Showing posts from 2015

Spiritual Arsenal #1: Thinking Right

As we go into the New Year, I want to equip you for the battle that lies ahead and all around. Do you have the right tools in your spiritual arsenal? In Ephesians 6:12, Paul’s words remind us that "our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."
In the Christian life, folks are sometimes tempted by attractive yet ineffective pieces of armor or weaponry. They too often go for flashy or showy things that do little to help others. Believers frequently fall in love with equipment that offers no aid in the battle against the forces of darkness.
I love this photo that went viral in 2015. Perhaps you know the famous football (soccer) club on the north side of London named Arsenal. One lifelong fan asked his girlfriend to take a picture of him outside the stadium. He wanted her to capture his face in front of the …

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Leaping for Joy

Mary and Elizabeth might seem unlikely figures for the prominent roles they play in Luke's prologue. Elizabeth is old and barren. Mary is young and not married. They're both women from the more modest layers of society. Hear the words of the text for this coming Sunday from Luke 1:39-45: In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." As Luke describes the prenatal stories of John and Jesus, M…

Third Sunday of Advent: Waiting for Messiah

In Samuel Beckett’s legendary play, Waiting for Godot, the two main characters Vladimir and Estragon wait endlessly for the arrival of the mysterious Godot. They wait and they wait, but Godot never comes. This play belongs to a class of literature knows as “theater of the absurd” because it deals with the seeming meaninglessness of life, leading characters to act in irrational and inexplicable ways.
In our Luke 3 passage for this week, people are waiting on the Messiah. Some listen to John the Baptist and begin to wonder if John might be the one who is coming. John apparently hears what they’re thinking and tells them he isn’t the one they should wait for. Another is coming who is greater and more powerful than John. They should wait for him. John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell yo…

Second Sunday of Advent: Prepare the Way

Advent is the Christian season when we prepare for the coming of Christ. Christmas is about good news. God comes to live among us. Jesus (God in the flesh) takes on our shame and frailty. Immanuel (God with us) demonstrates divine solidarity with the human plight and brings hope of redemption for all creation.
While the glory of Christmas draws us in, the journey to get there should give us pause.
Do you remember how long it took to get to grandma’s house over the river and through the woods? Some folks never had to travel far. But for others, it seemed like an eternity to get there. We did what we could to pass the time, but it often wasn’t easy. Once we got there, though, the reward was great enough to erase the memory of the long, arduous journey.
By the same token, we ought to remember that the road to Christ leads through the desert. There we hear the voice of one crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” John admonished people to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of …

First Sunday of Advent: Coming Soon

As we enter the Advent season, it's important to remember its twofold nature. First and most obviously, we remember the coming of Jesus as a child. Born in a manger to a flesh-and-blood mother, Jesus came as a human being. He lived among us and revealed God to us more fully than ever before.
Second, this time of year also reminds us that Jesus will one day come again. Advent is the season of Jesus' coming near. Most tend to concentrate on the incarnation—how Jesus came two thousand years ago. We also ought to remember the eschaton—that Jesus will come once again. This second coming will not be like the first. Whereas he previously came in a quiet manner that hardly drew notice, his second coming will be in a glorious manner which no one can miss. Whereas he previously came and submitted to the worldly powers who executed him, his second coming will cause all worldly powers to submit to him.
Christmas is a time when we make many preparations. It's a busy time. We buy prese…

Ten Words #10: Curb Your Desire

"You shall not covet." The final word in the Ten Commandments loops us back to the first words. This command points once again to the primary question of the Decalogue. Can we be content with serving God and God alone? Or do we feel that we need to take matters into our own hands, placing ourselves on the throne of glory?
Desire can be good. It can push us to perform well, to expand our skills, and to accomplish things that require extra effort. God made the world good. It's filled with pleasant things that are delightful to see, touch and taste. Texts such as Song of Songs highlight the inherent beauty of relationships and the passion that accompanies them. This is a good world that God made, and we should enjoy it.
But desire slips from healthy and good to deadly and evil when we fail to control it. Desire becomes evil when it infringes on the rights of others, or when it harms our neighbor. In opposition to what some evolutionary scientists seem to think, desire should…

