then, our faith is in the God who raised Jesus from the dead during this Easter season.

New Sermon Series, “The Wisdom of ….”

I’m starting a new sermon series this Sunday using texts taken from the Revised Common Lectionary readings for July and August.  As I read through each of these scripture selections, I picked up a theme of “wise living” from them.  Each text seemed to me to be pointing out the wisdom of one or more virtues or practices of God’s people.  Here are the titles I’ve given each week’s sermon:

  • July 4 – The Wisdom of Humility, 2 Kings 5:1-14
  • July 11 – The Wisdom of Obedience, Deut 30:9-14
  • July 18 – The Wisdom of Compassion, Amos 8:1-12
  • July 25 – The Wisdom of Justice, Genesis 18:20-32
  • Aug 1 – The Wisdom of Mercy, Hosea 11:1-11
  • Aug 8 – The Wisdom of Repentance, Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
  • Aug 15 – The Wisdom of Faith, Hebrews 11:29-12:2
  • Aug 22 – The Wisdom of Reverence, Hebrews 12:18-29

I may be on vacation on August 1, but I included the August 1 title and text to complete the series.  Are any of you doing a summer series, and if so, what are you preaching on?

Sermon: Telling The Good News

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow titled, Telling The Good News. I’ve got a terrible cold or allergies or something, so I hope your day is better than mine appears, if I don’t improve!

Telling the Good News
Luke 24:44-53

44He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”45Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

50When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

The Descension

Did you see the CNN story this week about the guy in China who was threatening to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge?  A Chinese man, named Chen Fuchao, was despondent over a 2-million yuan (about $294,000) debt that he had incurred over a failed building project.  He climbed up on the Haizhu bridge, threatening to jump.  Apparently this bridge is quite attractive to jumpers because since April, 11 people have thrown themselves off the bridge.

On this particular day, Mr. Chen had tied up traffic for 5-hours and it was more than Mr. Lian Jianghsheng could stand.  At 66-years-of-age, Mr. Lian approached police and offered to negotiate with Mr. Chen.  The police declined his offer, but Mr. Lian burst through the police line and climbed up on the bridge where Mr. Chen was poised.

Photographs show Mr. Lian greeting Mr. Chen with a handshake. But then, Mr. Lian threw Mr. Chen off the bridge.  Fortunately, a partially-inflated emergency landing cushion was positioned below — one wonders why it wasn’t completely inflated — and Mr. Chen hit the cushion, doing damage to his spine and elbow.  He is recovering in the hospital.

Mr. Lian then saluted the crowd from the bridge and climbed back down, only to be taken into custody by police.

CNN reported Mr. Lian said, “I pushed him off because jumpers like Chen are very selfish. Their action violates a lot of public interest,” Lian told Xinhua. “They do not really dare to kill themselves. Instead, they just want to raise the relevant government authorities’ attention to their appeals.”

I assume Mr. Lian will not be receiving the Humanitarian of the Year Award this year.

Or, did you hear this story about a woman in Taiwan — why are both of these stories about Chinese? — who was so distraught over her husband’s unfaithfulness that she contemplated both suicide and murder.  She decided on suicide, and flung herself without looking out an open window of her apartment several stories above the sidewalk.

Amazingly, she landed on her husband, killing him instantly.  She sustained only minor injuries.  Authorities could not prosecute her because her husband was killed accidentally.

So, two stories of people descending rather dramatically, which are both amusing, but understandable.  But what we have here in the gospel of Luke is an amazing story unlike any we’ve ever heard before.

Ascension Sunday

This is Ascension Sunday in the calendar of the Christian Year.  We have almost come to the end of the story of God at work in this world, again.  We started last November, after Thanksgiving, with Advent — looking for the coming of the Messiah.

We moved through the four Sundays of Advent into Christmastide with the celebration of Jesus’ birth and incarnation on the Feast of Christmas.

Then, Epiphany — the appearing — came along.  Then, Lent.  Then Easter.  And we have been in Eastertide since then.

But today is Ascension Sunday, the pivotal Sunday between the season of Easter and the appearances of Christ after the resurrection, and Pentecost.  Pentecost is next Sunday and marks the birthday of the church with the coming of the Holy Spirit to indwell and empower the apostles.

Jesus has now been risen some 40-days — isn’t it amazing how often the number 40 appears in Scripture?  This is the same amount of time that Jesus spent in the desert at the beginning of his ministry.  It’s also the same amount of time Rick Warren suggested to go through his book, The Purpose-Driven Life, but he actually takes the 40-day idea from scripture, too.

But now Jesus is about to leave the disciples.  They thought they had lost him at the crucifixion, but then came the resurrection.  So now, they must be a little confused.

“Is Jesus really leaving us, again?” they must have asked one another.  Jesus must have sensed their puzzlement because here in these last moments with the disciples, he takes them quickly through a crash course in theology.

It’s In The Book

The first thing he says to them in this last meeting is —

“This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

Of course, at this point there is no New Testament.  The only scripture the disciples or Jesus knew was the Hebrew Scripture, which we call the Old Testament.  So here’s a major point Jesus wants to leave his disciples thinking about —

Scripture tells the story of God’s Messiah.

Jesus said, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.”

Which tells us two things:

  1. The Old Testament has a lot to say about the Messiah; and,
  2. It all came true in Jesus.

Remember the story of the transfiguration of Jesus?  Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on the mountain.  There they see Jesus glowing like the sun, and he is joined by Moses and Elijah.  Moses represents the Law, the Torah, the Law of God.  Elijah represents the prophets.  Curiously, both of these men did not die like almost everybody else.  Moses dies at the end of Genesis and the scripture tells us that God buried Moses, and that no one knows where his grave is to this day.  Elijah was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot.

But guess what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are talking about.  Jesus’ impending death.  I think the King James version says “his demise” but that means Jesus’ death.  That death by hanging on a tree, which was a cursed thing in the Hebrew culture.

So, the first thing that Jesus reminds his disciples right before he leaves them is — Scripture tells my story.

Jesus Opens Their Minds

Then Luke tells us, 45Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.

This was exactly the same thing he had done with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  He helped them understand what Scripture said about the Messiah, and why all of those prophecies and descriptions were about him, Jesus.

You remember the story of these two disciples, recorded by Luke only a few verses before our text today.  The two of them, Cleopas was the name of one, were walking away from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  They were downcast, discouraged, and as they walked a stranger joins them and asks why they look so sad.

Their reply is “are you the only one around here who hasn’t heard the story of Jesus?  they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”

Then Jesus gently chides them for their unbelief, and begins to explain the story of the Messiah to them.  As they walk and listen, they come to the home where they are staying.  Jesus acts as if he is going on down the road, but they invite him in for dinner.  It is as he breaks the bread and blesses it that they recognize him, and then he is gone from their presence.

They asked each other — “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

So, Jesus helps them, and us, understand the scripture that talks about the messiah, and that he is that promised savior.

Not Everybody Understands Scripture Like Jesus Taught Us

So, what does that have to do with us today?  I’ve just finished reading an interesting book, Jesus, Interrupted, by Bart Ehrman.  Dr. Ehrman teaches at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.  He teaches religious studies.  And, he used to be just like us — a Bible-believing follower of Jesus.  He loved the Bible so much that he wanted to teach Bible.

So, he went to Moody Bible College, and Wheaton College, both academic powerhouses for conservative, Bible-believing young people to receive training for ministry.  But, then Ehrman went on to Princeton Seminary where he encountered a very different view of the Bible.

Rather than embracing the Bible as the Word of God, or a guide for Christian living, Princeton introduced Bart Ehrman to a scholarly approach to scripture called “higher criticism.”  Higher criticism is an approach to understanding scripture that looks at the cultural, linguistic, stylistic, and historic clues found in the ancient manuscripts.

Of course, there are no original manuscripts of any book of the Bible, much less the whole Bible itself, but higher criticism dissects the form and content of what we call sacred scripture looking for its origins and its flaws.

