Sermons

Rise Above It

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THE WAY THAT LEADS TO LIFE - PART 6

Give
Sunday, April 14, 2019
Luke 9:35, 20:19-47

He said to them, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

Luke 20:25

In Luke 20 we find the legal experts questioning Jesus on two significant issues of their day, taxes and resurrection. Things haven’t changed much. We still wrestle with these two universal and inescapable realities of life… death and taxes.

Many interpreters have made a big deal about Jesus’ understanding of marriage from this text, but that is not really the issue Jesus is addressing. The Sadducee's were not concerned here with a scriptural understanding of marriage. Rather, they were trying to trap Jesus on the issue of whether or not there would be a resurrection from the dead, for Jews were greatly divided on this subject. Marriage was simply the illustration they used to try to prove their point that the idea of resurrection was absurd.

Likewise, interpreters have made much about the issue of taxes and what actually belongs to Caesar. But in both cases, we seem to be missing the point.

These two questions, about taxes and death, are not really separate questions. They stem from the same root motivation which is to trap Jesus. Will Jesus challenge the law of Rome by rejecting the payment of taxes? Will Jesus deny the law of Moses concerning the responsibility of marrying a brother’s widow by affirming the resurrection of these widows with their many husbands?

Resurrection and taxes may be controversial issues, but in this case, they are merely smokescreens for a larger concern… how can we trap Jesus? We don’t really care if he breaks the law of the land or the law of Moses, so long as he breaks some law that we can use against him.

That is why Jesus answer in 20:46-47 is so significant. He sees right through their traps.

How easy it is for us to act pious and righteous because of our outward obedience the law or our “right” beliefs about the scriptures and how easy it is to use our “right” beliefs and behaviors and the litmus test by which to judge everyone else, including Jesus.

What if giving to God what is God’s is not just about “right” beliefs or “right” behaviors? What if giving our money to the temple is not enough? What if believing in the resurrection or not believing in it, depending on our understanding of scripture, is not enough?

What if all of these beliefs and behaviors have become our idols, the things which make us feel self-righteous because we’ve done or believed what is “right”?

It’s not to say that they are wrong. Though the Pharisees and Sadducee's disagreed on matters of resurrection, both groups were morally upright and blameless according to the laws of Moses and of Caesar. Both groups held fast to their belief in the Scriptures even if they did not always interpret them in the same way. All of this is to their credit, and ours to whatever degree we follow in their footsteps.

We have a problem when all of these issues that make us feel “right” begin to cover up the places in our hearts where we are “not right” in our relationship with God and one another.

As Paul writes,

If I have the gift of prophecy and I know all the mysteries and everything else, and if I have such complete faith that I can move mountains but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. If I give away everything that I have and hand over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done but I don’t have love, I receive no benefit whatsoever

1 Corinthians 13:2-3

It’s amazing how we can be so right in our knowledge or understanding or belief and how generous we can be in giving all we have to those in need and yet still be so wrong.

Without unconditional, sacrificial, spirit-filled love, all of our “right” behaviors and “right” beliefs amount to nothing.

Rejoice then not in being “right” or doing what is “right”, but in truly having a pure and righteous heart before God.

Humble Thyself

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THE WAY THAT LEADS TO LIFE - PART 5

Forgive
Sunday, April 7, 2019
Luke 9:35, 18:18-30

Those who heard this said, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus replied, “What is impossible for humans is possible for God.”

Luke 18:26-27

We can read this challenging parable about the rich man forward or backward, but no matter where we start, we come to the same question and the same answer.

Question: “Who can be saved?”

Answer: “What is impossible for humans is possible for God.”

If only we could just leave it there.

Reading the passage forward we begin with a rich man essentially asking this question, “Who can be saved?” or more specifically, “What must I do to be saved, or to obtain eternal life?”

He walks away disappointed when he learns that he must give up all of his worldly possessions. When given a choice between the Kingdom of Heaven or “the treasure buried in the field” (Matthew 13:44) or the treasure he had already obtained, he chose the one he had already earned for himself.

The first point to notice is that Jesus doesn’t soften the deal. He doesn’t try to bargain for less just to get the man to show up for church on Sunday. He doesn’t sugar-coat the cost of discipleship. Instead, Jesus sadly lets the man walk way.

The people of Jesus’ day assumed that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing and to learn that such wealth and blessing did not guarantee this man a first class ticket to eternity came as a great shock. “Who then can be saved” if not someone who has been so richly blessed?

As much as we want to question Jesus for demanding too much or perhaps to judge the rich man for making such a horrible choice, notice we are not told about this man’s eternal destiny. Jesus still gives us hope. “What is impossible for humans is possible for God.”