Ten Words #9: Living in the Truth

"Don't bear false witness." The original context of the 9th Word appears to deal with "courtroom" testimony. Jewish law took great lengths to protect individuals from false witness. A single person's word was never enough to condemn another person. At least two corroborating sources had to agree.
The idea of the Ninth Word goes deeper than not lying in court. While deception is the central prohibition, there is much more. God’s people are to exemplify a commitment to truth-telling.
Living a lie can wreak mass havoc. Enron hid the truth about their schemes and destroyed the fiscal well-being of countless groups & individuals. Some folks misled the world about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the world continues to pay a high price for actions even if taken in good faith but based upon those lies.
Family relationships and even churches often conceal hidden truths, giving power to the lies that control them. In Death of a Salesman, Biff says, "…

Ten Words #8: A Den of Thieves

"You shall not steal." Finally, a command we can all agree with. Who doesn't agree that stealing is wrong? Every society in every place throughout the world and throughout history has had prohibitions against theft.
But the problem is that not everyone agrees on what it means to steal. Is it stealing to download a song you were supposed to pay for? Is it stealing to regularly trim 30 minutes off your work day? Is it stealing to be dependent on welfare rather than on a job? Is it stealing for one country to use the majority of the world's natural resources? Is it stealing to keep the $10-dollar-bill that the clerk accidentally gave you in place of a $1-dollar-bill?
Theft is often relativized according to the position in which we sit: > Some who would never dream of mugging a person on the street think it is okay to cheat on their taxes or ask their 13-year-old to pretend to be 12 so they can get the kids' price at the movie. > Some students who would never st…

Ten Words #7: Marriage, Sex & God's Justice

The 6th & 7th commands are perhaps the most well known: Don’t murder & don’t commit adultery. But does the fact that they are easily identified mean that they are easily lived out? Just as murder violates one’s neighbor and destroys the social fabric of the community, adultery is also a severe violation of the trust and wellbeing between neighbors. It has a chilling effect beyond the individual actors, damaging the loyalty and affection of the entire community. Loyalty and affection are the primary building blocks of each family, and families in turn are the primary building blocks of a society. Tearing the family through sexual infidelity, therefore, is an attack on the whole community.
For Israel, the commandment was clear, but the penalty for breaking it was applied unevenly or not at all. Some texts state that both parties were subject to the death penalty (e.g., Lev 20:10). But it’s not hard to find examples where this was ignored or applied harshly only to those without…

Ten Words #6: The Sanctity of Life

The last five commands are short and relatively straightforward. All told, these rules undergird the social fabric of the believing community. While their hypothetical meaning may seem plain, their enactment in real life is much more complicated.
After Adam and Eve were cast out from the Garden, we find the story of Cain and Abel. The text does not adequately explain why Abel's gift was more pleasing to God than Cain's. People propose all kinds of possibilities: Abel brought his best while Cain gave something average; Abel's heart was in the right place while Cain's was not; and so forth. In truth, we don't know. The narrator only tells us that Cain's gift was not regarded by God. There's no clear rationale.
The reason is irrelevant. This tale is not primarily about how to offer a pleasing gift. It’s about what happens when anger and jealously well up within us as they did within Cain. His rage was so apparent that God actually confronted Cain, to no effe…

Ten Words #5: Honor Your Parents

With the 5th word, we move from the first tablet of commands to the second. The first focuses on our vertical relationship with God. The second tablet deals with our horizontal relationships within the community.
This is the only commandment that contains a promise. Respecting one’s parents somehow leads to a sense of blessing in this life. But what exactly does this promise mean? And how do we respect our parents?
First, remember that these Ten Words weren’t delivered to Mrs. Murphy’s Sunday school class. Do you remember Mrs. Murphy’s Sunday school class? The name isn’t important, but you know the kind of teacher I’m talking about. She’s the one who taught you the books of the New Testament, made you quote the twenty-third psalm in old English, and told you to obey your parents. Without ever telling you it was the fifth commandment, she put the fear of God into you as she prompted you to mind your mom and dad.
I know what you’re thinking: “If only our world had more Mrs. Murphys tod…