When he came out of Princeton, Ehrman was no longer a Bible-believing, conservative Christian.  He was an agnostic — someone who doesn’t know if God exists or not.  Ehrman says the he became a “happy agnostic,” not because of his biblical studies, but because of the problem of evil and suffering in the world.  He can’t figure out how a good God can allow bad things to happen.  That is a topic for another time, but that’s his story.

In his latest book, Jesus, Interrupted, Ehrman says — are you ready? — the following:

  • Most of the New Testament books are forgeries;
  • Few of the sayings of Jesus are things Jesus actually said;
  • The three different gospels contradict themselves, so one or more are in error;
  • The disciples couldn’t have written the New Testament because they were ignorant fishermen, or ignorant tax collectors, or ignorant whatevers.

And, that’s only part of what he says.  You should read the entire book and read all the technical stuff he throws out.

“Why did you read a book like that?” you might ask.  Well, I wanted to see what he had to say.  I wanted to see what the competition was all about.  I read it for the same reason I read John Allen Paulos’ book, Irreligion, a couple of years ago.  Those of us who believe need to know what those who do not believe are thinking.

Now, I am not equipped academically to take on a guy like Dr. Bart Ehrman.  He knows stuff I will never know, and that’s as it should be.  He’s a specialist in his field and apparently a well-respected academic. But, that doesn’t mean I can’t answer some of his objections, and disagree with this final conclusion that the Bible is a totally human book, full of errors and contradictions.

Let me just address one point:  Ehrman says the disciples were ignorant fisherman, which Peter, Andrew, James and John were.  We have books in the New Testament purportedly written by Peter and John.  And, we have a Gospel, the earliest one, written by a protege of Peter’s named Mark.  Ehrman says that ignorant fishermen could not have learned the literary Greek of their day, and then penned these masterful letters and gospels.

What Ehrman fails to tell his readers is that many people employed a person called an amanuensis, basically a stenographer, who recorded their thoughts in clear and correct Greek for business and correspondence.   We know Paul employed an amanuensis because at one point, Paul says, I’m writing this with my own hand, indicating that the previous lines were written by his secretary, his amanuensis, as he dictated.  But, that’s one of Ehrman’s major points.

But, when it comes to Ehrman’s comparing of one manuscript fragment to another, I must admit I am lost.  Debbie and I had the opportunity to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit when it came to Raleigh several months ago, and we did not see a single complete scroll.  All we saw were about a half-dozen fragments about the size of a quarter to a half-dollar.  That’s it.  Manuscript study is like working a giant jigsaw puzzle with no box cover for guidance.

So, the Dead Sea Scrolls have been under study since 1948, and not even a fraction of the scholarship is complete.  So, while I can’t dispute Ehrman’s argument about scrolls, manuscripts, and fragments, I take great confidence in this —

The books of the Bible which we consider sacred are the same ones considered sacred from about the second century A.D. and after.  The entire New Testament canon of books was not even finished until almost the end of the first century, so beginning a little more than 70-years after Christ, the early church fathers were listing the same books we call our Bible today.

Actually, Bart Ehrman admits this in a sort of grudging way.  He refers to a document discovered in Italy in the 8th century by L. A. Muratori, known as the Muratorian Canon.  This document is a poor Latin translation from a Greek document believed to be from the 2nd century which lists all 22 of the 27 books of the New Testament.  It probably listed more, but the top of the document was torn off, and it began by calling the Gospel of Luke “the third Gospel.”  Which it still is.  The list does include some books we no longer consider “canonical” or belonging to sacred scripture, but that wasn’t unusual either.  The main point is that by the second century, at least 22 of the current 27 New Testament books were already considered sacred scripture by the early church.

While I am not afraid of scholastic inquiry into the origins, form, language, or history of the Bible, the point of Scripture is to tell God’s story.  If in the second century the earliest church leaders considered the accounts we have to be reliable, and holy, then I can accept that, despite the approach of science that takes a completely different view of sacred texts.

Let me state this simply:  We do still need Jesus to open our minds to understand that the Bible tells his story.

It’s Our Story to Tell, Too

But, Jesus doesn’t just leave the disciples with this new spiritual insight.  He tells them “You are witnesses of these things.”

Now it’s their turn to tell the story.  They saw it, they lived it, they heard it, they experienced it.  They are witnesses.  But Jesus makes them one final, but very important promise — wait for the power from on high.

While at The Cove two weeks ago, we heard the professor of preaching from Samford’s Beeson Divinity School — Dr. Robert Smith.  Dr. Smith preached about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, and said some memorable things.  Dr. Smith is African-American, and he pointed out that the Ethiopian eunuch — a servant of the Queen of Ethiopia — was riding, while the apostle Philip was walking.  He also pointed out that the Ethiopian could read, but he needed someone to help him understand the scroll he was reading.  In my white, American perspective,  those were two points I had missed.  But, he also said some interesting things about the church.

One of the things he talked about, and he covered a lot of ground, was the need for the power of the Holy Spirit.  He said, “If every reference to the Holy Spirit were removed from the Bible, we would still try to do church.”

In addressing the increasing pattern of churches giving to missions rather than engaging in missions, he said, “There are some things that aren’t going to happen just because you can write a big check.”

So, this is our story to tell.  We are witnesses.  Maybe we are not witnesses of the same events that the apostles witnesses, but we are witnesses of the same experience they had.  The experience of Jesus opening our minds to understand scripture.  To understand that when Jesus said,

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that meant Jesus.

When Jesus said,
That whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life,
that means us.

It was then, and only then, that Jesus ascended into heaven.  Scripture tells his story; the disciples witnessed his story; we have experienced his story.  Now we need that power from on high, the Holy Spirit, to equip, empower, and embolden us to tell the story.

And, how did they tell it?  The same way Jesus did — they healed people, they loved people, they made friends for God, they preached the good news, they lived the gospel, they bore hardship, suffered opposition, endured persecution, but still they told the story that had changed their lives.  That’s what we are to do now.  We are witnesses, too.  We are telling the good news by the way we live, the values we hold, the difference we make in the lives of others.

From The Cove: ‘An Exegetical Escort’

image329I’m at The Cove in Asheville, North Carolina for the next three days.  This is the first Billy Graham School of Evangelism for 2009, and I’ll lead “Keys to Thriving in the Smaller Church” tomorrow afternoon.  But tonight we feasted on the preaching of Reverend Dr. Robert Smith, Professor of Christian Preaching at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Alabama.

His text was Acts 8:26-39, the story of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch.  Here are some particularly delightful quotes:

“The exegetical escort — the preacher — escorts the hearer by the inspired Word of God, into the presence of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, for the purpose of transformation.”

“The game is not played in the huddle.”

“It took persecution (of the church) to get them to a particular place.”

“To be a Christian then meant more than raising your hands.”

“Christ was not, in terms of Calvary, Plan B.  He was Plan A.”

“God writes the Bible backwards.  Revelation is about what happened, Genesis is about how it happened.”

When Moses and Elijah come to the Mount of Transfiguration, they did so because “they knew they were in heaven on credit.”

“God does not have an inexhaustible vocabulary. Once God has said ‘Jesus,’ He can’t say anything more.”

The Samaritans were of the “canine community — mongrels.”

“If every reference to the Holy Spirit was taken out of the Bible, we would still try to operate the church.  But there are some moves that will not happen in the church just because you write a big check.”

“It’s not what you have, it’s whose hands you put it into.” (referring to the loaves and fish)

“Don’t despise the small things.”

“God is the only one who knows how to multiply by dividing.  And he knows how to promote by demoting.”

“Prepare carefully but preach freely.”

“God is waiting on the church to declare its ignorance.”

“The best theologian I ever sat under was my Mama.  She can’t pronounce the word ‘omnipresent’ to this day, but she just says, ‘God is so big that everywhere He moves, He bumps into Himself.”