We don’t know the rest of this man’s story. Jesus may have only planted a seed that came to bear fruit much later in his life, or perhaps death did come like a thief in the night and take every last penny. The truth is we just don’t know.

What we do know is that no matter how wealthy or blessed this man may have been, it was not possible for him to earn his way to heaven.

But now let’s read the story backwards. The disciples are a bit worried about their own reward. “Look Jesus, we left everything to follow you”, they cried. “What about us?”

Jesus assures them that their sacrifice will be rewarded in eternity, but their eternal life does not come because of their sacrifice anymore than the rich man could earn eternal life through his wealth. It’s still impossible for humans… all humans… rich or poor… selfish or sacrificial… sinner or saint…. It’s still impossible…

Only what is impossible for humans is possible for God.

This is our hope. This is the hope of the rich man. This is the hope of the world.

So perhaps before we presume upon someone’s eternal destiny, including our own, we would be wise to remember… anything is possible with God. There is always hope for salvation, even for those who seem to have no hope. Thanks be to God!

Forgive

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THE WAY THAT LEADS TO LIFE - PART 4

Forgive
Sunday, March 24, 2019
Luke 9:35, 15:1-32

He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”

(Luke 15:29-32)

I’ve heard and even preached many sermons on this famous parable of the prodigal son, the forgiving father, or whatever else you might want to call it. Often they end with the conclusion that we often find ourselves in the shoes of the older brother and it is our choice whether to forgive and join the party or to stand outside and wallow in self-pity.

Such a conclusion generally comes on the heals of unpacking the entire story, demonstrating the overwhelming selfishness of the younger son and of course the extravagant, undeserved love and mercy lavished upon him by the father, who of course we should all desire to imitate.

This week, however, I want to begin at the end. Let’s start with the conclusion or assumption that we are the older brother. Yes, many hearing this may still be a long way off with the prodigal, wondering if you can ever be forgiven or loved. I don’t want to invalidate that in any way and as the story teaches, please know that you are always welcome in our Father’s House. Regardless of where we primarily find ourselves in the story in this season of life, however, all of us likely have at least some of the older brother hiding in our hearts.

As the older brother, we look upon that “sinner” who hurt us or our family, or perhaps upon those “sinners” we don’t even know, and our blood boils with anger, frustration, resentment, jealousy, righteous indignation, insecurity, and countless other emotions. Rather than simply telling us to “forgive” and join the party, as we might normally do at the end of this story, I’m asking you to pull up a log or a rock and sit outside with me for awhile as the party gets underway.

As we sit and reflect, angered by the sounds of undeserved jubilation inside, what is really bothering us?

Who are we really mad at?

  • Are we truly angry at that brother of ours who seems to get away with everything?

Especially if that “brother” is some abstract “sinner” or “group of sinners”, what have they actually done against us? Does their forgiveness in any way negate our own? Is there somehow not enough mercy or grace leftover for us if they get what may seem like an extra dose?

  • Are we angry with the father?

Of course we would never admit this, especially as “good Christians”. We don’t want to be angry with God. Maybe we feel like we can’t be angry with God. But the question remains… are we angry with the Father? Do we feel like God is being too lenient or unfair. Are we jealous because there is something more we wanted from the Father ourselves?

  • Are we angry with ourselves?

Do we wish we had gotten to enjoy that rebellious season like our brother, just to know what it felt like? Do we regret not having appreciated the love the Father has truly given us all along? Are we mad because we never bothered to tell the father how we felt, like servants in our own house, and allowed him to remind us of our beloved place as sons and daughters?

Before pick up our “good, responsible big brother” mantle again and trudge resentfully into the party, let’s take some time to ask, what is it that really bothers me about this story? What is keeping me from truly offering forgiveness to my brothers and sisters, whether I know them or not? Why must I keep seeing them as “sinners” instead of “siblings”, loved by the same father who loves me?

Bear Fruit

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THE WAY THAT LEADS TO LIFE - PART 3

Bear Fruit
Sunday, March 24, 2019
Luke 9:35, 13:1-9

What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.”

Luke 13:4-5

How easy it is to fall into the religion of “niceness” or simply “being good.” Like many in our own day, the people of Luke’s time generally believed that those who suffered did so as a punishment for sin and those who found themselves blessed deserved such blessings because of their own good behavior. Jesus describes both a political massacre of people who were killed by Pilate’s order as well as an event we might consider a natural disaster, the collapse of a tower which also killed many people. The point is that regardless of the cause of these tragedies, whether the result of someones sinful violence or an accident beyond anyone’s control, their deaths were undeserved. Victims of such tragedies are not held up as examples of divine justice or punishment.