Ten Words #4: Rest & Remember

"Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy." If there was a reason for why we discarded the Ten Commandments in the church of my youth, this fourth word was it. We don’t keep sabbath.
In support of this, we quoted verses such as Col 2:16, "Do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons or sabbaths." Christians in our tribe took this to mean that we should celebrate no religious days: no Christmas, no Easter & certainly no sabbath.
We also explained away sabbath by contrasting the old "Mosaic dispensation" with the new "Christian dispensation." Sabbath, or so it was told, was part of the old while Sunday church services were part of the new. It was all very matter-of-fact with a single, clear conclusion: We don’t observe sabbath!
But this simplistic view of sabbath misses the point. Sabbath is not a useless relic of the Mosaic law. Sabbath is not a holiday with pagan roots, not a recruitment too…

Ten Words #3: Don't Misuse My Name

"Don’t make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God."
Rules are subject to many interpretations and applications. If laws were easy to understand and follow, we’d have no need for a Supreme Court.
For ancient Jews and modern Christians alike, it’s not easy to apply commandments such as this one. Many Jews believed that God’s actual name was so sacred that they dared not misspeak it. They went to such great lengths that they refused to even speak or in some cases write the divine name YHWH. They believed this was a way of honoring the third commandment.
When I was a kid, folks interpreted this in a similar manner. We got in trouble for saying the name of Jesus or God in a flippant manner. Combining God’s name with a curse word was a horrendous sin! Even speaking replacement words like geez or gosh was cause for harsh rebuke from my parents. This is how we took care to not make wrongful use of God’s name.
While I still believe it’s a good idea to speak God’s name in righ…

Ten Words #2: Don't Box Me In

The second commandment is “Do not make for yourself an idol.” Idols. If any commandment is a slam dunk for us, this should be it. I mean, how many church members have an idol sitting around their house, office or school locker? And even if they did, would they actually worship such a thing?
This word doesn’t seem much different from the previous one. Some religious listings of the Ten Words combine the first two into a single command. So what’s the deal with idols, and how does this apply to us today?
Idols are symbols of divine power. They point to and remind people of infinite & imperishable things. Symbols come in different forms. They are powerful reminders of bigger realities. It’s natural to want to create & collect them. Companies create logos. Travelers collect mementos. Parents make scrapbooks and picture albums. These symbols remind us of bigger realities.
But there’s a fundamental flaw with symbols. They allow us to control things that are too big to comprehend. H…

Ten Words #1: No Other Gods

The first commandment is “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3). As we plow into the Ten Commandments or 10 Words (in Hebrew), we arrive at this very simple statement. What does it mean? Don’t we already know that there are no gods but God? Is this word even relevant for us?
This begs a very important question: Are there other gods? I’m guessing that not many of us worship Baal or Molech or Ra or Artemis or Zeus. Most of us have come to believe that there is no other god. We are not like “primitive pagans” or animists who believe in various spirit gods or who worship the earth as if it were a god.
Are we off the hook? Is it possible to say that this is remedial territory for us and that we have progressed far beyond this first command?
“Not so fast,” says the apostle Paul! In Romans 6, Paul discusses the tension between being a slave to sin versus being a slave to righteousness. The two are incompatible, Paul writes, yet some Christians apparently misunderstand this. The…

Ten Words for Today, Intro

I'm starting a new sermon series on the Ten Commandments (or "Ten Words" in Hebrew). This week is the intro. After that, I’ll take the commandments from Exodus 20 & Deuteronomy 5 one by one. I’ll flesh out their meaning for the church & for us today.
Culture wars are ripping through our country. It’s not hard to feel the partisan anger. Some politicians & presidential hopefuls are feeding off the feelings of many disgruntled people. This is a season of discontent for many who think that the country has “gone to the dogs.”
For some groups, the symbols of unrest & protest are things like the Pledge of Allegiance, prayer in schools, the flag and—think of it—the Ten Commandments. Yes, I said the Ten Commandments. As hard as it may be to fathom, the ability (or lack thereof) to post the Ten Commandments has become a litmus test to many people in our country:
> Do you love what America stands for? If yes, then post the Ten Commandments! > Do you think our …