Regarding racial reconciliation: “If we can’t sit together (like Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch in the chariot) then we can’t go down into the water together.”

“We are cleansed by the Word and clothed by the righteousness of God.”

“When you start in the Bible, you have to go to Jesus.”

So, you can see we were in for a treat.  The 300 preachers and spouses here were standing, applauding, amen-ing, and shouting by the time Dr. Smith was finished.  You had to be there.  I’m glad I was.  More tomorrow.

Sermon: A Lesson from the Vineyard

This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Sunday, May 10, 2009, on Mother’s Day.  I hope your day is a wonderful one as you gather with your church family.

A Lesson from the Vineyard

John 15:1-8
1″I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes* so that it will be even more fruitful. 3You are already clean (pruned)* because of the word I have spoken to you. 4Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

5″I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. 8This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

*John 15:2: The Greek for “to prune” also means “to clean.”

Pruning for New Growth

We’re in that season of the year when some plants in the garden get pruned back so that they will produce new growth and blossoms. Crepe myrtles come to mind. We have several in our yard, and not long ago Debbie went about with her red loppers, whacking off branches. She reminded me that crepe myrtles bloom on new growth, and new growth comes when you prune the branches some.

Butterfly bushes get the same treatment, only more so. Debbie cut those almost to the ground, leaving only about 4-5 inches of the old plant. But, sure enough, new growth is coming up from the base of the plant. We’ve had most of these butterfly bushes long enough to know that they will get to be pretty large, and the bees and butterflies really do like the blooms they will produce.

We don’t have a grape vine yet. I have some grape plants that Carson gave me, and they’re doing fine, but we don’t have them situated yet. The blackberries are doing well, but that’s another story.

The Gardener and The True Vine

But, back to the grape vine. I imagine Jesus and his disciples were walking by a vineyard one day and he pointed over the wall of the vineyard at the rows and rows of grape vines with their branches snaking along wooden fences. Perhaps the grapes were already forming in clusters on the branches, and Jesus could point to the fruit that the vines were producing.

As he did so, he said, “I’m the true vine and the Father is the gardener.”

Now, this illustration had special significance because a giant gold grape vine with clusters of grapes adorned the front of the Holy Place on the Temple in Jerusalem. According to Josephus, famous historian of the Jews, the grape clusters were as tall as a man, which probably came from the Old Testament account of the bounty of the Promised Land. When the 12 spies, which included Joshua and Caleb, went to check out the promised land before the Israelites were to enter it, they brought back stories of a land flowing with milk and honey. As an example of the bounty of that land, they brought back a grape vine with a cluster of grapes so large that it had to be suspended between two men to be carried back.

So, when Jesus says, “I’m the true vine” he is conjuring up images of the Temple, the promised land, and of the nation itself. Some scholars believe that Jesus was saying, “I’m the true Israel.” That’s too deep for us to explore today, but my point is his statement was loaded with meaning that his disciples instantly understood.

And, he said, “My Father is the gardener.” They understood that as well, for even though they were not farmers, they lived in an agrarian society. Olive groves, fig trees, fields of grain, and vineyards were mainstays of the agricultural system in Jesus’ day. The disciples understood well that vineyards required tending, and that tending included cultivating and pruning.

But Jesus goes further, “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit.” Those that bear fruit get pruned expertly so they will bear more. The point Jesus is making, and will make again in the following verses is — branches are supposed to bear fruit. That’s what a grape vine does.

If there is no fruit, the problem is not with the vine, for Jesus is the vine. And, the problem is not with the gardener because God is the gardener. If the branch is not bearing fruit, it’s because the branch is not properly connected to the vine. Healthy branches produce fruit; unhealthy branches don’t, and get cut off.

So, Jesus says, “Remain in me” — meaning “stay connected to me.” That staying connected to Jesus, abiding in Jesus as the King James puts it, is so that the lifegiving love of Christ can flow through him to us. And when it does, we produce fruit.

The problem is that the Gospel of John is such a mystical book, such a spiritual gospel, that we tend to spiritualize everything John says. Rather than give us an account of Jesus’ birth, John gives us a reimagined opening with shadows of the book of Genesis —

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Pretty mystical stuff. Much more so than shepherds abiding in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night. And, John writes of the life of Jesus like this throughout his gospel account. So, when we come to this business of the vine and the branches, we get all mystical.

“What does it mean to abide in Christ?” we ask. “What is the fruit we are to produce?” “How do we know when we’re abiding properly?”

These are all good questions, and our answer comes just a few verses down.

Interpret Scripture with Scripture

In seminary, one of the ways we were taught to interpret scripture, especially difficult or puzzling passages, was to let scripture interpret itself. So, let’s look around and see if we can find any clues that might help us with all this vine and branches stuff.

Sure enough, we do. Just a few verses down from this passage, Jesus seems to re-state what he has just said. Perhaps the disciples had really funny looks on their faces, like “we don’t have any idea what he’s talking about.” They often did that, it seems. And, so Jesus restates in very plain language what he has just told them in the illustration drawn from the vineyard. Look at verses 9-17:

9″As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command. 15I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. 17This is my command: Love each other.

So, here the language is plain and straightforward:

* Remaining in Jesus means remaining in his love.
* How do we remain in Jesus love? By obeying his commands.
* What is his command? Love one another as Jesus loved the disciples.
* What does that love look like? It looks like Jesus willing to die for his friends.
* Who are Jesus’ friends? They were and we are.
* What has he chosen us to do? Bear fruit.

So, we’re right back to the vine, branches, and fruit, only this time in plain language.

What Does This Mean To Us?

Okay, so far, so good. But the big question is “How do we do this?” As you can imagine, lots of folks have taken a turn at explaining what all this abiding, loving, and bearing fruit that lasts means.

Some have suggested that “remaining in Jesus” means to believe the right doctrine. Of course, those are usually the folks who think they have the only right doctrine, and there is no shortage of those people. Which then brings us to the question, “Which doctrine is the right doctrine?” and here’s where things get really complicated.

I finished reading two interesting books this week. The Lost History of Christianity by Phillip Jenkins; and, The Jesus Sutras by Martin Palmer. In The Lost History of Christianity Phillip Jenkins expounds on the very colorful history of the Christian church of the East, meaning Syria, Iraq, Iran, India, Africa, and even Japan and China.

To make a long story very short, apparently as the church in Rome with the help of the Roman empire, took charge of Christianity, many eastern Christians churches decided to go their own way. Rome declared most of them heretics at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, and so the Eastern churches, who traced their lineages back to Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch, and Thomas who travelled to India decided to operate on their own.

The amazing thing was that these Eastern churches were larger, had more bishops and priests, more churches, and more adherents than the Western Church.

In The Jesus Sutras, Martin Palmer tells the story of these same Eastern churches sending a formal delegation led by Bishop Aleben of Syria who was accompanied by 24 priests. This delegation traveled the ancient Silk Road, the eastern trading route connecting China to the Middle East. I grew up hearing the story of Hudson Taylor who founded the China Inland Mission in the mid-1800s. But Bishop Aleben and his monks reached what was then the capital of China in 635 AD, 1200 years before Hudson Taylor set sail for China.

Amazingly, the emperor of China, Taizong, embraced Christianity, which he called the “Religion of Light” and decreed that churches should be built. He also decreed that the Chinese should also turn to the One Spirit, their name for God, and leave behind the pantheon of lesser gods of Chinese culture. Christianity thrived in China for almost 200 years, and a stone monument was erected in 781 AD commemorating the coming of Aleben and the Religion of Light to China. Martin Palmer also discovered the first Christian monastery built by Aleben and his monks, and work continues at that site near Xian, China.

My point in all of this is that there are lots of doctrines that have divided the Christian church over the centuries. Some of the adherents were actually named heretics by the Western Church — Bishop Aleben was one of them, from the Nestorian church of Syria. But, they worshipped God, believed in Jesus, celebrated communion, gathered for worship, and baptized converts to the faith just like we do. And, some of these “heretical” groups were actually more faithful, more evangelistic, and larger than the so-called orthodox groups of their day.