Sadly, we still have preachers today proclaiming God’s wrath every time tragedy strikes. It does seem ironic, however, that when hundreds or even thousands of innocent people are killed by a hurricane, it is interpreted as God’s wrath on the entire city or nation (like New Orleans or Haiti) but when children are shot in a school, no one bears responsibility except that one unsuspected madman who somehow got his hands on a gun he shouldn’t have had.

Jesus warns us not to make such judgments about the wrath of God and reminds us that we might just as easily become innocent victims tragedy. Guilty or not guilty makes no difference when it comes to the timing or circumstances of our death.

But there also seems to be a bigger issue at play when Jesus tells the parable of this innocent fig tree. The tree is still alive, and because it has survived, the assumption is that it has not been subject to God’s judgment. This is like the person whose house is the only one left standing in the neighborhood after a tornado saying, “I guess God was looking out for me.” Was God not looking out for all the other people who were harmed around you? Were you really the only innocent person in the neighborhood worthy to be spared? And then things get even more complicated when we find out that that one person who was spared happens to be the most greedy, mean-spirited neighbor on the block while all the nice people lost everything.

The fig tree may be spared for another year, just like that person whose house was not destroyed by the storm. But we must be careful.

First, we must not assume that our salvation implies judgment or condemnation on those who have suffered or on the trees that have already died. Secondly, we must not assume that just because we were spared that everything is OK and that we are blessed. That’s not how this works.

God may show us mercy for a time so that he can care for us more closely, offering more fertilizer or pruning, but in the end we cannot go on as we have been and expect to just exist forever without bearing fruit. This is true of our individual lives and certainly true of our churches. We must bear fruit or we will die. Let us stop looking at everybody around us thinking we have it so much better and therefore we are “off the hook”. We must focus more on our own growth. We must become trees that bear good fruit, or nothing will save us in the end.

Don’t let God’s mercy be an excuse to stay the way you are. Become the person or the church that God wants you to be, bearing good fruit, for we never know when our last day might come.

Don’t let it escape your notice, dear friends, that with the Lord a single day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a single day. The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives.

2 Peter 3:8-9

Get Real

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THE WAY THAT LEADS TO LIFE - PART 2

Get Real
Sunday, March 17, 2019
Luke 9:35, 11:33-36

Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light. But when your eye is bad, your whole body is full of darkness. Therefore, see to it that the light in you isn’t darkness.

Luke 11:34-35

It seems the better we get as a society of “keeping up appearances,” the more spotlights and zoom lenses are set up to expose the cracks in our makeup. Once we only had to keep up our front yards because nobody would ever look over the fence to see the mess out back. But our front yard has entered the digital age and can be seen from countless perspectives all across the world wide web. Even within the safety and comfort of our own homes, we must now maintain our public persona in a 24/7 world. We spend more time trying to figure out what to post on today’s social media “highlight reel” than we do enjoying all of the other ordinary moments of our lives.

The only thing we seem to love more than looking like we have it altogether, whether in person or through the screen, is trying to prove that someone else really does not have it altogether. There’s nothing like another person’s sin to make us feel less guilty and there’s nothing like another person’s scandalous shame to keep prying eyes from peering too closely into our own skeleton filled closets.

In a world ruled by the court of public opinion, we often settle for being just a little better than the next person. As the joke goes, you don’t have to outrun the bear. You just have to be faster than the slowest person in your group being chased by the bear. We have applied this principle to our moral universe as well. Morality and righteousness is relative, and so long as there is somebody in your circle who will draw more negative attention than you, all is well.

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day lived in much the same way. Now don’t get me wrong, they truly did live righteous and morally upstanding lives, obeying every law to the nth degree. There was only one problem. Jesus didn’t evaluate them based on their ability to check all the right boxes on their “How well did I obey the law today” survey. Nor does Jesus evaluate us on our social media feeds or our public persona. (Although, if we are putting others down in the public square and acting like jerks on social media, we best not try to fool ourselves into thinking that our hearts are in the right place.)

Perhaps the cracks in our outward appearance have exposed some deeper concerns in our hearts and souls. The real question is whether or not we are willing to dig up the foundation to get to the root of the problem or if we will just keep plastering over the surface pretending that all is OK inside.

It’s amazing the flaws a few lighting effects can hide on camera, but when all the lights are turned off and nobody else is watching, what does Jesus see inside?