Now These Three Remain: Hope

Hope is a key attribute of believing people. It’s mentioned by Paul at the end of 1 Corinthians 13. “Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love.” Last week, we talked about faith.
These days, hope is a substance of high demand and low supply. Historians could probably tell us about many other times of hopelessness. But when you listen to contemporary politicians, meteorologists, scientists, sociologists and the like, they express a great deal of pessimism about our climate, about race relations, about the Middle East, about the drought in California, and so forth.
We specialize in cynicism even in the church. The sky seems to be falling. The wheels are about to come off. Paganism—and perhaps cannibalism!—are just a generation away.
To face such skeptical thought, “hope” is the chief commodity of peddlers and fortune tellers. It’s what advertisers want you to buy. It’s what coaches sell their fans. It’s what politicians offer as the reason to stay the…

True Christian Love

What stands as an antidote to the decline of Christianity in the Western world? What can stem the tide of ridicule and disrespect directed toward many pastors and churches?
"Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also" (1 John 4:21). What would this look like in real life? Well, it should look like the church to which you belong.
You cannot claim to be a Christian and yet only care about yourself. You cannot be a minister and yet abuse people & take advantage of your position. You cannot claim to love God and yet be foul-mouthed and ridicule your fellow human being. Your church should not claim to be a Christian community if they are not known for their love for one another.
Love of brother and sister is what sets the true Christian community apart. "They'll know we are Christians by our love" is more than a clever lyric for an old campfire song. It should be our way of life.
Tertullian (~200 A.D.) said this about how true Christian love i…

How Christians Can React to Brutal ISIS Killings of Coptic Christians

As if American Christians weren't scared enough of ISIS, we just got this latest credible report that ISIS affiliates brutally executed 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya. As a Christian pastor, I am horrified beyond words at this brutality. I’m mad about the unjust victimization of my brothers by these savage barbarians. I would like to do something very unkind to these people. Pope Francis and Christian leaders everywhere have forcefully condemned these killings.
But in spite of my outrage, I still have my wits about me. What advice do I have for you, my fellow Christians?
(1) Don't worry about whether or not U.S. leaders should take action. They will. You may not agree with every strategic point, but your agonizing over it won't affect what U.S. leaders do. Pray for them. "Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?" (Matt 6:27)
(2) As Christians who belong to a nation without borders, we should first and foremost pray for and grieve with o…

Wisdom, Social Justice & the Future

An important attribute of wisdom is that it attunes our ear to the cry of the needy.
You aren't yet a wise person if you don't do these two things. First, you must have an ear for wise reproof (Prov 15:31-33). We could speak about this for a while, but today I'm more interested in the next part.
Second, you must have an ear open to those who are really in need (Prov 24:10-12). If you turn a deaf ear to those who are struggling, you will get no help when you need it (Prov 21:13). This assumes growth in your ability to discern between real needs that truly require your attention and the so-called "needs" of those who should stop being a mooch.
Wise individuals are those who correctly hear the needs of others and act upon what they hear.
By contrast, fools are self-centered and unable to hear the voice of others. Some foolish people "serve" others, but they do so in self-serving and self-promoting ways. Other foolish individuals pretend to understand the n…

Charlie Hebdo, Freedom of the Press & Loving Our Enemies

The pen is mightier than the sword. This old adage has been put to the test lately.
Before Christmas, Sony Pictures pulled its farcical comedy about an assassination plot on North Korea’s dictator. Cyber-attacks along with additional threats struck fear into the hearts of Sony's higher-ups. After public pressure from the White House and from various free speech advocates, Sony rethought its stance and released the movie.
This week, two terrorists stormed the offices of Charlie Hedbo, an irreverent yet serious weekly paper in France. Their scathing critiques of politics, society & religion provoked a broad range of responses from across French society: fandom, laughter, scorn and apparently hatred.
Their depictions of Muhammad were a lightning rod for Muslims. They repeatedly poked fun at Muhammad and at Islam. This so angered radicalized Muslims that multiple threats had come to the editors of Charlie Hedbo who were under constant guard. The terrorists were still able to kill t…