So, it’s not in following one doctrine or another that we abide in Jesus. It’s by loving others as Jesus loves us.

What Did Jesus Do?

You would think that loving others would also be a simple concept to grasp, but here too we have problems. In its checkered history, the church has more than once been guilty of expressing its love at the point of a sword or gun. “We love you so much we’re going to kill you if you don’t convert.” Happened much more frequently than you might think. So to understand what “loving others” really looks like, we have to ask, “What did Jesus do?”

Fortunately, Jesus gave us lots of examples of loving others. He announced his ministry by saying —

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus’ ministry was to be focused on the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, the oppressed, and his intention was to declare a year of Jubilee — that’s what the Lord’s favor means. In the year of Jubilee, which came every 50 years, all property went back to the original tribe or family which owned it, all debts were cancelled, and everyone started off with a clean slate. Unfortunately, the nation of Israel quickly figured how to get around the year of Jubilee and it’s intent, but that doesn’t stop Jesus from declaring his intention to reinstate it.

Then Jesus goes about to the poor, the hungry, the sick, the children, the lame, the lepers, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and all the other marginalized people of society in that day. He eats with them, goes to their homes, heals their diseases, feeds them, cleanses them, forgives them, restores them, and saves them.

Then, when someone asks him which commands are the greatest, he says, “Love God and love your neighbor.” Looking for a way out of that requirement, they ask, “Who is my neighbor?” At which point Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. A Samaritan was the lowest form of life there was, according to the Jewish social norm of the first century. Samaritans didn’t worship in the right place, didn’t believe the right doctrine, and didn’t observe Jewish dietary laws. But Jesus says that the Good Samaritan acted like a neighbor.

It’s pretty clear from both what Jesus did and what he said that loving others means helping them, caring for them, being a neighbor to them. Oh, Jesus also had a little bit to say about helping people.

It’s interesting that there a lot of things that Jesus doesn’t tell us to do. For instance, Jesus doesn’t tell us to go to church. We gather on Sunday, the first day of the week, to commemorate his resurrection and to worship God, but not because Jesus told us to. Jesus doesn’t tell us to study the Bible, either. As a matter of fact, his followers couldn’t have studied the Bible if they wanted to because the scrolls were kept in the synagogue and not owned by individuals. But, we do study the Bible because it’s a good thing to do. So, you would think if we do good things that Jesus didn’t even tell us to do, we’d sure do the things he did tell us to do.

So, in Matthew 25 when Jesus says, “34”Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

And then concludes by saying, “37”Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

Jesus concludes by saying —

40″The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

That’s pretty clear — Jesus is telling us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoners. By implication, Jesus is saying, “Help those who need help.”

That is how we love others. That is how we abide in Christ. That is how we obey Jesus. It is very simple, very straightforward, but we miss it everyday, just like the Pharisee, and the priest, and the Levite who passed by the man who had fallen among thieves.

An Opportunity to Help Here in Chatham

Let me make this more real. Last week, Debbie and I met Mr. Melvin Hodnett. Mr. Hodnett came to our house to ask Debbie for some flowers, but I think that was not the real reason for his coming. During the conversation they had, Mr. Hodnett told Debbie that his house had burned, and he was trying to find some help to fix it. The next day, he came to the church and I met him and heard the same story. I told him I would come look at his house, but I asked if he had been to Community Action, and other social services agencies. He had, he said, but they couldn’t help him.

I made a few phone calls to inquire if he had sought help and the response. Sure enough, there are no programs to help people whose houses burn. Everybody is supposed to have insurance.

On Monday, Mr. Hodnett came to the church and I went with him to see his house. I had mentioned it to Sterling, and as Mr. Hodnett and I were pulling into his driveway, Sterling and Tommy Craddock, and Eugene Hodnett, Melvin’s cousin, were about to pull out.

The house was pretty badly damaged, almost everything inside is ruined. Furniture, clothes, books, decorations. All ruined. Most of it is lying in wet, soggy piles on the floor, right below where the ceiling and roof caught fire and burned.

But the worst part is that Mr. Hodnett is now living in the shed behind his house. He has no water, no electricity, no house, and no one will help him. But in the midst of all that he has planted two gardens.

Our deacons voted last Monday night to figure out how we can help Mr. Hodnett. It will cost less than $2,000 to repair the damage and get him back in his home. There are some details to work out, volunteers to line up, and lots of work ahead.

When I told Mr. Hodnett this week that we were going to try to help him, he said, “I’m raising some greens and if they do well, I’ll bring you some and maybe you can find someone who needs them.”

If we want to abide in Jesus, bear a lot of fruit, love others, and do what Jesus told us to do, then we can start with helpin Mr. Hodnett. He is certainly one of the least of these. Jesus said that when we helped others, it’s like we are helping him. So pretty soon, we get to put a roof on Jesus’ house located right here in Chatham.  Sometimes abiding in Christ means we don’t have to leave home.

Sermon: The Difference in the Good Shepherd and the Hired Hand

This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Sunday, May 3, 2009.  I hope your day is a wonderful one!

The Difference Between the Good Shepherd and the Hired Hand
John 10:11-18

11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

14“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

A Real Live Encounter with a Sheep

When we lived in Lilburn, Georgia in 1974, we had a wonderful family in our church named the Eidsons.  They lived on Beaver Ruin Road, which is where the original Beaver Ruin Baptist Church was located.  I suppose at some point some beavers had ruined the creek, or the ruins of a beaver dam became a landmark — “Go two miles down the road and when you see the beaver ruin, turn at the next right.”  Kind of like our Tightsqueeze.

But, back to the Eidsons.  John and Margaret lived on a few acres with their three children — a boy and two girls.  John was a deacon in our church and grew up in the country, and still kept his hand in on the acres he owned in that part of Gwinnett County.  The Eidsons always had a garden, and they had a cow.  For awhile, we got milk from them and it was wonderful.  The cream separated and floated on top, and you had to shake the bottle before you poured a glass.  At church when the lesson called for the preschoolers to make butter by shaking a jar of whole milk, Margaret always brought the milk straight from their cow.

The Eidsons also had a sheep.  I think they just had one, at least I only remember one.  Now back in 1974, I was a young preacher boy all of 26 years old, and I had about a much interest in farming and gardening as I did in going to the moon.  I may have actually had more interest in going to the moon, now that I think about it, because we had just landed on the moon.  But back to the sheep.  We were over at the Eidsons one day, and John and I were talking about the church and walking in his yard behind the house.

We walked up to the fence, and the sheep came over to him.  John rubbed the sheep’s head, and asked me if I had ever felt the wool on a sheep.  “No, I don’t think I have,” I replied.  He said, “Put your hand in her wool.” This sheep had not been sheared for awhile and she was quite woolly.  “Feel the lanolin?” John asked me.

I had pulled my hand back and felt the kind of soft, oily substance on my hand. “That’s lanolin,” John said.  “It’ll keep your skin soft.”  Come to find out, it’s the lanolin that helps shed water off of sheep — a kind of waterproofing for all-weather flocks. Well, that was my first, and I think last face-to-face encounter with a sheep.  But even as disinterested as I was then, I was taken with John’s way with the sheep, and the sheep really seemed to like John.  He knew his sheep, even one, and the sheep knew him.

Jesus Echoes the Words of A Prophet

That story brings us to our passage today, from John 10.  Jesus has just come from healing a man by spitting on the ground and applying the mud to his eyes.  Of course, Jesus did this on the Sabbath, which incurred the wrath of those watchdogs of the faith, the Pharisees.  All that takes place in John 9, and John then records Jesus talking about the sheep and the shepherds.