Listen

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THE WAY THAT LEADS TO LIFE - PART 1

Listen
Sunday, March 10, 2019
Luke 9:35, 10:19-24

Then a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him!”

Luke 9:35

What brings Jesus joy?

Often we talk about how Jesus came to give us a joyful and abundant life, but I wonder if we have ever stopped to think about what might bring joy to Jesus.

In Luke 10:21, we find Jesus not merely happy, but overflowing with joy from the Holy Spirit and bursting forth in praise to the Father. What’s more, in Jesus’ prayer of exultation, he tells us exactly why he is so filled with joy.

“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you’ve hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and shown them to babies.”

Not just Peter, James and John… not even just the 12… but no less than 72 disciples had just returned from the mission Jesus gave to them, celebrating and praising God that even the demons submitted to them in the powerful name of the Lord. These were not well educated religious leaders or teachers. By earthly standards, they were not even close to being qualified for such incredible spiritual work. Yet it was not by the wisdom of the world that they accomplished this great mission, but by listening to and obeying the Word of Jesus and depending wholly on the power of His great name.

What pastor wouldn’t be overjoyed if 72 people showed up to church on Sunday morning talking over with such enthusiasm, not about the basketball or football game or about some recent political debate or news report that got them riled, but instead about the people whose lives were entirely transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit as a result of their faithfulness to the mission of Christ? Whether you worship with 15 or 1500 on Sunday mornings, how might your time together look different if every single person there had even just one story of a genuine “Holy Spirit” encounter during the week?

If this became our weekly routine, I confess I would likely be out of a job. Who needs preaching from one seminary-educated pastor when everyone is proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel revealed to them directly from the wisdom of the Father through their ongoing relationship with Christ and regular revelations from the Holy spirit?

This is admittedly challenging for me because I deeply value my education and am even pursuing further education in the Fall in the Doctor of Ministry Program at Duke. But as some of my seminary professors used to say, “we are the kind of doctors who can’t help you much.” In other words, we can offer plenty of research and valuable information, but our degrees don’t actually “heal” people the way we would expect from a doctor.

Yet perhaps that is the most amazing thing about this week’s text. The people didn’t have to wait for a doctor, or even be able to afford a doctor in order to be healed. Jesus was only one person. He couldn’t physically touch everyone like the blind man or the lepers or even the woman with the issue of blood who crawled through the crowds just to touch the hem of his robe. God has now transferred the full wisdom, power and authority of heaven to these 72 ordinary people whose lives intersect with and touch more needs than Jesus could have ever known in the flesh.

And here’s the best news. It didn’t end with those 72. God is still revealing the wisdom of the Kingdom to foolish little children and spreading the authority of the name of Jesus throughout the world. Will we come to him like that little child, filled with awe and wonder and faith, ready just to listen, to trust, and to obey.

King

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GOD – Part 8

GOD as Sovereign King
Sunday, March 3, 2019
1 Timothy 1:17, 6:11-16

Now to the king of the ages, to the immortal, invisible, and only God, may honor and glory be given to him forever and always! Amen.

1 Timothy 1:17

My daughter loves Disney Princesses. Truth be told, it could be a lot worse. They do teach some great values in life, but one thing I have noticed about so many of the “princess” stories is how foolish the king looks.

Now don’t get me wrong. I do like all of the shows and movies I’m about to describe, but consider just a few examples of how kings are portrayed:

  1. Sofia the First (Disney Junior):

    Sofia is only a child, but somehow she is the only one who can save the day. Not even her older brother and sister are as wise as she. And certainly not her dad. King Roland might as well be the court jester. He is quick to react, to judge, and often to jump to false conclusions. He is always the last one to know what’s going on and by the time he gets involved, the kids have generally already taken care of the situation.

  2. Moana:

    The chief (or king, if you will), rules primarily out of fear and self-preservation. He is unwilling to take risks or think outside the box. The harder things get for his people, the more he digs his heals in to doing things the way they’ve always been done and preserving what little they have. These are hardly marks of bold, strong leadership. But then again, if he was a strong leader, why would we need to send a teenage girl half way across the ocean to save her people?

  3. The Little Mermaid:

    King Triton is portrayed as an unfair and mean-spirited father for trying to protect his 16 year old daughter. Sixteen?! His image only changed when he sympathizes and lets her have her way in the end. Now I ask you, what good and descent father would let his 16 year old daughter run off to another country to get married. Is he really the bad guy here?

It’s hard enough to get past our political idealization of democracy to recognize the authority of a King in our lives. Kings in our world are often viewed as either corrupt or simply the stuff of fairy-tales. And so many of those fairy-tale kings are portrayed as weak, clumsy, clueless, and insecure. Hardly qualities worthy of all honor, glory and praise.

Clearly the images of King we find in our world are significantly lacking. We have forgotten what it means to live in absolute obedience to our ruler. We have forgotten how to honor and revere our leaders, or even what it might look like for a leader to be worthy of our honor or reverence. This cultural amnesia often leads us to reject the sovereignty and authority of God. At the very least, God’s Kingship or Royal status is viewed more like the British Monarchy. Heaven’s throne-room offers a glorious setting for a ceremonial religious figurehead, but little more.

Perhaps we struggle to see God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, not so much because it is not present, but rather because we do not recognize the everyday authority of our Almighty Sovereign King.

  • What images come to mind when you think of a King? In what ways is God’s Kingship different than the images of kings we see on earth?

  • How does your image of serving a King affect the way you relate to God?

  • What would it look like for you to truly honor and revere God as King this week?

“Sing praises to God! Sing praises!
    Sing praises to our king! Sing praises
because God is king of the whole world!
    Sing praises with a song of instruction!

God is king over the nations.
    God sits on his holy throne.
The leaders of all people are gathered
    with the people of Abraham’s God
    because the earth’s guardians belong to God;
        God is exalted beyond all.” (Psalm 47:6-9)

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Judge

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GOD – Part 7

GOD as Righteous Judge
Sunday, February 24, 2019
John 8:1-11, 12:44-50, 1 Corinthians 4:3-5

Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Is there no one to condemn you?” She said, “No one, sir.” Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore.”

John 8:10-11

We’ve heard a million sermons on how it is not our place to judge. We know what Jesus says about the log in our own eye preventing us from clearly seeing the speck in the eye of a brother or sister (Matthew 7:1-6).

On the other hand, we know that God does judge our actions. This truth is uncomfortable for several reasons.

  1. The idea of judging someone has such a negative connotation that we don’t want to think of God as being “judgmental.”

  2. We know we are saved by grace, not by works, so why would our works be judged?

  3. Jesus says explicitly that he did not come to judge or condemn, but to save (John 3:17, 12:47).

And we’ve only scratched the surface.

In the infamous story of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus demonstrates that he is the only one righteous enough to enact true justice, and in the case of this woman, he declared her “forgiven” (John 8:1-11).

We must be careful not to mistake judgementalism with justice, righteousness and consequences.

God’s judgment is just and true, not judgmental. Where judgmentalism is often subjective, opinionated, condescending and condemning, God’s judgement stands as an objective, factual standard of what is right and good.

Dr. Robert Mulholland described God’s justice like gravity. If we choose to step off the roof of a building, we will fall. We will be hurt. We may even die. This truth does not imply that gravity had anything against us. The laws of nature were not punishing us. Rather, the fall is the natural consequence of our choice to act in a way that is contrary to the laws of nature.

In the same way, when we act against the moral laws rooted in the righteousness and love of God, we are bound to fall. This is why Paul writes that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). God is not out to condemn us, destroy us, or to harm us in any way. God desires that all might come to salvation.

And yet God’s perfect nature stands as a moral standard by which our lives are judged and by which natural consequences result. All sin leads us down a path of death and destruction, whether physical or perhaps emotional, mental, relational or spiritual.

As righteous judge, God forgives our sin, but the consequences of sin are ours to bear.

  • What emotions do you feel when you think of God as judge?

  • How do you see God as a judge in your life? Where do you feel convicted and where do you feel forgiven?

  • In what ways do you try to step into God’s role as a judge over others? How does your judgment of others differ from God’s pure and perfect judgement?

“Judgment will again be founded on righteousness, and all the upright in heart will follow it.” (Psalm 94:15)

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Priest

GOD – Part 6

GOD as Pure Priest
Sunday, February 17, 2019
Hebrews 4:14-16, 9:1-28

Finally, let’s draw near to the throne of favor with confidence so that we can receive mercy and find grace when we need help.

Hebrews 4:16

Priest is not a term we consider very often unless we worship in a more Catholic or Orthodox tradition. For protestants, this title has been all but banned from our language. We see ourselves as people with a direct line to God. The Holy Spirit not only gave us God’s e-mail address, but also inside access to God’s cell number, Facebook account, Instagram, Snapchat, and whatever other social medium God might use to keep up with his beloved children.

Yet the writers of Scripture are clear that we are still in desperate need of a priest. That is why Paul writes to Timothy,

There is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, the human Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a payment to set all people free.

1 Timothy 2:5-6a