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.”  Those words imply that there are bad shepherds, too.  And there were, both in Jesus’ day and in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel.  In Ezekiel 34, hear these words from the prophet Ezekiel:

1Then the word of the LORD came to me saying,

2“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel Prophesy and say to those shepherds, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock?

3“You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock.

4“Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them.

5“They were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and they became food for every beast of the field and were scattered.

6“My flock wandered through all the mountains and on every high hill; My flock was scattered over all the surface of the earth, and there was no one to search or seek for them.”‘”

7Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:

8“As I live,” declares the Lord GOD, “surely because My flock has become a prey, My flock has even become food for all the beasts of the field for lack of a shepherd, and My shepherds did not search for My flock, but rather the shepherds fed themselves and did not feed My flock;

9therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:

10‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will demand My sheep from them and make them cease from feeding sheep So the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore, but I will deliver My flock from their mouth, so that they will not be food for them.”‘”

So, when Jesus identifies himself as the “good shepherd” and implies that there are bad shepherds, too, those who hear him instantly recognize he is indicting the religious leaders of his day — the Pharisees, Saduccees, and the chief priest — for spiritual corruption.

Jesus’ accusation is that the “hireling” in the King James, or the hired hand, does the shepherd’s job for personal gain, and not for the sake of the sheep.

And, when the hired hand sees a threat to the flock, he runs away leaving the sheep defenseless.  It was a poorly kept secret that the chief priest was in cahoots with the Roman occupation of Judea, and that the Pharisees enjoyed special treatment because they remained silent in the face of the outrages perpetrated by the presence of Roman troops in Jerusalem.

The description of the bad shepherds by the prophet Ezekiel surely came to mind when Jesus invoked the shepherd imagery.  Ezekiel says that the bad shepherds:

  • Fed themselves, but not the flock.
  • Slaughtered the fat sheep, dressed in fine woolen garments, but did not feed the flock.
  • Did not care for the sick, diseased, or broken sheep.
  • Did not seek the lost or scattered sheep.
  • Dominated the flock with force and severity.

Then Ezekiel speaks the words of God: ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will demand My sheep from them and make them cease from feeding sheep So the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore, but I will deliver My flock from their mouth, so that they will not be food for them.’

The Good Shepherd Lays Down His Life

But Jesus says there is a different kind of shepherd, a good shepherd.  As interested as the bad shepherd is in his own profit, the good shepherd is interested in his sheep.  There are three reasons Jesus gives for being a good shepherd:

  1. “I know my sheep and they know me.”
  2. “I lay down my life for the sheep.”
  3. “I have other sheep…I must bring them, too.”

“I know my sheep and they know me.” That’s a picture of relationship, of time spent together, of trust, of care, of interest in those under his watch, and of personal knowledge of them.  This is no long-distance relationship.  This is not a cold professionalism.  This is an intimate understanding of which sheep likes to run ahead, of which lambs are the most playful, of which ewes the most attentive, of which rams the most defensive.  This is a shepherd who knows his sheep, calls their names, counts their heads when they enter and leave the sheepfold.  This is a shepherd who loves his sheep.

This is not just a job, not just a meal ticket, this is the shepherd’s life because these are his sheep.  And this shepherd knows that you can shear the sheep a couple of times a year, but you can only skin them once.  These sheep exist because he protects them, guards them, searches for them, and brings them home each night.

“I lay down my life for the sheep.” This quality of the shepherd really has a double meaning.  Jesus, in this same chapter, refers to himself as the sheep gate.  When the sheep were out in the pastures, the custom was for the shepherd to usher them into the sheepfold each night.  The sheepfold was typically a stacked stone compound, high enough for keep out predators, but without a door.  The shepherd then lay down in the opening to the sheepfold, and literally became the sheepgate.  Nothing went in or came out unless it came by the shepherd first.

But then, of course, Jesus really does lay down his life for the sheep.  We have before us today the symbols of that sacrifice.  And, Jesus makes it clear here in John 10 that he is laying down his life of his own accord — he’s choosing to give his life for the sheep, and that is why the Father loves him so.

“I have other sheep…I must bring them, too.” Finally, the good shepherd is concerned for all the sheep, for sheep in general, not just the ones in his sheepfold.  Scholars have often interpreted this statement of Jesus to mean that the Gentiles would also hear the Gospel.  Which they — we — did and responded.  But, I think Jesus is saying something much bigger than that.  I think he’s saying “there are some unlikely sheep — the unclean, the poor, the diseased, the lame, the weak, the oppressed — these are my sheep, too.”  Not just the upright, the righteous, the powerful, the ones like us.  One preacher said if Jesus were making his “good shepherd” statement today, he would say, I am the “good migrant worker.”  Why?  Because shepherds were among the lowest classes of their day.  They were ceremonially unclean, and therefore could not worship God with the assembly of Israel.  They were the marginalized, the ones who did the dirty work, who lived with the herds out in the pastures, who did the jobs no one else wanted to do.  The good shepherd cares for all sheep, not just the ones who are currently in his sheepfold.

An Example of a Good Shepherd

In El Salvador in the late 1970s, the country was rocked by political turmoil and violence.  Death squads, under the direction of the Salvadoran political leaders, roamed the countryside kidnapping and killing all who opposed their policies and regime.  Archbishop Oscar Romero was an unassuming figure in the midst of his countries chaos.  Selected as the compromise candidate, Archbishop Romero had stayed clear of politics, and had even harshly criticized Catholic priests in the country who had embraced the new and radical liberation theology.

But one night as his assistant, a priest named Rutillio Grande, a 7-year old boy, and an old man, were all gunned down by one of the death squads.  Archbishop Romero went to the tiny village to claim the body of the slain priest, and to comfort the families of the little boy and old man.  That night the Archbishop of El Salvadore stood in a small parish church looking out at the crowd gathered to hear him speak.  Fear gripped the countryside, and Oscar Romero promised them that the violence would end.  That peace would come to El Salvador.  That he was with them in their fear and in their struggle.  One of Romero’s biographers wrote later “The peasants had asked for a good shepherd and that night they received one.”

At this point in El Salvador’s sad history, 3,000 people were being killed per month.  Bodies were dumped in streams, and in the garbage dump of San Salvador.  75,000 people would die, thousands more vanish, and 1,000,000 people leave the tiny country of El Salvador during this reign of terror.

Oscar Romero took to the airwaves, and in his weekly homily, promised that he would not rest until all the violence was ended, until peace came to El Salvador.  He refused to attend the inauguration of El Salvador’s latest president, which further inflamed the opposition against him.  All the bishops of El Salvador turned on him, complaining to the Vatican that he had become “politicized.”  But Romero continued to speak out.

He not only spoke out, he made frequent trips to the massive garbage dumps, accompanying families who were searching for the bodies of their loved ones.  He spoke at funerals for the murdered; stopped the construction of El Salvador’s majestic cathedral until the killing stopped; and, refused to hold communion during a period of particular violence.

The final straw came when Romero, in a radio address to the El Salvadoran troops, urged them to stop killing their fellow citizens, and told them that ” No soldier is obliged to obey an order that is contrary to the will of God . . . ”

The next day, while saying a public mass, Oscar Romero was shot in the chest by a man standing at the back of the church.  Romero fell behind the altar, at the feet of the massive crucifix of Jesus, who was shown bleeding from the wound in his own side.  There Romero died, a martyr for God, a good shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep.  Just before Romero was shot, he said, “”One must not love oneself so much, as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us, and those that fend off danger will lose their lives.”

The passage he had just read was,

“Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit ”(Jn. 12:23-26)

Easter sermon: He Is The One


Empty Tomb
Empty Tomb

I’m preaching from Acts 10:34-43 for Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009.  I hope you have a wonderful Easter and that the story of Jesus is told in new and powerful ways in every church on Easter Sunday morning.  He is risen. He is risen indeed!

He Is The One
Acts 10:34-43 NIV

34Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”

36“You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.

37You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.”

39“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

A Christmas Story at Easter

Paul Hiebert, the late missiologist and teacher, told this story of an experience he had when he served as a missionary in India:

It was Christmas time, and in the little village in South India where he had gathered with Indian Christians in the modest church there, the villagers had put on a Christmas play, the Christmas story.

The boys dressed as shepherds had come stumbling out onto the the stage, acting drunk.  Apparently shepherds in that part of India were notorious for their drinking, and so the villagers howled with laughter at the boys’ comical portrayal of the Biblical story with a local twist.

But then the angels appeared and shepherds and villagers sat in rapt attention at the announcement of the birth of Jesus.  Wise men soon appeared, making their way to Herod’s court where they enquired as to the exact location of the birth of the new King of the Jews.  Everything seemed to be going according to plan as the play went along.

As the Biblical story came to its conclusion, Hiebert thought the play was ending.  But just at that moment, the stage curtain was pulled back to reveal Santa Claus with gifts for everyone!  Hiebert was shocked.  At first he thought that these new Indian Christians were guilty of syncretism — blending in Christianity with their own myths and ancient beliefs.

But then he realized that the missionaries themselves had brought two stories of Christmas.  The first, the Biblical story of Mary and Joseph, and baby Jesus born in a stable in Bethlehem.  In that story, the setting was not far from India itself, and the climate was subtropical.  Palm trees and deserts formed the landscape, and sheep, goats, shepherds, and wisemen were the characters.

The second story was the story of Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, the giver of gifts with Mrs. Santa Claus, the elves, and reindeer as the supporting cast.  Santa was the giver of gifts, and lived in a climate of snow and ice, where it was always cold and wintry.

Hiebert realized that while the missionaries had brought two stories of Christmas, the villagers in South India had combined them into one great Christmas story of Jesus and shepherds and sheep, along with Santa and reindeer and elves.  Both wonderful stories, but each with a very different point.

You might wonder why I’m telling a Christmas story here at Easter.  Here’s my point:  we have to be careful about how we tell the stories of God.  And the Easter story is no exception.

The Story of Spring Is Not The Story of Easter

Of course, Easter has some of the same wonderful folk stories that Christmas has.  At Easter time, we look for the Easter bunny with baskets of candy and eggs.  We dye eggs multiple colors, hide them from each other, and then make a great game of hunting for these prize eggs outdoors among the rest of nature.

We no longer believe the ancient mythic tales of strange gods and goddesses, and of the rites of spring, or other such nonsense.  The Easter bunny and Easter eggs have been given a whole new story — a story of fun, of springtime, of a harmless and exuberant children’s activity.  And, that’s exactly as it should be.

But, here today, we know there is a difference in the Easter bunny and in Jesus, just as we know there is a difference in Santa and Jesus.  It does not hurt us at all to believe in jolly old men who bring gifts, or to believe that as a sign of spring the Easter bunny distributes eggs just for our amusement and enjoyment.  But, we know that one story is not the other, that there is a difference in the Easter story in the Bible and the Easter sale at the mall.

Okay, so we aren’t like the villagers in South India who confused two very different stories.  But we still must be careful when we tell the story of Easter, because even if we know the story of Easter is not the story of the Easter bunny, we still tell the wrong story sometime.

The Story of Church is not the Story of Easter

One of the stories we tell at Easter is the story of church.  And, many people put on their Easter best and come to church on Easter Sunday.  That’s a good thing to do.  But it’s not the Easter story.

Like many of you, I grew up in the South.  And in the South, we have a way of making language mean what we want it to.  We say things like, “Ya’ll come to see us,” when we don’t really mean it.  And we use phrases to qualify our gossip, like when we say “bless his heart.”  That conversation usually goes something like this:

“Did you hear that Billy Smith was out drunk again last night?”

“Well, yes, I did.  Bless his heart, he’s not ever going to amount to anything.”

So, the “bless his heart” kind of softens the gossipy part, and makes us sound really concerned for poor old worthless Billy.

Well, we did the same thing with this business of church and faith.  I remember as a primary boy, when you walked down the aisle most of the time we called it “joining the church.”  Which is exactly what part of that decision was, but not all of it.  Somehow, we in the South just couldn’t bring ourselves to say, “He became a Christian today.”  Or, “She became a disciple of Jesus today.”  No, we talked about the part of that experience that was less difficult.  We said, “He joined the church today.”

Now, before you get too concerned, I know we meant to include the full meaning.  You joined the church because you had professed faith in Christ, because you had asked Jesus to forgive your sins, because you had repented of all the bad things you had done, even if you were only 6 years old.  I know we understood it meant all of that, but mostly all we could say was, “He joined the church.”

The story we were telling then was the story about church.  And, here’s how the rest of that story went:

  • You joined the church by walking the aisle at the end of the service.
  • Then the church (if you were Baptist) voted to receive you into its membership upon your baptism.
  • Then you were baptized.
  • Then you were expected to take your place as a good church member, which meant coming to church, serving where you could, giving to the church, and doing some other things like reading your Bible and praying.  And when you came to church, they even helped train you to do all of that.

And that was the story about church.  We really thought it was the story about being a Christian, but in our Southern culture and minds both of those stories were the same.

I’m reading a fascinating book titled, The Death of Christian Britain.  by Callum Brown, who is professor of religious and cultural history at the University of Dundee in the UK.  Brown examines the decline of the Christian church in Britain where now less that 7% of the population attends religious services, even though The Church of England is the official state church.

Brown looks at the popular theories for church decline in England.  He examines the theory of the “wicked city” which is the theory that urban centers broke ties to family and friends as the population migrated from the rural countryside to the cities during the Industrial Revolution. But Brown actually demonstrates that during the period of manufacturing increase, more people joined churches than ever before.

He also looks at the theory of the Industrial Revolution itself as a contributing factor to the decline of churches, but again the data show that during the 19th and 20th centuries, up to the 1960s, church attendance and participation in Britain actually continued to increase, and at times increased sharply.

Brown concluded that neither the growth of urban centers, nor the rise of manufacturing were the causes of the decline of the church in England.

His conclusion was that the English simply began telling themselves a new story about church.  Let me explain.  The old story they told themselves about church, as did we in America, is that good people go to church, church is a good influence on growing children, respectable people live according to Christian principles, and that being a church member was a good thing.  You were baptized into the church as an infant, confirmed in the church as a pre-adolescent, married in the church as a young adult, and buried by the church when you died.  Your life was woven into the fabric of the church.

But some time in the 1960s, during the rise of the Baby Boom generation, a lot of social narratives were being called into question.  Women were finding a new place in society, young people were rebelling against their parents and the system, and society was in turmoil.  We experienced the same thing here in America, with similar results.

But, in England people began to tell themselves that you can be good and not go to church.  You don’t have to be baptized, or confirmed, that life isn’t much different for those who are than for others.  That you don’t have to do what the church tells you to do, and you can get along very well without all that religious fuss.  And church attendance began a steady decline that is unabated to this day.  Part of the point of Brown’s book is that there is a point at which Britain ceases to be Christian at all, and the church becomes totally irrelevant.

So, the story of Easter can’t be the story of the Church, because it’s easy to explain away the need for the institution of church itself.

The Story of Heaven Isn’t The Story of Easter

We have often told the story of Easter this way:  Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected so that we can all go to heaven when we die.  Now, there is truth in that statement, but that is not the story of Easter.  Actually, if you read all of the accounts of the Easter story, and of what the disciples experienced on that first Easter morning, there is nothing about going to heaven when you die in those accounts.

There is wonder, and mystery, and sadness, and surprise, and unbelief, and incredulity, but not much talk about heaven or our own death.  Now, we have come to understand that a result of the death and resurrection of Christ is our own salvation which includes being in the presence of God eternally, but the story of heaven isn’t the story of Easter, either.

The Story of Easter is the Story of Jesus

In our passage today, Peter is speaking to Cornelius.  Cornelius is a Roman centurion who lives in Caesarea.  Amazingly, Cornelius, even though he was in the unit known as the Italian Regiment, was a believer in the God of the Jews.  He was well-known and respected by the Jewish community.  One day in prayer, Cornelius saw an angel who told him to send for a man named Simon, who was also called Peter.  The angel told Cornelius Peter was staying in a house in Joppa, about three days’ journey away.

Cornelius dispatched 2 servants and a soldier to bring Peter to Caesarea.  As they were approaching the house where Peter was staying, Peter had a vision.  A large sheet was let down from heaven filled with all kinds of animals, birds, and reptiles.  The voice told Peter, “Get up, Peter.  Kill and eat.”

Peter objected that he had never eaten anything unclean.  Jewish dietary laws prohibited the consumption of certain animals, or meat prepared in certain ways.  But the vision persisted three times.

Then the Spirit told Peter, “There are some men looking for you. Go with them.”

Peter does, and arrives at the house of Cornelius, where he is well-received.  Peter then begins to address Cornelius, and he tells him the story of his vision.  Then he begins with the passage we read today.

Peter tells this story:

  • God doesn’t show favoritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. (Cornelius is a God-fearer.)
  • God sent the good news of peace to the Jews through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. (Not Caesar, who thinks he is Lord of all.)
  • You know the story of Jesus, how he preached in Galilee, was baptized by John.
  • You know that God anointed Jesus of Nazareth (Christ means Messiah which means the anointed one).
  • You know the ministry of Jesus who went about doing good, and healing (saving) those who were under the power of the devil because God’s power was with Jesus.
  • We, the apostles, are witnesses of everything Jesus did in the country of the Jews, but they killed him by hanging him on a tree (OT prophecy).
  • But God raised him up from the dead on the third day (more prophecy) and caused him to be seen (this was no secret).
  • He wasn’t seen by everybody, but by the witnesses whom God chose.
  • We ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
  • He commanded us to preach to the people and testify that he is the one who God appointed to judge the living and the dead.
  • All the prophets testify about him, that every who believes in him has forgiveness of sins through his name.

So, Peter tells the story of Jesus.  Not the story of the church, or the apostles, or the things that have happened to him.  Peter tells this centurion who seeks God, the only story that matters, God’s story, the story of Jesus.
When we tell God’s story, Paul Hiebert says, “We must begin with the King, for it is the King who defines the kingdom.  The central message of the gospels is the coming of Jesus Christ as King and Lord over all Creation.”

Hiebert goes on, “In the end Jesus was tried for treason by the Jewish and Roman courts and executed as all insurrectionists were — on a cross.  The high court in heaven found Jesus innocent, and Satan and humans wicked.  Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to his lawful throne, and cast out the principalities and powers that had opposed him.  Ironically, his death, which looked like defeat to humans, was the means by which God wrought salvation for those who turn to him in repentance.  In the end, every knee, in heaven and on earth, [and under the earth] will bend before the King.

With the King comes the kingdom.  Within the kingdom is the body of Christ, the church.  And the mission given to the church is to tell the story of Jesus.  Not the story of an institution, not the story of a myth or legend, but of Jesus.

Peter says, “He is the one God appointed…”

  • He is the one born of a virgin, God incarnate.
  • He is the one who grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.
  • He is the one who made blind eyes see, lame legs walk, deaf ears to hear.
  • He is the one who said, You have heard, but I say unto you — re-imagining the law of God in new, loving ways.
  • He is the one who forgave the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the cheating tax collector, and the thief on the cross.
  • He is the one who taught love for God and neighbor as the summary of the Law and the Prophets.
  • He is the one who wept at the grave of a friend, and then called him forth from the dead.
  • He is the one who broke bread with his disciples and said, This is my body broken for you.
  • He is the one who prayed in the garden, Not my will but Thine be done.
  • He is the one who walked into the night after that Passover meal, knowing it was a walk to his own death.
  • He is the one who was abandoned by friends, rebuked by the religious, mocked by the soldiers, taunted by the crowd.
  • He is the one whose hands and feet were nailed to the cross.
  • He is the one whose side was pierced and whose heart was broken.
  • He is the one who cried, Father forgive them for they know not what they do.
  • He is the one who gave up his own life, and died the innocent victim of the Roman system of capital punishment.
  • He is the one whose body was laid in the grave.
  • He is the one whom God raised on that first Easter morn.
  • He is the one who comforted his disciples, breathed the Holy Spirit onto them, and sent the Spirit to empower them.
  • He is the one who ascended back to the Father.
  • And He is the one who is coming again.

The story of Easter is the story of Jesus.  It is the story the world needs to hear, and we need to tell.  It is the story in which we find our place, for it is our story.  It is a story that goes on, it lives because He lives.

Sermon: We Are What He Has Made Us

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Sunday, March 22, 2009, on this fourth Sunday of Lent.  I hope your day is a wonderful Lord’s Day!

We Are What He Has Made Us
Ephesians 2:1-10

1As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature[a] and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. 4But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9not by works, so that no one can boast. 10For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Zombies in A World of Disobedience

Do you remember the movie, Night of the Living Dead?  Made in 1968, it starred George Romero, and a bunch of zombies.  The rather thin plotline was that a satellite returning from space was contaminated with radiation.  Somehow, that caused the dead to rise from their graves and try to eat the living, thereby becoming “alive.”  Or at least a very poor version of being alive — a shuffling walk, very inarticulate speech, and an insatiable desire to eat real people.  It did not win the Academy Award…for anything.

But, my point in that is zombies are called “the living dead.”  They appear to be alive, but they’re not really.  They’re really dead, but they keep moving around.  And in the case of Night of the Living Dead, kept trying to eat real live people.

Well, that’s kind of the picture Paul paints of those in Ephesus before they came to Christ.  Now, we’ve talked about Ephesus before — home to the Temple of Artemis, one of the wonders of the world. Renown in all the Roman empire for the cult of Artemis.  Demetrius the silversmith who rails against Paul and accuses him of disrupting his souvenir business is a prime example.

Paul says to the Ephesians —

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,

Sounds very “night of the living dead,” doesn’t it?  But “dead in your transgressions and sins” doesn’t really say it.  Paul really is saying, “Your sins killed you, you’re dead in transgressions (little sins) and sins (big ones).  The Amplified Bibles says, You were slain in your sins.  In other words, your sins killed you.

Then Paul goes on to say –

in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.

So, you used to live in the sins that killed you.  Kind of a spiritual zombie thing.  And you did that because you were following the ways of this world, the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the demon now at work in those who are disobedient.

Not only are you dead men walking, but you lived (if you want to call that living) in “this world.”  This world, this present age, as contrasted with the world to come, the age to come, which is the kingdom of God.

Okay, with me so far.  Let me recap for you:

1.  The Ephesians were dead, killed by their own sin.
2.  But they walked around like zombies (lived in their sin) because they followed the way of this world, of this age.
3.  This world, this age, has a spirit who is behind it all.  We know him as Satan, diabolos, the devil.

Interestingly, ABC will host a debate between Deepak Chopra and Mark Driscoll this week, and the topic is — Is the devil real?  So, 2,000 years later, this idea of a personality of evil, the spirit of this age, is still being debated.

Then Paul says, But guess what?  We all did that.  We all of us – Jews, Romans, young, old, affluent, poor, slave, free — we all did that.  We were all spiritual zombies.  We looked alive, but we were really dead, killed by our own sins.  Killed by them because we followed the god of this world, not the God of the world to come.

All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.

So, nobody gets off the hook.  Now this is particularly difficult in the first century.  Paul is a Jew, writing to Gentiles — the Ephesians.  The Jews believed they were God’s chosen people, therefore, they had special standing, didn’t come under the same rules as everybody else.

Paul says, Not so.  We all were spiritual zombies.  Jews, Gentiles, everybody, because we all did the same things wrong — followed the wrong path, lived by the rules of this world, not the world to come.  We all lined up at the trough of craving and dug right in to satisfy our desires and thoughts, and that’s not a good thing.

And, final point, by nature — naturally, as a consequence, the logical thing that follows — by nature we were objects of wrath.  Children of the God’s displeasure.  Off-spring of disobedience.  Heirs of obliteration.  That’s what we deserved from a righteous God who is in the process of reclaiming his creation from its off-track existence.

Now, I will tell you right now, I am not a big fan of the wrath of God.  I think we trot it out way too often.  “God’s gonna get you for that” runs through our heads way too often.

But the truth is, the wrath of God is a natural consequence.  It’s like taking out the garbage, or discarding the refuse you no longer want.

Yesterday, Debbie and I worked in the yard.  To do so, we had to open the garage door, and get the yard tools out, including the lawnmower.  The garage was built probably in the 1920s or ’30s.  It’s a dirt-floor, single car garage, which has now been completely overtaken by yard stuff — rakes, shovels, two lawn mowers, bags of compost, and so on.  You get the picture.

Well, to get the lawnmower out, I had to drag it over a bunch of cheap plastic plant containers — you know, the ones like plants come in when you buy them at the nursery.  They are pretty much one-time use pots because they are cheap, flimsy, and ugly.  But for some inexplicable reason we had kept everyone we ever bought since coming to Chatham.  Okay, that’s not true, but almost.  We had a bunch of them.

They were useless.  Not only were they useless, they were in the way of the tools that could be used.  I got really aggravated, backed my Ford Ranger up to the garage door, and threw the cheap, black, ugly plant pots into the back of the truck, and took off for the dump.  Well, not the dump, but the closest we have here, the transfer station off Depot St.  I backed up to the big steel sled, and threw all the useless, ugly, black pots into the abyss.  Or the dumpster, but it might as well have been the abyss.

That, my friends, is a picture of the wrath of God.  God isn’t just going around smiting people, and aren’t we glad, because we’d all be in big trouble.  But that which is useless, in the way, an obstacle to the coming of his kingdom, an impediment to God’s work and will — those become, naturally, objects of his wrath.  In other words, they get discarded.  Permanently, eternally, forever removed from interference with the coming kingdom.

So, that’s the state we, including the Ephesians, were all in.  Spiritual zombies, about to be discarded.

Squeaky Violins and a Change of Scene

Remember how in the science fiction or horror movies the music would change.  The ominous squeaky chorus of violins would begin to play — EE-EE-EE — and you knew something was going to happen.  Well, the Bible has it’s own version of squeaky violin musics.

One of the best phrases in scripture is when a verse begins, “But God…” because then you know something is about to happen.

All of a sudden, as Paul is writing, squeaky violin music begins to play.  Okay, not really, but Paul says, “But God…”

Now the NIV loses the punchline on this because of the way it translates the sentence, but the “But God” thing is still there —

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.

Read it this way:  “But parentheses (because of his great love for us) close parentheses God…

See what I mean — But God.  But God made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.

And there it is — God made dead people live.  This is the resurrection power of Christ.  This is Christmas and Easter all rolled into one.  This is the work of God, Paul says, because God loved us with this great, extravagant love, plus he was rich in mercy.  Love and mercy.  What a great combination.

So, let’s read it this way —

But God — because of his great love for us and his wealth of mercy toward us — brought us back from the dead!

No more spiritual zombies.  No more walking dead men.  No more pretending to be alive, when we’re really a hollow shell, a living deadman.

And, Paul adds — it is by grace you have been saved.  Grace — unmerited favor is the theological definition.  Graciousness.  What is grace or graciousness?  It’s acting differently from your circumstances, it’s rising above the fray, it’s setting a new standard for behavior when one isn’t even called for.  God was gracious to us.

We did not deserve it, we could not have earned it, nothing about us elicited that grace from God, it was just there and directed toward us.

But, Wait, There’s More!

I’m using a lot of video illustrations today, but here’s one more.  Remember the Ginsu knife commercials?  The announcer said something like —
“The amazing Ginsu knife will cut through cans, leather, even stainless steel.  And with your order today, you will receive this lovely Ginsu knife for only $19.95.”

Then came my favorite part:  “But Wait There’s More!!”

“You get not one, but two Ginsu knives, the special Ginsu knife first aid kit, and a trip to Tokyo.”  Or something like that.

Here’s where Paul does his, But Wait There’s More! routine —

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,

First Paul repeats what he just said (God raised us up), and then comes the More! — And seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus!

So, it’s not enough that God raised us from death to life, he them brings us into his presence and plots us down right next to Jesus.

Remember the mother of James and John asking to be seated at the right and left hand of Jesus.  If only she had waited.  That’s exactly what happens.  Now, I’m not sure exactly what it means for us right now.  I’m sure it has something to do with we have access to God, a loving relationship with God, a special place in God’s kingdom, and so on.  So, all of those are good things.  But it’s like an extra-added attraction —

  • God not only knows us (we’re dead sinners)
  • God loves us
  • God is merciful toward us
  • God is gracious to us as well
  • God saves us
  • God raises us up from death to life
  • God then seats us with him next to Jesus.
And why does God do this?  Well, it just keeps getting better — to have all eternity to show us how much he loves us.  Listen —

in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

Now, “the coming ages” don’t just mean the future.  It is a contrast to “this age” or “this world.”  In other words, the kingdom of God.  And so, in the kingdom of God, in its full unfettered expression, God just shows us the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Jesus.

What gentle, sweet, simple images.  Grace, kindness, love, mercy — God loves us, shows mercy to us, does it with grace, seats us with him beside Jesus all so that he can show us more grace, like the kindness he showed to us when he sent Jesus.

Big Parenthesis

Now, the next two verses, verses 8 and 9, are usually the ones we pull out of context and quote all by themselves.  But do you know what? Verse 8 and 9 are really a big parenthesis.

Read verses 6,7 and 10 —

6And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 10For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Reads perfectly fine.  Because verses 8 and 9 are a big parenthesis.  Now let’s read it again —

6And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9not by works, so that no one can boast.) 10For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

And The Point Is….

And the point of all this is — God made us twice.  He made us at creation, and He makes us again in his saving grace.  “For we are God’s workmanship (creation).”

In other words, God is remaking us, recreating us, in his image again.  Except this time, he creates us in Jesus.  What does that mean?

Okay, one last illustration, not from the movies.  Did you ever play with Playdough?  You know, that colored stuff for kids kind of like clay, but not so messy.  Playdough is a wonderful invention, and you can shape it, roll it, form it, pound it, into just about any shape you want.

But then Playdough got smart.  They started selling molds to go with the Playdough.  Some were like cookie cutters, others were molds you pressed Playdough into, then peeled out to see what you had made.

Well, Paul says, when God remade us, he used Jesus for a mold this time.  He created us in Jesus (molded us like Jesus) to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Well, how could we help it?  If we’re made like Jesus, we’d have to do good works.  But those good works aren’t just good works.  They are kingdom works.  So, when Jesus heals people he demonstrates that there is no sickness when the kingdom of God is fully come.  When Jesus feeds people he demonstrates there is no lack, no hunger, when God’s kingdom fully comes.  When Jesus forgives people, he shows there is no vengeance when God’s kingdom fully comes.  When Jesus dies of his own accord, he takes power over violence heralding a new age, a new era in peace.

So, here’s the recap one more time:

  1. We are all deadmen, living out of the desires of this world.
  2. God loves us.
  3. God shows mercy to us.
  4. God is gracious to us.
  5. God raises us from the dead through Christ’s resurrection power.
  6. God raises us from the dead and seats us in the throne room of heaven next to Jesus.
  7. God has made us like Jesus, so that we will do what Jesus did.
  8. God prepared in advance for us to live like we’re living in the kingdom.

Isn’t that amazing?  And isn’t it better than being a spiritual zombie — the appearance of life, but reeking of death.  We are what he has made us — just like Jesus.